I wish I hadn't helped create the myth that it's easy for women to have it all

Authored on
14 Sep 2022



Helena Morrissey, chair of AJ Bell and a Money Matters supporter, has had a stratospheric career. A former CEO of a fund management group, she founded the 30% club to improve gender diversity on company boards – all while having nine children. If any woman has succeeded in ‘having it all’, it’s her.

But as Helena admitted in a candid article for the Daily Mail, she wishes she hadn’t helped create that myth. And it’s a message that’s drawn a positive response from many mothers. As Helena told us:

“Many women have got in touch with me to say how much the piece resonates, and that it's helping them feel less isolated, that they aren’t the only ones struggling to ‘do it all’.

“They’re hoping for a more open and honest conversation now about the struggles faced particularly by working mothers and carers. Of course, there’s also been some negative commentary – it’s been suggested that my ‘confession’ is too little, too late – but I’ve decided that it’s best to speak up now than never!

“With hindsight, I felt I had to put a brave face on things because of all the women before me who’d worked so hard to create the opportunities I had – but I don’t think they meant we also had to pretend to be perfect! A recent survey suggesting that we women are putting more pressure on ourselves than ever before prompted me to try to set the record straight, and help women go easy on themselves.”

Below are extracts from Helena’s article. And you can read the whole piece on the Daily Mail website.

"My maternity leaves had ranged from six months (my first child, now aged 30) to just 11 weeks (my last, now aged 13). I was lucky in knowing that the children were in good hands; my husband Richard, a journalist, had gone freelance after our fourth so he could be involved in the childcare and we also had the same live-out nanny, Paula, for 20 years, who really became part of the family.

Yet even with that support, I found it physically draining to throw myself back into my big City job and then over-compensate for my absence when I got home, anxious to prove myself as a mother.

It was partly the scale of the operation, as our family eventually numbered six girls and three boys. I’d rush around every evening until I dropped, putting out school uniforms, sorting out family admin and the washing, while mentally planning the next day’s smart outfit.

But the psychological toll of returning to the office went deeper than physical exhaustion. Irrespective of whether it was baby number one or nine, the second I set foot outside the house, I missed that baby I was leaving terribly, felt guilty about the other children and felt this constant nagging feeling that the priorities in my life were all wrong.

Every back-to-work experience was lonely and upsetting: I always continued breast-feeding long after returning to the office, and expressing my milk was a frequent reminder that I was doing something contrary to the natural order of things.

And yet I told no one (apart from Richard) how I was feeling. Quite the opposite: I doubled down on creating the impression that I absolutely could ‘do it all’. Even when I suffered an awful and very painful miscarriage in the office, at 12 weeks pregnant, I soldiered on, chairing a board meeting, telling no one, keeping up appearances.

Looking back on all this, I can see that it’s women like me who’ve peddled the myth that you can have it all. Today, I wish I hadn’t been so stoical. I wish I hadn’t helped perpetuate this pernicious illusion that we can breeze through big life events, like having a baby or enduring a miscarriage, and carry on as if nothing much has happened.

It came as no surprise to read a recent BUPA UK survey, which revealed that 63 per cent of mothers feel exhausted by the pressure to make juggling a home, children and career seem easy. It seems we can’t help but compare ourselves to others and then feel we come up short.

But the truth is we are likely to be comparing ourselves to an impossible standard that no one is really measuring up to. And even if we suspect that, it doesn’t stop us putting ridiculous demands on ourselves to try to achieve the unachievable, only making ourselves miserable in the process.

I should say here that I’m certainly not looking for sympathy. Indeed, part of my desire to be seen to ‘do it all’ came because I felt I needed to make a success of the unusual combination of such a large family plus full-on career. We chose this path, after all. But I am keen to dispel any myth that this was easy: it was not, no matter how much gloss I tried to put on it.

There was a particularly tough stretch in the early 2000s – a period which was a blur for me. I became a CEO in 2001 when I had five children – and the youngest three were born in 1998, 1999 and 2000. I was delighted to be promoted – but inevitably there were difficulties.

I really felt the need to prove myself as a new CEO and to ensure my young family didn’t miss out. Like so many other working parents, my hard day in the office would be followed by ‘the second shift’ at home. The slightest problem – one child being sick in the night, for example (or if we were really unlucky, several children) would easily tip the ‘balance’ into chaos.

So today I want to tell women who are struggling to ‘have it all’ not to be taken in by the illusion that others find it easy, an illusion that I’m sorry to have contributed to.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to have great moments when you feel on top of everything as a working mother, but I can tell you with certainty that no one feels that way all or even most of the time.

You may worry like I did, that the minute we start to let even the slightest cracks show, the whole edifice will come crashing down. We can’t magic away our self-doubts, but the best way to handle rather than add to the inevitable pressures of working motherhood is to accept our imperfections and mistakes."

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