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Posts Tagged ‘WTF’

There are things I would say if I had a voice.

I don’t, you see – have a voice. Not an individual voice that is mine and that matters and can be heard over the din. Because it is put down, or written off, or labelled in a way that makes it worth less. Not worthless maybe, just worth less. I am told I am a mummy blogger, and maybe I am – but I am also not a writer, I am a woman writer. A woman who writes, predicated on gender; an aside, behind the hand, good at what I do for a woman. ;

There are moments in every woman’s life when she is both confronted by her womanhood and reviled by it – when it beats on her like a hammer, a mantra, a reminder of all that she is, all that she is not, all that is expected of her and all that is not allowed of her. To be a woman is to be mired in contradictory social conditioning that both contains us and undermines us.

(I am 13, walking to a fete on a hot day in a singlet and shorts, and some hoon drives past slowly, leaning out the window, making a lewd gesture. I bloomed late – I have no breasts, no curves, no signs of womanhood other than I am taller than I used to be. This is a rite of passage all young women face – this moment, of being unsure if this is a compliment or an insult, or somehow both. Feeling raw and slick with disgust and heat and shame and yet somehow pleased too, because only attractive girls get leered at, right? Right?)

I am a mother now, and this is an extra caveat to womanhood, an extra characteristic that defines me as Other. I am a mother with that this pertains – the guilt, the boredom, the terror and fleeting moments of joy; joy so sharp and poignant it is more like a bandaid being torn off than any permanent emotion. Like a quick rip through the heart that leaves you blinking back tears, because this joy feels almost like grief too – I get this, yes I get this joy but the compromise is so great. There is so much I lose. The cost is so high. Motherhood is another way of losing one’s voice, after all.

I had no voice today in the shopping centre – the mother rocking a wretchedly sobbing infant in her arms – while in the pram, a toddler mimics the wails of the infant. An old man walked past, staring at me like I’d ruined his day, like I’d brought my children into his space and deliberately upset them, so the shrieks echoed through the vaulted mall in a way that is perfectly toned to make your ears itch. If I spoke then, my voice would have been lost in this old man’s judgement. Mothers are not supposed to inflict their children on public spaces, THEMSELVES on public spaces. Do not be a mother in a shopping centre doing her shopping for dinner, trying to get out of the house for an hour, to make the scenery change for a moment of a day otherwise filled with childish chatter. Do not be a mother whose children are not perfectly silent and still mannequin models of good behaviour. Do not be a mother who is trying her best, getting through the day, trying to cope. Do not be a mother, because mothers have no voice.

Mothers are in the home, most often, because it makes sense after a traumatic or exhausting birth, or a c-section, to be the one to stay home. It makes sense, being the one who breastfeeds, or even bottle feeds; it makes sense when doing the night wakings. It makes sense for me to stay home now with the second baby because I stayed home with the first one, and after several years of a slow domestic tilt where everything slides in my direction, it makes sense that it is my studies that stop, my career that grinds to a halt, my earning opportunities that pass by unnoticed because I am a mother, and this is what mothers do. I stay home and contemplate the scars on my body, the medicalisation of my genitalia, the baby on my breast. I stay home because it is easier, and anyway mothers who don’t stay home are judged too. ;

If I talk too loudly about my needs and wants, if I try to speak up about equality – for any woman who speaks up about equality – there are other ways of being silenced. There is the label of ‘feminist’ – not the meaning, just the word – the label that some say needs ‘re-branding’, as though it is an item for sale rather than a thought or a need. There’s the ubiquitous, ‘but I’m not a feminist’, as though it’s a club you sign up for a membership for rather than a way you live your life, a definition of your core beliefs. So this word, feminism-in-quote-marks, it comes to represent all of these things that it does not actually mean, it becomes an insult and a pejorative explanation, a political ideal and a movement that is picked over by those against is so they can say, ‘feminism has failed’, like it were a child, when really this is just another way of shutting us up. By saying ‘feminist’ as though we don’t matter. ‘Feminist’ as though our words have no import – after all, it is only a feminist who is speaking.

(It is 2009. I am in a relationship with a man, watching the slow wince form on his face when I speak too long and too loud on the gender pay gap, on domestic violence statistics, on cases of sexual assault. I am in a relationship with this man who professes to love me but at the same time, would prefer it if I didn’t talk about the things that matter to me, the life I live and the fear I face simply by being a woman. I am in a relationship with a man who wants to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and try and tear holes in the things I say or deny my experiences because he can. And one day I wake up and realise I don’t love him, I don’t want to be with him, I shouldn’t waste anymore of my time on him because someone who would rather I be silent is not someone I can trust. I end it, but he won’t ever understand.)

There are things I would say if I had a voice, but I don’t by virtue of being a woman. By virtue of being a mother, a feminist. I am categorised and allotted a certain space in this world, slightly over and above those who do not have the privileges that I have (the right skin colour, the right gender identity, the right sexuality, the right socioeconomic background, the right abled body, et cetera, et cetera), and I, like most women, am told I will be assigned someone to speak on my behalf, to choose my reproductive rights, my pay grade, my career opportunities – and when I look up to see whose voice will actually be heard, it is usually a man.

As it has always been men, a whole establishment of them. Calling us ‘feminazis’ with a sneer. Legislating our bodies. Marking us down on a list, splitting us into little categories, some with more privilege than others, deciding our rights and where we fit, writing us off as good at what we do ;for a woman. ;

Telling us where we fit. Mummy blogger. Woman writer. Just a stay at home mum. Just a woman. ;

Which might as well be nothing at all.

;

;

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This week David Koch, who is a co-host of Channel 7’s Sunrise, made some horrible, horrible remarks about breastfeeding. His remarks might seem somewhat innocuous, but when you take them in the context that any discrimination against breastfeeding is illegal in Australia, and that women deal constantly with body and motherhood policing, they’re pretty offensive.

I wrote a reply over at The Peach:

Can you not see how ridiculous your comments are, how they attempt to police women, motherhood and women’s bodies? Because nothing will ever quite be ‘discreet’ enough, or ‘classy’ enough. I mean, all breastfeeding women everywhere could sit in out-of-the-way armchairs with blankets draped over their shoulder and child, and someone, somewhere, would walk past and know what was happening under that blanket.

The whole story: My body is not shameful and I will not be shamed.

My article is personal to me, for many reasons – I breastfed my first child for 12 months, and hopefully will do the same with the imminent arrival, if not longer. But more importantly, I am SO TIRED of privileged white men thinking their opinion counts when it comes to women’s bodies. Like they get a say, even if the law is already clear on the subject.

If you haven’t been following this issue, my article at The Peach handily comes with links to relevant news and blog posts so you can catch up.

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I have watched a lot of films lately that easily fail the Bechdel Test. If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, then hit the link, it’s eye-opening. Basically it works like this: to pass the Bechdel Test, a film has to 1) Have at least two [named] women in it, 2) Who talk to each other, 3) About something other than a man.

The most recent example is The Hobbit, which fails on a catastrophic level. There’s one named female character. One. And people say to me, oh, but The Hobbit was written in a different era. This excuse doesn’t fly for me, because most contemporary films, based on material created roughly a century later, also fail. Think The Dark Knight Rises, or The Avengers, or what about Life of Pi. Some of the biggest films of the last 12 months fail.

This upsets me because I am a woman, and my reality is not represented in mainstream media. There are so many bromance films out there, but so few films about women, with solid women casts, who live complex lives where the film plot is not about romance, break ups or weddings. When I see a film with a largely male cast, with one or two supporting female characters, it doesn’t matter how kickass that female character is when she kind of seems like an accessory to the man.

Here is my reality: I have women friends, and I don’t call them ‘The Girls’, because that’s infantalizing and horrible. Sometimes we talk about our relationships, and for those of us who are heterosexual that means talking about men. With other mothers, we often talk about parenting, where the male partners (for those of us that have them), will come up too. Sometimes I talk to other women about feminist issues, and naturally men come up then, but kind of in a generalized, peripheral way. But a lot of the time, I mean over my whole lifetime, I have talked to other women about things that were nothing to do with men.

I have sat in a Muslim prayer room with Muslim women, who removed their headscarves and bared their arms because they were in a female space, and we talked about god and science as they hennaed my hands.

I have talked with women in their late teens and early twenties about teenage bullying and peer pressure. We discussed women’s magazines like Cleo and Cosmo that seemed to foster unrealistic ideals of femininity, sexuality and attractiveness. We talked about societal expectations of women, the hypersexualization of pre-teen girls and untenable atmosphere of competition that exists amongst young women. We also danced badly to Fergie.

I have had long, long conversations with other mothers I know about baby poo, spit up, sleep schedules and mother-guilt. I’ve talked about my fears and expectations for my child, how the love feels so raw and overwhelming, and which noisy toys annoy the hell out of me. As a stay-at-home parent I’ve talked about meal planning and grocery budgets and maternity clothes, about breastfeeding and stress and time out, about loving my child but sometimes feeling a need for physical and mental space; the paradox of loving your child, needing and wanting them but being overwhelmed by them too.

I have talked to many, many women over my life about mental illness. I’ve spoken at length with other women about having depression, managing it, trying drug after drug and shrink after shrink. I’ve talked about the shame I have felt, the stigma, the rejection and the anxiety. I’ve spoken of my fears and wants and needs, of the physical illness that accompanied the mental illness and made it worse – but I’ve also spoken about my small milestones, my achievements and breakthroughs, the struggles and ultimate successes. I’ve spoken about being sick, and the gratitude I have for being well.

I have lain on a picnic blanket at twilight in summer and talked with a woman about my dreams, my hopes for the future, the things I want to achieve in my life. I’ve spoken about writing, and creativity, and art; I’ve spoken about painters I like and poetry I love and plays I’ve seen and music I’m into.

I have worked hard, with other women, on theatre projects that consumed my life, and we have talked about everything from technical details to the greater meaning of the text. We’ve talked about words that I have written and what they mean, how they can be transformed and represented on the stage. I have had the great pleasure of sharing my writing about women with other women, and heard their thoughts and interpretations and felt that slow burn of satisfaction that what I write has meaning.

I have spoken to women about everything that is deep and meaningful, like religion and the soul and what happens after death, but I have also spoken to other women about clothes I like and shoes and craft projects and shiny things.

I have had conversations with women that were beautiful or tragic, awkward and light; conversations that have lasted hours or just a moment or two. I have emailed women on the other side of the world and chatted to women on the phone who were not very far away. I have sat in dark theatres with women as we’ve caught up on our lives, and asked after their families, or their work, or even their state of happiness. And sometimes, but not all the time, we have talked about men.

Only sometimes.

That’s my reality. That’s what I wish I could see in a film or a TV show with any regularity. I want to see all the parts of myself that belong only to myself, and not to a man.

smother

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Today Catherine Deveny’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address Pernickety Parents: Catherine Deveny embraces 70s parenting popped up in my newsfeed, via The Wheeler Centre. And yeah, I get it. It’s a humour piece, in which Deveny describes herself as practicing ‘detachment’ parenting and nostalgically recalls the often comically laid-back parenting style of yesteryear, specifically the 1970s.

But here’s the thing; Deveny doesn’t just highlight the inherent humour in politically correct language changes that have occurred in the last 40 years, or reminisce over the potentially dangerous activities that were supposedly common practice back then. She actively attacks contemporary parents as helicopter parents. You know, the kind that hover. It’s a common phrase that drives me fucking mental.

Here’s a quote, showing where Deveny crosses the line from satirising herself into attacking other parenting styles:

There has never been more time, energy and thought spent on the raising of babies, toddlers and children, and it’s detrimental, counterproductive and narcissistic. It’s suffocating our children and oppressing parents, particularly women. […] Attachment parenting is the epitome of this competitive parenting as an extreme sport. The parenting cult where you wear your baby everywhere, never let them cry and all sleep in a big bed together. It leads to dysfunctional co-dependence and is simply set up by needy parents to enable their own abandonment issues.

You know what? Fuck off. Fuck off Catherine Deveny, for writing a funny piece about the difference in generational parenting styles, and turning it into a sneak attack on those that don’t agree with you. And honestly, it’s not so much an attack on parents who do things differently than you do – as mothers are most often the primary caregivers, this is an attack on women who do things differently than you do. Because women don’t have enough shitty judgement calls heaped on them every day of their damn lives.

I’m sure your piece is supposed to be all ha-ha-ha-can’t-you-take-a-joke, but no, not this time. Because belittling women who try to balance their kids and relationships, and potentially study and working lives as well, is a cheap, easy shot. Attacking women who are doing the best they can, often under intense societal pressures to live up to certain standards of parenting behaviour, is fucking low. Your writing is funny. Your message is vicious – if I don’t like what you’re doing, I’m going to make judgement calls on you using psychological terminology like ‘co-dependence’ and ‘abandonment issues’ in a public forum. What a cool joke.

I hope you feel real good about yourself. Because this kind of article doesn’t let anybody who varies from your narrow worldview feel good about anything.

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When Sebastian was a baby it was just easier to gender code his clothing. He wore a lot of blue, and his clothing was cuts and styles more frequently attributed to boys. Partly, this was because when you’re pregnant for the first time a lot of people give you clothes – newborn clothes, clothes for when he’s older, both new and secondhand. My own shopping also played into this – boy clothes and girl clothes are segregated in most stores, even opp shops. And partly, his clothing was gender coded because it makes everyday conversation easier when random people you talk to don’t stall in their phrasing, saying ‘…his? …hers?’

Make no mistake – Sebastian was a very pretty baby and still got mistaken for a girl, which I don’t care about. But I’m just not transgressive enough yet to dress him in pink and frills to truly abolish any societal gender expectations when it comes to his clothing. He can do that himself when he’s a little older – and yes, I’m fine with him playing dress-ups with my clothes and make up.

Toys, however, are a different and somehow more complex issue. Sebastian’s clothes are just what he wears to keep warm and get food all over himself in. But toys express behaviour.

About six months ago Sebastian met a newborn baby for the first time up close, and was adorably fascinated. So shortly after I took him to Kmart to buy a baby doll. Naturally he picked the creepiest and most realistic newborn he found, but despite the many, many baby dolls on offer, there were none that were gender-neutral. I don’t mean the gender of the baby doll itself, but rather their gender coding. All of those dolls wore pink, and all of them were female.

I often go to Kmart. They have a huge variety of toddler toys, are very cheap and have a generic brand A-Z that I like very much because A) while there’s lots of plastic stuff, there’s lots of wooden stuff too, B) their toys are often very simple but entertaining to a young child, like a wooden train or set of plastic food items, and C) their toys are largely gender neutral. This last part is important to me. Their trucks are not all blue and tea sets not all pink. They sell little play vacuum cleaners and irons and kettles and other things that kids will see Daddy and Mummy using every day, and there are pictures of both boys and girls on the packaging, while the toys themselves are coloured red and blue or green and yellow.

There are some pretty obvious reasons why gender neutral toys are important. Firstly, toys often represent a way for children to play that allows them to reenact what they see in their lives. Sebastian loves to have tea parties, because his family drink tea. He likes to play with toy tractors and cars and trucks because he sees so many varieties in the country. He likes to cuddle baby dolls because babies get cuddled. He likes to draw, and roll dough, and dance to Angelina Ballerina on the telly, and he has a little play kitchen near our kitchen, where he will pretend to cook an egg while myself or Alex cook. He likes to clean because people around him do. He is using imaginative play to express the patterns and behaviours he sees the people in his life have.

If pink is a girl’s colour, which I don’t think anybody can deny society teaches us, and all baby dolls are dressed in pink, this tells us that only girls are supposed to like babies. Only girls are supposed to want to cuddle and nurture. Only girls are supposed to have a baby they might know in real life, or see an adult with a baby. This is a girl’s toy, and by colour coding it pink the toy manufacturer has signaled it is off limits to a boy.

Sebastian’s baby doll is called Brienne, and he likes to cuddle her and pat her back and make us cuddle her too. He has no idea that the colour pink means he’s not supposed to play with it. And we won’t be telling him that either.

While there are relatively few toddler-aged toys I see that are gender coded, there are still some pretty glaring examples. I would really like a simple doll house for Sebastian. Unfortunately, the A-Z dollhouse is pink. I say unfortunately because I’d prefer something non-gender coded, and refusing to buy items that are specifically aimed at a boy or a girl at this point is my only method of protest. 90% of the dollhouses I’ve seen are pink. I’m currently deliberating over a Fisher Price dollhouse (here), and while I feel like an effort has been made not to colour code it (while a floor of the house is pink, there’s also some blue in there too), it’s like whoever designed the packaging rebelled and slapped pink all over the box and a picture of a little girl playing with the house just in case the toy itself gave you the wrong idea.

Interestingly, while hunting for a direct link to this product so I could happily hotlink the photograph above, I found a Little People dollhouse that I had not seen in my hunt at Kmart or any of the other major stores:

Genuinely non-gendered?

Little People is a subsidiary brand of Fisher Price, and are almost always non-gendered with their toys. I love them like crazy, and the above picture makes me love them more – no dominant blue or pink on the toy itself, and a little boy playing with it. It does make me wonder, however, why I didn’t see this on sale anywhere else – is it the buyers for these stores choosing not to stock non-gendered toys when it comes to dolls and houses?

The whole dollhouse thing is important to me because it seems amazingly idiotic to gender it pink, as a girl-specific toys. Kids live in houses, usually with their parents (or family at the very least), and love imaginative play that revolves around their lives. Why is that a girl-only thing most of the time?

When I walk through the toy section of any store, I see my future there. Right now, Sebastian has the freedom of brightly coloured toys that aren’t aimed at any gender in particular most of the time. But once you start getting into the aisles with toys for older kids, the shift is dramatic. There are trucks, planes, trains and building kits that all show a boy on the packaging. And there are makeup kits, dolls, nail polish and creepy furry cats and dogs that move, that all show a girl on the packaging. In fact, while the packaging for a boy’s toy might be colourful and reflect the item itself, the packaging for a girl’s toy is almost always pink. Read this powerful article about Pinkification for a much more eloquent statement of the rules at play here than I can provide.

Gender coding toys seems really, really stupid to me. I mean, society has been in a state of shifting values for a long time – while the mother may stay home with the baby for a while because of the logistics of breastfeeding and birth-recovery (and the fact that most men earn more so therefore it makes more sense for the higher-earner to stay at work, therefore reducing the woman’s potential lifetime income and career advances even further, but that’s-another-post), mothers no longer stay at home forever and ever, keeping house and getting dinner on the table by six. Men are now, for the most part, deeply involved in child-rearing and housekeeping and cooking – all the nurturing aspects of life that are traditionally female roles. So if Sebastian’s daddy has rocked him to sleep and feeds him and changes him and bathes him and plays with him, why the hell can’t I find a baby doll that isn’t wearing pink so Sebastian can do the same? Why aren’t there baby dolls for boys, or ones just wearing green?

Why is it that today when I went to buy a little toy bath for Brienne, Sebastian’s doll, the only ones I could find were pink? Does Sebastian not take baths? Why can’t he have a toy – aimed at him or, even better no gender in particular – that lets him play in a loving and nurturing role?

Gender coding toys is like trying to draw some very straight lines in the sand right before the tide comes in. Sebastian will (hopefully) grow up in a society where gender transgression becomes more and more normalized and acceptable; he will grow up with his parents teaching him that gender equality is for men and women, boys and girls, and works both ways – that while a girl can do everything he can do, he can do everything a girl does too. He can play with cars and trucks and then play house and dress-ups. He can build forts and wear nail polish. He can do whatever makes him happy, because society’s gender stereotypes are outdated and a bit useless.

So to toy makers who gender code their toys, I want to say this: that water is coming in to wash away those lines in the sand, do why even bother drawing them?

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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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