By the Way, You Don’t Have to Breed

Caprice

As a mother of two I’m going to let you in on a secret closely guarded by the parents of the world: having kids is overrated, and you don’t have to do it. No matter how many women (it’s always the women) accost you at dinner parties demanding to know why your uterus remains a thing of emptiness, I will tell you unequivocally that the motive for their probing is rage around the following things: you – unlike them – look fresh and rested; you – unlike them – will not be going home to pay the babysitter after this dull dinner party but heading straight to somewhere fabulous where you’ll imbibe alcohol and have sexual relations and lastly (and this is a biggie) your vagina is intact. Nothing makes mothers madder than the idea of your intact vagina.

These things about you fill parents of the world with hateful, jealous fury. How dare you sleep in the nighttime and spend your weekends on the beach? Why aren’t you and your partner also having fights in the park at 6:45am and walking up and down the driveway frantically pushing a pram while its contents scream unrelentingly and trying to eat a restaurant meal holding a fractious, miniature fembot? No no no no, you look far too contented. Quick! You need to lose that contraceptive device yesterday and also be very fat and very, very tired like them. But really, here’s the thing – and I’ve done it long enough to know – in spite of what people seem hell-bent on telling you there are in fact gazillions of worthwhile ways to spend the days of your life that have nothing to do with bringing children forth into the world.

Off the top of my head I can think of 137 more interesting things than the school run, for example. If I could clock up the hours, months, probably years I’ve spent waiting for someone short in stature to finish ballet/soccer/recorder lessons I’m certain I would keel over and die of dismay. And I’m not saying I don’t like having children. I adore my girls and for me, for whatever reason, mothering was always on the agenda. But I don’t pretend it’s not a job without moments of mind-altering tediousness and that there aren’t days I want to say to my offspring, you know what? You are the two most annoying people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’m off to drink piña coladas somewhere sane like a lunatic asylum. Sayonara, midgets, and good luck working the stove. 

But, unlike other job descriptions that looked good on paper, this one you can’t resign from. So instead you hire a babysitter, put on extra concealer and try to convince innocent, child-free people that they don’t know what they’re missing because safety in numbers and all. Many people genuinely love having kids and that’s cool and for (almost) every moment you go what the actual fuck under your breath there are moments that are fun and rewarding. But for those people sitting on the fence or who suspect there might be things that are better and more fun to do with their lives than being parents I say, yes! There are! Don’t believe the hype; don’t listen when they imply it’s your duty and that you’re somehow lesser of a woman/human being if you think it’ll be more interesting running a large, successful company than watching a toddler poo. Or traveling the world and living in different countries and spending your days having adventures with sexy men you don’t have to marry.

Lord knows, there are enough women out there breeding prolifically because they don’t have a choice (and, frankly, are often barking as a result). You don’t have to be one of them. You are fully, totally entitled to do something different and extraordinary with your life. And I commend singletons and couples who have the courage and insight to know parenthood is not for them. It’s not an easy choice to make, but only because the people around them make it hard. People hate it when other people make different choices. They get anxious and confused and start asking themselves questions they would rather not know the answers to. But I say, fuck everyone else and the family car they arrived in. Take your intact vagina and go conquer the world.

Love, the Karoo and Route 62

Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.
Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law is visiting us from Denmark. In her softly-spoken, white-haired five-foot-nothingness this small, unassuming woman is the unmitigated matriarch and warm, beating heart of the large Rehn family. And spending long periods of time with her as we have been doing has reminded me of how much my daughters need to know these people who’ve been around for a long time and have lived in different worlds from the one we do now – worlds where things were scarce and times were tough and the fact that life was a series of hardships was nothing anyone bothered commenting on; it’s just the way it was.

On her first evening with us I went downstairs to hang up the clothes of hers that needed hanging, and as I carefully arranged the handful of outfits she’d packed to wear on her visit to Africa – each item having been washed a lot of times and smelling faintly of meadows but still good as new because, while frugality is second nature to her, everything she buys is of the best quality and made to last (nothing like my wardrobe which is full of things I wore once and lost interest in because it was too ‘fashion’/cheap/impractical) – I thought how different our disposable world must feel to her compared to her day where, if you wanted something, you worked and saved and waited and then, when you finally got it, understood its value and took care of it accordingly.

She tells a story about her own mother who fell in love with a set of candlesticks which she couldn’t afford so she made a deal with the owner of the shop that she would pay them off over 12 months. Knowing her family and their reputation, he urged her to take them right away, but she refused until she had paid off every last cent. People were different back then. And I was especially reminded of this fact when I found myself alone in Sweden with a toddler and a newborn and, despite our comfortable apartment and every convenience a new mother could want, flailing and struggling to cope in this challenging new role which was much, much harder than any job I’d ever performed and expecting, as I did, that life would always be fun. And my mind boggled at how this tiny woman managed to have five children in six years in a two-roomed flat with no help and no convenience anything, and cloth nappies which you washed by boiling them in a pot on the stove. I still don’t know how she did it.

Since my mom-in-law’s visit coincided with the start of the school holidays, we decided to go away for a few days, and – after much deliberation – opted for a cabin in the mountains on a farm outside of Montagu because we’ve been there before and know it’s nice. And it’s a bit special for us because it’s where we went on our first weekend away together when we barely knew one another but were starting to like what we saw. Driving up the steep, winding Burger Pass I remembered doing that drive 15 years back, tragically hungover from the previous night’s wild shenanigans in some hotel in Joburg with a mad music journalist and the members of a local band, trying to disguise the fact that I was dry-heaving all the way, having neither slept nor eaten since I got on the plane two days before.

How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.
How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.

And that weekend (once I got some sleep and had a proper meal) we went for walks and looked up at the stars, but we ourselves were the brightest stars of all – young, educated, ambitious, and the future was as endless as the vistas of that valley. And while this time around the valley was every bit as beautiful as it was when we first visited it, the spaces of ourselves have narrowed to become what we need to be for the people we love. We are no longer a young couple holding hands and gazing out onto a landscape of opportunity and wonderfulness, we are two very important pillars holding up the sanctified structure of our family. Its ability to protect our children from life’s earthquakes depends on our ability to protect one another, and there is more invested in that seemingly casual brushing of a hand against a shoulder in passing than meets the eye. Being the pillars is about having the mettle to hold the inevitable frustrations which are part of married life – and life, generally – and the maturity to be kind and forgiving in the face of disappointment. Because we are now the people whose job it is to keep it all together.

And it’s not not fun and wonderful, it’s big fun, and a different kind of wonderful. It’s not escaping a function to run around a mad city in the middle of the night with interesting strangers, it’s making a chicken potjie with dried peaches and muscadel and slicing the burnt bottom off the pot bread and bumping into each other on the way out of the door with one of you holding a salad and stopping and taking a moment to exchange a look while the kids run around underfoot and then lying in bed too early because you’re so full you can’t speak and watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling and smiling because you might be high on a mountain-top miles away from where you live, but you’ve never been so at home in all of your life.

The ancientness of the Great Karoo was a good place to remember these things and think these thoughts – its tiny, forgotten train stations with names like ‘Rietfontein’ and ‘Draai’; signs against the koppies assuring us that we were ‘Karoo Befok’; dusty tea shops decorated with plastic flowers where the butter is hand-churned and cooled into the shape of hearts. And I wonder, sometimes, what people belong to when they don’t make the kind of choices I did; or when they made the choice and then stuff happened that made them unmake it. If they miss that sense of place, or just find other ways of being. My world is so that, so full of children and family and busyness it’s hard to imagine a different way.

Even though she still cycles to the market, keeps her large garden perfectly manicured and single-handedly hosts three-course dinner parties for her entire extended family, I’m not sure Kirsten Rehn will make it back to South Africa. We’ve been lucky to have her with us.

Scones with hand-churned butter in the middle of totally nowhere. The sign read 'Angora Rabbit Farm' but we only found hens and a cow.
Scones with hand-churned butter somewhere outside Ladismith. The sign read ‘Angora Rabbit Farm’ but we only found hens and a cow.

On Not Getting the Memo

My cute new diary - see, I'm not making this stuff up.
My cute new diary – see, I’m not making this stuff up (I can’t make it be upright).

So, I’ve reached a very troubling realisation in the first week of the new school term, and I plan to take it up with the relevant authorities immediately and right away. What I have realised is this: it is not because I am trying to get past level 13 on Candy Crush (I will get those fucking cherries to the bottom, fuck them) or spending several hours finding the most flattering filter for my new fabulous-on-holiday profile pic (Amaro wins again) that I’m the only Grade One mom in the universe who didn’t get the memo about going to the school the day before to hang a small, fabric bag on the back of my child’s chair and making sure it contains the relevant (marked) stationary. No. It is because there is a conspiracy going on between the teachers and the parents to not give me any info, ever, and it’s really rude to say the least because I’m deurmekaar and stressed out at the best of times.

But I’m onto them now. While it might look like the other parents are just giving each other happy-new-year-how-was-Plett hugs, I know what’s actually going on – they’re like ants. You know how ants put their heads together for a millisecond and then go their separate ways and it looks like they just didn’t see the other one coming but actually they’re exchanging Very Important Information? This is what these wily parents are doing. They’re telling each other things about tackie bags and meetings in code, like aliens, leaving me to be the only doos who doesn’t show up and whose child (in accordance with the new School Tackie Law) isn’t allowed on the jungle gym at break because she doesn’t have the requisite footwear. It’s just not cool, man, being secretive alien ants and leaving me out of the loop. This shit’s got to stop.

But seriously, I’m aiming to be better at knowing what’s going on this year, and to that end I went to CNA yesterday and bought a diary with real pages and a bunch of pens too because I’m over signing homework with a blunt purple crayon which is regularly the only writing instrument this writer can find in her house. And yesterday I sat down with one of those pens and wrote down all the important things I could think of, like my children’s birthdays, and that made me feel reassured because the calendar thing on my iPhone actually just doesn’t work for me. Why must I tell it to alert me? Surely the fact that I’m punching in dates in the first place is testimony to the fact that I won’t remember to remind my phone to alert me? Fuck’s sake. Hence, too many missed things in 2013 than I care to think about.

But, thanks to my nice new diary, this will be the year that I don’t RSVP to parties only to be accosted very early on a Monday morning by an indignant 6-year-old wanting to know why we didn’t show up. This will be the year of not driving hell for leather to the Spar at 7:52am to buy stale cupcakes in primary colours for the 10am cake sale. No – this year I will be like those other, together moms who get up 20 minutes earlier and put Pick n Pay cheese puffs in the oven, and I’m going to serve them on a tray with little bits of shredded lettuce and everything, just watch me. I’m going to show up at meetings on time, and not – like last year – just as all the other parents are filing out of the hall clutching 17 pieces of paper that contain top secret school information which I’ll never be privy to and they’ll take with them to the grave. And I will definitely not forget to fetch my child from aftercare because I had meningitis from drinking Sauvignon Blanc the night before and needed to take a small nap.

2014 is going to herald a whole new me, and I’m excited about these changes. I will be on top of things. I will be that mother other mothers phone when they’re not sure what time ballet is. The one they look towards for guidance when Waltons didn’t deliver the retractable crayons and they’re confused about swimming cap policy. With my diary and a pen in my handbag, I’m appointing myself the new go-to parent, and I’m seriously going to rock. You’ll see. Happy new year, everyone :-)