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.

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.