Why has it taken me so long to write this review of The Most Important Job in the World? Whenever I set aside time to write about the book, a new framing emerges. Journalist Gina Rushton’s debut is itself an epic of equivocation. To have children – or not? Why, as her boyfriend mutters at the beginning of one chapter, would anyone want kids? Rushton is pushed and pulled by the currents of contemporary life as she tries to solve the prospective puzzles of millennial motherhood. Reading her book, thinking about how it contributed to a ever-growing body of literature on motherhood, I was waylaid by the news cycle.

The Most Important Job in the World was published in March, just a few months before a federal election in which so-called women’s issues acquired a new prominence. Rushton’s questions about the costs of family-making were being taken seriously in the campaign, at least by some candidates. After the election, there were record numbers of women in Australian parliament. Childcare, domestic violence, sexual assault and the gender pay gap were identified as policy priorities. Then the Dobbs decision was leaked in May, handed down in late June; the stark limits of reproductive choice in the US and Australia were re-emphasised. There was Bill Shorten’s mucking around with the term birth parent. There was schools funding, the climate crisis, pay for early childhood workers, another Covid wave. Publicists and pundits might like to say that motherhood is having a moment, but motherhood is always news.

The Most Important Job in the World was published into a crowded market of books about motherhood, into which category I include books about trying to conceive, about pregnancy and early motherhood, and the long slog of care-work. Lauren Elkin and Maria Tumarkin both wrote in 2018 about this torrent of motherhood books. What motherhood books share, whether they are memoirs, self-help books, works of reportage, novels, or experimental texts, is the conviction that the strange, multitudinous and entirely human experience of motherhood has been underrepresented. As Tumarkin writes, they also tend to be read through the lens of memoir: ‘How to describe the current motherhood-memoir nexus? Owing to commercial pressures, nonfiction books by women writers dealing in any way with motherhood are unlikely to be sold as books of thinking, exploration, reportage, cultural critique or all the above.’ 

The Most Important Job in the World begins in memoir-mode, with its author experiencing the intense pain of an endometriosis flare-up. But this author is a journalist, and throughout, the movement between reportage and personal narrative is compelling. Rushton declares her commitment to answering a single question: ‘I am at the page to decide whether I want to have children.’ What becomes quickly apparent is that her modus operandi is to ask questions rather than speed to answers. Rushton cut her teeth reporting on reproductive health, and particularly on access to abortion, for Buzzfeed and Guardian Australia. We spend plenty of time with Rushton in this book, and with her friends and family, but the methodology that grounds The Most Important Job in the World is that of the journalist on a news round: ‘I am here to investigate and interview. I am here to read, to reflect and to write.’ The range of case studies includes ‘mothers, fathers, people who knew they would never be parents willingly or unwillingly, people who wanted to tell me about their births, their miscarriages, their parental leave, the way their husbands had learned to clean’. As Rushton toggles between the personal and the categorical, between reportage and reflection, she claws open a discursive space for indecision, procrastination, vacillation and utter epistemological uncertainty.

Rushton’s quest to find out whether she wants to have children gives her book its structure, even as the awkward formulation of her question points to the contradictions of her project. How does one decide what one wants? A more conventional approach, at least grammatically, would be to decide what to choose, perhaps after discovering what one wants. The odd phrasing recognises firstly that not all women who choose to have children are able to do so. Beyond that, it’s an attempt to step beyond the liberal framework of reproductive choice and to draw a distinction between wanting and choosing to have kids. Whether one wants to have children or not invites different consideration to the more familiar formulations: should I have children? Can I have children? ‘There is something fragile about an identity formed through personal choices,’ writes Rushton. ‘We collapse our connections to other humans into ourselves, an isolating process of dicing ourselves into smaller pieces that the world as we know it depends on.’ In every chapter, personal choice, the touchstone of liberal feminism, is revealed to be more complicated than it first seems.

Reporters aren’t supposed to write about their feelings, but when Rushton talks to people with children, people without children, people trying to have children, ‘there are no deciding factors, only feelings’.  The most affecting and accomplished sections of The Most Important Job in the World are those that present a kind of companion narrative to her reporting on access to abortion in Australia and other aspects of reproductive justice. These chapters show that choice is not a universally useful framework for understanding access to abortion and healthcare. The sheer volume of case studies dislodges any certainty that all Australians have access to safe and affordable reproductive healthcare. It is an effective way of demonstrating what Rushton often tells us directly: that she knows the stakes are not the same for everyone. ‘What are the stakes for a middle-class white woman considering middle-class white motherhood?’ she asks early on. Rushton shows that access to reproductive healthcare is affected by your income, whether you are a First Nations or trans or queer person, whether you are in a safe relationship, and where you live. In foregrounding the lived experiences of her interviewees, she reveals the ways their choices about family-making are circumscribed by structural forces, by poverty and by racism.  

As her litany of abortion stories draws to a close, Rushton corrects a friend who assumes that she reports on abortion because she has had one herself. Personal attachment is taken to drive her professional dedication, as personal experience is understood to propel so much writing by women. Rushton’s response is embarrassed and indignant; you can hear the narrative voice waver: 

Had I not turned down every opportunity to give my personal opinion on abortion until I had finished reporting on it full-time? Had I not repeatedly interviewed people on all sides of the debate? Had I not presented the facts as clearly as possible?

Memoir and the personal essay have exerted a tremendous influence on works of narrative non-fiction over the past decade, such that it is quite rare to encounter a book-length work of non-fiction without also encountering the author at work. Although this trend is often disparaged for opening the door to solipsism and lazy research, in allowing affect and lived experience to recast her journalism Rushton implies an ethical critique of arms-length reporting. She suggests that a clear presentation of the facts may not tell the whole story. Indeed, she finds herself questioning the value of professional distance at numerous junctures:  

What does personal detachment and objectivity look like when you are a woman reporting on the pain of other women? … What is the value of denying your interviewees’ pain? What is the value of denying your own in reaction to it? Many of my interviewees cried. What is the purpose of pretending I didn’t also cry sometimes once I’d hung up the phone. Does our humanity, do our bodies, make us worse journalists?

This passage essentially provides a rationale for Rushton’s approach as she reports on the pain of strangers, of her friends, and on her own pain. Memoir and anecdote are easily dismissed as unreliable forms of knowledge, as somehow compromised by feeling and attachment. And yet Rushton’s dispatches on abortion are expanded not only by her acknowledgement of the trauma experienced by her interviewees, but by the way it affects her.

The braiding of memoir with theory is not a new tactic for feminist writers. What’s unusual about this book is that it is nothing like a manifesto. It makes no firm case for any woman to decide to want to have a child or not — not even Rushton. There’s plenty of anger — about climate change, access to health care, and the shadow of patriarchy — but if there is a call to action, it’s a very quiet and highly caveated appeal to reflect and listen, to make space for the varieties and complexities of human lives. 

All kinds of texts are twisted into Rushton’s chapters. Group chats, novels, Instagram captions are sources for Rushton. The juxtaposition of public and private knowledge is part of her effort to validate the lived experiences of women. For example, when Rushton talks about the gendered division of paid and unpaid labour, she starts with the census:

The latest census found Australian men are working an average of 39 hours per week while women are working an average of 30 paid hours per week but were twice as likely as men to do more than 15 hours of additional domestic work. Most workplaces are still fundamentally not set up to support primary carers. We know one in two mothers and one in four fathers in Australia have reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on their return to work. We know mothers who went back to work before they were ready to, anxious about the growing gap in their resume. We know mothers who retired with half as much superannuation as their partners. We know working mothers who said, as did the research, that home-schooling fell to them during the pandemic.

The knowing we do here changes from sentence to sentence. The census gives us quantitative data — I think the one Rushton is talking about was conducted in 2016. We know about workplace discrimination against parents because of research undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2014. And those mothers we know, we know them because they are all around us. 

I appreciate the way this kind of patterning shifts between public and private knowledge, the way it invites the reader to consider how their lives intersects with research and to recall their own conversations with friends. Effectively, it brings different kinds of knowledge about bodies, families and work into dialogue, and it’s exhilarating to see a skilled and serious journalist like Rushton affirm the legitimacy of lived experience and draw on the remarks, asides and chatter that constitute the everyday to give nuance to big research. 

That said, the lack of any referencing system whatsoever is a serious shortcoming for a book like The Most Important Job in the World. Studies and research might show a lot of things, but if they’re not even given a date or named in a reference list at the end of the book, they’re not all that helpful. Journalists have ethical responsibilities to protect their sources and no-one expects a reference list for reportage – but writers have a responsibility to other writers and researchers, and to their readers, to point to the sources of figures and quotes. And here, Rushton is clearly committed to amplifying the voices of women from a diverse range of backgrounds. Quotation is all well and good, but citation requires references. The absence of citations has a flattening effect. It suggests the group chat and the peer-reviewed journal article and the novel and the unnamed interview are equivalent — whereas I see the force of their juxtaposition lying in their very difference. Perhaps publishers have decided that reference lists are for pedants; in this case, I see the omission as detracting from the credibility of the book and working against its very worthwhile animating tendency to plurivocality.

Early in The Most Important Job in the World, Rushton mentions Shelia Heti’s remarkable feminist novel of ideas Motherhood (2018). The narrator of Motherhood is, like Rushton, wrestling with the question of whether to have children or not and its drama is provided by the narrator’s indecision. What struck me as wild about Motherhood when I first read it, and still does, is the time it devotes to reflection and reversal. Heti’s narrator does not wake up instantly resolved on a particular course of action; she knows that whatever decision she makes will shape her life and have consequences she cannot predict. To help her work through the problem, she asks yes-no questions of coins. It’s a hilarious, silly and brilliant device. I stopped counting her questions after I reached twenty. Twenty consecutive coin tosses yield over a million combinations. The coins are not going to fall the same way for everyone — nor will every woman have the same questions as Heti’s narrator. The coins introduce a giddy element of contingency that makes it impossible to read her either as a universal feminine subject or as an avatar of liberal feminism, a woman entirely in control of her own destiny. Like The Most Important Job in the World, Motherhood is a book that can accommodate the complexity and diversity of women’s lives.

Rushton tells us in her introduction to The Most Important Job in the World that she set aside nine months to write the book, even making reference at one point to the ‘second trimester’ of writing. It was a bit of a fib when I said the news cycle derailed my efforts to write this essay. The reason it took me as long to write this essay as it took Rushton to write her book is the same reason I eventually chucked out the notes I made about Motherhood, along with my intention to write about it. I was looking after small children. 

Drawing an equivalence between books and babies is a well-lubricated manoeuvre in the literature of motherhood. Heti does it too: 

My religious cousin, who is the same age as I am, she has six kids. And I have six books.

Cute, but I don’t think we do books or babies – or parents or writers, for that matter – any favours by suggesting that they are interchangeable, or by setting up motherhood as an experience of deficit. Caring for a child and writing a book can be joyful, liberating, transformative. Often, however, the labour of care – just like the labour of creative practice – is alienated, exhausting, unrecognised. It thrills me to see Heti and Rushton demarcate a space in which to contemplate motherhood, to see them insist on taking time to deliberate, to speculate about care-giving. Rushton has written a terrific addition to the literature of motherhood, a category that must and should continue to expand – and yet I yearn for writing that attends to the specificities of both care work and creative practice, writing that doesn’t reflexively set them against each other.