When mothers struggle

Pajamas became a symbol for safety and love

There was a day several years ago – just after I had been bullied out of a management position and was obviously feeling a tad unbalanced – when with grim determination I set out to create a perfect parenting day, well, it was actually only going to be an evening, but I would settle for that.

I had a precious, half-formed childhood memory of my parents one day giving me new pajamas. I remember it more poignantly than any Christmas.

We were always poor, so owning new, soft flannelette PJs that matched was a shining moment in my childhood.

And I was setting out to re-create that feeling, only better.

We went shopping, me with a credit card grimly in hand – it didn’t matter what it cost, this retail therapy was going to happen, nobody was getting in my way.

It was already 4pm and the shops wanted to close, the day was dark and cold and wanted to squeeze us out of the daylight and into an early night, but I fought against the dying of the light.

I started at the pajama section and bought matching flannelette sets for each of the four kids – good ones, not the cheap, generic kind.

Then I bought them all slippers to match their PJs.

With the family traipsing behind, all a bit in awe of my mission, I next chose matching fluffy, warm dressing gowns that would protect and warm my children.

Then we went to the linen department and I grabbed at doona covers and coordinating flannelette sheets for each child, Thomas and Fireman Sam, for the little boys, Winnie the Pooh for Ruby (she wouldn’t let me buy the fairy design) and plain bold colours for Harley who didn’t want anything too childish.

But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted warm blankets to throw over their warm doonas, warm sheets and warm PJs. I didn’t want to take any risks that a draft might touch them – I wanted them wrapped W A R M and safe, safe, safe from the fear that was stalking me.

The fear that I hadn’t done enough; didn’t do enough, just wasn’t enough as a mother or a person.

I bought polar fleece blankets to ice the cakes of their dreams – ironically now I realise they were all either purple or red – my two favourite colours – the colours that can make me feel empowered and successful.

That night they slept in their rigorously made beds, in their perfect PJs, they wore their slippers and dressing gowns for five minutes and I felt like I had control of things, that I had for the first time ever, secured control of this mothering lark, had life just as it was meant to be, and even if I never got there again I would always have this glittering day to remember.

Of course the slippers were never worn again and ended up going, pristine, to the op shop six months later, the dressing gowns were likewise redundant in our cosy house, but the bedding and PJs lived on to give me a thrill whenever any of it matched. And to batter me with a sharp sense of failure when it didn’t.

When I look back at this I can see how unhinged and unhappy I was, and how hard I was being on myself. I know that kids don’t feel loved and valued because of what we buy them; but that day I needed to provide myself with evidence that I was doing ok as a mother.

It’s taken a lot of work and therapy to process these issues, but I think most women feel this pressure to some extent, and the sting of failure when their children don’t have childhoods that look like a glossy magazine shoot.

There is so much pressure to give children some romanticised notion of childhood; with magical birthday parties, a host of enriching extra-curricular activities, a diet rich in Super Foods and parents who are always in control, never get tired and never make mistakes.

I’m not sure when childhood went from the extreme of being an austere time when kids were seen and not heard, hidden away in nurseries or left to their own devices to play with mud and sticks then rushed into adult roles of work and marriage as soon as puberty hit – to now when we coddle and baby them late into their 20s and over think every detail of their upbringing.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could somehow find a middle ground – or better yet, direct some of our attention to the hundreds of thousands of Australian children for whom a safe home, clean clothes and regular meals would be a gift, or to the billions of children world wide who won’t live past infancy due to disease and poverty.


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Boys in da hood

Time to bring out the hoodies

I’ve just come back from Savers (a huge chain of recycled clothes stores) where I was hunting for hoodies for my four teenage boys.

It turns out last year’s hoodies are either:

1. Too small – fair enough they’re growing like maniacs.

2. Lost at some mates’ place, the skate park, or been shoved so far under their beds they’ve slipped off the edge of the bedroom into the Lost Zone, along with the 10 dozen pairs of socks I bought last year.

3. Have permanent mould stains after being stowed in the bottom of a backpack after a ten-day school camp and then pushed under the bed where they went on to fill the bedroom with the pungent odour of putrefied sweat.

4. Are just too “gay” to wear for another season. (I apologise for the inappropriate term, but I’m quoting directly).

So clearly it was time for new jumpers and as a supporter of the ‘reduce, reuse recycle’ thing I headed to Savers, which to the uninitiated, is like a secondhand hypermarket. My local store has two massive storeys of every conceivable second-hand item, from baby suits and booties, to wedding dresses, designer hand bags, sub-arctic jackets, stilettos, a mountain of stuffed toys and all the useless ceramic knick knacks you could ever need.

Each clothes rack is crammed with hundreds of garments (reminds me of my nan saying “garment” – next I’ll be talking about slacks and frocks) in the full gamut of style from ugly-as-sin-daggy-fashion-disaster to amazing bargain designer finds.

It’s important to enter Savers with a clear plan of attack. Many an inexperienced shopper has been lost in the bowels of the store, found days later mumbling ‘I just wanted a plain black handbag to match my new frock*…”

As I walked in I didn’t stop to glance at the book section or the showcase of ‘antiques’ (Don’t know about you but I wouldn’t pay $50 for Charles’ and Di’s Wedding Souvenir book) instead I went straight up the narrow elevator to Men’s wear.

The thing that struck me today at Savers was the number of teenage boys shopping together in pairs and filling their baskets with bargains.

I’ll admit I was initially miffed; clearly they were in direct competition with me, and blocking my aisle, but they were so sweet that I forgave them.

One pair was trying on windcheaters and even while I was thinking “Back off,” I was impressed by their banter.

“OMG this is awesome,” one said checking his reflection as he modeled an ironic 70s velour jumper.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” his mate answered, “but did you see the price? It’s ten bucks, you have to be really sure if you’re gonna spend ten bucks.”

I love these boys. Somewhere two mums are smiling in self-satisfied smugness – their work here is done.

Across the aisle two more teenagers were trying on daggy Hawaiian shirts and comparing the old-man slacks* they’d scored.

What fantastic young men. Happy to do a spot of alternative shopping; to be money wise and not be sucked in by brands and marketing. And apparently not rampaging the streets causing havoc with their disaffected attitude, but shopping unselfconsciously. Take that mainstream media who would have us believe that all teen boys are angry rebels.

Oh and my shopping mission? I snapped up five cool hoodies for $25 and the boys are now snuggled up against any harsh Autumnal zephyrs.

* My nan would be proud.

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A nasty little secret….

I can stop anytime I want....

What I’m about to share with you is not something of which I’m proud; it’s a nasty, grimy, dirty little secret.

But I can no longer keep it to myself; I have to let the truth out and try to set myself free from the guilt I carry.

You see, there’s this thing I do; this personal, secretive thing when I’m alone, and bored, and just want to relieve a little tension. And it’s not as if it hurts anyone else, but it’s certainly something I feel very embarrassed about.

The truth is when I’m alone, in the privacy of my own home, I….well, I…..I Google myself.

I know, I know, it’s not the sort of thing one normally mentions in polite company, but I think someone needs to bring this issue out into the open – come on, don’t tell me you’ve never tried it?

For me it started innocently enough, just the occasional double checking of send-and-receive in my email program, although the computer checks for emails every minute by itself. Clearly I was hooked on the little frisson of excitement when something delicious pops up in my inbox.

But it didn’t stop there, one empty day after receiving nothing but spam, spam, spam, I knew it was time to seek my digital high elsewhere.

So I closed my office door and sneaked onto Google’s sleek, comforting site, surreptitiously typed in my name, checking over my shoulder lest I be caught, and entered a new world of addiction.

Soon I was Googling myself a couple times a week; so often that the search engine remembered my name like a good friend.

I became secretive and risk-taking; Googling while my partner was in the office with me, or even sneaking in on my way to bed to see if anything new was happening.

Then my habit exploded and I started Googling friends, loved ones – it’s hard to admit, but once I even Googled another woman’s husband – I didn’t mean anything by it, I was just curious and well, there he was; laid out for anyone to access.

Of course I know that I can stop anytime I want.

But for now I’m hooked on the buzz. The thrill of a new mention, a new post, the all-too-familiar flatness of reading the same old stuff – the experimenting with names of old boyfriends, family and new acquaintances. The sympathy for those who don’t even register a mention – not even as someone else.

Really you’re nobody until you’re on Google.

I share my name with a zoologist in Africa who does some killer research into bugs, a Melbourne tapestry artist, and a slick Gold Coast businesswoman. My namesakes are a clever lot and I wouldn’t mind being mistaken for any of them, though the bug chick does sound a bit out there. I wonder if she Googles too?

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Bad girls

Young women are increasingly becoming involved in risk-taking behaviour

Girls' night out

Crime chic is the newest fad in Hollywood where a brush with the law seems de rigueur for the hard-living party girls of the A list, many of whom can now add a prison mugshot to their portfolio.

And it seems Australian women are following the lead of Paris and Lindsay, with a huge explosion in the number of women sentenced to prison for serious crimes, and young girls taking on the tough-guy behaviour once seen as the preserve of adolescent males.

“You see the boys doing it; committing crimes, and you think, ‘well, I could have a go at that,’” says Lisa Stewart* who at 17 has notched up a string of convictions.

Sometimes, she says, the crimes happened when she was bored, other times a fight with her mum would provoke an outburst of window breaking or car stealing. Often her criminal activity took place as part of a gang of girls, on a rampage through the city streets.

Homeless at 13, within four years she’d been before the courts almost a dozen times, been the victim of violent crime herself and tried drugs, but she has now cleaned up her act with the threat of detention looming large.

“They (the courts) told me next time it would be jail, so I’ve turned my life around,” says the softly spoken teen who is now in a job placement program and has aspirations of working in hospitality.

And Lisa is not alone, with criminal behaviour rising rapidly among young women and more than ever are doing prison time for it. From 1997 to 2007 the number of women in prison increased by 82 per cent according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
In the same period the number of women jailed for acts intended to cause injury more than doubled, and the number of women jailed for murder soared by 93 per cent.
Female imprisonment rates increased in every state, with Tasmania recording the highest proportional increase with a huge 493 per cent jump in incarcerated women.
These days tough girl behaviour starts early – often in the schoolyard where today’s teenage girls are out-smoking, out-drinking, out-drugging and out-sexing their male counterparts. Forget pop star crushes and swapping fashion tips; sex, booze, drugs and ciggies are the hobbies of choice for teenage girls. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Statistics on Drug Use report found that in the 14-to-19-year age group, girls were smoking more than boys, and the Australian Drug Foundation has found that teenage girls are more likely to try drugs and binge drink than boys.

Last year YouTube removed graphic footage of a Melbourne schoolgirl being violently bashed by another teenage girl – but not before 5000 people had watched it.

And teenage girls are capable of much worse than this, as the trial of two Perth girls who strangled a friend and buried her body in a shallow grave, demonstrated last year.

The then 16-year-olds, showed no remorse for the murder for which they were jailed for life, explaining only that they killed their friend to see how it would feel.

The murder came after two 14-year-old girls bashed a Sydney taxi driver resulting in him suffering a fatal coronary. The girls apparently boasted about the death to friends. They are now each serving a three-and-half-year sentence for manslaughter.
Both girls were reported to have come from violent backgrounds. Lisa Stewart says issues such as homelessness, anger, fragmented family and low self-esteem contributed to her criminal behaviour.
But Australian criminologist Tricia Fox says this is simply making excuses for bad behaviour. “The incidence of crimes and major assaults perpetrated by women which have occurred across the nation, have been calculated, planned; have been for thrills; have been to dominate, which are all of the characteristics we see with men,” Fox said.
“We’re seeing a lot more serious assaults by girls now. The most serious assault I knew of was a group of girls trying to throw another girl off a moving train. There has been a significant, dramatic increase in heinous offences by women,” and she predicts things will only get worse.
“Attitudes have changed from when (committing crime) wasn’t a girl thing to do; if it did happen she was instantly labelled mad and it was just unthinkable for women to do these things. Young women now see it as their right, their sense of individuality to have those sorts of behaviours.”
Lawyer and female prisoner advocate, Debbie Kilroy is all too aware of what life is like behind bars for Australian women. At 13 she wagged school and ended up in youth detention where she says she suffered terrible abuse.

“It was quite horrific in the prison system at that time, we (the prisoners) were all
drugged and locked up and it was up to the psychiatrists whether they let us out or not. I was in and out of there until I was 17.”

Kilroy blames the system for introducing her to a life of violence. “When you’re treated with violence that’s how you learn to express yourself. I ended up in other violent situations and crime.”

She finally managed to end the cycle of violence and crime she was caught up in and started the prisoner’s advocacy group Sisters Inside and studied to become a lawyer.
She believes it is ridiculous to assume young women choose to be violent. She argues they are forced into hopeless situations.
“I’ve never come across anyone who has just broken the law for no reason; just because they’re bad. I go into a youth detention centre each week to provide support for young women, and at no time do I hear them glorify crime, I hear them talk about the horrific abuse situations that they’re coming from and are going back to,” Kilroy said.
“More than 80 per cent of women in prison are there for drug-related crime and usually that’s related to horrific childhood sexual abuse and physical violence. 89 per cent of women in prison have been sexually abused before they even hit the gate and 98 per cent experience physical violence.

“So you have these children growing up enduring horrific physical trauma and they only way they can deal with it, because they’re living in poverty as well, is to self-medicate and that’s when you have to start using illegal drugs and that’s when you collide with crime basically. If we released all the women jailed for drug-related crime there’d be hardly anyone in there.”

*name has been changed

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Life among the dead

Kevin Scheele is matter-of-fact about the business of living and dying; after all he worked and lived amid the quarter-of-a-million dead people interred at the Melbourne General Cemetery (MGC) for thirty-three years.

And there’s nothing like spending your days surrounded by 109 sprawling acres of graves to encourage you to grasp life with both hands.

When Scheele began work as a gravedigger at the cemetery in 1976 he quickly realised he could be crippled by the grief he witnessed daily, or instead focus on helping people at an intense and painful time.

In his first year he assisted at 7000 funerals. “You see a lot of pain, and of course you feel some of that too,” he says, “but you have to harden yourself to it or you can’t survive in the job.”

Pragmatism has been the backbone of a career that saw him rise to the level of manager of the Melbourne General St Kilda Cemeteries – a job he retired from last year – but he also has a strong compassionate streak. He says no-one could do the job without empathy and a true desire to help people.

It’s “burying the bubs,” seeing the devastating effect of a child’s death on its parents that most affected him over the years, but talking with his wife, Christina, helped him manage those emotions– well, that and maybe the odd whiskey, he jokes.

He was initially reluctant to meet at the cemetery for this interview. He’d rather close the chapter on that part of his life and get on with jobs such as clearing out his shed. But he relents and provides an insider’s tour; arriving in work boots, t shirt and shorts – the picture of a man relieved of duty, happy to go back to being just an everyday bloke.

And considering that he and his family also lived at the MGC’s imposing Gothic-style bluestone gatehouse for 22 years, you can understand his desire for a break. And while most people end their lives within its grounds, Scheele’s daughter Kate was born from their cemetery home and grew up playing in its grounds.

In 2006 Kate chose the cemetery as the site for her wedding. Sure some people thought that was a bit weird Scheele shrugs, but he reckons it makes sense; after all, the cemetery was her childhood backyard.

In the early days Scheele and his wife would stroll around the tombstones at night, looking for possums and owls. Later it got a bit scary – no, not the dead folk, the living ones were the ones you had to be wary of, he laughs.

He’s ready for the next question – it’s the one he has been asked most over the years – so for the record, no, he doesn’t hold much with ghost stories and has never seen any evidence of spooky activity.

So is there life after death? He doesn’t know – no-one’s come back yet to offer him the inside drum on such esoteric concerns, so for now he’ll reserve his opinion.

The cemetery attracts lots of visitors; from historians and tourists to the families who are here today, washing down marble graves with buckets of soapy water, kneeling on them to clean the headstones and replacing gaudy plastic flowers.

“That lady comes every day,” Scheele says quietly, nodding in the direction of an older woman tending to an impressive black marble headstone. Others sit quietly with their buried relatives, speaking softly into the empty air. Would this be his way of dealing with a death in the family?

“No, that’s not my thing,” he says, “I’d carry them in here,” he touches his heart, “but people manage grief in different ways.

Scheele has seen some grand internments in his time; former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies among them, and he can point out the paupers’ graves where the city’s less-fortunate were buried en masse in the late 1800s, not long after the cemetery opened.

He’s proud of the job he’s done here, reckons it’s an important one and believes he has achieved his initial aim of making the cemetery a centerpiece at the heart of the city.

“I’d encourage anyone to go into this industry, it’s extremely rewarding,” he says, “and besides,” he adds with a wink, “it’s certainly a guaranteed long-term industry.”

Our tour ends beside a newly dug grave. There’s a pile of dirt piled beside the headstone; someone had reserved their space beside a loved one and now the time has come to take it up.

That pile of dirt is arresting, a cold jolt of reality that could induce moroseness or infuse you with the joy of living. It’s easy to see the choice that Scheele made decades ago.

There are few empty plots at the MGC now; with just 40 spots left it’s pretty much reservations only. But the Scheeles won’t be among those with their names etched in marble in this endless field of tombstones.

“I’d rather be scattered to the winds,” Scheele says, and you get the feeling he’s already spent enough time in this place.

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How to live to 100

Want to achieve triple figures?

Want to live to one hundred? Your chances are better than ever as the centenarian population explodes worldwide amid expectations it will quadruple in the next decade.

And we’re not only likely to live longer, but also enjoy greater health and wellbeing into our tenth decade as researchers pinpoint the secrets to longevity and long-term wellness.

The number of Australians reaching 100 has increased almost 10 per cent a year for the past 25 years, making them the fastest growing age segment in Australia. According to the 2006 census Australia has 3154 centenarians.

We also have the fourth highest life expectancy in the world, behind the US, Japan, France and Italy,

And as achieving triple figures becomes more commonplace, researchers expect to see an increase in super, and semi-super centenarians – those aged over 110, and 105 respectively.

And uncovering the secret to such longevity can offer us important tools to increasing our own life spans, according to Professor Robyn Richmond, from the University of NSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

After studying 190 centenarians for the Australian Centenarian Study, Professor Richmond found that longevity is more about personality than genes.

Professor Richmond said being optimistic, able to cope with change and loss, and well connected socially can all add candles to our birthday cakes.

Previous studies have shown that those lucky enough to make it to triple figures are often what one Havard research team dubbed ‘stress shredders’.

“Centenarians are less likely to feel anxious or vulnerable, they are open and flexible to change and are able to get on with life when awful things happen to them,” Professor Richmond said.

“A strong social system is terribly conducive to a long life, as is spirituality, and maintaining a healthy weight.”

She said centenarians had much lower rates of depression and anxiety than the general population and had managed to escape serious illness.

“Only 20 per cent had any signs of dementia, and only 29 per cent had any cardiovascular disease, and largely that developed much later in life.”

Professor Richmond, who presented her study at the International Federation on Ageing Conference in Melbourne this week said although centenarians had previously been a hidden group, as their numbers grew to a projected 12,000 by 2010 society would be more aware of them.

“They are shining beacons for a positive life,” she said.

The Japanese island of Okinawa has the greatest concentration of centenarians in the world, and researchers have been studying the population to find out why.

“We boil it all down to four factors: diet, exercise, psycho-spiritual and social,” says researcher Bradley Willcox, from the Okinawa Centenarian Study.

How do you rate your chances of living to 100? Will you make it?

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Spendthrift or tightwad? What’s your shopping style?

Spend or save? What's your style?

Thirty-two year old sales representative Luke Cooper is a self-confessed tightwad who works two jobs, owns an investment property and lives as cheaply as possible.

He dislikes spending money unlike Melbourne fashion model Susannah Murray; a shopaholic with eight wardrobes of clothes and soaring credit card debt who is addicted to the emotional high she gets from shopping.

But their two distinct reactions to spending are all in their head according to research by Assistant Professor Scott Rick from the University of Michigan.

Assistant Prof Rick found that our shopping habits hinge on the level of psychological pain we feel when handing over our cash.

By studying the brains of shoppers through MRI scans he created what he dubbed a ‘Spendthrift-Tightwad’ scale.

People who experience the most psychological pain from parting with their money are at the tightwad end of the scale, while those who experience a sense of reward are the spendthrifts.

Shopping pain increased when consumers used cash, while credit cards provided a retail anaesthetic.

In the lead up to Christmas Ass Prof Rick found tightwads and spendthrifts spent the same amount on gifts for others.

“It may be that spending money on someone else lessens the pain of making purchases. Alternatively, spending on gifts may be just as painful as usual for tightwads, but the necessity of buying gifts overwhelms the influence of that pain on spending decisions,” he said

The research found that spendthrifts spend significantly more on coffee, clothes and entertainment.

A fact supported by Ms Murray who admits she is addicted to shopping for clothes and accessories.

“I live on Chapel Street, so there are times when I have popped down to the shops for a clove of garlic and come back with three new dresses,” she said.

Ms Murray, a 207 Big Brother constestant, and her partner had to move to a bigger house recently to accommodate her enormous collection of clothes.

She admits shopping gives her an emotional buzz and sense of well-being, but her high credit card debt and lack of assets is starting to worry her now that she is in her thirties.

It’s a lifestyle that Luke Cooper can’t imagine. He baulks at the idea of spending $50 on a new shirt and is not interested in material items.

“I live and eat pretty cheaply, I don’t need fancy things or gadgets. I have a really old car and a pre-paid mobile and I’d rather buy secondhand where I can. I don’t enjoy spending money,” he said.

Splash or Stash? What works for you?

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