I lost my job the day my son, Joe, was born, so my work-life balance as a freelance journalist has been tied to my children growing up. I’ve given them breakfasts, packed them lunches and cooked them dinners. I’ve got them to school and gone on trips.
I’ve worked only the hours they were in paid-for nursery. I have worked around school hours, taking and collecting each day. And I’ve worked outside normal hours to free-up the days to spend with them.
Joe is now 20, having left home for Australia, and my daughter, Molly, is 17, completing A-levels and off to uni next year. But in that time the nature of work and the hours people work has worsened. Work now risks becoming all dominating.
My wife went back to freelance day shifts when Joe was five months old. There was no maternity pay for freelances, only incapacity benefit, and software upgrades meant skills went out of date fast. We paid for Joe to attend a day nursery.
I would drive, cycle or push him in a pushchair to the nursery, return home and work until time to collect him at 5.30. I would sneak in a daytime nap to make up for the loss of sleep at night (I got up so my wife could sleep through).
At lunchtime I would quickly make and eat a sandwich and then go to bed, with a notebook, pen and the phone on the bedside table in case anyone rang. In those days, people rarely rang between 1pm and 2pm – it was considered your lunch hour.
I later put my office in the loft and would even push the ladder up and close the hatch at 5.15 before I set off to collect my kids. My work hours were generally fixed, though, like every journalist, I had occasional out-of-hours calls.
School of hard knocks
When school started I walked or cycled Joe to school and Molly to nursery (eldest on a crossbar seat, youngest on a rear seat). To start with Joe was half days, so I would collect him and then ferry him to the paid nursery.
At this time we had to occasionally hire a babysitter if I were out over lunch or, once Joe started all day at school, if I were busy at the end of the school day.
When Molly started at school for half days we made that a more permanent relationship, employing the young woman full-time. She looked after the kids if necessary and did loads of admin, typing, filing and our accounts for us.
After doing shifts I was asked to edit Insurance Times. When I was asked for an interview, the boss, Jonathan Shephard, requested we do it at his house as he worked from home one morning a week so he could see his kids. I liked that.
But as soon as I started walking my children to school and coming in late on Wednesday mornings (we worked late every Tuesday), he complained. It became a tiresome battle.
Back at home I would schedule my work around school trips, volunteer days at school (building paths, refurbishing toilets etc) and INSET days (when school closes for staff training).
Most days I walked the 1.1 miles to school and back morning and afternoon, chatting with my children and with other parents doing the same walk.
There would then be lessons to get to – swimming, gymnastics, cricket, football – and sports matches or after-school clubs. In summer I would often also go straight to the park on the way home from school, just to play with the kids.
This all meant a bit of getting up early and working, plus some working early evening after we had all sat down to dinner together. I didn’t work any longer hours; they just weren’t “normal” hours.
This all came in handy for when the children no longer need walking to and from school and I was asked to work an early shift (from home).
Morning has broken (me)
I’d get up at 6am and write as many as nine news stories, posting them live to the Insurance Times (IT) website by 8am. I’d wake the house at 7am with cups of tea and hot chocolate.
I also worked for AOL money commissioning the select band of freelances to write stories for the site and writing several myself. Very few PR people answered calls at that time of the morning.
When we decided AOL needed a stock market announcement story after the 7 am opening – I was already reporting it for IT – we had to hire someone extra to do that.
This still meant I could volunteer at school, run the parents’ forum and attend meetings about the Building Schools for the Future project.
First Post (since 1840)
A little after IT took the early morning work in house (making a staff member travel to work early), I did a news-editing maternity cover for its rival Post Magazine, starting work in the office at 8am.
I cycled in, showered and breakfasted and was at my desk for 7am so I could commission AOL Money before starting the Post work. I finished at 4pm, except on press days.
Some press days involved the whole news staff having to wait until 9pm for the editor to approve the final page. Then I would cycle home.
It’s a dog’s life
These days, my wife and I work from home most of the time, sat 1.5m apart. We can spend all day together, for several days. Some days, if we were busy, we’d never leave the house.
We got a dog about two years ago and she, Bonnie, has revolutionised our life. We walk or run with her every morning before work – at least four miles, sometimes longer. And we are forced to break the afternoon for a second walk.
That has forced us to have some life back from a work-dominated day.
Change, we have
When I first freelanced, I set up an email address but nobody I worked for had email. I had to post or hand-deliver a disc. I was on a journalists’ forum on Compuserve – a sort of prototype Facebook group – that lingers on in email form.
It was unusual to find anyone at work before 9am or after 5.30pm. Some Friday afternoons I would go and play golf because most people had either left work early, were still “at lunch” or were back at their desk, slightly tipsy, not taking calls.
Recently I emailed a group of PR people at 6pm on a Friday. Two got back to me that night and one even phoned. The working week has extended, not shortened.
Now, by the time I have made and drunk my morning cup of tea I have checked emails, Twitter and Facebook and read my RSS news feeds, all on my iPhone. And I’ll check them all again at night.
If technology fails to give us more leisure time, it is not progress.