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Is There Really a Glass Ceiling, or Is Motherhood Just More Rewarding Than a Career for Women?

15/10/2015 10:59 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 10:12 BST

With my kids turning seven and ten, I've finally managed to organise my working life so I can pick them up from school. It feels no small victory, having outsourced a lot of their childhood to child carers and after school clubs of various quality, while I struggled to build my career. But why do I feel so grateful I've finally managed to achieve it? And why do I feel like I'm somehow letting the side down for caving to the pressure to go part-time?

Part of it feels like it's my own fault. I had kids young - for London, though not biologically - at 25 and 27 respectively, and the only benefit of this I can see from a career perspective is that I did it while I was cheap. But the downsides have been huge. Balancing internships and pay-draining childcare, while needing to get home on time, at a time when a lot of my peers were doing the corporate shit-munching required by a competitive jobs market - not to mention a privileged industry - of swallowing low wages and long hours, it's hardly surprising I found it all tough going.

Now, aged 35, with many of my peers embarking on their first pregnancy, not to mention, for some of them, leadership roles, I feel compelled to take stock - to appreciate what I've achieved, consider where I'm going, and take a good hard look at what it is I really want from my life. Should I try to have it all? Is 'having it all' even an aspirational notion these days?

By far the most fulfilling thing I have done to date has been raising my children (and writing my kid-related blog). But with the world's population creaking at the seams, it feels irresponsible (not to mention bloody expensive) to go forth and procreate any further. Particularly since my husband - at 42 - is approaching the age when his baby-makers can't be relied upon for consistent quality, and to be frank, he's not that up for it, while my fertility, by all medical accounts, is about the fall off a cliff.

So rather than nostalgically going back to square one - though my hormones are craving another pregnancy - I intend to make the most of these golden years of my children's lives, even if it comes at an increased cost to my career.

Now many of my closest friends are having babies, the acceptance I'm not having another has left me yearning to appreciate the remaining childhood of those I have. While my children can't offer me the security and affluence - or status - garnered by successful career (although I'm still pinning my hopes on at least one of them creating an app that will keep me in comfort for the rest of my days), they offer far more personal satisfaction than I've ever had at work.

Perhaps that's because I've found it hard to compete, career-wise, with children in tow, and it's never reached the heights that might afford me the same level of fulfilment. But I rather think there's more to it than that. I think having children made me kind of stop caring. And, for many women, I suspect that's the rub.

There's something uniquely rewarding about bringing up your own children - though, to be fair, I found it easier to be at work during the earlier days, when the returns on your patience are a temper tantrum over Lego. And I rather suspect that many of my female friends now having babies, even those who have reached a more comfortable place on the career ladder than I have, may find themselves feeling the same, sooner or later.

Obviously, nurturing isn't a solely a feminine pursuit, and given more rewarding alternatives, many women are perfectly capable of drawing the necessary lines needed to maintain a successful career trajectory and have children. But my own experience is that many mothers find it harder to shake off the potent hardwiring that physically draws us to want to be with our children, rather than thrashing it out in the corporate minefield.

Now, when opportunities to enjoy my kids' young lives are dwindling, I feel squandering the last years of picking them up from school and helping with their homework will leave me with bigger regrets than fighting to push myself up a pay grade. But perhaps that's because I worry my career's not really going anywhere, anyway.

So perhaps I shouldn't feel so grateful to have got myself in a position where I finally can work shorter hours and cut back on the childcare, or worry I might have harmed my career by having children younger than my peers. I should feel angry that society increasingly shoehorns female fertility into a tiny "career appropriate" window, and punishes women in the workplace for the act of procreation. It's no great mystery why the gender pay gap begins to skyrocket after 40, when many women who delay having children to build a career have their hands full with little ones.

Yet I can't help feel there's still more than just sexism and the fabled glass ceiling to the discrepancy in the number of women who make it to the top. Of course there's an element of it, not to mention the practical difficulties involved, which still affect women disproportionately. But I would also argue that the corporate world and its politics can feel facile compared with seeing your babies grow up. For me, making the most of my kids' fleeting childhoods is ultimately more rewarding - at least in the short-term - than achieving a position of power at work.

But then, perhaps if I felt there was more opportunity to achieve career fulfilment in the first place, I might feel differently.

I'd love to know what you think.