Single mums we love: Lisa Burling
It’s a Thursday night in 2013 and Lisa Burling has just made it back to her hospital room after visiting her second son, Nate, who’s fighting for his life in the neonatal intensive care unit.
He was born 32 weeks premature after Lisa battled placenta previa during her pregnancy.
It’s here, as she’s doubled over her sink, the aftershocks of an emergency caesarian shooting through her body, she notices a missed call from her partner.
“I assumed he was just checking in… but he was calling to break up with me.”
Just like that, Lisa was a single, unemployed, mother of two under three.
“I didn’t want tell anyone for three months. Nate was born in October and I knew we had Christmas coming up, I wanted the families together, and I couldn’t face making it real so I carried it around,” she explains.
“Every day I thought this will be the day I hear the garage door come up and he’ll walk in and say I’ve made a mistake. But it never happened.”
Lisa felt like she’d woken up in an alternate reality.
Her entire life she’d been the self-described overachiever. A prefect, school dux, globe-trotting PR powerhouse who’d spent her twenties in London spearheading global publicity campaigns.
“But in our early thirties we are told we should settle down and you've had your fun, and you should go back to ticking the boxes that society tells us to tick. So, my life went from a jet setting PR girl with a disposable income to living in small coastal town with my high school sweetheart, with one child, my beautiful son Luca, and one on the way, with a part time job working at a council,” she says.
Now, she was doing it alone. And she had nothing – not a cent to her name or a place to live.
She shifted in with her parents who financially supported her while she tried to figure out what the hell just happened.
“I was so angry and bitter and mad, and truth be told, I actually loved feeling that! It made me feel good to feel shitty, it was energising.
“However, what I also realised was that If I didn’t have the kids, it would’ve been so easy to just wallow in my situation,” she says.
“You know, woe is me. Life sucks… I could’ve spent my time wondering, why am I on this earth? And don't get me wrong, I did feel that, but when you have children, you can’t sit in that space. My son was three years old and I had a newborn, a premmie, we had a whole lot of other stuff to deal with around his health. There no time or room for me to feel sorry for myself.”
But Lisa says she hadn’t quite hit rock bottom. Not yet, at least.
That moment came when she took a ticket at Centrelink and waited for her number to be called so she could apply for welfare benefits.
“I just thought to myself – I am a cliché of a single mum. It wasn’t my son born premature, or my partner leaving. It was Centrelink.
“It was just a case of, how the hell has this happened!? I walked over to the guy, sat down in front of him burst into tears.”
When we find ourselves in our darkest place, our spirit clings to fragments of hope because we need to believe things will get better… somehow.
Which could explain why Lisa left that appointment and walked across the road, sat on a bench and created a note in her phone for six months time and instinctively wrote: “see? I told you things would get better.”
She had no proof anything would change in that time – but she still believed in a better life. She could still feel it. She still knew it was possible. And here’s the thing: a go-getting spirit never dies. No matter how hard life tries to suffocate it.
“At the end of the day if you don’t believe it and take action, you will stay exactly where you are.
“There are so many people who like the pity and the attention but there are others who say no! That’s not my story and I am using it as a springboard for life so amazing I can’t even imagine it right now.”
And so Lisa decided to dream a little dream: she set her sights on securing a job that would allow her to shift into her own place with her boys and earn an income so she could stop receiving handouts from her parents
Public relations was a natural choice. But anyone who knows the industry can attest to how relentless and demanding the workload can be. However, it represented stability. Income. Routine.
It made sense to dive straight back into an agency role - but she also craved the flexibility to be present for her sons, something she knew she’d have to sacrifice for the nine-to-five grind.
“I was offered all of these in-house PR jobs, but I turned them all down. Who does that as a single parent with no money living off Centrelink payments!? That’s the time you take what you can get! But I just couldn’t do it. Every time I would think about it, I would feel that restriction in my heart and a voice would say no, don’t do it. It’s so against everything I wanted for myself. It would’ve been easy, but I don’t want easy, I gravitate towards challenges.”
There was a call from deep within to go it alone and start her own agency.
"People questioned my sanity,” she laughs, “but in the early stages of building LBPR, it felt like it was a life purpose, I was being pushed by forces I couldn't see, I just had to do it.”
Those humble beginnings included juggling a newborn and a toddler and their nap times and eating schedules, in between managing clients, being attentive to their needs and scrimping every last cent and funnelling it back into the business to help it grow.
Did she sleep?
“Short answer… no,” she laughs.
Lisa gave herself a six month timeline, and if it didn't work by then, she’d get a job working for someone else.
But there was no reason to search "part time public relations role" in Seek ever again - within months she’d attracted a number of clients and grown the business to the point she was hiring a team.
She realised she needed to go back to Centrelink, but this time it was to put a stop to her single parent payments, and there was a skip in her step as she approached the same desk, and crazily enough the same employee she’d broken down in front of all those months earlier.
And as fate would have it, once she was done, she walked across the road to the bench she once sat at six months earlier, and as she sat down, a note popped up on her phone: “see? I told you things would get better.”
Talking to Lisa for the last hour, you quickly realise what makes this woman so special: she leads every decision with love. She cares what you have to say and what you think. She pours her soul into her business, her boys, her friends and family. There’s an air of authenticity people strive to manufacture through tiny boxes on Instagram, but Lisa naturally exudes.
It’s no wonder why within five short but also incredibly long years, LBPR is now a successful seven-figure business based out of Wollongong, with clients all over Australia and a sleuth of awards to its name, including the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s Small PR Consultancy of the Year.
She mentors young PR graduates, commissions pro-bono work to help boost the profile of charities, somehow managed to squeeze in time to buy a block of land and build her dream house for her family to live, and, to top it off, she’s just released a book “Dream a Little Dream,” she describes as “part memoir, part business, part self love.”
Centred around the premise of how Lisa dreamed a series of little dreams to help her achieve her dream life, it recounts how she hit rock bottom, the birth of her business, and all of the lessons she learnt when the universe stripped away everything she thought she needed to clear the way for her to live the life of her dreams.
“I came up with the little dreams retrospectively, I realised i was intuitively doing it,” she explains.
“I like to use the analogy of eating an elephant… how would you do that? Well, you’d break it down to little chunks. That’s the idea I’m going for here. Dreams don’t have to be massive, they can take all sorts of forms to lead you to your ultimate destination.”
So, how the hell does she juggle everything!?
“I’m a serious multi-tasker! I also realised it takes a village - I thought I didn’t need help. but then when you give in and realise you do, then it makes life so much better.”
Lisa says she felt a sense of responsibility to honestly share her story to not only pave the way for other single parents who find themselves in similar situations, but to set a positive example of an empowered woman for her sons.
“Little eyes are always on you, always watching, and you think when my boy grow up what do i want them to look back on? How do I want them to describe life with their mum? I want them to see a life of possibility and excitement and a mum who wakes up wanting to be here.”
And while it’s been five years since her life unravelled, she acknowledges there are still moments where resentment rears its ugly head, however as time has gone on, she’s learnt now to manage that, and part of the solution was forging an amicable friendship with the father of her sons.
“I was angry and I was resentful of having to change nappies, negotiate with a three year old. I was operating on no sleep and building a business on no sleep. So to any women out there, feeling angry and resentful, I totally felt those things, because it’s not fair, it’s not fair you make a decision to have children and one party decides no I'm not doing this. It’s horrible, but five years on, my boys dad and I have a really good relationship and its because I'm willing to forgive, and your children have to be the focus. They’re still so little, and you realise you've got a long ride ahead, so you have to ask yourself whether you want to be that mum and dad standing on either end of the soccer pitch.
“The children always come first, and when you put them first you realise you can deal with whatever happens - it is possible to get on with you ex.
It’s one of many lessons she wishes she could’ve shared with the Lisa who sat hopelessly on that park bench all of those years ago.
“I would tell her even though it doesn't feel like it right now, this is a jolt from the universe to get your life back on track.. to trust life can be amazing and to never, ever give up on your dreams - little or big.”
For more information or to get your hands on a copy of Lisa’s book, head to her website.