I recently sat down in the auditorium an the University of Western Australia to hear Mia Freedman speak at the Perth Writer’s Festival. She was in Perth spruiking her new book Work Strife Balance. I had heard of Mia Freedman. I periodically click on the MamaMia links that appear in my newsfeed and smirk at the somewhat irreverent tone of the articles I find there, and I have seen her on television. However, given the catastrophe of my own “work-life balance” of recent years she was a person her existed in my peripheral vision. She was someone I was obliquely aware of but that hadn’t had the opportunity to stand centre stage in my little view of the world as of yet.
So I sat with a room full of other women (and the odd dotting of the Y-chromosome) to hear her speak about why she thought that the very phrase “work-life balance” was “bullshit”. Instantly it clicked. I felt mine, and many heads around the room nodding in approval, mirroring Mia’s broad smile. Because of course it is bullshit. The optimistic and rallying cry of “having it all” is a neat lie the world told me when I was a little girl. That’s not to say I can’t have it all, but I certainly can’t have it all at once and this is where the trite phrase “work-life balance” has tried to gloss over the ongoing tension between family, children, career and financial independence that still plagues women (despite the massive headway made by women in the past century).
I immediately went to the book tent and bought Mia’s book (though the need to get home to my children meant I didn’t stick around for her to sign it), then read it in one sitting the next day. My experience of this book was a two-fold. Firstly I found myself smiling at the open and conversation style. I nodded emphatically at her recounting of some uniquely female experiences with that secret sense of relief that someone had put my feelings into words. That is not to say, however, that I engaged entirely with this book. I felt at times the conversation about how women are to survive and thrive in our current social and cultural context was lost amongst the memoir and at times missed important opportunities to explore just what a different future for women (our daughters) might look like. Beginning as it did with a strong statement about how the conversation around women’s lives (personal and professional) is essentially delusional, that the way our society functions needs to fundamentally shift in its thinking, the book vacillated between this big picture concept and individual coping strategies—rather than strategies for change—women use to navigate the complexity of their lives.
But then, isn’t that exactly what the title signals? That the way our (highly conservative) society is presently structured means that women are always battling against their double-bind. Mia Freedman’s book reflects precisely the way that women’s lives are torn between professional and personal concerns, the desire to fulfil societal expectations (be it through career, motherhood, physical appearance or financial success), can become utterly overwhelming and at times crippling. It is no wonder, that in recounting her professional and personal experiences Mia struggles within the book to find a balance between narratives that are essentially, if not publicly recognised as, intertwined.
For Mia the answer comes, as she explained at the writer’s festival, in lowering the bar. Reduce the expectations. Stop parenting as a verb. Foster independence in our children. Expect chaos, and inequity between home and work. Accept the ebb and flow of stress and chaos that will inevitably accompany the intersection of family and career. And she’s right-ish. But I want more than coping strategies.
Work Strife Balance made me want more. It made me say gratefully, “yep, we have a lot in common (as well as many differences)”, and left me asking “but how can we change?” Not in the sense of performing a miraculous juggling act, but how are we to enact real change that will see the notion of “work-life” or “work-strife” as a naive and quaint concept of the past? It is too much to ask a single woman sharing her story to have that answer. I applaud Mia Freedman’s candid writing, her willingness to share the difficult and personal moments of her life, to give voice to the self-doubt that surely we all feel and to articulate some of the many contradictory experiences of motherhood. And while she doesn’t (and can’t) provide the answers I am looking for, this kind of writing is an important step in recognising how women are living their lives and holding their head above water. Perhaps if more voices are added to the mix, if more truths are told, then we won’t need to simply cope, but will be able to thrive.