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.