Adapted from an image created by THIS IS Studio for Bobby Baker

Words: Charlotte Philby
Image: THIS IS Studio

Last night I was at a party when a close family friend – a woman I respect and love – walked up to me and said “I take my hat off to you because you’ve got kids but you haven’t given up.” It was, I’m in no doubt, intended as a heartfelt compliment, a fist-bump from one working mother to another. And while in one part I was thankful – juggling a career and motherhood is tough, and any small praise is always welcome – moreover her words struck me like a slap in the face.

Give up? It was said with such disdain, such a sense of dismissal that I wanted to shake her. Instead, to my discredit, I just stared, baffled, trying to think of something diplomatic to say.

Now, at the best of times this woman, who to her total credit has created a thriving, brilliant business thanks to a hell of a lot of hard graft, is not prone to mincing her words – even before half a bottle of Rioja. So I was unsurprised as she ploughed on: “I mean women these days, they have a baby and they just give up! My generation, we worked!”

It wasn’t that I was surprised by her words – the notion of working mother vs stay-at-home mother has long-been divisive, with women on either side of the camp walls throwing sticks – but what really upset me was that this was a smart mother-of-two who considers herself a feminist, a left-wing, open-minded intellectual, writing off an entire band of women. Why? Because she believes that women who have children then leave their jobs must have either been bullied into making the decision to be primary care givers to their own children, rather than delegating responsibility to someone else; or they couldn’t be arsed to work anymore and so instead threw themselves back on the sofa and turned on CBeebies.

Given up… The words have been ringing through my ears ever since. It goes without saying that no rational human being with the  slightest understanding of what it takes to look after the physical, practical and emotional welfare of children every day (as you’d imagine the mum of two kids might have) could genuinely believe that choosing to forgo your own career in order to take the carer role is the easier option. Often, it can be crippling.

The whole point of feminism, which this friend would no doubt cite as a factor in her argument – the pursuit of equal opportunity – is about empowering women to make choices. The sad truth is, though, I’ve heard friends say they feel they are effectively letting the side down if they decide not to return to work, even if to them it is more important to be at home with their children. I know the feeling. When it came to making the decision last year that I couldn’t continue with my job as a news reporter on a national paper with two small kids at home – not just because of the hours required, but also because of the nature of what I was dealing with every day and the toll that was taking emotionally, and how it distracted from time with the family when I was home – it felt, to some degree, like conceding defeat. Even though it wasn’t an easy decision – reestablishing myself on a different path with a 1-year-old and 4-year-old at home would be harder in some ways – it felt like a kick in the teeth to the sisterhood; like saying “I can’t do it”. When in fact what I was really saying was: “This isn’t working – I choose to do something else.”

In a country where parents are paying more for nursery than the average mortgage bill, unaffordable childcare is pulling women out of the workplace

So why then is it not a legitimate choice for an informed, educated woman who has given herself to her career for how many years, to decide to channel her energy towards her kids – or, as in my case, towards a different career path – rather than outsourcing the job to someone else while funding the process by working a job she may or may not find as fulfilling or interesting or important?

Personally, I would love to be able to give over as much time and energy to my kids as some other mothers do. The truth is, though, I’m too selfish. I love having other aspects to my life, and for me it is important to show my kids what it is to work and have other interests – to lead by example; hopefully that is rewarding for them and for me. So perhaps my decision isn’t only selfish, but self-interest is a factor. My beliefs, however, are my beliefs – just because I feel this way doesn’t mean that every other person on this planet does, or should.

The other sad fact is that by choosing to work, I end up paying more for childcare than I earn. And in a country where according to research last year by the Family and Childcare Trust many parents are paying more for childcare annually than the average mortgage bill, with with a two-year-old and a five-year-old child are estimated at £11,700 a year – unaffordable childcare is pulling women who might otherwise choose to work out of the workplace. In this sense, yes, the decision is out of their hands. So should we despise them for not being able to afford to go to the office?

What I wanted to say last night, but sadly didn’t, to a woman I’ve looked up to all my life is that the notion of employing a full-time nanny, as she did, to enable the thriving career she’s enjoyed – while paying off a mortgage on a massive house in what’s now a very fashionable part of London (which of course she will reassure you was a dump when she moved there) – is laughable. I’m 32 and grew up in London with all the perks and opportunities that brings, and still I pay more in childcare than I earn for the privilege to work three days a week; while most of my friends can’t afford to rent a flat in the city they grew up in, let alone buy one.

So, deciding against paying someone else more than you earn in order to commute for an hour or so each way because you can’t afford to live close to where the jobs are, while working a job that is unlikely to bring in a pension, and struggling to leave by 5pm every night to get back in time to pick up from nursery because you can’t afford live-in help? If that’s Giving Up, then sign me up.


More in Features


By , 4th July 2024
‘A standout literary thriller.’ THE FT ‘Ingenious, intriguing, colourful and very entertaining, this is the ideal summer holiday novel.’ LITERARY REVIEW

From book to screen

By , 28th February 2023
Free resources and tips for would be screenwriters, from a complete novice - and some professionals - as I navigate the process of adapting my novels for TV and film

Observer New Review Q&A

By , 22nd March 2022
An interview with Stephanie Merritt about Edith and Kim, the perils of writing about family, and why female spies often get overlooked

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel