It seems the debate about whether women can have it all – the career and the family – just won’t go away, which isn’t a bad thing, because it’s a debate I find fascinating and that I very much want to be a part of.
And it’s a debate that was on my mind yesterday as I spoke to several groups of teenagers in an inner city London comprehensive girls’ school at a careers’ day, trying to strike the right balance between inspiring them to reach for the skies and nudging them to make conscious choices about their personal lives.
In the end, I decided they were too young to hear some of what I thought I was going to say. Aside from talking about the pros and cons of a career in journalism – the excitement and adventure as well as the long hours and high stress – I thought I’d talk a little about how my own career focus and drive to achieve had, in part (as it’s by no means entirely to blame), brought me to where I am today: 41, single, childless and wondering if I’ll ever be a mum.
But those words didn’t want to come out. In the end, it didn’t seem appropriate to stray too far from the topic in hand. Perhaps I thought they were too young – aged 15 to 16 – to hear my musings on the ‘can women have it all?’ debate.
So I focused on trying to give an accurate picture of a career in journalism, based on my own experience as an international print journalist and on the careers of other people I know who chose regional or broadcast news. I talked about the highs of travelling to exotic places, flying in helicopters and mingling with VIPs. And I talked about the lows around long hours, disrupted weekends, tight deadlines and stress.
As it turns out, though, the girls weren’t too young to be thinking about families. And maybe they read between the lines. One of them asked whether such an apparently all-consuming career was conducive to settling down and raising children. Another asked what I felt I had given up or missed out on by dedicating so much time and energy to my career.
In my 20s and early 30s, I said, I didn’t think I was giving up or missing out on anything. Today, I see things differently. Perhaps I’d given up the opportunity to have children – I was 41, single and childless, I said. But nor is my story that simple, I added. It was never a straight career or family choice. There were lots of other circumstances that contributed to my current status.
But my school experience has definitely left me wondering where the balance lies. Do we encourage young women, particularly those from under-privileged backgrounds, to aim high, climb the career ladder and postpone families until later in life – in other words, tell them ‘yes, you can have it all’? Or do we suggest they think about whether having children is important to them and advise them to factor that in? And then how can you plan that kind of thing? Often, the timing isn’t ours to control.
But if we tell them to put babies on the back burner until they’re professionally fulfilled and financially secure, are we condemning them to the endless rounds of painful and often fruitless fertility treatment that so many women my age are going through? And when is the right time to start having these conversations? I remember a time in my teens when friends and I would discuss when we’d settle down and have babies – I recall we thought our late twenties was a good time. But my twenties came and went as I pursued my career and partied hard in Mexico and Brazil. Those baby conversations were quickly forgotten.
In my case, then, I haven’t had it all (family and career), although there is still time. But it seems women who’ve done a much better job than me at trying to have it all aren’t succeeding either. If you’ve got time, check out an article in The Atlantic magazine (it’s pretty long – I haven’t finished it myself yet!) by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former U.S. State Department high-flyer who walked away from her post to spend more time with her teenage sons. It’s entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All and in it she asks whether feminists have sold young women a lie.
And once you’ve finished that or before that if you prefer, read blogger Penelope Trunk’s take on Marissa Mayer’s decision to take just two weeks maternity leave so she can return to her new high-powered post at Yahoo: Marissa Mayer becomes CEO of Yahoo and proves women cannot have it all. Now I’ve never given birth and I know I shouldn’t judge other women’s choices. And I can imagine, if I’d have had a baby at the height of my Reuters journalism career, I might have wanted to get back to work after two weeks also. But today the idea of giving birth and then heading back to work and leaving a two-week old baby at home doesn’t sit too well with me. Penelope Trunk is a little more strident in her views. Here’s a flavour:
“The most revolutionary thing you can do for women right now is to stop celebrating women who choose to work 120 hours a week when they have a new baby. It’s been forty years since we have been able to say publicly that someone needs to stay home with a baby, forty years of feminism rammed down everyone’s throat.”
As the debate continues to rage – in my head as well as in the media – I guess the best thing we can do is to speak our truth, make sure young women have access to all the information they need, about career and personal choices, and then let them make up their own minds.
Another open and honest article Katherine, about the reality of family v career. My personal view about planning your career around babies is that it never works out the way you planned anyway. But you certainly do need to know that big decisions will need to be made – it’s not something you can ignore. But I agree that everyone has to make their own decision, and information and support is the best way to make sure that happens.
What worries me about the Marissa Mayer story is that it sets a precedent that the only way you can be successful in a career is to ‘skip over’ maternity leave in favour of continuity of career. That said, no one’s in a position to judge anyone else and if she feels that’s right for her life, then I hope she can make it work and still be happy.
It’s an issue close to my heart as I’ve recently set up a business to help women on maternity leave with those big career decisions. In fact, on my to do list yesterday was to write a blog post about Marissa Mayer! Maybe I’ll get it done today 😉
Hi Soozi, a belated thank you for your comment. I agree the Marissa Mayer story sends out a signal that that’s how things need to be done to stay at the top. It reminds me of the time after my father died when I was struggling with a whole range of emotions. I went to see the doctor to ask for some time off work. She told me that when her father died she’d only taken the morning of the funeral off work and had been back in the surgery in the afternoon. She implied that I should pull myself together and stop moping. That might have worked for her, but it wasn’t going to work for me! I needed some time and space to process things and I imagine I’d need the same time and space in the happy event of a having new baby to look after.
Your business sounds like a great idea.
I write to you with my three month old son propped up on my knee. It seems a shame that we divide work and career when in fact one thing surely props up the other. I decided to have children before marrying because I felt I could continue to work. It may not seem like a sacrifice but of course, I feel it is. However, my work – which is in education, and centres around children, makes me closer to the truth of the little cuddlies and I wouldnt be without it. I feel there is room for working Mums these days so I would simply say, go for it!
What a lovely picture – you writing with your three-month-old son on your knee. It sounds like you’ve got a good balance there between the work and the parenting and I look forward to meeting your little ones soon!