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Life as a white, well-educated journalist in my 20s and early 30s was nothing short of stupendous. I suffered no discrimination in the workplace. I received plum assignments, travelled the world, won prizes, devoted myself singularly and exclusively to work! And I loved every second of it. What were the feminists talking about? There was no gender inequality in the workplace.

Then I had a baby.

I returned from my maternity leave in 2003 to learn I was the only member of the foreign news staff at the National Post, my then-employer, who would not be covering "the war" (no, not that war for equality rights; the one in Iraq). I was the only one who would not be deployed to Jordan, Israel or Iraq. The editors didn't believe a new mother would want to go. I argued and pleaded and begged. Finally, a boss took pity and allowed me to replace an exhausted colleague in Amman.

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I spent four weeks overseas, and travelled overland into Iraq to witness Baghdad fall to the Americans. I slept on the floor of the Palestine Hotel alongside five male colleagues - one of whom wandered around nude in the mornings. My car was shot at. I had a terrible bout of food poisoning.

Skinny and contrite, I returned to Toronto. I had missed my eight-month-old baby terribly. While less enthusiastic about taking on another overseas assignment, I also hated having to scale back my own ambition. But clearly, my life had shifted in some profound way. Society's expectations of my role had changed, and so had my own. Eight years and another child later, I'm still working out exactly how this transition is supposed to work.

Yes, women have made great strides in the past few decades, as we were all reminded when the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day arrived last week. Yes, they are enrolling in law and medical schools in equal - even greater - numbers compared with men. Yes, they are travelling the world, and reporting from war zones. And yes, they have property, voting, marriage and employment rights. But they still face one final obstacle: how to combine a career with childrearing.

Some women give up their paid jobs after childbirth and focus on their unpaid one: raising their families. They are extremely happy. But other women cannot afford to. And some don't want to.

Feminism took it for granted that as women entered - or re-entered - the work force men would assume more responsibility at home, and shoulder more of the childcare and household responsibilities. But that has not been the natural evolution. Even women with extremely supportive husbands, who do more than their share of cooking and vacuuming, are often forced to become the CEO of a business that never shuts down: the running of a household.

At night, core demands of this enterprise swirl around in my head like yellow post-it notes flapping in the wind: Register three-year-old for introductory soccer by Wednesday. Sign parental consent form for eight-year-old so he can participate in Kiwanis Music Festival. Remember to dress him in dark trousers and white dress shirt. Pack shorts in his knapsack for gym. Buy bagels so children will have something edible for lunchbox. Buy 20 Smencils for class party. Make that 21. One for teacher. Purchase new pair of swimming goggles.

Men's brains simply do not work this way. These are not the preoccupations of even the most dedicated father. And while these tasks may appear trivial, without somebody attending to them, a child's life falls apart. My son won't be allowed to sing in the choir, will sit out gym, and then suffer the indignity of lunchtime sneers about his limp-lettuce-nitrate-laden salami sandwich. "Your mom doesn't feed you well does she?" (Yes, someone actually said that to a neighbourhood mother I know!)

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Anne Kothawala, a friend of mine who works both inside and outside the home, believes that "no matter how great and how much your husband does, Mom is the one who invests the mental energy to ensure that the kids have pants that fit, that someone has bought groceries. Many working fathers are great, but few of them will know their kid needs new shoes, never mind what size."

Armies of female volunteers keep school June fun fairs afloat, make Grade 1 outings to the Science Centre possible, and lunchtime gardening clubs alive. We feel privileged to be able to participate in these events - and we savour them. But we also struggle to squeeze them in - and we feel guilty dashing away from the desk. Oh, do we feel guilty.

One woman I know who is married to a physician puts it this way: "Every female doctor I know has only taken a three-month maternity leave, for fear of losing her status, her position on the team or her surgery allotment. One radiologist I know has three kids and no life. She is guilt-ridden and conflicted. Her husband is neither."

With 75 per cent of all married or co-habiting Canadian women participating in the labour market, this is the final challenge women face, the last frontier in the battle for equality.

A 2010 Toronto-Dominion Bank study concluded that the earnings gap between men and women is tied primarily to motherhood. Women with no children tend to earn the same as men. However, women who take time out to have children have a persistent 3-per-cent penalty for every year of absence, economists Beata Caranci and Pascal Gauthier concluded in the study. For women who take three years out of the labour force and then go on to work another 20 years, that results in $325,000 in lost income.

In spite of the great numbers of female graduates in law, medicine and business, once they become mothers, many simply cannot sustain the type-A career track - at least, not while running another business on the side. They become family physicians on four-day-a-week schedules, or give up law partnerships for in-house counsel jobs. Just 22 per cent of Canada's elected federal representatives are women - putting Canada in 51st place in the world for proportion of women in Parliament, behind Angola and Pakistan. A study conducted by Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister, found that one of the main concerns for women was finding a balance between work and family life. Just 13 per cent of directors at Canada's top 500 private and public companies are women, and women comprise only 2 per cent of CEOs at Canada's 1,000 largest companies.

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The Law Society of Upper Canada has become so concerned about the steady exodus of women from Ontario law firms it commissioned a report to document the trend. It found that work-life balance was one of the main reasons women left private-practice jobs. The Law Society is trying to retain them by investing in flexible schedules, family-friendly practices and mentoring programs.

As useful as these initiatives are, they won't be effective without a cultural shift in how society views the roles of women and men in family life. Most of the career mothers I know do not have time to consider whether they have achieved full equality - they are too busy sinking under the strain of the "second shift."

I know when my head hits the pillow at night, it is filled not with the victory tune of Helen Reddy's I am Woman (Hear Me Roar), but sodden with lists, and lists of lists, of all the things I must remember to do in the morning.

Marina Jimenez is a member of The Globe and Mail's editorial board.

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