Is politics and parenting an impossible dream?

Australia’s new Prime Minister Julia Gillard said * she made a choice to go into politics rather than be a parent. 

She was once reported as saying a mother would never be Prime Minister but she says she was misquoted

“It is not what I said, not what I meant and not what I believe,” Gillard responds fervently, adding: “I look forward to a time when a mother is Prime Minister in this country.” 

For some time, when speaking publicly about the pressures in women’s lives, Gillard has rhetorically asked the question, “Could John Howard or Peter Costello have had quite the same careers if they were women?” The question is intended to be a humorous way of getting her audience thinking. 

The point she is making, she explains, is that it is easy for some men to look at women’s choices and offer a critical view without thinking for themselves what they would have done if faced with exactly the same choices. 

“I was trying to say we need to be talking about the pressures for women,” she continues. “Not just for politicians, but for women right across the nation who live the juggle of trying to put work and family together.” 

Gillard describes the stress she sees in the life of her friend Kirsten Livermore, the Federal Member for Capricornia. Livermore is the mother of two young children and her huge electorate is based in Rockhampton in North Queensland. She regularly brings her children to Canberra, but even with her husband’s support, Gillard says, “It’s unbelievably tough to work in a highly pressurised workplace and deal with family issues at the same time.” 

It appears to be even tougher for some people than others and more of those people happen to be women. 

Does that mean politics and parenting are mutually exclusive, or at least a lot harder  for women? 

Many men manage to combine the two roles but a lot fewer women do. 

That may be because fewer women who want to be mothers also want to enter politics; or that more women who enter politics don’t want to be mothers. 

But I suspect it is also because, in spite of the gains made in gender equality, women still find it harder than men to manage demanding careers and parenthood, and politics is a particularly demanding career. 

Jenny Shipley combined motherhood and politics, but her children were at secondary school by the time she reached cabinet and young adults when she was Prime Minister. 

Helen Clark chose not to have a family. 

Ruth Richardson had a young family but in her autobiography wrote of how difficult it was to juggle pregnancy, babies and politics. 

Katherine Rich often spoke of how family-unfriendly parliament and politics were and she decided to retire at the end of the last parliamentary term because she wanted to spend more time with her family

Lots of sitting MPs, here and in other countries, are parents; some of them are women. But fewer women than men reach the upper rungs of the political ladder. 

There will be lots of reasons for that, among which is that some – like some men –  may not have the desire or ability. 

But some don’t aim for the top because they put their families first, some do by choosing not to have children, few manage both parenting and the political heights. 

The Australian says Julia Gillard’s ascension fulfils feminist dream

But at least for now it appears that the feminist dream requires women to choose between politics and parenting and that  combining politics and parenting is still an impossible dream for most women. 

* Sky TV last night, not online.

10 Responses to Is politics and parenting an impossible dream?

  1. Monkey Boy says:

    Ah the eternal ‘If’ – So what? It was her choice. To have the choice – Surely that was the feminist dream wasn’t it? That’s the whole point, surely. You can’t have your cake and eat it. My missus could earn more than me, but she chooses to send me out to work in all weathers while she stays home to ‘nurture’. What about my right to choose. Bloody wimmin. If you choose to do something you should stand and be counted rather than witter about it. As for ‘wondering’ how well someone else would have done. Well I could wonder how John Lennon would have done if his mum hadn’t been hit by a car – it’s a pointless exercise. Or as my old man would say ‘If – If my aunty had balls, she’d be my uncle.”
    I trust taht now she is in a position to do so she will make it mandatory for workplaces to have a creche? Yeah right, no more than that other ‘martyr to childlessness’ Helen Clark did. Bloody wimmin – never satisfied.


  2. homepaddock says:

    Monkey – I agree it was her choice and am not criticising her, or any other women who make the same or different choices.

    I worked only part time (and very part time at that) when our children were young and still do for a variety of reasons.

    Other women make different choices – and we’re fortunate we have a lot more choices than women in previous generations did, and in some countries still have now.

    No-one can have their cake and eat it too but,as an observation, not a complaint, the choices round the parenting or politics cakes seem to be more difficult for women than men.


  3. Margaret Thatcher managed to have kids and become PM.
    Of course, Mark and Carol had grown up by them, but kids do not stop a woman becoming PM.
    And as you say, Jenny Shipley managed it too.

    Must check to see if Germany has some little Merkels running around.

    It’s up to women to make the choice. They can have it all if they want.


  4. Deborah says:

    More men are able to combine family and careers because men have wives.


  5. homepaddock says:

    FM no-one (male or female) can have it all but a lot more men than women manage to get to the top in politics and have families.

    Deborah – got it in one.


  6. Monkey Boy says:

    and by implication, women have husbands.


  7. Lucia Maria says:

    I’ve done the whole work thing while my husband mostly looked after the children as well as part time work while a nanny looked after my children, as well as being a complete stay at home mother just looking after (and homeschooling) the children.

    Upon reflection, I think it would have been better for my children for me and for my husband if we hadn’t swapped roles, with him acting as the “mummy” and me doing the work bit. It kind of worked, but it was disorienting, especially once we moved to both of us working (me part-time, him fulltime). It was like – what were we thinking!

    And then the revelation and relief I felt when I fired my nanny for teaching my 3 year old to lie to me about where they were, and stopped work just to be a full-time mother.

    When it comes down to it, when children are young, they really, really, really need their mothers. As they get older, it’s not so necessary. But making men into quasi-women is just so wrong.

    So, in regards to the post, I think it’s unnatural for women to have a “partner” and “choose” not to have children. Why not just be single and do it? Is there are real marriage without children, I don’t think so. Or is it just a business relationship as the partnership implies. Until we came back to NZ, that’s what I thought partners were – business partners, not those that pretend to be married.


  8. PaulL says:

    Deborah, Homepaddock: yes, it is certainly true that men can combine careers and families because they have wives. But here’s the question: when husbands and wives sit down to decide who’ll work and who’ll look after the children, who’s getting the short end of the stick?

    If we agree that in most families one will mind the children, and one will work, which job is the more important? The more fulfilling? The better?

    Why is is always presented as if men are off having fun at work whilst the poor women are stuck at home with the kids?

    Seems to me that many women are often telling me that the most important thing they feel they can do is to be a mother. And that it’s a hard job, a valuable job. Why are they getting short changed in doing that job whilst their husbands go climb the corporate ladder?

    To go a step further, in economic theory deals between two people don’t have to be win/lose. If one person likes climbing the corporate ladder, and another likes looking after children, then a deal in which both do what they want to is disadvantaging neither party, in fact it is mutually advantageous. Why do we persist in presenting this arrangement in zero sum terms?

    And finally, whilst I will agree there are a dearth of women in senior positions across many sectors of society, is that necessarily a problem? Are those roles ones that most normal people aspire to? I know that I surely don’t aspire to be PM, can’t imagine a more crappy job. I’ll absolutely fight for my right to do it _if I wanted to_, but that doesn’t mean I want to. Surely the point of feminism is that women have the choice to do it if they want, not that they should be forced to make that choice?


  9. homepaddock says:

    Paul – I agree with all your points.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that few if any men have to choose between having children and a career while at least some women do.

    I say that as an observation not a complaint and accept that it has at least as much to do with biology as anything else.


  10. PaulL says:

    I agree. The problem is that to some extent the mythology of feminism has suggested that women can have anything. And that is true. It has also suggested they can have everything. And that is not true. There isn’t enough time in the day, and choices have to be made.

    The thing that amazes me is how many women feel guilty about that. The mythology leads them to think they are failing – they aren’t superwoman. I think that is a problem that is worth addressing – we need people to understand that it’s always a choice, and that either choice (to have children, or not to) is OK. And to stop pretending that it is really feasible to do both, other than for those who are remarkably organised and/or lucky.


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