A letter to every ambitious woman who wants to have a baby.

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To every ambitious woman who wants to have a baby,

It’s all true, what they say. You only have to look around to know that.

Whenever a woman gets a brilliant, high-profile job the world wants to know one thing: Does she have children?

If the answer is NO (oh hiii, Gladys, Julia, Julie) then we all nod, wisely. Well, that explains that, then. She’s not one of those REAL women with stretch marks and shrunken Super and a gaggle of tiny mouths to feed. She doesn’t have to run out of the office at 4.30 for pick-up, or sacrifice weekend off-sites to be at sports’ sidelines, or miss breakfast meetings to fill lunch boxes.

Gladys Berejiklian was questioned about not having children just minutes after being sworn in as NSW Premier. (Image via Getty.)

If the answer is YES, (hey there, Tanya, Penny, Kate) then the conversation takes a different turn. Who's looking after the children? Clearly, she never sees them. How much time did she take off when she had them? She must have about 100 nannies. Really, why bother having children if you're not going to raise them yourself?

Sorry, brave young women with everything ahead of you, you're screwed if you do, and you're screwed if you don't.

But you already know that, right? It's the conversation that's all around you - you've been told by smart women you respect that no, you can't 'Have It All', at least not at the same time. You've been lectured about when to Lean In and when to Lean Out. You are lying awake at night quietly worrying that all your hard work may be for nothing if you're going to spend several of your prime years lying on the floor playing with Thomas tracks.


No, I know you don't know what those are yet.

Well, I have something revolutionary to tell you. Something irritating, something freeing, something, yes, even a little shocking.

It's not all about you.

Holly had the pleasure of meeting Penny Wong who has faced all kinds odd questions about her parenting. (Image supplied.)

There's a secret that many successful women know to be true. For over a year now, I have sat down once a fortnight for a conversation with a different ceiling-smashing woman from many different fields - politicians, business people, writers, musicians, doctors, academics - for the podcast I Don't Know How She Does It, and they all pretty much say the same thing.

When it comes to managing work and family, it's all about who you choose to share your life with.

U.S. writer and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter (look her up, she's amazing), is 100 per cent spot on when she says that for a woman, the choice of partner is the most important decision she can make about her career. She advocates that before you get serious with a partner, you need to have a conversation about how they view work and family:

Anne-Marie Slaughter gave an impressive TEDTalk in 2013. (Image via TEDTalk. Photo: James Duncan Davidson.)

"Don't just ask, 'Are we going to support each other's careers?'," Slaughter says. "Ask him, if it's a him, 'Will you move for me if I get a promotion?'"

If it were me, I would add to the list of questions:

"How old do you think a child should be before they go to child care?"

"Are you prepared to take some time off to help look after them until they do?"

Keep going: "Would you be happy working part-time sometimes? Would you be happy for me to work part-time sometimes?"

And: "Can you cook? Can you clean? Can you pack a lunchbox? Can you call a parent about a party invitation?" If your partner is able-bodied, the answer to all of those questions is YES.

Listen: Holly sits down with Penny Wong to discuss parenting and politics on I Don't Know How She Does It.

Women are not intrinsically better at the domestic tasks that include so much of the "grunt" work of child-rearing. They are just more prepared to do them, thanks to hundreds of thousands of years of that being the status quo.

For many of us now, everything has changed. Everything except that.

Until women stop looking at child-rearing as their sole responsibility, we are going to be stuck in this tedious martyr-trap. It's the most important half of the kicker line to Annabel Crabb's incredible book The Wife Drought - Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives. And it's the harder part to fix, because it asks us to peer critically at some of the most deeply entrenched parts of what being a woman and being a man mean to us.

And I'm sorry, young ambitious women, but a lot of you aren't helping. My own observations mirror those of Red Balloon founder, mother of two and all-round kick-arse business woman, Naomi Simson who told me: "I have young colleagues, 25, recently married, finding themselves doing everything for their husbands, and I am alarmed."

'The Wife Drought' author Annabel Crabb tackles the issue in her book. (Image via Kitchen Cabinet/ABC.)

I am alarmed, too. I am alarmed when I look around at my mum friends - who with very few exceptions, work in demanding jobs outside the home - who are still the ones who pack the lunches, talk to the teacher, keep track of playdates and work a half-day on Tuesdays and Thursdays so the kids aren't in after-care every day.

I am alarmed that every conversation about how much day-care costs is focused on how much of the mother's salary is left over afterwards, as if it is her responsibility to pay for it, rather that the fees coming out of a family budget.

If all of this is exactly what you want, then that's excellent. Because something you don't know yet, is that the way you view success may well change over time.

Like most working parents, I have been a working non-parent. I have been the person who rolls their eyes when the non-parents are the ones still at the office at 7pm. I have been the one who grumbles about school-holidays and working-from-home and three-day weeks.

Listen: TV presenter Shelley Craft talks parenting. 

I have played both sides. But so far, you have not. You only know one way to work, and one way to gauge your progress. And that word is MORE. More money, more status, more challenging work.


You might find that when you have a family, MORE is not always the answer. You will have a whole lot more going on in your life, and a whole lot more on your to-do list, and a whole lot more demands on your time, so when it comes to work, periodically LESS might be exactly what success looks like.

But not just for you.

If you are privileged enough to be well-educated, driven and have a rewarding job, chances are your partner (current, future or imaginary) is, too. And until it's just as okay for them to have that awkward conversation with their boss that a million women have had to have about how they are going to manage work and family after children, this debate will stay on a loop.

So sorry, ambitious young women, everything you hear about life as a working family is true - it is hard. It might be "easier" to have a stellar job without those pesky kids.

Holly Wainwright and daughter Matilda. (Image supplied.)

But if you want children - and truly, they are excellent - don't be tricked into thinking that those are your only two options. There's a third way, and it involves sharing the load. It involves not laughing off the idea that men are "useless" at home. It involves changing expectations. And sometimes, it involves letting go.

Only one of you can actually birth that glorious baby, but either one of you can look after them once they're here.

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