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The working mum . . . the other side

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

The current novel I'm working on, There's Something About You, Olivia Bennet, is a historical dual narrative covering the character arc of Olivia Bennet, set in 1989, and her mother's story told during the mid-1960s. As I drafted, self-edited and worked on this novel, I constantly thought about my role as a mother with a daughter.


I’m a teacher. Author. Mother. Wife.

I’m also categorised as Gen X.

We’re the ones that started the whole, “you can have it all—be a wife, a mum and a career superwoman syndrome.”

We have a lot to answer for.

Our daughters look at our frenetic lives as we multitask, juggle schedules and write our long to-do lists. We carry powerful desires to not have lives like our mothers—well; I know I do.

Unfortunately, we opened the floodgates to what I call the ‘working mother heartache’.

I’m now watching women who are in their 20s and 30s, some even in their 40s, who put their children in childcare as they head off to work feeling guilty and coming home exhausted. Mothers who cherish spending evenings and weekends making up for the time they feel they’ve lost with their children. I have friends and colleagues who live on this emotional rollercoaster of guilt. Yet, they push forward to strive to be individuals. It really is a double-edged sword. Men just don’t seem to have the same anguish.

I understand why women do it. They want careers. Why shouldn’t they? I did. I wanted to have a purpose in my life. To make a creative and intellectual contribution. To be challenged and learn new skills, to socialise with other adults and to have intelligent conversations. My mother never got to have a career. She would’ve loved it. Being a migrant from Italy in the early 1960s made it even more impossible for her. She’s a talented and intelligent woman who never got to shine professionally. It’s quite heartbreaking.

Women of her generation in the 1960s were sacked when they were pregnant. Up to and including the early 1950s, women even lost their jobs when they got married. It was known as the ‘marriage bar'. A lot of professions and companies believed that a married woman’s place was at home looking after the house and her husband, including the required two-plus children. No wonder there were low unemployment rates. There were no women taking up positions because they were shown the door when hubby put a ring on their finger. When working wives heard the words, ‘congratulations, you’re expecting a baby,’ from their doctors, their careers weren’t the only thing that got pooped on.

I finished my HSC in 1984. A bold era. Wham was telling us to ‘Choose Life’. Tom Cruise was strutting in his living room in his boxer shorts or Top Gunning it across movie screens. Walkmans were the rage. As was big hair, enormous resin earrings, bright layered fluorescent tops and lacey skirts. All thanks to Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ era. I enrolled into Acting College—it didn’t work out for me. I tried to make a go of it while working in temporary jobs and as a cocktail server.

The 80s! The decade of my youth.

I gave up acting; travelled for months across Europe, went to university, met my husband, and got married. Exactly what was expected of me growing up as the daughter of Italian migrants.

When I had been married for eighteen months, I thought about which postgraduate degree to do to turn my BA into a specific qualification. I narrowed it down to two choices based on my love of literature and writing. Journalism or English Teacher. I was pragmatic. I chose a career that would be a safe option for when I had children.

My birth year placed me on the cusp of being part of Gen X. Some of my girlfriends left school in year 10; were married by 20, and some by 18. Others already starting their families by their mid-20s, if not earlier. A few of my school friends are already grandmothers in their 50s.

For me, I chose a teaching career. It was the safest option for someone planning to have a family. The hours were kid-friendly, and I had the school holidays. I want to make this very clear that teachers don’t stop working because it’s the holidays or 3 pm—I took my work home to be there with my child.

I took time away from teaching to raise my daughter for the first three and a half years of her life and return to school with no issue. In fact, I did this again when she was seven to be there for her when my husband was travelling a lot for work. During this period, it was easy to find job-share positions, temporary part-time or casual work, with no issue when returning to full-time work. Teachers are always needed. Even more so in today’s climate.

I wonder what it would’ve been like to be a journalist, especially in today's changing arena in journalism, with the rise of online publications, blogs and journals.

This brings me back to 2016. A sad year for me. Australian Cleo closed after 44 years, and Dolly shut after 46 years. Two years later, Cosmopolitan finished up after 45 years. My favourite magazines are all gone. I mourned.

Everything moved online and into podcasts. It’s a brave new world. The role of the journalist has transformed. There is an upside. Journalism going online makes working from home more accessible. The irony for me? I wonder if journalism today as a career is easier than teaching when you’re raising children. Isn’t it funny how things just evolve? I've missed that window to work as a journalist, on an online publication, where technology connects you to your audience, across a wider world. It all came a little too late for me.

I still believe I chose the right path for myself.

My daughter will complete her university studies next year—though she’s thinking about doing her Master's, possibly two, to qualify as a school counsellor. In Queensland and NSW, you must be a registered teacher to work as a counsellor in schools. Looks like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Pardon the teaching metaphor—apple. In a different way, teaching will also become an important stepping stone for her, too.

My daughter is now an adult. My job is done. She can now fend for herself; most of the time. Once a mum, always a mum! I continue to work full time as a teacher, including my work as an author. Once again, like in my pre-children days, there’s no guilt. Though the stress is still there. I think retirement might solve that minor issue!

A few years ago, I listened to a Podcast on Mamamia. Mia Freedman interviewed British author Christine Armstrong. She’s written a book called, The Mother of All Jobs. The subtitle is: How to have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish). This pretty much sums it up for working women who are mothers today. The podcast was an eye-opener and a powerful reminder of what it’s like; it’s not easy … ever.

As my daughter is now 22, I don’t have to worry about childcare, school holidays, and getting her to dance classes or to the shops to pick up materials for a school project or to buy ingredients for cupcakes for so-and-so’s birthday or to drive her to another birthday party or attend a function at school … and the list just goes on and on! I have done my time. But I have nostalgic and wonderful memories of what I realise today, in hindsight, are very short years.

I’m now on the other side. Do you know what? It all ends … eventually. I know this won’t make it any easier if you’re still in the middle of all this juggling; of being constantly worried about the needs of your children and dealing with bosses who just don’t get it. My friends and I have been there, and the memory is still very raw. I still get shudders; even though I chose a career that was a little more child friendly.

Our working lives have changed, and we need to evolve with them. Fast. Things need to change and change drastically. We can’t have anywhere between 18 plus years (and this depends on how many children you have) where working mothers spend their time and sanity feeling guilty, worried, anxious or tired. Workplaces need to evolve and redistribute the balance of work. To encourage, and support, a work-life balance.

I believe that your commitment and involvement at work ebb and flow according to what your parenting responsibilities are. I thought it was hard when my daughter was in childcare. I soon discovered that the primary and high school years were the hardest. That’s when mine needed me the most; to help with homework, friend issues and the trials and tribulations of learning. Add puberty into the mix and … well … do I really need to say more?

Before I had my daughter, I was involved in a lot of co-curricular activities at school; I helped with the musicals and went to camps. When I went back to work after having my daughter, I didn’t do any of those extra activities. Now, at this stage of the parenting cycle, with my daughter all grown up and going to university and working part time, I can pick up more co-curricular work, and even go on camps—well, maybe not camps. It all balances out in the end.

My closing comment: cherish the years with your children. Fight and push for better working conditions as mothers (for dads too) and find time to do something for yourself. A cup of tea, read a book or just sit outside and breathe in the fresh air, a walk, a bath, or a coffee with friends. The housework can wait; always. My husband says a happy wife and mother is a happy home. I do hi-five that!

United we stand. United we thrive.

I'd love to hear about your experiences, your thoughts and how you manage work-life balance.

Valerie G Miller 🌸

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