Thursday, 8 November 2012

The extra hours

I received a phone call the other day at about 10.30pm, just after I'd put my phone on silent for the night, though I happened to see I had a message when shortly after I reached for my phone to set my alarm.

The call was a member of the production team of a respected morning news program on the radio. They wondered whether I might be interested in being a rent-a-gob, I mean insightful commentator, for an item they were planning the next morning about, oddly, The Great British Bake-Off. I say oddly because though I like cake, and indeed like the programme, I have not written about it and am not a cookery expert.

Now once upon a time I would have leapt at the chance. I'd never been on this programme before. It's the one all the journalists and all the politicos listen to and would have reminded them I exist and am available for work. Plus I love the challenge of speaking about things I am not an expert on, having to become an instant expert en route to the studio by speed reading cuttings. Except in these days of limited sleep there is very little that would persuade me to voluntarily get up before 6am, though it happens more often than I would like that I am woken up at that time by calls of "mummy, mummy" and little feet padding into our room. (Whoever it was that told me children don't realise they can get out of bed by themselves for months after moving to a 'big girl bed' was either wrong or I have a child genius on my hands).

And even if I had wanted to do it, I would have had to wake my husband, also a convert to the early night in an attempt to counter the demands of pre-dawn parenting, to find out what time he had to be at work and to negotiate changes to the next day's childcare.

There have, in fact, been a flurry of media requests for me recently, which is odd as I have gone from being a bit of a media whore once upon a time, the kind of person who thought nothing of getting up at 5am to get a cab in the snow to the Sky Studios in the back of beyond in Osterley to review the day's papers, to turning down most requests.

One came a couple of months ago from one of my favourite radio programmes asking me to speak about an issue that features in my feminism book, and that I still feel strongly about. But again it fell on one of the days I spend with my daughter. Never mind that these days are precious and I largely enjoy our time together, and have chosen to work part-time in order to have this, but the logistics were impossible. I would do it, I said, if I could bring my daughter and if they had a child-friendly member of staff prepared to sit somewhere safe with her and entertain her. They could probably arrange this, they said, they would have a researcher do it if they were free. If, of course, was no good. What would I do if the if didn't work out - jiggle her on my knee trying to stop her demanding an episode of Charlie and Lola or grab the microphone in the studio whilst discussing the appropriateness of rape jokes? Sure I know I can multi-task, but can the listeners tune out a toddler while taking on board her mummy's salient points? So I turned it down.

I know now why the people I was paired with on those early morning sojourns to Osterley were usually men and certainly never women of the age where they might have young children - other than the fact that two women youngish women sharing a slot is unusual in itself what with most commentators and pundits chosen to go on air being men. Because logistically mothers cannot just drop everything at the short notice broadcasting demands and head to the studio. And when they do, it's a much bigger deal to have gone to all that trouble if the item is pushed off the agenda and the slot shelved just a few hours later. Which is a shame because it only takes people seeing you on television or hearing you on the radio once or twice to think you must do it all the time and that you are very much in demand and that therefore they too should offer you work.

That's the thing about mothers' careers. It's not about whether we are any good at doing our job or put in our core hours or have lost confidence. It's about the extra things - the networking evenings that would mean getting home to bed hours later than our usual bedtime, opportunities lost due to childcare arrangements and an unwillingness to drop everything for a tenuous arrangement that would be great if it worked out but a pain in the arse if it didn't. These extra things are the ones that raise our profiles and give the impression of industriousness, and it is without these that our careers suffer.


  1. In fairness, lack of sleep and the resulting exhaustion you describe can also plague the careers of anyone having to care for a relative long-term (often for far less nice or rewarding reasons than the fact of them being children) or for other personal reasons that are actually far less understood or allowed for by society. I'm not saying you don't have a point, but I think you need to append your article with an acknowledgement of this if you don't want to offend people like me who would gladly swap caring for someone who will never get better than for someone who will ultimately grow up and give us a lot of happiness.

  2. You raise a really good point here. You can do it all but it is so hard to do it all well (or at least with minimal guilt). I'm a SAHM these days partly because we adopted our daughter and we felt she needed me at home with her to aid her attachment and development and partly because I knew I couldn't do my job as well as I would like if I was emotionally tied to home. I gave my all when I was working with young people with multiple difficulties but it's not a job you can walk away from easily at the end of the day. I knew I couldn't do the job to the best of my ability and still be emotionally available for my daughter. I don't regret my decision for one moment but there are times when I miss that professional head that I wore for so many years. Thank heavens for blogging so I can at least practice stringing sentences together.