lifestyle

The day my friend Jamila Rizvi decided she wanted to lean back.

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The day I told my boss I was pregnant was a strange one. I’d landed my dream job as editor of Cosmo magazine just three months earlier and my feet were barely under the desk when I weed on the stick and saw two lines.

Blink. Blink blink.

Two lines. OK. Right. This is happening. Now. Shit.

It took some time to process. How could something so enormous as having an entire baby with all the seismic aftershocks that would reverberate through my life be reduced to some wee on a stick?

I didn’t tell my boss until the 12 week mark and by then, I’d had some time to work out my approach to the upcoming collision of work and a baby. It was this: ignore it. Not the pregnancy, I was down with that and quite enjoyed it actually but I saw no reason why it would affect any other aspect of my life or personality. Motherhood wouldn’t change my career path, I’d simply do both. Business as usual.

Some may describe this as denial but it wasn’t. To deny something you have to know what it is and before you have your first child, you have no clue what’s ahead. It’s a heady mix of naivity and foolhardy optimism.

Your first pregnancy is when women and men make confident assertions like this:

“I think a baby should fit in with your life not the other way around”

“We’re not going to become like those baby-obsessed couples who can’t talk about anything else”

“We’re going to just put the baby in a sling and travel. How hard can it be?”

[INSERT LOLZ HERE]

I probably said all of those things when I was pregnant with my son but none so laughable as the maternity leave plan I presented to my boss immediately after telling her I was pregnant. “I don’t really need any,” I announced as she tried to keep a straight face. “I’ll work right up to the end and then take a few weeks off but I’ll come into the office during that time and I’ll be available every day from home. You won’t even know I’m gone!”

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I truly believed this. Why wouldn’t I? I was not clucky. I knew I wanted kids one day in theory but I’d spent no time with babies and I didn’t exactly delight in the company of children. They irritated me frankly. I had no nieces or nephews. No god children. No clue.

What I did delight in was my job. My career. The office. I’d been in love with magazines since I was 12 years old and now I was an editor and in my element.

What the hell would I do at home with a baby?

[INSERT LOLZ HERE TOO]

Almost 20 years later, I found myself on the other end of this absurd conversation. My close friend, Mamamia’s Editor In Chief Jamila Rizvi, had her own unexpected wee stick moment and our circumstances were spookily familiar. She also knew she wanted kids ONE DAY but she was newly engaged and madly in love with her job and her new fiancé. Even more than me, Jamila’s career has always been at the centre of her life. At times it’s been so all-consuming it left little room for anything else and she’s always been fine with that. Where she lived, when she took holidays (like me, she didn’t enjoy holidays much because they took her away from work)…..Jamila’s job dictated everything; it was the axis around which her life spun.

When you’re lucky enough to love your job, it can be difficult to draw boundaries between work and the rest of your life because work is the rest of your life. It’s your identity. And you like it that way. Work feeds you, defines you, satisfies you.

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Jamila and Mia
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The thought of being away from that is inconceivable.

Even after you conceive.

So despite Jam having heard me speak endless times about how profoundly my ambition was disrupted by having a baby (the punchline of the story I told earlier about announcing my pregnancy is that my boss laughed at my idea of having two months off, encouraged me to take four and then suggested I come back part time for the next six months and thank God she did), Jam didn’t think it would happen to her.

Spoiler alert: it happened to her.

A couple of weeks ago, Jam decided to step down from her role as Editor-In-Chief at the Mamamia Women’s Network.

The time she wants to spend with her new baby right now just isn’t compatible with the time this job demands of her as a senior manager. I wasn’t entirely surprised. It’s a big job. It touches every part of the business, it’s hard to do part-time and she just doesn’t want to be in an office four days a week.

She’s not stepping away from work altogether. She’s still going to be contributing in a creative sense to Mamamia as Editor At Large and getting stuck into some projects of her own including a book I can’t wait to read. But she’s stepping away from management. Her career trajectory has changed.

And nobody is more shocked about this than she is.

For the nine months of her pregnancy, sometimes daily,  she made me PROMISE her that I’d “let” her work as much as she wanted during her maternity leave which she initially insisted be no more than eight weeks and which I eventually persuaded her to make four months. We had long conversations where I tried to allay her fears about being away from the job she loved and how that would impact on the only identity she knew.

She was full of angst and ambivalence about becoming a mother. She was borderline hostile at the prospect of being wrenched away from the job she loved, even temporarily.

And then Rafi came along and all bets were off. She was a woman in love.

I knew she would be. Well, I hoped she would be. I wanted nothing more than to see her fall in love with her baby and lean into a new dimension of life outside work. Becoming a mother was the best thing I ever did and I wanted that for her because she’s my friend and there’s more to life than hitting your KPIs.

But be careful what you wish for. Because the divide between your job and your baby that cleaves your heart didn’t just affect her. I struggled too.

The boss in me wanted Jamila back at work, full time if possible. I love working with her. But the friend in me wanted her to enjoy those early months and years at a different pace. I’d have been worried had she insisted on rushing back full time.

My heart was divided too.

Because this is all about me. Remember that.

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On her first day back at work, Jam decided to raise the working mother difficulty factor to WTF by bringing Rafi to work with her even though work that day was in a different state. She also brought her sister to look after him after her childcare arrangements fell through and she didn’t want to let us down by delaying her return by a week.

That first day went well, if by well you mean she nearly had a nervous breakdown.

Is there a more powerful Freudian way to flag your ambivalence about leaving your baby at home than by taking him with you?

As her friend and boss, I watched and listened carefully over the next few weeks. This new Jamila was someone I had to get to know. I saw how internally conflicted she was, saw her heart divide. I tip-toed the line between giving unsolicited advice so she could avoid the landmines (after 18 years, I’ve stepped on all of them repeatedly) and just letting her navigate it in her own way and in her own time.

New mothers can lose their footing in the inevitable tsunami of well-meaning advice that surges their way so I shredded my tongue every time she expressed shock and surprise about things that seem so obvious to me after doing it for so long. Like the fact that combining work and a baby is much harder than it looks.

During all those conversations during her pregnancy when Jam was angst-ridden about taking mat leave and confessed her deep fear about leaving the thing in life she most loved doing (work), I tried to explain that until she actually had this baby, her baby, she had nothing to compare not-working to. It wouldn’t be until she discovered how she felt on the other side that she’d be able to contemplate leaning back for a while after a lifetime of leaning in so hard.

She nodded at the time but I knew she didn’t believe me.

Now she does.

And she’s at total peace with her decision. As am I.

Here’s what I’ve learned: ambition is not a linear thing. Not for me or any of the women I know. I’ve had periods in my life, usually in the year after giving birth, that my ambition decides to make a sea change and I’ve honestly wondered if it would ever return. At other times it’s roared deafeningly in my ear and I’ve willingly sacrificed sleep for more work time. There are days and weeks and months when I want to rule the world and others when I’m desperate to walk away from my work and have a different life.

Most of the time though, I sit somewhere in the middle. I refuse to call this balance because I feel like balance has become the new “having it all” and I reject the cynical premise of giving women yet another thing to feel bad about not achieving. Like a thigh gap. Screw that.

Instead, I want us to talk more honestly about leaning in and leaning out. About how there are times in your life when you put your pedal to the metal and others when you slow down to appreciate the scenery. It might be a child, it might be a bout of mental illness or having to take time out to care for a sick parent or partner. Life happens.

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My own ambition waxes and wanes. I’m not sure how much of this is due to kids and how much is just getting older, more reflective and more nuanced in my view of the world and of myself. I think you have less to prove as you age out of the career angst of your 20s and 30s and grow more comfortable with the idea that who you are isn’t just what you do.

Not everyone has the luxury of leaning back, of course. Many, many women must return to work earlier or for more days per week after having baby than they’d like. Many women can’t take time out for family reasons. Many workplaces don’t offer flexibility and many women couldn’t afford to take it even if they did.

Jamila is fortunate because it’s not just management she’s good at. Skills like writing and podcasting and broadcasting can be dialled up and down. She knows how lucky she is. She knows.

The MM Outloud team.

I am excited for my friend about this next phase of her life.

Rafi and I get to share custody of his Mum. While I will have regular access visits, he is very much the primary carer. She’ll lean into him and he’ll lean right back.

You can hear Jamila and I talk about this on Mamamia Outloud this week with host, Monique Bowley who asks Jam a question that startles us both. Monique and I also have a fight about Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. It’s epic.

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