Tanya Plibersek, a premier with seven kids, and one very unpopular question.

Tanya Plibersek wanted to talk about something important. 

Her daughter, Anna, was ready to share the very personal, very difficult story of why she has created The Survivor Hub, a support service for survivors of sexual abuse. 

Plibersek's biographer Margaret Simon was releasing an extract of her new book that included an interview with Anna about her teenage years, when she felt she was fading away, hostage to a partner who dictated almost every aspect of her life. 

"I experienced pretty much every kind of abuse you can think of," Anna told Simon. "It was emotional, it was physical. It was even financial, as much as you can be financially abused as a teenager. He tried to stop me talking to my friends. I lost so many friends."

Watch: 6 signs of people who have been abused. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

Anna's abuser was eventually charged with assault. Her mother, one of the most powerful women in the country, said that watching her daughter give evidence was "the hardest hour I’ve experienced as a parent."

So, when this story was told this weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tanya Plibersek wanted to direct her spotlight onto her daughter's bravery and advocacy work. 


But we had other ideas. The headline that ran on the extract was this:

‘If I had run, I would have won': The family pain behind Plibersek’s leadership call.

And in the SMH's sister publication, The Age:

'Now we can understand Tanya's big decision.'  

And at SBS: 

'Why Tanya Plibersek Chose Not To Contest the Labor Leadership'.

And on news.com.au:

Tanya's claim over leadership bombshell. 

You see, at the very time Anna was preparing give evidence in court in 2019, Plibersek was at one of those crossroads moments that come along every so often in a career. Bill Shorten had lost the election and a new leader for the Labor party had to be selected. Armies of women across the country wanted Tanya Plibersek. Because she's brilliant. Empathetic. Effective. Experienced. 

Tanya Plibersek said it wasn't the right time for her family.

And those armies of women scratched their heads. 

But... her children aren't babies, we said. 

She's always been a working mother, we said.

She's been deputy leader for ages, we said, how big is that jump? 

If not now, when? we said. 

As Simon writes in her book, some (mostly female) supporters even started a campaign on social media offering to look after Plibersek's children for her, so she could run. 


But she didn't run. And a capable Labor veteran called Anthony Albanese did, and the rest is history. 

And this weekend, when Anna told her story, women exhaled, as if they'd solved a little puzzle. Aaaaah. She was still needed at home, we said. We get it now

You see, parents - and let's just call it, mothers in particular - are always looking for models of balancing parenting and life and work. We're always scratching around, trying to gather intel about who's taking time off when, how many work hours are too many, and how much room to move there is in that grey-area crossover between ambition and family. 

This version of Plibersek's decision fits into a neat bucket we've labelled They Still Need You When They're Teens

It sits right alongside You'll Never Get Those Baby Years Back. And You Need To Be At The School Gate Sometimes


Anna's devastating story confirms what parents of teenagers know - the stakes feel so high as your kid is pulling away, and your love for them has gone nowhere. 

Not running for leader was an easy-hard choice for Plibersek, it seems. Of the idea of stepping up her travel and work commitments right when Anna needed her in court, Plibersek says, "The thought of not being able to be there for her through that was just too much."

And every parent can relate.

But it's illustrative, this story, of just how desperate we are for intel about women's family choices. It's infuriating for the subjects, being asked the deeply unpopular question of how to "do it all", but that awful phrase is really just code for a cry for help. How do you make the impossible, possible?

Also illustrative is my friend Jessie Stephens, about to become a mother and gloriously ambitious. She asks every woman she comes across how much maternity leave they took, how long they breastfed for, and how the hell the childcare worked. 

She doesn't want to judge; she wants information. (FYI, my answers were six months, 12 months and very messily, no judgement pls). 


Also illustrative is a recent profile of Dominic Perrottet's wife, Helen, also in the Sydney Morning Herald. The piece about the wife of the NSW premier appeared under this headline:

Helen Perrottet's Seven Children Are The Least Interesting Thing About Her.

Really, though? While the profile by Jordan Baker is indeed really interesting, telling us that Helen was an army reservist, still works several days a week as a lawyer and initially turned down Dominic when he proposed, choosing to have seven children in 2023 is Pretty Bloody Interesting, and surely we don't need to gloss over that to validate a woman's existence. 

Or a man's. Premier Perrottet, who is currently in the middle of an election campaign, is one of 12 kids, has seven of us own (and counting, in the piece Helen will not rule out any more) and is married to one of eight, which tells us a lot about him, his faith, his family life, and his choices. 

Pretending otherwise would be churlish. 

The premier wasn't protected from Jessie's baby curiosity, either. Interviewing him on The Project panel recently, she asked him the dreaded question - "How do you do it all, Dominic?" Calm and professional, he gave the answer every savvy interviewee gives - 'I don't' - and he spoke of sacrifice and missing milestones, all the tropes us parents are familiar with, because they're true. 

And it was a fair question. Because children change lives irrevocably. Babies and toddlers and schoolkids and teenagers - they need their parents, at least some of the time. And sharing how any of us make ourselves available, a little or a lot, is intensely useful for another generation of parents. 


Listen to No Filter with Mia Freedman. On this episode, Virginia Tapscott describes herself as university-educated and ambitious. She also has four children under the age of six and she doesn’t want a career. Not right now. Post continues below.

For Generation X, slogging away under the unattainable banner of "work like you don't have children" has not been helpful. We shied away from the baby pictures on the desks and the asking for the flexibility our families definitely needed because we were worried about not seeming serious about our work. Of being skipped over for promotion. Of being dismissed and overlooked because we use our sick days for our kids and we need to take our leave in school holidays. 

Stop asking us about it, we said. It's patronising. Its reductive. It's belittling. 

But, no, it's not, if it's asked in the right spirit. 

It's only patronising and reductive if you think child-rearing is a lesser job than working outside the home. What could actually be more impressive than nurturing and striving, simultaneously? 

What could help the next generation - much less likely to shut up about the pram in the hall - to feel empowered to ask for what they need to get work and family to co-exist, than to talk about it, in all its messy glory?


And to sometimes say, "I had to step away from my dream job, because my kids needed me."

So I'm ducking as I say this, but maybe it's time to bring back the 'how do you do it all?' question, for women AND men.

Because otherwise, we've erased our children from our lives, airbrushed our existences, made our struggles look easier than they are, and tricked a whole lot of other people into thinking work-life stuff is only a problem for baby's first year.

Pushing the juggle back into the light removes the shame of struggling with your own choices. 

As Tanya Plibersek says: "To other women, I say, 'You are not responsible for the life and fate and opportunities of every woman. You need to make the decision that is best for you' ... If you’ve got no kids you get criticised for not understanding what families are going through. If you’ve got kids, you get criticised for neglecting them. There’s basically no right answer. And so, what can you do but please yourself? You have to do the thing that’s best for you in your life and for your family."

Amen, Tanya. Amen. 

Now let's get back to that important thing. 

You can learn more about Survivor Hub, and donate, here.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

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