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Opinion: Lily Allen said having children ruined her career. What she said next is the point

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

“My children ruined my career,” Lily Allen told the Radio Times podcast last week. “I mean I love them and they complete me, but in terms of pop stardom, totally ruined it.”

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

Her disclosure tripped the internet into a frenzy of agonized responses. Some said they’ve had the opposite experience, while many agreed that unless something drastically changes, women are doomed to compromise either as parents or professionals.

I found Allen’s words weirdly comforting. I had nothing against her pop career, and I definitely don’t relish the disproportionate pressure placed on mothers, whether they work or not. I shared the communal wave of anger over the fact that male pop stars (and actors and footballers — insert any other profession here) never say these things. They’re never even asked about it, because men’s careers never seem to falter with the advent of parenthood.

It was her willingness to express the frank truth, rather than parrot the accepted cookie-cutter lines about “learning to prioritize” or how you can “have it all,” if you put enough sweat in, that I found reassuring.

Honesty about the sacrifices often demanded not just by parenthood, but by adulthood, especially for women, is a valuable commodity —  especially from the mouth of someone who, superficially, appears to have won life’s lottery.

I was so impressed that, like most people, I almost missed what she said next. She added: “If we were actually more about community, and taking care of the community, then maybe you could have it all.”

That’s the point, isn’t it. The assumption that women become mothers, and that we’re prepared to endure almost anything to make that happen, may ring true for some — but treating it like a universal truth limits opportunities for everyone.

As it stands, too many of us approach life as a zero-sum game with two outstanding goals: parenthood and professional success. The notion that pursuing either one or both of these is everyone’s best hope for contentment doesn’t just suffocate individuality, it hampers the creation of communities in which all of us, no matter our aspirations, can thrive.

In elementary school, the question was never if I would have children, but when. Marriage, Disney films assured me, was on the cards from 16 onwards. But what about the second bit? My father, who was 29 when I was born, thought I should have kids young, so that I could enjoy a full life and career while I was still fresh and energetic “afterward.”

Even then, the implicit timeline stressed me out. Should I look for a potential mate at university, where there would also be intense pressure to perform academically and limber up for the working world? If I had my first kid at 21, how many more years would I have to spend supervising it and its siblings (I would have multiple kids, of course) before I could set them loose in the wild?

What if I married someone who expected never to lift a finger in the house, whether I was working or not? Based on my most immediate experience of straight married couples — which was pretty much the only adult relationship modeled to me — this was very likely.

It would have been so useful, at this impressionable age, to have been exposed to more flexible notions of what was possible, and a more realistic understanding of how things might play out. As it was, the contrast between what I was told and what I could see was at best confusing, and at worst frightening.

Soon-to-be divorced grown-ups wearing rictus grins reiterated the assertion that their wedding day was “the happiest of my life,” and harried mothers who never seemed to smile insisted that having kids was the “best thing I ever did.” Adulthood seemed a mass of rigid ideals tangled in contradictions, and I wanted no part of it.

Thankfully, almost everything I was taught about relationships, parenting and careers as a child turned out to be nonsense, and following a roughly decade-long detox from those ideas, I was able to form a few of my own. Among those was the certainty that though I really, really love children, I don’t want to have any. I’m so glad I recognized this distinction between appreciation and need before making a human being who would depend on me for a long time, and maybe forever.

I have also learned that while careers can be very fulfilling, they are mostly useful for paying for more enjoyable things, like holidays and Pepsi Max. The happiest, proudest moments in my life have rarely had anything to do with work. What I’ve most often found to be true is that dreams of any kind come at a cost — and almost everyone, whatever they’re doing, is paying an invisible toll to pursue theirs.

The assumption that we’re all so desperate to become parents that we’re prepared to trade off everything else that’s important to us doesn’t just leave mothers grossly unsupported, it treats parenthood like an exam we —  women — have to pass to become certified adults. If it wasn’t taken for granted that we’re all heading for the same narrow endgame, we might pay more attention to the many other important things that make life worth living — and help build a world in which everyone could be better looked after.

“Having it all” means something different to everyone. But whether we’re parents or not, there’s still too much shame in admitting that our “all” looks different to the next person’s “all” — and that realizing our dearest expectations usually means giving up something else that’s precious. Parents absolutely need and deserve more support. But so do the rest of us. The solution, as Allen said, can’t come from looking inward. For true individuality to thrive, we have to think, and act, together.

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