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‘Balance Is Bullshit’: Mia Freedman

By Madeleine Gray on May 29, 2017 in People

Photo: Jeremy Greive

Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from the Eastern Suburbs. I haven’t strayed far. I grew up in Rose Bay. I was a Rose Bay Public girl, and then a Woollahra Public girl, and then a Vaucluse High student, and then an Ascham girl. I worked my way around. I was mortified having to go to Ascham. It was the worst day of my life.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?

I love that it enables you to have such a nice lifestyle, and much of it for no money. The Bondi to Bronte walk is free. Bondi Beach is free. Centennial Park is free. The beautiful cliff walk along the beaches is free. Walking around Westfield is free – I’m not even kidding, I absolutely love Westfield. I’m very visual, so I like the visual stimulation of just walking around the shopping centre.

Any other favourite local haunts?
Yes! Up the bus depot end of Oxford Street there’s a shop called South of the Border. My girlfriend owns that shop so I spend a lot of time in there. And there’s also the Cook & Baker up there. That’s my other little enclave that I love.

What gets your goat about the Eastern Suburbs?
Parking meters. It’s free to park in most other suburbs, but in the Eastern Suburbs it costs you a fortune just to buy a litre of milk.

You got your gig as Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan magazine at 24, which must have been amazing but incredibly daunting; how do you manage self-doubt, and how did you throw yourself into that?

I wasn’t daunted at all. I’m far more daunted at 45 than I was at 24, or even 19, or even 15. I think the older you get the less you realise that you know. I had supreme confidence-slash-arrogance at 24, but that has been knocked out of me in the 21 years since then.

You’ve worked in women’s media for decades; what are the most noticeable changes you’ve observed in the industry and how do Australian women consume media today?
Well digital, obviously. The only place there was women’s media until ten years ago was women’s magazines. They had a real iron grip on the whole female demographic, and that’s where I wanted to work. But in the early 2000s I started to be more interested in online as a consumer, and I’ve always wanted to work in whatever medium I’m consuming. Digital has been a massive thing, and it’s enabled us to start Mamamia.

Digital media makes us consume content differently and there’s been a movement towards a more confessional style of journalism; is that something you’ve noticed?
Yes. It’s interesting because I’ve always written in first person, since I had a column at Cosmo, and over the years I got more and more confident in doing that. I used to have a first person newspaper column before people really did that.

The problem with the instant gratification and the proliferation of blogs, which I think are fantastic, is that there’s a lot of stuff that people just put out there immediately without processing it, or understanding the consequences of either what they’ve experienced, or going public with it. I think that that’s something that I’ve always been very mindful of. So in my book, for example, and when I’ve written for digital, I try to take some time to process things and not just word vomit them out immediately as they happen.

Has there been a time when you’ve been like, ‘Shit, I shouldn’t have published that’?
Yeah, I think when I’ve written stuff about my kids that has upset them. And I always used to think that as long as I was the butt of the joke, it was okay. That used to be my rule. But the other thing the Internet’s done is blurred the boundaries of privacy. What I might think is not a big deal, to a kid it can be a huge deal if they’re going through a particular time in their life. My eight-year-old is embarrassed that he was ever a toddler.
I think that I’ve learned through trial and error, and my son wrote a chapter in my book about this. I’ve broken trust and I’ve damaged relationships with people when I’ve not respected those boundaries.

You just mentioned that your son, Luca, wrote a chapter on your relationship in your new book, ‘Work Strife Balance’; did you just let him have free reign?
I did. I had to. He was quite shocked that I let him have free reign. We both kept waiting for my publisher or my editor to say, “You know what, this chapter doesn’t work.” But as soon as he handed it in I knew it was brilliant, and it was very moving for me to read in good and bad ways. But it was scary. It’s like having a performance review from your kid. It’s full on. It’s like, “What type of parent was I? Go.”

Can you tell us about what the book entails more generally?
It’s called ‘Work Strife Balance’. I originally wanted to call it ‘Balance is Bullshit’ because I think it is, and I think that work-life balance has become this stick that women particularly use to beat ourselves up with because we don’t feel like we’re achieving it. No one’s got work-life balance. The best things and the most important things that happen in your life will throw you off balance, so judging ourselves by this impossible standard is about as realistic as women trying to have a thigh gap.

Who have you written the book for?
My writing in the past has often been for myself, to process things. This book’s written for other women, because it’s the book I wish I could have read in my twenties, thirties, and forties. Because the stuff that happens to you in those decades is really common, but most women don’t talk about it, and so I wanted to not just talk about what happened to me, but what I learned from it. Everything from a marriage breakdown, to an eating disorder, to career humiliations, all of those kinds of things.

People who are reading the book are probably also reading your website and your columns – clearly Mamamia originates from who you are as a brand as well as a person; that being the case, how do you balance the views and experiences that you give voice to?
I am not the editor of Mamamia anymore, and I haven’t been for a lot of years now. We have a fantastic team that does that. The whole point of Mamamia was always for it to not be about my views and my opinions, even in the beginning when it was just me in my lounge room.

I’m a privileged middle-class white girl from the Eastern Suburbs. That’s one very narrow worldview. There are many, many others that I want to use this platform and our audience to give voice to – firstly, because that’s the right thing to do for women and girls, and secondly, because it’s more interesting to read about experiences other than your own. We do have a lot of diversity on our staff, a lot of diversity with our contributors. That’s how we make sure we are for all women, not just women who think a certain way.

What do you see is your role in society as a media producer? Do you think that what you do can create tangible change?
I know it can. The difference between our media company and a lot of the other big media companies that are trying to target women at the moment is exactly that – they’re trying to target women to make money out of them. The core purpose of our business is to make the world a better place for women and girls. And we check everything we do against that.

That’s not to say it’s not a commercial business, it is, but I’ll give you an example. We give at least one and a half million dollars worth of space to charities every year, women’s charities. We ran a story about the plight of homeless women who didn’t have access to sanitary products and a woman, one of our readers, read this story and was so shocked by it that she started a charity called Share the Dignity that collects and distributes tampons and pads to homeless women.

Last year we had pregnancy loss awareness week, because when I lost a baby there was nowhere that I could go and feel normal, and so we did that. There’s no commercial benefit to those kinds of things for us, but it does make the world a better place for women and girls, and we’re very focused on that.

And on a small, local basis, we employ over a hundred women, and give women a platform to express themselves, which is a good thing. I’m really proud of that.

Teen Vogue has been doing some of the most incisive political journalism lately, and everyone was totally shocked when they realised that publication was actually doing smart things; is that underestimation of women’s and girls’ media changing, and how do you harness that?
When I started Mamamia, the only websites for women were either cooking sites, parenting sites, fashion sites, or gossip sites. I’m interested in all of those things, which doesn’t make me dumb, but I’m also interested in politics, current affairs, news, books, and a bunch of other things.

At Mamamia we’re very content agnostic. It’s not highbrow or lowbrow, it’s no brow. Women very easily and comfortably jump between Drumpf and the Logies red carpet in the same conversation. That’s just how women talk. I wanted to create a media platform and a media company that reflected the diversity of our interests.

A topic that women are obviously interested in is motherhood, and yet there’s this kind of cultural embarrassment about ‘mummy bloggers,’ as they are termed; what does that tell us about how we, as a society, view motherhood and caregiving?
I think the fact that it’s even called ‘mummy blogging’ is a way to put it down. If men want to try to put me in my place they’ll call me a mummy blogger, and I’m like, “Dude, I own a media company.” There are three people in the world who can call me mummy, and they’re my kids. Anyone else who does it is being a dick.

Parenthood is a really important thing in women’s lives, and I think that parenting blogs have been a fantastic thing for women to be able to give meaning and expression and creativity, and in some cases make money, around something that’s really common and that so many of us do. It’s really important, and why shouldn’t it be written about? It’s no less important than sport, or politics, or fashion, or gossip, and it’s arguably more important than all those things.
Of course we’re all trying to work out how to do it well. Motherhood can be really lonely, and the Internet and the blogging world can be a real lifeline.

You’ve faced some public criticisms from past colleagues, saying that you value relationships based on professional expediency, neglecting them once they are no longer of use; can you talk us through that criticism? Is that gendered?
It’s pretty gendered. I’ve never read an interview with a male executive who’s asked why he’s not still besties and having beers with everyone he’s ever worked with. Digital media and running your own business, as anyone who’s run their own business knows, is all consuming. It eats your life. And then working in a women’s media company is also pretty intense and intimate, because the stuff we’re writing about and talking about is often pretty personal.

So when people are here, things are very intense. Often they leave because they can’t handle the pace of digital, which I completely respect, or they’ve had kids, or they’re in a different life phase. I totally understand that and I always wish them well. I’m friends with many, many people I’ve worked with, not just at Mamamia, but in magazines as well, but my life doesn’t slow down. I’ve only got a certain amount of hours in my day and I have to prioritise first of all my own family, and second of all our business and the people who work in it now.

Friendships are for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. And just because they’re for a reason or a season, it doesn’t mean they are any less valuable. But you can’t stay friends at the same level with everyone in your life, otherwise you wouldn’t have room for a life.

In the past you’ve talked about your struggles with anxiety. While mental health dialogue is getting much better, understanding about anxiety is still quite vague; can you tell us about your experiences with anxiety?
When I was first diagnosed with it about five years ago, after having an anxiety attack that lasted for 11 days. I didn’t know anyone else who had anxiety. I knew people who had depression, but I didn’t know anyone who had anxiety, and I think that’s probably because a lot of people who have it just think that they’re highly strung, or they’re stressed, or that life is just really hard.

It’s like so many things that I’ve written about in the book. So many experiences – whether it’s ending a marriage, losing a baby, being diagnosed with anxiety – it’s like there are all these secret clubs out there that you don’t even realise are out there until you join one. And usually it’s not of your choice. There’s this whole network of people who are ashamed and silent and sort of trapped in their own anxiety and embarrassment about it. If you just open up, everyone goes, “Oh, my god. Me too.”

So that’s why I write about things that other people might think are too personal or too revealing, because the more that people in the public eye can be honest about their struggles and their shit times and the hard things that they go through, and not just post photographs in bikinis on Instagram with washboard stomachs, the more they’re helping other people.

Are there any particular journalists and/or publications that you really love at the moment?
I will read anything Caroline Overington writes. I would read her shopping list. And I would read any interview that Leigh Sales does. She’s extraordinary. I’m really into podcasts at the moment, too. There’s a fantastic podcast that I love called The Guilty Feminist. Podcasting is a big part of our business and it’s the majority of what I do now.

I’ve also really loved The Good Weekend under Amelia Lester, who I’ve become really close to because I reached out to her. She and I are about to start a new political podcast about American politics because we’re both obsessed. Obsessed with Drumpf. We used to go out to dinner at The Paddington when she lived in Australia and we would just sit there for three hours eating chicken and chips and talking about US politics.

Do you have any role models in the industry?
There are three women who have been hugely influential for me: Lisa Wilkinson, Pat Ingram – who’s been more behind the scenes, but everyone in the magazine industry knows – and, of course, Ita Buttrose, who I’ve never worked with, but who has really blazed a trail.

Do you have any advice for youngsters, particularly young women, wanting to get into media and journalism?
I’ve got a chapter about that in the book. It’s called, ‘Fuck You Dreams’. That’s a little bit harsh, but it means you should know the difference between a hobby, a job, a career, a vacation, and a dream. And your dream, or your hobby, or your passion is not necessarily going to earn you an income, and that’s okay.

I would also say don’t be afraid to work for free, as long as you feel it is a fair exchange of experience for service. If there’s something in it for you and you don’t feel that you’re being exploited, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re being exploited. Everyone I know who has gotten into journalism started for free. It’s also a way to learn what you’re into and what you’re not into, otherwise it’s really hard to know what the job even entails if you’ve never been into a particular workplace or industry.

Do you support any charities?
I sure do. I am an ambassador for Rise Up, which is a charity that supports women and children leaving domestic violence situations and helps set them up in homes. I also support the City Dogs and Cats Home, which is where my two dogs came from. I’m big on animal welfare. And finally Share the Dignity, which is about providing sanitary products for homeless women.

You’ve talked about global expansion for Mamamia; what does the future hold for Mia Freedman and the business?
In the immediate future I’ve been toying with having a gap year in New York, because we’ve set up our business over there. Once upon a time that’s all I wanted to do, but then you go to New York and you come back to Sydney and it’s like, “Why?” New York is not the centre of the universe in the way that it once was, and I would find it very, very hard to tear myself away from Sydney, so I’ll be doing a bit of commuting in the near future, I think. We’ve already got an office in New York and we’ve got about 15 staff over there, and we’ve got a website in New York called Spring St. We’re also expanding our podcast network there as well. That’s the new frontier for us.

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