In Conversation

Recently, I saw Helen Garner speak at The Melbourne Town Hall, presented as the opening discussion to a weekend of events declaring itself to be ‘unabashedly feminist.’ I love it, I thought, as I looked around the audience of mostly women, some visibly emulating the Helen Garner of a previous decade; a self-confessed overall-wearing feminist. 

When I was in grade five, I ran into my grandmother’s old glass door. Running feet first, the glass shattered into my leg, and I fell back into a confetti of glass shards. My dad was in the car, waiting for my mum, who was hanging out washing on the line. Excited by the prospect of a play at the park, I ran through the house, past my grandmother in the kitchen, straight into the door; so clear it appeared open. 

From then on, every time we visited my grandmother, I noticed the white pattern dotted along the new safety glass, painted on like continuous double white lines, there as a warning, ‘Do Not Cross.’ Though the scars do not bother me, tiny splinters of glass still remain, and it is still tender if I experience a hard knock to my leg. I remember laying on the white sheets of the hospital bed, my leg being tended to, people gathered around me. To sooth my pain, I remember my mother promising me – probably because it was the only thing she could do at that moment to feel less helpless –  that when my leg was better, she would take me to buy a pair of overalls. The ones I had been asking for, hoping for, ever since grade five camp. Even at the age of eleven, I was a feminist in the making.

When I think of my mother at the clothes line, my father in the car. I am reminded of the virtue of patience – very much a learned behaviour – and the many ways in which women are forever squeezing just another thing in to their day, be it a load of washing, dishes, making of lunches; one more thing to fulfil their domestic duties.

Another layer of complexity is added when mothers seek to engage in something for themselves. Sometimes the window of opportunity is so small, that we create a circumstance that is less than ideal, just to feel that some part of the day is for us. For me, it was breastfeeding while writing, supporting my baby with one hand, typing with the other. For other mums, it might be exercising while their little one climbs all over them. Whatever the case, perhaps, strange to observe, it is these moments that keep us sane. 

In response to questions about her writing routine, Helen Garner spoke of herself as a mother. As a mother, she wrote when she could. When the baby slept. Between school drop-off and pick-up. She wrote out of necessity because her time was precious. She spoke of how there was a feeling of something like resentment when her child was sick because she could not write. And she is right. Nothing, I believe, gives you greater focus than being a mother. 

Dogs and Children

This has little to do with introducing existing much loved ‘fur-baby’ with precious newborn human baby. It is not about establishing a harmonious household where dogs and children may co-exist, nor is it about the benefits of children growing up with dogs in an age of Dettol and hand-sanitiser. Instead, it is about the seemingly identical ways in which we engage with both dogs and children.  The two are almost interchangeable.

The house is still and quiet. The sudden realisation of this peaceful state quickly shifts into a wired state of angst. ‘Where is the baby? What is she up to?!’ Is she playing with power-cords, tugging at the lamp, or has she found some other dangerous fixation? I hear her gurgling happily, but, worryingly, she remains out of sight. 

I consider that she is likely engaging in some disgusting occupation, like Buddy the Elf eating chewing gum off the sidewalk. I rush to check the toilet, half expecting to see her there, grinning, holding herself up with the aid of the toilet-seat. The toilet is clear. I’m beginning to feel like a cop on a drug-raid. ‘Police! Come out where I can see you! Put down the toilet brush. Step away from the power cords!’

I follow the sounds of the happy gurgling baby. ‘Ah-ha!’ I am relieved to discover what she is doing is only mildly disgusting. As a toddler, I peed on my Aunty’s rug. Sprung, standing in my own wee, I pointed to the cat, stealthily shifting the blame, ‘Puss-cat did it!’ I look down at our baby, Havaiana thong in mouth, wondering if she is capable of such quick thinking. Prying my soggy thong from her determined little chompers and her tightly clenched hands, I am reminded of my husband one morning before work pacing around the house in search of his only pair of work boots; finding them sitting at the backdoor, decimated by dog slobber.

The similarities between dogs and children are not simply limited to the mess and destruction they leave in their wake, or the tendency to put inanimate objects in their mouth, resulting in drool-covered thongs or torn, soggy boots; it also applies to the way they gain our attention. 

From tugging at pant legs, to a ‘Yipe! Yipe!’ or high-pitched kettle-squeal (often resulting in our quick evacuation of public spaces), their tactics are persistent. My childhood Boxer dog, Ike, had a knack for getting pats, nudging at my side, until my hand seemed to naturally fall over him in a pat. 

Dogs and children are especially attentive when there is food around, climbing up while you sit trying to eat a sandwich, mayonnaise dripping out the sides, lifting it out of reach so that your lunch does not become their lunch. Failing the sandwich, they will usually go in for the kiss. Pouting lips or panting tongues, coming at you with all the saliva of a thousand teething babies. Sometimes slobbery. Sometimes disgusting. Dogs and children; be it a yawn, a head-tilt, a sneeze – everything they do is actually adorable.

Swimming Lessons

In Australia swimming lessons are often seen as a crucial part of growing up; our major cities located at the edge of beautiful bays and beaches. It is how we get our cool, surfie, bogan, beach-babe persona. 

First, it is about making our children feel at ease in the water. Swimming lessons start from six months of age, furious splashing and self-conscious singing of nursey rhymes. With a ‘Humpty Dumpty had a great fall’ or a ‘Crocodile. Crocodile. Snap. Snap. Snap’ into the water they go – (unless your child has, of course, missed the cue, is busy filling their swim-pants or has taken a step back, just out of reach, in order to fraternise with someone else’s mum, dad, grandparent, or sibling sitting on the sidelines). 

In order to feel a sense of calmness in the water, our children are made to walk the plank while the other toddler-babies thrash about, destabilising their platform. Most toddler-babies choose to rip off the Band-Aid quickly, bolting across the mat and plunging into the arms of a near-stranger. For others, the fear is more debilitating. With little co-operation, a cat with claws, clinging to their owner, they are begrudgingly placed on the mat, stubbornly shifting their weight to become the opposite of buoyant and refusing to move an inch.

When the child begins to show some confidence, we see this as the ideal time to drive them head first into the water. This is usually followed by a look of terror or resentment (but no longer surprise) as they are fully submerged under water. Parent and swim instructor laugh, as the child resurfaces with a splutter and a cough.  ‘Aww, did you forget to blow bubbles?!’ Then, like Scooby Doo, the child leaps into Mum or Dad’s arms, hitching their whole body around their parent’s shoulders. 

We swim from one edge of the pool to the next, chanting ‘Paddle and kick! Paddle and kick!’ before turning the child onto their back to gently float across the pool, a request meant to instil a sense of calmness, but is somehow translated into ‘give me twenty stomach crunches;’ the child incessantly lifting their head to meet their knees. 

Maybe you have the over-confident child, the one who believes he or she can, in fact, already swim, pushing you away as they fly solo, twirling around in their inflatable ring, as they drift towards the small colourful balls they have been sent to retrieve. Finally, they load up their arms with more balls than they can carry, all of which float away from them before they reach the bucket. 

Whatever the case, even with the added hassle of croc-wrestling a toddler-baby on the change table to secure a fresh nappy, there is something about this whole experience that makes this necessary torture a national treasure for all to enjoy.


We arrive in the middle of the night. This is how it is for Elizabeth Gilbert as she embarks on the ‘Pray’ section of her bestselling novel. And this is how it is for my husband and I and our three young children as we embark on our first camping trip as a family of five (the middle of the night being any time after 7pm when kidlets are involved.) But instead of giving way to a spiritual awakening, experiencing God’s closeness in our very being, this ill-planned arrival of setting up camp in the night-time foreshadows the many, many challenges of camping with young children. While my husband pitches the tent, I sit in the dark, breastfeeding our baby in the front-seat, while the boys climb around in the back; hangry (hungry-angry) caged animals chomping at door-handles. 

There are times in every parent’s life when we are lured into a false sense of security that we may re-engage in pre-children activities; frequently evidenced by dads nursing shoulder injuries after attempting trampoline flips and other stunts they pulled off twenty plus years earlier. Like a Maserati mid-life crisis, all of a sudden living vicariously is no longer enough. 

On our bookshelf, we have a book from my husband’s childhood called Panda and Ganda. Panda is demonstrating to Ganda how to play a game of catching a ball in a cup, but in doing so, completely takes over, giving endless excuses as to why Ganda cannot yet have a turn. ‘Do you think Daddy needs to read Panda and Ganda,’ I’ll say as the boys wait (and wait) for their turn, as Daddy is no longer simply demonstrating which buttons to press on the Super Nintendo or how to handle the remote-control car. 

But if anything, the experience of camping is very much about sharing. Given the difficulties of our first camping trip – tears over freezing cold hands, wetting through nappies and the thousand other layers, getting boob out in the cold night air, stinky drop toilet toilet-training, refusing sleep in the great outdoors – I approach our most recent camping trip with much apprehension. The thought of more children than I have hands, outside a contained space is still bewildering. 

We camp along the Murray. Without the appeal of having a boat or jet-ski, we are met with scorching heat and dust, followed by rain, mud and giant Peppa-pig-style muddy puddles; that hold more magnetism to kids’ sensibilities towards fun, than a fun-fair. But eventually the weather becomes so miserable that the rain beats us and we seek shelter.

After the rain clears, I stand at water’s edge. Something quite ugly, now rather beautiful; a blue and purple sunset, still water reflecting a treed cliff-face, gentle smoke billowing out over the water. Tearing myself away, I greet my husband and children, still in the tent, having long sheltered from the rain. ‘It is so beautiful out there,’ I say to my husband, beginning to describe the sunset, ‘I wish you could see it.’

‘It is beautiful in here,’ my husband says without sarcasm, describing the beauty of being with our boys in the close quarters of the tent, the downpour creating a pocket of time just for a father and his sons; something seemingly chaotic, now rather beautiful.