Our road to homeschooling

close view of an uneven crack in concrete, surrounded by red sand excavated by the ants who live in there ©careerusinterruptus.com

We never planned to. The Skeptic and I were great at school, and I’d been deeply committed to my career before stepping away to have kids, so we – quite reasonably – expected I’d find new work once they settled at school.

They never did.

That’s not the school’s fault. It was straight-up AWESOME.

They did everything right. No – better than right, because they taught me everything about understanding howbehaviour communicates needs, about the diversity of needs and behaviours, about teaching and modelling emotional regulation and non-violent conflict resolution.

I know! Not what you’d expect from a school, but then, this place was truly special. Their democratic, play-based approach to learning informed everything, and it was so small, it worked. As a community school, families and former students were always welcome, so there was plenty of help when things got messy – which was often. For several years, that extra pair of hands was mine. I logged a lot of observational hours, I cleaned up all sorts of … stuff, and I learned HEAPS.

My kids, not so much.

Mr Pixel, of course, came with significant challenges: chronic ill health, anxiety, perfectionism, SAF, and a brain teeming with Big Questions. He had no idea what to make of kids who just wanted to run round yelling and throwing leaves at each other, nor of work that focussed on tiny little concepts like words and sums. He didn’t participate much and was terribly anxious about everything he did do, so, although he was well liked, easily accomplished any work he did attempt, and even had a teacher who specialised in giftedness devise work tailored to his interests, it’s fair to say he never saw the point. Therefore he bitterly resented my making him go, and he sure as hell wasn’t staying without me. (Did I mention the SAF?) He was able – so able – but school for him was war.

CraftyFish, on the other hand, slotted straight into being the fastest runner throwing the most leaves as she led a small posse of girls through 900 activities a day. She’d race in, belt out her work in two minutes flat (almost illegible but 100% correct), and race back out to add another layer of monkey-bar blisters to her hands.

For two years, this was fine. Her wonderful teacher let CraftyFish work at her own pace and level (wherever that might be on any given day) and handled her emotional outbursts with a skill and sensitivity I’m still trying to emulate. But instead of allowing CraftyFish to write stories and then work on corrections, for instance, her next teacher insisted that story-writing came after mastering /ee/ spellings. Way to slam the brakes on, lady!

Meanwhile, the social side was also fraying, as some in her posse began excluding her. Unfortunately this teacher’s skills didn’t extend beyond, “Our rule is kindness, okay? So be kind, please, girls,” which was even less effective than it sounds. (She was new and not adapting well.)

When CraftyFish developed visual migraines from the stress and anxiety, age seven, the writing was on the wall. We battled through another two years (!) because CraftyFish wanted to win back her crown, because I had chronic fatigue and was still desperately hoping they’d go to school so I could get a freaking rest, and because, sigh, my kids’ SAF didn’t come from nowhere.

But when, after five years of solid struggle, I found myself sobbing all the way to the first day of year six, even I had to admit defeat.

That was hard, you know? Really fucking painful. Parents are told, we’re responsible for everything our kids do or don’t do (and when they do it). We’re supposed to control our own destinies, too: set goals, work hard, persist, success, right? I’d been quite good at that, pre-kids. Now I was finally accepting that I couldn’t even get my kids to do the most basic thing (it seemed) every other kid managed – enjoyed – rocked!

And my kids knew it. Having emotional OE up the wazoo meant that by the time we quit, all three of us were pulpy with misery, anxiety, shame, failure, frustration, and whatever the word is for, “what on earth is WRONG with us?!” The Skeptic, who is far more institutionalised than I am, was baffled and frankly terrified as we finally staggered off-piste.

So I’m sorry to say, we didn’t come to homeschooling via lofty principals, cool appraisal, and/or a thoughtful response to our kids’ needs. It was more like one of those old cartoons where the jalopy’s wheels pop off one by one, the chassis ploughs into the mud, springs and bolts fly every which way, and once it’s finally ground to a halt, the doors and bumpers drop off as well. It was pretty much exactly what you don’t want for your family.

Why am I sharing this?

Well, rumour has it that when, after months trapped in the ice, Endurance finally sank in Antarctic waters, Ernest Shackleton said, “Ship and stores are gone, boys, so now we’ll go home.”

That was the chance I had. All that time I’d been learning about our wiring, and about the parent I wanted to be, while still bombing down the same road. Wrecked, we had to spend time repairing our health, our emotions, and our relationships, and reevaluating our values, needs, and goals.

Since then, we have—well, this side of adolescence I won’t risk saying “we’re home”, because any second now the kids will start up heir own jalopies and they’re bound to head down a few wrong roads themselves.

Point is, sometimes we have to crash and burn, to get our own attention. It’s awful and painful, but it is survivable. Modelling self-forgiveness, the process of grief and recovery, learning to change course according to your needs – those are absolutely essential life skills, especially for out-of-the-box kids growing into a world of increasing uncertainty – and crashing out makes you do it. That’s not ‘silver-lining’ BS, btw. It’s your lifeline: kindness and compassion for yourself and your kids is how you survive.

Of course, if you read this as a cautionary tale and change course before the wheels start flying? That’s even better.

What we learned on the road

Wollumbin / Mt Warning, NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

The Skeptic and I both came from families that not only moved countries regularly, but also determinedly exploredwherever we were, so it was perhaps inevitable that as soon as we read this delightful book about a family’s three month round-Australia camping trip, I’d begin planning. Look at that gorgeous Mum, smiling as they shared the experience of a lifetime. I could do that! I figured, when the kids were 6 and 8 – old enough to remember it, wouldn’t miss much school. Perfect. 

Bless my starry-eyed sleep-deprived socks.

I clearly hadn’t yet twigged that the non-stop-talking-and-moving was going to be a permanent feature, one that ramps up if you put a seat-belt on it for any length of time. So while I did know about Crazy Hour, I hadn’t quite realised what that looks like after four hours in a car. I definitely had no inkling just how recalcitrant self-directed my little learners would turn out to be.

Nonetheless we took our first trip just past their 7th and 9th birthdays, driving 3000 kilometres over a fortnight. A masterpiece of planning if I do say so myself, our five destinations through south-east and central Queensland took in the Granite belt, cattle country, coal-mining country, and the coast. We visited sites important to Aboriginal Peoples and a Bushranger’s hideout; we toured an old sapphire mine; saw wild emu, echidna, and platypus (kangaroos and wallabies too common to mention), went whale-watching and gem fossicking. Apart from the unsurprising lesson that we do not do well staying in one room – let alone a tent, my god, what was I thinking?! – the whole thing was undeniably marvellous, start to finish.

Oh, fine, there’s a joey for you, and a humpback whale and yes that’s a real live echidna and an emu running away through long grass. ©careerusinterruptus.com

So when my feet started itching again three years later, we mapped a similar trip in the opposite direction, through northern and central New South Wales. This trip coincided with the 50th moon landing anniversary, so we visited three of Australia’s biggest telescopes and spent an evening at a private observatory where we saw Saturn’s rings. We bathed in a hot spring at night, visited the Western Plains Zoo, a private geological museum, a koala hospital, a settler’s homestead, a ruined colonial prison, and looked out at the Three Sisters, one of Australia’s most iconic vistas.

Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri; the Australian Astronomical telescope, and the Dish. ©careerusinterruptus.com

And there were so many activities we couldn’t fit in – we didn’t pan for gold at Port Macquarie, for instance, or pick cotton near Moree, or go on the scenic railway at Katoomba, nor into the caves at Jenolan – partly because I was trying to be more relaxed (ha). And partly because, sigh, recalcitrant learners let you know when they’re relentlessly refusing to be impressed. (“You’re making me look at rocks. Again. Yay.”)

Meeni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo – the Three Sisters, Katoomba NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

I wouldn’t call it road-schooling, exactly, because while the kids now know the gist of land and industry, I doubt they retained a single ‘fact’. We listened to James Herriott, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, we did no “work”, and nobody’s interest in history or big science was remotely piqued. (“Now you’re making me look at buildings. Again. Yay.”)

What we gained was far less tangible: Enduring regular 40-minute waits where lanes were blocked for repairs on the Newell Highway, with views that mostly looked like this.

scenes from the Newell Highway, NSW. ©careerusinterruptus.com

Discovering that we can sleep three nights in a shipping container with a frog in the toilet and no TV. Or in a tent, with the toilet built into a water tank next door, and overnight temperatures around 5ºC. Sitting in the car by the highway, in rain so hard you can’t see the end of the bonnet, listening to that roar, feeling the car shake as trucks thunder recklessly past. Surviving snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in winter. (Not the same as your winter, true, but still cold enough to make you wonder why on earth we did it.) Watching Mr Pixel’s water bottle bounce and tumble the 200 metres we’d just climbed up Bald Rock, visiting towns with populations smaller than our local high school, being outdoors under a VAST night sky, steering a yacht. Even better, watching the yacht’s captain simply ignore his cut foot bleeding all over the deck while he navigated away from shore (my goodness that blew their minds). We saw the drought up close and listened to third-generation cattle farmers talk about it. Five months later when the disdained landscape was burning, it meant something to them.

Of course, similar experiences could be had from home. We’re ideally positioned here between the Great Dividing Range and a bay full of islands, with rock pools and rainforest, bush and beach, all within an hour. We could and should get out into it, far more than we do.

But it seems to be easier to step outside your comfort zone, when you’re already outside it. Basic physics, I suppose. When your backside is comfortably nestled into its sofa indent, moving it requires an enormous input of energy, and it’s a fact that sofa indents exert a unique gravity. You have to go pretty far to escape its pull.

When your backside indent is 1700kms away, however, you might as well climb the escarpment, even if you’ve never done anything like that before, it’s intimidating, and your shoes rub so much you have to walk almost all three kilometres barefoot. You may as well get on that boat, or in that water, or walk through a gate warning of snakes. You argue less about getting out of bed when it’s not your bed, and you’re more invested in keeping track of your stuff if you know you’ll never see that town again.

For kids who’d prefer never to challenge themselves and never to be uncomfortable, those lessons are truly priceless. It says everything that, last time I was planning a trip I asked my friends to sedate me if I ever thought of doing it again, but two years later here I am, tapping my toes, looking at maps, wondering when the government will figure out this virus business enough to open up borders between the States, and where we’ll go when we do. My eye is on Tasmania.

We resume our regular programming

tap tap, Hey, is this thing on? Can you hear me?

SQUEEERRAANNNGGGG!!!!

Yikes! Sorry! Guess it’s working again, heh. Sorry about that.

Well, much as I’d love to report that this month’s silence was down to us finally winning the lottery and fulfilling our lifelong dream of living on room service in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel while the house is renovated to include a second storey entirely committed to hobby space, the truth is of course more mundane.

I had to move the website to a new host, and even with help that process exceeded both my skillset and my attention span. In the end it was solved through a quick exchange with the host’s marvellous help people, but for most of the past month that was an adulting too far.

It’s “winter” – if you can call it that when we still have mid-20s daytime temps – which means I want to spend all my time out getting dirt under my nails. People more organised than I are already harvesting their autumn planting. But the timber borders were all laying at about 30 degrees from horizontal, so after tearing out cubic meterage of hyacinth bean and sweet potato, we did the whole, digging-holes-and-concreting-in-posts thing and then I spent several happy days laying down manure and lucerne, transferring good sexy compost into garden beds. The avocado tree didn’t survive its transplant although the lime tree, which is only a foot high, started flowering immediately it was moved. I’ve finally got chard and spinach in, plus some optimistic peas, and the chook forage patch is growing: arrowroot, comfrey and Brazilian spinach (Alternanthera sissoo). We are getting 3-4 eggs a day, perfect miracles. I’ve been walking, too, mapping routes up and down all the hills in the neighbourhood, trying to counteract all the hours I seem to be spending behind the wheel at the moment, driving from the centre of Brisbane to its farthest northern reaches on various errands.

Indoors the usual circus continues: the oven joined the list of this year’s deceased appliances, prompting another wild round of over-thinking and spreadsheeting, and I replaced my HP laptop with a Mac so nothing works how I expect – hence the lack of photos for this post. We satisfied Mr Pixel’ yearning for a 3-D printer and all of a sudden my recalcitrant learner is teaching himself TinkerCad, slicing software and a lot of blah blah blah. CraftyFish’s new laptop has choked a few times which hasn’t suited us AT ALL, because she’s started school – there will have to be a whole ‘nother post or three about that – and someone asked exactly the right question leading me to rewrite two key conversations in the fiction MS I thought was finished. I’m really happy about that and very much hope I get my mojo back to, y’know, actually DO the writing.

Instead I have been jamming – a massive batch of sweet chilli sauce, a smaller one of lime and gin marmalade (limes from the neighbour’s prolific tree), and strawberry that hasn’t set and so will be all tipped back in the pot for a bit more boiling this afternoon. The other day I took Mum for a slow walk up the street, and when I gently took her arm because it looked like she was veering into a parked car, she pulled away, deliberately rubbed her cardiganed arm along the length of it, gleefully declared, “I’m dusting it for them!” and then laughed, so, yeah, she’s FINE. (Though Mr Pixel, who accompanied us, may never recover.)

And I’ve been doing an absolute ton of social stuff, both IRL and online, where I’m feeling my way into using my powers for good with a fabulous new friend who lives in Switzerland. (Isn’t that GREAT? Isn’t it AWESOME that we can make these connections and chat in real time with someone 16000kms away, whilst eating dinner and watching back episodes of Would I Lie To You?) (Oh and if you have never watched that show, give it a whirl. If David Mitchell doesn’t remind you of your kid, Lee Mack will.)

Ooh that reminds me, while I was looking for that episode I saw something that reminded me, I bought some gorgeous fabric in an op-shop that I want to make into trousers.

… Poor new friend. She thinks I’m like this because we’re in lockdown. Ah, well. She’ll learn.

Happy Sandwich Day

a stack of plates in different patterns of grey, white, and teals ©careerusinterruptus.com

Here’s what I wrote for Mother’s Day, a couple weeks ago, right before learning that my blog had a fatal error. Turns out, these things don’t fix themselves if you just ignore them, so I am very, very lucky to have a good friend who – in between helping care for her disabled sister and single-handedly caring for her 2e child – is a tech whiz, AND kind enough to come over and sort it out for me. She is the people I’m talking about.

Near catastrophe this week, when my laptop refused to switch on. (Yeah. On top of the website dying.) Black screen of death, no matter what I did. Had to repress a lot of swears, because replacing a barely three-year-old laptop isn’t in my budget. It was the first chilly day of autumn, tipping rain, and all we all wanted was to hunker down in front of our screens. But, knowing what the rest of the week’s schedule was like, I poured the kids into the car and drove a couple suburbs over to the laptop guy, who … turned it off and turned it back on again.

Yep.

It was just sleeping. All I had needed to do was press and hold … which I did, or thought I did, except onetwothreefoursquirrelpress press PRESS DAMMIT STILL NOT WORKING PANIC.

I was a bit stressed, you see. The previous day, I’d woken to three messages from my sister and two from her husband, about Mum. She had an ear infection. My sister had spent her day off waiting 7.5 hours with Mum for the call-out doctor, who’d prescribed both oral and drop antibiotics. The late-night pharmacy didn’t stock the drops, so after brother-in-law delivered the prescription, finding them and getting them into Mum was my job. While I did plan to visit Mum, I also planned to make a cake and take out my friend whose birthday it was, before doing the weekly shop. But my sister kept messaging and eventually phoned to get me moving.

When – cake cooled enough to transport, picnic bag packed, kids in the car, drops purchased, lunch bought – we got to Mum’s, I saw why: the ear canal was swollen shut. No drops could go in. In fact the whole pinna and surrounding area was badly inflamed. Poor Mum. And, EW. And, damn. Exchanging pictures with my sister, we quickly established it was a lot worse, so after a quick lunch, the kids and I took Mum up to emergency (NOT MY HAPPY PLACE).

At least the nurse who saw Mum’s ear immediately gave her some codeine. And at least we have mobile phones, so I could tell my friend why we were cancelling. The kids behaved flawlessly, letting me concentrate on Mum, who wondered how she’d gotten the infection and was frightened of being admitted. Dementia means we circled that conversation for the whole two hours we waited.

Leaving work early, my sister came to take over, while I took the kids back to collect the picnic bag from Mum’s and head to the supermarket, getting home bang on Start Dinner O’Clock. (Because these things only happen when one’s spouse cannot help.) Two hours after we left, the doctor diagnosed Golden Staph (DAMN), gave Mum a steroid for the swelling, and changed the antibiotics. My sister was taking Mum home, cooking her dinner, giving drugs and settling her, while I chivvied my kids through chores and cooked our dinner, finally closing the laptop to watch Lego Masters with them – the first connection time we’d had all day.

It was when I wanted to listen to music while washing up (instead of the now-quite-silly-kids’ dry retching competition), that my laptop didn’t work. Between more messages about Mum I put it to bed, told it to have a good sleep and please please please wake up refreshed.

Which brings us to Wednesday morning and the panicky dash to the guy who knows how to press and hold.

Of course we’re not done – keeping the antibiotics strictly separate from food is too tricky for a dementia patient, and four days on the ear’s still too swollen to get the drops in properly – so for the next two weeks we’ll keep visiting three times a day to help Mum medicate.

This is, ah, how can I put this: Not my idea of fun. I’m not a professional carer like my sister, with 30-plus years of training and experience on top of ‘a calling’. My calling was very much, ‘run awayyyy’, and frankly a tiny bit of me grinds her teeth that, despite my education and ambitions, I have still ended up doing the gruelling, repetitive, boring, icky, unpaid care work that society expects of women (see this for how unconsciously and ‘naturally’ the Sandwich Generation is gendered).

Outsourcing care is complicated, though. Until the industry itself is overhauled, it cannot possibly be as, well, caring. (Ironically, I had to reschedule our first appointment with an agency that might be able to help, who rang while we were in Emergency.) And Mum, who had miserable experiences at boarding school in the ‘40s, would be thoroughly traumatised in a home.

The thing is, hard as I find this stuff, I’m not traumatised—just sometimes stressed enough to temporarily forget how to work my laptop. It’s mostly an opportunity for growth: for taking some deep breaths, shushing the inner three-year-old, and adulting. For talking to my kids and modelling both how we care for the vulnerable and manage our discomfort while we do the hard things. Not doing it would be so much worse.

And to my very great surprise, I’ve discovered that it’s okay. I quite like learning what I’m actually capable of And I am absolutely privileged as hell to be in the trenches with my amazing sister and the millions of other women, caring for their parents or others, alongside their kids. You people are awesome. Happy Sandwich Day.

Getting help is hard

Sunset-streaked clouds above silhouetted tree-tops, with three trees on a hill, on the right side. ©careerusinterruptus.com

About a month ago, someone said something that made me so mad, my head exploded, firing itself halfway to Jupiter before – using a combination of rage-writing, conversations with sensible, trusted friends, and judicious muttering – I managed to decelerate and re-attach.

And do you know who made me so mad?

A psychologist.

Now, I’ll admit, I have a THING about psychologists and psychology. Partly philosophical. (Free tip – don’t raise this topic if I’ve had any alcohol.) Partly from my years doing admin in a university psych department; you see people’s worst when you work for them, and people whose expertise is relationships and communication, are no exception.

I guess some of that resonated, because when this guy blurted out, “Something’s gone wrong here”, all I could think was, “REALLY? All that training, all those years of experience, a PhD, even, for ‘something’s gone WRONG’, in a tone like that repair guy who found a dead toad in the dryer’s exhaust vent, no less?!” It took two weeks to calm down enough to say, I felt judged and shamed.

Annoyingly, he wasn’t completely wrong. However … well, the best analogy I’ve got is this:

photorealistic image of dinosaurs observing an incoming meteor. T Rex’s speech bubble says, “Oh shit! The economy!!” (source)

It’s a valid point, it’s just not the whole point. It wasn’t even close to $200 worth of point – especially since I’d already spent three sessions describing the meteorite and the consequences of its impact. So along with judged and shamed, I felt that I hadn’t been heard, and I felt <head-desk>.

And I had liked this guy. We’d chatted outside the therapy room and got along well. But as a therapist? Like tinfoil and a filling. So along with judged, shamed, unheard, and <head-desk>, I was hugely disappointed.

Because here I am again, without the help I need and – this is the important bit – have been trying, for years, to get.

And that is the reason for my rage: Getting help is hard. It is so. Freaking. Hard.

It’s hard, admitting you’re struggling. It’s hard, admitting you can’t do it yourself. (Cheers, capitalism, and your ‘bootstraps’ BS.) It’s hard, explaining your struggles to whichever authority, insurer or doctor or both, you need to sanction help. It can be hard convincing them, dammit! It’s hard researching who can help. It’s hard finding time/money/energy/childcare, to go see them. It’s hard exposing your struggle to a stranger.

Maybe they’re a good fit.

Or, maybe, they say something like, “Reward chart!”

Or, “If only we still committed these children to hospital for a few weeks like we did back when I was training, that sorted them right out.”

Or, “I cannot talk to your child until they have [novel alternate therapy] which is explained in this book, which I co-wrote with [city’s only novel alternate therapy practitioner] and is only $25.”

Friends, I wish I was making those up.

I am not.

Maybe you see them several times before working out it’s not a good fit, like this psychologist. In which case, you’re down hundreds of dollars – as well as judged, shamed, unheard, <head-desk>, and disappointed. (Quiet, gut, I know you warned me.)

Look. I know, as a certified smarty-pants, I’m often impatient with people not seeing what I do. When they’re smart and/or educated, though, I worry: Am I over-complicating things? Am I expecting too much?

I also know that I can be, let’s say…touchy. Knowing how far I fail my own expectations is painful; feeling judged kicks that into hyperdrive. And more worrying: Am I being too sensitive?

And – given I liked him, he’s smart, and had a semi-valid point – am I being too defensive?

That’s where the sensible, trusted friends come in. It is complicated, I’m not too sensitive, I’m not overly defensive, I’m right to expect respectful tone and language. Phew.

(Finding trusted, sensible friends, can be hard, too.)

Go through all that a few times, with a range of ‘helpers’, it can be very, very hard to pick yourself up and ask again. It can be hard to feel you’ll ever find someone who sees the whole picture, respects your understanding, shares your values, and who can support changes, kindly and gently enough that you don’t feel judged. It can be REALLY hard, or even impossible, to throw more money at it.

And yet, when your kid is struggling – or when you’re struggling together – it’s what you do, right? Whether the issue is physical, wiring, emotional, or a complicated mix of all three, you just keep getting up off the mat, parking yourself in front of a search engine or a community, and asking for help. It’s out there. It’s just hard, finding it. So bloody hard.

Lightening the Load

I’ve missed a couple of posts because The Skeptic and I have been in a strange, time-melt vortex known as, The Garage.

Twelve years ago, when we moved into this house, the Skeptic’s mum whooped with joy at being able to reclaim her spare bedroom. She promptly brought over 872 cubic metres of hubby’s old sci-fi paperbacks, his collection of Look-and-Learn magazine from 1983, his board games, and all his university textbooks.

My mum brought all my childhood stuff that she’d kept, waiting to pass on to the grandkids I was so late in having: My ducky pyjamas, Mickey Mouse bedspread, Bunnykins mug, first doll.

And, we retrieved the stuff we’d stored when we went overseas. Out came about five hundred framed movie and art prints, a non-fiction collection worthy of a small university library, our cassettes, VHS tapes, and vinyl.

Then, the stuff we’d shipped home from the UK arrived: Nine years’ worth of PhD and teaching books and papers, printed photographs from all our international adventures, some of the Skeptic’s professional and higher degree work.

Within four months CraftyFish had also arrived, just in time for her brother’s second birthday.

Do you know what babies and birthdays attract? STUFF.

And you know where all the stuff goes, when it’s broken, outgrown, unwanted (or – more likely, in our case – broken, outgrown, and still desperately wanted), and/or mama just can’t deal? That’s right: THE GARAGE.

It’s a two-car garage, but the car hasn’t fitted inside for years. I loathe that, especially every day in summer when my car’s interior temperature is roughly the same as earth’s core. But, it was such a mammoth, horrible job, we simply couldn’t face it. There were enough challenges in the main body of the house, TYVM.

But, I’m slowly getting better, physically and mentally. And the car thing is really confronting. So I made a ruling: Easter weekend, we were emptying the garage and only replacing what we really really want. People, I made us miss The Skeptic’s mother’s roast lamb, that’s how serious I was.

It rained incessantly. There was no morning, afternoon, or evening, just a strange, long, grey twilight swim through the past: my primary-school records. Screw-back earrings from when Mum wouldn’t let me pierce my ears. Giant sparkly earrings from when I finally did pierce them. My first attempt at a novel, written during Senior. (Yikes.) My flute, for fuck sake. Pointe shoes from when I did ballet. A strapless, foofy dress from when I wore strapless, foofy dresses and had places to go in them. The soft German leather jeans from when I just really really wanted leather jeans, even though the cut didn’t suit (I know, I know, stop sniggering). The Warner Bros. Studio Animation jacket my sister traded for, when I was writing animation theory. Posters from Denmark, Canada, Wales. The spear-head my dad got in the Congo; a copy of his funeral service. Cards we received for our wedding; the seating arrangement. The cot. A crate full of baby things. Several crates full of CraftyFish’s artistic creations. Mr Pixel’s size 2 skates, worn once. His size 3 skates, worn twice. A 9000-piece jigsaw the Skeptic and I started in 1998.

And all the garbage: dozens of unmatched plastic containers and lids, a trailer full of electronic waste, a bag of lonely socks, moth-eaten blankets.

And, perhaps worse, the semi-garbage: the stuff for One Day. The might-be-useful, the Future Projects. Jars. Bags of all descriptions. Scrap timber. Old drawer-rails, pretty fabric. Cardboard boxes, enough to make one wonder if the bloody things are reproducing.

It was exhausting, physically and emotionally. Everything was so damn heavy. All that potential; all those past, ghostly selves; all that meaning. This is, of course, one of the hallmarks of hoarding disorder – and I suspect, something us gifties with both emotional and sensory over-excitabilities, are especially prone to. EVERYTHING is meaningful, and that lights up all kinds of emotional centres in our brains. Making rational decisions about what is actually important, is bloody difficult.

But as we progressed, I realised that the meaning I’d attached to things from my past had grown … insubstantial. I’ve worked hard to be here, now, with these kids, this husband, this mother, this body, and a consequence of that is that other times weigh less. The successes and failures, the people we’ve known and forgotten, things we’ve done or hoped to do, are all equally immaterial, now. I miss Dad the same, with or without his necktie. I don’t miss the girl who won that award, or the one who wore size 10 frocks.

I used to think, it was important to keep this stuff. Meaningful things help us construct our selves. But it turns out, just as future you is a stranger, so is past you. Past you did one important thing – bringing you here – and the more grounded you are in the now, the less you need those souvenirs. Similarly, the best gift you can give future you, is freedom. Not just from stuff and its emotional freight, but also from expectation.

So far, we’ve made three trips to charity shops and two to the tip, and we’re not done, yet. We’re joking a lot about feeling spiritually lighter. I don’t know about that; I’m too tired. But I think future me is smiling. She’s anticipating having a cool car.

The pitfalls of kitchen diagnoses

Photograp of a remarkably triangular hole in grey stone, filled with water, reflecting trees and sky ©careerusinterruptus

Mr Pixel got diagnosed again this week. Twice.

I’ve lost track of how many times he’s been diagnosed, largely because I’ve never paid anyone to do it.

Instead all his diagnoses have come gratis, courtesy of friends and acquaintances, in parks, school, living rooms, and kitchens. Some people have spent up to ten minutes chatting with my son; some didn’t talk to him at all. They just looked.

None of them are, you know, qualified. In lieu of degrees and professional specialisation, they have their own quirky kids – and often indeed, their own quirks – and what they diagnose is invariably behaviour they recognise.

That’s not entirely unreasonable. After all, it’s usually behaviour that catches the parent’s eye, and in the first instance that’s what we’d describe to a professional. But the professional delves deeper, looking for patterns. These patterns don’t depend on one presenting trait. They are found through testing: dozens of questions, carefully analysed through the lens of statistics and the specialist’s years of training and experience.

Please note: I am NOT saying that specialists always get it right. Of course they don’t; they have their own biases and blind spots, just like the rest of us. In my experience specialists tend to have the same problem as the bloke with the hammer: they’re excellent at finding nails, and if the issue lacks a flat top, and also happens to have wings, well heck. They’ll ignore those fiddly details and bash away anyhow. Even so, I tend to think they’re more likely to get it right than Playground Mom.

Because besides the sheer amount of time they’ll spend figuring out your kid, the reason you need an expert – someone who does precisely this, all day, every day, for years – is that a bunch of different conditions can cause behaviour that, on the face of it, looks the same.

As one friend put it, “Gifted + anxiety looks like an awful lot of stuff. Add trauma and it’s anyone’s guess what’s really going on.”

Mr Pixel ticks all three of those boxes (gifted, anxiety, trauma) but – and this is key – you wouldn’t know that unless you were thoroughly versed in his entire history, had read lots about each specific thing he’s been through, and you’d spent enormous amounts of time shifting the puzzle pieces about, trying to get a clear picture. And you were really, really, strongly invested in helping him understand himself. Like if you were, say, his Mum.

Like his Mum has, in fact, done, for the past eight years, ever since a kindy teacher commented on his rearrangement of two coloured blocks in a wall. Mr Pixel – who at that age wanted to be a policeman because he loved the lights and the checks – just thought it looked better, but she saw it as “very mathematical” and thus, “quirky”, adding, “Not enough to get a diagnosis, mind.” And this was before the trauma kicked in, before there was anything remotely concerning, or confusing, to me.

It’s undermining, though, when someone says something like that. I want to do right by my kid, and if there are accommodations that should be enplaced, I want to know about them, right? Plus, over-thinking. Mr Pixel’s anxiety didn’t come from nowhere. So every time someone ‘diagnoses’ him, back down the rabbit-holes I plunge, wondering whether I missed something the first 1,487 times.

And every time, I come up empty-handed, because the things I know about (gifted, anxiety, trauma)—yep, they still seem to cover everything. Then I get a little mad, because I’ve wasted time and precious scarce energy, and because someone implying that in a short observation they can see things I can’t, is pretty insulting, when you think about it.

And then I get anxious, because I could still be wrong (or kidding myself), even though 1,4878 searches, and even though people who know Mr Pixel really well and spend a lot of time with him each week, don’t see what others somehow manage to discern, in five or ten minutes.

And then I get sad, because I feel that neither my kid nor I are being fully, truly seen.

And then I get a bit more sad, because when these diagnoses come from people who have heard but either forgotten or dismissed large parts of our story, I don’t feel heard, either.

I know how easy and tempting it is, to share your hard-won knowledge. I’ve done it myself. A couple of times when I’ve felt friends kids’ diagnoses were missing the (to me, obvious) gifted aspect, I’ve jumped in with my two cents’ worth, pointing out the similarities between their kid and mine, and the little I understand about the ways in which misdiagnosis can occur, all super keen and helpful-like.

The question is, if you don’t know the whole story, if you don’t know the child really well, if you haven’t listened long and hard, and above all, if the parent didn’t ask for your considered opinion, who is your diagnosis helping?

Being the tree: Emotional OE is my superpower

I confess: I’ve already fallen off the shower bus.

It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t be arsed; I just kinda forgot showers were a thing. Sure, in the middle of summer here in the sub-tropics, you’d think showers were THE thing, but apparently there’s nothing that can’t slip off the list, if enough other things come along. And I’m so fucking tired.

I mean, it did kinda bother me that I’m this tired, when ‘all’ I do is a bit of homeschool (irregularly; badly), a bit of housework (ditto), and look after Mum three or four times a week. Many women do far more. Heck, my sister keeps in close touch with her adult children, keeps house immaculately, does Mum’s shopping, cooking, medicals, and spends more time with her, as well as working. SHE showers.

Of course, I also have a hefty mental load. Even with our slapdash approach to schooling, someone is always in my ear, talking about cow snake morphs, rapping, or wanting to start a blog. That occupies bandwidth along with figuring out what’s for dinner every night and making sure we have ingredients, knowing what time their piano lesson is, remembering when school holidays are, and that the cat’s nearly out of food.

But that’s still, all kind of normal, right? It’s what women do, otherwise there wouldn’t be articles like this. And this. And, this.

But that last piece did something that bugged me, that you often see in stories about invisible labour: ignoring (or ignorant of) the term’s origins, Hartley uses ‘emotional labour’ to describe the process of finding a cleaner.

Which, okay, it can be, especially if you’re ADHD, socially anxious, bone-sappingly tired, or ashamed of needing someone else to clean your house. She wasn’t talking about that, though. In fact she wasn’t talking at all about what I think of as emotional labour, which is the heavy lifting you do all day, every day, when someone, or everyone, in the house, has emotional over-excitability.

The flare of excitement today when we saw our first Red Triangle slug in the gutter where we’d parked; the urgency of looking it up. So big! So white! Such strange markings!

The huge tension when we tried (and failed) to rescue the slug, because left there the poor thing wasn’t safe.

The several reassurances that I’d back up to leave, rather than drive forward and ‘murder’ the slug.

The processing, afterwards. Curiosity, made-up explanatory stories, worry.

For everything, all the time.

So Nana’s diabetes diagnosis isn’t just about the extra mental load of figuring out her new diet; it’s also conversations about death and care and making the most of the time we have left, when I’d really rather hide in my room, processing alone.

Getting someone to do some math is not just about figuring out what they have to do and finding resources; it’s also about coaching them through the anxiety about doing it and, simultaneously, the anxiety about the consequences if they don’t—whilst keeping my own anxiety/frustration at bay.

Now apply that last para to teeth-brushing, housework, pet care, showers, projects, bedtime, going out, staying in, and any purchases anyone might wish to make.

A highly sensitive, highly anxious kid needing a tooth pulled? That took four months of talk, to get them through the door. FOUR MONTHS. And then two days’ processing afterwards.

Calmly identifying sources of conflict, coaching people to communicate their needs respectfully, translating offenses taken, accusations, or refusals for those whose words fail them – when it’s been TWELVE YEARS, dear gods why are we not there already?! – that’s emotional labour.

Keeping an eye out for the quicksand, negotiating around it, or being the tree someone grabs onto to haul themselves out – that’s emotional labour.

Holding myself firm in this moment, wilfully forgetting what should happen, or could happen based on what did happen last week, or, god forbid, what I WANT to happen, and above all, not losing my shit when it’s midnight and we’ve been at it for two hours already – THAT’S emotional labour.

That is what I do all day, and that is why I am so fucking tired.

(Rather wonderfully, when I messaged Dr Christiane Wells to ensure I understood emotional over-excitability, she replied, “Dabrowski wrote about fatigue as associated with having OE, and that’s something that’s not well-known – it’s something you see in his early work in Polish. Being ‘emotionally exhausted’ is something that happens in people with emotional OE.”)

So that’s it: a solid, bona-fide reason for this thumping, colossal, astronomical fatigue, because this work is not optional. It’s constant, it’s exhausting, and while I’m no master, I am – yeah. I’m gonna say it: I’m actually, pretty bloody good at it.

The nice thing is, if you’ve read this far and you have any inkling what I’m on about – any inkling whatsoever? Then you’re good at it, too.

The voices are back!

Just before Christmas, we had three nights away in a little rural town up the coast. Dairy, rainforest, mountains. Also, artists, craftspeople, artisanal cheese. We stayed in an elevated house with white everything, no clutter, no dust, air conditioning, and a view. Bliss.

And unlike every other holiday, I announced that I was having one, too. We ate takeout and you know what I did? I sat on my backside, on the sofa, plotting my next book.

I’d written quite a lot, you see, and although I knew exactly where we were going, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get there. With all these distractions, it’s easy to write round Robin Hood’s barn. Which, while entertaining for me, is probably less so for readers, and not a terribly efficient process. I need a map so that whenever I find a scrap of writing time, I know exactly where I am and what to do. By the time we came home, I had it: a breakdown of everything that has to happen in each chapter, and the first five chapters, trimmed and shaped. Ready to go!

But, ah jeez. 2021.

This week, our GP sent Mr Pixel to a dietitian who thinks his chronic health problems are down to a long-undiagnosed food intolerance and has ordered him to quit dairy. Clearly she’s never met a teenage boy before, let alone a neurodiverse one, and has no inkling what it will take to separate him from his cheese. Once I get him out of Fort Not Gonna, that is.

In the same week, Mum began reporting severe headaches, and can I just say this is NOT what you want to hear from an 85yo who has already had two small strokes?

Fortunately, it’s not her brain, it’s just diabetes. (!) Complicating matters – because why would anything be straight? – Mum is on a strict low-fibre diet. Do my sister and I have the knowledge and headspace to figure out a diet for diabetes + low fibre + dementia + congenital stubbornness? DO WE HELL. We can manage half that, but we need help. Cue much research, because even finding someone to be a useful part of the team takes a hella lot of work.

And this is after February, which was after January, both of which seem, bizarrely, to still be happening.

Wanna guess how much fiction writing I’ve done this year?

Zip.

Turns out that therapeutic as writing is, you need a certain amount of freeboard to do it, and I didn’t have it.

All I have is implosions and explosions, coaxing, cajoling, coaching, guiding, reminding, feeding, and reading. So much reading. Apparently 2021 is the parenting Olympics here and I’m in every goddamn event. Can’t hear the voices when you’re racing to the next meltdown.

But a wonderful thing happened. I reached out to a friend. One of those miraculous friends who lives in my computer and yet somehow gets it, all of it, every last speck, one of the unalloyed blessings of this chaotic age. She was in a similar pit, so we raised virtual martinis to the crap, and then we started constructing our ladders. Two things, she said, that we can do for ourselves, for a week. Three days, I said; I didn’t think I had a week in me. Deal, she said.

My things were doing my physio exercises, and making sure I showered.

Yep. That’s where the bar was.

But the saving grace of being in a pit is that any step, no matter how small, takes you in the right direction.

As it happens, I didn’t manage to do my exercises and shower for three days.

But I did enough to feel better, both physically and morale-wise. When my friend said she could go another three days, I signed up. Did a bit more. Felt a bit better. Got up the next day and did that all again. Had a sweeter interaction with my kid, chipped a notch off his anxiety. Slipped back a step. Gritted my teeth, had a shower. Did it again. Found I had the energy to start making salads.

And suddenly, the voices were back. My characters talked themselves through the impasse; the chapter was done in about two days. So that’s six in the can; 21 to go. Chapter 7 is one that’s already written and just needs the front end trimmed, chapter 8 … well, let’s not get too excited.

It won’t be straight up from here, of course. It never is. But at 51 I’m still surprised by how little it takes, to give yourself some leverage. Every time you take that first step, it gets a little easier. And every time you keep going, that bit gets easier, too.

Especially if you have a friend doing it with you, even from the other side of the planet.