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!

Mother’s Guilt

Ah, Mother’s Guilt. It can hound your heart: fierce and persistent. I’ve had a bad case for about three-and-a-half years now. Of course, the thing about being a mother is that there’s always plenty of stuff going on to distract from a case of Mother’s Guilt. Like Mother’s Guilt about something else, for example. But in those rare silent spaces of the day, the shriek of guilt echoes still. And it says: “Why haven’t you taken her swimming lessons?”

Because here in Australia, it’s what parents do. We are a nation in love with water – which is not surprising given our environment. This summer we sweated through 12 days over 40°C (104°F). There was a day in January where my city held the dubious honour of officially being the hottest city on Earth (46°C/ 115°F). Our national anthem proclaims our home to be “girt by sea”: we are a big hot island enfolded in the most enticing sapphire. Our kids grow up with nappies full of sand and eyes smarting from salt-water. They visit Friends With Pools, ride on inflatable mattresses, play Marco Polo and smell of chlorine and sunscreen and summertime. Swimming lessons are a significant part of this lifestyle. You may have a naturally-birthed, exclusively breastfed, cloth-nappy-wearing, sleeping-through-the-night six-month-old, but if she’s not enrolled in baby swimming lessons, you’re only so-so as a mum. And yes, congratulations dear friend, for helping your baby achieve proficiency at Butterfly by his first birthday.

Although she tends to be cautious at first, given a little time to adjust, Lily adores jumping waves with Daddy at the beach or bouncing through the swimming pool in Mummy’s arms. It’s not as if we have completely denied her and her brother the joys of water. But somehow we just never seemed to get around to those pesky swimming lessons.

Last week I finally – years too late and definitely not in the best season – made an attempt to appease my Mother’s Guilt, and enrolled both kids in swimming lessons. Lily had her first yesterday afternoon. All day she was bouncing off the walls, exclaiming how she couldn’t wait. In fact, her uncharacteristically eager compliance to all my instructions – bathers on, hair up, track pants over the top, showering before her lesson, new goggles on – actually made us early for our lesson.

There was a moment where I was almost lulled into thinking this whole swimming lesson caper was going to be straight-forward. I say almost because being mum to my precious Lily for four years has taught me that new experiences are never easy for her (which may help to explain my reluctance to dive into swimming lessons, if you’ll excuse the pun). Dancing lessons, Sunday School, occasional care, childcare, kindergarten – all looked marvellous to her from a distance, but became tear-soaked affairs the day they shifted into reality.

Sure enough, when the moment came to step into the pool, Lily burst into tears, “I thought I wanted to have swimming lessons, but I don’t!” she cried plaintively. “I’ve changed my mind!” The instructor ended up having to carry her, thrashing and howling into the pool. I watched (as well as I could whilst struggling to prevent my toddler from hurling all manner of items including himself into the water) as she manoeuvred my daughter’s reluctant little frame into a range of positions: belly, back, star float, belly with kick-board, back with kick-board. A bench-load of attentive parents were treated to an earful of wails and whimpers, climaxing in the blood-curdling protest: “I don’t want to get my hair wet!” And my heart twisted and crashed inside my chest as Lily’s face registered a gamut of emotions: distress, anxiety, concentration, fleeting pops of joy and pride.

Towards the end of the lesson, while the other little girl in the class ducked and dived and wet her hair like a mermaid, Lily – the picture of misery – huddled on the pool steps with teeth chattering, tears streaking her face, pink goggles askew and bather pants half-way down her bottom. Honestly, I wanted to cry myself. While there had been a few positive moments, it had been a pretty agonising half-hour on the whole. And as for the Mother’s Guilt: if anything, seeing my little girl struggle out there had made it roar all the louder. But then, what’s motherhood without an ample dollop of guilt?