Satchelism: An education in work and life
While sixty-odd years ago, girls were still majoring in the (unpaid) domestic arts and secretarial work, areas to which many of us are still drawn – without shame and with due respect – the world of women's work in Australia has opened up to the extent that the likes of Gail Kelly can manage one of the Big Four Banks, and the country itself is under the direction of one Julia Gillard. Hurrah! Victory! The outlook is promising.
But behind the facade of success lies a number of institutionalised and sex-specific issues that belie the reality: ageism, sexism, the ability to bear children and the visitation of raging hormones once a month, to name just a few.
Then there is also this sense of needing to succeed at everything, from the moment you wake up to when you fall asleep in a heap.
We are remarkable, ambitious, driven and succeeding on merit in all different directions from the moment we learn to read (an activity at which girls excel). But, as Governor General Quentin Bryce has said, based on her own experience of teetering on the edge of breakdown, "I am constantly telling younger women that they can have it all, just not all at once."
Sunday magazine columnist Angela Mollard brought this issue to light recently in a piece called 'Profit and Loss' in which she articulated the fact that she'd been approached with the offer of a fancy new job, her ideal job on paper, but decided not to take it:
"I wanted to say yes. Badly. But the issue was muddled and befuddled by modern life and its manifold demands. So, on a sheet of A4, I mapped out my commitments... Being a mother – and, in some small way, a wife – couldn't be shoehorned into a three-hour slot on Sunday. So why are we so scared to say it?".
In her piece, Mollard referenced Chrissie Swan, a one-time co-host of The Circle, as an example of a mum who had decided to jump off the TV ship and fall back into radio, a gig that would more easily allow her to attend to her young family.
"The Circle is the most fun I’ve ever had at work and I will miss it like crazy but at this time of my life, with two kids not even old enough for kindergarten, I had to make the tough decision of family time over work," Swan said at the time.
"It seems somewhere between feminism and the professionalising of parenthood, it's become almost shameful to say you value your homelife," wrote Mollard. It's also shameful to admit that your work life may have a negative effect aboard the home-life ship.
While glossy magazines might celebrate the manifold successes of women in the spotlight and at the heights of their careers in business, what we don't often see are the meltdowns, the painful partings when children are left behind on business trips, the strains on marriages, the loneliness. Sarah Jessica Parker's portrayal of Kate Reddy in I Don't Know How She Does It gave us a fictional glimpse.
I greatly admire Lisa Wilkinson for leaving her career at Cleo and opting to stay at home to raise her boyish brood. It's no small thing to sacrifice your career, particularly at what might seem the height of it, and opt to stay at home in a world that is thriving on female success. But, as Wilkinson has clearly found, even if you opt to jump off the professional merry-go-round for a while, there is still the possibility that you will land on your professional feet.
"I just thought, I've worked hard for a long time, I've saved up; if I can't be smart enough to say, 'It's okay to take some time out and to be a mum and to professionally jump off a cliff and not know that there's a parachute that's going to help me through wherever I land," Wilkinson said on reflection. "It was a very liberating thing to just go, you know what, I'm going to put time into my personal life, put time into being a mum, put time into my family; whatever happens beyond here, I have had the best ride."
Many women don't have the option of opting out because they are the sole income earners for their families. Gretel Killeen – a media personality no stranger to public critique – had to hold her show together, raising her two children on the back of radio speaking gigs and writing children's books and Big Brother hosting.
Maintaining a public profile comes at an enormous cost, which is probably a topic for a separate post. But "public" is a relative term: to be in the workforce is to be in the public sphere, and all women are at times scared of losing their public profile; their status, their roles, their prospects, their income, in a world that remains much friendlier to men.
It can feel like the world is hostile if we want to have both career and children. And, historically, it has been. There is still a wage gap. Some employers are still unaccommodating. The burden should not solely rest with us, which is why we have a Minister for the Status of Women (Julie Collins).
One of the privileges of being a Western woman is we have choices to make. We can choose to take the promotion or have more time for the kids. But sometimes we lack the confidence to articulate just what it is that we want or need because we are receiving conflicting messages: from the media, from colleagues, from the mother's group. This can impair our decision making.
"We struggle to ask for help and men don't," said international management consultant Monica Bradley on ABC radio this morning. "Men are very clear about what they want. Our fear of rejection, fear of failure, are sometimes what hold us back. Learning to delegate and articulate what we want is really important."
So long as we are clear on what it is we want, and why we want it, first and foremost. Negotiations, compromise and sacrifice may be necessitated. Because while women are by nature nurturers, wanting to please everyone, we are not altogether kind to each other (the judgement!) or ourselves. A resolve, a quiet determination to wrestle from life what means most to us is of the utmost importance.
Mollard has decided what is important to her: "As someone who once considered putting the children to bed in their school uniforms to speed up the morning routine, I've learnt parenting isn't what you say, it's what you do. I didn't take the job because, for now, life isn't just about me. It's about us."
There are seasons for sewing and seasons for reaping, but in between there are times for decision making. Sometimes career simply has to play second-fiddle to everything else, even if we are single. Perhaps we need time out to navigate a relationship fallout? Or to see more of the world? Or to get our health back on track?
This, in turn, can help us become more focused about how we expend our time and energies when we return to work, or on those days that we are "on the job". But you have to give yourself permission to opt out, or opt back in, as there will inevitably be conflicts of interests.
We must choose our battles and decide what we are prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of ourselves, our families and the world. If what we choose is causing us pain, anxiety, frustration and guilt, then perhaps we are on the wrong course? Life is full of struggle and sacrifice, but it shouldn't feel like pulling on six size jeans when you are a 12.
Deciding what is "right" is a matter for you – but in making decisions, it's best to be informed about all the possible avenues, without intimidation, without comparison, with the right mentors and support, and with compassionate consideration for yourself, which will inevitably extend to your family and every facet of your life. As newsreader Sandra Sully has said, "no section of your life is quarantined."
As someone who has fought a personal battle to reclaim her life and her health by giving up a relatively small public platform for a time, I'm all too aware that sometimes, something's got to give. If you find you have become a slave to your job, over-invested in your work, and get little enjoyment from it, then alarm bells must surely sound. But not everyone has to learn the hard way.
We must be transparent about the struggles and think on the motivation for this desire to be successful in the eyes of the world. It is okay to have ambition, goals and a mission, but to stay on-task, to get the most out of your life, you need to build a life for yourself with principles for longevity to avoid burning out.
Some of us will have excellent role models in the home who appear to seamlessly get it right. For others, it will look like life is an incredibly hard fight. Preferably, we should establish our own values early on by weighing up what it is we see and working out, 'What will be most beneficial for me?'.
What is it that means most to you? On what are you prepared to compromise? When will you lie down and when will you fight? Where, or who from, do you get your sense of what is right and what is wrong? Who do you look up to? Who do you go to for help and guidance? If you fall, who will be in the wings to catch you?
While being a Western woman is full of wonderful opportunities, we can make a rod for our own backs when we start to confuse career success with contentment and exchange home truths for falsities. There are far too many bright, shiny lives at risk of being overwhelmed by trying to live up to notions of success and trivial concerns, which will pass away when the wind dies down.
Stay true to you.
See also: Girl Talk: When careers and stuff get in the way
Girl With a Satchel
Satchelism: v, meaning: Christ-centred feminism aimed at righting cultural injustices that keep women from being all they can be in the world by promoting education, media literacy, dialogue and community. We do not discount the role of men in bringing equality to bear; we celebrate their support. Satchelism takes a "first, do no harm" to its approach to feminism. It's a fine line, sometimes, but that's our goal. For further explanatory notes, see here.