Friday 16 August 2013

The battle for a woman's working soul

New research from the US shows that mums are crying out for flexible jobs. Hulafrog, a network of US parenting sites, co-founded by my friend Kerry Bowbliss, recently surveyed more than 2,000 mothers on the thorny issue of working full-time or staying at home with the kids. The results find that 65% of the women would prefer to work part-time as an ideal career choice, while only 9% would prefer to work full-time. Some 59% would also be willing to earn less money if it meant they could work flexibly. "No suprise that moms want flexibility," says Kerry. "But it still surprises me that there aren't more flexible opportunities available." 

Kerry Bowbliss, co-founder and chief publisher, Hulafrog
Kerry's company Hulafrog offers flexible work
There has been much chatter about women and work on the internet recently after The New York Times Magazine ran a feature on stay-at-home moms trying to opt back into their careers. This was a follow-up to another NY Times feature written 10 years ago about a generation of elite, super-educated women who chose to "opt out" from their careers in order to raise children at home. Here is an excerpt from the most recent NY Times article:
This magazine, in a cover article by Lisa Belkin, called the phenomenon of their leaving work the “Opt-Out Revolution,” and other coverage followed: a Time magazine cover story on “The Case for Staying Home” and a “60 Minutes” segment devoted to a group of former mega-achievers who were, as the anchor Lesley Stahl put it, “giving up money, success and big futures” to be home with their children.

At the time, these women attracted criticism for turning their back on feminism. Now - shock, horror - some of these same mega-achievers are looking to get back into the job market. A few working mothers have pointed the finger and said, I told you so. To me this overlooks an obvious point: these women have been out for 10 years. Now their children have grown up and become less dependent. The time is ripe for a return to work. I doubt any of them would have ruled out a resumption of their careers when they decided 10 years ago to look after their children. 

This chop-and-change approach goes against the prevailing trend of 'leaning in'. Sheryl Sandberg's much-publicised book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, argues that women are unconsciously compromising their career goals, even before they have children:
In addition to the exterior barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in... We lower our expectations of what we can achieve.
It is a powerful message, exhorting women to try harder in their careers, but as Hulafrog's survey demonstrates, there are many more women who would prefer a middle way between "opting out" and "leaning in". 

The founders of Hulafrog - Kerry, chief publisher, and CEO Sherry Lombardi - passionately believe there are not enough flexible opportunities for women. This is what motivated them to go to their parent subscribers and ask about the "age-old issue that haunts moms from pre-school pick-up lines to corporate boardrooms: work full-time or stay at home with the kids?" They were overwhelmed by the response.

Among other things, they discovered that a staggering 57% of stay-at-home moms would have continued to work if they had been offered the ability to work from home. "Think of what our workforce is missing," says Kerry. "All the educated, professional women who are sitting on the sidelines because they haven't been able to find the flexibility they need." (See my previous post on this untapped workforce.)

The debate surrounding women, work and children will always be emotive, depending on which side of the fence you sit. However, in a modern age we should strive for an ideal that suits all types, including the option of flexible work hours or working from home. Employers need to sit up and take notice. More than 2,000 women have spoken. Have a look at Hulafrog's Infographic on the subject and see for yourself.


Further links

Hulafrog's press release on the survey
Lisa Belkin's NY Times feature on opting out
Judith Warner's NY Times feature on opting back in
Lisa Belkin's recent article in The Huffington Post
Comments on Facebook


"I absolutely loved this book and will miss the family that I became so involved with over the past few days. I hope Emma has another book in the pipeline!" 
-- Annabel at CountryWives 

I welcome reviews of my book on Amazon!

Friday 2 August 2013

A life in books

Review: A private collection of books once owned by the novelist Elizabeth Taylor provides a rare insight into her life.

Elizabeth Taylor’s avowed aversion for adventure, coupled with a horror of publicity, goes some way to explaining why her talent as a writer remains underrated. Writing just after the second-world war, Taylor impressed many of her contemporaries, including Kingsley Amis, but fell into relative obscurity towards the end of her career.

The novel, A Wreath of Roses, by Elizabeth Taylor
"Taylor's marvellous, dark novel"
An excerpt from the jacket of her novel A Wreath of Roses shows an author who confined herself to the domestic dramas of middle England, much in the tradition of Jane Austen. “I hate ‘adventure,’ ‘experience,’ [I] can never make any use of them or assimilate them," she said. "Change disrupts me and I cannot write. [People] are my only adventure and I hope never to have any others.”

Despite these rather prissy sentiments, she was in the words of her contemporary, Rosamond Lehmann, “sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.” Her nuanced prose could ridicule a character’s folly and then subvert the reader’s response with a poignant twist of sympathy.

Taylor’s early success, beginning with the publication of At Mrs Lippincote’s in 1945, coincided with the rise of her more famous namesake, making it difficult for her to attract due recognition. (The writer once received fan letter requesting a photograph of her in a bikini – with customary wit she remarked this was not possible since she did not own one.) The centenary of Taylor’s birth last year has helped to rehabilitate her work, including her twelve novels – one shortlisted for the 1971 Booker prize – and dozens of short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

A dedication in the novel, Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor
John owned a
confectionary company

Despite a quiet life in Buckinghamshire with her husband John and two children, Taylor was dedicated to her art and developed intense friendships with other writers. Notwithstanding an early and passionate affair, her relationship with her husband was based on mutual respect and she inscribes a dedication copy of her novel Palladian to him. 

She also enjoyed a fulsome correspondence with authors E. B. White, a fellow contributor to The New Yorker, Elizabeth Bowen and William Maxwell, her editor at The New Yorker. A rare collection of Taylor’s own books, sold by her son Renny last year, offers a tantalizing glimpse into these relationships.

Amongst the collection is a first edition of E. B. White’s children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, which Taylor read aloud to her grandchildren. An inscription from White, who stored his manuscripts in old whiskey cartons, bears a private joke: "and I do like whiskey."

An inscription from E.B. White in the children's story, Charlotte's Web
A private joke?

In another inscribed book – The Second Tree from the Corner – White describes himself as Taylor’s “grateful reader,” a sign of their esteem for one another. Taylor’s son says his mother rarely travelled to the United States, but fostered her friendship with White through a long and frequent correspondence. Like Taylor, White valued his privacy, often slipping out of his office via the fire-escape to avoid meeting visitors.

In the same collection, an inscribed copy of Bowen’s Court, an account by Elizabeth Bowen of her beloved home in County Cork, Ireland, speaks of a more intimate friendship. Inserted at the back of the book are clippings of Bowen’s 1973 obituaries snipped out, presumably, by Taylor herself who once wrote how she “worshipped” her friend. Taylor stayed with Bowen in Ireland, both of them working companionably on their respective projects. Bowen’s book remains, among other things, a memorial to “the authority of light and quiet” around the house, which served as a retreat to many of her artistic cronies.

Elizabeth Taylor’s collection of books stands as a similar monument to a writer’s life. Their personal inscriptions hint of experiences enhanced by her adventures with people – friends as well as characters in her novels.

This article was first published as a blog post for Jonkers Rare Books, a purveyor of fine books and first editions. Based in Henley-on-Thames, Jonkers specialises in collecting nineteenth and twentieth century literature, as well as children's and illustrated books.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Exercising the boy

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mum

The summer holidays have begun. Sigh. I love having my children at home again, but it does take me a few days to transition into full-time earth mother with a dozen craft projects up her sleeve. We are only a few days in and I am already wondering how we will all survive the next six weeks together. Middle Child is careering around the house like a Cocker Spaniel in desperate need of a walk, while Quiet One hibernates in her bedroom.
Cocker Spaniel with flying ears
Middle Child needs daily exercise
and regular spells in the garden
© Zaretskaya |

If you could harness Middle Child's boy-energy in some way, our town would become carbon-neutral within a matter of months. Instead, he channels his vigor into disrupting his sisters and generally being a pest. Recent acts of torment include hiding Quiet One's pencil case in the bin, chucking her flip-flops into the neighbouring garden and 'autographing' her collection of pop CDs. Non-Walking Toddler is not safe either: just as she is contentedly communing with the Tomblibooshe delights in switching the channel over to CBBC's Splatalot.

Upstairs, Quiet One spends her days reading, sketching and doing her homework. She has even been known to empty the dishwasher of a morning and make her own bed. While Middle Child demands more TV time, more biscuits, more crisps, or a later bedtime (dream on, little man!), she habitually toes the line. Even NW Toddler has become remarkably low-maintenance as she sits watching the antics of her older siblings with curiosity bordering on obsessional devotion.

Last weekend, I read a newspaper article about how girls should learn to be more disruptive and challenge authority. According to Dr Kevin Stannard of the Girl's Day School Trust, by encouraging girls to be obedient and conscientious, we could put them at a disadvantage in later life. 

"Are we doing girls a long-term disservice by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to expectations of behaviour and work that reflect, reinforce and reproduce differences between the genders," he asks.

He acknowledges that girls outperform boys at school (a structured environment that encourages a balanced approach to debate and essay-writing) but says that they lose ground later on, during university interviews, for example, where they are required to be more combative and risk-taking.

I can see his point (I am a girl after all), but I couldn't help feeling rather provoked. In my mind, it isn't the girls that are at fault, or even the way we teach, but our culture and the personality traits we are told to celebrate. 'Male' qualities, such as competitiveness and risk-taking, are often lauded at the expense of more 'female' attributes, such as empathy, co-operation and compliance to the rules. Put quite simply, society would fail to function if there weren't a few female types around to oil the wheels. We may be attracted to charismatic leaders, challenging the status quo, but who actually does the work?

While I don't wish to repress Middle Child's zest for life, I have no qualms about teaching him to live by the rules. Over the last few days, he has cleaned the butter off his sister's pencil case, retrieved her flip-flops and missed a few of episodes of Splatalot. I have also signed him up for tennis camp and forest school. Until I can sell his energy back to the national grid, he will be burning it up with all the other reckless types. Meanwhile, I will be applying for my diploma in personality management.

Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
Previous posts by Hermaphrodite Mum:


Thursday 18 July 2013

River dancing

Last weekend I found myself in an airless marquee watching my daughter perform with the Henley Festival Youth Orchestra. As I sat perspiring, alongside rows of other dutiful and sweaty parents, I realised that I had become part of a community. To add to the pathos of the moment, the orchestra broke into Gustav Holst's accompaniment to I Vow to Thee, My Country, a tune that never fails to stir, in my case, a latent kind of patriotism.

Henley Festival of music
Boats gliding past a floating stage...
The last time I felt so embedded in a community was during my school days, when singing allegiance to one's country was a common event during morning assembly. My twenties, living in London and New York, were the wilderness years: I preferred my independence to dwelling within a cohesive, social group. 

Now I have my own family, however, I have gravitated back to community living. It makes sense on so many levels, practical and otherwise: we share lifts, look after each other's children, monitor our neighbourhood and provide support in times of emotional upheaval. To some extent, we are motivated by self-interest, but we are also united by a sense of fellowship and shared values.

Community spirit in Western cultures is said to be dwindling. Populations are more transient and families more fractured, while communal institutions, like the church, have lost their influence. Certainly my anthropologist neighbour, who often visits Tanzania, remains impressed by the Maasai's strong sense of community, in spite of their poverty and lack of resources.

Here in Henley, our community is undoubtedly based upon privilege and wealth, but also a shared sense of pride in the place we live. In the space of a fortnight, our small, picturesque town, nestled in a bend of the Thames, has hosted the famous rowing Regatta and the Henley Festival of music. These two events attract visitors from around the world, but also bring the local community together in a bonanza of boating, picnics and dancing. 

Saturday night at the Henley Festival this year felt like a cocktail party of Gatsby-esque proportions. Friends mingled on the grassy banks of the Thames, against a backdrop of music, sculpture and roving street performers. Beyond this, boats bedecked in fairy lights glided past a floating stage. It was a night of hedonism for sure, but perhaps having fun together is the secret ingredient of any thriving community. In days gone by, carousing townsfolk danced around the Maypole. In Henley last weekend, we boogied with DJ Ben Zaven Crane.

My daughter's youth orchestra is funded by the Henley Festival Trust, a not-for-profit organisation committed to inspiring young people and supporting those with special needs. It is a nice example of an institution that promotes social projects in a host of different ways. A community has to stand on many legs and artistic expression is not the least of them. So, where once I sang for my country, now I vow to thee, my community, entire and whole and perfect down by the river on a summer's evening.


"I absolutely loved this book and will miss the family that I became so involved with over the past few days. I hope Emma has another book in the pipeline!" -- Annabel at CountryWives 18 July, 2013

I welcome reviews of my book on Amazon!

Thursday 11 July 2013

Pink wellies and cigarettes

"I didn't know ladies could smoke!" my young son once exclaimed sotto voce after watching a (female) friend light up in the garden. Until that moment, he had only ever seen his grandfather smoking a pipe. His reaction made an impression on me: I realised that children form some pretty fixed ideas about gender from an early age. This was about the same time that he started objecting to wearing his sister's hand-me-down wellies.

Such startling observations are not infrequent in our household. After my sister-in-law finished her maternity leave and went back to her job in social work, my daughter remarked, "Gosh I didn't know mummies worked!" It was a galling moment. How had I managed to bring up my daughter in such ignorance? There followed a long lecture on a woman's right to work. 

A pair of pink wellington boots
Why can't boys wear them?! 
© Brookebecker |
A few weeks ago I attended a session on 'new feminism' at the Britmums Live conference. It was comforting to hear The Sunday Times journalist Eleanor Mills confessing that her own daughter had asked if a woman could lead a political party. "I feel we are stuck and in some ways we are going backwards," says Ms Mills, whose aunt, Barbara Mills, held the post of Director of Public Prosecutions in the 1990s. Ms Mills worries that her generation has become complacent about feminism and the hard-fought battles for sexual equality.

While I was researching my current novel, I came across a 1970s group of women who named themselves the Pussy Cat Club. This was a group of housewives who didn't agree with sexual equality and believed a woman's role was to serve and pamper her husband. One member told a BBC reporter: "[Women] want to be equal with the men, well it's not meant to be. They are completely different, their emotions and the way they're built." 

It was a striking (and nauseating) reminder of how far we have come since the birth of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. But, although attitudes have changed and women have learned to value themselves on par with men, there are still problems to overcome. As Kat Banyard of the UK Feminista movement puts it: "Scratch society and you expose vast inequalities."

In a recent blog, my friend Cathy Newman, presenter of Channel 4 News, reveals how she once challenged a senior executive at the Financial Times (where she worked previously) over pay. Cathy had discovered that a more junior, male reporter was being paid £10,000 more than her. The executive told her, "You don't have a mortgage or a family, what do you need the money for?" 

The nub of the problem, I believe, is women like me who choose to put their careers on hold to bring up their children. I feel passionately that choice should be enshrined in any feminist tract, but I also acknowledge that women dropping out of the workforce reduces our visibility and the pool of high achievers who reach the top.

There are no easy answers, but I do resent the government's campaigns to get new mothers back into work. Such policies devalue the choices made by stay-at-home mums and their commitment to looking after children full-time. Instead, more effort should be put into welcoming these women back into professional life once their children are older and less dependent. I know an army of mothers who would love to work flexibly during school term times, and yet this potential labour force remains overlooked and unaccommodated.

Ms Mills believes now is the "real time to rehabilitate feminism". I couldn't agree more - the fight goes on and each of us is responsible for shaping our society and weeding out prejudice. How we apply these principles to the thorny realities of life is challenging, but we can start by opening our children's minds to equality and choice. Pink wellies and cigarettes might not be the solution, but I hope my daughter and son will learn that gender should never be a barrier to anything.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Why can't I say no?

I took to my bed this week. After 10 days of frenetic activity, my body went on strike. Exhaustion had set in, along with a temperature. There was no way out: I had to retreat to the cool, white space under my duvet. And so I lay there, racked by the knowledge of everything I needed to do - and couldn't do. Even as I popped some painkillers, I was calculating how long it would take before analgesia set in so that I could answer a few emails in bed and possibly put on another load of washing.
Clock and pills - sick of modern life and time pressures?
© Captainzz |

This is modern life for the middle-aged. Somehow we can never find the pause button. Whether we go out to work or 'stay' at home, we fill our lives to the nth degree. Was it always like this? Did the ladies of Jane Austen's era drill their needles through their embroidery, scribble a few letters before luncheon and then gallop down to the Assembly Rooms to gossip about the Dowager so-and-so? Possibly, although I suspect our time-pressed routines have more to do with the advent of technology and modern child-rearing, than any innate need to rush through life.

Ironically technology was once heralded as a panacea to reduce hard work and long hours. Back in the 1950s, Winston Churchill believed that the proliferation of machines would eventually "give the working man what he's never had - four days' work and then three days' fun". Quite clearly Mr Churchill never anticipated the power and stealth of the smartphone. As well as fostering a culture of 24/7 working, the small screen also feeds our addiction to online gaming and social media. In any spare moment, my husband is either concocting his next move on Wordfeud or checking stocks / emails on his Blackberry.

Add children to the blend and you're sunk. Running small lives, as well as your own, pretty much mops up any spare time. Someone wise once told me there are three main elements in life, but if you want to stay sane, you can only accomplish two of them well:

  • Work
  • Family / children
  • Social life

I persist in the belief that I can just about manage all three to varying degrees, until my body gives out and shouts STOP! 

Apart from physical collapse, there is one other solution: taking a holiday. For a few weeks a year, we cease working and can (if we choose) turn off the social flow. For once, we actually allow ourselves time to relax and reflect more deeply on life. Mr Churchill's three days of fun might never come, but thank God (or the state) for holiday entitlement. It may yet save us from mental overload.

Right! All I need to do now is squeeze in a visit to the gym, organise picnic food for the weekend, dash out another 500 words of my novel, do some ironing and then trot down to my kids' school for the summer production this afternoon... Someone please pass me the Nurofen!

"The key to any good family saga is to create characters the reader will care about, family secrets that will be solved eventually but aren't immediately obvious, and a setting that makes interesting reading. This novel scores on all points..." 
- 5* Amazon review, June 2013

My book, A Sister for Margot, is now only £1.99 / $2.99 on Amazon!