I lean against the space exhibit, weary as Dunlop. Another night of three-hourly feeds, another morning of toddler dramas. I am new to juggling two, and I feel like a dropped ball. And so I crawl to the National Science Museum, a haven of air-conditioning, child-entertainment, and horizontal surfaces.
The kids’ room there is full of parents like me – exhausted and out of ideas. Mums wearing babies and frazzled faces chase sticky toddlers through marine eco-system displays. Dads coach kids to build and climb with an edgy, sleep-deprived intensity. School-aged siblings thunder by, rangy and wild as brumbies. New parents watch them, amazed. Will our nappied darlings ever be so big, need us so little? Will we ever be free of waking, wiping, watching?
My three-year-old is obsessed with the construction zone. Sometimes it is winding plastic bricks up a conveyer belt. Today it is dropping orange balls one by one into a feeding pipe, then pushing a button to release them into a basket which winches itself thrillingly up to the ceiling to empty the balls into a rollercoaster of pipes. The cascade of balls rolls faster and faster down the snaking tubes until they erupt out the bottom into the waiting, joyful arms of a gaggle of little kids. They squeal and grab and elbow to thrust the balls back in the pipe, and keep the mesmerising cycle going.
I sink down onto a nearby bench, like a pilgrim reaching the top of the mountain. I lower my load of snacks, nappy-gear and spare clothes, wondering yet again how two tiny people can need so much stuff. We are next to the ‘bakery’, with its shelves of plastic croissants and cupcakes, and I vaguely see my son sorting through the toy fruit before dashing back to the construction zone.
My baby squirms and nuzzles my chest. I swivel her around and she starts feeding. Milk tingles then spurts from my breasts. My baby cuddles into me, and I lean back in a prolactin daze. Fragments of thoughts, dreamy mumblings, fizz about my sleepless brain. My daughter’s head is sweet heavy softness in the crook of my elbow; her slow blink is lashes then deep-sea blue. She swallows and flexes tiny toes against my belly.
Lost in gazing at my daughter, I look up just in time to see my son standing on tiptoes to reach the feeding pipe. His chubby hand is brandishing a suspicious curved yellow object.
“Jasper NO! Not the banana!” I hiss.
Too late. I watch in horror as he stuffs the plastic banana into the pipe. It slides a foot down then stops at the first bend. Right next to the sign that reads ‘PLEASE ONLY PUT ORANGE BALLS IN THE PIPE’.
Jasper turns, beaming. Perceiving he is alone in his spirit of discovery, he steps instinctively away from the pipe. Scooping my baby and pelvic floor up, I hurry over. The banana is clearly jammed. Helpful children pile more balls into the pipe, to no avail.
Kids start to bleat. Parents start to gather.
“Some kid put a banana in the pipe – and now It’s blocked!”
In not my finest moment, I sidle casually away from the scene of the crime, steering ‘some kid’ before me. I sink down a guilty distance away. A crowd of parents has surrounded the obstructed pipe. Several dads are twiddling with the joins and probing with pretend screwdrivers. Someone calls a staff member over. He eyes the plastic fruit grimly.
He returns with a real toolbox. A sign is put up ‘Exhibit temporarily closed’. As he starts to take apart the pipe the mob of kids close in, snotty and fascinated. Jasper leans longingly toward his experiment, but I hold him back. My baby grunts and her bottom vibrates against my arm, announcing a poo of alarming proportions. I lift her up just as a yellow crescent leaks out the side of her nappy and onto my shirt.
“Shit!” Jasper echoes, with interest. I chose to ignore.
We dash to the toilets.
A poo river has drowned my baby’s jumpsuit. She kicks her legs with bare-bum joy as I begin industrial scale clean-up operations. Jasper stands as far away as possible, fastidiously holding his nose. Mate, I think, not so long ago you were on the other end of the wipe.
By the time we emerge Mr Pipe-fixer has the banana cornered. He slides his hand in and levers it out with surgical triumph, to the admiring adenoidal gasps of his toddler audience. He holds the offending fruit up and glances sternly around. The kids gape and shake their heads, chastised en masse.
Jasper opens his mouth. I yank him back behind a rocket ship. “But –” he starts, as I hurry him through the asteroid belt.
“We’ll talk about it in the car,” I mutter, again distinguishing myself in the moral parent stakes. In fact I feel about five years old myself, slinking away from humiliation. On the up side, neither of my kids notices. They go along trustingly as always, confident in my god-like status.
And so I take a deep breath in my poo-stained shirt, cradle my gorgeous babe closer, and take my curious young scientist by the hand. We weave our way through the planets, circle around the sun, and step out together into the glittering mystery of space.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)