My tears took me by surprise. I was folding laundry in a ski lodge this week on our annual family holiday. It was the socks.
I suddenly realised that my oldest child has the feet of a young man. So I did what any rational, busy woman would do. I put my face in the laundry basket and sobbed for a good half hour.
The tears were cured when my 15-year-old came home and told me to: “Turn off the hideous mum music”. Household hint: Always play Joni Mitchell when your teenage son comes home. (If Joni is not available, Paul Simon is great too). Wait for him to roll his eyes. Wait for a beat. Then begin to sing and dance.
After my son abruptly curtailed my sentimental reverie, I felt ready to face my inbox again. Mum hat off. Professional hat on again. Or to morph into what my children call: “Professor Blah Blah”.
As someone who juggles a professional career with a growing family, I often get asked the classic question: “How do you do it all?” As our Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek observed, no one asks men the same question. In my case, the answer is pretty simple. I have a terrifically supportive husband and a fabulous mother, both of whom have their own professional lives to look after. They give me the confidence to know the family is fine and allow me to write books, teach and do my research.
When my own mother turned 50 I had a cake made with a Superwoman logo on it. I thought it was a great compliment to a woman who had carved out a stellar career while raising three daughters under difficult circumstances.
I now realise that the “Superwoman” tag misses the point.
The truth is that most women do the best we can with what we have to hand. There are no “superwomen”. The only secret is how well most women hide how furiously they are paddling below water to keep it all afloat. There are days when we feel like we are sinking, of course. That’s when a girlfriend or two and a glass of wine can put things into perspective. Or, more accurately, blur them so wonderfully that you can’t remember why you were planning to pack your bags and move to Myanmar.
Women never cease to amaze me. Nothing against men, but women seem to have a unique ability to balance strength with empathy. I see it at work when someone is having a tough time at home. Most women take the time to listen. And listening, not talking, is usually what’s needed.
There’s a popular notion that people who succeed in business and life are head-kickers. They take tough uncompromising stands, issue commands and aren’t afraid to tell others when to step off. It’s certainly one way of living life and getting what you want, most of the time. But it’s not the only way. And I doubt it makes anyone happy – including the wearer of the steel-capped boots.
There are different ways of being strong. Being able to cry, to listen, to learn and to accept your own mistakes – including, but not limited to, poor taste in music –is my idea of success.
The snow is coming down hard outside.
My husband and boys will be coming back from the slopes. Time to get the Mum Music fired up. I think I’m in the mood for Crowded House.
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*Catharine Lumby is a professor of media at Macquarie University, a feminist and professed “girly-swot”. She is the author of seven books and a researcher in the fields of media and gender studies. You can follow her on Twitter @catharinelumby.