Ziggy turned six this week and as with each passing year, I was faced with the daunting task of constructing a birthday cake of his choosing. The pressure was INTENSE - and made more intense by the fact that I was making the cake for Zig and his little mate for their joint birthday party.
But why? Why is there intense pressure related to baked goods for small children? Small children are typically very impressed with very little and regardless of how much trouble you go to, they will only eat the icing anyway.
I blame the Cake Wrecks website squarely. And the nailed it hashtag. And Pinterest.
I am not a professional cake baker and decorator and I can say with complete certainty that I never want to be. Ever. And it's not even that I don't enjoy baking from time to time. But I have not had any training and I am too half-arsed and last minute-ish to watch a cake tutorial on Youtube. Except this one by my girl, Emily, because frankly, this is the kind of birthday cake creation I can get down with.
This year, Zig requested a Minecraft cake and the internet told me my options were limitless. I discovered more than one version that I felt I would be capable of attempting. But I've had an unshakeable cold all week and coupled with a severe case of the CBFs, let the reader be unsurprised to learn that I left all cake prep until the very last minute.
Friday morning dawned and though I wanted to hop into bed with my laptop and spend the day watching Jane the Virgin on Netflix, I typed "best chocolate cake recipe" into my search engine of choice and proceeded to make the first listing. Not going to lie, I gave thanks for my Tefal Cuisine Companion once again because it makes cake batter and icing like nobodies business.
I hadn't 100% settled on which cake design I was going for but when I flipped the cooled cake out onto the wire rack and it split right down the middle, my options narrowed somewhat. But I remained calm and largely enjoyed the process of making the cake. It wasn't midnight and I was eating A LOT of chocolate ganache as I worked so the experience was reasonably pleasant. But when I had finished, I berated myself for its many imperfections. Minecraft is a game that involves placing blocks to make things. Perfectly symmetrical blocks. So a created landscape on Minecraft would be all precise right angles. My cake landscape....how would I put it?....well, it undulated. There was zero uniformity in the blocks. It was Minecraft through the eyes of a surrealist painter - think Dali and his melting clock.
When Bren got home, I said things like, "Oh, it's shit, but it'll do." I could have made sure the squares were, well, square, and all the same size. I probably should have redone the icing writing which is always a weak point for me. But actually, when I looked at it, despite its myriad of flaws, I felt sort of proud. It was made with loads of love and LOADS of ganache. It was bloody perfect.
So no, this cake will not be repinned a trillion times, but as far as birthday cakes for kids go, I think it had all the key elements.
Hashtag nailed it and hashtag realmumsrepresent.
AND ON ANOTHER BLOG
I didn't do much reading this week due to general malaise and Jane the Virgin binge-watching, but Beautiful Three-Year-Olds by Rach at Mogantosh was lovely/hilarious/more lovely. Say what you will about 3-year-olds, but you can't deny that when they're cute, they're so gosh darn cute.
Around this time every year, I find myself lamenting a lack of funds. I use phrases like "flat broke" to describe our financial situation. And while everything is relative, the reality is that we are not flat broke and lack of funds means we probably won't get the family iPad I was planning for Christmas.
For some families, the idea of Christmas is a terrible burden placed on top of their already dire financial situation. It is not a matter of extending their debt on the credit card in order to get their kids far more presents than they could ever need. It's the terrifying prospect of not being able to pay rent, to buy groceries, to feed their families day to day.
Money or the lack of it is never more stressful than when there are children to support. It is hard to imagine not being in a position to buy my kids a Christmas gift; not being able to feed them is wrenching. But this will be the reality facing thousands of families around Australia this year.
There is a simple way for us to help. The Wesley Mission Victoria Food for Families appeal is there to assist those families in need. By making a donation of things like pasta and canned food, we can make a difference. Last year, the Wesley Mission helped 20,000 families, distributing 45 tonnes of donated non-perishable items. It's a huge achievement.
This year, my boys' school is involved in taking up a Food for Families collection of non-perishable goods so we bought a bag of groceries including pasta sauce, pasta, soup, baked beans and long-life milk.
It's strange to be buying so much packaged food when the message is clear that we should be eating fresh produce wherever possible. Apart from the logistical challenge that trying to collect perishable goods would present, the reality is that a meal made from canned food is preferable to no meal at all (or a relatively expensive fast food meal). Despite the move away from pre-packaged foods, it is still possible to provide a nourishing family meal with them. Additionally, the Wesley Mission also accepts monetary donations which then enable families to supplement the donated non-perishables with fresh and frozen foods.
If there isn't a school or community group participating in your area, you can register here to do so yourself. You can find a list of most needed goods to help you choose what to donate. The obvious choices like rice and ready-made meals are always needed, but if you're creative in the kitchen, you could buy the individual ingredients to make a delicious meal like the breakfast below.
Why not include a recipe with your donation that can be passed on to a family to try? This makes it easier for the recipient to make use of the ingredients, to perhaps be more creative or make things stretch further.
What I love most about appeals like Food for Families is that everyone can get involved. It's easy and it doesn't have to be expensive. A jar of pasta sauce and a packet of spaghetti cost me under $5 - an amount that I won't notice missing from my bank account but that can provide dinner for a family of four. I don't know about you, but that feels like money well spent to me.
If you're not in Victoria, as mentioned you can make a monetary donation to Food for Families here. But if you'd prefer to donate food, googling 'Christmas Food Appeal' should give you lots of options for donating food somewhere closer to you.
Does that title sound god-awful? I know it. But when the world in general feels darker than usual, the antidote is not to stay frozen with fear. Reading (or writing) hateful opinions on social media will not bring the peace we seek.
We are the light. You and me. All of us. In tiny ways, maybe, but if each of us is a pinprick of light in the darkest night, imagine what ALL of us at once might look like? Night of a thousand stars - except more like a billion. Give or take.
So don't feel hopeless and don't feel scared. Do something good. Because though it may feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it is not. Small kindnesses are a huge win for this world.
Here are three suggestions.
1. DONATE TO OXFAM
You are terrified about ISIS. You feel powerless to stop them. You are ANGRY. These are all very natural feelings but none of them are helpful or productive. Focus on what you CAN do.
Oxfam care for the desperate people fleeing Syria, a place once their home now the frontline of the escalating crisis. Over 11 million people have been displaced - three quarters of them are women and children. Families like yours and mine.
Consider making a donation. Every dollar is essential in helping Oxfam to provide refugees access to food, water and sanitation. What better way to fight back against terror than to come to the assistance of the victims left in their brutal wake. Rather than the division ISIS seeks, we can be a community.
2. MAKE A NEW DAY BOX
In Victoria alone, hundreds of women and their kids will spend this Christmas in crisis accommodation and refuges after fleeing family violence. While our children squabble over new toys and we drink more champagne than is strictly wise, a woman and her family are in a strange place with only the few belongings they managed to take with them - which may be the clothes on their backs.
Charities have long run Christmas drives in order to provide gifts to children and these campaigns are always really successful. But what about Mum? She is alone and frightened and just like her kids, she needs to know that somebody cares.
And so was the inspiration for New Day Box - grab a shoebox and fill it with toiletries - cosmetics, body wash, face cream, hand lotion - those little things we take for granted that have the power to make a woman experiencing such upheaval feel special. This simple idea amounts to giving a box of love and luxury to a woman who has nothing.
I did it a couple of years back with a group of friends and it was such a satisfying thing to do. However, the deadline is fast approaching. Check out the website for ways to post or drop off your box.
If you miss the deadline, also check out The Beauty Bank who accept donations all year round of unwanted and unopened beauty products to distribute to women in need.
3. KINDNESS AT HOME
Yes, I know, kids are annoying and husbands can be even annoyinger. But when I think about kindness, how to participate in it, how to spread it around, I am always thinking outside of my immediate vicinity. So I'm preparing a box of toiletries for a woman I'll never meet which feels amazing, but then I'm yelling at the kids and calling Bren a dickhead. Sometimes the kids' behaviour pushes me too far and sometimes I'm right about Bren. But I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about some of the language we've fallen into around here. And I'm not talking about the shits and fucks although they are plentiful. I'm talking about the sarcasm, the disrespect and the general unpleasant ways we communicate with one another. Luca has been doing this yelling thing at Ziggy and I could have stopped and scratched my head about where on earth he was getting that from except that I knew. I instantly recognised my own voice coming out of my 8-year-old's mouth. It was upsetting.
So Bren and I are making a real effort to choose our words more carefully - with the kids and with each other. It's not easy and we slip up, but I have realised that my best chance at changing this world is by raising my kids right. Confidence and talent are great things to nurture, but they are nothing without compassion and kindness. It's a huge opportunity and we get this one shot at it.
So that's enough seriousness. And who am I to even tell you anything since as soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to eat a bowl of choc chip ice-cream in bed while I make out with Netflix.
Three Blog Posts That Will Hopefully Make You Laugh
Have a great night. I have to go - Netflix wants me bad.
When my first child, Luca, was born, I spent the first six months of his life walking five feet off the ground. I was elated. Exhausted, emotional and at times, frazzled, but mostly, happy.
When my third child, Harlow, arrived, I was all those things to the power of three, but the novelty of seeing tiny girl bits at every nappy change was a powerful antidote to the trying times.
It was the second child that knocked me off my game (poor middle child).
Ziggy, my precious second son, arrived via the VBAC I desperately wanted. I was enormously relieved to have avoided another caesarean. Physically, the immediate difference post-birth was significant. I was instantly mobile and not under a cloud of pain meds. I should have been feeling amazing. And intitally, I was.
But later that night, when Bren had gone home and it was just me and my baby in the hospital room, I felt a weird disconnection. I looked at my tiny boy sleeping in his Perspex crib, and I wondered, “Who are you?” Being alone with him sent a wave of anxiety through me.
It had not been this way with my first baby and so the feeling shocked me. When I looked at Luca’s face, I instantly recognised myself. I felt I knew him . Ziggy looked more like Bren’s side of the family – which is perfectly understandable given that Bren is his father, duh – but in that quiet moment, I found it unsettling. Who was this tiny stranger?
By morning, that feeling had largely subsided. Ziggy was breastfeeding well and I couldn’t help but adore him. When Luca came in to meet his baby brother, I was overwhelmed with the intensity of the love I felt for my little family.
But the sensation of not wanting to be alone with my newborn son was a buzzing undercurrent that became a deafening roar once I got home from hospital. Ziggy had arrived almost four weeks early which meant that Bren’s annual leave did not start for another couple of weeks. He had to go back to work almost immediately after his new son arrived, and the idea of being home alone with a three-year-old and a newborn terrified me. I could not stop crying. My mum took the week off work to spend those rough days with me. It made the world of difference.
Things settled down pretty quickly from there. I attribute this largely to the incredible support network I had around me. Also, the fact that I already had a history of depression and anxiety was, as odd as it sounds, a blessing because I knew what those feelings were when I began to feel them.
But what I credit most for the brevity of my struggle after Ziggy’s birth is the fact that I was already taking Zoloft. This was what stopped those low days from tipping over into more serious territory.
By mentioning my medication, I certainly don’t suggest that this will be the right solution for everyone. I can only tell my story and what I found helpful. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that anti-depressants are an option – and there’s no shame in taking that option when nothing else is working. Regular exercise and getting out and about will be the turning point for some, but then there are mothers who just about wear pram wheel grooves into their local footpaths trying to ‘get some fresh air,’ while inside, they still feel completely out of control. And when well-meaning advice doesn’t work, this can exacerbate the feelings of failure.
The thing about depression and anxiety is that it can present differently in everyone. It stands to reason then that the solution may be different, too.
Feeling a heightened sense of anxiety after a baby arrives is to be expected. Babies are incredibly tricky and demanding little creatures! And who wouldn’t shed a tear or two when they’re operating on a mere fraction of the sleep they used to enjoy? Having a baby is a wild ride and topsy turvy emotions are par for the course. But so often when we attempt to reassure new mothers that what they’re feeling is normal, we can actually minimise their struggle. By telling a struggling mum not to worry, we can inadvertently stop her from asking for help because she decides what she’s feeling must be normal. And if these ‘normal’ feelings make her feel so awful, what does that say about her mothering skills? Maybe she’s just no good at this whole motherhood caper? This kind of self-talk can be dangerous to someone who is already vulnerable.
So where might a struggling mother (or father) look for help? PANDA is an excellent place to start.
PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) is a national government funded Helpline providing vital support, counselling and referral for Australian parents and their families. I met with the Helpline manager and was so impressed with not only her vast wealth of knowledge but her deeply empathetic connection with parents enduring PNDA ( Perinatal Depression and Anxiety).
This connection, this acknowledgement that PNDA is real and serious is crucial on so many levels, first and foremost to help people towards recovery but also to end the lingering stigma attached to mental health issues.
When motherhood doesn’t seem to be going the way we thought it would, the sense of failure can be crushing. Everywhere we look, we see shiny, happy mummies with their chubby, happy babies. We haven’t brushed our hair for a fortnight, but that mum on Instagram is doing tricep dips on the kitchen bench while tandem breastfeeding her twins. Who never cry. We wonder where we are going wrong.
Forget the comparisons. We’re all running our very best PR campaign for motherhood. We share the pictures where everything looks rosy. But if we shared pictures of the other 1000 moments in a mothering day, Instagram would look very, very different.
For instance, I never shared a selfie of the moment I thought about throwing my baby across the room because he wouldn’t stop crying. And I didn’t share the picture of the toddler bawling his eyes out after I pushed him over to ‘teach him’ what it felt like when he pushed his baby brother over.
Motherhood has tapped into a well of good things in me that I was not aware of before I had kids. Things I am proud of. But it has also uncovered the darkest aspects of my personality when I am running on anxiety-fuelled adrenalin and sugar binges alone. There are moments I am ashamed of. Powerful though my love may be, it can’t save me from my human self and all the complexities that go with that. My mental health is an ongoing challenge and I balance it as best I can. I am not perfect.
But I am lucky. Treating my mental illness before, during and after my pregnancies has meant that I did not miss those precious months of babyhood. Statistics indicate that many women who experience perinatal anxiety and/or depression suffer for 6 -12 months before they get help. Some wait for years. That’s such a long time to be struggling, so many precious moments lost under a fog of desperation. It doesn’t have to be that way. Early intervention is so important.
As I mentioned earlier, depression and anxiety can look different depending on who is experiencing it. For me, depression looked less like sadness and an inability to participate in life, and more like extreme irritation, feeling irrationally anxious and moments of actual rage.
These Fact Sheets from PANDA list common symptoms of PNDA as well as ways to get help and also how to help someone you suspect may be suffering. To that end, PANDA encourages starting real conversations with your parent friends. Sharing your honest account of parenthood can often be the impetus for them to share theirs. Saying the words aloud is often a powerful first step in the journey to healing. It certainly was for me.
Struggling with your mental health throughout pregnancy and into parenthood is a special kind of bullshit. There is no good time to suffer anxiety or depression, but the timing of PNDA is especially brutal. It robs so many parents of the joy they deserve to be feeling. Moments between mum and baby (or dad and baby) are lost to just trying to survive.
If you or someone you know is not coping, please, please, please call PANDA. On the other end of the line is someone who will listen and really hear you. They will agree that what you’ve been enduring is bloody awful and they will assure you that there are ways to start feeling better. On the other end of the line is a person who believes you when you say you’re not coping. They’ll believe you because you are one of thousands of parents feeling this way. What you are feeling may not be normal, but you may be surprised to learn how common those feelings can be.
Reach out. You are not alone.
PANDA Helpline: 1300 726 306 (Mon - Fri 10am - 5pm AEST)