On holiday at half term, my six year old daughter Laura discovered a new career. She added it to her list of what she wants to be when she grows up. So far, these have all been chosen without any prompting from me: bus driver, “Rainbows lady”, teacher, art gallery owner, taxi driver.
Not long ago, I watched a documentary about mothers who had career plans for their toddlers. One had decided that hers would be a doctor. Whether as an adult he would have the aptitude, skills or desire did not matter. She had made up her mind, keen to fulfil her own thwarted ambitions through her child. I’m determined not to fall into that trap. Born in 21st century Britain, Laura can choose her own career freely, even though she was born a girl.
Things were different for her great grandmothers, her grandmother and even for me. My grandmothers were constrained by their era. One longed to be a teacher, but female teachers were not allowed to marry. She considered herself lucky to have a husband instead of a career. So many of her contemporaries had lost their sweethearts in the Great War. My other grandmother wanted to be a nurse, but early marriage and an unstoppable succession of children put paid to that idea. She would have been a natural. When at the age of 8, I trod on a rusty nail in bare feet, she managed to remove it without hurting me. I watched in awe and said to her: “You really ought to have been a nurse”. She looked very wistful.
My mother gave greater priority to her career but did not stray from traditional women’s professions. She was a secretary before I was born and trained as a teacher once I’d started nursery. In the 1960s, for a mother of three, even that was considered radical.
My own career was launched on the cusp of women’s equality in the workplace. The theory was in place, but the practice was still a little patchy (still is). But it was not the workplace that held me back, but our school careers advice. In those days, careers duties fell to the teacher with the lightest teaching load. At our girls’ grammar school, this meant the RE mistress. She knew very little of the world of work and held our careers interviews in a store cupboard. The only advice that I remember was “Don’t go to York University – it’s an awfully long way from home”. She meant well, but I’m glad I had the confidence to disregard her.
Most of my classmates complied with her recommendations and became teachers or secretaries. Surprisingly none became nuns, but one girl is nearly a vicar. Even the RE teacher could not have recommended this career, because at that time it wasn’t open to women. Another girl rendered the poor lady speechless by enquiring about opportunities in the oldest profession. I found out on Facebook recently that she’s now a personal trainer. I don’t think that job existed even for men in those days. And in the 1970s it would have taken a psychic to predict in the 21st century demand for website designers.
I wonder whether my daughter will also end up in a career that has yet to be invented. Perhaps she’ll be a spaceflight attendant, a time-travel agent or an invisibility cloak seamstress. Who knows what opportunities new technology will bring? But for the moment, Laura’s heart is set on the career she discovered on Barcelona beach at half-term.
“Mummy, I think I’ll be a person who builds giant models out of sand and then people have to put money in their bucket.”
Well, some old professions never really lose their charm.
(This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, April 2010)