An explosion of memories

 

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Entertaining 18 boys on a rainy day.

 

In the third bang, a candy waterfall erupted from the cracked piñata and the kids dove for the floor and scrambled over the sweets, fighting each other to fill their pockets with the goodies they want. And that was it – six hours of work destroyed in six seconds. No wonder some parents ask me why I do this. Why do I spend my nights crafting themed birthday parties for my children?

For this particular piñata, I had cut strips of newspaper and, one by one, wet them in a mixture of water and flour and layered them over an oversized balloon. I repeated this process over and over for six hours over two nights because my son asked for a Death Star piñata this year. I could have said no, it’s too much work. But he loves Star Wars and his parties and he was turning 10 – I don’t think there are many more themed birthday parties left on him. My eldest this year turned 12 and chose to invite his friends to the movies instead of having a party. I’m glad that for 11 years I was part of his celebrations and helped make his date of birth memorable.

I’ve heard some mothers arguing that elaborate kid’s parties are the epitome of the ‘invisible labour’ of the gendered work of caring and that this should have no place in the lives of today’s modern women. It’s also not uncommon to read about mothers showing off how accomplished they are at mothering by throwing impeccable parties. Others have said these parties are a form of ostentation. There are as many views as there are people and all these arguments may hold true in some cases but for me, birthday parties are a celebration of both childhood and a new year of living. I feel that I’m creating beautiful memories while celebrating friendship, sharing food together, preparing and opening our house for visitors.

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This year marked the beginning of a new era. It was a strange feeling, having my son saying he didn’t want a party. “Not even a cake?” I persisted. He shook his head. “How about invitations?” “Only if it’s a plain invitation, no cuteness.” And that was it. A night at the movies and Mc Donald’s with his mates. For years, he chose a theme for this party and got excited about the invitation and birthday decorations. Every year the party’s theme registered a different stage in his life. From Nemo to pirates to dinosaurs to bushwalking. This year, the lack of a theme indicated the beginning of a new phase of his journey towards independence. I felt a sense of pride as I watched my little man marching towards the movie theatre surrounded by friends.

You will never get this moment back again. There will come a day when we don’t know but we will be doing something for the last time. That’s why I was determined to create a Death Star and didn’t give up when the balloon collapsed into itself. Once the covered balloon was dry, I cut a hole on the top to later put in the lollies and was going to start the painting and decoration. But something went wrong. The papier-mache started to crack and the balloon couldn’t hold its weight. I tried to bring it back to shape with duct tape but to no avail. “Mum it’s ok, you’ve put so much effort already.” My wise 10-year-old brought some sense to my desperation.

But I was determined to make his Death Star come back to life. I looked online for alternative ways to accomplish my goal and realised I would have to start from scratch. I decided I was going to try to cover another balloon with plaster and went to the craft shop to buy the ingredients. I stood there, staring at the shelves and in my mind’s eyes I pictured myself covered in white power swiping the dusty floor at 2am. My son’s voice echoed in my ears. Everything has a limit. Two hours later I returned home with a $12 piñata from Kmart. It wasn’t the Death Star but the kids enjoyed it all the same.

 

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Stick figures: 21,000 min slicing carrots

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I did the maths. Every single school day for seven years I’ve cut carrot sticks for lunch boxes. This equates to 21,000 minutes or 14.5 days cutting the same beta-carotene vegetable (sometimes I add cucumber for a bit of variety) and stuffing them in little plastic containers. Today while I was going through my daily ritual it was borne in upon me that we haven’t had Disney’s lunch boxes in a while, my children have actually grown (I have these revelations from time to time), so why don’t I let them cut the vegetables and prepare their own lunch boxes? With their help, I would save 15 minutes each day.

There are many explanations why my kids don’t prepare their lunch boxes, but the main reason is the mother:

  • I don’t want them to make a mess that I will have to clean up
  • I don’t want to put up with the whining and whinging (they don’t want to do their lunch boxes)
  • I don’t want them to get hurt using a sharp knife
  • I take pride in a properly made lunch box, one that includes fresh food and prepared with love

As I was writing this I was thinking, gee, if I wasn’t in the equation, they would be using a butcher’s knife by now. I had set a deadline that by high school they would be doing their lunch boxes but now high school is just around the corner for my eldest and we haven’t had much progress. The mess they make in the kitchen and the complaining drive me crazy. And watching them use the knife sends shivers down my spine.

I know I have to do something about this so I rationalised that  I’ll continue with the vegetables and they can do the other food groups. But then the other night I was watching my eldest spread butter on his toast. I was standing there staring at him, my head shaking in disbelief as he maneuvered the butter knife. He made a deep whole in the creamed milk and ripped up his bread trying to spread the butter on top. Another revelation: my 11-year old can’t handle a butter knife, or any other knife for that matter. My kids are bad with knives because I haven’t given them access to the tool, I haven’t taken the time to teach them how to use one properly. I have to admit that rather than nurturing future helpers I’m over protecting my precious treasures from most house chores and denying them the chance to grow. I might be protecting their little fingers now but this can actually hurt them in the long run.

I want my children to be capable of looking after themselves by the time they leave home and I know there are still many years to get them ready but they have embarked on a journey towards independence from the moment they learnt to crawl and my role is to equip them for the journey, help them gauge the risks accurately rather than removing all obstacles.

The new year will begin with a better division of chores, a present that they don’t expect Santa to bring but they can thank me later in life. And the carrot sticks will continue make their way to school next year, but there will be a new pair of hands making them.

A Day in the Life of a Working Mother

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I wanted to whinge about this crazy week but ended up penning down a story instead. I plan to slow down but here I’m 1am and still going. One day. Soon.

“Kids get your bags and get in the car.”
Amelia recites this phrase every morning, except the days she works in the office. Those days her husband deals with the morning chaos.

“Being late is a bad habit.” She says running upstairs, two steps at a time, almost tripping over the last step. Steadying herself she glances over her room, looking for her bag. It must be in the wardrobe. Amelia notices the kids’ flannelette pyjamas still on the floor and squints. They never pick up their clothes. She wonders if it’s worth yelling again asking them to come clean the mess. Why bother, we will be even later. This is just an irritation, a minor irritation. Her spacious bedroom looks small with all the clutter. She walks over the jumble of clothes and stops in front of the sliding mirrored doors of her robe. Before she slides the door open she notices the face starring back at her. Her eyebrows climb, there is no spark in those eyes. She looks tired and her hair hasn’t seen a brush yet. Amelia pulls an elastic band from the pocket of her blue Nike jumper and quickly ties her short, unruly hair, into a ponytail. That will do.

Amelia races downstairs, this time holding the rails.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” She instructs the kids, who don’t seem to hear, they are totally absorbed in their game of Pokemon cards. Amelia always repeats ‘let’s go’ three times. A single ‘let’s go’ doesn’t express her sense of urgency.

“There is no canteen money if we are late.” She warns them and this time the kids get moving.

They drive to school talking about Pokemon and the upcoming birthday party that she hasn’t started planning yet. She printed extra copy of the invitations to send to their family overseas but unknowingly to her Steve distributed every single invitation to his friends at school. She is uncertain of who or how many kids have been invited.

“Mum can you pick us up early?” asks Steve.
Her heart feels heavy every time she hears this question. She wonders if she is giving her children enough quality time. Is car time quality time? She read somewhere psychologists saying that car time is part of the equation. She finds this reassuring. She is focusing on the traffic ahead but notices Steve is still staring at her.
“I’ll try.” Amelia says unconvincingly, she knows she won’t be able to.

She finds a spot in front of the school.
“This is our lucky day!” Amelia cheers up.
“A school day is never a lucky day.” Steve mumbles.
“Common, you enjoy playing with your friends, don’t you?”
“Mum, no child likes going to school. We just go because we have to.”
“Ok but you have to hurry now, the bell will ring in a few seconds.” Steve’s mouth is a horizontal line now. She immediately regrets saying the word hurry and gets out of the car to kiss them good bye and straighten their hats.
“I love you.” She shouts as she watches them climb the fence. Her boys never use the school gate.

Amelia drives off waving at some parents chit-chatting at the gate. She sighs. She doesn’t want to be a stay at home mother but she wishes she had time to chit-chat sometimes. Her days start early and are full. Here she is, not quite nine in the morning and has already done one hour of work, before the kids got up.

The school traffic steals a couple of minutes from her morning. As she waits at the pedestrian crossing, she notices the blue sky dotted with a few specks of fluffy clouds. The thermometer in the car’s dashboard displays 18C. The perfect weather for a run. But she has so much on at the moment, she has to resist. She is hopeful that she will have a break for a run later in the day. That’s why she is wearing active wear and her GPS sports watch.

But the day doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. There were no pit stops. The only break she’s had was to scramble some eggs for lunch. She spent the whole day staring at the screen in her computer. It’s already time to pick up the kids and she still has emails to reply. She will have to return to the computer at night. Her eyes are red and sting. Amelia puts her elbows on the desk in front of her, holds her head with her hands and massages her temples with the tips of her long middle fingers. I’m working too hard.

On the way to school she sights runners pounding the pavement and wonders how they find the time. Don’t these people have mortgages to pay? For a moment she wishes her life was different. Amelia stops at a set of red lights and spots her birds. The common birds that are always there performing a synchronised dance across the sky, in perfect harmony. Amelia thinks they are pigeons but she isn’t certain. It doesn’t matter what they are and it doesn’t bother her that she has to stop at these lights for two whole minutes. She enjoys the show. She tries to count them, 25, 30, more. More than a messy sum of birds. This is a self-organised dynamic system showing cohesion and movement of a group without a leader. A show of competence and cooperation among birds, qualities she admires.

She arrives at after school care and from a distance she spots the boys playing soccer. Amelia worries that her kids don’t spend as much time at home as they would like to but she is watching them play in the soft rubber field, they tackle, they dribble and they don’t seem in a hurry to leave. This makes her feel better.

Amelia signs them off and they walk to the car talking about Pokemon and the homework that still needs to be done. But not tonight. They are now heading to music lessons and she will be there replying to emails while she waits at reception for thirty minutes. If the lessons were longer she would go for a run instead. She is still in active wear and wearing the GPS watch. She is not the only mother waiting in the tiny reception at the music school but she is the only one working on a laptop. The others are reading Women’s Weekly and those types of magazines. She wanted to reach out for one too, just for a bit of entertainment but she knows her night will be even longer if she doesn’t deal with the emails now.

Thirty minutes go by and the boys are back at reception before she sends the second email. “Just a minute boys.”
“Mum I’m hungry.” Whinges Jack.
“Just pressing the send button… now.”
She looks at them. “Ready to go.”
“Mum, can we stop for hot chips, I’m starving.” Jacks insists.
Stop? Stop? Who has time to stop. “We’ll have dinner shortly at home.”

They are walking across the footpath of the quiet shopping village. By now a cafe and a take away shop are the only stores open.

“But mum I am hungry now!” Jack doesn’t give up.
Amelia raises her arm to check the time and calculate how long it will take to whip up dinner, quickly read the kids a story, have a shower and go back to the computer. She feels a drop of sweat running down her back.

“My stomach is grumbling mum, please?”

Amelia stops walking and stares at the trees at the end of the road soaking up on what’s left of the sun in this gorgeous spring day. Even trees do a better job of looking after themselves. She wonders if she will ever finish reading the book she started last month. Amelia doesn’t give her kids junk food very often, she thinks this is lazy parenting. But she is too tired today.

“I just had an idea.” She says putting her arms around the kids’ shoulders. How about we go to Macas and grab a take-away dinner and you can eat in the crèche at the gym while I do my exercise?”

The boys don’t like going to the crèche. They say creches are for pre-schoolers.

“Only if I get a milkshake with my meal.” Jack tries to negotiate a deal.

“Ok, you choose your dinner tonight.”

The kids arrive at the gym carrying a brown bag in one hand and a clear plastic cup with a cold drink in the other.

“I’m sorry but the creche no longer opens on Thursday nights.”

Amelia gave the receptionist a blank stare, she could not believe it. Maybe she didn’t hear the girl properly with the thumping sound coming from the treadmills behind her. The girl showed Amelia a copy of the gym’s timetable, circling the creche’s opening times.

“Really? I rushed so much.” She didn’t mean to say that, the words just came out of her mouth, she could not hide her frustration. It was her fault, this is what happens when you are too busy, sooner or later you make mistakes. Why am I cramming in so much? Why do I have to be so productive?

She turns back to look at her boys and they smile.
“Mum, now this is a lucky day for us. Can we go home?”
“Ok, let’s go.” This time she only said it once.

Chaotic day, got better, then… you tell me.

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I know you’ve had days like this too. Days sent to try you. In such days you just want to go back to bed and start over. These days for me tend to begin like a nightmare, tormenting me in the middle of the night, like when insomnia comes for a visit. But this time it was my youngster whispering in my ear “bad dream, bad dream”. It was cold  and I had no energy to take him back to where he came from so I made a slight sideway move and he hopped on between my husband and I and snuggles under my wings. Luckily I managed to get back to sleep. But not for long.

“My throat hurts, I can’t sleep.” I get up and go on a blind expedition to the bathroom to get the medicine box. Before I reach the power switch, ouch! When a 60Kg person steps on a mega strength Lego piece it hurt but 1am it hurts even more. When the evil ridges dig into the ball of my foot I scream so loud the dog wakes up— my husband surprisingly manages to sleep through it all. “Here darling, have a lozenge.” I walk my eldest to his bedroom and wait for him to fall asleep. Back in my room, the youngest took possession of every inch of my side of the bed so I retire to his. I bring my phone with me, I still hope I will wake up at 5:30am to go for a run. But child with sore throat still woke me up another two times before the alarm takes me from my slumber. Just 10 more minutes, I beg the universe.

When I finally woke up there was no time for exercise and it felt like I had already ran a marathon. I quickly got dressed and I rushed out of the house to catch the train before the rest of the tribe got up demanding my attention. My husband was in charge today but if the kids see me around they find a way to occupy me. I was excited that besides all the chaos of the night I was still catching an early train and thus would get a seat. But as soon as I reached the station and got my Opal card from my wallet I spotted the crispy bank notes I should have left in the kitchen bench for the cleaner.

I literally ran home and back to the station again, limping because of the Lego nugget I crushed. Magically I got a seat on the train. Ok, time for some meditation and gather energy for the the day ahead. I try to pull my headphones from my handbag but they are stuck. I pull harder and harder and two kiwi fruit fly out of the bag and go rolling down the carriage. I man next to me starts laughing, I look at him and smile —one’s got to laugh of his tragedies… I see passengers lifting their feet and looking down. To avoid further embarrassment I let go of the fruit.

Eventually I arrived at the office and put my porridge in the microwave while I recounted the morning to a workmate. The porridge overflows. “Not your luckiest day” my friend says. I wondered what more could go wrong today. Thankfully not much. The rest of the day ran smoothly, well, depending in your point of view. When I got home at night I learnt that the Liberals had officially won the federal election. I’ll let you be the judge.

Yes, I’m that kind of woman

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My jaw dropped to the floor. I was explaining to the scouts leader that my son couldn’t make to the excursion because I was travelling for work and she hit me with “it’s ok, you are one of those women.” I couldn’t find words to express my surprise but it didn’t matter anyway because whatever I say in these situations I never win. It’s frustrating that mothers are constantly judged for their choices, even by other women. If I’m around career focused women I’m just a part-timer. In stay-at-home mum circles, I’m a type A. It feels like women must be penalised for their freedom to choose.

I often think of my mum and the options she had when she got married and had children. Not many. But thanks to the pioneering women that fought and continue to fight for gender equality we can now celebrate that many of us have choices. We are free to commit to marriage or singlehood, pursue a career, get a degree – with or without children. Our focus, however, shouldn’t be on the choices women make but on enabling all women to be in a position to choose. Once we reach a critical mass of females empowered by choice, we as a society will be less critical of the paths that each of us choose.

So yes Mrs scouts leader, I’m one of those women lucky enough to have been able to decide. A woman with a couple of degrees and two decades of work experience. A woman who believes that females are as capable as males in the workforce and outside and that curbing their enthusiasm to pursue a successful career is a disfavour to the sisterhood.

But I’m also one of those women that are big fans of childhood. A grown up that loves children’s birthday parties. A mum that loves to hate the homework dramas, the school run in the morning, the sibling quibbling, the lego pieces scattered everywhere, the healthy lunch boxes that return home untouched.

I’m one of those women that want both worlds but that derailed her career to focus on the family – for childhood is too short. A woman who believes that there is no right or wrong choice, that we each have our individual motivations and belief systems and should be encouraged to make decisions based on what meets our needs more closely.

Ultimately, I’m a woman who thinks that educated women and men should extend their attention to the women that have little or no choices. As a society we should put our energy on creating the conditions to allow every women to be able to choose. Choice should not be restricted to educated white females that are lucky enough to find supportive employers and partners.

Next time you meet someone that chose a path different to yours try not to judge. Instead, celebrate that given the opportunity, women can be any kind of woman they want to be.

Memories on the roof

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Our laneway was too quiet for a Sunday afternoon. No bikes, skateboards, soccer balls or their owners in sight. As I approached the driveway a voice came from above: “Mum’s home.” I looked up and there they were playing on the roof.

Before I could scream their names and ask them to come down, I had a flashback to the 80s when I too was in the roof of the neighbour’s house, getting my volley ball back. To get there, I had to climb the back wall of our apartment block which was a bit higher than the neighbour’s roof, then  jump down to the roof clearing a meter long divide that separated the buildings. Looking down, I knew the fall could do a lot of damage but I still crossed to the other side. I don’t know if my parents knew what I was up to, but I don’t think they would have been too concerned.

As I pictured my roof climbing adventures I reached for my phone and recorded that moment for posterity. Children in the 21st century still have fun climbing fences, trees, and roofs. If only we let them. But most times we make sure they are safely indoors (and this often involves a screen) or engaged in after school activities.

We do this because we are good parents. There is danger outside and we have to prepare our children for a very competitive market place – there is no time to muck around with their education or safety.  But the reality is, child abduction in the streets is rare and if we pay less attention to the media and do our own homework, we will see that by over scheduling our kids’ lives, natural fun and spontaneity get squeezed out. I think parents are equally so busy that they don’t even realise that these essentials are being stripped from their children’s everyday life.

I recently came across this research about the role of free play, day dreaming and independent discovery in building emotional maturity, developing cognitive skills, and boost physical health in children. The research reveals a link between unstructured activities and the development of executive function.

Executive function is an umbrella term for mental skills that help us control our attention, impulses and enable us to plan. These skills have long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other lifelong benefits such as health and wealth.

My boys are always complaining that they don’t have enough free time and like most parents I don’t always have the courage-energy-time to let my kids just muck around and be kids. But here are a few things that I’m doing to create more opportunities for free play:

  • I’m encouraging my kids to do their homework in the morning before school so they have time to play when we get home
  • Friday and weekends they can play outside until dinner time (sometimes I end up having dinner before them)
  • They can ride their bikes and take the dog for a walk in the neighbourhood without supervision
  • No tablets or eleconics at night so they can read, write, draw or play

Free play, however, has a boundary – they are not allowed to go on the roof. After that incident, I explained why I didn’t want them up there and it looks like their are using their executive function, I haven’t seen them up there since then 🙂

 

 

The night I got changed in the car

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The sun had already set when we arrived at the oval for Lucas’ soccer training. While his session is running, I normally dash to the shops with Thomas to get dinner. But today there was a change of plans. “Mum can we practice for my cross country?” Thomas asked firmly. I wasn’t really in the mood for a run. I had covered 11KM in the morning before work and my gross, sweaty workout clothes stayed in the backpack all day. But how can you say no to a child who spent the whole day at school and after school care?

Our cross country training started with hurdles – where to get changed? I checked the public toilet but the lights were off, so we walked back to the car. I scanned the vicinity to ensure there were no parents around the car park, got in the car and started to unpack. Man, I never realised my own clothes could stink so bad. I quickly put the top on and my body shivered when the wet fabric touched my skin. Yuk! Then the contortionism began to put the sticky running pants on. Eventually I managed to get dressed and nerved myself to action in the track field, hoping I wasn’t going to pass by any parents.

Despite the hygiene situation it was an occasion for celebration – Thomas has never shown any enthusiasm for running, or for any other sport for that matter. “Ready, set, go” he commanded and we started to race. Well… I did. But Thomas started skipping. And jumping, cart wheeling and pretending to fly like superman. He also stopped a few times to climb over the fence. Close to the finish line he went on all fours pretending to be Snoopy. I was trying hard not to laugh of the whole situation. Thomas was clearly having a wonderful time but my poor baby was probably going to come last in the cross country.

“Mum, I’m glad I practiced for the race, I think this year I’ll go really fast,” he said. My heart sank. I was thinking how disappointed he was going to be. Running 2KM with that level of focus he didn’t stand a chance. I’d better say something to prepare him. “Thomas”, I went, “remember, it’s about doing your best, it’s not about winning.” – “I know mum,” he replied, “everyone gets an ice block at the end. Everyone is a winner.” What a gorgeous boy. Yes, Thomas, everyone is a winner. A life lesson right there. Please sweet heart, never ever change.

From kale to chaos – But I feel fine

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Last week started so well. Lots of kale juice and the fridge was overflowing with luscious greens and colourful, vitamin rich fruit and vegetables. Then the work week began… and the picture above summarises well how it ended.

It’s really hard for working mothers to find the time or the energy to put a healthy meal on the table every night. This week was particularly difficult because of the school holidays and the demands of work–I saw myself doing much longer days than usual. Even though I was working from home most days, by the time I shut down my laptop, I was feeling drained and guilty. It was the holidays and I had barely seen my children. Cooking a healthy meal wasn’t any longer at the top of my priority list.

I’m very proud of my boys, they behaved so well–played with their toys, watched tv, spent time on their electronics and ran outside with the neighbours. I only had to leave the room to feed them. But instead of celebrating that they are growing up and becoming independent, as the week progressed I was feeling more and more deflated. It felt like I was managing a cattle feedlot.

I know that research after research tells us that there is no negative consequence for children of working mothers. But I think mothers secretly worry that they are not giving their kids enough quality time and that this could have an adverse effect on the children. I don’t fear in silence anymore, I write about it instead.

My concern with this ‘quality time’ is what made me decide not to work full-time while my kids are still young. Although mind you, I work four days and more often than not I end up doing more hours than a full week of work. But at least this gives me the flexibility to wait for my kids at the school gate a few times a week. And at 2:55pm when the school bell rings, I know when I see them scanning the sea of parents and our eyes meet that they are happy that mum is there for them.

So back to my week, by Friday the house was a mess, it was raining and the kids spent the entire morning playing with video games, and the hot water system had stopped working – it was total chaos and I was growing increasingly irritated. About 3pm I had enough, put the kids in the car, drove to the shops, spoiled them with a sweet treat and let them spend their pocket money. It was my way of making up for the week in the ‘farm’ (and I needed a good dose of caffeine!). We browsed books and told jokes and stopped at every department store to look at Lego sets and Star Wars merchandising  (the new family fever). The sugar overdose made me feel guilty again but honestly, I thought bugger all health eating messages right now, I just want a break from the chaos of the week and connect with my kids doing something I know they enjoy.

Then we got home and I had to remorsefully throw away lettuce and bok choy that had passed the ‘use by’ date. You can’t have it all-or at least I haven’t pulled off having it all. But one thing I have is my breath to go back to. Sometimes it helps me make better decisions, other times it just prevents me from going totally nuts and at the end of the day it always reminds me at that with sugar or without, life can be… well, sweet.