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Portrait of a lady

"Look, Miss." Jay, one of my 15-year-old students, is showing me his phone. "You're in the background of this picture I took and you look like you hate life!" I glimpse a woman I hardly recognise. Her lips are pursed and her jaw is clenched. Her chin juts forwards and the tendons on her neck stand out. Her eyes are squeezed shut as if she wishes she were far away.

A kid mucking about in class now possesses an utterly unposed and unsanctioned image. But what has he actually captured? A teacher exasperated by pupils? Just an intake of breath? Or has he inadvertently revealed some horrible inner truth?

I am taken aback by the concern in Jay's voice. Fifteen-year-old boys are at a crossroads; while they still annoy girls and respond sarcastically to just about everything, they show glimpses of sensitivity. He appears worried that I really do hate my life.

My life has, in fact, changed significantly this year. I've returned to school full-time after four years of part-time work and maternity leave. I am now a proper "working mother", with two children. I always knew I would have a career and be a parent, and I was sure I would be successful in both. As a feminist, I felt somehow that if I didn't fully exercise all my choices as a modern woman I would be betraying those who have battled and continue to battle for female equality.

So of course my image of myself is as a strong, capable, "bring it on" kind of woman. Yet there have been times this year when I've seemed barely afloat, and the demands of my job and my family have threatened to submerge me completely. The image on Jay's phone encapsulated everything I'd felt in those moments.

Australian comedian Fiona O'Loughlin recently said that we're the first generation of mothers to find parenting really hard. This is a glib observation, but we do complain about our kids a lot. We exchange tales of sleep loss and weight gain at mothers' groups and pour out our behavioural, and toilet-training challenges on social media.

Perhaps it is so difficult precisely because we have so many choices, and because the standards by which we can measure our success are so in our faces. Whether it's the women with six-packs two weeks after giving birth, the ornate birthday cake-makers or the chief executives with multiple progeny, there is someone out there guaranteed to niggle at our insecurities and show us what we could achieve if only we were more organised, disciplined and focused.

But if, as Mark Twain wrote, "comparison is the death of joy", then we should avoid it at all costs. After all, we are complex individuals whose lives are filled with jubilation and misery, and we shouldn't destroy any joyful moments by comparing ourselves to Angelina or Beyonc.

"Perhaps at that precise moment I really did hate my life," I tell Jay with a smile and then ask him to delete the picture.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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