Career

Kiwi women open up about Me Too, juggling work and family and the trouble with trying to be Superwoman

There's a lot to talk about.

One kid or two? Working full-time or flexible hours? How do we raise our kids in the era of #metoo? They're important issues many modern women face. So over lunch at Wellington's Grand Mercure Hotel, NEXT asked a group of good friends to talk it out.

Interior designer Alice Harland Anderson, 37, lives in Wellington with her husband; son, seven; and stepdaughter, 13.

Sarah Lang, 38, is a magazine writer in Wellington. She's married and has a three-year-old son.

Freelance writer and Wellingtonian Nicki Roberts, 44, is married and has a son, eight, and a daughter, 10.

Emma McGahan, 33, is an IT technical adviser from Wellington. She is married with a daughter, two.

Rachael Russell, 39, is the editor of NEXT. She lives in Auckland with her husband and sons, nine and seven.

Changing the culture of sexism in scociety

Rachael: What are your thoughts about Me Too and how relevant that is to New Zealand women?

Alice: I think we are used to it in NZ. Not like that crazy stuff that's happening in the States, but you're used to low level wolf whistling and 'hey baby's'.

Sarah: I was surprised by how many Facebook friends of mine came out and said it ['me too'].

Rachael: Did your friends who had this experience feel it was a big deal or just 'oh yeah, it's happened'?

Sarah: For some, it was a big deal. Like some had been sexually assaulted or raped. I've been sexually harassed and assaulted but, I don't know why, I resisted it. I just didn't want to put that on Facebook.

Nicki: I didn't feel the need to tell everyone either. The other thing too, there have been people that have had a drunk guy after the cricket grab them on the butt for instance, and then there are women out there who have been raped and you don't want to compare.

Emma: It's all part of that rape culture though. People think that's okay.

Alice: Do you mean one thing feeds into another?

Emma: We have this constant demeaning of women, and seeing them as a sexual object.

Sarah: I remember when I was about 20, walking past a construction site and one of the guys asked the other 'Would you f**k her'. I was a little overweight at the time and the guy said 'Yeah, probably' and they knew I could hear that. And I once had two guys rate me out of 10, in a bar where I was talking to them. Just talking to each other over me.

Nicki: It's the objectifying that's the insult.

Alice: I went to camp with my 13-year-old step-daughter and the boys said to me, 'How come it's okay for girls to look at our abs but we can't look at their bodies?' and literally within 10 minutes I had a bunch of girls saying 'Why do all boys care about boobs?' I think it was because I was a step-parent – not a teacher and not really a parent – they felt like they were able to talk to me. We need to be talking about it more openly. Because they don't have adults to have those conversations with.

Nicki: I'm trying to practise that with my kids. To be quite open about it. It helps that at school they're having sexuality education so my daughter can come home with questions. I am trying to use it as an opportunity to talk to my son, who's eight, about how you treat women. I think that is a responsibility mothers should have. I don't think we should say 'Oh that's just the way boys are wired'.

Emma: 'Boys will be boys'; I can't stand that attitude. One thing that really hit home with Me Too is realising that sexual assault or rape is not about attraction, it's about power and control. It's nothing more than that.

Rachael: What do you most worry about for your kids for the future?

Emma: The Me Too thing. I have a daughter and she's going to be subject to hopefully less of what my generation has faced in terms of sexual harassment and less equal pay and positions of power.

Kiwi women and equal pay

Rachael: Do you think we'll have equal pay?

Emma: It'll get better; it is getting better, but in my industry in IT, you can see it's a long way off. We have contracts that prevent people from talking about what they earn with other colleagues. And there's still a huge under-representation of women on boards.

Rachael: Why do you think that is? You hear the argument that women don't want to be on boards.

Sarah: It's partly because males are doing a lot of the hiring – and patriarchal values, like it being good to come in early and stay late, or to have a drink with clients after work, or just thinking men are more suited to management and that women are going to be the ones doing the sick days and the drop-offs. It's also that women trade in higher pay for flexibility.

Rachael: Don't you think that's because women know they're going to get lumped with the majority of the childrearing and housework so they decide they need that flexibility?

Alice: Men go to work and they sign off from home; they just think about work. We're at work and we're thinking 'I've got to organise the trip' – the kids' social lives.

Nicki: My husband does all the home admin. But I think emotional support often falls on the mother, or when the kids are sick.

Alice: I don't have a 'real job' so it's always going to be me.

Sarah: Don't you mean you're self-employed?

Alice: Yeah, I don't have a 'real job'. If you're self-employed it does fall on you. He's got his own business and I feel like he brings home the bacon. But back to women not wanting to be on boards, I used to be quite ambitious and I am far, far less ambitious.

Rachael: When did that change for you?

Alice: Maybe after I took time off to have [son] Van. I don't feel very good at doing anything anymore, it's that lack of confidence because of not doing anything full-time.

Emma: I'm the opposite. I've got much more ambition now.

Sarah: Since you had your daughter?

Emma: Probably because of… I want her to have a good example of a woman who can stand on her own. And possibly because of my parents splitting up and my mum being a single mother raising us. I need to be able to stand on my own two feet.

Rachael: [To Alice] Do you feel a bit guilty about not feeling ambitious anymore?

Alice: Yup, definitely.

Sarah: Guilty, like how? Towards your previous self?

Alice: No, it's like 'Why don't I want more for me?'

Nicki: It's interesting coming from the Japanese environment back in to NZ and seeing how expectations for women are so different. When I was in Japan and supporting my husband in his role over there I was doing tutoring, but no one ever asked me what I did. It was assumed my role would be to keep things ticking over at home because my husband's job involved long hours. I felt like I was getting a lot of respect as a stay-at-home mother. Then when you come back to NZ, and pretty much as soon as your kids start school, people are asking 'What are you going to do? All that free time.' But there's not that much free time. By the time you've done all the jobs, and also a five-year-old is still a bit of a baby. They're going to get sick and want you around. So it was interesting to see the pressure on women to be back into the workforce back here.

Alice: And you've got two, so you're slightly more justified. Those of us with only one…

Sarah: It's called the 'one and done' club.

Alice: You've only got one; what do you do with all your time?!

Nicki: Make scones and do yoga...

Modern motherhood in New Zealand

Sarah: I put Theo into daycare one day a week when he was four months old. He was the youngest child ever enrolled in Barnardos Wellington but I needed that seven hours to be me and do some work. My best friend couldn't believe babies were going to daycare, and then when she had her own, she was like 'I'm so sorry about anything I ever said. I had no clue.'

Nicki: Women without kids can be so judgemental about how to parent.

Alice: I'm not the parent I thought I would be. I thought I would be way more uptight.

Nicki: I'm the opposite, I turned into a neurotic.

Sarah: People think they can comment when they wouldn't do that in any other area of your life.

Nicki: I wasn't prepared for how much I'd change and learn from being a parent. This is not to disparage anyone's choice not to have a child, but I feel like for myself, I have grown up a lot since I had children. I thought I was a really chilled out person and then having kids has taken me to a new level of stress. I am more uptight than I thought I was.

Sarah: But you can step back and see that.

Nicki: Yeah, and I'm learning how to better manage that stress as well. [Without children] I could've drifted along forever thinking I had it all under control.

Alice: I really respect the decision not to have children because I think it's a big one.

Nicki: Do you guys feel there was pressure to have a child and then when there was one, to have another?

Alice: Once you've got one, the number of times you're asked…

Emma: Yeah, 'when', not 'do you want to…'

Alice: It's just tapering off now and he's seven! You have a different bond with your child if you've only got one. As soon as you've got more there's relationship management. You have to manage their
relationships with each other. When you've got one, you're their buddy to play with and interact with. So there's pros in not being driven crazy [by managing the relationships], but also you are 'it'.

Sarah: My sister is moving back from Portugal; she's got a three-year-old and a one-year-old. So I'll take Emily for a day with Theo because he's not going to have the sibling relationship but I'd like him to have a close cousin relationship. So there are ways to compensate for the lack of siblings.

Rachael: So Sarah, was it always your intention to have only one child?

Sarah: No, I come from a family of four kids and I really like being part of a big family. I wanted two. But I had myalgic encephalomyelitis for eight years and would get overwhelming exhaustion and flu-like symptoms and be in bed for five to 10 days at a time. I was so sick I couldn't do my job, so felt I should resign. I had just been promoted; it was really upsetting. Initially I didn't want to risk having a child as I thought it could make it worse, but then I got pregnant and my mental health declined. I got insomnia and anxiety, had a nervous breakdown from not sleeping for five days and nights. I'm still dealing with the anxiety disorder. I would be open to fostering or adopting one day. We have a bizarre, idealised vision about pregnancy and early motherhood and the gap between expectation and reality is so big.

Alice: In other cultures you get help. Your family comes to help and there's more of that community stuff. We're fiercely independent as a nation, as women. Including things like childcare. It used to be if your parents wanted to go to the dairy, they'd go over the road and ask, 'Can you look after the kids?' Now there's almost none of that. Everybody wants to be independent.

Sarah: It's the whole goddess/supermum myth; we just need to accept we need support and find those networks elsewhere.

Nicki: There are lots of New Zealand women who try to be superwoman.

Sarah: And often they're high achievers at work. My friend felt like she should be this super-goddess mother and the baby should never cry because she should anticipate her every need.

Nicki: You think you can have a lot of control, whereas it's more about letting go.

Alice: Our mothers were probably told they could be anything if they wanted. But we were told what we should be. We shouldn't be any less than a man, we should have a career. So then you feel like you're constantly compromising yourself. You're either com-promising your career, or your potential to stop and be a mum. I feel like I'm failing at both all the time.

Sarah: Do you feel like working part-time can help you with that?

Emma: Part-time you end up doing more.

Alice: If you put your kids in day care full-time, you sign off that part of the day and go focus on your job. Whereas when you're trying to do both, it's always this crazy juggle; you feel like you never have anything under control and you're still not doing enough at your job.

Emma: And you're lumped with all the run-around tasks, errands to run the house and everything. People think you're not working full-time, but you're managing the household and your job and the kids.

Rachael: Where, if anywhere, do you find support for how you're living your life?

Sarah: Facebook groups.

Emma: Good friends.

Alice: The school thing is interesting. When your kids start school, it's this whole new social world; it's like being at school yourself again and trying to figure out which parents you get along with.

Wellness and body image

Sarah: I put Theo into daycare one day a week when he was four months old. He was the youngest child ever enrolled in Barnardos Wellington but I needed that
seven hours to be me and do some work. My best friend couldn't believe babies were going to daycare, and then when she had her own, she was like 'I'm so sorry about anything I ever said. I had no clue.'

Nicki: Women without kids can be so judgemental about how to parent.

Alice: I'm not the parent I thought I would be. I thought I would be way more uptight.

Nicki: I'm the opposite, I turned into a neurotic.

Sarah: People think they can comment when they wouldn't do that in any other area of your life.

Nicki: I wasn't prepared for how much I'd change and learn from being a parent. This is not to disparage anyone's choice not to have a child, but I feel like for myself, I have grown up a lot since I had children. I thought I was a really chilled out person and then having kids has taken me to a new level of stress. I am more uptight than I thought I was.

Sarah: But you can step back and see that.

Nicki: Yeah, and I'm learning how to better manage that stress as well. [Without children] I could've drifted along forever thinking I had it all under control.

Alice: I really respect the decision not to have children because I think it's a big one.

Nicki: Do you guys feel there was pressure to have a child and then when there was one, to have another?

Alice: Once you've got one, the number of times you're asked…

Emma: Yeah, 'when', not 'do you want to…'

Alice: It's just tapering off now and he's seven! You have a different bond with your child if you've only got one. As soon as you've got more there's relationship management. You have to manage their relationships with each other. When you've got one, you're their buddy to play with and interact with. So there's pros in not being driven crazy [by managing the relationships], but also you are 'it'.

Sarah: My sister is moving back from Portugal; she's got a three-year-old and a one-year-old. So I'll take Emily for a day with Theo because he's not going to have the sibling relationship but I'd like him to have a close cousin relationship. So there are ways to compensate for the lack of siblings.

Rachael: So Sarah, was it always your intention to have only one child?

Sarah: No, I come from a family of four kids and I really like being part of a big family. I wanted two. But I had myalgic encephalomyelitis for eight years and would get overwhelming exhaustion and flu-like symptoms and be in bed for five to 10 days at a time. I was so sick I couldn't do my job, so felt I should resign. I had just been promoted; it was really upsetting. Initially I didn't want to risk having a child as I thought it could make it worse, but then I got pregnant and my mental health declined. I got insomnia and anxiety, had a nervous breakdown from not sleeping for five days and nights. I'm still dealing with the anxiety disorder. I would be open to fostering or adopting one day. We have a bizarre, idealised vision about pregnancy and early motherhood and the gap between expectation and reality is so big.

Alice: In other cultures you get help. Your family comes to help and there's more of that community stuff. We're fiercely independent as a nation, as women. Including things like childcare. It used to be if your parents wanted to go to the dairy, they'd go over the road and ask, 'Can you look after the kids?' Now there's almost none of that. Everybody wants to be independent.

Sarah: It's the whole goddess/supermum myth; we just need to accept we need support and find those networks elsewhere.

Nicki: There are lots of New Zealand women who try to be superwoman.

Sarah: And often they're high achievers at work. My friend felt like she should be this super-goddess » mother and the baby should never cry because she should anticipate her every need.

Nicki: You think you can have a lot of control, whereas it's more about letting go.
Alice: Our mothers were probably told they could be anything if they wanted. But we were told what we should be. We shouldn't be any less than a man, we should have a career. So then you feel like you're constantly compromising yourself. You're either com-promising your career, or your potential to stop and be a mum. I feel like I'm failing at both all the time.

Sarah: Do you feel like working part-time can help you with that?

Emma: Part-time you end up doing more.

Alice: If you put your kids in day care full-time, you sign off that part of the day and go focus on your job. Whereas when you're trying to do both, it's always this crazy juggle; you feel like you never have anything under control and you're still not doing enough at
your job.

Emma: And you're lumped with all the run-around tasks, errands to run the house and everything. People think you're not working full-time, but you're managing the household and your job and the kids.

Rachael: Where, if anywhere, do you find support for how you're living your life?

Sarah: Facebook groups.

Emma: Good friends.

Alice: The school thing is interesting. When your kids start school, it's this whole new social world; it's like being at school yourself again and trying to figure out which parents you get along with.

Rachael: Sarah, you mentioned anxiety before – is that something anyone else has trouble with?

Emma: Yes.

Nicki: I only recently recognised I probably have low level anxiety; it's been really good for me to recognise it as it's made me think a lot about fear. When you live with that anxiety you have to be very courageous in your everyday life, because you constantly have to confront fear in order to move on.

Emma: To a point it can be a good thing.

Sarah: There's a funny distinction we still have between 'physical' illness and 'mental' illness. They're almost one and the same. With mental illness like anxiety, you can get physical symptoms like hot flushes, shaking, diarrhoea, nausea, etcetera. And with physical illness – because I've had both – you can get mental anguish from it.

Alice: I found recently more people, especially mums, are being more open. I realised 18 months ago that I'm a functional depressive. I just switch off to all the emotion. Apart from my child. But definitely with my husband. I do everything that needs to be done, I'm not a 'be in bed' type of person. Everyone else thinks I'm fine.

Rachael: Do you take medication for that?

Alice: No. I got really sick 18 months ago and developed frequent migraines. I got 10 migraines in three weeks. So I went to the doctor feeling really bad. Couldn't see straight or think straight. I had a severe B12 deficiency as it turned out and folic acid and iron so I had all these actual physical deficiencies. I don't know how it happened.

Rachael: Is it easier to talk about these things now that it's become quite an open topic?

Alice: I talk about that stuff anyway. I'm really annoyed people don't talk about it. It's like when you have a baby, people don't tell you about all that horrible stuff that happens afterwards. And then you're like 'Why did people not tell me this?'

Sarah: If someone asks how I am and I'm having a bad day I generally say 'not too bad' or 'I've been worse' and occasionally 'I'm really shit'.

Emma: All these things that women experience are dismissed. Like health struggles, general struggles, managing the mental load and everything…

Sarah: Do you mean we don't talk about it so we're not aware of others going through it?

Emma: Yeah, even we dismiss it ourselves. I've got the B12 deficiency too. My gut won't absorb the B12 so I was just thinking 'Oh I'm tired because I'm the mother of a six-month-old who sleeps like rubbish'.

Alice: But this is Kiwis as well… 'she'll be right'. My cousin grew up in New York and everybody has a paediatrician and adults have specific doctors.

Nicki: I have a 10-year-old daughter and she's starting to probably become more aware of how she appears to other people. I'm a bit worried about her because it seems young girls are more affected by social media and more likely to suffer from depression because of this narcissistic culture we live in.

Sarah: And dieting at a really young age. Has anyone ever felt really happy about their body? Because I never have.

Rachael: You've never felt happy about your body?

Sarah: No. I remember when I was 15 or 16 I went out at the hips and had saddlebags on my outer thighs. I thought it wasn't normal so I'd diet. I'd get smaller but my shape would stay the same. I went through anorexia and bulimia, over-exercising, binge-eating. It took a long time to come out of that.

Nicki: I think it's quite hard for women to answer that question, 'What do you like about your body?'

Sarah: Maybe it's more about body acceptance rather than body love.

Nicki: I like what my body can do – even though it's getting worse!

Rachael: Do you look back to when you were younger and think 'Why didn't I appreciate myself more?'

Alice: Yeah, pre-baby boobs. I never liked my boobs. Now I think 'What was I complaining about?'

Rachael: So you want to tell every 20-year-old who you know to enjoy what they've got.

Nicki: I was at the beach and there were all these beautiful 20-year-old ladies sunbathing and I remember thinking 'Wow, young people are just beautiful because they're young'. And they were all different shapes and sizes but they all looked great.

Alice: I've never had eating disorders but I've never been overly comfortable or overly happy.

Sarah: But you have the kind of body people aspire to have.

Alice: I could say that about you too but it's different.

Sarah: When I was shopping recently someone said 'You're so slim and gorgeous' and I was like 'What are you talking about?'

Rachael: I had a group of flatmates when I was at university who were body confident. They had somehow managed to grow up to 20 without feeling bad about their bodies. That had an effect on me; I'd been a classic dieting teenager and I suddenly learned to be like, 'Oh there are girls who like the way they look and maybe I could be that too'.

Alice: I was really gangly. That was the word used to describe me because I was petite at the time and then I grew up without growing out. I got teased about being bulimic, which I wasn't. I was all limbs and really awkward. It was never about weight. It was about…

Rachael: Femininity maybe?

Alice: Yeah. I just didn't feel good.

Sarah: For me it came down to not feeling good enough. Feeling like I should be better, prettier, funnier, smarter and more accomplished and always improving myself. Like 'I should fit those jeans' I wore when I was on the restrictive FODMAP diet.

Alice: I was sick last year so I got down to 51kg. I needed endorphins so I was exercising a lot because it was the only thing keeping me marginally sane. But when you put on
weight, even when you know it's a good thing, it's really hard for women. We're conditioned to not do that.

Nicki: I went to the gym and they asked all those questions then they said 'What do you want to change about your body', and I said 'Actually nothing. I just want to be fit and feel good and have good energy levels', but obviously most women who go to the gym, their main reason might be to change their shape.

Rachael: One good thing about where we're at now is the focus on being strong and healthy.

Sarah: It's really helped me with mental health, exercising.

Nicki: A friend of mine recently introduced me to trail running. I've typically hated exercise where you have to push yourself beyond; I'm not that kind of person. But because I was with my friends and we were chatting and we were in a beautiful environment, it was great.

Emma: I've got arthritis in my spine. When I was younger I was into all the high danger sports; I was a horse eventer, a mountain biker, rollerblader, water skier, skier… I've almost broken my back four times. People look at me and say I could do more exercise, and it's like, actually I can't. And my husband eats way more than me and he's as skinny as a rake.

Sarah: Same. My husband Michael's a stick figure. He guts himself on chips and chocolate. Bastard!

Nicki: It's definitely genetic.

Sarah: I was on this Facebook group the other night and the thread was about talking back to your inner critic. That was quite empowering; a lot of people have imposter syndrome – having a really successful career but thinking someone is going to find out you're not that good.

Money and me time

Rachael: Why do women put so much pressure on themselves and be so critical?

Alice: A lot of us, our parents, they want so much for us; they want us to feel like we can have it all.

Sarah: I'm trying to 'lean back', but it's really hard. I'm an atheist but I've got this crazy Anglican work ethic. It's like, 'I'm going to the gym and I'm going to do some meditation' but then I get caught up in deadlines.

Emma: You have to schedule it in.

Alice: I started tennis lessons because my son has started playing tennis, and someone has to hit the ball back. So I'm doing these things I've always wanted to do but never done. I signed up this year for Te Reo.

Sarah: So it's sometimes about leaving the dishes?

Alice: I don't have the pressure of the income. But then you're feeling like a freeloader because you're not contributing financially.

Sarah: I said to my psychologist that I don't make a contribution financially, and she was like 'What are you talking about? Not only do you work part-time, you do childcare, and most of the meals.'

Alice: But I still feel like I can't say 'Let's book that holiday' because it's not really my money. If I said that to my husband he'd probably say 'Don't be silly'.

Nicki: I always talk to my husband if I'm spending a large amount of money. But he's cool, he trusts me.

Sarah: Do you have separate accounts?

Nicki: No, we have a joint account.

Sarah: I don't want Michael to see every time I've bought a flat white or had a massage, even though he'd be fine with it.

Alice: Separate credit card. I don't want to feel like I have to justify it.

Nicki: I found out this special trick for that. When I was working in this designer clothing store, quite a few women would be dropping hundreds of dollars in cash on one item. Then one woman said 'I haven't got quite enough cash, I'll just zip out to the ATM; I need to pay in cash otherwise my husband would know about this.'

Sarah: Where does he think the money is going?

Rachael: He probably doesn't know how much groceries cost.

Nicki: Sometimes I feel that pressure, 'Should I be working full-time because my kids are older?' But we are the lucky ones and can choose.

Rachael: What do you wish you could do more of?

Alice: All those things you thought would be great for personal development. That soul-filling stuff.

Sarah: I'd like to travel more. Possibly by myself.

Alice: Education just for the sake of learning.

Emma: Yeah, learning for the sake of it. And gardening. I used to hate gardening but now with my anxiety, I found it really helps.

Nicki: I was just thinking the things I can't fit into my life right now. Hanging out more with other female friends… I miss those days back in my 20s when we could have get-togethers or go on a tramping trip.

Emma: It'd be good if we only needed to sleep for four hours but our kids needed to sleep for eight to 12 hours!

Sarah: More time to read books that aren't Hairy Maclary or Pippy Longstocking.