Brave

I was the youngest of four siblings. We were all dressed alike, in clothes often made by my Mum. I loved that, the anonymity of being able to blend into the amorphous group of us; “The kids”. I also liked the feeling of belonging it gave me, I was part of them, and if anything was to be asked of us, my big brothers or sisters would usually step up. I remember hiding behind my Mum’s long seventies skirts and being happy to be in the background of whatever was happening. Vicariously exploring the world. I guess it is true to say that I wasn’t a naturally plucky individual.

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…frowny girl on the left is me. I think Mum has just cut my hair…

 

My early life panned out in ways that forced me, whether I liked it or not, to find some strategies for encountering the new. My parents moved around a lot; in and out of three different countries, numerous cities and so many different houses, I literally lost count. I do remember how many schools I went to: thirteen. I remember each one vividly.
I remember every first day like it was a tattoo etched onto my memories.
Painful.
It’s hard to belong anywhere in a hurry. I was always grateful for the schools that had uniform.
A costume for conformity.

As I grew older my early realisation about anonymous dressing became my modus operandi. I opted for the most commonplace pieces of fashion, nothing too bright, nothing too memorable. I yearned to be creative and express myself in rainbows, ra-ras and fluorescent exclamations. But it was easier to wear grey, black, taupe. To layer the invisibility on like armour. I realised that shape, too, had to be conformist. Too thin, too fat, people would look. Everything I did was to avoid people looking at me. But there was nothing I could do to halt my height. So with despair I climbed to six foot tall by the age of twelve. I perfected the sideways slouch and head-dip; sayonara six inches. I lived awkwardly underneath the radar, skirting the periphery, hiding in the shadows.

Under all that cloak of invisibility there was an extraordinary girl. I look back at old photos and I see her. Now, with the years spinning past there is so much I can see that was never clear to me before. I see that girl and I want to shout her into action, push her into the spotlight, drive into her the strength and self belief she deserves to have. She is a good friend, already. A deep thinking, good person. She is also hot, if only she’d realise it! She has so much going for her, and a limited time to enjoy it. She doesn’t know what is up ahead or how her life will be sideswiped, first by heart break and then by her heart itself. I want to wrap my arms around her and explain that even if she doesn’t feel brave, she needs to take a deep breath and jump. Jump into the degree she would have preferred to do, leap at the job opportunities she thought she wasn’t good enough for, dive towards the fastest, scariest opportunities instead of running away. And I want to tell her to look how the hell she wants to look, to wear anything she likes and to enjoy the freedom of being unique.

Now, my body and my health make it hard to blend. Sometimes I am tempted to stay away from people altogether, so they won’t look at me. But then determination ruffles my big brave girl panties and a strident voice in me shouts for attention. I go out anyway. I go out as I am. I look people in the eye and I will them, to see me for who I am; strong, stroppy and sassy. Soulful, sympathetic and sensitive. Sexy, in the way you can only be when you know yourself well. I meet people with my hand extended and my heart fluttering. Inside myself I am full of shaky affirmations, “take a deep breath” “be brave”, “you are a special and useful person, just as you are”. I don’t know if any of you need to reassure yourselves this way, but I do. And more now, than in all the years I have been alive, I think that I am worthy of my own friendship. I support myself and prop myself up. Cos that’s who I am. A Big Brave Girl.

I have a daughter of my own. A tween, just teetering on the edge of self awareness. She looks in the mirror and smiles at herself. She describes herself as an artist and without guile says “I am very good, you know”. She prefers shorts to skirts, hair out to hair up. She knows what she likes. Soon she is going to face an onslaught of ideas that will challenge her self perception. She will notice that boys notice her, and when they don’t. She’ll add up all the small comments made by her peers and the messages propagated by media and she will equal them into something about herself. She will discover her own imperfections and berate herself for her weaknesses.

All the while, I will stand by her, telling her, as my mother told me, “You look lovely”, “You have a good brain” “You are enough, just as you are”. She probably won’t hear me. Until later, when the echoes will reach her. I want that day to come quickly for her, but age tells me that we find our bravery our own way. Our wounds show us the way. I hope that she will let me be close enough to be able to listen to her words as she grows. I hope she won’t spend so long away from her brave self that the journey back is treacherous. I want to her see her self and smile.

Baby girl, hope of my heart; be brave.
Meet the world and find your path.
Breathe deep and find your strength.
Give much and love yourself.
Choose your words slow and use them strong.
Be your own version of beautiful
Find a passion worthy of your soul
and indulge it.
Create your own thing, to leave in this world, of you.

And know. That if I had my time over again…
Again, my creation would be
you.

 

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

A few years ago, at a meeting for the parents of toddlers, you would have seen a lady with a distinctly uptight twitch to her posture.  My hair might have been brushed, but there is no telling if I would have managed an outfit that looked ‘together’. My foot would have been wriggling up and down and my hands grasped nervously in front of me.  I would have been dragged there by another well meaning mother from my son’s kindy.  We would have been there to listen to a wise old white-haired lady talk about parenting in the early years. I might have introduced myself like this, my voice rising with every sentence:

“I’m Rachel. My boy is three.  He is going through a ‘stage’.  (Oh-my-goodness-I-hope-it’s-a-stage!)
He is defiant, wilful, deliberately naughty.  The direct eye contact as he does the very thing I have asked him not to do.  The little Dennis the Menace smirk.  The panic rises in me as I realise all over again that I don’t know what to do, he’s figured me out!  At three! I can’t do this!!!!”

I wanna hold your hand...

There might have been other mums there who understood.   A barely audible hum of acknowledgement from people who’d been slaughtered that battle front recently, or the averted gaze from another who was too afraid to show her own rising panic.  The wise old lady just nodded and moved on to the next introduction.  She said lots of things that were all well and good.  But she said one thing that I lingered on.  “Your son is asking you to hold his hand and help him”.  Pffft!  I’ll help him, alright!

But later, I thought about some more about what she’d said.
Of course I didn’t take the time to hold his hand when he was in the middle of destroying the newly tidied toy shelf!  I didn’t want to hold his hand when I was calling him from downstairs, for the tenth time, and we were already late for kindy. I didn’t think of holding his hand when he was struggling with his fork at dinner time, or smudging cake crumbs down between the sofa cushions.  To be frank, I was so riled with him I thought if I reached for him when he was being naughty I might be tempted …nah. Hadn’t thought of holding hands.

Desperation will drive a mother to try many things.  And that is why, mid-tantrum, I remembered the wise old lady.  (I know, a girl my age shouldn’t be having tantrums, but I was upset!)  My son had just made a snow storm in his room with talcum powder.  Everything was completely covered and I could see the cleaning hours ahead, stretching into the infinity of forever.

I went over to him and held his hand.

He didn’t know what to do.  I said “how can I help you?”.  And his little white powdered face crumpled up.  We walked, hand in hand to the bathroom and I helped him get in the bath.  We talked about how talcum powder can get everywhere, really fast.  We washed it out of his hair and eyelashes, from the wrinkles between his toes.  Then we went out and left the snow storm to itself for a while.

I began to try hand holding whenever I felt like I was losing control of a situation.

He liked the attention.  The more of it he got, the happier he was, the more connected we were and the more often a good morning turned into a good afternoon.  A thought that had never crossed my mind before, swooped in.  The more attention he had from me, the less naughty he was.  I could hold his hand and he would understand! Hand holding was the conduit for communication!   On a kindy day, instead of racing downstairs with all the bits and pieces and yelling for him to join us, I went to his room, gently took his hand and walked down the stairs.

That wise old lady might have known a thing or two about small people.
All people.

Bonbon Break

I like you.

The other day, someone told me that the best advantage you can give kids is the ability to build good relationships with other people.  They learn this from watching the relationships in their world.
What does a good relationship look like when you are parents?
It’s probably a bit different to what it looked like before the kids arrived. Like, an interplanetary timewarp, different.  Same people, different planet.  Whole new meaning for the word ‘good’.

I like you...

Pre-kids, we measured our relationship success so differently.  Gifts, beautiful meals, the occasional romantic getaway.  There was lots of physical affection, winks, nudges, eye contact and fascinating, far-roaming conversations.  We’d gaze at each other in the candlelight and congratulate ourselves on how connected we were.  Passionately in love, deeply in lust, we had gigantic doozie fights, with door slamming and name calling.  And we were proud of the fact that we never walked away from an argument without resolving it. Ah, lurve.

These days I think love has smoodged over to make room for something pretty important.  Like.  Those two together are what I call a successful relationship when you are parents.  I love you, and dammit, I choose remember why I like you, too.

Remember when you were at school and someone nudged you and said “he likes you!” and being ‘liked’ seemed like the highest form of devotion possible?  We denigrate the word ‘like’ to a much lower than ‘love’ status.  But liking your partner, even when you are sleep deprived, your boobs hurt, you disagree on dummies, and you are certain that they really don’t ‘get’ it, whatever ‘it’ is that day….actually liking them on Planet Parent can be pretty tricky.  The increase in relationship break ups is testament to just how tricky it is.

It matters that you like your partner, because your kids are a product of your relationship.  If you don’t like your partner, the message to your kids is that you don’t actually like half of what makes them who they are.  It matters that you like your partner because it is easier to parent as a team than as two people who aren’t even friends.  It matters, because when you like someone, you are kinder to them.  Kindness in human relationships is exactly what kids need to see.  The future of our world literally does depend on it.  If there is something they are doing or not doing that you don’t like, remember that it is a behaviour, not who they are.  And tell them about it!  Most of us haven’t got a clue what pushes each other’s buttons.  Talk about it before it erodes you.

The kicker about this love+like combo, is that somehow, finding a way to have both in your heart for your fellow parent matters, even if you aren’t together.  I have taught so many children whose hearts are broken because their parents marriage is broken.  It happens; often it needed to.  But not to the kids! They watch with eyes, ears and self esteem wide open as the two people who made them rip each other to shreds.  They suffer your battles on a much more personal level than you do, because they are biologically attached to both sides.  There is no escaping who they are.  But it really sucks if you are hearing your parents point out the worst of both halves of you, ad nauseum.

Find the character strengths and positive personality traits your child inherited from your co-parent.  Focus on those things when you are discussing them in front of your child. The rest of it can wait for another time when the intended audience is the only one hearing you.  I am not a big celebrity fan, but I read this quote from an love-embattled star recently “We’re parenting, and working out if there is still a relationship to salvage”.  I think it is awesome that the parenting comes first.

What does a good relationship look like when you are parents?
You know those scenes in war movies, where everyone is leaving the smoky battle field?  They’re battered and worn out, maybe an eyeball or limb is missing, they are smeared with grime, matted and messy?  They slap each other on the back and say something wry and witty.  Satisfied glances are exchanged and the grins are contagious.  They’ve won.  They did it.  Together, somehow and against all odds.  That is what a good relationship looks like when you are parents.  It’s a look between two battlers.  It’s congratulations after a day hard fought and won.  It’s celebrating the beauty you’ve created by acknowledging the good bits in each other, in front of the kids you made together.  A good relationship between parents creates good self esteem in kids.  And it is a much friendlier way to take the journey of life.  Together, with someone you like.

I want my kids to be ambitious about love and find someone to be with that they actually like!  Someone whose company and conversation brings them comfort and calm.  The very best way I can show them how to find that, is by finding it with my man, every day. If they see the way good friends can resolve conflict without hurting each other and shoulder burdens without dropping the bundle; well I think there is a good chance they will know what a good relationship looks and feels like long before they have to choose one for themselves.

Mister Wordsworth

There is a poem by Wordsworth (An Ode to Immortality), that suggests we are born with magic still a part of us… that time imprisons our other-worldliness… until we have forgotten all it is to be heavenly creatures.  Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.   Mary Poppins, (a personal hero of mine) shared his philosophy, but for her it included the loss of an innate ability to understand the languages of animals. Remember when she explained to the children that they couldn’t understand what the bird outside the window was saying, because they were too old? Those two must have been in on some kind of ancient wisdom.

Ah, here it is… a little extract of poetry for you:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;

Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen
I now can see no more.
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.  

I watched a chubby fisted bubba the other day, she was like a miniature conductor, waving her hands with conviction. Commanding the wind, waves and water to do her bidding.  She looked absorbed by the feeling of the wind between her little baby fingers, the sounds and syllables bubbling out from her, a symphony of connection with nature.  She was doing Important Work, of a kind we cannot understand.  Talking to the world itself; to the forces of nature like they were personal friends of hers.

We forget.  We forget how very magical this world is to small people.  The glitter of sun on sea.  The industry of the ant in the microcosm of our own lawn.  The dusty musty warmth of a face buried in the dog’s fur.  The smell of jasmine. That terror-delight as the swing arcs through the air and falls back to earth.  It’s so easy to forget.  We are so busy doing all  the things that “must. be. done”.  Frankly, it bites being the one who must do those things, but it is okay, it’s good, to pause and switch perspective a little sometimes.  Get a little bit of magic back.

When is the last time you lay on your tummy in the grass?  Made snow angels in the sand? Sat in a mud puddle and squiggled your toes through the goop?  Marvelled at the way the sun shines through a marble or the beauty of rainbows in the overspray of the hose?  Have you jumped on the trampoline or ridden a bike lately?  Have you leaned your forehead on the forehead of a loved one, closed your eyes and felt the gloriousness of their presence?

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Dear old Wordsworth.  I’ve thought of him often in the years since my HSC English class.  He knew a thing or two about shaping words to express things that are hard to explain.  And he loved to write about our world and the way we respond to it.  Today, I am going to be a little one again.  I’m going to grab a moment to do something that lets me see the world through the eyes of a child.  Join me?

We, in thought, will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!

– See more of the poem here.

He’s a little bit old fashioned, Mister Wordsworth, but every now and then, a little poetry for me and for thee… makes thine heart filleth with sunshine! 😉  Indeedy and veritably so.

Second-Chance Me.

25899_413283735814_2554940_n Second Chance Me

I wish I’d had the chance to do that.

Have you ever played this record in your conversations with your kids? Er, yep! Like so many parents we strive, sacrifice and stress out about the extra-curricular lessons.  About making sure our babies are keeping up with the full gamut of opportunities.  “Who knows what their ‘thing’ will be?  They certainly won’t be left behind their peers, let’s try them all!”

In our particular parenting story, it began with swimming at 8mths old.  I had read somewhere that the earlier lessons for swimming begin, the better for the child.  So she began.  We’d rock up to our sauna of an indoor swimming complex with all the bells and whistles to make the lesson thing run smoothly.  Towels and nappies and spare bum-cream and a bottle for after and a snack just in case, organic baby wash for the showers, a fresh set of clothes for after, the pram, water and a snack for us.  Seriously, we were prepared!  The whole palaver took three hours.

Baby gym was next, because according to my sources, without the right/left brain coordination she would never develop correctly.  We ran around the obstacle course lifting, flying, chanting “Good!  Aaaaand, left leg UP, good girl!”  By the end of each session she was sound asleep in the car seat and I was ready to curl up with a blankie and a dummy myself.  And yet we pushed on. No way my girl was going to have my coordination issues, my fear of water, my mediocre ballet career….

Ballet.  Shoes, tights, leotard, videoing on my phone so we could practise the steps at home.  Mums all peering through the studio windows, desperate to see their babies dancing, anxiously comparing, heads nodding with the beat, toes flexing in their shoes, hands occasionally fluttering away from their sides.  Aaaaand, breeeeathe.

Netball Mums, yelling from the sidelines “SHOOT!  FIND A SPACE!  !!!REF!!!  C’MON!”  quiet conferences between Mums and sideways glances, passive aggressive conversations with coach.  Pep talks on the way home from practise, try harder, use your head, toughen up, listen to your coach, mark your opposition!

Gymnastics, Tennis, Hip hop, Art class, Trampolining, Ukulele, Theatre Arts, Mind Lab, Digital Music Composition.  Oh goodness.  I list them all and I am ashamed.  How many hoops has my baby jumped through to satisfy my vicarious ambitions?  So many. Too many.  How many dollars have we funnelled into the accomplishments of our daughter?  How many times have I berated her, and behooved her to make more effort? I try not to, but I confess, often I see her as second-chance-me.  She can have the opportunities I lacked, try the things I wasn’t brave enough to try, be the girl I wanted to be.

But what does she want to do?
Only one thing.
The only one thing that she has ever wanted to do.
The only one thing I know nothing about (ouch.  ….any wonder why?!)
The only one thing she has ever enjoyed, out of all of them.  My girl will do anything to be near a horse, to ride a horse, to scoop the poop of a horse and pick the hoof of a horse.  At first I didn’t encourage her, isn’t horse riding for the elite?  That’s just not us, sweetie.  She persistently begged me from four years old.  Horse themed birthday parties were as far as I went.  But her innate passion wouldn’t give up its grip on her.  She is a horsey girl through and through.  And so, I let go of my other ambitions, I had to.  Horse riding isn’t fiscally friendly!  She has proven across the years that this horse thing is no passing phase.

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So there she goes.  Taking a chance, that is nothing to do with what I didn’t get to do.  We were forecast for a tropical cyclone today.  I woke to the sound of the wind whipping around the house in the dark of early morning.  I hoped that maybe, she’d say “Let’s give it a miss today, Mum”. But no, she was already up, already in her gear and chomping at the bit (pardon the pun).  I watched her circling the arena in the rain, her little face peeping out from under her riding helmet and raincoat, wreathed in smiles.  It makes me laugh at myself.  She’s found her bliss.  If only I had listened to her a little earlier I might have discovered my own.  Because there is no joy like watching your child do something they love to do.  Even in a storm.  

My girl enjoys jumping over hoops more than jumping through them, and at last, I understand what she is teaching me.  “Let me be who I am Mum, not who you wanted to be”.

Guess I am a slow learner!

Photographed by Beverley Couper

Baby powder, Burqas and Bikinis

Summer has just begun to slip off the seasonal dial.  It’s been a hot one and getting to a pool or a beach has been a prime objective most days.  I’ve seen countless little ones splashing through rock pools or creating sandy kingdoms, hollering to their friends in the water.  Pre teen girls running along the beach and squealing at the waves and each other.  The sun is high and the swimmers are mostly on, though it seems the younger the child the less likely you’ll find them wearing a one piece, or even two pieces of their cossie. I have an adorable photo of my daughter looking out to the horizon, her little bare butt cheeks dusted with golden sand.

Speaking of sand and butts, have you discovered that fab little trick with baby powder?  Who knew? Baby powder is the most efficient way to remove sand from feet after a trip to the beach.  Works a treat for butts too!  But I digress.

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The thing that bothers me, is that we are so acutely aware of the dangers within our society, that we can’t relax about nudity.  Pedophilia has frozen our reason, so that it is difficult to see the innocent sweetness of little nudie sweethearts without being hit by a bolt of anxiety.
Are they safe?
Is some predator watching them?
Can I prevent harm by covering them up?
Can you even buy baby Burqas?
Am I doing the wrong thing as a parent by letting my child run nude, or wear an itsy bitsy bikini?

I faced similar anxiety watching my son in his first dance concert.  Groups of heavily made up girls wearing cropped lycra confections and eyelash extensions took to the stage for the act before his.  They gyrated their way through a raunchy rendition of ‘Trouble’.  The crowd went wild.  I cringed, thinking of my young lad looking on from the wings. Then gave myself an internal face slap.  They are just kids, it is me that is interpreting these things through a sexual filter. What does my son see? Colour, rhythm, fun. I hope…. the dilemma.

I’ve read the forums about the sexualisation of young girls, the distress about the increase in products like padded bras, g strings, high heels and bikinis for pre teens.  I sympathise with both sides of the argument and I suspect that like many of the things on this parenting journey, we have less control than we think we do.  Girls have dressed up and emulated older females since the beginning of time.  Child fashion reflects adult fashion.  Girls will change away from home to wear the latest fashion, even if Mum and Dad don’t approve.  Didn’t you?

The media delivers skinny, minimally curved  women clad in little; bronzed brown and perfectly fashioned for the male aesthetic.  Young women everywhere depilate all the hair that shows they are, in fact, women. It’s a disappointment that, after all,  the predominant media image of women has not yet been revolutionised by the women’s movement.  Music videos add their controversial spin on what being a woman should look like.  The adult world is sending out the archetype of womanliness. And we wonder why young women go out with their backside creases showing.

It’s very difficult to see all that(!) and not wrap another layer around your daughter. But the thing is, I really, really want my girl to feel proud of and comfortable in her body, regardless of whether it is covered or not.  I want her to have the power of body-freedom.  Not the self limiting fears over what isn’t ‘perfect’ about her image.  I want her to think, “This is me.  Just as I am”.  I don’t want her to feel that there are parts of her body she should feel ashamed of.

She should grow up considering all her parts, private or otherwise as equally important, special and beautiful in their own right. I don’t want her to cower under the possibility that some freak somewhere is getting their jollies because she is wearing something that highlights her female-ness.  I certainly don’t want her to ever believe the lie that it is possible to ‘ask for it’ by what you wear, or don’t wear.  Rape and sexual abuse occur because there are people who make disgusting choices to overrule the personal freedom of another.  They do these things because of their own mental illness, because of hideous social norms, because humans do bad things to other humans.

I want to teach her to be as safe as she can be; within the understanding that she is a glorious and beautiful person.

I guess I want her to learn make good choices herself.  Not because she is afraid of the power of sexual predators, but because she values herself.  Is this something that you do by encouraging  chaste clothing? Or is it about encouraging safe behaviours, open communications, informed choices?  I know that this topic is something we will not shy away from talking about as my girl grows up.  I can’t change the world as it is.  The media, the pedophiles, the GenY fashion situation.  But I can build up my daughter to know that her worth is far deeper than what she does or doesn’t wear.  When she was a tiny toddler, looking out to that horizon from the beach, she couldn’t know all the issues that would face her as a female in this society, but she did know that she was awesome, just as she was.  I’ll do everything I can to help it stay that way.

There is a popular story that has been doing the rounds about Mohamed Ali.  It is told by his daughter Hana in her book about her life growing up with her Dad.  She recounts a visit to her father:
My father took a good look at us. Then he sat me down on his lap and said something that I will never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.”
He looked at me with serious eyes. “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.” 
Source: Taken from the book: More Than A Hero: Muhammad Ali’s Life Lessons Through His Daughter’s Eyes.

Except that it isn’t true.

Everything valuable in the world is not covered and hard to get to.  The beauty of nature, the abundance of the earth, the joy of relating to other human beings from a place of confidence and peace.  Value is not about rarity and market dictations, I choose to have a different value system.

What do I value most in my daughter?  Her unique self. Sandy bottomed, hip hop happy, free, innocent and unfettered by all this grown up anxiety.  Long may it last!

What do you think?   Do you have daughters and worry about what they wear? How do you address the issues of body-shaming vs. over sexualistion?  Does it bother you?