Fiona Millar: how to cope with motherhood...and Alastair
PUBLISHED: 15:10 23 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 07 September 2010
The mess in the house this morning was unbelievable! cries Fiona Millar, journalist, education campaigner and former right hand woman to Cherie Blair. She is the describing the chaos that descended on the home she shares with her partner, Tony Blair s f
'The mess in the house this morning was unbelievable!" cries Fiona Millar, journalist, education campaigner and former right hand woman to Cherie Blair.
She is the describing the chaos that descended on the home she shares with her partner, Tony Blair's former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, in Gospel Oak at the start of the Easter holidays when her student sons, Rory and Calum return from university to join their sister, Grace, 14.
As we chat in her sunny, comfy kitchen, her own immaculate appearance, (elegant boots, tailored trousers and a black diamante-buttoned boyfriend cardigan) and the impossibly serenely tidy worktops are testament to the work that has gone on behind the scenes. Even Molly, the King Charles spaniel, sits tidily on her rug on the sofa behind us.
As a working mother Millar has done it all, from racing back to a full time full-on job at the Daily Express soon after the birth of her son Rory to going part-time and then going full-time again for the Blairs.
She finally cut the career cord in 2003 to embrace her current career juggling a 'working from home' writing career with bouts of journalism, television and campaigning. In her spare time she chairs two school governing committees, the campaigning group Comprehensive Future and the Family and Parenting Institute, based in Kentish Town.
If anyone has an inside track on the inconveniently conflicting and confused motivations of a working mother she is it. Her own career as a working mother has taken in almost every combination.
When Rory was born she returned to work as soon as she could without really considering any alternative.
"I did what I was brought up to do," she explained, which was as the daughter of liberal working parents, (her mother, Audrey, is a retired teacher and her late father a journalist) to set her sights on a career.
But once she had had children she realised life was no longer so simple. She came home from work one evening to find her baby son reaching out to her father rather than to her. She decided it was time to give up work, or rather working that way, and so began her 20-odd year experiment covering every possible combination of work and motherhood, from working practically 24 hours a day to none and everything in between.
Which brings us to her book, The Secret World of the Working Mother - a candid clear-eyed analysis of the complications which drive career women once they have children.
"Alastair and I were absolutely equal in our careers before Rory was born," she said, adding that they earned the same, both worked daft hours and domestic issues were so minor as to not create a problem.
His career grew to dangerously high proportions as he became Tony Blair's right hand man, while hers, though still high profile, remained pretty much in his shadow, and had to accommodate almost every aspect of domestic life, so much so that Alastair's lack of domestic nous even dominates the publicity for her book.
"I know people will think it sounds faintly ridiculous to say I have not been successful," she says. "But when you look around at my contemporaries who did things a different way and made different choices you can see that I haven't achieved professionally what they have - whether that is to be an editor or a star feature writer or whatever it is that you think you will achieve when you begin your career."
And it is this difference, this complete divergence of working patterns which affects working women once they have had children which prompted her to write the book.
When she began, part of her thought that in doing so she would discover the secret of successfully combining the two, but she quickly realised, as she criss-crossed the country interviewing mothers about the working lives they either chose or had imposed upon them, that the solutions are as numerous and as varied as the women themselves.
Women who once thought nothing of going back to work are now feeling a double pressure of not being the perfect mother, she said. This is borne out by report after report which highlights problems of feral children, fat children and now malnourished children, all of which tends to end up in the lap of the absent working mother.
"People feel there's something not quite right in the world of childhood and I think there is a bit of a backlash against working mothers" adding that her mother raised her to have a career so when her first son was born 21 years ago the thought of not going straight back to the job she had worked so hard for did not occur to her.
Certainly her book has uncovered dilemmas, such as the mother who worried that her baby would become more devoted to the nanny than to her so chose to put her baby into a nursery, which would never have occurred to the 70s Super Woman generation.
But each generation produces its own solution and one is Women Like Us, a school gate recruitment agency set up by two North London mothers to help bridge the gap between employers who needed skilled and experienced staff and women who had qualifications and experience to spare but only the hours between 9.15 and 3.15pm in which to put them to use.
"Women Like Us originally asked me to write the book," she said and the recruitment agency, now based in Bickerton Road, Tufnell Park is a rare recession success story. "They have never been busier," said Fiona, adding that as the downturn continues ever more former career women will find themselves trying to get back to work.
She intersperses interviews with women who have covered every possible combo from racing back full time as she once did to fleeing to the country to set up their cutesy businesses with her own memories of domestic horror stories.
At one point she describes how, clad in her work clothes and "stupid" shoes, but desperate to get the laundry on she fell head first down the stairs. She is briefly, but pointedly, candid about Alastair's lack of domestic prowess, but points out that he makes up for his inability to mow the lawn with a talent and love for looking after the children.
"Here they come," says Fiona Millar, as if on cue, Alastair and his equally imposing student son, Rory, saunter into the kitchen: "The Alpha males". She is only half joking as she watches her boys affectionately reach over her to raid the fruit bowl and the papers respectively.
They are funny, entertaining, and engaging, but they fill the room. Suddenly you can see what she is getting at when she says that she probably hasn't fulfilled her professional potential because of her children.
But this theory is swiftly countered by Rory who doesn't even look up from the sports pages to point out: "Well without me you wouldn't have been able to write the book would you?"
You can see why she wouldn't have had it any other way.
o The Secret World of the Working Mother by Fiona Millar, published by Vermilion is out now, priced £12.99.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ham&High. Click the link in the orange box above for details.