'Working Mums: Stories by mums on how they manage children, work and life' is a collection of empowering stories that will make working mums everywhere laugh in sympathy and nod in recognition. The stories are from Australian mums doing a range of work in addition to raising their children, including working full-time, part-time or freelance, studying, or running their own businesses. The stories are different yet in many ways universal - not unlike the journey of parenting itself. The book's primary aim is to help working mums feel less alone in their challenges. In fact, as the stories show, sometimes it is those very challenges that lead to unexpectedly amazing opportunities for personal and professional growth. Contributors include: • Missy Higgins, singer-songwriter, musician, actor and activist • Alisa Camplin, former world champion aerial skier and Olympic gold medallist • George McEncroe, founder of Australia's first all-female rideshare service Shebah • Annie Nolan (Uncanny Annie), equality activist and social commentator • Chloe Chant, early childhood educator whose letter to a senator went viral • Kristy Vallely, founder of The Imperfect Mum online community • Simone McLaughlin, founder of Jobs Shared • Carly Naughton & Alee Fogarty, marriage equality advocates, blogger and tattoo artist and many more, from fields including health, academia, beauty, politics and small business.
From high-school dropout to Cambridge scholar
Olivia Slater is a Badimia Yamatji and Whadjuk Nyoongar mother, student and wife. Her ancestral homelands are along the banks of the Swan River, in Perth, and further north near Paynes Find, Western Australia. She spent her childhood in Perth and has spent many years living and working in the inner west of Sydney and the western suburbs of Melbourne. Olivia is the first Indigenous Australian woman to undertake a PhD at the University of Cambridge, which she won a scholarship to.
As a sort of introduction, I'm a Badimia Yamatji gnarlu and a Whadjuk Nyoongar yorga. My mob is all from the southern half of Western Australia. I must acknowledge that without my Badimia and Whadjuk ancestors, I would not be here today. My ancestors fought long and hard for me to exist - for there to be a country for me to exist with. My heritage, my family and my culture all work together to make me, me. I'm currently off country, living in Cambridge, England, taking a Masters in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. I'm a mother, a wife, a mature-aged student, and I'm from one of the most underprivileged populations globally, living as part of what could be considered one of the most privileged. It is commonly referred to as the Cambridge Bubble.
It's been a weird journey.
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, as the youngest of four kids. My family is huge - massive in comparison to some. I have ten aunties and uncles, just on my mum's side. I have over thirty first cousins and I've lost count of all their bubs. Growing up, I was lucky to have a group of cousins around my age, as my siblings are a lot older than I am. Outside of family, however, I couldn't quite find a place to call my own. I never fitted the mould of girlhood or femininity, not in my too-tall, not-quite-white-enough body, and not in my anxious, bookish ways. When family circumstances in my teenage years took a turn for the traumatic, my high school was woefully underprepared to deal with me, and at fourteen I just stopped going. Mum and I then moved across the country to northern New South Wales, where I continued to try and figure out where I belonged. I attended high school just enough to scrape through with my Year 10 certificate, but I ended up leaving high school - and home - at sixteen.
I spent the decade between the ages of seventeen and 27 working full-time between Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. I was 22 when I was diagnosed with endometriosis. My diagnosis made so much sense - the intensely painful periods coupled with an almost unmanageable loss of blood all pointed to something above and beyond your average dysmenorrhoea. One morning, post-diagnosis, I felt compelled to call Mum to tell her, 'I want to have kids one day. And I don't think that makes me a bad feminist.' She sighed. 'I just don't want you making the same mistakes I did.' I paused. Thankfully, after a lifetime of knowing my mum, I knew not to take it personally. It was actually kind of endearing. She had her first three children young - in hindsight she would probably say too young - and I was an unexpected addition late in the piece. But I was staring down the prospect of never being able to have children, and I was scared. So I decided to have surgery.
One of my workmates suggested I was worried for nothing and that my recovery from the surgery would be swift. My surgery took almost six hours. The doctors found uterine cells scattered across my pelvis, snuggled against my bladder and bowel. Those rogue cells were cauterised and it took a month for me to fully recover.
I settled in Melbourne in late 2007 and got married on 29 February 2008. A few months later I fell pregnant naturally, much to my amazement. I had just started a new job, and while the timing was not ideal, I was excited.
The new role required me to undertake induction training in Canberra, just overnight. I flew up a few weeks later in that weird limbo of knowing I was pregnant but not yet telling anyone other than my husband. While in Canberra, I had a few hours spare and took the opportunity to go to the National Gallery of Australia. I meandered through the various rooms and stumbled upon Ron Mueck's Pregnant Woman, a permanent work in the gallery. She loomed over me at 252 centimetres tall, naked and heavily pregnant, hyper-realistic with her linea nigra, tired eyes and overwhelming belly. I stared at her for a long while. This is how I will have to navigate the world, I thought. My body is gargantuan enough when I'm not pregnant and it would morph into something absolutely terrifying as the pregnancy progressed.
The pregnancy was as smooth as could be imagined - a little pelvic displacement here, a little chronic constipation there, nothing major to worry about. But I didn't ever blossom, I just swelled. Unsurprisingly, I couldn't find maternity clothes to fit and I spent the last trimester bursting out of my seams. I couldn't be contained. Pregnancy was not for me, I decided. I was much more interested in meeting my bub and getting on with childrearing.
My baby boy was born in January 2009, long-limbed, bald-headed and with no vision in his left eye. Unilateral congenital cataracts affect between one and three in 10,000 babies. It's caused by a random occurrence that happens in the womb - a misfiring of too much protein in the eye during gestation. We didn't know it yet, but his lens was completely clouded, his left eye flashing white in photographs. I spent the first weeks of his life struggling with too much milk, torn nipples and a baby who couldn't latch onto my overfull breasts. I developed chronic mastitis in both breasts, which lasted from a few days after discharge from hospital until I gave up breastfeeding when he was six weeks old. My body, which I had fought with for so long, was winning. My baby and I were defeated. In the haze of those first horrific six weeks, I had missed noticing his lack of depth perception. The local maternal and child health nurse had dismissed my concerns about his eyes not working together as something that, developmentally, happens at different times for different children. So at three months old, I took my son to my local doctor and was referred to a paediatric ophthalmologist the next day. My baby was officially diagnosed; he had a procedure to completely remove his left lens a few weeks later, and we got on with healing.
However, I wasn't very good at healing. I couldn't seem to forgive myself for what I saw as my own failings, in gestation and in my son's young life. I thought that maybe having endometriosis was the universe telling me I should never have had kids.
My baby was six months old when I had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised with severe postnatal anxiety. He and I spent a month in a mums and bubs unit, under lock and key for the first week. I'm still in touch with two of the women I spent time with, our weird share house hospital space connecting us - mothers who were too crazy for the outside world and our beautiful babies. We saw many women come and go. Most people only stayed a few days, but some of us were really broken.
It's been seven and a half years since my hospitalisation. Popular science tells us that our entire cellular system renews itself over seven years. It's not exactly true, but right now, I feel several light years away from the experience of being in a psychiatric hospital.
The amazing job that I had working with Indigenous family history records during my pregnancy couldn't deal with an employee who now required a great deal of flexibility and health support. I struggled to find the clarity and strength to advocate for myself, to push for the flexibility I now know I was well within my rights to request. All I knew was that I couldn't work - not full-time, not for a long time. So I quit. I decided to do something for myself, to take a breath and rethink what I was doing with my life. I started looking at university degrees, which was something I had always wanted to do, but could never prioritise. One night while googling, I found Victoria University's amazing-sounding Indigenous Studies degree, Kyinandoo. I noted down the name of the student support officer and was immediately taken aback.
The student support officer had the same last name as my maternal grandmother, which for Aboriginal people in Western Australia connects you to Badimia Yamatjis for sure. I rang Mum, gave her the name of the officer, and asked if she knew her. 'She's my cousin, but she lives in Adelaide now. How come?'
'Are you sure she's in Adelaide and not Melbourne?' I asked.
'Well, last I heard she was in Adelaide. What for?'
'She must be in Melbourne now, because she's the student support officer of this course I want to do at uni .' My voice trailed off and Mum was silent.
'Well,' I said. 'Looks like I'm going to uni then.'
My baby boy was now one, and we'd reached a few milestones between us. He had been fitted with a contact lens and I had completed a lengthy outpatient program at my hospital. I began my studies heavily medicated but keen to engage the lonely learning part of my brain. I met my aunty (who I call aunty as a sign of respect and kin connection), and her children, and for the first time in a long time, I understood where I fitted. The students in my program...