Choosing your own Adventures

Do you ever think back on how you imagined life to look once you had kids? It’s not something I do often; the messy, loud and lovely tangle of real life has a way of pushing those hazy, long-ago hopes and dreams into the back corners of my mind. But something I am sure of is that there was always going to be a lot more catching tadpoles in jam-jars, reading books on blankets in the backyard, flying kites on blustery beaches and floating paper boats in puddles. In short, I always imagined there would be more life of the adventurous, memory-making kind. 

What I never envisioned (because you don’t, do you?) was this much laundry, this much television, this much time spent in supermarkets, this much fighting with my kids over packing up Lego. Yes, occasionally there are sandcastles, cubbies and creeks, but in reality so much more of life with kids is mundane and humdrum. That’s okay. I accept that a sizeable chunk of life for most of us is routine rather than spectacular. I also know that it’s possible to find sweet moments with my kids in the midst of the banal: a “ballet” routine by my preschooler while I’m washing the dishes, a love note slipped next to the pancakes by my six-year-old, hearing the two of them in the next room hooting with laughter over bad Knock Knock jokes. Even still, I’m aware – achingly so – that next year my youngest starts kindergarten, and there will be far less opportunities to just hang out with him. I want to make this short time count. 

My husband is much better than me at adventuring with the kids. As he’s a pastor and works a lot on weekends, he gets a day off during the week. He uses this day to look after our three-and-a-half year old while I work. When I arrive home from school on Tuesday afternoons, the two boys regale me with tales of their adventures, which usually involve a journey somewhere via public transport, and have at times included a building site, a baby octopus in a shell, dolphins, a ball pit and a dragon boat race. My husband doesn’t overthink things, he just does them. I admire the way he manages to squeeze every potential adventure out of the day – whether it be catching the O-Bahn bus to the bookshop with Elijah, or taking the kids to a new playground after picking Lily up from school. 

There were plenty of things I could have “got done” on Friday, but it occurred to me that none of those things were overwhelmingly pressing, and that all of them were completely forgettable. So in the spirit of prioritising adventures over laundry, Elijah and I packed the helicopter lunchbox and went in search of ducks and fish with whiskers. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens is one of my favourite places to visit – I love that once inside I instantly feel calm and hidden and far away, even though I’m actually only minutes from the city. The garden has added significance for my family, as my grandfather was the director for many years, and my dad grew up with it as his backyard. 

  

I let Elijah pick the path, and followed him as he ran past towering clumps of bamboo and low hanging bell-shaped flowers, over lumpy roots that nudged up the paving and beneath leafy canopies that blocked out the light. The world with all its rules about where you can and can’t run and climb and yell and throw is not always an easy place for a little boy who recently asked to change his name to Aeroplane. Giving him the freedom to lead the way – to run when he wanted and dawdle when he preferred – was such a refreshing joy for both of us. 

   
 
People talk about an unexpectedly breathtaking experience as a Wow Moment; according to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary, it is “an introspective moment when you realise how freaking great your life really is.” One of the reasons that I enjoy outings with my three-and-a-half year old is that it’s not unusual for the whole trip to be a string of Wow Moments for him (in that regard, he’s pretty much the polar opposite of your typical teenager). Putting money in the parking meter: Wow Moment. Realising that the car is parked next to a toilet block: Wow Moment. Walking over a bridge, rubbing your half-eaten banana on Mummy’s leg, finding a feather that looks a bit like a caterpillar: all Wow Moments. I find it near impossible to be bored and cynical in the face of his sense of wonder.

We found our way to the immense conservatory. Standing with Elijah inside the vast, eerily empty jungle I had the sudden spine-tingling sensation that a T-Rex was about to crash through the towering palms. The spell was soon broken by a noisy primary school class. I couldn’t help but smile at the two boys racing ahead across the bridge despite the teacher’s protests – I was happy to be off-duty. 

Next we visited the lake and threw bread to a pack of belligerent ducks. The creepy whiskered carp appeared to have been cleaned out of the water since our last visit, but five hungry turtles, shells big as dinner plates, poked their wrinkled necks and bald old-man heads out of the water in search of treats. 

  

Elijah selected a patch of lush grass in the shade of a giant pine tree for our picnic lunch. We sat on our rug, snuggling, giggling, munching our sandwiches, and pondering the diet of lizards. We made a video with my phone of a banana aeroplane, which Elijah thought was the funniest and best thing ever (#Wow Moment!). After lunch we explored the vivid dahlia garden, climbed a tree, played shops with leaves and seed pods and examined tiny fish and enormous Amazon Waterlily pads in their special glass pavilion. It was a good day. 

  
  
The thing that I’ve realised about adventures with little kids is that they don’t need to be grand or epic – at least not from an adult perspective – they just require you to step outside your routine for a couple of hours. The most successful adventures often seem to be the ones where the agenda is flexible, and where I allow myself to become lost in small details along with my child: a plane that drags a thread of vapour across the sky; a crocodile-shaped cloud; a bug – always a bug – with a shiny shell; a funny-shaped stick. 

The best adventures are also the ones where I find myself lost in the small details that make my child who he is: his purposeful walk along the path, green lunchbox in hand; the undisguised wonder and delight in his voice at each new discovery; the way he actually stops moving long enough for me slip my arm around him on the picnic rug; the gleeful laugh that bursts out when he knows he’s being cheeky. Last week in the garden, I had my own introspective moment when I realised how freaking great my kid really is. Oh he can be stubborn and impulsive and throw killer tantrums, but one-on-one, I honestly couldn’t think of better company to adventure with. Wow Moment. 

  

Once I looked forward and tried to imagine life with kids, and one day I know that I’ll look back on my reality of life with kids. Maybe I’ll remember that at times parenting small children felt like a never-ending slog, but I hope that’s not the overriding memory. I have about nine months until Elijah starts kindergarten. Nine months in which I get to spend more time with him, and possibly have more influence on the way he sees the world than anyone else. It would be all too easy to let this time slip through my fingers without a lot of conscious thought – between work and church commitments, Kindergym, swimming lessons, housework and homework, days pass quickly. But among all the voices competing for my attention, one voice that I don’t want to overlook is the one pondering the question of whether or not lizards eat bees. This year I want to choose more adventures. 

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Why Kindergarten Really Is the Best

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The walk to kindergarten. Her straw-blonde hair peeking from below the brim of her big hat, her small hand beneath mine on the pram’s handle. Past the being-built house with diggers and dump trucks out the front; past the house with the rooster statue on the doorstep that her little brother calls “Uh! Doo!” because he can’t quite manage “cockadoodledoo”; past the tall green fence that crawls with snails after the rain (“snakes” he called them for the longest time, and I smiled at the scope for misunderstandings). Through the long grass where fairies hide, and on through Dandelion World. Past the bush where we found the nest. Round the corner – watch out for sprinklers – now look both ways and hold on tight as we cross the road.

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 The walk to kindy that we’ve made – there and back – twice a week for a year. But today there’s an ache in my chest. Two more days of kindy and it’s over. Isn’t it more often than not, you don’t see the significance of a phase of life until it’s over? Until the golden glow of nostalgia has glossed all the bumpy bits from your memory? A few months back, I was struck by a profound awareness that this, the kindergarten year, is a unique little piece of time for our family. I realised that I didn’t want it to just slip past us without grabbing the chance to savor these moments, to consciously imprint them on my memory. Drippy after-kindy ice blocks on the warm bricks by the clothesline. The treasured mess of wilted blossoms, crunchy leaves and twists of wool in the bottom of her backpack each afternoon. The partner-dance she delighted in teaching us. Yes, even the kindy pick-ups where she drives me crazy with never wanting to leave. I have loved this year because she’s loved it.

The year started with my painfully shy little girl crying hysterically and having to be peeled from my arms every morning when I tried to leave. It was gut-wrenching and it was frustrating. For four years every new experience, from dance lessons to Sunday School to childcare to swimming lessons had been met by extreme clinginess that – despite my very best attempts to remain positively upbeat and unruffled – left me feeling wrung out, disappointed, as if I was failing in my duty to prepare her for the world.

But this year something has shifted for my daughter. Nestled safely in the beautiful space amid the gum trees and the fairy garden, the mud kitchen and the pirate ship, she has flourished. She’s watched chicks emerge from eggs and caterpillars spin cocoons. She’s moulded clay and woven cloth and planted shrubs and listened to stories. And although, when pressed about her day, she will invariably say that she can’t remember what she did, I’ll wait and watch for the bright parade of new thoughts and words and songs to steadily stream forth: Japanese greetings, lessons on quantifying objects, surprising comparisons of adult and baby bones, songs of golden boats on silvery seas. She’s found the comfort of belonging, the satisfaction of achievement, the buzz of discovery.

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 If my daughter isn’t ready to take her turn talking about her hero in front of the class, it is okay just to whisper her thoughts to a teacher. If she’s really tired after a big week and some late nights, I know it will be fine to bring her in a little late. Kindergarten masters the art of gentle encouragement. Oh, there will be plenty of opportunities in life for her to be pushed that bit further, stretched beyond her comfort zone. There will be time for her to learn about winning and losing, success and failure. But now she’s just a little girl learning that she is secure and loved and capable and part of a team. Kindy understands that that’s the part you need to make rock solid first. And the best bit is that, at her own pace, my shy little girl is becoming bolder. Her teachers tell me that she now contributes to group discussions. There is a picture in the learning journal of her and her bestie dressed up as “fairy rabbits” dancing in front of the class. Every morning she kisses me at the gate, runs along the fence to kiss me again through the wire, then dashes off giggling with her friends.

Yesterday at home, I overheard her quietly singing to herself, This is the best night, this is the best night of my life.”

“Where did you hear that song?” I asked her. It’s not a tune that gets a lot of airplay in our house.

“They were playing it at the Kindy Disco Dance,” she explained. This event was almost three months ago, but it was a very memorable occasion – not least because I was stunned to see my girl confidently skip onto the dance floor after telling mummy and daddy that we should leave. She continued, “Other Lily said, ‘this is the best night of our life!’ ”

“And what did you say?”

“YES!”

Oh my heart: the best night of the best year of her little life thus far. I’m not sad about her starting school, because how can I be sad about something she’s ready for and excited about? There are so many brilliant moments waiting for her just around the corner. But I’m sad about the end of kindergarten. And right now I need to sit here listening to the rain and holding my cup of tea and my sadness just a little while longer. I have loved watching my daughter love kindy. And while I have no doubt that the best years of her life are still to come, this one is going to be hard to beat.

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Making Potions

Last night, in the stretch of heightened creativity that always seems to follow dinner, my daughter announced that she wanted to make a potion. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of any activity that leaves you with stained Ikea cups, dribbles of gritty mud, and a thick sludge which has to be quietly disposed of in a manner that neither clogs up the sink nor alerts portion-maker to the fact if its disposal. I managed to put her off until morning and then again until after lunch. But once her little brother had gone down for his nap, I could defer the inevitable no longer.

First my daughter dripped blue and green food colouring into a jug and watched the emerald cloud billow through the water. She mixed this well and then added the following from our garden: four out of six delicate purple and gold Johnny Jump Ups, one Kaffir Lime leaf, a pinch of small cream-coloured blossoms, a scoop of dirt and a smattering of pebbles. This mottled concoction was stirred both clockwise and anti-clockwise for a good ten to fifteen minutes until the desired readiness was achieved.  My daughter informed me that the potion was for the fairies (of course!). Apparently they like to drink it as cups of tea.

My mind went back to the occasion when, as a Year 1 teacher, I was alerted to the fact that three of my boys had concocted a potent potion in the schoolyard from dirt, leaves and – ahem – wee wee. The culprits were duly brought in for questioning, and beneath their expressions of sheepish repentance, I detected a faint but unmistakable glimmer of pure and defiant glee. I could just about hear their six-year-old brains ticking over, shame we got caught, but what an awesome potion we made! What was the potion for? Why to catch the baddies of course. Further questioning revealed a few glaring holes in their scheme, but really, full marks for effort. It was all I could do to keep a straight face and restrain myself from high-fiving them. (Actually, it was pretty easy to keep myself from high-fiving them, given the activity in which they had just been engaged). Of course, I directed a thorough clean-up and disposal of the potion, along with the threat of harsher penalties should said crime ever be repeated. But I think they could tell that I wasn’t particularly cross or even disappointed in their behaviour.

Once in a while, my teacher-self or my parent-self catches for the briefest moment, the exact feeling of being a kid again: the glorious sense of thrill and daring and wonder and joy that billows up through your whole body like that cloud of dye through the water. As an adult, I’m not a big fan of potion-making, but for whatever reason, it seems to be an activity imbued with magical possibilities for many kids. So every now and then, I resolve to grit my teeth and tell my daughter to go for it. However, I do draw the line at the addition of any bodily fluids to potions. That’s a family rule on which I’m not prepared to budge.

Best Wishes

When my daughter caught a loose eyelash in the palm of her hand, I told her to blow it away and make a wish. And I wondered for the space of about three seconds what she would wish for, what thing or idea had captured her imagination. A cubby house? A swimming pool? A friend to stay? No more childcare?

When I was four-and-a-half – the same age as my daughter – I had my first encounter with death, and would probably have wished my beloved budgie Robbie back to life. At age ten, I would have liked an upgrade to a talking parrot like the ones in Enid Blyton adventures. When I was 12, I would undoubtedly have wished for a horse and a Hypercolor T-shirt. At 17, I would have liked a boyfriend in time for the Adelaide Skyshow, because what could be dreamier than snuggling with someone special beneath a sky alight with fireworks?

Of course, focusing on our own wishes is a little self-indulgent in a world that has so many desperate needs, and I’m all for helping my children learn to look outward and develop compassion for others. But at the same time, I think that there is a place in childhood – in life – for dreams and imaginings.

My daughter wished for a jelly flood. She wanted nothing more or less than to be caught adrift on rivers of molten dessert.

Which got me wondering: would I be ready to embrace the jelly flood, should her wish come true? I know I wouldn’t. I’d be thinking: what is that much sugar doing to her teeth and is she going to sleep after consuming such huge quantities of artificial flavouring and is all that colouring going to stain our clothes permanently and how long does a jelly flood take to set and while it’s in liquid form will she be ok floating without a kick-board and is the gelatine in jelly still made of ground-up horse’s hooves and what is my family’s stance on consuming horse-hooves and how do you get jelly out of hair and will our insurance cover any jelly-related damage our home might suffer?

Meanwhile, my daughter is dreaming of jumping into a warm, sugary, bubblegum-bright bath. She’s lying back like a starfish and drifting on sweet, syrupy waves that sweep down streets and through backyards, scooping up all the squealing, giggling children in its path. She’s licking sticky drips from her fingertips, and then as it sets, she’s tossing fistfuls at her friends. She’s climbing wobbly jelly mountains: leaping high as a moon-walker, bouncing and tumbling across a cushiony jellied landscape.

When you’re four-and-a-half, do you worry about tooth-cavities or stains on clothes? Do you ponder whether eating all this sweet stuff now is going to interfere with your appetite at dinner-time or impact your sleeping patterns tonight? No you do not. When you’re four-and-a-half and there’s a jelly flood happening right now in your street, you flash a giant can’t-believe-this-is-happening grin at your mum and you jump right in.

I have to say that my heart was gladdened by my little girl’s wish. After all, shouldn’t childhood be a time of wonder, of possibilities not yet checked by cynicism? Shouldn’t it be about living fully every unexpected and delicious moment that life might bring? A childhood shouldn’t be cluttered with worries and concerns and complicated possible scenarios. That’s what grown-ups are for.

And yet, if I ever did find myself in the position of seeing torrents of jelly pouring down our street, I’d like to think that I still possess enough spontaneity to shout, “carpe diem!” and gleefully dive in right alongside my daughter. Though obviously not before I’d sandbagged the house, changed into dark-coloured, light-weight clothes and tossed my girl a carrot and a kick-board.

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Ten Sweet and Somewhat Strange Things About my Son at Two

I’ve never been much good at keeping up baby books – they always seemed a bit too prescriptive. But something I have started doing and want to keep up is writing a post for my children at each of their birthdays- whether it’s a letter, an anecdote or a list. It’s about marking the occasion; recording where they’re at and what they treasure at a particular point in time.

So, on the eve of Elijah’s 2nd birthday, here it is… a handful of both lovely and a-teeny-bit-wacky things I want to “bottle” about my little boy:

1. Occasionally, during bedtime cuddles he likes to place a hand on either side of my chin and attempt to pull my head off. I never quite know whether to laugh hysterically or be seriously disturbed.

2. He calls motorbikes, “Gwungaga!”. Said with much gusto and a German accent. I have no idea where this came from.

3. His favourite activity in the whole world is to scoop sand out of our chiminea or dirt from pot plants to fill his toy trucks and diggers (yep, we’re finally caving and getting him a sandpit for his birthday). Painting with the toilet brush comes a close second.

4. He adores and worships his big sister. Thinks she’s hilarious and brilliant. Seeks her approval when he makes something. Seeks her laughter when he says something funny. Loves to hop into bed and cuddle her. Semi-regularly clocks her over the head with a toy car.

5. He calls Lily “Ging Ging”. I kind of hope it’s a long time before he learns to say her name.

6. He calls butterflies, “cuttacuttacutta” (said quickly with corresponding pinching motion to represent flapping wings). And ditto.

7. In the right mood, he will surprise me by independently creating quite tall and elaborate structures out of Duplo. In the wrong mood he pretty much just shrieks and cries in constant frustration because he can’t fit a block where he wants it to go.

8. He loves Maisy books. He loves Where is the Green Sheep. He loves anything about diggers/ cars/ planes/ cranes/ trains. He loves The Australian Women’s Weekly Kid’s Party Cakes.

9. He learnt a new joke last night, and in the toddler-esque spirit of things getting funnier the more you say them, has used it extensively since. It starts with me asking him something, for example, “Do you want your spoon?”                                                Elijah: “No. No…se. Nose.” End joke. Cue hysterical laughter.

10. My boy has a smile that floors me. Every time. He may have just unpacked my wallet all over the picnic rug or tipped the dog’s water bowl over his shoes – but he beams that cheeky, milk-teeth grin at me and I’m putty. I realise that I may have to develop some kind of armour to get through his childhood, parental authority intact.

Happy 2nd Birthday, Elijah Hamilton. May you always be as delighted and excited by life as you are at two. I love you deeper than a digger digs and higher than a crane can reach.

Elijah: doing what he does the best - getting dirty!

Elijah: doing what he does the best – getting dirty!

Spring Neglect

I’m told that as the mercury starts to climb, many people experience an irresistible urge to spring clean their homes. I fear I may suffer from the reverse malady: with the first properly warm days of the season, I feel an overwhelming compulsion to disregard all things domestic. You might call it spring neglect.

I remember the day this condition first took hold: for once we have completed our morning routines and exited the house in a relatively harmonious state – largely due to Lily’s elation at being allowed to wear shorts and a T-shirt to kindergarten for the first time in months. (It seems that when you are four-and-a-half, having bare arms and legs simultaneously is pretty much the pinnacle of human existence.) The result of Lily’s unusually cooperative spirit is that the three of us set off less-late than usual on our walk to kindy; backpack strung from the pram handles, and Elijah ooing and ahhing at the digger on our street. The air is warm and fragrant, and the blue sky glistens like a lacquered bowl.

We pause to chat with our elderly neighbour who is gardening in his front yard. He tells us stories about flying foxes hanging upside-down from our gum trees. Lily giggles hysterically at his little yappy dog, Miss Molly playing “peekaboo” under the fence. We walk on. We find an empty nest; a fat, fuzzy caterpillar; an orange and black butterfly. Each is a thing to exclaim over, study and wonder about.

We finally reach the kindergarten at the end of our street, less less-late now – but it seems pointless to worry about that (or anything, really) in this weather. The miracle of that perfectly warm air and feather-soft breeze against skin is enough to dispel all concerns and anxieties. Kissing my daughter goodbye at the gate, I notice that a wattle bush seems to have exploded into bloom overnight. You really couldn’t dream up a more over-the-top emblem of spring than wattle. There is something shrieky, almost brazen, about the way it heralds the new season: thousands of tiny yellow pom-poms huddled together like a crowd of downy ducklings. And that heady, honeyed scent makes me a little giddy.

Walking back home with Elijah, I feel absurdly happy. I know it may seem a bit pathetic to complain about Adelaide’s relatively mild winters. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that winter has stuck around far too long this year. I’m tired of dripping, grubby skies smeared with clouds. I’m tired of that closeted, cotton-wool-brain feeling of being stuck inside with kids. I’m tired of round upon round of sickness: of aches and shakes and flus and fevers, of scratchy throats and endless coughing, of burning foreheads and broken nights. I’m tired of wiping gluey trails of snot from faces, hands, jackets. I’m tired of feeling tired. This beautiful, warm day seems like a symbolic end to all that – a sturdy lid slammed on winter.

In winter the mess is forever in your face: the half-curled socks slinking across bedroom floors like renegade snails; the grit of toast crumbs embedded in couches; the jumbled piles of texta drawings, bank statements and letters that need to be dealt with; the peril of matchbox cars underfoot. There’s really nothing for it but to clean, yet any parent can tell you that cleaning with small children in the house is about as effective and as painless as trimming your eyelashes with a butter knife in a dark room.

Yes, I love the (rare) settled feeling of a clean and tidy house, with everything in its place. But sometimes I wonder if I might be a little too focused in my pursuit of an unattainable goal. With small children, something has to “give”. To be honest, the days I finally get on top of the mountains of washing and clutter are usually the days I lack patience with my kids, the days when my, “not nows” make me sound like a broken record. Life is busy and messy and maybe it’s time to accept that there could well be years when the state of my house will drive me nuts. Of course there will always be occasions when I have to Get Stuff Done, and insist that the kids play on their own. But sometimes neglecting a household chore can mean nurturing a small person, and that’s a choice I want to make more often than not.

This spring morning I stand in my kitchen with the sunlight lapping the tiles at my feet and watch the shining day unfold outside. And it’s a funny mix of energy and apathy that I feel- a hum of excitement at what the day might bring, combined with a distinct lack of interest in attacking the mess around me. It’s a whole lot easier not to feel irritated by the detritus of crumbs and socks and toys in springtime. Today I can shut the door on the chaos and sit on the decking with my little boy while he “cooks” dirt and leaves in plastic saucepans and runs matchbox cars over the bricks. And later I can eat jammy pikelets with my children in a ramshackle cubby on the grass, and draw chalk giraffes on the pavement.

This spring day is for living. I’ll clean when it’s winter.

There's nothing quite like the taste of dirt on a spring day!

There’s nothing quite like the taste of dirt on a spring day!

The Playdate

“This is the mum pig,” said The Cousin. “She was already married but she got divorced. She has babies.” The Cousin is two years older and likes to get things organised. “And here are the people. I’ll be the mum and you can be the dad.”

“I want to be the mum,” said Lily.

“Ok, you can be the mum,” said The Cousin. “But she’s unconscious ‘cause she’s going to have a baby. So she can’t really do anything. The dad is more fun ‘cause he can go on the swing and down the slide and all that.”

“Ok, I’ll be the dad,” said Lily.

 

Later they did some painting and it was a bit tricky. The Cousin needed a tissue to wipe up a drop that went out the lines.

“I don’t need a tissue because I’m a bit more careful than The Cousin,” said Lily.

“Lily, you might need a tissue sometime,” said The Cousin. “I’m not saying that you will, but you might.”

“I think you’re both doing a really great job!” I said encouragingly.

“Look Aunty Clare, Lily and I are both best at something!” declared The Cousin. “Lily is best at squeezing out the colours, and I’m best at making it look pretty!”