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Here are the things you have missed:
The first moment of grief. You weren’t there. And suddenly the whole future without you was there. And we had to face it. And it was hard. And I had to say goodbye without you to give me a comforting hug afterwards.
You weren’t there to tell when I got pregnant again. Or to tell you it was a girl.
You didn’t visit me in hospital. You didn’t squeeze my hand and tell me it would be ok.
You didn’t get to see my son meet his little sister. You didn’t get to see those first little cuddles and kisses.
You weren’t there to call when I was still sick and the baby was crying and her brother got angry because she was sucking up all my time and energy. Oh, there were so many other people to call, I know. But I wanted you.
You were holding my eldest when he smiled the first time. But you’ve never seen my daughter smile, never seen the way she wrinkles her nose in glee. Or heard the way she laughs when she knows she is being cheeky.
You haven’t seen my son ride a bike. You didn’t get to visit a castle with him and his Grandad, and watch them fire cannons and shoot arrows at imaginary baddies. It would have made you smile.
You didn’t get to bake a cake and give my daughter a beater to lick and see how happy it made her. I remember you giving my son one for the first time, and you took a photo of him all grubby and happy. And it is a precious memory and always was, because even then we knew the memories were running out.
You miss so much, you miss every day. You miss the tears, and the laughter. You miss the falling over and kissing scraped hands and knees. You miss scolding kids who won’t brush their teeth, or put on shoes. You miss sibling fights, and afternoons cuddling on the couch watching TV. You miss first steps, and counting to ten, and learning to write his name, and favourite books, and drawing, and nursery rhymes, and skype, and building duplo, and having tea parties, and wiping runny noses, and doing the same puzzle over and over, and the piles of washing, and 829 family dinners. You miss all the minutiae of life. Because, of course, you are not alive.
Life goes on. It is full and rich and full of wonderful moments. But if I were to write it in a book every page would have one letter erased, the space where you are missing.
By missing you I keep you with me, safe in my heart. In that way my children will know you.
I hold my daughter and sing her the same songs you sang to me.
I stroke my son’s hair as he lies in bed.
I tidy up, and clean, and cook dinners, and wash clothes, and when I feel like my children take me for granted I think of you and know that that is ok. Children should be able to take their parents for granted.
I get out your old cookbook and we bake. I feel the words you wrote underneath my fingers. And it tastes like my childhood home and you are there.
You are held up in traffic on your way to the airport. It’s as though the universe wants you to feel anxious. Miss one turn.
You arrive and join the queue for check-in. Your child’s nappy needs changing. Luckily you roll a Six and have time to run through the airport pulling her shoes off as you go, reach the changing area, clean nappy, and run back, before your husband reaches the front of the queue.
Airport security. You must scan you boarding pass and enter through the gates one at a time. The gate opens and the toddler rushes through first, followed by the preschooler who gets stuck as the gate closes. Miss one turn while airport security let him out.
You manage to control your children while waiting for carry on screening. Miraculously you haven’t forgotten any liquids or picnic knives in your overfull bags. Five.
You’ve got through security in plenty of time. Just in time to read your flight is delayed. Miss one turn.
Duty Free. Race through, nervously keeping children away from hazardous objects and temptingly placed chocolate. One staff member offers you a whisky taster; you turn it down as you rush past. You will regret this decision. One.
You find seats at the gate, but they are not close to the windows. Your children spend most of their time watching planes out of the window anyway. The toddler makes an occasional dash for freedom. Luckily no-one alerts security to your unattended baggage while you are running after her. Five.
Boarding commences. You miss the boarding opportunity for families – because, toilets. You and your husband bicker the whole time you are queuing, whilst walking across the tarmac, and getting on to the plane. But you also successfully juggle passports, boarding passes, bags, and two small children. Three.
You get side-eye from fellow travelers as you claim your seats. You remember you are supposed to bring goody bags to hand out to other passengers to placate them for the inconvenience of you paying to use a form of public transport. You opted not to bring any as you had enough to carry in the form of kid’s books, changes of clothes, and nappies. This is the right choice. You need nappies. Four.
Your preschooler is thrilled with your seats; he has a window and can see the wing and jet engine behind him. As you zoom up into the air he chuckles watching everything get smaller “The cars look like toys.” You both pretend to pick up houses and trees and cars between your fingers as the plane climbs. When you fly through cloud and come out the other side he gasps “Are we flying all the way to the sun?” Six.
Joy is short lived and boredom sets in. The kids are fidgety. In a moment of desperation you consider allowing your toddler to kick the seat in front of you repeatedly. This makes you a very bad person. The plane begins to experience turbulence, and now you have to hold your squirming toddler on your lap long enough to truly regret your thought crime. Miss five turns.
Drinks. You booked a low-cost airline and so will have to pay for your coffee. You desperately need this coffee. They don’t have lids. Drinking black coffee out of a paper cup balanced on a tray-table at high altitude whilst sitting with small wriggly
hazards humans seems like a terrible idea. You desperately need this coffee. Buy one after all. You do not scald yourself or your children. Six.
Landing. You locate the toddlers dummy, and find toys that will keep them occupied during landing. Your toddler occupies herself by repeatedly dropping the toy through a gap in the seat back and onto the floor. Another passenger repeatedly hands it back to you. Neither of your children are having a hissy fit. It’s tedious, but we’ll call this one a win. Four.
Passport control. The queue is long, but your preschooler announces, loudly, that he needs the toilet. There are no toilets this side of passport control. For once airport staff act humanely and you are fast-tracked. Free roll of the dice.
Baggage collection are advertising a long wait. You find a bench, and sit down next to a well-dressed middle-aged woman and her husband. She asks you how old your children are. Mistake! The talkative preschooler latches on to her and begins to tell her his version of your family history. Take the chance to relax while your husband checks over-sized baggage for the pram. Five.
You relax a little too much and switch back on to realise the toddler is attempting to ‘share’ her breadroll with the well-dressed woman. Sharing involves pushing the breadroll towards her face while the well-dressed woman leans back. ‘Thank you’ she laughs ‘but I don’t eat carbs.’ As she says this you are distracting your child by allowing her to ‘share’ with you. Shame on you for eating anything as hideous as bread. One.
It’s late and you need to feed your kids before you leave the airport. The only thing here is Burger King. You buy over-priced fast food and wonder what the well-dressed lady would think of you now as you eat your fries. The only problem is the kids don’t really like Burger King, so you have to actively encourage them to keep eating the evil-capitalist-crap whilst hiding the crappy plastic toy you don’t want and to this day is still lurking unopened in its wasteful plastic bag somewhere. Finish your kids meal for them. It has been a long day. Two.
Congratulations! You have successfully completed the Game of Air-travel. We recommend our next level game Domestic Train Travel. Estimated playing time: 3hrs and 27mins.
The other weekend we went blackberry picking on a path near where we live. Like we might be the type of family that lives knee deep in Lego and laundry, watching TV in a super-urban apartment, and goodness knows what Janet Lansbury would make of the way I snap at the kids sometimes, but, whatever. We are also the kind of family that makes foraged jam. So wholesome.
I concentrated on filling up my ice-cream container while my husband helped M, who was very proud of the ten or so berries that ended up in his bucket. We left A buckled in her pram for safety’s sake, and as long as I fed her a berry every now and again she was happy. Until she wasn’t. And just then a family boated past us on the river, having a family sing-along.
Dammit. This isn’t wholesome family fun. Family sing-alongs while you boat is wholesome family fun. I’m doing this wrong. What must they think of the crazy woman standing in the blackberries while a toddler yells in a pram.
The yelling turns into crying.
I try to extract myself from the bush – cursing myself for wearing a skirt. And realise my jacket is snagged in many, many places. Turning to deal with that, my hair gets snagged by more thorns. I remember a recent episode of Peppa Pig, the one where they go blackberry picking and Mummy Pig gets stuck in a blackberry bush.
I have turned into Mummy Pig.
Mummy Pig just wants wholesome family fun. She just wants some fruit. And five minutes to pick berries without having to stop and admire a four year old’s basically empty bucket, or be yelled at. She just wants jam and maybe a crumble or two. Why does she have to be judged for her food choices? Why does she have to have her dignity stripped away by a blackberry bush – let’s all come laugh at the fat pig stuck in the prickly thorns! Why does she have to involve the whole family and share when all she wants is a fucking dessert? It’s not all about you Peppa!
Somehow I ripped myself free.
Or did I?
I came home to see the always excellent Andie Fox (@bluemilk) retweeting an old post because the same old tired arguments about mothers keep happening.
We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.
Because maybe the blackberry bush I am actually stuck in is a metaphorical one; a thorny tangle of attacking mothers for the choices they make. It seems in these days of information overload, we can’t just make a decision. We are expected to have thought about it – to have done our research. Then everyone gets to analyse our decision, and journalists write crappy clickbait articles about the mommy wars. But these choices (if we actually get a choice) aren’t about society. They are just the choices that we make for our life. Choosing jam doesn’t mean giving up on gender equality. But it is hard when you are in the thick of it to know if what you are doing is right. So does picking blackberries make me a better mother? Or does being mired in domesticity mean I am a poor role model? Or does it tell you nothing about me other than the fact we have blackberry bushes nearby and I like to cook?
And to eat.
So I made crumble. And I made jam. And my children and I shared licking the spoon and got happy, sticky, jammy faces.
Conclusion: It’s just fucking jam. Stop overthinking things.
Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.
Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.
After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the truth about post-partum bodies, for her expanded uterus puffing out the custom-made Jenny Packer dress. ‘Hooray for Kate’ the magazine columns and opinion pieces cheered. This time people felt the need to criticize her for looking too good. Nonetheless, Kate had given birth only hours earlier. She did look that good. Those facts are true. But was it The Truth?
It seems hardly a week goes by without another facebook post exposing The Truth About Post-partum Bodies going viral. Many are beautiful stories. Many of the women sharing them are facing down daemons of their own, proudly and rightfully. Who am I to say they should not be celebrated. Mothers are judged this way and that way, no matter what choices they make. Ceasarean births are the easy way out. Women who have vaginal birth don’t understand what caesarean mothers go through -at least vaginal birth is what your body is made for. Get the damn epidural. Epidurals are cheating. Don’t cut the cord too quickly. Don’t cut the cord. Your baby needs you – it’s the fourth trimester! You need to rest to recover. Baby blues are normal. Are you at risk of PND? Your body is amazing. Get back to your pre-baby body quickly. Love your tiger stripes!
The proliferation of messages can be exhausting; made all the more over-whelming by sleep deprivation and hormonal swings. So we love the women who cut through all these headlines to show us something raw and real. The bathroom mirror selfie, newborn in a sling. The caesarean scar, a harsh line across the skin punctuating the rage in the writing. The hilarity of adult-nappies snapped in a maternity ward photo.
But are they the truth?
Perhaps they are only part of it.
Because it is easy to share a photo one day post-partum of yourself in nappies, but much harder to admit that you are still wearing them months down the track. It is easy to get shares of your scar photo, but no-one wants to see the infection you picked up, no-one wants to hear about the smell of your flesh in the doctors rooms. It’s easy to talk about how strong you are for growing and birthing a baby, but much harder to talk about how you have been left too weak to hold the baby, let alone take a selfie. It is easy to talk about how you love your body now, how proud of it you are. But how to talk about a body that has let you down? The one that couldn’t conceive, or couldn’t go unmedicated, that couldn’t labour, that couldn’t stop bleeding, that couldn’t breastfeed, that couldn’t heal. That hasn’t healed and here you are months later still wondering why you have been left like this. Or to talk about your body at all when it was not your body that was broken but your mind.
I’m reminded of Sarah Wilson/Writehanded’s piece – Is your feminism ableist? We place so much emphasis on independence, on self-reliance. We judge before we have any understanding of what individual barriers someone faced. We create ideas of what women should be able to do. We are supposed to feel empowered. And so in the rush to celebrate what many women can and do achieve we sometimes leave out those who need the help the most.
We talk about the old days, when it was our great-great-grandmothers who died. We wring our hands in sorrow, or not, over the 800 women who die daily in faraway countries in childbirth. We are told to feel lucky. Reminded the ideal birthplan is the one where ‘both mother and baby survive’. And that is all. As though, that is all.
We didn’t die. Is that enough? Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me?
Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII; the ideal wife. She produced an heir, and then had the grace to die afterwards. She did not live to incur the wrath of Henry as so many of his wives did. Her purpose in life as a medieval women was fulfilled. But what did Jane want? Not death, surely. Her labour was long, two days, three nights – reportedly because of a malpositioned baby. Centuries later, I feel for Jane. Both of my children were malpositioned too. But she had to labour without the medical support I eventually received. I developed a post-partum infection caused by an excessively long labour, this was the probable cause of her death. The loss of her life was a tragedy for her. Just as it is a tragedy for those 800 women dying every day. So many avoidable deaths. Dead not because they experienced severe complications – dead because, like Jane, they lack access to the basics of sanitation, medication and nutrition. They are individual tragedies, not just statistics to be thrown in the face of any woman who has the temerity to complain about her own lot. We cannot dismiss women’s experiences as first world problems. As anyone who does not have it can tell you, health is not a first world problem. It is a problem.
The line between survival and death in a difficult birth can be paper thin. Walk this line and your view of the world changes. You only have to go back decades to get to a time where no women who experienced complications akin to mine survived. I am a historical anomaly. Childbirth has been made safe. So we want to believe it has been made safe for all women. We want to believe we are now in control. But our bodies and minds are no different from what they have always been. The only change is technology.
Have we forgotten so quickly that it wasn’t just a life and death matter? That even back then women survived with injuries that could not be healed. That women were pushed to the margins of history because the burden of procreation kept us there. What space was there in the public sphere for those left crippled, incontinent? Smelly old ladies. Women unable to conceive more children. Women of ‘delicate constitution’ who nonetheless had produced a number of children already. What would history be like if Jane hadn’t died? The truth is a labour that long without medical support could have left her with many significant health problems. How would the raging tyrant Henry we know from history books have treated an incontinent wife? We’ll never know. Jane will never know. This has been women’s shame for millennia. This is the truth. This is a truth.
We are no longer forced into confinement after birth. Women live their lives in the public sphere. We are expected back at work, back at the school run, back at playgroups. If we are expected to do these things we need to acknowledge the physical barriers some women still face. Without being accused of oversharing, or even being ungrateful for our children’s lives. We only get one body, and we have to live in it for all our life.
Everyone has a horror story we are told. We do all endure, however we birth our child, but to claim we all endure equally is false. What happens to you matters deeply to you. Why do we feel a need to lay a claim to the greatest suffering? Why do people then blithely announce that it ends when you hold your baby. That our bodies heal. Effectively shutting the women who have not healed out of the conversation.
We can’t all walk out of the hospital like Kate. The dress, the hair and make-up are the least of it. For many women childbirth is the beginning of a long journey back to health. We need to talk about that. Not least because poor physical health impacts on poor mental health. So while it is wonderful to praise the women who feel strong, and who feel brave, we also need to embrace the women whose bodies and minds are weak and shattered. The women for whom giving life took everything they had and who now begin a journey back to health. The women whose bodies are still suffering. The women who no longer know their bodies any more. The women who feel shame and keep silent.
This is the truth. This is a truth.
The kids are waiting and I’m rushing frantically to get us out the door, when I reach my hand into my bag and – keys? Where the heck are my keys? I’m sure I picked them up already, I’ve seen them this morning. Did I put them in my bag already? Not in the usual pocket evidently. I have to stop and sit and rifle through my bag to find them, and as I do so I’m reminded of something I read recently; Marie Kondo, of the KonMari method recommends you empty out your bag everyday.
I want to weep.
Whether from frustration or hilarity I’m not sure. This happens to me often. I live on the fringes of emotion. With certainty though, the one emotion this idea does not fill me with is joy. Joy is the central emotion to KonMari.
Hug an item and ask yourself – does this item spark joy? If not throw it out. If so keep it. Keep less. Keep it organised.
I imagine myself moving through my house asking if items spark joy. But soon I find myself floundering, emotions are too complex for black and white decisions.
Does my toaster bring me joy? My kettle? Hmm – coffee, ok I’ll call that one joy if we have to, but usually I would call it ‘necessity’. What about the toilet brush? I can’t imagine hugging it, let alone joy sparking during the process. But I definitely want to keep it. The thought of going through my sock and underwear draw is too daunting. Yes, I know they have holes, but you know, only small ones. And as for the patented Kon-Mari fold to keep them organised after my clear out, who is going to convince my husband to change his folding method? Folding and putting away laundry is his job, and I’m not filled with joy at the prospect of changing that.
Apparently it is possible to do KonMari with kids. You just have to get the whole family involved! I take it Marie Kondo has never actually asked a pre-schooler to part with a crappy art project. Or a toddler to part with the cigarette butt they picked up in the playground. I wonder how much joy she would find in my son’s enormous stick collection, but at least sticks have to stay outside. And if I were to ask myself how I really feel about their toys, my emotions, once again, are quite mixed. I love the peace and quiet I can get when my son is absorbed in building with duplo. But I do not find joy in the individual pieces scattered across the floor to tidy, or step on. Those corners hurt! Speaking of stepping on, there are those toy cars which always seem to end up in the hallway or next to my daughter’s cot – like a slapstick routine just waiting to happen. But watching A ‘vroom vroom’ them back and forth definitely makes me smile.
See, my feelings are just too complex, my attitude to ambivalent. I can’t be bothered with frantically tidying, but I do feel weighed down by the mess. I know I could just have less toys, or we could just discipline the kids to put everything away after each game. Besides, less toys implies my children are playing with toys, and not just the contents of the kitchen cupboards. That is A’s favourite game. Rifling through the bottom drawers, finding her cups so she can pretend to drink and then throwing containers across the floor. All those ice-cream containers are fun to stack, and useful reused as storage. Do they bring me joy though? They did, temporarily; a sugary consolation for a draining bedtime “routine”. Although now they are more a reminder of why I haven’t lost all the “baby” weight…
Maybe my daughter was born to KonMari and that is what her unpacking is all in aim of. ‘De-clutter’ she cries as she flings lids out of cabinets. ‘This crust does not bring me joy’ she declares as she drops it from her highchair. And so when I imagine having my handbag-box neatly organised on the table, ready to pack my bag again in the morning, I also imagine I would find the box empty. Credit cards tucked under the couch; tissue packets emptied and tissues shredded (joyfully I’m sure); cell-phone locked out, or worse connected to emergency services. Someone with an organised handbag-box is probably a somebody without sticky toddler fingers prying into every nook and cranny of the house.
I’m sure there is a way you can do it. I’m sure many families do make KonMari work for them. I’m sure if I just set my mind to it I could clear out the house, convince the kids to leave my things alone, reduce clutter and live the minimalist life that will make me a superior person.
I imagine the house: toys in their proper place every night; kitchen cupboards organised so well that not only do they shut, but nothing falls out when you open them; a tidy handbag-box, bag emptied of crumbs and receipts and lip balm that never, ever gets worn; clothes stacked with precision and joy in my dresser. Serenity abounds.
The only thing is, the woman who does all these things doesn’t feel like me. I can’t imagine my family living in that house.
So I guess for now I’ll just be me, in the mess, looking for my keys.
I don’t want to have another child.
It just isn’t a possibility I can even consider.
I can’t face the thought of another pregnancy; nine long months. And then what at the end?
Oh I’m sure everyone will tell me – a beautiful baby!
But there is another hurdle to face first. Another birth. And what should I do then. Push the baby out and try not to panic that I’m going to deliver my womb as well? A cesarean? Find myself tied down under those lights again? I know a planned surgical procedure would be different. But heck, I’m nervous about how I would cope at a dentists now. So.
So I don’t want another child.
So my heart is heavy for the young mother in Queensland who is asking to be sterilised and is being refused.
My heart is heavy because since when can women who have carried three children not be trusted to make this decision for themselves. Since forever.
And my heart is heavy because the Royal Aust and NZ College of Obstetricians & Gynocologists think it is too risky, because she might change her mind, when she is older. Because ‘less permanent options should be explored’.
Contraception has already failed these parents three times. What happens if it fails again? What sort of decisions are we forcing them into then?
This woman has reportedly had pregnancies complicated by Gestational Diabetes, and difficult deliveries. Getting through a first pregnancy can be tough for some women. Getting through a second pregnancy while caring for a small child can be really tough. I imagine getting through a third difficult pregnancy with two young children would be really, really tough. I can understand she can’t face the thought of a fourth pregnancy with three children to care for. So what exactly is supposed to happen to make this woman change her mind?
It is sometimes suggested to women that if one child dies, you might want another. Contrary to what some fogeys think, the current generation of young parents don’t view their children as replaceable accessories. I know for generations this is one reason why families were large, the heir and a spare. But the world has changed and now we invest in the children we do have.
Perhaps as their children grow older they will miss the baby stage so much they’ll wish they could go back and have another. I’m not going to pretend I expect never to gush over newborns again, to have a moment of imagining. But I know the second the implications of what that would entail occurred to me the wishing would stop. And sometimes we just have to make our peace with the facts. And the facts are four children is very expensive these days. A car big enough for all those car seats. A house big enough. The food bill. Most people can’t afford four children. And let’s not forget the slating large families get in the media if they need tax-payer help to make ends meet. Easier to slate them, than to help them control their fertility. So I can understand wondering and wishing, but I think many women are rational enough to let the facts win.
Or perhaps she should just be grateful for her fertility, when so many women struggle? But other women’s fertility should have no bearing on her individual case.
The real reason my heart is heavy is this. I think this family love their children. The children they already have, the one that is on the way. I think like all parents they want the best for the children they have, and they should not be denied this for the sake of the children they could possibly have. Sterilisation would remove stress from their lives.
Life with young children can be stressful. It is hard for parents to find time for themselves. This can in turn put stress on relationships. And yes, these parents are young, so let’s support them in having a strong relationship by recognising their joint decision that their childbearing days are done. A sex life, intimacy is an important part of a relationship. If they are constantly worrying about conceiving a child how is that supposed to happen?
There is another option, if they do conceive a child through failed contraception again. But I thought we were supposed to be against abortion as contraception? Remember too that in Queensland abortion is only legal if performed for the mother’s physical or mental health.
So because this woman cannot be trusted to be rational enough to decide at 22 she doesn’t want her fourth child she may instead find herself asking her doctors to sign paperwork saying she is not physically or mentally capable of continuing with another pregnancy, after a fetus has been conceived.
And they say feminism is dead.
Holly Maitland’s online petition to Malcom Turnball to allow women control of their own fertility is here