Mia Freed­man on reading her son’s ac­count of her worst par­ent­ing fails.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JOHN FOTIADIS Words JOR­DAN BAKER

As a kid, Luca Lav­i­gne would ask his best mate’s mum for a lift to birth­day par­ties, know­ing that if he re­lied on his own mother, he might never get there. Some­times he wouldn’t have a pre­sent to give, and would spend his time there wor­ry­ing whether any­one would re­mem­ber to pick him up.

His mother wasn’t ne­glect­ful, just chron­i­cally dis­or­gan­ised. “She is a walk­ing hur­ri­cane of emo­tions and chaos,” says Lav­i­gne, now 19. “I did feel – not in­se­cure – but like I had to fend for my­self.”

The mother in ques­tion? Pub­lisher and me­dia per­son­al­ity Mia Freed­man. Af­ter years of writ­ing about her chil­dren, it’s now their turn and so when Freed­man in­vited Lav­i­gne to write a chap­ter of her lat­est book, Work Strife Bal­ance, she gave him free rein. She knew it wouldn’t be easy reading – “on some level, ev­ery mother knows she is mess­ing up her chil­dren in some way” – but the re­sult was, in her words, dev­as­tat­ing.

Lav­i­gne’s words were lov­ing, but they were also hon­est. His mother was bril­liant, sup­port­ive and in­spir­ing, but she was also chaotic. There were many for­got­ten pick-ups and hun­gry lunch times, and then there was the heart-wrench­ing ques­tion Lav­i­gne would ask him­self as he got older, when she used his pri­vate con­fi­dences in on­line col­umns: “Can you trust some­one with no fil­ter?”

“It was gut-wrench­ing for me to read that chap­ter,” Freed­man tells Stel­lar. “The part about how deeply my f*ck-ups im­pacted on him, and how deeply my be­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble or late or care­less or dis­tracted, that was dev­as­tat­ing, al­though I kind of knew it.

“I have had a lot of ther­apy, but noth­ing has been as confronting for me as reading that chap­ter.”

There aren’t many women who would be so frank about their par­ent­ing re­grets, but that kind of raw con­fes­sion is what Aus­tralian women have come to ex­pect from Freed­man, whose will­ing­ness to lay her­self bare hit a vein and be­came the foundation of her on­line pub­lish­ing em­pire.

The un­cen­sored story of Freed­man and Lav­i­gne is compelling reading for any woman who has a son, but there is a con­fes­sion for ev­ery­one in Work Strife Bal­ance, rang­ing from her mar­riage dif­fi­cul­ties and abor­tion to her strug­gles to bal­ance work and fam­ily and her in­abil­ity to dec­o­rate birth­day cakes.

Love her or not – and plenty of peo­ple don’t – Freed­man’s can­dour has made her one of the most in­flu­en­tial voices in the coun­try.

LUCA LAV­I­GNE IS a tall, hand­some young man with a mop of brown hair and im­pec­ca­ble man­ners. He did well aca­dem­i­cally at Sydney Gram­mar School, and is such a pas­sion­ate cook that he spent part of his gap year work­ing as a dish washer for a butcher to learn about cut­ting meat. These days the as­pir­ing writer stud­ies psy­chol­ogy, and works part-time for his par­ents.

When sit­ting down with Stel­lar in his mother’s of­fice to talk about his chap­ter in her book, Lav­i­gne chooses his words care­fully. If Freed­man is miss­ing a fil­ter, as she so of­ten ad­mits, Lav­i­gne has a fully op­er­a­tional one. When asked whether he ever re­sented his mum for work­ing so much, he pauses.

“I have never re­sented her,” he says, slowly. “I have al­ways loved her to ab­so­lute bits. I have re­sented her work. I have al­ways known that it’s not some­thing I can change, and that she is in­cred­i­ble in the ca­reer that she has forged for her­self… but at times I re­ally have felt re­sent­ment for the level of com­mit­ment in terms of time and emo­tion that her work has re­quired.”

Freed­man was 25 when Lav­i­gne was born, and the youngest ed­i­tor of Cos­mopoli­tan Aus­tralia mag­a­zine. She had met his fa­ther, busi­ness­man Ja­son Lav­i­gne, nine months be­fore she fell preg­nant. “It was a happy ac­ci­dent,” says Freed­man. Al­most a decade later the cou­ple had two more chil­dren, Coco, now 11, and Remy, eight.

For two decades, Freed­man has been a par­tic­i­pant in the con­ver­sa­tion about work-life bal­ance, hence the ti­tle of her new book (“I wanted to call it Bal­ance Is Bullsh*t, but I knew that would be un­likely to travel well in su­per­mar­kets,” she quips). She has lived the ten­sion be­tween work and fam­ily, and felt the guilt; dur­ing Lav­i­gne’s life­time, she has edited a ma­jor mag­a­zine, been a tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tive, and founded her pub­lish­ing busi­ness, Ma­mamia.

For 19 years, Freed­man strug­gled with the chronic guilt that so many work­ing moth­ers feel. Lav­i­gne’s chap­ter is a rare in­sight into the views of the kids over whom they ang­sted. “I don’t want peo­ple to take the wrong mes­sage from my chap­ter, I don’t want them to think that I’m scarred,” Lav­i­gne says. “She made me the per­son I am, I have so much love for her, and our re­la­tion­ship to this day is in­de­scrib­able. I don’t know any mother and son that are as close as we are.”

Lav­i­gne be­lieves some of the is­sues be­tween them arose be­cause of per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences, not her work. “We are op­po­site peo­ple,” he says.

“On some level, ev­ery mother knows she is mess­ing up her chil­dren in some way”

“I used to be [em­bar­rassed], a lot. I felt like she was kind of the obliv­i­ous mis­be­hav­ing child I was drag­ging be­hind me. She’ll walk around and bang into things and bump into peo­ple and ac­ci­den­tally push in front of peo­ple in a cof­fee shop. I will say, ‘Mum, the line is here!’”

Lav­i­gne thinks his sis­ter Coco and brother Remy will have an eas­ier ride through child­hood be­cause of the lessons their par­ents learnt with him. “I was the guinea-pig child.” But Freed­man is not so sure.

Re­cently, Freed­man’s chil­dren met her at the air­port af­ter a trip to New York. Her youngest, Remy, told her that he didn’t have lunch for the next day, and she promised to or­der some on­line. She for­got.

“That af­ter­noon he didn’t even men­tion it,” she says. “[Remy] said, ‘Oh, don’t worry Mum, when the lunch boxes came from the tuck­shop, I didn’t even look at it, be­cause I knew it wouldn’t be there.’

“And I have learnt noth­ing, be­cause that’s what Luca would have said. I don’t even know how you would de­fine that – the de­tails and the prac­ti­cal­i­ties, the pri­ori­tis­ing of the right things. Those kinds of de­tails I don’t re­mem­ber, and then part of me thinks it helps them be re­silient, be­cause of course he was fine, he went to the tuck­shop and they gave him a cheese sand­wich.”

Freed­man knows that in many ways she is a won­der­ful mother; she has taught her chil­dren to be cu­ri­ous, and em­pa­thetic, and able to ar­tic­u­late their feel­ings. She has schooled them in fem­i­nism, shown them the im­por­tance of a strong work ethic, and demon­strated the kind of ful­fil­ment that the right job can bring.

“This is the hard­est thing I’ve ever done. I feel re­ally ner­vous about it, re­ally vul­ner­a­ble”

It’s the minu­tiae of par­ent­hood that she strug­gles with. The teeth brush­ing, the shoelace ty­ing. “I am re­ally bad at – and this is a ter­ri­ble thing to ad­mit – I am prob­a­bly pretty bad at help­ing them feel se­cure in the world,” she tells Stel­lar.

The good news for Freed­man, and per­haps for her fel­low work­ing mums too, is that the bond she and Lav­i­gne ob­vi­ously share would sug­gest it hasn’t mat­tered.

“I would say they are un­usu­ally close, but in the best pos­si­ble way,” ob­serves journalist and au­thor Car­o­line Over­ing­ton, a close friend of Freed­man. “In that chap­ter, he is able to say all those things be­cause they have a rock-solid re­la­tion­ship.”

A FRANK AC­COUNT of her moth­er­ing skills is not the only sub­ject Freed­man lays bare in her book. There’s the time she took a job at the Nine Net­work, only for it to be an un­mit­i­gated and soul-de­stroy­ing dis­as­ter. One chap­ter imag­ines how she would tell her daugh­ter about her abor­tion (a con­ver­sa­tion that ac­tu­ally hap­pened be­fore the book was re­leased, and went as pre­dicted). She talks in depth about her anx­i­ety and bu­limia (“I was a great vom­iter”).

There must be some parts of Freed­man’s life that she has kept out of Work Strife Bal­ance, but they would be few. It’s not quite a man­i­festo, but it’s life lessons as she has learnt them.

“[The book] is prob­a­bly the hard­est thing I have ever done, the hard­est thing in the short­est pe­riod of time,” she says. “I feel re­ally ner­vous about it, re­ally vul­ner­a­ble, not be­cause of what I have writ­ten about, but be­cause I worked re­ally hard on it. I tried re­ally, re­ally, re­ally hard.”

At 45, Freed­man still looks like a bo­hemian pixie. Be­fore we met, I had been told she dressed like a four-yearold, and that proved true; when she greeted me at Ma­mamia’s bustling head­quar­ters for our in­ter­view, she wore a T-shirt, a long skirt, and some over­sized, match­ing cos­tume jew­ellery that would look ridicu­lous on most peo­ple, but some­how works on her.

She would have been a queen bee at Ascham, the exclusive pri­vate girls’ school she at­tended in the east­ern sub­urbs of Sydney. Her girl squad is even more glam­orous these days, and in­cludes the likes of 7.30 pre­sen­ter Leigh Sales.

She is adored by her dis­ci­ples, many of whom be­gan fol­low­ing her ca­reer when she edited Dolly and Cos­mopoli­tan, back when those mag­a­zines were road maps for wom­an­hood in the way web­sites are now. “Mia at her best is amaz­ing – she is joyous to be around, funny and charm­ing and de­light­ful,” says one for­mer staff mem­ber.

“She has an un­be­liev­able, pos­si­bly un­ri­valled abil­ity to tap into what they [women] are think­ing and feel­ing,” says an­other one-time em­ployee.

Yet not ev­ery­one loves Freed­man, and those that don’t are of­ten those same for­mer staffers, some of them who worked for Ma­mamia as vol­un­teers only to feel used or dropped when they no longer fit­ted her busi­ness pur­poses. “My im­pres­sion has been that when you are no longer use­ful you are dis­carded,” says one.

Freed­man ad­mits that’s partly true, al­though there is no ill-will on her part. “Be­ing in­volved in a start-up, it’s re­ally in­ti­mate… there’s a lot of blur­ring the lines,” she says. “For me, work con­sumes me, then my fam­ily con­sumes me, so when some­one no longer works with me, it’s not that I drop them in­ten­tion­ally, it’s just that I don’t have time to main­tain that level of in­ti­macy.

“I feel ter­ri­ble about that. I of­ten think of peo­ple I work with and feel re­ally nos­tal­gic. We went through a lot to­gether, I get why they could feel re­jected or sad.”

An­other charge of­ten lev­elled at Freed­man is that while she comes across as Ev­ery­woman – the core of her suc­cess is her abil­ity to em­pathise with read­ers – she’s any­thing but or­di­nary. Her fa­ther, South African im­mi­grant Lau­rence Freed­man, was one of the founders of the Aus­tralian funds man­age­ment in­dus­try, and is worth a for­tune. Her cousin is Emile Sher­man, the Os­car-win­ning pro­ducer of The King’s Speech, and Os­car nom­i­nee for Lion.

Crit­ics say that while Freed­man built an em­pire that be­gan in her lounge room, the room was in a house in­side an exclusive Sydney sub­urb that is pop­u­lated by Old Money fam­i­lies.

This kind of crit­i­cism an­noys Freed­man for two rea­sons. She coun­ters that she built her busi­ness with­out any in­vest­ment from her fam­ily and main­tains that hav­ing a suc­cess­ful fa­ther has not made her per­sonal chal­lenges any eas­ier.

“I am not pre­tend­ing to know what it’s like to be dis­ad­van­taged or In­dige­nous or les­bian or trans or Mus­lim or an im­mi­grant,” she says. “But a lot of things I ex­pe­ri­ence tran­scend all that. Preg­nancy loss. Mis­car­riage. Anx­i­ety. In­fer­til­ity. Body is­sues. Bu­limia.

“They are re­ally uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ences for women. There is not a sin­gle thing about my life or ex­pe­ri­ences that have been re­mark­able; they are very com­mon, and very or­di­nary.” Work Strife Bal­ance by Mia Freed­man (Macmil­lan Aus­tralia, $34.99) is out on Wed­nes­day.

STRIFE & BAL­ANCE (from top) Mia Freed­man with her 19-year-old son Luca Lav­i­gne; with her hus­band Ja­son on a trip to New York in Jan­uary.

THE FINE PRINT (clock­wise from top) Freed­man as ed­i­tor of Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine in 1997; her new book; with then-pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive James Packer in 1998.

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