She is not the first working mother to walk away from a dream job and sadly she won’t be the last. But few do it with the blunt candour of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who resigned last week.
Since having her son, Finn, she said, the idea of disappearing on the campaign trail for weeks on end filled her with “dread”. Not for her the sugary euphemisms about putting family first; instead, she evokes the visceral, animal tug of anxiety at being too far away. Sometimes, too far means being in a different time zone, listening helplessly to your child cry down a phone line. Sometimes, even being in the same room isn’t quite close enough. Everyone has a different threshold, and it can easily change from day to day, but still, too far is too far, and you know it when you feel it. Yet even to say her decision is understandable is to enter a minefield.
The question of whether parenthood changes the way we feel about work is so inflammatory for women – it’s only rarely asked of men, although fatherhood turns plenty of them inside out too – because the answer is so often weaponised against us. Reports of Davidson having lost some of her “fire and passion” since returning from maternity leave will have had some women shouting at the radio, even if it only reflects common gossip at Holyrood. What does that say about the rest of us, if a force of nature like Davidson is deemed to have lost her mojo to motherhood?
The lazy belief that it’s only “natural” for women to shed their ambition along with the placenta is one of the single most pernicious obstacles to female success and it’s all the more maddening when used to obscure the real reasons some women quit after having children. Sideline and undermine a new mother thoroughly enough on her return and she may well get the message and leave. But who, exactly, has lacked commitment to whom here?
Everyone is different, of course. The inconvenient truth is that some women genuinely don’t feel the same about work after babies, while others can’t wait to get back. But for many, ambition doesn’t die so much as evolve. Work comes to feel in some senses more important, not less. If you’re going to be away from the kids, to resist that fierce gravitational pull, then it had damn well better be worth it. Rather like being told you have months to live, motherhood doesn’t half focus the mind.
Tolerance for adults behaving like toddlers in the office plummets once you have the real thing at home, while time takes on new significance when there’s suddenly never enough of it. And all the while, running through your mind like a rolling news headline, the nagging question: is this really worth peeling a howling child off my leg every morning? What exactly am I achieving here? The decision to go is often an expression not just of maternal love but of professional frustration and it isn’t always clear where one ends and the other begins.
On the left, those disappointed that she didn’t take a parting shot at Boris Johnson have accused Davidson of using motherhood as an excuse for what they’re sure must really be a politically motivated departure. On the right, she is praised for putting family first, as if what she called “the conflict I have felt over Brexit” had nothing to do with it.
But whatever others seek to project on to it, Davidson’s resignation statement made clear that this is both political and personal; that she was struggling both with maternal guilt and with a political climate pushing pro-European (and, crucially, pro-unionist) Conservatives to breaking point. And I suspect one might not have loomed so large without the other. Had her brand of conservatism prevailed, the private sacrifice might have seemed worthwhile; if it hadn’t been for the baby, perhaps she might have stuck it out for longer.
As Wendy Alexander, the former leader of Scottish Labour, put it: “The overwhelming family sacrifices required for serious party leadership only make sense when you harbour no doubts about the prevailing strategic direction.” Both the general election that almost everyone in Westminster now believes to be coming and the next Scottish election threaten to be ugly, with emotions running dangerously high; no place for anyone but the utterly single-minded, free of doubt and conflict. But that doesn’t make it easy to pack up and leave.
Davidson almost certainly doesn’t need my advice, but having left a dream reporting job in Westminster almost 10 years ago in order to see more of my then tiny son, all I can say is that at first it will feel like both a liberation and a bereavement. I still remember days of trudging to playgroups in the rain, wondering what the hell I had done to my life, as well as the days when I wouldn’t have changed the decision for the world. But the latter soon outnumber the former and I suspect in the end Davidson won’t look back. (She might come back somehow, but that’s a different story. Children grow, family circumstances change, and so do political climates)
The rest of us, meanwhile, would do well to accept that one woman’s choice is just that; hers and hers alone, not the standard by which all must be judged. Davidson has been operating for months at the extremes of professional pressure and since suffering from depression in her teens she has learned to beware pushing herself over the edge again. If she didn’t feel she could do this job and be the mother she wanted to be, that’s not to say another woman couldn’t manage it perfectly well, merely that she has done what was right for her. Only you can really tell when too far away is too far away and when it’s just close enough.