16 months and one week

Soft golden curls.

Pointing out every bus he sees when we’re driving in the car “bus!!! BUS!!”, so excited, just thrilled by the delight of the big yellow trolley buses.

Climbing on everything, no sense of self-preservation, everything is worth exploring, total faith that an adult will be on hand to catch him or to warn him or pick him up after a tumble.

Says “bye bye” when we turn a page of a book. Loves books. Sits out my lap to read when I’m cross-legged on the floor by backing himself up then plonking himself down.

Says “yay!” whenever he’s pleased with himself. He climbs to the top of the stairs and puts his arms above his head and says “YAY! YAAAAYYY!”.

Little boy racer, little explorer. Loves sliding doors but is too short to trigger the sensors. Loves elevators. Would happily ride up and down an elevator indefinitely. Have not yet found a place where he can do this without causing inconvenience.

Loves to run in a straight line, barrelling along on a mission to get as far as possible as quickly as possible, as soon as I let him out of my arms. Loves to be a free agent.

Keen to learn how to give me a kiss on the cheek but hasn’t quite mastered it yet.

Loves to press buttons at road crossings.

Likes to wear gumboots all the time.

Enjoys riding in his buggy, but enjoys pushing his buggy even more.

His face is round but his body is long and lithe.

Totally boundless sense of humour, totally gorgeous laughter, a giggle and belly laugh that lasts until he runs out of breath.

When he cries the tone is one of betrayal and outrage.

When he is asleep he still looks like a baby.

He’s exhausting and beautiful and energising.

Equal parenting

I read a lot about parenting equality while pregnant. Mostly feminist writing about how parenting remains unequal, and how there is persistent male privilege in parenting. 

True, insofar as parenting standards are much higher for women than men. A man who is great by the female standard is superlative by the male standard. A man who is adequate by the female standard is great by the male standard. Even in an equal-ish relationship there’s going to be an issue of the public recognition being out of whack. Which is a super bullshit irony because even if things are equal from the day the baby is born, only one party was pregnant and gave birth, so maybe that party should get the most credit, hmm?

That stuff affects the equality of the relationship between the parents, but when it comes to the relationship between each parent and the child, well, they can never be the same and nor should they be. They are unique relationships, and it’s nonsense to compare them to each other. Relationships can change over time, and adults can even end up having a good relationship with a parent who was only a vague presence as a child. 

I think a lot now about my own childhood, revisiting memories in the light of parenthood. Once my mum was in Tauranga for work, and it was decided that my dad would take me and my brother down on the train on Friday after school and we’d all spend the weekend at the Mount and drive back together on Sunday afternoon. Organisation is not a fabulous strength of my dad’s, but he is excellent at imbuing things with a sense of adventure. Realising there wasn’t enough time to pack properly, he instructed us to put our clothes and things in large plastic rubbish bags and we set off for the train looking like a family of vagabonds. He didn’t pack food for the train ride, or entertainment. I had a book and he had a dictaphone that he was taking down to Mum so she could make a record of the work she did during the week. I dictated my book and made up fan fic then played it back to my brother (the book was called Put a Sock in it Percy, about a cat who ate some glue in his owner’s invention lab and learned to talk). The train people gave us lots of bags of peanuts. It was a memorable and fun adventure. My mum was possibly displeased at the haphazardness? I don’t know, it never occurred to me as a child to look at it that way. Mum was good at organising things, Dad wasn’t, c’est la vie, we had an adventure! Peanuts! 

There is an unavoidable equality in parenting stemming from the fact that one person can’t control the relationship two other people have. 

My husband loves being a father. He had plenty of opportunities when we were dating to demonstrate that he is good with little kids, so I knew that becoming a dad would suit him, and the little dude is obviously the apple of his eye. They have fun together and the little dude clearly has a strong and secure attachment to his daddy. It’s the best warm fuzzy feeling for me seeing how much they delight in each other’s company. My husband and I bring different styles to the parenting dynamic, which is all good. On the other hand, I’m around more, so it is inevitable that there are times when I know exactly what the little dude wants or needs at a given time while my husband isn’t sure. If, perennial if, we both worked part time and the little dude had slightly less time at creche and more time with his dad that’d be grand for everybody. 

I find myself doing more chores and more of the incidental parenting (things like taking the little dude to the doctor, or being in the garden pegging out the washing while keeping an eye on him), while the fun parenting stuff is split fairly evenly. My husband does more paid work, less chores, and less incidental parenting. It’s not an perfectly equitable split, but it’s ok for now. There are only so many paid hours one family can work and still function. There are also a certain number of chore hours that need to be done. The split we have at the moment leaves us both feeling like we work very hard and depend on the other to keep things running along. That said, I would strongly prefer an hour of paid work over an hour of chores, it’s more interesting, and it’s building my career, and it’s paid! My perk for the extra chores is the extra time with the little dude, even if that’s not always fun stuff time. It’s a perk I’m glad to accept. 

You know what really peels my turnips? (whenever I’m annoyed I like to coin a ranting Swede-ism) Those incessant advice pieces that suggest  chores imbalance can be resolved by the higher-chores person (usually a woman) doing less rather than the lower-chores person (usually a man) doing more. Hold up a second! How tidy did you think my house was to start off with? There’s no room for less to be done! We are drowning in a sea of tiny dirty socks and banana and mandarin peel and there are half eaten cruskits in unexpected places all over the house and the dishes haven’t been done since the cleaner came on Wednesday and yes we have a cleaner (we love her she’s awesome) and it’s still like this!  

Anyway, the point I’m making is that equal parenting is kinda an incoherent thing to discuss, because the little dude doesn’t care whose waged labour buys his tiny socks and whose unwaged labour washes them. Equality within the parenting relationship only matters to the parents. And this is less about the exactitudes of how labour is divided and more subjective, does the division work for both parties, are both parties equal in discussions of who does what, is the relationship premised on equality or is there a power imbalance? This is another potential angle to male parenting privilege, of course. Sometimes I feel pissed off that I do more chores, because why should my unpaid labour subsidise his paid labour, why does he get recognition for long hours at the office but I get no recognition for staying up late washing dishes… but mostly I’m ok with it so long as he acknowledges that I’m working just as hard as he is, just at different things. As I said in an earlier post the big picture issue is the availability of paid work that enables both parents to do a mix of paid work and home stuff in a fair way. I’m like a broken record on this one. A thirty hour week would herald a new age of wonder and joy! Just me and my keyboard typing truth to the internet. That’ll affect social change, for sure 😉 #outlet. 

Golden window

It annoys me when older parents say “oh you’ll look back, enjoy this while it lasts” yadayadayada etc etc.

On the other hand, it occurred to me recently that we’re in a golden window right now. The little dude is getting awesomer by the day and I’m not pregnant with the next one yet. 

We should, like, go on holiday or something. 

The cute thing with the lemons

On the weekend Mr Daddy took the little dude down into the garden. He (the child, not the grown man) spotted the lemon tree and decided to pick a lemon. He then turned round and walked back up the path into the house to present the lemon to me, clearly a precious gift. I added it to the bowl of lemons, he looked a little perplexed (”damn, she already had some!”), and removed a different lemon and turned round and walked back into the garden and placed the new lemon at the foot of the tree. 

I love how he thinks. 

Most people turn out fine, right?

I seldom see adults chasing cats in order to dive-bomb them, then pull their tails and skid across the floor in a make-shift cat-sled. Maybe if cats were bigger this would be a thing? Whatever, he’s probably going to grow out of it. There’s only so much I can do to intervene. If he’s not deterred by the cat scratching him, he’s sure as hell not gonna be deterred by time out (is 16 months even old enough to understand time out?)

At 5am, he comes into our bed and has a breastfeed and goes back to sleep for another two hours. Being kicked in the belly for two hours is the price I pay for a 7am wake up. I have no plans to try and change this, it works well enough. 

Is there such a thing as feeding a kid too many eggs and bananas? If he has an omelette for dinner every night, that’s still food, yeah? At least half of all meals go like this: prepare food, feed child a spoonful of food, attempt to feed child more spoonfuls of food, give up and make child an omelette.

The staff at Moore Wilsons know me as “that mum who clearly comes here for the toy section that she uses as a play area but also buys a treat for herself and a bunch of bananas with one already eaten by the small child who really likes pressing the eftpos machine buttons.”

Those little round purple rice crackers, he really likes them, and they are a “treat”. By “treat”, I mean they are a bribe to get him in his carseat or his buggy, used as many times a day as necessary. They’re iron fortified, that’s good, right?

The other day I was ignoring him while I checked my phone because, y’know, and he took the lid off the zinc nappy cream and got it all over his hands, then he came up to me and held out his hands and said “dah!” which I think meant something like “mum, I think I need some help getting this stuff off my hands!”. 

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In all seriousness, I have no major problem with the idea that he might pick up on the following messages:

  • I trust that you’ll turn out ok;
  • Sometimes I’m doing my own thing, but if you get into a pickle you can always come get me to help;
  • You don’t have to finish food you don’t like but I’m going to keep offering it;
  • I’m going to call you on your bad behaviour but I won’t always be able to intervene to prevent the natural consequences – though I do hope you’ll learn from them;
  • If I tell you not to do something, and you do it anyway when I’ve got my back turned for half a second, a cat might scratch you;
  • If a cat scratches you, I will kiss it better;
  • I’m winging this parenting thing;
  • There is a limitless supply of purple crackers. 

Looking after yourself

It’s harder to look after myself now than before motherhood. It’s also more important. I can’t be a good mama when I’m all outta spoons. Also, seeing what a different and less cool person the little dude is when tired or hungry reminds me that I’m the same: I need rest, to eat well, time to myself, exercise: I need all these things to remain on an even keel.

Being able to function without taking time to care for yourself seems to be considered a virtue nowadays. Folly! Energy efficiency is important quality in electrical appliances, not in people. 

My grandmother would often reproach my mother for not looking after herself well enough. This would make my mother irritable, for obvious reasons. Now my grandmother and my mother both tell me how I really must look after myself, really, I must, am I eating properly? Am I getting as much rest as I can? 

I had glandular fever in form two. I took an entire term off school. Not long before I got sick, my mum woke up at 6am and found me on the computer doing homework in my dressing gown. I’m not a naturally early riser. Hmmm, she thought, how do I rein in the over-achieving impulse? Throughout my childhood I had seen my mum look after me and my brother, and hold down a demanding job, and do other work on the side (lecturing, writing a book, voluntary work), and run the house. She was often a bit frazzled. As are many women. In the perverse way of a teenager, there came a time when I would be annoyed at her for not taking better care of herself! Only a fifteen year old can say with a straight face “you shouldn’t have picked me up from rockclimbing, you should have gone to the gym, I could have gotten the bus!” instead of “thanks”. Funny thing is, I was a little bit right. Apparently some people, particularly men people, don’t have this constant automatic response to put other people first. We get very mixed messages, us women people, we’re told that we should look after ourselves and also look after everyone else, until looking after ourselves becomes just one more thing on our to-do list and probably well down the list, and then it’s the thing we neglect. Stupid messages be damned. What the mixed messages imply is that we should be able to run a thousand miles on a half tank of petrol, that we shouldn’t really need to do much to look after ourselves. 

Stupid messages. 

I reckon I need to start thinking about looking after myself the same way I think about looking after the little dude. I would never send him to creche without breakfast. If he’s interested in playing with a cool toy but it’s time to start the bath-story-bed routine, tough cookies cowboy ‘cause I know you need your sleep. Simple rules of eating and sleeping that I let slip in relation to myself. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing this after 10pm). 

One further thing. I’m struck here, as in so many areas of motherhood, by the fact that this is a very privileged conversation to have. Some people don’t have the luxury of worrying that they might be taking on too much, they have to just do it and not stop to think about being on the brink of collapse. This is all the more reason that the stupid messages need to be made more sensible and the ridiculous standards need to be challenged by those of us with some energy left to do so. 

Life and learning

The little dude is nearing 16 months. For the past while, the best thing in my life has been watching him learn. My favourite is when he surprises me by demonstrating a new skill he’s picked up by example. For instance he’s started wiping the table-top of his highchair when he’s decided he’s had enough food – adorable! His dad does the palms-up shrug a lot and the little dude has picked this up, so if I ask him a question (like “where’s the wombat?”) and he doesn’t know the answer he’ll put his hands out and raise his shoulders. SO FRIGGIN CUTE.

It’s funny too how once he knows how to do something, I immediately take it for granted that he can do it. It wasn’t so long ago that he couldn’t walk, but I’ve almost forgotten that crawling baby.

Similarly, it was not so long ago that I felt like the motherhood learning-curve was so steep that if I stopped climbing for even a split-second I’d start to slip backwards and fall down an abyss. It’s cool now though. The new challenges have started coming at a more manageable pace.

Learning stuff is hard.

Knowing stuff is easy.

All kids I’ve ever met seemed to have a fairly strong drive to explore and learn new things, an eagerness to gain mastery of a skill, a sense of joy and pride when they achieve something. I’m not sure I can say the same about all adults I’ve met, which makes me wonder when this gets lost and why. Adults are sometimes reluctant to learn new things, toddlers on the other hand resist any attempt to curb their learning (how dare you interfere with my mission to learn how to climb onto the back of the couch?!).

You know what I’m great at? Cleaning a kitchen. Seriously. I can wash the hell out of some dishes, I am fast and the dishes end up sparkly clean. This is because when I was a child, I loved to bake and my mum said I could only bake if I cleaned up afterwards and made the kitchen look like it did before. Also it’s because we don’t have a dishwasher. Note: I didn’t say that I like cleaning the kitchen. The whole “chore” category of life is well down my preferred activities list. (I don’t see baking as a chore; it’s fun.)

My husband is not so good at cleaning dishes. He has other strengths, including interpreting complex and technical statutory provisions, designing and building wooden furniture, and making up stories featuring the adventures of Davy Ducky to tell our son.

In commentary and studies about division of domestic labour, there seems to be a near universal focus on the time spent doing chores, not the skill involved. When skill level is taken into account, cis men in hetero relationships come off even worse than they otherwise would. I can get done in an hour what my husband would get done in about three hours. As a result, we have ended up dividing our chores according to the rules of comparative advantage, in a context where my advantage reflects learning as a child, which must surely be attributable to gender norms. But we’re both conscious that parents have great power to change these norms in the next generation, so we’re working on being good role models together. Also it’s super cute when the little dude tries to use the mop.

Babies are born and start learning from day one, absorbing so many social messages and acquiring a great many skills. By 16 months they have learnt a phenomenal amount, and they keep learning and learning and learning and developing and it’s all pretty incredible really. Once people are adults we categorise paid work into “low skill” or “medium skill” or “high skill” – which is kinda weird because even so-called low skill work requires  a hugely complex range of skills, all of which have to be learnt from scratch because that’s how people learn everything. In the discussion of paid work, skill level is (often falsely) assumed to correlate with rate of pay. The funny thing is, once you have mastered something it becomes simple to do, and easy to keep doing, and it’s kinda irrelevant how hard it was to master. I look at the little dude walking now and it’s difficult to credit that only three months ago he was still pretty wobbly.  

The skills that are valued most highly are the ones with two features: they are in demand, and they are rare. Nothing to do with how hard the job is, or how patient or organised or strong or smart  you have to be to do the job. It’s purely about how rare the skill is and how many people want it. That’s how things work in an economy run on principles of supply and demand. Although, side note, the game can be rigged in several ways too. For example falsely high barriers to entry, or conversely insufficiently high barriers to entry which drive up supply while undermining standards, or a single purchaser who sets the prices for that type of skilled labour. But even if the market is functioning perfectly, the connection between value to society and pay is a bit random and tenuous. Surgeons get paid less than investment bankers. Childcare workers get paid less than lawyers. 

Here’s another thing: if you don’t know anything about the nature of a particular job, it is almost impossible to know how difficult it is, or how important it is. Think about this for a minute. It’s true right? My cousin is an engineer specialised in robotics, I literally have no clue how hard that is relative to my job. This leads to a hit-and-miss valuing of other people’s skills. Either you might over-value it because it sort of “sounds hard and complicated”, or you might under-value it because it sort of “sounds like something ordinary people do”. So I might think robotics engineer sounds hard maybe? Except that I have no idea! I know I would find driving a bus incredibly difficult because I can extrapolate that out from driving a car (Wellington bus drivers are incredibly highly skilled in my view), and I would also find it difficult to do anything that involves concentrating even though things are noisy – like road works for example – and anything that involves being patient and kind day in day out, like caring work (it’s hard enough with my own child and I love him to bits!). 

I personally found the first year of motherhood considerably harder than completing a law degree. Very very different. Incomparable really. But if I had to put them on the same ledger, one was challenging and transforming and incredibly difficult, and the other was just more of the same of stuff I did at high school but a bit more advanced: “reading and thinking”. I’m willing to wager that there are other mothers with a half decade of tertiary education who might agree with me.  

There’s no grand idea at the end of this post. Only the same broken-record point that we need to honour and recognised all work, paid and unpaid, and get rid of the dichotomy of skill levels which is based on all sorts of screwed assumptions.  We need to realise that ordinary people do hard and complicated things, all the bloody time. 

And that responding to a child who is learning and changing means learning and changing ourselves, just to keep up with them, and that while this is a joy it is also a challenge. Challenges are good though! Just ask a toddler, they might not understand what you mean but they’ll definitely want to try figure it out.