Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Are You a Good Mum?

I was reading an article about Claudia Karvan, the actress. I think it was a few years ago it was written, I was busy doing 'research' and ended up reading about her, her life, her family etc. She said she thought she was a good mum. And she meant it in a completely non egotistical way. She said she could remember hearing growing up about post natal depression and mum's who couldn't relate to their children and she thought, 'That'll be me, I'll be the one chucking my baby out the window." But she was pleasantly surprised to find she was a good mum. It was one of those things she said that she was good at. She was a good mum.

Even just reading those words I knew what my answer was to that question.
I knew if anyone asked me if I was a good mum what my answer would be. I wish I could answer in that egoless way that she had. I wish it just rolled off my tongue. I wished I could say it too. You know, honestly, say it. Even just to myself. But I couldn't, because it wasn't true. I didn't think I was. I don't think I am a good mother.

And I can't work out if that came as a shock to me or not.

Was this just a bad morning for me? Was I simply having a moment? Did I for instance think perhaps I was good at other things or was I just glum and thinking I was crap at everything? Maybe I wasn't a bad mother, maybe it was just a boo-hoo I'm crap at everything day.

I went over a list of things to see what I thought I was good at.
Before children, I was an interior designer. Was I a good interior designer? Yes, I knew I was. I love design, I am passionate and excited about good design. Architecture that is innovative and cool and interesting takes my breath away. I could get lost in photographs of beautiful interiors and exteriors of buildings and homes and shops and spaces. Good design makes me feel alive. Designing beautiful plans and interiors made me feel creatively fulfilled and I knew I was good at it. I was good at being a designer.

After children, I became a writer (although to be fair, I have been writing all of my adult life, I started writing my first book when I was 17). Was I good writer? Yes, I was. I am a good writer. These thoughts came easily to me. I knew I was a good interior designer and I knew I was a good writer. I love words. I love the way words string together to entice you, to incite you, to inflame you, to inspire you and to make you fall in love. I love the way words have the ability to take emotions and confer them to another so that they can feel the same beat of your pain, your lust, your joy, your desperation. I love that I can write, that I can do that with words. I love that the thoughts I think have the ability to be translated into text. I love that others can share the vision I have in my head, the same way I could make my vision a reality in construction in design, that my sketches on paper became a three dimensional space, built, from my mind into reality. And its the same with writing. I love the shaping of that first thought in my head to the final draft on a page. Am I a good writer? Yes. I know, to my core that I am a good writer. And even if I weren't, even if everyone else thought I was crap at it, I love writing so intensely, that it wouldn't matter to me if no-one ever read a word, I would have such satisfaction and joy at simply writing on my own, that it would make little difference what another thought of my skills.

And just as easily as I could say that I was a good writer, a good designer. I realised, I was not a good mother.
What a terrible moment - when I realised that.

And so the list went on. I searched around inside my head for all the things I might classify myself as good or bad at. Many things I could honestly say I was good at. And many things I could honestly say I was terrible at. Cartwheels for example are not my forte. Cooking wholesome meals, again, not high on the list of what I was capable of. But mother-hood? God. It was killing me. Why couldn't I say I was a good mother? Even to myself? With no-one else looking? Just say it. Fake it. You can say it. But I couldn't. Because I didn't believe it to be true.

There have been very few things I have dedicated myself to with such discipline and grit and raw fucking determination as this. This thing called motherhood. I have tried like I have tried at nothing else to be good at this. To excel at it. To be the best mother that is possible. I have tried until I feel like screaming inside my head that it is just not possible to be a good mother. That it is not possible for me to be a good mother. I don't have nearly enough patience. The little people drive me bonkers with their constant demands. Their constant craving to be appreciated and needed and desired and cared for and cleaned and taken care of, it is all consuming. And I suspect it is not helped by the fact I have an intrinsic desire to be free. I am not the person that woke up in the world and wanted someone to hold my hand. I woke up wanting to run across a field, unfettered, with no-one to clip my wings or tie me down. And yet, here I am, ridiculously independent and yet, I am tied down by three, count them, three, enormous anchors, anchors that talk, walk and require 24/7 attention.

Is that why I am not a good mother? Are the independent cursed not to make good anchor holders?

So why did I have three? Surely you work out that you are not a good mother and give up after one? I mean that would make sense? Well, I don't know, is the answer. I have always felt a strong desire to have children, to bring children into the world. The same way I have a strong desire to travel the world and explore the mysteries of the universe. The same way I have a strong desire to question the world, to ask why. The same desire I have to stand up for what is wrong and to passionately defend the things I believe in. That same strong desire drove me to have children. Which I think is a different desire to the desire to become a mother? I always find it interesting when mothers say they love having babies, that they could have a million babies if they never grew up. And each time I hear it, half of me wonders what's wrong with me? And the other half wonders, what's wrong with them? How can they like babies? God they are awful things, they are attached to you all day and half the night, they require all your attention and they give nothing back. I love them once they are little humans, when they have a personality, when they can talk and stomp their feet, when I can witness their passionate little tantrums, watch them find their voice, their laughter, their unique sense of humour. I love the pure life force that each child has locked within their body. I love watching the baby as it grows, as that life force starts to open, to bloom and I get to see that, to witness the start of a new person, a new being. I get to cuddle that little person, to whisper the secrets of the world to them, to go finding fairies with them, to tell them how to be a kind and compassionate person, how to stand up for what is right and for what they believe in. I get to help them be the best people they are capable of being. But babies, pfft. They're all snuggles and boob-feeding and hours and hours of rocking in prams and cots before they finally go to sleep, only to wake up twenty minutes later.

So I started to break down what I thought good mothering was. Perhaps I wasn't all bad? Maybe I have a few saving graces? Was there I wondered, elements of good mothering that I displayed with my children? One of my pet peeves with children is adults who don't discipline their kids. I find brattish kids really hard to stomach. And I think as parents, our job is to show them the guidelines on how to act as decent people. They are apprentices in a new world, learning the ropes. They are testing boundaries to see which boundaries are OK to push and which aren't. And I think that teaching kids how to be decent people, how to treat people ethically and with dignity and respect is important. So discipline to me is important. Making sure they understand there are consequences for poor behaviour is important to me. I dont agree with smacking, I've never been one to condone physical acts (I dont think arguments should be solved with violence etc) and so I don't use it as a method to punish my own children. But that does mean I have to be very on top of using other methods. If I say we leave the park if I see one more act of unkindness, meaness or hitting or whatever, then we leave the park. If we are at home, they will sit on the thinking set for one minute of every year of their life. If we were going to have ice-cream, then the ice-cream goes if they misbehave. It requires effort a lot of effort. A lot of my effort. Often I dont want to leave the park, I'm enjoying talking to another mum. Often I am looking forward to the ice-cream as much as they are. And often I am tired and would rather ignore the poor behaviour so I don't have to deal with the fall out of having to discipline it. Or perhaps it's an effort for me because I dont want to have to drag a screaming kid onto a thinking step and drag them back onto it half a dozen times while they try to escape, frankly a good slap would take half the time and I could be onto something else. But I dont slap, and it does take me ten times the time and effort to discipline in other ways but I do it. I do it because it's important to me. And I try not to yell at the kids. I try and be the quiet, the still, in the eye of the hurricane. It doesn't always work. God knows some days I'm all but pulling the hair out of my head and screaming at them like some wild woman of borneo yelling, "FOR GOD"S SAKE WILL YOU STOP FIGHTING WITH EACH OTHER!" And often I will have one of them tell me off for yelling. "We dont yell in this house mummy." And they are right. They've listened when I've told them not to yell at me or each other, when I've said, "No yelling, we dont yell in this house." And it's good for me to have my little teachers point out when I've got it wrong, when I need to be the adult and not have my own 30 plus year old version of a tantrum.
So, am I a good disciplinarian, do I teach them the ropes of what is acceptable behaviour and what isnt? Am I consistant? Do I give the same message each time, and give them the same results each time?
Yes, absolutely. My children get away with very little, I am onto them like a tonne of bricks for displays of poor manners, bad attitude and fits of indulgent temper. I may not be a good mum, but I would make an excellent Sargent Major.

Am I good moral compass for my children, do I show them the way of being that I'd like them to be as adults, to be the sort of people that make the world a better place? Yes I think I do that. Do I make sure their clothes are washed and that they are fed? Sure, I think I have the basics of survival covered.

So what was it that I was missing?
What made a good mum? What did I do or not do, after all my hard work of trying, that left me, bereft of good mothering skills?
In my mind, a good mum enjoys being a mum. She loves her role as Mother.
And I don't.
God it kills me to say that - I dont like being a mum. I have worked so hard at it, but I don't like it. And I feel a thousand eyes boring into me when I say that, as though I've just committed the prime sin of motherhood. How can you not like being a mum? How can you say that aloud?

A good mum enjoys being with her children, regularly, say 80-90% of the time.
Oh, I think perhaps this is where I fail so miserably at being a good mum. I find I spend 80-90% of my time with my children in bootcamp mode. I am organising, dressing, resolving fights, managing tantrums, driving, picking up, dropping off, doing homework, mopping up spills, sending kids to their rooms, taking them to parks, washing, changing pooey nappies, wiping down the couch, making dinner, watching dinner dropped all over the floor and al and sundry declaring they don't want to eat it... enjoy it? No. I feel like a slave to my little troup. And no, I do not enjoy them, in much the same way any slave is resentful to their unrelenting master. But at night, when I read them books, when I snuggle up and kiss them good night or when I find myself sitting on the floor talking to one of them about life, about the world, about the princess wand gripped tightly in her hand, I take a moment to breathe and recognise, here, at this moment I am enjoying them. Reckon, I'd figure I get about 10% enjoyment from my kids.
The rest is just hard slog.

And finally I think a good mother is indulgent with her time with her children. She luxuriates in being with them, in spending time that is real time, not just 'managing them' time. She laughs with them, she plays with them and she doesnt spend every five minutes thinking is it too early for a gin and tonic? A good mother, one that I am not, gets off on being with her kids. And I do not.

And that saddens me more than I can tell you. Not becasuse I know I have worked so hard at being a good mum, God if i haven't read every book under the sun, spent hours working out the best way to raise my children, the best way to discipline them without smacking without yelling, the best way to encourage them, to make them believe they are the most precious people in the world but at the same time teaching them about compassion to others and love. I have tried to let them experience the world of dance, the world of music, the world of make-believe. I have tried so hard I'm about to keel over from all the effort. So it is sad to me, to realise I don't consider myself a good mum. But worse is that my children have to have a mum who is not a good mum. That surely must be the hardest part to swallow. How could I have followed a burning desire to have children and not realise that to do so, you must also become a mother? I think perhaps, I just wanted to be their guide, their touchstone, their safe place to fall when life got so hard they didnt know where to turn. I didnt know that motherhood was going to be this one long tiring journey that never stops, not even in the middle of the night. I didnt see any of that before I set out to realise my burning desire - my desire to have children.

But it came to me yesterday. If i know what I think makes a good mother, then maybe now I can work on that. Maybe now I can put my efforts into that. And maybe I can be less harsh on myself and realise that I do some aspects OK. Some parts I have worked out. Some parts are worthy of saying i'm a good mum, even if it's just to myself. Because I know, when I wrap their ittle bodies up in mine and I tell them they are the most amazing little person I have ever met, I know they know it's true, that mama wouldnt tell them that, if it wasn't true. And if I want my time as 'mother' to have achieved anything, it's that my children grow up knowing they are amazing, unique and wonderful people. I think that's the very least a mum can do.

Friday, April 22, 2011

7,000km, A Bike Ride Across Cambodia and One Phone Call Later...

I know this is going to sound terrible, but I think the best part of the trip for me, was getting on the plane and leaving Sydney. I mean, the heady sensation of actually leaving Australia, getting on a plane and doing it without the Von Trap family in tow was intoxicating.

I woke up in the hotel that second morning, (the day after our first bike ride across Cambodia) and realised how tightly I'd been gripping on. Not to the bike handles mind you, to my life. I knew there was likely to be a few 'ah-ha' moments on this trip. This was after all the longest time I would have been apart from my children in 6 years. It was also the longest time I'd been away from my spouse. And anyone will tell you, when you live in each other's pockets, breathe each other's air and swim in the same deep water you are likely, to lose some perspective.

The reason I could tell I'd been gripping on, was because I could feel myself releasing the grip that morning. Pulling back the crisp, white, hotel sheet, I felt a freedom I hadn't experienced in years, I felt the grip lessening, the tense muscles unwinding. When I say grip, I don't mean grip in the sense of holding on for control, or to control. I mean the grip, the way one might grip the edge of a ledge. The way you might grip with even the very tips of your fingertips. As though the tips of your fingers have the strength of a bicep muscle. That you should need your fingers to be that strong, because that's the only thing standing between you and the forty foot drop below. That's how I felt. Like I'd been gripping on for dear life. My life.

Do all mothers feel like this? Like they are one finger grip away from losing hold of the ledge? Had I always felt this way?

I boarded that plane to Cambodia with a giddiness and a joy that I could hardly recall from any past memory. I felt perhaps like one of those kids entering the Wonka Chocolate Factory. Hard to know what was more exciting, leaving my family behind, going back to South East Asia, being in a bed on my own every night, sleeping all night every night without interruption, or the fact it was almost lunchtime and there would be free alcohol to drink the entire flight!

I sat with my friend Bec, the only other Mum on the trip. She too was giddy from the excitement, the fact we had actually made it here, to this point, to the point of boarding the plane, of managing to have raised the money, sorted out childcare for the kids, leaving our husbands. I can't imagine any of the other cyclist on the trip could possibly have imagined what this meant to us. What it meant to our morale, to our dignity, to our sense of self. What it meant to be a person without a title, without the shadow of children constantly on our watch.

I have often envied women who work full time. Mostly I suspect because I am the sort of mother who would much rather be having riveting conversations with professional adults then trying for the upteenth time to look excited about my four year olds attempt to draw a mermaid. Mostly, I find the gibber gabber of toddlers, the constant demands of preschoolers and the attitude of primary schoolers either mind numbingly boring or completely exhausting. The constant demands of three children are relentless, in the same way that riding kilometre after kilometre in the hot sun on bumpy roads in Cambodia was relentless. There was a lot of similarities to me. My body ached, the sun pelted down, the roads were full of pot holes and the head wind relentless. You had to keep riding until it was time to stop - some random time, outside of your control, some time that seemed to be forever in the future, hours and hours away. It was as much a mental game to get through each hour on the bike as it was a physical one. And naturally, if you're suffering, you look around to gauge how everyone else is coping. Everyone looked like they were handling the ride better than me. Everyone seemed to be in less pain, less mental torment, less grief than I.

We are strange creatures, there is no solace in knowing you are the only battler, that you are the only one having to play mind tricks to keep going. In fact, the isolation of being the only one struggling seems to add to your suffering even further. But there is no choice but to keep riding, km after km. That is why you are there. At the end of the day, just before I passed out, muscles aching and more tired than any week where children woke me up all night, there was a sense of achievement for having managed not only to get back on the bike, but to have cycled another leg across Cambodia.

Raising children is like that, watching other mothers is like that. They seem to do it much easier than you, they seem to be in less pain, they seem to engage with their children more, to enjoy their company. And the isolation is made much worse, because you feel the pain of being different, of being the only mother born who just doesn't like mothering.

But some days, on the bike, you can hear someone is suffering, feeling the pain, just like you. They can't keep going, they are hurting, the wind hurts, the sun hurts, the damn pot holes in the road hurt. And you find yourself giving solace to them, offering advice, "Try getting out of the saddle a bit more, it'll ease the pain in your pelvis." or "Try not gripping so hard with your thumbs, mentally relax your hands as you cycle." And you realise you're not alone, other cyclist are doing it tough too. And that was like motherhood, one day talking in the playground, you find yourself talking to a mother who can't do it anymore, who has hit a brick wall and you find yourself offering advice, suggesting a few things that worked for you, laughing with her about the many things you tried that didn't. And you get a glimpse into someone elses world and realise you're not alone, you're not the only one who finds cycling fucking hard, or motherhood fucking hard. We all do. We all struggle sometimes.

So Bec and I, we made in-roads into the worst wine ever served onboard an aircraft. Well she sensibly drank gin, I gulped back little plastic cup of white wine after white wine and we talked and talked and talked. We talked until we passed out, 7 hours later. We talked of our children, our partners, our stresses, our pain and our joy. We laughed, we cried (surprisingly 7 hours of drinking crappy white wine will enable you to feel the entire spectrum of emotions) and we let ourselves feel the sheer delight at being women again, not just mothers.

And perhaps if I think about it, it was not boarding the plane leaving Sydney that was the most special moment of my trip. But the day I spoke to my three children on the phone whilst I was in Cambodia. I had been texting with my husband since I'd arrived, and whilst I missed him, I was still pretty resilient in not missing my kids. I missed having Richard there, exploring a new country. One of the things we always did really well was exploring together. I missed him not being there to go for a beer at a local bar or to eat noodles in a stall that looked wholly questionable hygiene wise. I missed his humour and I missed his bravery, his way of taking a country by storm, indulging in each aspect wholeheartedly. I missed him. I missed the person I had lost in the mayhem of parenting. What I wouldn't have given to have flown him to my side so that we could be a couple again, not just mum and dad, the two people lost to each other in the maelstrom of parenting.
But I didn't miss the kids. I just didn't.
And even when I saw the beautiful Cambodian children, I still didn't miss them.

I was still too over joyed to be away from them.

And whilst part of me felt I should feel bad about that. I didn't. I loved it. I loved the freedom, the joy, the lack of responsibility. I loved not feeling overwhelmed by them. Oppressed by them.

And then, I think on the third or fourth day I spoke to each of them in turn. Whilst I wasn't missing them per se, I wanted to talk to them, to assure them I was coming home, that I hadn't disappeared for ever. It had been several days, and because of the time difference, and because of the cycling, I hadn't been able to talk to them. And whilst I didn't miss them, I was feeling antsy about not having spoken with them. It didn't feel right. Finally I managed to speak to my eldest, she was still awake one night when I called, and the other two got out of bed and I spoke to them too. Their little voices chirped down the telephone. Their little ways and mannerism clearly audible for me to delineate each child in turn. And even from the first child, from the first syllable I could feel something stirring in me. For the first time in many years I felt a longing that took my breath away. Each child, I could feel their energy, as though it permeated down the phone line, their beauty, their uniqueness. I felt a 'missing' for them that reached in and squeezed my heart. I felt a terrible sadness that I couldn't scoop them up and hold them in my arms. I longed to hold them like very few things I have longed for in my life. Their sweet voices telling me about their day, their arguing with each other in the background as to who would have the phone next.
I was laughing and crying.
I felt something inside me soaring - taking flight. Was it joy? Was it knowing that I could feel a need for them, rather than the feeling of being overwhelmed by them? I wanted my Lola. I want to sit her on my lap and listen to her yabber about Cuba and what he had done that day and what he had done to her precious drawing. I wanted to scoop up Ella and listen to her observations of life without mummy about her new hairclip and cuddle her close to me, to breathe in the smell of her hair. And my little boy, my slice of sunshine, my heart really did break in half when he said "I miss you Mummy." God when did he start speaking in sentences? I was gone two minutes and already he had grown up.
After the phone call I tried to hold that feeling, hold it carefully inside my mind, my heart. Because I knew, oh I knew, once I was back in Sydney and life was back to normal, I'd be feeling crushed by my three demanding children. And I wanted to know that memory was there. That memory of wanting them, of aching for them. I wanted to be able to pull that out of the drawer and smell it like a lover's scarf. I wanted to know that I knew how to miss them, to need them, how to feel incomplete without them.

And if Cambodia gave me anything (which it did in many ways that I haven't even covered here) - it gave me a longing for my children, a beautiful, soul-connecting longing, that I will forever be thankful for.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Happy wife - happy life?

I was going to post in-depth reflection on Cambodia.
I was going to write funny little vignettes about missing my kids, realising that riding in 39 degree heat (whilst wondering if I'd ever get feelings back to my pelvic region) was still easier than returning to the chaos of a family of 5.
I was going to write poignant reflection on the children I met whilst building the Kindergarten.
And I was going to write about the insane freedom I felt being 'single' for the first time in almost 16 years, travelling in a third world country with no dependants, husbands or nappy bags hanging off self.

But instead, instead I am drawn to post this instead.

click here Happy Wife

It's a blogger on this blogging site, who I thought was interested in being a nurturing, supportive husband.
Well super I thought, look at this guy! His first post is about what he wants for his birthday present. Mostly, it's all about him getting an evening to make his wife happy. Everything from making dinner for her, to running her a bath, giving her foot massage, brushing her hair (perhaps a little left of centre but i'm open minded, sure hair brushing, why not) and completing the evening with sexually satisfying her with a no 'return' satisfaction required policy.

I mean, men like this exist?

That's what the guy wants for his birthday?
A night of making his wife happy?
This blog required further reading. How genuine was this guy? How much was this a natural, nurturing side and how much was him being on the verge of a mental breakdown? I decided to read the posted comments. I quickly became confused by all the abbreviated terms. FLR, WLM... what was all this about?
I noticed one comment posted referred to getting your wife to read this site (see below)

how to get your wife to get on board

He suggested this might help the 'shocked wife' to realise that men who want to be submissive aren't strange, or out of the ordinary, that in fact, plenty of men like a dominant wife, someone to rule the roost, tell them what to do, when to do it and whom genuinely want to be loving, sex slaves in the bedroom.
I still wasn't sure, the sceptical side of me thought these men were simply describing a fetish, and the other side, intrigued, could it really be that they loved to love their ladies? That seeing them supported and taken care of gave them great pleasure?

Not that I am against fetishes that support husbands to help out around the house.
I mean for starters these men are waiting take orders to do the dishes, cook the dinner, do the washing, mop the floor and then at the end of a hard day slogging it out doing domestic chores, they're keen to run baths, give foot massages and body massages that guarantee a happy ending.
All that is required by the wife, is a list, a bit of a positive appraisal, (note: no 'thank you' is required, merely an observation that husband has done a good job) and then, a new list of 'to do jobs' written up at wife's earliest convenience.

I was still unconvinced, where did the nurturing, thoughtful husband end and getting the paddle out and giving a slap on the bum start? How much was really about the pleasure gained from seeing his wife happy and more about the enjoyment of being bossed around?