wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Archive for the tag “children”

Birds and the bees, shooting the breeze

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

My son McCool is three years old. He has a baby in his tummy. The baby is coming out through his belly button one day soon. It is a little boy. And he’s excited to see him. And wants to share this excitement with me. We’re reading a bedtime story called There’s a House Inside My Mummy. We read it a lot when I was pregnant with GG. I’ve noticed McCool always chooses his reading material according to who is reading. It’s a clever tactic to keep the grown ups interested. I get John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat a lot (because it’s my favourite). Poor grandma gets The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (because she has the patience to read it). We fight over who won’t read Horton Hears a Who! ‘It’s too long’, we moan, ‘we need some more VOOOOM’. Who would have thought us literary types would try desperately to avoid Dr Seuss. But we’re all happy when we land Walter the Farting Dog.

I try to tell him that only women can have babies (even if this isn’t exactly correct) but he doesn’t want to listen. He likes the idea of a little one sprouting from his belly. He’s been asking a lot of questions about babies in bellies. He has a little cousin arriving soon.

I think that perhaps it’s time. To talk about sex. But, really, where do you start? I always thought it would be fairly straightforward. Just answer the questions down the line. But the questions are so curly. And the answers aren’t much easier. And now I realise the dilemma. McCool still finds it hard to distinguish between the real and the fantasy. At what point does cold hard reality have to come slamming down? Can’t we keep the boundaries blurred for just a little while longer?

My parents (hippies I used to say) believed in being direct. I can remember the first time I found out where babies came from. Even though I would have read hundreds of stories on my mother’s lap, it is this book I remember most clearly. I was around the age my son is now, I guess. 1976. Something about the tone, the conversation, must have set it apart. Important. To be remembered. I remember the delicate, almost technical, illustrations of a child inside a mother’s womb. The anatomy. I remember the precise wording of the pages. There was no passion. This was scientific. No room for questions.

It’s grade 2 and I’m in the school yard. I’m swinging on the monkey bars (we had those in the playground then). I’ve been talking to my best friend Christina for an hour. About sex. About who does what. And how it works. What goes where. She hasn’t said a word. I have her undivided attention. I feel like I’m an expert. I say it all in a matter-of-fact voice. As if it’s no big deal.

There's a House Inside My Mummy

There’s a House Inside My Mummy

The next day Christina’s big sister comes up to me in the playground. She’s in grade 6. She says that I shouldn’t talk that way. The way I talked yesterday. That it’s dirty. And disgusting. She says I’m too young to know things like that. And, as she leaves, she says, Oh, and my parents don’t want you playing with Christina any more.

I don’t know why but I feel ashamed. As if I need to be washed. As if I’m rubbing off on people. There’s a collision between the message I’m getting (from my mother) and the message I’m getting (from my peers). For some reason, it’s the children around me who have greater impact. I’m left confused. I don’t talk about this with my mum. I learn quickly that bodies, what they do, how they express themselves, should be hidden, that sex is something to keep secret.

But mum perseveres. Later in primary school we move on to Peter Mayles’ hilarious What’s Happening to Me? and Where Did I Come From?, two classics that answered all the key questions in a comic tone. Just seeing the illustrations again now makes me giggle. I remember my mother and I laughing at the page that had all different shapes of breasts and arguing over which ones would be best: the pendulous; the throw-over-your-shoulder; the pert and neat.

I wonder now if there are any new books that I can read to McCool. Has sex education moved into the digital sphere (there’s probably an App available somewhere they can stroke with their fingers)? Or do we still return to the classics?


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Writing Mothers: Debra Adelaide

Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying

Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying

When I first read The Household Guide to Dying it felt as if the writer, Debra Adelaide, had somehow stepped inside my head for a while and borrowed my voice. Even though at the time I had no daughters, and I certainly wasn’t dying of cancer, the words felt like they were mine: effortless, flowing, perfectly formed, and delivered with precision timing (at certain key points).

There was nothing sentimental about Delia Bennet’s experience of confronting death. It was head on. Even funny. (I got the same tragi-comic feeling reading Sarah Watt’s exquisite contributions to Worse Things Happen at Sea, the memoir she wrote with husband William McInnes, when she was approaching her final days with courage and quiet humour.) Delia plans for the important things. Like how to teach her girls to make the perfect cup of tea. Like whether she is going to fit in her coffin and whether she should practise before the final day comes. Read more…

Writing Mothers: Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

I’ve been writing an essay for Island Magazine on the topic, Writing Mothers, where I’ve been looking at mother characters in Australian fiction (written by women), and talking to novelists and bloggers about how they even begin to juggle their writing with pregnancy and having children. I’ve also talked to writers (who are not mothers) about how they go about creating characters (who are mothers).

I’ve been surprised at how little research has been done on the topic (although the Australian Women Writers’ Network has been brilliant at giving me leads). It seems that mothers shimmy out of the limelight wherever possible. The article will be published in July but, in the meantime, I thought I’d start a series on Writing Mothers where I publish some of the interviews in full that I’ve quoted from in the article.

First up is Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (which won the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize) and an outstanding debut novel, All That I Am (one of the best Australian novels of the past year, nominated for the Miles Franklin). She is one of Australia’s most exciting writers and here she talks about the challenges of writing when you have three children.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

Anna Funder, Stasiland

Anna Funder, Stasiland

AF: I was finishing Stasiland when I was pregnant with my first child. I think pregnancy is a wonderful state, in that it chemically blurs all kinds of anxieties about the (completely and utterly unimaginable ) future that is coming. That applies to both babies, and books — how can anyone have any idea what it’s going to be like with either? I think I expected to have a quiet time with my baby, which I did for a little bit, but then the book took off and I was travelling and talking a lot for a couple of years.

When my baby was two weeks old I went out and bought a three-piece set of matching luggage on a whim. My dear friend, a mother of four, said to me, ‘You have a two-week-old baby. Where do you think you’re going??’ I had no idea, but I ended up travelling all over the place with my daughter.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

AF: I wrote a lot of articles and speeches. I didn’t really have the mental wherewithal to nut out the architecture of a big novel — that came later. I found it hard to organise my time. My husband was overseas weeks at a time for about half the year, and I was in a city without much family support. I have three children now, and imagine I’m a bit better at outsourcing some of the care and making time to write. But truth be told, I put my novel All That I Am away for the first six months of my son’s life. I tried to have a break from it. Of course I wrote other stuff during that time.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

AF: I don’t find discipline so hard. I find writing hard, but I am more stressed out by not doing it than by doing it, so I organise my life to be able to work. What is not good for writing is sleep deprivation and lactation; the brain function that is important for writing — the wordy, analytical, associative, creative part of your mind — is shut down by prolactin I believe. This is so that grown women who are used to doing a great many things can stay seated the eight hours a day it takes to feed a newborn without going mad, so it’s a good thing.

Also, a mother’s focus is incredibly directed, and her emotional energy is absolutely heightened by having a baby. This intensity of living and loving — this experience of being part of a dyad — is a wonderful gift. Like all intense emotional experiences, it broadens you in the longer term, which can make you a better writer. Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

AF: One woman whose story I wrote in Stasiland was separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. I always found it a terrible story, but I realised much more shockingly after having a baby what she must have gone through. It wasn’t possible to do this solely by an act of sympathetic experience. I had to have the emotional receptors for it, and the only way to get those is –—in this instance — to have had a baby. I probably wouldn’t have written the story any differently. I still think it’s fine. But this experience is salutary for me. If what you do is work to enable people to understand and experience others, and other things through words, it makes you realise the limits of them.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

AF: I do write about mothers. Often it is influenced more by my own mother, than by my experience of mothering. But I feel pretty well-equipped now, after three children, to write a convincing mother character. Or twenty.

Stay tuned for the next interview in the Writing Mothers series: blogger Bianca Wordley (isn’t that just the perfect name for a writer?).

Have you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland or All That I Am? What are your thoughts on these books?

Or are you a writing mother? How do you juggle your writing time with looking after the kids?

They don’t make playgrounds like they used to…

Old slippery dipIn my day the slippery dips (they weren’t called slides then) were made of steel and you’d burn your bum as soon as the heat went above 26 degrees.
In my day there were no shade cloths to protect you from the sun. That’s why I’ve got so many goddamn freckles.
In my day, if you fell off the monkeybars, you fell onto grass. Or even worse, gravel. Or, if the teachers really hated you, cement. (Now it’s the much softer artificial turf — only a problem if you’re worried your children will get cancer from toxic waste.)
In my day roundabouts went so fast you could actually fall off from the giddy speed and hallucinate for hours afterwards.
In my day you could play on the seesaw and suffer a bone-crushing spinal injury when a big kid jumped off the other end while you were still in the air (oh, happy days).
In my day the flying foxes went into the tree.
In my day the slippery dips weren’t gently tapered at the end; they fell away dramatically so you’d get a mouthful of dirt if you came down forwards.

But in my day I never encountered a Variety Playground.

Lake Macquarie Variety Playground

Lake Macquarie Variety Playground, Speers Point

I took McCool (my three-year-old son) to a new park yesterday, the Lake Macquarie Variety Playground (yep that’s its official title) in Speers Point in Newcastle, and we both ended up having panic attacks.

His was at the start of the day. He fell asleep in the car (not a good start) and had to be woken up. ‘Wake up, we’re at the park!’ I always talk in exclamation points to him these days. He said ‘I want to go home’, ‘I want to go to the café’ ‘I want some banana bread’ ‘No, mumma, I DO want to play’ in the three minutes it took him to meander out of his carseat. He was starting to work up to a tanty.

And then we both saw it. A metallic rocket pointing to the sky. He started moving towards it as if being drawn in by a religious cult, his eyes fixed greedily to the top of the three-storey slide. As he scampered up the ropes to the first level, I realised this monstrosity had been purposely designed to keep parents out. By the time I had negotiated the maze to almost reach him, McCool (did I mention he is three years old?) had climbed into an enormous monkey cage, where teenagers and toddlers screamed, swinging arm in arm, embracing the Darwinist theory of evolution full throttle.

As he continued to scale up up up, without a thought in my direction, I realised that my anxiety was as much for me as him. I did not want to go in there. This was a mummy test. Ladders, cages, vertigo, tigers. A vertical maze. Who knew what awaited me? But my mum was down the bottom, staring up at me, looking more and more demanding as each child ‘not McCool’ emerged from the slide at silver speed. She pointed with one finger. Up. I gestured bravely as if that had always been my intention.

I entered the warren of ladders and cages, landing on sore ankles, jarring knees, after each step. When I was almost to the top, I saw my son, yeah there he was, down the bottom, apparently safely shot out of the slide cannon, happily articulating to grandma. Dodged a bullet there. As I wound my way down slowly against a barrage of kids, she yelled up at me, ‘he wants to go again!’

This time we went up together, but I became even more of a liability. ‘Can you come down after me?’, he pleaded, his three-year-old logic working the usual miracles. I did my best. I really did. Waiting in queue — while children with flailing limbs assaulted us from all sides —miles off the ground, I watched the flimsy slide bounce and shake as a hefty dad took his daughter down helter-skelter.

Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways

Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways

And all I could think of? Two words. Newcastle. Earthquake. All these kids falling to the ground. The slide falling away like a used condom. Soiled. Well, enough metaphor already. All of us dead, actually.

I thought I did my job. As a mum. I got McCool to the slide. I asked a dad behind him if he could keep an eye. I got the hell out of there, down the ladders, the way I had come. But at the bottom? Nothing. Minutes passed. Not a sign of him. I was not going back in there. I looked at mum. She gave me the finger again. Well, okay, I started moving tentatively back. And then I saw him. In another man’s arms. Down down down. He’d asked a dad to carry him down all the ladders. He didn’t seem the slightest bit anxious. But he didn’t want to go down the slide again. Not without me behind him.

In my day I would have gone down that slide. What has happened to youthful recklessness? With motherhood I’ve become like Meryl (Justine Clarke) in Sarah Watts’ wonderful Look Both Ways, endlessly catastrophising — only I don’t do it artistically, in beautiful animations.

I just breathe heavily, close my eyes, and want to get out of there.

What do you remember of playgrounds? Were they a time of fun, or fear? Let me know your stories, childhood or parental traumas…

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