jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: sons

Do we teach prejudice?

Prejudice_wide-620x349Racism is not something I’ve had a lot of personal experience with. I’m a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired white girl living in a fairly white kind of world. But whenever I venture out beyond my rural homeland the inevitable question comes up.

“So, where are you from?”

To which I answer with a description of my small town. Whereabouts, climate, flora, social milieu.

“No, I mean, originally?”

The ancestry question.

As far as I know, I am of English, possibly Irish descent. Convicts, most probably. This is always a surprise to my listener. Often I am erroneously claimed to be part of some more exotic ethnic group.

“I bet you’re Greek … Italian … Lebanese …”

The list goes on. I’ve even had someone guess half-Thai, which seems a stretch. I’ve been claimed by Aborigines on public transport, “Hey Sister, come sit with me. Tell me, where’s your mob?” And then scoffed at for denying my heritage.

This claiming seems a warm thing to me. A welcoming. A belonging. It is always with regret that I refute it. But it leads me to pondering what preconceptions are being foisted on me without my knowledge. What is contained in other people’s assumptions of my cultural heritage? If I experienced racism based on my assumed ethnicity, would I even notice? And do people think of me differently when they discover, despite appearances, that I am of plain-old Anglo-Celtic heritage?

With the jumble of ethnicities in cities I notice the ancestry question is something sorted out early on. But what quickly becomes clear is how often people guess wrong, and when corrected – how little the truth actually tells you about a person. Can clear deductions about cultural heritage even be made nowadays? Despite attempts to maintain separate ethnic identities, have these markers become diluted in the mishmash that is multicultural Australia? If my Australian mother was of Italian–Croatian heritage, and my Australian father was of French–Malaysian heritage, what would that say about me? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the complexity of cultural associations would be a little mind-boggling to decipher from the outside.

Which leads me to questions of perception – what we see in others, and what we rate as important. My mother once told me a story about my first day of school that has always stuck in my mind. I grew up in a small country town. My primary school had sixty kids all up, so maybe twenty in my classroom. There was one black girl in amongst an otherwise white class. She was an Islander of some description, though I never discovered which island. Her skin was not tan, or dark brown, but a lovely near-black. My mother was curious about her. This exotic-looking black-skinned five-year-old girl. When I got home from school she asked:

“And who was the little black girl?”

The question of whether my mother could have used a more sensitive adjective springs to mind, but I guess since I was five, she was trying to keep it simple. The surprising thing is – even though there was only one black-skinned girl in my class, and even though I’d never met a black person before – I didn’t know which girl she meant.

“Who?”

Not yet schooled in this difference between skin colours, it seems I didn’t notice it.

“How did she have her hair?” I asked, perplexed. Hair was something I was minutely interested in.

“It was black and fuzzy, in pigtails.”

“You mean the girl with hair like puff-balls?”

And then I finally got it. I knew who my mother was asking about.

Often it seems as though perceptions of ourselves, each other, and the world around us reflect a reality set in stone, but really we notice what we’ve been taught to notice, and we judge what we’ve been taught to judge. Nowhere does this truism become clearer than in the raising of children.

Again and again I’ve been surprised by what my children don’t see. I once invited a friend who has a disabled child over for lunch. The child was born with only one functioning eye, half an ear missing, and a malformed leg that had been amputated above the knee. Despite these difficulties, she was bright and cheerful. My children were pre-school age and I wondered if I should talk with them about the girl’s disabilities before she arrived. I was alarmed by the prospect of them treating her strangely, or reacting in some way that was hurtful, but I was unsure of how to manage this possibility. What would I say?

“There’s a girl coming. She’s looks a bit different from you, but try not to make a big deal about it. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

This kind of sentence sat heavily on the tip of my tongue in the hours before her arrival, inadequate and somewhat patronising. In the end I decided to just see how it went. To let my children make their own deductions.

The friend arrived and the children played. Zalie had a spike like a pirate where her foot should have been, but she was mobile. We had lunch, and the kids rushed around, chatting and squealing and laughing, and there was no mention of the missing eye, ear, or leg. After my friend departed, while sitting quietly in the bath, my five-year-old son said:

“You know Mum, Zalie had a broken foot.”

That was it.

And it got me thinking about how differently the day might have gone if I’d made a point of highlighting Zalie’s difference. Of guiding my children’s perceptions and judgements.

It certainly showed me a lot about my own.

First published on Daily Life, January 17th 2013

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How much is a mother worth?

So far, the debate about cuts in the income of single mothers in Australia has revolved around the question of whether or not it is possible to live on Newstart. This is, of course, a worthy question. But for me it sidesteps some of the larger issues at hand.

At the heart of the matter lies the age old problem of who is responsible for the children and what is the cost of that responsibility.  Women, and not just single mothers, are often left with the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. Mothering undoubtedly has its rewards but it is often a significant encumbrance when it comes to being part of the workforce. There has been a push in recent years for fathers to share the ‘burden’ of this care, but – on the whole – we are not there yet.

Statistics about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s incomes, even when doing the same job, are well established. When I was a teenager understanding how this difference could conceivably exist was impossible. My high school was full of high achieving girls: passionate, dedicated, intelligent creatures who, it seemed, would one day rule the world. How could it be that when these girls made their way out into society they would somehow become the underdogs? I thought about it a lot, but the answer remained elusive. Discrimination? Based on what?

It was only when I reached university that the answer became clear. An introductory Gender Studies subject was all it took. I still remember the bookshelf of the library I was standing in front of when the revelation hit. It was all about mothering. The sudden knowledge came at me sideways, a painful thwack. To build a career and have children I was going to have to do two full-time jobs, only one of them paid, and juggling these two jobs would leave me exhausted and frayed at the edges. And, as the statistics consistently showed, doing these two jobs would mean I’d often be left in the dust.

I must admit, it was not an appealing future.

What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work. It may not be financially remunerated, or a sure-fire path to the top, but it is work nonetheless. And if mothers didn’t do it, someone else would have to be paid to. Although childcare workers are among the lowest paid in our ranks, we still don’t expect them to work for nothing. There is an annual American survey by Salary.com which attempts to estimate how much the average mother would earn a year if they were actually paid for the work they do. In 2012, the average stay-at-home mum came in at about $113 000 a year, with a working mum adding about $66 000 to their annual income. It would certainly be interesting to see an Australian calculation.

All this brings me to the difficult question – what is the value of mothering? Clearly, our whole society chugs along quite nicely on the unpaid labour of women and has for some time. Perhaps it has been this way since the invention of money, but that doesn’t make it right.

Inarguably, things have improved in our nation for women in the last half century, mothers included. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973 could rate as one of the biggest wins for feminism in Australian history. Mothers being paid for mothering. A fiscal value being placed on what is undeniably a vital and worthy labour. But it has never really been seen this way. From a sympathetic vantage point, providing ‘parenting payment single’ is seen as an act of generosity from a caring community; a safety net for abandoned mothers which prevents them and their offspring from slipping irrevocably into poverty. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it is seen as an easy route for pregnant teenage dropouts to sit pretty whilst contributing nothing to society for the rest of their sorry lives.

Nowhere in either of these mindsets is there room for a real discussion of the value of mothering to our society at large. If we leave aside an attempt to put a monetary value on the labour of mothering, we are left with an entirely different set of parameters. Mothers care for children. Children are our next generation. The quality of care they receive is imperative to our future. Does it not seem palpably obvious that the value of mothering is therefore high?

Gillard’s strategy to move mothers from parenting payment single to Newstart once their last child turns eight will create an estimated savings of $728 million over four years. Right on target for budget surplus come next election. That the government sees single mothers as the easiest target when it comes to revenue-raising, the least likely spending cut to create a voter backlash, says a lot about our country. To suppose this budget cut is an equitable solution is to assume that once children have settled into school it is a fair playing field for single mothers in the workforce. Deep down, we all know this isn’t true.

And to believe that having older children is less of a burden on mothers is to have very little understanding of the issues at play. In the simplest of terms, I am a single mother with two teenage boys. My oldest is fifteen, 6 foot 1, weighs 80kgs, and easily eats as much as two grown women. Feeding him alone is a substantial cost, and that is just the problem of sustenance. Taking into account the varied and multifaceted nature of my children’s demands upon my time and resources, the Newstart allowance is something of a joke. Working part time, as I did previously, will now cost me 40 cents in every dollar I earn over $31 a week. What else is this but a deterrent? I am left with a choice between living in poverty or attempting to join the full-time workforce. ‘Attempting’ being the operative word. Each of these paths is littered with motherhood-related impediments.

I used to be so proud to live in a nation that paid mothers for being mothers. It is disturbing that in order to balance the budget our government is taking money from those of us who give so much and already receive so little in return. If we are to live in a society that considers everything only in terms of a spread sheet, it is time we started to count the cost of parenting, especially for those of us who go it alone.

Mothering is work. Women enter into motherhood at great personal cost, yet the contribution of mothers to society is immense, and – let’s face it – vital to the continuation of our world as we know it.

Pay us what we’re worth.

First Published on Daily Life, 7th January 2013.

Why Is It (Still) the Mother’s Fault?

I live in a small town way out in the country where – it’s true – debates about helicopter parenting are pretty rare. Here packs of sunburned kids ride helmetless around our winding roads, the wind blowing through their sweaty hair, the sun reflecting off their freckled faces. They ride to the local waterholes where they leap from rope swings, flying through the air like amateur circus performers, not a parent in sight.

And yes, excepting the odd hospital admission, usually they are fine.

But despite their general robustness, when I watch my sons ride off into the distance I do worry about their heads, their skin, and their pre-manhood bodies. I worry because I love them, and children, in all manner of ways, are vulnerable.

When my first baby was 4 months old I was sitting on the grass at the local playgroup – the little guy on my lap – when he stopped breathing and turned blue. It seemed he was choking, but I couldn’t find the offending object by scooping around in his mouth. Patting on the back produced nothing. Seconds passed. Perhaps a minute. My baby wasn’t breathing. A more experienced mother came to my aid, giving him the baby version of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, and he vomited up a piece of leaf smaller than a five cent piece. I cried for an hour, hiccupy and inconsolable. How could I think I could raise a child when I couldn’t even keep him safe from the threat of miniscule leaf segments?

The weight of the responsibility hung heavy about my neck. And, of course, that was just the beginning.

When Catherine Deveny decries helicopter parents and all their associated neuroses, she avoids the very persistent reality for many mothers: that of an oppressive sense of responsibility. Does she really assume this arises in a vacuum? That these ‘competitive’ and ‘annoying’ super-mums are singly playing out their varying degrees of neediness or ‘abandonment issues’ – blindly – to the detriment of their children?

Because that is a very harsh call.

I suspect if we dug a little deeper we’d find that mothers feel responsible for every facet of their child’s development because everyone else thinks they are responsible too.

The bigger question for me is – how – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault? No wonder those highly qualified over-achievers are trying so hard to be the best mothers they can when the pressure is so undeniably huge, when their child’s ‘outcomes’ rest squarely on their shoulders.

But the irony is that mothers can never do right. Try too hard and they are creating ‘dysfunctional co-dependence,’ slack off a bit and they are charged with neglect.

And yes, I was a child of the 1970s. I too got driven around in a car with my dad chain-smoking, all the windows up. Heck, I even ate catfood. Didn’t everyone? But nowadays I think we are all a bit more savvy to the effect our childhoods have on the people we become.

I too want my kids to be brave, resilient, optimistic and independent. So by all means let’s discuss it: benevolent neglect, quality boredom, and independence as a result of parental indifference. Funny, yes. A great tagline. And maybe it’s a good starting point. I know that when I imagine my boys flying through the air on that rope swing I am simultaneously terrified and exultant, but the joy of it wins out in the end.I just wish in these discussions we could stop throwing out barbs and get to the heart of it.

In a culture saturated with mixed messages aimed at children, where the average age a child views pornography is 11 and gender stereotypes dog their every move, where making healthy food choices is bamboozling even for the educated adult, where we are force-fed instant gratification as a way of life but becoming good at anything still takes energy and effort, where a lack of resources sets some of us up for significant disadvantage, where fear-mongering is a large part of the political landscape, where environmental destruction looms always on the horizon, where technological addiction and a multiplicity of anxieties are rife among our numbers. Where broken arms, cracked heads, fractured feet, black-eyes, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, school sores, cellulitis, teeth abscesses, asthma, allergies and learning difficulties are all just part of the game. (And, yes, between them my kids have had them all!)

Why – in this confusing and hazardous climate – is everything still the mother’s fault?

When I see those helicopter parents anxiously hovering, I try not to judge them. Instead, I imagine the terrible weight of responsibility our culture hangs about their necks. They are the gatekeepers, and if things go wrong they will be held accountable. And I think of that tiny segment of leaf that nearly blocked my baby’s windpipe.

How can we help mothers be resilient in the face of so much risk?

This Article was first published by The Wheeler Centre on the 10th of December 2012. 

The Knoll

Twelve is a slippery age, a time of shape-shifting and metamorphosis. My son, towering above me, smiles and pulls me in towards him in a gentle embrace. His chin rests on my head. He giggles, and I squeeze him round the middle. Through the accident of birth, I am a little mother. A child-woman with her own half-grown, giant-sized boys. The younger one too is gaining on me. At ten years old his gaze is almost equal with mine.

“I’ll be taller than you soon, Mum,” he says, and what can I do but nod. It won’t be long now.

It’s as if my smallness has placed me strangely in their world. Long ago I became one of the kids, jostled along in the pack like we were all a bunch of clumsy puppies. Following our noses, unsure of the way.

“Take us down to The Knoll, Mum,” the oldest says, “Come on, I know how to get there.”

It’s a swimming hole, a secret haunt, with a rope swing. I’ve lived in this same green hollow of a town for most of my life, but I’ve never been to The Knoll. I envisage cigarette butts and half-hidden bongs, rubbish and the scent of teenage transgression, but the afternoon is sticky and hot, and I don’t mind being wrong.

“Okay,” I say, “But if any other kids are there, we leave. Right?”

They accept without question the strange rules I have invented.

On the school bus my boys have learned the whereabouts of this hideout. Behind the old church, through two sets of fencing: one barbed, and one not. The grass is long, and we slip through, on the lookout for snakes. There is a worn path down to the creek. It is damp, as though a troop of wet feet has just passed through.

“There’s no-one here, Mum. We’ve missed them,” the younger one says, “That’s good, isn’t it? We can be here for a bit?”

We stop at a wide corner of the creek, grassy on either side. There are no cigarette butts, no rubbish. It is, in fact, quite scenic – an old wooden railway bridge curves away to the left. There is no sign of the encroaching suburbia of my town, just grass and trees and the gentle flow of water. At the base of The Knoll is a giant disused cement water tank half built into the bank. I sit on the top, and watch the boys try to get the rope. Ragged, with inverted bike handlebars knotted on the bottom, it hangs over the water, just out of reach.

“You better check it’s deep enough first,” I say, and my big fellow scampers down the edge and plunges in.

“Can you touch?”

He swims around, and ducks down, heading for the bottom. The water is clear enough, but I can’t see him. I know he will resurface, and he does.

“I can’t even get down to the bottom. It’s real deep.”

I peer across at him.

“Alright. Come on. Let’s see you jump.”

They fish the rope from the air with a stick, and then they are away. Lithe, muscular, beautiful, one by one they swing out across the water, dropping in at the highest point. How to describe such grace?

I catch myself thinking of their countdown to manhood. Right now they seem at some pinnacle of evolution: smooth-bodied, open-faced, ready for the world. They fly across the water with no hesitation, no missteps or fears. The creek swallows them up, again and again, and each time they are reborn, their faces breaking through the water’s surface, joyous and alight. I wonder what happens between here and there; between now, and becoming a man. I live on a winding dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, but I am not naïve to the next steps. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, fast cars, junk food, and the shallows of a consumer culture with no end. We do not have wireless broadband, mobile reception, or even commercial TV, but I know I can’t keep the world at bay forever. The question of what makes a man looms large in my mind, and I must admit – I am more than a little afraid.

“Mum, you have a jump,” my big fellow says as he pulls himself up the muddied slope.

“I don’t know if I can,” I say, but I know that I want to.

“We’ll help you. It’s easy. You just hold on, and let go at the end.”

The littler one watches me from the launch pad on the bank. He holds the spindly end of the rope in his fingers, his body quivering with excitement or cold.

“I bet you can do it, Mum,” the older one tells me, “I bet you a dollar.”

I stand up, and strip off my clothes. Down to my bra and undies, I am vulnerable, uncertain. The path is slithery, and I slip awkwardly towards the jumping spot, gripping small saplings as I pass. At the precipice, my son transfers the cold bike handles into my hands. I stand on the edge, holding tight and looking out at the expanse of the water.

“Push off Mum, just lift your feet.”

And I do.

The rush of air against my body makes me squeeze my eyes closed. On a pendulum, I am flying blind. A wide arc through space.

“Let go … NOW!”

My fingers unclench, and I drop from the rope with an unwanted cry. The water breaks around me, and I surge downwards like a bullet. There is no rock bottom, and after a moment of stillness my limbs kick in and I swim back towards the surface. Pushing into the world, spluttering and laughing, my eyes and nose and mouth are full of water.

My boys grin from the bank.

“You owe me a dollar!” My big fellow calls, punching a fist in the air.

Twelve is a slippery age, on the brink of any number of beginnings.

“Go again Mum. Go again.”

I tread water and look up at the sky. It is the deepest blue, without a single flitting cloud. There is nothing to signal the world is changing, but above me the pendulum rope keeps swinging, marking time.

 

First Published in Meanjin Volume 71 Number 2, 2012

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