Molly said her very first words this week. Dad dad dad dad dad dad.
I let him have it. It was a one horse race.
This time I was even egging her on.
Caillie’s first word was Mum, but I had to work very hard for it. I fully primed her. At every opportunity I was mouthing Mum in front of her face. Even then she only ever said it in a whingy voice, when she wanted to be fed. Mummmma. Mummmma. Whereas Dad always comes out in that happy sing song voice – Dada Dada. Daddaddaddaddadaaaaa. Like it’s just all fun and games when Dad is around.
There’s something truly exciting about those very first words.
It’s like they’re turning into a human for the first time. I mean you know that a baby is human but they could almost just be an animal. Before they can talk, they are really functioning purely on instinct, they cry when they’re cold or hungry or have a dirty nappy, and when they laugh they have no idea why they’re laughing. It’s an instinctive laugh and it’s beautiful but it doesn’t always make sense. You wonder what is going on in their little brains.
Already there have been little moments – fleeting moments – of consciousness emerging.
Molly is starting to work out that she can operate her hands and her feet. She’s grabbed at a spoon, sideswiped an icecream cone. She’s had a good look at her reflection in a mirror and you can see she’s thinking about it. She’s turned her head when I’ve called her name. She’s wriggled in delight when a song she knows comes on the radio. These are just little signs that the person in there is coming out.
I’m convinced that Molly is going to be a sociable person. It’s true that she’s been dragged around to more than her fair share of weddings, but it’s not just that. She’s also happy to be held by anyone. And it’s not just that she tolerates it, she snuggles into them, she smiles at them, she makes them feel that she really likes them. It’s like it’s her sole job in life to go around spreading joy. We took Molly out to lunch in the city the other day and she made friends everywhere she went. Even people who wanted to be grumpy couldn’t help themselves smiling at her!
Molly’s first words reminded me that there are two things that make being a parent really exciting.
The first is seeing your baby learn everything from scratch and do everything for the first time. Seeing them start to understand what’s you’re saying and what’s going on around them, hearing them learn to speak, watching them take their first steps. I really feel for parents who have to go back to work and who miss out on witnessing those first moments. They’re so precious.
And the other is seeing that little personality start to emerge. It takes a while, but you get these moments when you realise that they are different to you, they have their own interests, gifts and passions, their own way of being, they’re not just a mini-you. And it’s exciting to get to witness that personality being formed right in front of your eyes. I think looking after a baby gets easier the second that you start getting a sense of who they are, that they not just a little parasite attached to your body, there’s actually a person starting to emerge.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that our kids recently demolished our Hills Hoist. Now, where that piece of iconic Australian yard furniture once stood, there’s just a big patch of brown dirt. Whenever I look at it I feel tempted to host a bonfire. Or to quote from The Castle, “I dug another hole. It’s filling up with water.” Both of these images fill me with a uniquely Australian nostalgia for an era that is fading away. I wonder if a backyard will be as much a feature of Australian life for the next generation of children as it was for us.
Apartments can’t be all bad. People in cities all over the world live in them, right? But they need to be accompanied by communal outdoor spaces. I imagine that not having your own garden could be good for fostering community if it forces people out of their own secluded yards into more common spaces, such as parks, gardens, bushland and beaches. Or even just out onto the street for a breath of fresh air. Even so, our cities are changing and I don’t think there has been enough public discussion on whether this is how Australians want to live. In my suburb there is a busy six-lane road that leads into the city. All along this road new mid-rise developments are popping up. In the majority of these developments, there is no land allocated for green space. This has to be fundamentally changing our lifestyle and the way our children will be brought up.
Dick Smith has been vocal on this issue. Last year he was quoted in the Manly Daily as saying, “At the moment in Terrey Hills we have free-range kids that live in houses with backyards. Now what they are going to force on us is battery kids living in high-rises.” According to Tony Hall, author of The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, the Australian backyard is disappearing faster in the outer suburbs where huge homes take up a larger proportion of their land blocks. In inner suburbs, new prestige developments are often incorporating green spaces or waterfront areas into their designs.
But regardless of how much green space is allocated in a development, living in apartments must still limit the access a kid has to the outdoors. Mum still has to get stuff done, so the family can’t spend their entire day roaming the streets or picnicking in communal gardens. And when Mum is busy washing up or cooking or folding laundry, an enclosed, safe yard, in view of the house allows children to play outside or to move between inside and outside spaces while the mundane stuff of life goes on. Outdoor activities aren’t restricted to special supervised trips or limited by how much free-time the parent has available.
I love my backyard. It’s not landscaped, manicured or even very well-maintained but I am hopelessly attached to it. I remember planting every plant in it. I remember all the fun times we’ve had – the barbeques, bonfires and outdoor movie nights. All of my daughter’s five birthdays have been celebrated in that backyard. If we ever get kicked out of our house (we’re only renting) I am going to grieve losing my backyard. We probably should have bought an apartment or town house by now but I can’t imagine my kids growing up without a backyard. I love that when the cousins are over and they’re all getting ratty I can just send them outside and they soon settle down.
In the past few years, I’ve made a real effort to make the backyard a fun and interesting place. Yes there’s all the usual paraphenalia like a swingset, sandpit, fort and trampoline (all picked up second hand!) but I’ve also tried to involve the kids in growing and picking vegetables, tending to plants and enjoying the wildlife like the tawny frogmouth who often sits in the tree outside our kitchen window. I love the way that it’s constantly growing and changing to reflect the changing state of our family. And in a week of rain, a backyard allows you to just pop outside if the sun briefly pokes it’s head out from behind a cloud. Lately with the sunny Sydney days, I’ve enjoyed just peacefully pottering around in the garden while my baby gurgles in the baby swing. For adults, a backyard is a refuge from the madness and pace of our busy lives, a place to be still. For children it’s a safe, contained space where they can climb, play, have adventures and enjoy a little bit of freedom without an adult being always on their heels. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I hope that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same indoor/outdoor Aussie lifestyle we had as kids.
Did you grow up with a backyard? How much did it meant to you? Do your kids have a backyard? Have you ever lived in a city where apartments are the norm? How is the lifestyle different? What are some of the positives of apartment living?
I don’t generally have high expectations for Mother’s Day but this year I had none at all. I was away with my two children and my sister for a weekend wedding, so I knew there was no chance of a sleep-in or the conventional mother’s day breakfast in bed. Instead we went to Porters Cafe in downtown Bathurst for breakfast with the bride and groom and most of the other wedding guests. If I’m going to eat out with children, breakfast is definitely the meal I would opt for. It’s the only time of day you can order toast for your kid without anybody thinking that’s strange! I actually forgot it was Mother’s Day at all. But I know that families all over the country were taking Mum out for breakfast, lunch and dinner as a relaxing “treat”. Ha! Eating out with little kids is rarely relaxing. We’ve had quite a few disasters trying to eat out with kids, but two in particular spring to mind.
The first was when Birdy was almost 2. We were on holidays at Narooma and we wanted a night off from cooking. We went to a well-known Mexican restaurant and ordered nachos for Caillie, thinking that would be a good choice for a child. They brought out a mountain of food, swimming in sour cream and a hundred different sauces, they placed it in front of her and she took one look at it and burst into tears. It was just all too much.
Anyway a few years have passed and these memories were growing slightly dim so we attempted to go out for Mexican again recently with our 5 year old and the baby. The baby was fine, but Birdy spent the entire time sulking, saying that she wanted to go home and refused to even try the food. We were only out for a total of about an hour and the only bit that was relaxing was the walk there and back.
The only time that Birdy has enjoyed eating out has been when we’ve gone to the pub. We’ve taken her to 3 or 4 different pubs and she’s tucked into a steak with great gusto and even tried to order another one. I think she takes after her Dad in that she only wants to eat steak and chips at the pub. And that’s OK every now and then, but you don’t want to be taking your kids to the pub every weekend. The other thing that works for us is breakfast at our local cafe. But eating dinner out has definitely been a challenge.
OK so I’ve had a few disasters, but I have learnt something from that… Here are my tips for eating out successfully with kids.
1. Choose a child friendly location – somewhere with space to run around and where the music’s not too loud. Noisy echoey restaurants with loud music can be overwhelming.
2. Check the menu ahead. Is there a kids menu? A kids Menu is a signal that kids are welcome, but also the food is more likely to be appropriate for children. Both those Mexican places we went to didn’t have a Kids Menu and the food just wasn’t appropriate for small children.
3. Go out early, rather than late so they’re not too tired and hungry. Unfortunately we often decide to eat out precisely because it is getting late and we don’t have anything prepared. That’s not a good time to go out.
4. Give your children some practice by going out for breakfast or brunch in places where the menu isn’t too challenging. Children generally cope better with challenges in the morning.
5. Go for Café’s rather than restaurants – There’s nothing worse than having to bail half way through a meal that you’ve just forked out $150 for. In most cafes, there’s less pressure on the kids to behave perfectly. And they’re less likely to mind if you pull out the colouring in halfway through the meal.
6. Go local and predictable – Little kids like familiar places. So find somewhere you can make your own. Italian is always good. I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who doesn’t like pizza and spaghetti Bolognese. Most of our disasters have been when we’ve been on holidays, somewhere unfamiliar.
We need to remember that children aren’t mini-adults and it’s not realistic to expect them to be. Eating out is a learned skill. Some kids find it difficult and struggle with food that’s different. Don’t expect too much of them. After our last attempt, I came away thinking it might be better to have pizza at home with the kids and save the dining out for when we can get a babysitter. Then everybody’s happy.
Do you enjoy eating out with your kids? Which meals work best for your family? Do you have a favourite restaurant or cafe your children enjoy?
We all have those moments when we feel like a crap parent. For me, the moment was about a week ago. OK, it was technically an Aunty moment, but the point is the same.
My little sister and I were shopping at Birkenhead Point with our combined four children. (Aged 5, 4, 2 and my baby in the pram.) There aren’t too many lifts at Birkenhead Point and one of them is tiny. When it arrived, there were already a couple of prams inside. So I jumped in the lift with the kids, and my sister took the escalator to meet us up at the next level.
When we got out of the lift, my sister said, “Where’s Henry?” Suddenly my brain goes into over drive: “Did I have Henry? Didn’t you have Henry?” “Crap! Where was Henry?”
I rewound the last 30 seconds in my brain and realised what had happened. The lift had gone down before going up. At the bottom level, one of the Mums with a pram was getting out, so everybody shuffled out to make way. Henry must have gotten out of the lift at the bottom floor.
My sister charged down to the bottom level and found the aforementioned mother-with-pram waiting with Henry. No harm was done. But I must say it was one of the real low-points in my five years of parenting that I lost my sister’s kid, especially as I was only in charge of him for about 10 seconds in total. Wow, maybe I’ve set a new record for fastest person to lose a kid! We all have those moments in our parenting journey – the things we’re really proud of and the things we’re not so proud of. So here’s my list so far.
My Top Ten parenting low-points – here are the things I’m most ashamed of: (But don’t worry, I’m not actually beating myself up about them…)
- After craving peanut butter while pregnant with Birdy, I went on a peanut-butter eating binge after she was born. I ate peanut butter every day for breakfast for the first few months of Birdy’s life. Nobody told me that the allergens pass through the breast milk so Birdy was covered in eczema until a doctor told me to avoid eating peanuts as she was obviously an allergic child. Oops! We had no idea about food allergies back then!
- I’ve smacked Birdy in anger about four times and yelled at her more times than I have fingers. Not proud of those moments.
- Not having enough milk for Molly. I know shouldn’t be ashamed of this as it’s clearly not my fault, but nevertheless I am.
- Once at a wedding, when Birdy was about 18 months old, she begged and begged me for one of the beautiful cupcakes on the table, which she couldn’t eat because she was allergic to egg. I didn’t have the strength of character to keep saying ‘no’, so I gave her the flower on top of the cupcake, which I later discovered was basted with egg white. She instantly vomited all over her high chair. Sorry about that, darling.
- All the times I have sent Caillie to school without her hat/water bottle/lunch box, promised her I’d come back before recess with said hat/waterbottle/lunchbox then completely forgotten about it until midday.
- Turning up for Molly’s first appointment at the Baby Health Clinic with none of the things you need to care for a baby. No nappies, wipes, wraps, spare clothes etc. Of course she soiled her nappy 5 minutes into the appointment and I had to confess that I had nothing to change her with. Then we had to walk home in a cold wind with no wraps, blankets, pram covers etc. Not expecting a nomination for Mum of Year based on that experience.
- All the times I have glanced in the rear view mirror while stopped at the traffic lights and noticed that my child isn’t strapped into their car seat or the baby capsule isn’t secured properly.
- The fact that I am generally rubbish at housework and housekeeping.
- When I can’t be bothered cooking I’ve been known to give Birdy two minute noodles and a can of tuna for dinner. Actually I’m not too ashamed of that. It’s better than hot chips. When she eats them raw I feel slightly neglectful.
- To top it all off, I had a brilliant moment the other day when I looked out the kitchenwindow tosee that the Hills Hoist had actually snapped in half. The kids had been swinging from itwithout me realising. Fortunately nobody was crushed to death when it plummeted to earth!
My Top Ten parenting high points – here are the things I’m most proud of: (even though they are mostly the result of good fortune, circumstances and very little credit to me)
- I breast-fed Birdy for 13 months.
- Birdy never had formula, but she was as fat as a formula-fed baby anyway.
- Even though she’s allergic to peanuts, Birdy has never once had a reaction to peanuts because I have never let a peanut near her. Or even a trace of a peanut. High-five!
- I had a fantastic drug-free natural birth with Molly even though she was rather a big baby. Again, no credit to me. Or just a tiny bit. Maybe 1%.
- Birdy loves books and refuses to go to sleep without a story. She is so proud when I come and help with reading in her class each week. J
- I spent three and a half years at home with Birdy before returning to work and even then she didn’t have to go to long daycare (thanks to my husband and sister – no credit to me.)
- Um, can’t think of 7.
- Or 8.
Don’t freak out. I’ve got another 20 years to come up with four more high points. A lot can happen in 20 years. Watch this space.
What have been your parenting high and low points, or strengths and weaknesses? (Mia Freedman calls it a smug list and a crap list.) Have you ever lost a kid? What are you most proud of as a parent?
Please explain: what terrible thing do you think is going to happen if you fall asleep? Because last time you took a nap, three weeks ago, I don’t think the sky fell in. Or are you worried you’re going to miss out on something wonderful? I promise you, sweetheart, I am just going to hang the washing while you’re asleep. I’m not going to invite all the neighbourhood bubbies over for a bounce and a babyccino while you’re napping.