You can close your eyes…

She looks so relaxed, on the first day of her island holiday. Gently swinging in the hammock, a mug of chai tea cradled in her hands; those eyes are tired, though. She looks outward to the ocean.

It is glassy today, clear as air to look into. If she were out there wading in the shallows she would see fish, lazily cruising in the warm edges of the reef. On the horizon, a solitary white rimmed island marks the separation between water and sky. She saw a whale breach out there earlier this morning. The sum of all these things, warm air, calm seas, chai tea. It is all in stark contrast to her inner world.

She tries to let it all go, all the daily pressure of normal life. All the past. All the words unsaid and things undone. Lists unchecked.  It is hard to relax, and it should be simple. It is hard to carve out time where she can be nothing but herself. But she has, it is here; now, for the next hour or so. She sips on her chai, letting the cinnamon and spices swirl into her senses. The flavours of calm.

She’s not sure if she wants to spend time with herself after all.

Where is she, anyway? Losing herself has happened gradually. Task by task, caring for others. Loving others is a sacrificial pursuit, for women everywhere. Loving them with all she has is a habit of obligation and a daily choice. She didn’t know the cost of it when she signed up, but she knows now. Yet she would have paid anything to have this, have them. This life. And when the fabric of her wears thin and tears into the unwritten contract -of motherhood, of marriage- with hard words, she feels the failure. Sharp. So mean. She never really intends it for them. The words are really for herself. She sighs over it, swinging back and forth in that hammock. She is tired of turning herself inside out to examine it all.

So she walks through all of life in this body; this middle aged vessel of experiences, faded dreams and old philosophies, the mother-wife shell. The girl she also is; so shrouded now, by her roles and responsibilities. She has survived all the things. Her world is secure and her love is strong. Her family are happy. She thinks these thoughts like a mantra of protection. They have made together exactly the life she hoped for, the one she yearned for all those years ago, wishing into her teacups for a family of her own.

Her eyes close and she lets her head sink back against the woven hammock.

There is a woman here on the island, travelling alone. Her husband died three years ago, and since then, she has retraced the steps of all the travels they did together. She watches this woman in the restaurant, alone in her grief at her table for one. She wonders if there will be release when she has completed her solitary itinerary. She wonders if the goodbyes and the remembering are helpful. She wonders if she could be so brave. Life, on her own again. It makes her shiver in the tropical heat. No.

She thinks about her little family, out on the glassy ocean, casting handlines into the water in the hope of bringing home fish. She tries to imagine the joy and horror as they reel in slippery living creatures. It is the first time her children have been fishing. They are having much-yearned-for quality time with their daddy and she is struck by a sudden pang of… what is that? Jealousy?  He’s been so busy lately. He is a great Dad. She chose him for them and that thought makes her feel proud satisfaction. She did that. A gift for their future selves and developing psyches. It was a good choice. She’d choose him all over again, she knows it.

The girl she is, takes a big deep breath and sighs it out into the warm air. She is okay. No crises to avert this afternoon. A small smile contracts her cheeks upward, crinkling the skin by her eyes. So fortunate to be here, this day, in this way, in this place. She aligns her girl and woman selves and blows across her warm tea. Seriously, she thinks. The best way to relax is to stop thinking altogether. She reaches for her headphones and scrolls through until an old favourite fills her consciousness. Yes. You Can Close Your Eyes by James Taylor. Her empty tea cup now nestles in the sand. She drifts out of her messy mind on a tide of chilled harmonies.

She is the picture of relaxation, that woman on the hammock. Eyes closed, headphones on. The late afternoon quiet, deep upon her. Slowly, the tide creeps up the sand and the day sighs to a close. She muses softly about all of her sisters-in-arms, shouldering big burdens and costly contracts of love.

the sun is slowly sinking down
and the moon is slowly rising
so this old world might still be spinning round
and I still love you.
So close your eyes
you can close your eyes, it’s alright
I don’t know no love songs
and I can’t sing the blues, anymore
but I can sing this song
and you can sing this song
when I’m gone

Post Script
James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. It was the soundtrack for my holiday week; for me it is the song of parent to a child, or an adult to themselves. I love it so much.  Have you heard these two singing together before? Happy sigh…

I Can’t Keep Quiet

A Cambodian Girl (source)

put on your face
know your place
shut up and smile

Have you read Half the Sky? It’s written by award winning journalists who had to tell the stories their publishers weren’t interested in running. Stories about the plight of women across the globe. Stories that were not ‘news’ despite women being roughly half of all the people living on this planet.  The stories highlighted to me how very far we are from the things fair-minded citizens have fought for ….forever.  From the beginning of time.  The book put me in mind of another author’s work, Xinran; The Good Women of China.

And here we are, thousands of years into human existence; fighting for simple human kindness. An agreed creed against injustice. Fighting even for awareness that these things remain to be fought for. Fighting to show the younger generations that these issues are not new. Trying to convince our young ones that each generational wave can build upon the work of generations previously. Are more people all over the world making a noise, speaking out? Is it wishful thinking? Traction is hard fought won.  In Science, we have been able to build on the discoveries of others, stand, as Einstein put it  ‘on the shoulders of giants’.  Perhaps not with regards to climate change, but still. Yet in matters of equity, true cultural advancement; can we, are we even brave enough to carry on the work of people before us?

I don’t know exactly at what point the fight for interhuman respect became a fight between genders, but it did. It might have been when those invading armies destroyed an entire extraordinary culture in Ancient Sumer and with it, the first documented rights of women.  It might have been when the industrial revolution and rise of capitalism rendered mothering a non-valuable industry. It might have been the first rape. Or the billionth. At some point, the marginalised, the vulnerable, the consistently downtrodden of the world noticed that most often, the oppressor was male.  Stronger, shrewder perhaps, more aggressive. Force triumphing over Fair.

Stop whining, say the modern day alpha males. Stop whining and accept it. It’s just the way of life, the law of the jungle, the status quo  -and what about our rights not to have to listen to you whine? So, life’s not fair, swallow it and shut up.

But I can’t keep quiet.

Lately, the burning in my brain about women’s issues has been tearing me up inside. I’ve been shutting up, being a good girl. Not making waves. I’ve been doing that for so long it is making me crazy. Then just the other day, my beautiful friend Chloe who is volunteering in Cambodia, shared a story that broke me. She wrote about a little twelve year old girl from their school who has been abducted for the sex slave trade in Thailand. She thought she was going to be taken to see her Mum. I think of my own twelve year old and my guts twist.

I know that little girl and her even younger sister have been taken to the brothels, because her abduction is the classic m.o of the organised criminals who run these rackets. It has long been documented discussed and dissected by Not For Profit organisations working in the region. Ignored by governments, the media and by people like us, comfortable in our busy workaday lives.

Those little girls don’t have parents who can shout. They don’t have countrymen who can take time away from the graft of survival to search for them.  Even if they did, they’d probably end up killed. It’s a one way ticket into the brothels of Thailand. Children are briefly valuable commodities in the sex trade of Thailand; sought by wealthy foreign men taking their criminal sexual preferences to a more permissive political climate. And when those girls are no longer children they become grist for the sex trade mill. And it is not just Thailand. Brothels, even here in New Zealand profit from sex slavery. Each person held captive, ‘just another’ nameless woman, no freedom, no voice.

No one knows me, no one ever will
if I don’t say something, if I just lie still

I saw my friend’s post about those little girls on a day that was full of my own personal challenges. And then I saw a facebook post from Milck, the artist who wrote the stirring anthem sung at many of the women’s marches around the world recently.  In Goteburg, women gathered to sing her song in public as the snow fell. It’s a beautiful clip. It made me cry.

I’ve been a blithering mess lately, crying at everything. Feeling the weight of the world’s injustices as if every one is my own. So I decided to take my sensitive and sore soul off Facebook. It hasn’t stopped me feeling upset. It’s not revolutionary, nor a political statement. It’s not helpful to anyone out there struggling.  My sensitivities are only useful if I do something with them. I just mention it here to explain it to you if you’ve been looking for me out there.  I’m here. And I can’t keep quiet.

Below I have listed a couple of organisations I trust, if you too feel galvanised by your inner distress to do something.  Join me. I’m not on Facebook right now, but I am still here. Fighting the stupidity of humans hurting humans by using my voice. Fighting by sending money and goods to the organisations who can help. Fighting by raising my kids to be aware, kind humans. Fighting for myself, by regaining the emotional energy I need to continue the fight.

A one woman riot,

I can’t keep quiet
For anyone
Anymore.

All lyrics in bold italics are by Milck. You can see her song here:

Organisations:

SHAKTI:

Shakti has four ethnic women’s refuges in New Zealand. You can donate using the details below, or credit card donations are possible through their website. Donations go towards ensuring safety to vulnerable women and children. Items needed include beds, bed linen, duvets, kitchen ware, groceries, sanitary products, toiletries, etc.

Direct Deposit: Shakti Community Council Inc (Donations)
ANZ Branch, Mt Roskill Branch
Account Number: 01-0183-0243434-03

AUCKLAND WOMEN’S CENTRE

Helps over 3,000 women a year by offering:

  • crisis intervention to women with complex needs
  • support, information, advice and referral for emergency housing, women’s refuge, rape counselling, child abuse reporting, abortion, parenting
  • links to AWC’s low cost community education programme and counselling
  • referral to the right service based on particular needs

UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT FUND FOR WOMEN

Keep abreast of global issues for women.

HOUSE OF HAGAR, Cambodia
Chloe tells me this is absolutely the organisation making a difference for victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Immediately after the girls were taken, Chloe got in touch with them and House of Hagar are working with contacts to try to extract the girls and return them home.

HAMLIN FISTULA HOSPITAL, Ethiopia
The kids at our school knit peggy squares for these exceptionally brave women. I urge you to read more about them and their plight and consider donating or helping them in any way you can.

Bad Words: a parenting strategy

I often think it’s funny that I write about parenting, because I am not a stellar parent. I make mistakes and my kids will tell you I am often inconsistent, sometimes unfair, I can err on the side of controlling (which is usually my response to anxiety) and there have probably been many times when they have wished they had a different mother, even if only for a day!

But there is one aspect of parenting that I think I got right; something happened this morning that reminded me of it… and it made me smile.

We live next door to a kindergarten. My son was a kindy kid there and I have always loved that I could watch him play through my kitchen window. Now that he is a big Year 5 kid, I still sometimes remember his little self as I see all those little kids during their playtime. They’re adorable. And sometimes, they are challenging little so-and-so’s… just like him.

Today, there is a spirited little girl next door. She charged out into the playground that borders our house and began her reign of terror among her playmates, running through the sandpit, kicking all the buckets, making merry mayhem.

“SHUTUP!” she bellowed at the first person who spoke to her. Immediately, a teacher approached, crouched down and said gently
“We don’t say that word here.”

I could see her sizing up her teacher as if to say, ‘good for you. But we is not me‘.  At her full tiny height that little girl retorted, right into her teacher’s face,
“SHUT!
UUUUP!”  
The teacher sighed and said more firmly, “that’s a bad word. We don’t use it here.”

Five more times the girl yelled the word, every time anyone said anything to her. Eventually the teacher said, tight-lipped and in a that’s the end of that, tone,
“You. cannot. use. that. word. at. our. kindy.”
The girl gulped. Turned and ran off to the corner of the playground, where she encountered another little person.

“THUCK!” she screamed in his face, and grinned. He registered that whatever that word was, it was pretty impressive. He gathered in all his breath and tried it out for himself,
“thUCK! thuck!  THUCK THUCK THUCK!”

My phone rang, so I left my window and answered it.  I don’t know how the ‘bad word episode’ finished. But I can imagine her poor Mum will get a call tonight.  Toddlers, just beginning to acquire language, love trying out new words. They love the sound of them, the power of them. And when particular words are used by adults with total conviction, they notice them immediately. They hear them on the TV, in their kitchen, when their parents are fighting, or from older friends and siblings. You cannot avoid little kids hearing swear words, it will happen.  And it is natural for them to want to try those potent suckers out.

Once, when my girl was a sweet little pigtailed toddler, one of her favourite toys broke. She took it to her Daddy, (a.k.a the-Fixer-Upper) and he asked,
“What is wrong with it?”
she replied confidently,
“-it’s fucked”.
We were floored. Ashamed, horrified.

When I had regained some composure I sat down with her and told her that she hadn’t done anything wrong, but I needed to tell her that there are some words that are only for grown ups. That word “fucked” is a word she can only choose to use when she’s as big as Mummy and Daddy, but until then, she could say “stuffed” or “munted” or simply “broken”.  She wanted to know why she could only choose that word when she is bigger and I told her that when she was bigger and her brain knew more stuff, she would know when it was okay to say that word. It’s a tricky word, because sometimes, when you say it, people get very upset.  I didn’t call it a “bad word” because I honestly believe there are no such things as bad words, just different words for expressing different things. The definition of the word may be negative, but the word itself is not.  In our house, we call swear words grown-up words.

Of course, every kid is different, so our approach with the little man was appropriate for him, but the message was the same. He was older, and when we had the discussion about those words with him, he wanted to know all the words that we considered to be grown up words. We told him. And very occasionally, in the car, I let them both have a go at saying one or two of those words. They say them at least ten times, they laugh them, they shout them, they whisper them. I explain what their chosen word means, which is usually accompanied with shock. And then, we agree that they won’t use that word in public until they are grown ups, and then, only if it is the best choice.  Let’s face it, sometimes it will be.

I’ll never forget the universal power of the expression “fuck off”. I used it when I was a young woman being harassed by a stranger in Germany. I said it to him with anger, with all the intimidation I could muster. I don’t even know if he spoke English, but he fucked off!  A win for choice language.

Being reasonable with the kids about swear words has taken away the mystique. Explaining why it’s not okay to use them, and letting them try them out in a controlled environment worked a treat for us. Occasionally, there are things that need further explaining, like why it’s offensive to use the name of a religion’s God as a term for exasperation. But so far, so good. It’s a parenting win I’m happy to lay claim to… (so far, here come the teenage years so we’ll see how that goes, haha)!

I just thought I would write about it in case there are any of you with little ones who are about to launch into word experimentation. It might work for you, too.
But right now, I’m going to walk around my house and quietly list all the things in my life that are thucked, all the things that are not, and feel grateful that I get to mother these funny creatures.  I hope when the mother of the little girl next door gets that phone call tonight about her daughter’s playground vernacular, she is able to put it all into perspective. I like a kid with a bit of chutzpah.  You can teach a kid many things, but you can’t teach a kid to have spirit. I predict a future in communications for that one, she’ll go far.

 

Constance Hall and the F Bombs

Being REAL in a world full of curated gorgeousness is so needed.  We are all so desperate for a breath of fresh air!

'A Queen is a woman who just wants to love other women and not do that bitchy thing that so many of us do,' says Constance Hall.
‘A Queen is a woman who just wants to love other women and not do that bitchy thing that so many of us do,’ says Constance Hall.  (photo source abc.net.au)

 

Constance Hall is refreshingly real. She’s the actual ‘Bad Mom’ (have you seen that movie?  I hated it, but I got what they were trying to say… it’s time to let go of the ridiculousness between women that exists in mama-land).  She’s a skate-in-sideways chick. An Australian sensation, mother of 4 and insanely popular mummy blogger. And she has just released a book. It’s about her, about mothering four kids. It’s a no-holds-barred look at relationships and life after babies.

bookcoverconstancehall

Today I went to her book release Q & A session hosted by The Women’s Collective and the Pullman Hotel in Auckland. I knew she would be irreverant, I knew there would be some shock-factor stuff, because that is her trade. I knew there would be challenging statements, because she is the Constance Hall of the recent social media cyclone over the ditch (a fellow mummy blogger let rip about Con’s manner of mothering and Con retaliated. It sparked a ‘mum war’ on the internet). I stayed well clear of it because I hate the nastier side of social media. It makes me so sad.  But I was curious about this raw kind of mother. The tell-all kind of mum. It bucks the trend alright, I wanted to see if she was just a sensationalist, or if there was something deeper driving her work.

Me and my fellow Queens this morning, Trudy and Pascale.
Me and my fellow Queens this morning, Trudy and Pascale.  Yep, I am a Big Bird, and no, I am no longer going to stoop to try to be more diminutive than I am!  #tallgirlsproblems

I was fascinated. Con (we’re at nickname status already cos that is how she rolls) blew onto the stage like a kind of mini tornado. Her hair was frizzy in a way I recognise from my own morning mirror, but on top of it she was wearing a crown of flowers and jewels. She’s tiny in stature and massive in presence. You could say she kind of exploded onto the podium like a freak weather bomb; blowing in out of nowhere and taking off the roof.  Within two minutes she had reassured us that she was wearing undies, unlike the other four days she’d been in New Zealand, because she’d be catching a plane later and she needed somewhere to hide her wee. Her humour is as raw as she is and the whole way through her talk, f-bombs exploded like colourful fireworks, punctating her florid discussion. She’s kind of like what would happen if you could cross Frida Kahlo with Reese Witherspoon and Whoopi Goldberg. Kapow!

I loved her. I think everyone in the room did. I loved that she said out loud some of my hidden, inner thoughts. I even loved all the f-bombs, because they made us laugh. I dated a comedian in my younger years, he always said that people laugh at what they relate to, especially when it is rude. And because every human being can relate to toileting, sex and death, regardless of their individual circumstances, most comedy covers these subjects. It’s just funny for us to see our not-talked-about experiences mirrored by others. It makes us feel more normal. Apart from wees and poos, Con’s Q & A covered: marital sexy time, break-ups, behaviour management (of kids and husbands), dealing with a history of abuse, death of children and grandparents, suicide, wine, why it’s best not to fight in front of kids, the age-old working mum vs. stay at home mum debate, the importance of support, multiple birth mothering, dyslexia, The Sisterhood, dealing with judgmental people and the importance of connection.

I can’t wait to read her book; Like a Queen. She’s just adorable. She makes the very hard job of mothering feel so much more achievable. She makes us feel like we’re doing a great job. Like everyone has days when it goes to custard. I think we forget that, in our intensity around getting it right.  We forget to cut ourselves some slack occasionally. We forget that having a loving mother is much more important than any other type of benefit we can achieve for our kids.  That having a loving mother is more than many kids have.

There were tears today from we women in that packed out auditorium. Tears of recognition and relief.  I’ve come a long way since the early days of parenthood and my babies are much older than most of the little ones at the venue today, but the message was as relevant to me as for the new mums there.
Take a deep breath. Do you love your kids? Do they know it? Love wins, every time. And you know what? Extending a bit of that love in your own direction is a brilliant idea too from time to time. Might just stop you from losing your mother-f#$%ing mind!

This afternoon, I’m going to assess the impact of Cyclone Con. I reckon she demolished a few of the ideas in my head that were damaging my peace of mind. I am grateful. Who needs perfectionism anyway? All it has ever done for me is give me reasons to feel like a failure.  Good to see that particular idea hitting the dirt. And what  purpose comparison? See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya. And that ol’ flower, success? It’s moved into a new neighbourhood. Into the love camp. Over there I am already a raging success and that matters more than anything else.  I’m going to make like Queen Con, and take heart that my heart is the most important part of mothering.

Open your windows, let the winds of change blow out some of your cobwebby corners, too. It’s liberating!

If you’re keen, you can buy Like a Queen, here: www.likeaqueen.com.au

Sitting Out Swimming Sports

I stood at the checkout with my son’s warm hand in mine. I could see, over at the next checkout, another mother from our school. Her son was with her, too. We didn’t talk, but there was a wry grin exhanged between us.  We both knew why our boys weren’t at school.

Today is the Swimming Sports Carnival.

I phoned in his absence this morning, mumbling something about his ears. I took him to the doctor soon after, she looked in each of his ears, hmmming and adjusting the ottoscope before confirming what I already know. His ears are fine.

I remember one of these days a few years ago. My mildly dyspraxic girl, still grappling with learning to swim, was standing terrified beside a six foot deep pool. It was competition day. She was crying and begging to be let off. The teachers responded with grim determination. The bank of stopwatch officials waited with barely disguised impatience. The whole swimming complex seemed to sigh with frustration. I was not allowed to go to her, poolside, to help calm her down. The whole school waited until she eventually got in the pool. An older girl was already in the water with a pool noodle, waiting to tow her the length of the lane. What is the purpose of this kind of showy display of ‘you WILL do it, even though you can’t do it?’ Who does it serve?  Near the finish line, myself and some of the sympathetic parents around, erupted into applause. And my beautiful daughter emerged from the water, dripping with shame.  She smiled a wobbly smile at me and slunk back to join her class on the bleachers. I went out behind the swimming pool complex and cried for her. It was an awful experience.

This picture is from last year, when she was delightfully astonished to place first in her heat.  One day, I might see a similar smile on my son’s face, when he swims well enough to enjoy competing. But this year, he and his perfectly fine ears are sitting out the indignity of race day.

10929927_10153249416335815_1459758911078666853_n

It has always baffled me why P.E teachers are so hot on participation. Why joining a competition even if you are not competitive is such a religion to them. My kids are both involved in sports, both are involved in their schools’ wider culture. I entirely endorse the idea of being there to support your classmates, your school house, your peers. And this is why it bothers me so much.  I have spent too much wasted time on the phone talking to the PE staff at school about this. Going around in circles. Banging my head against a brick wall.

The compulsory nature of Swimming and Athletic sports days (and the dreaded Cross Country) means that you are effectively forced to stay away if you are not going to participate. Or lie about an injury or illness that prevents you from swimming or running. It’s madness. To me, that is teaching kids something far worse than not racing. It’s saying that if you are not like those people who enjoy competition, you should hide, you should make excuses.  It’s saying that you should suffer for a day because you are not like them. Suffer in competition, or suffer in silence at home. It’s saying that your voice of encouragement and cheering from the sidelines is only valuable if you have also competed. It’s bollocks.

We are not all the same. I would never dream of asking my kids to compete in showjumping horses until they are competent in the saddle. I would never expect a dyslexic child to enter a spelling bee, or drop someone with agoraphobia in the middle of the desert. I think there is a cruelty to the one-size-fits-all environment of our Education System in relation to PE. And I think it needs to change.

So today, we are sitting out the Swimming Sports in silent protest.  I feel resolute. I know I am not the only mama out there feeling this way today. I sit here in solidarity with all of them. With you, if you have ever felt the frustration I feel.

Here’s to the others. The non-competitors, the slower starters, the ones who always bring up the rear, to the ones whose genius is not defined by physical test of speed; whose gentle souls are built for fairer things.  They are not failures for not being sporty, they should not feel ashamed. Sporting prowess is simply one kind of genius. Take it away Mister Einstein.

fishtree

 

 

 

Motherload

 

It’s equal parts love and loss, hope and fear, exasperation and care.

It’s heavy, this load mothers carry.

At first, it’s a gently moving tiny thing in your belly. A flutter of foetal fondness, the quiet beginnings of a whole new world. There might be a portent of things to come, as you grip the toilet bowl and heave into it. Maybe at some soul level it is a recognition, and the shock of it makes you suddenly sick. There might be an inkling that things are going to change in a big way as you find yourself asleep on the sofa before dinner, too tired to manage adult conversation. Your partner is suddenly solitary, watching their own shows, doing their own thing. Perhaps neither of you thought pregnancy would be like this.  Maybe at some emotional level it, too is a recognition. You are going on a journey that even they can’t take with you; the slow drip of anaesthetic starts early, numbing the sadness of all the ways becoming parents can change a relationship.

And the moment after the birth, when you gaze over the precipice into your baby’s eyes, there is a knowing made broad by the pain of labour, a realisation that something has begun, something unmappable, unfathomable. Something that will probably take all of you, more even than birthing this baby did.  In that moment it is clear that there is no pathway back to the land of before-motherhood. So you step back from the edge, sure that if there was such a thing as a life’s purpose, yours has been decided. You are a mother: you lift that feather-light load into your arms, and balance the responsibility on your shoulders, squaring them to the future.

I could bleat on about what they don’t tell you about motherhood, but it wouldn’t change anything. The truth of the matter is that motherhood, for me, and for millions of women like me, didn’t come naturally. I didn’t take to it like a duck to water. I couldn’t smile beatifically with baby on hip whilst I simultaneously slid a tray of buns out of the oven. The early years were jaw setting, teeth gritting, mind numbing tedium. I tried so hard to do it well. It mattered so much to me for it all to be just perfect. But I confess, I was a mess.

And all the while I’ve been mothering, trying hard to keep my ducks in a row; my career was stagnating, seeping into the nether. My body, altered for ever. That’s okay, you and your sisters-in-arms tell yourselves, because you recognise that mothering is an Important Thing. The type of humans you are unleashing on the world is an enormous responsibility. So you think deeply about what that means, and make detailed observations about character development, values, ethics… chore lists. You try, every dinner time, to incorporate conversations that go beyond the staples of mashed vs. smashed potatoes. Your greatest goals are for consistency and citizenship.  You are a serious mother. You heave another layer of significance onto your burden. You won’t let society down, no sir. Your kids will be a gift to their world.

Sometimes, after dinner, scraping the food you only just put onto the plates, off the plates; your inner self crouches at the clifftop, eyes drawn deep down into the abyss. And when you are applying the toilet brush again, to poo skids that aren’t your own, or scraping up vomit, or fielding a phone call from a teacher about behaviour issues, or discussing playground politics, or staring at a pile of washing that seems to be stuck on a universal glitch, repeating ad infinitum… in those times, there is a yawning emptiness that tears apart the space time continuum. Threatening to pull you in. You can see something on the other side of the abyss. It seems nicer than where you are. And you know you need to resist it, the same way you need to do everything else.

Because if you don’t, who will?

In those times, the leaden weight of what you have taken on threatens to topple you.  Your well meaning single friends will tell you to take a load off. Leave it to them! They say.  They’ll manage!  Take time for you! And you nod and tell them they are right, but your inner self is shaking her head and scoffing at you. Sure. Uh-huh.  And when you return after they’ve been left to do it for themselves, who cleans it all up? Who makes it possible for the routines that keep things functioning?  Who mops up the tears and has the conversations that need to be had? No, there is no respite from this choice you made. It isn’t a part time job. It’s equal parts love and loss, hope and fear, exasperation and care.

You carry it with you.  It is you. It’s not simply what you do, it is who you are. It’s the motherload.  Sometimes, the heaviness is not joyful and I do not feel grateful for it. I know I probably should. There are so many people I know who yearn for this. Or they think they do. I wonder if they would if they knew both sides of this blissful burden?

I write this in open honesty. I write it because I know there are other mummas out there dealing with this heaviness of heart. I don’t write it because I dislike my children, no, my love for them is fierce, my whole life is an example of what I would do for them, because I do it.  They know my heart, by heart. I write it because I need to acknowledge that it is hard. I guess I just want to say that.  In this world of carefully curated images of motherhood. My own is messy. I do my best. I hope it will be good enough, in the end. That my contribution to the world will be worth all the sacrifice, soul searching and sheer grit.  But it’s a heavy load alright.

What are your thoughts on this?

Full Heart, Half-hearted

I passed a leaf on the path yesterday. Autumn arrived some time ago, but it’s a reluctant beginning. We’ve had an extraordinary summer.  Long, dry and hot. And the first summer in years that I have been able to function like a well person. Trips to the beach most weekends, drinking from the scratchy edge of the thermos cup, eating squishy sandwiches and luke warm sausage rolls. Lying on the blanket looking up at the sky, deeply content that it no longer wheels around me. I have read books this summer, lying on my tummy on the picnic rug, or sheltered by the beach tent.  The most memorable being Chappy and Being Mortal. And this summer, I have joined in, swimming in the surf, riding my bike, climbing the volcano that sits just outside my window. When I was sick I couldn’t make the walk up the steep track without the certainty that there would be payback. I couldn’t enjoy the views, bleat at the resident sheep or let the breeze push my hair back from my face, soothing the heat of my exertion. The few times I managed it, it was with teeth gritted, heart hammering, nausea rising. There is a seat up there, on the lip of the crater. It looks towards our house. It is a favourite spot, not least because I used to look at it from my bedroom window and despair that I might never sit up there again.

12717610_10154197701500815_302856475012684141_n

But now I can.

Yesterday, Zed joined me for a walk up ‘our mountain’. He was keen to burn off some excess energy, I’m trying to improve my fitness. Six years of an extremely sedentary, sometimes horizontal life, is hard to physically bounce back from. But now I have a personal trainer, a plan, and yesterday it was my homework to go for a ten minute walk; an as ‘hard as you can go’ kind of walk. The kind of walk that our steep sided volcano track was built for. So Zed and I set off down the road.

I am blown away by how beautiful this country is. We live right in the centre of this sprawling city, but there are green spaces and volcanoes dotted all across the urban landscape. And trees, so many beautiful trees. Trees fill me with calm.  Look at this beauty.

12439348_10154197702215815_1359232120238686710_n

At the start of the track my intrepid 8 year old darts off to the side of the volcano: “meet you at the top Mum!” he shouts, already shoulder high in grass.  He’s climbing directly up, I’m taking the track. At the top he calls out that he’s going to run down into the crater and meet me up on the other side. He’s always been a ‘road less travelled’ kinda kid. I smile at him and relish the solitude. It’s gorgeous up the top here. Park benches dot their way around the crater rim, looking outwards.

Our national treasures of trees, the Pohutukawa, reach their arms across toward one another, high on the hill, circling the site that once was home to a Maori Pa. You can see evidence of their settlement in the kumara pits that still exist. In true Pa fashion, this crater would most likely have been barren of the grass it now wears. The ground would have been cleared around the whare. Now, the crater is resplendent with a thick carpet of grass.  Around the outside of the volcano, untrimmed by grazing sheep, it is long, rippled by the prevailing winds. But in the shelter of this hollow it resembles an inverted paddock. Like a fish-eye lens has warped the contours of the land. It drops away and lifts again in a perfect bowl. It would have been a safe and easily fortified home for those Maori villagers.  I wish I could go back in time and see how it was, see the cooking fire smoke and listen to the singing.

12049366_10154197701305815_987857895515150545_n 1382071_10154197701785815_1768132814369463914_n

Too soon, I’ve reached the far side of the crater rim track. My boy is ascending the steep edge.

12936549_10154197733385815_1785889513942309925_n

We hear voices, echoing through the natural amphitheatre, we are not alone anymore. A group of teenagers laugh and stumble through a gate that connects the volcano to the streets below. They take selfies and videos to upload onto their social media. One chases a sheep and another calls out “tackle him!”. The sheep has more wits about him than the boy, and is up the mountain faster than a goat. I smile and reach for Zed’s hand. “…it’s nice up here, hey Mum,” he says. His cheeks are rosy. We pass a stand of bamboo and slap the mosquitoes away.  It is nice up here. Even with other people around, it’s beautiful and serene. We come across a few more groups of people. I take some photos and think about how I would like to share them with you.

The two of us stop for a little sit down and I notice for the first time, a plaque attached to the bench. It’s a memorial seat, placed there by the wife of  ‘Michael’. A beautiful spot for remembering. I think about them, the people I don’t know. The words fill my heart. This is the song of my soul’s learning through all those years of illness.

12923116_10154197701230815_1060843844359943391_n

We sit and think for a while before heading home. Of course, Zed makes off to slide down the slope of the hill, while I take the dirt track. Back on our footpath, I see the trees turning and notice the colours of autumn, slowly but surely transforming the streets.

12321248_10154197701895815_5395003859005663163_n

I long for the cooler weather, but I have loved my first real summer in years. I realise I am half-heartedly welcoming my favourite season. And just as I think it, I see it, a half-hearted leaf, laid out on the footpath in front of me. Maybe, this year, nature feels the same as I do.

Full heart; half hearted.

11265_10154197702080815_3079047604918808516_n

 

When Life Gives you Lemons

11402947_10153514937915815_225663111365539217_n

Tonight at the dinner table, CC asked me why the fruit bowls are overflowing with lemons.  I explained that it is lemon season, and a dear friend had given me a bag from her tree.  Zed said, “Let’s make lemonade!” and I remembered.  That’s exactly what you are supposed to do when life gives you lemons.  So the girls got stuck into clearing up and Zed swept the floor while I made sugar syrup for the lemonade (1 cup sugar to 2 cups water, dissolved in a pan on the stove, set aside to cool).

I’ve been a bit grumpy with life lately. Tonight was a perfect antidote.
All you do is add the juice of two bowls of lemons to the sugar syrup.  The dilute the concentrate 2 cups to 1 cup of water.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!  Tart, but delicious!

Just like life.

Here are the pictures of our happy-making night of lemonade making.  🙂
Have you ever made lemonade?  Either the actual kind, or the metaphorical kind?

11063773_10153514937925815_1885579898296091655_n

10420292_10153514937930815_4729951252132651482_n

11536096_10153514937920815_1300861597334704299_n

11214234_10153514938090815_1502432247250238636_n

haha!  Love these kids.  CC, Bee, Zed and XiXi.   🙂

The Inverse of Adverse

…mothering from a place of pain…

Sometimes, for my writing gigs about parenting, I feel like there are two categories of mother in this world. It’s probably because I write for both groups. I’d like to write for Dads too, but I don’t relate as naturally to the Dad things. When I see a mothering issue, my writerly mind starts to turn it over from the points of view of two types of mum. The healthy mums and the sick mums.

Of course, it’s much more complex than that, because all mothers face diverse challenges every single day.  Many mums we see in the ‘healthy’ camp, are in fact carrying interior burdens they would cringe to let out into the daylight of public opinion, I get that.  There’s a huge crossover between those camps. Life is an imperfect art and really crap things happen all the time. You might be in the midst of creating the most intricately perfect artwork on the canvas of life when it chucks a whole can of turd brown paint over your work. It happens regardless of who you think you are, the category you fit and whether or not the universe recognises that you should have exemption. Your beautiful work of art might not get up on the gallery wall, at least, not until it’s finished. We all carry scars, suffer fresh wounds.  We all have reparation work to do.  The Bad Stuff happens everywhere, even when it doesn’t look like it.

The other day, I picked up one of my kids.  I recognised the car in front of me as one of my friend’s.  I didn’t get out of my car to say hi (although I wanted to.  I am learning to look after my limitations better so I can cope for longer in my upright world).  She knows me, she knows my stuff.  So I sent her a message on my phone, from one driver’s seat to another  “Hello Beautiful!” I tapped.  Because she really is bona-fide beautiful.  This Mum is the sort of Mum that other Mums look at and their insides sink.  She looks perfect.  A tiny little frame, perfectly groomed hair and face, clothes you wish you had hanging in your own wardrobe… if only they made them ten sizes bigger!  She’s got a few degrees, a chic home. Bright, beautifully mannered children.  Oh, and that car rear I am staring at?  Very nice thank you very much.  The lady’s got class …and the means to show it.
And in truth, I really like her in spite of all that, you know?  😉 She’s personable, approachable, interesting and funny.  She’s a genuinely lovely person.  She slid elegantly out of her driver’s seat and came to chat with me at my window. I was struck by her beauty.  Sigh. Suck in your tummy, Rach.  Put on your smile.  I wonder how she really is?

How she is, really, arrived about two minutes into the conversation, when she revealed that she is facing not one, but two, major health crises.  I stared at her flawless complexion and thought about the torment that must be happening behind that beautiful face. Her vulnerable eyes are shielded by reflective sunglasses. I feel so lost for how to comfort her.  Even though I know it.  I know that torment. The ache of the sick mother.  The loneliness of facing your own mortality in the mirror.  The frustrations when the sick stuff leeches into the mothering stuff.  It’s horrible.  Unfair.  It’s life.

My heart is tuned toward the mums who are mothering while sick.  It’s like I can hear them, sobbing in their wardrobes, hiding from their children. I see the images that haunt their night time dreaming, their fears unleashed in a scape not limited by reality.  I feel their thumping hearts as they consider the most awful possibilities. A final severing of the metaphorical umbilical. The thought of life without them in it.  Carrying on.  Of some other person, filling their dent in the bed, their place in the world. The sick mothers, thinking about their babies, as much part of them as their own pulse and breath.  How can you even begin to prepare your babies for a world you may not be in?  And how can you do that without suffocating them in your arms and trapping them in your presence?  How can you step away from the feelings, to balance your mothering, when you live in fear?

There is so much to be afraid of.  But nothing we can do will change our truth.  Big life stuff is an irrefutable fact. It’s just part of the shape and texture of the life we happen to be living.  It’s real. It’s here. There is freedom in speaking it out. In owning it. And there is relief in surrendering expectation to a new paradigm. And because being sick gives it’s own gift of perspective and gravity;  there is something quite extraordinary that we get to tap into.  We get to mentally jump off the expectations of perfection.  We get to let the pressure drop. We get to focus on the things that matter most of all.  If we are prepared to leap into a new way of viewing our crappy situation.

My mother heart projects forward into the future. I look at my babies, so precious.  I think of the time I have with them.  The length of which, no person knows. As unpalatable as it is, the amount of time any of us have is limited.  I think of the quality of that time and I know my purpose.  I want to help my children to become excellent adults.  Beautiful world citizens who are kind, open-minded, thoughtful and flexible.  I want them to make the best out of the crap life hands them. I want them to make our world better for them being in it.  And there is no more artful way to do that then to teach them how to respond to adversity with grace.  How to take even small opportunities and run with them. I’m a sick Mum.  And it is precisely because I am sick that I have a meaningful context and opportunity to help my children be exceptional people.

I resolve to answer my fears with determination.  My situation is a chance that not every mumma gets. I know the value of my time and the importance of my role. I will teach. I will nurture. I will do these things imperfectly and sometimes flat on my back. I will do them with love and an eye on the people my children are becoming. In every adversity there is a teachable moment.  We can do something beautiful in every ugly, uncomfortable moment. We can guide our babies into fulfilling lives.  Show them how to shore-up, talk about it, get through.  How to keep their eye on the value of every given moment.

Don’t waste it, sick Mummas.  My sisters-in-arms.  Embrace it.

One moment, one day, at a time.

1397553_10152945038185815_3223650117071083759_o

If You’re App-y and You Know It

My mother guilt gets a good work out at this time of year… any time of year.  I feel bad that the kids might have had too much sugar indulgence (thanks Halloween), I’m less consistent in my parenting. And I notice with growing horror, just how much time they are really spending in front of screens.  It goes something like this:  The kids are bored/tired/arguing/wanting to do something that requires enormous amounts of mother-energy and glue.  It’s so very easy to send one off with the iPad and another to the TV. Sometimes screens can be such a seductive way to achieve peace in our house.  Is it like this in yours?  I feel like I must be a bad parent because the quiet message is out there, everywhere.  Too much screen time is bad for your kids.

Our nine year old has got her first laptop this year.  It was compulsory for school, but I have been surprised at how many issues it has created, already.  Until now we have shared the family iPad and I kinda liked it like that.  I could easily see what apps were being used because our small people never bother to close anything down, they just shut the cover.  Seeing their browsing history was also easy. And much to my own satisfaction, I am the Keeper-of-the-Password.  So I have lots of control of what apps are on our family device.  I have always had a fierce pride over the quality of apps my kids were using, the skills they were learning and the myriad of ways they could learn and consolidate their educational facts (and yes, all while simultaneously becoming quite possibly the fastest minion rushing subway surfing swipesters in the Southern Hemisphere)!

Yeesh, but the times they are a changing, aren’t they? The other night I took an online survey about media use.  I was asked how many screens we have in our family.  Er… twelve.  It shocked me!  That’s not counting those of our homestay students. That’s twelve between four of us.  That’s an awful lot of screen.  So I got curious about the issue of screentime.  Is it really bad for you? What are the official guidelines for screen time?  CSIRO to the rescue with the cold and uncomfortable facts. (‘Screen time’ includes all time in front of a digital device; a smart phone, tablet, laptop, computer or television).

“Where there is screen time, it is recommended that children have less than two hours recreational screen time per day. This includes watching TV, playing computer games and surfing the net for entertainment purposes. It does not include the computer time spent doing homework”.

Apparently the backlit nature of screens robs our brains of the natural daylight/nightime cues.  This can affect seratonin and melatonin production. Facts like this usually make me want to eye roll.  Except that seratonin is our happy hormone and melatonin is the one that helps us fall asleep.  Less happy kids who struggle to fall asleep?  Urk.  And just to horrify me further, studies show that kids who have more than 2 hours screen time in a day are more likely to indulge in other less positive behaviours; being less physically active, having less social interactions and snacking on more sugary, fatty and salty snacks.  Small wonder this group of kids is also more likely to be overweight. That is terrifying.

But  there is a little voice in  my head saying “What were those kids doing? Watching? Who is giving them these snacks? Did the research protocol encompass looking at the content of their screen time?”  Sorry.  It’s the teacher in me.  I taught a digital class for years, I am passionate about digital media and I like to make the distinction.  Just like not all reading material is great, not all apps, software, TV shows, games and browsing are great.  But some of it is truly great.  Some of it surpasses other modes.  Some of it increases our kids learning and multiplies their understanding, not to mention the opportunities to engage with activities and thinking challenges they love. The most comforting thing about being parents of our small ones, is that we are in a position to make informed choices about content, on their behalf.

I do feel sad when I see toddlers using a limited range of apps designed for slower learners than them (read: older humans).  Toddlers are uniquely positioned to learn really quickly, have you noticed how innately tech-savvy yours are?  What are they learning during their screen time?  It’s like making healthy choices about the snacks we offer our kids. Have you chosen carefully?  Popular apps are not necessarily the best apps to have and you can save yourself a whole lot of heartache once school starts if your kid has been engaging with important learning ahead of time.  Some apps are just like sweets, others are nutritious and thought provoking.  The same goes for TV.  Some of the shows available for pre-schoolers are really good for them, some are just like mental chewing gum.  So to my way of thinking, it is not just the time spent in front of screens that we need to be conscious of.  It’s what is happening (or not) in those brains while they are there.  

If you are interested in the research around the benefits of screen time, have a read of this article by Peter Gray, Psychology Research Professor at Boston College.  He says many interesting things and provides loads of research findings to suggest screen time is not, in fact, harmful to kids. But I particularly liked this comment.  It helped to assuage my anxieties (thank you Dr Gray!)  but also gave me some perspective for creating balance on the issue.

“I’ve never known a parent to limit their kids’ reading time. Why is it any better to limit TV or computer time than to limit book-reading time? Why do we worry about a kid’s spending maybe 4 or 5 hours a day at a computer screen… but don’t worry about the same kid sitting at school for 6 hours a day and then doing homework for another couple of hours?”. What assumptions are we making about the mental value of screen time? Shouldn’t we know exactly what they are doing on there, anyway? All this thinking about my parenting in relation to screens has led to these guidelines in our house.  I am hedging my bets.   Screentime is now subject to the following guidelines:

Screens are to always be visible to me. This is about safety and enables me to do a quick check that they are doing or seeing what we have agreed on.
Choices are made by the kids ahead of time about what they want to spend their recommended screen time on.  When it is TV, we look at the TV guide and record the shows they want to watch.  This has really helped them to decide on their favourites and not watch mindlessly as shows roll from one into another.

We are encouraging more physical activity and have pulled out of their cobwebby box the outdoor games; swing ball and frisbee, balls, water guns and scooters.  I have been surprised to see that if I get the games out, they will be played.
We are going out of our way to make friends with more people in our neighbourhood.  More playdates, more social interaction.  And the bonus of more physical activity for the kids.  There’s nothing like other kids to get your kids out and running around or jumping on the tramp.

I have audited the apps/ software/ games on all the various devices available to my kids.  They are allowed two ‘sometimes apps’ and the rest are ‘anytime apps’; good quality learning and consolidating stuff.

Do you limit screen time in your household?  Do you believe we should or are you more relaxed about the issue?  Do you have mother-guilt about screens or apps?  What do you think constitutes a ‘good’ TV show, app, game or piece of software?

screentime