Jayne Dowle: Women can't have it all... and may not want it

MY first proper job in journalism was working on a magazine which existed to prove that women could have it all. A high-powered job, exciting relationships, devoted friends and a perfect family. This was 20 years ago, and I was young and naïve. But not so naïve that I didn't realise that we were pushing an impossible dream to our readers.

I could never understand why anyone would want to spend 12 hours a day running a company – exhausting in itself – and then produce two or three children, which they would spend 12 hours every night looking after. Endless articles were devoted to agonising over how a mother, caught in this never-ending cycle of demands, might keep sane.

I remember one interview, where the mother said the only thing she looked forward to in her life was the weekend, which she spent mostly asleep. It didn't sound like much of a life to me then, and it doesn't now. Somehow I couldn't reconcile the prospect of being permanently exhausted with the noble aims of the feminists who had fought for equal pay and equal rights.

This is why I was interested to read the findings of Dr Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, who argues that women who strive for professional success end up having only "nominal families".

If they manage to produce a child at all, it is likely to be sub-contracted out to a nanny or au pair to bring up. It's what my friend, who went back to work part-time as legal executive when she had her two kids, scathingly calls a "token child". Proof that you can procreate, but not proof that you are a good mother.

Of course, the question of what makes a "good mother" has divided – and will continue to divide – women until the end of time. And it does none of us any favours to judge the abilities of stay-at-home mothers against those who work full-time. Each family is individual, and no-one except those who live in it 24/7 know how it really works.

So I'm not saying that one way of bringing up children is morally superior to another. I'm talking about tackling the issue of what women really want their lives to be like.

I think it's time we opened this up. And to do it properly, we have to be honest.

For too long under the Labour government, it was a given assumption that mothers wanted to juggle work and family. Millions of pounds were spent on pushing mothers back into jobs. Even more time, energy and money was devoted on encouraging policies such as flexible working hours, paternity leave and more places for women on company boards.

But did anybody really stop to think and ask women what they really wanted? The reality, unless you are earning a decent salary to pay for the nanny, cleaner, ironing lady etc to do the jobs you don't have time for, is not some glorious career-family combo, but hard slog. What I hear from the female frontline are two main arguments; bringing up a child is a job in itself, and a good proportion of mothers would be happy to stay at home and do that job without some government minister interfering. The other view comes from the workplace. If a woman is ambitious, she usually wants to get to the top through her own efforts and talents, not by some scheme of tokenism, which no-one respects.

So I am glad that Dr Hakim has been brave enough to come out and say that there is little public support for this kind of "social engineering" and calls on the Government to scrap it.

The crux of her argument is that because younger women have now proved that they can earn at least as much as their male counterparts, the original aims of feminist campaigners have been met. Therefore, to paraphrase her academic thesis, we're on our own from now on.

She is brave, and not everyone will agree with her. But I do. For in my experience, in the real world, not in the on-paper world of government initiatives, all this social engineering creates is pressure.

Pressure on women to zip straight to work and pretend that nine months of pregnancy never happened. Pressure on working mothers, who the higher up the greasy pole they climb, the more work they end up taking home, and the more urgent emails they have to answer while watching little Chloe compete in the swimming gala. And then there is the pressure on men to play a shared-parenting role that they feel obliged to, but are often ill-prepared for and uncomfortable with.

Pressure on child-free colleagues, who can be resentful of the "special treatment" working parents are perceived to receive. And pressure on employers to provide a workplace which attempts to please all of the people all of the time – and we know how impossible that is.

Yes, we have to accept that in general, women can't have it all. And the truth is – shock horror – that we might not actually want it all at all.