Camping

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.  

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.

Artwork

Parents often take a great deal of pride in their children’s artwork; a creation of their creation. And some are actually good. My best friend’s son mastered shape and form at an unusually young age, oval shaped-stick figures to be marvelled. But this is not the norm.

My youngest son is three. When he was two he made his first picture, a colourful scribble, gifted to his grandmother. The artwork was held in such high-esteem, by artist and recipient alike, that my son need not ever create another picture. This was his Mona Lisa. In fact, any time I suggested he do another drawing he redirected my attention to the artwork’s viewing area; the fridge.

In hindsight, I should have enjoyed this single imperfect picture, framed by the vast open plains of uncluttered fridge space. Now, I would almost say, this picture ‘sparked joy’ in its unique singularity. 

At the start of the kinder year, somewhere within the information pack was the sentiment that there is a lot of pre-learning going on and so parents should not expect their children to bring home artwork after every session. Settle guys, give them time to build the foundations.

The thing is though, there are no rejects, no quality assurance. Samples, offcuts, everything is prized, nothing is left behind. Large sheets of paper, thick with paint, bundling up faster than junk mail in a neglected mailbox; this burden is real. And you can’t simply throw them away. It’s like Big Brother in your own home. School, kinder, child care or not – they are always watching.

Though it seems, as enforced by the little people who manage our overwhelming intake of arts and crafts, that it is not for you or I to decide what is art, it is true that some artworks are precious, heart-warming keepsakes that should be rightfully treasured. 

Once at school assembly, another parent showed me his child’s artwork captured on his phone. It was with such pride that this father thrust his phone upon me. ‘My son drew me as a penis’ he said, beaming. I looked down. Sure enough, the entire body was one long shaft, two rounded shoes either side, and a line separating the top of the shaft; a knob with a face on it. It was a penis man. This was material that should be shared. And, no doubt, had been, several times over.

Mother of Three

The decision to have three children was a conscious one, but the reality of this decision was not. ‘I have three children, I feel like I have eight’ my husband said just days after the baby and I arrived home from hospital. ‘There are so many of them’ I said to my husband, referring to our beautiful, adored offspring. I could have been talking about a swarm of mosquitoes, their pesky abundance driving us back indoors. 

It was not a matter of just throwing more pasta in the pot, as I had naively thought -‘What’s one more?‘ The addition of another child created a whole new dynamic that left us feeling outnumbered and helpless. It didn’t help that number three did not properly take to feeding straight away, or that all three children were yet to be shipped off to school, or that three months in to this new situation we decided to renovate our home. 

Whatever the case, the enormity of the shift from two children to three is not widely publicised. As with childrearing, all information is geared up to the event, with little pre-warning to the weeks after the birth, no-one took me aside and said ‘Look, what you are about to go through is ridiculous.’ Even when a mum, expecting her third child, recently asked me about life with three children, my response was ‘do you really want to know?’ Because like child birth, you fear what you don’t know and then you fear what you do know. 

Over time, it has become clear that I am part of a secret society. We are the ones who quietly live our lives – going about our business with a baby strapped to our front, pushing a pram, holding a kid’s hand, feeding snacks, buckling and unbuckling, lifting, holding, chasing – we are the ones that know what’s really going on. It’s seldom spoken of, but occasionally I will say to another mum of three, almost in a whisper, ‘so, life with three kids…’

When I finally caught up with my girlfriends, after having our third child, I was asked ‘So, what about you, life with three kids?! It’s full-on but wonderful?’ The group looked and waited for a response. ‘Yeee-eess‘ I replied. These catch-ups serve as a form of escapism. When my friends, mostly yet to have children, get ready to leave, I ask my best friend, who has two children of her own to stay – just long enough for the kids to be asleep. 

There’s no point getting depressed.’ Another mum, with three children, said to me. ‘It is what it is.’ My mum hates that phrase. I don’t know why exactly. It suggests acceptance. 

There is one school mum, in particular, I always notice. I always see her walking her children to school, with one walking ahead, one in the pram and one usually on a scooter. I notice her because she appears to be the only one juggling so many children in this manner, bent over pushing the pram with one hand, while supporting the scooter with the other.

One day I let the boys take their scooter and bike for the walk to school. They are not so steady and go a little too fast. I try to keep up. I do this with my baby strapped to my chest. As I power walk vigorously, my body a human shield between the boys and the road, it dawns on me; I am that mum. 

Struggle Town

Universal between parents is the energy expended in trying to get baby to sleep. Whether it be rocking, bouncing on a ball, playing music, patting and shushing (naturally or via an app.), driving until a sleep-induced state is achieved, we are all aiming for the same end game. I was reminded of this recently when flying 14 hours across the Pacific with my husband, parents, and three young children in tow. (‘Look!’ I said to my husband, while bustling through Melbourne airport, ‘there’s a mum with three kids. It’s not just us!’) 

On board the flight, during the superficially created night-time, along the same row of seats was a Muslim mother rocking a toddler to her own brand of shushing; a cyclical flow of air. The sound was unique to her, in the way that a mother can identify her own baby’s cry. Hour after hour, this mother persisted, rocking and shushing by the window, rocking and shushing by the aisle, that same rise and fall of air like a clothes dryer spinning round and round. I grew accustomed to the sound, it became almost like another natural sound of the plane. I think part of me appreciated this mother’s struggle. It made my struggle easier to endure. Her struggle was my struggle. 

One of my girlfriends, also recently became a mother of three. When we last caught up I told her how hard I was finding things in that joking kind of way people admit hard truths. Her response was ‘Yeah, I’m really sorry to hear that, but…‘ and then proceeded to share her own struggle. There was a definite sense of relief. In that kind of did anyone else not do their homework? illogical self-reassurance, we both felt better about our situation. 

I’ve been reading Lily Brett’s New York. There is a section about women, about how women don’t help other women. ‘…we won’t share anything that might help to put another female ahead of us.’[1]This was published in 2001. I wanted to believe this trend was outdated.

A few months ago, at playgroup a whole wave of new mums came through the door. Although I have grown quite fond of playgroup, I didn’t feel at ease. There were so many new faces. I was introduced to another mum, also a teacher. I explained I was on maternity leave but had picked up some casual-relief teaching. She expressed an interest in this kind of work, having found two days permanent part-time too much. Never had I been able to secure a load of just two days. 

Where have you been doing CRT?’ she asked. ‘Just locally,’ I replied. ‘Any schools in particular?’ she pressed. The conversation went on like this for some time, me like a politician at question time, refusing to give the names of the schools I had managed to forge a relationship with. 

Then it was time for the children to wash their hands before snack.


[1](Brett, 2001)

The Royal High Chair

The rookie mistake made by most first-time parents is the purchasing of an overly elaborate high chair. Despite having witnessed the smearing of peanut butter sandwiches, watermelon, banana – whatever, layer upon layer caked on domestic dining chairs and then being offered ‘take a seat,’ when it came to having my own children the knowledge that children are messy, grubby little beings went out the window. 

It is their ‘newness’ that gets you. That newborn smell. I’d often catch my husband breathing in our newborn baby as if some primal instinct was kicking in; an involuntary aromatherapy inducing a blissful state of love and wonder. Babies are incredibly tiny and perfect. Even if they aren’t tiny, they are perfect. Our first son was born at ten pounds. My husband announced this with pride. Ten pounds, no drugs. My obstetrician called him a ‘giant’ – the baby, not the husband. Although he did suggest I find another husband as a solution to not having another big baby, which I chose to ignore. Despite a deep admiration for my doctor, I was mildly offended by the term ‘giant.’ My best friend, had a baby boy a month later. I went to visit her, and hold the baby. He was just under six pounds. My baby was not tiny, but he was perfect.

We wanted our baby to live in comfort and luxury, at least in those early days. Bébé, Marquise, Pure baby. The softest onesies and blankets to go against the softest, most perfect blemish-free skin. The baby and his garments, smooth as a baby’s bottom. So when it came to choosing a high chair, we wanted our baby to be surrounded by comfort. Padding around the back, extra padding for the head rest, padding either side. The ability to recline. Other highchairs seemed so harsh, a solid hard chunk of plastic with no cushioning or support.

Sometimes though, no matter how luxurious, the fit just isn’t right. This reminds me of my mother having indulged in a brand new king-size bed, complete with cushioning technology – on sale, but still one of her more extravagant purchases – her comment after sleeping on the bed, ‘you know, a bed can be too soft.’ 

In general, I am not a big spender. When buying white-goods I like to aim for middle of the road brands, or perhaps, slightly above that, but never, the most expensive brands. While I don’t believe the high-chair we purchased as first-time parents was actually the most expensive, it was still ridiculous and unnecessary.

When we put our little prince in his brand-spanking new high chair, he sat awkwardly. Though it reclined it didn’t appear to sit fully upright. This gave greater distance for the heaped aeroplane to meet its landing. Not so helpful. And the mess! Baby mush smooshed into every crevice, caked onto the rim of the tray table, slopped and caked over the chair legs.  Disgusting. It wasn’t long before we made the thirty-minute drive to Ikea to pick up one of those harsh, solid plastic high chairs.