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International Women’s Day: motherhood and careers

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December 4, 2023

As today is International Women’s Day it seems like the perfect time to look at the apparent conflict between a career and motherhood that society still appears to cling to.

Women are often told they can “have it all”: a full-time career and a satisfying family life. The question is primarily focused on how they handle the delicate work-life balance. This is a relatively new phenomenon, as women have been told for generations that they would eventually have to choose between their career and their more ‘natural’ role as mothers and caregivers.

Unsurprisingly, many took exception to this particular line of reasoning. Men were never told they had to choose between a career and fatherhood, so why should women? Why can’t they be successful career women and devoted parents at the same time?

As a lawyer, business owner and mother, I have first-hand experience of this difficult balance. Motherhood need not kill a career but anyone who claims it does not affect a woman’s professional life at all is plainly wrong. Prior to becoming a divorce lawyer, I actually worked as a commercial lawyer. Many of those cases were international and I had to travel quite a lot.

That all changed when my son was born. I cut down on the travel and found that I was getting involved in more family law cases. It seemed natural and I harbour no regrets, but those changes were necessitated by my becoming a parent.

Motherhood can have other effects as well. A woman’s income can often be affected by if or when she becomes a parent. Newly published research from the Trades Union Conference (TUC) suggests that having a child at a younger age could limit a woman’s earning potential over her lifetime. Women who have their first child before they turn 33 can earn as much as 15 per cent less than those who have their children later.

Their research indicated that older mothers tend to have advanced further in their careers. As a result, they are more likely to be able to afford full-time childcare whereas younger women are more likely to take significant time off work after their first child is born. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the findings reveal that “millions of mothers still suffer the motherhood pay penalty”.

It’s not just money, either. Despite the prevalence of the “you can have it all” mantra, many people’s attitudes are still rooted in the past. This week, women’s rights group the Fawcett Society published research which found that 46 per cent of people believe women become less committed to their jobs once they become a parent. By contrast, only 11 per cent believe the same of a man. In fact, the research found that 29 per cent believe men become more dedicated to their career once they have a child, but only eight per cent think that of women. This shows that many people still believe that a woman’s primary role is raising children whereas a man’s is to provide. Sometimes old attitudes can be hard to shake.

On International Women’s Day it is important to appreciate how far we have come as a society. However we must also reflect on what we have yet to achieve. Women ostensibly have a better position in the Western world today than at any other point in history but there is still work to be done. Old attitudes persist and old stigmas are dying a very slow death. Motherhood is not the death knell of a career and a career is not a sign of a bad parent.

But the crux of the issue is the cost of winning this game of equality. How equal are we really when the one going out to work and holding down a job while shouldering the greater burden of child care, the smoother running of a home and generally being the one who keeps all the balls in the air at the same time is, like it or not, usually the woman? In each family, the wife/mother/businesswoman is usually the all-round ‘coper’ around whom the rest of the family is centred in all practical respects. To my mind, there is a price to be paid for deciding to do everything at once.

So for me, International Women’s Day isn’t about the difference between a woman at last doing a hard-won, highly prized job or doing a not-so-well-paid, boring job rather than staying at home, caring for the family and running a home. No, I think the full, shocking impact of taking it all on because now she can – society and increasingly expects it – falls fully on the woman herself.

As a consequence of her hard-won freedom, equality and ability to compete with the men, which women in other countries across the world may be literally dying to achieve, she is not doing one full-time job but several jobs that take up more than a full day at work. The damage being done to her physical and mental health may be considerable. Ultimately it may bring an end to her marriage and fracture her entire family.

Now we have it, let’s think. The multimillion dollar question is: do we want it? On the ground things are changing, more men can be seen shopping in supermarkets, and doing more than they used to around the house. But with the drop in marriage rates, more women are bringing families up singlehandedly and going out to work, because they can.

That’s the question on International Women’s Day each woman has to ask herself. Although she is able to go to work like the men do, does she want to pay the price?

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Andrew says:

    Let me mention another aspect of this. There are a great number of jobs, usually of the less exalted and worse-paid kind, which by the nature of things involve early, late, Saturday, Sunday, night shifts; some of them are 24/7/365.
    if you are in one of those lines of work you must expect to be rostered for your equal share of the tough shifts. You should be free to swap, to the limits imposed by considerations of health, safety, and the Working Time Directive; but free means free, not bullied, expected, pressed, required, or treated as “not a team player” if you don’t. if you are asked to swap and say No that is the end of it.
    Above all your private life is equally important whether or not you have dependents. You have as much right to your share of the weekends as if you had as many children as the old lady who lived in a shoe. Your colleagues with children must make their own arrangements and not expect you to be the back-up.
    I know that can be difficult but that’s how it is. Anyone disagree?

  2. JamesB says:

    I think it is a confusing subject. For example I got it in the neck for not doing my share of the housework, even though my ex was not working but bringing up our child. Is it unrealistic if someone is at home to do the housework? I don’t think so.

    It is a fine line, indeed, an overlap, between asking for equality and punishing men for being men.

    I am not sure what the answer is since the feminists threw out the old way of doing things (one parent at home). The prevalent way in Western Europe seems to be not to have children but to bring in immigrants to support us as we age or pay our pensions and have children. I don’t think that’s a viable approach.

    Perhaps Tyson Fury may have had a point.

  3. JamesB says:

    To be slightly less antagonistic, perhaps it is not possible to do the things after having a child that it was before, so the answer is to work with your partner in a fair way that you both are good with with regards to who does what and where with regards to at work and at home.

    Sounds a bit more fluffy, but I think that’s the better way. May well find that women don’t want to be the globe setters that they are pushed to by the feminists at school and in the media. Think there is a saying, usually attributed to author Ti-Grace Atkinson: “Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice.”

  4. JamesB says:

    I should add that I am speaking as someone who has two daughters. Two daughters, and two sons, one of whom has aspergers.

  5. Luke says:

    “so the answer is to work with your partner in a fair way that you both are good with with regards to who does what and where with regards to at work and at home”
    All this has to be decided BEFORE you even try for a child – if at least one of you is adamant that they must have children but you simply cannot agree on the division of labour that will be required then you break up and look to cohabit with somebody you can agree with – it may be emotionally difficult but it’s not rocket science.

  6. susan says:

    after years of IVF and other half earning huge salary, to continue with my career would not have been financially worth it as the two would have cancelled each one out. Both of us worked unsocial hours and no close family to helpout in an emergency. you can see where this is going?
    looking after our daughter, helping with my husbands business, entertaining, gardening,decorating etc.
    when it all hit the fan it is really hard to resolve financial issues. yes thereare sacrifices but are we now to treat our marriages and children as a business proposition?
    there is no easy answer for those of us in this position

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