Come off it Nicola, who are you trying to kid?

Until her sacking hit the headlines earlier this year, nobody knew much about Nicola Horlick - then suddenly everybody wanted to know more. What was she really like - and what did it all mean? Now that extracts of her book have been published, it's perfectly clear - to everyone except Nicola herself, that is.

Ann Treneman
Thursday 18 September 1997 23:02

Here was a City high-flier who wasn't afraid to fight back when Morgan Grenfell fired her earlier this year. Here was a mother of five who still managed to get the lipstick on straight. Nicola Horlick was gutsy, she was savvy, she was Superwoman.

So she should have been our hero. But somehow she wasn't. "Your all just jealous," a (male) colleague said. Perhaps. After all, Nicola made a fortune while the rest of us were probably not earning even as much as the man at the next desk. Her children were not only well-behaved, but they had matching outfits. She had the perfect nanny, a presentable husband, a desirable address.

But the uneasiness would not go away, and each time her name came up the queasiness returned. There was something strange about this woman who enjoyed giving us pearls of wisdom as much as she liked wearing the things around her neck. Her entire life seemed to be out of some Eighties time warp. She loved to juggle her life. She loved making lists. Life was frantic but full. Something was wrong, though it wasn't easy to say what.

Now we know, thanks to an interview in The Daily Telegraph and its serialisation of her new book (yes, Nicola writes, too) called Can You Have It All? I don't know why she bothered to make it a question, since she clearly knows the answer. "I am a planner. I have an electronic diary and my Economist diary because I have to think months ahead," she said. This attitude extends to the conception of her children, all of whom were born at the end of the year so that her maternity leave could include the Christmas holidays. "I am just very lucky. I have a perfect 28-day cycle. I know precisely when I am ovulating."

It is no surprise to discover that Nicola was hyperactive as a child and still only sleeps six hours a night. She feels unwell if she has a lie-in. She is an over-achiever in almost every way. She likes her kitchen shiny, her children well-scrubbed, her husband in the background. "I'm very traditional. I think a woman is responsible for thinking about everything - the children, the loo paper," she says. She may be a demon, but she can also be demure about it.

None of this is what is wrong with Nicola, however. So what if she is a control freak? Most chronic over-achievers are. The thing that is wrong here is that she is in absolute denial about what it means to be a working mother. She believes - and is not shy of saying so - that she would give up work if she felt that her children were suffering in any way. This from a woman who gave a successful presentation for a $750m account while her leukaemia-stricken daughter, Georgie, lay in hospital on the critical list. Her boss was away, she says, and she simply had to do it.

Evidently Nicola talks a great deal about the importance of the maternal instinct and points out that her husband and her children back her 100 per cent. "If I felt my children were suffering in any way, of course I would give up," she says. "Not least because if Georgie died I might well feel guilty for not having seen enough of her. I told Georgie, `Don't worry, Mummy will give up work,' and she said, `Don't, you'll be bored.' But I've never felt guilty. I really haven't."

I haven't heard this kind of thing for years. It used to be quite the thing to offer up such justifications for working outside the home. I know because I have interviewed scores of working mothers on the subject. Everyone's husband and children were 100 per cent behind them. There was a lot of talk about giving quality, not quantity time, to their children. "I'm really working for the sake of my family," said women who seemed to me to be working for the sake of their sanity. "My children will always come first and they know that."

Gradually we started admitting that things might be a little more complicated. We gave up the idea that you can cram a whole day of parenting into an hour in the morning and an hour at night and not suffer any consequences. We admitted that some of us were working for ourselves, not our families. In our hearts we now know that we cannot have it all. As I write this, my children are at home missing me. They want me to be there and I am not there for them. That is the reality of being a working mother and that is the reality that Nicola Horlick never acknowledges.

This lack of awareness means we have little to learn from her. Her views may be interesting in a freakish sort of way, but there is nothing of the role model in them. The challenge of the Nineties is to find new ways to balance work and home for both men and women. That's the future and Superwoman doesn't live there any more.

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