Jayne Anderson, author of Working It Out.
Jayne Anderson, author of Working It Out.

Finding the answers to a working mother’s dilemma

HOW do you combine a successful career and motherhood? It's a balance many women seek to find in a daily juggling act. For others, it's simply one or the other. It was this "dilemma" working mum Jayne Anderson found herself in.

How did other women manage both? Jayne, an on-the-road full-time television producer, had worked for Channel 9's 60 Minutes, the Today Show, Sunday and had a Walkley Award under her belt.

When she resigned from her job to spend more time with her kids, she set forth to find the answers.

Jayne interviewed more than 20 inspiring women climbing career ladders and raising families over eight years, culminating in her book, Working It Out: Career, Family and You.

Among her subjects in the ongoing conversation were surgeon and former Australian of Year Fiona Wood, actress Rachel Ward, singer Helen Reddy and Federal Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whom she interviews in an extract from her book below.

Federal Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek finds a way to juggle parenting with a demanding career.
Federal Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek finds a way to juggle parenting with a demanding career. Photos Contributedhugh Stewart

For Tanya Plibersek, there was no so-called "glass ceiling". She didn't take every career opportunity when it was offered. At times, she has chosen to have more time with her children. Even so, she has still made it to the top in politics.

Tanya has three children. Two were born when she was in Opposition and the third was born when Labor was in power. When the world of politics has been tumultuous, Plibersek says it is her family that has helped her keep her work in perspective.

Tanya grew up in Oyster Bay, in Sydney's southern suburbs. "I think I had a really quite idyllic childhood in lots of ways," she says. Her father Joseph worked as a plumber and gas fitter with Qantas, at the jet base at Mascot, in Sydney.

Her mother, Rose, was a stay-at-home mother. "I always felt my mother had infinite time for us, which was lovely," she recalls.

Tanya went to Jannali Girls High School and was dux in her final year. Education had always been important to Tanya's parents. "We never had heaps of money but, if there was a school excursion or something, they always prioritised spending on education."

Tanya's parents were migrants, who came to Australia from Slovenia (then known as Yugoslavia) in the 1950s. "My parents wanted me to do what made me happy," she says.

Tanya joined the Labor Party when she was 15, but she left the party for a short time.

"I resigned because Australia started selling uranium to the French. They were doing nuclear testing in the Pacific and I didn't agree with that ... "Despite making promises about Aboriginal land rights, we didn't keep it (them) and I felt very demoralised about that."

Although Plibersek has always been interested in politics, she wanted to be a journalist. After completing an honours degree in communications and then a Masters in Politics and Public Policy, she applied for a cadetship with the ABC, but wasn't given a place. Tanya ended up working for left-wing Senator Bruce Childs and she saw, "... up close, what good you could do in the role".

In 1997, the sitting member for the federal seat of Sydney announced he was going to retire. Tanya was 27 years old and living in the seat. She was encouraged to stand for the Labor Party preselection. "I thought, nothing to lose, give it a go."

However, as she was preparing to contest the seat, tragedy struck the Plibersek family. Her brother, Phillip, was murdered in his apartment in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He had been trying to protect his wife from an intruder. His killer was convicted, but escaped from jail. It was a sad and traumatic time for the family.

Did you consider not standing for preselection? "Yes, of course I did. I mean, I didn't think about anything for weeks. We were all in shock and mourning and grief.

The last thing on my mind was work or anything to do with work, but I had an artificial decision point. I had to decide whether to go to a candidates' forum about a month after my brother died. I decided to go. It was very difficult to refocus on work, but look, I did it."

The inner-city seat of Sydney was considered a safe Labor seat. In October 1998, the country went to the polls. John Howard's Liberal Coalition was returned to power. Plibersek won the seat of Sydney and took her place with the Labor Opposition in Federal Parliament.

Two years later, Tanya married her long-term boyfriend, Michael Coutts-Trotter. They had met at university while studying journalism. On their first date, Michael revealed he had served almost three years of a nine-year jail term for conspiracy to traffic heroin.

He had been a heroin addict himself at the time. All of this happened before he met Tanya. "He did something very wrong and he quite rightly paid the price," she says.

In 2001, the couple had their first child, Anna.

Tanya's electoral office is in Sydney but, when Federal Parliament is sitting, she is required in Canberra. When Anna was born, Michael took six months leave without pay. At the time, he had a senior role with the New South Wales government. The family travelled back and forth to Canberra for sitting weeks.

Tanya had a routine with the baby while Michael was on six months leave.

During sitting weeks, she would feed Anna every four hours, starting at 5am at home. Tanya would then go to Parliament House early. At 9am, Michael would bring Anna into Tanya's office so she could breastfeed her.

Michael and Anna would stay at Parliament House until 1pm, when Tanya would feed Anna again. He would then take Anna home for a sleep and Tanya would go to question time at 2pm. Michael would bring Anna back to his wife for the 4pm feed at the office.

Tanya would go home at 6.30pm during the dinner break, to bath and feed the baby. She would then go back to work and be home by 10 or 11pm for the last feed. "Then, if I got a good six hours of sleep, that was a good night," she says.

Tanya realises they were lucky they could afford to have Michael take leave without pay. After Michael returned to work in Sydney, Tanya's mother and Michael's mother took it in turns to travel to Canberra with Tanya and Anna when parliament was sitting.

By taking the baby to Canberra with her, Tanya was able to breastfeed Anna for 12 months.

"Every instinct is to keep your baby with you when they're tiny. I would have missed her too much if I was away for half the year."

After Anna turned one, she stayed in Sydney with Michael during sitting weeks. In 2004, when Tanya was pregnant with her second child, the then leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, appointed Plibersek Shadow Minister for Work and Family, Childcare and Youth and the Shadow Minister for Women.

At the time, Tanya recalls saying to Latham, "You know I'm five months pregnant, don't you?" and he said, "Well, I don't think it's going to slow you down; do you think it's a problem?" and I said, "No".

Tanya adds, "I was incredibly grateful to him (Latham), because he knew I was having a baby and he didn't see it as a problem. He was focused on my capacity to work."

When Tanya had Joe, Anna was four years old and already in long day care. When parliament was sitting, Joe would go on the plane with Tanya and one of the grandmothers to Canberra. "The mothers-in-law came in again to the rescue," says Tanya. As they had done before, they would be in Canberra from Monday to Thursday (until Joe was one year old).

Life as a Shadow Minister was busy for Plibersek. She recalls one morning when, to coincide with International Women's Day in 2005, she had put out a press release about the gender pay gap.

Joe was still a baby and she had been up to him a number of times during the night. "It was one of those nights where he would not sleep horizontally. He would only sleep in my arms, upright against my chest." At 5am the phone began ringing.

The media wanted to interview Tanya about her press release. "My husband was flying interstate so he couldn't stay back. So it was toddler, baby on the breast, radio interviews, 6am in the morning, International Women's Day, thinking, "Boy, do I just have it all!"

"I really like my work and I get an enormous amount of intellectual and psychological reward from it and, if you're not going to give up either one of those things, then you just have to work out how they fit together," she says. "A lot of people who want children can't ... I mean you've just got to focus on how lucky you are when the times are hard."

In 2010, the polls were predicting a Labor defeat at the next election and Julia Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd as leader. "I was campaigning all over the country," says Tanya, who was heavily pregnant with her third child, Louis, at the time. "I had to talk to my doctor about whether I could still fly or not and I was 40! He (baby Louis) was a delightful surprise, but nevertheless a surprise. I wasn't really intending to have a third child at 40."

At the 2010 election, the independents delivered Labor a second term. "I always found that having a family helped with that, because if your sense of happiness and equilibrium comes from your family and your home, it is a little easier to cope in a work environment that can be a little unpredictable at times," Tanya says.

Louis was born in October 2010. Tanya took three weeks off and resumed work in the Sydney office during the last months of the year. She returned to Canberra duties at the start of 2011.

"I still had a tiny baby travelling with me, to and from Canberra, in sitting weeks." As she had done with her other two children, Tanya breastfed Louis. "Breastfeeding was such a good bonding opportunity for me and so good for the baby's health and development, but incredibly stressful to fit into a working day."

A childcare centre has now been built in Parliament House. However, Louis only ever used it for one day. "The baby would come with me to meetings," she says. "Most people like babies. Some people don't. Some people found it distracting, in a negative way. On a few occasions, I had to feed during meetings and most people responded perfectly well, but some people didn't and I couldn't care less."

Did you ever encounter discrimination because you were a woman? "I think every woman in the history of the world has probably encountered some discrimination because she's a woman. Look, it's a very male environment. Just as I have encountered discrimination, some of my best friends and best mentors have been men." Did you encounter a glass ceiling? "No, I don't think so. No, not in the Labor Party."

In 2013, after a period in office dogged by political infighting, Labor was defeated at the polls. Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke encouraged Plibersek to run for the leadership.

Tanya says, "He was being great and supportive and terrific and telling me I should give it a go. And I said to him, 'I can't. I've got three kids and one of them is only three years old.' It would have been completely incompatible with my life to be just never home. I work very hard now. Most weeks, I work six or seven days a week. To be away from home, six or seven days a week, every week, I don't think that would be fair."

Plibersek chose not to contest the Labor leadership. Instead, she became the Deputy Leader of the party. "That was the choice I made.

"I think it's really important and sensible for people to think about how their work and family life fit together. I feel incredibly fortunate that I've achieved more professionally than I ever dreamed possible and I have three beautiful, healthy children."

Tanya Plibersek and her husband both have demanding jobs. "We just do a lot of timetabling ... we live by our diaries. We don't leave anything to the last minute. I lay out my clothes for the next day the night before I go to bed." Tanya says they are "... super disciplined and super organised". They try to do this in such a way "that we're not yelling at the kids to hurry up all the time".

Tanya also builds in downtime with the children on the weekends. She loves cooking. "I don't do anything too complicated during the week, but on the weekend we often have people over and I like doing something nice."

"I think there are no perfect families," she says. "I'm sure there are times that they want me that I'm not there, and that's not a good feeling as a parent; but I've got three really happy, resilient, well-adjusted, healthy children, who really take an interest in the world."

She continues, "I just think for the disadvantages of not having me on call whenever they need me or want me, they also get to experience really interesting things that a lot of kids wouldn't ever have the opportunity to experience.

"It has its downsides, but I think it potentially has its upsides as well. I get so much reward from my work that, if I had given up work to raise children, I think I'd probably be a frustrated person. I don't think that I have the make-up to just choose one or other part of my life, because I like both."

Edited extract from Jayne Anderson's book Working It Out: Career, Family and You, rrp $19.95, published by Hay House. Available at all good bookstores. Visit hayhouse.com.au for more information.

Jayne's tips for busy mums:

There is no single 'right' way to combine parenthood with a career.

When your partner helps around the house or with the children, don't criticise the way he or she does things.

Teach your children to cook and help around the house.

People are more successful when they do what they love.

Make time to do something for yourself that you enjoy.

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