‘Having it all’: Privilege or Pressure?

I haven’t written a blog in almost a month. You see I’ve been really busy ‘having it all’.

For the past few weeks I’ve been a working mum. Well, kind of. Back when I was pregnant and idiotic thoughts like ‘how hard could having a baby be?’ used to run through my head, I agreed to take on some HSC trial exam marking.

“Yep. Cool. I’ll just mark a few essays every time bubba goes down for a nap. They’ll be done before I know it. It’s great money, after all.”

Boy, was that wishful thinking. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in for. I hadn’t a clue how hard it would be to get even a tiny bit of work done while caring for a baby and I hadn’t a clue how to go about juggling professional and maternal responsibilities.

In the end, I got the papers done. I hated every second of it and will never agree to do such a crazy thing again, but I got the papers done.

The experience, however, certainly got me thinking. As women in contemporary society we are raised to believe that we can do what we want with our lives. That we can follow whichever career path we choose if we put our mind to it. That we can raise a family, should that be something we desire, but that the role of mother is not the only one we are meant to play. We are taught that, if we want, we can be a mum and have a career. We can dedicate our lives to raising babies while also dedicating ourselves to our chosen professional path.

In short, we grow up thinking we can ‘have it all’.

Well, I’m not so sure. I reckon ‘having it all’ might actually be impossible. Even in today’s society where women are as close to having equality as we’ve ever been, could ‘having it all’ be a myth? A lie? An unattainable ideal that we as women have tricked ourselves into thinking we can achieve?

After the two weeks that I’ve just had, I have no qualms about admitting that I can’t do it. I cannot simultaneously be the kind of mum I want to be and the kind of professional I want to be. I just cannot have it all.

And you know what? I don’t think I want it all, thank you very much. They can keep it all. I’ll be content with some.

I thought that dipping my feet back in the professional pool would be rewarding, stimulating, empowering, invigorating. Ah, no. The only thing that this experience made me feel was guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time with my daughter. Guilty that I wasn’t dedicating enough time or effort to my job. Guilty that in trying so hard to juggle home and work I wasn’t being a very good friend or wife.

The whole experience was thoroughly unenjoyable and I found it more trouble than it was worth. But at least I could sit in my pyjamas all day, motivate myself with Nutella on toast every ten minutes and procrastinate by hand washing all the cushion covers and alphabetising the DVD cases. Jeesh. I don’t know how the real working mums do it. My hat goes off to you. You’re incredible.

I should also point out here that I realise that not every woman gets the choice about whether to be a working mum or not. For millions of women around the world it is something that just has to be done so that their baby gets fed. For these women I have a massive amount of respect. To these women I say sorry. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be in this situation, especially when working is something you wouldn’t do given the choice.

But talking to my husband about the way I felt made me realise that weirdly, but not surprisingly, men don’t seem to struggle with ‘having it all’ like we do.They seem to be able to negotiate their home life and work life more easily and they seem to be able to reach a state of contentment without the wretched guilty conscience that seems to plague so many working women.

“Do you feel like you have it all?” I asked my husband over breakfast one morning.
“Yeah, yeah I do. I’ve got a family. I’ve got a good job”.
“But is it that simple?”
“For me it is, yeah”.
“Why is it so much easier for guys?”
“Cause it’s OK for us to leave at 8 and come home at 5.”

And that’s just it. For hundreds of years social narratives have been telling us that a good mother, a loving mother, stays at home with the kids. The same social narratives have been telling our menfolk that it’s perfectly OK, necessary in fact, to leave in the morning and return in the evening.

So how then are we as women supposed to reconcile these historically ingrained social expectations of motherhood with contemporary pressures or desires to also have a career? Well my answer is I’ve got no bloody idea. Perhaps something is always going to have give. Sacrifices inevitably made. In my case I know that I cannot be the kind of parent I want to be without giving less than my all to my job and I know that I can’t do my job with the necessary level of focus and commitment without sacrificing precious time with my daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are women out there who have figured it out. Who are simultaneously brilliant mothers and excellent, successful professionals. I just don’t know whether I am ever going to be able to achieve that. And more importantly it annoys me that I feel like society expects me to.

For a long time the notion of ‘having it all’ seemed to me to be a privilege that women in our society were lucky to have. A privilege that my mum’s generation and generations of women before that were not afforded. But the last few weeks have changed my mind. I think it’s nothing more than another unnecessary pressure that we place on ourselves. Another trigger for our guilt. Another thought lurking in the back of our minds forcing us to question whether we are doing enough or doing things well enough.

Well, stuff it. I say we should forget about having it ‘all’ and just focus on having what we want. On having what will make us happy and fulfilled. For some women that will be a baby and a career, for some women that will be a career and for others it will be a baby or two or seven.

For me, right now, what I have is not ‘it all’ but time at home with my baby and absolutely no classrooms or essays in sight. And that is more than enough. That might change in 6 or 12 months time but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Do you think it’s possible to have it all? How have you gone about juggling motherhood and a career? Dads: how do you feel about the prospect of ‘having it all’?


One thought on “‘Having it all’: Privilege or Pressure?

  1. I enjoyed this Leah- somehow I think we will have a great deal more to share when and if you return. Guilt is omnipresent, but I promise you if you do go back you’ll not waste a second at work and achieve miracles. Efficiency goes up ten-fold but I still get “why do you have to go to work and not daddy” often. Holidays are perfect. Daddy at home is enormous security for me. I feel way more for the colleagues who have done a days work before they arrive at school stressed because of drop offs and no car spots. Not only that part time work feels incomplete for many in our world. It’s bloody bloody hard. Whatever choices we make. But you are right- at least we have choices. I look at images of children trying to make it here after years of unsafe refugee camps and feel privileged in the extreme. Ps Marking has meant holidays, my
    Fridge, mortgage insurance, Leona edmiston….. Have I hated every minute? Absolutely!

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