I want to do it all

To celebrate International Women’s Day, NHMRC Research Fellow Danette Langbecker reflects on how she juggles caretaking responsibilities and her work supporting people affected by cancer.

There are many things in my life I am proud of.

Even though I have a PhD, I’m still really proud of my undergraduate degree. Going to university was a big deal in my family. Neither my parents nor grandparents went to uni, and I had to move 1000kms to Brisbane to study. Although I had the academic smarts, I struggled with being away from home and ended up dropping out of my course and doing a variety of other jobs. I started university again in my late 20s in a different field, public health, which set me up for what I do now.

Since then, I’ve achieved other goals I’m really proud of. When you’re diagnosed with a serious, rare disease, it can be hard to even know where to start or what to ask. In my PhD, I worked with people with brain tumours and their families to develop a resource to help patients talk to health professionals about their disease and treatments. It’s okay to ask has been distributed across Australia, internationally, and is now being translated into different languages.

It’s only a small thing, but if it helps one person to better understand their situation and access support, I’ve done something worthwhile.

My job at the Centre for Online Health is to improve health services and patient outcomes. I focus on two areas – how we can support people affected by cancer and how we can use technologies such as telehealth to improve access to care. I really love it - I get to figure out how to improve the health of whole populations, talk to people about things that really matter to them, and write about the cool stuff we’ve done. I also get to present my work at conferences around the world, and as I’m a keen traveller, this is a great perk!

My most recent travels in Morocco! A holiday this time, but I’m wondering if there are opportunities to improve health outcomes there with telehealth… might be worth a trip to investigate?

My most recent travels in Morocco! A holiday this time, but I’m wondering if there are opportunities to improve health outcomes there with telehealth… might be worth a trip to investigate?

My most recent travels in Morocco! A holiday this time, but I’m wondering if there are opportunities to improve health outcomes there with telehealth… might be worth a trip to investigate?

Despite my successes, I wish our systems of work were more suited to the fact that we – both women and men – have lives and responsibilities outside of work. Growing up, my Mum was a nurse and midwife, working full-time shift-work in a physically and mentally demanding job. She was also a single parent to my brother and me, and by the time we were in our teens, a caregiver for her parents. My Mum always says that she only managed all of this with help from others. Although she had supportive friends, managers and colleagues, the systems and structures of her work were not conducive to balancing work and family.

For me, it’s different but the same. I don’t have children of my own but I have significant care giving responsibilities, and although I have a fabulous boss and supportive colleagues, I frequently feel torn between work and caregiving.

I want to do it all.

To do great research and achieve success in my field, but also to be there for the medical appointments and everyday needs of my family member.

A senior academic who I respect recently recommended that early career academics should work a significant number of hours – far more than we are paid to do – although he noted that we are fortunate as academia allows flexibility, in that you can choose whether you work evenings or weekends. Well, I want to succeed, and I do work long hours, but what if I can’t always do that? Flexibility is great, but I only have so many hours in the day to spread across work and caregiving roles. And more than that – should this be a requirement? And what about those talented women (and men) who can’t do that, because of family or caregiving roles, or health problems of their own? Aren’t we losing great talent by setting up our work systems and expectations in this way?

My darling Mum and I.

With colleagues at the Centre for Online Health.

The Condamine – a beautiful area, and one of the places I visit as part of my telehealth research.

The Condamine – a beautiful area, and one of the places I visit as part of my telehealth research.

The Condamine – a beautiful area, and one of the places I visit as part of my telehealth research.

I am fortunate that although I don’t have kids of my own, through my husband, I have adult stepchildren and now grandchildren, namely, four year old twins. I look at them and my heart is so full – I want them to have every opportunity to do whatever they desire. I want them to have the opportunity to study, to work, to have families, to travel, to be creative – to make a positive impact on the world, as I’m sure they shall, whatever they do.

For Mackenzie and Meredith, and for the next generation of women (and men), I want to challenge the structures, systems, and ways of thinking that limit a woman’s (or man’s) opportunities to contribute to their world. I don’t want them to face the barriers my Mum faced, or that I face, or that many other women (and men) face in managing these competing roles and balancing their lives. I don’t know what the answers are, but I’m hopeful for them. 

Their future is too bright not to fight for change.

Meredith and Mackenzie celebrating their fourth birthdays.

Check out my web profile or follow me on Twitter - @DHLangbecker