Long hours, no pay but best job in world!

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

CAN a woman really have it all?

It is a question I have asked myself many times since I became a mother.

I am one of the lucky few who has a job I can do from home, that fits in around the school run, the mountain of laundry and the never-ending nose- and bottom-wiping.

But I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to sideline my career to bring up babies.

Perhaps I could have made some big bucks, written a novel, run a newspaper or surpassed Max Clifford as PR guru to the stars?

You might be wondering why having children would have put a spanner in the works. After all, there are plenty of successful women out there who have a family, run a household and still hold down a top job.

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Or are there?

In an interview earlier this year, Cherie Blair, who juggled being the wife of the country’s leader with a legal career and raising four children, said she had never met a working mother “who didn’t constantly feel that she wasn’t doing either job very well”.

I understand this sentiment. I felt this way when I returned to work after having my daughter.

My nights were spent getting up and down in a haze of feeding, burping and changing.

My days were a bleary-eyed mess as I tried to focus on my computer screen while wondering what to cook for supper.

I was desperately trying to hold it together despite the milk-stains on my jacket and the nappies in my briefcase.

Understandably I was overlooked for several promotions during this time and, frustrated with the long hours, office politics and soaring cost of childcare, I decided to quit and work freelance.

You would have thought I would have been happier that way, with more time to spend with my kids and flexible working hours from the comfort of my own sofa.

But the truth is, I felt like I had failed.

As a baby born in the liberating 1970s, it’s no surprise that I was told I could have my cake and eat it too.

I went to an excellent school and university. After that I did a postgraduate diploma in journalism, choosing a career in a notoriously male-dominated sphere.

I wasn’t fazed. I am no raving feminist but I honestly believed that women could be equal to men in every way.

The truth of the matter is, however, that women do just as well as men – until they have children.

Once they do, it’s a battle to prevent the cracks appearing.

I may risk a barrage of furious emails here, but no woman I know has ever found a safe, secure, permanent footing in her career and in her role as mother.

One thing that has struck me since our move from London to Suffolk is how many women I have met here who have happily given up their jobs to be full-time mums.

In the capital I would trot along to the park and be in the minority, surrounded by nannies or au pairs.

But here, at the toddler groups, sing-along sessions, library meet-ups and kid cafes, I have been fascinated by how many mums have taken the hit professionally to put family first.

I’m not sure why this is. It could be that the pressures of London-living are to blame for women feeling unable to quit work in the city. Or maybe there is a more traditional view of a mother’s role in these parts? Perhaps it just boils down to wage versus childcare – for some, it’s just more cost-effective to stay at home.

Last week I eavesdropped on an interesting discussion two mums were having about a recent newspaper article.

Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt had controversially singled out educated British women for wasting their top university degrees to devote their best years to child-rearing.

One of the mothers, who was a high-flying accountant in a previous life, was understandably incensed.

“I’ve never felt I’m wasting my degree,” she muttered. “I’m slogging my guts out bringing up two children I hope will one day contribute to the world in a positive manner.”

The other mother agreed.

“Being a mum is the hardest job in the world,” she added. “But it’s also the most rewarding.”

Clich� maybe, but I liked the sentiment.

It also made me feel a little better about my own reasons for swapping boardroom for board games.

Just because my days include the tedium of nursery rhymes and one-syllable sentences does not mean I am brain dead.

And looking at it like these mothers, I can see that I have a lot to be proud of.

Whether or not a vocation as mum is one of the most difficult is still up for debate.

The heart surgeons, prison wardens, coal miners and child protection investigators out there might beg to differ.

But, without question, you have to hand it to women who sacrifice their own dreams and ambitions to bring up baby.

It’s a job description like no other.

A role suited only to long-term team players happy to work in a challenging and chaotic environment. Applicants must be prepared to work variable hours, including weekend and evenings. Skills in negotiation, communication, organisation and conflict resolution are a must, with the ability to treat flesh wounds a bonus.

There is no health insurance, pension scheme or on-the-job training. Oh, and one more thing – the pay is rubbish.

But if you are happy to take it on, the rewards include frequent cuddles, occasional “I love yous” and the benefit of watching a little personality take shape.

So perhaps it is not the hardest but it is undoubtedly one of the most important.

I am still lucky enough to be able to dabble in a job I once adored more than anything else. But as much as I muse on how far up the career ladder I could have climbed, I am becoming more comfortable in the choices I have made and my reasons for making them. My children are, and will always be, top of my list of priorities.

So maybe it’s time to stop worrying about “having it all” and settle for having an awful lot.

n Please feel free to drop me an email at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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