A PM and A Put-Down: The Toxicity of Having It All

A PM and A Put-Down: The Toxicity of Having It All

Emma Schofield charts the fall-out caused by media coverage of Jacinda Ardern’s decision to step down as Prime Minister of New Zealand and reflects on why we desperately need to let go of the toxic notion of “having it all”.

News of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation as PM of New Zealand caught most of us by surprise when it came on Thursday morning. Ardern was in her sixth year as Prime Minister, nearing the end of her second term, having led her party to a landslide majority at the 2020 elections. She’s widely acknowledged to be one of the most popular political leaders in the world and yet, on Thursday, in announcing that she would be resigning from her role by the 7th February, Ardern admitted that she no longer “had enough in the tank” to remain as Prime Minister. Far more predictable was the response from media outlets around the world, many of which immediately decided to conclude that Ardern’s resignation must signal an inability to balance the demands of her job, with the needs of raising a young family.

Front and centre in the rush to raise this age-old argument was the BBC, who on Friday issued a lead article on the resignation, under the headline “Jacinda Ardern resigns: can women really have it all?”. The headline has since been changed and all associated social media posts deleted. Not that deleting posts makes much difference in this glorious age of technology. By the time the BBC clocked on to quite how badly they’d misread the situation, the headline had already been screenshot, saved and shared by enough people to ensure that the fuss wasn’t just going to conveniently go away. The one thing we can’t yet erase are people’s memories; at least, not until one of those Men in Black-style neuralyzers comes along. The damage has already been done, the words are out there and the idea that women ultimately always have to choose between the personal and the professional is back on the table again.

It’s nothing new; the notion that women who have a family and a career are somehow “having at all” is decades old. It dates back to the infamous book, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex and Money…Even If You’re Starting With Nothing, written in 1982 by former Cosmopolitan Editor, Helen Gurley Brown. The book laid the foundations for the idea that in order to really be successful in life as a woman you must be able to maintain your career and build up wealth, while also leading a fulfilling personal life and maintaining the energy for plenty of sex – preferably with your boss, as long as it will help to advance your career. The absurdity of Gurley Brown’s theory has been pointed out countless times, but it’s also been disastrously reinforced through our popular culture. Everything in that culture, from Bridget Jones to the miles of column inches devoted to marveling at how Madonna manages to defy ageing, continues to hold up the notion of “having it all” as the pinnacle of female success.

One of the biggest issues with the concept is that, in reality, it applies to, literally no one on earth, and yet it successfully manages to insult almost everyone it is applied to. I say “everyone”, but really, I mean “every woman”, because it’s a concept that’s almost singularly applied to women. When Boris Johnson announced his resignation in the summer, there were no headlines suggesting that he’d been forced out of post by the demands of trying to maintain a political career, while also being a father to however many children he currently has. Likewise, there were no headlines implying that any of his male predecessors left simply because they couldn’t hack the challenge of leading a country and raising a family. Unsurprisingly, things were less clear when Theresa May stepped down in 2019; the fact that May did not have children did nothing to deter reports which painted her as being weak. The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire repeatedly referred to May as “the crying lady” in the paper’s reporting of her resignation, apparently due to May’s visible emotion during the speech where she announced that she would be standing down. Take children out of the equation and it seems that showing emotion is one of the key drivers for these kinds of headlines; women are not meant to show emotion in politics, or the workplace in general.

Allowing that chink of humanity into her resignation speech is apparently where Jacinda Ardern went “wrong”. Ironic, given that her kindness and compassion is one of the things which has bolstered her popularity to such unprecedented levels. Her handling of tragedies like the Christchurch massacre in 2019 and her calm response to the Covid-19 pandemic were grounded in a belief that she could lead her country, but also remain kind and empathetic. Difficult moments of national tragedy and international panic did not have to be met with anger, aggression, or a show of force. Ardern’s strength as a leader has always been in her ability to absorb the enormity of the situation and to process each blow, before responding. She’s maintained this approach even in the face of a constant stream of sarcasm, criticism and misogyny and while fighting her corner in a political world that was continually dominated by figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. It’s hardly surprising that after five and a half years, Ardern is tired. 

To stand up and say that you’re burnt out from a job which demands that you work all hours and be constantly available to resolve crisis after crisis, is not weak. To decide that, after almost six years of prioritising your job above everything else, you want to take a step back is not a sign that you can’t “have it all”.

Ardern’s speech was, typically, about others as much as it was about her own exhaustion. She thanked her partner, but also acknowledged the toll the past few years have taken on him. Of course she mentioned her daughter, the child she gave birth to while in office in 2018; another life choice for which Ardern was criticised at least as much as she was celebrated. Why shouldn’t she acknowledge the family that have supported her and, no doubt, worried about her as she’s navigated the challenges of being a Prime Minister in one of the most turbulent periods of international politics in living memory? If Ardern is now tired and wants to spend more time with her family, and less time fighting political fires left right and centre, then what on earth is wrong with that? It’s less about this idea that women are torn between family and work, and more about the fact that, as a society, we still regard emotion as a sign of weakness.

We’ve seen it time and again in the sporting arena. In 2021 US gymnast Simone Biles faced appalling scrutiny and criticism for a decision to withdraw from competing in the Olympics due to struggling with her mental health. Female tennis players frequently find themselves having to wrestle with similar criticism and the perception that having a family will weaken their power to compete, not just on a physical level, but on an emotional one. Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka experienced it just last week when she withdrew from the Australian Open after announcing her pregnancy. Needless to say, the same argument is never applied to male sports stars whose lives are expected to continue unencumbered once they become a parent. Yes, of course pregnancy and labour takes a physical toll on a woman’s body, but the media discussion is not rooted in a deep concern for how a woman might continue to play elite sport once her pelvic floor has undergone nine months of carrying and birthing a baby. Instead, the argument is embedded in the idea that having a baby is another distraction for women, something which might cause them to lose the competitive edge they once had, a process which leaves them unable to focus solely on remaining at the top of their game.

For some inexplicable reason, there is a portion of the media that continues to push this narrative that women have something to prove, that their performance as athletes, politicians or in business is somehow conditional on them demonstrating an ability to meet an unspecified criteria that qualifies them for the mysterious level of “having it all”. We talk about the glass ceiling, but before we can even get to that women have to cross a hidden line which magically transports us from the status of Woman Doing a Job, to Woman Doing a Job While Also Showing No Emotion and Maintaining a Perfect Personal Life.

It’s this ridiculous double standard that we’ve seen this week. Ardern’s resignation coincided with the announcement that the Welsh women’s football team would be paid the same as the men’s team from now on, news which was, generally, met with approval from most quarters. Yet even a cursory glance at comments from male football fans on social media quickly countered that. Within a few seconds of looking I encountered the dazzling statement that “equality needs to be earned”, a sentiment which I noticed rearing its head with alarming frequency in the responses to several different news reports, despite the comment actually making no sense whatsoever. The damage runs deep. We have created a society where every opportunity is used to try and remind women that their worth should be defined not by who they are, or how hard they work, but by whether others perceive them to have passed or failed at some invisible test. Attacks on Adern’s resignation, and comments which question the validity of equal pay for women in sport, reassert these ridiculous boundaries to a whole new generation of young women.

The idea of “having it all” is not empowering to women. It does not set some kind of gold standard for managing to juggle your personal and professional life. Equally, not “having it all”, or even wanting to, is not a sign of failure. If we’re really going to throw about the term “having it all” (and I for one would like to see it banished forever from our vocabulary), then it needs to apply to everyone – female and male. The pressures of having young children while working a demanding job apply to men as well as women, or at least, they should do; the very fact that they frequently don’t is a sign of how imbalanced gender roles still are in 2023. All the BBC’s short-lived headline has done is to reinforce the idea that raising a family is ultimately female territory, that emotion, burn out due to the relentless pressures of a job and a desire to take a step back are signs of female weakness.

Yet if “having it all” means acting like a robot who remains completely unaffected and entirely emotionless in the face of whatever is thrown at them in the workplace, while still making it home in time to take sole responsibility for bathing the kids and making the family dinner, then I, for one, don’t want it.