Today sees the publication of Christine Armstrong’s brilliant and explosive book, The Mother of All Jobs. In it, Christine exposes the “myth” of having it all; she interviewed women in high-powered or executive jobs anonymously and exposes the lies, basically, that they tell about what it takes to hold down a job and have a family.
They will tell us that it’s all about being organised, leaning in, “having a great nanny”, but the truth is that it’s pretty much a shitshow for everyone because the culture in this country is so unbelievably hostile to working mothers.
More honesty would mean things might change – but who wants to be first to put their hands up?
Anyway here is Christine to tell us more.
Tell us a bit more about yourself if that’s not too Blind Date… kids? Work background?
I am ex-communications and the advertising world, I live in East London, on the Isle of Dogs. No you haven’t heard of it but we love it and its by the river and surrounded by docks. My husband runs villas4kids, a small travel business, so we go to Cyprus twice a year (justified by work, sort of).
The kids, all girls and weirdly blonde, are 9, 6 and 4 and at our local state school. I have a bit of a thing about waste and how much crap we all throw away. So I started plastic fishing on London’s docks last year with local school kids and helped to launch a boat made out of 99% recycled plastic for more plastic fishing. The bedrock of my sanity is my Zumba class (lots of enthusiasm, absolutely zero rhythm or style) followed by yoga on a Monday evening.
What led you to write this book?
In short: I royally screwed up trying to combine full-time work and small children and so decided to interview people who had more of a clue. It turned out that some of them did but others were finding it almost as hard as I was. Only you can’t say too much about the disasters when your employer, team, partner, kids, competitors and parents will be reading. So I realised I would have to write the book without mentioning any names or revealing details so people could tell the truth. And when you’re talking about hating your husband, accidentally taking ecstasy on a Friday night and going so postal with your kids that you check yourself into parenting classes, people do prefer to be anonymous…
What were your assumptions about being a working mother vs the reality?
I sound like a moron but I thought kids just fitted in around work. Because in truth I knew how to work but I had no idea how to raise children. I’m not sure I even liked small children that much before I had them. As it turns out and, as you know, its the equivalent of turning the bucket that is your life upside from the rooftop of the Shard and watching everything that you thought was normal fall away to be replaced with what – at first – seems like nothing you can hold onto.
Work for me went from being the main thing I thought about to – for a while – still being the main thing I thought about but within a bubble of tiredness, stress and the pain of being shit at everything that I could not have imagined before. To get a grip and back on track I had to tune out work and listen more to my kids and partner and, actually, what I needed as well. But it took me a lot of time – too much time I think – to figure it out. I still don’t claim to have it totally sorted and the book offers suggestions, stuff that’s worked at different points for different people rather than any sort of directional “this works” type advice.
What needs to change to improve the lives of working mothers?
Jesus, where to start!
We have to make this not about mums but about how family units operate, which means with our partners if we have them. Which is one of the glib, shit things we all say as we squeeze a person out of us and attach it to our tit while watching the One Show with our eyes closed. But one of the hardest things to figure out is how to manage this as a family: some of us have partners who can’t or don’t want to see childcare as their business and others have partners who really do want to be involved but feel too pressured by work to be as present as they want to be. Either way, to make this work, we have to the social structures that support both parents being involved in actively raising children too.
Equality of paid parental leave (at a decent level not half of minimum wage as now)
Decent and affordable childcare provided by people being paid a salary they can actually live on (yep, being wholly unreasonable here)
Sensible working hours. Not ‘flexible’ hours that really mean a full working day, and then throwing tea and bathwater at the kids while teaching the six times table and reading about that sodding magic key, before working again til midnight while main-lining sauvignon blanc.
Some sort of link between the school day and the working day. Which doesn’t – as one desperate and stressed mum said she really needed – mean running after school clubs in primary beyond 6pm.
For all companies to make public all maternity/paternity policies so no one has to risk undermining themselves by asking.
More structurally we need to take a long hard look at our working culture. Why do we have all this macho bullshit presenteeism AND such low productivity compared to everyone else? We can definitely do this better and we need to do it soon.
My goal with this book is to open up this conversation.
What will you tell your daughters about working and having a family?
Similar messages to sex and relationships I think. Don’t be bullied by anyone. Make your own active choices every damned day about whether what you are doing – and how you are doing it – are right for you.
So if, for example, you limit your hours you have to choose to do it again and again and again. You have to screw up your face and leave when you said you would. Just like when you fall for some tosser and realise you have to bin them and not text them back even when you’re lonely/horny/both.
And the person to choose to raise your family with – if you do choose someone else to do it with – needs to be the kind of the person who is absolutely up for doing the same.
Obviously our kids will ignore all our advice completely and go off and be massive bankers with no life and we’ll be forced to take pride in raising the kind of kids who always rebel.
In your Sunday Times piece, you mentioned that a lot of very successful female executives don’t tell the whole truth about their lives. What was the most audacious discrepancy between truth and facade you found (without naming names of course).
I would love to tell you but its so dark and identifiable (it made the papers) that i would probably get sued. Let’s just say that everyone’s life is more complicated that it looks in an article.
Read any great books recently?
Awful Aunty by David Walliams has been our hit of the summer.
Read the brilliant Laura Bates Everyday Sexism last week and decided every teen in the country should read it for a special GCSE on life.
What is the thing have you bought recently (clothes, shoes, cinema tickets, face cream) that you are most excited about?
I love a red lip and recently fell upon Hour Glass Icon – a gorgeous deep red stain that stays all day. It’s not cheap (£25) but it lasts for ages and the colour is divine.
Have also started using Medik8 products (foaming face wash, day and night serums) at the advice of a fancy dermatologist who told me that if I wasn’t prepared to spend ‘real’ money they were the answer. Got to tell you that they are still real money but they do the business.
On the TV side, DietLand (Amazon) is blowing my mind. I know I’m late to the party, I blame the kids.
What are you having for dinner tonight?
A too-much-fecking-food-summer so we are officially in the fish, soup and salad zone. To keep it out of depression territory, am gunning for Epic Fish Tacos from The Londoner, big on the fish, easy on the sauce and avocados.
Want more? Christine’s website is here.
What a great interview Esther! She sounds like a cracking lady. Have just ordered her book 😃💕👍
I have just bought the book too. I feel like there is this huge pressure to make working full time and having small children look easy, when in reality we are on the cusp of it all falling apart spectacularly at any moment.
A great interview, really captures what working mum life is like – well for me anyway. You can have it all, just not necessarily at the same time….. will look up the book!
Ooh interesting, I have just ordered this as going back to work after 5 years at home with the kids at the end of Sept!
Liz C says
Awesome. Stuff like this needs to be said more and on repeat until it’s heard.
Great interview. Have ordered the book and am hoping it will make me feel like less of a disaster. It’s all well and good to Lean In if you can also Lean On your nanny, your housekeeper, your PA, your ironing service, your stylist etc. For ‘normal’ women leading ‘normal’ lives it’s a total shitfight trying to do it all while keeping up with your housework, doing your own shopping, assembling your own IKEA and trying to maintain a relationship with that snory hairy thing that sleeps next to you, let alone trying to maintain friendships. God help us all!
Just what I needed to read at the moment. Thanks. Finally someone telling the truth about what it’s really like to be a working mum. Or even just a mum!
Something I have noticed: any woman who has a seriously impressive career and more than one child almost always has a very dedicated mother who lives nearby and is a very hands-on and supportive party in childrearing (sometimes more so than the spouse). If you have a banking job in the City, you can afford the nanny+au pair combo that means you’re prepared for every shitshow; in any other industry, it’s usually granny who saves the day.
alternative: buddhist stay-home husband
Cracking interview Esther – thank you! The line that had both me and my husband (to whom I just sent the link as we sit side by side at an airport waiting for our delayed Ryanair flight home from hols – thanks for providing some sanity) nodding vigorously in approval was the one about macho bullshit presenteeism/low productivity. Why *do* people bollock on about how hard they work and jockey for position over how many hours they spend chained to their desks in the office? Why is that a good thing? Life and all the important things – conversation over dinner, bath time/bedtime, sports days, nights out at the theatre etc – are eclipsed by work day after day for the sake of what exactly? Surely we should all be competing to get shit done as quickly and efficiently as possible to spend as much time *away* from the office enjoying all of the things we go to work to pay for?! Or perhaps I’ve been unshackled from my desk too long and had too much holiday sunshine…
Yes. Presenteeism was the main reason I left my job at the Independent. It was fucking nonsense
Did anyone else take away from this book that you cannot buy/beg your way out of trouble? Even with all the money in the world, it seems to be saying that at the end of the day, sane, happy kids require attention from a parent…which means at least one of you have to go part time. How else can you be plugged into the network and have a relationship with your kid’s teacher? Happy (hoping) to be corrected by more experienced parents because I love my job (love my son more obv) but my husband will earn more than me so it’s probably me who will shoulder that particular burden.
When it comes to kids I have never met anyone who has successfully managed to buy their way out of trouble
As a former teacher, I’ve seen plenty of people try. But as you say, unsuccessfully…