Letting go

by Louise Hartley


“No guns,” I said. “Guns are bad.”
I always knew what kind of parent I would be. I would have standards. There is nothing worse than a badly behaved child, and it all starts when the parents fail to stand firm.

Then one day I turned around in K-Mart and saw my smiling daughter clutching a plastic machine of death. “Dad said if we were good, we could get a Nerf Cannon!”

I glared at my husband. “What happened to ‘if you don’t like violence, don’t buy your children violent toys’?”
He shrugged. “It gets them outside.”
Last time I counted there were seventeen Nerf guns beneath the kids’ beds. But it does get them outside. I’ve learned to let it go.

*  *  *

“No lollies,” I said. “Sugar is bad.”

I made vegetable purees and took to heart the nurse’s advice that sugary bananas should be limited to half a day.

A less-diligent friend brought her son to play, along with donuts to share. “Do you eat sugar?” she said, as I tried to wrestle the treat back out of my screaming toddler’s hand.

I reddened, thinking of how often I would stick my head in the cupboard and quickly slip a secret Tim-Tam into my mouth. I let him eat half the donut — and, later, a whole banana. After all, what kind of hyper-organised Mum manages to save half a banana for the next day without mashing it all over the inside of her handbag? Not me. I’ve learnt to let it go.

*  *  *

“No smacking,” I said. “Smacking is bad.”

I walked into the living room and counted seven black scribbles, dotted across the wall — one still in production by my not-quite-two-year-old’s enthusiastic hand.  I’d spent months painting that wall, in tiny sections each evening during the tiny window between the last child falling asleep and me collapsing from exhaustion into my own bed. “Oh no!” I said.

“Spider,” he said proudly. The little hand clutched the crayon — wax, which stains through umpteen layers of paint and requires sealing and resealing, hours of extra work for which I do not have the time.

“Naughty!” I shouted, trying not to burst into tears at all those late nights wasted. I grabbed the crayon. He bit my wrist. You can’t reason with a mostly pre-verbal toddler. You have to send a message that they won’t forget. I raised my hand, braced. It was time to let go of another pointless principle.

Smacking never hurt me. It was one on the wrist for cheekiness, two on the bum for fighting and the spoon for the time Dad fell off the ladder because I thought it would be funny to jump out from the curtains and scare him. “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” Mum would say. And I would think, “But how can it, when you don’t have red finger marks still fading on your arm?”

The last time I got a smack, I was twelve. We were on the front path playing with the children next door. My Mum was chatting to their Mum and we, the kids, were pretending to be Mums, noses in the air shouting “Blah, blah, blah!”

“Be quiet!” The sting on my thigh stunned me. For a second I couldn’t breathe. I ran, straight to the bathroom so no one could see I’d peed my pants from the shock and the pain and the embarrassment of being castigated like a two-year-old in front of my friends.

She tried again a few times, when I was even older, but I’d started to realise that the slaps always came when she was slow and tired, half-cut or hung over. I started to stare her down. Hit me again and I’ll tell everyone what’s really in that water bottle in your handbag.

I grew up strong, so smacking can’t have hurt me. It made me who I am. Sometimes I think of something sassy to say and I remember the sting on the back of my legs and bite my tongue. People usually think I’m shy or standoffish. If I see something I disagree with I tend not to get involved — better to do nothing than suffer the consequences of doing the wrong thing.

I stared at my flat-palmed hand, hanging mid-fall, like a tossed coin. Heads or tails? To smack or not to smack?

I let my hand fall — gently to my side. I unstiffened my fingers. I let the anger go.

I shot my hands around his waist and toppled us both over backwards. My lips kissed the top of his head. “If you draw spiders on my wall, Mummy will turn into a giant spider and tickle you to death.”

“Let’s find some paper,” I said. “Let’s draw together.”
He grinned. “Spider!”
“Okay and we’ll leave the spiders on the wall for now — then clean them off together, okay?”
He giggled.
“No smacking,” I whispered, burying my lips in his hair once more. “Because I am not her. Because you are mine. Because we can find another way.”


© Louise Hartley

“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.

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* Gloria Steinem