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Mary Kenny: Ailing Thatcher proves women can't have it all

It is now widely known that Margaret Thatcher -- the once formidable and strident prime minster who figures in the 1981 archives as determined to defeat the IRA hunger strikers -- is now a frail old lady suffering from Alzheimer's.

The onset started in 2003, even before the death of her husband, Denis: in the last TV interview that she gave that year, to the writer Linda McDougall, it became clear that she was struggling for words, facts, recollections.

She would start a sentence and lose the thread. On some ground she was surer than others, as is the way with mental decline. The programme was somehow put together with careful filming, but Mrs Thatcher has never really spoken in public since. She has been supported by loyal minders who issue statements on her behalf when sought, such as regret at the passing of a public figure or endorsement of a new Conservative leader.

Sic transit gloria mundi! So pass the great and glorious of this world, and most people will look with compassion on the diminished figure who once bestrode a political universe: commanded Ronald Reagan; anointed Gorbachev when he renounced the Cold War and the aggressions of the Soviet Union; and endorsed Pope John Paul II as a comrade-in-arms against the repressions of Iron Curtain politics. Mrs Thatcher shares the pantheon of "greats" with only two other British prime ministers -- David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

And yet this little old lady of 86, as she now is, spent Christmas without the companionship of her children. Her son Mark was in Barbados "soaking up the sun", while her daughter Carol went skiing in Klosters, staying with her former partner, ski instructor Marco Grass. Mrs Thatcher's grandchildren live in Texas with Mark's first wife, Diane, and visits are rare.

Have Margaret Thatcher's children deserted her now that she is old and frail? Or are they justified in getting on with their own lives -- Carol, her daughter, has spent much of her adult life abroad escaping from the identity of being "Margaret Thatcher's daughter".

Or is Mrs Thatcher's situation an uncomfortable reminder that when all is said and done, no woman (and perhaps no man) really can "have it all"? Mrs Thatcher is portrayed in the new Meryl Streep movie, 'The Iron Lady', as a blazing feminist icon: the first woman prime minister who stamped her mark on a generation and was a living example of how a woman can show firm leadership (the men in her cabinet, in the movie, are all portrayed as hopeless weaklings).

And so, in a way, Mrs Thatcher was such an icon and an exemplar. But examine her personal life more closely and we see what sacrifices she made to get to the top of that political ladder, the famous "greasy pole", as Disraeli called it, of ambition.

She worked liked blazes. She graduated as a chemist (she invented a form of soft ice-cream) and then studied for the Bar, passing her final exams almost as she gave birth to her twin daughter and son.

She trudged around constituencies for 10 years until she got a safe seat. She was obsessive about the House of Commons and thought nothing of staying up for all-night sittings.

As a mother, everything in her household was organised for efficiency: she refused to let the twins have a dog, because dogs cause untidiness. She dispatched her children to boarding school because that was a sensibly efficient arrangement. She was an ambitious politician and a dutiful parent, but she never seems to have been a 'Mumsy' mother to her kids.

This was called "having it all" for a woman in the 1970s. You had the education, the career, the husband, the family, the house and you ran it all effortlessly while looking glamorous.

As a very capable woman, Mrs Thatcher indeed did all this, and even when she came to be prime minister, newly-released archives have shown that she examined household expenditure closely, like the prudent housewife that she was. And yet, it seems, she didn't really keep the children close to her. She adored her son, Mark -- who has got himself into a number of international scrapes -- while daughter Carol was closer to their father, Denis.

But both children couldn't wait, it seemed, to get away, and both have very obviously lived their lives anywhere but the United Kingdom -- Australia was a favourite for Carol, and she is now living in Madrid -- while Mark has moved between South Africa and the United States.

That neither of them would choose to be with their mother for Christmas speaks volumes about attachment theory. And prompts the question as to whether any woman really can get to the top of the political tree, and still have time, or inclination, or energy, to be a full-on mother?

Because her short-term memory is now acutely impaired, perhaps her children felt she would hardly benefit from time with them.

It is upsetting dealing with dementia, because it is so uncertain whether the patient has absorbed a conversation immediately forgotten. Besides, it is not easy always being in the shadow of a famous parent. Carol, who is unmarried, was determined not to step into the role of spinster-daughter-carer which many single women have been forced into: she feels entitled to live her own life.

Without her children, Mrs Thatcher was expecting to spend Christmas alone with a devoted professional carer, Kate, when, at the last minute, her niece Jane, an active member of the Methodist Church, invited her aunt to join a family meal, which she indeed did.

At the end of our days, we are perhaps more grateful for kindness than the glittering prizes of worldly success.

Irish Independent