Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Prodigal Sun

Part 1: Tuesday

Today, for no good reason, I’m feeling brittle and fragile and on-the-edge. I am full of rage and disappointment at no one and everyone, nothing and everything. It is early afternoon, and in an hour I have to go and pick up my kids. I should be doing my Finnish homework, but instead I am sitting in a café, looking out despondently at the falling snow. I don’t know quite why, but I’m just about at the end of my rope.

I started the day tired, after a bad night’s sleep.

(Little Sister is discovering dreams, and currently wakes up multiple times per night shrieking my name, exclaiming loudly about what she just saw, firmly believing that it was all true.

[sitting up in bed and sobbing with wild abandon] “Mummy’s not THEEEERE! She’s gone! Mummy’s GOOOONE!”

[sitting up in bed and yelling at high volume] “Someone BROKE MY SUNGLASSES! On purpose! They are brooookeeeen!”

[sitting up in bed in an indignant huff] “The new cow is called SNUNNY! That’s his name, silly. Hmph!”)

Then, for some reason (no doubt related to her own broken sleep) Little Sister decided this morning that she was going to opt out of day-care. Her initial efforts to implement this decision (engaging in fake coughing during breakfast, refusing to have clothes put on her, and calmly informing me of her Day-Care Embargo during the bus ride into town) failed, but Little Sister is not a quitter. For the entire fifteen-minute walk from Big Sister’s preschool to Little Sister’s day-care, she sat in her stroller and alternately cried and shrieked and shouted about how much she didn’t want to go to day-care, as I slid on the icy footpath and bent my head against the snow pelting stingingly into my eyes, trying to make soothing platitudes issue forth reassuringly from my mouth, but finding their calming effect was negligible because Little Sister could only hear me over the wind and the traffic if I raised my voice to a shout.

I finally got to my Finnish class, and had one of those days where I had to look up more words than I understood, drew a blank at words I knew we’d already studied, and nearly cried when I couldn’t conjugate a type-1 verb in the present passive. This was one of those days I could not summon any energy or patience; could not find any elation in learning a new foreign language one baby step at a time. I just felt overwhelmed and tearful and defeated, and as I walked down the corridor on my way out a couple of shameful big-girl tears dripped down my cheeks.

I opened the street door to find that during the hours I had been inside, the snow had not let up at all, and was now ankle-deep and rising. A sudden sense of blind fury rose in my chest, momentarily overpowering the despair and pissed-offedness already simmering within. Never mind that we’ve had it easy this winter. Only two months of snow so far, and not even that many days of temperatures colder than -15, and yet, I have just had a GUTFUL of the cold and the snow. I am sick of dragging deadweight strollers and sleds laden with children through thick, porridgey snow and over slippery ice; sick of having freezing snowballs thrown excitedly at me; sick of feeling cold despite layers and layers of clothes; sick of reminding my three year old multiple times a day not to reach out of the stroller and swipe at banked-up, dirty, dog-wee-covered snow and put it into her mouth; sick of trying to be a good mother and forcing myself to remain with my kids in the park long after I’ve had enough of standing there in the cold, knowing that no matter how long I remain stoic, the minute I announce that we’re leaving they will still cry and whine because they would stay, revelling delightedly in the snow and ice, for three bloody hours if I let them.

It does no one any good to rage against the weather, but to hell with it.

I am also angry (in no particular order) about the following: the fact that I love ice cream but lately it has inexplicably turned on me and gives me brutal stomach aches; the fact that I can’t manage to get my house key out of my bag and into the lock without taking off my gloves, and thirty seconds without gloves is a hand-freezing eternity when it’s -10; the fact that our building management has decreed that we must not leave anything in the huge, echoing expanse of space corridor outside our apartment door and that therefore our tiny front hallway is now crammed with a stroller, a sled, an enormous plastic box containing the kids’ outside toys, and the whole family’s winter boots dripping dirty puddles of melted snow endlessly onto the floor; the fact that I would love to work as a lawyer again someday – sooner rather than later - but I cannot for the life of me find a way to do that and still be there for my kids, let alone sleep, let alone have some kind of a life outside work and kids; the fact that I have so much to be grateful for and yet today I feel inexplicably low and cranky and cannot manage to shake it off.

Today it is a bad, dark day inside my head. It’s as though someone has turned the lights off and moved the light switch beyond my grasp, and the culprit is hiding somewhere in the darkness, taunting and mocking me in a soft, cruel voice.

Life may be wonderful and beautiful and a gift, but today I’m royally pissed off at it.

Part 2: Wednesday

I can’t quite believe the change that came over me this morning, when (noticing that the room was oddly bright) I looked out of the window and saw The Prodigal Sun rising in the sky.

Suddenly, everything was ok again.

It is gorgeously sunny in Helsinki today – clear blue skies, brilliant sunshine that actually feels warm, and temperatures above zero! This is weather we haven’t had for weeks and months, and everyone’s spirits are soaring. The air is full of hope; infused with the heady promise of spring.

It is early afternoon. I have an hour to myself before I have to go and pick up my kids. I should be doing my Finnish homework, but instead I am sitting in a café, defiantly eating ice cream as the sun pours in through the floor-to-ceiling glass window beside me. After months of bitter chill, right now I am toasty warm. I am actually sweating a little bit. It is thrilling in the extreme.

This day and this sun and the sense of hope in the air have literally given me a new lease on life. This time yesterday, I was the same person, sitting in exactly the same café as I am today, and yet today everything is different. Everything is better.

Life is strange like that.  

All you have to do is wait for the sun.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Parents Are Forever

A family friend in Australia is separated from the father of her child. She left him for various reasons which are less than clear to me, but let’s just say that, at the time, her family breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since then she and her daughter’s father have spent a great deal of time fighting over how much time their little girl (who is now 5) should spend with each parent.
Currently, pursuant to a court order, Child spends about half her time with each of them. When I heard this, I admit feeling surprised. It was acknowledged in court that Dad has some issues that need the attention of a therapist. Dad is strapped for cash. Dad has repeatedly accused more than one of Mum’s relatives/close friends of sexually abusing their little girl, who has been taught to yell at her grandmother “Don’t touch me!” It is unclear how diligent Dad is when it comes to regularity of meals, baths, and bedtime. Child, who is now 5 years old, goes to stay with her Dad every Thursday night, and frequently returns to Mum on Sunday evening wild with exhaustion and with nits in her hair (not to mention small sores on her scalp where she has scratched at them).

Granted, I don’t know Dad personally and have not had a chance to hear his side of the story, but I was still a bit surprised at how equally the court had divided parenting time between Mum and Dad.

Law geek that I am, my curiosity led me to delve into the relevant sections of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) which has changed quite dramatically since I studied it. As I understand it, current Australia law presumes that it is in a child’s best interests for both parents to have a meaningful involvement in that child’s life and to share parental responsibility, except where there is a reasonable belief that a parent has abused the child or engaged in family violence. A court making a parenting order will try, wherever possible, to share parental responsibility equally between parents. Where it isn’t practicable for the child to spend equal time with each parents, the court will at least try to ensure that the child spends “substantial and significant time” with each parent (i.e., time that includes normal weekdays, weekends, and holidays, and allows a parent to be involved in the child’s daily routine and occasions/events of particular significance to the child).

In making a parenting order, secondarily the court will consider literally any fact or circumstance that the court thinks is relevant (including things like: any views expressed by the child; the willingness of each of the child’s parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent; the practical difficulty and expense of a child spending time with a parent; and the capacity of each parent and other caregivers to provide for the child’s emotional, intellectual and other needs). However, it must be noted that these are secondary considerations that take a back seat to the all-important attempt to ensure shared parenting.

My take on current Australian law is this: if you are a child’s parent, you have the right (and the duty) to have a go at parenting that child. You are supposed to try hard to be a good and responsible parent and provide for the child’s physical and emotional needs, you must abstain from violence, and you are supposed to interact and cooperate with the other parent in matters of parental responsibility, but apart from that there are not really any hard and fast rules.

We live in a society where parenting standards are not prescribed. As long as you don’t actually assault your children or fail to provide them with the necessities of life, day to day you can parent them according to your own personal ideology. There are no binding laws prescribing what time a child should go to bed at night, what exactly you should feed them, which people you should allow them to meet, what you should do to prevent them getting lice in their hair (and what should be done if they do), or what you can and cannot teach them about life and about the people around them.

If you don’t honour the other parent’s wishes as to these details, the worst that could happen is that the other parent can show evidence to a court of your failure to act in the child’s best interests, but for the most part I imagine it would be very difficult to translate “I don’t like my ex-partner’s style of parenting” into compelling reasons why a court should limit your child’s time with that parent.

Current Australian legislation seems to be trying very hard to emulate, artificially, what would happen naturally when children have two parents of average intelligence and with a normal sense of responsibility, who love each other, live together in reasonable domestic harmony, and act as a team. In those “normal” situations, the two parents are often with their children at the same time, they each know their children and his or her routines reasonably well, and it's natural that they would jointly make decisions as to that child's life.

It should be remembered, though, that two parents who live together are also able to keep each other’s parenting in check minute-to-minute and day-to-day. They tend to put a stop to behaviour in the other that would otherwise be considered unwise, rash, too aggressive, emotionally disturbing for a child, reckless, socially unacceptable, or just overly dramatic.

When two parents are estranged, these checks and balances cannot take place naturally. The law says that parents who have separated are to have shared parental responsibility and must consult with each other, and the court has to assume that each parent will step up and do his or her responsible best. However, the reality is that neither parent can know for sure what really goes on once the child is within the other parent’s domain. Mum is required to trust Dad (and vice versa) with the welfare of Child under circumstances where Mum and Dad’s mutual love and trust have been so irreparably damaged that they are no longer together. Mum and Dad each just have to hope that the other’s love for Child will guide their actions and make them do the right thing.

The other tricky thing is this: most children want to spend time with their parents, and most parents want to spend time with their children. However, if you are separated from your child’s other parent, each minute of quality time your child spends with that person is time spent away from you. You are required to ignore your internal imperative to be close to your child, and instead are required to consider, rationally, that it is in your child’s best interests to spend time with someone else – someone who is perhaps the last person you yourself want to spend time with.

And yet, what would be the alternative to this system? That the “better” parent gets full custody and the other parent barely gets to see the child? What does “better” actually mean? – the one who plays with the child more? The one with the better job and the nicer home? The one with fewer issues that can be identified by a trained observer? The one who tries hardest to implement the teachings of Supernanny? The one who the kid chooses?

The reality is that parenting isn't a competition. The law cannot be seen to be judging parents against each other, and awarding extra one-on-one time to the "winner", because the rules of parenting are so vague and subjective that it would never be a fair contest. Besides, even in the face of what could objectively be considered to be "good" parenting, we cannot forget the simple fact that, as my Family Law professor once observed (with some sadness), “Children bond even with the most inappropriate of parents.” Small children don’t see their parents’ flaws. They love their parents fiercely, unconditionally, and sometimes even unjustifiably.

Family Law tries hard to find solutions in difficult situations, but the truth is that families and the law are a very bad fit.

The moral of this story is simple: don’t have children with a person unless you are as sure as you can be that he/she would be a good and responsible parent. Think about whether you could trust that person implicitly with your child for days on end if you were not present. Consider that this person will be in your life at least until your child is 18, whether or not you love or live with each other.

After all, you can choose to end a relationship with your partner, but that person will always be your child’s other parent - always and forever.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Family Car

From the time I was in primary school until I was well into my 20s, my dad owned the same car. He was devoted to its health and well-being. It was unique and irreplaceable. 

It was a white Holden Kingswood.
Until I was about 10, I saw this vehicle through my Dad’s rose-tinted lens. I enjoyed its enormousness – the back seat that we once proved was big enough for 5, the boot that could hold an implausible number of bikes and scooters, the ridiculously abundant leg-room. I loved that in summer we would wind down all the windows and let the warm breeze rush into our faces and ears. The car was affectionately nicknamed “Bertha”.

Then, one day, sometime in primary school, I suddenly noticed my friends’ parents’ cars. Mighty Mitsubishi Pajeros. Zippy little Hondas. Gleaming Mercs. They had a lovely newness and a modern sleekness about them. In one of those painful coming-of-age moments, my young mind realised that (like proper Speedos instead of el-cheapo bathers from Woolworths, and like Popper juice boxes rather than daggy re-usable drink bottles) these cars represented Fitting In.

I realised with horror that Bertha was the mark of a family that didn’t have the money for something better.

Things got worse when I was a teenager, and my parents sent me to a private girls’ high school that was known for its high academic standards. Unsurprisingly, it was filled with girls from privileged families who owned luxury cars. In hindsight, I was lucky enough to be able to attend this excellent school only because my parents, with humble jobs as a public servant and a teacher, chose to invest in my education, and not in new cars. As a teenager, however, I could not see past my own confused angst and self-pity. I would take two different buses to get home rather than be seen in that car. I would cringe when friends came over and saw it parked in the driveway.

In my view, it was the family car from hell. It stood for everything that was wrong with my self-image.

My loathing continued in force for some years, until, at age 17, I was desperate to learn how to drive. My dad was actually willing to teach me, but he and Bertha were a package deal. Having to be seen in Bertha was an evil I would have to live with if I wanted that coveted driver’s license.

Bertha was like no other car I’ve driven since. Forget automatic transmission and power steering – Bertha had a classic “three on the tree” stick shift, and steering so heavy you could feel it in your triceps as you tried to get around tight corners. There were only three forward gears, but you could comfortably do 80 kmph in Bertha’s mighty second gear. Engaging the clutch required considerable lower-body strength. While steering required some level of brute force, at the same time you had to be a bit careful – in the wake of a dodgy repair executed by my dad, the steering wheel was strangely wobbly, and in fact, a few years later, it actually came off in my younger brother’s hands while the car was in motion. [When he told me about it, I was shocked and asked, “But what did you do?” and he said, calmly, “I put it back on again!”] The left indicator didn’t work, or rather, it did, but for reasons Dad was never able to ascertain, turning it on caused the horn to blare loudly. The radio antenna had been snapped off by vandals, so Dad had ingeniously made a new one out of wire that he’d sticky-taped around the inside perimeter of the windscreen.

But against all odds, thanks to (or in spite of) Bertha I passed my driving test on the first try! After that, when Dad had weekend errands to run, he would ask me to come with him, and handing me the key to his beloved car, would say, “Go on – you drive!”

I like to think this was his way of saying, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”

And by my 20s, my feelings about Bertha had mellowed. She was like an elderly relative – full of flaws and quaint little idiosyncrasies, but a lovable fixture nevertheless. Bertha came to symbolize something important in my life. She represented humility, living within one’s means, and the need to work hard for material gain. She reminded me of my parents’ love, and their determination to send their children to the best schools they could possibly afford, even if that meant living on a tight budget and cheerfully driving the same old car for almost two decades. She taught me not to be ashamed of having fewer and less nice material things than others, because in the end I had all the things that were truly important.

It was around this time that my younger brother was driving Bertha when he was involved in a car crash. He walked out of it without a scratch. Bertha was so badly damaged that she was written off.

It was her time to go, I thought. By this stage, my parents were no longer strapped for cash. They could go out and buy a newer, better-quality car.

But Dad, somewhat devastated at his loss, wasn’t ready to give up on Bertha. Unbelievably and to my mother's horror, he went out and bought two scrapped Holden Kingswoods, deposited them in the front yard, and started, piece by piece, trying to rebuild Bertha. We tried to dissuade him from this task, convinced this would be a prolonged but ultimately futile attempt at resuscitation (“It’s all over, Dad. You did your best. Let her go now.”  

But he actually managed to summon a pulse. He succeeded in rebuilding that damn car. The new Bertha was pretty rough around the edges where Dad had tried his hand at DIY panel-beating, but she was back on the road, and Dad was thrilled.

It was somehow shocking and just plain unfair when, one night not long after that, Bertha was (no kidding) STOLEN, never to be recovered. Dad suspected joyriders. Even we who had driven that joyless car were kind enough not to laugh.

Dad gave in and bought a soulless but reliable Camry. It doesn't have a name.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Throwing in the towel on parenthood

Like this blogger, sometimes I suspect that my inner reserves of patience, which were supposed to last me an entire lifetime, have already been all but completely exhausted after only 6 years of parenting.

I used to be known as a nice, kind person--generous in spirit, sunny and optimistic.

Lately, some days I can still pull off “kind but firm”. Other days, I really understand why some species of animals eat their young.

Picture it: 8:30 am on a Sunday morning. Children sitting companionably together on sofa. Mother smiling as she clears breakfast table, suffused with dreamy images of familial harmony, enjoying moment of quiet joy. Father outside, good-naturedly shovelling snow in uber-macho manner.

Seconds later, older child starts teasing younger child mercilessly, taking a favourite toy and holding it just out of reach. Screaming ensues. Frustrated younger child belts living daylights out of older child and tries to sit on her head. Screaming ensues. Younger child given harsh scolding and sent to naughty corner. Screaming ensues. Older child loudly chastised for teasing little sister. Sulking ensues. Older child grumps off to bedroom only to discover that younger child has, at some point, sneakily unearthed box of Secret Treasures from its hiding place and Touched Everything. Screaming ensues. Mother screams at everyone to stop screaming. Younger child, liberated from naughty corner, stomp-runs away at high speed and catches side of forehead with full force on corner of bookshelf. High-decibel shrieking ensues. Mother makes multiple, futile attempts at holding squirming and distraught child still enough to administer bag of frozen peas to massive purple egg-shaped contusion. Phone rings loudly and insistently. Smaller child is still shrieking uncontrollably; panicked mother pictures a hospital visit, head injuries, concussion. Older child finishes sulking and coolly re-enters room, inexplicably having removed all clothes except underpants. She observes the situation; judging from her neutral reaction, apparently everything is perfectly normal. She suddenly demands to know (in tones loud enough to be heard over little sister’s shrieking) what vitamins are in milk, how do tv shows get to our tv, and when are you going to wrap the present I am taking to Best Friend’s birthday party today? Older child commanded to wait 5 minutes until crisis at hand is under control. Older child bitterly accuses parent of dividing attention unevenly between siblings. Younger child stops crying and imperiously tells big sister to shush. Big sister has spectacular meltdown. Little sister starts crying again.

Less than TEN MINUTES of concentrated life with children, and already I am wondering how I’m going to make it through the day.

I love my girls so much. I wanted them desperately, and I still do.

Some days, though, I am completely overcome by the frenetic, frustrating minutiae of daily life with children. I know difficult moments are fleeting and will pass, I know I just need to remain calm and deal with it and allow the ebb and flow of life to take its course, but sometimes, secretly, I just want to give up. I just want it all to go away. In those black moments, I don’t want to be anyone’s mother any more. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone but myself and my own selfish needs. I find myself wishing to go back in time to when I was a carefree twenty-something who washed and blow-dried my hair and carefully applied makeup every morning, had long, chatty brunches with girlfriends on Sunday mornings, and prided myself on being able to handle multiple responsibilities with consummate ease and a smile on my face. I mean, my twenty-something self would even buy special lingerie to wear for her husband on his birthday.

I love my girls so much, but dammit, parenting is hard work. It’s hard to get right, and it’s even harder to know whether or not you’ve actually managed to get it right. It saps my energy and my patience and my confidence like nothing else. It challenges my inner resources beyond what I thought were reasonable boundaries. At the worst times, forging ahead with the day is quite literally a minute-to-minute challenge.

* * * * *

I wrote all this in a surge of emotion this morning (after my husband returned to the scene, took a look around, and - God bless him - told me to hide in our bedroom for an hour and have some time to myself). Of course, right now, as I read back over the rush of truth that poured out of me just hours ago, already my girls are making a liar out of me. One has set up her doll house furniture all over the coffee table and is endearingly letting Sylvanian Families rabbits take turns on the toilet (“Here you go, little one! Pisssssss!”) The other has just fired up some Maroon 5, and is shouting “I got the moves like dragon!”

No way could I ever do without them, and no way do I really want to go back to the days when I only dreamed about having them. They are hard work, but the very best things in life are those that are worked for the hardest. I am also pretty sure that, for all my whining, if I had to I would do my DARNDEST to find further, even endless resources within myself to help and protect and fight for my children through the most serious or challenging circumstances. We all know that we could and would, and my heart goes out to parents have already done just that - parents who really know what it is to give their absolute all to save their child from illness, hunger, danger, or evil.

My secret, dark thoughts of throwing in the towel are, after all, only thoughts. They are fleeting. They too will pass.