I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition lately. It’s been ruminating around in my head as I’ve tried to work out where my ambition currently resides and how it once shaped my life.
If I correctly understand the modern idea of ambition, it is to start school, age five, with a view to getting a good leaving cert. To go through college with a career in mind. And then to work in a job that enables you to buy a nice home and maybe a nice car and get a good enough pension to see you through to death.
I guess that’s the reality of life lived within a capitalist society. Survival of the fittest, financially speaking that is, and all that. And although my parents tempered this capitalist vision of ambition by showing me what to aspire for in terms of a positive family life, a happy relationship and interest in stuff like culture and sport and being a good person, this modern idea of ambition is difficult to shake. I sometimes feel like I am failing at being ambitious. Why can’t I even attempt the ‘having it all’ narrative that so much of our media attempts to sell us? Am I lazy? Where has my drive gone?
You see, contrary to the capitalist ambition of having children and being in a position whereby they can be minded by somebody else, I haven’t been able to disentangle myself from my brood. The truth is, they turned my world completely upside down and inside out. They haven’t blended with my lifestyle and I haven’t continued along my original career or life path. The usual ambition trajectory that should have seen me carry on working took a hard shoulder from a keen sense of knowing that being at home was a probably a core ambition all along. A deep-seeded one. Not even an instilled fear of having a huge gap in my CV or falling behind in terms of experience and pension contributions could put me off.
Sometimes I look at jobs. After a particularly dull day or when I get bored or start reminiscing about the really good days I had over the course of the many jobs I worked in. Because working in public relations can be extremely exciting and creative and provided me with a lot of job satisfaction. I organised events at posh hotels, met sports stars, politicians and intellectuals (John McGahern was the pinnacle of all those I met, though Miss Hawaiian Tropic was fun too). I got to eat at fabulous restaurants way out of my personal price league, worked on some really interesting brands, often got invited to boozy events. Travelled in Europe, to New York and Chicago. At a standard meeting I had an Elvis-impersonator sing to me, I once subtly delivered a G&T into the hand of one of Ireland’s most beloved sports personalities & pundits mid-press conference and will never forget walking into the office one morning to find a high-profile Novel Peace Prize winner asleep on the reception room couch. I even had a one-on-one lunch with a then Minister for Finance, conscious of ensuring he had a pleasant experience in a certain brand’s corporate box. And none of this is really unusual if you work for a stretch in PR. There is a lot of fun involved. But there are also the usual mundanities of having a slow day and wishing you could just go home and walk your dog rather than watching the clock until 5pm, or working with an obsessed workaholic who likes to schedule meetings for 5.30pm and order in a team dinner, or being under-utilised and not given the scope to drive on with a project. Or putting up with office politics, or casual sexism, or photocopying, or commuting.
And yet, I still look at jobs. And I might see one that takes my fancy and makes me feel a bit excited. The thought of using that part of my brain again, reigniting my expertise and using my experience. And the opportunity to meet a variety of new people and to build relationships with new colleagues. Lord knows the thought of a paycheck certainly appeals. And I love the imagined glamour of it too – the daydream of me getting somewhat dressed up and leaving the small ones with a caring minder and having my own time and doing my own thing. No doubt my husband would find me more interesting, more attractive in my new busy-hustling-executive life.
Then I think of the logistics and the realities of the time and energy that any job might demand. And I remember some of the the less desirable realities of working outside the home – like managing tricky egos and the exhaustion of a metric-obsessed attitude to productivity and the difficulties marrying your personal moral standards with corporate ones. And I think to myself, what am I doing? Because however tantalising the idea of going into the workplace can sometimes appear to me, I am absolutely certain that I really do not want to work outside of the home right now.
A capitalist approach to ambition and a societal pressure to ‘do more’ than ‘just’ be a mother can be hard to shake. And so, it seems, I have to sit down and browse through jobs in order to remind myself that I’m already in the best role for me, right now. In spite of some days being excruciatingly tedious, repetitive and isolating, this is my dream job – more challenging, more interesting, more draining, more rewarding, more frustrating, more comical, more freeing than any other job I have had or possibly will ever have. Financially, we can get along. My day is relatively pressure-free and I cannot tell you how much I adore a pressure-free life. It is a safe and comfy lifestyle – one which indulges my penchant for day-dreaming and drinking coffee. I really, really like being a stay at home mother and, the important thing is, this job makes me happy.
Once you do take yourself out of the career loop – for a while, at least – you care less about explaining a gap in your CV, because you know how much you’ve learned and grown in other, rewarding ways. Tucked away from industry peers you care slightly less about building on a sunroom or having lovely shoes. We hear so much about women letting themselves go after having children, but how do we define that ‘letting go’ and is it necessarily a bad thing? Do we just become less bound by the superficial – the skincare and clothes and beauty regimes – that women are expected to buy into, both financially and emotionally? Do we not become a little happier in our own, slightly more dishevelled, shell? Staying at home with small children is grounding in the most wonderful and liberating way.
And I consciously use the word ‘liberating’ – a word which is often seen as the anthisis of homemaking. As a feminist I have taken a long time to reconcile my draw to being at home with my children and my utter belief that men and women should have the same opportunities in every aspect of their lives. It took me a long while to get my head around the fact that, for me, feminism is about my having the freedom to live my best and happiest life. Equality in the workplace is essential and everyone having the freedom and opportunity to work in whichever job they want and to earn equal rates of pay for that work is non-debatable. But going out to work does not equate to gender equality for me. If we’re to talk about true liberty, is that not the persual of what brings us most joy in life? (Without negatively impacting others, that is). Believe me, I actively worry about setting a good gender-balanced-example for my children, who are growing up in a house where Daddy goes out to work (pre-Covid at any rate) and Mammy stays at home. But would the example be better if I went out to work and Alan stayed at home? I think about gender stereo-types and traditional gender roles that I rightfully want to upset. But my conclusion is that the best example my offspring can have is that their parents act together as equal members of a team working to make our family life the best it can be for us. That they see us both fulfilled and satisfied and happy with our lives is the most important thing.
I had begun to think of myself as lazy in some way. Flicking through job advertisements and only thinking – ‘meh, but I would miss collecting them from school’. Or searching for a course – any course – that I might actually be interested in undertaking. But I can think of nothing more tedious than studying when my spirit gains so much more right now from a simple walk or writing this blog or eating cake. The habit that is ambition keeps nudging me to get going, to get back on a career track, when I’m actually quite happy to stand still and enjoy where we are as a family.
So I guess my conclusion is that I’m ambitious to live and keep learning and evolving and experiencing. I want contentment. I want time with my family. I want happiness for me and mine. Isn’t that what life should be all about? Is this not ambition enough?