This week, a younger colleague emailed me asking me to settle an argument. Usually this means me playing Britpop Yoda, answering questions about Those Glorious 90s. I readied myself to bang the gavel down on something like, “Which is the best Oasis B-side?” (Acquiesce) or “What’s a B-side?” (oh). I wasn’t expecting “Does having a kid make you better at your job?” My colleague had read an article that said it did, and she wanted my opinion. I pondered the question, but only briefly because I had to go and blow-dry a plush dolphin, then draw an Elsa and then put somebody’s socks on in a way that meant no bumpy bits (seams, thread, material) were in direct contact with their skin. Fifteen minutes later, I was back to working out whether or not having two children had made me into the hyper-efficient, supercharged career dynamo I am today.
The short answer (just in case I get called away again before I finish this) is yes. Having kids has made me more efficient, ambitious, focused, braver and more determined. There are other ways to become all of those things. I have seen friends change for the better when they have faced their own challenges – illness, divorce, caring, moving countries – but, for me, having a family to look after and provide for was what did it.
I don’t want to imply that this happened immediately or easily. In fact, one of the most useful lessons that becoming a parent has taught me is the difference between simple and easy. Looking after a small baby is like rolling a huge boulder up a hill – simple, just bloody hard. Once the fog of early motherhood starts to lift, however, life reappears in very clear focus. It becomes obvious what matters and everything that doesn’t tends to go. I’m eight years into parenthood and my youngest is about to start school – far enough along the rather rocky ascent to look back and see the changes in my own life.
The list of things I really care about is short these days: around six items long. This doesn’t mean I’ve become selfish or am smugly focused on my own domestic set-up – I spend more time working on charity projects and ones that affect my community and peers than I used to. It’s just that I have become extremely practical about what I must do, what I want to do and what I can do. I don’t waste time on things that don’t fit into at least one of these categories.
Good enough became the new perfect. With that in mind I am now more direct, better at speaking up, asking questions, asking for what I want and saying no
It seems I’m right to be tight about time. In her new book, I Know How She Does It, time-management expert Laura Vanderkam collected data on this subject in the form of 1,001 time logs by women who balance careers, families and personal pursuits. It is – she says – possible to “have it all” so long as you’re clear about what “all” is, and know how you really spend your 168 hours a week. Vanderkam warns that popular media narratives about the impossibility of having a successful career and a fulfilling family life are damaging – making women fearful of starting a family, or convincing them that they should pull back at work for the “sake” of their children, when statistics show that, in the long run, a few years’ juggling is often offset by a higher standard of living (and more autonomy and free time) later. It’s an interesting, heartening read about successful working parents, who, she says, are epitomising the old truism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”.
The changes I have experienced over the past eight years have often been unexpected and downright counterintuitive. My domestic set-up is tediously conventional, but it has given me the firm foundations I needed to live more boldly. I take my work more seriously, but have more fun because I know that what I do matters (to my family and – a stroke of luck – to me). I take on exciting projects that scare me (the website you’re reading being the primary example). I have experienced some extremely useful failures and become less judgemental in the process – this makes both failure and the judgement of others much less of a concern. I have more responsibility than I have ever known, but I feel freer, and (this may or may not make sense) more like myself than I have since I was a little kid. Having children of my own allowed me to look back on my own life in a more compassionate way, and to see how all of it connects. I stopped feeling guilty – the stupid things I said and did at 15, 18 and 21 no longer seemed unforgivable. Good enough became the new perfect. With that in mind, I am now more direct, better at speaking up, asking questions, asking for what I want and saying no. I learnt how to say I don’t know, which was the hardest and most useful lesson of the lot.
Here’s the stuff I dropped: TV/culture I don’t care about; rolling news (I decided to focus on reading books instead – truth not information!); reacting to what people think or say about me; spending free time with people who are unkind; worrying (as much as possible); monitoring myself against that ingrained checklist girls are taught to internalise (how many glasses of water have you had today? What have you eaten? What do you weigh? How are you dressed? Are you behaving yourself?).
I’m not sure how long these changes will last. Psychologists talk about extreme experiences (illness, bereavement) shrinking a person’s “time horizon”, which means life’s finality is briefly made tangible; the true value of each moment is suddenly very obvious. Apparently, this is the reason that – generally speaking – human beings become happier in old age. When their time horizon is short, people live differently. Motherhood has certainly been an extreme experience for me so far, and our family has also been through bereavement and serious illness alongside it, so I guess I can see the horizon very clearly at the moment. Maybe that will change in a few years – I hope not. For now, I’m happy to head towards the horizon and whatever it brings, with my family in tow.