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The Legacy of Strong Women

Updated: Mar 28, 2020


My mother is a dynamo, an absolute powerhouse of a woman, and has shown all her children the importance of independence and forging a unique place in the world. She taught us the value of dedication to our community.

My family has a proud history of strong women.

Mum trained as a nurse and moved from Sydney’s beaches to Broken Hill when she undertook her midwifery training, before moving to the small Riverina town of Hay, supposedly for six months. Some 50 years later she is enjoying retirement on that same small town, having met and married a hometown boy, my dad, and making Hay her home.

Before I was born, mum became the baby health clinic nurse, and returned to her career as she went on to have further children. She was (and still is) the person in our town who other parents turned to, for advice, for comfort or to share worries. Throughout her career Mum has made a positive difference in people’s lives, sometimes literally saving their life. That places a lot of expectation on someone who has been, at one time or another, a brash teen mum, a married mum, a scared single mum, a shaky step-mum, and always a fumbling, mistake ridden human. I am always conscious of working on being better, and it is because of my families support and my mother’s example to follow.

Mum’s mother Bess raised five children and worked to support her family alongside her husband, my grandfather, sewing and working from home to supplement the family income, in a time when women considered supplicants to their spouses. She too was a strong and fiercely independent woman, who did not suffer fools lightly, and ruled the roost alongside my gentle and wonderfully eccentric Dadgran Bob.

I grew up hearing stories about Bess’s mum, Granny Manns and my mother’s holidays in outback NSW at Granny’s place, in what sounds like a revolving door of cousins and friends dispatched to the tiny timber home outside Cobar for school holidays. Mum talks about her with love, describing her as a small woman, who took the harsh living in her stride. Throughout her lifetime Granny raised 12 children and buried two more with sorrowful grace; one in infancy and another as a young man, following a drowning that could have destroyed a lessor parent. Granny Manns also buried two husbands; unexpectedly she became a widow with two young daughters, one of who was Bess, before re-marrying and enjoying a long marriage with her brother-in-law.

As you can see, my family has given me, and my two sisters, some very big shoes to fill. (I should also mention we sisters have a great dad and wonderful brother who both share a deliciously dry wit, and who I would be lost without, but for the purposes of this article I have only chatted with my sisters about the women in our lives, and our daughters. Bear with me and I think you will soon see the theme here)

I have a daughter of my own, and now she has a daughter as well, and over the past few years I have watched my girl take on secondary study and second jobs, then apprenticeships, industry training and marriage and motherhood. She runs her own business and I am fortunate to be part of the sounding board she uses as she builds her own empire.

I am proud – so proud! – when I watch her strive and question and accomplish and worry and triumph and despair, but for a while now a small voice in the back of my head has been saying “Is it too much? Have we done this to you?”

Mum guilt is not new. An internet search instantly returns countless articles and studies discussing the complicated emotions women feel when juggling family and career, or family and no career, or no family and career, or any of the endless combinations of guilt.

It’s not that men don’t feel stress and pressure; that’s not my discussion point here. As I age, I find myself not only feeling troubled by the choice I have made for my children, but whether the efforts to try to outwardly display a strong superwoman persona is affecting our daughters and granddaughters.

Have my efforts to meet the standards of the amazing women who have led our family before me, have I unwittingly passed on additional unfair pressures on my daughter?

I discussed this with my sisters, both mothers to daughters themselves, but I kept my questions deliberately vague to begin with, because I didn’t want to sway their thinking at all. Both told me mum guilt was a usual part of their lives, a constant worry as they raised their girls. When I asked about them to explain the women in our family both immediately responded with descriptions such as ‘strong’, ‘inspiring’ and a ‘force to be reckoned with’. Both expressed a real sense of pride about belonging to a family of determined and hard-working role models.

I asked if they saw these traits as a negative or positive influence on themselves and their girls and their responses were rapid; both told me the trait was overwhelmingly positive and had installed resilience and independence in their daughters.

By now I was considering that my worries were my own, and I was starting to feel more than a bit foolish.

I took a deep breath and sent a missive to our group message, explaining how I had been feeling, and that I was planning to try and unpack these emotions in a piece of writing. (I present to you – the piece.)

The replies from my sisters were sprinkled with CAPS LOCK and face palm or sad face emojis.

“Oh my GOSH. Yes!”

“When you point it out like that, it really hits home..”

“I feel like I’m just treading water a lot of the time.”

“How did mum do it all without letting on everything that was going on in the background?”

Wow. Talk about dropping a bombshell on my unsuspecting siblings.

I recently travelled with my mother and spent time with her younger sister, my aunt, and I casually raised the topic with them both. My mother immediately scoffed and downplayed her own achievements, but as we chatted and strolled to Aunty LA’s favourite coffee shop, they both shared their memories of Bess and Granny Manns. My aunt had a very successful career herself prior to retirement but the sisters equally recalled the expectation to perform to Bess’ high and rock-solid standards.

“I did feel most loved when I was achieving.”

I have pondered their words, marinated my reflections and my sister’s thoughts for a few weeks, and am at the point where I know what I want for my family, and what I was hoping to achieve here.

I want the people in this article to feel incredibly proud of their accomplishments, no matter what they are, but to lessen the pressure on themselves to be anything other than their authentic selves.

I want anyone reading this to feel the same pride and know that while guilt is not new and it has its own place in keeping us empathetic, is should not be the over-riding emotion.

Guilt can’t control us. It is but one of the sentiments that we feel in our soul, but we cannot allow it to be the loudest.

When guilt is quietened we will be able to hear the sweeter sounds of pride, joy and delight. In ourselves and our strong girls.

My mother Jo, with my daughter Cheyenne and grand daughter Stella Rose and I in 2019.

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