Willa Arantz On Idyllic Country Life & Overcoming The Grief Of Losing A Child

As the quote goes, ‘Some women are lost in the fire, some women are built from it.’ Willa Arantz belongs to the latter. Facing terribly difficult times as a new mother while building a family business, has tested her personal strength and relationships but she has emerged with resilience and grace and some very wise advice…

Willa possesses a genuine, generous and gutsy outlook on life that’s disarming and incredibly inspiring. She runs the acclaimed restaurant, Racine with her chef husband Shaun in the bucolic beauty of the Orange countryside. Since they opened the doors in 2008, the couple has created the multi-hatted restaurant (and Shaun was awarded Country Style’s Country Chef of the Year), expanded the wedding business, opened a bakery and had three babies.

But nothing could have prepared the ever-capable Willa for the indescribable heartache and devastation of losing her second-born baby daughter, Cressida, a few precious hours after birth. After a huge haemorrhage, she very nearly lost her own life too. The aftermath of grief was and still remains, uncharted territory for Willa  – as a mother, wife, and individual – but she faces it with incredible bravery, optimism, and honesty.

“When we lost our baby girl Cressida shortly after her birth in 2013, we really struggled”, shares Willa. “I went into overdrive and coped by working and trying to keep our restaurant afloat, Shaun took two years to get over the loss of Cressida and the very near loss of me, he was a shell of himself and that was very hard to deal with, I was resentful that I didn’t get to grieve properly as I had to be strong for him, but ultimately that’s why we work because we can pick up the slack of the other when we need to”.

Prepare to be deeply moved and also motivated by the incredible tale of Willa – her raw account of motherhood, and of loss – and her advice on working with your partner, time management to assist the endless juggle, the importance of role models, and above all, being grateful.

Photography: Julie Adams | Words: Emily Armstrong | Go to www.racinerestaurant.com.au

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Outgoing, creative, optimistic.

What has motherhood taught you so far?

My god, where do I start? Only recently have I had some time to reflect on just how much I have changed and been educated as a mother. When I first became a mother, I learned how fierce love can be. Those first few days with your new baby are so intense and overwhelming and I was almost overpowered with the ferocity and instinct to protect. As my children have gotten older I have learned how much I need to cherish every moment, play with them, listen to them, not get frustrated and not be selfish. After a three week trip to Italy earlier in the year, where we weren’t separated for even a minute from our kids, my understanding of the influence we have over our children grew exponentially. Having our own business is so all consuming and stressful that sometimes I feel like I am a terrible mother, angry, stressed, preoccupied, not planning activities and I can fly off the handle. I am someone who has a short attention span and likes to have several things on the go at once, so sitting down and playing with my kids sometimes feels like I am wasting time when I could be doing something that seems more constructive. But now I can see how quickly time goes by and how quickly they grow. I am learning to stop and enjoy and just breathe them in. Paloma hardly said a word before we left for Italy and by the time we got home, she was speaking so well. Edward my oldest was just delightful and matured so much. When I saw how much they benefitted, I realised that any time I spent just enjoying them and interacting with them was not time wasted.

Being a mum has taught me to slow down, have patience and just appreciate the small stuff, it sounds so cliché but that’s really what matters. It’s the precious time you have as a family that stays with you.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Work hard and follow your dreams. Be careful with your money, it goes out so easily. Take opportunities when they present themselves and take the risk, but make sure you research and you’re prepared for whatever you do because it will save you emotionally and financially in the long run. That said, maybe it was the mistakes that got me where I am now. I believe we are on the path we’re meant to be on, so no regrets. Oh and also don’t gossip, it’s not nice to hear, to do or to hear about yourself and it doesn’t win friends and just makes you feel dirty. Always be kind if it’s an option – you will never regret being nice to and about people.

So far, what has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?

Losing our baby girl in 2013. I was pregnant with my second child and at our 20 week scan we discovered that our baby had a diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) – where the diaphragm has not completely developed, so internal organs like the stomach and liver go up into the rib cage and compromise the heart and lungs. It was a terrible journey and I had some fairly apathetic advice and dealings early on at the hospital we were sent to. Thank god my mum intervened and got me moved to the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick, who were just incredible and who in hindsight indulged me in my hope and optimism, but ultimately knew things weren’t good. I waited until I was 41 weeks pregnant to be induced, I gave birth naturally to a beautiful baby girl, who looked perfect (a cruel part of this condition) but who only lived for two hours as her lungs were too squashed to be able to function. Shaun and my mum had to make the call to stop trying to resuscitate and I will love them both forever for his bravery and her practicality and sound advice. Meanwhile I had had a huge postpartum haemorrhage and almost died. Shaun came to see me as I was recovering from the first attempt to stop the haemorrhage and to let me know that Cressida had died and he knew something wasn’t right. He was insistent that something was wrong and got the doctors and nurses back who checked me to see that I was still haemorrhaging. They gave me a new rare treatment called a bacchary balloon to stop the bleeding that saved me from having a hysterectomy and probably dying. Not many people can say their husband saved their life and their future children’s lives, he is truly my hero. When he went down with depression immediately after, I stepped in and stepped up so he could get over it. I still to this day have no idea how he coped at all, so it goes without saying that this time was incredibly hard, my heart hardened for a while and I went into automatic pilot, I kept the fires burning and did the best I could. In this time we also nearly lost the business as the staff we had took advantage of us after a while and didn’t respect Shaun because he just couldn’t work. It was awful and I will always regret that I couldn’t grieve and that I didn’t spend more time with Cressida after she died, despite all the encouraging to hold her. Whatever defence mechanism kicked in was great on a practical level, but on an emotional level I will always regret that. I also barely remember what Edward was like during that time and that makes me so sad. Thankfully Shaun picked up this side and just took the time to focus on Edward. Edward is totally fine and well adjusted and affectionate and we get on really well, now I just drink him up, he’s divine. Paloma’s arrival in 2015 was what we all needed, she gave me back some of Cressida and is wild and funny and delightful, so it’s hard to be sad anymore. She bought emotional peace to us – Paloma means dove and that’s just what she is a little dove of peace. So despite this awful, awful time, I am so much more appreciative of what I have now and I know I am so bloody lucky!

As a mother this was the worst time in my life and it changed me profoundly, I can’t actually believe it happened to me and I sometimes wonder if I still have a lot of healing to do in the future.

Tell us about Racine – when did you launch and what are some vivid memories of the journey?

We launched late 2008, amid a fairly dramatic and abrupt departure from our previous business. We did everything ourselves as we had no money and had to open quickly. We were literally painting walls an hour before opening. It has been an amazing journey and we have achieved a lot as well as having had some really tough times. We have had some amazing accolades including a few chefs hats and Shaun was awarded Country Style’s Country Chef of the Year, which was amazing, but actually dare I say it, I prefer not to have the accolades as then we don’t have the expectations that we don’t set. We have opened a bakery, had three babies and expanded our wedding business. We have had some incredible people work for us from all over the world and some awful people, who have done the wrong thing by us and damaged our business immensely, but it’s more of a two steps forward, one step backwards scenario. I am really proud of where we’re at in our business and how we have managed to build it back up when things have gone downhill. I love what’s happening now and it’s amazing to look at how much has changed. The garden has grown, the restaurant has a real personality and patina now and the place is attracting the best kind of people. Just this week was a major highlight for me (as an amateur artist) we had two tables of artists, curators and creatives book into the restaurant. One of my great friends, artist Luke Sciberras, was there, so I went out to see him and sat with this table of amazing people, including Reg Mombassa. It was such an awesome night and I was so proud of our restaurant, which is covered in eclectic paintings and so warm and fun. The food came out looking and tasting beautiful, accompanied by amazing bread from our bakery (which one journo described as our legacy to Orange – soooo cool). It was full of happy customers and the waitstaff were doing a beautiful job and I just thought, this is it. This is what we have always wanted and more. I just love where we’re headed and I can’t believe we have achieved this much! I am excited to see what happens in the future, particularly with our new Apple Packing Shed wedding venue. I know it won’t always be easy, but big picture, we have withstood a lot of hard things personally and professionally over the last 10 years and I still love where we are at and am proud of how far we’ve come, so I know it will be great.

What’s it like working with your husband – what are the secrets to a successful partnership?

Working with my husband can be amazing and awful all in one day. Both of us are pretty fiery and passionate, so sometimes we can lock heads over something that we actually agree on, but that we come from a different angle on. The best thing about working together is that our interests are all the same, so we always have something to talk about. We get on really well and respect each other a lot, I really admire his intelligence and his drive and he encourages my creativity and (sometimes grudgingly) takes my advice. As a chef, he is also fairly autonomous and so we balance each other as I am really social and bring him out, which he is always pleased about – if I didn’t he would probably just stay at work his whole life. We balance each other; when one is down the other is up, so that we always stay positive in some way.

When we lost our baby girl Cressida shortly after her birth in 2013, we really struggled, I went into overdrive and coped by working and trying to keep our restaurant afloat, Shaun took  two years to get over the loss of Cressida and the very near loss of me, he was a shell of himself and that was very hard to deal with. I was resentful that I didn’t get to grieve properly as I had to be strong for him, but ultimately that’s why we work because we can pick up the slack of the other when we need to. We have been through pretty much anything you can throw at someone in a partnership (aside from infidelity) and we are better for it.

My advice to other couples in business is to respect each other, balance each other and fight for it. You can’t give up on each other easily, you have to fight and work bloody hard to get through some things and if you can you’re better for it. There have been many nights where I have lain awake chanting the mantra in my head ‘out of the furnace comes steel’ and that really sums it all up. Working with your partner and actually, life in general, is really hard, but it makes you strong and resilient if you can get through it, then you can really appreciate what you have despite the bad times.

You also own an artisan bakery right in the heart of town...

We opened the bakery five years ago in 2012 (Anzac Day) we had been baking bread for the restaurant, then we started to do the farmers markets, supply a few local business’ and before long we employed a proper baker (Shaun had taught himself because he loves baking), finally a great spot came up in town (the restaurant is out of town) and it all just happened easily, we had an incredibly skilled artisan baker, a great new spot and the business just hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back. We pride ourselves on doing beautiful organic sourdoughs and bread, proper all butter pastries (croissants etc) pies cakes and tarts. Everything is made fresh onsite from real ingredients, no weird fillers or pretend food. The bakery holds its own against any artisan bakery in Australia. We are really lucky to have been able to do exactly what we wanted with it and bring quality breads and pastries to Orange. I can take no credit for the conception of it, I never thought it would happen and when Shaun started to talk about the actual shop, I just let him go for it, without any input until the lease was signed – then I had a lot to say ha! But I am so proud of it.

Describe life in Orange…

Amazing… I don’t really want people to know how good it is. It is a great lifestyle with kids – open spaces, beautiful parks, fresh air. It is a country lifestyle with the benefits of the city… wine bars, great cafes, restaurants, an amazing art gallery (we get incredible exhibitions here), a fabulous theatre (Melbourne Ballet are performing a Midsummer Nights Dream next month among other great shows). There is a great community here and we have everything (almost) that we have in the city, with the benefits of a country lifestyle. Our kids get muddy and roam paddocks, we catch up with friends over a bonfire in winter or in someone’s beautiful garden overlooking paddocks in summer or at a beautiful restaurant. A lot of people our age and younger are moving here to raise their families, so it is really family friendly. It’s also full of creative and different people. Artists, chefs, farmers, winemakers, students and professionals, so it’s really diverse, which is a real plus. It’s a lovely, lovely life. With everything that’s going on in big cities, I feel so lucky to be living in this picturesque and vibrant rural city. It’s also a great place to visit with kids.

Who are your role models? Who do you admire?

I admire so many people, professionally, Kate Jacklin/White from Katering. I have been to many events she’s done over the last 2o years and they are always sensational, the details, the originality and the quality of what she does is always just amazing! I haved followed her forever and she is an inspiration as she works so hard and similar hours to me, as well as having raised kids. She is always current and relevant in our industry.

Dr Katherine Hamlin who runs the fistula hospital in Ethiopia. She went to the same school as me so that is quite special to me and her nephew was my obstetrician when I had Edward. She is brave and amazing, a true feminist and so humble, but has saved thousands of women’s lives. Any interview with her, she is so blasé about how she got into what she does, but she is a phenomenal woman and has made a huge impact on so many lives.

My friend Peta Murchison, I am in awe of her strength and positivity – she has a daughter with a terrible degenerative disease called Battens disease. Pete is one of my friends from school, she was the biggest dag (we all were) and has transformed into a beautiful strong woman campaigning for awareness for Batten disease through ‘Bounce for Batten’. Everywhere I turn she is beaming out of a magazine or TV screen, doing heartbreaking Ted X talks and just being bloody amazing. I know she has tough times and it’s not easy ever for her, but she lives every moment, she is so present and so amazing (I am tearing up just thinking about her). When Cressida died, we had the most honest amazing chat, that I will never forget and I was in awe of her honesty and bravery. I felt so different to what everyone expected me to feel and talking to her made me feel like I wasn’t a freak, because she said some things that I felt and despite our situations we both still felt grateful for having what we had and the perspective it had given us on life. She and her husband Hamish are incredible. Pete’s life has had so many hard things to deal with in it even before Mia got sick and yet every time I see her she is so candid and honest, she is still a giggly, warm, silly and just a ray of sunshine most of the time. I adore her.

Cliché but my mum. She and dad battled and worked so hard to give me a great life and education. She was also pretty tough on me and realistic, but I thank her now, because I deserved to be sent home on the train in the middle of our beach holiday when I was 16. She taught me about respecting myself and having empathy for others, which are such important skills for life. She is smart and soft and loving and I couldn’t have asked for a better mother.

What are some vivid memories of your childhood – where did you grow up, what was it like?

I grew up in Murrurundi in the Hunter Valley and it’s not a lie to say my childhood was truly idyllic. It is a picturesque little village nestled in a valley with a lot of creative people living there. My best friend lived on a property down the road and we spent all our time in the bush and outdoors. We would ride our bikes or horses to each others houses, play in the caves, look for birds nest and write letters to the fairies. We were really both girly girls and loved the same stuff. We hardly watched TV as we could only get ABC and we were hardly inside. Anna is still my dear friend and we were each other bridesmaids and she is Paloma’s godmother. Mum and dad worked a lot and we didn’t really travel or go away, but we spent lots of time with friends and at the polo just being kids. My memories are full of creeks and exploring and making cubbies. It was a peaceful, fairly uneventful life, but I had a lot of fun. Holidays were spent in Mollymook and it is still my favourite place to go. I had an innocent, uncomplicated childhood, that culminated with me going away to boarding school in the southern highlands, to a magical school that valued innocence and creativity. I met lifelong friends there, who are all different. It wasn’t until I became an adult that life became difficult. I had an amazing childhood that was simple and devoid of stuff and I am trying to give my children the same as my parents gave me.

Is country life as slow and relaxed as we all imagine?

Yes and no, we do work hard, but we reap the benefits, our quality of life is awesome, we live in a great town where there is a fantastic food and wine culture, great galleries and then country life and space all around us. I think we all have worries and stresses wherever we are and whatever we do, but I think the space and the community and the easy commute to work makes life far more relaxing than the city. We aren’t as overly stimulated and I think it’s easier to have a good quality of life, but we are busy and we do work really hard.

Describe a typical day in your life…

I wake at 5am (Paloma calls out to me) bring Paloma into bed and sleep until 6am. A bit later in winter (too dark and cold). Make breakfast, do the lunches, usually do a bit of social media for the business and sometimes a bit of work. Get the kids ready and clean the house a bit, then drop Edward at school, pop into the restaurant, touch base and do some work/gardening/set up for a function/go over any issues or ideas with other staff. Paloma plays or hangs out with the chefs or waitstaff, if she is there. I usually head into town to check on the bakery, do the same sort of things in there, rearrange the shop, rewrite the blackboards, then I pop home do some work where it’s quiet, maybe a bit of housework. Collect Edward from school, pop back out to work (it’s between home and Edward’s school. During the week, we quite often catch up with friends or go out for dinner, not usually late, but there is always something on and we have a pretty big, diverse group of friends, so it could be anything from school function, a catch up with friends, a party at a friends restaurant or winery, a gallery opening, or just a bonfire in the paddock. If not it’s dinner then a bit of work in front of the TV when the kids go to bed. Weekends are pretty much the same, but we stay up later.

Did your career change after you became a mother? Were you more or less ambitious/determined?

Yes, I think I got more serious and I certainly use my time better. I don’t waste so much time, so I can spend time with them, but I certainly haven’t lost my drive. I’m not sure if that has happened as I’ve grown as a business owner or as a mother though. I want to give them opportunities and I don’t want them to see me stressed all the time, so it has made me far more serious  and determined to grow a great and successful business, I want to leave them a legacy.

How would you describe your approach to parenting?

I am relaxed, but also strict. I am not good with routine, but I also won’t tolerate tantrums and rudeness. My kids are polite and adaptable for the most part and seem to be pretty well rounded (bit hard to tell with Paloma yet). I think love and showing love is the best thing you can give your kids, but I believe in setting boundaries too. I handle tantrums by not giving them any oxygen, I walk away and ignore them and then follow up my threats (mostly). They’re pretty young still though, so who knows if that will work. I am a bit old school as a parent and believe it’s not all about the kids all the time. I try to stay out of kids arguments they need to learn the skills themselves. I also don’t believe that every time a kid calls my kid a nasty name that it’s bullying and I’m not going to step in at the drop of a hat, they need to learn to deal with arseholes because they will always be around. I want my kids to be resilient and independent, they need to find their way and learn to respect their peers and their elders. I employ a lot of teenagers and young kids and believe me it shows professionally when kids are overindulged, the centre of their parents universe and have never had to fight a battle for themselves – I don’t want my kids to be those kids in 15 years. Not only that, but adults need time to be adults and kids need time to be kids. It’s important to set boundaries and differentiate between parent and friend, otherwise we lose ourselves and they never find themselves. I am not a mollycoddler.

Where are your top 3 places to go with kids in Orange?

Lake Canobolas – great in summer, the kids go down for a swim after school and we have picnics, share a bottle of wine or have a coffee. Many birthday parties have been celebrated down at the lake (it’s also just down the road from the restaurant). You can go for walks, swims and explore in the bush or ride bikes, it’s lovely and easy and so pretty.

Visit a cellar door, there are some great places in Orange that cater for kids and also adults. Heifer station has a petting zoo and space to run. Philip Shaw is also great for kids as there are beautiful gardens and places to explore and more wineries are opening cellar doors that are family friendly. Also many of the restaurants are child friendly, Racine has a kids menu – not a nugget in sight – and loads of space to run around and explore with nothing dangerous to get into trouble with, so parents can enjoy lunch in peace while watching the kids kick a football or play with our games out on the lawn.

Go to the art gallery, museum or theater, there is always something great on to see and the kids love it. Then we go out for lunch/dinner somewhere and discuss what we’ve seen. There are plenty of fun restaurant and cafes that the kids love.

Is it obvious that my life revolves around food and wine? Ha ha.