If there is one thing a journalism degree at university teaches you, it's that a journalism degree at university is worlds away from those very professionally-minded college courses shown on American TV dramas. Three years at Newcastle University taught me about something called the fourth estate and how to enunciate like a sports broadcaster. I also watched a lot of Frontline. The university paper was good for blagging free concert tickets– and not much else.
By second-year I began to look for opportunities further afield aka off the actual campus and began applying for anything remotely journalistic.
With the outrageously misplaced confidence of youth, I walked into one of a handful of job interviews I had lined up.
"Why do you want to work at Glossy Parenting Magazine You've Long Forgotten The Name Of?” a woman inquired in a suspicious voice.
"I just think it would be the perfect opportunity for me", I bumbled back.
"And do you have any experience?” she frowned over the pince-nez my memory has inserted into this scenario.
"Oh yes," I scoffed. "Ever heard of Now-Defunct Local Street Press? You better believe I have placed some pretty substantial gig reviews between the pages of that bad boy".
"No, you don't understand" she patronisingly paced out. "I mean, any experience being a parent. Do you have children?"
"Well", I stammered. "I have done a lot of babysitting... for my little brother, when we were younger. I had to ring Mum every two hours, on the hour."
There must have been a dearth of grammatically-sound parents applying that day, because I soon started my two-month career as a parenting expert.
The first few weeks were smooth sailing – as Marge Simpson said about teaching piano to children: you just have to stay one lesson ahead of the kid – and I started to get cocky, adding flair to advertorials about day-care centres, casting my judgmental eye over baby walkers in the litigiously-named 'product reviews' section; swaggering in twenty minutes late of a morning in that way regular staffers do. Then one day, the waters broke.
"We want you to interview the mother of an autistic child for a feature."
I furiously researched the subject: going to a library back when such things existed; falling down web wormholes; emailing experts; cramming everything I could about autism into my head before the interview - like preparing for a pop quiz.
When my copious notes and I arrived at the interview, I found a disarmingly young woman, just a few years older than me. All my carefully prepared questions and practiced pronunciations flew out the window. I asked only one question.
"So, what's it like?"
She told me of her constant fear for his future as a functioning adult. About how the simplest parental lessons are taken in and twisted in the most fascinating and heartbreaking ways: her son will stop suddenly in the middle of a crossing the minute the light turns red; when the school bell rings he bolts from whatever room or area he happens to be in; when she points at anything he looks at the finger pointing, not what it’s pointing at; poor eight-year-old Sam, spinning in the playground each recess, overwhelmed by the constant motion of kids and balls around him.
I like to think I wrote a relatively studied, quasi-interesting article for whoever it is that reads parenting magazines (parents, I assumed, back when I assumed this was also who wrote them) but I knew beyond a doubt that, until I had been woken every 15 minutes by a crying baby before blearing through a ten-hour shift at a job I hated, I possibly shouldn't be writing smug advice columns about achieving the perfect baby/boss balance. The next day I gave my two weeks’ notice, citing vague external pressures as the reason, and slowly walked home to my childless flat, noticing the tired, stressed faces of every single mother along the way.