WANTING IT ALL - DEBBIE SANDFORD

WANTING IT ALL - DEBBIE SANDFORD - I threw in the towel almost a year ago. The towel with the corporate logo emblazoned on it saying: 'I am a serious person with an important job.' Once you might have called me a high-flyer; now I'm firmly grounded, unemp

by DEBBIE SANDFORD, who formerly worked at McKinsey and RandomHouse but is now happy to be out of a job
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I threw in the towel almost a year ago. The towel with the corporate logo emblazoned on it saying: 'I am a serious person with an important job.' Once you might have called me a high-flyer; now I'm firmly grounded, unemployed.

Stopping work was terrifying. On my last day, I sat in my glass-fronted office pushing papers around mindlessly, wondering what I'd committed myself to.

I wanted to spend more time with my children, who were the catalyst for my decision to quit. But I knew that looking after them full-time was guaranteed to drive me back to work, and I was fortunate enough to have some childcare.

So what would I do with myself? Would my brain turn to mushy peas? What would I say when, faced with the stranger at the dinner party, that dreaded question hovered in the air: 'So, what is it exactly that you do?'

Would I find myself staring wistfully at the Harvey Nicks window display, counting the pennies in my threadbare purse? Would I ever find my way back into gainful employment or had the doors of industry slammed forever shut?

Many professional people I know dream about career breaks or a more flexible working life. I hope this column will provide food for thought from the other side. People tell me I'm the last person they would have thought would stop working. So if I can do it ...

I got onto the new establishment ladder pretty young. By 21 I was number-crunching at McKinsey and by 25 I had a Harvard MBA under my belt. The goal was to start running a business, preferably a creative one. An average working week was 60 hours. By the time I stopped working I had been running a division of Random House, the publisher, for two years. Onwards and upwards was my mantra.

The second baby put paid to all that. After Tessa, my first, was born, I was excited to be back at my desk three months later. There was no real need to rush back, but nappy-changing and nose-wiping weren't for me.

So, four years on and pregnant with my second child, I thought I knew what was coming. I had moved into book publishing and I loved my job.

I was convinced I'd have the baby and go straight back to work.

But after Beth was born I felt differently. I revelled in each developmental stage. I found any business issues that intruded into my life intensely irritating. I put my starting date back, and when I did start I just didn't care as much. My ambition, always a bright fire within me, had died. It didn't seem important to jump the next hurdle in an impressively short time, or indeed at all.

Meanwhile, daily living had reached breaking point. If two careers and a child is an action-packed schedule, then two careers and two children feels like a runaway express train. My husband Rupert and I didn't stop from morning to night, nor indeed, with two young children to tend to, much in the night-to-morning stretch either.

Our family was a disaster waiting to happen. Work and the children jostled for first place, our relationship came a poor second, family and friends were third and there was no time at all for me. As a means to an end - chief executive by 40, for example - living like this might be justified.

But the impossibly high price we were paying forced me to question the value of my purchase.

Rupert was never going to quit. So I did. This came like a bolt from the blue at the time.

Why the second child and not the first? Well, there was the real possibility that my second baby would be the last. I wanted to savour everything - cutting corners would not be fulfilling.

You are forced by the arrival of children to re-evaluate your whole life, questioning long-standing assumptions and beliefs about yourself. But if the kids were the catalyst, they were not the only reason I left the security blanket of full-time, paid employment. I wanted to take stock of my life, to use different bits of my brain. I absolutely did not want to do anything goal-oriented that would look good on a CV.

A year on, all I can say is that I love it. I feel a constant sense of contentment punctuated by flashes of euphoria. This probably sounds sickeningly smug, for which I apologise, but I still sometimes rub my eyes in amazement that I have been so lucky. And I keep scanning the horizon for the thunder clouds.

Since I stopped work I have got fit - three times a week in the gym is a minimum. I have been to magic school, and have taken the children on holiday to Croatia and Canada. My bridge has improved to club level. We've moved house. And, best of all, on a daily basis I have a little time to read a book, play with the children or just sit and stare into space.

Of course, life is never perfect; there are always questions, issues, worries. But it is a lot better than it was, for me and my family. Whether anyone will ever give me a 'proper job' again remains to be seen, but for now I can safely say I have no immediate plans to return to work.

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