On Returning to the Home I Grew Up In

On Returning to the Home I Grew Up In

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
―Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

I sit and watch the sun come up over Johannesburg from the windows of what used to be my sister Carolyn’s room when we were growing up. The skyline of this dusty city crouches in milky smog as the sun insists its way through the clouds. My view is latticed by the burglar bars, cordoned by ragged curtains of yellow and brown flowers, a pattern my folks’ chose for all three girls’ rooms, except in different colours. I guess Carolyn drew the short straw.

This old house and I are long time friends. We know one another’s every idiosyncrasy, creak and cranny even as we both wear the beatings of time and cannot hide the failures of upkeep.

Each year I come back to this home of my childhood to visit my parents, sisters and the few friends long distance hasn’t erased from my life. My old room is now the ‘computer’ and ‘cat’s’ room (replete with catlitter and bowls of food), luxuries of the empty nest. The ridiculous pink fluffy carpets I chose as a ten year still remain. There is a loyalty here to the past that is at once choking and cherishing.

I return to these walls each time with a suitcase full of Australian gifts, lugging it up the steep stairwell I used to tear up and down a hundred times a day as a girl. During my visit, I revisit each corner of this building, where memories curl around corners, and olden times nestle in nooks. ‘That’s where the mulberry tree used to be,’; ‘in that swimming pool change room we once made a library, ‘there’s the division between the interleading rooms that was built so each sister could have her privacy.’

The kitchen is just the same as I left it when I moved out as a young woman starting my own life. The empty glass jars on the windowsill haven’t moved in thirty years. The adult in me wants to sweep them into the bin. I have to stop myself from suggesting the sputtering shower in the bathroom needs to be upgraded. The child in me wants this place to never change. For nothing to be ‘fixed.’ How things were broken and remain so, is built into the scaffolding of my own inherited shattering, and I am comforted by all this chaos-going-nowhere.

This is the home that nursed my wounds – from the torn tendons in my hand as a toddler, to the heartbreaks of my first boyfriend’s betrayal. In this garden I celebrated parties, practiced my netball shot, got stung by a bee on my bum. In this driveway I was consumed by passion on the bonnet of a car and watched a man drive away not knowing if I’d ever see him again. Here I have been loved on purpose, too much and too little, by inches and by miles. Here is where I started. Though not for the thinking, my parents conceived me between these walls when love was easy and family was for the hopeful.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

On this sacred ground I uttered my first words, penned my first poems. Legends of my imagined future were hatched in these rooms; disappointments found me too, though I hid in the hide-n’-seek of life.

This is the home I first left at fifteen for a three month sojourn in Israel, and left again in my early twenties to study in America; it’s the home I returned to over and over, and the one I keep returning to on each visit after fifteen years in a country far far away. It is the home I dream of when I am ill, and it’s the place I pine for when I am lost. This architecture holds all my previous incarnations, and it is these rooms I long for when I am suffocated – often in moments of exiled happiness – by ‘homesickness,’ which sits like a vigil of loss on the sidelines of all I have gained since leaving.

Each time I return, my heart knows what it’s in for, and it comes prepared for a beating, like the wife at penitentiary visiting hours. My past sits behind the glass. I reach out and try to touch it. It’s there, still breathing in these walls. I can see it, smell it, taste it. It reaches for me too. ‘Don’t forget me,’ it whispers. I nod, my heart unspooling.

Here I am storied, historied, known, understood and misunderstood in only the way that the past can make something of us to which we both belong and have outgrown.

I manage my nostalgia, like an addiction, not letting it get its fingers around my throat. No thanks, I don’t do Longing-Things-Were-Different anymore. I’ve done my time. I’ve made my peace. The glass keeps me safe. There is life on the other side though it is made of different sky and earth and even love. Exile is a life built on grief. You can grow calluses in your softest places, eventually.

It’s to this address I arrived from the hospital as a newborn in the Spring of 1967, and to the same I keep returning on every visit back. Like all disciplines of return – prayer, meditation, writing, intimacy – it’s an ongoing act of devotion. Like all homecomings, I hold tenderly the haunting questions of the visitor: will it still be here next time? Will it remember me? Will we know each other through the glass again? And who will I be when it is gone?

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The Art of Reframing

The Art of Reframing

I come from a family of Oh My Godders. In my family, everything was a potential calamity: a sore throat. An impending storm. A parking ticket. Being late. Being early.

Now if you grow up in OMG-hood, you learn to panic. Without much provocation. Everything in life is a drama. You default into clutching your chest and hyperventilating. Invariably, you grow up with an anxiety disorder because life is a joyride of the unexpected, uncomfortable and I-never-saw-that-coming’s.

My dad lost his mother when he was young and entire branches of our family tree were wiped out in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It was no sunny childhood in the shadow of genocide and grief. Before his mother died, she told him, ‘It’s no good.’ And that’s the message he imbibed so even when things are good, it’s the prequel to disaster. Once a year when I visit him overseas, he bursts into tears as I arrive and says, ‘And you’re leaving in three weeks.’

I grew up with this gloomy sense of life as an untrustworthy experience where one should always expect the worst.

But let me tell you, this way of being is no fun. Not one bit. Not for me and not for anyone unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity.

Also, I noticed – particularly in movies – that those who panic in an emergency or unravel in a crisis are the ones who get their faces slapped just before they get eaten by the shark or get shot. They are also always the first to die. Those who remain calm are the heroes. They survive. And even if they don’t, we’re sad when they perish.

After watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I decided I want to be the person who gets everyone singing” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the midst of crucifixion. It was time to convert from OMG-ism to Serenity. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, I needed to learn to ‘keep my head when all about me are losing theirs and blaming it on me…’

Some years ago, Buddhism showed me a path through meditation. I was intrigued that you could potentially get control over your wayward thoughts and emotions and train them, like a puppy, to do their business in the appropriate place. There I learned to stay with difficult, unpredictable emotions. To breathe into fear, anxiety, uncertainty. This practice also helped me to look at fear more kindly. Not as a bully, but as a teacher. This was my first introduction into ‘reframing’ – the art of looking at difficult experiences, differently.

As Shakespeare said, ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

 

The 7 Day FREE Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Here’s an example – my sister is deaf. She can’t hear announcements in a supermarket about the specials nor listen to music. In that context, she is disabled. However, put her in a noisy room and ask her what the person across the room is saying, and by the power of her lip-reading skills, she’ll tell you word for word. In that situation, I am disabled. (My sister would make a fabulous spy.) I discovered Daniel Kish on YouTube. He is blind. He also rides bikes and climbs mountains. He taught himself to ‘see’ by clicking his tongue (based on the same principle of echolocation used by bats). Some years ago, I interviewed people living with breast cancer. One woman told me, ‘Breast cancer gave me a chance to have an affair with myself.’

To experience life differently, perhaps we don’t need different circumstances, but simply to look at things differently.

What helps us to reframe? Firstly, a good dose of humour. If we can find what’s funny in a situation, no matter how hopeless, we’ve shifted our view. My husband is a master at this manoeuvre. Whenever I’m feeling guilty about something, he says, ‘Don’t beat yourself up just because it’s your fault.’ Humour is a solvent for self-pity.

Secondly, (and I know how corny this is), Big Picture thinking is always a frame-shifter. Okay, I didn’t get the contract, but I also don’t have to have root canal treatment today. A little gratitude for what we have, rather than a focus on what we don’t have helps us zoom out of the corner we’re facing. A woman having chemotherapy for breast cancer told me she used to put mascara on her one remaining eyelash. When I was moaning about my clothes being tight and how I needed to lose weight, my husband kindly suggested that I ‘just buy bigger clothes.’

In my own life, I have slowly learned to reframe experiences. I now see a back injury or a terrible flu as ‘an opportunity to give my body a complete rest.’ A big tax bill? It means I had a lucrative year. A parking ticket… at least – ah, bugger it, a parking ticket is practically impossible to reframe.

My mantras now include, ‘when one door closes, another one opens,’ and instead of focusing on what’s shut, I now look for what’s beckoning. I ask, What’s the lesson?’ What’s the pattern? What needs to change?

Being inside myself is a much cheerier experience. The beauty of course is that what we believe impacts on what we see. Our vision literally alters our experience. In the words of the British essayist Erich Heller, ‘Be careful how you see the world. It is that way.’

Paranoia is a warzone. And I no longer live there.

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Is the Black Dog Jewish

Is the Black Dog Jewish

If ever the human psyche held terrible secrets, and untouchable emotions, the language of modern psychology has opened its dungeons and let those dark hounds loose. We now have words (‘manic depression,’ ‘bipolar,’ ‘seasonal affective disorder,’ post-traumatic stress,’ ‘post-natal,’ ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’) – and chemicals (‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,’ ‘tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine,’ ‘alpha-2 receptor antagonists’) – that can hook those nameless demons, cauterize them, splay them and even neutralize them. Science and the language to delineate it, have for now, rescued millions of listless, melancholic, insomniac, suicidal individuals from the grip of a condition Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog,’ more commonly known as ‘depression.’

Depression runs in my family like a rogue gene. My father has spent his life as a cartoonist making people laugh, propped up on antidepressants. He in turn inherited this condition from his mother, and it has been passed down through the generations with Jewish recipes and hand-embroidered tablecloths. Depression, like an STD, is one of those traits one does not blurt out in good company as a conversation icebreaker. It is a shame, a thing of which we oughtn’t to speak. Lest we get even more depressed. But to me, depression is fascinating. And I suspect more people suffer from it than we can begin to imagine. I can’t help but believe that thinking, feeling human beings don’t all experience a dark night of the soul, now and then.

In his biography of depression, Darkness Visible (Random House, 1990) William Styron says the word depression has ‘slithered innocuously through language like a slug, preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.’ It has become the modern term we use for a state of an unexplainable feeling of deep sadness. ‘Depression’ was first suggested as a term by American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer in 1905 and picked up by the medical community.

But melancholy, as it was commonly known, has plagued the human spirit from the earliest historical records of the Bible where David played the harp to relieve King Saul’s gloom. It is a condition that has affected millions over history and time, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’ Keefe, Eeyore (in AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books), Abraham Lincoln, Leonard Cohen, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Tipper Gore and (name some Australians). Depression affects people of all races, cultures and ethnic identities, and does not discriminate.

But I had a thought: were depression to claim an ethnic identity, let’s say Dreamworks decided to animate ‘depression,’ what would it look like? Arrogance would have a beret, a cigarette and speak French, just like greed would wave the star-spangled banner and sing ‘American anthem.’ But what of depression? My guess is that it would be kitted out with yarmulkes and tzitzit and they’d get Woody Allen to be the voice. The soul of depression, is, essentially Yid.

I began thinking about this when I was asked to deliver a paper at the Jewish Writer’s Festival in 2006, on the subject, ‘The Literary Representation of the Jew.’ To be honest, the topic sounded like a university English assignment and I’m a little shonky on the academics. So I began to trawl through literature, to look for a theme, a thread by which to weave a plausible ten-minute talk without making it obvious that I’d clearly been mistaken for someone clever.

What I discovered, was that most of the Jewish characters in literature I could find, were all depressed. They were gloomy. Mourning. Haunted. And so I wondered: are Jews a depressed nation?

When you look at it objectively, Jews have a lot to be depressed about. They are, as they have always been, a despised people, living always in the shadow of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they suffer from classic performance anxiety – being ‘God’s chosen people’ is harder to live up to than a parent with a degree from Oxford. Anyway, you only have to look where Joseph’s techni-coloured coat got him. No-one likes a tall poppy. As Tevya says in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘I know we’re the chosen people, but just for once, can you choose somebody else?’

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

The very presence of Jews in the world keeps alive some of the most vitriolic human hatred that has spawned some of the worst atrocities of the past few centuries. Jews are always looking over their shoulder. They’re always wondering when next they’re going to have to pack up their tent and leave. For the Jew, the laying down of roots is always a complex ritual of uncertainty. If it’s outside of Israel, they’re in exile, outsiders who will one day overstay their welcome. If it’s in Israel, they’re busy with, in John Travolta’s words, Staying Alive, because their neighbours don’t believe they have a right to exist. Being Jewish is not very relaxing. This can lead to Prozac.

New Age theory encourages us to: ‘BE WHO YOU ARE.’ But the Jewish injunction is rather, ‘REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.’ Perhaps the greatest sin one can commit as a Jew is to (godforbid) forget who you are. Because Jews are a people whose identity is tied to their past, being Jewish is about never forgetting that ‘once we were slaves in Egypt,’ ‘once we were on trains to Auschwitz,’ ‘once we were without a homeland in the State of Israel.’

Yehudah Amichai, in Songs of Zion the Beautiful writes of this:
Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
That’s what it’s here for. Let the park in-memory-of remember,
Let the street that’s named for, remember,
Let the famous building remember,
Let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
Let the rolling Torah scroll remember.
Let the flags remember….
…. Let the dust remember.
…. Let the afterbirth remember.
Let the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens
Eat and remember,
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.

It’s a plea – a very Jewish, ‘It’s enough remembering, already!’ And why does Amichai say Jews need a rest from remembering? Because all that remembering makes you depressed.

Every act of remembrance is sad. Even remembering happiness is sad because it is the recall of that which has passed – a state of being that has come and gone. Jewish tradition ensures that even in the happiest moments, it is imperative to remember that that there has been sadness and loss – every Jewish bridegroom enacts a ritual of breaking a glass at his moment of supreme happiness. Jews are committed to remembering. If mourning were recognized as an Olympic sport, the Jews would walk away with the gold medals every time.

In Anne Michaels’ book, Fugitive Pieces, she writes:
It’s Hebrew tradition that forefathers are referred to as ‘we’, not ‘they’. When we were delivered from Egypt.’ This encourages empathy and a responsibility to the past, but more important, it collapses time. The Jew is forever leaving Egypt.

I think this is really the heart of it: for the Jew, the passage of time does not erase his history, but deepens the channels between past and present, engraving the memory more deeply, like the numbers scorched on the arms of ancestors who were herded into cattle trucks and gas chambers. To be a Jew is to remember. As a people, Jews are haunted by the spectre of genocide, of not-being. And because of this, the Jew is in spiritual exile, always longing for, moving towards the mirage of ‘home,’ either one that has been left behind because of pogroms, expulsions or fear of not-belonging, or towards one that never seems to exist. Nu, this is why Jews are depressed.

To Churchill, depression may have been best described as a ‘black dog.’ But I think there’s something far more Semitic about the soul that kvetches and agonizes about the meaning of life. To me, the oi-veyness of life is, surely must be, Jewish.

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When Mothers Kill

When Mothers Kill

Mrs. Large is an elephant and the mother of Laura, Lester and baby who tries – without success – to have a bath with a tray of tea and some scones away from her children. Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy is the bedtime book I always choose to read to my kids when it is my turn to choose. It ends with all three of her kids joining her in the bathtub. She gets out, goes down to the kitchen, ‘where she had three minutes and forty-five seconds of peace before they all came to join her.’

I get to read bedtime stories by 6pm in winter. The premature darkness winks at me. Between early nightfall and my kids’ time-illiteracy, I can have them asleep by seven, believing they are having a late night. It is so easy to abuse their trust. But I will do just about anything to get them to sleep because that is when I love them the most. Even when I am unravelled with exhaustion, devotion for these maddening, beloved creatures seeps into my bones, when they are silent and needy-less.

In the quiet of my nightly visits to their stuffed-toy emporium, I am able to recommit myself to the daily labour of mothering them. Of late, the image of those four photographs beneath the caption, ‘Dead by their mother’s hand’ has intruded into this precious time, when I, like every other mother, marvel at the wonder of my perfect babies. Mothers – we’re all so alike, all so camera-happy when they get their first tooth, sit upright, crawl and walk for the first time. Kathleen Folbigg is no different than I was in those early days. Her sweet face confirms how prettily benign evil can look.

Like all mothers of small children, I too have wanted to kill my kids. Not by suffocating them. More like getting them out of my hair for two minutes so I can do a poo without needing to plait Strawberry Barbie’s hair or unclick some Lego pieces cemented together with peanut butter. I too have fantasized my escape from the bucket of plastic dinosaurs and trail of MacDonald toys that appear in my bath, under my blankets or in my underwear drawer. I also long to be unmoored from the demands of small people, incapable of reasoning or self-cleanliness so that I can tune in with my body’s needs for a long glass of water, or a hot water bottle to relieve lower backache. We’ve all been there.

But Kathleen Folbigg overstepped the desire to be momentarily free from her children. She took a lesser travelled turn in the road into the underworld, where the unimaginable occurs – mothers kill their own children. Surely only baby rape (common in South Africa) could possibly compete for the prize in the category ‘The Most Ghastly Crimes Humanly Imaginable.’

We hardly need to budge from the lap of our moral discourse to condemn Folbigg – she has done all the work for us. Across cultures, religious differences and ethnic divisions, she unites us in our abhorrence – even in countries where women kill girl babies, there would be no mercy for killing a healthy son. And in this post-modern world, torn apart by divisions and difference, there is something immensely comforting in this unequivocal condemnation.

In June of 2001, as I was battling daily with the unrelenting chores of early motherhood, Andrea Yates drowned her five children in Texas in the United States. While I vacillated from the delirium of night-time feeds to the euphoria of early morning cuddles, to the revulsion of vomit clean-ups and back again, I was sucked into the vortex of this condemned stranger’s pain. Because I too had known the terrifying emotions of anger, frustration and fear that are invisibly tacked onto the romantic myth of motherhood, my curiosity drew me to the epicentre of her plight. I found myself wondering what happened to her on June 20th and why that day was different from all the other thousands of days preceding it when suddenly that quintet of beautiful faces became monstrous to her. I felt compelled to look into the eye of what was abhorrent and beyond forgiveness. I wanted to stand in her shoes.

Andrea Yates had a history of post-natal depression, but let’s face it, who really takes any notice, until the mother kills herself or her child or both? She did not want five children – that was clear long before she found herself alone with them all day, home-schooling those old enough to be at school. I mentally multiplied the demands of my two kids by an extra three kids, subtracted the six hours a day they are both at school and kindergarten, and something in me shifted. It is that same something that deeply disturbs Holocaust philosophers like Emil Fackenheim about the study of the Nazi mentality. Similarly, George Steiner’s play, ‘The Portage to San Christobel of AH (1979) was met with great controversy due to the anxiety that Hitler’s monologue defending and explaining his actions might prompt empathy with a cause that should not be understood. Perhaps mothers who kill their children are just this evil. They have given up their right to be understood, forfeited compassion by the breaking of an immutable taboo. But in the face of all this philosophising, I felt sorry for Andrea Yates.

Just as I had neatly formulated my response to Yates, Folbigg comes to undo my hard work. Damn her. If I could pick and choose between mothers who kill their kids, I’d take Yates any day over Folbigg. Yates snapped. It was a moment of self-disintegration. She did them all in one go. But Folbigg? It is a far greater ask for us to understand how anyone could, over a period of ten years, fall pregnant, carry to term, give birth, feed and care for a newborn child, and then decide, ‘I can’t do this’ – not once, not twice, not three times but four times. That was clear after Caleb. Resoundingly clearer after Patrick. And yet the show went on. Isn’t insanity defined as the repetition of the same action expecting different results? Perhaps Folbigg, is most comfortably filed under Insanity. Along with Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.

But when it comes to crimes of infanticide, comfort is a luxury. More than it being true, I know that I need her to be mad or evil to distinguish ‘mothers like her’ from ‘mothers like me.’ She must have loved them – every mother does. So I need to understand how she did it, maybe even more than why. As a feminist, I fear we have come nowhere close to uncovering the dramas of women’s unexamined lives. Because she is such an unforgivable example, perhaps Kathleen Folbigg is a good place for us to start.

Women like Yates and Folbigg do not do the feminist movement any favours. They require feminist lawyers to argue that women who kill their children are victims of the oppression inherent in the gendered institution of motherhood and all its callous invisibilities. Killing your babies is one sure way to raise the profile of your personal problems, but does it necessarily politicise them? Feminist lawyers even have a hard time with battered women who kill their abusers. The law is slow to accept that even when a woman has been physically brutalized for years, killing a sleeping man or striking him from behind amounts to legitimate ‘self-defence.’

In legal discourse, enforced maternity and unwanted maternity after the fact would not qualify as abuse. And your average post-natally depressed mother does not routinely choose murder over say, Prozac. Arguments that mothers who kill their children are ‘victims’ cannot survive the imagination’s conjurings of a child’s last thrashing moments, under water or beneath pillows as love, trust, panic, fear course through his veins. Mum? MUM? MUM????? Mothers turning on their own children brutally invert the stereotype of motherhood as a repository of all that is gentle and good in the world. Hell will freeze over before the law in its lumbering inability for nuance, accepts that Yates and Folbigg are ‘victims’. And it will be eons later before public opinion (the arena where real judgement takes place) clears a corner of empathy in which women who kill their children can cower. Whenever women’s rights compete with children’s rights, children will always win. We feel for children in ways that we simply cannot for adults. Kids are so cute-‘n-all.

But I suspect that condemning Folbigg is a well-trodden dead-end street. There is a lesser travelled road. Fackenheim might not like it. But he appreciates the power in the act of understanding. It is not a passive gesture, rather one of exchange, which alters us in the process. How then can we resist it? How can we knowingly shun the possibility that the view from our compassion might be broader than that from the moral high ground?

Joyce Harmer, the Salvation Army officer who sat by Folbigg’s side throughout her trial is one of the other personalities animating her grisly tale. As if to force us into a discomfort zone, she sat holding Folbigg’s hand, comforting her like, like…. (dare I suggest it?) a mother. The simplicity of her compassionate presence evokes all sorts of unsolicited emotions and questions in me. Should I care that Kathleen Folbigg’s mother was murdered by her father when she was just eighteen months old? Does it render her any more worthy of compassion or understanding, or is it in Alan Dershowitz’s lingo, just another ‘abuse excuse’?

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Like so many nosey observers, I want details. I want to trace the convolutions of Folbigg’s mind. The media obliges – I learn that she kept a journal in which she revealed, ‘I think I’m losing my temper and being frustrated and everything has passed. I now just let things happen and go with the flow. An attitude I should have had with all my children, if given the chance, I’ll have it with the next one.’ In the quiet pages of her journal, she confessed her sins – her anger and her frustration, and spoke her hopes for greater equanimity with ‘the next one.’ Folbigg test-drove motherhood, hoping she could find a model she could drive. Though she shot the red light where most of us would stop (and yes, she must be punished), her experience of colliding head-on with the realities of child-rearing is common. Few of us own up to it.

Adrienne Rich, the feminist writer, wrote in Of Woman Born, 1977, to be caught up in waves of love and hate, jealousy, even of the child’s childhood: hope and fear for its maturity; longing to be free of responsibility, tied by every fibre of one’s being. Then there is the passage about self-cauterization, the need to learn patience, self-sacrifice, and the willingness to repeat endlessly the small, routine chores of socializing a human being. Rich writes of the ‘exquisite suffering’ her children caused her – the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves and blissful gratification and tenderness. Murderous? Degradation of anger. Anger at a child. How shall I learn to absorb the violence and make explicit only the caring? In March 1966 Rich wondered whether she was a monster – an anti woman. As Rich would sit down to write, her child would interrupt. I would feel his wants at such a moment as fraudulent, as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself. My anger would rise. I would feel futility of any attempt to salvage myself, and also the inequality between us: my needs always balanced against those of a child, and always losing. I could love so much better, I told myself, after even a quarter-hour of selfishness, of peace, of detachment from my children.

And then she wrote, …I do know that for years, I believed I should never have been anyone’s mother, that because I felt my own needs acutely and often expressed them violently, I was Kali, Medea, the sow that devours her farrow, the unwomanly woman in flight from womanhood, a Neitzchean monster…

Wherever I turn, I see the loneliness and fragility of women locked in motherhood. One on tranquilizers, another juggling four nannies. Some having nervous breakdowns they call ‘a little time-out for me.’ Another back at work the day after her baby is born. Dr Suzanne Killinger-Johnson jumping in front of an oncoming subway with her six-month old baby Cuyler on 12 August 2000 in Toronto. The world’s unrevised response despite opportunities to see more clearly: disbelief that education, physical beauty, professional achievement, a happy and stable relationship, a healthy baby, a mortgage-free home and a brand new Mercedes SUV were ‘not enough.’ It is apparently more forgivable for a mother who kills her child to take her own life too.

In Cape Town, South Africa, in December 2000, Phumla Lolwana, a homeless and destitute woman made her way to the railway line between Philippi and Nyanga taking her three children Sisanda, 4, Andile, 3 and Lindani, 2, who was semi-paralysed with her. Turning her back to an oncoming Khayelitsha–bound train, she held her children tightly, killing herself and her three babies.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Sethe kills her child to prevent her from enslavement. Many years later, her lover, Paul D, confronts her, saying that her love is ‘too thick,’ and maybe there is something worse than being taken into slavery.

‘It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.’

‘What you did was wrong, Sethe.’

‘I should have gone back there? Taken my babies back there?’

‘There could have been a way. Some other way.’

‘What way?’

‘You got two feet, Sethe, not four,’ he said.

Slavery and poverty are powerful forces pulling women to snuff out the lives they have made. Perhaps there are other unnameable darknesses to which women are drawn. When women, like Sethe, like Phumla, believe that they have nothing to give their children, a terrible chasm opens. We can, from our lofty perch, tut-tut as we watch the next wretched soul falling down that abyss. But maybe if we try to understand why mothers fall apart we will work out what can be done to prevent it. Decades of feminist activism have not succeeded in helping us make the connection that children’s needs, though almost irrefutably more important, are dependent in the grand food-chain of needs, on their mother’s needs being met.

Part of me understands that Adrienne Rich had her pen, her words to guide her out of her darkness, as did I, some months after my second child was born:

….she fights the shame
of a temper at small infractions by her
children-thank-God-for-them
Never knew such temper simmered
Aching to be lost
She sinks into memories and dreams
Folding corners of herself down
Like a neat napkin
Hiding the stains, the dirt
Of her most wondrous gypsy self
So that this life – this perfectly happy life –
Might proceed without
Incident.
Medication.
Tragedy.
She who writes this song to herself
Sings now for the selves
That have no place to be sung.

(Song to Myself, August 2001)

Perhaps if hell exists, Folbigg will burn for what she has done. But thankfully, I am not the one who will be judging her.

Published in the Good Weekend, July 19, 2003

A Harvest of Hindsight: My top 10 insights about publishing for aspiring authors

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How to Teach Boys to Respect Girls

How to Teach Boys to Respect Girls

Before my son was born, I didn’t think it was my problem to raise good men. I’d been working with raped and battered women as a women’s rights advocate for many years, and had seen my share of sexist atrocities by men-gone-wrong. My aim was to get justice for women – even though I always understood that the only solution is to prevent the violence in the first place. But until such time as women and men have financial, social, economic and political equality, how could this be possible?

I always imagined that men become assholes because either a) men have the asshole gene and there’s nothing we can do about that or b) they were raised by asshole fathers or weak mothers who themselves had assholes for fathers.

But when my son was born, I became afraid that no matter what we did as his parents, somehow he’d get infected with the virus of sexism ‘out there’ and become one of those men I’d been working all my life to protect women from. I also didn’t want to become one of those domineering mothers who emasculates their sons for loud, aggressive testosterone-driven behaviour. Boys and girls are – despite all the politically correct notions to the contrary – different in ways it is disingenuous to ignore.

Here are some of my thoughts about how we can potentially raise boys who respect girls and women:

1. Surround our kids with good men: boys who have dads (step-dads or other mentors) who are not assholes have a much better chance of not being assholes themselves. So the way a boy sees his father treating his mother, wife and daughters will have the hugest lasting impact on how a boy works this one out.

A while back I was chatting to a woman who confided that her teenage sons make sexist and misogynist comments all the time. She was confounded and deeply upset by this. ‘They just don’t respect me,’ she said miserably.

I made some suggestions about ‘laying down rules’ and ‘invoking consequences for rude behaviour,’ but she shrugged weakly and said, ‘They’ll just laugh at me.’

‘What does your husband say about this? Why doesn’t he step in and let them know that it’s not okay to disrespect women?’ I asked.

‘Where do you think they learn it from?’ she asked helplessly.
Our kids become what we are, not what we say. Lecturing and teaching them doesn’t work. They learn from us by watching what we do.

2. Kids believe what their mothers say: as mothers, our job is to love and respect ourselves and other women. Our kids listen to how we talk about our own bodies and how we speak about other women and girls. Our self-loathing and gendered criticism trickles into our sons (and daughters) and is powerfully undermining of building respect.

3. Sex talk: our kids imbibe sexual attitudes – not only from mainstream culture – but also through the subtleties of how comfortable we are with our own sexuality. If we talk about sex as something natural and mutual; if we discuss what is both interesting and disturbing about pornography, our kids will take those attitudes with them when they’re exposed to it.

4. Make it about ‘people’: sometimes we have to talk about gender differences (like the fact that girls are the ones who fall pregnant, and are likely to be physically weaker than boys when it comes to gender violence), but in many instances, respect is about ‘respecting people,’ irrespective of their gender. If we role model compassion, non-judgement and kindness to everyone, that’s the message that sinks into our kids.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

5. Speak up: some stuff is just unacceptable. If we fail to call people on sexist remarks or jokes (whether made by men, women, girls or boys) our kids learn that silence. They learn how to shut up instead of speak up. Watching us, our kids learn what is tolerable and what is not. Sometimes we have to shout ‘NO!’ At other times, we can speak up gently, compassionately and without humiliating the person. Sometimes all that’s needed is a: ‘That remark really made me uncomfortable, perhaps you didn’t intend it, but that was the effect.’ We’re all learning how to make sense of a world of confusing and contradictory gender roles. We all make mistakes. We’re all learning how to be better people.

6. Teach your kids the ‘f’-word: ‘feminists’ are not a cult of rabid anti-men lesbians. Being ‘feminist’ simply means that we’re politicized, that we know we live in a world of social, economic and political inequality. Our boys and girls can learn to say they are proudly ‘feminist’ because they believe men and women should be treated equally (which is not to say that gender differences should be ignored – in certain instances affirmative action might be an important reparative step in achieving that equality).

7. Laugh: there is so much to get angry about in our modern world that we need a sense of humour to survive it all. Laughter is the best way to build resilience. Life is serious, but we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves – with all our mistakes, foibles, imperfections and failures, and in so doing, our kids learn to do the same.

Published on the Happy Parenting blog, 2015

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Surviving Teenagers

Surviving Teenagers

I call my kids to come see this YouTube video of some father in the US who ends his rant against his teenage daughter’s ‘I-hate-my-parents’ Facebook post, by emptying the barrel of a gun into her laptop.

I suppose I’m hoping it’ll dawn on them I’m not such a terrible parent for insisting electronics be shut down at 9pm and they each do one chore a week. Instead they look at each other and roll their eyes. ‘Just proves what a d___head of a father he is,’ my son says in disgust. ‘Tragic,’ my daughter sighs and saunters off to continue the intricate artwork of stitches, hearts, and diamonds she’s been drawing on her left arm with a Sharpie over the past week. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a permanent tattoo.

Now that they’re teenagers, the exhausting years of claustrophobic motherhood have been replaced with this: me left feeling a bit silly. It’s not like I want to be worshipped or anything. Just respected. I’d even settle for not being dissed. Problem is, I’m not impressive anymore. They used to ask me things and take my word for gospel. Nowadays they know more than I do about too many things. I need their help me with i-Tunes, my iPhone and Foxtel. They snicker, as if I’m some nerd who’s been under a rock and only just emerged into the daylight of popular culture.

At fifteen, my daughter is my height. My husband refuses to fold the laundry anymore after he recently held up a pair of undies and asked, ‘Yours or hers?’ and then, ‘I can’t do this anymore. The boundaries are getting too blurred.’ The other day when a TV ban was issued for rude behaviour, which got doubled for answering back, she icily left us with a, ‘We’re not Nazis, you know.’

‘Don’t come in, I’m filming,’ the twelve-year-old calls down the passage, like he’s Spielberg or something. I have no idea what’s actually going on in his room, except that later there’ll be YouTube downloads of his ‘gameplay,‘ which he then insists I watch – it gives him ‘views,’ which is currently how he measures his self-worth. We nearly came to blows over Call of Duty which I refused to allow in my home (because I’m the boss), even though I was ruining his social life in the process. I held out, through the crippling pressure. Now he’s mining and dodging zombies. For all I know, Minecraft is frying his brain, not creating new neural pathways. And he’s got friends in his room 24/7 on Skype. I miss the good old play date where kids went home eventually.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Parenting teenagers has come upon me suddenly. One day we were in parks, eating ice creams and playing on the slippery dip, and the next my daughter was telling me to ‘give her a break, she has PMS,’ and my son, remarking that ‘roll-on works better, but aerosol is more manly.’

Time Out and Naughty Corners are obsolete and ridiculous. ‘Eat your broccoli,’ is usually met with a, ‘You eat my broccoli,’ or ‘I’ve decided to give up green vegetables.’ When I insist, my daughter quotes the Convention on the Rights of the Child where she claims her right to eat what she wants has been recognized by the UN. I’m usually too tired to argue and since no-one’s scared of me anymore, raising my voice just makes me look like I’m the one having the tantrum. I’ve had to update my parenting techniques, like a Facebook status. My kids are changing, nightly, by the glow of their computer screens, the click of a mouse, the tweet in the night, and I have to keep up if I want to stay in the game. There’s a Buddhist lesson about impermanence in there somewhere.

My daughter used to love it when people said she looked like me. Now she scowls as if she’s been told she resembles Barney the Dinosaur. When my son sinks a three-pointer, my whoops just embarrass him. ‘Be cool, mum,’ he grimaces. ‘It’s just a basketball game.’

It’s my dignity I miss.

As I search for new meaning in my role as their mum, their need for independence stretches me to breaking point. I have to trust them in the world and the world with them or else cripple them with my neurosis. They may be growing up, but I’m having to toughen up, to withstand the shame of having to ask someone a quarter of my age what LMFAO means, or what a meme is. And when they say, You remember that thing Kanye West did to Taylor Swift…?’ I just nod. Their snappy cool comebacks make me say puerile things like ‘I carried you for nine months of my life, is it such a big deal to carry two shopping bags to the kitchen?’

They’re preparing me. With closed doors, private conversations and peer-secrets, they’re letting me go. They’re shrugging me off like old skin. Right now I’ll settle for a role in their support team, and not to be de-friended by them on Facebook. But I’m slowly expanding my own horizons, and dreaming up that life they keep telling me to get. Who knew of the secret deal between us – that as they grow into themselves, they give me back to myself where I get to watch from the sidelines as they unfurl into funny, opinionated interesting people I like?

 

TIPS

  • Never take a grunt, a death-stare or a ‘whatever’ personally. That’s hormone-tone. Rudeness is not acceptable. Knowing the difference– now there’s the trick.
  • Never be too tired, too busy or too lazy to ‘come see’ whatever it is they want to show you – even if it is another YouTube crazy cat thing or an unfunny over-your-head SMOSH video. Just be grateful you’re still show-worthy.
    Knock if their door is closed.
  • It’s okay to lie in response to questions about what age you were when you first had a cigarette, drank alcohol or had sex, as in ‘I’ve never smoked/drank or had sex.’
Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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