Mothers’ ruin: the glass ceiling, the blame game and the selfie

The power of the personal illuminated global issues at women’s summit

To ask a successful career woman about motherhood is regarded by some as demeaning. Would an interviewer, they argue, be as quick to ask her male counterpart about fatherhood?

So does equality lie in keeping the undeniably life-changing role of parenthood out of the picture for men and women? Or would it be better to acknowledge it as part of who they are, for both genders?

Mother-of-two and publishing queen Tina Brown had no hesitation in using the "M" word during the public interviews she conducted at the recent London debut of the Women in the World (WITW) summit, which she cofounded in New York in 2009. (She even raised the absence of motherhood with the British home secretary, Theresa May. )

The summit, according to Brown, aims to present women "in a forum where we can see the world through their eyes and draw strength and wisdom from their lives". And the London line-up ranged from headline names such as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon to impressive women recounting first-hand experiences to highlight global issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, institutional sex abuse, radicalisation of young people, Ebola and sex slavery.

In the course of her on-stage chat with Germany's first female minister of defence, 58-year-old Ursula von der Leyen, Brown herself described the fact that this woman, tipped as a likely successor to chancellor Angela Merkel, has seven children as "the elephant in the room". Yet it undoubtedly had everything to do with some of the mould-breaking legislation she introduced when she was minister of family affairs.

Before her political career, and as a doctor married to a fellow doctor, von der Leyen struggled to continue working as a mother of three children, “full of bad conscience”. She felt that she was a “bad mum at home and a bad doctor at the hospital”.

German society has traditionally frowned on working mothers, who can be the target of the insult Rabenmutter, or Raven Mother – a woman who "abandons" her children in the nest to pursue her career.

Her husband Heiko’s medical career brought their family to California, where he took up a post at Stanford University. But the supportive attitude she encountered there for both of them as working doctors was a “real eye-opener”. She resolved, on the family’s return to Germany, never again to let anybody make her feel guilty about working outside the home.

As the daughter of German politician Ernst Albrecht, von der Leyen had politics in her blood and when her career in public life took off, Heiko had to take over more responsibility at home; by this time, they had seven children. She didn’t even have time to write him the copious instructions she once did when leaving him in charge.

“I had to let go of the overcontrolling mum,” said von der Leyen, recounting how Heiko has described this changing scenario as one of the best things that happened to him; he realised his role as father was indispensable.

“Don’t try to turn [your children’s father] into a secondhand mum; he is a first-class father and you have to let him do his thing,” she told the predominantly female audience in London’s Cadogan Hall.

The personal became the political as von der Leyen advocated the introduction of 12 months of paid parental leave, with two months of that reserved for fathers on a “take it or leave it” basis. It was a proposal that, she said frankly, caused an “enormous shit storm” among “middle-aged career men”.

But after the legislation was passed, “suddenly young fathers were caring for newborns while the mothers went back to work”, she explained. And these young men were realising that they were “good fathers who cannot be replaced”.

Von der Leyen believes it has helped to change attitudes among couples and reduce the “blaming” game. “Life is nice and tough with a newborn; life is nice and tough at work,” she added.

Work as an escape

Work was an escape for actor Nicole Kidman, who is 48, after the breakdown, in 2001, of her 10-year marriage to Tom Cruise, with whom she adopted two children who are now aged 22 and 20. “I wasn’t able to handle the reality of my life and as an actor you have this wonderful thing where you can go and live somebody else’s life.”

However, the moment of what many would regard as the "pinnacle" of success – winning a Best Actress Oscar in 2003 for her role in The Hours – proved to be a personal epiphany that work was not the answer.

“I was the loneliest I had ever been,” she said of that night as she clutched her gold statuette in a Beverley Hills hotel. “It jolted me out of my need and desire that the work was going to heal me.”

She slowed down her life before she "stumbled" into 47-year-old country music singer Keith Urban, "and in my spontaneous way we got married very quickly and got to know each other in the marriage".

When they met, she had reached a stage where she wanted a partner to share her life with, and she wanted more children. While acknowledging her good fortune that “it happened for me”, she stressed: “I was willing to compromise, willing to change” – a reminder that women’s self-empowerment is not always totally about self.

“I wanted a baby the minute we met and he said ‘No’,” explained Kidman, who married Urban in 2006 and moved from LA to Nashville. She had a child with him at the age of 41 and then they had a second through a surrogate.

Having had babies by three different means, she said there is “no difference in the mothering, the love is so profound. Once you have that child, you are willing to die for that person and that changes everything.”

With her two younger children who are now aged four and seven, they agreed at a family meeting to be a "gypsy family" for a while, explained Kidman, who is currently starring in the West End play Photograph 51, about the British scientist Rosalind Franklin and her overlooked role in the discovery of DNA's double helix structure.

The children were committed to the idea of moving – “as much as a four-year-old and a seven-year-old can commit”, she said wryly, “but they have a strong voice”.

A tutor teaches the children in London and they also take work from the school in Nashville. In the next few years, it is the children who are likely to demand an end to travelling, she remarked.

Two kittens are the latest addition to their household and although animals are very hard to travel with, she didn’t want to deny her children the chance to have them.

“The ‘pull’ is very much about the cats just now,” she said.

Sinister ‘pull’ factor

A “pull factor” of a completely different and most sinister kind lured 19-year-old Sabri Ben Ali from his Belgium home to fight with extremists. His mother, social worker Saliha Ben Ali, told the summit how, the moment she went into his room one morning in 2013 and found his bed empty, she instinctively knew he had left for Syria.

Three months later, one Sunday morning, her husband’s phone rang and a man conveyed the message: “Congratulations, your son has just fallen as a martyr.”

In hindsight, Saliha saw how preachers had radicalised her son in the course of three months before he made the fateful decision to go to Syria but she was adamant there was nothing she could have done in the circumstances.

Co-founder of Save (Society Against Violent Extremism) Belgium, the mother-of-four has channelled her grief into trying to protect other children against extremism and to support families whose sons and daughters have left to join radical organisations. So often parents in this situation are silenced by grief and shame.

As Sabri’s mother, “I feel like a victim first; I don’t feel guilty,” she stressed, adding that women like her have to speak out and offer other possibilities to teenagers who are vulnerable to recruiters’ grooming. She urged parents who might have concern that their adolescents were being influenced by extremists to seek help.

“Don’t stay alone, thinking it will pass,” she added. “When I understood what happened, it was too late.”

Inspiring girls to realise the only ‘like’ that counts is their own

“Every time a mother looks at herself in the mirror and says ‘Eeyuck’, her daughter is growing up with the idea that this is what it is like to be a woman.”

Those were the words of feminist campaigner and therapist Susie Orbach, who is 68, at the Women in the World summit as she stressed how mothers are the most important influence in girls' lives. Having worked in the area of women's body dissatisfaction since the mid-1970s, she has seen the situation get worse and worse.

This “virus of body hatred” has “penetrated younger, older and across every continent”. In her mother’s day, she said, a woman just had to look cute for a couple of years to catch a man. “We now see girls of six in the playground transacting around body dislike, saying they feel fat and getting cosmetic surgery apps to play with.” Through social media they are learning that “display” is the way you engage with the world rather than conversation.

Widespread female body hatred “doesn’t mean we don’t do great things”, she said, “but it is perverting the kind of engagement that it is possible to have, and causing enormous torment and anguish”.

And now it’s affecting more boys too. “If you can get as many boys to hate their bodies as you can get girls to, there’s an awful lot of money to be made,” remarked Orbach, who was one of a panel discussing “Selfie: The High Cost of Low Confidence,” hosted by the Dove Self-Esteem Project.

Fellow panellist 21-year-old Nina Nesbitt, who sang about girls’ need for validation through social media in her 2014 hit single “Selfies”, talked of the “fake reality” on social media and posting “only what you want people to see – I have definitely done that in the past”.

She believes: “It’s natural for my generation to think about everything we’re doing as that ideal Instagram post or that hilarious tweet we have to share with our friends, as opposed to just living in the moment.”

Also on the stage was Chantelle Winnie, a model who has vitiligo, a condition which causes white patches on the skin as the immune system attacks the pigment. Having launched her career on the American TV show “America’s Next Top Model”, on which she was the second contestant eliminated, she said that being accepted as different was “still history in the making”.

“There are still companies who don’t see me as a model but just see me as ‘the model with the skin condition’,” she continued, just like when she was being bullied at school in Toronto and known as “the girl with the skin condition”.

The summit also saw the launch of a #NoLikesNeeded campaign by the self-esteem project “to inspire girls to realise the only ‘like’ that counts is their own”. It’s a slogan that appeals to 18-year-old Dara Daly from Co Cork who was one of 30 young women aged 16 to 25 from around the world who were brought to London for a three-day mentoring programme revolving around the summit.

A trainer with the Irish Girl Guides "Free Being Me" body confidence programme (iti.ms/1LPRO05), Daly is very familiar with teenage girls' craving of social media approval but personally feels that this peaks in the 14-16 age group. By her age, there is a realisation that "it is maybe not 100 per cent the most important thing in the world", she tells "The Irish Times" after the summit.

Countering Orbach’s gloomier message, Daly thinks that her generation is much more open and accepting of individual difference. She suggests this is partly due to the positive influence of social media.

“People are able to get to know other people, outside those who live near them,” she points out.

In her final year of school in Kinsale. Co Cork, Daly is optimistic about her generation and likes to think she will face few gender-based impediments in life. Referring to the contrast, between the extreme stories of injustice and exploitation and the accounts of everyday sexism that were all highlighted at WITW, she says: “I think for me it is always going to be more [about] the little things.”

Her desire to study law after her Leaving Certificate next June was bolstered by the inspiring stories she heard at the WITW.

“When I say I am thinking of studying law, people think of solicitor or barrister but I am more interested in the international relations side of it,” she explains.

In the meantime she hopes to continue as a “Free Being Me” trainer. She is amused to hear some nine and 10-year-olds saying nobody should wear make-up because girls don’t need it. However, that is not what body confidence is about, she explains to them.

“If you want to wear it, go for it; if you don’t, don’t. It is not about ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that’; it’s literally ‘Do whatever you want’.”

Overheard at Women in the World London

“We’re still getting concussion on the glass ceiling and we’re supposed to clean it while we’re there” – author Kathy Lette

“A girl child is seen as a liability; I was a pain, rebellious, I didn’t see myself as a liability” – Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut on her traditional upbringing in India

“It wasn’t my parents’ fault I couldn’t tell them, but try telling my mother that” – children’s rights campaigner Helena Fraser, who gave a searing account of how sexual abuse by a teacher when she was 11 “messed her up for life” and devastated her close family when she disclosed it some years later

“We shouldn’t call them historic cases because the impact is there for the rest of [the victims’] lives” – British home secretary Theresa May on the independent inquiry she set up to examine how institutions handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse

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