I came to writing after being a lawyer, when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1998. The doctors told us we only had six months together so I decided to quit the law and devote my time to writing and recording my father’s life story. (We ended up having five years together - still not enough. )
Along the way I discovered that, apart from loving the experience of getting to know my father, I really enjoyed listening to the minutiae of people’s lives and reconstructing a life on paper, almost always learning something in the process. After the book was published, I started writing personal profiles and features for the Age newspaper, which is where The Five Mile Press saw a Mother's Day article I'd written. They asked whether I'd like to expand the three stories into 15 for a book and I jumped at the chance.
The first task was deciding who else to interview. Compiling a wish list was more about cutting down, than struggling to come up with ideas. Thinking about what it would be like to raise a child if you couldn't see them, literally, led me to Teresa Rogers, a vision-impaired mum. And then trying to imagine having a child, but not being able to see them whenever you liked, led me to the Dame Phyllis Frost women’s prison, where I met Mandy Nelson, who left two little girls behind when she was sentenced to 41/2 years behind razor-wire.
I wondered what would it be like to reconnect with a child you’d given up for adoption, once they had passed into adulthood. Robyn Morris told me about that. Chelsea McNab showed me around the commune where she lived with her husband and kids and told me about a Utopian life where the isolation of early motherhood is tempered by your neighbours who share the responsibility of raising your children. I went to a housing commission development and interviewed a financially destitute mother of two who’d come off heroin and come clean to raise her boys. She told me what it was like when you can’t give your child anything butlove. And what about mothers who had missed their children’s entire childhoods? What would it be like to reconnect with a child you’d given up for adoption, once they had passed into adulthood. Robyn Morris told me about that.
There are so many ways to mother, and so many paths towards childbirth. Jenni Gemmill put her hand up to share the experience of being a donor-egg recipient and I spoke with Linda Kirkman the first surrogate mother in Australia and her sister Maggie, for whom she carried the child.
I guess what I was aiming for was a group of mothers who would fairly represent modern motherhood, so I rounded out the list with an adoptive mother, a mother of triplets born at 24 weeks, a mother raising a child with disabilities, a single mother and a working mother struggling to balance her personal and professional responsibilities.
I thought about the type of mothers I wanted to find but also the type of stories I wanted to tell. They had to be real, raw and honest, because motherhood isn’t always pretty and it’s not easy. I needed to portray fear, sadness, desperation, laughter and love.
It wasn’t hard to find fifteen interesting, intelligent women to fit these categories. I found them through support groups, the internet and word of mouth. I set up interviews at the women’s homes - and in one case - at prison. I got to meet their children, flip through their photo albums and wander through their homes. Mostly we’d sit, and they would talk. They talked about their earliest memories of wanting to be a mother, and their efforts to conceive, how they coped with labour, and how being a mother had changed them. We talked about what sort of mothers they wanted to be, and what dreams they dreamt for their children. Telling their life stories to a stranger holding a tape recorder couldn't have been easy and I feel so privileged to have sat in their kitchens and listened to their stories. The interview process was perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience.
The hard part in putting the book together was reducing such complex, sometimes fraught lives into 1000 words without diminishing the power of their stories. There was so much I learnt from these women, like learning to appreciate the small moments. As Bev said of her son Mattie, who has autism “He teaches us to look at the simple things in life, and not take them for granted.”
I thank them for that, and for sharing their fears and insecurities and in doing so, validating the way the rest of us mother. Because for all the ‘how-to’ books out there, there is no ‘right’ way to mother. As long as we love our kids, does it matter where we choose to live, or with whom, or even how we came to have our children?
There are fifteen stories, but there could have been more. The women featured are by no means an exhaustive list. But it’s a start. A start to celebrating the diversity of modern motherhood. Because the 1950’s image of motherhood no longer represents who we are or what we want for our children.
Motherhood comes in so many forms, and yet, when I set out to highlight – and celebrate- this diversity, what struck me more than our differences were our similarities. Whether we’re single or married, gay or heterosexual, raise children with disabilities or a succession of foster children, we share the same fierce love for our children, the same pride over their achievements and the same swell of anger when they are hurt or threatened. And that’s something I wanted to celebrate.