Girls, forget "having it all"

A British headmistress says young women need a dose of reality when it comes to the work-family balance

Published November 13, 2009 8:14PM (EST)

We like to tell girls they can do anything they set their minds to. Fly to the moon? Why, of course. Become president of the United States? Yep. Become the president of the moon, too? Sure, why not. Do all this while juggling a gaggle of kids? Absolutely. But the headmistress of a girls' school in Britain has spoken out, arguing we should be doing the opposite: telling girls they very well might not be able to "have it all." Instead of the fist-pumping mantra of "you can do it," Jill Berry, president of the Girls' Schools Association, essentially suggests a wry "yeah, good luck with that."

It doesn't exactly make for an upbeat Spice Girls anthem, but it's honest. "Having it all" -- a baby and a high-powered career -- is no walk in the park. That doesn't mean it isn't worth the effort -- in fact, Berry very much wants girls to aim for the stars -- but she also wants them to have realistic expectations, so that when they encounter this high-wire act they don't blame themselves for finding it challenging. "Women can feel very guilty, whatever path they choose," she said. "It is as if they have somehow compromised their principles. What we can do as teachers is prepare them to have aspirations, but not aim for perfection."

Berry doesn't want girls to settle, though, she just wants them to have fair expectations of themselves -- and their partners. "There is nothing wrong with them saying 'I need to work part-time' or 'I need a significant degree of support in order to enable me to do my career and have children,'" she said. "If you choose someone who undervalues you, you won't be able to have the support you might need." In short, if your partner doesn't respect you as both a career woman and a mother, you might end up having to trade one for the other.

Maybe, just maybe if we were more honest with girls about the challenges that lie ahead, women would be less likely to blame themselves for ultimately falling short -- and more likely to fight for the support that mothers and families need.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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