Catherine Brooks is one of the most impressive people I know. She’s a Principal at Moores, an accredited specialist in workplace relations law, co-founder and Director of Natural Supply Co an online natural beauty, skincare and lifestyle store, the founder of Facebook Group ‘Help a sister out’ (which now has over 7000 members) and a volunteer Board member of Women with Disability Victoria. She’s also a mother to one year old Remy, and partner to Brendan. I’m exhausted just thinking about her day-to-day life! I have no idea how she does it but this is one driven, smart, compassionate and creative women whose wisdom we could all benefit from. She is inspiring and real. She is honest about the struggles she endures as a working mum and the discrimination she faces due to her disability. She’s a champion for change, a great supporter for gender equality and she and her partner are wonderful examples of how parents can both share the care and continue to pursue their career goals.
You see, most new parents revert to the traditional family model when their child arrives – where the mother becomes the carer and the father stays on his career trajectory as the breadwinner. And even if she does work, it’s flexibly, or part-time – someone has to put the family first. But this short-term financial thinking ignores the potential for access to greater wealth over the long-term, by ignoring the earning potential of both partners (usually the mother). What’s more, its also feeding a harmful gendered stereotype that real men don’t flex.
Catherine and her partner Brendan are a great example of how two working parents can and do share the juggle. So we sat down with her and discussed their approach to balancing parenting and career, and how she has managed adding mother to her repertoire.
You’re one of the most well researched and prepared women I know, was there anything that surprised you about becoming a mother?
So much! I could write a book about the number of surprises that motherhood has swung my way! Firstly, I was bowled over by the love that I have for our son, it’s hit me like a tornado and really softened me as a person. My mum said it’s like I’ve had a brain lobotomy and my work colleagues are still getting used to my more relaxed style I think!
Secondly, I didn’t realise the impact that becoming a mum would have on my relationship with my husband. This first year has certainly been the hardest on our relationship as we are both learning to parent, keep the kid alive, bring in the moula and still love each other – it’s been a whirlwind and a juggle but I think we’re coming out the other side of it.
Finally, I’m a big champion of equality and feminism, but there are some parts of being a mum that I’ve learnt you just can’t outsource or put onto your partner. For example, breastfeeding – whilst I absolutely love breastfeeding it has meant that my son is more reliant on me so I had to change my mindset about what equality looks like, particularly in the first year of childhood. I could go on and on about the surprises but honestly, it’s been the best experience in my life and that’s also been a big surprise!
How much parental leave did you take after your son Remy was born?
I took three full months from Moores, but I regularly popped into work (mainly because I love the people that I work with and I missed them!) and attended Principal meetings and Natural Supply Co director meetings when needed. I also continued to manage a number of social media accounts – this was a great job to do whilst breastfeeding on the couch.
But when it comes to running a small business there’s really no such thing as parental leave, just ask my co-director Celeste (who runs Natural Supply Co and gave birth 6 weeks after me). The key to juggling in this circumstances for us was to share the load with our other co-director, Sarah, and all pitch in when the newborn haze set in. A lot of women create their own businesses to give themselves the flexibility they want, but it can take years to build up a business and in many ways it’s harder to create flexibility within a start-up. My advice to women considering how to best work flexibly; work within a system at first and then partner up with other business people if you want to branch out of your own.
After Remy was born, did you consider not returning to work?
There’s a part of me that thinks I’d be pretty happy being a full-time stay at home mum, but there’s another part of me which thinks it’s a really tough gig and that I’d make a better mum with some balance. Whilst the main reason for me was economic (I’m the primary breadwinner) I also subscribe to the ‘Lean In’ philosophy that you should always have a seat at the table, even when you’re only able to put half your bum on that seat! One day, my kid(s) will be all grown up and not need me as much. And even now, I have an identity external to my family – that strongly aligns with the work that I do and what I contribute to outside of my family responsibilities. So for me, even when I haven’t really wanted to head into work, I’ve pushed myself to do so because I know that there is reward there, social, financial and personal reward – for myself, my workplace and my family.
How did you manage the back-to-work transition?
I went back to work at the four month mark, starting firstly with half days in the office and then heading home at lunch time to breastfeed and cuddle and then working from home in the afternoons. I found this a great transition as I missed my baby but desperately wanted to get back into some work too! It also helped my husband transition into fatherhood as he looks after our son when I’m at work. It was hard at first, because our baby was so reliant on the breast, but now he is eating solids and really enjoys his time with dad.
Your partner takes care of Remy three day week and works two days a week – has he found a stigma attached to being a stay-home-dad at all?
Yes absolutely – I’ve had girlfriends ask me “when is Brendan going to get a full-time job” and I’ve had to explain to them that it’s not in our interest for Brendan to work full-time as we rely on him to help me work and care for Remy. Also, as all parents know, Brendan is working full-time, just in an unpaid role whilst he is at home with bub. Brendan has found it hard to find other stay at home dads but they are out there and our social circle is slowly expanding which helps greatly. Brendan is an amazing dad and the bond that he has with Remy is so strong because of the great one-on-one time he gets to have with our son.
Have you faced any challenges in your role as a working mother with a young child?
No. Ummm. Yes of course!!! There’s always that moment before you leave for work when you feel guilty. There’s that moment when you arrive at work when you feel such joy at being able to use a different part of your brain – and then you feel guilty! There was that first Principals meeting where I had to bring my son with me because I couldn’t get last minute childcare and of course he was niggly – I’ll never forget how grateful I was of my fellow Principal Jen (another mother) who said “Cath just breastfeed him, we don’t care”! So whilst there have been lots of challenges, I appreciate that I’ve been luckier than most and I have my workplace to thank for that. They’ve really let me transition back slowly and I have a million people to thank – I just hope I can repay them with hard work, loyalty and supporting others needs to work flexibly.
The term ‘maternal gatekeeper’ is used to describe women who inhibit fathers from embracing their parental duties. Do you have any advice for other new parents about sharing the care with their partners and the importance of it for both parties?
Oh yes – step away! This would totally have been me if I wasn’t working. When I’m not around, my partner steps up to the plate in a way that I wouldn’t let him if I was there. This is also true with my in-laws, who are fantastic with our son but I’ve learnt it’s really better if I just go out for coffee and leave them all to it, otherwise my controlling ways can just interfere. I would also recommend that there is a division of duties, for example, my job is to breastfeed so when it came to getting our son used to the bottle, that was my husband’s job. Once our son started taking the bottle, my husband grew in confidence and felt a sense of achievement – whilst he couldn’t breastfeed he could care for our child in another (still important) way and that was really lovely. In doing this, I’ve felt a greater sense of equality in our household and my husband has been empowered too. What a lucky son we have to have both parents so engaged!