Many of us have a love-hate relationship with work. It defines us, it gives purpose. Without it we are in trouble; and yet it can be so difficult to control.
As a barrister in the North-east of England for fifteen years I thrived on the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the clients and – yes, okay – the money. My husband and I had three children in just over three years. A heroic New Zealander, he gave up his business to take care of them. We loved our Yorkshire farmhouse and could plan for private schools, but the cost was high. Early each morning I crept out; sometimes I’d be home in time for bedtime stories. I worked at weekends and until the early hours, often immersed in some heartrending case about the abuse of a toddler while my own young family slept upstairs. I missed school plays and birthdays and then bought guilt-fuelled toys. The brood remember me from those days as a “posh woman in black who ran in and out of the house, shouting.”
One day – during a Greek island holiday – it dawned on us that unless we changed my work-life balance, our children would grow up without knowing me at all. This was an epiphany. It took us a single afternoon to decide to sell our house, ditch the career and move to New Zealand. The exchange rate was much better in those halcyon days before the crash and the cost of living in New Zealand relatively low. If we tightened our belts we could afford the massive drop in income. He would go back to work as a saw-miller; I’d take over the childcare and try my hand at writing books, which was a long-held dream.
With months we’d cut and pasted ourselves into a remote corner of the North Island. With the sale of our Yorkshire house, we managed to buy a smallholding by the clear waters of the Tukituki river where we kept chickens and sheep. The children went barefoot to their country school, and eventually I stopped having those ghastly late-for-court nightmares. I put my wig away forever, learned to budget, and for a time I revelled in the lack of stress. That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t.
The fact is, I’m not cut out to be a goodlifer. I craved a goal, a deadline, some venture to keep me at least relatively sane. Very soon the writing that had begun as a hobby became a new career. I faced a different challenge: full-time work, but from home. Gone was the barristers’ robing room with its support and banter, gone the rarefied calm of our chambers library and the clerk who ran my professional life. Each day I cleared the kitchen table before settling down to write another chapter on its jam-and-toast strewn surface. The family would leave me tapping maniacally at my laptop and arrive from school and work to find that I hadn’t moved an inch, all day. The sheep had absconded and the chickens had destroyed the garden unheeded. Husband and children would raise their eyebrows, tut resignedly and make their own supper. But at least I was there, not stuck in Newcastle Crown Court.
I’ve been lucky; writing has taken off for me. I have had to learn new skills – how to wrestle the mess and the homework and the traumas with school bullies out of my mind; how to switch between real life and the fictional one I am creating. I still struggle to control the phone, to keep at bay those irritating troops of friends who think that because I work from home I’m not really working at all. I have to be two people – mother and writer – simultaneously, in the same space, without the buffer zone of an office or the debrief time that is a daily commute. Sometimes I long for the chambers library and my bossy clerk.
When we later moved into a town, broadband internet made research a thousand times easier but was also insidiously dangerous: a siren voice, enticing me to waste my precious hours on emails: Go on, check them again … Ping! Ooh? What’s that one? Better take a look … Internet addiction is my weakness. I have to turn off the modem. When desperate, I work in the local library because there’s no wireless. Or a café, because there’s no wireless and plenty of coffee.
Perhaps at last I have found the perfect balance. Nearly ten years after our move, and two published novels later, I no longer miss birthdays or school plays. I no longer sneak away to catch a train in the grey dawn. And I regret nothing. Well, almost nothing.
Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law in the northeast of England. Also a mediator, she is passionate about the power of communication to slice through the knots. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. Second Chances is her second novel.