Are we the guinea pig generation of working mums?


Top of the class: Naomi's last day in her school uniform, in 1995

Next week, I’m heading back in time — to my old school. It’s been over 25 years since I graduated and the thought of being back within those hallowed walls has triggered some introspection. How would 12-, 14-, 16- or 18-year-old Naomi, sitting crossed legged in that fetching brown skirt and jumper combo, view her 44-year-old self? And what would I want to go back and tell that teenager, other than to ditch the scrunchy?

One thing’s for sure: I don’t think any of us girls really understood the true challenges that lay ahead. The hurdles we thought we needed to jump to be successful were just the warm-up. Mine was a school that instilled in us the belief that we could achieve anything we put our minds to, but it turns out that that definition of “anything” was missing one very important “thing”. At my school “anything” meant achieving high grades, getting into the right universities, finding good jobs, and progressing in our careers. The “thing” we never thought about was progressing in those careers whilst also being mothers. Without a doubt that’s been the toughest challenge of my career — as it will have been for many of the hundreds of girls with whom I shared that assembly hall over the years, and for many of you.

The reason for my visit is to give an assembly about my experience as a Jewish journalist, not my experience as a Jewish mum, but it is hard to separate the two. For the last 16 years, my career choices have been reflective of a wider picture and being a mother has been central to that. None of us pursues our career in a total vacuum. And the real key to success — if success is some combination of fulfilment and happiness —  is finding that golden ratio between work and family life.

It’s not a simple quest. We mothers often cram too much into our days and into our brain space and end up with too many demands on our time. The guilty mother, trying to do it all and feeling we’re not giving enough either at home or at work, has become a cliché of our times.

For now, I’m content with my balance — my job as an editor at the Telegraph also allows me to be there for my family — but at certain moments I’ve experienced both ends of the scale and I know how hard it can be. When I was seven months pregnant with my oldest, I left my job as assistant editor of Glamour in Cape Town to move back home to London. It made perfect sense to freelance, at least on paper. I could be with my children and still have a foot in the door, except that in reality I felt I was stagnating in a career I’d worked so hard to progress. I’ve also had stints of working full-time when my two oldest children were very little and hated that feeling of not getting home in time to see them awake night after night. That certainly gets easier as your kids get older. They don’t need you any less, but at least those needs can be dealt with after 7pm.

 Mothers who aren’t working and juggling often also sit with guilt, too. At my 20-year school reunion a surprising number of my former cohort weren’t working at all, mostly because after having kids they had been forced to choose between an all-or-nothing scenario at work. In that reunion setting, they were sheepish to tell others they were “just mums”, which felt a little backward, too. Why should stay-at-home mothers, especially those with young kids, feel embarrassed? There aren’t many jobs that take more energy out of you than being Mary Poppins all day. In truth, motherhood was never discussed at my all-girls’ school. But perhaps in the pursuit of giving us girls the confidence and desire to smash glass ceilings, parenthood was simultaneously, unintentionally devalued.

In hindsight, instead of ignoring parenthood altogether, boys’ schools should have been talking about it too. If for every schoolgirl who envisaged a future with a more fulfilling career than her mother there was a boy who envisaged being a more involved dad than his own father, perhaps our generation of women would have had an easier quest for that golden ratio. Of course lots of those boys have grown up to be equal parenting partners, but I think it would be fair to say that often it’s us women who have done the educating.

But do I want to tell a room full of wide-eyed, smart, ambitious girls: work hard, get that amazing job, but just you wait until you want a family, for that will truly test your mettle? I think not. Our generation of mothers have fumbled our way through, believing we can have it all but not necessarily knowing how. But I think we’ve had the bumpy end of that ride. We’ve been the guinea pig generation. Surely it will get easier from here on in. And if anything positive came out of those hellish Covid years it’s that most workplaces have become more flexible. If I’d have asked to work from home when I started out, I would have been laughed out of the building. That shift in mindset is gold-dust for working mums — and dads, too.

As for teenage me, I’d tell her not to get too bogged down with achieving goals and to just enjoy the journey...and also to practise her typing. Computers are really going to take off.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive