New Times,
New Thinking.

23 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Squeezed Middle: Was it worth giving up a career for a home life?

My dreams of career ambitions today, quite unexpectedly, touch a nerve.

By Alice O'Keeffe

Taking shelter in the William Morris Gallery in east London on a rainy afternoon, my eyes alight on my favourite quote from the great man: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, as he’ll never amount to anything.”

This usually makes me chuckle but today, quite unexpectedly, it touches a nerve. I stand in front of it for a moment, rocking Moe’s buggy slowly back and forth, trying to work out why. The quote has tapped into a current of thought flowing through the deeper waters of my brain: will I ever amount to anything?

On the one hand, I know it’s a ridiculous, self-flagellating question – I’m a mother to two wonderful boys; I have great friends and a career of sorts; and what does “amounting” to anything even mean? – but on the other, I can’t deny it’s there.

Let’s look at my day so far. I have put in a solid two hours playing Larry’s new favourite game, “animals on the boat”, which involves sitting on a cushion while he delivers a long, rambling, nonsensical monologue about whatever happens to be passing through his head, while pretending to steer a ship filled with stuffed toys. Meanwhile, Moe was screaming, “Caw! Caw!” and clonking himself repeatedly over the head with a dinky car. (Small children are a lot like mad people.)

I have changed a shitty nappy. I have cleaned the kitchen and it’s already filthy again. The closest I came to engaging my brain was a valiant attempt to write some Christmas thank you cards, which was quickly aborted when Moe emptied the earth out of a large plant pot and massaged it into the carpet.

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It seems pretty safe to say that my name will not be troubling the canon of great epic poets or, indeed, tapestry weavers any time soon.

I’m not complaining; really, I’m not. I’ve chosen to have children and I’ve chosen to prioritise caring for them over pursuing a full-time career. I am as sure as I could possibly be that both of those were the right choices. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice the impact they have had on other areas of my life. Does it hurt when I see people who used to be several rungs below me on the career ladder streaking blithely past? Does it hurt that I no longer have the right credentials to apply for jobs I’d once have walked into? Of course it bloody does! It hurts like hell!

Perhaps, I think idly as I amble back to the tea room, I should just put the kids into nursery and do the “lean in” thing. The problem is that as soon as you step away from the professional world, you see it for the rickety edifice it is. Before Moe was born, I had a very respectable job, which consisted of having to say and do exactly the opposite of what I really wanted to, at all times.

I’d find it hard to go back to that. Caring for children, for all its boredoms and challenges, is an occupation that engages one’s whole heart and soul – which is surely why so many still choose to do it, despite the economic and social pressure to the contrary. I have a sneaky feeling that Morris would have approved of that, after all.

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