The gift of loss

People react differently to loss. Some rail against it, perceiving the deaths of loved ones, missed opportunities and broken relationships as an insult or within a kind of a punitive framework. Others attempt to insulate themselves against loss by refusing to love, shying away from tenderness as if from a vampire, or by working and travelling compulsively.

Stillness in pain: a difficult task.

It is not difficult, however, to be immobilised by bereavement. The loss of a beloved has the impact of an avalanche or mudslide; it hits, and we are buried, lost to the world. A dear friend lost his wife to cancer late last year. I can tell whether he has been talking or thinking about her by the tenor of his voice. When absorbed by the day’s activities, he is characteristically jovial; when she has been present in his thoughts, his voice is low, broken.

Grief can raze the spirit. On hearing that a gentle, merry friend died suddenly of cancer, I burst into tears. This wasn’t the apocalypse of my brother’s suicide, but a fresh pain; I still cry every time I think of him. As a boy, he survived his mother’s suicide; as a man, he did not survive his wife telling him that she had fallen in love with another man. His twenties and thirties were lost in a delirium of cocaine and heroin abuse; in his forties, he fell in love for the first time, with a woman who had the same history of substance abuse but a different sexual history: one of infinitely sad and terrible abuse. Her swings were violent, disorientating. He didn’t care. They married and had a child. He desperately loved them both. His sickness shook his wife from her contempt. He died with her and their child by his bedside.

My gentle, merry friend did not understand that loss can be the greatest of opportunities, allowing for a revision of priorities and choices. The loss of his wife triggered the avalanche of his mother’s loss, a grief that had lain dormant for over fifty years.

In the first three decades of my life, I fought loss as if it were an enemy: tooth and claw. My brother’s death changed me. I now sit with loss and let it change me, let it blow open the windows of my soul to adventure, wisdom, a greater love. The sheer experience of life transforms. I tell my daughter, who is eight, that loss can also entail ecstasy.

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

- Pablo Neruda

August has been an extraordinary month for work. I have been asked to address a major scientific conference in the States next year – more details on that soon – and then this and this. Transformations and adventures. And contemplation of that which washes away.

AIR_Edward Robert Hughes_03


At the beginning of my tour for Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love, I did a number of radio interviews I detested. I was half-asleep and very nervous during a drivetime interview with ABC WA, made almost no sense at all during an interview with Adelaide, and was subjected to you-writers-think-you-know-everything-well-let-me-tell-you-I’ve-been-a-father-for-twenty-years-and-my-kids-have-yet-to-be-jailed-for-armed-robbery-even-though-we-didn’t-cosleep by a presenter in Newcastle. Another interview had to be cut short because of a faulty telephone line – this was a disaster; the female presenter was engaging and intelligent – and yet another (with one of those rackety, wrathful presenters) was agonising, both for me and for his listeners. Kelly Devine-Higgins was terrific – tender, incisive – and the generous Natasha Mitchell was wonderful up close (she leans into the microphone and acts each word out, mouth and eyes widening with the sheer animal pleasure of expression). Paradise FM was particularly enjoyable, as was Annie Hastwell’s The Wire. There were others, all lovely, too many to mention. Otherwise? Helen Hawkes’ interview will be running this weekend:


At least he wasn’t named for Ted Bundy

This is an entirely gratuitous shot of Teddywinkle wearing a Madeline hat.


Why? Because this week I file the revised manuscript of Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love for international publication and then resume work on The Novel (about which I will say nothing … yet). In between home-schooling and an Everest of post-book-tour admin.

My dear chum Melinda Tankard Reist – who is not only a gentleman and a scholar but a complete pistol – wanted me to write about the Algernon saga (she refers to him as “The Cat Heathcliff”) but it’s all too depressing. I will say only this: Algernon, it turned out, was both microchipped and had an owner. I fed Algernon a last meal of warm milk and sausage as said owner drove over. She fell upon him with great cries of adoration (“Bundy! Bundy!”).

I asked if he had been named for Ted, but she said he had been named for Bundaberg Rum. Their other cat, who was black, had been pining. “Gone right off her food,” she said.

Said other cat was, of course, named Coke.

(Melinda loves that part of the story.)

Algernon hissed at his owner as she took him in her arms. He battled with her so ferociously that she had to drop him; he promptly returned to his pale pink mohair blankie on the chair. “He’s changed,” she said. (“Clearly,” I wanted to say. “Would you want to live with a person who named you after an alcoholic drink?”) But she was nothing if not persistent. She finally got Algernon in a football grip and jogged to the car as he spat sausage in her hair.

I was bereft. Melinda laughed.

Here she is with my Monkey after a long walk on the beach:


Teddywinkle, who had never taken to Algernon/Bundy, was extremely happy with all these developments, so happy that he didn’t even object to posing for me in a silly hat.

The new boy

Algernon watched the house for weeks. I’d see him sitting at the end of the drive at one in the morning, staring mournfully at the front door. His presence drove Teddywinkle up the wall. He would growl and hiss and pace the window sills, protecting his turf. I tried to reason with Algernon but whenever I would open the door, he would disappear. He waited until Alex was in Sydney working, and then sang to me for the first time. I was washing the dishes, and heard an insistent miaowing from the palms. This song went on for some time; I was reminded of Aslan singing Narnia to into being in The Magician’s Nephew.


At first, I thought it was a child playing a prank. I walked outside, holding a dish cloth, and there he was, shielded by leaves, calling to me. I dropped to my knees and clicked my tongue. He tentatively approached – bony, dirty, right ear torn, head riddled with fleas. I fed him four bowls of food that night. He wolfed the food, loudly purring as he ate. I couldn’t let him in the house – he was filthy – and so sat outside on the step for a time, just stroking him.


Over the weeks, I fed and wormed him and gave him flea tablets and washed him in a hot, lavender oil scented bath and towelled him dry and rubbed antiseptic cream on his torn ear and cleaned his ears. I caressed his paws, and he would purr.


He would sing outside the house after I left him, sometimes until 3am, or paw at the doors, trying to enter. One night, he somehow leapt up onto the roof, where he sang for hours.


Which is when I realised that it was time to take him in. At first, I locked him in the warm laundry, where he sat on a piece of old green velvet on top of the washing machine. Teddywinkle held a vigil outside the laundry door, hissing under the crack. Algernon slept and slept and slept. After a week, I let him into the rest of the house. He took his place on a pale pink mohair blanket on a chair, where he could keep an eye on Teddy, who, in the way of all Devons, was soon overwhelmed by curiosity. Teddy now spends his days observing him from secret vantage points. When Algernon sees him, he narrows his eyes and softly growls.


How did he know that I would love him? I’ve never been adopted by a cat before.

How I fell into attachment parenting

I fell into attachment parenting the way some people fall in love. One minute I was wearing 12cm wedges and clambering into limousines to interview some of the world’s most interesting people; the next, I was very slowly walking up a hill in Birkenstocks discussing hyacinths with my toddler. My baby was so fascinating to me that I rejected any work that required me to be away from her. When I turned down a jaunt to LA to interview Clint Eastwood, my husband was incredulous. “Are you crazy?” he exclaimed. “I’ll look after her!”

My reasoning? Wonderful little peanut vs. some guy who directs movies: a no-brainer. Amor vincit omnia. Not even Vladimir Nabokov could have awoken me from this stupor.

I remain in her thrall. She thinks that I’m the one with all the power – the decision-maker, the table-manners fetishist, the stern mama – but let me tell you, she’s the one pulling the strings. One word, and I’m custard. I’ll do anything – combine fulltime homeschooling with fulltime work, build her a library, write her a book. My husband is tougher; he can say no to her and mean it. Whereas with me, she knows – as Gene Simmons once assured me – that no is simply the precursor to yes (unless it involves palm oil, additives, inappropriate content or consumerist excess, if only because such things mar or rent the iridescent weft of the soul).

So this is my story. Or part of it, anyway.

The other announcement? Pinter & Martin UK have just bought World English (excluding Au/NZ) rights to Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love. (More about the book here.)

In short: madly happy.

So if you happen to be near Narrabeen RSL at 3:30pm on May 28, come hear me speak about attachment in our culture (bookings through this beautiful mama). If you’re near Ballina at 10am on June 2, come hear me speak about femininity at the library. If you’re near Lismore at 5pm on June 5, come hear me read from Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love at Noah’s Arc bookstore. And if you’re near Brisbane at 7pm on Friday, June 27, please join me at the wonderful Riverbend Books (bookings essential).

I may not exhume my 12cm wedges for all these events, but I promise I’ll try.


Working mothers and underpants

The week was a whirlwind. It began with my feature about motherhood and status in Vogue and radio interviews all over the country. And then there was Mornings on Channel 9. David Campbell was lovely. The father of a little boy, he was full of curiosity before the cameras started rolling and then confidently settled back into the interview.

My segment ran between interviews with Kate and Wills impersonators – excellent British imports – and Joss Stone, whom I initially mistook for a friend of mine who worked at Elle.

I hadn’t given my clothes much thought. Clearly, I needed to rethink the hair and bra, right? And maybe hire a personal trainer. For a decade or two. But working motherhood makes vanity impossible. There is no time. I have been known to leave the house without my underpants. Why? I just forgot. If you think it’s impossible to forget to put on underpants before you go out, try having a baby. There are days I go blank when asked my name.


So there was radio and more radio, and then the launch of Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love, which sold out. Two hundred tickets. Working mothers, SAHMs, attachment mothers and their babies, grandmothers, women who were childless by choice, fathers interested in the interplay between culture and attachment. Steve Biddulph spoke at length about the history of parenthood, a beautiful, funny, moving speech. And then I spoke. I was nervous, and spoke off the cuff. Even now, I’m not exactly certain what I said. But people were moved, and I was moved, and there were many long embraces afterwards.

Here I am with some of the last women to leave, beautiful mothers all of them.

Here I am with some of the last women to leave, beautiful mothers all of them.

I slept for three hours that night.

The alarm went off at five. I staggered upright to make Wake Up on Channel 10. Natarsha Belling and James Mathison were beautiful. James, who is the father of a baby girl and familiar with Gabor Mate (whom I interview at length in Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love), was fantastically talkative before the interview. Natarsha, too, was very kind.


I then caught a cab to the ABC in Ultimo to record Life Matters.

Dr. John Irvine, the renowned child psychologist, parenting author, patron for Family Day Care, Kidsafe, Homestart, ambassador for Playgroups Australia, author of over 1000 newspaper and magazine articles and veteran of over over 5000 radio segments, had been called in as my antagonist. Host Natasha Mitchell, vice president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, former member of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Advisory Committee, Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Harvard, winner of four Gold World Medals and the overall Grand Prize at the New York Radio Festivals and four Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Broadcast Media Awards, has a reputation for asking “the hard questions”. I was absolutely terrified.

As I walked in, Natasha put her headphones down. She held Mama to her breast and gently said, “I love your book. It’s beautiful.” I stood there stupidly, not knowing what to say.

There is a tremendous sense of vulnerability in speaking up as a mother. I am used to being a writer, a journalist – to interviewing and being interviewed – but never before have I had to front up as the self I am at home. I was being analysed as a woman and a parent. Photographs of my husband and child were being shown onscreen. My deepest feelings were being discussed by strangers. It felt surreal. By the end of the interview, I was struggling to hold back my tears. John Irvine could not have been more gracious or more generous.

More radio followed, and then a talk and signing at one of my favourite bookshops, Sydney CBD Dymocks. I have spent afternoons drifting around their children’s books department. Unexpectedly, I was given one of the spectacular silk Chinese Year of the Horse banners that had graced the streets of Sydney. (The work of the great Australian-Chinese artist Hu Ming is one of my passions.) I then flew home to find that my suitcase wasn’t on the baggage claim. The airline had left it in Sydney. No underpants, it seemed, until morning.



Motherhood as revolution

Growing up, I understood motherhood as a burden. In those days, to be an only child was unusual; most of the families I knew had two, three, four children. Noisy families, with multiple television sets, blue swimming pools, cello lessons, riding lessons, barking dogs.

Many of these mothers were married to ghosts – the invisible fathers of that generation, appearing only at night, and even then, only for an hour or so in terms of dedicated consciousness. Both moneyed and comfortable, these women raised their children alone: emotionally unsupported, and turning to each other in their exhaustion and frustration.

The suburb in which I was raised was a place of secrets. The secrets of alcoholic mothers, of mothers who were beaten by their husbands, of mothers who smoked themselves into ICU, of mothers frozen by the discovery that their husbands had made passes at their daughters, of mothers flagrantly betrayed by their fathers of their children. One came home to find her husband of 30 years in bed with his secretary and divorced him, only to die soon afterwards; one was institutionalised on hearing that her husband of 25 years had impregnated a young girl; another found her sexual health forever impacted by her husband’s yen for prostitutes.

Some of these mothers committed suicide, leaving long, long shadows over the lives of their children; some doped themselves with pills, not knowing how to process the rage and grief; many of them divorced and grew old silently, their restraint matched only by their bitterness.

Their daughters learned to understand motherhood as synonymous with restriction and unhappiness. The solution, we told ourselves, was work. Arbeit macht frei. We would never, ever allow ourselves to be so vulnerable. We would enclose ourselves in glass. We would be like men: sexually free, emotionally unencumbered, economically autonomous. If we had children, they would be participants in our lives rather than the axis.

En masse, we accepted the bar as masculine.

It was only after having a child that I realised that the bar is what we make it. Everything I was taught to understand as true was only true within the narrowest of historical contexts.

Motherhood, I discovered, is not a series of menial tasks, but a revolution.

From today, Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love is available online and in bookshops throughout Australia and New Zealand (news for overseas readers soon).

My essay about motherhood is published in the May issue of Vogue, out today.

The extra tickets to the launch of Mama on April 23 have almost sold out. For the very last ones, please click here. If you can’t make it, I’d love to see you at one of the events below:

April 24 – Dymocks CBD (click here)

May 6 – 10am, Lennox Head Library (click here)
June 2 – 10am, Ballina Library (click here)
June 5 – 5pm, Noah’s Arc Bookstore (click here)

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