By Kerrie Simon-Lawrence
“I want to go back and find her and give her a hug and tell her, ‘It’s actually going to be fine. I know there is no ounce of your being that believes that’s true, but it’s going to be more than fine’.” Jamila Rizvi isn’t talking about some random woman she saw on the street, or read about on social media., no, no. She’s talking about herself. Or rather, the version of herself that gave birth back in 2015 to son Rafi, and felt lonelier and more isolated than she’d ever thought possible.
“When I had Raf, I hadn’t read any of the baby books, so I started reading them after he was born. They were very helpful, but they were all about him, all about looking after the baby, which is obviously extremely important, but there were no books about looking after me. There were no books about how I was feeling, and what I was going through, and caring for myself as a separate person to this new baby. I found it baffling that I could be going through this enormous transition – for some people it’s the biggest transition they’ll ever go through in their life – and yet all the books were just focused on the practical side of looking after the child, as opposed to dealing with the mental and emotional side of looking after me.”
Becoming a mother was a seismic shift for Jamila. At the time, the law and commerce graduate was the editor-in-chief of Australia’s largest women’s news network, Mamamia, having joined the digital publisher after a successful several years working as a political advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments. The same year Rafi was born, she was listed as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence by the Australian Financial Times. And that was all before she’d turned 30. Put simply, Jamila was used to leading conversation, enjoying a good debate and was climbing the corporate ladder at a dizzying speed.
“I really struggled, particularly the first four or five weeks,” she recalls of those early days at home with Rafi. “I had a real identity crisis. I am someone who has always very much defined myself by my work, which I don’t think is unusual for this day and age. I worked up until the day he was born. And then I didn’t know what to do with myself. All the things I could use to define who I was, were all about work; they were about being capable and efficient and having good ideas. And suddenly all these things, all these strings in my bow, were not useful, and not relevant, and they didn’t make me good at what I was now in charge of doing. I found that incredibly hard to come to terms with. I thought, ‘Well, if I have always defined myself by what I do for work, and I don’t work at the moment, then who am I?’”
The fact that Jamila and her husband Jeremy Smith had based themselves in Melbourne while their families were in different states and, in Jeremy’s case, mostly abroad, didn’t do much to ease the isolation Jamila felt. The fact that none of her closest girlfriends had had children, made it tougher again. But for the self-proclaimed extrovert, around the five-week mark, Jamila drew a line in the sand.
“I’m such a social person, I get my energy from other people. I really turned a corner when I said to myself, ‘I have to insert a higher degree of sociability back into my life.’ I knew a big part of the problem was that I was spending too much time alone at home, with this little person who couldn’t talk.”
Jamila recalls her self-help modus operandi was to sit down with her calendar and simply start phoning people. “I just started locking in coffees and lunches and dinners. Even though I didn’t feel up to it and felt exhausted by the prospect, I thought that forcing myself to be social was the only way I was going to feel like me again. For me, it was the absolute best thing I could have done.”
That’s not to say it was smooth-sailing. Nah-ah. Some days, the very act of getting herself and a newborn out the door proved too much for the first-time mama. “I remember more than once, calling a friend ten minutes before I was supposed to see them, and saying, ‘It’s too hard! I can’t do it!’
But she persisted. And it paid off. But those early days weren’t forgotten. Already a published author (she had written the acclaimed Not Just Lucky – a feminist career manifesto – a year earlier), last year Jamila realized she owed it to the new legion of first-time mamas to start talking the truth about those first weeks.
“I wanted to show that there’s no normal,” she says of her decision to call on some of Australia’s best-known female identities, and ask them to write letters to their old selves, the selves navigating their first weeks of motherhood. “I wanted to show that while we’re all going through the same thing, and doing the same thing, that the experience of new mothers is incredibly varied.” To get her message across, she recruited the likes of Rebecca Sparrow, Zoe Foster Blake, Jessica Rudd, Sarah Harris, Kate ‘Monty’ Diamond, Holly Wainwright, Em Rusciano, the list goes on. Carrying the tagline, “Australian women share what they wish they’d known about life with a newborn” on the cover, the letters inside do just that – prove that regardless of how many books you read, those early days can be a variety of things – lovely, dark, lonely, exhilarating, terrifying.
Now, Jamila says she feels “a million miles away” from the lonely version of herself she once was. But that’s not to say she hasn’t had her share of challenges thrown at her along the way. In December last year she announced via her Instagram that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. For a mum of a then-two-year-old, the diagnosis shook her to the core. “I can tell you what my first thought was,” she recalls of her feelings at the time. “My first thought was, ‘He’s not going to remember me. If I die in the next year or two, he won’t remember who I am’. It was terrifying and heartbreaking all at the same time.”
She credits husband Jeremy for “stepping up” and taking control of the situation. “We’ve always been fairly even parents, but he stepped up to the majority-parenting role. I remember talking to him a couple of weeks before the operation and saying, ‘We should prepare Rafi for the operation, because he’s not going to see me for a while. And my husband said, ‘He and I have been talking about it at bathtime, every night, for the past month’. He had been slowly having this conversation with Rafi, not in a scary way, just that ‘mummy’s going to go to hospital because she’s got a sore head and the doctors are going to make her better, and when she comes home this is what we can do’. He’d spoken to our local GP about some child psychology basics and how we could prepare Rafi, and how we could empower Rafi through the process. He did a magnificent job of parenting that little boy through a period that was really scary for all of us.”
If you missed the post though, you could be forgiven for having no idea what Jamila was going through; a week after her announcement, she posted that Not Just Lucky had been included in Women’s Agenda’s top 25 reads of the year; a week after that, she was in the studio recording the audio version of the book; and another week later she announced the launch of The Motherhood. Add to the mix Tea With Jam and Clare, a roadshow-like series of evening events that she took on with friend and award-winning singer Clare Bowditch and special guests including Zoe Foster Blake and comedian Rosie Waterland, and it seemed like Jamila hadn’t skipped a beat.
“That was what we were going for,” she laughs, ‘But I did skip so many beats! I was in recovery for about eight weeks, but I started doing little pieces of work about five weeks in. I had designed my work schedule to be able to keep my activity in media and social media going for most of the time. While that was important from a career perspective, from a health perspective I don’t want to suggest for one minute that I’m some kind of wonderwoman.”
What she does put it down to, is a fierce love of work, and surrounding herself with people who knew that in order to feel like herself, she needed to be doing something, within reason. “The people around me have been phenomenal, people like Clare Bowditch, for example, who made that first Tea with Jam and Clare possible with me doing practically zero work until the actual event. And in that respect, that has been the story of my last six or seven months; friends and family and work colleagues really putting their own personal interests aside, to support me.”
It’s that women-supporting-women notion that Jamila hopes will become more common than the shaming that can so often happen with regards to parenting, working and everything in between. “It’s like that line they use on the aeroplane about fitting your oxygen mask before you fit someone else’s, because otherwise you might not be able to breathe. I often think that about women looking after babies – if mum’s not ok, she can’t look after baby the way she needs to.
“And yet, there is no other space where we would consider that to be the case. We wouldn’t look at someone who eats incredibly well, and say to them, ‘But it takes a lot more time to cook with fresh vegetables, and you could be using that time to help others’. Or someone who goes for a run every morning, we don’t say, ‘Well that’s a bit selfish’, we consider it good, healthy practice. But yet when a mother does it, when she puts the care of her health first, our reaction is, ‘How can you not be prioritizing that child?’ Actually, she’s making herself a better mother.”
But she’s hopeful for the future. “I’m an incredibly competitive person, and so I’m all for competition, but competitive child-rearing shouldn’t be a thing. I genuinely believe you can look after your baby better than anyone else can. I think as we become more aware of that, we’ll become better, and we’ll be able to move beyond those old stereotypes.” Spoken like the true trailblazer she is.