Shifting Sands

Posts tagged parenting

What would you know about being a parent? You’ve never had children!

I wish women (it usually is another woman) would stop saying this to women who, for whatever reason, don’t have children. Comments like these are disrespectful of another woman’s capacity to empathize with the lives of other women including their own mothers.

As a childfree woman, I reserve the right to express an opinion about parenting for two simple reasons; like every other person on the planet, I was a child and I had parents. No other qualifications are required.

When I married in 1993 at the age of 24 I assumed I would have a family and chose to be a teacher because I thought it would be a good career for a parent.

After a traumatic divorce at age 34, I became ambivalent about the idea of having children. After being in a marriage where I parented another adult for ten years and took on the burden of financially providing for us, I was in no mood to take on more responsibilities.

As the years passed and I entered my late 30’s and early 40’s, I realized how much I enjoyed my childfree life and decided not to become a “geriatric” mother.

Maybe I was wrong not to have children later in life. Who knows? It doesn’t matter either way. I’m sure I would have been happy and effective as an older parent but I experience no grief over the babies I never had. I’m not jealous of women who have children or bitter about how my life unfolded. It would be irrational to regret a life choice freely made with a full awareness of the consequences.

I haven’t experienced the emotional and physical trials of motherhood so you won’t find me offering gratuitous advice about babies that won’t sleep through the night, teething pain or nappy rash. Similarly the demands of trying to breastfeed or express breast milk are unexplored territory. I like toddlers and enjoy their company but I have never had to toddler-proof a house or rush a sick two year old to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Given my profession, I can relate to the heartache of a parent trying to steer their teenager through the pitfalls of the modern world, although the concern of a teacher is not the same as the love of a parent.

I do, however, remember being a young child and the way my mother steered our family through some tough years. From the vantage point of adulthood, I can empathize with how challenging life must have been for her on occasions.

Any general comments I might make about parenting come backed by rich childhood memories and a fair dollop of empathy for my younger self, my mother and even my grandmother. It must have been interesting for my Grandmother, a child raised in poverty during the Great Depression, to raise two daughters in the changing social landscape of the 1950’s and 1960’s in Australia.

In my professional role as a teacher I was often asked for parenting advice, despite my childfree status being generally known. I suppose my training and daily interaction with teenagers gave me credibility, although early in my career I did have a female deputy principal (herself an older mother) tell me I wouldn’t be an effective teacher until I had children. *

Many times I have been rendered speechless by the lack of common sense shown by some parents. It doesn’t require actually being a parent (or a teacher) to know a 14-year-old girl should not have a 25-year-old boyfriend who spends the night. My “parenting advice” to those parents was to ring the police and have the pervert arrested. If they didn’t I was legally bound to do it for them.

Similarly, I would like to have seen my mother or stepfather’s reaction if I had asked either of them to drop me off at the park at 2 am after buying me a bottle of vodka.

Yet I have met women who will snippily tell me I have no right to express any opinions about parenting because I have not given birth, as though this physical act alone somehow ensures women will develop parenting skills.

When people who are not parents comment about parenting in a social context, it doesn’t come from a place of ignorance. Opinions about parenting are influenced by our ability to empathize with our childhood selves and an understanding of what we put our parents through. Psychologists classify these skills as part of emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize is necessary to be an effective parent (or teacher), but you don’t have to be a parent to develop or express it.

Of course some people who have yet to become parents express opinions about parenting that are ignorant and insensitive, but they will probably continue to do so even after having children of their own. As a teacher I met many  parents who were scathing of other people’s parenting skills while remaining ignorant of their own obvious shortcomings.

We have all been children and teenagers. We all had parents or individuals who performed the role of a parent. We all remember what it was like to be a child and recollect the parenting techniques we did (or didn’t) find effective. We are all entitled to share the knowledge gained from this common human experience, regardless of our child rearing status. To argue otherwise is ludicrous.

And if you want to know how my mother, a young single parent, had all three of her children in bed every night by 7.30, I would be happy to tell you!

*This same woman also claimed, in the presence of the male third grade teacher, that only men who are pedophiles want to become teachers.


When I wore my new red, white and black striped pullover to school for my Year 3 photo, a boy in my class said, “You look like a dick-head.” I received the set of photographs a few weeks later during class and had to agree that perhaps he was right. Completely mortified, I hid the photographs in my schoolbag and wouldn’t let anyone see them. My mother wasn’t easily put off and I eventually handed them over. Of course, Mum thought I looked adorable and sent copies of the wretched thing to my grandparents in Queensland. It’s one of those copies I have now.

I had to admit Year 3 wasn’t going very well. My devotion to the sweets shop had resulted in an alarming weight gain and I was moved to the “dumb kids” Maths class, where I regularly made the teacher weep with frustration. The obvious answer to my rapidly developing self esteem issue would have been to cut down on the sweets and ride my bike more. I could also stop reading books under my desk in Maths and start paying attention in class. Well, that wasn’t going to happen! At the age of 7, I knew myself enough to realise it would take more than one bad school photo and academic demotion before I’d change my ways.

 If I was going to grow up to be dick-head looking and stupid, I needed to come up with a plan. After giving the matter some thought, I decided I’d become a nun. Of course I knew I couldn’t sign on or whatever you had to do for at least a decade but it was definitely an option.

I didn’t know any nuns and had no idea what religious orders actually do in the world. The tiny bit I did know- that nuns didn’t get married and lived in a nice convent, seemed to fit my needs. Being thin and attractive enough to find a husband would no longer be an issue. Nuns get married to Christ – he apparently had no choice in the matter. Becoming a nun also meant that, in the absence of a husband, I wouldn’t have to be clever enough to get a decent job and support myself.  Living in the convent meant no rent or mortgage, no utilities bills and all my clothing would be provided. As far as plans went, this was foolproof.

My sisters and I were interested in God because we were told in Sunday School that if you wanted something you could pray to God and he might give it to you, if you were good. Our concept of God was slightly confused with Santa Clause. We prayed for God to bring us a kitten (granted), puppy (granted), Barbie townhouse (granted), skateboards (granted) and a flying fox for our backyard (declined). It seemed to us the odds of getting stuff out of God were reasonably good, so we  became believers. I spent the next year collecting religious pictures, cards, candles, rosary beads and statuettes in preparation for my life of piety.

The plan was progressing well (I was still eating sweets and hadn’t learned my tables) until one rainy afternoon the usual Elvis movie was replaced with The Nun’s Story, a 1959 movie staring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. Suddenly being a nun didn’t seem such a great life plan. For a start, Sister Luke has to study and pass exams. Then she is sent to work in a mental hospital where she is nearly killed by one of the patients.Finally she ends up in the Congo and nearly dies of tuberculosis. While in the Congo she is spiritually tortured by her attraction to the surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, played by Peter Finch. When she reluctantly returns to Belgium, her father is killed by the Nazis and she is forced into moral compromises to survive the Nazi occupation. Eventually she leaves the order. The final shot is of her leaving the convent and walking down the empty Belgium street, carrying nothing but the tiny suitcase she arrived with some years before.

I was throughly shocked. This film was nothing like the religious life I envisioned, which mainly involved me drifting poetically around the convent sucking on sweets, looking holy and doing stuff-all.

Realising a nun’s life wasn’t the cake walk I imagined didn’t prompt me to change my lazy habits. During the next few years I  searched for a Plan B – a road to career and personal success involving as little effort  as possible. I never found it!

Would you share your most embarrassing school photograph with the world?

A Australian Green Tree Frog

A  Green Tree Frog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago I had an email from my sister in Australia. It appears my lovely little niece, who is 3 next March, had been at the doctors because she put a bead up her nose. I reminded my sister that I too had once had a penchant for putting objects up my nose at around the same age, although my preference was for crayons. It’s obviously in the genes, I assured her.

My mother and the doctor gave me a stern talk about the dangers of putting things up my nose, even though I was quite young to be reasoned with. We lived in Fiji at the time and one aspect of life on the island was the huge number of dead frogs on the roads- casualties of the increasing number of cars and trucks in Suva. I was fascinated by tree frogs and would often sneak out of bed at night so I could watch them climb around the trees outside. I found the number of dead frogs we passed every day quite distressing.

My mother decided to use this as a teaching moment and explained in quite dramatic terms that if I continued to put crayons up my nose, I would end up like the froggies on the road. Dead! Gone! Finished! Forever! I don’t remember this but I can readily imagine the impression it must have made on my toddler brain.

A few days later Mum, my younger sister and I were walking down the road outside our house. Tina (my niece’s mother) was only a baby but I was in the habit of happily chatting away to her as she surveyed the scene from her stroller.

After staring thoughtfully at the hundreds of squashed- and most certainly dead – frogs on the road I whispered confidentially to my sister, “Tina, did you know that froggies put crayons up their noses?”

Tabby cat

In 1977 Mum, my sisters and I lived in a cute duplex house in the Perth suburb of Maylands.  It was a great place to live, near the river and close to our primary school. Mum decorated the house in the fashion of the day with orange carpet and purple wallpaper, although it may have been the other way around. One afternoon Mum gave us packets of flower seeds and instructed us to plant them. In a few weeks the front garden was a riot of old fashioned flowers like stocks, nasturtiums and sweet peas. We spent hours playing fashion shows in the garden with our Barbie dolls, the flowers making a glamorous backdrop to the festivities.

Our happiness was complete when Mum let us have a kitten. He was a pretty tabby with big green eyes and lovely tiger stripes. I am sure we gave him a cute name like Tiger or Fluffy but he was soon re-christened Killer because he killed things. A lot of things. Barely a day passed without our finding a clump of lifeless feathers, a lizard’s head or the backside of a mouse lying on the doorstep. We found Killer’s habit distressing but in 1970’s Australia, cats and dogs lived outside, not in the house. Micro chipping and enclosed cat runs were in the more environmentally aware future.

One afternoon we came home from school to catch Killer in the act, with a small yellow bird clamped in his jaws. We grabbed him and managed to rescue the bird, which wasn’t hurt but couldn’t fly away. This bird was different to his usual victims and we guessed he had snatched it from our neighbor’s aviary. After a quick conference we decided not to turn KIller in to the neighbors, which meant we had to keep our new bird a secret from Mum, who would have made us return it. Besides, we had always wanted a canary.

My sister (the middle one) remembered the old birdcage rusting away in the disused chicken run. Before long we had the canary safely in the cage and hidden in the back garden with a generous supply of Jody’s budgie food. We may have been too liberal with the food because in a matter of days the canary had grown to an astonishing size. He was almost busting out of the cage. Reluctantly we confessed to Mum, who came to evaluate the situation and informed us, with much hilarity, that our “canary” was actually one of our neighbor’s chickens. Sadly we returned our battery hen to the bemused neighbors.

A few weeks after this incident Killer’s murderous activities came to a sad end. We woke one winter morning and realized he was missing. Four days passed and still no Killer. On the fifth day Mum opened the front door and found Killer huddled on the step. He was obviously very sick or injured. Mum scooped him up and ran up the road to get help. My last glimpse of Killer was his tiger tail dangling under Mum’s arm. I knew I would never see him again.

How did my mother handle this turn of events? She told us Killer was fine and had gone on a holiday. My sisters (aged five and six) accepted this, especially after Mum reassured them Killer had telephoned her. He was having a wonderful time. As the oldest child, I was more skeptical because we didn’t have a phone. Over the next few months, Mum kept to her story and by the time it dawned on us Killer wasn’t returning from scuba diving in the Maldives we were used to his absence and eventually forgot about him.

Current parenting advice is to be honest with children about what I have dubbed the “three D’s” –divorce, disease and death. In this post GFC world, parents could add debt to the dreaded trio. Discussions about death and the possibility of an afterlife (dogs go to heaven- the jury is out on cats) can be shaped to fit the family’s spiritual beliefs. My husband attempted this with my stepdaughter (who was four) following the death of Thumper, the guinea pig. After a formal funeral and burial complete with heartfelt prayers and a pop-stick cross they returned to the house for a solemn afternoon. The silent contemplation of life’s mysteries was broken by my stepdaughter wanting to know when she could go and get Thumper, as she wanted to play with him.

Mum’s desire to protect us wasn’t unusual. A surprising number of our friends had destructive dogs that went to live on a farm, kindly arranged by the vet. Children learn the harsh realities of life soon enough. My mother evaluated our lives and decided the death of a cherished pet was something we didn’t need to be dealing with. I never did find out what happened to Killer (karma, I suspect) but I like to think of him on his eternal holiday, chasing mice. I just hope he has enough credit on his phone.

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Most women raising three young girls in a rented house wouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of large scale pet ownership but my mother is made of much sterner stuff. She firmly believed all children should have pets and so by 1979 we had housed every link in the food chain: silkworms, a budgie, a cat and a dog. They all got along with only the occasional moth falling victim to the ever – vigilant cat, aptly named Killer. Jody the budgie (who largely rejected cage life) survived by the cunning and speed expected in a bird whose Kamilaroi name, betcherrygah, means, nice to eat.

Children don’t seem to keep silkworms now but we raised hundreds of them. I can’t recall where we got them, probably from a teacher, as most of our school friends had silkworms as well. Silkworms are extinct in the wild and have lost the ability to fly, making them completely helpless to predators. Even more bizarrely, they only eat mulberry leaves, although they will eat a variety of orange leaf as well. The worms lived in shoeboxes and we rode our bikes to the school grounds or the river every week to get mulberry leaves, along with hordes of other children. It was a pleasant, communal affair and much fun could be had on the park’s lethal flying fox when leaf – picking duties were over. Silkworms will grow as much as you feed them so ours were huge, well over the expected size of three inches.

Most people wouldn’t think of the silkworm as an interactive pet for children. The purpose of raising silkworms was probably to teach us about the miracle of life as viewed through the 28 day life cycle of an insect; egg, larva, pupa, adult. It was however, also tremendous fun to balance two silkworms on your face so they looked like huge green boogers and then to casually wander into the living room. This was even more satisfying if Mum happened to have one of her more cultured, childfree friends visiting. Further evidence I was never going to be a scientist could be found in the other attentions lavished on my unlucky worms. Weekends were spent making them little beds out of matchboxes (which they spurned), party hats (again, spurned) and taking them on excursions to the park (for fresh air).

Despite my determined anthropomorphism, they thrived and developed into handsome moths, who then mated and laid eggs, providing us with new silkworms. We heard horrifying rumours that some children put their cocoons in hot water, killing the pupa, and using the silk to make tassels for bookmarks. No such fate was going to befall our beloved pets. It was particularly tragic, therefore, when they all perished in the great Mortein accident of 1978. Our months of sericulture were over.

A few weeks later, I was delighted to find a colony of bright yellow spitfire caterpillars (future wasps) living in the back garden. I wasted no time in scooping them up, installing them in a shoebox and making them a set of matchbox beds. Within hours I was covered in painful red welts and Mum had to take me to the hospital. Reluctantly I let my new pets return to the wild and started a course of sleep inducing antihistamines that would have knocked out a cow. Despite my early experiences with silk worms, I don’t like the idea of other insects or spiders as pets. I have no desire to own a hissing cockroach, stick insect or tarantula (not terribly venomous, apparently). My ideal pet is a monkey, one I can train to iron and wash dishes.