Life is busy. Life is challenging. The ‘balance’ of motherhood and career can seem as elusive a dream as sorting out the Euro debt crisis. Or working out whether Daniel Craig or Jon Hamm is the best celebrity free pass option. All difficult dilemmas. So when I first started to read Allison Pearson’s Telegraph piece yesterday on the mental stress implications of being a woman today I started to nod. A recent study by an Oxford Professor has ‘scientifically proven’ what she has known for a long time; the pressures of being a working mother today are phenomenal and it’s therefore no surprise that there’s been a stratospheric rise in mental illness amongst women in the last twenty years. She candidly and movingly reveals that she herself has contributed to those stats. ‘I don’t know how she does it’? With Prozac basically.
Then my nodding turned to a frown. I think Allison Pearson is fantastic and I think her openness on her breakdown is brilliant. But I felt a discomfort that I often feel in reading certain broadsheets which seem to relish telling woman that having it all is an impossible dream. There’s a teensy-weensy bit of an implication that we are greedy women for trying to do too much.
So if we can’t have it all, does that mean we should give up and not aspire to ‘better’ or stop aiming for some kind of balance in life? When people say to me ‘women can’t have it all’ it does make me feel sad; does that mean they can’t have anything?
Don’t get me wrong, I understood Pearson’s point and it came as no surprise. Yes, we’ve seen it over and over again. Women stumped by the baffling challenge trying to balance time with family with a career is omnipresent in society today. That’s just one of the reasons we are Bb London are so vociferously ardent about our ‘Tailored Time’ approach to our employees and our radical SexiFlexi flexible working approach We love the fact that – in theory- everyone who works for us doesn’t waste time commuting but focuses on a work setup which allows flexibility for other priorities other than work and therefore helps harness the huge ‘wasted’ talent of women across Britain who struggle to weave their family lives into their work. We are more flexible than most. And yet still, of course our generally happy, highly motivated team do suffer from the stress of trying to balance kids and career. So therefore I applaud Allison and this doctor man for highlighting the danger present in women trying to manage it all.
I am a fiercely ambitious person; tremendously keen on the growth of our business Babes with Babies London. I am also very ambitious for my family. Not, I hasten to add, for their academic achievements (I’m no tiger mum, more of a slightly ineffectual kitten one) but for their happiness and for my basic desire for us all to share the perplexing rollercoaster of life together as much as possible. These ambitions butt up against each other and leave me a bit tired at times. True.
However, the danger here comes when you start thinking about what the alternative is to trying to have it all. If I were a 50s housewife expected to not work, would the stress be less? Well, yes, of course in some ways. But anyone who knows my domestic ineptitude when it comes to cupcakes knows how miserable I’d be. I love my work, the creativity, the interaction with brilliant people, the fact that I can chose to do something I’m good at rather than battling The House all day long. So, that for me is worth the exhaustion that comes hand in hand every week with trying to cram 36 hours into every day. And I also adore the challenge of constantly learning new things and developing my brain.
I know I’m lucky that I do a job I enjoy and triply lucky to do a job that has an element of flexibility. But I also think there’s an element in what Pearson and Freeman refer to which is not just about being a working mother but about being a human being. Stress affects the ‘working dad’ too. And really I think the key here is not just about gender but about the desire for perfection. Life just isn’t perfect. The truth is that women can’t have it all. But neither can men. Look at Einstein. A pretty clever man right? Had a nightmare trying to get a job – over and over again rejected for teaching roles.
Therefore, I have a suggestion for us all. Men and women. Let’s start a revolutionary new movement. Let’s believe in ‘Having it Almost’. This is us all aiming for exciting, interesting and balanced lives… but accepting that by aiming for that we’re more likely to fail or have problems with some part of it. Let’s focus on the incredible positives in our lives and not the bits that aren’t so shiny and perfect. Because it’s not trying to have it all that is the problem it’s trying to do it all perfectly which is exhausting and destroys us.
I think women are particularly bad at this by the way. Traditionally, women are less likely to get promoted because they think ‘I’m only 80% good enough for the next role’ whereas men tend to think ‘Oh I could do that as I’m definitely 80% good enough for it.’ So we need to give ourselves a break and accept that while we should strive to be good at our jobs and to be great mothers, it’s okay to be only 80% okay.
My very brilliant and naughtily potty-mouthed brother has a saying for it. He says ‘I believe in the school of F*** it’… he’ll give something a go (e.g. when he generously helped paint our hall) and not kill himself if it’s not 100% accurate. Better to give something a go than hold back because you’re scared it won’t be perfect.
So, from now on I’m aiming for ‘almost’. Am I a good mother or a good enough mother? Kitten mother is fine and a darn sight cuter than those tiger ones. I know that I’m great at setting treasure hunts for my girls which balances out the fact that I refuse to let them have school lunches (which they really really want) because I’m fundamentally too lazy. Am I perfect friend or not? I work evenings and often at weekends when I can which means I’m more rubbish than I’d like with friends but I try and make up for it when I do see them. Am I a perfect business leader? Our new Wish List on the Bb site isn’t ready yet when I wanted it to be years ago… but we have such great customer service at the moment that really helps. And actually the more imperfect I am, the more it shows what an incredible team I have. So I console myself that I’m good at recruitment if nothing else.
Life is fabulous. It’s also packed with pitfalls – most of which are not of our own doing. Being a working woman and being a wife, mother and friend is wonderful but can make life busy. All of these bring their own challenges and their incredible reward. I do not want to choose a 2D life which isn’t packed with the wonders of work and the charming chaos of parenthood at the same time. Professor Freeman, I’m listening to your warning - I can see the danger of feeling the pressure to do it all perfectly. But I’m not going to give up on aiming to make that balance as good as it can be by accepting that it’s okay to fail and not be perfect at everything.
And that’s a message I want to pass onto my daughters, nieces and goddaughters (as well as nephews and godsons). Don’t give up on trying for what you want because it’s hard and because you might fail. But do give yourself a break; give things a go and accept that screwing up from time to time is human (whether you are male or female). It’s not trying to do more that destroys us but believing that perfection is possible.
I’m going to carry on trying to ‘have it all’. Knowing that it’s basically impossible because life isn’t like that. In the words of the long-limbed lovely-lipped Mick ‘You can’t always get what you want’. But you know the score… if you try sometimes, you just might get what you need.’ True Mr Jagger? Well, you might get 80% of it. And that’s good enough for a kitten like me.