Number four child left on his first ever solo adventure a couple of days ago. After 27 years of having at least one at home, that was bound to create some upheavals in his mother’s heart. But not quite in the way I expected.
He was supposed to make sure his room was ‘sparkling’ clean before he left.
Instead, his sister visited and created somewhat of a loving distraction. We left early for the airport, and I didn’t check his room – or even that end of the house, where his room is adjacent to my office.
The next morning, as I went to my office I couldn’t help but notice through his wide-open bedroom door that his room looked like a train-wreck.
So, I did what mothers who are left with a suddenly empty house might do. I ignored my writing and went into his room to do a bit of a tidy–a rare event in this house.
I headed towards his bed to change the sheets to summer-weight sheets. But a grocery bag at the end of the bed stole my attention. In it were two bottles of Coke.
I hate Coke.
Possibly a remnant of living in Memphis for long enough to discover that a typical Memphis breakfast was Coke and donuts, I have developed an aversion to Coke – much to the disdain of my sons. They know I hate it. They know I’ve banned it from bedrooms. And if they want to bring it here into my house, it’s on rations – like wine or beer or anything that to me should be a ‘sometimes’ thing.
So, grumpy me grabbed the bag, pulled the two two-litre bottles of Coke out of the bag and took them to the kitchen. One of them was full.
Unfortunately, it was the full bottle that I chose to up-end first into the drain of the sink. As the top of the bottle neared the lowest part of the sink, I loosened the cap.
What I probably should have realized was that the Coke was warm. And travelling from one end of the house to the other, it was slightly shaken up. And tipping it upside-down into the sink exacerbated the shaking up process.
But I didn’t think about that until…
Let’s just say that an exploding, previously unopened, warm and shaken up two-litre bottle of Coke sprays E V E R Y W H E R E !!!!!!
I had only just had my shower. But now Coke was in my hair and up my nose; in my eyes and trickling down the inside and outside of my glasses; my shirt was soaked through–my trousers were too.
I dripped all the way down to the bathroom where I had my second shower and shampoo in five minutes.
And then I returned to the kitchen.
WHAT A MESS!
Coke was on the bench and on the walls, all over the ceiling and the floor, over the windows and the door. I returned at least seven times to the kitchen only to find more splashes of Coke over cupboards and utensils up to three metres away.
The nest is but an empty shell. It sits on the lowest branch of our neighbour’s palm tree. I can see it from my window as I write.
To look at it now, in mid-winter Adelaide, it looks cold, hard and lifeless.
A pair of Murray Magpies built it from mud last Spring. Then they took it in turns to bring materials to line it with warmth and love–and a Murray-Magpie-mud-nest-full of our roof insulation. We had enough to share.
Over the next few weeks the birds kept the nest warm and each other company much of the time. Of course, they may well have been guarding the nest from neighbourhood cats and possums. Beware anything that gets between a Murray-Magpie-mum and her eggs!
The day arrived that we saw tiny beaks poke up to be shoved full of whatever mum and dad bird collected.
But, as happens, the chicks grew–too big for the nest. The chicks flew away.
Too soon the nest was empty.
Summer passed. Autumn too.
And now, Winter sits. Its long, dark clouds hang like a lifeless shroud.
The nest is but an empty shell. It sits and sways on a dying palm branch, waiting silently for the warmth of Spring that promises new life and love.
And this empty shell, from which I watch, fills with the warmth of hope.
A mother decided to display a faceted crystal bowl she’d been given for her wedding but had never used. So she found a sunny spot on a bench and placed it there.
The family had a habit of losing their keys, so it became a reliable place to find the keys, and the stray coins, and the springs that pop out of pens, and the washers that somehow manage to find themselves loose, and the empty lolly wrappers and spare batteries, and …
It soon became the junk-collector.
Frustrated that a thing of beauty had become a source of ugliness, the mother cleared it out and planned to put it away again.
Until a thought popped into her mind that perhaps if she gave it a good purpose, it would remain a thing of beauty.
So she filled it with beautiful, healthy fruit. The sparkling faceted crystal enhanced the colours of the fruit and the bowl remained beautiful and full of purpose.
New Year’s Resolutions
I thought of the stories with which we are all familiar – trying to empty ourselves of bad habits. I thought about New Year’s resolutions to get rid of bad habits.
The thing is, often we try to empty ourselves without replacing the bad with something better, so garbage sneaks in again:
We decide to stop yelling – but have not learned other alternatives such as whispering. So we hold off our yelling for a while – but eventually explode.
We tell our kids or ourselves “Don’t!” – but don’t tell what TO do.
We complain that our loved ones don’t pick up on our clues – but we don’t tell them what we DO want.
We want to stop smacking – but haven’t actually been around gentle alternatives often enough or for long enough to see how they work long term.
And too soon, those things we’re trying to get rid of are replaced with even more garbage.
It doesn’t have to stay that way.
Before you make a commitment to say NO to something,
think about what you will say YES to.
With which beautiful thing will you replace the ugliness?
Find a safe place to discover and explore new and beautiful alternatives
– and often the difference between ugly and beautiful is just a little YES away.
The first time I did it was months ago, when my beloved child was not contributing at all to the smooth-functioning of our household. Instead of doing his allocated chores, he spent his time and energy on playing x-box on our t.v.
When he went off to school one morning, I grabbed his x-box remote and put it away.
I can’t remember whether it was intentional or not. But after I put it away, I forgot where I put it.
Sometimes I’m blessed with a terrible memory.
To say that for a while I was not a popular mum would be the understatement of the year. However, I do remember telling him that, perhaps, if he did his chores, I might be prompted to remember.
Weeks went past.
Everyone in our house has their own chores to do. Everyone else had already taken on his job of feeding the dog.
Shelby the dog was a bundle of white fluff that you couldn’t actually see on her. Chris used to say that she shed more fluff than she could possibly produce. In the ensuing weeks white fluff carpeted the rugs, the floors and every surface in the house.
It was disgusting.
But we were at an impasse.
Stubborn mum refused to look for the remote until his jobs were done. And refused to do his jobs despite living in dog-fluff circumstances.
Son demonstrated that he can be equally stubborn. He inherited a double-dose of stubborn, with an added pinch of passive resistance.
Possibly prompted by an imminent houseful of guests I decided that, regardless of my intentions to stick to my guns, I needed to do the vacuuming. I went to the cupboard in the laundry, picked up the vacuum-cleaner…and there, behind the vacuum-cleaner, was the hidden remote.
I didn’t need to do the vacuuming that day.
I simply went to find the offending son and explained that I’d suddenly remembered where his treasure was. If he did his chores I could make sure they were reunited.
He looked at me with that look that asks ‘Should I believe you?’.
I walked away.
A few moments later, I heard chuckling coming from the laundry.
‘Fair call, mum. Fair call. I deserved that. That was well done.’
Phew! Not quite the reaction I anticipated. But it reaffirmed to me that logical consequences and ‘assisting’ our kids to take responsibility for their actions works – at least it did, that time.
I wonder if he’ll know where to look when he’s looking for his missing computer…
After my day in Kakadu yesterday, where my energy output exceeded my input and my willpower, I decided to give the others (Chris and Gabby) a day off. I volunteered to stay behind at our camping ground at Cooinda in Kakadu, while they went to Gumlom Falls, unheeded by me.
Good call, apparently.
That allowed my companions freedom to drive on bumpy roads, climb and swim while I had a personal retreat day.
My challenge: to be still and to simply be.
The car drove off with them in it, only a few moments before I realized I’d left my hat in the boot. That just meant that I must stay in the shade all day.
Aah…but…Chris had left his glasses in the tent.
So, very soon, the wanderers returned, we swapped the pair of glasses for my hat and they departed. Again.
Under the shade of my hat, I gathered my tools together; books, paper, pens, paints, plates, cups, drink, kleenex, esky, hand-bag. And I wandered through the park to find a shady table and bench.
As I strolled past the bistro directly between our tent and the pool, I noticed the queue of between 50 and 60 people lining up for breakfast.
I congratulated myself on our choice to camp, and took a photo to remind myself that camping is a good idea, for the next time I felt that I might prefer a few more luxuries than a tent and a camp-stretcher.
I wandered through the shaded area just beyond the perimeter of the pool fence, found the perfect spot, set out the tools of my trade and began to sit quietly.
Except for the buzz of mosquitoes…
S l o w . . . m o s q u i t o e s…
Julie: Five in one swoop
Then… the mozzies I missed called for reinforcements.
And I remembered the one tool I’d left at the tent…
. . . Insect repellent.
Dilemma 1: Do I need to pack up everything in order to return to the camp-site to retrieve the insect repellent?
I continued to sit for about three seconds, thinking I might be able to sit it out… until more of the mozzie-army invaded.
Julie: Nil – and 53 Mozzie bites.
Decided to leave most things as they were, but just take things of value with me.
Then sprinted (in a Julie-style-sprint) laden with my hand-bag, esky and books, across the park to pick up insect repellent, and Tea Tree Oil for the mozzies which had already got me.
Note to self: Always carry Tea Tree Oil.
Great for Mozzie bites, wasp stings, burns, infections: And especially soothing for bites from bugs that hitch a ride in your trousers while you’re on guided walks around the base of Uluru, and bite when they want to get out.
I returned to my spot.
And I sat.
And I wrote.
Dilemma 2: I get bored easily
Before I knew it, I was up and looking for some distraction. Any distraction.
Usually it’s food.
Today, I got frustrated with myself, knowing that at last I was all set up and had actually written something, yet I needed to wriggle.
I look at my phoned and jumped for joy that I’d been writing without distraction for eighty-three minutes. I got up, wriggled a little bit, and sat down again.
I deemed that I’d earned a coffee break…
The bistro-brekky-bunch had subsided. So I ordered a long-black coffee with soy milk on the side, sat at a bistro bench and sipped while I observed the people around me. But the patrons seemed intent on being peculiarly uninteresting. And the barramundi burger was less than inspiring: Not sure how the cook did that.
I returned to my reclusive table outside of the pool, right next to the playground. where a dad and his three little girls played together for the next hour.
I sat and I sat and I sat. And listened and smiled and wrote and remembered why I wanted to write to inspire parents. The little family was so full of happiness – enjoying each others’ discoveries, helping but not interrupting, encouraging but not demanding, allowing exploration without initiating fear. I wished I could bottle that love and spread it onto pages.
The afternoon grew warmer – and I edged closer to the pool, found a deck-chair and nestled in. Several families moved in close around me. I wondered if they knew they’d be observed.
A mum nearby read several new books to her children. Then she decided to read a book to herself while the three children shared TWO books.
Of course it was Little Mister Three who missed out. And everyone in the whole resort heard about it.
I love to keep bubbles in my hand-bag for such occasions. But with all the travelling we’d done, bubbles had not been on my list of what to pack.
But, as a writer and experimental painter/drawer, I had paper and pencils. So I wandered over to the family.
‘Excuse me, I’m trying to write a book and I need some pictures. Is there anyone here who might like to draw a picture?’
Mister Three’s eyes popped open. He jumped up and shouted.
‘I can. I can.’
Big brother and sister wanted to as well, but the mum said,
‘No, he was first’, so I left Mister Three with my pencil and some paper and went back to my deck-chair.
A few minutes later, little Mister Three was at the foot of my chair.
He held up his picture for me to admire and told me all about it, that his name was Jack, and that he was having a great holiday. And could he do some more, please.
My afternoon progressed with meeting other families who came to enjoy the pool. I talked with mums and dads and kids and aunties. We talked about where we were from, where we were going, places we recommend, things we’d seen, what we’d learnt along the way, and shared any news we’d heard.
‘Do we have a Prime Minister yet?’ I asked a dad, who had grown up in the town next to where I’d grown up.
But while we were talking, my grown-ups returned from their trip, excited at what they’d done, and not-so-secretly thankful that I hadn’t gone with them.
A great day of climbing and swimming for them.
And a day that reminded me of my vocation.
Question 3: How do you balance your time between being a wife/partner and a mother so that no-one feels they miss out? What about when you have more than one child?
I used to think that I should spend lots of quality time with my husband and each of my kids. It drove the family mad and I nearly went nuts – not to mention, never had time to do anything else – such as housework (Well, that’s today’s excuse).
I discovered that everyone gives and receives Love in different languages. In other words, we connect with each other in different ways. Gary Chapman has identified these as Quality Time, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Touch, and Gifts.
My preferred method of connection is to spend quality time with someone, or, in their absence, make them something or spend lots of time thinking about them. I even go shopping for hours by myself in order to find the perfect gift for them, just to spend quality time with them, even though they’re not with me, and sometimes I don’t purchase anything.
However, my husband does things to show me he loves me; the housework, cooking, gardening and fixing things. My daughter writes letters and notes. My son gives gifts…to everyone. My other daughter loves to be hugged. And our youngest? We haven’t quite figured that one out yet – probably because with the five love languages covered in our house, he is never lacking in any of them.
Diagnosis: A waste of time?
I used to go around and ‘diagnose’ everyone else’s love language. That wasn’t particularly conducive to relationship building.
Then someone reminded me that we generally operate in our own love language. However, if we consciously operate in all five, we can cover all bases, and it conserves our time and effort. It means that as mothers, we need not spread ourselves so thinly that someone misses out. And we don’t need to miss out on being able to top up our own energy tank.
For example, in preparing a meal in the evening I can incorporate all five love languages; I do something in service for my husband, I can spend time with whomever is in the kitchen, give a meal to my son, have a hug with my daughter or give her a back rub while something’s cooking, and use encouraging words to my other daughter. All bases covered: Everyone feeling loved in their own language, without requiring five times the amount of energy from me.
There’s also a great question that I was taught and I’ve asked,
On one particularly frightful worst-mother morning, I threw a particularly frightful tantrum because the family had seemingly forgotten my birthday. Though there had been some efforts to help me to celebrate—one out of the four of the kids had made me a home-made card, and my husband had gone shopping at 10-minutes-before-closing time the night before—I remember feeling particularly unimpressed by the lack of thought.
It seemed I was being taken for granted.
I also remember my performance – to my shame.
But on the following Mother’s Day, the family made up for the previous un-celebration. I was smothered in flowers, gifts, cards and hugs, and the obligatory, celebratory ‘Stacks On!’ where all five of the other members of the family piled on top of me.
I was required to stay in bed where I received a cooked breakfast followed by coffee, the paper and a puzzle book. Bliss! Lunch was served eventually, complete with Oysters Kilpatrick and Prawns. I don’t remember the rest of the menu, but I do remember how I felt…like I was the most important mother in the world.
I wanted to write something wonderful and inspiring about mothers in preparation for Mother’s Day – a definitive article on mothers. But the story of my tantrum reminded me that I am probably the least qualified of all to write such an article.
So I looked for help.
I asked my friends what I should write about mothers, but they raised more questions than answers:
How do we define ‘mother’? Who is a mother? Is ‘mother’ a job description? Are all mothers female? Why are mothers from different generations so tough on each other? Does becoming a mother make one weaker or stronger?
I wanted to make it a light-hearted article so people might want to read it, but realised I needed to be sensitive to the grief that surrounds motherhood.
I wanted to remind people not to take their mothers for granted, but remembered that many who will read this have lost their mother.
I wanted to remember those who have yearned to be a mother but will never hold their child in their arms. And those mothers who have said their final good-bye to their children.
The harder I tried, the more I was reminded that motherhood cannot be restricted to a thousand words.
I looked to the bible for what it said about mothers. Though there are plenty of examples of godly mothers, there are no specific instructions.
Mothers such as Hannah and Moses’s mother are upheld as examples of women who nurtured future leaders in their homes. The bible gives specific instructions to fathers, but talks only of the mother’s role as nurturer and carer, and that she needs to be respected, honoured and protected in that role.
Mothers have a tough gig. Always have had, always will have, I suppose. Perhaps that is the pain to which God was referring when Eve sinned – not the pain of child-birth which everyone is terrified of but soon passes from memory. But the pain that Simeon prophesied to Mary: ‘the sword that will pierce your soul’ (Luke 2:35); the solitude of becoming a mother – giving everything she has, to bring her child into life; having to stand up for what she believes is the best thing for her child, despite the pressures of outside observers and her own heart breaking.
I read a book in which an author called his mother ‘a quitter’. She was an accomplished pianist, he said, but she had a whole house full of unfinished projects. I wondered how he became ‘successful’. His mother’s work was obviously invisible to him. If he had looked at her through eyes of love instead of criticism, he would have understood that a mother’s life happens in seasons rather than schedules. He would have seen her as ‘the one who dropped whatever she was doing for herself, for the good of those she loved’.
A few weeks ago, I was wandering in our local shopping mall and saw a family struggle.
‘What are you looking at?’ the mother snarled at me. I concentrated on the blank, non-judgmental look on my face. Two of her three children were screaming: one because she’d been hit by her big brother, the other because his mother had hit him.
One day I’m going to get in big trouble for doing this, I thought as I made the decision to walk toward this screaming family, instead of away from them. She watched me come close to her and we both stared at each other in an uncomfortable space.
God. Words, please? I prayed.
At last, I broke the silence between us.
‘This mother-thing is tricky isn’t it?’
That’s all I said. But a dam full of what she had been holding inside just burst out in a tidal wave of words. She told me about what had been happening in her home: why the kids had been fighting, why they were crying now, how she felt about it, that she didn’t know what she was going to do about it, could I hold something while she picked up the stuff that she’d dropped, how life was so tough at the moment, how she loved her kids but was struggling especially with her son’s behaviour…
While she talked and I listened, she packed up all the bags around her, organised herself, placed the older kids either side of the stroller and began to push. We walked together for 100 metres until she stopped.
She looked at me and she smiled.
‘It’s just a stage. It’ll pass. Thanks.’ she said and we headed off in different directions.
I smiled back, knowing that though I could not walk in her feet, for a few short moments I had walked beside her.
Originally published in The Lutheran magazine, 2014, May edition.