Friday, December 22, 2006

because it's my job

Today is my last day of work in a job I love and I’m feeling sad about that. From here I get to go and have a lovely summer holiday by the beach, for which I am extremely grateful, but after that…well after that is a whole other deal.

There will be a few weeks in there where I fight the lethargy, the uncomfortable awkwardness of very late pregnancy, the providing amusement to a 4 year old on extended holidays and the preparing for birth. Then, ta da, a new baby. There will be much joy and celebration, a revival of the discovery of the miracle of life, many happy hormones and the fulfilment of a dream.

But there will be other stuff too. Stuff I’m not going to like. Stuff I spent a long time, years in fact, contemplating whether I could face again before agreeing to have another child. And until now I guess I have been thinking mostly about the obvious stuff that belongs in this discussion, the sleep deprivation, the constant illness, the drudgery of washing and feeding and listening to a baby’s cry. The crowding out of time and freedom and independence, the worry and frustration and boredom.

I didn’t like this the first time around and I have no illusions that I’ll like it any better this time around. It is a time to be endured and I think I have the strength to get through largely because I know it won’t go on forever, and because secretly I am hoping I will have an easier baby this time (please, no reflux and sleep disorders and ear problems).

But I haven’t spent as much time thinking about the elephant that’s growing in my head as perhaps I should have. I thought I’d dealt with him, but now that I am packing up my desk and saying goodbye to colleagues and banking my last pay I realise that he hasn’t gone, I’d just turned my back on him.

You see try as I might, I just can’t shake my grief and anger about the way being a mother interferes with me being a person, and how I am heading back into being a non-person in some of the key parts of my life. Bye bye CBD, bye bye working girl with brains and ambition, bye bye equal of men, bye bye independent financially viable woman.

I’ve consciously chosen to have another child despite the trade offs, so I know that in the final analysis I have my priorities and values set on mothering over career. I know I will love this child as fiercely and devotedly as I do Amy and that no good day at work can ever meet the bar in terms of joy and fulfilment that a 30 second snippet of mothering at its finest can ever give. I know all this.

But the flip side is loud in my head. Trumpeting in fact. I was never raised to see myself as a dependent, I never developed the skills to negotiate what I might be allowed to do, never imagined that I would agree to limit myself, my options, my freedoms to such an extent. I never imagined that being a mother would be so utterly different from being a parent.

I grew up believing not just that I wouldn’t be living a kind of gendered domestic life, but that to do so was the worst possible kind of mistake women make. To my very core I believe women can and should be equal to men, and that this equality is measured to a large degree by the way they balance participation in the big world outside the home (paid work, volunteering, socialising and so on) with their responsibilities and creativity within the domestic sphere (housework, craft, cooking relationship nurturing and so on). I always believed that this stuff got out of balance only where individual men and women let it.

But mothering tips that balance in a way I don’t feel I can control. Pregnancy alone is a dividing line, a responsibility, a job, a joy, a journey that is entirely gendered. And then there’s the 8 hours a day of breastfeeding I had with Amy that was both a privilege and a curse, and the accumulation of knowledge and skill that comes from such close contact that ever widens the trench. How easy it is to become enslaved to those things which defined me as mother and mother only.

And I make no claims to motherhood as being a punishment for women while men drink cocktails and live it up. The other side of the great divide is hard too, and lonely, and in many ways men are often less well placed to deal with it than women are. The sense of exclusion, of redundancy, of responsibility to be in the world on behalf not just of oneself, but for a whole family, weighs many men down to the depths of despair.

So my problem is less about the hierarchy of gender (though I admit I often feel oppressed and diminished as a mother compared to life as worker for example) than about its rigidity. I positively resent that motherhood narrows my world to such an extent. And I absolutely resent that the work I do mothering carries no financial reward in the way having a job does. I love working, passionately, and it depresses me no end that I don’t get to do it for long periods or in the way I used to.

I hate that to live happily within the constraints of motherhood, in the now, I need to ignore what I know to be very real risks I run in the future. And here’s the rub. Intellectually and experientially I know that the decision to suspend my independent equality seeking self, even for only a few years, will resonate throughout my future. For us as a family my lack of earnings and retirement savings will have an exponential financial disadvantage, and place yet more pressure on my partner to earn and save more and thus spend yet more time out in the world while I tend home fires. Or stay home and go mad.

But the really scary scenario is what happens when the happy family unit becomes happy no more. It’s taboo to think like this, to show disrespect to one’s life long love by even contemplating a time when said love might whither and die. I hate to do it, I feel like a traitor and perhaps as the superstitious amongst us would warn, the very contemplation may in fact produce imagined results.

But I can’t ignore what I know to be true. Somewhere around half of all families break up, and all of them existed for a considerable time believing it could never be so. And when that break up comes, the reality of the gendered life hits home with a whollop. Men lose their domestic life and are frequently financially ruined to boot. Women are forced into financial independence without a safety net and bear the brunt of the emotional work of caring for children through the trauma of separation.

The specialisation of labour, the gendered division of home and work, made sense in a time when family bonds where concrete and the social context made clear the importance and necessity of a full time domestic manager. While it still had loopholes and cracks through which many (especially women) were known the slip, the basic unit of the world, of the economy, of government was the family.

We no longer live in this world. We now inhabit a legal and political landscape in which we are expected to take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, where single mothers must earn and support their families, where men must participate in their children’s lives, where paternity tests can define who should pay for a child’s upkeep and where the minimum wage is designed not to support a family of five, but a single grown adult.

And this is the knowledge that gnaws at me as I sit at home, nursing a baby on the couch as I kiss my partner goodbye and he goes off to work. As I contemplate sessional kinder and primary school schedules that require children to be picked up and dropped off and cared for at hours of the day that make meaningful paid work near impossible. When I say goodbye to my colleagues today and they ask if I will be coming back to work next year, or when I tell Amy I am finishing work and she is delighted because now she’ll have mummy back.

Like I say, I know the deal and I’ve chosen the best balance I can live with to be the kind of mother I need to be. In the short term I think I can keep the scary things at bay. I can chant mantras in my head about the march of time and try not to let it drag me down. But over the next little while I’ll also be struggling to accommodate the elephant in my head, the warning that what makes me feel good about being a mother now is making me feel uneasy about the future and how those choices might play out if just a few things in this picture change.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

have yourself a merry little

We decorated the Christmas tree last week and Amy was more excited than I’ve ever seen her. At four she’s finally old enough to sustain both an understanding of and interest in the seasonal holiday. She managed to stretch the activity over two days, involve both D and I, and even rope me into making Christmas fairies and mantelpiece decorations. It was nice to spend time with her, see her so happy and involved, and even to get a bit of craft into the picture.

I look forward to this time of year, and I’m glad that here in Oz we get to celebrate Christmas in the lazy summer. For me the two are completely intermingled. Christmas makes me think of beach holidays and relaxed times with friends and family, great gatherings and special meals, hanging out at the local pool, eating icy poles and having picnics, playing games and watching crappy non-ratings period TV movies. It’s also a great time for reading books and doing projects and the things the hurly burly of everyday life crowds out. Christmas is the pinnacle of those times for me, an excuse for everyone to make an effort to be together, to get along, to do stuff together.

But there’s a little piece of me that is feeling a growing disquiet and I’ve been working hard to understand exactly what it is.

At first it started out as a kind of dread about the massive influx of presents. Every year we shop and spend and give and receive a lot of stuff we don’t need and often don’t even want. Amy’s room gets another layer of stuff I break my back to tidy and care for, and a whole lot of stuff goes into the garbage and off to the op shop. There’s guilt and confusion and awkwardness. And I hate that I see my four year old’s brain morphing into the I want monster. An insatiable consuming stuff devouring machine with expectations about plenty that I find obscene.

This year I feel so deeply attuned to the terrible shape of our planet and environment, and this kind of gluttonous consumption is symptomatic of the thinking that landed us here in the first place. I really don’t want to be a part of it at all. We’ve run it down a little by instituting a kris kringle system amongst the adults of the family, but somehow this doesn’t seem like enough to me. I want to go backwards in the stuff stakes, not just forward at a slower pace.

But there’s more to what’s bugging me, and it has to do with Santa. The thing is, Santa to me is just one big values vaccuum. He only exists to motivate more buying, more getting. Almost no one talks about Saint Nicholas, the guy Santa is based on, whose sole existence was about making presents to give to poor and needy children. You know, kids who had nothing else, rather than delivering items on a list to add to the pile you already have. He seems like a pretty good role model to me, and a whole different kettle of fish to Santa.

Plus, it seems counter intuitive to me to create this fictional Santa guy, spin a whole stack of tall tales to explain how he can do the impossible (deliver presents to every kid on the planet in a night – yeah, right), only to come clean about him in a few year’s time and have your kids look at you as if to say, you mean you just made all that stuff up?! Why would you think that was OK?

It’s not like the lie is even justified by his roots in the moral and spiritual teachings we want our kids to learn. He’s not a comfort to children in distress in the way angels are after a death in the family, he’s not a symbol of love and peace like Jesus, he’s not a psychological device to turn something possibly scary and traumatic into a positive milestone of development like the tooth fairy. As I see it he doesn’t really serve any higher purpose and he doesn’t represent something bigger and better than ordinary people.

I’m aware that when I say all this there are a whole lot of people thinking what a sour old cow I must be. Santa doesn’t need a purpose, Santa is fun. He’s a once a year folly to bring joy and excitement to children and who wants to deny their kids that? I am sure it won’t convince any of you if I say I’m not like that. Really. I can be fun and Amy’s life has plenty of joy and excess and stuff already in it. She’s happy and safe and well stimulated – and not just with sensible educational toys. There’s a frightening amount of plastic and glitter and soft toys and loud musical instruments in her possession.

I’m not a grinch or a scrooge or a particularly austere person, but when I take a step back from the whirl of the season I feel ill at ease with the frenzy that Sata drives. To what extent does weaving a little childhood magic make it OK to tell lies to kids about how the world works, to use the threat of not getting presents from Santa as a motivation for good behaviour, to sit them on the lap of some guy in a padded polyester suit when it’s sweltering hot and get them to really focus on working out all the stuff they want want want?

I was cross examined by a bunch of Amy’s peers at kinder this morning about whether Amy was coming to the Christmas party (the answer is yes), but more importantly was she getting a present from Santa (the answer again yes – for $10 a head the kinder organises books for kids from the visiting Santa)? Was she having her photo taken with Santa (yep, last weekend my mother-in-law did the yearly ritual at a shopping centre), and would he give her a present too (yes, a plastic watch that keeps bad time and is covered all over with ads for Ice Age 2)? Was Santa going to come to our house (over my dead body I wanted to scream)?

Was there anything good in any of that?

And there’s some other stuff about Santa and Christmas I’m struggling with. And it’s a thing about living in Australia and celebrating things in a way that mean something to the reality of our lives. The great big boots and furry suit that guy wears are a health and safety nightmare in our climate, and all that snowy imagery and winter food seems entirely misplaced. Most of the time Christmas day here begs for luscious ripe stone fruit and summer pudding and barbequed prawns, cold meats and fresh cool salads. Why would we heat the house running an oven for hours to cook a roast, or boil a pudding or sip eggnog or hot chocolate whilst wearing our lightest of summer dresses and trying not to leave sweat stains on the furniture? Why do we cover our Christmas trees with snowflakes and sleighs and animals that have never set foot or hoof on our continent?

Don’t get me wrong, the Northern Hemisphere Christmases I have had have been magical – I was thrilled to my socks to wake and see snow on the ground, I loved tucking into a great big warming meal in the middle of the day and I have nothing at all against reindeer. In part it was magical precisely because it all made sense.

But from my perspective down here in Oz the traditions of Christmas seem to come from nowhere. What these rituals say to me is that we follow blindly beyond the point of relevance, and still believe that real life, important life, is something we imitate from somewhere else, not something we make from our experience and history. My daughter cares more about reindeer than kangaroos, and this year she’ll be singing about Rudolph, even while she’s eating Skippy.

I don’t want to be a sour old cow, and I don’t want Amy to grow up feeling like she’s missing out, but I just can’t feel good about the values and life lessons this Christmas deal brings. I recognise that we learn what’s right and good through cultural traditions, and that they are a really important part of finding meaning in life as well as having fun. So I’m trying to find other ways to weave magic, other ways to help Amy learn about who we are, what’s important and find joy. I’m looking for some new rituals and traditions that will help us celebrate all that’s right with life, all the good fortune we have, all the promise that tomorrow brings.

I’m not looking to veer into fake nationalistic pride at being an Aussie either. It might be as simple as starting with a Christmas tree that belongs in my country, a banksia or grevillia perhaps. We might make some decorations that include the animals we know and love. Perhaps we’ll write a story or two.

But seriously, I’m looking for suggestions - some anti-stuff suggestions, some making traditions suggestions, some great ways to celebrate suggestions. Any ideas floating around out there?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


To answer my own question posed in the previous post – e. Not always all at once. But whatever allows us time to move away and find an island somewhere that we can get back to calm. And if a packet of Smarties are involved, all the better. We love a bit of sugar laden high after a meltdown.

There’s a few things which have disturbed me in blogland recently about the way we mother. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive to things, or just reading in the wrong places, but there’s a growing number of comments (in comments sections, just to be clear) on very wonderful blogs written by wonderful mothers suggesting either a conformity to a set of stereotypical principles of “right” mothering, or non-conformity to those principles based on simple everyday decisions and actions which are in theory highly personal.

I take great exception to people assuming your right to being a mother – or more simply your degree of ‘good mothering’ because of something you show on your blog, or a decision you’ve made, or more importantly, because you tell of the reality of mothering that is your experience. There is one blog I have been reading recently written by a lovely, articulate and funny lady who has just had a baby. She’s had a rough go so far – but nothing unusual in anything that’s happened – it’s the real experience of, I suspect, a great majority of mothers. She’s put herself out there to express the way she feels about some things and involved her readers in some painful decisions she’s been making. And she’s dared to suggest that, you know what, some of this really isn’t fun, and actually I really don’t like some aspects of this. I give her 100% credit and respect for standing up and saying this, particularly at the point she is with her baby, and a lot of her readers are following her every word because they too are going through the same thing, or about to.

Does this make her a lesser mother for writing all that she does? Does it make her a worse mother than the one who finds sheer delight in every moment of their child’s life and doesn't outwardly acknowledge the time when it’s rough? Does it make her child less loved? Absolutely not. She loves her child. She enjoys her child. All of that is clear, and transcends the rougher moments of her days. Yet, someone thinks she ‘lacks a maternal gene’, and suggests she should never have become a mother (yes, they suggested she should never have become a mother). Now this really irks me. Where in any baby book does it say we must all be in raptures at our children every single moment of every single day? Where does it say ‘thou shalt not mention the rough bits’?? Where does it say there is no choice but the righteous choice no matter how much physical and emotional pain you’re in? Because somewhere along the line, once we have given birth, we aren’t supposed to talk about the rough bits for a period of time up to, but not limited to, the age of 18 months, and to do so means we really haven’t got the hang of being a mother, or are somehow not entitled to the name. Must we all be martyrs?

I read comments on blogs, and for those posts on blogs which I feel an affinity to, I take great personal strength from the comments as well as the writer. That’s why we all read blogs we like and feel close to. To see and understand another person’s experiences which are similar to your own, and to draw strength from unity and justification of choices is confidence building, even for me who has already had one child. I find great joy in the positives of parenting and the love and hope a child brings to people's lives, but I also know it's not like that all the time, for anyone, and it's good to see that. It somehow makes the joy even more exceptional:: there is nothing so beautiful as a smile after an afternoon of crying in pain. However at the moment I feel like I, as a normal, relaxed mother with strong ideals, am doing a really atrocious job, or that somehow you’ve all got the wrong idea in the other extreme because of the fragments I choose to show. I’m really grappling with strength of conviction – should I be stronger, should I be more rigid in my thinking, will it make a better outcome and if so for who – me or the child? If I do this what will people think, if I do that what will people think? Does it matter if 100 people agree with me and 1 person doesn’t?

I’m a real mother. I may do nice craft work and sew well and knit well and I do a lot of it out of sheer love for my children and the joy of giving something back to them made with love and my time. But the house often goes uncleaned for the week. We often don’t have fresh fruit in the fridge. I loose my patience with Max some days. And some mealtimes he goes without food because he’s not hungry and I’m tired. Given the choice of a 3 year old and a pooey bottom, and a crying baby, the pooey bottom wins. Yes. Sometimes I must let Pia cry because I have to make value judgements as to whose needs are more important for that 60 second period of time. Does this make me a bad mother? According to some people, Yes. It does make me a very bad mother. In some people’s eyes, I should never have gone down this path and I should never have taken the right to be a mother that some people will never have a chance of knowing. And that just breaks my heart to even think that someone could form that judgement about me, or anyone else. If I rewrote those sentences and said we make an effort to go somewhere interesting every day he’s not in daycare, he eats as much fresh fruit as we can give him and that he wants (which is a lot and that’s why we sometimes don’t have it in the fridge), he has access to craft materials and paper constantly and he involves us in his imaginative play, and we spend a great deal of time encouraging and promoting his use of the toilet and he now has the confidence to wipe his own bottom, does that make me a better mother in your eyes? All of that is true – just depends how I present it as to what value judgement is give on my mothering qualities.

I’m speaking in overzealous generalizations here and I know that has the potential to be taken the wrong way and cause offence, but I think the concept remains – assuming the right to being a good mother has to be earnt by some stringent adherence to some set of ‘rules’ about what you should or should not do or say is really hard for those people who do struggle, who do find it hard and who look for compassion and encouragement and familiarity of situation amongst fellow bloggers, friends, and family. I always remember the moment a very good mother friend turned to me just before our children turned two, and said she was so grateful for me saying we had rough days, because she thought she was the only one and that she felt much better knowing she really wasn’t alone and that it took a huge amount of pressure off her. I am forever grateful for her turning to me and telling me she had rough days as well.

I will end by saying that thankfully the majority – the overwhelming majority – of people are compassionate, and without the support of many of you I would have found many of the things I have gone through much harder and I love every one of you because of that. I’ve never personally been on the receiving end of any of this, I make my rant based on what I’ve seen on other blogs, and I just feel saddened that a new mother has to go through such a blind learning curve.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006



You're in a crowded shopping centre and your three year old child reaches meltdown point. They are thrashing around on the ground, people are staring. You're tired. They're tired. What do you do?

a) get down on their level and attempt to gain their eye contact and discuss the situation rationally with them all the time being positive and empowering.
b) cajole them with soothing talk and reassurance maintaining a smile and humour.
c) ignore them to downplay the effect.
d) offer bribery.
e) all of the above.

Answers please.