Paint

“There’s paint on the door” said Barns, but he looked happy about it. I knew what he was talking about, having put it there myself while carrying a load of messy paintbrushes into the house after the kids had been painting in the garden. I went past the door and – oops! – adorned it with a streak of brownish blue. But my hands were full and by the time I could do something about it, I had already forgotten and when I remembered, it was already dry. I wasn’t too fussed – like literally everything in the house, the door could do with a new coat of paint, anyway. So why was Barns, possibly the least aesthetically inclined person I’ve ever met, even mentioning it?

“Yeah?”

“I was worried for a moment and then I remembered that we’re not renting anymore! We don’t have to do anything about it. And it’s just a little streak of paint, who cares?”

He looked so happy, and with those words, I too released some tension that I’d forgotten I’d been carrying, perhaps because I’ve been lugging it around with me my whole life.

This is the first time I’ve ever lived in a house that wasn’t a rental. I’ve never painted a wall. I’ve never hung a picture. I’ve never dug in a garden. I’ve never invested in my living space. And I’ve never been allowed the freedom of making a mess. I have, of course, because that’s what humans do sometimes, and it’s always been horrible and scary to sort out, the moment where, for example, in a kitchen completely devoid of usable surfaces I set a pyrex dish hot out of the oven down on a stove top element that I didn’t realise was on, causing it to explode and scorch the kitchen lino, that moment becoming not just a momentary lapse in judgement but some kind of sin, to be endlessly apologised for. To be paid and paid and paid for. I don’t mind the paying with money. I was aware that that was part of the deal. But having paid with money, it was the other ways I was also forced to pay that I resented.

I remember terrible anxiety when the kids first started to eat for themselves. We always put a sheet down to catch mess but food still made its way onto the walls and floor. I scolded the kids for dropping food, and knew it wasn’t fair, that all one-year-olds do it, that it’s developmentally important, that they literally can’t control themselves, and hated myself for telling them off for it and did it anyway, my fear of the people with so much power over us bigger than my ability to be reasonable. I remember trying not to show the kids how stressed I was as I attempted in vain to scrub out the stains they had made, because who knows what landlords will try and get you for and we could not afford to replace carpet.

And suddenly, we own a house! I literally never thought this day would come. Yesterday Nora came inside with her gumboots on and tracked damp pink chalk all over the carpet. I’m not sure if it will stain but I’m not too worried if it does. Who gives a flying fuck about a few pink stains on some old carpet? What amazing freedom! What incredible privilege to be able to think like that. We don’t want to, you know, trash the house, I mean we have enough repair work to do on the poor old place as it is without adding to our problems, but at least we don’t have to panic when things get a bit grubby. I get heady with it sometimes, thinking about the house and all the things we could do, there’s so much potential here, forgetting of course that we have no time or money or DIY skill. But perhaps those things will come. In the meantime, I’ve bought myself a few prints that I’ve been wanting for years. I’m going to hang some pictures at last.

Multi-generational living part 1 – Why?

No, seriously, why?

I was the one who came up with the idea of my husband and I buying a house with my parents so I’ve only myself to blame. I first thought of it years ago but assumed it was a dreadful idea, so, intelligent person that I am, I said nothing and only mentioned it once I was heavily pregnant. Our culture – European-descent New Zealanders – is not kind to adults who live with their parents. Most of the examples I had were people from other cultures, cultures that have values like filial piety and social cohesion to help the situation along. My strongest cultural value is everybody leaving everyone else the heck alone, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to inviting more people into your living space. But life in 2020 being as it is (a capitalist hellscape), multi-generational living is becoming more common and once I looked around, I saw that I wasn’t being that weird after all. Friends and family are already doing this and making it work for them.

Astonishingly, once I finally said something, Barns and mum thought it was a brilliant suggestion (Dad was less gung-ho but he doesn’t get to make the decisions) and so we looked at a few property listings and talked to a mortgage broker but then the bubbies were born and a year and a half vanished before we had a minute to think about it again. But we eventually looked up from the mountain of nappies we’d vanished under and got serious about house-hunting.

Multi-generational living makes sense for us in a lot of ways. My mum and dad have reached their 60’s without ever being able to buy their own home, and as retirement approaches they are running out of options. Nobody really knew what they were going to do and I was frankly desperate to free myself from decades of worrying about what will happen to them as they age. I do, you know, love them and stuff. We wanted to sort something out for them both.

Meanwhile, Barns and I wanted to buy a house for all the usual reasons but mostly because renting feels even more ridiculously unsafe once you have kids. We couldn’t afford to buy on one income and there’s no financial benefit to me going back to work. I’ve never made enough to cover full time day-care for two kids. So, in case you thought I was being a bit too altruistic, it’s selfish, really – we needed a bit of extra cash to get us over the line. Also, I’d rather have my parents close by when the day comes that they need help from us. Much less driving. Not mention the free baby-sitting! I mean, that is a strong factor in this choice, I’m not going to lie.

Speaking of the kids, this is for their sake, too. This modern life, it’s weird, you know? All of us in our own little strongholds. We’re meant to be in communities. We’re designed for it. And this is me speaking as a dedicated introvert. You have babies and suddenly that tired old phrase about it “taking a village” becomes pertinent life advice. My parents and the bubbies absolutely adore each other. I am sure that for the kids, growing up with more people around all the time who love them, more people to read to them and cuddle them and listen to them, I am positive to the very core of my being that this will benefit them a hundred times more than it disadvantages them. They may never come home to a cold and empty house. Just imagine that.

As for what Barns gets out of it, I wasn’t sure either, but it turns out that he’s one of those bizarre people who really likes other humans and wants to look after them. (It’s an opposites attract kind of scenario.) He knows this is absolutely the best way to take care of all of us.

Now, I have a question for you, reader: Does this list of reasons sound memorised to you? Does it have the quality of something curated, something recited? Does it seem a bit mantra-like? Does it read, perhaps, like something Barns and I have discussed, repeated to each other, over and over again?

Well.

As soon as we started house-hunting, one thing became very clear: this was going to be annoying. Really annoying. My parents…well, getting this over the line required a truly Herculean amount of labour from Barns and I, let’s put it that way. It’s just that house-hunting when you’re trying to find something affordable that suits the needs and desires of four different grown-ups is not easy. And it didn’t help that every time we’d go to an open home, the children would tear themselves from my loving arms and fling themselves bodily onto my father, refusing to so much as look at me for the rest of the day. I’m not sure if my dad, off in lala-land with his grand kids, paid attention to a single one of the houses we viewed. I have a jealous streak, okay? I mean, it’s great that they love each other but jeez.

This is Staglands but you get the idea. Not pictured: me.

Add to grandparent woes the rejection and fatigue and sheer hard work of house hunting, the mountains of useless advice, and the endless palpitation-inducing conversations people like to have about the housing market, and all of this made the Reasons Why We Are Doing This so much more important. We’d go over them in the car on the way home after every single open home. We’d discuss them while we did the dishes. In bed at night. Over and over again. Picking ourselves up to carry on.

We have now bought a house…that my parents are refusing to move into. Just because it turns out that the house has some borer problems and so we don’t have a room for them that isn’t technically the dining room. Some people are so unreasonable. We’d move the table somewhere else, obviously. But that’s a story for another day. Clearly things will continue to be trying. And so here is my first piece of advice for anybody thinking of going down the same path: Know your reasons why! Because they need to be really good ones.

Love in the time of child-rearing

Dinner companions

I don’t know why I thought having kids would be fine because I don’t cope very well with tiredness. The biological imperative to procreate has had millennia to find ways to override common sense, I suppose. Dinnertime can be particularly rough. The combination of a bad night’s sleep, a long physical day of looking after the kids and hunger can leave me in a zomboid state. And those aren’t the bad days. And so, since having kids, connecting with my spouse over dinner conversation can be a challenge.

Such things are hard on the old marriage, anyway. Dinnertime, I mean. I recall seeing memes years ago where worried internet-users panicked that “marriage is just eating Wednesday night dinner with the same person every week for fifty years”. Well, when you put it like that…no wonder people wind up just putting the telly on. And yet, this is what I have willingly signed up for.

One such night while we were still in the spoon-feeding days of yonder, we had a Wednesday night dinner. Or maybe a Tuesday. Who can remember? What I do recall is that once I had finally finished shoving food into the offspring and turned to my own meal, Barns smiled at me and asked: ‘Top three favourite movie villains?’

That wasn’t hard. Scar is number one, obviously. Then maybe Darth Vader. But can he really be called a villain when his redemption arc is one of the central plot points of the entire trilogy? And what about villains like Gaston? I just bloody hate Gaston. Are good villains enjoyable to spend time with, like Scar, or are they villains who you actually fear? Even with all the singing about eggs, Gaston is chilling.

So maybe that question was harder than I thought. At any rate, it wasn’t an unusual conversation so I didn’t think much of it, not even the next night when we discussed our favourite movie scores, or the day after, which was chase scenes. It took a few days to see the pattern. To see how excited he was to begin the debate. To notice the care with which he’d chosen questions that ,with our limited overlap in tastes and interests, we could both discuss. To enjoy the improved dinnertime mood. To see how kind he was being. To realise how thoughtfully I was being loved.

This is what true romance looks like. It’s not big gestures, which are easy, but big effort every day, which is hard. And this is, I think, what people mean when they say that marriage takes works. It’s not just that marriage takes patience and understanding, but also that you need to work at enjoying each other. It takes intentional connection. You have to ask yourself, can I improve this thing? Is there a little more I can give? I am incredibly lucky to have found someone who looks for new ways to say, yes.

I don’t know how Barns found the energy, I really don’t. In these days of better (but still patchy) sleep we have kept the game going, even though if we talk to each other too much the children get cross. Sorry bubbies, mummy and daddy love each other and it’s a wonderful way for us to connect. We both adore stories and will happily discuss our favourites for hours. He keeps coming up with new questions. I’ve never asked him about it but I like to picture him sitting on the train on the way home from work, staring out the window and pondering what to ask me that evening. I like to imagine him smiling when he does it.

I’ve joined in now, too, of course. But I’m competitive and I don’t like to make it easy on him. Tonight I’m going to ask him what fictional foods he’d most like to try. He’s not a fantasy guy. That’ll stump him!

Those People

Warning: poos.

The other day I was on the loo and the kids wandered into the bathroom to see what I was doing. I used to shut the bathroom door as a line-in-the-sand type move, figuring I was at the very least owed a few minutes of privacy. But these days they hit each other whenever I’m not around to stop them so now I’m one of those on-the-toilet-with-the-door-open parents. I was absolutely certain that I’d never do that. You always think you’ll never be one of those people, whoever “those people” are for you, and then your kids always prove you wrong.

So, I’m on the loo and the kids come in to the bathroom. They ask what I’m doing, of course. I tell them I’m doing a poo, because, well, I am.

‘I are doing a poo, too!’ announces June, happily. Then her small face turns serious. She gazes at me. This seems to be important to her, so I follow suit. We stare into each other’s eyes, without blinking or breaking eye contact, and we do our poos, me in the loo and she in her nappy. We poo together.

They are crowding the toilet to look at it before I’ve even pulled my pants up.

And that’s the whole thing about parenting. That absolute intimacy. Every aspect of your body, your life, your choices, every facet of your personality, all laid totally bare, exposed to the little people with whom you suddenly share your house. There is no hiding from your own children. I’ve always been shy and it is, frankly, terrifying. Truthfully, I’m jealous of “those people”, as I see them in my imagination. The mums and dads who would never have shut the toilet door in the first place. The easily intimate.

But kids, you know? The whole point is that they reshape you and make you better than you were the hard way. And for me that means that try as I might to ring off little corners and spaces for myself, to find some privacy amid all the madness, the better the kids get at smashing down those walls. Or at least banging on them and asking what I’m doing until I give in and open the door. At least two-year-olds are wonderfully non-judgemental. The kids watch me poo and see me do even more hideously shameful stuff like weep pathetically when I’m worried my tomato seedlings will die because I didn’t water them… and I’m seen but I’m just mummy and that’s what I’m like and somehow it is fine. It’s okay to just be me is a concept I still haven’t fully grasped but perhaps I’m not going to be given a choice.

Recipe: Chinese-style egg with tomato and also spousal disappointment

Coronavirus lockdown, day negative two: We walked to the church that organises our local fruit and vege co-op (and let me just say, I am an atheist, but I am still one hundred percent positive that providing mountains of affordable fruits and vegetables in a community as deprived as ours is doing the lord’s work) and picked up this week’s produce pack. They reassured Barnaby, the only member of the family allowed to go inside, that they would keep going once the lockdown started for real. What a relief. (Since writing this post, we’ve learnt that they will indeed have to shut doors, and we’re stuck with what they have at the local Countdown. Sigh.) And look: silverbeet!

I wanted to stir-fry the silverbeet and needed a second dish to go with that. I still had tomatoes left from last week’s pack so decided to make something I’ve wanted to try for a while – Chinese-style egg with tomato. This is a very common dish in the Chinese-speaking world. I encountered it many times in Taiwan. Apparently it’s a common quick meal, an easy week-night dinner, a dining-hall staple. In other words, a comfort food. Fluffy eggs with juicy tomatoes. Sweet, tangy, oily and tasty.

I did my best and was thrilled with the results. It tasted like Taiwan. Man, I miss Taiwan. I excitedly served it up for dinner. Barnaby is normally a very appreciative audience for my mediocre cooking and I was expecting rave reviews. He chewed it solemnly. Swallowed.

‘It’s okay I guess. I just don’t…get it?’

So deflated. In these lonely days, a bit of praise goes a long way. Then I remembered the first time I tried this dish. Grant from Star Hostel treated me to the lunch box, enthusiastically explaining the cultural significance of the tomato egg. I eyed it apprehensively, the unappetising contrast of gloopy tomatoes and solid yellow egg chunks not filling me with confidence. But I tried it and, well, it tasted okay, I guess. I just didn’t get it.

Ah, nostalgia. Smooths out all the old lumps and bumps. I could understand where Barnaby was coming from, after all.

Still, I enjoyed my tomato egg, and so here is the recipe in case you want to try it. It’s a great dish – easy, quick, cheap, filling and uses common ingredients. It is also, as you will see, pretty robust if you’re prone to cooking errors. The combination may be a bit strange at first but comfort food is a universal language.

tomato egg

RECIPE: CHINESE STYLE STIR-FRIED EGG WITH TOMATO

Ingredients PER PERSON:

1 egg

1 – 2 tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1/4 teaspoon sugar (or to taste)

A teaspoon-ish of cooking oil

A splash of cooking rice wine / sake, if you have it on hand and fancy it

Sliced green onions to garnish (these are traditional but we had none on hand so I omitted them)

Method

Step one: Slice up the tomatoes. I like to do them in eights, length wise. Put them in a bowl with the salt, sugar and sake.

Step two: (optional) If your kitchen has a couple of flies buzzing around, pop the bowl out of the way. I put mine in the microwave.

Step three: Start heating up your pan.

Step four: (optional) Put in an ear of corn in the microwave for your kids dinner, forgetting the tomatoes are in there, and zap that for four minutes.

Step five: Crack the eggs in a bowl and whisk them with a balloon whisk until you’ve incorporated quite a lot of air. You definitely want a layer of foam on the top.

Step six: Heat up the oil. The pan needs to be hot but not like, smoking or anything.

Step seven: (optional) When the microwave beeps, remember your tomatoes are in there. Remove them and stare at them sadly. They are shrivelled. Still, they’re the only tomatoes you have so they’ll just have to do.

Step eight: Tip the eggs into the pan. Flip them as soon as they are set enough to do so (this should only take a minute or two) and break them up into small pieces with your wooden spoon. Pop them on a plate as soon as you can.

Step nine: Put the tomatoes in the pan. If you have done the optional steps, you will be thrilled to see that juice is still being released. Hooray! As soon as it’s all hot, put the eggs back in. Cook it for just a few minutes and then it’s done. Yes, it really was that easy!

Garnish if you want and serve with rice. Enjoy!

A-holes

They look so sweet, too.

I never thought my kids would become a-holes so young. I mean, I know that a lot of people say that toddlers are a-holes but I thought that was kind of, you know, they are always needing and wanting things and they are really noisy about it, a-holes in that kind of way. But no, they can just be so mean. The kids have just gone two and their language is pretty good from what I can tell. They have this brand-new superpower but what do they do with it? They use it for evil.

When I was a kid, my parents used to sing me the rainbow song all the time. I started singing it to the kids a few months ago now they’re learning their colours. They love it! It’s so beautiful when that happens, when you get to pass along something that meant a lot to you. A song, perhaps, your parents sung to you when they were young parents themselves, sung it over and over again and hearing it still makes you remember the feeling of being cocooned in their affection. I got pretty misty-eyed the first time one of the bubbies (Juney, I think) sung it with me, let me tell you. They sing it quite often now. The other day we were driving to the beach and they started singing in the back seat.

*

SCENE: Family car trip to the beach

Nora (singing): red and yellow and pink and green

June (joins in ): purple and orange and blue

Nora and Juney: I can sing a rainbow! Sing a rainbow! Sing a rainbow too. Listen with your eyes, listen with your eyes, sing everything you see.

(Mummy joins in)

Nora, Juney and Mummy: You can sing a rainbow! Sing a – 

Nora: (stops) No. Mummy no sing.

Me: What? Why can’t I sing too? I’m allowed to sing if I want to.

Nora (insistently): Mummy no sing!

Me (to barnaby): You know, the next line is “sing along with me”? That’s really rubbing salt in the wound, isn’t it?

Kids (resume singing): red and orange and pi – 

(I join in and so does Barnaby, in what I charitably assume is a show of support for me and not just to stir the pot. Nora immediately stops)

Nora: Mummy and Daddy no sing!

Me: I can sing if I want to!

Nora (singing angrily): Nora and Juney can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow! Nora and Juney can sing a rainbow, too!

*

I gave up after that.

So yeah they’re total a-holes already, but at least they make me laugh.

Apricots

I try to be a good parent, I really do.

SCENE: We are all in the kitchen. I am trying to start the chocolate custard for the Christmas trifle while Barns makes the kids’ afternoon tea. Nora and June (both 2) are tootling around underfoot.

Me: I’m not really feeling the Christmas spirit this year. It’s like I just don’t have room in my brain for it right now. (I absent-mindedly take an apricot from the fruit bowl and start snacking)

B: Weird. Maybe – 

Nora: My want an apricot.

Me: You don’t like apricots, darling.

B: Do you want some in your afternoon tea?

Nora: MY WANT AN APRICOT.  (I am already selecting an apricot for her)

B: You can have some in your afternoon tea.

Nora: MY NO WANT SOME. MY WANT A BIG ONE.

(I give her a whole apricot. She does not eat it)

June: My want an apricot.

Me: You don’t like apricots, darling. (I start looking for an apricot for her. All of the apricots on the top of the fruit bowl are still rock-hard. Of course they are.)

Nora: Open my apricot.

Me: Just wait one minute, please. (Rummaging in the fruit bowl, I accidentally stick my fingers into a rotten apricot)

Nora: Open it!

(I throw out the rotten apricot. June is horrified. She thought that one was going to be hers.)

June: WHERE MY APRICOT?!

Nora: OPEN IT!!

(B makes placating noises but, hands covered in egg, is frankly no use at all. I hastily wash my hands)

June: WAAAAAAAH

Nora: WAAAAAAAAAH

(I finally find June an apricot, pass it to her and then rip open Nora’s apricot. They are momentarily appeased.)

Me: (to Barnaby) I mean like, Christmas has always been really important to – 

Nora: My no like it. Close it again.

Me: Um. I… I can’t, darling. That’s not how apricots work.

Nora: (doggedly proffering apricot) Mummy want to close it!

Me: Nora, my love, I can’t. You can’t close an apricot.

June: Waaaaaa – (takes a breath)

Nora: CLOSE IT!

June: – AAAH! (B and I stare at her helplessly, as we have absolutely no idea why she is upset)

Nora: MUMMY WANT TO CLOSE IT!

Me: (gabbling) I can’t, Lovey! I’m sorry! I just can’t! I’m so sorry!

June: WAAAAAAAAAH (furious incoherent wailing. Stamps round and round in a circle)

B: (tries to talk to June. Untranscribable. Nobody can hear him. This just makes her angrier, anyway. )

Nora: CLOSE IT CLOSE IT CLOSE IT (takes a deep breath)

Both children: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Me: (Throws away all parenting goals and snatches apricots from children’s tiny hands while shouting) OH MY GOD, YOU’RE BOTH JUST HUNGRY!!! WHO WANTS A MUESLI BAR?

(Peace is instantly restored. B glances at the nutritious afternoon tea plates he has slaved over but wisely says nothing. We unwrap muesli bars)

Me: As I was saying, you know, Christmas, it’s like I just don’t have the room in my brain right –

Nora: My wanna open it myself. (The muesli bar wrapper – brace yourselves for this – is already open)