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Posts Tagged ‘a day in the life’

I have been finding it very hard to write as I am feeling very dark. I would not call it Post Natal Depression as yet… More that I have felt the edges of things I cannot control crowding into me. Maybe I can control them, and simply feel I cannot.

I feel immense responsibility towards my family – the end of my paid maternity leave looms and that means finding a replacement income. I don’t want to go into part time work just yet, it would mean childcare for two children, which is hardly feasible, and most likely the end of breastfeeding Morgan. I hate expressing milk, it’s time consuming and painful and anyway, what job would be flexible enough to allow me an hour or so each day to pump? I want to be home, with the kids. I need to consider my skills, the possibility of selling my writing and the likelihood I would regularly have the time to write.

I feel angry at a society that sets mothers up to fail – for some like me it is needing income yet finding returning to would come with too many financial penalties. For others it is the necessity of returning to work when they would rather stay home. There has been a lot of rhetoric lately about careers and choice, and I think choice in the workforce is a luxury. I am angry that I spent so many years sick, and thus my capacity to earn is greatly reduced because of interrupted employment and education. I am frustrated that the things I truly want to do don’t result in a paying career.

I am angry that society doesn’t value what I do as a mother, staying home with my two boys. Angry that I sit here, feeling both trapped and worried, doing mental sums in my head but mostly thinking about how I would love to work a day for two, probably, but realistically it needs to be all or nothing, full time work or staying home. For years, possibly.

I love em, but years? Years as a stay at home mother? Alex and I talk about our goal, which is f or both of us to work part time. But I don’t know how to make that happen. Isn’t that the dream, though? To do something you love, just enough so that it doesn’t bore you to tears?

Sometimes I feel like family is pressure, to do better, be better, succeed more, and I must have spent all that time leading up to children just faffing around and time wasting (which isn’t true), and not nearly enough time focusing on my writing (probably true), and now I feel a suffocating need to succeed at something, anything, to earn something for my words (or what else have I spent all these years working towards?) and then of course comes the crippling anxiety…

I look into my boys’ faces and feel I am failing them as a mother.

Which is normal, I guess. 

 

 

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Balancing act

Family


Of course, because I blogged last week about getting the hang of things, life had to tear me down. Last Wednesday I got very, very ill, and by Thursday I felt incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed and yearning for death. Conveniently it was a public holiday, so Alex was home and able to look after me/the kids. On Friday I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with tonsillitis and laryngitis and given some rather impressive antibiotics.

I was feeling better over the weekend when Morgan came down with a head cold. Sick newborn babies are the worst – you can’t explain anything, or give them pain relief, or tell them they’ll feel better soon if only they can deal with you spraying saline solution up their nose at uncomfortably regular intervals.

Sebastian went with his dad to see family on Sunday and got worn out, probably quite over-tired, and so for the last few days has been very cranky – not sick, although his nose has been runny, but just run-down and irritable, as though he was fighting off the sickness that Morgan and I had come down with. And today, while I am mostly better, Morgan remains sniffly and Alex came down with a head cold. Sebastian was cheerful all day, thankfully. 

I had energy for once, and so I cleaned – tidying away toys, doing mountains of laundry and putting even more away, vacuuming, doing dishes, cooking a casserole for dinner, sweeping the kitchen and doing groceries. I so rarely feel rested and energised to really get to much housework, so it was wonderful to get a lot done one hit. Of course, it was followed by the guilt for all the other things I wasn’t doing – not blogging, not crafting, not writing or researching. Not doing a hundred things in the limited timeframe on one day where I happen to have some energy.

I keep thinking about motherhood as a balancing act, but really it’s not me that’s balancing – it’s all the things in my life that I need to do or achieve to keep me, my little family and my aspirations running. It’s spinning plates – frantically running from one to another to give it another whirl, to keep it spinning in the air; all the while conscious that while I spin one, another is slowing down and starting to wobble. At any moment it feels like all my plates could crash to the ground.

Today I kept a few plates going a little longer by doing enough chores to keep me sane and to keep the house running smoothly. Right now I’m spinning another plate by writing this blog entry. But while I do this, I’m aware of others starting to slow down – plates about craft projects and gardening, researching and writing articles, photography or writing fiction. They’re starting to wobble because I only have so much time, energy and opportunity and I have to choose where I invest it.

The trick is not to let those plates fall completely. Keep spinning. Keep running from one to the other and hope for the best.

 

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The day we brought Morgan home from the hospital, our 2 year old, Sebastian, was over-tired and having a bit of a sugar crash. He slept in the car and woke when we pulled into the driveway – and immediately started crying and shouting ‘no no no no no’ when he realised the baby had come home with us. We’d tried to do our best to explain to him in advance that the baby was coming to live with us, but he didn’t really understand, I think, until that moment.

Since then, Sebastian has gotten better, although initially he was obviously resentful that I nursed the baby so often and wasn’t available for cuddles. He sometimes climbs into the bouncinette with a dummy he’s appropriated, playing baby. He lets the dummy fall out of his mouth and pretends to cry, mimicking Morgan, and I have to put the dummy back in his mouth and talk to him as though he’s a baby. I think this is a pretty healthy expression of the jealousy he feels over all the attention the baby gets – sometimes he needs to be the ‘baby’ again, to have my focus and attention in this way.

Sebastian’s grandparents have also been invaluable – Sebastian spends special solo time with both Alex’s mother and my parents, staying over night and having all of their attention. I’m lucky to have such help! 

Sometimes Sebastian is very affectionate with Morgan, to the point of being far too boisterous. I have to watch them together or Sebastian will try giving Morgan his dummy, or share his food with him, or touch the top of his still-soft head. Sometimes he’s still resentful, telling me to put the baby down or stop feeding him, because he wants my attention. But Sebastian is young enough that as time passes, he forgets the time before, when there was no baby and he was the centre of our universe. 

Sometimes I feel incredible guilt, for having a second child and taking away the special one-on-one, mother-son relationship we used to have. But then I think about the future, and how lovely it will be to have two boys so close in age, who will grow up together, play together and learn together. Morgan is just starting to smile, and I think Sebastian will start to find his brother a lot more interesting when they can interact.

Driving in the car yesterday, Sebastian pointed something out to Morgan, which made my heart warm. There’s a bond between siblings, and here I see the beginnings.

Sibling rivalry

My darling boys


 

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On the 86 tram in Northcote, I remember I used to live just near here. A few streets away in a little semi-detached unit with a friend. That supermarket was my supermarket. I worked on a theatre show right nearby. Used to go for drinks with friends at that pub. One time this whole street was closed for a festival and people wandered across the tram tracks, now where the cars are, and I was buffeted by the crowd and saw a friend, or a friend of a friend, some guy I used to play cards with.

Going farther back, I used to take the 86 tram to work. I lived a few suburbs back in a tiny one bedroom flat that I loved to pieces. In the hot weather I would sleep all day and stay up all night, chain smoking and writing and feeling so grown up (all of nineteen years old) and so cynical, like life had already rolled me over and pushed me aside. I was so very, very young then.

Now I take the 86 tram with my mother, toddler and infant son. The toddler has never been on a tram before and it’s a special treat, rather than the way I get places. How long since I have been in Northcote? How many years since that was my supermarket? In a way this is my life all the time now – walking streets and places I used to know, remembering how my life used to be and realising how quickly it changes. How different I feel now.

You don’t know how good you had it, I want to say to nineteen year old me, who stays up all night writing.

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I think (hope) I am getting the hang of this parenting-two-children thing which, frankly, has terrified me. As my partner does shift work that consists mostly of evenings, I’ve been doing the bedtime thing on my own. There have been A LOT of tantrums from the toddler, as I don’t have the same endless time and patience for him, but at least he’s been fed and in bed by some reasonable hour each night.

As I type, the toddler is in bed for his nap, right on schedule, and the bubba is asleep in his swing chair. He’s been sleeping a lot in this during the day – it does a lot of the work for me by rocking him to sleep so I can do things like put the toddler down. And so now I have an hour or two of free time. I have no idea what to do!

Afternoon nap!

I feel like I should be attempting something productive (not that a blog post isn’t productive!) but the endless rounds of laundry and dishes do get tiring. With this opportunity for time to myself I should be sewing or cooking or crafting! But I’m paranoid I’ll start something and get interrupted in the middle.

 

What do you do when you get a few minutes of quiet? Chores that have to be done or something just for yourself?

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Stay at home parents like me spend a lot of time doing things that are observed and judged by other people. I take my toddler and baby with me when I go shopping, the groceries I choose are visible in the basket or cart; the way I speak to my children and react and interact with them can be viewed and listened to when I’m out in public. Who they are, how they act and what they wear can be taken as a direct reflection of me – I’m the one they will spend the most time with at least until they start attending school. I choose their clothes, organise their haircuts, feed them and wipe their faces after. It’s with me that they will do a lot of their learning – my voice and words and behaviour they emulate. 

Being their mother is my job right now. Someone has to do it, and I want to, don’t get me wrong, but its a job. Unlike every other job, however, there’s no clear reimbursement for services rendered, no start and finish time, no set goals and achievable outcomes. But everybody, and I do mean everybody, thinks they get input into how I do my job. Everybody is my boss.

I found I got really defensive a few days ago when my partner innocently requested that I do something (to do with our grocery shopping) differently than I’ve been doing it. I got angry, because this is a task that I do 90% of the time and it makes sense for me to do. I have the time, the inclination, I know what needs to be bought and what foods the toddler is happy with fit now. Generally I have a fairly accurate idea of the contents of our fridge and pantry as I do a lot of the cooking too. 

A perceived criticism in the way I did this really got to me because its part of my job. I already feel ongoing Mama Guilt over the toddler not eating enough vegetables, or too much sugar, and that I don’t cook enough, or cook enough variety, and we don’t eat organically, and I buy snacks often without paying too much attention to the sodium or sugar levels, and none of this would be so bad if only we all watched a lot less telly which is probably evil.

I see articles online, and tweets and Facebook posts, that judge mothers, that make commentary on how they parent and how their children behave. Because society thinks it is my boss, that it gets to decide if I’m doing a good or bad job parenting, and those parameters change with who you’re speaking to. 

its hard because this is my job but my partner is parent too, he lives in this house too, and the things I do every day affect him. Where is the line for what is entirely my say and what we have equal input into? If I make most of the decisions because I’m the one that’s home, can he question them? How do you balance that, being fair to his personal investment and my need for autonomy? And sometimes I make so many of the decisions that I don’t want to make all of them, but they’re like cascading dominoes – I know what is in the pantry/fridge because I’m the one that did the shopping so I should decide what we eat for dinner even when it’s not my turn to cook. 

I think we don’t talk about this enough – that when one half of a couple stays at home, they become entirely responsible for the home, even when the other partner spends all their off time there. It’s then easy to become resentful over household and parenting responsibilities, because of lack of autonomy in some areas and far too much autonomy in others. This then affects the relationship, because that relationship exists within the context of the household and parenting, and its sometimes easy for us all to forget: this might be my home, but it’s also my job. One of us Goes out for work and comes home to relax, but I must somehow do both in the same space, when there is no 9-5 definition of start and finish for each.

A balancing act, and one I don’t know I’m particularly good at. 

Eagle_eyes.JPG

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The day I brought my son home from the hospital, I was scared he wouldn’t like the car. That he would scream or cry or just fuss and I, sitting next to his car seat in the back, would have a broken heart. I didn’t want anything to upset or scare him, ever.

I needn’t have worried – he slept the whole way home. It was winter and Alex had put the heater on in our bedroom so it was warm and cozy. I had barely slept my four days in hospital and had no sleep for around 50 hours before and after the birth. I climbed into bed with my brand new child and he fit perfectly against my breast. Alex went out, because the doctors had convinced us I needed a breast milk to express, that Sebastian wasn’t nursing enough to help flush out the last of the jaundice. We needn’t have worried about that either. He never had a problem nursing again.

I held him, and breathed in his baby smell, and reveled in that sense of finally being at home, with my family, my new family. Although Sebastian was a big baby, he seemed so small. So defenseless and fragile. I am responsible for you, I thought as he slept peacefully next to me, I grew you and you’ll always be a part of me. I will love you until I die. I had never known before that you could feel that sure of love – that you would never overcome it, never try to escape it, never want to be without it.

bringing baby home

I cuddled him close. I had once worried that I wouldn’t bond with my baby, especially because I’d had such terrible pre-natal depression, but I was lucky. I felt bonded the first instant I saw him. I felt closer to him with every moment. I snuggled him close and felt his soft, squishy little body relax naturally into mine. Later, Alex came home with the pump we ultimately didn’t need, and we all lay together in the bed. I nursed, lying on my side, and Alex watched, fascinated that I could give him everything he needed from my body.

I tried to put him in the bassinet that night to sleep, but he cried, so I brought him into the bed, and the three of us slept together. Bringing him home, becoming a family together just by resting in the warm cocoon of our bed… it is one of the best memories of my life.

In just under three months time we’ll bring another little baby boy home, and there will be four of us. Closed off from the world, making our own little nest of safety, a family. I cannot wait.

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Because I’m the primary caregiver in this parenting partnership, half of what I do goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Usually it’s the mother who stays home with the kids, or only returns to work part-time or on flexi-time, and the mother who becomes the expert on her children and home.

Sometimes, I hate it. I really, really hate it. Because it’s so easy for me to shoulder the load that there’s a perpetual slide, so on days like to today something small happens, like Sebastian not going down for his nap on time while I am out, and I totally lose the plot.

I lost the plot today because if Sebastian doesn’t go down for his nap on time then I have to decide whether to wake him up before he’s had enough sleep and deal with a nightmarish toddler for the rest of the day, all so he can go back to bed at an appropriate hour… or I have to let him nap late, which means he’ll be up later, which means I get more tired and stressed as the evening wears on because he’s still not in bed.

This might seem like small change but I am tired, and pregnant, and reaching the horribly uncomfortable stage of pregnancy, and feeling resentful as I mentally tally all the tasks and responsibilities I have been shouldering lately without any recognition that I do these things, and our home runs smoothly because of it.

It’s invisible work. The things that I do without question, the lists and information I carry around in my head, the schedules I make and the information I obtain. Things that SOMEBODY has to deal with, and because I’ve got it sorted then nobody else bothers.

I know all the relevant parenting information, because I have made myself an expert on the topic. I know my son’s vaccination schedule, I know how to keep our Family Assistance income coming in smoothly from the government, and even though Sebastian’s not in daycare right now, I know which three daycare centres in my area have current vacancies.

I buy all the Christmas and birthday gifts for both my family and Alex’s family, and I’ll be doing all the wrapping. I have a fairly precise idea of what’s in our pantry and fridge on any given day, so I do almost all of the grocery shopping. I know what foods Sebastian will and will not eat, and I’m the one looking up new recipes to get vegetables into him.

Right now, because Alex is on graveyard shift, I do pretty much all of the naptimes and bedtimes – I know the favourite books and the precise routine. I get up with Sebastian in the morning, and plan activities and outings for us – I know where his fresh clothes go when they are dried and folded, and I know when we’re running out of nappies and wipes, and where his clean sheets are for his bed. I buy his clothes, and sort the ones he’s grown out of, and put away his toys and wipe his nose.

I’ve read up on potty training and toddler discipline and early childhood development. I know what behaviours are normal and what to anticipate next, because I’ve spent the time and energy doing that research. When he gets sick I give him medicine and take him to the doctor and hold him and stroke his hair just the way he likes, and I’m the one that knows to call the Maternal and Child Health Care hotline, or that we can call a GP to come to our house with bulk billing. All of this information about him lives in my head, just my head, and nobody else except stay-at-home mums and dads knows this stuff.

But there’s other things too, that aren’t child related – because I’m home, I’m the one calling our landlord about the broken dishwasher or calling a repairman when the washing machine broke. I set up our utilities when we moved in, and arranged for an emergency call out when our gas connection had a leak, and as the bills have come in I’ve paid them. I set up our internet and phone account, and badgered the service provider when it didn’t work, and let the technician in to repair the phone line in our house.

I write lists about household budgets and ways to save money – I think about money constantly – and plan ahead for the baby to make sure we have everything we need. I arrange all of my pregnancy appointments and keep all the medical information in my head too. I plan meals and keep an eye out for sales on meat so we can stock up the freezer, and invest in appliances that will save us time and money. I’m making curtains for the house, and decorating the bedrooms, and organise family outings and babysitting and amongst all that, try to remember to see friends and eat and shower and get enough rest and time to myself.

Single parents, of course, handle all of this and more, with no partner to step in and give them a break. But being a partnered parent, I sometimes wish I could get a pat on the back for the knowledge and care I use to keep things running smoothly. Because when I don’t keep up with one of these millions of little tasks, THEN it’s noticeable. But when I’m doing it right, it’s invisible.

There are people out there without children, or who have children but are not the primary caregiver, who have no understanding or sensitivity for how much work goes into being a stay-at-home parent. I’m sure some of them think it’s all play centres and lattes. But here is the reality: getting a screaming child clean, fed, dressed and out the door but 9:30 in the morning is damn hard work, never mind all the planning behind the scenes that went into it – the breakfast being interesting enough for the child to eat it, the clothes being clean and the right size, and knowing the magic words to make a two-year-old let you close enough to scrub last night’s encrusted snot from his face.

I deserve a damn latte.

 

 

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Remember that time when I went out with my kid and managed to run all my errands quickly and with minimum fuss? Me neither.

I often tell childless friends that everything takes about half an hour longer when you have a toddler. Sometimes I think I underestimate that number. Yesterday I had one of those days that is just the ultimate shit bomb of all days: I was sick, and home with a toddler, and needed to go to the doctor. It looked like this:

9:30: I ring the doctor and make an appointment for 1:30. Sebastian and I have both slept in, which I needed, so I get him up. I try carrying him to the lounge room but he sees something in the kitchen as I go past and starts hollering and leaning for it. I try to put him down and he goes monkey and clings to me. We go into the kitchen and hunt around for a bit, while he says ‘Mah-Mah’over and over, like Mama but different. Eventually I figure out he means banana. I give him the banana from the fruit bowl and plonk him on the couch and tear the skin so he can peel the rest himself. I go to make toast for us.

10:00 The banana, sans skin, is on the windowsill and Sebastian is trying to climb up the back of the couch to make kissing noises at the cat, who is outside. I explain that we do not stand on the couch, or chairs, and I will explain this about 45 more times. We eat raisin toast with margarine on it. Sebastian takes my plate and wants my toast, but we talk about how I have mine and he has his and they are the same. He picks up his plate to hide his face, and spills crumbs all over the couch in the process.

10:30 I have found clean clothes for him. He says ‘Dressed! Dressed!’ and leads me into my bedroom so we can both get dressed. I try starting with him, but for the first time ever he wants to pick and choose from the clothes I’ve provided. I still haven’t changed his nappy either, and he ends up wearing one clean sock, PJ pants, and a light hoodie over his bare tummy. He climbs all over my bed and pretends to sleep and demands to be tucked in and wants my hairbrush, while I get dressed.

11:00 Yogurt. Everywhere.

11:30 I change his nappy and get him dressed while he screams and tries to pull my hair and claw my face. He’s fine when it’s time to put shoes on because he loves shoes. We get in the car.

12:00 I meant to visit the toy store near my doctor but it is out of business, and I have forgotten the stroller, so I carry Sebastian all around as we go to the post office and the bank and back across the road to a cafe. He walks some of the way, and even manages to keep holding my hand when we cross the road, and says ‘Hi’ to people who go by and smiles coyly because he is an incredible flirt. Then he wants to go into a parking lot and keeps pulling on my hand and then crouches down and goes a bit limp as passive resistance. I have no idea what is in the parking lot that he wants to see. So I carry him and he is heavy.

12:30 Lunch in a cafe – I have never been to this cafe before and it is not child friendly. It’s not just the obvious things, like the lack of high chairs or any toys or even children’s books, which seems pretty much like a staple around where I live, but when I ask for turkish bread toast and jam (off the kid’s menu) for Sebastian, the jam has no butter or margarine to soften it, so the toast is hard and too thick, and I imagine trying to eat that with such a little mouth and not enough molars is like trying to crunch on concrete. Plus they plop the plate in front of him with a little pot of jam (which his fingers immediately go in) and a quite-sharp knife. Which he almost gets an eye out with in about five seconds. Non-kid friendly cafes piss me off, because who the fuck do they think is going to come to their cafe in the sticks for morning tea or lunch on a week day? Stay-at-home mums, that’s fucking who. And even if you don’t want to stick out a booster seat or a couple of books, don’t give a two year old a sharp knife, dammit.

1:00 I pay for lunch. I feel like I have spent our entire lunch together telling Sebastian off: ‘DON’T PULL ON THAT IT WILL BREAK GET AWAY FROM THE DOOR DON’T CLIMB ON THE WOODEN KANGAROO THOSE PEOPLE DON’T WANT YOUR BREAD DON’T STAND ON THE CHAIR DON’T DON’T DON’T’. My guilt complex buys him a gingerbread man and we go to wait at the doctor’s.

1:30 The doctor calls my name. Sebastian, who has been playing happily with the toys in the corner of the surgery but is starting to get tired, throws a tantrum because I make him leave the toys. When I see the doctor he starts shouting ‘NONONONO!’ when she brings out a stethoscope, because he had tonsillitis and terrible fevers a few weeks ago and still hasn’t forgiven us for taking him to be examined two or three times a week for two weeks. But he is interested when she examines me and not him, and then starts playing with a tub of toys while I talk to the doctor. When it is time to go he cheerfully packs up the toys and pushes the tub back where it belongs and says bye-bye. We go to the chemist.

2:00 I just want to wait for my script. Sebastian tries to open everything, ever. He darts around trying to grab things off the shelves, but is very careful and only touches the glass bottles of vitamins, and doesn’t pick them up. When I get my script, I am trying to pay by card but keep an eye on him at the same time, as he tries to rip open perfume boxes and darts for the automatic doors to the street every time someone walks through them. Eventually I keep him next to me by holding on to the hood of his coat, and have a sudden strong understanding of why people put those backpacks with leashes on their kids. Because children actively TRY TO KILL THEMSELVES at any given moment.

2:15 Back in the car, Sebastian has a tantrum because I don’t let him do the safety harness buckle, and wails the entire way home.

2:45 I put him down for a nap. He tries to procrastinate by insisting that he needs cuddles, and his pant legs need to be rolled down, and his t-shirt has accidentally ridden up (he pulled it up to bare his belly), and his blanket is not tucked in properly, and his Scout Bear needs to be tucked in too – and god, it’s amazing, but he explained almost all of this to me non-verbally. Eventually I leave the room, and he sleeps.

I’m not going to detail the rest of my day, which pretty much sucked, because that was the part I really struggled with – being sick, and exhausted, and just needing to get out of the house and get some shit done. And even though Sebastian was pretty cheerful all day, he still just wanted his own way and needed constant talking to about what he was doing well and what is not okay to do and what I would like him to do. And I love him to bits, but sometimes I am so relieved when it’s his nap time, I just want him to go to sleep and be quiet for a bit.

The thing is, when you are the primary caregiver, you don’t have a choice about whether or not you take your child somewhere. Sometimes Alex will take Sebastian out and about on the weekend to give me some time off, but really if he needs to go somewhere he can pretty much do it on his way to/from work, with no kid in tow. I needed to go to the doctor, and had no choice about toting my son around when I was feeling sick and awful, because Tuesdays I have no childcare and it’s just me. I do most of the day-to-day grocery shopping, and clothes shopping for myself and Sebastian, and shopping for any household goods that we need, and any errands that need to be run, and Sebastian comes with me and sometimes he has a melt down and sometimes he doesn’t.

He’s not a baby anymore, and is not content to sit in the stroller with a toy for hours on end, and rarely falls asleep on long car trips and never while in the pram. He wants to run and play and investigate and do what grown ups do, and I sometimes feel like I can’t take my eyes off him for a second. That’s why everything is harder with a toddler in tow – because on days we’re together I am his whole world and he dislikes it when it doesn’t seem to revolve around him.

And yogurt. Yogurt is every parents’ nemesis.

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I have never met a bad Centrelink employee. I think it is just bad policy that exists. I have met tired, impatient, bored Centrelink employees, but ultimately they are just doing their jobs. I have also met incredibly kind, helpful and concerned Centrelink employees, either over the phone or in person.

Because I earned enough money at age 18, I was declared financially emancipated from my parents – this allowed me to receive benefits when studying and living in shared housing or by myself. It also assured my benefits at times when I was sick or injured. But having a legal right to benefits doesn’t make them easy to get.

For years, I had to justify my illness to a governmental body that does not particularly like it when you present a medical certificate for a problem that isn’t visible, like a broken leg. At least when I broke my spine and was unable to work, I could show up wearing my back brace and walking with a cane. My injury was pretty obvious, even if the crushed vertebrae in my spine was not.

Explaining why your invisible illness, mental or physical, cripples you to the point of being unable to study or work to a stranger at Centrelink is uniquely humiliating. Only the kindness of those employees makes it bearable. I once had a meeting with a social worker to explain that, while my back was relatively healed, the inactivity of my recuperation had caused a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome relapse, and I’d had to leave my job as a roulette dealer with the casino. I could not work, I could not study – I lived in a share house with a lovely friend who didn’t mind that I mostly sat around all day. The point of this meeting was to decide if I was eligible for temporary disability benefits for another 12 months while I tried to get my life back together.

The man was very nice. We sat in a tiny office at Centrelink in Preston. I had to explain my life to him – the physical pain that was at times unbearable, the numbing exhaustion, the relentless insomnia and the depression that resulted of all of this. I had to go into great detail about the medical treatment I was seeking – both what I tried before, and found did not work so would not pursue again, and the new theories on treatment I had heard about but could not afford. I explained that I needed to be classed as disabled (temporarily), because the only thing that could heal me was time. Time to eat well and try to sleep and gradually increase my strength, time to try new medications for depression and pain, time to organise my life and try to feel useful again. I confessed to him that I often felt despair, and although the medication I took for depression and illness didn’t work particularly well, I was scared of changing the drugs because the period of wash out between an old drug and a new one had, in the past, led to suicide attempts.

The drugs do not work, I told him, but I do not work right without the drugs. There is something wrong with me. Without medication I try to hurt myself. I don’t want to die. I don’t know what to do.

I think I cried, in that room, with that strange man who told me I was brave when I felt weak. He signed off on a certificate of temporary disability. This meant that I did not have to keep presenting medical certificates to Centrelink; they would just pay me each fortnight without me needing to contact them. That certificate was for twelve months. It was supposed to provide security of some kind.

In that time, Centrelink cut off my payments around three times, for what essentially came down to computer error. Getting those payments reinstated was exhausting.

I don’t know how Centrelink works internally – I have an idea of the processes, but I’ve never worked there myself. But the impression I get is that the computers run on a set of rules and regulations, and anything even slightly outside the norm can create a tumble of paperwork and error that, in immediate response, cuts off your payment until the problem is resolved. This has been my experience, anyway. The Centrelink employees I speak to regarding these problems are almost universally bewildered by how such errors occur in the first place, and frustrated that it is so difficult to fix. They do not run the system with computers. The computers run the system using humans as conduits.

Now I receive fortnightly payments as part of the Family Assistance program. This is because we have a small child and the government likes to help. They say. However, I’ve had a lot of problems with these payments – when I was pregnant I was receiving Newstart (the job hunting payment), with a medical certificate to say I did not have to look for work because my problematic pregnancy crippled me. However, I somehow incurred a $500 debt for being paid money in July of 2010 without reporting what activity I had done to find work. It took almost a year to retrieve that money (which Centrelink automatically garnished from my parenting payments).

The reason I didn’t hunt for a job that week, or report my lack of activity, was because I was in hospital giving birth.

Some glitch had happened, and the computer had decided they shouldn’t have paid me as though I were medically unfit (when I was in the damned hospital bleeding on the operating table and full of drugs and stitches), and the computer took that money back. The Centrelink employees I spoke to about this were damn near helpless to reverse that situation. Eventually, I found out I could reverse the debt by handing in some obscure paperwork that outlined my activity and lack of job hunting for that period. I think I wrote ‘GIVING BIRTH TO MY CHILD, COULDN’T ACCESS JOB SEEKING WEBSITES’ angrily. But finally, I got the money back.

Recently I’ve been furious all over again because a minor mistake was made with Sebastian’s immunisation records, and our child care benefit was cut off, and it looked like I might have to pay his daycare $850 for the care already given (almost all of that should have been covered by Centrelink). If the problem wasn’t fixed that sum wouldn’t go down. If the sum didn’t go down then I could no longer put Sebastian in daycare, which would mean I couldn’t work, which would mean I wouldn’t have the money to pay the daycare. A horrible cycle of crap. It took three weeks just to find out what the problem was and get it fixed, including phone call after phone call to Centrelink and Medicare.

I get angry at Centrelink because I try so hard to do the right thing so these payments will run smoothly, and in return some computer blinks a few times and I’m told I owe them money, or they will not pay me, or pay daycare. I am angry that I have to talk endlessly to strangers about the minute details of my daily life. I am angry that this is a system designed to catch fraud, not help people. I am angry that I cried in front of that strange man in that tiny room because I had an illness that was invisible. I am angry that my financial stability depends on a system that fails at every turn.

I wish I could blame Centrelink employees. But they’re just people. It’s the machines that make the mistakes. I like to imagine their central database is called Skynet.

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