You’d be hard-pressed finding a working mama who puts family above everything else more than Jessica Abelsohn does. Literally raised by her village, Jessica learned early on the value of your tribe and of loving them back. So when this mama of one lost her own beautiful mother to pancreatic cancer in 2014, Jessica co-founded #PurpleOurWorld to raise awareness and make sure no other family felt as alone in their experience of the disease as she once did.
Jessica performs the balancing act between motherhood, a writing career and running the #PurpleOurWorld collaboration with amazing integrity, diligence and grace. We are thrilled to get a glimpse into her inspirational world.
Can you tell us about your career journey so far?
I studied media and communications at university and then continued with a postgraduate law degree. I never wanted to be a lawyer though, so when I finished university I started looking at jobs in policy, writing and journalism. I started my career at content marketing and custom publishing agency, Mahlab, as a junior writer. Over the three years I was there, I worked my way up to editor. I edited a couple of magazines, wrote across several client portfolios and produced and edited corporate videos. It was a very varied role. In early 2015, I decided I wanted to be my own boss so I resigned and went freelance.
Since then, I’ve worked with numerous content marketing and writing agencies to produce blogs and articles. Some of the work is published under my name – I’ve featured quite a bit on Babyology – and some is ghostwritten on behalf of companies or CEOs.
I love the freedom and flexibility it affords me, especially as I can manage #PurpleOurWorld at the same time as earning a living, doing something I absolutely love – writing.
You sadly lost your mum to pancreatic cancer and then co-founded #PurpleOurWorld. What has been your biggest challenge? What have you loved the most?
Mum passed away from pancreatic cancer in August 2014 and #PurpleOurWorld was born a couple of months later. We founded the movement to coincide with the inaugural World Pancreatic Cancer Day (WPCD) which this year falls on 15 November.
In the beginning, the most challenging part of it all was the fact that I was working full-time, while trying to get the movement up and running, meeting our charity partners and our ambassadors, and also managing the social media.
Now though, the most challenging part, I feel, is doing it all without my mum, which sounds a bit weird as it’s because of her that we founded it. My mum was the life of the party and would absolutely love everything we’re doing, which makes it all the more bittersweet that she can’t be part of it or even see it all flourish.
The thing I’ve loved the most is really seeing the difference that we’re making. We engage with our followers on a daily basis and we hope it helps them. We started #PurpleOurWorld to raise awareness for the disease and make sure no other family felt as alone and uneducated about pancreatic cancer as we did when we were going through the treatment with mum. We’ve really noticed a huge difference in the level of awareness which was our ultimate aim. If I had to name something specific that I’ve loved the most though, it would be a toss-up between forming the Pancreatic Cancer Alliance in Australia with our charity partners, being an inaugural member of the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition, and lighting up the sails of the Sydney Opera House purple last year for WPCD.
You are a very inspiring woman and give back so much. What motivates you?
Thank you! Probably the thing that motivates me the most is my family. I have a very close-knit family, which I can completely attribute to the way I was raised – by my village. When my mum was diagnosed, our village rallied around her and around us, and the care that we received was second to none. Part of the reason I went freelance was to be able to be there for my family when and if needed, and to give back to the community.
My sister and I were raised by parents who believed that there is nothing more important than family and community, and part of that is giving back.
Of course, the other person who motivates me most is my mum. Everything I do and everything I am is because of her. And while #PurpleOurWorld is now about so much more than my mum (it’s about all the other families and loved ones too), her memory, her zest for life and her passion really drive me to do everything I can to raise the profile of the deadliest cancer.
And then there’s my son. Because my ultimate aim is to create a better world for him. My wish is that he grows up knowing that while his nana passed away from pancreatic cancer, no other child will lose a loved one to the disease. Our ultimate aim is a cure.
What does a typical business day look like for you?
I’m fortunate that we have help with our son. One day a week, he is looked after by family and two days a week he goes to kindy. So I have three ‘business days’. Of course, working for myself though means business days blur into play days. On my non-business days, I make sure to be a mum first and a boss lady second. That means I only work when my son is sleeping or when I can tee up some time for him to go and play with his cousins. On business days, I drop my son to daycare and then head home to knuckle down and get things done. I’m pretty good at making the most of the time I have because I only have limited hours. When my son was little, he would catnap so I learnt pretty quickly how to get LOADS done in 40 minute increments.
Throughout the day, I’m juggling my writing work with #PurpleOurWorld work. Because of the nature of #PurpleOurWorld, we do have some quieter periods. Things tend to ramp up around August. However, throughout the year, we still have our social media to run and meetings with corporate supporters and charity partners.
I’ll sometimes have a couple of meetings here and there and once a month I’m up at 4.45AM for a global conference call as part of my work on the WPCD Committee. By 4PM it’s pickup time from kindy and usually we head to my dad’s or my aunt’s for a play with my nephews. It’s nice to have that family time. If required, I’ll also do a bit of work after dinner.
On my non-business days, I try to work as little as possible and only while my son is sleeping. Those days are mummy/son time and we’re usually meeting up with friends or we have activities scheduled.
Congratulations on being the proud mama of a gorgeous son. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found about being a mum?
There have been two main things that have surprised me. First, that I am capable of doing all of this without my mum. I never dreamed that I would be doing this without her wisdom, wit and guidance. I am fortunate that I have a very close-knit family, extended family included, so my son knows his great aunts and uncles and is very close to his great grandparents. My immediate family have been invaluable in his upbringing – from advice through to babysitting. But they’ll still never replace my mum, nor do they try. But we’ve all made it our mission that my mum’s grandchildren will know her; they may not meet her, but they’ll know her. In fact, I’ve found myself sounding just like her on many occasions.
The other thing that has surprised me most is a parent’s ability to just get things done. No matter how tired, sick or fed up I am, or how much work I need to do, my son still needs to be fed, clothed and cared for. There have been days where I’ve had a splitting migraine and no medication has touched it, and I still find a way to pick up the pieces and get everything done. To me, it’s quite simple, there’s a little person relying on me, and he needs his mummy.
How have you found navigating motherhood, being a working mum and running #PurpleOurWorld?
I’m not going to lie, it’s tough. Incredibly tough. There have been days where I’ve had to put my work or #PurpleOurWorld first. Thank goodness my son is pretty good with independent play because there have been afternoons where my laptop has been out on the dining table and he has played at my feet. Being a parent who works from home, it’s inevitable that this will happen.
I’ll never forget when my son was 11 months old, I had accidentally left the front door open and I checked a work email. In the three minutes that I was checking my emails, he took himself outside and fell down a full flight of stairs.
There’s incredible guilt involved. But, there’s also incredible opportunity. Our set up has also allowed me to really be with my son. I can take him to kindy and pick him up. I can choose when and where I work so that he comes first. I’m fortunate that this is the case. I can also work around him. In fact, I was making calls and sending emails for #PurpleOurWorld from my hospital bed when he was just two days old.
Of course, there have been opportunities that I’ve had to turn down. For example, I was unable to attend the second World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition Meeting in Montreal because I couldn’t leave a seven month old at home and he couldn’t come with me. While it was definitely the right decision, it was a tough one to make. He’s older this year though so thankfully I could attend the annual WPCC Meeting in Miami.
Where do you see your career going next? What is one dream you have that you have yet to accomplish?
I’m pretty content with where I’m at. I’m doing what I love, both in my writing and in #PurpleOurWorld, and I have a beautiful family to care for and love. Happiness is my ultimate aim. With #PurpleOurWorld, we’d love to see awareness becoming a bit more mainstream. It’s not enough that families of those going through pancreatic cancer know the symptoms and risk factors, we need the general community to understand this so that the cancer can be diagnosed in its early stages. There is no early detection test and there is no cure. For the majority of pancreatic cancer patients, diagnosis happens too late and it becomes palliative care, rather than treatment for a cure. That’s probably the dream I’m still chasing – helping to eradicate pancreatic cancer. For us at #PurpleOurWorld, we strongly believe the only way we’ll do this is by education and awareness. Because people who are educated and aware of the awfulness of the disease are more likely to donate money to help find a cure.
How do you stay sane with the juggle? What is your way of coping when you find yourself frustrated, overwhelmed or burned out? How do you look after yourself?
I’m not sure whether it’s nature or nurture, but I’ve always had the attitude that you just have to get things done. I think that’s why I generally cope with juggling so many balls at one time.
To-do lists are my best friend. I create a weekly to-do list and then a daily to-do list and tasks are prioritised. I put everything down on these lists – even things like make the spag bol for dinner. That way, I can see what I have and haven’t done, and can ensure the most important things get first dibs.
That’s not to say I don’t have my bad days – there have been plenty of moments when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel and give up on working for myself, chasing the money just to pay the bills and everything in between.
When these days hit, I pretty much give in to the frustration. My strong belief is that you need to let yourself feel, otherwise all of those frustrations will bottle up inside and it’s going to be much worse in the long run. So, I’ll give myself a break, whether it’s ten minutes or two hours. I’ll procrastinate with some cooking or housework, or I’ll go for a walk if the weather is right. When I’m stressed because of deadlines or the #PurpleOurWorld workload, I find getting down on the floor and hanging out with my son is the absolute best medicine.
Favourite time of the day is…first thing in the morning. My son will often chat to himself in his cot as he’s waking up and then the calls of ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ will start. We’ll still be in our sleepy daze but there’s no better way to wake up than a little person calling out your name. We then have a bit of snuggle time in the bed all together before starting the craziness that are our days.
Instagram sites that inspire you…in the pancreatic cancer space, it’s @pancan (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network), who we work with very closely on the WPCC. They have a wonderful and engaged following and they’re pretty darn inspiring. In the parenting space, it’s celebrity parents such as @kristenanniebell and @pink, who keep things so real and relatable.
I’m happiest when…I’m with my family – all of them from 93 year old grandparents to the smallest of kiddies.
I’m addicted to…I’d like to pretend it’s not the case, but I’m going to have to go with coffee. My day simply cannot start without two shots of it. I’m also very addicted to excellent television shows – give me Veep and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and I’m a pretty happy chappie.
Favourite wardrobe staple for work…I work from home so it’s active wear all the way. Plus, when I’m not working, I’m chasing after a toddler so I need to be comfy.
Favourite wardrobe staple for weekend…ditto!
My role model is…my mum. She worked right up until a few months before she was diagnosed. She showed me that mums can work and still be there for the kids, no questions asked.
Heels or flats? Flats! I don’t remember the last time I wore heels.