Hard lessons: women just can’t have it all

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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

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