Can women have it all? On marriage, motherhood and work


One of the most popular articles in 2012 was “Why women still can’t have it all“, by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic. It received the most facebook likes any Atlantic article has ever received and everyone from Michelle Obama to Gloria Steinem weighed in on the matter. Whether or not women can have it all is still one of the most discussed feminist questions of our times.

Personally, my head hurts whenever I think of this question. First of all, because it’s so vague – what the heck does it mean to have it all anyway? Also, does it apply to non-white and/or working class women, who in some ways are viscerally aware from the get-go that “having it all” isn’t an option. Can men have it all? Most of all, on the level that I do understand the question and that it applies to my life, it gives me a headache because it reveals my inner contradictions and unresolved tensions.

Let me demonstrate what I mean.

Here is what I on one hand think about marriage and motherhood: I don’t want to get married and I don’t want to have children.
This is because marriage comes with too much baggage, too many centuries of the word ‘wife’ meaning things about womanhood that I don’t relate to. (Examples: At one point in history marriage was considered the cure for female hysteria in the west. In many precolonial African societies wives were pawns. The more wives a man owned, the more status he had, so men who could not afford to buy wives often kidnapped enslaved women.)

Marriage is even worse if you have children because then you are a wife plus a mother. A combination of terms packed with more expectation than a scientific lab room.
And anyway, how would a baby, needy and narcissistic as they are, fare with a woman like me, whose first and only real priority is to write. Chances are it would grow to detest me for being a preoccupied and detached mother, defeating one of the main reasons people have kids in the first place, namely to feel unconditionally loved.

However, on the other hand, when I fall in love I contradict myself disgracefully. I become this woman whom I don’t fully recognise but whom I am quite fond of. This side of me is unapologetically romantic. This other self loves babies. This me wants to get married have a wedding and a baby, or maybe four?! This me fantasizes about her happily- or at least satisfiedly-ever-after future life with her soulmate – who of course shares wholly the responsibilities of child-raising – from changing diapers to cooking whatever it is that toddlers eat to putting the baby to sleep while I take a break to read yet another Hélène Cixous book instead of the latest bestselling parenting guide.

So, can I have it all? Alas, it’s not likely.

However, what’s more important to me than being Superwoman is to lead a full life, one in which I own my choices. I am not alone in thinking this way. In the countless blogs and articles that responded to the Atlantic piece, women said that having the option to choose matters the most.

But make no mistake about it – the idea that it’s “simply” about choice is bullshit. Choice spins around societal perceptions of prestige and conformity. To live a full life as a woman is therefore a political choice that needs ruthless, feral protection. Given the same conditions, it’s more difficult for a woman to live a full life than for a man because society is constructed around maleness.

Thus, women need greater willpower to fulfil their visions.
If you don’t want marriage or kids, for example, you need to have the willpower to defend your choice because you will be judged. People will think you’re antisocial, unnatural, bitter or a witch, you name it. If you are a mother, and/or a wife, again you have to defend this choice in myriad ways, within and outside your home and work.

Rather than a full on collision, I see my contradicting selves somehow continuing to zigzag around each other, teaching each other, increasing my creativity even. The me who protects her mind from any confinements of motherhood and wifeliness (since motherhood is about more than babies) is good to have around even when the nurturing, crazy-in-love me is in the front seat, and vice versa. They keep each other in check. They make life complex. As they should.


photo by: narghee-la

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  • Lesley Agams

    Great post as always.

    It is about choices and being able to defend them.

    Just this evening (a couple hours ago) was discussing with a young African feminist about motherhood in Africa and in the west.

    Contrary to popular opinion motherhood in Africa isn’t (or wasn’t) the unrelenting burden it is made out to be or that it is for women in the west.

    But change is happening and we are becoming more and more like the west and facing the social challenges of capitalism, urbanization and individualism. Women’s roles are changing.

    For most African working class and rural women there was never a choice between work and family. You had to work to support your family. Period. Will never forget Jagua Nana’s mother asking in derision ‘what type of African woman stays at home like white women?’

    I guess the fact we ask the question is progress. More choices.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Lesley. I appreciate that you bring up this angle because there are so many questions that remain to be sufficiently unexamined regarding motherhood in much of Africa historically. *Did women in precolonial Africa have it all?* For instance, what was the role of fathers and how did parenting norms affect heterosexual relationships or did they at all? Was motherhood not a burden because the prescribed role of women primarily as mothers was widely accepted? Or was it not a burden because, in the way it still is to an extent today, it’s seen as prestigious to be a mother? What about choice, about women who cannot have or do not want children for any number of reasons? I have read that many were considered to be witches…
      Despite the honour and status of motherhood compared to in the west I would argue that within that there is also a level of the mother as a protector of patriarchal values that needs analysis on its own terms.

      I very much agree that it’s necessary to discuss the way the women’s roles have changed in line with the acceptance of capitalism/urbanisation/individualism. Also is there a difference between work and career. More questions than answers to your comment, but no doubt we’ll return to visit these themes.

      Thanks again for sharing thoughts.

      • Lesley Agams

        When I say it wasn’t necessarily a burden I mean the extensive support system available in traditional rural African homesteads where many generations lived together. When women worked they had good and mostly free childcare. Many modern African women still enjoy that. Unlike in the west where a mother may not have the access to childcare and has to care for the family and children alone. The young woman I was talking with suggested I read ‘the joys of motherhood’ by buchi emecheta. I did. Last night. I think it proves my point. Even the female protagonist understood that living in Lagos away from the traditional family structure put greater strain on her as a mother (in addition to the modern requirements to educate the kids etc. EG In Nigeria a good education has always been expensive).
        I do agree we need to be more empirical in our study of parenting male and female in traditional Africa. We can start by recording our observations and the stories of our elders even though we lack historical record.
        Fathers disciplined but there were exceptions. Mothers nurtured but there were exceptions.
        While I believe in a woman’s right to bodily integrity I can’t help feeling because the choice to have children affects communities and nations as well as individuals and families there is value in traditional Africa’s ideologies around procreation. However I abhor and reject the gender discrimination and privilege that frequently results from it.
        It is a complicated and important issue that deserves attention. It also differentiates us

        • MsAfropolitan

          Love the ‘Joys of Motherhood”. I can see how you read it in one go :)

          Class is an important factor to this discussion as well, working classes all around the world including the west too have quite often developed mutual, harmonious ways of child raising out of necessity. In contrast, elites quite often are guardians of patriarchal law.

          Yes, there is value in traditional Africa’s ideologies around procreation but there is also inequality in them. and I think there were/are burdens that are created by glorifying motherhood to the extent many traditions do. It should be up to every woman whether or not motherhood is “The” pinnacle of her life.

          “When I say it wasn’t necessarily a burden I mean the extensive support system available in traditional rural African homesteads where many generations lived together.” – True. But this inevitably raises to mind polygamy, an institution whose ethos regarding community living could be of value but in a different format. I don’t think individuality needs be the enemy of community, however, and new fresh ways of combining tradition and modernity, individuality and communnity are necessary for today’s generation.

          Sis, so much to unpack!

  • Nana Darkoa

    I so related to this post Minna. On one hand I don’t want to get married again, yet I want a partner who will live with me (in an flexible kinda relationship unless I decide otherwise or change my mind) and raise my 1 child. 1 settled on one child because I have a vague memory of reading somewhere ages ago that Alice Walker said something about a woman should only have 1 child because you can take that child with you everywhere you go? Ah, I don’t even know. Its probably rubbish and she may never have even said that, but that thought stayed with me…in my mind, the 1 child is the compromise between no children, and children, which in my Ghanaian context needs to be in the plural.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Oh, I remember reading that too – I think it’s in one of the essays in “In search of our mother’s gardens”. And I hear you/Alice.
      The one child compromise… Yes, I may opt for that too 😉 Time will tell.

      I think women need to enquire more into the meaning of marriage. Many of us when we find the right person, want the ceremony, certainly the legalities are important, but we live longer and meet more than one right person in our lifetimes abi? And where are the discussions by men about marriage, what does it mean to them in this day and age? Ever stumbled on such?

      Thanks for the comment Nana!

  • akhumo

    This post definately touched me, Minna. As a young (and black) South African mother of one. So, for the most part I am just another statistic in the not-so-pleasing rate of teenage pregnancy. I think I will be judged if I stood up in a crowd and said that I never wanted this child of mine (now a gorgeous 7 year old). But it’s true. I fell in love with her when she did finally arrive. But to myself I will admit that I love her becasue she warms my heart, not because I asked for her.

    As for being a wife, well, my “partner in crime walked” away the minute I told him ‘we’ were expecting. To make matters worse, I was not really phased by his actions,more relieved than anything becasue at the time my sexuality had had enough of the closet and threatening to explode itself out. (I would be hard pressed to admit this though).

    The norm in South Africa these days, is when a young girl/ woman falls pregnant more often than not their parents (or in my case and many of my peers, their grandparents) assume responsibility of the child.

    I digress.

    So here I am, 25 years old, working (though still half dependent on my parents) and planning a life and future for myself and my precious daughter. I love my daughter, and she means that world to me. No matter that at times in my community I am labeled for not having a man by my side to raise and support my daughter. Where I’m from it is almost always your fault as a woman that you fell pregnant in the first place.

    Will African woman have it all? Those who would are the ones not afraid to stand up to their male counterparts, looking them dead in teh eye as their equals Or maybe just even going about their business without worrying about their “place”. Sadly though, this mindset is still on the surface of society, not yet absored into the core.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Akhumo, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on the matter. And so honestly at that. Your story is a valuable addition to this dialogue. Sometimes to come to a point where we are determined to make our own choices we go through those very roles that are placed on our shoulders, fitting them out, being wounded by some and enriched by others.
      The narrative around teenage pregnancy is another one that is so awfully one-sided and gendered in society. Of course it isn’t easy, as I believe is always the case with parenting!, but many friends of mine who had children in their teens are now in their mid 30s, with grown children and they are fierce and determined women who’ve been emboldened by the often challenging but nevertheless priceless experience.

      You nailed it with this – “Will African woman have it all? Those who would are the ones not afraid to stand up to their male counterparts, looking them dead in teh eye as their equals Or maybe just even going about their business without worrying about their “place”. Sadly though, this mindset is still on the surface of society, not yet absored into the core.”

      That was what I meant with choice not being some simple, comfortable thing but a radical political act of fearlessly protecting ones right to exist and taking responsibility for creating the life that we want.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment!

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