For our eleventh Motherhood Around the World interview, we talked to Gaby Fearn, who lives in Sydney with her husband and one-year-old daughter, Clementine. Here are 14 things she finds surprising about being a mom in Australia…
Gaby’s background: Gaby was born and raised in Vancouver, but in 2008, she went backpacking through Australia with a friend and ended up meeting her now-husband at a rock-climbing gym. “We dated for just a few weeks before I had to go back to Canada,” she remembers. “But I lasted for only four months before I moved to Sydney to be with him.” Gaby now works as a photographer and yoga teacher, as well as writing the blog This Little Port.
On first impressions: During my first trip here, I was traveling with my best friend, and I remember we were both shocked by how incredibly good looking everyone was! We were coming from the Canadian winter, and everyone here seemed fit, tanned and attractive. I was also surprised by how huge and urban Sydney was. I guess I expected it to be laid-back and beachy!
On making friends: When I first moved to Sydney, I found it quite hard to make friends. I kept befriending other expats, and then they’d leave and I would be friendless again. While Australians were really friendly on the surface, many of the people I knew already had a tight circle of friends from high school or university, and they seemed happy with that. It was hard to get past that initial stage of being an acquaintance.
Now that I have a baby, though, it’s a completely different story! Aussie mums are quite welcoming of expat mums, I think because what we have in common (motherhood) is so much bigger than any difference in where we’re from. You tend to see the same people all the time—at the park, the library, the shops—and I’ve become friends with other mums just because I bump into them so often! Women and men I’ve met in Australia are very open and share a lot—everything from details of their sex lives to parenting challenges. Some of my Aussie friends are now the people I feel closest to.
On sleep camps: Government-subsidized programs help parents teach their babies to sleep. I haven’t been to one (though I did consider it when we were in the middle of sleep hell with our daughter) but many of my friends have. The sleep camps are centers, usually attached to a hospital, that are run by nurses. Most mums I know went when their babies were around six or seven months old. You go for five days and four nights, and they put you and your baby on a strict schedule of feeding, napping and sleeping. If you’re really desperate for sleep, you also have the option of having a nurse handle your baby for the whole first night so you can sleep, but after that you spend the next few nights with your baby overnight while the nurses show you what to do. They use controlled crying and other techniques. I have friends who say it saved their lives, friends who left feeling “meh” about the whole thing, and a friend who left after a day because, in her words, “they left my baby in a cupboard to cry.”
On slang: For the longest time, I felt like Australians were speaking a different language! Some of the vocabulary and expressions are very British, so we say “pram, nappy and dummy” instead of “stroller, diaper and pacifier.” Other expressions are more Australian. Your kid might “chuck a tanty at the shops” (throw a tantrum at the grocery store) or “try to pash another bubba” (try to kiss another baby). This is one of my favorite expressions—”pash” comes from passion, and basically means “to make out with.” Another favorite phrase is “you and your misses might have a DNM,” which means “you and your wife might have a deep and meaningful conversation.”
Australians also tend to say what something is not rather than what it is. In response to “how are you?” Australians will say “not bad” rather than “fine.” If you ask what someone is like as a person, an Aussie will reply, “he’s not a bad bloke,” instead of saying, “he’s a good guy.” If they actually dislike someone, they will describe that person as “being pretty average.”
On the high cost of living: Sydney is insanely expensive—it ranks among the world’s most unaffordable cities to live (this year it’s the fifth most expensive city in the world). Sydney now ranks as the second most unaffordable housing market in the English-speaking world. Experts are telling young families like us that there is no point in buying property because we will never come out on top. It’s getting to the point where many of our friends are considering moving. It’s actually quite depressing.
I’m also constantly shocked by how much little things cost. A small coffee here costs around $4, and a cocktail at a bar will cost you around $17 (in U.S. dollars). Clothes, books and music cost way, way more than they do in North America. I do all my book shopping online and try to wait to shop for clothes until we visit Canada.
People are generally paid well here, though, so it almost evens out. For example, when I first arrived, I worked retail jobs for minimum wage. But minimum wage in Sydney was literally double what minimum wage was in Vancouver at the time. Right now the minimum wage in Sydney is $15.65 (in U.S. dollars) per hour.
On seasons: The fact that the seasons are opposite (in the southern hemisphere vs. the northern hemisphere) was hard to wrap my head around. Even after six years here, I’m still disoriented when we celebrate Christmas in mid-summer. It just feels wrong! Summers are long and brutally hot. The hottest months are January and February, when temperatures can soar above 95F. When I was pregnant, we experienced the hottest day ever recorded in Sydney! The mercury peaked at 115F in the shade, and I spent all day at home, sitting under the air-conditioner. My absolutely insane husband, however, went golfing. He came home saying, “It was a bit warm out there.” Australians have a gift for understatement!
Winters in Sydney are mild and short, so, because of that, houses aren’t well equipped for the cold. No one has central heating, and insulation is dodgy at best. And even in the coldest months, Australians have a habit of keeping windows open at all times. I’ll often find myself visiting someone’s home, absolutely shivering. It’s weird—you’ll actually dress your child in more clothes when inside, and then when you get ready to go outside, you’ll strip layers off! People keep their windows wide open even when they have babies—the philosophy being that everyone needs that healthy fresh air.
On safety: The official rules around safety are even stricter here than in the United States. Carseats are mandatory, and we have to have an extra belt that goes around the top of the carseat. Heat stroke is so common and rates of skin cancer so high that children’s school uniforms include sun hats—the “No hat, No play” rule is strictly enforced, meaning that kids can’t play outside unless they’re wearing their hats.
Australia is home to many dangerous animals, including sharks, crocodiles and poisonous spiders. Magpie birds aren’t a problem here in Sydney, but in Canberra (the capital) and some of the bush areas, magpies can be very aggressive. In the rural areas, people will walk with big sticks to protect the magpies from swooping near children. Some cyclists wear helmets with spikes to deter them! I used to work with a girl who grew up on a farm, and she would walk around with a huge stick (especially at dawn and dusk) to ward off the kangaroos. In certain parts of Australia, the kangaroos are enormous, taller than a man, and can be quite vicious.
Most Aussies live in coastal cities and towns, and each year lives are lost due to rip tides, waves, sharks and crocodiles. For all of these reasons, Australian children learn to swim at a very young age. Most of my friends take their babies to swimming classes when they’re six months old. Clementine will be starting lessons soon!
Despite all the recognized dangers, however, people are still somewhat laid-back. There’s the Australian saying, “She’ll be right, mate,” which roughly translates as “Everything is fine. Don’t worry.”
On playgrounds: Because the weather is so good year round, kids spend a ton of time outside. In Sydney, we’re lucky to have so many parks and playgrounds. They always have lots of swings and slides (which Australians call “slippery dips”). It’s also hard to emphasize just how important the culture of sporting is to Australians. My husband is keen for Clementine to be involved in swimming and athletics (like running, hurdles, javelin). Her granddad already talks about how excited he is for her athletics tournaments! If her dad gets his way, she will also rock climb and play soccer and cricket.
On drinking: In Australia, the beverage of choice (especially for men) is beer, and the people we know like to party. In general, bars and pubs don’t have table service. You line up at the bar to order your drinks and food. Because you have to go up to the bar to order, one person will usually order (and pay for) the entire table’s drinks. My husband says this is an example of Australia’s egalitarian nature. Then the next person takes their turn buying drinks, and so on and so forth. It’s called a shout, as in, “It’s my shout.” This system means that everyone drinks a lot more than they otherwise would!
On food: Because of the climate, people can do amazing things in their own backyards—my old house had an avocado tree and a passion fruit tree! Australians are big meat eaters and most kids grow up having “sausage sizzles” (backyard barbecues where hot dogs are served) and Sunday roasts (roast chicken/lamb) every week. Meat pies (filled with beef, lamb or chicken) are also big here. There’s quite a strong pub culture, and you’ll often see families out for dinner at the pub. Mum and Dad will be drinking beer and eating steak, while the kids have fish and chips. Some pubs get so full of kids on the weekends that they have special play areas. A typical weekday breakfast is toast with Vegemite, a thick yeast spread that’s very salty. Having not grown up with it, I find it disgusting! But my husband has been giving Clementine Vegemite on toast since she was eight months old, and she loves it.
On work/life balance: The Australians we know like to work hard and play hard. People get a minimum of four weeks paid vacation a year. And there’s always the age-old tradition of “chucking a sickie.” This means you have the day off but you’re not really sick. Basically, it’s socially accepted that you can occasionally call in sick, just to have the day off.
On travel: Travel is quite popular in Australia. Common destinations are: Bali, Thailand, Fiji and New Zealand. It’s funny because people seem to think that Bali is “right next door” because there are so many Australians there, but it’s actually a six-and-a-half hour flight from Sydney! People don’t realize just how isolated Australia is.
On loving Sydney: Thinking about life in Sydney, one word keeps coming to mind: fun. Most people are very fun-loving and always up for a laugh. There’s an endless line-up of festivals, shows and events. The beaches are ridiculously amazing, the national parks absolutely breathtaking and the country towns impossibly quaint. I love how active we can be as a family thanks to the good weather. I’m really glad to be raising Clementine in such a vibrant, diverse city.
Thank you so much, Gaby!
(Interview by Caroline Donofrio. Photos courtesy of Gaby Fearn; top portrait of Gaby and Clem, photo of Clementine in winter and family photos by Gui Jorge; photo of Gaby near ferry by Lou Buma; photos of Gaby while pregnant by Belinda Kypriotis)