I can’t remember the first time I heard someone utter the sentence “Women really can have it all!” I grew up in the eighties when the sexual revolution was still fresh in our mother’s minds. I imagine for them this was pretty exciting – for the first time en masse the parenting rules were changing with regards to gender roles. Mothers’ of little girls could teach them that little girls could in fact be anything they wanted to be. Without exception, or just about. In the seventies and eighties, women were for the first time offered the chance to exist within more than one sphere, and though the rules were still unclear, what was clear was that it was socially acceptable for women to be both mothers and dedicated career women. Of course, there were those renegades in the sixties and earlier who drove the changes, but this was the first time a significant portion of women had unlimited options through opportunities gleaned from education and elsewhere. Hence the expression ‘having it all.’
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As I grew up, and now as a stay at home mum, I’ve learned to hate the phrase for its simplicity. It implies that men have always had it all and we have just been begrudgingly invited to the party. I don’t see that as true. Like women, men make choices. They choose to get themselves educated or not, learn a trade or not, get married or not, have children or not…in fact life is made up of zillions of choices from the time we can spit out a lovingly prepared puree of organic vegetables. We need to own those decisions in the same way men have been for decades.
Can we have it all? I’m not sure either gender can even define what ‘it’ is. This question is intrinsically tied to the feminist movement, who fought for the changes we now enjoy but have become, rightly or wrongly, either misunderstood or irrelevant to many women depending on who you ask. For me, feminism erupted at a time when women were not offered the same opportunities as men – the same choices. They may have been capable of the same outcomes but were rarely supported in their choices. So without indulging in a philosophical discussion about the definition of feminism, let’s boil it down to this – in 2015 women are offered most of the same opportunities as men are, (there’s certainly still a way to go, but across many industries the opportunities are fairly equal).
Our destiny is to a larger degree in our hands. There are still societal pressures to behave in a certain way, wear a given style, take particular jobs and even chisel our personalities to fit the norm. There are biological differences that will never, (at least in the foreseeable future), go away – we are less likely to be strong men or compete in the 100m dash against the men. That could potentially limit some career choices, though not many. We are certainly the ones that will have to make choices around if, when and how we have children in a way that men will not. If we choose to become pregnant we will be putting our bodies through 9 months of physiological changes that men will never experience, at the end of which we will have some form of medical hiatus from our careers. These are obstacles, sure, but not necessarily determining factors. More like a few extra decisions to make – really big ones. But still, they are our choices to make. So in that respect I suppose we can have ‘it all,’ in the same way men can.
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But here’s the thing. Just because we can multitask doesn’t mean we can have more than men can. Often the discussion centres around work and family balance, and women seem to feel torn between the two. To men, having it all seems to be much more clear cut. They decide on a career, choose to have a family and work out a balance between the two that suits. And having it all isn’t an issue because no one questions their need to stay at home with children versus their need to have a career. I can’t help but feel we are overcomplicating the question for women. Of course we can have what men can – but either way we have to make sacrifices, just like they do because there are only 24 hours in the day and we humans can only be in one place at a time. The sacrifices seem to be less guilt ridden for men, and though I’m sure many would want to spend more time with their families, the decision isn’t tied to their sense of success as a parent.
But for women, like men, the time/space continuum cannot be manipulated. There are only so many hours in the day. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. This is not to say that the world can’t be more understanding, that corporates and other work places can’t be more compassionate, or that governments can’t put more resources into making the work place more accessible for mothers. That side of the debate is certainly worth having too. But having it all requires that we proactively decide we want it all. It is entirely about choice.
For some women, ‘it’ is conquering the business world. For some ‘it’ is about staying home to be with their kids. And for most of us, it’s a combination that sits somewhere in the middle. The heart of the matter, I fear, is not that we can’t have it all, but that we feel more guilt with making those choices, (a feeling which men probably understand but to a much lesser degree). So we’re not really trying to have ‘it all’ we are trying to have more, to do more. We want to have our cake and eat it too, and it’s just not possible to do more than we can do.
So my take on feminism and having it all is this – make great choices and own them. Change your mind if it doesn’t feel right and own that too. Feel guilty if you need to but remember that you have nothing to feel guilty about. And most of all, will someone please figure out that time/space thing? I want to have my cake and eat it now…