Jamila Rizvi on Childcare, Motherhood & How She Practices Gratitude |

“Countries that invest in early childhood education will reap the benefits of that economically and socially well into the future.” Jamila Rizvi on Childcare, Motherhood & How She Practices Gratitude in the Face of Adversity



Jamila Rizvi’s latest book, The Motherhood, sees prominent Australian women share letters about what they’d wish they’d known in the first six weeks of motherhood, and the results are unsurprisingly a mix of tears and triumph. It’s a scenario Jamila knows all too well, given her own experience battling with sleep deprivation and a loss of identity after the birth of her son, Rafi... 

“Everyone has such different experiences in those early weeks, but for me, my memories are mostly of deep distress, and I don’t think that I was ready for what was coming. I wasn’t someone who copes well with sleep deprivation – I don’t think anyone deals particularly well with sleep deprivation – but I was someone who needs their sleep. So much of my sense of self was tied up with work. I worked up until the day my son was due and so much of my identity was tied up in my work. When I suddenly wasn’t working, I didn’t really know who I was anymore.” There’s a lot to love about our conversation with Jamila – her honesty about motherhood, her passion about women’s rights, delving deeper into her diverse and inspiring career background – but what we absolutely loved the most was her last tip on navigating childcare logistics with a partner. “When you first enrol your kids in childcare they give you the option of who is parent one and who is parent two [parent one is usually the main contact and family liaison], make your partner carer one. I’m a freelancer, I’m much more available than my husband is, but the fact that he has to call me and ask me to go and get my son if he’s sick is a way to make him more aware and more responsible.” So simple yet so genius, but did we expect any less from such a remarkable woman? As she recovers from her second surgery to treat a brain tumour, we can’t help but marvel at Jamila’s drive, tenacity and fighting spirit. Read on for more of her insights on what really matters most when it comes to the early stages of motherhood, why the Australian childcare system needs serious updating, how her political career lead to her to media, and why “work/life fit” is a more apt term than work/life balance…


On her childhood… 

I mostly grew up in Canberra but I spent about three years before school living in Malaysia. When you’re a kid, Canberra is everything you don’t want – it’s quiet and boring and not a big city, so you spend your whole childhood wishing for something else. Then as an adult when you get it, you realise how incredibly privileged you were, as you had the safety of a small city, and Canberra is an incredibly well-educated city. Reflecting on it makes me realise it was just a wonderful place to grow up.


On her studies and ambition… 

I was an enthusiastic scholar, I remember it well. I graduated Year 12 with enough units to have graduated twice because I just wanted to do everything. I wanted to be in school plays and rock eisteddfods and debating teams and the Youth United Nations and quite a lot more. I always wanted to be involved in everything and to do everything. I wasn’t necessarily the best, but I had enthusiasm and persistence at school. My parents are quite different people. My dad is very achievement focused and very much focuses on doing your best and being a good sport and staying disciplined and working hard. Those kind of values definitely came through him and I don’t think that’s unusual in a migrant family. You want the best for your kids and you expect them to work very hard for it. Whereas my mother was much more focused on the fun. She wanted me to do well, but more than doing well she wanted me to have a great time doing it and a nice balance. I remember it clearly from first-year law school. I used to have some friends over to study, and my mum would come upstairs and be like  “what’s wrong with you, all you do is study. Get out of the house, go shopping like normal children.” Together they created a really good balance for me.


On her diverse career… 

When you’re working in Canberra, you have an awareness that what you’re doing is important and that a lot of people in a civilised nation are relying on you, but you are so wrapped up in the currency of the day to day and the stress of the day to day that you don’t realise that you genuinely are living history. Now when I reflect on that period I think, my gosh you know that was so incredibly turbulent and an important time – not necessarily illustrious – but an important time in politics. In the moment, the gravity of it got lost on me. It’s funny how my transition to media came about. I was partly pragmatic in that I could see that the Gillard government was likely to lose but at that stage, it would be Julia Gillard taking us to the election. I didn’t want to be one of hundreds of talented people with a very similar skill set looking for a job at the same time, so I decided to leave about a year out. Lisa Wilkinson actually tweeted the job of editor-in-chief at Mamamia and wrote a line from The Devil Wears Prada that it was a role millions of girls would die for. I was like, “what’s the job?” I had a relationship with Mia already and I kept calling her to give her a heads up about my interest in the job, but she wouldn’t answer my calls. I finally just sent the application and said, “look, if this isn’t right, please don’t worry.” She called me about ten seconds after I pressed send and said, “oh I thought you were ringing me to try and pitch some awful political story that I wouldn’t want to run!” I got the job and moved to Sydney two or three weeks later. I compare my time in politics where I very much worked with a majority of men with my time working in media that was absolutely dominated by women, and I had always been struck by how differently my colleagues conducted themselves and particularly were struck by the differing levels of confidence amongst men and women in the workplace. I never really noticed a different level of competence, but the difference in confidence was enormous. And that’s really where the idea for my first book – Not Just Lucky – came from. While men and women are operating on a vastly unlevel playing field when it comes to work, that unlevel playing field is made even more acute by the fact that this then causes women to lose confidence in their own ability. And so it’s almost like they suffer twice. So they suffer firstly because the system itself is so gendered and very much slanted towards men rather than women, and also because women assume that their lack of ability to advance is about them personally and that they are individually deficient in some way. So they lose confidence as well. And that’s really what the book is about – exploring that issue and that problem, but also importantly I didn’t want it to just be a book of problems, I wanted it to be a book of solutions.


On her book, The Motherhood… 

Pulling everyone together for The Motherhood was a huge task. I think it took about two years to put it all together and it was very stop-start. I wanted women to feel less alone, I think that was the primary goal of the book. The early weeks of motherhood can be incredibly isolating, despite logically knowing that women have been doing this for millennia. With the book, I hope it feels like someone holding your hand in the dark because I remember sitting up late at night breastfeeding having a sense that I’m the only one in the world right now. I wanted it to be a source of company for women in that time, and also to help them feel normal. There’s deliberately a real variety of experiences from mothers in the book – some are joyous, some are sad, funny, painful…


On the motherhood/career juggle…

Someone once said to me that work/life balance should actually be called work/life fit, and I really, really like that because balance suggests a sort of perfectly aligned world. So I look for a good fit for my family and recognise that it’s going to change. I have been unwell this year so my work/life fit has changed. It changed when my little boy started walking, when my husband went back to work full time… it’s all about finding a fit that works with your family.


On her ongoing battle with a brain tumour…

If I’m honest, it’s been the toughest year of my life. But I think you learn a lot from going through an experience like that. I’ve definitely come out of it feeling like I’m a better human being because of it. I feel more fragile than I used to. You know when you’re a teenager, you sort of do dumb physical stuff? You don’t think about the dangers of things because you kind of feel like you’re invincible. As you get older you start to become more aware of your own mortality, and in a way, I feel like I’ve done that probably a little bit earlier than most people do. It’s definitely changed the way I think about the world, but not necessarily all in a bad way. There’s always someone going through a tougher time than you, so you find a level of gratitude. I don’t mean to sound like an inspirational meme, but you do find some gratitude in the sense that it could have been so much worse. The first thing you feel when this happens is, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me! I remember saying to my husband, “but I’m not a sick person.” And he was like, “well you are, you have been for years. We just didn’t know.” I  very much felt like I was watching a movie version of my life play out. It didn’t feel like mine, it felt like my life had been hijacked.


On women’s rights…

My parents practised feminist values without calling it feminism, but it certainly wasn’t something we talked about explicitly as a family. They have very strong views and feelings about inclusion and would speak to my sister and I a lot about the power of inclusion. And you know it was really instilled into us that you don’t leave people out and that you make sure that you bring people along with you. My work in the multicultural space and the women space probably comes back to that kind of upbringing and that idea of inclusion. I think we’ve come an awful long way and that’s something I don’t think we always pause to acknowledge enough, which is that the fights of our mothers were enormous and we wouldn’t get to be having the fights we’re having now without those. So I’m excited and proud to be seeing a change in time but still frustrated by how slow the progress is.


On childcare…

It’s a fascinating topic and I think part of it is looking at how the Australian childcare system has evolved over time. Really, it was a system that was set up to cater for a handful of women in the 60s and 70s who were continuing to work after they had children, and now we’re talking about a huge number of women in the workforce who need to rely on childcare more than ever. My view is that Australian childcare is never going to improve the way we need it to without a total overhaul of the current system because it was built for a different time. A new system that is workable needs to acknowledge two things – the first is that childcare is about more than babysitting. It’s about early learning, and countries that invest in early childhood education will reap the benefits of that economically and socially well into the future. It’s something that is worthy of our investment and should be viewed as part of the school system. The second is that childcare is an enabler of equality in the workforce. If we are serious about getting more women into the workforce, then childcare has got to be an essential part of that. I saw a report just recently from KPMG that showed that if Australia could lift women’s participation in the workforce, not even a huge amount, just 6 per cent or so to match what Canadian women are participating in, that would add more than 20 trillion dollars to our economy every year. This is not just a “give me a little bit more of a childcare subsidy” kind of thing to make my life easier. This is about broadening our tax base and broadening our ability to generate GDP and to have an economy that’s growing and thriving. This is an economic and educational issue first and foremost. The other thing I’d love to see evolved in Australia is a paid parental leave scheme that doesn’t just allow men to take paid parental leave but actively encourages men to take paid parental leave. There are some Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, where the paid parental leave entitlement doesn’t attach to the adult, it attaches to the child. So the child is entitled to 12 months, parental leave from each of their parents, which means that a mother can’t take 24 months, she can only take 12 months and the other parent can too. If you don’t take it, if you’re not sharing that care evenly then you’re only getting 12 months. So you’re actually making a dumb financial decision if you don’t share care equally.


On the juggle…

My husband and I have a conference every Sunday night where, after our son has gone to bed, we’re sitting on the couch discussing the inevitable negotiation of who’s going to do which pick up and drop off. Who’s going out to dinner with this friend, etc. For the most part, it works okay. But you know, I feel like your plans work when you’re a working parent until they don’t. You can have the most perfect plans in place and then inevitably someone gets sick or something goes wrong and you know, my partner is a lawyer and we will be facing off, staring at each other and I’ll be like, “I’m on live television at 8:00am.” and he’ll need to be in court at 8:30am, so you end up with these ridiculous fights. But I think that’s, unfortunately, the reality of working parenthood. And I think my advice to women is to hold your ground. The fight is going to be necessary. If that’s something that’s important to you and your family, if both parents want a fulfilling and engaging career, then you’ve got to hold your ground in these arguments.


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