“Aren’t they mean? You poor little thing.”
Mum and I turned around.
A woman was walking behind us through Target, looking sympathetically at my little Master Three and then shaking her head angrily at us.
“Now hang on a minute,” I said, stopping to confront her.
But she walked on.
“I’d love to hear what you’d do!” my mum yelled after her.
I shushed her.
We were beginning to look like bogans itching for a fight.
And Master Three was watching.
He’d been going through a stage of hiding in clothes racks whenever I was shopping.
Usually I could see an arm dangling below the racks of bras… or a cheeky eye peeking out between the maxi dresses.
But this time he’d completely disappeared.
In a panic, mum and I had approached a store security guard who helped us find him.
A gigantic man in black, we let him ‘have a word’ with the little Master, who clearly thought he ranked high in the world’s police force.
Terrified, he agreed to never do it again before bursting into tears.
Mum and I had been reiterating the point when our observer butted in, clearly unimpressed with the way I’d handled things.
In that moment, I wished he wasn’t mine.
I wished he was hers and that she was having to deal with his constant disappearances and the heart-in-mouth panic that followed.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been shamed for my discipline technique.
That same year, my parents and I had taken Master Three to the Gold Coast for a week.
We’d of course visited Dream World, where Master Three had engaged in one of his other new and annoying games – running away.
He’d spotted some remote control sail boats and dashed after them, without looking back or heeding our calls.
This too was becoming all too regular and I decided it was time to teach him a lesson.
We followed him until his fat little legs stopped below the controls, pushing himself up on tiptoe so he could ‘steer a boat’.
I pulled mum and dad behind a big pylon, out of the Master’s sight.
And we waited.
Dad was clearly uncomfortable with the idea but evil Nanna relished the opportunity to teach her grandson a lesson.
For a while anyway.
After my toddler’s casual glances turned into panicked stares, she too was ready to run to his rescue.
But I made them stay put.
By now, Master Three had now lost all interest in the sailboats and was sweeping the crowds desperately with fearful eyes.
Remember the anti-smoking ad where the little boy loses his mummy at the train station?
That was Master Three.
He burst into tears.
When two teenage girls approached him, I quickly intervened, explaining to them the lesson this tiny little mess of blonde curls was being taught.
Horrified, they backed away, whispering behind their hands.
I felt bad.
But I was a mummy fed up with being hurled to the edge of my greatest fear – losing my child.
I wonder now how effective those ‘lessons’ ever were.
Did Master Seven think of that man in black every time he started to step into a clothes rack?
Did he remember ‘losing mummy’ the last time he ran away?
Would I employ the same tactics on Li’l Fatty once he found his mischievous gene?
I’m not so sure.
You see, kids go through stages.
And these particular stages are pretty much universal.
Like those rides at Dreamworld, they can be unbearable journeys to take.
But they do end.
They stop hiding in clothes racks, they stop running away.
They learn to poo on the toilet and go to sleep in their beds.
They get hungrier and start eating vegies.
You can try and nip it in the bud.
Or you can just wait it out.
But punishing them…
Well, sometimes it’s a bit more like punishing yourself.
“Ok I’ve got 55 people,” Learner Dad said, thrusting the list in front of me.
“I’m sure a lot of them won’t be able to come,” he added, as I choked on my cereal.
I didn’t realise he’d even begun a guest list.
I certainly hadn’t.
“I’ve found an invitation website where we can get invites done for a dollar each,” he said proudly. “I figure we get 50. Fifty dollars total. Easy.”
Ok so why was I in shock over 55 guests and a fifty dollar invitation cost?
Because, dear readers, we weren’t talking about our wedding.
We were talking about Li’l Fatty’s first birthday.
I thought back to Master Seven’s first birthday party.
There were about a dozen people there.
Same with his second birthday and pretty much every birthday since.
But there were two differences now: 1) Back then none of my friends had children; and 2) since then I’d had a baby with a man who had a big family.
I began my own list.
The family members I’d invite only amounted to a small number of people.
But once I added my friends and their burgeoning broods, my list was nearly as long as Learner Dad’s.
A hundred people for a first birthday?!
Was this unheard of?
We had to cater for them and would probably wind up taking home dozens of presents.
Master Seven had burst into tears when 12 people began singing Happy Birthday to him at his first party.
How would Li’l Fatty go with nearly a hundred?
Would I even be able to get to the front of the pack to find out?
And scheduled an emergency meeting with Learner Dad.
We were barely past ‘attendance’ when we struck a surprisingly quick agreement: we’d rather not have a party after all.
Just a birthday cake at home with a handful of rellies.
It seemed the idea of hosting a barbecue for a hundred people in a park on the first day of winter was all a bit too much for Learner Dad in the end too.
Besides, this year we had another event to organise, another guest list to focus on.
And I had a feeling Li’l Fatty had plenty of partying ahead of him.
It was the moment I’d been dreading.
Li’l Fatty had found it.
Every morning in the bath, he’d glance about as if trying to remember something, then suddenly look down and grab it.
He’d laugh or frown as he pulled at it, depending on his mood.
Then he’d pop it in his mouth.
Ok, don’t be disturbed, I’m not talking about his doodle (he made that discovery long ago).
I’m talking about the bath plug.
Every morning, sometimes 10 minutes, other times 10 seconds after he’s in, out comes the plug.
It doesn’t matter how many bubbles I create to hide it, or how many toys I try to distract him with.
Forget the pirate bath with the spraying cannons.
The bright red Elmo jug or the colourful array of rubber duckies.
He just wants the plug.
The plain little white round plug.
Sometimes we play ‘See How Many Times I Can Get Mummy To Put It Back In’.
Other times he’s out the moment IT’S out.
Like I can teach an 11-month-old a lesson.
The plug is of course not the only everyday household item he’s obsessed with.
There are electrical sockets.
Wherever you go in our house, you’ll see the two red eyes of switched on power points.
Barely in sight, they don’t emit music, radiate light, or do anything entertaining.
They’re just plain old lethal power points.
Drawers are another one.
You can pull them out with one hand, then push them closed with your other hand still inside.
Cupboards are great for whacking yourself repeatedly in the head.
And blinds are a fantastic alternative to clothing.
The attraction of babies to the seemingly mundane is also true of TV.
Li’l Fatty won’t raise an eye to Thomas the Tank Engine but everything stops when Harvey Norman is advertising cheap lounges.
And Fireman Sam has nothing on CLR.
Or Jackson’s Security.
In many ways, babies are simple creatures.
You can have the brightest, loudest, funniest, sweetest, most outrageous toys.
But at the end of the day, Mummy’s drink bottle will dominate.
The lesson here: enjoy your little one while he’s still obsessed with the simple things.
Because one day he WILL want Thomas the Tank Engine.
In his toy box.
And on TV.
The plug will be a distant memory.
For you, that is.
It won’t even be that much for him.
I pulled up next to the For Sale sign and sighed.
I knew this because I’d looked it up on a real estate website earlier that week.
I gazed longingly at the home – eight bedrooms, indoor pool, right next to Master Seven’s school.
It was a house we didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
But I could dream.
“I’ve worked it out Mum,” Master Seven said, bumping me out of my reverie. “You and Learner Dad start saving as much money as you can and… [triumphant pause] I’ll give you all my pocket money so we can buy it.”
He gave me a look of grave sacrifice, a look that said: “You only ever had to ask Mum.”
Hmmm, I’d been trying to find something Master Seven could save for for ages.
The table in his bedroom was littered with crumpled five dollar notes and one and two dollar coins.
I wanted him to learn the value of money by wanting something.
And then saving for it.
It hadn’t happened yet.
Not because my boy doesn’t want anything.
But because he wants for nothing.
Let me explain.
Until now, anything he’s wanted, he’s got.
If not for a birthday, for Christmas.
If not for Christmas, then just because.
If not from us, from a grandparent.
If not from one of them, then from… no it’s usually either us or them.
I’m not complaining about this.
Really, I’m not.
It is just telling that the only thing Master Seven can think of to save for is a new house.
The concept of money is a tough one for kids these days.
“Just use Learner Dad’s card,” Master Seven answered recently when I told him we couldn’t afford a campervan.
“You know there’s a money limit on his card don’t you?” I asked in reply.
He frowned, not understanding why this card, which Learner Dad used to pay for most things, couldn’t buy us whatever we wanted.
“When does it run out? Before you get to forty dollars?” he asked, squinting at the campervan’s forty thousand dollar price tag.
Learner Dad always uses a credit card – not because he has a cash flow issue but because he likes earning points.
To Master Seven, Learner Dad can buy anything simply by popping that card into a machine and pressing a secret number.
Although he learned all about cash and coins at school last year, Master Seven was of a generation that’d be using them less and less.
It was important he learned the implications of using a bank card, whatever sort it was.
“Every dollar your dad spends with that card he has to pay back to the bank out of his money from work,” I said. “And if he doesn’t pay it in time, he has to pay extra.”
Although he seemed to eventually understand why we couldn’t buy that one bedroom home on wheels, it seemed Master Seven still thought we could easily pitch in for an eight-bedroom house with a swimming pool.
I guess I need to work a bit harder on my cash courses.
I love seeing my friends create little versions of themselves.
While I was the first to have children out of my circle of friends, they’ve arrived in abundance since.
There’s the curly-haired ball of energy who tormented Master Seven to the point where he’d tense at the sound of her name and then turned out to be one of his favourite playdates.
The three-year-old tot who took a stack at my house, froze as he landed (upside down) and calmly squeaked out: “Um, cuddles…”, taking me back to a drunken night on the town with his mum.
There’s the little boy who has his mother’s eyes.
And the girl with her daddy’s charm.
But, as lovely as it sounds, it’s not always been that simple.
Many of my closest friends really had to battle their kids into existence.
There was unexplained infertility.
And explained infertility.
There were miscarriages.
Premmies who made it, premmies who didn’t.
There were hormone injections, Chinese herbs, acupuncture and, ultimately, IVF.
Most went through their conception woes in the years between my having Master Seven and Li’l Fatty.
Having conceived Master Seven fair near immaculately, I tried not to feel self-conscious around them.
As they prattled on hopefully about positive pregnancy tests, I reminded myself not to talk about the awful day I did mine.
I’d barely been near the man who fathered my baby – and yet here they were pulling their bodies apart.
To their credit, there was no resentment.
Or if there was, they didn’t let it show.
And for all of them determination – along with modern science – eventually paid off.
Fortunately their successes came before Li’l Fatty.
Which was good because Learner Dad barely kissed me to conceive him.
I wondered once how some of them would go explaining to their kids how they were made.
Then quickly realised my own explanations were going to be no easier.
The fact is they’re here.
How we explain that to them is our own story.
Let’s hope there are many to tell.
“Ok, that’s enough of the Wii,” I said to Master Seven.
Reluctantly he put the remote away.
He wandered over to his DS, on the charger in the corner of the lounge room.
Oops, he’d forgotten to turn the charger on.
So Master Seven turned his attention to Learner Dad’s iPad, lying idly on the coffee table.
He sent off a few sketches on Draw Something before it too needed to go on the charger.
Sighing, he went and sat by my phone, drumming his fingers and willing it to beep so he could at least reply to a text message.
“C’mon, time to take a break,” I demanded, at which point he sighed again and went and switched on the TV.
I stood, watching him.
I remembered being little and my parents switching the TV off when it was time to ‘take a break’.
When did ‘taking a break’ suddenly become swapping video games for television?
I turned it off again, to the sound of groans.
Ok, ok, so why not force my little tech-dependent out into the sunshine?
Well, because there was none.
It was a rainy day.
After whiling a few hours away on books and boardgames, Master Seven begged for extra time on the Wii.
Because it was still raining, I let the one hour rule slide – but this time I would step up as the Luigi to his Mario.
Determination turned to despondence as I fell off walls, under bombs and into lava, while Mario hopped, skipped and jumped his way through each level.
Didn’t I teach him this stuff?
Wasn’t I the one he used to brag about at kindergarten?
“My mummy can kill Bowser Junior…” I’d hear him proudly tell his little friends when I dropped him off.
Now it’s me telling my friends Master Seven has to help me turn off the Play Station.
Or download an app on the iPad.
But that’s nothing.
My nephew didn’t just watch last year’s Christmas pageant.
He photographed it.
On his mummy’s iPhone.
He was two.
Eleven months old, Li’l Fatty already has a keen eye on the gadgets.
He waves the heat pump remote at the TV and the TV remote at the dishwasher.
As for the iPhones, they’re the things we’re always waving around in front of him.
The ones that usually come with the words: “Smile” or “Stay still”.
They’re the things we’ll always dangle in front of him but never let him have.
Except, I’m guessing, on a rainy day.