Over her nearly 10-year career on 60 Minutes, Allison Langdon has broken some of Australia’s biggest investigations. Among her achievements include reporting from Somalia during a brutal civil war, venturing into the raging heart of one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes on earth and coming face to face with Grizzly bears in the Canadian wilderness.
Allison’s most recent adventure has been a little closer to home: becoming a second-time mum to daughter Scout while juggling toddler son Mack, along with her high-profile and fast-paced media career, including hosting the Weekend Today Show.
Allison joined FW Founding Director Helen McCabe to talk landing her dream job at the age of 30, meeting husband Mike Willesee Jr, trying to be superhuman, the changing face of reporting and how she’s learned to relax as part of our FW X Westfield: Women in Conversation series in partnership with Dove. Allison spoke at Westfield Miranda, Westfield Tuggerah and Westfield Hornsby in New South Wales.
Here, the life lessons Allison Langdon has learned so far…
On not planning to have children
“I landed my dream gig: 60 Minutes is all I ever wanted, that was it. My husband and I got married when I was 29, and a year later I was appointed to 60 Minutes. And the reality of 60 is we spend six/seven months of the year on the road, often overseas so that didn’t really fit in with having a baby. For a long time I sort of thought it was something that we wouldn’t do. My sister and my brother between them have got five/six kids, and I was a great aunty, but I didn’t think I was missing out on anything. And then something just came over me when I was 36, and I thought hang on I need to start thinking about this – am I okay if we don’t have children? And I kinda thought, I want to give this a crack.”
On approaching motherhood ‘like another story’
“I probably underestimated how [motherhood] was going to change everything and I figured that, I can still do 60 and parent, no worries. But it was one of those steep learning curves. And they often say that when you have babies later in life it can often be harder because if you’ve got an established career, I’m used to solving problems, it’s kinda what I do, what we do, and so I just figured I’d read the books and this is what my baby was going to do. And my baby didn’t read those same books. And I remember my mum at the time, and I was doing everything by an app, when he sleeps, when he wakes, I’d have it all on the app. And mum just telling me to relax. It’s just so funny now, the second time around with Scout, it’s so different. I’m much more relaxed.”
On not being naturally maternal
“I don’t think I was naturally maternal. My sister was always with babies growing up, if there was a baby she was there cuddling it. I liked little kids but I was okay for cuddles with babies. It didn’t come naturally to me. My mum has spoken about how I’m such a different parent this time, I’m so much more relaxed. Because it wasn’t something that came naturally, I just thought that’s okay I can learn it. If I read enough books I’ll be awesome at it.”
On realising she wasn’t coping
“I took Mac back to work with me when he was two weeks old. What was really interesting was that I had all these people at work going, ‘my goodness you’re amazing, I can’t believe you’re back at work so soon’. The reality was that I wasn’t coping. I wasn’t very good at being at home. I was terrified at home with this baby that something was going to happen to it because I didn’t really know what I was doing. My work environment was the safe place, and I have an amazing group of people I work with. So I’d take Mack in and I’d be scripting my stories, and everyone would take Mack. Then one of the producers, Nick, came up to me at about 3pm and he goes, ‘Ali I just can’t settle Mack, I don’t know what’s wrong’. He’s a father with two young girls, and I realised I hadn’t fed Mack all day. I’d missed two feeds and it was such a wake-up call. I think it’s important we talk about this stuff. But it was a real eye-opener. I thought, I’ve got to reassess here. I’ve got to get a handle on this. So I took a step back from work at that point. And said I can’t be doing all this. I went home and focused on parenting. It was a terrible thing to happen, but it was probably good that it did in the end.”
On the importance of mums sharing their experiences
“I didn’t have post-natal depression. I have mates who’ve had it and this battle to even get up in the morning. It wasn’t anything in regards to that. I just didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t have that instinct. I felt really isolated. I only went to one mother’s group, which was a big mistake, because I knew I was going back to work really quickly. The women in my group were taking at least six months or 12 months off. I thought I wouldn’t be in a position to do catch-ups, and I look at it now and think that would have been really beneficial to me, and I can understand how important it is when you’re all going through it at the same time to understand you’re not alone. Mack was an unsettled baby, it was every 40 minutes he was awake, he never slept…and that’s why when we get together and we talk about the juggles of career and motherhood it’s really important. You think you’re the only one going through it, every single parent has been there and done that.”
On the right time to have children
“I think it’s such a personal choice. When we decided we would try for children, I didn’t know if it would happen. It all works out, you’re still on that path but you might just deviate a little bit or it might take a bit more time. I wouldn’t say to anyone wanting to have a family that you put your career first. I left it late and could’ve left it too late, and I wish I’d done it early – my husband is 50 and I’m 40. I wish I had a bit of youth on my side, he sure wishes he was younger too. But we have a bit more freedom in what we can do in our careers now, so it’s worked really well for us doing it this way. But I don’t think there’s any right answer. You’ve got to do what you want to do. And I wouldn’t put off having children because you think it’s going to impact your career.”
On the working mum juggle
“We constantly feel guilty; we feel guilty that we’re not spending enough time with our family, guilty that we’re not giving enough at work. I have a really big problem watching mates who are now working three days a week, but they’re still doing a five day a week job. Jamming it into three days, getting emails and phone calls on their days off and they’re not being paid for it. I have a real issue with that now. A lot of bosses are making it flexible, but we’re still doing a full-time job, just jamming it into three days. And then you wonder why we’re so stressed. Is it quality time with our kids? I had the balance totally wrong last year, but just having a second makes you realise that you’ve kinda got to pull back because there’s no option has actually been really good this time around.”
On the reality of trying to do it all
“I swear at one point it almost cost me my marriage. Last year I traveled with Mack, he came everywhere with me for 60 Minutes, that was awesome and worked really well. But until it got to a point of being one, he’s a kid who thrives on routine and having his sleep at a certain time. And it was unfair to drag him from state to state, London to LA. It always sounded great and when I took him overseas I always took a nanny, but it was really difficult. You’ve got the timezone change, I’d finish shooting at the end of the day, she’d hand him over and he’s up all night because he thinks it’s day. You get up in the morning and you’ve got to do the job. That didn’t work. So I had this great idea. I took on the role of Weekend Today Show co-host that at least guarantees I’d be home at weekends. I found I was travelling too much with 60 – every time I went to leave the house Mack would see a suitcase and ask me not to go. I wanted him to know that mummy leaves for and mummy always comes back. And it got to a point where it was horrible and he was missing out. So Weekend Today would mean I was around at the weekends and 60 was meant to be three days a week. But 60 is a five day a week job, probably more, and Weekend Today is probably three days, so I was jamming eight days into seven. I had five days off in total the entire year. I did a lot of my work at night. I was pregnant too. I didn’t realise how much pressure that was putting on my family. I thought, you know what I’m doing it all. I’m spending time with Mack, doing two jobs, look at me go. Every time my husband tried to talk to me about it, it was just back off, support me and don’t judge me. He was trying to support me, I just didn’t see it for what it was. I was trying to be superhuman. It was all my own fault because I just kept saying yes. I thought if I said no to something it was proof that I couldn’t do it all. You reach breaking point and it was probably a good thing to happen. It’s tough to talk about this candidly. It was a failure. Now I’ve got a newborn and a two-year-old and I’ve got more energy than I did last year.”
On losing her father-in-law Michael Willisee Sr
“We were getting all the kids baptised which had been Mike’s dad’s request, then we got a call in the middle of the day to say Mike’s dad had passed away. And it was expected but not quite that soon. I take my hat off to my husband, I’ve got both my parents still with us and they’re extraordinary. To lose a parent when it’s so public, all these people with their best intentions and all sending their condolences, it was just chaotic. We were at the house. There was only six of us there, we hadn’t told anyone and, in fact, Mike’s younger son, we hadn’t told him yet. And then it was announced on Twitter. It was a channel ten reporter in Perth, so how on earth? And it set off this weekend. I remember daycare called half an hour later and said Mack’s got a fever. I picked him up, and he woke up on Saturday morning with hand, foot and mouth for the first time. That evening I went into labour early.
“We were receiving all these condolence messages from friends and family and work colleagues, and we’re nursing a newborn baby. We didn’t tell anyone we’d had her. We were kind of in survival mode really, and I was really worried about Mike. I got out of hospital on the Thursday and Mike’s dad’s funeral, which was at St Mary’s cathedral in the city with 500 people, that was on the Friday. That’s how most of our friends knew we’d had her. I walked in and I still had a belly, but I didn’t look eight months pregnant. It was so weird. We broke the house up, downstairs was sad flowers and upstairs was happy flowers. It was the most intense 48 hours we’ve ever experienced. I was worried about Mack, I was worried about my husband. It was intense. My husband and I have an amazing relationship, he is phenomenal, it brought us even closer going through something like that.”
On admitting her parenting failures
“I already said I didn’t feed Mack, but that’s not the worst. He’s been swimming with minke whales off the Great Barrier Reef and I took him up to a cattle station in Darwin. I had one of the girls with the cattle station who was about 14 and had lots to do with kids looking after him. He was about eight months old. And we were going to be gone for two hours. I didn’t tell her anything but thought two hours would be fine. We were in the middle of nowhere and broke down, we’ve got no communication. We got home after dark. I left her at 10am, I didn’t tell her where the nappies where or how to feed him, nothing. I was so stressed. I get back, she’s relaxed, I’m a mess. She’d walked to the neighbouring cattle station because she knew they had a baby a little bit older than Mack and they would have nappies. She knew where their spare key was, so she broke into their house and took some nappies. His formula was locked in the boot so she just mashed up whatever the other kids were eating. I got back, he was sound asleep and had had the best day ever. He was dirty, totally fine. I remember being in the middle of nowhere thinking, he’s going to have been taken by a crocodile. But he was fine. When we finished that trip, I raced back to the airport with Mack in the car and I realised he’s putrid, hasn’t had a bath in five days. I hosed him down and just got the plane. It took me six months before I told my husband that the trip wasn’t without a few incidents. I’m teaching him resilience!”
On the importance of dad’s parenting
“I came back to weekends when Scout was six weeks, and that works okay. Mack goes to daycare Thursday and Friday, so Friday afternoon I do my prep for the next day. Then I get up at 3:30 in the morning. I express, I leave it on the kitchen bench for my husband and I race home to do her second feed at a quarter to 11. That works. I heard my husband say something really cool the other day. One of his mates said, ‘oh it’s so cool that you babysit the kids every Saturday and Sunday’. And he goes, ‘I don’t babysit, I parent’. The number of stories you hear like that. You’ve got to be kidding me that we praise them for parenting their own children. But I was so happy to hear my husband say that. I thought yeah, step forward.”
On women on television getting older and having children
“Over 40 was the end of your career for a long time in television, or having children and you were gone. I don’t know if any of you remember Kim Watkins, she was a newsreader years ago and I was a reporter in my early 20s in Sydney. I remember her walking in and saying, ‘I’m having twins’. And there hadn’t been a baby born in the newsroom to a woman, the male reporters wives have had plenty and that’s fine, in 15 years. I remember thinking she was leaving because it was such a different time. The newsroom now in Sydney, there’s so many reporters who have had children and a lot of them job share and it’s really moved a long way. It’s not a big deal going and saying you’re pregnant and going to have a baby. It’s not the end of your career anymore. But then I think that’s a very good way that newsrooms have changed.”
On the changing face of reporting
“I think the moral compass has shifted and not in a nice direction. There’s a ruthlessness now. I would not work in a newsroom now. I work at 60 and we’re in a great little bubble. We research our stories properly, but I look at the stuff that goes to air and you just hear stories now which never used to happen when I was in the newsroom. If there’s a car crash and then a news outlet might find out the names, they’ll just publish. We used to always wait until we knew from the police that the family had been informed. And I look at it with Mike Senior passing, and we were trying to get into contact with his younger son who was at school. He saw it on social media. And accuracy doesn’t seem to be as important anymore. I’ll question things all the time. That’s just stuff that we always did. We’re reaching a point where that all needs to be reassessed. People hate the journalist as much as the bad guy. There’s a real distrust. The media has created this problem, but there are still brilliant journalists.”
On being true to her moral compass
“One of the things that I see with my colleagues that I work with directly is that those who have made it to a certain level, are those that work by their own moral compass. I’ve never gone to bed thinking, oh I crossed a line or I screwed someone over. I’m known at 60 for being brutally honest. The thing that I always talk about at work, and it’s a thing that most of us feel, is for us it’s a story, for them it’s their lives.”
On the need for more diversity in public life
“I think the more women we get in leadership roles addressing the problem and realising there is a problem, the better. We are working on it. There’s a lot more strong voices speaking out and pushing for diversity. We talk about more women in politics, I would go further than that, we need more diversity. We need people from a lot of different backgrounds, not just a quota for women but what about for different ethnic backgrounds, religions because that’s what Australia is. And that’s what should be represented in Parliament, not just media.”
On working with Peter Stefanovic
“Pete was my first Today co-host. Both [Stefanovic brothers] are incredibly generous men, and incredibly generous co-hosts. When Pete and I first started together on morning TV, I said my job is to make you look good and your job is to make me look good, and if you just want the other person to shine it’s great television. When all of that happened with Uber-gate, poor Pete he lost five-six kilos, he couldn’t sleep, he called every single person who had been discussed to apologise and front up. And everyone who Pete spoke to was understanding because he fronted up. We all make mistakes, we judge a person by how they respond I think. That’s the true judge of character. Not the mistakes they make but the way they then deal with it. He proved himself.”
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