Christina, Mia, Sean
Christina wore wonderfully thick glasses from the age of three, and often got into trouble for reading too much. Her first memory is of a dog licking her face, a toboggan, and snow.
Christina once gave God the silent treatment, “just to see what would happen”—but she backed down first. She’s always believed in him, and doesn’t think she could stop—even if she wanted to.
Most of Christina’s high school friends were high achievers who were too busy freaking out about the UMAT to attend her eighteenth birthday, and went on to study medicine. Everyone seemed to think she’d become a doctor too, but instead, she took a gap year and went to Africa.
Africa led to bible college and bible college led to Tom. They married. She studied linguistics, he became a pastor. They spent some time in Ireland, then settled in Tasmania.
Christina’s always loved babies. Her family used to foster them, and she would often help her mother to feed and bathe them. About three years ago, she fell pregnant with her first child, but at her twenty week scan, the ultrasound technician noticed something wasn’t right. She said she just had to go and check something with the doctor, then she’d be back.
* * *
Christina has long, light brown hair that never misbehaves, and likes to wear long, flowing dresses—but since moving to Tasmania, spends most of her time in jeans. And I've only ever seen her in glasses once—she replaced them with contacts long ago.
I interview her in our lounge room. I’m pretty sure this is where we met—a mutual friend invited her and Tom to a bible study we were hosting at the time, and they soon became regulars.
In those days we only had one kid, who was usually in bed by the time everyone arrived. But on the morning of the interview, there are four to contend with, and they all want different things—milk, a motorbike, rice crackers, a book, help loading a Pez, sticks for the xylophone—except when they want the same thing, which is worse. Either way, we are interrupted many, many times.
* * *
Christina’s husband is a friendly, outgoing guy, but she didn’t immediately appreciate this about him.
Their first encounter was at bible college. He’d just been reunited with his best friend after the summer break and they were walking across the oval to the office.
Christina was heading there too, and he yelled a joyful “Hello!” in her direction.
“He’d never met me before, he just thought he was being friendly and welcoming,” she says, but even more so than usual because he was on some kind of best-friend high.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I hate guys like that’.”
At the office, Christina waited behind the pair, who she’d later know as “The Toms”.
“They had to sign off for their keys or something. And they were both writing their names and the lady behind the desk was like, ‘I knew that both of your names were Tom, I didn’t realise you had the same last name as well’—the other Tom was just copying what Tom was writing!”
Despite his enthusiastic greeting, it wasn’t love at first sight for Tom either. He wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time—he didn’t need one—he had his friendship with Tom.
But time passed, and when his best friend moved home, well, he made a better one.
I have been friends with Mia since grade one. In primary school we played My Little Ponies, formed the (now defunct) Litter Security Club, dressed in Lycra to “work out” using my mum’s Denise Austin fitness videos, planned midnight feasts we could never stay up for, and entered Women’s Weekly competitions we never won.
I was a chubby kid, with thick eyebrows and teeth too big for my face, and Mia was petite, with almost golden hair. Along with Tori, a sporty all-rounder, we formed a tight, happy trio.
In high school, we made hilarious prank calls, formed a formidable debating team (we still like discussing our undefeated season), enjoyed the spoils of the media room at the cricket by pretending our parents were journos, and made absurd horror movies with a five kilo video camera.
So anyway, Mia and I go way back.
Although we did a lot together, Mia was usually the instigator, and would often embark on ventures alone. Getting a job at McDonald’s is a case in point.
* * *
Mia was the minimum age—fourteen years and nine months—when she got the job. Today she’s the last person I’d expect to have anything to do with a multinational fast food chain, and even then it was kind of surprising.
I ask her why. Was it the money? The prestige?
“There’s so much you get from being a McDonald’s employee it’s hard to say,” she says. We’re both laughing.
“Money, probably, and because Robert worked there I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. He’s got his own money’.”
Whatever the reason, she was keen. So keen she remembers wrapping burgers at home to build up speed.
Believe it or not, her enthusiasm didn’t last.
“I started getting disillusioned,” she says.
“You only got certain meal breaks, like a short time, and you weren’t allowed to leave McDonald’s in your uniform, so you had to get undressed into other clothes to go out in your lunch break, but the breaks were so short that if you actually did that to buy other food—this is teenagers who aren’t organised to bring their own food—then you’d have no time to eat.”
The system meant workers ended up spending their breaks trapped out the back of McDonald’s, paying McDonald’s—albeit at a discounted rate—for McDonald’s food.
She wasn’t happy about it and it showed. “I got the smiley faces on the roster, which is a reminder to be smiley, even though I worked out the back.
“And I was like… I need to call a union.”
She didn’t call a union but she didn’t start smiling either; she quit.
* * *
Some time later, she can’t remember exactly when, she went back. It wasn’t for the food.
“It was when McLibel was happening,” she says. “I think the magazine Mum used to subscribe to was New Internationalist, which was some sort of left-wing thing. I think that’s where it came from; I read about it.”
Mia discovered there was a class action against McDonald’s around a range of issues including the environment and workers’ rights.
She printed a big stack of flyers from the internet, went to her local McDonald’s—the same one she’d worked at—and started handing them out to people in the drive-through.
“I think I was on the footpath. No, I must have been on their property because they did escort me from the premises—they did call the police,” she says.
It ended in tears. “Some people were really cranky at me because they were like, ‘McDonald’s is a good organisation; this is rubbish’.
“They wound down their windows, thinking, ‘Here’s a free two-for-one voucher’ or whatever; instead they got this flyer that had Ronald McDonald like a psycho clown.”
I ask whether she ever thought about recruiting friends to the cause. She didn’t. “It was just me, it was just my own idea. I don’t actually remember the thought process behind it. Thinking back, it’s like, ‘That was a weird thing to do’.”
* * *
The McDonald’s protest wasn’t her first. In primary school, she shared her mother’s stance against battery-hen farming, and once joined her in a rescue attempt.
It was another ill-thought-out caper, she recalls. They set out one day to rescue some hens in the family station wagon. They’d forgotten about the “stop battery-hen farming” stickers that were plastered all over it, which alerted staff as they drove in. Alas, no hens were freed that day.
One of Mia’s current campaigns (I think it’s safe to assume there are others) is against a local council’s plans to build a new road near her house.
She drafted a petition straight away and recently “gathered the troops” to attend a council meeting. Powerfully and persuasively, they explained why it was a terrible idea.
They didn’t triumph, but they tried, and they haven’t given up. A social media campaign is now gaining traction. If I had to put money on the council or Mia, I’d put it on her.
Sean has a job that many would find strange, if not offensive—not least his teenage self. Actually, there is much about mid-thirties Sean that teenage Sean would be horrified by.
“I was a real idealist and fight-against-the-man punk-rocker high-schooler,” Sean says.
That person would have been disillusioned by pretty much all of the suburban aspects of his lifestyle as a married man with three kids and a steady job, he says.
“And all the annoying things I was told as a teenager that if you really want to make a difference you have to do—and that I didn’t want to be true—I’ve found to be true,” he adds.
Sean was having a similar conversation only yesterday. “We were talking about those conversations with younger idealists and I think there’s a decision you make when you start to be a bit disabused with those things: will you become a person who becomes more realistic and therefore despises and kind of chides the idealists, or will you be a person who still delights in it and invests in it and doesn’t hold out for an ‘I told you so’?
“It comes down to, do you have this need to justify yourself, do you kind of go, ‘I have to keep reassuring myself that I’m not a sell-out’ by, you know, hitting with a wooden spoon any idea that’s not neat, or do I actually go, ‘No, idealism’s awesome, it’s a really cool thing, and I know it’ll temper and mature all of its own, it doesn’t need me to be there crushing it, nor there with my arms crossed going “I told you so” ten years later’.”
Being married to Stella helps, he says. “She loves all that idealism and gets that it kind of doesn’t quite work that way, but wishes it did even more, so I think she’s got a nice sentimental streak for that which is good. It’s not so, but you should want it to be so, you know what I mean?”
* * *
This is particularly relevant to Sean because of his job. I imagine the campus director of a group of Christian university students would probably encounter idealism almost as often as cynicism—or at least, I hope so.
I ask whether he feels more like a father-figure, or a friend.
Both, he says.
“A healthy adult relationship can mean you become friends with your parents, friends with your uncles, friends with your mentors—and I guess that’s what I’m going for, being friends, but friends recognising the age difference,” he says.
“So, when I went into this uni thing, from the very beginning I didn’t build it as, ‘I’ll hang out with you lots, I’ll go to your parties, I’ll organise social events’.
“Although I’m extroverted, I’m not into socialising for socialising’s sake… I find small talk tiring, so I deliberately set it up that way… I didn’t think they needed that; really, I think that would be a case of me needing to be needed.
“They can organise social events all by themselves and especially if they’re students trying to hang out, have a laugh, potentially try and chat to the good-looking guy or girl that they’ve got an eye on, they don’t really want some, you know, thirty-year-old guy hanging around as well.
“I’ve got a particular job and the other side is being clear on that, that my job is a different one, my role in their lives is a different one.”
* * *
Sean wasn’t raised a Christian. He was baptised as a child, taught to say a childish prayer at bedtime, and once went to Sunday school, but that was about as far as it went.
At school he was exposed to Christianity as “a liturgy thing”, and through chaplains who held mission weeks.
The chaplains weren’t cool or likeable—he didn’t take much notice of them—but he did respect them, and didn’t dismiss their message entirely.
“No, there was a point to all that, and even at one of those mission things I had a kind of an emotional reaction, going, ‘Oh, I should become a Christian’,”—but it was fleeting.
Tom and Christina moved to Tasmania in 2013. Christina says it took her a long time to get to know people, and she hated the cold.
“Every time I struggled it would always come back to, ‘I hate Tasmania’, and I still hate the cold and I hate that it’s so hard to see family because we have to fly, but apart from that I think it’s a beautiful place, and I do like living close to the city, but not feeling like we’re in the middle of a busy city.”
Within their first year here, she fell pregnant. I remember the night they told us the happy news. I was pregnant with our second child, just a couple of weeks behind—though we didn’t mention it at the time.
* * *
Christina remembers feeling nervous before her scans, and Tom finding it strange. She knew people who had miscarried, that things could go wrong, she said. But when the ultrasound technician went to get a doctor at her twenty week scan, Tom was the one feeling nervous.
“I don’t think I even registered that meant there was something wrong. I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s what they always do’.
The technician returned with the news their baby had a diaphragmatic hernia. She made an appointment for them to see a doctor the following week and said, “try not to google it” (of course, they did).
Christina asked if it meant their baby would have to have surgery when it was born. “I think she said something like, ‘It depends on how bad it is’.”
Christina has since learnt that the technician wasn’t supposed to answer that question, or any questions. “She had to go to the doctor to ask permission to even tell us, and obviously the doctor was really busy that day because… I don’t know why the doctor didn’t come in and talk to us.”
Seven painfully long days later, they went back and the doctor confirmed their baby had a hole in his diaphragm, and that the hole had allowed the contents of his abdomen to move into his chest cavity.
“We later found out, through other scans, it was his bowel, intestine and liver; basically everything had moved up. The liver indicates it’s quite severe, because the liver is on the right-hand side of the body, and if you’ve got a left-hand hole that means almost everything has moved in that direction, which means that the lungs don’t develop properly and the heart gets pushed over,” Christina says.
Initially they were told he had a seventy to eighty per cent chance of survival, but after further tests, it was revised to fifty per cent. Another round of tests suggested it was twenty per cent. And because these percentages don’t take into account the babies that are aborted before delivery, it was probably even less.
I ask Mia whether she’s happy to talk about the “dark teenage years”, which began in grade nine or ten.
“I think it was probably just a regular teenage angst, hormonal imbalance type thing,” she says.
She saw a guidance counsellor, then a doctor, and was diagnosed with depression.
Researchers have since found the drug she was prescribed and continued to take for about six years can have serious adverse effects. “There are class actions against it, because it’s not to be given to teenagers at all; it makes it worse,” Mia says.
Later, I google “Aropax” and “teenagers”. The first search result is a Sydney Morning Herald article with the lead: “It was given to teenagers to improve their lives. Instead it put them at risk of suicide”. A British Medical Journal study further down says much the same thing.
Mia is open to talking about those years, but can’t recall much. “That whole time’s a bit blurry,” she says.
“Apparently, neurologically, your brain files memories, bad memories in one place and good memories in another place, and when you’re happy it’s hard to access that part… I’d have to be feeling sad to access those memories.
“That’s why, when people are depressed, they can’t even remember being happy, and can’t imagine being happy, and when they’re happy they’re like, ‘I can’t imagine being depressed’… it’s just totally different sections of your brain.”
* * *
Mia’s a talented artist. As well as going to the same primary school and the same high school, we were also at art school together.
She majored in painting and drawing; I majored in English, photography and journalism. At some point she had the brilliant idea of combining her love of music and art by painting musicians. I was her trusty photographer, and she wrangled us free tickets to scores of concerts in the name of art—Bob Dylan, the Waifs, Powderfinger, George, You Am I—my photos were ordinary but her portraits were amazing.
Now that she’s juggling work and kids with being in multiple bands, she realises just how much time she had at uni.
“The mature-aged students and their enthusiasm, I totally understand now. It’s so wasted on teenagers,” she says.
“If I was going back now, look out, I’d be the most annoying mature-aged student you’ve ever seen. I’d be leaning forward, hand up, answering all the questions, producing about fifty paintings a day, hobnobbing with everyone with a glass of wine at the openings…
“Back then I was like, ‘This is easy, I’ll just sit on the verandah at home and not do any work’.”
In many ways, Sean is the perfect person for his current job. He’s not keen on the book-keeping, budgeting or spreadsheets, but there’s an awful lot he loves.
“I love doing something that I believe really matters, I love doing something I think will last forever, I love seeing people’s lives changed; they’re the big things I love about my job.”
It is also mentally stimulating, he says.
“It’s a very intellectual and artistic work in the sense you’re understanding philosophy and history and literature and interacting with science and sociology.”
The people side, however, can be challenging as well as a joy. “People work is really draining and exhausting and wearing, because you’re deep in people’s lives.”
Others who have worked in ministry will likely understand, he says. “You’re investing your life in helping other people’s lives change, and so you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and hurt and frustration and betrayal and disillusionment.
“Change with people is slow and often deceptive, and change when it comes to a larger level, in communities, is glacial. It’s really slow and never complete.
“Jesus talks about how the kingdom of heaven is like a crop growing up with weeds all through it and I think that’s really true… you’ve got that imperfection the whole time, and that’s frustrating, disillusioning, disappointing… there are problems that you can’t solve or separate yourself from… that’s hard.”
* * *
I ask how he copes when he’s struggling with doubt.
This might range from the extreme—doubting the message he’s communicating—right through to feeling hypocritical in small ways, he says.
“You know, you lose your temper right before you have to preach a sermon about not being angry… there are those sorts of things where, guaranteed, if you’re going to preach on parenting you’ll have the most awful morning in your own household.”
So what’s the solution? “I think you’ve got to be honest about your humanity and your weakness. I think sometimes people deal with that insecurity about their own doubts and hypocrisies in kind of a cop-out way of being totally exhibitionist about it, cos then it’s sort of like, ‘You can’t blame me for being inconsistent then because look, see, I beat you to it!’—that sort of self-sabotage.
“I don’t think you can do that, I think there’s got to be a sense in which, when you take on any role in leadership, including Christian leadership, you are claiming some degree of conviction and maturity in what you stand for, and you’ve got to stand for that, and that’s part of serving others.
“So yeah, I don’t know, being honest to some extent, being honest with God and also realising… it’s still true, even if I don’t feel it strongly right now and even if I’m not living as closely with it as I’d like right now, the truth is still a good truth, and I guess that’s a really freeing thing.”
* * *
Sean spent his teenage years questioning, well, everything.
It was the 1990s, and he was captivated by grunge and Nirvana, a new wave of punk, and the hope of somehow finding “a better life and more freedom and more reality and authenticity”.
He was reading philosophy and literature widely and deeply, and when it came to questions such as “Why not just do whatever you want?”, he didn’t stop at wondering—he started putting it to the test.
“When you’re playing with ideas as teenager, you suddenly realise you’ve got these powerful tools you don’t quite understand, but they work—you can come up with these philosophical arguments that grown-ups can’t answer,” he says.
I should probably mention that Sean has the kind of intelligence that your average teacher would encounter perhaps once in their career, and find understandably formidable. Add teenage angst and a healthy dose of nihilism to the mix, and he must have been a force to be reckoned with.
“I guess rebellion begins with going, ‘Actually, what can your parents really do when you’re a teenager? What can your school really do?’ Instead of saying, ‘I would never! Goodness! Heavens! Imagine! Imagine having to go to Friday detention! The world could end!’,” Sean says.
This attitude led to pushing boundaries at home and at school, and experimenting with drinking, drugs and sex.
He became alienated from school and his parents, and then he ran away.Next →