The Things That Shape Us

In a glass-half-full kind of mentality, many are acknowledging the positive effects of being in lockdown. Time spent with immediate family in great supply, drawing young siblings closer together; time to write; time to contemplate – the latter, not always a good thing. But lockdown is also robbing of us experiences close to our heart. Today is my father’s birthday and as my dad enters a new decade of life, a momentous milestone of a life well-lived, I am wholly aware that the greatest gift is the one I cannot deliver; time spent with the family. So, instead, I wish to give him the gift he has largely imparted to me; the gift of words.

As the most well-read person I know, devouring books at a cracking pace – my mother calls my father’s book of the moment his ‘safety blanket,’ carrying it everywhere should a small window of time present itself – it is often my father who supplements my hunger for literature. Laying down an open book at the kitchen table, or, more recently, presenting it to me from across the fence, Dad will insist, ‘Just read a page. Start here.’ And in that snapshot of well-written prose, ranging from vastly different texts, will be the kernel of an idea. A concept on impressionistic art, Dad making the connection between painting and writing; both the artist and the writer learning to portray what they see, rather than what they know to be there. Or another text, the cumulative effect of language portraying the drudgery of a soldier’s existence, the language mirroring the weight of the soldier’s pack, the exhaustion of his unrelenting journey into combat. Whatever the text, it is an offering from Dad to me, presenting one of life’s many truisms; that literature should be shared.

Though Dad insists he is a reader, not a writer, he has a keen eye for observing human nature; be it via the lens of his camera or through conversation. Attracted to interesting characters, Dad takes genuine interest in the stories of others. With the ease of a storyteller, Dad will sit at the head of dining room table reeling off any one of the stories he has collected, told and retold across the years. A young Scottish lad referring to his curls in a thick Scottish accent, ‘I ‘ate them.’ Dad as a young man finding himself on the back of a truck in Greece being transported to a quarry, with several others; the driver and his burly companion emerging from the cab, demanding their passengers ‘load rock’. Dad’s stories have been a part of life for as long as I can remember. Known mostly by their punch lines, it is only in recent years that I have had the foresight to take note of their preceding story.

In many ways, Dad has given me the tools to write; and to live. It is through years of observation that I have long known and admired Dad’s commitment both to his family and his work. The notion of hard work demonstrated through long days at the office, through his scrubbing of dishes and kitchen surfaces as if preparing for the arrival of the Queen, through his time spent seated at the kitchen table with this daughter of his working on maths homework or the like. It was around the time Dad gave me one solid piece of advice that I began writing in earnest, developing a daily writing practice. ‘It doesn’t matter what you write,’ Dad said. ‘The important thing is that you keep writing.’ 

Dad’s praise is not easily earned, but when it is felt, boy does it feel good. In my final year of high school I applied myself to my schooling with even greater vigour than before, filling my afternoons and weekends with a strict study regime. Heeding Dad’s mantra that featured heavily in my adolescence years, ‘Not a Good Idea,’ I was sensible to the nth degree. The morning I received my VCE results, I discovered that all my hard work had paid off more than I ever could have imagined.  So stunned at the result appearing on my screen in the form of an official text message, I rose from bed to find Dad pulling on his socks for work and angled the screen toward him. Without a single word spoken between us, Dad slipped on his glasses, read my result and threw his arms around me; my mother discovering us at the front hall, not knowing whether our hugging was in misery or celebration. When I finally looked up at Dad he had tears in his eyes; the same look he gets upon witnessing some Olympic feat – emotion tied with Dad’s own identity as a sportsman; Dad running with the Olympic torch in the torch relay preceding the 1956 Melbourne Olympic games as a boy of sixteen; Dad, the recipient of the VFL Under 19s Morrish Medal in 1959, playing for Fitzroy.

Though Dad’s stories reveal a sense of adventure and daring, as a father, Dad always seemed to move at a steady, sensible pace, like the way he runs; Dad teaching me this too, how to breathe to increase my longevity as a runner and perhaps, more profoundly in life. There are many lessons Dad has taught me, qualities he has instilled. The value of hard work. A love of literature. But also the joy of life. Something Dad projects on to the next generation too, as he takes our four-year-old to see the boats and eat ice-cream by the pier – or as he had done several months ago. Two people, big and small, sharing in the fulfilment found in togetherness by the sea; an experience close to both their hearts. This joy of life felt just as keenly now – albeit in smaller bursts from across the fence – as Dad performs for his grandchildren teetering on the edge of a puddle. And then, much to our children’s delight, Dad, losing his footing, resurfacing with wet socks and a smile on his face. 

Happy Birthday, Dad, you’ve certainly made quite a splash!

The Park

The Return of the Park. The Park Strikes Back. These are titles that denote the last couple weeks. Where parents everywhere have been unleashing their children, releasing them from the home, the monotony of the daily walk, a walk well-travelled. A welcome babysitter of slides and swings and monkey bars. I’ll be honest, it does feel just a little naughty. The logic a little hard to fathom. Scenes of kids everywhere, butting up against each other to hurry down the slide, kids racing to make it first up the ladder, little ones nearly being bowled over while others test out the swing’s capacity to go ‘higher’; juxtaposed with scenes at home behind gates, longingly watching the rubbish truck or the mailman, where our son seeks regular clarification on the day of the week, while the other son asks ‘is it morning time?’ late in the afternoon. A reel of contradiction.

As we make our way up the hill on our daily walk, the morning parks are set to reopen,  I wonder how long it will be before our park is reinhabited by children. As we draw near, I see that despite the early hour, the park is already serving its intended function; children playing on the equipment, as natural as breathing air.

Our middle son, so well-versed in ‘Coronavirus’ as the explanation for everything we are not permitted to do, stands at the edge of the playground, arms folded.

‘No!’ he says, when we encourage him to go play, ‘Coronavirus’.

I often wonder about the frustrations children experience in coaching their parents –  my mother used to call it ‘bringing up mother’ – how difficult that our son must be the voice of reason. I’m sure our toddler experiences this on a daily basis too, vigorously nodding her head when we ascertain what she is after; as though frequently frustrated by our incompetence. 

When we insist our son go play, pointing out the other children swarming the playground, kids being pushed on the swing by their masked parents, shooting hoops, climbing, swinging, running; our son unfolds his arms. 

‘Is the Coronavirus over?’ he asks.

It seems the logic of opening parks is lost on our four-year-old too – the same child who had stood forlorn in front of a sign erected beside the playground that read ‘Area closed,’ when the play equipment was still adorned with red and white safety tape. 

Finally, our son relents, drawn by the lure of fun. As our kids join the other children, there is a strangeness to overcome, as though defying the rules, or defying logic. We may join a park full of children, but we are not yet permitted to welcome a guest to our home. But as our sons run, unencumbered and free, our daughter delighting in conquering a climb and swinging on the swing; I must admit, this ultra-normal, pre-COVID activity of park play; it feels, well…normal. 

Milestones

Often it can take weeks, or even months, to establish a good routine and just when things seem to be under control, something changes and what worked before doesn’t work anymore. Baby isn’t tired. Baby is overtired. Baby is teething. 

Yet the disturbance to a carefully cultivated routine is actually what we aspire to, progressing from milestone to milestone until our babies can do ‘all the things’. How crushing, how soul destroying then, when a baby’s development seems to stagnate.  

In the days leading up to our daughter’s eight month check, some part of me understood that our daughter was not where she needed to be. Like an exam we were always destined to fail, baby and I crammed right before our maternal health nurse appointment; doing tummy time, double time. It seemed that after the early months of feeding and expressing around the clock to bring up her weight – a challenge I’d not anticipated after two gutsy boys – the tummy time our baby experienced, when safely out of the clutches of her older brothers, had not sufficiently strengthened her muscles. So it wasn’t so much a surprise when the maternal health nurse commented on baby’s inability to hold her head up with ease.

Her recommendation; paediatric physiotherapy. I hadn’t realised there was such a thing. Who knew such little people could be assigned exercises to strengthen their muscles? 

The physio was both nurturing and reassuring, insisting that this would be a temporary hurdle. But when I asked how far behind baby was, the physio hesitated like a tight-lipped doctor not wanting to alarm their patient. 

‘Do you really want to know?’ she asked. 

I nodded, needing to know what I was dealing with; how much work was yet to be done. 

At eight months old, our baby’s physical strength was in line with that of a three or four month old. Although, I was told, she would likely progress naturally over time, the physio explained that because, mentally, she was an eight month old, over time, she would become frustrated, her body, not in tune with her mind. 

‘See, she’s very bright. You can see she wants that toy,’ the physio said, baby batting for a toy she couldn’t play with; not without the physical strength to hold herself into sitting. 

When I left the physio, I was determined to take our homework seriously, this time we were not going to cram. In short bursts, several times per day, we practiced. Baby leaning over a couch cushion laid on the floor, pushing up with her hands, while I held her knees in place, firmly against the cushion, so that the emphasis of her weight-bearing didn’t shift. For weeks, I committed to this cause, stressed and anxious, thinking of little else. 

We returned to the physio four or five weeks later, so soon after our initial appointment because we were due to jet-set. When prompted, I  suggested that, yes, I had noticed some improvement. The physio took one look at my little girl in action. 

‘Oh Mary Clare!’ she said, ‘I think you really undersold the level of improvement here. Just look at her!’ 

I beamed. It was like our baby, all of a sudden, had decided to ‘perform’.

‘She wasn’t doing that at home!’ I said, the two of us laughing, stunned at how far baby had come. 

‘You won’t need to come back,’ the physio said. 

She was the loveliest paediatric physiotherapist I’d ever met – the only paediatric physiotherapist I’d ever met – but I was thrilled at the thought of never having to see her again, of never having to look back.

As we finished up our session, baby and I leaving the clinic as another ‘good-news story,’ the physio equipped me with a realistic expectation for our daughter’s continued physical development. 

‘Most people associate the first birthday with walking,’ she said. ‘But walking at 18 months is still considered within normal range.’  

In the end, our bright, slow-moving baby conquered walking at 16.5 months. Though this is now a blip in our lives, a slight hurdle compared to the heart-wrenching situations thrust upon some parents, I am grateful to the mothers who shared their personal stories of babies slow to progress; as I am glad to share my mine. 

‘The Favourite’

‘Which one is your favourite?’ a woman asks when I tell her I have three children.

‘See!’ she says, when I pause. ‘You do have a favourite!’ 

I once read an article whereby a mother confessed; ‘I don’t love my children the same, I love them differently.’ Like their individuality was some kind of revelation. I too, love my children differently, for their own unique qualities.

As I consider how to respond to this woman’s question, it occurs to me that, perhaps, the question itself is more telling. In the absence of a response, the woman adds, ‘I was one of three – and my parents didn’t love us equally.’

It is my belief that parents, as a rule, have only the best of intentions when dishing out their love. But isn’t everything a matter of perspective?  

I can serve up two perfectly identical peanut-butter sandwiches, with sliced apple and a piece of cheese. Yet our eldest son will immediately form an opinion about which of the two identical lunches is the biggest, and thus the best.  

‘Who do you love the most?’ he asks me one night, as I tuck him into bed. 

I hesitate; a question to be answered with care.  

‘You can’t answer the question, can you?’ our son says – because I hesitate or because he’s asked this question before. ‘But you love us all the same, don’t you?’

I nod – Though, I guess, in hindsight, it would be more accurate to say; ‘It’s true, I love you all so much my heart could burst. But I love you for the different ways you enhance my life; which, like my love, are wholly immeasurable.’  

During our usual morning walk, I comment to my husband how beautiful it is to watch our boys run. How freeing. The wind in their hair, their eager, quickened steps as they come to share with us their discovery of finding worms in the gutter. And the way they describe the worms brought out by the rain. Purple and pink with sections of gold. I never thought of worms in this way, nor would I have noticed them there in the first place were it not for the boys’ discovery. The worms, perhaps, a metaphor for the ways our children enrich our life. For the things they make us see. 

I recall a kinder mum describing her son as a ‘Unit’. I hadn’t fully understood the term, but from her tone, the glint in her eye, I understood that she was still working him out. And that her discovery of him, of his own unique self, was a delight to witness. The beauty of having children; what we may discover in knowing them. 

My mother tells of when I was born, a daughter after three sons. My father looked at his newborn, a chubby baby in pink and said, ‘Who’s this?’ – Clearly, he was still working me out. And I like to think that, mostly, I’ve surprised and delighted him ever since.  

Though our eldest is only seven, I know that sometimes – maybe because he’s always been big for his age or because he’s the oldest child – we are probably guilty of treating him older than he actually is; expecting him to be responsible, reliable, forgetting he’s still very much just a little boy with a fantastic sense of fun and a wonderful imagination. Sometimes he can be infused with so much energy that the best thing for him is to run laps outside. I love that about him. His energy, his enthusiasm. His zest for life.

Our second child has always been fiercely independent, stubborn, affectionate, extremely charismatic. An interesting mix. Stubbornly, my husband and I both credit each other for our son’s stubbornness. Whether he is in the midst of asserting his own independence or giving one of the best cuddles I may ever experience in my life, he is so endearing that it is impossible to ever imagine this ‘baby in the corner’.

Our third (and final) child holds the position of the youngest and the only girl. She is demanding and beautiful, playful and sweet. Possessing qualities similar to our second child that had me wondering how on earth we would manage not one, but two strong-willed children; and yet she is entirely her own person. While, at times, the parent in me struggles to keep up with her fast pace, her determined, head-strong nature; the feminist in me loves that she is a girl who knows her own mind. That she is capable and smart and demands to be heard. That she does not fit any of the pre-conceived notions I may have had about how different it might be to raise a girl. It is an absolute joy to be continually delighted and surprised by her. And I’m sure, I’m still working her out.

My mother says of her mother that she had this ability to make each child feel as though she was their mum; to each feel the uniqueness of their own special bond between mother and child. A tradition that continues, I believe, as I, myself, have been pulled up by my brother for referring to our mother as ‘my mum’. 

While often, I must ask for our children’s patience, their acceptance that there are three of them whose demands I must meet; it is my hope that all three of our children will feel my love in its own unique form, and that in years to come, they will remember, that I am, was, and forever shall be; their mum. 

Time and Space

For a mother, the term ‘Me Time,’ doesn’t quite cut it. It implies time away from children spent luxuriously, a bubble bath by candlelight, a quiet spot to read a book for hours on end; an indulgence. What I’m talking about here is ‘Space.’ Not a luxury, but a basic need. Time out to take a few quiet breaths, to regroup from tantrums, whinging; from any and all of the demands of having young children. The last time I felt this way, I had just given birth to our third child. 

‘There is no space,’ I said to my husband. ‘There is nowhere for me to just be.’ 

And even when I sought space in our small, small house, taking a shower, letting the hot water wash away the day, preparing me for another night of broken sleep, there was no solitude. The boys bursting through the door. My husband hovering, trying to settle an unsettled baby simply in need of her mother. Even if no one actually entered my physical space, I felt the demands weighing heavy on my shoulders. I couldn’t relax; what if they needed me? 

In support of her staff, the principal at the first school I ever worked at, a Catholic school, famously spoke of giving her staff ‘time and space.’ Gently encouraging us in the direction of change. 

Time and space. Two things I had in short supply when I first became a mother of three. ‘I don’t have time for my other children,’ I said, as I felt the dust of mother’s guilt settle with all my energies invested in ensuring our youngest baby thrived. 

Despite the exhaustion, the deprivation of personal space, I tried to find the humour, the joy in the everyday. 

Dancing in the kitchen, in a zombie-like state while sterilising bottles, I gave the last remaining part of myself to my two other children after feeding and caring for our baby – because if I didn’t laugh I would have cried. My eldest son, stood in the kitchen bemused by new dance moves which went like this; ‘And feed’ – arms out in front, ‘Express’ – arms above, ‘And sterilise. And sterilise’ – feet to the side, feet to the side. Because these were the actions of my every waking hour; feeding, expressing, or sterilising; all in desperate need to steadily increase our newborn’s weight. 

‘Mummy’s a cow,’ my eldest son said cheekily, laughing at the rhythmic sucking sound of the breast pump.

This was funny; and not. Because for the first few months of our daughter’s life, life was hard, very hard. Advice was confusing and conflicting. Express at every feed and top up every feed with a bottle. Ditch the expressing and persist feeding ‘naturally.’ I was not a person in my own right, but a vessel for food and sustenance. And this went on for months.

Already a mother to two beautiful boys, I knew how to ‘mother’. And yet our daughter provided challenges I’d never had to face with the boys. 

When our second child was born, my obstetrician visited me the morning after the delivery, declaring ‘Look at this lady of leisure’. 

Sitting up in bed, engrossed in a good book, I had to remind myself I’d just given birth. I almost felt guilty for using up the hospital’s resources when I was clearly capable of doing this mothering thing on my own. 

After the birth of our third child, however, I was shell-shocked. Things weren’t going smoothly as they had before. I buzzed the nurses, daily, seeking assistance with feeding, checking our attachment; because neither baby, nor I, seemed to have any clue what we were doing. After being discharged – our baby narrowly avoiding being admitted due to insufficient weight gain – baby and I attended extra weigh-ins, breastfeeding consultations, community group breastfeeding sessions. I engaged in copious amounts of anxiety-driven research, experimenting with bottle teats, adjusting the amount of top-up feeds, experimenting with baby-led attachment; encouraging the baby’s natural instincts to find the breast. But ultimately, it was a matter of time, and space, until baby and I were able to consolidate a good feeding relationship. 

I wasn’t alone. My husband, is, and was, incredibly supportive. I have very hands-on and doting parents, a close circle of friends and family. But the feeding issues I experienced with our third child were mine to bear. 

Was it worth it? Persisting with breastfeeding for so long, and at such a personal expense to me, and my other children? 

Ultimately, that is not the point here. The point is that this was an incredibly hard time in my life; that while living through it, I felt as though the struggle would never end. 

I remind myself of this time – so difficult, I’d rather forget – to remember that things will, and do, improve. To understand, and know, that while in the throes of a Lockdown that is only becoming more stringent, more difficult to bear; that things will, and do, improve.

In those early days with a newborn, I understood that life would not simply go on in the same way forever. But the days were long and hard, physically exhausting, emotionally taxing, it was difficult to imagine a different reality than the one I was facing. I had to remind myself of the silver-lining, work hard to appreciate my three beautiful blessings; each child filling our home, my heart, with love. 

As I look back on those crazy, hazy days of newborn chaos, of mothering more children than I have hands; as I watch each child develop their own interests, demonstrate their own clever attributes, engage in some small act of kindness; the eldest one helping the middle one find socks, the middle one ensuring whatever he has to eat, there’s enough to share, both boys letting their sister ‘hog the ball’ when we play basketball, understanding she’s far too young to understand the rules; I appreciate ‘time and space,’ in all its forms.

This house is a small house. And some days, its smallness, our close confines, works to amplify the chaos; a zoo within a matchbox. Other times, it holds up a mirror to that which I am most grateful. Some days, this house is just small enough. 

‘Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.’ 

            – LU XUN, HOMETOWN

Victoria, we will get through this.

Lockdown

So here we go again. Melbourne in Lockdown. Melbourne Metro and the Mitchell Shire, collectively breathing a sigh at having been here before, like being in labour and discovering you’re only a few centimetres dilated; still so much pain yet to be endured. 

But instead of dwelling on life’s experiences better served in person than via a Zoom chat, I am making a conscious decision to remind myself of all the experiences I would happily do without as we bunker down for another long and cold – and long – six weeks.

Firstly, supermarket shopping…with children. 

Thank goodness that bringing my children to the shops is discouraged. Literally the last time I was physically in a supermarket this is how it went down. The toddler conducting a prison break from the shopping trolley. The eldest fingering any and all of the lollies at the checkout – kept there for the purpose of making parents’ lives more difficult. The middle one, falling backward upending the trolley after hanging off its side. Me, swooping the toddler up into my arms, whilst catching the trolley with my shin. Never, do I ever, want to take all my ‘wild things’ to a supermarket all at once again; the memory still haunts of their small hands moving quicker than an Aldi shop assistant, the watchful eyes of the other customers staring long and hard, letting their judgement linger. 

Secondly, long car trips…with children. 

‘I love you to Wangaratta and back,’ said my eldest son one night as I tucked him in to bed. Some children love their parents to the moon and back, mine loves me as far as the three and a half hour drive to North-East regional Victoria – and back. But after travelling there recently, I’ve come to realise this is a compliment. Because even a relatively short journey can feel like an expedition to the moon when the dummy belonging to the overtired toddler has fallen down beneath the passenger seat, just out of reach despite all the twisting and contorting spurred on by the impassioned yelling; our toddler’s pitch and volume capable of bursting an eardrum. Frustrating too, is the need for siblings to annoy each other by encroaching on the other’s personal space. ‘Are we there yet?’ met with ‘I’ll turn this car around!’ Clichés that exist through the generations because, without the aid of technology, within a confined space, kids are wired to drive their parents nuts. Dishing out snacks to stave off our children’s hunger and, or, boredom, my husband and I delight in thoughts of having one of those screens found in limousines that divide the front seat from the back. 

Lastly – though I’m sure there’s other experiences I would happily take a raincheck on for a little longer – dining in at cafés and restaurants…with children.

Having our three children sit up at the table, while my husband and I do our best to wade through a disjointed conversation, cutting up their food while ours gets cold, searching for wipes to contain the stickiness, walking on egg shells to prevent our daughter from squealing, to keep our sons in their seats. Not exactly relaxing.

Sometimes though, things do go smoothly. Sometimes the toddler doesn’t try to load or unload the supermarket trolley and the other two do stand ‘nicely.’ Sometimes the toddler falls asleep on long car trips while the other two stare dreamily out the window. Sometimes visiting a café is a success. 

And sometimes, it’s nice to be at home. 

Neighbours

Neighbours. Now, I’m not referring to the TV Soap, strangely popular in the U.K., a training camp for the Kylie Minogues and Margo Robbies of the world. A show synonymous with Harold and his waggling chin. Instead, I refer to the rite of passage of kids befriending kids, particularly those conveniently living nearby. Friendships, that have become, for us, even more crucial in the early days of COVID-19 #stayathome. A metaphorical hand that has pulled our children through to the other side; the return to kinder, the return to school.

Kids often crave things that are actually bad for them: lollies, chocolate – that one’s contentious – TV or experiences beyond what is ‘age appropriate.’ But, if lucky enough to have the kind of blessed childhood, where there is room to feel bored, then sometimes, I think kids are the most adept at honing in on what they need most – except maybe sleep; show me a child that confesses to being tired, who doesn’t become cranky at the mere suggestion, nay accusation, of being told ‘I think you must be tired.’

How often kids play outdoors in the hope of coming across other kids. How delighted they are to stumble across another child while playing at the park, as we once did, or anywhere where the opportunity might allow for a little ‘play.’ For me, growing up, my neighbours were the people I wanted to see most on the weekend or in the long afternoons that followed on from 3:30pm, when hot Milo and cartoons just didn’t cut it. 

One year, after landing back on Australian soil after enduring twenty-three hours of flying from the other side of the world – Canada, my home away from homes – I leapt out of the car, ran down the driveway and leapt out onto the road. There was a spring in my step because of the exhilarating feeling of seeing my best friends who lived across the road after a whole month apart, a whole month of relearning to cross the road in a country where drivers ‘drive on the wrong side of the road.’ As my front foot landed onto the bitumen a woman came around the bend, blasting her horn. Exaggerated hand gestures behind a sealed car window. Unable to cross the road, my confidence shattered, I ran back down the drive and returned home, suitably shaken.

I have multiple memories of being eager to see my neighbours. On one occasion, I was relegated to my room – the place, filled with toys, where parents send their misbehaving children. The ‘Ninja Turtle boys’ who lived behind us – labelled by my Dad who was bemused by the costumes they once donned – placed a ladder up against my bedroom window and aided my escape, enabling my return to ‘come and play.’

‘Marrrr-eeeee-Clarrrrrre’ could often be heard from the back fence of my childhood home. As if responding to the calling of a conch, not unlike Piggy’s conch in ‘Lord of the Flies,’ I would run down to the back fence to be greeted by the sister of the Ninja Turtles, ‘Talia-Bree From Over the Sea’ – a name also attributed by my Dad, because of its rhyming qualities and, perhaps, because her’s was a voice that could travel. 

My eldest son, in a final assignment before returning to school was asked to write things he was thankful for: chalk rainbows, teddy bears pinned to fences; signs of solidarity and love. Here’s what I am thankful for.

As I hear the syllables of our eldest son’s name dragged out in full volume across the fence and the conch-like call of our younger son’s name coming from the opposing neighbouring fence, I am grateful for the sound. Because I understand, this is their sound; a sound that will be heard long after COVID-19.

The ‘Window’

Not everyone, it seems, is taking kindly to the mostly young mums posting insta-shots of delectable-looking homemade treats fresh out of the oven, served up for the kiddies – who, by the way, are photographed sitting in their neat and tidy work space, pencil in hand, ready to learn. #stayathome. These micro-level local celebrities, a.k.a. ‘friends’ we like to stalk, who seem to have it all together, are the people we all greatly admire, and, also, love to hate. Because unless included amongst the vision of beautifully-kept children and gourmet delights are the candid photographs of squabbling, snatching, squealing and the like; then the insta-life, for us mere humans, is entirely unattainable.

My day is like sailing on a sailboat, alone and unassisted. It’s success, solely dependent on the conditions. Weather. Mood. Competing Demands. The waning concentration of my school boy. I know I am asking too much, when the electrical impulse running through my school boy has him looking like one of those tall, skinny tube men plonked at car dealerships waving in the wind. This, combined with the toddler, bursting open the doors to the sideboard, pulling out an avalanche of papers previously shoved/filed away, is enough to do it. I don’t even need the third one present to feel a rise in my blood pressure, the return of shallow breaths.

In my last post, after becoming over-involved in my son’s schooling, and then taking a big step back, literally out the door, I wrote: ‘I achieved the trifecta I was after; two, playful happy children, one focused, very mature little school boy writing freely at his designated workspace.’ Yeah, sure, I achieved this – for a time. 

But nothing lasts forever, and that is why I am shifting my focus to savour the small ‘wins.’ The part of my day I savour the most, however, just happens to be when the house is at its most quiet – even my school boy expressed recently that while he generally prefers ‘loud,’ he now also enjoys ‘peace;’ sometimes. 

This is what ‘peace,’ in daylight hours, looks like for me. 

My shoulders relax, my breathing steadies at the last dish dried, the washing folded. From the window, I see the boys jumping on the trampoline, their squeals of delight silenced by the glass between us. I peer into the next room to see Little Miss, bum in the air, fast asleep. I watch her little breaths, soaking in the unfamiliar, yet exhilarating, sound of silence. 

Laid out before me is a gift; a small but precious window – my older brother, who had kids well before us, used to speak of this elusive ‘window,’ back then I found it perplexing. For those unfamiliar to the term, a ‘window’ is a small opening of time before it all falls apart. In this scenario, it is the time before the boys begin banging on the back door – though they need only open it – and the toddler wakes, ready to unload the dishwasher of dirty dishes, unpack the bin of its contents, or select items from the washing basket to deposit throughout the house.  

So, I set the mood. Light a candle called ‘Peace,’ set the TV to something only I like to watch, plate up a sandwich and a segment of orange chocolate; the latter, as Miss Trunchbull from Matilda put it, ‘Much too good for children.’

But first, before I indulge, I step quietly past the sleeping toddler, and duck to the toilet.

And there it is.

Upon opening the door, I feel like a kid who’s just dropped their ice-cream. 

My window; now shut.

‘Home-Schooling’

Oftentimes stress manifests from internal pressures, the pressure we place on ourselves to achieve things exactly as we believe they should be; a spotless house when we invite guests into our home (you know, when we are allowed to do so), an extremely competent child when it comes to home-schooling – Wait, did I say ‘home-schooling’?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Victoria was one of the first states to take to ‘online learning;’ hence the terminology used by schools, teachers, politicians. Initially, the term ‘online learning’ felt like a spin-off from the actual reality – just as Scomo insists on reporters not using the ‘L’ word, the mere utterance of the word ‘Lockdown’ akin to saying ‘Voldemort’ in a Harry Potter film; utterly unthinkable.

Though it feels like a lockdown (especially bunkered down with 3 kids), looks like a lockdown (bare streets, quiet roads), sounds like a lockdown (excepting, of course, the few reasons we’re permitted to venture out); it’s definitely not a lockdown – Did I say ‘lockdown,’ I meant ‘that word’ as Scomo refers to it.

The term ‘online-learning’ feels equally tenuous. Our children are learning from home, accessing resources from home, establishing their workspace at home; BUT, this is not home-schooling. 

Unconvinced, I used the term ‘home-schooling’ during a Zoom chat with friends. Though learning from home seemed inevitable, this was before any official announcement was made, when most of us were still drifting somewhere between panic and denial.

‘I’m just trying to get my head around whether or not I’ll be home-schooling,’ I said, when asked how I was going. 

‘It’s not home-schooling,’ my friend corrected me, one of those extremely competent secondary school teachers who had been working tirelessly to prepare for the likely event of learning from home.

‘Right…’ I replied.

Having never made the decision to take a child out of main-stream education for the purpose of learning at home, and despite, being a teacher myself – I should have known better, given that I, personally, was not in the throes of designing curriculum or setting up online classrooms for my child – still, I was convinced that what we were about to embark could only be described as ‘home-schooling.’ But here’s why this is dangerous thinking.

I said at the beginning of this piece that a key driver of stress comes from our own set of unrealistic expectations. In the case of our children, sometimes our own undoing comes from the failure to recognise that, despite, perhaps, displaying similar character traits or physical attributes to us, they are, in fact, separate, living, breathing individuals who are working to make their own individual mark on the world.

Hovering over my grade-oner, intently watching videos posted by his teachers, pressing all the buttons on his device, later pointing out all of his spelling errors – while the other two young ones ran around the dining table squealing, yelling, crying – I was clearly was far too involved in the whole affair.

A common frustration among parents is the difficulty in getting children to listen. ‘If I have to tell you one more time…!’ we cry out of sheer frustration. But sometimes, especially when it comes to our own children, parents are the ones who need to be told.

At the end of a well-considered, encouraging message from our School Principal was the final statement, intended as a lingering thought to register with parents, ‘…you are not HOMESCHOOLING your children…you are not responsible for ‘delivering’ our curriculum!’ – A friendly communication, albeit with the capitalisation and exclamation mark deemed necessary.

Then came another reminder from my son, in between mother and son both apologising for expressing our frustrations at one another; ‘I can do this, Mum!’ my school-boy insisted as I begrudgingly released my hold over his device.

And then finally, came the diplomatic words from my son’s teacher said over video conference, I don’t remember the exact wording, only that they were the words I needed. I believe it was something about the necessity of assessing an authentic piece of work – You mean, you’re not assessing me?!

With my three-year-old hammering his half-empty yoghurt tub on the back door, imprinting yoghurt stamps along the glass, my one-year old bawling at my feet every time I attempted to put her down; finally, the message began to sink in. With my school-boy set up by the window (where I could still observe him from afar), ready to write his narrative, I gathered the two little ones as if conducting a necessary evacuation (which, in a way, it was) and set outside to play on the swings. It was there, I achieved the trifecta I was after; two, playful happy children, one focused, very mature little school-boy writing freely at his designated workspace.

Though it came as an epiphany to me; out of all the stakeholders invested in my child’s education, it turns out the only one who thought term 2 was to be conducted as ‘home-schooling’ was me.

COVID-19

I have never been the type of mum to become absorbed in crafts, not at the expense of getting in a mess. In our home, we do not have home-made shakers – plastic bottles filled with rice, or sensory stations – stacked tubs filled with sand, macaroni, sea shells or other wonderful sensory play. Save some Lego and a trainset, our toys are not housed according to theme or purpose. I haven’t the patience for sorting little tiny parts into corresponding plastic tubs. No child could possibly follow this system – not when one of the most frequently asked questions by my Year Seven students in their first term at high school was always which colour pen do I use?? 

So, while I admire those mums who provide an in-home kinder program, continually engaging their children in painting and water play and pipe-cleaners – those mums who encourage an inquiring mind, who do their best not to hurry along their child where a learning opportunity exists – allowing their pooch a good sniff before moving on to the next lamp post – for me, fun may come in many forms and it need not be messy. 

Thanks to the outsourcing of messy play at play group and play dates, it has always been easy to let myself off the hook. Neat, eh? Indeed, it was very neat. But now that the structures in which my children largely engaged in messy play are no longer permitted, I am adapting to a ‘new normal.’ 

Building a bank of activities, like a teacher’s toolbox (always a necessity for a Casual Relief Teacher), I’m screen-shotting children’s craft ideas for later use: home-made playdough, scavenger-hunts, obstacle courses, forts out of sheets. Not only am I engaging in messy play, I am actively seeking it out. 

What I didn’t realise, before COVID-19 – before my daily existence included frequent updates of the rising death toll, and the associated worrying of what this virus might mean for my family, society, and well… all of humanity – was that in limiting messy activities I was also limiting the ways in which I engage with my children more broadly; my imagination restricted by the bounds of neatness. 

I am aware that this sense of optimism I am now projecting may be fleeting, and is probably just a happy holiday from the fear and anxiety that most of us have been experiencing. And that still in school holiday mode, I am not yet feeling the pressure to ‘home-school.’ For me, these early days are simply about enjoying my children.

And so, things I did little of, I now do a lot. Outside, I push the two youngest ones on the swings, singing nursery rhymes and ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt.’ On the trampoline, all three little ones lie quietly, while I sing to them; a song we learnt at play group after which they all jump up full of life, ready to do it all again. I’m playing board games I haven’t played in forever, teaching my eldest son Monopoly whilst attempting to model how to lose gracefully – something I need a little more practice at, especially when losing to a six-year old. At the P.M.’s suggestion, I’m even giving puzzles a crack.

Now, more than ever, I am acutely aware of the need to embrace life’s distractions from the confusing mess of a world in which we now live; From my obsession in checking news media in an attempt to know more in a time when so much is unknown – our six-year-old groaning each time Scomo delivers yet another press release, ‘is Scott Morrison finished yet?’

But amongst all the noise in the bombardment of media, in all its various forms, there is one message that resonates for me. And that is, for our children’s generation, COVID-19 will be their defining moment in history; how we, as parents, chose to react will directly feed into how our children remember this time, forever. Though children are often more adaptable than most adults, it’s often surprising how much they take in.

       *

I overheard my husband tucking in our boys, who both have a habit of using bedtime to engage in long-winded discussions, not uncommonly stringing out bedtime by asking life’s big questions. Tonight’s topic: COVID-19.

‘Will it go on forever? …Will it go on till I die?’ our six-year-old asked as a parting goodnight.

‘No,’ Daddy responded. ‘But it will feel like a really long time.’

Then our three-year-old, who is often in-tune with the thinking of mummy and daddy, gave his analysis of the situation. 

‘We can’t go to coffee-shops, or movies, or out to dinner…’ he said, reeling off the list. ‘No fun.’

 ‘That’s right, no going out for carrot cake…’ Daddy agreed, relaying his own favourite weekend activity, now relegated to a pastime.

But that, of course, is our silver-lining. That in this new draconian way of life where we are urged to stay at home for the very real and scarily fragile purpose of saving lives, we adapt. And in adapting we reconnect with the things that matter most; the playful, messy and surprisingly articulate little people that largely comprise our household.