Christine Armstrong never set out to be the poster woman for working mothers...
But after a series of less-than-stellar experiences left her feeling neglected and frustrated by the typical working structure, she decided to set her mind to figuring out how to change work for the better…
Words: Lauren Sams
When I sit down to interview Christine Armstrong via Skype, it’s 8pm. My husband is at a work event and I’ve just put our kids to bed, feeding the baby and popping her (GENTLY! DON’T WAKE HER!) in the cot...
I’ve read a chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the five-year-old, and laid in bed beside her for “our minute”, as per her nightly request. Now it’s time, as it is for so many working parents, for the rest of my shift to begin. I sneak myself off to the bathroom (the acoustics are better), close the door and tell Armstrong everything that’s just happened. She laughs, of course, and commends me on beginning the interview in a way that is completely synonymous with her book, The Mother of All Jobs, which is what we’re here to talk about.
“Well,” she says, when I mention that either of my kids could be up and crying out for me at any moment. “I’m extremely relaxed about all of that, as you might expect. They can join in if they want to.”
Armstrong’s book has caused the kind of tidal wave last seen when Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published. A manifesto for working mothers that promises to blow the lid off what it’s really like to have a career and have a child, The Mother of All Jobs is the kind of book you’ll read, nodding furiously throughout, and then pass on to girlfriend after girlfriend, showing her exactly what you’ve all been up against as you try to have everything you’ve wanted and worked so hard for. Unlike Sandberg, though, Armstrong isn’t interested in urging women to work harder. Women already work plenty hard, something Armstrong is only too aware of. That doesn’t need to change. What needs to change – almost entirely – is the system in which women (and men) work. It’s no small feat, but Armstrong is on a mission to get it done.
Like so many of us, Armstrong, whose background is in advertising, thought she had life all figured out. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, she thought she’d be able to have a career, a husband, a child, a family. “Having it all”, in other words, just as countless magazines told her she could. “I had a really lovely career, I really liked my job. I travelled all over the world, and it was just perfect.” Then she got pregnant, and – as she puts it – she “somewhat moronically” assumed everything (her career) would carry on the way it always had. “I was such a career-minded person,” she says. “I naturally assumed everything would continue as it had.” Fortuitously, her husband took a hefty voluntary redundancy package while Armstrong was on maternity leave, allowing her to go back to work six months after the baby was born.
When she returned to work, it was to find that her boss had left and had been replaced by someone who essentially changed Armstrong’s job description and working life overnight. “I couldn’t work with him,” she says. “So I panicked and got another job. It was a really poor choice. It was a very macho-alpha environment, where we would work a British day, and then we’d keep working half the night to account for when our American colleagues would come online.” It was, she says, pure madness.
After heading to the States for a conference (during which time her breast pump broke, leaving her poor lactating boobs swollen and in danger of developing mastitis), Armstrong had another idea: have another baby. She laughs. “Mmm. I thought that might help. You won’t be surprised to hear that it didn’t actually help at all.”
After having her second baby, Armstrong had a brainwave. “I knew all these women who had kids and careers and seemed to be handling it all really well. I thought, right, clearly, they’re smart and know how to do it and I’m an idiot, so I’ll go and interview them, and they can tell me the answers.” She wrote the interviews up for a business magazine called Management Today, and while she initially found that many of the women had great hacks for productivity, behind the scenes, many were struggling just as much as Armstrong was. “I would have a private conversation with them and they would say, ‘Well, actually things are a bit harder than you can say on the record.’”
It was in these private conversations that Armstrong found the inspiration for her book. “The public discourse about working mothers is led by lean-in superwomen, and most of us aren’t those, and most of us don’t have those kinds of resources.” What Armstrong was finding was that equality in 2018 didn’t mean what she thought it did. “I discovered that equality really just meant that women got to do all the things that men have always got to do, and then all the things they’ve always had to do on top of that, all at the same time. And I thought, that just can’t be it. That can’t be equality!” What equality should be, Armstrong says, is difficult to unpack. “I went on a radio show here in the UK recently, and the interviewer, a woman about 15-20 years older than me, said, ‘Look, are we still talking about all of this?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I understand. We’ve been having these conversations for a really long time, but we are still talking about it because our culture has changed.” What’s changed, she says, is our “always-on” culture. “People routinely work now from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. We’ve gone from a model with a male breadwinner, where there was one parent working nine-to-five, and another parent at home, to a place where we expect dual-income earning.” What hasn’t changed is the support of parents. Childcare is still roughly similar to what it was when we were kids, Armstrong says – there are just many, many more kids there. “So when we say, what does equality look like,” says Armstrong, “We need to first ask, ‘Well, what does a good life look like?’” A manageable working day is a start, says Armstrong, but we also need to work actively to normalise both parents working, and both parents being actively involved in kids’ lives. No more childcare being seen as a “woman’s expense,” no more dads not taking advantage of government paternity leave. It’s a cultural issue, she says, but also a governmental one. “I don’t know about Australia, but in the UK, none of the political parties take this issue seriously. We have all these male politicians leading our parties and they just don’t fundamentally get this stuff because most of them had a wife, or a partner, at home taking care of this stuff for them. So many of the people making these decisions don’t see what it takes to make children’s lives possible.”
Part of what makes it possible, Armstrong notes, is women’s mental labour, a topic that’s gained ground recently, in books like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up and the comic The Mental Load by French illustrator Emma. “Even when women are working full-time, or even breadwinners, they’re still the ones going, ‘Right, Frank needs new soccer boots and Emily needs a haircut.’ And that is a huge mental drag.”
“ People routinely work now from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. We've gone from a model with a male breadwinner, where there was one parent working nine-to-five, and another parent at home, to a place where we expect dual-income earning ”
While researching the book, Armstrong heard from many women attempting to juggle work, family and their own lives. Each story was told off the record, without names. Some women didn’t tell their partners they were involved with the book. Many were forced to confront hard truths about themselves. “One woman stopped drinking after talking to me. She stopped to assess her parenting, and the way she used alcohol as a crutch. She got back to me and said, ‘Please don’t use that in the book, because I think people will identify me by the fact that I’ve stopped drinking.’” Each story is deeply personal – there are women who are desperately lonely, who feel as if they want to kill their partner sometimes, who are open about competing with other mothers, who reveal how horrible they feel when they yell at their children, who fantasise about getting off the work-school train altogether and fleeing to the country. “These are the conversations that women have in private,” says Armstrong. “If you go to any party, any wine bar, any coffee morning with mothers, these are the conversations.” This is all great, she says – but the next step is to begin having these conversations with men.
While Armstrong is often frustrated by our collective lack of progress, she does feel hopeful about the future. “The problem with our culture now is that it makes women feel as if they’re the ones who need to work harder, to fix their own problems. We don’t think ‘the system is broken,’ we think, ‘I’m broken.’ But that’s not true. What is broken is the way we value caring roles. Caring has always been an invisible part of the economy – women have done all the behind the scenes work and men have gone out to work.” The way forward, she says, is reassessing the way we feel about care in general, from mothers and fathers to childcare providers and teachers. We also, she says, need to reevaluate how we live. Our always-on culture, she says, must cease. “Modern work somehow has the ability to eat every single hour that you’re willing to give them. From what I’ve seen in researching the book, it works best when we all work flexibly, rather than a system where it’s all about his work and hers is undervalued or the other way around, where you can become quite disconnected.” We need to “think about our enthusiasm for capitalism,” too – how much we care about the big house, the car, the overseas holiday. “Would you prefer, actually, to be home with your kids at the end of the day and drive a shit car, like we do?” she laughs. “The trouble is that we often think about what is important to us far too late.”