The arrival of a new child is a time of joy for any mother, but for Leigh Sales, who welcomed her second son last year, the elation marked the beginning of the most difficult period of her life.
The Walkley award-winning journalist and host of ABC’s flagship current affairs program 7.30 endured a perilous birth only to suffer serious health concerns in the months afterwards.
“I had a very complicated birth and some health problems,” she reveals to The New Daily, speaking publicly for the first time about the difficulties she confronted.
“I had been very unwell,” Sales admits, preferring to keep the details of her health issues private. But she makes it clear the challenges were profound and not easily overcome.
And it didn’t end there.
When she returned to work six months later, she was greeted with media reports questioning whether she was good enough for the job. The articles attempted to pit her against her colleague Sarah Ferguson, who had held her place while she was on leave.
One Fairfax journalist wrote that “all eyes would be on” Sales when she returned because her maternity leave replacement Ferguson had “more than kept the seat warm”.
Each night on national television, Sales tackles Australia’s most powerful politicians, businesspeople and community leaders from the nation’s most highly-respected interview chair.
She has been the host of 7.30 since Kerry O’Brien retired in 2010 and has more than proved her mettle, winning a Walkley Award in 2012 for her interviews with then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
And yet, that wasn’t enough for sections of the media, which wouldn’t give the returning mum her job back without piling on the pressure.
“Articles on my first day back critiquing my work put me under a crazy amount of pressure,” she says.
“It just sent a bad message to women generally.
“I’d come in behind Kerry O’Brien and had a whole period where I had to prove myself. I felt like I had to prove myself all over again.
“It was tiring. I had a two-year-old and six-month-old.”
The experienced journalist now describes it as “bewildering”, but she is not complaining, merely sharing an experience many onlookers felt was unfair.
Ms Sales says the initial pressure passed almost immediately, with her second night bringing a hard-hitting interview with departing ASIO chief David Irvine about raising Australia’s terrorism threat levels, knocking her own story off the agenda.
There was, however, the normal anxieties of being a new mother, particularly a high-profile woman on national television five nights a week.
“I felt I looked fat,” she admits with a laugh.
Originally from Queensland, Sales and her husband of almost 19 years, Phil Willis, have no family in Sydney, adding extra pressure in an already stressful time.
She did, however, have the support of all her colleagues. She says the ABC’s news director Kate Torney was a special source of strength.
“Everybody at the ABC was so kind … especially Kate Torney, who has three kids of her own,” she says.
“I didn’t cook for three months with the amount of meals dropped off by our friends.”
At home, Sales and Willis’ boys are now 12 months old and three.
— Phil Willis (@PhilWillis) September 27, 2014
On Tuesday, as well as getting ready for an interview with former federal treasurer Peter Costello, Sales said she was also juggling her husband’s new university studies and the care of their young sons, with the help of nannies.
She gives her husband 10 out of 10 for his work at home.
“He really is the primary carer,” she says. “I think he is doing a better job than I do.”
While she has overcome many of her health complications and has silenced armchair critics, Sales remains a champion of real life versus media-made perceptions, and is more than aware of the privileges she enjoys.
“I guess I’m in a senior job, I have a lot of autonomy and flexibility, but there is some extreme inflexibility,” she says.
While she has a hands-on husband and seniority in her job, she is from an era where flexibility at work has always been forsaken for keeping the job.
“I’m still part of the generation where you have to hang on to it (your job),” she says. “Lip service is paid to flexibility but it is not exactly flexibility.”
“It’s hard for families,” she says. “I got home last night and had to walk around for two hours to rock the baby. The issue for a lot of women is that it’s so exhausting.”
So now it’s not enough to rock and sing my baby to sleep, now he’s decided full eye contact must be maintained at all times too.
— Leigh Sales (@leighsales) February 28, 2015
So what gets her through?
Sales says once she is in the door at night the focus is her family, but former National Gallery director Betty Churcher, who she recently interviewed, said it best.
“(N)ot unlike your life, you know, you’ve got to sort of make huge sacrifices to grab what you know you should be grabbing.”