Press = Joanna Mallabar: Guardian article on career/kids dilemma (04/02/06)        

Children are not like staff

When you give up a successful career to spend more time with your children, it is not just the nice clothes, the car and the holidays that have to go. It is your ego, too. By Joanne Mallabar

Saturday February 4, 2006
The Guardian

Today, like yesterday, is not a good day. And it's only 11.15am. Sitting in my home office, squeezed between the spare bed and an overstuffed armchair, I brace myself to make another call - my 12th attempt to speak to this particular person, a celebrity PR. I change the tone of my voice to disguise the fact it's me again. I fool no one. For the past 15 years - up until a few short weeks ago - it was I who vetted calls and deigned to speak only to those who were a priority. Is this my comeuppance?

Throughout my career, there has always been the three of us: me, the company I work for and my ego. We've made a good team through three senior editorial jobs on the Big Issue, the Modern Review and the Mail on Sunday. We have supported each other through good times and bad and, between us, have generated enough white noise to drown out the high-frequency pitch of guilt audible only to working mothers. Nine months ago, after much soul-searching, I gave up my full-time job in a bid to spend more time with the children, becoming freelance to develop a portfolio (ha!) career. So now it's just the two of us - my ego and I. Bereft of the dominant member of our former menage a trois, I think we're in need of some relationship counselling.
I am the main wage earner in our family, like many of my female friends and senior female colleagues. Our personal ambition is a legacy bestowed upon us by our mothers who, at the last hurdle, jettisoned their own ambition in order to raise children. Their inevitable frustration found resolution through their daughters.

From an early age we were told that we could achieve anything. We had confidence and careers. We didn't need to marry for money and despised those who did. When, a little later than was sensible, it came to finding a mate, we married men least likely to compete in conventional male terms. I like to think it was tantamount to a political act. We rejected hunter-gatherers: that was something we were happy to do for ourselves. My husband is an artist. I adore him. He has never sullied himself with the likes of commerce and its filthy lucre. (He indulges me now as I sit furiously typing away trying to make sense of it all, bringing me odd cups of tea and updates on the plot of Desperate Housewives). He would happily downsize, quit London, find other work of some kind and leave me to do the childcare as long as he can still find time to paint. The problem is, spoilt by high expectations, women such as me can be an inconsolable lot.

I managed to side-step the conflict of career versus motherhood with my first child. Working up until two weeks before the birth, I spent what little energy I had left studiously ignoring the impending pain of childbirth and certainly not looking beyond that point. After eight weeks on maternity leave a new publisher was appointed at work, eager to make his mark. This made me twitchy.

When Oscar was 11 weeks old, I returned to the office full time. I cried the first morning I dropped my baby off at the childminders. Matthew would pick him up after a day at the studio. Pressures of work, managing an office, justifying my position, I rarely made it home in time to put my son to bed.

Motherhood was amazing, but overwhelming. A disproportionate amount of my time was spent trying to banish anxieties about my son's safety, his health and the future. And in some ways I think I found it easier to remove myself altogether. Work was something I was good at. It was familiar and it was my domain.

By the time he started school four years and two jobs later, we were a very tight, functioning family unit. I never made it to Christmas concerts or parents' evenings but Matthew always did. Now Oscar was a bit older he would stay up and wait for me in the evenings. We would read Harry Potter lying in bed together. Sometimes we got so wrapped up in books that an hour or more would pass and it was well past 10pm before he closed his eyes. A flexible husband, and frequent guilt-assuaging gifts made it possible to prioritise work - and produced a mother-fixated, fast-living nine-year-old with expensive tastes.

To an outsider, it must have looked like I had placed career above motherhood. And yet, from the moment I returned to work after Oscar's birth, I never felt the same about my job - any job - again. I wasn't able to articulate what had changed. But everything had. Justifying my actions by asserting my role as the main wage earner became a mantra - repeated to myself as much as to others.

It took the second child to make me crack (apparently, this is common). It would be a lie to say that motherhood came easier second time around, but it was hard won after many complications typical of my age. And it was different. I took six months off work. I breastfed. I attended baby massage classes and first aid. I didn't fit in and made no new friends with the stay-at-home mums of west London. But I was there, kneeling on the floor till my legs went numb rubbing jojoba oil into Lily's thighs and gasping for a glass of wine.

When I did return to work full time the balance had shifted - the scales tipped by those extra seven pounds. There was a new interloper challenging the supremacy of office life. Two stormy faces as I fled the house in the morning. Two lives missed. Eventually, after 12 months, I decided I could no longer resist the lure of the children.

A friend and mentor - a woman far more successful and wiser than I shall ever be - warned me how difficult giving up my career would be. She had done so herself to salvage time with her third child. It's not just the fixtures and fittings that have to go, she told me - the designer clothes, medical insurance, nice car and three holidays a year. The key to succeeding, she counselled, was to relinquish your ego. "If you don't you will find it impossible. As a freelance you are a nobody. But in return for anonymity you secure your freedom and that, as a mother of young children, is worth having." But does it have to be so painful? How I envy those women who, having the luxury of a husband to support them, jack in lucrative careers to become full-time mothers. How much simpler to take a bow and remove oneself from paid employment altogether.

But instead, here I am, on the outside peering in. My old contacts still provide me with work, but those perfectly nice men and predominantly childless women under 30 whom I once managed are now often too busy to take my calls. I remember what that was like as my breath steams up the window to their world. The projects I am sweating over are piffling to them.

I rely on favours as opposed to authority to get things done. Perhaps I have made a mistake and should look for a full-time job ... Friends in a similar position are watching with interest as to whether this is the solution to the quandary we find ourselves in.

There have, of course, been revelations. Children are not like staff. They won't do what you say just because you say it. Working from home is bizarre. Ella, the cleaning lady (she'll be gone in the next round of cost-cutting), slams the Hoover repeatedly against the study door. If my daughter is in the house she gravitates towards me like a meteor to the Earth. And my son and I can argue for England. An important call invariably collides with a child desperate to display his prowess on the Gameboy. Of course I realise that swatting him away like a pesky fly is not good parenting.

And then there are the moments with the children that I imagine will flash before my eyes on my deathbed. Sitting in the garden with Lily while she pulls the legs off a shiny metallic beetle then hands me the shell - a jewel! Showing me how she can pee like a dog behind a tree. Looking into my eyes with fathomless love and asking me to marry her. Going for a walk with my son on a Sunday morning - when before I used to banish the family so I could devour all the weekend papers; we slow into an amble along the river, make a pitstop at the sweet shop before stumbling into a pub for lunch. Cooking dinner and sitting down to the bedlam of a family meal - something I haven't done on a working week night before, ever.

It's approaching 5pm - happy hour in the Mallabar house - when armed with a glass of wine, amid childish banter, I wind down and make tea. I make one last call to a magazine to update the editor on the progress of an interview. I catch sight of my reflection in the glass of the window. My face is painted pink with long wobbly feline whiskers, and smudgy not-quite-oval eyes - a surreal pussycat. My daughter made a forced entry mid-afternoon and overpowered me. I look insane. Is this the real me - free of my ego? It's going to take time to adapt to the changes. I realise that now. I do hope I get there.