Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Working mothers and bums on seats

When my kids were very young (3 and 4), I took a fulltime job as a director of a publishing company and put my children in crèche. It was the worst year of my life, and it wasn’t much fun for my kids either.

For reasons I never really understood, board and other ‘important’ meetings were often held after hours. I was one of only two women on the board and the only one with very young children. Not attending wasn’t an option (there wasn’t a man among them who would have understood that I was a single mom, and that my kids came first), so I spent a lot of time hysterically driving hither and thither, desperately trying to find childcare, and feeling so stressed out I thought my head might pop.

Once, particularly memorably, a male member of the board came past my office at about 5.30pm, shortly before one of these meetings. ‘See you in the boardroom,’ he said. Then he swung a sixpack at me. ‘I’ve got beers,’ he added with a big fat grin.

It perfectly summed up my life then: the male board member, whose kids were safely in the care of his stay-at-home wife, blithely assuming that not only would I be at the appallingly badly timed meeting, but that I’d be willing to share a few beers with the blokes afterwards.

Leaving fulltime employment to go freelance with two little kids was terribly nerve-wracking. I literally didn’t know where my next paycheque would be coming from, but nothing – nothing! – could have been worse than the life I’d been trying to live.

Once, running late for a flight to Durban to do a huge transparency buy-in (at the time, by far the biggest the company had done – about R1 million worth), the kids’ crèche called me and asked me to take them to the doctor. They had been coughing (it was winter) and they wanted me to have my kids tested for TB.

When the skin tests came back negative for TB, the doctor advised me to have their lungs X-rayed. I phoned my secretary and asked her to book me on a later flight, then rushed them to a local clinic, where I queued for about an hour for the X-rays, then waited for about another hour for the results.

Finally the radiologist arrived. ‘Can you make this quick?’ I asked her. ‘I’m running late for a flight.’

She gave me a look that could have stripped paint from walls. ‘Cancel it,’ she said. ‘Both your children have pneumonia.’

I did as she had so icily suggested and took the next week off work. My children are allergic to antibiotics – their treatment involved twice-daily visits to a physiotherapist, plenty of nebulising and lots of bed rest. Mine involved heavy self-medication with Jack Daniel’s and crying myself to sleep at night, scarcely able to believe what a bad mother I was.

It marked the end of my fulltime career, and for the next 10 years I worked as a freelancer, writing and editing from my home office, sometimes doing stints ‘in-house’ when I absolutely had to (subediting or managing contracts), and occasionally borrowing money from friends when things got really tight.

The advent of the Internet should have been a revolution for working mothers who do the kind of stuff I do, and in a way it was. But in another way, nothing changed: employers still believed that if you weren’t in an office – if your bum wasn’t on that seat – you somehow wouldn’t be productive. Rather alarmingly, the most negative reaction to my suggestion that I edit via the ether came from the then high-profile editor of a women’s magazine – the very publication that loudly trumpeted the rights of women to both raise their children themselves and have a meaningful working life. ‘It would be setting a bad precedent,’ she said by way of refusal – a comment I’ve never been able to fathom.

Several years later I landed a good contract with a big corporation to do their electronic publishing – not surprisingly, via the electronic medium of the Internet. I did this for two years, working from my home base 100km away from the nearest city (and the company’s headquarters), and not once did anyone suspect that I wasn’t ‘in the office’. Why should they? Most of my work was conducted via email and Internet, from a company mailbox, and any personal communications by cellphone (without a landline area code to give the game away).

I recently resigned from this contract, purely for reasons of a personality clash: my boss and I ended up just not getting on. So you can imagine how annoyed I was when, in a conversation with her recently, she said, ‘I realise that you being so far away has been a big problem…’

‘No!’ I said, at once. ‘It hasn’t been a problem at all. My resignation has nothing to do with where I work; it has everything to do with how you and I can’t communicate.’

Alas, it wasn’t enough. I heard today that the new incumbent has been told that her acceptance of my old position hinges on her presence in the office at least three mornings a week.

This is such a setback for people like me – and it’s so dispiriting to learn that, no matter how many huge leaps have been made for working women who are raising families (some of us single-handed), and how electronic communications have revolutionised our lives, that same old hoary rotten chestnut sticks: ‘bums on seats’.

I feel depressed to think that my resignation will be put down to the simple fact that I didn’t get in my car every day and drive to the office, jam my arse into that chair in that cubicle for the day, then leave it again at 5pm and drive home. It’s especially galling because my job was huge – I was working about 55 hours a week towards the end – and, because of its very nature, much of it was done after hours and on the weekends.

And perhaps the worse thing (for me) is that my boss is a woman (granted, one without children, but still) who has come to this entirely baseless conclusion.

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meggie said...

If you ever get the chance watch a show called Mad Men. It is about the early 60s, but a lot of it is still true today.

Anonymous said...

Oh God, how many of us are there out there who battle this situation day after day? Sometimes I think I should ditch my day job and set up an organisation to support women like you and me. I decided to have a nervous breakdown at home. I called it a sabbatical but hell, lets be honest it was a collapse of inner resources. I don't know how to do this either.

Muriel said...

Hang in there, Nicole. Almost a year after my resignation (timed with unfortunate coincidence just as the recession washed up on South African shores), freelance work is scarce and all jobs are hard-fought-for: I'm completely broke and in quite a bit of debt. But I haven't regretted FOR ONE SINGLE MINUTE resigning from a job that made me very unhappy and I doubt anything would drive me to ever take an office job again. I remain confident that something will turn up. Life's too short...

Juno said...

Oh, wise words Muriel. I believe in my heart of hearts that no job on earth is worth having your heart sucked out. When I was twenty or so, I worked for a little prick (really, he was pond scum) who humiliated and infuriated me to the point that I wanted to knife him. His jeering comments still ring in my ears after 20 years. I resigned and landed up on the bones of my arse for several months but then, as these things do, another, better opportunity came along. Even now, with three kids and big bills, I would rather live on the bread line than suffer daily humiliation. It just isn't worth it.