Let the tough times roll

Let the Tough Times Roll

Illustration by Lizzy Stewart for The New York Times.

There have been a few articles floating around on the interwebs recently about the potential effect of over-sheltering our children. Often named ‘Helicopter Parenting’ (great visual), it defines a style of parenting that, perhaps unconsciously, shields children from more than just extreme physical or emotional harm, but everyday discomfort or uncertainty. It’s being blamed for the inexplicable rise of depression in young people (aged 18-24) who report absolutely no past traumas or signs of inherent depression, and who describe their childhoods as ‘idyllic’. The rough conclusion is that by not allowing kids to experience problems of any kind, they grow up a little stunted in their ability to cope with and process the far-from-idyllic world of adulthood.

I gotta say, it makes sense to me. We’ve become progressively nicer to our kids throughout the generations; once upon a time children were beaten openly for being naughty, seen and not heard, and treated with icy disinterest. Those kids didn’t feel too loved, so they grew up, had kids of their own, downgraded beating to smacking, indulged their kids in a few displays of affection, and were generally nice to them. Catherine Deveny does a cracking presentation about the ‘Benevolent Neglect’ of 70s parenting (read a few choice snippets here) which defines this style of parenting beautifully. Enter the Helicopters of the next generation who went one step further, banning all kinds of physical admonishment and treating their children like demi-Gods. It seems the spawn of these last parental specimens seem to have a few problems in the real world. Namely that nobody else thinks they’re as fabulous as their parents made out they were and they did nothing of merit to earn their fabulousness.

Now, this is a big and contentious conversation and though my sarcasm may give me away a little, I’m not in a position to judge how anyone raises their kid (though I do draw the line at beating). So instead of getting preachy, let me tell you a little story of my own. Though the sample size may not be huge or definitive, I think stories have such powerful potential for influence, far more than any study or statistic could ever dream. My story is a little sad, but fear not – all is well now.

When my daughter Hazel was 18 months old, I miscarried a baby just shy of my 12 week scan. Miscarriage is a sad but normal part of being a human, and I’m a rational gal; I knew I hadn’t done anything to cause it and understood that a huge number of pregnancies just don’t ‘take’ on basic genetic grounds. All in all, I was sad about a future that no longer existed for my family, but OK with the concept as a whole. My body, on the other hand, didn’t really know what to do with itself. I could feel the imbalance of hormones and chemicals in my blood as palpably and painfully as a flu vaccine pumping through my veins on repeat. And trying to take care of an 18 month old, a business on the verge of success, and a broken mind/body wreaked havoc on my life.

I just thought I was sad about losing a baby. Seemed logical. But it soon became clear that it was more than that. One minute I would be doing dishes, the next I would find myself folding like an accordion on the kitchen floor, sobbing without warning. Walking zombie-like through my days, frightened to answer my phone lest someone said something that set me off. On one accordion-sobbing occasion, Hazel toddled in to find me in my predicament. Her immediate reaction was fright, and my immediate reaction was fight: get up, wipe away the tears, talk normally, convince her nothing had happened. She can’t possibly understand, and it’s a far too grown-up issue to go into with a kid so young. The first few times I managed, but after a while, my body just wouldn’t get up off the floor and the tears just wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t form a basic sentence to protect her from the horror of the scene and she looked on, often in tears herself and obviously frightened.

Help was sought, enter my unstoppable husband and family who scraped me up off the floor (figuratively) and the long healing process began. I say long because it was – 12 months at least. But a funny thing happened. During this period, Hazel not only began to soften to my sadness, but became hyper-aware of it. She would curiously follow me into a room as I tried to hide, instinctively knowing I wasn’t doing too well. Often predicting it before it even happened, she would sit up urgently and ask me (as she had heard so many ask me) “What’s wrong, mummy?” If she saw me crying, she would climb right up into my space, rub my back and softly say (as she had heard to many say) “it’s OK.” Even her little face took on an almost comical, wrinkled-brow look. You have no idea the healing power of seeing a human so tiny exhibit behaviour so empathetic. It restores one’s faith in humanity.

All is truly well now. Another baby will join the family in the coming weeks. Hazel is a happy little Vegemite. Indeed, so am I. But now Hazel’s instinctive response to seeing someone cry, child or adult, is to kneel with them, rub their back, assume a face of reverence and say softly that it’s OK. At 3 years old she knows that sometimes, that’s all you can do for someone when they cry. There are people of 30 who still haven’t learned that. People who live their entire lives never learning that.

My instinct was to protect my child from the fright of seeing her mother vulnerable, but in the end it was allowing her into that vulnerability that created the strength and awareness that I doubt will ever leave her. We view children as precious and defenceless, but also selfish and unable to see outside themselves and their needs. In some ways that’s true, but strength, compassion and empathy are learned behaviours. How soon they are learned depends only on how soon the lessons start.

You can engineer good experiences for your children. You can orchestrate an idyllic childhood. The same can’t be said for bad experiences. All you can do is grab them with both hands when they arise and drag your kids along for the bumpy ride. If there is one thing I can say for certain, it is that you will experience pain, death, loss and misfortune at some stage during the 18 years that your child is in your care. For me, it’s comforting to know that I can make those experiences count for something, and that they will galvanise my kids for the uncertain wonder of life ahead.

And hopefully make them all the more able to understand and appreciate it.

Motherhood vs Parenthood

MOTHERHOOD PARENTHOOD

I didn’t go to a local Mothers’ Group.

It took me a while to really put my finger on why, but when pressed I used to say things like “oh, I’m too busy” or “we moved house and I never really got involved at the new Maternal Health Clinic” or “so many of my friends had babies at the same time – I have my own Mothers’ Group and they’re my actual friends!”

But that wasn’t it. Not really. I knew it wasn’t, but I found it hard to process let alone express my real feelings on the matter. But when Hazel was nearly two, the epiphany hit and I knew why I’d held back.

See, my dad was a stay-at-home dad when I was a baby. My mum took over as stay-at-home mum when my sister was born but during my infant years in the rockin’ early 80s, my dad attended a local Mothers’ Group with me. He speaks of it fondly, mainly because he became the Hero of the Mothers the day he introduced wine to the sessions and I think the ladies enjoyed the added company of a funny man in the mix. My dad is a performer (by trade and by nature) and has confidence and charisma. He kinda liked being the odd one out because, let’s face it, that’s his life.

Fast-forward 30 years when I was working from home with Hazel and enter my friend Marty*. Marty was doing some carpentry work at my place and was a stay-at-home dad to a daughter of a similar age to Hazel. His wife earned good coin so they had made the decision to swap out the traditional roles when their daughter was 6 months old – she went back to work, he stayed at home.

I am not in any way trying to demonise his wife (I know her, and she’s adorable) but part of their ‘deal’ was that she wanted Marty to participate in all the typical activities that stay-at-home-mums do, including Mothers’ Group. When I asked how he enjoyed it (quite genuinely, having no experience of my own) Marty – who couldn’t be less like my father if he tried – smiled that it was… OK. He made an appearance each week, but didn’t say much at the sessions. He only really went to take his daughter to get some regular social interaction with other kids. The women were nice to him, but he got nothing out of it himself.

And that’s when it hit me. I hate when the word Mother is used in place of Parent. And particularly, when the word Motherhood is used to define Parenthood. It puts a lot of insidious pressure on mums to do all of the ‘thinking’ in the parenthood game, while simultaneously alienating fathers to do no such thing. You could argue that fathers aren’t interested in meeting up once a week to talk about their baby’s bowel movements, but if that somehow defines fatherhood then strike me down and call me a father because neither am I. You could equally argue that women are more inclined towards nurturing and organising, that it is our ‘maternal instinct’ but I believe this is a myth that we continue to propagate, often in well-meaning memes on Facebook. For example:

Motherhood is all about patience and kindness. Putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own.

No, that’s what Parenthood is about. Fathers must also be patient and kind and put the needs of their kids ahead of their own.

Motherhood has the greatest potential influence on a human life.

Once again, no. Fathers and mothers together, even in absence, are the most powerful influence we have over our children. Referring to these things as motherhood not only alienates the father, but adopts an unnecessary single-parent mentality. Heck, being an actual single-parent is challenging enough, why place that kind of pressure on yourself when you’re fortunate enough to be in a co-parenting relationship?

You might think I’m being overly semantic, but allow me to delve further.

ADULTHOOD

ADULTHOOD, we can safely say, is a state of your life when the passage from child to adult occurs. The pillars of adulthood revolve around taking responsibility for oneself and being independent. WOMANHOOD or MANHOOD are two concepts less used, but are, in many ways, the sum of Adulthood. They explore pillars that are exclusive to becoming a woman or a man, generally physical, hormonal and emotional changes, and mark the beginning of this new stage of life.

But in this day and age, you would never claim that learning to cook a few basic meals, or being kind to others was a pillar of womanhood. You would never claim that learning to deal with office politics and balancing your budget was a pillar of manhood. They are pillars of adulthood, undertaken by both men and women when they come of age. Throughout time, the definition of womanhood and manhood has morphed into the juggernaut of adulthood so while sixty years ago you may have gotten away with claiming that ‘sewing your wild oats’ was all part of the passage of manhood while ‘accepting that you’re not allowed to be a total slut’ is all part of womanhood, today you’d be laughed out of the pub. Or beaten up by a chick.

CHILDHOOD

CHILDHOOD, we can safely say, is the state of your life when you are considered a child. There is a blurry bit in your teens where you transition physically, mentally, emotionally and socially while still being legally considered a child, but all in all we can agree that anyone up to the age of 13 is a child. The terms BOYHOOD and GIRLHOOD are unlikely to ever be heard outside an Enid Blyton novel, but would you say that running around, riding bikes and climbing trees is all part of boyhood? No, because it’s all part of childhood and labelling it such makes undue (and untrue!) exclusion in activities that all kids can take part in and enjoy. I don’t remember athletics being split into boys and girls when I was a kid. And I remember winning a lot of sprints.

And so we come to the final frontier of the passage of human life when we hit PARENTHOOD but we still can’t grasp that all that love and nurturing and patience is something that fathers are not only capable of but truly excellent at. My father’s tears at my wedding are a testament to it. My husband gently stroking my daughter’s arm until she falls asleep is, too.

So I beg you: whatever your own unique family roles, quit calling parenthood motherhood. Let’s demand that our local ‘Mothers’ Group’ become ‘Parents’ Group’ where both mum and dad are welcome to share stories and experiences, tips and support at a time of the week that both mums and dads can attend (i.e., not 11am on a Tuesday). It’s already happening in some municipalities – rock on, City of Melbourne! – and it doesn’t take away from the idea that you can meet a bunch of great people who end up becoming your lifelong friends. Let’s share the joys and the responsibility of raising our kids. After all, we’re better together.

Sore nipples and a weak pelvic floor? TOTES MOTHERHOOD.

* Name has been changed but ‘Marty’ will probably know exactly who he is and he’s a champ.