As working women we have been short-changed. It’s not our problem alone to fix | Eleni Roussos

During a recent dash into my local chemist to buy infant formula, I came face to face with a cashier at the register who wanted to know why I wasn’t breastfeeding my baby. With my daughter on my hip and exhausted from a rough night, I was unprepared to handle what felt like an interrogation and hurried out as quickly as I could.

“Is she sleeping through?” and “how long have you got off?” are regular questions I get asked when I’m out with my six-month old. It’s what I call “baby small talk” and it requires a certain level of energy and tolerance, particularly when you’re a sleep-deprived TV news anchor living in a small town where you really can’t hide. Now on maternity leave with my third child, I’ve become better at navigating these conversations without shame or guilt. But the all too common “how do you do it?” still remains the hardest question to answer.

The truth is, I don’t miss the stress that comes with being a working mother, and the year I have off with my baby has in many ways been a break for me too. I’m pulling in 16-hour days to care for her, but it doesn’t come remotely close to the pressure I felt when I was a mum in full-time work. For the first time in my working life, I am questioning my model of success and the cost that has come with it.

I’m proud to work as a journalist and I couldn’t imagine a life of not working outside of the home. I’m among the lucky few to work for an employer which provides good conditions for working women like me. My friends who are in less stable work or are single parents are doing it tougher. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to share my experience of being a professional woman with a strong biological pull to have children.

I am the daughter of working-class parents and was raised with an unshakeable belief that I could have it all. I had no hesitation starting a family at the same time as my career was beginning to take off, a decision I’m now extremely glad I made. But navigating these two polar worlds simultaneously hasn’t been straightforward or cheap.

Despite the stereotype, I don’t have a Greek village raising my children. It’s my ageing parents who need the help. My hours at work have been long, the cost of childcare has drained my pay, finding time for the school reader, let alone some respite for myself, has required meticulous planning. My partner and I hold down full-time jobs and both pull our weight on the home front, yet we still carry the economic and emotional burden of making ends meet. We are caught in the conundrum of being unable to afford to work any less while still struggling to pay for the help that must be outsourced.

For years I carried the stress of being a working mother as though I alone had a problem that needed fixing. I made every effort to be “mindful” and stay “present”. I read popular books written by successful working mothers, searching for tips to ease my heavy load. But these books did not reflect my reality and left me feeling more confused.

I continued to operate the only way I knew how to – by just getting on with it. Any time I complained, I was shut down by my mother, who reminded me of how lucky I was to have a life and identity outside of the home.

For years I carried the silent shame of being a young professional from a migrant background with more than one child. While I still called myself a feminist, I felt excluded and not part of the club. I have now come to accept that the plight of working mothers like me is the result of social and economic forces beyond my control, and a system which disproportionately overburdens working-class professional women and families.

The “Me Too” movement has gained worldwide traction, showing how well feminism can work in bringing about social change. With a record number of Australian women now in employment, free and universal childcare and flexibility in the workplace have never been more urgently needed.

It’s also high time that our wealthy nation valued the hidden economic labour that goes into raising healthy children and stopped treating motherhood as some kind of “add on” that women choose. The unfair expectation that a woman will happily toil away at home and in the office, only to see her salary eaten up by childcare and tax is insulting. It’s also disheartening when women see their male colleagues promoted and paid more because they didn’t take time off to look after children. But the ultimate blow comes in retirement, when a woman faces the horrifying reality that she doesn’t have enough superannuation to get by.

All the “you-can-do-anything” messaging directed at young girls and the mindfulness coaching that purports to console the stressed-out worker will remain shallow and false until we face the elephant in the room: Today’s working family, in particular the working woman, has been short-changed. And the fight isn’t over.

Eleni Roussos is an ABC news journalist and presenter based in Darwin


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.