“For a very long time now I’ve been saying to young women: ‘You can have it all, but not all at the same time.’ How important it is to take very good care of yourself, of your mental and physical and spiritual wellbeing; it’s hard to do. It’s easier to be a workaholic than to have a truly balanced life.” – Former Governor-General of Australia, Dame Quentin Bryce.
Can women really have it all, or are we just setting ourselves up for failure in striving to do so? Is a work/life balance merely a fantasy, rather than something that actually exists? And, raise your hand, if – like me – you are exhausting yourself trying to be the perfect mother, wife and employee?
As Australia’s first female Governor-General, now retired from duty, Dame Quentin Bryce (pictured) was a great advocate – still is – for women and children’s rights. I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for her and I think her comments on women struggling to “have it all” here are very wise and valid – especially for working mothers.
And Quentin should know – the amazing overachiever is reportedly a mother of five and grandmother of 11! Then there’s the fact that she’s enjoyed a long, rich and distinguished career as an academic, lawyer, community and human rights advocate and former vice-regal representative of Queensland and Australia.
If I had to give myself a grade for motherhood right now – I’d give myself a solid “B”. Some areas definitely need improvement, but overall my two-year-old and three-year-old toddlers know they’re loved and cherished and are very happy, smart and thriving children.
But when it comes to the endless juggling act of motherhood, work and relationships, I’d grade myself a “C–“. I’m struggling to keep all the balls in the air at once and oh, how I long for more time for myself! And I know I’m far from alone in feeling all this.
Women are charged with doing more than ever before; we still largely bear the brunt of both unpaid domestic labour and child rearing and many of us also have to juggle paid employment out of sheer economic necessity and our need/desire to enjoy fulfilling careers. So, how do we working mums be kinder to ourselves, and others – in the face of failure – in trying so hard to have it all?
Dr Karen Phillip (pictured), who’s one of Australia’s leading family therapists and parenting experts, and author of best-selling parenting book – Who Runs Your House – The Kids Or You, says for starters, her advice to young mums is that the “perfect parent” doesn’t exist and women should stop aspiring for this unattainable ideal. And as a mum to six children, which saw her raise three kids aged under four, Dr Phillip knows a thing or two about the giddy highs and lows of motherhood.
“The most important thing, when young mums who are struggling come in to see me, is that I simply remind them that there is no such thing as a perfect person, or a perfect parent. And if they try to be either one or both of those then they’ll feel a little let down because they don’t exist,” she says.
“Parenting is a balance; it’s a balance within our life and sometimes we become so involved in and focused on being that perfect parent and doing the best thing for our children, we actually start to neglect other important areas of our lives and our relationships.
“We neglect our foundations and our foundations is our coupleness, our relationship – even our relationships with our extended family and friends. They’re all part of our family community, but what we seem to do is we seem to negate those and step off our foundations and just go in to being a mum or a dad and things wobble under us and that’s when things fall down.
“And this is often when I see couples; their relationship, their ‘coupleness’ has fallen down because of the children. So, I reinvent their coupleness. We set a schedule of their time alone together, two days a week, it could be – and this is only after we’ve sat down and had a family meeting and the children are involved and made aware of it.
“Date nights are very important! If you’re partnered, go out on date nights. If you’re not partnered, go out on a divergent date night – go meet people. And for so many couples, they become mum and dad, and they forget they’re man and women, husband and wife.”
Feeling like you might lose your mind if you don’t get some time to yourself? Self-care is also vital, as a busy parent/mother/wife/lover/worker, Dr Phillip says. We all must simply stop and take some time out. “We can’t always get a day a week, it may just be one or two hours, but go to the beach, go for a jog, go to the gym; anything like that – even just sit at the hairdressers or go have a facial,” she says.
And when it comes to those hideous days we all have as a busy working mum, when you’re not performing at your best, Dr Phillip says chillax, sister. “It’s not failure; I really don’t believe in failure as a parent, unless of course you’re putting cigarette butts in their lunch,” she quips.
“If you’ve had a really bad day and there’s been stress or an argument with your partner and you’ve dismissed the child or whatever, as soon as you are able to pull yourself back in, and you’re able to recognise the behaviour you’re not happy with, you sit with the children and give them a cuddle, and you say to them: ‘You know what darling? I’m really sorry I didn’t spend time with you’, for example.
“You admit your error and you suck it up, so to speak. You tell them, so in other words: ‘I’m showing you that even your God-like parents [in their eyes] can make mistakes, admit to it, and make amends.’
“You make it up to them, and do better next time, and you tell your kids: ‘You know what? I’m doing the best I can and sometimes I might fall down on my knees, but I’m going to pull it together, stand back up again and keep walking forward’.”
As a busy working mum, you can also become so bogged down with the sheer enormity of the task of child-rearing, you can forget to enjoy your time with the amazingly unique, little people you’ve created. And so while it’s true that the first years of a child’s life are crucial in building their foundations and how they communicate, in our quest to be great parents, we mustn’t lose sight of the simple joy of playing with our kids, Dr Phillip says.
“In becoming parents, we’re so focused on doing it correctly, we often forget to play with our kids. And I don’t mean being friends with them, because that doesn’t really work, but it’s important to play with them, laugh with them and have fun,” she says. “If they do go and splash in their good shoes and socks in a puddle, rather than getting angry, go splash with them!
“Play with them, jump on the trampoline with them, run with them, chase them in the park! And that’s what I think – in our busy life, we’re missing enjoying our children and our family!”
Finally, a word of warning, fellow working mums – be very careful about seeking your answers to parenthood quandaries, questions and concerns via social media.
“A lot of this pressure on parents unfortunately comes from social media – it has escalated women’s concerns about attaining perfection,” Dr Phillip says, “there are so many blog sites out there, often written by women who’ve become a parent, who’ve gone: “Gee, I’m great at this, I’m going to tell everyone how terrific I am and how to do everything’.
“And I’ve read a lot of them and some of these blogs are downright wrong and dangerous. People mistakenly think: ‘Because it’s on the internet, it must be true.’
“It’s one thing to share a story, but it’s a different thing giving advice to people. We’ve gone away from sharing with our immediate loved ones and turned to the internet and most people are fairly judgemental. If you must stick to social media, only look at the more informative, more professional sites.”