Edwina Bartholomew sits in a patch of golden sunlight in a perfect Victorian country garden.
Three-year-old Molly– strawberry-blonde curls tumbling down her back, a look of sheer delight in her wide, blue eyes – removes the bangles that the stylist has carefully arranged on her mother’s wrist and, one by one, slips them onto her own. All done, she shakes her arm with glee and strolls off in search of fairies.
Edwina, her husband and fellow journalist Neil Varcoe, Molly and little brother Tom are all big believers in fairies – and make-believe foxes that gobble lollies in the night, and playfulness and imagination generally.
“I think one of the great joys of being a mother is to see their imaginations flourish,” the Sunrise star begins.
“Molly and [sixteen-month-old] Tom love stories, and Neil and I are both storytellers by profession, so to be able to foster that love of the imaginary is just the greatest gift … And a sense of wonder. It starts as a sense of wonder about the small things at this age, and it becomes a sense of wonder about the world, a sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness that will carry them both through their entire lives.”
When Edwina wrote in her newspaper column about the family’s belief in a mischievous, lolly-snaffling fox, there was a bit of blowback from more literalist readers who were concerned about a parent’s duty to tell the absolute truth. But the critics don’t worry her nowadays.
“I don’t really care what people think,” she explains. “That hasn’t been the case forever, but it’s absolutely the case when it comes to parenting because I am fully confident that I am raising two great kids. My mum’s a kindergarten teacher. Neil’s mum is a midwife. We have a lot of wisdom in our family. I have two great role models in both my mum and my mother-in-law, and I’m fully confident we’re doing the right thing by our kids.”
And anyway, the critics are more than outnumbered by readers and Sunrise viewers who are grateful for Edwina’s honesty.
“I choose what I share,” she explains. “It’s my column. I wrote one about motherhood rage – when sometimes it’s just all too much and I’m what Molly would call ‘rumpy’. That’s okay too. Overwhelmingly, I’ve had a positive response from other mums who feel better about what they’re doing in their own homes because I’ve been willing to be honest about the wins and the losses, the fails and the triumphs. That outweighs any negativity.
“If you’d asked me [about the critics] before I became a mum, I would have given you a very different answer. I was much more preoccupied with what people thought. But you can never be everyone’s cup of tea. So, you might as well just be yourself, and trust in yourself that you’re doing the right thing by your family.”
Edwina and Neil are sitting down with The Weekly today for a very open conversation about the struggles they’ve faced in recent years. The everyday challenges of parenting newborns and toddlers were magnified because Neil was – and still is – grappling with chronic fatigue syndrome.
They hope that sharing their story might help others who are also struggling with chronic fatigue – and that’s roughly one in 100 Australians. The first signs emerged five years ago when Neil was laid low by a particularly severe virus.
“It just really knocked me,” he tells The Weekly. “I was sick for about three weeks and my energy went through the floor. There were moments when I would walk to the end of my street, and I had to turn around and come back home. I had nothing left.”
Neil summoned the energy to return to work – a stressful job managing content moderation for 150 million Twitter accounts – but he wasn’t back to his old self, not by a long shot. “Three months later,” he says, “I was hit by another virus, and I never recovered.”
The couple set out on a circuitous quest, first for a diagnosis, and then for a treatment that would offer some relief.
“Talk about navigating through a dark alleyway,” Edwina says. “There are very few answers out there. It’s very much self-guided. You have to find your own solutions, find what works for you. It’s been a really tough path.”
Neil has found Chinese medicine helpful, and medicinal marijuana. But even today, he has to be careful not to shoulder too great a load.
“With Edwina’s support, I’ve had to make really tough decisions,” he admits. “Some days, for instance, I’ll only be able to read Molly and Tom a story, but I won’t be able to be involved in the bath. It sounds like a small thing but some days that’s where you’re at … If you don’t respect it, it just wrestles you to the ground.”
Edwina has been enormously supportive, but that hasn’t always been easy. Her eyes fill with tears as she talks about Neil’s health and the challenges they’ve faced together.
Last time we spoke with Edwina, she confessed that, after Molly was born, she’d found the first weeks of motherhood overwhelming. “But probably what I didn’t say,” she explains now, “was that Neil was sick, so that’s why the whole process was so overwhelming, and then it was even more so when we had Tom … Second time around, it was just as intense for those first six or eight weeks. You just go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is confronting.'”
One of the secrets to coping better in recent months has been admitting that, as a family, they needed help.
“We now have someone who comes and helps in the mornings,” Edwina says, “because I’m not there and Neil just hasn’t been physically capable of getting up and taking care of the kids.”
“We’re getting better at it. I can tell now when Neil’s having a tough day. I’m better at reading those signs. It doesn’t help that I’m a bash-through sort of person. I don’t get sick very often. I lead a go-go-go life, and I then pile 50 things on top of that life, because I like to be busy. So I have had to be conscious of that.
“It comes down to communication, and now the kids are a little bit older, we’ve settled into a pretty easy rhythm. We’re lucky that they’re both great kids. They’re both great sleepers. They’re very amenable and adaptable. It’s very much, ‘Hey, this is the adventure we’re going on today.’ And they’re up for the adventure all the time. We make life fun for them, but they’re also fun to be around.”
The family is about to embark on its most life-changing adventure yet. They’ve bought an historic guest house in the little town of Carcoar in the central west of NSW. The minute they set eyes on it, Edwina says, “we fell in love with it”.
The spontaneous sense of belonging reminded them of the way they felt when they first saw Warramba, their farm in the Capertee Valley.
“Carcoar felt very similar,” says Neil. “We knew we were going to buy it from the minute we walked in that door. It’s rich in history – you can feel the history around it – but it also has this real warmth to it.”
They would never dream of selling Warramba but owning three properties was too great a stretch for the couple, so they decided to sell their beautiful city home in Dulwich Hill. They’ve rented a city pad, also in the inner west, and Neil has left the high-stress world of social media “and the whims of billionaires” behind, and is setting out to “build something just for us”.
“That will be the most challenging thing,” Edwina explains, “because for a couple of years, while he’s setting up the guest house, Neil will be living in the country and we’ll be in the city.”
Even so, Edwina says, they’re up for the challenge. They’ve lived apart before, back when they first bought Warramba. “And we’ve decided we’ll always get together on weekends, whether it’s in Sydney or at the farm or in Carcoar,” she explains.
“To be honest,” she adds, “when Neil had a really stressful job and chronic fatigue on top of it, there wasn’t much quality family time … So I think what we’re trying to do is steady the ship a little bit in terms of having some consistent family time together. The time that we do have together will be really valuable.”
For Neil, who lost his father when he was just 16, the time he spends with Molly and Tom is precious.
“Dad was a coal miner,” he explains, “and Mum was a nurse. So Mum did shift work and Dad was down a hole for 12 hours a day. I remember the times he would come in and read to us at night. There would just be a lamp on in the room – you could still see the coal dust on his hands – and we had a really deep connection. I can actually see it in my mind. And that eases a lot of the concerns I might have about not being with the family as much.”
They’re both committed to giving their children a sense of growing up in rural Australia. “It’s a simpler life,” Edwina says. “It’s feet in the dirt and that mud-pie existence. It’s closer to the life we had as children, and certainly to the life Neil had. Neil has such wonderful storybook tales of growing up, exploring the hills around Lithgow, setting off on their bikes in the morning and not coming back home until sunset.”
Edwina turns 40 this month, and while she’s not sure where she’ll be on July 5 – in Carcoar or Sydney or Capertee – she knows she’ll approach it with a sense of accomplishment and celebration.
“It really is a point of reflection,” she says. “It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but I feel good about it. I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin and much more confident than I have, ever probably. Becoming a mum is a big part of that. I think the conversation around age and television has changed exponentially over many years. There’s not such an expiry date. I don’t feel worried about getting older. I’m just excited for what we can do in the next 10 years.”
As she turns 40, Edwina also celebrates 20 years on the Sunrise set, and the anniversary comes just as one of her most valued mentors, co-host David Koch, leaves the show “I started working with Kochie when I was 20,” Edwina says. “He has been a colleague but also a mentor. I remember travelling with him to cover the Christchurch earthquake. We flew overnight, drove three hours and then went straight on air,” reporting bleary-eyed but with their characteristic empathy from the disaster zone.
Edwina says she admires Kochie “as a broadcaster but mostly as a dad. Family has always been central to everything he has done on Sunrise. I’m the same age as Kochie’s kids so I’ve given him no end of grief about his dad jokes and lack of hair. I don’t think he will miss that. He is a big part of the family culture here at Sunrise and will be greatly missed.”
That said, Edwina couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome his replacement, Matt Shirvington. “We first worked together as hosts of the Tokyo Olympics coverage for Seven. We had an absolute ball,” she says. “I was secretly pregnant at the time and Shirvo would bring in snacks and lollies to help with my morning sickness. You honestly could not find a nicer bloke and better replacement for Kochie.”
As Edwina contemplates the future, Molly wanders by with a delicious bowl of sultanas and oats that she’s made for Pounce, the star of Kangaroo Beach, which she’s been watching on TV.
Of course everyone asks whether Edwina and Neil are happy with the perfect two, or whether there’s the chance of another addition to the family.
“It’s funny, I just said to Neil the other day, ‘Maybe a third…?’ But I think it would be tempting fate,” Edwina begins.
“Also, to be honest, I don’t think as a family … In those early days with Neil’s sickness, it was full on. Like being just … hard …” She pauses, takes a breath, and a moment to blink away tears and collect her thoughts.
“We’re through that now and to go back there would be too challenging for Neil, too challenging for me. It was a lot for a while there.”
“Besides,” she adds with a smile that’s all warmth, as Molly mixes more sultanas into her kangaroo muesli, “we lucked out with these two. We’re good.”