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27 June 2017Last updated
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Real Women

The have-it-all hoax

We are finally in that golden age. Women scaling amazing heights and smashing through glass ceilings. But have we exchanged one set of problems for another?

By Charlene Naidoo
1 Jun 2015 | 12:00 am
  • 50 minutes a day - how much quality time expat parents in the UAE spend with their children. 999 Magazine

    Source:Getty Images

There has never been a better time to be a woman. A brave young girl, Malala Yousafzai, is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and a six-month-pregnant mother, yahoo’s Marissa Meyer, becomes a CEO. Women can and are having it all. Or are we?

In January 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning for the US State Department, resigned and created a minor frenzy when she revealed her reasons. It is impossible, she wrote in an op-ed for The Atlantic in 2012, to be a mother, wife, law professor, government official (and thin and beautiful, too, while we’re at it).

More than a few working mothers breathed a sigh of relief and responded in kind. In an interview last year with the same magazine, the CEO of PepsiCo, Indra K Nooyi, admitted that the work-life balance was problematic.

“If you ask my daughters,” she said candidly, “I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I don’t think women can have it all.”

So, have we been sold a lie?

The rhetoric has always been there. Working mums are under immense pressure to be everything to everyone; wife, mother and superwoman at work. There has always been much to contend with. Guilt at outsourcing their childcare responsibilities. Stress and anxiety about their child’s development – is Mum’s absence the reason the little one is wetting the bed, or can’t count to 100?

Numerous studies over the years have hinted as much. In 2010 a collation of 69 studies published by the University of California and Macalester College, Minnesota, revealed that children are less likely to do well in school if their mothers return to work within a year of their birth. Spanning five decades of research, the study found that when mums went back to work earlier, children performed poorly in tests and exams and showed signs of being more disruptive. Still, there’s enough counter opinion suggesting that these children will be all right. But while it would be simplistic and inaccurate to blame working mothers for all that ails a child, it’s hard to deny that a price is being paid by the mother at work and the child at home.

Shifting values

Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of a seismic alteration in the current landscape, Nooyi’s statements (two years on from Slaughter’s) were largely welcomed by the mainstream. Who couldn’t identify with missing a child’s school play, or not having enough time to check homework and bake muffins for the cake sale? This shift in our value system is playing out globally. In America, where it was reported last year that the number of women in the workforce had declined 5 per cent in the previous 15 years, a joint poll by the New York Times, CBS News and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 61 per cent of women cited family responsibility as the reason they were not working. Nearly three-quarters of the women surveyed said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or a work-from-home option.

So where does this leave the working mother? With a huge burden of mummy guilt. “No matter what choice mothers make, they are always concerned that it’s the wrong one,” says Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic. “On the one hand they feel satisfied having both a career and a family. On the other, working mums deal with the stress of not spending enough time with their kids, missing out on important moments and the toll it takes on everyday life.”

Dubai-based youth and family life coach Sunaina Vohra agrees. “The majority of working mothers I deal with have terrible guilt and anguish about every arena where their child is failing. If the child has poor health, the mum bears the guilt. If the child is cranky and clingy, the mum takes on the responsibility. The list of the guilt trips that the working mother suffers from is endless.”

And unfortunately that guilt is built in from the get-go. Here in the UAE – where maternity leave is 45 days in the private sector and 60 days for government workers – even breastfeeding can be a huge challenge for mothers who are already struggling with balancing work and family life.

“Forty-five days of leave is in no way physically or mentally healthy for Mum or baby,” says Sunaina. “When a mother is forced to return to work within 45 days, it is emotionally and mentally taxing. The bond between mother and child is disrupted and not well established.”

Another blow to that mother/child bond…

And once Mum is at work, it’s up to the nanny to step in – and there are many nannies stepping in. The latest figures from the Dubai Statistics Centre reveal that 94 per cent of Emirati parents and a substantial number of expatriate families have nannies and maids. A study by Rabaa Al Sumaiti of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority suggests that infants and young children in Dubai might spend between 30 and 70 hours a week with a helper.

“The nanny issue is another thing working mums will unfortunately struggle with,” explains Dr Risoli. “It’s a real concern that your children may grow much more attached to their nanny. This raises more negative feelings of guilt and an overall sense of inadequacy as a mum.”

It also brings to the fore day-to-day practical issues, as a large number of nannies are from different cultural backgrounds, and English and/or Arabic are unfamiliar languages to them. Communication issues with the child and challenges in reaching certain developmental milestones are rife.

Who’s left holding the baby?

It’s not just about mummy guilt though, as worrying trends continue to emerge in modern child-rearing. Dr Dolly Habbal, a clinical psychologist at the Gulf Diagnostic Centre Hospital in Abu Dhabi, told a newspaper last year that she had observed an estimated 25-30 per cent increase in children needing therapy. Experts interviewed in the article attributed this rise to the development of domestic turbulence, rising divorce and separation rates, and feelings of neglect and isolation in extended families.

All of this, of course, puts even more pressure on the working mother.

Harking back to Nooyi’s and Slaughter’s sentiments, it seems there simply isn’t enough mum to go around, and this is especially true for single parents. With more women leaving home to enter the career space, traditional roles have shifted. This can be challenging, says Dr Risoli. “If both parents are working very hard, the time spent together is limited. This is not positive, of course, but if a couple is strong enough, the limited time can be used to reinforce the sense of unity and family bond.

“Cooperation between parents is essential to make the family work and to make children happy. The role of the father should not be underestimated. It is very important to support new mums and to help with the new routine around the baby.”

Speaking of fathers, there’s evidence to suggest that they, too, are feeling the strain of getting that work-life balance right. A 500-person study conducted at Bar-Ilan University two years ago found a typical working mother spends 29 hours a week just thinking about her everyday responsibilities and how to accomplish all the tasks, and dads are not far behind with 24 hours.

So, here we are. A pound of flesh extracted for every hour we spend away from our kids. Children with developmental issues, mothers with soaring stress levels, guilt and anxiety. The pressure to perform has never been more intense. Where does it all end? And more importantly, are the kids alright?

Earlier this year The Pew Research Centre in America offered stressed-out mums a reprieve with its findings. Kids’ academic and emotional wellbeing is not necessarily contingent on the amount of time they spend with their mothers. And dads are just as likely to stress about time spent away from home.

It’s still hard to tell, however. “Where there is an equilibrate family environment, there shouldn’t be a specific significative impact on the child,” says Dr Risoli. Well-being and balance go hand in hand. “Mums who work full time and do not spend any time with their children apart from the weekends are more likely to feel guilty and stressed and this leads to a lack of patience with children. Of course this will have a negative impact on children’s wellbeing so it’s vital to reinforce a secure attachment between mum and child.”

Maybe Slaughter and Nooyi were right and women, mothers especially, cannot have it all. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of popular TV shows Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, summed it up succinctly: “Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.”

And maybe that’s OK. Because if having it all comes at the expense of health, happiness and family well-being, maybe we’re not supposed to?

Perhaps you can’t have it all, but you can have enough…

Aquarius ambassador, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia, Dr Saliha Afridi, says: “Most women want it all. From my experience, those who don’t have it ‘all’ wish they did, and those who have it ‘all’ wonder every day why they signed up for that life.

“Yes, theoretically you can have it all but most of us are not enjoying it all. We are depleted of our energy and going through the days with a master checklist doing it all, so we can have it all. But we aren’t stopping to smell the roses or watch our children with wonder, or telling those we love that we are blessed to have them in our lives.

“I have been a mother for nine years now. I have approached this ‘problem’ from every angle. I have hired help, ordered food deliveries, had trainers come to the house to remove obstacles between me and working out, opened my own business so I could control my own hours — I can honestly say that I have tried everything to make sure that I am able to have it all while not having to do it all. Even then, something has always been off.

“I am acutely aware of the trade-offs I am making in any given moment between two things I love. Whereas my love for my children, my husband, and my clients is infinite, my time, energy, and patience are not. I am a finite being and I would be a fool to believe that I am not having one moment at the expense of another.

“We women are paying a high price for self-actualisation with our peace of mind and our joy for life. The goal should be to enjoy each moment – to slowly move through each task as if it were the last time we were doing it.

“Having it all should never be the aim. We need to remind ourselves why we wanted children, work or whatever it is in the first place. We should strive to be present, joyful, and savour all of our days and most of our moments. Then, even if we don’t have whatever we think of it ‘all’ as, whatever we do have will be enough.”

Have your say

We asked Aquarius readers to share their working-mum experiences

“We can’t be superwomen”

Anna Sheenkova, executive assistant

“I am happy that finally magazines are tackling this topic, instead of peddling the myth that women can have it all and be superwomen. It’s good to hear from successful women who admit that success in one part of their lives means another part of their lives suffers.”

“I fail every day at ‘having it all’”

TK, homemaker


“Being a full-time working mum means I spend my weekdays trying to fit precious moments into two-hour slots between getting home and bedtime, and at the weekend trying to cram in as much quality time as possible into 48 hours. I spend every morning working up the will to tell my two-year-old I’m not spending the day with him, and every second of my day at work wishing away the time to the weekend so I can lie in bed with him and say yes, finally, we can play together in the garden if you want. My son asks me every day not to go to work, and as if it’s not bad enough, I have an ongoing battle in my mind – how do I make it so he understands I would prefer to be with him but that working is good for you?”

By Charlene Naidoo

By Charlene Naidoo