About six months ago I had cause to stand back and take a wholistic look at my priorities in life and how my career choices stacked up against them. As a result I have made a few key decisions that would result in me being able to spend more time with my sons.
The biggest move was to relinquish my role as CEO of Private Media, which has involved weekly overnight travel to the head office in Melbourne, and pursue a Sydney-based position as GM of Hearst-Bauer, a role that I take up on September 22. Three weeks into the role I will be on a plane to New York for a week to immerse myself in the global strategies for each of my brands: Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE and Cosmopolitan. In terms of nights away from my boys, I will effectively trade weekly Melbourne trips for an annual week in New York.
I arrived home from a late-night board meeting this week to a distressed son. He was selected to be a prefect this week and had realised that the prefect induction day was on the first day of my meetings in New York. He was keen for me to be there on what he felt amounted to one of the most important events in his school life to date. I then did the worst thing possible: I told my son that I would do my best to change my trip, knowing that it would be near-impossible to do so. The thought, however, consoled him.
When my husband returned from work I told him that I felt like the worst mother in the world. How could I not feel hopelessly guilty about missing such an important event in my son’s life? But it would be impossible to change my week in New York at this stage. Flights were booked, meetings that take weeks to coordinate with a multitude of busy people were diarised, and a key stakeholder was flying in from Paris to meet with me.
My husband wrapped his arms around me and told me it would be ok. He would be there supporting our son at the prefect induction and would video it for me. He reminded me of all of the things I have done to be present for our children throughout their life, while juggling a heavy-duty career. The guilt immediately started to dissipate, although will never disappear entirely. My wonderfully supportive partner was right. Most children are fortunate if one working parent can attend their special events at school. The majority of the time, in my experience, it’s the mother who is there showing unconditional love and support, waving the flag on behalf of both parents. We don’t do it because we have to. We do it because we want to. But as a result we have convinced ourselves that it’s our sole role to always be there for our kids, when in fact it should be a shared responsibility.
I shared my story with ASX company director Kirstin Ferguson at a Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia event this week. The wonderful thing about networking with other women who have similar career demands is that nine times out of ten they have had a similar experience. Kirstin told me that she has come to the realisation that a “vital ingredient” for a successful working mother was “having someone in your life, whoever that may be, to help you approach the juggling act of motherhood”.
“Recently a work commitment meant I was unable to attend an event for my daughter,” she shared. “Rather than feeling guilty and focusing on the one event I was missing compared to the many more I manage to attend, my husband and I simply worked together to come up with a solution. On this occasion he was able to move around his own, equally important, work commitments to be at our daughter’s event. Next time it may be me that does the same.
“Ultimately it is the equal partnership between my husband and I that allows our daughters to benefit most, whilst also allowing us both to have rewarding careers.
“Working mothers seem to have a unique ability to find ways to feel guilty. With one dejected look on the faces of our children if we happen to miss a particular event, we can forget the multitude of gymnast-like ways we balance and juggle our lives to ensure we are there for them the majority of the time.
“We navigate meetings, emails and busy travel schedules to ensure we don’t miss our children’s school concerts, parent-teacher interviews, sporting events, dentist appointments, school debates. Yet we are our harshest critics and missing just one special event can bring up “working mother guilt” always lurking just beneath the surface.”
At a Chief Executive Women (CEW) dinner this week, Coca-Cola Amatil CEO Alison Watkins also emphasised the importance of her partnership with husband Rod in her successful career journey. It’s a familiar story that needs to be discussed openly and honestly and as often as possible. We don’t have to be superwomen to have successful, rewarding careers.
You can follow Kirstin Ferguson on twitter @kirstinferguson.