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Mia Freedman: "To all the mothers feeling guilty and judged, listen closely."

To all the mothers feeling guilty and judged,

That sick feeling you have in the pit of your stomach while following this week’s debate about working mothers and putting kids ahead of career? I get it. I know it. I’ve had it.

A column by Miranda Devine about how women should always put their children above their career (otherwise their lives are meaningless and nobody will be sad at their funeral) and the subsequent angry-teary defiant response by radio host Em Rusciano who passionately insisted women work because they have to and shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it… these are good conversations to have.

Mia Freedman (left) and Em Rusiano (right).

Let's never dismiss them as 'mummy wars' because that's condescending bullshit. As women, this is an issue we're heavily invested in and it serves us all to air them thoroughly and often. There is no right answer for all women. Just the right answer for you.

I’m not going to slag off either Miranda or Em - or any woman - for the choices she makes around work and family. We’re all just trying to do our best.

Our biggest fear as mothers is that we’re doing it wrong. Our biggest hope is that there is a secret formula for making a happy, healthy child who will grow into a happy healthy adult with nothing but praise for our parenting skills. Hahahahaha.

Never gonna happen.

But I need to tell you some things. I’ve been a parent for almost 20 years and I’ve learned so much over that time. I want to share some of it here and now for every woman feeling a bit sick, guilty and judged by the public debate that rears so often as it has this week about working motherhood and never about working fatherhood... ever.

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I’m writing this also for all those women who haven’t had kids yet but want to some day. I know you’re closely observing us as we hotly debate this, trying to figure out what Future You should do. Every time this issue comes up, you’re watching, listening and storing away everything you learn in a special place in your head and your heart that you’ll visit throughout your life after you become a mother and will be either a source of reassurance or anxiety for you, probably both. That’s motherhood. The struggle is real but also completely worth it.

1. You don't need to pick (this is the most important one).

A woman is sitting in a meeting, delivering a Powerpoint presentation to her colleagues. She is wearing high heels and a suit. Her mobile, on silent, flashes an incoming call. She glances to see who’s calling. It’s the nanny. She ignores it. The nanny calls again. She ignores it again and continues with her presentation. A few minutes later, her assistant nervously knocks on the boardroom door.

“Um, I’m so sorry to interrupt but your nanny called. There’s been an accident at the park and your son is being rushed to the hospital.” The woman looks irritated. “Tell her I’ll call her later. This presentation is more important than the welfare of my injured child. My career is my priority. Now gentlemen, where were we?”

This is the kind of fantasy scenario which “YOU-HAVE-TO-CHOOSE” proponents like Miranda seem to paint as the way women with jobs or careers behave. It’s not. I have worked with, for and alongside literally thousands of working mothers during my career and I have never seen a woman “choose” her career in a way that’s fundamentally harmful to her child.

I'm not saying it doesn’t happen but it’s not a binary choice. Sometimes your kids need you more. Sometimes your job does. 

Family versus career. Stop it. This is not an either-or argument. It’s not like one day you’re given two boxes and Grant Denyer says “kids or career” and you have to choose just one and whichever one you choose that’s it for life. It’s not like that. Being a working mother is a spectrum that changes daily, sometimes hourly and you are constantly making decisions according to the demands of your work and your family. It’s fluid and evolving. Just like everything else in our lives from our relationships to our skin.

2. It’s OK to work because you want to not just because you have to.

It’s apt that I’ve been following this story from halfway around the world in the US where I’ve been for the last two weeks without my children. For half of that time, my husband was with me, both of us away during the crucial back-to-school week.

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You can read about how that went down here.

In the debate about working mothers, it’s always frustrated me that the argument most mothers feel most comfortable making is that they have to work. Or that other women have to work. To pay the bills. To pay the mortgage. To put a roof over their children’s head. Well, yes but. BUT.

Women also work because we enjoy work. We want to work. We like having an identity away from the life-affirming but often all-consuming identity as mother. Work makes me a better mother. I’ve always known this. Not every woman is lucky enough to enjoy her work. Some absolutely do work because they have to. But many many more also work because we want to. We like the financial independence it gives us. We like the challenge and the satisfaction and the pride of knowing we’re good at what we do. We like that it means we can support ourselves or our children if we have to. We like that it means we’re not beholden to a partner who could die or leave or go broke or get sick or abuse us. We like that we get to be out in the world with other adults and close the door when we go to the toilet.

You don’t have to hide behind financial necessity as a justification for why you work.

3. It’s healthy for kids to see their mothers having a life away from them.

My brother and I were unusual in that we grew up in the 70s with a mother who worked. Did she have to? Probably not. Did she want to? Absolutely. And by doing so, she was a lived example to us that she existed independently to us. She didn’t exist simply to meet every one of our needs. She had needs and wants of her own, just like our father did, just like we did. This was crucial in modelling for me what was possible, normal and desirable for me as a woman and for my brother who, as a straight guy, would go on to have relationships with women throughout his life. Our mother modelling to us both what a working mother looked like has been invaluable.

Sometimes it’s GOOD for your kids not to have every single one of their needs met immediately if not sooner. Kids are starving for your mental, physical and emotional energy. They will take all of it without blinking and then ask for more. Occasionally teaching them that they’re not the centre of their parents’ universe is not a bad thing. It teaches them resilience.

Obviously I’m not talking about a child that is distressed or needs its nappy changed or to be fed dinner. Children do need to know they are a priority for their parents but there are degrees of that. It doesn’t mean you must shelve every personal and professional desire you have until they turn 18 or 21 or 45.

What was your take on Miranda Devine's column? You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia OutLoud here:

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