I am seated in the bustling, clinking coffee shop whose caffeinated beverages have sated me for the almost four years I have been a parent. As a baby, I placed J in his pram, snugly secured under a cotton wrap acting as a blanket, and pushed him with aching anxiety towards this cafe. Don’t cry, I whispered, sometimes loud enough for fellow pedestrians to here. Please don’t cry.
If I walked fast enough I could arrive at my destination before J’s wails of distress became bad enough to invoke my own physical uneasiness. Upon arrival, I could scoop him up from the pram and fold his curled little frame into my own, cuddling him with a bottle as he buried into my chest. As I nursed him, I sipped from the enormous coffee that gave me just enough energy to withstand the 3pm sleep refusal, the 4pm wails of discontent, the 5pm attempted (and failed) dinner preparation, and the 6pm reprieve when my husband walked in the door, arms outstretched for a cuddle with the boy who had broken my heart only to glue it all back together with his sticky, vegemite-covered little hands.
When I returned to work when J was seven and a half months old, this place similarly fed me with the fuel I needed to pretend to be competent at my job. On weekends as a family of three, we would stop here for late breakfasts, feeding J our toast and taking turns at eating our meals while the other parent entertained our rambunctious, headstrong, happy boy. We watched in awe as a mother with three children – twin 1 year olds and an older toddler – sat at a table surrounded by highchairs as her well-behaved children nibbled food brought from home, making barely a peep. By comparison, we held onto J as though we were wrestling a giant salmon, whose determination to do what he wanted, regardless of our instructions, made us baffled and bemused all at once.
By the time he was walking, J found entertainment by playing on the large astro-turfed cubes that sit in the courtyard of the café I consider a second home. When I was pregnant with J’s brother, I perched myself onto a bench and watched J play on these blocks, promising him a treat when it was time to go.
After N, J’s little brother, was born, this place was where we caught up with friends. It is where we went as a family of four, feeling safe in the embrace of our surroundings, and enjoying the cooing over our littlest person from the staff. When J went to childcare on Fridays, I rocked N in the pram with my leg while I typed frantically, desperately willing my fingers to capture the thoughts that bounced through my brain. And when N eventually joined J at childcare, after I dropped the boys off (together, usually with N staying in J’s room for a cuddle with his favourite educators), this is the place I returned to, frenetically typing my stories onto the screen and realising my past was now in my present.
Today, I had a similar plan – to drop the boys at childcare and then retreat to the comfort of this space, where I could do some (paid) work and also some writing of my own. These Friday mornings I treasure; the ritual of writing in a coffee covered cove where the hum of conversation drowns out the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard. It brings a joy I struggle to describe.
Usually it brings joy. But not today.
Today, instead of running into the arms of a friend and needing me to chase him down for a kiss, J cried when I dropped him off. Bawled, really. Mummy don’t leave, his words. J is not a crier, especially not at childcare, which occurs in a place he loves with faces he adores. N also cried, before his feet had even touched the carpeted, Lego strewn floor. I fled his room in such a hurry that I forgot to sign him in, and needed to creep back stealth-style in order to complete the requisite paperwork. I think N saw me; I definitely saw him.
So now, I ask myself, why? Why am I doing this? Would I derive not as much joy from ONE DAY a week that was truly my own, where I could write in peace and solitude? One day without my boys, one day to just be me again? Do I need three days out of a seven day week away from them?
I like work, in the sense that I like to use my brain and I like to get paid. But I like writing my own pieces more; I like being the master of my own output more than I have ever liked answering to others. I like the idea of leaving a legacy in some form, and I take little pleasure in thinking that my legacy might be summed up in the words “Public servant. Occasional writer.” That isn’t who I want to be.
So what does an ideal life look like? Perhaps I could start with describing what it doesn’t entail. It doesn’t entail waves of guilt at being away from my children so that I can do a job from which I derive little satisfaction other than financial, and which exists largely to pay for the childcare which I would not need if I was at home. It does not include frantic, stressful, angst filled mornings of trying to get non-compliant children to eat, to get dressed and to leave the house, all by a defined time with a ticking-clock soundtrack. It does not include a similarly pained evening ritual where overtired children lament the lack of food in the house but then refuse to eat dinner that I have prepared while holding one or both of them. It does not include snapping at my children for the missing lunchbox lids, for not napping during the day, or for generally turd-ish behaviour because they’re tired and cranky and they just don’t want to.
Maybe my ideal life entails both parents, or at least an extra set of hands, in the home to ready the kids for school. Maybe it involves a few hours of kindy and a couple of playgroup sessions. Maybe it involves N napping for longer than an hour during the day because he is home and it is quiet and his room is dark. Maybe we sit outside on the grass and play in a space that is so big and secluded that I don’t need to worry about a random stranger snatching them from my front yard while I rush inside to pee. Maybe I work from home and while I am typing my husband is with my boys, playing outside, or if he isn’t home, maybe a trusted friend/family member/nanny is with them so that I can get that crucial me-time, so that I can fit my own oxygen mask first without trying to breathe life into others when my own capacity is dwindling.
Maybe the legacy I leave for my kids is that they have a mother who just followed what she wanted to do, and who didn’t buy into the materialistic world that tells me I must earn money so that I can buy things that will make me happy, or at least happier than I would be without.
So when did I get on this wheel? Was it when I was a teenager and knew I had to escape my home town lest I suffocate underneath the mediocrity of suburbia? Was it when I was at university and reasoned that the only way I would rise above the sludge of my relatives was to succeed in ways they could not? Was it when I married and had a white wedding despite my disdain for princess brides? Was it when we bought a house, a beautiful, quirky, cosy house, parts of which I love and hate simultaneously? Was it when I reasoned that I needed money to buy all the things for the baby who had beautiful outfits but a mother with vacant eyes? Was it when I went back to work to prove to myself that I was still me, that I still had a brain, subconsciously reasoning that staying at home to child-raise would turn my mind to mush? Or was it when I returned to work after a glorious yet challenging 15 months of maternity leave, coming back to grey linoleum and fluorescent lit cubicles, sitting for seven hours a day so that I can be back at work?
I don’t know when it happened, but I know that I want to, I need to, get off the wheel.
I have spent the best part of nine months distributing my grandfather’s estate, apportioning items of worth to family members lacking in such a quality. I have waded through paperwork, through things, looking for needles in haystacks and golden tickets, and at the end of it all, I will have more stuff. It will mostly be stuff that I want – some books, a vase belonging to my Nanny and my grandfather’s watch. They are small things with big sentiments; the sentiment being, the people who used to own these things are gone.
When I die, I do not want my boys to have to rummage through debris to uncover what I had. I want them to know what I had, because they shared it with me.
So, what to do?
My wise best friend gave me a birthday gift that shows that insight to and awareness of another’s struggles can transcend geography. Sensing my impending exit from a conventional life, she bought me books by Marie Kondo, she of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up acclaim. Although I am neither a hoarder nor a clean-freak, I feel something truly cleansing from the act of a good cull, and although I am yet to read these books, I have a feeling her KonMari Method is something that will resonate, because as I type this I know that the first thing I need to do is to get rid of the stuff. I will donate most of it and will be ruthless in my approach, knowing that memories are not fixed by holding on to mementos; they stay alive when we pause to remember and in the stories we share.
Next, the job. I know it has to go. I want to be with my boys, but I still need that space for my writing, the one day of uninterrupted time to create. J will attend sessional kinder; N will attend childcare one day a week. We will find a playgroup for social activities. We will figure it out.
Thirdly, the house. It needs to be tidied, finessed and sold. No mortgage means no responsibility for a house we are rarely in because we are both at work to pay for the house. Then what? In my dreams of adventure, we leave. We pack our necessities up and we drive. We stop at beaches and swim in the surf. We eat dinner made from produce I buy at the market. I have dedicated time to write while my husband has dedicated daddy-sons time. My husband learns to cook; I learn to stand on a surfboard. I freelance and consider ways in which I can share my love of words with those who need it most; disengaged kids and struggling mums being my target audience, mainly as I have been both of these people at various points in time.
Eventually, we find a huge block of land, surrounded by trees and a large expanse of lawn. It will be close enough to a city so that commuting as part of any work arrangements is not prohibitive. It will be a home I work from, the home my husband works from, and it will be the place where my children grow. J will go to a local school and I will feature in his days, popping up at sports days and swimming carnivals. We will go to the beach during the week. We will grow vegetables and run and play and kick the football and do yoga and laugh and sing and when I start to go a bit crazy from home life, I will take refuge by packing myself off to attend a course aimed at bettering myself. I will attend weekend yoga retreats in Byron or six week internships in creative writing at NYU, dragging my excited Yankees-cap wearing boys with me. We will travel and visit the world and if we don’t want to do it during school holidays, we will work around that. I will give my boys an education that relies little on conventional classroom techniques, surrounding them with creative free thinkers who challenge the norm, and intelligent aunts and uncles who offer conversation that sparks curiosity. Their father, the greatest role model they will ever have, will teach them how to kick a football with their left feet, how to craft items from wood, how to restore a motorbike, how to throw a right hook into a punching bag. I will teach them to be kind to the world around them, to water the flowers, to be gentle with our animals (at least one dog, a pig and maybe some chooks) and how to express themselves through music and words. I will also – inadvertently, and in a way that happens only because I cannot change my spots – teach them to be loyal to each other, to challenge the norm, and to speak up when they see injustice in the world.
In truth, part of me wonders how any of this could be possible. Don’t people just work hard, buy a house, live in their house, buy things, have a family, go on holidays and keep working? Isn’t this how it’s done? If I look around me, I would say that this is the norm. But I don’t want to be the norm, and I fear that if we stay here, stay put, we won’t do any of this. We will remain stuck, wheels spinning, trapped doing what is safe. We will not venture left of centre because we see no one else doing it. We see people working to pay off mortgages and we see parents tired after work and who spend less time with their kids than they would like. We recognise how they look because it is familiar – this is how we see ourselves.
I will miss this coffee shop. I will miss its walking distance, the buzz of community in my inner-west enclave. I will miss watching my sons point to the trains that whiz past the courtyard where they play. I will miss the view of the city on my walks with the boys. I will miss where my boys go to school, and the smiling friendly faces of the beautiful staff. I will miss the cinema where hubby and I used to watch movies weekly, and where I took J to Mums and Bubs sessions as a newborn, one of which I recall with clarity as being one of the most joyful experiences of my life.
I will miss the Sun bookstore and its gorgeous little warm aisles of paper. I will miss the September weather where the sun shines after so many months of freezing grey days, and I will miss the twilight evenings where darkness doesn’t fall until 9pm. And I will miss the house to which I brought home two babies from hospital and in which I have experienced the brightest moments and deepest lows of parenting.
I will miss it all.
But, and as I have been at pains to remind myself, leaving it doesn’t mean I will never return. Perhaps in years from now I will again yearn to feel part of city life and the buzz. And although it leaves me with a sad, heavy sense of loss, I know that I need to lighten the load now so that we can carry more joy in our lives for the future.