Thursday, April 29, 2010

Many happy returns

Yesterday was one of Those Days with kids. I couldn't work out why it was so bad; were they testing me even more? Well, yes, one was. My youngest has decided that the way to eat is to shove everything into her mouth until her cheeks are bulging, squirrel-like, then slip down from her chair and run around. I believe this method poses an unacceptable health and safety risk; also, it's rude. And so at breakfast we spent half an hour as follows: I put her on her chair, she slipped off, I removed her food, she screamed. And so on.

At snack time, she grabbed a handful of walnuts, and then we spent 45 minutes arguing over whether she could wander around the house with them in her mouth, or whether she was to remain in her chair. After that time, I forcibly removed the walnuts from her mouth, the walnuts she had refused to chew and swallow while she sat in a chair, and set her free. What an ordeal; and how humiliating to be so shredded by a 20 month old. I was so exhausted I rinsed off the walnuts and ate them myself.

Was her behaviour enough to make it a bad day? Somehow, I felt worse than I usually do at the testing of a toddler. It was one of those days when it seemed like everything was slipping out of control, and I wondered whether, like my daughter, I had bitten off more than I could chew. Only my problem wasn't walnuts. It was kids.

I wondered too whether the problem was Monday's public holiday. As pathetic as this sounds, public holidays throw me. I do all my weekly housework on a Monday, to get it out of the way and set the house up for the week. But this week, I went on a picnic instead. Lovely, of course, but now the house is a bombsite, and that always depresses me.

Even worse, my birthday loomed. This is, after all, my annual opportunity to review all my failures and the things I've never done (run for more than ten minutes, let alone climb Mt Everest; get a job I enjoy; deal with the leak in the roof...) – and as I steadily move through my thirties, I find myself realising that if I haven't done these things by now, I probably never will. Perhaps I don't really want to – but I'd like to cross them off the list.

For whatever reason, it was a bad day. And bad days get worse at twilight. The light grows dim, the kids get ratty, I still have an hour before my partner gets home – and during that hour I somehow have to bathe three children and cook a nutritious and delicious meal for five. Getting dinner onto the table by 6.30, while my kids argue and my youngest wants to turn the light switches on and off and everyone argues over who can help and maybe one throws a tantrum or punches the others and someone else keeps rolling a wheeled toy into the kitchen – it's a daily miracle that can be witnessed six times a week at our house. (On the seventh day, she rests.)

And on this bad day, when the dreaded twilight came my four year old was wrapped round my legs and I was shouting at her to just leave me alone for a minute. And then I heard myself saying, I can't do this anymore. I stopped shouting, carried her into the hallway, then ignoring her wails shut her out of my bedroom. Mercifully, the wails cut short and she ran off and squabbled with her sisters instead, while I spent fifteen minutes in blessed peace sorting two enormous loads of washing.

After that respite, everything went well. Baths, dinner, bedtime: all calm. There's a lot to be said for a little time out, however difficult it is to achieve – and even if it involves sorting washing.

This morning was my birthday. The plan was that I would sleep in, then get up late and have croissants for breakfast, supplied by my husband and daughters.

The reality: for the first time in weeks, no child disturbed my rest. Instead, at 6.15, I was woken by a grinding pain in my lower abdomen. Half asleep and wondering if I was sick, I staggered to the toilet and discovered I now had my period. What a gift.

And now I know why yesterday was hell. It wasn't really the anticipation of my birthday, or the fact that I'm incompetent, or my kids. They might have exacerbated how I felt, but mostly it was hormones. I'm not sure if I'm relieved that my mood has a chemical explanation, or whether I'm utterly depressed that, after 22 years as a menstruating woman, I still cannot recognise the havoc my period plays on my sense of wellbeing. Month after month, I have a day where I sit in a grey cabbage-scented funk, sure that life is passing me by, I have no friends, I'm completely incompetent and I cannot manage my children. One would think that, by this age, I might come to recognise the signs and be a little more gentle on myself, but no.

I dealt with the mess, then lay on the gritty grotty lounge room rug, full of self-pity. Sadly, everyone had heard my movements, and within minutes they were climbing on me.

But "Morning Mama" said my youngest, as she does first thing every morning, and, as always, it broke my heart.

And then I dealt with what I can only think of as the Birthday Bed Wet. Thank you darling, I muttered, grimly shoving the sodden waterproof sheet, other sheets (it was expansive) and pyjamas into the washing machine.

I'm glad to say the day improved drastically from there. Chocolate croissants, a husband home for the day, an art book, and a story about a horse and a fox written and illustrated by my six-year-old just for me. What else could a mummy want? Well, I got them too: no cooking, no cleaning, no dishes, no sweeping. Lunch at a cafe, and takeaway for dinner. Choir and a bottle of wine with other mums at night. And a party to look forward to on the weekend.

I'm not pregnant, my kids are lovely, my friends make me laugh, and I'm a reasonable enough mother who even manages to write a little. Life is good. Many happy returns.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fairy forests and thwacking bracken

Last week we spent some time at a friend's rural property. Despite the hills and the trees and the many things to investigate – burrows, dells, a shack near the point of collapse – my girls began moaning that they were bored. I recalled other children here, boys, who used to spend hours energetically slashing at ferns. "Why don't you thwack bracken?" I suggested. My girls looked blank. "You know," I said, "hit it with sticks and knock it over." They stared at me as if I had two heads. And with a vague sense of failure I said, "Well, you could make a fairy forest."

"Ooooh!" they squealed like something out of Enid Blyton, and ran off to build a little place of magic.

Now, I have to admit it is an excellent place to dream of fairies. The bracken towers over their heads, waving softly in the breeze. It casts dappled shade on lichen-studded stones and moss, and nearby, under pine trees, red polka-dotted toadstools grow. The landscape recalls an English story: pleasantly damp, threaded with springs, the fields and folds curve into forest. We have spent enough time there that my girls feel comfortable wandering and playing by themselves; yet the blackberries and the burrows and the forest and the leeches are mysterious enough to feed their imaginations. No wonder they want to build a fairy forest.

But where do they get the fairies from? My girls have been playing fairies and princesses and brides for years, often conflating the three. I never encouraged it, and they watch almost no television, but even so these themes dominate. And I find myself in a bind.

I want them to grow up with options aplenty. I want them to get interested in science and maths and trucks and how things work; I want them to feel free to be doctors or judges or engineers or construction workers, and not feel confined to girly roles. But they are so interested in pretty clothes and sparkly shoes, little fairies and babies. "Have I unwittingly shaped them?" I wonder as I watch them carefully don a bracelet, or a headband embroidered with flowers. They like glitter and beads; they choose their own outfits; they prefer pink. They wish I wore dresses and high heels, and often tell me so. I have no idea how they turned out like this. Giving them options, when all they choose is pink, is challenging.

At times I am tempted to burn the pink, and throw the dolls away. Yet my own mother was a professional who fought to gain acceptance and recognition in her field – and who banned dolls and pink from the house. She was so afraid of forcing us into domesticity, as she herself had felt forced, that she made it difficult for us to engage in domestic role play. Ironically, of course, despite her good intentions, the bans imposed limits of their own.

I studied maths at uni, to a great extent because I had been told for years that women should study science and I convinced myself to enjoy it. I didn't hate it, but I was never relaxed; I had no sense that I deeply belonged there. Yet I rarely explored domesticity, never holding dolls or even babies until I had my own children. I always assumed I would be a busy professional, no kids; instead, I am at home with three of them, and, for the most part, loving it.

It's taken me years of unlearning to recognise that, like so many women, I love children, I love being home, and I love words – and nurturing these loves is as authentic as smashing through a glass ceiling.

Now, as a mother, I want to give my daughters the freedom to know themselves better than I knew myself, to have less to unlearn in their twenties. I want them to consider parenting and part time work with the same seriousness and delight that they might consider a professional life with no kids, for surely the whole point of feminism is options.

So I let my girls have dolls, along with trucks and blocks and things to hit – and they do trundle toy trains around, they do wear blue. At the same time, they spend much more time with their dolls, breastfeeding them, changing their nappies, swaddling them, and singing them to sleep; and I can do a full load of pink in the washing machine.

Perhaps my generation, daughters of the revolution, are always going to find the balance difficult; not quite comfortable at home with kids, not quite relaxed in full time employment, and not quite sure what we want for our daughters. How do we let them pursue their interests without choking on fairy dust? How do we encourage them to explore different roles without preferencing some over others? Thinking about these things, I watch my daughters, and I realise perhaps it's both simple and difficult. All it takes is for me to be as comfortable watching them build a fairy forest as I am delighted when they pick up a long stick, stride purposefully into a field, and get busy thwacking bracken.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Three stages

We were driving on a rural highway last week, and passed a fast food outlet with a bright plastic playground. My four year old begged to stop and play there. We explained that we couldn't; it was attached to a restaurant where there's nothing for us to eat. "Why not?" she begged. Because you can't eat anything there that isn't meat, we said. "I want to eat meat," she said. As she has, to date, screamed if anything looking like meat touches her plate, we suggested she'd have to prove it.

Five minutes later, we came up behind a truck full of sheep. "Aargh," screeched my six year old. "don't get too close or we'll be covered in piss!" We parents were amazed. Where did she get it from? School, perhaps? Or could it be... us? And we remembered a time a year ago when we were driving in convoy from Adelaide and the car she was in was, indeed, sprayed with liquid gold sloshing out of a truck full of livestock. And even as we tried not to laugh, even as we wondered how horrified we should be about her language – can a six year old say piss? Or is it too crude? Why is 'wee' okay but not 'piss'? and other pressing questions – my four year old confidently announced where she thought the sheep were going.

"The farmer is taking them to the shops," she said. At which we all exploded. We asked if he was taking them to the shops to be sold – "yeah, to be killed", said the six year old – but no. In fact, the four year old was adamant she didn't want them to be killed. "But that's what meat is, silly," said her older sister. "Now you can't eat at that restaurant."

"I don't care," said the four year old, "They're NOT going to be killed. They will wait in the truck while he buys some things, maybe bread, maybe some nice food for them." "Well," said the six year old, starting to cackle again, "they'd have to wait in the truck or else the shop would be covered in piss!"

"Piss!" echoed the twenty month old.

And there you have it: three stages. The six year old, pushing the boundaries of language and politeness; the four year old, her worldview solidly anchored in the domestic; the toddler, mimicking everything she sees and hears. And five minutes of disgusting hilarity. Want to come for a ride?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dreams like darting fish

So many traditions encourage us to find silence, to spend time in solitude and see what is revealed. When I can, I do sit quietly and seek what lies beneath – but with three young children, I struggle to find the space or time. I have no desert cave or platform on a pole, no quiet place of retreat; even if I did, my children would come searching, crying out for a glass of water, a cuddle, their other shoe. So now I look for silence in different places.

I have discovered there is a silence in the presence of others. In the car driving home, children all asleep, my husband and I sit in quiet companionship and the silence descends. Old stories emerge. I speak them quietly into the darkness, then leave them to drift through the night.

At the gym, headphones in, I power away on the cross trainer. And despite the electronica the silence enfolds me. I remember forgotten things. Unvoiced hopes, buried emotions surface; eyes brimming with tears, I exercise on.

Hanging from a strap on a crowded tram, I slip sideways into another place and catch words like butterflies, still beautiful in my net.

As I push the pram, the baby chats happily. The slap of my step sets the rhythm of my thoughts; then the thoughts evaporate and I am left with nothing but possibility.

Mid-afternoon, my four-year-old dozes next to me. I tumble into the space between breath, and discover typewriters, goldfish, gratitude.

There is silence to be had in the midst of a crowd, in public places, on a bicycle late at night. There is silence to be had in a house full of children. It bides its time, hovering, waiting for us to notice. And if we do, if we make the effort to be aware, we will be plunged deep into the mystery. What we find there – fragments, words, dreams like darting fish – is ours to keep. Surfacing, we offer it up; the catch becomes our gift.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A toast, a toast!

I wrote an article about the children I read with each week, and it was published in a real live newspaper this morning! If you would like to read it, you can click here. And to all of you who have been reading along for the last year or so, who have emboldened me to keep writing, I raise a metaphorical glass of bubbly and call for a toast!

To mercy and laughter
To the web and weave of us
To patience and kindness,
To love and water!*

May faith, hope and love prevail.

And thanks to you all.

(*I came across this glorious toast here.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...