Wednesday 19 June 2019

David Robbins: Listen up, ladies and gentlemen, I know how you can 'have it all'

Societies in general -- and men in particular -- have been trying for centuries to work out what exactly it is that women want.

I thought I had it cracked back in the mid-1980s: I reckoned they wanted men who were tough, hunter-gatherer types but who could also cook, clean and do the laundry.

I spent a lot of my time in the Belfield Bar at UCD nodding sympathetically as attractive southside heiresses talked feminist theory and, just when I was about to make my move, they went off with a guy they had dismissed as a "classic male chauvinist pig".

It was a tough lesson: the girls from Mount Anville might have studied feminism with the redoubtable Ailbhe Smith, but they ended up marrying the guys from Gonzaga, just as their mothers and grandmothers did.

They read Camille Paglia or Betty Friedan as they might read Maeve Binchy -- for entertainment, not to live by.

Just recently, the task of unlocking the secrets of the female mind got a whole lot more difficult. The resignations of several women from high-profile jobs to return to the home have muddied waters that had just started to become clear.

Olwyn Enright, former Fine Gael TD for Laois-Offaly; Louise Mensch, Tory MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire; and Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy at the US State Department, all quit to be with their families.

Enright and Mensch went quietly enough, but Slaughter went down all guns blazing. She wrote a cover story for The Atlantic magazine entitled 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All'.

Even if she has the dream job, said Slaughter, and the money to hire all the nannies in the world, a stay-at-home husband and a beautiful home, it still doesn't work.

Add in the phenomenal sales -- almost entirely to women -- of the erotic, bondage-laden novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, and you have a truly confusing picture.

Women want to have careers, but they want to have children too. They want to be the boss but, seemingly, they also want to be tied to the bed-frame with furry handcuffs.

They want men to be men, but sometimes they want them to be the gay best friend, like the Rupert Everett character in My Best Friend's Wedding, someone they can talk to without being jumped.

As a man who gave up a career (a lacklustre one, but a career all the same) to stay at home with the kids, I come at this from a strange tangent. Can men still have it all, I wonder?

After five years as a stay-at-home dad, I have reached certain conclusions. The first is that every family needs a 'wife' -- of either sex. Someone to oil the wheels, keep the laundry going, pay the insurance, organise the play dates and be there when little Johnny grazes his knee.

You can outsource the job of the 'wife', but, as Anne-Marie Slaughter found, that leaves an overhang of guilt that can be difficult to deal with.

The second lesson is that being a 'wife' is tougher than any job I had in the mainstream working world. It's more taxing, the hours are longer and the recognition is less tangible.

When I was an editor, I could look at a features section, a supplement or a magazine and say: I did that. Now, I feel I am engaged in a process that is never finished; I am never on top of this job.

At night, when our daughter is in bed, and the hum of various kitchen appliances fills the room, my wife and I sit and wonder whether we made the right choice in arranging our lives like this.

Sometimes, she misses time with our little girl, and sometimes I miss office life. We speak with awe of families who manage when both parents work full-time. How do they manage, we ask. When do they wash the kitchen floor?

A passage of Slaughter's article has since stayed with me. Her teenage sons need her now, she says. This is a time for family, and a time for work will come again.

When I left my desk job at this newspaper, I knew I would have only one shot at fatherhood, and I wanted to be there and do it right. It would be a one-time only chance.

Which brings me to the third lesson I have learned: women -- and men -- can have it all.

But not necessarily all at the same time.

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