"You can have it all. Just not all at once." Oprah Winfrey
We can 'have it all' - a career and a family. No one, however, said it would be easy. It is a feminist issue and one that will have the likes of Katie ('Tyler') Hopkins and Karren (The Apprentice) Brady at odds - again. So many women are holding down a full-time job as well as doing the majority of the housework and the childcare. Unlike some of our male counterparts, we have it all - all the work, all the stress, all the guilt and all the hours. Without help, something quite simply, has to give. Don't let it be your sanity. Is it possible to have it all and stay 'sane', relatively speaking?
Having children vs having a career
Our children are so important to us and to future society. They need our love and our time, that is a given, but being financially able to feed and clothe them is equally as important. Women's creative and intellectual needs are also as important to us as men's are to them and we are not all fulfilled by housework and motherhood alone. Career women becoming mothers later on in life, go from a mentally demanding career to sleep deprivation and changing nappies all day (and all night) long can feel quite a shock to the system! And yet we continually strive to have it all.
A record number of women are currently employed, but half are working part-time, according to the Office of National Statistics. Recently only one in six men were said to be in a part-time position, compared with around half of the women who are in work.
Modern day women have more options than ever before. We are following career paths that might begin with a university degree and lead us into very satisfying full-time jobs. We have a womb to birth children, a mind to exercise, and creativity to express. As qualified doctors, teachers, scientists, journalists and business entrepreneurs we may spend the whole of our 20s building up our careers of experience and credibility, only to feel, in our 30s, that a decision has to be made - whether to continue on our career path, start a family and give that our new focus, at least for a short time - or try to 'have it all'. Yet in having it all our attention becomes divided. We need help to be able to do everything well, whether that comes in the form of job shares with your husband/partner, part-time work, childcare, a cleaner, an au-pair, or a combination of all of the above.
Not so long ago
When my grandmother's generation married during the 1930s and 40s, it was accepted that middle class women would no longer work. They were expected to keep the house and raise the children while their husbands became the breadwinners. Most middle class families accepted this as the norm while many working class women continued to work, to bring in extra income while their extended family or local friends and neighbours watched the children. Just like today, for many women, working may have been more of a necessity, than a career choice.
The feminists of the 1960s burned their bras and a new liberation began in the workplace that hadn't been seen since Rosie the Riveter rolled up her sleeves while the men were away at war. The 60's 'Dolly bird' secretaries made way for the '70s female managers, some of whom became successful, shoulder-padded company directors and business entrepreneurs of the '80s. Today it's more common place to find a woman MD or SEO although the majority are still male. And what of couples where the woman is the breadwinner? There are house husbands but they are still even more few and far between than the female SEO.
Celebrating successful women
There have been women who broke the mould throughout history, from George Elliott and Emmeline Pankhurst to Marie Stopes and Sylvia Plath. Even our own Karren Brady, the 'First Lady of Football made modern day history as the youngest managing director of a UK plc. Karren Brady, in her own piece for the Huffington Post just three days ago asked:
"Who will be our daughters' role models? Young women need to have someone to emulate if they are to achieve their potential."
Who indeed? Perhaps Karren Brady herself. How many of those women I have mentioned above also had children though, and of those who had children, how many managed to have it all and not feel the pressure?
When it all becomes too much
The writer and poet, Sylvia Plath's brilliant career was tested in this way. When her husband, the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, left her, she struggled to continue to write and bring her young children up alone. She sadly did not win her struggle and committed suicide at the age of 30. For her, writing was a necessity - it was more than a career. The pressures of trying to bring up two very small children (they were just 2 years and 9 months old at the time of her death) in the 'coldest winter in 100 years' of 1963, in a country not of her birth and without her family around her was just too much and severe depression set in. In the early '60s divorce, single mothers and career women were all frowned upon in some quarters. She must have felt the social stigma as well as the freezing hardship of that winter. Working mothers are luckier today to have childcare and benefits options and yet still so many of us feel the pressure.
Women in business
Women in business and successful women in general are often seen as having to be harder or even more ruthless to compete with men. In my experience this is not always the case. I was lucky enough to have worked with an amazingly inspirational MD at Virgin during the late '90s. She was not just the MD and brains behind the start of the new small business spin-off from Virgin.Net, she was also then a 30-something mother of three. She ran a tight ship and always got the best out of her staff, while also seemingly maintaining a good work-life balance by going home at six on the dot every evening (usually running!) to put her children to bed, before logging back on to work often late into the evening. I saw so much dedication in her; she was very driven and always enthused. I remember her agony over having to miss one of her children's school plays and now I am a working mother myself, I can quite understand that guilt! She was never ruthless but always kind, always fair and inspired integrity and loyalty in her staff. She was a wonderful role model for how women in business should be. A million miles away from the hard-nosed 1980s 'lunch is for wimps' Katie Hopkins style of business, I feel.
Working mother guilt
We don't need to be ruthless to get to the top of our chosen profession, we just need focus and drive - and childcare - but the 'working mother' guilt so often gets in the way. It is this guilt that, for me, really is the crux of the matter when it comes to being a working parent, as you can feel so torn.
As a conscientious employee we want to give 100% to our work and yet in doing that we can't always give 100% to our children. It's a juggling act a lot of the time and often it's the working parents who simply don't always get time to read the school newsletter and who then regularly turn up on 'dressing up day' with our children in uniform! We don't all stay up all night making fancy dress costumes and we can't put our names down to volunteer to help on school trips. Sometimes our children understand, sometimes they don't.
Why is there such a thing as 'working mother guilt' and not 'working father guilt'? I felt that in choosing to start a family, I was being forced to curtail my career, something my husband never had to do - mainly because he has always earned more than me - equal pay being yet another issue here - and, of course, could never breast feed... We can all have it all - men, women and children, if we define what 'having it all' is for us as it will be different for everyone.
A friend of mine is a single father with all the same issues of childcare and full-time work. He raises his daughter, works full-time and keeps the house. Does he have any working parent guilt? I doubt he even has time...
Having it all
As feminists we have fought a long and hard battle to be recognised as equal to men in the workplace. We have proved ourselves more than capable of hugely rewarding careers that benefit not just us but society at large. We can, and do, still manage to have children and raise them with good moral values alongside a positive female work ethic. The trick is, to not feel the pressure from all sides, but instead to accept that you can have it all as long as you have help.
If giving up work to have children is what's important to you, then do it. If you don't want to give up work but do want to give your children enough of your time, then look at working part time or taking some time off before going back to work. If your partner or your family can help share some of the child rearing and housework too then that may just be the ideal scenario. We have options now, let's use them and find contentment in motherhood and in our chosen careers. We can have it all, but, as Oprah says, not always all at the same time.
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