“More women will run into the maternal wall before... | Edit | AllBright
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Artwork: Tianna Greham

If you’re the mother of a young child with an aversion to bedtime, then you may not know Amy Taylor Kabbaz’s face - but there’s a good chance you know her voice.

She’s the narrator of the popular Kinderling series Bedtime Explorers, and her voice lulls my three year old to sleep most nights. Warm and softly spoken, Amy’s energy is gentle and reassuring. But don’t be fooled. This mother of three is plotting a revolution.

“I believe we need a revolution in the way that we support and understand what mothers do”, Amy says. And she speaks from experience. A decade ago, Amy was “stressed, stretched and never present.” But she was living the dream - fulfilling her passion as an ABC journalist. It had been her life’s work, and her entire identity. But once her first two children had arrived, Amy found herself doing what so many working mothers are forced to do, burning the candle at both ends. “I was so worried that I wasn’t able to keep up with what was expected of me that I went above and beyond it”, she recalls. “I was always tired. Every night at 7pm I would turn into an ogre - I was so frustrated if these two little girls didn’t go straight to sleep (which we all know never happens!) I was on my phone, I was always rushed, and I was always feeling like I fell short of what I needed to do, both at home and at work.”

It wasn’t just in her head. “The realities of juggling motherhood and work means women will either be unfairly overlooked for promotion due to a perceived lack of flexibility, availability or ability, or will turn down opportunities for fear of its impact on their work life balance”, Amy now knows. “50 per cent of today’s mothers are experiencing workplace discrimination, most commonly during their return to work (35%), requesting or on parental leave (32%) or during pregnancy (27%).” Slinking away from her desk for daycare pickup, Amy faced open judgement: “I was criticised at one point for taking too much time off work during one particular winter, because all three of my children had been sick at various times.” 

Amy had attempted to soldier on throughout her third pregnancy. “And then”, she says, “one day during the election coverage, contractions started. I was only 26 weeks pregnant.”

It was the start of what would be a complete life turnaround, beginning with 10 weeks of forced rest. Unable to continue working, Amy finally had the time to think - and she began to question everything. 

What she found, she now knows, was the key to what had happened to her when she gave birth to her first child: something called matrescence - the incredible life-altering shift that occurs when a woman becomes a mother. And it explained everything.

In the years since, Amy has dedicated herself to researching matrescence and what it means. And she’s passionate about it, because she knows that motherhood involves so much more than birthing and raising a child. And she sees too many women taking on what she calls the ‘third shift’, after work and mothering. It’s “thinking about the birthday party on the weekend, making sure clothes are clean, researching which school the child should go to, spending hours googling speech development in toddlers, making Book Week costumes - you know the drill! These are the invisible jobs of parenthood that in our day and age, still in the most case, falls to the mothers.”

Here, Amy tells us how she went from doing it all, to saying no. And why you might want to do the same...

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I want to take you back to your pre-motherhood self. Would it be fair to say that a lot of your sense of identity and self-worth was wrapped up in your work?

It would absolutely be very fair to say my complete sense of identity and self worth was wrapped up in my work! I decided when I was an overly ambitious teenager that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and from that moment on, everything I did was based on that vision. I remember being in the car listening to ABC radio, listening to the start of the First Gulf War, and hearing the pings of the missiles firing with the journalist reporting from the scene and being completely mesmerised - I couldn’t believe that was someone’s job! And there I was, on the other side of the planet, listening to it live. For some reason, it enthralled me, and from that moment on, I wanted to tell stories of other parts of the world. And as I grew, that turned into particularly telling the stories of women whose story we wouldn’t usually hear or know. And that's who I believed I was - I was a journalist. That was my identity, and every decision I made was based on that. 

"I had this romantic belief that I could still be the journalist on the frontline with the baby strapped to my back"

After the birth of your first child, what were your expectations about your return to work, and what was the reality like?

I always thought I’d be a Mum - it was a bit of an unspoken assumption - but I never really factored it into my broader plan of being a foreign correspondent. When I found out I was pregnant, I assumed that I would have the baby and continue on my merry way to achieving that goal: I had this romantic belief that I could still be the journalist on the frontline with the baby strapped to my back. So when I went on maternity leave, I really expected to be back soon, carrying on as normal. But most importantly, I now realise that I also expected to go back and work the same as I had, in the same way, performing the same way and feeling the same way about my job. 

The reality was very different. The first months of motherhood completely rattled me. It brought me to my knees. I was incredibly unprepared for what motherhood is actually like. Like so many of us, I thought I was prepared for birth (although I really wasn’t) but beyond that, I didn’t really think about what motherhood would look like for me. In those early months, I really lost my sense of self, and I lost confidence in myself. I loved my daughter in ways that I never expected, but me as a woman and mother? I was really rattled. I’d always prided myself on being someone who could do anything: I could research and find the answer, I could try harder, I could do more than anybody else and I would win. That’s who I thought I was. But motherhood isn’t like that. These babies crack us open, and we can’t figure them out! And for someone who prided themselves on figuring it all out, that was incredibly unsettling. 

Looking back, there was also a sense of holding on until I got back to work, because surely when I got back to work I would feel like myself again. I told myself that surely when I walked through those sliding doors of the ABC, I’ll be me. Everything would feel better, I’d feel like myself again, I’d know what I was doing again.

"I felt I needed to prove I hadn’t changed (both to myself and my colleagues). That I could still be who I wanted to be."

But as I know now, matrescence means that I didn’t walk through those doors as the same person. I was completely different, and that meant I felt differently about my work and about my place there. I felt I needed to prove I hadn’t changed (both to myself and my colleagues), trying to show them that I could still do my job, and show myself that I hadn’t given up on my dreams. That I could still be who I wanted to be. 

Mothers often talk about the shame and the guilt they feel about having to leave work on time, or take leave when their children are sick. Did you experience this, and how did it affect you?

On a daily basis! Many times that experience was also of my own making. Right from the beginning, I felt like I was playing a game of catch up. I was so worried that I was being viewed differently because I had to leave on time, or because I was only part time, I spun myself into overwhelm. I was also so aware that younger, childless people were able to be so much more flexible, so I burnt myself out trying to prove that I could keep up. 

"I was criticised at one point for taking too much time off work during one particular winter, because all three of my children had been sick at various times."

I also experienced direct judgement and criticism too. I was criticised at one point for taking too much time off work during one particular winter, because all three of my children had been sick at various times, and the amount of time I’d had off was adding up. There were also times when I was working part time and job sharing that I was not given opportunities, or overlooked for particular opportunities in the workplace, because I couldn’t be there 5 days a week. And there were times when it was very openly suggested that leaving at a particular time to pick up kids from school or daycare was a problem. It was a very real part of my experience of trying to juggle my career and motherhood. 

The combination of both the self-imposed stress and the very real evidence of judgment meant that I made myself sick. I pushed myself to keep up in a system that doesn’t work for working mothers. Or, what I know now, I ran straight into what is known as “the maternal wall.” 

The fact is, more women will run into the maternal wall before they hit the glass ceiling. They will be overlooked for opportunities because motherhood means they can’t meet the expectation of hours or ability that is required, or the mother herself will step to the side, back or away all together because she just can’t do it all. 

My career had endless opportunities. I could have continued to climb that ladder as far as I wanted. But in the end, I found the realities of juggling three children in Sydney on my own with a full time working husband and the demands of my career impossible - for myself and the family experience I wanted to have - so I stepped back. 

How did you attempt to overcompensate for time away from your desk, and what kind of pressure did that place on you and your family?

Basically, it meant I never really switched off, or felt like I’d done enough. I was so worried that I wasn’t able to keep up with what was expected of me that I went above and beyond it. In particular, as a journalist in breakfast radio, you’re expected to be able to watch the nightly news so that you are fully aware of what has happened in the news when you get to work the next morning at 4am. But as all mothers know, the news is on at a disastrous time for mothers of young children – smack bang in the middle of bath and bed. You cannot sit down for half an hour and take notes on the politics of the day! And by the time the kids were asleep, I was too exhausted from doing anything else as I’d been awake since 3.30am that morning. It was a huge issue for me. In the end, it meant I was always on my phone, checking twitter as I sat on the side of the bath watching my girls, and calling government press secretaries while making dinner. I would have the news on in the background while trying to be the mother I wanted to be. I was stressed, stretched and never present.

You describe something called ‘the third shift’ which so many working mothers will relate to. Can you explain what that is?

The research shows that despite all our attempts for balance, both in the workplace and in the home, it is still by far the majority of mothers who pick up that third shift at home. Sadly, even in this day and age, it is still the woman who does the majority of the housework associated with parenting. And, even if there is shared responsibility in the home with things like bed and bath routine and cooking dinner, the other necessary tasks of raising children fall to the mother. For example, thinking about the birthday party on the weekend, making sure clothes are clean, researching which school the child should go to, spending hours googling speech development in toddlers, making Book Week costumes - you know the drill! These are the invisible jobs of parenthood that in our day and age, still in the most case, falls to the mothers. And, we’re taking on this third shift after we’ve already finished our first two shifts: work and mothering.

"It’s all the invisible tasks of parenthood that must also be put on the table."

Without acknowledging there is a third shift, we are never going to shift the balance. We can try to create something like job sharing in the workplace, and we can try to create shared responsibilities of parenting, pick ups and drop offs, but it’s all the invisible tasks of parenthood that must also be put on the table. This is the motherload of parenthood that is not seen, not understood and greatly affects the maternal wall. 

In other words, when we talk about equality and sharing parenting responsibilities, we need to go beyond the obvious. It needs to be more than just the token soccer training on the weekend, or one school drop off a week, but the very micro details that are required to keep a child happy and healthy. 

Why don’t men typically face these same issues, since they have children too?

Of course, there are situations where men are amazing at this, and have a very balanced and open understanding of parenthood. And there are workplaces that are beginning to acknowledge the flexibility in fatherhood that we are coming to expect in motherhood. But, both of these are still the exception to the norm. 

What we often don’t speak about is how closely a man’s identity is attached to his job and what he does each day, and how difficult that is to change. Yes, women’s identity changes when we become mothers too, but we are forced to accept this. We are the ones who carry the baby, give birth, feed and nurture it. By necessity, we have to stay home at the start, even if it’s just for a short time. Men don’t. And that brings up a lot of resistance to change. 

Just as I have had to change my identity in relation to my work and how I work and what I do with my work because motherhood came along, I don’t believe that men are aware that parenthood is going to change their career too. We don’t talk about this. The workplace doesn’t talk about this. When a man becomes a new father, imagine if he had the opportunity to go to HR and say, ‘so, my partner is expecting a baby in six months, I would like to talk about some paternity leave, flexible work hours and what I’m entitled to. I’d like to prepare for how this will change things.’ 

Imagine if those conversations were held right from the beginning? Imagine if school holidays were not just the responsibility of the woman to move her work around but all of the men in the workplace who had children would also be moving their working hours around? 

What I have found with the thousands of women I have coached and worked with around this is that there is a deep reluctance from the male partner to make waves at work because he is a dad. Even if he wants to! I hate to say it, but the ‘boys club’ and the very masculine way we work doesn’t invite men to be honest about needing to change things because of fatherhood. Even the most enlightened and willing father can really struggle in a workplace that is dominated by a policy of invisible parenting.

"I was working five days a week and getting up at 3:30am every day, never seeing my two eldest children wake up...But, I kept telling myself I was living the dream!"

What was the breaking point at which you decided to leave your job? And what did you feel when you made the decision to leave - was it relief?

The breaking point was when I went into early labour with my third child at 26 weeks. We were in the middle of a federal election, and I was one of the senior producers at the ABC, heavily involved in the coverage of the election. I was working five days a week and getting up at 3:30am every day, never seeing my two eldest children wake up. In fact, I didn’t see my eldest wake up and have breakfast and get ready for the day for the first five years of her life.  But, I kept telling myself I was living the dream! I was on my way to fulfilling that dream and ambition I’d had since I was a teenager. 

But the reality was, I was always tired. Every night at 7pm I would turn into an ogre - I was so frustrated if these two little girls didn’t go straight to sleep (which we all know never happens!) I was on my phone, I was always rushed, and I was always feeling like I fell short of what I needed to do, both at home and at work. 

And then, one day during the election coverage, contractions started. I was only 26 weeks pregnant. By the time I got to the hospital, the contractions were three minutes apart. My hospital room was filled with obstetricians and NICU specialists, warning me that this was very severe and dangerous. I’m only small, and I tend to have very small babies, so at 28 weeks this baby was really going to struggle.

Over the next hours and days, thanks to lots of medication to slow the contractions whilst strengthening his lungs, we did manage to stop the labour, but the doctors and specialists were very clear with me: they told me in no uncertain terms that this baby was trying to be born because of my lifestyle. The amount of stress my body was under was causing the early labour, and I could not return to work until I got to the “safe” mark of 36 weeks. Ten weeks of rest! 

I’m ashamed to say that at the time, I fought against that decision. I didn’t know how to step back from that work and I didn’t know what I would do for 10 weeks. I really struggled to accept that I had failed. I felt my body had failed, I felt I had failed - I was meant to be able to do it all. I was meant to be able to be superwoman, running between my top job at the ABC, my three children and this life we had fought for in Sydney. But I had no choice, and so for the following 10 weeks, I sat on the couch and went through the biggest change in my life.

During that time, I finally started to be honest with myself. I had to sit and think. I taught myself how to meditate, and I started asking ‘why can’t I slow down?’ And then, a bigger question: ‘why is motherhood not enough, why can’t I acknowledge I’ve changed, is this really what I want out of my life?’

"The realities of juggling motherhood and work means women will either be unfairly overlooked for promotion due to a perceived lack of flexibility, availability or ability, or will turn down opportunities for fear of its impact on their work life balance."

Tell me about the ‘maternal wall’ concept.

The Maternal Wall refers to the unfair treatment of, and rigged system for working mothers, with research showing that more women will run into the Maternal Wall before they hit the glass ceiling. The realities of juggling motherhood and work means women will either be unfairly overlooked for promotion due to a perceived lack of flexibility, availability or ability, or will turn down opportunities for fear of its impact on their work life balance. 50 per cent of today’s mothers are experiencing workplace discrimination, most commonly during their return to work (35%), requesting or on parental leave (32%) or during pregnancy (27%).

Tell me about the first time you encountered the term ‘Matrescence’. Was it a lightbulb moment?

I began asking the question, ‘what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother?’ when I had my first child, more than a decade ago. This was a time when the conversations around motherhood were very very different. I wasn’t on Facebook yet, Mummy blogs weren’t a whole booming industry, and most discussions about motherhood were focused on the act of mothering. There was no discussion of what it felt like to be a mother or how you, as a woman and a career woman, have changed. 

So, as a journalist, I started looking around and trying to find answers. And when I discovered no one was talking about it, I started a blog. I interviewed experts from all over the world about motherhood and womanhood, asking that question, ‘what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother?’. But at the time, my follow up question would always be: ‘how do we make sure we stay the woman we are, while still being the mother we want to be?’. My absolute commitment at the time was, I didn’t want to change, I wanted to be the woman I wanted to be – that journalist, that successful woman. In fact, the tagline of my first blog was, 'because you don’t have to put yourself on hold while raising your family'. That’s what I was out to prove.  

Over the coming years, the answers weren’t what I wanted to hear. I began to realise: you do change. There are parts of you that are put on hold. Things aren’t ever going to be the same. You may even have to let some things go. But there’s also incredible lessons and blessings and insights through all of this. After a while, I realised that this change might be a good thing. 

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"I actually had to pull over to the side of the road, I was so overcome with emotion. Not just for me, but for the three thousand women I had coached around motherhood. I cried for all of us, because I finally heard the answer we were all looking for."

So I started studying mindfulness and meditation, I trained to be a life coach, I interviewed some of the top mindfulness and self help gurus from around the world. But still, no one could tell me exactly why it was so hard to transition and how we changed. 

Until 10 years after the birth of my first child, about four years ago, I was driving around Sydney listening to a podcast, when I heard the word ‘matrescence’, and everything changed. 

Matrescence is like adolescence. Just as there is a period of enormous change when someone moves from child to adult, there is a period of enormous change and transition women go through when they become a mother which we have completely ignored - and it’s called Matrescence. It was such a revelation! I had been searching for an answer for a decade, and in one moment, it finally all made sense. I actually had to pull over to the side of the road, I was so overcome with emotion. Not just for me, but for the three thousand women I had coached around motherhood. I cried for all of us, because I finally heard the answer we were all looking for. 

Here was an acknowledgement of what it feels like to go through this period of change.Here was the realisation that we had not been given the right insights and support as we moved through this huge change. Here was the acceptance that we’ll never go back to who we used to be, but that’s ok! Because on the other side, we are going to be clearer on who we are. We’re going to let go of things that no longer serve us, and we will be so aligned with the woman and mother we want to be.

What do you think needs to change within our society to better support working mothers?

So much needs to change! First I would like matrescence to be understood by companies and organisations and governments all over the world. When that happens, we will finally acknowledge that motherhood is a life transformation that affects more than just her physical body for a year or so - it changes her on every level! She’s not who she used to be, and we can’t treat her when she returns from maternity leave like she’s just come back from an extended holiday, remind her where she sits and what her password is, and expect that she is going to go back to what she did before. 

We need to acknowledge that a working mother is an incredible asset to an organisation. We now understand the changes to a woman’s brain when she becomes a mother, and it is a powerful source of productivity, empathy and vision. In pregnancy and birth, her brain switches from ‘me’ to ‘we’: she has more capacity for empathy, more capacity for the legacy of a company, more big ideas. She is thinking about her child’s future. She has more compassion, she is more acutely aware of the people around her. We should be taking advantage of her new way of thinking, not ignoring it and judging it!

And then of course there’s working hours and flexibility - but these changes should be across the board. We need to change the way we support fathers, carers and grandparents. Our system not only doesn’t support working mothers, it doesn’t support people having a life outside of the workplace. Whether you have a sick pet, a sick child, a sick neighbour or sick parent, we need workplaces that allow us to be human, balanced and well. Otherwise we have people leaving work because they can’t balance their life. I believe the changes we are talking about for working mothers can extend to all working people, but first we need to acknowledge that putting a breast pump room in an office is not enough. We need to acknowledge what she is carrying and how she is managing things, how she has changed and what she needs to thrive. That would be a good place to start. 

From a practical perspective, how can a woman facing the transition into motherhood best prepare herself in terms of her career?

She needs to begin to accept that things are going to change. In a bigger way than she may realise. It would be wonderful if she could not only talk to her employer about the expectations of when she returns, but also that when she returns she would like to discuss her place in the business without fear of being judged or fear of losing her job. The same can be said for conversations with her partner, her friends and her extended family. Everybody in her life needs to know that she is about to enter into a huge period of change and transition. 

As women move through the early stages of motherhood and their career, I would love for women to be given a little bit of space to figure out what this means for her and her career. I have had so many women over the years say to me, ‘I don’t think this is what I want to do anymore, but do you know how long and how hard I’ve worked to get here? The HECS debt and hours? The challenges I’ve had to overcome to get to this level of my career? I don’t know how to walk away’. It’s almost like they close their eyes, holding on tight, and keep going. 

I did that, for a long time, until it was too dangerous to keep going. I don’t want that to be our reality anymore. 

I want every new Mum to know that matrescence and motherhood is meant to open you up to questioning: is this what I really want? It is normal and in fact it is exciting to ask these questions. The answer may be, yes, it’s still what I want. And if that’s the case, then have a look at how you can do it without doing that third shift and running into the maternal wall. 

If the answer is no though, then don’t be afraid of that. On the other side of that answer is your truth and a way of balancing this season of your life of motherhood and work in a truly healthy way. 

"I have had to teach myself how to undo my addiction to being busy."

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Amy's book Mama Rising

You’re still writing books and articles, running a coaching business, hosting a podcast, speaking at events, and of course mothering. So what’s different about the way you do things now, as opposed to before your research into matrescence?

I now have incredibly strong boundaries around my health and my time and energy. From the outside it looks like I am incredibly busy - I’m not. I only work hours that work for me and my family. I often make myself stop and rest. I have had to teach myself how to undo my addiction to being busy. I have had to get clear on what is important. It doesn’t mean I don’t have moments of burnout and overwhelm, of course I do. I have three children, I am now separated from their Dad and I’m building a business and writing books. 

Of course, there are moments when it does feel too much, but my body is my barometer. I promised myself when I went into early labour and realised it was of my own doing and my addiction to being busy that I would listen to my body. I do now. That means I have times when I feel like I’m not moving fast enough. I look around and think I should be doing more. I still fall back into the old pattern of wanting to prove myself. 

But when that happens, I do what I did in those ten weeks after I went into labour all those years ago: I sit down and I ask myself, why can’t you slow down? What is happening? When I sit with that, I remind myself that in these years, this is the pace that works for me now. I can be the mother I want to be and still do work that I love, that I trust the timing of things, that I’m in this for the long game, and that in the end my health and happiness is worth so much more. I never want to be that angry and that burnt out again. 

You’re now a Matrescence activist. What is that?

A matrescense activist is someone who is committed to changing the way the world views, values and supports motherhood. I believe we need a revolution in the way that we support and understand what mothers do. COVID has shown us on a global scale that working mothers were one of the most negatively impacted demographics. More women had to resign in order to juggle motherhood, more women have gone backwards in their roles because it was impossible to be a mother at home and do their jobs, and the gender pay gap has gone backwards by decades. All because we still don’t value, support and celebrate women in motherhood enough. It is invisible, it is under appreciated and it is assumed that we will just keep on going. But it’s time to say no. 

If we can have an understanding of matrescence and the real impact of motherhood, then we can begin to change our understanding of what a woman needs as a mother. And I believe this change is going to have to begin with us - the mothers. We can’t wait for the system to take notice and change anymore. We need a revolution - and when you know the world needs a revolution, you need an army. If we can mobilise mothers to speak up and say, ‘I’m not doing it that way anymore’ then we can change the world. 

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