This is one of those posts that has been lingering at the back of my mind for months; every now and then I pull it up in the drafts box add a couple of lines and know its not fully ‘cooked’, and that my thoughts and feelings need more development before I can capture them accurately on “paper”.
Today I’ve rewritten most of it, but the essence, that elusive “having it all” dream, is still the central theme thats been occupying me, and still the thing that needs examining.
Like many women brought up in the 70’s by mothers’ who had often had to settle for ‘jobs’ rather than careers, I believed the mantra of the time, that women no longer had to choose between being ‘wives and mothers’ or ‘career women’ but could instead “have it all”.
“ALL” was a successful, lucrative career AND a husband, children and a happy family life.
This utopia was sold to my generation of young women by the feminist movement of the 1970’s and early 80’s and by the generation of women who had struggled so hard for any kind of equality in the workplace.
The equal pay act only came into force in 1970 in the UK, when I was already 5 years old. That is utterly shocking to me. But its the truth and it is the environment that those women who were influential on my adolescence had striven to be recognised within.
No wonder they were angry. And no wonder they wanted to pass their hard won “equality” on to their ‘daughters’.
However, this quixotic dream – that the career and family that every woman could have would each function perfectly well and that no sacrifices had to be made, quickly turned into a dystopian nightmare for many women. I do not propose to develop this theme further by looking at why that might be, nor to espouse on the (far too) slow evolution of the masculine brotherhood toward true equality. That might get me started on a feminist soapbox (and whilst I am proud to identify as a feminist, thats hardly the point of this post)
When I studied medicine, I always intended to work, and when I opted for a career in general practice after five years in hospital medicine, it was with the idea that I would be able to manage a family easier without night shifts to negotiate. I swallowed all the ‘research’ about how its not the quantity of time that mothers spend with their children but the quality of that time which is important… what I quite forgot in all this planning was that somewhere, somehow one also needs time for oneself.
So for the last 27 years, apart from three brief maternity leaves (no option for a year off at that time) I have always worked full time. And I have a career. I’m a joint owner of a medium sized business, and I have done quite well for myself. Ok our primary responsibility is to deliver health care to patients registered with us, and this I am qualified and trained to do. Running a business however, means employment, governance, financial decision making, implementing guidance across practices, strategy planning and implementation, managing staff etc etc etc. And I am neither trained nor qualified to do any of these things. I’ve picked it up along the way and make a reasonable fist of most of it, most of the time, but the fact remains I’m operating way outside my comfort zone for about 1/2 my working week.
When you work 40 hours + a week, have to do all the ‘thinking’ in the house – who needs new shoes, who has to get to an appointment, what’s in the fridge, practically manage the bills, post, stuff, cooking, some of the cleaning and washing … try to spend time with the children you work so hard to provide, for I sometimes think I drank to escape from the pure stress of the merry go round. The busy brain, the inability to just switch off and do nothing, at least partly because there was NO-ONE else to rely on, no one else who would step up and take the slack and no-one else who cared.
But behind all that, the driver (one of them) was this frankly ridiculous belief that you can ‘have it all’ and nothing will suffer, and worse: if you don’t ‘have it all’, its because you are “not trying hard enough,” and are incompetent, lazy or selfish. (or all three).
And that is JUST NOT TRUE. This idea; this construct; this theory; that deep down has been one of my core beliefs is simply and intrinsically wrong.
Now I’m not saying it cannot work out. Clearly it can. In my own experience I see many relationships and families where it works out quite nicely: but in ALL of these situations there are TWO adults in the family and both take an equal and active role in the business of “the family”. For some, one partner works and the other stays home to manage the house/children etc. For others both partners work part time and during their home days, actively participate in ALL the house ‘work’ (not just cleaning the loo, but remembering to book tickets or get a birthday present) In still others both work full time but buy in help to outsource the cleaning / gardening / ironing etc and BOTH actively parent the child(ren) at weekends and holidays.
None of these scenarios was mine.
Im not playing the pity card here, but over the last 19 years I have always been the wage earner and the parent and the thinker/ organiser/planner.
WHY did I not realise sooner that what I have expected of myself was simply not possible. That NO-ONE could have done all this perfectly, that its just not feasible for one woman (or man) to manage all that with NO casualties.
The casualty has been my children’s upbringing
Too late the realisation that young children do not thrive without positive examples of how to live, being shown and taught how to do stuff, talked to, encouraged and nurtured. And that that takes time. Proper time. Quality time. That feeding, bathing and cuddling is ‘good enough’ parenting but its not fantastic, and it will have consequences. No-one can know, because life is not an experiment, what would have happened if I had realised this sooner, cut my work hours whenI got divorced and spent more time at home and less time building my business (in a world where I am respected, I know what to expect and there is much more certainly and less drudgery than being at home with 3 children under 11)
I’m getting to the point I promise. And its not about beating myself up for the past.
I wasn’t working full time because I wanted lots of money, I wasn’t working full time because I felt more comfortable in the adult world of work than in the drudgery and chaos of home life, I was working full time because I believed I should be able to do it all and have it all, and if I did not I was a failure.
For many years now when asked for career advice by younger women, I have encouraged them to continue working once they have a family (because its extremely hard to get back to practice now after even as little as 2 years off) but to work less than full time. I have known in the deepest places of my soul that my choices were unsustainable, and I have been much kinder to others than to myself.
I have never before been able to accept that I struggle with my life, that it feels unmanageable, in part because it IS unmanageable. That all my addictions and strategies to control and manage the feelings I have so desperately tried to bury have grown in part because I have been fighting a losing battle and setting myself impossibly and ridiculously high standards.
No wonder I feel like a failure.