It may seem counterintuitive, but for some women motherhood is the catalyst for transforming their working lives. Maternity leave is definitely not ‘me time’ – as American author of Meternity, Meghann Foye, would have it. (In case you missed it, Foye’s recent comments likening maternity leave with ‘me time’ outraged mothers across the globe.) But it is true that amongst the blur of nappy changes and sleepless nights, at some point you do need to consider a few basic questions about your future. Questions such as these: how much do you need to earn to support your family? How available do you want to be for your children? How will you manage their care? Is there another job that might suit your needs better – one that might even satisfy you more?
In this piece I have chosen to profile three passionate, motivated local women who have each made dramatic career shifts since becoming mothers. There’s Anshu Coulin, a lawyer turned maternity fashion designer; Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg, a sales coordinator turned librarian and children’s book author; and Ali Vildos, a park ranger turned modern-day Mary Poppins type who helps families with, well, just about anything! After having children, each of the women dreamed of a different career path and are now realising those dreams. And I think there’s something quite powerful in the idea that any one of us can reinvigorate our careers, or reinvent them entirely – at any time in our lives.
Former in-house legal counsel, Anshu Coulin knew something had to give. In a profession that expects long hours, and with a husband who works overseas half the time, she recognised after having her first child that she simply could not devote herself to her job in the way she had previously. ‘How well you perform as a lawyer can very much be dominated by the number of hours you do,’ says Anshu. ‘Logistically, it was becoming physically harder to dedicate myself to the legal profession in the way I had prior to starting a family.’
The realisation struck her, while pregnant with her third child, that her career was just not compatible with her young family, her priorities had changed, and it was time for a leap – a big one. She made the bold choice to follow her love of fashion.
During her pregnancies Anshu struggled to find stylish, versatile, affordable clothing options suitable throughout pregnancy – as well as during breastfeeding and postpartum recovery. She discovered that there was, in fact, a gap in the market. ‘My fashion label, Style Maternity, was an idea I held onto during my first two pregnancies but never had the courage to pursue. By my third pregnancy, when reality started to hit home that I couldn’t go back to my old career, I decided to act on the idea – it was like the universe was giving me a sign!’ she explains.
To date, Anshu’s maternity wear collection features two dresses – ‘the Sophia’ and ‘the Audrey’, named in honour of her two girls, aged four years, and nine months, respectively. (Her middle child is son Harry, aged two.) As testament to her passion and confidence in her products, she showed off her label’s dresses in the maternity ward after giving birth to Audrey. (You go, girl!) And, blessed with brains and undeniable beauty, Anshu even models the collection herself.
I ask Anshu what was involved in establishing the business, what sacrifices were made.
‘Practically it hasn’t been too hard as I have been able to set up and manage the business in my own hours and around the children’s routine and needs. What has been hard, however, is accepting the fact that I might never return to being the lawyer I was prior to having a family – sacrificing a longstanding part of my identity. Given that I am still quite passionate about the law, I have decided to continue to work one day a week for a barrister, which I absolutely love.’
And how has Anshu’s life changed since launching Style Maternity?
‘I wouldn’t say my life has become significantly less busy, but I love knowing that I am in control of my family life and work life. For example, I love the fact that I can pick up my eldest, Sophia, from preschool at 3 pm. It might sound trivial, if not slightly corny, but seeing Sophia’s smiling beaming face at the end of the day warms my heart. I grew up with full-time working parents, which meant I spent a lot of my time in after-school care or being picked up by carers. Not that I begrudge my parents for this – they were extremely hardworking people who only wanted the best for their children. However, given that I am much more blessed with the choices I can make, I would like my children’s schooling experience to be different to my own.’
Ever since she was a child, Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg has loved books and writing. She knew she wanted to write, and she wanted to surround herself with literature, but these goals were pipedreams at the time she left school.
Rebecka explains: ‘Throughout my teen years, my family life was a mess. I was living with friends for my senior year and by the time I finished high school, university did not seem to be a viable option without the normal family support you would expect to have at age 18. Instead I just wanted to get out and make money so that I could take care of myself and give myself some stability.’
Persistence paid off and she eventually found a role in sales for a book publisher – a job that paid the bills and indulged her passion for literature. But by then, having a family was a strong priority. ‘All I wanted was to have my own family to fill that void in my life. After I had my daughter and while I was on maternity leave, it occurred to me that maybe now was a great time to develop my career – that neglected area of my life. Though I had gained experience and skills, I could not see much scope for developing my career without having any formal qualifications, and so I decided when my daughter was six months old to study.’
At first Rebecka struggled to adapt to tertiary study but soon realised that the skills she had developed as a new mother would benefit her. ‘It was intimidating to start at uni – it’s a completely different way of learning to my previous high school experience – but I found that the key was to be organised. I’m not going to lie, it was hard work, but because it was something I really wanted, both for myself and for the future of my family, it wasn’t hard to stay motivated. I found that overall, while it was difficult, it was also great to be able to get my brain around new subjects, giving me something more in my day than snacks and toys and nappies. Although without my support network (husband and in-laws), I’m not sure I’d have been able to do it (or at least do it well!).’
Having completed her tertiary course to become a librarian, Rebecka was able to secure a role as an assistant at a public library. ‘I’m starting at the bottom to gain the necessary experience and it is my hope to become a children’s specialist librarian,’ she says. It’s a role that allows her to immerse herself in books and is also compatible with her young family. ‘When looking for a job it was imperative to me to find part-time hours so that I can still be there for my kids while they’re little. As they both grow, I will ease into longer work hours. Luckily for me, public libraries are open late and on weekends so this extends the potential hours I can work.’
At the same time, Rebecka was tirelessly submitting children’s book manuscripts to publishers. And one day, her efforts were rewarded: she received the news that her picture book manuscript, Reflection: Remembering Those Who Serve in War, about a family attending a dawn memorial service would be published by one of Australia’s leading children’s trade book publishers. The book, which has been beautifully brought to life with the illustrations of Robin Cowcher, was released in April 2016.
When I ask Rebecka about her career as an author, she laughs it off humbly as a ‘very fortunate hobby’. But it’s clear with her passion, knowledge of literature and talent, she has many more books to come. ‘The kids have definitely altered my outlook on life and how I view the world, and I think that has had an influence on my writing. It’s still a new journey for me, but I can see more potential in my future career than I ever could pre-kids.’
Throughout her working life, Ali Vildos has been a jack-of-all-trades. She’s worked as a nanny, hospital volunteer, administrator, event manager and even a park ranger, but it was her experience of postnatal depression, following the birth of her son, which inspired her current business, ‘Aunty Ali’.
When her son was born, 13 years ago, Ali found she was struggling. Finally, after ten months, she was diagnosed with postnatal depression. She says of this period: ‘With little family support available I was a mess. It was the most difficult time of my life and I felt so alone. No one seemed to truly understand what I was going through. I never wanted another mum to feel that way.’
Ali worked part-time during her son’s toddler years, which suited her well, but after getting divorced when her son was five she needed full-time work. She landed a job as a ranger in Parramatta Park, which she loved, but the contract role ended after four years. She then had a stint in local government, which she found frustrating. ‘I was always trying to help people, but was limited in what I could do. I knew I was meant for more. One day I just left.’
It was a surprisingly quick transition from unemployed to business owner, she says. ‘My first thoughts were, what am I going to do now? I’m a bit of a list person so I wrote down all the things I’m naturally good at, which is how I came to the idea of Aunty Ali, a person who helps families with everyday life – anything from home organisation and decluttering to providing practical and emotional support during busy or difficult times. Then I did a market research post on Inner West Mums. Within an hour or so I had my first client. I will never forget her words, “Well, Mary Poppins, how about you come and save my life?” We were both in tears.’
I ask Ali what it took to set up the business.
‘My business required very little monetary outlay,’ she tells me, ‘but it did require some hard yards to get it to the point where I was earning a reasonable income. Fortunately we aren’t big spenders, but we tightened our belts nonetheless, and I advertised my business at every given opportunity. I celebrated each new client as someone I could help. I like to be creative, so to keep costs down I did a number of skill swaps, rather than paying for services.’
Ali says the business fits in well with her family life. (She remarried when her son was eight and is now a stepmum.) ‘During really busy times I ask my family if they are okay with me doing extra jobs. They know how important my work is, so they usually agree. It’s also flexible, so I will just work half-days if the kids need me, such as during school holidays. I thought having my own business would mean it’s easier to have a sick day but it’s the opposite. My clients really depend on me coming and often they aren’t coping well so it’s difficult to let them down. The flip side of that is they truly understand what it is like to have a sick child.’
One of the biggest challenges, Ali has found, is how to contain all the stuff from decluttering jobs. ‘I try to find the best possible home for things so my hallway is always filled with items I’m rehoming to the grassroots charities, pay it forward sites and people in need that I’ve gotten to know.’ But her family is understanding. ‘My hubby and kids are my biggest and proudest supporters. I couldn’t do it without them.’
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