Women, look after yourselves

00:47, Jun 25 2014
Karen Nimmo
KAREN NIMMO: The Wellington psychologist is seeing increasing levels of anxiety among women, which she blames on their efforts to juggle the demands of busy lives.

It was a good idea for a story: To find female descendants of influential women throughout New Zealand's history.

What's happened to the daughters, granddaughters, even great-granddaughters, of our female Kiwi legends?

It's difficult to say. Out of the top 10 women history makers in New Zealand only three were mothers: Kate Sheppard had one child, Dame Whina Cooper had six, and Kiri Te Kanawa had two.

Lisa O'Neill
LISA O'NEILL: Women need to be upfront in asking for help to manage the household alongside their working lives, she says.

New Zealand isn't unique in this regard - all around the world, high-flying women are unencumbered by children.

American political scientist Condoleezza Rice, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, English actress Helen Mirren, to name but a few.

Despite their achievements, these women face stigma for being - to quote a phrase previously directed at Gillard - "deliberately barren".


Dame Whina Cooper
HISTORY MAKER: Dame Whina Cooper was among the few of NZ's most famous high achieving women who had children.

Society treats childless women at worst as selfish, and, at best, as anomalies.

But procreating is no longer a safe way to social acceptance, either. Working women are criticised for neglecting their children, while stay-at-home mothers are told to get a job.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote after she stepped down from her job as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department; "Women still can't have it all".

"When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I'd come home not only because of Princeton's rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible," Slaughter wrote

Wellington-based clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo says she's noticed a "disturbing trend" in the number of women aged in their 30s and 40s with anxiety.

"All of them have children as well as their work," she says. "They find it difficult to stop, to relax, to make time for self-care, they can't not be busy."

Although men also suffer anxiety, Nimmo says they don't generally share the same feelings of guilt and the "burden" of running a household.

"Men are more involved than they used to be, but often the burden [of household tasks] does fall to the female partner."

Nimmo says issues arise when people try to focus their energy into more than one area simultaneously, such as when women try to juggle family and work.

"The workforce is still very dog-eat-dog, and a woman still has to do what a man does, but that's obviously very difficult when you're trying to do just as much at home."

Regarding those who come some way towards succeeding at both, she says: "It requires very good support - having good systems in place, the ability to prioritise and compartmentalise. It's important to be able to relax when you need to."

More and more career-driven women are realising it's impossible to reach the top of the ladder and be the world's best mum at the same time.

Statistics New Zealand figures showed that in 2013 New Zealand had the fewest live births registered since 2005. New Zealand's natural increase (live births minus deaths) was 29,149, the lowest since 2003 (28,124).

"Voluntary childlessness" was more common among women living in cities, where the increased cost of living, larger social networks and career and education priorities were believed to have more effect.

Other studies have shown a quarter of of women with post-graduate qualifications had no children, as opposed to 13 per cent of women with no qualifications.

It's predicted up to a quarter of women born in the 1970s may remain childless for life - mostly through choice.

Lisa O'Neill, motivational stylist, speaker, writer and mother of four children aged between six and 14 ("quite busy ages"), says New Zealand women need to be more upfront in asking for help at home.

"Women are secretly wishing their husbands will cook dinner but they don't actually say 'this is what I need'," she says.

Then, when the husband does cook, she says women are too quick to take over if the meal doesn't meet their standards.

"We try to fix it, but actually all we're doing is letting them off the hook."

O'Neill and her husband each had turns working while the other stayed at home with the children.

"It's good for the kids to see we interchange roles. My husband can go to dancing and tie a ponytail, and I can referee a soccer game. People say I'm lucky, but I think it's all management."

O'Neill has worked in the fashion industry her whole life. She values having an identity outside the family, but doesn't pretend it's been easy.

"If you don't put yourself first, you'll end up mental."

Her book, Look Gorgeous, Be Happy, was inspired after meeting so many working mothers who were at the end of their tether. She found through her talks on clothing, she could broach the bigger issue of health and wellbeing.

"I see women wrecking themselves, over a bloody birthday party. But no one will remember whether the cake was homemade or bought."

Prioritising self-care is "super important", she says, because everybody feels better when their clothes are clean and their hair is done.

"Regardless of how little sleep I had, I always got up and dressed up. If I look good, I know I'm okay."

Too many women tell her they simply don't have time in the morning to pay attention to their appearance.

"They say my son gets up at 6am. I say, get up at 5.30."

Simple rules such as keeping children out of the bedroom for the first half hour of the morning can save sanity, she says.

She's fortunate in her work now, she says, because she can have days "100 per cent working" and others "100 per cent mothering".

"And I don't mix my working days and my mothering days. That's a rare privilege. So many mums have to do both, and it's just too much."

Release can be found in asking for help, and often in lowering standards, O'Neill says. Besides, children aren't for everyone, and that's okay, too.

"It's a big job, and it doesn't go away."

"You can't be perfect at everything. My house is a tip, but I don't care. Food matters more to me, good meals are more important to me. It just depends on what your thing is. And you can't have your thing as everything."

New Zealand's Top 10 Women History Makers 

- Kate Sheppard, suffragette

- Jean Batten, aviator

- Janet Frame, author

- Dame Whina Cooper, Maori rights activist

- Katherine Mansfield, author

- Helen Clark, prime minister

- Mabel Howard, trade unionist and politician

- Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, opera singer

- Ettie Rout, safe sex campaigner

- Frances Hodgkins, painter

* Only Whina Cooper, Kiri Te Kanawa and Kate Sheppard were mothers.

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