‘They said my baby was a mistake’
SARAH Hanson-Young was the youngest woman ever elected to the Australian Parliament in 2007. The week she won preselection, she received other life changing news: she was pregnant. She was sure she could do both. Others wanted her to choose between being a senator and a mum. Below is an edited extract from her new book, En Garde.
MY DAUGHTER'S name, 'Kora', comes from the language of the Wonnarua Nation, the traditional land owners of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.
It means 'companion'. This is fitting because, from before she was born, she has been with me as I've navigated my way through the world of politics. We've grown up together, her as a kid and me as a politician. Together a family, neither of us knows a life without the juggling involved in politics and the curveballs that come with it.
Back in 2006, the same week I found out I'd won preselection for the Greens in the upcoming South Australian Senate race, I found out I was pregnant. I was in shock, mostly because doctors had told me that, despite falling pregnant and having an abortion when I was at university, I was unlikely to conceive naturally, as I'd developed polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
My symptoms were less severe than those of many other sufferers, but doctors had told me that when the time came that I wanted a baby, it would be nearly impossible for me to become pregnant without hormone treatment. Having had an abortion, when I was nineteen, gave this advice an extra sting.
With all of this in mind, the last thing I had expected after winning the top spot on the Greens Senate ticket was to discover that I was now also winning at conception.
So, there I was, 24 years old, preselected and pregnant. At that stage, the Greens had never won a South Australian seat in the federal Parliament. But Bob Brown was the leader of the party and Prime Minister John Howard was on the nose. He had refused to say sorry to the stolen generations or to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
I could feel that the support for the Greens was about to increase. It didn't take me long to work out that I'd been given two very big opportunities and I would be crazy not to take them. The baby was due in April 2007 and the election was due by the end of that year.
Perhaps it was naivety or the excitement of the campaign, or both, but not once did I think that trying to pull off being a new mum while starting my political career was unreasonable. I knew it wouldn't be easy, of course, but I've always worked hard.
Silver platters weren't handed out in my family; I was taught from a young age that if you wanted something, you go get it yourself.
I never thought for a moment that anyone would complain about it or try to stop me. Working mums are everywhere, and many are far less supported and not in positions as flexible as mine. It wasn't the 1950s anymore, even though we did have Howard as PM.
I had won the preselection fair and square, so what was the problem with me having a baby?
Plenty, apparently. From the moment I started telling people inside the party that I was expecting, the grumbles started. "You really should have told people you wanted to have a baby before you contested the preselection," one male party member said to me. It wasn't the reaction I had banked on.
My joy at being an expectant mother quickly turned to disappointment when a group inside one of the local branches tried to have my preselection ruled invalid on the basis that I was now pregnant.
They argued that members had not been given all the relevant information before voting in the ballot. While it was never actually said, the meaning was clear: they were accusing me of concealing wanting a child, when, all the while, I had thought it was impossible.
Why on earth would I reveal to a group of party members that I had skipped a period, or that I had a medical disorder that affected my fertility? These are questions a male candidate would never have been asked and it was information he would never be expected to divulge.
Thankfully, reason prevailed and the campaign against me was quietly dropped. Even so while the complaints were never formalised, they hung around in the background as mutterings and the odd snide comment, like unsubstantiated gripes often do, acting as a reminder that people were watching me and that some, perhaps, were waiting for me to fail.
One person's comments, when Bob Brown was in Adelaide to announce my candidature to the media, I will never forget. The press were keen on the story because the Greens' vote was growing, while the Democrats' had crashed, and I was a young woman stepping into politics at the same time former Democrats senator Natasha Stott-Despoja was bowing out.
The headline in The Australian the next day called me 'the Green Natasha', as though my age and gender were all that mattered.
Ten minutes before the press conference was due to start, a senior woman from the party leadership came over to tell me exactly what she thought. "So, you're having a baby?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, on some level still expecting, from a colleague, the customary positive response to news of a pregnancy. "That's a mistake," she said, implying I was guaranteed to fail. She also said I should forget about trying to keep a partner because "that would soon be over".
I was floored.
Who says that? And, especially, who says that to another woman? A younger, female colleague who was looking for support? I was 20 weeks' pregnant and about to front the waiting media to announce the start of my political career.
I bit my tongue, smiled and told her I hoped she was wrong. I felt small and I felt ill, though that could also have been morning sickness, which I was suffering from terribly at the time, but I knew from that moment I had to work harder than ever to pull this off. I had to make sure she was wrong.
As motivation, there's nothing quite like proving those who doubt you wrong. I walked out to where the media were assembled and found Bob Brown waiting for me. He looked at me and said, with a big, warm smile, "Babies are wonderful, just wonderful. This is great news!"
Kora was born in February, seven weeks early. She was perfectly healthy, but such a tiny little thing. I hit the campaign trail almost immediately, with bub, nappy bag and optimism all in tow. By the end of November, I had been elected, and was not just the first Green from South Australia, but the youngest woman ever to be elected to any Australian parliament.
I was off to Canberra, with my little companion by my side.
En Garde by Sarah Hanson-Young published by MUP $14.99/ebook $9.99