Wednesday, 26 May 2010

action stations

The morass has sufficiently frustrated me that I have taken action.

Action I may yet live to regret - action that certainly will be neither cost or pain free.

Despite all the good reasons I had back when I made this decision (my train of thought goes something like this, this, and this), I have taken steps in the opposite direction. On paper perhaps it's not such a big thing, but it's a real shift internally for me.

I went through the paperwork to increase the number of days I work a week at the spanner works, thereby taking away the one day a week I had kept in reserve for my job as domestic manager. My day for doing the shopping and filling the freezer and paying the bills and doing the washing and making the beds and making a creative space for myself and my kids to be inspired, at least a little to get out of the rat wheel.

So why did I do it?

Because while everyone of us who has been a mother or a wife or carer or householdkeeper understands how big a job that is and why historically this was a clear and delineated full time role in every family, in the end for me, I just couldn't handle feeling so marginalised and invisible. I'm not totalising here, I'm not generalising and commenting on other people and their choices, I'm simply saying I reached a point of realising that for me, in my world, I wanted something different.

And it is irrelevant whether that's just in my head or what other people or institutions say to me about my worth as a low end marginalised part time worker who puts family responsibilities first. In the end I can't quiet what I know to be true.

But I've also been really struck by a couple of conversations I've had with other bloggers and commenters as a result of these posts (and I thank all of you who took time to write, to say thank you, to engage in conversation with me over email - it has been incredible). They have reminded me of a few things I used to feel strongly about, but somehow seem to have gotten lost in the last few years.

The first of these was this notion of equal and shared parenting and working. I know there are two sides of this coin, and I'm not speaking here about my partner's actions or motivations, but by stepping into the domestic role I've backed away from rejecting the idea that just because I have a uterus I was born to keep house. I know there's a whole raft of factors that work against achieving this kind of equality, but goddamn knowing it's an uphill battle and perhaps an unachievable goal isn't the same as rolling over and playing dead. I want to hear again the reasons why the solution to the collision between our family and work commitments is for me to give in, to take the bullet for us all, accept a totally compromised place in the workforce and spend the rest of my life trying to work around the things other people think are important. To devote my emotional energy to pretending I don't mind when I absolutely and completely do.

The second of these has to do with really thinking about what I'm teaching my kids. Is the extra time I get with them compensation for teaching them that it's my job to make their beds and cut their lunches and fold their washing, while daddy goes out in the world, on aeroplanes and away from us because his work is really important? Do I want Wil growing up expecting that the most important thing he can do for a family is earn a living, and be there 'when he can'? Do I want Amy to know that all the education she gets and aspirations she has about employment and her place in the world are fine so long as she's prepared to give it up when she has children? For either of them to believe that mummys write shopping lists for daddys or that mummys carry mobile phones so they can always be found, that mummys look for, find and treat nits, that daddys teach you how to play football and build lego and mummys buy your clothes and change the sheets on your bed and bake cakes for afternoon teas with your friends.

What I would like them to see as obvious, normal and completely expected is two parents who balance things equally. Who both willingly (and without having their arms twisted) place limits on their work lives to be with their children, to manage (rather than 'help with') the domestic burden and support each other in what they want to achieve. Who both take responsibility for planning, organising and executing the jobs, who negotiate on the basis of what's fair not just what's easiest. Who both accept that the balancing act of having a family in an era where all adults, regardless of their gender or family status have the same rights and obligations to be self sufficient and self interested and where procreation is seen as a 'lifestyle choice' means fundamental compromise about the way they can participate in the market and workforce. [I hope their solution isn't for both parents to run to self interest, to both work full time under some spurious notion of economic need because neither is prepared to compromise more than the other because I think this just shifts all the compromise to the kids and they don't get a say in it]. I would like them to be angry about that, to agitate for change and expect more of their workplaces and governments when it comes time for them to try the balancing act, but I want them to feel absolutely and completely like the burden and the fight is shared.

So I have taken a step towards this. It might be a small step or it might be a big step, I'm not sure yet. I'm pretty sure that as soon as this change kicks in (at the start of next school term) there will be consequences, and they won't be pleasant. I will be tired and feel stretched. There will be more mornings in which just getting out the door on time will be a challenge and more nights in which there is not a healthy home cooked meal waiting to be had when Wil and I get through the door. There will be more shopping and chores on weekends and less time or inclination to be tidy or relax. There will be some sadness and most likely a bit more sickness and a harder time recovering from it. There will be more decisions based on convenience rather than preference and there will be more conflict when family needs run counter to work commitments. There will be less creative time and perhaps over time, less creative work (what I do on that other non spanner works, non child caring day). And those weeks were I do my day job and have two days of teaching, or deadlines for books or patterns or other creative work will be very stressful. The times when David is away for work will be harder to manage and will chew up my leave from work and I am sure I will resent them much more.

And while all this flows back my way I will try and keep in mind that it may be hard now, but the choices I am making today are an investment in my future, and my ability to be a part of the family on terms I can live with. But it is also an investment in the future I want my children to have and a vote for a future I want for all women and mothers and children and fathers. Not because families should not be able to choose to divide their roles and labour as they see fit, but because until things are truly equal that choice is not really free.

Edited to add - I forgot to say anything about this, but it is important. My decision is not about money. Increased earnings are not what I am seeking - either now or in the future. What I want is work I feel is worth the time I devote to it, work I care about, work which connects to the things that are important to me. A stronger attachment to the workforce is more likely to give me these things, just as it gives them to my full time working partner. It is also an important insurance against future financial problems should one or both of us experience job loss or incapacitation.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

psst time is running out for swap sign ups!

If you are thinking about the useful things swap jump on in before time runs out!

A number of people left comments or sent emails saying they were interested but didn't actually send a sign up email as per the instructions in the sign up post. If you have signed up you would have received an email from me confirming your sign up and giving you some extra info about sending packages. If you haven't had this from me you aren't signed up so you better get on to it!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

dynamic equilibrium

In my year 12 geography class we learnt about dynamic equilibrium. We were studying coastal systems - the actions of tides and waves and wind on sand and land and ocean landscapes. In a nutshell coastal systems are ever changing and yet always in balance (remember we were studying in pre global warming days). We looked at a number of ways that people intervened to try and prevent change in coastal areas - building walls of concrete and rock, dredging, importing sand, you name it - and how spectacularly all such interventions failed. Change, as they say is the only constant and no amount of real estate investment can halt it.

This concept of dynamic equilibrium captivated me. The idea of constant and unstoppable change felt instinctively and undeniably true, but the companion notion of eternal balance was enormously comforting. Where change had always felt unsettling and frightening (who knew where it would lead?) the idea of constant change as a function of balance, rather than a competitor to it made change fun and full of promise. Each change was merely an adjustment, an improvement, a fine tuning, while all else was working at restoring and maintaining balance. It should also be said I was greatly engaged by the complexity of it all - that enormous systems and systems in systems could somehow be cooperating in some imperceptible dance.

All that stuff in that last post is true, and there is much much more, but in the end it doesn't come close to unpacking the incredibly complex systems we all live in. Mapping these things out gives you a start on understanding the landscape, but it isn't a guidebook and it can't help you navigate. It can't explain why one person is up there on the hill and another down here in a ditch - or indeed why that hill is lush forest and that one over there a windswept rocky outcrop. To understand what anything means to you, you have to chase so many rabbits down rabbit holes that you might as well give up before you start. Big picture thinking is just that - it can't explain things down here where we live.

And that's the kick, right? You can know a lot and be no better off. Well, that's not entirely true. It does help to know I'm not alone, and it does help to know chances are it's not my fault per se that I am in this mess. That there's a great big barely perceptible system out there that's continually adjusting the landscape in mysterious ways means the good and bad are both as much about luck as about good planning. You can have the route all mapped out and still end up in the ditch, you can stumble blind into hidden paradise.

When I take my head out of the books and remove my professional line of enquiry hat I am at a loss to explain how I ended up here. Even knowing all the steps I took, knowing all the sound reasoning that went into them and the solid foundations from which I stepped in the first place I still can't understand why I am stuck in the mud.

Perhaps the dynamic equilibrium paradigm really only applies to systems larger than my life because it seems to me that a spinning top is much more how it feels. Big gestures start things moving and small imbalances are easily absorbed by momentum, but after a while even the tiniest overcorrection starts the cascade of violent oscillations that end, inevitably with a crash and sudden and absolute stasis, somehow washed out of the system altogether.

I don't know what comes next. Somehow things need to be restarted, but I just can't seem to find a way back into the system. I keep hoping like hell I will stumble upon the firecracker but there just doesn't seem to be any room to move. Instead I wander off in day dreams of radical upheaval, contemplating options I've previously disregarded or dismissed. Full time work. Interstate moves. Further study. Spiritual retreat. Crazy notions of freedom and fulfilment.

I have to say I have deeply deeply appreciated your comments on these last few posts and revisiting this topic after a few years has certainly been interesting. I wish I had more answers, or at least something a little cheerier and prettier to say about the problem. I'm certainly tiring of hearing myself moan. I have a fairly low tolerance for listening to people articulate problems they aren't prepared to tackle so I think that might be my cue to shut right up.

Friday, 21 May 2010

what I know to be true

Isn't it funny - I know so so many of us share this particular problem and yet reading your comments on my last post is an enormous relief. It's evidence that we share this problem. And it has to be said, I do like my evidence.

That I received so many comment so quickly is also significant here - people don't just agree, they are rushing to agree. This is a hot button, so we share not just a problem but a certain preoccupation with that problem too. I'm especially, amazingly humbled that some commenters have actually felt like what I wrote was helpful, gave them support, made them feel freer or in some way affirmed them. Since I feel completely at sea I'm honoured if I can make anyone else feel less so.

I also realised, based on a few comments and a quick search of the archives, that my references to study may come out of the blue. Indeed most of the chatter and posts about all that was on the previous blog - the one with the very poor search and link capacity. And while in recent times it hasn't featured, this aspect of my life is important in many many ways. So here's a quick precis.

Before I had kids I worked long hours in a demanding and challenging and well remunerated job, nay career, in government. When considering having children I did what I generally do about big decisions, I thought long and hard about how and when and what would happen. I consulted and read and listened. I realised things couldn't work as they were. As a manager of people, part time work was never going to mesh well. I moved sideways in my large organisation to a different job, one I liked a bit less but which seemed plausible as a part time option. I chose to work for the manager who seemed most likely to support me in being a part time senior worker. I was very strategic. I happily worked right up to and including my due date and held only mild concerns about work life after baby.

I eagerly returned to work when Amy was about 9 months old (despite chronic and extreme sleep deprivation and a lack of stable childcare), keen to escape for at least a few days a week the relentlessness of caring for a baby who demanded constant attention and a house suddenly groaning with chores. But work as it turned out was equally awful. Day after sleep deprived day I trudged to the office where I was out of touch and underutilised. Both Amy and I seemed to get sick at a rate I found incomprehensible when compared to my pre child life. At night I came home and sat with baby Amy as she played in the sandpit and I cried. How had it all gone so horribly wrong? How could the baby I had wanted more than anything, who I loved more than I had ever thought possible have so utterly ruined my life? It took a full year for me to accept that my strategic manoeuvres had amounted to nothing in the face of the twin headed monster of the family unfriendly workplace and the work unfriendly family. So much for my brilliant career.

But I wasn't prepared to give in and concluded that if I could just find a more suitable job in a more suitable workplace everything might be OK. I had never for a moment considered myself a candidate for stay at home mum. It didn't suit me as a person, but also, having been raised by a single parent I couldn't be comfortable with that level of dependency and how vulnerable it would make me. I pass no judgement on those who do stay at home - we are all free to make the choices that work best for us and there are many many paths to the same end - but it was just not something I wanted do.

Of course engaging and at least reasonably paid part time work is not easy to come by and I was reluctant to leave my job until I had a plan b. Since I had gotten pretty much all my jobs through networks and past employers I did my best to find work this way as well as using recruitment agencies and looking through job ads. I was horrified to discover not just a complete lack of opportunities for a well qualified and experienced worker with excellent references, but in some quarters an open hostility to giving 'people like me' a 'break'. Employing me was seen by so many people as a 'favour' I was astonished - before kids I was head hunted for work but after kids it was like I had been dipped in shit.

I also found an enormous reservoir of women like me - women for whom motherhood had brought not just joy and hardship but also a rude shock that no amount of success before children seemed to shield them from. In a myriad of guises and variations we struggled with the realisation that the advent of children in our lives had taken us from independent equal citizens with economic autonomy to subjects of our gender and reproductive status and at least partially economically dependent. And again I reiterate our experiences of this were not the same and for many the joys of motherhood were adequate compensation but it seemed a near universal experienced that women were shocked by their sudden change of status and the limitations they now faced.

If I couldn't work around this problem I decided to become better acquainted with it. I enrolled in full time study to do a research masters degree in public policy with the topic of work and family: gender, risk and wicked policy problems. The degree was highly pragmatic - I was pegging my bets that my greatest likelihood of finding part time meaningful work would be in the policy area, and it also seemed to me that work life or work and family balance were popular buzz words that might equate to more jobs.

The next 2 years I spent reading, talking, listening and thinking about workplace policies, government policy, welfare structures, gender, domestic arrangements, the market, economic units, statistics, time use, institutional structures, risk, bureaucracy and feminism. A lot of that time I felt deeply outraged, depressed, shocked, hopeless, compromised and lost. I felt like so many of the things I had grown up believing, that I was continually hearing and seeing were lies of the highest order. It seemed that being a woman totally sucked and nuclear families totally sucked and pretty much all the alternatives did too. That the gaining of family equated pretty much directly with the loss of self for women - and no amount of recasting and reframing could deny that. I'm not saying all women get the rough end of the stick, but I am saying that on pretty much every objective statistical measure, women who have children are worse off than women who don't, and men who have children are pretty much better off than men who don't.

I oscillated between a balanced view of men as equal victims to the institutions that shape and limit us in this way, and feeling like men most definitely got the better deal and in many instances were knowingly complicit in maintaining this inequity. The persistence of patriarchal structures and ideology is well evidenced in differential rates of pay and long term superannuation savings, instigations of divorce, victims of assault and murder, mental health profiles, exposure to poverty, time use statistics and a load of other measures besides and made it hard to not become paranoid about a grand conspiracy. And yet society and women in particular go on doing a marvellous job of maintaining that patriarchy as an inescapable force is dead. Even after the relatively inescapably gendered experience of motherhood hits, most women continue to see their inequities in isolation, as an individual experience.

And of course despite all the high falutin' theorising and abstract and statistical thinking I was also confronted daily by blokes who didn't seem that bad. I deeply loved (and still do!) my partner - he was no boogey man - and there were plenty of others around I quite liked too. I saw many of them labouring under their own confusions and difficulties and it was unseemly and dangerous to be shouting emperor's new clothes! when everything felt so unstable and chaotic as it was. The things I had learned, the ones I felt were well substantiated and irrefutable and yet somehow incompatible with going on in a nuclear family and being happy, I had to put to one side. I tried to focus on being happy instead of trying to make things equal. I tried to live in the now instead of railing against the failure of my expectations. I tried to make it work with what I had. Piece by piece solutions were negotiated and deals struck. I became much less depressed and anxious, I settled in for the long haul.

That all sounds super neat and tidy doesn't it? In some ways it is - life has become clearer as time has passed and compromises are easier to accept. But now something else is happening. It's cropping up here and there, and for people who are near to me. For some those deals are falling apart, the compromises are not bearing out, a new phase has changed the stakes. This too is well documented (another of those things I learned and put to one side), and again it is a gendered thing. As children get older the domestic load shifts, the nappies are gone, the cleaning the texta off the walls and wiggles concerts go too, mothers groups fade away and play groups end. The mundane work that was once invisible becomes even more so, and harder to boot - coaching children through the social challenges of school, supporting learning and overcoming learning problems, staying in touch as peers and private worlds take over. There are women who want to reconnect with their 'careers', men who want help with the bacon bringing home bit, women who want a rest after what they see as the marathon of mother centric early childhood, men who don't want things to change. The deal shifts again.

Statistically speaking this is when there is a big spike in divorce rates (largely instigated by women) and the emergence of a range of social and behavioural problems in children. Women's attachment to the workforce tends to increase around this time - existing part timers do more hours, those out of the paid workforce rejoin. The overall quantum of time available to devote to domestic work decreases, and often a more rapid family unfriendly pace ensues. All kinds of stuff goes wrong, and for many women the increase in paid work hours does not translate to a commensurate decrease in domestic responsibilities. Many men feel women are now getting a free ride. And while dissatisfactions may run on both sides of the gender divide it is women who are more likely to decide the deal is no longer worth it (and I am still speaking statistically here, not personally).

On the upside this can lead to new negotiations, new deals. I'm beginning to see new permutations and combinations in the lives around me and some of them cheer me greatly, but some of them make me feel like no one ever gets an even break. Separated families rarely leave the majority of their problems behind and generally gain new ones. Once the mutual incentive to see the emperor's new clothes is stripped away there is an endless supply of bad deals to mine for ammunition for the my life sucked the most game and a renewed attempt to make things fair and equal. Everyone (except the lawyers) ends up poorer financially, more at risk of all kinds of hardships and bad stuff and no matter how well people separate there is a price to be paid.

I think the fundamental difficulty here is this equation between fair and equal. Certainly fair always meant equal to me - you know, half for you, half for me. But how can you make things equal when there are things only one of you can do by virtue of biology? When so many things make sense in terms of efficiency or pragmatism, but leave you cold in some other way? How do you equate the responsibility to earn a living with the responsibility to keep a child fed, reasonably clean and, well, alive? How do you decide to share all the responsibilities knowing this makes both of you vulnerable to the mummy track at work and the no one is really holding the fort at home? Because we can argue till we're blue in the face about which is harder or more rewarding and more tiresome or more sustainable or anything else. There is no equal anymore, just a thousand different ways to calculate what's fair - calculations that change from person to person, day to day, hour to hour, circumstance to ever changing circumstance.

So I guess that's it. The deal is shifting for me here and I'm no longer sure what I think about where I sit, about whether I've been sold a pup or had a free ride or whether my consciousness is false or only just coming clear. What I do know is it is not comfortable. In my paid work life I feel deeply and terminally compromised and right now see no way clear of that without walking away from the domestic responsibilities I see as inevitably, non-negotiably mine. Without drawing away from my children, without taking a level of pressure and rush I see as leading nowhere good. Equally I see the home life we have as predicated on a level of effort and lifestyle choices I see as precluding the things I value and love about having a home life.

Where is that middle path?

Edited to add: I started responding to a few comments but decided really these are important additions to the post above so I'm adding them here. If something doesn't make sense go back to the comments section to see what I'm responding to.

I would love to read the Radical Homemaking book as recommended by Gina. I checked out a few reviews and so on and think it would be very interesting. From what I can gather it is a challenge to traditional views around families, economic units and the specialisation/division of labour. If that's right I would certainly agree that there is a lot of scope for such a position. I found a historical understanding of the construction of families and the division of labour really helpful when I was doing my study, and certainly gave me a sense of how in this historical moment there are two really different paradigms in conflict. Very briefly I'd characterise this as the shift in the basic social unit. In the recent past the family was the basic social and economic unit - and by this I mean each part of the family had it's own specialised role and task and it didn't make sense to think of people outside that structure. 1 earner+1 childbearer/domestic manager+children=family. The family was the taxable unit, the voting unit and the legal structure for the ownership of property. In our time individuals are the basic unit of society, with domestic, family and work roles a series of personal lifestyle choices. In a legal, economic and government sense men and women are interchangeable with all the same rights and obligations. Basic biology and reproduction (as well as the obvious other gender differences of women's and men's life courses) stand in direct conflict with this - while we have the same rights and obligations, we are not equally able to utilise those rights or meet those obligations.

I certainly don't say my studies created a position in me that's 'right' - rather it created what I see as the position to take in order to be least 'at risk'. This notion of risk is kind of complicated (if you are interested read Ulrick Beck's Risk Society) but basically it says the incentives and institutions of society (and government) and individual choices can be looked at in terms of how they steer you toward or away from risk. To take a very simplistic example government pays for vaccinations for people because this reduces the rate of illness (and fatalities), the whole of society benefits from this but also individuals face a lower risk of experiencing these illness. Those who cite potential side effects from vaccines are not incorrect (there are no risk 'free' options) but the risk of serious consequences from vaccines are lower than from the illness they prevent. This risk profile is subject to how many people are vaccinated - the more people who don't vaccinate the more people are both exposed to and carry and pass on the illness thus increasing the risk of getting it, so vaccines are most effective in reducing risk where they widely used.

In relation to this family issue you can say, for example, that from a worker point of view part time work carries more risks than full time work (less promotions, less job security, less superannuation etc), families carry less risk when both parents have some attachment to the workforce, but the risks increase when both parents are in full time work. A greater level of economic self sufficiency (I think what the radical homemaking book points to?) reduces the risks of market derived problems (toxins in products or inflation or whatever) but increases the risks associated from being outside the dominant economic paradigm (missing out on market incentives or the benefits of full time work for eg).

And these risks are not distributed evenly within families or across genders. Choices that minimise risks for women as individuals and workers almost certainly increase risks for children (Claire and Chris' point), choices that reduce risks for man as workers almost certainly raise risks for either women or children or both. And to further complicate matters what reduces risks for a family overall may carry the greatest risks for one or more individuals within the family.

From a purely economic sense in terms of both direct earnings, government based incentives and sanctions and long term calculations (all based on averages and norms and thus not true for every individual), the lowest risk work and family arrangement is a full time male worker and a lower end (less than 30 hours per week) part time female worker. There are also other non economic benefits to this model and it is in Australia the dominant family model. But in this model the highest risk profile (based on lots of measures) belongs to women, the next highest to children (depending on lots of things like the type and hours of mother's work, the type and hours of father's work, availability of market solutions to supplement domestic work etc) and the lowest risk is borne by fathers.

Of course life is more than economics, and similar risk profiles can be generated around lots of measures (health, happiness etc etc). The real caveat here (and not coincidentally why economics is king in the analytic tool set for governments) is that economic measures are much more stable and objective. By this I mean the ways in which it is measured are more objective and less varied - we can spend a very long time indeed talking about ways of measuring happiness, or even what happiness is, but how much you earn has a very few variables in a definitional sense. For this reason the statistics we generate through these measures are more predictable and we can more easily grasp what variables tend to have what impact on outcomes (not definitively of course but with some predictability). But the other things is non economic measures tend to be much more internally conflicted - people can do extremely well on some health measures and very badly on others, they may high levels of both happiness and sadness that are not reconcilable and which may take place simultaneously. Since the kind of analysis I do is intended to provide some support to making decisions about what to do, data which is unreliable, subjective, contradictory and non-causal isn't as helpful. Economics is a good starting point because of its simplicity but it is not all and it is probably not even the most important tool for most individuals.

I'd also stress here that risk is theoretical - it doesn't always bear out and there are lots and lots of variables that tinker withs outcome, but the differential risk issue comes out full force when families either separate or when one or both parents becomes incapacitated or dies. And while no one starts a family with the idea that either of these things will come to pass - for a very very large number of people it does! And then the house of cards comes down in the most terrifying way - mothers with tenuous workforce attachment suddenly need economic independence, men with high levels of workforce responsibility suddenly need to take on family responsibilities and all at just the moment when domestic and child responsibilities radically increase (maintaining two households or dealing with grief and/or caring fall out).

Research is absolutely conclusive that when making decisions, people tend to overplay short term risk and underplay long term risk. So families decide that less workforce attachment for mothers makes everything easier and less risky right now - mum is home for kids, there is less rush, there's a much greater capacity to absorb the unexpected and difficult (sick kids for eg), dad can get to work on time and do the long hours his full time career path demands. It is in the here and now the best arrangement. But over time those long term risks start to come home and then suddenly mum is struggling to get a decent job and the kids are in extended long hours of market based care and the entire formula has changed.

I'm adding all this detail (and I'm sorry there's so much - if you think this is bad you should read my thesis!) because I want to be very clear that knowing all I do does not direct me to an answer. What it does it illuminate both the risks inherent in the choices open to me and give me a statistical kind of understanding about how likely some of these risks are. It reinforces how bloody complicated it is, and how the deck is at least slightly, in a very general sense (and as is consistent with life without kids - hello patriarchy!) stacked in favour of men.

And now you will have to excuse me as I go tend to children who are sick again...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

postcards from the twilight zone

I know there's been moments of normality in there, but the last few weeks (month?) have felt a bit like the twilight zone. There's been sickness all round, which never helps, and a bunch of stuff going wrong and I've felt bad and sad and confused and all that, but sitting over the top of it all I just haven't felt entirely like me. I skirted the Sew it Together events on the weekend, something I fully expected to participate in, but between my mental distractions and the demands of a very challenging class to teach on Saturday I felt very monosyllabic and barely present. Like I'd been taking drugs but without the fun. I'm usually such a joiner inner but somehow I just wasn't there.

I've also been exceptionally tired as Wil's recent sleeping problems and illness have developed into full blown night terrors. There's lots of contributing factors and I remember Amy going through a similar phase but it's such a drain to be tending a screaming child in the night. Quite a few nights he has ended up sleeping with me - which doesn't reduce the number of times he wakes but does help him get back to sleep much quicker. And while I hate the sleep deprivation I get as a result, and it feels like I can't do anything to help the poor terrified lad, I do think making scared kids feel like they are less alone somehow makes a difference in the long term. He's had more trouble than usual getting off to sleep too so I've been spending my evenings in the work room where Wil can hear I'm around until he drops off to sleep and we've been leaving a light and the radio on in my work room so he gets the impression I'm around even when I'm not.

There also seen a much greater focus on the household chores side of my life. The sewing machine was packed away a few weeks ago to encourage a cleaner, neater, more home cooked kind of family life for us all and I have been blogging, photographing, twittering and blog reading a lot less. I can report the house has most definitely been neater and more home cooking has most definitely been eaten and there has most definitely been less crankiness from some quarters and less rush.

But a couple of things have bubbled up along with that, and I have to say I'm not so pleased with them. The first has been a return of the feeling I worked very hard to get rid of some years ago that in the end my life has amounted to how clean I can keep a house. The mountains of reading I did for my thesis about the ongoing imbalance between men and women around domestic work is like bile in the back of my throat, and when Amy informed me that I really should make her bed everyday because it was my job because daddy builds houses and I make beds, I felt for one dizzying moment like patriarchy was alive and well and breeding in my house.

The reality that raising children and doing paid work and balancing domestic arrangements are complicated and subjective is not at all new to me (after two years of postgraduate study I get that at the very least) but it also feels like a very fragile treaty not just for me but for pretty much every woman I know. And before anyone jumps in here with a balanced view I'll say I'm not saying men don't have their own issues, frustrations and so on, but simply that I see a lot of evidence of how the negotiation of these issues wears women down. And how the persistence of resulting unhappiness seems to be at the heart of so many relationship breakdowns, mental health problems and all manner of other manifest issues. You know, the I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore stuff.

So while I've been sitting on the domestic worker side of the scales these last few weeks a couple of things have percolated aside from a general anger and sense of injustice. And one of these is how bottomless the domestic workload is. I know this isn't news but I simply can't believe how many hours I can devote to shopping, washing, picking up, sweeping, sorting, putting away, cooking and so on. There is always, and I mean always, more to do. The second is how utterly invisible such work is. Not just in the no one notices a nice clean house or how could there be so little evidence for some much work kind of invisible but in the quite literal sense of standing in front of someone doing the work and them not noticing it is being done. I feel like a complete idiot saying all this - the most fundamental reading of history and feminism tells you this most basic of facts, but the living in a work of endless work with so little achievement or recognition drives the point home in the most unpleasant of ways.

And all that has been doubled by the loss of time for doing things that help to ameliorate those feelings. Not in a direct way - I haven't found myself dying to sew while I have cooked - but I have deeply missed the feelings of joy, engagement and accomplishment that being creative provides. In fact I have felt largely uninspired to do anything enormously creative. I have churned stitch by stitch through a thousand miles of stocking stitch in the round while walking and commuting and waiting for small boys to fall asleep, but that's not what I consider to be a really creative enterprise, and there is as yet no achievement.

All of this has led me to think very carefully about what it is I seek in a domestic environment. Because quite aside from the work of maintaining the home, there is also a question of what I would rather be seeing when I look around me. The problem I have with the clean and tidy house is that both directly and indirectly it discourages me from being creative or relaxed. It removes a sense of the need to create, it removes the inspiration to create and it creates an enormous overhead to create what with the getting all the stuff out and packing all the stuff up in the small amount of time one generally has in a single slot. I really don't crave that sparkly super tidy minimalist aesthetic because it makes me anxious not to mess it up. And even more, it's an active suppression of all the stuff I like. It's empty.

I'm not going to get into an enormous dialogue here about form over function but when I see an empty mantelpiece, an absence of toys, vacant tables and neatly stacked shelves I have to ask what they are for. Why have these spaces if they say do not use me, do not dwell here, make no mess? As though we must eradicate the evidence of the life we live the second we have lived it for fear it may pollute tomorrow - eternal vigilance! Instead of feeling more houseproud as the surfaces clear I feel increasingly disassociated, depressed and oppressed. And don't even ask me what I think this does to the way kids see their role in the family home or how it influences the way you spend time with kids. Let's just say there's been no pint size painting, crafting or even drawing here in weeks.

I don't know how you find the right balance, I mean no one wants to live in a pig sty and of course at a certain point mess itself becomes an inhibitor to a fun and creative life. But I feel like I've moved off a continuum and into a separate kind of reality. Between caring for wee ones, doing the unavoidable and trying to keep things looking schmick I have just kind of shut down the part of myself that makes the fuel that keeps the engine going. It all feels so much like performance and not at all like living, and really I just don't understand why people want to live that way.

Luckily in just over a week I am off to craft camp. I think I am looking forward to it like I have not looked forward to one before, I'm hoping to find some inspiration and some clues about how to get back to some kind of real life.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

my germs your germs

It's been wondertimes here. All those linky ideas posts were a mere distraction from fevers and pussy tonsils and buckets and buckets of vomit.

All is on the mend now but I am frankly exhausted of both sympathy and energy because very ill children pull your heart strings like not many other things, but bored and tired and housebound children are a total pain in the arse. And both prevent your own simmering colds from going away.

Looking back over the archives this seems a consistently fraught time of year for us illness wise - delightfully timed to ensure I (a) spend at least some time in May solo parenting, generally at the time when my kids get scarlet fever, killer tonsillitis and I cap it off with asthma and (b) have an annual 'mother's day' in which I do what mothers are expected to do every other day of the year without complaint - clean up, look after, provide comfort, worry, feed, wash up after, care for, plan, be bored, take responsibility and endure.

The only difference seems to me I am entitled to complain about it on this one day of the year set aside for actually noticing what it is most mothers slave away at under what seems to be a cloak of invisibility. I'm still waiting for the one where I get ferried around and indulged and am completely free of responsibility. It's a vague hallmark kind of notion, though I now have proof of someone I actually know in real life who gets a day like this and now I feel really ripped off.

Anyway just a quick stop, needed to show off what the kids and I have been doing in those long hours where there's be an absence of dire illness but not enough oomph to get out of the house. Delightful little buddies from kits sold by Ms Ric Rac, nabbed at the Stitches show. Such gorgeous gorgeousness. Lady you are the queen and I hereby hang up my softie designing shoes.

The smiles on the dials say it all.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

some usefulness inspiration 2 - clean and nice

Seems to me that the biggest impact I can have getting away from mass produced stuff is to switch to handmade for high turnover items and those items which are produced in the worst way - with loads of packaging, high costs to the environment and the labour force or where costs are cut by using cheap ingredients or shoddy work.

I love buying hand made vegetable soaps so I've long wanted to try soap making and this site seems to have loads of info and recipes. There's also good soap stuff here, here, here and these aussie sites sell soap making supplies (as well as stuff for lip balms and all manner of keep yourself nice stuff) and have sections with recipes, links and tutorials. This is a site specifically for aussie soap makers and has lots of resources.

I use lip balm several times a day and this means I'm either inadvertently eating or absorbing most of it. Scary to think I don't really know what's in it! Perhaps I could try making it myself using one of the recipes here, here, here and I will definitely use the tips here and here.

Looking at the soap and lip balm sites also got me thinking about bath bombs (fizzies), bath salts and bath oils, as well as body moisturisers. I'm not sure about making these for the swap - I know some people don't have baths or use such things (even though I'd be happy to have them - my kids are still young enough to do most of their washing in the bath - having something that cleaned them would be good, no?).

I'm also dead keen to try home made deoderant. Don't look at me like that - if it's good enough for Amy, it's good enough for me! There's a heap of people sprouting it's praises - check out this, this, this, this or this.

Moving from the bathroom to the kitchen an obvious target is the kitchen sponge/washer/scrubber. I've tried a few different knitted and crocheted wash clothes (actually you don't need to move rooms - wash clothes are right at home in the bathroom too!) and I'm not even sure how to start choosing links to these since there are an enormous number of patterns out there. In a totally random fashion if you really can't use google for yourself you could try this, this, this, this or this.

But I'm really interested in the idea I might be able to find something that replaces both the scourer as well as the wiper part of the sponge. I have heard mention of using double knitting to make a softer cloth side and a rough string side wash cloth and I can't find a specific link but it seems like a great idea. How about this or the comments on this post, which have some great suggestions for sponge and scourer replacements as well as tips on cleaning them. I like the idea of balling up nylon net produce bags, or even cutting netting into strips and knitting or crocheting it.

And we definitely need air freshner (4 people live here and we only have one combined bathroom/toilet/laundry) but I detest aerosols and chemical florals. I've long made our own using essential oils denatured in alcohol and diluted with distilled water in a spray bottle but I read somewhere that you can use detergent instead of alcohol which would make things easier. I'd be grateful if a perfumier could supply me with an excellent oil mix recipe since D is not into florals and I'm kind of bored of citrus.

I'm sure there's other good ideas out there - come on - suggestions please??

Monday, 10 May 2010

some usefulness inspiration 1 - bags

Even if you aren't up for the put it to good use swap, these links might get you a little inspiration for using some of your crafty time for greening up how you shop, package and carry your goods about. If you need to know a bit more about why this is important, read this post (who knew paper bags were so bad?!) or visit this site (there's a pattern on this one too).

  • Knitted market bags here, here, here, here, here
  • Crochet market bags here, here, here, here, here
  • Produce bag patterns here, here, here, here, here, here
  • Sewn totes and shopping bags here (this one even folds up!), here, here, here (another fold up version), here
  • This post has links to 35 different grocery bag patterns
  • There's quite a few patterns at Lion brand for both knit and crochet
  • There's some great sewn lunch bag patterns here, here, here
  • Food wraps and bags here, here, here
  • A tutorial on making 'yarn' from recycled plastic bags - works well for knitting or crocheting market bags
  • A tutorial on making 'fabric' from recycled plastic bags - great to sew lunch sacks or wraps (here's another with more detail and info about sewing too)
  • A list of projects using recycled plastic bags in all different ways

There's an almost endless supply of tutorials and patterns out there and this is just a taste!

Please let us know your experiences about patterns and materials, but also how it goes using them -
  • which ones are quickest/easiest/most fun to make?
  • which ones are best to use/last the longest/easiest to carry over long distances?
  • what materials wash well/are most robust/least expensive/nicest to work with?
  • any other patterns/techniques/tutorials you'd like to recommend?
  • any advice on packaging that contacts food like sandwich wrappers and how to ensure they are non toxic and wash properly?
  • what's your favourite 'green' shopping/packaging/carrying accessory and why? I love my envirosax, which I received as gifts, because they are super lightweight and fold up quickly and easily to something very small (I leave my 2 in my handbag all the time) and they are big and strong enough to hold a good sized unplanned shop at the supermarket. I can throw them in the wash and they dry fast and after a lot of use they aren't showing any signs of wear, they are darn near perfect as far as I can tell

Sunday, 9 May 2010

the put to good use swap

After the success of the tea towel swap we're doing it again people! The put it to good use swap is all about sharing our handmaking skills for the things we use on a regular basis. It's about getting away from mass production and consumption, excess packaging, unrecyclable materials and encouraging practicality, mindfulness, beauty and handmadeness in everyday useful things. If you sign up you make a bunch of things, send them to me and then I send you back a bunch of stuff from other swappers. Like Christmas!

Just like last time I want people to have a choice about their level of participation so you'll be able to sign up for 5 or 10 items. Your items don't need to be complicated or expensive but they need to be useful and practical, with at least a nod to green and sustainable credentials, and at least partially hand made. Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting a bunch of links to ideas and tutorials (and asking you to share your ideas too please!) so people of all skill levels and with any budget should be able to find something to do. Anything that saves packaging, that encourages re-use or recycling, increases the uptake of sustainably produced materials or simply replaces shop bought with handmade gets the tick.

Here's a few ideas to start with:
  • re-useable produce or shopping bags. There's heaps of patterns and tutorials for lightweight sewn, knitted and crocheted produce and shopping bags.
  • I've heard about but not seen a 'double knitting' dish washer/scrubber cloth to replace non recyclable sponges using cotton yarn on one side and rough string on the other - I want this one!
  • lunch sacks and food wrappers - I've seen great ones made from oil cloth and wetsuit material. - Just a note to say wrappers designed to actually contact food (as opposed to sacks for carrying already boxed or wrapped food) need to be food safe. Many PVC coatings on oil cloth are not food safe so if you wanted to make wrappers you would need to verify food safety. Does anyone know how this can be done or where food safe wrap fabric can be bought?
  • hankies, serviettes, travel cutlery sets.
  • home made soap, massage oil, bath salts, air freshners
  • knit or crochet wash cloths
  • tea towels (although those of us who did the tea towel swap are probably tea toweled out!)
  • curry pastes, spice mixes, tea blends (although need to think about safe transport for food especially if there's an international and hence customs component)
The 'how to' fine print:
  1. You need to send your items to me, along with a self addressed pre paid post satchel (3kg size) so they arrive during the last week of June. That gives you 6 or 7 weeks to get your items made and sent. Don't send them earlier because I don't have the space to store stuff for ages and don't send them later because with this swap I will need to put aside the time to do the sort and distribution - if you miss the deadline your items will be returned to you. Which would be very sad! If the timing doesn't work for you but you are keen, please email me to see if we can sort something out before you sign up. I'll get them sent out pretty fast after I have them so you should get them in the first week of July or so.
  2. Your items need to be post safe - if they are fragile they need to be well packed to prevent breakage - and not too big and obviously not explosive. 10 of your items must be able to fit in a 3kg post satchel and weigh less than 3kg in total.
  3. Every item you send must be tagged in some way so it can be identified as coming from you (your name and/or online identity - a way for the recipient to be able to contact you to say thank you!). But remember that wrapping and tags add weight and size - so keep the packaging to a minimum.
  4. I am thinking of this as an Australian based swap - international swappers are welcome, though they need to contact me to sort out postage costs and need to ensure their packages arrive to me by the deadline.
  5. I will do my very best in the the sort and distribution process to get a good mix for everyone and accommodate any exclusion requests (like I'm allergic to cotton or the smell of lavender gives me a migraine) but I can only guarantee the overall number of items you will receive will be fair, not the nature of the items. I won't be wrapping or otherwise doing anything to items other than dividing them up between the bags.
  6. If you would like to sign up please send me an email by 30 May with the following information in the following format all on one line, separated by commas (ie, don't use the return key!)

    real name, name to be used publicly, email, blog address, number of items you wish to send and receive, any additional comments

    here's an example:

    suzie fry, sooz,,, 10, please avoid pink
I hope you'll join in and feel free to post on your blogs to let people know about it!

put to good use

Sometimes when it is hard to feel good about the world you have to make the decision to throw yourself in the path of goodness. You know, make a little joy and faith restoration unavoidable.

I dragged myself out of my sick bed and mood funk on Friday and spent a day with the lovely folk working and visiting the Melbourne Stitches and Craft Show. I'm not going to fill this post with links - there are lots of others doing a wonderful job on that front - but having a wander and then lending a hand at the Ink and Spindle stand gave me a chance to chat and talk craft and generally feel useful and purposive. And that was good.

A number of people who were at the show were wash the dishes tea towel swap alumni and as we reminisced about how happy we were with that swap* talked turned to what's next?

For a while now I have been mulling over the idea of a green on the go swap, but I haven't been able to work out exactly how to define it. I read this post on Sew Green and immediately thought about the proliferation of ideas about produce bags and shopping bags and eating and drinking out paraphernalia, but I didn't want the swap to be too restrictive and complicated, or risk swap items failing the green or useful test.

And that was when I realised that what is important to me, and what it seemed so many people appreciated about the last swap, was that the items swapped were not hugely onerous or expensive, but were extremely useful. Scope for creativity is important but many of us like to use our craft time, skills and budgets to contribute to our day to day lives. While re-useable produce and shopping bags are something I definitely need more of, there are many other practical items I use that could be moved into the handmade and more sustainable realm.

And then I was talking to one past swapper and she mentioned a swap she had participated in where everyone sent ten items to the swap organiser, along with their return post parcel. The organiser then divvied up all the goods so everyone got 10 things in return from a range of swappers. I love this idea and if you were the original swap organiser my hat is off to you for thinking it up - I hope you don't mind me doing (in fact I hope you'll sign up too!)

So I think it's time to get going. Another swap. Sign up details in this post.

*It's yukky to have to mention this but as a swap organiser I believe accountability is very important. Swaps are based on trust and when you lose that the whole swap dream is tainted. I am totally fine with swap partners agreeing between them to change the rules, to go late, to send something different, or even to give up on the swap altogether. I also understand that life can interfere with the very best of intentions and no one should be sanctioned for that I have happily waited for literally years for swaps to be returned in some cases. But when swappers do not communicate with their partners or me, when they receive gifts made with love and sent in good faith and do not acknowledge those gifts, do not explain the absence of any offerings of their own or respond to requests for explanations I'm afraid I need to name names. I have tried hard to avoid doing this but I feel I have no choice - Nyssa Rae of, you are no longer welcome to participate in swaps I organise. I also apologise heartily to the 5 swappers who were partnered with Nyssa and got stiffed. One of the things I like about this ten items model is that since everything comes to me first no one will receive anything if they don't give first - yay!

Saturday, 8 May 2010

because they could

Sometimes you just have to marvel and celebrate the amazing things people do just because they can. This clip was sent to me with the following explanation:

This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa .. Amazingly, 97% of the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft, Iowa ...Yes, farm equipment! It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort. It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Aside from being completely awe inspiring it's also (in keeping with my general machine theme today) a different view on what's going on when machines are at play. It's the view we never get when we're stuck inside throwing or catching all the balls.


More lovely comments, thank you. I have thought much about the previous post, the knitting as metaphor and while it is a very meaningful one for me, there are other metaphors too. Ones with a bit more dimensionality.

Again and again I find myself thinking in terms of machines, of giant wheels and cogs and gears and sprockets. It is telling of how my brain processes that the machine seems to be a persistent framework for understanding how things in the human world work.

While I am generally optimistic about the agency of individuals - their capacity to choose and influence their path and destiny and immediate experiences - I still perceive a much grander scale in which those exertions are tiny trifles. I mean, obviously, we all are born and die, we all travel from point b to d with a fairly limited number of detours on the way. None of us can move outside the constraints of our humanity.

But the larger movements around us are by their nature difficult to perceive and almost impossible to know with any accuracy. They tend to reveal themselves when their final purpose becomes clear, when we realise that the slow turn we thought we were on is about to deliver us, cartoon like, onto the conveyer belt headed for the chopping machine.

[Of course sometimes those machinations are good - my point here is not that our experience of the world or its mysterious workings are always so terrible - but generally we pause for thought when we seek answers, when we regret, when we feel cheated or deflated. Good fortune is often best not overworked for fear of making it disappear.]

Sometimes we manage to scramble out of the way just in time, jump tracks, change direction. If we lucky we learn from it. We leave jobs or countries or marriages, we change our eating habits or our drinking habits or the company we keep. Sometimes it isn't us but something bigger yet again which acts on our little sphere and keeps us safe.

Sometimes (not often at all it must be said) in rare breathtaking, history changing moments someone throws themselves between the gnashing teeth and brings the machine to a halt. What we all see as inevitable, invisible, just is reality to them is simply a machine that can and must be stopped. Sometimes we celebrate them - when they bring about the end of apartheid or get women the vote or declare aboriginal people citizens or depose a dictator. Sometimes we hold them up for ever after as warnings - the self immolating monk, the assassin, the leader of the genocide. I marvel at their strength.

Mostly we fall through life passing from one system to the next trying not to get squeezed too hard or taken too far from the place wish to land. I am not posting much here about the things that are going on because there are lots of good reasons sometimes not to share and not everyone feels the same way I do about getting it out there. But I think most of us can identify with the kinds of thoughts my particular situation brings.

The sense of being crushed by two opposing forces infinitely bigger and stronger than oneself.
The sense of being trapped without the requisite tools for escape or acceptance.
The sense of being infinitesimally small and insignificant in the face of the system.
The sense of deja vu when the things you thought were in the past turn out to be on a repeat loop, inescapable.
The sense of shared suffering as you realise how many others are similarly caught.
The sense of unreality when you realise those you thought were in your system turn out to be travelling on a different path altogether.
The sense of stuckness when layer upon layer of interconnections and intermeshing resist even the most minor of changes.

I am enormously lucky to live in a country and a time in history where my troubles don't generally equate to bombs falling or slavery or marital servitude or forced separation from my children. But whether you are dealing with death or job loss or the end of marriage or financial ruin or serious illness or failed paradigms or far pettier disappointments the girring of the machine can easily dominate all else. I feel the volume may be dropping slightly, though it's hard to tell for the ringing in my ears.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

loop by loop

Another stitch. Like another meal and another morning shower and another going to bed. One foot in front of the other, life seems full of small gestures designed to keep things moving. Designed to impose order over deeper chaos and uncertainty.

Knitting is alive with metaphors. With promise. With the hope that with persistence and methodical application messes can be given order, wrongs righted, incoherent threads made into a whole.

It is providing structure even where there is no meaning and I suppose for this I should be grateful. Another stitch, another step closer, another moment passed in which the worst doesn't happen and the best is not forever lost.

Many thanks for the comments on my previous post - it adds a lot of warmth to the coldness of the times when people reach out (especially since the computer is mostly turned off and I am not reading blogs and cruising much). I want to make clear though that I don't write these kinds of posts for the purposes of garnering sympathetic comments. I'm not special, my hardships are entirely ordinary and I know it, but if I did not blog when I felt confused and sad, the rest of it would mean so much less. Or worse, so much worse, if you who read here were to think that somehow my life were free from either hardship or confusion, thereby fabricating some kind of crazy ideal. The truth is that often things are good, and happy, and make sense and other times they just aren't and don't. At the moment I am yelling out from down here in the pit, but I'm sure I'll find a way to start climbing out. It just might take a while.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

it's oh so quiet, shhhh

I can't help but think of the Bjork song. It hasn't been love that's been driving the roller coaster, but I still think about this song whenever I feel myself being pulled up mountains and thrown into gorges. The extremes of chaos and quiet, joy and despair.

Life has been busy and drawing my attention inwards while I struggle to understand what's going on and why, what I can do about things, what must simply be endured.

I have been feeling a little sad about the inevitability of bubbles bursting. They seem to be popping all around me right now.

And what's left are the exposed and raw insides of big challenges - themes that come back again and again as I stumble through the world's complexities. Yet again I learn they are not problems to solve, but hardships to learn to live with, irritations that bring on wriggles and squirms to seek a more comfortable spot.

So it may be a little quiet around here as I seek the next equilibrium and start looking outwards again.