Interview: Combining family and career in the 80s

mother and daughter interview

One of the most popular blog posts on Parent Work Thrive is what I’ve learnt from being a third-generation working mum. In this interview my mother describes what it was like to combine a career and a family in the 80s and 90s and we discuss how much has really changed.

What influenced you to go back to work full-time after maternity leave?

It was normal in those days for women to give up work when they had their first child, and go back when their last child started school – usually to a part-time job that fitted round family.  I was the first person in my organisation to take maternity leave and go back to my full time and senior role.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to do things differently:

  • The financial difference it would make to the family – and the opportunities we could give the children – if I could keep my salary coming in
  • I had several years of professional training and my skills were in demand – I was keen for them not to be wasted
  • If I left my job, it would be tough to get back in later – and that I would only be able to return at a much lower level. My job included selecting my staff, and I was aware of the huge – and open – institutional prejudice against mothers. Women with children under 5 simply weren’t considered; women with school-age children were regarded with deep suspicion and considered only for part-time clerical roles.
  • I was older than most of my peers when I had my first child, and had seen some of my friends struggle post children: both with feeling unfulfilled staying at home full time, and also with trying to get back into work at their previous level.
  • Although nurseries and the childcare industry didn’t exist in the form they do now, it was much easier in those days to afford a nanny – so I was confident I could leave my children in good hands.

What were the biggest problems you encountered – both at home and at work? And how did you get round them?

At work one of the biggest problems was feeling the need to prove to management that having a baby didn’t affect my ability to do my job. As the first to do it I knew that how well I handled it would affect opportunities for people coming after me. I had to show that I was focused, and punctual – and behave almost as though the children didn’t exist.   I could only do this because I had extremely good, reliable, caring childcare.

The other issue was that colleagues – mainly the men – could be very thoughtless or chauvinistic over things like meetings scheduled to finish after six, or expecting me to be in work outside my usual schedule.   At times I had to point out quite sharply that I was paying for additional childcare in order to be at some last-minute-cancelled meeting!

Parent Work Thrive recently got hold of a copy of Superwoman and some of the advice on household organisation and mental resilience feels remarkably current… even if Conran’s assumption that wives do everything – and her advice on making your own household detergents – do not!

At home, I was trying to keep the household running – 30 years ago it was much more the norm for women to do everything around the house, and domestic arragements were mainly my responsibility.   One was expected to be ‘Superwoman’ – Shirley Conran even wrote a book with that name (published 1978), telling working wives how to do it all.   Plus my husband quite often travelled with work for several weeks at a time. My biggest fear was that I would get ill as there was no slack in the system to allow for disasters.

How did things change as the family got older?

The pressures changed, but didn’t grow any less. Fitting in school runs and activities around work – plus making costumes, going to parents’ evenings etc made for a very full diary. Often evenings would be timetabled down to the last minute, as the children needed to be picked up, dropped off and fed. It was relentless, really.

And of course it was before the internet and Sunday shop opening: shopping (for food, clothes, presents), admin and other appointments all had to be crammed in on Saturdays or around working hours.

Plus the shape of my work changed as the organisation expanded and had to answer to more external authorities: there were more deadlines and more stress.

What would your advice be to families with two working parents?

Get really good childcare – and share responsibilities equally at home as far as possible. If children are in a good routine, and housework streamlined, you can prioritise spending time with the children during the hours you’re together.

What do you think has changed for working mothers since the 80s and 90s?

Lots has changed for the better: opportunities, legal safeguards, better childcare, less open discrimination – but a lot still needs to change!

Women have many more opportunities now – and it’s much more expected that they will have careers. When I was at school the whole education system assumed that girls would become stay at home wives and mothers: cooking and sewing were prioritised and only the very brightest were expected to do science. And this was in a grammar school!

Family attitudes have also changed, and this is so important because gender expectations get ingrained during childhood, and have such a huge, lasting effect – for men and women.  Especially for women, ‘traditional’ upbringings can make their feelings about combining work and domestic responsibilities very complicated.

Some of my contemporaries (born late 1940s to early 1950s) experienced active discrimination – for instance being forced to leave school at 16 and find work, so that the family could afford her brother’s fees at a top independent school.   Even until the 80s, in some middle class families we knew, it was accepted that education for girls was less important: sons were privately educated and encouraged to go to university, while there was no need to invest in daughters’ education as ‘they won’t need it once they’re married’.

On the upside, the more equal parenting that we see now from lots of families feels like a huge step forward – and probably reflects a generation who grew up in a time and a system where equality was much more emphasised.

Discrimination was much more open and there was much less legal protection. The Equal Opportunities Act was passed in 1975, and ensured that you couldn’t be fired just for getting pregnant. That was it. 18 weeks maternity leave was allowed: 12 weeks before the birth, and – horrifyingly – only 6 weeks after.

Equal pay was made law after 1970 but didn’t cover discrimination in getting a job in the first place.  In the 80s and 90s this meant that lots of intelligent and educated women were only able to get part-time, low-paid admin or clerical type roles after having children. Often this was unfulfilling for them personally, but did have the side effect that a lot of organisations’ admin roles were done very well – especially public services – as they had super-capable women running them.

There are lots of good quality childcare options now, which enables more parents to work. Back then, day nurseries only existed as an option for families with deprived backgrounds or special circumstances – and childminders weren’t regulated or expected to provide much beyond a responsible adult, and food.   Now there’s a huge demand for good childcare, and there are regulations, checks and frameworks in place so that parents know what care and education their children are getting.

There was a lot more suspicion of working mothers, from other mothers. I know this still happens to some extent, but it was even more extreme, probably because we were so few.

Having said all that, there was much less pressure for women to work and bring in an income. The increase in two-income households is one of the things that has driven up house prices and living costs so that now in many cases women have to work. And employers’ expectations are greater: the internet means that work can expand beyond whatever hours you spend in the office.   And many women still shoulder an unfair share of the burden at home… So things are better – but there is still a long way to go.

Huge thanks to my mother for all her thinking and wisdom – and for taking the time to be interviewed for the blog. It’s fascinating to hear how much has changed and moved on… and also frustrating to see just how much hasn’t.

4 thoughts on “Interview: Combining family and career in the 80s

  1. Really interesting interview, great to hear some advice from someone whose husband was away a lot as this is something I am going to struggle with! Seems like we had a similar upbringing as I had a nanny due to my mum going back to work when I was quite young. My mum was expected to do all the things your mum described, help my dad with the shop, do a second job making celebration cakes and then she went on to study for her genetics degree. I feel a sense of striving to be like her but I also know that I don’t have to as my husband helps a lot around the house. Sometimes I think we hold ourselves back as we try to be like the women in our past who appeared to have their s**t together when we need to be looking forward. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Makes me realise how lucky I am having a husband who doesn’t have to go away – must be super tough (and even more so for single parents!). Your mum sounds like an amazing lady – and yes I wonder how much we were protected as kids (and understandably!) from how tough it was for them? xx

      Liked by 1 person

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