The Monster

We nearly didn’t go to the inspection of the house. I was pregnant with twins and nauseated by the drive; Riley wasn’t that interested in the places we looked at. And James was about ready to give up after both houses we had seen that day turned out to be not what we were looking for. We had some time before the third, the final inspection for the day and we sat on a bench gazing at the lake and considering just going home but then eventually James said, well, we might as well have a look since we are so close anyway.

The house was huge and it appeared even larger to us after our cramped two bed unit. There were a lot of people looking but what I remember the most is the garden: the lemon tree full of ripe lemons and a mandarin tree and flowers everywhere; and a tiny golf area behind the house. I remember white walls and white shutters and the fireplace which I knew would excite James (and – secretly – myself) but probably would be a hazard to the unborn babies in my belly. The back room would be good when my parents came to stay with us, the whole COVID business hopefully behind us soon enough. The huge amount of space and the lemon tree; relatively close to the beach and the lake but not so close that floods would be a threat. We started calling it a beach house before we even put in our application.

Only after we got approved we realised that the place didn’t have a dishwasher. “I’ll just do the washing up myself in the sink”, James said, ever an optimist, but I knew we’d struggle, especially once the twins were born. So we talked to the agent and then directly to the landlady who didn’t hesitate to just drop in at any point of the day; she sent a handyman in who cut a hole under the sink to put the dishwasher in. “I don’t mind,” – she said. “When I move in I can just slide my own dishwasher in there!”

That gave us pause. Our lease was for a year but we assumed we’d be staying far longer that that; I was slightly panicked at the thought that we’d have to move when the babies were so little. It was too late to cancel on the move. We paid for the installation and bought a slimline dishwasher as a bigger one wouldn’t fit in the provided hole; the plumber commented that the pipes were very old and would cause trouble eventually and I told him we were renting and wouldn’t be replacing the pipes.

The house was ancient, minimal repairs done for a quick sale. The gardens around it were majestic and covered in spider webs. The bathrooms smelled of mould and we immediately changed the old toilet seat which stank of urine no matter how much bleach I put into the toilet bowl. It was a stark contrast to our previous place with a fully renovated bathroom and the beautiful deep bath I spent hours in while pregnant with Riley. We told ourselves we could make the place our own though; I had a cleaning schedule going and got a cleaning appliance specifically for the ancient wooden floors. When I got too pregnant to move too much, James kept up with the cleaning as best he could. I put removable stickers in Riley’s room and got her a star projector; she finally started sleeping through in her own bed. It was getting cold and we had the fire going making the whole place cozy and welcoming and as much as I missed our old neighbourhood sometimes I also started to enjoy my daily walks to the waterfall and looking out in the garden and the clothesline outside that made laundry so much easier. We found a tiny playground just around the corner and Riley was always excited to go there on her bike as I tried to keep up, huffing and puffing and holding on to my giant pregnant belly.

James investigated and it turned out that the landlady’s other property was for sale. He called her and she said she was going to move in to the house once it sold. That made us anxious once again but our neighbours told us not to worry too much – the place had been for sale for ages so who knows when it would sell. We had no choice but stay and we chose not to think too much about it for the time being.

We had enough on our minds regardless – first preparation for the arrival of the twins and then their actual arrival. Life became a blur of feeding, newborn naps and cuddles, Riley’s adjustment to being a big sister. Christmas and New Year were strange that year, with our neighbourhood the only area in the whole country to be in lockdown. We ordered Christmas takeaway (Riley, the pickiest of eaters, had none of it). When James went back to work after the holidays I was all consumed with caring for the twins, a never ending, overwhelming task, as the house fell into a messier state.

And then one day our landlady showed up, as was her custom, unannounced, and told me that she sold her other place and that she’d be most obliged if we moved out by the end of March.

It was a shock. Not only because it was barely 10 months since we moved in (the agent told us we were actually safe in the house until the end of May), not just because the market suddenly went crazy and it was insanely hard to find a family house to rent. We were struggling to keep afloat with our everyday life caring for three little kids, how on earth could we possibly find a new place, pack and move? And who rents a place to people expecting twins only to yank it away with barely a thought while the babies are so young?

Despite all that, we started looking straight away – the house was poisoned to us and all the little things that we shrugged off or laughed about before turned into massive sources of irritation growing into something reminding hatred. The ancient cupboards and pantry with doors that never stayed closed. The creaky floors and lack of any sound proofing so you couldn’t clean up the kitchen after the kids were asleep as it was too noisy. The spiders everywhere you look, outside and inside. The mould in bathrooms and seemingly starting to grow everywhere. It seemed like the house was suddenly possessed by a monster who spread its mouldy tentacles around everything. The landlady kept calling me suggesting we move to an apartment with a view or a two bedroom house (she told the gardener I was too picky when we declined).

The citrus trees were still there; and so was the space. Riley still played outside in the yard sometimes. But I couldn’t wait to leave. And we were lucky enough to find a different house a few weeks later despite the crazy market. We even moved out in time to make it easy for the landlady who moved in the moment cleaners left. We now live a 5 minute walk away from the house and I walk past it with the pram daily. James told me he felt weird when he looked inside one last time: it was our place and we were booted out of it. But when I think of it I only remember the monster tentacles; the stink and the mould and the feeling of dread while the wonderful memories of the cozy fire and the tiny twins we brought there from the hospital belong to us only and are fully divorced from the place that was once our home. The new place is smaller and it doesn’t have a garden, just a small backyard but it’s full of light and it has newer bathrooms and kitchen. And while we are not enchanted with it we also expect no monsters to show up.

Growing pains of parenting

When Riley was between 3 and 4 months old I woke up one day to the loud noises of tradies preparing to trim the palm trees outside our apartment.

The sounds of them laughing and yelling out instructions filled me with a mix of helplessness and rage.

At the time I felt trapped. It was a very hot summer, 40 degree days interspersed with tropical downpours and even if I did manage to get out of the house Riley hated our brand new expensive pram and started screaming before I could reach the nearby park. I also struggled to reverse our car out of the narrow car port but that didn’t really matter because Riley hated the car most of the time, too.

She was a very alert baby who did not go to sleep easily; I couldn’t encourage her to go to sleep by rocking, bouncing, shushing, patting her bum. The only thing that worked most of the time was breastfeeding her in bed. She also liked the baby carrier but mostly when James carried her, not me.

So when I heard those loud noises I realised that sleep would not come easily that day (not that it was ever easy with Riley). I tried – but understandably Riley was very curious about all the commotion and had no interest in sleeping whatsoever and I was sure she was headed into the dreaded territory of overtiredness. I eventually loaded her and the baby carrier into the pram and walked towards the park taking the opportunity to glare at the tradies who so inconsiderately ruined my day.

As I was walking, I was seriously contemplating writing a short story called “The worst day of my life”. Some part of me did think it was slightly ridiculous to call it the worst day of my life even back then. I lived through the collapse of a country, my parents losing all their savings, queues for bread, a death in the family. I moved to another city then to another country by myself, survived crappy relationships and worked for an employer who didn’t give a hoot about me, overcame depression that was mostly caused by my personal choices. Yet it really did feel like the worst day at the time and I could feel myself cracking at the seams.

I wasn’t sure I wanted another child for a long time after Riley was born. Her sleep was terrible for ages and she never stopped being a fairly intense kid. Eventually though James convinced me to start trying. For a while it didn’t look like it was going to happen, then came the shock of a miscarriage and then I found out that I was pregnant with twins.

While remembering my early days with Riley I promised myself that I would not be calling James in tears this time, that I wouldn’t be a blubbering mess, that I wouldn’t doubt myself nearly as much. I have since broken that promise. Only James knows how much I struggle some days.

Riley is not the challenge she was when she was a baby. Sure, she has her moments but there are also wonderful times. She is now four and says the funniest things. And she sleeps! She tells me she’s tired and climbs into her own bed and asks for cuddles. She adapted easily to new daycare when we moved and made friends and tells me what they do there every day and she’s an absolute angel with her grandparents and it’s not rare at all for us to have great moments when we are both giggling about something silly while making cookies or just horsing around.

At the same time, when your family grows from 3 people to 5 in one go, there are inevitable growing pains. Babies need to be kept alive and happy; the older kid wants as much attention as she used to get; parents are outnumbered at all times. We now have not one but three kids to put to sleep and for some reason they all want me. Some days there is just not enough of me. We have had all three kids crying at the same time a few times. I grieved about losing my exclusive relationship with Riley. I yelled at her in the fog of my exhaustion. Yet most days we manage alright. James is a much more involved father, not the guy who called me 10 minutes into my first walk alone after Riley’s birth (she was 6 weeks) telling me he couldn’t stop her crying. He now knows that if I don’t spend some time alone during the week I’ll be in a bad mental space and it will affect the entire family. He’s looked after all three kids by himself plenty of times. I have changed, too.

For a lot of us the desire to be a good parent who goes beyond the basics of physical care means that we also have to confront our own demons: our hidden triggers, insecurity, anxiety. If you don’t have kids you might never be pushed to your limits. People seek enlightenment in extreme sports and silent retreats but you might learn a lot of (unpleasant) things about yourself when your preschooler screams “Yucky Mama!” because she can’t wear the dress she peed on the morning after a night of multiple feedings of newborn babies and the said preschooler wailing that she doesn’t want to be by herself. You will discover that you feel angry when you’re screamed at, even by a little child with an underdeveloped brain or a tiny baby. You might find out that the never ending work of parenting does not feel rewarding at times. There are no promotions or breaks. And you might judge yourself harshly for anything that you perceive you are doing wrong.

I’m sure my kids won’t remember or think much about the years of breastfeeding and night wakings and managing tantrums and illnesses – not until they have their own kids. Not sure I even want them to. Let them be happy and well adjusted, surrounded by love and interesting challenges. I’d prefer them to hang out with me when they are older because I’m fun and because I’m the ultimate place of comfort for them, not out of the sense of obligation and filial duty. And I want them to remember me as a happy person throughout their childhood, a gentle source of support who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed herself.

There is a lot of messaging out there to ask for support if you’re struggling. I’m a little skeptical of it. For once, the reason you even need to tell people to ask for help is that asking is somewhat frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness. We are surrounded by pictures of happy families and immaculately dressed babies and toddlers surrounded by wooden toys; yes, there is also a plethora of mummy blogs about the struggles of motherhood but a lot of the time it swings too far in the opposite direction with copious amounts of wine for the mother and nuggets served for all meals to the kids. Then again if you do ask for help what if you don’t get it? Nobody owes us help and especially not specific types of help; struggling mothers are routinely sent to Tresillian and other sleep schools that might work for some and terrible for others, well meaning bystanders often offer what seems like terrible advice (mostly about decreasing responsiveness even though it’s been shown again and again to provide best outcomes in the long term). What do we do when sleep deprivation and changing nappies all day are not the biggest problems, when the biggest problem of all is staying content among it all without daydreaming of abandoning your family to live in a cave where nobody ever needs you ever again?

There seem to be a lot of resources about productivity and hustle yet not enough about dealing with everyday challenges and our mental health; I’m not sure the skill of staying on an even keel through tribulations of life is taught routinely to anyone. With time I found resources that were helpful to me: some Facebook groups and books and real people who were happy to talk about their own struggles too. There is the most wonderful Possum Education clinic with its free tips for parents with babies and a book by one of its founders. She also refers to another wonderful book called “Becoming Mum”. I found ACT (as in acceptance and commitment therapy) hugely helpful and wish I got into it way before becoming a parent. I would also recommend the podcast called “The one you feed” to anyone who struggles (it’s not parent specific).

As a process of improving my own mental health I finally realised that feeling my daughter’s pain is not helpful. I was very attuned to it when she was a baby and as a result often found myself overwhelmed. I could not go down the same path with three kids instead of one. Plenty of people proudly call themselves empaths these days saying they feel other people’s pain acutely; that’s very similar to what I felt with Riley. Yet there’s research that shows that feeling other people’s pain actually prevents us from helping them – we just try to avoid people in pain. These days instead of getting upset myself when Riley has one of her intense reactions I try to separate myself emotionally to an extent and really listen to her and not my perceived impression of what’s happening; what I find a lot of the time is that when what we call “empathy” is in fact projection. And if you really listen instead of trying to stop someone’s extreme reaction the situation often diffuses itself and your connection with them is restored much faster. It works with babies too. You can’t stop them from fussing sometimes and there are few things more frustrating than trying to calm down a baby who doesn’t want to calm down. Their cries sound like the worst performance review of your life. It takes time to really feel it in your body that it’s not a reflection of you – you are the source of comfort for your children but they are still separate people who will inevitably react the way they want, not the way you expect them to.

I’m far from having found the way of perfect parenting, I still struggle. Yet now the sting of anxiety has been removed sufficiently from my everyday life for me to enjoy my babies when they are not fussy and to react with humour when they are (most of the time anyway). I now trust James to do his own thing with the kids as I go for a walk. I’ve taken all three of them for a walk by myself. And when I’m having a shit day it doesn’t cross my mind that it’s the worst day of my life anymore as there’s always a moment of two that I enjoy. And I know that after a while the photos of that day will most likely make me miss the times when my babies were little and needed me very much, so much that I used to daydream about running away and living in a cave somewhere.

Adventures in the night

The twins woke me up at midnight for a feed. It was an uncomfortably warm night and I was parched. I shook James and whispered, “Can you get me a glass of water please?”

“Yes”, he said in a very sober voice. I waited a second. He was asleep again. I kicked his shin and said, “Bring me water!”

He stumbled out of bed and as he headed towards the bedroom door I hissed “Water!” again.

I heard him open the tap in the kitchen, filling a glass of water then drinking it. Then there was silence. The twins were feeding contently while I was straining my ears.

Where was my husband? He could be in the back bathroom. He could be in our older daughter’s room where he slept while I was pregnant. Or he could be on the Moon, I thought darkly.

Time passed. The twins finished eating and went back to sleep. I seethed.

Finally, my dear husband appeared at the base of the bed, empty handed.

“Where is the glass of water I asked for half an hour ago?!” – I hissed. He looked startled and injured in the semi-darkness of our bedroom. A minute later he finally brought me a glass of water which I gulped greedily while glaring at him.

He climbed into the bed and curled on his pillow.

“I am very upset,” he said and immediately fell asleep again.

15 minutes later Riley, our older daughter, woke up sobbing “Mummmmmy!”

After some persuasion James went to see what was wrong. Nothing was wrong except Riley didn’t want Daddy, she wanted Mummy (again).

“I don’t want to sleep by myself!” – she wailed.

It’s hard for me to understand her struggle with being by herself because I would like nothing better right now than sleeping a whole night by myself. It seems like a dream that will never come true. An uninterrupted night in a big clean bed with no other hot bodies in it… any time by myself is precious but at night especially.

After some whispering and cuddles Riley went back to sleep. I realised I needed the bathroom.

As I tried to get to the bathroom door opposite our bedroom I felt the unmistakeable horror of a spider web on my face. It was a terrible déjà vu I realised as the exact same thing had happened to me the night before but I somehow blanked it out of my memory. At that moment I was far more awake and I saw the culprit, a big spider, on the wall.

Once again I woke James up and hid in the other bathroom. The offending spider wasn’t even a huntsman (which are quite common inside houses in Australia), it was an orb spider which are all over our garden. A harmless thing really, except when it’s on you at 1 am in the morning.

Last time James decided to get rid of a spider in a humane way it didn’t end well. He caught a big huntsman in a takeaway container, walked out of the gate and let it go. It scurried toward the road only to be hit by a passing car.

“It would rather be dead than captured,” I said.

“Must have been one of those Japanese spiders from World War II”, – said James.

This time James didn’t try to do the right thing, killed the orb spider with a thong and disposed of it in the rubbish bin after wrapping it in a paper towel. No spider can escape a paper towel, right?

Miraculously, all three kids slept through the commotion and I spent some time after listening to everyone’s breathing and trying not to think of spiders. Then I slept too.

Tan Lines

A few years ago when I was sailing a lot, sometimes up to 4 harbour races a week and offshore ones when possible, I used to get very specific tan lines on my hands. My hands looked white apart from the tips of my thumbs, perfectly matching my sailing gloves. We called it the Mickey Mouse tan.

The other day I looked at my hands and I realised there was a tan pattern on them now, too, a totally different one: fingers white up to the second phalanges then tanned evenly. It took me a moment to realise that the tan lines are caused by my pushing a pram every day, sometimes more than once a day. What a great metaphor of how my life changed, I thought. I used to be a very involved sailor and now I am a mother.

Some people, including my own mother, expressed astonishment at the fact that I am now a mother of three (granted, I was as surprised as anyone when we discovered that instead of leaping from one to two we skipped a step and jumped straight to three; nobody plans for twins). Some thought I was too interested in other, non maternal things like my career (or sailing), others no doubt remembered how much I struggled adjusting to having just one child. Yet the astonishment stings a bit too, as I probably invested more in being a great mother to my first than in anything else in my life and I never had any doubt I’d do my best with more than one, too.

Having three has been chaos. The twins are two months old and have already copped a few daycare colds brought home by Riley. A congested newborn is not a happy baby. I’ve listened to my oldest child cry for me in the middle of the night as I was pinned down by a feeding pillow with two newborns on it; my child who was never left to cry, used to reliably being comforted by me, was scared in the middle of the night in her own bed alone in her room and I wasn’t able to help. Sometimes all three cry at the same time. Sometimes I join in the crying, too.

I feel like I need to write about the upside of having multiple kids at this point of my blog post. How blessed we are to have three healthy kids (despite the copious amounts of snot in every single nose in this house right now), how sweet the babies are and how cute and funny Riley is. How James turned into a great father who is confidently taking all three kids out by himself while I try to catch up on at least some sleep. Mostly though we are surviving. We keep reminding ourselves not to wish time away and maybe one day I will miss this season when I am so desperately needed by all my children but right now I just keep saying to myself that the hardest days will pass and we’ll have the reward of children who learn how to play and share with others (I am sure I will regret these words in the future), who will always have each other even when they are adults. I’m reminding myself that our Christmas will be far more magical for having multiple kids, that I will be able to watch each of them grow into their own person which is my favourite part of parenting. And then I catch myself awash with the same astonishment I find so hurtful in others: how could it be that I am a mother of three?

Some people climb mountains, going all the way to the top where they are oxygen starved, freezing and in constant danger of dying where nobody will be able to retrieve their bodies. Some do long offshore races, soaked to the bone, fighting off nausea and tethered to the sides of the boat trying not to fall out. By far more people have multiple children and while some seem to breeze through that experience, a lot of us struggle with round the clock care duties, sleep deprivation and the constant terror of doing something wrong and scarring a person fully dependent on us for life. It’s not considered special by society because it’s so common yet as a way to find meaning bringing up kids can be more relentless than an offshore sailing race, more intimidating than climbing a mountain peak. We can’t turn back and so we continue on our way, clutching on to every tiny pleasure along the way. With time the relentlessness of it somewhat eases, our kids need us a bit less until they seemingly don’t need us at all – and then we’ll have to reinvent ourselves again. Who knows what my tan line is going to be then.

I can’t say I ever fully planned my life and so far what worked for me was doing my best with what I’ve got and letting things happen. And as I look into two brand new little faces all I can do is hope everything will turn out great for them, too.

It’s love

Sometimes I wonder what my parents would be like if they were born in Australia. Would they still be essentially the same people if they didn’t go through a collapse of a country, loss of all their savings, jobs, security, life as they knew it, queues for bread, tiny apartments? What if they didn’t have to worry about money or food for their children or rebuild their lives again and again?

I can imagine my Mum being a Sydney North Shore mother (vividly depicted by Liane Moriarty in most of her books) talking about organic food and sleep training, hotels in Fiji and involvement in school life, confident and proper but not immune to other people’s opinions, and it just makes me long for my actual mother with her ultimate comfort dishes full of hearty meat, her lying down with me every night to help me sleep and singing lullabies I am now singing to my daughter. No matter what disagreements we had throughout my life (and we have had plenty) I still can’t imagine having a different mother even as I long for an easier life for her, and imagining her as a financially secure woman from affluent suburbs creates in my mind a Frankenstein of sorts, a phantom combined of everything that I feel makes me – not my mother but me – different from those women.

It’s harder to imagine my Dad being Australian except maybe he would’ve liked a good barbie. He doesn’t speak any English and he’s not big on phone calls either. I’ve heard that some Aussies like DIY but I haven’t met anyone who is quite like my Dad, not just skilled but inventive in a way that was no doubt influenced by the necessity to be that way.

Mum loathes a lot of the things she had to do for years – make do with little, cook when groceries are scarce, sew because it’s almost impossible to buy nice clothes for kids, clean and serve food because my Dad believes it to be a woman’s job – she’d gladly not do any of it for the rest of her life. It’s different with Dad. A lot of his DIY stuff was also from not having much but there is so much more to it. He grew up in the countryside, far away from where we lived, and we visited his parents every summer. There was always a project for my father there, whether to do on his own or assisted by my uncles. There were fences, decks and bathhouses to build, furniture to restore and my Dad seemed to enjoy all of it. Our own little apartment had much less space to build but there were still interesting geometrical paintings on doors and a portrait of a woman on glass on the bathroom wall, there were fridge shelves fixed with a melted old toy and much later a bed frame he built in a garage. He was never quite as much into DIY at home as he was at his parents’, much to my mother’s frustration, and only much later in life did I realise that just like my mother cooked comfort food and sewed for us and stopped immediately when there were no more children at home, my father found much more enjoyment in DIY for others – it’s very much his own love language.

He tried to use that language (in the absence of the actual English skills) when my parents stayed at my in-laws, cleaning and sweeping outside, offering to restore an old table; but it didn’t quite create a bond and he stopped offering. While my husband was on his way to Hobart my parents stayed at our place and Dad took complete control over our courtyard. I was in a bad state of mind for months before their visit, trying to get over a hard year and sometimes randomly weeping for no apparent reason. As he moved slowly through the courtyard sweeping and cleaning up, getting rid of weeds and redirecting the water flow from our neighbours balcony outside our courtyard, I sometimes sat outside watching him and I wanted to say, “I love you too, Dad” and the peace that I was feeling while looking at our usually messy courtyard was more than what I experienced in months.

Not my Hobart… once again

My husband is doing the Sydney to Hobart race this year and I really hope he makes it to Hobart this time. We have two unfinished Hobarts between the two of us. Mine was interrupted by a rudder bearing when we barely made it out of the habour. James’s boat made it half way there before a decision was made to abandon the race for numerous reasons including a ripped mainsail. We probably owe our entire relationship to my failed Hobart as we hadn’t talked much before it, and sailing is something we will always have in common.

Except this year I did very little sailing (mostly twilights) and he got an opportunity to get on a boat that’s going to Hobart. I am excited for him, and the decision not to sail much was entirely mine, yet sometimes I feel acutely that something’s missing in my life and I ache for it, all of it: the sea, the sails, the friendly banter on board, the scramble during gybes, even the tiredness after the race. The club and the beer. Admittedly, I miss offshore sailing much less than harbour races; I would even say I don’t miss it at all except for an occasional twitch of regret which goes away as I remind myself of seasickness, the cold at night, the seemingly never ending hours of staring at spinnakers.

James serviced my PFD for his own use and bought a new PLB. He got some new wet weather gear. All his offshore stuff is scattered all over the floor of our daughter’s bedroom and when I tell her that Daddy went sailing she just assumes he must be fishing, too, which is an activity she really enjoys.

Meanwhile, I got several reminders that my Sea Safety and Survival certification expired so I’d have to do it again if I decided to go back to offshore sailing. And somehow it seems even further from me than the first year when Riley was a newborn and I was trying to figure out how to survive day by day with a tiny (and often unsettled) baby.

Yet I don’t really have any regrets. Yes, I miss sailing, more than other things I don’t really do any more (such as staying out late or going away by myself for too long or even getting drunk) but it’s also the right thing for me to do right now.

This year has been tough in many ways. Early in the year I found out I am slowly going blind in one eye. Riley broke her leg. And not that long ago I had a miscarriage, something almost nobody talks about as if it’s something shameful even though it’s pretty common and completely out of control of the woman who goes through it.

And right now our beautiful state of NSW is on fire. We are in severe drought which makes fires so much worse, and the smoke is so bad it makes air toxic when Sydney is covered with it. The air quality in Sydney has never been as bad as it was this week – they even had to cancel the Big Boat Race due to lack of visibility in the harbour.

Yet when I think of the year that’s almost gone I also think how everyday life has been beautiful and enjoyable in a lot of ways. I did a lot of thinking and reading, some relationships developed further, I feel more comfortable in my own skin at work. But most of all, I think of Riley, how funny she is now, how much we talk, of simple things but also some more complex things, how we play “tunnel” while “shoo fly” is on repeat. And I think of my husband who constantly forgets why he went to the kitchen and loses his wallet but who’s also been most caring, easy-going, supportive man. And I laugh because after spending a lot of time on self improvement, study and work I found myself agreeing with all those annoying people who say that having kids is the most challenging but also the most rewarding thing you can do with your life but also because it’s easy to step away from something you love when you find something that you love even more.

How to clear your head

“Reef the main!” – Joris shouted. I got to the halyard while he leaped to the other side to the reef lines. The main sail started coming down, flapping wildly in the wind.

“Stop!” – yelled Marco. “The slug! The slug is out!”

I looked at the main. The middle part of it was out of the track. We were screwed. Did it just show 35 knots on the wind instrument? The rain was belting down so hard, it felt like hail. Or was it actual hail? It hung in the air like a semi-transparent blanket so we could barely see the land in front of us and some boats a few metres away. We were all totally drenched, not a single offshore jacket between us.

“Let’s drop the main,” – said Greg and started the motor.

“It’s not coming down unless I climb the mast!” – said Marco.

It was a Friday twilight, another relaxed social race after a long work week. Only this time it turned out to be slightly less relaxed than normal.

It started off as a beautiful sunny afternoon but as I was getting on the boat at the club we were staring at the horizon. “Some interesting cloud formations over there,” someone said as another lightning struck. It was clear we’d get soaked at some point of the race but none of us minded that much.

The race committee (or rather our old mate Dave, the manager) chose the shortest course, and it was shortened even further after we started. It was dramatic enough for us from the start. A shorter course means that the division with biggest and fastest boats that starts last quickly converges with previous divisions. In the limited space between islands of the West Harbour it turns into dodge’em cars. Our troubles started even earlier though. As we were beating up to the top mark in a very fresh breeze, a boat above us seemed to bear down on us despite our yells.

“Watch your rig!” – our skipper yelled as their mast leaned further and further towards ours.

As we lost height, we got close to the mark and it turned out we had no room with two boats on top of us. There was nothing to do but bear away and do a 360. The two boats above us seemed to keep yelling at each other. We were now well behind everyone.

It started raining soon after and hush fell over the water. No wind. We adjusted sails and moved crew weight around and we crept forward. Then the storm hit us.

Nobody panicked. We had experienced crew that night and people knew what to do. It felt surreal to experience this kind of weather at a twilight but I caught myself grinning ear to ear. We sailed normally for a while, water collecting on the main and landing on my head on top of the torrential rain. Then we got even more wind and heeled more and more, it became clear we had to reduce our sail area – hence the call to reef the main.

We did manage to get both sails down somehow, radioed the club and motored back. I looked at the blisters on my hands and thought of nothing but sailing. The raging flood of thoughts and helplessness that didn’t let me sleep the night before and gnawed at me all hours of the day that week, was gone. I looked at Chris’s 20 year old daughter who was a guest on the boat that night and smiled at her.

“That was scary! I thought we were going to capsize” – she said in her English accent. As I explained to her that capsizing a sailing yacht is not that easy, I kept thinking that I wasn’t planning to do much on the boat that night as we had plenty of experienced people but ended up doing my regular job anyway with no debate from anyone. What a difference from when I first got on that boat all those years ago when it was a privilege to be a sewer rat who helped getting the spinnaker down through the hatch. How I fretted that I lost all my muscle strength, all my trimming knowledge while on maternity leave. None of it mattered that much in the end.

I could breathe again. I could sail again.

Gateway Drug

I did my first twilight race for the first time in almost 3 years. The club – probably the friendliest sailing club in Sydney, the place where I started sailing – has changed a little: there’s more open space and the facilities are much improved. There are still a lot of familiar faces around. Some have new boats. The boat that I used to own lost a mast a few months ago and still requires a lot of work. The main thing is that the place has the same wonderful welcoming atmosphere. It’s still very easy to get on a boat. There is always someone to chat to. The food is simple but satisfying and so are the drinks.

I was on a boat I used to sail a lot on (and helmed on a Lady’s day race once). When I messaged the skipper, I wasn’t sure what I would be allowed to do during the race, seeing that I haven’t sailed for a while and the boat has always been quite competitive. Turned out that there were a couple of experienced people on the boat, a bunch of complete novices and a French guy who claimed that he knew how to sail but could not understand any of the instructions in English so I ended up doing most of the headsail trim and strings.

Breeze is always temperamental in Balmain. It bends around islands and changes speed and directions in ways that make it tricky to predict what’s going to happen next sometimes. The forecast was for 20 knots yet it died completely towards the end of the race (that’s when the entire fleet caught up with us as we were sitting in a hole).

I loved it all. The unpredictable wind, the feeling that I know exactly what I was doing, using my muscles, joking around, having a beer on a downwind leg (it’s thirsty work!), chatting after the race. The breeze itself. That my foot got wet. That I was asked to do the rest of the season and then asked to crew on a dinghy again.

It’s easy to see the appeal of twilight sailing – it’s social, mostly relaxed (although not without its own dramas) and it’s great to be on the water on a nice summer day. Sunsets are spectacular. All in all, it’s a perfect way to wind down after a week at work. For me it was also a gateway drug to more serious sailing that requires more skill and commitment and longer offshore races with their sleep deprivation, seasickness, lack of showers, risks of serious trauma or (if you’re very careless or/and unlucky) even death. When trying to explain the appeal of offshore racing (which could be very similar to explaining the appeal of climbing icy mountains – “because it’s there!”), I could only mutter something about the sense of accomplishment after you’ve finished the race while in reality I was mostly craving more of what I was getting at every single twilight: the feeling of mastery of a complicated skill, letting go of everything but the race, breeze on my face and the feeling of belonging right here and now, on this boat and with this crew. It’s unlikely I’ll be doing offshore racing any time soon (life is too busy!) so it’s great comfort to know that twilight sailing is still here for me. And it’s still magical.

Year 2018

This year is almost over and what a year it has been for me. So incredibly tough at times yet I feel like I’ve grown for it and learned a lot in the process. Much of the learning was self-discovery.

Around mid-year my dear husband who was worried for a while that I completely lost my identity while looking after our daughter, practically forced me to commit to doing winter series on a boat I sailed on (and absolutely loved it) previously. He was right in a way; I enjoyed the training and the first few races immensely and felt like I could recapture the magic that sailing has always been for me. I am grateful to him and to my in-laws who were looking after Riley as we both raced on different boats. Yet by mid-season we both realised that it was too hard to commit to it every Sunday. I missed my daughter and I was also physically tired after disrupted sleep at home and slightly disappointed by the dynamics on the boat at times where I wasn’t fully trusted to do my job (perhaps for a good reason). So we finished the season and decided not to commit to any other series for a while.

Both my daughter and my work required extra attention this year. The year started with Riley’s surgery to remove her adenoids after a sleep study late last year and while the operation is quite minor and the recovery was fast, general anaesthesia is a terrible thing for a one year old and her parents. After the surgery she stopped waking 20 times an hour and by the end of the year started occasionally having nights when she only woke up once or twice (every two hours is still the usual).

A week after the surgery Riley started transitioning to childcare while my mum was packing up to go home after a three month stay. I can honestly say that was almost worse than the surgery and I cried every day, doubting everything. She adjusted and grew to love her childcare and the carers. She’s known to be very confident, engaged and vocal at childcare and also very happy. Dropping her off there is still the hardest thing I do all day.

She also went through a period of severe separation anxiety towards the end of the year; refused to sit in the pram; grew into a very independent but affectionate little girl. She’s an absolute delight most of the time and still very active and funny.

I, on the other hand, started feeling way more confident and competent as a parent and stopped doubting myself all the time. I can honestly say that parenting taught me more about self regulation, patience and respect than anything else I lived through. Not that I think that I have it all figured out, in fact I often feel overwhelmed still but I now think that it’s normal for parents in general. We also finally gave up and got a cleaner.

At work, I started a new role and it was not the easiest transition; it took me a while to get into the swing of things and find my own path for a number of reasons. I had a period of severe bewilderment about some things I saw around me; I was also told that some of it was part of a 3 year crisis of being at the company. I continue to be very grateful for opportunities within the company and I’m overall happy and optimistic now, at the end of the year, and very keen to see how different things work out and what I can achieve within the boundaries of the role. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that I immensely enjoyed working with one of our incredibly bright graduates.

A few friendships really deepened and flourished this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. The place we are renting got sold to an investor with minimum of fuss so we are cautiously hopeful we will be able to continue living there until we are ready to move on.

I tried to read deeply not widely this year and I started writing occasionally again. I also found an online community I find a tremendous value in. One of my favourite places online, the forum that inspired me to learn English properly back in the day, was shut down by its owner which caused quite a bit of controversy for a month or so. By the end of the year I also took the plunge and deleted apps for Facebook and Instagram off my phone and every time I do check Facebook I realise it was the right thing to do. I do miss seeing my friends’ news but I’m also less distracted and spend less time arguing with imaginary people in my head after reading a silly article in my feed or thinking why I wasn’t invited to an event (which I probably wouldn’t be able to go to anyway).

I hope all of you who happen to read this have a wonderful holiday season and have some time for reflection, laughter, rest and time with your loved ones. Here’s to a great year 2019.

The race that was not abandoned

Sydney winters are an interesting time to sail: an “average” day of 10 to 15 knots is rare but you get a lot of extremes – days with almost no breeze (and at times some sunshine to compensate but that’s not a given) and days with so much of it that races are on the verge of being cancelled.

Race 2 of the Winter series had us sitting in a hole for ages as our entire division caught up to us and then overtook us; the forecast for the next week looked like a complete opposite: gusty 20-30 knots and rain. Race 3 was also on Mother’s Day.

We had a long and very warm summer and autumn this year so the first cold days came as a complete shock. I generally find myself unable to complain about the cold too much because even after living in Australia for over 10 years I still hear that a Russian person, let alone a person from Siberia, can’t possibly feel cold in 10 degrees. I just glare from under my fur hat. Just kidding, I just sit there with my eyes closed.

Inshore races generally get cancelled when there is a gale warning and I’m not going to lie, I was waiting for that warning with almost the same trepidation I feel as I wait for my toddler to start sleeping better. A cancelled race, some restful sleep and being able to read all by myself with a cup of hot tea were the only things I really wanted for Mother’s Day, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting the last two things. So when the committee announced that the race would proceed it was a blow.

I saw no possibility of cancelling and just not showing up either. Sailboats really need crew on windy days (especially heavy crew so you should have a big breakfast if it’s blowing outside) and pulling out on a windy day is bad form. So I cursed and put a lot of layers on myself and used my Russian glare on the Uber driver who thought I was a tradie wearing some kind of work clothes when he saw my wet weather gear.

And man, did we had some fun that day. I got to sail with a couple of people who I haven’t seen in a few years, people I really like, and all the usual suspects. We didn’t break anything. There was a lot of grinding involved and a lot of splashing but I managed to stay dry. We forgot the only spinnaker we could’ve used (a fractional symmetrical kite). We put a reef on and then shook it out. I was shouting “weeeeeee!” through every gust of 35 knots. We rounded up a few times and we had to crash tack because of a boat that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I lost another hat. And after the race tea and red wine tasted better than they ever did before.

Turns out I don’t mind an inshore race in 30 knots, after all. Thanks Bureau of Meteorology for not issuing a gale warning and thanks CYCA for not cancelling the race, obviously you know better than me what’s good for all of us.