July 23, 2002
The Age

The sins of our feminist mothers

A few years ago, in my mid-30s, had I heard Malcolm Turnbull pontificate about the need to encourage Australians to marry younger and have more children, I would have thumped him, kneed him in the groin and bawled him out.

How dare he – a rich father of two, with perfect wife and perfect life – presume for a moment to tell women, thriving at the peak of our careers, that we should stop, marry and procreate.

The sheer audacity of it.

Yet another male conspiracy, a conservative attempt to dump women out of the workplace and back into the home. A neat male arrangement: a good woman to run the household, and a workplace less cluttered with female competition. A win-win for patriarchy. And precisely the kind of society I was schooled against.

As we worked our way through high school and university in the ’70s and early ’80s, girls like me listened to our mothers, our trailblazing feminist teachers and the outspoken women who demanded a better deal for all women.

They paved the way for us to have rich careers.

They anointed us and encouraged us to take it all. We had the right to be editors, pediatricians, engineers, premiers, executive producers, High Court judges, CEOs etc.

We were brought up to believe that the world was ours. We could be and do whatever we pleased. Feminism’s hard-fought battles had borne fruit. And it was ours for the taking.

Or so we thought – until the lie of super “you can have it all” feminism hits home, in a very personal and emotional way.

We are the ones, now in our late 30s and early 40s, who are suddenly sitting before a sheepish doctor listening to the words: “Well, I’m sorry, but you may have left your run too late. Women at your age find it very difficult to get pregnant naturally, and unfortunately the success rate of IVF for a 39-year-old is around one in five – and dropping. In another 12 months, you’ll only have a 6 per cent chance of having a baby.

“So, given all the effort and expense, do you really want to go through with this?

“Why don’t you go home and think it through? But don’t leave it too long – your clock is ticking.

Then he adds for comic value, “And don’t forget, the battery is running low!”

For those of us who listened to our feminist foremothers’ encouragement, waved the purple scarves at their rallies, for those of us who took all that on board and forged ahead, crashed through barriers and carved out good, successful and even some brilliant careers, we’re now left – many of us at least – as premature “empty nesters”.

We’re alone, childless, many of us partnerless or drifting along in “permanent temporariness”, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman so aptly put it to describe the somewhat ambiguous, uncommitted type of relationship that seems to dominate among childless professional couples in their 30s and 40s.

The point is that while encouraging women in the ’70s and ’80s to reach for the sky, none of our purple-clad feminist mothers thought to tell us the truth about the biological clock.

The one that would eventually reach exploding point inside us.

Maybe they didn’t think to tell us, because they never heard the clock’s screaming chime. They were all married and knocked-up by their mid-20s – something they so desperately didn’t want for us.

And none of our mothers thought to warn us that we would need to stop, take time out and learn to nurture our partnerships. Or if they did, we were running too fast to hear it.

For those of us who did marry, marriage was perhaps akin to an accessory. And in our high-disposable-income lives, accessories pass their use-by date and are thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Frankly, the dominant message was to not let our man – or any man for that matter – get in the way of career and personal progress.

The end result: here we are, supposedly “having it all” as we edge 40, excellent education, good qualifications, great jobs, fast-moving careers, good incomes, and many of us own a trendy little inner-city pad. It’s a nice cafe latte kind of life.

But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless (the latest Collette Dinnigan frock looks pretty silly on a near-40-year-old), and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

I am childless and I am angry – angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

It was wrong. It was crap.

And Malcolm Turnbull has a point. God forbid!

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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