Miss you (more?)

My plane is delayed, so I’m at Dunedin airport by myself. I’ve just had a lovely three day holiday in the Catlins with an old friend, lots of walking and chatting, a couple of swims in a cold south sea. It’s been pretty magic. But I’m also looking forward to going back to my normal life – I miss my boys. And I’m looking forward to doing this sort of holiday with them, they’re almost big enough for it.

D turned four last week, and B turns two in a month. They’re playing together really well at the moment. They need me much less. I’m finding myself feeling quite ambivalent about this.

There are lots of positives – my husband and I had a night away together recently, which was so needed! It makes me feel like there’s more scope for interesting career opportunities, or to spend more time on other pursuits. Which is great.


At the airport, seeing other little ones, instead of feeling wonderfully free in contrast, I miss mine. Not just as they are now, I miss them all the way back. I miss D as a tiny baby when we first took him up to Auckland. I miss B as a newly toddling baby when we came back from my cousin’s wedding last April. I feel those memories start to blur, it goes too fast to hold on tight to all those versions of babyhood, and I don’t feel ready for it to be over forever.

We might or might not decide to have a third. I can feel it going either way. We’d always thought we’d have three, even when I was just about to give birth to B I thought we’d have a third. Then as soon as he was born I realised we could stop at two. It’d make life easier. I have loved treating his baby days as though he might be my last, but now – I’m really wondering about having another. Not immediately, I don’t what to be pregnant again soon. But maybe next year? Maybe once D is at school?

I’d like to be able to go back in time and visit my boys. Visit myself as a new mother, let myself know it all turns out ok. I can’t tell yet whether I’m feeling the bittersweetness of the end of a phase, or whether this is the start of really wanting another baby. I’ll recognise it if I feel it, wait and see if this builds or wanes. If it turns into desire that defies logic, the love-in-waiting, the sense of rightness despite knowing the extra challenges, the sense that one more will be a gift to the children we already have.

Or, instead (maybe) – deciding to wait for other outlets for that spare caregiving energy, even if you don’t know when those opportunities will come up.


The reckoning: staring down the male gaze in media and literature

As the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum in uncovering sexual assault by so many prominent men in media, I’m left thinking about the overwhelming male storyteller bias in so much of what we see and read about sex and relationships and gender dynamics. Books I’ve loved, movies, tv shows. So much to re-examine.

Take Ian McEwan’s Atonement – I read this as a prescribed text in a uni paper on the 20th century novel. At the time, I thought it was brilliant. I loved the twist when you find out that Briony is the narrator, that adjustment in how you feel about the story once you realise who told it. It’s a cool idea, a nice metafiction mechanism.

Peel back another layer though, here is a book written by a man, in which the hero is someone falsely accused of rape, and the character we’re invited to critique was a child when she made the accusation. And I’m thinking now, hrmmm, really? Poor bloody Briony, she was only a kid dude! The whole book seems like an unwitting case study in grown men fantasising about young girls being more sophisticated and manipulative than they can possibly be. I don’t think I could stomach reading it again.

Another problematic former favourite: Louie. Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie. The allegations against Louis CK… omph, well, that casts a very different light on this body of work I’ve already absorbed! That show wasn’t the product of a self-aware person exploring the darkest, unrealised aspects of their psyche; it wasn’t a nuanced and thoughtful consideration of ageing and sex and parenthood and gender and disconnection in modern cities, it was a grand masterpiece of dissembling – this version of me is acceptable, even amusing, because you think I’m joking.

Don’t even get me fucking started on Jonathan fucking Franzen and Freedom. Guys, stop trying to imagine what it’s like to be a woman because it feels like the greatest literary challenge you can take on. It’s not. If you’re so interested, listen to actual women tell our actual stories! (Or, to see it done well, observe David Grossman and write from the perspective of a mother when it’s crucial to the story you want to tell, because you’re critiquing male values of militarism and emotional detachment, and you’re telling your own story in the fullest and most honest way you can).

It starts early though eh.

D watched Aladdin recently. We had it on video when I was a child, I watched it a lot, so it’s familiar – but also different to how I remembered it. The songs are just as good, and Robin Williams’s voice work is superb, what an amazing talent he had. The animation still feels lively and exiting.

It’s also clearly racist, playing on Arab caricatures throughout. Painful to watch. Not cool, Disney.

And Princess Jasmine, despite saying “I am not some prize to be won” with suitably biting vim, is, clearly, a prize to be won. Like, that’s the conceit of the entire movie!

Even in a kids movie, we see these messages about gender and relationships, this pattern of boy sees girl, boy decides to pursue girl, girl rejects initial advances, girl is won over in the end.

And the more I think about this, the more it seems like a huge chunk of the media we consume is created by men to groom women into capitulating to their advances, or at least, to accept as natural that any pushback will need to be very insistent – and even then, don’t expect him to give up pursuing, not until another man wins the prize.

For a long time, men have gotten away with being bumbling, given the benefit of the doubt for ineptly navigating subtleties, no matter how much they should know better. It starts to feel especially icky when we think that all these stories about bumbling men who are actually good guys are written by men. Of course they want us to give them the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, even very young women are blamed for any naivety – warned that keeping safe is their job, they have to be alert to potential risks, avoid tricky situations, read subtle cues, have several back-up plans. The drunk girl in the movie who is almost taken advantage of by the slightly caddish friend of the hero, don’t be that girl. No-one is telling the guy not to be that guy. No-one is saying, hey, that’d be rape, what the hell?! It’s presented as lads will be lads, so watch out! Who’s writing those stories?

Importantly, it’s not just casual sex and dating. The next wave of #metoo might be lifting the veil on sexual abuse within committed relationships, drawing the connections between intimate partner violence and rape culture. Last year, I read an Australian piece on women being pressured into having sex too soon after childbirth (link here – please note the content warning, this is a disturbing piece). And as much as it was disturbing, it was also not surprising, not when there are subject headings in baby books about “making sure the new daddy doesn’t feel neglected”.

Sex is still seen as something men do to women, and women are seen as passive gatekeepers to men’s sexual satisfaction. The ongoing battle for women’s sexual agency is about saying hey, that whole framing denies us any agency beyond “yes, I’ll let you”. It is still radical to see heterosexual sex as equally about the desires of the woman. It shouldn’t be this complicated! It should be obvious!

It’s not obvious though. How can it be obvious when there is a strong current in our culture, especially mainstream movies and television, that sees women as existing only to serve men’s stories? These things are connected. Sexual violence is not an isolated outlier in a culture that otherwise sees women as equal, that couldn’t possibly happen. It exists as the extreme edge of a culture in which men are encouraged to see themselves as entitled to women’s bodies, to our time, to our emotional labour, to our very selves.

Last year there was a widely shared piece in the Atlantic by a man whose family had a slave, a servant called Lola, brought from the Philippines when they emigrated to America. It was a very complicated piece, a lot to unpack, but one thing that really struck me was how much the author exalted the selflessness of Lola:

She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.

The author seemed conflicted about the situation – and the piece was an exploration of the conflict; and yet, the resolution seemed to be in deciding that there was a purity in the love they felt for someone whose whole existence was to serve others. It is a deeply problematic conclusion given she had no choice but to serve them.

I think this has some quite interesting intersections with motherhood. The idealised caregiver figure is seen as someone who finds her sole purpose is serving the needs of others. Male obligations are seen as specific, measurable – go to work, take your kids to soccer practice, mow the lawn. Female obligations are seen as open-ended. Support your children’s emotional, physical, social, and intellectual development while maintaining a comfortable home and contributing to your community, and find full satisfaction in doing so. The mum in a sitcom is a stay at home parent, trying to keep a hand on the chaos while being amusingly frazzled, oh, what a perfect foil to the breadwinner dad’s laid back attitude to life! Hahabloodyha. Too real! And again – it’s not a coincidence that these stories are written mostly by men. Those are not stories that reflect women’s lives as we experience them.

While the TV and movie father maintains his own interests and invites the children to join them (“Look son, I got you a new football!”), the mother rearranges her interests so they fit in with what best supports the children’s needs (“I’ve finished sewing the costume for the school play!”). Female characters who step outside this mould are never an uncomplicated hero, this transgression is the point of the story, not a side note. If you watch ten movies, maybe one of them will feature a woman who doesn’t exist to further the story of her male romantic partner or her children.

In being a mother to boys, there’s a sense of particular responsibility to make sure they see women and girls as full people – and I think this starts with making sure their needs for connection and love are validated, without becoming self-effacing, and turning into the only-for-others mother.

The questions I come back to are, how would we behave if we hadn’t had a whole lifetime of absorbing male expectations about how we should behave? What amazing things will we do once we no longer have to push against the tide to do them?

Lessons learnt when shopping for clothing online, from someone who hates shopping and doesn’t like clothing either

Before I was pregnant with D, I had a nice minimalist set of outfits I’d collected over six years of only buying things I really liked, and being pretty much the same size.

Five years later, after two pregnancies, I’m one and a half clothing sizes larger and I think this is my new natural size, and I have… nothing. Like, no clothes that fit. My favourite weekend t-shirt is one from Rhythm and Vines 2013, and I didn’t even go to Rhythm and Vines in 2013, I just got the t-shirt in a $5 sale bin at Mr Vintage. My favourite work skirt is a hand me down from my mother and my only other work skirt is also a hand me down from my mother.

So it had kinda reached the point where I obviously had to do some shopping for clothes, and ugh, I tried, but just, it’s such an epic chore shopping for women’s clothing when you don’t like shopping and need a whole new wardrobe and aren’t particularly interested in clothes and are the same height as an average man.

I really, really, really hate shopping for clothes.

It’s hard being tall, but not willowy model thin, because nothing in the shops ever fits well! NEVER. Shirts are always too narrow in the shoulders, dresses don’t have the waist at the right height and show too much leg, trousers are too short in the rise and too short in the leg, and skirts turn into mini skirts when they’re meant to be knee length.

Plus, women’s fashion is so bullshit, trying to make us look decorative with no regard to practicality, like this latest trend of tops that have an bit cut out where the shoulders are meant to be. WHAT THE FUCK, PEOPLE? I even saw some like that for KIDS! Um, sunburn alert?

I want to be able to shop for clothes like a man does – walk into ANY shop and buy something that fits and is either comfortable and practical, or polished and professional. Men have shopping so damn easy! Their fitting systems work for them, they can get shirts in the same pattern but made in “relaxed”, “slim” and “regular” fit. It’s all laid out on a platter for them to look good with no effort. Why can’t women’s shirts come in the same pattern but tailored for different bust sizes, huh?! Why is that so complicated, Mr Fashion Designer Man?

Anyway… so I’ve turned to online shopping, because at least there I can try and buy from overseas retailers that have a “tall” collection. It’s been hit and miss. Some things have been really great, some have not fit or have been slightly different to what I was wanting. Here are some of my lessons from creating a whole new wardrobe through online shopping, while trying to keep it straightfoward:

  1. Buy in the sales – this way, if it’s not quite right it doesn’t matter as much. In my recent shopping binges, I’ve gotten a dress that is not quite my taste because it’s a bit more close-fitting than I’d normally go for, but it was $50 reduced from $150 so I’m not as bothered as I’d be if it was full price. Buy two or three sale items at a time – stay under the customs tax thresholds, but make the most of flat rate shipping.
  2. Know what suits you and what you like, and stick with it. This goes for both your reliable colours and your reliable styles – I could have avoided buying my too-close-fitting dress if I’d considered it more carefully, because it was obviously, in retrospect, a close-fitting style, and I usually prefer things that are a bit less sleek. (My work image ideal would be more CJ Cregg than Joan Holloway, except my body shape is somewhere in between and I don’t have a costume designer on hand to do it all for me and make sure that every outfit is meticulously on brand. Damn it. Why can’t I be a TV character?!)
  3. If you don’t like it when you first try it on, return it straight away – don’t keep it in case it grows on you, it won’t, and you’ll wear it a couple of times and then you won’t be able to return it, and it will sit there sadly.
  4. Read the reviews – Julie from Bristol says this fabric picks up the fluff so she’s sending it back despite loving the design, thanks Julie, that’s a useful warning for someone who often has to sit down on carpet to change a last-minute nappy before going to work! Maria from Sydney says that the shoulders are very narrow, good to know Maria, that one will give me that same awkward look I had in sixth form when I was still wearing my school uniform shirts from third form, so not for me, cheers.
  5. Check your actual measurements, and check the sizing chart – sizing varies hugely between different shops. Err on the side of buying a size up, it’s fairly easy to get things taken in if needed but there’s not much you can do with clothes that are too small.
  6. Check the info panel to find out if things are machine washable. Goes without saying that working mums don’t want clothes which aren’t machine washable.
  7. Buy things you’ll want to wear a lot, because if you have no clothes and you’re trying to save time in the mornings, you’re going to need to wear everything you have a lot anyway.
  8. Use filters – online shopping can seem overwhelming, but I find it easier than a physical shop because of filters. Select size, price range, clothing type, and watch it whittle down to a manageable collection like magic.
  9. Find a couple of shops you like and buy most things from there, keep it easy.
  10. Buy undies from Thunderpants because they’re so great and then at least you always have good undies. And togs from Swanwear. And socks from Icebreaker. Not all my stuff is from overseas!

Unexpected, but exciting

What exciting news from our Prime Minister. What amazing, exciting news.

An unexpected pregnancy – a wonderful surprise, that’s what the media statements say.

Choosing excitement at an unexpected pregnancy is always a vote of confidence in the future of the world.

Mostly change happens slowly, step by step, but sometimes someone comes along who is able to take a flying leap. This is a flying leap. Shit I have no idea how terrifying and exhilarating that must be. But those steps are secure, you can do it, there are people on the other side able to help, so many mums and dads who want this to work, hundreds of thousands of people, saying – you got this. And we’ve got your back.

It might be harder or different than you imagine – and oh we so hope it goes well for you (the pregnancy, the birth, everything). But whatever happens, this is good news, this is the best news. This is such an exciting thing! A new baby! A COMPLETELY NEW PERSON IN THE WORLD.

Being sworn in as PRIME MINISTER just after finding out you’re pregnant, I mean, what a legend. What an absolute legend.

This can happen, this is going to happen, and whatever needs to change to make it work will just have to bloody well change, because it’s time. It’s time that women are able to rejoice in unexpected babies without apologising, and damn all the naysayers who bleat and moan about other commitments – babies happen, we’ll make it work. It’s time that women are able to say – it isn’t just my job to raise this child, it will take a village, and I have other things I intend to do with my life as well as being a mother, and I’m committed to both, and they’re not in competition. It’s so time.

This is an amazing moment for women in New Zealand. For all of us who’ve negotiated a promotion after going back to work from maternity leave, who’ve applied for a new job while on maternity leave, who’ve spent so many painstaking hours figuring out suitable caregiving arrangements and suitable working arrangements, trying and re-calibrating and discussing it endlessly with our partners, and making it work, and being there for our kids, and delivering in our jobs. This is so huge.

The people who voted you in, the women who feel unbelievably proud of our amazing Prime Minister, we’re not going to let them tear you down for this. We are SO HAPPY FOR YOU. This is the BEST NEWS.

Like, so many people are amazingly happy for you right now. This baby is going to be so, so loved.


The last breastfeed

B had his last breastfeed on Tuesday.

I had thought it might be the Sunday feed that would be the last. My husband had taken the kids to Chipmunks and they’d had a busy morning out and about, while I pottered around at home. B didn’t fall asleep in the car and was overtired when we got home – but hot and thirsty and hungry too. And, though we were planning on weaning him, it seemed like an easy win for me to lie down with him in our bed, and feed him to sleep. Like we’d done hundreds of times before, me lying there resting, him sleeping, with his blonde curls making him look exactly like a storybook angel.

Later, when he didn’t have a breastfeed on Monday or Tuesday morning I thought, oh, that was it then. Last time. All gone.

But Tuesday we picked the kids up early and went to the swimming pools, and after the swim, we realised time had run away with us. B was a bit over it while D was still keen. So the last breastfeed was on a bench in the foyer of the pools. And we sat, and he looked at me while I watched the world go by. I remembered previous times doing this – in Zealandia, at the zoo, anywhere and everywhere. I’ve loved the stillness of breastfeeding the second time, the break from focusing on the older more active child, the chance to sit quietly and really look a the baby. I’ve sat feeding him in public so often, while D runs about, it’s been such a feature of our life, and this was it – done.

The real last time.

I was glad that the last could be one I offered, rather than acquiesced to. I was glad it was an awake one for him too, one where I could look down at him and have him look back, rather than wondering when to de-latch him without waking. Nice to let him finish in peace for the very last time.

Suddenly he seems older. I was ready to wean. For ages I wasn’t, and then, I was. Ready for the connection to shift, ready for that next stage.

But it seems so final. They don’t stay babies. He was such a good baby! And now he’s not a baby anymore. Almost two. So much more verbal now than a month ago. So ready to be a big kid.

I’m not a mother of a baby anymore.

The rain fairy story

One of my stories for D:

See those trees on the hill? There’s a fairy who lives in one of those trees. She has a tiny treehouse, you wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking very carefully, and she is very small – as small your little brother’s hand, but she has the most beautiful big wings. The wings are silver and purple, translucent, and bigger than the fairy herself. They are so delicate that she can’t go outside in the sun or they would burn right up.

This fairy is a rain fairy. When the clouds come in and the rain starts, she leaves her treehouse, and her beautiful delicate wings turn into a fluttering umbrella, keeping the rain off her face and hands while she flies. The rain fairy has a very important job. She goes out in the rain with a wooden fairy bucket in each hand, and collects the raindrops that fall on flowers. All day when it rains she flies back and forth, back and forth, filling up the buckets and stacking them in her treehouse. Something magic happens when rain drops fall onto flower petals and are collected by a fairy. They become fairy water. Fairy water has many magical properties, and this fairy, the one who lives in the tree on that hill, she uses it to give little children happy dreams.

When the sun goes down, and she doesn’t have to worry about her wings getting burnt, she takes a bucket and leaves her treehouse, and flies to all the houses where children live. She sneaks in through an open window or a cat door and goes into their bedrooms, and puts just the tiniest tiniest drop onto their pillows.

When you put your head on your pillow, the fairy water touches you, and as you close your eyes, it starts making beautiful dreams for you about the trees and the rain and the cool evening dusk, about flying in a gentle breeze, or sitting in a shady treehouse in the middle of a hot day. Sometimes you might even meet the rain fairy in your dreams. In the morning maybe you won’t remember, but every night when you sleep you give yourself the chance to let your mind rest, like the fairy rests when it’s sunny. Every night when you go to sleep, you make a whole new day for yourself in the morning.

Portraits of my kids as they are now

The younger one

I’ll start with the baby who’s suddenly not a baby.

He’s suddenly not a baby.

He’ll be two in a couple of months. TWO!

He has been an incessant delight. He is so sunny, so winsome, so charming, so innately wise and loving, he asks for so little and displays such gratitude at what he gets, he is cheeky but not toooooo cheeky, he is my curly headed angel child. I feel like Maria in the Sound of Music, “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good”, to get this child. It feels like he flourishes easily, and it is delightful to watch your child flourish without having to put too much effort in.

He calls his toes “piggies”, as in, “this little piggy went to market”. Whenever I wipe his fingers he says “piggies?”, toes too?

He says “lelow” for both “hello” and “yellow”, and when he wants my attention he waves and says “lelow, lelow, lelow mummy”, if I continue doing something else he comes right up and puts his face ten centimetres from mine and says “lelow? lelow? lelow?” – insistent, but patient too. When the kids are both making a big noise and I say shhhhhh, he starts rocking his head side to side and singing “la la la la” to the tune of “twinkle twinkle”, he knows it’s charming, and he knows it’s an approved alternative to shouting.

He also says “lelow” and waves whenever he sees the cat.

He is not quite yet weaned, and still very keen on breastfeeding, a bit too keen for my liking!

He doesn’t have as many words as his brother did at this age, but he communicates very effectively with the words he has. If he wants me to go somewhere he comes and takes my hand, and guides me there. It’s as though he’s realised that he can’t be heard over his brother, so he’d better come and sort it out. He is a quiet, calm, peaceful presence – pottering about, stacking duplo, brrmming trucks, pulling up dandelions in the garden.

He wants to like iceblocks, because they’re sweet and he can tell his brother thinks they’re a treat, but he takes forever to eat one and it mostly involves holding it out towards me and saying very solemnly, “cold”.

He prefers the slide to the swings. He is cautious and considered with play equipment, studiously figuring it out, then trying things confidently after he’s watched for long enough that he knows how it’s done. We’ve been taking them to the swimming pool a lot this summer (it’s FREE!), and after much watching he tried the floating inflatable obstacle course, and did it perfectly first time.

He loves to run, “munning! munning!”, tottle tottle tottle away. I remember at this age, his brother would rocket off heedlessly in any open space, but B is more cautious, running out a bit then running back to me, never wanting to be too far.

He likes to draw – and it’s never random scribbles, it’s always a looping circle, and when he’s done he’ll hand it to me and announce “moon!!”. Oh, it’s a beautiful moon my darling, you drew me another moon, I’ll add it to the collection of other moon drawings.

I’m not ready for this stage to be over.

The older one

I read through some of the back catalogue of this blog last night. It felt like visiting my big boy when he was younger. I remember when he was eighteen months or so, having such a clear image of his personality. Back then I thought he was super high energy, with a great sense of humour, very affectionate, stroppy, loved books and music, and needed plenty of engagement but could become overwhelmed easily too, especially with noise and unfamiliar people and confined space. He still is all those things, but coming up to four, it’s especially clear just how bright he is. I don’t want to hurry this stage, but I’m eager to show him the world, excited to see what he makes of it, interested to listen to his thoughts.

One of the nicest memories this year was taking him to see Moana on the big screen in te reo. He was blown away, and has been obsessed ever since. We go to Te Papa and he looks at the waka, he wants to know everything about the Pacific ocean. We’re intending to go to Rarotonga this winter for a week (a dream we’ve had since our first Wellington winter six years ago!), and I’m imagining us going to the waterfront in Ngatangiia, and looking out, and telling him that this is where the boats left that came all the way to Aotearoa. He loves the idea of sailing – and I tell him about his great-grandfather, my mum’s dad, who was a ship’s pilot and navigated all the way from Liverpool to Whangarei.

He is in his element when we’re out and about, all year I’ve made time on our Wednesdays for B to chill in the buggy while D and I walk and talk. Chat chat chat chat chat. He doesn’t ever keep his thoughts to himself yet, I hear it all. He has a mind that wants to grapple with complex ideas, and a body that wants to keep moving all the time. Walking and talking, walking and talking, going around the zoo – “mummy look the otters are playing with their otter penises”.

He loves having a little mission to do, and provides a constant commentary while he does it – today My Food Bag arrived and he unpacked the entire box, bringing me each item to put away with a little discussion “it’s a cucumber! That’s good! We needed a cucumber because my little brother really loves cucumber, it’s his favourite vegetable!… look, it’s spices, you like spices but I don’t like spices so much but maybe I will when I’m bigger!”.

Today Mr Daddy slept in, he had been up with B in the night attempting night weaning, and I took the kids to the Sunday market and then to Te Papa. My big boy helped choose the fruit, he was on board with the whole project, carefully examining the apricots “this one looks yummy!”, counting out the peaches, full of pride that he could do his little tasks well.

He’s such a perfectionist, if it’s not right he gets upset, wants to throw it all away. It’s strange, seeing some personality traits from myself in miniature. It makes me feel kinder towards myself, which I suppose is useful. He’s prone to intense emotions – and if he hasn’t had enough exercise, he’ll start to buzz about the room like an insect in a jar. He always ends up learning things the hard way because he doesn’t want to accept anything until he’s satisfied of the explanation, but then once he starts to understand he’ll keep musing on it, and he’ll help me teach his younger brother, “Mummy, he’s taking his arms out of his carseat straps again! We need to stop the car! We need to stop the car right now because if we crashed he might die!” I imagine him as a child who doesn’t want to rote learn his timetables, but instead wants to get five jars and put five beads in each jar and count the total number of beads. I hope he gets teachers who see this as a strength, a gift, and not a source of frustration.

He comes out with hugely insightful comments in his calmer moments “Mummy, when the people caught the giant squid by accident and they couldn’t save it and it had baby squid in eggs inside it, that makes me feel very sad that the squid died because those baby squid never got to be hatched and swim in the ocean not even for a little bit”.

He’s so loving. He talks about his family members all the time when they’re not around. His love for me is intense and almost overwhelming at times, “Mummy, I love you”, he says, about a dozen times a day. “Mummy, I just want to be with you all the time, except sometimes I also want to be with my friends, or with Nana”.

He’s developed some nice friendships this year, after a rocky start in the preschool room at creche. We saw one of his friends at the pools the other day, and they played together beautifully, showing each other how high they could jump at the shallow end of the pool, proper mates.

This is going to be his last year at creche. The last year of life as we know it.


Our grapevine

When we moved into this house, I barely noticed the grapevine, next to the dilapidated shed that we knew we’d have to remove. But that February, when I was heavily pregnant and the little dude had just turned two, the grapes ripened into an amazing bounty. We had so many grapes we couldn’t keep up with them. The grapes I remembered from my childhood – deep purple skin, completely round, smaller, sweeter and more jellyish than the ones from the shop. We met up with friends from our antenatal group at the park around the corner and took a huge bowl of grapes. All the toddlers ate them and played happily. There were already a few babies, and other pregnant mothers. When I pegged washing out (all the baby clothes, freshly washed and ready to wear), the little dude ate grapes. He knew to eat only the purple ones. He learnt that quickly.

A year and a half ago, we got the shed removed. They couldn’t save the grapevine, and cut it right back to a stump to be able to get the shed out. I was pretty gutted.

Then, last summer, we saw new growth. My husband quickly set up something for it to climb along. It grew amazingly fast.

And now, there are several bunches of grapes ripening. Not a fantastic bounty like before, but next year I think there will be. Soon we’ll have two kids carefully taking the purple ones, D teaching B how to find ones that are perfectly ripe.

I found the thermos

When D was a newborn baby, he would take hours to feed at night. My husband would fill a thermos before he went to bed and leave it on a table in our room, so I could drink a cup of tea while I held sleeping D for half an hour before putting him in the cot. Oh, those days when we were scared of cosleeping! I found the thermos yesterday, clearing out and rearranging a cupboard – it probably hasn’t been used since those 3am tea sessions. It was dusty and weirdly sticky, hidden at the back of a cupboard where it’s not needed.

At the cusp of a new year, reflecting on our busy modern lives

I started writing this on the last day of the working year. Maybe that day deserves a special title and some rituals of its own. On the last day of the working year, we eat cherries when we get home, we go to the swimming pool, and we have takeaways for dinner. That’s what we did this year. I can see it becoming our tradition.

I finished writing this on 1 January 2018. My holidays are almost over, back to the office on the 4th. I haven’t met my holiday goals – sorting out the garage, going for a swim every day, weaning B. Whatever. We’ve had a good break, pottering about Wellington, trying to balance D’s need for large amounts of out door time with B’s need to chill out at home. (D is like one of those puppies that destroys the furniture if he doesn’t get a run around).

When I talk about “this year”, it’s actually last year now. Glad that’s over. Phew. It felt rushed and squeezed, but I feel prepared for a good 2018.

When I first went back to paid work after having D, it was ok. We didn’t have spare time, but we had enough time, just. There was only one child to look after. Outside of work he could get my full attention. Despite being pregnant again that year, and despite weekends spent trawling the open homes, it felt like a pretty good year – a settled year. This year has been much more scrambled. I hadn’t realised how much harder it would be with two children, and how much harder again adding paid work as well. I have often found myself reflecting on the stress points introduced by two careers and two kids. Other years will be much easier – this has been an establishment year after all. But still. A stay at home parent takes on the role of the family shock-absorber, and without one, everyone in the family feels more of the jolts of our busy world.

It feels like there’s too much stuff to do and not enough space.

There’s a poem called “Fire“, by Judy Brown (go read it, I’ll wait). I have thought of that poem often this year, feeling aware that we are packed in too tight, and the poor little flames are trying gallantly to burn without enough space. It’s felt like a holding year, when you’re trying to prevent the fire going out, so that in the future you can fan it into a more stable flame.

My parents juggled two careers and two kids. I often feel this gives me more sympathy with the stress we end up putting on the kids with our busy lives. When I start reading a book like The Wife Drought, I feel more cynical than the author – despite being younger. I read descriptions of the chaos of the juggle, and I feel pushed and pulled, I’ve experienced it from both sides, and it’s not exciting, it’s boring and tiring. I’ve been the kid whose grandmother has stepped in time and again to look after me when I’m sick, I’ve been the kid who knows that school holidays are a time of extra stress for parents. I’ve been the mum who’s had a call from creche to pick up a sick child immediately, but needs to handover some stuff at work first, and then drive through traffic, knowing that the child is waiting waiting waiting and just wants mum or dad. Pushed and pulled, but mostly, exhausted. There’s a sense of already having lived this life as a child, and not wanting to live it again as an adult, not when I know the spoilers already.

Spoilers: You’ll still be working that hard in your 50s and 60s when grandchildren come along, you’ll still feel squeezed, the reprieve doesn’t come unless you make it come. The big important things you’re trying to do in your career will never be complete anyway – improving the world is a collective project and you are one small part, and there are setbacks and re-calibrations and it’s a never ending march. There’s a limit to how much you can minimise your own needs, and no-one will ever thank you for squishing them down, especially if they burst out later in irritation. The habits you pick up as coping mechanisms for the especially stressed patches don’t serve you well in creating a relaxed life. There are hidden costs to being super busy all the time, and it’s not a sustainable way of living.

My parents managed things well, very well actually, but there was never a point in my childhood when I would have turned down extra time with them. It didn’t occur to me to want complete availability, what I wanted was a bit more at the margin. It felt so special if mum left work early and picked us up from school. It was so rare. If either of them had worked five hours less a week it would have made a noticeable difference to our whole lives. They’d both agree with this, I’m sure. It’s not like they really wanted to be working as much as they were, it just sort of happened – even though by the standards of most workplaces, they both had very flexible and accommodating jobs. This isn’t a criticism of how they managed things. It’s a structural issue. But it’s also at the back of my mind, now as a mother, how the little extra bits at the margins really matter a lot.

The great, wonderful breathing spaces of my childhood were our holidays – especially camping and tramping. Our day to day life felt fairly full-on. Our holidays were the respite we needed. As a parent myself, I realise just how much more stress my parents were absorbing and not passing on to me and my brother. But kids still notice, probably more than adults realise – especially if the adults are busy. The sense of hustle, seeing that mum was always on the go at home, knowing that when we were sick it was a logistical hassle. There were enough gaps for a the fire to burn, but there weren’t enough gaps that we took them for granted.

In my teenage years, I also began to notice my mum’s leisure deficit. We got enough time with mum, more would have been nice, but we got enough. But she didn’t get enough time for herself. And I wish she had. Looking back, this is the most obvious feature to me, and one I have no desire to repeat (though to some extent it seems an inevitable part of modern motherhood, that tension between your needs and your time with the family).

There’s not really any opt-out, for most people. Less career stress and daily rush usually means more financial stress, either when kids are small or longer term. There were many many benefits to a two-career family. We didn’t have to worry about money. It wasn’t a bad option. Modern life seems pretty high stress for most people, whatever we do. I suppose we try to balance shielding our kids from the stress and teaching them how to navigate it. The demands of modern adulthood are immense – we take it for granted, but humans are so amazing, consider how much more complex our world is now than it was when modern humans first evolved! So much cultural capital to convey to our kids. And quite a bit of stress involved in deciding what to do with your life, which is an interesting one, how recent it is to have sooooo many options, how poorly equipped we are to make those decisions when the stakes are so high (tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, at least, and hoping fervently you’ll get a good job at the end of it; knowing if you don’t you’re a bit screwed).

Modern society demands an extraordinary level of skill and imposes a big cognitive load on all of us. The complexity of the problems we face globally is almost incomprehensible, yet we see it play out on day to day issues too, brokering compromise among people with different values, navigating new technologies, meeting new people all the time, figuring out how to earn a living when the nature of work is constantly changing – there are myriad small scale equivalents. No wonder we barely have energy to tackle the giant global problems. We’re too busy with daily life. Not enough time.

Being busy is itself stressful, part of the problem. When time is scarce, any loss of time becomes a source of frustration. The queue at the post office. The child who doesn’t want to leave the house quickly. Traffic. The colleague who stops to talk just as you’re leaving your desk. The spouse or partner who doesn’t bring the washing in, leaving it to get wet again overnight. And the habits we develop make it worse, not better. Trying to do more than one thing at once. Starting something and not finishing it. Always worrying about whether this or that is the best use of time, feeling peeved when an expected break is derailed, because you don’t know when you’ll get another one. Feeling that sense of cortisol rising as you near the end of a holiday, or feeling like you can’t relax even on holiday because you want to get the most out of it, and you know it’s only short. Feeling burdened by relationships where you’re in the role of giving more than you get; and not wanting to be in relationships where you receive more than you give, because you don’t want others to be burdened, because you know everyone is busy. Being harsh on yourself – oh, if only I was more organised, if only I needed less rest, if only I didn’t have this or that human limitation, we’d be able to do so much more. If only my kids or my spouse did this or that differently, life would be easier (why can’t the kids play by themselves quietly, likes kids in movies?). Many of the irritations in life come down to wasted time.

We can imagine how much smoother life would be if we removed all the irritations, but instead, what if we left those bumps, accepted them as an interesting feature of the road, and went more slowly, so they didn’t matter?

Autonomy and self-direction are enormous wins for humanity; but not so the pressure to do things exactly right in your life, the moralising individualism. We don’t have to let people fall so hard and blame them for their injuries on impact.

A couple of days before Christmas, walking down Lambton Quay, I saw one of the regular buskers, the guy with the full face ta moko who does Kenny Rogers covers. He was the only person standing still on the street full of busy shoppers trying to get stuff done in a lunch break. People just streaming past him, hundreds of people, all with their purposeful missions, their time marked out for achieving a set goal, not to be distracted by something else. I saw the same guy outside our local supermarket on election night when I went to get snacks. I’ll always remember that. Me, buying chips and maltesers, emotionally invested in the election, wanting a particular result but knowing that whichever way it went our lives would be more or less the same. And this guy, sitting there singing “know when to hold em, know when to fold em”, in the dark and the cold.

D had a check up at the doctor last month, and it wasn’t our usual doctor, it was an immaculately groomed young German guy (#notallGermans) who sternly told D to stop wriggling because “you are not here to have fun, you are here so I can listen to your chest”. D said “But Doctor James ALWAYS warms the stethoscope up in his hand first so it doesn’t make me wriggle!”. The doctor put the stethoscope back on D’s chest, not buying into this childish pandering of warming it, and told D to take a deep breath. D took a deep breath in… and held the breath. Dutifully trying to follow instructions, he was standing there stock-still with his mouth gaping, not breathing out. Instead of seeing the humour, the doctor was getting more and more agitated at this unexpectedly difficult patient. Now, D can definitely be a handful, but he wasn’t being naughty here. He took the deep breath exactly as he was told. The doctor didn’t seem used to children, and was chiding him for an innocent misunderstanding, and D was getting flustered and anxious and confused, picking up on the stress, which made him less likely to co-operate.

I thought over it, how we try and get kids to buy into the importance of doing things efficiently (your fault you didn’t co-operate with the doctor), and how small cultural differences in expectations can bring these things to light. Being intolerant of kids might make the kids snap into line more quickly, but it’ll also make them intolerant of other people stepping out of line (his fault for not getting a job, don’t give them money, it just encourages them). Something is lost when we try and coach kids to muck about less, to keep their heads down and focus on the task at hand all the time (even when the task at hand is a leisure activity, it’s often focused leisure). It might make our busy lives easier. But creativity, humour, heart, flexibility, all start to slip away. There’s a balance somewhere, we can’t have complete chaos, and there are different rules for different places, but complete order is also unobtainable. We need to be able to tolerate a bit of messiness in our reality. If we’re constantly trying to keep things under control, we can never relax.

As I like I tell D sometimes when he is upset over small things, maybe the problem here is an attitude problem. The attitude that we have to do as much as possible, work hard play hard, earn our leisure, categorise our activities and plan our days.

We do need more space though. We can only shift the attitude when we get a bit of distance from the rush.