Christmas Letter

Each year I make a calendar (using Vistaprint) for the following year, in which the photos roughly correlate with the same months of the previous year.

I sure hope that sentence makes sense.

For example, this was taken in March, during which Canberra hosts a massive international hot air balloon festival every year.

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So, what did we get up to this year?

In very early January we went camping with some of our Hong Kong relatives, which the kids were desperate to do. Those relatives became first-time parents this year, so we have another cousin now!

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Lots of health dramas this year for both Louisette (inattentive ADD) and myself (lots of things, some of which have improved or been fixed—and I’m finally getting my stomach stitched together this month!)

Also lots of sleepovers with cousins.

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Lots of AWESOME writing stuff happening. In fact there are two Very Big Things I can’t talk about yet!

CHOICES THAT MATTER: AND THEIR SOULS WERE EATEN has had more than half a million downloads, and most people love it (there are loads of reviews on Google Play and not so many on itunes, despite the fact there are actually more sales on itunes). And next year I’ll finish the ANTIPODEAN QUEEN Australian steampunk trilogy of novels (strange, since I wrote HEART OF BRASS before Louisette was born), and start releasing my middle grade Heest trilogy. Plus I’ll release MURDER IN THE MAIL: A BLOODY BIRTHDAY, which is so ridiculously fun and different. And probably do more stuff I don’t know about yet!

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Chris switched jobs due to his previous job getting automated. He’s naturally content and handles such things much more gracefully than I do.

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Louisette is close to finishing her first year of Kindy. Other than the ADD-related stuff, she’s had a great year. She has some really excellent friends, and is taking more responsibility for things like packing her own school bag. It’s crazy how quickly kids learn to read, considering how complex it is. In the moment, of course, every word feels like it takes a million years (especially when the kid has ADD and the parents have either ADD or various other mental problems). Louisette also lost her first tooth, and won a school prize for the house-car-plane model we made together.

Her kindness and/or cleverness sometimes takes my breath away. Talking to her or sharing ideas with her is sheer pleasure.

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TJ turned 3 (we went to the zoo in a big group of cousins and friends), and became deeply obsessed with puzzles. He’s unusually good with letters and numbers, in part because he’s a smart kid and in part because Louisette loves teaching him (consciously preparing him for Kindy, which is two years away) and he adores her.

The kids continue to get on really well (most of the time).

Also, trains.

TJ is full of newfound imaginative skills (‘Tiggy’ was his first imaginary friend) and spends a lot of his time being the absolute perfect ideal of a happy and funny 3-year old boy. His laugh is so infectious.

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Um… what else?

Horseriding and cat-patting.

We (that is, the kids and I) also went to Telstra Tower twice this year, which TJ in particular enjoys talking about every time we see it (so, pretty much whenever we step outdoors).

We all had birthdays, and we’ll be having Christmas soon.

So that was our year, as far as I can remember it: Doctors and writing for me, job change for Chris, Kindy and maniacal laughter for/from the kids.

And the inevitable Christmas pic:

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And this is why digital cameras are awesome: because we get to keep all the truly terrible pictures taken along the way.

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Santa’s been into the egg nog, it seems.

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Santa get on the sauce and punched an angel. Allegedly.

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No paparazzi!

48 hours

A few minutes ago, Chris and the kids drove away. They’re going to Sydney to stay in a house by a beach with relatives. I’m not going to see any of them for about two days.

The idea of sending them off without me has the ring of genius about it. Today is the last day of school holidays, and we’ve saved money (and spent large chunks of my sanity) by not enrolling Louisette in holiday care. She’s in Kindy this year, and the holidays are just as awful as I expected. (Louisette herself is very low-maintenance most of the time, but I’m just not well enough to deal with kids 24/7.)

I’m literally shaking from the stress of packing the car and getting everyone out and away… but they’re gone now. My time is my own until Sunday, and anything I put away or clean will stay put away or clean until then.

I can watch grown-up TV during the day. I can fix household items without anyone begging to ‘help’. I can cook without anyone loudly yelling that they won’t eat it. I can eat whole meals without having to get up even once. I can work as long as I like, and sleep when I like. I can go the the toilet by myself. I don’t have to dread the usual morning battles. I don’t have to get out of my PJs until Monday.

As I was talking about this glorious weekend, more than one person said, “Or you could, you know, rest. Or maybe do something fun.” Those words literally don’t make sense to me. I have to try to think past the layers of panic, pain, and guilt and then use a dose of imagination.

TV. I like TV. And reading. And napping. So I’ll definitely do all of those things.

And I’ll put all the toys where they belong. And do a ‘toy swap’ (where some are brought out of hiding while others are put away). And maybe clean the bathrooms. And hopefully write somewhere between 10 and 20,000 words. And maybe sort the medicine shelf. And some of the study. And the kids’ rooms. And maybe the pantry cupboard. And I’ll definitely give the kitchen a _proper_ clean, including the oven. And some of the junk spots that we have here and there all over the house. And the winter/summer clothes. And wash all the bedlinen.

The writing will be fun. Plus it will lead to less oh-shit-I’m-behind-on-everything stress, and also some pay. Pay is important.

I can’t help feeling there’s something desperately wrong with our society that makes people (women, of course I mean women) plan an entire free weekend around work and cleaning. But I hope that at the end of this weekend I’ll be ahead on work and temporarily less swallowed up by guilt, and I can be present for the things that are actually fun—being with Chris, and being with my family.

I remember that being fun. It will be fun again.

A conflux pic taken by Cat Sparks:

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One-Quarter

As I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room today, I realised something.

My job as a parent is to love my kids and help them grow up to be vaguely functional, content, and decent adults (to the extent that is possible). John Scalzi recently wrote a lovely post on his daughter’s 18th, opening with:

Here is a true thing: In the grand scheme of things, I’ve only had three things I wanted to do with my life. The first was to be a writer. The second was to be a good husband. The third was to make sure that any kid I had made it through their childhood without want or fear, and knowing that they were loved. When I was younger, I figured if I could manage those three things, then at the end of my days I could leave this planet with a content heart.”

As you know, dear reader, Louisette just turned five. She is a schoolgirl now, not a baby or a toddler or a pre-schooler or even an “under-five”.

If you consider adulthood to fall around the age of twenty, then my vital task of being the mother of this particular child is already one-quarter finished. Obviously I’ll still be Louisette’s mother after that, but we will both be adults – equals – and, I hope, friends.

Five and a bit years ago, Louisette opened her eyes for the first time.

Now she walks and talks and has opinions and best friends and flaws and skills and dreams. She is herself; different to anyone else in the world.

Another five years, and she’ll be ten. Tall and long-haired, and showing the first signs of puberty. Ten year olds can have intelligent conversations with anyone. They’re smarter and better than most adults, to be honest. When I taught K-10 Indonesian, it was the ten-year olds that I liked the most.

Five years after that, she’ll be fifteen, and utterly different. She’ll have a much better idea of who she is and who she wants to be. She’ll be well past puberty; wearing bras and flirting with boys. Maybe even dating (ugh! no!). She’ll have secrets from me—important secrets. She might barely speak to me at all. She might be learning to drive, or deciding where to apply for her first job. Any movie I can watch, she can watch with me.

Five years after that, she’ll be twenty. She’ll be her own creature more than she is mine, even if we still share the same house. She’ll probably already have at least one serious heartbreak behind her. She can think rationally about marriage, and will know whether she wants children or not.

Five years after that, I might be a grandmother.

All that in the blink of an eye.

 

Time for another collage! Stat!

 

 

 

 

That final photo was taken by http://thorsonphotography.com.au at the National Arboretum.

And I’ll end with another great quote from another great author (in this case, Pamela Freeman*), who is a facebook friend of mine (I knew her before she was as famous as she is now) and said, “Here’s another weird thought: she might be a quarter of the way towards being adult, but it’s the most important quarter. You’ve laid down positive brain chemistry, taught her how to love and how to think, and whatever you’ve done now is likely it: even puberty won’t shape her brain more than you have already done. I find this both scary and reassuring.”

Writers make the best facebook comments.

Since I seem to be quoting writers today, here’s some Tolstoy: “From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance.”

Which is more or less what Pamela Freeman (and various psychologists) said, but in Tolstoy’s inimitable style.

*She writes a bunch of different genres from historical drama to glorious fantasy to children’s books. I just finished reading the second “Princess Betony” book with Louisette, a chapter a night (and freely altering the scary bits to be less scary).

The artist formerly known as Miss Four

Last Sunday, Louisette turned five. She’s about to start Kindy. Today was her party.

Five years. She’s grown all the way from a giddying hypothetical notion to a wrinkly spew machine to a distinct person: smart, focused, creative, affectionate, gentle, passionate, and gorgeous. I took a photo a day for the first year of each of my kids lives, and those daily photos are here (TJ first, since he’s more recent) if you’re in the mood for a lot of scrolling.

Look at that girl!

(This photo and the next were taken on a professional shoot with Thorson Photography.)

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Right now I feel like just plastering every wall of my home with photos of my kids.

All the most horrifying statistics about kids are “this many kids under five die of such-and-such”. Now that Louisette has turned five, I’m pretty sure she’s going to live forever. We made it this far, right? RIGHT???

Kindy. (Note to self: Learn how to spell Kindergarten. GAR-ten. You can’t rely on five attempts and a spell checker every single time…)

Kindy is the beginning of a new era. It’s a relatively easy transition for Louisette since it’s located literally next door to her day care centre (which she’s been attending since she was a year old; at the party today there were three kids she’s been friends with since that time – and a total of six pre-existing friends who will be in Kindy with her).

Louisette is deliriously excited about Kindy as well as being quite nervous (probably because every adult in her life is so obsessed with Kindy that it’s making it seem like a much bigger life event than it is). She’ll wear a uniform and have school holidays (she’s five weeks into the longest holidays of her life right now). It changes the routine of our family – we’re finally taking both kids to the same school (sort of; TJ is in the day care of course), but the kids have significantly different routines now.

TJ has long days Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, and nothing Thursday-Friday.

Louisette is 9:00am-3:00pm every weekday (I’ll pick her up two hours before TJ) and then has school holidays completely free.

I’m hoping that I can use the syncopated routines to spend a lot of one-on-one time with each kid. They’re different creatures when they’re the only one around (which is part of why siblings are so wonderful; they open up a new part of who your kid is). I’ve had pretty bad anxiety ever since TJ was born, mainly because of health stuff. But a part of that anxiety is the need to divide my attention between them and/or make sure they’re not killing each other every ten seconds or so. Hopefully the one-on-one time will help my brain to stop panicking, and will also give me many of those marvellous, surprising moments when my kids and I are truly connected and I’m suddenly overthrown by awe and happiness and pride and love. I hope there’s a correlation between “time parent spends with little kids” and “time adult kids spend with aged parents” because I don’t want to miss any piece of their lives.

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(ProTip for mothers who feel ugly in pics after pregnancy: Hide behind children. Or, where possible, behind a tree.)

When Louisette was an infant we were at a playgroup for mums with babies all born within about a month of each other (one of those “babies” is the non-TJ gentleman in this picture, who has never missed Louisette’s birthday and who also happens to possess two top-notch parents for myself and Chris to play with while the kids do their thing).

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I noticed that a lot of one-year olds were miserable and/or terrified at their own party. The party wasn’t for them, it was for all the friends and family who loved them. But I decided that although I’d always have a party for my kids, I’d also make sure they did something on their birthday day that was for THEM. In the years since, it’s evolved to “family + activity” on the birthday day; then later a party day (my sister’s kids come to both).

On Louisette’s birthday day we went on a small local waterslide – Chris, TJ, Louisette, myself, my sister, and her two kids. It was great! Then we had lunch with my parents (including my sister and her two kids), and dinner with Chris’s parents, followed by Louisette having a sleepover at their house AND spending the entire next day with them! So THAT worked.

Louisette has been planning her party since her last party and I’ve been actively prepping for months. (Exhibit A: party bag prep)

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Party bags are a blight upon the face of the earth: junk food, noise-makers, choking hazards, and cheap horrors that fall apart (inspiring much weeping) before the guest gets to their car for the ride home. Having said that, Louisette and TJ are obsessed with them, and so is everyone their age. Since I can prep the bags ahead of time, and choose things that aren’t too irritating to me personally, I don’t truly mind the phenomenon.

Kids also loooove pass the parcel. To a kid, pass the parcel means “A PRESENT FOR ME OH AWESOMES” but when it’s actually happening it means “I AM BEING TAUNTED BY EVERYONE ELSE GETTING GIFTS AND WHEN IS IT MY TURN AND WHY DIDN’T *I* GET THE FLASHING EDIBLE BUNNY BECAUSE NOW I’VE SEEN IT I WANTS IT MY PRECIOUS WAAAAAHHH!!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pass the parcel game happen without at least one kid sobbing. (When the kids are older they’ll get better at it and more realistic.) Last year each layer had a bunch of lollies to share with everyone! Yay! It confused and over-sugared the children, but it was a nice idea. This year my sister was moving house literally today so I said she should drop her kids and leave, and could drop them way before the party started. I had the brilliant idea of having a pre-party pass-the-parcel with exactly the right number of layers for just those four kids, and a new pirate paddle pool in the centre (coordinated to make sure one of my kids got it, to avoid confusion). It went great. (Although one of the other kids—who was having a snotty day anyway—was devastated an hour later that the party didn’t appear to include pass the parcel.)

After months of party-oriented discussion Louisette decided to have a pirate and mermaid party (exactly as she did last year—”in case some people are scared of pirates”), and I encouraged her to make it a pool party. Why? Because at this age, popularity is easy, and I can give it to my daughter for a few dollars. Pool = awesome.

We always have lots of water play at Louisette’s party, and it’s always a hit with the kids (plus super easy to clean up, and it means the inside space is quiet and neat). Chalk is also popular and easy (our house is rendered, which makes it fun to draw on), so I put some chalk outside, and a table (with fruit and fairy bread; water and cups; sunscreen and towels). I hired 1.5 babysitters (the .5 had her own kids there too) for water safety and parental freedom, and barely went outside at all. I ran the party as two overlapping parties, making it clear in the invitations that parents of confident swimmers didn’t need to go outside (in the heat and noise) at all. This cunning plan fundamentally worked. I served a fresh Devonshire Tea (chosen for simplicity while sounding fancy and adult) to anyone who wanted it, and actually enjoyed it myself. It was relatively easy to hold a grown-up conversation, which is pretty amazing considering there were twenty children on the premises. I think a few adults were weirded out about my overt enthusiasm for shoving the children outside, but oh well.

Louisette and I made an ice cream cake again, topped with faux water made from desiccated coconut and colouring (I had reports some of the kids were a bit freaked out, wondering what it was), and with lego people swimming in it. I had one friend distract the kids with the Hokey Pokey while another helped me serve up the cake. That lowered the chaos slightly, and was simple, harmless, fun that suited even the two-year olds.

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I always need a massive debrief after Louisette’s party. This blog was it. I really like the kids my kid hangs out with, and I like their parents too. We talked a lot about Kindy, and uniforms, and school stationary, and eccentric in-laws. Grown-up talking! Yay!

Look at these gorgeous kids!

Louisette’s birthday is the social centre of my year (TJ is a winter baby + a more introverted kid + not born in the major school holidays, so I invite a few close friends to his party but invite pretty much everyone Louisette knows to her parties).

See that blond cherub? I invited him and his sister to Louisette’s party last year without realising they were siblings. That day was the beginning of a whole-family friendship which is one of the best things that happened last year. That boy is TJ’s best friend, his sister is Louisette’s best friend, and Chris and I both like hanging out with their mum.

And here’s a pic of Louisette from her first birthday.

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I loved her with my whole heart that day, but I really do love her more and more as each year passes.

Four years

I’m crying, but it’s not sadness.

My husband Chris and I have been following the US election with increasing horror today. We both chose not to speak openly in the car on the way home, because our kids were with us. We exchanged a few careful words, and I asked Chris to drive. He knew without asking that I was too upset to drive safely.

TJ fell asleep.

Louisette is four years old, a pre-schooler in a Peppa Pig shirt and a baseball cap. She picked up on the vibe and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Chris looked alarmed as I opened my mouth to explain today’s election: “A country a long long way away has just chosen their President. I don’t think they made a good choice. He’s… mean. I think now he will be able to be mean to more people.”

Louisette was silent, thinking.

“It’s a very very long way away,” said Chris.

Damage control.

“Yes,” I said. “On the other side of the world. And there are lots of other politicians who will also be making the laws and all that kind of thing. The whole system of government is designed especially so that if someone mean is the president, they can’t do too many bad things.”

“A long, long way away,” said Chris.

“That man doesn’t hurt people on purpose,” I said. “But when people ask him for help, he says no.”

“That country is all the way on the other side of the world,” said Chris. “Really super far away.”

“And you know what?” I said. “I bet all the kind people in that country—and even us, right here in Australia—will be extra super kind and we will look after all the people who need help.”

“How?” she said.

I’d just received a “Really Useful Gifts” magazine in the mail. They have a wide range of physical items—a goat, a well, a school—that are labelled with prices eg for $50 you can buy a goat so a family has a source of milk, cheese, and future income (if they have a boy and a girl goat…).

When we got home and sorted out the inevitable chaos of bags and drinks of milk and the parental win of transferring TJ into his bed without waking him, I showed Louisette the magazine.

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Louisette has an allowance of $1 per week. Sometimes she buys a 50 cent lolly. A lot of the time she saves it up. Sometimes she dips into her savings and buys herself a toy.

I steered Lizzie towards the things she’d understand best in the magazine: A school. Chickens. A vegetable garden (she always claims to love vegetables, although when we put them on her plate she says things like, “I meant in Summer I like them; not today.”)

She was excited that she could give these presents to someone she’d never met. I told her she had $20 saved up, and that she could spend as little or as much of it as she liked. I told her I would put in the same amount of money that she did.

We kept coming back to chickens. And a small business. And a pre-school. And adult literacy (she was shocked at the concept of someone who was all grown up but still couldn’t read. Reading is hard). And a vegetable garden.

I warned her that if she got all those things her money would be gone. All of it.

“What about my flower?” she asked.

I remembered it well: A little plastic thing with a smiling face that bobbed back and forth. It was the first toy she bought for herself with her own money.

“Actually,” I admitted, “that’s broken. It cost $3. So if you bought all of these things, you would have to wait three weeks with absolutely no lollies or buying anything. Then you could buy a new flower.”

“Okay,” she said. “Then I will buy no lollies for weeks and weeks, and I will buy this”— A school building—”and this”—a clinic—”and all those other things too.”

That’s when my eyes started to mist over. I counted up the cost. $80. Every bit of me wanted to buy it all with my own money, and let her keep her allowance. “That’s a lot of things, Louisette. You’d get no allowance at all for weeks and weeks and weeks.”

She nodded gravely. “You’d get no money at all—not even one single dollar—for weeks and weeks. Not until your birthday.”

An unimaginable distance.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I want to do.”


A lot of people feel scared of a lot of things right now. We feel helpless.

I can’t change the world, but I can change it for a few of the people who need it the most. I can be kind. I can learn about other cultures and get to know people who aren’t exactly like me—Mexicans. Homosexuals. Muslims. Trump supporters.

I can find out what we have in common, even if it takes some digging sometimes.

I can change an entire village in another part of the world by giving it a school, clinic, small business opportunity, and chickens.

I can teach my children to respond to fear by being more kind, by making more friends, and by giving more of whatever we have to give.

Four years feels like a long time. For my daughter, it’s a lifetime. But in a world that seems to be getting darker and meaner… there she is. There I am. There you are.

The world is a beautiful place.

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If you’d like your money to be more effective where it’s needed most, skip the charity gimmicks and give money to a reputable company like World Vision or Oxfam.

 

 

Same story but without the Trump stuff (so it’s more shareable):

My four-year old daughter Louisette was thrilled to discover that she could use her allowance to buy presents for people she’d never met—and her presents could help them have better food, water, and jobs!
Her allowance is $1 per week and she’d saved $20. I told her that I’d give the same amount of money she did, and we looked at the “Build a Village” range and some other things that made sense to her, like chickens and adult literacy. She is learning to read and she knows it‘s hard work but super important… especially with a mother who’s a writer!


We had to choose so carefully. She paused and asked me about a toy she wanted to buy. I told her that it cost $3 so if she wanted to give her whole savings away she would have no money at all for three whole weeks and then she could buy the toy. 


“Well,” she said. “I want to buy the school, and the clinic, and the vegetable garden, and the chickens, and the pre-school, and the one that teaches a grown-up to read. So if I have no money at all for weeks and weeks and weeks, can I do that?”


“That would be a very, very long time,” I told her. “All the way to your birthday… with no money at all.”


“And then I can give them all those things?” she asked.


“Yes.”
“Then that’s what I really real
ly want to do.”


Louisette loves to dress as SuperGirl, and pretend to help people. Today she made a difference to people in the real world. https://www.usefulgifts.org

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Parenting

Well, it happened. Louisette told me she wanted to be a writer when she grew up.

Being a writer is a terrible idea! My dream for my kids is for them to have steady, 9-5ish jobs with sick leave and annual leave and a pay rise every year. I want them to be healthy and sane. In short, I want them to have everything I never will.

“That’s wonderful!” I said to my sweet innocent child. “And you know what’s great about writing? You can do it AND have another job at the same time!”

Ah, parenting. Finding that magical place between, “Follow your dreams” and “Do your homework.”

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That’s Louisette hugging a dinosaur.