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.

Our modern miracles

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.
And curettes.
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.

New age mums

We’ve all heard it before.
“When I was your age I had three grown up children, a decades old marriage, the one job, and I’d only ever lived in two houses.”
It’s the line the generation before us trots out at every opportunity.
In my mum’s case, at my age she had a teenage daughter, two sons, aged 11 and 8, a 15-year marriage, still going strong, and a hairdressing career spanning almost two decades.
Me?
I’m a 35-year-old mother of two, one under a year old, unmarried, career on hold, and still undecided on whether I’ll have another baby.
Just the thought of it is a little tiring.
Mum had me, her first baby, at 22, right after her second wedding anniversary.
At 22, I was just breaking up with the first of many boyfriends.
I was about to invest in my first property and I’d moved into the first of half a dozen rentals.
I was saving like mad to head overseas to one of the dozens of countries I ended up visiting.
And I’d only just finished studying to enter the real world of work.
It’s simple.
Women these days have a lot more opportunities.
We study, we live and party with friends and flatmates, we travel, we become young professionals, we fall in love several times, we have sex with more than one person, and we draw on a lot of life experience by the time we have children.
I’m happy with the life I’ve been able to lead.
But sometimes I wonder if we’re really the lucky ones.
By the time my mum turned 40, her eldest (me) had become an adult.
By the time I turn 40, I could be still changing nappies.
By 50, all Mum’s kids had moved out, leaving her free to focus on her career, travel, marriage or social life.
(She chose the latter by the way.)
By the time I’m 50, Li’l Fatty will be an unemployed, alcohol-testing teen who still needs to be driven around and hides in his room with computers and/or teenage girls.
While Mum turned her empty nest into a mixture of craft, computer or guest rooms, our house will be littered with smelly socks and pasted with posters for years to come.
As for study?
Where would we find the time?
Travel?
Where would we find the money?
Work?
Ok, we still have to work…
If a woman of my generation was contemplating having children in her early twenties, she’d be told she should ‘live a little’ first.
Heck, even the ones that get married young these days wait a decade to have children.
But I believe there’s something to be said for what our mothers did.
Having kids young and living a little LATER.
You’re likely to be a fit and active mum and a reasonably youthful grandmother.
There’s a greater possibility you’ll one day meet your great-grandchildren.
And surely there’s something to be said for joining a silver haired tea-and-scone tour of Europe in retirement rather than a Contiki drinkathon in your twenties?
Or is that just my age showing?
Maybe it’s all simply a case of the grass looking greener on the other side.
And I must say it does.
Because, with all the kids gone, my mum actually has the time to get out there and water it.

Working through the guilt

“What do you mean I have to come back?”
“It’s his second runny poo Alison. I’m sorry but it’s the centre’s policy to call parents to pick up their children if they have had two bouts of diarrhoea.”
I was on the phone to Master Two’s childcare centre.
I’d just got to work.
On my first day.
At the Herald Sun.
It was my first job in Melbourne.
It had been hard to get.
I put down the phone and sighed.
Shit.
I looked at the clock.
I’d been there less than an hour.
Shit shit shit.
I went into my manager’s office.
“God Tim I’m so sorry to do this but I have to go,” I said. “Master Two’s carers just rang. It seems he has gastro.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, then shook his head quickly and said: “Of course, no worries. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Any working mother has at least one story like this.
I have dozens.
That’s my Herald Sun story.
My Network Ten one is that I was the only producer who’d have to bolt out of the newsroom BEFORE the news even finished to get to a then Master Three’s crèche before it closed.
Because of the train system in Melbourne, I was often late and had to pay by the minute.
And those were actually the easier days at Ten.
Before that I’d lived further away from work and so had hired one of Master Three’s carers to take him home for me when the centre closed and make him dinner.
I’d arrive home just in time to read him a story and put him to bed.
That was living and working in Melbourne as a single mother so things were probably a little more extreme for me then.
But even with a partner, wider family support, and the easy traffic of Hobart, life is still tough for working mums.
The Master began kindy at the same time I began working at Win.
But him being at school didn’t make my working life much easier.
It was then the guilt at leaving work before all of my colleagues, in this case before the news even STARTED, so I could pick Master Five up from After School Care.
That guilt didn’t dissipate after I left the newsroom either.
It increased when I ran into After School Care seconds before six to find he was the only kid left, sitting by his backpack, hungry and tired.
Writing this post actually makes me want to cry.
It’s easy to forget the working mum guilt when you’re blissed up on maternity leave, spending all your time with your baby and as much time as possible with his siblings.
You’ve effectively been given permission to be the best mum you can be for 12 whole months.
I know life won’t be as tough for this working mum as it once was.
I have four eager grandparents on standby.
And, more importantly, I have a partner.
Learner Dad works weekends so can spend my working days looking after our children.
It’ll make he and I ships in the night.
But all we can hope for is a happy harbour.

The real midwives of maternity

His name was Chris.
He had grey hair, a beard and kind eyes.
He was my midwife.
Besides Learner Dad, he was the most important person around when Li’l Fatty was born.
I’m not talking about labour.
I went straight from induction to caesarean so the doctor was the only person I really remembered from that experience.
I’m talking about recovery.
Some women can’t get out of hospital fast enough after having a baby.
Others are literally sent packing, dragging their dummies and diapers behind them.
Me?
I was kind of in between.
I quite liked being taken care of yet, having been a patient only in the public system (with its shared rooms and average food), I went home a bit sooner than I needed to.
One of my reasons for almost staying was Chris.
You think of midwives, you think of babies.
But, when it comes down to it, the midwife is really there for you.
Baby’s out, baby’s breathing, baby’s fine.
In my experience, the midwife is all about mummy.
When your room is full of visitors, all eyes on bub as he or she is passed around the room, it’s the midwife who is all eyes on you.
He’s the one who can tell you’re in pain.
Or tired.
Or needing to be left alone.
It’s an intimacy unlike any you’ve experienced: not even your own hubby will regularly poke around the pads in your undies checking for blood loss; or help wash your naked, war-torn body in the shower; or regularly remind you you really need to poo.
Then there are the nightingales.
They’re the midwives who glide around your hospital bed at night, gently checking your vital signs while you peek at them through the slits in your eyes.
They lower your bed, slip you painkillers and gently take bub from the crook of your arm to pop back in his crib.
And then, sorry to break the spell here, there’s the early morning midwife bitch.
She’s the one who strolls in and moves the crib (with baby inside) up against the wall, as far away from you as possible.
She’s the one wanting you to get out of bed to get him.
The bitch who’s trying to stop you getting a blood clot.
You’ve heard of the baby blues?
The floods of tears that come three or four days after you’ve delivered your baby?
Mine came the moment I left the hospital.
The moment I stopped being nursed so I could go home and nurse someone else.
Admittedly the tears only lasted the short ride home, whereupon I happily and eagerly re-entered the real world.
A world that now included Li’l Fatty.
But although mine was one of the dozens of tired and teary new mum faces Chris must see every day, I’m not sure I’ll ever forget his.