Friday, August 31, 2012

The Curse of the Accidental Tiger Mother

This column was first published in Practical Parenting Magazine, July 2012

Recently, supermarket shopping trips with my five year old daughter Peanut have improved beyond belief. It used to be that she would ask me to buy her every sparkly bauble and high-fructose corn-syrup enhanced treat that caught her eye. I would say no, she would plead, and we would both get increasingly shirty at the unwinnable war we were stuck waging. It was tiring and it was boring. One day, I just started pretending that Peanut could have whatever she wanted. ‘Sure!’ I said. ‘You can have those massive pink marshmallows for dinner.  Maybe you’d just like a big bowl of sugar for dessert?’ Peanut skipped with delight. ‘Yes, with sprinkles on top!’ she said.

She’s a born actress, my eldest girl. Immediately, she embraced the game. ‘Can I have that box of chocolates up there?’ she asked. ‘You mean the really big, expensive one? ‘I said. ‘Of course! I’ll wake you up in the middle of the night to eat those, and I’ll put a few in your school lunch as well.’ Sure, I copped some dirty looks from passing shoppers who heard me agree that supersized pork-flavoured salty-nuggets would be delightful for afternoon tea, but raising small children requires creativity, and a thick skin for public shaming. 

Sometimes,  even making it to the supermarket is a win.  Last week, Peanut squirreled out of a trip to BiLo with an impressive sickness fake-out that involved retching into a plastic bag and moaning, even producing a sweaty, hot forehead through sheer force of will. Once home, she was sorting jewellery and dancing to ABBA without a care in the world. Note to self, I thought. Stay alert. The big one can now fake a fever. 

Did you ever read that book, the Curse of The Tiger Mother? The author, Amy Chua, wrote a memoir about raising her daughters to achieve academic success through extreme discipline.   No soft, Western-style coddling.  Well, Peanut has forced me into being an accidental tiger mother. The best way to get her to do any schoolwork is to pretend she is incapable of it.  I’d quite like an encouraging, cuddly reading session with Peanut, but this method leaves her cold. Rather, I have to say ‘Well, you’re supposed to read this sentence, but you’re only five, you probably can’t do it…’ Or ‘You won’t be able to write that word. I’ll just go to the kitchen, and when I come back, I’ll write it for you.’ Then I wander off, listening to her snorts of hilarity as she scribbles away. ‘What!’ I exclaim on my return. ‘You mean you did it yourself?’ It’s clear that Peanut’s greatest motivator is a combination of amateur theatre and tricking her mother. None of this fills me with confidence for her teenage years.

It’s true this pint-sized thespian is at least partly my creation. Reading books, we like to act out scenes as they happen, and the interpretive-dance gene runs strong in the family. Nature, I wonder? Nurture? The seed or the soil?  Either way, I adore this crazy kid.  Sure, I may need a few restorative yoga weekends to get me through puberty, but I am equally sure that Peanut will bring great joy to our family with all her hi-jinks. In the meantime, I’ll keep promising Iced Vo-Vo’s for breakfast and avoiding eye-contact with strangers in the supermarket. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Heading South

Yesterday, I dreamed of getting in the car and just heading south. Just away. Everything was driving me loco. I was trapped within the walls of my house, and within the aching bones of my own body. There was clutter and mess in every corner. The baby was screaming to be picked up and my body was screaming at me to put her down. Every time I asked Ted if he wanted to do something, he shouted 'No!'

I have to conquer this mood, I thought. I know! I'll get out the painting stuff and turn this shit around. It was a terrible, masochistic self-sabotaging spiral. Instead of putting Hi-5 Hey Presto! on, giving Ted the remote and teaching him where the 'repeat' button was, I created a sick fantasy and ignored the painful reality.

To wit:

(Sick Fantasy) Teddy will sit quietly, making finger-painting butterflies and caterpillars from instructions in a book.

(Painful Reality) Teddy is mired in a  difficult developmental stage where he must differentiate himself from his mother by doing his own thing, and not what she wants him to do. This means that when I give him paper to paint on, he prefers the table, the baby and his own body as the canvas.  I KNOW THIS ALREADY.

(Sick Fantasy) The fifteen minutes I spent setting up the activity will pay off in at least half an hour of creative good fun.
(Painful Reality) 5 minutes. Tops.

(Sick Fantasy) Making the baby four colours worth of yoghurt pain on her high chair tray will keep her amused and happy for at least half an hour, and not tugging at my ankles, crying to be picked up.
(Painful Reality) 5 minutes. Tops.

(Sick Fantasy) A session of creative, calm painting together in the sunshine will turn my frown upside down and re-bond me with what I love about staying home with pre-schoolers.
(Painful Reality) No. No. No. Just no. And starting the whole process by muttering under my breath 'I really do not have time for this shit today' is, for future reference, an important marker that I am not in the spirit of the thing.

Today, today was better, as today often is after a corker of a crappy yesterday. It's a matter of resigning oneself to the lunacy sometimes. And a good nights sleep. And making a new chart that rewards Mr Happy as opposed to Mr No. And embracing the small things - like our Ebay triumph outdoor table setting, which will be so wonderful this summer, but  dangerous to our already sloppy morning routine. Here we are christening it on Monday morning. Ivy's hair looks totally deadlocked, and we are undoubtedly about to fight-wrestle a comb through it. Mine does too, but I probably won't bother with the comb. Georgie looks grumpy. She probably wants more food. Ted's face is covered in black designs. Ivy drew on him on Saturday, and I can't get the paint off. Later Monday morning, Ted went like this to swimming, where once his shirt was off he also sported a large tattoo on his back that read 'I LOVE YOU TEDDY'. 

And now I am due for a date with Keith in the big bed, with a cup of tea, the electric blanket, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, season 8. So life still holds many pleasures. I only hope that tomorrow I will be dealing with Mr Happy. (And I wish you the same.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Romantic Parenting and The Cocktail Party Theory

There's a psychological concept known as the 'cocktail party' theory which holds that you will always pick out your own name in a jumble of otherwise indistinguishable conversational babble. Your brain cuts through the noise and tunes in to what feels important.

Sometimes parenting chatter is like that for me. Blah blah blah BINGO! Something rings so true that it gives me a little shake up. And often it happens right when I need it.

Monday, I had a tough day. Just the usual: sore back, too many errands, weekend recovery, preschooler nuttiness. I had one of those ranty monologues to Keith in bed that you hate yourself for even as they burst forth, but burst forth they must.  It went along these lines...

'OH MY GOD Teddy drove me crazy today, all I'm asking him to do is pick up his toys in his room while I'm in there making the bed and putting the clothes away and it is so hard to get him to do any jobs ever unless I make it into a big game and I don't have time to make every job into a fricken game but I don't want to be so stern to get him to do anything but how can I get him to do anything? So I yelled at him and then I feel like, why? Why do I have to yell before you do anything? I feel terrible. I feel mean. I'm so TIRED. My back hurts. THE HOUSEWORK.'

Repeat, with variations, ad infinitum. It's crazy hard to get small kids to help out, no matter how small the task. At least, it is in my house. I try to enforce the rules, reward the good, ignore the bad, be consistent and firm. But I also do whatever I can to avoid the point where I must  employ the voice we call The Fishwife. And yet, the kids don't take any notice until I do. Keith, either. ( Except then we call it the Fish Husband.)

Yesterday, as I washed up,  I listened to a Life Matters podcast on Radio National. I was half-engaged; one earphone in, one ear tuned to the kids as they squirrelled around. The program was discussing smacking when this fabulous philosopher John Armstrong suddenly started talking, and my little ears pricked up. I put my other earpiece in. Then I got a pen, played him again, and wrote it down.

This is what spoke to me:

There's a romantic conception of childhood in which a child benefits from being unconstrained, and the task of the carer is to make the world so generous and safe that the child's spirit can expand without any kind of artifice or interference. 

And that contrasts with the classical conception of childhood in which... children need order and structure and that our natural condition is one of confusion and selfishness, and the task of bringing up a child is to organise and discipline and structure life, and that is the task of loving the child. That is the way in which you get a good life for your children.

And I think that we have these kind of historical roller-coaster rides when sometimes we're at a very romantic point, and sometimes we're at a very classical point. And right now, we're at the end of a very romantic conception of childhood. 

So interesting.

For me, it made me think about why I had been feeling upset at myself for cracking the whip. Like if I was less tired or more patient I could create a kind of domestic environment where everybody pitched in and did their share without nagging or coercion.

An environment where the moulding of disciplined and domestically capable young people could happen in an atmosphere of calm and creativity, if I just got the balance of rewards charts and positive reinforcement and constant encouragement so perfectly aligned so as to gently nudge the the kids along to some magical, glorious tipping point of internal motivation.

Thus, every threat, every raised voice, every punishment is a failure. As theories go, this one I seem to have developed for myself is something of a shit sandwich. Sort of classical expectations within a romantic framework.  I really do believe in discipline, and I enforce it. I think I just need to stop feeling bad about it. And buckle up. I still, after all,  have one more child to shepherd through the ages two to four.

Today, my back was hurting less, which made life 75% easier, but I also felt myself letting go of the stress about disciplining the T-Bone. I stood firm on the jobs he was required to do, and felt much less emotionally attached to his foot-stomping and wailing about it.  It's not pleasant going through those phases of standing tough as kids pull every trick in their arsenal to avoid doing stuff they don't like. It's tiring. But he needs it, I've been telling myself. It's good.  It will help him be the best person he can be.

Plus, this is the mother he got. Part good, part bad, part fishwife.

Work in progress.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

For Georgette, On The Occasion Of Her First Birthday

Dear Georgie, my darling, sweetest little baby-face, 

Happy first birthday! You did it!

Tonight, tucking you into your sleeping bag, I looked down at your funny face and I was overcome with a wave of affection. 'I love you!' I said, as I picked up up, and nuzzled into your soft neck. 'I love you, I love you!' As I said the words, I realised that you don't hear them enough, living as you are in a house full of noise and activity, where we are always cleaning up after the last thing or racing, late, to the next. 

You are so affectionate though, George. You squeaked and giggled and snuggled in and bit me happily.  It even sounded like you said 'I love you' back.... 

Those moments are even more special, scattered as they are amongst the non-stop goings-on of our life together. You are my little buddy on this non-stop Mum express. We loop on repeat  between school, day-care, swimming, soccer, shopping and music. It's full-on,  Georgie. 

Look at this photo I took tonight. 

 At five-thirty, Ivy decided to help me by cleaning out the Tupperware drawer.  She's spread all over the kitchen floor. I'm trying to roast a chicken and not drop potatoes on her head. Who knows what Ted is doing there George? Making a nappy into a boat? He's just turned four and he's certifiably nutty.  It's your dinner time, Georgie. You deserve some one-on-one time, with Mum's eyeballs on you while we chat over your pumpkin chunks. 

Nope. I'm slinging frozen peas and mashed banana onto your tray,while dealing Teddy a yellow card and                    realising I haven't done Ivy's reader yet. Again. 

See the kitchen cupboards? They are painted with undercoat, and waiting to be finished.  It's been three weeks, George. At least. 

Still, you're getting some food in there, you chunky monkey. Here you are eating porridge with blueberries, and getting ready to destroy your first of many outfits of the day. 

Not much hair yet, George, although an arty little mullet is beginning to sprout in the back. Such a great goofy smile. I almost want you only to ever have two teeth. 

You love your Dad so much. It's tough for you having him work from home sometimes. You are not above moaning sadly at the door of the bedroom he is working behind. 

Will you be an independent adventurer, George? You spend a lot of time crawling at speed around the house, eating floor lollies and emptying drawers. "Arro?' you say, as your roam around, looking for action. 'Arro? Arro?'

 As much as it pains me to think that you are missing out on the attention that your elder siblings had, I feel comforted when I see the three of you together. Often you seem to gravitate to the same room, playing at your separate games, but finding comfort in being near each other. We weren't full up until you got here George. We are closed for business now though. Oh yes. 

Now, you are a tribe, you three.  I'm sure there will be a mutiny at some point. . 

Your big brother and sister absolutely adore you even thought it might not always feel that way. 

Ted hasn't quite got it yet (three, lunatic age) but your big sister Ivy is your biggest fan. You even look alike! In the mornings, she jumps into your cot to show you gymnastics moves. She showers you with kisses, proudly shows you off to her school friends and carts you around the house like her favourite doll.  

As for me, I might be a little worn out this run around the baby-block, Georgie. My body is fighting me this year and pain has messed with my mojo. I haven't been able to carry you in a sling, or hold you as much as you (and I ) would love. I've been busy, and exhausted, and short-tempered. 

But you have never been anything but an absolute joy and a blessing.

Thanks for a wonderful year George! 

I love you I love you I love you!


Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Lots going on. 

I'm keeping house for a bunch of lulus. 

Ivy has been busy arranging her collections while wearing a paper-plate crown with golden plaits. George watches, learns. 

As for me, I am having some struggles with my back. This week my rib rotated out of place so part stuck out my front and part stuck out of my spine. But it was less fun than it sounds. I am working out my domestic frustrations in a largely unsuccessful attempt to perfect Greek yoghurt. 'This is like a yoghurt factory, ' Teddy said today. (Better than Nanna's kitchen though, methinks; today he asked me for scrambled eggs 'but don't put hair in them like Nanna does." )*

Georgie turned one this week! Here she is at school pick-up after I've been passing back strawberries from the front seat of the car in a desperate attempt to keep her happy. She is so adorable. I just wish she was happy to stay at floor level. 

The bending. 

The bending. 

They are healthy and full of beans, all these kids. But sweet mary mckillop, they can make a bloody mess. 

 I've been administering tough love or warm cuddles as required.

 Enjoying the fun bits. 

Spending lots of time in the kitchen, as always. 

Proudly watched Teddy wrote his first full sentence. It is 'There was a poo.' He says it's the start of a chapter book. 

Celebrated three birthdays: Keith, George and Teddy. All done and dusted . (More on that soon I hope.)

Washed things, lay in the bath, tried not to cry, picked shit up off the floor. 

Etc etc. 

Here's hoping that you are all blessed with warm jumpers, non-adventurous ribs and a good yoghurt recipe this week.

*I don't care Mum! I'll eat a bowl of hair as long as you come home soon. Hurry home!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Little Sisters

I feel I was a little harsh on the T-Bone yesterday. It is tough to parent a three year sometimes without the help of narcotics.  Tough to be three too. The mental picture of Ted's face crumpling into tears when he knows he is about to get busted for something he really didn't mean to do is heartbreaking. He cannot help doing this crazy naughty shit lately. And he has to get into trouble for it, or he will end up some kind of hideous little emperor. But at time it feels like punishing a Labrador puppy and it is not good for the mama's soul.

Teddy doesn't want to put his sister in the compost every day. Sometimes he tries to behave like he thinks he should. 'Bubba,' he fake-croons in imitation of the rest of the family. 'You're a good baby. Is that a nice sandwich?' It's play-acting, though. When the coast is clear he'll take possession of that sandwich and neck it back like nobody's business. 

Where Ivy sees an adorable doll to be carted around and treated with loving condescension,  Ted sees a big baby who pulls his hair and tries to eat his Sparkle World  magazine. He is blessed to have an older and a younger sister, and they will always occupy different emotional spaces. Ted wants to be Ivy. Mostly, he wants to put Georgie in the compost. 

But Teddy  is kind and gentle by nature, and despite himself, he will come to protect and cherish his little sister one of these days. If for no other reason than she is the only one who will attend his outdoor recorder festival. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Babies in The Compost, Bitches In The Supermarket

Hard to snatch time to maintain this little blog at the minute.

Ivy is in a wonderful phase of life. She's a singing, dancing, note-scribbling,craft-tastic stand-up comedian, with a black turn.  For instance one of her knock-knock jokes involves her suddenly shouting  'Just open the door you idiot!' She spends a lot of time arranging her collections and playing in the part of the garden she calls Africa.  Luckily, she is not taking much parenting at the minute, because George and Ted are sucking all the space allocated for that.

Ted has got the three-year-old crazies. (Don't you think getting a kid from ages two until four should be an Olympic sport? I don't think I would medal. But man, how I would love to watch the champions.) He's also going through some sort of middle-child bleep. Focused attention, Teddy Time, increased discipline and desperate little talks are not so far helping. He doesn't know what's going on either. He's just in that loop where there's a bigger emotional payoff for him in being tricky, naughty or obstreperous than in doing what he's asked to do. I remember Ivy going through this too. 'Let's put Georgie in the compost,' I overheard him whisper to Ivy at the dinner table. I protested and Ted tried to defend himself. 'But I don't like her!' he said.

He's hungry all the time, shooting up out of his pantaloons, tripping over his own feet like a newborn giraffe. Today, as I tried hopelessly to get him to help me put his clothes away, he pulled a go-slow, taking forever to carry a pair of pants across the room. 'But Mum, I'm so tiiiired,' he said. I restrained myself from making the first response that sprang to mind. Instead I started counting to three which I do hundreds of times a day at the minute, like some kind of demented Rain Man. Ted suddenly engaged his legs and sprang into action, but meanwhile Georgie had ambled around the corner to check out the scene. Ted got his legs confused and sat heavily on her head.

She was fine. She was fine. But there were tears from me and from her before we established that. Then, on the way to school pick-up Teddy asked me how to spell words, one after the other, until he had written his first ever sentence on the etch-a-sketch. 'There was a poo.' That sums up three-year-olds for me. They are glorious, and they break your balls.

Meanwhile, the smallest has taken to shrieking at the top of her voice when her needs are not meant instantly or she wants to chat. She doesn't cry. She just screams. She screeched her way around the supermarket this week and I can't tell you how many angry looks I got. I kept holding up my hands hopelessly at tutting strangers. 'What can I do?'  (Another Olympic sport: making a baby do anything. I would buy tickets to that event too.) One woman actually hissed 'shut up!' at the baby as she  passed. That's how bad it was. Or what a freaky bitch that lady was. Or both.

Otherwise, my hip is hurting me from breakfast to bedtime, and as soon as I have a free shift, I am in the bath. (And finally, an Olympic sport I could excel at. Gold for Australia!) If only I could just direct all household proceedings from there with a cheese sandwich, a cup of tea and a megaphone.

I shall work on that and get back to you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Honest Toddler

Last night I got to bed exhausted. I won't names, but somebody shrieked all afternoon, somebody who should have known better shat themselves and somebody came home from school covered in scary red allergic welts. My hip was killing me and I had a writing deadline. Today, I conquered the dirty house, watched Ivy give a speech at assembly and managed to get my column off. 

Swings and roundabouts. 

Also this week, via Cup of Jo, I cracked up at this post from Honest Toddler Little little bit too familiar. 

Honest Toddler Approved Recipes
1. Toast with Butter
Hold on to your seat! This is a yummy one!!
Step 1: Find an unbroken piece of perfect bread with no rips.
Step 2: Put in toaster. Don’t get distracted by a Facebook fight you have no business participating in.
Step 3: When toast pops out, INSPECT IT. Is it a uniform golden brown color? Is it still intact? If not, return to Step 1.
Step 4. Butter toast liberally.
Step 5: Ask toddler how he or she would like toast prepared or cut. Don’t make assumptions. You don’t know anything about anything.
Step 6: Serve toast.
Step 7: Has toddler changed their mind about toast? Does toddler want cut up toast to be whole again? Repair toast with your mind. If you’re not powerful enough, return to Step 1 AS MANY TIMES AS IT TAKES DON’T BE LAZY
2. Pasta with Butter
Mmmmmm! This is will be a hit every time!
Step 1: Make pasta on the stove using a pot and steam or smoke.
Step 2: Put pasta in a toddler-approved small bowl.
Step 3: Put in lots of butter. Don’t be shy or cheap.
Step 4: Mix it up properly.
Step 5: Blow until it’s the right temperature. We will be very angry if it’s too hot. VERY ANGRY.
Step 6: Do we have juice?
Step 7: Resist the urge to add spices or parmesan cheese which is not actual cheese but very small flakes of dry cheese and disgusting. If there is something wrong in your head and you try to add a puree of garbanzo beans or nutritional yeast you are not ready to be a parent.
Step 8: Serve pasta.
Step 9: Accept graciously that your toddler may no longer be hungry or may want toast (*see recipe above).
3. Crackers and Cheese
Step 1: Find an appropriate box of crackers. Ritz and Saltines are both OK. Crackers with visible seeds are NOT.
Step 2: Select 7-8 unbroken crackers. Place them on a plate.
Step 3: Select a normal, non-artisan cheese like mild cheddar. Cut squares that are all the same shape. Don’t let cracker crumbs stick to the cheese. Please take some pride in your work.
Step 4: Serve with juice in front of shows.
4. Cereal
Step 1: Find a good cereal. Good cereals have pieces that are all the same (ie. not granola). If you are a wonderful parent, you own a cereal like Corn Pops.
Step 2: Put cereal in a toddler-approved bowl. Ask the toddler before pouring if the bowl is OK.
Step 3: Ask the toddler if he or she would like milk.
Step 4: Pour milk.
Step 5: Serve cereal.
Step 6: After toddler has eaten 1-2 bites, throw away cereal without sighing or having a bad attitude.
Step 7: Pour 1 cup or dry cereal into a ziploc bag.
Step 8: Give to toddler to eat around the house and in front of shows.
Congratulations! Now you know how to cook for that special toddler in your home. Remember, the kitchen is not your personal science laboratory wherein family members are forced to consume your failed results. That’s pretty selfish, no?
If you get confused about cooking, ask grandma. She has many good recipes including but not limited to chicken nuggets.
I love you. xoxo HT
PS. Cake.