POWER MUMS: Isabel Dedring, London's deputy mayor for transport

The capital's transport guru says her role as a parent is changing as her children grow up.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Isabel grew up in Queens, New York: she has lived in London for fifteen years. She works full-time at City Hall and is married to a Brit: her husband is COO at Kings College Hospital. They have two boys aged six and three.

Tell me about your day

We have a full-time nanny, though increasingly I take the boys to school and nursery. I get into the office at around 8.30am and have to do a lot of site visits to see new housing developments, proposed tube extensions, etc.

Our nanny picks up the kids and we get home about 6.30 pm. In the evenings, we’ll often take them to the Heath to play or water the allotment, and  put them to bed around 8pm. I tend to go to bed around 10.30.

I generally work 9am till 6pm. If I didn’t have kids I would work longer hours,  but I’ve got better at leaving.

What works well?

It’s hard to find models of childcare that work at this stage. You have to find friends who haven’t stepped out of work and who have experienced the same thing who can give you advice.

Then there are ‘kerchunk’ moments in your life: I see it sometimes after maternity leave when people say they will come back and never show up again.

That wasn’t me - but I’m having one now. My son has just turned six and is a more complicated character than he was at one or two - and there is no amount of hired help that will make him feel better if doesn’t understand his maths or if a kid he likes in class doesn’t like him back. It is the first time I’ve really felt I need to be more present.

Do you ever think you should or could have been a stay at home mum?

I don’t think I could be one of those mums. It’s too monotonous, too boring for me. I was raised on the ethos that you can do anything and you should. I enjoy learning and acquiring knowledge and applying it and using it. I am really bad at organizing things, so that part of being a mum is not my skill set.

Do you enjoy your job?

It is such a great job - yet every day is frustrating in some way. I have had to redefine what a good day looks like. But it is also really exciting. On Friday I was at Tottenham Court Road station looking at the Crossrail extension. I was talking to a mining engineer,who has 30 years’ experience, who was working on a staircase positioned next to a sewer so you can’t use power tools: he is literally digging it by hand using thousand-year-old techniques.

It’s hard in that every day the temporal stuff can force out the strategic stuff. If a meeting can be a short telephone call to fix a problem it will be. It can be difficult because some people interpret meeting as a sign of your respect for them.

What systems do you have in place to make it all work?  

We’re trying to think about how things will change when my second son starts school and we don’t need a full-time nanny. I’ve been wondering why I am trying to find a super-structured solution to a problem that is only a few hours a day after school. So I’m trying to put together a patchwork of care. I’ve emailed around asking for help. So far so bad - the emails coming back say ‘We had that problem too and here is our really expensive solution’ or ‘yes, that’s hard, you’ll never find anyone’.

When doesn’t it work?

It’s the pastoral care. When one kid is acting out or troubled. You have a few weeks when something is troubling a kid when they’re not sleeping well, or have lost confidence in school or aren’t getting on with their brother and it takes time to get to the bottom of it. You have to spend extra time and get them back on track. I get upset if I can’t see the route to get them into a better place.

How do you manage the transition between work and home?

I used to be all about only working when I was at work, and then having only personal time at home that was totally protected. But I’ve let that go because this isn’t a job you can turn off. Once you get used to it it’s all OK, it just blends. If I need to call school during work hours then I feel OK about that but, equally, on a Sunday, if I have to call a borough leader, then that is OK too. It works. Although my family don’t always understand.

How do other mums perceive you?

I don’t begin to understand the "singles bar" style politics of the school gate! There are definitely different categories.  As you’d expect I get along most easily with other people who work as we’re in the same boat. It’s OK to be rushing because everyone is busy and no one is slighted. But obviously that is a generalisation; some of the mums who don’t work I really like.

The mums who are really engaged in the school and all the activities… you kind of don’t exist for them. I’ll see them twenty times and they look through me but that’s OK. I don’t feel too bad about not making the best cupcakes for the school fete or whatever it might be.

What support systems do you have?

I am so jealous of people who have families 10 minutes away for the times when one of the children is sick or you are late back. But our neighbour is wonderful. She’s a child developmental psychologist and does babysitting and has become part of the family.

My mum comes from the US quite a lot but my parents are getting older - they are 70 now - and I can see the difference in terms of what they are up for doing compared to when my oldest son was born.

Have your children changed your world view?

I think I’ve become more intuitive. I used to be very logical and make an argument with a conclusion sometimes against my own gut instinct. Now I know that that isn’t always how the world works. I have learnt more about the complexity and irrationality of how people think. You know, I used to be awful at balling up paper and throwing into the bin and getting it in on the first try. And now I am really good: I’ve become a lot more instinctive. Sometimes the logical solution isn’t the right answer.

Is there anything the government or business should do to help working families?

Yes. But one thing I don’t feel comfortable with is the whole quota thing. I agree having women on boards is great but so is having a mix of artists and engineers: gender is just one of things that should be in the mix. I don’t want to be on a board because of a quota; I don’t think anyone does.

Thriving or surviving?

Thriving. Definitely. But is it a sine curve, it could change at any time. My kids are going into a new phase with both of them in school, getting more mature, and that is more complicated.

When I look back over the last couple of years we’ve done a lot: the Tube performance improvements, what we’ve set out on cycling. But there’s a lot more to be done and that’s exciting. We still have to transform the road network. We’re still working with traffic junctions that are 40 years old - meanwhile, the rest of transport has moved on. We’ve got a big programme to invest more in public space, high streets, safer roads, all of that and there has been so much progress on algorithms and traffic patterns.

What advice would you give someone about to become a parent?

Don’t have preconceived notions: you get a lot of people saying ‘we’ll do this and then the baby will do that’. But you have to go with the flow. You don’t get the same outcome every day from a baby.

A work environment is more controllable. When I was first on maternity leave I said I’d check emails every day and I didn’t. I had this idea that I would be bored on maternity leave so I would Eurail around Europe with the baby. I thought ‘it’s like a vacation why not use the time’. My mum said I was insane. We laugh about it now.

I found it difficult for the first few years especially. It was a shock. I didn’t really appreciate how much of a complete asteroid it would be into the centre of my life. Now I really enjoy it but it took me a few years to come to terms with it. Honestly, my husband and I have talked way more about what tent to buy than whether to have a baby or not… I guess that is the power of biology.

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