Nine years in the making.
From inception to completion, one of the most significant and impactful accomplishments in Perdita Felicien’s full and extraordinary life — took almost an entire decade to realize.
“I knew I would write in 2012,” Felicien shared during an interview with Lianne Castelino for Where Parents Talk. “2012 is when I’m like, I’m done with racing, final Olympic cycle. I put up my spikes,” she says.
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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a mother of one, a two time Olympian and World Champion hurdler, sports broadcaster, and public speaker. Perdita Felicien is also an author. Her first book, My Mother’s Daughter is a national best selling memoir. It was published in March of 2021. Perdita Felicien joins us from her home in Toronto. It’s great to have you thank you for being here.
Oh, my pleasure.
I wanted to start by asking you, first of all, what was the genesis for this book, and the tipping point for you actually going ahead and writing it?
You know, I think it started, I knew I would write in 2012. Because 2012 is when I’m like, I’m done with racing, you know, final Olympic cycle, I, you know, put up my spikes. And then I know I had the time to write. But I was so afraid of the story, that it took me another two years to actually start actually, you know, putting the words to the page. And so those two years, I’m like, Oh, I’m doing research, right. But it was really an excuse to kind of like, ah, drag my heels a little bit. But the idea of writing this story happened years before, as you know, a young woman really, like understanding my mom’s journey. I think the years would go on in my teenage life. And in my 20s, where I’m like, I would reveal more about her beginnings to me, and the more I would hear what she was saying, I’m like, Well, how did you turn all that into this, and I could never connect those dots like, so you were pregnant, as a teen, you dropped out of school you’d saw on the beach, and now we’re all here, you know, living this really great life. And you know, you have 15 grandkids and things are going well. So I wanted to make that connection and find out how she was able to really change the trajectory of her life, the trajectory, you know, of her children.
It’s so interesting, because it’s an extraordinary story. And I wonder how did you come to grips or made peace with the idea of sort of dredging up all of these memories? Not just your own? Certainly those of your mother and and how willing was she to, to kind of go on this journey with you?
She so in 2014, when I’m like, okay, you started enough time to write I called my entire family together, in my sister’s house, at her home, and all of my siblings and their kids. And I said, Look, I want to write this memoir. It’s not about the Olympic stuff. I mean, I get there, but it really is about our family’s life together. And it’s gonna dredge up stuff, icky stuff, uncomfortable stuff, emotional stuff. You know, do I have your blessing? Do I have your permission? And everybody said, yes, it wasn’t an easy Yes. To receive what everybody said, Yes, of course, the chief, you know, yes, that I wanted was my mother’s. And she said, Yes. And the reason my mother said yes, to me discussing some of these really painful moments, like being homeless, and being a child witnessed domestic violence and other things, is because one, she always knew that her story of you know, leaving my father was one that she wanted other women to hear, because she hoped it would inform them, because the most difficult thing my mother ever did in her life, and there were many, but one of the hardest, she said, was leaving him. And then too, she also knew that as a young woman, I was trying to find out and figure out who I was, I didn’t have all the answers, you know, who is my biological father, you know, what happened, you know, to to my mother, before I even got here, and you know, wire, you know, some of those aspects of our lives, like, still live in our lives. Now, she knew I was trying to find those answers as a woman, and she wasn’t gonna stop stepping my way or stand in my way, rather, and not have me discover truly who I was. And I think that was her reasoning. But we dredge up the past, like you say, and judging of the past, especially in many cultures, but especially Western culture, like you know, air dirty laundry in this in a sense, you know, that’s what I’ve done.
Absolutely. And you don’t know how it’s going to be received. And you don’t know what the impact on everybody whose story is entailed in there, how that’s going to work out. Let me ask you, when you started writing, you were also not a mother yourself, correct?
No, no, that was not even a thought like Morgan and I were together. Yes, but you know, years away from having children. She didn’t come about until years later, which completely changed how I was receiving my mother’s story, but I think it is different as a woman who wasn’t a mother herself, telling my mother’s story at first.
So now that you are a mom and your little girl is two years old. And this book has come out, you know, earlier this year, I’m wondering what has been the impact of the book through the lens of being a mom yourself?
Ah, such a good question. You know, you, your reporters will. So you understand this, when we’re after the story wrapped to the story. So I was, as I was researching my mother’s daughter, and putting together the pieces of my mother’s life, especially before I got there, I wasn’t really connecting as the daughter, I wasn’t connecting, as, you know, the child in that story, I was like, a need to tell the story authentically. And it needs to be true, right? I can’t make stuff up. And I need, you know, certain details. So that was what I was after. Now, as I’m writing, you know, full disclosure was very difficult for my husband and I to have Nova, we needed IVF. And so as I’m writing the story about my mother, right, this deeply personal memoir, Sunday, I can’t even conceive and we wanted a family. So that informed my writing in a very different way, it felt cruel at times, I’ll be honest, it’s like you’re writing a story about your mother is gonna be called my mother’s daughter, you want to have a job and you and you can’t, right? So it didn’t really make sense to me. And I’m also from a very fertile family. Let me just say that. So when Nova does come along, and she comes along, as I’m editing in the final stages, in, in around 2019. I really, then understood my mother’s drive. And there are things in the book that I question, a question why my mother stayed? I Question No, my mother wasn’t accepting of what happened to her. Right. She was enduring it for a greater good, but I wondered at times why she didn’t just get on the plane. Tell off the Baxter’s you know, the family that brought her here and then kind of abandoned her, you know, even the family that she was working for the Harry’s, who are very hard to her while she was pregnant with me. And what am I kidding, just tell them off and get on a plane and go back to St. Lucia, when I became a mother, myself, I realized, Oh, this is more than just her existence. She wants more in the way that I want more for Nova in the way that I want Nova to live a full blown life, right. And I understood my mother in a way where I no longer questioned for reasons and wondered why she just didn’t, you know, just take the simpler road and just leave, I realized when you are here, a true mother who’s connected to their child, you want your child to see more than you and to have more than you. And that was really her drive, and a lot of things honestly, for me and clicked in that moment.
Still, it’s extraordinary. tried to put yourself in the place of your mother and all of the adversity, it just seemed to come on at, you know, in waves, and it was seemed to be unrelenting. When you look back on it now, having researched it connected all those dots, all the things you did in the course of writing this book, what struck you most about what got her? And then you through all of that?
Yeah. Good questions. So, you know, I have some really good girlfriends, and they’ve read the book, and they’re so good. They know my mom. And they’re like, your mom, I didn’t realize she had all that inner strength and in our power, because they would say to me, and I agree, I’m like, man, why did you stay? Right? It would have truthfully been simpler just to be like, this country does not accept me or love me, you know, and welcome me. And I’m going to go to the small, tiny island of St. Lucia, where I am accepted, and I am welcomed. Looking at who my mother is. And I think at times with my editors, we kind of wrestled at times, because they’re like, Did you really feel this way? Like, Bruce, you know, my bio dad in the book, who was also my mother’s, you know, domestic abuser, is still in our lives. He’s my dad, he raised me. And a lot of people are like, Well, why is this man stealing your life? Like, why? And I’m like, I know. It can be frustrating. Someone who doesn’t understand but my mother is so forgiving. is so forgiving to the point where you question like, is this really it? But what I’ve come to realize Leanne is my mother’s ability to forgive. And her ability to keep a positive slant on even the most difficult and negative circumstance is really why she was able to endure is really why she was able to push through, because most people would have seen the difficulty that they were under the weight and the heaviness of it, and retreat to a place that was really less hard to navigate. Right, where my mother said, No, I know at the end of the struggle, there has to be something more, there is something more and if I can just Outlast my struggle, then I will be able to experience what this is for myself as a woman, but also for my children. So I really do think is my Mother’s positive outlook on life that allowed her to get through. It’s why, you know, after my devastating, you know, fall at the Olympics, you know, for, they call my mother on this phone, you know, World Champion underground fallen just devastated. And one of the first words out of my mother’s mouth is you are the gold. I think some mothers would have been crying on the phone with me Do you not mean just like wailing or trying to make sense of this moment, which I’m sure she was. But she kept a positive slant, she kept it together for me. And in those moments she uttered to me You are the goal, because that’s truly what she believed that I am more than this moment, I’m more important in this moment, in her positive energy she’s funneled to me. And that’s what’s gotten her through life. Unknown Speaker 10:46 It’s such a wonderful story. And what a wonderful thought to share at that moment with your child.
When you you talk about connecting the dots, which was part of the reason that you wanted to do this story and write it. I’m wondering, is there anything else that you discovered along the way about your childhood? That was so striking to you that you’re you know, maybe it’s something that you discovered that now impacts the way you parent your daughter?
There are quite a few things, right? I think, when you go and you write a book, that starts with your mother’s origin story, I wasn’t there. And I think, realizing that my mother was offered, or the idea of termination was introduced to her when she was pregnant with me. And of course, she didn’t know what that meant, you know, termination in the 70s. And for a long time after was illegal in St. Lucia, you know, so the idea of even a boarding was not, you know, a conversation that would be have be had, the island was very Catholic, very religious. So it wasn’t even a thought. So as a young woman writing this book, having to go back and have that conversation with my mother, about the idea of terminating me as someone who’s living and breathing today, right? That was a very difficult thing to confront, and to have a conversation with, because the truth of the matter is, you know, I’m a very progressive woman. That is my, that would have been my mother’s Right, right. But there’s something really uncanny about saying that out loud today, as I’m living and saying, that would have been my mother’s right. But going back and knowing that if she had made that decision, then I wouldn’t be there. And my life wouldn’t be my life at all. Right? That was a very difficult conversation to have with my mother, and an earthing, why she kept me, why did you keep me and not having any judgments about her decision to keep me or not? Do you know if that makes sense? Like, you know, that that thought would even be in her mind. So that was a very difficult thing. that jumped out at me. But I think also, what it opened up to me was, I didn’t know my grandmother very well, I was fortunate to meet her when I was 12 years old, and lived with her for a while, you know, when I mother was back in Tennessee, but I didn’t really know her. And I’m realizing that wow, we rate we praise people. And, you know, in society, we’re rich, or have titles king, queen, millionaire, billionaire, all that. And there are some everyday heroes in our midst, that change the legacy and change the trajectory of the life of generations that don’t get the fanfare that they deserve. And there are unsung heroes, I feel like my mother is one of them. But when I look at my grandmother, who kept my mother’s children, so she could go off to Canada, and see what she could see. And I think about my aunt, my mother’s oldest sibling, or the sister who is 15 or 16 years older, who helped my mother’s my grandmother rather care for her children. I discovered this the strength of this lineage of women that I’m a part of that Nova is a part of, and honestly, and there’s the sense of like pride that I have, and I’m like, that celebrate people love money and titles and movie stars in Hollywood. Yeah, cool. That sounds cool. But look at the 15 grandchildren, that my mother has the one great grant. Now our life is so different than our humble beginnings sitting on the beach. That’s a hero to me. That’s why I really want to celebrate having greater clarity on, you know, what she experienced on your childhood and some of the adversity that you experienced as a child, some of the challenges you’ve experienced as a as an athlete, as you’ve as you’ve outlined, I wonder, how has your view of adversity been influenced? Now that you are among yourself? Yeah. I would say that there’s an irony to the fact that I am and had been for you know, more than a decade like one of the best herders of the world like I my job. For more than a decade with literally to like jump obstacles, right. But the irony to that is I was born to a woman whose life was marred with figurative hurdles, right? The poverty, the homelessness, the lack of education, the racism, and that she would overcome the spirit of hurdles in her life. So I say to everyone, like my first coach, my first influence of you know how to overcome on the track was my mother, when I look at adversity, it to me is the best teacher of anything, it’s the best teacher of who you really are getting to know yourself and what you’re made of, you know, you have to confront who you really think you are, when you fall in front of the world, as the world champion as the favorite. You know, in your country, your name is on magazine covers, you’re on cereal boxes, you’re on billboards, you’re in the subway system in Toronto, you’re like, everywhere, and suddenly you’re flat on your butt on a track, you really have to know who you are. And to me that really taught me who I am. And the fact that we are not, we are not defined by any one moment, anyone failure. In fact, I’ve learned more from those shortcomings than I have any gold medal, any Canadian record, any athlete of the year, athletes that have ever been given. I’ve learned more from those hard moments. So I, I challenge people to look at failure as a batch, and as a well of strength that you can draw from because even what, 17 days, 17 years after Athens, I’m still drawing strength from that experience. You know, nothing has broken me more than that. And I am still here, I’m still standing. And I and I think of that moment as a moment of pride for me.
It’s interesting, Perdita we live in a world where many parents really struggle deeply with allowing their kids to experience any kind of adversity. The idea for many parents is that they want to, in many ways, bubble wrap their kids and protect them as much as possible. I mean, I think any parent wants to make sure that there’s no harm that comes to their child. How do you having experienced everything you have, having the diverse lens that you have on adversity and overcoming it? How do you marry those different perspectives as a young mother yourself?
Yeah, you know, there’s times where, you know, Nova is just too but she’ll run and she’ll fall. And my instinct is to run over and comfort her. And of course, I should, I’m her mother. But there are times where I tell myself even now, no, no, no, don’t rush to pick her up, and kiss her and hug her. Let her console herself first and get up. And, you know, and see how she handles and deals with that. Because the truth of it is, I’m not always going to be there, when she stumbles. I’m not always going to be there when she falls. And I want to inform my two year old daughter, to be her best friend, her best advocate in any difficult situation might just be scraping her knee, but I want her to be that person first herself. And, you know, at times when I’m just worried, and I’m scared for her, she’ll get up, he should have a little whimper, whatever we should do is just say hurt her. And then you know, she’ll be okay. And then I’ll go over and I’ll hug her and kiss her after she’s made peace or whatever it is with that moment. Right. And I guess what I’m trying to say is, as parents, that is our natural inkling, right, is to want to be there. I have an issue, even with, you know, sports, where you know, everyone gets a ribbon, everyone gets a medal, you know, your eighth and last year, whenever you get a trophy, you know, cut that out, right? teach your child what it means to feel that sting of loss, that disappointment, because that’s really how they garner grit. That’s really where they get the toughness, and that kind of, you know, rough around the edges, you know, that they’ll need to go through life. But if you’re always praising your child, you’re always, you know, celebrating and giving them you know, something without it being earned, you’re doing a disservice, because the world is not going to give that to your child. Right? And I think that for me, you can love your child and parent your child with all the love and the empathy. But you still have to understand that you will make them better people and stronger people, if you allow them to taste some of that, that that that defeat and that disappointment, that devastation, you’re still going to counsel right, you’re still out there to be the sounding board and to stand tall beside them and with them, but I think it’s okay to let them feel some of those scars because if you think about any of us who’ve ever had a cut or wound, right, oh, it stings. It hurts. It sucks. But then once it heals over that skin is actually stronger. Right than it was before. Well, that’s what you’re allowing your child to be to be tougher and stronger than they were before. So I caution any parent to kind of like, let off, right? If you’re kind of tempted to kind of coddle your child through those experiences. And it’s, you know, in so many ways, it’s easier said than done as they go through the different ages and stages. I want to ask you, when you go back, and you think about those Olympic Games 17 years ago, in 2004.
What enabled you to get up and keep moving forward, after what you described, probably the most difficult moment of your life, when you look back on it. Now, having done this book, and all the research and connecting all those dots, dots, what in that moment Do you think gave you the strength, the courage, and everything else you needed to continue?
The moments after falling, and you have to understand I’m the world champion, right, that didn’t disappear in the world champion, a huge target on my back. And the first thing you do after a major race, is you go to the mixer. And if anyone doesn’t know what the mix zone is, that’s where the world’s press is lined up is like this big Labyrinth, you know, media from all around the world is there to speak for you to speak to you as an athlete. And I remember in that moment, you know, the opportunity to just shuffle by and not say anything, and to just ignore the world’s press and just move on.
And I thought, I can’t I, I don’t know what’s happened. I am completely disoriented. I’m, you know, fallen violently, I’m injured. My pride is wounded. But I can’t I can’t go past everyone. So to really answer your question about what got me through that moment, it was such a strong sense of self. A strong self sense of knowing exactly who I was. And I had never defined myself by any one of my successes or my losses. Now, had I ever thought that I would fall? No, did I ever think I would fall so spectacularly? Are there? No. Right. But I never was so married to the accolades and the success and the money, right. Like I said, I was on a cover of Cheerios boxes, you could go to any, any store in any, you know, province in Canada, and you would see my face, you would go to billboards and drive past, you know, downtown Toronto, my hometown of Pickering, and you’d see my face. But I was never so married to that identity, because that wasn’t really who I was, it was what I did. So I think when you’ve built something so tall, right, this identity, success, that when it all crumbles down, right? If you aren’t sure who you are as a leader, as a woman, as a person, then those successes, those wins, the money, the title, the promotion, don’t ever completely complete, because you don’t know who you are. And I think I was able to rise and get up, because my mother had built me to know who I was. So I could go and be like, No, I’m talking. I will answer your question. Because even though that was the darkest, most devastating moment of my life, I knew that I was never person that would run. I was never person that would shy away from a difficult moment. How could I? How dare I, when I was a witness to see my mother overcome her own devastating moments, right of poverty, of homelessness, of my dad, literally putting her out in the middle of the night. And me being the one at five or six years old to go and collect her things on the front lawn, her perfu her necklaces, her heels, because she didn’t want the neighbors to see her shame. So how could I in that moment ever be somebody that would crawl away because a moment was hard. That’s not who I was raised to be. And so Athens as much as it crushed me. It could never break me. And that’s why I could get up now. It wasn’t easy, but I could get up because of that.
Perdita Felicien author of My Mother’s Daughter, thank you so much for your time today.
A storied career in one of the most gruelling, demanding and unforgiving athletic disciplines — hurdles. It was a sport she seemingly owned during the 2000’s, building up resume that will likely not be toppled in Canada any time soon, if ever.
World Champion in 2003, Olympian twice, owner of 10 national titles, Canadian Athlete of the Year honours, among other achievements.
Explosive speed, pinpoint precision, soaring with ferocity and tenacity — all in a power-packed five-foot five frame. More than a decade of dominance in her specialty the 100-metre hurdles.
In the decade or so since retiring from her sport, Felicien has been busy. Going back to school, establishing a career in broadcasting, getting married and having a baby. All the while wrestling within.
“I had the time to write,” she says. “But I was so afraid of the story, that it took me another two years to start actually putting the words to the page.”
So much needed to happen before those words could flow. Felicien had to understand the story before she dared write it. She needed to accept the facts before sharing them.
In the spring of 2021, Felicien’s journey yielded, “My Mother’s Daughter,” her first book. A searing, personal memoir, set against the backdrop of countless obstacles met and repeatedly overcome by her mother Cathy Browne.
“I was born to a woman whose life was marred with figurative hurdles,” says Felicien, mother to a two-year-old daughter herself. “The poverty, the homelessness, the lack of education, the racism, and that she would overcome the spirit of hurdles in her life.”
The book reveals how Browne, who had two young children staying with her parents back in their native St-Lucia, discovered she was pregnant in another country. At that time in the late 1970’s, she was alone and struggling in Canada working as a housekeeper and nanny.
One of the options presented to Browne was to terminate her pregnancy. Instead, she gave birth to Perdita — a name she loved and wrote down after once hearing it on The Price is Right game show.
Brown continued to persevere as a single mother, exhibiting a steely will and self-belief that would also be hallmarks of Perdita’s character. On display like never before at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when Felicien, the reigning World Champion and gold medal favourite tripped and fell on the first hurdle. Her Olympic dream eviscerated in mere seconds. Felicien tackles that very topic which she describes as, “the darkest, most devestating moment of my life,” — head-on — in the prologue of her book, a national best-seller.
“I challenge people to look at failure as a well of strength that you can draw from because even what, 17 years after Athens, I’m still drawing strength from that experience,” she says.
These days the 40-year-old Oshawa-born, Pickering, Ontario resident is preparing to make her mark on the Tokyo Olympics. She replaces her spikes with a mic hosting a daily Olympics round-up show on the CBC called, ‘Tokyo Today’.
- Her journey to motherhood
- What she learned about her childhood while conducting research for her book
- Overcoming adversity
- The impact of the 2004 Athens Olympics showing
- The problem with bubble-wrapping kids
Note: Featured image photo taken by Martin Brown.