On cleaning messes

I don’t normally go for the “mums have it tough” type videos, but this one, by blogger Esther Anderson, was too good to resist. To quote the Huffington Post article it appeared in:

Parents know that taking care of little ones and keeping the house clean is a truly Sisyphean endeavor. No matter how long you clean, feed, wash and dry, new messes always appear, and you have to start all over again.

There was a time when this bothered me. I like things neat. Mess is a very visceral thing for me. Piles of clothes, scattered lego and unwashed dishes make my throat constrict and my mind panic.

Now I try to breathe through the mess. Slow down, appreciate the moment with my kids and move on with my day.

Scribbled notes in my book

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time.

My copy is inherited from my mother, last read when she was a boarding school student in Sydney. Being a migrant who spoke little English, she wrote little notes for herself along the margins in cursive writing, translating difficult sentences into easier ones.

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This pleases me. Whenever Heathcliff and Cathy got a bit much with all the brooding and sighing and galavanting through the moors, I’d calm myself by reading my mother’s notes.

What are you reading at the moment?

You aren’t what you eat

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“I have a confession to make: I’ve become a food legalist. In my mind there are two lists of food: one labelled ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. Every day, for most meals, I place different foods in either column. This may not sound unusual in an age of fad diets, but what is odd about my lists is how arbitrary they are. Rather than simply saying, “broccoli good, donuts bad”, I have managed to distil eighteen months worth of celebrity nutritional advice into a fastidious Code of Eating.”

My latest article is about my tumultuous relationship with quinoa. Read the rest here on the fabulous Kiki and Tea.

Baby showers for dads

I recently organised a baby shower for a friend so practical, her ideal present was a month’s supply of wet ones. “Don’t feel you need to make a fuss,” she emailed. “Simple food, a few games, no frills.”

Diligently, I threw myself into research mode, i.e. Pinterest over a glass of wine. I emerged three hours later, drunk on images of women gathered around cake, rubber duck centrepieces and pastel coloured mason jars. Even though I have children of my own and been to many a shower, I was intrigued by how many sites assumed baby showers are only for women. Why aren’t men included in the pre-baby hoopla? Who is giving the dad-to-be a crash course in how to change a sodden nappy half blind at 3am in the morning? Amidst the fun, does the gendered nature of the traditional baby shower reflect what parenting looks like today?

With more mums in various forms of paid employment, the reality is that parenting in 2014 is a team effort. According to recent ABS figures, the number of Australian stay-at-home dads has almost doubled in the past decade to 106,000. Even men with full time jobs can change nappies and rock a baby carrier. After I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I – collectively possessing the parenting experience of a whelk – shared most roles (minus the ones that involved lactating nipples).

So it makes sense that an increasing number of women are choosing to include men in their baby celebrations. When Meg was expecting her first child, she and her husband threw a baby shower for both sexes. “It always seemed bizarre to deliberately set out to create an event that sought to exclude a male partner from all things baby before the child was even born,” says the mother-of-two. “While there is a very long way to go, we are increasingly a society that seeks to embrace shared parenting and shared primary care. A single sex celebration simply reinforces a division between male and female domains.”

For other couples, throwing a mixed sex baby shower is a conscious effort to include men in the lead up to birth. Although Mila Kunis bemoans men who speak of ‘our’ pregnancy, dads-to-be can experience the same mix of emotions as their partners, yet have little in the way of support. Thora, a Sydney based mother of two, chose to include her husband in a “joint celebration” so that he would feel more involved in the pregnancy. “My husband felt one step removed from the pregnancy, almost like it wasn’t real,” she says. “A joint shower was another thing he could be a part of to make it more real.”

But before you chuck out the bunting, throwing a mixed shower doesn’t mean boycotting games or decorations. While some couples opt for a casual barbeque (that’s ‘babyque’ on the invitations if you’re feeling cute), others like to get creative. Meg and her husband threw a literary themed afternoon tea. “The food was inspired by our much loved children’s books: turkish delight from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, carrot cake from There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, pavlova from Possum Magic. We encouraged those guests, who felt that they wanted to give, to bring a book to start our baby’s library,” she says. “One week later, our baby was born and it was such a happy memory, that we’d spent that day with all of the people special to us before we were plunged into the wonderful whirlwind of parenthood.”

As for my practical friend, her party was an eclectic mix of potluck dishes, mocktails, chilled music and yes, both men and women. And true to her personality, there was not a rubber duck or painted mason jar to be seen.

On growing into my name

I changed my first name when I got married eight years ago.

It happened like this: when I was born, my parents gave me a Chinese name, accompanied by an English middle name on the birth certificate. Back then it was common for migrant families to christen their kids with an English name and a Chinese name they rarely used, so my family followed suit and called me Sophia. Growing up, I assumed that was my official name so apart from my birth certificate, I put everything under my English name – my drivers’ licence, bank accounts, un enrolment, gym membership, even library cards.

Then I got married and decided I wanted to adopt my husband’s last name. I needed to do one of those 100 point ID checks at the bank but I couldn’t, because I had technically created two identities: Ming Huey Chua and Sophia Chua. Ever the pragmatist, I didn’t want the hassle of officially changing my name to Sophia, so I decided – by keeping my legal name – to ‘change my name’, so to speak. I became Ming Russell. Middle name Huey, because my parents also forgot to hyphenate my Chinese name on the birth certificate.

I didn’t think much about my name change until Tamie blogged about changing her last name (off the topic, but her post on the biblical subversion of taking a man’s name is worth a read).

It feels wrong admitting this, but Ming feels separate from me. I don’t automatically stand up when receptionists calls her (my?) name in the waiting room. Ming isn’t in my signature. Once, when work booked flights for an overseas business trip under ‘Sophia’, I argued for 10 minutes with airport staff that it was my real name, completely forgetting my passport said differently.

I wonder, is it her Otherness I feel? Her obvious Chinese-ness, marking what is easy to ignore after being raised in Australia?

I hope not. Even though she surprises me at the doctor’s surgery now and then, I am glad she is there, my official name, nestled in my identity like a warm stone.

Could you survive on the Newstart allowance?

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This month I wrote a small piece for Eternity magazine on Share the Benefit:  a five-week event created by Anglicare to give Christians a taste of poverty in Australia. Participants record how much food they spend in a week, live on a reduced amount equivalent to the Newstart allowance, then donate the difference between the two budgets to Anglicare.

The program was a great experience and I recommend everyone give it a go. From my piece:

Last year, Families Minister Jenny Macklin controversially claimed she could live on the Newstart allowance of $38 a day. There is some truth to her claim; you will not die of starvation living off the Newstart allowance. By the end of the week, we were still able to eat, albeit cobbled together meals in smaller portions than we are used to. But here’s the rub: although you can survive, there are few resources for much else. There is no money for going out with friends. You have less consumer power to choose nutritious food over cheaper options (a kilo of Homebrand chicken nuggets is cheaper than a kilo of fresh chicken). There is nothing left over to save, no financial buffer.  

You can read the rest here (page 5).

Do you say sorry to your children?

It was a scuffed pair of velcro shoes that was the morning’s undoing.

I was flapping around the house, answering emails, unearthing clean clothes, trying to make a sandwich from the last scrape of vegemite in the jar. My four-year-old son was eating his cereal one cornflake at a time; proving true the law that says the more you rush, the longer your preschooler will take to do things. Together we laboured over his clothes, debated his need for the toilet, negotiated his socks (“the ones with stars, mummy, not stripes”) and then finally got to his shoes

.Oh those shoes. Instead of putting them on his feet – a job he is well versed at – said preschooler threw them down the stairs. Hot bubbles of anger burst in every synapse. You may have experienced this moment before, when you switch with alarming speed from Zen mother to some sort of fire breathing dragon. In fury I shouted, “Would. You. Just. Put. On. Your. Shoes!”

My son’s face collapsed. “Don’t yell at me,” he said, his words an unflinching mirror. I had hurt him terribly. There was only one thing to say; a word easily offered and if sincere, precious to the recipient. I said sorry.

Sometimes I forget to apologise to my two children. It’s because I’m too proud to admit my faults, or oblivious to the ways I can hurt them. It’s because after years of mother’s groups, breastfeeding clinics and play dates, I’ve become so used to talking about my children that sometimes I neglect to talk honestly to them.

Confessing wrong – not the quick apology you toss when you’ve accidentally pumped your child’s knee, but the heartfelt kind that leaves you vulnerable to another – just isn’t part of the preschooler lexicon. We’re quick to point out our children’s wrongdoings and demand apologies, but much slower to offer them ourselves. Given the trusting nature of children, it’s easy to brush over hurt with an extra cuddle while neglecting what needs to be said.

When I sat down on the carpet next to my son and said, “I’m sorry”, it showed him how much I value his feelings; that everyone makes mistakes. It also gave him an opportunity to forgive me (which he did, with an earnestness that made my heart burst). This simple exchange, so few in words yet rich in depth, strengthened our bond. And it was just enough to get us through those days when tempers run amok and shoes go flying down the stairs.

 

Rise of the Mummy Bloggers

My article on Christian ‘mummy bloggers’ is out in Eternity. You can read the digital copy here (the piece starts on page 4).

I enjoyed researching this piece. It was fun chatting to such a diverse group on women about how they have carved their own little space – each one different – in the blogosphere.

You can read some of their blogs here:

No Reading At The Breakfast Table
168 Hours
Essentially Jess
Mummy’s Undeserved Blessings
Cecily Paterson

I’m just saying…dreams don’t always come true.

I was convinced I would get the job.

As a stay-at-home mum, I’d spent the last five months looking for work: scouring ads, emailing resumes, making inquiries. Then, late last year, I saw it. The proverbial Dream Job. The advertised journalist role was a rare breed: flexible hours, challenging, matched to my level of experience and well paid.

I sent off my resume and was delighted to land an interview, despite needing to borrow a skirt and do some creative layering to pass off my one dressy top as work attire. They loved my work. I was invited to have coffee with the publisher. We discussed which days would work around my kids. I started mentally spending my first pay check.

Did I mention I was convinced I’d get the job?

So it was a shock when I didn’t. The rejection arrived in my inbox at 8:30am; a two-liner saying someone more suitable had been offered the job. Cue the thud of my dream career smacking the pavement.

Mrs Lodwick, my grade six teacher who taught me all dreams were possible, did not prepare me for that moment, staring at the computer screen while my children ate rice bubbles. That moment when my hard work had yielded nothing but a well-formatted resume and a skirt that needed dry-cleaning.

Years of reading fairytale endings in magazines hadn’t prepared me either. I’d read articles of CEOs who emerged from humble beginnings to shape entire industries. Cover stories of celebrities who had miracle babies at 45. Profiles of models – and it’s always models – who achieved a perfect work-life balance while finding their life’s passion, be it organic cosmetics or designer baby shoes. According to reality television, the biggest perpetrators of the great dream narrative, dreams come to those who are determined, along with a $10,000 book deal.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. My Kitchen Rules is lying. The magazines are lying. The reality is that for most people, dreams often don’t come true.

I realise in saying this, I sound like the Grinch; a destroyer of rainbows, butterflies and all that is good. To clarify, I’m not against pursuing goals, nor do I resent those who have found their passion in life.

I’m just asking the question: are these dream lives an accurate reflection of reality? Where are the real stories?

Where’s the story of my artist friend Jess, who struggled to sell her work? Or Lisa, who climbed the ladder of her dream career, only to find the long work hours had destroyed her health? Or Denise, who dreamt of working with remote communities in Bangladesh, but had to return to Australia when her daughter needed specialised medical help?

The problem with elevating the pursuit of dreams above all else is no-one knows quite what to say if those dreams fall apart, apart from “don’t give up”, “keep believing” or some story about a street sweeper who grew up to be president.

People mean well, but these words aren’t always true. Dreams can be thwarted. Maybe it’s a health issue or a family circumstance. Maybe – and I’m putting back on my Grinch mask here – the talent just isn’t there. Not everyone can land a record deal or make it to the Olympics. Not everyone can be in the top 5% of their industry.

We’re taught to batter through every obstacle, but is this always the best advice? Although charging ahead makes us feel like Beyoncé, there are times in life when there’s no shame in backing down. It’s a fine line between persevering through difficulty and trying to make happen things that are beyond our control; between the need to persist and the need to gently prise apart that precious dream and make a few tweaks.

My friends know the difference. Jess used her artistic talent to move into advertising and is now being headhunted by other agencies. Lisa moved to the Gosford where she works for a smaller firm, enjoys good health and is a passionate Amnesty volunteer. Denise has found work in Australia supporting overseas health projects. Her daughter, meanwhile, is thriving. All have amazing lives, despite technically not having reached their dreams.

They are also all remarkable people – proof that achievements say nothing about your self worth. I cringe whenever magazines pour over celebrities who are ‘living the dream’, as if the zenith of what it means to be human is found in launching your own label, getting married or having a bikini ready body six weeks after giving birth.

On the other hand, it is tragic when someone believes they are worthless because their dreams have gone awry. Success is a multi dimensional concept, not something that can be measured by whether a network has deemed you one of Australia’s Top 20 Dancers. Living a particular dream doesn’t guarantee a successful life. It cannot answer the question of whether we are happy. Whether we have the courage to stick by our principles. Whether we love others and are loved in return. Whether our lives contribute to something beyond ourselves.

Giving ourselves permission to fail at our dreams also, ironically, frees us to pursue them with great abandon, if that’s our chosen path. Think about it. When your self-worth isn’t tied to achieving a particular dream, you aren’t afraid of what happens if you fail. You’re free to a) persevere, b) change that dream for a better fit, or c) a path I’ve perfected – fail in a blaze of glory and pick yourself up, tattered but whole. You have nothing to lose because you know you’re valuable, even if your dreams never come true.

At least that’s how I live. For now, I’m open to the possibility that my perfect career/dream life/whatever-you-call-it may wander into unchartered territory. Just do me a favour. Don’t tell me my dreams will come true if I try hard enough. They may not.

And if that happens, I’ll still be happy.

206 more times to play hide and seek

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When my children ask me for the 17th time in one day to play hide and seek, I can always think of other things I’d rather be doing. Finishing the washing. Cooking dinner. Working on my latest freelance job. Answering emails. The relentless task of parenting and my need to Achieve Things during the day has turned me into a taskmaster. Playing is an aberration; a distraction I want to outsource or dispense with quickly.

But lately, I’m trying to remember that my days here, in this strange world inhabited by cheese sandwiches, scabby knees and imaginary dinosaurs, are brief.

There will always be more emails to send, more dinners to cook and definitely more washing to be done. There is only a finite amount of times my children will ask me to play hide and seek.

Maybe I’m already halfway through my assigned quota and I’ve only got 206 times more to go. That’s 206 more times I’ll pretend to hide behind a curtain while gabbling “yooo-hooo…come and find me!”. Or 206 more times I’ll hear them shrieking as they tear up the stairs. Only 206 more times they’ll whip that curtain back and offer up their faces to me – two peaches glowing with unbridled joy. 206 more times until their orbits broaden and I am no longer their world.

From that perspective, the washing can wait. Today, I’m down to 205 times, my children are counting to ten and there’s a table out there I need to barely conceal myself under.

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