September, 2011. I’m in a taxi on the way to my my new-ish job. It might be more sensible to call in sick because the make-up I put on yesterday is now tear-stained, and my clothes, which I’ve been wearing for 24 hours, are very rumpled. But this is a new role and I’ve got a job to do. So I’m in the back seat of a taxi crying, telling the patient taxi driver (I still remember his kindness around once a month) that I’ve broken up with my boyfriend after six years, that it’s probably for the best but it smarts when you’re not the one who had the final say, you know; that I’m terrified I won’t have a baby now.
“Ah, you’ve got plenty of time for that,” he says. “You’re so young.”
“I look younger than I am,” I say plaintively. “I’m actually 28.”
“Oh.” Concern enters his voice. “Well, like you say, you look young.”
“But my ovaries, they’re still 28.”
The taxi stops, I get out, thanking him profusely, adjust my creased clothes and go to work at the magazine where I am the features editor. I get on with “having it all”. Having it all: you know, the glamorous job, the kids, the poured concrete floor in the kitchen, whatever.
There are so many problems with that phrase: ‘having it all’. Most obviously because it’s just not something that everyone wants, it’s not ‘all’ for everyone
Looking back on this taxi-to-work escapade, I cringe. Obviously, crying in front of a taxi driver like that is self-involved and embarrassing. But so was my naive assumption that I knew what I wanted, or what was best for me, and that it was all being exploded by one break-up.
I’m embarrassed but I’m not wholly surprised. After all, that’s what us girls have been told we’re supposed to want for years and years, for longer than we’ve been alive. Reading about Vivienne Durham, the headmistress who thinks we should stop feeding young girls the “lie” that they can “have it all”, combining motherhood and career, reminded me so clearly of my own education at an all-girls school in Ireland.
It wasn’t on the curriculum, I don’t think, but this problem of wanting to “have it all” and the fertility deadline, and how to solve that, came up again and again, in religion or civics class. Were the boys in the all-male school up the road discussing the same thing? No, obviously. They were probably talking about the Middle East or learning about Islam. But from the age of 13 or 14, there we were, convent schoolgirls fretting about how on earth we were going to manage to have it all when we grew up.
And, oh God, there are so many problems with that phrase: “having it all”. Most obviously because it’s just not something that everyone wants, it’s not “all” for everyone. As writer Rebecca Solnit says in her brilliant Harper's essay on her decision not to have children and how that decision is repeatedly interrogated by others: “Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable. We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again.”
There are many ways to find contentment and happiness and get through the days and have it all. And we need to talk to our children about all those other ways too. (I think that perhaps this was what Vivienne Durham was actually trying to say but struggled to articulate as she got mired in her own argument, spouting unhelpful soundbites like “I’m not a feminist”.)
The thing is, though, for me, that I suppose after lots of consideration, I have realised that I do want it “all”, as defined by my teachers and the newspapers and the culture. I think I probably do want a family. And I definitely want a job – certainly because without a job there will be no money to have a baby, but also because I really like my job.
So when I look at it that way, “having it all” isn’t some big glittering prize. “Having it all” is just getting on with life in an equal way to most of the men I know. And yet it feels that young women are being sold the lie that to want to be a mother and to have a job is a selfish demand. We’re being sold the lie that “having it all” is something we have to fight each other for, something we have to plot as we sit around in our court shoes and our skirt suits.
A new survey depressingly discovered that 79 per cent of women feel that the responsibilities of caring for children 'still largely fall to women'
This week, the British Pregnancy Advisory Board released the findings of a study that found that women who do want to be mothers are very aware of how fertility declines with age (they’ve seen the scary headlines, too) but are choosing to have children later because of practical circumstances. After surveying more than 1,000 women, the BPAS report discovered that “the three most important factors [for] women starting a family were being in the right relationship (82 per cent), having financial security (77 per cent) and owning their own home (40 per cent)”. So many young women, who want to become a mother and continue with a career, will recognise those stipulations. They seem like sensible circumstances in which to bring up a child.
Like Solnit says, those hallmarks of adulthood are no guarantee of happiness, and they’re not necessary for everyone, but most us can probably agree that not being really, really broke while living in a shared house is how we would like to become parents. The study also depressingly discovered that 79 per cent of the women surveyed (who are aged 20 to 40, and are all planning to become mothers or haven’t ruled out the possibility) feel that “the responsibilities of caring for children still largely fall to women”.
And yet instead of actually discussing the problems raised in that report and the real ways we can go about solving them – educating boys about fertility and family, just like we do with girls; demanding better maternity and paternity leave and more affordable childcare; examining how the housing crisis is having an impact on the way a generation plans its future – our culture is painting women as selfish grabby shrews who want it “all”.
Since that taxi journey, I’ve moved from Ireland to London. I’ve been through a redundancy after the website I was working at closed down. I’ve fallen in love again. I’ve stopped annoying cab drivers with my personal problems. I’ve learnt that nothing is constant, there are no guarantees. I’ve learnt to interrogate the reasons why I want a family and a career. I’ve learnt a lot since then, thankfully. But I haven’t learnt how to have it all. Because, ultimately, “having it all” doesn’t exist. So what we have to learn is how to have equality and how to have a society that allows women to be what it is they want to be, without pitting them against each other and the system.