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Can you have it all?

30/06/2012

The wonderful thing about BritMumsLive is that you think and learn and discuss so much that your brain, heaving with all that new information, feels like you’ve finished a gourmet feast; to the point where you just need to take a little sit down and let it all sink in.

In the ‘Can women have it all?’ session I think I wrote the fewest notes, but was challenged the most, and it’s stuck with me this week, as we balanced nursery opening times with train times to and from London for a work conference, and organised childcare for a couple of necessary extra working days in the weeks ahead.

All of the panel, the bloggers of Muddling Along Mummy and Family Affairs and Other Matters, together with Michelle Chance, a fellow lawyer and head of the Association of Professional Working Parents and Eleanor Mills of the Sunday Times, spoke with what feels like rare honesty about the uneasy balancing act we all wobble through to find what’s best for our families, and those moments where the our two most-worn hats collide.

Michelle touched on the changes to UK maternity policies to allow fathers to take half of what should probably be termed parental leave, currently almost always taken in full or part by mothers (including me) as an addition to the first block of ‘Mummy-only’ weeks.  There’s little appetite for take up by UK Dads, and it seems that European countries are by and large on the same track but I’m not convinced that a change in culture so that both parents are expected to take an equal share of the leave is the right answer or truly workeable.

If my potential employer would have struck me out because I have a daughter, then would they not strike me out for needing antenatal appointments, for the impact of morning sickness on my productivity and for the potential for distracting the entire office from their afternoon’s work with baby scan photos?

Furthermore, there seems to be one fundemental flaw in this planned equality; men and women, equal in so many things, are not actually equal in all.  In fact, men are pretty lousy at breastfeeding.  I’m an enthusiastic fan of breastfeeding babies for as little or long as it works for your family.  That can be not at all, or, well we’re at 21 and a bit months and Kitty’s still going strong.  Pumping is lauded as the simple solution but it’s hard work, a pain in the neck and nowhere near as simple as being there to feed the baby directly.

Is the answer not instead that we accept and embrace the differences and attack prejudice head on as what it is, not try to level a playing field that nature insists is resolutely hilly.    If ‘different’ is perceived as ‘lesser’ or even just ‘more expensive’, can we change that perception into something positive, preferrably in a way that doesn’t involve throwing money around that neither we nor the state can afford?  You can see why my brain started to tie itself up in knots over this one and I don’t pretend to have anything close to an answer ( if you do by the way, you need to be running the world).

We also had a think about the next generation. I’m lucky that I work for a family friendly employer but it wasn’t the first criteria that a 24-year old me was looking for.  What should H and I teach Kitty as she grows up to guide her in choosing a career and employer(s) that will give her the best chance to realise her dreams in both career and family?

When asked, the panel voted two in agreement that we can have it all, as long as we know what we mean by ‘all’, one against, and one undecided.  I think I’m with the majority; if we know what we want, and that’s we as a family, not we as an individual, we can make it work.

But crucially, one family’s ‘all’ is another family’s ‘aaargh eek they did what!’, and if I have any conclusion at all after rambling on at such great length, it’s that the first step towards any of us ‘having it all’ is to throw the stereotype of ‘all’ far far out of the window and stick to the facts – we’re all doing the very best we can, and you can’t ask more than that.

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