Illustration by Amani Haydar
A few weeks ago, the PR department at the university where I teach and study arranged an interview with a journalist from a local newspaper, to discuss my plans for life after the completion of my PhD. I had recently been awarded a small grant to develop a new work of Young Adult fiction, and that, coupled with my recent invitation to take up a residency with Sweatshop, a literacy movement in Western Sydney devoted to empowering culturally diverse communities through reading, writing and critical thinking, seemed to be a lifeline at a time when publishing was going through a significant lull. That same week, eight Australian magazine titles were officially closed, the latest hit to an industry already battling decreased Arts funding and COVID-19.
The journalist rang outside my working hours, when I was home alone with my two children. I had specified my availability and though this had obviously been ignored, I let it go. Perhaps she missed those vital details; perhaps she was on a deadline. We got to talking, and she asked about the things I planned to do with my grant money and my residency. I gave some brief details, and she seemed impressed that I was raising my children, working and studying.
“How do you fit it all in?” she asked.
I smiled. It was a line of questioning I was used to, mostly by people who don’t have children, so I proffered the truth, and gave a simple, honest answer.
“I’m just really passionate about what I do,” I told her. “I grew up not seeing myself in most of the literature I consumed, so I have become really passionate about empowering culturally diverse girls to see the value of their personal stories.”
“You must have a really good husband,” she said in response. I was startled. It wasn’t a question but a statement of fact, as if it was beyond her comprehension that women – that mothers – could ever amount to anything without having men in their corner.
Even though the feminist in me was offended, I laughed it off. I had been raised to be polite, and although age and experience had hardened me somewhat, I was still inclined to remain silent rather than confront her. I informed the journalist that while my husband’s work afforded us a smidgen of financial security that my career in the arts could not, it was also work that demanded long hours away from home, interstate travel and barely any active role in the daily lives of the children let alone my career. Any successes that were afforded to me came through my own hard work.
She didn’t seem to believe me, and just as our chat was wrapping up, questioned me again.
“Surely if your husband isn’t helping you, your parents must be around?”
I hung up the phone in frustration, getting angrier and angrier by the second. Her insinuation that I was only capable of my achievements because of my husband’s support or my parents’ aid was insulting, not just to me, but to the countless working mothers I knew who had been juggling work and motherhood for years, and whose workloads were magnified during COVID-19, when school closures had added to their burdens and forced them to become teachers as well as primary carers and work-from-home employees.
Devastated, I took to social media to vent.
My friend Mary – a woman who did not have children – was the first to respond.
“You should have told her you had most of the money for the house deposit,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t even remember telling you that,” I told her.
“You didn’t need to,” she replied. “I Just know that women work really hard to set themselves up financially so that they can have children.”
“I was in corporate work then,” I explained, rationalising my own contribution to our financial situation. “So it was only a bigger share because I made more money.”
“So what?” she replied. “You would have made more money then, and he makes more money now, but somehow he is the one ‘taking care of you’ when you set it up to begin with, to allow yourself the opportunity to have children.”
I put down my phone and thought more about Mary’s words, and about my own reaction. Why had I allowed this woman to get away with making me feel this way? Was her implication really that hurtful, or had COVID-19, the virus that had forced us into lockdown and killed so many people around the world, made me even more sensitive to the struggles that working mothers are facing, because the virus had magnified them for us?
I grew up in a Lebanese environment that viewed motherhood with reverence, and although my disconnection from the village networks here in the Australian diaspora meant that my experiences were a little different to that of my forebears, I too felt the same way. I was eternally exhausted, but I also found strength and resilience where I hadn’t possessed it before. Managing to keep my family afloat during the pandemic while my husband worked long shifts as an essential worker and while I home-schooled while also working from home, gave me an added appreciation for what mothers did beyond the often talked about mental load. We aren’t just the hearts of our homes, we are its very foundations.
As more and more messages came flooding in, mostly from other mothers, I realised that this conversation stung for an entirely different reason. As a woman, I was used to my experiences and struggles being invisible to men. But I had assumed – bar a few exceptions – that the sisterhood saw things differently. I had expected support from others whose value had also been invisible for so long – others who were still fighting battles that also impacted me by virtue of my gender: the pay gap, our representations in politics, even tax on sanitary products. I thought we were all in this together, but I was wrong.
As I sat there, still frustrated and forlorn, a message from a distant cousin named Therese came through.
“Next time you talk to this woman, tell her that it’s not just the lack of male champions that sets mothers and working women back several decades, but also the unconscious biases of females like her,” she wrote. “There is a huge amount of internal misogyny that is masked as feminism and it pisses me off.”
Recently, The Guardian ran a conversation between two of its editors as part of a series called Childfree. Rather than celebrate some women’s choices not to have children, at one particular instance, the editors seemed to rubbish the choices of women who do, accusing them of becoming “vanishing” mothers who go “on hold” when they procreate. This sentiment seemed so at odds with the lived experiences of countless mothers throughout the world, whose work as activists, CEOs, school principals, preachers, speakers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, heads of NGOs and so on, was creating tangible change in the world, whilst they were simultaneously raising their children. How visible do we expect mothers to be before we then tell them that they are bad mothers for daring to do something outside the safe box of motherhood?
It seems to me that women occupy a liminal space in which their visibility depends on either escaping motherhood entirely or in taking it up on the proviso that we remain indebted to men. The fact that we are still shackled by such reductive attitudes in 2020 is, to me at least, the real virus: a stain on our society that still fails to recognise the worth of women and mothers who have propped up our civilisations, enabled the achievements of men, and gone entirely unnoticed in the process.
Videography by Rowan Karrer
Sarah Ayoub is a journalist and author whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Girlfriend, ELLE, Marie-Claire, SBS, ABC The Drum, Cosmopolitan and more. She teaches journalism and writing at the University of Notre Dame, where she is a PhD candidate researching the representations of culturally diverse females in Australian YA literature. She is a regular fixture at schools and writer’s festivals around the country, has been invited to speak at Children’s Literature events both locally and abroad, is an ambassador for The Stella Prize Stella Schools Program, and has worked as a mentor to the youth curators of The Sydney Writers’ Festival YA program. Her second novel, The Yearbook Committee, was longlisted for The Gold Inky, Australia’s premier teen choice award, and her forthcoming novel, The Cult of Romance, will be published by HarperCollins in May 2021. Sarah is currently the writer-in-residence at Sweatshop Western Sydney.
Nicholas Ng is a composer/performer and Research Fellow at the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture (WSU). He has toured around Australia, Canada, Europe, United States and New Zealand to various festivals, and has written for prestigious ensembles such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and The Australian Voices. His work as an artist has been documented in the Compass program Divine Rhythms (ABC TV and iView), SBS Mandarin and The Music Show (ABC Radio National). Nicholas co-established the Australian National University Classical Chinese Music Ensemble (2003). He currently teaches erhu, theory and composition at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and helps run the Chinese Music Ensemble.
Nisrine Amine graduated from Western Sydney University in 2006 with a Bachelor of Communications (Public Relations) and a Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary). She has worked in various secondary schools in Western Sydney and the Western suburbs of Melbourne teaching English, Drama and Literature. It was here where her passion for the arts was reignited and in 2010, Nisrine left full-time teaching to pursue a career in acting, writing and directing. In 2018, Nisrine became the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Parramatta Actors Centre. In 2020, Nisrine will direct James Elazzi’s Sons of Byblos as part of Belvoir’s 25A program.
Amani Haydar is a writer and award-winning artist based in Western Sydney. Amani’s writing and illustrations have been published in ABC News Online, SBS Voices, Sweatshop Women Volume Two and Arab Australian Other (Picador, 2020). Amani is working on her debut memoir exploring the personal and political dimensions of gender-based violence and intergenerational trauma. Amani’s was a finalist in the 2018 Archibald Prize and winner of the 2020 Cumberland Art Prize and 2019 Law Society of NSW Just Art Prize.
Additional music credits