Monday, December 28, 2015

The year that is dying and fading from view


2015 is drawing to a close, so I felt it was time for the annual year-in-review post.

I really like doing these each year - it's not so much about other readers (although those are welcome, of course, otherwise I wouldn't be posting publicly) as it is about creating a record for my own family.

It's been a surprisingly meaningful exercise for us over time, to the point where I have saved the relevant pages and will turn them into a family photobook once I have a decade's worth. I've done one every year since 2010 - my previous
records are:
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014

So it is in this spirit that I turned my mind to thinking about 2015, the year that is soon to be leaving us.

Summing up 2015 in a single phrase is surprisingly difficult. It was a shape-shifter, with phases of good health, calm and great happiness interspersed with intervals of poor health, worry and rapid change.


No real traumas marred the year, which made a welcome change from 2014, which was a year of health crisis and overwhelming stress. It has felt like a good year for our family - a year of progress and changes, challenges and fun, anxiety and excitement.

For the sake of brevity, I've divided the year into highlights, lowlights, and changes. Some of the changes are also either a highlight or lowlight, unsurprisingly!


Highlights


1. Family holidays, birthdays, and special days
We had three small family holidays in 2015 - a week in Phillip Island in January, three days in Marysville / Lake Mountain in July, and five days in Daylesford and Bendigo in October.

None of these holidays were huge or expensive, but they all did us good, especially the October trip, from which we all returned very refreshed.

As well as our holidays, we had terrific celebrations of birthdays this year. The youngest, C, turned 6 in February and we had a superhero party at home for her, complete with Batman cake. My middle girl, E, turned 10 in May, and had a massive Harry Potter party at a local hall, with Golden Snitch cake and fully themed games, food and so on. The eldest turned 12 in August and decided on a swimming party at the local pool, with a TARDIS cake (which was ridiculously difficult to make but turned out great).

We also hosted a birthday BBQ in March for my husband, a birthday lunch in January for my MIL, and a dinner party in November for my Dad. The kids in particular attended many friends' parties and enjoyed them all.

Other special days included our family trip to Oz ComicCon in June - which was superb fun; Easter, which was great as alway;, and Halloween, for which we threw what turned out to be a massive kids' party. We hosted extended family Christmas last week, which was great, albeit exhausting.

My husband took the 10-year-old for a night at a fancy hotel (the Sofitel at Werribee Mansion) for her birthday in May, and he and I got away for a weekend on the Mornington Peninsula in November. So overall, it was a year full of special things and I have no complaints.

2. MoP and NaNoWriMo
Every January for the past four, I have participated in Month of Poetry, a challenge that involves writing a poem every day for the month. Some of the poems are specific responses to themes, styles or images set by the challenge organiser, while other days are "free writing" days.

I fulfilled the January challenge this year, and picked an organising theme of Women of the Old Testament to help shape my writing. Some of the poems were junk, of course, but a solid handful had real potential. (I've subsequently sold one for publication). MoP has become a signature theme of summer for me, and I can't imagine January without it.

In November, I attempted, and to my great satisfaction, completed, NaNoWriMo, the challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in length in one month.

I have done NaNo before - in 2010 and 2011 - and completed it both times, but on those occasions, I wrote middle-grade detective novels - fun, but not as challenging as what I tried this year, which was a science fiction / future verse novel.

The final product, which I called Theory of Mind, is not terrible. It needs a thorough edit, of course, but I'm proud it, and proud of myself for having done it in what transpired to be a very busy month. I'm going to try to do NaNo every year if I can; it is good for me, partially because it stretches me.

3. New kitchen
We finally bit the bullet in 2015 and got our kitchen redone. The old, brown, formica kitchen had been in place since the house was built in 1988 - 27 years ago - and it was showing its age in every creaky, barely-functional part.

Going with antique white cabinetry, a redesign of the pantry space, new good quality appliances and a caesar stone benchtop and wall splashbacks has created a room that we all love madly and makes our daily lives, as well as special meals, so much more enjoyable and practical. I won't lie, it wasn't cheap, but I honestly feel it was worth every cent.

4. Netball, music and swimming
The two older kids played netball this year, and really enjoyed themselves (so did we, attending their Saturday games).

My youngest's weekly swimming lessons have improved her skills but also proven a time of family relaxation, as we usually all go and the big kids and their dad have a play / lap swim.

My eldest's guitar playing has really stepped up in 2015, with her now being at the stage where true "jamming" is possible. She's keen to keep learning next year.

5. Time with friends
I am blessed in my life to have some really great friends. 2015 was a year where I got to see more of them than I have been able to in the past few years, and it was truly a good thing.


Lowlights


1. Ongoing (and some new) health concerns for various members of the family
My health continued to be variable across the year, with two new diagnoses (of Hashimoto's Disease and a heart arrhythmia) and periods of extreme fatigue.

I was never as sick as in the terrible last quarter of 2014, thankfully, but there were a few hairy moments.

Two of my three girls have also had some ongoing health niggles, which we are looking into now. I don't believe they will end up being serious, but there is no doubt it is a worry from time to time.

2. Employment and school stress
I found work very stressful in the first half of 2015 (before I made the big change discussed below!) and that definitely had an impact on our family life. I do have a tendency to take work problems more to heart than I should, and the instability of my employing organisation was very hard on me.

Moreover, my youngest went through a prolonged period of school refusal that baffled and troubled us; although I think it was starting to settle down, it never got fully resolved, and it put a strain on all of us.

3. Behavioural stuff
I don't want to say too much here about this, but let's just say, the year wasn't always the easiest under this heading. We're all working on strategies and techniques to enable us to cope, and relate more positively to each other.



Changes

1. Leaving my job and returning to freelancing
One of the significant changes this year was my decision to leave my salaried job at the end of June and return to operating as a freelance contractor.

I had no idea, when I took this plunge, whether I would get much (or any) work, but I knew something had to change. I was burnt out, and stressed out, where I was.

Moving back to freelancing, working mostly from home, has been absolutely the best decision I made this year. I am happier, my life is better balanced, my family gets more of me, and I have been lucky enough to get plenty of work so financially we have not lost out.

The two years I spent at the job I left in June were not wasted years, but they were costly ones, in terms of my health and equilibrium. They did teach me this - freelancing, as long as I can sustain enough work, is the best fit for me, with my health, personality, family and circumstances.

2. Eldest daughter finishing primary school and preparing to enter high school
My first baby girl did her final year of primary school in 2015. Watching her grow into herself as one of the school "big kids" and engage in leadership and extension activities was wonderful and poignant for me.

Her graduation from the school that has nurtured her since she was 5 years old was an occasion for joy and tears together. She's raring to go with high school, and I'm excited for her to see how the next phase unfolds, but there's a touch of melancholy in it all the same, seeing your baby grow up.


So, overall, 2015 was a good year. Not a year without challenges, but a year rich in memories and good change, change that has helped us all to move through and move on. For 2016, I'm hoping for:

- a good start to high school for daughter 1
- a great Grade 6 to finish primary school for daughter 2
- at least two enjoyable and memorable family holidays
- expansion of my creative writing, especially my poetic practice
- an even better and more stable year in health terms
- a good, varied year in my freelance business, with enough work to pay the bills
- a year of deepening our family bonds and relationships with friends

If I can realise those goals, then 2016 will be a wonderful year indeed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Working and Motherhood: Salvos in the unwinnable war

The Guardian is re-running links to some of its more popular pieces from 2015 as the year wends to an end. They've just relinked this one, which I remember well as it was published on my very last day of salaried employment - the very day, some would argue, that I ceased to be a role model of working motherhood to my three girls.

As luck would have it, I have been able to build up a good freelance clientele since then and am close to fully employed (I average 4 days a week) in my own business. I didn't know that this would happen when I left my job, though, and I took the leap in full readiness to go through a period, possibly a lengthy one, of being a stay at home parent without paid employment.

It's also true that, as a freelancer, I work mostly from home, rendering my job far less visible, or intrusive, to my kids than my salaried work was. Except in rare cases, I can do all the school runs, help out with school activities, take them to all their extracurriculars, and so forth. To all intents and purposes, I, in fact, *present* as a stay at home parent, despite my income-earning activities.

I feel, really, that I have a foot in both - or indeed, all - camps. I've been a stay at home parent, on unpaid long leave from an employer. I've worked part time, both in an office and from home, for a salaried employer. I've freelanced, both from home an on client sites - and am now doing so again. I've worked fulltime in an office. All of these permutations I have tried, in my 12.5 years of being a parent. (An aside, but, having sipped from each cup, I would rank "stay at home no income, especially with preschool kids" as Hardest; "fulltime in office" as Middle; and all of the part-time or freelance options as Easiest / Best, in terms of energy, satisfaction, life balance and self-esteem. Being at home all the time with kids is really demanding - not bad, often very rewarding, but not a walk in the park by a long stretch).

Back to the article: the gist of the findings of this study is that having a mother who works outside the home benefits children, particularly girls, in terms of role modelling career potential and more equitable distribution of household labour.

As always, the study is one study among many and can't account for variation from the curve. Just as other studies that purport to show that having both parents in paid work outside the home is detrimental to children, particularly very young children, it doesn't take into account individual characteristics or circumstances. It merely observes - perhaps - a correlation between certain maternal work patterns and certain career outcomes in daughters.

It also doesn't make much of the fact that, for many women, to work or not to work outside the home is simply not a choice at all. For single-parent households or for households where the other breadwinner's wage is too low to support all the family needs, combining work outside the home and parenthood is just something that has to happen at some point. In that circumstance, there is no doubt the working mother is modelling valuable traits to her children - responsibility, care, prudence - but whether it's some grand career decision is more questionable.

I would also say that women who don't work outside the home model valuable behaviours to their children with a similar frequency to working mothers, even if the particular traits on display may differ.

It's also not lost on me that these kinds of studies - whichever way they blow - never, but NEVER, ask about paternal work patterns and their effect on children. (Yes, I know there are a number of studies about absent second-parents, but not ones who are there but working fulltime outside the home). There is a moral freighting attached to whatever a mother-role person does that just does not attach to men, and it shits me but good.

All that aside, there's one thing the article gets absolutely dead right in my view. It's in this final quote from a working mother by the name of Rebecca Allen.

Allen said that schools also need to adjust their demands on parents. “We’ve got to stop primary schools from having a day every week where parents are expected to dress up their children in some complicated outfit, or make something, or bring something in, or turn up to help with something or have an assembly,” she said.
With  this slight non sequitur, it would not be possible for me to agree more. Even in my current situation, where I *can* pop up to the school for special events as needed, it's a time drain and often a stressor that I just don't need, especially when I'm busy with client work. It was a lot worse - really quite terrible, in fact - when I worked fulltime in the office. And it isn't only working parents who find this stuff demanding - just ask the worn-out prep and grade one parents with toddlers and babies in tow how much they enjoy these weekly letters of demand for extra effort.

I suppose if there is one overarching thought that I would close with, it's this: the whole thing is a bit of a trap, in my view. The idea that paid work is a universal good or universal ill. The idea that people who give birth are judged more harshly for the disposition of their time post-children than people who contribute genetic material. The idea that parents should somehow be able to be both perfect wage-bots and assiduous contributors to their children's every moment, including during working hours. If it all sounds impossibly difficult and dreary, well, that's only because it is. I don't have a good, generically applicable answer, and here's a tip: neither does anybody else. We all just do the best we can with what we've got, and hope like hell it's enough.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Christmas Letter (Christmas card in a poem)

Well, I'll tell you.
I was going to write a perfectly-crafted villanelle,
full of sly imagery and clever cultural references,
telling the story of the year that's fast dying.
Sleekly rhymed, smooth as a silky summer scarf.
A thing of slightly wry beauty, it was going to be:
A little seasonal gift, scattered into the wind.

But here's what happened:
The rhymes got stuck, and wouldn't behave.
(Once you've used up "earth", there aren't a lot of good options for rhyming "birth").
Then, too, summing up the year proved unexpectedly problematic, and
as if that wasn't enough,
the youngest child was throwing the grandmother of all tantrums behind my head,
which does tend to have a dampening effect on the creative process.

So there won't be a formal, patterned villanelle.
I have made no neat and poetic summary of the wildness in tooth and claw
that was the year passing.
It gave me transitions and frenzy, sadness and tragedic impulses;
small victories and lightning flashes of exceeding joy.
It felt like a watershed - but then, they often do,
these years since I turned thirty, had daughters, and life got serious,
in all its friability and fragility, its harsh light and shadows,

I suppose, then, only this:
I wish you the compassion of endings as well as beginnings, in this season.
The blessing that comes with counting over the beads of what has been,
naming them, one by one,
and letting them slip behind, the jewel-bright and obsidian alike,
to fall into the clear water.
I wish you peace at your table, whether you mark the day or whether you don't.
I wish that peace for you all, on that day just past the high point of summer,
here at the southerly tip of the spinning world.

- Kathy, 22/12/15

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday nap (A poem)

I went to sleep in heat so heavy it muffled the world
dreamed of the sea breaking against porous sandstone
awoke, hours later, to rain, and a breathing cool,
creeping chilly fingers in through the cracks in the doorframe

this, you see, is the danger of naps:
you close your eyes to the world, and it shifts its shape
remaking itself utterly in the space of a fistful of snores
becoming other, while you aren't looking.

- Kathy, 20/12/15

Thursday, December 10, 2015

December (Poem)

the city:
         smelling like horse dung and fried potatoes
         red and silver glinting everywhere
        a tree made of Lego in the square

the train:
        packed beyond bearing with sour-sweated people
        bags on seats where arses should be
        panic a black tide in the dark underground

the calendar:
       screaming that the end is nigh and all the beginnings
       daily tchotchkes delivered to waiting hands
       the new fish, unconcerned, swim idly by, sending shadows across the dates

the kitchen:
       the good scents of cloves and cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg
       an array of hands cutting biscuits, mixing batter, making dough
       an oven dreaming of January, and rest

the heart:
       over-burdened, over-stretched, racing tappity-tip
       overwhelmed with the seasonal alchemy of sentimentality and overscheduling
       somewhere, deep and quiet: proofing like good bread in the sunny touch of love.

- Kathy, 10/12/15