Episode 145 – The Mother of All Jobs with Christine Armstrong

Christine ArmstrongIf you’re a working parent, you won’t need telling that this isn’t really working. You might not, however, be aware that it’s not working for pretty much everybody. In her research for The Mother of All Jobs, Christine Armstrong uncovered a conspiracy of silence that means every working mother feels uniquely incompetent when in fact the system is fundamentally broken.

But even if this topic isn’t of burning interest to you, Christine’s warts-and-all account of how she wrangled her material into book shape and the support systems she created to make the writing possible are invaluable for any writer.

For a long time, you're kind of rolling around in the mud, aren't you? Wondering whether you're almost there, and you're just not. Share on X

She’s talking about writing, but you can apply this to parenting or indeed life in general too.


Christine’s website: https://www.christinearmstrong.com/

Christine on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CArmstrongLDN

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Alison Jones:                        Hello, and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. This is going to be a good one. I’m here today with Christine Armstrong who is the author of The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane-ish. You’re with me already, right? It’s a book grounded in real stories that every working parent can relate to, cringe at, and learn from. She’s also a contributing editor of Management Today and co-founder of communications consultancy Jericho Chambers. She is married with, as you would expect, three daughters. So, welcome to the show, Christine.

Christine ‘Armstrong:    Thanks very much.

Alison Jones:                        This is a subject that is very close to my heart. We’ve just been talking about the evil that is inset days. I think this could be a long one people. Tell us. What is broken about working motherhood? You have five minutes. Go.

Christine Armstrong:      Okay. So, essentially the problem we’ve got as I discovered when I was trying to work full time with two small children is that we’ve gone in this country and in lots of markets around the world, from a male breadwinner model to an expectation based on dual income households, which means both parents if there are two parents in the household are mostly working most of the time.

However, we’ve also added into that ‘always on’. So, instead of having a nine to five day and one parent out, we’ve now got a nine to five day, both parents out and then lots of parents working from actually when they wake up to when they go to sleep. Because they are responding to messages all of the time. In addition to which we have complete failure and lack of appropriate and affordable childcare in this country, which means that between the end of maternity and start of school things are very ad hoc and extremely expensive. And the quality is not even that great.

And, we have a big narrative as well about how if you want to be successful in business as a woman as a mother, you just need to work really, really hard and be well organised. What I found when I tried to do that was that it didn’t really help that much. I was working really hard, and I tried to be well organised, but that didn’t help. So, it became apparent as I went out to talk to people about it, that actually it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Alison Jones:                        I can just imagine. There’s women all over the country, the world, listening to this going, yes! Oh, yes! I remember when I was working my old job that I took into HR about stuff, and they said, ‘What you are is caught in the dual parent trap.’ Like that was a thing. Yes.

Christine Armstrong:      Like somebody just trying to pay the rent and the mortgage or the household bills. I mean this expectation that women will work – and lots of women want to work, we are brought up to work, that’s what we’re all trained to do – then suddenly we have children, and all of us end up staring at these children with our partners if we have them and thinking, ‘Shit! What now? Why doesn’t it work? Why am I such a failure? Why doesn’t this happen?’ You know? ‘What’s wrong with me?’ When in reality it seems like that conversation is happening in every kitchen all over the world.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Now, this is a bleak picture. I admit it. But, you do promise some hope in the book, thank goodness. So, what is your top tip for working mums who fear that they are on the edge.

Christine Armstrong:      I feel like… Sadie Walker – the head of the Women’s Equality Party – says that when you run a party that’s about women, what’s the one thing? And she goes, why would there just be one thing? I know. Sorry.

Alison Jones:                        It’s a time-limited podcast.

Christine Armstrong:      There are lots of bits to it. I mean, I guess if there is one thing it’s about making really, really active choices which sounds really boring, but so many people are into the kind of crash out of their career, have a baby, crash back into their career, both working full pelt like they did before. Both partners just carrying on, because that’s sort of what they know how to do. Frankly, they’ve got bills to pay. Without sort of stepping back and going, okay, we’re going to have to shift some stuff. Not everything’s going to work the same. What are we going to do? How do we keep options open? How do we tune up? How do we tune down?

What can we cut back on? What choices do we have here? And, I suppose that’s the big take away. If you don’t create some boundaries yourself, then work will not create them for you. And, you possibly will get run over by it.

Alison Jones:                        I think that’s a really good point actually, that the fact that it’s not working is not your fault, people. This is just a really broken system. Even knowing that I think is helpful, isn’t it?

Christine Armstrong:      I hope so, and that’s what lots of people said. There was some coverage of it in the Sunday Times Magazine. You know, I got over a thousand messages in the next 24, 36 hours saying, ‘Oh my God. I cried when I read your article, because it isn’t just me.’ And so many people are internalising this message that the reason they can’t make it work is because they’re not good enough or they’re not trying hard enough, and that’s just not true.

Alison Jones:                        Well, let’s come onto that. I thought that was really fascinating actually. In the course of the research for this book you interviewed a lot of women. It was interesting hearing you say that you came up with a lot of resistance to telling the whole truth. At least in public. So, there’s a tendency to sort of sanitise things. And certainly there’s a sort of sense that they might be judged if they were to say just how bad things really are. How did you deal with that in the research phase?

Christine Armstrong:      You have to take everybody off the record. If you put somebody’s organisation at their employer and their team and their family and their bosses are going to read it, they will not, they cannot on the whole, tell you the truth about that experience. And one of the things that I became aware of, because when I was really struggling, I was looking for answers, and I started to honestly read things and listen to things and a lot of what’s written about working and parenting is actually written by freelancers. Because lots of writers are freelancers.

And they’re very different experiences when you’re in a business, however big or small that is. Essentially to come out when you work in a business and say, ‘I’m really, really struggling’ requires you to say at least one if not both of two things. One is, ‘I’m not able to give as much of myself to work as I would like to or as I have done in the past. I’m not enough to be good enough.’ And also, ‘I’m possibly not a good enough parent. I’m not living up to the parenting that I wanted to.’

Now, both of those things are really, really loaded, especially the motherhood piece. Because there’s so much in us that wants to be a good mother. And, it’s really, really difficult to go on the record and say, ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I don’t think I’m a great mother. I don’t think I’m doing very well.’ So, it is. You have to take everything off the record, because privately women will have these conversations all of the time.

Alison Jones:                        It’s so interesting, isn’t it? What I do notice as well is this we’ve almost subverted it into a black comedy. ‘Mummy needs gin’ and all that. It’s sort of okay to laugh about how you get through the week with a bottle of wine. But, there’s kind of an unacceptable side to that as well, because actually we’re not having the conversations we need to have if we’re turning it into a joke.

Christine Armstrong:      It is. If we’re not willing to own the fact that this doesn’t work, and if we’re willing to say that the world of work is defined from that breadwinner model where men didn’t have to worry about these things, the household, the children, and the logistics because somebody else was doing that for them. If we’re not willing to talk about how difficult that transition is and combined with the always on world, which I think is the real clincher in this, the thing that makes it particularly painful at this juncture in history is that we’re not going to be able to resolve it. And, we’re not going to be able to help people find their own way out. And, we’re going to be left with lots of people dropping out of the workforce.

I worry that we end up talking about quotas and women chief executives and some sort of board level and yet there are hundreds of thousands of women between starting out at the first job and board level here in the system just trying to make it work.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And unable to afford the live-in nanny, which is typically what you get at board level. Yes.

Christine Armstrong:      Absolutely. But, I mean what’s interesting about the live-in nanny, and I happen to know lots of people who have live-in nannies and lots of lots of people who couldn’t even dream of such a thing, because they would earn more than they do, is that even if you have a live-in nanny, if you have a really time-consuming job, you may still be struggling. It isn’t a sort of catch-all easy answer to everything, because you still want to be a parent on the whole. And however many hours the nanny does, that doesn’t solve all of your problems. You can still be disconnected from you partner and disconnected from your kids and feel that it’s not working out for you.

Alison Jones:                        That is interesting. I think there’s a lesson there more broadly in just when you’re talking to people, knowing what you have to do and what you have to guarantee to people in order to get the real story when you’re talking about stuff like this.

Christine Armstrong:      When I used to do on-the-record interviews in Management Today, I used to say look. Just tell me everything. Tell me what’s going on and we’ll take out what you don’t want to appear publicly. And, I very quickly saw the patterns of what people would take out, which generally would be things about unsupportive partners, unsupportive bosses, and sort of anything that revealed the struggle that felt too raw or too vulnerable. But, then I would very often, not always, but very often have conversations separately and privately where there was no question that things would go on the record, and the story would be more complex. You know, there was stuff that they weren’t prepared to say in the first environment, but they would be in the second. And, that was where this sort of disconnect became very apparent to me. What was interesting was that we called that first group power mums, because they were these senior women, and many of them could afford a lot of stuff. But they were still finding it difficult.

For the book, I’ve really focused on much more sort of average, normal women, broadly earning pretty much average, normal sort of salaries who are working within organisations, who may be ambitious who may not be, but about their experiences.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Fascinating. And, let’s talk about the writing as well as the research thing. I mean we’ve seen you do a lot of it. But, what does writing look like for you? I’m just always interested in how people go from, oh idea for book to outline to the finished book. So, talk us through that whole shape and then tell us your favourite bits and the bits you don’t like so much.

Christine Armstrong:      Okay. So, for me the process was to write the columns which were kind of … I was allowed to do. They were unpaid initially. But there wasn’t a great enthusiasm, to see a response to that and then to start thinking about this gap. That awareness grew over a really long period of time. I started writing them when my second daughter was born. And, she’s nearly seven. So, it was quite a long period of gestation and reflection and lots of conversations, formal and informal, that led to kind of the thesis, sounds a bit pretentious doesn’t it? But the thoughts in my book, the kind of observations, and the analysis that went into that.

In terms of translating it into a book, I was somewhat bullied into it, actually, by a former editor that I used to work with. When I was telling him about it, he said, you’ve got to write this one. Put it into a proposal. And, I still didn’t. I’m so lazy. Then he came back to me and said, where’s that bloody proposal? Come on. So I sent it to him, and he actually pushed me really hard which was massively helpful. I mean, I also have… my oldest daughter’s still only nine, so having the time to actually sit down and write it was a bit of a battle. When I, it went over to Bloomsbury my ex-editor actually helped with that enormously and they were really excited about from the off which was amazing.

Then it was kind of sitting down and shifting from the sort of higher end and who’s been done before, but opening up a whole new range of conversations with people who have crossed the country in much bigger range of jobs, which was brilliant. But the thing with me is that, you can probably hear, but I’m a huge extrovert. So, for me to sit in a room and write all day, by lunchtime I’m pretty much looking for things to cut my own wrists with. You know what I mean?

Alison Jones:                        Oh. I hear you.

Christine Armstrong:      I need to talk to people. So, what I figured out was that I had to interview people quite regularly in order to keep my energy high. So, every day that I was writing, I would book at least one interview. And I find that having that conversation would lift my energy and sail me through the day. And then I could kind of come back at it fresh with another interview. And, so it was a very interesting process. I was doing interviews and writing in parallel and then kind of filling backwards and forwards which probably wasn’t the most organised way of doing it. But, it was the best way to manage my energy.

Alison Jones:                        Well, that’s hilarious because why do you think I started this podcast?

Christine Armstrong:      I know! It’s such a lonely process isn’t it?

Alison Jones:                        It’s so miserable. Yet, when you just said that were an extrovert and you’re just sort of shrivelling up inside as you sit alone with the keyboard. So, absolutely, if you’re an extrovert writing a book, for goodness sake, build it around those conversations, because that’s where the ideas spark around.

Christine Armstrong:      Yes. Because the ideas come from the conversations, exactly. Every conversation you have just takes you a little chink forwards or sideways or builds something on or just gives you a great story that you can move in. So, for me that was absolutely critical. The other thing is I have what I informally call my Don’t be a Dick Club who are brilliant, brilliant women and friends, some of whom are like therapists, some that want to be an amazing writer. And I regularly blast them. I send them bits and pieces and say, do I sound like a dick? Then there are people who come back with, you absolutely do. Never send me this again. All of it.

So, I also kind of have this sounding board which was really brilliant, or I think my calling them at 10 o’clock at night, remind of that story when that thing happened to your friend. You know. Trying to find that perfect illustration of the point that you’re making.

Alison Jones:                        So, is that a group that previously existed, of supportive friends, or did you kind assemble them around you to help you with this job?

Christine Armstrong:      They formed. So, they were all my friends, but there are some people who respond really well to that kind of, ‘Am I being a dick?’ question at 10 o’clock at night.

Alison Jones:                        And, others, not so much.

Christine Armstrong:      So, it just very quickly became apparent like who was really receptive and helpful in that scenario and who was like, I’ll get back to you tomorrow. So, it sort of formed gradually. But, by the end of the book there was a really quite clearly defined group.

Alison Jones:                        That’s hilarious. And were there stages in the construction of the book? I’m thinking of my own experience as you probably imagine. Were there stages in the process of the book, where you were, do you know what, I’ve got to walk this valley alone, bits where you just kind of had to sit down and wrap a cold wet towel around your head and do the work? Or, did you just sort of sail through it on the borrowed energy of others?

Christine Armstrong:      There were hard bits. The hardest, hardest bit was actually writing the whole outline up front, because I’d done an outline for my publisher, which they were like ‘Yes it’s fine.’ Like a plan of the book. And I was finding it wasn’t working, and so I used to work for a writing agency called Quietroom. I wasn’t a writer for them. I sort of helped them with some business planning, and I’d met an amazing writer there called Jane. And, I sent it over to her, and she was just like, ‘It’s just not clear enough. You know, you really need to work on the spine of this.’

So, that process was really, really hard. It was really focused. And it took me a few days. I went to my mum’s. It was like being 16 and studying for GCSEs. Mum was bringing me meals, and you know, I was just kind of writing and rewriting it and trying to get it absolutely clear. And when I finally got it, it was just like this massive breakthrough, and I could see the book and I understood it. I understood what I was trying to do.

But, before that, I was somewhat stumbling around and I was wasting a lot of time writing things without clearly knowing what I was trying to convey in each chapter.

Alison Jones:                        See, we want to know more about this. So, I love that you go to your mum’s. That’s brilliant. That’s exactly the sort of thing I’d probably do. ‘Mum! Bring me some comfort food while I do this.’ When you say, you said a lot of stuff when you were writing, writing, writing. Tell us about it. Because in a sense it’s not quite writing is it? When you’re trying to get the outline. It’s structural thinking. What tools do you use? How do you go about that?

Christine Armstrong:      Gosh. I don’t know. Tools makes me sound like a proper writer, like I know what the fuck I’m doing. I mean, you know. It’s about writing it and then actually trying it out with people. ‘Is this clear? Do you get this?’ So, for me it is all about the feedback, and I think that thing when you said, the dark valleys and the wet towel. For me that’s the editing process. I find the flow of writing, I could write reams and reams and reams and actually I don’t find that particularly stressful. Unfortunately, in its raw form like that it’s utter shit. So, that writing bit is-

Alison Jones:                        It’s such a shame that isn’t it. I know.

Christine Armstrong:      I know. I know. And the painful, the dark, hard, yards is the cutting and the cutting and the fine… the tweaking, and the editing. That was really what it was about the spine or the stories. It had to be really tight, and it had to feel like every chapter: Boom. Yes. I get it. I understand what it’s for. I know what its purpose is. And, at the top of it I understand why I’m writing this chapter. So, yes. It was long and painful and sometimes you don’t even really know when you get there. Then you look at it fresh in the morning and you think, ‘Okay. I’m there.’

But, you know for a long time, you’re kind of rolling around in the mud, aren’t you? Wondering whether you’re almost there and you’re just not.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a really good way of putting it. Yes. And I totally agree with you actually. I found the energy and the discipline and the physicality of the post-its and the big sheets of paper at the beginning, I was all over that. You know, sort of workshop stuff. I loved it, the writing, interviewing people, coming up with ideas, sparking off other ideas. I loved the writing. The hard bit for me, where I had to get away on my own, I’d booked a B&B for a couple of weekends and basically left the family, that was the only way I could do it, was the rewriting. It was the pulling it all together as you say, the cutting stuff out even when you particularly love it and you’re wedded to it and it was beautifully crafted, but it’s got to go. That was so hard, and so lonely.

Christine Armstrong:      Yes. Yes. I totally agree. Gosh.

Alison Jones:                        So, there’s going to be a lot of people who are at one of those stages – they’ll be still trying to get their structure straight. Or, they’ll be writing and losing their energy. Or, they’ll be in those hard yards of the rewrites.

Christine Armstrong:      Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Pick one of those if you like. What would be your one best tip for someone listening to the show who’s struggling with wherever they are at the moment?

Christine Armstrong:      For me, I think it was finding people who are big-circle editors rather than small-circle editors. And, what I mean by that is there are people if you say, does this work or not, who will say, oh I’m not sure if that’s the right word, whether it’s turquoise or aqua. And that’s a small-circle editor. And that’s thoughtful. You need those people, and I’m not taking a piss at all on those people who go, that’s definitely a semicolon, love. Fine. You need all that. But, also what you really need, and I find much harder to find, are the big picture editors, the one who go, ‘Do you know what? I’m just not sure that the story is connecting. I’m not sure that this is really coming to life. I’m not sure you’re really engaging my emotion here. Am I really getting it?’

Those people are absolute fucking gold dust. So, I think finding a few people like that around you who will look at something and go, ‘You know, it’s good, but you can do better,’ who make you a bit better than you allow yourself to be if you’re being a bit slack. I think those, that’s what I seek out and value. And, even though you absolutely want to punch them in the face when they come back and you know it’s not good enough, you force yourself to smile and say, thank you. That’s incredibly helpful, as you go and weep on the floor for a bit, and then you start again and rewrite it.

Alison Jones:                        I love the ‘in retrospect’. That was really helpful.

Christine Armstrong:      Yes.

Alison Jones:                        These people are gold, as you say. Where do you find these people and how do you cultivate them?

Christine Armstrong:      I don’t have any system to that at all. I think it’s trial and error. It’s people who’ve got to be interested in your subject. So, I’ve known brilliant editors, and I’d send them a little bit of paragraph and say do you think this works. Oh Yes it’s fine now. If people aren’t fundamentally interested they won’t really engage. So, that they won’t really comment on it. But, I think it’s sort of bit of trial and error. You may find them at your publishing house, and some of my editors – Charlotte was brilliant at Bloomsbury – but it may be more widely in sort of a social circle. And I was really fortunate, because my friends were relating so strongly to what I was writing about. They were really interested in it.

So, they were very willing to contribute and put their brains to it on the whole.

Alison Jones:                        Well, I can imagine that this is a subject that grabs most women by the lapels really. We’ve all got an opinion on this haven’t we? We’ve all got a story to share.

Christine Armstrong:      Yes. Absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. That’s funny. I just, I love the idea of your ‘don’t be a dick’ club as well. So, I really love that. I don’t thing we can call it that, but …

Christine Armstrong:      No. Set up your own ‘don’t be a dick’ club.

Alison Jones:                        It’s brilliant. Or whatever you want to call it. You know? It’s fine. Now, obviously there’s going to be a lot of people who are immediately going to go and read the Mother of All Jobs, but what other business book do you recommend to people listening to this show?

Christine Armstrong:      So, I think … I knew that you were going to ask this question. I’ve given it some thought. And, I guess different business books do different things. A book that was really influential to me was Tony Schwartz’s, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. And, it’s not about parenting, but actually it’s about some of the similar issues to my book. In some ways I think it’s the precursor to the way that I analysed the world of parenting and work. But, I think the thing that really had on impact on me – I mean, I love stories, and I love anything Margaret Heffernan writes – Willful Blindness, was just such a revelation to me about how people actually behave in businesses.

So, I’m actually more interested in behavioural things, what is the lived experience? What do people actually do in this scenario? The big theories and big picture stuff. So, and she also wrote another one about collaboration and competition that’s gold dust as well. I always come back to those two, and I aspire to be a writer who can tell as good stories as Margaret does.

Alison Jones:                        Margaret Heffernan is amazing, isn’t she? Yes. Terrific recommendations. Thank you so much. And, what I love also, is that Christine, you are the only person I’d ever met in the world who talks more quickly than me, so …

Christine Armstrong:      My mother keeps telling me this.

Alison Jones:                        Great! I’d just like to apologise to anybody who habitually listens to podcasts at 1.5 speed, because you wouldn’t have caught a word of this. But, maybe slow it down.

Christine Armstrong:      It’s my extroversion. I can’t help myself.

Alison Jones:                        It’s brilliant. So, if people want to find out more about you, Christine, more about The Mother of All Jobs, where should they go?

Christine Armstrong:      Christinearmstrong.com.

Alison Jones:                        You’re being really succinct now, aren’t you?

Christine Armstrong:      Shall I say it more slowly? Christinearmstrong.com

Alison Jones:                        I’ll put that up for sure. You’re all over social media as well, aren’t you? Right?

Christine Armstrong:      Yes. I’m good on Twitter. I’m a bit shit on Instagram.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. So much fun talking to you today. Actually, you know what? We’ve got a couple more minutes. Just tell me what needs to change in society?

Christine Armstrong:      Okay. So, we’ve got a couple of minutes, three hours later, we’ve got a couple of big things going on here. So, we’ve got our ever-expanding working day, which is too much consumers who are always on and also sort of globalisation of our working world. We have to figure out how we’re going to manage that. The thing that I think is that parents are the canary in the mine. This is actually about anybody who works and also has either things they want to do in the evening or care and responsibilities or other things they want to do in their day. So, we need to figure out how we’re going to work in a world that doesn’t have the fixed boundaries of the past.

At the moment, we take the fixed boundaries of the past and we simply add on loads and loads of stuff. The huge risk is that people will burn out at 45, and actually we’re all supposed to live to 100 and not retire. So, we’re going to have to figure out how we organise all of that. And, we’re also going to have to figure out childcare and how we want to raise children when you get into parenting itself. Because if children sleep for 12 hours a day, and we’re all working for 14 hours a day, there’s not much crossover. Somebody told me this morning that a primary school teacher had asked a class of kids what their wish was, and half of them said, they really wish that their mum or dad could pick them up from school.

Alison Jones:                        Oh.

Christine Armstrong:      Doesn’t it break your heart? I mean, it’s just terrible. So, what are we doing? You know, why are we working so hard that we don’t have time to also have a family life? How are we going to address that? And, not just for parents, but like I say for anybody who wants to be able to work, do a great job, but then go and do something else as well?

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. Thank you so much.

Christine Armstrong:      It’s a pleasure.


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