Women are still encouraged to “have it all”, juggling motherhood, marriage and high-powered careers without dropping any of the balls. So what gives? A stressful lifestyle can leave its mark on family life: perhaps it is no coincidence that many of the clients we see at Stowe Family Law are in their late 30s or early 40s, with young children.
At the same time, the latest statistics show that divorce rates have fallen to a 29-year low. There are several reasons for this but clearly, the rise of the working mother and soaring stress levels have not triggered a divorce epidemic. So if greater numbers of women are “making it work”, how are they doing it? I have my own ideas…
Winding down after a hectic series of meetings in London last week, I had lunch at J Sheekey in Covent Garden. (For relaxing and taking stock, this fish restaurant is the perfect venue: yummy comfort food, the best wine, white linen tablecloths and old-fashioned puddings!) My lunch companion was in her early thirties. She is very bright and our conversation kept me on my toes. She also has a bustling, highly-pressured lifestyle that makes mine pale into insignificance.
She is married with two young sons. She commutes to Central London every day; her husband commutes to his job on the south coast.
Their sons are dropped off with the child minder. Her job is highly sought after, but stressful. Her guts and determination have helped her to thrive in a cut-throat jungle. I was full of admiration for all that she has achieved – and continues to achieve, on a daily basis.
When I went to the Cabinet CBBC party in Paris recently, I met another British career mum. Her home is in London and her office is in Paris. Her commute is a round trip of some 400 miles – and she has a young child to care for at home. When we met she was overnighting, attending the CBBC launch before returning straight home the following day.
Working mothers v stay-at-home mothers
After leaving J Sheekey, travelling back to Yorkshire, I thought about both women and thought back to the 1990s, when my son Ben was little. I was a mother, a wife, a housewife and a lawyer running my own firm, all at the same time. It wasn’t easy. When I look back I smile, but I also wonder how on earth I managed.
The guilt was the worst thing. I felt guilty about being at work, when my baby was at home being looked after by someone else. How was he? Was he safe? Was he well? Was he fed? Was he happy? He was fine.
Then there was the guilt when my baby was at nursery and I was at work. I remember phoning the nursery on his first day and being told curtly by the head (a friend): “Marilyn, we knew you would call. He is fine, now buzz off.” And he was fine.
But then I felt guilty when I took days off work, to stay with Ben and work from home, often in the garden sitting next to his pram. I couldn’t win!
I juggled as best I could, but on occasion something would give. I once turned up to a meeting a day early. I was frequently ticketed for speeding, while dashing between school and the office trying to be on time for one or the other. The pressures piled up.
Despite those fast, frantic, roller coaster, sleep-disturbed years, I appear to have raised a well-adjusted son. We have a great relationship and he is now a law student following in his parents’ footsteps. He can’t have had it that bad!
Last year at Stowe Family Law, one of our partners took the difficult decision to leave. It doesn’t happen often. In this case, our colleague had forged an exceptional career for herself – but felt that she’d had enough of coping with the pressure of being a working mum. Now she is a full time mother to her young family, and I am pretty sure that her law career is over for good. She is a great family lawyer and we miss her, but we respect the difficult decision that she and her husband made for their family’s benefit.
How to balance marriage with a career
The young mums I met last week battle on. How I admire their courage! I know they are finding it hard and must worry about what the future holds – just as I did. I wish I could reassure them, and tell them it will be all right. I am confident that if stick it out, everything will work out fine.
Why? Staying married is never guaranteed, but a genuine agreement between partners to share childcare, work and domestic chores can give a marriage a far better chance of survival.
Both of these women told me of their decisions to keep working to get to the top of their professions, and described the great support they received from their husbands. Each man supports his wife’s endeavours and plays his full part in the marriage – far more than might have been the case just one generation ago.
Each husband shares in the childcare and plays his part in the domestic arrangements. It is as tough for him as it is for his wife. Thus neither spouse is taking it easy. Instead, husband and wife are working towards shared goals: a successful family life and successful career paths.
We women have fought hard and forged fabulous careers which were dreams thirty years ago, but we have proved we can pull it off successfully with partners who accept that women are also in high positions in the work place yet need equal partners in a marriage.
Times are changing
In the past 20 years many marriages have broken down because couples couldn’t cope with “doing it all”. Wives complained that husbands paid mere lip service to domesticity. Caught up in the macho man image of the time, many men refused to do the cooking, dusting, vacuuming, childcare or shopping. These days it is considered cool to cook, shop and clean. Many men adore time spent in the kitchen. They like to look after their children.
I believe that many men have altered their mindsets to accommodate a new type of partner. They no longer expect to be the breadwinners. Instead they accept that they are equal partners with their wives, both of them working and raising their children.
With divorce rates continuing to fall, I can’t help thinking that one reason for this is that women are no longer just seen as breadwinners. Now they are also accepted as breadwinners, with their own careers. Men are more willing to adjust to shared domestic duties – including childcare – without complaint or resentment. The pressures of balancing work life and family life are reduced because they are shared. The chances of a successful marriage are increasing.
Am I right?