The Sunday Times

July 17th, 2011

Face it, Clegg – you must choose between your kids and country

Miriam Gonzalez, the wife of the deputy prime minister, said last week that her husband was destrs s oying himself in his efforts to be a man who put his children first. This is alarming for the rest of us, who urgently need Nick Clegg to put his job co-running the country first, in these exceptionally difficult times.

Apparently, he is wearing himself out, rushing from early-morning meetings in Downing Street to his home in southwest London to take his children to school, returning to Whitehall and then sometimes hurrying home again in between other ministerial engagements for story and bedtime, as well as standing in for his wife if she is abroad on business. “Nick kills himself,” she told Grazia magazine, “to be able to do it all.”

How maddeningly familiar this sounds. For years now we have been listening to ambitious women bewailing the discovery that they can’t have it all, or do it all, which is both true and obvious. Now it is the turn of men to work out that they, too, cannot combine kiddies’ bathtime and the school run with being alpha-plus people. Having it all, all the time, is impossible. Something has to give, as any mother knows and as fathers are belatedly learning.

It is probably true, as Gonzalez complained to Grazia, that people still assume that it’s the role of the woman to do the giving and to manage the work-life balance when ambition clashes with family life. But no thinking person like her need bother about such general assumptions. This is not a question of old-fashioned sexism and the devaluation of women. It’s about an unavoidable fact of life.

If two highly ambitious and clever people, such as the Cleggs, want to combine having three children with two extremely demanding careers, they ought to be able to see, however equally they approach their choices, that something will have to give in both their cases, his and hers alike. It’s no good expecting to offload any inconvenient parenting on the other person if one spouse is just as ambitious as the other. Alpha-plus mummies cannot be expected to stand in for alpha-plus daddies, any more than vice versa.

What most people seem unwilling to acknowledge is that great success demands great sacrifices. So does parenthood. The very idea of sacrifice is out of fashion. But in truth there is simply not enough time in the day to be a hugely successful deputy prime minister, media mogul, international lawyer, opera singer, surgeon or creative scientist and to put one’s children first. Alpha-plus people have to put their work first, time and again. And if they don’t, they will either be less successful or they will be skimping their work.

In particular it seems to me outrageous that top politicians, men or women, are seriously prepared to dump their responsibilities, frequently, to deal with their children. They even admit to it as a sign of virtue. But it is short-changing their voters and the public. Politicians, especially top politicians, need time and energy, and more than just the odd moment in which to think without distraction. Otherwise they can’t do their jobs.

There was a time recently when for many weeks Clegg looked extremely tired and stressed, which caused a lot of comment; I imagined then that it was because he was upset by his transmogrification in the fickle public mind from pin-up to whipping boy.

Now I wonder whether what everyone saw on his face was the strain of trying to be a hands-on dad as well as deputy prime minister at an extremely demanding time. I have no doubt that his wife feels exactly the same strain as she tries to combine her high-flying legal life, jetting about Europe and reading legal papers late at night, with her life as a mother of three young sons. It’s the unavoidable consequence of imagining that one can have it all, man or woman.

I don’t doubt that the Cleggs love being with their sons. The company of little children is one of life’s greatest joys. But it is a joy that high achievers have traditionally gone without, whether they have realised it or not — and until recently a lot of high-achieving men clearly had not the slightest idea that being with one’s own children is a huge pleasure. You cannot imagine a freedom fighter in the Arab Spring rushing home from the front line to eat with his children; or a surgeon in the middle of a difficult operation handing over to her registrar to go to a birthday party; or a great Shakespearian actor being home often for teenagers’ supper. In fact, one celebrated classical actress told me not long ago that she had decided when young that she must choose between children and a career, as she could not give herself to both. She remains sure she was right.

It’s bad enough when GPs and social workers go part-time to spend time with their families: it interrupts continuity of care and can lead to confusion and mistakes. So much the worse, then, in jobs where it is the particular individual who is needed — and paid and expected — to be fully on the case, such as Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill or even, in their way, Tony Blair or Clegg or Christine Lagarde, the new International Monetary Fund chief.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, made the terrible sacrifice of her family life to serve her country. In less heroic terms, a man with the responsibilities of a deputy prime minister should not be “killing himself” in pursuit of a sentimental mistake of feminism.

Nobody is obliged to be a super-alpha male or a super-alpha female. Nor is it a universal human right to become one, just because one is capable of it. Nobody asked Gonzalez and Clegg to try to rise to such heights. They could have chosen, as many people do, to make compromises with their ambitions. I know lots of men and women who have faced up to all this, in different ways, without complaining.

Like them, the Cleggs could have moved into a slower lane for a time, while their children were young. Or they could have acknowledged that what they needed — and what, indeed, they had — was a good full-time nanny, with further back-up, who would let them forget about their children and their domestic life almost altogether during their working hours, however long. This was the traditional solution to the problem. The children seemed to survive and both parents were free to succeed without being driven to the brink of destruction.