Series 3 Episode 4: Natalie Kon-yu on writing, birth trauma and medical sexism

Natalie Kon-yu is a writer, academic and editor whose work has been published nationally and internationally. She is the co-commissioning editor of #Me Too: Stories from the Australian Women’s Movement (Picador, 2019), Mothers and Others: Why Not All Women are Mothers and All Mothers are Not the Same (Pan Macmillan, 2015) and Just Between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship (Pan Macmillan 2013). Her book, The Cost of Labour, will be published by Affirm Press in February 2022. She lives and works in Naarm.

Synopsis: What if you thought pregnancy was going to be easy, a breeze? If you had even planned an overseas holiday – but then suddenly, pregnancy became frightening and stressful, needing admission to a mental health unit?
Natalie Kon-yu – a Naarm-based writer descended from Italian and Mauritian migrants – talks about the experiences of medical sexism, birth trauma and medical mismanagement detailed in her book The Cost of Labour. She also talks about the ways in which motherhood is simultaneously exalted and undervalued In contemporary colonial Australia – and how she’s looking to challenge those norms. [Content warning: This episode addresses mental health, suicidal ideation, medical trauma and negligence.]

Read Natalie’s powerful essay in Overland: The most natural thing
Shelf Reflection: Natalie Kon-yu
5 Questions with Dr Natalie Kon-yu
The #PublishingPaidMe hashtag reveals how Writers of Colour are undervalued
Natalie Kon-yu is a feminist first
Buy her book: The cost of labour
Music in this episode includes ‘Salientia’ and ‘Tympanum’ by REW<< and ‘Dark Water’ by Nul Tiel Records, used under a Creative Commons license from Free Music Archive.


INTRO You’re listening to Birthing and Justice. My name is Doctor Ruth De Souza. Today my guest is Natalie Kon-yu. Natalie is a writer, academic and editor whose work has been published in Australia and internationally. Her latest book is called The Cost of Labour, and it was published by Affirm Press in February of this year. She lives and works in Naarm, Melbourne, and has worked tirelessly to challenge sexism in the publishing industry. Little did she know that she’d be writing a book about medical sexism. A quick heads up, in this episode we’ll be talking about birth trauma and suicidal ideation. If you think this might be too much for you right now, you might like to listen to another episode today.


RUTH DE SOUZA (host) So Natalie, let’s get into it: why do you care about birthing?


NATALIE KON-YU (guest) — I care about birthing because I had a really terrible pregnancy experience and I don’t want one other person to go through what I went through.


[music fades]


Oh, Natalie, I’m really so sad to hear about that because I know that you’re not alone and I’ve spent so much of my career trying to transform the structures around birthing, the institutional setting of birth. So, it’s really fantastic that we’re able to talk to you. And can you tell us a little bit about what you do?


Yes. I’m a lecturer in creative writing, a senior lecturer in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Victoria University. And I write.


And you’re also a child of Italian and Mauritian migrants, right?


I am. My dad was born in Mauritius and immigrated here when he was, I think seventeen. My mum was born in Italy, in Sicily and came here when she was really young, I think five or six. So I grew up in a non-English speaking household. I couldn’t speak English until I went to school, actually, and was very annoyed with my parents for not preparing me for a whole different language. Apparently came home and said, ‘That’s it, we’re not speaking Italian in this house anymore!’ And what always cracks me up about that image is that I probably said it in Italian. But my grandparents couldn’t speak English very well, especially my Mauritian grandparents. So, I grew up with them caring for me during the day, both sets of grandparents. And so I just spoke, you know, my home languages, which were Creole and Italian.


And do you still speak them?


Not well. It’s embarrassing to me that I don’t, and I wish I did. It’s easy to learn Italian, I guess, if I need to. My daughter’s learning it at school, which is lovely, ‘cause it gives us a chance to practice. And if I’m in a situation where the language is all around me, I do kind of click back into the memory of those languages. But I don’t speak them fluently and I haven’t since my grandparents passed away, since the need, I guess, the need for them left. They were so incredibly formative. It was my Mauritian Gronmeier who used to pull me onto her lap and tell me stories, and I don’t think I would write if it hadn’t been for her and her influence.


So, let’s talk about your writing. In your book, you say that women lose their agency as soon as they know they’re pregnant. The fetus comes first, dads are there, supportive, but mostly absent. What impact do you think that has?


I think it makes us not put ourselves first and foremost in our own care. And I can’t think of a time when women need more care than when they’re pregnant! And I know I’m only, you know, when I say that I’m speaking of the Australian context, ‘cause I think Australia does it particularly badly compared to other countries, but I think it makes us unable, or unwilling to ask for what we need, and to tell people how we are feeling.


Mmm. And I’m thinking as well about, you know, a criticism that you make in your book, which is that when parents or mums are seen in books and websites, they’re inevitably white, non-Indigenous, cisgendered, financially comfortable and clearly heterosexual.




And they kind of frame pregnancy as mostly easy.




Is that why you decided to write a book? And can you tell us a bit more about the book?


Sure. So, when I was pregnant, I expected it to be easy, when I first got pregnant. I thought ‘This is fine.’ I was gonna go bloomin’ traveling to Vietnam and take a ten hour train up to Sapa where there were no hospitals or doctors. [Laughs] I was planning to do that at fifteen weeks pregnant. And my doctor’s like, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ I’m like, ‘Nah, it’s gonna be fine.’ You know? And so I had this real feeling that pregnancy would be, for me, mostly easy. Because, you know, I’m white passing, I would say I’m middle class because of my job, I, you know, I still have a funny surname, but no one gives me too much grief about it, though I always expect that when people know they’re gonna meet a Dr. Kon-yu, they expect a small Chinese man to walk into the room, rather than me. And I thought, if this has been so hard for me, you know, like I’m such a feminist, I don’t have trouble speaking up—as anyone who has been unlucky enough to grow up in a household with me would tell you. And I thought, if this is how hard it is for me with all of my privilege and my cultural capital or whatever you want to call it, then how hard must it be for other people. And what I found in researching the book is that the ideal of the mother—as white, heterosexual, cisgendered, non-Indigenous, middle class—was created, you know, to kind of sanction sex, to make sex okay. You know, it’s okay because it leads to “the mother.” But then also, when you create a mother who is so limited—ideologically limited—then you have to demonise other women. And so in our culture, especially we see Indigenous women, queer women, migrant women, working class women demonised as mothers in ways that we do not see white women demonised. Like white women suffer under their own ideology, I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s a different ideology I think that other women suffer under as well.


Mmm. And I was just thinking when you were talking about your initial feelings about, ‘Hey, pregnancy’s gonna be a bit of a breeze.’ You wrote this incredible essay, and I’m gonna put the links onto the show notes. You say, “I was in no way prepared for pregnancy, had not even considered the idea that pregnancy is something to prepare for. I had not thought about what Maggie Nelson labels the ‘capaciousness of pregnancy,’ the way a baby literally makes space where there wasn’t space before: the rearrangement of internal organs, the upward squeezing of the lungs. I imagine such things almost painlessly, after all my mother had done it, my grandmothers had done it. How hard could it be?” How hard has it been? How challenging has it been to your mental health to have a baby, or two?


Well pregnancy was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through in my life, my first pregnancy. I’m still on antidepressants nine years later. My psychiatrist says I’ll get off them one day, but, and sure, one day I will, but probably not during a pandemic. [Laughs] I don’t think that’s the right time. It shocked me, the level of medical mismanagement that I went through and I experienced, especially as someone who lives in a good suburb with lots of clinics around, a doctor who said she specialised in obstetrics, who took me off medication that I shouldn’t have been taken off—and if I was going to be taken off, it had to be done so gradually and with the help of other medications. So she took me off Endep, which I had had, ‘cause I had a… I have a chronic back pain issue when I injured myself a few years, well, twenty years ago, and I’d been on Endep and no one had told me it was a mild antidepressant. All I knew was that under the medications listed for what is suitable for a pregnant body and what is not, that Endep was not. And my doctor said that’s fine. You know, come off the medication, that’s fine. And it was not fine.


You talk about trembling and shaking and being very anxious and agitated. And I’m not gonna tell the story that’s in the book, because I want people to buy the book [laughs] and read the book. But the thing I was really struck by when I read your book was thinking about how significant your friend Miriam was, obviously as well as your partner Rob. But how important Miriam was as an advocate, and how important she was in really making sure you got the help that you needed. And then how amazing it was that you found Lela, or was it Lila?


Oh, it’s a pseudonym. So you can pronounce it however you want. [Laughs]


Aw okay.


Look, my friend Miriam… I think for my husband Rob, it was so confronting to see me the way he saw me. And it was almost like he couldn’t come at me, you know, not that he couldn’t come at… he was there, he was supportive, he took me to all my appointments, he did everything. But it was someone who didn’t know me as well as Rob knew me—‘cause we’ve been together for twenty-five years he and I—who was a friend I’d made in Melbourne, who I have co-edited three anthologies with and is a queer mum, and had a baby a couple of years before I did, who was able to go, ‘No, no, no. You are so far away from who you were a couple of weeks ago.’ And she was one of my few close friends who had been pregnant. And I think that makes a big difference, having someone who knows what it’s like and, you know, what’s within the realm of comfortable and what’s not comfortable. Who’s had that experience, as you would have that medical experience, you know? And she’d had it an as an embodied experience, who took me to her doctor and said, ‘No, no, you can’t, you can’t see your doctors—your doctors are terrible. You need to see my doctors—my doctors are good.’ And who was able to, you know, set up that appointment with me, tell my other doctors off—‘cause I was too terrified, and too vulnerable. I mean, I couldn’t stop shaking, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t… I was not myself. After a couple of weeks of constant trembling and insomnia, you’re not yourself anymore.


I’m just thinking though about how you say, there’s an underlying sexism that makes pregnancy harder than it needs to be. And it’s the foundation for women’s care in contemporary colonial Australia.




What was it like for you to confront this in the perinatal setting? Because you you’ve talked about having an eating disorder when you were younger.




And how poorly that was managed as well, you know?




Could you talk a little bit about this underlying sexism that you identify? 


I think in contemporary, colonial Australia, we don’t like to think about women or their needs, full stop. If we don’t need to, why should we. Women’s health is so drastically underfunded. We know through numerous studies and papers now that, you know, modeling for disease, modeling for mental health, modeling for medication often does not include women patients or samples, or didn’t until the nineties, 1990s, which is just mind blowing, to me. We don’t like to think that women need anything of us: of us being the culture, the establishments, the fields—we just don’t care. We just don’t care to see women as real people. You know, we are still in a lot of ways accessories to men and, you know, slaves to the household and, you know. To confront it as a teenager with an eating disorder, a kind of, not expected, but it wasn’t a huge shock to me, ‘cause you know, I’d read Naomi Wolf back before she was a COVID denier. [Sigh] It’s sad to lose good ones. But, when you think about how heralded the mother is in our culture—and obviously it’s a very two dimensional… but how upheld that ideal is—I would’ve expected that in pregnancy I would’ve been properly cared for. And so that was a shock to me. Like, if you don’t even care about me when I’m about to be a mother, when will you care about me? [Laughs]


When you think about it, what could have been done differently or what needs to change? Is that something you get to conclude in your book? Because I haven’t got to the end yet.


No, no, I’ve got tons of ideas for change! More funding for women, women’s care, full stop—or pregnant people, whatever their gender or their orientation. More funding for women when they are getting pregnant, when they are pregnant. You know, proper childbirth education classes, proper bloody hospital stays, bring back birthing centers into hospitals so that women don’t need to go through the technocratic model of birth, if they don’t want to. Invest the money that we are now bleeding into mental health for women who have been pregnant and have had children—bloody invest that into women before they become pregnant, or while they are pregnant, and while they are giving birth. Give women the options of how they can birth in this country, and give them people who will advocate for them! I was… I interviewed an obstetrician for this book and she said, even during COVID it was expected that an obstetrician would spend fifteen minutes with a patient before having to go on to the next patient. And she said, and that time included all of the COVID safe measures and all of that, no extra time was added on. She was frustrated. I mean, and it’s the same for midwives. And I just think, you know, they’re saying the same thing: they’re saying women and birthing people need more help, why aren’t you giving us more help? So for me, those things are important. Better parental leave shared by both parents, whether they’re both women, men, a woman and a man, parental leave in this country for blokes is a joke—two weeks! What? By that time is the baby up and mobile and looking after themselves? I don’t think so. Has any human adjusted to that lack of sleep? I don’t think so. Proper parental leave, I mean, and it shows, it’s… the literature shows, it leads to lower divorce rates and better, you know, better education and better mental health for the kid and better bonding with both parents. Like, the thing… And you must encounter this all the time, and I know I’m ranting; I’ve gotta stop ranting. But it’s not bloody rocket science! There are models around the world that show that it can be done better, that it has better outputs, that it has better mental health consequences and physical health consequences for every member of the family. That it has better socio-cultural outcomes for every person in the family. So why the bloody hell, in a country that is as affluent as this one, aren’t we doing it? Especially when we have conservative politicians saying that the family is the most important thing in the world? Bullshit! If it was, they would all be chomping at the bit to get into the home and look after their own bloody kids. To me, there is such a disconnect between what we get when conservative governments… “the family is so important; the mother is so important; we care about children.” You know, you can basically hear Whitney Houston’s “I believe the children are our future” in the background whenever these people speak, but they do nothing at the beginning of life, and before life begins, to make sure that all children have an equitable and fair and cushioned start to their life. And all that infrastructure is lacking. And it’s not through lack of knowledge. It’s not through lack of wealth. It’s just through lack of care.


When I was a baby nurse in the eighties, I worked in a very small obstetric hospital. And one of the things that would happen is women could stay up to two weeks there, postpartum.


Two! That’s amazing.


And we would take the babies away and they’d go into a little nursery. And we’d just keep an eye on them, and if the baby cried, we’d, you know, wheel the little baby in the bassinet to the parent, you know? And on the day that they were discharged, we’d get them to sit in a wheelchair and we’d wheel them down to the car where the partner would be waiting in the car… you know, the bay of the car park…




like the drive through bit? And, you know, we’d very carefully support the mother to sit in the passenger side of the [laughs] you know…


[exhales in disbelief]


and it was kind of like, within kind of ten years of that happening, when I worked on a postnatal ward, the maximum time you could stay in a hospital was five days, you know? And I was kind of like, this is terrible. And they have to walk by themselves [laughs] to the car, you know, with their stuff. And then, you know, within another ten years it had become even more kind of, ‘You’re on your own kiddo, see ya’ [laughs] you know?




So, these are the changes that I’ve seen in my career. And I know that some women wanted to get the hell out of there and they didn’t wanna be there for two weeks or for five days, but for people who would like that—and we know that, you know, in that first week you’re trying to work out breastfeeding, which is very complicated. You know, it’s…


Very complicated—and painful!






And you basically need all the help that you can get. And actually, this is a time when mothers need to be mothered. That’s the conclusion that I’ve come to, right?




You know, we’ve got all these rituals and these traditions that apply to parenting, particularly mothering—I’m going to use the gendered term here.




And so, in many cultures the mother was treated as precious cargo. And you can see that in my story about being delivered in a wheelchair to the waiting car, right?




And accompanied in the lift, you know? So precious cargo. And in many cultures, including my own, there’s special food you eat during pregnancy. If you’ve listened to Nisha’s podcast [Birthing and Justice season two, episode five], she talks about living at her mother’s house while she was pregnant and postpartum and eating special food and being nurtured, everyone else doing the housework. And I’m just sort of wondering about your cultural traditions that you might have got from your Mauritian and Italian or Sicilian, Sicilia…




Siciliana traditions [both laugh] that, you know, were there any of those that you incorporated into mothering?


Well, for me, my parents live on the other side of the country, and my mother is an anxious, anxious woman. And I couldn’t talk to her about my pregnancy because I knew she would worry. So now I wrote a book, so like, the cat’s outta the bag, but it’s like nine years later, so there’s nothing to worry about—the baby and I are clearly fine. I couldn’t talk to them. They’re anxious because they grew up in poverty with trauma, with generational trauma. And I think that anxiety is fine. And she said to me, ‘I’m gonna come and move in with you before.’ And I said, ‘No, you can’t.’ And, because I just, I didn’t want to terrify her. And she’s like, ‘But you know, I have to be there for the birth.’ And I said, ‘Mum, I just…’ I just thought that something would go wrong, given the pregnancy I had. I was just, I was so fearful that something would go wrong, and it was a traumatic birth in the end. Anyway, the baby was looking the wrong way, I became preeclamptic beforehand and I just, and then I had to have an emergency Caesarian. So it was not a great birth either. And, but she had wanted to come and stay with me and I had, kind of, for her sake and mine—’cause she would just worry at me, and I was worried enough—said, ‘No, you can’t.’ But she came over afterwards. So it’s something I feel like I missed out on, because I feel like if I was at home in Perth with my Mauritian family, and my Italian family, I would’ve had lots of people coming to visit, and to take the baby. A lot of my cousins have babies; a lot of us have had babies at the same age. And, you know, there would be babysitting, and people would be bringing me meals and I would definitely have had help with getting the house cleaned and cooked and all of those things. So my mum came over, I think a couple of months before my first was born, and she filled my freezer with lasagna so that I didn’t have to cook [both laugh] for myself. And that is part of our culture, is you do for other people when they are vulnerable. One of the things that I found, and I found interesting is that when I sang to my kids, I didn’t sing them English lullabies. You know for me, I have to kind of strain to remember what they are—you know, ‘Open Shut Them,’ ‘Baa, baa, Black Sheep’—but I would sing them the nursery rhymes and the lullabies I got sung in Creole and Italian. And I would speak to them in Italian and Creole, quite… not out of a ‘Well, seven day old, I am going to give you your second language,’ but out of memory. It was like, it was like muscle memory, it was like the language I heard as a child. And so, they don’t even know half the time when they’re being spoken to in another language, they just kind of know, you know? ‘Dammi il tuo piede’ means ‘Give me your foot.’ ‘Paffei asa,’ ‘Ali,’ you know, they know the words. So that was really nice to me, to know that those languages and those songs were there, because they were passed down from my grandmother. And it was beautiful to know that there were still… I remember my auntie singing them to me. So, it was so lovely to know that they were there, available for my kids when they were born.


[music plays]


Now, earlier on you spoke about being an academic—you teach creative writing. And in your book you’ve said that being an academic and being a parent are similar…




because they blur the boundaries in terms of work and fun.




You know, relentlessness and boundless energy is how you describe it.


Yes! [Laughs]


So, so how are you managing your energy for both?


Oh, it’s hard. Last year was terrible; the last two years of COVID have been terrible—I’ve had no time for myself, at all. And that’s not even a joke. Everyone’s got those stories of COVID and how hard it’s been. But I think for me, it’s the love, right? And the fact that you care. It’s the love and care for both of those things. You know, for me, being an academic is the way in which I can be an advocate in the world for people who can’t advocate for themselves, you know, perhaps. And being a parent, you know, my kids are the funniest, best people I know—they’re hilarious, and lovely and warm humans. And so, it’s the love and the care that keeps me going. Because I love what I do, and I love the people who, you know, who I live with, you know, I love my family. But it also means that I’m not good at stepping back and saying, ‘Okay, mama needs a break. Mama needs to be mothered, at the moment.’ You know, like that’s hard, that’s really hard. And it’s a constant… I’m forty-five now, I expect to learn it by the time I’m at least seventy-three. By then I’ll know, how to do it. [Laughs]


So, one of the things that I noticed when I set up a perinatal service in New Zealand, is that we had people present in quite different ways. There were people who very clearly had what we call postnatal depression. But, you know, from my own work, I know that depression can start during the pregnancy and people can also have histories of depression before they become pregnant. And then also, depression can also look a lot like anxiety or be intermingled with it. But there was something else that I saw with women, and that was women who seemed to have birth trauma. And sometimes it was about the events leading up to the birth. And one woman I looked after, her baby crowned in the car park. And you know, it all happened really fast and all her friends were saying, ‘Oh, gosh, you’re so lucky it happened so quickly.’ And she was just terrified.




And what had started happening for her is that every time she went past the hospital—drove past— her heart would just about explode in her chest, and she started avoiding that route. She started having flashbacks and things like that. And, so I started a support group for women who had experienced birth trauma. And I think that it’s something that you mention in your book, that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Can you tell us a little bit about your own experiences and maybe some thoughts about ways in which health professionals could do better?


Yeah. So for me, I became pregnant by accident. I mean I know now how it happened, but I wasn’t planning on it happening that day. [Laughs] But there I was, I was pregnant. And I saw the doctor straight away, you know. Three days later found a doctor in my area who said she specialised in obstetrics and, you know, being a good researcher, had found her online and not far, and that was great—so I thought. And it’s probably a couple of weeks later that I started trembling. And my legs would just start shaking and couldn’t stop—couldn’t stop them shaking. And, like [thought] this is very odd. And from then I developed, I think next, sleeplessness. And I’d have a hard time going to sleep because my legs wouldn’t stop shaking. [Laughs] It’s hard to go to sleep when your legs are shaking. So if a doctor had given me something like diazepam, then I would kind of crash and then I’d wake up at two or three and then be awake. And early pregnancy is an exhausting time anyway. And so to have that extra insomnia and that extra, I guess that physical activity of just constant shaking, was extra tiring.


[music plays]


It became worse when I went to see the doctor and it was only my cousin who had said to me, ‘I think you’re suffering withdrawal from the Endep, ‘cause she’d seen a friend go through something similar. My doctor hadn’t picked it up, and I’d been completely open and honest with everything. Like, I’m not gonna hide anything because it’s like, if you’re here to help me, you need to know all the things that are happening. So, I would tell you all the things like, I can’t… don’t think when you’re accessing medical health, you can hide things if you wanna be treated properly. Like, you know, that’s just my belief, it’s what’s worked best for me in the past. So, it was my cousin who said, ‘I think you’re going through a withdrawal from the Endep,’ the doctor said, ‘Oh yes, I agree.’ And then she put me on SSRIs [Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors]. She said, one of the side effects of this is it might increase your anxiety, and we’re going into a public holiday weekend. And it did! At the same time this was happening, my first anthology was coming out, and a friend I knew from high school, her son died of cancer. He was two or three. And it was… even though I hadn’t been in touch with her for a long time, it was all on Facebook, it was horrible, horrific to see and heartbreaking. And I just, I couldn’t stop thinking about babies dying, just couldn’t stop. And it was just like almost hallucinations. And then I started having suicidal ideation, I just like, I couldn’t bear it anymore. And my husband called the CATT team [crisis assessment and treatment team] and the CATT team said, ‘Look, it’s Sunday night, it’s a long weekend, we’re not gonna be able to get you into a psychiatrist and you need to see a psychiatrist. You’re gonna have to go to the psych ward—the psychiatric ward at the hospital. And so that’s where I went, ‘cause I needed help. Like there… it was just… there was no way of managing it by myself. I’d been doing nightly meditations, I’d been walking, I’d been doing all the things, been calling the pregnancy line and asking for advice and help the whole way through. Like, I’m very good at asking for help when I need it. I believe in the power of professionals, [laughs] you know, ‘If you’re an expert in your field, you tell me what to do and I will, you know, I will take that on board.’ And yeah, so the only place that was available to me was a psychiatric ward. And I can’t think of a worst place for a woman who’s ten weeks pregnant and going through, I guess, some sort of psychosis or withdrawal or mental breakdown. I never got a diagnosis, but you know, to be so vulnerable in such a strange place, you know, where you don’t know anyone, where you’ve never met anyone, where you are being looked at from the outside and you feel like, you know, you are being looked at from the outside in, you know, it was horrible. [Despondent laugh] It was… I was… just a devastating place to end up. I mean, I wasn’t there very long with seeing a psychiatrist and getting my medications right, ‘cause she hadn’t put me on diazepam, which I should’ve been put on, ‘cause she thought it would hurt the baby, which it wouldn’t hurt the baby. But anyway, it was just, you know, a complete lack of knowledge and then a kind of, it was almost cavalier, ‘Well, you know, it’s a long weekend, so just be careful, you might be more anxious and that’s all I can do for you. See you later.’ [Laughs]




I know, it’s only a few years ago.




And for me, writing the article wasn’t even my idea. Writing the Overland article was something that Jacinda Woodhead who was the editor of Overland previously—she and I shared a photocopier at work— and I was very… my feeling is, if something terrible has happened to you and if in speaking about it you can save it from happening to someone else, then it’s almost like, you’re duty bound to do it. That’s how I feel anyway. So I was very open and honest with people, and Jacinda had written a PhD on abortion and she said, ‘Do you think… I’d like you to write about your pregnancy experience for Overland.’ And I was like, really? And you know, here I wanna talk about women and literary prize culture or whatever, and she was like, ‘No, no, I think it would resonate.’ And I was like, ‘Look, if you think it will help, I will, I’ll do it.’ And in researching it, I was like, blimey, there’s a book here that no one has written that needs to be written. I’ll have to work on my beautiful little Mauritian novel—you know, Chokos on the Railway Line or whatever it’s gonna be called, like my family saga—later. ‘Cause the response to that article was… it kind of blew me away: I had people sharing it, I saw women sharing it all over. I saw people contacting me after fifteen years—it was the only time I’d been recognised in the street, someone ran up to me and said, ‘Thank you for your essay, just thank you so much.’ And my friend Christie said, ‘I think you need to write this book next, you know, forget the family saga, write this book next.’ And so I did my outline, took it to a publisher who told me to contact an agent, and within a few weeks had a book contract. It was amazing, but it wasn’t my idea.


Wow, Natalie, and you know, I’m so grateful that you have written this book. And I’m just also deeply, deeply saddened that you had to go through what you went through. And so, on behalf of all the health professionals who can’t say sorry, I say sorry.






I feel real ambivalence, ‘cause I—not ambivalence—I feel like… and thank you for that, and having people like you and the obstetrician I spoke to, and a friend of mine who’s a midwife. And I know there are so many people in the field who have such good intentions, but are working within this institution that does not allow them to care, when that is the primary service of that institution, is care. When things like budgetary measures and this kind of neoliberal individualism—’Everyone can look after themselves and everyone is the same and everyone has the same needs’—is the thing that stops it. And I feel a great deal of sympathy for people who have to work within those structures, ‘cause I imagine it’s heartbreaking.




Like I imagine it’s just heartbreaking when you want to care, and the place that is supposed to facilitate you caring is actively stopping you.


Absolutely. Absolutely, and you know, this is what happens to people that enter the field, you know? Mimi Niles in season one, episode three, she talked about people with tender hearts who get that punched outta them, [laughs] you know? Like, they get bruised by the system. So, I’m really grateful to you for writing this book. And I’m wondering as a final question, whether you can tell people where they can get their hands on this book, which arrived today!


Yes, in my mail mailbox today! It was so exciting and nerve-wracking and it feels so silky and it’s so strange, but lovely. The book should be hitting bookshelves very soon. So I imagine, you know, any good bookstore near you, make sure your library gets it—I love a library, I love a free book and the sharing that goes into a library. I will do my author website, I haven’t yet, bad author,




but I plan to get onto that. But you know, my work is pretty easily Googleable and you can contact me at my VU [Victoria University] address as well—‘cause I work at VU where I feel very lucky to work with just great colleagues, at one of the most [laughs] culturally diverse universities in Australia, [laughs] I think. I feel very lucky to be there.


I’m a very big fan of VU and many of your colleagues, including yourself.




Natalie, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I know that this is gonna touch a lot of hearts. You know, what you’ve said about how you didn’t feel cared for and cared about. I just wanna acknowledge what it took to write that book, and to write that article, and to acknowledge that sometimes we touch other people profoundly when we share our vulnerability, in a way that we don’t by being strong and looking like we are coping. And I think for so long, being a parent, being a mother, I look forward to our language changing, so it’s more inclusive. But mothering is something that is simultaneously, as you’ve pointed out, marginalised and exoticised and celebrated and elevated, but without any of the structural and system support that would truly support women to start this incredible journey, feeling resourced…




nurtured and held. So, thank you for the work that you’ve done and will continue to do. The beautiful words that you’ve written that I know will touch so many. And thank you for taking the time to be with me today.


Thank you Ruth, for having me, for being interested and for your advocacy and your care. I think it means a great deal. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the women who encountered you when you set up your mental health service and, you know, thank you. Just thank you.


Thank You. [Chuckles] 


OUTRO — You can find more episodes, transcripts and links at I’ll also pop links to Natalie’s book there, as well as some of her other work, so you can go deeper on the stuff we’ve talked about today. If you enjoy this podcast, please subscribe to the show, leave us a rating or review, and spread the word. Next time on Birthing and Justice:


JANELLE DA SILVA (guest) — If we’re gonna be birth workers, serving humanity, then it’s an important part of our PD to, you know, maintain an open mind in understanding who the people are in this world, right now, that wanna give birth.


I’ll be speaking with Janelle Da Silva. Janelle’s a childbirth educator, birth worker and doula, racial literacy educator, multi-hi-fi artist, art therapist and philanthropist. I hope you’ll join us then. Birthing and Justice with Dr. 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. Our sound design and mix is by the amazing Jon Tjhia , who’s also the producer and editor. Artwork for the show comes from Atong Atem, with design by Ethan Tsang, and Raquel Solier composed our theme music. This podcast is supported by funding from the RMIT University Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowship Program. Thanks so much for listening, look forward to catching up again soon.


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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.