‘Having it all’ is a myth that is still being used to punish working mothers

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Sometimes there are small errors in the headlines that can be quickly corrected and all are forgiven. Sometimes there are opinion pieces that are a bit simplistic and could use a lot of evidence and nuance. Other times there are the spear tackles of successful women who wonder if they “can have it all”.

This remnant of a phrase is still invoked in our media from the BBC to newspaper tabloids.

A recent piece in the Daily Telegraph featured a number of high-profile women in the media who had separated from their husbands. Positioned as sympathetic, but ultimately poignant, the headline read: “Why love is the price famous women pay for their status.” Despite failing the public interest test in the pub, with no insight into the dynamics of the various relationships or recognizing that the separations took place over several years, the column concluded that the women “could not have a demanding career, marriage and solving the parenting of young children” .

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Of course, the long list of divorced men in the industry was not taken into account, and the issues women face in the public eye were unfairly and disproportionately unexamined. Things like the massive amount of vicious trolling and harassment we experience online. Or the fact that looks and age still play such a big role in our job prospects. It certainly did not take into account structural issues, such as affordable childcare, maternity leave policies and the role men play in parenting and housework. I mean, that’s all just so dull and evidence-based.

Instead, the article tied all these women tightly together, in order to show that our feminist relations should have no problem burning their bras, as their pants are now on fire because that we were lied to. You see, women can’t “have it all”.

But it’s not just arming tables asking this question. Just last month, in a now-deleted BBC headline Jacinda Ardern’s shock at rolling out the boring cliche question again. Despite explaining that she did not have “enough in the tank” to continue to be an effective leader, the article examines Ardern’s life as a working mother with a young child. Would the youngest head of government who led New Zealand through the pandemic, and tragedies including the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, and the White Island volcanic eruption, be asked such a question, or would an article be mentioned about him giving up a child young?

‘Having it all’ is now largely armed against professional mothers

I’m not sure who decided women need it all. And even if some do, who decided what “everything” is?

Although the phrase “it’s all” became popular in the 1980s thanks to a book of the same name, its origins have since been dismissed as misrepresentation and myth.

Written by Helen Gurley Brown, who was the editor of US Cosmopolitan magazine at the time, the self-help book for women for children made almost no reference to money, sex, diet, exercise and appearance.

The title has since been revealed as a marketing gimmick, one that the author tried hard for, but it didn’t change. Four decades later, “having it all” is a far less ambitious goal and a far more capricious punishment.

“The whole thing” is now largely weaponized against professional mothers. It is a bar that men are not expected to reach, and yet it is one that constantly shifts and moves for women. By their own design, every participant is willing to fail.

We need a new metric – or heck, our own individual metric – because what is “all”? If you choose not to have children, haven’t found your soul mate and have no interest in a seat at the boardroom table, do you have “anything”?

We should have more conversations and columns about priorities, self-care, sacrifice, timing and cost opportunities. A system that expects women to do it all does not reward a fairer and more realistic metric.

Related: Australian women will need ‘more than 200 years’ to achieve income equality with men

Feminists have fought, and continue to fight for women to have choices. Have agency. To have autonomy over our bodies and our lives.

Growing up, I was surrounded by women with low or no job skills, no financial independence and very limited education. I have seen many survive and remain in violent relationships, their health, happiness and well-being are still neglected or completely ignored.

As far as objective statistics go, for many years into their wedding, these women in my family are a very successful marriage story.

Unfair attacks on the marital status of high-profile mothers who are shifting public policy and challenging gender expectations are just a distraction from the work that still needs to be done.

It is women over 50 who are against homelessness in this country. First Nations women are the fastest growing prison population. December saw a ten-year high of women killed, 10 women were allegedly murdered by a current or former partner in 20 days.

This is the “price” women continue to pay in Australia.

Antoinette Lattouf is a broadcaster, columnist, author and co-founder of Media Diversity Australia. She was listed among AFR’s 100 Women of Influence. Antoinette is also an ambassador for the Gidget Foundation

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