The real dilemma for career mothers, argues Angela Neustatter, is how much family time they actually want...
Gaby Lester had her son Sam, now nine years old, while principal violin with the Chamber Orchestra of the World, a job which required her to travel for six months a year. "It was a coveted job and my husband was in the orchestra, too," she says. "For 18 months after Sam was born, I took him with me. But it was a huge strain trying to keep up my playing to the same standard and giving Sam the attention he needed. I felt I was running on back-up and guilty I wasn't coping well enough."

Gaby finally left the orchestra, like all previous female members who had become mothers. "It's a job that eats your life," she says. "I decided I had to take a less satisfying job in England so that I could have time to spend with Sam. It's been a sacrifice because I've grown up with ambition, devoting everything to my career."

Last week, in a blaze of publicity, top Pepsi executive Brenda Barnes resigned her job to spend more time with her children. When Work Doesn't Work Anymore (published by Simon and Schuster on 13 October) tells a similar story. Elizabeth Perle McKenna describes how motherhood meant quitting a high-pressure career of 15 years. "I'd been focused for so long on my profession that the agenda I had set in my early twenties had never been revised. On the surface, everything looked fine. Inside, however, I began feeling as though I was failing. I winced as I saw nannies wheeling babies down the street, knowing mine was one of them."

This volte-face by a woman with a life filled to bursting comes just after publication of Nicola Horlick's book Can You Have It All? (Macmillan), in which she explains how she manages to pursue a vastly demanding career setting up charities and service five children, and still feel she is on top of it all and that life is good for everyone concerned. If life is all about a packed schedule with kids slotted in just like business meetings, only for shorter spells of time, then it may be possible to have it all. What you cannot have, living this way, is what Helena Kennedy QC describes as "languorous time".

Kennedy felt she had to stop and assess a life into which she was packing not just her immensely demanding work as a defence lawyer, but time given to political groups, human rights organisations, radio and TV appearances. She had two young children, one of whom was close to puberty, at the time she had decided to turn down a TV series. "I realised it wasn't fair," she says. "The children were not getting time with me as a mother, just being there for them in an open-ended way, and I felt guilty about that. I realised how much I wanted languorous time with them for myself."

In the early days of the new women's movement, it was almost sacrilege to talk in this way. The determination to prove we could and would match men at work meant you kept quiet about maternal yearnings. Even now, there are plenty of women in cherished positions who know the price of continuing to climb the career ladder means not letting children impede requirements of the job. How far this has changed can be heard in the words of a female executive with a large media company who told a young female recruit: "I am a parent and I realise it is important people with children should be able to leave before eight o'clock - except when there's a particular need for you to stay."

Yet, now that women have found they can equal men at work, and see as little of their children as men have long been criticised for doing, it seems they are beginning to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about the price of their ambition. Increasingly, women who rarely, if ever, see their kids before they go to bed, let alone have time for a bath, a chat, a story, whose home time is eaten into by work calls and a briefcase with documents requiring attention when they are home, are paying heed to the thought of Sebastian Kraemer, eminent child psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic: "Why bother to have children if you are not going to make any time to be with them - to know them?"

It was something that hit me when my first son was two and a half. I had a job as section editor on a national newspaper I had always wanted to work for at the time, but the job meant my hours frequently ran into evenings. When I got home to my son, I was usually fraught, angry and weary. Even though his father often managed to take over from our excellent childminder at a reasonable time, he still seemed to want me. But by the time we met, I was often exhausted and ready to put my feet up with a glass of wine. The more my child made demands, the more I wanted him to go to bed. Then it hit me: I was spending most of my waking time at work, yet when I had a chance to be with my precious little boy, I was wishing him away. What had gone wrong?

It was then that I quit, knowing that by going freelance I was stepping off the career ladder, but the feeling that my child was suffering had become unbearable. It was a difficult decision, but by choosing to cut back working hours I have been around to hear my two children's jokes and stories, their school worries and intimate little secrets. Of course, I sometimes look at the ground I have lost, but the pleasure of knowing and enjoying my children seems worth more than what Horlick has.

This is not a discussion about whether women should work or not. Clearly, most of us need and often want to do so. Besides, it is well documented that with good care, children can thrive away from parents for a certain amount of time. The question is, do we choose to leave them more than is necessary because of personal ambition?

Sebastian Kraemer wonders how we can expect to have intimate and rewarding relationships with our children if time with them is reduced to fragments. After all, few of us would expect our relationships with partners to flourish under these circumstances. Or the children may become so difficult that it seems more pleasant to be at work, a syndrome documented by Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild of the University of California, who has studied the lives of executives in American corporations, reported in this paper last week.

Fiona Wallace, a radio producer, found herself in just such a situation. Her three young children were wild, attention seeking and demanding in the "hour or so I ever managed to have with them in the evenings and at weekends, when there were so often work phone calls and documents to be read or written. Frankly, I was pleased to get away." It was only when she fell ill and had to give up work for six months that she realised they were completely different when she was around. "They seemed confident I was there for them. I began to enjoy them in a way I'd never done before," she says.

But does it matter if we see little of our children growing up? It may matter more than we realise at the time. Researching my book on mid-life, I found men and women whose despair kicked in as they saw their children heading off to independent adult lives and realised that they had hardly known them. Andree Aelion Brooks in Children of Fast-Track Parents (Viking) found a high level of suffering in successful parents who had too little time to spot when their children were unhappy, suffering from low self- esteem because they felt undervalued, becoming depressed or getting into drugs. She says: "While the TV programmes and magazines of the day dwelt heavily upon the way in which it was possible to have it all, few people thought it necessary to step back and look at the way the parents' personal ambitions and lifestyle - which exacted a fearful toll on them - might be affecting the lives and behaviour of their children."

All this is important at a time when Horlick is, according to a recent survey, a role model for young women leaving school, and it does pose uncomfortable questions about how much we leave our children - and it is something men as well as women need to ask themselves, for their role in children's happiness is also vital. Yet, it may be worth listening to those people who have altered the balance between work and children and find it seems less a sacrifice than a gain. Focus, page 22, main paper

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