Hard lessons: women just can’t have it all
The headmistress at the school I went to in Adelaide used to teach us lots of things ... Don’t forget your bus pass; pull up your socks; don’t shine your shoes too much or boys will be able to see up your skirt.
But Miss Helen Reid didn’t ever tell us we couldn’t “have it all”. In fact, my entire education was based around the notion that I – and all other girls my age – could get married, have kids, get a good education and have a satisfying career all at the same time.
The “have it all” issue has raised its weary head again this week. A UK headmistress, at Francis Holland School, Vivienne Durham, declared that women have to choose between work and motherhood, and sooner rather than later.
I wonder how this advice went down with some of her school’s more famous former pupils, such as model Cara Delevingne, above right, and socialite Jemima Khan, left.
As far as I am concerned, Ms Durham is right. At some point most women discover they do have to choose between career and family. It’s just too hard to have a high-powered job and be a hands-on mum.
At my progressive girls’ school in the 1980s, such issues weren’t ever discussed. So it was quite a shock to discover, when I had my first child at 32, that there was no way I could have it all.
It was a swift and brutal lesson. Before this point my then husband and I were equals in every way. We worked hard, partied hard and always split the chores. I cooked, he did the dishes. I vacuumed, he put out the rubbish.
But the minute a tiny wriggling red bundle of joy called Tom entered the world, it all changed, and my husband and I may as well have been different species. I changed the nappies, I fed the baby, I cooked, I did the dishes, I vacuumed (but less often than before). He put out the rubbish and earned the money. Twelve months later I went back to work a few days a week. It still meant that I did all of the above jobs, but I also earned some money, too.
Even though we shared the breadwinning, we didn’t ever share the baby-rearing equally. My lesser work status and income meant I remained the primary carer of the children.
Ten years later this still hadn’t changed at all. Although he was a devoted dad, the house and all of its unglamorous demands somehow still remained my domain, regardless of how much I was working. At 44, I now find many of my high-powered career mates are divorced. Ironically, this can make the juggle easier because they get one kid-free week out of two. Others left the rat race years ago out of sheer exhaustion and the desire not to miss one more sports day or birthday party.
Among my friends there are a few stubborn highflyers, but they’re mostly the lucky ones whose husbands were willing to put their own careers on the backburner to be more hands-on at home.
Only a very few lucky enough to work for themselves or have a very high-paid job with flexible hours (do these even exist?) manage to be both CEO and make it to school pick-up/drop-off on time carrying homemade cupcakes for the class party.
In my own case, working part-time and mostly from home has made all the difference. It’s great, but it has also meant I’ve missed the chance of being considered for any management roles in my company. (Not that it was ever very likely, come to think of it.)
It’s important that we have these conversations with girls ... not so we teach them to give up or aim low, but so they make good decisions.
Ms Durham also pointed out that a woman’s “biological calendar” has a bearing on the decisions they make. She’s been soundly criticised for this, but, until men can have babies, she’s right. Too many women of my generation doggedly pursued their career throughout their 20s and 30s only to discover they were 38 and single – and running out of time.
Of course, men have never had it all, but no-one ever talks about that. Most have no choice but to work full-time and put their parenting role in the background. Men who do things differently are still viewed with suspicion.
We’re not going to come up with a solution until we look at what men want and need, and throw that into the equation as well. Equal rights for men? I wonder what good old Miss Reid with her tartan cape would make of that. Blog with Susie at susieobrien.com.au, follow her on Twitter @susieob abd Facebook.com/ NewswithSuse