Around 28 years ago, I had a careers meeting at secondary school. I say ‘meeting’, but that suggests that it was a two-way exchange of information and ideas, actually I was sat in front of a fierce looking woman at a desk for a fixed amount of time and only asked a direct question once.
“What career are you interested in?”
I gave my answer, was sniggered at and, in an instant, given my option: Primary School Teacher.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Primary School Teachers are bona fide fucking LEGENDS. They have the negotiating skills of a UN envoy, a seemingly limitless capacity for care and the patience of saints. They also teach, meet targets, do endless paperwork and endure parents, who are, frankly, a pain in the arse.
But I didn’t want to be a teacher. My fifteen-year old self was interested in family law and also liked the idea of being a writer. I loved to write. And I was quite good at it, apparently.
I had good grades, was a bit wayward and possessed a fiery streak of anger at the world, which you might consider as prerequisites for at least one of the options, but none of this mattered and I left the room feeling a bit… deflated. No women in our family had a ‘career’ to speak of (except Jackie, who was a Systems Analyst, seriously fucking smart and hella kind. Although I didn’t realise it at the time. Sorry Jackie x), so no one was really offended by the lack of support.
So I got on with the serious business of being a sassy teenaged girl (sharing pilfered Benson & Hedges behind the chapel, snogging inappropriate boys and casual shoplifting) and didn’t give it any thought until I had a daughter of my own. Although there is collective amazement in my family that I managed to live long enough to have a family, given some of my criminally shit life choices.
When you have a nipper, you look up as well as down. By which I mean that as I looked at this little screeching, purple-faced marvel, I also began to understand parts of my own mother’s life. And my grandmother’s. I looked for similarities and differences, and felt both privileged and terrified to be a woman and mother in 2008.
You see, I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mum, but I suddenly felt compelled to prove myself in some way, to be more than a parent – to show our daughter what womanhood is and in all it’s glorious options and opportunities. So I returned to work when she was six months old and, for the most part, took her with me.
I worked with my little daughter by my side, sat on my lap or snoozing in her bouncer on my office floor. I fitted in baby groups and Tumble Tots around running the shop, meetings and the odd crisis. I apologised profusely when she emptied the contents of a sales reps briefcase all over my office floor. I discovered Organix Carrot Sticks under my keyboard, amongst my purchase orders and jammed into drawer handles. I changed nappies on my desk.
At the same time, I was charity fundraising, holding huge art events and freelance commissioning. I got involved with good causes and local groups. I snapped up every available chance to write about all those things. And I started blogging about life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my daughter did more for my confidence than any careers talk or expectation. In my determination to show her what it means to work hard and make a difference, I became the thing that fifteen year old me was told wasn’t possible.
- A refusal to take no for an answer
- And the ability to ignore the little voice in my head that says “you’re crap”
If I’d had all these things when I was sat in the office with the careers teacher, my life would’ve been so very, very different. It took another twenty years to discover that they were there all along.
And now I am doing the thing I always wanted to do. It’s a tangible, lasting thing. My daughter already outsmarts me in every conceivable way, but she will always have a part of my life in her armoury for when anyone tells her “you can’t”.
The part that says “If I could, so can you.”
And that is my gift to you, Romilly.