A month ago, the political editor of the Observer Gaby Hinsliff announced she was quitting her job to spend more time with her family in the country. Today is her last day and she has written a lengthy feature titled I HAD IT ALL, BUT DIDN'T HAVE A LIFE. It's well worth a read, particularly by those of us who inflict our busy working lives on our families, sometimes without a second thought. Here's a short extract...
Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.
But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn't remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.
Maybe it was back last December, on a trip to Afghanistan, when I saw that the young army officer briefing us had a snapshot of a small boy paper-clipped to his folder. "My son. That's what it's all about for me," he said, briskly.
Four of his colleagues had been killed hours before in a roadside bomb, and I was about to struggle back into my flak jacket and fly to Kabul. I went out into the dusty sunshine, wet-eyed, and called home. "Mummy?" said my 18-month-old son repeatedly, in a puzzled voice, when my husband put him on the line.
Every day became a battle against the clock. I never listened properly to phone conversations with friends, because I was always simultaneously doing something else. I was so on edge I raged at the tiniest delay – tourists blocking tube escalators, a computer slow to spark up in the morning. Running for the train in high heels, I sprained my ankle: the doctor prescribed some exercises, but who had time for that? I wore flat shoes, took painkillers.
My reward was that for two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don't honestly believe either suffered from the other.
But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household....
Like many women, I still want to work: I just don't want to work like this. The dilemma is how far parents like me can really expect conventional corporate life to bend around us.
So the first priority is an identity that doesn't start lamely with "Well, I used to be…" I'm giving myself a year to find out whether there really is a better way to work, and will be charting the ups and downs on a blog, usedtobesomebody.blogspot.com. I would be lying to pretend I never have doubts. But I have very few regrets, and that means the time is right to let go.
There is a condition known as raptures of the deep, brought on by breathing under pressure, which affects divers who stray too far down. First comes a feeling of euphoria: then the diver gets overconfident, lulled into a false sense of security, and dangerously overestimates how long they have left.
I don't regret a minute of my time in professional deep water, but staying down here too long would be fatal. It's time to start swimming towards the light.
I bet there are thousands of people who will read that article today and question their own priorities and their own life. I have never wanted children (just as well, really) but I have huge admiration for those who lead busy working lives and juggle their careers around bringing up a family. How on earth politicians do it, I don't know.
I was on a radio phone-in the other day with Sean O'Grady, the business editor of The Independent. He seriously suggested that MPs should work 9 to 5 and have weekends off. O'Grady should know better, having worked with MPs for several years. It's not like that, and never will be. And never should be, either. Anyone who wants those kind of regular hours shouldn't go into politics, or the media.
But it doesn't stop me sometimes hankering after a quieter life. I sometimes wistfully imagine giving it all up and becoming a taxi driver. "'Ere, Guv, I had that Gaby Hinsliff in the back of my cab, once," I could boast, as I start a rant about how the country should be run. I often think taxi drivers would make brilliant bloggers!
So I wish Gaby Hinsliff all the luck in the world in her new life in Oxfordshire. And I look forward to reading her new blog, called Used to be Somebody.
And best wishes to Toby Helm who succeeds Gaby as The Observer's political editor. It amuses me to imagine him competing for Sunday exclusives with his partner ... who just happens to be the political editor of the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick.