Good afternoon, Id first like acknowledge that we meet today on the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their Country. We also acknowledge the Kaurna people as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today. I pay my deepest respects to elders past, present and emerging. I pay my respects to the Kaurna women for their important roles throughout history. I believe there is so much to be learned from the way of life these women espouse particularly in terms of family, connectedness and support – issues very close to my heart.
It’s such a pleasure to be here today as part of the History Festival and to be speaking for the ‘I am a Feminist’ series! At first I have to admit I was shocked that I had been asked to speak to this topic. I hadn’t realised I was a feminist. I had always pictured feminists in the stereotypical sense – raging and bra burning, causing unrest and fighting for causes in a wild and untamed manner. It forced me to look at the definition a little closer.
The first definition I came across was simple:
“the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”
As simply put as this is, it encapsulates all the things I had thought, but it adds a calmer element… a more subtle and quiet determination. The word advocacy changes things up. The public support of a particular issue. That public support can come in many forms. I found myself really asking, how am I a feminist?
Ive had many roles in my life, within many industries and although Ive always been a believer in feminism as a concept, its this advocacy which has come to the forefront most recently.
My PhD candidature in Psychology focuses on support structures postpartum and the experiences of parents both here in Australia and in Sweden where social support is second to none. It looks at the bringing together of work and family and how this can be best supported. My business, The Village Foundation, seeks to normalise and understand postpartum stress and how it affects not only the individual but the wider family and community. It brings to light issues of parental leave and equality in the workplace. With that come the issues of the pay gap, gender inequality in the top positions and the issues that come with needed flexibility in the week.
Often when I talk about the fact that I advocate for equality and for issues such as these people envisage me speaking at conferences, at events like this one, discussing policies and changes with CEOs and HR managers. They envisage me with it all together stating the facts about what needs to change and how and why these changes need to happen. I am often seen as this strong, confident, ‘super mum’. No pressure huh? There is a definite image people portray upon me of what it means to be standing for these issues in both my research and in my business. And while there are elements to my life where this is true – where I am this person, it’s certainly not the whole picture and I think this is an important point for public discussion. I think often we are all guilty of doing this with women of the past who have made great changes in the world. We idealise them and their lives and omit the detail where the imperfections lay.
For example. I recently flew to Sydney for one night, to attend a conference and two meetings. A fairly regular activity for me. My daughter, Faith who is 8 has an older half-sister in Sydney so I plan for her to come with me because the mother in me wants to bring them closer and provide these kinds of life opportunities for her. Truth is we have always travelled really well together. My youngest daughter, Rumi, not quite 1 and half is still breastfed and so I bring her along too. I don’t ask my partner to come because 1. He has to work and 2. I am a capable woman and I can do this on my own. We arrive in Sydney and find our car. I grab the baggage and battle Rumi the wanderer who has discovered the turnstiles and wants to catch a free ride to anywhere. Faith, ever anxious about my not being attentive enough for her, is nagging me to get Rumi and carry her so she doesn’t get hurt, stolen or lost. We make it to Barangaroo and I battle the bags and the girls as I wear heels along the uneven pavement and make it up the 26 floors to where we are going. Part of me is loving the joy the girls bring to those we meet and the other part of me is wishing they had stayed at home so I could really just enjoy the conference. We get through the first day with the help of my step daughter and the amazing hosts we have. The evening event where I am a speaker comes and I barely have time to get dressed let alone attempt hair and makeup. The baby doesn’t want me to leave and starts screaming.
I won’t be long I assure Sophie and I leave the room as she reaches for me. I question everything, for the 100th time that day. I speak, I meet, I chat. Its 930 and I race back to the hotel where there is calm…just. The morning comes and the baby has become a barnacle – stuck to me like never before, anxious that I appear to be getting ready to leave yet again. Yet again I battle my work self with my mum self and feel guilt, resentment, panic as the time slips away and I am standing naked, trying to put makeup on while Rumi grabs at my breast and grips with all her might, refusing to be placed anywhere near the floor. Finally, she grabs the glasses, the tissues, the remote control. Faith squeals as Rumi messes with the channels. My anxiety escalates as Im running late for the conference I am attending. At last we are out of the room, and I’ve promised Faith the buffet breakfast – her favourite. She looks at me with all the excitement she can muster and hopes and prays out loud there are pancakes! Her innocence touches my heart and I hope there are pancakes for her too. Im feeling stressed and wishing the babysitter had not just cancelled on me. We get to the desk, Rumi is whinging and wriggling and Im holding Faiths hand so tight that when I finally lose it because the baby has picked up something from somewhere…god knows what…and has thrown it across the room, I squeeze faiths hand so tight to be quiet and just sit down that it hurts her and her excitement drains from her as she looks quietly at her hand, too scared to say that it hurt. I look at her, I see what’s happened and I realise I can’t save this moment. Its lost. I sit down and look at her, and I say Im so sorry Faith. At that moment I see my colleagues, clean, slept, fresh leave breakfast and head to the opening plenary. Carefree. As the tears roll from my eyes I see Faith looking at me and wonder what she thinks of me. I feel regret and shame and failure. Im so ashamed but can’t escape because it’s me who is judging. Its only me who has crushed a little girls innocent joy for pancakes and its only me who knows that this moment is as big as any that could happen in my business day. Throughout the day I keep picturing her face and it knocks the wind out of me, repeatedly.
As a working mother I know I am not alone in this feeling of being torn between my lives. And the irony is that rather than slow down, I speed up, so important is this work that I do to normalise and shift this experience for other women.
As much as anything else, this experience is feminism. I chose to go to that conference and deal with the stress that came with it. I didn’t have to. Its not me standing outside parliament, its not me creating a scene. But it is me advocating the right to attend a conference and be a mother. To have it when it matters to me and not when I am appropriately allowed back into the workforce. Its pushing the boundaries on what is acceptable and making others think that perhaps there is another way.
To me being a feminist is as much about that inner turmoil and battling our own cognitive and experiential dissonance as it is about seeing so clearly the path forward that there’s just no other way - that the fight and the drama and complication is so obviously just par for the course.
It’s not always easy or pretty or glamourous and despite the many occasions I’ve travelled with my daughters and it’s been a total success, this is the reality of fighting for equality – fighting for the right to be a mother, a scholar, a business woman. These are the painful consequences, the dilemmas, the pulling between mother and worker. The small, seemingly inconsequential moments that tear at many women as we strive to be and have, not “it all” but what is fair and equal. To keep our skin in the game and move our career forwards, if we so choose. It’s being visible in the struggle to balance and integrate my two lives and my two selves so that the story becomes a salient one – families are still being raised! Jobs are still being performed! We are doing more than we have the time and resources to do and by bringing it out into the world – to the conference, to the big bank foyer, to the flight, it becomes difficult to keep in the background when there is a child yanking out a boob in the lift of a major corporation as you arrive to give the address for the day. I choose this, but may cannot. Many have little choice but to integrate motherhood and work. This isn’t about telling women that they have to do it all – its about supporting women in their circumstances and in the choices they make.
I recently reflected about my work and the passion I have for being ‘on purpose’.
At times people say to me, you’re kicking goals, you’re on fire, you’re doing such amazing work, you’re so lucky! And I think, lucky is an interesting concept really and I know it’s so easy to look at someone’s successes and see only the positive. My work is a result of great personal pain and of taking that pain and using it to relieve the suffering in others, using it to fulfil a vision for a better way of being. Much like the daily struggles, there are more substantial ones that are often a driving force.
I was the usual cocky 20 something year old when I lost my mum suddenly and far too early. She was 52 when she went into hospital for routine surgery and never came out. So oblivious to life was I, that I didn’t even pray when she was in surgery. The concept of her dying, of her not being there as I grew and got married and had a family, was so abstract to me, so foreign that even as the Dr took us into the small room off to the side, it didn’t even enter my mind as a possibility that she wasn’t coming home with us that day, like had been planned. As I watched her die that day the enormity of my loss had not yet become apparent. I was 28, numb, wandering the hospital halls not knowing what to say or do. It wasn’t until I became a mum, 6 years later that the gravity of what I had lost hit me. As I paced in labour I stared at her picture and cried for the loss my baby would have but never understand. Staring at her in my arms I realised I was on my own. There would be no nanna to share the load, to impart her knowledge, to show me what to do. 6 months passed, when I found myself crying in the isle at Kmart as mothers and daughters shopped for new babies together. The loneliness, the loss, the emptiness of having so little support that I would stalk people on the street in the hope they might talk to me, hold the baby, ask me if I was ok had caught up to me. This lack of fundamental support coupled with my loss if identity through being off work and the sadness that accompanied it sent me on a spiral into depression that not even I recognised. I lost my husband, my friends, my mind. I lost the dream that I had held for 5 years as I overcame chronic illness in order to have my little girl. I often look at Faith and mourn for the life she almost had and the me she didn’t experience. I look back at that moment now of losing my mum. And I can see the gift within it, existing simultaneously with the sorrow.
My work is a result of seeing an injustice and acting on it. I am a feminist because I grasped adversity and took the opportunity it brought, despite it being cloaked in loss and despair. I am a feminist because I stand for this pain and advocate support for others so they don’t feel it.
There is quite a push in Australia at the moment for business and enterprise to embrace and support parents in the workplace. Whether by shared leave, flexible conditions or at the very least an acknowledgment that one has a family and is combining work and home. As the Swedes say we are 40 years behind in many ways, and yet I am thrilled to be one of many Australians advocating for the awareness of the issues that surround parents today and the implementation of support structures which may lead to improving the wellbeing of mums, dads and teams and to improve workplace practices and policies.
Today we live in a world where we are more connected than ever and yet many of us experience dire isolation. 1 in 5 new mothers experiences postpartum depression and 1 in 10 men. This has huge implications for the family and the community. Women are creating careers and strong identities before having children and then finding themselves home with babies, feeling unskilled and incompetent with low levels of available support. Many don’t appear to need help and even more withhold any possible signs that they may be suffering, such is the need today to be successful and independent.
As women many of us have learned to fight, to hang on, to grip tighter, – to strive to have and be it all. The literature in psychology certainly supports this. Rather than asking for help or stepping back women simply try harder. While I appear to be a definite example of someone who believes in having it all, advocacy, and standing for equality also means knowing when to do less and making that ok.
The research I conducted in Sweden centred around parental support structures and policies and as I was immersed into their culture I learned many things and saw different ways of being and understanding how to balance parenthood and work. I learned about how critical social support is in all areas and how the culture focuses on the real integration of family into worklife. All of these policies were in place to support this. But the real difference was in the men and women and their individual expression and expectations that they didn’t consciously realise. The biggest lesson, was that as mothers, we need to learn to let go. Let go of control, let go of the details, let go of the belief that parenting is primarily women’s work, that we know how to do it better. 95% of primary parental leave (outside of the public-sector) is taken by women and women spend almost three times as much time taking care of children each day, compared to men. While there are complex reasons and policies around this statistic, if we come back to the inner expression of this and how we might effect change from within, as women we need let go of the idea that maternal instincts magically kick in or even dare I say, exist. If like the Swedes, we embrace the idea that parenthood is a learned, shared, skill and that as such, our partners, our community and our workplaces can learn it and shape how we combine our lives, then we open up the possibilities. We can let go of control and perfectionism in the workplace by sharing the experience of being human and having to balance our hearts and minds with each other, we can negotiate the details we need for balance, we can be open and safe to express our needs, our experiences. We let go of the need to be perfect, to be hard and tough and able all the time to handle the entire load that is to a large degree not only expected by society but ourselves – we make up society. When we change our internal expectations we change what is expected out there. Again this is an approach that many women are not in a position to do, but those who are I encourage to embrace this notion of letting go. In Sweden, pregnant, I vowed to do this.
Bringing it home was a different story. I came home from Sweden and said to my partner, “I can’t un-see what I’ve seen, so strap yourself in”. I then set about letting go…. This is a very tough thing to do for a micromanaging control freak.
The road was long - getting him to fundamentally change his understanding of what it meant to equally parent - he would say things like ‘Ill help as much as I can’. a very honourable intention but lacking in a true grasp for what it meant to be equal – such is the ubiquitous nature of how we parent in Australia – still very role based. It took many discussions to explain what theoretically is very obvious – we are both her parents, we both work full time, the responsibility is shared. And most importantly – I have no special power that makes me a better parent than you. We are both capable. This is tough I know because there is this expectation -here, not in Sweden – that magically we will just get it. But letting this expectation go frees us of being perfect and of having to have all the answers.
16 months later I find myself as the secondary caregiver in our home. I do less cooking, less cleaning, and less childrearing than he does. And despite the intentionality of equality, it all snuck up on me. Past that initial struggle I have found myself shocked that this is now the case. And I am so pleased. It works better for us – James enjoys the family responsibilities and I enjoy the work. It’s a true reflection of equality I think, when roles are assigned due to skill and enjoyment rather than gender and expectation. Is it femininism because Im not at home? NO. Its feminism because it’s a choice and an advocation for what it is I wanted to do. The same would be said had I chosen to stay home with her full time. Its not the role that is important, it’s the intent and the decision.
As women we are the role models for the little girls who look to us for their ways of being in this world. We are their inner voice which shapes their future voice. When we present a woman with boundaries around what is acceptable and normal in the home and in the workplace, around the time we allocate for self-care and the expectations we place on ourselves, we not only provide ourselves with choice and freedom, but we give them this gift also. We teach them, in the most powerful way, by demonstration, that their choice matters. That they are worthy and that they can create their own reality.
Today, in what is a vastly differently experience to my first time as a mum, I really share parenting, I trust that my partner is just as capable and able to do what I do, I trust that this balance and the positive effect this has on me, flows through to my daughter, Rumi so that these habits become ingrained in her. I watch the increased bond between him and her and see how each of them are gaining from me having stepped back and let them work it out. I allow myself the time to work, to workout, to explore my mind and do the things that empower me, so that the time I do spend with her, I am giving from a full cup. The time is less, but it is richer and fuller. This is what I need. It’s not for everyone, but there-in lies the challenge – what do you need? The time of a one size fits all approach is gone. It’s time to co-create – with our family, our community and our workplaces - the life we need to be able to do the things we have to do and we choose to do. Being mindful of this and consciously choosing is advocating for equality. Its being a feminist.
With Village I hope to demonstrate through education, through connecting parents, through lived experience, and by putting into practise these ideas, that for me, my family, for my business and for all of our futures as women, that support and openness does not signify weakness but strength. That by standing for our needs as parents, and the needs of our families we are demonstrating strong boundaries and saying that rather than doing more, what is often needed, is in fact to do less, to let go. We need to be honest about how exhausting it can be combining two roles into the time allocation of one. To me, feminism and advocacy is about providing a voice – be it through speech or action – an honest voice which speaks openly about the uncomfortable truth so that others can also have a voice. Feminism is being brave enough to say the words, and do the things which fly in the face or normal and acceptable.
We – individuals and industries - need to be able to work collaboratively, to be supported in being healthy, productive and happy. When we as women stand together and embody these principles we are declaring that not only is equality crucial for individual and societal wellbeing, but the only mentally and emotionally sustainable way forward.
To me feminism is about taking responsibility. For our own beliefs, our own thoughts and actions and our futures. Its making a choice where there may not appear to be one. Its being supportive, and generous to each other and the road we choose to take. Its being empathetic and accepting of choices that are different from ours.
So, to answer my initial enquiry..I am a feminist. I am a feminist because I stand for the right to do and have what is unthinkingly given to many men. I am a feminist because I stand for the right to give away what is unthinkingly given to many women. I am a feminist because I have devoted the rest of my life to ensuring motherhood can be experienced in the way women envisage it to be experienced, whatever that is for them – however they choose it! I am committed to ensuring that support is given to all parents – men and women – especially in the workplace, because if men and partners are supported to be as involved as the mums then there is an automatic levelling that occurs across the board – at home, at work, in the relationship. It opens up the doorway for real understanding of roles and respect and honouring and appreciation and empathy and all the elements which make for enriched relationships between us all. I am a feminist because of the small actions I choose to take each day, difficult as they often are. Because of the big picture I hold for Australian women and men in terms of equality and parenting. I am a feminist because I will not sit still and accept the box society has chosen for me.
Mostly though, if Im honest, I am feminist because I deeply care for other women’s experiences and am so passionate about them being present and emotionally connected enough to be able to love and enjoy the divine gift of motherhood without feeling alone, isolated, less than who she has been until that point.
I am incredibly grateful for the women before me who have given us a voice and a place to stand and be heard. I am grateful for their courage and their vision. And it is upon their vision, and the vision of my mum, the powerful and giving woman in my life who sparked this within me, that am so grateful for the opportunity to share mine, as a proud and active feminist.