Audio slideshow: The day we brought our babies to work
Money blog: Work as child's play
Zoe Williams, Imogen Tilden and Ian Prior
Tuesday April 8, 2008
Zoe Williams with six-month-old Thurston. Photograph: Anna Gordon
The United States and Australia are the only two countries in the industrialised world that don't have paid statutory maternity leave (there are exceptions in some US states). At least in Australia, though, your job is protected for a year; in America, even the leave protection only lasts for 12 weeks. It's an astonishingly backward state of affairs, like discovering that France doesn't have a postal service. A Harvard Study of 168 countries, measuring how different governments meet the needs of working families, found the US to be in the bottom five. But rather than do anything so tedious as campaign for reasonable terms, American lobbyists have instead thought more laterally, with a softly, softly, looky-after-baby approach: bring your baby to work with you. Until it can crawl, it can think of your workplace as liberty hall.
There are supposedly at least 83 companies doing this in the US. According to the Parenting in the Workplace institute, it is "a viable, inexpensive tool for helping employees return to work sooner, lowering turnover, improving morale, increasing overall productivity, enhancing teamwork and collaboration, recruiting new employees, attracting new customers, and making existing customers more loyal". Wow. It sounds like the robot voice at the beginning of that Radiohead song, but I'm afraid if you don't know the one I mean, I can't look it up because I am using my Google hand to prop up this baby.
In the interests of researching this idea, I have brought my baby into the office. But first, I'm going to tell you why I disagree with it to my very core. For a start, it irks non-parents. A typical response, from a reader of Time magazine after it ran a piece on the trend, was this: "I do not go to work every day to listen to the breeders' brats scream all day and to smell their baby poo diapers. And I certainly don't want to walk past a cubicle to see some woman breastfeeding her baby. NO."
Now, granted, this is a fairly feverish response, but only in tone - parents are annoying. We are self-righteous and a bit frazzled and we're never listening properly, and we bring with us a whole load of noise and smell pollution that we're not prepared to apologise for, and really the only people who can put up with us are other parents, not even of older children, but of babies exactly the same age. Non-parents would assume, not unfairly, that a person fussing over her baby was not doing as much work as everyone else. In one of these progressive American firms, employees are asked to clock off while they tend their infants, to offset these feelings of simmering resentment among colleagues, but I don't really think of that as a solution, so much as an outrage.
Second, if you're being asked to do your job and your childcare at the same time, the implication is that one of those things is not work. Multitasking, schmultitasking, my friend - it is just another word for not concentrating properly, and while it is possible to put on laundry with half an eye on a baby, it isn't possible to undertake anything complex.
But you know, whatever ideological objections I have, if it did work, then for a lot of people, that would be brilliant. I'm just not sure it did. Well, I'll just tell you what happened, you decide.
Getting in to work with Thurston, who is six months old, was an incredible slog - I got on a packed tube with this too-hot baby, way too heavy for me in his sling, and evil-stared the top of this guy's head to make him give up his seat for me, while he resolutely read his paper, pretending not to notice, until he finally looked up and it transpired that we knew each other. So that was embarrassing, even if you're not going to factor in the fact that I was sweating and grunting like a farmyard animal with just the sheer effort of it all. How I managed to be only 27 minutes late is beyond me, though I did sacrifice my makeup and tooth-cleaning me-time, and I also didn't smell my cardigan to see if it was clean, which saved me all of about four seconds and stored up a wellspring of shame that lasted throughout the day. I can't tell you what it smells of, exactly; something stewed. It definitely isn't clean.
Thurston, I have to admit here, is a very good baby, and doesn't scream much, but we started the day at one of those giant meetings, full of people who are either definitely or probably very important. In all the years I have worked in an office - I don't any more, but it was probably seven altogether - I have made it my business to stay silent in things like this. I have no fear of public speaking, I just have a horror of accidentally commanding the attention of 27 people, and then not knowing what to do with it once I've got it. Thurston hasn't given this kind of dynamic any thought, and yodelled freely, from about 10 minutes in. People stared: they meant it in a nice way, but I was custodian of the yodeller, and as such I felt as if I should interpret for him, turn his noise into remarks of meaning. Which, of course, I couldn't do, so I just kind of scarpered.
To recap - it is 10.15am and I am makeup-free and not exactly clean, in a smelly cardigan, I arrive, I definitely haven't got any ideas of my own because the full force of my attention is going into this little sound machine, and then I just retreat out of a room with all the ceremony of a person whose pants are on fire. I mean, it's a false experiment in a way, because there's all this goodwill of colleagues who know it's just for one day, and never see me anyway, with or without a baby, because I work from home. So I don't feel terribly vulnerable in my position, despite my trampy exterior and the fact that I can't concentrate on what anyone is saying, and it's all going pretty well. If, however, I had to do this every day, and it was a more competitive, lawyerly environment, or similar, and there was a dynamic childless person who was after my job, I wouldn't even put up a fight, I would just roll over and give it to them.
Meetings aren't work, though - checking emails, now that's proper work. Technically, you can do this with a baby on your knee, but there are flaws in this plan. Mine likes to thump the keyboard repeatedly, or until he has found "select all" plus delete, whichever is the sooner. Then he likes to stand up, and sit down again, and wriggle and grunt, and all this makes it really hard to think. When I'm at home, I have a whole battery of baby-pleasing techniques - I can sing songs and dance about, I have an elaborate mime that I can do with a monkey, which pleases him so much he almost always needs a snooze afterwards. But for some reason - call me crazy - I feel inhibited in an open-plan office, so it is a bit of a grey day, from his point of view.
I feel guilty, looking at his bored little face. It is much better for me when he goes to sleep, except that he has dropped off on my arm, which means that I can now only use letters on the lefthand side of the keyboard. Even though I've been working pretty much since he was born, albeit not very hard, it has always been in the evenings, when he was good for at least an hour's snooze. With him awake, I can just about keep my mind on an email of two lines, but nothing longer: and I can't hold it together to reply. Sure, employ me in this condition if you want to, but I would strongly counsel that it would be cheaper to pay me to stay at home.
My memory of office life was that you could wait a year for lunchtime to roll around, but now mornings appear only to last 30 or 40 minutes. Suddenly it was 1pm. I hadn't done anything; well, no, I had read a bit of the paper and then Thurston had helped me tear it up. I had spent about an hour and a half chatting to co-workers, which is very much what I would have done in my pre-child working life, and that's why I started working from home in the first place, to thwart my insatiable lust for chat. I think, from the office's point of view, I'm more of a liability than the baby is, but from mine, he was a nuisance. A lovely nuisance, but nevertheless ...
By mid-afternoon, the most taxing task I'd even undertaken, never mind completed, was trying to mash half a banana with a chopstick because I'd forgotten my fork. What I did write - this - took three times, easily, as long as it would normally have done, and since I'm just describing events as they happen, in real time, I should have been able to do it with a baby in one arm and a zebra in the other. I'm doing that annoying thing parents do when they can't explain why it doesn't work, they just shake their heads and say, that's not how it works. No, you can't just make them go to sleep because it's night; you can't just persuade them to like lentils; you can't tell them to choose a cuddly monkey over the ugly synthetic fish you got free in a service station. No, you can't take them into work and plonk them in the corner. I can't say why; that's just not the way it works.
'I keep breaking off to gaze adoringly at Miri'
One week after returning to work following my maternity leave and the idea of bringing 10-month-old Miri into the office rather appeals. Both of us shed tears as I left her with the childminder last week; sitting back at my desk I felt as if I was missing a vital organ, so odd - and wrong - did it seem to be without her. But looking after her is a full-time job in itself and she's got me well trained. About four months in I gave up struggling to write emails/read the paper/use the phone, even, with her around, while scheduled daytime naps are still something I fantasise about. I'm not so sure that having her with me at work is going to, well, work for me.
I'm 15 minutes late- not a good start - because as we arrive at the Guardian she looks sleepy, and I push her up and down the street hoping she'll have her morning nap. She doesn't. But she perks up, and I'm reminded of how you feel like royalty with a baby - everyone smiles indulgently at me, and coos at Miri. At my desk in the arts department, Miri lights upon a shelf of DVDs and CDs with enthusiasm, and sets about pulling them off one by one. My colleague Anna swoops her up and takes her on a tour of the floor, allowing me to read a few emails and make a start on the day's work.
Next to my feet is a pile of the weekend's newspapers. A couple of minutes later and Miri is eating the Sunday Telegraph magazine with gusto. I offer her a rice cake instead. On my lap, she reaches forward and grabs the mouse. Several emails disappear from the computer screen and pieces of puffed rice lodge themselves between the space bar and letters X and C. Anna comes to my aid again, and I manage another 20 minutes work. But I keep having to break off to gaze adoringly at Miri and plant kisses on the side of her head - she's perfectly happy and quiet with Anna, it's me who's having trouble concentrating. Gareth, who sits behind me, sensibly puts on headphones.
Nappy-changing and feeding are a problem - there are very few quiet spaces here, and when she starts rooting (I'm still breastfeeding) I firmly offer her a bottle. I manage to make a couple of phone calls, but rather spoil what I hope is my usual professional manner by giggling as she makes a particularly sweet noise, and then completely lose the thread of what I was saying. She has to eat lunch sitting on my lap - so my poor keyboard is now covered in sweet potato and yoghurt. By 1pm she still hasn't slept, and is getting overtired. My boyfriend - not at work today - comes to the rescue, and takes her home. He reports she's asleep "within two minutes of leaving the building".
I feel strangely bereft as I walk back to my desk. For me, the hardest, but perhaps also the best, thing about returning to work has been beginning the process of re-finding myself, remembering who I used to be, and that I can relate to people not as a mother. It's been lovely having Miri here, but I realise I've now got two identities, and I need to keep them separate.
'Two hours into the day and I've done zilch'
The Brighton-to-Bedford rail line is officially the most overcrowded in Britain. It is also my route to the office from south London and frankly, I'd rather crawl to work naked with six-month-old baby Charlie strapped to my nipples than squeeze a loaded buggy on there at rush-hour. So cop-out No 1: we take the car.
Charlie has a kip on the way as seething traffic makes us late and then, having cadged a car-park pass from the boss, we get stuck for 15 minutes on the way in as the barrier won't open. We haven't even arrived and it's already past the time for his feed and he's getting impatient. As the clock speeds towards 10, his mother's voice does Marley's Ghost in my head - "Any later than quarter-to and there'll be trouble." Panicked, I dash past my desk to a quiet corner of the office where I shovel a pureed pear and baby-rice combo down his starveling gullet like one of those penguin mothers just back from three months' fishing. I follow that up with a bottle of the morning's freshly pumped breast milk and, as he guzzles, I have time to reflect that the supreme barrier to bringing baby to work regularly is anatomical; Charlie has been on solids for barely a fortnight and still needs topping up by his mum. She's dead good with that pump, but there are limits.
I throw a rug beside my desk, and get about half an hour's grace as, belly full and smiling, he rolls around with toys. But it's impossible to concentrate on anything as he flings his rattle around and tries to get my chair leg in his mouth. I make one decent phone call - commissioning someone to write about football - and scan headlines of criminally unread newspapers as colleagues take up the slack and do my job for me. The sports desk, where I work, is the most bloke-heavy at the Guardian and interruption from admirers is not excessive but the lads muck in, gamely, shaking Charlie's toys to distract him when he kicks off royally for the photographer.
Babies are used to being the centre of attention and even occasional efforts to get something done are badly received. Charlie, though sweet-tempered generally, is not impressed by the drab surrounds and grunts of tedium become barks for attention. He's briefly mollified by sitting on my lap bashing the keyboard with pudgy fists, which makes typing tricky. Two hours into my day and I've done zilch whatsoever but keep him fed and amused. Colleagues are patient because they know this is a one-off but it wouldn't last. I feel mortified as nap time arrives, tempers worsen through tiredness and the options narrow to (1) walk around the office for 20 minutes as he roars himself to sleep and makes everyone smile through grinding teeth or (2) take the buggy outside and walk him off. Guess which, and yet more work shirked. This feels impossible, not to mention unfair on both of us. By midday it's cop-out No 2 - call mum, hovering in a nearby cafe, and admit defeat.