“I know that abandoned is a word that has been used in telling that story, but I actually don't want to use that word anymore,” Zoe Hendrix tells me, when we go back to the beginning of her life, when she was born amidst the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war...
When she was five years old, she went to live at an Ethiopian orphanage with her twin brother. In her own words, “It sounds like you abandon an old tire on the road or something, and to me, it’s more that she surrendered us because she was very unwell. I only learned this recently as well, so that’s why I want to correct the wording I have used previously.” Hendrix and her brother were later adopted by a Tasmanian couple and moved to Australia. Fast forward to 2015, and the country watched Zoe marry Alex Garner on the very first season of Married at First Sight. The couple went onto have a beautiful daughter Harper-Rose, but have since separated.
It was the birth of Harper which led her to yearn for her birth mum, and pushed her to travel halfway around the world to search for her. Tragically, Hendrix discovered her birth mother had passed away, but is now in touch with her family. “I’m getting some insight into what had happened and the kind of challenges that my mother faced as a woman,” she says. In a recent Instagram post, she connected with her birth mother’s sister; learning that her birth mother “spoke of her twins until her last breath.”
Here, we speak to Hendrix – who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and we couldn’t love her more for it – about her incredible life journey, the ups and downs of motherhood, the power of single motherhood, and also about what changes around racial diversity and acceptance she’d like to see and how to talk to our children about anti-racism.
Follow @zoehendrix | Holding image: Zoe with her father
Given recent events, what changes do you want to see happen in the world?
As Australians, I want us (as a priority) to address the injustice and inequality that indigenous people have faced for too long. I also would like to see more education around race and racism, both interpersonal and at the institutional level. This is a matter of human rights and the dignity of all people in our world. And finally, the goal at least in my opinion is substantive change. Equal opportunity in education, work, media representation, and under the law. Not just feel-good sentiments.
How can we talk to our children about what being anti-racist means?
I am not an expert or trained in education. However, as a parent, I am aware that there are plenty of excellent resources and books on this precise topic. Including one coming out shortly called Antiracist Baby by best selling author and academic Ibram Xolani Kendi. Beyond that, I believe that it is not enough to talk to our children or read to them about being anti-racist. We must SHOW them by practicing it in how we conduct ourselves. How we speak, how we engage with others from different cultures, and who we point to as role models for ourselves. My child is still very young, but I know that she listens more to what I do than what I say.
Take us back to the beginning of your life, when you were abandoned at an Ethiopian orphanage, when you were five years old. What do you remember about this stage in your life?
I know that abandoned is a word that has been used in telling that story, but I actually don’t want to use that word anymore. I only say that because I think it doesn’t actually tell the full story of what a mother does when she forfeits, or when she, gives her children up. It sounds like you abandon an old tire on the road or something, and to me, it’s more that she surrendered us because she was very unwell. I only learned this recently as well, so that’s why I want to correct the wording I have used previously.
My twin brother and I were born amidst the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war. It was also during the continent’s deadliest famine. My mother was Eritrean, and my father was Ethiopian, and these two different countries were in the civil war together. Our mother was from the other side, effectively, with little support around her.
I do have memories of my mother because we were almost six years old by the time we were adopted. So, we were with her, at least, for five of those years. I have memories, but not full memories, but I do have cherished memories, of her. I remember her hands. I remember her smell. I remember she would sing us songs and that she was kind but strong. I remember those kinds of things.
When you’re adopted, once you have a child of your own, it actually gives you a different perspective on motherhood, and on your mother, because it allows you to step into her shoes. I always believed she loved me, but I did not realise what love from a mother to a child was, until I became a mother. Becoming a mother myself was quite triggering for me, to be honest, especially having a daughter as well, because it made me think about all that I had missed. I had to go through a lot of grief over my mother, once I became a mother, and acknowledging that bond and how hard it must’ve been for her to lose us. My adopted mother wasn’t the fairy-tale mother you see in adoption stories, she had her own battles, and that impacted my life immensely. That was also something that has taken time to heal.
I’m still very close to two girls that were in my orphanage. They’re in Australia as well, in Queensland. We’ve always been best friends ever since we happened to be adopted to the same country. They also have children and we go on holidays together. It’s a very powerful connection because you understand each other, you get it. It’s like siblings. And we have moments where we watch each other process different things. One of them is called Marta and she and I are soul mates in the way that we women can be. I treasure both of them. We just kind of take turns celebrating each other’s wins and being there for each other’s struggles.
You were raped when you were five-years-old – how have you processed this trauma over time, and what gave you the courage to share this experience?
Sexual assault is quite a complex trauma to process. It was around the Me Too Movement beginning, where I was reading so much about it and it was everywhere that I felt very triggered. People talk about trigger warnings, but it is actually quite terrifying when you’re forced to think about things that you thought you’d nicely packed away. I had nightmares and panic attacks for months. Memories would replay in my mind. Therapy and talking to people I trust helped.
For me, it was more understanding that there is no full stop necessarily in processing some types of complex trauma. That it’s something that has actually changed my brain. It’s changed my understanding of safety, my understanding of relationships, and security. It doesn’t mean that I can’t have all of that, but it’s something that I can give myself as long as I need to properly process.
For example, I’m very cautious about people around my daughter, very cautious. I don’t want to be too overbearing, but at least I think about things. I also think the more people talk about it, the more we take away the shame. The statistics are quite terrifying in Australia. We need to let survivors know that they are not alone, that we believe them, and we stand with them. We also need reform to make it easier to obtain justice and lock away preparators.
I’m a very strong supporter of, teaching our boys not to rape. We have to teach our boys to respect girls. So, all of our sons, if we have them, and our nephews and everybody, because we can’t just place it on us to protect our daughters. We can no longer put so much of the responsibility onto the behaviour of women, I find that so infuriating. It’s just as important to teach boys about rape. About consent, about respect.
What would you tell other women who have experienced sexual assault?
It had nothing to do with you, this was the actions of someone else who was committing a crime, and a huge human rights violation, and that there was nothing you could have done, or nothing that you did that played a part in that. It was nothing to do with what you were wearing because if a five-year-old can get raped, it can happen to anyone. It’s just about power and people wanting to take away power. You are not your experience. When you’re ready and willing, people will share with you. Give yourself time and remember it will not be your full story.
Tell me about your relationship with your brother…
We’re permanently connected because he’s my twin. He has a daughter as well, who’s six months younger than Harper. They love playing together and are always asking for each other, so it’s lucky we live close by! We’re different people, my brother and I, but I think we have an understanding of each other, and respect for each other, and we’re always there for each other as well. Our mother would be proud of us.
After your daughter, Harper, was born, you yearned for your birth mum, and it pushed you to travel halfway around the world and search for her, only to be told you were too late….
I ended up finding her family, which is my family, so her brothers and sisters, and my uncles, and most of them actually live in America and throughout Europe. I found them through social media – an image that I posted of myself and my daughter on my Instagram, somehow got onto a popular Eritrean/Ethiopian page, and then they spread it, and then I started following leads, and people were helping me and tagging me everywhere. It was like a scene from some thriller movie.
In the end, I found my family and now I’m getting some insight into what had happened and the kind of challenges that my mother faced as a woman. I’ve been speaking to her family, getting to know her story, learning about myself when I was little, which is really strange but wonderful to hear. I am so happy. Our family is so happy to reconnect with us and I look forward to a trip to the US and Europe to meet them once the COVID travel ban ends!
When you discovered that your mother had passed away, how did that feel?
In 2018, I went to Ethiopia to find her and so to discover I was too late was devastating. I did meet my birth father. He told me they didn’t have a relationship and he was married to someone else when we were born. It was very difficult to get any information out of him, but he did say she has passed away.
I didn’t fully break down when I heard the news, I guess a part of me didn’t believe him, didn’t trust him. It has taken me a year, if not more, to properly process that grief, because I really, really, really, believed that she would be alive. I actually saw a psychic and she said to me, “Your mother’s coming through. She just wants you to know she’s looking over you and your daughter. And she’ll always be here with you, with her arms around you, and that it’s okay.” I knew then, even though I was a bit skeptic when she said that, and the words that she used, I just felt it, I actually felt it. I knew that she was gone, but she was still here. Watching over us.
Miscarriage is something that we often deal with alone. And you've been so honest and open about your experience with pregnancy loss. What do you want to say to other women who are experiencing pregnancy loss?
It is so scary, isn’t it? We celebrate new life. We share when we’re pregnant or getting married. But there’s so much of our life that we don’t share. And it’s because of shame and feeling that we did something, or that there’s something wrong with us. We need to share all of it. My favourite relationships are the ones that I can talk to about all of the crap, all the shit things in motherhood, and all of the challenges in relationships and all of the issues with children and all of the fears, and that includes miscarriages. Or IVF struggles. We need to talk more about it, normalise it, not normalise it to say, it’s just whatever, but to let people know they don’t have to suffer in silence, or that they have to move on and ignore it.
What about postnatal anxiety? How did this impact you day to day, and how did you overcome it?
I have a theory. There are two types or two experiences of postnatal anxiety. The first is the obvious type, where you can obviously see that someone is suffering. And they may show all of the signs of anxiety and stress and crying and visible postnatal depression, not wanting to come out of the house, just all of the signs they tell you to look out for.
The other one is the overachiever. And that was me. And my anxiety came out with me polishing the crap out of my bench, having an obsession with my house being perfectly clean, having an obsession with everything having to be perfect, having an obsession with not looking like I was falling apart because that was part of my anxiety and my experience of postnatal, was to prove that I was okay. To avoid and to hide the fact that I was crippled with sorrow. It was almost like a mask that was on top of all of my fears.
We have to look out for the women who are allegedly doing amazing at motherhood. And when we look at them and we say, “Oh my God, you’re just smashing it, you’re doing amazing.” We actually need to be like, “You’re doing great, is there anything that I can help you with?” Because we almost project onto them, when they’re doing everything perfectly, that, that’s what they should be doing or that it should be commended, when we should still look to them to see if they are actually okay because it’s a symptom of something more sinister. It’s the people who look like they’ve got it all together who are often not ok.
Your Tasmanian parents adopted you in 1995 – can you tell me how have they influenced your life?
I’m very much like my dad. My dad does a lot of writing, he’s very into social science and human behaviour. He’s interested in how people do things and why they do things. He worked as a mediator. I grew up always reading from watching him. He has also greatly shaped my early interest in politics, law, and feminism. We had a normal childhood – sprinkler on in the front yard on the grass and barbecues on Saturday, and football and cricket and all of that, the normal 90s childhood.
Growing up, what were your thoughts on being adopted? Was it something you gave a lot of thought to? Was it something your parents talked to you a lot about?
If I could change anything, it’s that. I’ve worked with Adopt Change over the years and I’m still not convinced that the way we do adoption is right. I think there’s still room for improvement. For example, it’s important to tell kids when they’re adopted, about their birth family, and make it a normal conversation that you have. Because it doesn’t take away from your family or your parenting, I think it actually adds to it. So, for us, we very much ignored our birth family. We didn’t really talk about them. When my brother and I would say, “Oh, our mum”, and whatever, our parents would say, “Well, no, because your mum has died.” Because that’s how adoption works, isn’t it? You don’t take kids unless they’re orphans. And by definition, legally, an orphan is when your parents are dead.
I’m really for adoption in circumstances that require it, but I think that, just like surrogates or anything in this, we consider that people should know who their biological family is and that there should be systems in place to be able to teach them. This will help children to grow up to be stable, happy adults, it’s also a basic human right.
Bringing a baby into a marriage often puts an enormous amount of pressure on a relationship. Did you feel pressure after Harper was born, on your relationship?
In hindsight, I have learned that you don’t know who you’ve married until you have a child. Sometimes it’s not what you agreed and it’s not how you thought things were going to go. I was surprised to find that I was doing a lot more than I thought I would be doing, often all by myself. Day in day out. And that this continued even when I returned to fulltime work. I would say I’m quite a modern woman. I have modern views about parenting and gender roles. But I would say that that wasn’t a shared attitude. I didn’t really realise this until after we had our child. I’ve learned a lot from that experience.
Since being on MAFS and moving into the public eye, do you care what people think of you?
I’d like to say that I don’t, but I would be lying, although I care less now. I’m actually less active on social media, because even though I like it and it can be fun, I’m focused on building my life beyond that public image as well, and in a different direction more suited towards my goals. I find that you can have 300 positive comments, and you get two comments that say something negative, and you focus on those two comments. I’ve had moments where I’m like, “Why are you doing that? What about all these other comments?” And I’ve never understood that. And I wish I could understand that. But I think that comes down to your self-esteem. There is a certain level that your self-esteem depends on. We are all human.
Also, people are allowed to disagree with you. There will always be people who don’t believe in you, and who don’t agree with you. And then there are also people who just have their own issues. And so their comment is not about you, it’s about them. You almost have to remove yourself from some of these comments, because it’s not about you, that’s easier said than done, obviously.
What has it been like being a single mother?
I love being a single mum. It has taken me a while to go through the stages, but here I am, and I’ve almost graduated with my law degree which I’m doing with honours. My goal is to become a Barrister. I have an interest in, possibly in Criminal Law and also Human Rights. They are the two things that are my passion, and nothing is going to stop me. I have predominant care of my daughter, and I know if I can complete my degree whilst raising her, I know I can do anything. I feel really, really proud to be a single mum. It’s empowering. There’s a lot of freedom in it, and there’s a strong connection with your child. Harper is thriving and the light of my life. It’s time to reframe how we perceive single mothers. There’s a lot of single parents that are very happy with their life and kicking goals.