US journalist and author, Hodding Carter, wrote that the two most important things to give your children are roots and wings.
As a daughter, I’m lucky to have parents who are doing exactly that - however much it hurts them. But as a mother, I realise that my daughter’s path through life may take her many thousands of miles from my own – in the same way mine has from my mum.
So I’m taking her back to the UK for an extended trip this year. It’ll be a long time away from my husband, which is something I’m dreading. But it will also be a chance for her to meet the rest of her family, and spend some proper time with my parents, my sister and the people I grew up with.
By virtue of my nationality (British) and her place of birth (Sydney) my daughter can choose to be either Australian or British; or both. So I’m wondering: when trying to give your child both roots and wings, will their birthplace define who they are?
In a recent conversation, a good friend said: “it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in Australia, you’ll never be Aussie.”
Maybe I should have been offended. I wasn’t, for a couple of reasons: the first that the person who said it is a good friend. They’re well educated, kind, open hearted and minded, and thoughtful. Their comment wasn’t made in anger, it was simply an observation. The second reason it didn’t make me cross was that it made me think, instead. Do I want to be Aussie?
In my current state of mind, it seemed to imply that those of us who weren’t born here desire two things: 1) to leave the land of our birth because it is in some way lacking, or inferior to Australia and 2) to become an Aussie. I say Aussie because exactly what it means to be Aussie is of course subjective.
If you ask me where I call home, my answer will depend on who you are, and what the situation is. When I’m staying with extended family down the South Coast, if one of their friends asks, I say Sydney. As they have the assumed knowledge that I am part of a family of British/Italian Australians, they will know that I didn’t start out in life in Australia – but they tend to mean ‘where have you come from for this trip, not ‘where were you born?’ By the same token, if I’m at work, I take a lot of briefs over the phone, so my accent (still undeniably English) gives me away. In that case, I’d say Southern England.
But if you were to ask me where my heart is? Well, that’s a tougher call.
I came to Australia for the first time in 2000, to celebrate the landmark birthday of a beloved uncle. I fell madly in love with my extended family, their way of life; outlook, food, everything. I was overwhelmed, then besotted by their noisy and intellectual conversations around the dinner table, thanks to my very grounded, patient aunt and hilarious, opinionated cousins. I adored the scenery of the far south coast - but I didn’t fall for Sydney. It was too big, brash, and busy for my 21-year-old brain to take in on my own. And I didn’t really have the chance to explore any more of Australia than that in my month here.
Back in the northern hemisphere, some 18 months later and after only six months together, my boyfriend and I decided to travel around Australia for a year. He’d always wanted to go, but never managed it. I was excited to see my extended family again, and get to see more of the beautiful country I’d had only glimpses of. It’s true to say that neither of us were anchored firmly by sensational jobs; but we did have very strong family and friend relationships; opportunities for employment, and a love for our childhood homes and culture - so there was plenty to come back to. My long-term dream was to move back to South Wales where I had gone to university, and build a life there.
Nine months into the trip, my boyfriend and I had called it quits. Twice. Once in Hong Kong (three days in) and then again in Canberra, several months later. So I was free to fall in love again.
And I did. Head over heels, heart racing, pulse quickening, stomach churning, butterfly inducing, and all consuming love. With Sydney.
I’d never felt anything as strong as the sensation I had walking over the Harbour Bridge and looking at the breathtaking scenery. I loved my job, my friends, the weather, the optimism, the fun, the brashness, the busy-ness, the business - all of it. So when the company I worked for offered me sponsorship, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I jumped into a new life with both feet.
And here I still am, over a decade later. Despite falling in love with a city, a man, and a baby; despite having Australian permanent residency for seven years, citizenship on the horizon, my marriage, the birth of my daughter, a lovely family and incredible friends, even despite going for Australia in The Ashes … I’m still not true blue.
But the disconcerting thing is this: I’ve been gone from the UK for so long now that I might not be truly British any more either, not in the sense that I easily understand cultural references, or even the language. I looked back on a conversation with my husband yesterday and realised I’d said gladwrap, eggplant, and yoghurt. I’d asked him how the D’s went (meaning Melbourne Football Club in he AFL), described a colleague as ‘ropeable’ - and all this while putting clean covers on the doona.
It seems that my language, cultural references and relatives are split fairly evenly. I was brought up in the UK, and I loved it with all my pasty, well spoken, pint drinking, thank you letter sending heart. And I’ve grown up and built my own family here in Australia, which I also love with all my beach dwelling, wine drinking, blue- sky worshipping heart.
What that makes me, and in turn what it makes my daughter, are yet to be determined. I’m not someone who thinks of myself as a ‘citizen of the world’ but I don’t think that where I was born defines me, either. I’ve probably felt most at home in South Wales … and then in New South Wales; neither of which are my place of birth. And funnily enough, the friend who made the comment that sparked the column is, with his wife, one of the reasons I do feel so at home here.
I hope we can give our daughter the roots she needs to believe in herself; to be aware that wherever she goes and whatever she does, we will love her with all our hearts. Because in doing that, we will help to make her at home within herself. And that will surely give her the wings she’ll need to achieve anything.
And in case you’re wondering what happened to the boyfriend? It turns out that travelling overseas with someone you don’t know very well is quite a hard path to tread. But it seems it just isn’t possible to fall out of love with him either. The Canberra break up was our longest, at about 3 minutes. He’s now my husband. But that’s a story for another column.