Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Squabble squabble snap snap

My kids were ratty all last week. Squabble squabble snap snap shriek shriek shriek. It drove me to distraction. I pulled away, left them to it and winced; or waded in, yelled left and right, and grew even more annoyed.

On the weekend, I took one daughter out by herself. The next day, I spent a few hours just with the second. All became sweetness and light.

When my kids need attention, they get grotty. They argue with each other and me; they shriek in the upper registers, their shrill voices ricocheting around the house; they grab and snatch, push and pull; they become hostile. They make it difficult to hug them. Some days, I react. Some days, I have to wash dishes and clothes and floors, and do the school run and change nappies and cook dinner, and slow time with my children feels impossible. But some days, I remember to offer cuddles for crabbiness; a prickly child quickly melts.

It makes me wonder about myself. When I need affection, I don't become affectionate. Like my kids, I get crotchety and cross. Lucky for me, I have a partner who vaults the barriers and loves me anyway. But what of those whose lives lack love? Can I look at them and think of my kids? Think of them as children, too? When I'm met with hostility and aggression, can I open my heart as I would to a child? Can I offer love in return? Or will I pull away and reinforce the absence of love in their lives? The choice seems clear. But living it out - well, there's a puzzle.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Radiant with sweat

I came late to exercise. Years of school PE classes put me off for decades. What was the point of running when you could walk? swimming laps when you could splash around? No one ever told me that exercise is a learned skill, and could be fun. No one ever taught me how to run, or to throw a ball, or to stretch out so that the physical act becomes an expression of joy.

But after I gave birth, I decided I could do anything. Actually, I decided I wanted to fit back into my jeans. After a year of walking fast and gardening I gave up trying to do it myself and reluctantly joined the gym. What a revelation.

It's another world in there. There are strange machines and serious faces as people push themselves to a new limit. Nerds record their statistics on stiff card, and file them away until next time. People run on the spot, and ride without getting anywhere, and it's all utterly ridiculous.

Yet I fit right in. And I love it. After decades of trying to ignore my body, I'm finding myself paying attention. Learning a little respect for it. At the gym, I can push myself and feel my heart swelling in my chest, learn to control my breathing. I can isolate muscles and work on this one, or that, and play with the weights until I am at that point of perfect resistance. I am learning to run, going a little further each week, pushing a little harder. My theory is that if I can relax and breathe through a contraction, learning to relax and breathe while I'm running should be a cinch (actually, it's not!).

Exercise does much more than narrow the gap between me and my old jeans. It's helping me understand that my body isn't separate from me; it holds me, shapes me, affects me. When I'm unfit, I'm constantly tired. I can't think clearly, and feel crotchety and grumpy and old. But as I'm starting to get fit for the third time now, post baby three, I am loosening up again. I have more energy for play and for fun; my body moves faster, and with it my thoughts run quick. I can pound out the pent-up frustration of being home with small children on the treadmill or the boxing bag, rather than yell at the kids. Even my singing is improving.

As I run along going nowhere, listening to house music and thinking about this and that, I find myself feeling awed. Our bodies are more than just houses or workhorses. They are an invitation to play and to worship. After all, on the one hand, fooling around at the gym is fun - let's go up a hill! let's push a little more weight! let's try doing it slower this time! and, for us nerds, what are my stats?! And on the other, as we stretch out and race along, we may feel for a moment utterly at one, glorious, radiant with sweat, as our bodies fly and sing and shout Hallelujah! to the world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A mouth full of leaves

The pear tree is burning. Deep crimson, polished bronze and butter yellow leaves rustle and jostle against the little remaining green. It's a phoenix taking off, an exploding firework, a winter hearth piled with blazing logs. A miracle, a gift, right by our washing line.

But have I noticed? Barely. Instead, I saw dead leaves trekked into the loungeroom and sighed. Muddy footprints wandered the house; I groaned and grabbed the mop. I found my baby with a mouth full of leaves, and shrieked and tweaked them out. Leaves drift into the washing basket. They hide in the folds of the sheets on the line, and slide down the legs of trousers. I winkle them out one by one, and give the washing a good shake.

This morning I finally saw, really saw, the tree. I crept outside away from the kids to gaze at it in silence, to marvel and wonder. And found myself thinking about a broken light switch, a cracked ring, instead.

Earth blazes with heaven. We people of dust turn our eyes, suck our pens and write shopping lists.

Monday, May 11, 2009

But today is Monday

Today I was furtively reading. I had to be furtive. After all, today is Monday - in my mind, a Work Day. Actually, I'm home every day of the week. But in order not to feel constantly nagged by the state of the bathroom, the toilet, or the dust under the beds, I have set aside Mondays as the day to Be a Proper Mum and/or Do Housework with Vigor - and I ignore much of the dirt the rest of the time. This means I tend not to read, write, or, perhaps, think too much on a Monday. So today, as well as housework, we did some creative cooking, and read lots of picture books; we spent the afternoon slitting olives. (I have this crazy idea that children should know where food comes from and how it is made. So yesterday we picked olives off a tree, and today took the first step towards curing them.)

But there was a moment when I lapsed on the Monday project. Two loads of washing were on the line, another already folded and put away; the floors were mopped and the toys raked out from under the couch; my three year old was asleep and the baby was happily chewing things on the floor, so I picked up The Divided Heart* (again) for a five minute dip. And I was struck by a quotation from Doris Lessing: "There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very small child."

Nothing like a mid-afternoon punch in the face.

Because although I adore my children; although I find an embarrassingly high level of satisfaction in a clean floor; although I love making food from scratch, I have to admit that it feels, at times, as if I am going right out of my mind. The baby and the toddler changed their sleep cycles about a month ago, and no longer coincide. So I have no time when all children are asleep during the day, and no awake child lets me read or write for longer than five minutes. And when I'm up feeding a baby at 4am, as I was this morning, I'm usually too wrecked to write at night.** All work, and no reflection, makes Jack a dull boy. Well, totally bonkers, actually.

There are moments when the mundanity and constant demands of mothering just about drive me mad. So much of it is repetitious and inane; affirming or disciplining children, or modelling gentle and generous behaviour, are long, long projects. But how many times can you watch a child do a trick on the trampoline? Tell them, "No"? Be tugged on the leg as you're doing the dishes? Ask them to wash their hands?

Strangely enough, I find nothing more tedious than standing around a playground. It makes me want to scream. Today, as we stopped off on the way home from school, I had a swing myself - the only redeeming thing about playgrounds. The motion is totally dreamy. But within minutes other kids turned up, so I had to get off my swing and give them a go.

Like my afternoon swing, everything I do is curtailed. I start one task, then have to rush and bandage a knee, catch the baby, bring in the washing before it rains. Loving moments with one child are interrupted by another's needs. Late night conversations with my partner are abruptly cut off when a child cries out, or throws up in their sleep. Thoughts are half formed then lost again in a maelstrom of nappies, stories, screeching, dinner. It becomes easy to live only in the moment, to live only as a reaction to necessity, to give up any efforts to reflect, ponder or dream.

But how many times can I slam on the brakes, change direction, lose a thought, before I become totally lost? Reading and reflecting are my fundamentals. Without them, I shrivel up. I become so dessicated by the tedium, so bored and so boring, the family shrivels up too. I am finding that in order to be a generous mother, spirited and kind, I need to take myself away from my children and feed myself. Only when I have done that do I have patience for the repetition, imagination for stories, energy for play, interest in diversions.

Today was Monday. The house is now clean. We read lots of stories, and did some activities. The children are bathed, sweet smelling, sleeping. The dishes are done. I looked like a Real Mum for a while there. And in writing about it I've dispelled the crushing boredom of that role, for now.

On Tuesdays, my partner stays home in the morning and I get a few hours to read, write and think. I get to be useless, no Real Mum or any other role. Boy, I'm hanging out for it. Today was Monday, and the house is clean. But thank God tomorrow's Tuesday.

*If you want to know what I think about The Divided Heart, click here.

**This post is being powered by this morning's creative cooking project, homemade Larabars. Luscious, decadent, and mostly made by a three year old!
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