Saturday, September 29, 2007

Life lessons

This morning, as we were walking down to the deli, Lu looked into the front yard of a perfectly restored 1850s terrace house in the highly sought after 'cafe precinct' of our town and said in horror and confusion, "Mummy, those people have no vegetable garden!".

It was the perfect opportunity to teach Lu about respect for difference, about the many alternative ways of living in our world but I prefer to hammer my points home hard. So I told her, in tragic tones, "Some poor people don't have gardens my love. Some people don't grow their own veggies. It is very sad".
"There are no chooks?"
"None at all".
"How can this be?"

Our kids are so very much their own selves, and they carry so much of us with them into their lives. It is best to be very careful what we give them.

(above: Lu, Al andNell in the harsh urban environment of the 'Paris end of Charles Street' - no really, people actually say that down here!)


I came home from my walk today with a posy of freesias as big as my baby's head, with a scent as sweet and as rare as a kiss from Lu. In my other hand was a great verdant bunch of thistles for the chooks. All collected from the landslip areas and abandoned houses around me.

Those poor, poor people in their beautiful homes and elegant courtyards - they don't get their flowers for free.

Friday, September 28, 2007

On the right track

Over at bluemilk (my mac doesn't seem to let me make links but go there - it's such a great blog) there's a post about the opportunities work presents and the constraints we face in taking advantage of them. There are also some comments about the mummy track - the career path women end up on when they have children and find their organisations don't take them seriously as workers anymore. One of the commenters suggested concern about this is 'ego', and that things change over time. I think it's true - things can change - but the point about ego is stinging a little (and I acknowledge this response is about me, and not the writer's intent), so much so that I'm writing this instead of dealing with some work stuff that Needs To Be Done Now.

Ego. It's such a dirty word, and doubly so if you're a woman, and triply so if you're a mother. After all, motherhood is presented to us as the suppression of ego, as a state of sacrifice for the good of our children and our family (and the country's economy if the Treasurer had his way). Worrying about the state of one's career can seem a little off topic when we are trying to raise kids under all sorts of pressures, with all kinds of hopes and fears and caught in emotions so deep and complex - it's overwhelming and beautiful and frightening and there is absolutely nothing comparable in my paid work life. But I'm pretty much on the Mummy track at the moment, and I'm not always entirely comfortable with this, even though it is the best solution for balancing our family’s emotional wellbeing with our financial needs.

I don't like that in the professions, there is only one legitimate way of being a worker. So many organisational structures and cultures expect the total devotion of mind and body, in ways that disadvantage people who are trying to be parents (and in particular, mothers, upon whom the caring tasks most commonly fall). But more than that, I'm frustrated that I can't shine in my career when I'm shining as a mother. This strikes at the core of my identity: I've been a professional for much longer than I've been a mother and I've worked really hard to be respected and to get all the necessary letters after my name. My life was directed to success in my field; motherhood came late(ish) and the desire for children was absent for decades; Kris-as-mother is a pretty recent and unexpected character. That earlier sense of self was not sloughed off when Lu and then Nell came along; it lives side by side - often uncomfortably - with 'Mummy'. And there's ego in it too, I miss feeling that I am (or have the potential to be) a player, someone who's going somewhere.

Work might be vanity, it might melt in the air, but it does matter to me. The work-family balance is usually presented as a question of the fit between hours worked and hours spent with family, but for many women it also a question of balancing the different elements of who we are and what we focus on: worker and mother and partner, ego and sacrifice. These ideas are written as separate, and contain an implicit dichotomy (trichotomy?) but perhaps they should be presented as workermotherpartner, egosacrifice because they're all mixed up together.

I'm lucky that my work lets me write this from home, and that home is where work is currently happening. I'm lucky that I don't have to make a set of hard choices about career and family. I’m on the mummy track, and in terms of what my family needs, this is the right track. I've been telling my friends I have little ambition, and I'm comfortable with its absence. And I am, sort of. But there's still a part of me that wants to travel not the back roads of the mummy track, beautiful and quiet though they may be, but the great boulevards of a successful career, in a motorcade, with tickertape and a marching band and, sure, the key to the city (yes, my ego is that big). I may get there eventually but in the meantime, I'm sometimes going to feel sad and frustrated that and resentful that I can't be seen as a great mother and a shit-hot leader in my field. Because I'm proud of being both.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Back in the day, when I was young and pretty, my friend KJ and her boyfriend Daz would call me Margot; they styled themselves as Barbara and Tom. For those of you who did not grow up in rural Victoria in the early 80s with only the ABC, this is a reference to The Good Life. The show was about an executive and his wife who turned their back on a consumption society to become self-sufficient and cash free on their suburban block. They are watched, disapprovingly, by their good friends, the uptight, upright Jerry and Margot.

(from nostalgia central : tv/comedy/goodlife.htm)

I wasn't unhappy with this reference - I was, perhpas, a little prim and snooty, and was dating a guy with a (in hindsight, surely fake) British accent. Margot did garden but it was a pruning roses type of gardening, in big hats and gloves, with drinks after on the terrace.

This morning, I spent a couple of hours shovelling horse manure, utterly happy because it was free and I was out in the garden. Margot no more. Oh, how things change.


Even in my new Barbara life, I cling to the belief that I'm not competely scruffy. I make no pretensions to beauty but hope I may have a quirky elegance, an understated style that may not be apparent on first sight but reveals itself over time. One must have one's fantasies, after all.

Talking it over, Al and I realised Lu is happiest and most relaxed when she is with me by herself. We're not sure if this is because she misses me when I'm at work or if she's having problems adjusting to Nell. So we're going to make time for special mother-Lulu outings. Yesterday morning we went to the cafe for baby latte and brownie and some book reading, walked into town for the ceremonial buying of Big Girl Pants, and went on to get our hair cut together (I know, she's two and it sounds like I'm spending time with a teenager). In between picking up some Dorothy Dinosaur and Thomas the Tank Engine underwear and the stylist, I popped in to the sushi bar and then dropped by the poshest shop in town, where handbags cost hundreds of dollars and I don't dare touch a thing. I had given Lu one of those little platic fish full of soy to suck and turned around to see her spread eagled on the floor, face down. She was spitting out the soy on to the floor and then licking it up again. All my fantasies of funky Mummy-hood vanished like smoke in the air (or spit on a highly polished, industrial chic floor).

Out on the street Lu dropped the rest of her brownie and then picked it up and ate it. I was going to stop her but figured the dirt on the soles of the hoi polloi is no more nasty than that on the soles of the rich, and so really, the damage had been done.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Never leave a man behind

For every lovely moment there's ten of these: offhand rudeness, selfishness, kicking Nellie in the face, biting and hitting to see if she can hurt me, anger, tempers, cruelty. My daughter can scare me and she sometimes breaks my heart.


The hardest part of walking away in the morning is the sense of betrayal. I've got two hours of frustration, rush and sometimes ugliness before I'm out the door. I have some time to myself as I walk into town and travel out to work on the bus and then I sit in my office and deal with relatively civilised adults who are more less polite. Al gets a whole day of negotiating with a two year and settling a baby. There's no break, no down time, no space. When I'm home, we're in the trenches together; when I shut the front door at 7am each morning and jam the headphones into my ears I feel like I've left a comrade behind enemy lines.

Some days I feel like my family is falling apart. Yesterday, after two time outs before 6.30 am, I left the house to go to work and cried all the way down my street, around the corner, across the park, past the hospital and the cafes, by the fountain, at the bus stop, on the bus, up the stairs and in my office in front of the computer. I think it is fair to say that yesterday I broke apart. Yesterday, I didn't think any of us could be fixed.

So I talked to my boss, spilled it all amid tears and tissues, asked for leave so we could try to get some equilibrium back. Instead, he has given me leeway to organise my work in anyway I need so that I spend time with the girls and Al gets time off. He found some support services, told me some of his own struggles with his family, and asked how the organisation could help Al. Could you estimate how many such managers exist in Australia? Less than ten, I'd wager. The crunch so many of us feel as mothers and fathers and workers can only be changed through dramatic structural and ideological shifts but some days, an individual can make all the difference.

I ended my working day crying, telling Al what we'd been given. Today, I still can't believe my luck. I wish everyone had a boss like mine, I really do.


Today, I planted some seeds, we went to the duck park and I played with the girls while Al did some things that had been piling up. The girls were happy(-ish), Lucy was so much more relaxed, and they are both sleeping well. We realise both Nell and Lu have been stressed, maybe by our own stress, maybe by my absence, probably a bit of both. In the long run we'll have to re-visit how we manage our life and my work but for the moment there's some calm in our home.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I never thought I'd be the kind of mother who always told 'cute' stories about my kids but ...

... for every difficult moment there's ten of these:

Al: Do you want to come to the garage Lu?
Lu: Hmmm, I'll just check my emu. [pause as she enters and leaves the study]. It says that's okay.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday morning

A good start to the week: "You look good, very thirties, very French Resistance" (ladies, fighting facism never goes out of style).

A slightly less good start to the week: wearing damp underwear because we didn't get the washing in last night.

Swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

She's not afraid to ask the hard questions

Lucy's two and a half and she is all about the questions.

Easy questions: Did you have much wetness? (on me getting out of the shower); Do you want to eat an olive?; Daddy, do you have pubic hair?

Middling questions: What's that lady running? (on seeing a woman on a treadmill - it's a pretty weird idea when you think about it)

Hard questions: Are you happy Mummy?; Where does heartbroken live?

Good for the economy

Turns out, it's a little too early for passionfruit planting, at least according to the erstwhile owner of Jeremy the goat (lately of 'Hobart'), who lives down the hill in a little house with a small and lovely kitchen garden. But there were strawberries to be planted in response to Lucy's stated 'never too many' policy, and as I placed these around the garden, in pots and beds, in a no doubt doomed attempt to ensure at least some escape Lu's impatience and ripen to the point of redness, I did some thinking.

I was thinking about why this matters, this planting and feeding, and how the garden and the girls intersect to form something so fundamental to my life.

Georg Simmel, one of my favourite sociologists, wrote with concern about money. He believed that when it became the primary form of exchange in the world, social relations would change, transforming from personal and emotional connections into rational, bounded and ends-focused transactions. How much we get would become far more important than how we get it. Simmel predicted a greater circulation of money would, ironically, impoverish our links with each other. There's some evidence to suggest this hasn't happened, and that in fact people invest money with cultural and personal significance. But I don't think that significance is as emotionally resonant as the shared and idiosyncratic exchanges I am weaving (planting? growing? - oh, the sensitive question of when to pun) into our lives through the garden.

The garden matters because it is a way of tying my family together, creating an economy based on love and care. Money matters too, and it is a prime element of my role in the family - I bring home the bacon - but I don't want that role to be the focus my relationships with Al, Lu and Nell. In true breadwinner style, I'm proud I can support my family but I want to fill our coffers with good memories, resilience, opportunity and sense of shared purpose. I want us all to feel we contribute to the give and take which is part of family life. I want our exchanges to focus on a set of values that can't be written with a dollar sign in front of them. Families make these exchanges in different ways and through different media: sewing, knitting, sharing passions, buying gifts, through experiencing travel or food or art together, or watching T.V. on the couch on a Sunday night, commenting on the footy or laughing at the same jokes. In our little unit, the garden is the focus. When I garden I'm investing the economy that matters most to me.

Circling outward, our garden gives the girls a choice as to which economy they engage with, and when. Thinking back on the discussions of 'frugal', I like the idea of a mindfulness of how we live our lives. My default position is 'don't buy' rather than 'buy' and I have a whole set of resources that allow me to adopt this approach in my life. Gardening is a way of sharing these resources with the kids: the practical ones (this is how you grow a tomato) and the intellectual and philosophical ones (this is what we value, these are the things we think about). In the end, they'll adopt or reject what I offer them, and that's fine(ish - how will I feel if they don't care to know the difference between a pumpkin and a potato?) because what I really want to gift to them is choice.

I took this photo at the beginning of the year, when Nell was still very new to the world, and I love it still.

A family meal, taken from and shared in the garden. A valued and ordinary part of our lives, and very good for the economy that matters the most.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Seasonal eating

We have fallen into the habit of eating seasonally and locally. We're not purists - some things like tinned tomatoes and bananas are staples - but the 'extras' - the fruit and vegetables - appear in the kitchen only at certain times of the year. This pattern is partly chosen by me as I read books like Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Kingslover's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But largely, our eating is shaped by the garden: once you've hard home grown corn, lettuce, tomatoes, peaches, almost anything really, it's hard to accept the stuff available in the shops.

I bought one of those packs of fancy lettuce the other day and what a sad and flaccid collection greeted me, nothing like the robust and handsome leaves from my own garden. And I'd never eat a peach or strawberry I didn't grow myself because they won't be perfectly ripe, warmed by the sun and beautiful

(I admit this is a romanticisation of the strawberry situation, where in reality Lucy picks off the fruit as soon as they are even slightly flushed with pink.)

A couple of days ago Lucy was talking about summer, when there would be blackberries, strawberries, peaches and raspberries. She links food to the seasons. I was so pleased. This is important to us, that both girls know where their food comes from and how to get it. I am hoping this knowledge will be familiar and comfortable to them, a taken for granted part of the way their world works. Why does this matter? I'm not so sure. It's not about making them better people - a few home grown beans and some anticipation won't do that. Something to ponder as I plant out a passionfruit this weekend.


And on seasons: Norma's asparagus are up but mine are not. There's a world of envy and worry in that simple sentence. I looked over the fence to see how her garden grows and there they were: bold and upright and incredibly ugly, looking like three troll p*nises ( or is it p*nii? Or even penaux?) - green and lumpy and not at all delicious. Still, there they are and there mine are not. I have a small cold place in my heart as I see her success and the tardiness of my roots. Every unit of nurturing and love the garden creates in me is counter-balanced by competitiveness and covetousness. I am an ugly soul, deep down, to be resentful of an old lady neighbour's vegetable success!

Now off to listen to The Triffid's Born Sandy Devotional with Al, and ponder again the absolute beauty and heartbreak of Wide Open Road.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

(With me it's always) The little things

Sitting on a friend's back deck, eating orange and almond cake, chatting and watching our children play together.

Walking in the sun to the markets with Nell, and walking home again with tomato seeds that were sold out online, seedlings of pineapple sage, lemongrass and French tarragon, daffodils and lemon curd, which I eat standing at the fridge, scooping it out of the jar with my finger.

Planting seeds with Lu: pak choi, Hong Kong broccoli, rocket, broccoletti, poppies, lettuce (sucrine, brown romaine, cos verdi, purple oak leaf), coriander, sugar snap peas, hailstone radishes. Also planting seed potatoes (Nicola) and one of those mini-peach trees I used to be so snobbish about (peach-zee, really!)

Thinking (hoping, hoping) Lu may in fact be potty trained, wee-wise. Oh, the joy.

Baking apple and coconut muffins, cheese bics and an apple and rhubarb cake for dessert with Lu standing beside me, commenting and tasting.

Nell's first independent foray into the veggie garden.

A chicken and chutney sandwich in the backyard sun.

Reading a book - a whole book!

Cockatoos swooping down and eating the old walnuts in the tree out the back.

My pre-baby jeans fitting me again.

But also:

5 hours sleep instead of seven hours.

Bumbling about with Lucy and Jasper in the area and catching sight of an outdoor setting - the very type I've been looking for for over two years - at a garage sale down the road. Starting down, turning back to find the lost lead and then walking sloooowly with my two year old, watching people pull up and nab those tables and chairs just as we finally made it to the driveway.

Lucy on at me and on at me for a 'big bit of chicken, not those little cut bits, the big bits', on and on, when there's only the slivers, and she won't eat them anyway. On and on, with me explaining there's none until finally I yell, loud and shocking, "There's none to be had", and my child starts crying in fear of my anger.

But now a bit of West Wing and my honey, under the doona on the couch, scoffing the rest of the cake.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Week's end

I have just finished the penultimate draft of the final report of a very big project that's been hanging around my neck these past 18 (surely not!) months. I've had Gloria in excelsis circling in my head all day. I feel so light!

And this this afternoon I knocked off early, went into town with Lu and bought a shirt that looks good on me, three books I want to read, and Toby the Tram and some olives stuffed with feta for my charming daughter.

All weeks should end this way.

Being frugal in a time of abundance

Quite some time ago, the lovely Kez nominated me for a Frugal Subversive Award. I haven't really mentioned it due to one thing (illness) and another (previously mentioned project taking up loads of time and energy) but mainly because I've been pondering the meaning of 'frugal' and whether or not it applies to me. And I'm still not sure.

My much loved Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases puts 'frugal' in with economy, thrift, prudence, care, husbandry, good housewifery, savingness, keep within compass. The word suggests a respect of limits rather than a penny pinching love of money. Current Australian debt levels suggest there's not a lot of frugal in our lives, even when high house prices are accounted for. And the idea that we limit our choices out of respect for future generations or other species or people still seems embarassingly worthy to many. I think when people are frugal, they are swimming against the current.

It's an interesting phenomenon, this frugal cool I see on many of the blog sites I visit. I like it, I like reading about all the things people do in their home, and why they do them. But I've never really considered myself frugal. Heaven knows, almost all of the money I earned in my 20s went on booze and my back. More recently, Al and I have had to be careful with money: a mortgage, then a bigger mortgage, then a child, then a drop to one income, then another child, then structural problems with the house, have meant we've always been teetering on the brink of more money going out than coming in. We were very careful with money, and really worried, but I never stopped thinking, "I'll be okay". And sure enough, the happy intersection of a pay rise, a tax cut (but I'm still not voting for you, John), and paying off HECS and my supplement loan has meant our finances have turned a corner. We're very, very lucky.

I do lots of things that look like frugality: My clothes - and those of the Al and the girls - are mostly from op shops, as are my furniture and kitchen stuff. I grow our vegetables and we save a lot of money this way. We walk. But these are choices that reflect a whole set of preferences unrelated to saving money or respecting limits: I like bargains, I like gardening, I like to walk. Mostly, the things I do are the things I want to do. There are other reasons: I care about our health and the environment, and I come from a frugal home, but really, I find the things I do fun.

I am frugal but I am not poor.

A couple of days ago, while waiting for the bus, I looked into the window of a sophisticated clothing store and saw a really lovely shirt. I thought, "I'll go get that tomorrow afternoon". And I did. It cost a lot, it looks great on me. Buying it has been a treat - I'm not one to buy expensive clothes - but it won't break the bank, it won't even break the budget. Yesterday, I bought an imported home style magazine, it cost a lot of money. This is not something I often do - I usually borrow mags from the library - but it's pleasant to sit on the couch at the end of the week and mindlessly stare at beautiful things.

I am frugal and I am not poor.

One of my favourite books is called Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. In it, she works a series of working class jobs (waitress, cleaner, Walmart assistant) and tries to live on the wages she earns. What stayed with me is this: the financially sensible decisions, the things that save money, actually require an already existing set of resources, notably time, money and health. Leasing a house with a kitchen is a cheaper option than living in a hotel and eating take away, but it's an option that requires money for a deposit and time to find a place.

It's easy being frugal when it doesn't really count. I think of my vegetable garden: the seeds don't cost much compared to those bags of lettuce in the store, it's true, but if I added the constant inputs of organic material, the driving to get the free manure, and my time (if I charged out at my going rate), my home grown greensare actually pretty expensive. In my job I sit at a desk all day, thinking thoughts, bossing people around and writing. Coming home and getting into the garden is a nice change; things might be very different if I was standing on my feet at a check out, or lugging heavy loads. Wearing second hand clothes is easy enough when I know I can afford the flash ones; it was much harder to do so when I had no choice, when those clothes reflected my financial status rather than a lazy rainy Saturday morning trawling the opshops for bargains. In our society, if you are poor you are a loser or lazy, and it's hard to advertise that.

I am frugal because I am not poor.


After I strolled away from the sophisticated clothing store, I walked past the headlines outside the newsagent. The women's magazines were gleefully speculating on Owen Wilson, that Hollywood guy who may have tried to kill himself; imagine your pain as the entertainment of others (with exclusive pics!). The local newspaper reported on a woman who in desparation had left her autistic teenage son with health authorities and just walked out, unable to cope and getting no assistance; imagine such despair. At work I spoke to a mother whose child goes to Lucy's erstwhile child care centre. She's a refugee from Sudan, and she wants to bring her family over, the government is not so keen on the idea; imagine, imagine, imagine. By 7.25 am I felt very sad.

I think it's a world of abundance, sure, but there's a parsimony, an illiberality, a niggardliness, a stinginess, a shabbiness and a miserliness in our society when it comes to an active love and concern for others. We are, according to Roget's, stopping one hole in a sieve.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Little things

In my everyday life, I often desire the big things: travel, fine food and wine, theatre, glamorous clothes and getting elegantly wasted on cocktails. When I was sick, I missed the mundane: cooking, even cleaning, but especially gardening. I was too sick to even go outside and the confinement was made that much more frustrating because my mail order seeds arrived the day before I took to my bed. There are lots of packets this year because I'm hoping to buy no more. As my permaculture plans creep along, I'm increasingly committed to seed saving and sowing. So the packets sit on the shelves, waiting for this weekend to make their debut.

I love seeds. Mostly, I love their names. I'm a sucker for something poetic or mysterious, something with a bit of a story in the background. Idelight beans, Brandywine and Rouge de Marmande tomatoes are far more appealing than 'Stringless green pod' or 'Sweetie'. It's the same with roses: who wants 'Sexy Rexy' or 'Blossomtime' when Duchesse de Brabant is waiting in the wings? (although the Admiral Rodney makes me want to know more). But my favourite name this year is Collective Farm Woman melon, from the Ukraine, from the island of Krim (it's not Tolkein!). Because while there's always a place for the sophisticated French types in the world, it's nice to see honest worth and hard work, calloused hands and sensible shoes receiving their due. It's the farm women, not the aristocrats, who keep the gardens going.

A final thought on the topic: I love the names of my seed suppliers. Eden Seeds is most appropriate, and Green Harvest also fits the name and the aim. But my favourite (as glimpsed on Gardening Australia last Saturday night) is my newest find: The Lost Seed, a company located on Roaring Beach Rd, South Arm, Tasmania. Isn't that a great address for saving seeds for the future?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pink bluster

Ten days ago I stood in the kitchen and casually mentioned I was feeling a little under the weather and would skip yoga. Little did we know ... The flu has smote our family and we've all tumbled into bed, too sick to move and too sick to care, so sick Nellie narrowly avoided hospitalisation. So sick, my father flew down from Brisbane to take care of us all. Now we're back on our feet - just - but I've got a scratchy, kick the dog kind of a feeling, and we're none of us fun to be around. I blame the surly waitress at the Mexican restaurant where I went out with adults and without a child for the first time in about two years. I was so excited, believing I could forsee a time when I had a social life again; we've all paid dearly for that fantasy.


A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Lucy about bluster. It's a good word to say and it fits its object well. Lucy replied "I don't like bluster, I only like pink bluster", which is pretty much in keeping with her current stylings as 'contrary fairy'. I left it lie. But on my walk this afternoon, I came across pink bluster and Lu is right: it's much better than the everyday kind:

The white bluster is pretty nice, too: