This post was inspired by this very frank and brave post by Donna Lanclos. She wrote it as part of reflecting on her career path and it resonated with me as another woman who has fumbled her way through her career trying to find the best way through. Best for most of us women means a career that allows us to do the best we can by our family . Of course that is not exclusive to women, men also do the best they can. I am not writing this for sympathy – I am happy that I have done the best I can, making the choices that were at the time the best for all the roles I take very seriously – teacher, wife, parent, daughter, linguist, lifelong learner…
My earliest thoughts about my career choices go back a long, long way. My parents ran their own business, they had very little. My dad was one of a large family, Mum was an only child brought up by her grandparents after her mother had a stroke in childbirth. Her father left to marry again and rarely saw his daughter. She trained as a hairdresser and Pam and Cliff met young and married in their early 20’s. A gift of a loan of £300 back in the 1950’s enabled them to move away from Northamptonshire and set up a business together in the Midlands. The business went well but required lots of time and energy. My brother and I came along in the 60’s, we were latchkey kids who became resourceful and independant quickly. We also played our part in the business, working from an early age. Naturally when I thought about what I wanted to do in the future I felt it was important to have a job which would enable me to spend time with my children. I had a talent for languages but I quickly ruled out working in business, assuming that I would need to travel and wouldn’t have time to settle down. (Not something I should have been worrying about at 16 really, my mum had always prioritised education and I had plenty of opportunities).
That concern about “stability” led me to marry way too young and unsuitably. My first marriage lasted just 3 years and I was very grateful to my parents in helping me escape an unhealthy relationship. By then I had already decided that teaching was my calling. Despite the chaotic personal situation I was inspired by my PGCE tutors at Warwick and quickly found the teaching job I wanted. I moved quickly through the ranks and secured a leadership role as Head of Languages, impressing my colleagues and inspectors with my enthusiasm and ability to engage learners through innovative teaching methods.
That time spent alone after my divorce – about 3 years – was formative for me. I started to discover that in fact a woman can live – indeed thrive – alone in her own space. I look back on it as an emotional safe space. It was from that position of strength that I found the love of my life, my current husband! We will have been married 29 years in a week or so. We make a great team and I love him with every fibre of my being.
We had our first child in 1991. I worked up to the very last minute. He was a small baby and we were called to the pediatrician shortly after his birth. He remarked that our son had some “interesting” characteristics”. Nothing conclusive, all would be fine. Over the following years we discovered he had multiple allergy issues and when he was 11 years old we had a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder that impacted on his language processing. School was a hostile environment for our young man. We did all we could to protect him, it was very hard. During this “figuring it out” period I resigned from my high ranking role and took on evening language teaching work at the local University. I enjoyed the new challenges and the timing meant I could pass the children over to my husband when he came in from his teaching job and go and earn some money to keep the show on the road. We had a second child, a healthy, robust bundle of fun.
I got used to fighting for suitable support for our eldest son and eventually an assessment and diagnosis meant he got a place at a special school. I can’t tell you how hard it was to have to accept that the right place for his education was 80 miles away and to accept that he would be living away from home during the week. Together we faced the challenges this brought. I organised my work so that I could collect him to come home every Friday, my husband had the harder role of taking him back to school on a sunday evening. A round trip of 160 miles twice a week for several years. He made friends at his school and still loves to visit Derbyshire every year for the school open day. During this period I was able to increase my teaching load and was soon back to full time work but now in my new context in Higher Education. Colleagues who appreciated my skills and experience as a teacher offered opportunities which helped me make the switch to an academic career – la modification.
More fighting for our son’s right to become as independent as possible resulted in a place at a college closer to home. Here he learned some incredible craft skills but was still living away from home during the week.
Our eldest finally returned to live at home at the age of 25. He may never be fully independent but we’re working on it. My husband has now retired from his teaching job and I hope to join him in a few years. At last, at 58 years old I feel no pressure to prove myself in order to support my family. Although my pension will not be great thanks to my time spent outside full time work, I know what really matters. I understand that I am more use to my family and to others when I give them my time and attention. My employers only seek to use my skills at the lowest possible cost to their bottom line. My experiences have also taught me to see through the “work hard and you will be rewarded” myth that is pedalled by our politicians. I have worked hard all my life, like my father I will probably pay the health consequences of that. I am more of an activist now than at any time in my life. I see capitalism for what it is – a way of exploiting labour and limiting expenditure in order to increase profit. I want a better deal for my children and for their potential partners and children. I want to see the equality we were promised back in the 70’s delivered to all women along with the necessary support for those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
Thanks @donna this was therapeutic.