It’s tough, leaving office life in order to be a better parent and keeping the professional show on the road. I know, because I’ve done it. The route most of us choose is to present “working from home” as a version of a career without the commuting, not a means of being around the children more. Such is the current post-feminist orthodoxy that it makes headlines when a woman with a prestigious job admits to jacking it in willingly for nothing other than finger-painting and making plum jam.
Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back
by Gaby Hinsliff Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
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Gaby Hinsliff, the former political editor of this paper, was inspired to write Half a Wife by a piece she wrote in 2009 explaining why she decided to resign from her day job interviewing heads of state in order to look after her son, Freddie, then two. The book was written, she states, “to explain to myself what on earth I had done”. It analyses the nature of parental love, the importance of messing around with your children and the astonishingly profound heartache that comes when you are obliged to leave your offspring in the care of strangers, even loving ones.
Yet if you do as Hinsliff has done, and hang up your working suits in exchange for a Cath Kidston apron, the danger is that the once-dynamic “career mother” can suddenly, and overwhelmingly, be replaced by a woman who feels like a nobody. How very true this is. Hinsliff’s description of mums at the school gate who had once “been somebody and are now mainly somebody’s parent” is spot on. For any parent who has walked away from the school gate at 9.10 and realised they have no messages from the office on their BlackBerry, because there is no office out there that needs them, this book is for you.
Work, if you’re lucky, can be wonderful. And giving it up hurts.
Hinsliff is correct in denouncing what she calls the “21st-century culture of domesticity”, in which hard-bitten commercial types such as Kidston and Nigella Lawson package themselves into brands and make millions flogging an airbrushed, impossibly high standard of mothering to guilt-ridden working parents. As Hinsliff says, the problem “isn’t about the lives we actually lead, but about a fantasy of presence in the home versus the more likely reality of absence at work”. Work, if you’re lucky, can be wonderful. And giving it up hurts.
Hinsliff’s solution to all this pain and guilt is the concept of “half a wife”. To achieve a healthy work/life balance, dual-income parents need to craft two days a week of “wife time” – that is, two days during the working week devoted to the tasks traditionally undertaken by stay-at-home wives. This “half a wife” can, Hinsliff points out, easily be a “he” or, even better, a “they”: both parents can reduce – or rearrange – their working hours to free up the time. To some, this might seem obvious. Indeed, I cannot envisage the clever Hinsliff, a woman so entranced by the Westminster village that she once sneaked her son into the House of Commons and allowed him to bang on the PM’s dispatch box, ever allowing herself a subordinate marital position. But presumably there are working parents who never call for help from their partners and, if so, this book is an alarm call.
Hinsliff’s ideas for how working parents should proceed are provocative and good. She suggests that young people should take careers advice much more seriously from the outset, taking in the notion of parenting years before it becomes a reality. She proposes a fulfilling career should best follow a Z-shaped trajectory, rather than the giddy diagonal which we are taught is the only way. The Z-shape starts off horizontal, while you are getting experience, then goes shooting up, plateaus while you procreate – and then has another surge “when the children are at school and the fog of exhaustion clears”. As Hinsliff points out, many successful female entrepreneurs only hit their stride once the children are off their hands. This is such an imaginative piece of social analysis that it really should have appeared earlier than Chapter 7 (of nine).
For Hinsliff, independent self-employment is the way forward. Employers want it, for a variety of reasons (not all suspect), and so does a certain type of parent. “It is a natural fit for a particular breed of driven parent who may not want so much to halve their hours as to rearrange them,” she writes. It had me wanting to go for a coffee with her. As she points out, Wi-Fi and the BlackBerry are as revolutionary to working women as the pill. “Never apologise, never explain,” is Hinsliff’s mantra for mums doing it from home.
I have a couple of cavils: first, although Hinsliff extends a welcome hand to the guilt-ridden working parent, she is rather shy about putting her own experiences on the page. This is a pity, because when she does tell us about her own anxieties and joys, the writing soars. She reveals that she “hesitated” (her word) for years before trying for another child, and then had fertility treatment (unsuccessful), but this only comes two-thirds of the way through the book.
Second, Half a Wife is stuffed with case studies that inhabit the kind of “first name only” Neverland typical of women’s glossies. I wonder if Hinsliff had a wobble of confidence about extending a long article into a book and decided to shove in loads of supporting anecdotes rather than rely upon her own experience and gut instinct (which started the whole project off in the first place).
While Half a Wife won’t be much help to parents who work stacking shelves in Tesco, or who physically have to be at the workplace for set hours (hospital doctors spring to mind), this is a wholly supportive blueprint for any harassed parent thinking about working from home or currently doing so.
And although this is a book for our age, perhaps the need for it has already started to pass. On Hinsliff’s highly entertaining blog, www.usedtobesomebody.blogspot.com, there’s an admiring post about Louise Mensch, who “sailed out of” a critical Commons phone-hacking hearing, admitting quite openly that Thursdays was her day for the school run.
Bonnes Vacances! by Rosie Millard is published by Summersdale, £8.99.