Wanting to change the world seems like an enormous undertaking, but I'm starting to think that it is possible in little ways, depending on how you define your world. At some point in my more recent adult years, I realised that it is often the smallest of undertakings that create the biggest changes in the worlds of people. This has helped me gain a more realistic view of my own contributions to world change, not something I'm normally so great at recognising or acknowledging. But there is one project that I've been working on over the past three years that someone else very significant to me has also contributed greatly to, and I'm so incredibly proud of her, that I need to share it.
The story of world change that I'm seeing today begins with that same person. In February 1982, at the age of 17, I gave birth to my daughter, an undeniably world changing event. I had achieved my long held dream to become a mother, although I'm sure it wasn't the dream my parents dreamt for me, and my own life became consumed with a new passion, motherhood.
Looking back, I see the signs that have led me to the work I do today although it wasn't a conscious path I undertook. I always had this strong sense of justice and life never seemed very fair to me, particularly for women. My own mother was only 17 when she had me, and she was a full time working mum for as long as I remember. I don't recall her ever complaining about her world or life, but it looked to me like quite a juggle.
I made an attempt to return to study while I was still breastfeeding my daughter and I recall being very confused in a sociology lecture when the lecturer began talking about the ways in which women were in bondage to their biology. She lamented the injustice that existed because women were the ones who had to bear and feed children and that this meant women were excluded from the same opportunities as men. She encouraged us all to work hard for women's reproductive rights so that we could finally be 'equal'.
I sat in the back of the lecture hall thinking about how much I loved to feed my baby girl and it didn't feel like bondage, but also aware that I had asked if I could bring her to lectures because I was breastfeeding and found childcare difficult to access, and was told I couldn't. I realised my world view was in direct opposition to the one being espoused in the course, and quit that week.
Fast forward a couple more years, and I had been through a brief marriage, birthed a beautiful, very loved second child and was now a divorced mum of 2 at only 23. I traversed several different kinds of career over the next couple of decades, went back to university at 26 and gained 3 degrees, including my Master's Degree. When I was teaching young women about valuing themselves and setting goals for their futures in labour market programs in the early nineties, I was struck by how hard the world was for them, and many times, for me. I wanted more for women. I saw the potential, the strength and the vulnerability.
When I began providing some counselling training for people working in pregnancy support centres I was confused about why most of them seemed to be targetting only women who were, or had considered abortions when faced with unintended pregnancy. I thought about how I had never contemplated abortion, but how desperately much I could have done with some support. I wasn't interested in abstract concepts of 'choice'. I was interested in women's actual lives. I wasn't interested in advocating for options that told women they had to fit into communities structured for the biology of men. I was interested in advocating for breastfeeding mothers to have their babies in lecture rooms, and for women to not miss out on promotions simply because they might get pregnant or be mothers.
Today in my work, I educate about the adverse impact of abortion. I do this because for many years, over my different 'careers' in education, nursing and counselling, I saw women who were suffering after abortion and who felt alone in their experiences. I also saw women feeling so isolated in their communities and feeling like they were failing as mothers and as women if they couldn't do everything perfectly, on their own.
I wanted to be part of something that said to women 'you are not alone', 'you are valued and we can do this together'. I wanted this to be felt by all women at any time in their parenting journey, not just if they had a crisis at the beginning and weren't sure what to do. I wanted to be part of something that says we should change the structures of universities and workplaces so that these organisations can benefit from the amazing contributions of women, not something that told women they had to choose between their children and full participation in educational or professional worlds.
I am still not interested in discussions of 'choice'. In fact, I'm pretty tired of the word given that so many women fail to experience choice, but instead are forced to make hard decisions in which they lose either way. I am interested in challengeing the rhetoric of choice. I am interested in finding solutions where women can be valued for their biological contributions, and at the same time celebrate educational achievements and contribute to professional worlds.
Olivia's Place is part of my vision for a world where motherhood and fatherhood can be valued and supported. As a pregnancy and parenting resource centre in a regional community, Olivia's Place says to families 'you are not alone', 'you are valued and we can do this together'. Whilst the concept of it is my vision, the manifestation of it is my daughter's hard work. There is something very surreal happening when you watch your own child, now a woman, believing in your vision for a better world and valuing it enough to make it happen. I have to remind myself often that Olivia's Place is not just another project that my national organisation oversees. It is a story of world changing proportions.
Every time we say to a pregnant woman 'you have to choose', we are telling her that she is alone, that the world cannot accommodate her in her state, that there is something just a little faulty with her that requires correction. Every time we tell a woman that there is no childcare for her to continue her education, or no afternoon off for her to attend her child's first Easter pageant, we are telling her that her life as a mother doesn't 'fit' the world, that we don't value it.
We can change the world. We just have to change it a little bit at a time. It already changes with every new person who comes into it. It also changes every time we let a woman down by telling her she has to choose.
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