On the bright side

Term 2 is widely recognised among Australian secondary teachers as a right mongrel of a term. (Where, in a truly Australian way, “right” means “incredibly wrong” and “mongrel” may be substituted for the swear word of your choice – the less printable the better.)

It is frequently a long term, and here it culminates in the cold, wet and drizzly start of a Melbourne winter. It contains exams (and hence exam writing and exam marking), report writing, and at many schools also the start of semester 2, which means curriculum development and lesson preparation while still in the frenzied depths of marking & reporting on the outcomes of semester 1.

By the end of it students are exhausted and cranky, teachers are exhausted and cranky – even the weather seems exhausted and cranky. Tempers fray over relatively minor issues. Major issues can seem like killing offences. If you have personal trauma added in, as I have over the last few weeks, it can seem utterly unbearable.

In the midst of all this unprintable ugliness I have had cause to be profoundly grateful for the kindness of friends and colleagues. On Wednesday, the day of my dad’s funeral, my car died. Stranded outside my daughters’ school, a friend came past as I was trying to persuade it to start (whacking the starter motor with a tyre lever tends to attract attention, oddly enough). After pitching in with the tyre lever for a bit, she unhesitatingly offered me a lift to work, together with a carload of hugs to sustain me.

When I got to work and complained to a colleague that my car had died today of all days, the first thing she did was offer me her car to get to the funeral. The next person I told offered me a lift, as did the following two people. It could not have been clearer that I was not in this alone.

The weekend after my dad died a friend turned up at my house with a hand-knitted scarf, perfectly purple, perfectly me.  It came with a card bearing the message, “Remember your friends are wrapped around you.”

Purple scarf

Another friend showed up with a meal – and not just any meal, but one I could eat, which is quite an achievement given my food issues. There were flowers, lifts all over the place, phone calls, visits, and cards. Offers of babysitting, offers of food, even offers of report writing. Supportive emails at crucial times, and thoughtful texts when I most needed them. Oh, and hugs. Lots and lots of hugs.

Every time I got to the point of collapse, someone caught me. Every time I despaired, someone cheered me. Every time I cried (which was often), someone held me.

Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, but I have survived this term by leaning on others. And the curious thing is that when you’re leaning on someone else, you’re often holding them up.

Perhaps Love

On Tuesday my dad died.

The writer side of me watches and documents my whirling emotions with bemusement and a busy keyboard.

One moment I’m fine. Getting the kids to school. Doing the shopping. Eating breakfast. Showering.  Helping my 9 year old with her homework. Everything seems almost normal.

The next I’m in floods of tears. Hot, bitter, unbearable, never ending tears.

Then, together with my sisters, I’m calling undertakers, sorting paperwork and making lists of who to call and what has to be done. The practicalities provide a focus for a brain that has lost its moorings. Drifting and uncertain, I check 3 times that the door is locked and still turn back halfway to my destination, unsure if I locked it properly.

The pattern of the week is destroyed, blasted apart by the shock. I don’t know what day it is, where I should be, or where anyone else is.

And I am angry. I don’t know why, or who with, but don’t get in my way. And I am overwhelmed by the love and support I have received from the moment I took that dreadful phone call with blank incomprehension.

“Dad’s dead.”


Then the shaking set in, both mental and physical. I made phone calls, I accepted a lift home, I sorted details. People use the term “on autopilot” at moments like these, but in truth I don’t think there was even an automatic system in charge. I was following a logical pattern of things that had to be done, while my brain freewheeled in the sky overhead – refusing to come back, like a kitten bitten by a snake. Not going back there! That hurt!

The stages of grief are not a linear progression. It’s more like a random drunken walk. Lurching from phase to phase. Often inhabiting several at once. Denial. Anger. Pain. Anger. Denial. Anger. Pain. Denial. Pain.

Perhaps love is like a resting place
A shelter from the storm
It exists to give you comfort
It is there to keep you warm
And in those times of trouble
When you are most alone
The memory of love will bring you home

Perhaps Love – John Denver

This morning I find the last 25 years stripped away. I am 15, sitting at the piano and singing “Perhaps Love” with my dad. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and I loved singing harmony with him. We sang Perhaps Love, My Cup Runneth Over, Send in the Clowns, and probably others I have forgotten. My piano playing was rather on the fumbly side, but he waited patiently through my stumbles and sang as though accompanied by a virtuoso. Strange the things that come back to you.

Last night I lay in bed not sleeping, listening to my 5 year old crying “I want Pa” in her sleep. My girls are hurting, and it kills me that I can’t fix it for them, any more than anyone can fix it for me.

Grief and I are old adversaries. It will do its worst, but it won’t beat me.

But it hurts.

Strike it lucky

I’m a teacher in the Victorian Public Education system, and I’m going on strike on Thursday.

Why would I do that?

Sure, Ted Bailieu promised to make us the best paid teachers in Australia at the last election. He is now comprehensively breaking that promise – but I only became a teacher last year, and I almost halved my salary to do so. I don’t care about the money.

What matters to me is that yet again, education is being undervalued. Sold off for parts. We are being told that if we are to get pay rises that are less than inflation, less than the cost of living, we must offset them with “productivity gains”. In Ted’s eyes, this means more contact hours. Yet I have a teaching load of 0.47 (less than half) because I am part time, and I am working myself to the limits of my endurance, and I still don’t have time to do the job properly.

How do I get more “productive” by spending more time teaching, when I don’t have time to do the preparation and marking that I should be doing, without spending countless hours at night and on weekends marking and preparing?

And don’t talk to me about the school holidays. That’s when I catch up on the marking and prep I didn’t have time to do during term. Friends of mine are leaving teaching in droves – happily giving up the school holidays in order to have a life the rest of the time.

The truth is that teaching is all consuming. And I am passionate about what I do – I wouldn’t have become a teacher otherwise. But half way through my second year and I am almost burnt out. Along comes Ted Bailieu, with an unmistakable message that education isn’t valuable, my skills aren’t worth rewarding, and I am not working hard enough.

I am incredibly fortunate to work with an amazingly talented, passionate and impressive group of young people. My colleagues amaze me every day with their talent, dedication and enthusiasm for what they do. I love my job, I love my workplace, I love my colleagues, and I adore my students. But I want a government that believes that education matters. I want a government that is willing to invest in the future of our children. And I want a government that keeps its promises. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

That’s why I’m striking on Thursday.

Everybody needs a Thneed

I am always amazed at how fast advertising works on my kids. They don’t watch commercial TV, so most of the advertising they encounter is in the supermarket, but it is surprisingly potent. We are lucky in that they don’t make a big deal out of it, but they are quick to say they need whatever the latest item is that happens to have Dora on the box, or Hannah Montana on the pocket.

I must admit to the occasional “new toy” buzz myself. I was very excited about my latest phone, and my work ipad. I’m also eagerly waiting for my Pretty Woman soundtrack and As Time Goes By dvds. By and large I don’t like to shop, but sometimes new things make me smile.

But do I need this stuff?

Everyone around us has at least 1 car per adult in the household (some have more). They use power tools for everything – from blowing leaves off the footpath to mowing the lawn, cutting down branches and trimming hedges. These are small suburban blocks. Mowing our entire back lawn and nature strip with the hand mower takes around half an hour. It’s no quicker to do it with a power mower, just noisier, smellier, and more dangerous.

Yet most people will say they need these power tools. That doing things by hand is just too hard. We need the time & labour saving boost they provide. But when was the last time we tried to do without them? Do we actually know how much, if any, time and effort they save? Are we saving a little energy mowing the lawn, so that we can pay to go to the gym and try to get fit?

Advertising is potent stuff. It convinces us to pay for water. It persuades us that we need a bigger, better, brighter TV. That we have to have the latest model phone, the newest iPad, and the fastest laptop. We need stuff. Lots of stuff. More and more stuff. Newer stuff. Bigger stuff. Endless piles of stuff. When we get new stuff, we toss the old stuff on the scrap heap. Of course, all this need is great for the economy.

There’s a principle in business
That everybody knows is sound
It says the people with the money
Make this ever loving world go ’round
So I’m biggering my company
I’m biggering my factory
I’m biggering my corporate sign
Everybody out there can take care of yours
And me? I’ll take care of mine mine mine mine mine (shake that bottom line)

How bad can I be?
I’m just building the economy

How bad can I be? The Lorax.

I think we’re overstuffed, and all stuffed up. “Economists and cancer cells think we can grow forever,” David Suzuki once said. Maybe there are more important things to grow, like communities, forests, and hearts. So next time you feel like a spot of retail therapy, why not give hug therapy a try?

My secret shame

I’ve read a few articles recently about the so-called “mummy wars”. Most of them were of the “why can’t we be grown ups and stop judging each other” variety. Parental judgements are everywhere you look. Stay at home mums judging mums who go out to work. Mums who work criticizing mums who stay at home. Mums who breastfeed judging bottle-feeders, and mums who bottle feed getting up in arms about breastfeeding. Co-sleepers lording it over controlled cryers. The “raise ’em tough” brigade sneering at attachment parents.

The take home message is “my way is perfect, yours is horrendous. Unless your way happens to be my way, in which case full speed ahead and damn the torpedos, Sister, ‘cos we rock!”

People like to judge each other. It’s a fairly basic human tendency. But we judge others most harshly, I think, when we are unsure of ourselves – and few things make a person more insecure than becoming a parent.

Am I feeding her enough? Is he sleeping enough? Should I respond faster when she cries? Am I making him weak by cuddling him to sleep? Should I be stricter with her? Am I being too stern with him? Is this the right childcare/kinder/school? Is there something catastrophically wrong with her diet? Does he eat too much junk? Is she active enough? Does he have ADHD? Is she being challenged at school? Is he overworked? Should I help more with her homework? Should I help less? Should I play more with them? Should I let them take more chances? Am I putting them too much at risk?

Parenting can be a vast litany of self-doubt, fear and confusion. There is so much definite, assertive advice out there. Co-sleeping could be fatal. Not co-sleeping could be fatal. Breast is best, but you mustn’t eat chocolate or drink orange juice, never mind drugs and alcohol. The myriad of ways in which we are putting our children at risk is pounded at us through a risk-happy, danger-driven media many, many times every day. And we want to do the very best we possibly can for our children. Is it any wonder we doubt ourselves?

Every parent who does things the same way we do reinforces our belief that we are doing the right thing, and shushes those little voices that say we are making a terrible, terrible mistake. And every parent who makes different choices can be a vivid and potent threat to our certainty. An alarming reminder of what someone else thinks is best. And what if they are right?

The loudest voices are often the most uncertain – as if shouting louder will reassure us that we are right. So it is with those pesky parental judgements. The more aggressively we assert that someone else’s way is wrong, the more easily we can shout down those nagging doubts. We still the voices in our own heads by planting them in the heads of others.

It’s alarmingly effective. Today a lovely new friend was telling me of her travails with kids who don’t take the word “bedtime” overly seriously, and I found myself surprisingly reluctant to confess that I sit with my girls until they are asleep. This friend is one of the world’s least judgmental people, and I was entirely confident that she would not be the slightest bit perturbed by my guilty little secret, but the problem is I wasn’t afraid of her reaction – I was frantically trying to ignore my own shame. Which is really very sad.

Here I am, making a choice which brings my daughters comfort, gives us a lovely peaceful closeness at the end of the day, and generally only takes 5 or 10 minutes, and I am so caught up in all the judging and the vociferous advice that I find myself ashamed to admit that I do it. In truth, bedtime has often been a struggle in the past, as we persisted with my strange belief that I was obliged to get my kids to go to sleep on their own. It was only once we “caved” and decided to sit with them at bedtime – alternating, so that one night it’s me, the next night it’s their dad – that bedtime became a peaceful and reconnecting time for us.

In reality, of course, we didn’t “cave” at all. We just did what felt right – and I wish we’d done it earlier. It would have saved a lot of trauma. But I had very fixed ideas about how I was going to parent, and it took me a long time to get past that and see into my own heart.

Our harshest judges are inside our own heads. I think we judge others in a futile attempt to drown out those doubting voices. So next time you feel as though some other parent is judging you, spare a sympathetic thought for them. They are probably terrified that you might be right.