Having it all

There can be few young, working-outside-the-home, women, with a baby or young children, who have not, occasionally, found themselves in a state of heart-palpitating anxiety, while awaiting a late-arriving child-minder on a morning.

There can be few young, working-outside-the-home, women, with a baby or young children, who have not, occasionally, found themselves in a state of heart-palpitating anxiety, while awaiting a late-arriving child-minder on a morning.

Five minutes late could be irritating. Ten minutes late, worrying. She may have been laid low with 'flu. Or had an accident. Or a minor crisis in her own family.

Small, minor delays, have the capacity to break that chain of dependency between one working woman and another working woman.

When extended families lived in the same town or village, there was always a mother who would willingly come to the rescue. Or even a grandmother, though her varicose veins might be killing her. But, increasingly, we live apart from easy access to families.

Once upon a time too, there would be a neighbour, and in that great freemasonry of neighbourhood, women would mind other women's children, to allow opportunities for shopping, or illness, or even a few hours break.

But functioning neighbourhoods and communities were themselves, the products of women who lived permanently within them, and not those who had to leave for work in the early morning and return again, exhausted, late at night. It was the easy access, the relative freedom with time, that enabled the helping hand, the rescue in small emergencies.

This erosion of that access and freedom makes it all the more difficult in the juggling of motherhood and work outside the home. And it is at the frontline of the current dispute between Aer Lingus and its predominately female cabin staff.

In the cut-throat competition that is part of the industry, the airline is demanding flexibility from its cabin staff: the facility of tweaking working rosters, of moving personnel from one location to another, at short notice. The cabin staff say they have already conceded considerable flexibility, but that the company wants more and more.

Any further concessions will not be family-friendly, say the cabin staff. "Who will mind our babies?", they ask. It is a question that is illustrated by toddlers by the hand and babies in buggies, in that long green protesting march on our television screens.

And the cruel truth is that, in the demand for cheaper and cheaper airfares, nobody cares who minds their babies, nor whether their jobs are family-friendly. That's their problem. The prospect of dismissal also raises the question: "How will we pay our mortgages?". That, too, is unlikely to disturb the sleep or the consciences of a busy travelling public.

In the merciless pursuit of price-cutting and competition, "Family friendly" has become a myth and who minds a baby or a sick child, are complications that are non-negotiable.

Remember those halcyon days (not so very long ago) when we talked about work-life balance? That, too, has a quality of daft airy-fairiness in a period of mass unemployment, where people in work frequently say how fortunate they are and how they hope that good fortune will continue.

In the case of working-outside-the-home women, however, (of whom the protesting Aer Lingus women are the most current example), there is an echo of deja vu.

Sisters! Several decades ago, your mothers started out on a long road to the achievement of parity in opportunities and equality in education, employment and remuneration.

Equality is a two-edged sword. It is indivisible. It is not possible to be more or less equal. The rough comes with the smooth. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. And it allows no hostages to fortune - such as babies and mortgages.

But babies and mortgages are inseparable in modern Ireland. Because of the rampant and uncontrolled financial climate through which we have come, keeping a roof over a baby's head demands, at least, two substantial salaries. In the current recession, and serious unemployment, the accumulation of those salaries is at the mercy of the markets. This involves dog-eats-dog price wars.

Of course, we are told that child-rearing is the most important work in the world: that well-reared, well-adjusted happy children are the bedrock of the future. But the markets and the mortgages have never heard of the concept of family-friendly. They are untroubled by a social conscience.

And why, oh why, did we women get hung up on the idea that it was going to be a free lunch. That we could have it all!.