top of page
Issue #5

15 October 2022

If a mother tries to speak out, as herself, people are embarrassed. They say she is making a spectacle of herself … To try to write herself, herselves, is in itself a monstrous project. It entails tinkering with the available forms of subjectivity in what remains, despite all our superficial gains, a patriarchal world.

 Marion Campbell, Spectacular motherhood in Motherlode. Eds Stephanie Holt and Maryanne Lynch, 1996.


As a young ex-Methodist mother predisposed to silence by devastating internalised voices of judgment, writing to an imagined reading public as I cared for small children became integral to my psychological survival. I wrote ‘Bone mother’ to save myself.

By me, Milkmother 2011, p 272

I wrote 'Bone mother' to save myself

5 p. 1.jpg

Graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine Bachelor of Surgery from The University of Queensland, December 1985. I finally bought a new dress for the occasion, having been unsure at first if I would attend.

The milkmother: abstract

Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies, The University of Queensland 2012; excerpt p.iv-v


The essay Milkmother comments on the creative processes or “literary nerves” of my memoir, Bone mother …. It reflects on the personal and sociocultural experiences and knowledge that informed the writing of my memoir, its literary context and influences. In interpreting Bone Mother, my essay argues that there is an underrepresentation of the pregnant, birthing, and metaphorically or literally breastfeeding body in the imaginary of Western societies, which remain masculinist, and that existing representations have been largely co-opted by the medical profession; that there is a concomitant underrepresentation of the milkmother in Australian women’s fiction and memoir; and that women writers can contest her medicalisation and contribute to the creation of a maternal imaginary by representing the milkmother’s jouissance. I argue that this is important if we are to optimise the physical and emotional health of the pregnant, birthing, and metaphorically or physically lactating woman.


Evolution of my own manuscript mirrors a broader trend in the evolution of Australian women’s writing. I offer a historical overview of the milkmother’s representations in convict and occupier-settler women’s fiction and non-fiction from colonisation. In fiction, the milkmother moves from silence, into the underwriting of texts that serve as palimpsests, into, more recently, a bold jouissance. However, from the 1980s, women writers also experiment with genre as they claim their private, radical truths in the public domain, blurring the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Finally, from the 1990s, women writers begin to claim their complex identities in the public domain unmediated by fiction. I examine the features of memoir that made it the most suitable genre for my emerging voice; and examine the ethical implications of the subgenre that I call the “milkmother memoir.” I discuss the discourses – medical, feminist and popular – that I speak due to my professional and personal positioning, and a memoir’s capacity to deepen and elaborate the fertile tensions between them.


In both in my memoir and its accompanying essay, I draw on my transdisciplinary knowledge and complex identities to interrogate the medical discourse, and to re-imagine the jouissant milkmother in a new cultural imaginary. In the essay, I write from the medical or scientific discourse, with its masculinist and positivist conventions concerning knowledge and the body; the discourse of feminist and corporeal theory, which interrogates ideas of female knowledge and of the female body; and popular discourse, by which my patients speak to me about their personal knowledge of their bodies. I can speak these three languages due to my particular professional and personal positioning, but the tone of my essay – and my life – is uneven as a result. … Out of these discourses, out of the complex influences of each, out of their dynamic inter-relationship over time; through the research, writing and re-writing of this accompanying exegesis; and through the many drafts and different genres of my manuscript over twenty years, my own creative synthesis, Bone mother, emerges, in which I speak with my own embodied, vulnerable, uneven voice.


At first I called the various drafts of Bone mother fiction, and looked to other Australian writers’ representations of the milkmother in fiction, noting both the relative paucity, their subversiveness, and, wherever I could find it, the milkmother’s jouissance. Finally, I realised that memoir was the most suitable genre, and I drew courage from the few other Australian milkmother memoirists I could find.

newsletter 5 pic 3.jpg

When Emma turned five, a decade after I graduated from medical school, she wanted a special dress for her birthday party. My mother altered my graduation dress for Emma to wear, since it didn’t fit me anymore. I took this photo when I found Emma playing on the clothesline in the backyard, shortly after her party had finished.

The milkmother

Excerpt p. 216-219


In an international climate of health system reform, medical researchers are preoccupied with the riddle of “translation”: why is it so difficult to translate convincing evidence into improved health? The rapidly growing field of complexity science within medicine, arising out of chaos and systems theories, contests the “reduce-and-resolve” assumption of the biomedical discourse and points to the multiple known and unknown factors interacting and co-evolving in unpredictable ways with any patient’s body, doctor-patient relationship, or health system. Complexity science encourages the medical profession to look to other disciplines, including to the social sciences and humanities, for insight into the problem of translating evidence. One way in which my writing can be conceptualised, then, is as a response to this call for paradigm shift from within my own profession.


We need only look as far as the Australian corporeal theorists, including Alison Bartlett and Elisabeth Grosz, to find the argument that for all its lifesaving, health-improving power and technologies, the biomedical discourse is just one narrative among many about the body. These theorists contend that doctors and public health advocates adhere to biomedical advocacy scripts as if they were the only legitimate way to communicate knowledge, and that medical advice oversimplifies bodies, which are complex sites of histories, cultures and structures of knowledge. They contend that biomedical scripts are delivered within an asymmetric power relationship, stripped of subjectivity and imagination, and unaware of the way evidence itself is constructed by political and sociocultural contexts. Bone mother addresses these problems, by exploring my experiences both as a doctor who is consulted by milkmothers, and as a milkmother herself who seeks help from the medical institution.


I’ve been fascinated by the power of narrative to effect change from my first days as a doctor. I’ve been intrigued by the way histories and culture shape the stories people tell about their bodies, and by the way the stories people tell about their bodies affect their health. Scholars from diverse disciplines argue that humans make meaning of themselves, their lives, and the world through the telling of stories: that narrative patterns, employing conventions of plot, character development, scene setting and rhetorical tropes, are fundamental to the way we organise memories, personal histories, future plans, identities, and the nature of existence. And every day, doctors use narrative competence to comprehend and interpret patients’ stories – cognitively, symbolically and affectively – and to respond.


Over the past decade, physician Rita Charon and others have formalised an approach called “narrative medicine,” in which reflexive writing, storytelling, and sometimes “parallel charts” that complement regular medical notes, are used to enhance practitioners’ capacity for self-awareness and empathy. Narrative medicine operates in four fields: between the doctor and self, the doctor and patient, the doctor and his or her colleagues, and the doctor and society; moreover, narrative methodologies are being employed in medical research, at least in primary care. Narrative medicine and complexity science are among the new theoretical frameworks arising in medical practice and research, to contest the biomedical discourse from within. As Charon argues, “With narrative competence, multiple sources of local–and possibly contradicting–authority replace master authorities; instead of being monolithic and hierarchically given, meaning is apprehended collaboratively”.


Bone mother, then, can be understood as a counter-narrative, which disrupts traditional scripts about the body of the pregnant, birthing and literally or metaphorically breastfeeding woman. It is a reflexive exploration, or autoethnography, by a doctor who is also a milkmother, written as memoir. My complex positioning complicates oppositional discourses of female agency versus medicalisation of the female reproductive body, so that Bone mother, if published, may be considered “volatile” (to use Elizabeth Grosz’s term – unpredictable, unstable, with boundaries that are difficult discern, therefore dangerous) by my colleagues in the health professions. However, as Charon writes, “only sophisticated narrative powers will lead to the conversations that society needs to have about its medical system”. Bone mother attempts such a conversation with respect to the reproductive maternal body: it aims to bring, by virtue of its genre, a new, more complicated, more subjective and disruptive and self-aware positioning of the doctor in relation to her own body and society. This essay, which accompanies it, radically expands notions of what constitutes legitimate inquiry by a doctor, and in particular, inquiry by a doctor concerning the pregnant, birthing, and metaphorically or literally breastfeeding woman.

Subscribe to The Cailleach Diaries

Have a question? I'd love to hear it! Reach out to me at and I'll respond to as many questions as possible in a bi-monthly mailbag. Please note, however, that this project is separate to my clinical, educational, and research work and I'm unable to answer questions about breastfeeding, sleep, baby crying, or other health problems using this platform. Thanks for your understanding and I look forward to connecting with you!

P.S: If for some mysterious reason you aren't receiving the newsletter, be sure to check your spam folder. 

bottom of page