Working full-time is hard enough when you have a child or two, but Ruth Kelly has four. She also has a new job, as Secretary of State for Education. If she really can manage to transform the schools system and satify the needs of her own little ones (not to mention herself and her husband) she will deserve the title of Superwoman. That's what some astonished people call Kelly and even women like myself, who may not be in high office but hold down demanding jobs and have big families. We know the truth, of course: we are much more likely to feel exhausted, frustrated and guilty than super, but somehow we manage. And we are all watching Ms Kelly with sympathy. The MP was in the first flush of new motherhood when I met her seven years ago: baby Eamonn was only weeks old, the pram was by the door and a rattle joined the newspapers on her coffee table. She had just been elected to Parliament and I was there to ask how she was going to do it; combining life in Parliament with the demands of a new baby didn't sound exactly a picnic.
Little did we know (or, at least, little did I know - Kelly may have suspected it all along) that less than eight years later she'd be looking back on that time as a comparative breeze. Eamonn has been joined by three sisters (the youngest of whom, Niamh, is only 18 months old) and Kelly is no longer your average MP.
She no longer discusses the details of her domestic life but was more forthcoming in 1997: she reckoned that it couldn't be that hard to put a little sleeping baby into his car seat for the slog up the M1 to her Bolton constituency, where she'd be spending weekends. What's more, she said, a lot of the work an MP did would fit very easily around the needs of an infant: unlike many working mothers, she wouldn't have to be in an office at 8am every weekday. Often, the baby could be in his crib beside her while she was reading her papers or writing her speeches. How hard could it be?
I was one baby ahead of her back then, with two kids under five. I didn't want to be rude, but from where I was sitting it didn't look quite as easy as she was making out. Even if she really found those early months easy, surely it's become difficult and stressful since to juggle so many competing needs. Kelly's answer would probably be that the needs don't compete. She's well known in Whitehall for being the minister who says no to red boxes. Hints given during her years as a junior member of the Blair team suggest that she believes there's a place for everything, and that if you keep your work in one strict compartment and your family life in another, all can be well.
But is that true? My daughters range in age from two to 12, so I'm a few years down the line in combining work and motherhood and I know it doesn't get any easier. When you've got babies and pre-schoolers you honestly believe, as a mother, that the hardest part is finding childcare that's good and affordable, and you look forward to a time when they're at school and life will be easier. But then reception class beckons, and within a year or two you've realised the terrible truth: it's a lot harder to absent yourself from part of your children's lives when they're older than it is when they're tiny.
Those adorable toddlers who were oh-so-delighted to see you whenever you could slot them in have become stroppy, hypercritical individuals with needs that frequently - in their opinion- require sorting out right now. In the middle of your meeting if you've been daft enough to leave your mobile on. In the middle of your call if, like me, you work from home and haven't locked your door before lifting the receiver to start an interview.
You might be able to ignore the niggling feeling at the back of your mind that you've not seen as much of your two-year-old this week, but you've no chance of ignoring the 12-year-old who crashes into your study to ask which pair of shoes is right for her Christmas party outfit.
If you're not around enough, your children have ways of letting you know. Last week I had too many pieces to write; one day I worked from early morning until 10.30pm. After school the children were in the care of a wonderful au pair and, later, their father was there for them too. But as I was creeping downstairs from my attic workroom I heard Rosie, who's 12, calling out to me from her bedroom. "I've been keeping myself awake," she said. "I was watching the study door because I knew you'd come out eventually. I really, really need to talk to you ..."
It makes me want to weep, but I know I'm lucky. What would be far worse would be having children who've become so fed up of waiting for their mother to show up that they don't hold out any chance of a chat any more. And it must be so hard to have to do this with a job you hate, because you really need the money.
What of fathers? They have been having four kids and more and schlepping off to the office, or the Cabinet, for ages, but men in their 50s have told me in tears about the children they love but hardly know. Men can't have it all any more than women, but as mothers we expect to give more, and believe our children expect more from us.
Like Kelly's husband Derek Gadd, my husband Gary frequently looks after the children. The girls love that daddy collects them from school, knows all their friends and knows Girls Aloud are better than McFly. But for them, and, I suspect, for Kelly's children too, there comes a point where it's not enough. My children have needs that only I can meet. That's a lot of needs waiting for you when you finally leave your office.
'There are always so many needs to meet'
Helen Woolhouse, 53, is a solicitor and mother of five: her daughters are Harriet, 17, Florence, 15, Eliza, 14, and 12-year-old twins Kate and Matilda. Husband Martin Ackland, 50, is also a solicitor and the family lives in south London.
I work three days in my office, a day at home and I have Fridays off. It's been tough going at times. I walk through the door and it's "mummy, mummy, mummy": they're all wanting to tell you things from all quarters, and sometimes there's someone who isn't telling you things and she may be the person who needs you most at that time and you have to go and seek her out.
I think it was worst about three or four years ago; sometimes I'd get home from work and I would hardly dare to walk through the door. I would walk round the block and take a deep breath before I went in - there was always just so much waiting for you inside. At least it meant that, whatever work worries I'd got, they disappeared immediately; you had to tune in right away to what the children were saying.
On reflection I think maybe I should have worked a little less when the children were younger, but on the whole I have no regrets. You feel a bit remote in the school playground, and at work you can't hang around for a drink, but you make it through. But there are a lot of needs to meet and you have to make space for your own, too. I play tennis every Friday for an hour and a half, and that's sacred.
'I gave too much of myself to work'
Joanna Wilkins, 25, is mother to twins Abigail and Madeline, four, Dylan, three, and 18-month-old Joshua. Her partner, Glenn Weston, is 32 and is a shift worker at a brewery. The family lives in Northampton.
I've worked since I had the twins, as manager of a brain injury unit. My employers have been wonderful - they couldn't have been more accommodating. But since I had Joshua I've decided to give it up and to try to set up as a doula, working from home helping other women who've just had babies. It's not going to pay the bills, but it's a lot more flexible than my old job. If you're going to make the sacrifices you have to make as a working mother with a lot of children, it really has to be for something you feel passionately about.
I felt I was ploughing too much of myself into my job and that it would be much better to put that time and effort into my little ones at home. The other problem was that, although I had to work only three shifts a week, I still had lots to do at home for my NVQ. And it was really, really tough to have to study in the evening as well as working during the day and looking after my children. The pressure was enormous.
Something has to give, and that's been my relationship with Glenn. He's always been amazingly supportive, but he felt resentful. He was working long hours too, and then, on his days off, he was having to look after all the children. We may still be passing ships when I'm doing my new job, but at least it's for something I believe in.
'My family keeps me grounded'
Jo Palmer is a mother of five and a senior executive with Lloyds TSB. She lives in Sevenoaks in Kent with husband Steve and Chris, 19, Stephanie, 17, Grace, 14, Luke, 11, and eight-year-old Josie.
People do mention superwoman when they meet me and I tell them I've got five children and a demanding job, but what I've learned is that you can't give 110 per cent in every direction. I used to try to make everything perfect, but I've realised that doesn't make me happy and it doesn't make the people around me happy. Now I try to enjoy my work when I'm at work and my family when I'm with my family, and life is better.
My mother came to live with us 10 years ago and my husband is around at home as well some of the time, so there's an extended family there even when I'm not in the house. I work from home one day a fortnight, and that's important because it means you can have those chats when people come in from school.
I think one of the hardest things is when more than one child needs you at the same time; you can plan for work commitments, but you can't plan for a child or three going through a difficult patch and needing you around more.
My family keeps me grounded; when you're in a senior role there's a lot of deferring to you, and then you walk through the front door and someone is shouting "Mum, where are my trainers?". It helps you keep life in perspective: last week I'd had a difficult day at work, then I went to a nativity play. The scenery fell down and Mary dropped Baby Jesus and it was all absolutely wonderful, and I thought: "This is real, too".Reuse content