First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2013 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with post-natal depression. My daughter was only five months old. Being a young, successful, professional woman I buried the diagnosis for as long I could. I tried to deal with things on my own: the hard way. But it all quickly came to a head. I needed help and medication was a part of that equation.
Going back as far back as I can remember I was educated to believe that a woman could do ‘anything’ she wanted. Motherhood was something I took for granted in my hopes for the future. When the time was right it would all work out. And it did, kind of. But for all of my education and philosophical beliefs about equality, I was unprepared for the adjustments that came with being a ‘successful’ working mum.
Part of that was due to my own definition of success. But I don’t think that what I wanted was unusual. For example, it was important to me not to lose any of the momentum or status I’d worked hard for in my career. So my husband and I decided that it made sense for him to stay home while I went back to work as soon as I could. The decision was practical in part as my earning-capacity was higher. It would have been financially disadvantageous for us if we’d done things the opposite way. And my husband was a wonderful Stay At Home Dad: S.A.H.D. But as any new parent will tell you, sleep deprivation is a form of a torture. And our baby hated sleep. It took us a year to get her into a good routine – and it wasn’t through lack of trying. We downloaded white noise, watched The Baby Whisperer over and over again – all to no avail.
In the meantime, I kept beavering away at trying to be a super working-mum. I set exceptionally high standards for myself at work: delivering twice the amount I was expected to. I would head home at lunchtime to feed our baby. I would insist on being the one to get up in the middle of the night when she woke up. I wanted to be a great mum, as well as be successful in my career.
I remember my boss regularly commenting in amazement that I was “a machine”. It was a compliment but nowadays I realise how right he was. Machines are primarily ‘functional’ and useful so long as they are high-output. And I was behaving that way to make things manageable. I was determined not to be disadvantaged in anyway because I had had a child. I had to ‘prove’ to myself and society that I could be better than ‘good’ at everything I did. It isn’t really surprising then that I crashed and burned: like all machines eventually do. Mind you, somehow my husband and I even fuddled through that. No one but our closest friends and family knew about my diagnosis and two years later when I told my boss he was genuinely surprised.
Three years on, I am the happiest I have ever been. This is because I have turned the system on its head. My husband is now working fulltime and I am freelancing as an entrepreneur. Ironically, I am working half the number of hours in a working week and earning three-times as much as I was on salary. While at the same time I have the freedom, ability and energy to be the mum I want to be, on my own terms. It’s through this experience that I’ve now come to the conclusion that it is possible to be a successful working mum. But mum’s need to be given the support, tools and ability to figure out how to make that possible.
With one of the lowest rates of productivity in the OECD, New Zealand needs to do something differently if we’re going to survive the 21st century. With women being half of our workforce, there is a huge opportunity for our country to be a world-leader in addressing this issue. For me, there are two things lacking in our existing systems that need to be addressed in order for us to develop innovative strategies to achieve this. Firstly, we need to recognise motherhood – on it’s own – as being an important contributor to our social and economic success. And secondly we need to recognise entrepreneurialism as a valid and powerful pathway for maximising the ability of women to gain equality and make a significant contribution to our country. I think we need to stop pretending that women and men are the same. We’re not. So let’s start coming up with some creative solutions for how our society can benefit from that difference.