Juggling three kids, a high-profile media career and a spotlit marriage to Geelong’s two-time AFL premiership captain Tom Harley, Felicity Harley found keeping up a veneer of perfection hard work.
Until she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore.
Conversations with mums at the school gate, friends, high-profile women, colleagues and her barista led Felicity to wonder about the overwhelm epidemic many women seemed to experience, and what was behind it.
"I was hearing that they were trying to be women that a) we never will be, and b) it’s our undoing," says Felicity. "I thought, 'If we don’t start talking about it and calling ourselves out and calling each other out' … That’s the whole premise of it, we’re all overwhelmed, our wellbeing is suffering."
Inspired, she cranked out her first book (speaking of overwhelm, we're talking three months cover to cover!), Balance and Other BS: How to hold it together when you’re having (doing) it all. Working from 8pm to midnight when her kids were in bed, the founding editor of Women’s Health interviewed celebrities, politicians and athletes including Megan Gale, Tanya Plibersek and Kelly Cartwright about how they navigate a jam-packed modern life.
"It comes back to perfectionism," Felicity told me on new to #Perspectives podcast ‘Done is better than perfect’, named for her favourite line learned during her research and writing.
I loved our conversation, which included the pandemic's effect on women's lives, five-layer Frozen birthday cakes and a 1950s housewife orgasm observation by Felicity, who got a new handle on wrangling life via small techniques (a daily gratitude) and mindset shifts.
“Now I’m a lot about getting things done or saying no," said the Sydneysider, who in 2012 was named one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence by Westpac for her push to promote women's sport. During her nine-year tenure at Women's Health it became the country’s number one women’s lifestyle magazine brand.
"At times we can say we have boundaries but we can be really flaky with them," says Felicity.
"I think we fear if we push back and say no that we perhaps are being a bitch, 'she won’t like me anymore', but I really think if you’re clear and say no you might hurt them when you initially say no, but later I feel you gain more respect.”
"I always used to strive personally, I have to do the best work on this story, build the best Lego house, run the fastest. Now it’s 80 per cent. As long as I get my ass to that gym—it doesn’t have the to be the best workout session ever, but I got there.”
She says ‘done is better than perfect’ can be applied to the minutiae of daily life: “If Tom puts the washing out it might not be how I like it but you know what, it’s done. Onto bigger things.”
I agree with Felicity. Self care isn’t having the bath. It’s giving yourself a break. It’s not being measured by that standard of perfectionism. It’s a much better way to live than I have to be everybody’s hero and it’s all on me.
Her suggestions about ways to help yourself beat overwhelm are relatable and pretty simple. "That can be boundaries, setting values, reconnecting with friends, taking time out. As Yumi Stynes said, it used to be a rich lady thing, but everyone can do it.
"Go to your local caravan park, stay at a friend’s house in their spare room, and if we all go inward for a little while that will help the outward.”
I was intrigued by what's covered in the book: imposter syndrome, feminism and, as Felicity says, perfectionism. When we put them all on the table with all the choice points we have as women then throw social media into the mix, how do we not doubt ourselves?
How can we not question how we're not getting it right and why we don’t have it all when these are massive gravitational pulls on how we ‘should’ be thinking? We've come to realise as women we can't have it all, not at the same time and still function and keep all the balls in the air and look—or be—happy.
“Are we happy? We might try and look it but are we happy?" Felicity asks.
"I suppose I just really felt I needed to call these things out. Women have dealt with these things for many decades, and I suppose what I am questioning is what we are adding now is another layer with the wellness industry, with social media and from my experiences of talking to women."
After working with women for two decades, "I just feel we are at a point now where women are feeling like they have no time to themselves any more. We’re struggling to sleep, we’re cranky."
Statistics from a recent Jean Hailes study which surveyed over 15,000 Australian women paint a horrifying picture.
67 per cent of women feel nervous, anxious or on edge. 53 per cent are not able to control their worry. 78 per cent of women report difficulty sleeping or falling asleep. 34 per cent have no time for themselves and 68 per cent feel foggy.
Felicity is not talking about mental health issues, but “I’m on about all those other women, our wellbeing and our feeling of wellness and facing life. We know it has dips and goes up and down, but a lot of the time we’re not getting help like we used to.
"And that’s what I wanted to call out and reassure women that a lot of us are feeling like this, with all the things crashing at us—social media, ‘you must drink green juice’, must get to yoga, must do this, must do that. It was tough pre-pandemic and now it’s even worse. There’s an extra layer of worry.”
Balance and BS is a timely book that will make a difference. Let’s give up, ladies, on thinking we can have it all or that we should even strive for that.
Let’s have our own version of wonderful for ourselves.