Two years into writing this column, I receive a ton of feedback and suggestions for future subjects; my circle is invested. When I mentioned my next interviewee was Clementine Ford, everyone had an opinion. A prominent feminist with a Fairfax column and two bestselling books to her name, she incites a fervour – you’re a defender or detractor – that’s tangible and at times alarming (check out her Twitter). Holding up a mirror to society can inspire change, but sadly also hate.
Today we quiz Clementine on becoming a mother, raising a son, concern trolling and Boys Will Be Boys – her exploration of power, patriarchy and the bonds of mateship.
The theme of this year’s Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Awareness (PANDA) Week a few weeks back was ‘I wish I knew.’ Though up to one in five expecting or new mothers and one in 10 fathers experience anxiety or depression, understanding this can happen during pregnancy is rare. Why do you think that is? In light of your own experience, have you any advice for women or men who find themselves suffering – as well as those supporting them?
One of the things that makes it so difficult is this mythical idea of what a pregnancy is supposed to be and feel like. My antenatal anxiety hit me just after the start of the second trimester, which everyone always seems to talk about as some kind of wild high. Your libido is supposed to go through the roof, you’re supposed to stop vomiting every morning (afternoon and night), you’re supposed to bloom, you’re supposed to feel at peace with yourself. All of this is supposed to happen to you, but we only think that because it’s the only thing we ever hear.
I think a lot of that has to do with a general disdain for women’s complaints anyway, one that’s epically magnified when a woman becomes pregnant and then later becomes a mother. Because we’re supposed to be grateful for our good fortune. Don’t we feel lucky to be pregnant or have children? These two states aren’t allowed to co-exist – the one where of course you love your children or desire motherhood, but also feel terrible anxiety or depression about the process involved or some of its reality. And so women bottle a lot of these feelings up because they’re afraid of being judged and, even worse, they’re afraid that their feelings mean there’s something morally wrong with them.
I knew I wanted to have my child and I was excited about motherhood. But I also knew that every day the pregnancy grew inside me and was attached so physically and completely to me was one where I felt trapped and terrified. Thankfully, I sought help almost as soon as I started to feel the familiar symptoms of chronic anxiety. I cannot urge enough how important it is for anyone struggling with perinatal anxiety and/or depression to know that they haven’t failed in any way, and that their feelings or fears don’t mark them as some kind of pariah or bad person. The best and most immediate thing they can do is to talk to a professional about what they’re experiencing. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s no shame in asking as many people as you need to help guide you out of it.
You’ve said, ‘I felt certain my body would only produce a girl,’ and yet you gave birth to a son. I thought of you upon reading Lunch Lady’s recent interview with Dr Arne Rubenstein on raising boys; how possibly the most influential feminist of my generation might be approaching this task. Can you give us an insight into how you’re parenting your son, and the responsibility you feel to ensure he has empathy, respect and understanding in a world where, as a white male, he’s inherently privileged?
When I found out my child was likely to be assigned male at birth, I admit I was pretty surprised. I was also momentarily terrified. How on earth could I possibly figure out how to raise a boy? In less than an hour, the feeling had passed. I welcomed my son into the world and since then he has always felt like the only child that could ever have been meant for me.
I think a large part of me wanting a daughter so fiercely was because I had lost my mother when I was in my twenties. There’ll always be a sense of grief about not being able to replicate that relationship, but it’s something that exists entirely separately to my relationship with my son. I’ve learned so much from the gift I’ve been given of parenting him, not least of which is how important empathy is and the many ways it’s expressed. He is such a soft, kind and gentle little soul and it breaks my heart to know there are so many countless boys like him out there who have these qualities shamed or even beaten out of them by people who fear what it means to colour outside the lines.
At the same time, I accept I have a huge responsibility to raise him in a way that acknowledges his privilege and educates him about it. I have been extremely fastidious about teaching him manners and to respect other people’s space and autonomy. We talk about consent in age-appropriate ways, like how it’s important to ask people if you want to hug them or give them a kiss and that if they say no you have to listen to that. When he tells me to stop tickling him or playing with his hair, I stop immediately and always say, ‘Okay darling, you’ve asked me to stop so that means I have to stop.’ Then, if he’s doing something I don’t like, I say, ‘Can you please stop that? I’ve asked you to stop, and that means you have to stop because I don’t like it.’ He’s still so little and he’s only really been speaking in basic sentences for a few months, but he does get it already. I want these lessons and conversations to be ongoing with him rather than something I decide to teach him when he’s well past the age of having already formed his ideas about the world.
We are also fortunate to have a wonderfully diverse community of friends and neighbours. He’ll grow up knowing people and activists from lots of different communities, so normal for him will hopefully already be the kind of society we’re striving for.
I also have a small son, and have been surprised by how often I’ve been told ‘boys will be boys’ by family, friends and colleagues, even strangers. You’ve recently published a book on this idiom – an exploration of toxic masculinity and how we might change the future for boys today. It’s a confronting but necessary read, but I worry those who’d most benefit from exposure to these ideas are the least likely to be. If you could nominate three takeaways for all of us to consider, what would they be?
Feminists are frequently accused of hating all men and assuming the worst of them, but there’s nothing that denies men’s capacity to control themselves and treat others – especially women – with respect more than the phrase, ‘boys will be boys,’ particularly when it’s used to explain away bad and even criminal sexual behaviour.
Boys can and will be many things, but the most important thing we can do for them as parents is to allow them the space to decide for themselves exactly what that will be.
The biggest killer of Australian men between the ages of 18 and 45 is suicide. If we want to stop men from ending their lives, we need to be active in creating a world where men can be open, emotional and honest about their struggles without fear that it might lead to ridicule or emasculation.
When I revealed to friends that you’d be the next subject of this column, they unanimously requested I ask about your trolls. You’ve always been a target for the worst kind of online hate, but now you’re besieged by a sort of ‘concern trolling’ in relation to your parenting, with some going so far as to report you to DOCS. As parents, we all experience judgment – but this is on another level entirely. How do you manage?
I mean, it’s just honestly so ridiculous that anyone would waste the time of an essential organisation like DOCS by reporting me because I put my son in a pink jumper. I honestly find it very difficult to feel personally attacked by these people because they are so pathetic and fragile. They are completely governed by their own fear and I can ultimately only really feel sorry for them for that.
On the other hand, I feel concerned for their own children because they’re clearly being raised by parents who adhere to the strictest of binary gender stereotypes and filtrate their own bigotry and sexism down to their offspring to ensure the cycle of hatred is continued. But as to whether or not it bothers me or wounds me, I can honestly say it doesn’t. It has been happening for so long that it’s really just become white noise. I should beam it into my son’s bedroom at night to try and get him to go to sleep!
Can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end with your son?
I’m a freelancer, so I have a lot of changeable days. However, they always start and end the same way. We’ll wake up at around seven (he still ends up in our bed at some point during the night), have a little cuddle and then get up for the day. I put on the coffee and try and tempt him to eat some breakfast, which might be nibbled on before ending up on the floor. On the days he doesn’t have family day care, we’ll potter around at home for a few hours before going for a drive or walking to the park. He still has one nap a day, which usually happens between 1 and 3ish. In the early evenings, we might go for a swim or to the local shopping centre to just be in the company of other people, and then we’ll head home for dinner, bath and bedtime.
The days always feel pretty full to me, but when you write it down like that they seem quite bare! I guess that’s because I didn’t write down all the times I need to wash clothes or clean the kitchen or pick up toys or go outside and take five deep breaths. I love him more than life itself, but let’s just say I appreciate the family daycare.
Moving across time, what kind of adult might you like him to grow into? How would you like him to remember you to his own family, and what do you hope for in terms of societal change for his generation?
I would love for him to retain the softness and kindness that I see so abundantly in him now. I want him to be curious, particularly about the lives of other people. I hope that it’s important to him to always seek perspectives outside his own, and to understand that just because something feels unknown to him that it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in its own right.
I hope very much that we remain close as he grows into an adult. I want him to remember me as someone who loved him fiercely but also gave him the space he needed to figure out who he was. Who listened when he spoke and responded in a way that assured him his thoughts mattered. I don’t want to be the most important woman in his life, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who was important to him.
For his generation, I want more freedom and more peace. I want them to be able to express themselves in ways that even my generation found it difficult to do. To understand gender as something far less rigid and binary than we were taught, and to take delight in exploring it. I want them to love and respect each other and to feel hopeful for change. I want them to drive change and to take us somewhere extraordinary. Ideally, I guess what we should all want as parents is to one day look at our kids and feel like they’ve left us behind.
Activity or outing
We’re still at the age where everything is a bit tricky to do with any kind of success, because he’s still such a toddler. But we love going swimming at our local community pool. He is just totally natural in the water, and watching the delight on his face is something special.
Again, we’re lucky if we manage to have a calm dinner at home let alone out! So I’ll say our favourite dinner destination is a BBQ in our backyard during the summer. Our son waters the plants, we can have some wine, listen to music and everything feels just right.
Book, film, or show
Unfortunately, he’s obsessed with these weird YouTube videos at the moment. I keep trying to block all the channels but they’re prolific.
Much more enjoyable is the book I read him every night before bed – an adaptation of Tim Minchin’s When I Grow Up. We sing it together and then he snuggles into sleep.
Place to travel
When he was 11-months-old, we took him to Vietnam. It was amazing. It’s an incredible place to travel to anyway, but so hospitable to children.
White Australia has such a boring, asinine attitude towards children being in public places and learning about the world around them. It’s nice to be somewhere where kids are actually considered people.