A decision to stay

We have finally made the decision to stay here next year…which is funny, because if you’d asked me three months ago I would’ve said no way. I would’ve said I was worried about being isolated with a new baby, that I missed friends and family, that I didn’t feel there was any point staying.

What’s changed? Well, I know the weather has, and I admit that has an impact, but I also know that come early next year it will be horrible again. The heat and mosquitos will send us scuttling back into our air-conditioned house and I’ll wish I was taking the kids for swims at Sydney beaches rather than being holed-up here. But the decision is bigger than that.

A large part of it is J’s job. This year, he has had his own class and in the last few months he’s felt like he’s finally starting to make progress. A new program has started, called ‘Learning on Country’, which creates stronger links between the classroom and the local rangers. The land and sea rangers are key sources of employment here, and many of the kids say they wouldn’t mind working for them when they leave school. The rangers have already talked to J’s class about snakes, and led them on an excursion to some wetlands. In a month or so they are planning a three-day excursion to a nearby island. J feels like he’s part of something that could have a real, positive impact. He is also aware that teacher retention is a big issue in remote communities: so often, teachers come, take a year to bond with their class, then leave. If he can help it, J doesn’t want to be one of those teachers.

As for me, I definitely feel more a part of this community, but there are still very few people here with whom I can have a deep and meaningful discussion. I really do miss my family and Sydney friends, who have known me for most of my life. But I know they’ll still be there at the end of next year, and are always on the end of the phone. I also feel like community life is slowly seeping into my body. The laidback lifestyle – the lack of commuting, stress and financial pressure – does make me wonder how we will adjust back to the rush, high costs and frenetic pace of Sydney. I enjoy being able to be present and unhurried – little things, like being able to walk L to preschool and stay there with him an hour or two if he wants me to, seem like a precious luxury, especially while the kids are small.

L and R are happily oblivious to the fact that we’ve been making a decision at all, but L has said that he likes it better here than Sydney. He’s an outdoor boy, happiest when he’s exploring in the bush with friends, his whole body smeared in dirt. Staying means we’ll need to make a decision about sending him to school. His birthday is late April, which means we can either send him next year (and repeat him when we move back to NSW if we need to), or hold him back and send him the year after. I think we’ll wait until closer to the end of the year to deal with that one.

The new baby is also a factor. Its imminent arrival means I won’t be working much in the coming year. I can still write freelance scripts from home but I can do that from anywhere. A key reason for moving back to Sydney is so I can try to get in-house work in a script department, and feel like a real part of a team again, but that won’t be happening until at least 2015 so we have a bit of time up our sleeves.

J and I have both told our families, and we feel good about the decision. It’s been a while coming, but it feels good to have set a course. We have surprised ourselves by saying it out loud, but neither of us is ready to leave in a few months. Looks like 2014 will be spent in Arnhem Land!

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A break-in

Yesterday our car was stolen. They took my mobile phone too. I was home at the time, reading in the bedroom. I heard a muffled clatter outside but didn’t think too much about it. A while later I realised my phone was missing and the screen door was open. Blame it on pregnancy brain, but I still didn’t make anything of it. I figured the door had blown open, and J had taken my phone by accident. I sent him an email to ask if this was the case.

A couple of hours later it was time to pick the kids up from childcare. It was only then I noticed our car was missing. Going outside, I saw the bowl where we keep keys and spare change dumped on the ground in the carport. I went next door and borrowed a neighbour’s phone to call J. There was no answer so the neighbour drove me up to the school to find him. Once we’d confirmed he didn’t have the car, we called the police. Then I went to get the kids from childcare.

R and L were very concerned about our car and the person who took it, asking a multitude of serious questions and telling me earnestly what they knew. R, in particular, was extremely animated, talking over her big brother to say things like ‘I tell you what happens. The policeman comes and locks the man in a cage.’ I explained that the person who stole the car would go have to go to court first, then, if the judge decided the person did steal the car, they might have to pay a big fine or go to jail. R and L were satisfied with this explanation, but I couldn’t help thinking that another (let’s be honest, probably Yolngu) man in jail wouldn’t help anyone. So they stole a car. I doubt it was malicious. Maybe they were just bored or broke or looking for something to do. Maybe they came from a dysfunctional background. Maybe they were drunk or high. Does that person therefore deserve to spend time in a punitive institution? Will that really help them or society in general?

The loss of my phone also evoked surprising feelings. I suddenly realised how dependent on it I’ve become. It is strangely liberating not to have it. Of course I wish I could call J, especially as he flew to Darwin hospital today to see a doctor about his fractured wrist (weekend football injury), but it’s not a disaster: we still have email.

Talking last night, both J and I admitted we feel strangely unconcerned about the theft of our car. Of course, it helps that we both assume it will either show up once it runs out of petrol or insurance will cover it. But there’s something else at work. A shift in perspective brought about by being, specifically, here. I remember a time in Sydney that I changed mobile provider and my phone stopped working for a few hours. I sat in my car on King St, Newtown, feeling utter frustration at not being able to contact people about the busy Sydney day I had planned. I’ve also had a car stolen from Coogee – a ute that was on loan from my dad. I felt pissed off at the knowledge that whoever stole it would rebirth it and sell it for a tidy profit. But those things don’t really apply here, and to add to our new perspective is the knowledge that a Yolngu colleague’s husband is extremely sick. The colleague is a lovely lady who both J and I have worked with. They live just down our street. J stopped in there yesterday and asked if we could help. They said soft food for her husband would be good, as that’s all he can manage at the moment. He probably doesn’t have long left.

So, while I wait for news of our car from the police, and walk my kids to preschool and childcare, and email J in Darwin to make sure he’s okay, I am making chicken soup and I feel strangely at peace. Life has its ups and downs. But, in the big scheme of things, we’re doing okay.

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Mr Angry

Our four year old son L has been getting angry. And not the type of angry you can ignore or send for time out in the bedroom. It is an all-consuming, can’t-calm-down, need-to-destroy-things kind of anger. At its worst it is ferocious, furious and scary.

Both J and I have spent a lot of time wondering when this all started. When did our gorgeous little boy turn into a fiery tornado of frustration? When I think back, I can see that the seeds this anger have been there a long time. He has always needed to get enough sleep, eat proper meals, not watch too much TV, not eat too much sugar, and have down time by himself. ‘What child doesn’t?’ you ask. I take your point, but with L it’s different. If he doesn’t get these things he goes into complete meltdown mode. For a long time I thought this was normal. But watching our two and a half year old daughter R, who can skip sleeps, binge on cake at birthday parties, and watch Playschool then turn it off without any fuss, we are starting to realise it’s not.

A recent family holiday to Bali confirmed this. I thought it would be fun for L if we stayed a couple of nights at a Safari Park. Think Africa in miniature. L is an obsessive animal nut, and had been excited about this for weeks. But on day one, after seeing the park, going on a ‘safari’ and watching an animal show he went into complete meltdown. He wanted to see another show and there weren’t any more on. We wanted to have lunch and let R rest in our hotel room. L wasn’t having a bar of it. Screams, swearing, hitting and biting ensued. It was probably his worst tantrum to date. Having made a big effort, and spent a fair bit of money, to give him this experience it felt like it was being thrown back in our faces.

There are many other examples I could give you. Of days when he just wakes up grumpy and our whole family spends the day tiptoeing around him. You want a matching orange cup and bowl? No problem. I’ll just transfer your breakfast. You wanted to be standing at the gate when I arrived home? Let me walk back out there and I’ll ‘arrive’ again. But there is only so much of this a parent can take.

We have tried rewards, punishments, collaborative problem solving in advance, time out, taking away toys, joking him out of it, wrestling, deep breathing, reading books about kids dealing with anger, and shutting him outside so he can’t trash a room. I have talked to other parents about it, but I think it is hard for them to understand. I certainly didn’t, until L started behaving this way. And in public, most of the time, L is well behaved, intelligent and happy. It is only with us that this side of him emerges.

Of course this creates an absolute torrent of emotions. There is anger, sadness, frustration, and at the forefront is that perennial frontrunner: parental guilt. Was it something I did along the way? Was it moving him from Sydney to the NT? Is it because he is our first child? But I don’t think it was either of these. In fact, I no longer think that parenting necessarily reflects much about a kids’ nature at all. If it did, how have we ended up with children who are complete opposites? R is easy-going, compassionate and funny. When L’s temper flares she quickly declares that she’s ‘not Mr Angry’s friend’.

On returning from Bali, I got a referral for L to see a paediatrician about his behaviour although, as I’m starting to learn is typical for a remote community, we won’t actually get to see one another month. Still, having read up on various syndromes, I don’t think it is anything like that. The most accurate description I’ve found so far simply calls him an ‘explosive child’.

A big part of me still hopes that this is just a phase. That he’ll grow out of it. Or it will turn out to be caused by something non-emotional, like his hearing, which can be fixed. But that is something we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully we’ll be able to laugh about Mr Angry one day soon!

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A change in the weather

We have started to think about staying here next year. If you’d asked me a few months ago I would’ve said, ‘No way – come the end of this year we’re outta here’. It was muggy and hot, mosquitos were rampant and morning sickness had worn me down. But since May or early June the wet season (which actually wasn’t very wet this year, just hot and disgusting) has ended. There are cool breezes, days outside, camping trips, beautiful sunsets and more people around. When I think of my friends shivering by heaters in Sydney life here is looking pretty good.

There are other factors too. The fact we’re having another baby in November is a big one. The thought of an interstate move with two kids under five and a six week old baby is daunting. Add to that the expensive nature of Sydney, where J and I would both need to work next year just to pay the mortgage/bills, and the question ‘why’ starts to appear in our minds. Why return to financial stress when we have a rent-free house here? Why rush back to Sydney when we have the rest of our lives to live there? Why not stay and see where another year here takes us?

Of course there are plenty of reasons. We miss our family and friends. The knowledge that the kids are growing up so fast, far from their grandparents and other relatives, is sad. The friends that we’ve made up here, of course, aren’t the same as those who have known us for most of our lives. We miss the delicious, cheap food of the inner west, the great parks for the kids, the swimmable beaches in summer. But all of those things will still be there, whether we return at the end of 2013 or 2014.

And, on the flip side, J is finding his stride in his job. He’s had six months with his own class now and is making slow but steady progress. The teacher turnover here is high, and the thought of being yet another face to leave after a short time, just when he’s formed good bonds with his students, seems a waste.

I’ve finished up my tutoring work with the assistant teachers, because I want to spend more time with the kids, and also want to try to write a complete first draft of my young adult novel before the baby is born. At the moment that is looking like a long shot. Staying here next year would allow me more time to research and be immersed in this community, which is where the novel is set.

At the same time, I’m worried about feeling isolated here with a small baby. In Sydney, I have plenty of friends with young bubs who would be around if I needed an outing or someone to talk to. Still, perhaps having some time while I’m not working, and a young baby, will be a good opportunity to make some more friends up here.

We are telling ourselves we’ll make a definite decision by September, which is when I’d need to let the kids’ Sydney childcare centre know if we’re coming back. Pros. Cons. Yes. No. Stay. Go. We’ll keep you posted.

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Remote area pregnancy

I can now tell you…we are having another baby! Which might put some of my recent posts (and the infrequent nature of the posts) into perspective. The ordering of expensive food to satisfy cravings, the lack of outings with our Yolngu family due to the heat, the frustrated feeling of being held captive in air conditioned spaces.

This is our third baby, and the pregnancy has definitely been the most challenging of the three. Having had two relatively easy pregnancies, I thought I was immune to morning sickness. Not so. For the entire first trimester I was consumed by a constant, mind-numbing queasiness and had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. I lost 3.5kg due to only being able to bring myself to eat two minute noodles on some days. I tried every crazy remedy I read about online: morning sickness vitamins, ginger, peppermint tea, rehydration drinks, sea bands that go on your wrists, and a horrifyingly bad recording of weird elevator like music that was supposed to ‘reprogram your brain’. No, none of them worked. Don’t waste your money. I became convinced that I was having twins – what else could have such a big impact my body? I was relieved when the sonographer assured me there was only one in there.

The experience of preparing to have a baby in a remote hospital has also had its pros and cons. On the plus side, I have been able to make appointments for ultrasounds at the local hospital at the drop of a hat. I remember the Sydney equivalent – being told that the only appointment they had in the range of days I needed was at Tuesday at 3.15pm (or some other ridiculously exact time and date). The maternity ward here is also very relaxed. On my first visit they told me there are usually heaps of private rooms available and I’m welcome to stay as long as I like after the birth. In Sydney I left hospital the morning after both my births, as I found myself crammed into a room of four to six other mothers and their crying babies. Here, the shared rooms are packed and the private ones are empty. Apparently, Yolngu ladies don’t like to be in a room alone. One midwife told me that even if they don’t like the woman they’re sharing with and won’t speak to her, for whatever cultural or personal reason, they still prefer to have company over being by themselves.

On the down side, my nuchal translucency bloods ‘went missing’ – that is, they were sent to the wrong lab and had to be re-done, meaning we had to wait an additional week for results. I also had an absolutely horrible experience at the local clinic, where a serious misdiagnosis made us worry for the baby for twenty-four hours until we were able to see the doctor at the hospital who said everything was okay. After all that, I was told I should see a specialist, just to be sure. The specialist was supposed to visit from Darwin in June but then cancelled due to ‘lack of staff’. My doctor has said not to worry, as me seeing the specialist is really just an extra precaution, but there are people waiting to see them who need actual surgery who will now have to wait until the next scheduled visit September. I have always had good experiences with the public health system until now: it is the first time I am seeing the impact of understaffing and lack of funding first hand. It is what people in remote areas live with all the time.

Still, we are hoping that from here on in it is smooth sailing. Every woman I’ve met who has had a baby here has told me the maternity midwives and doctors are fantastic. And the metallic taste has disappeared and I’m eating again and the weather has changed – it is perfect, cool and sunny and we can get out and about again. Things are looking on the up.

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Small (expensive) pleasures

I spent $280 on one box of frozen sourdough bread and one box of organic fruit and vegetables yesterday. It’s the first time we’ve ordered food to be shipped in on the barge, especially for us, from Darwin. Calculating the cost, I worked out that each slice of bread probably ended up costing me a dollar. But…oh…the pleasure…

When you live in a community the smallest things start to feel like a luxury. In Sydney, we lived two blocks from a supermarket. Anything we needed could be picked up in five minutes flat. Here, we plan meals for the week and drive twenty minutes in to town, once a week, to buy groceries. And even once we’re there, the shelves may be empty if the barge hasn’t arrived on time. If I manage to get everything I need for a recipe from the supermarket it is a small miracle. Fresh herbs? Exotic fruit and vegetables? Things like oyster sauce or tamari? You can pretty much forget it.

On top of this, we’ve had a fairly regular stream of scheduled power and water cuts lately. You don’t appreciate how much we rely on these services until they’re gone. What– you mean I can’t cook – not even a piece of toast? Can’t fill up a water jug or flush the toilet? Can’t turn the air-con on? Disaster!

I unpacked our ridiculously expensive boxes of goods yesterday, and J watched in amusement as I ate spoonfuls of organic yoghurt, munched on licorice, had fresh basil with tomato, and slathered butter on a piece of sourdough fruit loaf. “I see,” he said, “so we really just spent $280 to satisfy your big city cravings.” Yep. Pretty much.

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To have or have not

Today was going to be L’s fourth birthday party, until I chickened out yesterday and sent last-minute postponement messages.  Why? The weather forecast predicted thunderstorms and I really didn’t want to have his party inside.  Sure enough, today was all blue skies and sunshine. I felt frustrated – why had I cancelled?

Straight up, I have to admit that I always get anxious about kids’ birthday parties.  I feel pressure to make sure all the adults and kids have a good time. The food has to be the right mix of healthy snacks and special treats. There has to be things for the kids to do, things they will enjoy. The cake should be homemade and in the shape of something special (and hopefully recognisable). With all these self-imposed ideals no wonder I stress myself out.

But when I thought about it further, I realised that the key reason I hadn’t wanted to hold it inside was because I was worried about how we’d entertain the kids. We’d organized to borrow a mini-waterslide from the local toy library to put in the garden. We had this for R’s second birthday party last year and it was a hit. But if we were all stuck inside what would the kids do?

This fear was fuelled by two recent (separate) visits from L’s friends, who were clearly unimpressed by his lack of toys. Both friends have lived here a lot longer, and also have older siblings, both of which I suspect leads to more toy accumulation. As one boy went home, I heard him ask his Mum, “Why doesn’t L have many toys?” Our other small visitor asked if he and L could relocate to his house after an hour “because I have more toys”.

These incidents evoke so many emotions in me. I must admit, that before I had kids I didn’t believe in toys at all. I told myself, ‘I won’t buy my kids any toys – they can just have what other people give them as presents or hand-me-downs’. I thought that dirt and nature and sticks and books and an imagination were all that any kid needed.

I still believe that to some degree but, sure enough, within a year of L being born I found myself looking at kid-targeted plastic or wood objects thinking, ‘L would love that!’ And more often than not, he would. For example, L has an ever-growing set of plastic animals, which he can play with for hours, organizing them into groups according to continent or species or habitat. He’s still playing with dirt and sticks but the animals add a new dimension.

Our house is not empty of toys. We have two small boxes of toys we own, and we borrow extras from the toy library here every one or two weeks. We also have shelves and shelves of the kids’ books. I don’t see them as deprived in any way, but today I realized that something in L’s friends’ comments must’ve hit a raw nerve.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had a five year old Yolngu boy join us for the day a few weekends ago. He’s part of our adopted family here. We took him to the pool, then he came back to our house to play with L. I gave him toasted sandwiches for lunch and he looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. He pored through L’s books and toys with a keen interest. J read him and L a book and the boy’s reaction made us wonder if he’d been read to in a home setting before. I have seen this boy’s house and I know he doesn’t have any toys or books. Suddenly, L’s meager stash looked like a treasure trove.

I still don’t know what I think of all this. To have or have not. But I promised myself today that L’s party will be held on our rescheduled date come rain, hail or shine. Surely having a birthday cake and their friends around is enough entertainment, even without mountains of toys or a blow-up waterslide. Surely.

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