That time my daughter needed an exorcism.

Do we even like being parents anymore? I’m joking, obviously but I go through memes and photos and posts every day taking about a) how hard this gig is and b) how we all need to self medicate to survive parenthood.

And the funny part is, almost all the things complained about are the parts of parenting I secretly don’t mind so much. Like the fact my five year old will come and ask me something and use a word that isn’t correct or say a sentence that doesn’t make sense, and when I say I don’t understand she will repeat the EXACT SAME WORD just slower or louder like she is speaking to someone of incredibly low intelligence.
“What day is tomorrow?”
“Friday.”
“No. What DAY is tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is Friday.”
“No. The day after today. WHAT DAY is it?”
“Dude. It’s Friday. I don’t know what answer you want.”
“The day after today.”
“Tomorrow?”
“Yes. What DAY is that?”
“Tomorrow is Friday.”
“No. WHAT…DAY…IS…IT?”
“….you need to go play.”

It’s infuriating. It makes me want to stab myself to death with a spoon. But it’s absolutely hilarious and that’s what I love about parenting.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been on this whirly-gig for almost two decades now. But all those things that drive you insane today? Funny as shit in 5-10 years time. Trust me. One day your house will be clean, your car won’t have smashed milk arrowroot on the carpet, your kids will hold conversations that actually make sense and you will MISS this insanity.

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Let me tell you a story. It’s one of my favourites. To set the scene my eldest daughter is 7 years old. You wouldn’t know it to look at her now but she had this incredible temper when she was little. In fact, most people unless they experienced one of her infrequent but volatile rages wouldn’t have believed me then. This particular day it is summer and I am getting the kids to school. My Nanna took us because I didn’t drive back then and I was about 25 weeks pregnant with my first son and fourth child. Nanna was waiting in the car with E who was 3 and going to go swimming with her auntie that day. I am walking a 7 year old J and 6 year old B into their catholic school. Everything is fine.

I think I need to stop here and explain that I carry large with boys. Like, I’m big. With girls I have a teeny compact rockmelon under my dress, with boys…let’s just say that I was once stopped at 15 weeks pregnant with R and asked how much longer I had. (I may have growled at them).

Anyway, I’m waddling along and I mention to B that it is water play at her class today. She had swimmers and a towel and her class was going to play with sprinklers and buckets of water and have a grand old time. J says, “Why does she get water play and I don’t?”
I explain that her class is having a water play day, I don’t know, I don’t make the rules. She immediately launched into how unfair this was. B getting water play and E getting to go swimming.
“I can take you swimming at Nanna’s after school,” I say.
Not good enough. J is saying that is also unfair because then her sisters have done two water things and she has only done one. Her friends wave hello. She glares at them. She is beginning to melt down. She starts screaming she doesn’t want to go to school.
“I DON’T WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL! I DON’T WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!”

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I kiss B goodbye and push her towards her classroom and away from her sisters wrath. People are staring. The bell rings and it’s assembly day so kids begin to move towards the hall. Throngs of children and me clutching my demon child’s hand while she struggles to free herself all the while screaming at the top of her lungs, “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!”

At the doorway to the hall the Principal comes up to us and tries to talk J into coming inside and – I shit you not – she HISSES at him. Then screams in his face those same words. He retreats. I don’t blame him.

At this point basically every head in the school is turned towards my daughter wailing. People whisper to B who is sitting placidly with her class. Privately she looks pleased because she will forever be known as the ‘good sister’ and also because she will have mad street cred for living with such a crazy person and surviving.

I realise I cannot take her in. This temper tantrum will run it’s own course but she absolutely cannot go to school today. So I turn to J and I say, “Okay. We are going home.”

But I do it in that mum way. You know the way. Like, your voice is totally calm but the kid knows shit just got real. And J looks at me and knows this so she starts screaming, “No! I WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!”

She’s hysterical. I half drag her towards the exit. She’s screaming the whole way, “LET ME GO TO SCHOOL! LET ME GO TO SCHOOL!”

But I can’t back down because I made a call and kids smell weakness.

She is digging her heels in and I’m so big and pregnant, you guys. But it becomes clear the only way I’m getting her back to the car is if I carry her. So I heft up this 7 year old on my belly while she is kicking and screaming and yelling, “LET ME GO TO SCHOOL!”

I am headed towards this little path behind the church and there are colourful flower beds. I see the parish priest walking a visitor around them, both marvelling at the roses while I am heading towards them with a kid that looks like she needs an exorcism. Just before we get to the priest and companion, J does this wild whole body buck that because of my centre of gravity being off due to massive belly sends both of us sprawling on the concrete, my shoe breaks, my skirt rides up and I skin a knee. I burst into tears.

Here we are. Both of us crying, me bleeding, one shoe and the priest looking on in horror. J sniffles and looks at me and says, “Please mummy. I don’t want to hurt you…..but I will.”

The priest recoils and retreats to the safety of his rose bushes.

Five minutes later I am hobbling back to the car, broken shoe in hand, both J and I crying and Nanna jumps out and says, “What happened?!”

Where to begin?

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Now, as far as shitty parenting days go, that was right up there. It was so far up there. It’s one of my top 5 Shitty Parenting Moments.

But now we laugh about it. So I guess it’s also one of my top 5 Most Hilarious Parenting Moments.

What I’m trying to say is the real shitty stuff is the stuff you will never laugh about. Sickness, broken hearts, those heart stopping moments when you think ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’. You’ve probably all had one of those. The day to day with kids is hard work, I’m not devaluing that, but it’s fleeting, man. It really is. But it’s so fucking good as well. The hard stuff is part of the tapestry of your parenting journey. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.

So, yes. Drink your wine, eat the chocolate, sneak the good ice cream. But try to think, “Will I laugh about this one day?” “Will I miss this when she is walking out the door on a date at 18?” For me the answer is almost always, yes.

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Dad.

I’m going to tell you a secret. It took me years to love my dad properly. I didn’t understand him really. He was never a mean dad, he joked with me, I have a picture of us on the beach, him giving me a piggy back so I know he played with me when I was small. But as a child I took those things for granted. But mum was my go to, alright. I knew mum bought all the birthday and Christmas presents and Dad was just as surprised as me to see what was inside, I knew mum cooked the dinner and washed the clothes.

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My dad, seemed this odd mystery to me. He disappeared in the morning before I was awake and came home and lay down on the couch where most nights he promptly fell asleep. He was always really into things I didn’t understand, like cycads and palms and occasionally I would be pressed into watering these which I really begrudged. He was always finding things he loved and bringing them home like rocks and cow skulls and broken birds that would chirp on top of the bathroom mirror light where it was warm while I brushed my teeth. He would sometimes say to me, “What do you think of this design? Do you think it would make a good chair?” And I would be bewildered by this because I didn’t know if he was planning to quit his job and become a chair maker. One time mum and I had to role play customers while he pretended to sell us smoke alarms. The falling asleep on the couch alarmed me. My friends and I creeping by him on the way to my room dodging the cup on its side on the floor where he had been practising his putting before he fell asleep. Sometimes he would have two TVs going in the same room – both on sport – and he would be asleep in front of them.

It took me years – I’m embarrassed to admit – before I realised he was sleeping because he was exhausted. My dad would get up early and go to work and often stop by the family farm on the way home to round up cattle or feed them or fix something. I never connected these absent hours to the sleeping on the couch. He worked and worked and he was tired. In my childhood innocence I didn’t connect this with the yellow pay packets that came home, with the clothes on my back, with the food on the table, with the tennis lessons or tae-kwon-do lessons or those Christmas presents he was just as surprised at as me when I opened them.

It took me years to think…oh. My dad went a great many years dreadfully under appreciated by me. When I sit with him now a part of me whispers “I see you, I see you, I see you.” because for years he was invisible to me. And I learnt that my dad is funny, he tells hilarious stories. He is quirky. He is kind to animals which I think shows great character in a man. He will fix something before he throws it away, or at least have the intention to. He loves my mother in a way that blows me away. Years ago on my wedding night my mother fell asleep and he came in and stroked her hair and said, “God, she is so beautiful.” And I thought how magical to have someone love you so fiercely even while you’re asleep that he blurts out his love and you never even know.

So there it is. My dad. Happy Father’s Day. I see you.

The Hardest Thing about Parenthood.

I’ll tell you the hardest thing about being a parent. Or actually, what for me has been the hardest thing about being a mother. The invisibility.

There are dozens of ‘hard things’ and the hard stuff happens immediately. It begins right there when you see those two pink lines on the little white wand you just peed on and realise that you can say goodbye to soft cheese for the next 8 months (I know friends, it was a struggle for me too). You feel tired, emotional, your skin stretches and warps over your abdomen and you watch as stretch marks bloom across you. I remember one night going to sleep with perfect breasts and I woke the next morning to step in the shower and caught sight of my chest in the mirror and thought I had those strange marks from sleeping all over my breasts until I realised they were stretch marks that literally appeared overnight like magic. Across my thighs they were deep, painful looking scarlet scars as though I had been whipped. I looked down once when I could still see my calves and was fascinated by the fact I had a lone red tendril of stretch mark on my calf, far from my stomach that was the cause of all this. And that’s before we hit hyperemesis, SPD that literally crippled me (although I was fortunate enough to suffer no major lasting effects), gestational diabetes.

Then labour. The pain that comes with opening a portal to life, the panting, the pushing, the sweat, the blood.

Swollen breasts filled with milk. Cracked nipples. Post partum bleeding. Sleepless nights. The perfume of baby powder and newborn and underneath it all the faint sour smell of baby vomit on your shirt you didn’t notice until you were in the shops grabbing bread because – goddamn it, do we ALWAYS need bread in this house? Where does it go?

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The teething, the worry of SIDS, the baby check ups and doctors appointments, the growth charts and milestones: check, check, check…

Baby proofing and blending of foods and patience until you think you might explode from buried frustration. Endless on loop soundtracks of the Wiggles, or Thomas, or Strawberry Shortcake and barbie shoes that never seem to exist after the first five minutes of leaving their box.

Clothes and washing and which school is right? Are they happy? Are other kids mean? Is MY kid mean? Homework and more doctors visits and fever in the night that leaves you sleeping on the floor by the bed sponging a scalding forehead with a tepid cloth and praying the panadol kicks in soon.

Head lice and parent/teacher interviews and costumes and parties. Christmas presents and birthdays and school discos and is my child happy? Is he happy? And oh, my heart is breaking. And vomit buckets being emptied.

Football games and netball games and swimming lessons.

A thousand sandwiches.

Which high school? Should I let her wear make up? Is she too young? And teens with boyfriends and parties and leaving you and leaving you and leaving you. And you have to balance your protection with your need to see if she can fly. Will you fly? And heartbreaks and colds and doctors visits and the orthodontist and talent quests where she sang like an angel.

Bearing witness. Day in day out. Endless. A hundred things. A thousand memories and you are their keeper.

The hardest thing is the invisibility. Of knowing there is not a single time they will remember all of those thankless things you did because you loved them until they are the keeper of memories for their own children.

But writing them out just now, they didn’t feel like that much of a hardship after all.

Three Stories.

Sometimes I take out little random memories like jewels from a treasure chest and examine them in the light. Ahh, here is the time I was about 5 and got shy and accidentally hugged the Tupperware lady instead of my Mum. And here is the Christmas Day I got given not one but two kittens. Recently I found three stories that seemed completely unconnected at first and when I went to write them down I realised that my life actually has this theme to it. I’ll put them below. Three Stories.

~1~

One time when I was about 15 I was in my kitchen partaking in one of the great Australian traditions of eating Milo directly out of the tin. I had just put the world’s biggest tablespoon of Milo into my mouth and was busy trying to breath carefully through my nose lest I succumb to Milo Lung which is the greatest tragedy to befall all Australians partaking in the great tradition of Milo eating when suddenly there was a knock at the door. Wait, let me explain. * Milo Lung is where you accidentally inhale the granulated Milo into your lung while eating it from the tin and immediately begin to cough, spraying Milo all over everything within a 2 metre radius and try not to die while asphyxiating on chocolaty goodness. It’s a dangerous sport but a rite of passage. * Anyway, there was a knock at the door. I stop mid chew to see if mum or my brother would answer the door but they’ve all gone somewhere and I can’t not answer the door. I know it’s for me anyway because it’s that time of day when someone would knock at my door. I peek around the corner and it’s my partner who is basically getting a glimpse of his future twenty years down the track when he will catch me in all manner of compromising food situations where I’m stuffing my face just as he walks in. But back then I’m not really ready for him to see me with Milo all stuck between my teeth because we don’t have that sort of relationship yet. So as I dash by him I am holding up one finger in the universal “just a second” gesture and I have to dash to the bathroom and brush my teeth about five times because Milo is the most tenacious bastard you have ever met. It took about 17 years for me to come clean about that moment. Finally, I’m sitting there with him and I say, “I don’t know if you remember this but this one time you came to the door just as I’d started eating Milo and I was horrified and had to rush to the bathroom to brush my teeth and when I came back you asked what I’d been doing and I lied and made something up.” He has one of the most fickle memories – he can recall every song lyric he has ever heard but can’t remember this one time when we were about 14 and went into the city and he pinched a monorail from the Expo 88 exhibit at the art gallery. I’m like, “How can you NOT remember that? It was a MONORAIL!” But he forgets things. Meanwhile through some miracle of mind he manages to recall one arbitrary day nearly twenty years ago when I ran past him with my cheeks puffed like a squirrel full of Milo. “Oh yeah, I get it though. Milo can be such a bastard to get out of your teeth.” Seriously? 17 years I held on to the shame of a covert Milo eating mission and he just accepts it as normal.

~2~

My first break up was a truly horrendous affair and occurred when I was 10. I’m about to revive good old Peter Brown for this story because he was my first boyfriend or what passed for a boyfriend in fourth grade – which basically meant we played together at lunch time. We had a whirlwind love affair that lasted approximately one month. That was because his usual friend who he played with had up and gone to America for a month to visit some NASA camp leaving Peter to his own devices. Peter attached himself to me and my best friend and we had a grand time that month, catching ladybugs…actually I can’t remember what else we did except catch lady bugs but I assume we did something. He sang me Beach Boys songs. I gave him a matchbox car which was actually one of my very best matchbox cars so this was A BIG DEAL. Anyway, fast forward a month and his regular gal comes back from America and he just DITCHES me. I was so mad, you guys. I GAVE him my CAR. Right so I write him this note and I’m like, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore because you are mean.” And I give it to Peter. And he is like, what the hell is this? And I’m like, what’s it look like, asshole? And he is like, I’m taking this to the teacher. And I was like, oh shit. (I’m paraphrasing, neither of us swore). And he goes and stands in line behind a bunch of kids getting their work checked and I’m FREAKING OUT. I’m sure I’m going to be in so much trouble for writing this mean note. I end up cutting in line and telling the teacher I’m sick and need to go home and off I go. Every day for about a week I freak out after lunch that Peter is going to tell the teacher about this note and I have to go home because I can’t deal with the anxiety of this hanging over my head. Finally mum gets the shits with having to pick me up early and takes me to the doctors to see if there is actually anything wrong with me. The doctor says my lymph glands are up a bit and I probably feel poorly and I think it must be a miracle and I’ve made myself sick but feel completely well somehow. Mum now believes me but I know the jig is up and I’m just going to have to face whatever music is coming. The next day I go up to Peter and I’m like, “Look, are you going to tell the teacher or not?” And he looks at me bewildered and goes, “Tell the teacher what?” And I’m exasperated and say, “About the note!” And he goes, “Oh that!” And waves his hand, “I threw it out. I don’t care.” And I walked away completely amazed I’d made such a big deal about nothing. The next day I open my tidy tray and my matchbox car is sitting inside.

~3~

When I was 18 I had two daughters. My youngest was a couple of months old and despite not managing breastfeeding with my first daughter (lots of issues with prematurity and my own inexperience) I was totally smashing breastfeeding this time around. Still, it was all new to me and I didn’t really have a good grasp on how my boobs really worked at that stage and I was still pretty shocked at the amount of force a let down would have. For the uninitiated when you breastfeed at some point during the feed you ‘let down’ which is where the milk starts just flowing of its own accord. I didn’t realise this occurred before I had kids. Like, I’d read about it but reading and seeing are different things. The milk comes out in multiple sprays and just SHOOTS out. Like a water pistol under extreme pressure. I can’t really describe it. Sometimes the milk runs out so fast the babies can’t swallow quick enough and they’ll pop off because they’re only small but that know this is crazy. By this stage though my baby had gotten bigger and learned to cope with the flow but I’d discovered that babies are also really distracted and if something is interesting they’ll just come off and have a look around the room with absolutely no regard for the fact your boob is now exposed to the world. So here I am. Sitting on the couch in my living room and my then partner has invited his work mate around for a visit and this is the first time I’ve met him. The work mate whom I shall call Paul is sitting at right angles to me on a separate couch and he seems nice enough. Paul is impeccably dressed and very gay and hasn’t had a lot of experience with babies or boobs but he politely ignores the baby I’ve just put to my breast which is nice for me because I was still kind of getting the hang of this myself. My then partner and his work mate are chatting away and I continue to nurse and just as I let down and the milk turns into a fire hose they start laughing at something and the baby pops off to check out the situation in case it’s something she might be interested in. My boob is now free and seriously shoots milk across the room on a trajectory that’s going to land it straight towards poor suspecting Paul’s arm. I clamp a baby wrap down on my boob to stop the flow but it’s too late and some has definitely landed – if not on him – near him. I’m mortified. I’ve just met this man and I’m squirting milk at him. I’m not sure what is the socially acceptable thing to do in this situation. Firstly, I’m not sure he has seen, he is giving me no outward signs of having seen. But if he is just being polite and HAS seen and I say nothing he is going to think I just go around shooting milk at everyone. So I should definitely apologise. On the other hand, if he hasn’t seen and I apologise I’m drawing attention to a fact that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I really only have a second to decide so I go with an apology. “Umm, I’m really sorry about that…the milk, I mean. And how it kind of….shot…at you. I didn’t mean it.”
Paul is perplexed and has no idea what I’m talking about. So now I’m forced to explain about the lactation process and how it’s unpredictable and babies are inquisitive. Paul is now thrilled with this knowledge, “You mean it just SHOOTS out?! That’s amazing! That’s hilarious! I’d be squirting people for fun. Don’t even worry about it.” While Paul didn’t have much experience with babies or boobs he knew exactly the right thing to say.

Three stories. And you know what I learned? Most of the time nothing is as bad as you think it is.

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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 (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.