Zach stares at me and groans. Two simple words have shattered his rocking chair reverie.
“She’s only been awake for an hour and a half.”
“She just had a big yawn.”
“Shouldn’t we give her another thirty minutes?”
“She’s not a leg of lamb, hon.”
He mutters something under his breath and fiddles with the yin-yang ring on his right thumb. “Are we trying the…new strategy?”
“The last throw of the dice? Yes. We are.”
“No. It’s somewhere between covering the eyes and driving across the border.”
Zach rubs his temples and hauls himself out of the chair.
“Sydney here we come.”
The rumpus room – the only room in the house with an air-conditioner, the only room providing any semblance of relief from Brisbane’s hottest December since 1912 – has settled into a familiar, ominous calm. Conversation has stopped. The TV and its parade of awful Christmas telemovies are turned off. The silence is suffocating save the pulse of two small mantras: the ‘thoonga-hee…thoonga-hee…thoonga-hee’ of the motorised swing’s pivot and the ‘sjuh-sjuh-sjuh’ of Aidan’s dummy work. Outside the sliding glass door, past the deck and away from the house, the faintest traces of a thousand and one summer sounds can be detected. Planes and trains. Shouts and laughter. The splashes of a backyard pool and the bark of an excited dog. Zach and I suspect they are indicators of life beyond the rumpus room. They might simply be the leftover echoes of our childless past.
Towards the centre of the space, beside a massage table littered with nappies, liners, baby-wipes and other bum-related bric-a-brac, Emma eases backward and forward – ‘thoonga-hee…thoonga-hee’ – dividing her blue-eyed, dimple-cheeked attention between the swing’s right arm and the scrunched up toes of her left foot, promising nothing less than an encounter with the most agreeable angel in God’s good heaven. In the past, Emma’s serene swing act brought about delusions – Settling infant twins can be hassle free…My capabilities are up to the task…The Wolf Blass can stay in the fridge tonight… Prescriptions offered by try-hard textbooks (“Establish a routine and you can’t miss!”) and self-appointed tutors (“Give them a good pat on the bottom, love”) seemed more like pearls of wisdom and less like rocks in their head.
Today there are no delusions, no prescriptions, just prayers:
May a history of hassles abounding, capabilities coming into serious question and Wolf Blass not touching the sides come to an end…May the heaviest burden upon my hunching motherly shoulders be eased by the tryptophan of eighties’ music…May this day, December 19th 2001, see my daughter sleep with Lionel Richie…
Zach is preparing the arena; straightening sheets, adjusting curtains, plugging in the ghetto blaster. His potential for baby disturbance is minimal, courtesy of bare feet and silk boxer shorts. Mercifully, yesterday’s flapping thongs and swishing polyester boardies lay heaped in the corner closest to our mattress. He takes Aidan out of the rocker, gives him a kiss.
“Try to sleep with your fingers in your ears, mate.”
He puts our son in his cot and gives me a thumbs-up. Emma looks over her shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of Daddy. When her efforts prove unsuccessful, she grabs hold of the swing frame – ‘thoonga-hee…thoonga-yag yag yag yag yag yag yag… – bringing the conveyance to a dead stop She flashes a big toothless grin, lifts a leg and uncorks a robust fart.
The faint sounds of the parallel universe beyond the rumpus room peter out to nothing.
“She’s been okay for a while now.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
“I’m not, I’m not…It has been a while though, hasn’t it.”
“About the usual.”
“Oh, okay…What’s the signal again? The one that says she’s going to go ballistic?”
“The ‘Hamstring Stretch’. When she lifts her legs straight up out of the cot.”
“Well, she hasn’t done any of that.”
After quietly replacing the sheet on the toy mat and extra-quietly sweeping the surrounding floor, I skirt the swing and stand beside the spare wardrobe. From here, I can see Aidan and I’m hidden from Emma. A is zonked out in his position of choice – on the side, head back, each arm cuddling a coloured cloth nappy, one leg pushing against the cot’s middle bar, the other splayed through the adjacent gap. His eyelids are nine tenths closed and his eyeballs have rolled back in their sockets. The chunky breathing, although untroubled, suggests his nose should put out a ‘No Vacancy’ sign.
“Mr Reliable,” I whisper.
I blow him a kiss and drift back across the room. Zach is lying on the mattress reading ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama.
“Getting centred before the assault?” I ask.
“As a matter of fact – yes.” He flicks back a page or two. “This bit is about recognising frustration and stress as signposts on the road to anger and doing something about them before you reach that destination. So if things get difficult with Em-”
“When things get difficult.”
“Whatever. If and when things get difficult, I have a plan that will keep anger at bay.”
“What is it?”
Zach leaps up off the Sealy and fronts me. After a dramatic pause, he opens his mouth wide.
“You’re going to the dentist.”
He closes his mouth and gives his chin a rub. “I’m following the Dalai Lama’s advice. You know how I grit my teeth when I’m frustrated? Well, I’m going to stop it. When I feel the clench start, I’m going wide open. The anger cue will be derailed and I’ll be a much calmer Dad. What do you reckon?”
I want to ask him if the presently gaping fly of his boxer shorts is some sort of extra insurance. “Go for it,” I reply. “Emma’s first word will be ‘tonsils’, but hey...”
Zach smiles then prods and pokes his cheeks. “The book also talks about self-created suffering and that one of the ways we do that is by worrying about things which, ultimately, may not happen. The whole thing of crossing the bridge when you…ow! Why’d you throw Timmy Tiger at me?”
He looks up and follows the direction of my gesticulating finger. Two pudgy feet emerge out of Em’s cot like soldiers from a bunker, straining and stretching, lifting higher than any previous record and accompanied by a low growl that could frighten a postman.
I crack my knuckles and wonder if Zach can dislocate his jaw.
Emma isn’t sinking today.
Crying Stage One, characterised by a deep, unceasing, cow-like moan, and typically spanning ten to fifteen minutes, lasted a mere thirty seconds before the whingey shouts and drool-soaked raspberries of Crying Stage Two kicked in. Several soothing strategies have already been thrown on the scrap heap: pats on the bum, changes of position, the dummy (it’s lying on the floor near the pot-bellied stove, a good five metres away, courtesy of a remarkable spit). My current tactic is the ‘shoosh-shoosh’ whilst keeping her eyes covered with a cloth nappy. If I’m lucky, it’ll delay Crying Stage Three for a few minutes.
Is she aware of my plan? Does she know a showdown is imminent? Is her haste a statement to the effect that she is unfazed?
‘Bring it on, Mum! Whatever pathetic crooner you’ve got up your sleeve, they’re no match for my lungs!’
She has good reason to feel confident. Up till now, our music has only made things worse. Indigo Girls caused her to weep tears the size of golf balls. Simon and Garfunkel had her punching the mattress with both fists. Jeff Buckley made her scream. Sting made her poo. Surprisingly, she tolerated Aussie Crawl’s slower stuff for a brief period; in hindsight, she was probably trying to work out the lyrics.
Zach temporarily abandons his Aidan post and joins me at the head of Em’s cot. He gives me a hug that’s warm and tender and not at all spoiled by his wide-open mouth. Inside the cot, our little girl is in a small plateau phase, although she maintains her wrestle with the soft, furry obstruction shielding her eyes. After thirty seconds or so, she flings the nappy clear of her face and begins looking around in all directions, searching. I yank Zach’s arm, backing him up several paces.
“Sorry” I whisper. “Too exciting for her right now.”
It’s easy to understand why Emma finds us exciting. I’m in my PJ’s. He hasn’t shaved. My eyes are bloodshot. His hair is standing straight up. I haven’t had a shower in two days and he hasn’t cleaned his teeth since last night. If we were any more irresistible we’d need the Salvation Army. We retreat a few more steps.
“Where’s the remote for the ghetto blaster?” I ask.
Zach finds it under a milk-soaked bib, wipes it on his shorts and hands it to me.
“The CD’s right to go?”
“You haven’t snuck Nirvana in there, have you? You’re not still thinking ‘fight fire with fire’?”
“Okay, good. You ready for this?”
“I can’t believe it’s come to this – Lionel Richie! What’s next? Going to see the bugger at Twin Towns?”
“If that health nurse is right, if he does the trick, I’ll be front row, colour poster in one hand, panties in the other, unconscious daughter in the seat beside.”
Zach rubs his temples then cradles his face. “This is the end of civilization as we know it.”
The plateau is over. A sad, sorrowful ‘Waaaaahhh, bwa-bwa-bwa…Waaaaahhh, bwa-bwa-bwa’ indicates Crying Stage Three is underway. Zach returns to his position beside Aidan’s cot. He’s fighting the urge to grit his teeth and losing. His neck muscles are taut and the open mouth has been squeezed down to a grotesque grin. I step forward and right, allowing clear passage for the remote signal. Listening to my little girl trolling the depths of despair breaks my heart, but one way or another, she’ll be comforted soon.
I hold the remote out at arm’s length and press the play button.
I’m standing here leaning over Emma’s cot and she’s not screaming, not crying, not whingeing, not looking, not moving, still breathing, not dead.
Her head’s turned to the side and buried in a pink nappy. Her legs are flopped outwards and laying flat on the mattress.
Zach is standing beside me. His mouth is fully open again, but it has nothing to do with derailing anger.
I close my eyes for a moment, the syrupy first verse of ‘Stuck On You’ filling my senses. I open my eyes. Nothing’s changed. Everything’s the same.
She’s asleep! In her bed!
SHE’S ASLEEP IN HER BED!!!
I look around the rumpus room and marvel at the apparent change. The space is bigger. The clutter is smaller. The light has improved. The air is fresher. I walk toward the ghetto blaster and realise change is not exclusive to the surrounding environment. My back is straighter. My shoulders roll with ease. The painful feet and creaky knees function like well-oiled machines. The mind, free of blinkers, released from the persistent dull throb of a three-day headache, sparks and fires and shifts into high gear:
The washing can be finished up before six…The floor can be vacuumed and mopped…The sheets on the bed can be changed…Dinner can be prepared before the next feed…E-mail can be checked…The palm fronds in the front yard can be removed…A colour can be put in my hair…A sandwich can be made…The newspaper can be read…A book can be savoured…
Life can be lived!
I pick up the CD case for ‘Can’t Slow Down’ and stare at the seated, devil-may-care troubadour on the cover, casually chic in a powder blue shirt/white pants/white shoes ensemble and sporting an afro-mullet with moustache accessory.
“Hello,” I say. “Is it me you’re looking for?”
Still holding the CD case, I open the sliding glass door leading to the deck and step outside. The heat has subsided a few degrees and a gentle breeze sways the nearby leopard tree. The neighbours, Louise and David, are entertaining a dozen friends, downing a Christmas drink or two. Somewhere amidst the din, a baby begins to cry – ‘Wee-ahh! Wee-ahh! Wee-ahh!’ – cueing the requisite ‘ohhhh’s and ‘there-there’s.
I move to the end of the deck and wave the CD case in the air.
“Hey! Play some of this!”
All heads turn my way. Louise puts her drink down on the barbecue table and moves to the front of the throng. She looks startled. Not surprising given the last time she saw me, four months ago, I was wearing the same pyjamas.
“Are you okay, Dana?”
“How are the twins?”
“Perfect. Look, I’m very sorry to interrupt, but I thought you should try playing some of this. Lionel Richie. He’s wonderful! He’ll stop that baby crying over there quick smart!”
A puzzled Louise enters into a short discussion with the nearest couple then ushers a svelte blonde woman forward. The infant on her hip is pincer-gripping her necklace. “Bryden hasn’t opened his mouth since he got here, Dana. That’s why his cute face is totally covered in apple sauce.” She shrugs. “We actually thought it might be Emma.”
‘Wee-ahh! Wee-ahh! Wee-ahh!’
I shake my head. It’s not Emma, that’s for damn sure. Em is calm, settled, at peace with the world, the antithesis of a fire truck siren. And it can’t be Aidan…because he…never…
‘WEE-AHH! WEE-AHH! WEE-AHH!’
As I lunge for the sliding glass door the CD case slips from my grasp and crashes to the deck.
I place Aidan inside his cot. He’s hot and clammy and his face resembles an overripe tomato.
Turns out he’s a chip off the old block – he hates Lionel Richie as much as his father. Zach might take particular pride in that fact later. Right now, he’s out in the car with Emma. He could barely prise his lips open to give me a kiss before leaving. I suspect he loaded Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ into the CD stacker especially for the trip.
I hope he rings me when he gets to Sydney.
“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