Nursing a career
As we get older, sometimes it can be easy for our children (and even ourselves) to forget that there was a time when we held down a high-flying job and had a glamorous lifestyle.
Indeed, before we settled down with a family into suburbia some of us travelled the world and achieved quite a lot. We weren’t always “boring Mum and Dad”.
This was some of the thinking behind Maggie Groff’s new book, Not Your Average Nurse.
Now a successful novelist, columnist and non-fiction writer, Groff said she decided to write a memoir of her nursing years after realising that her daughter, now 29, knew very little of her career as a nurse.
“I'd known so little about my own mother’s career; she died relatively young,” says Groff. “I knew nothing about her. She was an army tank mechanic of all things in the Wrens during the second World War. I always had great regret I never knew that.
“My daughter Hannah had really only ever known me as a writer and never known what I'd actually done and I thought she needed to know that I was once actually quite interesting.”
Groff’s memoir also manages to capture the huge cultural shift in nursing and medical care during her time as a nurse, which started in 1970 in a large London teaching hospital and finished with the birth of her daughter in the late 1980s in Sydney.
“In just telling the story I realised that nursing changed dramatically,” she said. “When I started in 1970, apart from the fact we were the lowest of the low as student nurses, it was a time when the so-called hospital triangle was doctor, nurse, patient. The doctor was the focus, the nurses were the handmaidens to the doctors, but by the time I'd finished my training at the end of '73, the focus had changed to the patient."
In the memoir, Groff also reveals the now often-forgotten constraints facing women in the workforce back in the 1970s. Nurses at that time were forbidden to get married, or even to wear make-up.
Groff's memoir documents her past career as a nurse, before becoming a novelist
“We were a huge cheap labour force in Australia, the UK and New Zealand and the men controlled budgets in those days and you know, they didn't want to give women any more money,” she says.
“I think it was actually not until men started filtering into nursing that we had proper career structures and we started to get appropriate pay. I know when I was editing the book here in Australia one of my editors was a young man and I got queries such as ‘why weren't you allowed to get married? This is ridiculous!’ I had to explain to him that that's just how it was.”
“We put up with it and we really were humiliated, demeaned. I mean it was difficult at times but that's how it was. We put up with it.”
Groff says she was surprised how much she remembered about that time in her life and how easy it became once the memories were unlocked.
“I kept copious diaries all through that period of time, which made it a lot easier to remember what happened. Once you remember one thing about something, a lot of things come flowing back,” she said.
Her colleagues of the time were also invaluable, she added. “Jo, Bernice and Cassie, who I trained with in England, all remembered things too and I'd run things past them and say ‘Is this how you remember it?’. And it was strange, we all remembered different things about the same incident and it kind of helped me to remember the other things that happened. A lot of the bad stuff, I'd forgotten. But they reminded me, they'd remembered it.”
And, while Groff still looks back fondly on her nursing years, she feels that writing has been her true calling.
“I was first published in '99; it took me 10 years to get my first book Mothers Behaving Badly published and that was a great moment. I mean, for me, I felt marvellous, it was like having another child almost.
“I'd wanted to be a writer from when I was very young. I didn't want to be a journalist, I wanted to write books and it was kind of viewed as a bit of a joke really by my family because there was very little chance for success for women writing books in those days, unless you went under a man's name. Or there was the other thing about the fact that you would not meet a man because you were sitting on your own in a room writing.”
So, it was kind of put on the back burner and I wasn't happy about that and I just needed to get to London and nursing was the way.”
Does she miss nursing? “I don't miss nursing, it was a wonderful career. I'd do it all again if I was young, but I love to write. I love to come into my study here and sit in front of a blank page and fill it up with things that might make people happy. That's great, I love doing that. I think it's a great privilege.”
What career did you do in your younger years? Have there been many changes?