“It has never been an industry known for flexibility”, Cindy Murphy tells us of her work as a lawyer. While The Grace Tales has shared stories of mothers around the world chasing wanderlust dreams – from yoga side-hustles in Spain to bespoke textile studios in India – the reality for so many of our readers is a career that’s decidedly less conducive to barefoot wanderings on a weekday…
For Cindy, her work formed an integral part of her identity. Following the birth of her son Teddy, she felt ready to return to work after six months of maternity leave. “At first it was great”, she says. “I was happy to be back and was mentally ready for it. But as it became busier, and after two 3AM finishes, I had had enough…even though I could leave the office early (and by early, I mean on time), I still could not finish all the work to be done for that day. I found that by the time I came back home, fed Teddy, put him to bed and had my own dinner, it was already past 9PM. So often at 10PM I would start up my computer and try to finish my work, which on some days is virtually impossible.” So when she made the difficult decision to transition into a different area, “I felt like I had failed. I couldn’t do what I could as a single person or someone without any children…I mourned the almost death of an identity that I had worked so hard and long to build.”
While her pregnancy had been a breeze, the postpartum period came as a shock. “I was scared of childbirth and developed Bell’s palsy shortly after from the trauma”, she recalls. “I also had difficulty breastfeeding and needed to supplement with some formula after every breastfeed which made me feel extremely guilty…I cried every second day for two months.”
Now preparing for the arrival of baby number two, Cindy is facing a new normal, with the Covid-19 pandemic seeing her working from home. And in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, her Chinese heritage is giving her something to reflect on when it comes to parenting. “I feel very much Australian, having grown up in Australia from a very young age”, she tells us. “However, there’s disparity in feeling like you’re something and looking like something else…as a parent, I feel that it is not enough to only talk about race and diversity with your children, but to lead by way of example. I hope that I can show my children to be kind, knowledgeable and courageous.”
We spoke to the working mum about sacrifice, diversity, and why her own mother is such a big influence on her. With her new role easing the pressure, she hopes to take a more relaxed approach to the postpartum period with her second child. “Occasionally”, she jokes, “there is even some time left over for myself!”
Holding image: Jill Seamer
Tell us a little about your family…
My family currently consists of myself and my husband, Robert, our son Theodore (Teddy) and our British Bulldog, Winston. Teddy is two years old next month and we are expecting our second child in December this year. We moved to McMahons Point in Sydney from our beloved Woolloomooloo before Teddy was born and have been enjoying a much leafier lifestyle since moving across the bridge!
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
Yes, I’ve always known I wanted to be a mother, but not when I wanted to become one. Like many people I wanted a career, to fall in love and to have my life plan settled before I even thought about having children. I was lucky that everything fell into place for me. However, if it didn’t work out according to plan, I definitely would have sought out other paths to becoming a mother.
You're a lawyer - can you tell us about what your job entails and your career pathway to get there?
Following university, I started my career in law in 2010 as a paralegal at a private practice law firm which lead to a permanent position and then to other subsequent opportunities. However, the hard work really started long before that stage.
I worked for a few years in Sydney and after I met my now husband, we decided to move to London for a couple of years to work and travel. I had a fantastic time living and working in London and we were married (back in Australia) while still over there. But I always intended to come back to Sydney to start a family.
Upon moving back to Sydney, I started another job in a law firm. At this stage, I was seven years into my career and beginning to wonder whether I should try to do something different. My area of law was Corporate/ Mergers & Acquisitions and transactional in nature. When there is a transaction on, it’s long hours and when there isn’t, you’re left anxious about how to make up the lack of billed time on time sheets. Like so many other lawyers, the hours and constant worrying started to wear me down and I thought about what would happen after we had children. While the job was still rewarding most of the time, I started to think about whether I would prefer to work in-house at a company in their legal department, which I heard had a better work/life balance, or do something else entirely.
Working in such a rigorous industry, what was your experience of pregnancy and the postpartum period like? Were there any challenges juggling your workload throughout pregnancy, and were you able to take maternity leave?
I was lucky to have had a perfect pregnancy with Teddy. I did not experience any nausea, discomfort or tiredness and I was able to perform and work in exactly the same way as I had pre-pregnancy. The firm I was working for at the time were extremely understanding when it came to pregnancy, maternity leave and taking time off. There was a whole plan that you worked out with your supervisor on how you and your team would manage letting clients know before going on leave, keeping in touch during maternity leave, and then integration back to work when you were ready to come back. They were very flexible and supportive with how long you wanted to take off and the option of coming back part-time or full-time. For that I am very grateful – but can’t say that this is the experience that you’d get at every law firm.
Coming back to work was definitely a shock to the system. Again, everyone was very supportive and various measures, such as a few months of budget relief, were put into place to assist with the transition back to work.
Anecdotally, it seems women don't always have the same opportunities as men in the legal profession. Did you feel a sense of needing to 'prove yourself' as a mother, in that you could commit yourself to your work to the same level?
Absolutely. You would hear, and sometimes see, horror stories about women coming back from maternity leave being demoted or having to take a meeting on their phone while in labour! My workplace was supportive, but the pressure we put on ourselves is sometimes the main issue. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be able to keep doing what I was doing and it most definitely contributed to my decision to only take 6 months maternity leave (and not the full year) and to immediately return to work on a full-time basis.
What was your return to work like? Do you have much flexibility?
At first it was great. I was happy to be back and was mentally ready for it. Work was not as busy easing back in, which was fantastic. But as it became busier, and after two 3AM finishes, I had had enough. It has never been an industry known for flexibility. I know that and even though I could leave the office early (and by early, I mean on time), I still could not finish all the work to be done for that day. I found that by the time I came back home, fed Teddy, put him to bed and had my own dinner, it was already past 9PM. So often at 10PM I would start up my computer and try to finish my work, which on some days is virtually impossible.
About half a year after I returned to work, an opportunity presented itself by chance and it was exactly what I had been looking for. It was working within my area of expertise but not in a legal capacity. There is much more flexibility in this new role and consequently I am able to spend more time with my family. Occasionally, there is even some time left over for myself!
Photo: Lara Hotz
What was the hardest thing about going back to work?
Both initially and now, it’s the lack of time. I found that I was going in to work early to finish up anything I hadn’t the previous day, and rushing to get back home straight after knowing that I’d have to log on again later in the evening. There was absolutely no time for anything else. Before having a child, I was an avid gym goer. I’d go at least 5 days a week. It was so hard for me to go from 5 days to often zero days a week. I didn’t feel good about myself and was exhausted on top of it all. The weekends were my only days free and I’d feel guilty about spending the time at the gym rather than with Teddy – even if it was only for an hour. It was tough.
How does your family make the work/life balance happen? Do you send your child to daycare and is there anything you wish you could change about your current system?
It’s a daily struggle and I don’t think that we’ve found the perfect balance yet. We are so lucky (and forever grateful) in that we have a lot of help from my mother who looks after Teddy three days a week and he goes to daycare the other two days. I am constantly in awe of parents who have no or little help so we definitely have it easier in that respect. We will probably increase the amount of days he attends daycare soon to give her a rest and to slowly prepare him for when he needs to go to big boy school!
It’s strange times now with COVID, with both of us working from home, so we are able to be a bit more flexible and help out looking after Teddy. But I’m not going to lie. It’s been difficult juggling full-time work with a toddler constantly tugging at your leg and demanding your attention because he knows you’re home!
You're currently pregnant with baby number two - is there anything you'll do differently this time when it comes to postpartum, and returning to work?
Absolutely! Postpartum was a difficult time for me. I was scared of childbirth and developed Bell’s palsy shortly after from the trauma. I also had difficulty breastfeeding and needed to supplement with some formula after every breastfeed which made me feel extremely guilty that I wasn’t able to give my child what I thought, and what was taught to me, to be the best option. I cried every second day for two months. I couldn’t control this or ‘resolve’ this issue no matter what I did or how hard I tried and that was difficult for me to accept. It still makes me sad thinking about it – that I couldn’t enjoy those first couple of months. I know now that Teddy received exactly what he needed and going into the postpartum period for the second time, I will be more relaxed about feeding and probably everything else in general!
Returning to work and how long I’ll take off this time around is something that’s been on my mind. I took just over 6 months off work after having Teddy and while I was ready mentally to return to work, I realised soon after having returned that it was not enough time. I hope to take, at the very least, 9 months or the full year depending on how I feel and our finances. I’ve also been trying to convince my husband to take the longer parental leave (not just the two weeks that they usually give to fathers) that he’s entitled to, so he can spend some valuable time with Teddy and the new baby. This will probably be our last child so he may never get to have this experience again.
As a Chinese Australian woman, have you ever experienced discrimination?
I am ethnically Chinese. I was born in China and came to Australia when I was three years old, so I feel very much Australian, having grown up in Australia from a very young age. However, there’s disparity in feeling like you’re something and looking like something else. I would say that I’ve experienced discrimination more in my earlier childhood years than I do now. We lived, and my parents still do, on the Northern Beaches in Sydney and I recall that I was only one out of two Asian students in my first primary school. Perhaps it was just more obvious and outwardly noticeable back then than it is now.
I am not sure whether being Chinese-Australian has affected my work in the background but I have never noticed any discrimination. It may be different in other industries but I am grateful that I’ve never felt that it’s affected my work or career choices.
What about in your experience of motherhood? Do you think race has been a factor in your motherhood experience, either positively or negatively?
I think most cultures have their own idiosyncrasies. For me, the biggest cultural difference is the ‘confinement’ period which is observed after birth. In Chinese culture, the mother will spend a month ‘confined’ to the home and traditionally won’t go out, shower or wash hair, will eat certain foods that are believed to help with recovery and will not do anything strenuous in general. Whether we do all of that these days is up to every individual family but I’ve certainly eaten some strange foods!
My mother will most likely continue to play a huge role in my motherhood experience, just as my grandmother did for her. Culturally, I would say that most Chinese grandparents expect to be extremely involved in their grandchildren’s lives and may move in to help look after their grandchildren while both parents work. There is a great sense of parents taking care of children when they are young and it flipping over to the other way around when children become adults and as their parents get older. I think it’s a beautiful notion and representation of the circle of life.
Photo: Jill Seamer
Raising a toddler in the current world climate, how do you talk to your child about race and diversity?
I’ve always thought about how life would feel for my children, being bi-racial. I wouldn’t know from experience and have heard from others that they’ve often felt they didn’t belong and weren’t accepted by either sides, so discussing race and diversity at some point is extremely important to me. Teddy is too young to understand these issues and it’s beautiful to watch children at his age who have no or little concept about race. We have incorporated books which show a diverse range of characters of different cultural backgrounds (the Little People, Big Dreams books have been wonderful for this) to his book collection. Most importantly, as a parent, I feel that it is not enough to only talk about race and diversity with your children, but to lead by way of example. I hope that I can show my children to be kind, knowledgeable and courageous.
What's been the biggest sacrifice, either in your career or as a mother, that you've had to make?
I’ve mentioned that I’ve moved on to a new role that’s less of a traditional legal role. As much as I ended up disliking the way I was living life after returning to work, I mourned the almost death of an identity that I had worked so hard and long to build. It sounds ridiculous but that’s who I was and who I’d worked so hard to become for so many years. I felt like I had failed. I couldn’t do what I could as a single person or someone without any children.
As a mother, the biggest sacrifice to me will always be leaving your kids to go to work. I believe it’s so beneficial for them to see me going to work but at the same time it obviously takes away that time spent together. There’s only a small window of time where your son wants to spend his days snuggled up against you, hugging and kissing you and I’ll be devastated when that time comes to an end!
What's on your career bucket list?
My one wish is that I continue to enjoy what I’m doing, become great at it and to be open to what comes out of it from there.
What's your parenting philosophy?
It’s still so early to figure out completely and things don’t always work out the way you planned. But I can already see some tiger mother tendencies coming out which I’m sure that I’ve gained from my own mother! At the base of it all would be happiness. There is nothing better as a parent than to see that your child is truly happy. The beauty about living in two culturally different worlds though is that you can pick and choose the best parts of each to adopt into your own parenting strategy.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
To not listen to anyone’s advice! We received that on the day of our wedding after asking for advice! I think it’s right though, everyone is so different, and their circumstances are so different. I feel we can only listen to what may have worked for others and take what’s useful.