Category Archives: Life With Kids

When the Death of a Baby is Just a Symptom

Car Seats

There was a news story on the radio this morning about an 11-month old baby who died.

“The infant’s body was found strapped into the car seat of his father’s car, outside a child-care centre in Perth. The discovery was made after the father went to collect his son, and was told by staff at the centre that he hadn’t dropped the baby off that morning.”

The reporter went on to say that the infant’s death was being ruled a “tragic accident”. But I wasn’t really listening.

I wasn’t even there.

I was in that child-care centre with that father.

And my heart was breaking.

I’m there when he rushes in after work. He’s pressed for time, as always, because the day’s work ran longer than expected. I see his forced smile and his tired eyes when he greets the staff. He’s thinking about the next thing he needs to do, always the next thing, pick up the baby, get home for dinner,  put the little one to bed, so much to do, so much to do.

I’m there when the staff double-checks their records and says, “No, you definitely didn’t drop him off this morning. Maybe he’s with your wife?”

I feel the father’s confusion and fear. I want to lash out with him, to demand answers.  Where is my baby? I did drop him off! I remember strapping him into his car seat and…

And he was in a rush.

And he was stressed.

And he was driving on auto-pilot, his mind already on the work he had to do that day.

I feel the moment when it hits.

I feel it like a spider-bites and extreme heights and all-consuming darkness.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there when the father turns and runs — runs! — out to the parking lot. He sees his car, parked just where he left it. And he stops.

Because he can’t do it.

He can’t walk a single step closer. The dread…

I feel the dread like a barrier of pain.

We both know what he’ll see when he looks into his car.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

…but I don’t remember getting him out.

In my mind, I’m there. I see him take one step. And then another. Because the dread has hold of him now. It’s got him through the heart, and that hook is barbed. Oh, is it barbed. It draws him closer, closer, closer.

The tears run down his face. He doesn’t know. And if he did, he wouldn’t care.

Because he can see his little boy now. His little angel. So peacefully resting in a sleep that will last for an eternity.

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there that morning. That fateful morning, It’s so early, and the baby is asleep, and we have to wake him up and make him eat and get him dressed and put him in the car and there’s no time for cuddles and games and time. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Or on the weekend. Yes, definitely the weekend. But today, we have to get to work, to pay the bills, to run the errands, to do, do, do, do, do, so hurry up now, hurry up, we’ve got to get you to child-care, and I need to get to work, and pay the bills, and run the errands, and do, do, do, do, do.

And as I watch the father stare through the window at the body of his beautiful baby, I know he’s reliving that morning, too.

And I know that he would be willing to do anything, give up anything, sacrifice anything, for just one more smile. One more cuddle. One more day. One single opportunity to do things slower, and be present in the moment, and do whatever it takes to not end up here. Here. Standing in the hot sun. Staring at the single greatest “tragic accident” of his life, and knowing that nothing, nothing, will ever erase the pain he feels right now.

He will be standing here for the rest of his life.

I love this man.

I love him because he’s me. And he’s you. And he’s every single one of us. Every person in this world trying to do it right, better, best, perfect for our families and careers and dreams and hopes and futures and everything we’re told we can have if we just work hard enough.

But that is a lie.

No matter how hard we work, we can never erase the mistakes we make, the experiences we miss, the time we waste in pursuing a financial dream that is not even ours.

The death of this child is tragic. But it’s just a symptom. It’s a symptom of the way we live. Or the way we’re so busy trying to do and have everything, we completely overlook the most important things in our lives in favour of more, more, more.

This is not an isolated incident. These types of infant deaths are becoming more common. Last year, 25 infants died when their parents forgot they were still in the car — and that’s just in the US. (I’d look for worldwide figures, but I just can’t bear to read yet another story of a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.)

I have lived this man’s horror today. I’ve been there with him in spirit. I’ve felt the stomach-dropping, gut-churning, finger-tingling terror of realisation.

I’ve cried for him.

I’ve cried for all of us.

And I’ve hugged my children tight, then played silly games with them — even though I had other, “more important”, things to do.

I encourage you to do the same.

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The Thin Rainbow Line

Boys and DollsMy boys love cars and trucks. They dig in the dirt. They run around the house having sword fights and defeating zombie invasions. They like both pirates and ninjas. They also have a play kitchen, with a tea set and play food. They have fluffy toys and dolls and play at looking after babies. Last year, Big Brother spent weeks and weeks building The Ultimate Dollhouse out of shoe boxes, and then decorating it with matchstick furniture, frilly curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Both boys like trying on make-up and wearing my high heels. They also like making fart-noises at the dinner table.

Big Brother’s favourite colour has always been pink. He likes frills and sparkles and fairies. He likes having his nails painted. His ideal Treat Day is shoe shopping and a hair cut.

Or it was.

Because now he’s at school, everything’s changed.

His favourite colour isn’t pink anymore. Because “pink is a girl’s colour”.

He doesn’t like some of the music we used to listen to. Because “it’s girl’s music”.

He doesn’t want to hear stories about fairies and unicorns. Because they’re “girl stuff”.

He fights himself over his choice of clothes and activities. I can see it in his eyes and I can feel the tension in his body and the pain in his heart. And I can’t make it better.

I can tell him that boys can do whatever they want to do.

I can tell him that there’s no such thing as “boy stuff” and “girl stuff”.

But then he goes to school, and he argues with his friends, and he comes home feeling even worse than he did to start with.

“Mummy,” he said last month. “We were having a wedding in the sandpit today — not a real one, just a pretend one — and Schoolboy said that boys have to marry girls, and boys aren’t allowed to marry boys. And I said he was lying. And he said he wasn’t. But he was lying, wasn’t he?”

Because he’s six. And there’s no shades of gray when you’re six.

It’s not the legal concept of marriage he’s talking about. It’s the wedding that happens at the end of every fairy tale, the wedding that means Love. With a capital L. So I said, “Well, most of the time boys fall in love with girls, and girls fall in love with boys. But sometimes boys  fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with girls. The important thing isn’t if they’re boys or girls. The important thing is the Love.”

“But Schoolboy’s parents said boys can’t marry boys.”

And then I’m stuck. Because I don’t want to tell my son that his friend’s parents are wrong. Or… anything else that will undoubtedly make its way back through the classroom to the parents in question. So instead I say, “Maybe his parents just don’t know any boys who love boys.”

And then he’s distracted by asking me about the boys I know who love boys, and the conversation trails off into me telling him stories of working in exciting places. Like retail stores.

And I don’t mind having those conversations. I expect to have many, many more conversations about love and sexuality over the coming years. Those conversations don’t make my heart ache.

My heartache is about gender roles.

It’s about my little boy feeling suddenly uncomfortable telling his friends he does ballet.

It’s about my little boy feeling ashamed for doing what he loves and being who he is.

It’s about my little boy coming to me a couple of days ago and saying, “Mummy, can I tell you something funny? Can you imagine (giggle) a boy wearing lipstick!”

And me not even realising why that’s supposed to be funny, and answering, “Yes.” And then waiting for the funny part.

But it wasn’t funny.

It wasn’t funny when I had to explain that boys are allowed to wear lipstick if they like it, and girls don’t have to.

I don’t like this sudden shift. I don’t like seeing my child having a great time playing with a toy, and then see him suddenly stop, put it down, and mutter that it’s a girl’s toy. I don’t like sending him out into the world and watching him struggle.

I don’t like it at all.

I wish I could wrap him up in love and paint his toenails bright rainbow colours and give him a ribbon for his hair and pink ballet shoes for his feet, and then let him run through the mud and build a city full of dinosaurs with lasers on their heads to fight the horde of brain-eating zombies about to attack.

I wish I could protect him from the gender-bias of the world. But I can’t. Not completely.

So I do what I can.

But I feel like I’m swimming against the tide.

No.

I feel like I’m using an umbrella to protect him from a tsunami, while walking on a tightrope above shark-infested lava.

But, you know what?

I’m going to keep walking that line, holding my umbrella in front of us, until my boys are strong enough to walk it on their own.

Because no matter how hard it is, my boys are worth it.

Worth It

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The Stories in my Mind

Photo by Lisa Monster.

Photo by Lisa Monster.

I’m sitting at a Fish & Chip place, waiting for my order to be ready. My husband and sons are in the car waiting for me. I won’t be long. A few minutes at most. And they’ve got stories to read and games to play.

I’m playing my own game. I’m playing “Make up the story of the other customers”.

There’s the tired looking woman in the tired-looking long dress. Her hair and make-up are perfect. In my mind, I imagine her coming home from a long day at work and realising she’s got nothing to cook for dinner. But she’s already changed into something comfortable, so she doesn’t want to go to the supermarket. Instead, she pops down the road to the local Fish-O, and figures she won’t see anyone she knows.

Then there’s the muscled, tattooed guy with orange hair and an impressively orange van dyke. He’s got a little girl with him — she can’t be more than 2 1/2 years old — and she stares up at him adoringly. “Daddy, what’s that? Daddy, can I have juice? Daddy, can you lift me up?” And he, in his tough guy jeans and wife-beater, smiles back at her and answers her every question. She’s wearing purple leggings, an embroidered white shirt that’s on backwards, and a pair of slippers. And in my mind, I imagine Mum saying goodbye to her little girl. “Mummy will be home tomorrow. Have a good night with Daddy. I love you, chicken.”

As they all leave, another group of customers arrive. Three boys. Let’s say… 13 years old. Maybe 14, but that would be a stretch. The one in the lead is tall and lanky and has a cocky grin that I want to wipe off his face the moment I see it. He’s wearing a stained singlet that’s too small, and a pair of grubby shorts that are too big — not in that “I’m so cool and gangsta” way. More in the “I don’t have clothes that fit me” way. His socks are orange. His volleys are lime green. He needs a haircut.

With him are two other boys. One is taller than him, the other shorter. One is more muscular than him, the other isn’t. These two are wearing clothes that both fit them and look like they’ve recently been washed. I see designer name brands on one boy’s jeans. They both have good shoes. And they’re walking their scooters.

They have to, because Boy 1 is on foot. And they stay beside or behind him at all times.

“Hey,” says Boy 1. “Go buy us some food.” And then he throws himself languorously into one chair, puts his feet on a second, and wait for his bidding to be done.

And it is. Of course. The other boys order and pay, and then return to Boy 1’s side.

There are no more chairs. So they stand, uncomplaining, while their friend occupies two.

Outside, another group of boys walks by. Without moving his body, Boy 1 raises his voice and shouts to them. “Hey! Fags! What are you faggots doing?”

Every adult in the place turns to look at this boy.

He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“I said,” Boy 1 shouts even louder. “What are you faggots doing?”

The other boys keep walking. And that’s what prompts Boy 1 to move. He leaps from his chairs like he’s been electrocuted, and bolts for the door. His minions — sorry, friends — follow him. I strain my ears, but hear only muffled conversation. And then the second group of boys leaves, and Boy 1 brings his followers back to the Fish-O. As a parting shot he yells, “Hey, JT! You forgot your eye-liner!”

No response.

“And you’re lookin’ a bit fat!”

No response.

“Fags!”

There is silence in the store. The boys pick up their order — or, rather, Boy 1 picks up the order and decrees that they shall eat it while sitting in the parking lot — and they’re gone. And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

While I make up stories about Boy 1 in my head. Where does he live? Why is he dressed like that? What power does he have over his friends? Where are his parents?

And what is with the language?

Look, I have to be honest. It’s not the worst thing that could be said. I mean, I’ve been called a fag before. Which is crazy, because I thought that kind of random hate-talk died out in the 80’s.

Also, I’m a woman. (Although that seems somehow less relevant.)

But I get their confusion. I mean, I’m almost 6’2″ tall. I’ve got broad shoulders — I have friends who call me an Amazon and others who refer to me as The Viking Chick — and I wear my hair short. At the time, my husband and I were walking home, hand in hand. So I can understand how someone would see the two of us

holding hands

at night

from behind

and instead of seeing a couple in love, they’d see two men (one with incredibly well-developed child-bearing hips) who should obviously be verbally abused for their “crime” — whatever that may be.

At the time, I shrugged and wrote it off as just a few guys who’d escaped from the 80s in their trusty DeLorean, and would no doubt be going home soon.

Well.

Listening to the young men at the Fish & Chip shop today, I have to face the fact that either I was wrong, or there are an awful lot of DeLoreans cruising around out there.

I return to the present when my number is called. I collect my order and return to the car and my family is waiting, and all I can think is that I do not want my boys to ever talk like that. Ever. Even — no, especially — if they don’t know why those words are so hateful, and how their very usage creates and reinforces a culture where hatred and violence against homosexuals is normalised.

With those thoughts running through my mind, I’m almost surprised when my son speaks to me.

“Mummy, did you see those children?”

I hesitate and then say yes. But it takes me a moment to realise who he’s talking about.

It takes me a moment to equate the word “child” with Boy 1.

“Were those children playing a game?” he asks.

I mutter an affirmative and I drive away.

Quietly.

Because in my mind, I’m watching my boys grow up into kind, brave, noble men. Men who won’t need to follow weak leaders, because they’ll know their own mind and follow their own inner compass. Men who won’t use hate-speak, because they’ll know the value of a human soul. Men who will love and hurt and cry and cheer and fight for what is right and never, ever, ever let the world drag them down.

And I will do whatever it takes to make that story come true.

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Nightmares and Other Spooky Stuff

Man in Black Hat

I was eight the first time I dreamed of The Man in the Black Hat.

He haunted my dreams for months.

I would lie awake at night, dreading the moment I fell asleep and I’d be thrust once more into his nightmare world. But eventually, sleep would come. And then it would begin.

I had been playing with the neighbourhood children when we saw him coming. He was further up the street, just coming out of one of the houses, on his way to the next. The Man in the Black Hat.

The Man in the Black Hat was a monster. A serial killer. He was feared across the entire country, and the police couldn’t do anything to stop him. He dressed all in black. Shiny, black shoes. Black trousers. A black shirt and tie. And a long, formal, black jacket. And on his head, a hat. A strange, tall black hat that sat atop his black hair and made him look even taller than he already was.

And he was tall. Tall and thin and terrifying.

He travelled from place to place, starting at the top of the street and slowly working his way from house to house. And when he entered a house, he killed everyone inside. No preamble. No talking. Just death, delivered swiftly at the end of a blade. Men, women, children, pets… Everyone died when he came to a neighbourhood.

And he was in ours.

We ran inside and found my parents. “Mum! Dad! The Man in the Black Hat is here!”

But they didn’t believe us.

We tried and tried, but they told us to stop making up stories. We begged them to call the police, but they wouldn’t. They just kept doing what they were doing, and told us to go outside and play. So outside we went.

And The Man in the Black Hat was just coming out of the house next door.

We fled back into the house, and down into the basement. Maybe we could hide. Maybe he wouldn’t find us.

I squeezed myself into a small cupboard and pulled the door closed behind me. I could just see a sliver of the room through the crack between the doors. And I held my breath, and I waited.

I didn’t have to wait for long.

Footsteps on the stairs.

Slow. Measured. There was no rush.

And The Man in the Black Hat came into view, his tall top hat, the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. He had a blade in his hand. It was coated in the blood of my parents.

He went out of sight, then. Searing the basement. One by one, I heard him kill my friends. Some of them screamed. Some of them begged. All of them died.

Then he killed my siblings.

Silence.

Footsteps.

Was he leaving?

The door of my hiding place opened.

The Man in the Black Hat smiled at me, bloody knife in hand. And then he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me towards him.

At the moment the blade touched my throat…

..I woke up. Drenched in sweat. Sobbing and cowering and barely able to breathe. The shadow on my curtain looked like a face, and I hid under the blankets.

Eventually, dawn came.

But the dream wasn’t done.

The Man in the Black Hat came to me three or four times a week for months. Every time, it was the same. I’d listen to my friends being murdered in front of me, and then he’d come for me. I cried myself to sleep most nights.

I was eight years old.

And then, a turning point. I told my brother about The Man in the Black Hat. And he looked at me, all earnestness, and he said, “Haven’t you heard of The Man in the White Hat?”

“No,” I said. Naive. Hopeful.

“The Man in the White Hat dresses all in white,” my little brother said. “He has a tall, white hat. And he’s hunting down The Man in the Black Hat.”

And then he went back to playing with his Transformers.

That night, The Man in the Black Hat came for me, just like always.

I saw him coming. I told my parents. They didn’t believe me. I hid in a cupboard in the basement. I heard my friends killed. I heard my siblings killed. The door of my hiding place opened. The Man in the Black Hat smiled at me, bloody knife in hand. And then he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me towards him.

And a voice came from the top of the stairs. “Let go of that girl!”

It was The Man in the White Hat. He wore shiny, white shoes. White trousers. A white shirt and tie. And a long, formal, white jacket. And on his head, a tall white hat that sat atop his blonde hair. In his hand, he carried a white cane.

He came down the stairs. The Man in the Black Hat let go of me, and turned to face him.

Then The Man in the White Hat drew a sword from his cane, and chopped off The Man in the Black Hat’s head. Then he winked at me.

I woke up.

And I never dreamed of The Man in the Black Hat again.

He was dead. But he wasn’t gone.

To this day, he lurks in the back of my head. He’s the prototype for every nightmare monster, every evil character in every story I tell, and the bearer of every moment of panic or fear. He whispers to me sometimes.

“You can’t do this.”

“You’re going to die one day.”

“Everybody hates you.”

“I will make the worst thing you can imagine come true.”

But he’s locked in the prison of my mind, and every now and then, The Man in the White Hat shows up and puts him in his place.

I don’t talk about him. I rarely think about him.

And I’m not afraid of him anymore.

Or, I wasn’t.

Until today.

“Mummy,” six-year-old Big Brother said. “I had a strange vision of a man.”

“Mmmm?”

“He was tall and skinny and really scary. And he was wearing black. A black shirt and a funny, long black jacket. And a really strange hat. I think he’s a bad guy.”

I froze. The bad guys in movies always wear black. It’s just a coincidence.

Right?

But what if it isn’t. “What type of hat?” I asked.

He frowned. Remembering.

“A tall, scary black one.”

My blood ran cold.

This story is entirely true. Have you had something spooky happen to you?

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The Bad Days

They don’t tell you about the bad days.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when you’re sick and you’re alone with two children and everything they say, every little thing, leaves you feeling like your eardrums have been pierced by a thousand needles and your entire world is confined to an everlasting world of noise and pain and pointless arbitration.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when your fever is so high you’re starting to hallucinate, but your two-year-old still needs cuddles and your children still need dinner and you find yourself crying while you’re cooking some barely-nutritious meal and you don’t even know why.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when your entire body aches and your children give you ninja-cuddles that leave you breathless and overwhelmed and you do your best to smile and thank them, but after the fourteenth time you snap and yell at them not to touch you.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when you sit inside your mind, watching yourself be the parent you never want to be, and you can’t. Seem. To stop.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when the guilt is worse than all the sickness in the world.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when you want to yell and scream and punch the walls and tell these beautiful children in your care that you just want them to leave you alone for five expletive minutes, and the effort of not doing exactly that is so draining that the tears flow freely.

They don’t tell you about the bad days when the effort is too much, and you do yell at them and you see their little faces crumble and you would do anything, anything, if you could just step back in time two minutes and take back those words and be the person they need you to be.

They don’t tell you about the bad days.

And when they come.

(Because they will.)

All you can do.

Is hope that tomorrow.

Is a good one.

The Superheroes

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Conversations with Children: The Wonders of Research

Me and The Boy

Both my boys are somewhat enamoured with the music of Jurassic Joe. You’ve probably never heard of him. If you’ve got young children, that’s a real shame because his music is all about dinosaurs, and it’s equal parts fun and informative.

Jurassic Joe is the reason Big Brother can tell you the difference between a T-Rex and a Giganatosaurus.

So we were listening to “the dinosaur music” in the car the other day when Big Brother pipes up, “I think Jurassic Joe must have been alive when the dinosaurs were.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because he knows so much about them.”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think he was alive back then. But I bet he did a lot of research.”

“Research? What’s research?”

Only one of my favourite things in the world… I thought, and wondered how the word had never come up in conversation before. “Research is when you come across a topic or an idea that you find interesting, so you read about it and talk to people about it and find all sorts of information about it. Research is searching for information so you can learn about something.”

“Wow,” said Big Brother. “That sounds awesome. That’s the best thing ever!”

“It is! Mummy loves researching things.”

“Can I research something?”

And a previous conversation re-played itself in my head. A conversation from the day before when Big Brother explained to me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t need to go to school anymore, because he already knew everything that happened there.

“Yes,” I said. “You can research whatever you’d like. Whatever you’re interested in. Research is one of the best ways to learn anything, and you can do it your whole life. In fact, research is one of the reasons you go to school.”

“It is?”

“It is. At school, you’ll learn about a lot of different things so you can find out what interests you and what you’d like to research. Plus, they’ll teach you how to do research.”

“Really?” His eyes were wide.

“Really.”

He was silent for a few moments. Thinking. Then he piped up, “I want to research buildings! And remember how you bought me that colouring book with buildings from all over the world? Well, I can use that to start researching buildings. And the whole world. And I’m going to research the whole world. And sea dragons!”

“That sounds great,” I said.

Another minute of silence. I could hear the cogs in his mind whirring, processing, wondering, dreaming.

“What am I learned to research at school right now?” he asked suddenly.

“Well, you know how you want to research buildings?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“One of the first ways to learn about buildings is to build them with blocks. That way you learn how to make buildings stable, and how to make buildings look good.”

His whole face lit up. “And I know how to build buildings really, really wellI’m great at building with blocks! Wow! I’ve already learned Level One research on buildings!”

I smiled, but didn’t have time to reply before he was off again.

“And do you know what Level Two research on buildings is?”

“What?”

“Drawing them! And I’m really good at drawing buildings! So I’ve already done Level One and Level Two research on buildings! I wonder what Level Three research on buildings is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Wow,” he said. “I love research.”

“Me too, Sweetheart. Me too.”

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