How do you do it? Hard lessons in work life balance

First published on The Rhodes Project blog, 24 February 2015.

In her recent memoir, My Story, Julia Gillard set out to answer the question she was most often asked during her tenure as Australian Prime Minister: “how do you do it?”

While cognisant of the unfairness inherent in that question (how many male world leaders do you think get asked that every day?), it was nevertheless a question I was keen to hear the answer to when I sat down with Gillard’s book. I had myself recently stepped down as an MP, having concluded that my own answer, while trying to combine a high-stress, high-profile job with a young baby and other care responsibilities, was: I can’t.

reviewed Gillard’s book and reflected on my own experience, and my time as a Rhodes Scholar. This got me thinking about that mantle of responsibility Rhodes Scholars feel we take on when we accept the great privilege of a free Oxford education: to give back, to contribute, to serve, to lead. Somewhere along the line we started referring to this as “fighting the world’s fight.” This was not one of the criteria stipulated in Cecil Rhodes’ will, but it might as well have been.

But how to fight the world’s fight, and still live a sane and manageable life, including raising children? I didn’t give this much thought until recently, although it was much discussed under the domed ceiling of Rhodes House during my time in Oxford. This coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Scholarship being opened up to women. A commemorative conference was held and a glossy publication profiling a range of women Scholars and their subsequent careers produced. For reasons that now elude me, I didn’t attend the conference, but I did help to edit the publication. In return, I received a “30 years of Rhodes Women t-shirt” that my partner wore around Wellington until it fell to bits a couple of years ago.

Anyway, aside from enjoying reading the illustrious biographies of my ground breaking female predecessors, I didn’t give much thought to how I personally would reconcile my dual aspirations of saving the world and raising a loving, grounded family. I had been  a high achiever, to whom good things like good exam results, scholarships, jobs, and leadership positions had come – if not exactly easily –  at least in a pleasingly seamless and sequential way all my life. I assumed that when the time came, I would effortlessly absorb the responsibilities of raising children and combine them with whatever high profile, worthy job I happened to hold in a manner inspirational to my peers. “How do you do it?” they would ask. “Oh it’s easy,” I would reply, the glass ceiling in shards around my feet. “You just need a supportive partner and good childcare.”

And that’s more or less how,  five years later and back home in New Zealand, I came to find myself an MP, working 12 hour days, travelling regularly, breastfeeding or expressing milk every two hours, and spending nights in a half-sleeping, half-waking trance in the gap between my bed and my baby’s cot, chronically sleep-deprived, losing my mind. I went back to work when my daughter was sixteen weeks old. I was doing it all. I was an inspiration. I was leaning in.

I lasted six months.

It was an agonizing decision to step down. I had invested so much in showing that I could do it all. I didn’t want to have to come out and say: I can’t.

But that was the plain truth. I had hit a wall that I couldn’t climb over. My blithe luck and self-belief had run out. I couldn’t be both an MP and a mum – at least not without falling short of my own high standards for both. It was scary and horrible. But the sense of relief that came when I admitted defeat was amazing. Driving home the day I announced my decision to step down, I had to grip the steering wheel with all my strength to stop the front of the car from lifting off the ground and floating up into the sky.

These days life feels much more manageable. I still work – it’s a financial necessity – but in a job in which my nights and weekends are my own, and I can knock off at a time conducive to picking up a toddler from daycare. I still have a supportive partner, but now instead of our household being oriented towards allowing me to carry on in a demanding job, I get to support him as well. I have the time and energy to embark upon interesting new projects, like reading only women writers for a year and reviewing them all on a blog.

I still want to fight the world’s fight. I work for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and take pride in the fact my work is making a difference for some of our littlest citizens. But crucially, I’ve realised that raising my own little citizen to be secure, happy, active, and engaged is still part of the fight.

I badly wanted to prove that it was possible to be both a great mum and a great MP, and some days I still feel the sting that I “failed” in this quest. An unpleasant voice in my head sometimes questions the return on the $100,000+ investment on my Oxford education now that I’m on a less obvious “leadership” trajectory. But I’ve realised that fighting that inner critic, too, is also important.

One day – when time and family permits – I hope to step back onto a public stage, whether in politics or in some other sphere, if for no other reason than I’m an A-type personality, and I like it. Until then, I’ll fiercely support and encourage other women to combine parenting and politics if they want to and think they can.  More representative parliaments make better decisions, so we need as many mothers in there as we can get. But I’ll also tell them straight: it’s damn hard. And if it’s too hard, it’s ok. The world’s fight is being fought on many fronts, and front and centre is only one of them.

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