I hugged them tight, so tight that my four year old complained she couldn’t breathe. But I didn’t want to let go, ever. I eventually pulled myself away, gave my husband a last kiss and walked towards the escalators at Brisbane International Airport. As I proceeded down towards security, I felt a big lump in my throat and immense pain in my heart. I turned around for one last glimpse of my beautiful family, my three girls held back tears. I had been here before, twice in fact, I knew it would be hard, but I knew it was what I wanted and needed to do. Deployments have always provided me the opportunity to unclutter my mind and focus on me, as an Army officer and as individual. After about a month, I had established a new routine and felt a sense of calmness, I knew I needed to develop a way to unclutter my mind once I returned to Australia. I also felt I should share my thoughts with fellow cluttered minds.
I am a mother of three girls, wife to Adam (a member of the Royal Australian Air Force) and I am an Army Officer. I have deployed on three Middle East deployments and a few shorter regional deployments. My first deployment to the Middle East was six months following the birth of my first child. To this day, I still do not know how I managed to say goodbye to my first born baby.
Upfront, this is a reflection piece and will not resonate with all readers and certainly not all mothers. I do not posit that fathers or anyone without children are not faced with competing priorities; this is a personal observation. These thoughts are based on my experiences during operational deployments where I consistently struggled to reconcile my strong desire to deploy with my inner guilt of being an absent mother.
Mental load is a significant contemporary issue experienced by many working mothers. A recent BBC article titled “The Hidden Load: How ‘thinking of everything’ holds mums back” discusses the notion of hidden work. The author describes three categories; cognitive labour, emotional labour and the third is the intersecting of the two. Although not completely divorced from the cognitive and emotional responsibilities, deployments lessons the effect of the cognitive and emotional overload. In a way, a deployment simplifies your battle rhythm allowing a more deliberate focus on both your role and your own health and wellbeing.
While at home, I am in a constant state of survival mode. I survive by developing lists; remember to pay school fees, draft performance reports, take dog to vet, send weekly situation reports, send family birthday cards, schedule meeting, pay au pair, buy new soccer boots, and the list goes on… The mental overload causes a cluttered mind. A cluttered mind can lead to ineffectiveness and exhaustion. I can honestly say that my cluttered mind has had a crippling effect on me in the past. I easily lose focus as my mind wanders off to all the other tasks I need to get done.
For me, an operational deployment provides the freedom to completely leverage my experience, knowledge and creativity. I am not inferring that this does not occur back in Australia, however there are significant competing priorities and an unsustainable mental load that hinders the ability to completely demonstrate full potential. This was illuminated for me during my unit command tenure, at times I felt overwhelmed and guilty as I raced off to take one of my three daughters to a doctor’s appointment, soccer training, piano lesson, attend a school assembly or simply be at home cuddling a sick toddler. I felt completely cluttered. This is despite working for an understanding supervisor.
Although the mother-guilt never fades during a deployment, there is an acceptance that you are away from your family for a designated period of time. This is an immutable truth and can therefore be compartmentalised. The reduced mental load coupled with the absence of choice to go home to the family provides an opportunity to grow professionally and to focus on health and wellbeing. This is the power of an uncluttered mind.
‘Life Choices’ was a concept presented to me when I was trying to prove myself as a junior Lieutenant Colonel at Army Headquarters in Canberra. During a discussion with one of my male workmates, I was complaining about how difficult it was balancing family and career. I rattled off all the things I had achieved before arriving at work; two loads of washing, lunches, ironing uniforms, all before 7:30am. He then pointed out that, although he sympathised with me, I should acknowledge that I made the choice to juggle all these priorities, and I needed to accept the decision and understand when I needed to weight priority. I was initially annoyed at his comment, however after reflection I realised he was trying to adjust my mindset. I had made the decision to balance a career along with being an active mother, therefore I needed to understand that it will be overwhelming and at times I will feel I am either letting my family down or not operating at my full potential at work. This simple change in mindset assisted me rationalising my decision to deploy. It also helped me with the decision to request flexible work following my return home.
It has now been nearly a year since I returned from my last deployment, ironically it has taken me this long to find time to write this simple reflection piece. COVID-19 has closed borders, meaning Au Pairs are not an option to assist with child care. Late last year, as I approached the end of my post deployment leave and impending return to work in a new role, I was filled with anxiety knowing I would not be able to rely on the support of an Au Pair. I then remembered the life choice I had made and realised that at that time in my life, my family needed me more than my work. I garnered the courage to submit my first ever application for flexible work. I have no idea why I felt anxious about the request, I had approved a number of flexible plans as a commanding officer and the Army has a mature approach to modern work practices. Although the flexibility has not decreased my cognitive and emotional labour, it has assisted in uncluttering my mind. I have recently redefined my definition of ‘success’; for me it’s now more about the enjoying life, making memories with my family and friends, my own health and wellbeing more than the striving for that next career milestone.
Why did I write this reflection piece? I wanted to share my thoughts on how uncluttering your mind can unlock your true potential and improve your health and wellbeing. This does not need to be a deployment, it could be in the form of a flexible work arrangement, periodically taking a day off to unclutter the mind, outsourcing household chores, effectively managing a calendar (…I do this poorly), or simply understanding when you need to surge in your career or your family. I will close with a Quentin Bryce quote that really resonated with me; “Yes, you can have it all, but not all at the same time. Set your own priorities, trust your gut and follow your heart.”
About the author
Lieutenant Colonel Meegan Olding is an Army Officer, mother of three girls and a wife to Adam. She has served in a variety of logistics, training and strategic planning roles and has deployed a number of times. Meegan is passionate about mentoring other working mums and stimulating conversation around female participation in the military.