My son was 10 months old and the breasts that had provided the ‘good stuff’ to him were coming off. Soon after the mastectomy, I allowed a surgeon to end my chances of a second child by removing all my female internal organs. My son’s grandmother – the mother who’d raised me single-handedly – was dead. I’d developed her disease – familial breast cancer – an aggressive type, four years after her last breath. For a decade these were the barriers I faced as a daughter, mother, and partner – to carve a place in the world outside of the role of carer.
When your own child is born you need your mother like never before.
Without her I turned to what I’d learned from caring for her when she was terminal: keeping medicine and appointment diaries, arranging supportive networks, cooking in advance and freezing meals, cleaning only what really required elbow grease, and most importantly, how to make decisions that altered your horizon. Medical choices were easier after having cared for her. My mother had tried to save her sense of femininity, which was tied to the look of her body, by keeping her breasts and accepting pills that lowered her oestrogen levels. But she did not accept the chemical cocktail of chemotherapy or the onslaught of radical surgeries. My mother’s approach didn’t work; so I chose the other path – medical belt and braces.
As most women before me, the role of carer fell to me, like fulltime motherhood did.
Sometimes these roles fitted like an itchy jumper and I craved ripping it off to escape back into my mind. At other times I was happy to turn the sheets down, then later to help a toddler to walk between furniture.
I was raised by an academic who lectured in the history and philosophy of science and wrote about unblocking the stalemate between scientists developing GMO crops and concerned food buyers and growers. The university environment of deep-shelved libraries and mental gymnastics was a familiar background to my childhood. Perhaps for this reason I gravitated toward it too.
UQ has employed me as a research assistant on a quality improvement project aimed at enhancing the discharge planning process of people from adult acute psychiatric units back out into community; its innovative press, University Queensland Press (UQP), will publish my book In Danger: a memoir of family and hope on 2 April 2018. In Danger is about how my mother’s death saved my life, and how I stepped back from the abyss when my son’s life was under threat with him requiring feeding via an electronic pump for 3.5 years. My son coming off medical support and medication to eat, then later rise up out of his profoundly autistic state enough to attend the local mainstream public school is one of my proudest achievements – the other is my book.
Right now, I’m a graduate student of UQ’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing (WEP) program, and doing a short stint with UQ Global Engagement as an editor and proofreader. Outside of UQ I’m a Consumer Liaison Officer for Metro North’s Women’s and Children’s Clinical Stream. I’m employed because I’m a former carer with a background in psychology and project work. Payment for experience earned at the pointy end of mothering is an unusual reality for most women.
International Women’s Day (IWD) is just that. One day.
Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters … we’re all here … at the lectern, running a faculty and running children between day care and school, studying and learning. I like the idea of IWD to celebrate women’s role in society, plus something else besides: Women standing aside from their roles as keepers of the family and household. The change I’d like to see for the next generation of women is when IWD is not required because women are equal with men. The day when women are no longer treated as second class citizens when it comes to pay, access to all types of work, and flexible working arrangements if you are a working mother for example, are over, will be a day I’ll celebrate like no other.