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Issue #1

20 August 2022

We could locate in virtually all of the founding texts of our (western) culture a version of the myth … that the death or absence of the mother … makes possible the construction of language and of culture.

Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word 1986


The maternal body operates as the site of women’s radical silence.

Michelle Boulous Walker, Philosophy and the Maternal Body, 1998

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Breastfeeding 3-month-old Tom; 2-year-old Emma breastfeeds her doll

December 1992 Lawson, Blue Mountains

Speaking the transfigurative maternal body


Welcome to my first newsletter, and thanks for signing up! The Cailleach Diaries is a big adventure for me, which I hope you will enjoy. My son Tom is helping me. The plan (at least for now) is to start with a quote from someone else which has been meaningful for me; to offer you an excerpt from one of my unpublished manuscripts; and then to reflect a little upon that excerpt.


Bone mother: a memoir in milk was a winner of the Queensland Premiers Literary Awards – Emerging Manuscript (Fiction) in 2009, which brought me great joy! On the judges’ recommendation, the award funded me a retreat at Varuna, The National Writer’s House, so that I could turn it from a thinly disguised novel into memoir. But Bone mother has been sitting unpublished in my files ever since that re-write, because I’ve needed to wait for my children to be ready to read it and consent to its publication, and also if the truth be told because I wasn’t ready to go public with it. I’m now in the process of seeking a publisher.


I re-visited Bone mother again, turning the compost of my own story, in 2016. That was the year Emma gave birth to a squirming mewling little boy in Brooklyn, New York, one among a bunch of equally cherished grandchildren, this one tethered to my DNA. A few months later, I stroked the forehead of my closest friend as she died. At the end of that fateful summer, Peter and I separated. Perhaps a certain woundedness of soul has been my fate, and my task, now that my children and stepchildren have children of their own, is to flourish. Bone mother is the humus, the bittersweet stuff out of which the rest of the life that is given to me grows.

Bone mother: a memoir in milk

Excerpt from the unpublished manuscript p. 10-11


After Emma and Tom left home I took a couple of years leave from the clinic. I was bothered by a health problem which the physiotherapist told me related to stress, computers, and a lifelong core instability –quite curable, she explained, if I changed most things about the way I lived.


I travelled Europe with Peter, my husband, and considered the perplexing matter of my career. We were twelve years into our twenty-year marriage, and he was on sabbatical. I’d published research concerning the widespread and unnecessary medicalisation of infant behaviour and was proud to have won College awards for this work. I’d gathered a bunch of dedicated health professionals and started up a charitable organisation, Possums & Co., which specialises in the care of mothers and babies in the domains of breastfeeding, sleep, cry-fuss challenges, and emotional well-being.


This topic, how best to enjoy the first months of a new human being’s life, might sound tedious and mainstream to some – boring, even – but for me it was a field that cried out for intellectual courage and creativity, historical and socio-political insight, and a willingness to be disruptive. It was also, I believed, a field that cried out for consummate clinical skill. On giving birth many women stumble into (and as quickly as possible clamber out of) a frightening fissure, a rupture in the landscape of everyday life. They fall into a terrifying underworld of out-dated, even damaging, healthcare practices – though everywhere else, all around us, twenty-first century technology and systems thinking transform our lives and our healthcare. The unspoken assumption has been that the suffering of the affluent and educated modern woman in new motherhood can’t possibly be of critical importance, worthy of serious intellectual effort – and is by and large either her own fault, requiring psychological improvement, or a neurohormonal storm over which she has no control, requiring pharmaceutical intervention.


Finally, instead of writing A Great Australian Novel (though I was convinced for many years that writing A Great Australian Novel was my proper calling, not medicine – erroneously of course, as you might already realise), I published a compact piece of non-fiction called The discontented little baby book: all you need to know about feeds, sleep and crying. The publisher wept when she saw the first draft, since I’d found it difficult to let go of certain elements of My Novel. The manuscript was, she felt, unpublishable. In the end I had to flounder out again through the crashing waves into the deep, dark sea, and re-write the whole thing in a direct, kind, unadorned voice, appropriate for sleep-deprived new parents.




When my daughter was born in 1990, I couldn’t find stories written by women about their intimate and embodied experiences as they birthed and cared for babies – other than in the self-help genre, which was non-literary and often rather medicalised – yet in the clinic and around kitchen tables women were telling their stories to me all the time. I decided I needed to find ways to write my own and other women’s stories as creative non-fiction.


I remember sitting propped up amongst the pillows of the unmade bed one cold Blue Mountains’ afternoon, gazing at my favourite poster of a small terracotta statuette of the Sumerian divinity, Ishtar, who supports her lactating breasts in her hands and expresses fine sprays of milk. She lives these days in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Her great mounds of thighs are three and a half thousand years old, young by Australian standards since our First Peoples’ petroglyphs are dated in tens of thousands of years. I remember gazing at her, she who is known as Mother of the Fruitful Breast or River of Life or Queen of Heaven or Mother of Deities, with my children sprawled on the bed beside me. Astonishingly, the toddler and the baby were napping simultaneously, and I thought with a fierce clear determination: I’m going to do this. It seemed tremendously important to me that women’s perinatal stories were told as if they comprised a serious literature.  


That was the beginning of Bone mother. Of course, finding the time was another thing entirely. I scrawled notes on scraps of paper in the midst of cooking dinner or changing nappies or throwing the duplo back into its storage. But passion for the writing of Bone mother gave my days in the company of my young children a transcendent purpose. I needed that, to get through. I will always be grateful to Bone mother for helping me make meaning of those difficult early years of motherhood. And here I am now, thirty-two years later, lifting the cloak just a little, bringing a few paragraphs into view.


When Emma was eight years old, the Australian philosopher Michelle Boulous Walker wrote those words at the beginning of this newsletter. Later, I studied briefly with Michelle at The University of Queensland, joining a group she facilitated which critiqued texts by the French feminist philosopher Lucy Irigaray. Michelle’s words about maternal silence mattered a lot to me in those years. So it wasn’t just me who noticed this shocking absence? Now in 2022 I ask again: does the perinatal maternal body still operate as a site of women’s radical silence?


As Emma and Tom moved through high school, the internet exploded and social media became a part of daily life, beginning with Myspace which Emma and her friends adored and which I, bemused, had to learn to manage as a parent. Today, women – parents – share the details of caring for babies close-up across multiple digital platforms, including about how a woman’s body navigates breastfeeding and infant pukes and pumping and pacifiers and sleep deprivation and the crushing tedium of the days.and the desperation when that precious little thing decides to scream for hours. There are also books out now, quite a lot of them, in which women write with devastating honesty about their experiences through matrescence.


But parenting a baby is still a project dominated by both my own and the psychology professions. Parenting stories are often told through the filter of quite specific and medicalised or psychologised beliefs, which I deeply respect because these are the way mothers of babies make sense of mystifying, chaotic, even terrifying experiences. But many of these stories have been socially constructed by the health professions, even when assimilated into the thriving industry of non-medically aligned parent educators and sleep coaches. Despite claims to the contrary, they are too often stories which perpetuate disempowerment and distress.


In my lifetime we’ve come a long way in learning how to speak the transfigurative maternal body. But we still have a long way to go.

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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!

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