What secrets do you wish you’d known about life with a newborn? Jamila Rizvi, editor of The Motherhood, leads a lively and honest discussion with contributors Lanai Scarr, Emma MacDonald and Anna Rose about their experiences as new mothers.
In association with Penguin Random House
Speakers: Erin Dampney (E), Jamila Risvi (J), Emma MacDonald (Em), Anna Rose (A), Lanai Scarr (L)
Location: National Library of Australia
Female (F) used when unsure
E: Good evening and welcome to the National Library. My name is Erin Dampney, I’m the Director of Building and Security Services here at the Library and a mother of two. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring - this land we are now privileged to call home.
Now importantly before I begin, for those of you who’ve been brave enough to bring your babies with you there is a baby change room just as you go out of the theatre in front of the lifts as you turn left.
We are thrilled to welcome presenter, political commentator and author, Jamila Risvi to the Library this evening. Jamila is no stranger to Canberra having graduated from the ANU and worked as an adviser to former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. She joined Mamma Mia women’s network as editor in chief and published her first book, Not Just Lucky in 2017. Jamila is the editor of The Motherhood, a collection of letters from some of Australia’s favourite women sharing what they wished they’d known about life with a newborn. And as a mother of two and five-year-old daughters I can say that this is the book that I wish had been written five years ago.
Tonight Jamila will explore the highs and lows of being a mum with contributors, Emma MacDonald, Lanai Scarr and Anna Rose. Please join me in welcoming them.
J: Thank you so much, it’s so nice to be back in Canberra. I’d also like to begin by acknowledging and celebrating the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet today and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Nganbury elders, past, present and emerging and most particularly the mothers.
They warned me that my world would be turned upside down. They lied. My world was not upside because an upside down world implies that it’s still the same world but viewed from a different angle. My world wasn’t upside down, it was gone forever. Going to take you back there.
I am wearing nothing but leggings. That’s it. It is 1:42pm and I haven’t yet made it to the shower because the baby won’t settle unless he’s in my arms. My husband is at work and in a few hours’ time I will start texting him incessantly, berating him for leaving me alone for so long. I am burning mad at him. He has the privilege of being allowed to leave each weekday whereas I am a caged animal living in captivity.
I have watched four episodes of Gossip Girl since midnight and three seasons since the birth of my son two weeks ago. My nipples are sore, my head heavy and the laundry basket is full of tiny piss-stained sleep suits and poo-soaked towels. I have spit rather than perfume on my décolletage and I couldn’t say for sure whose spit it is. Everything hurts but mostly my broken dreams. I’ve tripped and fallen into a Truman Show-style loop of awfulness. I tell my husband I have ruined everything. A new world indeed.
There were a lot of tears in those early weeks after my son was born and many of those tears were mine. Once the visitors began to slow and extended family returned home my crying began to rival the baby’s in both magnitude and frequency. I was swollen and raw from giving birth. I will still sweating out excess fluid at night, it was a really attractive time and I had no clue what I was doing. There’s some people without children who look very uncomfortable. Buckle up.
My mind dealt exclusively in internalised reprimands of how I should be feeling and dark comparisons with how I was feeling. There was a deep anger and there was even more fear. I was frustrated by the happy motherhood lie I felt I’d been sold and I became convinced that I was the first person ever to go through this and to feel like this. Going out alone seemed daunting and altogether too hard. I was desperately, desperately, desperately, desperately tired.
My tightly controlled life had evaporated, my confident, proud sense of identity replaced with a zombie who couldn’t tell night from day. I produced milk like a cow but nothing like Lanai but we’ll get to that in a second. And regularly examined the consistency of someone else’s excrement. There was washing to do, always washing to do. I still don’t quite understand how such a tiny person can produce so much washing. It was the loneliest that I have ever been.
Almost three years on I have superhero-like fantasies about returning in time to console my former self. I would sit her down in the beaten-up armchair, gently curling strands of very unwashed hair behind her ears and taking our baby in my arms I would remind her to breathe. When you’re at the gym and you’re doing a particularly painful exercise or lifting heavier than usual weights you instinctively hold your breath even though it actually makes lifting the weight or doing the exercise harder. For me life with a newborn was quite similar. I was so tightly wound up that I forgot to do myself even the most basic of kindnesses. I know what former me is thinking, she’s waging a great war inside her head, a battle of acceptance of and acquiescence to the fresh hell that is her newfound existence. Her fear is that it will always be like this. She dares not hope otherwise because the disappointment might be too much to bear.
I want to hug her and fill her with promises of how much easier, how much better it will become. I want to show her the endless stream of iPhone photos and videos of that beautiful baby boy who has grown into a funny, clever and kind toddler and who will one day become the very best of men. He is unquestionably the greatest thing that my husband and I have ever done. But she doesn’t know that yet. I want to show her all that lies ahead. I want her to realise that it will be okay and that the world will expand once more and she won’t always feel claustrophobic and trapped in a tiny apartment as if the walls are closing in on her. I want to herald a reassuring message from the future that it’s true, she will feel like herself again, that she will know herself again and that life can be big and bright and beautiful and loud and luscious once more.
I decided to write The Motherhood after a long walk with my friend, Lucy, when she told me she didn’t know how to help a new friend who’d recently given birth. Cute baby onesies, muslin wraps and booties are adorable but they weren’t going to help her beloved mate through the toughest period she’d ever experienced. They weren’t going to lift her out of a deep and dark fog. The baby books all give you useful tips on how to look after the baby but nobody, nobody tells you how to look after you. More than half of new Australian mothers report feeling lonely and isolated during the first year of their child’s life. Many new fathers experience the same thing. My feelings of isolation were compounded because I didn’t have that many girlfriends with kids. The birth was a shock and the months that followed even more so. I was utterly unprepared for the seclusion. It’s only now that I realise how common my experience was. The [lonelihood] 7:39 of modern mothers isn’t an exception, it’s the rule.
It didn’t used to be like this. It’s hard to imagine that a tiger skin-clad mother would ever have been left alone in a cave to fend for herself with a newborn for days on end. If her spear-wielding baby daddy had to go out for a few hours hunting boar or buffalo or dinosaurs – I wasn’t good at science or history – she would have been safe and warm in the company of dozens of other women. Mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and fellow tribespeople all taking collective charge of a new family’s wellbeing. It takes a village to raise a child and yet so much of modern parenting takes place in silos, each of us existing within the confines of our own white picket-fenced prisons. We limit our support structures to those who are related to us by blood, not wanting to be an imposition on others beyond the time period it’s deemed socially acceptable.
I didn’t ask for help and I really dearly wish I had. Thankfully one friend realised that I needed it without me having to ask. My mate, Claire, arrived at the bottom of my apartment stairs unannounced and ready for action. She had an armful of food and her then nine-year-old twin boys by her side. She instructed her sons to sit and be delighted by my newborn. Nine-year-old boys are particularly good at being delighted by newborn babies.
Claire went straight to the sink and she began washing up. She stayed about 15 minutes, cleaning the whole time, telling me I was a champion and walking out the door. One hour later I received an SMS that changed everything. This wasn’t a quiet note of hey, cute baby, well done, thanks for the tea, bye, it was a letter in text message form and oh what a letter it was. Claire’s kindness filled me up to the brim. I read her wise words and found companionship for the first time since becoming a mum. She understood what I’d been through in a way that my husband couldn’t, try as he might. And then she described the long luxurious eight hours of uninterrupted sleep that I would one day have again. It was like soft porn. And I gave myself up to the fantasy. That sleep fantasy pushed every button. I used to read it several times a night and by sharing her story Claire helped me accept the realities of how my own would be written.
My hope is that this book will do for other women what Claire did for me. I didn’t want to share only my own experience because that’s awfully narrow and might not prove particularly useful to many so I began speaking with mothers who I love and admire, some of whom are on the stage right now, asking whether they would relate their experiences for the benefit of new mothers to come. I was absolutely overwhelmed by how many of them agreed. Furious in their determination to make those early months just a little bit easier for someone else. As each letter arrived in my inbox I was invited into the quiet, lonely living rooms and bedrooms of women all over Australia.
Tonight you’re going to hear from three of those contributors, Anna, Lanai and Emma, three women to whom I am incredibly grateful to and whose exquisite letters are some of my absolute favourites but I don’t have favourites ‘cause they’re like children and I love them all. Each has a long and impressive biography that I am going to leave to the side for just one night because this evening they are here only in their capacity as storytellers and as mothers and that should be achievement enough. Please put your hands together for Emma MacDonald, Lanai Scarr and Anna Rose.
J: Alright. So I wanted to start by asking each of you to tell me a little bit about what it was like to write your letter, what it was like to take yourselves back to that moment in time and at the same time you might tell us who your child slash children are and how old they are now. Emma, did you want to start?
Em: I’ll start. I have a 12-year-old son, Thomas, and an eight-year-old daughter, Imogen who we call Immy. I am a journalist by trade and I – when I wrote the letter it all came in a giant rush and I wrote it and then the day it was due I think I read the instructions and I hadn’t done what Jamila had asked so I immediately emailed her and said I’m so sorry, I’m going to miss the deadline, I’m just going to need to rewrite this so it’s a lesson in reading the question first. So it all came out – even though I had Thomas 12 years ago I remember it as if it was yesterday and it was – for me it was a really pleasurable thing and I know a lot of the letters are really sad and kind of visceral and it’s all about being in the thick of it but I’m on the other side with a 12-year-old who can get his own breakfast and do lots of things for himself and I sleep in every weekend and I get as much sleep as I need and it’s really, really good. So for those of you who are a little bit demented by it all it gets better, I promise.
J: It gets better. I should add that of the 32 letters to the book two were submitted on time and that is fair enough for new mothers. Anna?
A: Hi, I am a climate change campaigner and I write a lot about climate change and this was a very different thing to write about and it was very difficult and I had to drink a glass of wine while I was writing my chapter because it was so traumatic just remembering how tired I was so it took me a few drafts and normally it doesn’t take a few drafts so I think yeah, there’s kind of so much to say but at the same time it’s really hard to say it.
L: So I’m a journalist and I also am a mum of four so I have a four-year-old and also two-year-old triplets so –
J: We knew that was coming.
L: So I found the letter-writing process like – even though I write all the time for my work I found it difficult because there were so many things that I wanted to say and include in there that you know – but I also wanted to impart a message and you know help other mothers so yeah, it was difficult to get everything in that I wanted to but – and it was also – I think I take for granted some of the little things that we do every day and you know that people find so interesting that you know and that’s what we were discussing earlier, is that you know just the process of getting the pram in the car and getting them all in the car for school drop-off or changing all of their nappies or doing all of the things that we do so yeah, I sort of found that I needed to put more in it than I did initially but yeah, it was good because you know I really think it’s important to help other mothers and be kind of other people and I really feel that this book is going to do that.
J: I know that one of the key obsessions that new mothers are often criticised for is being obsessed with talking about the birth and telling their birth story and I remember hating that before I had children, I was like oh shut up about having the baby like just so boring and then I had one and I really wanted to tell people all about it all the time. I want to ask did you and do you still talk about the birth of your children and was it something that you needed to do or is it something that you sort of pushed to the back of your mind and is it true that you forget how painful it is?
A: I forgot apparently, my husband said it was painful, I don’t really remember. I should also mention I forgot to tell you about my son, his name’s Robbie and he’s two. Oops, okay, hopefully he never listens to this. But yeah like I really cannot remember much and I didn’t – well I was pretty lonely, I didn’t kind of have many people to tell it to anyway in those first few months.
J: Yeah. Emma, how about you? You’re a little bit further on.
Em: Yeah, I found – once I’d given birth I understood why the birth stories were important because it validates that you’ve done this miraculous thing and I'm still gobsmacked ‘cause if you’ve read my contribution you would know that I had no idea that I was pregnant, that it wasn’t something that was ever planned so I was kind of in shock by it all and hadn’t really – I just wasn’t into babies at all, I’m ashamed at how callous and cold I was, I just was not interested in children. And then I had my son and I just – that was it, it was just this instantaneous wanting to have five, six, seven more children. Circumstances –
J: You can come and babysit any time, really.
Em: But I suddenly realised why – one of my besties, she was so proud that she had given birth naturally without any drugs and I was like why would you do that? Just take all the drugs, do whatever like I just didn’t understand – it was like she was telling me this most profound truth about her very essence and I was like whatever, have drugs, don’t have drugs you know I just – I didn’t connect to it at all. And then once I’d had my son which was by caesarean – I had gestational diabetes – there was so much fluid I can’t even tell you, we all heard it splash onto the ground, it was very graphic, it was just this story I love telling everyone –
J: I should warn my dad came along to the launch in Melbourne, he’s not here tonight by choice so that gives you an idea of what’s to come.
Em: No, I understand now and it is absolutely the most profoundly profound thing I’ve ever done, it’s just – you would all know if you’ve had a baby, it’s like you’ve just created a miracle and I’ll never get over that sense of I created this incredible child like I still feel absolutely just so grateful that it happened because I didn’t choose for it to happen that way and I might have missed out had I been so stupid for much longer so –
J: I often make – I speak a lot about gender in my work, I don’t usually write about motherhood and one of the things I like to talk about is the fact that I genuinely believe if men gave birth we would treat them very differently like the kinds of parades we have for men who return from war to remember you know contributions which are immense contributions from world war one or world war two like women give birth, man, like there would be parades and there would be medals if we were men but we don’t have them. And when you say that men look at you like it’s not that hard but then you hear Lanai’s story and you go three babies at once, you can have a medal. Tell us about three babies at once.
L: Like when you posed that question I actually don’t think I’ve told a lot of people about the actual birth before writing this piece. I think with our daughter, Molly, I did ‘cause she was 18 hours in posterior labour so that was very painful and horrible but – and it was also on my birthday so that was nice too but yeah, before writing this piece I didn’t really tell people a lot but you know yeah, it was definitely a different kind of birth, having triplets so I had a caesarean but I was – and I was all booked in for the caesarean the next day and then I went into labour naturally. And because Molly was so painful I kind of didn’t think I was in labour so by the time we got to the hospital I was 10cm dilated and Jim, our oldest boy, his cord was wrapped around his neck twice so he would have died if we hadn’t got to the theatre as soon as we did and it was all a big rush and there were tons of people in the room so – yeah but it’s interesting ‘cause yeah, with Jim, Nate and Edie, I haven’t really told my birth story until you read the book.
J: We’re in for a treat then when we go home to go reading. And I want to talk to you about your letter and you talk about the physically relentless nature of those first six weeks to three months and I remember there’s – I had so many different emotions when I read people’s letters as they came in and mostly feeling remarkably privileged to get to read them all. Yours I think I identified with more than any other letter. I remember thinking that was a bit like me but you talk about the – how physically relentless that early period is specifically around breastfeeding and the lack of sleep. What do you think was harder for you?
L: They were intertwined, it was – I mean I was so exhausted. I think when you’re pregnant you get a lot of messages about how important breastfeeding is and I think I was so sleep-deprived that I really just went a bit crazy with it, actually like I didn’t want to feed him any formula and we did a little bit but I wasn’t thinking rationally and because I was so sleep-deprived and he had reflux so he was waking up every 45 minutes so because I didn’t want to give him formula I was waking every 45 minutes and an adult sleep cycle is two hours so if you’re never getting a full sleep cycle then your brain is just not able to work and also because he had reflux he would only sleep on me or on Simon and so yeah, I just found the washing, the breastfeeding, the having to like walk around the house all the time to get him to sleep because if we put him on his back he would cry with so much pain from the reflux it was just – yeah, it was relentless, it was so different to the work – well anything else that I’d ever done because even if you’re doing you know all of us have work that’s really intense but you’ve always got the ability to take a coffee break or to leave or to say like actually you know I'm just going to get this task done 80% and then you know clock off but you just can’t when you’ve got a newborn if you’re choosing to breastfeed you know all the time. And then he would vomit it back up which was the worst.
J: Which is just rude.
L: Oh you know that saying crying over spilt milk, I mean that is absolutely –
J: It’s alright if it’s vomited up milk, you’re allowed to cry over that.
L: Well yeah, I mean whether it’s spilt or vomited there was so much crying.
J: Emma, you describe in your letter yourself as an accidental and reluctant mother and you’ve touched on that just earlier but you said that the moment that your son was born you were converted. For you that was it. What was it before you were pregnant that made you feel like motherhood perhaps wasn’t something that was in your future or wasn’t a priority?
Em: Oh I was so stupid, I just had worked really hard, I just wanted to be me and I didn’t want to be judged on what I had produced outside of what I was doing journalistically and I was starting to – I’m quite an ornery person, I was like getting irritated that everyone was saying are you thinking about babies? And Jenna Price who’s a – quite a character, she used to hassle me all the time, she used to ring from Sydney, she’s a journalist, she’s behind the Destroy the Joint campaign and she would say when are you having babies? And I’d say Jenna, I – it’s not on my agenda, do you know what I’ve got on the story list for today? And she’d say you will regret this if you – I’m telling you now if you do not get pregnant you will miss out and don’t come crying to me, I’m telling you go and have a baby. And even my editor, Jack Waterford, would walk by, poke me in the stomach and he’d say you better get a move on, your eggs will rot and fall out. So I was feeling all sorts of pressure and that just turned me right the other way and I was like – and I think my husband was –
J: I’m amazed you had children, I would have refused to get pregnant out of spite, I hate you people, I will never have a baby.
F: But she had no choice, it happened.
Em: Well that’s the irony, that’s why I’m so I guess grateful but I think my husband knew well enough to just not even go there so we had never really even talked about it. And a funny story is that after I’d given birth to Thomas – I had a caesarean, I don’t know which way is up you know I – they wheel me back, Paul’s got the baby, they wheel me back to the hospital room, I’m in a private hospital room and the phone rings. I’m like am I meant to get – like I can’t mo – I can’t feel below and I sort of reach over and I get the phone, I’m like hello. It’s Jenna Price, she’s like what do you think? Is it good? I’m like he’s beautiful. She said I told you. I'm like thanks, Jenna, goodbye like seriously?
So - but I do owe Jenna a great debt of gratitude but – yeah and sometimes I’m asked to give speeches and I think what do I really want to tell these young ambitious women that I’m going to speak at you know university graduation or some such thing? And what I really want to say is that for me I can’t put into words how grateful I am to be a mother and it’s left every other story and every other thing I’ve done, it’s paled into [in]significance so I guess I’m just really grateful that I had the opportunity and I'm still really happy like I just – it was such a blessing and even though I had no idea, no earthly idea because I hadn’t read the books or done anything until the very last moment it worked out really well and I felt just so grateful and this kid was so perfect and beautiful and that’s all I remember, is thinking how could I have not wanted - like he – I just – when people are pregnant I say prepare to fall in love and I know it doesn’t happen that way for everyone but for the vast majority there’s just this moment where you’ve got this creature and it’s profound and beautiful.
J: Lanai, you have to tell us about having triplets now. Like we just need to know about the logistics ‘cause everyone’s here for the logistics when it comes to you. And remember Lanai has triplets and another one, right? You know how people get horrified when you - for people who have kids really close together and they have two under two? Lanai had four under two so can you please tell me about just the logistics of those first few weeks? Like what did you do?
L: We had a lot of people who did help us in those first few weeks so we were really, really lucky with that you know we had strangers dropping off meals and you know people coming down to help like from Sydney or wherever to help us out so we were really lucky with that and my husband took three months off work so that was a major thing. But you know we just had to be regimented you know with Molly I didn’t follow any routine, I breastfed her when she wanted to you know we slept when she wanted to, I was like no, I’m not going to follow routines but with Jim, Nate and Edie I had to have routines, that was the only way that we survived. So you know we were – and they were premature, they were born at 34 weeks so we had to feed them every three hours and I was breastfeeding them so I had to breastfeed them every three hours but –
J: Okay, just – so hold on. I’ve seen people breastfeed twins, you can’t do that with triplets.
L: Yeah, I did not grow a third boob, you’ll be pleased to know. So how I did it is I – and so I had twin-fed two of them, I had a big pillow and had two sitting there and then I would also pump so I was basically only getting 45 minutes of sleep like every three hours because by the time I fed them and you know with newborns it’s so long to feed a newborn so they were feeding for an hour and then after I fed them and put them down in their Moses baskets well I’d have to put the breast pump on so I’d be you know I got a handsfree breast pump so I had one of those lovely little boob tubes with holes in it and I would walk around the house doing things like so I could get other stuff done and just [mimics breast pump sound] so – and our freezer was stocked with breast milk.
So it was kind of you know obviously them being premature, that was really difficult. Edie had some really significant lung issues so you know she was almost flown up to Sydney when we were in the hospital and that would have been horrendous ‘cause it just – how would have we done that logistically? But it was kind of a blessing as well because you know because they weren’t feeding much and because they were cared for in the special care nursery and I was in the hospital I was able to you know put on the lovely breast pump like every three hours and just build up a big bank of milk and you know we’ve got a normal fridge with two freezer drawers and literally at one point the whole freezer drawer was full of frozen breast milk.
So how we would do it, very long answer to your question is I would tandem feed two and then either my husband or someone else would give a bottle of expressed milk or when my husband went back to work and that was so hard at three months, I was really scared the first day he went back to work, I would – because they weren’t rolling I would sit on the couch with my double breast pillow and then I would have one on another pillow next to me and have the two attached to my boobs and hold the bottle for the other one so –
L: Yeah, it was just surviving and you know and yeah, it was – that’s – I’m very lucky that I didn’t have issues and you know I have friends and know people that have had issues and it’s not easy for everyone but you know I’m just fortunate that I was able to have that bit be relatively easy for me.
J: I made Lanai do all this maths for her letter like I was like I want to know how many litres of breastmilk there was, I want to know – I was very inquisitive. And one of the pieces of maths you did was that there were 9,000 nappies changed in that period. I just want to leave that with everybody and I feel like that could be used as sex education in schools, to teach abstinence.
L: I feel like if anyone wants sex education they should just come to my house for like two hours or an afternoon and I’ll just be like see you and they won’t be wanting to have children so soon.
J: I want to ask each of you, new mothers are often accused by nonparents of being obsessed with their baby, being unable to talk about anything else and I want to ask firstly was that you? And where do you think that criticism comes from because you’re talking about something that is all-consuming and yet suddenly you’re expected when you’re hanging out with your mates or whatever not to talk about it, you’re supposed to put it aside. So were you someone that wanted to talk about your baby all the time or were you someone that wanted to talk about anything but?
L: I don’t know, I think like I talked about my baby and babies but everyone is always – and of course it’s completely normal but everyone’s always so fascinated as we all are about the logistics and you know – yeah, I don’t know but I guess I also you know talk about my interests and my career as well but yeah, I don’t know, people always want to ask me more questions than necessarily I want to talk about so that really hasn’t been an issue for me, I guess.
J: I remember one of my mates when she first her a baby, her sister said to her you’ve gotten really boring like you don’t talk about anything else anymore and she just blew up and was like well I don’t have time to read books and I don’t get to go to the movies and I’m not working like what else am I supposed to speak about? Nothing else is happening for me, this is life right now.
A: Yeah, I think it was - I remember I had a great parents’ group and we talked a lot about our babies and then there was this one night where we all went out for dinner without the babies and they were maybe – I don’t know, three months old and we kind of looked at each other and realised we’d never asked each other what we did for work. And these are all professional women with amazing jobs and careers and then we kind of went oh okay, we can talk about this now and it was a great moment because I think we were all at that stage where we were able to start reengaging with the rest of the world and for me - actually that was just before a federal election where I was helping with some climate campaigns and so I had to kind of get back into things pretty quickly. And that just made me move out of just baby mode and back into being able to talk about other things.
Em: I was in baby mode hook, line and sinker and because I had my mum who was at home with me and we lived in the same suburb it was just a beautiful time where I didn’t have to talk about politics or anything ‘cause she’d come over and we’d talk about the best method to puree vegetables and how beautiful is he and what’s he done today?
J: Emma, that sounds excruciating –
Em: No and I loved –
J: And you loved it.
Em: I just loved it. The only time I can remember feeling distinctly kind of just realising that I was a different person was in my mothers’ group which I found great, all professional women, it was just lovely to be able to talk and not get judged for wanting to talk about you know who could lift their head up and who was [rolling] 33:59. But I remember at the very first mothers’ group we had to introduce ourselves and I was just in so much shock, I just said I’m Emma and I used to be a journalist and the nurse said Emma, you are still a journalist, you’ve just had a baby but you are still a journalist. And I thought I can’t ever be a journalist because I need to stare at this child 24/7 for the – and I would and that’s one of the things I put in my letter, that I would just look at him all day like I just – I could not get en – I am a parody, I was ridiculous.
J: Anna, I know you were similar to me in that you really struggled with that loss of working identify. I didn’t enjoy the loss of working identity, I sort of went if I don’t have my work then who am I and what is my contribution? Do you think new parenthood is harder on mums today in that regard? Is it harder today than it was say 50, 100 years ago because if you go back 100 years a professional career wasn’t available to women?
A: Yeah, I feel like the things that made me good at my job were things I actually had to unlearn to be a parent and I know I’ve had a lot of friends with similar experiences of being like high-achieving professional women and like the better that they were at their work the kind of worse they were at parenting and certainly for me so you know unlearning things like having to do a to-do list. I mean I would write – I was so used to having a to-do list that I would write my to-do list like feed baby, have shower, make cup of tea, feed baby and you know sometimes some of those things got done and I could tick them off. It was really just such a massive adjustment like I’ve been a climate activist since I was 14 and that has been my life and you know one thing that I already knew before I had Robbie was separating myself from my role was an important thing that I had to work on and then having the baby just made it so much you know I had no choice, I had to do it. And yeah, I think it’s absolutely got to be harder these days, right?
L: I think it is difficult you know especially when you care about the work that you do and that that is intrinsically a part of you. I mean I don’t see myself as journalist is my job, I am a journalist and I’m always you know thinking of stories or you know talking to people and learning their stories so I think as well certainly how I felt, when you’re you know on maternity leave and then you go back to work, there is a sense of – like I certainly had a crisis of confidence you know you go back to work and you’re like okay well I’ve been doing this period you know I’ve been doing this thing for this period of time and you know now I’m supposed to go back to Lanai, journalist you know that doesn’t have 1,001 priorities at home as well? Like you do still have that at home and you do have that at work so you know sometimes I find it hard to give 100% to each sphere and you always feel this internal conflict of are you giving enough here or are you giving enough there and you know I think mothers in previous generations all had different challenges and I don’t know whether it’s necessarily right to compare that we have it harder or they had it harder but I think that’s certainly a challenge that yeah, I struggle with still you know all the time.
J: I think it’s Annabel Crabb who wrote that the pressure on working mothers in the 21st century is a really precise one and I’m going to mangle her quote but it’s something like your job is to work as if you didn’t have a family and to look after your children as if you didn’t have a job. And that is how you achieve perfection.
F: Can I say something, though? We are all so much better at what we do once we’ve had a child because no-one works more efficiently, more creatively or more doggedly than a woman who’s got a childcare pickup or has to duck to the toilets to pump for the next feed so I – having been on selection panels I would always give a job to a mum just ‘cause I know she can totally pull it out.
J: She’s highly efficient and can operate –
Em: Yeah, I would turn up to work in the gallery you know pre-baby I would turn up maybe midday, 11, middayish and I would put pen to paper at maybe 6, 7 and I’d get home at 10 and my husband was the same you know we just lived this ridiculous life and when I came back after a baby I would sometimes have my first story written before 10am and by 4:00 I would be – there would be smoke coming out of my fingers and everyone else is just oh do you want a coffee? I don’t know what I’m going to put on the list today, I don’t know, I might make some more calls. I’m like just do it, just do it, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go you know and it’s just the efficiencies of working mothers, we are very, very, very good to hire. We are excellent.
J: Put that on your resume. Emma MacDonald quote, we’re good to hire. We might stay on that for a moment. If you think about government policies in the area that are around working mothers so specifically paid parental leave and childcare and subsidies. Now of course these are policies that are about supporting working fathers as well but the reality is that the majority of people who these policies are supporting end up being the women. Has the federal government got it right in this sphere? Is there more to do? Did you feel properly supported in your return to work? Was it something that was manageable, is manageable?
L: I think as a country as a whole that we don’t have it right, I think men need to be you know really supported to take more time off as well you know the only way I was able to survive was because my husband took six weeks off with Molly and also he took three months off with the triplets but that is a rarity and you know and he has a flexible working arrangement at his work where he works his five days over four but again that’s a rarity. You know he spoke on a panel on International Women’s Day about that and I think that we need to realise that parenting is about both mothers and fathers or mothers and mothers or fathers and fathers you know it’s a joint adventure and so both sides should be supported in the same respect.
A: I agree, my husband took probably eight or nine weeks off with Robbie and it was absolutely crucial and I think it’s too rare. It’s hard for a lot of men, I mean he runs his own business so it was possible but for both parents to be supported is you know where there are both parents I think that’s so crucial.
L: And I also think – I’m sorry, Emma – I also think that like it would be a lot easier on us as mothers as well if we did have support that whole hard six-week period you know like my mum had a mental illness and she died when I was seven but you know I learned recently that she had postpartum psychosis when I was two weeks old and I got taken away from her ‘cause she had to be hospitalised but you know and she didn’t have that support you know because she didn’t have my dad there you know the whole time, I don’t think, and you know I think that if we did as a society see that in that first formative six weeks when it is really, really hard, if we had you know our partner there, that it would be easier you know it would – they would be able to get us help if we needed it you know mentally or physically. I just think that that is something that you know as a society I don’t think we have right.
Em: Yeah, I have many thoughts on this. My biggest beef at the moment is that we are all working in industries which are 24/7 so even if you have a flexible workplace it doesn’t mean that the demands of the job are going to stop and so I mean we all want to work but staying attached to your industry means that you’re just taking on board this massive load when sometimes it would be just really nice to just vague out and just be a mother and I’ve found so many times my home life and my work life have just come to a resounding crush at my expense. And my job now is a lot more family-friendly and I have older children but I remember I came back after my daughter was born and that – just thought it’d be a great idea to make me bureau chief and I honestly almost lost my mind.
I just couldn’t do it and I – yeah, there you know we’re human so I think there are policies in place but I think the nature of our work and our jobs are just so all-consuming and even if my employers weren’t putting pressure on me to you know come up with a scoop or do something I would put it on myself so I don’t know that the solution is a government policy or whether we need as a society to elevate the role of children and the value of children. Why are we all so obsessed with work? Why you know I guess it’s a win for economics and commerce and business because we’re all playing in that game but –
J: I agree but how do we change it? You know how do we become more like other countries or societies –
Em: Like Italians.
J: - that do have a better – or Sweden you know don’t they have a really great balance of parenting? So how do we get to that point?
F: More paid parental leave, start –
J: Well that’s – if you take the Swedish example so does everyone know how paid parental leave works in Sweden? It’s freaking mecca like Sweden – Swedish know what they’re doing. So the Swedish have created a system where paid parental leave is funded by the government and the leave is not attached to the individual parent, the leave is attached to the child so the child is entitled to 24 months of paid parental leave but the child only gets that 24 months’ paid parental leave if two different people take it evenly so you only get it if both parents take that – take some leave. So you get a minimum of 12 months for mum taking it, let’s say and if the partner is a dad well if you want to keep taking leave until age two then the other parent has to take it.
So it – like there’s a really clear incentive from the government that’s saying we want both parents to be involved in those early years. You can decide how you want to split it, if you want to take it at the same time, separately, whatever but that’s what you’ve got and you can take it any time until the child starts school so if you want you can use it later rather than earlier. Told you, it’s like mecca, it’s the best –
F: We should do that. We should also pay our childcare educators fairly. Much more.
F: And we shouldn’t lose our super when we do take maternity leave so that we are consigning ourself to retirement in poverty –
F: We have list. We’ll make a list. I’ll send it on.
F: We just do like a mini Cabinet here ourselves.
J: And find someone to fund it. I wanted to go back to the idea of how we talk about parenthood and how we discuss new parenthood because one of the things that’s come up doing the media for this book, and there’s been a lot of interest in this book, has been a number of commentators asking me about motherhood being portrayed in a negative light in this book and I’m going to start with Anna and I’m also going to speak as well because Emma and Lanai, your letters are both quite joyous and Anna’s and mine, there’s more anger in our letters, there’s a lack of joy, a decided lack of joy in our discussions. The joy came a little bit later, it just came a little bit later. But when you’re speaking to someone who is considering motherhood or when you are speaking to someone who is pregnant and it’s already happening and no matter what, this motherhood business is ahead of them, how do you balance a discussion with someone when you're talking about the reality and the struggle that is involved in the reality and also the joy that is to come? I want to know how each of you describes what parenthood is like to someone who hasn’t done it.
A: So I think I was like you, I didn’t have that many friends who had kids and I remember one of my friends saying you’re going to love those early few weeks, it’s like a little bubble with you and your family and I said oh that sounds so nice.
J: I want a bubble.
A: I want the love bubble, I’ve never had – she’s like you’re not going to read the news and you know she worked in politics as well, it’s like no. ‘Course I’m going to read the news. Anyway clearly I did not read the news but also there was no bubble so it was really a huge shock and the sleep deprivation, it was – so when I talk to new parents or to parents who are about to have their babies you know I’m honest and I say look, it might really suck, just be prepared and it’s okay like I remember you, Jamila, sent me a Facebook message and it was so great because you just said one day you will sleep again and I thought okay like Jamila’s baby’s a bit older than mine so if she says that it’s going to get better then it will.
F: When do I get the sleeping one? When does that start?
A: Oh man. But you know having someone you know understand that it was hard but that it could get better like that was really important and so I am really honest about my experience that those first few weeks were awful, to be honest, they were really the hardest six weeks of my life and it’s so much fun now like having a two-year-old is so great and it was worth it –
L: Unless you have three of them. One two-year-old is super-fun.
A: But yeah, I mean my policy’s just be honest and it might be great or it might be really hard and you might get a sleeper or you might get a non-sleeper or you might get three, you just never know.
L: Hopefully they know though by the point you’re talking to them.
J: Do you sugar-coat it, Lanai?
L: I don’t but I – like also I’m aware that I had a positive experience and you know I’m aware as well that everyone has different experiences so my key advice and what I say to people who are pregnant and you know about to have a baby is that make sure – or have just had a baby – is that make sure you allow yourself to ask for help and accept it because you know I – we really probably only learned that with Jim, Nate and Edie but that made the world of difference, is accepting help and saying yes when people said is there something I can do for you? Is there you know can I come ‘round and cook you dinner? Or you know let me bring you some meals or whatever like it’s okay to accept help you know you’re not less for accepting help and to be honest it probably makes the other person feel really good that they’re helping you and you know we were so grateful for that and that’s what I did say the other day to David Lipson who just – him and his partner just had a baby and they were really struggling and you know and so I took them ‘round some meals, I took them ‘round a copy of the book and some muffins and you know like you’ve just got to accept help and that’s okay, it’s not making you less by accepting help.
J: Emma, what about you?
Em: What's the question?
J: Are you honest with parents to be? Do you tell them straight up what it’s going to be like?
Em: Well as you know a glowing fervent <inaudible> 50:30 motherhood but there are two little cliched snippets of information that I do say and one is just get through the first six weeks whatever way you can and it just gives you that little bit of hope that however bad it is it won’t be so bad. And the other day is every day is a new day and so the baby that’s screeching and imperfect one day, the next day – and you can’t – there’s no logic to it so you just have to go with it so as a control freak type A you know OCD person I just had to learn that almost immediately that I’ve got no control and so while I do say prepare to fall in love I also say you know you’ll get tired but just get through the first six weeks and expect nothing and you know every day is a new day and I feel that those things helped me get through when it was tough.
And I'm not saying I had a perfect sleeping baby. I mean he was pretty good but he wasn't perfect and there were – I remember one day thinking you haven’t actually slept which means I haven’t slept which would explain why I can’t even focus and I don’t think I can even pick you up, I’m just so tired. And I just went to my mother’s and I just gave her the baby and just sprawled out on the sofa and I don’t know how long I was gone for but you know yeah, it can be pretty brutal but I don’t remember that as much as I remember how wonderful it was. So I do have a very rosy tinted glow when it comes to parenthood.
And I also think they’re going to find out how shit it can be so don’t scare them now, just let them be in this fool’s paradise of pregnancy, it’s all going to be awesome, you go and get your lavender oil and your Mozart soundtrack and colour-coordinate your nursery and have fun.
J: And I think too that you don’t really – I don’t know, do you really listen enormously when people are giving you advice before you have a baby? You think you’ll be fine, everyone’s like oh sleep now you know get your sleep in but you’re like whatever, my baby’s going to sleep ‘til 10am, it’s going to be fine.
F: I’ve got to say of all the advice that’s the one that shits me the most, you can’t bank sleep like it’s not how sleep works.
J: But you can at least like enjoy sleeping in until 10am, you can like – you can have a sleep-in and you can go okay, I’m waking up and I’ve enjoyed that but like you – yeah, of course, you can’t bank sleep but yeah, I just think you don’t really listen anyway.
F: The thing about late pregnancy though is a lot of people find it really hard to sleep in late pre – like I was so sleep-deprived when I was pregnant that I actually got – so we were at the service station and I went in to pay for the petrol and my husband was waiting in the car and I came out and I got into someone else’s car like I sat next to this random guy and he like looked at me and I looked – oh you’re not my husband. Like I was already sleep-deprived going into it, that was probably one of the major issues.
J: You didn’t take the advice, the sleep now advice.
F: No – well I couldn’t, it was you know it’s hard.
J: I’m going to ask – we’ve – we’re running out of time so I’m going to ask each of you just to sum up by saying if there – I know that there are pregnant women, possibly terrified pregnant women in this crowd so can you leave with one piece of advice? Because we’re not supposed to give advice but advice can be actually useful from women like you. So – and I know I clocked quite a few pregnant women on the way in – what would you say to those who are in it now like they’re past the point of no return?
L: I would say there is a very, very high likelihood that you are going to fall in love when you give birth to this child and that you are the whole universe, you are everything that they need and you are superwoman so don’t fret about the stuff that you can’t control. Nobody has actually died from sleep deprivation, have they? Nobody’s actually stopped breathing.
A: I Googled this many times. It’s inconclusive. It’s unlikely.
L: It’s unlikely.
A: So we talk about getting help and sometimes people don’t have family or don’t have friends around and that was you know I had my mum, I was so lucky and I had an amazing husband but I didn’t have any friend in Canberra so my motto is it takes a village to raise a child and sometimes you have to pay the village.
J: That is an excellent motto.
Em: My sum-up would be that motherhood is the most wonderful and also the hardest thing you’ll do but you know through it you will have so many wonderful experiences, you will meet so many amazing other people that will become your closest friends that you never even knew before you had this child so I just think like enjoy it, it’s amazing you know you are going to be able to craft and shape this wonderful little human that gets to be all your own and you are the world to it. So it’s going to be amazing. That’s what I would say. Even if it’s hard it is still going to be amazing.
J: To finish up the one piece – the one thing I wish someone had told me is that everybody told me about the lack of sleep and how hard it would be, I got lots of those lectures and everyone told me about the overwhelming love that Emma just referred to and I remember thinking oh yeah, that love sounds nice. Nobody told me how much fun it was, nobody told me that bit or not explicitly. No-one said this is more fun than anything else, you will fall in love with your partner all over again because you are invested in the most hysterical little person ever who will be in your house 24/7. I have not laughed more than I have laughed in the last three years with a small person at home, they are so much fun so don’t let people scare you. It’s not just the love and it’s not just the hard, it is also really rollicking good time.
And that’s a very, very bad segue into the thing I’m about to talk about next which is that late last year I travelled to Bihar in India which is a state in northern India which is often called the forgotten state. It’s home to a casual around 110 million people so you know not many. It’s a lot bigger than our country. It’s called the forgotten state because most of the country lives below the poverty line and when I say most I mean more than 50% of those 100 million people live below the poverty line. It’s particularly dire for women and girls. Only one in 20 women in that state participate in the workforce, the female literacy rate sits at around 50%, millions of girls are forced into early marriage every year and there I witnessed first-hand the kinds of conditions that women give birth in who don’t live in wonderful countries like Australia and wonderful cities like Canberra.
And while this book talks about the complexities and the difficulties and the hardships of motherhood in Australia it is nothing compared to the conditions in which women raise children all around the world every day. We are so unbelievably lucky to live in a country where first class medical care is the privilege of all of us and rather than just the wealthy few. So one of the things I wanted to do with this book was to see if we could make a difference to the work that CARE do. So when you write a book the very nice people at Penguin give you an advance in case it sells no copies and you make no money which thankfully two weeks in we know this book hasn’t done that. With the help of the women who contributed letters to this book we donated the entirety of that advance to CARE Australia which was $20,000 and they are using that –
J: Thank you. They will be using that to do incredibly important work in the region around Australia so most of the money I think will go to Papua New Guinea, parts of it will go to Laos and wherever else they decide it’s most needed. CARE will also be in the foyer after tonight’s event in case you feel like throwing them a little bit more cash. I particularly want to thank each of the women who contributed to this book because the very vast majority of them refused to be paid for their work and just said donate the money to CARE which is a rare and wonderful thing.
And finally as I mentioned we’ve talked about the harder and more difficult parts of motherhood tonight and I don’t want for a moment to brush over those hard or difficult parts but I also want to leave you all with a reminder of the incomparable love and joy that comes with new life. The book starts with a quote from Gilda Radner who says that motherhood is the biggest gamble in the world, it is the glorious life force, it is huge and it is scary and it is an act of infinite optimism. So here is to acts of infinite optimism. Thank you so much for being with us tonight.
E: Thank you so much to everybody, the evening is not quite over so please do join us in the foyer for some refreshments and some more conversation and the bookshop is open tonight so for those of you who didn’t get a copy of the book with your ticket there is a 10% discount just for tonight. So thank you very much to Jamila, Emma, Lanai and Anna for your speech tonight and I hope to see you all again soon. Thank you.
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