community


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.

In my last post on climate change, I may have declared in a moment of enthusiasm that absolutely everybody must see The Age of Stupid. Allow me to clarify that. I don’t believe it is appropriate viewing for children. It’s really scary! because it’s real! It left me with real fears for my future and especially Wren’s future. If I didn’t already have a deeply held belief and experience in the power of activism, I believe it would have left me feeling like there was no hope. This is why the action campaign linked to the film is essential. There may be some debate about whether scaring adults in to action is the best approach – I think there is definitely some need for it, combined with other approaches, given the urgency climate change – but what I want to explore here is:

how do we create environmental awareness in children without creating fear, despair or hopelessness?

Given the severity of the environmental issues we all must face now and in the coming years, how we share it with out children is something that needs more thought.

I came across an article at Kindred, A Brighter Shade of Green, on rethinking environmental education. I like its starting point: that children need to be given the opportunity to fall in love in their environment first, before any kind of ‘formal’ education or visions of impending doom. Time spent in nature, directly experiencing the connections between ourselves and our environment is really valuable and irreplaceable. Of course even if we live in the middle of a big city, we are still dependent on the environment for our survival, but many people live as if this was not the case.

This is where I’m at with Wren. For now, he is not old enough to understand or cope with any explanation of climate change. But he is old enough to enjoy the natural world. He loves animals and water and rocks and bushwalking. He loves the moon and stars. He likes to talk about the weather. He loves food we’ve collected ourselves – fruit directly from trees, herbs from the garden, eggs from our chooks. We seek out books with stories about the natural environment. I hope this love for nature will lead to a desire to protect it.

He is old enough, also, to participate in small, positive solutions. He loves to help me in our organic vegie garden. He likes to help sort the recycling. The example of us, as his parents, is crucial. I hope that behaving in an environmentally conscious way will become second nature to him, not difficult or ‘a sacrifice’, just the way things are done.

When I think of my own childhood, this all rings true. I lived in the city, but adjacent to a National Park. My brother and I spent our days playing in the bush. I fell in love with it. Weekends we often went to the beach. I have a particular love for the marine world. My parent were not the most environmentally conscious people, but certain things like composting and recycling were given. I remember being at a friend’s house and being shocked to see vegie scraps and glass jars thrown into the garbage. At 8 years of age, I don’t think I had any sophisticated understanding of issues of limited landfill space and embodied energy, but it just seemed so wasteful to me.

But at what point do we introduce discussions about the precarious future of life on earth? These discussions are everywhere today, so it is unlikely that we will be able to shield our children from them for long. I think we need to speak honestly, but always keep in mind our child’s level of understanding and their need to feel safe and secure.

I remember being around 11 years old and reading Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif, an ‘ecological fantasy’ for young adults. It left me in tears; wild, terrified, angry tears. Although the book is a fantasy about mermaid-like people, it was real enough to stir up strong emotions in me, and I don’t think that was a bad thing. I look back on it as a turning point for me, it brought my consciousness and sense of responsibility to a new level, it inspired my future activism. At quite a young age, I joined several environmental organisations and encouraged my parents to make more changes in the way our family lived.

So I guess what saved me from fear, despair or hopelessness (though I have certainly been through periods of it), was the feeling that change was possible, I took action, found activities into which I could channel my intense emotions.

I hope to convey to Wren through my actions that there is hope. Not only through the lifestyle we live at home, but through being actively involved in creating broader social change. I want him to be exposed to adults who are working for a better world. This is where there is hope. Although I want him to understand the situation the world is in, I don’t want him to take it on as his own responsibility too early. I hope that seeing adults working for change will make him feel safe and looked after. As a society, I’m not sure that we do have a right to ‘hope’ if we are not willing to work for change, because dammit, we really are in trouble if we don’t do something. I think that a positive example from me and other adults will convey a message a hope better than any discussion about climate change I could have with Wren.

This is where my feelings diverged from the article I mentioned. They categorise environmentalists as being either ‘light greens’ (believing in lifestyle changes and personal responsibility), ‘dark greens’ (believing in radical ideological change as industrial-capitalism is the problem) and ‘bright greens’ (believing in better designs, technologies and more widely distributed social innovations). They herald the bright greens as the way forward, as the ‘positive’ message to pass on to our children, one that does not involve personal sacrifice or structural change.

Personally, I think we need all three. There is no one solution. Techno-fixes can help, but they are not enough. And while it might be a simpler message to convey to children, ultimately I want my son (and everyone) to have a real, well-rounded understanding of the situation we are in.

I don’t have all the answers. If anyone has any other thoughts or experiences in sharing environmental messages (particularly scary ones) with kids, I’d love to hear them. Wren is still only two years old, so these challenges are still to come for us. These are my ideas so far.

I was going to write about some important stuff, like the fact that the homebirth service in my town has just been axed with no warning.  It’s outrageous, and I will try to find time to write about it soon, but there is something else going on that just has to take precedence.

I saw the The Age of Stupid last night. It is absolutely essential viewing. You’ve seen it already? Great! I really hope I am the last person to have seen it, living outside a major city and all. I hope you are already hassling your politicians, protesting against the coal industry, and transitioning your town to a zero-carbon community.

We all know about climate change these days, but we all do still need a good kick up the backside. There is no time to waste! The film is entirely based on mainstream scientific predictions and uses real news and documentary footage.

I had tears in my eyes as I watched the film. Imagining the future for my son, imagining he might be the man left in the film.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go here immediately and find out where you can see it, or even better, organise a screening in your community. I also highly recommend this website, which is the action campaign linked to the film.

The blog might be turning into a climate change campaigning blog…

Last week I was almost dying from need of a break, and I haven’t felt like that much, but it’s just really time for a break. I was feeling overwhelmed with mothering full time and pissed off with our isolating social structures. But this week, too many lovely options have been plonked at my feet. Or rather, one option I pulled together myself, the others burst forth from other mamas I know.

Let me share with you a beautiful alternative to childcare; a model which has been working for many groups in this town for some time. It’s called ‘playcare’.
You need: 6-8 kids
One paid carer. Anyone with energy and enthusiasm for kids will do.
Keen parents.
One morning a week, 3-4 hours, the kids all go to one house, to play and be cared for by the carer plus one parent. The parents take turns being the “parent-on”. They play, share morning tea (and possibly also lunch), and the other mothers get a morning OFF. And everybody wins. The location rotates every 10 weeks, to share the burden but avoid too much shifting round for the kids.

An alternative model (the second group I’m involved with) has no paid carer, but instead 2 parents are rostered on each week. It’s cheaper, but means everyone is doing twice the shifts.

I prefer it to regular child care because it’s grassroots community based, between friends. It builds community, as everyone spends more time together, understands better where everyone else is at, and creates more possibility for sharing child care and supporting each other outside of playcare.

It has disadvantages too. More time organising. Can’t just drop a kid off somewhere without doing any of the planning. And it cannot accommodate more than the most flexible job. This is an issue for me, as my desire for a ‘real job’ is growing.  The other childcare option that emerged this week was a Family Day Care spot, with a carer recommended by a friend. I have decided to put that off for now, not wanting to start too many new things at once.

I haven’t blogged about it yet, but Wren has cystic fibrosis. The main implication in relation to childcare is that he needs to take digestive enzymes with his food, anything that has fat or protein in it, which is pretty much anything except plain veg and fruit. It’s not difficult to do once you get the hang of it, but there are some guidelines to learn and it does require someone to pay attention to what he is eating.

The response to this at the first playcare group meeting was disappointing. People chose to limit morning tea to fruit and other foods which don’t require enzymes. Okay, so they’re accommodating him, but nobody was willing to learn about the enzymes or take on that responsibility. Afterwards, I felt really sad about that, alone.

The following day at the other playcare group meeting, the response was very different. People immediately expressed an interest in learning about his enzymes. They asked questions and had proactive suggestions about how best to organise it. It was heartwarming. It really made me feel supported.

Okay, so the enzymes are not the biggest part of managing the condition, they’re not difficult for us these days. But it really means something when people make an effort to not simply ‘accommodate’ difference, but to understand it and to share the responsibility in managing it.I feel concerned that a situation will arise in the first playcare group where Wren will help himself to something fatty another kid is eating and nobody will remember he needs enzymes, or if they do, they won’t know what to do. It certainly won’t kill him, but it’s not good for him.

I don’t want to be too hard on the first group.  One mother in particular was having a stressful day, she was in the middle of moving house, not in a frame of mind to take on too much more. And I did present the issue slightly differently to the two groups.

But let me say this: if you have a friend with a child with any kind of medical condition/ disability/ special need MAKE AN EFFORT to learn about it. Ask them about their needs. Offer to help. It means a lot, not just the practical help, but also the feeling of being supported, less alone.

I have found myself in a social group where most people are heading down a very traditional path: buying themselves a nice suburban house, having babies, living as a nuclear family, the man is the primary breadwinner, the woman is the primary caregiver (though many women also work part-time and most men do their bit in parenting – but nothing too radical).

This has set off alarm bells in my head – NO!  This is not what I want, yet I can entirely see why it happens.  I could see us ending up there too, if we fail to take action.  The thing is, it takes initiative, planning, co-operation, to choose something outside of the norm. And not many parents have time or energy for that.

So I’ve been thinking, what do I want?

I want to live in a real community, where there is more sharing of household tasks, caring work, between families.

Yeah right, nothing too radical there.  I’m sure many parents have had thoughts along the same lines.

But what would it actually take? What are the barriers?

One major barrier, at least where I live, is housing design. In this town, most houses are designed for traditional nuclear families: three bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, living room, fenced in yard.  There are some bigger houses in the richer areas, plus one and two bedroom unit for singles, couples or small families.  Not much room for choosing something different.  Most houses are just not ideal for sharing with more than one family, or a large extended family, or any structure too different from a nuclear family.

These houses are isolating.  The kids over the back fence could be looking for a playmate just like Wren and we’d never know. These houses create more work. Why do we all have to cook a separate dinner? Couldn’t we cook together, eat together, clean together, garden together?  This town has more social support for parents than most.  We are social, have many friends, but it’s not enough.  Most of the time, we are still in our separate houses.

If you want something different, you need to buy land and build yourself.  This is where the initiative and planning and co-operation come in.  It’s not impossible, of course.  People do it.  There are loads of intentional communities, people choosing a different lifestyle.  But not around here.

The kind of housing I am dreaming of would have shared kitchen and living space and gardens.  It would also have separate areas for different people and groups, because I value my own space too.  Whether it would be one larger house, with different ‘wings’, or several smaller dwellings, would probably depend on the location and the other people.

I don’t think it’s anything too radical.  Yet it is extremely radical.

I haven’t thought so much before about how much a certain ‘lifestyle’ is embedded in housing design.  I do remember reading an article a while ago, over here at Uliko, which talked about the same issues in relation to Aboriginal housing.  This town has a large indigenous population.  The majority of indigenous people live in larger extended family units and often prefer a more ‘outside’ lifestyle- the traditional western house embodies a lifestyle which does not suit them.

I don’t want to accept an isolating, housework-multiplying lifestyle, just because the houses are already there.  I am now creating an intention to work for something different.  It will take time, like-minded people, and probably money.  But I don’t want to replicate this unhealthy existence.  Housing for community.  It’s a start.