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.