Megalomaniacal Despot and Cowering Serf

When Lu was a baby, Hermione (aged 2) pulled her off the couch. Feet first. For the first couple of years, in fact, she didn’t miss any opportunity to hurt the tiny interloper who seemed to have snatched her rightful place at the centre of Mummy’s universe. When I asked her why she was so mean to Lu she said, (in a tone which made it clear that I must be stupid), ‘Because I Don’t.Like.Her’.

Oh.  Right.

The girls’ relationship operates largely like a dictatorship with Hermione in the role of Megalomaniacal Despot, and Lu as Cowering Serf. They have very different personalities. They play together quite well now, but always on Hermione’s terms. I fear that sometimes Hermione is not so much ‘playing’ with Lu, as holding Lu hostage. I think Lu needs to go on some sort of assertiveness course.

Lu’s shortfall in aggression, however, is more than compensated for by her talent for devious manipulation. She sussed out early that every time she starts crying, I scream: ‘Hermione! What are you doing to Lu?!’ She often gets even by lying ‘Hermione hit me!’ whenever she feels like getting her sister in trouble. She’s obviously attempting to pay her back for all those early years of oppression.

My own relationship with Hermione operates mostly like a western democracy, where I am the elected Government and she is the Opposition. She opposes, on principle, any legislation I attempt to enact, misses no opportunity to express a vote of no confidence in my leadership, and has attempted to stage several coup d’etats in the past few years.

Al disagrees but I am quietly confident that Hermione is getting the whole teenage rebellion thing out of the way early (she’s 9) – I feel that she’s going to be a model child by the time she turns 13.  Although if I follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion … well, let’s just hope that Lu simply skips the whole teenage rebellion thing. (Hey, I did – right, Mum?)

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The thing about children

‘How do you feel about being back at work?’, some friends asked me shortly after I’d returned to paid work after being a stay at home mum for more than six years.

‘Oh, a little sadness’, I replied, ‘tinged with joyful exhilaration’.

‘What are the advantages of paid employment over full-time motherhood?’ they enquired.

‘Well, let’s see’, I said, as I struggled to put into order the dozen or so points that immediately sprang to mind, ‘I get respect and appreciation from the people I work with – they think I’m good at my job; I think I’m good at my job; I enjoy my work; I can get things done without having to ask 16 times; I get to have uninterrupted phone calls and cups of coffee; my organisational skills actually do impose order upon chaos; there’s a starting time and a finishing time; I get paid; I can resign when I want a different job; and I can wear totally un-casual clothes including shoes that make a satisfying click’.

The thing about children – and humanity in general actually – is that I love them in theory, and am prepared to go to great lengths to improve their life and conditions but – as a person who values peace, order, rational conversation and being able to find my hairbrush, the scissors and sticky-tape when I want it – I find it much more difficult to deal with them in practice.  I’ve given up trying to understand the infantile mind.  I’m certain that I couldn’t possibly ever have been a child myself.  (It’s funny though, when I’m apart from my children, I seem to really miss them; I feel a sort of physical loss as if I’m missing a vital limb … or an unsightly wart).

Back in the corporate world, nothing much has changed apart from the work-force being a lot younger than I remember.  And you know you are looking older when people no longer look surprised when you tell them your age.  I found it hard to resist the urge to yell ‘What do you mean ‘Right’?  Aren’t you going to tell me that you’d never have guessed – that I look 10 years younger?!’

I currently work full-time hours (Al is very happy about the full-time salary) but I start early so that I can collect the girls from school 2 days a week.  Now that I’ve got a job I’ve started making plans to leave home as soon as possible.  Of course I’ll have to wait until the kids grow up, start working and move out themselves but there’s no harm in thinking about where I’d like to go and what I’d like to do next, is there?

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Toy Creep Fatigue

A large family of individually-named water-filled balloons has taken up residence in our bathroom.  (Living with young children means that at any one time there are at least three half-inflated balloons rolling around the floors like sad tumbleweeds in a Western movie).  Hermione informed me that some of them occasionally die of ‘Popalonika Disease’ – symptoms include one balloon becoming stuck to another Siamese-like when wet, then popping when pulled apart.

The rest of the house is under siege by ‘Toy Creep’ – the insidious spread of toys from designated toy areas to every surface in every room in the house.  Al and I are suffering from ‘Toy Creep Fatigue’ – a condition reached when you give up the fight (or worse – no longer even notice) and resign yourself to the fact that kids are genetically programmed to spread toys faster than parents can retrieve them.

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Sending My Children To Another Planet

One of the problems with becoming a parent is that you are no longer in control of your own life.  Forget about being the star of your own show, you are henceforth playing a Supporting Role Only in the lives of your children.  This can be a particularly unpleasant shock if, like me, you are (a) a Slightly Anal, Control-Freak Perfectionist and (b) an Older Parent who was hitherto used to pleasing herself for almost 20 adult years.

I thought that motherhood, like any other new undertaking, was something I could research and plan, and ultimately control.  [I’ll pause here for any parent readers to guffaw hysterically and finish wiping their eyes].

Yes, the reality turned out to be a little different.  During the first few years, my ‘new job’ involved working 14-15 hours a day, 7 days a week.  My client base was small but very demanding.  My job description ranged from … devising and supervising their daily schedules, organising travel itineraries and transportation, organising meals and working through lunch with at least one client … right down to blowing their noses and wiping their bottoms.  Like Woody and Buzz Lightyear, I felt that my own life only really existed when my mistresses were asleep.

I think ‘relentless’ is the word which best describes the time and energy demands of full-time mothering.  I tried to stay sane by spending as little time as possible at home.  Otherwise there was a danger that the kids and I would spend too much time screaming at each other, (and I’m ashamed to admit that I can scream louder than them).  By the time Al would get home – fresh from his 11 hour break at the office – brandishing a shiny, intact perspective, I would have mislaid mine somewhere back around lunch time.  I would be at the stage (wine bottle in hand) where I wanted my children to simply go somewhere else – like another suburb preferably … or perhaps another planet.

The fact that my family has emerged relatively unscathed (hopefully not too many years of counselling will be required) from that early childhood hell is due to Other Honest Mothers.  Through Mothers Group and Playgroup, I learned that I was not the only one feeling this way.

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The Wanky Head Massage

I love going to the hairdresser.  Any why wouldn’t I?  I get to spend 3 child-free hours catching up on celebrity gossip and chatting to my friendly trusted hairdresser, while being plied with wine, coffee and biscuits.

It takes time to train a hairdresser, but in return they receive my life-long loyalty.

Unless they leave me of course – always very distressing, akin to a divorce I imagine.  Is there anything worse than having to start over?  Having to endure the recruitment drive for a replacement?  Dismissing the types who think they’re An Artist, or the darlings who spend more time checking themselves out in the mirror than tending to your hair.  I once had a memorable encounter at an expensive city salon with a guy called Rupert, who told me that we had to stop talking now as he needed to concentrate on cutting.  I should have left then.

That was the same salon which required me to choose from an array of Essential Oils for a one minute pre-cut neck massage … which brings me to the Wanky Head Massage – which is now as ubiquitous as Party Bags at kids’ birthday parties (I’d like to have a word with the person who started that annoying little ritual too) – I’M THERE FOR A HAIRCUT, for goodness sake  – NOT TO HAVE MY CHAKRAS ALIGNED!  In my experience, approximately 1 in 20 hairdressers are capable of administering a pleasant head massage, (and none of them work at my hairdressers).  Unfortunately I’m the sort of person who endures the scary head massage rather than risk offending the masseur by requesting that we skip it.  (The same goes for the sticking their fingers into my ears through the towel to dry them, but let’s not even talk about that).

Thankfully, since I returned to paid work, my husband has given up snorting and rolling his eyes when he sees the credit card bill, and entreating me earnestly to try out his $15 Barber …

I’ve been with my current hairdresser for about 6 years.  She understands that just because I’m a harassed mum doesn’t mean I want to look like one, and I love her for that.

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For-profit vs. Non-profit Childcare

In my view, Providing Quality Childcare and Making A Profit are mutually exclusive aims.  I believe childcare should be seen as an essential service.  If you’re in business to make a profit then you are responsible firstly to your shareholders, and not to the children who are committed to your care.  It seems to me that most of the privatised childcare centres I’ve visited are staffed by 17 year olds on minimum wage (I’m not saying that a 17 year old cannot be an excellent carer, but making the point that a for-profit childcare centre seems to hire the cheapest labour), yet they charge parents the highest fees.  And the staff turnover is high, which is upsetting for the children.

By comparison, in my experience, the community-based not-for-profit childcare centres are staffed by an assortment of more mature people – often parents themselves – who seem to be happier in their jobs, and their fees are more reasonable.  I’d like to see more funding go to the not-for-profit childcare centres.

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Paid Parental Leave for Australia – at last!

Australia will FINALLY see the introduction of a Paid Parental Leave scheme from next January 2011.  I’m happy – even if the scheme ranks as one of the world’s worst!

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Question Time

I once considered calling a press conference to advise my children officially that I will no longer be answering any stupid questions.  Hermione – the Chief Grand Inquisitor – was 3 at the time.  Now I know that some of you (those without children mainly) will be gasping in horror, but please tell me what your answers would be to any of the following: ‘Why is this the way to the zoo?’ … ‘Why do I have 2 thumbs?’ … ‘Why are they called green beans?’ … ‘Why is this the shopping mall?’ … ‘Why is Binka a cat?’ … and … ‘Where are those other cars going?’

Secondly, I planned to inform them that I will henceforth be giving just one – no repeat – answer to all sensible questions.  This measure was intended to nip in the bud the inexplicable tendency of children to listen attentively to your patient, comprehensive answer; nod ‘Yes’ to your ‘Do you understand?’ closing question; and then 5 seconds later infuriatingly ask the exact same question again as if the last 5 minutes of our lives had just been rewound.   On occasion, when this happened, I forgot that 3 year olds do not get sarcasm, so my jumping up from my seat dramatically and rushing to each door and window calling ‘Hermione?  Where are you?’ followed by an abject apology to the child in front of me for mistaking her for my daughter when she’s obviously an alien from outer space who has temporarily assumed my daughter’s shape, was completely wasted on her.  But it did sometimes distract her from asking the question a third time.  And it made me feel much better.

Some afternoons I had to ring my husband and advise him that I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out in this hostage situation.  I think that where the juvenile delinquents of the past were stereotypically the products of a ‘broken home’, the troubled youth of the future may well be the children of the modern stay-at-home mum.  Look, it’s not like I don’t adore my children – I do – and I wouldn’t want to give them back.  Well, not long-term anyway.  But Oh for the sweet uninterrupted sleep of the childless – those people who spend their days oblivious to the vagaries of small, dependent, irrational beings.

Now that my kids are 9 and 7, their questions are much more entertaining.  Lu said to me the other day: ‘Mum, when you were a kid, did you have the complete same face as you have now?’

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Fussy Eaters

One day when Hermione was 3 years old, I asked her why she had spat out some pasta she was eating and she replied ‘Mum, I had to spit it out because there was a vegetable in it’.  Things haven’t improved much since then.  More recently, she refused to eat a Tuna Bake made with chicken and sweetcorn soup, and when I pointed out that she likes chicken and she likes corn, she said ‘Mum, you like chocolate and you like broccoli, but would you eat them together?’ (Never stuck for an answer, my Hermione).

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Hermione is generally unenthusiastic about most fruit and vegetables.  Lu is good on fruit, but not big on veggies either.  Hermione generally adopts the ‘I don’t like it, therefore I’m not going to taste it (even for the first time)’ irRationale; Lu is more ‘Just because I ate it last week doesn’t mean I’m going to eat it this week’.

When they were younger, I tried various ‘reverse psychology’ approaches e.g. (a) begging them to let me eat this amazing treat of a dinner if they don’t want it; (b) acting like I don’t care whether they eat it or not; (c) telling them that I actually don’t want them to eat it.  Those tactics didn’t work.  Next, I tried letting them wander about with their food while playing with toys and/or watching TV – my plan being that if they’re distracted enough they might actually eat by mistake. (This method met with the disapproval of the grandparent generation, the experts, and those people whose kids are not fussy eaters).  Finally, I resorted to making dinners containing grated ‘undercover veggies’ and visible chopped ‘decoy veggies’ for them to leave behind, which worked some of the time.  (I can recommend Jessica Seinfeld’s great book Deceptively Delicious for lots of recipes containing hidden pureed fruit and vegetables).

On one occasion, I was amazed to hear myself echoing my own mother with: ‘Do you realise that there are children starving in the world?!’, and – a level my mother was far too sensible to descend to – ‘Why me? OH GOD, WHY ME?! Why can’t MY children eat their dinner like everyone else’s children?! You’ll just have to go and live somewhere else – find a mother who’ll give you junk food every meal; I’m trying to be responsible here …’ It was at about this point that I remembered I was addressing two small children, who in any case remained completely unmoved by my outburst.

At least they appear to be amazingly healthy in spite of their eating habits but I do continue to hope that this ‘phase’ will pass some time soon.

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Women’s Work

Children are important.  Without children, there would be no future tax-payers.  Without tax-payers, there would be no public healthcare, education, transport, roads, or people to take care of us in our old age.  Childcare is an issue for everyone in society, yet society does almost nothing to support mothers. (Perhaps I should say ‘parents’ but fathers currently make up only 2-5% of primary carers).

Of course women have been bringing up children for thousands of years without any help, so it suits society to assume that the work involved must therefore be easy and somehow innate.  This also leads new mothers – suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of exactly how hard it is to be almost solely responsible for the full-time care of an infant – feeling confused and inadequate, and thinking that it must be just them personally who are not feeling the euphoria of new baby joy … which results in them keeping quiet about it and pretending that all is well, and so the ‘conspiracy of silence’ remains unchallenged.  (See Susan Maushart’s book The Mask of Motherhood: How mothering changes everything and why we pretend it doesn’t).

Traditionally, there was at least some recognition and respect for what was regarded as ‘women’s work’, but now that women have the option to put their children into childcare and return to paid work as soon as possible after giving birth, it seems that women who choose to stay at home with their children are seen as somehow lacking (we all know that taking care of children 24/7 involves a relentless cycle of menial tasks – it’s not intellectually stimulating) … as if they are not doing anything worthwhile!

Mothers who are ‘juggling’ paid work PLUS ‘the second shift’ at home are also seen as somewhat second-class – they’re no longer taken seriously in the office as they’re not available 60-70 hours a week i.e. their career is no longer their first priority.  (And these mothers are possibly already feeling guilty at having to leave their kids in the care of others).

These perceptions certainly serve the interests of a capitalist society which needs workers and spenders, but do they serve the interests of children?

I would like to see society supporting mothers by recognising that raising children is surely the most important job in the world, (and one of the most difficult), and creating more options for mothers to take care of their children as they see fit.

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