Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Important Role of Grandparents

I remember the glory days of our kids’ early childhood: the Christmas that Nana and Pa presented two-year-old Justine with a giant fluffy bear bigger than herself; the birthday they gave her the bicycle with trainer wheels; the time Pa wrapped his arms around six-year-old Daniel and taught him how to swing a golf club and how they tinkered in the shed together.

Then when Justine started school and we were working late, she would stay with Nana and Pa every afternoon and Nana would make her a ‘happy plate’ and she would sit on Pa’s lap for a story or they’d giggle together at the cartoons. The reliable ritual was a refuge in her little life. There was no place safer and more fun than Nana and Pa’s cosy lounge room.

Grandparents play an important role in the lives of children. They offer an additional buffer zone of adult security, affection and attention. When Mum and Dad are tired and cranky and nagging about cleaning up your room, Nana and Pa are soft as butter and just melt at the sight of your cute little face.

Most older people have reached a stage of life where they have the patience and time to play games and go places. We can do the things we were too busy to do with our own kids.

Grandparents and great grandparents give children a link to another generation; a sense of their family history; a perspective of the past and a concept of the continuity of life; a respect for old age.

Pressured young parents are also fortunate if they have the support of their own parents who willingly lend a hand with babysitting and share in the pleasures and delights of their children.

It is sad for children who miss out on having loving grandparents actively participate in their lives. As experienced adults we can have a positive input into kids’ character formation; role-modeling valuable skills and qualities.

My own kids would certainly not be the well-rounded, confident, successful adults they are without the influence of their Nana and Pa in their formative years.

Likewise, it is sad for grandparents who pass up involvement with their grand kids, preferring immersion in their own interests, because children can bring an enriching dimension to the later years.

And the tragedy for many grandparents and kids is losing that precious relationship when parents divorce. I believe that loving grandparents have a right to continue a relationship with their grandchildren even after family breakdown.

And this right has finally been recognised in the UK. Since March 2011 grandparents have been granted the legal right to maintain contact with their grandchildren after a family breakdown or divorce.

Of course just as not all parents are good for kids, not all grandparents are a positive influence. Some grandparents become caught up in taking sides in a marriage break-up and get into kids’ ears, bad mouthing the other parent.

It’s important for grandparents to stay neutral in the battle zone and simply provide a refuge. Confused kids will benefit from the stability they offer.

Parents, and society generally, must value grandparents and respect, protect and encourage the important and vitally enriching relationship between the grandparents and their grandkids.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mums and Daughters, a Bond to Cherish

This journalist made a great discovery. Lying in my hospital bed the day after giving birth, gazing down at the baby on my breast, I thought,
"Motherhood is the great­est news story of all time and I'm going to tell it."

That was the literary birth of Family Matters, which I wrote for 10 years during Justine’s growing up.

In my first newspaper column, I wrote with all my heart about the in­credible experience of giving birth, the falling in love, the passionate bonding and fierce protectiveness you feel for this beautiful baby.

I really wanted a girl. With a seven and a half year old son, I knew what it was to be im­mersed in boy's stuff and a part of me longed for a daughter as a confirmation of myself. What a thrill it was to have a girl! I felt so blessed. Relationships be­tween father-daughter, father-son, mother-son and mother-daughter have their unique nature.

And the child's relationship with the same sex parent is usually the most intense. A little girl growing up needs her mother with all her being. She never gets enough of her attention, approval and adoration. She is insatiable.

A girl sees herself through her mother's eyes. She forms her identity and self-image on what is reflected there; unconditional love or rejec­tion? Copying mummy starts at a very early age. It is quite unnerving to witness your three-year-old dressing up to look exactly like you!

Justine, now seven, wears her fine blonde hair long like me and loves to wear make-up, jewellery, heels and mummy­-style suits and espe­cially likes to carry her brief­case and mobile phone!

What a daunting respon­sibility this role-modelling business is! I am so aware of how much detail she absorbs about me and how I am form­ing her concept of womanhood for the future. I want to give her positive messages that she can be whatever she wants to be!

If identity is formed through a mother's eyes, in­securities are formed through a mother's sharp tongue! I am painfully aware of the importance of communication skills with children. Criticism, put-downs and sarcasm crush self-esteem in children who believe that every word that comes out of parents' mouths is gospel.

If mum says to her daugh­ter "You're silly, lazy, clum­sy, hopeless, a hussy, a smar­tie pants etc" well she believes it. Disparaging words become life-long labels. Often times, such negative words are shorthand for "I'm feeling tired and would real­ly appreciate your help." But a child can't read between the lines. They just get stung and wounded.

As for a little girl's feel­ings, let her have her tan­trums and moods and crush­es and spats without making her wrong. I have found that emotional expression is a basic human need. It keeps us healthy and problems are resolved in the clarity of that release.

As mums we need to lis­ten, respect and validate our kids and resist the tempta­tion to preach and lecture; having the courage to allow the growing child to form her own ideas and values, based on our clear example and intelligent discussion of issues. Sexuality is a major responsibility. Mothers please discuss sexuality and relationships with your daughters.

I believe there are three keys to a teenage girl taking control of her sexuality and having the self-respect to be discerning; that is know­ledge, healthy self-esteem and boundaries and a lov­ing relationship with her mother and father.

She won't go desperately looking for love from an as­sortment of guys if she's get­ting affection, nurturing and support within the home.

And finally there's the cruellest cut of all for mums who cherish their daugh­ters; the art of letting go. Mothers have to allow their daughters to grow up and blossom into young women. It is the natural pro­cess of individuation to be gently assisted, not resisted.

Releasing the beautiful young woman to make her way in the adult world can be extremely painful for both parents. But if you love her you'll let her go and let her grow. And you will replace the parent-child relation­ship with an equal,­ adult friendship.

Mothers and daughters. The bond is intense and the relationship is a precious gift for life.

Dads are Role Models and Fun Guys

Although a baby will at first bond with mother, within a few months the infant discovers the other key person in its life. For the baby and toddler at home all day with mum, dad's appearance on the scene is an exciting novelty and he comes to repre­sent the outside world.

From an early age, while mum delivers the sustenance, nurturing and emotional reas­surance, dad is a figure of action. He's the one who plays the rough and tumble games and develops a little one's confi­dence and sense of adventure.

When we were living in the bush, Andrew would prop our six-month-old son in a rickety old wheelbarrow and charge down to the wood pile in a hair-raising ride, as the baby squealed and giggled with delight. Who else but a dad would do such a crazy thing!

Little girls rely on dad for their sense of attractiveness; flirting outrageously with dad­dy and competing with mummy for his attention. When I was about five, I would ballet dance in front of the old black and white telly, blocking the fam­ily's view of The Sunny Side Up Show. Convinced I was as pret­ty as those grown-up dancers, I desperately sought daddy's smile of approval. A little girl's relationship with her dad will determine her future relation­ships with men.

Little boys role model like mad on their hero dads. It is vitally important for father and son to DO things together. Their relationship is not based on talk but on learning how to function in the world; learn­ing skills and gaining a sense of competence.

Fixing things around the house, playing sport, going on camping and fishing trips ... these are the age-old activities through which a healthy father-son bond is formed.

Yet with the onset of adoles­cence, the boy will need to break away from dad and confront and challenge him in order to establish his independence and manhood.

While tribal rituals celebrate the passage into man­hood, the break-away is often painful in our western culture, maybe even marked by a vi­cious argument.

In therapy groups, adults ex­ploring their childhoods often discover it is not so much what father does as what he fails to do which affects them in later life. The absent father can deeply scar the psyche of children who spend their adult lives driven by the need for the approval, acknowledgement, attention and affection they didn't get from dad.

The workaholic dad who be­lieves he is doing the right thing for his family is bewildered when the kids grow up and ac­cuse him of neglect. He has been cheated by society's lie about a father's role.

Thankfully the Absent Father Syndrome is changing as devoted dads take an active role. Every morning, just as many dads as mums take their turn at dropping off their toddlers at childcare. It is a de­light to see stocky tradesmen in stubbies juggle dolls and lunch­boxes as they fuss over their little treasures.

The positive trend is for fathers to broaden their self-image and realise that to be affectionate, involved and avail­able to their children is not emasculating. It enriches their experience of being a man.

Big Beautiful Ben

No collection of pet stories would be complete without a tribute to our loveable, cream Labrador Ben.

Ben entered our lives when we lived in coastal Torquay as an ador­able puppy still growing into his skin; a seventh birthday present for Daniel, presented to him ceremo­niously at Melbourne Airport, smug­gled past the authorities wearing a big bright green bow, when young Dan was returning from yet another solo sojourn to visit nana and pa in Queensland.

Ben has been the light of our lives for six years. He has the irresist­ible charm and stun­ning good looks of a noble polar bear crossed with a cute harp seal and he uses it flagrantly to his advantage.

When those huge brown eyes look up at you from beneath a furrowed brow, what­ever he wants he gets; be that the crunchiest bit of your toast, your chocolate biscuit, a hunk of choice steak from the barbecue or a big hug and wet kiss.

Ben is impossible to offend. You can growl at him for laying across the doorway and re­fusing to budge, pa­rading around with your best shoe locked in his jaws or licking the suntan oil off your legs. But he never skulks off to sulk with feigned hurt; he just rebounds with his gums peeled back into a huge smile and his furry bum wagging. Our Ben has a face like it's Christ­mas every day of the week.

Ben has survived a savage dog fight in which his left ear was almost ripped off and had to be stitched extensively and his handsome head shaved. But the worse indignity was wear­ing a red bucket on his head to stop him scratching the wound.

He has also survived cross-country journeys to visit my parents, across the high­way and through the creek and bush. He arrives, panting and muddy and proud, and padding around in circles switches on their automatic out­side sensory light in the middle of the night! Much to my parents' surprise!

Where would a family be without a dog? Your sun lounge wouldn't stink, your patio wouldn't be cov­ered in dog hair and your sweet little daisy bush wouldn't shrivel and die from canine whiss. You wouldn't have to be embar­rassed when he greets guests with a barking frenzy and leaps and slobbers all over their new pants.

But you would never know the fun of frolicking with him on the beach or the com­fort and having him lie, ever-faithful, at your feet in the home office. As you reach down to rub his tummy, he groans with content­ment and looks up at you with love lights in his eyes.

The Strange Life of Harmony

Daniel was four when we adopted Harmony. His formal name was Harmonious T Puss but we shortened it simply to Harms as in Keep Out of Harm’s Way. Apt for an accident-prone cat. This feline was a phe­nomenon with a bizarre and co­lourful background.

I fancied a Persian but lacked the funds so resorted to a classified for a "half Persian" for just $15. It was only after I agreed to take the pathetic scrap of beige and white fluff and handed over the grand sum that the true story unfolded of this unfortu­nate little kitten's entry into the world.

Mum Cat was in­deed a pedigree Persian with a mass of long, brindle fur which so impressed the neighbour­hood gang, they kidnapped (or catnapped) her and shaved her to resemble a lion; with a mane and tuft at the end of her tail.

As if that wasn't indignity enough, when restored to the distraught owners, it soon be­came apparent that the lion-cat was pregnant; the paternity of which was extremely dubious!

The owner took pregnant lion-cat to the vet who administered abortive medication but to ev­eryone's surprise the unwel­come pregnancy continued. And, yep, you guessed right, it resulted in a motley litter of which poor Harmony was one.

It was in fact, this most trau­matic in-utero experience which, we suspect, caused Har­mony's brain damage. Yes Harms, in quaint collo­quial terms, was a brick short of the load, a sandwiche short of the picnic basket, a kangaroo missing in the top paddock!

So much for the top end, Har­mony's other end also suffered. So eager was this failed breeder to dispose of the defec­tive offspring, she hastened weaning and introduced meat to fatten him up!

It was after three days of a clean kitty tray that it dawned on me that our odd little kitten was somewhat bound up. The vet declared it was the worse case of constipation he had ever seen in his entire career!

We figured Harmony had en­dured enough in his brief life and we resolved to cure him no matter what it took. We massaged his little tum­my and dosed him with castor oil until the fateful day of pass­ing and Harmony's sweet relief.

Harmony spent his life as a simpleton puss dozing in the sun all day and getting beaten up by bullying Toms at night.

He embarrassed us by squat­ting on guests' laps, jutting out his chin and drooling buckets of saliva while kneading and suck­ing on the best shirt in blissful regression. We presumed this was to compensate for his sudden weaning.

But really it was a great com­fort having this dopey feline around because he was truly harmonious, always calm and tranquil in the face of any do­mestic drama, even if he was not the smartest cat in town.

The way Harmony departed our lives was very fit­ting really. Andrew and I went away for the weekend and my mother, minding the house, mistakenly locked his entry window. He got confused and never came home again. God bless Harmy, wherever his simple little soul may be.

Exchanging The Rat

It all started when we woke up to discover Ben dripping blood all over the decking. The ageing Lab, oblivious to his limitations, had been in a stoush with the brutish, brawling hound up the street. And there it was: two deep punctures in his leg and a chunk out of his ear.

A trip to the vet and poor Ben returns sprouting tubes in all directions with a truckload of antibiotics the size of golf balls.

As if that wasn't enough animal drama for one week, Charlotte the feline was due to get her little job done.

Andrew collect­ed the groggy beast that afternoon and when I got home and opened the laundry door to see the patient, I was somewhat puzzled. Sure she had the same unmistakable grey and white and ginger ­speckled coat but she was suspiciously larger with dif­ferent colour eyes. And when she let out a demure little meow I knew for sure it wasn't Charlotte the squawker.

Now Justine was insistent this was indeed her cat, the real McCoy, reasoning bravely that she had just "spread out" with the opera­tion. But big brother Daniel issued his verdict when he declared loudly: "Whose cat is that?" followed by maca­bre speculation that the real Charlotte had been acciden­tally killed on the operating table and stealthily re­placed.

Final confirmation came when the placid puss wob­bled forth and caught sight of Ben festooned with tubes and arched her back and hissed as startled cats are wont to do. Why only the day before the pair had been smooching up together.

That was it. The imposter was going back. At the Vets, waiting anxiously for their beloved moggy, was an elder­ly couple who had put in a fretful night wondering why their Cocoa had sud­denly shrunk and was behaving rather badly like ­meowing its head off, jump­ing on benches and stealing food and climbing the fly­screens; all this just hours after an operation which would have left lesser crea­tures somewhat subdued.

The exchange was made and we reluctantly got back our little Charlotte, alias The Rat, with a nagging thought that maybe we would have been better off keeping the sweet-natured Cocoa.

I don't know what it is about our family but we have a knack for creating neurotic cats. First there was Harmony with his habit of drooling buckets of saliva over dinner guests and staring vacantly into space due to brain dam­age.

Harmony, who wandered off into the sunset when his favourite window was acci­dentally closed, was fol­lowed by Zoe, the Himalyan Persian furbag who did its business in all the wrong places just to spite us for not giving it enough attention; that being, stroking her luxu­riant fleece 24 hours a day. She went to a devoted new owner who had the time and inclination to pamper and lavish her with the attention Zoe felt she so richly de­served.

And then came... The Rat. I like a spunky cat but really, scurrying up the lattice like a demented rodent then falling three metres onto its back is a bit of a nuisance, especially when all the time I'm standing there with a paintbrush painstakingly painting every bit of these lattice panels and running short on patience for such silly antics!

From Pet Madness to Home Renovator hi jinx. We courageously or stupidly, take your pick, opted to do the paving around the new pool ourselves. These past weekends have seen the normally deskbound Andrew on the end of a whacker packer compressing 55 square metres of crusher dust and vibrating his way into the Fruit Tingle Man with his fillings rattling around his head.

Next weekend we plan to lay the pavers. And what fun that will be for the whole family! "Hey kids, I've come up with an exciting activity. It's just like Legos, only the pieces are bigger and there's more of them!" I'm only hop­ing that the family that paves together, stays togeth­er.

Catastrophes of the Pet Kind

Is it really safe to take a break from work and potter around the house? The catastrophes that unfold! Yikes! There I was cleaning the bird's cage, shaking the old seed into the garden, when Buddy the budgie from Buderim slid through the slot and winged his way to freedom.

I must confess I was secretly happy for him because I had been so depressed seeing this hapless little creature of flight imprisoned in a cage. Let's face it, he was depressed. Hunched sullenly on his perch facing the wall and jumping with fright if someone came near him. And when I tried to handle him he just sunk his beak into my finger until a big white welt appeared and I was screaming in pain. I don't think he liked me and quite frankly he was a flop as a pet! (No offence to budgie lovers.)

The wail went up. Justine was weeping and howling and thrashing all over her bed. "I want my budgie back. I want my budgie back. Now I've got no pets and Daniel's got two. It isn't fair. I suppose I'll just have to feed the cage.....I want a kitten....I want a kitten."

Well how could I disagree? A little girl can cuddle and smooch a soft little kitten. She can tickle its tummy and tease it with balls and string and wrap it in dolly blankets and mother it. But after the traumatic experience with Zoe, the highly-strung, attention-seeking pedigree Persian with extremely unaristocratic habits, we were somewhat put off cats, well at least pedigrees.

"Maybe we could try a plain old moggy, Andrew." I pleaded, when Justine's sobs had subsided. And so it was we found ourselves at the Animal Refuge that same afternoon, squatting among dozens of squawking kittens vying for a new home. We drove away with a pretty little grey with sprinkles of white and ginger purring smugly and Justine as content as a new mum. So far so good. Charlotte is a placid, peaceful puss with no signs of neurosis.

As if the new fur ball wasn't enough in the way of a new addition, the very next day Daniel picked up his electric guitar and amp, which he saved for from his holiday job at Maccas. I can tell you it’s got a GREEEAAAT sound, which seems to go on for hours.

We think we're suffering a bad case of deja vu listening to riffs from Wild Thing, Sunshine of my Love, Stairway to Heaven, Smoke on the Water and Beatles classics. Reminds Andrew of when he was the same age with his first guitar and garage thrash band. Life turns full circle.

Other strange things happen while at home on holiday. Like my brother-in-law comes to stay and plugs in his hairdryer and blows a fuse. The computers crash and even the hot water system goes down. A fact we discover when Jussy declares that the water for her bath is in fact freezing.

The only thing scarier is tackling the kitchen drawers. You’re familiar with the obligatory junk drawer that gets jammed with old lunch bags, candles, screwdrivers, wood glue, satay sticks, light globes; a catastrophe in its own right and another really fun way to spend a holiday but only after you’ve conquered the laundry cupboard full of old cleaning products. Yikes. Why do I get all the good jobs?

Such domestic challenges prepared me for my new home exercise program. Doing battle with the abdominiser and rowing machine can really work up a sweat. I alternate this with running our exuberant labrador Ben and Whisky, the one-eared Staffy, at the dog beach.

Come Saturday night I demanded that we grown-ups hit the cinema for a serve of Hollywood propaganda. Sometimes you need a good strong dose of larger-than-life fantasy to escape from the unexpected holiday horrors lurking at home.