Thursday, July 24, 2014

The non-conformist

Pic: Trevor King

July 20 Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald

One of the most sought-after models of the '90s, Emma Balfour is back but wants the quiet life without all the "stuff". She talks to Erin O'Dwyer about trying to make the world a little bit better.

Emma Balfour ushers me into her home, steps around the composting toilet in the hallway, and rummages for some good cups to make tea. Her Bondi bungalow is a study in elegant grunge. Outside, it's painted sea green – the same colour as when she bought it 15 years ago – and a round window in the front room is set with purple glass. Inside, the furniture is vintage and mismatched – pieces she picked up in London a lifetime ago. The dining room table is decorated with homemade pottery and a scrap of white fabric is draped across the window, blocking out the new, ultra-modern development next door.

"I find people in Sydney are very, very greedy," she says. "A lot of this is [partner] Andrew's influence – he's very much a minimalist at heart. But I've always been contrary, I'll always do the opposite to what everyone is doing. I want to try to make the world a little bit better, not a little bit worse."

The composting toilet, she tells me, is bound for the family's beach shack, on the far south coast of NSW. She could move there in a heartbeat, and probably will when her sons – Bruno, 14, and Elliot, 9, both strikingly like their mum – leave school. She wants to build an "Earthship" – a low-carbon house made from recycled car tyres.

"I'm the ultimate stupid hippie," she laughs. "We're not about stuff and symbols. There is a much better way of showing people who you are than what car you drive or what your handbag is. I'm probably blessed because I have boys, but you have to model things properly for them. Kids, especially around these parts, get very enamoured about all that stuff." Advertisement

Two decades ago, Emma made her name modelling stuff. She was one of the new wave of supermodels – heroin-chic icon, friend of Kate Moss, a waifish, dark-eyed suicide blonde.

Even then, she was a nonconformist. As a 20-year-old living in London she was frequently cast as a Claudia Schiffer proxy. She hated having her hair curled, being made to look glamorous and sexy. It didn't suit her sense of herself. Her then-boyfriend, fashion photographer David Sims, suggested she cut her hair. When she came out of the salon as a willowy street urchin, a new look was born. With her ethereal gaze, exquisite bone structure and artful slouch, she was one of the most sought-after models on the planet.

"We were all just mucking about," she once said of the buzz. "We were doing whatever we wanted. It just happened that it clicked."

For years, Emma owned that look. But the drug-taking lifestyle was foreign. "Kate (Moss) used to call me Mother sometimes," she says. "I was always knitting, it kept me sane. I was always the grown-up in the room. I was happy to be that. I enjoyed being around, but doing drugs wasn't me."

Eventually the drug culture got to her. In an interview with a BBC crew doing a story on Kate Moss, Emma unwittingly blew the whistle on the industry. She said on television what no one else would say: that on almost every catwalk there were girls who were sick, either due to heroin abuse or anorexia.

"All these models are being gossiped about, but no one ever stands up and says, 'Hang on a minute, they're dying,' " she told the BBC. "I think heroin is about being part of an elite gang. It makes you feel important."

It was a moment of truth that came to define the era, and Emma herself. But as pop culture's obsession with heroin chic began to wane, Emma opted out altogether. On a modelling trip to Australia in 1999, she met an old flame – photographer Andrew Cowan. The pair had fallen in love as teenagers, in their hometown of Adelaide, but Emma had moved to Sydney and then to London.

"We were mad for each other and it was very strange bumping into him again a very long time later," she says. "And that got me thinking about what could be different. I'd been in London for 10 years and I'd been with the same man there for nine years and it had been falling apart for nine years but neither of us would change it. I thought, 'I'm going to change it up completely.' "

Life in Australia could not be more different. Their bungalow is unrenovated, their backyard is overgrown, and they have chickens, fruit trees and a few hardy vegies. They live a few blocks back from Bondi Beach, where Andrew swims daily and Emma sucks in the sea air. They give a wide berth to the celebrity scene.

For years, Emma's main job was working on greening projects at her sons' school – putting in water tanks, building vegetable gardens. In London, people stared at her in the street. In Sydney, she passes under the radar. She gets around in a Subaru station wagon and jeans and old T-shirts. Her long, honey-blonde hair hangs around her face, she wears no make-up and there are smile lines around her perfect bow mouth. Until recently, her only real foray into the public eye was the release of a volume of deeply personal Raymond Carver-esque poems. She describes it as "a moment of madness".

"The minute I handed it over, I thought 'I'm never going to be able to do that again,' " she says. Ten years on, she's gathering pieces for volume two.

So omnipresent has Emma been for her sons and family that her (other) career has been an irrelevance. Increasingly, though, it's a consternation to Bruno. "At a parent-teacher night, the teacher said to Andrew, 'You're a photographer' and to me, 'You write, don't you?' Bruno had told them that bit about me. Whenever we see a picture of me somewhere, he says, 'Oh God, I can't bear it.' He gets really embarrassed. He said that I'm the most unlikely person to be doing this because in my real life I'm so far from it."

When Emma first returned to Sydney, she didn't even have an agent. But as her boys have grown, she has dipped a toe back in. Just a runway show here, a fashion shoot there. Then last year she went to London for three weeks, "sniffing around". "I never would have left the kids before," she says. "The younger one is stuck to me like glue and he misses me a lot when I'm gone."

This year she's done a runway show for London-based designer Mary Katrantzou, an ad for Swiss label Bally, and a multimillion-dollar Tommy Hilfiger campaign, in the snow, in California. Emma Balfour, supermodel, is back. Well, sort of.

"The '90s are back and that was my era," she shrugs. "People are asking for me, they remember the work I did and they want that kind of association. It adds a bit of cool. It's not particularly to do with me, it's all in their perception and what their perception is of me. It's not all I do, I have a lot more bits and pieces going on. It's nice to be known as someone who is still going. But it's not look-at-me now, razzle-dazzle."

So how does supermum Emma justify modelling's excesses to the sons she is teaching to walk lightly on the planet?

"Bruno has asked me that, absolutely. It's a total contradiction and I can't really answer it," she says. "I do it because it's what I've always done. I need to eat and they need to eat and it's a totally bullshit answer because I can't really justify it. Every time I get paid I think, 'Okay, I can get the composting toilet' or 'I can get the solar panels for the roof.' In my head I try to justify it by at least spending it wisely."

Sometimes, age can be cruel to women. It sits beautifully on Emma Balfour. She's made no attempt to chase eternal youth. Indeed, for someone who always hated modelling and had to be dragged to her first shoot by a photographer friend, fame and fortune seem to have bought her the right to be herself.

"It feels like it's much easier," says Emma, who works once a month, picking and choosing her jobs. "I'll go in they'll say this is what we want and they'll take 10 frames and go, 'Okay.' It makes me feel like, finally, I got good at my job. In the early days I felt exposed, I didn't think I was very good. I spent a long time only just hiding how scared I was. Now I can totally fake it."

For all her natural beauty and off-beat humour, there's an air of sadness to Emma. The writer's unease with the world, perhaps? "I'm a bit of a misery guts," says Emma. It's there in Andrew's intimate family portraits – Emma cutting Elliot's hair in her pyjamas; Emma with scrubbed face staring down the lens, unashamed of her 44-year-old flaws. "I'm not old enough for Andrew yet," she says, only half-joking. "He wants to see my character more; he wants the wisdom written into my face."

She's only a kilo heavier than her London days, but her body feels different after two children. "I feel like I'm bigger than I used to be. My waist is thicker and everything is a bit softer. Occasionally on a job I put things on that don't fit, which feels horrible. A couple of years ago all the samples were like dolls' clothes, it was crazy."

Recently, a pair of jeans made her belly bulge. The crew said they would fix it in post-production. The thought horrified her. "When they retouch me too much, it just doesn't look like me," she says. "The balance will hopefully come as more older women are working and we're allowed to look more like ourselves. Otherwise why bother using us?"

Emma's wayward streak comes from her mother, a dancer who worked as a cook and performance artist with Circus Oz. Emma's parents divorced when she was young (her father Tom was also a photographer) and as a girl Emma toured Britain and the US with her mother and the circus troupe, learning to juggle, horseride, walk the tightrope and ride a unicycle.

Joining the circus might seem like a romantic childhood. But Emma wanted stability for her own family. "You always go against what your parents did; I wanted my kids to have a home that was home. There have been times we've said, 'Let's move to California,' or 'Let's move to Paris.' But Bruno doesn't cope with it and neither does Andrew, to be honest. So we're here and that's been good for everyone."

At the start of our interview, standing in the kitchen chatting, Emma shares a confronting detail: both of her parents have multiple sclerosis. They were both diagnosed at age 50. I ask her about it a few days later. The odds are no greater for her than anyone else. Is diagnosis something she fears?

"I think it used to be, closer to the time they both got diagnosed," she says. "I used to go, 'F... it, when I'm 50 my life will be over.' But I've processed it now and all I can do is think positively. You can't have a model that falls over."

In times of crisis, Emma's black humour shines through. You know if that day comes, she will take it with shoulders squared to the wind. And she'll never be afraid to tell it like it is.

Photography: Trevor King. Fashion editor: Penny McCarthy. Hair: Pete Lennon. Make-up: Gavin Anesbury. Fashion assistant: Thea Roberts-Thomson. Model: Emma Balfour at Priscillas. Shot on location at Sydney Horse Riding Centre,

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The woman most likely

Pic: Hugh Stewart
October 20
Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald

If Labor is to make its way out of the political wilderness, deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek will be a key player. She talks exclusively to Erin O'Dwyer

Tanya Plibersek has a gift for doing many things at once. "My personal favourite was writing a speech, talking on the telephone and breastfeeding," says Labor's 43-year-old MP for the federal seat of Sydney, whisking egg yolks, lemon juice and olive oil into a home-made mayonnaise.

It's lunchtime at Plibersek's inner-city home and the mother of three is rallying the troops. "Yes, you can have a baguette, Joe," she says to her hovering eight-year-old. She calls upstairs – "Mum, would you like a sandwich?" – and then says to the photographer, "Are you sure I can't offer you anything?" He declines politely, then tosses over his shoulder, "Don't ask her why she's not running as leader of the opposition."

Why not indeed? Within hours of the ALP losing government in September, Plibersek emerged as a potential new leader. A few weeks later, BRW magazine described her as a "powerful candidate" due to her "warmth, intelligence ... and, let's not be shy, her undoubted charisma". Then former PM Julia Gillard all but endorsed Plibersek, calling her one of the most gifted communicators in politics.

So when Plibersek offered herself as deputy – leaving two men, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, to contest the Labor leadership – political observers were left asking why she didn't step up for the top job. "Are there many working mothers asking that? I don't think so," says Plibersek, who was elected deputy leader last week. "I'm away a lot already, at least one or two nights every week, and if it was the leadership as well I'd be away every weekend."

Juggling work and family has been the mainstay in Plibersek's life since she entered Federal Parliament in 1998, aged 29. In that time she has had three children – Anna, 12, Joe, 8, and Louis, 3 – and breastfed each of them for the first year. Her family loyalty has only strengthened her public image as a capable and compassionate politician. "If you were to draw up a shortlist for the next PM, it would have Tanya Plibersek's name on it," says political commentator Lachlan Harris, a former press secretary to Kevin Rudd.

If the ALP has taken hits on its credibility and standing up for its ideals, then Plibersek is crucial to rebuilding. "What Tanya has in spades is a real decency and dignity," Harris says. "It shines through whether you see her on TV, meet her in an airport lounge or watch her on the floor of Parliament."

On election night, former PM Bob Hawke came under fire for suggesting that Plibersek could not lead the party because she had a three-year-old child. When it emerged that Bill Shorten also had a three-year-old, the backlash was swift, with feminist action group Destroy the Joint launching a Twitter tirade and an internet meme. "I felt a bit sorry for Bob Hawke," says Plibersek. "He asked me, in this incredibly supportive and encouraging way, 'Why don't you run?' And at that stage Louis wasn't quite three and I said I couldn't imagine it."

Hawke remains a firm believer in Plibersek's ability to lead the party. "She's got everything it takes," he says. "She's intelligent, articulate and committed to the values of Labor."

Amid the conflict and chaos of the Rudd-Gillard era, Plibersek emerged unscathed. She's one of a number of unassuming female Labor MPs – Michelle Rowland in NSW, Kate Ellis in South Australia, Kate Lundy in the ACT – determined to trample over gender politics and make a fresh start with rolled-up sleeves.

Plibersek, especially, manages to sidestep internal party politics and the machinations of the "faceless men", yet retains the respect of the party's king-makers. In her own electorate of Sydney she is much loved. "It's a very demographically diverse seat and she manages to cover a wide spectrum of people, from working-class families to the first- and second-generation migrants to the ├╝ber-trendy latte drinkers,'' says Harris, who lived for many years in the electorate.

Long-time Canberra press gallery journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh describes Plibersek as a "straight shooter. She stands out in the Labor male ruck. She's a genuinely compassionate person, a good policy driver, and she doesn't play nasty political games."

Adds Harris, "What makes Tanya interesting goes beyond the fact she's a woman. It's her political skills and her character ... that make her a strong force in politics."

Plibersek sets out a light lunch for our interview. There's organic olive bread, hard-boiled quail eggs, poached salmon and lettuce from the garden. On the bench is home-made banana bread next to a folder marked "school notes". The fridge is plastered with wedding invites, photos and a timetable of before- and after-school activities."I love cooking and I find it really relaxing," Plibersek says. "It's different from what I do the rest of the time."

In the office, too, Plibersek's hospitality is legendary. On sitting days in Parliament she'll often cook – grilled chicken on the sandwich press or soup in the rice cooker. "It's quicker and healthier than a trip to the Parliament House cafeteria," she says.

Even at home, Plibersek never stands still. She darts around her kitchen, barefoot and relaxed, in white linen pants and a yellow striped T-shirt. She seldom has time to shop, and asks if she can buy the canary yellow top she is photographed in. "It's either buy it here or buy at the airport," she laughs. "The last time I did any clothes shopping was because I was on my way to Brisbane and had to stay overnight. I had to buy undies and a fresh shirt for the next day."

Plibersek is one of the most invited guests on ABC TV's Q&A program (along with Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne) – known for her calm, thoughtful answers and occasionally sharp tongue. In person, she is warmer, more personable. Still, she relishes the opportunity to spar on television, despite getting the jitters each time she steps in front of the cameras.

Plibersek is strikingly handsome, with angular features that reflect her Slovenian heritage. Her father Joseph was one of hundreds of migrants who worked on the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, then returned home on weekends. It was a close and happy upbringing.

But life has not been without tragedy and turmoil. She watched Joseph succumb to cancer at age 80 last year and she lives with the painful memory of the murder of her brother Phillip 16 years ago in Papua New Guinea. Her husband Michael Coutts-Trotter was in the news for all the wrong reasons when, after he was promoted to the post of Director-General of the NSW Education Department in 2007, the press revealed that he had served three years of a nine-year jail sentence for conspiracy to traffic heroin when he was 21 – before he and Plibersek met. Her husband was an addict at the time, and she says, "I think it's clear that it was a pretty miserable life for Michael and he paid a very high price for it. I hope [the children] will see his experience as instructive."

Always, family comes first for Plibersek. When Louis asks her for help to get onto the trampoline, she scoops him up in her arms and disappears outside. She returns a few minutes later and picks up our conversation exactly where she left off. "One of the most sustaining parts of my life is my family life," she says. "For all of the disadvantages of my work, the upside is my children see a much broader cross-section of life and think more deeply about it than many kids their age do."

On weekends, the children go with her to work. A nanny cares for them through the week and she and her husband's extended families fill in the gaps. Any downtime is spent at home – bike riding, bushwalking, swimming laps with the kids. "Between us all, we work it out," she says. "We're a very close family and it makes a huge difference to have grandparents around. I don't feel guilty asking my brother [Ray] to look after the kids because he's forever saying, 'Why don't you go out on Saturday night?' "

The marginalised and disadvantaged are the focus of Plibersek's work. As housing minister, she drove a reform agenda that saw $31 billion invested in new public housing and spearheaded a white paper which aimed to halve homelessness by 2020. As health minister, she introduced free dental care for children. Real, tangible wins are what inspire and motivate her.

Plibersek does not shy away from the controversy of Kevin Rudd, acknowledging that the party was "destabilised from within". Equally, she describes the sexist campaign against Julia Gillard as "beyond the pale". "Australians shocked themselves by how vicious some of the treatment of the PM was," she says. "She certainly ran up against some people who never imagined a woman in that leadership role."

Asked how future female leaders might learn from Gillard's experience, Plibersek replies, "It's not a question of how a woman would do it or a man would do it, it's a question of how a person should do it in a way that reflects their personality. Ego can be a problem. False modesty can be a problem. You need to be true to yourself. Looking back, there were so many things I disagreed with John Howard on, but what you see is what you get with John Howard. And that's a good way to be."

Plibersek is appreciating the extra time she has with her children now she's no longer in cabinet, and doesn't miss having to get up and dress in the dark. But she is brutally honest that she hates being back in opposition. "It's devastating to see the things you've worked for destroyed. I spent 10 years in opposition, I know what it feels like. You feel impotent and frustrated. You see the things you have worked for being unwound."

Unlike those who believe the Labor Party has run its course, Plibersek is passionate about its future. She has never thought about running as an independent, and despite her outspoken support for same-sex marriage, she believes in working for change from within, rather than "throwing rocks from the outside". "It will depend on us behaving ourselves and working closely together,'' she says. "How competitive Labor is in three years is completely up to us."

If a week is a long time in politics, then 15 years as an MP is an eternity. Plibersek is a survivor, a stayer, a new hope for Labor. Bob Hawke says it's because she's interested in people. "It's who she is," he says simply. "Politicians are about representing people and that's what she does very well." Read more:

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

The three of us

Pic: Paul Harris
October 6
Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald

Life threw Erin O'Dwyer an unimaginable curve ball when she found herself facing single parenthood with twin boys.

I prepared for the birth of my identical twin sons with all the precision of a military operation. I had a roster of friends and family staying with me for three months and a food circle that would keep me in evening meals for six weeks. I hired a cleaning lady, a mowing man, and bought enough firewood for the winter. Two cots, two car seats, two slings and a double pram. Drawers of clothes in premmie sizes. Eco nappies. Books on twins. A breastfeeding pillow, black lace nursing bras. A budget.
Nothing could have prepared me. No one could have warned me.

My guiding light was Caroline de Costa, the eminent Australian obstetrics professor who 40 years earlier had found herself single, pregnant and on the other side of the world. A first-year medical student, she had travelled to Ireland as a deckhand with the Swedish merchant navy. She applied the same shipshape organisational skills to single motherhood, breastfeeding her baby with one hand and studying her anatomy textbook with the other. If the 20-year-old de Costa could do it – and go on to have a successful career, marriage and six more children – then so could I.

The cards I had been dealt were rather different. Motherhood was planned, single parenting was not; identical twins were the unimaginable wildcard. But I was 36 years old. I had a career, I owned property, I had travelled the world. Friends and family were lining up to help. How hard could it be?

Imagine a Mack truck, bearing down at full speed, headlights blazing, horn blaring. Then slamming into you again, and again, and again. Nothing else describes the first few months with twins. The relentlessness was overwhelming.

It took almost two hours to feed them, and they fed at two-hour intervals for weeks. Nights passed without sleep. Days passed without a shower. Weeks passed without me leaving the house. As for the firewood, I didn't have time to light a fire. A trip to the rubbish bin was the highlight of my day.

Every new mother feels overwhelmed by their first child. Except I had two. Before they were born, I had never changed a nappy. Now there were at least 20 a day. They cried, for hours, in stereo, and when they cried together the sound increased exponentially – not two babies crying, but a howling, squalling symphony.

I had gone from being a calm, competent, in-control person to absolute freefall. I was out of control with nothing to hold on to and no past experience to guide me. Every book, every website, was contradictory and the health professionals I consulted knew little about twins. I had no idea how to settle my sons, how to comfort their crying, or how to help them off to sleep. "Like that," said the community nurse, showing me how to rock/pat my newborns to sleep in their cot. Except they didn't settle. "See you next week," she said, smiling and slipping out the front door, leaving my mother and I to stare at each other in desperation.

The problem was not that my babies didn't sleep. Rather, they didn't sleep at the same time. If one went down, his brother would remain awake, bellowing his heart out. The moment he fell asleep, the first one would wake. Many times, in the middle of the night, as I rocked a crying baby, I looked at the other boy sleeping peacefully in his cot. Just imagine, I thought, how easy one would be.

It was not just me bearing the load. I had counted on one person helping out at a time. But caring for two newborns is a three-person job. My mum came for two weeks and stayed three months. My father took extended leave from his job. My youngest sister arrived, found me in tears, dropped her bag at the door and started working. A week later, her bag was still in the same place she left it. My middle sister, who flew in from China, never once finished a cup of tea.

To make matters worse, my babies struggled to breastfeed. I was in excruciating pain, dosed up on Nurofen. I clock-watched through each session then crashed out afterwards. Nappies, settling – every job except feeding – was left to my army of helpers. Tearfully I watched my parenting ideals fly out the window as I adopted disposable nappies first, then dummies.

I was under pressure to introduce formula, too. I refused and when the pain became too great, I expressed milk and bottle fed. I was trying to do the right thing for my children. But the extra time spent expressing robbed me of sleep and the bottles made more washing up for my exhausted mum.

I was not the only one struggling. Before the boys' birth, I joined a group of expectant twin mums. In six weeks of classes, we never got beyond polite chat. After our children were born, we became stalwarts. I took perverse comfort in their stories. One woman spent the first week at home in tears. Another, who conceived with IVF, wondered, "What have I done?" One couple considered giving their babies away. "When we tell people that, they think we're joking," the wife said. "But we were serious. I remember thinking, 'There has to be a way out of this, it's too hard, I can't do it and I don't want to do it. If I opt out now before I get too attached, then I'll only miss them for a few days and it'll seem like they were never here.' "

Everyone had some unforeseen fallout. Couples moved house, moved in with their parents, moved interstate, broke up. Almost all of us had intended to breastfeed. Three months in, I was the only one.

Multiples are on the rise in Australia. In 2010, the ABS reported that multiple births had risen 43 per cent since 1990. In one year – from 2009 to 2010 – the number jumped a statistically dramatic 2 per cent. Currently, one in 80 Australian births involves twins and, of those, one third are identical twins. The trend has been upwards since the '70s, largely due to IVF and older mums.

Having given birth to twins, I saw twins everywhere. My house painters were twins. The waitress at my favourite cafe was a twin. My mother's best friend's husband was a twin. ("We're twins but we're born on different days," he quipped. "I was born before midnight, she came after.")

Everywhere we went we created a stir. I tired of all the questions, and they were always the same. "Are they twins?" (Yes.) "Are they identical?" (Yes.) "Did you know you were having twins?" (Yes.) "Can you tell them apart?" (Usually.) "Are there twins in your family?" (No.) "Were you surprised?" (No kidding.) I made a point of dressing them differently and avoided using my double pram. I insisted my family stop calling them "this one" and "that one". "They have beautiful names," I urged, "please use them."

When I was pregnant, I'd wondered how I'd take to motherhood. I'd joked about sneaking out of the hospital and leaving my children behind, flying to Burma to attend a meditation retreat. But I loved my children fiercely. Ambrose and Clancy were perfect in every way. They had olive skin, shocks of black hair and almond-shaped eyes filled with bright pools of blue. They were healthy and well, and so was I.

But they were new to the world and I had never been a mum. While they struggled to learn to feed and sleep, I struggled with my recalibrated life. The phone never stopped ringing. Friends dropped in and didn't go home. I couldn't hold a conversation, I could barely form a sentence. My bedroom, once my sanctuary, became the bustling hub of my house. I spent most of my days naked from the waist up, while my neighbours sat on my bed and strangers touched my breasts. I was exposed, vulnerable and, despite it all, terribly alone.

When my babies were eight weeks old, we hit crisis point. A friend who had come to stay left a week early, exhausted. At the same time my mother, who had been working around the clock, raised the white flag. "Enough," she said. "This is killing me." By then, I was close to breaking point, too. I knew I could get through to 12 weeks – four more weeks of breastfeeding hell; four more weeks of three-hourly feeds. After that, I didn't know what I would do.

Amid this chaos, we hired a nanny. She counted the children of movie stars among her charges but she was neither expensive nor outspoken. She came into my home with gentle humility and slowly but surely turned things around. She helped me to breastfeed and taught my babies to settle. The screaming stopped. We all got some sleep.

Magically, at three months, everything changed. My sons were diagnosed with ankyloglossia (tongue-tie) and had their frenums snipped. Their feeding improved and my pain eased. Gradually, I was able to think clearly again. I returned phone calls, hung out washing, watched the news. I took them to a cafe on my own and felt superhuman. It did not matter that they cried and their nappies leaked. We were all learning, mostly me. And what I learnt, and am still learning, is the need to let go.

No military operation goes to plan. Mine failed, but these days there's reason to think everything might work out. My babies hold hands and smile at each other; I haven't boarded a Burma-bound plane. Why would I? I have two little Zen masters at home. Read more:

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kingdom of Women

Mosuo woman La Chuo Zhu Ma, 27, in traditional dress before a fire dance in Xiaoluoshui, a village on the edge of Lugu Lake, in China's Yunnan province.

Pic: Dave Tacon

Imagine if your brother raised your children and your husband visited a few times a week. This is the ancient cultural practice of the Mosuo people – one of the last surviving matriarchal societies in the world.

Listen to Erin O'Dwyer's full length radio documentary on the Mosuo on ABC Radio National's 360 Documentaries.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Women on top

Photo: Dave Tacon

Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday February 16

By an idyllic lake in southern China, women control the wealth and take as many lovers as they please. It's an ancient tradition attracting a 21st-century response, reports Erin O'Dwyer.

High on the Tibetan plateau, on the pristine shores of Lugu Lake, a snaking line of young men and women dance Cossack-like around a flickering bonfire to the jaunty tune of a wooden flute.

China's Mosuo minority is one of the world's last surviving matriarchies. Their fire dance is mostly for the tourists now. But the traditional courtship ceremony still plays a vital role in bringing young lovers together.

In Mosuo society, there is no marriage: no word for husband, no word for father. Here, women are the head of the household and take as many lovers as they like. The fire dance is one of the few times a man gets a say.

"If the boy fancies the girl, he will tap three times on her palm," says 18-year-old Ci La Zhu, a delicately beautiful Mosuo girl in a yellow silk dress and bejewelled black headdress. "If a girl likes the boy, she will tap three times back. Now, though, because we all have mobile phones, if we fancy each other, we will send a text." The Mosuo are poised on an extraordinary knife-edge - wealth and prosperity on the one hand, radical social transformation on the other. Electricity arrived only 10 years ago. Now, tourist dollars have brought unimaginable riches. Homes that still have no running water have mobiles, iPads and internet access. Electric twin-tub washing machines are filled with water from the lake. Wealthy families drive new four-wheel-drives. Advertisement

Until recently, Lugu Lake was a bone-shattering, day-long bus ride from the closest city, Lijiang, in the north-west of Yunnan province. But domestic tourism across China is exploding. New roads and tunnels have reduced the trip through the spectacular 3000-metre mountain range from eight hours to six. In 2011, visitor numbers almost doubled in one year, to 570,000.

While foreign faces are still rare, Lugu Lake has become one of China's most sought-after travel destinations, with its jagged mountain peaks, ultramarine lake and eternal spring climate. Buses are pouring in from across mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore. A new airport will see numbers skyrocket.

What tourists come to see is the Kingdom of Women. Here, women are the chiefs. They control the wealth, inherit the property and do most of the labour. Children are raised in the mother's household and uncles play father to their sister's children. Grandmothers are revered and must be obeyed. "People say the Mosuo are a matriarchal society, but actually it's a matrilineal society," says French anthropologist Pascale-Marie Milan, who is living with the Mosuo as part of her PhD research. "There are matrilineal societies in India and Africa, but those societies have marriage. In the Mosuo society, there is no marriage. In their custom, the man visits the woman in the night. It's the only society that does that now."

The Mosuo's "walking marriage" is shrouded in mystery and mystique. A man attends a woman's house at night, arriving under cover of darkness and leaving again before dawn. The relationship is only made public when children come along. Even then, lovers can separate easily. Family bonds come before love relationships, and because children and property always belong to the mother, a walking marriage ends without fuss.

Anthropologists believe walking marriage was a way of protecting family wealth, perhaps dating back to the 7th century. No one knows its true origin. What is extraordinary is that, despite a push towards traditional marriage from the Chinese government for the past 50 years, walking marriage is still the norm. It is practised by coming-of-age teenagers and young people in their 20s and 30s, as well as their parents and grandparents.

In Xiao Luoshui Village, on the northern shore of Lugu Lake, we meet 27-year-old La Chuo Zhu Ma and her younger sister, Jia. They live with their mother, grandmother, younger brother and La Chuo's two small children in their ancestral home, a communal log ranch with sloping clay tile roofs built around a central courtyard and surrounded by rice fields.

La Chuo and her partner practise walking marriage. But their decision has not been without conflict. La Chuo's partner is from the Pumi minority, and his friends have teased him for allowing his "wife" to have her way. "At the beginning, he didn't support my ideas," says La Chuo, a striking woman with raven hair to her waist. "But after we had children, he had to compromise. Lots of my friends who are Mosuo girls have married out, to other minorities or Han Chinese families, and they have lots of conflict with their new family. That's why I choose the walking marriage. I can avoid direct conflict with my 'husband's' mother."

Sadly, some tourists see walking marriage as akin to free sex. Tour group leaders deliberately rev up their customers' expectations and a red-light district has mushroomed. Some prostitutes are Mosuo women, most are not. There are reports of Thai prostitutes dressed in ethnic dress and also of Mosuo men taking advantage of the new blood streaming into their villages. This is causing alarm among the sisters and mothers.

"In the old days, everyone is sharing and helping each other in the fields and in the houses," says La Chuo. "Now the tourists come and people learn bad habits from them. There is less harmony and less sharing. So many young girls come here in the name of free love and the boys start practising walking marriage with them. It's pretty bad. In fact, a few of the [Mosuo] girls do it, too ... for fun or making money, loads of reasons. But I don't have any solution because the tourists also bring us money."

Though only a year younger, La Chuo's sister Jia, 26, has been bewitched by the tourists. In perky Mao-style cap, blue jeans and Birkenstocks, she has her heart set on marrying a foreigner. "The boys are very lazy here," she says, laughing hysterically. "I knew some foreigners in the past and they could fix the light, fix the toilet, clean the toilet, fix everything in the house. The DIY man. You can see here today, we are busy cutting vegetables and preparing dinner, and they just sit next to us, drinking beer and playing poker and ignoring everything. At whatever age, women are like the mother and men are like children."

A few doors down, we meet the Aya family. Si Geng Ma, the 69-year-old matriarch, is still dressed in traditional Mosuo garb - navy blue skirts, a violet velvet coat and a crimson headscarf woven from goat's wool. But already things are changing here. Each evening, the family welcomes two or three tables of tourists into their home.

Their family structure is changing, too. One daughter lives with her husband in the city and one son married a Naxi minority woman and has brought her to live with them. Only two of Si Geng Ma's children still practise walking marriage - her 38-year-old daughter, who lives there with her nine-year-old son, and her eldest son, in his mid-40s, whose children live with their mother's family nearby. Si Geng Ma's own partner died many years ago. But whether she has taken another lover, no one knows. Such things are kept secret in Mosuo society.

Tonight, there are eight tourists visiting. They are from mainland China, all under 25. Si Geng Ma's daughter and daughter-in-law busy themselves serving the local speciality, pork sausage. Si Geng Ma does not speak to the tourists. She just watches them with smiling eyes. "The tourists come in and bring us money," she says. "In the old days, when I was a little girl, food was very limited. We had fish from the lake and rice to trade. When we didn't have anything, we would powder the stem of a corn cob and make it into soup, or we would walk into the mountains and get tree bark to eat."

Even the 20-something sisters, La Chuo and Jia, recall having so little food as children that they had to borrow rice. Now they earn more than $75 a day dancing for the tourists and cooking them meals.

Despite the swathe of new guesthouses springing up on the lake's edge, the water remains unspoiled. But tourism is bringing enormous change.

So how do travellers ensure that they do not destroy the very cultures they come to see? "For sure, Lugu Lake is going to become a very touristique place," observes the anthropologist Milan. "But they want tourism. They want to improve their lives and they want to speak about their culture. It is their own choice. My favourite sentence is, 'Just come, and see by your own eyes.' If you want to know about it, you have to come."

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bump & Grind

Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald, December 23, 2012

Hyperemesis gravidarum is turning Erin O'Dwyer's twin pregnancy into an ordeal.

The news that a woman is expecting a baby is among the most joyous she will ever receive. So perhaps it's not unreasonable to suggest the revelation she is expecting two babies - twins! - should double her joy.

But when an ultrasound technician announced there were "two in there" at my 12-week scan, joy was the last thing on my mind. I was suffering from the worst morning sickness known to man. Make that woman.

What my babies' father referred to as "just morning sickness, every woman gets it", was in fact hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). This rare condition that affects between 1 and 3 per cent of pregnant women is severe morning sickness that can last the entire pregnancy.

Sufferers experience constant, unrelenting nausea and daily vomiting, meaning they cannot tolerate food or fluids. It can lead to rapid weight loss, dehydration, nutritional deficiencies and long-term kidney and liver damage. It is more common in women carrying multiples.

English novelist Charlotte Bronte's death, when she was four months' pregnant with her first child, is blamed on hyperemesis. Today, women are treated with intravenous fluids and anti-nausea medication in hospital. Despite that, in some tragic cases, women choose to abort their baby. In the very worst cases, some choose suicide as their only way out. I had been vomiting three times a day for three months when I finally succumbed and presented at the emergency department of my local hospital. It was just before dawn, and I was alone, emotionally broken and vomiting. I had not worked for months and I could not drive further than my local shops. Most of my days were spent in bed. Turning over or coughing would make me vomit and some nights I vomited five or six times. Even having a shower and making the bed would leave me so depleted I would have to lie down again.

But in my mind it was the morning sickness that usually accompanies pregnancy and I didn't expect hospital staff to take me seriously. Instead, the emergency team diagnosed me with HG. They immediately put me on a drip, pumped me with intravenous fluids and prescribed two different types of medication. Afterwards I had a cheese sandwich and a small glass of apple juice. It was the first thing I had kept down for days.

Until recently, hyperemesis has been little known beyond the women diagnosed with it. Research is scarce, funding is scarcer and there's an alarming level of ignorance among the medical fraternity. But the announcement earlier this month that a pregnant Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, had been hospitalised with hyperemesis will no doubt boost research and empower many more women to seek treatment.

Ann Marie King, co-founder and director of US-based hyperemesis research institute HER Foundation, says the condition is vastly under-reported. Shortly after Middleton's hyperemesis made news, there was a surge in women signing up to participate in genetic research being conducted at the University of California Los Angles. It is the only university in the world researching hyperemesis.

"Hopefully, this international dialogue will lead to new medical protocols drawing the distinction between morning sickness, which is a normal part of pregnancy, and HG, which is a pregnancy disease with no known cause or cure," says King.

"Doctors will start diagnosing HG instead of just thinking it is normal morning sickness."

My own "morning sickness" - or more properly, all-day/all-night sickness - continues. All the pleasure I once derived from food has gone, replaced with an awful aversion to eating. I cannot cook or eat the same thing twice, and every mealtime is an ordeal.

More importantly, being so unwell has taught me incredible empathy. I always thought I was a sympathetic soul, but I have never been chronically ill before. Now I understand what it is like to be so completely debilitated that you cannot leave the house. What you need is love, acceptance and someone to sit by your bed.

Fortunately I've had support in droves. A handful of friends call every day and a dozen more call once or twice a week. My sister flew down from Brisbane to cook for me, friends deliver meals and others make the three-hour round trip from Sydney to Wollongong to sit with me. The house is full of flowers and cards. My parents send care packages and other friends have taken me in for weekends. Even as the months have dragged on, friends and family have kept texting, calling, emailing and dropping in. I've never experienced anything like it. And the ordeal has made me a much better friend in return.

Now, five months into my pregnancy, I've found an elixir - an acupuncture-specialising GP. Even better, he bulk billed. His first treatment - one needle below the knee - made me feel almost well again and his offer to see me twice a week was a godsend. But even acupuncture did not restore the joy.

That was left to Franz Schubert. In the car on the way to the GP, I heard the Piano Sonata in G Major played by Russian virtuoso Grigory Sokolov. The tenderness of his playing stopped me in my tracks. Exhausted from another night of vomiting, I felt the first bubbles of joy I'd had in months.

The recording is now on my Christmas list and I hope to play it to my newborn babes. If it can shine through hyperemesis, it can shine through anything ... colic, sleepless nights and whatever other joys lie ahead. "

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Places in the heart

Pic: Andrew Gregory
Australian Geographic
Issue 111, November-December 2012

Heritage listing has ensured the future of a no-frills Aussie beach experience that's endured since the Great Depression, writes Erin O'Dwyer.

IN A REMOTE corner of NSW's Royal National Park, beach huts lie amid the folds and foothills of lush Black Gin Gully, which rises above Little Garie beach.

"Some shacks were built by the ocean so they could get the view. Others, like ours, are close to the creek," says Billy Burn, 73, whose father-in-law, a miner from nearby Helensburgh, built a shack here in 1942. "It was great when the kids were little. We would fill two buckets with water and bring them back to wash the nappies."

Inside, the shack is filled with 1940s technology: a bright-blue kerosene fridge, a lime-and-cream enamelled kerosene oven, a blackened metho burner and a row of old kerosene lamps hanging from nails.

There's 1950s bric-a-brac, too - a laminex table in sparkling yellow and carpet tiles on the floor - but these days there are solar panels on the roof.

"The grandkids just come in and flick on the lights," says Billy, smiling. "They don't remember what it used to be like."

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