Breathe in, “Zoe, you need to get dressed, please. I have to drop you off at Oma and Opa’s before I go to work.”
Silence. Breathe out. “Zoe. Zoe.”Does she listen to me at all? “ZOE!”
My four-year-old finally turns her head around from the TV, with my necklace around her forehead like she’s an Arabian princess.
Breathe in. I can feel my teeth grinding and I sink down. Breathe out. I growl – not the controlled authoritative I was aiming for – “Zoe, you know you’re not supposed to play with my jewellery. How many times do I have to tell you? This is NOT a toy.”
As I snatch it off her head I can see SuperNanny standing over me, tut-tutting her finger. I grab the remotes, jabbing at the buttons, “No more TV. Get dressed – NOW!”
That’s done it, even Kaz Cooke is throwing her books at me.
“You’re not fair!” Zoe stomps away from me.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
We finally leave, 20 minutes late. I’m now thankful that my parents live so close, although I had been initially apprehensive. They have looked after Zoe once a week since she was eight months old. I hadn’t intended starting back at work that soon, but with a sizeable mortgage there was no choice. And mum was more than happy to look after her if it meant she was going to day-care one day less.
Mum opens the door, gives me a distracted hello, and says brightly, “Aha, Zoe!”
“Oma!” Zoe bounds in, throws off her shoes, hugs her Oma and doesn’t look back. Some days it’s hard to ignore.
“She had a slight cough last night,” I report.
“Did you rub Vicks?” Mum is instantly concerned. I nod, remembering how much I hated the smell when I was little.
“OK,” Mum seems satisfied.
“OK, see you after work, then.”
I remember my few weeks off work before Zoe arrived: anxiously duck-waddling around the house, studying books on how to lovingly baby-whisper, patiently kid-wrangle and firmly toddler-tame. I wasn’t going to resort to bribery or yelling; I wasn’t going to use TV as a babysitter; I wasn’t going to serve up separate meals, or red food dye or sugar after 3.00pm. I was full of wasn’ts.
And I thought I was ready.
I watched my best intentions get pushed around the dinner plate and spat out; overwhelmed by tantrums; silenced by the TV while I napped; and eroded by the constantness of it all. I had given birth. That rite of passage was supposed to activate of my Mother Teresa gene. Why had it failed? I didn’t feel instinctual, infinitely patient or benevolently strong. I wasn’t what I imagined I’d be.
Back at my parents’ place after work, Zoe comes running up to me in a hug. She’s warm and sticky and it feels good.
Zoe hangs onto my leg as I balance to take off my shoes.
“Mama,” her voice is muffled into my pants, “Mama?”
“Mhmmm,”I’m now trying to stop my bag from slipping off my shoulder as I gently shake my leg free of Zoe. She only laughs and holds on tighter.
Suddenly she quietens, “Mama, I broke your blue necklace. It was a accident. Sorry, Mama.”
I feel exasperation washing in and I want to let it take me. But I know I can’t. Breathe in.
“I’m disappointed, Zoe. You know you’re not supposed to play with Mama’s jewellery.” My voice is flat, like the eye of the storm. I’m ready to walk away when something tugs at me – she didn’t have to tell me. I realise I can’t let that wash away in the storm. She releases my leg and before she runs away I add, “But thank you, for telling me.”
Silence. She’s gone. I sit down at the kitchen table with a sigh and a cup of tea.
Mum sits opposite me, “Zoe was telling me a story today about a blue necklace that she broke and that it belonged to Mama. She told me a few times, the same story. It must have been on her mind, yeah?” \
I nod, ruefully.
Mum continues,“I ask her if she had told you. She said no. I ask her why not? And she said because Mama would get angry. So I told her that you wouldn’t, and it was important to tell you.”
Mum looks down at her hands for a moment, “After you came back she said she told you and that you weren’t angry but you were disappointed. I told her of course you would be disappointed, but that is OK. And then she said Mama said thank you for telling me.”
My mouth drops into a soft Oh, at the same time as my heart.
Mum wipes at her eye and stutters, “Thank you – for telling her that – because she trusts you.”Mum taps her hand to her chest,“and now she will also trust what I tell her.” She bobs her head.
We don’t need to say anything more. Everything is suddenly closer and I feel warmed. I feel maternal. I don’t even realise I’ve been holding my breath. Breathe out.
Take that, SuperNanny.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem