By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
I have a London friend who spends her commute to and from work on a crowded underground train holding the support rail with one hand and typing messages on her Blackberry with the other.
I’ve another who regularly carries out telephone interviews with job candidates or dials into conference calls in a precarious balancing act as she cycles into the office.
They say cramming work into every chink of available time is the only way they can maintain their demanding careers and carve out time for their children. In both cases, they have precious, late-arrival, much-wanted only sons.
When they travel abroad for work, the pressure is even greater. One cooks a week’s meals for her son and husband and stashes them in the freezer before leaving for the airport. The other, who has no husband, has to arrange for a live-in nanny and then take tearful mobile phone calls from her son as she races around the world’s capitals.
London’s male city types are busy too, but frantic, guilt-ridden juggling is still associated far more with women.
Recently, men and women alike have been forced to slow down and reconsider their domestic arrangements after volcanic ash cloud has repeatedly grounded flights across Europe, with knock-on effects world-wide.
The thousands and thousands left far from home by a ruling that it was unsafe to fly through the plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano have included parents blindly dependent on air travel to get them wherever their high-powered careers require and then back to their families in time for the weekend.
Nannies notched up hours of over-time or grandparents weighed in to help out with baby-sitting as schools were forced to extend the Easter break because teaching staff had been unable to return from holidays abroad.
As on so many occasions, Mumsnet, the British web community set up to share parenting tips, took up the debate and caught the range of tone that swept through the travelling community. It had humour, resignation, anger, practical offers of help and plenty of sympathy.
“My boss is stranded in the U.S.A., so I’m left literally holding her baby til she can come home. She is devastated as she’s already been away a week and misses her little muffin soooo much and there’s nothing she can do to get home,” revealed a nanny under the blogging identity of Wrinklyraisin.
But every marooned mother eventually did get home and however long and thought-provoking her journey has been, probably found no option but to carry on with her rapid, international lifestyle.
At the end of last year, ‘The Economist’ magazine noted the rise and rise of female workers. It cited figures showing they make up 49 per cent of American workers and earn almost 60 per cent of university degrees in America and Europe. But it also considered social arrangements had yet to catch up.
“Many children have paid a price for the rise of the two-income household. Many women – and indeed many men – feel that they are caught in an ever-tightening tangle of commitments. If the empowerment of women was one of the great changes of the past 50 years, dealing with its social consequences will be one of the great challenges of the next 50,” it opined.
Aware of the significance of the women’s vote and the need to balance domestic life and careers, political campaigning in the general election in the UK has thrown a heavy emphasis on the family, ranging from the Labour Party’s commitment to extending paternity leave for men to four weeks (in addition to its established policies on flexible working) to the Conservative Party’s measures to encourage marriage.
‘The Economist’ aside, commentators across the British press have repeatedly argued society as a whole needs to change, so both men and women play equally valid roles in bringing up children and in the workplace. “If men and women begin to see that their struggles are two sides of the same coin; if together they demand real changes in working cultures and legislation; if ‘working father’ becomes a meaningful term – then we might all live better and more balanced lives,” Richard Reeves wrote in the left-leaning ‘Observer’ newspaper back in 2002. His comments remain valid.
The traditionalists and status quo-ists argue it is up to women to accept they cannot have it all. Some younger women, oblivious to the feminist battles of older generations, have even cheerfully argued they would prefer to stay at home and send out to work the rich husbands they are sure they will snare. For them, being a working woman is a sign of failure.
But my two harried friends both love their jobs and, just like many men, admit they need their international, high-flying careers, as well as their children, to feel fulfilled. They also admit some of those emails and interviews carried out when they were in transit could have been improved had they not been in such a terrible hurry.