In 2018, in honour of International Women’s Day, I wrote an Open Letter to My Daughters. I’d never done that before. Both our gorgeously independent daughters are wildly their own women. I’d never imagined for a moment, that they were hanging around waiting for advice from me.
It was just that I walked off stage from being on a panel of fab women for IWD, I just thought – Dammit! Everything is so overwhelming, I need to impart a little life wisdom that will encourage our girls to grab life by the horns, ignore the rules and make it work their way.
In 2021, again surrounded by overwhelm – harassment, consent, rape, unequal pay, less female leaders, and a million other dramas – like a tug-of-war between good and evil. Two steps forward and one backwards. So, I return to the page. This time filled with the clarity that comes with simple gratitude. In a sea of uncertainty, drama and pain, I just wanted to lay that gratitude at the feet of my Mum to whom I owe so much.
And to take a moment to celebrate all the women who have come before us.
This Sunday you will turn 80. You are always the life of every party, so we have one planned. But you and I both know that your happy go lucky, smiling, optimistic face belies the path you took to get here. I want my girls to hear your story so they know the stock they carry through your veins. I have a feeling that optimism, strength and determination are genetic and they come from you.
Wilma Mary you are not famous. Apart from some pretty impressive netball and squash trophies, (still in awe that you didn’t retire until your 60s) you have no Extraordinary awards of note nor columns of newspapers dedicated to your name, but you should know that if I was in charge I would give them all to you, because you and women like you, are the very backbone of this country. You laid the paths on which we all walk.
Born on the family farm, the fourth of five farmer’s kids, you have all the best photos of riding a horse – and even a cow – to the little local Kangaroo Valley school. Four kids on a prize bull still makes me smile.
At eight, like me, you lost your Dad. It’s not the best thing to share, but it’s another one of the intestinal fortitude builders that you and I never have to mention but completely understand.
So, off to Masonic Boarding School you go. Funny stories of castor oil doses and freezing showers, sound terrible on an ABC’s 7.30 Report, but you make them sound hilarious. You, your brother and your sister, would make us all laugh out loud as you told us all about it. But we had one wee rule – never repeat the bad bits of the story, especially to your Mum (my Nanna), for fear that she would know how bad it was. She was doing the best she could for five kids, and you all survived brilliantly well, so no need to add unnecessary bad memories into the mix.
The lesson for me: You don’t have to share your whole story with everyone. Just enough to laugh, learn, understand, and that will do.
So, off to High School you go. Dressed as a ‘Boarding School kid’ at the local selective high school, you stood out. Not just for the wrong uniform, but because you were more than a little bit clever. Some aptitude testing later, they announce at school assembly that ‘this boy will be a brilliant Architect! Brilliant at maths and spacial reasoning’.
Despite the architectural predictions, you left school just before your 15th birthday – time to help your Mum with the rent and electricity.
But those maths skills and special reasoning, well, they didn’t go to waste. Some years later you made a career in book-keeping and were the master teacher for us all as we found our financial independence. And spacial reasoning, well, as teenagers we could cut a photo of a dress or a suit from a magazine, and you’d make it perfectly without a pattern or even a ruler!
The lesson for me: Raw materials, life skills and what needs to be done, sometimes all merge together in unexpected ways. Nothing is ever wasted.
From school, you chose a traditional 1960s life – Married the professional guy, gave up work, bought a house in a nice suburb, and had three kids. But at the ripe old age of 30, you were left a widow with three children aged 8, 6, and 3 and with just three days’ notice.
I distinctly remember, when I had three kids at 0, 2, and 4, turning to you and saying “How on earth did you cope?” Your answer is etched on the cover of that space where I store Worthwhile Life Advice. “What else was I supposed to do? Someone had to make dinner.”
The lesson for me: Whatever happens in life, you can only sit it out for so long. Eventually, you have to get up and get going again.
I remember fondly the ‘single parent years’ we all had together. Sneaking up to watch Monty Python on TV at 9pm on Thursday – a school night. Holidays at Sussex Inlet, and even an overseas holiday at King Island, in Bass Strait.
Never missing a sports game. Not one. 3,000,000 netball games, 1,000 cricket games, 500,000 soccer, and just as many rugby matches. An awful lot of athletics carnivals and many concerts and speech nights.
Four life lessons from this period for me:
1. You can make your home happy. You just have to decide to do it.
2. Be there for those you love. Just be there.
3. Give, even when you have little. Someone needs it more.
4. Singing ‘I Am Woman’ loudly makes everybody happy.
Then you married again. Good choice. And thank you.
This time you kept working – you’d learnt that lesson last time.
We all embraced the blended family.
You settled into busy volunteering, working, and more of those sports games. We started getting good at sport and ‘repping’. You certainly cheered loudly, but you also made sure we smiled when we lost.
I still remember winning my first area athletics carnival, running in my new spikes. You’d raced over in your lunch break, and were watching from the front row on the boundary. I raced over heroically – I’d finally won! You were horrified. “Quickly go back and shake hands”. For the next ten minutes, I took your directions from the distant boundary fence as I tracked down every last person in that final, to shake their hands and thank them for the race.
The life lesson: Life is blended, unplanned, messy, and fun. Win or lose, just keep shaking hands with everyone you meet.
As we all left home, and our hometown, and even our home country, you settled into grandparent duties. Leading the troop with grandbabies in millions of fairy tales, Lego city building, beach walking, movie-going and Wiggles dancing. You traveled to where we were and just leapt right in. You taught our kids the value of intergenerational wisdom and perspective. You also taught them to get up really early for fear of missing one precious minute of every precious day.
The life lesson: Too many to name, but I hope my kids look back on me like I look up to you.
So, Mum, as we head into International Women’s Day, I have to say Thank You.
For the strength, for the laughter, for the clarity of what matters, and never sweating the small stuff.
I am so relieved that my daughters have your stock running through their veins.
A woman who worked hard for every opportunity and every dollar she ever earned.
Who applauded loud and proud every little victory every child, every grandchild, and every professional athlete who tried hard and won.
And I love you (but you knew that already).
Amongst this overwhelming world right now…
May we all take every opportunity to applaud and appreciate the women who came before us.
Those who are next to us. And those who will come after us.
May we all take up our space. Unapologetically.
Do things that matter. Make a difference.
Let someone stand on our shoulders.
Help them out of a deep hole.
Ask for help from each other and expect to receive it.
We are absolutely all in this together.
It is like a tug-of-war though, and there are a bunch pulling it all backward. We just can’t let them, no matter how much of the media they fill every day.
The rope is in our collective hands.
From the women who are 80 and have pulled more than their share of the weight for the longest time, to the women who just stepped into work and are busy organising work so it works for them.
Plus, we have quite a few men on our side of the rope now too.
We can’t let it go backward.
Let’s sing Helen’s song loudly and in that choir hear how many are around us and be sure to remember that part of a life well-lived is doing your best for those behind us.
As they say in tug-of-war, Take the strain.
It will take all of us.
Take the strain together.
Our turn is now.