Book review: The See-Saw

Pr guru Julia Hobsbawm has written a book about how to manage work life balance. So far so good, but is it really what working parents need?

The See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance begins “I bet you hate this book already”. Actually, no, I’m always fairly open about books and it usually takes me at least half a page to throw one out the window. However…as I got into this book, I did begin to dislike it just a tad.
Although there were many case studies sprinkled throughout the book [mainly of media types], after a while it did seem to be a case of ‘welcome to my wonderful life’. The whole way along the author does say things like “the truth is distinctly more chaotic than I dare admit”, but after pages of how Julia Hobsbawm manages her life it begins to grate. It begins to feel, despite all the claims to the contrary, a little condescending, that we are supposed to be learning about her lifestyle and getting some tips from the expert.

Five children
It has to be admitted that she does have quite a bit of experience of doing the work life balance thing. She has three children and two step-children and is a top pr person. As someone with three children, I thought there might be a few tips I could use. I flicked to the section which is most preoccupying me at the moment – how on earth you keep three different small people happy when they are all so different. The author has something called “ring-fenced time”. This means she spends a couple of hours on a Friday with just one child, a couple of hours on a Saturday with another and a couple of hours on a Sunday with the third so they all get time alone with her.
It all sounds very well planned and controlled. And therefore hopelessly impossible. For the very same reason, I found the whole Contented Baby regimented approach to life totally anathema. How could you guarantee that every morning at 10am you would be at home to put the baby to bed? Maybe this is bad parenting on my part, but it is a bit sad to think that children should be introduced to the concept of meetings [with their parents] at such a young age, of being slotted in between other meetings and focus groups. I know, I know. They do crave time alone with you and maybe this is the answer, but what if you have a whole month of Saturday family events, or one child is sick or everyone is involved in playing rolling down the stairs in sleeping bags or you want to slob out instead of rushing out to Costa Coffee with your middle child at 10am?

It’s not that I don’t think the book is well intentioned. The author does seem to want to help, she is passionate on issues such as the cost of childcare and nine to five-ism in the workplace and there are two fairly good reviews on Amazon, plus it ends with a reference to one of my favourite poems, And Still I Rise [but I don’t think it was written with Julia Hobsbawm in mind…]. Maybe it says more about my prejudices that the references to manicures [“it nearly kills me to sit still for the time time it takes for them – ie the toes – to dry and I always think I should be doing ‘something else’, but needs must and, to coin a well-known phrase, I’m worth it”], Emma Hope shoes, a Mulberry bag and general London gliteratti life really got on my wick. As someone who would not recognise an Emma Hope shoe if it hit her in the face, who uses an Ikea bag [price 35p] and who has never had any remote interest in having a manicure, I found it had virtually nothing to say to my “lifestyle”. I clearly don’t think I’m worth it.
Advertising speak
There are numerous mentions of London landmarks and shops and it is packed with the kind of meaningless advertising phrases which I guess pr gurus eat for breakfast, such as “overloaded is the new overweight”, “landing on planet home from planet work”, and “dammies” [apparently stay at home dads]. It is as if the author assumes that her lifestyle is so absolutely fabulous that we all aspire to it or are leading it anyway. Who is it actually written for?
The concept must have seemed good – author talks about her glam life, but tries to play it down a bit and admit to human weakness; random case studies of media types and assorted others; ‘recipes’ for success, including something called “Telephone Tea” which I think is basically a conference call, perhaps with a cuppa thrown in; and top tips which are mainly a list of homilies along the lines of ‘pause for thought’, “learn to multitask meanfully; download newspaper podcasts to listen to while washing up” [!] and “stop being perfectionist, instead aim for being ‘Good Enough’. But it doesn’t work and the blurb on the back seems to have missed the point altogether. It goes on about the “generation dedicated to having it all”. That is sooo 1990s. There’s so much more to life than having it all.

Julia Hobsbawm, The See-Saw – 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance, Atlantic Books, price £6.99. What do you think?

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