I moved from Melbourne to Sydney in my mid-20s, and would often pass The Private Clinic in Surry Hills on my way to university or work. This was before it became illegal to protest outside an abortion service, and the screaming intimidation of pro-life activists (not to mention their plastic models) would take my breath away.
Edited by Louise Swinn with a foreword by Tanya Plibersek, Choice Words: A Collection of Writing about Abortion draws attention to the fact that, though a decade has passed and progress has been made, abortion remains a criminal act in parts of Australia, with prosecution a real risk. In states where procedures are legal, access can prove nearly impossible.
Today we talk with author and comedian Catherine Deveny about her contribution to the book, and how she’s fiercely balanced a multifaceted career with care for her family.
You’re a comedian and columnist, author and atheist, television personality and teacher – with three sons. Can you tell us a bit about your professional vision and how it’s evolved since starting out in stand-up and writing for Steve Vizard’s Tonight Live?
I am a carnie and have simply set out to make a living and support my family and friends by doing what I love to do – which is a heap of things that involve words, people and creativity. I’ve muddled through having no idea what was next.
When I was four, my kindergarten teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. Darren wanted to be a fireman, Leanne a nurse, but I wanted to be Carol Burnett. I’ve always loved performing, and music was one of the bright lights of my childhood. From six to 12, I was desperate to learn dance, singing and piano but we couldn’t afford it. So when I wasn’t cooking, I was hunched over macramé, knitting, sewing and crochet.
I grew up poor, in a dysfunctional and emotionally chaotic family. When I was 10, things were particularly dire. The car had been repossessed; the water was down to a drip; and things were broken, dirty, missing and old. I would collect the mail, and if there was a ‘letter with a window’ I’d know it was a bill – and when mum and dad got home, no matter how shit they felt the sight of more bills would make it worse.
One night, Mum and Dad said, ‘We’ve got no money. If you can cut any corners please do.’ I had a camp note in my bag from school that day; I was so excited about it, the break from home was all I’d been thinking about since being handed the form. I remember silently scrunching up the note and putting it in the bin. I remember tears and gulping. I didn’t say a word to my parents, and remember the day the kids went to camp. I watched the bus leave and felt excluded, alone.
The next year I was in Year Six. We’d lost the house and were now living in public housing. My parents had sold their shop and were bankrupts; the worst was behind us financially, but we were still poor. When the form for camp was handed out, I took it home and asked Mum to sign it. ‘But we’ve got no money, Catherine – we can’t afford it.’ I said, ‘I’ll find the money, Mum. Just sign the note.’ And she did.
So I sold macramé owls, lavender bags and pin cushions door-to-door. I made the money and went to camp – and still look back on it as one of the happiest weeks of my life. That sense of achievement has never left me, and I’ve been financially independent ever since.
I did stand-up for the first time at The Espy when I was 23; I got a very positive review, which was thrilling. On my 24th birthday, I was offered a full-time job as a comedy writer on Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. From then until now, I’ve shifted through television writing, stand-up, being a ‘warm-up man’ for studio audiences, writing columns, doing one woman shows, writing books, giving keynotes, hosting conferences, facilitating panels and now running my Gunnas Writing Masterclasses, workshops and retreats. I’ve done quite a bit of television, including being on Q&A five or six times and appearing on Go Back To Where You Came From.
You’ve written on what you term ‘the narcissism of motherhood… the competition and judging each other from labour to Year 12 results to grandchildren.’ It’s so true, but why? I imagine you have an excellent approach for dealing with this or calling it out?
Sometimes I say, ‘That’s amazing about your high achieving, good looking, well-balanced kids – congrats! My kids play computer games, watch porn and make bongs.’ I won’t enable their competition parenting. When they ask, ‘What school do your kids go to?’ I respond, ‘What difference does it make?’ and flat out refuse to answer until they give me a rational answer. They never do.
But I don’t really call it out – I observe it and feel sad. These women are complicit in their own oppression, and we’ve all had a role to play in that. If motherhood was so amazing, men would be pushing women out of the way to do it – and mums would be paid bucket loads and not used to advertise toilet cleaner.
Religion, the patriarchy and state have had a vested interest in sucking women in to be slaves and incubators. Not only does having women raise children allow the powers-that-be to have full access to control, decision-making, money and recreation, it keeps women away from those things and makes them dependent. They appeal to women’s egos, take advantage of social conditioning and manipulate them to feel they are not real women unless they’re caring for children in a labour-intensive way.
I hold these views despite really loving being a parent. My experience has been excellent – the boys’ dad and I practised more or less equal parenting and paid work/career building. I have always been financially, creatively, socially, emotionally and intellectually independent. That is all my sons know – they consider it normal.
As one of the Top 100 Most Influential Melburnians, you’ve got quite a platform – and views you’ve expressed regarding veterans and farmers have blown up. How do you deal with the outrage and trolling, and teach your sons to get through it and consider alternative perspectives?
The lion does not lose sleep over the opinion of sheep; I don’t care what morons and trolls think, they don’t matter. I’ve tried to teach my sons to consider different perspectives by modelling that behaviour. I just eyeroll and vague out when I hear people say things like, ‘I raised my kids to…’ They’re like plants, you can’t make them grow how you want them to! I treated them as equals from the get go, and have never told them what to think. Jung said, ‘The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.’ My kids are lucky because I’ve always lived the life I wanted. They expect to look after themselves, have a meaningful life and a career that makes them happy. They expect a life not a living because that is all they’ve ever seen.
You contributed to Choice Words, an anthology on abortion. From Trump’s use of stark, graphic language to condemn late-term abortion in his State of the Union address (see Backyard Briefing’s investigation into this in Oz) to the Queensland Government’s legalisation, abortion has been back in the news big-time. Why do you think it’s still considered a women’s (and not human rights) issue, and one that men have an outsized interest in?
Because men don’t want to parent. They don’t mind being dads, but as far as truncating their lives and career trajectory, they’ve no interest. And that’s fine; I’ve written about my support for ‘financial abortion,’ where men can opt out of parenthood’s responsibilities (and privileges) in the case of unwanted pregnancies.
But women should not be forced to become parents any more than men should. The financial and emotional wellbeing of a mother and child should not be dependent on a potentially unreliable and/or abusive source like a father who never wanted a child.
Can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end at home with your family – an all-male, atheist kibbutz that makes you want to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘where have you looked?’
Our days start with coffee. My partner Anthony and I have become tedious, active seniors and often go to the gym at 6am, but if it’s the weekend we will generally sleep in, have a shag, hop on our bikes and have brunch somewhere. But on a school day, it’s coffee, coffee, coffee and then everyone bikes to school, university or work.
I spend most of my days weaving through administrative, domestic, social and work tasks. This can involve anything from emails, invoices, interviews for TV and radio to face-to-face interviews and/or photo shoots mashed in around my writing.
If I’m not cooking at 5pm, I’m at the IGA preparing to start. I do all the cooking; the boys can cook and do when I go away for weeks at a time, I just don’t want to eat their food, and I like cooking. Dinner can be anything from cabbage rolls, kranskys and ratatouille, sushi poke bowls, schnitzel or stroganoff. One of our favourites is Mongrel Dinner when ‘any mongrel I find in the fridge is getting cooked.’ So grilled halloumi, tomato, basil and bocconcini salad, buttery, garlicky mushrooms and half a chook with some fresh bread and sauerkraut.
Two or three nights a week, I’m out for work or play with or without my darling Anthony. Most of the time I’ll leave food for whoever’s here – the boys have a constant stream of mates over, and we always have drop-ins for dinner.
With your sons now young adults, how might you like them to remember you to their own families – what do you think your parental legacy will be?
They call me a ‘wog mum’ – their Dad is Sicilian, and I’m a bit obsessed with cooking. I’m always asking them what they want to eat, what’s the best thing they’ve had and what I haven’t made for a while. So I hope it’s food, hospitality and generosity that I’m remembered for. The boys have also had housemates their entire lives – there may have been a period of 18 months when it was just ‘mum, dad and the kids’ – so I’d like for them to embrace the notion of logical not biological family.
Activity or outing
Breakfast at A Minor Place, lunch at Lobbs and dinner at La Luna Bistro.
Book, film, or show
The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book? We don’t have a family favourite on many things, we’re quite different and independent.
Place to travel
We all love Asia, but had a great time in Europe 18-months ago together with their dad, his partner, her son, my partner and his son – we’re a splendid (not blended) family. Closer to home, we holiday in Bear Gully in the winter and Cunjurong in New South Wales in the summer. We ski at Mt Bulla, and this year the youngest came with Anthony and I to Niseko, which we loved.
Choice Words: A Collection of Writing about Abortion by Louise Swinn includes contributions from Jane Caro, Claudia Karvan, Tanya Plibersek and many more. Proceeds from the book go to the charity Marie Stopes Australia, the only national, independently-accredited, not-for-profit safe abortion provider, that has helped more than 600,000 women in the past 20 years.