This is what I read on Saturday night: Why Women Still Can't Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter, published in the Atlantic, much more thoughtful and insightful than the rather inflammatory title suggests, and sufficiently thought provoking that I was awake at 3am pondering what an earth I wanted to extrapolate from it as a woman in small town coastal New Zealand who isn't moving and shaking the White House.
Slaughter makes a number of very interesting points and I think the article is an important read. She acknowledges her privilege in terms of being very well paid and thus able to pay others to do housework and childcare and laundry etc.
But what left the strongest impression on me was not the gender politics of it all, or the maternal labour politics, but the sheer craziness of how much time she spent at work, whether she had children or not. She lived for two years in Washington while her husband and two sons lived in New Jersey. She commuted back to their family home every weekend. But during the week were days which routinely began so early and nights which equally routinely finished so late, that I can't imagine she would have seen much more of them if they lived in the same town.
I had, before I read this article, just started to wind down from a very busy fortnight, one where the illness of my husband meant I did almost all the jobs at home as well as juggling a busy time at work. The craziness of Slaughter's schedule certainly put my life into perspective, but I am more used to putting my harried grumpiness into perspective by reminding myself that the world over, millions of poor women work longer hours than me, see less of their children than me, in order just to put food on the table. There are no relaxed evenings in front of the internet or reading a book for them, nor a husband doing the dishes and reading to the children.
As a school girl, and again as a university student, I was bright, surrounded by other classically intelligent friends and encouraged to aim high in terms of a career. At 16, I scoffed at my mother's careful resewing of worn out sheets to make them last longer. I assumed I would be travelling the world and my sheets would be Sheridan (I must have known about Sheridan from magazine advertisements - they always looked flash). What I wasn't was competitive and driven to succeed above others. As I approached school leaving age, I got more motivated in my school work and later I loved university. But later again, balancing tutoring at unviersity with writing my masters, I decided that even then I hated the tension between teaching and writing (teaching and researching was okay, but the thesis had to actually be written at some point). Like so many first-in-the-family university grauduates, I decided to go school teaching, and it has been a great choice. It offers variety, lots of time with young people (teenagers are way more fun and interesting than many people are prepared to admit), intellectual stimulation, opportunities to work in big towns and small and across many parts of the world. It also, now that I am a working parent, offers flexible work hours in the school holidays. As a part time teacher, if I am disciplined in my use of the first and last weeks of each term, I can avoid working for almost all of the holidays.
When I go to the big smoke, or catch up with old school friends, people are guarded in their response (mostly). Because living on the West Coast teaching high school is not considered, in traditional capitalist status terms, as massively successful. There were points in the last 15 years where we made specific decisions which led to us leaving Auckland for London, and then London for Greymouth. They weren't about classical career 'success', but when I tried to work out what was so unappealing about the life of a top public service worker at The White House, I decided it is because here in Wetville I am grounded in my home.
When the midwife left and FH went back to work very early in January, 2003, I knew no one in London who was home during the day. I had no desire to return to New Zealand just because we had a baby, and Fionn and I set about exploring London during the week as well as the weekend and finding some friends to build our new, non-paid-work life. There were many difficulties to those first few months, but exploring London and getting to know people weren't the difficulties, they were the best bits. I strapped him to my front in a Wilkinet baby carrier, put my coat on around him and I (people sometimes assumed I was still pregnant under the coat), packed my bag with nappies and bottles (sadly, that part of the earth mother project hadn't worked out), slung that over my shoulder and off we went to buy a day travelcard.
London was our anchor. Our flat was tiny and had no grass that we could actually use. When Fionn was eight months old I went back to work three days a week. My work was fantastic in many ways. They changed the entire senior timetable to accommodate me and I found excellent childcare close to work so that we could travel together instead of paying for childcare while I was on the train. Within three months however, I knew I wasn't doing this forever. Fionn was fine but I was not. I was like a schizophrenic. My life Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday ran from before 6am when I got up, to after 10pm when I finally collapsed into bed. In that time, we left home at 7am and often didn't get back until 6pm. After I'd cooked and eaten dinner, I would prepare food and nappies (washable) for the next day. I was determined to have home made food and washable nappies just as if I was a stay at home mother. It seems rather insane now, but it was very important to me then. The other days I played stay at home mummy, except I was never home past the first three loads of washing, because the flat was such a crowded mess that I hated being there. Not liking being at home while also having a child was starting to make me feel a bit rudderless.
I stuck it out for 12 months because I had three exam classes and I wasn't prepared to leave them teacher-less. This wasn't recesssion London in 2003 and replacement teachers were hard to find. I remember quitting. I remember the days when FH went back to work after the summer break and I started to cook three meals a day, seven days a week, which was something I hadn't done for a very long time. We had enough to live on comfortably, but this wasn't yummy mummy country. It didn't take many days of three walks in a day to entertain my 19 month old action man and discovering that the parks of neighbouring Dagenham were not green and verdant like those of inner city London, but brown, bare and often short of basic amenities due to arson. Soon, I had a new project: a new home.
Gants Hill was heaven. A proper terraced house, a garden (actually a dump of sixty years of dumped rubbish but I had a project and it soon was a garden), reasonable landlords, great neighbours and like-minded friends nearby. I was heavily into recycling, green and organic living and was proud not to have a car or a tumble drier.
One day in 2005 FH suggested it was time we went back to New Zealand. He pointed out that now we were on one income, we were no longer travelling and he had probably got as much out of his current job as he could in terms of experience and professional development. Although I was starting to hanker for a second child and my horror of the English school system meant I was serious about home educating Fionn if we stayed, meaning we would never be able to afford to buy a home in London, I still wasn't ready to go home.
Then I went to the funeral of a friend's husband. Before the service even started, I was in tears. My elderly grandparents, my parents, all the people I never saw and only sometimes thought about, suddenly it was awful that I was never around them any more. It was worse that they might die without me seeing them again.
The funeral was on Monday. We bought tickets to go back home, permanently, on the Wednesday of the same week.
What has this long long story got to do with Slaughter and her article? I've wondered myself as I drift off into my own backstory, one I've told so often. Here, by the sea, but further north in the seaside town of Westport, is where FH and I first talked about getting married. It is also where we talked about coming to the Coast one day to live, to work in schools which are difficult to staff and in an area which doesn't appeal to everyone. We liked Auckland, but it didn't seem to offer a sense of home for us in the long run.
Here, in the wet bush, with frequently thunderous skies, a house we can call our own and a back section filled with tree huts, chooks, vege plots and a trampoline, is a place where our life is centred around a sense of home. Both FH and I have declined or stepped back from work promotion opportunities more than once in order to be together with our children. It hasn't stopped work from being interesting and challenging; climbing the paperwork chain isn't necessarily where the fun is. But our choices have led us to a life centred around a people and a place and that has turned out to be more fulfilling for me, at a deep level, than climbing the pyramid of prestigious career work.
I'm grateful for everything that Slaughter and her female colleagues have done, and for her sharing her thoughts via the Atlantic article. I think her honesty is far more important than bland pronouncements to younger women such as Cherie Blair has recently made. After all, the rising brains of the next generation are absolutely sharp enough to smell a rat when it is dressed up in the name of 'have-it-all-but-only-my-way' feminism. I look forward to what those women have to say, as I am confident they will find ways of expressing their talents across platforms which are not only baby change tables.
I also like that the internet gives voice to voices from around the world which were previously invisible. Maybe only one other person reads my blog, maybe 25 (my stats mostly only soar when I write about abortion, but I don't feel like writing about abortion very often), but the sense that my nightly achievement is limited to folding yet more washing and maybe reading a book is ameliorated considerably by being part of an online community of thoughtful people. As Sharon Astyk, in many ways a person with an opposite life to Ann Marie Slaughter, has demonstrated, capitalism is not the only route to using your brain and living a thoughtful life.