I was raised to believe I could do anything I wanted. And to a large extent I did, trying my best to make a life that aligned with the things I care about: fairness, kindness, adventure, challenge, being useful.
I moved around for work that I was passionate about—teaching everywhere from the Northern Territory to San Francisco. I helped make a film with kids who’d been in state care and worked with Aboriginal families to redesign the support services they received.
For play, I went on a three-month expedition crossing glaciers in Patagonia, I backpacked through Asia on my own and trained for and ran a (very slow) marathon.
I lived my life as best I could with an eye for challenge, a belief in service and a good dollop of heart.
And then I got pregnant.
I imagined my life as a mother to be a continuation of the life I was already living—just with a small person in tow. I imagined camping adventures, starting a PhD or my own little social enterprise with flexible hours. I looked forward to connecting with other women, taking my baby hiking and finally getting stuck into reading the classics while she slept. Motherhood seemed to be a blank canvas—a challenge for sure, but one that I would colour in my own way.
Our daughter Tillie is now 11 months old and a delight of smiles and thwacks and loud farts and sloppy kisses. She has started to say “Da-da,” but does it almost aggressively: staccato, trying out her voice. “Da-da!” She loves to hold limes (one in each hand)—brussels sprouts are a close second. She eats sardines by the canful and couldn’t think of anything better than tearing a newspaper into small pieces, or undoing my shoelaces and giving me a gummy grin.
Since Tillie was born, I have been grappling with a couple of big questions about how to shape this role of “Mum” into one that feels right and aligns with my “old Jess” values.
I still feel an ache when I am away from Tillie for more than a few hours and often feel the need to apologise or downplay it. It seems needy or dependent. My father-in-law gently jibes: “How long does the umbilical chord stretch these days? Two hours? Three hours?” But the fact is I really don’t want to be away from Tillie for too long—I know I am privileged to make that choice.
Soon after Tillie’s birth, still feeling conflicted between this pull to be with her and my belief in independent working women, I set off down the “stay at home mum” path, which was the one most readily visible to me: coffees with other mums, Kindergym, sing-alongs at the library.
I found my mums’ group a real shock. Of course it’s potluck being thrown in with other people who happen to have had babies at the same time as you, but I left each catch-up feeling sad at the sense of oneupmanship—women raising eyebrows at others who made their baby custard with custard powder, women talking airily about their baby who sleeps through the night while other women look tired and desperate. These coffee dates felt competitive and insular. I yearned for honesty, women sharing how they were adjusting to their new role.
At times I felt both lonely and lost. I’d go to our local playground at the same time that school got out in the hope that there were other people to talk to. I felt guilty talking to friends about their work while I was in a bubble of carrot puree and beadily watching my daughter develop her pincer grip. I’d gone from a wide world to one of lattes and home in the space of a few weeks.
These experiences have led me to really question: what is my place in the world as “Mum Jess”? I want to be with my daughter and also be of use to society. What does it look like to make a contribution to the world with a small person in tow?
Here’s the Mum caveat: in the midst of these big questions there is joy, calm, a feeling of real accomplishment and meaning, laughter and love. There are picnics, politics discussions, a wonderful network of friends and family. There’s the joy of being around other children, of singing songs about frogs, of seeing Tillie’s wonder firsthand and sharing that with others. The real delight of being Tillie’s mum.