Have you ever committed to a particular course of action only to have the universe unleash such a hot blast of calamity that you have no choice but to imagine the gods enthusiastically pissing all over your plans?
It started last Sunday.
Let me tell you how last week panned out.
As you know, Llew’s job ceases to exist this Friday. We’ve decided to take what is effectively his Long Service Leave entitlement (in Australia, you become eligible for LSL after 10 years of service to the one employer; LSL entitles you to 3-months’ paid leave), which forms a significant part of his redundancy payout. This decision is considered quite radical in some quarters; the ‘sensible’ thing to do is have Llew start pounding the pavement looking for a job while we subsist on packet soup and water crackers, using his payout to keep the mortgage ticking along while spending as little of the rest of it as possible. Now is not the time to be taking a trip, so goes the strident naysayer argument. And it’s a compelling argument – I hear it in my own head, quite insistently at times – so we do see the sense in being financially conservative when our future is uncertain.
But there’s also the argument that says we need a break – and we genuinely do. It’s a valid counter position. We’ve not had time off together for a year. I’m exhausted and I know Llew is too. As a couple, we’re shadows of our former selves – we need it. Also he’s been accruing this leave by working for the man in battery hen conditions for NINE AND A HALF YEARS, and personally I feel he should be allowed to take it (okay, so my own interests are served here too, no question, but regardless he’s entitled to this time off as stipulated by the laws of the land). And he’s entitled to take it without copping flak.
So. We’re taking it. We’re doing it. We’re going. We’re hoping to rent out our apartment for six months, travel for three to four and then contemplate our future from the granny flat below Llew’s parents’ house.
Sounds great? Well yes, it is great and I can’t wait, but on the road to last Sunday, I was getting pretty antsy about the plane ticket situation. My thinking went like this: we want to use all our Frequent Flyer miles, we haven’t left much lead time for booking, and we’re heading straight into the northern hemisphere peak season… so, um, don’t we need to move it? My anxiety kept compounding because I also couldn’t understand Llew’s reluctance to book. We had a date that didn’t seem to be changing (mid-May for leaving Australia) and the first part of the itinerary agreed, so what the fuck was the impediment? Emotionally, I think Llew’s refusal to commit quickly and comprehensively eroded my confidence that the trip would ever happen – and I think that in amidst all the uncertainty, I was looking for something solid: a departure date, a flight number, a confirmed booking. Something definite to counteract all the unknowns. So when Llew started manically drawing up a world map on a sheet of paper last Sunday morning – ostensibly so that he could study all possible routes, something he has never, ever done before – I just plain lost it. He was still stalling, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
It was one of those arguments (Master J mercifully slept in his room through the whole thing) that are almost surreal. You can’t believe the other person is serious and you just can’t seem to get to a place where you’re at least speaking a common tongue. Everything escalates because it’s so easy to feel hysterical when nothing that’s happening makes any sense.
“What’s really going on here?” Llew probed, in his particularly infuriating, condescending camp counsellor voice. “Is something else going on here that I don’t know about?”
“YES,” I screamed, slapping my face and pulling my hair. “I’M FUCKING FRUSTRATED OUT OF MY FUCKING MIND – FUUUUCK!!!!”
And then I burst into tears.
“I just feel like it’s not even for real,” I blubbed. “Are we going or aren’t we? I can’t take it anymore. I need to be able to believe in this holiday. I’m trying so hard to stay calm about everything that’s happening, I’m doing the best I can not to stress out, but I’m a total passenger at the moment. I’m trying – and it’s completely out of character for me – to sit back and allow you to do whatever it is you need to do, but I needed this one thing, to book the tickets, and instead it’s like you’re dangling this carrot, the promise of this trip, but is it really happening or isn’t it? Because I feel like any minute now the rug’s going to be completely pulled out from under me. I’m exhausted. I can’t take it anymore.”
You have to imagine all that tumbling out in a blur of snot and tears. I really crumbled. Llew quickly rushed to assure me that yes, the trip was real, we’re taking a long family holiday, and he hadn’t known I felt that way, and okay, let’s book the tickets today.
Great! Except then we went to book the tickets online. Now, because of the conditions around transferring Frequent Flyer points, it turned out I had to transfer all my points to Llew, so he naturally enough became the one to do the online booking, since it was happening through his account. I don’t know if this is the same for other couples, but we both HATE watching the other one use a computer. For my part, I can’t stand the mess he makes. Pages and tabs open all over the shop, some weirdly convoluted, nonsensical way of navigating around them – I genuinely can’t handle it, it makes me want to club him to death. And something ALWAYS goes wrong. Like I’m surprised. It’s always really tense, because he can hear my silent scream. He rightly assumes I’m casting aspersions on his methods, so we both sit there fuming and sort of loathing each other. And naturally last Sunday Llew couldn’t get the Qantas website to cooperate. Eventually I snatched away the laptop and tried it myself, with the same result. Llew decided to phone them. I huffed and puffed but for some perverse reason couldn’t tear myself away (like the roiling storm cloud of my presence was helping matters any).
Excruciating. That’s the only word for what transpired and how long it took and how overcomplicated it became. Just excruciating. We were both completely spent by the time the tickets were booked, too deflated to care about let alone celebrate the seats. Whatever.
Llew’s parents had already called, hoping we’d take Master J to their place for a visit, but by now the day was half gone and I needed some time alone to lick my wounds. I daresay Llew needed the exact same thing, but being a dutiful son he went on ahead with Master J anyway.
Llew’s parents worry about all their kids, and they’re certainly worried about the redundancy. They’re also worried about the trip, so I doubt they greeted news of confirmed tickets with enthusiasm. So Llew’s day did not improve. Then there was Master J, whom we now know slept throughout our argument and most of the punishing online booking experience because his first raging fever was brewing. At his grandparents’ place, he was listless and without appetite. He’s typically voracious in all things. So by the time Llew limped back through the door with our sick child in his arms, he was a broken man. The day had not gone well.
Master J started crying the instant he saw me. I started playing the Wiggles to cheer him up, and like the sweet little guy he is, he tried to rally, even managing a few dance moves before his exhaustion devoured him. Having eaten nothing while out, he refused his dinner. He was by now burning hot. After a bath and some milk, we sat down for story time. And then the volcano erupted. I was holding him when the first projectile vomit hit. He started crying but was stopped by the horrible force of the second wave. It was a profound spew, really of another order. Linda Blair style. Leo the lion copped it, I copped it, the floor was slippery with it and my poor little man was covered in it and howling with fear and distress. When Llew took his temperature again, it had spiked to around 39 degrees.
“That’s it,” I said. “Let’s go.”
After a quick change for those who needed it, we got in the car and drove up the hill to the local hospital. Master J was very unhappy at this point, and burning up. The triage nurse registered our details straightway; Master J obliged with a small vomit and lots of tears. They took us into the paediatrics room and were there attended by a couple of nurses and a lovely doctor over the several hours it took to bring down his temperature, administer some medication, take a urine sample and generally manage the whole situation until it was back under control.
No one had any dinner, though Master J did manage to polish off two electrolyte iceblocks. We managed to exchange a couple of tired, slightly bruised smiles but really the mood was pretty flat. What a day, we said, shaking our heads. What a day.
We took Master J down to Melbourne this time last week – or at least, Llew took him down last Friday and I followed Saturday afternoon. Yes, the boys went on ahead and I got my one blessed day and night to myself. Unfortunately I got totally overexcited about being left home alone and drank FAR too much at the mothers’ group night out. It was a great night, one of those rare occasions when the anticipation matches the event, but I went completely overboard and paid for it for days. In fact, I was suffering the entire time we were in Melbourne, I guess because there was no opportunity to recover. Oh well – no sympathy for self-inflicted wounds.
Llew and Master J meanwhile coasted through Sydney Airport being lauded and applauded at every turn. I could practically see the cloud of estrogen following close behind them from here, billowing like DeLillo’s airborne toxic event as women throughout the domestic terminal fell over themselves to lend assistance and to stand in gushing admiration of a man travelling alone with… yes, hold the presses: his very own child. Look! A man with his own toddler! For a whole day! What a CHAMPION!!!!!!!
For God’s sake. The commentary apparently went something like this (and I knew this even before Llew confirmed it):
“Oh my goodness, just look at the two of you! Hey Liz, get over here! Get a load of these two cuties – have you ever seen anything so adorable?”
“Well, aren’t you just darling? Oh sweetie, I am so sorry I can’t get you an upgrade, but it’s a totally full flight.”
“And where is this poor child’s mother? Never mind, he’s such a lucky, lucky boy, having a father like you!”
“Let me hold him for you, you poor dear man, while you do that… Come here, you gorgeous little guy. Oh, I see he gets his looks from his daddy! Oh, he blew me a kiss! Oh, I’m going to have to steal this one – quite a ladies man, isn’t he?! Is there anything else I can do for you, anything at all?”
They were waved straight through to the Business Class check-in counter, though they were Economy flyers. They were assisted to the gate, onto the aircraft and off again, pretty much as though they were U2. Qantas and ground staff quite literally bent over backwards to help ease Llew’s burden, with Master J dispensing royal waves and well-aimed air kisses on demand. Women swooned.
It’s interesting to compare their experience with my own sole parent trip with Master J.
People see a woman and child queuing at the check-in desk and they do not think, “Oh my god, that is the sweetest picture I have ever seen – that mother is just sooo amaaaazing.”
They think, “Fuck no, don’t you dare seat those two anywhere near me.”
They think, “Get that stroller out of my way, would you? What is it with these mothers; they think they can take over the whole aisle? Tsk! TSK, I say!”
They think, “Children that age shouldn’t even be allowed to fly. It’s so inconsiderate. But then, that’s women today, am I right? It’s all me, me, me.”
They think, “What’s the bet that brat screams the whole way down to Melbourne and his mother does absolutely nothing about it?”
They think, “What the fuck is taking her so long? How many bags do you need, seriously? She looks like a gypsy. A bag lady. And there’s food in her hair. Gross.”
I can assure you, no one was sprinting across the airport to open doors and wave me through. In fact, it was much more like I was in an elimination round when it came time to check the collapsible umbrella stroller (which I’d erroneously been told I could take on board with me), so impatient were they to snatch it from my over-burdened grasp. Without it, my wrists quickly roared their protest. In addition to my nappy bag, I was forced to carry Master J off the flight, across the airport, through customs (I took him to Auckland to meet friends of mine the weekend of Llew’s 20-year school reunion, leaving him to party in peace) and down to baggage collection, and it was only after a lot of people pushed and shoved their way past me that a woman – another passenger, not airport staff – saw my mounting distress and took Master J long enough for me to liberate our bag from the carousel. The stroller then had to be retrieved from another part of the airport entirely, and my wrists not only flared up again, they’ve never been the same since. I don’t know that they will ever fully recover. I certainly didn’t get the Mexican Wave of public approbation Llew flew in on, and no one handed me the keys to the city on arrival. But yes, Llew spent a whole day with his very own child, and you know, I’m glad they were so warmly received, but I can’t help it, I also suspect there’s a little part of Llew thinking, “Would it kill her to be just a little bit grateful?!”
The final countdown has begun to Llew’s last day of work, and with it comes the still louder whistling of the winds of change. Change is coming, ready or not. As it happens, I am ready, at least in principle. I can’t wait. I‘m so restless and want so badly to travel that I can feel the wanderlust rippling beneath my skin, its own strange current moving faster every day we inch closer. Yes, we’re approaching the end of something, and this term of employment has been the most significant of Llew’s life, but we are hurtling toward the start of things, too. A new phase commences the moment Llew walks out those office doors; we’re both pretty keen and interested to see what the hell happens next.
In the meantime I’m sorry to say I’m having still MORE technical problems with my MacBook Air, which began during my writing time last week (which is a bit unfair, don’t you think?). Apparently my motherboard has died, and they want $990 to fix it. That won’t be happening, so I am talking to the good people at Apple about an alternative arrangement. Something closer to a compromise, because I am feeling very long-suffering at this point: my entire history with this device has been one long crash and burn after another. I’m sooo sick of it. It’s cost me money (quite a lot of it, too), time (so, so much time), energy (so, so much energy), work and words and frankly I have had a gutful.
I’m in need of a holiday generally, I think. We’ve not taken any time off together since Easter last year (I am not including the period over Christmas, as we were in Sydney and had family commitments), so I am really staggering to the finish line now. I am exhausted on every level. I look every day of a thousand years old and my mind just isn’t working properly (had typed ‘probably’). Cycling home with Master J the other day, I told him we needed to “take over” the pedestrian walking ahead of us, rather than “overtake” her. I am making these small errors constantly, little mistakes that multiply whenever I am tired, so that now, tired beyond all reckoning, my speech is daily riddled with malapropisms and mind-mashed nonsense. Llew’s last day isn’t just a beacon of change, it’s the promise of some much-needed time off. A family holiday. Travel isn’t necessarily the most restful activity in the world, I know, especially not with a 15-month-old toddler in tow (yes, time is galloping ahead), but having Llew on hand to help, and being able to take turns taking some time out can’t help but have a huge impact on my ability to reboot myself, if not my computer. I even went so far as to have blood tests recently, so concerned have I become about this grinding exhaustion. Not only did the results come back clear, apparently my blood’s never been in better health. Odd. I could have sworn I was leaking.
I am getting one sacred, hard-won night alone on Friday night. But boy, talk about fiercely contested. Never mind that Llew has enjoyed multiple weekends to himself since Master J was born, the protracted and ugly negotiations that were necessary to secure this one night of going out with my mothers’ group before hopefully SLEEPING AN UNINTERRUPTED NIGHT’S SLEEP have really underscored yet again just the scale of inequality in parenting roles. I can’t tell you how rigidly I had to stick to my guns, and this is the core of the issue: every second, every concession, every single moment to myself is subject to scrutiny and negotiation. If I am to have any time to myself, it is by the grace of some arrangement (be it easily or sourly agreed, “free” – for no gift is unencumbered – or paid). I do not believe Llew has the first clue about what that is like. He is still himself in the world. He has liberty. He has the ability to make autonomous decisions and take independent action over the course of every day, whereas it is by arrangement and by arrangement only that I am granted (and it feels like that sometimes, too, enough that I was compelled to hiss, “Oh well, thank you, Your Highness” when the latest set of terms were finally agreed) any moments or hours of reprieve at all. And I pay for it later, too. Sometimes I begin paying for it in advance.
At least now I’ve figured out that no one is coming to volunteer to relieve me – no one – I have to make it happen. I have to lay it out for Llew – repeatedly – and I have to be unwavering in my claim. I have to advocate for myself, and it seems I need to keep doing it on a daily and weekly basis. If I don’t grab at a specific window of time, hold it close and say, “It’s mine,” it slams shut. Llew’s experience is sooo vastly different that I am not surprised he is struggling with my vehemence and my rage – after all, he still makes spontaneous plans for himself, he still decides on a whim that he’ll have a few beers with a mate – but unfortunately I can’t do much about that except try to explain, over and over again if necessary (and it does seem to be necessary), that I need time on my own, and that carving it out is the only way I’ll ever get it. There is no spontaneity in my life anymore. I have no capacity for the unplanned.
Personally I think this is one of the seismic shifts that really separate the parenting experience into two fraught halves. The home carer is forced to plan out each and every break from the family unit, otherwise they’ll never get one, and is forced to keep lobbying hard for that time out as well, whereas the working parent holds the cards both in terms of cash and freedom. For instance, Llew may send me a text saying, “Oops, ran into a mate…” – and that’s him done as far as he’s concerned. He’s just having a few beers, after all, and I can make my own arrangements. Except, of course, I can’t. If Master J is in bed asleep, then I can’t go anywhere or do anything. And I’m not earning any money, either, which Llew is generally awesome about but which is used as ammunition in many a household. It’s no wonder so many couples become so combative – I’ve heard terrible things, really shitty stories of being begrudged one lousy night out with other mothers (which wasn’t Llew’s problem – Llew’s problem was my wanting to keep my day off at the expense of a day and night away together as a family), but I better understand how quickly these conversations degenerate because ours have degenerated too, and we’ve both ended up feeling bruised and resentful. He said to me, “I don’t know how I ended up with the hardest bitch on Earth,” which goes some way to demonstrating what he feels he was up against. It also says a lot about what I am still working to overcome, which is this pervasive sense that I am being unreasonable when I decline to give up the precious window only so recently eased open to allow a little air back into my lungs. Mind your fingers, is all I can say. This thing keeps dropping without warning.