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Posts from the ‘Parenting’ Category

How to write with children (or not)

December 16th, 2015


This is going to be my last post for a little while, as school holidays begin tomorrow and so ends my time to write.

Or does it? How do you write with small people around? I have always found it exceedingly difficult to write fiction when there is any possibility for distraction around me. And my children are not just possibilities for distraction, they are experts in it. They might be elbow-deep in Lego or cubby-building with sofa cushions and bedsheets, but the moment I sit in a chair and open my laptop, they hover around my shoulders, sticky fingers plucking my clothes.

“Can we watch funny dog videos on YouTube?” my daughter asks.

“Can we watch the trailer for the BFG?” my son asks.

I should have known when introducing them to the world of cute animal videos and movie trailers that I would one day regret it. This bulldog chasing his lead is a metaphor for my ability to focus while my children are home from school.

So what can be done? I have learned to just let go and not expect to do anything over these stretches of time, having discovered from experience that if I have unrealistic goals of working while the kids are home I become a cranky, short-tempered troll because I’m not doing what I’m MEANT TO GET DONE!

What I have learned is to expect little, but to keep myself attuned to possibility. That might mean keeping a notebook around to scribble ideas and scraps of information which come to me while we’re immersed in craft or cleaning out their cupboards. I do have to inform them this is MY notebook though, and please don’t scribble, draw, tear pages out for paper airplanes or write magic spells in it. I have found I’m able to take commission for a few short articles or reviews and plan to write them in the evenings or early mornings.

Another trick I’ve learned is to fill in research gaps in my writing – if there is a place or a museum I wanted to visit and it is even remotely kid-friendly, I’ll take them along. My kids have a better understanding than most six and eight-year-olds of early 20th century Sydney and the history of its transportation, gaols and police from when I was researching Long Bay. I still remember our visit to the Sydney Tramways Museum fondly. They didn’t find it quite so exciting.

Writer Ali Luke wrote (in this helpful article) that it is better to focus on the smaller projects rather than the big ones. This might be a good time to try writing a poem which has been eluding me, or to finish an unfinished short story. Is it the time to structure my next novel? Probably not.

Penn also suggests not to feel guilty, which is most important, and not to compare yourself with others who seem to be getting SO much done. I sometimes get asked how I wrote my first novel, What Was Leftwhile my son was two and my daughter four. When people ask how I could possibly write a novel while looking after young children, I tell them the truth.

I didn’t.

The novel came from an idea I had floating around in my head for a year and I really wanted to explore, but every time I tried I was interrupted. And so I paid a babysitter to come every morning five days a week, from 9am to 1pm. Half of the time she was there I wrote the novel, the other half I worked on paid freelance work. Did I make money? Only enough to pay her wages! But it was a choice I made, and one I don’t regret.

Writing is an integral, essential part of me, but so are my children. The right balance will always feel elusive, but I am going to enjoy this break from writing, this unencumbered time with them. What I have realised is that they are just old enough to let me read for short periods uninterrupted. Which I will be doing plenty of in these coming weeks. Hopefully they will as well!

Have you got any secrets of writing with children around? I’d love to hear them.


October 21st, 2015


snail-1550752-640x480When I was a girl my sister and I had pet snails.

We were living in Berlin, West Berlin, because the wall still cleaved the city in two. My father was working for the U.S. State Department – he was a Public Safety Advisor and did things like negotiate prisoner trades between East and West. We had a brick house with six bedrooms across the street from the Botanical Gardens. Before moving to Berlin my parents separated, my father had been having an affair, and he moved out of the house. We were going to live without him, just the three of us, my mother, sister and I. We were going to be fine. But then my parents reconciled and we were all moving to Berlin, packing our life, leaving our friends and home and beginning again in a different part of the world.

Next door to our new house lived a white-haired couple in a place resembling a castle – with actual turrets. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was very kind and had a beautiful garden with ponds and an aviary with parakeets. She grew gooseberries, plump green globules which – if eaten raw – caused the whole face to pucker. In the front of her house she grew lilies of the valley. She showed me how the tiny white flowers clustered and were protected by dark green, shiny leaves. She would bend down to instruct me to smell them, they were sweet but not cloying, a ethereal fragrance.

While gardening this neighbour collected the snails and gave them to us one day in a cracked glass terrarium which her children had once used, long ago. “You might want to cook them, in butter,” she said to my mother, smiling.

My sister and I insisted we would not. We would keep them as our pets. There were at least ten or fifteen snails in that terrarium, some large, some small, all with shells in varying shades of brown. Simply to watch them climb the glass wall was entertaining, the ripple of the muscle in their single foot as it moved, propelling on its own slime.

We took them out one by one, letting them climb us. They left shiny trails of snail mucous along our arms and legs. Snails are curious creatures, once they have figured out you are not a threat they poke out of their shells, tentacles first, then those long stretchy bodies, and explore. Touch a tentacle and it shrinks, but then extends again, seeking what it just repelled from.

We gave them lettuce and let them try different garden plants, watching their reactions, noting their favourite meals. If you are very, very still and quiet you can hear a snail crunching its dinner. There are few more delightful sounds. It is also a pleasure to lie in the grass with a snail slowly climbing your body, imagining yourself a mountain – a slime tracked island of eight-year-old girl. As for snail poo – it’s not even disgusting. Just black odourless pellets to flick away.

Snails make good friends when you have none, as do books, and elderly neighbours. But gradually my sister and I made friends with other children and moved beyond our backyard. I don’t remember what happened to the snails, but fortunately the terrarium had no lid. I imagine them escaping and making a slow trek back to the neighbour’s garden, to her beautifully tended plants and ponds. Our garden was the low-maintenance kind designed by embassy staff – a few thorny rosebushes, a swathe of lawn and hedges with prickly leaves – designed to repel rather than attract.

But I remember those snail bodies rippling against the glass, leaving shiny paths on my skin, showing me my own power, the things we see when we are still.

Now, in Australia, snails find their home in my mailbox, they seem to love the combination of damp, dark and junk mail. They make quick work of Domino’s flyers and coupons for maths tutoring, leaving paper pellet poos in their wake. I can’t bring myself to remove them. I just know that I have to collect the important mail within a day or so if I don’t want to find it riddled with holes, masticated by a ravenous snail mouth.

And I dread coming home, in the dark, and hearing that sickening crunch on the garden path. In the morning, a fragmented shell, a shrivelled body already black with tiny ants.

They always remind me of that time, the upheaval of my small world, the sense that everything can change in the blink of an eye.

Step carefully, they say. Don’t forget the power you hold.

Australian Magic

August 17th, 2015


The ceremony is on a weeknight, my children are in their school uniforms and my husband comes straight from work – meeting us at the local town hall. I am in jeans and a jumper, but people around me are dressed smartly: more suits than I have seen outside of a wedding or funeral, women in heels and dresses. We sit in rows before a podium while the mayor speaks, introducing a collection of people from local clubs and organisations who sit facing us. We each have a piece of paper with the pledge and another with the words to “Advance Australia Fair”.

On the drive over my children, aged eight and six, asked me what would happen tonight to make me Australian. We have been reading The Witches by Roald Dahl, and we joked that perhaps the Grand High Witch would come on the stage, say a spell and poof! I would turn into a mouse, or a kangaroo, or an Australian, just like them. We kept up this chatter for a few minutes until my son said, “Mum, you won’t really be different, will you?” Read more

Running away from home

February 11th, 2015


Last night after dinner my seven year old decided that she was going to leave home. She had been arguing with her brother and when I asked her to take a shower it was the last straw.

‘This house is so boring! This family is so boring! You are so boring!’

‘You’d like a new mummy then? A more exciting one?’ I regretted the words as soon as I said them. They sounded petty and childish.

She showered, put on pyjamas, grabbed her blanket and announced that she was running away.

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said, but she stomped outside.

‘I’m going to Melbourne,’ she said. ‘You can see me if you ever come to Melbourne.’ Read more

For my mother on her birthday

December 11th, 2014


Today* is my mother Nancy’s birthday – she is 67 years old. A few years ago she took up Zumba and she’s in great shape, her physical energy matching that of her mind. She reads nearly every word I write in some form or another, and she both encourages and critiques me.

Right now she is proofreading my 340-page doctoral thesis. Luckily for me, she has a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley, the title of which I remember after all these years seeing it in her basement, gathering dust: Repudiating the Self-Justifying Fiction.

My mother, centre, with kids, grandkids and her husband Rick.

My mother, in red, in Colorado this year. Surrounded by kids, grandkids, and her husband Rick.

Mom finished her PhD between giving birth to my sister and giving birth to me 18 months later. This was an 18-month period where my father was undergoing radiation therapy as he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ Disease. He was cancer-free by the time I was born, and while my mother did teach some English literature classes later she never took to academia. Instead she taught herself computer programming in the early 1980s and began working in information technology.** My father’s job was always the one which determined where we lived, since he was a foreign service officer, but my mother always found work of some sort of another, and combined that with the work of raising my sister and me.*** Read more

The small miracle of travel

August 8th, 2014


I have been away from my desk, visiting dear friends in the United States and taking the children to see their grandma and grandpa in Virginia. I was raised the child of a diplomat, with a suitcase in one hand and a passport in the other. (Figuratively, not literally – I was not trusted to hold my own passport until I left home!) To be en route somewhere else is one of my favourite places to be. What thrills me is to see this excitement in my children as well, they love adventure at five and seven years of age as much as I do at 37. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments of complete exhaustion and tears, and times when they missed the dog and their own beds.

Most of the time, though, they were:securedownload

Jumping off a diving board. Seeing a skunk. Watching their first fireworks on the fourth of July. Sitting in the cockpit of an commercial airplane (pilot and copilot) just after landing.Kissing their 91-year-old great-grandmother on her soft, loose cheek and holding her veiny, swollen hand. Read more

Book Review: Far from the tree

January 16th, 2014


far-from-the-tree-parents-children-and-the-search-for-identityI have a confession to make. I took the new Booker Prize winner away with me on my summer holiday, having saved it for the occasion. A prodigal young writer with a shared name; historical fiction set in a country not far from home. It’s hefty, yes, but I enjoy losing myself in a very thick book. Reflecting on it, I think the problem was that very phrase – losing myself. It didn’t happen, I only made it to page 160 before I had to stop. I just wasn’t drawn in, I didn’t want to stop time and lie on the hammock/sofa/bed – just me and the book. I have no doubt that Eleanor Catton is brilliant, and that The Luminaries is deserving of reward, but I wanted a story, and it was too tangled and opaque to find one that captivated me. Read more

Sharing stories of postnatal depression

November 21st, 2013


mother and babyI just realised that this week is Postnatal Depression Awareness Week. I never knew such a week existed but I am so glad that it does.

Any opportunity for people to share their stories and break down the wall of silence around postnatal depression is a wonderful thing. My novel, What Was Left, is about a woman with postnatal depression who leaves her infant and husband. For me the catalyst to write the novel was seeing (and feeling) the unreasonable pressure on mothers to be perfect and immediately possess that “maternal instinct”. Read more

The imprint of a father

November 7th, 2013


I was moved to post this piece that I wrote in 2011 by what I heard on Radio National today. On Life Matters they were talking about tomorrow’s topic of how our expectations and perceptions of fatherhood have changed. I’m definitely going to tune in. This was originally published in Sydney’s Child, and won the 2011 Parenting Media Association Award in the category of “Personal Essay”

Highs and Lows

I can’t help but watch the white-haired man holding my friend’s newborn son in his arms. He is giving the baby a bottle, cradling his tiny head. “Who’s that?” my daughter whispers, following my eyes. “His grandfather,” I say, the noise of the birthday party receding around me. To my daughter it is an unfamiliar word. Something she has never known. Read more

On generosity

March 18th, 2013


My children, aged three and five, have been fighting quite a bit these past few weeks. The younger one – a boy – has become acutely aware of wanting everything that his sister has and his older sister has become adept at making her little brother jealous. Some of this has to do, I’m sure, with her having started kindergarten this year and the sense the little brother has of being left out of this experience. IMG_1975

His sister wears a school uniform now, takes three different lunch boxes to school, and has a reader she brings home every night along with an entire vocabulary of new playground terminology. Sometimes I see her gloating about these new experiences to him in order to infuriate him, but I’d rather focus on (and reward) the moments of generosity that she shows. Read more