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MIA FREEDMAN: My babies ate my ambition.

Listen to this story being read by Mia Freedman, here. 

The first thing everyone asks when you announce your pregnancy is, “How much time are you going to take off?”

Two weeks, I said.

They laughed, always.

But I wasn’t joking. Three months earlier, I’d begun my dream job as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. I was 24 years old, and I’d wanted to be a magazine editor since I was old enough to buy Dolly with my pocket money.

At 19, when I’d started as a work experience kid at Cleo, I set the goal of becoming an editor by the time I turned 25 which seemed preposterously ancient. 

My boss, Lisa Wilkinson, had become Dolly editor at just 21 but I thought I should be realistic and there’s only one Lisa, so 25 it was.

This pregnancy was unexpected although it shouldn’t have been because my new boyfriend and I had been pretty lame with contraception. 

And in my career as a women’s magazine journalist, I’d written enough sealed sections to know how babies are made. 

We’d only been together a few months though, and I was brand new to my job so my pregnancy came as a shock to everyone - including us.

Was I clucky? I was 25. I’d never even held a baby and didn’t particularly want to.  

Did I want children? Well, yes of course… at some stage. Did I think of not having it? Not for one second.


I’d been pregnant twice before and had abortions but this felt totally different. 

On paper, it may not have been the right time to have a baby, but it wasn’t the wrong time either. 

My boyfriend was a good person who I knew would be a great father. We were financially stable, and we had supportive families. 

We were madly in love (not an indication that you should have a baby with someone but certainly helpful).

The career part though? Not great timing.

Or was it? After six years of striving madly in my career, I’d crossed the only finish line I’d ever had in my head. I was finally an editor of a big magazine and three months in; I loved my job hard.

That’s why I’d only take a couple of weeks maternity leave, I reasoned 'Why take more?'

“I’ll work from the hospital and then from home for a week and then I can just come back in,” I told my boss confidently, having not given a single thought to how that would actually work.

She laughed at me because she’d had a human baby before.

“You’ll take three months off and you won’t set up systems that rely on you during that time otherwise I won’t be able to relax because it will fall apart.”

This seemed melodramatic.


I walked out of her office feeling perplexed and a bit sulky.

What would I do all day while the baby slept? The thought of being away from a job I loved so much was almost as unpleasant as the prospect of being bored at home alone. 

With a baby, sure, but, you know, basically alone.

How would I cope without my magazine? How would my magazine cope without me?

And then I gave birth, and I forgot what a magazine was.

I’d been prepared for pregnancy and birth but nowhere had I learned anything about how I might feel afterwards.

I was wildly, madly, shockingly in love with my baby.

He was utterly baffling to me. I had no idea why he cried or when to feed him or what might make him sleep or how to bathe him but I knew that somehow my heart now existed outside my body, in him.

And I also knew I just wanted to spend hours gazing at his wise little old man face and marvelling at his teeny tiny fingernails.

What magazine?

It appeared my baby had eaten my ambition, and this was monumentally confusing. I loved work. I was hugely ambitious. 

Was it the hormones? Was it the baby? Had my identity at work been replaced by my identity as a mother? Was that….enough for me now? 

Had I been wrong to blindly assume I’d be a mother who worked outside the home just like my own mum did? Did this mean I wasn’t a feminist anymore?


I felt unmoored and unsettled. My heart hurt. And it was bursting with love at the same time. I was exhausted and exhilarated, delirious and determined.

The thought of going back to work felt unimaginable and as the end of my maternity leave drew closer, it became actively repellent.

How on earth could I leave this tiny person I had created and who had stolen my heart on his way out of my vagina?

I told my boss that a really good idea would be for me to quit Cosmo and launch a parenting magazine for the company. 

I told my mother that I wanted to quit my job. Both their responses were perfect.

My mother gently pointed out that there was a difference between being at home with my baby on maternity leave and that being my permanent life. She knew that work was important to me and that I derived a huge amount of pleasure, purpose and identity from it.

I’ve never forgotten what she said.

My boss told me to take another month of mat leave and then come back two days a week for a while. 

This was in 1998 and nobody worked part-time let alone editors so it hadn’t occurred to me as an option. I said yes immediately and felt a huge sense of relief.

I was in the office two days per week until he was one and four days per week after that, up until he went to school.


Like most mothers of small children, my childcare arrangements during those years were a weekly house-of-cards mix of grandparents, daycare, part-time nannies and me. 

His father was unwell for the first two years of his life and worked full-time after that.

By the time I went back to work, part-time, I was ready. 

I missed him but I knew he was well-cared for. This is crucial. Had I been concerned about his welfare in any way, I wouldn’t have been able to switch off my mother brain and switch on my work one.

And yes, for me they are different. 

It doesn’t mean I forgot about him during the day but he buzzed at a far lower frequency when I was at work because intellectually I knew he was safe and loved even if I wasn’t the one taking care of him.

It was a precarious balancing act that frequently collapsed every time someone caught a cold but I muddled through because there was no choice. 

I couldn’t quit my job and I didn’t want to. Giving back the baby wasn’t an option because he would no longer fit inside me.

Here’s what I had to learn though: I would never again be able to work like I had before I’d become a mother. And I would never again be able to parent my child like I had in those months of maternity leave. 


Perversely, society expects the reverse of mothers. Work like you don’t have kids and parent like you don’t work outside the home.

Except this is not possible. 

Always, I quickly realised, I would be split and I had to learn to be OK with that even when it felt a long, long way from OK.

Around the time he was one and I stopped breastfeeding and increased my work days to four, I noticed my ambition return. I loved my job again.

Seven years later, when I had my daughter, this pattern repeated. “I just want to spend all day folding her little socks,” I gushed to my mother who was used to my shit by now and didn’t attempt to talk me out of it.

Stupidly, I accepted a new job at a new company when she was six months old and it was a disaster and I hated it and it poisoned my memories of her first year.

Here’s something else I’ve learned: I should never make big life decisions when I’m breastfeeding or in the first year of my babies' lives. 

My judgment is notoriously off during this time and the reason is so obviously biological. For me, it seems to be nature’s way of focusing my mind to ensure the survival of my baby. Job well done.

Ironically, by the time my son came along three years after that, I was working for myself. 

Mamamia was growing fast but it was still just me and my laptop at home, so to allow time to actually go to hospital and give birth, I had to bank dozens of posts to schedule in advance.


My maternity leave really did last two weeks this time.

And there was nobody to talk me out of it - or help me.

Somehow though, it was still OK because what I missed out on in proper time off, I gained in control over my own hours. 

I had a nanny come several days a week to take care of the baby and my three-year-old and I didn’t have to spend time getting dressed for work or commuting to an office. 

I simply stumbled out of bed and into the lounge room where my laptop lay waiting.

As my children have grown, I’ve watched countless other women I know navigate this time in their lives, the emotional terrain being most rocky with the first baby.

It can be such a rude shock to lose your ambition or reassess your appetite or capacity for work. 

It can be disorienting to question your identity and the importance of your career. 

It can be disconcerting to realise that balance is bullshit and juggling is for clowns. It can be distressing to feel like you’re shit at everything and letting everyone down all the time (you’re not but it can certainly feel that way).

The truth is that as women, our biology has not caught up with our politics. 


Just because we now have the ability, as women and as mothers, to work outside the home, it doesn’t mean we’ll always feel great about it. 

Many of us will have to do it anyway for financial reasons. Others will push through the longing to spend more time with their babies and toddlers because they have to or they want to.

Two things can be true. You can want to be with your child and want to work outside your home at the same time.

The wrench of leaving a baby or child that you love is real. The guilt is real. 

The missing out on things at work and at home is real. First steps, first words, important meetings, promotions. 

The feeling that you’re stealing time from your child when you’re at work and stealing time from your work when you’re with your child can also be real. It was for me.

Just because you miss your child when you’re at work doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong decision. And just because you’ve decided to put your career on hold to be at home with your baby, it doesn’t mean you’ve somehow betrayed feminism. 

There’s no such thing as ‘choosing your career over your child’ or vice versa. Yes, there are compromises and priorities and these shift and change over time and even in the course of a day.

Most importantly, whatever you decide to do in those challenging, wonderful, heart-lifting, emotional, mind-bending, hormonal AF years, your choice is not a critical judgment of any other woman who makes a different choice. It’s just… what you have decided to do. For now.


Most of us are simply trying to do our best. 

And regardless of this, all our children will probably be in therapy when they grow up if not sooner. 

Fact: there is no decision you can make that will guarantee the future happiness of your child. And somehow, we have to accept that and remind ourselves and each other often in our darkest moments.

Anything worth doing is hard. Anything wonderful is also hard. 

I am often deeply nostalgic for that precious time when my children were little but to be honest, it didn’t always feel precious at the time and I suspect I’d feel that way even if I’d stayed home with them. 

There’s no right way, there’s only the way you choose. And on balance, I think I made the right choice for my family.

Read more from Mia: 

MIA FREEDMAN: Why I will never be the CEO of Mamamia.

MIA FREEDMAN: The gaslighting of women. By women.

MIA FREEDMAN: The two serums I use every day.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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