Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Although I don't regret my choice to be a full time working mum, it does take a lot of effort. There are many days when I wonder whether it is all worth it, whether I am spreading myself too thin, slugging through each day getting the kids dressed and fed, and filling the car with gas, keeping my group of researchers at work cohesive, keeping track of the literature in my field, picking up diapers, feeding the cats and dog, remembering show and tell day, promoting the preschool fundraiser..... ad infinitum. Sometimes my life feels as if I am just checking items off my never ending "to do" lists (now on my iphone instead of on scraps of paper, but still getting longer and longer every day), and forgetting to enjoy actually being with the children and to take pleasure in working.

When I describe our lives to childless friends, I often hear "I don't know she does it" . It was after reading the book of that title by Allison Pearson that I realized how I do. If you have read the book you'll recall that the protagonist, Kate Reddy, has a high powered financial job, two young children, and an urge to 'distress' store bought mince pies at 4.00am in order to prove to the at home mums that she too can bake for the school bake sale. She eventually quits her job for a part time self employed contractor type role. She also has a completely rubbish husband. It wasn't until my second reading of the book (since it is an enjoyable and amusing read) that my niggling dissatisfaction coalesced into indignation. I realized that this fictional mum was actually doing it all alone. The book should be subtitled "The sorry tale of how a talented women had to quit a great job because her husband was totally useless."

I realized that no one ever says about my husband, or any man who is a full time working father "I don't know how he does it". Maybe because even the most liberal minded people assume, somewhere in the back of their minds, that even if a man has two kids and a full time job, his wife or partner carried the lions share of the domestic burden. However that phrase applies equally to him, because his hard work around the home is what enables me to continue the job I love. He is actually emptying the diaper pail, unprompted, as I sit here and type.

You see, I don't have a useless husband. I have a great husband. A man who believes fully and wholeheartedly in equality between men and women, and actually puts his money where his mouth is. When our daughter was about 10 months old I was back at work, exhausted from pumping milk and had fallen into the habit of doing most of the child related work in the household. I raised the spectre of trying to go part time, and instead of conceding that this was the way to go, he said to me "What can I do at home, so that you can stay full time?" And from that day on we have divided our domestic life.

Which gets me to the juggling. I had a wonderful day last week when all the balls not only stayed in the air, they danced with finesse.

Preschool was having a potluck lunch, where parents are invited to come and bring a dish and eat with the children. I had promised to go. Since preschool is closer to home than to my work (about 20 miles away) I don't often make it to these lunchtime events but my calender looked clear and I really wanted to go.

But of course, two days before the event a meeting appeared on my calender that clashed with the long planned potluck. The head of our Scientific Advisory Committee was flying in, and my boss had scheduled me to meet with him at lunchtime. I sat and stared at the meeting invitation for a while. This dilema comes up all the time. Divided commitments. I would be letting down my team if I didn't present our work, but that was nothing compared to letting down my daughter who was so excited about mummy coming to the lunch. So I bit the bullet, and told my boss, and his boss, the VP organizing the day, that the time wouldn't work as I had a commitment at preschool.

They were completely supportive and reworked the whole day around my schedule. I should mention that my boss, as well as being an all round great person, is also a working father of two (with a full time working wife). I would say this is possibly the best kind of boss for a working mum. He might be male, but he understands my life.

On the evening before the potluck I decided to go all out and actually cook something for it. Geekygirl and I made cous cous salad, a very simple but impressive looking dish involving cous cous (which is barely cooking, since you just have to soak it in hot water), feta, mint, peas, peppers, dried pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.

The potluck was fun, it is a nice opportunity to chat at length with other parents and children. The children take such pride in their parents contributions (yes, there were some dads there too). One little boy told me very seriously "You should eat my mom's broccoli risotto, it will make you grow!" (It was indeed very good). Geekygirl told the other parents and kids how she helped to make the salad. The wonderful ethnic mix of the families at preschool made for an eclectic mix of foods, from pot stickers to pizza to pakora, washed down with horchata (Nicaraguan honeyed rice milk).

I made it back to the office in time to give the presentation I had honed the day before. I was very pleased with how the meeting went, the work was well received and I was congratulated by people whose opinion is very important to me.

Maybe because of my elation, when I picked up the kids as usual at 5.30pm we had a fun evening, full of stories and laughter and devoid of squabbles.

I don't have many days like this one, but when I do I feel so strongly that I am doing the right thing. I may never make a huge scientific breakthrough that betters life for mankind, but I have a better chance of doing so if I go to work every day. That day felt perfectly balanced; I was great mum of adorable brilliant children, a talented scientist managing a team of motivated people. It is the support of my great husband, and considerate bosses that make it possible. I may not get there all the time, but when I do, that's how I do it.

Though in writing this I have realized that the salad bowl I have been hunting for all week has actually been left at preschool since the potluck. I had better add its retrieval to my "to do" list!


Coding Mamma (Tasha) said...

What a wonderful day and it's fantastic that you have an understanding boss. So many people don't.

It is so true that no-one ever seems to marvel at how a man can hold down a career and be a dad. Which is a shame for them, as well as us, I think.

I am fortunate to also have a husband who does pretty much an equal share. In fact, at the moment, he is doing practically everything, because I'm too heavy, tired, uncomfortable, in pain, grouchy, etc. etc. I had a nightmare the other day that he got offered a job (we both work from home as business partners), and I honestly did not know how I would be able to cope without him here all the time, with a new one on the way.

It astounds me that there are still men out there who do nothing at all.

Noble Savage said...

I second everything Tasha said (well, except the being heavily pregnant bit!). Even though I don't work outside the home I know what those days feel like, when everything just aligns and is perfect and you feel on top of the world. Cherish it and remember that day next time you have a horrible one!

followthatdog said...

I remember reading that book and being quite angry at the end. I too balance work and family. Luckily I work in an company that is supportive. In fact, I have had more career progress after having children and have not had to make the anti-family compromises very often at all. I hated that the "happy ending" in that book was that Kate quit her job and went into something less than what she had been doing. Her husband was an ass. Mine, thankfully, is not.

I wish there were more stories about women who did manage a balance or that the great solution to the working mom's problems didn't always end up being "I quit my job and now I'm happy" How about a story where the asshole boss gets shitcanned due to employee abuses or sued and has to drag the company's policies into the current century.
Sorry, you've just touched a nerve with me. Mostly because women can and DO manage the balance. And it shouldn't be a marvel when a husband pitches in or a company has family friendly policies. And women leaving the workforce because they are run down by the policies and practices of outdated companies just makes it harder for those of us who stick it out.

You are a role model, M. You are amazing and your kids and company and husband are all lucky to have you. Now I want that cous cous salad recipe. Yum.

A Modern Mother said...

Sounds like you have a job that you love, which I think makes a huge difference.

I really liked this post. I have a great hubby too, though he can be a bit absent-minded professor like. He too emptied nappy bins, for which I am eternely grateful.

2 Brits, 2 Yanks, 2 Dogs said...

I too am lucky to have a very supportive hands on husband who will do a lot with the kids and is a great cook. The only trouble is he travels a lot. (4 months this year so far).

I worked full time and then took 2 years off and am now back at work 3/4 time which works best for me. I can still take the kids to swimming lessons and gymnastics, while getting my brain busy doing work I love.

I so agree - the best kind of boss, one that has little kids himself or has had little kids and who is very supportive of their significan other.

Pomegranate seeds in the couscous sounds gooooooood!

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