When we won government in 2007, I became the first female senior cabinet minister to have a very young child – Rebecca was two. Luckily, I’ve always loved being organised. Every extra hour worked during the week in Canberra meant more Sunday time with my family in Melbourne. Every early draft of a speech or media release, every declined dinner invitation, reduced the last-minute rush to make the plane back home. I even relished the weekend cook-up so the family had decent food during the week.
I was also lucky enough to have a steadfastly supportive husband, an amazing mother, helpful sisters, whip-smart staff and an income that allowed us to employ a nanny.
Still, not many jobs demand you sleep in a bed other than your own for more than 100 nights each year. There were only so many times I could put aside the book I was reading with my daughter and pick it up again in five nights’ time. There were also only so many years I could wake at 5.30 am, with a long list of pressing issues already coursing through my brain. Only so many times I wanted to dash to a TV studio for an interview, rush home to do the school drop-off, then fly to myriad meetings or conferences. At some point, even a time-management freak like me doesn’t want every 20-minute chunk of her life planned three months in advance.
One week after my resignation as attorney-general, I’m writing this article from a quiet, sunny office on the second floor of Parliament House. When I was first elected to parliament, in 1998, this office belonged to Anna Burke, now the House’s speaker. She was the first of our class of ’98 to have a baby while in office, and she took no maternity leave. By the time I had Rebecca, seven years later, a three-month parental leave period was the norm. Even more satisfying was being part of the government that ensured all Australian women are entitled to paid maternity leave. Since January, men also get two weeks’ paternity leave. A quarter of a million Australian parents have been helped by this change.
Achievements like this – setting up a hotline for parents to access a GP in the night; stronger protections against family violence – are what sustained me. Any woman wondering whether to plunge into politics should know one thing: the level of job satisfaction can be sky-high. Your daily work can provide comfort, support, relief or inspiration to countless Australians, whether it be establishing pay equity for some of the lowest paid women or beating tobacco companies in the High Court.
Yet the reporting after my resignation hardly acknowledged that this sense of satisfaction was a factor in my decision to leave. It’s normal for people to readjust their lives and move on from demanding jobs once they’ve completed a project. It is also normal for women to scale up and scale down their work or careers at different times in their lives – though obviously those in higher paid jobs, like me, have more choices available to them.
Suggestions that my retirement after 15 years in parliament represents a failure for working women are rubbish. My time as a politician should be an affirmation of what women can do – and do well – even with young children. Other women, like Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, will carry this flame, overseeing demanding portfolios while raising children.
Feminism has delivered us opportunity and choice. I took that opportunity, gave it all I had and am now choosing to contribute in a different way. Though there is inevitably a focus on the constant tug-of-war between work and life for women, I don’t think our feminist dream is a simple binary equation. Maybe it would be better if we had a more nuanced view, of a triple bottom line – professional, personal and public. Are you professionally satisfied? Is the work personally sustainable for you? Is there a public benefit to your work? For nearly 15 years my answer to all of these questions was ‘Yes’. That satisfaction, that purpose, helped me and my family accept some of the personal cost.
But expecting my family and friends to always put my work and needs first wore thin eventually. And it is much easier to go when you know there are good people who will step into your place. Surely, in choosing to leave I was exercising the choice and flexibility that women have been fighting all these years to achieve.
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