But I don’t want to be transformed

There are no shortage of long form pieces written about motherhood. Its like losing a leg and winning the lottery; it is a joy that sucks the joy out of everything else; you’re trying too hard and overthinking it and worrying and this is ruining your kids (not at all ironic, that one, is it?). And so on and so forth. There’s something about motherhood that brings out the prescriptivist in everyone around the fortunate new parent.

Here’s what motherhood is like. It’s like being taken away from every single routine, system, treat, hobby and higher level reward system you’ve ever had, and being handed the sole – or at least primary – responsibility for another person, with very little support. It’s like trying to do everything you ever cared about, including eating and sleeping, against the odds. It’s like being stuck in a game show where the most simple task has to be performed blindfolded, in three inches of mud, under the scrutiny of others.

It’s like a whole bunch of things, and the thing is that finding the perfect analogy for motherhood is not really very helpful. All these long form pieces, each with its analogy, are part of the problem, because they contrsuct motherhood as so unique, so special, so all-encompassing that it can’t be decribed or defined without reference to other things.

Which is bollocks, really, isn’t it? Motherhood is a state experienced by over 80% of women in Australia, and historically by well over 90%. There’s nothing mysterious or elusive about it at all. It doesn’t turn us into different people. It just turns us into people who are us, but who are doing something harder than they’ve ever done before. And a large part of that is only because we, as a society, prefer to waffle on about transformation and winning the lottery instead of organising babysitting swaps and petitioning for decent babychanging acilities in public places.

That is, it doesn’t have to be this hard. And a lot of why it changes us is because things that are hard for us do change us. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Usually both at once.

People in hard situations change their priorities and their coping maechanisms in order to try and fulfil at least some of their needs. Early motherhood takes up so much space in our lives that even the basic needs, like food and sleep, become scarce; self-actualisation is suddenly a distant dream. So we get petty, we get angry, or we internalise it and turn to sweets, or alcohol, or anything else at hand, for comfort. Suffering doesn’t usually ennoble us.  People who aren’t having their basic needs met are not at their best.

This is not to say that working is the answer, or that breastfeeding is the culprit for increasingly-common post-natal depression, or that there is a right and a wrong way to do motherhood. It’s simpler than that. We take women who have found fulfilment in their jobs, who have balanced their emotional health with exercise and social interaction and quiet periods in whatever formula they find most effective, and we take all of that away. We take all of that away and we tell women to be happier than ever. Deprived of the ability to get out alone, to socialise with adults, to lock themselves away in solitude and recharge their batteries, to avail themselves of almost any healthy lifestyle mechanism, and then by the way we ask them to survive on inadequate sleep and rushed food.

And then we act as if those women are doing it wrong if they change their behaviour. It has been said that post natal depression is a very rational response to such a lifestlye change, and even those of us who escape a diagnosis are more likely to be grumpy, libido-less, lonely, surviving on the snatached chocolate bar and easy-watch television that have to substitute, temporarily, for a real life.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about the actual baby, in all of this. THat’s not to diminish the effect of mother love, of course. But too often, that’s all that anyone pays attention to. It’s as if one has moved to the other side of the world, to a tropical paradise where nobody speaks the language and every custom is different, and then having ones mood change attributed to too much sun. Sun is not the whole point. The fact of a baby is not the whole point either. Not when compared to the fact that one’s entire life has been ripped away.

So why are there so many of these articles, all of which describe, breathlessly, the all-encompassing love and the fact that everything else fades into the distance? Why are there so many motherhood memoirs and analyses of the state of motherhood which make it sound like once you have a child, that defines your entire world forever? What, really, is the big deal about a thing that almost everyone does?

They’re written by women who are still relatively new parents, that’s what. Women who are still mired in babyhood, sodden with the joys of chubby thighs and first words. Women whose hormones are still doing whatever it is that hormones do in order to ensure that they tie the care-giver to the baby; women who may still have more children.

Because its true that you’re not yourself for those first few years. Even once the sleep deprivation ebbs away to leave only nostalgiac tide marks on the sands, even once you’ve struggled back into your work clothes and headed to the office to remind yourself what a hot cup of coffee, drunk straight through, is like, even once you’ve clawed back an occasional evening to do something you love, you still reside firmly in the Baby Hood. For some women, this feels so right and so welcoming that they do anything they can to stay there, from having child after child to throwing themselves into school life and volunteering as local playgroup leader, and thank goodness that those women exist for they make our children’s lives easier and richer with their generosity.

But for the rest of us, who mourn our old selves and fear that we’ll never regain them, there is hope. And the hope lies in the very dearth of articles written by women with older children. They’re not writing those articles because they’ve moved on. They’re no longer spending their days contemplating motherhood and how the hell they ended up knee deep in shitty nappies like everyone else. They’ve gone back to their careers, or developed new ones. They have hobbies,. They’re runners, dancers, students, tutors. If they write, they’re writing about asylum seekers and the Brandis case and how to choose the right wall colour for a living area and the new iPhone and their favourite holliday destinations and the latest advances in linguistics. Don’t misundestand me; at first they’re doing it with small childrten tugging at themn, and used tissues in their handbags, and collapsing in the evenings with a bar of chocolate. But they’re doing it, because their minds are starting to work properly again, and their focus is widening.

And this is what I want to say. Under all the sleep deprivation, the hormones, the fact that your career has been on hold or come to a screeching halt, the fact that your old haunts are barred to you and your days of spontaneity are a distant memory, you are still you. Nothing has changed except your ability to cope and adapt. And as those restrictions lift, as your children grow, you’ll still be there underneath. Chances are that you’ll still be as passionate about human rights as you used to be, you’ll still enjoy a glass of wine with friends, you’ll still be irritated by reality TV. You’re you. You just had a baby, is all.

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Look up, look down: How I learned to stop worrying and love the internet

I met Lovely Husband near the end of the last century.  When we first moved in together, I brought my desktop computer to his analogue home, and we installed it in the far corner of an upstairs study.  If I had an essay to finish, I’d take myself up to the study; otherwise, we’d share our single ugly couch.  And I’d like to say that we spent evening after evening discussing our hopes and dreams, and of course sometimes we did.  But life is mundane, and mostly he watched TV and I read a book.

Today, the technology lives in the lounge room with us.  I have an iPad, he has a netbook, and once the children are in bed and silence prevails, it is those screens we turn to.

It’s no different.  Where once he would turn from the television in the adverts and chat, now he looks up from an online newspaper to read out an interesting article.  Where once I would glance up from my book to offer a cup of tea, now I relay an interesting snippet of gossip from an online conversation – and then put on the kettle.

Back then, in our early years, he travelled a lot for business, spending weeks and months at a time in a place without telephone contact, let alone internet access.  So we wrote letters.  Real letters, on actual paper, sent through the mail.  We still have those, done up in a bundle, and every now and then I get them down to look through.  They’re a lovely record of our early years, a little time capsule of gossip and longing and plans for the future.

Today, we work a block from one another in the central business district, and trade emails in the slow parts of our day.  Those emails are shorter than our old long form letters, but no less significant.  They cover the mundane details of who’s picking up groceries tonight and did we remember to pay the phone bill.  They celebrate achievement and share frustrations.  Occasionally we hash out a marital problem that way.  If we collated our emails, they would tell a large part of the story of our marriage.

When email became popular, there were opinion columnists decrying the loss of the printed word.  Lauding physical letters as the sacred artefacts of history, they wondered what would be the record of a generation who communicate digitally?  This was in the early days, of course; once it became clear that one’s online activities and conversations do not, in fact, disappear into the ether, the opinions shifted.  Suddenly the articles were about preventing online activity precisely because it leaves a permanent record, as if this was somehow something new.

Whenever there is an advance in technology, there are people who herald it as the end of civilisation.  Indeed, Douglas Adams summed this up when he said

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

The telephone met with similar criticism.  No longer would people gather in convivial bunches, sharing their news in person and reinforcing their intimate bonds. Instead, isolated in their homes, they would pick up the telephone instead.

And here’s a chap named Eisenberg, in 1936:

The popularity of this new pastime among children has increased rapidly . . . This new invader of the privacy of the home has brought many a disturbing influence in its wake. Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior patterns of their children. They are bewildered by a host of new problems, and find themselves unprepared, frightened, resentful, helpless. They cannot lock out this intruder because it has gained an invincible hold of their children.

He’s talking about radio, but it might as well be Facebook. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – the latest technologies are always the latest target. By the time I finish writing this, no doubt a new social network will be set up and I’ll be out of date already, but for today, this is it.

Today, the big news is still Look Up, a short film by one James Turk which has, as the kids say, ‘gone viral’ with some 32 million hits to date.  Turk employs a series of stock photographs cut with the bare bones of a mundane ‘love story’, backed by some of the most saccharine rhyming doggerel ever penned.  For some reason, this premise – that if you spend too much time talking to people on line, using your smartphone, you will miss out on a true and fulfilled heteronormative life – has struck a chord with millions of people around the world.  Some of them, who number amongst my own friends, have sworn to ‘start living differently as of today’. Presumably, this means that I will no longer hear from those friends, because they live halfway across the world, and social media technology is by far the most effective way of communicating with them.

I am, in fact, always baffled by claims that social media has interfered with our ability to make meaningful human contact, or that it signals the death of the real friendship.  I can only presume that the people making these claims live in big cities, the sort of cities to which kindred souls gravitate and remain.  Or perhaps the small towns where people live and work in a small radius, and see one another weekly as they move around their limited circuit.

I live in a small city, the sort of place from which the best and brightest leave as soon as their education is over, and who rarely come back.  Most of my school friends have decamped that way, and while we hugged and wept and promised to email regularly, it didn’t work.  Email isn’t a good medium for this sort of thing, because it requires one to come up with content.  Without the day-to-day background of domestic minutiae, the deep conversations rarely happen.  If you have to stop halfway through a tossed-off anecdote to explain who Chloe is and why the issue of school costume was such a big deal, you start to wonder if it’s worth typing it out in the first place.  A victory against your landlord isn’t as real to someone who has never seen the rising damp or been informed when the spider in the bathroom had seven million babies.  The bricks of a friendship come from times of need, of celebration, or vulnerability, but they’re glued together with little quips, shared sights and the comfortable shorthand that only grows between people who have everything to say.

And that’s why social media is so powerful.  It’s often criticised as being full of pictures of people’s cats, details of what someone ate for breakfast, and lazy sharing of internet memes.  And it is.  Because those things are the things that make up people’s lives.  In the eighties, my friends and I shared a pair of headphones as we wore out our favourite Bangles song on our new Walkman.  In the – whatever we’re calling this decade – we share funny photographs and links to causes we care about.  When I was 13, my best friend was a huge U2 fan, and if I saw an article in a music magazine about Bono I’d cut it out and give it to her the next day.  Today, a Benedict Cumberbatch meme pops up on my feed and I think of another friend, who is endearingly obsessed with his lanky Britishness, and share it with her. The only difference is that I’m clicking, not cutting.  Sure, some of what I see every day is Instagrammed breakfasts; in a world where my best friend lives in Paris, that’s the only way I’ll get to share breakfast with her any more.

There are other friends from my past, the second-tier friends, people with whom the group dynamic was great but the one-on-one conversations rarely fizzed.  Facebook has brought us back together, facilitating those group conversations in a way that email never did, and the sheer logistics of work and family make impossible to reproduce in its original format.  It might take us a year to find a Saturday night where we’re all free, but we can log on to our computers and trade a friendly insult or two before our morning coffee.

To claim that social media has destroyed meaningful human connection is to give it far more power than it has.  The human need to connect is fundamental and unstoppable, and we will employ whatever technology we have in order to facilitate it.  People are connecting every day.  Babies are being born all over the place.  The world does not lack for human contact.  The difference is that we are no longer bounded by time and space.  It doesn’t matter that my best friend is getting up with her babies on one side of the world just as I’m catching a bus home on the other; we have the technology at our fingertips to surmount that, and our friendship has endured accordingly.  If we were to put down our phones and ‘look up’, we’d miss each other.

And then, eventually, we wouldn’t.

Today, my husband texts me to ask if I fancy a walk at lunchtime.  While we walk, we discuss something that’s trending on Twitter, a funny comment thread he read on Reddit, and what to have for dinner.   Neither of us look up at the things around us; we’re talking to one another.  Just as all those people on all those phones are doing.

All you need is love (and health, and a good education, and a safe living environment and)

Kids don’t need lots of stuff, they say.  ‘They’, in this instance, are sometimes stay-at-home mums trying to persuade me that we should live on one income.  Sometimes my parents’ friends trot it out.  It comes up in discussions of welfare, it comes up in tut-tutting articles about the overly materialistic child. 

Here’s the thing.  No, actually – here’s the caveat.  After which, the thing.  The caveat, which shouldn’t be necessary but is, is that I don’t care one whit about whether it suits your family better to have one earner or two.  I’m not even slightly trying to imply that the former is a worse choice.  I am merely, and only, saying that I want to add some honesty to what’s involved in that choice.  And not all of these things will come into the equation for everyone, of course.  If you can afford everything that’s important to you on one income, well done. You’re very lucky.  I’m happy for you.  But don’t reduce it to ‘stuff’, because, finally, here’s the thing.  Stuff is cheap.  Plastic toys are very, very cheap.  Children’s clothes are very, very cheap.  Even an iPad, which seems to be replacing wide-screen TVs as the symbol of All Things Profligate, is not actually that expensive.  Not compared to the things that actually cost money. 

What costs money is everything else. 

All these children, surrounded by piles of plastic, when all they want is their mother’s time and attention.  Take away the Wii and take them for long autumn walks along a nature trail!

If you want your children to go on nature walks, you need to live somewhere where there are walking paths, and green trails, and preferably nobody sleeping rough outside your front door.  If you want your children to go and play outside in their garden instead of inside watching television, you need a garden.  And/or a safe neighbourhood.

Kids don’t need stuff; they need experiences!

A family zoo membership costs hundreds of dollars for a single year.  Ditto live theatre, music, the aquarium and almost every other activity favoured by the middle class.  If you live in an outer suburb, there’s petrol and parking, or there’s an hour on a train with whiny small children.  Cheaper, by far, to stay home with the plastic toys, and the TV, and the first-generation iPad.

Good, plain food, sensible clothes and a cosy home, that’s what’s important.  Not all these name brands and things!

Organic food costs money.  Natural fibres cost money. A decent, healthy living space costs money.  Keeping it clean costs money.   If you want your children tramping the green laneways on a frosty afternoon, you want them doing it in a proper coat and good quality boots.  If you want your children to be secure in their environment, it helps to own your own place.  Or rent somewhere with a good, understanding landlord, in an area with low turnover.  Guess whether those places cost more money?

If you didn’t drive that big fancy car, you could cut your hours!

You can give up your car, of course, or drive an older, smaller model.  But you’re less likely to be able to head down to a camp site four hours down the coast that way, or to drive interstate to visit relatives.

Do kids also not need extended family?  Or holidays?

And then there’s the issue of education, which is so thorny it could surround Sleeping Beauty’s castle, confident in the knowledge that no prince could ever penetrate its tangles.  Public vs private, and if the former, certainly you want to be in a decent suburb with an enthusiastic set of parents and motivated teachers.  Do you live in the expensive suburb, or do you drive your children across town every day in your old, beaten-up car?  But then they don’t meet friends in their own area, and what about the extra-curriculars?

There are a million reasons why a family might choose to have two incomes over a stay at home parent – those reasons range from the presence of two parents who both like and value their work, to the lack of childcare options for non-9-5 workers, to the desire to build up a nest egg for one’s children’s future.  But let’s not pretend that a second income merely provides the unnecessary fripperies of life; the iPads, the Disney merchandise, the overseas holidays.

For most people, a second income is the difference between owning and renting, or between renting in an outer suburb or one better served by access to amenities.  Between running a reliable car and worrying if you can afford to replace bald tyres.  Between paying for insurance and crossing your fingers that a health crisis or car accident don’t wipe out years of savings, because you can’t compromise your children’s health even if it goes on credit.  And between being a single-income family and a no-income family if the breadwinner loses their job.

The fiction that a second income is disposable is just that.  It’s politically convenient for a government that wants women at home rather than expand child care options.  It plays right into the narrative of the angel at the hearth, who keeps house and home together out of nothing.

And it obliterates the value of all mothers.  It reduces the value of the work that women do to nothing.  Those of us out there working for a wage are suddenly mindless consumers, salivating for the latest gadget at the expense of our poor neglected children. 

And those of us at home, managing in reduced circumstances, worrying about which bill needs paying first, isolated in an outer suburb without a second car, saying no to music lessons or cancelling a birthday dinner on a tough week, worrying about high school options in an underprivileged area… we’re dismissed too. 

Because those aren’t real problems.  All kids need is love.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a Mum healthy, wealthy and wise.

There is a very helpful article in today’s Canberra Times which explains that early risers are healthier, happier and more successful. Obviously this comes as no surprise to parents of toddlers, who habitually rise at around 5 am, and are of course a demographic known for their huge amounts of disposable income, impressive career trajectories and packed social life.

The author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam, explains that the early morning hours should be devoted to the things most important to us; exercise, strategic thinking, creative work and nurturing relationships.

Again, this is excellent news for parents of toddlers.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of the things that I did before breakfast today:

  1. Chase a toddler around a bedroom in an attempt to persuade her to take off her night nappy, put on her underwear, put on her shirt, not take the shirt straight back off again, alright fine here’s your favourite shirt that I’ve just run downstairs to fish out of the dryer HAPPY NOW?  Exercise!
  2. Strategically persuade Elder Girl that in fact, getting up and getting dressed will constitute an improvement over lying in bed.  Strengthen my argument by not dissuading Little Girl from poking her big sister in the bottom and shouting BRIGHT ‘N’ EARLY over and over again.  No, I don’t know why she does that.  
  3. Create a new and interesting lunch, not bearing any resemblance to the 4,582,948,284 other lunches already prepared this term, out of whatever is left in the pantry the day before grocery day.  Little Girl also demonstrates her creativity with a new abstract piece entitled Congealed Porridge Splatters.
  4. Nurture my deep and abiding relationship with coffee.  Ah, coffee.  How do I love thee.  May I hold you tight?  May I, in fact, cradle you to my bosom?

In fact, if the measure of success is how much one can achieve before breakfast, then I’m fairly sure that I’m well on the way to being the most successful woman in Australia.  It’s almost noon, and I still haven’t had time for breakfast.

This is what it sounds like, when toddlers cry

Little Girl is two and a half.  Everyone knows about the ‘terrible twos’, obviously, but did you also know that there is a body of opinion that claims an ‘equilibrium/disequilibrium’ theory?  When small children are in whole years, they tend to be in equilibrium, when they are in half years, they are in disequilibrium. 

If you’re not a childhood behavioural expert, I’ll translate: this basically means that 2.5 year olds are total hellions.  

This is the bit of the article where I should tell you to be firm, consistent and fair.  Or to talk to children at their level.  Or to suggest pro-active ways to head off the worst tactics.  But I’m not going to, and you already know why; because if that worked, you wouldn’t be frantically googling ‘how to cope with a toddler’ at 2am whilst your offspring repeatedly shrieks I NO WANNA DO ANYFING in the background.

So instead, I am going to share a little vignette with you of a typical morning chez Ashworth.  For no reason than to make you feel better about your own lives.

It is 6.30 am.  Elder Daughter is slumbering in her bed, inexplicably sideways, peaceful despite her blankets being puddled on the floor and her bare feet hanging over the edge of the bed.  A moat of forlorn soft toys bob disconsolately around the sleeping area.  Across the corridor slumber her parents, deeply immersed in dreams of domestic debris.  The house is quiet except for one piping voice coming from the Toddler Pit:

“Daddy cwokdile, Daddy cwokdile, don’ bite me! don’ bite me!  GNARGH AAAAAAHHHHH YUM.  <pause> Mummy cwokdile, mummy cwokdile…”

The parents, that would be me and Lovely Husband, awake and look at one another.  After a significant pause, LH sighs: ‘Oh, alright, I’ll do it”, pulls on some clothes and heads into the Toddler Pit.  Immediately, the happy voice morphs into a shriek:  ‘NO!  NOOOOOO!  NO WAN’ DADDY!  GO ‘WAY DADDY, I NO YIKE YOU.  I YIKE MUMMY.  NOOOOOOOOOOO!’.

With the speed of prey everywhere, I quickly get dressed, managing to pull on one leg of her tights before being bowled over by a tear-stained toddler running at full speed.

‘I can’t take off my nappy.  You help me, Mama?’

‘Of course.  Here, let me just loosen…’

‘NOOOOOOOO!  MY DO IT!’

It is now 6.50am.  Little Girl is now clutching her nappy, sodden with urine as it is, and glaring fiercely at the parent who might try and take this treasure away.

‘That needs to go into the bin, darling.  You put it in?  Or mummy do it?’

‘MY do it’

‘Alright, then.  Go and put it in the bin, there’s a good girl’

‘NO’

‘Okay, then I will do it’

‘NOOOO! MY DO IT!’

This dialogue continues for some time.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in the house, LH has cajoled the other child into its school uniform, unloaded the dishwasher, made coffee, prepared hot breakfasts, and ensured that all homework is in the correct bag.  Also, I’m pretty sure the end of Western hegemony has occurred, and possibly also a tectonic shift has permanently reconfigured the geologic environment.

Upstairs, I lose patience, wrestle the revolting bundle away from Little Girl, and put it in the bin.  Immediately, we go from a Cold War stand-off to the Battle of the Somme.  Tears, grime, the bloodied corpses of my hopes and dreams.

After another five minutes, during which I wrestle uselessly with her before accepting that forcing a hysterical child step by step through the morning routine is impractical, and make a judicious concession.

Which, yes, is a fancy way of saying that I let her take the damn nappy back out of the bin and put it back in herself.

It is now just after 7am. I have to leave the house at 7.30. Neither of us are yet dressed.

Over the next thirty minutes, whilst Little Girl polishes off a large bowl of porridge and a cold sausage left over from yesterday (how? Where does she put it? She’s two foot tall!), we have the following arguments:
Which shoes she should wear to daycare; her sturdy, leather weather-appropriate sandals which fit well and were purchased at considerable cost, or a pair of cheap acrylic ballet flats blinged out with sequins, which are three sizes too big and belong to her sister?
Whether eating a bowl of porridge should be a static activity or one best performed while twirling around?
She needs a wee. But she can’t get her own pants off. But she doesn’t want help. But she doesn’t want to wee on the floor. Mummy should go away. Mummy help NOW.

I win one of these arguments.

It is now 7.30am. With the same mysterious alchemy that governs so many of our interactions, I am suddenly transformed from ogre to the most desirable person on the planet, merely by announcing my need to leave the house. I am firm, I am resolute; I kiss each child and drive to the bus stop, practically salivating at the prospect of forty minutes stuck in rush hour with a book.

Whereupon, obviously, I discover that Little Girl has taken my kindle out of my bag and replaced it with Mr Bump. Because that, my friends, is life with a toddler.

Admit it. You feel better now.