A last word

The man and I fell into step with one another on Macquarie Street.
He was heading east and had just crossed at the traffic lights.
I was walking north and had just hit the T junction.
Neither of us had any other way to go.
So we walked awkwardly alongside each other, each slowing to let the other pull out in front.
But neither of us did.
At least we had a talking point.
In my arms I was carrying a crying, jerking, off-her-face Fairy Floss.
“We’re just out at dinner,” I explained over the wailing. “Thought I’d take her for a walk and try to calm her down.”
“My daughter’s 19 now,” the man said, gazing at the thrashing pink jumpsuit in my arms. “I’d give anything to have her be that little again.”
He gave a small wave and disappeared through a doorway.
The ball of anxiety in my chest began to unwind.
I walked along the lit city street, singing ‘Li-ila, Li-ila’ to the tune of ‘Daisy, Daisy (give me your answer do)’ and felt her warm little body relax against mine.
She gave a little sigh, banged her head one last time into my collar bone, and then suddenly dropped into sleep.
My last baby.
Every woman, every parent, must realise at some stage that they’ve had, or are about to have, their last little bundle of joy.
You don’t think of an end point when you have your first.
You’re too caught up in the wonder, the awe, the exhaustion, the hot heart-exploding surges of love love love.
For me, it was just my little Master Baby every day – a teeny bit longer, a smidgen less vulnerable.
I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
But it didn’t matter, because the ‘tunnel’ was so beautifully lit by him.
But every day with Fairy Floss carries with it a little ‘last’.
And suddenly everything that’s tough about babies becomes precious.
Any night could be the last Learner Dad and I sit together in her darkened room, one patting her chubby thighs while the other scrolls aimlessly through Twitter.
Any night could be the last I stare at the perfect little ‘0’ of her mouth, her four white picket teeth, the yodelling pink tongue screaming out that wailing midnight song dedicated just to me.
Any day now we’ll be unable to squeeze her fat arms under the capsule straps.
Any day we’ll have to turn her round to seek out green lights and fire engines, instead of passing out under retreating clouds.
We’ve had our last slippery soak in the baby bath.
Our last non-solid poo.
Our last first smile.
We won’t have a last first rolling over.
She did that when we were out of the room.
And now she’s crawling.
So I’ve pulled the last baby rug up off the floor.
And moved the glassware a final time.
I dread the day I’ll have to put her down in the shower.
The day she refuses to get in with me.
The moment I realise it’s been days since she wanted me to pick her up at all.
This morning I showered without her.
But I wasn’t alone.
Lil Fatty was balancing on a stool, desperately trying to fill the sink before Master Nine got to the plug.
Master Nine was straddling the bath, supposedly cleaning his teeth.
And Fairy Floss was jolly jumping on her fat little legs in the doorway, squealing with delight at us all.
As I stood under the fluctuating hot and cold water, I felt exhausted.
Exhausted yet humbled.
These three little creatures are mine.
And I am their universe.
I know it’s only a matter of time before I’ll shower with only the steam for company.
Life will have pulled my babies in other directions.
We can’t dwell on their growth.
It will happen anyway.
The only thing we can do, should do, is try to enjoy them.
Photograph them, sure, immortalise them in frames, albums, online.
But mostly, watch them.
Smile at them, smile with them, sing to them, listen to them, kiss them, cuddle them.
Even when their warm soft bodies have been replaced with long cold gangly ones.
Treasure them.
For at the end of this ‘tunnel’, this insular world that is parenthood, other roads stretch ahead.
Travelling, re-claiming careers, making new friends, bonding anew with old ones.
Loud music, clean kitchens, spare rooms, long lunches, movie nights, hobbies.
One day, grandchildren.
I’ll pack up my precious kaleidoscope of mummy memories and take it with me wherever I go.
Look back into it often.
And remember that incredibly intensely exquisitely sweet time that I was the sun to three little planets.

Learning by heart

As I wind up my blog for the second time, it would be remiss of me not to do a little Learner Dad shaming…

Like the time he complained about having to ‘babysit’ his own children…
Or when he followed it with ‘but then I’ll have three of them’ and had to be reminded he actually has three of them…
The time I was being induced and he thought they were going to put the gel on my tummy…
The time he almost bought a stroller for our newborn, instead of a pram…
Or when he assumed we’d just carry baby home from hospital in the car, on our laps
The time he set up the portacot correctly… oh wait, that didn’t happen…
Then there was the time he thought Lil Fatty sucking his toes might give him foot-and-mouth disease…
The many times he goes out in sympathy when our children actually are sick…
The time he thought the ‘3-6m’ on growsuits meant three to six metres
The time he let Master Nine win at something – pfffft yeah right…
The time he told me my tummy did actually ‘look bigger’ before I took a pregnancy test – it was negative…
The extremely dangerous time he asked me why I didn’t know how to hem trousers…
The time he thought MONA was quoting three-hundred instead of three-thousand dollars for a wedding reception room – he would have booked if bride wasn’t there…
The time he almost took my instruction to teach Lil Fatty how to use the potty literally (talk about making a splash)…
The time he borrowed money from Master Nine’s piggy bank to fund a Tooth Fairy visit – to Master Nine…
And the times, every Thursday night, he’d wander in to the loungeroom to bag out The Bachelor – then sit and watch the whole thing with me…

Despite all of this, Learner Dad is my hero.
Not because he goes to work.
Not because he ‘brings home the bacon’.
He loves going to work.
And the bacon’s just a bonus.
He’s my hero because when he’s not there, he’s here.
Every morning he juggles spoonfuls of lumpy fruit mash with ironing shirts; cling wraps cupcakes while making work calls; and chases kids into and out of showers while washing last night’s dishes.
All while I’m still in bed.
Or at the gym.
Or sometimes even window shopping after the school run (I bet he doesn’t even know that).
And every evening he eats dinner with Fairy Floss sprawled across his lap, Master Nine sprawled across his back, and Lil Fatty sprawled in bed demanding Daddy’s rendition of Dog’s Noisy Day ASAP.
While I’m in the bath.
Or at book club.

So while it would be remiss of me to not do that little bit of Learner Dad shaming, it would also be remiss of me not to thank him.
And to tell him I love him.

To the moon and back

I first met Master Nine’s Grandma when he was seven months old.
She had warm brown eyes, hair regularly cropped short by her husband and a face etched with a thousand smiles.
Along with her three-quarter jeans, khaki singlet and sandals, she wore gigantic jewellery, compensation for her tiny frame.
And it was over that that she and her grandson first bonded.
While Master’s Grandpa and I chatted, Grandma and baby just sat ogling each other, he with her giant pendant crammed into his mouth, she leaning in as close as her necklace would allow.
Grandma needed no training.
She’d had three babies.
In fact, she’d had three boys.
She had her grandson’s attention.
And his love from the moment they met.
Of course, letting him suck her giant necklaces was only the beginning.
She took him to playgrounds.
And swimming pools.
Lunch at a train station, so she could watch his little face when the bells clanged.
She sent him letters from Melbourne.
And postcards from all over the world.
Covered them with Lightning McQueen stickers.
She posted chocolate packages that put the Easter Bunny to shame.
Cut out funny pictures of dogs, or cats, or babies to laugh at with him later.
And once, a picture of a plane resting safely on the Hudson River, the passengers huddled on its wings.
She bought him cool shoes.
And gingerbread men they secretly called ‘Supermans’.
She proudly told everyone he was THE best kid in the world.
And even ran down the street yelling ‘nighny-nighny-pop-pop’ after our retreating car, oblivious to what her neighbours might think.
She taught him to read numbers on letterboxes.
And sat with him outside late at night to show him just how much she loved him – all the way to the moon and back.
When Grandma died, Master Nine was still her only grandchild.
The travesty of her not having more was tempered only by the fact that she’d at least had him.
Grandma had decided not to tell us that her cancer would likely claim her within two years.
She started chemo.
I hoped she’d beat it.
At the least stave it off for a long time.
Recently diagnosed myself with pregnancy problems, I couldn’t fly over to see her.
But I’d be over there with my baby as soon as I was able, I told her (and myself).
Five months later – two weeks before my baby was born – my mother decided she’d take Master Nine to Melbourne herself.
Call it Nanna-intuition.
Because days before their scheduled departure, Grandma was rushed to hospital.
She took a turn for the worse the night before they were due to arrive.
And so it was with a heavy heart that my mother took Master Nine on that plane.
One grandmother taking her grandson on a journey to farewell another.
I sat, hormonal and horrible, for hours on the couch at home, anticipating and dreading every phone call.
My little Master arrived in time to say goodbye to the lady who’d loved him almost as much as me.
He read aloud to her the book he’d made – ‘Grandma’s Gang’.
But she never woke up to see it.
An hour after he left, Grandma died.
They had her funeral five days later, on her birthday.
Needless to say, I couldn’t go to that either.
In fact, the last time I ever saw Grandma was at my wedding.
I wasn’t marrying her son but that didn’t matter to her.
Her grandson was happy (anyone at my wedding will attest to this!) and that’s all she needed to know.
Master Nine is fairly nonchalant now talking about his Grandma.
To him, her death was a curiosity, something he understood yet didn’t seem to really comprehend.
It was Grandma who actually once said to me that parenting was one of the most unappreciated jobs we’d ever do.
But perhaps she was wrong.
Perhaps it’s grand-parenting.
Most of us eventually have some sort of epiphany about our parents and the sacrifices they made for us.
But by the time we realise how special our grandparents were – usually while watching our own children interact with theirs – it’s often too late.
I have all Grandma’s letters.
It might not be until he’s Master Forty that my son will read them and realise how big a role she played in the first near-decade of his life.
And he might never know or appreciate how much she adored-dotedon-laughedwith-and-loved him.
But his mummy always will.

Baby. Cot. Back.

2.38am
Her little blue eyes had turned black.
In the dark, I could see them wide open and staring at me.
Her legs had finally stopped jerking, her tiny fists rested loosely up next to her ears, and her breathing had slowed.
Even the hiccup hangover from crying had stopped.
I stared back at her, sending imploring messages to her eyelids.
‘Close, close, close,’ I thought.
Behind me, Learner Dad was face down on a mattress he’d desperately dragged into the nursery.
I heard snoring.
It seemed my message had gone to the wrong eyelids.
She watched me as I stood up, my creaking knees excruciatingly loud in the silence.
I backed out of the room, breaking the rules by maintaining eye contact.
She moved her hand slightly.
But she had nothing left.
I slipped out the door and back in to bed.

1.14am
“It’s not working, what’s your plan B?” Learner Dad asked, turning his head but keeping his hands firmly pressed on his wriggling daughter.
“I don’t have one, this is it,” I spat back.
“She’s not going to sleep. What if she’s up all night?”
“I’m not pulling the pin now!” I said. “What a waste this all will have been.”
“Why is she still bloody awake? I don’t get it.”
“She’s waiting to be picked up, that’s why!” I was as exasperated as him.
Fairy Floss watched with amusement as her father and I exchanged heated words above her.
“You go to bed,” I hissed, knowing every angry word we uttered was undoing all our good work.
He left the room.
I couldn’t believe it.
Now I’d have to see this through all by myse…
Oh wait, he was back.
With a mattress.
He sighed loudly as he tried to clear space for it, bumping furniture, knocking things over, before it landed with a huge ‘thwack’ on the floor.
We both looked at Floss.
She threw back her head and began to cry.

12.22am
“It says on Google it could take an hour and a half,” I sang to Learner Dad, to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.
“That could take us to 1am,” was his ‘how I wonder what you are’.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have decided-to-do-this so late at night,” I sang back. “I’m just over it, she’s a li-ttle shi-it.”
We both smiled.
It’d be ok, she couldn’t stay awake much longer.

11.46pm
“Right, change of tactic, don’t pick her up,” I instructed Learner Dad as I entered the nursery.
At eight months old, Fairy Floss was sending me grey.
She’d spent her whole little life either feeding to sleep, or being rocked.
She was our last baby.
We wanted to enjoy her, to do what came instinctively, what felt right.
I loved watching her little eyes roll back in her head as she suckled to sleep.
And Learner Dad took pride in the fact that all he had to do was pick her up and she’d nod off.
But evenings had become a nightmare of hourly wakes.
Which meant hourly cuddles, or feeds, or both.
It wasn’t improving.
“Just let her cry it out,” my mum had said.
“Mum, we’re told not to do it that way these days,” I’d answered.
“Didn’t do you kids any harm.”
Another reason we’d rushed to her every time she cried was because her big brother, Lil Fatty, was slumbering next door.
And he was a light sleeper.
We had actually hatched a plan prior to this – to let her cry it out, but with one of us sitting beside her, so she’d not be alone or scared.
We’d made a couple of half-hearted attempts but tiredness – and TV shows – had been our excuse to jump ship.
We’d never seen it through.
After the usual three or four wakes on this particular night, I’d finally gone to bed at 11pm.
I was drifting beautifully down into deep sleep when her little cry drifted down after me, circling me round the neck and hoisting me back up.
I’d had enough.
And so, at a quarter to midnight, I told Learner Dad to start patting her padded bum while I pulled out my phone for advice – and assurance.

9.13pm
“You’re such a little ratbag, yes you are,” I said, tickling Fairy Floss’ ribs. “Why won’t you stay in bed?”
Her four tiny teeth grinned back at me, before she turned to munch down on my boob.
“Up again?” Learner Dad groaned, coming in to the lounge room.
“Yep. Why are you surprised?”
She’d dramatically turned her head at the sound of her father’s voice, dragging her teeth along my nipple as she did.
“Here, you take her, she likes being rocked by daddy,” I said, passing her over.
Within seconds, our dear little baby was lightly snoring.
“Something feels different about her,” Learner Dad said, gazing down at his little girl. “I’ve got a really good feeling about tonight.”

Plane awful

“Sorry but can you please get that little girl to stop screaming?”
Master Nine and I looked at each other in horror.
The voice floated over the back fence and landed on me like a lead weight.
“It’s not a girl, it’s a two-year-old boy,” I called back stiffly.
She (and therefore I) was referring to Lil Fatty, who was on the trampoline with his big brother.
Santa’s gift had been both a source of pleasure and pain, granting Learner Dad and I free time to get things done but also causing fights between the boys.
On this day, in this week of this month, Lil Fatty was probably about halfway through an excruciating screaming phase.
They were piercing, relentless and awful.
They were almost always emitted in the vicinity of Master Nine.
And, if I were my neighbour, I’d be going nuts too.
“I’m doing my best,” I said sadly.
I heard her back door bang shut.
Master Nine just stared at me.
Lil Fatty kept bouncing and babbling, unfazed.
I carried Fairy Floss back inside, put her on the floor, and went and cried on my bed.
I’d felt the sadness in my neighbour’s voice too.
She’d hated doing that.
So why did she?
It reminded me of the time friends flew in from interstate and complained about a crying baby on the plane.
“I don’t know why its mother didn’t do anything,” one said.
I’d had Master Nine by then.
I knew that mother would have eaten an air hostess if it would have made her baby stop crying.
I know this because recently Learner Dad made a huge sacrifice himself.
He actually abandoned a flight because of a screaming Lil Fatty.
Petrified from the moment he’d stepped on to the tarmac, our two-year-old had stood on his seat (35E), pointing frantically at the door through which he’d embarked, and screamed.
I couldn’t bend him in half to put on his seatbelt.
A traumatized Master Nine was crying and Fairy Floss was arching her back in fury.
Amidst it all, Learner Dad’s eyes found mine and he stunned me with: “I’m going to take him off.”
Within seconds, I knew he was doing the right thing.
Passengers who’d been shifting obviously and deliberately, passengers who’d been shaking their heads at us, watched amazed as my brave husband and terrified toddler walked back down the stairs (which had to be driven back in) and across the tarmac.
The lady in front of us, who’d made a show of blocking her ears during the chaos, suddenly doused me with sympathy.
They all did.
“Oh, you should have kept trying, he would have calmed down.”
“Poor little darling, he would have been fine.”
“I can’t believe they let him leave. They could have taken him to the cockpit or something.”
I felt shaky.
And vomity.
At the time, it was a very big deal.
But I’ve buried it at the bottom of this post lest people think our tot a true terror(ist?).
A naughty brat who had a tantrum so big it delayed the plane an hour.
He’s not.
He wasn’t.
He was just scared.
Inconsolably so.
For now, apart from the occasional still-loud squeals of joy, Lil Fatty’s screams have abated.
Embarrassed that day on the trampoline, Master Nine has laid off on the teasing.
And, a late talker, Lil Fatty is finally replacing sounds with words.
I’ve been told I’ll laugh at the plane story one day.
By his 18th birthday, I’m sure I might smile.
But I’ll always think of some of those people on that plane – and my neighbour – with a tinge of sadness.
For parenting is like handling little explosives.
You can wire them so they’re as safe as can be.
But when expert detonators – siblings – and unknown detonators – in this case, aeroplanes – come in to play, they just explode.
And you can jump on your little bomb, take as much of the physical and psychological trauma as possible.
But you can’t stop it happening.
Ever.
People who haven’t had kids would do well to know that.
And people who have would do well to remember.

The Care Factor, part 2

‘Ok here we go,’ I thought, as Learner Dad’s name flashed on to my phone.
I’d been waiting for this call.
“How did he go?” I asked nervously.
There was only silence.
And then a sniffle.
“Are you there? What happened?” I asked in a panic.
More silence.
Then… “I can’t do it.”
It was Lil Fatty’s first day at childcare and it seemed it wasn’t Lil Fatty who was struggling with it.
“What do you mean?” I whispered, glancing around the office and covering the phone slightly.
“He just doesn’t suspect a thing,” Learner Dad said between sniffles. “I feel so mean leaving him here.”
After weeks of debate, Lil Fatty was enrolled for one day a week of childcare.
Learner Dad didn’t like the idea one bit.
I liked it a lot.
For a start, I’d been ready to take on another day of work a week.
And secondly, Master Nine had loved childcare.
He’d learned more about sharing and hygiene than I’d ever taught him.
And it filled the arts and crafts component of parenting I had always lacked.
“Do you want me to come and walk him in with you?” I asked my husband. “I’m sure Nathan would understand.”
Nathan was my boss.
And Learner Dad’s.
There was no way he was going to let me tell Nathan he was crying in the car outside Lil Fatty’s childcare centre.
“No, no, I’ll do it,” he said.
And, to his credit, he did.
Two hours later we were called to collect an inconsolable Lil Fatty.
Both flat out at work, we picked him up and took turns looking after him at the office.
Over the following weeks, things barely improved.
Learner Dad had the ugly job of dropping Lil Fatty off.
I was the hero who picked him up.
Learner Dad would leave him waving tearfully at the window.
And I’d find him in the same place seven hours later.
Of course he didn’t spend the whole day at the window.
A large portion of it was spent on the toddler room couch, clutching a rainbow abacus and screaming at any kid who came near him.
And so, by the time I was heading off on maternity leave for Fairy Floss, I was under the assumption Lil Fatty would be taking a crèche sabbatical too.
But the tables had turned.
Learner Dad was starting to see social improvements in Lil Fatty.
He no longer cried when his daddy dropped him off.
He’d begun venturing outside to play.
And he was, of course, a big fan of the hot lunch.
“If we take him out, we’ll have to go through this all over again,” Learner Dad said, referring to my inevitable return to work.
“You shouldn’t put him through all this again,” Lil Fatty’s carers reiterated.
And so he stayed.
I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable watching Lil Fatty and his dad roll out of the driveway on a Friday morning.
But he waves cheerfully to me now as he leaves and he no longer cries when he gets there.
And nor does Lil Fatty.

Care Factor part 1 was written prior to my return to work in 2013

Two’s company, three’s insane

It’s 2006.
After a busy morning picking Weetbix out of the carpet, holding the shaky feet of a toddler trying to climb a small fort and rock-a-byeing a bear on repeat, Master One is finally down for his afternoon nap.
I sit down with a toasted sandwich and a cup of tea and start the fifth season of the West Wing. He’ll be down at least two hours and nobody deserves the break more than me.
I give myself a pat on the back.

Fast-forward to 2013.
It goes pretty much the same, except this time it’s Lil Fatty.
And Breaking Bad.
The now-Master Seven is at school so I have to cap Lil Fatty’s sleep at two hours to go and pick him up.
I get back home with my two boys and take a coffee break.
Nobody deserves it more than me.
I give myself a pat on the back.

Fast-forward to 2015.
My morning is spent being dragged around by one child, while trying not to drop another.
That’s after I’ve taken the third to school.
I pick Weetbix out of the carpet, wipe pureed fruit off the lino and scrub poo off the couch.
I hold the shaky feet of a toddler trying to get on to the trampoline while a baby tries desperately to sleep in my arms.
Baby sucks furiously on my boob while I hold the potty under the bum of toddler.
I bath baby and make my bed, only to have toddler wee on baby – on my bed.
Toddler rolls out of towel while I try to put a nappy on baby.
Baby rolls out of nappy while I try to re wrap blue-lipped toddler.
I do the Hot Potato, mashing potato.
Mashed Banana, peeling bananas.
And desperately eat what’s left of their Cold Spaghetti for lunch.
Before a visitor arrives, I clean the toilet.
Then find a half-filled potty under the coffee table after they’ve left.
I put one child down for a nap only to hear the other wake up.
Right on cue.
Every day.
I was standing at the back door talking to my 70-year-old neighbour recently.
With Fairy Floss dribbling down my arm and Lil Fatty holding my free hand (and, with his free hand, his doodle), I moaned as I described the giant leap from two to three children.
But she already knew.
She had three herself.
“And I had to have the house clean, dinner cooked, and the kids bathed and ready for bed by the time my husband came home.”
That’s how it was done in her day.
I get one out of three.
Learner Dad invariably comes home to a hot dinner.
He also comes home to wet towels on the floor.
To kids that smell like poo, or wee, or spew, or all three.
To a bench strewn with carrot peel, blobs of ice-cream, stripped corn cobs.
His wife may or may not have washed her hair that day.
Whichever the case, it’s in a ‘mun’ (mum-bun).
And she’s most certainly wearing the same track pants her baby vomited on three days ago.
It’s not that mums of today are less capable than our predecessors.
It’s that the emphasis has been tipped from ‘good wife’ to ‘good mother’.
Instead of ironing hubby’s shirts, we watch our kids play on the trampoline.
We fuss over cupcakes rather than rump steaks.
And we make Lego cities that render vacuuming simply impossible.
If our husbands dare complain, they are quickly put in their place.
Which, in Learner Dad’s case, is eating his rapidly cooling dinner while balancing one child on his lap and reading a story between mouthfuls to another.
While mummy sits down to anything not on ABC4Kids.
And gives herself a well-deserved pat on the back.