Julie Frew

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Until very recently I celebrated my birthday like most others. I enjoyed a present or two, ate something yummy, perhaps cakey, and felt loved by a swell of well-wishes. I have not abandoned these celebrations as of late, but I have come to wonder about whether it is I who should be receiving all the love. Indeed, each trip around the sun I make is one more acknowledgement that once upon a time, I was cut out of a brave young woman, and this was the day it happened.

This same woman, my mother, would go on to love me fiercely through her darkest days. After my father was mandatorily enlisted in the army in South Africa, she turned her teaching career homeward and opened a preschool as a way for her to stay home with my sister, and eventually me when I was born. When he became unwell she moonlighted as a waitress to cover costs. And when my father died following unsuccessful treatment of a brain tumour, she headed to a tiny beach town on the southern coast of South Africa, not too far from where I had been born in Cape Town. Here, she continued to host a little school in our garage and back garden. She is fire: she makes her own path and fights for you to have a way to make yours; simultaneously she is warmth and light and a gatherer.

My mother remarried, and our family moved to New Zealand when I was 9 years old. I found a niche somewhere between music, arts and nerdiness that allowed me to enjoy my school days with a variety of beautiful people. I finished school and went to study in Dunedin.

The Maori Language Commission chose whakaora (restore to health) and ngangahau (active, spirited, zealous) to convey ‘occupational therapy’: restoring to health one’s activeness, spiritedness and zeal. It’s a wide and deep scope, because no-one’s pairing of neuro-biology or enthusiasms are the same, so plenty of creativity is needed. This was unquestionably a path I could immerse myself in.

Being a woman is probably the one chip in my otherwise polished privilege. And yet even in that, I see now, and looking back, that what is on one hand a very real vulnerability is the very thing that has allowed a space for strength to enter.

In my third tertiary year I went on a placement in a remote part of Uganda. My fortuitous meeting with Karina just before she and her family left New Zealand had me primed for fieldwork that would alter my career and, undoubtedly, my whole life. Karina was passionate and driven, pragmatic and yet an avid dreamer. She is the kind of woman that dreams dreams and then wakes up and makes them happen. She lands in the middle of tragedy and somehow nurtures scraps of life back to living. For the short time I was with her, we partnered with parents and carers to better understand children with a variety of abilities, neuro-diversities, and those who had experienced significant trauma. Karina facilitated the start-up of a home for children, and since that time she has helped start many other restorative programmes and empowered local communities within health and education sectors, both in New Zealand and abroad. She mirrors the notion that women give birth to life in everything she does.

I entered the world of occupational therapy a year after this.

It was at this time that I got a part-time job while completing my honours, and met Emma. Emma is one of the most intelligent, courageous and honest people I have ever met. And she is darn good at her job. She fostered my curiosity about brains and neuroscience, giving me weekly tutorials through a wonderful fat text book about sensory integration, and supervising my practise with the children at our work. She showed me how to practise with my head, my heart, and my hands; that in holding a space for the stories of others to unfold and become cohesive, one needs to do a lot of continuous inner work to integrate our own experiences. Emma left and went to work as a private practitioner at an integrative medical practise. After a few years, I followed her, managing our own small practises under the same umbrella service.

I had met Robyn through Emma years before. Robyn was the Occupational Therapist that established the integrative medical centre where all 3 of us then worked. She built a practise from the ground up, even made her own equipment, and weaved together beauty and art and research and science with extraordinary skill. Robyn is a woman that is gentle and yet seemingly limitless in energy. Her intuition and tacit knowledge is like no other, in every moment she holds a peace and a way-in. I have never seen a child that she could not engage with. Robyn is a woman that never boasts about all of her goodness – but each word she says I feel I could capture and record verbatim in a book.

After a few years I picked up a day of work alongside Robyn at the Champion Centre. Here, she partnered with Jan, a speech-language therapist (and much, much more). Jan was one of the original hustle to pioneer the beautiful work of the Champion Centre – a not-for-profit early intervention service with an inspiring history of smart, passionate women pushing back against the status quo (a story well worth reading about). Jan has the ability to say “how are you?” with such sincerity – not the sort of ‘how are ya’ that people say as they keep walking, but the kind that stops and looks, and waits, and you feel sure that true listening will follow. On a bad day, Jan can ask you this question and you might just burst into tears. And that would be okay, too.

Watching Jan and Robyn in the innovative programme they developed – ‘Relating and Communicating’ – is like watching ice-skating or rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics. It is utterly mesmerising, their work is seamless and wholly present, and it is not just work – it is part of who they are. Even with the overwhelming dedication, knowledge and experience between them, each remains open to the unique story of the person before them. Stepping into the role of team-leader in this programme, I am deeply aware of all they have laid down before.

When I gave birth to my own child I experienced being torn in two and have not since been able to be completely put back together. This is a heart-ache not understood in its fullness by most. I felt a push and pull of my head and heart unparalleled by any other experience – my sense of self entirely dismantled, and yet the greatest opportunity to wrap my arms around complete innocence and otherness, like a morning: new and born and fresh.

Jan would ring to ask me her genuine “how are you?” regularly. She gauged when I was ready to return to work, and eased me back in with a mere 2 hours a week. This kind of support and respect for working women who choose to have babies is virtually unheard of, and a great testament to the Champion Centre’s philosophy of supporting parents as first teachers, and seeing everything in the context of relationship.

...they live with an authenticity that recognises all of life, from atom to universe, is about relationships and interactions, not labels or roles or things or solutions or end products.

One of the most remarkable things I have noticed is that each of these women carries so much; and rather than tuck pain away in one box, joy in another, profession in one, and ‘daughter’, ‘friend’, or ‘mother’ in yet another – they weave these facets into an integrated whole. They do not reveal every mystery that makes them who they are, yet they live with an authenticity that recognises all of life, from atom to universe, is about relationships and interactions, not labels or roles or things or solutions or end products.

My whole life I have spent on a journey towards solidarity with those who are misunderstood, those who have been overlooked and unseen, and those that move to a different beat to the majority. I still have a long, long way to go. Being a woman is probably the one chip in my otherwise polished privilege. And yet even in that, I see now, and looking back, that what is on one hand a very real vulnerability is the very thing that has allowed a space for strength to enter.

Women have shaped me, strengthened me, inspired me, mentored me, and buffered me. They have done it quietly, with no applause or search for recognition. These women are authentic, passionate, courageous, intelligent, and they love exceptionally and without agenda. They are the speed of light – my constants – in an otherwise inconstant universe, shaping star-dust in their bellies, and nurturing it to life.