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Melissa - Ancestry and Understanding

My Mother’s Daughter is a collection of stories reflecting on the nature of femininity and what it means to be identify as a mother, daughter, sister and most of all, a woman, in Australia. In this series, we speak to women of various ages, cultures and backgrounds to glimpse into who and what has shaped them as the strong and inspiring people they are today, as well as the legacy they build for their children and community.

Melissa is a mother of two, a government worker and a family-oriented woman. In this interview, she speaks about her struggles coming to grips with the duality of her Aboriginal heritage, while being raised in white Australian culture, and the disconnect to family and identity she feels. She shares her experiences of motherhood and learning to understand her children and the world they are growing up in.

 

Content Warning: This interview mentions self-harm, suicidal ideation, mental illness, transgender issues, dysphoria, Stolen Generations and racism.

[Transcript]

My name is Mel, and I’m in my 40s and I’m the mother of two children, and I come from Seymour, Victoria. I guess I have a background, where I’m Indigenous as well, to an extent, as my Nan grew up in Parkerville Children’s Home, as a stolen generation, and she did actually find her sister, who was separated from her. And she grew up at Sister Kate’s, that was all based on skin colour. So, my Nan, did not get adopted out to another family, she grew up there, raised by nuns, and she actually found her sister by coincidence because they looked so much alike, and she enjoyed a good relationship with her.

So what are my thoughts and ideas of femininity? I would say that, my Nan was brought up to serve men a lot, from her upbringing, and on my Dad’s side of the family, I grew up in a world where they were always served their meal first, and were always considered ‘special’, especially the first boy. I don’t think that did them any favours, especially in their later with women. And on my Mum’s side, they grew up without a father, so I guess I see them as pretty strong and outspoken women. And when I look at both sides of my family, the ones that are more submissive and the ones that are more outspoken, they all have pros and cons to those choices. I like to think I grew up somewhere in the middle, but when I look at how that applies to me, I probably do more cleaning and cooking and things like that in my world. Not sure if that’s a good example for my daughter, she’s chosen to be transgender and kind of go the opposite way, and sometimes when look at what example I set, I guess I can’t blame her for that, I probably look to her that I have the world on my shoulders.

And what was my relationship with my mother? I would say, that I did grow up feeling that she favoured my brother, and they had lots of secret little activities that they used to like doing and I always felt a bit left out from that. But then, as I got older I found that me and my mum do come together a lot, and had more in common as I get older. So, I guess those thoughts are kind of gone now as an adult. How has it impacted me as being a parent? I try and be there equally for both of my children. I find that my son’s dad, who I’m separated from, tends to like doing all the boy stuff, and my daughter gets missed out a lot so I try and make up for that a bit, and I do hope that my son doesn’t see that as me favouring her, I’m just trying to balance it out.

The New Generation

How the role of motherhood impacted my identity as a woman? I guess, with the new generation, I find them quite confusing, as I think every prior mother ever spoke of their children generations before. I know that the general consensus is to look at the young people today, and say that they can’t communicate with people, because they’re more on social media than they are out there meeting people. I see that completely opposite. I think they’re communicating in a way that’s different and I think it’s in a way that will bring the world together one day. I couldn’t imagine, when I was growing up, that I’d know what a Muslim person was, or a Jehovah’s Witness was, and things like that, and I know that my children are having those relationships, even if they are over social media, and learning about different cultures, and I think that’s actually quite a wonderful thing. So yeah, they’re not communicating in a traditional sense, but I don’t see that a bad thing, it’s a change and people have got to get used to it.

Motherhood and Mental Health

I have teenage children, so I guess what’s impacting my life right now, and my identity that’s grown over time is learning about transgender. So, one of my children is under a psych for being transgender, and they look at cutting as I guess, an attempt at suicide or a cry out for help. I’ve been to mental health first aid training as a part of my job and I actually didn’t really see that as anything different to when I was a teenager, and used to heat up a lighter a burn my skin with it, but no one was crying, “that was a suicide attempt.” I think it’s a normal progression into your teenage years to feel kind of depressed and maybe even suicidal at times, and to lash out in a way that fits with the year you’re growing up in. I think it’s dangerous to tell children and teenagers of this day and age that that means that they are somewhat suicidal, I think it’s putting ideas in their head that probably aren’t necessarily there. I think that everyone goes through that stage, and I think that these ideas are getting put in people’s head a lot to balance out funding, for that sector, and I think that’s a dangerous thing. I did actually raise that, during my mental health first training, and I was shut down by the trainer. He had bipolar, or has bipolar, and he saw that if people weren’t recognised in that sense as being potentially suicidal, then that took away a lot of funding that he was potentially eligible for, and I think that was really wrong. I think it’s easily challenged that these people may not have a big a problem as what society’s making out, that it’s probably just a normal way of growing up. I don’t know how you identify the serious versus the odd smiley burn on the skin, because it could be dangerous to do so, but yeah I think it needs to be looked into.

Aboriginal or Not?

How has my particular culture or the culture that I present impact my view of womanhood? I suppose because I grew up with a Nan who is part Aboriginal, and from the stolen generation, I often get questions for myself, for my children, “Are you an Aboriginal?” or “Do you identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?” I probably don’t know what to tick on that box, to be honest. I feel like a fraud if I tick ‘yes’, because I haven’t grow up with those cultural, all the cultural stuff based around being Indigenous, I don’t know how to hunt for an animal, I haven’t learnt about how the world was made through their eyes. But then, I feel like a fraud if I tick ‘no’ as well, because I don’t really identify with being a white person or an Australian person either. I can see, that even though my Nan was separated from her family, that we do have a lot of things that are culturally in line with being Aboriginal, and I don’t know how she just naturally grew up with those ideas, when she taken away so young, but she did. So I guess, I feel like a fraud either way, I don’t know which box to tick. For my people, going through the public school system, I spoke to other parents, and the only thing that happened, that I could see when you tick that box, is when you called your child in sick, they come and did a home visit. But they weren’t home visiting any other child except for the Indigenous ones. and I thought that was unfair, it wasn’t bringing anything to our lives that would be positive. I think if you’re gonna conduct a home visit on a child that calls in sick, that you should look at, not if they’re Aboriginal or not Aboriginal, I think you should look at their attendance at school, and decide from there. So, for my children I chose not to tick that box. If I can see that ticking that box brings a positive outcome, whether through education or employment, and that that person’s culture will be taken into account in a positive, then I probably would tick that box.

In the job I do today, I do work identified as Aboriginal, as I have in two of my jobs, one was government and one is not-for-profit. And I find that when I express to the Aboriginal people that I work with, that I do have an Aboriginal background, but I’m disconnected from my family, they’re well-receptive of that. I do have fair features and blues and freckles, and that doesn’t seem to matter to them at all. With white people, it’s a little bit different I guess. I’ll hear a lot of racist comments, until I mention that I have an Aboriginal background, and then those comments stop, almost like they’re being a bit fake I guess. And I guess, yeah, that’s my cultural experience so far.

With the jobs I have worked at, when I worked in finance in the city, a job where I’d have to wear a power suit for instance, I didn’t identify as Aboriginal and I didn’t tell them about that side of my history. I didn’t think it was necessary, I didn’t think it would bring anything positive to the role, so I just didn’t tell them. In the jobs where I’ve worked in a government role, and now in the not-for-profit sector, I decided to let them know about that, and they have changed my role to suit that, so I will do jobs that are not in my job description to better support the Indigenous people that we’re working for, so I guess I’ve just chosen to disclose that as it suits in a way.

Traditions and Femininity 

And I guess, with femininity I find it that women are still traditionally doing those old roles, of being in charge, you know cleaning the houses, making sure that dinner is served and has x amount of vegetables in it, but now we also work and sometimes we’re actually earning more money as well. But to me, that’s like a double pressure. My mum, who works has always turned around and said that somewhat she is against it all. She believes that life was better when she could go to the pub and get a free drink, and just be expected to clean the house. So it’s like we’ve stepped up in a role, but our previous jobs and expectations have never disappeared. So we’re doing double what we used to do before. And getting lower pay for the privilege as well.

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