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Reflecting On Motherhood Across Generations, With Artist Beci Orpin + Activist Marg D'Arcy

Conversations

Ahead of Mother’s Day on Sunday, we’re sharing candid, enlightening conversations between two phenomenal mother-daughter duos.

Today, it’s Melbourne-based artist Beci Orpin and her mother Marg D’Arcy, an accomplished women’s rights advocate, policy-change crusader, and former political candidate.

10th May, 2019

Beci and Marg at Beci’s home in Melbourne. Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Political activist Marg D’Arcy. Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Artist Beci Orpin. Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Beci and Marg revisit old family photos. Left – Marg, Beci and her sister Emily in front of the Sydney Opera House c.1982. Right: Bec’s grandma (Marg’s mum) who was also named Margaret. Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

‘It’s such a weird thing being a parent. You are in it. There’s no time, there is no breathing space to think about stuff… That’s why grandmothers are so great!’ – Beci Orpin

I know you as Mum, but who do other people know you as?

Marg D’Arcy: I guess, a political activist is one of the things, because of my involvement in the Labor Party and Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children, and a whole lot of other things as well. Others might know me for the work I have done around family violence, particularly at Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) House http://www.casahouse.com.au/. People would also know me as a feminist and an activist, maybe a ukulele player! A grandmother, and perhaps lately a gardener!

Beci Orpin: My earliest memory of you was when I was turning two. I have a memory of being at the beach – we lived up around Cairns and Cape Tribulation when I was young.

My other memory… (this might sound traumatic, but I don’t think it actually is) is of moving out of the house when you were getting divorced. I was three and I remember waiting outside the house in Caulfield for the truck. But I don’t remember feeling scared, just that it was a big change.

What was your first memory of me like?

Marg: It was quite interesting, I actually had an infection when you were born, which meant they only let me hold you briefly and then they took you away and I didn’t get to see you for at least 12 hours. It was terrible, awful, I really hated it. Then they finally bought you back in and allowed you to stay in the room, that’s a really strong one.

Beci: I didn’t know that. No wonder I’m so messed up! Wow, well, both of our first memories a quite traumatic!

Marg: [laughs] Indeed. I would describe our relationship as changeable, like changing over the years, but fairly relaxed and open. Do you think that’s right?

Beci: Yes. I was a terrible, awful teenager, a real pain in the butt. Now I am going through that with my own children – karma’s a bitch! I feel like once I moved out of home I saw you as this person who could give me advice and be a role model; I became more aware of all the great things you have done.

Once I had a child, it changed it again; you realise all the things that your mother went through and see her in a whole different light.

Do you think there is any truth to the idea that ‘messy/rebellious kids grow into the most brilliant creatives’?

Beci: … I think it’s worth adding that any mother is going to think their child is a brilliant something!

Marg: Yes, I agree with both of those points.

Beci: I remember you having a discussion with me, saying to me, ‘You are being revolting now, but I know once you grow up you will be really good’. I still think about that, because I knew I was being foul, but that it was ok, because mum said, ‘I’m going to be fine’!

Marg: [laughs] Isn’t that interesting, I don’t remember saying that. But I can remember having discussions with others and even they thought you were being revolting, commenting on how difficult you were (to me, not to them). I remember saying, ‘I would much rather you be rebellious to me, because that meant you weren’t afraid of me’. That whole thing of knowing that you could get angry with me was important. And also, about messiness, it’s kind of part of the same thing; if you’re scared, you’re going to keep everything organised and tight, internalised.

Beci: I remember you saying that to me too. That although I was annoying, it made you feel good that I feel secure enough and safe.

Messiness is also a very normal teenage thing. Your brain actually isn’t organised… this is like a therapy session! But I’m going to continue.

What do you think is the most challenging part of being a mother?

Marg: I think being tired really! Especially when you were little I was so tired. But that changes as your children get older.

Beci: With Tyke now 15, I feel like I’m going back to that because I’m waiting up for him! Back to being tired!

Marg: I think the other really challenging thing is you are constantly questioning yourself. ‘Am I doing the right thing?’

Beci: ‘Am I messing them up for life?’

Marg: The challenge is learning to let that go, and just be yourself and do what you think is right.

Beci: It’s such a weird thing being a parent. You are in it. There’s no time, there is no breathing space to think about stuff… That’s why grandmothers are so great!

Marg: In my day, it was one of those things you didn’t even think about. You got married, you had kids; I had you when I was 23. I would have liked to have just stopped for a few minutes more often, just to think and appreciate things along the way.

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Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

‘Even though we lived this very middle-class life you exposed me to all different things. Going outside your comfort zone is something you always taught me.’ – Beci.

Beci, several of your recent projects, from workshops to books, centre around childhood education and nurturing creativity. Why do you think you’ve found yourself creating in this space and why is it important to you?

Beci: I have been thinking about this for the last couple of years, and I feel like it is because of the values, not just those that you brought me up with, but those I learned from you in your work, and also from Dad and his pragmatic nature. I am in a very privileged position where I have been able to follow this career and be successful in it. Even though I get to do something that I love and I don’t feel like is work every day, to me that has felt really indulgent. And also, design can be very surface value. I think I love teaching and sharing my ideas because it has felt like how I can actually contribute to the world, as opposed to just make things look good. It wasn’t so much of a conscious decision, but you just naturally lean toward things that you feel good about.

Marg: I’m interested to hear you say that you see your work as indulgent. Because what I am seeing from the outside is how bloody hard you have worked. And what you are doing is putting yourself out there to be judged all the time, and you know that can be quite threatening.

Beci: When you were working in the women’s refuges I would go with you on the camps with all the refuge kids and, if there was a security break, they would all come to our house. So even though we lived this very middle-class life you exposed me to all of these different things, which I assume was on purpose, and for which I am very grateful. Going outside your comfort zone is something you always taught me. And when I am doing the teaching or the talks and moving into areas that are a bit social justice-y (rather than design-based) I feel like I’m challenging myself.

With your experiences at the women’s refuge, CASA House as well as involvement in the introduction of the Crimes Family Violence Act and establishment of the Family Violence Project Office for Victoria Police and the state-wide Sexual Assault Crisis Line

What do you think are some of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children today?

Marg: First, I think respect – I know it’s a really overworked word, but I mean to teach children to respect differences. Having said that, I’m not very respectful of people with really Right-Wing views.

Beci: No, I definitely saw you on Facebook the other day having a go at someone… a cousin, for their comment on an article you posted.

Marg: [laughs] Yes that’s right. But I still think that is respectful, in terms of acknowledging that that person has a view, you have a different view but that you can talk about it. What seems to happen nowadays is that people can’t.

Beci: Totally off-the-topic of Mother’s Day by the way, but I think the current state of political correctness prevents people from talking.

In my view of the world and the conversations that I’m willing to have with someone, I just want to do the right thing because I am scared to offend. People can be vilified very, very easily, and publically.

Marg: I don’t think it’s political correctness. I think there is a difference between challenging someone’s views and offending. I think that respect for difference is really important; understanding that not everyone is like you, not everyone is as privileged as you, not everyone is as badly done by as you. The world is made up of a whole lot of different people, that you have to learn to live with, I see that as respect.

I would also say, because of the work I have done, not being violent toward other people. Not doing something that would harm somebody else. The way your boys act in this sort of rough and tumble way, sometimes has made me feel like ‘Oh my god what is going on here’. But then I see that they are also really quite gentle and wouldn’t deliberately hurt someone else. I think that is really important. It goes back to what we were talking about with political correctness: stop and think about what you’re doing and saying and how that impacts other people.

Beci: How about empathy?

Marg: I don’t know…. I think you can learn to behave in an empathetic way, but I think empathy might be something you either have or don’t have… I’m not sure.

What are your thoughts on the adage ‘boys will be boys’ as well as the issue of toxic masculinity in Australia and how it relates to the way you’re raising Tyke (15) and Ari (11)?

Beci : I only know boys. I don’t believe in ‘boys will be boys’ as an excuse for something. But I do think boys’ behaviour can be generally different to girls’ behaviour. I have always tried to teach the boys about empathy – which is funny because you said you can’t do that – and about kindness and about being gentle. To treat people with respect, and to not treat girls differently.

In terms of toxic masculinity, I have definitely tried to not speak to my boys in a way the promotes anything like that. But I think that has just been natural because of how I grew up. I think Raph was brought up slightly differently, in a family of boys and with more dominant traditional male role models. But I don’t think toxic masculinity comes into that, just more that we have slightly different views on the differences between girls and boys, that we can sometimes challenge each other on.

Marg : Just to pick up on that, with Raph, he is a very gentle, loving father, but you are right. I think his ideas of gender roles comes from what he has experienced. The other thing I wanted to mention, is how I gave you and Emily a lot of freedom, but that freedom was curtailed a little by your stepfather who very much liked the place to be peaceful and calm. And I think that you have been able to give the boys a lot more freedom to be noisy, run around like lunatics and jump all over each other, as well as Raph and you. Irwin would have found this quite difficult, I even saw that when the boys were at our house.

One of my fondest memories of Ari, which sounds quite bizarre, was one day when I came to visit. He’d taken a whole heap of beads from my place, and he came and answered the door wearing a pink t-shirt and all these beads.

Beci: I have a great photo of him in a tutu, and he wore those beads for years and years. Even in his first passport because he refused to take them off! I think, maybe I could have gone a step further and I’ve only seen that now – Lorelei Vashti, who is an amazing author and has one of my favourite Instagram accounts, has a son Jeronimo who just wears what he wants every day, often dresses from his older sister. I guess I never had dresses around, but I wouldn’t have dissuaded the boys in wearing those. I guess, just seeing Lorelei and how she is doing the non-gender thing strongly, I quite like that. But anyway, definitely No Toxic Masculinity Here! None!

You ran as the Labor Party candidate for Kooyong at the 2016 Federal election. As Australia returns to the polls next weekend…

Which election issues and policy are of utmost importance to you when you think of your children and grandchildren’s futures?

Marg: Obviously one of the big ones is climate change. I always think about that. You know, often when I talk about climate change, I will refer to Tyke and Ari. In our lifetimes we are not going to deal with the worst ravages of climate change, but they will have to… If we don’t take action now.

Another one I am quite excited about with the Labor Party, and it’s happened at the State level and now at the Federal level, is their work on gender equality – looking at equal pay, the policy around childcare, and subsidising childcare workers’ wages, which recognises the really critical job they are doing. One of my past responsibilities was managing a childcare centre, and I was blown away with how professional childcare workers (now early childhood educators) were and how seriously they took what they did. This hasn’t been recognised in the way they are paid, for doing, probably, one of the most crucial jobs. Particularly now where you have a much higher proportion of families where both parents are working. So I am passionate about that whole issue of equality, and the gender wage-gap. So many of my friends who are older women have awfully inadequate incomes in their retirement because they haven’t had good superannuation.

The other one is education. For me, that was one of the defining moments in my life: Gough Whitlam making university education free. What I love again with Labor’s policies is the introduction of free three- and four-year-old kindergarten. Because all of the research shows if you get that right, you are going to get things right throughout the child’s lifetime. And particularly for families who are disadvantaged and for children who don’t have access to people who value learning, this is really critical.

Beci: Great thanks for that election speech Mum!

Photo – Sarah Collins of Work + Co.

The world is made up of a whole lot of different people, that you have to learn to live with, I see that as respect. – Marg.

How would we spend a perfect day? 

Marg: Heide Museum of Modern Art would be on both of our lists.

Beci: Where would we eat… Mum likes anything. She’ll go to any cafe and find something nice about it. My favourite food would be Raph’s food. So, either him cooking for us or going to Taco Truck, Beatbox Kitchen, or Juanita Peaches. Mum, you like Spanish food…

Marg: I like Spanish and Greek food, like Hellenic Republic. We went there before I moved down to Rye and it was lovely.

So, Heide, lunch at Hellenic Republic, then we could all head down The Peninsula and have a swim at Portsea. I could jump off the pier (because I have done that once!) and then we could have dinner at the Portsea Pub.

Beci: And you would like it if everyone was there, my sister Emily and her husband and their two boys too. I would agree with all of that. What about shopping? Readings Carlton is my favourite and I’d also say Mr Kitly. We both like independent retailers and I like shopping to support any of my friends who make things. I’d guess a bit of farmer’s market action for you too?

Marg: Yes! Last time I was in Melbourne I went to that great supermarket La Manna. For other shopping, I do love the label Elk and one I’ve just discovered down in Flinders, Zeega – really lovely plain fabrics, linen, hemp, and organic cotton.

Beci: Sounds like a middle-aged woman’s dream… actually I’m a middle-aged woman now, you’re a retiree!

Marg: True!

What have you got planned for this Sunday, Mother’s Day?

Beci: Actually, we don’t really make Mother’s Day a big deal in our house. I always remember you saying, ‘I don’t want anything, but if you make me a card that would be nice.’ And so, we definitely also reject the commercial nature of Mother’s Day.

There are a lot of people who are estranged from or have lost families members. There are also a lot of women who aren’t mothers. So, it can be quite an isolating holiday for many people. We are very lucky that we have each other and good relationships. So I might call you, and maybe get a chocolate croissant in bed if I’m lucky!

The other thing I don’t like about Mother’s Day is that there is so much pressure. I see on Instagram all of these mothers getting all these amazing presents and going on lunches and then I get a bit what-about-me? I know I hate Mother’s Day, but I really want something! [laughs].

It’s good to appreciate good relationships in your life and you can do that any day… So, sorry we don’t have many plans!

Marg: Beautifully said!

 

Tomorrow, we venture to Sydney, sharing a heart-warming chat between writer, curator and Indigenous rights advocate Hetti Perkins and her daughter, actress Madeleine Madden!

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