Monday, February 25, 2013

Do you have any talents, mum?

My six-year-old and I were walking along the breakwater: thousands of great bluestones tumbled against the path to hold back the sea. Of course, my daughter would not walk on the boring old path; instead, she bounded across the irregularly shaped sharp-edged boulders. Ten feet below her, the sea surged and sent up occasional jets of spray. Boulders rocked under her feet as she quickly judged which way to jump next, and I tried not to think about what would happen if she slipped.

As Little Miss Mountain Goat leapt along, she maintained a stream of chatter. She asked me why I wasn’t any good at jumping across the rocks, and I admitted that I’ve always had a very poor sense of balance. I didn’t mention my second reason, that too many people had looked at me strangely or, worse, kindly, when we’d walked along a long wall together earlier that week, and that I didn’t feel like exposing myself anymore!

‘I’m very talented at climbing and leaping,’ she said, ‘and also the monkey bars. Those are my main talents.’ ‘You do have very good balance,’ I said. She mentioned some other things she is good at, and wondered whether there was a difference between a talent and a skill. She noted what her sisters are good at and then, just as a couple of older mums walked past with their teenagers, she yelled, ‘Do you have any talents, mum?’

The women paused in their conversation, stopped walking, and turned. ‘I’d like to hear the answer to that!’ said one. So much for being unobtrusive, I thought, as I yelled ‘Reading, writing, and cooking!’ to my daughter, the women, and the sea. The women laughed and kept on walking, and I thought to myself, I’m also good keeping up with the washing, finding children’s gems in op shops, and performing boring tasks unobtrusively year in year out.

Our conversation moved on, but I continued to mull over the exchange. I was fascinated that my daughter needed to ask me what I was good at – but then, she’s only six and has only recently begun articulating the differences between us. Perhaps she’s wondering whether all mums have the same set of skills and abilities, or whether different mums are good at different things; perhaps she simply remembered that I am a separate person to her and was seeking more information on who that person is. Either way, her question was one of many steps as she develops a strong and independent self.

I also wondered what else I’m good at. I was relieved that I could immediately think of a few things but it has taken me a long while to get to this stage. And I wondered how long it will take me to develop a strong and independent sense of self, too. I often look at my kids in amazement; all three are so sure of who they are. I don’t remember being like that. For as long as I can remember I have been full of doubts and confusion, not really knowing what I am good at and who I want to be.

But I’m nearly forty, and I have great faith in that age. All the women I really admire – dynamic, powerful, and grounded – are older than me, and I’m looking forward to being older too. I hope that through learning from my kids, doing more outside the house, and working through the old emotions, I might develop a stronger sense of self and become dynamic, powerful and grounded too. And I’ll keep walking with my kids, and watching them bound along; sometimes, I’ll even get up on the wall and follow them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A sanity tax leads to life in abundance


What does it mean when a woman who has been reasonably happy to be home with young children no longer wants to be home with young children, and yet still has a four-year-old at home? How can she be a good parent to the little one? How can she retain her sanity?

I don't know why I post it as a theoretical question. This is personal: these are questions I've been asking myself for six months or more. This year I get more time than I have had for nearly a decade to work, study, and do my thing, but it's still not enough. My youngest is at home a couple of days a week, and by the middle of a day with her, I am ready to scream; instead, I ignore her while she plays, and often say no when she asks me to join in. 'Mummy doesn't play,' I say. 'Mummy reads to you or cooks with you, but mummy doesn't play.' I don't want to sit on the floor; I don't want to pretend; I don't want to converse with a four-year-old for more than half a day. Quite simply, I've had enough.

How I did it for nearly ten years, I don't know. How did I sip imaginary tea and set out bead patterns and chat about the neighbour's cat? And why can't I do it anymore? I've grown out of her life stage more than a year too soon.

I realise it's the first time I've had a four-year-old without a younger sibling around to absorb her attention. Meanwhile, many of our friends have moved on: parents have picked up more hours at work; children are in school or childcare; and even if there were lots of people left to play with, I've moved on too. I want to do stuff, not arrange coffee mornings just so my kid is occupied.

I felt like I should feel guilty that I managed to be there for her two older sisters when I don't want to be there for her. But I'm not guilty. I've stayed home with her as much as I can, but now it costs too much. And if I'm honest, our three daughters have had three different parenting experiences as I moved through my own life stages; this is really nothing more than the next stage.

Realising this led me to think about our parenting model. What do I want my children to learn? What version of womanhood do I want to model for my daughters? Is a woman is someone who subjugates her needs to theirs way beyond the point of her own happiness and health? Or is a woman a person who is engaged in the work that she loves, whether it's in the home or in the wider world? I realised I'd like my girls to see that I'm doing things that stimulate me and give me life. I used to love being at home; now I don't. I love spending some time with her, but not all day. When I clarified that, I realised it was certainly time for a change. Staying home with her more than half a day each day no longer felt like an option.

So I tried to work out how best to care for her. I explained to her that this year she'd be at kinder for three mornings, and then I asked her what she wanted to do on the other days. Childcare, perhaps? Um, no. Adamantly not. She hates childcare by any name. We dipped her toe in the waters of childcare once or twice and she is still furious about it. Kinder good, childcare bad: that's her motto.

'If not childcare, then what?' I asked. Very firmly she said, 'Stay home with you.' 'Does it need to be me?' I said. 'An adult who loves me,' she said.

Good answer – but how frustrating. Secretly, I wanted her to go to childcare like every other kid, and I wanted to be able to tell myself and the world that it's what she wants to do: to spend time with a group of kids running riot. Instead, I realised that I had three options: (1) stay home with her; (2) force her into childcare and betray her trust in me that I will arrange what is best for her; or (3) come up with another solution which respects her desires but also keeps me from going right out of my mind.

I have tried and tried the first option. For more than six months I have sought ways to enjoy being home with her. She is a delightful child, independent, bright, funny, and imaginative. As I watch her games, help her cook muffins, and listen to her made up jokes I don't know why I don't want to be with her. But I'm past that stage.

Option one was wiped out. Given how articulate my daughter is about her need to be home, I couldn't face enrolling her in childcare; that eliminated option two. Option three? I wondered how she could be at home with someone who loves her, and how that someone could not be me. Her daddy is already home with her more time than he can really spare from work; he couldn't pick up any more. We have no grannies. Her auntie works. Our friends all work or have kids of their own.

Finally, after weeks of pondering, I thought of her uncle. He's between jobs. He adores her. She adores him. He's gentle and kind and loves to cook. Perhaps, I thought, he could be with her a morning each week. They could read stories and go to the library, and I could do my thing. The arrangement could last as long as they both enjoyed it, or until he found better work.

I asked him. He grinned from ear to ear and said yes. I asked my daughter. She grinned from ear to ear and said yes. This boded well.

So on Friday morning I went out. I had a coffee and prepared a workshop. I bumped into new neighbours and had an adult chat. I ran a few errands. And I came home full of energy. I found my brother-in-law finishing the dishes, and my daughter snipping paper into little strips and singing. There was a warm chocolate cake on the bench, waiting for me. As I had a slice, he wiped out the oven and I nearly passed out. The cake was incredible – and I've never seen a man wipe out an oven before. He's worth his weight in gold.

One of my friends pays her sister to nanny the kids a few hours each week. She calls it her sanity tax. I'm paying my brother-in-law and I was thinking of it as a sanity tax, too. For us, it might mean less meals out – big deal! Because if sanity comes in the shape of a workshop drafted and a neighbour well met, a chocolate cake and a clean oven, a man with a spring in his step and cash in his pocket, and a singing child: this is so much more than my sanity. This is abundant life for all of us, and is worth whatever we can afford.

I Know How to Cook

Monday, February 4, 2013

The first morning of the first day of the rest of my life

At least, that's what it feels like. Today, for the first time this year, my four-year-old went back to kinder. Today, for the first time ever, my six- and nine-year-olds went to before care at school. Which means that today, everyone else left the house at 7.25 in the morning. My husband took the big girls to school, dropped the little one at kinder, and headed off to work – and I didn't have to pick anyone up until 1.30!

This will be our pattern several days a week, which means that this week, for the first time in nine and a half years, I will have many, many hours to study and write.

Nobody will ask me for a story, or a game, or a visit to the park. It will just be me, sitting alone with a book and a pen, quietly reading for hours. After nine and a half years of nappies and washing and dishes and little toys, and the questions and requests and repetitions of little children, the morning was shocking in its emptiness.

Time luxuriated before me, lolling on my kitchen table and teasing me from my books. Time seductively whispered that I could stretch and yawn and scratch myself. This week, my day won't be broken into the six minute units of lawyers and parents of young children. I can plan in blocks of an hour or even two. Time awaits me.

There was housework, but I didn't do it. There were dishes in the sink, but they were left to sit. The time was for reading and writing, and nothing else. If one can describe an activity that gives one great pleasure as work then, after a decade home with kids, this morning I went back to work.

Usually, when I'm not looking after kids, I run like a bull at a gate. I rush around and get things done and write something quick; I don't want to waste the opportunity. But by 9.30 this morning, I'd read a scholarly article and a government report and taken notes. My eyes and brain were getting fuzzy. I realised that if I'm going to spend the next five years researching and writing a thesis, I might just have to pace myself. And I also realised that tomorrow and the next day I get to do this all over again. My time is not perhaps quite so precious as it has been up until now; for the first time in a decade, I really do have enough.

I thought about how to rest for a while. Should I take five minutes and make myself a hot drink? Should I take ten and go for a stroll around the block? I was feeling creaky, and time kept murmuring that it would wait for me. So with a great sense of decadence, I performed a yoga routine. I bent and stretched and gloated for an hour, because finally I have time. The sheer luxury of so much overwhelms me.

The next book is waiting to be read, but I stole a few more minutes to write this post. As I made notes in my empty house and thought about today, I began to wonder about tomorrow. As I pondered, a tiny voice whispered,

After all these years with young children in the house, is it possible you will feel a bit lonely?

Perish the thought!

Friday, February 1, 2013

A dream: My husband's shirts

I dreamed I shoved my husband’s shirts into the washing machine, like usual, and turned on the machine, like usual, but when I went to hang them out, the machine had torn them to ribbons.

‘Look!’ I said to my youngest daughter, ‘look!’ as wide strips of white and blue cotton tumbled out of the washing machine and floated around; and as we watched the ribbons dance, we laughed and laughed and laughed.

I have been a stay-at-home mum for the best part of a decade. I’ve studied a bit and volunteered a bit and gone mad a bit – all the usual things stay-at-home mums do; but for the most part, I’ve drifted round the house sweeping and picking things up and reading stories to kids.

I didn’t give up a ‘real’ job to do this. Before we had kids, I worked part time at boring jobs. I never found a job I much liked, and never managed to work full time without falling to pieces. All of this is to say that, over the course of almost fifteen years in relationship with my husband, I have, very fairly, done the bulk of the housework.

This year, however, I am beginning to study more intensively, and so we are renegotiating the chores. The outcomes of our negotiations will no doubt be fluid, but I wonder about this dream. What does it mean? Is it time for him to downshift? Am I feeling like a doormat, and was the dream my latent aggression coming out? Is it a sign of the delight I have in the changes ahead? Or was it, quite simply, a message to him that it’s time to start washing his own shirts?!

Doing the Washing
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