Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mrs Perfect, go to hell

Many people use the time of Lent to give things up, things upon which they are unhealthily dependent, as a way of investigating the hold those things have over them. This year, some friends gave up drinking to investigate how reliant they are on beer as a social lubricant; others gave up not drinking, to investigate the ways they might be holding back from social situations. People give up social media, or even all electronic devices altogether, and kids often give up chocolate, or a particular game or toy.

Me, I'm not giving up any of those things. I might need these props to help me challenge the one thing I am trying to tackle head-on, with, it must be said, no expectation of success. But perhaps there is dignity in the attempt!

This Lent, I'm trying to give up Mrs Perfect. She's not easy to give up; in fact, I've been trying to silence her for years. But in these next few weeks I am putting some serious energy into naming and shaming her.

She's the sanctimonious voice that whispers, 'A real mother wouldn't have done that', or 'If you were a better person, then....'. She's the one who tells me a hundred times a day, in a hundred different ways, that I'm not good enough, never have been, never will be. And it's more than time that she went to hell.

These are some of the things she says, and which I struggle to deny:

You're not a naturally maternal type. It's true that I'm no earth mother goddess. I don't breastfeed my kids past six months, I don't make my own yoghurt, I don't bother with a highly charged tantric sexual practice with my husband, I don't home birth, I don't knit, and I use the public education system. Worse, I'm shy around strange kids, I'm scared of kids in groups, and it takes me time to get to know them.

But what exactly is a 'naturally maternal type'? I have given birth to three children, with very little intervention. I have raised them as best I can in a relatively clean and loving home. I have cared for five other little kids while their mothers went back to work; and I am about to be trusted with a sixth. I spend hours every week with kids – kids in the classroom, kids in the schoolyard, kids in the playground – and the ones I know smile when they see me and tell me their stories. Their friends come over and introduce themselves and have a conversation too.

Mrs Perfect, I don't know what you're talking about. You're a silly old bitch.

If you're not going to be an earth mother goddess, you could at least work. By that, she means I should be back in paid employment and building a career. Her comment stings, because at one level I think I want a career, and yet my actions show me I don't. If I pause for a moment and reflect, it's clear why not. On the one hand, I can't stand to leave my pre-school kids in childcare, or even for very many hours at a time, with anyone except my husband; and on the other, I had perhaps fifteen jobs before having kids, and I pretty much hated every single one of them. Sitting at a desk and doing repetitive tasks in an air conditioned office turns me toxic. I hate phones, I hate politics, I hate work clothes, I hate commuting... enough said.

On a bad day at home with kids, a grindingly repetitive task can make me cry. But at home at least I can weep with frustration and let those healing tears do their job; at work, the emotion turns inward and sour. So no, Mrs Perfect, I won't go back to crappy paid employment unless I absolutely have to. In any case, what, exactly, is work? I run a household, garden, cook and clean, I read with kids and I write. Couldn't that be enough?

But if you were really serious about writing, you'd have written a book by now. Perhaps, I say, but I haven't. I've slowly written the equivalent of a book, but instead of having generated a great burden of hope, a mass of paper which bounces from rejection to rejection, I've put things up on the blog and had some fun with it.

That writing is pointless, says Mrs P about a thousand times a day.

I certainly have times when I can only see the flaws, hate what I write, and despise myself for having written it. Habits of self-loathing runs deep. But I write in faith, which is not a feeling but an attitude. With that attitude, I write the best I can about what is most pressing at that moment, then set the words free. It doesn't matter how I feel about myself that day. Someone somewhere may find my words useful; and I write in faith that they will.

That's all very well, but you're terribly lazy. Well yes, that may be true. For example, my father is picking up the older girls from school and staying for dinner. I'm not planning much, just half a quiche leftover from last night and a couple of salads. I will fret about this decision all day, and feel guilty that I'm not cooking up a storm; but the food is there, and it is very good, and in any case I'll probably bake something for afternoon tea.

Apart from failing to cook a three course dinner, the floor needs a mop, the toilet a scrub, and here I am writing. Perhaps I am lazy, but the writing exhausts me – and yet, for all its exhausting pointlessness, it feels too necessary to ignore it and scrub the toilet instead. When I'm finished writing, I'll sit in a chair for ten minutes before the after school onslaught begins. Better a dirty floor than to make myself so tired that I scream the kids to bed.

Speaking of that laziness, you're still carrying the baby weight. Well, it bugs me too, but it's time to get over it. I've had three kids; I'm hardly going to look like I'm eighteen. Anyway, when I was eighteen I was miserable and fat. I don't have a nanny or a personal trainer and, like so many adults who spend their lives hanging around little kids, I keep getting sick. Every time I get into an exercise routine, I catch another cold or bout of gastro, and that's it for a couple of weeks. You may remember, Mrs P, that I was up until one last night hacking away with my latest chesty cough?

Anyway, I suspect my kids think my soft breasts and tummy make for nicer cuddles. So there, Mrs P, you scrawny old prune.

Observation: Every morning and afternoon, my two year old runs into the schoolyard and throws her arms around first one mother, then another, then perhaps a child she is particularly fond of. A wildly confident passionately loving child like this does not come out of a terrible home.

Conclusion: My parenting is good enough. There is always room for improvement, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to that sly voice which tells me every hour of every day that everything I do is flawed.

Conclusion: Mrs Perfect can go to hell.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Confronting the violence within

Today is the first day of Lent, a period of particular introspection and reflection on the good, the bad and the ugly within ourselves. I thought I'd kick it off with a reflection on violence.


I always thought I was the sort of person who would never hit a child. And then I had kids.

I have discovered great wells of violence within me. There are moments when my kids, those fantastic people I longed for and love to be around, drive me absolutely crazy, and I realise I want to hit them – and as awful as those moments are, those are the good ones. When I realise that's how I'm feeling, I walk out of the room, or take a deep breath, or sit on my hand and pray.

Worse are other moments, when everything's just fine or at least only a little bit wobbly, and then something happens and before I realise it I've smacked. It's only afterwards that I register what I've done, and then I'm appalled, absolutely revolted, by my action.

On Monday it happened again. After a long day with a stubborn two year old, I picked up my other kids from school. They were foully grumpy, squabbling and slapping and snarling at each other and me. I understood that they were hungry and tired, so I sidestepped numerous confrontations, and instead whisked them home and put together an enormous snack full of protein and carbohydrates. When they had eaten and drunk, and cheered up a bit, I suggested a calming bath.

Two chose the bath, and here I must admit that I may be the only parent I know who loathes sitting in the bathroom while kids slosh around and drink the bathwater, but there you are; it bores me silly. Some days I take in stories to read aloud; other days, I sit with the cryptic crossword.

On this day, everyone was sloshing around happily until my four year old threw a toy in her sister's face. I told her to get out. She wouldn't, so I ordered her. She stood up and screamed 'I hate you!'; and I snapped. I smacked her so hard I left fingermarks, then sent her to her room.

Her behaviour was so minor, and my reaction was so out of proportion, that I feel sick. She was tired; I know she is playing the 'I hate you' card these days; I know I'm the adult around here. But it got to me so fast and so hard that my hand reacted before my mind realised it was going to.

My daughter cried for a minute, then dressed herself and began to sing. Meanwhile, I shook and wept on the phone to my husband; and I still feel nauseated by myself and the violence within. I feel like she really should hate me now, this awful monster who hit her; and yet it doesn't seem to have affected her at all. She's been cheerfully affectionate ever since, with no discernible difference in her behaviour.

It reminds me of being smacked by my own mother. She always yelled a lot, but she rarely hit us. The yelling was awful. I became a secretive and scared child. I'd hide what I was doing and withhold information because I never knew what would send her off; when she yelled, she ripped shreds off me. Even now, as an adult, I withhold information just in case my gentle and generous husband, who has enormous reserves of patience, suddenly flips. It's completely irrational, but the learned behaviour runs deep.

Maybe half a dozen times, my mother smacked; and the smacking was great. It was a discrete event, usually deserved; it was quick and clean; and, unlike the yelling, it didn't make me feel like a worm.

On one occasion, my sister and I deliberately drove her wild. We pushed and pushed and pushed until she finally snapped, smacked, and burst into tears, and we were so filled with remorse that we hugged her, and stroked her, and told her, truthfully, that we deserved it; we told her that she'd done the right thing. Of course, that made her cry even more.

And here I am today, sobbing over having smacked my own daughter, who despite it has continued to cuddle me and stroke my hair and show me infinitely more affection than I deserve. Yet again a child shows more maturity and generosity than this woman in her thirties.

This is not to say that I think smacking is okay; I am big and strong and it is abusive for me to use this power against the little ones. In any case, my children mimic the behaviours they see, so if I smack, then they will hit and it will all spiral down. But it is complicated – smacking is obviously violent, but in my experience words can be just as damaging – which is why I'm trying to unravel what happened that night.

I realise I only smack or scream when I'm tired, alone with the kids and have no one to deflect them to. It happens when I can no longer curb my first – and worst – impulse. When I'm feeling fine, I'll engage in preventative action, that is, make choices so that we never get to the inflammatory stage. However, last night, I was wrecked. I ran the bath, then sat there doing the crossword and feeling irritated that they were drinking the bathwater.

Instead, I could have taken a story book into the bathroom and read to them; I could have sung or made a few jokes while they were splashing around; I could have engaged in role play while they filled the plastic cups and had their tea party. Or, if I was cranky already, I could have avoided the bath altogether. Quite simply, if I'd paid enough attention to myself or to them, the situation may never have arisen. Even if it had, I might have been more able to recognise 'I hate you' as a tired four year old's request for a cuddle; this is how I usually interpret it, and a cuddle soothes that temper every time.

The frustrating thing is that I know all this. I know that smacking and shouting get us nowhere; I know alternative ways to parent and usually use them, but, like every other area of life, it's easier to do the right thing when I'm not tired. As to how to have three children and be talked at incessantly and engage in constant discipline and murmur positive encouragement and prepare five meals a day and do all the housework and engage in some restorative adult activities and not be perpetually tired, well, that's a puzzle I am yet to solve.

My only hope is that by confronting the violence within myself – by naming it and trying to understand the triggers – then next time I might see it coming and choose a different path.

(There are some great lists of alternatives to smacking – or screeching – on the internet. Try here for 21 alternatives, or just google 'alternatives to smacking'. You will find some creative ideas for different behaviours and different ages.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Even my failures can produce something beautiful

The kids were exhausted, so I fed them early. I couldn't face either the food or the hour, so while they were eating I prepared something else, then turned off the stove. A stack of stories later, I caught a whiff of burning; extricating myself from a pile of daughters I found I had left a burner on. My adulterated beans were now a charred mess. I whisked the saucepan outside and dumped it on a table in the rain, next to a curl of chicken poo, and went back inside.

The next day, I flicked the burned beans to the hens and brought in the pot, filled it with water, and put it in the sink to soak.

Hours later, I was reading to my four year old and listening to our kitchen tap. It drips intermittently, and has for years. This is one overdesigned tap: there's no washer to replace; instead, the whole tap has to go. A new tap has been sitting in the study for months, and every time I go in there I look at the box on the desk and sigh. It reminds me that we need to get a plumber in, again; and also that we have a leak in the roof, a leak that has been around for five years three plumbers and a friend and which somehow symbolises all the things I have not done. The roof leaks; the paint is peeling; the doors stick; we have no fly screens; the trees are buggy; the backyard is covered with rotting pears; and there's chicken poo on the outside table. As the tap drips, I hear the sound of failure over and over again.

But this day, reading to my daughter and listening to the drip, I happened to glance up and see a kaleidoscope of light. With every drip, the light contracted then exploded, sending bright shards across the ceiling. The surface was alive with pure white light refracted from the filthy cooking pot.

Wedged into a chair with a daughter in my lap, the sun slanting in, I saw that even my failures have a beauty of their own. The burnt pot, the dripping tap, the leaky roof, the peeling paint, the fight with a daughter, the grief for my mum, the toes I step on, the nights when I shout: everything I do badly shrunk down to size, and for a moment I was transfixed not by my failures, but by a ceiling charged with shooting stars.

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