Are YOU tired of being a half-wife? It"s the time of year many mothers dread returning to work. There is an alternative, says this feminist, but…

Are YOU tired of being a half-wife It's the time of year many mothers dread returning to work. There is an alternative, says this feminist, but it means fighting to put family life first

High on the sheep-speckled downs that rise up behind our Cotswolds village is an old hill fort, from whose green ramparts you can see across four counties on a clear day.

It’s the perfect place to walk off a spell of festive over-indulgence, and a favourite place for us to head with family or friends. My son and his cousins like rolling down the grassy slopes or picking up lumps of white chalk with which to scribble on the rocks; but what I love about it is the sense of doing nothing much, together.

For if there was one thing most precious about the lazy, hazy interlude from workaday life that we’ve all enjoyed over the Christmas and New Year break, it was doing… nothing much.

Pull of motherhood: Gaby with her son Freddie. She enjoyed the extra time they had together to do nothing over the festive period

Pull of motherhood: Gaby with her son Freddie. She enjoyed the extra time they had together to 'do nothing' over the festive period

Lolling about in front of the fire toasting marshmallows; playing board games, in which all the smallest players blatantly cheat; long meandering dinners with friends, where conversation stretched late into the night, since for once nobody had to be on the 6am train the next day.

In the past fortnight, the clock finally stopped for busy families, making time for the things so often lost in the daily rush.

But time regained can be a bittersweet luxury for parents, since it only makes the New Year return to work all the more of a wrench. No wonder January is so often the season of new beginnings, and resolutions not to let life spin out of control again.

When I first started interviewing parents who had made big changes in their working lives for my book Half A Wife, they often struggled to articulate precisely why they wanted to spend more time with their children.

It’s hard to explain the profound importance of doing what looks like nothing much together.

But many felt strongly that something important was lost in the demented, modern shuttle between home, work and our children’s endless extra-curricular activities — all those ballet and piano classes arranged often to ease our guilt at not always being there.

'The “me” that confronted Prime Ministers, is also the “me” that made gingerbread men with my son and I don't consider them incompatible'

The brisk ‘professionalisation’ of modern parenthood risks losing sight of something deeper.

As Lucy, a former academic and mother-of-three who now runs her own copywriting business from home, told me: ‘A child can learn a lot being taken shopping at the market, or counting apples into a bag, or just pottering around doing absolutely nothing in particular.

‘I think parents who do work, and feel on the back foot, sometimes end up thinking they are not doing a good enough job when they are just doing “nothing”.’

Yet it’s surprising what comes out when life slows down — rather like when the din of traffic falls momentarily silent in a city, and unexpectedly you can hear birdsong.

This kind of relaxed time together, however, now feels like an unaffordable luxury for many. After decades in which average working hours have fallen steadily, they’re now creeping up again.

With household bills soaring and salaries failing to keep pace, the dream of cutting back seems more elusive than ever.

And so parents feel ever more torn and more trapped, with more than half of full-time mothers in a recent poll for the website Netmums admitting they’d rather work part-time but couldn’t afford to do so.

Juggling: Gaby worked as a political editor until her son was two, when she gave up her job to work from home as a freelance writer

Juggling became too much: Gaby worked as a political editor until her son was two, when she gave up her job to work from home as a freelance writer

Periods of great economic upheaval and change often seem to bring with them a kind of homesickness — a longing for the small, the cosy and the familiar in what suddenly feels like a big, cold world.

No wonder that as the chaos in the eurozone laps ever closer to our shores, we have retreated a little closer to the fireside.

In 2011, millions of us were glued to The Great British Bake Off, a show where the worst that can happen is a sunken sponge, while Christmas saw a huge revival in homemade presents.

We tell ourselves we’re merely being frugal, but I think what appeals is a return to the simplicity of hearth and home.

At least a cake on the table is a tangible thing in an uncertain world, an expression of love for the people around you — for home is inextricably linked with love, warmth and comfort, with ties to what came before us and to what comes long after.

'Tiptoeing in from the office at midnight, my sleeping baby would seem distressingly unknowable: mysterious, estranged'

To its critics, of course, this new domesticity is just another way of making busy mothers feel guilty about not having time to sew their own cushions — and ultimately, of driving us back to the kitchen sink.

But while no sane woman should ever feel bad about not making her own cakes, equally it’s a mistake to sneer at the pleasure both men and women get from a little domestic creativity or a rich family life.

We may not want to devote every waking minute to such things, but an awful lot of us dream of having a little more time to tend an allotment with the children or potter around the shed.

It’s not a substitute for a career, but it can be the reassuring anchor that steadies an otherwise stressful life.

While I kept my own jam-making tendencies hidden in my previous life as political editor of a national newspaper, both halves of me — the one that interviewed Prime Ministers, and the one that made gingerbread men with my little boy — are as real as each other, and I don’t consider them incompatible.

So the lure of home isn’t about surrender, about wanting to do less — it’s about wanting to do more. It’s about wanting (and needing) to have satisfying work that pays the mortgage, but time too for all the other elements of a rounded life — from family ties and friendships to the joys of just, well, being with the children sometimes.

What many parents of small children want is to feel half in the domestic world, half in the professional — and preferably still in step with their partners, too. The challenge is managing that in bad times as well as good.

Simple life: Many of us yearn to have time to do activities with our children like baking (posed by models)

Simple life: Many of us yearn to have time to do activities with our children like baking (posed by models)

It’s a puzzle I’ve had to solve in my own life, having given up the 60-hour weeks of an all-consuming job in journalism for a more relaxed but precarious life as a freelance writer and author.

My son Freddie was two when I made the leap in the middle of the 2009 recession. It felt like a crazy time to give up a good job, but it would have felt crazier to carry on. While my son seemed to be thriving with our nanny, it was I who had somehow failed to settle.

Tiptoeing in from the office at midnight, my sleeping baby would seem distressingly unknowable: mysterious, estranged. I felt the ties slackening. I became afraid of letting go of something I couldn’t get back — and of starting to miss him less, rather than more.

Two years on, I now work from home in rural Oxfordshire, mostly within school hours or evenings.

What I sacrificed in salary, we have more or less saved thanks to a far smaller childcare bill and a move out of London (since I no longer need to live near the office).

I know I’m lucky to have accidentally fallen into a career that proved so flexible, but the challenge of writing Half A Wife was working out how other parents in all walks of life could also carve out more time without paying too high a price.

'For working women perhaps the key
challenge is to think beyond the classic “mummy track” option of cutting
back to a three-day week'

Sadly, most couples still need two incomes to cover a mortgage or provide the lifestyle they want for their children, and resigning on an impulse in this climate is perhaps only for the truly bold.

But even relatively small tweaks to working life can make a surprising difference to a family on the brink.

Starting and finishing work half-an-hour later to fit in the school run, or working from home one day a week and spending the time saved commuting to spend with the children can sometimes tide families over in tough times.

Neil is a father of two boys under five, whose old job as a senior civil servant involved gruelling long hours and huge amounts of stress.

These days, he still works full-time for a charity, but does Fridays from home — the time saved from not commuting allows him to help with reading at his son’s school. ‘The value the boys get out of us now is so much more, although we tried really hard before,’ he says.

And sometimes, a modest alteration early on might just save everyone the upheaval of having to make a big change later.

Striking a balance: It is possible to remain in a senior level job if you discuss options with your employer like working from home one day a week (posed by model)

Striking a balance: It is possible to remain in a senior level job if you discuss options with your employer like working from home one day a week (posed by model)

Exhausted and emotionally wrung out, parents on the verge of quitting aren’t always best placed to see an alternative, so to prevent good people leaving their jobs, it’s worth both sides considering whether a little flexibility might help.

When Colette, a mother of two children under five, left her job as a manager in the car industry — which meant long hours and extensive travel — she didn’t even ask her boss about alternatives because, as she says: ‘I didn’t see how it could have been amended to a part-time role.’

Yet after she left, the job was split
between two people, a sign both of how heavy her workload had been and
of how the job could, with hindsight, perhaps have been redesigned for
her.

When money is tight, the only answer
is to share our time out more imaginatively — pulling together between
the generations and across the sexes. That will mean changes for
parents, for employers and also, ultimately, for governments, too.

But for working women perhaps the key
challenge is to think beyond the classic ‘mummy track’ option of cutting
back to a three-day week. For many couples, one parent going part-time
is still the best way of surviving the nursery years, but it can carry a
hefty hidden cost.

Since there are some jobs that can’t be done between a Monday and a Wednesday, too many working mothers slide down the ladder into more junior roles or get stuck in jobs they’ve outgrown in order to get the hours they want.

WHO KNEW

Parents now spend triple the amount of time with their children compared with in 1975, according to an Oxford University study

Over a lifetime, the cost in salary foregone is staggering — so parents in this position should think first about job-sharing, one of the few forms of flexible working that seems to be acceptable at senior levels.

Job-sharing for headteachers, for example, was encouraged by East Riding of Yorkshire Council as part of a project to create more senior part-time jobs and hang on to female staff.

It proved popular not just for working mothers but among experienced heads nearing retirement, who could be persuaded to stay on a few days a week — often sharing with their deputies to groom them for an eventual step up the ladder.

And if you’re desperate for more time but can’t take a pay cut, you could consider asking to work from home once or twice a week — or even to work compressed hours, which means cramming five days’ work into four longer days in the office (and still being paid for five).

But perhaps, above all, modern couples need to work out these dilemmas together, recognising that a bit of flexibility from both partners can avoid one having to make a big, expensive sacrifice.

These may be stormy times for families, but the happiest will be those who weather them together.

Gaby Hinsliff is the author of Half A Wife: The Working Family's Guide To Getting A Life Back (Chatto & Windus), published today