Meet Virginia, the woman some love to loathe

A newsreader’s mid-life craving for motherhood has struck a raw nerve. Karen Kissane reports.

When Virginia Haussegger wrote about her grief at having missed out on motherhood in her race to a career, she did not expect a flood of responses.

Strangers in the street have said they felt sad for her (“Tears welled up in my eyes and I had to walk away”). She has had more than 70 letters and e-mails, a mixture of the savage and the sympathetic (“Even a few saying I’m praying for you”).

Many confirmed that she was not alone. “I had one woman who I’d worked with over 10 years ago almost in tears over the phone, saying I had no idea how much her story mirrored mine.”

Haussegger has also heard from parents with daughters her age who worry that they might never be grandparents because their daughters see motherhood as a second-rate option.

Haussegger, an ABC news presenter in Canberra, has been a TV journalist for 15 years. Two weeks ago she ignited a furore with an article in the opinion pages of The Age that blamed her “feminist foremothers” for the fact that she was childless as she was pushing 40.

Haussegger wrote that the women who had inspired her to believe that a career would be her greatest fulfilment in life had not warned her about her biological clock – the way her fertility would fade after 35 – because “they were all knocked up” by
their 20s.

The result, wrote Haussegger, is that women like herself who finally realise they do want children find that their chances of conceiving are slim.

Haussegger says she and her partner are reluctant to try IVF because the success rate is low. “As my brother said, `If you were a horse, Virginia, would you put money on you? Nah’.”

The response in articles and letters to The Age has been mixed. “They say the first sign of maturity is when you stop blaming everything on your parents. Grow up,” advised one reader tartly. “As for the biological clock – that didn’t suddenly drop out of the sky in 2002.”

Others pointed out that feminists have always written and talked about motherhood, which was devalued long before the women’s revolution. Still others have written Haussegger off as another gen-X whinger given the world on a platter but still bleating about the menu.

Haussegger herself has been fending off overtures from family-values conservatives who assumed she was a voice in their camp. “One radio commentator said I was a victim of Nazi feminism,” she said.

“I said no, I don’t feel I’m a victim. Certainly I’ve been a beneficiary of feminism. The point I was making about women in my generation is that somewhere along the line we have picked up a message that was devaluing of motherhood.”

She says she is now finding baby “hunger” intensely painful, “to the point where I find it very hard to look at babies. I find it very hard to look at happy family situations. I find I often have to turn away”.

Haussegger is shocked by how primal the longing is, so fundamental that it is beyond rationality. “It goes against everything I intellectually believed. I thought (deciding on motherhood) was about choice, but what I have found is that it chooses you.”

Her ache has not been eased by the sometimes bitter responses to her article about how motherhood corrals women. One woman wrote to The Age that motherhood had left her, at close to 50, with no job, no degree and no superannuation.

Another wrote that there were days she wished she had never had her children: “Can children redeem life’s pointlessness? If I can just get a leg up on this pile of laundry, nappies and paracetamol bottles to contemplate that metaphysical horizon, I’ll get back to you.”

Haussegger says she knows how hard it is to raise small children because she has watched sisters and friends do it. But she believes the fact that women still talk this way about motherhood says something about how society treats mothers. “Women have to make choices that are dramatically life-altering,” she says.

“By and large (parenthood) only causes ripples in men’s lives. It causes tidal waves in women’s careers . . . The sheer truth of gender is that women are forced into `either-or’ choices in a way men are not.”
Haussegger says that in her youth she did not absorb information about the biological clock because she was convinced she would never want children. Some of this resistance, she acknowledges, was because she was determined her life would be different to that of her mother. Her grandfather would not let her mother have a career, and she went on to raise six children.

Later, Haussegger learnt that television current affairs had little room for mothers. At one job interview, the prospective boss told her, “You employ all these women and before you know it they want to go off and have babies.” She says that as a result of her article, one family of five sisters, aged 22 to 32, is discussing how they must plan to fit children into their lives.


Some of the e-mails sent to Virginia Haussegger after her article in The Age.

I just wanted to say how much I appreciated the piece and how I heard what you were saying – I heard some of the pain and I thought it would be dreadful to write such a thing and not at least have that acknowledged. These are painful discoveries.

My heart went out to you because you are exactly where I was a little over 11 years ago. Now 11 years later, my daughter playing in the background as I type this, the nameless emptiness has disappeared.

You are in my prayers for a little one.

What a perverse perspective, and how very petulant of you. I would expect as much from my 15-year-old.

Virginia, though the past cannot be undone I believe the future is full of possibility and hope.

Stop acting like a spoiled, immature brat and start aiming your darts where they belong. Show a bit of backbone.

First published in The Age.