Sunday 23 October 2016

The modern management of mature motherhood

The decision to have a baby in your 50s is big, says Sarah Caden, but it's bigger news if you're senior management

Sarah Caden

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Parenthood: Laura Wade-
Gery, an M&S executive, is
going on maternity leave
Parenthood: Laura Wade- Gery, an M&S executive, is going on maternity leave

On Wednesday, the British stock exchange was alerted to the fact that one of the country's leading company directors was to become a parent. It wasn't a call to celebration or a baby shower, obviously, but a legally required warning, designed to avoid sending a share price into freefall with the sudden, prolonged absence of a key player.

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The stock exchange and Marks & Spencer share price took it well when news arrived that from September, that company's head of retail, Laura Wade-Gery will take four months' maternity leave to welcome her first child.

Outside of the business of money, however, the reaction was more highly charged. From every side of the arguments came assertions that Wade-Gery's news shouldn't be a big deal. But from the passion in every side of the arguments, it was clear that it is. And no matter how anyone argued it, it matters that she's a woman, and 50. It matters that she's taking only four months' leave - regardless of whether you think that's plenty of time with a new baby or not.

As was much reported last week, Laura Wade-Gery is the woman tipped ultimately to take over from Marks & Spencer's present chief executive, Marc Bolland. Built into most reporting of that fact is a suggestion that having a baby will put the kibosh on any such succession.

Wade-Gery was poached from Tesco by M&S in 2011 with a reported £4m golden handshake. Her initial job was to reboot M&S's online store and then, after that, she was promoted to cover the conventional stores, also, as "head of multi-channel retailing".

She is, by all accounts, a dynamic and formidable woman. Daughter of a diplomat and aide to Thatcher, Wade-Gery had a peripatetic, but very English childhood, and an excellent education. She is well travelled and lives both in London and on a large country estate, where she drives the tractor and gets stuck in.

She has said, in relation to making a success of M&S's online store: "I can't say that it's been easy, but I think that most of the stuff in life that is easy is not worth doing." And, some will say, that until she embarks on motherhood, she won't know the real truth of this.

Last week, there was blessed little critical comment on Wade-Gery's decision to become a mother, but much of it had the expected defensive tone. For one thing, there was the argument that her decision shouldn't cause a fuss; that no one would bat an eye or notify the stock market if a 50-year-old male company director was having a baby, but that raises an issue all of its own.

The requirement to notify the stock market of extended leave - defined as more than a paltry three weeks - has nothing to do with Wade-Gery's gender. If she were a male company director taking more than three weeks off work, she'd also have to notify them. Which says a lot about modern attitudes to the family, and not just working mothers. If you're flying high at all, you don't take parental leave, or paternity leave, clearly. Taking time off to have a life is a sign of professional weakness, no matter what your gender. But, let's be honest, most male company directors have wives, or partners, or ex-wives or partners to do the perceived weak bit for them. Or they have working wives and staff. All of which still places the parent bit of your life as a pesky intrusion in our carefully constructed lives.

One interesting piece written in The Guardian about Wade-Gery last week exhorted us to celebrate her decision. What the writer celebrated was Wade-Gery's success in approaching motherhood "in her own time, and like a boss." And she also encouraged women to unhitch "ourselves from the approved timetable", suggesting that if most women were honest, they would put off having children until their late 40s.

Now, in some ideal world beyond biology, that might be the ideal of many women. Many more, of my generation, who put off having their children until their 30s might disagree and argue that it took having small, exhausting children to help them understand why nature makes you most fertile in your 20s. And that there's no such thing as the right time.

Many more women of my generation might say that waiting, and getting a steady career and a steady handle on life, is absolutely the way to go. But Laura Wade-Gery is 50, and her age still matters. Kids, no matter how much money you have or how much help you have, are draining and demanding and relentlessly present and life-changing.

And it's the life-changing bit that we struggle with when we talk about women and working and having babies. Because no one says it about fathers. But also because there is a worry in a lot of modern women that we won't be able to manage both. We want to love our children, but what if that depletes our love of our job? What if they're right, and we just can't do it all?

No wonder we put it off for so long, no wonder a woman such as Wade-Gery is taking only four months off to be at home with her new baby. If, as a company director, more than three weeks is a prolonged absence from work, then her four months is practically a semi-retirement. To take more would open her up to accusations of having lost interest in her work, but by taking less than she is entitled to, she has, of course, been perceived as taking too little time for her family life.

But Wade-Gery cannot have entered into this without considering every angle. She is that sort of person, by all accounts - practical, pragmatic, strategic, driven and determined. And she is 50, she is married for the second time and the official statement on her maternity leave does not comment on whether she is pregnant or having her baby by surrogacy or adoption.

By whatever means, at 50, she has to have been driven by a massive desire to have a child, a desire that, in some ways, it's not easy to admit to if you're a woman getting ahead in a man's world.

By deciding to have a child, Laura Wade-Gery has become a massive motherhood talking point.

By having a child now, by taking minimal maternity leave, by deciding that management and motherhood can coexist, Wade-Gery is making as powerful a statement as any career move she has ever made. And, as she says herself, if it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing.

Sunday Independent

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