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You slid into this world in the early hours of the morning, your skin like curdled milk. raw milkThey placed you on my chest and you burrowed, sure of your place. A part of me leaked out, and they mopped it up with strips of cloth soaking with my blood. You were so floppy, a baby made of dough, your dark eyes peering into me, into the fear and darkness gathering inside.

You knew me.
I didn’t know you.

You searched, found my breast, sucked. You were clumsy and desperate. I was desperate for you to stop. Every time you sucked, my stomach contracted, as if being cleaved by knives. It’s normal, they said, your womb is inching back to place. I squeezed my eyes shut until you stopped and became a lump on my chest again. We lay there, long after the room cooled down and the obstetrician left with his shiny tools that stitched me back together, but not whole.

We got you home, twenty-five grams heavier, with their warnings ringing like sirens. We were to raise you in three-hour blocks, to fatten your lanky body with formula and colostrum that we scraped off my nipple with spoons. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. You wouldn’t latch on the right way when my milk came in, and my nipples cracked, my ducts got blocked. Cabbage leaves cupped my inflamed breasts. My body was raw tissue renewing itself without me.

Your daddy held you with a certainty that I should have had. You and I had fed off each other for nine months, after all, the two of us connected. We were skin and bones and awkward angles. Yet when I held you, my hands shook, as if you were going to slip through my fingers. The fear of losing you was a tangible thing. It stalked my days along with the loss of your sibling who flowed out of me at ten weeks gestation.

They will take you away from me.

The thought squeezed my throat one morning when your daddy was downstairs washing dishes, the chink of cutlery rising with the shadows in the room. You were sleeping in the bassinet beside my bed, safe. But what if you weren’t safe with me? I gasped for breath, reached for my notepad, spewed out my thoughts. What if my milk wasn’t enough for you to grow? What if they thought I was crazy? Why would they trust me with a baby when I couldn’t trust my own thoughts? I plunged rebuttals onto the page, pierced the fear with truths.They’re just thoughts. They’re not real. They’re just thoughts. I had overthrown them before, I would again. My fears would not destroy the miracle of you.

But the thoughts were still there at night when I called my psychologist. You are at your most vulnerable, she said. I cradled the phone in one hand, and you in the other. You were sucking again, my nipple up in flames. We knew this might happen, she continued. This is uncharted territory, but you are prepared for it. You are equipped to handle it.

I can handle it.

I held onto that thought, held onto you in the shifting fog. I breathed in your foreign smell. Instead of lullabies, I sang you questions and affirmations. “Zara, are you my baby? I love you, you are my baby,” familiarising my mouth with your name. I breathed you in until your musky scented hair filled my lungs. In two three. Out two three. I inhaled you until my heart rate decreased and your smell seeped into my skin.

When your daddy went back to work,we clung to each other on the couch, our days moving to a familiar rhythm. My fatigued eyes searched yours for an anchor but it was the crease on your forehead, the same frown that punctuated my brow since the day I was born that loosened the fear in my gut. You were a piece of me, foreign yet familiar, the same curiosity and bewilderment etched onto your skin. My singing became assured, my words firm, unyielding. “Zara you are my baby, I love you, you are my baby.” I sang until the fog scattered and I came up for air. I gathered you in my arms, held you to the new part of me, the one that slid into the world beside you the day you were born.

 

First published in The Big Issue’s 586 edition.

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As I write this, you are kicking and shimmying inside me, stretching me out of my skin, preparing me for your birth and mine.

Your moves are jerky and random like your father’s dancing. You may or may not inherit his cinnamon skin or my crazy hair but I know that we will inherit much more from you.

I promise to try and not look for pieces of us in you. You are your own person. While you’re a part of our flesh, you are not us.

You are human, and have within you the wisdom and knowledge of the universe and I will help you uncover who you are while you teach me what you know.

I promise to help you unfurl your wings but won’t push you to fly.

I will show you that happiness can be found in doing what you love but will be your cheer squad if you go searching for it elsewhere.

I will lead by example and show you how creativity and passion can set fire to the soul and light the way to a fulfilling life.

I will teach you that kindness is a form of prayer and it starts with the gift of your smile.

I promise to keep these promises. But if I slip up or lose my way, if I smother you with unconditional love or add some conditions, please be patient with me. Mum’s learning too.

I saw what is perhaps the most truthful line written on a T-shirt. “Normal is only a setting on a washing machine.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the simplicity and the weight of those words.  “Normal” is like a mother’s hug, warm and accepting. Abnormal is the snicker of a school mate who scrunches up his nose at your lunch of stuffed vine leaves. Normal eats a square sandwich. No matter what we do, eat, say, everything is measured by the code of normal implemented by our conservative society. Within this secure framework lies the known which is safe, predictable. But in a world brimming with diversity, there are many perceptions of “normal.” Some can alienate people and have detrimental consequences within society.

Dictionary.com classifies normal as “conforming to the standard or common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.” Ah, yeah, thanks for the clarification. I’m going straight to the dentist to sand my fangs to regular size. I’m toning down my speech to a natural pitch. It seems wherever we turn we are dealt more labels that categorise us, that give us cues on how to behave, speak, and think. Society has the power to shape people into acceptable moulds with mere words, to stifle someone’s individuality.

The media is influential in shaping attitudes, bodies and behaviours and in setting a standard for the efficient running of society with opinion pieces, articles, analytical essays. Words are powerful and if they are used by prejudiced journalists who believe stereotypes, they can be all the more damaging and skew perceptions of who and what is normal or abnormal in society. In Scott Dougherty’s article “Just Act Normal,” he offers himself as an example of a “normal guy you sometimes see on Sydney’s trains.” He wears T-shirts with writing and listens to his iPod. “You’d love to sit next to me,” he continues, “I don’t cough, sniff or clean my ears with my car keys.” That’s lovely, but do you know what riles him the most? “That the freaks pay the same price for a ticket.” Scott Dougherty believes “people should pay extra to sit next to other normal people.” The freaks are the drug addicts, the ones that talk of God or the mentally ill people that converse with windows. The word freak implies that these people who have illnesses, disabilities or are quirky by nature are inferior to those that sit quietly in their square seats and listen to iPods, read books, magazines, newspapers. The media has a big responsibility to publish words that don’t promote negative attitudes but raise understanding and awareness of differences.  

We are constantly faced with changing social, economic and technological trends that dictate and influence behaviour and can consequently lead to bullying those that don’t fit the normal prototype. According to a Duncan and Riley study, approximately one in six people get bullied at work. This figure can range from 25% to 97% in certain industries. Workplace bullying can be verbal, physical or psychological and can stem from intolerance for the victim’s sexuality, family, culture, race, religion, education or economic background. According to Andy Ellis (Bullying in the Workplace-An acceptable Cost?) bullying is intimidating, abusive or offensive behaviour, that can make the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable, which damages their self confidence. This may cause them to suffer stress.

Normal is subjective; it’s organic and the concept of what it is to be normal changes from person to person. People who bully can be motivated by jealousy, ignorance, fear and can cause their victims to harm themselves. In 2007, the Victorian coroner concluded that 40% of suicide victims were bullied at school. Today, more than one in five children are bullied at school and feel like misfits, rejects, are depressed and alienated. In a multicultural society where people are tall, short, black, white, yellow, brown, normal is a powerful word that can divide, hurt and isolate people and lead to depression and anxiety.

Philosopher John Perry believes “there is nothing very normative about being typical, regular, usual and ordinary; but conforming to a particular type or standard seems like something one ought to do.” “Normal” starts as a word but can lead to terrifying actions as exemplified by numerous cases in history. Adolf Hitler’s vision for Germany entailed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed population with no homosexuals or communists. This man had a definition of normal and used the power of words to preach his vision to a nation. His words succeeded to create prejudices, hate and intolerance within society and divided a country. “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by few followers, recognised these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them.” These are Hitler’s words from a speech in 1922 which spoke of his truth and justice and sighted passages from the Bible to support his theories. His words segregated a race, spurred people to commit horrific crimes against the Jews and led to the Holocaust in the 1940s. Jews were tortured, gassed and used as guinea pigs for grotesque medical experiments in concentration camps because they did not fit one man’s version of normal. Josef Mengele, a leading doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp, shared Hitler’s vision and believed that Germans would win the war “so that only the Aryan race will stand.” His distorted idea of normal gave him permission to dissect Jews without anaesthesia, castrate them, and test them with drugs. He would separate twins and torture one until death and watch the other for proof of pain by telepathy. These evil acts, the inverted triangles stitched onto Jewish clothing, digits tattooed on bodies, stemmed from difference, intolerance for a race that was not deemed to be ordinary or usual.    

The word “normal” is associated with electrical appliances, not humanity which is complex and layered. People are not easy to categorise. Yet as a society it is the way to maintain order, to keep out the unknown. Whether it’s a different race, religion, culture, colour or personality, the unknown instils fear in people. And, just like a washing machine, society goes round and round churning the same theories in a never ending cycle.

 

 

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics  http://www.abs.gov.au

Bully Blocking http://www.bullying.com.au/school- bullying

Cephas Ministry newsletter website http://www.newsletters.cephasministry.com/hitlerspeeches.2.99/html

Josef Mengele The Angel of Death http://www.mengele.dk

Know Bull! http://www.know-bull.com/factsnstats.html

Norton White Lawyers and Notaries http://www.nortonwhite.com.au/admin/new/documents/workplace%20bullying.pdf

Philosophy Talk Website http://theblog.philosophytalk.org/2010/03/what-is-normal.html

Reach Out http://www.au.reachout.com/find/articles/workplace-bullying

The Age Website article “Just Act Normal” http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/just-act-normal-20091215-kuim.html

The Museum of Family History http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/mengele-speaks.htm