Having it all - is it really that much to ask?
Struggling with the parental juggle? I wrote this post back in 2019, unfortunately, it still rings true...
Disagreeing with Michelle Obama - not a comfortable place for me. But when she commented at an event to launch her (magnificent) book Becoming, that she had to tell other women that having it all wasn’t really possible, it bothered me. In fact it bothered me so much that I’ve spent a lot of time - while on maternity leave with my second child - thinking about it.
What is ‘having it all’ really? Apart from a book that included some really dubious advice, it feels like the phrase is mainly used to berate women for being too successful. My understanding of the concept is pretty basic: being able to parent and have a career at the same time.
And here’s the rub...haven’t men done that since forever?
Frankly, most women I know quietly do that on a daily basis too. But we cannot ignore the multitude of challenges that face (particularly) women in this endeavour: from Mum guilt (note the lack a male equivalent of this phrase), the gender pay gap, to discrimination in the workplace. Aside from a husband who was leader of the free world at the time, I’m pretty Michelle was referring to these many limitations on women juggling their work-life balance. And as for Leaning In (ie working our butts off and hoping that will solve everything)? I'm with Michelle on this: "Sometimes that s**t doesn't work."
Let me take a moment to check my privilege: I’m a white, middle class woman. While I work very hard, I am conscious every day of the role of blind luck of birth and systemic racism and class structures that enabled me to get where I am today. It’s easier demanding more support when you’re in a job like mine and have a strong support network. But surely this issue is relevant for every working person and parent? If I’m going to use my privilege for anything, it will be to make the case for everyone to get the chance to choose how they balance their lives.
Back to my point about why men have been able to ‘have it all’ since forever. It’s not a tricky answer: women stayed at home to look after the house and kids. It still happens today: without Michelle’s support, her sacrificing bits of her career, looking after their girls and being an awesome First Lady, Barack could not have become President. And that’s fine - he wanted to be President and she didn’t. If you take gender out of the equation, essentially couples should be able to agree who gets to focus on their career, when, how they will do that and what support they need. If parents support each other parenting + work suddenly doesn't seem so tricky an equation. If only it was that easy...
It is hard for men to take an equal share of the childcare when they have less rights and access to paid leave to do so. It's hard for both sexes to balance babies and bosses when flexible working is the exception rather than the rule.
We live in an age where men are actively campaigning for the ability to take more of a role in parental responsibilities. When we finally have visibility of the impact of maternal childcare (and, frankly: just being a woman) on the gender pay gap. Employers need to wake up to the benefits of treating their employees equally when it comes to parental leave (bravo to Diageo and others on this btw).
A recent report by the European Commission showed evidence that when a father takes parental leave, mothers go back to work more easily, there is higher female employment, and the gender pay gap is lower. Research by McKinsey shows that enabling women to achieve their full potential in the workplace, including through widening flexible working, could add £148 billion to the UK economy by 2030.
When childcare and work are fairly paid and equally easy to access, men and women are happier, more productive and open to new and exciting opportunities at work. 'Having it all' (the idea of a single sex greedily grabbing all the pie) becomes redundant and life for parents simply becomes a balance of work and bringing up children...without driving yourself insane. Heck, you could even run a country!