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Issue #4

01 October 2022

I couldn’t find any books which told me what it felt like to be a mother

Susan Johnson’s website 2005


I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, to the thousands and millions of stories of motherhood which had never been told

A better woman: a memoir of motherhood, Susan Johnson 1999


And listen to this: reader, I made it to the end

A better woman: a memoir of motherhood, Susan Johnson 1999

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Me, Emma (6 years old) and Tom (4 years old), March 1997. I’d had the idea that if I let Emma use my lipstick, she’d soon tire of the novelty. That was another idea which didn’t work out.

Let’s not pathologise our evolutionarily hard-wired protective instincts!


What matters is that we know how to manage the powerfully protective feelings which may rise up in our bodies when we are caring for babies and children. We notice them. We name them for what they are. We feel a great self-compassion for ourselves, a mother or parent who loves this deeply, who wants to – who must – protect this fiercely. And then we decide what behaviours might align with our values. We decide when to act and when not to act upon our feelings. This is how we find our way through, it seems to me. It’s a rather approximate process, but we keep on doing our best, all the while lavishing ourselves with kindness and humour and forgiveness …

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A photo which appeared in the local paper, taken that same eventful day when Tom won the bat from the showman. Emma went to Buranda State School.

Bone mother: a memoir in milk

Excerpt from unpublished manuscript p. 182


Tom sauntered into the little hallway near the bathroom, dressed in his Superman suit.


‘Anyone for a sword fight?’ he asked casually, arms and feet spread-eagled against each wall as he climbed up between them and then dropped back down. He was four years old, a man of the world. Emma ran water in the bathroom sink. I was dressing. For a moment, we didn’t respond. Then I laughed, and went over to him. I took that fierce little Superman’s face in my hands and kissed it.


When the half-drunk, white-suited showman at the mike called for a boy and a girl to come up onto the stage at the Brookfield Show that day, Emma was uninterested but Tom’s hand shot straight up into the air. Me, me! I was giving one of their aunties a break; a twenty-month-old niece wriggled on my knee. We had first encountered the showman at the hot chips stand as Tommy stood there in his Superman suit, crying and refusing to budge from the queue because I wouldn’t buy him a second carton of chips. ‘Superman,’ the showman said in disappointment to the howling Tom, ‘we’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?’


But as my children sat squirming and fighting on the stand minding our seats for a whole twenty-five minutes before the Gluck Mini-Circus (Canine Capers and Fantail Fantasies) started, Tommy complained bitterly about the heat.


‘Why didn’t you put in a T-shirt Mummy?’ he demanded to know. In the end I told him to take off his long-sleeved Superman shirt. But then the showman chose Tom, who stood up excitedly.


‘Oh,’ said the showman into the mike, ‘he hasn’t got his T-shirt on.’


Tom was usually coy about being seen naked or half-naked outside the home. My heart sank.


‘Never mind, come on down, Muscles,’ the showman said.


I stood up too, heaving my niece onto my hip. But Tommy was almost on the stage and I realised he didn’t need me. I sat back down again.


‘The Australian version of Hercules,’ called the showman hyperbolically into the microphone, and a ripple of laughter spread up the stands. Oh no, I thought, standing up again. The toddler squirmed and squealed in my arms. Don’t ridicule him. Tom stood there with pale patches on his cheeks, frozen for a moment in his stubbies and muddy boots, a shiny black plastic belt – remnant of the superman shirt – adorning his naked little waist above the elastic of the blue superman pants.


‘Now,’ said the showman, ‘what’s your name?’ He held the microphone to the little girl standing beside Tom on the stage.


‘Elizabeth,’ she said shyly.


‘Elizabeth. And what’s your name, Hercules?’


‘Tom,’ declared my son in a big strong voice. He was enjoying himself! I sat down once more. The showman said that Elizabeth had to put her hands above her head, and Tom had to show his muscles. Tom clasped his hands above his head like Elizabeth, not having had experience in showing off muscles, and everyone cheered. Then the showman demonstrated a bicep curl, and Tom did his best. Everyone cheered again. Later, Tom confided proudly that at that very moment he heard a big boy say: look at those muscles.


Then they had to ride the Magic Bike. Oh no, I thought, looking at the odd contraption with the distorted wheels, Tom won’t be able to ride that, and will be mortified if he falls off in public!


‘His feet don’t reach the pedals,’ Emma said, worrying too.


But the showman helped them wobble-bump all over the stage on the silly thing, saying humorously into the microphone: ‘Come on Tom, why can’t you ride it?’ My niece chortled and pointed excitedly.


We had to work out who won by listening to who got the loudest cheers.


‘Well,’ I said rather grimly to Emma, ‘we’d better cheer loudly for Tom.’ A kind man sitting in front of us turned and smiled at me warmly, and I heard him cheering loudly for Tom too. Unfortunately, there were more cheers for Elizabeth.


But then the showman shouted into the microphone: ‘It’s a tie!’ and a triumphant little boy clambered off the stage and up the tiered stand of seats clutching a scary-looking plastic black bat.


‘I thought I wasn’t going to win,’ Tommy told us breathlessly when he reached our seat, ‘but then I did!’ For the rest of the day at the show he repeated the amazing story of how he had always wanted a bat, and then he won this one. He told me often: you cheered for me, didn’t you Mummy. I could hear you.

One time after he said that, I sat his cousin on Emma’s lap, pulled him aside, and spoke to him very seriously.


‘Tommy, you know what?’




‘I will always be cheering for you.’ I kissed him and pulled his little body close before he squirmed away, grinning happily. It could have been so awful. But the big-mouthed showman, underneath it all, was kind.

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Tom, the Superman suit in its entirety, his sister Emma, and her doll, all on the trampoline in the backyard. June 1997

Bone mother: a memoir in milk

Excerpt from unpublished manuscript p. 97


I dreamt that night that Emma was in a dark underground classroom, being taught by a black-haired, big-boned woman who pointed to diagrams on the wall of a waxing and waning moon. Suddenly a golden-brown cougar leapt onto Emma’s back, hissing and screeching, a terrifying ball of spit, muscle and fur. Without thinking I leapt across the room and tore my little girl away. Then I held her trembling bleeding body in my arms. I stood half-crouched, my eyes fixed fearlessly, ferociously, upon that growling animal on the other side of the room. The dark-haired women watched silently from behind the desks. Every nerve and sinew in my body was strung tight and poised to attack, to spring, to run. I shifted my weight from foot to foot slowly. I would tear apart anything that attempted to harm my children. If the wild cat or that dark woman made the slightest move towards me, I would defend my daughter with my life.

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