Series 2 Episode 7: Eleanor Jackson on the poetics and politics of birthing

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. She is the author of Gravidity and Parity and A Leaving, both by Vagabond Press. Her live album, One Night Wonders, is produced by Going Down Swinging. Eleanor is committed to developing and hosting events and experiences that showcase the diversity of both poetic language and writers and audiences. She is a former Editor in Chief of Peril Magazine, Board Member of Queensland Poetry Festival and Vice-Chair of The Stella Prize. She is currently Chair of Peril Magazine and Producer of the Melbourne Poetry Map.

Synopsis: To Eleanor Jackson, pregnancy and childbirth are formative practical, philosophical, and social experiences that connect us to life force and joy. The arts producer, performer and author of Gravidity and Parity brought a book and a baby into the world during the coronavirus pandemic. She joins us to talk about medical acceptability, shared responsibilities, and birth’s capacity to bring about new relationships between the body and the public that reflect and sometimes transform deeply held political beliefs.

Read Eleanor’s reflections in Women’s Agenda at the start of the pandemic lockdowns and her third pregnancy.
An article for Meanjin about how deeper engagement with pregnancy and birthing might influence our collective future over the next 80 years (subscription needed)
Link to her book Gravidity and Parity which is highly commended in the 2022 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The book explores the narrative opportunities of pregnancy loss, pregnancy and early motherhood set against the unfolding experience of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Music in this episode includes ‘Me on the Inside’ by Ketsa and ‘Salientia’ by REW<<, used under a Creative Commons license from Free Music Archive.


INTRO — You’re listening to Birthing and Justice: a series of conversations about birth, racism and cultural safety. I’m Ruth De Souza. I’m speaking to you from the unceded sovereign lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to all the Elders and Warriors who’ve resisted colonisation, invasion and genocide, and to any Indigenous people listening. This land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land. Today my guest is Eleanor Jackson, a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Eleanor became pregnant in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Over the past few years, Eleanor’s work has focused on development and sustainability, with a focus on climate change, migration and gender equality. Alongside her deeply future-focused work, she has tried to become pregnant, been pregnant, miscarried, delivered a child and become a parent. She also managed to write a book, Gravidity and Parity. I don’t quite know how she managed to do that, it’s remarkable! And a quick heads up, parts of this conversation may be distressing for some listeners. Now without further ado, let’s begin.


[music fades]

RUTH DE SOUZA (host) — So tell me, why do you care about birthing?


ELEANOR JACKSON (guest) — I can’t believe people don’t care about birthing. [Baby coos in background] And I know that I have all of those personal investments: as a woman, as a woman who has given birth, as a woman who is currently parenting, as a feminist, as a person who’s worked in all kinds of community development and allied health around maternity health blah blah blah. But I was like, the reason I care about it is because everybody gets born. And it is this really significant transmission point where we have to take stock of what we give to others as a community. And so I’m interested in birthing, not just because of my individual experiences, but because what it says about us as a community and a culture, the way that we bring people into the world and how we steward them for the rest of their lives. So I just think it’s a fascinating, practical, philosophical, and social experience. And it’s great because it, you know, brings you in contact with little people and little people are this wellspring of life force and joy, and who doesn’t want to reconnect with that?


Well your little bundle of joy just gave me a wave as we were talking. And I’m just sort of wondering what it was like for you to have given birth and been pregnant during the pandemic?  


Look, I have talked about this roundly with anyone who will stop and listen, and a great number of other mums and parents-to-be who have been pregnant, gestated or delivered during this particular time in the world. And it’s a really unusual one. I think that one of the reasons that pregnancy and childbirth are such significant life milestones is that they are hugely social life milestones: they’re life milestones that require other people to participate in them, they bring you into interface with people and communities and families and services in a totally different public way. And to do this now, in a global public health emergency, has been extraordinarily specific. And even in my position of enormous privilege, I have felt a loss around what it has meant to do so much of this alone. So we bandy about the cliche that it takes a village, and I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ But if the village is all on Zoom, then the village can go get stuffed. [Laughs] Do you know what I mean? It is not the kind of interface that lends itself to, you know, not just successful therapeutic relationships with care providers, but to warm, human relationships of vulnerability. And pregnancy and birth and early parenting are periods of enormous vulnerability. And I think that that understanding of vulnerability should not be used to put mums—I’m going to use the gendered terms there ‘cause I guess we still have this deeply gendered view of it, but mums, or people who will parent and give birth—put mums in a position of weakness, but put the rest of us on notice, in a position of responsibility, to kind of reach out and wrap arms around and make care happen. And COVID puts this giant roadblock in the path of that. And that care doesn’t even happen particularly well in quote unquote “normal times.” And to really see it’s taken a step backwards due to the logistics, the circumstances, the fact that everybody’s just trying to keep their head above water, really makes my heart sad for me personally, but sad for so many others. And more importantly, I think for that cohort of babies and children and therefore future adults who will be the inheritors of this. And we know from natural disasters, from the global financial crisis, from, you know, familial experience and intergenerational trauma that, you know, life gets into you, it filters through and babies are the sieve— they catch all of the stuff in them and carry it with them in their bones and in their lives. So it’s been a ride and it’s like one of those ones that you get on and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m really not up for roller coasters; I wish I had stayed on the teacups.’ But here we are.


Eleanor, I was thinking about what you said about loss and vulnerability. And also, thinking as well that people who are pregnant and birth, are also deeply, deeply sensitive. It’s sort of like everything gets in, right? And I wondered if you could say something about your experience of care, which is another word that you used…




during your pregnancy, and as a Filipino Australian, as you describe yourself, you know, the cultural elements of care and how they became important for you?


Look, I mean, that’s such a big question, Ruth; I wish it’s one that I could answer simply. So in terms of my experiences of care—and I think I really, you know, kind of make this this huge Venn diagram—care as this thing that, you know, kind of overlaps on so many different levels. And I feel like I was lucky enough to have had positive experiences of clinical care during my first pregnancy, which I was able to carry forward into the new situation, and to try not to commit the violence of comparison—you know like ‘It was this, but now it’s that’—but to actually rest with it and say, I know what they’re trying to offer, and that these are health professionals and clinicians and obstetricians and others who are trying to get me through this, but I know exactly how much this person would reach out in the ultrasound and hold my hand if she could, do you know what I mean? I’d known that that would be there, and I was able to take those positive experiences of clinical care and transpose them into the now. But if this had been my first pregnancy, I probably would have been on the floor crying a great number more times than I already was. And I think that social care too was really thrown into stark relief against the realities. So myself and other women found themselves shouldering an unbelievable domestic load, caring for my, you know, existing toddler while she was home, while also trying to perform efficient working, was grueling, just grueling. And I think that as considerate as workplaces tried to be flexible work for me, looked like an eight-month pregnant person getting up at five to work ‘till seven to parent till seven pm to then start work and conclude at eleven. And I feel that that is not workplace flexibility and generosity and understanding; that is a grinding assault of capitalism against the very real human fragility that we all experience. Even as, you know, at a personal level, my colleagues tried very, very hard to make that a possibility, but the community care that you’re talking about was something that I felt a particularly deep sense of loss for. And I think that my connection with the Filipino part of my culture is expressed predominantly through a political connection with an Asian Australian community. And I use that term not necessarily as a cultural identifier, but a label of political solidarity. Do you know want I mean? Like no one’s really like, ‘Hi I’m generically Asian, generically Australian, come and meet me.’ But there is a really amazing community of artists and researchers, practitioners, community development, historians, you know, people—just fun people—who have gathered together, whether that’s under the Peril Magazine banner, or just under Asian Australian stuff. And for me, that community has been a life force for a decade plus now. And to be without that life force felt really devastating. And I think too challenged me to consider how to raise children in white, settler, mainstream Australia. And, you know, I don’t know how their experiences will play, but there will certainly be more white passing than I was and—you know, and I’m more white passing then my mother was, like they’ll have this kind of shade privilege as they go on—but also how will they know themselves to belong and to be beloved and to be a part of a lineage and a community that is thoughtful and deliberative and nurturing and changing and self-defined, without the relationships that actually bond those people together? It’s like an intrinsically social political grouping, it’s not just a set of ideas, and how will they know that without their aunties and uncles—you know, the broadly defined aunties and uncles—who bring them into that world? And so I still don’t know where that’s going to take place, because my eight-month old might be good at a Zoom wave, but she’s heaps better at a cuddle. I have tried but I don’t think it is easy to find meaningful proxies for what human connection does.


Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, you know technology’s been seen as this kind of panacea for connection and what we’ve been forced to really grapple with is the limitations of what technology can and can’t do, you know. And I’m kind of wondering how it’s been with your family as well, and whether there are any particular rituals that have been important to you, that you’ve wanted to take part in or make happen, that hasn’t been able to happen?


Look, I think one of the lucky… or one of the unusual things about—well, who knows if it’s really unusual. But I guess one of the particular things about Filipino culture is that it’s a enormously dispersed community. And so lots of my family were already family who I related to on Zoom or WhatsApp or other social media platforms. So we’ve been able to stay, weirdly enough, connected to each other in that remote way. Like, I feel as close to my cousins as I always felt to my cousins, ‘cause I always felt close to my cousins online. But it’s very strange. We do like a Filipino chosen family Christmas, and that’s literally one of the last social events that we got together. And I have a big banana palm out the back, and so we lay leaves out and put food down. And last Friday we were meant to get together for like a Christmas in July. I felt so devastated for it because it was going to be genuinely six months since we had seen each other in person, to eat together, to share food communally—like I’m crying now, I’m glad this is not being videoed.




But I have just deep longing about the idea of getting together and sharing food with people. And it’s so simple, but yeah I have had to do things like cook Filipino food and order things online and get them sent over here and have remote Zoom meals where we all eat the same dish somewhere else, like a kind of weird mukbang [laughs] party. But yeah, those are tiny rituals, and rituals do really mean a lot to me, ‘cause I think this is something that I think’s really interleaved with a Filipino Catholic upbringing. So even if I’m not a practicing Catholic now, I am certainly someone who identifies as culturally Catholic, and I see it as really interwoven in what being Filipino means, that, you know, we have to set up daily rituals where we share meals together, where we take time with each other. We have a little gratitude practice at the end of the day. I don’t make my kids say prayers, but you know, we still get together and do those things, which I think are absolutely rituals from my childhood. They used to have a more formal Catholic tint to them, but they were about getting together and saying grace or recognising gratitude for how the food had come to you, and gratitude for those who had created it. Those practices of gratitude I think have a more secular veneer to them in the contemporary, but they’re absolutely grounded in that experience that I see as cultural. And I guess I just, you know, mainly just highlight it by missing my mum, and teaching the kids really bad Tagalog, like, oh they’re just dreadful, it’s dreadful. [Laughs] All they’ll know to do is how to swear. [Both laugh]


I think we’ve all learnt to swear more during the pandemic. But as you were speaking I was thinking about how rituals induct you into a community, right? So there’s particular rituals that mark your transition from being not-pregnant to being pregnant, you know? From being pregnant to giving birth, to being a parent. They’re all these rituals that kind of hold us in place that connect us to the past, that hint at a future, but also, it’s a time whenif I use a gendered termwhen the mother needs mothering, or you know, in order to mother. So that’s one of the things that, you know, I could really feel when you were talking, the loss of that nurturing so that you could in-turn nurture.




And I’m just sort of wondering about kind of mental health and how you’re feeling at this time, to not have any of that? And to not have the support or the rituals that would’ve held you, and comforted you, and enabled you, and resourced you?


I was talking with a friend this morning and they felt like, you know, these things will come back, we’ll be together, we’ll be in space, humans still hold this great capacity for connection, for relationship. And I felt on one intellectual level that that was entirely true, and then on this other really visceral level that I just cannot even imagine a time when it will happen, and I so desperately need that to be now. And to traverse that gulf between what I can know intellectually, and what I can feel in my body, is too much. And if I really let that stuff in, then grief can genuinely overwhelm me. But one of the things that I think I am working at most concertedly as a parent, is to, you know kind of support my two little people in a world that has joy. And I think that that requires me to embrace sadness and understand it sometimes and be like, ‘Mummy’s sad, you should have given me a cuddle.’ She’s like, ‘Aw, do you have a ouchie?’ And I was like, ‘I have an ouchie in my heart because I miss Lola.’ She goes, ‘I miss Lola too.’




And I think you have to let them express that and say that we’ll find that space another time. But then you also have to find a place of security where they can come back to and know that, you know, stable, well-intentioned adults have got their back and that we’ll still be here. There’ll be porridge in the morning and there’ll be veggies at night, and somewhere between that Bluey will parent us all. And then [laughs] we’ll, you know, try and get up and do it another day. And I, you know, try and interpret lots of this through writing and I was talking about a poem with Caleb, my husband, is this feeling of wanting to fast forward through the best day of your life. Like this is the very best day of my life: we are here, we’re alive, we have many things to be grateful for, a great number of privileges and securities, and it’s also so uncertain that one wishes you could get through to the other side of it and know how to interpret it afterwards. Do you know, I mean, I want to know what this time means. And I think that humans draw experiences and understanding of the future by looking back into the past, and because we haven’t had a past like this, we don’t know how to look forward into the future. And I think talking intergenerationally, like talking with my mum about her experiences, whether it’s, under the Marcos regime, or as a younger child, or migrating here, you know, she can put things into perspective. She’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t see my family for seven years when we arrived here.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know, you can go through things like that.’ And she’s like, ‘We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have the telephone. It was very expensive to call STD.’ And so, you know, I just try to take that and be empathetic—that humans have experienced great hardship, and greater hardship than this.


[music plays]


And we have been able to find zucker and joy and meaning, and it’s just hard to do that on the fly while being inside it. So when you’re inside it, you just have to work on being the best you can in the day, and then let things emerge and then we’ll work out how to make sense of it later.


[music fades]


I’m so moved by what you’ve said because I think the oft heard phrase unprecedented times is so true because you might talk about your mum and the kind of challenges she had, but you know, comparison kind of doesn’t help, do you know what I mean?




You know it’s kind of like pain is pain, right? and suffering is suffering, and it doesn’t matter whether you compare it with someone or not.




It’s your pain and it’s your suffering, you know? But I do think finding those spaces of joy is so critically important. And also people who love you and have your back, as you said.




I’m just sort of wondering about your creative practice, because you are a person of so many talents [laughs] you know like, it’s impossible for me to believe that one person has all this magnificence about them. But I’m just sort of wondering how your creative practice has kept you going through all of this, you know you’ve said you’ve kept writing, I know you’ve been doing some performing on Instagram as well?


How satisfying is that! I’m too old to be a Instagram influencer, I just feel awkward. But anyway, I’m going to digress for a second, but I do promise I’m going to come back into the fold. Often when people talk to me and try to reconcile the multiple things that I do, it seems easier to put some stuff in a personal bucket and some stuff in a professional bucket. And to be like ‘Oh, you work professionally in this area but you like to make art on the side’ or ‘You’re an artist and you must have this side hustle job.’ But actually, I feel like all of the stuff that I do is personal. So it’s not all professional; it’s all actually personal. The reason that I do the jobs that I do, and make the art that I do, or be in the world that I do, is all personal, because I think that—not just that feminist personal is political kind of stuff—but because that’s really the way we navigate through the world. And we often tell ourselves that stuff is separate to us and it’s professional and it’s what we do for money and all the rest of it. But it isn’t; we are all still that one difficult-to-reconcile human being who moves through the world. So all of it is sense-making. Like art is trying to make sense of the world for yourself, and research is trying to make sense of everybody else’s selves in the world. And then community development is how we make sense of that altogether. But humans essentially want to make sense of that. Like we cannot position ourselves in the chaos and not try to find some kind of narrative for it. And so art making is the most individuated, I guess for me—‘cause I’m a writer and a poet and you know, you don’t get to do that in many groups—is the most individuated version of that. But it’s all still just trying to interpret the world. And some of it has an interpretative function and then other parts of it have a generative function. Like they’re putting things out, they’re sharing work, they’re making bonds of community, they’re, you know, sending an idea. But, yeah, like the things that motivate me are tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental disregard. And I can do that as a mum and I can do it as a poet and I can do it as a professional. And all of it is essentially trying to make sense of the chaos of the world and what it means to be good in it, and to be good for it, which are the kind of underlying—and for me deeply Filipino Catholic [laughs]—drivers for why I do what I do in the way that I do it.


I think it’s remarkable that you manage to hold all those identities together, because so many people who’ve birthed talk about losing those other identities as the one of parent becomes really dominant. And that’s both… some of that is foisted on people, but also one that’s internalised because there’s so little time and energy for anything else. And I’m just wondering how [laughs] you manage to do that?  How you maintain that energy and desire


Well, Ruth, I would say that the desire can be maintained without pause, but the energy is deeply, deeply finite. And I have absolutely found my capacity to be in the world—be in the world and to be valued by the world—corroded by what it has meant to be a mother. And it has shifted my relationship to my body and to my politics. I think that I have had… as a person who has had, you know, relationships with people who have identified diversely in their own genders, I have never experienced anything as intoxicating as the acceptability of heterosexual parenthood in a professional context. I was like, wow, I have been resiled from these systems in many other places in my life. I have never been embraced by them. And I was like, this is why people would suppress deep, deep parts of themselves in order to be acceptable, because I was like, wow! Like if you haven’t had it and you don’t know that, then you don’t know what it feels like. So it’s not like I had this acceptability, then I lost it and then I got it back. I was like, wow, I never knew what it felt like to be this acceptable in these systems. And to kind of come to that place, it was, yeah! What a shock to be like this is intoxicating, what this kind of power would look like, to be this acceptable and this beloved in a particular way, even as people also want to completely sideline you as a person, like you as the birthing entity and the person who, you know, carries the fetus and is the shepherd through the world, you get this kind of special casing quality to you, but your actual brain has left the building. No one cares about that. But you know, for that very specific way that we accept and coddle and support these bodies, I was like, wow, I’ve never been so acceptable or so interrogated. And I think that to be simultaneously congratulated and surveilled is also a very strange form of power, because it is how you quietly coerce people into doing things the very, very way that you want them. Do you know what I mean? It’s like the weirdest form of like delicious, delicious carrot and in the other room is a very big stick. Whereas I think I had been on the other side of things and been like, no, no I don’t want to have kids, sorry. I have PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome]. I’ve, you know assumed I wouldn’t parent. No, my, you know, partner would be the birthing partner, you do it. And I was like, I am better at accessing sperm on the internet than I am at knowing how to be a biofemme in the hospital. [Laughs] Urgh! With the people poking into my lady bits, I was like, this is a whole new… this is a whole new vibe for me. But yeah, it’s like, it’s a total change that the carrot is upfront, but in the background is this looming stick. And you really do feel how crushing that would be because you have also then become, you know, infantilised in your own way anew, that you don’t know what to do. You require the advice and support of others, you are fatigued beyond belief, there’s the potential that a person is eating out of you, you have to liquefy yourself for that person to eat. It’s, you know, it’s hectic business. So I haven’t found it easy. I found it deeply, deeply depressing and overwhelming at times. And I think that I feel grateful that the desire remains unabated. And then I just try to find these twenty-five minute catnap-level opportunities. And writing the book… so Gravidity and Parity. You know, I finished the edit of the book and sent it off to reviewers in labour…




and, you know, had to deliver this apology. I was like, ‘My sincere apologies, this email is brief. Could you please read the draft of my book, I think I’m in early labour.’ And I pressed send at one pm and the baby was here at seven.


My goodness.


But I can’t even remember writing sections of the book. There was so… it was so hard to get done that I can’t believe I thought that COVID would be a rich and fertile creative time when actually it would be the world’s most boring apocalypse and I would spend most of it reenacting Bluey episodes. [Both laugh]


There’s so much I want to ask you about, you know differently gendered bodies and you know, how you’ve traversed through that terrain, but I’m also aware that you might have a baby that needs attention, or a toddler.




And I’m just wondering if you might have time to do a reading for me and the listeners, from your wonderful book before we finish up? 


Yeah. And we haven’t touched on this fully, but as the title implies, there is that gap between the numbers of times you have been pregnant, and the numbers of times you have delivered a baby. And I think that, I particularly wanted and needed to give voice to the experience of miscarriage and pregnancy loss, and then what it had meant to try and, you know, on one hand feel like you needed to be so super grateful that you were pregnant again, but also devastated that there would be no support, no joy, no intrusive stranger’s hand on my belly to say, ‘Oh, how far along are you now?’ And I was like, I can’t believe I would ever wish for a situation like that. But in having seen so few other humans and had so few of those rituals that you’ve talked about, that like kind of passage where you move through the phases, that I felt like I needed to put some of those things down in words that I might have shared with friends and other people experiencing, you know, similar life journeys. But they went unvoiced because we were trapped at home desperately trying to finish another Zoom meeting. So I put those things out into the world because I wanted others to be able to share their stories in return, because those stories have deeply moved me and made me, yeah, I guess just want to shake the powers that be about how we understand care, that this is our opportunity to realise that those who care and those who need care are the same people. And we can’t keep delineating stuff that is paid for, as stuff that is men’s jobs and stuff that is important, and stuff that is not paid for, which is stuff that is women’s jobs, which is stuff that is unimportant. We have to recognise that the whole thing comes to a grinding halt, unless we recognise this. And birth is but one, but certainly one really important punctum to put at the end of that sentence—like care matters or the world falls apart. So, this is a poem from Gravidity and Parity. Shout out to Vagabond, my excellent small publisher, who is a real trooper in this world. I was like, I would not want to be a publisher of poetry at this time in my life, but more kudos to them for sharing those voices. Anyway… ‘WOMEN’S INTUITION’:


the era

is always named later

protohistory requiring

a history to follow

before we can know

what was signified


I don’t believe I was waiting to shapeshift. First to be a ‘woman’, then a ‘mother’. Who can tell? Surely, there’s more meaning to be found? There’s work, friends and the mind to be lived through. True, my mother asked. Repeatedly. When are you going to give me grandkids? You should get married while you’re still pretty. Not infrequently from co-workers, ever think of having a baby? Clipboarded professionals, plans for your fertility? A nurse at pathology once, at your age, you must think about it, maybe twice. I complained to the receptionist. Then waited not waited. Anxious understudy, ambivalent observer, decadent lover, corrupting aunt. What a beautiful baby. You must be so happy. Propelled by love and indecent optimism, we decide to try. The decision comes later than expected. Choices simmer. Alone, in the dark hours of memory, I recollect childhood bruising and think, no need to pass that on. Womb-hollow and resonant, I beat a lonely blue tattoo.


[music plays]


Oooh [sighs] Eleanor, thank you for talking about loss, about grief, about intergenerational cultural transmission, about rituals, about support, about care. I was just thinking about the kind of political solidarities you also hinted at, and what care means. And I think those things have never been as important as they are now.


OUTRO — Thanks so much for listening. You can find more episodes, transcripts and links at I’ll add some information about Eleanor’s writing there too, including where you can find her new book. And if you enjoyed this episode, chuck us a rating or a review, wherever you listen to your podcasts. Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza is written and hosted by me, and recorded at my home on the traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin Nations. Sound design and mix by Jon Tjhia, artwork by Atong Atem, design by Ethan Tsang, theme music by Raquel Solier and produced and edited by Jon Tjhia. This podcast is supported by funding from the RMIT University Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowship Program. This is the final episode for Season 2 of Birthing and Justice. Coming up in Season 3, we’ll be hearing from more incredible thinkers from all around the world. I can’t wait to join you again for these conversations. Until then, take good care of yourselves and each other.


[music fades]


END NOTES — Audio transcript edited and designed by Abbra Kotlarczyk, 2022. Note: t­­­­he purpose of this audio transcript is to provide a record and pathway towards accessing all Birthing and Justice conversations. Editorial decisions around the omission of certain words and non-verbal utterances have been made purely for stylistic purposes towards greater legibility, and do not infer a desired ethics of speech.