Fighting spirits

Jennie Fickling hadn’t expected to find herself pregnant with twins. She had been told she could never conceive again after the birth of her first child, Laura, nearly killed her.

An artery in her uterus was slashed during an emergency caesarean. By the time Jennie’s mother noticed the way her unconscious body was haemorrhaging, several hours after the operation, Jennie had lost most of her blood.

An emergency operation saved her uterus, but doctors told her it was too damaged to give her another child. That was the first thing they were wrong about. Five years later, Jennie found herself pregnant again.

The boys had an emergency delivery at 28 weeks and featured in a 1994 Age article, Littlest rays of sunshine, about the life-and-death struggle of tiny babies in a neo-natal intensive care unit. That wasn’t the end of their near-misses, but her fragile babies are now boisterous little boys celebrating their fifth birthday.

“There’s been a thread running through all this about being saved in the nick of time,” says Jennie.

For Jennie, this landmark is a chance to talk about the family’s experiences in the hope that it will help other parents facing premature delivery or multiple births and encourage hospitals to become more sensitive to their needs. “I’m very grateful that all three of my children, and myself, are now happy and healthy,” she says, “but I do feel for other families going through this, because there are problems in the very system that is trying to help them.”

For Jennie, the problems began with the attitude of the professionals towards a foetus that was not developing normally. Seven weeks into her pregnancy with the boys, Jennie was hospitalised for dehydration following severe vomiting. An ultrasound revealed two shocks: that she was carrying twins and that the smaller one was dying. “We were devastated,” she says. “I felt like I was having a baby and having a miscarriage at the same time.”

At every weekly ultrasound, she was told bluntly, “He’ll be dead next week”. When he wasn’t dead by 12 weeks, the prognosis was amended to “massive chromosomal abnormality” and Jennie was advised to terminate him.

“They told us that Sam might die as a result of us leaving Paul (the weaker child) there,” she says. The medical staff told her she’d be better off with one baby anyway, but Jennie felt enormous grief at the prospect of losing this child.

She and her husband, Geoff, received no formal counselling, so she researched the options herself. She refused pressure to undergo chorionic villus sampling (CVS) to test for abnormalities, because it had a higher risk of miscarriage than amniocentesis.

During amniocentesis, she found herself lying on an examination table arguing with a doctor who wanted to test both babies because “you might as well”. Jennie refused, fearing that this, too, would increase the risk of miscarriage, so only Paul was tested.

He was found to be absolutely normal. Doctors concluded that his smaller size was probably due to him having been conceived a week after Sam. Says Jennie, “I thought, ‘You put us through hell telling us this baby might be deformed without telling us it could all be due to something completely normal?”‘

The next near-miss came at 28 weeks, when Jennie went to hospital feeling “strange”. The doctor she was seeing for this pregnancy instinctively sensed something was badly wrong and did an emergency caesarean. Once inside, she found the old scar on Jennie’s uterus had broken wide open. If she had not undergone the surgery, the boys would have been born into Jennie’s stomach and died within minutes. Jennie would probably have followed soon after.

Both babies needed intensive care. Sam improved within a week, but it was two months before Paul could survive without oxygen supplements. He suffered repeated brain bleeds and serious infections.

Jennie believes that Australian hospitals don’t allow for the special needs of families struggling with the aftermath of multiple births, which are often premature.

She wanted to sit with her babies for hours, stroking them and talking to them, trying to encourage their will to live and calm their distress.

If she held Paul’s tummy and kept him calm, he needed less morphine, which was used to stop him thrashing about and tearing out the tubes keeping him alive. But she had to choose between the boys because they were assigned to separate rooms.

Later she was discharged – on Mother’s Day – without them. “I just cried and cried all the way through lunch at a restaurant across the road from the hospital.” Leaving her babies behind was the most traumatic part of the whole ordeal, she believes now: “People don’t understand the pain of separation, the fear of getting a phone call that one of them’s going to die.”

Later still, she was forced to take Sam home and leave Paul behind. Such separations can be disastrous for maternal bonding, she says: “In a lot of overseas hospitals, they will send a baby home on oxygen rather than separate twins, or they will admit the mother of the baby so that they can all stay together.

“(I was) getting to know Sam and getting to love Sam, and it got to the point where Paul was just a burden, an obligation. I didn’t want to visit him; I just wanted to stay with the baby at home and be a happy little family.

“I’ve found out since that there are cases where women actually have not been able to bond with that second baby and have ended up adopting that baby out. Luckily, that didn’t happen with us because Paul was just adorable.”

Jennie also felt her mothering was undermined by the hospital’s approach to breastfeeding. She had heard of a problem called “sucking confusion”, where small babies who are bottle-fed become accustomed to rubber teats and cannot suck properly on a breast, so she insisted that Paul be fed expressed breast milk through a tube when she was not there to feed him herself. Some nurses told her she was a bad, cruel mother, she says; one doctor sniggered when he read the request on Paul’s cot.

At one point, Jennie did not see Paul for two days because Sam was having surgery in a different hospital. When she returned, she found that a resident doctor had overridden her request and ordered that Paul be bottle-fed.

Paul never attached to her breast again. A determined Jennie pumped breast milk and fed it to him from a bottle for 12 months, while breastfeeding Sam normally.

She says passionately: “I believe with all my heart that Paul would have died if it wasn’t for that breast milk. I know it. Premature babies who are not breastfed are 10 times more likely to die from NEC (necrotising enterocolitis, a disease that destroys the gut) and have much higher rates of all sorts of other problems. Breast milk should be treated like blood, revered for its life-giving properties.

“They don’t tell you this in hospital. The nurses are told to be careful of women’s feelings and not to pressure them to breastfeed. Just imagine if Paul had died of one of those infections and he wasn’t breastfed, and then I had found out how important it was. I think the day is coming when someone is going to sue a hospital for not having been given an informed choice about breastfeeding.”

The crises took their toll. By the time the boys were three months old, Jennie felt she was living under a black cloud. She and Geoff saw a counsellor who said they did not have post-natal depression, but post-traumatic stress syndrome. Says Jennie: “I can understand why there is a very high rate of divorce among people who have twins or children with health problems. It’s not that we fought or didn’t get on – and Geoff was wonderful with the babies _ it’s just that you don’t talk for months. I think the first year is a war zone with multiples.”

The final ghastly incident came one morning when the twins were five months old. Jennie had put them down to sleep, but Sam woke up grizzling soon afterwards. Jennie, trying to work on a computer, ignored him for five minutes, hoping he would settle. He didn’t. She went into their room and found that Paul had wormed his way under the bedclothes and had stopped breathing. He was limp and blue. She shook him and he began to breathe, but erratically. It meant an ambulance trip and another week in hospital so that he could be monitored.

“They couldn’t explain it,” she says. “They thought it might be a throwback to the prem problem of forgetting to breathe, or maybe it was just a classic cot death situation.”

People cluck with sympathy when they hear what Jennie has been through. She says she doesn’t need the sympathy.

She wanted this story written so that other parents suffering similar problems can see that families can survive it all, something she wasn’t altogether sure of when she was going through it herself.

Looking back, she says she is actually grateful for what she experienced. “I couldn’t possibly be who I am without all of this. The only regret I have is the pain my children went through. From my point of view, I don’t have any regrets because I have learnt so much. I wouldn’t want to be the person I would be if this hadn’t happened. She was selfish, self-centred and lacking in compassion.”

She hesitates, trying to pick her words carefully. “I have read a few stories lately of people who have chosen not to have children. Without being critical of them, because I think it’s important that everyone make their own decision about these things, I have got a suspicion that some people who choose not to have children do it because they are frightened of the unknown and frightened to put themselves in a difficult position.

“If that’s their reason, I think that’s very sad, because what I have learnt is that life is a rollercoaster and you just have to go with it. It’s the hard things you learn about yourself that help you grow.

“If you are constantly trying to shield yourself from difficult things happening to you, you are not really living at all, you are just existing.”

First published in The Age.

Macabre or madcap, it’s all child’s play

In the Nazi concentration camps, the Jewish children played “Germans and Jews”. Everyone wanted to be German because they got to chase and hit the others. They played gravediggers, digging a pit for one child – the “Hitler” – to lie in and pretend to be dead. Sometimes, in the ghettos, they played in the street near the bodies of children who were not just pretending to be dead.

Dr June Factor, who has been studying Australian children’s games and folklore for 25 years, tells the stories to illustrate the significance of play.

She says that children’s need for play is acted out in even the most desperate situations. Play helps children make sense of their world, and is often an expression of themes in the adult culture.

For Jewish children under the Nazis, she says, it was “play as resistance … Play doesn’t necessarily ensure your survival, but it may ensure your sanity as a human being for the moment”.

Dr Factor has preserved thousands of mementoes of children’s play in the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection, an archive she donated this month to Museum Victoria.

It contains more than 10,000 card files listing children’s games, rhymes, riddles, jokes and superstitions, as well as photographs, audio and video tapes and playthings.

The toys Dr Factor has collected are mostly home-made, make-do playthings that recall another time, and sometimes another place: a rolled-up wad of newspaper tied with string that was some boy’s footy; old milk tins that were pulled along with wire in the “roller races” of outback Aboriginal children.

The card files list thousands of playground chants, taunts and rhymes recorded by Dr Factor and her students when she was an academic at the Institute for Early Childhood Development (now part of Melbourne University).

The most vulgar are bluntly joyous about sexual and bodily functions.

Dr Factor is a free speech advocate (she is a former president of the Council for Civil Liberties) but acknowledges she was shocked – and amused – when she first heard what comes out of the mouths of our babes when they think themselves out of adult hearing.

Knowing that adults are the gatekeepers of children’s reading material, she censored out the ripest rhymes (as well as the racist ones) when she published some of them in the children’s books for which she is best known (Far Out Brussel Sprout!, All Right Vegemite!, Real Keen Baked Bean! and Unreal Banana Peel!)

She didn’t censor enough for some parents, and her books are among the most challenged items in Australian school libraries.

Dr Factor is now a research fellow at the Australian Centre at Melbourne University and is writing a dictionary of children’s slang.

She has long fought to dispel the adult fantasy that childhood is a time of sweetness and light. She argues for children’s right to play and talk largely as they please, without too much adult regimentation.

Her fascination with the gritty realities underlying children’s free play was sparked when she was teaching literature and found that her young students were appalled by the ferocity of portrayals of children in books such as Lord of the Flies.

Realising that few of the students had had contact with children since their own childhood, Dr Factor told them to go into the playground on teaching rounds and document what they saw and heard.

She was fascinated by what they recorded: “It seemed to me that here was a window on the nature of being human.”

It also confirmed her suspicions that children were not the Brady Bunch characters her students had imagined them to be. “All those rhymes they learnt at their parent’s knee when they were wide-eyed innocents have been changed by the time they are seven or eight and growing in independence. One of the means by which they express that independence is in parody: Ding dong dell, pussy’s in the well, if you don’t believe me, go and have a smell.”

She says much cultural – and multicultural – transmission continues to happen in the playground.

She has a recent photograph of a small Turkish-Australian boy in an inner-city primary school playing marbles with a technique the children called “the Chinese flick”; Vietnamese and Cambodian children had taught them to put the marble on a raised middle finger and shoot it like a shanghai.

Dr Factor is particularly fond of shanghais. They embody much of what she loves about children’s play. Little boys have been making them for generations – she has a fine specimen from the 1920s – despite adult strictures on their dangers.

In a world where over-zealous schools are banning marbles because they are “too competitive”, she says :”I take much encouragement from the evidence that children are continuing to engage in the kind of play they wish to engage in, adapting whatever materials are at hand with very little regard for adult proscription. Children are making shanghais all over Australia.”

First published in The Age.

The truth about children of gays

IT’S the sort of thing that happens in fiction: a young woman lies heavily pregnant in a hospital bed, ill from the stress of a police investigation relating to her child’s conception.

Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote about such scenarios in her chilling book The Handmaid’s Tale. She created a futuristic America in which a fundamentalist state regulated how and with whom women bred children; police prosecuted – persecuted? – any who dared to breach the rules.

Such a vision seemed far removed from Melbourne – until this week. A pregnant mother who is a police officer has required hospital treatment for a stress-related illness after a police inquiry into the way she and a gay colleague managed to conceive an IVF child.

It has been alleged that the two falsified a document to get into an IVF program, a claim the couple denies. They face the possibility of criminal charges and the loss of their police careers. Gays are not licensed to breed – not in ways that require medical assistance, anyway.

The reasons for that are a matter of common sense, aren’t they? Bans on gay access to IVF arise largely out of concern for the children who might result from it. Everyone knows that children need parents of both sexes if they are to be sexually normal. Everyone knows that children in gay families are more vulnerable to all sorts of emotional and social problems. How could you justify visiting that upon a child?

But here’s the rub: it seems that 20 years of studies by social researchers comparing the children of gay parents with the offspring of heterosexuals have failed to discover any significant negative difference between the two.

In 1992, American researcher Charlotte Patterson analysed the findings of 12 studies that had assessed more than 300 children of gay or lesbian parents, often comparing them with the children of divorced heterosexual women. They found that adult children of gay people were no more likely to be gay than were the children of heterosexual parents.

They did not differ from “normal” children in terms of gender identity (how good they felt about being male or female) or gender role behavior (lesbians’ children played just as often with “feminine” toys such as dolls, and as adults were just as
likely as others to choose jobs that fitted with conventional sex roles).

The studies found no differences in terms of intelligence, self-concept, emotional problems and development of moral judgment.

The significant differences they did find were nothing you could base a discriminatory law upon. One study reported that lesbians’ children saw themselves as more lovable and were rated by others as more affectionate and more protective towards younger children.

Another reported that lesbian mothers were more concerned than heterosexual mothers that their children have good relationships with adult men; a third, that children of lesbians saw more of their fathers than the children of heterosexual divorced women.

No evidence here of ideological brainwashing against heterosexuality. Maybe that’s because gay parents know how painful and destructive it is to be pressured to deny your true self. Maybe they don’t want that for their own children, gay or straight.

If a child’s healthy development depends not on family structure, but on the quality of family relationships, what precisely are we protecting potential children from when we ban gays from using technology to conceive them? Our own prejudices?

A 1995 survey of 732 Australian lesbians found that 20 per cent already had children and another 14.5 per cent planned to have children within five years. Using conventional means to conceive must be abhorrent to them, and exposes them to the health risks of unsafe sex with people who are not their chosen partners. Under current laws, illicit artificial insemination attracts a penalty of up to four years’ jail.

If it cannot be shown that gay families are detrimental for children, then the only remaining justification for refusing them access to artificial insemination is based on the religious notion that homosexual activity is ungodly and somehow against “the natural order”.

“The natural order” tends to be a euphemism for “the status quo”. It was called upon often by those who tried to keep women out of voting booths, universities and pulpits. It’s a concept that has had its day.

First published in The Age.

Becoming a Barbie-wise mother

(Fetish: object worshipped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers or as being inhabited by a spirit).

Parenting books don’t talk about the Barbie thing. They’re full of advice about tantrums and bedwetting and vegetable-aversion, on spending sticky hours with playdough and sleepy ones with storybooks. But when it comes to making an ideological call on toytime’s blonde plastic fetish, you’re on your own.

We resisted as long as we could, which wasn’t long at all. Our then four-year-old femme informed us tragically that any girl without Barbies (note the plural: purchases must be multiple so that visiting friends can play Barbie at the same time as the hostess) was a social pariah.

“What about the huge box of Duplo that kept your brother and his friends so happy when he was your age?” we inquired hopefully. (We like to think of ourselves as an equal-opportunity household.) No go.

Mindful of the psychology studies that say children pick up color-coded messages about which toys are appropriate for each gender, we bought a set of Duplo houseblocks in girly pastel colors. Our princess unwrapped them, swallowed her disappointment long enough to thank us politely, and handed them over to her brother (who did pay attention to the color-coding and never touched them again).

I didn’t get it, this Barbie thing. My childhood had been a Barbie-free zone. I vaguely remember a dolly called Diane dressed in royal blue velvet, whom I carried around out of a sense of duty – I knew little girls were supposed to love them – but in whom I had no real interest. Post-dolly-depression, perhaps. No doubt she came to a bad end.

But my daughter and I trawled through the hot-pink aisles of the local toy department and finally compromised on Dr Barbie, with a white coat and a stethoscope. At least there was an element of positive role modelling, even if the overall effect was of a blonde bimbo from a daytime soap moonlighting as a Chicago Hope wannabe.

Of course, we had to throw in a few disco-glitter minis for the kid, and personally, I couldn’t resist the wedding frock – to the point that, when we finally got home with the feminists’ nemesis, we fought over what to put on her first (mortifying for me, gratifying for my daughter; it proved her point about the need for a reserve bench).

Now I get it. Barbie isn’t about playing mummy to a baby, the way other dollies are. Barbie is about wanting to be a big girl – maybe even a thoroughly modern princess, glamorous and admired – and trying that role on for size. Not too realistically, of course; comedian Wendy Harmer used to do a routine about how Barbie’s teeny-tiny accessories should include itty bitty tampons, but for some reason Mattel has been slow to pick up on the idea …

(Although Barbie has turned out to be a useful starting point for home-based health-and-relationships studies – you start with analyses of the bits she is missing, above and below the waist, and gradually move on to their functions).

I still feel guilty about the doll’s platinum hair and impossible body and the way she encourages the child to be preoccupied with clothes and appearance. I still worry that the doll reduces “womanhood” to something that is shallow and vacuous – and hopelessly unachievable, this side of plastic surgery.

But the doll is only one half of the relationship. She takes a form decided by the wider world, but the spirit that inhabits her is actually the individual child’s, and some important things are worked out in the process.

My daughter is a bit older now, but still young enough to feel quite unselfconscious about bare bodies. She knows, though, that a time will come when her body changes and she will feel differently.

Recently she locked herself in a bathroom, something she has never done before. We inquired as to whether everything was all right. It was. Barbie was having a bubble bath in the hand basin, and “Barbie likes her privacy”.

I get it.

First published in The Age.