Delivering the Budget on April 2, 2019, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg applauded more women in the workforce, announcing just a few minutes later that the government was committing almost half a billion dollars to youth mental health services to tackle the rate of suicide which he considered “a national tragedy”.
The previous day, April 1, the Herald Sun Opinion page featured an article headlined “Time to accept suicide is a huge problem” by paramedic, trauma counsellor and mental health advocate Paul Spinks, in which he detailed that “Something is killing our youth, taking 3128 lives and injuring 65,000 people in a single year, making it the No. 1 killer of people aged from 15 to 44. It’s responsible for the sudden death of almost 13 out of every 100,000 Australians.”
In The Weekend Australian magazine in September 1-2, 2018, writer Christine Armstrong interviewed many working women in this country who were consistently “lying” to other women about coping with their hectic lives, as workers, mothers and wives. Her article revealed how these women were ashamed to admit they weren’t as they appeared, not honestly acknowledging they could not cope with their demanding routines and schedules. Armstrong wrote: “(There are) some women with big jobs who said in public that Having It All was fantastic, while privately they were falling on the floor with exhaustion…the reality is that their lives are highly stressful and chaotic.”
In another article just six months later in March 2019 titled “Closing Ranks”, Armstrong talked to successful women (however that’s defined) about why they “pretended” their lives were working when, privately, they said they’re pushed to breaking point. “Some women, depressingly, say it’s getting worse…” Armstrong continued that “At the start of conversations about why top women don’t tell the truth… many… lie about their lives because they want to be loyal to their employers, or, at least, to keep their jobs. Finally they are reluctant to admit their lives are not working out because confessing that you’re finding things hard at work and at home sounds like an admission of failure and high-flyers are used to being seen as a success.”
Armstrong quotes one senior woman who burnt out and then rejected corporate life: “The first thing we do is we lie to ourselves…then we lie to our families and colleagues-and then we lie to other women. We almost collude with each other to make it OK. Central to it, I think, is shame. And competence. I was used to being able to solve problems and move on in life, then I had kids and I didn’t know how to do it. Children aren’t a problem to be solved, they require a different state of being-one that takes effort but one that is hard to own up to. No woman wants to be thought of as a bad mother.”
Armstrong’s article goes on to focus on men in the workplace too and how many now feel overlooked for jobs in favour of women with those working alongside women wary of being mentors or socialising with them for fear of being accused of harassment. It seems applauding more women in the workforce as Frydenberg did is not intrinsically a positive or an achievement of gender equality when apparently both genders pay a price of sorts for that workforce participation; one that’s costly for good health, mental well-being and gender compatibility.
But what is really disturbing is that where both parents are working long hours, children suffer. Armstrong talked to psychologists and therapists about these children and one child and adolescent therapist, Sarah Clarke, said: “Much as I want to be a badass feminist supporting working mums everywhere, my therapy room is full of sad children who miss their parents. I am not going to not say this just because it makes people feel guilty.” The interesting aspect of this comment is that she doesn’t mention supporting working fathers; it’s the working mums who are singled out rather than including fathers too. I can only assume that she believes, perhaps unconsciously, children are sad because they miss their mothers more than their fathers and that the role of mother is to care for their children more than work. She doesn’t question that traditional stereotype.
These are high-flying women but what of other women similarly working full-time who aren’t earning big bucks? How do they cope? Is it any better for them, their spouses and more importantly, their children?
In my perspective, the exhausted mum who lies and struggles to cope with sad children as a consequence in some ways relates back to the youth suicide problem. Paul Spinks illustrates his concern with a story about a boy “who appeared to have it all: he seemed to have a perfect family life, excellent grades, plenty of friends, and he was also the school captain. But then he was found hanging in the classroom. The tragedy devastated his parents who wondered how and why the unthinkable had unfolded in such a supportive and loving family”
There is some method to my madness in postulating a link, however intangible and unverifiable, between both parents working long hours and the youth suicide problem and not necessarily only those children of high flying parents. The question I’m really posing is: IS there a real link between both parents working full-time and the negative impact on the well-being and mental health of their children? With children reporting feeling sad and missing their parents, it seems there is some cause and effect between the two realities. Moreover, with more single parent families, mostly women, who have to work full-time to pay the bills and put food on the table, what are the emotional consequences for their children? Most women who do work are not high-flyers earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, but are in jobs of low socio-economic status that are nonetheless still demanding, pressured and exhausting. I wrote a blog last year about a survey of 15,000 working women which found more than half were suffering depression and anxiety so just what is the reality for these women and their children?
If high-flying women are lying about their inability to cope, and their children are sad, what is the ultimate outcome? Am I stretching the argument by asserting that women at work can engender real psychological problems for their children as they grow? Moreover, what of the fathers? Should they curtail their hours to better care for the children? Media articles over recent years have highlighted that while women work full-time, even part-time, the burden of being chief cook and bottle-washer still falls on them; fathers seemingly not accepting their parental responsibilities to share equally in home-making and child-raising. What then is the solution?
There is another aspect to what Paul Spinks opined about the “perfect” family which was supposedly supportive and loving; that being that while he does say “seemed” to be “perfect”, his comment has me wondering whether both parents actually worked full-time? Are there other siblings? Who was at home (anyone?) when the boy arrived back from school? How much quality conversation time about how their son was feeling, thinking and coping was shared with his parents? Did he have all the latest and most expensive technological gadgetry? What income did his parents have? What pressures did they exert on him, however unconscious? Did they believe that having excellent grades, being school captain and with apparent good friends constituted a good life? Furthermore, who in fact said the family was “supportive and loving?” His parents, but really, what else would they say? Indeed, they may genuinely feel they were supportive and loving but how did these emotional aspects manifest themselves? I can only assume that the boy did not feel supported and loved as he needed.
Disappointingly, Spinks has no answers nor does he even raise these questions, but if society is to tackle the youth suicide problem I believe some of the issues I’ve highlighted need to be addressed. With more women in the workforce it seems imperative that we need to appreciate the consequences for the children, particularly when there is not just an increase in suicide, but an increase in mental ill-health among young people too. (see other blogs)
Furthermore, is the stress of having both parents working full time contributing to the incidence of family violence, both physical and psychological, with parents losing control not out of disrespect necessarily, but because they feel inordinately pressured, possibly frustrated and pushed to the limit?
These questions bring me back to the concept of “Having It All”, not just for women but for most people who apparently pursue this aspiration in the belief it engenders happiness, contentment and well-being.
Obviously, the boy who committed suicide may have “appeared” to have it all; the pertinent perspective encompassed by the word “appeared”, as clearly he did not have the “perfect” family who were supportive and loving as would he have committed suicide if it was? I believe he would not have. Also, his good friends must not have been so “good” in terms of relating to him emotionally and empathically, while his excellent grades register only on a piece of paper as did his role as school captain. They do not intrinsically reflect his true state of mind; except that maybe he could “switch off” his troubled thoughts and feelings when he needed to, only having them “switch on” more disturbingly in his time alone.
The salient reality is that the appearance of the boy’s life was totally superficial; an image of having it all or so-called success, while behind that image sadly and tragically lived a boy who no one apparently knew or understood, his family, friends and school teachers too easily deluded, even defrauded by a self-assured veneer that revealed itself as misleading, mistaken and misguided. His suicide suggests he existed in a false and insincere environment at home, at school and at play, begging the question as to what he actually aspired to for himself, perhaps inadvertently and unwittingly colluding with the having it all mantra that did not suffice for him. It seems obvious that this mantra did not translate into self-love, self-belief or self-respect, among other things. Maybe the really tragic irony for his parents, teachers and friends was that they too were so “hooked” on the mantra that they were unable and incapable of seeing through it. Indeed, an article in A House of Wellness supplement in the Herald Sun on April 7, 2019, featured a new book written by Collett Smart called “They’ll be Okay: 15 Conversations to Help Your Child Through Troubled Times” suggesting parents need guidance to talk to their children about emotional and psychological issues. Smart writes that “(Teens) will be OK if we invest in their lives and don’t shy away from tricky topics”. But how many invest emotionally rather than financially? And it seems from Armstrong’s articles they don’t have time for the former maybe because they don’t even know how to invest emotionally in themselves. If the mums are lying to themselves are they lying to their kids too? And fathers likewise? The House of Wellness website also includes help for parents “to discover which questions to ask your kids to help them open up” suggesting they don’t even know how to approach their kids for a conversation about emotions or feelings beyond the latest technology. What’s interesting is that it seems many parents have forgotten their own teen years whereby Having It All is perceived as being a successful parent. Conversation is subordinate in that success.
Social mores so sadly dictate success as symbolised by the outside which manifests in mass materialism and other external accoutrements. What people feel and think on the “inside” is often too complex, confusing and contradictory for people to care about; far less disturbing and difficult to ignore people’s emotional and psychological problems. It seems the boy himself was reticent and reluctant to communicate his personal problems to anyone he knew. Likewise the high-flying women who lied to others about how great their lives were because to admit they were struggling to cope would be seen as a failure.
Consequently, I can only ponder why “having it all” is so enshrined in our social milieu when research reveals it is too often “impossible” to achieve, let alone maintain. Furthermore, exactly what IS having it all? And who defines it? Is it the same for males and females? Maybe as a society we need to take a step back to reappraise what having it all means to realise that rarely is it self-sustaining or fulfilling emotionally and psychologically.
There was a saying around in the 70s when I was living and working frantically in the UK aspiring to have it all too that “one can’t take a career to bed.” Resonating strongly with me, the focus wasn’t about sex itself, but human contact, the close intimacy of shared warmth, empathy and sensitivity that no amount of external success could buy. At the same time, I fortunately realised in my frenetic pursuit that I was often lonely, empty and unfulfilled as a consequence of being a workaholic, making me analyse and understand why I was doing that when I was so unsatisfied and left wanting. Digging deep down beyond the superficiality of Having It All, I came to appreciate that the mantra was simply “wrong” for me, when what I needed was love and respect for myself and others; communication that was at times profound, personal and psychological, instead of typically irrelevant and inane conversations about my latest accolade for work, the clothes I wore or purchased and the suburb I lived in among others. I also realised this fostered extreme personal difficulty that I discussed with no one, the status quo reigning sacrosanct to still determine all externals as signs of success with anything other than these accoutrements deemed as failure. It was painful to withstand the pressure to “live” this mantra.
In some ways it still is, but as youth suicide increases, and suicide more universally, no one it seems is even questioning the have it all mantra. That in itself is tragic, and I know a few people who are seemingly still in pursuit of it, often unhappily so. They have the supposedly good marriage or partnership, the two kids, the two cars, a good income, can buy all the latest whizz bang technology and live in the right suburb, but something seems lacking because they are less than satisfied and happy with their “perfect” lives. They give no thought to why they need all the material manifestations as well as lots of alcohol, drugs (both prescription and illicit) and unhealthy amounts of food to feel “good”; sarcasm well intended.
With two-thirds of people in this country overweight and/or obese, no one is apparently thinking about the link between that reality and the unrealistic mythology of having it all. Why are people gorging themselves so unhealthily? Is the stress underpinning the Having It All mantra engendering so much bad eating? Indeed, it seems most people still adhere to traditional childhood fairytales, marrying prince charming and the beautiful princess and living happily ever after; the only difference these days is the princess doesn’t have to work cleaning the cinders, but instead can be a corporate high flyer, appearing to have it all and be a celebrated success. Few want to even acknowledge there is a price to pay for expecting reality from a fairytale.
The fact that kids are sad, swallowing anti-depressants in their teens, engaging in unwanted sex and taking nude selfies seems but a diversion from the mantra. In the Herald Sun on April 5, 2019, was an article about Australian kids increasingly taking tranquilisers for recreational use, with one in five secondary school students taking sleeping tablets or sedatives without a medical reason. The national Cancer Council study of 20,000 young people found while alcohol and tobacco consumption was falling, tranquiliser use had climbed with 20 per cent of 12-17 year-olds using sleeping tablets, sedatives or benzodiazepines, including diazepam (valium).. Sixty-five per cent of students sourced the sedatives through parents, though the article did not reveal whether this was known to parents and/or was with their approval. Seventeen per cent of students admitted to smoking cannabis. Cancer Council chief executive Todd Harper said it was “encouraging that fewer young Aussies were experimenting with alcohol and tobacco” but the article had no comment from him about the increase use of tranquilisers. All I can deduce is that young people need these sedatives to make life more relaxed and enjoyable so what does that say about their state of mind? I can only surmise. Cigarettes might be deadly, but they are not mind-changing whereas tranquilisers are. I’m not sure what use is worse, quite frankly. But why do so many parents have these sedatives at home? Not coping either? Is chasing Having It All engendering serious mental health issues for parents more and more?
The Have It All mantra seems so entrenched in people’s psyche that anyone who doesn’t chase it, want it or let alone have it, are pitied as social outcasts to be avoided and rejected as misfits deluded by their own quest for self-fulfilment and satisfaction.
Maybe one possible antidote to suicide and sadness is education at school about love, however complex the understanding may be, because many young people seem to be missing out on it at home. Do parents really appreciate what love is? Do they believe it is about material success and paper achievements rather than emotional nurturing and psychological attention? We can only deduce from the boy’s suicide that genuine love was absent in his life, despite the best intentions of his parents and friends. Maybe they erroneously assumed the having it all mantra is what life was all about without appreciating the real joy of shared love and respect; and that starts with self-love first and foremost. Somehow, this young boy didn’t love himself for reasons we’ll never know.
The high flying women, and those on lesser incomes still working full-time or part-time and having children, are still imbued with the fairytale fantasy, just with a more modern working twist, but no more realistic than the original Cinders story. And it seems that prince charmings are still happy to be the major breadwinner and good provider, with women working to provide the extra money to ensure they can Have It All.
On the flip side of Having It All is another tragic statistic of indigenous youth who commit suicide on a weekly basis, purportedly because of poverty, unemployment and racism, among other things. They don’t appear to have anything, but the tragedy is that by supposedly not having it all, they are despairing because of it, the implication being that this reality deems them failures. This is partly what happened to me many years ago when I ended up unemployed, on the dole, alone and in despair of ever getting another job to provide more money for an enjoyable quality of life. Then 34, I certainly entertained suicidal thoughts, but in some intangible way managed to understand that not having it all was just the other side of having it all, the same coin but equally destructive, negative and limiting.
However ironically, when I appeared to have it all at 19-the success of my journalistic career, enough money to buy fashionable and trendy clothes, friends to accompany me to restaurants for dinner and a handsome boyfriend on my arm, I also entertained suicidal thoughts. I never told anyone and no one knew, and despite my sense of self-hate I never attempted suicide, at least appreciating that all of these attributes (I hadn’t then heard of the Having It All mantra) didn’t satisfy me because I didn’t love myself enough, (there was family violence albeit psychological which I’ve written about in other blogs and my book). I realised I needed to sort myself out by jettisoning my lifestyle and my family for more meaningful and satisfying pursuits. It did take a few years to achieve this, and finding myself unemployed and bankrupt many years later, I could pull my finger out to get a job that certainly had less status and prestige than journalism, but one I could nonetheless enjoy which paid the bills and allowed me the odd dinner out without all the external accoutrements of a famous, high-flying scribe. I was resilient enough to withstand the innuendoes of failure, but I was 34 then and understood a lot more about the status quo and its demeaning aspect. I have never looked back.
Maybe the reason women are still pursuing the Have It All mantra is because they perceive, however erroneously, that men have done this supposedly successfully for decades and that this is the avenue for achieving equality; to replicate what men have been doing without realising that having children puts a very different spin on it for them. It may be that the male partners in these women’s lives are failing to fulfil equal parenting responsibilities and the women have to do most of the child-rearing, but how did these women let that eventuate? Did they thoroughly and thoughtfully discuss with their partners how they would care for the kids? Moreover, some men, admittedly a minority, now want more flexible work arrangements so they can be present fathers as they want to be, with more time with their children instead of being prisoners to their phones and iPads. But are the majority still adhering to being the major breadwinners and inadvertently leaving most of the child-raising to their female partners? Are both partners trying to live out the Having It All mantra with little appreciation of the effect on their kids? Is the male breadwinner working long hours really satisfied and coping too? When you consider the obesity increase, large alcohol consumption and early deaths from heart attacks and cancer, even suicide among men, it is not a far stretch to think these men are no more capable of coping than the women. They too are good at lying to themselves and each other, maintaining a façade of accomplishment as the successful alpha male. Admitting they struggle emotionally and psychologically as these women seemingly do is as much an anathema for them as women. Success, Having It All, is the name of the game. They too don’t want to be seen as failures or lose their jobs so ensuring their pretence is perfected is as valid for them as the female corporate high flyers.
The tragic truth underpinning these realities is that many people pursuing the Have It All mantra are just not thinking ahead or even comprehending what having children involves. It is just the thing people “DO” if they are “in love” without any serious awareness of the massive responsibility involved in nurturing a child over many years. It was interesting that the Herald Sun in April published a story about the declining birth rate in Victoria with the subtle innuendo that this was somehow negative and counter-productive. It may be that fortunately more young couples, even females on their own, are beginning to realise that having a child or children, and raising them to be healthy and reasonably happy, demands more than just a good income from work. Maybe they realise that the fairytale is unrealistic and pure fantasy and that if you want to work long hours and earn big money you cannot have children as well. I’m unsure what the real reasons are but there are some women, particularly politicians now who either don’t have children or opt out of parliament to spend more time with their families. They appear not to be the only ones.
Finally, all I can surmise is that if people are unwilling or simply oblivious to the negative implications of pursuing Having It All nothing much will change for the parents or the kids. Maybe what’s really imperative is that this mantra be dissected and dissembled to be discarded as futile, replaced by a more thoughtful and responsible approach to working and procreation to ensure both parents and children can live healthy, resilient and honest lives with emotional and psychological well-being. It may be too much to hope for.