Ita Buttrose started her career as a copygirl on The Australian Women's Weekly.
Ita was 30 when she became Founding Editor of the then groundbreaking Cleo magazine in 1972 but it was her appointment to the editorship of the hugely successful Women's Weekly in 1975 that turned her into a household name.
Ita is one of Australia's busiest speakers: she appears weekly on Channel Seven's Sunrise program; is a regular panellist on Foxtel's Beauty & the Beast and is patron of Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA) and the Macular Degeneration Foundation. The books she has written include Motherguilt, What is Love? and How Much is Enough? Your Financial Roadmap to a Happy Retirement. Ita is currently single, and has two children, Kate (38) who is an architect, and Ben (33) a scientist, who have both left home.
As co-author of the book Motherguilt, you look at the pressures on modern mums. Why do women carry such a heavy burden of guilt?
Because I think society's expectations on women are unrealistic. We have fallen for the line that we must be perfect, especially in motherhood. It is really OK to be just good enough. First time around, we are such novices. They put that bundle in your arms and you look at it and you think "oh wow" and we place these unrealistic expectations on ourselves but really, the trick is to just relax.
As a working mum in the 1970s, you led the charge for a lot of women. Did you feel a lot of pressure to succeed?
I didn't feel any pressure. It was something I wanted to do. We were told we had choices and my choice was to return to work. When I had my daughter, Kate, I was living in England and we moved to the country so I had 12 months off before going back to work. I realised I wanted more and we returned to Australia and coincidentally, Sir Frank Packer offered me my old job back. But you know, the very first time I arranged for some in-house care and I left Kate and she did cry and I left with a heavy heart and I felt bad and guilty and terrible. But when I got home, I asked Mrs Radcliffe [the carer] how Kate went and she said, "Ooooh, she was fine, she stopped crying the moment you left'.
When your children were small, do you think you successfully juggled your work/life balance?
I more or less did. You obviously have to give up time for yourself. That's the sacrifice but you know that along the way you will get that time back. And it's a small price to pay. Work was different in the 1970s but we weren't working 24/7 we weren't contacted by emails or by phones bipping morning, noon, and night. You left the office and you went home. Of course, when I started going up the executive ladder I did have to do some reading on the weekend, but not like the work pressures now. We are now expected to work when people want us to. Work has encroached to the detriment of our personal lives.
Is it possible to have it all?
Only if we put our foot down. Who said we have to work 24/7? Companies have downsized and workers are expected to do two or three jobs. When I was editor of the Women's Weekly, I had two secretaries and an executive assistant. Now? We are overloaded. If the office culture suggests you are not a good worker if you don't do those long hours, then that's bad management. I never disturbed my secretary on the weekends. I didn't. I very rarely rang anyone on weekends unless there was a big story breaking. Good management lets your staff have personal lives.
Do you think your children would have preferred you spent more time with them?
They have never said it to me, and they are fairly frank and forthright children. But about a year ago, they told me that they loved our school holidays together. I usually took them out of Australia so I wouldn't be a focus of attention. My children were very rarely photographed, and if you asked people to identify them, they couldn't. So I might take them to Hawaii or Malaysia, and I really tried to have that quality time with them out of the limelight. There was a rule in my office, that no matter what I was doing, if my children needed me, I was to be interrupted. If there was a problem, I would be found. They have to know you are there for them.
Apart from your family and your work as a writer, what helps to define you as an individual?
Passion. I'm passionate about life. I'm also very passionate about giving back to the community. I do a lot of work for good causes. They come along and you think, ‘That's wonderful work, I could help'. You can't just take, take take. You need to give back.
What's your top tip?
To have rules and boundaries. Children need rules and boundaries. You know, ‘I look at some young parents and it's ‘Don't do that Sarah.'Don't do that Sarah' as Sarah rips up the deposit forms in the bank. My kids knew if I said ‘Don't!' that if they went on, they would have got donged. Getting donged is a big threat. Children need that. If you relax the rules, they don't know what to expect. They might want you to rescue them. When Ben was a teenager, I could hear him having a conversation and it was some bloke from a club trying to get him to go to the club and offer him drugs. He rang back and I said, ‘You call my son one more time and I will have the police on you so fast ... you keep away from my boy'. My son was relieved that I took control of the situation. You have to be vigilant. You have to let them be free, but they need rules. I didn't find my children difficult. Children will always challenge you but so they should.
Can you tell us about the last time you had a really big belly laugh with your children?
This morning on the phone to Kate. Laughter is essential. We laughed a lot at Christmas. I was talking to Ben the other day and we were laughing about something their dog was up to. We get on well. Kate and Ben also get on well even though there is five years between them.
If there were something you could change if you had your time over, what would it be?
I never think like that. You can't change anything. Everything you've done makes you the person you are today. When something seems like a disaster, you keep going and then, lo and behold, something wonderful happens. And then, you think, ‘If that disaster hadn't happened, this next thing wouldn't have happened.' I never think about ‘If I could', because I cant.
If you had just one wish (no matter how fanciful) to change something in Australia to better support being a 21st century parent, what would that be?
Affordable childcare for all people wherever they might live. If we continue like this working at a ridiculous pace, we have to help parents and what relieves the stress in a father's or mother's mind is knowing their child is being cared for. Proper childcare would eliminate a lot of the problems now. These poor unruly kids who are home alone by themselves watching TV... If we continue encouraging men and women to work, and to have children, we have to think about how to properly care for them.
What chore do you simply despise?
Ironing without a doubt. It's very dreary. When I think about ironing, I turn on the TV and find a sloppy movie. It's the only way. Years ago, when I needed some household help, I thought about what I needed the most help with and I had all my husband's shirts and all the baby things that needed ironing and I paid someone to do it and that was liberating.
What is that you love most about being a mum?
The friendship and the fact that they are there if I'm feeling down. We are very in tune. I love doing things with them.
How do you feel about your future role as a grandmother?
They have had the lecture! I thought ‘I'm going to be 100 before I'm a grandmother.' But Ben has just got a dog and so at least I'm now a grandmutter. [Laughs.] I told both kids the other day that when they have children, I will take them away travelling around the world to give them a break and they both looked at me and sort of said ‘Oh'... ‘But we'd like to come to'.
When your children left home did you experience Empty Nest Syndrome?
I don't think so. Kate left when she was 25 and Ben didn't leave until he was 27 and I was beginning to think he would never leave at all. He finished his PhD and he said, ‘I'm going to move in with my best mate'. I said, ‘That'd be nice'. And then I said, ‘What about your bed? Why don't you take the bed?' He said, ‘No. It's yours ... I've got my swag'. And I said, ‘Take the bed, I bought it for you'. He's six foot four so I bought him a double bed. The bed went with him and he never returned.
What is your relationship like with your children?
It is fantastic. I'm as crazy about them now as I ever have been. They are the joy of my life.
Did you ever find it easy to ask for practical support from family and friends?
I don't ask a lot of people for help. I tend to soldier on. That might be ridiculous. I tend to think I can cope. My Aunt Billy is 90 and she was very supportive. I did ask her advice. She is a special aunt. She would sometimes care for the kids if I had to go away for work. They loved her.
What was your greatest personal sacrifice when you first became a mum?
I can't really think of any great personal sacrifice. I never thought of it like that. Perhaps time for myself, but that is such a small thing.
How has motherhood changed you?
It makes you less selfish as you don't have an option. Your life is no longer your own anymore. You sleep your last good night's sleep before children and you never sleep quite so soundly again. Even when they are teenagers you can't relax until they are safely home in bed. I can't think of any great sacrifice. They enriched my life. They opened my eyes and I thanked them when they let me go to The Village People or to see E.T.
Ita did her journalism training on The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph women's pages; at 23 she was appointed Women's Editor of the two newspapers. Ita was 30 when she became Founding Editor of the then groundbreaking Cleo magazine in 1972 but it was her appointment to the editorship of the hugely successful Women's Weekly in 1975 that turned her into a household name. She has gone on to create ITA magazine and in 2005, bark! magazine, a lifestyle title for dog lovers and owners. Ita is also Editor-at-Large of OK! Magazine.