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.

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

Speaking the same language

“So what do you do if there’s an emergency?” the policeman asked, squatting down in front of the little boy.
“You call 9-1-1?” the boy answered uncertainly.
In his classroom.
In Australia.
I was at the school as a reporter, not a mother, on this occasion.
We were working on a feel-good story involving a bunch of police officers visiting a primary school.
After an awkward pause, the officer said: “Er, no that’s not right mate, it’s triple-0 remember?”
The boy looked startled.
I was startled too.
I’m not sure I’d have answered the same but ‘9-1-1’ didn’t sound altogether wrong and so I’d just gone with it, smiling and nodding.
But, that’s right, 9-1-1 was the American emergency number.
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The increasing Americanisation of our next generation isn’t really new.
But it’s something I notice every day as a mother.
“When can we go on a vacation?” Master Eight asked me recently.
“Can I get some candy?” he asks often.
“Or a cookie?”
He brings his toys to life with an American accent.
And it’s not helped by Learner Dad, who insists he’s changing Li’l Fatty’s ‘diaper’ every day.
Which is ‘full of poop’, according to Master Eight.
Direct from Li’l Fatty’s ‘butt’.
Which is also called ‘the A word’, he says, meaning ‘arse’ but spelling it out ‘a-s-s’.
I know what you’re probably thinking: don’t let him watch so much TV then.
Master Eight watches up to an hour of TV a day.
In winter holidays it might be a bit more.
But television isn’t the only culprit.
I always take him to see the latest animated flick.
And you’ll find American voices on arcade games, DS’s, and, of course, the internet.
We gave Learner Dad homemade vouchers for Father’s Day.
I suggested one of them say: ‘Master Eight will take out the rubbish.’
He wrote ‘trash’.
And complained about the prospect of having to drag it up the ‘sidewalk’.
Fortunately school has a slightly combative affect, drumming our kids with Australian history, culture and language.
Master Eight might not say ‘G’day’ but he sure knows the national anthem.
“And thaaaaaat’s… Austraaaaaalia’s… faaaaaaaair…,” he sang triumphantly one day on the way home from school.
That was just after we’d been to the petrol station, where he leaned over and explained to Li’l Fatty that we were just stopping for gas.

First the Weetbix, Second the Breast

I hoisted Li’l Fatty out of his cot and popped him on the ground.
“Here we go,” I thought, waiting for the ‘I want titty’ tantrum.
But he just turned and plodded out of the nursery.
I followed him in to the kitchen, where he yanked open a cupboard door, pulled out a plastic bowl and threw it at my feet.
“Geh,” he said, looking at me questioningly.
“You want Weetbix? You want Weetbix now?” I asked.
“Geh,” he said, picking the bowl up and throwing it at my feet again.
“Too bad,” I muttered and heaved him over to the couch, popping him on the boob for his morning feed.
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Li’l Fatty is about to hit 15-months-old.
I’d always planned to breastfeed him for 12 months.
When that time came, it just seemed easier to keep going.
He’d have food and a bottle during the day, but first thing in the morning and last thing at night was a breastfeed.
Cheap, nutritious and bonding, plus it kept baby plump and mummy not so plump.
But I’d felt weaning time approaching.
I wasn’t planning on taking Li’l Fatty on our honeymoon and a breast pump wasn’t exactly a sexy item to pack.
Breastfeeding had also become mildly inconvenient and a bit embarrassing.
“I’m only doing it morning and night, I’m going to stop soon,” I’d mutter apologetically to anyone in earshot as I hoisted my toddler on to my lap, wondering why we feel guilty if we feed for anything less than six months and anything more than 12.
A week after he demanded Weetbix for brekky, Li’l Fatty, his father, brother and I came home from a birthday dinner, full and exhausted.
I lay him out on my lap.
He smiled lazily, nestled his nose into my nipple, and fell asleep.
There it was.
I’d been made redundant again.
With a full weekend of work coming up, I decided it was a good time to stop permanently.
I’d start a few days earlier by cutting his night feed completely.
I put him to bed that first one, came back into the loungeroom, sat down and began to cry.
“What’s up?” Learner Dad asked, moving over to hug me.
I’d told him I was weaning Li’l Fatty but, as is a man’s way, he hadn’t really noticed.
I’d denied him so much bottle-bonding time with his son, yet he’d never uttered a word, either for or against it.
That night he assured me Li’l Fatty was happy and healthy either way, that we could afford plenty of milk, and that I’d still squeeze into my wedding dress despite losing my little calorie vacuum.
But, as I lay in bed that night, none of that mattered.
All I could think of was Li’l Fatty’s smiley blue eyes looking up at me, his chubby little fingers running through my hair, or exploring my mouth, as he fed.
The little ‘gorr’ (‘gone’) he’d eventually murmur in his husky, tired voice, milk running down his cheek, as he drunkenly passed out.
Now my milk is almost gone.
I don’t think being upset meant weaning was the wrong decision.
Apparently the hormonal shift largely accounts for a mummy’s sadness in letting go.
It’s just the end of another stage.
Like wraps and rolling.
Next it’ll be bye-bye to spoon feeds and sippy cups.
Prams and dummies.
Then dirty nappies.
I’m not sure I’ll lay in bed at night fondly remembering that end of him though.

Am I a bad mother if…

• I stick my finger up at a smartarse Master Eight when he’s not looking?
• I let him sleep on a towel when he’s had an accident at 3am?
• I steal money from his piggy bank to ‘loan’ to the Tooth Fairy?
• I dress Master Eight as the same book character every single year (even though his size 4 Superman outfit is now ridiculously tight [and Superman isn’t really a book character])?
• I occasionally make him wear shorts in winter because I haven’t learned to patch trousers?
• I eat most of the lollies from his party bag after he’s gone to bed?
• I offer to read every second page of his book so I can get back to doing nothing on the couch?
• I hide Li’l Fatty’s favourite book because I’ve simply had enough of ‘green sheep’?
• I often give him finger food, forgetting he had his fingers in his own poo earlier that day?
• I once pretended not to notice when he weed on the floor and rubbed his hand in it?
• I give my children fruit buns, convincing myself the word ‘fruit’ means it’s healthy?
• I am almost out the driveway before Master Eight has his seatbelt on?
• He occasionally goes to school with a sandwich that has nothing in it?
• I tell him Santa’s elves are watching even though it’s only April?
• I ‘accidentally’ vacuum up the teeny tiny Lego pieces that plague his bedroom floor?
• Wine o’clock sometimes starts well before their bedtime?
• I had the occasional wine during pregnancy?
• I tell Master Eight I’ll tape the rest of Big Brother – but don’t?
• I let him watch Big Brother in the first place?
• I time him to run and fetch the newspaper of a morning?
• I tell him he can barrack for whichever team he likes but keep buying him Collingwood pyjamas?
• I give Li’l Fatty Baby Panadol after convincing myself his bad mood is definitely ‘teething’?
• I let him play with the DVD player when his dad’s not home?
• I sometimes serve Master Eight two minute noodles for lunch AND dinner on a Saturday?
• I sometimes serve Li’l Fatty a tub of yoghurt for lunch AND dinner on any day?
• I consistently throw their ‘lost tooth’ and ‘new tooth’ photos up on Facebook? And still have Master Eight’s bloody first tooth hidden in my cupboard?
• I stalk them at night, sitting in the dark by their beds, listening to them breathe?
• I’d kill, steal or starve for them if absolutely necessary?

Nope, I have a feeling I’m pretty much the norm… 

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.

Look who’s talking!

“Mum why are you wearing your pajamas to school?”
I was picking Master Seven up at the end of the day.
Standing with a big group of mums, I frowned, struggling to glance down at my clothes with Li’l Fatty in my arms.
Track pants, baggy jumper.
“I’m not…” I stopped.
That’s right, I did wear that to bed last night.
It had been really cold!
“These aren’t my pajamas,” I muttered to Master Seven, pushing him forward and out of the way of the other mums’ bemused expressions.
Kids say the darndest things don’t they?
I told Learner Dad about it in the bathroom the next morning.
He could think of plenty of funny things Master Seven had said, but nothing that had particularly embarrassed him.
“Really?” I asked.
Maybe it was because he hadn’t met Master Seven until he was four.
I had plenty of horror stories to share.
It started off innocently enough.
“Why that lady got hairy face?” – man with ponytail and beard
“Why that man wear a dress?” – short-haired woman
Then they reach bum height.
“Poppy that lady has a really big bottom doesn’t she? Poppy? POPPY DID YOU HEAR ME?! LOOK AT HER BOTTOM”
That really happened.
My dad said it had been a really long wait behind big bottomed lady in a really long queue.
By that stage, I could usually see it coming.
I walked into a pharmacy with a three-year-old Master once and spotted a morbidly obese woman standing at the counter.
I dragged him out the moment his eyes widened, his finger rose into a point and his mouth opened.
It was a close call.
Then there was the walk to kindy when he was four.
“Grey person, grey person, grey person…” he’d state loudly and proudly, almost counting them out, as we passed a family with African origins.
(Anyone thinking right about now that I might need to test Master Seven for colour blindness, it’s on the agenda!)
Then there was: “Mummy, have you ever seen a lady with no neck before”, as we approached a lady with no neck.
“Look, we just went past one. Turn around Mummy, quick.”
My mother likes to recount the time Master Seven proudly told her neighbours: “My nanna can burp the alphabet.”
I had little sympathy.
If you’re going to do THAT in front of a child, be prepared for the consequences.
I’d love to say I’m looking forward to more of the same from Li’l Fatty.
After all, it’s pretty funny in hindsight.
But those cringeworthy comments aren’t so funny at the time.
I do however look forward to the first time I see him embarrass his father.
The first time BOTH of them embarrass their father.
If he’s lucky, it might even happen at the same time.