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Bringing a Baby to the ASEAN Summit: Reflections on the Career and Motherhood ‘Juggle’

Kyla Raby

Photo of Kyla and son Harry (third from left) with other attendees at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024. Image credit: Luis Enrique Ascui/ASEAN via Flickr.

In March every year, it has become customary for our social media feeds to be filled with posts about issues impacting women and 2024 was no different. The official theme of International Women’s Day (IWD) this year was ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. This led to several of the people and organisations that I follow posting about women and work, with many debating what it means for women to ‘have it all’ (i.e., both a family and a career). It’s a debate that I am currently living, as a 36-year-old woman on maternity leave from my ‘day job’ with two kids under two at home, whilst slowly making progress towards completing a PhD, running a government funded social media project, and working casually across two universities. 

I graduated from my undergraduate degrees at the end of 2009, and I have spent the best part of the 15 years since following my passion for equality and forging a career spanning work in over 20 countries as a practitioner, educator and more recently, researcher. Much of this work has centred around human exploitation and working to prevent and strengthen responses to human trafficking and modern slavery.

Last year, I was recognised in YAIA’s annual Young Women to Watch list. During a YAIA IWD online event I was speaking at, I mentioned in passing that I was a Mum to an almost 1 year old girl. To my surprise, I had several female attendees message me privately to thank me for sharing and express their joy to hear a young professional speak about motherhood. One young woman shared with me that she and her partner wanted to have kids but they both worked in international aid and were currently stationed on separate continents. We connected offline and I shared with her a fear I had held for a long time -  that my passion and drive for my work, and its international nature, would mean I would miss the opportunity to have a family. Fortunately, for me personally, it was never realised but it's a fear I know many of my female friends and colleagues with international careers also share.

I was 36 weeks pregnant with my second child when YAIA reached out and asked if I would be interested in being nominated to attend the Emerging Leaders Track of an upcoming ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne in March 2024, hosted by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. I said yes because it sounded great (and I am a chronic ‘yes’ person) and figured I would work out if it was feasible if I was chosen. When I received the official invite, I was in labour, quite literally. Early labour can be agonisingly slow, so it was a nice distraction to read the email and I immediately thought what a great opportunity it would be to meet others from the region. However, I quickly remembered that soon (in a matter of hours as it turned out), I would be a Mum to a newborn baby again. As a second time mum wanting to breastfeed, I knew this meant a period of inseparability between myself and bubs who would be 10 weeks old at the time of the summit. I looked at my partner and said: 

“I wonder if they would let me bring a baby?” 

"Why wouldn't they?" he replied. 

When I responded to the email a week later explaining that I would only be able to attend if my newborn son, Harry, came with me, they instantly responded with overwhelming positivity. I even received a phone call a few days later from a staff member at the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s team just checking in to see if there was anything else I needed. This made me feel comfortable and confident right from the outset. It was the exact response I had hoped for, but for some reason not the one I had expected. I had felt like perhaps I was asking something  too ‘out there’, and as a result had almost not bothered.  

In the lead up to the summit and after it was over, I spoke to various friends and colleagues about my experience. In response, I had several other women share stories about bringing their babies to all manner of professional endeavours, from union meetings to rallies. However, one thing I noticed was that these women were generally of my parents’ generation and had babies in the 80s or 90s. I had no examples of women my own age, or even close to, who had successfully "merged" caregiving and work in the early days of motherhood. I found myself telling a treasured colleague that she must have been a trailblazer in the 80s but that I felt we had sadly gone backwards since then, an idea I have reflected on since. 

Almost every Mum that I know in my extended family, friendship group and even my government-facilitated mum's groups has taken at least 12 months completely off of work to care for their newborn children and then worked part-time for many years thereafter. This is not unique to my circle as the statistics are clear: women are more likely than men to take leave when becoming parents, and many leave their jobs altogether to prioritise caregiving. As a result, we suffer the ‘motherhood penalty’, economic loss which recent research has found is about AUD$2 million over the lifetime of an average 25-year-old woman with one child.

I gave birth to my daughter in May 2022 and took 12 months leave from my full-time job, which turned into two years (and counting). However, I returned to study six weeks after she was born, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I am the kind of person who needs more mental stimulation that a newborn baby can offer, but at the same time this reality often plagued me with guilt. There is a societal expectation that mothers will do the full time caring of newborn children, which is why our parental leave system is so heavily skewed in  favour of women. Men taking parental leave significantly impacts women’s future earnings and engagement in paid work. However, even when it is available to them, only 16% of 190 countries studied in a recent World bank report provide any form of incentive for men to actually take parental leave.

Practically, I was able to return to study because of one primary reason: my partner, who gave me the gift of time. He is also a student and therefore was able to equally share in caring for our little girl. Fast forward nearly two years later and we are in the same situation with our son. We are fortunate that this has been possible for our family, however it is not practicable for many due to the skyrocketing costs of living. No doubt because of the time he has spent with her, my partner has an incredible bond with our now very active toddler Mia, and so the two of them happily dropped Harry and I off at the airport and waved us goodbye as we journeyed to Melbourne for the summit.

My experience at the summit was nothing but positive. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and accommodating. On the final day, our program involved a session on sustainable development and inclusive policies, economies, businesses, and societies, which featured Labor MP Josh Burns as a panellist. I had been asked to make an intervention following the panel based on my work, so I was listening to each speaker attentively whilst Harry studied the inside of his eyelids in a pram next to me.

Kyla and her son Harry at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. Image supplied by author.

Josh began his speech by saying something along the lines of "we know that the single greatest barrier to women's participation in the workforce is the cost of childcare", likely in reference to a 2022 ABS study that found that caring for children was preventing women from engaging in any or more paid work. This immediately struck a chord with me. The ‘barrier’ of caring for children can’t be assumed to be overcome through cheaper childcare as decisions around caring for children involve much more than financial considerations. Generalisations of this kind neglect the various other competing priorities, both economic and not, that also factor into families’ choices.

For me, the single greatest barrier to my (increased) participation in the workforce is actually time. It's the agonising challenge of choosing how to divide the seven days of the week and 24 hours a day I have at my disposal between children I love and work that I also love. If I could somehow “find” extra time, I would be able to do more paid work, and I have an endless list of projects I would love to commit to. But that doesn't mean I want someone else caring for my children to be able to “free up” that time, as I want to do that too. After all, that’s why I became a parent. 

We put our daughter into childcare two days a week when she was nine months old to give me more time to work, and it was heartbreaking. I missed her greatly and for months, I felt endless amounts of guilt about having strangers care for my child. I focused on thinking about the value of the work I was doing and fortunately, in time, it got easier. Now these ‘strangers’ have become deeply valued members of our community, and my daughter speaks constantly of the great friends she has at childcare. She is happily exhausted each day we pick her up, but I wouldn’t want her to be there any longer than she is, even if childcare was completely free. I love my days with her and now also with my son. When my work projects get too busy, and I miss out on this time with them, it feels heartbreaking.

 As cliché as it sounds, I know my greatest challenge now and into the future is something so many families face. It is mastering the ‘juggling act’ and striking the right balance between work and family with the time that I do have. As a timely reminder of the importance of this, a fellow working mother and a dear friend recently shared with me words of wisdom that had been passed onto her - we can indeed “have it all”, just not at the same time.

Kyla Raby is a globally recognised anti-slavery practitioner, researcher and educator, having lived and worked in over 20 countries in social service, humanitarian and philanthropic roles with government and non-government agencies and the private sector.  She recently founded Everyday Slavery, an educative project which aims to equip the public to play a greater role in preventing and addressing modern slavery, both in global supply chains and the Australian community.


Kyla is also a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia researching the role of the consumer in state legislative efforts to eradicate modern slavery in global supply chains. She is involved in numerous research projects related to the identification, protection, and support of survivors of exploitation and her research has been published in global anti-trafficking and slavery journals.


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