Before having children I never understood what friends with children were on about when they complained of not having enough time to themselves. Now, of course, with two children of my own and nearly seven weeks of summer holidays, I know only too well.
After seven weeks of motherhood I can’t quite believe that this time next week I’ll be liberated from it. This time next week I’ll be able to attend the morning yoga class I’ve missed these last two months. During term-time, 9.30am is almost mid-morning. This morning – after an evening building sandcastles with friends at their beach shack – we’re still in the kitchen eating breakfast in the kitchen.
And yet there’s a way in which I don’t want these holidays to end. This is a new feeling. Last summer holidays I didn’t feel it. By the beginning of February last year I was panting for the holidays to end so that I could pick up the reins of my own life. But not this year. It’s as if this year I’ve suddenly got it. I finally understand how much being a mother means to me, just when I can catch a glint my life without children.
I feel in no hurry to get to the light I can see at the end of the tunnel. What, after all, is the rush? What’s so good, I wonder, about no longer being needed? More to the point, what’s so good about no longer having children to make sandcastles on the beach with on long summer’s evenings?
My son is busy weaning himself off family. These days he physically towers over me, his diminutive mother. In a few months’ time he’ll be behind the wheel of a car. Wheeling his broken bike to the bike shop just now – trashed at the waterfront a few nights ago – I had to walk my fastest just to keep up with his ambling pace.
The man at the bike shop looks straight at my son. ‘You’ll have to ride your old beaten-up bike to the waterfront’, he says, surveying the damage. ‘This one will always be an easy target for young men who’ll never get to own a bike like yours’. My son holds his hands together in front of him, and looks directly into the man’s eyes.
My daughter, on the other hand, isn’t about to wean herself off me any time soon. Given her brother’s passion for crewing on a tall ship, she and I have been together more than ever these holidays. Sensing her loss, I’ve made up for the slack of his absence by giving her more of me. Over these past weeks we’ve been on adventures together, lots of them – kayaking in a lagoon, riding Segways through the forest, and enjoying a bumpy cruise as far as the Southern Ocean. And, when the bushfires were burning and the burning heat made staying indoors the only place to be, we made an animal patchwork quilt for her bed.
In between times I’ve fretted that I should be spending more time in my study. I should, I tell myself, be taking my career more seriously. I should be working properly late at night – rather than, as I’ve tended to do, falling asleep on my desk and sleeping in the next morning.
Frustrated with my inability not to put family first, I turn to my husband – who has no trouble putting his work before family. Never one to reassure he tells me shortly that if I were a bus driver, say, with a full-time job, there would be no conflict. I would be into my uniform and off with first light – leaving my kids to their own devices whether they were on holiday or not. I’d have no choice, he points out. That’s just the way it would be.
But I’m not a bus driver. I’m a writer who works from home. And a mother who finds it impossible to shut my kids out of my head – even when, as I occasionally do, I shut my study door.
Besides, my kids know that I’m not a bus driver. They know that throughout their childhood I’ve put them first. Each morning at breakfast, over these last weeks, my daughter has asked me, ‘What are we doing today?’ Not, ‘What am I doing today?’
This is not what the young people who trashed my son’s bike after leaving the pub would have said to their mother during school holidays. They, I expect, had to fend from themselves from a very young age.
The man in the bike shop stares at my son’s new bike, and then down at the concrete floor. He looks up again. ‘Really sorry, but that smashed up derailer is the most expensive bit on the bike. It’s been made especially for that model. I’ll have to order it in from overseas. Could take weeks and will cost a good few hundred. Sorry’.
A pause follows, during which I have that ‘Oh God’ feeling that parents feel when faced with unexpected costs. (Like the cost of my daughter’s new runners for her flat feet – but don’t let me start on that.) Then the man laughs aloud. ‘Got you’, he says, grinning.
Exactly a week ago I ran out of things to do with my daughter in the school holidays. Yesterday, after heavy rain, I suggested a visit to the Botanical Gardens – a favourite place for us both. But I could sense that something was wrong as soon as we turned off the highway. There was smoke in the air.
‘Not another fire’, I say to Emma.We skirt the Botanical Gardens and drive up a road that snakes on to the Domain. Seven weeks have passed since I last headed up the path that I take into the bush after school drop-off. The bush is drier than ever. Even the leaves look thirsty. ‘Please no’, I say to myself, as we drive up the hill. ‘Please don’t let my walk be burnt’.
But it is burnt. Young people who have nothing better to do with their lives have set alight an area of bush that for two years I’ve walked through, losing myself in thought – shrugging off the mother I am before school and slipping into the writer I am when my kids aren’t around.
My bike has been trashed too, I think to myself. Why should my bushwalk be spared? My daughter, noticing the tears in my eyes, tells me the arsonists should be hung, drawn and quartered – sounding sterner than her thirteen years.
It takes a village to raise a child – of course it does. However this begs a stark question. Who has raised the all young people, in this small city, for whom destructiveness is a toy? Who has convinced them that their lives are worth nothing more than a few kicks and, if caught, years in jail?
My son is outside putting together his old bashed-up bike – currently scattered in bits on the bricks. My daughter is upstairs learning Morse code – yes really. This is their childhood. Not for that much longer, but still their childhood. Unlike the young people looking for trouble on the waterfront, or playing with matches on the Domain, my children haven’t had to grow up too quickly. They’re among the lucky ones. They are loved, and know themselves to be. Their lives won’t be one long summer holiday. They have a whole life ahead of them. Already my son has a hint of things to come.
Now that they’re old enough to cook lunch for themselves, they are reluctant to ask me, ‘What’s for lunch?’ Or, more abruptly,‘When’s lunch?’ Instead they’ll come into the kitchen, or open my study door, and give me that ‘I’m hungry’ look. They are giving it to me now.