Tuesday, September 26, 2006

risk part 2 - or why sometimes it's hard to be a woman

I'd like to pick up a few of the threads from my last post. There were so many alley ways I wanted to go down and didn't that I've decided to do a series of posts on the risk theme. Please let me know if there are threads you'd like me to follow in future posts, or when you've had enough and want me to, like, get over it and shut up. When you do a lot of research on something it's hard to know when you're being illuminating and when you are going on about stuff no one cares about.

For now I wanted to pick up some of the things Rebecca's comment raised.

Before I start I also want to reiterate a couple of things about these risk posts. This post is going to be about a set of risks faced by women. In so doing I am not implying men do not also face risks, or that they are less in either number or seriousness. I find it really unhelpful to get into a discussion based on who faces the worst problems - our experience of problems is highly subjective and comparing and rating just leads to conflict, not progress.

It's also important to keep uppermost in mind that this is about risk, not outcome. If I paint a picture of the risks faced by women I do not mean that all women face these risks equally, or that any woman will necessarily experience all or even any of them in actuality. Inevitably some women are far more vulnerable than others - often in a frightening cascade - though it is getting harder to tell who is well protected than it used to be. If it seems like a very dark tale then remember I am by nature talking about worst case scenarios, and for every bad outcome there are many who escape the pitfalls. Neither do I imply that no men at all face them or experience them as outcomes. It is a symptom of our world that the way risk is faced is becoming less predictable and a growing number of men, though still small in absolute numbers, face many of the risks traditionally ascribed to women.

And I also want to make really clear that I am not promoting a set of lifestyle choices here. Pointing out the risks associated with certain decisions is neither a warning against them nor a recommendation to take them. Life is inherently about taking risks and only an individual can judge what risks are reasonable for them. Our personal circumstances and preferences have a lot to do with which risks are more significant for us, where we are vulnerable, where we feel lucky.

Whew. I think the caveat might be longer than the post.

OK so what does it mean to be a woman in the twenty first century when it comes to facing risk? For our grandmothers this was much simpler question, both because the risks were less diverse and because they were better understood. Social structures were more rigid, choices were narrower, far fewer women stood outside the confines of the norm. The vast majority of women grew up, got married and had kids. They were almost entirely economically dependent, they mostly carried out unpaid labour and had severely restricted rights when compared with men (think how recently women were allowed to vote, work when married, have their own passports, inherit wealth, attend a university etc). They did not control their fertility, they were socially shunned (or worse) if they left an unhappy or unhealthy marriage and if their husbands left them, became disabled or died they were reliant on the goodwill of others for their survival.

So they faced a set of risks related to being dependent, marginalised participants in society. If they chose to pursue a career or education they most likely faced a degree of social censure which reverberated on their family. They probably also faced daily harassment and discrimination by being treated differently and as a deviant - constantly challenged and ridiculed, perhaps legally, perhaps through humiliation, possibly violence. The pay off would be a degree of economic freedom and perhaps ultimately power and recognition as a trail blazer.

On the other hand, if they followed a more conventional path they ran other risks. They risked not being chosen for marriage, leading again to the risk of social shame, perhaps life as a servant in their parents home, or that of a stranger. If they were chosen for marriage, they risked being stuck with a husband who might fail to provide, be unkind, unfit, unreliable, abusive. They risked losing that husband, especially in times of war or in workplaces fraught with danger. If these risks were realised, they faced an uphill battle to deal with them. Without any institutionalised equality, they most likely sought some other entity on which to become dependent - another man, a father, a church, a charity. Alternatively they attempted to eek out a subsistence on the margins, raising poultry in their yard, taking in other people's laundry etc. [My great grandmother, whose husband died from an accident at work, died not long after and her death certificate listed the cause of death as exhaustion. Not surprising when she had 13 children to care for and no income.]

Over time pressure built for things to change. Exactly because so many women experienced the realisation of these risks there was both an ideological belief in change (equality is inherently right) and a pragmatic belief in change (we can no longer look after all these dispossessed women, let them look after themselves). Change was incremental, with legal frameworks, institutions and social attitudes lagging and leapfrogging each other to produce a world in which there was not just equal opportunity, but affirmative action, the right to divorce and an acceptance of the choice not to marry. The pill also brought about reproductive choice - whether to have kids, how many and when, and the choice could be controlled by women without the consent or knowledge of anyone else. Termination of pregnancy became legal. The work place also reformed with a decline in primary production and manufacturing and a growth in industries which actively relied on women workers. Women's education levels soared (in most parts of the Western world women now outstrip men in educational achievements).

So the risk profile for women began to look a little more like a man's. Not that the world is exactly equal still - there's still a massive gap between what men and women get paid, what jobs and at what level most women work, how women experience social stigmas relating to their lifestyle choices etc - but it's a long way from where it used to be. Women now essentially carry all the rights and responsibilities of autonomous citizens, they are not just a dependent on someone else's tax form, they can access their own pension and so on. And with this the whole economic basis of calculation on society shifts from man plus dependents to adult individuals regardless of gender. Equally they are subject to expectations - to work instead of collecting welfare for example for single mothers, what we in Australia call 'mutual obligation'.

But everything starts to go south when kids enter the picture. The majority of women who have children no longer stay at home full time. The norm is now for women to work, although usually in a part-time capacity and sometimes for just a few hours per week. As such women become subject to two quite different risk profiles - the one that belongs to them as autonomous individuals and the one that belongs to those of the dependent. For many women they transition between these states - independent, dependent and independent again - only very briefly, reduced by things like paid maternity leave. For others the cycle is longer, for some the transition happens once and is never reversed, for others it never happens or they occupy some murky in between state. It gets messy and complicated and the variations keep everyone on the hop and confused. This confusion can be seen socially (so, what do you do? is a question many mothers find vexed), institutionally (the complexity of dealing with government departments around marriage status, kids with different names to their mothers, messy rules around welfare entitlements etc) and legally (just think about what happens on divorce with asset division, alimony and so on). Women often feel stigmatised if they work, and stigmatised if they don't because they are dealing with two sets of expectations as well as risks.

A key characteristic of the shifting states for women is how the risks change over the course of their lives. They tend to accumulate like betting on a double or nothing basis. For example, time spent out of the workforce to care for kids has a lasting effect on what happens to women when they re-enter. A study done over ten years ago estimated that taking time out of the workforce to have a child (regardless of how long) would reduce a woman's lifetime earnings by over $300,000. This can be explained by the subsequent drop in status and opportunity, accumulated retirement savings (working women retire with an average of half the retirement savings of a man in similar work) as well as the loss of income for the time not worked. In reality, most women lose considerably more because they return to work that is part time, poorly paid and usually significantly below their level of capability.

But there are significant risks associated with working post children too. Aside from the social and psychological guilt and worry there are other less obvious problems. Women who work continue to do most, if not all the unpaid domestic work (this is also largely true for partnered women without children if you can believe that). There is a wealth of stats and studies on this in all kinds of interesting detail and I could go on FOREVER about it, but I'll control myself. Bottom line is that women who work part time in the work force do almost as much unpaid domestic work as women who do not do paid work, and women who work full time still do a lot and tend to outsource the rest. Men do pretty much the same level of domestic work regardless of what their partners do, and although the amount they do has increased marginally over the last decade or two, the increase is almost exclusively in childcare (hey I'll take the kids to the park so you can do the vacuuming and shopping!) and directed help (here's a list of things I need you to pick up from the supermarket for me so I can cook dinner). Women who do paid work make up the extra time for all this unpaid work by giving up time for leisure, personal grooming and sleep. The amount of time men devote to these things is not impacted at all by whether they have children or do paid work (quite possibly the more hours they do paid work the more 'leisure' time they take). In other words, paid work tends to be an additional rather than alternate activity for women with children but not for men. There are also a number of studies which point out that working places added strain on partnerships and tends to increase the likelihood of family break up.

Children also have a considerable impact on the work life of most women. In general a woman's status drops when children are present, they are less likely to be developed, promoted, extended and retained. They are also less likely to be able to meet the demand for unpaid overtime - a considerable problem in cultures (such as Australia and the US) where the average weekly hours of work is growing in both quantum and spread of core hours. Flexible rostering over 20 hours a day seven days a week, and an expectation for all workers to do overtime both paid and unpaid, is highly incompatible with family life. Often called 'the mummy track' women tend to drift into casual and temporary work, off the promotional path and into precarious and unstable work. The effects of this ghettoisation are permanent for most women, who remain in this marginalised position even after their child rearing responsibilities have declined.

But the real crunch to the different sets of expectations and risks women become subject to after children is their vulnerability to adversity. If something happens to the partnership on which they rely either fully or in part, they experience both sets of problems. If they divorce, are left, widowed or become a carer for a disabled partner (and remember these outcomes are experienced by well over half of all women), they experience most of the risks of the dependent (poverty, marginalised workforce status, limited opportunities, welfare dependence) AND most of the risks of the autonomous citizen (insufficient retirement savings, family hostile workplace demands, exclusion from charity and support structures). And as previously said they often also cop the criticism given to women who make all the above choices - neglect of their children's emotional needs, failure to provide materially, failure to be a good worker, a welfare/charity freeloader....

Women who want to reduce their risk profiles are increasingly electing to neither marry or have children (and certainly those who have children are having far fewer), seeing the risk of emotional loss as significantly less than the other risks they face as mothers and wives. This trend is growing across the world to an extent which alarms many governments and social researchers. It is impacting birthrates and population pyramids (quite literally putting them on their heads) and is most likely a forecast for a contracting economy, aging population and drain on the public purse unlike anything every seen before. Many see this situation as comparable to the growth in social problems that led to the women's revolution of the 60s. Sadly we don't see the signs of the same kind of social change response yet, but there are a number of unavoidable changes coming our way which will definitely force movement. As the economy and labour force contracts (from declining birthrates and an aging population), women's participation in paid work will be much more highly valued, which gives a little hope that they will be more able to balance a family with a job, and a better paid job at that. There may be a better acknowledgement of the contribution women make to society when they withdraw from the workforce to care, meaning better social insurance schemes to make up the gap in retirement savings and household finances, paid for by their increased workforce participation prior to childrearing. There may be an overall reduction in weekly hours of work, allowing men to better participate in the domestic world and women to better participate in the work world, as we've seen in many European countries in recent years. We might get better at judging choices less and facilitating diversity of preferences more.

Is anyone still there? Congratulations if you made it this far. In my next installment I'll talk a bit more about blokes and how risk is shared or redistributed in families. But for now I need a cup of tea and a good lie down.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I'll echo Alison's thoughts here - although in general I'll do this in the comments section. It is really gratifying to see this blog prompting the kind of discussion we'd really hoped for. I see it much more as a discussion forum than a regular my journal type blog and to see you all joining in with gusto is just fantastic. Thanks so much!! And I hope you will undserstand this is why you often won't get an email response to your comment, but rather a reponse in the comments section. Please come back and leave further comments on the same topic if people say things that give you thought.

Now I've been thinking about doing a post on risk for a while and a few things recently have added fuel to my thinking. I'll start by saying 'risk' was a key part of the theory I used when writing my thesis on work and family. I found it really interesting and it gave me another way of thinking about some of the dilemmas I faced as a mother around my identity, work, financial dependence and so on. I'm not going to get into a deep academic type discussion here, but I thought I'd let you know the background to my thinking. Of course if anyone is interested in the academic stuff let me know and I can point you to some reading. I'm simplifying a lot, so I hope you'll give me some latitude.

Basically the idea is that as the world has become more complicated and diverse, as people have more choices, more mobility, less certainty, what happens to us is less predictable. A century ago it was a serious and significant decision to elect not to marry, for example, and the choice almost certainly carried some consequences, which were fairly predictable. Similarly even 50 years ago if you were a young working woman and you decided to marry and have children the decision almost certainly entailed giving up paid work, or if it didn't there would have been social and familial consequences. In fact in most industries it was illegal to work when married, a law known as the marriage bar. [And just as an aside the marriage bar was repealled in Japan as recently as 1985 - how gob smacking is that?] The minimum wage was also set in Australia based on the notion that a wage had to support two adults and three children because this was the norm for the vast majority of wage earners.

But now, in theory at least, we are the captains of our own ships. The decisions to marry, bear children, work and so on are our own. We will almost certainly suffer some negative consequences for any decision we make, but for most of us there are ups and downs to all possible choices, rather than overwhelmingly determined 'normal/good' or 'deviant/bad' choices. Rather than listening to our families or a general social consensus, we must weigh up what we see as ups and downs of all possible choices, and it is this process that we might call understanding risk.

So my thinking might go something like this: if I stay home with my kids instead of working I might help them to feel more secure, more loved, and I might improve their development and capabilities. I might also really value the mothering role and feel real satisfaction from knowing how I have shaped them and how they have bonded with me. I might also believe that staying home is the right thing to do. I might think the option of formal childcare is cold and dangerous, with kids more likely to be aggressive and miss out on all the love they would get if they were home with family. On the other hand, not working means as a family we will have less, we are more economically vulneable (what if my partner loses his job?) and my partner and I go from being equal contributers to the domestic/paid work split to have typical gender specialisations. If ever we split up (although it seems unlikely because we love each other, I know at least 50% of couples do end up splitting) it might be really hard for me to get back into the workforce and I'll have no retirement savings, and we might end up being really poor (like lots of single mothers are).

On the other hand, what is at stake if I go to work? I love working and using the skills I worked so hard to accumulate, so I may well be happier. I'll have more money and more importantly to me I'll have financial independence. Because as a family we will have two incomes we are less likely to have a major setback and I'll be able to give my kids the things I think are really important like a good education, the opportunity to travel and the chance to participate in all the things they might love (music lessons, sports teams, their own bikes etc). I might also feel it's important for me as a woman to be equal to my partner. I might have read a recent study that said children who spend some time in formal childcare develop better social and learning skills. But I might also feel like I'm missing out, like they are missing out and like people will judge me for being a bad mother. I might feel like money isn't what's really important to me and feel confident that even if my partner and I broke up, he'd be fair in providing for me and our kids.

Of course all these things are largely unknown. There's a lot of maybes and mights in there so what I am really doing is working out which risks I'm prepared to take, not which consequences I'm prepared to live with. And what's the trouble with that? Well for a start we tend to over emphasis and avoid risks which are immediate and short term, and down play or disregard risks which are further away, regardless of the liklihood of them happening. In other words we worry about what's happening right now and think the future can look after itself. Secondly, we often don't really know much about the odds on the risks we're taking, we base our thinking on the things we feel, the things we've seen in the past, or the things people have told us based on their experience. The result of this is that for many people there comes a time when those longer term risks come back to haunt them and they find themselves in places in their lives they wish they weren't.

So what got me thinking about all this? I'll start close to home and say next week is my twenty week scan. I'm trying to work out whether to take my daughter, who would so love the experience, but what if there's something wrong? Once before I have had the experience of sitting in front of the ultrasound monitor and seeing my worst fears realised and I couldn't put her through that too. When I was pregnant 5 years ago I didn't worry so much - and for good reason. Back then for example, based on my age alone, my risk for having a Downs baby was one in many thousands. This time it's one in 117. We've ruled out Downs this time around, but not one of the many major problems influenced by my age that can be picked up at 20 weeks. And I really wish I wasn't so old and the risk wasn't so great. But back when I might have been popping out babies with really low risk, the risk of job insecurity, financial instability and general immaturity drove us to wait before having children. We didn't worry so much about what it might be like to lose a baby rather than a job, to face a major diability instead of a few lean years. I can't say whether we made the wrong deicison, we don't know what might have happened the other way around, but I do know we didn't think enough about what might happen.

The other thing that got me thinking about this was seeing a number of my friends experiencing trouble over the choices they made long ago. Friends who have been unable to have babies at all, who have remained single against their wishes, who have spent those life savings they so desperately wanted to have in place before having a baby to pay for fertility treatments. Friends whose dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant because they left it too late, whose careers have led them to deadends or 60 hour a week burnt out exhaustion. Friends whose partnerships ended in acrimony with drawn out financial and custody disputes. And it is so much harder to bear the misfortunes you suspect are in part of your own doing than those thrust randomly upon you with no warning and no reason. Should I have done things differently is a haunting refrain.

And all this sounds very dark, and of course in truth risks can also pay off, as any gambler will tell you, and they often do. In so many ways I feel incredibly fortunate that I have so many things right in my life. That I have a loving and engaged partner, a healthy and vibrant girl, an extended family close around me, a nice place to live, good food to eat and time to be creative. I am thankful and relieved and more happy and content than at any other time in my life. But I am also aware that as we get older we see more and more of those chickens coming home to roost and it strikes me how sad it is that we make so many significant decisions early on without an appreciation of what they may bring.

And when I read this incredibly powerful and brave post one of the things that really stayed with me was the author's dilemma about what to do with the wisdom she had gained from her experience. Do you tell people about what it's like when the risks don't pay off? Do you warn them off taking such a risk with the idea that maybe they don't know, don't understand what they are making themselves vulnerable to and if they knew they might make different choices? Or do you accept that the risks play out differently for everyone and try to show how things can turn out OK, regardless of the costs you might have to pay? Do we need to all learn for ourselves what it means to live with our choices? Do we risk being seen as just another nagging doomsdayer trying to tell other people what the 'right' choice is, even though this isn't what we meant?

I don't know if there are answers to any of those questions. I do know that when I did my research I was completely bowled over by a number of the things I read. Some of the stats about how people's lives play out surprised me. Some stats scared me. Like what happens to women who withdraw from the workforce, like what happens to families headed by single mothers, like what happens to fathers and mothers and children in families where there is a polarisation of gender roles, like what happens when partnerships end, like what happens to kids who grow up in houses where they don't see their parents much and income is used to buy the work of parenting, like how little young women understand about agining and fertility. I know stats don't tell every story -there are so very many exceptions to every rule - but the stats still tell an important story when it comes to understanding the risks we're taking.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Firstly I’d like to say – and I think I speak for Sooz as well - thankyou so much for the support you’ve shown on this little venture. I’ve been taking great interest and note of the comments coming through, and a few things have really struck a chord with me.

This blog, and what Sooz and I believe very strongly in, is really needed. There is so much which is left unsaid in the maze of motherhood, and so much is skirted around, avoidance is one of our greatest tactics as mothers, and women. So for us to perhaps confront some of those beliefs and stigmas is hard, but also very welcomed by other people. It strikes me constantly when I talk to other women about motherhood – they truly appreciate someone speaking out and telling it how it is. Sometimes you can see the visible relief that someone has said what they're thinking.

There are so few outlets for us to just let it all out – and the comments reflect that need to talk and be part of something bigger. The length that many of you have gone to in writing your reflections and your views is extraordinary for a blog – and I personally thank you for taking the time to let us know, and to let other people reading know, your experiences and your feedback. Part of us setting up this blog was to establish some dialogue between people – some discussion, and you’ve all jumped straight on that and contributed to everything we’ve written. It’s hard for us to respond to individual comments, but we really want to continue many of these discussions, and will do so through the comments, so please check back if you do make a comment, and see how the thread develops.

The last thing which has struck me is the pressure that comes across in many of your words. The pressure to be something you’re not, to justify your words or your actions, to be politically correct in what you say and how you say it. I really want this to be a pressure free zone – so much of what I try and aim for, and get across to other women is to back away from the pressure we put on ourselves to be Perfect Mothers and Women. What is a perfect mother? What is Right or Wrong in motherhood? The fact is there is no right or wrong, no perfect method of bringing up a child. There is no perfect labour. No perfect hospital bag. No perfect diet for your child, and no perfect education. To try and achieve that will only kill some part of you inside. I really hope, through this blog, you can find a space which is without some of that pressure, and where you can let of some steam, and somewhere you can realise that everyone else is struggling, and in the same boat, and take some consolation from that. And that the decisions we make are our decisions, and really, that’s all that matters.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

community parenting and the un-parented

Amy has always spent lots of time with groups of kids. My mum's group (bless each and every member) has been a fixture from the earliest days and 'community parenting' has come relatively easily to us all. We've tag teamed on swing pushing, on breaking up brawls, on providing snacks and cuddles and drawing boundaries. While I think we would all agree that we don't all parent the same, we've all been more or less happy to accept a level of caring for each others kids and withdrawing for a breather while someone else does the job.

Being a community parenter has taught me that no kids are perfect and no kids are pure evil, they are just all very different. They have different skills and understandings, different ways of approaching things, different tools for getting what they want and different blindsides. It's also taught me that as a parent you have to pull back at a certain point from intervening if you want them to establish their own identity and develop their capacity to be social. There is very rarely someone in the absolute right and someone in the absolute wrong. Sometimes it's hard to watch kids in conflict, but stepping in isn't always a good idea in the long term.

But I remember our first encounter with a mass of kids we didn't know. A winter's morning in an indoor play centre raised in me some unfamiliar emotions. Firstly there were kids lacking not just in discipline, but in a parent to discipline them. They were happy to crash down slides on top of much younger kids, push someone out of their way and generally bully their way all over the place. Their mothers were somewhere over in a gaggle sipping lattes. Similarly there was another breed of seemingly parentless children, the ones who clung to any attendant adult like glue, who chatted tirelessly, who asked constant questions, who were desperate for attention.

What felt strange to me about those encounters was my immediate and instinctive emotional response. I wanted to tell the bullies off and I wanted to escape being a surrogate parent to the attention seekers. I was angry with the mothers for ignoring their kids, even while I understood the myriad of perfectly valid reasons why it might be so. How easily I understood the need for escape from parenting, the need to leave children to independent play, the need to let kids learn to negotiate the world on their own terms. But when my kid was one of the littlest I was forced to do the job their parents should have been doing for them. Telling them to go find friends to play with, telling them to watch out for others.

So this morning we went off to 'traffic school', a play ground set up like a functioning road system. It has traffic lights and stop signs, round abouts and pedestrian crossings, and the kids ride around on their bikes learning about road rules. Only the vast majority of kids do no learning it all. Their parents let them free and then sit down to read the paper or chat to friends while their kids ride willy nilly around crashing into each other. Clearly many of these kids had no grasp or the rules whatsoever and had no way of learning. Some of the kids were significantly older than others and sped around on racers, ignoring traffic lights and signs, terrorising the younger kids.

I am not by nature a cop, and I am not by nature a parent who wants a tight leash. Kids learning to ride bikes on roads make mistakes and have crashes, and for all the biffo I saw there was no blood, no real hurt. And there was a lot of fun being had and no need to get too serious about it all, and I did some paper reading too. But it struck me as really unfortunate that the 'school' part of traffic school was left eating dust for most kids. As I naively tried to explain all the signs and rules to Amy as we went through the course, kids rushed past, all over the road, running lights, ignoring right of way and no one was letting them know it wasn't all right.

Amy's first bingle led to a flood of tears, not from hurt, but from the realisation that following the rules wasn't going to keep her safe. It shattered her confidence in her ability to follow the rules herself and made her fearful of the rogue element. And though she didn't articulate it I am sure she was also aware that there was patently no consequence for bad behaviour, not even a follow up lesson. I felt like snapping a few of the worst offenders, mostly older kids who should have known better by their age, but I also wanted to know what their parents thought about what their kids were doing.

And as we drove home, Amy extrapolated the days lessons to the road in general. She saw herself as very vulnerable to the cars that might squash her, even if it is by accident. To a large extent her realisations were all too familiar to me, and reflect the beginning of a cognitive chain that leads to more adult perceptions. How my place (and safety) in the world is not determined by my actions alone, why there are rules and why they don't always succeed in holding back chaos, why some people never learn the rules and how they sometimes seem to get all the breaks. But I hope she'll also learn that mostly the rules are worth it, and mostly they work, and mostly when people do the wrong things it's because there are things they never learned, or because they are still learning and we all make mistakes. I hope she'll get back on her bike and keep on peddling.

And me? I'll go on trying to negotiate these weird share parent spaces. Trying not to protect Amy too much, trying to help her understand why thing happen the way they do. Trying not to get myself into a conflict with some other parent who takes offence at the way I'm talking to their child, trying not to scowl at parents I think should be doing their job differently. Trying not to be world cop and most definitely trying not to judge people whose attitudes and parenting styles are different to mine.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Reading about the bag got me thinking about lists and getting prepared and organised. Actually I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Thinking there was a time in my life when I was very organised, and being organised gave me great pleasure. I loved lists and organisational systems and planning, and revising all of the above. Can I admit to alphabetising my books? To colour coding my filing system? To collecting uniform screw top jars for my pantry over decades? You get the idea. Scary stuff.

It's easy to blame the demise of the organised life on the birth of a child, it's certainly been a serious kick in the pants for me in that regard, but there have been other things which have contributed to the erosion of my managed self. In hindsight I think that packed bag, returning home so largely unpacked, was a watershed. It made me realise how much of life (especially my new babied life) was nothing like I expected. How much of the energy and time I spent planning that bag and it's contents was lost, and for no good reason. How planning was no longer going to insulate me from the unknown.

I've always held that planning was worthwhile because the time spent getting it right upfront paid off over the long term. How much easier is life when you can locate your keys/favourite socks/coordinating fabrics without switching the lights on, when your christmas presents are wrapped before you even start thinking about the menu planning, how much anxiety is dissipated by knowing you aren't going to be caught out? But when the planning no longer pays off, what is the rationale for doing it, especially when there are always so many other pressing drains on your time? What happens when the planning (or lack thereof) becomes more anxiety provoking that simply dealing with the shit as it happens?

Don't get me wrong here, I didn't change personality overnight. I didn't lose my love of the list, or stop using them. I haven't given up my various organising systems. But increasingly I recognise that I do little mental calculations about where I can save time and putting things in their proper place, even devising where that proper place might be just doesn't make the cut. On those days I find myself up to my elbows in piles of junk, or realise that I can't find the stash of children's hairclips I bought Amy 6 months ago I feel a real and abiding sadness. I miss a clean bedroom floor from the days when I didn't just drop into bed barely able to get the clothes off me, forget the use of a hanger, for days on end. I miss the order and neatness, the calm and the sense of command.

But I also think I am quite possibly a happier person by balance. Despite those moments of sadness I care less about the things I can't control, about the expectations not met, about the plans dashed to the ground. And I celebrate the inventiveness and excitement of life managed on the fly. Of worrying less about being ready for the future than missing out on the now. I know a new baby will put this all to the test. Balancing the needs of a pre-schooler with the immediacy of an infant will require more forethought. How do you go with the flow if it's flowing in more than one direction? And how will I deal with the further erosion of what I feel to be an integral part of who I am, of how I like things to be, of what soothes and comforts me?

And straight after the hospital bag comes that other mother of all bags - the nappy bag. This post has already gone on too long, but there's another whole post in the nappy bag, about how you build and maintain it, about whether its a parent thing or a mummy thing, about when you travel light and when you wing it...

Thursday, September 14, 2006


I'm starting to switch off and enter Denial. Seems like a logical psychological tool for dealing with the next 23 days. Not that I'm counting. At all. All those intricate lists you make with the first child, religiously crossing of bits and pieces as they are collected, have been abandoned second time round. Shit. What was I thinking! I live for lists. They rule my life, they are my order. Did I think I knew it all because I've done it once?

I have to pack my hospital bag. My midwife and I have a plan. This is good. The plan involves packing my hospital bags this week. Next week she will tell me to unpack my bags, and then, apparently, because I am in chaos without a packed bag, the baby will spontaneously come. I like her plan a lot. I have utter faith in it. Still means I have to pack my bags, which means I should know what is going into my bags. Should be easy. Wrong.

I had 2 bags last time. Because I was efficiently organised because I had read all the books, consulted many lists, crossed off my lists, and visualised my birth. There was one bag for me, and one for the baby. That's how organised I was. 90% of what went into my bag remained untouched. 95% of what went into Max's bag went untouched. The 10% and 5% that were used were incredibly utilitarian things: nappies, maternity pads (how many packets of maternity pads does one buy - a LOT. Buy LOTS now. Your husband does not want to go and buy them for you while you are in hospital), underwear, deodorant, Arnica pills. So what, exactly do I pack this time?

My last labour went haywire in every possible way. There was no romance to any of it, and no way of planning for each new eventuality that presented itself, and therefore no real way of utilising many of the things I thought I would rely on. The one thing I really wanted in my bag - my husband - had been told to go home. Induction is supposed to be slow - Bring a book! Bring knitting! Yes, well, not all inductions are slow, and it's bloody hard when you have no support there with you, and another lady in the room not in labour trying to sleep. I'm pretty sure this time reading and knitting wont be on the agenda either. Cute idea, but I'd like to focus on a) my body, and b) the baby at the other side.

I took no music, or essential oils, candles or anything like that. My labour was brutal, and I kind of liked that. I didn't miss any of them. My one concession was a homeopathic birthing kit. It remained unopened except for the Arnica Pills which I swear made a huge difference to my recovery. They were used religiously from the moment of induction, to the day I went home, and beyond.

The bag for Max went unopened for 12 hours, except to get nappies out. I had been told Max was going to be big. So we only bought non-newborn clothes, and only packed plain sleepsuits in a larger size. We were woefully unprepared for a small baby who swam in 0-3 month clothes, and sweltered in the heat of a sunny window bed and warm hospital. Husband was dispatched to buy emergency lightweight newborn size clothes.

Everything I packed was wrong, or inadequate, or not used. And I followed all the guideline lists. Each baby is different, each labour different, each experience different, and now I'm torn between the stupidly romantic notions of a little newborn girl and this being the last pregnancy/birth, and the reality of just getting through the experience and anything extra can be brought in from home which is 10 minutes walk down the road.

Yes. I am being slightly over thoughtful on this. When I have a packed bag, I will share the contents. I believe a nice big box of chocolates will be high on the list of priorites.


It's been a long time since I snuck off during the day and went to the movies on my own but yesterday I went to see the small budget independent Australian film 2:37. Wow. Go see it.

It's about teenagers and the hovering spectre of suicide. And while I am sure lots of old folks will be happy to say they think it is unrealistic and melodramatic, it captures very much what I remember of high school. A great big building full of half formed adults struggling to deal with the world and each other, unable to articulate and share their confusion, their worry, their fear, their desire. Under a surface of lighthearted joy and togetherness or cliched emotional displays of anger and teasing, sit real and complex dilemmas, problems and accomplishments.

But what I found disturbing, nay, terrifying, was to watch it knowing that one day all too soon I will be a parent to a teenager who will be experiencing this. I will have a child who will come through the door at the end of the day and when I ask her how she is she'll say fine, and I won't know whether that's true or not. She might not know whether it's true or not. Or it might be true now, but not in an hour's time.

And I suspect that when it's happening there will be very little I will be able to do that can change the course of events. Few teenagers are interested in the pleas of a parent to talk to me, to let me share your world, I'm here for you, I understand. I mean I know well enough that there are plenty of things I will be able to do to make matters worse - like being a constant nag, like judging and chastising, like being absent and self-absorbed, like being interfering and needy.

But I think if I am going to make it through that time with my daughter it will be because of all the things that happen between now and then. It will be because at every turn I have demonstrated to her that when I say you can tell me anything I really mean it. I gave her unconditional support and a non-judgmental ear, I was focused on helping her achieve what she wanted, not what I wanted for her. Because I was there for her when she needed me, even when it caused me to miss out on some of the things I wanted for myself. Because I was honest with her and didn't trivialise what she felt about things I might know are not so important over time.

And I have to say I feel more than a little daunted by the prospect. I feel daunted because to a large degree the trauma of adolescence is inevitable, and because just as inevitably the role of parents is to get in the back seat and let the crash happen, even knowing you'll get hurt too. Will my desire to save my own hurt lead me to try and stop Amy from making the mistakes which will mature and develop her? How thin is that line between keeping them safe and simply teaching them to lock you out of their real lives?

And if I thought dealing with the judgments and expectations of others when pregnant and raising infants was something mighty to contend with, I can't even begin to imagine what dealing with alcohol, tobacco, sex and parties will do to adult relationships.

So see the film if you can. The guy who made it is himself a suicide survivor and he dedicates the film to a friend who was not a survivor. It is powerful and engaging and the cast of unknowns turn in great performances. And it really got me thinking, and maybe that thinking will help me make our futures better.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

catching up

It's really interesting to read about how you are feeling Alison - so much of what you write about is happening for me too. The crazy jumble of mixed and conflicting emotions is ever present. I slide from excitement to terror in the blink of an eye, and all the way back again just as fast. I know what I'm in for this time and that's got some really good points but also some pretty significant downsides. There is a real battle between my rational fears and my emotional optimism.

And I remind myself, and others do too, that each baby is different. There's no reason to believe that I'll experience the difficulties I had the first time around. Maybe this baby will sleep. Maybe this baby will be fighting fit and never see the inside of the Children's Hospital. Maybe this baby won't be a projectile vomiter and I won't need to change its clothes and mine several times a day.

But maybe this baby won't be born, as Amy was, with a fist out ready to grab a nipple, effortlessly latching on and staying that way for a year. Maybe this baby won't be outgoing like Amy was and will cling to me and scream when we are separated in a way that will break my heart. Maybe this baby won't be eternally happy and strive for independence and embrace the adventure of the world in all its manifestations.

But there are things where I am at a really different stage to you. I'm not at all focused on the birth yet, I'm still worried about where I'll get my maternity clothes. Because maternity clothing companies seem to think that fat people don't have babies, or if they do maternity clothing shops seem to believe that no one wants to buy larger sizes. In the same breath that a sales assistant can tell me we don't get much call for larger sizes she can also tell me that the one larger size they get in for each range always sells out straight away. Yup, clearly there's no call for them.

So I guess my point is that I am not yet occupied with thinking about the Big Questions, I'm still in the banality of the pregnancy onslaught. How long will my clothes still fit? What foods am I craving? Is that new pain something that's just passing through or is it is settling in for the duration? What other modifications to my lifestyle am I going to have to make in the coming months? Your post reminds me that as this phase settles down, the next one will begin.

And I think too that quite a few of the things you are thinking about, about families and relationships and the ripple effects for everyone from this new life, are the things that have occupied me for a good few years while I contemplated whether to have another child at all. The wear and tear for everyone is not inconsiderable and I do worry about how we'll get throught he really difficult bits. For a long time I felt I couldn't do it again because of these worries. Of the fear of losing my Self, like I did last time.

And then one day, as I was getting dinner ready in the kitchen and Amy and D came home from work and kinder and the house was suddenly filled with noise and movement I looked up to the doorway they had just rushed through, I realised a part of me was waiting for someone more. For just a split second, before my rational mind kicked in I felt with all my being that my family was bigger than just the three of us, where's the other one? I thought. And the very next thought was that it was OK because they just weren't here yet.

And as I realised what I was thinking, I began to see the question of a second child in a really different light. As you say, the difference between being a couple with a child and being a family. The difference between what I wanted to go through and where I wanted to be. Between what I understood about the risks and my desire to experience again the bliss of welcoming my child. I haven't resolved that divide, but here I am on the runway with no turning back.

Monday, September 11, 2006


I am worried. And anxious. And excited. And energised. And tired. And I haven’t even begun yet.

It is no less daunting embarking on motherhood for the second time as it is for the first time. There isn’t the naivety of right and wrong or careful planning you have first time round. There is the absolute knowledge of everything which lies before you, and all the knowledge you still have yet to gain. Everything will change, and nothing will change. I feel the burden of becoming a family – as opposed to becoming a mother. With one child you can still think of yourself as a chic couple who happen to have a child. With two children, you are a family.

Who will I become as a family? Will I become a Mother? Will I still maintain my Self. Will my first child retain their place within our family structure, retain his uniqueness and his joy at being with us. Will the second child be as important, have an equal place, and their own sense of individuality. Will my husband and I still be us, and still need each other as much as we do, and still be the powerful union which we are.

I struggle through each day, riding the waves of emotion which carry me through my waking hours. The euphoria of impending labour sometime in the next month. The anxiety of wanting desperately to not repeat situations, circumstances, outcomes, or decisions from 3 years ago, and the struggle of knowing so much is out of my control. The depression of tiredness setting in, physical incapabilities, and how I will really cope this time. The shock of realising I need to learn to be a full time mother again having rediscovered the joy of my career. And the sheer happiness and excitement of finally, soon, being able to meet the wriggling mass which hangs around my belly.

It is all true. And real. And important.