On doing, rather than being…

6AC368C3-A67B-4729-A13B-98D5C4EDAEAC.jpegThe thing I am not very good at is sitting.  Being still.  Waiting, contemplating. I tend to jump right onto things, without thinking too much about why. I am restless, I suppose.  I rearrange the furniture a lot.

I believe I am a person who likes an action plan. I like to know where I am going, when I will get there and how many steps are involved. Which is ironic really,  since I feel like much of my life has proceeded without alsuch rigour.  As such I seem to spend a lot of time meandering around in  circles, looking for the door to the next level.

I have spent all my life wondering what to be when I grow up, and now, in the firm grip of middle age, when one should surely feel accomplished and grown up and settled, I am more confused than ever. How can I feel so old on one hand (gravity is not my friend), and so lacking in authority and gravitas on the other?  I do not feel grown up at all, but the face in the mirror says different.  

This feeling of inadequacy, of limited expertise, is a narrow view restricted to new things of course,  not the vast expertise gathered  in a career I never really intended and never have felt particularly zingy about.  In continually seeking something fresh to be, I feel like I have spent all my life hovering around the starter blocks, endlessly dabbling.

As I gear up for my first exam in over two decades tomorrow, two things occur to me 

  1.  I should really be running through my notes rather than pontificating on the meaning of life, and
  2. Maybe I don’t know where I am going, or why I’ve take up a degree in brain science at this point (except that it is fascinating stuff), but what I have come to realize is that it’s not about being something. It is not about some potential endgame.  It’s just the thrill of doing.

I really should know this about myself by now and be more accepting of the way I engage with the world. I enjoy doing new things, experiencing things, expanding my mind and engaging as fully as I can in the possibilities of this one precious conscious life I am lucky enough to have.  And the very nature of seeking new, means one very seldom gets to be an expert in them.   Maybe if I took time out to think about it, one day it might sink in! 

Snowy lessons in Christmas.

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Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.

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It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.

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To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.

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I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.

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.

 

The art of holidaying

We have different holiday styles, my husband and myself.  His involves a lot of sleeping and reading and resting and relaxing, while mine seems to moving, doing, visiting, seeing, achieving.  I think he may have the right idea, but I don’t seem to have the skill set required for restful recuperation.  I am trying though, and sheer exhaustion is helping me get there.   Today, after I got up at 6am and walked along the beach for 4km, I fell back into bed and slept until 11.33.  Unprecedented.  Oddly – that feeling of lethargy and slight breathlessness that has accompanied me for most of this year  seems to have abated as a result.  Think my body is trying to tell me something.

Actually, combining our two holiday styles works best.  Rest day, Do day, Rest day, Do day.  I just have to remember it is okay to rest.  I think I have always been highly strung, achievement focused, busy.  I get itchy in my head after sitting still for too long (and by too long I mean about 25 minutes).  My mind pulls up the list of shoulds and coulds, things still undone, opportunities abandoned.  I literally have to get up and move about, make something happen.  Write something, bake something, fix something, think something.  Make a list, set a task, put together a plan.  I think resting is a skill and I don’t appreciate its value enough.  I have to learn to rest and appreciate stillness, rather than trying to fill the quietness with activity.

Which is what this Christmas holiday is about.  Here in Perth we aren’t on any mission to see new things.  We’ve done most of it before anyway.  We are beaching and chilling by the pool, eating too much, going to movies, playing board games, hanging out with family and sleeping.   Right now the kids are wallowing in the pool, making up games and playing together without squabbling, and with no device in sight!  (Now, that actually is an achievement!).   And, I am enjoying sitting here (okay I am typing, but with no sense of pressure about having to do it – despite the fact that Christmas Eve is almost upon us!) .  In fact, maybe feeling more rested makes us better able to enjoy and appreciate the wonderfulness of our lives. Maybe activity begets activity and rest begets appreciation?

Whatever it is, I am liking this feeling of peace – however momentary.  I need to remember to appreciate things more in 2017.  To slow down and focus on what matters, to do the tasks I choose well and mindfully and to do things for myself for no ulterior motive other than enjoyment.  Perhaps that is the best Christmas gift we can give ourselves – learning the art of appreciation 😉

Wherever you are in the world, thank you for being part of my extended circle of family and friends.  Wishing you all a wonderful, peaceful, restful Christmas and a 2017 full of hope and an appreciation of those moments of joy!

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.

 

Puppy Love

If you follow me on instagram (@sharlzed), it would be hard to miss that I have just become a new fur-mum.  Yes, some people have puppies (and I honestly thought I would be one of those), but it turns out I have a fur-child.  You can tell this by the number of   photos of the dog sleeping, eating, running and (oh I can’t describe the joy this brings me) wee-ing on the grass rather than on my newly cleaned wooden floors.

Everyone said – “You’ll end up doing all the hard work”, and they weren’t wrong.  But I was ready for a dog.  I haven’t had one since I was a child, and even then my experiences weren’t great.  Poor old Honey, sent to romp in doggie heaven because of bad eczema (I remember sitting in the front of my Dad’s VW bus, under the tree, being told Honey wasn’t going to be our dog anymore).  I was about 6 I think.  Then there was the little Jack Russell, who as they are wont to do, ran away and got run over.  I think I was 8.  And that was pretty much it for my dogs.  There was Lady – my Dad’s bull terrier, who was unjustifiably blamed (and yelled at by an hysterical me) for biting off the top of my 2-year old brother’s finger – when I was ten.  For the record, he got his finger caught in one of those stable-style kitchen doors that slammed shut in a wind gust.  Poor Lady.  My other memory is of her drinking out the toilet bowl.  My dad loved that dog.  I should probably mention Steffie the Staffie, but I was long grown up and moved out of home by the time she was around.

So, I was ready for a dog.  And it is a good thing too, because they are hard work.  A lot like having children – you have to feed them, train them, be patient with them (not my strongest point), provide endless cuddles and attention.  And, just like children, they have a mind of their own, that is not always aligned with mine.  Ah, the frustration of independent thought 😉  I find I do a lot of wheedling with everyone in my family.   Is that just me?

But the dog is such a blessing.  His sheer enthusiasm for us – from his early morning bark to say “I am awake, wake up and love me”, to the jubilant wriggling that occurs when we come back home, forces me to stop and appreciate the moment.  You have to pause and give him love, and it reminds me to take a breath and pause and give attention to the people I love too.

Working from home, it is gorgeous to have a little living thing at my feet, just quietly content to be near me.  If I get up and make a cup of tea, he follows me and plops down beside me patiently.  He is like a little shadow.  A solid little shadow I have tripped over several times, but a delightful one all the same.  And it means I have a reason to talk out loud – a habit I got into when my kids were babies and I haven’t managed to give up yet.  A dog provides at least some semblance of an excuse for these random mutterings.

The children christened the dog Rocky long before we met him.  It is an ironic name, since he is far more fur-ball than dog-of-steel.  And they hate it when I call him Sylvester.  A cultural reference far beyond their ken, they are convinced it will confuse him.  So Rocky it is.  Or Puppy.  Or Dog.  But only when they are not around.

Yes, I have a bad case of Puppy Love.  And I would recommend it to everyone.