"Swinging dick" or life of domesticity? Our Time of Gifts week 13

Once upon a time, a little girl dreamed of being a lawyer. Or a doctor, a scientist, a writer, a vet. She did well at school; teachers and parents encouraged her to study, and go on to University. If she knuckled down and applied her brain, she could become anything she wanted.

These days, women’s choices are notably broader than a generation ago. Despite the fact that – even now – only 16% of company board members are women, it feels as though we’re moving towards a consensus that women can, and should, be able to succeed in the workplace. Anti-discrimination laws have been tightened up; and high-profile campaigns, like the Everyday Sexism Project, make it commonplace to name and shame the perpetrators of derogatory remarks and actions.

All this is for the good. It spells out a more equitable society, with young women feeling they don’t need to put up with being held back from realising their dreams.

But there is a flip side.

In a recent article by Giles Coren, the journalist claims that “Men are judged by their career choices and wealth. Women are free to define themselves in other ways.” Coren argues that his daughter won’t face as many pressures as his son to succeed in her career. He describes how his own urge to be a “big, swinging dick” forced him away from his pleasant “life of part-time work and domesticity”, towards fame and fortune as a TV bigshot in the States.

The problem is, women do increasingly feel this urge*. I see this in friends who have, reluctantly but proudly, returned to work and handed over the care of their children to someone else. I feel it in myself, whenever another Mum from my circle tells me they’re going back to their old job, and I experience that familiar stab of envy.

Just as men are now increasingly facing pressures to be body-beautiful, women are being encouraged from an early age to believe that, if they work hard enough, they can have the same money, success and power as men. This is to be applauded, but (sadly for both women AND men), a quest for these sorts of ideals often means having to nurture the ego Coren was invoking when he called himself a “swinging dick”. Or, at the very least, it means carrying around the sort of self-belief that allows natural talent and bull-headedness to override setbacks and office politics.

But what happens to these egos if they’re not being stoked by career-based plaudits?

Once you’ve bought into the idea that success in life = success in one’s career (and, let’s face it, if a young girl shows any promise and is encouraged into a decent job, it’s hard for her not to), it’s difficult to step off the ladder without feeling as though some dreams of the future have been sacrificed.

In my own case, I know I’ve made the right choice in suspending my career to look after my children, full-time, through their early years. I wouldn’t miss out on one minute of the mess, blubbing or rollocking bear-hugs of child-rearing, in exchange for a skinny latte in a tranquil office.

But the little girl I used to be, is wondering what to make of the fact that all the old markers of her future success (a decent salary, promotions, sitting at a desk with a brimming in-tray) have been thrown out in favour of making sure the kids are dressed in (semi-) clean clothes, and that we all get through the day with the giggles-to-tears ratio heavily skewed towards the former.

And whatever happened to the well turned-out, besuited woman who stepped, fresh, out of the door at 8.09 precisely, every weekday morning?

This week, I acknowledged that she was long-gone, last seen struggling to squeeze an emerging bump into her favourite grey pencil skirt. So I sent that skirt, the accompanying jacket, and several other items of good-quality clothing which – if not exactly well-loved – were markers of my former, career-oriented self, to Smart Works, the charity that provides formal workwear to women on low incomes, so they can attend job interviews with confidence.

Who knows? I may need to borrow them back one day.

*Not the urge to be swinging dicks, of course. Maybe just smartly dressed, competent individuals who are using their years of education and training in a job they’ve been primed most of their lives to perform.

This post was chosen to feature on the front page of Mumsnet Bloggers Network. It was originally published as week 13 of Our Time of Gifts, my year-long experiment in giving stuff away.

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12 thoughts on “"Swinging dick" or life of domesticity? Our Time of Gifts week 13

  1. More 4 Mums

    Really interesting post, I know exactly where you are coming from. I left a successful career after my 2nd daughter was born for a number of reasons and did feel quite bereft for a time. I ended up setting up my own business which gives me some sense of “self” but doesn’t come without its own issues.

  2. dragonsflypoppy

    It’s such a difficult one for women I feel. [Although I know my husband would love to be a stay at home Dad, maybe not quite as much I would like to be a full time stay at home mum.] I work 18 hours per week to try to ‘have both worlds’. I’m lucky that I have a good employer who let me keep my fairly senior role on such few hours. But yet still the two worlds collide and I end up feeling I’m doing neither justice. If someone discovers the answer to self fulfillment regarding this will you let me know? xx And I’m loving these ‘gifts’ you are doing – it gives me real inspiration xx

    1. Nell Heshram

      Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts. It sounds as though you’ve reached a good compromise, even if it isn’t perfect. The Daddy D would love to stay at home too, but he earned more than me, so that was our decision made about who should do the childcare….

  3. Actually Mummy...

    No wonder Mumsnet featured this, it’s a really balanced take on what I think is becoming an issue that needs to be addressed. I was a full on career woman, with a big salary, before I decided to stop working to be with my kids, and we have made huge compromises to afford me that ability. Huge. So the more I think about this, the more I am of the opinion that women can’t have it all, and nor can men, there will always have to be compromise.

    1. Nell Heshram

      You’re absolutely right about the need for compromise. I guess, in the long run, the sacrifices are worth it? It is pretty difficult to cast aside all those years of education, training and work experience, though….

  4. Anonymous

    I was the little girl who grew up to be a lawyer – now working part time (never a tranquil office experienced!) – and I agree this is a balanced post. I think it misses the role of the father a bit tho – the “handing over of childcare” is – in many ‘career’ women I see – to their partners, who perhaps also work part time, or who have flexible jobs too. I think choices are easier when fathers increasingly seem to take up some of the strain – and its a positive thing for my two little boys! X

    1. Nell Heshram

      You’re right – those fathers are, in a roundabout way, doing their bit for the feminist cause. Especially those that choose to be the primary caregiver. Thank you for commenting, and for biggin’ it up for the Dads! xxx

  5. Victoria Welton

    This – as Helen said – is such a well-balanced post. Such forethought has gone into this. I think that there is an increasing amount of pressure on women to be all things to everyone. Thank you so much for linking to PoCoLo, a really fascinating post lovely xx

  6. Chene Koscielny

    HI, Yes, I’m with you on this one too. Women can’t have it all. They have to choose and it’s a damn difficult choice and it takes a lot of strength to stand up to the pressures you describe to say – I don’t give a damn. I want to raise my children myself and that’s more important to me than anything else. It really should be about finding your own definition of success, which thankfully starts happening when you’re older, just as you start following your own mind and finding your own style. Well-written post.

  7. Orli D

    A really interesting post. I was thinking about this subject last week, about my youthful dreams of a successful career in finance, and my actual life as a stay at home mum of two. I wouldn’t change it, but I do worry sometimes about what I am teaching my kids. About where I fit in.

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