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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Computer Virus

“How are you feeling sweetheart?” I asked, gently placing a tray of food down in front of him.
“Ok, thanks,” he replied.
Master Seven was home from school, sick.
His teacher had called the day before and, with me at work, Learner Dad’s mum had picked him up for me.
By the time we all got home that night, he really seemed ok.
But it seemed a day spent being pampered with sweets and computer games had appealed to him and, the next morning, he burst into tears as he was getting ready for school.
“I still don’t feel well,” he’d complained sadly, rubbing his eyes.
Clearly exhausted, I told him he could stay home, but that it meant nourishing food, no computer games and, most importantly, bed rest.
All day.
“This’ll be interesting,” I muttered to Learner Dad as he left for work.
A full day in bed with nothing to do would determine just how sick this kid was.
The first hour passed.
I went down with some toast and he looked at me solemnly.
Remembering how much I’d loved being nursed by my own mother on a sick day, I continued to visit him every hour with something to eat or with a book to read.
Three hours after his bed rest began, I had Li’l Fatty down for a nap and was sitting on the couch watching Friday Night Lights.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Though I still doubted he was ill, Master Seven clearly understood what a sick day meant.
I was also slightly worried.
He wasn’t meant to be so… so content.
He wasn’t meant to enjoy a sick day.
At 1pm I popped down with an Easter egg and a hot pack for his aching legs.
His eyes lit up.
But he seemed distracted.
His eyes kept slipping sideways, glancing at something in his peripheral.
I looked in the same direction.
Under his Lego table I could see a tiny blue light winking back at me.
Realisation dawned.
His DS!
I whipped it out, pulling it roughly from the charger.
“Have you been playing this?” I asked, waving it in front of his face.
“Yes…” he admitted, casting his eyes as far down as was possible while stretched out on your back.
“For how long?” I asked, looking at his red-rimmed, slightly unfocused eyes.
“Since I got in to bed,” he answered quietly.
The four hours I’d thought he was sleeping, reading or simply just resting, he had spent hopfrogging his way through Mario Galaxy with his busy brain and even busier fingers.
He told me he’d been playing it while it was on the charger and that he’d simply jump back into bed every time he heard me coming.
Half an hour after I took the DS away, Master Seven was out of bed and playing basketball in the courtyard.
I didn’t try to stop him.
The more energetic he was, the more ammunition I’d have for sending him to school the next day.
The deceit astounded me.
My seven-year-old had not only tricked me into letting him stay home, he’d tricked me for hours after.
As I stood at the window, watching my son shoot hoops and dribble tricks, I realised I now had to be on MY game.
My little boy, who’d always been either clearly well or unwell, had learned the art of faking.
And I had a feeling this first attempt was an amateur one.
His best, ‘fully sick’ efforts were yet to come.

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.