How I found myself unemployed and angry

“Perhaps you should hand your notice in. You don’t seem as robust as you once were.” With disbelieving ears I absorbed the words and, winded by the wound they had inflicted, struggled to defend myself.

The lump in my throat dissolved into the tears that are always much closer to the surface these days, and with utter humiliation I slid back to some time in 1993 and cried in the headteacher’s office.

It was November – four weeks before I was due to return to work from maternity leave. It had all been agreed – my three day contract, the days I’d be working – months beforehand, but once a colleague handed in his notice they needed me to pick up his timetable. I was informed that my days of work had to change.

Childcare everywhere is expensive but where we live it is also hard to come by – plenty of people arrange their childcare while they are pregnant – I repeat, WHILE THEY ARE PREGNANT. Finding childcare at the drop of this plate-smashing, ball-bouncing bollock I already knew, sobbing in the headteacher’s office, was going to be impossible.

I did a lot of crying that day. I felt hurt, confused, and betrayed. The other members of my faculty, including my line manager were as shocked as I was, but reassured me with their efforts to find a solution.

At that time, and many times since, I’ve tried to understand why my Headteacher behaved in the way she did.

With twelve years experience I know I was expensive for “just” a classroom teacher – they could (and just before I left, did) employ a full-time Newly Qualified Teacher for the same money they would be paying me for three days.

In the meeting the headteacher talked about the difficulties in accommodating part-time teachers into the timetable, even though my three day a week agreement had long since been approved.

Budget cuts were imminent, she had also thrown into the conversation, and somewhere quiet in the back of my mind a voice said, “You shouldn’t be saying that” but I was disappointingly powerless to speak through my shock.

And she brought the school manager into the meeting almost immediately to discuss just how much of my Maternity Pay I would have to repay. £7000 it transpired and I was silenced once more by the prickling behind my eyes.

Of course it’s tempting to consider the appropriateness (and legality?) of some of these comments but as my understanding of my professional reputation collapsed around my ringing ears, the most important thing was how railroaded and unwanted I felt.

I came out of that meeting feeling like my seven years service at the school counted for nothing. My branches of self-belief were shaken to the point they were laid bare and as all parents do in the bleak days of mid-winter I wondered if I had imagined the be-leaves were ever there at all. Maybe I’d been bare-boned, stark and skill-less all along. Maybe I was shit and they were just glad to see the back of me?

Eventually however, a solution was reached. It took a couple of weeks; contortionist levels of bending over backwards by the other members of my faculty; two further meetings in which the solutions they had created were rejected; and ended with success after a senior colleague advocated for my return.

Meanwhile I had written my letter of resignation. Like most people I didn’t and don’t have £7000 collecting dust (imagine!) so, with the help of the National Union of Teachers, I’d cobbled together a plan.

Essentially, every parent of under 18s is entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid Ordinary Parental Leave and it was this that I was going to exploit. It meant that officially I was returning to work thus would not have to pay anything back, but in reality I would never physically set foot in that school ever again.

I was desperately unhappy for many reasons – not least that my colleagues who had so determinedly had my back were going to be left with a knife in their’s, stressed and dealing with the fallout from being a member of staff short.

In the end though, I got what I wanted, right? I returned to work on the days that I had originally agreed.

I “won”.

So why am I sitting here, unemployed and (after several months of intense navel-gazing) mildly irritated?

Well, in short, because someone had to look after the children.

The reality of returning to my job as a teacher with two small children was that, compared to my pre-procreation working hours, I was in deficit of between four and five hours every day.

Morning routines, drop-offs, pick-ups, bath and bed time were my responsibility every morning and night because of the demands of the Mr’s job. He was typically out of the house before the children woke up and three times a week he arrived home for the last 10-20 minutes before they went to sleep. The other two nights a week they would already be in the land of nod when his key finally scraped in the lock.

A sales environment in the city, his was not a workplace where employees even requested flexible working. Unsurprisingly there are next to no women in senior positions and the culture is firmly one of face-time over Facetime, even though a considerable proportion of the job is possible with the wonders of modern technology.

If he had been able to contribute one morning, and one evening routine each week, who knows? Perhaps I would still be educating the future instead of bashing my keyboard in impotent dissatisfaction.

Instead, because of his employer, I had to turn my back on being an employee.

It has been a difficult learning curve and there have been times when I’ve sent myself into a spinning dive off the sides of the track, but at this point it would be disingenuous of me to say I’m still angry about what happened.

I’ve been granted a second chance, new horizons to explore and new opportunities to be excited about, but even with this positive spin on the matter, the question still begs to be asked – should this have happened?

Should my school have made it so difficult for me to return? Is it right that my job was so demanding that I required an extra 4-5 hours a day, after working 8.30-5.30pm without breaks, to make it happen? Is it fair that my partner-in-slime was unable to support me in my return to work because of the culture of his company?

I was a successful, respected, passionate, driven, committed, caring professional, but thanks to circumstance the skip-load of skills that I developed over twelve years have been wrapped up like a dead pet goldfish and flushed down that most deplorable of brain drains – maternal unemployment.

Surely this can’t be right?

Surely this is a bit bloody bonkers?

Surely, there is a better way?

For all of the above I am supporting Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka with her #flexappeal campaign. She’s got her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek as she prances around in lycra and grinds to a rewrite of 90s hit “Let’s talk about sex” but I’m going to be right there beside her on Friday March 31st when she brings it to Trafalgar Square for a second time. Check out her Instagram feed for more details but safe to say it will be flexing awesome.

The financial fallout of fertility

I’m a child of the 80s, teenager of the 90s, young woman of the noughties, and for My Entire Life the emphasis has been on becoming an independent, empowered woman. A concept inextricably entwined in my mind with earning my own money.

But now, as a woman in my thirties, a mother of two, set adrift from traditional employment by family circumstances that made my career impossible, I find myself battling insidious implications.

Where I was once independent, I am now reliant on someone else to provide me with security. The roof over my head, the food on the table, warmth and light in my home all depend on someone else.

Once empowered, I am now reduced to the financial status of a child.

And I ask myself if, where I was once strong, am I now weak?

How has this happened? This is not where I was supposed to be, I think, and a few weeks ago I reached the sad conclusion that I am not proud of who I am.

Like parents everywhere, I hope I am raising children who will not build walls, nor grab pussies, who will choose acceptance and welcome over fear and division, and I know there is pride to be found here.

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Please don’t grab pussies. I’d be really sad.

But I also want something else. Something selfish (and I’m totally comfortable with calling it that). Something that pays me my own money.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m letting the sisterhood down. Like I’m laughing in the face of the hard-won increments made by the women who came before me, so that we have rights that today we take for granted.

I feel like I’m letting down my twenty-something self who sneered in her certainty that she was not one of those Goldigger’s Kanye rapped about. Instead she certain she was one of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women who would pay her own Bills Bills Bills and Who Run the World (Girls).

I feel like my feminist ideals have been defeated by the cold-hard inflexible economics of life in the modern world. Like I gave up too soon, I should have fought harder for my job, for my ambition, for my equality.

And I feel embarrassed that I now take money from my partner’s pocket and put it in my own.

Questions that were irrelevant in the first 13 years of my relationship, the first 35 years of my life, have heralded an awkward new dynamic in my used-to-be-a-partnership.

How do I ask for money? Does this make me a kept woman? How much control should I expect to have over the household finances? Can I really decide how money that I haven’t earned gets spent?

Of course I KNOW I shouldn’t feel this way. If any friend of mine came out with such drivel I’d heavily exhale and call bull.shit.

I would tell her that to employ a cook, cleaner, round-the-clock nanny and life-admin-PA would cost upwards of £100,000 a year.

I’d tell her that without women (because it is over-whelmingly women) making the same decision I have, to put themselves in the back-seat of the family wagon, squashed into the tiny space between the fortified buttresses of her children’s padded thrones in a perfectly mundane metaphor for her whole existence, then we’d all be fucked.

I’d be the first to object that the value in an action is not always financial.

But I’d say it all then most likely fall back on an exhausted cliche. Something like, raising the next generation is the most important job of all, would be what I’d say next, but I’d know that in the face of this feeling there are no words that are not patronising and inadequate. That she hadn’t already thought of for herself, and still found wanting.

Like so many women of our generation, the truth is I don’t value the work done in the home.

The mind-numbing mundanity, the repetition and relentlessness, the picking up and putting down, the boundaries placed on the mind by the same four walls, and the constant requirement to put yourself last are not new – I imagine there was plenty of gin-numbed angst in Don Draper’s time.

What is new however is the expectation of more – the chance to have it all we were told we would have, but which turns out to be an illusion.

We have been conditioned to look down on being house-proud in favour of being loud-and-proud about our achievements in work – achievements accompanied by a pay-packet and while (in the words of another excruciating cliche) money isn’t everything, what it represents, is.

On the cusp of being a Millenial I took a crumb of comfort that the pay gap between men and women born between 1981 and 2000 has shrunk to five percent. My initial lukewarm reaction – it’s progress but wtf, there’s still a gap – dropped to freezing the second I read the next sentence, because when those same women turn 30, (and one assumes start having children) the pay gap starts to widen.

Projections in the study by The Resolution Foundation estimate that by the time Millenials hit 40, the pay gap between men and women will be closer to 25%. That’s TWENTY-FIVE percent, a number for which only shouty capital letters will suffice.

As a woman who had a child, took a demotion because my previous role was “too challenging” for someone with a young family, had another child, had a “difficult” return to work, and for who’s career the nursing home levels of flex in her partner’s job rang the death knell, I am a seething speck in this incredible statistic.

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The flexibility of the Mr’s workplace.

And I’m willing to bet my substantially deflated financial worth on the fact that I’m not the only pot quietly simmering away on the stove I’ve unwillingly been tied to.

In the midst of the financial fallout of fertility, I torment myself with the thought that the money I am spending is not “mine”. I contrarily reflect on a simpler time when roles were clearly defined and we had not fallen for the falsehood that men and women are now equal.

Family, lifetime partnerships and those pesky, inconvenient, brilliant, small people are of course more valuable than how much cash you carry in your pocket, but we focus on the money because it’s easy to measure.

This, however is about more than just our bank balance because the money stands for so much more.

It stands for choice, independence, opportunity and freedom and I find myself asking why should we live without those?