Tag Archives: parenting

Sink or swim

I don’t know how to start this post. Usually when I write it’s the ending that throws me – how to tie everything up in a succinct sentence that leaves an air of interest in further words. I am sorry, but there will be no foreplay. Today I just need to get this done. I don’t even have any graphics! Well, except the photo stock one I got from the net. Sorry, Launderers. I hope you’ll stay for the words even without the pretty pictures.

In my last post I was very touched to have had some people reach out and offer me some kind and reassuring words, mainly to assist with my self-perception. I appreciate this immensely. How lucky am I to have both friends and strangers who would take the time to put their thoughts into writing and share these with me. To those of you who did – thank you. Because of your kindness, I vowed to try to embody this quality more as well, and embarked on being more approachable, sending more Facebook friend requests and volunteering to listen when someone needed to chat (I won’t lie, there were mixed results and some of my friend requests have gone unrequited – I am not sure what this says about me or my Facebook profile but I am open to feedback). I truly hope no one ever feels that his or her kindness is wasted on me, but in saying that, I need to be honest and say that I rarely, if ever, believe what I am told when it is kind. And although I am sure I am not alone in that particular quirk, my reason for having this issue seem to always point to one annoying thing.

Irritatingly for me (and others, I imagine), the peak of my self-worth has historically been related to my upbringing. I have lived with a somewhat polarizing notion that people other than your parents can raise you and that the effect of this arrangement will not detrimentally affect your life. But I am just not sure I believe my own hype: On the one hand is the very valid argument that as long as a child has love, has its immediate needs met and has a permanent network of support to help shape them as they grow, then the fact that someone other than their birth parents raised them is largely beside the point. In theory, I absolutely agree with this argument. I say in theory, because although I have encountered through work and broader community links many people who have been raised under this kind of arrangement, and many children who are loved by their families and who love them in return, in my immediate social circle I have literally only met two people who were in a similar situation as me. They were both being raised by their grandparents.

One of those people is in jail. The other committed suicide.

I do not say this to be dramatic. The above should not be construed as a causal link. Plenty of people are raised families outside their birth ones and it is a blessing for all concerned. It was absolutely a blessing for me. But in my particular experience I have tried so very hard to believe the argument that I was lucky, and that it wasn’t that bad (it was great!), that somewhere down the line I started becoming uncertain as to whether I actually believed what I was saying. In hindsight, perhaps I had just been too eager to drink the socially acceptable Kool-Aid that would guarantee me a spot at the table for people who are respected by others because they do not possess that irritating quirk of feeling sorry for oneself. The people who just “get on with it”.

Regardless of how this all came about, there have in recent times been extenuating circumstances that all but prevented anything in the way of self-reflection on this topic, especially over the past six years. There was a time in my early twenties where once a week I would dutifully meet with the therapist who has helped to shape my emotionally lumpy ball of clay into something more clarified and beautiful. I worked hard to sort my shit out at the time – shit that was largely related to my absent parents and the effects of how their relationships with me influenced my relationships with others. It was important groundwork that allowed me to actually remedy some flawed belief systems in order to live more of an authentic, free life. And luckily for me, that also meant the chance to have lots of sex with lots of boys without the guilt of thinking I had to be in a relationship first. I was with a man who was 4 years older than me from when I was 15 years old until I turned 19; if this does not make me the poster-child for insecure adolescents then nothing will. I then did what any person with abandonment issues would do and found myself another relationship almost immediately, meaning that by the time I was 21, I had really never been single. I made up for lost time in the most wonderfully slutty of ways (and I say this without a shred of shame or regret, for if there is any time in my life where I can look back and say I felt at ease with myself and my choices, it was this). I loved being single. And I knew I would only ever give up this freedom for someone pretty amazing.

Enter: D. I was 23 when we met. By this time I had been in therapy for two years. A lot of the rubble had been swept away. The dust was starting to clear. There was hope.

My chats with my therapist soon became largely centred on my decision to give up some of my independence (and a large part of my social circle who responded with nothing short of disdain for the fact that I would no longer be the ring-leader on alcohol fuelled hook-up benders) so that I could embark on a relationship with D. And it was not without its challenges – D was (is) 8 years older than me. He didn’t have emotional baggage, a dysfunctional family or self-destructive habits outside of getting tackled at football. His calm, balanced demeanour was the antithesis of my own. And although now it is this pairing that has helped us to grow together, namely that our shortcomings become each other’s gains, at the time it was a lot to work through.

In 2008 we got engaged (during a fight – a post for another time), in late 2009 we married and we moved interstate in early 2010. During this time we were geographically and emotionally torn because I kept returning to Brisbane to be present for my grandmother’s worsening dementia, all the while knowing I had to stay in Melbourne because D’s own father’s dementia was avalanching into what would culminate into a premature yet drawn-out and distressing death. And in between the stressors of knowing you are each dealing with the same kind of pain, in 2012 a child enters the world. A sick child, the experience of which also helps to create a sick mother. We kept our heads above water, until we didn’t. But with therapy and medication, I caught my breath and rose to the parenting challenge. I had issues with patience as many people do, but simply by raising my own son with love and affection I reasoned I was in a way proving that I would not be the one to repeat history. My child was wanted and adored. I would not be my mother’s daughter.

In 2013 my grandmother dies in my arms. My head dips below the water but buoyed with love from my little family, I am now able to swim. Friends vanish because I change. Maybe I post too many photos of my children on Facebook. But all that becomes irrelevant when two months later I unexpectedly fall pregnant with N, the baby who would repair the pain from our first child’s birth and who would bring us a joy I struggle to describe. And we needed that joy; we needed those little chubby legs and those bright blue eyes, because by 2014 when N was born, the grandfather I adored with all my heart had cut off contact with me as the family members who were absent for most of my life had come home to roost. My grandfather is dead by mid-2015, and I am not there beside him when it happens. He never meets N.

For the following 18 months after my grandfather’s death I am mired in family litigation. I rarely contest anything. I am anchored to paperwork and phone calls. I want it to all be over. I want to float on the surface, eyes to the sky, free again.

Halfway through 2016 we embark on a quest to chase that freedom, deciding to sell our home, quit our jobs and go travelling with our boys. We love it until we don’t, then we seek out our next move, and can’t make a decision. I discuss with D my uneasiness at feeling as though the decision will come down to what I want. He promises to take over and make a call for all of us. I am grateful for his resolve.

But as these little ships of life – boat-like blips on a horizon that we each navigate – sail over the seas, edge past each other, avoid danger and signal for help if needed, all the while I sense an undercurrent brewing beneath the surface. I know it is familiar because old and unhelpful belief patterns start to jostle for room in my already overcrowded head. I try to drown them out with exercise, with meditation, with affection with my children and intimacy with my husband. But they tug, and before long it becomes a pull from beneath that drags me out past the safety of the harbour and into the waves, where instead of being a mother of a five-year-old who is trying to decide what school to enrol him into next year, I am instead back where I was a decade ago, back feeling as though I am fundamentally flawed, that I am irredeemably damaged, and – most frighteningly – that if given time, not only will I sink, but I will drag my family into the murky depths with me.

Why am I back here? I have a few theories. As postulated in my last post, I first thought it was place-based. I though that geography was conspiring to haunt me. But then I talked to a dear friend of mine who reminded me that one of the times I had felt the worst was in Quebec where I cried in the bathroom into a pillow for the best part of four hours in a quest to not wake my sleeping children and husband. “If you think you’re shit in Quebec, of course you’re going to think you’re shit in Brisbane,” she said. My friends are geniuses.

Another theory is that since the stress of losing two lives and gaining two in quick succession is now in the past, my brain has started to remember that it once had fundamental crack in its foundation that it needed to address, before it got sidetracked. So this is its way of sending me a reminder for a calendar invite to which I’ve not responded. Fix the foundation, Sarah. Your house is crumbling.

The third theory – and one I am hesitant to share because I would hate for it to be misinterpreted as endorsement of this kind of approach to mental health – is that for almost five months, I have been off medication. I very gradually stopped taking my antidepressants in November; by December I was down to one tablet every second day and by January I was off medication completely. It was not a decision I made lightly (I have been on these antidepressants since J was 3 months old) but I have been on and off medication since I was 19; the longest stretch was 6 years of haziness where I managed to somehow stay alive despite ignoring advice to not drink alcohol while undergoing pharmaceutical treatment. But recently I knew I had to come off these little squares of mine – it was time. I needed the mental clarity. I was sick of the dependence. And I hated the side effects.

I resourcefully used exercise and sexercise as a way to flood my body with happy hormones. It worked reasonably well, but was made infinitely harder by the constant headaches, tears, shakes, nausea, fatigue and dizziness that accompanied trying to encourage my body back into making its own serotonin. I also started a new job during this time, which helps to explain one of my earlier posts about crying at work. And to add further hormonal woe to the mix, on some sort of crazed fact-finding mission to try to uncover why I still was feeling pangs of psychological strain, I had my Mirena (IUD) removed. I became convinced there was an external cause for my malaise. I knew of anecdotal evidence to suggest the Mirena can impact a woman’s mood – so out it came.

I was desperately looking for an outward cause. I wanted my emotional distress to be linked to a physical ailment. If it’s the medication withdrawals, that makes total sense! Or it’s just hormonal, I’m normal. Women everywhere struggle with hormonal mood swings. Yay! Yay for science!

And yet, I was not convinced.

Today I went to a Buddhist learnings session at the Buddha Birth Day celebrations at South Bank. It was called “Liberation from Fear and Anger”. A female monk whose name I should have written down presented the session; she was Singaporean, warm, funny and engaging. Her words about anger were familiar to me, and I was grateful to be present for a reminder of how to let go of harmful thoughts.

Quite unexpectedly, she shared an anecdote. She told the room that she too has struggled with anger and resentment. She said for 10 years she cried every day, unclear as to why. Eventually, she figured it out.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” I hung on her words, “because I was adopted.”

I believe, that at that moment, my heart stopped.

The monk explained that she always felt as though she was unlovable, and unworthy. If her birth parents – who she had searched for, unsuccessfully – did not want her, then there was something wrong with her. “Everyone had parents except me. I had my adoptive parents and they loved me, but I was looking for what I didn’t have. And I was so very sad, for many, many years.”

Predictably, I descended into tears, incredulous as a monk from Singapore used her words to convey a feeling I know all too well. At a time I needed to hear it the most, the words I struggle to articulate to my friends and family were being spoken by someone else who had a lived experience similar to mine but who had none of the trappings of my history. She didn’t grow up in the Redlands and use Jim Beam as a form of self-medication. She didn’t measure her worth by the hotness of the boy she was with. She was a monk, a woman who you would think would have all the tools in the world to understand, uncover and remedy her pain. And yet here she was, describing that for the best part of 40 years she was hurting, and baffled as to why. And if a monk can struggle to make sense of their upbringing, it made me feel like I have a right to do that too.

After the talk, I approached her. I barely got a word out before I started to cry. She held my hands and told me it was good to cry, because it means you are open to healing. “Like an onion, you take off one layer and it’s not so bad. The deeper you get, the more tears.” She told me she cried for years, but with therapy and her Buddhist beliefs, she was eventually able to put her pain and anger aside. I thanked her silently, nodding as I left. It was all I could muster.

So it is with a sense of exhaustion and commitment that I now accept that I have more work to do. I have wanted to believe for years that it’s all behind me; the memories of uncertainty with my childhood living arrangements, the damage of my parents’ involvement which was much worse than their lack of interest; I wanted to believe it was all sorted because I wanted to get on with my happy life. My blessed, beautiful life, where I have healthy children, a kind and strong husband, travels and adventure, friendship and laughs. I didn’t want to be labelled as someone seeking sympathy or being self-pitying. I wanted to be strong, independent and capable. And I was. I am.

I believed for years that the solution to my unease was to let go of the anger I held towards my family – mainly my mother and father. To this day I try to consciously think kind thoughts about them every so often, rationalising that if they are happy and content, they’re less likely to want to come along and fuck up my world again. Then I had a nightmare last week – that I received in the mail photos of my son playing at the beach. There was a letter enclosed. The writing was my father’s – all capitals: “JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW I’M AROUND.”

The unease lingers. But it is enlightening, for what I think has happened is that managing to muffle the anger I held for my family members only relocated the rage. Like the ex-smoker who gains weight, I have misdirected my anger from my parents and onto myself. And unlike my parents, I am always with me. I can’t get away.

So with that in mind, it looks like I have some work to do. I wish I didn’t have to, but I know that I can. Like that annoying blue tang Dory, I will just keep swimming. And as always, I will write about it.

(Told you I suck at endings, so in conclusion, here is my favourite poem: I go back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds. It is beyond fitting.)

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

 

 

 

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One hundred and thirteen days and counting

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been 113 days since I started my new life on the road, unattached and unfettered, and the freedom has gone to my head such that I have not written as much as I should. Writing for me feels a lot like exercise – something I may not necessarily feel like doing at any given moment, but an activity I do for the feeling afterwards which is my reward. Right now, I am doing virtual burpees as I type this post when I would rather be reading. You see, the silence in this van of ours is so hard to come by thanks to two loud and crazy little men, that when the cloud of quiet descends upon me, it is all I can do from succumbing to the lull of rest.

As I type this, we are in Karumba. Karumba is a small town on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland where the water is loaded with barramundi and banana prawns, where the ground is a pale, sandy gravel and the turquoise water stretches for kilometers. It is hot, very hot, and the flies are relentless. The people are friendly, the local café sells good coffee, and the owners of our caravan park will provide us with 1 kilogram of cooked prawns for the stately sum of $22.

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When I last posted, we were in South Australia and it was freezing. Our initial plan when we left Melbourne was to test-out life on the road for a couple of months before returning to Victoria in October for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. After that, we would travel to Tasmania for a month before returning to Melbourne and beginning the journey north, along the coast.

That is not at all what happened.

By the time we got to Victor Harbor in South Australia, and had rugged our children up in more layers than we thought we packed, and had trudged them out to Granite Island to peer at penguins who had more sense than we did, and who hid in their burrows out of view, we accepted we needed to change our plans. So on a Sunday morning, as our boys played Lego at our kitchen table, my husband D and I looked at each other, uttered the immortal words, “Fuck this” and decided to head north to warmer climes.

We flicked through a random South Australia/Flinders Ranges brochure we had picked up somewhere, circled a sheep station that sounded nice, and called the Spirit of Tasmania to change our booking. Then, we spent a frantic hour in the Victor Harbor mall, buying all manner of summer clothes because we had packed none, such was our certainty that we would return to Victoria at which time we would collect our summer clothes from storage. Our boys walked out of Target with fake Crocs to replace their gumboots, wide-brimmed hats to replace their beanies, and shorts to replace their track-pants. My husband walked out with a couple of t-shirts. I left with nothing but excitement at encountering heat for the first time since March.

We drove to Noarlunga, where we visited the local BCF and bought swimming vests for children who were no longer going to be forced to crouch in wet tufts of grass to play as their parents gripped their jackets tightly and asked them to hurry up, but who would instead float in the thermal pools of Mataranka, the place in the Northern Territory that we pictured as an oasis on that cold, dreary day.

Then, we drove.

Through Adelaide, through the Clare Valley, stopping at Burra for supplies, a kick of the football and petrol, on we sped along the highway until we reached Almerta – the antithesis to our grey, drizzly days in the city and suburbs. Located in the middle of the Flinders Ranges between Orrorroo and Carrieton, we pulled up our van and the beautiful Shane – who essentially runs the entire station on her own as her husband travels for 7 months out of the year doing shearing/crutching for sheep across South Australia and New South Wales – pointed to our space on her sprawling property.

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We were the only visitors there, and it was incredible. We had no power, no phone reception, and limited water. For four days we rode our bikes through the red dirt, navigating stony hills and tufts of saltbush. By day we spotted emus, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles and cockatoos, played lego and cars in the dirt, and hiked around the property to explore the natural springs that emerged from the ground. At night we ate by the campfire, and when the boys were in bed, my husband and I sipped wine, placed more logs on to burn, and wondered why we hadn’t thought to do this earlier. The silence, the stars, the colours of the dirt and the sky. It was bliss.

It was bliss? Yes, it was. I can say that with certainty, even though for most of my life I have been a camp-phobe. Being raised by the elderly can do that to you. My grandparents were never going to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere, so my experience of childhood did not include this kind of pastime. My husband’s childhood was the same – his family owned a farm so disappearing for camping trips was not something workable or even desirable. D’s experience of roughing it came directly from being in the army, and until I met him, my experience of roughing it was staying in a 3 and a half star motel. This is partly why this whole experience of travelling on the road has been so educational for us, because we are repeatedly amazed at what we are discovering about ourselves in the absence of any outer influence. As it turns out, we do like camping. We like being offline for a little while and just appreciating being connected with each other and our kids. And we don’t even mind the dirt. Who knew?

From Almerta we continued north, stopping overnight at Wilpena Pound before another random and unexpected win when we stumbled across the tiny, deserted town of Farina. Farina was once a thriving community and many of its local sons fought in World Wars 1 and 2. We know this because we stood in awe as we read all about Farina’s history on a monument that was a couple of kilometers from the highway, surrounded by dirt, but which lead towards a huge clearing complete with trees, hills, and families of emus huddling close to each other. We rode our bikes around, chatted with the grey nomads whose language we are fluent in, and taught J about war, about soldiers, and even about the Coat of Arms, and that yes, it’s true, emus and kangaroos cannot go backwards. Neither can we.

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From Farina we headed further north, along the Oodnadatta Track. This wretched patch of road is considered a highlight for some – for me, who had elected to share driving right at this very spot – it was hellish. For four hours I white-knuckle gripped the steering wheel and endeavoured not to slide our 4WD and 22ft van into a ditch. The corrugated dirt did a number on our van, with our shower screen door falling off the rails (but not shattering, fortunately) and a kitchen cupboard being loosened from its hinges and snapping off. The landscape was eerie and lunar-like – no towns for hours, few cars passing through, just a flat expanse of blue-grey that melted into the sky such that using the horizon as a reference point became impossible. By the time we slid into William Creek, we could not get to the pub fast enough.

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The next day at the crack of dawn we headed west to Coober Pedy. Without offending the local townsfolk, I can say with certainty that our one night there was well and truly sufficient. The mines, the holes, the life underground…well, it just isn’t for us. I’m not even that big a fan of opals. But kudos to the local supermarket and its impressive range of goods, including lemon tarts in the adjacent café that kept our boys quiet while we enjoyed a much-needed hit of caffeine.

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From Coober Pedy we continued up the Stuart Highway to finally – under drops of rain and a grey and ominous sky – cross the Northern Territory border. For one cramped and uneventful night, we hunkered down at the Kulgera Roadhouse. It is essentially a petrol station with space to park a van and connect to power. We left in the morning, heading towards Yulara.

Yulara is the home of Uluru, and the enormous rock in the middle of Australia did not disappoint. It is a special, sacred place, but what I found the most beautiful thing was not the rock itself, but rather, the prevalence of a small ecosystem on the rock’s periphery. I had imagined Uluru to be a big red boulder in the middle of nothing, but I was wrong. It is home to a huge number of plants and animals who have all made this space their home. We took photos of flowers as we rode our bikes around the base, J pointed out lizards on our way back to the car, and we spotted tadpoles swimming in puddles close to caverns. We felt so blessed to share in seeing such a special place which has for centuries been an important part of Indigenous Australia, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angered and ashamed of my Caucasian roots when I watched incredulously as tourists mounted the rock for photos. At one point I may have shouted abuse in the direction of a pack of oldies wearing Queensland State of Origin shirts and who were not content with viewing the rock’s splendour from the ground and who instead hoisted their loud, entitled asses off the ground for a better photo opportunity. “Always speak up if you see something that isn’t okay,” we told J. “Sometimes you have to be the person who says something.”

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We stayed at Yulara for 5 days, including a day of hiking through the Olgas, a somewhat ambitious activity given that we had to carry a child each for most of the way. During our time at Yulara we sold our house at auction. A stressful, harrowing Saturday morning was spent with my husband on the phone to his sister who was in attendance at the auction, and me entertaining the crazy children with dirt, cars, and a football. But it sold, we got a good price, and finally the freedom that comes from having fewer responsibilities and assets became closer to being realised.

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From Yulara we detoured to Kings Canyon for a night. I have heard many people speak glowingly of this place but with two young children, a prevalence of dingoes and walking tracks that require more sure-footedness than my 2 and 4 year old possess, it was not a place of magic for us. We headed back to the Stuart Highway the next morning, heading towards Alice Springs where we made our home for 4 days. It was nice enough and I was grateful for the chance to clean out our van, do loads of laundry, and visit the local Flight Centre to book a quick sojourn to Bali.

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We continued north towards Mataranka, but the lure of the Daly Waters pub drew us into its grasp and soon we were drinking jugs of beer under heavily worked fans, while our children slurped ice blocks and coloured in their free activity books. The next morning we arrived in Mataranka, home of the aquamarine thermal pools. Our little N was not a fan, but J and his dad swam for ages spotting turtles and fish and relishing in the tepid water’s gentle current. Although it was a magical experience, my dislike of algae swimming against my skin freaked me out somewhat. The Bitter Springs pool was more child-friendly, and both boys had a ball, at least until J got swept over the waterfall’s barrier and remained upright only due to his strength at holding on to the rocks, and my own strength at hauling him one-armed back to safety.

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From Mataranka our next stop was Katherine, where we stayed at a sprawling property covered with shady trees, and where a large proportion of our days was spent in the shade-sail covered pool. We liked Katherine’s uniqueness combined with its quirky charms – J was amazed that the entire town had flooded so severely in the 80s that crocodiles were swimming through the middle of the shopping centre, and D couldn’t speak more highly of the lovely lady he met at the Tourism Centre, who not only guided him as to the most child-friendly spots to visit in Kakadu, but who also advised us to purchase Solicite from the Chemist to help with our sensitive little N’s reaction to mosquito bites. I too was impressed, albeit mistakenly, when I was asked for identification at the bottle shop. Apparently this has nothing to do with my appearing younger – it is a request asked of everyone buying alcohol.

Before we left, we took a trip on a boat down Katherine Gorge, marvelling at the rock formations, and the next day we left town via Edith Falls where the boys swam and I drank Coke Zero on the grass.

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After Katherine we drove to Litchfield National Park and for two nights we stayed in another green expanse of grass and trees, and where our neighbours had three boys who were all Port Adelaide supporters. J was thrilled to have met some like-minded souls and played with the boys constantly when we were at camp. We took day trips to Florence Falls and all around Litchfield, swam in clear waters and smelled the scent of the ground being quenched with an afternoon downpour. The tropics – oh how we missed you after our six years of living in Melbourne.

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Finally – after weeks since our decision in Adelaide to head north – we reached Darwin. We fell in love almost instantly – the heat, the sunsets, the seafood, the mangoes, the laid-back lifestyle, the existence of Casuarina Shopping Centre which but for a lack of a Myer/David Jones has pretty much everything someone who has been deprived of a shopping centre for weeks could need, our caravan park’s epic pool and the bar’s $20 jugs of Pimms, our proximity to the Palmerston library where I retreated to complete online job applications…Darwin had it all. We became regulars at the Mindil Markets of a Thursday night where we ate a smorgasbord of food on our leaf-strewn picnic blanket before heading on to the sand to watch the sun set over the water. We were in Darwin for over a month, and although we did spend one week of this time in Bali and another week in Brisbane (N and me, for a wedding and a job interview) and Melbourne (D and J, for D’s mum’s 70th birthday and to clear out our house prior to settlement), we could have stayed longer, and we were sad to say goodbye.

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Bali was of course as one would expect from Bali – relaxing and invigorating – but what was even better about our short vacation was that it planted a seed for a life we might be able to pursue now that we are free from material attachments. Why can’t we relocate there for a period of time and just enjoy life by the ocean, teaching our kids about different cultures and lifestyles? Why is that out of the realms of possibility? It’s not, not now anyway. And what does that mean for our kids? Maybe it means they get to see the world through another’s eyes.

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One night after we were walking back to our hotel after dinner, a woman begging on the ground reached up towards J with an outstretched arm, her hand gesturing for money. He asked us immediately why the lady was on the ground. This prompted a long discussion about poverty, about the act of begging, and about being grateful for the kind of life we have that means we do not need to ask others for money. J seemed to understand, but when we stopped off just before our hotel to buy water at a convenience store, he burst into tears and asked if we could buy that lady a lollypop. She doesn’t have any money for a lollypop and i want to give her one. The poor lady.

He cried and cried and cried.

And although I was sad to see my son distressed by what he had witnessed on the streets of Kuta, I was also grateful. How can I teach him to be thankful for the life he has if it is in a vacuum, if he has no context? If he has not seen that there are people in the world who are poor, who do not get a chance to become educated, who do not have the privilege of clean water and nutritious food, and who for whatever reason find themselves on the pavement of a thoroughfare asking strangers for spare change, how does he learn about them? That night, he learned something powerful – that the world is not just limited to his protected circle and that there are many other people living very different lives than the one he knows. I dropped to my knees and held him close to me, and I told him that he was a beautiful and kind soul for feeling sad about the lady he saw. I told him feeling sad about her situation means that he cares. And that sometimes caring hurts, but that having a caring nature is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I will stop my recount of our adventures there – 3000 words is quite enough for one blog post. Suffice to say that after 113 days the experience has been unforgettable, the lessons learned innumerable and the connection with my boys even stronger than it was 4 months ago.

The journey continues.

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Lessons learned in a van

Sarah,

Remember when you were 14 years old and blasting that Garbage song about only being happy when it rains? You had your yellow Sony Walkman in your ears, the one constantly attached to your head as you wandered the sunny, bright, blue-skied streets of Cleveland, your hometown in the sunshine state? Remember how you longed for the grey, dreary, cold days where you could be for given for huddling inside away from the world? You ached for that weather, the kind of respite from the cheeriness of sun. And yet now here you are, some 20 years later, and guess what – you are goddamn sick of the fucking rain.

One month in a van, at least 75% rain.

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It rained in Melbourne, as it always does, all through winter, making cold, unpalatable days even harder to navigate, especially when you had two small children to entertain. You left Melbourne for Echuca where it was cold but sunny, and where you sat outside drinking wine with your husband as your children played (briefly) at your feet. I could get used to this! – or so you thought. Of course then it rained in Bright, the picturesque town at the base of the mountains, minutes from the snow. It rained so much the ground squelched under your every step. You wore gumboots constantly, as did your boys, and despite your best efforts, your caravan was soon streaked with mud.

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It also rained at the snow, your first trip to what you expected to be a powdery white wonderland. It rained so much you could barely see, your face hurt from the ferocity of the droplets smashing against your freezing cheeks. Your eldest son, J, cried from the sensation as his olive skin turned a blotchy red. Your baby, N, wailed as wetness covered his face, when even the warm embrace of his Dad shielding him from the onslaught could not abate his tears.

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It rained in Mansfield, that freezing little town at the base of yet another mountain. You didn’t even bother trying to entertain your children outdoors in these conditions – instead, you cleverly sought out a DVD from the local Target and played it repeatedly with the boys perched on your bed (God bless you, Zootopia).

It rained when you came back to Melbourne, literally dampening your efforts to prepare your house for upcoming sale. With every job performed outside, you trudged dirt and debris into your momentarily pristine home. Your husband sought refuge in the shed as he completed carpentry tasks with his knuckles clenched and his fingers frozen to the bone. You managed to plant flowers using your bare hands, scraping soil from a pile on the ground and filling planter boxes to line your deck. You didn’t have a spade; it had been packed away, so instead you used a random piece of wood to aid shovelling. By the end of the sixth planter box, your hands were numb.

It rained when your children succumbed to one of the worst colds they’ve had, a heaving, hacking cough your accompaniment to drizzly days of nothing but grey. It was perfect weather to curl up inside in front of a fire, snuggling on a well-loved couch with your sick little people. But you don’t own a couch anymore, and you couldn’t risk your kids damaging the hire furniture used to present your home in its most appealing light. You mooched at the home of your sister-in-law, taking over her lounge room and playing hours of lego with your boys, while your husband tended to last-minute jobs in preparation for your home’s advertising photographs. When the photographer arrived, it rained. It rained so much, they photoshopped in a sunset sky.


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You set off on the next leg of your trip, stopping at the beachside town of Torquay where finally there was sun. You inhaled the scent of the ocean and walked along the sand with your children. It didn’t rain once. In a typical response, you almost decided to relocate your family to Torquay permanently.


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You scoured the jobs in the area, noting one position with a past employer who has relocated to Geelong. You looked at the houses for sale in the area, marvelling at the serenity of life by the ocean, the four bedroom homes with open living areas and clean tiles. You told yourself that – after days of wrangling sick, cranky children in close quarters – you could be the one to return to full-time work, bringing in a generous wage that would allow your husband to be the stay-at-home parent. You might have even applied for this job, had your laptop been operational but alas, your husband had accidentally taken the battery lead to your storage shed, meaning it was packed away. By the time you reach Warrnambool, you are so desperate to tap your keyboard that you find the one Apple outlet in the region and fork out $130 to quell your angst. By then, the job applications for that role you were eyeing off had closed, which as you know, is a blessing.

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You drive to Port Campbell and a combination of your own onset of illness and entertaining your children in the cold has caused your already short fuse to be rubbed down to a nib. You think back to what you had imagined this journey to be like – mornings of sunshine, pancakes, smoothies and family bike rides. You wonder how you could have ignored the critical fact that you would not see summer for months. You want to fast-forward time so that you get to that place by the beach, the rolling waves and the yellow streams of sunlight. You want the ritual of slathering up chunky legs with sunscreen and affixing hats to not-so-little heads that try to wriggle free. You want the look of delight when your husband throws one of your children up in the air in the water, the splash of warm liquid on your face, the cool afternoon breeze that moves your maxi dress between your calves.

Dresses! Oh, you miss them too. You packed your corporate attire away so frantically you never even paused to consider you might miss the sensation of a zip running up your spine or sliding on a pair of heels. You live in tights and jeans, hoodies and sneakers. You didn’t bring anything else into the caravan with you. Why would you? You dress for practicality now, not style (although in your defence, you still have most of your jewellery with you because you know it is amazing how one statement piece can transform an otherwise pedestrian outfit).

You drive on to Mount Gambier, where there are shops, a library, cafes and even an art gallery. You quite like Mount Gambier, and how could you not – it is the fertile, stoic ground from which your husband grew. You can tolerate the rain – yes, more rain – because like Melbourne, Mount Gambier’s weather can never quite commit to what it wants to be. When the rain passes, there is a glimmer of sun. But it quickly disappears. You imagine living in a town like this and how you would cope with the extremes in temperature throughout the year. You know you would survive, but suspect you would probably complain constantly.

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You drive through the Coorong to Adelaide and the sun follows you the whole way. Since being in Adelaide it has not rained once. You’ve had bike rides into Glenelg, teaching your son about resilience when his little legs refused to keep pushing for the last leg of the 8km round trip. You have played lego and trucks and cars in a sun-filled annex that keeps you warm. But despite the reprieve of the elements, you finally succumb to the ache of your sinus infection, collapsing in tears as you beg for an ice pack to relieve the pain in your face. Your husband puts you to bed, closes the blinds and makes the space as dark as it can be in spite of the happy sunshine hovering overhead. In a brief moment of desperation you find yourself wanting to call out for your Nanny, for her to make you well again and to push the pain away. But she can’t, Sarah. She can’t.

You chat with the oldies in all of the caravan parks and you like them; they remind you of your own grandparents even though you realise your grandparents would never have considered life in a caravan. Your Nanny would never have agreed to bathing in a communal shower block, and besides, where would she get her perm set every month? “You know I don’t let just anyone touch my hair!” – her words ring in your ears even though it has been years since she said anything like this, to you or to anyone. You also think of your grandfather. The sun-chaser in him would be baulking at the thought of completing a lap of Tasmania in September, “You’re not driving north?” he would question, noting his own hatred of the cold; the boy from Goulburn for whom a winter in Queensland was barely tolerable.

Your children have grown before your eyes. Your baby N responds with a vehement “No!” when he feels like refusing something, his once angelic eyes narrowing to a piercing glare. He is no longer the chubby infant permanently on your hip, who only wanted you all the time. Instead he will squirm from your grasp and run after his brother, copying everything he does. But at lunchtime when N needs his nap, you will no longer have to sit in a darkened room, hunched over at his cot and patting him into sweet oblivion, all the while hoping that J doesn’t make a sound that will wake him. Instead, you darken the caravan and snuggle into him on your bed. He guzzles his bottle and burrows between the safety of your left bicep and your chest, and there he will sleep for an hour, maybe more. You will hold his perfect, plump little foot in your hand as the fine blond hairs on his warm skull tickle your nose. You will stay there for as long as he needs you, because you can. Your husband takes J out during this time – to kick the footy, to ride his bike, or today – to wash the car. So you still have your baby, but now you get him in one concentrated hit.

J has moments of baffling turdiness which you respond to poorly because you forget regularly that he is only 4 years old. He is the boy who asks you questions about the world and who offers suggestions for improving the space around him that never occur to you. He proposes that giant flying foxes be affixed to all street lamps, allowing pedestrians a new form of public transport. “The people could just swing from one to the other, and then they don’t have to worry about driving their cars!” You agree that this would be a far more enjoyable form of public transport than any you have experienced thus far. J accompanies your husband to a night football match and you take a photo of the two of them together that makes you swell with sadness at the disappearance of your chubby toddler, but fills your heart with pride at the handsome, smart young man you are helping to grow.

And as for your husband – that man with whom you butt heads, snap at or pester for an explanation for the occasional stressed, sullen mood? That man is gone, replaced with a relaxed, eager co-parent who tends to every one of the household duties for which you used to be (mainly) solely responsible. He takes the children solo for trips to the bouncing pillow in the caravan park grounds, he smiles at you across the table where you eat breakfast together as a family, and he sets up the barbecue to make dinner, allowing you to continue lego helicopter making duties with J. On sunlit mornings he goes for a run, returning with coffee for you both. Panting and sweaty, he removes his skin-tight running top to reveal the broad shoulders and strong chest you have  clutched for the past eleven years. You run your eyes over his physique, noting the athleticism etched in his muscles, his firm calves, his wide thighs and his ridiculously round derriere. You wrap your arms around his back, running your finger down the shallow trench at his spine, the place where two sides of his back converge. In your wedding vows, you wrote that you had never felt safer than when you were in his arms. You note that this is still true.

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It has been just over a month since you started this journey; since you said goodbye to your jobs, your house, your things. There has been tears, laughter, fury and delight. There has been life lived, edges explored, patience tested and affection shared. You wanted to shake things up, remember? You wanted to get away from the mundane, from labelled Tupperware and frantic Sunday nights. You wanted space and time together, and you must remember this.

Even when the children test you. 
Even when you long for a shower that doesn’t involve the need to wear thongs. 
And even when – ultimately – the rain comes back again.

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(The sun will come back too.)

-S x

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Sweet Child(care) of Mine

Today I advised my son’s child care centre that we will be leaving in a couple of weeks, meaning that we will no longer need our place for both boys. J currently goes to sessional 4-year-old kinder twice a week; N goes for a play one day a week. This centre – for which there is an approximate wait-list of about 2 years, so coveted are its vacancies – will no longer be part of our weekly routine, a role it has played for the best part of 4 years.

To say I am mourning this impending loss would be an understatement.

Childcare often gets a bad rap; people think of it as a babysitting service where snotty nosed kids are neglected and left to wallow in their own filth.

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This has never been true for me. I have been  blessed with our experience at the centre my kids they have attended for the last 4 years. Quite frankly, I don’t know what we will do without them.

So, I did what writers do, and I wrote them a letter:

Dear V, S and M,

It is with a heavy heart and sadness that I write to advise that J and N will be finishing up at the Centre on Wednesday 13 July 2016. Our caravan will be ready in the coming weeks and we intend to set off after this for a 3-4 week trip around Victoria to get our bearings and see how we take to caravan life.

We have picked 13 July as our last day as it is the first day back after holidays, meaning that J can say goodbye to his friends and teachers in the kindy room.

As you know, the centre has become a second home to us over the past four years, and the staff have become an extended family. When J first started attending he was only 9 months old and was one of the chubby little babies loved in the babies’ room. He went on to Room 9 where he learned to eat more than just bread at lunch, and painted huge artworks that have until now hung in his room. Before long, J was in Room 6 with and it was here that he became a big brother to N, who eventually joined him at “school” and who has been smothered in kisses and cuddles all the other staff. J has made friends here that I hope he will stay in contact with; the crazy band of boys and their fondness for role play makes me smile whenever I watch them scurry about in the yard.

I do not have a family network on which to rely for advice and/or assistance, and when J first started attending the Centre I had few friends (having moved to Melbourne from Queensland only a couple of years earlier). The chats I have had with staff when I have dropped my boys off became invaluable tools for understanding both my role as a parent, and my child’s view of the world. Over the last few days I have shed tears as I removed J’s artwork from his room, marvelling at the changes in his skills – skills that the carers and educators have taught him. From the honeybee song that B taught him a couple of years ago that still makes him giggle, to the encouragement in getting him to try his food; from the unveiling of the Dinosaur Park to the exploration of the nearby parklands, the memories from the centre are extensive and meaningful. I have no idea how we will replicate or replace the lessons our boys have learned while in your care; I just hope they can one day remember the special place they used to call ‘school’.

We have no set plans for our itinerary and no definitive idea as to whether we will return to Yarraville. We plan to sell our home and have given ourselves 6-12 months to see how we like travelling, but as I have been at pains to remind myself, we can always come back at any time. I really hope if we end up back here, I can once again be a parent at the centre, so that I can watch N embark on the same path of learning that J did, in this special, loving setting.

Once we have our caravan, I wonder if perhaps we could arrange a “show and tell” type occasion where J could show some of the kids his new home? We could just park out the front somewhere. We will also be encouraging J to write postcards to send back to you so that you can keep track of our travels. I also have a blog where I will post regular updates on how we are surviving.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for creating this safe, happy place, that has become a haven for me on days I have been desperate for a break, and which has helped our little people to grow into confident, smiling little men.

I will never forget our time here.

With best wishes and a sincere hope to keep in touch,
Sarah

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Just write to Jesus, care of The Pentagon.

I really hope we keep in touch. I am going to miss them all.

 

 

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Countdown to D-Day

Since my last post much has transpired in preparation for our upcoming departure with caravan. Our new home is near completion and packing is underway. How exciting! I would love to say. I do feel excited, and I feel grateful for that when I do. But I also feel a range of other emotions, as is expected when one makes a life changing decision that affects their whole family. The anxiety is the worst; in the past few weeks it comes to me just at bedtime, just as my muscles begin to unclench from their permanent state of arousal, and just as my mind begins to blur into slumber. My legs, restless, kicking and jerking as though possessed by the blood of an athlete, my breathing frenzied and erratic. An overwhelming desire to scream as loudly as possible and to do something, take something, to just melt the friction away.

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I don’t though. I try to calm my breathing. Sometimes I’ll do yoga nidra. Sometimes I’ll annoy my husband. But most times I’ll do what seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world when faced with a sense of chaos – to read about the worsened state of chaos of another. My method for doing this is simple: coronial reports. Publicly accessible, these PDFs have lulled me to sleep more times than a lullaby ever has. The stories are harrowing, traumatic, often graphic and at times incredibly cruel. And yet despite my knowledge that feeding the beast that is anxiety is often fraught with danger, for me, sometimes, this is the safest way to view catastrophe without actually having to be within it. And while it is true that working as a lawyer and in public policy meant that there were times that I needed to read these stories for reasons purely related to work, I can’t rely on this exposure to the reports to make me seem less macabre and sadistic, because I would have probably sought these documents out anyway. Not just because I am a voyeur of tragedy, but also because I have an at-times insatiable need to explore and examine daily life. And to write about it.

Over the years I have of course examined my own life (mainly to confirm what I once suspected, namely that I possessed insurmountable flaws; fortunately these ended up just being superficial marks of wear and tear) and while doing this in recent times my husband and I agreed that we needed to shake things up a bit. Well, not just a bit. A lot. Hence the decision to quit our jobs, sell our house and go travelling around the country with our boys in a caravan.

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I like those odds.

I am writing this post in the one remaining chair that I own, which now has the honour of being the sole piece of loungeroom furniture in a pleasingly uncluttered room. The couch I nursed my J on for hours on end has been given away; so too has the side table I used to use to rest my makeup on in our old house in Queensland. We have sold our television cabinets, and given away our business suits. I have parted with more toys owned by my sons than I care to think about, not pausing to be sentimental as I pictured the joy they would bring to another child who has gone without for too long. I have taken down lovingly etched artworks done by my son, and I have photographed each piece, vowing to turn the stack of squiggles into some kind of memento. I had all his pieces in a box, ready for the recycling bin, and then it hit me. The bubbling waves of sadness that caused my stomach to flip. The gritted teeth. The clenched jaw. Then, the onslaught.

I wept, and wept, and wept.

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This home, this cozy, quirky little home is the place where I fell pregnant with J. It is where I looked down blissfully to see two pink lines on a test that confirmed I was to become a mother. It is where I paced the floorboards for hours with my unsettled first baby as he thrashed restlessly in my arms. It is the place where I warmed bottles in the night or rolled to my side, hoisting up my top to feed my child. It is the place that kept us warm on grey Melbourne days and where the sun shone in streams through the back deck on springtime afternoons.

This home is the location from which I have walked kilometres with a pram on bleary mornings after nights that involved pitiful amounts of sleep, determined to source a hit of caffeine. On these walks I have discussed the mechanics of ‘mixer trucks’ (which may or may not have been accurate), taught J to read numbers from the letterboxes we passed, and sung to baby N as he watched the world pass by from his cushioned, blanketed seat. I have walked my boys to our childcare centre, an amazing gem of a place that has become a second home to me, and where I’ve had long chats with staff who have become family. And while I can leave the material things behind, knowing I am saying goodbye to this friendly place, with its bright handprint paintings and its adjacent dinosaur park, and the staff who smile at me even when I am wearing food stained hoodies and a baseball cap to hide my hair, is too hard for me to even contemplate yet, so I won’t.

In the 34 years I have been on this planet, our home in the inner west of Melbourne is the only space in which I have ever felt as though I belonged; not just within the walls of my house but as part of a community. By the time I was 7 years old I had already been to five different kindergartens and schools, spanning three different states. I had said hello and goodbye to parents who dipped their toes into the murky water of family life, only to hoist their limbs away with a jolt. After living in the Redlands for almost 20 years, the only feeling that consumed me about my neighbourhood was the desire to escape it in one piece. Until adulthood, my experience of life was always on the outer, and when it wasn’t, I usually found a way to extract myself from attaching to anything with even a whiff of impermanence. My skills at building walls were impressive in their efficiency.

After making the agonizing move to Melbourne from Brisbane, away from the grandparents for whom I felt solely responsible and desperately conflicted, I rationalized my absence by telling myself I would last only a year here. One year south of the border, and then I would return home. But I didn’t, because something strange and unexpected happened, and that was I fell in love with my new home. I made friends with other mums who I visited with my sleep deprived, cranky children, women who fed me cups of tea and chocolate biscuits as we lamented our lack of slumber. My son made friends with kids from school with whom he acts out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle moves (he is Leo), and spends part of his weekend on the swings or running in the green expanse of one of the nearby parks. I have watched both my children grow in this place; our little house in the inner west, minutes from the city, minutes from parks, walking distance to the shops, surrounded by families, and soon, on the market for someone else to buy.

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I tend to do this – I leap into decisions with an air of impulsivity, only to have my emotions catch up with me as time moves forward. Now that my husband has resigned from work and our house is strewn with boxes do I realise the gravity of the choice we have made. But even so, I know it’s the right choice. I know it’s what we need to do. If we had felt fully content and settled, the need to shake things up would never have crossed our minds. So as we move forward to D-Day, I am optimistic about having no itinerary and no set ideas of where we will live next, although part of me hopes that one day we will come back here, to the place I never expected to live or love, because as much as I believe that home is where the heart is (and for me, it is with my boys), there is something beautiful about carving out a special place of your own in a world where you have often felt on the periphery.

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The road ahead

A few months ago I wrote a piece about my longing to get off the wheel. It was a watershed moment where I realised what I wanted my life to look like and what it actually looked like were very different things. In the past I have been reasonably judgmental towards those who complain about situations they have the power to transform, be they an unsatisfying relationship, an unfulfilling job or something even larger, for example, the very make-up of their beings. I am not immune to this malady – I lament a number of my own personal failings and repeat mistakes often; my only redeeming feature in this is that I try to improve the things I dislike. Slowly, much like a snail wading through mud, I am gradually propelling myself toward something more than the version of me I believed I was for so long. No longer am I the bratty, angry child who never thought much about her life, so sure was she that it was bound to end before she reached double-digits, presumably by her own hand.

Now being well into the double-digits and of (reasonably) sound mind, I find myself in a life that is both confronting and inspiring in its departure from what I believed my life would be. For most of my adolescence I did not consider what my adult life would look like, because I reasoned that the chances of me making adulthood seemed so slim, to gaze into the future was simply frivolous. As I got older I lived day to day, stumbling through in a haze of antidepressant medications that sedated me more than boosted my awareness, which I paired with nights of binge drinking to the point of blackouts. I cannot recount the number of times I woke up the next day with what can be eloquently described as fuck-all memory of the night before. And while this kind of experimentation can all be chalked up to youthful exuberance, for me it was always a shade darker, because deep within my soul, I knew that drinking really let me forget who I was, and how utterly futile my attempts at happiness would be.

Of course, the universe has a way of teaching those of us who want to learn, and for all my failings and self-hatred, I had an interest in unraveling the tightly wound knot that had formed around my soul. I wanted to understand who I was, and what had caused me to become all the things I despised. I wanted the anger to subside, I wanted the burning hateful rage towards my parents to at least be more akin to a manageable back-burning activity than a fiery inferno doomed to engulf me in flames. I wanted to be a better version of myself, but short of self-analysing in what was then the DSM-IV (and becoming convinced I suffered from a number of personality disorders), I had no other tools at my disposal.

It was a work of both luck and kismet that I started seeing a therapist in 2002. For fourteen years we have waded through my psyche, studying the blocks within my own foundation for flawed belief patterns and crumbling debris that leads to self-sabotage. And with a chance to unlock my own story, I have re-written the ending. So now, having overcome (most of) my own demons, I find it difficult to simply exist in an unconscious life. I cannot wed myself to the idea of working long hours, away from my children, in a job that does not satisfy me, so I can pay for a mortgage.

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All I really need is my health and the health of my family, somewhere to write, time with the loved ones I never believed myself worthy to have, and a chance to nourish my soul. And another twist of fate, I have found myself a partner in life who holds the same beliefs as I do. My husband D has been in the workforce for over 20 years and he has worked his ass off to get where he is. And guess what?

He has just resigned.

Why?

So that as a family, we can take 12 months off, away from the daily grind, to rediscover what motivates us and brings us joy, and most importantly, so that we can spend quality time with our children.

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We have bought a caravan that will be ready late next month, and have traded in both our cars to buy a 4WD that I struggle to park. I have commenced the culling process, donating scores of goods to charity, selling some bits and pieces, and throwing out what remains.

Our family will set off on our adventure sometime after July. We have no concrete plans; no itinerary. We have a rough idea of which part of Australia we want to be in at various months of the year, but that is it. We intend to sell our house, and most of our belongings, and commit to a life of minimalism. Instead of the frantic rush out the door of a morning, we will eat breakfast as a family. Instead of frenzied Sundays spent preparing for the demanding week ahead, we will take each day as it comes, without reference to looming deadlines. We will parent together and apart, ensuring we each have space to re-energize and decompress. Our children will learn about life not in a classroom but in the long walks we take as a family, exploring our surroundings and marveling in nature’s beauty. We will read books, play games and rest at midday, without fearing the flow-on effects of naps on bedtime.

We will create the type of life we want to have. And if during this time, we find that we hate being in close quarters and that the only thing that makes our family work is time apart from each other, it’s okay. We can re-jig our plans, because we are answerable to no one but ourselves.

This time away from the typical ‘9-5 hang out with the kids on weekends’ approach to life is also motivated by our combined desire to reevaluate how we interact with the world around us. At present, we live in the inner-west of Melbourne which has a strong community vibe but whose sense of neighbourliness has not graced the street in which we have lived for the past five years. Our neighbours think nothing of calling the pound if our dog accidentally enters their backyard; something that has happened three times in about four years. As an animal lover, I struggle to understand the course of events that sets off such a response to an issue that is part of suburban residential life (if I found a dog in my backyard the owners would be lucky to get it back). Likewise, a neighbour who lives across the road from me, thought nothing of marching over to my house at Arse Hour (i.e. the time between feral children wanting dinner and feral children eating dinner) to school my friend who was visiting on why it was inappropriate for my friend’s car to be parked immediately outside her house. On the road.

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My family got back from Fiji a few weeks ago and while we were there I looked into visiting one of the remaining villages where people still live traditionally. In the tour information booklet, visitors are advised to feel free to compliment villagers on their belongings, but to be careful not to be too complimentary as villagers will always offer the item as a gift, even if they cannot afford to do so.

In the space of two weeks, I went between engaging with people who would share with me even if doing so was to their own detriment, to dealing with the pettiness of someone who feels enraged by their yard or the public road outside their home being infiltrated by some kind of interloper.

I may not be able to move to a traditional Fijian village, but I can create a village of my own with my tribe, where we harness our energy to enjoy the little things in life. And while it means a huge departure from the norm and what is ‘safe’, what is less safe for me is to remain fixed in a lifestyle that no longer reflects the person I am, or the kind of role model I wish to be. I want my boys to question the norm, to be kind to the environment, and to know that there is more to life than exhausting one’s energy at work which leaves nothing to draw from once the work day is over.

I have no idea where this will lead us, but I know it’s the path we are meant to travel, and naturally, I will be writing about all our (mis)adventures.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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Farewell, wheel.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How to get ready for summer!

Today is the 1st of December which, if you live in the southern hemisphere, marks the first day of summer.

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Can you still hear the screams, Clarice? No, they are not the lambs. They are women everywhere who fear they are not ready for summer.

Everywhere we look, women are reminded of this ever-looming deadline. Get fit! Get ready! Stay in shape! Slim down! Tone up! All of these instructions lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the way we are – right now – is unsatisfactory. Because before we can even dream about revealing ourselves in a swimsuit – as summer often dictates – we have to ensure we adhere to whatever rules we have created for ourselves in relation to public exhibition. In case you are interested, here are mine:

  1. Do not reveal flab of any kind. If you must reveal flab, try to disguise it by carrying an enormous beach umbrella, deck chair or child everywhere you go.
  2. Do not wear a bikini post-children. Remember that the appropriateness of midriff-baring is directly proportionate to the number of children your stomach has housed. Note: this rule does not apply if you are pregnant, in which case beach-going strangers will flock to your enormous mound and pat it without invitation. On very warm days, your gigantic girth may also be used to provide shade for small children playing on the sand.
  3. Cellulite must be hidden with fake tan, or if this is not available, by ensuring everyone you plan to socialise with while wearing said cellulite-baring swimwear is as drunk as humanly possible. If they cannot see in front of them, they will not notice your thigh dimples. Use this trick to your advantage.
  4. Under no circumstances consume beer while in a bikini. You didn’t starve yourself all week to have a flat stomach only to have it disappear after throwing down a stubby of Pure Blonde.
  5. Always dress for your age. You are not a teenager!

Now, I have lived by these rules. Because even pre-baby, when my stomach was reasonably flat and stretch-mark free, I still believed I was inadequate. I believed my body should only be viewed under specific, well-choreographed situations, most of which involved me being submerged in water from the neck down.

Here I am, in a bikini, pre-baby. I look back on this and think I look pretty good. But at the time, I still felt fat.
Here I am, in a bikini, pre-babies. I still felt fat.

Recently, I have been wondering how I came to this narrow approach to baring myself in public. Sure, the media can be blamed, at least in part. We all know the effects of photo-shopped women adorning billboards, television screens and Instagram. But to scratch the glossy surface a little more, I have realised my belief that my body was not satisfactory was rooted deep in childhood, when I first learned that my body was not my own, because it was endlessly being viewed – consumed – by others.

One of the first times: I am four years old and I am – against my tomboy will – wearing a bikini. It is unquestionably too small and a gift from someone for Christmas who obviously knows nothing about me (possibly one of my parents). My grandparents have told me to put on my new bathers because they are about to put the sprinkler on in the backyard. I run from the house into the backyard as fast as I can, over dry grass and small pebbles, and all I can hear is the laughter of my father, who is stopping by on one of his rare visits to my home. He comments words to the effect of Oh god, it’s jiggling. And Are you sure you’re not feeding her too much?

She’s beautiful, my Nanny says, her protective instincts on display. I still run back inside.

Another time: I am five years old. I am on a plane, my first trip overseas with my grandparents. We are going to Hong Kong. I am mauled by the Chinese flight attendants who are besotted with my chubby cheeks and squishy frame. My head is patted each time they walk past my seat on the aisle. My cheeks are pinched to the point that it becomes painful. I pretend to sleep when they walk past, desperate to avoid being manhandled.

Another memory: I am ten years old. I have been away from school for a week due to illness. I have returned on the day that I believed was free dress day; unbeknownst to me this day has been postponed to later in the term. I arrive at school not wearing a black skirt and yellow polo shirt like the rest of my girl-peers; instead I wear black bike-pants and a blue singlet with Mickey Mouse on it. Notwithstanding my embarrassment to be the only student not in uniform, my humiliation increases exponentially when my teacher – a male in his thirties – asks me if I have a skirt in my bag so that I can cover myself up. He then asks me to keep my arms down at my sides during class time. I don’t ask him why.

Next: I am eleven years old and I am now – technically – a woman. It is the most revolting feeling in the world, my body conspiring against me, dragging me into adulthood against my will. My nanny tells me to wear loose clothes during that time. She tells me to avoid wearing white, which is difficult when my new school uniform is pink and white checks.

All of these messages bombard me before I am even a teenager. I do not need to describe the regular reminders of physical inferiority that all girls face, even the pretty ones, during the rite of passage that is high school. Unsurprisingly, by the time I am an adult, I have become abundantly aware of all my physical failings, and have committed myself to a lifetime of camouflage, perpetually hiding my perceived flaws under dim lights and whatever objects of distraction – alcohol, dark clothes, handsome boys – that I can find.

Reading this, you might assume me to be fat, obese even. The truth is, I am not, and I never have been. I have lean, muscular arms and reasonably good legs. I have broad shoulders and pert breasts, even after breastfeeding. I have been told I have a pretty face. Yet I – and, I believe, millions of women like me – are convinced that this is not enough. I focus on my flaws. The buttocks that no amount of lunges seem to tone. The thighs that display cellulite if I choose to wear anything that society tells me is too short. The stomach that is soft and pudgy, and flecked with scars and the occasional stretch mark from reproductive wear and tear.

But I have decided that I have had enough with conforming. I am almost 34 years old, and I have had enough.

Do you know what happens when women – normal, beautiful women – hide their bodies away from public view? We leave only the toned, perfect figures who feel brave and bold enough to bare their skin as our representatives. We tell our partners, our children, each other and ourselves that only women who look a certain way should be on display. This approach does a disservice to ourselves and to our loved ones.

We need to be braver.
We need to be seen.

Today, I have decided to get ready for summer. Not with a diet, not with a boot camp, but with acceptance of my own body as being perfect the way it is. And how will I do this? Buy purchasing myself a new swimsuit based on the colour and cut that I like best, and which will allow me to prance around the pool proudly and defiantly. You want to see my stomach post-kids, go ahead. It’s not a 6-pack and it probably never will be. Guess what? I don’t care. And no one who loves me cares either.

My body has grown two human beings who now cuddle into the squishy parts for affection and love. It is strong enough to push a heavily loaded pram with two enormous boys strapped on, uphill. It can lift my 12 kilogram baby overhead with ease. It can hold the giant baby in one arm while pushing my 17 kilogram 3-year-old in a swing. It can drag groceries, a scooter, and two children through a carpark with ease.

I am strong. And I am strong enough to wear whatever I goddamn please.

So my question to you is this – will you be strong with me? Will you throw off the shackles of what you believe you are supposed to look like underneath your clothes, and accept that how you look – right now – is perfect in its imperfection? Will you help to show the world that healthy women come in all shapes and sizes, and that we do not need to fit a particular mould in order to be suitable for a wider viewing audience than our immediate family? I believe that if I can harness this strength, and the strength of other women as we do something as pedestrian as going to the beach, I will be ready for not just summer, but for every season of the year.

The last time I was at the beach, I saw an older woman, possibly in her sixties, splashing in the waves with her husband. He scooped up a handful of sea water and lovingly soaked her with it; she called him a “bugger!” and kicked a spray of water back at him. I watched them both leave the water and plonk themselves under a beach umbrella and pull two drinks from their Esky (she drank an orange Vodka Cruiser – who says you have to act your age?). I remember this woman because of what she was doing, not how she looked. I did not even notice what kind of swimsuit she was wearing, or what her thighs looked like, or whether her breasts sagged. All I focused on was her spirit and zest for life, and the laughter she shared with her husband.

I don’t know if she thinks she is beautiful, but I sure do. And I really hope that this summer, I can see a lot more women just like her.

 

 

 

 

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Smile like you mean it

In four days, I will have been without my Nanny’s embrace for two years. Without the gentle pat of her soft dainty hand stroking mine as she spoke. Without the scratchy rubbing of her knitted cardigans on my skin when I clutched her tiny frame in my own. Without the smile; the baffled-by-the-end-of-it-who-is-this-nice-girl smile, that used to light up when she saw me, even if she had forgotten my name.

Two years.

In those two years without her, I have watched my son grow from a toddler to a small man. I have stopped having single word chats with him where he pointed to a train and said traingo. I have stopped hearing him sing the Thomas and Friends theme song using the words “Thomasischeekyway” (instead of Thomas is the cheeky one, believing that Thomasischeekyway was the full name for Thomas the tank engine). Now, he considers things as he says them, remarking “You know what, mummy? We never seen a talking train before.” My beautiful, rambunctious boy, who squeals with delight when I carry out the most important acting role of my career – the monster/crocodile hybrid that chases him around the house. Who responds to my questions with the conjunction actually. Who tells his little brother every day, “I love you, cute little baby!” and who similarly scolds his brother when he destroys painfully precise car alignments, shrieking “No, giant baby! No!”

Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.
Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.

In those two years without Nanny, I watched my body grow another human; the giant baby who is now twelve months old. Who has gone from gulping at my breast constantly to happily chewing on pears, cheese and bread. Who pats my face with his pudgy hands, squealing and drooling as he smiles; his eight little teeth like pebbles sticking out from sand. A little boy who is in awe of his big brother and the unexpected hugs he receives from him, even when the ferociousness of the embrace literally knocks him over. Who just wants to be cuddled, all day, by everyone.

In addition to these moments of exquisite joy, over the past two years I have also had the agony that tempers the ecstasy. Just three months ago I saw the body of Nanny’s life’s companion dressed in a suit and tie, somberly waiting to participate in the last ritual of death, the cremation of flesh and bone into dust. I saw the relatives who created the illusion of caring at death but who were noticeably absent from caring during my grandfather’s life. I saw the crows circle, their talons poised and ready to swoop, eager to ensnare any item of value left below. And in time, I felt the piercing sting as their claws ripped at the belongings, the mementos, the stuff, anything and everything that remained a reminder of the life he used to live.

Two years.
In two years, I have, it seems, seen it all.

Rare is the night where images of my grandparents don’t pervade my dreams. A few nights ago, I dreamed that my Nanny’s death resulted not from dementia and its associated ailments but from an act of violence at the hands of my grandfather. In my dream, my grandfather had grown impatient from years of stifled frustration at being the caregiver to a woman who no longer knew his name, and had snapped, strangling his wife of over fifty years in their marital bed. My role in the dream was bystander; unaware of my Nanny’s passing I visited my grandparents’ home, and upon entering the bedroom saw the body of my grandmother, her pink nightgown draped over the torso that bore two children and raised one more, her crinkled skin crumpled and pale, awkwardly stuffed between the sheets. And worse –  in the depths of my psyche, I created a scenario where my grandfather not only was responsible for his wife’s death, but had also been sleeping beside her body for days, so assured was he that she would wake from death, and literally come back to life. The image in my dream, of my Nanny dead for 48 hours, is not one I am willing to describe.

I went to a friend’s house last week and witnessing a seemingly benign act of affection between mother and child caused me a quickening breath and gulping of saliva in an attempt to retain composure. The scene: a mother walking past her adult daughter, who was seated on her lounge room floor. As she navigated alongside her daughter’s frame on the carpet, the mother reached down her hand, and lovingly ran her fingertips through her daughter’s hair; ruffling the follicles in a playful, friendly gesture. An acknowledgment that this woman on the floor, this adult, was still her baby, and a nod to the special bond they share, for to whom else could one conduct such a display of cheeky fondness without fear of reprisal?

My friend glanced up; smiled. Her mother stepped over her and smiled back. No words uttered; just a shared moment where words were unnecessary because the bond needed no description. And as I sat there, holding my enormous drink bottle in my lap, glancing around the room at unfamiliar but welcoming faces, it struck me that I will never know that expression of convivial, maternal closeness ever again.

One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.
One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.

What prevents me from truly grieving the loss of both of my (grand)parents is that I am still wading through matters related to finalising my grandfather’s estate. I now have confirmation that my aunt discharged her bankruptcy in 2008; conveniently enough the same year that she landed on my grandparents’ doorstep with a suitcase and an assurance that she wouldn’t stay long. There is a palpable sense of injustice I feel while making sense of all my grandfather’s financial investments; reading letters he had written to various entities with whom he held shares, unclipping bulldog clips that had remained firmly in place in his folders of information, the small square of rust at their corners a testament to their longevity. He was a man who was at pains to be self-sufficient, to master his own wealth and to fund his own retirement. Newspaper clippings from the Financial Review alongside letters requesting dividend payments be made in differing units of currency, buyback offers, scrips, dividend re-investment offers, proxy nominations for shareholder meetings – this was his life. After retiring he threw himself into mastering the stock market. This man, who never received a government handout, who never asked for help, produced a daughter who elected for bankruptcy instead of paying her debts.

My grandfather used to ruffle my hair. I think he did. I recall a photo that lived on the mantelpiece in the dining room of my grandparents’ home – a room no one ever used for dining because it was instead housing an inordinate amount of furniture and Nanny’s extensive crystal collection. The photo, my grandfather used to remark, was one of the few with the five of us. My father in the centre, shirtless and playing the bagpipes in my grandparents’ backyard. My Nanny stands beside him, beaming proudly as she looks up to her son. My grandfather standing squarely on the other side of my father, with my aunt to his left. And me in the front, all eight years of me, stuffed into this family photo against my will; my hands over my ears to silence the deafening bleat of the instrument my grandfather loved. My grandfather’s smooth, tanned hands, cupped around my face, attempting to get me to smile for the photo.

I am not supposed to be in this photo. If you looked at it, would you know who was the odd one out? Would you mistake my aunt for my mother? Would you think she was my primary caregiver? I am Nanny’s child – she told me again and again. She said I was like her half daughter.
“Is that because the other half of me didn’t come out properly?” I used to jest.
“Don’t be revolting,” she said with a smile.

I have come to physical blows with my aunt before. Looking back, and remembering the proximity to the kitchen at which the melee erupted, I am surprised that we did not reach for knives. Of course knowing my grandparent’s dislike of household maintenance in their later years, one can safely assume any knife I grabbed would be blunt and useless. I do not like weapons anyway; a fight should only be with fists. Better yet, don’t fight at all. In those moments of blood warming rage, walk away, as I should have done.

I don’t know how you can sleep at night, I said, in reference to her mooching ways.
“I sleep fine,” she said, “I sleep fine at my parents’ house. My parents, not yours. You wouldn’t know anything about parents, would you? Because neither of yours want anything to do with…”*

*Note: this is when I should have grabbed my aloo saag, a handful of naan, and left. I did not do this. Instead, I became consumed with rage, desperate to inflict pain on another. I pushed my aunt onto a chair, and essentially began strangling her. No time wasted with a punch or a slap; let’s just go straight for suffocation. Of course my Aunt fought back but I was unharmed. My grandfather broke up the altercation. I apologised to my Nanny whose dementia kindly allowed her to register very little of what was transpiring before her eyes, and then stormed off to my car; desperately holding tears back until I reached the privacy of my Corolla.

My grandfather followed me outside, imploring, “Don’t go; you haven’t even had any of your dinner!”
“You are my parents, right?”
“Of course we are.”
“She doesn’t think so,”
“She is an idiot. You were the last to the party but the best of the bunch.”

I hold onto these words now. I hold onto them; those words uttered under a starry sky with the smell of pappadums in the air. I cling onto the belief that he meant what he said, even though there is a part of me that suspects my kindly grandfather would have said anything to keep the peace. I choose to ignore that tug of negativity, instead telling myself that I was supposed to be part of his family, and Nanny’s family, because I was in some way, the child of my grandparents. No matter what the biology says, or the turmoil we endured, or any of the other shit that got me there, I was theirs.

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In the two years since I lost my (grand)mother, my role as mother has come to define how I respond to and act within the world. I would have loved nothing more than to go on an alcohol infused bender in the days leading up to my grandfather’s death. I can taste the shots now; all sweet and sickly, burning my throat as I throw them down. When my Nanny passed away, I wanted to sit alone in the dark and cry, pausing only to cradle a bong, or a bottle, or anything else that would just make the pain fade a little. Of course I didn’t do this; I couldn’t, and deep down I knew it would only make me feel worse. So instead I waited for my son to fall asleep, then I sat on the back deck, Malboro between my fingers, playing 10,000 Days by Tool in my earphones as the tears ran down my face.

I was meant to be in that family photo; the one with the five of us. Even though I look uncomfortable, as though I am desperate to break free, I still didn’t want to move away from my grandparents. Of course, then there came a time that I had to. And even when I fought what was best, just like in the photo, I smiled because I had to. They wanted me to.

On the 19th of October, the day that marks the day that Nanny’s heart beat for the last time, I will hold my boys, my family, close. I will ruffle the hair of my three year old and I will tell him he is loved. I will tell him that being mum to him and his brother makes me so happy, even if it looks as though sometimes I am not. And I will smile, proudly, defiantly, because that’s what Nanny would want.

10,000 days (Wings Pt. 2)
(MJK)

We listen to the tales and romanticize,
how we follow the path of the hero.

Boast about the day when the rivers overrun,
How we’ll rise to the height of our halo.

Listen to the tales as we all rationalize,
our way into the arms of the savior.
Feigning all the trials and the tribulations.

None of us have actually been there,
Not like you…

Ignorant siblings in the congregation.
Gather around spewing sympathy,
Spare me…

None of them can even hold a candle up to you.
Blinded by choice, these hypocrites won’t see.

But enough about the collective Judas.
Who could deny you were the one who illuminated?
Your little piece of the divine.

And this little light of mine, a gift you passed on to me
I’m gonna let it shine
to guide you safely on your way.

Your way home…

Oh, what are they gonna do when the lights go down?
Without you to guide them all to Zion?
What are they gonna do when the rivers overrun?
Other than tremble incessantly.

High is the way,
but our eyes are upon the ground.
You are the light and the way.
They’ll only read about.
I only pray heaven knows,
when to lift you out.

10,000 days in the fire is long enough.
You’re going home…

You’re the only one who can hold your head up high.
Shake your fist at the gates saying,
“I have come home now…!”
Fetch me the spirit, the son and the father.
Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended.

“It’s time now!
My time now!
Give me my
Give me my wings…!”

You are the light, the way,
that they will only read about.

Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance.
Burden of proof tossed upon the believers.
You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence,
Judith Marie, unconditional one.

Daylight dims leaving cold fluorescence.
Difficult to see you in this light.
Please forgive this bold suggestion.
Should you see your maker’s face tonight,
Look him in the eye.
Look him in the eye and tell him,
I never lived a lie, never took a life,
But surely saved one.

Hallelujah
It’s time for you to bring me home.

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Mood goes up, mood goes down.

One thing I have noticed in this gig called parenting is how swiftly a day of smug satisfaction (sprinkled with a sense of actual aptitude and ability) can be destroyed by a day that is equal parts shit and awful. Just this week I had a cracker of a Monday – kicking goals in the parenting world and patting myself on the back for a job done well.

Then, the other shoe fell. Eff you, Wednesday.

Last year when I was working full-time and pregnant with my second baby, I wrote this pseudo-diary entry that detailed what a day in the life of a working, pregnant mum looked like. Today I thought I would share what a few days in the life of a currently-on-mat-leave-and-don’t-want-to-go-back mum to a one-year-old (N) and a three-year-old (J) looks like. Sometimes, it aint pretty.

Enjoy. Or commiserate. Whatever works.
– S

Monday
Enjoy unusually glorious, sunny and warm weather by prancing around the house in a t-shirt and letting your boys hang out for most of the day in their undies. Make fresh fruit smoothies. Go for a walk and smell the fresh spring air. Kick parenting goals when you take both little people – unaided – to the beach, where one of them frolics on the shore and the other moans angrily due to a combination of heat and teething.

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Take children to the park; soothe child’s grazed knee with gentle kisses and ferocious hugs. Reward exemplary behaviour with ice cream (and coffee for self). Cook healthy dinner from scratch. Greet husband at the door with a smile and a casual comment of “I’ve made Thai fishcakes wrapped in lettuce leaves for dinner”. Marvel at your own brilliance in multitasking. Go to gym when boys are in bed and run 4km without suffering heart attack. Pat self on back for job well done. You got this!

Emotional score: 8/10. So awesome it almost hurts.

Tuesday
Suffer sleepless night care of teething, grumpy baby, who bleats all day and needs to be held constantly. Walk child to school in near freezing conditions, lamenting stupid Melbourne weather that lulled you into a sense of happiness yesterday. Source coffee and do grocery shopping in a frantic rush before baby loses the plot. Spend rest of the day doing thankless tasks like laundry folding and dishwasher stacking. Collect child from kindy who says he wants pizza for dinner. Tell child he is having soup for dinner. Watch child’s face fall with devastation. Present soup for dinner; tell child it will be cool enough to eat soon. Watch as child takes massive gulp of hot soup and burns himself, resulting in considerable tears and screaming (mostly from child). Soothe child’s burns with apple juice and assurances that he can have something else for dinner. Notice that wailing of child has frightened the baby, causing him to cry in solidarity. Consider joining in the chorus of tears. When husband arrives home, greet him with a frantic hello and throw the baby into his arms before fleeing the house. Escape to the gym for first Pump class in over two years. Realise that the last time you heard the phrase “squat track” the grandparents who raised you were still alive. Put melancholy thoughts aside and try to be more positive for chest track. Discover you have guns of steel due to lugging around enormous baby almost every day for the past 12 months. Wish that back pain you endure from same activity would bugger off. Get home and breastfeed the baby. Notice supply is dwindling. Feel happy and sad all at once.

Emotional score: 6/10. Satisfactory result in trying conditions.

Wednesday
Endure another sleepless night care of snotty, teething baby, who eventually needs to be fed at 4am. Tell husband to give the baby a bottle so that husband can be just as tired and cranky as you. Sigh when baby wakes for the day at 5am. Breastfeed baby in your bed into a light sleep, thus ignoring all the rules from the three “sleep school” admissions you have attended in desperation. Breathe sigh of relief when child greets you at 6am in a happy mood. Plant children in front of television and return to bedroom to get changed. Navigate bedroom with such clumsiness that you walk into the corner of your bed, causing you to bruise your kneecap and writhe in agony. Breathe deeply. Tell self the day will get better (Ha! Self laughs).

Hobble back to kitchen. Wrap ice pack around knee and present breakfast to children who do not want what has been prepared for them. Watch baby throw food from high chair onto floor only to cry when there is no food on his table. Pipe tube of yoghurt into his gullet, straight from the squeezy packet. No longer care about utensils like spoons. Watch as child takes himself to the toilet and listen as he declares he has “finished” and needs assistance. Leave wailing baby and assist child as needed. Encourage child to play in his room while you dress the baby. Learn that attempts to dress baby are futile as child has returned to the toilet twice more since his last visit. Realise that child has diarrhea. Sit child back on toilet with a book. Hope for the best. Call husband with a view to complaining. Husband in meeting. Text husband instead, hoping emojis will convey your pain. Receive thoughtful, supportive reply:

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Change baby in front of television. Decide this frenzied, stressful morning is the perfect time to go to Aldi for party goods that you neither want or need. Decide to make this experience even more painful by visiting an Aldi you have never ventured to before. Park car and try to drown out sound of child saying “But I want to sit next to N in the trolley.” Tell child he can stand in trolley instead. Tell him it’s like a skateboard cage. Wonder if Aldi sells cages?

Source trolley. Load trolley with children and other items that lack nutritional value. Tell child to use groceries that are being piled upon him to make a cave. Watch in horror as child steps on rice crackers and bread. Narrowly avoid baby knocking his front teeth out in a brave attempt to eat the trolley handlebars. Give baby a packet of spinach to play with instead.

Breathe through gritted teeth at the following (repeated) exchange with child:

Child: What’s that [points at random item]?
You: I think it’s a [pointless random item] puzzle. It has insects on it. It’s an insect puzzle.
Child: Ooh, I love [random item] insect puzzles.
You: No you don’t.
Child: Can I have it?
You: No.

While paying for unnecessary groceries that you could have bought at local, reliable Coles up the road, realise you have made a grave error by not yet ingesting coffee. Tell children that you are going to a drive-through. Child asks for treat. Tell him he can have half of your hash brown. No longer care about nutrition.

Drive to closest McDonalds. Order hash brown and coffee. Pay for hash brown and coffee. Hand child half a hash brown. Drive away. Get home; park in driveway. Go to sip coffee and realise epic mistake. No coffee. Cry and wail “I FORGOT MY COFFEE!” Explain to children that you are going out again so that mummy can order another coffee. While having this exchange, notice that child has spilled yoghurt all over back seat of car. Make loud accusatory demands, including “What happened? Why is there yoghurt everywhere?” causing child to place hands to mouth and mumble, “I don’t know.” Explode with disproportionate response of “GET YOUR FINGERS OUT OF YOUR MOUTH” which makes child cry. Explain your anger. Explain to child that he will need to clean car. Explain you need coffee. Now.

Source coffee. Arrive home. Put angry baby to bed for a nap. Give child a plastic bag and tell him to fill it with all the rubbish on the floor of the car. Go inside to get paper towels to clean yoghurt. Come back to car to hear child proudly exclaim “I’m nearly finished mummy!” Child is not finished. Child is delusional. Child has not picked up anything from floor of the car and has instead used plastic bag to rub spilled yoghurt further into car’s upholstery. Rant wildly. Tell child you said “firetruck”.

Develop slight tick in your eye when baby wakes from nap after 40 minutes. Decide children can entertain themselves with your guitar. Watch as beloved first acoustic is smashed by little hands. Pleasantly, crying abates long enough for you to make lunch for children which you suspect they will not eat. Look in fridge for more squeezy yoghurt.

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Finally talk to husband on the phone and are reminded that your in-laws are coming for dinner. Snap at husband in anger before remembering you agreed to the dinner visit and actually invited the in-laws to your house under the misapprehension that it would be “easier” for you. Immediately realise you have nowhere to seat 5 adults and 4 children as your dining table is being used to hold all kinds of items including paperwork for your grandfather’s estate, folded laundry and mail you are yet to open. Also notice that space the dining table used to occupy now houses a Bubba Mat and litany of toys. Panic. Tidy and move furniture as much as is humanly possible with an 11kg person attached to your hip. Sit child in front of Play School and sigh with relief that Teo is on (look, Mummy! It’s normal Teo! He not have beard!).

Realise you have wet laundry sitting in washing machine. Hang it out and learn of another horror mistake – purchasing wrong fabric softener. Scent of incorrect fabric softener brings back images of sordid evenings in your early twenties with boys who wore Lynx deodorant. Now all clothes and laundry smell like they belong to a sleazy nightclub owner named Wayne. Gag as you hang laundry on the line, secretly hoping it rains.

Use afternoon to look for matching cutlery for dinner guests. Lament cleaning limitations of stupid dishawashing tablets, vowing to never buy Fairy brand again. Vacuum. Play on floor of child’s room with child and baby. Become irrationally annoyed when child demands you play Thunderstruck on acoustic guitar. Tell him you can play twinkle twinkle little star. Child suitably unimpressed. Apologise for destroying child’s faith in your abilities.

Put baby down for second nap. Listen for ten minutes as baby bitches about being cozy and warm in a dark room. Pat baby for 10 minutes then creep out of room stealth-like. Play lego with child on floor of child’s room until interrupted by phone call from solicitors in relation to grandfather’s estate. Solicitors have received inventory you provided that listed every single item in your grandfather’s cluttered 5-bedroom home. Solicitors are concerned about the missing items you have identified, specifically the unlicensed, unregistered firearm that you suspect has been taken by one of your icky relatives. Agree that a missing weapon is a concerning development. Hang up and ask child if he wants to listen to music. End up having Shake it Off on repeat at child’s insistence. Dance like an idiot. Notice blood pressure momentarily subside.

At 4pm, realise you haven’t showered. Ask child if he wants to have a shower now. Child says no. Tell child you will have a quick shower; start disrobing. As you remove underwear, realise you can hear the baby crying, apparently awake after a 30 min power nap. Consider showering anyway. Put dirty clothes back on and try to comfort baby. Give baby Panadol. Explain to child why he can’t have any Panadol and distract his drug hunger with afternoon tea and another episode of Play School. No Teo this time. Child devastated. Call husband and tell him he needs to come home early as you look and feel like shit. Husband says he will try to get home before in-laws arrive.

Decide the only way to calm the angry baby is to put him in the bath. Child also wants bath. Back too sore to lean over while holding enormous baby who is prone to toppling over, so decide to get in bath with both children. Know there is no way you will have time for a shower. Somehow manage to hoist self and giant baby out of bath using shattered quad muscles that are barely functioning after the ill-considered Pump class from the night before. While dripping wet and freezing, towel off baby while simultaneously keeping an eye on bathing child. Turn around momentarily and see your husband’s face at the bathroom door. Get such a fright that you scream and burst into tears. Accept husband’s apology and palm baby off so that you can compose yourself and put clothes on. While husband entertains child and baby, get dressed. Curse as you realise nothing in your wardrobe fits and all the clothes you like are on the line smelling like Wayne.

Hear doorbell ring. In-laws are early to dinner. Groan loudly. Realise you are still only wearing a towel.  Tell husband to only let his family come inside if they have brought wine. Husband returns to bedroom with a glass of wine and a takeaway order. Call local Thai restaurant and feel grateful for rapport you have built with staff that allows your order to be delivered earlier than expected. Inhale dinner, your first meal since the hash brown. Go to pour yourself another wine before realising you have to parent tomorrow.

Farewell dinner guests and collapse into bed. Let dog in. Dog leaps onto the bed and lands on your knee at precisely at the same place you bruised this morning. Yell out to husband to come to bed. Ask him to bring the ice pack with him. And more wine.

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Emotional score: 2/10. One point for each wine.

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