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

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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.

When push comes to shove

A boogie board sits in the carport at the bottom of our driveway.
To anyone passing, we look like a ‘beachy sorta’ family.
The kind that generates a whimsical smile, that makes you wish your own kids weren’t obsessed with the Wii and you weren’t obsessed with sun cancer.
And that you spent all of summer knee deep in either salt water or sand.
But behind that board lies a far different story.
It hides the tale of a six-year-old boy forced to surf it.
Poppy Pete and I had taken Master Six on a trip to St Helens late in summer.
Learner Dad was working and I was pregnant with Li’l Fatty so it was just the one from each generation.
Caught up in nostalgia from my own childhood trips up the coast, we checked in at the same old caravan park and headed off on adventure.
Peron Dunes is an area of seemingly eternal sand, rising randomly into soft mounds and steep hills.
Dune buggies and sand boarders aren’t an uncommon site.
My parents would take my brothers and I there every year to happily steer our boogie boards down the best slopes.
But Poppy Pete was no longer the young dad of our decades-ago family adventures and far from a child, I was now carrying one instead.
So, in our frail states, we had high hopes we could vicariously re-live our holiday adventures through poor little Master Six.
We ignored his cries of ‘sand in my eyes’ and ‘sand in my shoes’ as we battled the wind in search of the perfect slope.
“So you kneel here at this gap and just push yourself forward,” Poppy Pete said, explaining how to launch into a sand surf.
Terrified, Master Six looked down the giant slope at me, sitting and smiling in anticipation at the bottom.
“I don’t know if I want to,” he declared unhappily.
“You’ll be fine,” I yelled out, holding up my phone to film him.
Tentatively he pushed off.
The board hit the sand and ground to an immediate standstill, Master Six sliding a further metre or so beyond on his tummy.
He looked up at me, mouth full of sand, eyes full of despair.
“I can’t do it,” he implored.
We insisted he try again.
“You’ll love it,” I assured him.
After about seven more attempts, each with the same result, we called it a day.
That evening we went fishing.
We bought a line and bait and headed off to a jetty.
I recalled the flathead we’d haul in back in the day, gobbling it up for dinner at our campsite.
“I think I’ve caught one,” Master Six said excitedly, starting to wind in his line.
Suddenly he was pulled violently forward, stopping only moments before he toppled over the jetty.
The fishing line was gone.
We bought fish and chips for tea instead.
The next morning, we headed to Binalong Bay.
Strong winds forced us back into the car so we headed round to our other favourite beach – Beer Barrel Bay.
It was time, Poppy Pete and I decided, to introduce Master Six to the joys of boogie boarding.
He was going to love this!
“So you just wait until the wave is nearly on you and then jump on,” I explained to him, knee deep in the water, as he glanced fearfully behind him, teeth chattering, lips blue.
“Here comes one now… Go!” Poppy shouted.
To his credit, Master Six gave it his best but once his tummy hit the board, both he and it rolled over.
He came up spluttering and coughing.
“You said ‘go’ too late Dad,” I admonished. “He needed to get on it earlier than that. Look, try again honey.”
A few failed attempts later and my father and I had found ourselves in a shouting match.
“He’s got to paddle with his arms.”
“No, he just has to kick!”
“He needs to use his arms to keep his balance.”
“No, he just has to hold on tight.”
Hang on, where was Master Six?
We stopped and looked around.
He was off in the distance, on shore, making sandcastles.
The boogie board was floating out toward the horizon.
Poppy Pete and I looked at each other.
And trudged out of the ocean.
That was it then.
Master Six hadn’t surfed the sand or the ocean.
He hadn’t liked it, let alone loved it.
Had my brothers and I been older when we did it? Braver?
Did we enjoy it more because we had kids with us?
Or had the pressure simply been too much for Master Six?
Whatever the case, I felt ashamed.
I’d always prided myself on not being a pushy mother with the Master.
Even when all the other kids his age seemed to like the swings, I didn’t push it.
Even when all the other kids his age seemed to like bananas, I didn’t push it.
Even when all the other kids at Wiggle Bay didn’t mind getting wet, I didn’t push it.
I let him stand on the side in his dry little togs, content to watch.
How far should we push our kids?
Is there an occasion for pushing them at all?
When we know there’s something we absolutely loved as a kid, it’s hard not to force our offspring into trying it out too.
Whether it’s water slides or watermelon, ice skating or icy poles.
In my experience, they do eventually try – and like – most things.
Master Seven still doesn’t do bananas but he adores the swings.
And he’d dominate Wiggle Bay if I took him back there now.
He’ll probably one day have a crack at surfing.
Or then again, maybe he won’t.
Maybe that first lesson will be enough to deter him for life.

Like father, like son

“Look Mummy I’ve made your breakfast,” Master Seven said to me proudly as I walked into the kitchen.
Now you never want to disappoint your child but I simply couldn’t sit down and eat right away.
After the chocolate extravaganza that was Easter, I was back on my health kick, about to head off for some exercise before coming home to a planned bowl of cereal.
I looked at the two pieces of toast – one slathered in vegemite (you just don’t ‘slather’ vegemite) and the other in peanut butter (calories!!!)
I quickly popped them in a lunchbox with promises to chow them down after my run.
Master Seven looked satisfied.
Later that day I caught Master Seven gazing at me while I read the newspaper.
“You’re just so beautiful,” he breathed, before abruptly going back into the Lego land he was building.
Something was going on.
The night before, Master Seven had sat next to me on the couch and asked if he could rub my feet.
Cooking, compliments, foot rubs.
What a dream man.
As if suddenly realising we were hurtling towards the wedding day, Master Seven was making a last ditch effort to stay the main man in my life.
The battle for alpha male in our household has been prolonged and infuriating.
It’s hardly surprising.
When a boy spends the first five years of his life acting like your mini-husband, it’s understandable he’ll try to retain that role.
He had the prime spot at your dinner table.
He had the other side of your bed.
His was the only name besides yours on your Christmas cards.
He was the man of the house.
But only because he was the only man IN the house.
Learner Dad and Master Seven have shared a home for a year and a half now.
Sometimes they’re like brothers, bickering and dobbing on each other (yes grown men do dob sadly).
Often they’re great mates, playing basketball and watching YouTube.
And then there are the times they are actually father and son, barking orders and answering back.
Trouble is, it’s often Master Seven barking the orders.
He loves nothing more than fathering his new father (and it helps that Learner Dad sometimes acts the child).
“I see you’ve got your face glued to the phone again,” Master Seven will mutter at his father, shaking his head on the way past.
Or, sighing: “You always puts the plates where the mugs are meant to go.”
And even: “Don’t forget to wash your hands after playing with Li’l Fatty please. He’s got a cold.”
Learner Dad, to his credit, often just lets the little daddy in Master Seven slide.
I think it’s because he knows he’s his predecessor.
That he was the original man of the house.
That at one time only he ate with, slept beside, picked flowers for and loved me, the woman in both their lives.
And that, even though he’s been made redundant, he did a damn fine job.

Partners in time

PART ONE
I glanced at my watch.
7.30pm.
Where was he?
He’d said he’d finish late but I’d thought he’d be home by now.
I’d done everything – cooked dinner, bathed Li’l Fatty, read with Master Seven, got both boys ready for bed, all after a full DAY of mothering them as well.
And now Learner Dad wasn’t going to be home in time to do the hardest job of all – get them to actually go to bed!
He was at the cricket.
Working.
After working a long stretch, we’d been excited at the prospect of him having six whole days off in a row.
Of course he had radio commitments on three of them and had to present the TV sport on two of them but those things were only an hour or so out of each day.
But then he decided to work one of his days off because the last cricket match of the season had come down to the wire.
And of course nobody could cover it as well as him 🙂
And then, on another day off, he picked up two MC gigs.
They’d basically consume another whole day.
I wasn’t angry.
His strong work ethic was a huge part of what I loved about him.
He enjoyed his work.
And I knew he was trying to keep us financially afloat too.
But I missed him.
And, at times, I was jealous.
Sure, cricket wasn’t my thing but how nice to be paid to sit with your reporter mates and watch a game you love.
To not be consumed by nap times, grocery shopping and excursion dates.
To get about in a sharp suit, be given a nice lunch and to actually chat to adults all day.
And then to go back to the office and write about it.
I love writing.
But instead I was writhing.
On the floor with Li’l Fatty.
And reading books about Brown Bears and Green Sheep.
And pulling mashed banana out of my hair.
And washing school clothes.
And, oh hang on that’s right, I was watching cricket too.
School cricket.
Yawn.
And then home to juggle peas and corn and bubble bath and home readers and sleep suits and toothbrushes…
This was getting ridiculous.
Where was he?

PART TWO
He glanced at his watch.
7.30pm.
He probably wasn’t going to see his boys tonight.
He felt stressed.
And stretched.
In many directions.
He’d spent the whole day working at the cricket.
An incredible match, fantastic ending.
Now he was on his way back to the newsroom.
Tired and hungry but still with a whole story to write for tomorrow night.
He didn’t know what to do – go home for an hour or so and then come back?
Or realise family time was over and just stay at work until he got it done?
What would she want him to do?
He’d been busy lately.
He felt guilty.
And worried that his absence was why he’d slipped way back into second place at home.
Master Seven lately met his boy’s time suggestions with a shrug and his own suggestion that ‘mummy play too’.
And Li’l Fatty – well he just watched his mother’s every move and grizzled to go to her the moment she walked into the room.
How could he compete when he was at work all the time?
How could any man?
He thought of his future wife, at home in her pajamas watching My Kitchen Rules after a day of trackpants and TV, strolls in the sunshine, coffee with friends and cuddles with kids.
How nice that must be.
To be able to devote so much time to the baby, sunbake or watch TV during his sleep, and be there to pick Master Seven up from school.
Every single day.
In the end, he went home.
A quick goodnight to his two tired and grumpy sons and a cold bowl of pumpkin soup later, he was headed back to work.
All so he wouldn’t have to leave them again tomorrow.

THERE IS NO MORE IMPORTANT PARTNERSHIP IN LIFE THAN PARENTING.
LOVE AND APPRECIATE YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER FOR HIS OR HER CONTRIBUTION TO THE FAMILY, WHATEVER FORM IT TAKES.
YOU’RE DOING A BEAUTIFUL JOB LEARNER DAD x

Learner Dad’s match fixing

I looked at the calendar on the wall.
Saturday February 16, ‘Learner Dad busy’, it read.
Underneath were the words ‘West Coast play’.
‘Poor bugger,’ I thought. ‘He’ll hate having something on the same night his Eagles kick off their season.’
“What you got on Saturday the 16th?” I asked, walking back into the kitchen.
“West Coast are back. Night game,” he answered quickly.
I paused.
“So you’re busy because…”
“Because they’re back. Night game,” he said again.
“So you’ve made yourself unavailable that night?” I asked.
“Yes, why? Have you got something on?”
“No.”
“Good.”
“So you’re going to write yourself up as ‘unavailable’ for at least one Friday or Saturday night every week from now on then?” I pursued.
“Well, no. They play afternoons sometimes too,” he said, standing his ground.
I was confused.
He hadn’t done this on last year’s calendar.
Now honestly, I’m a fairly good girlfriend.
He watches footy at home. He watches it at his dad’s. Sometimes he even watches it at the MCG.
I know how things work.
The more free time I give him, the more he gives me in return.
We scratch each other’s backs and it works.
“But what if we had something on that night?” I asked.
“Like what?” he said. “Do we have something on?”
“No, but what if we did? Now I feel like I couldn’t possibly ask you. You’ve made this your priority above all else.”
“Well, it kind of is,” he said warily.
“But what if we had something to go to that was important to me? Have you really made yourself completely unavailable?”
“It depends. How important?”
“Important’s important. Do we really need to establish a scale?”
He looked confused.
I felt confused.
This was the guy who’d always seemed ready to drop everything at the slightest hint I might need anything, no matter how trivial.
A few days later, struggling to find a babysitter for a Valentine’s Day dinner, I suggested we go out the following night instead.
“Can’t. Collingwood’s playing. You’ll want to watch them,” he said, referring to the team I supported.
“Nah, it’s ok,” I replied honestly. “I don’t care about NAB Cup.”
“I do,” he said, staring me down.
So a pre-season game that didn’t involve his team came before a rare romantic night out?
Ok, now I definitely felt misled.
Learner Dad had hidden this from me.
He hadn’t warned me prior to our getting engaged that footy came first, above all else.
But then, this was also the guy who’d assured me he loved doing two hour foot rubs while watching America’s Next Top Model, only to admit a year after living together that actually, he didn’t.
That’s ok.
Engaged isn’t married.
I still have time.
I’ll just test him once more.
I’ll schedule something with some level of importance for next month, say Saturday March the 23rd at 4.40pm.
So Learner Dad, honey, are you available?

He scrubs up ok

The moment the forceps came out, he fainted, clean on to the floor.
Waking, he stumbled out of the delivery suite and in to the hospital hallway, desperately seeking an exit.
He pushed through a door, hoping to be hit by a blast of fresh air.
Instead, he found himself in the placenta room, slops of afterbirth dotted around the benches.
Vomiting into his own mouth, he made a quick exit from there too.
Where was I while all this was going on?
I sure as heck wasn’t the one with her legs up in stirrups pushing a baby out.
Nope, I was the tiny baby in question, trying to force her way out of her mother’s body.
The man I’m talking about was my dad.
We’ve all heard stories about men during childbirth.
“He was my rock.”
“He passed out and needed his own bed.”
“He was terrified.”
“He hated seeing me in such pain.”
“He couldn’t stop laughing, hysterically.”
“He had no idea what to do.”
“He knew exactly what to do.”
I had no male anecdote of my own from when Master Seven was born.
The moment he emerged, my two hands were being tightly squeezed by my mother and one of my best friends.
And, besides my friend spending my labour nervously gobbling down the whole box of chocolates she’d bought for me, I have no real stories to tell.
They didn’t faint, didn’t seem frightened.
They just did what I’m sure most expectant fathers do in those last moments – watched and waited.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Learner Dad.
I knew he’d worry about the pain I’d experience but that he’d be there every step of the way.
As it turned out, an induction quickly turned into an emergency caesarean so the visions I’d had of him trying to help me through painful contractions quickly dissipated.
Now neither of us knew what to expect.
I was suddenly flat on my back, being stripped of my clothes, the midwife furiously scrubbing nail polish off my toes as a nurse tried to quickly insert a catheter.
Learner Dad was ushered into a bathroom to put on scrubs.
Terrified tears slid out the corners of my eyes as I stared at the bathroom door, willing him to emerge.
Coming out to a panicked partner, distraught at the prospect of having her tummy cut open, he started making jokes.
He wandered over to me, telling all the ladies in the room he looked like George Clooney from ER.
He didn’t.
He looked better.
In fact I’ve never found Learner Dad to be more handsome than on the night our Li’l Fatty was born.
You see, I don’t think there’s anything sexier than seeing a man become a father.
Women spend so much time being strong and capable, running a family.
Being a single mother had made me particularly independent.
But that night I’d discovered what it was like to just let go and rely on someone.
With Learner Dad sitting next to me in the operating theatre, I knew he’d make sure everything was ok.
And when Li’l Fatty decided to hold his breath in protest at being born, I didn’t hesitate in telling Learner Dad to ‘follow that humidicrib’.
Sure, I needed him.
But our baby did more.
And so, from the very first second of our new son’s life, I was experiencing what it was like to have a co-parent, someone with an equal share in the human being you just created.
I barely saw Li’l Fatty for the first 24 hours of his life, but you know what?
I slept peacefully.
Because he was with his dad.