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…
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.
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.
“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…”
On Anzac Day I thought it might be timely to reflect a little on the nature of loss and grief. My husband and I recently lost a baby at 15 weeks. He was a little boy and we called him Alexander. I’ve had quite a few miscarriages before and it’s always really upsetting to lose a pregnancy, no matter how far along you are. But this time I cried more for him than I did for my own loss. As I lay in my hospital bed, waiting to deliver him, all I could think about was how sorry I was that he had missed out on the chance to experience life and all the goodness that it has to offer. He will never feel his mother’s arms around him, never go to school, never make a friend, never see a sunset, never fall in love… This year I’m coming to Anzac Day from that perspective.
Losing Alexander has made me acutely aware that there was a whole generation of young men and women whose lives were cut short. They never got to grow up, get married, follow their dreams, have children, travel the world and finally grow old. I think we intrinsically understand that this was a huge loss and tragedy for the families who were left behind, but I don’t think we always realise what a huge sacrifice it was for them to literally lay down their lives, to give up all their hopes and dreams for the future. What a massive hole that must have left in society, not to have all those young men to take up work, to marry the young women, to be fathers to the next generation. It’s a huge collective loss. And if you think about the way that grief has a tendency to sort of pile up on itself and accumulate, it would have profoundly affected not just individuals, families and communities, but whole generations.
I had a number of different family members involved in the first and second world wars, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, but I was probably most affected by the stories my grandmother told me of the second world war. My grandfather was a prisoner of war in Germany for more than five years, from when my Dad was six until he was about eleven. My daughter is six now, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not see her until she is eleven. (It’s not like they had Skype, email and facebook in those days!) I believe my father was deeply affected by that experience, and he was one of the lucky ones whose father actually came home. His father was almost a total stranger when he returned and he only weighed about 50kg, but at least he was still in one piece. When he got back my Dad didn’t recognise him. He had to ask his Mum, ‘Which one is he?’
This is not some ancient story from the dark ages, it’s living history and like any loss, it needs to be acknowledged. That’s why we keep telling the story, every year. For me, that’s what Anzac Day is about… it’s a day to grieve, to remember the losses we experienced as a nation and to recognise that the impact of what happened is still being felt today. So even though Anzac Day might seem like a formal, solemn and reserved occasion, I consider it to be a kind of national group hug where we’re collectively saying, “Yep, we know. We remember. And we’re grateful.”
But the words we use to express that feeling are: Lest we forget.
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?
So what does a ‘traditionally built’ female detective have to do with discipline? Heaps actually!
Yesterday I was part of a panel chat about discipline on Erica Davis’ morning show on Sydney radio station Hope 103.2. I talked about the idea of restorative justice versus punitive justice. It probably sounds like an odd way of approaching behaviour management but for me the philosophy behind what you do is just as important as what you do. Especially when it comes to discipline. What we are doing needs to make sense with what we are actually trying to teach our children.
I first started thinking about these ideas when I was studying international relations and the use of state force. You see, the use of force is limited under international law. One of the new doctrines that was attracting a lot of attention at this time was the ‘responsibility to protect’. The generally accepted idea is that it’s not OK for a nation state to use military force against another country unless it is in self-defence. (Stay with me). But then what about when something like the Rwanda massacre occurs? This new doctrine says that the international community has a responsibility to protect a state’s citizens. If people are being butchered by their own state, the use of ‘protective’ force is acceptable to safeguard the innocent.
So I took these ideas home and started applying them to my then one-year-old. I decided to try not using ‘punitive force’, like smacking, but using protective force instead. That means if my kid hits another kid in a George W. Bush style ‘pre-emptive strike’, (ie. aggression dressed up in the language of self-defence, “But she was going to hit me, I just know it!), then rather than smacking my kid I would intervene to protect the other child. That could mean separating them (putting in a new border), making the ‘hitter’ play elsewhere (extradition), or physically staying present to make sure no more hitting occurs (peacekeeping troops). Hopefully this also sends a clearer message to the child. Rather than saying, “You’re not allowed to hit your cousin but I am allowed to hit you,” (like bombing Iraq) my actions will say, “Hitting is not acceptable, and I am here to protect you both.” (The UN).
Enter Mma Ramotswe, fictional proprieter of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and enforcer of common sense justice. Mma Ramotswe is a self-taught private detective (self-taught from the esteemed Clovis Anderson’s seminal instruction book, Principles of Private Detection) who goes about setting right the wrongs in her beautiful home country of Botswana. Mma Ramotswe solves mysteries and rights wrongs but she almost never involves the law or shames the wrong doer. Instead she finds ways to ‘restore justice’, to set right what was wrong without punishment. This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for the criminals, but the answer usually involves them taking responsibility for their actions in some way. Having read about 10 books in the series, I’ve found my thinking constantly being shaped by the idea of ‘restorative justice’, as opposed to ‘punitive justice’ which is designed to hurt the wrong doer and make them regret their action. Unfortunately, punitive justice tends to create bitterness and resentment between people whereas restorative justice is about restoring trust in the relationship. I didn’t even realise this concept had found its way into mainstream ideas about discipline until I saw it on the cover of Sydney’s Child last week. Apparently restorative justice is now being applied among at-risk kids in high schools with massive success. It’s harder work than just dishing up a punishment, and many of the kids would rather just take the wrap than face up to those they have wronged. But the long-term results are impressive.
If you’re not convinced, just think about how you feel when you have stuffed up in some way or have let someone down. What would your prefer? To be punished, or offered forgiveness? Adults are not immune from punishing each other. We do it by withholding affection or intimacy, by avoiding those who we perceive have wronged us, or by giving someone the silent treatment. (Is this really so different from isolating a child by sending them to their room or putting them on the naughty chair?) If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment then you’ll know it hurts like hell. Especially if you don’t know what you’ve done to deserve the snub. Different people will respond to that kind of treatment in different ways. Either they will detach from the relationship so they don’t continue to be hurt, they will confront the person and demand an explanation, or they will try even harder to please the person who is punishing them. If on the other hand, you already know and have acknowledged what you’ve done wrong, then why do you need to be punished? What you need at that point is to be restored to the other person, which only comes about through the process of seeking forgiveness and extending grace. It’s as simple as saying, ‘That’s OK’, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘Thanks for your apology’, ‘I appreciate that.’ I’m not saying that there’s never a time to send a child to their room or put them on the naughty step, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it and be sure that it makes sense in the context of what you’re trying to teach them.
At this point, the advocates of the punitive model usually say, ‘Ah but it’s different, because with children you have to teach them right from wrong by punishing them.’ But is that really so different to adult relationships? When adults hurt each other, we don’t usually do it deliberately. We usually hurt each other, or behave badly because we don’t yet know better. We didn’t realise that thing we did or said or failed to do would be hurtful to that person. We didn’t understand the way they think or feel, what they expected of us, or what their particular sensitivities were. Once we have learned and communicated without blaming then we can improve that relationship. Children usually also stuff-up because they didn’t quite realise what was expected of them, or they didn’t know how to deal with their feelings. Children, like adults, need to experience the consequences of their mistakes, but we don’t have to make those consequences disproportionate to the original problem.
It is self-evident that you don’t get punished for doing the wrong thing, you get punished for getting caught. (If you do the wrong thing, but don’t get caught, there’s no punishment. Also if you are punished unfairly for something you haven’t done, it creates resentment.) This can lead to deceptive behaviour, lying or far worse a child (and later an adult) who only behaves well when people are watching. Punishment says, “If you do that behaviour, you will be punished, so don’t do that behaviour again.” It’s a model based on obedience and good behaviour as the goal. What I want my children to learn, more than obedience or how to behave, is empathy. Punishment does not easily model empathy. When we punish, we switch off our own empathy temporarily. We leave our child crying on the naughty chair or in their room instead of comforting them, or we smack them with the deliberate intention of hurting them, even though we ourselves would not like to be treated that way. So the child in response has several choices; to also switch off emotionally and accept the punishment, to rebel against the punishment or to try harder to please us in the future. Learning to please others is not the same as developing empathy or consideration for others. Clinical psychologist Lyn Worsely talks about how even babies as young as six weeks who have experienced trauma will look to their caregiver for cues and create fixed expressions that aim to please their parents. It may be compliant but it’s not necessarily healthy. And it can lead to anxiety down the track.
So now when I’m faced with a conundrum, rudeness, an injustice or a behaviour I don’t like, I ask myself “What would Mma Ramotswe do?” (WWMRD?) How can this problem be solved in a way that respects everybody’s autonomy, encourages each person to take responsibility for their own actions and treats the child as a person in their own right, rather than a puppet, expected to dance when we pull their strings (which, by the way is the American approach to international diplomacy!)
Mma Ramtoswe isn’t perfect. She isn’t even real. She doesn’t have all the answers. She makes mistakes. But she’s prepared to admit it as the following passage demonstrates:
Mr J.L.B Matekoni looked suprised.
‘I can’t imagine you making any mistakes,’ he said. ‘You’re too clever for that. You would look at all the possibilities and then choose the right one. Every time.’
Mma Ramotswe snorted.
We all make mistakes. We don’t usually need to punish each other. We just have to admit when we’re wrong.
I am in the laundry, up to my elbows in suds, scrubbing mould from the bath toys one by one, when into my head pops the voice of Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail: “I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it , or because I haven’t been brave?”
I’m scrubbing mould from bath toys. Yes, I lead a small life. Valuable, but small.
I”m sure every Mum feels this way at times. Some days are just like that. And mostly, that’s OK.
But along comes something like Valentine’s Day. Of course, we don’t really care about Valentine’s Day, do we? By the time we’re in our 30s and 4os we’re totally over all that nonsense. We no longer sit around wondering if we’ll receive roses this year because we know we won’t. And we’re past caring. But for whatever reason, I’ve had those trashy rom-coms playing in my head this week, ever since I read Serena Faber Nelson’s Valentine’s post, which referenced Love Actually. That film is one of my favourites. Probably because in some small way I relate to nearly all the characters in it. Even the male ones. Oh, except that man-eating vampire chick who carelessly seduces her boss just because she can. Or that couple who are the body doubles in the… ahem… movies. But whenever I see that film I feel particular empathy with Karen, the character played by Emma Thompson. The first time I saw the film I didn’t even have kids, but I still felt her pain. She’s clearly a clever, kind, educated woman, (her brother, played by Hugh Grant, is the Prime Minister of Britain) but she’s been dragged down to one level above frumpy by ten years of looking after kids. And there’s a line she says that always gets to me. After she finds out her husband has given an expensive necklace to another woman she says, “You’ve made a fool out of me, and you’ve made the life I lead foolish too.” She then turns to congratulate her daughter with extravagantly feigned enthusiasm for her role playing the first lobster in the school nativity play. There’s something heartbreaking about this smart, capable woman declaring her small life to be foolish, while lavishing affection on her children.
Contrast that with Natalie, the spontaneous, sexy girl Karen’s brother (the PM) brings along to the same school Christmas pageant. She is so full of life and energy that he can’t keep his hands off her. When I first saw this film, I thought Natalie and Karen were two very different characters. And they are. But ten years and a couple of kids later, will Natalie really be so very different from Karen?
We all feel like Karen some days, but we also have a Natalie in there somewhere, waiting to be seen. If only there was a chance for her to emerge between mopping floors, getting kids to school, feeding the baby, caring for ageing parents and the bone-crushing tiredness we mums come to accept as normal.
So when my husband walks through the door at 5 o’clock this afternoon and says, “How was your day? What did you get up to?” am I going to tell him I cleaned the bathroom and scrubbed the mould off the bath toys? ‘Cause that is surely going to fill him with passion. I can see it now, “Kids, go to your room and lock the door because I must have your mother right now on the kitchen floor. All this bedroom, I mean bathroom, talk is driving me wild!”
So as much as all the hype around Valentine’s Day is a load of commercial crap, creating false expectations between lovers and disappointment for those who don’t yet have the love they’re looking for, maybe there is a message in there for parents. Somewhere inside you is the person your spouse fell in love with. Some days you’ll wonder where the hell she’s gone. And some days we have to let go a little and let her out.