Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Can Women - Or Men - Have It All?

This week Oscar winning actress Emma Thompson has stated that women can't have the perfect family and a career at the same time. They can't 'have it all'.

A day I remember with great vividness was in March 1997.  I was in training for the ordained ministry, and had a placement at Lowther Hall Anglican Grammar School in Essendon (a girls school) under the supervision of the Revd Jean Penman.  One day at school assembly there was a presentation by the students to celebrate World Women's Day (March 8).  One of the students walked onto the stage one minute in a business suit, and the next she appeared as a mother holding a baby.  The triumphant message was:  "You can have it all!" The idea was that women should expect to be able to combine career and family with great confidence and even ease.

Personally I found the presentation  traumatic.  I do believe women can do amazing things, as great as any man.  They can and they do, all the time.  But I knew the message was a false one. Being the father of three young boys  (who were 7, 9 and 11 years old), and having watched my male and female colleagues juggling family and work requirements, I knew that virtually no-one can 'have it all'.  People have to make hard choices all the time about how they balance work and personal life.

I had also met a number of young adults who were poorly parented by 'absent' fathers who were so devoted to their work they had successful careers but lousy families.  Those men hadn't managed to 'have it all'.  I felt they should have sacrificed some career achievements for the sake of their children.

I had also found  that I couldn't have it all. There were work opportunities I could not take up because of family needs, and family opportunities that went missing because of work.  Much of my planning around the years of preparation for ordained ministry had been shaped by a need to make caring for my family my first priority. 

At that school assembly, me sense of trauma was for the students themselves, that they would grow up with unrealistic expectations of life, trying to cram too many things in, and getting badly hurt in the process. If they truly believed they could have it all, they might, for example, delay having a family until their late 30's or early 40's, when everything becomes much harder and riskier – including conceiving. On another level, people usually can't 'have it all' because opportunities in life are  competitive, and the race goes to the swiftest. It is not true that everyone can win every race, and people need to be able to find happiness without conquering all.

What I saw unfolding on the school stage just looked cruel to me. It seemed to me that the baby boomer teachers, who themselves had certainly not 'had it all' (although teaching is by no means the worst  profession for balancing work and family) were pushing their overblown and even hubristic expectations upon the students in their care. 

Making life choices can sometimes be incredibly difficult. If you choose A, then you must forgo B.  There is a sense of loss, even in choosing one career over another.  Training young people to have inflated expectations of life is a form of abuse.  They need to be equipped to make carefully thought-through choices, and know how to live with the consequences of their choices with grace and without resentment or a misplaced sense of entitlement.

It is  wrong to deny people opportunities or to force them to set their sights lower than they should. It is good to inspire people and encourage them to achieve great things. But being a healthy human being means learning what it means to live within one's limits.

I hope that young women are afforded more dignity and respect these days.