A celebration of parenting with Katrina Roe

A birthday, a christening and a touch of sadness…

Peppa PigWow, it’s been so long since I’ve blogged that I’ve forgotten how to get around wordpress!  The last few months have been busy, exciting and tiring as my husband and I have settled into new jobs, with me returning to work for the first time since having Miss Molly 2 years ago!  We celebrated Molly’s birthday on the weekend with a little Peppa Pig party in the park, the weather appropriately ensuring there were lots of real life muddy puddles to go with the muddy puddle biscuits and cupcakes!  Phew!

But of course, between working, kids and piles of washing, there is still a writer inside me, trying to escape.  In the last few months I have written a new short story (Tea and Sympathy) a new picture book text (Lilly’s Balloon) and  a piece of serious poetry (Missed).  All these works seem to be about loss and grief in one form or another, but they are mostly hopeful as well.  In different ways, we’ve all been slowly moving from a period of grief to a period of sad acceptance over losing baby Alexander back in late March.  He is never far from our thoughts.

Last weekend we also celebrated my niece, Lilly’s christening.  Lilly was born just a few days before we lost our Alexander and she is now 8 months old, so it was a very real measure of the passing of time, and not without some sadness for our little family.  What a wonderfully happy occasion it would have been if we were also holding our little three month old, Alexander, while celebrating Molly’s second birthday and Lilly’s christening with our family last weekend.  Instead, the sadness was always just a little below the surface for us.

But I am also looking forward to Molly’s third Christmas.  This will probably be the first time she can meaningfully share in the joy of Christmas with the other kids.  I’m also excited about the prospect of catching up with some old friends in the Riverina when we head west for our Christmas celebrations.  All friends are precious, but there is something wonderful about the friendships that endure from childhood.  Distant, hazy, memories of past Christmases and childhood birthdays, ham and heat, ice cream and water fights, imbue our adult get-togethers with a sense of nostaglia and completeness (in my mind anyway!)  Seeing the next generation of kids create precious memories with the children of old friends and family is something I can’t help but cherish.

If you’re in Sydney before Christmas, I hope you might consider popping down to the Meet the Author Christmas Book Market in Ryde on Thursday Dec 5.  It’s a particular passion of mine to see authors supporting each other’s work and getting good books into the hands of readers.  Slowly we are forging a little community of Christian writers in Sydney and lifting the standard of professionalism.  Together we can hopefully see our work reaching further afield and finding the people who can be blessed by it.  At Christmas particularly, I’m hopeful that we can give gifts that sustain, nourish and uplift, rather than consuming goods that leave us feeling bloated on the excesses of a materialistic, consumerist culture.  Blah!

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A week of new beginnings

Australia has a new Prime Minister!   Tony Abbott.

Love him or hate him, (and judging by the comments on facebook, a lot of people hate him!) the Australian people made it pretty clear that they wanted a change of government.  The massive swings to the Coalition and the drop of support for the Greens is, in my view, less about policy and more a reflection of the fact that Australians want their government to govern, rather than to spend their time trying to appease the Greens and a couple of key Independents, just so they can remain in office.

It’s been a week of new beginnings in my house too.  I started a new job last Monday, the day after Father’s Day.  The start date was significant for me, because earlier in the year we were expecting a baby, our little boy Alexander, lost to us at four months, back in March.  His due date was officially August 31, but as both my little girls arrived the day after their due date, I was expecting him on September 1, Father’s Day.

Those of you who regularly read my blog will know that Alexander was not the first baby I’ve lost.  He was my 9th pregnancy and I have two children.  From past experience, I know the weeks surrounding the due date are always tough.  Even if my mind doesn’t consciously remember, my body does.  In the weeks before the due date, I will suddenly start having dreams about pregnancy or breast feeding or trying to hold a baby that keeps slipping out of my arms.  Once I dreamed that the baby was actually still alive when it was taken away.  Sometimes, in a strange moment of physical de ja vu, I will experience the sensations of being pregnant , in the way that those who have lost an arm or a leg can experience phantom sensations or pain.

So when I was offered a job starting the day after my baby would have been born, I knew I needed to seize my chance to have a new beginning.  It wasn’t an easy week.  There were times when I would have liked to curl up in a ball and cry my eyes out.  Thankfully, I have one or two friends who remembered, and who phoned or messaged me in the past few weeks to say they were thinking of me.  At times, my head was completely back in March.  But I was also pathetically grateful to have something meaningful to do this week.  Starting a radio show the week before a federal election is an opportunity I could never take for granted.

It wasn’t a coincidence that on my first day in the job, I sat down to talk face-to-face with an Iranian Christian assylum seeker who came to Australia (shock horror!) by boat from Jakarta.  And yes, he drove to the studio on the M4, which might explain the terrible traffic that day.  😉

My Mum’s family came to Australia by boat.  Rev Ridgeway Newland, his second wife and eight children arrived on the Sir Charles Forbes back in 1839.  They were congregationalists, fleeing religious persecution in England and wanting to start a new church in Australia.  My Dad’s family came by boat too.  They migrated to Tasmania in the years after the Second World War because my grandfather had itchy feet and couldn’t settle back into life in post-war Edinburgh.

I am so grateful to my ancestors, who risked everything when they boarded a boat and travelled half-way around the world to give a better life to their children.

Sometimes you just need a new beginning… Whether you’re an Iranian Christian whose home has been raided, a traumatised soldier, a marginalised Reverend… or even a grieving Mum.

The Australian people chose a new PM on the weekend.  Even though I don’t agree with all Tony Abbott’s policies, I’m willing to give the guy a chance.

Maybe it’s just time for a new beginning…

Returning to Work

This is my last week as a full-time, stay-at-home Mum!

On Monday I am starting back at work, for the first time since having my second bub.

Obviously there will be some women who will choose not to return to work at all, who prefer to be a full-time, stay-at-home Mum forever.  My mother was a full-time mum, and I’ve certainly given it a go. I had three-and-a-half years at home with my first child and almost two years with my second child, but it’s not for everyone.  At some stage, most of us will look at returning to work.

How do you know when it’s the right time to return to work?

I think this is one of the areas where new mums often find that reality is a little bit different to what they might have expected.  I’ve seen women who were determined to be back at work after three or six months totally change their mind when they realise how much they love being at home with their baby.  And I’ve also seen women who thought they’d never go back to work finding that they go totally stir-crazy at home.  But for most of us, there comes a time when we need a bit more stimulation (or income!) and if you’re in that position, then going back to work might actually help you be a happier, better Mum.

What about childcare?  There are so many different types, how do you choose between them?

Long day care, occasional care, family day care, getting a babysitter at home – they’ve all got pros and cons, depending on the age of the child, what kind of hours you need and what’s available in your area.  The good thing about long day care is that it’s very flexible with pick-up and drop-off times and they’re always open, but you might also end up paying for hours you don’t use.  I’ve gone more with family and babysitters and just one day of daycare at this stage, because I want Molly to have some quiet days at home, one-on-one.  But for older children, who are looking for more socialisation and structured activities, daycare or pre-school might be better.

 You often hear Mum’s talking about mother-guilt, but if I think there can be lots of positives about Mum working.

I’m really happy for my girls to grow up knowing they have choices about career and motherhood and knowing that both can be rewarding in different ways.  I want them to see that women can make a positive contribution inside and outside the home.  There are still many places in the world where girls don’t have access to the education and opportunities that boys have. I also want them to learn that there are different seasons in life, good times, tough times, times to take it slowly, times to ramp things up and meet new challenges.

One of the things I’m really excited about for Molly is that she’s going to have some wonderful new role models in her life.  For the past two years, she’s spent most of her time just with me, which has been lovely, but now she’s going to have more time with Daddy in the mornings, more time with her Aunties and also a couple of days a week with some really wonderful, experienced, caring Christian women who are going to babysit her while I’m working.  I’m excited that Molly is going to learn different ways of doing things and seeing things from them, and that she’ll have these people building into her life, loving her, praying for her and spending time with her.   I’m also really looking forward to coming home to big cuddles and hearing all about their adventures at the end of the day!

Lost in a good book

I know that purveyors of parenting wisdom always say that the hallmark of good parenting is consistency, consistency, consistency, but this week I decided, on a whim, to let my eldest daughter break one of our family rules.  That rule is ‘no reading at the table’.  Yesterday morning I was eating my porridge when I looked up to see Caillie’s head buried in a book, while her oats sat completely neglected in their bowl.  She was totaImagelly absorbed in a Billie B. Brown book.  For those who aren’t familiar with Billie B. Brown, they’re really short chapter books, designed specifically to help early readers transition into independent reading.
 
Why did I bend the rules on this occasion?
 
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Birdy sit down, uninterrupted and read a book with chapters from cover to cover.  When kids first learn to read they’ll often choose picture books they already know, or they’ll read bits then skip ahead, trying to glean tidbits of information about the story from the combination of key words and pictures.  But this was the first time I’ve seen Birdy read a longer format book without stopping, without needing help or without skipping ahead to work out what happens.  And it just happened to be on the first day of BOOK WEEK!
 
I know it’s tempting to think that once a child can read to themselves, we can just hand over the reigns and leave them to it, but I think it’s important to continue reading aloud with your child.  It’s a lovely treat to be read to.  It’s the quality time spent together, the physical closeness, the soothing quality of listening to the familiar comfort of the parent’s voice.  But having Mum and Dad continuing to read aloud also enables the child to tackle a wider range of material and read at different levels.
 
For example, on her own, Birdy can only read picture books or short chapter books, but together we’ve been reading the latest Tania Abbey adventure by Penny Reeve, called More than a Mouse.  That book is probably aimed at a 9 or 10 year old.  One of the characters in the story is involved in a really serious car accident.  If a six year old was reading that content in their own head, it would be way too heavy, but when we read it together and we talk it through, she can handle it.

One of the challenges of this new phase of independent reading is that parents need to be aware of exactly what their kids are reading.  Especially once your kids get into upper primary and early high school, there can be some very challenging material in kids’ books.  But unlike movies, there’s no rating system to indicate the content. So just as you wouldn’t put on a movie without knowing anything about it, you need to be continuing to read with your child or reading what they’re reading so you’re aware of some of the issues they might be coming across in books.  All of us who are parents need to be children’s literature experts as well… as if we don’t have enough pressure on us already!

Stickers, homework and a job well done

In my last post I talked about my daughter’s athletics carnival.

That day she came home with a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race’.  Whoever is making those stickers is making a fortune because everybody there had one.  There was no ribbon for getting third in the longjump, but every kid got a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race.’

I realise that this is designed to put the emphasis on participation, rather than winning.  But I am not sure why we feel we have to reward kids for doing something that everybody has to do anyway.  We’ve created a culture where kids won’t do anything without being rewarded, even if that reward is just a sticker or our praise.  The obvious problem with that is that it creates a sense of entitlement, where they’re always looking for a reward, rather than a sense of achievement.  But it can also mean that they’re reluctant to try something they’re not so good at, because they’re looking for the gold star, rather than a chance to learn something.

Birdy has a natural ability for Maths, and she was put in a Maths group with some very bright kids.  But ever since she heard that her report card last year said she was ‘outstanding’ at Maths, she’s been trying to convince us that she’s hopeless at it, that it’s too hard, and that she needs to go down into a lower Maths group.
I have a bad mum confession to make, we didn’t get Caillie’s maths homework done last week.  No excuse, we just didn’t get to it.  So last night I said ‘You’ve got to do last week’s homework before we start this weeks.’  ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘but there’s no point, I won’t be able to get it marked.’  So I explained to her that the point of doing maths homework isn’t just to get the smiley face and the sticker, you’re actually meant to learn the stuff.  At which point she said it was too hard and she couldn’t do it.  So I sat down with her to supervise and when she finished I said, ‘See that wasn’t too hard’.  ‘Yes it was, it was way too complicated’.  And I said, ‘But you got every question right… How can it be too hard if you got every single question right?’.  Well, the reason she thought it was too hard was because she actually had to work out the answer.  She didn’t just know it immediately.  She’s used to it being easy and that makes her feel clever.  Hence she wants to go into a lower Maths group, so she can just know all the answers and feel like she’s clever.  And that’s the problem with giving kids gold stars all the time, that feeling is addictive.  They become more concerned with the reward, or the ‘clever feeling’ they get from the reward, than the learning outcome.
I’m a bit of a slave driver when I supervise homework.  I’m always saying, ‘Is that your best work?’. ‘That’s too messy, rub that out and do it again’.  But that’s because I’m a big believer in the idea that the best reward is the satisfaction of a job well done.  I would rather do half of it properly, than race through just to finish.  So the only reward Caillie gets from me is, ‘Good on you, you’ve finished it,’ or ‘That’s enough, you’ve worked well.’  But you know what, after we finished the exercise, and I pointed out that she got all those hard questions right, I told her it was time for a bath, and you’ll never believe what she said:  ‘Oh, No, mum!  Do I have to?  I want to do more homework!’

The Making of a Champion

Birdy getting her third place in the long jump.

Birdy getting her third place in the long jump.

Firstly, apologies for the hiatus in posting.  I’ve had a few computer problems lately, but they’re sorted now!

My daughter had her very first athletics carnival a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t expecting great things – she came fifth out of seven in her heat – but she did pick up a third in the long jump.  We were all pretty stoked with that.  There are some families for whom the swimming carnival and the athletics carnival are the highlight of their calendar. They always come back laden with ribbons and trophys.  For others, there’s the ever-present fear of being the last kid in the pool, or being left behind drowning while everyone else is already enjoying the sausage sizzle..

I was very average at athletics.  I used to do okay in the long distance races, but with swimming I’m sure I had lead weights in my legs.  My husband, however, was a natural swimmer.  I like to joke that it’s because he’s less highly evolved; he has extra-long Neanderthal arms. I’m not too fussed about whether my kids win races or not, but I think it’s good to get into the spirit of these days, because they can be a lot of fun.  However, recently I’ve noticed that kids’ sport seems to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

I heard two very different stories from friends on Facebook recently. One friend was threatened by a fellow parent for defending the referee, who was a 13 year old boy.  A parent got quite aggro at the boy, so naturally my friend was sticking up for him.  Next thing you know, the Dad wanted to fight him over it.

On the other end of the spectrum another friend posted this beautiful story.  He wrote it so aptly that I thought I’d just quote him verbatim.

“We were at Jordan’s athletics day today and he’d just finished the 800m. He’s knackered and we’re having a chat when we spot a little fella in the next heat who’s barely left the start line when everyone else has already taken the first corner. He’s totally out of his depth – but he’s turned up and he’s having a crack.

By the 400m mark he’s been lapped by nearly everyone and he soon finds himself the only one on the track. A teacher asks over the PA for people to “please stay off the track because we still have a competitor in the race”.

You can see he’s really struggling now and he starts walking down the back straight – but he’s not giving up!! What a champ!

And then… out of the blue, up pops our Jordan. (8yrs old) He walks with this kid all the way down the back straight and into the final corner where he suddenly gets a jog on. We watch as Jordan cuts across the field and stands at the finish line with stacks of other kids who are cheering like this kid’s coming in for the gold medal.

They’re chanting his name as he crosses the finish line and everyone’s pumped!  Such an awesome moment! Everyone had massive smiles on their faces…

Except us.

We’re standing there trying to hide the tears in our eyes over what we’d just seen our little man do. What a champ. We couldn’t be prouder.”

Isn’t that beautiful?  Isn’t it amazing how having just one person come alongside him made all the difference?

Better than coming home laden with trophies is coming home blessed by a heart full of kindness.  And better than winning a ribbon is realising what makes a real champion – the determination to keep going when others would have packed up and gone home.

Nurturing compassion

Sponsor letter

So the royal baby has finally arrived!  Kate and William gave birth to a baby boy this morning, who weighed 3.8 kg or 8 pounds 6.  I’m not going to have any trouble remembering the weight because that’s exactly the weight of my first child.  I’m sure every parent remembers how wonderful, scary and amazing it is to give birth to your first child.  Nothing really compares to that.  So it’s lovely to celebrate with the royal couple as they enjoy their little miracle.  But it’s also amazing that this particular child has come into the world, so welcomed, so loved and so showered with privilege.

By contrast there are still so many children in the world who lack the basics in life – good food, clean water, an education.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Tony Campolo speak on what was his last ever trip to Australia.  He was out here for Compassion Australia, so I knew that his talk would focus on child sponsorship, but I was keen to hear him beause I also knew he would be lively, entertaining and spiritually challenging.  Tony Campolo is a great storyteller and has always spoken out with great conviction on behalf of the marginilised and voiceless, including children, which is a cause dear to my heart.

The main thing I learned is that we’ve made a lot of progress in recent decades and child sponsorship has been an important part of that.  Just a few decades ago, 45,000 children died of poverty related causes in one night, now that figure is down to 23 000.  Almost halved.  So that’s encouraging.  Sponsoring a child really does make a difference to those children and their communities.  But I think it also has a really positive impact on the person who does the sponsoring.

Our sponsor child is a little girl called Elda who lives with her family in the province of Papua in Indonesia.  We deliberately chose a girl who is roughly the same age as Birdy to try to encourage a friendship between them.  We also chose a child who lives in a country that my husband and I have visited to make it more real for her.  We can show her photos and talk about some of their customs.  We’ve also made a conscious effort to talk about Elda and pray for her. 

sponsor letter 2It’s really only now, after about 3 or 4 years of exchanging letters, that we’re starting to see a friendship develop between the two girls.  Just the other night Caillie drew a picture of her and Elda meeting for the first time.  In the picture, the two girls were holding hands and my husband and I were quite touched by that.

Part of the value of child sponsorship is that it helps Aussie kids to develop a sense of compassionalthough in our case it hasn’t come easily!  We’ve really had to work on it.  When we first started sponsoring her, I remember Birdy saying that she didn’t like her dress!  Kids here just have so much that its very hard for them to understand poverty.  But showing care for someone outside of your day-to-day world shows your kids that that you don’t just love them, you also care about the wider world.  Love is bigger than geography or proximity.

Compassion have recently started sending a once a year letter from project staff to give sponsors a bit more information about the work they’re doing on the ground.  One of the things our project manager said was that when they show care for the children, when they take an interest in a child’s welfare, health, education and spiritual growth, the parents start to take better care of their children too.  They see someone else caring for their child and they start to see that child as more valuable.

So if you are sponsoring a child, be encouraged.  You’re not only providing for their needs, you’re also helping to create a culture where children are cherished and nutured and invested in.  Would it be wonderful if every child born into the world was as welcome, loved, safe and well-provided for as the royal baby?

Are you excited about the royal baby?  Does your family sponsor a child?  Have your children started to take an interest in or show concern for the sponsored child?

Where is the Green Sheep?

Molly Green Sheep 2

We’ve recently been away visiting family in the country.  Can I just say there is no better family holiday entertainment than going to stay in the country and discovering there’s a real live mouse in the house!  My little city kids thought that was very exciting.  When Granny said she’d put out a mouse trap, Henry (my 3 year old nephew) picked up the board game Mouse Trap and gave it to Granny to catch the mouse with.  Hilarious!

Every time we go away, I’m absolutely amazed at how much stuff you need to go on holidays with kids.  At least Birdy packs for herself now, but she always wants to take a ridiculous amount of toys.  Whereas all Molly needs to keep herself occupied is a baby doll and a copy of Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox.  We did a six hour car trip from Dubbo to Darlington Point (near Griffith) and Molly was quite happy reading Where is the Green Sheep? to herself for most of that time.

Is there any child in Australia who doesn’t have a copy of that book?  

When Birdy was born we were given four copies of it, and we gave two away which I’m regretting because the other copies are now so worn out.  When I was a kid, I think every parent knew off by heart the words, “Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter…”  Or this one: “In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.  Then one Sunday morning, the warm sun came up and – pop! – out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.”  These days I think every parent knows the words, “Here is the blue sheep, here is the red sheep, here is the bath sheep and here is the bed sheep.  But where is the green sheep?” It’s almost become a developmental phase that between the ages of one and three children become obsessed with that book.

What is it about that book?  Why do toddlers love it so much?

I think it’s the perfect combination of the everyday and the absurd.  It’s full of things that even babies recognise – the sun, the rain, a car, a train – and yet the pictures are also portraying something outrageous, like a sheep dancing around a lamp stand with an umbrella in the rain.  Yet the pictures are so simple and iconic that even Molly at eighteen months will point to the umbrella and say “ella”.

The first time I read this book, I found it very strange and I wasn’t the only one.  I was a bit surprised to read Mem Fox using nouns as adjectives.  Lines like ‘Here is the bath sheep’ are a little grating at first, because we’ d normally say ‘Here is a sheep having a bath’, or ‘Here’s a sheep in the bath’.  And yet somehow it really is perfect for little kids.  The other day I discovered that it won the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award in 2005.  I can see why.  It is literally teaching my daughter to speak.  She now points to the moon and says ‘moo’ and at the star and says ‘ta’.  So even though we might get a little bit sick of reading the same book over and over and over again, it is actually the best way to encourage speech and literacy in little ones.  Of course, once they get older, it’s good to read more widely, but for a one-year-old all you really need are three or four copies of Where is the Green Sheep?

Where is the Green Sheep

(PS.  If you’re looking for other great books to encourage your toddler’s speech development, why not check out the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year 2013 shortlist and past winners.)

Have your children enjoyed Where is the Green Sheep and made you read it over and over again?  What do you think of it?

Dancing without the stars

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My daughter had her first major dancing concert this week.  She does highland dancing, but it’s not just the traditional highland flings and bagpipes.  This concert included contemporary dance, hip-hop fused highland, and a very fun Celtic Bollywood Extravaganza, which my daughter was part of.

Now I realise highland dancing is a bit of an unusual choice, but there is a good reason behind it.

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My Dad’s originally from Scotland, so that’s part of it, but the main issue for me was wanting to find a form of dancing that was active and fun, but also conducive to a healthy body image.  You don’t have to be a stick insect to do highland.  Too often you see little girls in skimpy outfits, plastered with makeup, doing really inappropriate moves to really inappropriate music.

It’s like they’re 6 going on 16. 

I remember taking Caillie to a toddler dance class at the church around the corner and they were playing stuff like “I’m too sexy!”  That didn’t last long!  There’s a lot of reasearch now suggesting that little girls are growing up too fast, wanting to wear make-up, getting conerned about their appearance and body image, so I’m really grateful to have found a healthy, fun dance school for my girls, where the costumes aren’t too revealing and there are lots of positive role models among the teenagers.

Psychotherapist Collett Smart once told me that it was important for kids to have hobbies outside of school so they have a range of role models beyond just their school peers.  I’m certainly seeing the wisdom in that as I see my daughter starting to look up to some of the older girls there.  As a mother of girls, I’m also really aware that they take a lot of their cues from us.  So we have to take a good hard look at ourselves.  If we’re always dieting or trying to change ourselves then how can we tell our girls that they’re beautiful as they are?  In a culture that’s becoming obsessed with physical perfection, how far is too far?

I’m okay with decorating, but not with trying to change how I’m made.  That’s where I draw the line in the sand.  So wearing nice clothes, jewellery, nailpolish, and a bit of make-up is just decorating, but doing things to try to change the way I am made is not okay.  So for me, that rules out fake anything, crash dieting, botox, collagen injections, cosmetic surgery, anything in which we’re trying to alter our bodies or unrealistically reverse the ageing process, because that says we’re not good enough as we are.  Exactly where we draw that line will be different for everyone, but for me it’s about accepting that we come in different shapes and sizes and that we don’t have to strive for physical perfection.

Social media has a lot to answer for in this area.  I recently attended a talk by Justine Toh from the Centre for Public Christianity where she talked about how the i-generation is using social media to create their own image.  Every time we post a glamorous selfie, or un-tag ourselves in an unflattering photo, we’re building this culture of perfection, which is causing our young girls to feel inadequate.  (Obviously some people do need to look professional on facebook – I’m not saying we should all be trogs!)  One time I got sick of all the glamorous profile pics you see on facebook, so I took a photo of myself with no make-up – I hadn’t even brushed my hair – it was just me how I actually look most of the time.  Anyway my husband saw the photo on facebook, put a filter on it on his i-pad and emailed it to me, as a favour.  And it did look better, but I was like “Noooo.”  I deliberately wanted a photo that’s completely natural.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA So let’s resist the culture of perfection, people!  

Let’s teach our girls how to deconstruct those enhanced images they see on the bus stop billboards and show our girls that we’re happy with ourselves, just as we are.   Then maybe they’ll have a chance of being happy with themselves too.

Birthdays, Christmas and a perfect little present

When I was in primary school, a friend gave me an autograph book.  I thought it was great fun to get all my friends and family to sign it and write a little message.  Most of them were silly rhymes or jokes, but there was one message I still remember.  It was from my Dad.  He wrote, “To my second red-headed daughter and nicest Christmas present I’ve ever had.  Love Dad.”  He was referring to the fact that I came home from hospital on Christmas Day.

Something about those words from my father spoke very powerfully into my young heart.

I still find it hard to understand exactly why that message was so precious to me.

Maybe it was simply because they were words of affirmation that were written down for me to keep. 

Written words endure.  They carry the weight of intention.  We know that the person wrote them deliberately, so they somehow mean more.  We have evidence of being loved, special, cherished.

Perhaps it was the idea of being somebody’s gift that resonated with me.  And not just any gift, but a Christmas gift!  To a child, Christmas presents are really exciting.  And not just any old Christmas gift, but the nicest one ever?  Really?  Could that be true?

My Dad is very much a present person.  He would always buy extravagant gifts for all of us, but especially for my Mum.  Each birthday and Christmas she was showered with expensive lingerie and nice perfume or dresses that cost a week’s wages, even when we couldn’t afford it.  Then she would model the new clothes and we would all join in with admiring comments, while Dad said something appreciative like, “Whackydoo!”  From his actions, it was clear Dad thought that presents were important.  Gift giving is definitely one of his ‘love languages’.  So being called a present by my Dad was a poignant expression of love.

The idea that children are a gift is not a new one.

It dates back to ancient times.  The Hebrew Scriptures say, “Children are a gift from the Lord.  They are a reward from him.”  Harsh words for anyone going through recurrent miscarriage or infertility, but the part about children being a gift, that bit I can relate to.

Last year on my birthday I unexpectedly discovered I was pregnant. 

My one-year-old had just weaned herself and we had plans to go out with friends for karaoke, so for the first time in almost two years I was looking forward to having a few drinks and letting my hair down.  I also knew it was technically possible, but extremely unlikely, that I could have fallen pregnant recently.  Just to rule it out, I did a pregnancy test.  I almost passed out when I saw a feint line appear in the positive window.

For so many women, seeing that line would have been a source of joy – a gift, even.  But for me, pregnancy is scary.  I’ve been pregnant nine times and have two children.  I’ve had far more sad endings than happy ones and some of my experiences have been unusually traumatic.  So when I found out I was pregnant, the overwhelming emotion was one of fear and anxiety, of feeling incredibly vulnerable, while still wanting to be hopeful.

At the time, I didn’t tell my family – I didn’t want them to be anxious for the next twelve weeks.  So I kept my feelings to myself and went about my day as if nothing had happened.  I had lunch with my parents, I went out as planned but drank mineral water – (not what you need for karaoke!) – and I made a passable show of trying to be relaxed, while on the inside I was stressing about how I would get my hands on the specialist medications I needed before the looming Christmas break.

In spite of my worries, the pregnancy went smoothly.  At thirteen weeks, we had a very thorough scan in which we were told that the pregnancy could now be considered low risk.  I started to believe we were having another baby.  I started to change my plans for the New Year and make new ones around the baby.  I started picturing my family with three kids and wondering how on earth I would get dinner cooked every evening with my husband on night shift and a toddler and a newborn hanging off me.  I started telling my friends we were expecting again.  Then at a routine check-up, just before sixteen weeks, there was no heartbeat.  Later that night, I was giving birth.  And for a few minutes, there was a tiny, purple, perfect little boy, wrapped up in a blanket on my bed.  And then he was gone.

Lost.

“I lost a baby.”

So here’s the thing.  I don’t want Alexander’s life just to be an accident.  A mistake.  A regret. 

When I think or speak of Alexander, I think or speak of loss.  But when I think or speak of my other, living, children, I think of them as a gift.  When really the only difference is the amount of time I got to keep them for.  If Caillie or Molly died tomorrow, I hope that I would still consider their lives to have been a gift to me.  So I hope that one day I can see Alexander like that too; as a precious gift, not just as a loss, because every baby deserves to loved, special, cherished.

Right now, it still hurts too much, but one day I hope I can write:

“To Alexander, my second son and the best birthday present I ever had…”


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