For a considerable chunk of my twenties the concept of my ‘having it all’ was omnipresent. Whilst I was always aware that the phrase was, essentially, a sexist con to separate the men from the women (or should that be the men from the mothers, be it current or potential), it has taken a baby and the decision to look after said baby full time to realise the emptiness of the question: Can women have it all?
Taking a quick glance at my twenties, it’s clear I was ambitious and focused on my career – starting at 20 as a Marketing Assistant, then Senior Assistant, then Senior Marketing and Communications Manager, before moving to Head of Audience Development, and at 27 becoming Chief Executive. Back then I believed I did have it all, although I now ask my 20-something self how I could think that? In truth, I wanted it. I wanted to believe I could have ‘it’.
A tiny word meaning everything.
Back in 2010 I remember telling my Mam that if I had a child, I’d go back to work as soon as possible. She listened as I told her that that’s what women like me do, it makes us happy and therefore our families are happier. I never questioned what I was saying and neither did she, although now I come to think of it she was smirking somewhat.
When I got pregnant in 2012, I was elated but professional panic set in quickly as I tried to work out my maternity leave options. I thought that’s what women like me do, because having it all makes us happy and having both a career and children is what having it all is, right?
However two of my favourite words are opportunity and options. I believe that a blessed life has both in abundance. After my baby was born and once I’d relinquished the painkillers, I realised that my being catapulted back in to the workplace wasn’t an opportunity for me if it wasn’t a choice I’d made. I had been led to believe that it was a given that first comes maternity leave and soon after, my baby would go to nursery and I would return to my career. Then it hit me – if it’s a given then there has been no choice. If I haven’t had to make a choice it’s because there weren’t options to consider. Ultimately somewhere down the line I had been conned into thinking that there were no options. Worse still, if I dared to hunt for options I would be doing a disservice to feminism.
‘Having it all’ quickly became ‘having to’. As I listened to many of the ‘mam-friends’ I met on maternity leave telling me how they hated their jobs but they would have to go back to work, but they were doing the lottery/praying/crossingfingers/panicking in an attempt to quit their job, I realised that I wasn’t alone. This is not to say that some of the women I met are not happy at the prospect of returning to work. I have friends who love the balance that being a mother and going out to paid work brings. I hope that in years to come I too have that experience. Nevertheless listening to women – all of them near strangers – tell me how sad they were to go back to a job they hated without considering any other option brought it home to me. It was then that I made sure that there was one ‘all’ I would have – all of the options available to me.
The truth is that there isn’t a man or woman alive who can have it all, that is, everything in the world. Simultaneously. Forever.
Before I began writing this I wondered if the notion was outdated, and perhaps my eighties upbringing had something to do with my once-upon-a-time quest for kids and career. Then I searched google for ‘women having it all’.
Recent features, and by recent I mean in the past few days to six months, include:
“We should all aspire to having it all” – The Telegraph
“Can women have it all?” – Toronto Sun
“You Can’t Have It All: 40% of Women Professionals are Hanging on By A Thread” – Forbes
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – The Atlantic
“Women Can’t Have It All” – The Daily Mail
and perhaps my most favourite, “Women, Quit Bitching, You Just Can’t Have It All By 30, OK” from The Telegraph.
Whilst we’re so focused on this question, regardless of whether the answer in these features turns out to be yes, no, or quit bitching, then we will never look out over the glass horizon and see ourselves as people with lives full of opportunity and options aplenty.
A tiny word meaning everything.
Does this mean if we can’t have it all, we have nothing? Not at all. We have options.