This blog has moved on… but she’d love you to come with her. You can now find her at www.notdifferentbutinteresting.co.uk. I am told it will be possible, after a bit of techno-shannaningans, to bring my email subscribers with me, but just to add an extra layer of certainty, I thought I’d let you know. Do pop over to the new place – there’s a baby flying on a pen-shaped rocket, and ev’rythin’!
So, Not Different But Interesting is about to perform a feat of Orwellian proportions; that is, being in two places at once. Over the next few days my chum Jax is helping me to move NDBI over to a self-hosted site, www.notdifferentbutinteresting.co.uk. I’m doing this so that I can greatly increase the degree to which the blog is personalised - Big Thanks to my mate Steve for the logo, which I love! - and to aid me in my quest to make more money from my writing. (For the non-bloggers out there, there are strict rules about not making money from WordPress hosted sites.) I’ve seen other blogger chums make this move, and while it is exciting, they tend to have one main concern; will their previous followers and email subscribers be able to find them, and will they click the follow button once again. You see, for bloggers, it is all about getting your stuff read. In the context of some other work I am doing for the Mum Network at the moment, I have been researching what matters to bloggers. I put out a few questions on twitter, read around the topic, gathered views. Time and time again, the notion of wanting to reach as wide an audience as possible, to connect, came up.
I am no different in this regard. I have worked really hard on this blog over the last five months – (has it really only been this long?) – and I really value the modest band of followers I have who read, comment and retweet me. I won’t be the first blogger to observe that the honesty, vulnerability and high degree of self-disclosure we put into the heart of our blogs is such that getting feedback, a response to our innermost, is powerful and satisfying in the extreme.
So fellow bloggers, readers, friends; when I say ‘Go!’ in the next few days, don’t switch off your computer and leave the room; rather hop over to my new place, and come join me for the next chapter in the life of me and my little old blog…. there’s a baby flying on a pencil-shaped rocket, and everything!
Earlier this week I had an inspiring conversation with an experienced education professional. He told me about how Ofsted’s senior staff have, in the past, wondered (nay, even carried out research into) why the schools who get a judgement of Outstanding are so often lead by Heads that one might describe as ‘white-haired radicals’. It was hard for the inspectorate to grasp why individuals who knew the system so well that they also knew how to ‘break the rules’ could be so good. And the phrase really grabbed me, and has been swirling around my head all week, looking for the angle that gets me a blog-post on the back of it. Tonight, I’ve found one.
I’ve often read stories of women and men finding that their becoming parents helps them to locate their internal activism. I’m fast reaching the conclusion that this applies to me, too. There are some great parent bloggers around who are eloquence personified in their campaigning or raging. I admire their nerve. Before parenthood I wasn’t exactly devoid of opinion. Far from it. But there is something about my considering the impact of, for example, the current Dept of Education’s approach to just about, well, everything upon my daughter’s future, that has me more fired up than perhaps I ever have been in my life – and much more than anything I did pre the kids.
Earlier this evening I responded to a request from Debra Kidd via twitter. Debra is a teacher and academic who has successfully campaigned throughout the last week against Gove’s proposed changes to the National Curriculum. I agreed to help out by adding a comment to every feature on education in The Independent from the last week, that leads people to this petition. A small thing, maybe, when compared to standing on a picket line, whistle-blowing, or some such, but it does represent something big, to me.
I don’t think I’ve been one for sticking my head above the parapet. But I have always admired a certain kind of outspoken – but well-informed – maverick. I am especially fond of people who work within a system, from a place of knowledge (and therefore power), and thus make a difference because they have already attained a level of respect from the wider community they operate within. So Michael Rosen tweets away, writes out-loud, about Lord Greed, Sir TrufflyWuffly, and the ‘evidence free administration’ that is Gove’s department. And we listen because he really knows about how children learn to read. Michael Moore crafts his documentaries, having poured over the facts and figures of successive US presidential administrations, and talking to hundreds of people about the impact of the decisions those administrations have made. The Dalai Lama guides us to a more thoughtful way of living having spent a life time thinking about human happiness and talking with every kind of world leader and man on the street.
You get the picture.
My favourite story of this kind is a man who is known for being the only German buried in Israel. Oskar Schindler wore a Nazi pin on his lapel and dined with Nazi officers. But he saved 3,000 Jews from the death camps right under their noses. He knew their thinking, their systems – their weaknesses. And he used the respect he earned to achieve something remarkable.
So, since my son was born I’ve gotten a few more grey hairs along my parting. I keep wondering whether to resort to the colour bottle, but there is something I find strangely amusing about their arrival, and I’m secretly quite partial to them. And this week I’ve found out why. I like being older, knowing more and thinking more, about issues that matter. As the grey hairs multiply, so does my evidence-based activism. A silver-haired radical in the making.
So, I’ll finish there, if that’s OK; I’ve got to pop over to The Independent and start tapping away.
A good chum of mine has a photocopied sheet on her fridge door that says;
Though no-one can go back and make a new start, anyone can start from now and make a new ending.
I find this sentiment very appealing. It says something true, plain and simple. It is easy to get lost in the mistakes and distractions of the past and feel that you are forever destined to get things wrong, or be trapped where you don’t want to be.
I spent the latter part of my twenties working at times for charities, at times for myself. My working life was varied, interesting, inspiring even – though never brilliantly paid. But I could live with that. The feeling that I was never really working, just doing things that I enjoyed, more than made up for the lack of financial compensation. I learnt a tonne of stuff, mostly things that these days we’d call soft skills. And I discovered a great deal about myself. That I can speak in rooms of people and not feel nervous. That I can write for a variety of audiences. That I can help people make sense of their past and find hope for their future.
Now that all sounds very grand and rather self-promoting, I grant you. It wasn’t all fantastic, and I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t sustain my ride on the roller coaster of working for charities, who have such short-term funding, any longer. Being made repeatedly redundant, or functioning on fixed term contracts, was becoming untenable. I needed a ‘proper’ job. By the summer of 2001, I found myself 1) being made redundant again – for lack of funds, 2) separating from my first husband, and 3) trying to buy my own home. Back then you could get a mortgage no matter what your circumstances, but how to pay it? I applied for the civil service inspection job that I went on to do,in various guises, for the next 11 years, and got it.
In real terms, by taking that job, I exchanged insecurity for certainty, but also free thinking for robot-esque performance. I now had a party line to tow. Now I’ve said before that I did have a genuine passion for the subject matter of this job – Early Years care and education – but the expectations upon me, in terms of how I operated when face to face with providers, never sat well with my personal ethics.
I did what I had to do, back then, in a time of need. This country is currently full of people doing what they have to do (while hating it) or wishing they could find work that would even allow then to do what they must do. At no point do I intend to sound ungrateful for the relative comfort I was afforded by undertaking this role. But, when you wear a badge for a long time, a badge that is at odds with significant parts of yourself, the irritations can undermine your equilibrium, can leave you in need of psychological redress. I nearly left so many times – but always stuck it out, for very pragmatic reasons. I don’t regret that. But it has ultimately been a dead-end – and when it was suddenly taken away, it left me feeling de-skilled and panicky.
Three or four weeks on, and I feel that now I am free of it, I miss nothing about it – apart from the cash. And as I create a profile on People Per Hour, connect to others on LinkedIn, use Twitter to market my future self, I feel the old me awaken, and get excited again. Perhaps my forties really will be the decade where all these acquired skills combine to create for me a niche. It is truly liberating to be picking up the threads from my former selves – a little writing here, a little training delivery there – and seeing if they can work their magic for me again.
And when I think about the statement on my friend’s fridge door, it helps me to acknowledge that there has been a lot of useful learning over the last 11 years that may yet serve me very well. I shouldn’t just dismiss it, but embrace it. It can sit well enough alongside those other skills I gained earlier on. But now, now I can have more of a say in what my future looks like, and I can indeed ‘make a new ending’.
To conclude, I’ll tell you a little story. Last Friday, we adopted two adult cats. This is them:
As anyone who has ever lived with a cat will know, they do not take kindly to change, and their strategy for coping with such psychological trauma is to climb, up high, and stay out of reach for long stretches of the day. As it has been with these two. And, owing to a quirk of design that has the door to our loft looking like any other normal household door (rather than being a hatch in the ceiling), they have twice made it up into the loft to spend an entire day sleeping on insulation – and avoiding us.
On one of my many trips up there to try and retrieve them, I noticed this:
It’s an old penny, and is dated 1916, with George V on the back (Michael Gambon if you’re a fan of The King’s Speech). Now what’s that saying? ‘Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck!’. And that is how I feel at the moment. Lucky. And excited at finding my old selves are still in there; my very own stash of pennies, just waiting for me to pull the ladder down and discover them.
At a friend’s house for lunch on Friday, she mentioned to her husband my fondness for Twitter. He works in the IT industry for one of the major players, but he rolled his eyes in despair, wondering what the point of it all is. She endeavoured to defend my position – all with good humour – but he was not to be persuaded. While I am not blind to the shortcomings of the 120-character-communication-with-a-tonne-of-people-you’ve-not-even-had-a-cup-of-tea-with medium that is Twitter, I would defend it, with one or two caveats attached.
Throughout the past week the most frequent thought I have had in relation to Twitter has been ‘All Life Is Here.’ Now of course this isn’t literally true. There are lots of voices in our society who can’t be, or don’t want to be, represented in that digital talk-shop. Lest we forget, not everyone has internet access, despite the gigabit-driven desire of Cameron et al. Nevertheless, the discussions, both fleeting and enduring, that I have witnessed via the site this week have illuminated something about the essence of human nature. I’ll try and explain what I mean.
Plenty of people use twitter to advertise their product or service. Absolutely nothing wrong in that. Others use it to campaign on social and political issues. Twitter is marvellously democratic – because it allows you to ‘speak’ directly to people you would otherwise have no way of reaching – and so again, it is well-designed for supporting the promotion of views, arguments, movements. Beyond this, there are those who use it to hone their ideas, carrying out prolonged but undoubtedly entertaining discussions that are, again, usually focused on serious issues, such as feminism. Switching gear, there are those who share heartwarming images of activities they have done with their kids, or atmospheric shots they took on their morning walk with the dog. Or to build and maintain friendships with others with whom they share common ground. And, less appealingly, there are those who use it to intimidate, to bully. Try typing @toryeducation into a search engine or Storify to trace the recent history of this ‘anonymous’ tweeter’s hate campaign against anyone whose views on education don’t match current Dept of Education thinking, and you’ll get the gist.
These myriad exchanges are going on 24/7 – so why did this week stand out for me, in particular? I think it is because people I’ve never met, but care about all the same, have been caught up in moments of drama, debate, debacle. I’m not going to mention anyone by either name or their twitter tag, which makes it harder to share with you what I mean, but I’ll keep going all the same. One friend has been incensed this week by the changes to welfare payments, and has eloquently ranted her way through the week. I’m hoping she feels she has made a difference – for me at least, I feel better informed and better able to form an opinion as a result of her diligent research and vented frustration. Another friend, who writes brilliantly about feminism, is as honest as one could be about the contradiction of writing about the feminist struggle from a position of relative middle-class comfort. But she was on the receiving end of an unkind amount of criticism earlier this week, and tweeted her pain – and yes, got support. Another chum wanted her overdue baby to just darn well hurry up and get here, venting a little via tweet. Twitter-chums rallied and empathised. And another got into a debate about being pressurised to join in with movements. It seemed so emotive at the time, it left me feeling concerned for people I like (even though I did not participate – or *but in* as twitter describes it – at all). And one more friend expressed her feelings of self-doubt about whether she and her blog were up to scratch, in comparison to everyone else’s out there in the blogosphere.
Collectively, each one of these people were expressing something meaningful about the human condition. Each short statement made on Twitter is a unit of honest self-disclosure. Seen in this way, there is vulnerability in nearly everything that is written there. And thus here is the first of my caveats: Twitter can be the friendliest place and the loneliest place all at the same time. As yet another good blog chum observes, ‘just at the point you most need response, none will be forthcoming’.
Other things I’ve read this week on Twitter have seemed misplaced, somehow; as if the author lacked, well, some self-awareness. Again, I’ll remain (frustratingly) vague, and not give particular examples. But what they have done is remind me of something I learned when I studied psychotherapy back in my twenties. It’s called the Johari Window.
I’ve always liked the simplicity of this model, and it’s capacity to illuminate pretty much every aspect of human communication; rather like the Dewey decimal library classification system, nothing is left out. No book, no matter how obscure, is denied a place in the Dewey decimal’s pursuit of categorisation. With the Johari Window, every moment of human interaction – and every tweet as a unit of honest self-disclosure for that matter – can be placed and understood within its parameters. And thus caveat number two? Know yourself as you tweet – otherwise, you may betray more of yourself than you wish as you cram feeling and sentiment into the restrictive word count.
A quick shufty through my own tweet history shows me ‘me’, warts ‘n’ all, as the saying goes. In the last few weeks, the best of me has empathised with struggling friends, and offered help where my knowledge base overlaps with the requests of another. At other moments I have tweeted bittersweet triumph as I complete a final task for a job that has let me go; and at other times demonstrate all my vulnerability as I tell the world that I’ve finished my updated CV and I’d really like some writing work. It would be up to others to decide whether there are things that I say in the twittersphere that demonstrate some part of me that I don’t yet see, but I guess I’m not immune, despite my knowledge of the above diagram.
Just yesterday I saw an infographic (I’m down with the lingo, me) that suggested that a high proportion of people who use social media find work via these channels, and that recruiters actively look for people in these places. So, for now at least, I’m going to continue writing my units of honest self-disclosure, in the hope that something I write rings true for someone else who needs something doing that they can pay me to do for them – if you get my drift. And to get back to my sceptical friend mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be staying with twitter as I am full of admiration for the people I find there, who also tweet with honesty and self-awareness in abundance.
I do so look forward to actually having the time to blog these days. Having other things on my agenda – like looking for work – means that I cannot justify spending endless hours here, however much I have to say (I’m never short on that score).
One of the casualties of the last few weeks, that have also included a house move, has been my semi-regular series, ‘play dates with my kids’. This bugs me, as I ascribe to the view that we should under-promise, over-deliver, and not the other way round. So I decided this week to elevate the update to my home page, and I’ll copy it over to the ordinary page later on. I feel like I have a lot to say – let’s see if that is actually the case. In particular, and as we (my kids and I) have had a particularly intense period of time at home to play, a few recurrent themes, that I really want to share here, have presented themselves.
My daughter was ill during the week before the Easter holidays, so we’ve already had the best part of two weeks at home together. She was under the weather enough to not need to go out anywhere, but not so sick as to require being consigned to her bed. So, with twitter at my fingertips I found a good number of Easter-based crafts to indulge in. Observation no.1 coming up; I play better with a clear structure to work to. We made cards by potato-printing Easter eggs and later applying glitter stripes and patterns. We rustled up some salt dough and formed sweet little beads for threading into jewellery. We made fluffy sheep with toilet rolls, twigs, and cotton wool. We designed an Easter garden on a tray. We used Easter shaped cut-outs to design with a fresh batch of play dough. And we made old-fashioned, gingery-spicy biscuits with bright yellow icing. Through all of these activities, I guided my daughter to give of her best, to concentrate, to stick at it. These are useful life skills, so I can justify my endeavouring to teach her. All the same, I can feel how far I am from what practitioners with young children call ‘child-led’. However, my daughter does genuinely love these moments, as she sees them as special times when she gets me all to herself (they usually happen when her younger brother is napping).
I mull over this dichotomy, between adult-led and child-led play, a lot. My professional life has taught me the beauty of letting children direct their own play. My personal psychology just feels more at home with the structure of a planned activity. For now I’ll go along with the notion that for her and me, there’s room – and a need – for both. So here’s the second collage of photos that demonstrate how the play went off in unexpected, unplanned, directions.
At the heart of both my children’s self-directed play is a concept that I read about today in a totally different context. I picked up a link to a piece in the New York Times that focused on the need for members of the modern workforce to be able to demonstrate their capacity to innovate. In a world where everyone can use the internet to accumulate knowledge, it is more important than ever to be able to demonstrate the premise that it is ‘not what you know, but how you use it’ that counts. Innovation for adults is creativity for kids (Observation no.2). If you weren’t allowed to follow your own curiosity, instincts and exploratory impulse as a child, then you won’t be able to imagine new and different ways of doing things as an adult.
(As an aside, because I don’t want to get too political in this post, the failure to understand this link is the fundamental flaw in Gove’s idea that knowledge alone is the key to success. I didn’t especially like the way Cameron’s advisor – can’t think of her name right now - suggested that kids need to ‘get bored’ recently, but she was at least closer to a proper understanding of how children’s minds need to be freed, not restricted.)
And Observation no.3? It’s much more personal in nature. My daughter will start, at the end of the Easter holidays, her last term in pre-school education. I’ve written recently about how I am at peace with the decision we’ve made over her schooling, but I also know that our life together will be forever different once she makes that transition. While I intend to allow her to build up to full-time attendance over the first term, once that’s done, opportunities for us to do stuff together will be less frequent. I’ve worked hard over the last few months to feel more engaged with her in play (having felt knocked off course for a while by the arrival of her brother) and I will lament the change to our relationship that school will necessitate. I say to other people, all the time, that who you are between the ages of three and five, is who you are, period. And here we are, nearly at the end of that period of her life already. When did that happen?
And the self promotion…
Regular readers will know that I have found myself needing to rethink how I earn my living in the last few weeks. Multiple income streams is a phrase I keep settling on. I’m hoping that one of them might be a consultancy for early years, and to that end, I’ve started a blog for it. From little acorns, and all that. Please have a read, and pass it on, of you can. Thanks. It’s at www.eyclinic.wordpress.com
Once there was a pre-school, and its name was Merry-Go-Round.
It wasn’t much to look at with its plain grey pebbledash.
But Merry-Go-Round was a place with a big imagination.
It had a tiny budget but it achieved great things.
I recently wrote about my frustration with how society has come to value and evaluate my time – and every other woman’s time, for that matter. I’ve returned to the issue, (from another angle, admittedly), because it is still preoccupying me. All will become clear.
I chair the committee of a small, rural pre-school. Regular readers of my blog will now that I am passionate about the good that such groups can do for children. This pre-school is special to me for a whole bunch of reasons; as a place where my little girl has flourished, has been loved and valued for herself; as a place that contributes much to the lives of 30 or so more children, year in, year out; as a group at the heart of the community I live in. I first came to know it as an inspector, and always felt it was the best I’d seen. As a parent, then committee member, and then chair, I admire the hard work, skill, knowledge base and commitment of the team more and more. And you’ll forgive me if I pull out my orange box and step up one more time, to tell you about our afternoon fundraising…
The pre-school has a great committee of people who, like me, grasp why good pre-schools deserve voluntary help. They despair, as I do, at the hand-to-mouth nature of the group’s existence. As the months pass, they, like me, become more politicised, more galvanised into action. It often feels like we are under attack. One week, our Local Authority is cutting an aspect of our funding without warning (there is a lot of that at the moment), the next, the foul weather floods our garden and we pay out of our savings (that could have been spent on equipment for the children) to get the remedial work done. To this particular end, our fundraising subcommittee (3 hardworking women, more are welcome!) held a cake sale today.
Blessed with sunshine, the stall was put outside, and with some excellent marketing skills attracted an intrigued line of consumers all in need of that mid-afternoon sugar hit. As the pre-school is on a school site, with good positioning and timing, we soon drew a crowd of school staff and parents collecting their older children. And, with so many yummy things to sell, we made the fine sum of £145 in just over an hour. Three trestle tables full of baking were reduced to a single Tupperware box of unsold buns.
Through one lens that £145 is a triumph. It came about because of the day-in day-out connection the committee and staff make with the whole parent group – ‘Can you bake us a cake?’ and ‘Do come along for a slice!’. One mum mentioned in passing how lovely it had been to carve out the time to bake cakes with her daughter in preparation. And as customers selected their purchases, we talked to parents about other things they could do to help the group, smiled, chatted, and enjoyed a moment of fresh air while the kids played around us.
But through a different lens, it is but a drop in the ocean. Just as the cake sale started I signed a cheque for our administrator that will wipe out the profit of the cake sale – and it’s not for anything exciting, just some materials to help us with said garden problem. Like I said, keeping going is a daily struggle. And yet I don’t want to rain on our parade. It was £145 we didn’t have when we woke up this morning, and the raising of the money created an event that added to the life of the group. Such things matter, even if society doesn’t see it.
And the struggle is one that I am in for the long haul. I do what I can, when I can for the group, not for glory but for the satisfaction of knowing that I used the skillset I have for my kids, to try and make a difference, to help it survive. For that is what it is about – Survival. The Department of Education is not currently staffed by people who are likely to get their cheque books out for provision for under-fives. It’s barely on their radar (apart from as a vote winner, but that’s a different matter). But, while I get impassioned, angry, even rant at my telly, I don’t get downhearted. (But, on behalf of the whole committee, I am possessed of an underlying frustration that the great work they do, that the group does, trundles on unnoticed by society in general.)
So, apologies to Mrs Donaldson for my opening ditty, but I’ve a feeling she wouldn’t mind. And if you want to make a donation to our coffers, you know where to find me….
When I hadn’t been blogging for too long, I wrote a paragraph about Michael Gove. In effect, I was saying that while I was fascinated by the proliferation of informed views one can be exposed to via social media, about policies, movements or influential individuals, I didn’t like it when it crossed a line into being personal. I was magnanimous enough to defend our Education Minister, as via twitter he gets a lot of very personal abuse. But is he earning my sympathy? I think not. It ran out last Thursday night.
Feeling all grown up, I got in with the folk who look forward to BBC Question Time last week, as soon as I picked up that Mr Gove was going to be on. All the serious journalists I admire like Zoe Williams of The Guardian, or Helen Lewis of the New Statesman, form a little cluster on Thursday evening and tweet eloquently for all they are worth. Full of anticipation, I tweeted Michael Rosen (literary god and vehement anti-Gove tweeter) to say I was looking forward to what he had to say during the programme – and he retweeted me! Ah the democracy of twitter gets me all excited again…. And I digress.
10.40pm came round, and we were off. Also on the panel were two other folk whose politics seemed ‘somewhat right of centre’, The leader of the Green Party (who uttered a lot of sense throughout the programme), and Emily Thornberry, Shadow Attorney General. A good way in to the programme, the inevitable question about the National Curriculum was posed, and off went Gove into his extended rhetoric about how kids need knowledge before they can get creative. When challenged by Mrs Thornberry about the basis of this claim he actually used the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ at her; she looked momentarily stunned, her mind trying to compute that a supposedly literate and professional politician with a senior place in the cabinet could have possibly been so bloody patronising. Despite the other three members of my household all being in bed by this point I did start shouting at the telly at his darn rudeness, and I didn’t hold back on the personal insults. My blog-promise to stay polite was broken – and I feel no regret.
You see, really, we should all be alarmed, should all be shouting at the telly. This man is in charge of the education system in this country for the foreseeable future. He has never worked in education. His view of how the history curriculum should be shaped, for example, has much more in common with a set of pub quiz questions (not my words) and does nothing to promote the critical thinking that actually defines the academic excellence so often achieved here in the UK. His attitude towards early years and primary education is, to me at least, utterly terrifying. He appears to dismiss the huge body of evidence articulately put together by the Cambridge Primary Review that makes it clear to anyone reading it that we aren’t getting this stuff right. We are failing to engage and inspire many of our very young children, and he does not appear to care. He seems preoccupied with a very narrow, cartoon-esque version of education, one that has kids learning their times tables by standing up in class to recite them. Sit in rows, keep silent, put your hand up, don’t think for yourself, be disaffected. A few of you will be OK but the rest will remember school through a negative, shadowy lens.
My bouncy, bright and busy 4-year-old will start school in September. I am very happy with our choice of school, and I have considered all the options possible, and am largely at peace with the notion of letting others shape her learning experiences alongside my hubby and me. But for the first time, I am really starting to feel alarmed that this man could wield so much power over my question-filled, curious girl. Her classroom teacher comes across as a woman of clear, independent thinking, but how much of the crap that falls from on high can she realistically keep out of her classroom?
And (again, for effect) he actually used the phrase ‘yada-yada-yada’ on prime time television, to a fellow professional public servant. Be afraid – very, very afraid.
There are often times when a little synchronicity in the Universe means that an issue that is preoccupying me personally is also keeping politicians and journalists busy too.
As a 40-something woman living in the developed world in the 21st century, I am many things, but above nearly all else, I am a unit of economic production. Now, please understand that I don’t measure myself in this way. The things I am most proud of – being a wife, mother, friend, volunteer, engaged member of the human race – do not earn me money. But the world, it seems, measures me thus.
Had my adult life begun in 1760, 1890, or even 1960, rather than in 1990, a working class girl such as I would not have accessed the educational or professional choices that have been relatively easy for me to aspire to. Elizabeth Bennet, or Marianne Dashwood, and no doubt their author Jane Austen, would have loved the opportunities that have become a norm to young women now. Just two generations ago, my grandfather was reluctant to pay comptometer college fees for his daughter because, by his reckoning, she’d be pregnant within a couple of years and it would be a waste of money. Luckily for her, her grandparents paid those fees instead, and my mother came to embody the triumph of determination over a very tough start in life (and a socio-political movement that had plenty of momentum). Thankfully, British society doesn’t tend to make room for such archaic views anymore. But – and without sounding depressingly anti-feminist about it – there are a just a few of commonly held views from back then that I find myself wishing we had hung on to. Top of the list? That the status of women as wives (partners) and mothers was respected. Everyone knew that these were tough jobs, and while the resistance to women doing anything else other than run a home and raise children was undeniably oppressive, no-one doubted that fulfilling these roles wasn’t the Hard Work we all know it to be.
To SAHM or not to SAHM
So, once upon a time, all we women had the option to be was a SAHM; these days, Staying At Home is a luxury many of us cannot afford. Back then, while the doors of industry and academia were closed to us, our contribution to society was nonetheless recognised and valued. Now, we get through many more doors than previously (though that heavy, leather-clad one that leads to the boardroom still seems a bit too stiff to push). But if we choose to stay behind our own front door, we no longer occupy a place in the world that attracts much appreciation. The Mother’s Day card says ‘Thank You’, but pretty much no-one else does.
The women who worked the land or pieced together munitions during the wars, or the ones who marched throughout the cities of the developed world a generation or so later, did so believing in Progress. But our campaigning grandmothers and mothers did not want our other roles so publicly diminished. Clearly. They were utterly right to fight for their daughter’s freedom to gain an education, to have a career. Of course we are equal to men, and should be treated as such. But, rather as Alice followed her curiosity from oddly-sized room to oddly-sized room, allowing herself to ‘drink this’ and ‘eat me’, there are convoluted, unintended consequences borne out of the feminist movement. And they are shaping my life, every single day. As we slot ourselves into the conventions that have always governed the patriarchy, there are sacrifices to be made. Most notably, that it will be the fiscal contribution I make to society, rather than any other, that determines my worth, while I walk this mortal coil.
Last week Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, urged us all to ‘lean in’, to sit at more tables and raise more hands. She argued we are under-reaching, that our academic achievements are not being matched by our professional paths. We should, somehow, be able to do it all. Now, I don’t want to be overly negative about a woman who has obviously worked her socks off, and engaged brain as she did so. But. We don’t all get to do something that ‘flicks our switch’, as she does. She’s also reached a position where the financial recompense for her skillset very nearly tips over into ‘offensive’ to most of us mere average earners. Mortal women are busy working their arses off just to try and cover the food shop and the day nursery fees. Some of us are wondering why we bother.
And, seeing as we’ve digressed, they are ridiculous, those fees. Second most expensive in the world, so the statisticians tell us. All the politicians know this. They are frantically buzzing around Westminster trying to locate the solution, (which rock is it hiding underneath?) because they know that how most of us vote next time will be determined by this single policy decision. And it looks like the Conservative ministers (much to the chagrin of their party’s backbenchers, no doubt) have abandoned their long-held view that women with young children ought to be at home; the financial support they have announced is only available to families where both parents work. The agenda is obvious. For us to get out of the hole we are in, they need every single ‘unit of economic production’ back out there in the market place, peddling for all they are worth. They know they have to make going back to work a more attractive proposition for many women, and a tax break to help pay for the kids to be kept safe while we do, is the carrot they have dangled. The notion that we might actually let parents choose whatever works best for their particular family seems to have been lost, (and Frank Field’s more enlightened views are now, sadly, dead and buried).
So this is what I am now, a ‘unit of economic production’, no more, no less. And last week, someone decided that the product of my labour was no longer required. Gigantic curveball doesn’t really cover it.
Unexpected. Out of the blue. Shocking.
Now I’ll be honest, the field I worked in genuinely engaged me, and I did care, do care, passionately, about what I did. But I often felt the culture, the climate I operated in, was stifling, and necessitated my feeling ethically compromised, from time to time. The lanyard round my neck felt a bit heavy. Mixed up with the feelings of despair at the impact on our family finances, is the sense of relief that comes with not having to be something I’m really not, anymore. It’s true that I had hoped to change direction – regular readers will know my blog is a facet of this – in the next couple of years. But the loss of status that has accompanied this event has caught me off guard, and is really the inspiration for this post.
You see, I’d gotten comfortable with wearing a badge that society doffed a cap to. My ego and I can at least admit that. Now it’s gone, I see how much it made me feel legitimate – a ‘proper little contributor’, don’t you know. More than anything this event is a loud warning claxon to my future working self. I’ve got 25, maybe 30 years left in the workplace, and I need to make them count. If I have no choice other than to be an economic producer, I need to make sure that I at least feel more aligned with the other parts of me that I, at least, do value; the part that thinks the best of me is demonstrated by my choosing to read one more picture book to my son; or spend an extra ten minutes making real cheese sauce for the tuna pasta bake for the kid’s tea; or freely giving an evening over to a committee meeting for my daughter’s pre-school.
I’m banking on Gaby Hinsliff’s prediction that ‘wifi is more liberating than the pill’. I’m staying positive, believing that I have skills and talents that are of use out there in the global marketplace. Besides, I want my children – one girl, one boy – to grow up knowing that their mother is not afraid to work hard on their behalf. I’m just hoping that society’s definition of work has a little more breadth and depth by the time it is their turn to join the ranks.
There are times in your life when the universe strips it all back to basics. You are compelled, by forces outside yourself, to have a serious reassess of how you are spending your time on the planet. An unwelcome phone call crashed into my life on Friday afternoon, and has left me confused, undermined, overwhelmed.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That smart chap Shakespeare wrote this. It is easy to let life be filled up with sound and fury. It is hard to make sure that every day doesn’t end up signifying nothing. And lets not forget that there are millions of people around the world who would much prefer the problems of my existence, to the ones they wake up to every day. But, I have taken a bit of hit. I will, in time, blog more fully about the events of that day, and I’m not trying to be melodramatic and mysterious. For now, though, I just wanted to focus on what matters to me.
This afternoon, the sun shone, and the kids and I joined some families from the school my daughter will be attending from September, on a welly walk and Easter Egg hunt. Down by the estuary, after 48 hours of figurative black clouds, life felt warmed-up again.
I’m a very lucky woman. Let’s just leave it at that.