Writer Meg Mason on Freelance Life, Parenting Teenagers and (Not) Having It All |

Writer Meg Mason on Freelance Life, Parenting Teenagers and (Not) Having It All

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the world really doesn’t need another wellness influencer. A perfectly styled home, an immaculately dressed pack of toddlers, a smug fridge containing four jars of homemade kombucha but not a skerrick of plastic. No...

What the world needs more of is women like Meg Mason. Women who – despite achieving incredible levels of professional success while also raising two children – shy away from offering advice to new mothers. Women who tell the truth about motherhood, being honest about when we fail and what we let slip. Mothers who have so much accumulated wisdom that we want to drink from whatever cup they’re pouring from. If you’re not familiar with Meg Mason – you’re going to want to be. She writes regularly for ELLEand InsideOut and was GQ’s female-affairs correspondent for five years. She has also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Stellar, Russh, Grazia and Cosmopolitan, as well as serving as the managing editor of Sunday magazine. Her first book was published in 2012 and was a memoir of motherhood called Say It Again in a Nice Voice. Her second book – a novel called You Be Mother – was published in 2017, and delivered with the wit, humour and wisdom that we mothers all crave so deeply. Introducing the woman we all want to be best friends with, Meg Mason. Go to www.megamason.com

Tell us about yourself...

It’s hard for us, as women, not to be defined by our external roles I think, wife and mother, sister, friend. And I am all those things, as well as a writer and a reader, but in my actual self, I’m really just a ferocious introvert who simultaneously adores chatting. I feel like my writing career is really just a way to monetise chatting.

You’re a busy writer and a mother of two. What’s your secret!?

As a writer, I’m constitutionally unable to keep secrets, and every phase of my life, I’ve worked out in a story, from having newborns to teenagers now, which means everything I know about parenthood is Googleable. But really the smooth-running of each day, for me, is just list-making, discipline, and routine which includes a 5 o’clock tinny and going to bed at 9.30pm.

What does a typical day look like for you?

We’ve just got a puppy – named Alfred Piglet through democratic process – and I didn’t realise that he would take over my entire existence. If I never publish another word it will be because of him and his very sad stare. Every day now starts before dawn, walking him round and round for miles, then coffee at a little hole in the wall place with my husband before he goes to work at 7 – the fact that one day, your children are old enough to be home getting ready for school by themselves is something mothers of two-year-olds should cling to in low moments – then before the school bell, I meet my beloved klatch of neighbourhood mothers at the same coffee place, and our children walk to school together from there. Fifteen minutes with those women who I just beyond-cherish sets me up for a day of solitary graft. As soon as I get home, I eat breakfast while listening to the BBC World Service, not for current affairs, so much as the shipping forecast which I find oddly meditative – as opposed to Headspace which completely winds me up – and when God Save the Queen plays at the end of their day’s broadcast, it’s a Pavlovian trigger for me to start work. I write for magazines through to the end of the school day, absolutely no tea-making, snacking, no whites washes or PAMS (personal administrative matters). Afternoons are for violin lessons, squads, doctors’ appointments, and all the other ruinously expensive things children demand. And then after scraping together one of the three meals I cook in rotation, I start the fiction shift.

Where do you write?

I’m highly distractible, so ideally somewhere that is monkishly silent and white-walled, but mostly that’s impossible to achieve. Through circumstance, I’ve written at kitchen tables, in cupboards that I took the shelves out of to make a desk; I’ve rented spaces, used libraries. Twice, I’ve had an office at home, so by now I can write anywhere. The suitability – or not – of your surroundings can’t be an excuse not to produce work. There’s a Doris Lessing quote I always come back to. ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’ Finally, now, we’ll building a little workroom in our back garden – little as in, I’ll be able to walk in forwards but have to back out because there’s no space inside to turn around, but I’m so grateful for it and its close-able door.

Do you find it hard to switch off and compartmentalise when you are with your daughters?

All the tabs are open all the time, definitely. Towards the end of writing a book, when I will be working seven days a week, into the early morning, I am so tired and distracted everything else just goes to seed. In the final stage of You Be Mother, last year, I burnt everything I cooked, forgot all important dates except day-job-related ones and fell asleep at the basin while getting a little roots touch up – kindly, my colourist left me there until I woke up. I cut my finger so badly, while absent-mindedly making dinner, I severed a nerve and had to type nine-fingered for six months, and backed into so many trees and poles in the fog of it all, that when I would ring my husband to report another prang, he’d just say ‘how many panels, babe?’ and commended me if it was just the one. My children have had to become quite self-sufficient, through lack of alternative. But at the same time, if anyone is sick or really in the trenches with a volcanoes project, I can pause what I’m doing and sit and colour in diagrams or whatever is required.

Freelance life seems like the dream for parents. What’s the reality?

I feel sick with luck, being able to work for myself and I try never to take the flexibility for granted, especially when it is school holidays, which it feels like it is constantly. When you’re starting out, the downside is that every job is a job you have to go out and get, so that life can feel like one long, rolling interview process. And forever, as a freelancer, you will work even if you’re stricken with plague and coughing blood because otherwise you don’t get paid. I have chronic migraines but I can write a 3,000 word feature with all the lights off and an icepack held in place with a Lululemon headband, throwing back Nurofen like bar nuts. I do have to die young though, because I accidentally forget to pay super for ten years.

What stresses you out?

Single-use plastic and Donald Trump and what’s for dinner, parking fines, being selfish and solipsistic, not calling my mother enough, quarterly PAYG, people who only get their wallets out when they get to the front of an ATM queue like that’s a huge surprise they were going to need that, my hair throwing too much warmth, the idea of my daughters leaving home one day, and the fact that I’m not one hundred per cent glued down on the difference between Congress and Senate, while being simultaneously super-vocal about US politics.

What are your favourite things to do as a family?

Swimming in freezing cold rivers when we go to the South Island in New Zealand every summer to camp with my extended family who fly in from everywhere. At home, swimming in the Bronte Pool all year round and going to the movies on Sunday afternoon. That’s another amazing thing about having older children – not having to watch anything in the Secret Life of Pets/Boss Baby genre.

Can you explain the changes your career has undergone as your children have gone through their different stages? (Babies, pre-schoolers, primary children, teenagers?)

It’s sort of grown as they have. The nature of the work hasn’t changed so much as my level of output. I definitely couldn’t have written books when they were babies and the imperative was to earn as much day-care money as I could in the shortest possible time. I’m so grateful that I can now, because it is in many ways, fiction-writing is an extravagant hobby, but it’s been my abiding ambition since my granny started letting me use her red Brother Word Processor, circa 1985. For so long I felt like I did it all wrong by having my first baby at 25 – I remember once sitting on my bed, holding 3-week-old-her and sobbing on the phone to my mother about the fact that nothing exciting could ever happen again and my career was all over before it had really started – but now that I’m 40 and parenting a 15-year-old and 12 year old, mostly by delegation and pointing from the sofa, I feel like getting it over with early was unconsciously clever.

What’s your attitude toward social media? Particularly with your daughters?

I am completely torn about it. In one way, it’s the fastest, most effective way to make yourself feel utterly shit. But then it’s also so fun sometimes. I delete Instagram from my phone, only to reinstall it, at least ten times a week. With the girls, since I can’t raise them in the seventies which is what I wish, I try to talk to them about what is real and what isn’t, what a futile emotion envy is, how self-involved it makes our thinking, and the fact that whenever you are consuming content, you aren’t creating anything. I don’t think we’ll lie on our deathbeds wishing we’d been more active on Facebook, and I wonder how many plays aren’t being written, gardens planted, things made and built because of social media.

Do you think women can have it all?

I absolutely don’t, and I don’t think men can either. What the ‘it’ even is, I don’t know. But if it’s a wholly-fulfilling career perfectly balanced with a stress-free family life and buckets of money, anyone who actually achieved that would be a bit insufferable, or at least have nothing interesting to chat about. We all get gifts, a particular talent or a good career, a child, a house, or a mother who comes over and irons shirts, but we tend – or at least I tend – to focus on all the real or perceived deficits. Maya Angelou says everyone gets older but most people don’t grow up. I am trying so hard to grow up in this area, by forcibly reminding myself every day of the parts of the ‘it’ I do have.

What are the top lessons you hope you’ve imparted on your daughters that they’ll take into their own adulthood/motherhood?

I feel like I never impart anything on purpose. I sort of forget to in the rush of everything. But I hope they osmose hard work, finishing things, always doing what you say you’re going to do, and a bit more than people expect rather than a bit less; always-always being on time, confessing early to things you’ve done wrong. And harnessing the untold power of the thank you note.

You once wrote about women trying to do it all, and that many women – when asked whether they would want the same life for their daughters – would respond “absolutely not”. On that note, what type of life do you hope for your daughters as adults?

That was something the Sunday Times columnist India Knight wrote years ago which has stayed with me and I think it’s still true. The way we live now and what’s expected of us, and even more what we expect of ourselves, is brutally hard and unrealistic. But I’m also concerned that I don’t under-sell adulthood to my daughters and make them dread its onset. When she was much littler, one of them told me being a grown up just looked like “so much jobs.” It is so much jobs, but there are glorious moments in between.

What is your idea of self-love? How do you make time for it?

At the moment, any self-care that happens has to be in tandem with dog-walking. But when he is momentarily occupied with stripping the sofa back to its frame and gnawing paint off the skirting boards, it is Desert Island Discs, working through a backlog of unread New Yorkers, a tinny on the front steps with my friends, and re-watching episodes of Catastrophe andFleabag andVeep.

As the mother of teenagers, have you discovered any tips or hacks that can transform the lives of mothers of babies, toddlers or primary-aged children?!

Buy less baby equipment and put all that money in a bank account marked Orthodontia.

Finish this sentence. Motherhood is ...

…what I’ll remember when everything else goes away.