As she approaches her 30th birthday, writer Kasia Delgado and her mother Anna reflect on what it means to be a working woman - and whether we can really ‘have it all’.
When Anna Delgado began a new career at 30, the odds seemed stacked against her. She wasn’t fresh out of university, English wasn’t her native language and she had a baby to look after. Yet despite this, she went on to carve out a successful career in law.
As her daughter Kasia, a journalist, approaches 30, she looks at how her mother has influenced her choices over working life, and how she imagines her own future in a society which puts huge pressure on women to ‘have it all’.
“I went with my gut and I would do it all over again”: Anna, partner at a city law firm
When I was in my mid-20s I was working for a medical journal in London, which wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. I started thinking about what to do with my life and decided that I wanted to retrain in a more stimulating career. I was also keen to be financially independent from my husband. My mum had stayed at home with her children, and I didn’t feel that was right for me. My desire to be self-sufficient also stemmed from the fact that I was Polish and had moved to England after meeting my husband, when I came to London as a student to improve my English. As a foreigner in a strange country far away from my family, I felt a bit vulnerable.
The idea of a career in law had always appealed to me, but I hadn’t done it at university or just after graduating like most people do. This was largely because being a lawyer in Poland during communist times would not have been possible for me. You had to be on the right side of communism to have a career in law, but my family were dissidents.
One evening in London, some friends of mine who worked as lawyers came round. When I asked them how I could qualify in what they do, I got a slightly dismissive, “oh, it’s incredibly hard”. I just thought, “so what? If other people can do it, so can I”.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. I didn’t initially get a place on the College of Law conversion course, and I was worried that they might have seen my foreign degree and assumed my English wasn’t up to scratch. I asked to meet with the college to discuss my rejected application and following this, when they had heard that my English was good enough, they promised to offer me a place if I could get a training contract. So I got a training contract at a City law firm and embarked on a two year course at law school.
The plan was that if I passed all my Law Society finals first time – there were 13 or so of them and if you failed one, you had to do them all again, which was a terrifying prospect – I would finish my studies at 30 and embark on a career as a lawyer. But I wasn’t thinking too far into the future at this stage. I was mainly just thinking about survival and sleep.
My husband arranged to work night shifts so he could spend the day with the baby and try and get a bit of sleep, too. I would go to college and then come back and take over. I could only snatch a bit of time to study so I had to be disciplined in a way I’d never been before. It wasn’t just having a baby that made me focussed - I knew I wanted a job that I loved.
My family and friends had mixed reactions to my decision. Some thought it was fantastic, others thought it was sheer madness, and some thought I was a selfish mother. Others said they wished they’d done it. The greatest motivation was that my mother was hugely supportive. Sometimes I had to hide away with my books while my toddler daughter wanted to play and in those moments I did think, “why am I doing this?” But mostly it just felt right.
At law school the gender split had been 50/50, but when I qualified I was thrown into a big City law firm full of men and very few senior women. The hours were long and unpredictable and sometimes I felt guilty about not being at home with my then-four-year-old. I had another baby as soon as I qualified and it was tough, but I was fortunate to be working for someone supportive, and my husband adapted his work around my hours. Without that it would have been so much harder.
Retraining for a new career was the best decision I ever made. It was hard, but worth it. I still love my job and I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Do I wish I’d had more time with my children? Sometimes, of course, but I always knew they were in good hands. A low point was going to a parent’s evening and the head teacher saying to me, “oh, Mrs Delgado, we don’t see you very often”. I felt awful, like I was a bad parent, but I also knew they’d never question a man for not going to every parent’s evening.
I know people who are stuck in jobs they don’t like because they’re too scared to start again. That’s totally understandable, but my advice to anyone in that situation would be that it’s worth going after something you want. Even if you think you might not succeed, you have to try, because you’ll never regret giving it a go. I went with my gut and I would do it all over again to have the career I have now.
“My mum doesn’t have it all but she’s shown me that it’s worth going for what you want”: Kasia, writer and editor
As I approach 30, I’m thinking more and more about the shape of my life, what’s important to me, and whether I’m prioritising the right things. My friends and I talked about this recently over bottles of wine. Are we happy with the careers we’re in? Or do we see ourselves retraining as something else – and if so, what? If we had children in the next few years, could we imagine staying at home to look after them? Would we hope our partners would be willing to take a step back, so that we could hurtle ahead? Were we being naïve in even thinking we could vaguely plan any of this? Were we being naïve because we hadn’t thought about this more?
At some point, the conversation turned to the components of our dream cheese boards and the merits of day drinking – two much less emotionally taxing topics – but it was clear what was on our minds.
Lately, when I consider my career, the first person who leaps into my mind is my mum. I feel that if at my age – 29 – she was retraining as a lawyer in a foreign language, all while bringing up a small baby, then there’s no reason I can’t pursue my ambitions. She hasn’t pummeled me over the head with this in a “when I was your age I walked 489 miles to school in the knee-deep snow with no gloves” kind of way. She’s quiet about her achievements, but I now realise how tough it must have been at the time, and the very thought of it fills me with a desire to hurl myself at my dreams.
I’ve watched my mum rise through the ranks of big law firms where she was one of very few women, and that has left me with an innate belief that I – that all of us - should be able to be in that meeting room, even if we’re not always welcomed in. Like we all do, I often doubt myself, and in those moments I think of the time my mum had to tell a male client several times that she was the senior lawyer, and the man he insisted on addressing was in fact her trainee.
At 30, society hisses at you, asking why you’ve not ticked off more boxes by now. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others around you as your lives go in vastly different directions. The fact that my mum was married and had a baby by the age that I’d just broken up with my first ever boyfriend is an odd thought, but it just reminds me how things don’t always happen at the times you expect. My mum wouldn’t have thought she’d be married at 22, and she didn’t know how much her future career would come to matter to her. You can only try to plan so much.
My dad being at home with me and my brother so much, and him organising his work around my mum, has had a real impact on the kind of relationship I want. I don’t mind which university a potential partner went to (or if indeed they went to university at all), and I’m not fussed whether they’re rich or what their aspirations are. But I do want a future with someone who doesn’t automatically consider their career to be more important than mine simply because they’re the man.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt from looking back on my mum’s career is that ‘having it all’ is an unhelpful, meaningless concept. My mum missed parent’s evenings and my dad came to ‘mummy’s day’ at 11.30 am on a Tuesday morning because, well, my mum had a big meeting with clients. I didn’t mind one bit, but the world isn’t always kind to the high-powered women it so often views as being domestically remiss.
I can see now that my mum felt the pressure to make up for time at weekends by spending many, many hours baking me a gigantic cat-shaped birthday cake from scratch, with liquorice for eyes and fizzy laces for whiskers. It was delicious, but buying a pre-made chocolate cake wouldn’t have made her any less of a good mum. When I watch The Devil Wears Prada, I wonder whether Andie would have been as furious at her boyfriend if he’d missed her birthday because of his big new job.
I love the career I’ve started and I want to pursue it with all of my energy. That being said, I can see how tough it can be to go for it full throttle as life inevitably gets more complex – motherhood or no motherhood. My mum doesn’t have it all but she’s shown me that it’s worth going for something if you want it, whatever age you are. Women will always be held to harsher standards whatever they do, but that shouldn’t stop any of us from chasing the career fulfillment we might crave.
Main image: Getty
Images: courtesy of Kasia Delgado