“Having it all” – response to Niamh Horan

I will say one thing for Niamh Horan, she’s brave.  Having sent Twitter into meltdown two weeks on Brendan O Connor’s The Cutting Edge on RTE One, she continued on her theme of women not ‘being able to have it all’ in the following week’s Sunday Independent.

But although she made a lot of women very cross, Horan is prompting a conversation that we really need to have and to keep having.  The kernel, the nugget of truth, which should inform this conversation is contained as an almost adjunct to a sentence when she writes that “capitalist culture doesn’t accommodate family.”  It is this culture which causes the problem which Horan interprets, along with many others, as women being able or unable to ‘have it all’.  And this is where the conversation stalls as women get cross and the conversation often becomes a heated debate, pitching the ‘stay at home moms’ against the ‘working moms’ (and I hate both those terms).  Meanwhile the men just stay quiet and continue to leave most of the childcare and domestic chores to the women.

Unlike Niamh, I have children.  I have had the experience of being a single parent, a so called working mother with two children in crèche and latterly a ‘housewife’ (another stupid term).  I surrendered, as opposed to retired, from the world of paid work when daughter number three came along and I just couldn’t juggle any more.  Our lives were mad.  Well the working bit was fine, it was the bits around the edges of the days and weeks that were mental.  Mornings rushing baby and toddler through breakfast muttering “hurry up” in a high pitched and increasingly maniacal voice.  By the time I arrived at my desk I felt like I had done a day’s work.  At the other end there was driving home having picked up the kids from crèche singing and talking incessantly in a bid to keep them awake.  Arriving into the house to be greeted by the detritus of breakfast.  It was only when I stopped that we both realised what madness it all was. And whereas I would take issue with Horan’s assertion that children suffer when women work, I do have some reservations about how some of our crèches are run.

I was very privileged that I could ‘retire’ and it was only possible because it coincided with the Celtic Tiger years and so my husband could work all the hours God sent while I kept things going at home.  We had ten glorious years and I feel very blessed and lucky, especially when as a single parent this was not a choice that was open to me.  In the aftermath of recession, most parents today do not have this choice either as they struggle to meet the cost of mortgages, childcare and all the other bills.

Equality means choice and all families should have the choice as to how they wish to live their lives.  We are now struggling to live in a world that was designed by men for men who had wives at home looking after the domestics and the children.  We need to make huge fundamental changes to how we organise the world of work.  Horan mentioned some of the measures we need to take such as better use of technology, remote working and more flexibility.  But we need way more than that.  We need compulsory paternity leave, we need care breaks, and career breaks for parents who want to park their career for a few years in order to spend time with their children when they are very young. And we need to actively facilitate the path back to paid work after that period of leave.

My big problem with Niamh’s assertions as articulated in her article is that she is framing this as a women’s issue.  This is not a women’s issue, it’s not even a family issue.  It is a society issue.  Because even those who never have children may well find themselves having to look after or support an elderly infirm loved one.

I am happy that Horan has prompted this conversation again but her focussing solely on mothers and making statements about “some women playing the system” doesn’t advance the conversation one bit and in fact steers it very deftly into a cul de sac.

I hope I will live to see real change happen so that my daughters will have all choices open to them – ones that I was just lucky to get.  What is interesting is that in order for this change to happen we must reach critical mass of women in the corridors of power – in Dail Eireann, in media and in boardrooms.  These women will drive the change if they are supported by men and women who want a better family life for all.

Meanwhile I hope that Niamh changes her mind about having a child in Ireland holding little appeal, whether she decides to have kids or not.  Because for those of us who wanted children and were lucky enough to have them it’s not only appealing but hugely rewarding.  That’s why we get so emotional when someone criticises the choices we have made, out of necessity or otherwise.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. A video featuring James Bond actor Daniel Craig, dressed as a women and voiced by Dame Judi Dench was released by Equals (a partnership of various charities) to highlight the injustice and inequality that still exists for women around the world. The basic thrust of the film, I have no issue with, although I am not convinced that dressing Mr Craig in drag is of any value other than ensuring coverage in the tabloid press.

However there were some statistics that bothered me. According to Judy Dench although we women do two thirds of the work, we only earn ten percent of the wealth. Many of us still are likely to lose our jobs if we become pregnant. We often are barred from work because of the lack of childcare. This makes me want to scream. Not because of the inequality of it, but because these kind of figures, this kind of rhetoric assumes that all women want to be equal to men in a man’s world. A world where one’s worth is measured by how much you earn. A world where your worth is also determined by how high up you are on the corporate ladder. A world where once you give birth you are assumed to want to place your baby in childcare so you can run back into the workforce and continue your climb through the glass ceiling to the boardroom where you hope you will be treated as equal to your male colleagues.

I’ve been around the block a few times. I have had a career. I loved it. I used childcare. I sat at the management table and I am pleased to say I never felt unequal. I think I was probably lucky. But I totally bought into the feminist notion that I was achieving. However I wasn’t happy. I was bloody exhausted.

Circumstances (and not any sudden blinding flash of insight on my part – but then again I was too busy to think much) conspired to my deciding to leave work, just for one year, in order to be at home with my family. My baby daughter had some health issues and my father was dying at the time. To this day I am so grateful to both of them for forcing me to step back and reassess my life.

I have been at home, looking after my family for the last ten years. I write. Sometimes I even get paid for my writing. But coming up to the ripe old age of 50, there is one thing I know for sure – I do not want to be equal in a man’s world. I want the world to allow me be equal for who I am. I dearly wish my feminist sisters would stop trying to compete with men in this very imperfect society we have created. I want women to re-imagine a new way of being equal. It is a man’s world. I want an equal world.

On paper I earn very little. But as Dame Judi says I work just as hard as my hardworking husband. He earns the money. I care and nuture and organise the home and our family. So on paper I am adding to these flawed statistics. But I am not unequal to my husband, unless you are judging earning power as a measure of equality. My equality comes from the fact that my husband and I agree that he earns our money, not his money.

I want to be equal so that when I do meet my career sisters and brothers I don’t feel inadequate about saying that I am a …… and there’s another problem right there. I don’t even have a title that adequately even comes close to describing what I do. I want to be equal in a world where women (or men) who stay at home with children are genuinely valued and respected.

To me it is no wonder there are so few women who are at the top of industry, in politics, etc The fact that we are not there is not altogether men’s fault. We are not there largely, I believe, because we choose not to be. Because our wiring is different. Our values are different. We are not men. But we are afraid to say it. It is so ‘politically incorrect’ to say that I do not want to put my children into childcare so that I can work long hours and sacrifice my core instincts. I am not saying that all women feel like I do, but I would say that I am not alone.

So sisters, fight on if you like. But you are on the road to nowhere because we are not all behind you. Some of us are dreaming a very different dream of equality. But maybe it’s time we took the courage to speak up!