My brilliant mother

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My mother could have run an empire. She was bright, savvy, hard-working and so persistent she redefined that word. Once, my sister unknowingly left crucial immigration documents at home and took off for the UK to take up a scholarship at Cambridge University. My mother rallied her resources and had the documents delivered to Heathrow Airport before my sister's plane landed.

Bill Shorten, partially obscured by silhouettes of people in the foreground, looks pensive as he campaigns in Sydney in May 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)My mother had discovered the documents when she returned home after farewelling my sister at Johannesburg's airport. Mobile phones hadn't been invented yet, so my sister was oblivious to the fact that she'd be entering the UK illegally. Noting the urgency, my mother hunted down the telephone number of an old neighbour, a pilot, whom she hadn't seen in years; he put her in touch with a colleague who just happened to be piloting another flight to the UK that night. She rushed back to the airport and thrust the documents into his hands just as he was about to board his flight.

The pilot's British Airways plane was permitted to fly over West Africa, thereby overtaking my sister's South African Airways flight which, due to apartheid-era embargoes, had to take a longer route. Imagine my sister's shock when she was awoken by a flight attendant somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean to be told that a stranger had sent this message to her from airspace: your immigration documents will be waiting for you at the BA counter at Heathrow.

This is just one of many examples of my mother's refusal to take no for an answer, her belief that anything is possible, if only you make the effort. But, poignantly, her efforts were aimed almost entirely at helping others (family, colleagues) achieve their own success. She didn't seem to benefit herself — in the professional sense, at least — from such unshakeable optimism.

Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she didn't fight as she had — endlessly — for her five children; instead, she accepted her oncologist's advice that treatment was hopeless, that she ought to go home and make peace with her family and her god (she had retorted, in her gently feisty way, that there was no need, since she was already at peace with them all).

My mother didn't have much of a post-school education; the only child of a single mother, she matriculated, did a bookkeeping course and went to work. She wasn't financially disadvantaged: she'd grown up with a working mother and had enough of an independent streak that, aged 20, she spent a year working in Britain and hitchhiking around Europe.

But she was a product of her time, a young woman who'd never been alerted to her potential, who'd never assumed education might extend beyond her school years, that it might open doors and offer opportunities beyond the menial jobs usually reserved for women. She spent most of her adult life — until her death aged 58 — working for others in supportive roles, brilliant and highly valued but subservient and (I assume) underpaid. She could easily have run the companies she worked for — and in fact, I suspect she might well have done so.

 

"This debate is a reminder that although many gains have been made, the fight for equality is not over. It's also an opportunity to reflect on how our mothers' lives — and lack of opportunity — helped shape our own."

 

If she'd grown up in a culture in which women were seen as more than just support acts for their future husbands, if tertiary education had been promoted as an opportunity, she would almost certainly have had a brilliant career.

This was the inflamed nerve touched by Bill Shorten when he spoke of his mother's lost opportunities. Women who shared their own mothers' stories in response under the #MyMum hashtag did so with an acute awareness of both the gulf that separated them from their mothers — women now outnumber men at universities — and the entrenched structural discrimination that remains.  

Of course it can be seen as a privileged debate: after all, our white, middle class mothers were skilled and able to earn a living; and though my father had a university education, his brother (and sisters) didn't. But this misses the point, for if we accept the opportunity to do a bookkeeping course as the yardstick for female empowerment in a world where men were encouraged to be engineers and lawyers, then we have settled for less. Moreover, such inequalities in comparatively privileged communities should profoundly illuminate the multilayer effect such discrimination has on women of colour and other minorities and disadvantaged groups.

Ultimately, this debate is a reminder that our job is not yet done; though many gains have been made, the fight for equality is not over. It's also an opportunity to reflect on how our mothers' lives — and lack of opportunity — helped shape our own.

Though it was never articulated in our home, there was an implicit understanding that my siblings and I would pursue tertiary education, that we would carve out fulfilling careers for ourselves. As I wrote in my #MyMum tribute, my mother took great joy in these successes, living vicariously through us and claiming our successes as her own. She had multiple qualifications from a variety of institutions, she'd say — including Cambridge University, which my sister might not have made it to without her mother's dogged determination.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image: Bill Shorten campaigns in Sydney in May 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Bill Shorten, Election 2019

 

 

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Dear Catherine, I see your cup is definitely half empty. As you say, huge gains have been made in improving equality of opportunity for women, and there are still some entrenched chauvinistic attitudes in various walks of life, but life from an "equality" perspective is actually pretty good here in Australia for which we should also be very grateful. And amen to your Mother who showed so much love through her selflessness.
David Barker | 13 May 2019


I'm fortunate to have known seven exemplary mothers born in the 20th century: my mother born 1912; my three sisters born 1939, 1941 & 1951; my wife born 1939; & my two daughters born 1969 & 1975. Despite their diverse achievements in life, both academically & professionally, they have all said at various times the achievement they are most proud is their children. When one of my younger sisters died too young at seventy, she was described as a Saint of the Suburbs. She exhibited that devotion to duty described by Pius XII, the Martyrdom of the Daily Routine.
Uncle Pat | 13 May 2019


It makes me angry that so many people still don't get it. Everything you say is true of the majority of women of my mother's generation, and yours. Yes, they gave and gave until they dropped, and received the joy of seeing those they helped prosper and fulfil their potential. Those mothers would have done what they did anyway, but their own personal potential in professional and creative capacities was too often needlessly sacrificed in the process. It's not good enough for people to say "they had it pretty good, considering", as if their expectations should have been lower to begin with; and it's selfish of those who benefited if they can't see that women often have, and had, more to give, and that a great deal of that potential went to waste. I've known so many women like that, my own mother included, who yearned to learn more and achieve goals of her own, and, while giving her all to her family, was also at times deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with her lot. I'm glad some men can appreciate that, and I applaud Bill Shorten's empathy for his Mum, and awareness of these issues.
Jena Woodhouse | 13 May 2019


What a blessing she was for you and your siblings.
Patricia Taylor | 13 May 2019


As a professor of medicine, wife & mother of 3 adult children I am saddened that people seem to be regarding events of decades past as proof of ongoing “structural entrenched discrimination”. I am also disturbed by the value judgement that unless women have a career they have a “great potential gone to waste”. This belittles the important role of parenting (for any gender). Until we are realistic that no-one can have it all (certainly not all at once) and that when we make choices for something, others options cannot be pursued at the same time, we are just going to drive societal dissatisfaction.... everyone has choices & women in mainstream Australian society are luckier than most - thank God!
Jane | 13 May 2019


Thats a fitting tribute Catherine. Our mothers dont normally get the credit they deserve. Like your mother, ours was also selfless and proud of all her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. One of my parents friends was a great Priest, the ex U Boat Commander, Wally Sylvester. They often went to Pallotti at Millgrove and he often dropped in for a cup of tea. Pallotti do a great Sunday roast lunch. One of the things we forget about our mothers is their generosity, their ability to cope with life's vicissitudes, their joy in simple things and the astonishing number of people they fed and the lame ducks they helped. Yes the times are changing with better education and with new careers and though elements of discrimination persist, women can take on any career except the priesthood. Pius 12 put paid to that.
francis Armstrong | 17 May 2019


As the eldest of 4 and the only girl, I was sent to business college after year 11 because my brothers needed an education. My husband was shocked and so made it possible for me to take up full time tertiary studies in 1970 whilst bring up two young children. Not all men were as aware as him at that time about the loss to the nation of women’s abilities.
Jennifer Raper | 17 May 2019


Many seem to have forgotten that opportunity was also denied many men with great capabilities who also worked hard and long to maintain and educate their families. The 1960s revolution changed things for both sexes and many men and women who previously would not have done so have achieved both in career and family. The gender war is a false construct which serves no one well and probably disadvantages women far more than it does men.
john frawley | 20 May 2019


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