Category Archives: Writerly

Mother cupboard

*this post is my first contribution to the Writing Workshop over at Sleep is for the Weak. I chose Prompt #4, clear out a cupboard.

“Only a mother could love that face!” You know that your mother doesn’t love you, before you have words to say what it is that you know. “Remember, at least one person loves him – his mother!” It’s an ugly kind of knowing; a shameful kind. “There is no love like a mother’s love.” You push the knowledge right to the back of the forgetting cupboard. “God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers.” It is knowledge that sets you apart, marks you as unlovable. It is better not to show that you know.

***

When I was about three years old my parents held some sort of party at our house. My mother, annoyed that I had interrupted her talking, deliberately dropped the hot ash off the end of her cigarette as I stood between her and a friend. It hit the delicate skin of my shoulder and burned me. I don’t think I retain this memory because of the searing ash. What I remember is her intently watching the ash fall, the look on her face, as she realised she had actually hurt me. Blank. And the look as I began to protest, bottom lip quivering. I knew at that moment, as she vehemently denied burning me at all, let alone on purpose, that there was nothing – nothing – I could say to make her feel sorry.

This reads like a melodrama, or a twisted and childish fantasy. Don’t think I don’t know it.

I wore the cigarette scar for many years, and I would show it to people, sometimes. There was no one who would accept it. It was an invented story altogether, or it was an accident, but evidence of callous disregard from the woman who was meant to care the most? You need to show a lot more than a few little white marks to prove that. Some people won’t ever believe that lack of mother-love exists in nature, searching for alternative explanations even when a child dies.

Beyond what was acceptable as discipline in the early eighties, I wasn’t beaten. Beyond what was acceptable in fat-shaming at that time, I wasn’t starved. I had things, I had sunshiny days and icecreams. Some days, I had love, or an indistinguishable facsimile.

One of my other earliest memories? My mother wiping my bottom. Being so young that I needed help with toileting, I remember calling for her, I remember her careful touch. I also recall the day I had my first serious asthma attack, when I was left in the corner at kindergarten, terrified and wheezing. Picking me up at the usual time (they hadn’t called for her to come get me, despite me turning blue) was the maternal lion you’d expect: the furiously protective and anxiously attentive mother I know I would be if Bean became ill when out of my care. But that kind of mother only made fleeting appearances for me.

It was probably self-defensiveness as well as mental illness which turned this sporadic affection into an even rarer disposition after my parents became estranged. Eventually the wounds of separation formed a callous against further sentiment. Blank unfeelingness became the default setting, punctuated by cruelty.

I believe she burned me that day, and abandoned me not long after, and inflicted me with hateful words over the ensuing years, because she was ill. I believe if she could have loved me: if her narcissism wasn’t so overwhelming, her grip on ‘normal’ thinking so tenuous, then this would be a different story.

But this is not a Choose Your Own Adventure. This is how the story went – and goes – and I cannot change it, no matter how far back into the cupboard I push these dusty memories.

I too am ill, though differently. Although there doesn’t seem to be a permanent way to change that, there is no choice for this mother but to write a radically different narrative. And so I am, crafting our days in ways that I hope won’t have to be pushed into dark memory-cupboards in years to come. Sometimes, this task seems unspeakably difficult. And there is no thing in this world that is more terrifying to admit to feel to say to hear to write
to live
than that.

**
I owe a debt of inspiration to isabelthespy for this post. This wonderful piece from her helped me to unjumble some of my thoughts around parental love.

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Filed under mental illness, Motherhood and Parenting, Musings, Reflections and Rantings, Writerly

When secrets are lies

I am secretive. Avoidance, acting and deflection are well-honed tools in my belt. Emotional disclosure, I’ve learned, comes at a price and it’s not one I’m usually willing to pay when I can’t dictate the terms.

I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps, like Josie at Sleep is for the Weak, I have a thin skin. Honest people do risk censure. It’s sometimes easier to hold back than to have to worry about what people might think. That’s a concept very familiar to me.

But I write this blog. I write this only-semi-anonymous blog, which many people who know me in the flesh read. Sometimes, they talk to me about what I have written, or they look at me knowingly when topics I have covered here come up. I don’t mind. (Ok, I do, I actually feel quite panicky if I think about it for too long, but that has more to do with perfectionism than privacy. I don’t much care if people know I use a menstrual cup or see a psychologist but I do care if they think I’m a shit writer, and I don’t exactly glow on the page in all my posts.)

One of the reasons I write this blog is because I am very bad at talking. About myself. It can physically hurt to do it. But I obviously need to! A psychologist once said that my mother gave me some gifts, one of which is shining independence of spirit and outspokenness – products of neglect, it is true, but still worthy bequests.  She is right, but they are not always easy to access, these gifts. I sit with them covered tightly in nervous hands, my natural impulse towards honesty heavily leashed, sometimes ailing.

I don’t like to be asked how I am and I will rarely respond honestly to that question when asked face to face. Yesterday, I told a friend, over the phone, that I was experiencing difficulty withdrawing from anti-depressants and that I felt overwhelmed and weepy. She may not know that it’s a huge compliment to her and her friendship, that I said that out loud. A compliment I would probably not have been able to pay if it wasn’t for this blog.

Because I’m learning that speaking in here makes speaking out there less painful.

The notion of radical honesty intrigues me. For a while I flirted with the idea of experimenting with it. For me, as for most I think, it would be unsustainable. I need my armour. The world feels abrasive enough as it is, without risking my raw self out in the social wilderness. A mediating screen makes it safer here: a right of deletion on the comments helps too! And then there is the self-censorship I can forgo here in this space I have made for myself. Many people in my life are not feminists, not activists, not interested. Many of them would think me strange or too radical or too me if I spoke as loudly out there as I do in here. And some of them would learn personal things about me that would hurt them to know.

So not everyone I know reads my blog. Some very important people in my life are not aware that it exists, and I actively keep it that way, precisely because what I speak about here is not part of the self I offer to them. Is this lying? Is offering one face to one person and another to the next, lying? Is the dishonesty of ‘I’m fine, thanks’ the same as any other deceit, if you say it often enough?

Are the unspoken things, untruths?

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In my arms

I burst into tears at a Playschool concert. They don’t tell you that might happen to you, before you have kids, now do they?

Bean adores Playschool, and to be honest, I’m a bit of a fan too. So when I decided to take her along to the live show, I expected her to enjoy it. What I didn’t expect was that the joy coming off of her would be so palpable, or that it would hurtle into my chest and leave me winded.

Was my mother ever moved to tears by the sight of my happiness? Will Bean remember sitting nestled into my lap, her hands stroking mine, my face in her hair, as I remember sitting like this with my mother? If she remembers, will it be with wonder and love and not sadness? Can anyone else here see how lucky I am? What an imposter I am?

Does everyone else feel the weight of love curled in their arms like it’s the heaviest of possible burdens, as well as the fullest possible joy?

How little she was! How precious!

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Menstruation: a personal history.

I woke up one morning just after my thirteenth birthday with blood on my bedsheets. Along with embarrassed and apprehensive, I was thrilled. Menarche came to me later than to my friends and at thirteen, the odd-one-out is a dire position to find oneself in.

This period, my very first, chose to arrive at an inopportune time: there was no running water in our house for twenty-four hours. It was the height of summer. I was spending the day at home alone with my father while my stepmother went to visit her family. In the rush of the morning, I had no idea how to broach the subject of what had happened to me and all I wanted was a shower. Welcome to womanhood!

When I was a teenager, periods were a thing of shame. At school, we would furtively fetch tampons from our bag at recess and shove them up the sleeve of our uniforms before sauntering casually into the toilets, lest a boy should guess what we were doing. We wanted the boys to know we weren’t little girls but we didn’t want to remind them that we bled and we certainly didn’t want them to know when we were doing it. I remember sacrificing a rare opportunity to walk back from the shops on a Friday afternoon with a school friend who was the object of a passionate crush, because I had purchased pads and tampons that day. The supermarket bag that I carried them in felt so flimsy and transparent, I was sure he would know. Somehow, it seemed more important to keep him from the knowledge (which he must surely have had in at least an abstract way) that I menstruated, than to spend any time talking with him. This was a common fear: we asked check-out staff to double-bag our tampons, or we bought them only when plenty of other shopping would mask their existence.

I suppose much of this came from the home. My father was conservative and prudish: my stepmother had a hysterectomy and stopped menstruating for good long before I started. I always got the impression it was an inconvenience she had no desire to revisit, even vicariously, so we never talked of it much. And I guess others’ homes were similar, because their fear of embarrassment was just as strong. We all pitied the girl with the jumper round her waist at school because we knew that underneath we’d find a spreading stain on her school dress and that was the ultimate mark of shame.

At my boarding school, it was mainly left to the older girls to help younger ones deal with leaks and cramps and stained knickers and fears and I suppose in that way I was lucky: there was mentoring, and there was always someone around with a spare tampon if I ever ran out. Still, the message was very clear that outside of the female domain of dorm rooms and toilets, periods were taboo.

Because of this, I was genuinely shocked when I visited a friend’s house and found a shelf dedicated to tampons and pads, open and in full view, in her bathroom. What does your father think? I asked her.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this school friend was one of the few to have a strongly feminist mother. In their house, women’s bodily functions weren’t hidden and taboo, they were normal. Blood happens, that bathroom shelf seemed to say. And it does.

When my stepmother did find out that I had my period that first time, it was because she found my bedsheets before I could wash them. And she cried, because I hadn’t told her. She seemed proud and sad at the same time and she said something that she almost never did, which was that she loved me. At the time I thought this was embarrassing but now I see it for what it was: mothering. It must be impossible not to identify with a daughter at the cusp of adulthood. It is hard to separate out our cultural understandings of what it means to be ‘cursed’ with blood from what it means to grow up. It must be harder still, to not be invited to know about these bodily changes in a loved one, and all that they herald.

I have had over a hundred menstrual cycles since that first one and there will be untold numbers more. It has long since ceased embarrassing or frightening me. I don’t mind the blood. I don’t actually mind any of it. To tell you the truth, the only thing that bothers me about menstruation is the thought of all those girls who are told it is filthy and shameful and the people that tell them so. Those people are not only parents and peers – some of the most powerful of them are marketers and advertisers; writers, TV producers and magazine editors; religious leaders and other policers of women’s bodies; literally, they are douches. Let’s not listen to them.

Let’s give our daughters frank information and loving regard and tell them the truth: they are never any less precious or beautiful or clean or worthy or pleasant or smart for having vaginas that bleed. For being women.

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Filed under Body Image/Fat Acceptance, Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting, Musings, Reflections and Rantings, Writerly

For the love of a good story

Birth stories are powerful stories. They are family lore, they are secret women’s business and women’s voices and feminist reclamation of the right to speak, they are bonding over chocolate biscuits at a newly formed mothers’ group, they are whispering in the night to a beloved child, they are sharing joy and fear and loss and triumph with others so that they too may learn something, they are spreading the word that birth is not the way a lifetime of Hollywood exposure has us imagine it, they are midwives’ wisdom, they are democratic and secular creation stories — and they are often the raw and unabashed truth about our bodies in a world where bodily truth is hushed and hidden.

Sometimes, they are told and met with happiness. Other birth stories are tinged with disappointment or confusion or fear. Occasionally, they are full of grief. All of these kinds of stories are important, and all of them teach us.

As Bean’s second birthday rapidly approaches, it seems timely to link to my post on the story of her birth. I also want to link to some others. And if you have a post of your own or someone else’s you’d like to share, please feel free to link in comments – or, if you prefer, write a comment about a birth you experienced or witnessed. I’d very much love to hear all about it!

Hello Little Bean My story as posted here at Spilt Milk.

Mathis family triplets video A video slideshow of images of pregnancy and birth of triplets (and the subsequent six months, including serious illness for one of the babies, so not entirely cheerful.)

Lola Constance Evelyn Kristalee’s raw and moving story about giving birth to her stillborn daughter.

Nella Cordelia from Enjoying the Small Things A frank account of the birth of a child with Down Syndrome – don’t miss the stunning photography.

Labour of Love, three positive birth stories Stories from Gabriel Targett, illustrating a doula’s role.

Bring me your unlikeliest easy breezy birth stories This post from blue milk elicited a lot of interesting comments and stories.

Beautiful Birth Stories Want more? A range of stories can be found here… or all over the interwebs, actually.

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Ashes

(This is the second post in a series of two. First post here.)

*  *  *  *

It is February, a few days after the firestorm. My husband is still spending much of his time at the fire front and everything feels uncertain. Smoke has made my asthma worse than it had been for years. The enormity of the disaster is pressed up against my skin and I can’t bear to be touched by anything else, but there is Bean’s birthday coming. Presents to be wrapped, a cake to be planned and baked and decorated, a party to cater for. We are thinking of cancelling but I don’t want her overshadowed, not like this. I want to celebrate life.

*

I take Little Bean to Gymbaroo class for some normality but anywhere people gather, there is no escaping talk of the fires. Our leader tells us of how she took her children and drove as fast as she could towards Healesville, only to be cut off by a spotfire ahead. They had blankets and water, and there were no trees against the road, so when the fire went over their car they survived. Someone asked if she was afraid and she talked about covering the shaking bodies of her children with her own, and looked away.

*

For my birthday in December, I had been given a dayspa voucher for a local winery. The place has been in the newspapers – on Black Saturday there was a wedding taking place in their vineyard, and the couple and their guests barely made it to the safety of Healesville in time. I know at least some of the winery was razed, because my husband was there, briefly, that night. I have an appointment booked, for a weekend in March, and I expect to cut my losses. But they answer my phonecall and the spa and restaurant are open for business. I sit looking out at blackened fields, burned vines and red and white tape around crumbled buildings while I eat strawberries and wait for the nail polish to dry.

*

Driving to the supermarket, I stop at the lights behind a tow truck carrying burned-out cars. I’ve seen many of them passing before but this time I have to look. Probably, nobody died in them. Probably, the owners are alive and well and gathered in Alexandra or Whittlesea or with friends. Looking at the twisted wreckage up close, I feel like I’m going to be sick.

*

It is April. I go to the vet to pick up the plastic box that contains Ferris‘ remains. We had him euthanased on the 6th Feburary and in the few weeks that have passed between there has been little time to cry for him. It seems an unbearable irony: a box of ashes. We can’t look at it or think what to do with it so we put it in the back of a cupboard, where it stays.

*

We fight. We’ve had ten years and the attendant peaks and troughs but it has never been like this. It is like he has a trigger and some days all I do is pull. I know, somehow, that underneath the surface are all the things he saw and all the things he did and most of all, all the things that couldn’t be done. I know we will get through because we are so blessed: we have each other and our home and all of our friends and that is everything. But everything smells of smoke.

*

It is July. I take Bean to Healesville Sanctuary for a relaxing afternoon wandering and looking at whichever animals are awake. As I round a bend in the path, I’m confronted by a burned-out tree stump, put there as a bushfire memorial. There is smoke from a machine brought along as part of a school holiday fire safety display. Sudden sobs lurch out of me and I can’t stop them, so we turn back.

*

A year on, most of the charred trees are fuzzy with regrowth. Warped road signs have been replaced, melted bitumen mended. It is a mild day; there has even been fog. Terror seems a world away. But when we drive west out of Kinglake and look north over the valleys towards the horizon, the view is a confrontation. The black scar on the landscape is huge and unrelenting.

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Black Anniversary

Tomorrow (7 February) will be the one year anniversary of Australia’s worst natural disaster. In some ways, these two posts seem self-indulgent to me. After all, 173 people died on that day and not one of them was someone I knew personally. But we live on the edge of one of the devastated regions, and my husband is a CFA volunteer — we weren’t left entirely untouched. Watching the coverage of the earthquake disaster in Haiti these past few weeks has brought home to me how very small this Australian disaster was, in the scale of all things. And yet, there is nothing small about the aftershocks of grief still hitting nearby communities. Tomorrow is a national day of mourning and rememberance.

Here is what I remember.

* * * *

In the year before I was born, the Streatham fires killed five people, destroyed a town and decimated the local farming community. My father was a taciturn and stoic type but even so, I knew that the 12th February 1977 was one of the defining moments of his life. He spent much of it alone fighting for his survival and his livelihood. I can only imagine the terror.

The house was saved, but not the bulk of his livestock; the fine wool merino stud he’d spent decades creating was lost forever. And afterwards came the funerals of people he knew, and the clean-up, and the shooting of injured animals, and the excavating of mass graves. I remember he used to skirt around one section of paddock where he said the pit had been dug for his sheep: the burned and charred were dragged there; the walking wounded with their hacking coughs and lame, scorched hooves were herded nearby to be euthanased, or simply shot where they stood and loaded onto a truck.

There was a separate pit for the horses but he never told me where that was.

They didn’t have community counselling sessions in 1977. My father had no wife then; his parents were dead. I’m told he would drive around and pause outside the houses of neighbours but then pull away. Talking was something he was never good at and anyway, it would have been useless. What could it change?

A fear of fire was bred into me. In summer the CFA radio would crackle all day long and if there was too much chatter, I was to ride my bike over the dusty paddocks to wherever Dad was working and tell him what they were saying. Burning off before the fire season was one of the few farm jobs I really enjoyed: the smell of the smoke, the responsibility of holding the water hose, the fact that my little sisters were not allowed to help. Those cool evenings watching the crackling flames in the tinder-dry grass as we created firebreaks was a pleasant diversion. But if I got too close or prattled too much, Dad grew gruff and I was reminded that this was serious work. This was about staving off nightmares.

Maybe, carrying this history around, made me feel as if I knew about fires and their risks. And it made them seem both familiar and distant – fires happened, so I knew what must be done, but they hadn’t happened to me, so I was okay with their existence.

When I first noticed the thickening smoke on Black Saturday I reassured the American friend I was with that the fire was ‘probably the one in Gippsland’ and that smoke ‘blew a great distance’ and was ‘a normal part of Australian summers’. She looked up at the sky then, skeptically, and when I did too I felt uneasy. It was blacker than it should have been.

I called that friend, the one from New York, later, when I knew the fires were in the Yarra Valley. I had thought to calm her and in that way reassure myself. Instead, I learned her property was on fire. Her property that lay less than five kilometres from my home. Her husband was doing what my father had done all those years ago and fighting for his livelihood. My husband was out there somewhere too – anywhere – doing what he does and fighting for the lives and homes of others. And I was at home, with a baby, alone and afraid and dismally underprepared, leaving messages on a phone that I knew was probably abandoned at the CFA station before my husband took off in a truck to godknowswhere. Still, I told voicemail I loved it. What else do you do?

Like everyone, I didn’t know what that evening would bring or what it would change. But it felt big, even in my ignorance.

The truth is, Bean and I weren’t in danger. If it hadn’t been for a wind change, we may have been, even though technically we live in a suburb and there’s a fire hydrant outside our house. Certainly, when a CFA member stopped by to tell me she was taking her kids out of the area and that I should be prepared to do the same, I didn’t feel safe. Whatever the opposite of safe is, I felt that.

But the wind did change in the early evening and I stood outside in the growing dark and watched the trees moving the right way and knew we were spared from having to flee.  Even so, that time I spent running essentials out to the car and cursing myself for not being better prepared and dithering over what to do with the cat was intensely frightening. It was a miniscule sample of the terror that others not far away were feeling as the firestorm bore down on them and it was more than enough. It was more fear than I ever want to face again.

I spent that long night clinging to the voices on ABC radio. I didn’t know where my husband was but so long as there was nothing on the news about a firefighter being hurt I could tell myself he was safe. Listening in the darkness, I learned the crushing reality that the thickening smoke had warned of: houses were burned, people were dying. People were trapped in townships waiting for the ambulances that would come too late. Whole areas had been razed. On it went, an addictive litany of unconfirmed reports and conflicting information.

By late that night, panicked relatives of missing people were beginning to call up the radio to spread the word that they were looking for someone, in the beginnings of a process that would last for days. For some, weeks. The first tales of desperate flight and survival filtered through. People frustrated by the lack of official information on the path of the fire called in for news – others rang to report ember attack in their area in order to alert communities. And I sat in the near-dark, listening for Bean in case she stirred, venturing outside to check the wind and mostly, just to look up and down the road for signs that my neighbours were at home. I wore jeans and boots and woolen socks despite the forehead-pounding heat, reluctant to drop this one vestige of preparedness.

The radio reports gradually moved from cautionary to pure horror. Marysville, a town I had loved to visit, was gone. They were saying that everyone got out, and then they were saying that everyone was dead and it wasn’t until the morning that we would learn that neither of those things were true. But on that long night, I learned enough to be afraid of what more there would be to hear.

A little before three am, my husband came home to us. He was covered in sweat and ash and choking smoke. He told me he’d seen a man dead in his car. I told him Marysville had been lost. We clung to the bed together, listening to the radio. Sleep was a long time coming.

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