What Australian womanhood looks like in 2016

Ten kids, no kids, a nun and a foster mum - on International Women's Day we talk to four Aussie women about the very different choices they have made.

By Danielle Colley
Foster mum – Isabelle Forrest
I’ve fostered over 80 children in the last 17 years. Some just for a night, some for a month, and five kids I now have until they grow up and are ready to leave our home.
I knew when I was a teenager that I wanted to foster children. It’s just something I’ve always wanted. When I met my husband I told him straight away that I wanted to be a foster mum, as well as have my own kids, because if he wasn’t on board it would have been a deal breaker for me.
I had three kids under three of my own when I started looking into the process, and suddenly a few innocent inquiries snowballed into suitability assessments and then we were doing emergency care.
Emergency care often happens in the middle of the night and they’ll call and ask if you could put a child up for a night or two until something more permanent can be arranged. It was a good way to start to see how we liked it.
As we became more confident we began to do short term for a few months here and there, and sometimes it became longer.
People often ask me if it breaks my heart to give the kids back but I always think if I was babysitting my niece or nephew for a time and it was time for them to go home, it’s just the way it is. They are not my children. I am just offering them my home and my love until they something else can be arranged. I guess you put up a guard.
My husband once likened it to different types of friends. Some friends you let all the way into your hearts and others you only let in so far. It’s like there are layers of love and affection. When you know they’re not staying you only let them in a little bit.
Because many of the children come from troubled pasts or have mothers that were substance abusers while they were in utero, my home has seen quite a few behavioural issues.
Some kids have attachment disorders and they live minute by minute, never knowing if they can rely on anyone, stealing, lashing out, but I just try to love them and help them as best as I know how.
You receive special training to help you to cope with it, and over time you learn tactics. We have one beautiful girl in our home now who takes all of our lateral thinking to get through to her. It will happen. We have forever, so we have time.
Religious sister - Sister Molly
There have been times over the years where I’ve longed for children of my own, but it’s just one of the things I gave up freely when I chose to become a religious sister. By being a teacher and spending time in classrooms I’ve been lucky to forge strong relationships with many children.
I felt free to be motherly, now grandmotherly, to so many children and I made many special connections. Of course, at times it was difficult because I am still a woman and I knew I would never hold my own flesh and blood.
This has been the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make for my vocation, but it’s just “part of the deal”.
When I made my religious profession I took three vows to God - chastity, poverty and obedience. These vows encourage me to express the love and compassion of God to all I meet. I have had a full life, with wonderful human connections and I have no regrets.
I knew as a little girl that I wanted this life. I grew up on the New South Wales South Coast and times were very difficult. We couldn’t afford very much and the Sisters in the community were kind and inspiring. When I learned more about Mary MacKillop and the work she did, I wanted to be more like her.
St Mary once walked into a classroom of very poor children and she looked at them and said, “These are the children I love,” and every classroom I go in to I think, “These are the children I love”.I retain very strong bonds with my biological family. When I entered, the Sisters of Saint Joseph became my community: we are women unified by a common bond of witness to the love of God. This life makes me feel free to do whatever it is that God wants me to do.Perhaps if I did it all over again I would not go into religious life quite so early. At the time, 17 or so was a fairly normal age for most young girls to begin to make life decisions - these days, we live in a different world! Maybe living a little more first would have been nice, but I would choose this life again because it has been right for me.
Mum of 10 – Kathy Leslie
I always wanted to have a big family. I’m one of nine kids and my husband is one of eight kids so it was just something we always wanted. When we got married we said we wanted to have between six and 10 kids. We were very blessed that we were able to have kids and we ended up with 10 marvelous children.
Between 1980 and 1989 I had six boys straight. I was convinced the sixth boy was going to be a girl. I was happy with boys, of course, but I was just convinced it would be a girl. But then I had my seventh baby, who I was certain was another boy, and we finally had a little girl. I realised I couldn't trust my baby sex instinct!
The next three babies were all girls.
After the first six boys, we thought maybe we would stop, and we went on birth control. It worked for a little while, then I fell pregnant despite it, but I am so appreciative that it didn’t work because I have these beautiful, magnificent kids.
We are both Christians so I just saw it as a message from God that this was my calling; to be a mother.
I didn’t have 10 kids one after the other, I have a few big gaps in there. I had my first baby at 22, and my last baby at almost 44.
I would have kept going but there started to be complications. We had a couple of miscarriages, and my last baby was a miracle baby who was born with two knots in her umbilical cord. I thought that was a sign to stop.
Most of the kids have moved out now, so the house is a bit quieter but I just love Christmas. It’s a highlight for me to have everyone together. It’s just beautiful.
Child-free by choice – Michelle Marie McGrath
I never really thought, 'I’m never having kids' but I was more open to the idea that there was more than that one possibility for my life.
I now have a partner who has teenage children, and they’re great. I love having them in my life, but I just didn’t really want children of my own. Families come in all shapes and sizes. It’s just the way it is now and we need to be tolerant of that.
We live in such a pro-natal society, and wanting to have children is considered normal, so not wanting a child can be viewed as abnormal.
Almost 25 per cent of Australian women aged over 40 are childfree by choice or childless for a variety of reasons. Often these women are forced to justify why they don’t have children or they’re pitied when people discover they’ve been unable to have children.
I feel the role that women without children play is a conversation that needs to be had. To get people talking, my podcast aims to provide inspiring examples of women around the world who are building their lives beyond being a biological mother.
Many of the women I feature on my podcast, Unclassified Woman, do have children in their lives and are happy in their roles as stepmothers, godmothers or aunties for example.
There is also a real issue of social infertility where women would love to have children but they just don’t meet anybody and they need to learn how to accept this and find other things in their lives to give them fulfilment. I have found fulfilment in my friends, family and work. That’s enough for me.