…Just like me America, is always a work in progress. The tenacity and fighting spirit of the American people is strong. We recognize the discomfort of where we are and have the knowledge and belief that we can and will make an amazing change in how we treat one another.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, SHE had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn Ireland.
Robyn Ireland is an internationally certified Life and Career Coach, public speaker and writer. with over 20 years of experience. She has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) from the University of Wollongong, a Diploma in Training and Assessment Systems from the Australian School of Commerce and Management, Biomedical Ethics at Grand Valley Sate University, Michigan. An ICF accredited Coach with active Membership in ICF of Michigan. Served as an Ambassador for the West Coast Chamber of Commerce for over seven years. Continues to serve as the North American Coordinator for the Southern Cross Group, an organization that Robyn led through spearheading Australian Citizenship Act Reform to allow Australian Citizens to hold Dual Citizenship; and allow those who had lost their Citizenship a course to reconnect their heritage. Robyn has been featured in the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Medium Magazine, Authority magazine and Entrepeneur.com and Buzzfeed.
From 1992–1996 Robyn fought for change for women in the Australian Defense Forces. After being refused medical treatment after a violent sexual assault, Robyn had legislation put into place to ensure that no woman could legally face such a situation in the ADF again. Although, culturally the ADF like most Western military organizations continues to struggle on the issue.
Robyn was injured in motor vehicle accident in 2000 which left her with Cervical Dystonia. And she met moved to America to marry the man that she had met on a Dystonia Bulletin Board. Later to protect the two girls that they shared, Robyn made the heavy decision to divorce; but bravely remained in America (distant from family and friends) to allow the girls to have relationships with both of their parents. Robyn has since remarried and is the proud mother of 4 amazing people.
Today, Robyn is passionate about creating safe space for her clients to fully understand their options, develop strategies that are in alignment with their personal values and vision for themselves and their families. Throughout her life, Robyn has been deeply impacted by her mentors and advocates but loves the tools, skills and mindset that she is able to empower her clients to live their own best lives. Robyn’s Couch — Get on Mine to Get Off Yours, has recently launched a condensed version of Dare Mighty Change program in a free one-week challenge.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
The New South Wales South coast, a land of winding roads and cliffs that unroll to white sandy beaches and crystal blue waters and that is where I grew up. For American’s, imagine taking the hard-working grit and community pride, that you find in the Appalachians, and drop it on a beach in a Hawaii, throw in a growing tourist industry and that would be my hometown of Wollongong. My father was an Industrial Chemist, at the local steel mill; he climbed into some of the worst places on the coke oven batteries to collect samples of air pollution or liquids from the tap holes around the blast furnace, but he never complained. The weight of the responsibility often meant late night telephone calls and long hours. Mom, worked as a secretary and like many kids of the 70s and 80s, I took care of myself after school until they got home from work. I was eager to follow my school leadership and young political activism into a journalism career.
As the youngest of three girls, I was the last of the Elliott name. The Elliott family had a long line of military career successes and pride. Of note, Major Thomas Patrick Elliott, my Great Uncle was recognized for being a new generation of Army officers who led his men into the fray. He had studied at the Australian Royal Military College for three years before World War I. He died on July 19th, 1916 Fromelles, France, he was only 22 but his life and death impact on her life is profound. He was just one of the many lost generation for Australia, his body was never recovered, a source of pain and pride for his mother Mary, Her Great Grandmother. In a letter she received after Tom’s death,
“From the moment of his transfer, his personality and force of character impressed itself forcibly on all he came into contact with, and this, operating first through his company, and finally through his battalion, raised his battalion from a low to standard of discipline to one of the best in the forces. He was looked upon before his death as a man likely to become a second Kitchener or Lord Roberts. Such was his ability, energy and force of character that I had selected him to be a member of Her staff as soon as vacancy occurred, and had at one time determined to keep him out of the battle, in order that his exceptional gifts might not be risked…”
Glowing words are often sent to ease the suffering of mother’s but for her Great Grandmother Mary Elliott, the loss of Tom was devastating who had three other sons serving in France in 1916. In the time that followed, Mary wrote to Defense Minster Pearce in 1918;
“not content with killing my good and noble son in your rotten commercial war and cheating me and his helpless brothers and sisters….you must throw me into the mad house and leave Her helpless children at Berala without a shilling. [However] it is absolutely impossible for …. You to cower me and break my spirit.”
Mary, turned to alcohol for comfort, her husband was working in England for the War effort, the stress of having four sons serving at once proved to be a heavy burden. Not without calamity, Roy her eldest son was 12 and refused to attend school. The police became involved and so began a long-fought battle that Mary had with the Lidcombe Police. Caring for Mary in her last years was her daughter Kathleen, who poor eyesight raised her younger brothers and sisters, including Roy who is Robyn’s Grandfather and he too died too young in a motorcycle accident in 1948. For Robyn, “Aunty Kath” was an intimidating woman as a child, but her love and heartfelt pride for her brother Tom lived on. Perhaps it was the fact that Kathleen lost so many siblings in tragedy that she vigorously carried their memory. Aunty Kath was a prodigious influence on me; she had sworn that she would not die until one of her children or grandchildren followed Tom’s footsteps into the Royal Australian Army. At the age of 16, when a TV Commercial aired for the Royal Australian Navy aired, my Dad said the words that changed my life. “Bet you can’t get in!” two years later an article in my local paper read “Dare ships Robyn off for select Navy Career.” The day that I received her letter of acceptance, Aunty Kath joined her brothers Tom and Roy in heaven, and I never got to tell her the news. Two years later the Illawarra Mercury ran a story “Dare Ships Robyn off for Select Navy Career.”
I began her career at the Australian Defense Force Academy, built next door to the deeply historic Royal Military College where Tom had attended. ADFA shares some facilities with Duntroon, and it was with great pride that I carried his name back to Canberra. At the time, the living quarters for Army, Navy and Air Force Cadets was managed by third year students at the Academy with little staff involvement. In the final weeks of my second year at ADFA, I was raped by an Army Officer Cadet; he was the son of wealthy logger from Tasmania. His family’s wealth logging empire lives to this day and is built upon Tasmanian Oak, Blackwood and Myrtle. The cadet in question had previously broken into a furniture store in Canberra and stated that he wanted to die; normally reason enough to be discharged. The senior cadets had ordered me to keep an eye on him, because she had a low tolerance for his shenanigans’ and nobody else in the Division had the energy to put up with him. My “alleged” attacker was never charged formally because of the mess that ensued, despite the extent and extremity of the physical injuries I suffered. Fraternization with officer cadets of the opposite sex was against the rules, but common place. The assault was intense in the number of physical injuries. It was at the urge of my sister, that I went to the medical Hospital at Duntroon to at least be examined. Upon arrival I was refused even basic medical treatment and told that they could not treat my injuries unless I reported the incident to the Australian Federal Police. It is this decision, that makes my blood run cold to this day. But after speaking to my best friend, and the Officer of the Watch I had decided that she would risk my career but do the thing that I would want her WRENS to be able to do; to tell the truth and stop this from happening again. Just like Tom had led his men out into no man’s land in Fromelles, I took the lead into one of the darkest areas of Australian Military Law.
The Australian Federal Police took fourteen hours to collect my statement and broke laws of confidentiality and protection by leaking my statement back to Officers at ADFA. By the time I returned to ADFA the barracks were in upheaval. An investigation had started during the night, not, into the events of the incident; but into my romantic history to find if other than this Officer Cadet, I had been romantically involved with anyone else. How could they allege that what happened that night had anything to do with romance? But that was the approach that leadership at ADFA took. That same day I was threatened with a court-martial for fraternization. Under enormous pressure I resigned. Two MPS loaded my personal belongings into garage bags and drove me to my parents’ home three hours away. My father drove me back to Canberra the next day, where I walked the sideline cheering on her netball team as they played in the grand final game. Major General Powell, who held the Training Command Office for the Australian Army, shook Robyn’s father’s hand and thanked him for raising a fine daughter, he said “the character she has displayed by showing up today; in spite of all she has endured, proves just how wrong they are.” Fearful of the toll it would take; my Dad had warned me against fighting the entire Australian Defense Force. Perhaps, the stories from Kath about Mary did not help his perspective. In November 1918, she was once arrested after becoming upset over Tom’s name being misspelled by a War memorial, the paymasters at Paddington Barracks complained about her to the Lidcombe Police. She was arrested diagnosed “mania delusional” and placed in Callan Park, where she died of pneumonia. Without any support or finances, I refused to let this end my story, through research and a dash of good luck she I met Jack Pappas, an attorney who does not shy from a good fight. Jack was an advocate for me when no one else could or knew how to be. It took years of legal battles and inquires but because of Jack’s hard work and my commitment to right this wrong for women like me, third year cadets no longer manage the activities of first- and second-year cadets in the barracks at ADFA. Women are no longer forced to place a report to the Australian Federal Police before receiving medical treatment. I am proud of my heritage, my accomplishments, I love Australia, and like Mary, it is absolutely impossible to break my spirit.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
I was about to drive across the Southern Highlands from Wollongong to Canberra to train the hotel staff who would be hosting international soccer teams for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I was working as a Corporate Trainer and Business Consultant for the Australian Retailers Association. Canberra is inland and close to the Australian Snowy Mountains and there was snow precited for Canberra. Perhaps you have leaned forward to examine building clouds on the horizon while sitting at a traffic light? That is just what I was doing when the sound of metal bending, glass breaking while the hood of another car spun as if in slow motion end over end just in front of her car. My car was thrust forward into the oncoming traffic, my body slammed back into the seat as another car that was coming through the intersection t-boned the car. I thought that she was OK, sore and whiplashed yes but no broken bones. A week after the accident, my neck started to pull to the right and the back of. My head was pulling toward my right shoulder blade, it would rock back and forth in a tug of war motion while my chin drew the letter J in the air over and over again. I tried physical therapy, medication and saw more doctors than I can recall; they all had opinions but no facts and nothing that worked with success in the past. My muscles spasmed twenty-four hours a day, even in my sleep; chewing and swallowing food was a challenge. Let alone when the pain would induce nausea. My life once again had taken a change without my permission, but those Elliott family strengths kicked in.
I was sharing Her home with a male friend, David. After my friends at the Australian Defence Force Academy had shared every detail of boys that I had liked, crushed on, kissed on a dance floor or dated to protect their own careers, I became wary of women. David leant me his laptop and while he was at work, and I would prop herself in bed with pillows and research to try and find out what was happening to my body. I found a site for spasmodic torticollis, Howard Thiel who founded the group knew a Dr Lorentz, an American Neurologist who had retired to Sydney, who treated Dystonia.
Dystonia, also known as Spasmodic Torticollis, is the poor cousin to Parkinson’s Disease. What is different in dystonia is that opposite muscle groups spasm and contract in opposing directions at the same time, which is what causes a twisting motion. Laurel Chiten produced a documentary called Twisted, Blind Dog Films, about her car accident at the age of 17 and 3 other people and was featured on PBS Independent Lens. This is a must view for anyone curious and check out Dystonia Medical Research Foundation for more information.
Howard’s site had page bulletin boards where people shared ideas, frustrations and worries with other people with the disorder. Robyn posted about the Australian Kelpie puppy that David given her to keep her active and not to sink into pain when she was home alone. She was frustrated that she could barely see her feet (because of the way her head turned) let alone care for a puppy. Brian posted about his dog, a bodacious black lab in Holland Michigan and they started talking and soon discovered that they were both the same age and neither wanted to be defined by their Dystonia diagnosis. Robyn came to America for a life unshackled by labels, past shame and hurt. A blank slate with someone who was brave, funny and kind. I did not care that food fell out of his mouth when he chewed, we fell in love while inspiring one another to fight for better lives for ourselves.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Before making the move to the United States I visited Brian and his family in Holland Michigan. It is a small town well known for its Tulip Festival and Windmills. But for me, it was Lake Michigan and the third longest coastline in America that took my breath away. As an Australian where fresh water is at times scarce, seeing Lake Michigan stretch out as far as the eye can see of fresh water is breathtaking! During my six-week visit, I stayed with Brian’s Grandparents, where I slept like I had never slept in my life. Their kindness and curiosity were charming, and I felt like I had stepped back in time, but in a good and wholesome way. Brian’s mother asked me to not to take her only living son to the other side of the world. I was tired of the fast-paced lifestyle that I had lived until this point. I was ready to marry and settle down. After all I had been through and done, my Mum dreamed that I would one day be a Librarian so she could stop worrying about me burning the candle at both ends; and, if I could slow down anywhere it would be Holland Michigan. We met with a lawyer who explained that legally, we should marry and then I would return to Australia and wait for a spousal visa to be issued allowing me to come to the USA. That was moving way too fast for me, I had just come to visit. Brian and I had spent 10 days together in Australia, and while we had been sending lengthy emails back and forth for months, I was not ready to get hitched for the sake of legality. I was about to turn 30, and not a girly girl but I still wanted my big day. So, he explained the illegal way of doing it; within the law that while illegal at the time was not a criminal offense. I was to on my next trip from Australia, get married after 60 days had passed on my visitor waiver but before the 90 days had expired, and then apply for an adjustment of status. I would be unable to work in the USA or generate my own income. Not that I had been working a job because of the car accident but I was worried. Brian assured me that we would be fine financially, his parents owned a large trucking company where he worked. And Brian was too afraid that if I returned to Australia to wait for a spousal visa, my friends and family would talk me out of ever returning.
My parents drove me to Sydney Airport through bush fires that threatened to close the highways. The belongings I wanted to keep were packed into a shipping container, and I had two suitcases to get me started in the USA and essentials for the wedding like my wedding dress that my Mum had helped me to select. I was not sure if I was doing the right thing; but a sweet man who promised to love me was waiting in a quiet town where no one knew my past.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Hundreds of AustralianWar Brides made my move more manageable. The first, Jude, Holland Community Hospital CEO who came to America to marry and American she’d met during Vietnam, who then introduced me to the Southern Cross Group, an Australian Expat organization founded in Brussels. I joined Anne MacGregor in fighting for reform to the Australian Citizenship Act to allow a path for Australian Expats to have dual citizenship. This gave me a productive outlet for my time while I waited for immigration status to change. After dual citizenship received royal assent in 2004, I was contacted by hundreds of families concerned about their mothers and grandmothers who had come to the USA after WWII. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 Australian women came to the US after WWII. These women who had followed their hearts just like me; had lost their Australian Citizenship when they became American Citizens. Australians were British subjects until January 1948, I had the arduous task of deciphering if they had ever been “Australians” at all. I lost count of the emails or telephone calls I would get saying “Mom went to the Embassy to renew her passport, but they said she cannot because she is no longer and Australian! What do we do?” Together we shared stories long telephone conversations of the challenges that they had faced. They had been afraid just like me, but they had created lives filled with love in spite of the hardships and disconnection from their families that they had faced. When letters would take 6 weeks to arrive, when a telephone call meant riding a horse to a neighbor’s property. At least I could pick up my phone at any time, when I struggled with home sickness these women kept me going and focused on what I had, my family and my passion to create change and to serve my community. By 2007 when War Brides were celebrated in a day of honor at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and their path to Citizenship had been put in place, I was a mother of two young girls. That transition would not have been possible without the Australian Expat community, the work that Anne MacGregor and I did together and the deep bond that we formed in the process.
So how are things going today?
Today the girls are doing well in High School and have more opportunities and experiences available to them, than I ever could have dreamed for them if we had settled in Australia. However, I did file for divorce after some very difficult years in our marriage. Brian underwent brain surgery for his dystonia after our first child was born. The surgery was a success at first, until a lead broke and the subsequent surgery caused a staph infection. The deep brain stimulator that had been placed in his brain and the battery pack in his chest had to be removed. He stayed in Hospital for a short time before returning to West Michigan where I hooked up antibiotics to his PICC line twice a day for six weeks. This process is tough on any marriage, but during this time Brian’s father sold off the trucking company and Brian was hired by a family friend but at a much lower rate of pay. His self-confidence waned and he struggled emotionally to prepare to have the stimulator replaced. A year later we went back, and it was replaced, but again staph infection flared, and we repeated the antibiotics. Brian was no longer the man that did not care about how his head moved or spasmed; he was angry at the world, it had cured him and then taken it away. Our financial security was gone and he developed some maladaptive behaviors with coping with it all. I had returned to the work force and was working as car salesperson in Holland. Differences in our parenting styles were emerging, the girls were struggling with all of the tension. The final straw was when Brian learned of a new inquiry in the abuse within the Australian Defence Forces. If I retold my story, I may be awarded money for my pain. There was no amount of money that could compensate me for the pain of having to type all of those details again. Brian was desperate for money in any possible way, so I made my statement for the DART Inquiry and in 2014 was awarded a small sum of money, it was not a large amount by any means but covered my legal expenses when I filed for divorce. The girls and I deserved sanctuary in our own home. I chose to stay in the USA so that the girls could have limited a relationship with both of us.
The girls are doing great, they are talented academically and, in the arts, dance has been their passion for most of their lives. I have remarried a wonderful man and our home is one of peace and love, most of the time. I am not a Librarian as my Mum had dreamed but a Life and Career Coach. I listen to people who are struggling with change. If there is anything my life has taught is that to count on change. I could not have predicted the pandemic when I launched Robyn’s Couch, get on my couch to get off yours on January 1, 2020; but it was a year that I can say I launched a business during 2020, and exceled my hopes and dreams for it in its first year! Just like everyone else, we stumbled, I fell once badly but once again I got back up again. Am I making millions? No. But I work from home, with a view of wooded fields, my feeding station at the edge of the yard is visited by an endless dance of critters and native birds. I am preparing to hike across Michigan in 2022 along the Michigan Shore to Shore trail and have my heart set on the Appalachian Trail after that.
I am living proof of the American Dream; I work with whom and when I want. I produce income that keeps the girls in pointe shoes and ballet classes. We are safe, we are loved, and we have more than enough, that flexibility and independence we have is priceless.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Understanding that what happens to you does not define you; has allowed me to reconnect families that were disconnected by outdated laws. I challenge clients every day to rethink their perspective as the only one. I ask the questions that other people are afraid to ask, because I know what it is like to live afraid, to be hurt and lived with the consequences of the decisions that you make when you are afraid. So I use my experience, tenacity and humor to help people become clear about where they are at, where they want to and how to make any change that they need. With dignity, grace and a great sense of humor you can survive anything this world sends your way.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
- Understand that Immigration Happens — Immigration is something that is part of our global world and lose the hoopla around it.
- Understand that immigrants are not criminals.
- Learn from Australia’s model of celebrating diversity while being untied as one Nation. Immigrants make America a beautiful place!
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Australia — Drover: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.” Get Involved! Find an organization that speaks to your heart and get involved, if you don’t have time give, if you don’t have money give time.
- Australia — Drover : “Most people like to own things. You know, land, luggage, other people. Makes them feel secure. But all that can be taken away. And in the end, the only thing you really own is your story. Just trying to live a good one.” Do not be ashamed of where you came from, do not fall into the comparison trap. Focus on what you can control, be curious and be proactive, the rest will fall into place.
- The Castle — Darryl Kerrigan: “Tell him he’s dreaming.” Know your boundaries, follow your dreams and do not cave into someone else’s vision of you.
- Muriel’s Wedding — Joanie: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” Stop worrying what they will say or think, as long as you are following the golden rules of life; if you do not chase your dream nobody else will do it for you!
- Finding Nemo — Bruce: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.” You can create change; I have been so very broken at times in my life. I am grateful for my team of support people who have walked me through crisis after crisis. My Mum and Dad, my sister Sharon; my hubby Doug, my girlfriends, my daughters, my poor Priest and my sneakers for carrying me while I walk it off. My dogs that I have had over a lifetime and yes even my ex-husband. These people are my story and even though there have been struggles what a beautiful way I get serve other by helping clients navigate change for themselves, with grit dignity and a sense of humor.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- Just like me America, is always a work in progress. The tenacity and fighting spirit of the American people is strong. We recognize the discomfort of where we are and have the knowledge and belief that we can and will make an amazing change in how we treat one another.
- The quest for knowledge. I ran a Facebook discussion group at the end of 2020 where we read White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo and over 200 women reached out to me to participate in different ways. Over half a million copies of the book Caste Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson sold last year and the book was not published until August 2020! People are taking the time to learn about the opportunities we have ahead.
- Children, mine and the children that I know. They are smart, they see our flaws more clearly than we do sometimes and they are eager to do better.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Liane Moriarity, thank you for your books, they take me home when money has been tight, and I could not go. Nicole Kidman, Australian women with red hair are frankly the toughest women on earth and knowing you have done hard things too has been a source of inspiration. And Jamie Kern Lima for inspiring me that my struggles are my super-power! It feels so good to say my story for the first time ever all in one place! Thank you!
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can subscribe to my blogs at https://robynscouch.com/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!