Lily Allen says having children ruined her career – why so many women feel the same

The Smile singer has two daughters and hasn’t released new music since 2018.

Lily Allen believes women ‘can’t have it all’
Charles Finch and Chanel 2024 Pre-BAFTA Party – London Lily Allen believes women ‘can’t have it all’ (Victoria Jones/PA)

Singer Lily Allen has said that “you can’t have it all” and that having children “ruined her career”, in an interview on the Radio Times podcast.

The 38-year-old is mum to Ethel Mary, 11, and Marnie Rose, nine, with ex-husband Sam Cooper.

“I never really had a strategy when it comes to career, but yes, my children ruined my career. I love them and they complete me, but in terms of pop-stardom, they totally ruined it,” said Allen, who rose to fame with hits Smile and The Fear in the mid-Noughties.

The singer released her latest album (her 4th) No Shame, in 2018, and married David Harbour in 2020. “It really annoys me when people say you can have it all because, quite frankly, you can’t,” she said.

Lily Allen released her first single in 2006
Lily Allen released her first single in 2006 (Jeff Moore/PA)

“Some people choose their career over their children and that’s their prerogative, but my parents were quite absent when I was a kid.

“I feel like that really left some nasty scars that I’m not willing to repeat on mine. I chose stepping back and concentrating on them and I’m glad that I’ve done that.”

It’s a conundrum many women have to weigh up, because, pop star or not, having children does have a huge impact on women’s careers – far more than men’s on the whole, statistically.

Research commissioned this month by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that the ‘motherhood penalty’ is worsening – with UK mothers earning £4.44 less an hour than fathers in 2023.

The analysis – which compared ONS data from January to March 2023 with the same period in 2020 – found that the median hourly pay was £18.48 for fathers compared with £14.04 for mothers, growing by 93p an hour since 2020.

But it’s important to note that while this gap is largely reflective of the fact that many mothers take a year-long maternity leave, go back to work part-time, become a stay-at-home mum for a period, or simply feel unable to progress at work because there’s so much going on at home, it isn’t as simple as saying this is a ‘choice’ women make.

As Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, suggests, they aren’t choices made in a vacuum – they are made against a backdrop of bias, discrimination and legislation.

“The notion of choice is a complete misnomer,” she says. “It’s just not the reality at all. We’ve been polling mums and asked stay-at-home mums if they’d like to work, and they’ve said yes. We asked working mums if they’d like to stay at home with their children, and the majority said yes.

“We know that in other countries where you have a completely different legislative framework, the women make very different ‘choices’ – in inverted commas. Because it’s not a choice. It’s influenced by so many factors” – like the policies at your workplace, childcare costs, what your family and friends do and think. “They’re not real choices that anyone is making, [it’s] the best option within a limited spectrum of choices.”

The phrase ‘You can’t have it all’, that Allen alludes to, may feel infuriating, because why should women have to choose between a career and a family, when men don’t usually have to?

But Brearely says: “I think it’s absolutely true. I’m glad she’s said it. As a woman, you can have it all, but not at the same time.

Women are expected to choose between a career and becoming a mother
Women are expected to choose between a career and becoming a mother (Alamy Stock Photo)

“When you have children, inevitably it’s going to have an impact on your career in a way that it doesn’t for men, because of bias, pregnancy and maternity discrimination, because it’s expected that women will hoover up the majority of the unpaid labour.” A 2021 study estimated women undertake three times more care and domestic work than men.

Brearley says that this means many women are essentially working two full-time jobs. “You will have to make some sacrifices, because it’s just not possible to do all that unpaid labour, and all that paid labour. It’s not feasible.”

So why not?

“The whole system is set up to ensure that women continue to be the main carers of children,” explains Brearley. The standard two-week parental leave, where many men don’t even take the two weeks, means women take long periods out of the workplace to do the initial child-rearing.

This is despite the fact that Shared Parental Leave was introduced in 2015 (the charity Maternity Action have estimated that take-up is 3-4%).

“The way that our legislative framework is set up is saying to couples, it’s the mother’s, not the father’s, responsibility to do the child rearing.

“Once you take that long period of time out of work, [the woman] immediately becomes the primary caregiver, because you are the one that figured out how to get them to sleep, what they like to eat… When it’s time to go back to work, you’re the one that’s making sacrifices about who’s going to do the pick-ups, who’s going to take the hit, because childcare costs too much.”

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Plus, there’s a bias generally that women should do the majority of care work, she says. “Women feel far guiltier than men do if they’re not spending a certain amount of time with their children or they’re not prioritising their children. So we embody the notion that we are the primary caregiver, because everything in society tells us that we should feel guilty if we’re not prioritising our children.”

Meanwhile we glorify the ‘superwoman’ ideology, that expects women to be able to succeed in their careers, while also picking up everything at home – effortlessly and without complaint.

Helen Sachdev, director of WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), says: “As a society, we still have wildly outdated presumptions and expectations about what women want and what they should be. It’s this expectation that contributes to women feeling they must prove they can do everything and be everything, to everyone.

“For working mums in particular, the constant shift between mum mode and worker mode can be really challenging and, in reality, is in sharp contrast to the ‘superwoman’ ideologies that many women feel they need to attain.”