SEARCHING for the elusive work-life balance was what brought me back to the North-East in 2008, after years in London.
Soaring house prices and the extortionate cost of living made it almost impossible to raise kids and actually spend time with them, and a career in the arts was unthinkable. The reality of bouncing through my twenties anchored to an overdraft I couldn’t pay off was beginning to hit home, yet I was reluctant to join the rat race.
So, bundling our baby daughter and several hundred pieces of vinyl into a too-small hire van, my husband and I chugged north up the A1, where we hoped the lights would be brighter.
We dreamed of a bohemian paradise near the sea, and in many ways that is what we have created: four little daughters, a house that is full and a life that is extremely busy But I think we are finding a better balance in Northumberland than we ever could have achieved had we stayed in the South.
I teach at a special needs school every Tuesday, while two evenings a week are devoted to choral and singing work. My husband spends four days a week running a film-making business. In the time between we home educate, write and work on our own artistic projects.
When I look at our life written down in words, it looks fairly close to Having It All. Minus sleep. Four small children and two whirring creative brains are not conducive to sleep.
And isn’t it true that, from the outside, it alway seems that people have life wrapped up in a shiny parcel, when in reality we are all fumbling around trying not to drop the plates?
Nonetheless, this lifestyle, far removed from the 9 to 5 existence still held dear as the lynchpin of our society, works well for us. It has been enabled by a cheaper cost of living and a wider belief in this part of the UK that time is more valuable than money.
Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show there are currently 8.51 million part-time workers in the UK, more than 25 per cent of the workforce. Of course, some of these will not be working part-time through choice; lack of appropriate full-time work in certain sectors has undoubtedly contributed to increased poverty and poorer living standards.
However, for many people the opportunity to spend more time with their children, concentrate on their own projects, or just work a little less holds huge appeal. It’s no secret that long working hours increase the likelihood of mental and physical health problems, and the advent of the smartphone means we are all on alert day and night.
A segment on Woman’s Hour this week highlighted the value of flexible working: two high-achieving women extolled the benefits of a job share. It made so much sense: an employer pays two people to work three days each instead of one person working for five days. In return for the slightly higher outlay, the employer gets two brains, two sets of skills and double the energy. Job sharers can cover for each other if they are ill or on holiday. To me it’s a no-brainer.
Isn’t it time more workers buddied up and applied for jobs in pairs? Ticking a box on the job application form that says ‘job share’ or ‘part-time’ should be the norm. Once the costs of travel and childcare are taken from a day’s wages, the compromises seem less daunting.
There is constant pressure upon women today to do it all; the job, the kids, the house, the appearance. . . I feel that pressure, but am reaching a place where Having It All means finding a sense of fulfilment.
On days when it feels like my head is bursting with demands, I try to remember that the North-East has made it possible for me to spend time with my children.
It has allowed us to live minutes from a glorious beach. And it has given us the space to dream.
That freedom of choice shouldn’t be the exception. It must become the norm.