My friend had called at 7.40am to say she couldn’t cope. “I got up at 3.30am, my mind was on fire, I couldn’t stop worrying, so I got out of bed and cleared my email backlog for the first time in months. Then the kids got up and I chased and shouted to get them ready and now I’m charging into a long day of meetings that run into each other and I feel like I never see my kids and I never get through the work and when I get home tonight my email will be full of more stuff I need to do. I’m at full capacity. Beyond full capacity. I can’t do anything more than I do. And yet people keep telling me I should do yoga. Of course I should bloody do yoga. But when? Oh God, when will this end, what do I do?” She had dropped her kids at nursery and was walking (“Got to get some steps in”) to the station to get the train to her sales job in town.
If history is told by the winning men, I worry that the story of equality at work is too often being told by the winning women, the ones with the board seats and big pay packets, most notably Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose 2013 book advised ambitious women to Lean In. Sometimes they have a nanny (or two), and sometimes an at-home husband as well. Either way, they are the exceptions. I remember reading an interview with Karren Brady in which she said she split her time between her kids in the country and her job in town, and that it worked really well for her. Which I’m sure it did; it just didn’t much help me — or my friend in sales, who has a full-time working husband and is currently confronting the bitter reality that modern working life doesn’t combine very well at all with having a family.
Why does this matter and what do we do? It matters because we have a lot of working parents who are struggling and feeling like failures and not enjoying their kids. We see the rise in children’s mental-health issues, and more than one psychologist has told me that they really worry about the kids of professional parents who are always distracted.
To address that, we need to be more honest so we can take more control of our own working experiences. We need to be able to talk more about what does work and how to make it work within our own families. For some, the price of “always on” will be worth it, because they are driven and ambitious and have the systems in place to make it work. For others, stepping back a bit at key points will make all the difference to them and their families. The point is to have the discussions to make the right decisions at the right time and to be able to adjust as you go, rather than blindly bashing through it and hoping for the best.
Longer term, though, we have to decide what kind of a society we want to live in and what value we really put on family life. If it’s anything close to the glowing words most politicians use to express the high regard they have for “hard-working families”, then we really do have a lot of work to do — in business, in education and in policy.
Until then, if you’re drowning in work and family and think you are alone, at least know you are not. There are lots and lots of us out here. And there are some answers, however imperfect, to be gleaned from the experiences of those who have gone before. You just have to look harder for them than you might realise.