Three years out of the paid workforce and I started to want back in. Is it a mistake?

Everyday, I am so busy as it is. I am exhausted. My head is spinning with all the things I’m trying to get done, trying to think through. I have a long list, my finger in many pies. It is difficult to explain to people what it is I do, but please believe me when I say: I do a lot.

And if I get a paid job, even a very small teeny-tiny part time job, what will change? What can I stop doing? Yes, someone will else will have the pleasure of minding Wren while I am at work. But I will still have to make his lunch, get him dressed, get him there. Will Turtledad do more cleaning? more laundry? more anything?  Nobody but me will put the time and mental energy in to do all the research in to Wren’s health care needs. And I just don’t trust the professionals.

My volunteer and activist work will probably suffer. My social life will suffer. The dog will get even less attention, no doubt – poor old thing. And this already very-intermittent blog will suffer.

I do hope that my garden won’t suffer. I hope that my mental health won’t suffer. I hope that Wren won’t suffer.

I think there’s little doubt that life will be even more busy. I can only hope I’ll learn to cope.

So why do it?

To develop another side of myself, to help me feel like a more-rounded multi-dimensional person, because somehow the many, many things I do now are not enough.

So that I can say ‘I have a job’. I don’t believe anyone should need to say that, because there are so many other things of value in the world – but right now, I do.

To keep myself employable, with the possibility of financial independence, because who knows what will happen in the future.

Because it’s been three years out of paid work, and each day I feel my confidence is dwindling and that world is becoming scarier. If I don’t do it now, it will just get harder.

Because full-time parenting is too much for me now. I need time away from Wren. Oh yes, there’s the mama guilt as I write that, but that’s how it is. And I feel like I need a paid job to justify having someone else care for him for more than one morning a week – even though I could easily fill that time in other ways.

Because I live in a town where it is surprisingly easy to get work right now, even possibly interesting and meaningful work.  That may not always be the case, so I feel I should take advantage of the situation while it is here.

And I have a beautiful wonderful friend who will care for Wren for at least some of the time while I work, so I feel like I should take advantage of her while she is her. Um, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just know that Wren will be happy with her. Ah, easing mama guilt.

So there you go. Are you convinced?

I have applied for a job. I had to do it, but I am terrified of what will happen next.

I live in a town in Central Australia, a racially diverse community, with a large Aboriginal population.

A white person like me, with progressive anti-racist friends, could choose to try and fool myself into believing that the different races, cultures are living side-by-side more-or-less in harmony. Nobody would deny there’s inequality, poverty, social problems – but we’re all working to fix those historical issues, right?

Wrong. This is a racist town. Perhaps not more or less racist than the next, but any racism is too much.

The racism is here all the time, built into the structures and culture of the place, part of the daily lives of Aboriginal people.

But there have been some recent local incidents which have brought the racism out into the open, got people talking about it.  In July, a young Aboriginal man was murdered by five white men. One charming local man responded to this by producing and selling white power t-shirts. Most recently, a cross erected in memory of the murdered man was  burned.

It takes the really ugly stuff which finally gets us privileged, well-meaning white folks to do something.

A couple of weeks ago there was a community announcement in the paper signed by over 300 locals offering support to the Ryder family and denouncing the racist acts.

Yesterday there was a community speakout against racism. A group of black and white people got together to talk about racism, the recent attrocities, as well as the more ingrained, long term structural stuff.

It was a powerful event. The kind of thing this town has needed for a long time. Bringing it out in the open.

And it was just a start. More is planned.

All of this has made me thing about how to introduce race and racism to Wren. We have not spoken about race yet and there’s a part of me that would like it to stay that way. But it’s becoming more apparent that it is something that can’t be ignored. I love the way he has no (obvious) prejudices now: he plays happily with kids of any colour, smiles at the homeless people in the mall. But no doubt he has noticed differences in skin colour, and over time some significance will become attached to that. It must be spoken of.

He came to the speakout yesterday. There were lots of kids. He was too interested in the balloons to pay any attention to what was being said. But for me, it was important that he was there.

I could try to keep him in a privileged cocoon, pretending there’s no such thing as race. But if he was another colour, it would be a different story. And it wouldn’t be right, not in the long term. If he is to understand the place where he is growing up, the experience of the black kids here, it must be spoken of. If any of us are to address our ingrained racism and privilege, it must be spoken of.

Arwyn at Raising My Boychick has just written an excellent post about the problems with colour-blindness and talking about race with children. She says it all better than me and I love her for it.

Also, I just read her link to this fascinating article, which really shows how trying to get rid of racism by ignoring it just DOES NOT WORK.

When my mother-in-law, Wren’s Granma, came to visit recently, she brought Wren a toy truck and some little plastic people that fit in the truck. He was excited and played with it enthusiastically for a few days, as he does with most new toys. On one of these days, Turtledad came home in a big new work car, which he was using for a few days. Wren was excited and wanted to sit in it and press all the buttons.

Granma announced: Wren’s really into car’s and trucks! I could see her head ticking as she said this, thinking of her next car/truck-themed gift for Wren.

And thus gender stereotypes can become self-fulfilling, as each gender-normative gift generates gender-normative behaviour and, oh, it all just seems so natural, so innate.

But is Wren really into cars and trucks? Yeah, he’s into them.

But he’s into almost everything. He loves horses, tools, gardening, music, dancing, dolls, books, cooking, cleaning, balls, animals, shoes, jewellery, water, running, climbing, babies, the moon and stars, anything with buttons, anything that rolls or moves or crawls, anything that anybody else is doing. He’s a sponge soaking up knowledge about everything he can. He will investigate anything novel. He will keep doing anything that gets him attention.

So yeah, he’s into cars, but not like some toddlers I know, who are so excited by them they will run onto the road just to get closer. I’m not doubting that some kids do have definite interests from early on, but the subtle ways that these are produced or encouraged are usually overlooked.

If you really want to play the gender-stereotypes game – and most people do – you could try and fit most of Wren’s interests into ‘boy’s things’ and conveniently dismiss anything too ‘girly’ as a passing interest. But I reckon it’s a load of crap. If there is anything innate about gender, I’m pretty damn sure it’s not an interest in cars. He’s forgotten about Granma’s gifts by now.

Perhaps I should add that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with giving boys (AND girls) toy cars, diversity is great. My main concern is actually environmental because, (a) they were cheap plastic, that will surely end up broken and in landfill before too long, and (b) if I have any power at all to steer Wren’s interests, it will be towards environmentally friendly things, like plants and animals, and away from polluting cars.

Back to gender-stereotypes, I have been wondering why they are so much stricter for kids than for adults, like any progress takes longer to filter through to childrearing. For example, these days, it is not uncommon to see men around pushing prams or carrying babies, yet dolls and doll-prams are still considered girls’ toys. Likewise, there is more diversity in women’s clothing than there is in girls’ clothing. Many women have short hair, but it is still rare for little girls. I figure it is still important for the kyriachy to get that strict gender divide clear for kids early on, and then it’s okay to stray a little. Fathers can push prams, as long as they’re just doing it to help out the mother – it’s not their real job. Women can have short hair and wear trousers, as long as they keep up their feminine appearance in other ways. But as for kids, let’s not confuse them: its gotta be black and weight, pink and blue, cars and dolls.

The other day I went to a local group meeting of the Australian Breastfeeding Association.  The topic was ‘Understanding baby’s weight gain’. It was inspired by the too-many mothers who are made to feel like they are ‘failing’ because their baby is not keeping up with those tricky baby weight charts, and often people are too quick to assume that the problem is the mother’s milk supply. It’s another example of the kyriachy’s refusal to believe in women’s bodies, much preferring ‘man’-made things, which can be controlled, things which come in shiny bottles, in clearly measurable quantities, with a nutritional analysis on the side of the label.

Here are some of my thoughts on the issues, based in my own experience of a baby with weight issues.  These comments broadly come in two categories:

(a) Keep it in perspective: Weight charts are political and weight is just one indicator of overall health.

(b) Sometimes there is something wrong and saying there isn’t won’t help. But neither will weaning.

So here goes:

(a) Keep it in perspective

Baby weight charts are political. By this I mean they are not some immodifiable guide given to use by the Goddesses. Rather they emerge from a human process which involves power and judgements about what is a ‘normal’ healthy baby – something which varies enormously, particularly across ethnic groups (though also within). When health professionals use the charts, they rarely have this process and associated considerations in mind. They focus on the numbers as absolutes and forget to keep it in perspective.

Outrageously, the graph still used by health professionals throughout most of Australia is based on old data from mostly bottle-fed babies in the USA. The growth of breastfed babies tends to slow down much more after 4 months – not as much as some suggest, but it still matters given the small amounts of weight parents are concerned about. Using the old growth chart creates unnecessary extra anxiety.

The World Health Organisation has a more recent, more realistic graph here, based on healthy breastfed babies from a range of countries. More background on the new charts is available here.

However, while these new charts are an improvement, they still need to be kept in perspective. Do they accurately reflect how all babies ‘should’ grow? No. They are averages. It is a rare baby that grows smoothly up the middle percentile line – they grow quick, then grow slow, then later quick again. Very few babies are average, and nor should they be. Someone’s gotta be small and someone’s gotta be big, and there is nothing inherently better about being either. Note that all the babies used to create the graphs were considered ‘healthy’ and by definition some must have been at the top of the graph and some at the bottom. [I am focusing on ‘small’ babies here, but a lot of this also applies to parents who worry that their baby is too ‘big’ (and I would even go so far as to suggest that people worry more about girls being too big than boys). This can also have negative consequences if their intake is restricted, when they might be genetically inclined to grow quickly early and level out later – or they might just be bigger than average forever and that’s totally TOTALLY fine.]

Getting back to ‘small’ babies, the worry about them is really very widespread. When Wren was losing weight, I came across sooo many mothers who had been through a period when they were told their baby or child was growing too slowly. For all of them, it had been a period of anxiety. Yet for most of them, that period had passed and their child had grown and developed into a ‘normal’ healthy child. The worry was for nothing.

What this demonstrates is that there is a unhealthy focus on baby weight. Weight is just one indicator of overall health. It is a useful indicator for health professionals, because it is easily, quickly measurable. They like it because it doesn’t depend on (highly variable) accounts from parents (what would we know after all?). However, as a parent of a child, you see them every day, you see loads of other indicators: mood, appetite, changes in skin tone, poos/wees, physical development, mental development. You know what? You don’t even need to weigh your child to know they are growing! (You also don’t need to measure their temperature to know they have a fever – but don’t expect a doctor to believe you on that one.) Are they going up in clothes sizes? Do people keep exclaiming “my how she’s grown!”? That’s all the proof you need. It’s a much healthier way to keep check than obsessing over every 10grams.

(b) Sometimes there is something wrong and saying there isn’t won’t help. But neither will weaning.

Nothing I have said is intended to suggest in any way that weight gain is never a problem and that we should pay no attention to it at all. When my son Wren started losing weight (note: losing weight, not just growing slowly) at around 7 months, almost every other parent I spoke to tried to reassure me that there was nothing wrong.  This was not helpful. The response of these well-meaning people was based on (a) the problems I’ve outlined above, (b) often their own experience, and (c) a real fear of acknowledging the possibility fact that sometimes there is something wrong with babies. We all love our babies and believe they are perfect and hope they will always be healthy, but skirting cautiously around it when they are not, like it’s some kind of taboo, IS NOT HELPFUL.  It is frustrating. Acknowledging that something might be wrong is sad and worrying, but it is not the end of the world, and gees it’s just better to know and deal with it than keep trying to believe everything is okay. It probably will be okay – though ‘okay’ might come to mean something a bit different – as long as you address it. And as a friend of someone in this situation: listen, don’t dismiss! [This also applies to problems with babies other than weight – I had a friend whose baby had a serious developmental delay and people kept reassuring her that there was nothing wrong, even when she herself knew there was – and it ended up being something which could be treated]

Ahem. So let me tell you our story.

Although it might have taken me a little while to put it all together – I was far from an anxious mother – I knew that Wren was sick. And I knew this from my daily experience with him, not because of the weight charts. He was miserable. He looked pale. He was doing sloppy poos far more often than he used to. He wanted to drink breast milk all the time.  He had stopped trying to crawl or pull himself up to stand. And yes, I noticed that his clothes seemed bigger and his body was getting more bony. So I took him to a child health nurse. She didn’t really listen to my explanations or concerns, perhaps assuming I was an over-anxious mother. She calmly got him on the scales, plotted his weight on the graph, then exclaimed “My goodness! He’s dropped right off the graph!” She needed the graph to see there was a problem – I didn’t. He hasn’t dropped off anything, I thought, this is my baby you’re talking about, not a line on a graph! Something’s wrong, like I told you. We were referred to a paediatrician.

The initial response from child health nurses and paediatricians was to question what was going into him. He was not yet eating much solids, but I was confident that he was getting loads of breastmilk. Despite my insistence that it wasn’t his intake that was the problem, something was going wrong inside, I was told to breastfeed less, push solids more, and supplement with a high calorie formula.

It was a frightening time. I was vulnerable and uncertain about what was wrong. If I had not been such an educated, confident breastfeeder, it is very likely that I would have followed their advice. But I am very glad that I didn’t. The doctor was ‘surprised’ when test results revealed that there were high levels of undigested fats in his poo. I told you so! It is going in! That fat is from my milk! It took many more tests and a few months – during which time he actually did very well, thankyou – before he was finally diagnosed with pancreatic insufficiency caused by cystic fibrosis. Babies with cystic fibrosis need breastmilk more than most, for the immune protection and because it is more easily digestable than any other food.

I really believe that health care professionals confronted with a baby with weight problems should be much more careful about their advice. While I was not specifically told to wean, I was never encouraged to keep breastfeeding and many things were said which could have undermined my confidence in my breastmilk. The initial assumption should be that breastmilk is best, unless there is some evidence to the contrary. When the first question that every nurse and doctor asks is ‘do you have much milk?’ this can build up to make a mother question whether she really is producing enough milk, as sometimes it is hard to tell. Health professionals need to be more aware of their own power and the vulnerable position mothers are in, when their children are not growing as they ‘should’.

When I later expressed my concerns to one of these health professionals, about their lack of support for breastfeeding, the response was: But we weren’t to know he had cystic fibrosis. Exactly. YOU DIDN”T KNOW. And yet you gave me advice which could have led me to stop breastfeeding which would have had negative health consequences for my child. It really should be assumed that babies with weight problems should continue breastfeeding, because if they are really sick, then breastmilk becomes even more important.

So I guess what I am trying to say with all this is: trust yourself more than your doctor. Most of what I have said comes from my own experience, which may be different to yours, so you don’t have to listen to me either.

I have been planning to post a rant against the mainstream health system, the attitudes of doctors in particular. I have had an unfortunate amount of contact with the health system since my son got sick.

The Australian health system is far from perfect, but you know what? It is fucking amazing compared to what people have to put up with in the USA. I just came across this tearjerking post which made me extremely grateful to live in a country with a (largely) socialised health system.

Some of the current debate in the US has been filtering through over here and I have been shocked at the amount of misinformation and scare tactics going on. If there is one thing that a market system is simply not good enough for (though I would argue that there is more than one thing) it is health. Everyone has a right to healthcare, its availability or quality can not be determined by income or employment. People in the US are dying because they are falling through the patchy web of insurance coverage.

The article by Natalie O’Reilly over at Hip Mama really hit me hard because her daughter Sophie has the same condition as my son – cystic fibrosis (though she also has other related conditions and the CF is worse than Wren’s so far).

When Wren began to get sick, he was losing a lot of weight. We were sent to many tests and specialists to find out what was going on. It was the most stressful time of my life. But one thing we did not have to worry about was money. All the tests were fully paid for by the government-funded public health system. They even paid for Wren and one parent (me) to fly to the specialist CF clinic in a capital city, and continue to pay for two trips a year (or more if needed). It is cheaper to pay for our transport, than to provide the specialists in our small town. Luckily Wren has not needed many medications so far. He is on daily digestive enzymes, and will be for the rest of his life. All medications and enzymes are provided extremely cheaply through our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. We pay nothing for visits to paediatricians and other specialists. Emergency care and hospital stays would also be provided for free – I hope we’ll never need it, but it certainly provides peace of mind knowing that it is there for us. My son is getting the highest standard of care available.

It makes me feel sick in the guts to imagine being in a situation where I might have to decide whether to take to Wren to see a doctor based on whether we could afford it, or, as in Natalie’s case, whether it might risk our chance of getting health insurance cover.

I hope the US will come their collective senses. Quit it with your absurd and inappropriate free-market ideologies and look at the real people who have a right to health.

Somewhere along the line, I have become anxious. I worry. I frown. I do not relax.

When I go out with Wren, a few bad experiences have left me unable to enjoy myself.  I worry that he will break something, whinge or scream too much, make me chase him when I sit down to talk to someone. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. But even when we have a perfect outing, I ruin it myself by being anxious, waiting for something to go wrong.

At home, I am anxious about all the things I need to get done. It is a rare moment when we just play, laugh, be. When he is asleep, I make myself sit down for a cup of tea. But I do not relax. The cup of tea has become just one more thing I must do. I move inefficiently from one task to the next, leaving each incomplete.

But last night, we danced. We went out together, the whole family, and we danced. The Desert Festival is on and there was a brilliant outdoor concert. Bedtimes were forgotten, anxieties dissipated, hearts uplifted, with music from the coolest people in the Australia, The Black Arm Band, a collective project featuring the greatest indigenous musicians around. All the classics, beautiful, danceable tunes, with politics at it’s heart. If I could wish one thing for Jasper, it would be for him to one day dance like Dan Sultan (well…).

For one night, we danced. For one night, the racial divides eased, as black and white danced side by side. For one night, the town danced. And there was hope.

Wren almost fell asleep in my arms at his usual time, but then got a second wind. He was adopted by a very sweet 7 year old boy, they cuddled and danced together for hours. There were children everywhere. People had come out of their little boxes of isolation we call homes, and were dancing together.

And me too, I danced. And I relaxed. The whole family stayed out until – wait for it – 10pm! That’s past all of our bedtimes.

For one night, we danced.

Today, we are living the consequences. A cranky toddler who didn’t get enough sleep and has become accustomed to constant playmates. A tired, anxious mother, trying to cope with my first day of solo parenting for over 3 weeks (we’ve had visits from both grandmothers).

But in my head I sing “Blackfella, white fella…”, “Fish soup and rice…” and “Solid Rock”, and I remind myself that for one night, we danced.

My techy is skills are so poor, I probably don’t deserve to have a blog.

I have been trying to add a widget from this site to help promote The Age of Stupid, which is soon to premiere in about 100 countries, with no advertising budget. They tell me it’s easy: click here, then press this. No. Not working.

So no sparkly widget ad here.

But a post of support anyway. Please read on.

If you live in any of these great countries:

then you are in for a treat on 21/22 September. A global premiere of climate blockbuster The Age of Stupid, which I recently raved about in a post which was probably meaningless to anybody who hadn’t heard of it, which was unfortunately probably the great majority of the world. Sorry. I incorrectly assumed that because I live in outback Australia, my little town was the last to screen it. But it turns out we’re way ahead of everywhere but the UK and Australian and New Zealand capital cities. So there you go.

Oh, so what am I talking about? Because I’m in a hurry, let me quote the website:

The Age of Stupid is the new four-year epic from McLibel director Franny Armstrong. Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite stars as a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?

A brilliant call to action. You can read more here. Check it out to find out where it is screening near you (or organise a screening if it’s not!). Tell all your friends. The film has $0 advertising budget so it’s entirely dependent on word of mouth (or perhaps word of keyboard). It needs our support!

But don’t take your kids.