Growing up – the both of us

Something’s happening in my house, and I’m not sure I like it.     I am becoming increasingly irrelevant to my tweeny-child.  Irrelevant is perhaps not the right word, but it’s hard to think of one that better captures my feelings. She turns her nose up at suggested activities that were once a mainstay of together time – like baking, or playing a board game, watching TV or going for a walk.  She’ll leave a room if I settle down in it.

She’s perceptive enough to know something is afoot, even if she can’t quite understand it herself.  When she gets up to leave, she’ll throw some sort of excuse over her shoulder.  Something like “Oh, it is too hot in here” or “Mhh, I wonder where my book is?”  I recognise that in that action she knows she might be hurting my feelings, and cares, but still would rather be somewhere else.

This is happening quite a bit, and to be honest, my feelings are quite bruised.  I feel a bit like a bad smell, and it’s rather unpleasant.  I’ve started down a well-worn path of taking it personally, thinking things like “After all I sacrificed…” or “What have I done wrong…?” or “What’s wrong with me…?”.  And judgemental crap like that.  It’s nonsense, and I know it’s nonsense.  But rationality doesn’t stop those thoughts from at least having a jiggle around my head.

Because, deep in my heart I worry that it’s because I am not the fun parent.  I don’t know when I stopped being fun.  I think it was during labour.  I am the parent that says no to donuts, fizzy drinks and questions their desire to eat sugar for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I am the parent that yanks them off their devices and deprives them, apparently, from the source of all joy.   I am the parent that makes them do their homework, and calls them out on it, and gets them out of bed and yells at them when they are late for school.  I am the worrier parent (oh, how I wish that was the warrior parent, but, at least in this telling, I am not) who tells them to look out for stranger-danger and reminds them, every single time they venture to leave the house, to look both ways when they cross the road and not to be drawn in by strange people peddling puppies.  I am the one that  asks them where their Epipens are, and whether they have checked whatever they are eating for nuts.

I don’t mean to imply the other parent doesn’t do his share of un-fun parenting.  He does, but as the one who has been there for most of the hours of their days, and is slightly more neurotic, I have more un-fun facetime with them.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, thinking your kids would want to be with you more if you were more fun to be around.  It’s easy to blame yourself (we are mothers with guilt overload after all) and wonder where you went wrong.  But it’s a dangerous game of ego that, and has nothing to do with reality.   Of course, I suspect I’ve done lots wrong but that’s just parenting 101.  No need to get knickers in knots about it.

I realise, perhaps more than anything else, these feelings relate to my role as mother and how it has formed a central part of my identity over the past decade.  As the designated primary care giver, being fundamental to their lives has largely defined who I am for so long.  And now that things are changing, that role is becoming less relevant.  I am not irrelevant, the role is changing. 

Because this is nature taking its course.  It’s the drift, right?  The growing up, pulling away, becoming an adult thing that is supposed to happen.  I should be patting myself on the back, congratulating myself for making it this far.  It’s not got anything to do with what I’ve done right or wrong in the parenting department.  It’s about change.  It’s a new phase, a new stage and I suspect it is time for me to look at what new parenting skills I need to redefine and forge a stronger and improved relationship with my soon-to-be teen.

Like appreciating her need for space, and acknowledging that it means I too can have space.  And finding things that matter to her, in her new world to connect around.

It’s parenting at the next level, and it comes with some perks.  For instance, I know when she connects with me, she really wants to.  Sometimes she pulls me into a hug at bedtime, a fierce hug where I almost feel the child within her still residing, and we lie on her bed and discuss the thoughts going through her head.  My constant admonishment to myself is:  listen, make her feel heard and try very hard not to offer unsolicited advice.

And there are the flashes of the adult she will become.  Her passionate outrage at the mistreatment of animals and the inherent cruelty of human beings, her desire to know more about things that are now within her intellectual reach (like how stuff works and the origins of the universe) and the types of outdoor interests she now pursues.

But more than my relationship with her, there is the space for me to refine my own identity.  Space to work, space to write, space to eat in great restaurants, space to travel and time for theatre, museums and artistic adventures.  Space and time to dedicate to things that interest me, as a human individual, not just as a mum.  Space to grow into a bigger, better, more complex version of myself.

She’s not the only one growing up.  I am discovering that if you let them, your kids help you grow up yourself.

Navigating guilt: The art of motherhood.

It’s getting to be a bit of a habit, this sneaking off for some adult holiday time sans the kids.  Well, not really a habit, but it’s happened twice in 10 months, compared to twice in the past ten years… so naturally the guilt has set in.

It didn’t help that, after plans had been made and tickets booked, a clash of events meant we had to wrangle a complicated cobbled-together solution to get our over-booked eldest daughter from a scout camp down south to a couldn’t-be-missed cheerleading competition in Homebush, right in the middle of the weekend.  With little family to rely on, perhaps the sensible thing would have been to cancel our Hobart Dark Mofo adventure, but instead we pretended we were rich and famous and outsourced the problem.  We paid our long-time nanny to get up at the crack of dawn and drive a two-and-a-half-hour round trip to ferry said daughter from one event to the other, and then sit in the stands, cheer her on and send us photos.

And all through our lovely drive around Bruny Island, and over a delicious vineyard lunch, remotely watching our daughter perform, I felt like I was in the running (yet again) for title of Not-Mother-of-the-Year.  I had to have two glasses of wine just to keep from drowning in the bad-mother feels.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Feel guilty, I mean.  Is guilt a natural by-product of childbirth?  Oh bless, you’ve gone to the trouble of having a child.  Here, have a dose of never ending guilt to go with the sleepless nights and saggy boobs?

Last week, as I arrived for a meeting in Adelaide, the phone rang.  Of course it did.  When else would you really be needed by your kids, other than when you are 1400km away?  My son was in sickbay, crying his eyes out in desperate agony from a blinding headache.  And the school wanted someone to come and fetch him, as they were legally (seriously?) unable to administer a simple paracetamol to my son.  And, my second thought (because, in the interests of full disclosure, my first thought was “Oh, FFS, why can’t you just give him a Panadol, WTF is wrong with you people?”) was, “I shouldn’t be working”.  Seriously, that was the thought that flashed into my head.  I should be back in Sydney at the beck and call of my kids, instead of a thousand miles away doing something that I rather like and am quite good at.  I shouldn’t be working.  It’s a shocking thought, unbidden and unwanted, and it’s all to do with mother-guilt.  (As an aside, my wonderful nanny came to the rescue again, and even took him to the doctor. He’s fine, in case you were worried.)

Maybe this is just me.  But I don’t think so.  One thing is for sure, this guilt definitely seems to be specifically related to being a mother.  Google mother guilt and you’ll find 36.5 million articles to trawl through.  All about the guilt that comes with being anything other than the perfect mother – whatever the heck that means.  There are a few articles on Dad-guilt, I’ll be honest, but they all seem to have something to do with working too hard and having affairs.  Maybe mother-guilt is a physical thing, like some sort of second placenta, that should be yanked out during the birthing process but mistakenly gets left inside to eat away at you from the moment your offspring takes his or her first breath.

I want to say I am over it.  This guilt thing.  But it is an ever present feeling lurking in the back of my mind.  So I’m just doing the next best thing – which is not giving in to it.  So yes, I take holidays without the little critters, and I work because I like my independence and using my brain, and I stretch myself thin doing things that take my fancy, because I want to grow.   Because ultimately I don’t, not for one second, believe that making them the centre of my world is healthy for anyone.  Not me, and especially not them.

And when that pious little voice of mother guilt opens her mouth to shower me in shame, as she does on a pretty regular basis, I admit it and write snarky blogs about it, and explain to it, with as few swear words as possible, that you get one life, and I’m trying to experience as much of it as possible, so if she could just get out of the way, I’d enjoy the process so much more.  And it works, sort of.  At least until someone needs me – which is, of course, only when I am otherwise committed.

Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber cake… and lessons in letting go and being a better mum

It’s another birthday party in our house today.  My son turns 9 (nine! what?), and has requested a lightsaber birthday cake.  Not just any lightsaber birthday cake mind you. Kylo Ren’s lightsaber.   “You remember what that looks like from the movie, mum?” he asks.  Ahh, no.  But google does, of course.  There are plenty of photos of this bad-ass sword of laser light, but not a single one of a cake in its image.  Could it be that I am the first to make (and photograph) a Kylo Ren Lightsaber cake.  Oh the pressure.  (Actually, it turns out I was just spelling the name incorrectly, and one or two people have beaten me from the oven to Facebook, as it were.)

But why do I say yes to these ridiculous requests?  Why not just say, “mate, any old lightsaber will have to do”?  Followed by, “And it is going to be blue.  No dark force encouragement here, thank you very much.”  No, I just nod and get to it.  Because I want to be the perfect mother.

So there I was up half the night baking the egg, nut and dairy free cake base and up this morning constructing and icing and, as usual, aiming for perfection.  And then the kids woke up and wanted to join in. Just the very act of asking causes my chest to constrict.  I know I should let them, but I know things won’t turn out like I planned.

And as they got involved, adding bits and pieces here and there, I felt this explosive anxiety building in my chest.  Because now there was mess everywhere, and the perfect cake was no longer perfect.  And I am holding my temper but in that quiet seething sort of way that is more destructive than explosive outbursts.  And my daughter gets icing sugar stuck on the cake board, and in pulling it off rips the silver paper and I feel like my head is going to explode and then she says, in a very quiet, cut through your soul kind of way, “Why do I always mess up?”

And a piece of me breaks off and dies.  In the hollow silence of my head, I see her eyes well up and I realise how much I have failed these kids in this regard.  My desire for accolade, for mothering glory, is paving the way to emotional fragility in this beautiful, amazing, talented, vibrant human spirit of my daughter.  I rush around the table – almost breathless with the need to fix this terrible perspective I have created – and hug her.  “Hey,” I say, “You tried and it didn’t work.  That’s okay.  That is definitely better than not trying at all.  Easily fixed.”  And I hug her until the tears she has held in her eyes ebb away and then I let go.  I hand over the silver balls and icing sugar and show them the picture, and say, with genuine intent in my voice and a smile on my face, “Go for it”.  And so they do.

And I realise the cake is irrelevant, but the experience of creating the cake together is priceless.  And, as I am prone to do, I wish I could do mothering over with this new knowledge.  But I can’t.  I can only hold this vital lesson to the light and let it fill my interaction with my kids for this point forward.

So, the cake is done and the birthday boy declares it the best cake ever.  And indeed it is. Because everyone is smiling and I am more enlightened than I was when I woke up.  And that, really, is all one can ask for in life, isn’t it.