Birthday Parties

To invite the whole class or not to invite the whole class? – That is the question, and one that continues to plague parents, starting from kindergarten. Even as I write this, I am conflicted. For some children, the whole-class party may be the only party they attend for the year (that kid is always welcome). If anything, the presence of a warm, caring community with equally beautiful children makes the decision to engage twenty-something kidlets at once, all hyped up on sugar and raging with silliness almost necessary. 

Everyone’s doing it. (Or so it seems). And once the momentum builds, a simple five-year-old birthday party turns into the epic event of the season.  This mum invited siblings too. That mum had a clown. This mum had a clown, a disco, face painting… a unicorn.  You don’t have to do this! I want to cry, easing yet another poor mum off the cliff of elaborate birthday parties. But there I am, blindly organising away – or orge-jah-nis-ing as my son would say.

Of course, I am far more savvy than those other parents. Refusing to be stung hundreds of dollars in exchange for musical statues and fart noises, as chief orge-jah-niser, I assign myself chief entertainer. As a secondary school teacher, I’m used to managing kids; these kids are just lower to the ground, and more open with their enthusiasm. Even so, the planning and preparations are all consuming. The cooking, cleaning, theme-related shopping. Lists endlessly revisited and revised. Incessant checking of weather reports.

When the day arrives, I execute my planning, beginning with the simple tried and tested Duck. Duck. Goose. A very basic game of exiting the circle; chasing the elected ‘goose’ around the circle; and sitting back down within the circle. With little need for an introduction – no need to treat pre-schoolers like… pre-schoolers – the game commences. My son exits the circle – check. He selects a ‘goose’ – check. And then – dodging an array of invisible obstacles, he improvises with an epic chase (you might say wild goose chase) down the yard. This free and unrestrained running, buoyant and playful, (accompanied by my own sense of helplessness) is reminiscent of my childhood dog, Ike, a rambunctious boxer, bounding through the air, tongue hanging out, weaving to and fro as I chase him down the yard; my barbie doll held between his great, slobbering jowly chops; (accompanied by my brother’s girlish laughter, surfacing when the humour is too great as if being held down and tickled). 

With the other planned party activities following in much the same vein, we finally move onto the piñata. Boys with sticks, instructed to ‘thwack’ with all their might. The stuff of dreams. The then-pregnant me, retrieving my toddler from the front line, as he weaves in and out of the firing line, miraculously resurfacing unscathed after coming face to face with a boy swinging at the piñata with all his might, determined to make it rain. 

So, my learnings are this: 1. Don’t arm kids with piñata weapons until all toddlers are secure. 2. Give the people what they want: running without purpose. 3. Respect kids’ entertainers.

Words Matter

The words we use in everyday life dictate how we engage with others, helping us to function as polite members of society. For example, when trying to sneak past someone blocking an exit, ‘excuse me’ as opposed to ‘move Bitch’ is much more likely to illicit the appropriate response. Equally, when needing to convey a message of some delicacy, the words we use carry great importance. For example, calling someone who is carrying a couple extra kilos ‘chunky’ (no matter how close the relationship) is never good. And these lessons of diplomacy, like many life lessons, start when we are young. 

We teach our children the value of words. ‘Use your words,’ we say usually as said child yells, stomps, kicks, hits, or throws offending item. Self-expression is important, but is better done through words as sticks and stones will break bones. (Though, of course, words can be incredibly hurtful). There are curt little phrases that seem to allow normally unacceptable gossip or rudeness to pass muster – ‘I don’t mean to be unkind…’ or, my brother’s favourite: ‘I’m just saying’ (as if simply stating a fact frees you from causing offence). ‘You’re a jerk,’ is easily softened with a simple, ‘no, I’m just saying.’ Of course, kids don’t require any kind of buffering to get their message across. I love their blunt questioning – ‘why are you so fat?’ Or my new favourite: a pre-schooler to a woman wearing fashionably ripped jeans, ‘don’t you know how to sew?’

And sometimes we don’t mean what we say (and this is where it gets tricky). Be it reverse psychology – my mother to my pre-schooler, ‘Don’t give Gram a hug! Don’t you dare give Gram a hug,’ said with open arms – Or, empty threats – ‘That’s it! We’re leaving without you,’ parent slowly walking away while toddler remains fixed, eyeing off the closest coin-operated car (now costing $3 – no wonder we are on the brink of an economic downturn!) Or, sometimes, it is purely about winning.  

Our three-year-old, who is notorious for getting out of bed about twenty times a night, received a Toy Story Woody doll for his birthday (or ‘Oody’ as he affectionately calls him). He took to the doll straight away, lugging Oody and his accessory, a hard, plastic cowboy hat around everywhere. Sometimes in teaching kids the beauty of cause and consequence, it can be hard to identify the X-factor – the ideal currency in which to manage behaviour with the threat of taking away some prized or cherished possession. Finally, we had the X-factor.

One night, after the continuous tucking in became beyond irritating, here is how this played out:

Daddy: ‘If you get up again, I’ll give Oody to another little boy.’

Three-year-old: ‘Oody…? Another little boy?’ 

Daddy: one.

Three-year-old: zero.

Clearly having regained the reins of power, Daddy flaunts his newly discovered key to the awaiting parental bliss of sleeping children and thus followed by adult TV containing much sex and violence.

Daddy: ‘Would you like me to give Oody to another little boy?’ 

Three-year-old: ‘Yeah.’

Daddy: ‘Yeah?’

Three-year-old: ‘Yeah. Give Oody to another little boy.’ 

I Do It!

Tales such as The Handmaid’s Tale construct a world, scarily close to our own, robbing citizens of individual freedoms and basic human rights. And, scarily, the parallels between this world and my own are easily drawn. 

Imagine being unable to run mere errands unencumbered. Stepping out alone, simply to purchase a carton of milk goes beyond all good conscience.  Imagine a world without privacy, where nothing is sacred. At any given moment, probably mid-shampoo, the bathroom door could be thrust open, exposing you to the world in all your vulnerability. Imagine a literal rude awakening. Being ripped out of a sleep-induced state, you are forced to rise to your feet simply to address the needs of another. I find myself encountering these experiences, daily. 

I do it! I do it! These are the words that ring like a siren, warning me to a halt, willing me to swiftly disengage lest I be subject to a tirade of tantrums. Having faltered before, I know the endurance needed to withstand said tantrums that last through school drop off, kicking and screaming into the car, out of the car, past the parked freeway of school traffic and down the hill. Under most circumstances, I am prohibited from assisting my pre-schooler in the following ways: supporting any part of the dressing process without strict authorisation, carrying his bag to or from the car, flicking on a light switch, turning off a tap, getting the mail, taking out the rubbish. (I have recently been granted vacuuming privileges, though this is only a probationary licence and may easily be taken away should ‘the mood’ strike). 

These are the drawbacks of a seriously independent, seemingly self-sufficient pre-schooler. Or, so I thought. But then I understood. Words matter. In particular, my very own little despot’s words. I do it! I do it! If the timing of basic everyday activities – clothing oneself, putting on shoes, collecting mail, taking out rubbish and so-on – do not coincide with his master’s own timetable, I simply need utter these three strong, empowering, determined little words, repeating them in an echo.  I do it! I do it! Coupled with the slow-motion action of moving in on whatever personal effects are being called into question (be it a door knob or otherwise), these words are all I need to gain the attention of my overlord. Because the thought of having someone else take control is too much to bear. 

Sleep School

Being a mum is an extremely personal occupation. So often we are told that mothering is instinctual, that the bond, the love we feel will be instant and overwhelming, that we will just know what to do. But so many of us are floundering in the job. As Mums, we think we are somehow cheating if we seek help early on.

A question repeatedly asked about our first baby by many – family, friends, neighbours, shop assistants, nurses, waiters, air hostesses, and other polite strangers – ‘Is he a good baby?’ Define good, I wanted to say. Hmmm, no, he’s evil! Likewise, our sonographer’s response at our 20-week scan to the highly anticipated question, Can we find out what we’re having? – his reply: Yes, a baby. (Insert awkward laugh here before persisting with said question). Perhaps it is the English teacher/writer in me that wants to correct every receptionist ever who says What was your name, as it is still, evidently, your name (since first mention before being placed on hold) but when someone else corrects you in this way it is actually just annoying.

Measured by society’s standards of what makes a baby ‘good’ and thus, alternatively ‘bad,’ our first baby, luckily for us (and I dare say, for him), fell in to the ‘good’ category. ‘You have no idea how lucky you are!’ my mother in-law would say, ‘he’s such a good baby.’ Although this was a ‘good’ thing, I felt a little ripped off, like his ‘good’ babying was undermining recognition of my ‘good’ mummying; a bit like breaking a nail, or some other minor affliction, which to the naked eye really doesn’t look bad at all but actually hurts like a bitch.

Admittedly our first baby could sleep anywhere, including a wedding reception. At two years of age, our little guy slept like a champion, tucked up in the pram, parked by our allocated table, which happened to be situated right near a booming loudspeaker. Nightie night, and out like a light. 

But when we had our second baby, well, the two babies could not have been more different; something that seems obvious – individuals being individual – but at the time came as quite a surprise. And instead of seeking support, at nap time I would simply feed my baby to sleep and then wear him like an increasingly heavy, somewhat restrictive, accessory. Every single sleep, his sweet contended face smooshed against my chest. It was lovely, but exhausting. Finally, I succumbed. Sleep School. 

Surrounded by first time mums, I shared my story; I feed my baby to sleep. I know it’s ‘bad.’ Like a guilty pet owner admitting their dog sleeps on their bed while they sleep on the couch, I described our current situation. All morning the educators seemed to be working miracles with their sleep techniques. Finally, the head educator who assigned herself my baby reappeared. She was so exhausted, she could barely look up, let alone engage in conversation. I’ve earnt my lunch with that one! she said. She clearly needed sustenance before she could relay the experience. That’s my boy! I thought, feeling utterly relieved.

After lunch, she relayed events. Never have I been so pleased to receive such a negative report. Apparently, all my ‘stubborn,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘hard-work’ baby needed to send himself blissfully to sleep was a cheap cherry-shaped dummy. In the afternoon, she showed me this in motion; my angry, seemingly untameable, little terror drifting almost instantly to sleep in gratitude of receiving this joyous piece of latex and plastic. I began to laugh; I admired his spirit.