03 September 2022
A true vocation calls out out beyond ourselves, breaks our heart in the process and then humbles. ... A calling is a conversation between our physical bodies, our work, our intellects and imaginations, and a new world that is itself the territory we seek. A vocation will always include the specific, heartrending way we fail.
David Whyte, Consolations, p. 9-10
Our babies in their pouches: me carrying Tommy at 3 months; 2-year-old
Emma carrying her doll. Christmas Day Lawson 1992
Possums & Co.: origin story
In February 2013 I established Possums for Mothers and Babies as a health promotion charity with the help of a kind solicitor in the philanthropic branch of McCullough Robertson Lawyers and some other generous folk. That same year, I finished a book called Biography of a baby’s cry, about the Possums (or Neuroprotective Developmental Care) five-domain approach to infant crying and fussing. That book remains unpublished, though I re-worked parts of it into The discontented little baby book. Recently, mothers in the Possums Parent Hub (a closed Facebook group accessed through milkandmoonbabies.com) asked how our charity came to have its name. Here are some excerpts from Biography of a baby’s cry which explain.
Vintage logo and trademark 2014
Biography of a baby's cry
Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript p. 8, 26, 61, 186
Humans are mammals with a mega-brain but no fur or pouch
Mammals are warm-blooded, bony-spined, air-breathing animals. Female mammals secrete fluid from special glands to feed their young - the defining feature of the class Mammalia.
Early in our evolutionary history, the ancestral mammary gland secreted a healing elixir with immune super-powers for protecting the young. As millennia passed, this fluid evolved to provide nutrition too. One subclass of mammal, the marsupial, developed a pouch for both carrying and feeding its young.
Possums are Australian marsupials, well-loved among the many extraordinary marsupials unique to our continent. Tragically, some of our marsupials are now extinct as a consequence of European colonisation. Others are critically endangered.
Possums start life as underdeveloped little jellybeans with blind protuberant eyes, weighing perhaps two grams. After birth they are propelled by hardwired reflexes, their paddle-like forearms pulling them on a heroic climb up through the mother’s fur into her pouch. There, the tiny joey opens its over-sized jaws and clamps onto one of her two teats. The teat expands to fill the joey’s mouth, and it can’t be prised off for the next five months, nestling there in the pouch, glistening pink, oiled by the mother’s protective glands, warmed and nourished.
Humans are not marsupials. We belong to placental mammals. We’re in the order of primates, with our forward-facing eyes, opposable thumbs, and huge brains. But unlike many primates, we don’t have fur to which our babies can cling. It’s easy to recognise a marsupial newborn like the possum joey as a foetus-outside-the-womb. It’s harder to see that our own human babies are also, from an evolutionary or biological perspective, foetuses-outside-the-womb.
Emma carries her 5-day-old baby on the New York City Subway 2016
Making a racket
‘You’ve got to have an acronym,’ the professor said.
He mentored me with a rare kindness, under the high ceilings of the old Medical School in the rooms which housed the Discipline of General Practice back in 2005 when I excitedly published my very first research paper. He generously mentored me in 2009, too, when I received the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ Chris Silagy Research Scholarship, even though he was a GP who specialised in palliative care. That’s academic general practice for you: ten thousand topics to choose from. GPs specialise in generalism, which is holistic health care, and this makes general practice the most intellectually demanding – and most intellectually satisfying – of all the medical specialties, it seems to me.
I came up with Demeter, the archetypal Greek mother, She of the Grain, Giver of the Harvest. I’d turned Demeter into an acronym about mothers and babies though I’ve forgotten what it was now. I’ve never been fond of acronyms.
‘Dementer?’ the professor gasped when I told him. ‘As in Harry Potter?’
Clearly that one didn’t work.
He much preferred the next acronym I came up with: POSSUMS, POSitive Strategies for Unsettled babies and their MotherS. I remember testing it out with Peter, my former husband, as we walked along Main Beach on North Stradbroke Island. Tom ran wild along the top of the dunes, jumping down to join us sometimes, picking up shells, hunting for crabs. Emma wasn’t there – I guess we hadn’t been able to prise her out of the unit. Or had she left home by then? Perhaps those Stradbroke Island holidays with the kids have blurred into one in my memory. But Peter liked Possums as a name, too. My friend Narelle Oliver, an award-winning children’s writer and illustrator, created a beautiful linocut print of a mama ringtail possum with a baby clinging to her fur, and she also designed the first trademarked logos.
By 2011, just a couple of years after Tom had left home, I’d recruited a small team and opened The Possums Clinic in Annerley, Brisbane, located in one of the federal government’s newly established ‘superclinics’. For the first few months, we used the name Possums as an acronym. But we were seeing all babies, not just unsettled ones. I quickly realised that the acronym didn’t adequately emphasise breastfeeding support, which is foundational to the Possums programs (later also known as Neuroprotective Developmental Care), and let the acronym go. The name Possums stuck, though. Narelle’s carefully detailed mama and baby ringtails still watch over our consultations from their frames on the walls of the Possums Clinic Brisbane, now at Sherwood. For a start, it’s quite common for Australian parents to call their children possum or poss or possie as an endearment. And the way possums carry and feed their young in a pouch resonates with certain important evolutionary needs of the human baby, too, which the Possums programs embrace.
Brushtail possums have disappeared from many parts of Australia due to habitat loss but thrive in the urban environment here in south-east Queensland, nesting under eaves and in wall cavities. I especially like ringtail possums, who build untidy nests or dreys from sticks and shredded bark and grass in dense backyard foliage. Most nights, brushtail or ringtail possums thunder across my corrugated iron roof, heading out to forage. Sometimes, in the evenings, I spot black silhouettes gliding along the power lines, joeys clinging to their backs. The mamma ringtail’s wiry tail droops in an elegant curl; the mamma brushtail suspends her black bottlebrush straight out behind.
When they were in primary school my children would call from the deck in the evening: ‘There’s a possum Mum!’ We’d watch as she flowed along the power lines. ‘See the baby on her back!’ we’d say. If the neighbours were out looking too, we might share possum stories, verandah to verandah. I’d tell them that not so long ago a possum nested in our ceiling and her scratching and scampering kept Tom awake. Rats, we wondered? But we found tell-tale droppings and the smell of urine and there she was inside a narrow opening, a brushtail mamma staring into Peter’s torchlight, little pink nose and pointy ears frozen in fright. Or I’d tell them that when my children were babies, I lived in an old house in the Blue Mountains where a brushtail possum scratched right through the plaster of the kitchen wall and there she was one day, blinking at us through a little hole, worlds colliding.
In the dead of night possums leap into the bushes and gumtrees around the house with explosive commotions and violent rustles. I hear frantic hissing and clicking, sibilant creaks, guttural rattles: possums making a racket, mating or warning off intruders.
In the bush, they eat native flowers, lillypilly fruits, grass roots, fungi, seeds. In drought, they’ll eat grubs and moths. In the city as my kids were growing up possums took bites out of the cumquats and limes we were trying to grow in terracotta pots in our courtyard. They demolished the parsley. They punched holes in the ripe yellow fruit dangling from our skinny-trunked pawpaw trees.
When Peter made a vegetable garden out the back with Emma and Tom’s help (sort of), possums razed their first planting of tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, beans. He had to devise ingenious chicken wire constructions to keep them out. A few years later I made the mistake of bringing in a landscape gardener, who turned out to be of dubious capability. This was just as the Millennium Drought began to bite. She ignored my warnings, cleared away our tangle of chicken wire, and planted out naked strawberry seedlings. Which the possums destroyed overnight. Although I’d explained that we wanted a garden of hardy native shrubs, she planted orange trees, gardenias, and camellias. Which died within weeks because thirsty possums adored their succulent shoots. Peter muttered for years afterwards about my expensive indiscretion whenever anyone mentioned the word ‘garden’. He did forgive me in the end though because despite the failed execution, I’d had good intentions.
People from the Boorong Nation tell us that from the beginning of time they would look to the sky at night and see a possum in a tree, in the constellation named the Southern Cross by European settlers. Other First Nations people told me when I worked in an Aboriginal and Islander Controlled Community Health Service in the late 1980s – though I frankly acknowledge I lack insider knowledge or understanding – that for thousands of generations a woman might catch sight of a possum, perhaps as she walked by a hollow log or near an ironbark, and the possum became the totem of the baby in her womb, connecting that new little human to dreamtime ancestors and the land.
Have a question? I'd love to hear it! Reach out to me at email@example.com 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!
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