Sophie Morris: We can't all be Ruth Kellys

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The Independent Online

Is Ruth Kelly proof that women can have it all? Haircut notwithstanding, Ms Kelly is in an enviable position. Aged just 40 she has clocked up 11 years as an MP and five as a minister. She also has an apparently happy marriage and four young children. There is much healthy speculation about the real reason behind her decision to quit but, for now, let's just assume that her given reason, that she wants to spend more time with her family, is true.

Ms Kelly is the only woman to have given birth to four children while an MP. She certainly deserves the "supermum" tag. It's enough to make working mothers throw those bottles of expressed formula at her grinning face on the television, instead of neatly labelling them for the au pair.

The scratches female emancipation has made in the glass ceiling have brought with them massive sacrifices. The sight of one woman pulling off family-and-career life in the public sphere is an agonising reminder to most that, despite much trumpeting to the contrary, managing a similar feat in contemporary Britain is out of the reach of the majority.

I applaud Ruth Kelly's decision to stand down from a hard-won career to be at home for breakfast, bath and bedtime. For the record, I am not in a position myself to empathise with her, but people close to me are. Most of them, though, lack two crucial characteristics of Ms Kelly's situation which must surely have eased her decision.

The first is money. It is said that her husband, a local government worker, changed jobs to allow her to focus on her career. They presumably did their sums before she gave up her £137,000-a-year government post and can still afford the private school fees. Most parents do not enjoy such a privilege. The cost of living in the Britain which Ms Kelly has helped build over the past 11 years means that unless one of a couple is very well remunerated, two parents have to work to keep their brood clothed and fed.

The second – perhaps more important for one's sanity and self-respect – is that Ms Kelly hangs on to a fulfilling job in her role as MP for Bolton West. Most women have to make do with sidelined or downsized positions. There have been very few, if any, advances in modelling top professional roles to suit mothers. Baking might seem blissful when you have screen after screen of spreadsheets to get your head around, but if you are still making fairy cakes once the children are old enough to tie their own shoelaces, because there is no space for you back in the office, they probably don't taste quite so sweet. That's not to say caring for children is boring. I am sure it is far more exciting and challenging than any paid job, but there needs to be some give and take so that women, and men, can balance the two and not be forced to choose between them.

A cynic might say Ms Kelly's resignation has nothing to do with her family life. She is leaving a Government deep in the doldrums. Well known for her party loyalty, the embryology Bill now presents her with a considerable moral dilemma, one she might prefer to debate from the back benches.

Can we hope in, say 10 or 12 years, when the political pendulum has swung back towards Labour and her children are older, that she might return to the front benches having learnt from her own – fortuitous – experience, and do something about making it easier for other women to achieve the same?

s.morris@independent.co.uk

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