Unexpected.

I read a study about sex. The idea was the more sex you had, the more sex you wanted.

I guess shooting is similar. The more I shoot the more I want to. The catch is, it has to be good. A bad shoot can bring me low for days, a good shoot gives me a rush that makes me want to do it again. Maybe it’s more like drugs. I don’t know. It definitely improves my mood when it works. Some shoots never work despite planning it for ages. It just doesn’t translate. Oddly, my best shoots have been virtually spur of the moment with little planning. I don’t like to think about it.

I sell some of my images through Getty, only of myself or the kids – basically images that would just be sitting on my hard drive doing nothing so I figure if they’re just doing nothing they may as well be earning me some money every now and then. The best seller? It’s a photo of me that you can only see my legs on and I’m holding a bunch of balloons. I took it spur of the moment one year on B’s birthday. I was putting together all these helium balloons for her party and decided to quickly set up the camera, snapped a shot and gave it a slap up edit.

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I didn’t even have a backdrop. I’m standing between less than a metre of space between two doors that I edited out. When it sells it gives you the name of the company, sometimes you can find the image through reverse Google search. It has been bought by Samsung, by a French magazine, it’s on a German book cover… One of the quickest spur of the moment images I ever took. It’s funny how that happens.

What I discovered about myself recently though is that while I consider myself a portrait photographer, I don’t really shoot people. I shoot landscapes or props that happen to feature people. It’s why I can’t do headshots. People just aren’t the sole feature of my photographs. It’s weird how it has taken me almost 8 years to figure that out.

After it rained last time I decided to do a series with my girls. Different locations, nature, same white dress….

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I took J out spur of the moment the week after I shot B with S and B to help me. To be honest, this was not really anything like I envisioned.

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The favourite shot of mine was impromptu, I was busy piling dead leaves around J while she lay on the ground and this sprig of green leaves kept getting in the way. It was so ALIVE and vibrant that it sat in complete contrast to the muted browns, the dead and dying all around. I placed one over J’s heart.

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Hope.

The best ones are the ones you don’t know you’re going to take.

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The Ex Factor.

One of the best things I have done was to be friends with my ex husband.

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We aren’t the kind of friends who sit down for a meal but who knows, it’s not even been three years since we separated. We are the kind of friends who call the other a couple of times a week for ten or twenty minute conversations to catch up on news about the kids and relay what the other is doing in their life. We troubleshoot difficult behaviour between the kids together. We discuss how best to integrate our respective partners into our children’s lives.

This is not luck. We didn’t fall out of a relationship and just magically become pleasant to each other. Many times in the beginning one of us hurled mean words at the other down the phone, words designed to cut and sting. Frequently one of us was angry or upset. It is difficult work to untangle your lives when you have been a team for 13 years. We were not lucky to get along. We worked at it.

It was a case of being careful to keep your emotions in check around your children. It was important to remind them that the other parent loved them and that we were both there for them. It meant one of us frequently going out of our way to make the four hundred kilometre round trip so that the kids didn’t miss a visit when one of us couldn’t do it.

It was over a year before we could discuss things without just sticking to basics. It was a slow progression from painful conversation to pleasant.

When you separate and you have children it can be difficult to maintain the equilibrium. Holidays are hard. Birthdays are hard. It’s hard to know another woman is taking your daughter to buy bras or watch your kid open Christmas presents. And you have to just swallow that down because at the end of the day, I would much rather my kids have a step mother who loves them and cares for them than a step mother who resents them. It’s bittersweet.

And slowly, over time, you truly do wish them well. I am thrilled he is in love with someone and she truly seems to love him back. I use to say he wasn’t an easy man to love. I have come to realise that maybe that was because I was the wrong person to love him. I am thrilled she hugs my children when she sees them and that they run into her arms. Why would I wish my children less love and more conflict? This is what is best for them.

For my children – being friends with their father is one of the things I know I have done completely right.

The Tolerance Card.

The first week of school was a busy one. I tried to get everything ready the night before but come Monday morning we were still at panic stations at 8:30, flying out the door with a chorus of “Put on your jumper!” “Do you have your lunch?” “Where are little E’s shoes?!” I walked little E in to Prep because I didn’t have work through yet that day and I was feeling pretty good that morning, kids dropped off, took J to work and then came home and drank tea as pottered around tidying up.

The wins were that I remembered library day and sports day and people went to school with matching socks and I managed to finish my work most days not long after school drop off so I could help with homework. The losses included Lightroom catalogues that wouldn’t load causing stress for both myself and the boss lady, missing the assembly where A got his award and little E redecorating the bedroom with vomit Wednesday night.

Still, we made it through the week reasonably unscathed, one down; nine to go.

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This week in therapy it was interesting as we were working on self confidence and I had to pick several cards out of a stack all labelled with strengths and decide what mine were.

“Even if you only have a little bit of that. If it resonates even 30% then pull it out.”

I pulled out cards like, “Patience”, “Fairness”, “Creativity” and “Tolerance”. She began the EMDR machine and we explored these strengths and all was great right up until Tolerance when I discovered it made me tense and angry because I tended to associate “Tolerance” with other people being intolerant and basically how the woes of the world seem to stem from everyone thinking their way is the only way. By the end of it I was ready to put Tolerance back in the pack. I realised I’m completely intolerant to intolerance and can I really say I’m tolerant if I have intolerance to intolerant people? Jesus. It was like falling down a rabbit hole.

“Can you not just respect other people for their differing opinions?”

“I don’t know. Because in some instances, absolutely. If I am an omnivore and I’m cooking for a vegetarian friend then I can respect that and not try to sneak some chicken into their dish. But don’t we sometimes HAVE to speak out against others views? I guess it comes down to the ‘Fairness’ card. If someone is getting a raw deal and not being treated the same because of who they are then isn’t it my responsibility to use my voice to help advocate for them? Respecting other people’s opinions won’t help my gay friends get married, it won’t help those in offshore detention, it won’t help my disabled friend who can’t get somewhere because people with no permits parked in the disabled spot. Where is the line in the sand between intolerance of others views and advocating fairness for everyone?”

It’s complicated. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I didn’t care but I don’t know how to stop, I don’t know if I should. I guess my tolerance has limits when it starts seeping into the fairness department.

Here is what I think I’m going to do. I think I’m going to have to put tolerance back in the pack. But I really do think I earned that fairness card. I do think that.

Growth.

The first week of the school holidays the little children went to their fathers leaving myself, J, B and S at home. J’s boyfriend came down to spend a couple of days which was interesting because J had work leaving us at home with M for hours each day. It was election week and as J and M had recently turned 18 this was their first chance to vote and so M would come to me periodically throughout the day and ask questions for Saturday about how to vote and where to find the candidates for his electoral. It was really cool to see how much thought both he and J were putting into their choices and it’s really cool to see this new generation excited about having a voice. It makes me think that maybe the world isn’t so bad, because as long as people are thinking their minds aren’t closed off and that means they’re open to making the world a better place. I got a real kick out of that, guiding these young people to make sure they’re vote counted and telling them what a privilege it is to be able to be heard. It felt like the most adult thing I’ve ever done.

On the second day M came to me to talk about plants for his cats. He was trying to order some from an online nursery but couldn’t get the PayPal to work. I told him I was sure the local nursery would have cat grass and we could make a trip out to get some, no sense in paying for postage. So the second day while J was at work, M, S, B and myself all went to the nursery to buy plants. I have a black thumb, I’ve killed the most unkillable of plants – Rosemary who everyone says you can’t kill, even Aloe Vera once, a plant that basically thrives on neglect. I love plants but over the years I came to realise the kindest thing I could do for them was not have anything to do with them. Still, I thought maybe this time would be different so I bought an African Violet and some Lemon Balm.

Lemon Balm was one of the few things I had ever managed to successfully grow when I owned a house. Done properly it will run rampant over a garden bed like mint, a plant it bears a striking resemblance to, but when you crush the leaf of the Lemon Balm in your hand a rush of citrusy smell will be released into the air. It makes beautiful tea. And I feel an affinity to Lemon Balm because we share the same name.

I use to collect African Violets when I was small, my father would care for them in the shade house where he kept his cycads and palms…hundreds of these plants that sat in rows and rows in the shade house and spilled out into the backyard. Some of them sat in their pots so long that their roots would burst from their pots seeking the soil underneath and burrow down into the earth until moving them was an exercise in extraction. I didn’t really understand his collection of these plants, how he always seemed to want more of them and the hours he would spend repotting or watering. On the odd occasions I was pressed into service to water them for him I was quite resentful of how MANY there were. A veritable army of plants.

I had been thinking of heading to the nursery for awhile, maybe buying plants and keeping something alive and growing would be good and help with the ‘making a home’ thing. Plus, I had been trying to leave the house most days for practise so I didn’t really mind taking M to buy some plants for his cats. It seemed like a good idea.

We came home and I repotted them into plain terracotta pots, enjoying the feeling of my hands in the soil, the care of these alive things. And since then I can’t stop thinking about plants. I wish I could fill my house top to bottom, sit them out on the gravel down the side of the house. I close my eyes and I see green. I wonder if I am more like my father than I realised.

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The (fictional) Manual.

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I hate parenting pages. Actually the older I get the more I hate them. I understand they’re a necessary evil because when you first become a mum or dad you essentially have NFI what you’re doing and set out to find a method that works well for you. Except for most people I’ve come across the ‘method’ they choose is essentially what they would have done anyway but finding someone else saying it validates their parenting choice and makes them feel like they’re doing the right thing. Still, I get that.

My parenting journey now has spanned 19 years from when I was first pregnant with my eldest daughter to now, my youngest being 5. Over nearly two decades my style emerged rather organically. Much of my parenting style in the early days was learnt through observation – watching my mother tend to my younger brothers who were 8 and 11 years younger than me. And then slowly over time I kept the parts that worked for me and discarded others and found new things that worked. And obviously each child was different, with new challenges and their own unique personality.

What I didn’t have for much of my parenting journey was a team of other parents on the internet telling me I was shit. For my last three kids I have been active on the Internet but by that stage I was fairly confident in my ability to keep small humans alive so most things just rolled off my back. Actually, I wish I had the same self confidence in other aspects of my life. I find it really easy to just say an internal, “Oh, fuck off,” to unsolicited parenting advice – meanwhile mimicking Sia when I leave the house trying to hide my face from someone that glances at it lest they notice my freckles or smile lines or hormonal chin pimples. But parenting I’m celebrity confident at.

It’s NOT that I figure I have it all worked out. It’s that I am okay with the fact I don’t. That what works today may not work tomorrow. That as long as I try to be fair, respect my children, don’t sweat the small stuff and try every day to do my best that there is very little I can do in any 24 hour period that is going to ruin their life. I’m not going to berate myself for feeding little Jimmy a ham sandwich just because some other mum on the Internet wants to talk about how her kid doesn’t even know pork exists just because it makes her feel better about her own choices.

Parenthood actually isn’t hard. It’s the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect because we care SO MUCH that is hard. Every time I see a photo with some accompanying text that says, “Do this for your kid or its DOOOOOOMED” I feel simultaneously grateful that I’m not brand new in the parenting pool and sad for every new parent wading in that thinks if they aren’t baby wearing their 18 year old will have insecurity issues.

So this is the only piece of advice I am going to give you.

There is no manual.

There is not a single book or site or program or baby whisperer on the whole planet that can give you a step by step guide to not fucking up your kids. In fact, so long as they’re fed and clothed and you are doing your best, chances are – you aren’t going to fuck them up anyway. If you’re a SAHP – you aren’t going to fuck them up. If you’re a working parent – you aren’t going to fuck them up. No matter whether your kid is bottlefed or breastfed – it isn’t going to fuck them up. If you miss out on awards day because you completely forgot – they will get over it. If you still kiss them goodbye at the school gate at 15 – no harm done.

There is no manual. It’s just you learning how to parent in a way that works FOR YOU. It’s okay to hate some parts. It’s okay to admit you have an age that you don’t really mesh with (for me that’s ages 8-12, big struggle).

Kids are resilient. Parenting is fun. Family is amazing. Feel free to hide parenting pages on Facebook from your newsfeed. People were doing this long before the Internet told them how.

Fifteen years later.

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Do you remember the worst day of your life?

My middle daughter is my rainbow baby. A rainbow baby is the child born after the loss of another. They’re the child that can never erase the pain of who you lost but remind you there is joy in the world.

The worst day of my life happened in 2001. I didn’t know when I woke up that anything would be different. In fact, I was looking forward to the day ahead because I was 15 weeks pregnant and was going for an ultrasound that day. The pregnancy was hard from the start. At 5 weeks I had begun bleeding – sure I had miscarried I already had grieved the loss of that baby. The next day I went for an ultrasound and saw a tiny bean floating unscathed. A repeat ultrasound a few weeks later after the bleeding stopped showed a flickering heart beat. The tech saw a shadow of something though and said I should go to the Royal for a better ultrasound. That was the one I was scared for. But there they waved the wand over my stomach, the gel cold on my skin and declared everything perfect. They told me to book in later for a follow up but everything seemed great. Perfect.

By 15 weeks I thought it was just a cool chance to see my baby again. I felt like it was a boy. My stomach had already begun to swell beneath my pants, I had bought the next size up and joked I would need maternity clothes soon. I could feel the faintest of butterfly wings sweeping inside me as he swam in his watery cocoon. I had picked names. I wondered what Christmas would be like this year with a tiny baby. I wondered if my daughters would be excited by their new sibling.

On the worst day of my life I lay in a thin table in a dimly lit room while my husband sat beside me anxious to see our baby. A woman I had never met squirted gel on my stomach and a smooth wand glided across the small rise of my abdomen.

I knew instantly something was wrong.

Here was my baby who was waving his arms and legs in a greeting, here was his rounded stomach and tiny face. But, oh, his head. I can never describe the quiet of that room. The silence as she repeatedly went back over his skull and viewed how misshapen it was. From the front on, he was a baby like any other. From the side, his skull stretched upwards, elongated and almost twice the length it should be. I kept wanting to say to her to please go back to the front view. I didn’t want to see what I was seeing. And I couldn’t pull my eyes away.

“Excuse me,” she said, and left the room.

The quiet between myself and my husband hung thickly in the air. What comfort could I possibly offer him at this time when I knew in my heart that something was terribly wrong? My thoughts spun out in a thousand different directions. Our baby is sick. Something is wrong. I thought of all the ways they could fix babies now, even doing in utero surgery. This was terrifying but they would fix him.

The woman came back with a man. I could walk past him in the street and never recognise him. I have no idea what he looked like. But his words are scarred into my memory. He looked a long time. And then he spoke, “What do we have here? Well, what we have here is a bad baby. A very bad baby. This baby is incompatible with life, a nurse will discuss your options.”

He left and I excused myself to the detached bathroom leaving the woman and my husband alone in the darkened room.

Incompatible with life, incompatible with life, incompatiblewithlife….

A mistake. It wasn’t. They could fix it. No they couldn’t. My son was going to die.

I didn’t want to cry. I gripped the sides of the basin in front of me and stared into my own wild eyes and whispered through gritted teeth, “Stop it! Stop. It… Don’t.”

And then all at once I broke. I keened. I sobbed raw, wretched cries, painfully aware that on the other side of the flimsy sliding door my husband and the woman stood awkwardly listening to the sound of a heart breaking.

On the worst day of my life I was ushered into a room in the antenatal clinic and spoke to a nurse about therapeutic termination. I spoke to a doctor who was efficient and kind and explained the process.

This was what was wrong with my son. He had encephalocele. A severe neural tube defect that made his skull bones fail to fuse. His brain was exposed to the amniotic fluid. He would likely not survive that much longer. He would never survive delivery. He would never take a breath.

The procedure would be a series of pessaries inserted near my cervix to begin labour. After some time I would give birth. He would be sent for autopsy. They would cremate him. His remains would be interred at the hospital. There was a service once a month for the babies like him. Babies too young to be legally recognised as babies. Babies born before 20 weeks. “You won’t have to have a funeral,” they said by way of a comfort. As though the fact that his existence could be erased so easily would be a comfort to me.

On the worst day of my life I set a date to come back. We rode home in silence, my swelling stomach a painful reminder of what we were going to lose.

When I came back to the hospital days later I laboured for 7 hours. They offered me morphine because there is no danger to taking drugs when your child will not survive. I refused because I needed to feel everything. My water broke just after 7pm. A midwife came in and delivered the tiniest fairy of a baby you have ever seen. She announced he was a boy. I couldn’t bear to look at him so she took him away. The placenta wouldn’t shift so I was wheeled to theatre. The shot me full of something that made me sleepy and calm. My face was a blank stone. Tears rolled from my eyes unchecked. A nurse opened the curtains and looked alarmed. “Are you in pain?” She asked. I shook my head, mute and stared at the ceiling. She stepped forward, laid her hand over mine, dry and warm, “Just your heart, hey?” She whispered. My eyes met hers, I gave an imperceptible nod. She gave one back.

They put me to sleep.

The next day they brought him to me. His hands and feet bore blue ink from where they had printed them. He was wrapped in a blanket. I didn’t shift it from the top of his head, not willing to look at the defect that had stolen him from me. I was scared to touch him because I knew he would be cold. I stayed with him a long time. I admired his long feet and tiny toes. Riley.

We went home. I stayed in bed for three days.

Riley would be almost 15 if he were alive today. If I look at his siblings I can almost patchwork together a picture of how he would have looked. For years after his short time on earth, spent entirely within the safety of my womb where he was nothing but completely loved and wanted, I felt his absence often. Because of who I am I wanted an answer why. I researched everything. I second guessed myself. Two years after his death I called the doctor and she patiently went back over everything with me. The hardest things to deal with is when there is no why.

I met a woman a couple of years later who had recently lost her daughter in the same way I lost Riley. She was the biggest comfort to me, someone who understood completely the Worst Day, who knew the helplessness, the agony. Who else could I explain to that even though he passed away, my sorrow was mixed with a joy, because he had also lived. That what you wanted was not always to brush him away as though he never existed but to talk about him. We passed our children’s names to each other and held them like a gift. We could speak freely of regret and sadness and love. I will love her forever for the space she gave me to talk of my son. I hope I gave her some comfort to talk of her daughter.

Now, years later we both have more children. Rainbow babies whose presence in our houses smooth over some of the cracks in our hearts. Children who yell and laugh and dance and sing and remind us that joy can be had.

You may wonder why the worst day in my life was not the day he left me, the day he was born. The worst day was when I knew I had to give him up, never the day I first saw him, a fleeting glance before the nurse took him away. I could never regret that. Seeing him was one of my best memories, however tinged with sadness.

For all the babies who we carry in our hearts, whose mothers and fathers silently sing their name. Whose place in the house is a Christmas ornament on the tree bearing their name, a statue in the garden, a photo on the wall. You were never forgotten.

Sink or Swim.

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Earlier this week a well known writer posted an article about how her son doesn’t do chores because his only job is to be a child. To a degree, I get that. My five year old doesn’t have any chores either. But Lana’s son isn’t five – he is fifteen. In three years he will be able to drink, vote and be a legal adult. I have no concerns that this boy will grow to be a responsible and contributing member of society. From reading her life for some time now I can see that he appears from the outside to a a pretty decent kid. And so obviously whatever she is doing works for her.

My general opinion though is very different. Worlds apart – if you will. Because the world is hard and nothing is free and everything comes with a price. My children have been raised to help out a decent amount. In fairness – I have six children and for a good chunk of my parenting journey a work away husband – Lana has one child and what seems to be a hands on husband. I COULD do everything myself but I figure if they’re going to be part of a family then they need to understand that means we help each other out. Oh, and I don’t pay them for chores either. Sorry. No one will pay you to do the dishes when you leave home. At what point did ‘childhood’ come to mean ‘super loads of fun with no responsibility’? Being a child means play, school, lack of responsibility for things like rent, bills, taxes, car maintenance and politics. You can have all those things and still load the dishwasher.

In my opinion there is a vast difference between a little child of five and a budding adult of fifteen. Teen years is where you need to start giving them the lessons they will need to know to make it in the world. I’m not interested in making life easier for them, in the blink of an eye they will be out from under my wing, unsheltered and I need to know they can weather storms on their own. It becomes a transformation from ‘raising a child’ to ‘raising an adult’.

It’s hard. It’s much easier to say yes, to do it yourself, to pay that for them, to say ‘just keep it’ when you’ve agreed your 18 year old will start paying board. It is incredibly difficult as a parent to take the floaties off your child and then watch them learn to swim. The desire to throw them a rope is overwhelming. It’s hard. But as a mother, I set my jaw and offer advice instead of aid.

This year my 8 year old will get his first proper chore. He will be expected to unload the dishwasher every day. To begin with, one of the older children will buddy him and then he will have to do it alone. Chores will be shuffled as the littler kids learn other aspects to keeping house. From fifteen I know my eldest daughter could have ran the house herself. At 18 – preparing to leave home (she has just begun collecting items for her own place now) – I know she will do fine. That more than just the mechanics of a task she understand the cost of meals, the time a job will take, the importance of doing it correctly.

I understand that children frequently do not want to do chores. But as my kids know and often sing to each other, “You can’t always get what you want.”