We want a family and career. Why shouldn't we have both?
PUBLISHED: 11:01 08 August 2014 | UPDATED: 11:01 08 August 2014
Ellen Widdup's 2.4 children
A friend of mine, born the same year I was, has just announced she is pregnant with her first child.
She is 34, which she claims is the “ideal age” to have a baby.
But is there really such a thing?
“Well, I’ve got to a comfortable point in my job and will be able to return to it without feeling like I won’t be taken seriously,” she said proudly when I pressed her on the matter.
“I’m young enough to be in the prime of my fertility but not so young that I would be considered too immature to take care of another person.
“I’m old enough to have done all the things I wanted to do in my youth but not too old that I won’t have enough time and energy to devote to them as I age.”
Of course, it sounds like she has it all worked out. But things do not always come to fruition the way you planned.
One mother I know was so busy climbing the career ladder that she was 40 when she started trying.
“It will be fine,” she said. “Women are having babies later and later.”
She struggled, suffered six gruelling rounds of IVF, and finally turned to adoption.
On the flip side of the coin was a woman I met at a baby group who had conceived naturally – and completely accidentally – at 48.
“I never really wanted kids,” she said. “There was never a right time. And then this happened and it was a wonderful, incredible, miracle that changed my life.”
At the other end of the scale is a mum I really admire who had her first baby at 15 and now has a remarkable teenager and a successful business of her own.
“I got it all out of the way early,” she said. “I had buckets of energy to tackle the night feeds and toddler years and then, once she was in school, I could devote the time I needed to my career without maternity leave and nappy changes getting in the way.”
Now, I had my daughter at 27 – young by today’s standards.
I didn’t plan it that way. I wasn’t financially flush. I didn’t own a house. I wasn’t married. I hadn’t reached any monumental career peak. Indeed, my job hung in the balance and I put off announcing I was expecting until I was embarrassingly large.
And sometimes I wondered what would have happened if I had waited. Been a little older, a little wiser, a little richer.
And then I look at the faces of my children and know I wouldn’t change a thing.
But what’s right for me isn’t right for everybody.
And that’s why I have a bone to pick with Labour frontbencher Lucy Powell, who announced last week that women should wait until they are at least 30 to get pregnant.
Taking time off in your 20s means lagging behind male colleagues and struggling to close the gap in pay and status, she said.
Now, Lucy means well, I’m sure. She wants women to prosper in the workplace.
And it is true that many mothers find their career “mummy tracked” instead of “fast tracked” after giving birth.
This phrase was recently coined by law firm Slater & Gordon, which carried out a survey that found 48% of women felt their chances of progressing in the workplace fell drastically after falling pregnant.
But surely the issue here is to stop this dreadful discrimination, rather than to tell women when they should start a family to minimise any damage caused?
TV presenter Kirstie Allsop waded into the debate to add her two-penneth-worth.
I found her comments just as distressing as Lucy’s. More so, in fact.
She said women should have a baby before 35 because afterwards their fertility “falls off a cliff”.
If she had a daughter, her advice would be: ‘Darling, do you know what? Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you. Let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.’”
This attitude is even more unhelpful.
This is why: This is a female problem, and as females we should be seeking a solution. Not trying to find a way to side-step the penalty of motherhood but tackling it head on. Of course, fertility is an issue. There it is, ticking away in the background, ready to explode at any moment.
But while we have to think about our egg count, we should not have to be thinking about the impact making that decision is going to have on our career.
There should be better support for mothers, more employers offering flexible working hours, no vast gender pay gap. We should be equally represented in the leadership ranks in a society that works for everyone.
We should be looking to match working hours to school hours, introducing home-working options, implementing more affordable childcare options, placing greater importance and emphasis on the role a dad plays.
Because, right now, men do not have this problem and they don’t even really understand it.
“But you wanted another baby,” my husband said when I cried my eyes out after missing out on a promotion at work. “You can’t have everything.”
“But why?” I bawled. “You do.”
It’s the most glaring inequality there is.
A man is not “daddy tracked” in the workplace. When his colleagues find out he is about to become a father, he gets slapped on the back, congratulated, taken out for a beer.
A woman, on the other hand, announces she is pregnant and in a split second goes from being seen as a capable, reliable business brain to a fat, unhinged, emotional wreck in an oversized smock.
So many of us want to have a family and build a career. But we also want to do this when and how we choose. And why shouldn’t we?
I think we still have a long way to go to reach that happy balance. But in the meantime I urge the Lucys and Kirsties of this world to accept we are all different and our circumstances, experiences and desires are all different.
We need to be empowered to make our own choices, in our own time, so that as women we can act on maternal longing without it being a fatal blow to our careers.
Find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.
For more from Ellen, see her opinion page here