As I listened to yet another debate on childcare and women in the workplace on RTE's Prime Time recently, I was reminded of an 'on air' conversation I had with the late Gerry Ryan over 10 years ago.
I had some months previously packed up my desk and left the world of paid work, where I was PRO for a national charity, to become a full-time housewife and mother to my three girls. It was a decision that was more or less forced on me by a convolution of circumstances in my personal life and initially I said I was just "taking a year out". My daughter said a similar thing to me back in February 2011 when she told me she was taking a year off to travel. She has been living in Perth, Western Australia for almost two years now! But I digress.
Gerry Ryan had been having a similar debate to that which was on Prime Time and I had contacted the show in a fit of evangelical zeal to share my discovery of how much I was enjoying my new housewifely role and how much easier it was than all the rushing and balancing I had been at previously.
Gerry listened and asked relevant questions about why I loved my new 'job' so much. I gushed on about not putting washing on the line at 9pm and no longer rushing my children through breakfast in the morning.
Then he surprised me with a question directly out of left field. "What about your girlfriends," he asked, "are they all working mothers or what?"
I told him that, perhaps unusually, all my close women friends, at that stage, were all stay-at-home mothers. "So," he continued, "when you were working, what did you think of their choice... honestly?"
I hesitated for a minute, wondering if any of them might be listening.
"I thought they had taken the easy option," I confessed. "I thought I was superwoman... doing the mother bit as well as the career thing." Until that moment no one had ever asked me that particular question and so I had never articulated what I had just admitted to on national radio.
Thankfully, 10 years ago there was no Twitter and so I was only made aware of one or two disparaging comments which came onto the Ryan Line criticising my disparaging of the sisterhood who had chosen to return to the hood to mind their brood!
Good old Gerry. In just a few minutes on the phone with me, he had managed to put his finger on something very important... namely why do we women insist on constantly judging each other for the choices we make, most especially with regards to children and working.
I have a friend who is convinced that women have a big issue with guilt. Is it to allay our own very real sense of guilt that we divert attention and criticism to women who have made the opposite choice to ourselves?
When will we women accept what we know about clothes also applies to life choices – there is no such thing as one size to fit all. We are not a homogeneous group. We are as different to each other as we are to men.
What unites us is our childbearing ability... and very often that's all.
I have long believed that true equality for women is all
about choice and respect. If I choose to be like Margaret Thatcher and crash spectacularly through glass ceilings to get to the very pinnacle of political and public life, that's great and should be celebrated. But equally, if I choose to step off the career path in order to care for my own children at home, my choice should be no less respected and facilitated and celebrated.
Clearly in order for mothers (or fathers) to work outside the home, childcare must be widely available and affordable. This, in my opinion, goes to the very heart of equality. But paradoxically it is also why our childcare debate is flawed.
Childcare should be about the child and not the working parent. I believe it should be a publicly funded and regulated service, just like education.
I believe it should be funded until the child reaches school-going age. And controversially, it should be funded regardless of who is doing the caring – be it parent or paid carer. Such a system would guarantee children equality of care and not discriminate against lone parents or parents who choose to remain at home with their children.
So let's look at how best to care for our most precious asset – our children – as a standalone issue and stop linking it to women in the workplace. I think it's time for some big-picture, long-term thinking on this issue. And leave the women to their own devices... free to follow their own hearts without fear of judgement and free of the burden of guilt.
And yes, before you tweet me, I know how unlikely this is to happen, especially in the short term. Our priorities are upsidedown... but that's a whole other column.