“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.

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

“Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, it is the ultimate feminist act.”
Liz Phair – American Singer/Songwriter
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”   The two words that jump out of that sentence are rights and equality.  Surely every woman has the right to make her own choices and live her own life as she sees fit.  You see, for me feminism is as much about choice and freedom as it is about equality. 
And that right there is why I often find myself getting very depressed when feminist women (rarely men) get angry when a woman puts forward a vision of fulfilment that doesn’t rate climbing the career ladder her major priority in life. 
Over the last few days we have had another stunning example of how we women seem to find it next to impossible to accommodate views that do not fit neatly with ours.  Kirsty Allsop is the latest feminist to find herself in very hot water with the mainstream feminists who have been ranting and raving about her in our newspapers and on social media.  You see Kirsty has opinions and has never been afraid to express them.  Surely this is what feminists are all about?  Having women’s voices heard?  Not apparently if your opinions run contrary to the mainstream feminist view which seems to be all about achieving in education and career.
Ms Allsopp had the audacity to say in a wide ranging interview with The Telegraph that she thought that “women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward.” 
She went on to say that if she had a daughter (she has two sons) she would advise her to postpone university and to concentrate on having a family while she was young and doing the career and university thing later on.  She further said in an interview with Newsnight that she would have the same conversation with her boys.
Whether she is right or wrong is irrelevant.  The point is that she has every right to express her opinion.  She wasn’t saying that this is what every woman should do but that it is what she would advise her offspring to do.  But the immediate rubbishing of her view along with plenty of derogatory commentary concerning her background (which is reasonably wealthy by all accounts) and her work with interiors, design and crafting surely runs contrary to what feminism should be all about?
For generations women have passed down wisdom and stories along with recipes from mother to daughter; precious nuggets of knowledge borne from experience of our grandmothers.  In our enthusiasm for full equality we have narrowed our vision about what it is to be a woman – what it is to be a feminist.
Some of the greatest feminist women I know are working quietly in the home, caring for children, their aged parents and their household.  They have little if any interest in board rooms or glass ceilings.  Are there views on life less worthy?  Are these women some lesser species of feminist?
We need to be very careful of becoming too macho in our pursuit of full equality and freedom.  Actress Natalie Portman said “I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents or full-time working people or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.
So if Kirsty Allsopp wants to tell her children that they might consider fertility and plan a family early and put off career advancement till later, that is fine.  It is another way of doing things.  No more and no less valid that waiting until you are established in your career for the babies.
But women can we please stop being so critical of other women whose views don’t chime with ours.  We are often our own worst enemies… Ni neart go cur le cheile (no strength without unity)