Camping

The smell of warm pine needles and dry grass and sunblock.

Chaffing between my big toe and the next toe ‘cause jandals.

Surrounded by whanau, lots of people to play with the little dude, my cousin’s kids and the little dude playing together, thinking how cool it is seeing the second generation of our clan at this campground.

Swimming at sundown, the light on the water, feeling weightless.

Struggling to get the little dude to sleep in the tent, saying goodnight… then going back in when he gets upset, him saying “no bed” then falling asleep in my arms.

Raspberries and boysenberries and cherries, and the little dude calling raspberries “redbubburies”, which is an attempt at “red blueberries”.

The little dude throwing stones into the sea, endlessly.

Losing track of the time of day.

Seeing older kids put on their own sunblock and clean their own teeth and all sorts of other amazing things and thinking about how short the baby/toddler phase really is.

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Explaining family trees

My grandmother is down for Christmas, and my mum had this whole week off, and the past two afternoons they’ve picked the little dude up from creche. Conversation tonight:

“Was it nice this afternoon going to the beach with Nana and GG?”

“Yeah”

“Did you have fun on the slide at the playground?”

“Yeah”

“Hey, did you know that GG is Mummy’s nana?”

“Yeeeeeah”

“Yeah, and Nana is Mummy’s mummy!”

“Yeah!”

“And GG is Nana’s mummy!”

“Yeah”

“Who’s Mummy’s mummy?”

“Nana!”

“Yeah! And who’s Mummy’s nana?”

“Djee Djee!”

“Yeah! And GG is also Nana’s mummy!”

“Yeah!”

“And Safta is Daddy’s mummy”

“Yeah”

The he pauses and looks like he’s really thinking about this and then says:

“Daddy nana?”

“No” says Mr Daddy “Daddy’s nana is gone”

He pauses again then says:

“Oh no Daddy, no nana!”

And then he gives his dad a big hug.

And then three times that evening repeats unprompted “Daddy no nana, oh no. Oh no Daddy. No nana!”

Stand in the place where you live

When we were looking to buy a place, a whole lot of people told us to abandon our restrictive suburb search and go further out. I’m so glad we didn’t. Newtown, the area where we’ve just bought a house (so exciting to say that! Like saying “my husband” for the first little while after getting married), feels like coming home. We’re city people. I grew up in Grey Lynn, my husband grew up in Mt Roskill, both in the 90s. If that means nothing to you, I thoroughly recommend watching Sione’s Wedding and No. 2 back to back, especially if you’re one of those people who thinks that Auckland is all Ponsonby and Parnell. Our home suburbs have changed now, especially Grey Lynn, and we don’t even live in Auckland anymore. But Newtown has a vibe that resonates with both of us, both in terms of culture and geography. I love being able to walk to work. I love that the suburb is connected to Wellington’s arterial town belt. I love the diversity of the market on Saturday, the proximity to Island Bay, the hustle and bustle of the Newtown shops.

And owning a house means two really awesome things. First, we don’t have to move! We can stay at this house indefinitely! How cool is that?! It’s SO cool!! Second, we can change the house any way we like. I hate the folding doors on the laundry cupboard, they keep jamming when I open them, so I plan to – radical step – unscrew the hinges and take them off! My husband hates the garden shed, an old ramshackle former outhouse that takes up way too much garden space. He’s gonna tear it down. It feels amazing knowing that we can do things like that without asking anyone’s permission.

The cute thing with the cat on moving day

Regular readers will know that the little dude is somewhat obsessed with our cat, Freddie, or “Diddis” as he is also called (one of the little dude’s first words, and one which in several months has moved no closer to sounding like the origin word). Sometimes this obsession is not quite so gentle, cats don’t like being tackled for a cuddle for example.  

When we were trying to explain the whole “soon we will move house” concept, the little dude would look a bit worried and say “diddis doo?” He said this over and over, every time we mentioned the new house he would check that Freddie was coming too. 

On moving day, I left other people to do the final clean up and final car loads of things we didn’t quite manage to put in boxes, and took the little dude and Freddie round to the new place once the movers had finished with the major items. The little dude was fascinated by the moving crate, into which we put Freddie’s basket (which he doesn’t use), and an old cushion thing (which he does use). The little dude watched while my brother and I put Freddie in the crate and shut the door. I tried to explain, it’s a, um, a special bed for Freddie for the car, a special cat cot. The little dude nodded, satisfied and amused “Diddis dar bed!”. 

Freddie meowed the whole way to the new house, stuck in his crate in the boot. The little dude copied the meowing. I explained that Freddie was a bit scared, that cats don’t like cars and that when we got to the new house we would have to be extra nice and gentle to Freddie. The little dude seemed to understand. 

So we get to the new place, and after some tricky logistics around the order of taking small beings out of the car, we were all inside. I let Freddie out of his crate and got him some fancy food that we don’t normally give him, to help him over his ordeal. The little dude crawled straight into the crate, got stuck, needed me to help get him out. When my brother arrived, he put Freddie’s normal biscuits on the floor next to the cat bowl. Next minute, the little dude is trying to tip the biscuits into the bowl, providing a running commentary of his actions “Diddis dai, bedder!!” [dai = kai = food] “Allll bedder Diddis!”, “No moar dar!”, “Dai ready! Diddis dai ready! Alllll bedder Diddis!”. 

It’s moments like that when I just kinda feel like, wow, kids are so cool and lovely and cute. It was pretty much the longest little disjointed monologue the little dude has ever had and it was motivated by trying to make the cat feel better about the new house and the scary car ride.  

(I didn’t even mind the cat food all over the floor)

Equal and opposite forces

The Guardian does this series where they get regular contributors to answer some of the most common queries that people fire into Google.

Zoe Williams recently wrote a piece on the topic “Why Have Children”

I found it oddly unsatisfying. So here is my take instead.

Why have children?

I don’t know. There is a gap between the reasons you might want children, and the reasons you might find you enjoy having children. This gap exists in any life – the difference between the idea and the reality. Reconciling ourselves to this gap is not required, but is perhaps wise. On a good day, we look at our spouse or our children and feel like these are the people we are meant to love. On a good day, love is the lens, and there is a sparkling clarity to seeing life through this lens.

Having children is a peculiarly irrevocable decision, especially for mothers. You might feel like you’ve stepped into a spin-off series from the story of your life, where the main character is now this other person, and you are a supporting figure.

You might see this as a good thing or a terrifying thing. What you gain, maybe, is a certainty that comes with the strength of love. What you lose, maybe, is the power to start all over again from scratch, unencumbered. Love tethers and binds and anchors – all metaphors that can be seen as comforting security or limiting restriction. For some people, knowing that you have done something permanent to your future could turn your shadow lives into taunting demons, a million unlived visions in which you’re not tired all the time, in which you still do those things you used to do and can’t do anymore.

Except, the world is replete with fathers who have shaken off family ties and pursued other interests, started again from scratch, maintained a dim connection to their offspring but refused to be defined by their status in relation to those children. That is, in fact, always possible. As with any life, the life of a parent is one of daily choice, constantly reaffirmed commitment.

What is it then, to have children? It cannot be the same for everyone, it cannot be the same for the abusive parent as it is for the loving parent. It cannot be the same for the parent of a sick child and a healthy child, for the parent in a loving relationship and the sole parent, for the parent who had a happy childhood and the parent who is estranged from their own parents.  

My first moments of parenthood were spent in different room from my child, each of us separately receiving medical attention. I didn’t hold him properly for hours. My husband bonded with him before I did, staring transfixed at the perspex box, watching the chest rise and fall, checking the monitors. I felt like maybe I wasn’t necessary to this new person, like I’d expected to be. Who we are as parents can change, must change. There is not a single earth-shattering moment that makes us as a new image. A supporting character in a spin-off series, I said, but that’s not a very good metaphor because no life is the centre of anything, unless we all are. There are always multiple subjectivities and viewpoints.

I am loathe to suggest that there is something parents experience that non-parents cannot also experience. Who could ever know? How could it be measured? One of my dear friends is currently doing VSA in the Soloman Islands; another is living in London and a while ago posted some photos of a climbing expedition in Norway, standing on precipices. My son learns new words every day, and he laughs like no-one else ever has, and he likes to rest his head and his hand on my growing belly and say “bubba move”, and he likes to drag a step ladder across the house and press the buttons on the washing machine, and he likes watching videos of himself doing silly things. These lives cannot be compared, any attempt is a disservice to each and all of them.

I found a book today in a sale stack that I remember having as a kid, “Five Minutes Peace”, about Mrs Large the elephant who wants to escape from her kids for five minutes. I remember liking that book a lot. So I re-read it, then I bought it. It’s funny, ‘cause the whole point of the book is that the mother elephant wants five minutes peace and she doesn’t get it (she gets 3 minutes and 45 seconds). I remember reading it with my mum and thinking it was hilarious, but I’m not sure we were getting the same joke…

Ah, and then there’s the question of your partner, what having children means for that. My husband and I met more than a decade ago, it’s a weird thought, we were only kids ourselves, we’ve been together as a couple almost our entire adult lives. It annoys me how he never cleans up as he goes when he cooks dinner and how he misplaces objects like keys and glasses and then acts likes it’s a weird mystery that he can never find them. It annoys him that I get annoyed by things like this. Every morning, he gets up when the little dude wakes and does the first nappy change of the day. Every night, I think he looks too tired. When we got engaged, another one my dear friends (“you have great friends” says my mum) said “Yay! You’ve found your forever person!”. And this is true, and part of me feels like having children is sweeter and more full-bodied because they are his children, they are our children; then that shadow of the life unlived points out that perhaps we would have been equally fulfilled if we had never gone forth and multiplied, because we would have had more time for each other.

The shadow life isn’t a demon here, it’s just the devil’s advocate, pointing out that there is no need to affirm that what you have is the best, pointing out that different might have been equally good. And the only conclusion I come to is that it’s best not to overthink life. Children: you either have them or you don’t, and either way, each day you wake up to the life you’re living, with its various joys and challenges, its pain and loss, the potential for discovery and kindness and newness and sameness; and that’s all part of the exhilarating contradiction of existence that each of us experiences in an entirely personal way, and that’s fine, that’s how it’s meant to be.

The lottery of life

Growing up, my parents sought to make sure that my brother and I were aware of how lucky we are. They didn’t want to us to live in an upper-middle-class bubble. As a result, and because we went to mid-decile schools, we ended up feeling pretty rich. Most of the kids at school had parents of a similar income level or lower, in some cases much much lower. In my second year of law school I was invited to a pre-ball function at the house of a more recent acquaintance and it was literally a mansion and I was kinda floored because I didn’t really realise that there were people in New Zealand who had that level of wealth (aside from maybe Peter Jackson).

Lots of people in this country seem to want to disclaim their good fortune. A tactic of minimising privilege to try and appear less privileged. I think it’s partly because we have a strong cultural norm against bragging, and being upfront about the extent of your own privilege can sound a bit like bragging. I got a few of scholarships at the end of high-school and through uni and as a result my student loan is much lower than it otherwise would be. Gotta be careful how I frame that statement, it can sound like I’m patting myself on the back for being a brainbox – and I don’t mean that at all; I reckon it’s largely luck and I want to acknowledge my luck. I have my doubts about the whole concept of scholarships based on grades rather than financial needs. There’s a strong argument that this gives those who already have an edge even more of an edge. But, this is perhaps kinda a nuanced message: “I have this stuff and I think that I don’t really deserve it”… Maybe easier not to draw attention to how much stuff you have.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague whose kids were in highschool. He said that he didn’t want his kids to have any special advantages, but he was planning to pay for their university fees because after all that’s what he got from the government. It amused me, because having your fees completely paid for is definitely a “special advantage”.

There’s no such thing as a standard upbringing. It’s relative to everyone else’s upbringings. Regular family trips to the movies? Not everyone gets that. A holiday every summer? That’s not a given. Went to all your school camps? Lucky you. Parents bought you those $50 a pop study guides for all your NCEA subjects? How nice.

Lived at home for free during uni?

Parents gave you some money towards uni fees, or towards a home deposit, or towards your wedding?

Maybe you figured that was just normal, after all, you didn’t go to a private school and you didn’t have the latest flashiest gadgets all the time. When your parents offered you ten or fifteen grand towards your uni fees or your first home, maybe you compared yourself with kids you knew whose parents gave them fifty grand, and figured you weren’t getting any sort of unfair advantage.

There’s a great pencilsword comic  that’s cropped up on my facebook feed a bazillion times. It shows two babies growing up and the different levels of parental support they get – Richard’s parents pay his uni fees, get him an internship, etc. Paula has to drop out to look after her sick dad. It’s a deliberately stark contrast.

My upbringing was closer to Richard’s than Paula’s, but my parents inhabited the tension of the liberal left well-to-do, they didn’t want to give us every advantage. They wanted to give us … I dunno, like, a standard advantage? Some help through uni (but not paying our full fees). Some help getting into a first house (but nowhere near close to the full deposit). Not handing us everything on a plate, just pointing us in the direction of the buffet. Maybe another reason people aren’t quick to own up to their good fortune is because everyone wants to be able to say that they have earned their position. This is a strong cultural norm too – making it on your own. I could say that my parents wanted me to make it on my own, but also wanted me to have the resources to be able to do that, and it’s a fine line, right? I never had any jobs set up for me but my mum read over my cover letters and my CV and suggested edits, and helped me prep for interviews. Before the interview for my current job, she gave me the obvious-once-you-know-it advice that I should look at the website and have an answer ready if they asked me what of their current projects I would be interested in working on.

There’s been financial help too: I lived at home for free during uni for the first four years and they paid my rent the year I moved out, there was some money towards the house we just bought (wow we bought a house!!), and quite a bit of money towards our wedding. Some of my friends haven’t had anywhere near as much financial help, while some have had much more. I’ve always been very conscious of this direct financial assistance because there’s a part of me that feels like, wait, I’m an adult, shouldn’t I be doing this by myself? The other part of me gratefully receives the money and figures that I’ll pay it forward one day because although we’re doing fine, this is a stage of life where extra money comes in handy. Or to put it another way, the amount they gave us towards the house was a bit less than a year of childcare fees.

Also, now, being a parent, I look at the little dude – not even two years old – and I reckon that the advantages I got in the first few years (before I can even remember!) are way more important than the money I’ve gotten for uni and a house. And I don’t feel semi-guilty or self-conscious of those advantages, which is maybe a bit weird if I think it’s more important? Raising a child lays bare the nonsense of the idea that anyone ever makes it by themselves. That’s just not a thing. By the time you are old enough to have a sense of self and a memory of your previous experiences, you’re very much a product of your environment. There’s no point praising a tree for growing tall and strong in fertile soil and denigrating a seed that didn’t sprout in a desert.

At 22 months, the little dude has had more books read to him than some kids will have by the time they start school.

I saw something on facebook the other day that said “Did you know children need to [have read to them] 1000 books before they’re ready to learn to read? That’s one book every day for the first three years!” A thousand sounds like a lot, but one a day doesn’t sound like very much at all. Linked in the comments was an article about the vocabulary gap. Always makes me think of Lisa saying “doh-dec-ah-heeee-dron” to Maggie.

But it’s more like this:

Me: We’re going to move house soon, we’re going to go to a new house.

Him: house

Me: Next weekend, you’re going to stay at Nana and Grandad’s house and Mummy and Daddy will move all our things to the new house

Him: Nana house

Me: Yeah, you go to Nana’s house and Mummy and Daddy will get the new house ready for you. It’s going to be nice at the new house, there is a better garden

Him: bedda darden! Ready house!

Me: yeah! And we’ll put your swing in the garden!

Him: Yeah!

Me: what should we take to the new house?

Him: [pauses, thinks] doys!

Me: yeah we’ll take your toys, what else?

Him: Mummy daddy

Me: yeah mummy and daddy will come too. Should we take your bed?

Him: Bed doo

Me: we’ll take the bed too

And I think, gee whiskers, helping him with his homework when he’s 10 ain’t the big ticket, this sort of back and forth is the big ticket. (Also, I love that his order of priority was first toys, second parents. Thanks kid.)

Interaction of this sort is correlated with parental education levels. But unlike paying for uni fees, it’s not intrinsically linked to either wealth or education. My grandmother is great at this, really great, and she left school at 15. There are some excellent programmes like Parents as First Teachers that focus on helping parents learn how to do this sort of stuff. As with any skill, there are the specific techniques, and there is also the attitude that people with the skill inevitably display. Good lawyers are interested in the logic of an argument, and how to communicate that logic. People who are good at looking after children are interested in how their little minds are developing, and how to engage with them on their level. For parents whose own upbringing was lacking in adults who exhibited this attitude, it’s unlikely to come naturally when they have their own kids. There’s also the fact that to do this stuff, you need time and energy. If you’re busy worrying about making ends meet and keeping the house warm, you’ll have less mental space to engage.

I tend to rave about the little dude’s creche, and I have no doubt that it adds value beyond what I could provide at home. They are not all of that standard. We looked at some that were a bit awful. There have been scary stories in the news recently about how a lot of early childcare centres are understaffed, barely operating at the (shamefully low) legal minimum – basically a death knell to quality care. I saw one when I was looking for the little dude that had nice facilities, but in terms of interaction it seemed like a baby storage unit. I wouldn’t want to send him there. If I did, it would be in the hope that he survive unscathed rather than in the confidence he will enjoy it and learn things. And he probably would survive unscathed, because while his creche is great, he also gets plenty of stimulation outside it.

The combination of widespread parental education and good quality out of home care has the potential to drastically reduce the gap that exists when kids start school.

There is however the issue of ideological opposition. The idea that parents should be providing this stuff, and it’s not the role of the government or the community at large to raise people’s kids for them, etc, etc. Some people call early childcare education “outsourcing parenting”. Which is an interesting contradiction because on the one hand, it valorises up the value of a parent (read: mother) providing all the preschool care (because mothers are magic?), and on the other hand, it talks down the level of skill involved in looking after littlies because it suggests that there is no value in trained, professional providers.

So anyway, let’s say that we have better early childcare and more widespread availability of parenting classes and all the other things that would put kiddies on an evenish level at the start of school. And let’s say that the schools are all good too and so kids leave school on an evenish level. What then?

As the gap between haves and have nots increases, parents are likely to worry more about the financial future of their children. Likely to want to help them more, give them financial assistance even when they’re adults. With uni fees and house prices getting ever higher, it’s becoming normalised for parents who can afford to give their children some extra financial assistance in early adulthood to do so, because it starts to seem like a legitimate boost into independence.

The blunt fact is that the more we expect from parents, the worse it will be for the kids of parents who don’t provide all those things. There’s a sliding scale. At one extreme you have kids who’ve been abused and never even got the basics of a secure attachment and reliable caregiving, at the other extreme you have the kids discussed in this article about the rise of the super rich. In the middle, towards the upper end of the middle, you get kids whose parents read their university essays and pay for things here and there for the grandkids.

This could be framed in two ways. Either, you see everything as the role of the parents, with society stepping into the gaps when the parents don’t provide. Or you say some things are the role of the society, but parents step into the gaps when society doesn’t provide. It’s a fundamentally different view of the world. For things like affordable housing and accessible higher education, I think it makes more sense to see that as a societal failure for which some parents can compensate. In an increasingly stratified society, it becomes difficult to figure out what counts as being overly privileged and what counts as being underprivileged, because there’s an uncomfortable truth that privilege begets privilege even if you’re not trying to reinforce anything. For example, knowing that my parents and my husband’s parents are set up for retirement and we will never have to support them: that’s not a privilege I can disclaim, but it is a tangible benefit compared to some of my peers.

At the heart of this is a lack of social consensus as to the balance of what is provided for by the society, the family, and the individual. A lot of political rhetoric from the right suggests that less should be provided by the state, more by the individual; which has an ideological neatness that doesn’t take into account the reality of wealth distribution within families, except when it does, and the whole concept crumbles into incoherence. The student loan system was explicitly established on the basis that the user should pay – and yet the allowances are means-tested based on parental income; so maybe parents are expected to provide for their children’s educations? Except parental income isn’t relevant to how fees are set… but it’s common now for parents to contribute to fees where they can… so it starts to seem like people whose parents can’t or won’t contribute are missing out.

My parents didn’t have any financial assistance from their own parents after they left home as teenagers. On the back of the Auckland property market, they are much wealthier now than they ever expected to be. And mum has said repeatedly that they’re happy to give us a bit of financial support at this stage of our lives (i.e., the money towards the house), because they know how much difference it would have made to them had they had it back when they were just starting out. The way I see it, this is wealth redistribution happening on a micro level which should be happening on a macro level.

I did my oral submission on the bill to extend paid parental leave to six months this Wednesday. It went well. They even played a one minute clip of my submission in the weekly parliamentary round up on national radio, I know because my granddad heard it. I made the point, not featured in the radio clip, that it’s a very narrow period of life where all these things tumble together: student debt repayment, a need to spend more on housing because of having children and requiring more space, a limited earning capacity because of having children (scaled back hours and periods of leave), and higher outgoings because of having children (childcare costs). It would make sense to have a bit more wealth redistribution directed at this stage of life: especially subsidised childcare and extended parental leave payments.

Except there’s another element. The more that parents are expected to provide for their children, the less willing wealthy parents will be to pay high taxes that fund those same things for other people’s children. It becomes a vicious cycle of privilege becoming reinforced in some circles and disadvantage compounded in others. In theory I support a universal student allowance, but in practice paying $320 a week for childcare while still paying off my own student loan makes me not super keen to pay more tax just right now… Maybe later… Definitely later… But that’s not really any comfort to the uni students who are amassing their own student loans, and who will one day be in the same position. So yeah, I should be paying more taxes to fund that; and childcare costs should also be more heavily subsidised. Meaning we need to look at all those elements cohesively, because it’s impossible to get traction on just one issue when there are a lot of other holes in the fabric of the social welfare state.

Meanwhile, buying a house – it’s a bit like finding that first job, so so stressful looking and then once you have it you can relax and then you’re like “oh, I made it, I’m ok, I’m going to be one of those adults who has the stuff sorted”. Next year is going to be a bit tight again financially because we figured out the maximum mortgage we could afford to repay on one salary and then bit the bullet and put in our best offer, so we don’t have much wriggle room. We’ll be “rich people poor” as one of my colleagues says. This is another area where privilege exists even if not cashed in: if something happened next year and we needed money and we didn’t have it, my parents could step in. It’s not just what you receive when you need it, it’s knowing that it’s there if you need it. And knowing that the support you receive isn’t causing your parents undue financial strain. That in itself is a really important privilege.

Anyway, I think it’s important to be honest about this stuff, about how much help different people in our society get from their families. At the same time, I also think that some of the non-financial help has been more valuable than the financial help. In my second year of law school my marks weren’t as good as I expected, and I was moping about it, and mum said “yeah well you didn’t really study very hard”. I was taken aback. “I studied!”, I said. She made the point that law school has a higher standard than first year BA papers. Another example of something that is only obvious once you know it (I genuinely thought that I had studied a reasonable amount!). I studied harder. I lifted my grade average. It lead to better job opportunities. That advice, given in thirty seconds, was literally worth thousands and thousands of dollars in increased earning power. This may not sound like the best example, because “study harder” is a no brainer… except it’s not so obvious when the alternative is thinking “maybe I’m not smart enough to get the top marks in this course.” There’s a lot of evidence that kids who are the first in their family to go to uni are much more likely to get the latter message, including from faculty staff.

Studying harder is often seen as the quintessential hallmark of meritocracy, but even then, it’s not really. I could only study harder because I was living at home for free, so my hours spent in paid work could be reduced without worrying about how I was going to pay rent and eat; and because I didn’t have other unavoidable commitments like caring for family members.

None of this is to suggest that we don’t work hard. We do. I blogged just the other week about the long hours etc, the feeling of never quite having enough time. Take it as read that luck isn’t enough on it’s own. We’ve been frugal and responsible and made good decisions and so on blah blah blah. That’s not the point though – to even be in a position where your own decisions are the “make or break” factor to financial security is a giant win in the lottery of life.

On the Rachel Larimore Abortion article on Slate

So, this piece, hmmmmm.

Abortion isn’t my pet issue. It’s something I never really thought about much until I was pregnant the first time round. New Zealand’s abortion law is on paper more restrictive than the US, in that you have to meet certain grounds (like in the UK), but the way it’s applied and the fact that it is free through the public health system means that we have a sort of practical accommodation and it’s not an issue that really rates much politically. Those who want abortion to be less accessible argue for a restrictive interpretation of the current law. Those who want it to be more accessible and less stigmatised argue for the law to be updated to reflect current practice. Politicians don’t want to touch it. My view is basically that yeah the law should probably be updated, but I haven’t given much thought as to exactly how. I’m strongly against further limits or a restrictive application, because I’ve been through pregnancy and childbirth and the idea of compelling that experience against someone’s will is literally one of the worst things I can imagine. Maybe if my birth had been different I might not feel this way. I’m not sure. There is always a danger in extrapolating from a single experience; equally, it is important that in discussion abortion, we never lose sight of what the alternative would be: compelled pregnancy and childbirth. That alternative horrifies me. Forced pregnancy, childbirth when you don’t want the child, would be a form of torture. This obviously colours my view on abortion.

Larrimore’s piece annoys me because it frames the issue in a way that is consciously trying to be even-handed, but could use a bit of further analysis.

I mentioned in one of the first blogs I ever wrote that the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” aren’t helpful. The only question is whether you support legal access to abortion. The two camps should be known as something like “pro-access” and “anti-access”. Pro-access is a big tent. It can include people who think abortion is morally abhorrent, but that the alternative of illegal underground abortions is even worse than the prospect of legal abortions. It can also include those who think abortion is a moral non-issue. It can include people who think that they would never ever get an abortion themselves, but that others should be able to; and people who can envisage situations where they would get an abortion; and of course people who have had abortions. It can include people who think abortion is good because it enables women to avoid raising a child she can’t afford; and people like me who find this logic a little bit disquieting and would prefer to see more social support directed at ensuring that no kids live in poverty. Big tent. All agree that abortion should be accessible, both legally and practically.

The anti-access camp is a small tent. It includes only those who think that abortion should be illegal. If you think abortion should be legal, but discouraged, you belong in the other tent. If you think abortion is morally complex and there is room for reasonable disagreement, then you probably should think that it should be legal. After all, we tend to reserve illegality for things that almost everyone agrees should be off limits.

This is my first issue with Larrimore’s framing. There are two sides, but one side includes a huge range of views. It’s really not fair to accuse that side of failure to engage with the nuance.

Around the edges, there are some areas of disagreement where people might find themselves unsure of which tent they want to be in, especially with the issue of term limits. When I was pregnant with the little dude, I felt like the 20 week limit in New Zealand was about right (it’s not an absolute limit, there are some exceptions). This time, I’m not so sure. I’m 25 weeks pregnant on Friday, and it’s flown by, and it’s so weird to think that if the baby was born now it might be fine. Late March, the 40 week mark, still feels like ages away. I have more of an awareness of what is yet to come – the third trimester, the birth, the recovery, the ongoing physical effects, the actual presence of the baby – and it means that I feel a lot more sympathy with the position of someone who maybe didn’t find out straight away and still wants an abortion even though the foetus is getting close to being a baby that could make it on the outside.

But, while this is an interesting area for philosophical pondering, term limits are largely irrelevant to abortion access. If abortion is legal and easily accessible, the overwhelming majority of abortions occur well before viability is even close. In New Zealand, more than half of abortions occur before the 10th week of pregnancy, and 95% occur before 14 weeks. So the area where there is genuine room for common ground (we both agree that later term abortions should be extremely rare and only occur in exceptional circumstances!), is also the area which matters least from the perspective of maintaining and improving access. That’s the problem with a plea for common ground. We realise we all agree on something, and then… we continue to focus on the areas where we disagree… because there’s no point having a political debate if you agree.

There are specific quotes in the article that I want to take further issue with.

It’s an emotionally fraught issue that pits two admirable and worthwhile causes—the equality of women and the protection of unborn children—against each other, with no easy answers but very high stakes.

Isn’t it weird how new humans have to be created by growing in existing humans? Fuck that’s some weird shit right there. Don’t get me wrong, I love new humans, they’re some of the best humans! But they all start out inside other humans. What a crazy way to come into being. Hey imagine how that totally weird it must be for those humans whose bodies are used to make the new humans!

Hey isn’t it weird how only some humans have wombs and are able to grow new humans?

Hey isn’t it weird how those humans are the less powerful humans?

Hey do you reckon those two things are connected?

Hey so maybe those humans with wombs shouldn’t have to grow new humans unless they want to?

BUT WILL SOMEONE THINK OF THE NEW HUMANS!

Oh yeah, the new humans!

I forgot about the new humans!

Fuck it, screw those people with wombs then, sucks to be them.

Yay for the new humans!

“Equality of women” and “protection of the unborn” are not equivalent interests. Equality of women is another way of saying “treating half the population as real people”. In a choice between treating women as real people, and treating pre-viability embryos and foetuses as real people, it should be fucking obvious which to prefer.

Second quote that annoys me:

Arguing that abortion shouldn’t be discouraged suggests that it is a trivial decision, which is callous and can bring pain to those who were the products of unplanned pregnancies.

Um, no it doesn’t, and no it doesn’t. Arguing that abortion shouldn’t be discouraged suggests that it’s a personal decision that isn’t anyone else’s business. It doesn’t trivialise it. And even if it did trivialise the decision, well, for some people it may be a simple decision. It’s not always going to be a difficult decision. That’s ok. That’s similar to many other decisions. Either way, I’m not sure how trivialising abortion is callous to people who were born as a result of an unplanned pregnancy (like ME! or my SON!). If abortion is legal, then anyone who is the product of an unplanned pregnancy is the product of a pregnancy that was ultimately chosen. Where is the pain coming in? I really don’t follow this.

You can’t just put words like “callous” and “trivial” in sentences and hope no-one notices a lack of logic.

*end rant*

Work life tightrope etc

Someone I know posted on Facebook a very old photo of a rally for the 8 hour day, a man holding a placard saying “8 hours work, 8 hours leisure,  8 hours rest”. Makes me wanna cry with frustration. In a time of unprecedented prosperity, why are we working such long hours? 8 hours leisure! 8 hours rest! What paradise!

I always write blogs like these when my husband is going through a patch of particularly rough hours. His standard hours are about 45 – 50 a week, and that’s manageable because we live close to town and he can do some of his work in the evenings after the little dude goes to bed. When it starts to creep up past 50 a week, and especially whenever there’s a stretch of 55 plus, we end up both feeling like we’re walking on a tightrope that is falling away behind us.

I used to feel like I had plenty of leisure time, after I left big law and moved to a public sector job. Now, in the same job, I work 0.7 FTE, or basically 9 – 3, but I feel like I have almost no leisure time and barely enough time to do everything that needs to be done at home and also sleep. After I pick the little dude up in the afternoons, we have a small window for play before it’s time to give him his dinner. Often there are errands to run, and sometimes I’m late to get him, but I really try to make sure that the afternoons are his time. He’s in creche for most of the day and I think he deserves to have some time one-on-one with me. But he’s full on, and keeping up with him is tiring, so while it’s nice time in the afternoons it’s not very restful time. Then there’s getting him dinner and helping him eat it, and then finally my husband gets home at 6.45pm. That starts a tightly timed routine – quick play with dad, bath, pajamas, stories, lullabies, and bedtime for the little dude. I do chores while the little dude is in the bath with his dad. The bedtime stories are usually the highlight of the day for me and my husband. We consciously make space for that to be relaxed. Once the little dude is in bed, we have to make our dinner and clean up and do the other chores in the never-ending mound of chores. And my husband usually has an hour or so of work to do from home. Except tonight, when he has to pull an all-nighter and has gone back into the office. That happens sometimes. So basically we don’t get any time to ourselves in the evening – by the time everything is done that needs to be done, it’s almost 9pm, which is pretty close to my bedtime, because the little dude wakes up around 6.30am and I’ve always needed a lot of sleep and even more so being pregnant.

What the hell?

Part of me knows that we’re lucky: my husband’s long hours come with a good salary and that’s how we can afford for me to take time out of paid work when we have the newbie and still pay a mortgage. I know that puts us in a very very privileged position. And I know that in another few years, with older kids, the time spent with them won’t be as draining or as all-consuming. And I know that single parents have to do this alone. And I know lots of people work long hours but don’t get high salaries in return. I know, I know, we’re lucky.

On an individual level, we have options, and we have chosen this set-up as the best available in our circumstances. We’re privileged to be able to trade-off money vs time. We’ve chosen this particular point in the trade-off and we shouldn’t really complain about it. We’re fortunate that my job gives us a bit of slack – I can vary my hours day-to-day and no-one minds at the office as long as I get the work done. We’re fortunate to be able to use money to solve problems created by having less time. We have a carpark in town. We buy our lunches too often. I don’t want to over-emphasise the daily grind element. But. But.

That’s on the individual level. Us compared to other kiwis. On the level of our whole society, I don’t get it! In modern capitalist economies, almost everyone is pressed for either money or time, and way too many people are pressed for both. Why?! There is plenty of both to go around!

I’m took a day off work a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure whether I was actually sick or just tired and pregnant. Either way, I stayed in my pajamas until it was time to get the little dude from creche, and just lay in bed basically all day. Generally I think that “imposter syndrome” is a load of bollocks (can we talk instead about “not as good as you think you are syndrome” whereby mediocre men think they’re awesome and end up in positions of power because they ride on the waves of sexist assumptions that give them the benefit of the doubt?). But there’s one respect in which I totally think imposter syndrome applies to me – I have this constant and completely unfounded niggling idea that people will think I’m slacking off. I think this is somewhat gendered, but also the result of societal messages that apply regardless of gender. Like how at my school, kids were given a certificate of commitment if they had a whole year without sick days. Pretty fucked up message to send! I have to really remind myself that no-one at my work thinks I’m slacking off if I take a few extra sick days while pregnant.

In New Zealand, we get 5 sick days a year at full pay and also 12 days unpaid during pregnancy. That’s the law. That’s what every employee gets as of right. Also by law, employers have to hold a job open for a year for an employee who has a baby, if the employee has worked at the place for a year or more. And we get 16 weeks paid parental leave (capped at $500 a week but it’s still something). And we get 20 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds.

I mention this because to a reader from the USA, that would sound pretty awesome!

To a reader from Europe it would sound a bit sub-par.

Which I reckon demonstrates that counting our blessings compared to other people in our own country is a double-edged sword. All the ways that my husband and I are fortunate are true in the context of a country which, on the whole, has a long way to go both in financial support targeted to families (particularly in the first few years) and working conditions that accommodate caregiving responsibilities.

My parents have both always worked fairly long hours themselves. Not long hours compared to some of the couples I knew in corporate law firms, where both parents work a 50 or 60 hour week, but long hours compared to literally everyone else I knew as a child. I remember once going to a friend’s house after school and staying for dinner, I would have been maybe 8 or so, and the friend’s mum had made apple crumble for dessert and I was so taken aback that this could be a normal weeknight thing. Our weeknight dinners were whatever mum or dad could rustle up while we watched the Simpsons. I had another friend whose mother was amazing at crafty stuff, and I loved visiting her house on the weekend because there would be some sort of activity planned out for us, like making a shoebox puppet theatre, or making tiny books and binding them with a needle and thread, or making mosaic photo-frames, or that awesome Halloween party where we made tiny jack-o-lanterns out of oranges. 

My grandmother, who was only 50 when I was born but didn’t have a paid job while I was young, was also fantastic at thinking up cool things to do with kids. She still is. Recently we went up to Auckland and I took the little dude round to visit her, and she went into the wardrobe and brought out 8 tissue boxes she had been saving for him to play with. Isn’t that just adorable?! I appreciate all those things even more now because it’s given me a model of how to do some of the stuff that my mother (awesome in other ways) didn’t really do so much. She is not crafty. She won’t mind me saying that because it’s as incontrovertible as if I were to say that she is not an astronaut. 

(Aside, here’s another super cute thing my grandmother is doing: when I was 11, we moved house and I was really sad to leave the house. My grandmother took a cutting of one of the roses in the garden and said that when I bought a house of my own, she would take a cutting of the cutting and I could plant it in my house. She has remembered this all these years later and we spoke on the phone this morning and she was telling me she’s getting my rose cutting ready for the new place. I’m blown away by this and so so touched, having completely forgotten myself about the rose cutting, but remembering now how nice she was when I was a sad little kid who didn’t want to move house.)

My parents had my grandmother as a back-up third caregiver who was always available. We won’t have that until my parents retire; but to be honest it’s not the norm now anyway, as so many people live in different cities to their parents. And as people both work later and have kids older, it’s also going to become less common to have retired grandparents available who are nonetheless still able to do the physical running around that little kids require. It’s a crucial generational shift. If we lived in Auckland, my grandmother would be around, but she’s 78 now and I wouldn’t really feel comfortable leaving the little dude with her alone. My brother had just got back from overseas when I was in the worst patch of morning sickness and early pregnancy fatigue, and he had his days wide open, yet to start a new job. One day I was taking a day off work sick and the creche called to say that the little dude was sick and needed to be picked up. So I dragged myself out of bed to get him, and then I went round to my parents’ place where my brother was hanging out. I basically said “I’m going to bed, play with him, supervise him on the rocking horse”, and did. It’s been so great these past few months having a close family member in the same city who isn’t working, even if it’s only a very short period of our lives. It makes me realise in a whole different way how valuable it is to our communities to have people who don’t have full-time paid work, and are available to contribute in other ways, including being “on call” for family members who might need them to do some childcare. 

It takes a village, etc. Those women who had me round to their houses after school or before school while my parents worked, or who had me round on the weekend, they were part of my village. The fact that they had time to do more home stuff because they did less paid work was a key part of my upbringing, and really very valuable not just to their children but to their whole communities (my grandmother came on almost all my primary school trips for example). Shout out to all the mothers of my childhood friends, I remember how cool it was that you looked after me before and after school and I remember the things you did! I appreciated it then, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to say it. 

Like me and my husband, my parents didn’t ever really intend to prioritise paid work quite so much. It happened like that for several reasons. My dad’s work was at a non-profit, and while it was fairly high-stress and required fairly long hours it was never going to be super highly paid because of the nature of the work. Like many women of her generation, my mum had ambitious plans at the start of her career, which gradually got scaled back thanks to the likes of us kids, but she wouldn’t have wanted to scale them back even further than she did. Both of them were faced with the same tension that my husband and I are faced with now: where are those jobs that offer generous sick leave, interesting work, holiday leave, a short working day, a good salary, job security, and career progression? Um, Sweden. I think those jobs are all in Sweden.

My parents were both lucky, and my husband and I are both lucky, to get jobs that tick many of the boxes – because I can’t think of any job that would tick all the boxes.

And we’re faced with this quandary, how to combine a career and parenting, and it’s a similar quandary to that faced by my parents’ generation. But not quite the same, because when my parents were kids, their mothers were at home and their fathers were not all that involved in day-to-day care, and that was the norm, and that has shaped their expectations. For both my husband and myself, our mothers have careers and our fathers were somewhat involved in the day to day care (though not so much the day to day vacuuming). We have a different point of view. Different expectations about the societal progress we expect over our lifetimes. When I left big law, I said in my exit interview that I couldn’t see how we could both stay in a corporate firm and still have time to be the parents we wanted to be. The HR manager sort of nodded like she was thinking about it, then said that most couples in that situation hire nannies.  

When I was about 8 or 9, my family was featured in a newspaper article about two-income families. I remember being strongly of the view that the photo should include the cat, because she was part of the family. In the ensuing two decades years, the two-income family has become wholly unremarkable – not something to be featured in the paper. But, paradoxically, the number of hours expected to be worked by a full-time employee has not reduced.

My parents’ generation are still in full force in the labour market – boomers! – so I’ve worked with many people their age, and obviously I’ve seen my parents and their friends, and the parents of my friends, and some of the lessons drawn are heartening and some are depressing.

  • It’s abundantly obvious that there are large numbers of extremely talented women who never reached high positions because they also devoted a large chunk of time to being caregivers, and either left paid work or sacrificed career progression.
  • It’s just as obvious that there are large numbers of men, still in positions of power, who don’t fully appreciate this fact.
  • It is depressing but true that women who take long periods out of the workforce have to start their careers basically from scratch.
  • A lot of people get separated or divorced. People who were at-home parents before a divorce are in a fairly vulnerable position after the divorce.
  • Men with partners at home often don’t appreciate how much this has helped their career (I can think of some exceptions, and without fail they have been great men to work with).
  • No-one has figured out how to combine work and family, and life generally, to their full satisfaction. Hundreds of thousands of people over the past several decades have struggled with the same issues. It can’t be solved by individuals.

And I think we don’t talk about this enough, because of that niggle that says “if you complain about how much you work, people will think you want to slack off”.

This is where I reckon it’s important to remind ourselves of the value of downtime for kids. The value of “just being in the same place together with mum and dad” time. My afternoons with the little dude are important because they are unhurried and unscheduled. Time where we can do more or less what he wants, at his pace. One day a few weeks back for example we went to the beach, except after I took him out of his carseat I realised he wasn’t wearing his shoes, so I put him down on the back seat while I found the shoes on the floor of the car, and in that time he climbed through to the passenger seat and started playing with things on the dashboard. So then we did that for 45 minutes. Beach trip canceled, let’s just open and shut the glove box over and over. I think this stuff is actually important. Making space for them to be able to do something without ushering them on to the next thing. Even on the weekend, we don’t usually have much time for this. Time as a family is generally scarce and there are always things to do, swimming lessons, a trip to the fruit and vege market, visiting my parents, maybe some social activity, there’s not a lot of time in which to just hang out. Of course he gets time at creche to just hang out; but we’re not there, that’s different. I don’t want him to see time with mum and dad as constantly busy. I don’t want him to feel like he’s an item on our tightly controlled schedule.  

Long hours are obviously shite for people who work them. It goes without saying that my husband would like to be able to spend more time with the little dude.

Crucially, they are also shite for everyone else.

After he eats his dinner and gets all cleaned up, the little dude often loses interest in his toys and starts hovering by the door saying “daddy? daddy?”. It’s not subtle. He clearly wants to spend more time with his dad. He also often asks for his nana, who sometimes visits in the evenings, but not often, because she also works fairly long hours.

When full-time work with long hours is the norm, more of the other stuff falls on the people who don’t work full-time. Whenever I have a day off work sick, I think – ah, lucky me that I’m not an at-home parent! They don’t get sick leave! Someone else would have to take a day off paid work to give them a break, and that’s unlikely to happen unless they’re really really sick. 

Anyway I should go to bed. It’s just all the same old point, no neat conclusion. Constantly frustrating to me. Standard working hours should be set at a level where it is possible for two people to both work those hours and also be fully involved parents and well-rounded members of society, and then having set the hours at that level, they should be strictly adhered to. This used to be called “overtime”, even the word sounds quaint.

The employment.govt.nz website has a handy guide for employers who want to create employment agreements. It includes a “contract builder” where you can select standard clauses.

Here’s a standard clause:

The Employee’s normal hours of work shall be [insert number] hours per week, between the hours of [insert start and finish times] on [insert days]. The Employee may also be required to perform such overtime as may be reasonably required by the Employer in order for the Employee to properly perform their duties. The Employee’s salary fully compensates them for all hours worked.

In other words “work at least these hours plus whatever extra we tell you to work, but if you work extra hours, you don’t get extra money”.

*skulks off to bed in despair*

Bed sharing and absolute advice

The front page of the Dom today has an article about a woman who has been convicted after her 10 week old baby died when sharing a bed with her.

The first time I shared a bed with the little dude he was 9 weeks old. He woke at about 6.30am and I brought him into bed with me to breastfeed him and we both fell back asleep. I woke up an hour or so later and was panicked that he had overheated because he was still in his sleeping bag. I freaked out that I’d fallen asleep. I was so terrified he might have gotten hurt. Took me ages to calm down.

At the six-month Plunket check up I asked the Plunket nurse when it starts being safe to bed share. My parents had me in their bed with them because in the 80s people did that and no-one was advised not to. Mum reckoned it helped them get more sleep. The Plunket nurse said “we really strongly advise against it for the whole of infancy” which was such useless advice right? What does “the whole of infancy” mean? Til they can walk? Til they can talk?

From about the time the little dude was 8 or 9 months until 15 months, he slept in our bed every day from 5am until 7am. He’d wake, I’d bring him in with us, he’d have a feed and go back to sleep and I would doze lightly next to him.

Earlier this week, the little dude woke crying at 3 am and then every 15 minutes until 4am when we brought him into our bed for the rest of the night. Molars? Ugh who knows.

The problem with absolute advice is that people don’t follow it. Like with pregnancy advice. I’m happy to not drink at all because it’s not gonna hurt me and I don’t find it that inconvenient, but when I’m told to not eat hummus or preprepared salads or shop-bought sandwiches, well, that’s ridiculous. I won’t be buying the end of the day egg salad discounted sammies, but I don’t have time to make my lunch every day and I’m fairly confident that my chances of getting listeria from a falafel kebab with lettuce and hummus are vanishingly small. Any food could be potentially contaminated, that’s the reality of modern food processing (if innocent frozen berries are making people sick, we’re a bit screwed right?) You can’t eliminate risk completely.

When advice is given in an absolute form, it runs contrary to how people actually live and think about risk.

I did heaps of google “research” on bed sharing, back when I was worried about when it starts being ok. It’s so convenient to just let the bub doze off on the breast and get an extra couple of hours sleep rather than get up and put bub back in the cot and maybe bub wakes up in the transition, and then boom you’re up for the day and it’s 5am, damn. Sleep is so fundamental, and there’s a phase when you want to do anything you can to get more of it.

I found out in my googling that there are some areas of heightened risk for sharing a bed with baby. For example, sharing a bed with the baby under the blankets is a significant suffocation risk, babies are much safer if they’re in a sleeping bag on top of the blankets. There are risk factors associated with the adults – smoking, high body weight, consumption of drugs or alcohol; and risk factors associated with the baby – low birth weight, premature, not yet rolling over unassisted, was exposed to drugs in utero. None of these factors are given any mention in the official advice, which just says that the baby should be in its own bed for every sleep.

And it’s frustrating because of course the last thing anyone wants to do is expose their baby to unnecessary or preventable risks, but blanket advice doesn’t enable parents to properly assess those risks.

The woman in the newspaper was a smoker and the baby was 10 weeks old, so bed sharing in that situation was actually extremely risky. But had she been told of the specific risks? Or had she just been given the general “don’t do this” advice? Because if it’s the latter, thousands upon thousands of parents, including me, ignore that advice to some degree.