The exhausting reality of 'having it all' as a working mother

Alison Ray
By Alison Ray | 19 March 2024
Alison Ray.

Alison Ray, general manager of Melbourne independent creative agency Town Square is from a generation of women who were told she could have it all. However, in the wake of this year’s International Women’s Day and the gender pay gap report, she writes why working mums don’t have the autonomy to work like a man.

I'm making dinner, watching H do his homework (or more likely spin in circles on the chair), noting that T’s pants are looking too short, that the dog is limping, and we are out of margarine, all while I’m answering the 30 or so emails that came in since I shut down at 5.30 and took them to swimming lessons.
Because someone needs to know if the cost is approved, if the document is ok to send, where we are meeting on Thursday, while Ted wants to know why he can’t play Minecraft on a school night and Harry’s has bike ed tomorrow and I need to sign the form.
I was of the generation who was told you could have it all - the education, the career, the family. But when I was told I could have it all, no one mentioned how exhausting it would all be.
Every time I hear or read about the gender pay gap it makes me angry. Because a) it exists and it shouldn’t and b) the goddamn audacity. But I’m angry because the discussion skews to quotas and roles and industry and rarely the fact that women are expected to work like they don't have children and mother like they don't work outside the home.
In her excellent book ‘The Wife Drought’, Anabelle Crab identifies that having a spouse who “takes care” of things at home is an advantage enjoyed by more men than women. “Working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain.”
When I was a younger mum, I spoke on a panel at an industry event about being a full-time working mum and answering emails at the park and while doing Gymaboo. This was picked up by a journalist who reported I was complaining.  I wasn’t – I love my kids, and I love my career, both are important to me. I was being honest with the mostly female and sub-30 crowd about how I make it work. She concluded that one day my children will know I put my ambitions ahead of them. Yep, that female journalist, suggested the pleasures of stepping off the labour treadmill to do tasks such as volunteering at the tuckshop, cooking a meal for a friend, or bringing in the bins for a neighbour were “immeasurable” – and unknown to women like me. Ironically, I’ve done all of those things in the last month. Well not the tuck shop cos it is 2024 and it’s all run on an app, but I did work on the bar at movie night as I also play to my strengths. And I did 50-hour weeks at work – check my timesheets.
Not working is not an option. Work equals money equals housing, food, clothes, and holidays. The necessities and yes, the niceties. Not working is not acceptable. I graduated with $40k in HECs debt to set myself up for a career. I’ve been a diligent employee for over 20 years. I worked too long and too hard to get here to give it up. And I don’t want to.
And frankly, not working is not for me. I love my work, the people, the things we create and the things I continue to learn everyday. I’m engaged and stimulated by what I do. And I’m proud to hold the role of agency GM in an industry that while fairly gender-balanced still skews males at senior levels.  And in doing so making no small contribution to assisting with the role and pay gap.
But the fact is, that like every working mother I know who wanted it all, you work like you don’t have kids, try to parent like you don’t have to work – and a good percentage of the time feel like you are failing at both. 
We will never address the gender pay gap until we get women into key roles. Quotas will help. Encouraging more STEM-based roles will help. And more women leaders help - it’s hard to be what you can’t see. 
But remember most of those leaders didn’t get to her position because she had the autonomy to work like a man, but because she wanted it and deserved it, and she found a way to make it work.  
Each working mother must work out what her all is, and how she makes that happen. There is no right or wrong – there is you, your family and your decision. You define your all – no one else. But the key is to be realistic, fair, and reasonable to yourself (which is hard) and always encourage other women to have it all – whatever their all looks like.
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