Many of us see Melanie Symons' beaming, infectious smile on television each week, and assume that hers is a smile that comes unadulterated. Without grief, hardship or challenge...
But we are oh so mistaken. Despite her uplifting demeanour, her happy, fun segments and her unmistakable energy, there is much more to Melanie than meets the eye.
In fact, Melanie suffered a loss many of us could only begin to imagine. Having lost her mother tragically and unexpectedly, Melanie has spent years grappling with incredible grief while raising her young daughter. “It’s very sad not being able to share Alexandra with her, as she would have so enjoyed her and in preparing for and becoming a Mum myself, my mother and I were developing an even closer bond and better understanding of one another,” Melanie said. And she wouldn’t be the Melanie Symons we know so well without her signature optimism. “My love for Alexandra doesn’t let me fail her. She needs a happy, stable, reliable, healthy, fun, loving and understanding mother who wants the best for her and if I were to wallow or feel sorry for myself she wouldn’t get one! So the best option is to make the most of every day, focus on the positives in my life and the joy-filled opportunities I have the ability to create. No point wasting precious moments, there are too many great ones to be had.”
We spoke to Melanie about her life, how she parents while missing her mother, and the life-affirming nature of toddlers.
Talk us through your journey to motherhood – how was your pregnancy/birth -what were the ups and downs?
While I was thrilled to be having a little girl my pregnancy was challenging… diagnosed with scoliosis as a teen (I wore a chin to hip back brace twenty three hours a day during high school) I have always lived with back pain but it became severe during pregnancy. This pain was at its absolute peak when I sat or lay down so rest and sleep were a challenge to say the least. Unable to take pain relief for fear of affecting the baby I spent a great deal of the nine months in tears. My desire to create the perfect nest (which makes me laugh on reflection) created even more challenges. We sold my house in order to buy a presumably more fitting one and at the last minute were gazumped and ended up homeless with only weeks to be out of the home we had lived in for over five years, a baby due in three months and nowhere to go!
Eventually we settled into a nearby Byron Bay townhouse and were able to excitedly set up for Alexandra’s arrival. It had been a whirlwind of open homes, inspections, auctions, packing, cleaning and moving. Once in our new place we were very happy to be settled and couldn’t wait to meet our daughter who was punching my large pregnant tummy in anticipation of starting her new life. She had a wonderfully strong will even then!
Talk us through some vivid memories of your childhood? Where did you grow up? What was it like?
To escape the hot Queensland summer many childhood hours were spent swimming and playing Marco Polo until we wrinkled in our pool on acreage in Brisbane or during school holidays on the beach at the Gold Coast where my grandparents had an apartment. The beach radio would sing out “Time to turn so you wont burn” and after jumping over enough waves out the back, we’d return to what I was told was the first high rise in Surfers, a two story red brick apartment block called “Kurrajong” adorned with coloured square stained glass panels running vertically along the front. I’ll never forget my grandparents “Wal” and “Icy’s (Wallace and Iris’s) orange swirl wallpaper and pink bathroom where I’d spend an eternity with my head under water in the bath. My sister and I were allowed to share one box of Coco Pops during the holidays, which we’d fight over! I attended a country state school in Brisbane where kids rode horses to class, there were always frogs in the toilets and bats in the classroom (teacher’s pets). After school I’d wait under the stairwell of Kenmore Shopping Town for my sister and her friend to finish ballet upstairs. So did a little boy named Scott who is now my daughter’s father!
Talk us through your career path – what have been some highlights?
I would call my career path both one mapped out as a child and one of perseverance. My Dad is a natural entertainer whose entertaining career was brought to a tragic halt before it had begun with a freak car accident on the opening night of his theatre debut. A bulldozer fell from the back of a truck onto his car causing him to lose his right leg and suffer brain damage. He didn’t lose his enthusiasm for life and entertaining people and so my childhood was very colourful. I adopted his love of the entertainment industry and my die -hard passion for my career was born.
My career highlights I measure by the joy of the experience and whether I have done the best job possible. From my first national TV role presenting “Totally Wild” to hosting “Saturday Disney” (and a move to Sydney) I began travelling the world and working in an infinitely creative environment as part of a fun and in tune trio, so this was definitely one of the highlights. Particularly due to the appreciative feedback we still receive even twenty years on. This has me very grateful we touched so many children’s hearts.
Travel is in my blood and so finding my home on “Sydney Weekender” and with the shows expansion to also shoot around Australia and overseas and my new role hosting for both Sydney and Queensland Weekender I’m able to see more of our beautiful country while doing what I love, connecting with people and having new adventurous experiences. It’s funny how your priorities change as you grow older – working on prime time television with larger viewing audiences as I did on pioneer renovation show “Ground Force” is no longer my measure of success – my measure of success is how aligned my role is with my true passions and how conducive my work environment is to my overall well-being and happiness. TV is a tough game so I’m always grateful to be a part of it and more so if I’m a member of a supportive TV show family producing positive content for people. There is too much negativity on screen so I’m proud to be on shows that encourage our viewers to make the most of experiences on offer and hopefully these enrich their lives. Another highlight was being invited to MC shows for our Australian troops in Afghanistan. This was an honour and certainly an eye-opening experience of which I am proud to have been a part.
What are your time management tips – how you get it all done?
I tackle life one day at a time and the top few things I know take the most priority. Or one if that’s all I can manage while parenting!
When it comes to being available to shoot, I could not manage without the help of Alexandra’s Dad Scott and his mother Sally (“Grandma Happy”) both of whom Alexandra craves time with.
When scrambling to accomplish everything I remind myself that I’m doing the most important job – being a Mum and this takes precedence. However juggling work (which in my case is shoots for two shows, the voiceovers in between, developing show partnerships and shooting corporate jobs) with motherhood can be stressful and is rarely smooth sailing! But I get it done, it’s getting easier and my daughter is happy, healthy and flourishing so that is my measure of success! And if I were honest with myself I thrive on being busy so wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s your approach to health and fitness? What do you eat in a typical day? What about exercise?
To get one again! Between work, maintaining the house and garden and as I’m a single parent recently I’ve found little opportunity for structured exercise. With being out in the warmer weather as my motivation I’m looking forward to making a change over summer.
Right up until Alexandra was born, swimming laps was my ‘meditation’ along with walking to the Byron Bay lighthouse; I’ve always preferred to exercise amongst nature when it suits my schedule as opposed to attending classes or boot camps.
I don’t put much pressure on myself to look a certain way (unless I have to shoot in swimwear and would prefer to feel my best while doing it) and I’ve become more concerned for Alexandra than myself however I know I need to find a balance there.
As far as diet is concerned, everything in moderation. I’ll exercise and eat a healthy vegetarian lunch and then have something like butter chicken for dinner. When Alexandra is with her Dad they make light fun of my routine on the phone with me by saying “I bet you can guess what Mummy is doing?” “Exercising and eating purry (curry)!” I definitely eat too much curry and enjoy a glass of wine most nights.
What drew you to Byron Bay and what do you love about living there?
As is the case with many Byron locals I came for a holiday and never left! After house sitting for a friend for three months I’d settled in and sent for my things (which were in storage in Sydney having sold my apartment ready for a change though unsure of what that might look like).
Though it needed work, the dream house I found to buy ticked every box I had listed from my pokey studio apartment in Sydney. Byron’s beaches, countryside, more affordable real estate (at the time) and healthy lifestyle whereby friends caught up for walks and coffee rather than to have drinks appealed to me. Maybe I’d grown up! At the time it was a welcome change of pace.
What are your top 3 favourite places to go in Byron with your daughter?
1. The Farm – the animals and play equipment never fail to excite Alexandra (with good coffee in hand I’m happy too) and foraging for macadamia nuts to crack in the orchard makes for a memorable time together.
2. Clarkes or Wategos – wherever the smaller waves happen to be. We look for toddler friendly “floaty” waves and always let out a sigh of relief when we take the time to enjoy the incredible playground on our doorstep.
3. Top Shop – An oldie but a goodie, great burgers and fries and parents are able to chat as kids scribble on the pavement with chalk, simple, brilliant “feels like a summer” fun.
Tell us about your mother Robyn Symons?
My Mum Robyn Symons was a stoic, classy, selfless woman who did not mince her words and stood up for her principles. Mum found great joy ice-skating and was on the Australian Precision Ice-skating team and then a volunteer judge. She was very active (both body and mind) playing tennis and doing Pilates weekly, catching up with friends, learning Italian and always holidaying on the Gold Coast at the beach.
Mum spent most of her life working tirelessly for multiple Queensland charities and in her position as Fundraising Manager for the Hear and Say Centre helped many of “her babies” (as she called them) receive cochlear implants giving them the gift of hearing and speech. Outside of work she was a devoted Mother and Grandmother also volunteering for Rotary and Sailability, taking disabled children sailing on Saturdays. Mum’s life impacted so many people… As did her death but maybe none more so than her children and our children.
Talk us through the day of your mum’s accident… what do you remember from this day?
We lost my Mum suddenly and unexpectedly shortly after Alexandra (now three) was born. I had the flu and Mum insisted on travelling from her Brisbane home to Byron Bay to lend a hand. I remember Scott and I spent a long time cleaning the house (with baby in tow) in an attempt to have everything “perfect” for her, so much so that when she arrived we hadn’t yet done the grocery shopping and couldn’t feed her lunch! This has been a big lesson in letting things go a little. After we eventually ate, Mum played with Alexandra, we dropped into “The Farm” to buy an indoor plant (I remember Mum saying “I just want to do whatever makes you happy”) and then walked down to the local pub for an afternoon drink where we took a video of Alexandra playing with Mum’s shiny jewellery. Alexandra’s Dad Scott cooked for us all at home and following dinner we retired upstairs to our bedrooms. It had been a fun night of banter, which Scott and I continued in our ensuite bathroom as we went about cleaning our teeth. Through our laughter we heard a terrible noise. In panic I checked Mum’s room, and, discovering it empty ran downstairs to find her. Mum had gone to fetch something from her car and fallen down a flight of stairs landing abruptly on the hard tiled surface at the bottom. She was in unimaginable pain. We couldn’t help her, nor could the paramedics or Hospital Emergency Physicians. Mum died from head injuries the following day. As quickly and mortifyingly as that the world lost a truly remarkable woman… and I lost my Mum.
It’s very sad not being able to share Alexandra with her, as she would have so enjoyed her and in preparing for and becoming a Mum myself, my mother and I were developing an even closer bond and better understanding of one another.
Tell us about the year following your mum’s accident – you suffered a double trauma?
The year following Mum’s accident was nothing short of horrendous. Having suffered what psychologists label a double trauma (being a sudden loss and witnessing the accident) my life was turned upside down. I was a first time parent in extreme emotional pain with no mother to turn to, I had repeated flash backs of the accident and was in an almost constant state of feeling as though my heart was literally being ripped out of my chest.
As Mum’s accident occurred at home it was too disturbing to return to our house (my psychologist later confirmed it was best not to) so after following the ambulance to the hospital we were rendered homeless. We stayed in hotels, at Mum’s home in Brisbane and eventually found a rental in Bangalow. Being in the country was helpful. While taking care of Alexandra, maintaining my job (difficult to do in the mental state I was in and with everything going on, but with shoots giving me some much needed light relief) and in a haze of hurt and trauma I made trips to Brisbane and back to pack up Mum’s possessions in preparation for her house being sold. Scott tried to meet his extensive work commitments while supporting us emotionally and also dealing with the accident. We both did our best to parent our new baby.
At the end of this year and much searching I found a permanent home to buy and we moved again. During pregnancy and the first two years of Alexandra’s life due to unforseen circumstances, in total we conducted open homes for, sold and packed up three houses, attended inspections and navigated buying two and moved our possessions and lives three times. It was exhausting.
Scott and my relationship didn’t survive all that we had endured so an emotional separation was also thrown in mix. Fortunately Scott and I have found a wonderful friendship and parenting relationship and feel relief daily that we are not in the nightmare that was the first year of Alexandra’s life – a time which should have been full of joy. Thanks to our darling Alexandra though, we found a little happiness among the mayhem.
How do you now cope without your mother to turn to – do you talk to her?
With difficulty, there is no one like your Mum. Though we had challenges in our relationship over the years my Mum was always there for me. I may not have always liked what she said but sadly it’s often not until your mother is gone and when you have a child of your own that you fully appreciate everything your mother did for you.
My Mum had some big challenges in her life with her husband, my father losing his leg and having brain damage when she was pregnant with her first child (my older sister) and in her later life as a devoted grandmother to her intellectually impaired Grandson Louis however Robyn just got on with it, as I am. You just do what you have to do, find joy where possible and give however you can in the process.
I don’t talk to Mum. I can still barely look at a photo of her, which I hope will change in time. I find comfort in my relationships with good friends, people who also loved her and even in exchanges with acquaintances offering conversation about grief they are dealing with. When grieving you’re in desperate need of understanding and connection and it’s easy to feel as though there’s something wrong with you as people who don’t know what to say or how to help treat you differently.
Importantly now though, I have had to back myself more. Find increased inner strength and my love for Alexandra doesn’t let me fail her. She needs a happy, stable, reliable, healthy, fun, loving and understanding mother who wants the best for her and if I were to wallow or feel sorry for myself she wouldn’t get one! So the best option is to make the most of every day, focus on the positives in my life and the joy filled opportunities I have the ability to create. No point wasting precious moments, there are too many great ones to be had.
Tell us about the support you received from your family, friends and colleagues?
Close family (mine and Scott’s), good friends and my Sydney Weekender Series Producer Jenny and the team rallied around me and I will always be grateful for this unconditional love. Some of these incredibly giving people shared their personal stories of loss and the helpful perspective they have achieved as a result of it. These conversations gave me moments of relief from my otherwise ever-present pain and as though each was one single stone in a pathway, slowly the accumulation of this support paved a way for me to move forward.
How has your daughter helped you to grieve and heal?
Alexandra is a godsend; only the antics of a baby, now small child, can make you laugh out loud in spite of yourself even in your darkest days.
My daughter keeps me constantly laughing (except when three year old tantrums kick in) and exceptionally busy – as an only child Alexandra thinks Mum and Dad are the entertainment! Without her constant wonder, enthusiasm and hilarity and my continuous awareness of how blessed I am to have a healthy happy child I may have spiralled into depression after losing Mum the way we did.
Alexandra saved me and daily she also relieves me from the stress and pressure we often place upon ourselves. Challengingly though she thinks it’s funny if Mum cries or even when she heard that my mother fell down stairs as, thankfully, she doesn’t yet understand and therefore thinks it’s comical. But even this reaction shifts my focus taking me out of a moment of reliving the trauma into a place of caring for my child and understanding her psyche.
What has motherhood taught you about your own mother?
Sadly I don’t think it was until I became a Mum myself (and on reflection of my Mother’s life) that I fully realised not only how much she did for her children but also how much we were loved always. And no wonder she was short with us at times! It’s a tough gig!
What were the worst parts – how did you find strength?
Witnessing Mum’s accident (which is still crystal clear in my mind and always will be) and the shock of losing my Mum so quickly without notice were both infinitely painful. However when the funeral is over a different kind of hardship begins. People go back to their lives and you have to go on with a horribly altered reality. The nightmare doesn’t end as daily it hurts to live without your Mum especially while parenting and being unable to share all of the precious moments, call her for advice when your child is sick or just check in and chin wag with the woman who brought you into the world who always has time to listen.
While my reality changed, with time, exercise (which was crucial early on for mental well being), decent sleep (initially very hard to achieve), some counselling, the support of friends and family and through channelling my energy into a career I love, I have become better at living with it.
Harnessing every moment I have with my beautiful child and engaging in the things that we enjoy is also key.
Finally, what advice do you have for other women, who have lost a mother?
Human connection is a powerful thing and though nobody can change your circumstances or bring your mother back, love, kindness and understanding can help a little, and fill the period until time helps a lot.
What I’ve learned from witnessing a life taken so suddenly is that our time is extremely precious and my mother, or any mother for that matter, would not want her child to spend it in mourning. Our mothers would want what we want for our children – good health, love, security and most of all, happiness.
My mother Robyn would have some “to the point” words to say if she thought I was feeling sorry for myself rather than seizing every incredible moment that I can with my daughter. As a mother now I know that if mine loved me even half as much as I love Alexandra (and she did) she would want me to be in happiness – lets do that for our mothers and our children and where possible let’s give each other comfort and strength.