One mother's battle - a true love story

CLOSE: Marina Charlton with her daughters, Ella and Olivia, 4.
CLOSE: Marina Charlton with her daughters, Ella and Olivia, 4.


Marina Charlton has short copper-red hair and a ready smile.

She is a dynamic force as both a mother and teacher in charge of Timaru's Teen Parent Study Unit.

She is also dying of cancer.

When you know that fact, you understand how medicine has impacted on Charlton's body.

The telltale signs: a slight puffiness from medicines, the skin's pale pallor, and the short hair which is fighting for a place on her head after being ravaged by chemotherapy.

Charlton is currently writing a book for her twin daughters, Ella Mary and Olivia Grace, called Letters to my Daughters. It is Charlton's written legacy for her girls, so she can teach them the life lessons she will not be around for.

Like, only when he says he loves you, and means it, will it be okay to have sex; or, after big kids school they have to go to the other school (university) for at least three years.

"It will be longer, I want them to do double degrees," she says.

It is also to document how they are the first of a kind in New Zealand.

The four-year-olds are a tight unit and Charlton says she is grateful they have each other to go through this with.

She found out she had breast cancer in the June of their second year. Charlton had been tired and her breasts had been aching.

She had gone for several tests and mammograms. She was told they were clear and it was most probably aching due to breastfeeding.

Every knock hurt.

When she could no longer hold her arms out because of pain, she went back to the doctor. This time they found a mass in her breast, which was removed.

A month later she went to the oncologist, expecting to get the all clear, but instead she was told the cancer had spread across her body, including the spine.

The oncologist believed Charlton had probably had cancer for four years by that time.

She was given six months to six years to live.

Charlton began fighting for her children seven years before they were born, and now that she is dying she thinks it is only fair she has seven years with the girls. Charlton was living in the rural town of Fairlie when she decided to follow her dream of having children.

However there were a couple of complications to that plan.

She was single, and health issues meant she would need both a sperm and an egg donor.

At that time she discovered that, as a single woman, she was unable to carry out the procedure in New Zealand, and would have to go to Australia to have the donor sperm and egg joined in a petri dish.

She thought it was unjust she was not allowed to be a mother and lobbied three prime ministers, starting with Jenny Shipley.

"I would write them quite emotive letters. My case wasn't unique."

Finally she stopped John Key and talked to him, and wrote to the Ministry of Health.

Then she finally started to see some traction.

She argued her case before the health committee, which Sylvia Rumble chaired.

Her daughters were born in March 2010, and the law allowing all women to be able to conceive in New Zealand came into effect in October that year, under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (Storage) Amendment Act 2010.

Rumble emailed Charlton to let her know her story was the reason the law was changed.

Charlton says she saw her twin girls for the first time as four cells in a petri dish.

"When I went to the doctor for the first scan I was convinced I had miscarried and I was crying. He showed me the little flicker on the screen and said, 'See that, that's the heartbeat.'

"I asked what the other little flicker was and he told me: 'That's what I have been wanting to tell you, it's another heartbeat, you have twins'.

"And just like that I stopped crying."

When she held Ella Mary and Olivia Grace for the first time she realised they were a family.

The first six months were extremely tough. To this day Charlton does not know how she got through them. She planned out her day at one point and realised she was having only 45-minute gaps in between needing to feed and settle her daughters.

In those gaps she had to sleep and do all of her household administration, like lugging in the firewood while it was snowing outside.

Charlton said she would collapse on the floor beside the cots.

At one point she rang her friend in tears, saying she did not think she was up to motherhood.

Her friend told her to pull it together and then looked after the girls for four hours while Charlton slept.

"You don't understand how amazing four hours' sleep is when all you have been getting is little blocks here and there," she says.

Charlton said when she found out her cancer was terminal she heard that some people had made comments about the woman who went and got pregnant on purpose and now was leaving two children behind.

She says hearing comments like that hurt her an unbelievable amount. But then she laughs and says that when you are dying, you learn not to give a shit any more about what other people think.

What she does care about is that there were times when she would struggle to put food on the table for herself and her daughters while she was undergoing chemotherapy.

Charlton found a gap in the system.

She had a job so no Work and Income benefit was available to her, even though she was fighting cancer.

But, with no partner or family support except an elderly mother, there were times she did not know how they would eat that week.

Two weeks after her mastectomy she had a drain removed, the next day she was back at work because she had to somehow feed her daughters.

There were days when she would sell things on Trade Me to ensure they could eat.

When Charlton first found out she was dying she took the money from her KiwiSaver account for a trip to Auckland to go to the zoo.

Ella was obsessed with elephants, and Charlton wanted to be there when she saw them for the first time.

She has a house deposit saved through a term investment, but since she is dying she is unable to get a mortgage so she is going to take her girls to Paris to picnic underneath the Eiffel Tower.

She wants to visit Paris one last time.

Pain etches across her face as she reaches for the tissues. She says it is not an easy subject for her and cries when she talks about what will happen to her girls.

Charlton says she has had to do the unthinkable for any parent.

She has had to find new parents for her children.

Although it is something she thinks no parent should have to go through, she is delighted with the couple who will raise her children.

The twins' second mother accompanies Charlton to all of her chemo sessions, which she thinks is important if the girls have any questions when they are older. Mum number two will be able to answer them.

She is also sad that her children have only known her sick.

They think it's normal for her to always be tired and to only have one breast and a tattoo where the other breast was.

Both Ella and Olivia went through a stage where they would grope other women, checking out their two breasts. They also think it is normal to take medicine that makes your hair fall out.

Ella has curly hair and someone asked her if they could have her curls.

"She said when she has to take the medicine that makes your hair fall out they can have them [the curls]."

Having cancer has impacted the way in which she parents. Charlton says it shapes her actions every day.

Every time she gets grumpy with her daughters, she thinks to herself, "This is not how I want them to remember me."

For the past two years Charlton has been putting all of her remaining energy into the Teen Parent Study Unit at Timaru Girls High School, a unit she and principal Sarah Davis spearheaded.

Her work with the unit is a legacy she is extremely proud of and she hopes in the years to come her daughters will be able to drive past the school and know that is what mummy did.

They are part of the family at the unit and she thinks her battle to have the girls and the stigma she has faced as a result have helped her relate to the teen parents.

Charlton had studied the importance of involving teen parents in education at Masters level and was able to bring her expertise and passion on board. She is passionate about education as a way forward in society.

She studied the English model of working with teenage parents and saw the massive gaping hole in the New Zealand education system.

"I am proud of the girls and what they have achieved. I hope my daughters will be also."

The Timaru Herald