No Compromise parents and a new kind of success

10 Feb

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times Style section last weekend… so that’s why it’s a bit fashiony to begin with, but I think the more general point about high flying women – and men too – using their career clout to carve out more time to spend with their families is a real issue. I think there is a new definition of what success looks like out there: pure status – big offices, fat cars, a big cheque just don’t do it for Generation X. For us, success is all about having control over our lives so we can make time for the things and people that are more important to us. It’s a choice I’ve made myself and one I see increasing members of my generation making…

“A fashion label’s catwalk show is the highlight of the year – the moment when its latest wares catch the full glare of the world’s media and global buyers descend. So why did LVMH, the owners of French luxury brand Celine,  announce that this season, there would be no show – despite the date, March 4th , having been in every self-respecting fashionista’s Smythson diary for months?

The answer is that its multi-award winning British designer, Phoebe Philo, 38, is pregnant with her third child – due in April.  Explaining the catwalk no-show, Marco Gobbetti, CEO of Celine, said “A runway show is a very demanding and personal engagement for a creative director, the objective [presumably Philo’s objective rather than the brand’s] is to simplify.”

phoebe philo

Phoebe Philo, a no-compromise parent and fashion designer

It is a measure of Philo’s power her impending confinement (she isn’t even on maternity leave yet) should cause a giant luxury conglomerate to take a decision so counter to its financial interests.  Yet when it comes to refusing to compromise on her work/life balance for the benefit of her employers, Philo has form. In 2006, she resigned from Chloe citing “personal reasons”. She continued, “including especially to spend more time with my baby over the coming months.”

Her actions made her a pin up for a new breed of ‘no-compromise parents’; a new kind of role model for the increasing numbers of Generation X (those born between 1968 and 1980) who are refusing to sacrifice their family lives on the altar of traditional career ambitions or the demands of their employers.

In this, as in so much else, Philo is leading the pack. While it has become chic in fashion circles for women designers to wear their mum/career juggling roles rather more publicly than the rest of us, Philo’s insistence on carving out separate time for her family, rather than forcing the kids to muddle along with her work requirements marks her out from the rest. Last September, for instance, Victoria Beckham launched her spring/summer fashion line in New York with 8 week old Harper, her baby daughter, on her knee. She then proceeded to teeter round New York in 8 inch Laboutin heels with her daughter on her arm. Such mum/child/work synergy, she claims, is just what being a working mother is about. (I suppose it helps if you own the company, I can’t believe that most bosses would take quite so kindly to female employees bringing their own tiny babies to meetings). “There are quite a few video conferences at 5am with me in my dressing gown holding the baby,” Beckham told Women’s Wear Daily. “As any working mum out there knows, it really is like juggling glass balls when you’ve got the kids and a husband to look after, and you’re passionate about your career. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

For some, such macho public mothering takes its toll. Amanda Holden, determined to film Britain’s Got Talent in the eighth month of her pregnancy ended up nearly dying in hospital when the baby came early (only days after she’d teetered into the studio on decidedly unpregnancy-friendly 6inch heels). Alice Temperley, too, found that intense work and uber-parenting are an uncomfortable mix. She has spoken movingly about the intolerable strain she put on herself when she launched her diffusion line, Alice; starting work only two weeks after her son was born. “We had to do it to survive the recession, I knew I had to do it for myself and for the company – and at least my son was around me. I’d be taking meetings with him breast feeding under my shirt and he’d sleep on some sheets under my desk. I still don’t really know how I did it… I’m still recovering from the hammering.” She has since learnt the error of her ways, and downshifted. She now spends half the week in Somerset with her children.

Louise Mensch, Conservative MP and no-compromise parent

Louise Mensch MP is another ‘no-compromise parent’. During the biggest day of her career, when she cross-examined James Murdoch at the Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Select Committee, she apologised to the chairman that she would have “to leave early to pick up her kids”. Tweeting afterwards that: “As a single mother, it’s a job that I try not to delegate the chairman gave me the opportunity to ask all my questions in full first.” Her act stunned and polarised working mothers everywhere. “Why couldn’t she just get a childminder to pick them up like the rest of us?” one high powered Magazine editor and mum of three remonstrated. But the twitterati were split, with some – including me – giving Mensch three cheers for her powerful public demonstration of the dual importance of careers in children in many of our lives.

Philo and Mensch are examples of a growing trend of parents successful enough to use their clout at work to carve out sacred time with their children. As a new generation comes to power in  which many men feel as passionately as women about not missing out on their children growing up – David Cameron shifted the time of cabinet meetings so he and Nick Clegg could take their children to school –  no-compromise parents are here to stay.

A few months ago I attended a swanky breakfast organised by a top head hunter bemoaning the fact that she kept approaching male, fortysomething corporate high fliers for CEO roles, but kept  being turned down.  “I am increasingly seeing highly talented individuals reject the top jobs,” she explained. “High salaries alone can no longer attract the interest of a new generation of talented leaders. Many are saying there is more to life than financial rewards and many people I approach for big jobs are choosing job satisfaction, a happy family life and emotional wellbeing instead.”

One of those cited in her report is Anthony Thompson, a former managing director of George, Asda’s successful own-brand clothing line and tipped as a future leader. But to the surprise of the business world, he took a far smaller job as CEO of Fat Face, the surf brand. Why? Well, it’s a field he loves and a much more family  and life-friendly existence. These days, he works in Havant, Hampshire, not London, so every morning he can swim in the sea before cycling to his office where he has ditched his suit for Fat Face shorts and flip flops. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Sure, I still work a 14-hour day if I want to, but I can also choose to spend time with my wife and take my kids to school.”

This desire for control over the demands of working lives in order to be there in the way they want for their families is a defining feature in the lives of Generation X, according to research by Lauren Chivee of the Centre for Work Life Policy. “The hall mark of Generation X is that they are driven to balance in their working lives. A meaningful career for this cohort is less about title and promotion and more about seeking for control over their work life so they can have a meaningful personal life. It is clear that the definition of what success looks like is changing for this generation, however much money or prestige is on offer, if the price is the sacrifice of home time, or prized hobbies, it’s not worth it to them.”

Phoebe Philo, once more, is ahead of the curve.”

What do you think? Is there a new definition of success out there?

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4 Responses to “No Compromise parents and a new kind of success”

  1. Helen February 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    I think all the examples you have cited have lots of money behind them already and most people don’t have that luxury of choice.

    • reesesrants February 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      Helen. You are spot on. I enjoyed this piece and think it’s true that success is about more than just a pay cheque. But where it falls down is by focusing only high fliers – especially the truly GHASTLY Louise Mensch.

  2. reesesrants February 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    should read “only on high fliers”

    • tootingjo March 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

      I think this is very interesting. As a working mum in a senior role I am happy with my decision to give time to my family and not push my career as far as it could go. The more women who show strength in combining work and family the better it is for us all, so yay to this ‘new definitionof success.’

      However I see a contradiction in your last couple of posts, in your previous post you talked about getting more women to the top and finding leadership roles. But is this where women really want to be? I define success by my happy work/life balance not 14 hour days and board meetings.

      I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she doesn’t think ‘what are women doing wrong’ when she sees few women at the top. I want her to respect women’s smart decisions in loving family life, and using their equality wisely to take the best of both worlds with career and family. I think the side effect of this approach is less women ‘at the top’ but plenty of happy powerful smart women.

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