‘Having it all’ and other myths about being a woman

by Siân Ryan

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Growing up, I thought I had free choice. As a millennial, my parents taught me that I really could ‘have it all’. The teachers at school stamped it into our malleable brains that if we worked hard, there was no limit to our success.

If we passed our GCSEs, we could take our A levels, if we worked hard for fantastic grades, we could go to university, and if we put a bit of effort in on top of all the partying, we could finally get a decent job. With a decent job, we could start to earn money, be able to climb the career ladder and have a lifestyle which was comfortable and enjoyable.

Our destiny was in our own hands and no one ever mentioned this little thing called gender inequality. Apart from the sociology teacher, who everyone thought was a bit of a joke.

Well, I’m sitting here wondering what has happened to that decent job and above average pay cheque. I don’t even earn enough money to support myself yet and I am twenty seven – an age where I thought I was supposed to be someway to ‘having it all’

I am not alone, a lot of women my age feel as though they should be achieving more than they are. It has been widely acknowledged that across all age groups, women are being paid less than men. There is undoubtedly a significant pay inequality between the two genders, and women in my age group are suffering increasingly, due to taking on part-time employment that tends to be lower paid because they have children.

The expectation that we should start to think about whether we want to have a family starts in our late twenties, as we are all reminded so often by the media, biology means we cannot afford to hang around.

Our eggs are not limitless and are diminishing all the time. Last year when I heard that Apple and Facebook were going to start offering their female staff the option to freeze their eggs so they could continue their careers I thought YES. This could finally be the answer to ‘having it all’! Although, looking back, I’m not sure if it was relief at the thought of an empowering choice that could progress my career and raise a family simultaneously, or blind panic that I hadn’t yet considered I was running out of time to procreate…

We see plenty of inspiring stories of business women who have a baby and a career, so surely that should reassure us mere mortals that it can be done? We are told that women have never had so many options.

I was recently shown a picture of a woman on Instagram who was posing in her luxury office, holding her three day old baby whilst wearing ten inch heels, an immaculate face of makeup and a sexy blow dry.

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Most of my girlfriends that have had babies – by day three – are struggling to sit down because their vagina has been ripped open, they have nipples that look like cow’s udders, and a baby who doesn’t know how to latch on. Most women struggle to leave the house three days after they’ve had a baby, let alone get back to their career

Like the majority of content on Instagram, those images aren’t a real representation of ‘normal’ life and can result in making women feel like failures if they don’t match up to these ‘inspirational’ women.

The expectations placed on new mothers are confusing. Some believe women really can ‘have it all’, by continuing prosperous careers whilst juggling babies, and those who believe the only way to raise children is to stay at home with them, however the latter choice has become less prevalent in recent years.

The number of stay-at-home mothers dropped by a third in 20 years, to a historic low, according to an Office for National Statistics report and with government legislation encouraging more women into work by increasing childcare access and tax credit gains available for working mums, staying at home is becoming less favourable.

The confusion sets in when you start to examine whether these changes are adding pressure to women’s lives, forcing them back to work when really they want to look after a family and a home, or empowering them with the independence.

The term ‘stay at home mum’ still has something reminiscent of a 1950’s housewife about it. Not enough people recognise the hard work that goes into raising children.

I’ve heard countless people, men and women, call maternity leave a break. I know friends who think it’s ok that their husbands sleep in a different bed so they aren’t disturbed when the newborn baby cries in the middle of the night because they have work the next day

I’m often left wondering what the hell their husbands think their partners are doing the next day. There are no breaks when looking after a newborn baby – mothers are thrown into the depths of sleep deprivation, torturous crying, endless washing cycles – not to mention the trauma that their body has experienced.

The expectation that this is the easy option, is not an easy one to swallow.

Even though recent government policies enable women to continue working after having children, women are lambasted if they do choose to work at the same time as raising their children.

When Rachida Dati, a former minister in the French cabinet, returned to parliament, in heels, five days after a caesarean section, this sparked nationwide controversy and debate. The Daily Mail asked whether she was ‘right to put the demands of her career ahead of her child? Or was she crazy to miss out on some of the most precious months of her life?’

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Rachida Dati returned to her position in the French cabinet five days after a giving birth

The negativity surrounding her appearance and her desire to return back to work placed yet another expectation on new mums. So now they were supposed to go back to work, but look less glamorous? And it appears that there are rules about when to return to work – too soon and you risk damaging your babies’ wellbeing – too late and you lose your independence or risk your career.

There are so many expectations placed on women whatever age they are, but for women having to make lifestyle choices about their futures in their twenties, the expectations can be overwhelming.

The idea of ‘having it all’ seems as far away to modern women as it did to women in the 1950s. We have different pressures now, and we do have more choices about how we want to raise a family, but the choices we have are greatly shaped by decisions out of our hands.

Being a superwoman and doing everything isn’t sustainable or fair yet it seems this is what the modern woman is expected to be.

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