Jo and I met in a tutorial at uni. Back then I envied her good posture and confidence, the legacy of a private girls’ school. Once we grew up enough to marry and buy real wood furniture, I envied Jo’s renovated character home on a tree-lined street ten minutes from the city.
Thanks to her preschoolers, Anthony and Blake, my envy has dissipated. Jake, my husband, fondly refers to the boys as the ‘Demolition Duo’. Less fondly, my brother Grant dubbed them ‘The Spawn’ after they attended his school holiday production of Cinderella. Jo limits the kids to cinema now, or, better yet, waits for the DVD.
I park my rust-speckled hatch behind Jo’s late model Volvo, and follow the brick, petunia-flanked path to the front door. Even with water restrictions, Jo’s garden is green. More impressively still, the verandah is clear of the kind of debris found at my place: boxes of newspapers, broken tools, spider-infested shoes.
My finger on the bell triggers hubbub. The dog barks, footsteps approach, a child screams. Jo opens the door. Dog and child jump at me like hungry predators. “Down, Hedwig! Sorry, Anna.”
It’s been too long between visits if she feels the need to apologise about the spoodle.
I follow her through the wood-framed photo-gallery doubling as a hallway. Jo has made an art out of cataloguing her family’s growing up years in something other than a shoe box. When I have more time—after the baby is born—I plan to do this too.
I sit at the breakfast bar, dog on the floor beside me. Jo pulls a tray of biscuits from the oven.
“You baked for me? You shouldn’t have.”
“They made Anzac bickies on Play School today.” Jo slides the biscuits from tray to plate. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Blake dashes into the kitchen and burns his hand on the baking tray. Jo runs his hand under water. “How’s work, how’s Jake?” she asks over Blake’s wails.
“Jake and work are fine…”
She wipes Blake’s tears, deals him a biscuit and directs him out the back door. I remember why our visits dropped off after Jo’s first baby: impossible to get eye contact, maximum communication three words long.
Jo looks up long enough to confirm I’m still here. “Tea? Coffee?”
Now is my chance to tell her my news. I don’t take it. “Just a glass of water, thanks.”
We carry drinks and biscuits to the picnic table on the back patio so that Jo can supervise Blake, who at four apparently still needs it. I am convinced of this when Blake goes into the house to use the toilet and returns with a plastic bag over his head. Jo pulls off the bag, explains about suffocation and points him toward the swing set.
I nibble at a biscuit.
“So how are you really?” Jo asks.
“Mum! I need a push on the swing!” Blake bellows.
Hedwig sighs and adjusts snout on paw.
Jo pushes the little tyrant, then returns to her tea and me. “Kids.”
I smile as if I understand. I am about to try to share my news again when Blake screams for help from up the lemon tree.
Hedwig looks at me mournfully.
Jo manoeuvres Blake to the ground and returns. She picks the bark out of her hair and rubs the dirt from her jeans. “We haven’t had any broken bones yet.”
“I’m pregnant,” I say, as if this is a natural transition from broken bones.
Her grin is genuine. “Congratulations! I thought you seemed different.”
“Green about the gills.”
I nod. “It’s been miserable.”
“Tell me about it. Three months of nausea with Anthony. Five months with Blake. Have you tried all the home remedies?”
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things my mum brought over. Ginger capsules helped for a while.”
“How about Sea Bands?”
“Sea Bands. Those elastic bracelet acupressure sort of things. I’ll see if I can find them.”
Jo returns with two grey hair elastics with a plastic marble sewn into the centre. She positions one on each of my wrists.
“You wore these in public?” I look like a tennis player or a hospital escapee.
“It was winter. I had long sleeves.”
“Did they help?”
“Sometimes the sleeves would ride up and then I’d get the odd glance or two.”
“I meant, did the Sea Bands help.”
“Oh! Sorry. I had good days and bad days. The nausea was gone by month five.”
“And then you felt fine the rest of the pregnancy?”
“I didn’t say that!” She takes a sip of tea, leaving me to imagine the details. “So how’s Jake handling the news?”
“You know Jake. Mr Enthusiasm at first. Less thrilled when the vomiting started. He has a problem with bodily fluids, apparently.”
Jo laughs. “They’re all like that. Give him a few weeks with a newborn and he’ll get over it.”
“I think the most difficult part for him is that I’ve banned him from eating hot dogs.”
“Some genuine suffering, then.” Jo scans the yard for Blake. “I worry when he’s quiet.” She turns back to me. “You know, I think marriage and parenting are alike in a lot of ways. You have these expectations of how a husband should act, how your child’s going to be. Then you get to know them and it’s not like you expected at all.”
Blake chooses this moment to walk by with an axe.
“Excuse me,” Jo says.
Hedwig opens one eye, then closes it again.
“I keep telling Ian to put a lock on the shed,” Jo says when she sits back down. “At least it was only the hatchet.”
At least, being Australia, there are no guns in the house.
Miraculously, we are able to converse for a few minutes without being interrupted. I get to hear about the complexities of holidaying with children and renovating a bathroom. It’s my turn to talk when Jo peeks at her watch. “Is it that time already? Anthony will kill me if I’m late picking him up again. He already complains that Blake’s the favourite. Heaven knows why.” Jo collects our cups and the full biscuit plate. I follow her to the kitchen. Hedwig trots behind me.
“You can hang on to the Sea Bands, if you like,” Jo says. “I’ll let you know if I need them.”
“Are you planning on needing them?”
She rinses the cups under the tap. “Only if I can get Ian to agree. He thinks two is enough. Blake!” she shouts. “Get your shoes on! It’s time to pick up your brother!”
“What’s to agree to?” I tease. “You go to bed early one night…”
Jo retrieves a lipstick from a bowl on the windowsill. “Short of birth control sabotage, that’s not going to work.” She applies a red curve to each lip. “You can’t just go and get pregnant on a whim.”
From my experience one could, without even the whim as excuse.
She notices the look on my face. “Oh. I didn’t mean—”
And it is okay, even though our visit ends without further conversation. Blake ambles in, has his hands and face washed forcibly, and is then propelled, shoes in hand, to the car. By the time I get into my car I’m out of breath, and I didn’t do more than hold down a glass of water. I didn’t ask my list of questions about hospitals, birth centres, pain relief. But it doesn’t matter. I’d see Jo again. In the meantime, there were other sources to consult. Books. Magazines. The internet. Sources that could divulge their information without interruption. Sources that, when followed, were unlikely to produce a child like Blake.
“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