Breathe

Take a deep breath.

Last night I lay in bed and cried.

Take a deep breath.

Some nights when I try and sleep it feels like I’m adrift in a sea of concerns. The sea is wide and deep and dark. I’m alone and soaked with stress and sleeplessness. The salt taste of regret and angry words. Waves of parental failures buffet me as I float.

Take a deep breath.

People tell you parenthood is hard. I think they do. But what you never know is how it will be hard for you. With newborns it tends to be fairly obvious. You’re tired, listening to screaming, and covered in puke. But when the children get older they blossom into these spectacular little humans. With their own personalities. Their own charms, and interests, and sense of humour. Their own quirks, and frustrations, and problems.

Sometimes your children feel like that lame-ass friend you can’t bring yourself to ditch. You know, the one who always wants to catch up for a coffee so they can tell you all about how difficult their life is, and you listen and are all sympathetic. You visit their house, sit on the floor and eat ice-cream and hand them tissues. You check in on them in a couple of days. But then when you’re stressed, they’re all like. ‘I just have to tell you something. Wait my thing is more important. Listen, listen to me…
… What’s the thing Robin Hood keeps his arrows in? A quiber?’
And you feel like exploding in rage because to be honest you never really gave a shit about Robin Hood.

Take a deep breath.

I read a lovely post from Like Real Life. It was so beautiful, and I want to tell everyone stuck in the doldrums with kids to read it. It has the words we need to hear. ‘It will get easier’.

But the truth is, it isn’t easier yet.

We’re caught up in this place where we need to keep giving and giving, and our children are taking and taking. My husband and I barely have the time to breathe. We try to give each other breaks, and sleep-ins. We even stayed up too late on Saturday, watching Eurovision, just to kid ourselves that we too can have a lame-ass adult evening in like our friends.

It is hard when it is always just us. And the kids don’t sleep well enough that a babysitter feels like an option.

It is hard because M has been sick all year. And it is May. And it feels very unfair. For him, really. He’s tired and angry. And I don’t blame him, but we are tired too. And it is hard that it is just us. I’m tired of carrying this burden alone. I’m tired because it feels like such a grey area and so many parents feel this way, of not betraying your child’s right to privacy, and not isolating yourself unduly because you don’t talk about it.

I know we are lucky that it is ‘only’ asthma. But he has been unlucky in that we haven’t been successful in getting it under control since it first appeared just before Christmas. It has been two steps forward, one step back. And every night we lie in bed and listen to him cough and cough and cough.

Take a deep breath.

Maybe I’m saying something now, because we feel like we are finally making real progress with a new medication. But it is too early to say for sure. We’ve thought that before.

Maybe I’m saying something because I know so many people who struggle behind their closed doors. We only see them open it that tiny chink. My daughter’s struggling to settle in at school. My son has been diagnosed with autism. My husband finished his chemotherapy treatment yesterday. And we console, and condole and celebrate. And we don’t think about all the tears in private. All the worrying about whether it is normal to feel like this or not. All the lying awake in the dark, dark night, stressed and alone.

And yes, it does get better.

But sometimes there is no getting better. Sometimes problems won’t go away. We just have to learn to live with them.

We have to make space in our already cramped, complicated lives. We have to give and give and give some more.

So to all the parents, and people, and carers who are giving and giving and giving.

To everyone who finds themselves adrift at sea.

Take a deep breath.

You’re not alone.

I hope your seas are tranquil soon.

Rain fall from concrete coloured skies

We left hospital in a taxi. My husband held our newborn daughter. As we drove I noticed the trees and hedges on the roadside were out in newly unfurled leaf. I commented and the taxi driver asked if I’d been in hospital long.

 A lifetime.

The seasons here are dominated by the light, by the duration of the day. Winter is dark and grey. You leave the house in the dark. You come home in the dark. Even when the sun is out, it sits so low on the sky it has no warmth. Most of winter the cloud is thick and solid grey. The world can seem strangely uniform, especially when it snows, grey-white cloud above grey-white earth, only the vertical sides of buildings to add perspective and colour.

I know there is no truth to it but winters seem to last forever, an eternity of gloom. If you know where to look you can see an orb of light locked behind the cloud. Have faith, it tells you, the sun is still there. Slowly you notice the days are getting longer. Until suddenly they lengthen in leaps of bounds, gaining hours of daylight in only a single week.

regnbueAfter the long gestational winter I missed last spring. Too sore and huge to go out much in the last few weeks of pregnancy. And then too sick and tired at home. My husband took our son for long walks while I huddled at home, feeding on the couch. It was summer before I noticed. I had worried that the long, long days would interfere with my ability to go back to sleep after night feeds. I needn’t have worried. I was too exhausted to notice.

The days get shorter as quickly as they get long. The closer to the poles you are the longer sunrise and sunsets last. I remember last autumn as being full of coloured skies, lighting us in that beautiful golden sunset glow. Green and gold faded. Frost began to nip the air. It became hard to get out. Hard to get to the shops to buy the snowsuits, the hats, the mittens for two growing children. I bought it all at the last minute as winter settled in and I could avoid the shopping no longer.

In Canberra where our son was born I would take him for walks to fill up our days. In winter the nights drop below zero, but temperatures can rise 20 degrees or so during the day; perfectly pleasant for an afternoon walk. In summer I would go for a walk first thing in the morning, before the heat would drive us inside for the rest of the day. At first he would just sit in his pram. Then the walks got shorter, but took longer as he began to toddle. We lived near some wetlands, so there was always something to see, ducks on the pond or cockatoos and galahs in the eucalyptus. Rocks on the shore to pick up and examine. Ants marching across the pavement. ‘Outside’ was one of his first and favourite words.

The sky was always blue. All except for the storms. When it rains it pours, and the wetlands flooded. Thunder and lightning filled the sky. Maybe it is a trick of memory, but the storms never seem to last long. The rain washed itself away. Living a world clean and soaked and glistening as the sun returned.

Last winter it was hard to find the energy to get out. Hard to spend any length of time in the great outdoors. My daughter and I would venture out for the necessary trips: daycare for her older brother, shopping if I needed too. Otherwise it was easiest to stay in the artificially lit indoors. The walls of our house providing us with warmth and safety. We were insulated; isolated.

Slowly, imperceptibly the days got longer. The light grew brighter. The sun rose on the horizon; lateral light that shines directly into your eyes.

First the crocuses popped up through the soil.

They’ve been replaced with bluebells, and the daffodils are beginning to flower.

My daughter’s eyes are opening to the world around her. She looks past her mother, father and brother. She goes to the glass back door. Presses her face and hands against it. Her eyes ask the question she does not have words for. The door opens and as she pads out, fresh air gusts in.

I don’t spend so long on the couch now. We breastfeed just once a day, in the evening. The other night she was tired, sick and hungry. So we just sat, we two, and it felt bittersweet knowing that this, at times resented, part of my life is about to draw to a close. She fed herself to sleep. And lay in my arms much as she did as a newborn, soft and fat and milky.

I carried her into her bedroom. I kissed her cheek and lay down my baby. Her eyes flicked open and I thought she would wake. But she only stretched, rolled over and fell back asleep. A little girl sleeping in her cot.

Every day with a small child is liminal. You are always on the cusp of change.

Soon the trees will be green again.

Only one half of him slept at a time. The other head was always awake

It’s 1am, or 2am, or perhaps 4am. I hear footsteps, or coughing, or crying. I want to bury my head in my pillow. Why can’t you just sleep? Either of you.

It’s 5pm. My son is asking to watch TV. I don’t want him to watch TV all evening, but I need to get our tea ready. I cave and switch the TV on. At least one of you is happy. My daughter crawls around under my feet, whining to be picked up. I know what you want but I can’t hold you all the time. I just want to be able to drain the pot of boiling water and pasta without worrying about lifting it with a baby underfoot. That’s obviously a bad idea, can’t you just give me one minute to finish a job?

It’s 11am, I’m trying to read to them both. Providing quality, enriching experience. My son is happy enough. As long as he gets to choose the book. And where we sit. And as long as his sister doesn’t chew the book. But luckily she’s crawled off. Somehow she’s found paper (again) on the floor and is eating it.

It’s 3pm. My son and I stand at opposite ends of the living room, I’m trying to follow his complicated instructions. I’m not doing it right. He flings his arms wildly, his whole body full of frustration. I have no idea what this stupid game is about or what I am doing wrong. His sister sits in the middle of the floor, bemused.
I understand what I’m meant to say

‘How far is it?’ I yell
‘ten past three centimetres’ Is his gleeful reply ‘Now swim like this to me’ He wriggles.
So I copy his wriggle, swimming across the floor to him. He laughs. His sister laughs too, and claps her hands in delight. Suddenly there is nothing more important than wriggling across the room and laughing with my children.

It’s 11am. He chooses The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He finally stays in one place and his sister crawls back over to stick fingers in the holes. When I lift her onto my lap too, she grabs my hair and pulls my face to hers rubbing her mouth on my cheek in her gross but very adorable gesture of affection.

It’s 5pm. My son’s favourite TV programme is on; the one where the presenter Rosa bakes cakes with children to surprise their loved ones with. He turns to me
‘We could fly to New Zealand and sneak into Grandad’s house and find out what he likes, and then bake him a cake with his favourite colours.’
His sister is still whining. I look down into her big blue eyes, and marvel once again that I managed to produce two blue eyed children. I know she’s hungry. Perhaps she knows after I move metal objects around on the stovetop food will be presented. But she doesn’t know it is a necessary part of the process yet. I pick her up and she snuggles against me.
‘Grandad would love a cake’ I say.

There is a character in the Doctor Doolittle novels, the Pushmi-pullyu. It’s so long since I’ve read the books I don’t remember much other than the name and some troublingly racist colonial attitudes that mean I might not urge the kids to read this one. But I love the name. It is a name that deserves a life of its own. It is a word that sums up how I so often feel when I am surrounded by the needs of my small children.

They push me. They push me when I am tired and stressed. When the days are long. And miraculously the nights are even longer. The push me when the amount of rest I get is dictated not by my own body, but by the needs of two small dependent children. And sometimes I want to say ‘enough!’

It can feel like the world expects us to have children that behave every minute, or for us to be enjoying every minute. Instead of just enjoying the ones that are actually enjoyable. It can be easy to feel despondent when your child is the one misbehaving, eating-pickily, or refusing to put their socks on. We forget no parent ever has had a child that did exactly what they were told, every time, without argument. So we joke about being ‘bad’ parents.

This is how I know I’m not really a ‘bad parent’.

Because every time they have pushed me to the edge. Every time I swear under my breath. Every time I snap and take away a toy just so I can get them to listen. Every time I lean my head against the door frame for a split second thinking they might just magically go to sleep in that pause. All of those are not the summation of my parenting, because every time, in the end, I open the door and I hold them.

I don’t pretend to be perfect. Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I see another Janet-bloody-Lansbury article. I spend half my days torn between what needs to get done, and what my children want right now. I can feel pushed and pulled in a dozen directions at once. And I have to remind myself to stop. That even if I yell sometimes, or distract them with TV, or the floor is covered in books and toys, it’s ok. Because the house is clean enough, my children are fed, my children are loved.

When it is good it can be wonderful. When both my children laugh it is the best feeling. Watching my son push my daughter on a swing while she laughed last weekend felt like the highlight of my life. A highlight. Because life is not like that all the time. Never. Nobody’s. So when it’s tough I just have to breathe, and remind myself ‘pushmi-pullyu’. We’ll be on an upward swing again soon enough.

It’s 1am, or 2am or perhaps 4am. I want to bury my head in my pillow, but I don’t. I sit on my son’s bed and stroke his hair. Or I rock my daughter in my arms. In the dark we sway together. To and fro. To and fro. To and fro.