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Children & Careers: A Writer’s Eye View Into the Reality of Women’s Choices

Article by Rachel Crowther ©.
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Things have changed dramatically for women over the last hundred years, from the last of the stay-at-home generations who were largely confined to the domestic sphere (although some rare and admirable women found a way to have public lives too) to the early generation of career women in the last few decades of the twentieth century who seized the new opportunities opening up to them with a pioneering zeal that gave them a clear sense of the priority of work over child-rearing.

But despite the progress in women’s rights, there’s an increasing acknowledgement that the choices open to the current generation of women come at a price. These days women expect (and society expects them) to straddle domestic commitments and the world of work with effortless competence – and more and more voices are expressing their inadequacy at not managing to ‘have it all’, certainly not without tremendous effort. More and more dilemmas are emerging as women try to work out when and how to have children, when and how to advance their careers, and on top of that to manage rising house prices and divorce rates, ageing parents, and friends they never see because everyone is so horribly busy all the time. It seems to be getting harder and harder to make a success of being a woman.

It’s almost possible, then, to see these hard-won opportunities as a burden rather than a blessing: to pity young women the challenges they’ll face. Having to make your own choices and live by them is in some respects harder than falling in with traditional expectations, because you have no one else to blame if you don’t live up to the role you’ve imagined for yourself, or don’t enjoy the life you’ve chosen – and we women are our own sternest critics. I know so many highly successful and admirable women who regard themselves as failures: who feel they haven’t fulfilled their potential, haven’t done their best by their children, haven’t had the perfect marriage. They look at other women and see clearly what they have achieved, but they don’t see themselves in the same way – there’s always someone who appears to have managed to do more, more gracefully, against greater odds. And women who have kept everything afloat might feel like failures because they don’t enjoy their lives as much as they should. Women who need to pretend that everything is wonderful might be denying their own private experience for the sake of sustaining their public image.

the things you do for loveFor me, writing fiction is a response to this complexity and perplexity.  It’s prompted by a desire to make sense of life – to explore its nooks and crannies through the lives of my characters, and to nail it all down, at least for the course of a novel, into something I can understand and get to grips with.

And it’s immensely tempting, of course, to give your characters the kind of resolution we all long for, even if not necessarily a happy ending. For the writer, there are always conflicting urges to make the novel as realistic as possible (which means messy and contradictory) and to bring everything to a satisfying conclusion (which can easily end up shortchanging the reader and the characters). But novels shouldn’t offer glib answers, nor prescribe any specific way of dealing with life’s pressures. So what can they do to help, then?

Well, at their best, I think, novels create ‘literary spaces’ in which people can think about their lives and make some progress towards their own answers. Certainly, whether you’re writing or reading, discussing a novel in a book group or dreaming about the characters you might one day put in your own book, fiction is both an escape and a reassurance, a way of finding different ways of looking at life.

But if I wanted to find answers for the women who people my novels – if I wanted to use the author’s privilege of tweaking their lives, dropping insights into their minds, nudging them towards being at peace with themselves – what might I offer them? What would I like to say to them, before the final page arrives and it’s too late to help them?

Well, firstly, I’d want to persuade them that choice is a benefit rather than a burden: to help them see what’s on offer as a menu of options, and make it clear that you don’t have to choose EVERYTHING on the menu – or certainly not all at once. Another privilege of being an author, of course, is that you get to see the whole story, so it’s easy to see that life is long, that very few choices are irreversible, and that the landscape looks very different as you move through different phases of life. It isn’t just one choice you get, but a whole sequence of them. Lots of people (both men and women) have several different careers these days, and reinvent themselves in new guises and identities. We all need to see life as a narrative, with new chapters ahead, new pages to be turned, surprise twists in store – and perhaps novels can help us do that.

Secondly, I’d want my female characters to understand that it’s important that women are gentle on themselves, and don’t beat themselves up because they don’t measure up to some abstract ideal. Life is complicated and challenging, and there’s a difference between what we can do and what we want to do: part of the struggle for equality is to overcome the kind of guilt men very rarely feel about choosing a particular avenue in life (and thereby leaving other things aside).

Of course my characters are as susceptible as anyone to the mythologising of ‘having it all’. Their lives, too, can become a relentless slog to get through each day; they too can set themselves up to fail, and I grieve for their disappointments and their harsh judgements of themselves. But I’d like them – and my female readers – to understand that despite all this it’s a wonderful thing to be a woman, and to have the option of childbearing, of breastfeeding, of mothering, as well as being a surgeon or a pilot, an engineer or an entrepreneur or a writer. Of course men can share the responsibilities and the labour and the pleasures of bringing up children – and it’s important that they do – but we have a headstart over them, and we shouldn’t let anyone tell us that’s not a boon.

(c) Rachel Crowther

About The Things You Do For Love

Flora Macintyre, surgeon-mother-wife-authority, has sustained a formidable career and a tempestuous marriage for almost forty years. Widowed and retired at sixty, she is forced to face up to both the past and the future – to come to terms with the compromises and sacrifices that have shaped her life, and to work out what is left for her now her career is over and her daughters have grown up.

Travelling through France after the death of her husband, eminent music critic Henry Jones, Flora meets a wine merchant in the Loire Valley and agrees to swap houses with him for the summer. In the dusty setting of St Rémy, she begins to construct a new kind of life for herself. Meanwhile, her daughters are struggling with their own lives back in London. Lou, a successful city lawyer, is pregnant, and bewildered by the destabilising of her relationship with Alice, a sculptor whose latest collection has just won a major prize. Kitty, a reluctant music student, is swept off her feet both by the unexpected discovery of her creative talent and by her conflicted passion for fellow student Daniel. When each is devastated by a personal crisis, they flee to France to join their mother, and the stage is set for the family’s secrets to be uncovered at last.

THE THINGS YOU DO FOR LOVE is about how we tell the story of our lives, and about our capacity for love. Richly woven through with art and music, it is a page-turner of emotional depth, eloquence and wisdom.

‘A wonderful page-turner of a novel about the complexity of female life, by a new writer who understands it all too well. You can have it all, but only if you’re prepared to pay the price.’ Fay Weldon

In bookshops now, you can pick up your copy online here!

Rachel Crowther qualified as a doctor and worked in the NHS for twenty years before succumbing to a lifelong yearning to write fiction, previously indulged during successive bouts of maternity leave. She has an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from Oxford Brookes, and a string of prizes for her short fiction.

Her first novel, THE PARTRIDGE AND THE PELICAN, was published in 2011 and was a Tatler ‘sizzling summer read’. She has five children, two mad dogs and an abiding passion for music, art, cooking and travel, both in Britain and further afield. She currently lives in Surrey