At the very least, I had shed the skin of not wanting to disclose my birthing story by going to the Mum’s group. Before Soren and while we had been saving for IVF and world travels, Natalie and I had been living on a shoestring budget. As an adult, my love for iced takeaway coffee drinks had evolved a full-blown daily caffeine addiction. Because we were saving our pennies, we limited ourselves to two weekend dine-in coffees and one on every Wednesday morning. We often conversed about what our life would be like after having a baby, full of idealism about bringing the babe along for our mid-week dates. We certainly had high expectations.
After spending my teenage life as an outsider, I had become rather deliberate about surrounding our budding family with good and accepting people. We’d set up house in the inner-city and made a lot of equally coffee-addicted friends with whom we’d become quite familiar. Some were friendly acquaintances, baristas, and some we considered our inner-circle. Our coffee people watched my belly grow in anticipation, getting to know us over our coffee orders.
The first coffee morning after the birth, Natalie sent me into our favourite café to get our usual orders. I clammed up in a way that I couldn’t grasp at the time.
“It’s just two lattes. Don’t order yours on skim milk, I don’t want to end up drinking yours.”
“It’s… It’s too much for me to remember, Natalie. You go in.”
Natalie took the hard line with me, which I needed, but hated it at the time.
“Just go in and order it, you look fine, you’ll be fine!”
I wasn’t really afraid of screwing up the order. This was the first time I’d been seen since the birth. What I was really afraid of was being asked how the birth went. I didn’t want to explain it. I didn’t want pity. I just wanted to lick the wound silently with my takeaway coffee cup at home.
But I relented. I ordered the coffees, and nobody asked so I didn’t tell.
The sunlight poured onto pallid, blood-deprived face as we left the hospital. Despite losing nearly half of my blood, the doctors had decided against a blood transfusion. The inside of my mouth felt hard and gritty, like sandpaper every time I swallowed.
“Let’s take a photo!” My wife begged.
“You’ll want to remember this!”
I posed next to the pram, tilted on an angle so that the camera didn’t capture my paunch against the inside of my white shirt. CHOOSE LIFE was printed on it in big black letters. Life I had chosen indeed, and I was ready to share my new one with the outside world.
We wheeled our tiny babe into the enclosed carpark, so dark even despite the light of day. He vomited before we got to the car, and we spent about fifteen minutes playing with the seatbelt.
“No, like this! It clips in.” I insisted as my wife fiddled around, growing frustrated.
“It’s been six days! I just want to get out of here!”
“What if the police pull us over? It’s not done up properly!”
We tried and tried, but the seatbelt would not click in.
“Fine, let’s just go.”
I sidled into the backseat and rested my hand on his chest, a futile attempt to contain the impact, should the worst happen. We arrived home without incident, our apartment fresh and clean as it had only had one resident for six days.
“Let’s give him a bath!” Natalie squealed excitedly.
“But you’re not meant to bath them every day, he’s only a newborn. His skin can’t take it.”
I was so obsessed with getting it right, that I forgot my wife was ready to relish in new motherhood. We bathed our baby, under the afternoon light.
“Check! Check! He’s kicking himself! He’s doing the kicks!”
He looked up into the distance, gently kicking against the water with his long, thin legs. I realised that he trusted us so much and we had to protect him at all costs. It may have been a relatively inconsequential moment, but I felt it deeply.
As I was getting used to being a Mum, my parents were getting used to being grandparents, though it was an awkward process for them. For all intents and purposes, my son was the first proper grandchild, since my brother chose not to talk to them.
“Where’s our little president?” My Mum squealed, opening the door to see us the first time since the birth.
“He’s in his bassinet. He’s sleeping.” I replied, coolly, ready to stamp down a boundary in case they tried to be overbearing. I’d read all the horror stories of new grandparents, and I was determined to hold my ground as a new Mum.
“Not in the cot?” She asked.
“No. He needs to be close to us. We need to check his breathing because of SIDS.”
“Are you going to get family photos done?”
I paused, glad she was so excited.
“Yeah, we’re booked in next week if you want to come along.”
“I’d love to!”
Eleven days after the birth, we had our first Christmas as family. We picked at barbecue chicken and prawns, with Soren sleeping soundly, wrapped freshly in a pastel rainbow swaddle.
It wasn’t everything I’d built up in my mind as a first-Christmas-with-a-child, but we unwrapped a pile of gifts and listened to music together as a family all the same.
“I’m still feeling sore.” I complained.
“Have you been taking your painkillers?” My Mum asked.
“Yeah. I wish the birth didn’t happen the way it did. I hope you’re not angry that I insisted on the whooping cough vaccines. I don’t think I would’ve handled it if Soren got sick.”
“I understand. I know you wish the birth could have been different but look at your son. He’s perfect. I know it’s bad that you nearly died but you are here.”
I felt the pang of post-traumatic stress hit me like an uppercut. I turned away, hiding the tears that were streaming down my face. It was all so sobering to realise the fragility of life with a brand-new infant and I didn’t know what to do, so I kept on pushing my feelings away.
While I was still unable to drive, I took the 15-minute bus trip to the library for Rhyme Time. Having no access to my best means of transport filled me with dread, but my son didn’t seem to mind. He slept through the whole trip and I was so enthralled by him that I missed my stop. I was now a kilometre from the library. Not willing to be defeated, I trudged the precarious main road, determined to take my baby for a morning of nursery rhymes.
When I arrived, the community room was filled with radiant Mums. I looked down at my lanky body and my infant, then back into the glass door at these buttery, bouncing women and their babies. The door was closed. I didn’t want to knock and draw attention to myself, so I walked back to the courtyard, sat under a tree and sobbed. I pulled out my phone and texted my wife.
I never made it to Rhyme Time. The door was closed when I got there and it had already started.
So much for all the confidence I’d built up during my years as a teacher
Running on my new-motherhood high, I signed up for a Mummy’s group. I had always been a little apprehensive about stepping foot into the Mum space, because I knew how heternonormative it was likely to be. Because Natalie and I had carved out a neat inner-city life, I made sure to sign up for the inner-city Mummy’s group. I felt that even if I was engaging in unknown territory, the littlest favour I could give myself was some familiarity.
The day it started was my first day of freedom to drive again. Although I was physically feeling a lot better from the major abdominal surgery, it had been doctor’s orders to refrain for the six weeks. I followed prudently. Because I had to work up some courage, I spent the morning at the Powerhouse to do an arts session with Soren. Unfortunately, he had fallen asleep before it started, leaving me free with forty-five minutes to study. I left him in his pram and pulled out my laptop.
Some people say you lose some of your intellectual prowess after birth -that the muddle of baby brain causes people to defer their studies and watch Netflix on the couch between feeds – but I wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
When the session was underway, I schlepped my newly-woken babe up to the runway to do tummy time surrounded by costumes, feathers boas, and fancy hats. Amongst the boisterous crowds of terrible twos, I spent the time enamoured by my baby in an octopus hat, taking selfies of a time I knew I would grow sentimental about in the years to come, when my son would become a withdrawn and smelly teenager. At least, that’s what the seasoned Mums had told me.
By the time I drove to the Mummy’s group, I was ready to show the other Mums that I fit, and was as much Mum as they were, even if I was a bit awkward, a bit intellectual, and married to a woman.
The nurse running the group ushered me to a seat. The other women seemed friendly, though some seemed a little sleep-deprived, yawning through puffy eyes as they chatted amongst themselves.
I didn’t understand this need for sleep. My short catnaps throughout the night were punctuated with night terrors and feeds, yet I felt unstoppable. It wasn’t even midday and I’d punched out another 500 words.
“All right, ladies, let’s establish some rules for our group.”
A peppy blonde girl called Sarah cut right in.
“Well, I think there should be no judgement, Whatever we share in the group, should stay in the group.”
There were affirmative nods all around.
“And I think we should let everyone share their story. Everyone should have a turn to talk.”
I looked around and noticed that ever other Mum in the group had their baby on their lap. I looked over at my son, in his pram, not seeming to be bothered, but it bothered me.
“He’s really heavy and I had a C-section.” I explained, though nobody had asked and in hindsight, I doubt they’d even noticed.
“That’s okay. Now let’s start by going around the circle and sharing about our birth stories.”
I shifted uncomfortably, not wanting to share at all, but the group rules had been established. It would be weird if I took a pass.
I was the last in the circle, so I heard everybody’s birthing story before mine.
“I went into labour spontaneously. My waters broke over dinner one night. My husband drove me to the hospital and I laboured for twelve hours.”
“I had a planned C-section. I’m a vet, so I have seen what can go wrong.”
“I had a bad birth with my son, so I had a planned C-section. It was better the second time around.”
“I was in a private hospital. I had to be induced, and I had a little bit of pain relief, but my birth was everything I had planned for and expected. And let me just say, I have high expectations!”
I dropped my eyes to the ground.
“Well… I was induced. My baby and I got an infection. He was delivered by C-section under a general anaesthetic where I nearly bled to death. I still feel like I’m recovering.”
There was so much more I could have said, but I really preferred not to. The birthing stories of the other Mums were pretty standard, and I felt like I’d opened a fear-mongering dialogue.
“Oh my God. That’s like 1% of birthing cases. You must be so glad he was all right.”
I dropped my eyes, feeling an almost-sense-of-shame. These women seemed to have had it all planned – either out of experience or privilege – but it had given them an experience I couldn’t help but be envious of.
“Are you planning on having any more children?”
“Um, no, I wouldn’t take it off the table, but I think we’re done.”
The nurse, obviously not wanting me to feel ostracised, redirected the conversation to safe sleeping and self-care.
I felt remorse. Before the birth had gone down, Natalie had stressed the importance of our private health insurance.
“You know, birth is so barbaric. We don’t want anything to go wrong. Are you sure you don’t want to give birth in a private hospital?”
But I was stubborn.
“My pregnancy has been uncomplicated so far and I don’t want to be talked into having a C-section. That could cost us $10,000.”
“We’ve got the money.”
I insisted. I had heard so many stories of women who were talked into elective C-sections, only to regret it during the recovery period. Although I considered myself to be fairly logical in my thought processes, the Mum in me had wanted to try my hardest for a natural delivery.
“If the public health system is good enough for anyone else, it’s good enough for me.”
And that was how I closed down every conversation.
If only I had listened. I may not have avoided a C-section delivery but going about it electively would have saved me from the many hours of labour which tired out my uterus, leading to a haemorrhage and poor clotting. It would have shielded me somewhat from the loss of control and the infection. Then, I wouldn’t have been waking every night in cold sweats, in a variety of disturbing death scenarios involving my son and I.
Beep. Beep. Beep. I could hear heavy, laboured breathing and the sounds of machines working around me. Then I realised it was my own breath, going in and out. My eyes were too heavy to open and I felt disconnected from myself, like a butterfly outside of its chrysalis.
Was I dead?
My whole abdomen pained, like I’d been slashed through the middle. I suddenly needed to cough, and it felt like I was crushing my whole mid-section with each motion. My throat was filled with phlegm so I needed to keep coughing, but it was painful. I opened one eye. I could see the most perfect looking baby on my chest. No blood, no fluid, just a perfect, smooth head and a peaceful little face.
“Why is my throat so phlegmy?” I asked. I couldn’t stop coughing.
“I’m not sure, I think that’s the anaesthetic.” Natalie said, avoiding my gaze.
I was too far gone to be suspicious, but she was definitely keeping uncomfortable truths from me. I wasn’t ready to hear the whole story yet, but she gave it to me in parts.
“Why are you crying?” I was confused.
“It was just a C-section. They do these all the time.” I assured her.
“You don’t get it, Beci. I almost lost you.”
I raised my eyebrows, still under the heavy weight of the anaesthetic.
“You lost two and a half litres of blood. They had to stabilise you. It took a long time. Soren was delivered by forceps and he was fine, but you nearly died.”
“That’s fine, but how was his APGAR score?”
“He was fine. Crying and alert.”
Then it hit me with an overwhelming sense of numbness. I felt like how a person feels when they have had part of their body locally anaesthetised for a procedure. I could see and hear confronting facts being shared around me, but I couldn’t feel it myself. I felt nothing but I knew I was going to feel this later. Part of my numbness was the exhaustion of many hours of labour followed by an anaesthetic, but part of me put defences up, refusing to believe I had just faced my own mortality with a brand-new infant. We didn’t even have a will in place.
The next time I woke up, I was greeted with the ‘it’s-a-boy’ moment I’d been looking forward to, as his nappy was pulled down in my face. Although he was freshly born, the nurse stood him up and he looked like a little president – a name that would stick through his childhood.
Before they took me off to the ward, they wallpapered my insides with fabric to stop the bleeding. I had never felt womanlier in my life, a fertile vessel of blood and guts. Labour had broken me open, but medical science was putting me back together.
The day I discovered my insides, I thought I had boy bits tucked in there. It made sense because I’d always had this unusual red crease on my skin that started just below my belly button and finished right where my vulva started. It was the same colour as my mother’s caesarean section scar, which she received when she gave birth to my brother. I never paid it much mind until my cousin was born, in 1995. My aunty had given birth to three daughters in quick succession like gunshots and she had finally gotten her son in baby #4. His arrival was much-awaited and much-wanted.
The day we visited him in hospital for the first time, I spent time carefully curating the best bouquet of flowers a five-year-old could manage. By the time they were all tied together, some of them were drooping, their different stages of decay succumbing to gravity to form an unusual exhibit of childish home garden floristry. When I finally saw him, his skin had been bald, red and patchy in different places, kind of ugly but endearing in a weird sort of way –like a baby mouse, squinting and wrinkly. When we arrived at the hospital, my mother could not stop gushing about how vital it was that my aunty had finally gotten a son.
“I was so lucky, I had a pigeon pair straight away,” my mother said, almost condescendingly, as if no other combination of genders would ever be as good as getting one of each. “But if she’d been born a boy, that would have been it.” She nodded at me. In that moment, I wondered if I had been born a boy, but hastily swapped with a surgical procedure. Why else would I have the scar? It was perfectly reasonable for me to think that I had been reassigned at birth and this was just something people didn’t talk about it, if they did it. Why else would I, like a boy, have those fluttery butterfly feelings every time I saw a pretty woman? What other possible explanation could there be? Girls just didn’t like women. It just wasn’t how things were.
It’s always funny when you hear people trying to quantify motherhood. Everyone always knows who would make the best kind of parent, and who definitely should not procreate. Most people agreed that abusive, negligent people shouldn’t be parents, but a lot of people also feel that some women just weren’t maternal enough.
Despite all the progression that has been made by feminists, there still exists a certain mould that would-be Mums need to fit into.
For instance, if you’re career-driven and well-travelled with a lot of care for your financial status, then you’re considered to be far less maternal than the barefoot-and-pregnant girls who grew up playing house with Barbie dolls – the type of women who married their high-school sweethearts and spent all of their child’s formative years at home, making perfect crafts and perfect home recycling systems for their Instagram feeds. Such people also often seemed to be born with the perfect body for childbearing, bringing their infants into the world effortlessly in expensive private hospitals without a ton of interventions.
If you’re a gay parent, you are definitely seen to be further outside of the Mummy-mould because you have to create a family in a way that some would consider to be scientific and clinical, rather than as an act of physical love, which has been built up as the high-watermark of “normal” motherhood. It’s all about love, after all.
I was definitely never the Barbie-child, and I put off having children in my early 20s because I chased career goals and stability. As an intellectual who didn’t much like hugs, I often feared that people would see me as some kind of rigid, refrigerator parent who couldn’t put my textbooks down long enough to attend to my child.
With all that being said, my son, Soren Harry Forrester Miles, is my entire world. I know that everyone thinks their progeny is the most beautiful thing to ever grace the Earth, but I honestly believe it’s true. He is perfect. Although he is an IVF baby, I didn’t spend years trying or squander tens of thousands to get him. He was a first-time fluke.
“This first cycle is purely diagnostic,” the nurse had explained.
“It’ll give us a better picture of your hormones so we can get closer to success. After all, the embryo grade is BC – it didn’t divide quickly, so it’s unlikely to implant. This is all par for the course.”
I remember asking if that meant it was a poor-quality baby. I meant a baby born with sickness or challenges, but it came out in poor taste.
“Oh, no!” She laughed.
“It just means you won’t get pregnant first go. Your baby will be as bright as any other.”
Like any parent, I wanted my child to have the best chance of a full life. Because I was a worrier by nature, I ruminated about all the things that could go wrong. Even though my child didn’t exist then, I still wanted them to have the best start I could give.
With our low chances in mind, we planned a wedding, I wrote a children’s book, and we both signed up for masters degrees. The night of the embryo transfer, I released my book and sat up all night with pizza and my laptop, filling over a hundred book orders when I was really supposed to be feet up with Valium and a nice, cold glass of water.
The next day, we took a flight to Cairns for a much-needed holiday and to keep our mind off the two week wait. We stayed in a cheap Air BnB and I lay in the backseat of one of my best friend’s 4X4s, inserting vaginal pessaries and taking in the rainforest surroundings.
Ah, the serenity.
Just a few years prior, we had started the whole IVF process. Full of artificial hormones, laid back and had my eggs extracted. Six, in total.
Making an IVF baby was hardly an experience in love.
In the week following this process, my six eggs sat in dishes with donor sperm. I had to call the clinic every day to ask how many embryos were still dividing.
Six…. Then five… then four…. Then three… then two.
Three thousand nine hundred dollars and we got two embryos, one of which barely made it to freeze. I couldn’t believe it. I was despondent.
Nonetheless, my two ice-ice babies went into the freezer for later, until such a time when I was happier in my job.
While I waited and looked for other jobs, the baby’s nursery was set up in our home, taunting me through the closed door. We moved to a neat new apartment and set it up again in our humble abode, and it became a bleak and constant reminder of our social infertility – the fact that we were being forced to put family life on hold because of our circumstances.
When the day of transfer finally came, I was so ready to be a Mum. The compounded misery of what was realistically only a few short years was finally going to extinguish.
I couldn’t wait.
As I leaned back, floating high on Valium and with my feet in stirrups, I was still somewhat hopeful that it could just work the first time. After all, we had employed the help of a fertility gun who had been in the game since the first IVF babies were being born in Brisbane, in a time when doctors still smoked around tables while they discussed baby-making.
In the days before the transfer, I had been indulging in weekly massages and nightly meditations in the bath. Our chances may have been low, but before the two-week wait was up, I had peed on more than fourteen sticks. The lines got darker with every passing day. They’d told us at the clinic to never pee on a stick because the injectable hormones could give a false positive, but we were clinging to any positives we could.
Before I gave birth, people often asked me about my birthing plan. I thought it was the most absurd, idealistic thing ever.
The only plan I had was that I wasn’t taking anything off the table – including inductions, pain relief, drugs, and epidurals.
The only outcomes I absolutely wanted to avoid were forceps and c-section.
When my waters were broken under gas after a lengthy induction, I had a hunch that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. After hours of labour, I received an epidural due to the intensity of contractions brought about by induction hormones.
When I developed an infection, the whole thing went tits-up and I almost bled to death under general anaesthetic. I had a c-section and my son was delivered with forceps. As I spent the next week in hospital, I had a lot of time to ponder my own mortality through a somewhat traumatised lens.
There is something about waking up with the after-effects of having breathing tubes down your throat that is incredibly sobering.
After two days in hospital, I was sleep deprived. I was dealing with the physical effects of a significant blood loss and trying to persevere with breastfeeding. At one stage, I had a bad dream that I couldn’t feed my baby and my limbs were falling off as I melted into the lawn. When I woke up, I felt like the whole room was filling with smoke.
This was the beginning of C-PTSD which was brought about by my birthing process.
Although the birth in and of itself was physically and psychologically traumatic, the part that disturbed me the most was that when our son was born, I had no will in place. So if I had died, nobody would have known what my wishes were.
It had always been on our list of things to do, we had just never done it. Part of the reason was that we felt fit and healthy, but the other part was a sense of dread about considering the end of our lives. As I spoke to more people about this, I realised I wasn’t the only one.
And why is that?
Despite all of our best efforts with our health and personal safety, the human mortality rate stands at 100%.
In other words, we are all going to die.
My son’s birth made me acutely aware of my need to do something about my end-of-life-plan. Although people celebrate birth and my son’s birth was no different, I spent those first few weeks of his life organising my will, making sure my address was up to date with the university that will receive my body for science when I’m done, and deciding who would fulfil my wishes in my absence.
It was depressing – but it was completely necessary.
If you are reading this, I want to encourage you to act now if you haven’t already. Speak to the people who you think should raise your child in the unfortunate event that your child loses both their parents. Organise your will. Get plans in place.
If you need to, get a folder and label it ‘My End-of-life Plan.’ Add your will and instructions to it, and make sure people know where it is.
It would be the worst thing ever if the world lost you – but it would be harder for the people you leave behind, in their grief, to deal with a logistical and organisational mess.
Sometimes it pays to have a plan, even if it seems absurd.
When I was pregnant, everybody asked me if we knew what we were having.
Um… a baby?
In all seriousness, for the longest time, I thought Soren was a girl. Even right up until the delivery. Even after seeing clear testicles on an ultrasound still.
A lot of people would say to me, ‘Aw, if you get a girl, you can do ballet lessons! SO cute!”
I loved the idea of baby ballet. The calming music, the listening skills, the flexibility, and the gorgeous outfits.
But – I felt that I could enjoy that with a little boy, too. So when I realised I could sign him up at Queensland Ballet from the ripe old age of one year, I did exactly that. I thought it would just be an easy class with some sing-alongs and a bit of “dancing”, facilitated by the parents.
I thought there’d be time to chat and relax with the other Mums.
When I turned up, the class was full of two-year-olds who could already jump, spin, turn, and follow instructions.
So here I was with my 13kg chunk, jumping like a kangaroo, twirling like a jellyfish, sleeping like a dingle dangle scarecrow… definitely not relaxing or chatting.
It turned out to be a workout for me as much as him! Which was fine, because he absolutely loved every second of it… until he was asked to sit still on his dot.
Because the rest of the students in the class had proper leotards and shoes, I decided to go shopping to get him the outfit so he could look the part. I had to research quite a few shops to find shoes small enough, and when I got there, I noticed that there was floor-to-ceiling displays of everything dance – and everything hyper-girly.
Shoes, bags, outfits, hair accessories… the lot. Then I looked over to the corner. The boys’ section had been relegated to one tiny place in the store.
Unlike the girls’ section, which offered hundreds of products, the boys’ section had just a small offering.
Not one to be discouraged, I dressed Soren up and he started shaking his bum as soon as he was in the outfit.
His joy did plant a thought in my head, though. It is so challenging to be the only one doing something. He is likely to always be the only boy in ballet class. It would be a shame if he ever gave it up, just because it’s not popular with boys.
I wish I had the answers. I just hope and pray that as he gets older, he sees his uniqueness as a strength rather than a weakness. I can only keep on encouraging him and hope he remains true to what he enjoys doing.
As an adult, I have always had this firm feeling of being on the periphery. It doesn’t matter where I go, I always feel like I’m a bit on the outer.
Some of this is to do with the fact that I’m gay. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Some of it is the fact that I moved schools many times as a kid. I went to two primary schools and four different high schools – which may not seem all that many, but it was enough to make me unsettled.
When I was 14, my parents moved us from Brisbane to Bundaberg, and then back to Brisbane the year after high school. It was a disruptive move, one that was definitely not made better by the fact that I hadn’t lived there my entire life.
I felt like a Dorito in a plain packet of chips, which is less fun than it sounds……
Have you ever been in a place so small that everyone knows one another, but big enough that the connections between them form knotted threads that pull together so tightly that you’re always a secret away from tying yourself in a trap you can’t get out of? It is a weird purgatory of populace. People always muse about this odd familiarity with small-ish places, they talk about it romantically as if having the whole town’s social network connected by the milkman is a good thing. I am certain that realtors capitalise on such a thing for mid-life crisis folks seeking the simple life, I am certain of it. I can always visualise it in my mind:
“Oh, YES, Susan! With a population of 45,000 spread out over a large expanse away from the hustle and bustle, you can be certain that you’ll find a place in THIS community…”
Personally, I find myself amazed at the power people have to find things out. They create twisted narratives that traverse the town quicker than a greased marble rolling down a trap, playing to an audience too afraid to question them. I realised early on that it was advisable to remain enigmatic if you were to keep your soul in a tight postcode. The only problem I keep running into is that everyone thinks I’m an impersonal city slicker and I never fit in. But – I figure I’m not going to anyway, what did it matter? I keep a tight persona.
My usual barista flashes me a grin as a steady plume of steam emanates from the coffee machine, but she knows my usual isn’t a hot drink – it is an iced coffee with cream, sprinkles, and most importantly, marshmallows. Hopefully, no less than three and all white ones. There was no point looking at a menu when I knew damn well that I was going to drink the same old thing every time.
“Just the usual, luv?” her chipper face reaches me eye to eye as she places her hands on the counter, ready to make my drink. Her sweaty, blonde hair was off her fifty-in-the-shade face and the whole shop smells pleasantly of coffee beans and chocolate sprinkles. Delicious.
“Yup.” I reply, looking forward to the sugar hit. She turns to the ice blender and pours cold drips of coffee into it, whistling merrily as she works on the drink at hand.
There were upsides to life in this small-ish, back-to-front place. All the shop assistants know my orders and living in a house that was walking distance to a beach had its perks, but you could never avoid people. These ones talk to any old stranger in the street, and because I’m not one for unsolicited conversation, everyone here thinks I’m anti-social. Perhaps I would be more social if I was enjoying myself. You can’t even loiter here to deal with the intense boredom, all the shops close at midday on a Saturday and they don’t open on a Sunday.
The guts of this city are held together by a messy, yet weirdly specific six degrees of separation. The connections are tight and they run deep. Two girls I go to school with have fathers who have worked together in the sugar cane farming industry since the edge of the 1990s, before the Macarena came out as an A-side cassette, and they were born in the same hospital, on the same day.
Before the womb, baby.
All these kids play for the same hockey team and have the same collection of friends, most of whom have lived in Bundaberg for their entire lives. Their lives are playing out in old Queenslander houses with slightly-peeling-paint, all round the corner from each other. My grade at school is filled with people just like this. Not only are they all best friends, but their younger siblings are similar ages, so they hang out like one big family, calling each other’s parents ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle.’ It’s a perfect upbringing and in many ways I find myself jealous of it. Their entrenched, though artificial siblinghood was something I would never have because I just couldn’t stay fixed in a place without messing it all up.
I am an outsider.
Imagine trying to keep a secret in this tightly-woven net of association, or trying to penetrate a crowd that had known each other so well, for so long. Although the people of Bundaberg found all of this endearing and grounding, I knew that these links and ties were enough to hang me in the knot of my biggest secret – the fact that I am a big, fat lesbian.
As you may recall, I went back to work last year – starting off with some relief teaching days and moving up to a term-long contract. This year, I’ll be doing two days per week.
On top of that, I also study a masters degree part time by distance and I parent.
People are shocked when I tell them, they hold this up as if it’s the high watermark of all achievement.
It really is not.
The other thing people do is ask how I do it?
I wish I had great advice, but all I can offer is that no matter which way you pitch it, it’s going to be hard. That is my best stroke of wisdom. Other than that, I only have a few other gems that have gotten me this far.
Just do it.
I was weeks from falling pregnant when I started this degree, my wedding was coming up, I was working full-time and I was still writing my book. Adding one more thing to my plate seemed to be the most fool-hardy, daunting thing ever – and yet, I knew that my 40-year-old self would thank me for starting when I did.
There is never a ‘right time.’ Life is always busy, chaotic, and full.
If you want it, just go for it.
Don’t sacrifice baby-time for study time.
I rarely study when he’s awake, unless we’ve spent a lot of time together and he’s entertaining himself for 20 minutes. I like to be present with him in the moment, playing, commentating, reading story books, singing… the study can wait until nap-time, bed-time, or before he wakes up in the morning. It’s all in fits and starts, but that brings me to my next point…
Just do a little every day.
Just a little.
If you have a 3000 word essay due in 30 days, you only need to be writing 100 words a day to make it happen. Don’t procrastinate. A little here and a little there all adds up.
Take the textbook everywhere with you.
You never know when you’ll get 5 minutes to squeeze in the next few pages. When Soren was really little, I used to read the textbooks to him at the coffee shop. It would put him to sleep. He’s old enough to be bored to tears now, though, so I don’t do that anymore!
Surround yourself with encouragers or other Mums who study – or connect with other Mums who have walked your path and made it to the end
They can be hard to find, but they are out there.
Of all the ways I have made this work for me, this last point has to be the most important…
Study something you love.
Completing study when you have a baby is already going to be hard. Don’t make it harder by studying something out of obligation, or studying something you’re only half-interested in. I definitely owe a lot of my success so far to the fact that I’m studying something I absolutely live for, which will give me the opportunity to do a job I enjoy in the future.
Then, it isn’t a chore to read page after page after page after page after page (yes… there is a lot of reading at masters level..)
I know my ‘wisdom’ isn’t much, but I hope it offers some encouragement.
It’s very interesting how people predict what your life will be like after having children.
The hypotheses start when you tell people you want a baby.
Smugly, they’ll say, “No more sleep ins for you!” This one never bothered me because I seem to be incapable of sleeping past 5:30am at the absolute latest – which frustrates me, but it is what it is.
Or – “Do you really think you’ll be able to study/work/exercise with a baby?” as well as my all-time favourite, “Kiss the travel life goodbye.”
Now, to be fair, my lone travel-style pre-Boy was particularly feral. I would plan it all on the fly, trudge 5km from train station to Air BnB carrying broken luggage in a non-English-speaking country, roll the dice on $7 a night accommodation in New Delhi, do 32 hour Greyhound bus trips from one American state to the next, eating nothing but service station food for days on end….
I get that it will not be like that again. That’s probably for the best.
But this travel life with a baby in tow, is a new challenge in itself.
When we boarded the plane to our first tame destination – Queenstown, New Zealand, it was all seeming to go fine. He boarded the plane without much more than a grizzle, ate a yoghurt, drank a bottle, and then passed out to sleep.
Then, 30 minutes later, the air crew made an announcement that was LOUD AF.
Toddler awake, let the adventure wriggling begin!
We tried all the usual tricks – singing, playing, cuddles, seeing if he would listen to music on the entertainment system….
Then the lady in front of us, who looked oddly like Tove Lo, started rolling her eyes…
So we sang a little louder.
Then we arrived!
Carrying a 13kg toddler through the airport was hard, but we eventually picked up the pram and made our way to the vehicle pick up.
Except, there were no vehicles. Just a phone on the wall.
“Oh, it’s always one of these!” my wife said sarcastically, and she’s right.
In my quest to get the best bang for my buck as our ‘family organiser’, I usually choose services that occasionally inconvenience us in some small way. Still, they provided a little mini bus for us that took us to pick our car up…..
It wasn’t all bad.
During our holiday, we met real New Zealand sheep, drank in an ice bar, walked a LOT, did Park Run in Queenstown, went on a gondola, did a 4 hour round trip to Te Anau to ride swan boats, ate a cheese board in a cheesery (didn’t know this was a word?)……
We had the time of our lives.
When our trip finally came to a close, our flight was changed so we had to do Queenstown-Auckland, Auckland-Brisbane. It was a long day but he slept on some of the flight back. I tried to watch a documentary and contended with little fat fingers that kept trying to pull my earphones out of the socket…..
Well, I guess you can’t have it all.
We landed in Brisbane, completely satisfied but tired from the travel time. As we passed through customs, I declared the food items I wanted to bring home (such as a wheel of Brie cheese).
It was then I realised that I’d left a day-old lunch inside my Bento box.
Needless to say, the customs worker (who looked oddly like Cher), was not at all impressed.
What can I say? I believe in love after love…. and travel after babies!
Just like that – the first year of our little man’s life is now water under the bridge.
Everyone says it goes so fast, and it’s such a cliche, but it is true.
We have learned so much in the first year of our son’s life, and I would love to share this, if only to keep a record.
1. I need to use my time wisely.
Back in the day, I used to get to work at 7am every morning. I would buy a coffee on the way in, get some solid planning or paperwork done, stuff around in the staffroom, and then start my teaching day. After work, I would go for a run and ponder about things, like what I might cook for dinner….
I had oodles and oodles of time, and yet, I got nothing done. Well, nothing life changing, anyway.
Now? It’s absolutely nothing like that.
I have very little spare time, but I try to make it all count. I started my masters 6 weeks before falling pregnant, and I released my book on the day I had my IVF transfer. I wish I had a ‘secret’, but all I can say is that I don’t stuff around anymore. I get up early if I need to, I study in waiting rooms, when Soren is sleeping, on my lunch break, at night, or in the car – I set up Siri on my phone so I can record ideas for my essays on the drive to work. My only rule is that I don’t study around Soren, although I did read some of my semester one textbook to him before I made this rule.
I’m not super-Mum, I’m just super organised…. mostly (except for right now – I’m actually meant to be studying).
2. You don’t know what you don’t know.
Before I had my son, I had this plan of staying home full time for at least 3 years, then including some relief teaching work down the track. About 6 months in, I was losing my head, to the point where I ended up taking on some relief, then a full-time contract for a short while. I felt immense guilt for not being the stay-at-home Pinterest Mum, but with time, I realised that finding the right balance was what was required – not for me to fit myself into someone else’s truth.
For me, that means part-time work and part-time Mum. And that’s okay.
3. I needed to have a few test-runs of the first birthday cake, and then forgive myself for over-catering on the day.
I really wanted his first birthday to be amazing, so I did practice runs of his first cake. It’s fortunate that I did, because the first one fell to pieces when I took it out of the oven. My best advice is to find yourself a cake-making friend, if you can, and pick their brain (but not to pieces).
I realised, too, that I bought way WAY too much food. I may have gotten a bit ambitious with Instagram and their targeted birthday food ads….
But it’s all good. We made it, with cake in tow.
Our first overseas trip together is the next adventure on the horizon…. more blogs to come – after all, I can’t procrastinate without an audience.