Mark Nethercote: author, paediatrician, (belated) dad
Mark Nethercote is a husband, father of two, paediatrician in his “spare time”, and when he’s not doing all that, he writes. While he strives to balance these endeavours, it’s the latter that takes front and centre today as his memoir, ‘A Time for Grace’, finally hits the shelves. We caught up with Mark to discuss the book’s back story, and fatherhood in general.
Thanks for your time, Mark. So, ‘A Time for Grace’; can you give us a quick overview?
So, a doctor and his wife decide that they are going to have a family. Except that it doesn’t go exactly as they’d planned – an ectopic pregnancy occurs, and then [his wife] Suse needs chemo to help get rid of that, and we learn that if we want kids, we are going to need to do IVF.
In essence, it is a story of hope. We got to some pretty dark places when it seemed like we weren’t going to have children, but through love for each other, by surrendering to ourselves, and by opening up to things that I still can’t explain or quite put my finger on, we found a way through. It sounds totally corny, but love and humour got us out the other side.
Tell us a bit about the writing process.
Honestly, I started writing ‘A Time for Grace’ for myself. I’d done quite a lot of travel writing, and really loved the process of translating the experience of travel onto the page – and people seemed to really like reading about it. Getting pregnant was the biggest adventure I’d ever been on, and as such, it just seemed natural to write about it. Some pretty heavy stuff happened on just day six of our journey, and then some more stuff, and more stuff, and it really became a pretty riveting story before I knew what was happening. Through it all, Suse cried, while I wrote.
I published it as a blog a year to the day after the event. That blog got a nice little following, and pretty quickly I was getting messages pleading that I keep going, as people wanted to know what happened next.
This all happened in my first year as a consultant paediatrician. I had no kids at that time, and fewer patients. Now, with a four and five year old, and buckets of patients, it would take a lot of discipline to be able to reproduce that high-wire act.
It’s obviously a deeply personal subject matter, how did you feel after finishing the first draft?
I felt great, because the narrative arc was complete, but I don’t want to spoil that right now! The first draft was actually the blog, which was very much me just vomiting the story onto the page. Blogs are great like that. They are an unwieldly, at-times self-important stage on which you can say whatever you want – and I’m not dissing blogs, I’ve had my own for many years now – I’m just stating it for what it is.
A book was a different task. I had a wonderful editor on that first draft, who condensed 591 Microsoft Word pages into a 295-page memoir. That was the Houdini act, and that was an amazing process. She said that a blog was “like a creek that is narrow and wide that you can dip into whenever you want, while a book is narrow and deep, that one wants to immerse in.”
The finalisation of that first draft of the book was a metamorphosis which was hard toil, but a truly gratifying experience.
How does the finished product line up with your expectations from, say, a year ago?
Pretty close. All except the bit where a big multinational company swooped in, did all of the promotion, flew me around the globe, and spent an endless budget on this book because they really believed in it. I’m still waiting for that bit.
Do you have a message for couples experiencing issues falling pregnant and considering IVF?
I don’t profess to have all the answers, nor am I the guy who did it the most or the hardest – I know there are others who have a much tougher time than we did.
But I think the underlying message is that there are things that science simply can’t explain – hope, love, and faith – that helped us through. And I don’t mean religious faith. I mean trusting. Trusting, positivity and humour. Again, I don’t know how to say that without sounding all ‘woo-woo’. Read the book and you’ll see.
Through it all, Suse cried, while I wrote.
What does being a dad mean to you?
I remember chatting to a friend who told me before I had kids that “it is the single most rewarding and the most challenging thing” he’d ever done. I think that is the single most accurate description I’ve ever heard.
I have two little girls who I utterly adore. Don’t get me wrong, they drive me completely crazy, but they also light me up in a way that nothing else does.
Being a dad means being there, and being that example of how you can live a good, honest life with integrity and with kindness. We talk about kindness a lot.
What has been the single biggest challenge of fatherhood for you?
Lack of sleep was the hardest bit to start with. Again, no one can tell you about sleep deprivation, it’s something you can only truly know once you’ve lived it. There is a reason it was used as a technique at Abu Ghraib.
Then after that, once you get your brain back, it’s about having these little beings who have their own ideas and there own agendas. It took me a long time to start to give up on ‘doing things my way’. I talked about surrendering before. Being a dad is the ultimate in surrendering to how you think things have to be. I don’t push the river the same way I used to, or not with my girls anyway. They’re too powerful.
Has your approach to fatherhood changed since the birth of your first-born?
My approach to everything has changed. To work, to my wife, to my kids. Whilst this is a discipline I need to continually work at, I’m learning to be better at being present. Kids need you to be present and with right now – they don’t give a shit about the laundry or that bill that needs paying to keep the future under control, which can be frustrating, but it’s a constant reminder to live the now, not the future or the past. Presence is the key, and the thing we can learn from our kids above anything else, as we adults are super-crap at it.
What fun stuff do you do with your kids?
We spent a lot of time at the Lake in Ballarat. There is a massive playground there, and my girls could stay on the swing for several days if allowed. I actually really enjoy birthday parties now, they seem to happen every week. My wife is very creative, so I love watching her and the girls painting and drawing together, and when I can get out of my own way, I join in. I used to do whatever I could to get out and about – it’s now a perfect day if we don’t leave the house.
How do you think the role of a father is perceived in society today?
That’s an interesting question. Despite what I’ve said already about being open to things, I still have pretty strongly-set beliefs around my role as the male provider for my family.
I think we are gradually getting there in Australia, but if you look at Scandinavian countries and their paternity leave entitlements, in my view we overvalue money and undervalue our time with our families – myself included.
Do you see the world in any way differently now than when you were child-less? If so, how?
In so many ways. I guess before I had kids I was beginning to think that flowers, and cartoons, and play were a waste of time. It took having children to re-teach me the power of innocence. Again, this is something that other cultures do better than us.
We went to Japan last year. They revere the innocence of children with a word ‘kawaii’. It translates to ‘cute’, but it is much more than that – it loses depth in the translation. The Japanese adore the innocence and purity of the child’s mind in a way that we just don’t quite get in the west. So I try to view the world through my child’s mind more often. I’m still pretty crap at it though.
What five things should your children know by the time they turn 18?
How to be kind.
The value of family.
How to speak another language.
How to play a musical instrument.
What it was like to be four-years-old again.
‘A Time for Grace’, which was released on March 13, 2017, is a heart-warming and uplifting story of love, loss and the miracle of IVF, from a man’s-eye-view, written by Dr Mark Nethercote, a pediatrician who couldn’t have kids (and now has two). Pre-order signed copies of the book here.