Happy Families Are Made In a Multitude of Ways

Parenthood. It can be hard and fraught sometimes.

It feels that even talking about our decisions or feelings as parents suddenly means we are opening ourselves to a pile on of reckons, and answers to questions we didn’t ask. Every word open to misinterpretation. Making different choices mutated into judging other’s choices. Uttering our darkest fears seen as revealing a rotting core.

Why does it have to be this way?

I guess it is because we all have so much skin in the game, but damn, if that skin isn’t thin sometimes.

I’ve been a bit quieter here on this blog, mostly because of fear of this. That opening the door even the tiniest crack on aspects of our life means I’ll have to justify myself, or apologise for slights I don’t intend.

Talking about things can be hard. It feels risky to fess up to the time you yelled because the kids wouldn’t stop fighting and you felt completely overwhelmed. Or how you were driven bonkers by the lack of sleep and decided to sleep train, or decided to co-sleep and it worked for you. To admit to having a picky eater. Or a hopelessly messy home.

If we can’t talk about these things without treading carefully, then how do we talk about the things that are harder? Should we pick our way gingerly across the minefield? Or swallow them whole? Keep them burning a pit in our stomach for fear we, or our child, will be seen as failing.

I started reading a book recommended to me – The Highly Sensitive Person. I never finished it. I gave up about the time I read a passage stating that only half of people experience adequate parenting as a child.

Screw that.

There are some terrible parents in the world. Some children suffer terribly at the hands of their parents. Some highly successful people carry scars all their life from parents who failed them in very important ways.

But – half?

I don’t think there are any perfect parents in the world. No matter how understanding, or nurturing, or independence-building, or loving parents are, there will always be mistakes.

There is no one way to raise a child.

I refuse to believe we are all going around fucking up our children with our incompetence. Fucking up days? Weeks, even? Maybe. But the vast majority of us provide lives that are stable enough, loving enough for our children.

I think of Anna Karenina’s famous opening line

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

It’s a fabulous sentence, and who am I to judge Tolstoy, with his bestselling classics, 14 children and a whole religious-socialist movement named after him? Yet, I think he couldn’t be more wrong.

Happy families are made in a multitude of different fashions.

We don’t need each other’s permission for the choices we make. Other people do not need your permission for the choices they make. There are happy families with happy kids whose parents are doing things you wouldn’t agree with, wouldn’t do, can’t imagine. So what?

Parenting is hard, and it is fraught, but ultimately the world is full of functional adults who work hard and look after each other, and who have people they love. Who bake cakes for friends in need, and visit their grandmothers for tea, and in turn have children that they love. Despite everything, I choose to see the best in people.

Right now, parenting can seem hard. Sometimes after an evening with my son bouncing off the walls, and tears, and slammed doors, I slump on the couch with a lump on my throat and wonder what I have done wrong. I delete nice things I’ve written because I feel like a fraud.

I’m not a fraud. I know it is not about me. I know my son’s problems are larger than my acts as a parent. I know they are also much, much smaller than him. He is my own sweet child, as complex as any. I haven’t written about it because I don’t want to hear the solutions, or the judgement. There is nothing you can offer him or me in two minutes typing that I won’t get from the professionals we see. He needs some more help at the moment and we are getting that for him.

In many aspects of his life he is thriving. He has a very blessed childhood that he enjoys. He gets a lot of positive attention and family time. He has interests we support. He is learning to read. He has two parents who love him, and a sister who only pulls his hair occasionally.

We are a happy family in our own way.

Ultimately I am only parenting my children. I answer to them. The only people who have the right to look back at the decisions we make about bedtimes and mealtimes and playtimes and judge will be my children. I don’t want to hear ‘have you tried…’ I don’t want to justify the minutiae of our life.  Nobody can create the perfect environment for their children 100% of the time.

It is clear that I’m not always going to be the kind of parent I thought I would be, or that many parenting columns tell me I should be. What I am being is the parent that my son needs. I think that this is a better parent than any that only exists on paper, or the stock photo parents who are nothing but the ghosts of our internet imaginations

Parenting is hard and fraught and it is a long, long game. My son might have some problems, and they might weigh heavily on us at times, but he’s only five. We’ve got a lot of life and growing up to do together still. I’m pretty sure one day I will turn around and see a young man, and be enormously proud of how my wee boy has turned out, and wonder what miracle it was that brought him into my life, and is this really the same young man who could never stop talking, or sit still, or go the fuck to sleep despite being eye-rollingly tired?

I am sure I am not the only parent who feels this way. Who can feel weighed down in the now. The future may be bright, but the getting there is hard. Nonetheless we carry on, finding glimmers of hope. Sun rays that burst through the clouds. Auroras that play across our night skies.

My life isn’t perfect. I never expected it to be. The choices my family makes are just our choices. We’re making the choices that enable all four of us to carry on as best we can. You might make different choices in my place. That’s okay too.

All of our families are finding their own ways to be. To hold it together and build the best worlds we can for our children. Building with little things and big things. A whole messy jumble of things.

Happiness finding its own way into our life.

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A Dinosaur Train Hypothesis

The kids favourite TV show at the moment is Dinosaur Train. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. In fact one might even say I’ve been overthinking it a lot. On the surface it seems like positive, inclusive preschooler fare, but once you’ve watched as much Dinosaur Train as I have, you begin to question what is really going on. There are some things that just don’t quite add up. But its okay guys, I have a hypothesis. Hypotheses?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show let me explain it’s premise:

The Pteranodon Family, whose members are Mr and Mrs Pteranodon, their three biological children and one adopted Tyrannosaurus Rex, Buddy, have good old fashioned family adventures, which revolve around getting to ride on the Dinosaur Train. The Dinosaur Train, guided by their good friend Mr Conductor, not only travels across the world, but also through time. Mr Conductor is a troodon, that’s the dinosaur with the largest brain relative to body mass doncha know and also, presumably, the smartest. He is able to offer the Pteranodon Family a lot of educational information about the Mesozoic Era which makes for an absolutely riveting show.

Now, having read the premise I’m sure you’ll be able to see there are some astonishing inaccuracies, and anachronisms in this show. In fact, I have rather a lot of questions for the makers. PBS, if you are reading this, can you help me out?

Lets deal with the most troubling question. It is well established scientific fact that Tyrannosaurs lived at the very end of Cretaceous, whereas Pteranodons lived in the mid-Cretaceous. There is a whopping 20 million years between them. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? C’mon. Even my four year old knows that. This is a genuine puzzle to him, and I honestly don’t know how to answer him. I don’t like to pry into private family matters, but I really think we need some answers as to the circumstances of Buddy’s adoption. Given that the Pteranodon family have exposed themselves by participating in this show, then I think it is fair to ask. Was Mrs Pteranodon really surprised when one egg hatched and revealed a T-Rex, or is this some kind of long game played on her unsuspecting children?

And who exactly brought the egg back to the mid-Cretaceous? Brought, or should I say smuggled? The only one with unfettered access to a time-travelling device is Mr Conductor himself. What exactly is his part in this? Is he an unsuspecting dupe? Or is he (an intelligent troodon after all) the great Mastermind behind this “adoption”.

I have noticed a quite lackadaisical approach to biosecurity across the program as a whole, not just in this egregious example of a fertilised egg being transmitted through time. Maybe my opinions are skewed having grown-up in New Zealand with our tight airport screenings for unwashed shoes, and bananas neglected in children’s backpacks. The biosecurity risks NZ faces, however, seem tiny compared to criss-crossing the entire Mesozoic! That’s the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous just in case you didn’t know. Some 186 million years. Have PBS considered the pathogens being transferred around willy-nilly by these sight-seeing hordes? They don’t just stay on the train you know. The get off and wander around, they eat, and as we all know from watching your excellent ‘Dinosaur Poop’ episode, everybody poops, and OMG what kind of microbes are these dinosaurs spreading throughout time?!

I guess it’s possible that having invented an amazing time-travelling train they’ve also created some sort of containment. We never see it but perhaps they’ve edited out the decomination showers for when they get on or off the train? Still doesn’t explain the poop though. Unless.

Unless they all have to poop on the Train?

Is that how it works PBS?

Speaking of how it works – how does this whole thing work? The only person who ever seems to work in the show is Mr Conductor. He is constantly walking up and down the train checking the tickets that everybody bought. What did they buy them with? Carrion? Money? Mr and Mrs Pteranodon don’t have jobs. Are they recipients of tax welfare? Are you trying to tell me that dinosaurs had money and a welfare state? THAT’S JUST CRAZY!!!!

I know I’ve expressed some concerns about this whole Dinosaur Train organisation but, I’m going to give Mr Conductor the benefit of the doubt, he seems a nice guy. A really nice, cheerful guy.

A really nice, cheerful, intelligent guy.

Too cheerful?

Is Mr Conductor’s cheerfulness a cover for a broken heart?

I just have to wonder, in episode 322 Back In Time they travel all the way back to the Permian (the time period before the Mesozoic), but they don’t ever travel further forward than the Mesozoic. Why?

Because even though they must know their life is but a fleeting blip in the march of time, to travel into the Cenozoic would be to face a truth too cold for their reptilian hearts. It is easy to fool a pteranodon Mr Conductor, but you can’t fool me.

I have two hypotheses as to what is the cause of Mr Conductor’s heart break:

1) No matter how hard he tries he cannot travel any further forward in time. The technology won’t work. The Cenozoic with its mammalian dominant life-forms is off limits to the Dinosaur Train. This torments Mr Conductor. At night, alone, after fretfully picking at his carrion, he lies in bed, staring up at the distant stars and wondering what it is that happens in the Year 186 Million of the Mesozoic. What horror lies ahead? Can it possibly be worse than his imagination?

Or

2) He knows. He knows. Oh, he wishes he didn’t but he does. He can’t forget. He can try, he can put on his whole ‘howdy-doody’ act, he can smile and sing and dance, but every time he yells ‘time tunnel approaching’ he dies a little more inside. Knowing that everything he loves so dear won’t die the gentle death of natural selection but will come to a catastrophic, cataclysmic end. He can’t bear to travel any further forward. It might as well be the end of the world for all he cares. All he can picture is that time he stood close, but not too close, at a convenient-for-sightseeing-but-safe-distance, and watched the intense red and yellow flames streaking through the sky. The enormous BOOM of the impact. The distant blast that knocked him off his feet as he watched the plumes of dust and rock and smoke shoot up into the atmosphere, obliterating the light and suddenly it was cold. So cold.

He couldn’t stay there for long though. He had to get back on the train to poop.

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No Air

Breathing.

The background rhythm of life.

The first breath. The long awaited wail of lungs opening and the shock of air for the first time. Every parent, I think, holds their own breath until they hear it. Some parents have to wait longer than others. Too long.

Then we hardly notice it. Our lungs continue a pattern, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. It is the white noise of our life. If you were an astronaut in deep space, cut off from radio contact, just this noise would be left to assert you are still alive. The swish of your blood through your ears. The air moving through your nostrils as they flare.

We take it for granted. Unless of course, something goes wrong.

The first wrong thing we noticed was a cough at night.

I’m a lifelong asthmatic and I knew what it was. I was not too worried then. I knew what asthma had meant for me and I was confident we could manage it. We started MJ on steroid inhalers. They helped, but not as much as we would have expected.

We noticed more wrong things. A cough after running. A cough on cold days. Snoring. He complained of being tired, constantly. Between his coughing and a baby our nights were sleepless, leaving three of us with dark rings under our eyes.

More than a year later, the dark rings are still there.

Our son has lived the last two winters with a very real constriction in his chest. We as parents, have faced our own metaphorical one. A slow suffocation of our hopes as we try to care for a son who might be playful and cheerful and loud, but who, try as we might, is never quite well.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to think he is improving, that the most recent change to his medication has helped. Even now I think this might be the case. It is hard to hold onto the faith it will last.

Winter is fading. The grey skies are being replaced with blue. The frost coverings on the ground replaced with purple and white crocus. Hope creeps in with the advance of spring. We will get a temporary reprieve at least, without the cold air that shocks his lungs into submission. New worries arise too though, the memory of days last spring where thick white pollen blew through the air like snow. Will it trigger his asthma this year?

I think back to my childhood, with the delay in diagnosis due to me lacking a typical wheeze. For years I thought I was just an uncoordinated and unfit child, now I suspect the truth has more to do with my asthma not being as well controlled as we thought it was. My failure to keep up in PE class was due to a tightness in my chest that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite beat.

I didn’t learn to swim properly until we realised chlorinated pools were one of my triggers. I remember trying to time my breathing to the rhythm of my arms. Always I would end up gasping. Not able to last from left arm, to right arm, to left arm and breathe. I would end up standing in the pool, sucking in the air, watching my peers swim ahead.

MJ is four, and his kindy has a strong emphasis on outside play, whatever the weather. He loves it, and so do we. Lately though the story has changed. He tells us he can’t run as fast, he can’t keep up with his friends, that he was too tired for games. I look at him and I see myself reflected. I see his childhood constricted. I want to set him loose but it is not within my power.

I do not torture myself asking “why’s”. Why him? Why us? Life is unfair and, in balance, I know we are very blessed. Asthma is just the hand we have been dealt. Like any parent, parents of chronically ill children just get on with it. We are all just doing our best. Living our lives. We just have an extra ball to juggle.

We all get extras ball to juggle, sooner or later.

I am not interested in speculating if there is something we could have done differently to avoid it. Asthma and allergy rates are rising, and it is right for scientists to try to understand why that is. Whether it is because we are “too clean” or whether it is exposure to antibiotics or overuse of paracetamol. But on an individual level those questions are meaningless. There is nothing we can point to other than the genes he so obviously inherited from me.

My son has asthma. There is the fact, the truth. Why? Why is meaningless.
Night time arrives. Our bedtime routine with the medicine he resents is fraught. We limp through, he lies down. We sit in the room next door and every evening we listen, on edge. At some point, inevitably, the coughing starts. Every time my heart sinks. It is as though the air leaves the room. Ventolin is a wonderful life saving medication but it is not without side effects. Nervousness. Shaking. Palpitations. Headaches. Insomnia. Would you be surprised to learn that after one, two, three or four doses of Ventolin my son struggles to settle? Too often the price for his breath has been sleep.

I love this bright, sparky, funny son so much it takes my breath away.  Sometimes when I watch him run and play he is so full of life. Other times he runs and then he stops. He just stops. When I see him standing there, when I hear him gasping, again, again, again, it is soul crushing.

We are never more vulnerable than we are in the depths of the night. Asthma visits, like the relentless Nightmare from myth. It rides us hard. My son is left winded, me with the crushing weight of failure on my chest. Failure despite the privilege of access to modern medical knowledge, a socialist health care system, and pharmaceuticals to make this stop. I throw all my balls in the air and hold his medicine to his mouth. I count each breath as we catch them. One, two, three… I feel the coughing ease. I feel his body relax. His symptoms have been kept at bay once more, the Nightmare banished. The air comes back.

We breathe deep, in the dark of his room, in the dark of the night, as he slips back into a sweeter dream. And all that I am left is the weight of a mother’s love.

 

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The world I would give my daughter

My daughter is asleep in her bed.

She lives a safe, secure life. I’m a stay-at-home-parent. She has never been left in the care of anyone other than her parents.

She cannot live all her life this way. I do not want her to.

One day I want her to venture out in this world. I want her to have freedoms. I want her to have choice.

I want her to be able to acknowledge that so many blessings and privileges she enjoys are due to the hard work of women before her. The right to her own money. The right to work, to own property. The right to an education. The right to control her own fertility. The right to marry and divorce, when and if she chooses.

I want her to understand that these blessings and privileges are not extended to all women around the world. I want her to believe in the right for all women to enjoy them. I want her to be unafraid to speak when necessary for those who can’t, and to listen and support those women who can.

I want her to live in a world where her right to exist in public is never questioned, where it will not make her a target for abuse. A world where women can be leaders without being called bossy, argumentative without being called shrill, annoyed without being called hormonal. A world where she can be a mother without being called slummy or yummy. A world where women are not judged by what bathroom they choose, or what size they wear. A world where women are not shamed for the natural functions of their bodies. A world where women are not asking for it. A world where women never have to be told to smile, or brushed off because it was just a joke.

She is too young to ask for things herself. She knows nothing of these troubles. So, while she sleeps, safe in her bed I will be her voice.

This is the world I would give my daughter. Tell me, is this too much to ask?

Just the way you are

Last week we had to take my oldest child for a check-up, and foolishly I took both kids on my own. I thought that my son knows what to expect, and his little sister is used to sitting through appointments too, it’ll be fine.

It wasn’t fine.

Actually the doctor was fine. That bit was fine. I’m a pro at doctor’s appointments. What I apparently can’t manage is taking kids to the toilet.  Trying to cram a toilet visit in was probably a bad idea, but it really looked like waiting would be a worse option. Instead of recognising my motherly wisdom my son just starts yelling
“No. I don’t need to go. Noooo”
And I kinda have to drag him in and practically pry his fingers off the doorframe. Eventually I hustled him in, with his sister toddling along and squeezing in with us. And the whole time he is yelling, and I’m trying to appear competent by remaining calm and collected and firm, not permissive, so I’m saying
“Okay, let’s just try before we see the doctor because we can’t go during our appointment.”
And I don’t know why I even bother because he is not listening, he is just yelling, and it is true he doesn’t need to go – anymore. At some point someone knocked on the door and I tried to hurry him up by pointing out people were waiting but it didn’t help. After resisting sitting on the toilet he is now resisting getting off and washing his hands. Then the toddler inexplicably decided to add to the experience by yelling ‘fart’ loudly and repeatedly. After what felt like a hellish eternity I opened the door, only to see a very tall young doctor about to knock, again.

Unfortunately, I blush very easily.

To be honest, I think I handled it fairly well. It was embarrassing, but kids are kids. The doctor was lovely and took it all in his stride. Too often though, people around you don’t react like that. Like that time when that old man shouted at my upset son on the bus. (To be fair, he was again behaving appallingly, but since he came down with a fever soon after, I think he wasn’t at his most rational. And I know my son well enough to know when yelling isn’t going to work, so I wasn’t yelling and guess what dude, you’re yelling didn’t achieve anything – did it?) Sometimes my husband says I must see the worst come out in people. Sometimes I think I’m just more observant than my husband. Or maybe I’m less competent at parenting than him. Or maybe I’m held to a different (higher) standard of parenting than him due to ingrained patriarchal values. Maybe.

And if you just took these snippets of my days when my son is behaving poorly you might think he was this dreadful, out of control child. He’s not. He has been ill a lot lately, and that does affect his behaviour, but most of the time he is lovely. So I should also tell you about how much he loves to help in the kitchen, and how he helps his father chop vegetables, Child chopping vegetablesdiligently snapping broccoli florets up and even *gasp* eating some of them. Or his limitless curiosity especially when it comes to things like outer space or dinosaurs. Or how patient he is with his sister’s silly games, especially the one where she plays ‘bump, bump’ in her chair and we all have to ‘bump, bump’ along with her, and if he doesn’t bump she yells “Wah-wah bump bump” across the table at him until he bumps. (And no, Wah-wah is not his name, it is just what she calls him. Which is very cute, but as far as legal names go it would be a bad one and what kind of mother do you think I am?)

If you took the snippets of my days when I’m not handling things well, you might think I’m not a great parent. Things don’t always go well. I get cross. I get stretched too thin, especially lately, when I’ve frequently been stuck at home with sick kids. My kids can be infuriating, and it’s exhausting. I definitely, definitely, do not love every minute.

It is never as simple as a good day, or a bad day. My children are all quicksilver. The stars can be all aligned and then along comes a new gravitational body – everything wobbles on its axis. Can I maintain a steady course or will a terminal slide into chaos ensue? Tears dry just as quickly, their eyes sparkle again, and their mother better be ready to leave her own frustrations behind, because the fun is happening, now. They create joy in the most mundane events. A cold wet downpour is a chance to spring from puddle to puddle. Games are invented seemingly out of thin air, and you are all laughing, and life is good and the minutes fly by. Then there are the quiet joys. Like the joy of seeing your four year old intent, concentrating hard on his latest art project.puddle splashing

My hours are full of books and kisses and toys and cuddles and crayon on my walls and TV and chasing and trying to buckle a pram and jumping on the bed. Life. They are full of life.

These little lives feel like they came from nowhere to take over your own. Did you know, did you really understand, how much possibility there was the first time someone handed you your baby? Getting to know your child, to learn how they interpret the world and think and feel is the ultimate privilege of parenthood.

At this age my children’s behaviour can be ridiculous, and appalling, and embarrassing.  But they are four and one. Sometimes people act as though the process of civilisation is something that should take just a couple of weeks, in between weaning and toilet training at what is considered to be the proper time. As though our children are not individuals with their own needs and impulses and fully contained personhood. Instead they are to be controlled and whipped into shape and if you just do it right they will never yell fart at you while locked in a public toilet.

A few weeks ago we had another public argument with my son. Everyone was avoiding our eyes and hurrying past us. It’s funny isn’t it, how there is never anyone stopping to tell you to enjoy “every minute” in these really unenjoyable minutes? Tears dried and noses wiped, we arrived at the pharmacy we needed to go to.  There were long queues, but oh joy, a wooden track with wheels to roll down it. I took the kids to play while my husband waited.

This toy just happened to be in the euphemistically named ‘feminine hygiene” aisle. While the kids played happily a couple approached, and stood whispering in front of the pregnancy tests. There is a lot to think about when buying pregnancy tests. For many it is the first of the arbitrary and important-seeming hurdles that really don’t matter when you look back on them, but boy did you agonise about it at the time. Does the brand matter? And how many should you buy? One might give the answer you want – expect – but will you believe it? What if it is wrong? Perhaps you should buy two just in case. Five, maybe five. Just to be sure. Or maybe this is a false alarm, but what about next month, or the next. Should you buy extra so you have them? Just in case?

They stood, heads bent together and while I tried not to listen they caught my son’s interest. He wandered over, peering around them, cluelessly butting in as only a four year old can, and while I tried to gently re-engage his interest my daughter spotted her opportunity. Gleefully she darted forward, hands mussing shelves, then with a tube of something called ‘intimate soap’ in each hand she sprinted down the exit ramp. I followed the trail of laughter, and luckily caught her before she passed the security alarms.

By the time I had returned all the feminine hygiene products to their proper place the couple were queuing hand in hand. Trepidation, love, possibility spilling out of them, an almost visible aura of hope.

My children were back to playing. These wilful little beings who have taken over our life. Who can make an afternoon or evening a tedious drag. Or make a mundane chore a hilarious adventure. Who test and defy me on a daily basis. Who embarrass and delight me in equal measure. Would I really have them any other way?

And maybe we came across as chaotic. Maybe if my children look willful and defiant that is because they are. But one day they will be adults who won’t throw themselves down to the ground in despair in supermarkets, or sob on buses because their favourite seat is taken, and one day I won’t have to worry about them accidentally shoplifting.

Until then, would I want my son to be less curious? Would I want my daughter to be less cheeky?

I’m lucky, my hopes for the future are already here, right in front of me.

I might not love every minute, but I love them. Every minute, of every day, I’m loving them.