Life & Culture

Whether we like it or not, the mum call centre never closes

The world may have become more flexible with working hours - but this doesn't apply to running my household


Whatever is in the diary on any given day, I can be sure of one thing: at 4pm I’ll be interrupted by an onslaught of beeps and buzzes. Once the kids are out of school and switch on their phones, the family help desk opens — and I’m the call-centre manager, whether I like it or not.

From my 13-year-old son: “Can I go to a friend’s house to watch the football?” “What time am I playing football?” “Am I allowed to stay up and watch the football?”

From my 15-year-old daughter: “Can you pick me up from tennis?” followed by 20 screen grabs of various dresses she “needs” and also a few she thinks I “need” (that she might be able to borrow).

And because my ten-year-old is yet to get her own phone, I receive a barrage of messages from other ten-year-old girls on their parents’ devices, involving some combination of gymnastics videos and heart emojis.

On the days when I’m in full-on mum mode, I’m delighted to deal with all customer-service enquiries, but we all have times when we’re busy doing things that don’t centre around our little angels.

While the world may have become more flexible in terms of working hours, my crew has yet to catch on — the call centre never closes. Whether you work or not, spend days in an office, deal with clients face-to-face, or are based at home, I imagine most mothers know the feeling.

In fact, please tell me you know the feeling — and I haven’t just missed the chapter in the parenting manual on teaching your kids to manage their own help-desk enquiries.

At least once a week I’ll get a call at work with the question: “Can Grandpa pick me up from the station?” even though Grandpa is around the corner waiting by the phone and I’m on the other side of London.

Or, along the same lines, “Where are my football boots?” when my son is probably standing right next to them and I’m 25 miles away.

I have had my eyes lasered but I didn’t upgrade to nanny-cam vision — although “have you looked by the side door?” usually does the trick.

I am not complaining, but I do think it’s a snapshot of a bigger picture of the pressures of being a mum in 2023. My husband is very hands-on, but he’s not the de facto switchboard manager.

That role of default parent so often falls on the mum. In theory, these days parenting should be a 50:50 job-share, but if I’m honest, my own expectation of my job as a mother is not as egalitarian as my theoretical world view.

And, for me, being Jewish definitely feeds into that. That persona of the Jewish mummy who nourishes her children with love, support and, yes, homemade chicken soup too, may be a cultural stereotype, but it’s also very real — and very much alive in my mind as a profile of the type of mother I should be.

Of course there have been other influences that have shaped me. I had the pleasure of meeting Dame Anna Wintour recently and was reminded how she was a role model for me in terms of journalism.

She went to the same school as me (some decades earlier) and made my career fantasy of working in magazines seem achievable.

My other role model was my own mum, who played the archetypal part of the nurturing Jewish mother so perfectly, and started work only when I had left home. I want to be that mother too.

The problem is that Anna Wintour was not stressing about whether her chicken soup was going to boil over when she was editing Vogue.

And when I was young, my mum was not stressing over deadlines. But nowadays, these roles and the pressures they bring exist alongside each other in our lives.

But the Balabusta Wears Prada hasn’t been turned into a Hollywood hit for a reason (well, several reasons, I guess). But the point is that these two ambitions can be a lot to deal with side by side. And they are both ambitions.

We may strive to achieve things in the world of work, charity or community, but we are often ambitious mothers too — not for grade 10 piano or Oxford degrees, but to provide that family cocoon we Jewish mothers are renowned across cultures and generations for creating.

It may sound antiquated, but I’m not proposing a blueprint for equality; I’m just being honest about the blueprints etched in my own mind.

For me, and I think for others too, my feminist ideals don’t always tally with my emotional ones. And perhaps that’s the challenge of our generation.

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