Saturday, 19 September 2015


In the early years of a child's life the foundations are laid for health and well-being. Children are resilient, repair and renewal are of course possible, but don't we as a society want to give our children the best possible start in life? Furthermore, there are significant economic arguments for improved early years services. 

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Young (ARACY) have recently published an extensive, evidenced based report Better Systems, Better Chances making this case. The report cites the work of James Heckman who is an economist and Nobel prize winning advocate for early intervention and support for families with young children. 

The ARACY report identifies antenatal health as particularly important saying "There is a strong and compelling case for the creation and systematization of a comprehensive and holistic universal child and family service platform". There is a need for increased support for parents, valuing their role as first teachers. 

Furthermore, submissions to the Victorian Royal Commission into Domestic Violence and the recently released Queensland report on DV have identified the early years services, maternal and child health, as areas for increased funding and improved services.

This quote from Parenting for a Peaceful World (2005) by Robin Grille, sets out a framework for health and prosperity:

"The ideal situation is one in which both parents long for the child from a position of emotional and material preparedness. Both parents are sufficiently emotionally fulfilled and ready to give and love, and are able to pleasurably meet the enormous demands of the helpless infant. Ideally, help is at hand from a supportive family and community – it takes a village – when the parents are otherwise occupied or feeling exhausted. It is essential that both parents feel loved and supported during pregnancy, by each other, their extended family and their community. The mother’s emotional well-being, her sense of being safe, supported and fulfilled, and her enjoyment of life’s pleasures, are all directly transmitted to the fetus."


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Gender and Health

While there are continuing attempts to breech the divides there remains a significant schism between the sciences, including medicine, and the humanities; history, politics, philosophy and literature. Students of gender, however, are most often called upon to work across the disciplines because life is like that. The human condition is complex and even the best, holistic view on any particular subject, will grapple with this multiplicity.

The history of medicine is a fascinating subject in itself, and a body of literature that takes a gender perspective is pertinent. In 2014 the Australian Women’s Health Network hosted a forum, and launched a guide: Making it better: gender transformative health promotion. The presenters Nancy Poole and Lorraine Greaves, from the British Colombia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, drew attention to an emphasis in the Ottowa Charter from the World Health Organisation on the social determinants of health. These are the economic and social conditions, such as access to housing, education and employment, rather than individual risk factors for positive health outcomes. These social and economic factors can be broken down by gender, race/ethnicity and class, and after extensive analysis of health promotion strategies Poole and Greaves found most programs to be gender blind. They have put together a framework for constructing a gender transformative approach to health promotion which is accessible through the above mentioned guide. You can see the forum online.* Furthermore, they launched an online course – Gender equality through health promotion.+


Over recent years Sydney has been treated to a Festival of the Arts in the week leading up to Mother’s Day. Events included an art exhibition, a theatre production, music and variety nights. All feature and reflect on women’s experience of ‘being a mother’ and the associated work of care through the Arts.

The notion of a festival featuring works by and for mamas originated in New York in 2002. The theme has been taken up by Vee Malnar and this year by Joy Roberts among others. Mamapalooza has been supported by Lesley Dimmock’s Tap Gallary in Darlinghurst since its inception in 2006.

A diverse range of women in Rachel Power’s book Divided Heart often grappled with a schism between their lives before having children that included a form of artistic expression and difficulties they faced afterwards. Joy and Vee recognise these tensions but like many featured in Power’s book their work bears testament to a determination to push on through. What it means to be a mother today is different to times past. Women generally have their first child in their early thirties. They bring with them extensive work and life experience, often with a career, having travelled, and at times advanced artistic skills and talents.

Joy Roberts is the producer of MOTHERS a play that showcases women’s stories. The nine characters span the breadth of the maternal demographic: a woman whose dream is to be a mother, a teen who hadn’t planned to be one, a new mum in her 40s, a motherless mother, a soon-to-be grandmother, a different kind of mother, a mourning mum, a struggling immigrant mum and a role-juggling working-mum.

The vast majority of couples aspire to a form of gender equal or egalitarian family today and yet there are significant trends towards traditional roles after the birth of an infant. Our institutional framework isn’t keeping pace with cultural change. Women who maintain a connection with their former lives do so at a cost to their health and to their well-being. There are legendary issues related to identity for women today when they have a child. The Arts play a significant role in this regard. The Arts provide for representation and critique so that we might see and understand better where we are as individuals but also how we might do care better.

Roberts diverse cultural background and relatively recent arrival in Australia sharpens her perspective. She has completed a Master of Arts in Applied Theatre and over the last four years has directed over a dozen short plays and readings on stage. Malnar has turned her hand to various forms of the Arts. She completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts in the 1990s but she has also played in a band and she staged a show called Rock Chikz in Sydney 2005. A collection of her poetry was published in First Breath and in March this year she won Best Production for her play in the Sydney Short & Sweet Festival. She brings with her an enduring interest in mother/female-centric imagery.

The Mamapalooza Festival provides a wonderful opportunity for artists to add new perspective to our continuing discussions about mothers, father and families in the hope that we as a society might appreciate and support them in all their diversity.

Events included: ‘Stolen Moments’ an art exhibition depicting and exploring the themes of identity and motherhood; launch of ‘Nurture Mama’ an education, support & yoga service; a Mama Music night featuring Rebecca Moore and Lisa Schouw (Girl Overboard); a Mama Comedy Night Hosted by Lou Pollard; PLUS! ‘MOTHERS’ – a play about mothers 

Malnar says that “after finding that there were thousands of women in New York who relished the opportunity to reflect on the theme of motherhood, what it meant to be a mother and an artist, I was interested in creating that same excitement here. I’ve met some amazing women who find this festival a great way to celebrate motherhood and express their artistic, political and philosophical ideas on mothering. So apart from having the need to create an artistic niche that unifies and embodies the ideas of motherhood in art, I find myself drawn to helping others who want to do the same.”

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Gender and the Transition to Parenthood

Parenting has been highly gendered through the breadwinner model of the family - male breadwinner, female carer - and yet the single most significant development in the second part of the twentieth century has been changes to gendered roles. Large numbers of women have entered the workforce, this is evident all round. The vast majority of couples aspire to a form of equal or egalitarian family while there are significant trends towards gendered roles after the birth of an infant.

The Gottman Institute in the United States have contributed much to this area. This research has been brought together in a join project by VicHealth and Whitehorse Community Health Services. The report is titled: Baby Makes 3 - Respect, Responsibility and Equality (a google search on the title will find a pdf copy). The project emphasises the importance of promoting respectful relationships particularly in the early years after the birth of an infant, during the Transition to Parenthood. This is work that is also critical to the prevention of violence against women; an objective that is set out in the above mentioned report.

The Gottman Institute have also set up a Relationship Blog in which they canvas related issues. You can see this at:

For now, Joan

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Book Review - And then I peed my pants ... my misadventures in new motherhood, Megan Phillipson

My two offspring are now young adults but over many years I’ve been interested in all things maternal and have made an occupation of reading related texts. My interest spans both the academic and the popular and though I’ve made a concerted effort I can’t keep pace with the output.

Women across the western world are having their first child later in life. They often have both academic and workplace achievements. They’ve travelled, they’ve shared houses, they’ve often lived with their partner for some years beforehand and know each other well.  The vast majority of couples today aspire to a form of gender equal or egalitarian family and yet after the birth there are trends towards gendered roles. The evidence shows that the birth of an infant is a critical life stage and there is often a gap between expectations and experience.

Though there is little reference to these wider trends, assertions such as these underlie Philippson’s book. She writes in the first person and thus leads her reader through her innermost thoughts and reactions up to her child’s first birthday. We quickly learn that the birth was traumatic and even after an event filled year Megan cast back a dissonant eye. I was a mature aged mum. I had my first child in my early 40s and second a couple of years later. And though my partner and I were amazed by the unrelenting requirements for the care of an infant and then a toddler, I can see we had it relatively easy.

I understand that the experience of birth and beyond are as individual as there are people but Megan and her husband faced challenges. There were continuing problems with breastfeeding. I don’t think this is uncommon. A good friend of mine had to give up trying very early on but Megan was heroically persistent. Likewise, I’ve heard of these ‘night games’ with lengthy and unrelenting crying but thankfully this wasn’t the case for us. Statistics on these kinds of issues would make for interesting reading, though it is well known that maternal fatigue is universal and difficult. Across the research there is recognition of the need to improve support services for young families while the trend seems to be in the other direction, dependent on location.

I’m glad I’ve read Megan’s book. This is a year-in-the-life of a new young family. The book isn’t simply easy to read, it leads you through, wanting to know and experience what comes next. I imagine that Megan may be met with hugs and kisses from her readership. I know I want to thank her for her honesty, but I also want to congratulate her for her cleverness. It’s no mean feat to get through a tough first year with a baby but it’s great to have done so while eloquently sharing your story. Megan’s book will now be shelved among favourites such as The Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre and Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich but these are another story. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Pleasures of Reading

There is a dance that appears out of nowhere, steps we don’t know we know until using them to calm our baby. This dance is something we learn in our sleep, from our own hearts, from our parents, going back and back through all of our ancestors. Men and women do the same dance and acquire it without a thought. Graceful, eccentric, this wavelike sway is a skilled graciousness of the entire body. Parents possess and lose it after the first fleeting months but that’s all right because already it has been passed on – the knowledge lodged deep within the comforted baby.
(from: The Blue Jay’s Dance, L. Edrich)

Well-being for me has been about connecting with others through the written word and this has been amply demonstrated in my experience of being a mother. I was a first time mum after having completed a Master of Arts in Gender and Human Geography. I was a child of the '60s. I had traveled, studied, and found interesting work and even at the age of 40 could well have filled another ten years. The options were many, the prospects unknown, and yet we took the plunge. I say we because it was, and still is, important to me that if I were to have children it would have to be a shared experience and commitment, otherwise no way. I loved being pregnant, the birth was an incredible experience, both good and bad, and here we were with a baby. I had entered Motherland and was 'rapt. 

The experience of being a mother, however, wasn't quite what I had thought it would be. To be honest I felt my life was a whole new ball game and I needed to reset the boundaries, learn the terrain and do a whole lot of adapting. As it turned out, more by circumstance than design, I discovered numerous books that talked about so many others who had gone before me. I was totally engaged and if you asked anyone who knows me the topic of motherhood became a recurring reference point in conversation.

The 1970s spawned some excellent texts on being a mother, many of which hold up today and Adrienne Rich’s, Of Woman Born is one such example. As Rich is a poet this is beautifully written and spans philosophy, history, sociology and poetry – drawing these threads together while reflecting on her life and experience with her own children. This book is political and it sets a steep agenda for change that was necessarily a part of 1970s movements, and going back to it reminds me of an idealism that was a characterising feature. Nevertheless, a central contribution is a distinction that Rich made between the experience of being a mother and an institutionalization of motherhood that is perpetuated through social policy and practice.

Another by Jane Lazarre The Mother Knot was important to me when my children were small. This became a chance meeting with a friend, someone I could understand and who, in turn, seemed to understand me. Lazarre talked about her everyday experiences of being a mum, the good and the bad, while leaving room for ambivalence and uncertainty. I discovered that Michael Leunig has a talented sister Mary Leunig who published a series of insightful drawings reflecting on mums, dads and the domestic in There’s no place like home; Black and White and Grey; A Piece of Cake and One Big Happy Family. You can see more on these on her internet site. Another that I enjoyed when my kids were little was The mother trip. Ariel Gore says, now is the time to develop a serious relationship with your couch; a prospect that had already become a part of my everyday life.

A friend bought me a copy of the Myths of Motherhood by Shari Thurer. I loved reading this jaunt through history from cave woman to modern day mums. The incidence of infanticide up until the early 20th century was a shock but also the effect of current insights into the subconscious that challenge parents to come up with new ways of discipline so as not to scar our children’s sense of self. We don’t want to give our children destructive messages that can become self-perpetuating, so we strive to communicate the positive while providing behavioural boundaries.

Over recent years I have completed a doctorate asking why is it that many women grapple with issues related to identity when they become first time mothers. Why is it that a substantial proportion of couples who set out to achieve equal, or egalitarian, caring routines have been unable to do so. These questions have led me to explore maternal subjectivity and the social structuring of women within families. It seems to me that modern women and men, are pioneering new ways of being, and new ways of bringing up children, if only the social system could catch up and accommodate, rather than hamper our efforts. I have set up an internet site at www.maternalhealthandwellbeing and launched online professional development courses. I commend to you the power of reading and who knows you too may be bitten by the bug and become one of the many who have taken to the pen to tap into the very deep well that can be unearthed by parenthood. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Comparative charts on family make-up, dynamics and policies for the OECD (including Australia)

Here is a link to an interesting site that provides comparative figures from OECD countries (including Australia) on family make-up, dynamics and policies. 

Among the charts on the site is one that compares OECD country payments and services to families.

Australia is high on cash payments and low on services.

In order to access these sites you can hold the mouse over the link and press control - if this doesn't work you can highlight the link press control c (copy) and then put the mouse on the address site (at the top) and press control v (paste).