Inspirational Women: Robin Barker

January 3, 2016

Our go-to parenting author is taking a turn and going on a new adventure. 

After years of working as a registered nurse, midwife and parent-craft nurse, Robin Barker discovered very few families had access to any kind of baby or parenting advice.

Robin took this problem in her stride and in turn created Baby Love. Twenty-one years later, new parents around the country still turn to her words of advice for comfort and to gain a greater understanding of the road that lies ahead. Here, Robin shares her career journey and details of her newest venture…

Nursing was something I definitely didn’t see myself doing. In my last year at school I wanted to go to Manhattan and be a famous actor. Why acting? Why Manhattan? I have no idea. Failing that, I was prepared to fall back on teaching. But I barely scraped through the leaving certificate and missed out on a university or teachers college scholarship. As Manhattan was obviously not going to happen and I desperately wanted to leave my small coastal town, I decided nursing would do.

When I first started out, I had nothing close to a mentor. Nurse training in 1961 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children was still in the dark ages. The idea of having a mentor was as likely as a moon landing. It was a hierarchical militaristic system where workplace bullying was common. Later, when I did midwifery at King Edward Hospital in Perth, under a vastly different system, pupil midwives did have mentors, and I recall a few wonderful women who inspired me and took me under their wing at various times during my midwifery career.

When I went into child and family health nursing in my early forties, I’d had a couple of babies and found the work interesting and was fascinated by what the mothers were asking and telling me. After a few years I saw that there were very few Australian books about the first year after birth and at that time – the early 80s – baby books were written by male paediatricians, research psychologists or others who weren’t actually doing any of the hands-on.

At that time, midwives and nurses weren’t expected to write books alone, and unaided without the blessing of a doctor. That information was valuable, unique and I thought it should be passed on.

When Baby Love was first published it didn’t sell and just as it was about to be remaindered, people started asking for it. My publisher decided to begin again. We did a new edition with a different cover. Word of mouth took over and it popped onto a bestseller list six years after it was first published. It’s now in its 6th edition and still sells well, but now there are many more baby books and websites by a huge variety of authors for parents to choose from, so its hey-day, I think, is over. I never expected it to sell as well as it has, nor to keep going for as long as it has and I’m still mildly astonished about that.

Three of Robin’s parenting books: Baby Love, The Mighty Toddle, and Baby & Toddler Meals.

Rather than make impossible promises, my aim was to give pragmatic, down-to-earth helpful advice that offered a few safe options. I’ve never viewed myself as a ‘guru’ or a ‘baby whisperer’ and have never wanted to turn my books into a small business or tour the country giving seminars. Nor have I any inclination to make YouTube clips on the ‘Robin Barker method’ of getting a baby to sleep. I enjoyed getting the words on the page endeavouring to avoid the touchy-feely, self-help platitudes and clichés so common, not only in ‘parenting’ books but in most self-help books.

I will always have a great interest in the baby world and feel touched and honoured the books are still selling and that, for many parents, they seem to provide help, encouragement and a deal of comfort. In a personal sense, the writing of the baby books kick-started me into other writing, which I’ve always wanted to do.

I find my inspiration in great literature and ocean swimming, and from women like Dr Fiona Woods, Dorothy Hoddinott, Aboriginal elder Bess Price and opera singer Cheryl Barker.

My fourth book, Close To Home, is my first published fiction. The transition in some ways came quite easily to me. I’ve always been a big reader and I think the urge to write comes from reading, but switching from self-help to fiction is huge. It’s something I have to work at and something I’m not at all sure I will ever master.

In the last three decades parenthood has morphed from being the domain of bumbling amateur into the domain of the semi-professional. In some ways the word ‘parenting’ says it all. Prior to the 1980s the word didn’t exist. Until then, people just had children and looked after them. Parents are better informed today and are more likely to question advice, but there’s a much greater intensity about being a parent than there was in the past and that perhaps has the capacity to interfere with the enjoyment babies and children bring.

Since retiring I’ve concentrated on non-baby writing – fiction and non-fiction – which stretches my brain cells and gives me backache but I can’t seem to give it away.

The days I don’t swim, I walk – either around the beaches or around Centennial Park. I’m very involved with my grandchildren who live nearby and I always have my nose in a book. As well as this, I’m an ambassador for Room To Read and the Australian Centre for Peri-natal Science. Both involve making lives better for babies and children; something I’ve always had great interest in.

The advice I’d give to those wanting to follow something similar to what I’ve done, is to do your own thing. Nursing tends to be a bureaucratic occupation and, if you try to spread your wings, it’s easy to get buried by the system. I’ll always try to live by my own personal mission statement: don’t be cruel, read a lot, swim a lot and count my blessings.


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