Workingmums.co.uk speaks to journalist Gaby Hinsliff about her new book Half a Wife, the Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back.
Gaby Hinsliff was the high-flying political editor on The Observer at the age of just 33. Her job was one of the most demanding and competitive in journalism. Not exactly the kind of job that combines well with the demands of a small child.
She had spent much of her journalistic life writing about family policy issues, but it was not until she had her son Freddie that Gaby understood the struggle many women face between a career that they love and the need to spend what they consider to be enough time with their children.
After wrestling with the dilemma for a year and being offered a part-time role which she said would have been like “having my nose pressed up against the sweetshop window looking at someone else do the job I loved”, she decided to quit The Observer. That was two years ago and she is now working freelance on several projects and enjoying the freedom to do things she would never have done before.
She spent last year writing a book, Half a Wife, the Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back, which she says was “meant to explain to myself what I had done giving up a job I loved”. “I was career-oriented and ambitious. I never thought I would be the person to drop off the ladder. I wanted to talk to other people who had done the same thing to shed light on it,” she says.
She didn’t want to write "just another working mums book". When she was debating what to do about a job which saw her working from early morning to past midnight on a Saturday she looked around for a book about how modern families manage to have careers and still see their children. She found there was nothing that was about the kind of modern family where the parents shared the load more. “It was as if only women were allowed to worry about these things,” she says.
She adds that so many people she spoke to were in very different relationships to those of their parents, but as soon as they had children the dynamics changed totally and women fell into the role of doing most of the childcare and domestic work. “If you’re not careful it can be very disorientating. As you have so much less time, your time becomes a jealously regarded resource. You start noticing how your partner is spending their time,” she says. That can create terrible tensions in a relationship, she adds.
One of the main themes of the book is how interrelated issues to do with working parents are – how long hours affect working families’ relationships, not just the relationship between children and their parents but between the parents – and how this impacts on society generally.
“What men do affects women and vice versa,” she says so, although she admits that some of the unequal split of home and childcare may be down to male laziness, she adds that women who do not discuss childcare issues with their partner and assume it is all their responsibility could be forcing their partner into the traditional breadwinner role without ever asking him if that is what he wants. Gaby says she herself was guilty of this and spent months agonising about how she could change her life after Freddie was born. Then suddenly she realised it was not just about her and that she and her husband could both make changes in their lives to make things easier.
Her husband worked long hours for the Government when Freddie was born, but by the time she went back to work he was working in PR in the City. After Gaby left The Observer the couple moved to the Oxfordshire countryside and Gaby worked three days from home while her husband moved to a job which had more fixed hours. Freddie has just started school now and Gaby continues to work three school days and then evenings [sometimes into the small hours] while her husband was recently offered a full-time job in London.
The dynamics are constantly changing, she says, and that is how modern life is. She says she hates the term ‘work life balance’. “It implies there is a perfect tipping point and once you have it you achieve a sort of Zen-like state. But things change all the time. There is always something new happening so you need to be ready for change,” she says.
Save money to buy time
She wasn’t at all prepared for being a parent, but thinks people don’t really take in the enormity of the changes it wreaks beforehand. “You’re not really listening,” she says. Her main advice, though, is to save money beforehand. “Don’t buy all the equipment people say you’ll need, but instead save money to buy yourself time. Having money saved gives you more options, for instance, if you want to go part time,” she says. Many of the women she spoke to for the book rushed back to work and didn’t have time to think until they came to a crisis point. Some panicked and jumped. “All the career experts say not to take hasty decisions and that it is best to keep a toe in the water, even if it is only one day a week,” she says.
The book’s main argument is how working life needs to fit with modern family life through greater availability of flexible working. Gaby says it is harder for men to ask for and get flexible working, but she thinks they could perhaps be a little bolder in how they go about it. “They have seen what happens to women’s careers when they work flexibly, but they need to grit their teeth. When there is a critical mass things will really change.”
Gaby believes there are ways the Government and employers could help more. In the book, she proposes a national agency which would promote flexible working. The book was written in the summer before the launch of the Anywhere Working project which is backed by the Department of Transport and promotes good practice in flexible working in much the way that she envisaged in her book.
Gaby admits policy in this area is fairly fast-moving, but thinks the recession, while clearly dreadful for many families, could accelerate changes in working patterns, promoting more job shares, for instance. “A recession can make employers think the unthinkable,” she says. “Job shares in senior positions could present real advantages if it is done well. It could allow people to stay at a senior level rather than going part time at a more junior level and getting parked there.”
She says she would also like to see employers more openly advertising flexible jobs. She adds that most people negotiate flexibility in their existing job, but then find themselves trapped in that job because very few new jobs are advertised as being able to be worked flexibly. She says public sector vacancies should start from the presumption that they can be worked flexibly. “The first question people should ask when they are considering advertising a job is does it have to be a 9-5 job five days a week,” she says. “If it can be done differently, the advert should say so.”
In the private sector she recommends a voluntary form of wording on ads similar to the ‘we are an equal opportunities employer’-type wording, saying employers welcome applications from people wanting to work flexibly. She adds that recruiters should be trained about promoting this wording. “Before long this would be the norm,” she says. “Flexible jobs would be more visible and employers would benefit from the tremendous quality of people out there.”
*Half a Wife is published by Chatto & Windus, price £12.99.