Sitting on a bench at school assembly, we stare up at the headmistress standing on the stage. It happens like this every morning; hundreds of girls filing into the school hall and taking their place in rows. The sound of happy chatter filling the echoey hall before she appears and it fades to silence. This is the late 90’s and thick, black kohl eyeliner, streaky highlights and platform shoes accessorise our navy uniforms. My skirt is rolled up four times and I’m wearing bobbled 70-denier tights, a yin-yang chain around my neck, and silver studs in my ears in the shape of tiny safety pins. I smell of The Body Shop Dewberry and listened to Blur’s Parklife on the way to school.
It’s an all-girls school and the headmistress tells us that we can do anything. We can be anything. We just have to work hard and we will achieve our ambitions.
I listen, wide eyed, absorbing every word she says. And I feel invincible.
I always wanted to be a fashion journalist when I grew up, working at a magazine in London. And as her words filled that echoey hall, I was absolutely convinced that I could and would do it.
She never mentioned gender in those assemblies. She didn’t need to. She just needed to fill us with confidence about our abilities and our place in the world. Her message was powerful and made a difference. I was a young feminist, without even knowing what a feminist was.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years – and here I am. My CV reveals that I did those things I dreamt about. I thought often of her message as I ticked things off my list. A-Levels. A degree in English Literature. A first job at a magazine. A successful freelance career. She was right. I could do those things. I did do those things.
But now. What now? Can I still be a feminist with children around my feet? Can I still be a feminist, when I reach into my bag for a business card and pull out a child’s dummy and half-eaten lollipop? What if I am invited to go on a business trip, but think about my children going to bed without me their warm bodies in sheep-print pyjamas and hair smelling of baby shampoo, and decide not to go? And what if I have no choice, but then think about them during a meeting across the other side of the world and feel my eyes filling with tears? What if I miss a promotion as I decide to work part-time?
Am I still just as important?
And what if I decide not to work? What if I decide that I will stay at home with my children instead? What if I no longer own a set of business cards and my job title is “Mummy”. What if I dedicate my entire week to their wants, their needs, their development, collapsing on the sofa at the end of the day feeling tired but proud that we’ve all made it to bedtime?
Am I still just as valid in this world?
I am absolutely sure that the answer is yes.
We still have a role – and it happens to be the most important and most satisfying role in the world. Because I believe that getting the chance to raise the next generation is a career promotion, not a dismissal.
So can someone please lend me a time machine, as I want to go back to that school gym and stand up on the stage. I want to tell the wide-eyed girls below me that the careers they dream about and the life they envisage are important. And it’s true, they can do it. They really can. But I also want to tell them that that those lives may also include a family. And if they do decide to become a mother and are lucky enough to welcome little people into their lives, they might go back to work after a few months or they might decide to stay at home. But either way, their roles as mothers will be a privilege and not a sacrifice.
And in 20 years, when they think back to the days of school assemblies and the dreams they dreamt up on those mornings on a cold, school bench, they won’t regret that family for a second.
And when someone asks what they do, they should reply simply: “I am a Mother”.