parenting


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.

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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.

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.

When I was pregnant I was determined that we would share parenting equally. I really had no idea what parenting meant, what equality meant. Breastfeeding was a shock, initially, the time, the non-sharability. He did lots of other stuff of course. He’s a great father. It was fine. The real shock was that I was happy to be the primary parent. I’ve had a wonderful two years.

But not anymore. Now I want something else.

But now, as I start to try to find that balance again, refocus on that goal of equal parenting, I find we are stuck. Stuck in unequal patterns, internalised parenting responsibilities, weighted heavily towards me.

Notice that I said “I start…”, “I find…” – it is up to me to get equality.

So far this is taking the form of pestering, nagging, frustrated explaining: parenting is more than just taking him along to the shop, the football. Parenting is a lot of thinking, planning: When/what will he eat? When will he sleep? What does he need? How will this affect him?

And then I feel quilty because he has a full time job and is tired and he’s trying his best and my hassling is not really getting us anywhere.

And I feel guilty because I know Wren is picking up on my absence of mind, my longing for something else.

So we are stuck. The way we began is the way we go on. I think lots of people are stuck. It’s a struggle to change when we’re just trying to get through the day to day. Too busy just doing to think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing, who’s doing.

But I don’t want this anymore. I need time for me, other things for me. Me.

So the struggle for equal parenting goes on.

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 live in a very breastfeeding-friendly community. Most mothers I know breastfed their babies. Until recently, I have felt supported in breastfeeding and never felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public.  But shortly after Wren’s second birthday, I looked around me and found I am now the only person I know who is still breastfeeding a two year old. I feel I have entered new territory.

What I am doing feels quite natural to me. When Wren was born, I didn’t have any definite ideas about how long I would breastfeed him. There were times when it was hard and I would never have imagined I’d still be going now. But the thing I didn’t realise was how much the breastfeeding relationship changes over time. Breastfeeding a baby who is dependent on you as their only source of food is quite different from breastfeeding a toddler. Some things are more complicated, but mostly I find it less demanding.  If I had woken up one day and been required to breastfeed a small child, it would have seemed entirely weird, but the change is gradual and natural. For him, he is doing what he has always done; getting nourishment and comfort from his mother. To start denying him now feels cruel and artificial.

So why has everyone else stopped? Even mothers who I would consider ‘lactivists’ have weaned, or cut down to one (private) feed a day. In many cases it is related to pregnancy or the birth of a second child. Fair enough – I’m in no position to judge that choice. I don’t mean to judge anybody’s approach. I would just like to explore some of the reasons. If an individual mother (or child) makes a choice to wean, that’s their business – but if masses of women are feeling social pressure to wean (or are feeling unsupported in continuing to breastfeed) then that’s everybody’s business.

How much is early weaning due to social pressure? There is a high level of squeemishness and outright disgust in the general population about breastfeeding toddlers, even sometimes babies. Boobs are so ridiculously sexualised in our society, that people think there is something wrong with a child who can talk and walk still having a intimate relationship with their mother. This is not supported by WHO guidelines which recommend breastfeeding for two years and beyond if both mother and child still want it. Anthropological evidence suggests the average natural age of weaning is between 2.5 years and 7 years. I prefer the term ‘full-term breastfeeding’, which implies the normality of breastfeeding for a number of years,  to ‘extended breastfeeding’, which implies that this phase is being dragged out longer than it should.

I want to keep breastfeeding my son. Why?

  • Because breastmilk is the world’s most perfect food, the only true wholefood.
  • Because it supports his health while his own immune system is still developing. This is particularly important for us, because Wren has cystic fibrosis. Despite having a supposedly serious chronic illness, Wren is the healthiest toddler I know, and I can only put it down to the goodness of breastmilk.
  • Because it gives Wren a way to calm himself down when he get overexcited/frightened/angry, until he has developed the skills and emotional capacity to do that in other ways.
  • Because it’s  the easiest way to get him to lie down and have a nap during the day. I know several parents currently battling to get their wired two-year-olds to nap.
  • Because it means I always have a snack/drink on hand.
  • Because it is a convenient way to keep him quiet at crucial moments, such as when I am on the phone.
  • Because he LOVES it and it is a joy for me to see his happy face when a boob comes out. I know we won’t always be so close.
  • Because weaning would probably be hard work.

Having said all that, I don’t want to suggest that our breastfeeding relationship is always good and easy, or that I never say ‘no’.  There are times when he wants to stay attached for too long, or on and off all afternoon, and it is driving me nuts and I have to draw the line. There are times when I want my body back. If I can identify what he really wants, he will usually accept an alternative to breastfeeding – often he just wants my undivided attention or some quiet one-on-one time, and sitting down in my lap and reading a book is a pleasant alternative for both of us. I am teaching him that there are times and places which are not for breastfeeding, such as the supermarket and when I am eating a meal. He is accepting this easily in general, and so I know he is ready. I have also recently stopped breastfeeding during the night – separate post on this coming soon(ish)!

But back to the issue of social pressure. Despite all the very important reasons I have given for continuing to breastfeed, I am feeling social pressure to wean. By social pressure, I do not mean that people are actively telling me to wean, or ridiculing/punishing me for continuing to breastfeed. I know some people are unfortunate enough to have family or friends actively pressuring them to wean, but for me the effect is more subtle. Yet given the number of pro-breastfeeding women I know who are weaning, I believe these subtler pressures can be very powerful.

What do I mean, then, by social pressure?

  • When people keep asking ‘are you still breastfeeding?’ and ‘when do you plan to wean?’ Even without saying there is anything wrong with it, it makes me feel like my choice is under scrutiny.
  • The looks of surprise on strangers’ faces when I begin to breastfeed in public.
  • My partner is a big factor. He keeps asking questions about whether Wren really still needs it. I can convince him of it, but I still don’t feel as supported as I’d like.
  • When we are out – at playgroup, for example – and breastfeeding, the sight makes other toddlers ask their mother to breastfeed too. I feel apologetic, because my choice to continue breastfeeding is making their choice to cutback more difficult. I feel like I am breaking some sort of unspoken social contract to wean.
  • Having nobody to talk to about the challenges and joys of breastfeeding a toddler, at least nobody who is going through the same things.

In some ways, I find these subtle pressures more difficult to deal with than outright pressure. The rebel in me wishes those shocked strangers in cafes would be brave enough to express their ignorant views, so that I could defend myself. There is a part of me which definitely enjoys pushing boundaries, challenging conservative social norms, but I don’t want to do it all on my own. If I had someone to share my breastfeeding battles and triumphs, it would be much easier, much more fun.

I am finding myself becoming increasingly irritated with Wren’s requests to breastfeed, particularly in public. At times I think that perhaps this is a natural/biological response to trigger weaning, something coming from inside of me. But more likely, it is a response to the external pressures eroding my confidence. This is why I am spelling it out here. To confront it head on, and stop it eating away at me, invisible, un-named.

I will continue to breastfeed beyond two, beyond three, who knows? I would love to hear from others who are doing the same. What social pressures have you encountered to wean? How have you dealth with it?

Turtledad warned me about starting the kiss-it-better thing. Something about toughening him up, I think. But c’mon, one little kiss can stop the tears! Magic. Sweet, simple magic.

When I was a child, my parents didn’t kiss-it-better; they would ‘blow-it-better’ instead. I’m not sure why. But I do remember really believing that it helped.

Today, however, I was presented with two kiss-it-better spots which were rather challenging. This morning Wren pointed to the molar erupting at the back of his mouth: kiss better? kiss better? A little kiss on the lips was the best I could offer. He wasn’t quite convinced.

Later this afternoon, I was sitting on the floor reading the paper, when all of a sudden, there was a bare bottom presented in my face – downward dog style – Bum kiss better bum? I couldn’t kiss the part which was actually sore, but kissing a smooth, soft butt cheek was a pleasure.

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