You will never be this loved again

A small snapshot of my Valentine’s Day evening.

A few weeks ago, I came across a piece of writing about toddlers. The sentence that has sat with me since is: ‘You will never be this loved ever again.’ How strikingly, heart-tuggingly true. Toddlers love unconditionally, wholeheartedly. They haven’t yet learnt that their parents are fallible. Toddler love is an all-encompassing, fierce love that says, ‘Me me me! I am the only important thing.’ But also, ‘You you you. You are my only important thing.’

On the evening of 14 February, we spoke about taking off his wet T-shirt and putting on a dry one. Then, in front of the open cupboard, we established that the only garment he wanted to wear was a fleece hoodie with a polar bear on the front. I pointed out how hot he would be. He agreed. ‘Hot!’ he said, pointing to the polar bear. But still, the possibility of a T-shirt was out. He was going with the bear or he was going bare. Fair enough.

Car fun

Outside, he wanted me to push him around the garden on his car, an arduous activity I do not love. I’d only just managed to put him down, after carrying him around the house for 20 minutes. (We are also going through a big ‘Up! Up! Up!’ phase. In truth, this ‘phase’ has been going on for close to two years now.)

Using my mad mom motivation skills, I managed to convince him that he could push himself around much better than I could. (‘Look at you! You have power feet! You’re doing that so well by yourself!’) Phew.

Later, we ran relays (‘Touch the purple flower! Touch the fence!’), drew a picture, played the piano, blew bubbles and read a book, all before bedtime.

Parenthood requires endless enthusiasm. But if we’re there to give it, we receive endless enthusiasm back.

You will never be this loved again.

One in three

This week it’s Women’s Day and all I feel about it is anger and disillusionment. Helen Moffett’s ‘Fuck Women’s Day. FUCK IT’ is playing over and over in my head like a persistent earworm. People are planning public-holiday picnics in the park, and corporates are trading retweets and shares on social media for chocolate and spa vouchers, as if that’s what South Africa’s women need.

But then this weekend, four women stood up in front of Jacob Zuma and asked the nation to remember the woman involved in his rape trial ten years ago. Whether you agree with their method of protest or not, there is no denying that these women were brave, bold, brilliant. The silent, peaceful protesters were then pushed and shoved out of the room by Zuma’s security – the MANhandling simply underlining the unnecessary violence that South Africa’s women experience every day.

Seeing this demonstration, I felt, simultaneously, pride, solidarity, anger, rage, heartbreak – a swell of emotion for these women, for all women, for myself.

The thing is, while this protest was against Zuma specifically, it was also about asking South Africa to remember, to acknowledge all women who’ve experienced violence by a man, and especially those whose violators have got away with it. And there are a lot of us. As one of the protesters’ signs read: I am one in three.

In 2005, I was sexually assaulted. I don’t really talk about it but it does still affect me, 11 years later.

I’ll say it again: what happened to me still affects me, more than a decade after it happened.

That’s why we need to #RememberKhwezi, 10 years later. South Africa needs to understand not only that it has a rape crisis, but how pervasive its rape culture is, and how little South African society acknowledges its effects.

And it really is everywhere and happening all the time. Not just in the townships or rural areas. Not just under the cloak of night-time. Oh no, middle-class South Africa. It’s right next to you. Right now.

I was sexually assaulted one June afternoon on a Wits University staircase.

Two years later, one of the armed robbers who broke into my house asked me how old I was. I told him I was 12 (I was 22) and he replied nonchalantly, ‘Oh, that’s too young for me to rape,’ like that’s all this came down to – the whims of some man and a random number protecting me from a violent, life-changing act.

Then there was the time that a drunken friend tried again and again to grope me, forcefully, while I told him again and again to fuck right off. He couldn’t remember the incident the next day and when told about it, laughed it off in an oopsy-I-was-so-drunk-hahaha kind of way. He’s no longer my friend and I don’t even think he understands why.

Not only do we live in a society in which these acts happen, but we live in a society in which women are made to feel like they should just get over it.

‘It happens all the time.’

‘You’re lucky it wasn’t worse.’

Except you’re not lucky at all. And sexual assault should not be measured against itself, like some incidents are just-another-Saturday-in-South-Africa sexual assaults and others, the more shock-worthy, are ‘bad enough’ to warrant attention. No.

It’s all sexual assault. It’s all violence.

‘It happens every day’ should not be a statement of apathy and acceptance. It should be inciting anger and action.

One in three. Wherever you land in the fraction, ‘one in three’ still means all of us. #Iam1in3. This is happening to all of us. It’s happened, happening to our daughters, sisters, grandmothers, mothers, friends. They may not talk about it; it may have happened a while ago; but it happened and it still affects them. #RememberKhwezi, those brave women asked us. Let’s.

This Women’s Day, I am following Helen Moffett’s lead: in a gesture of ‘grief, rage, and general gatvol-ness’, I am donating to Rape Crisis. Please pause your picnic-planning and join me: http://rapecrisis.org.za/donate/.

 

 

 

Ten years later

I recently shared a post about my pooches, which I wrote for another blog a few years ago. Also written in 2013, the piece below is one that still means something to me, as it summarises a decade of my life. And a lot happens in ten years.


 

This week, it’s been a decade since my mother (and the rest of us, at the time) moved into her house. A ten-year anniversary. A big deal, I suppose. But why should this mean anything to me?

This house is not my childhood home. We moved in when I was 18 ­– two days after I started matric exams, actually (this nerd was pretty grumpy about it). My sister and I disliked our new abode intensely. At the time, we blamed the aesthetics. Our previous home had been big and beautiful. In comparison, this house was minute and mediocre. The truth, though, is that this house wasn’t our home and if it were up to us, we definitely wouldn’t have moved.

But a lot happens in ten years.

This house was where I received my matric exam results and experienced the conflicting feelings of pride and disillusionment – proud because I’d achieved five distinctions and a B for higher-grade maths; disillusioned because I’d realised by then that this achievement didn’t matter that much in the big, real world.

This was where I loved – truly loved – my first pooch. I’d always been a cat person but the arrival of the dachshund at the end of 2003 changed my mind about dogs forever.

This was where a friend picked me up for a night out. When he dropped me off in the early hours of the morning, he stopped his car in the middle of the street and kissed me. A few weeks later, we were in love. A few years later, I began leaving the house alone and tried to remember how to be single.

This was where, during a birthday party, I stealthily procured liquor for the tent at the bottom of the garden, where my sister and her teenage friends got drunk for the first time.

This was where I was awoken by strangers with guns. They drugged the German shepherd and beat up my father. They asked me how old I was and when I replied with a lie, they declared that I was too young to be raped. They drank all the wine in the bar. They hauled off their loot in my grandmother’s Ford. My sister came home and found us tied up and bloody in my parents’ room. She was hysterical, but I remember that moment as the most grateful moment of my life. We were going to be okay.

This was where a friend arrived to help me move out. I was excited and heartbroken to be leaving.

This was where I tried to explain to my confused father that he had a cancerous brain tumour. By that stage, he didn’t even know how to put on his seat belt or operate the microwave. During the following four months, I watched my father die in this house. For the last three nights, my sister and I camped out in my parents’ bedroom, waking up every few hours to screaming or to a soiled adult nappy. Shortly after 2 pm that Wednesday, I felt a sense of horror and relief as my dad’s death rattle diminished into silence.

This was where I met my uncle from Cape Town. My grandmother was dying of colon cancer and he’d come up to say goodbye. I was 26 and I’d never met my uncle before.

This was where I watched my mother reclaim her life. I saw her set up her own business. I cheered when she sold the couches that my father had loved but which everyone else had always despised. I helped her set up her online dating profile, and I shook my head and laughed with her when she called me with stories about sex maniacs and mad men. This house was where I met the man who is now her partner.

This was where I arrived with my then fiancé (now husband) one evening and announced our engagement to my family. My sister had already guessed why we were there and was beaming and bouncing in the passage when we arrived. A year later, she curled my hair in my grandmother’s old room and dressed me in a shirt that read ‘Marrying a rock star’ before we headed out for my hen night.

A lot happens in ten years.

Not all my memories of this house are good memories. Many memories are not even worth mentioning. But there are memories. This house is where my wedding dress hangs in a cupboard, where family photographs line the walls, where books I’ve read sit on shelves, where pets I love lie in the sun. I may not have lived there the whole time but at some point in the last decade, this house became a home.

 

This piece also appeared on Women24.

Illustration of house designed by Freepik

On parenting pooches

I wrote this piece back in 2013 for another blog. I’m re-publishing it here, as I think it’s an important part of my parenting journey and a good introduction to my happy hounds, Jack and Meg.


For someone who’s not a parent, I find myself reading mommy blogs quite often. Perhaps it’s some instinctual need to garner important information before I (one day) enter that world of Babygros, birth, maternity wear and mastitis. Perhaps it’s simply that there are a fair number of mommy blogs out there, and, y’know, they’re pretty well written. Whatever the reason, I recently found myself relating to those moms when I brought two hooligans home.

When my husband and I moved into our house – and when (most of) the boxes were unpacked – I went in pursuit of pets. We’d lived years without pets, impeded by our one-bedroom flat, and I did not want to wait any longer. My husband is highly allergic to cats, so we decided on dogs. After much research and trawling of animal websites, I came into contact with the Labrador Retriever Kennel Club, who work to rehome labs in need.

One day, I saw a message on their Facebook page: ‘We are awaiting information on 10 young Labradors rejected / dismissed from the police force. Who will be looking for homes – Gauteng area. Any preliminary interests can email us …’

Jack and Meg
Jack and Meg

Convinced that ex-police dogs would be perfect (they would have received basic training, right?), we headed off to the Vereeniging SPCA, picked out two pooches and brought them home the next week. I naively believed they would love our big garden, would go for swims in our pool, would play with all the toys I got them, would keep me company as I worked, would sleep soundly on their comfy bed … They would love their new lives.

They did. But I did not. We named them Meg and Jack – after The White Stripes, because they looked like white stripes as they dashed down the road whenever the gate opened. Having never lived in a domestic environment before, they were not housetrained. In fact, Jack had spent so long in the confines of a kennel that he sometimes peed while lying down! We were continually cleaning and we couldn’t leave them unattended lest they destroy something.

Everything was new to them, so they didn’t know what they were not allowed to chew. They chewed everything. They jumped up on my car and took off my back windscreen wiper. They ran off with the HTH bottle. They found a bag of coal near the braai and littered it all over the garden. They ripped a pipe off the outside of our house. One morning, they chewed through the wire for the freezer. They had pulled the plug out the wall first, and I joked that they were obviously taught to be safety conscious when they worked at the police.

But the situation did not feel funny at all. Whatever training they’d received at the police force was more harmful than helpful. An animal behaviouralist I spoke to explained that the police often train dogs using force, trying to ‘beat the aggression into them’. The fact is that Labradors are simply not aggressive dogs and we now had two troubled, troublesome pooches.

Of course, I knew that things would get better but at the time I felt overwhelmed, doubting whether I was cut out for this, wondering whether we’d made the right choice. I thought about what new mothers must feel like and I started to question whether I could ever handle children if I couldn’t even cope with canines.

Thankfully, things did improve. Meg and Jack are no longer tornadoes of destruction – partly because they’ve calmed down, partly because we’ve now learnt how to puppy-proof the house and garden. They’re also no longer skittish and scared. They’ve learnt not to run away when the gate opens and, after many treats, they’ve finally learnt to sit on command.

Most importantly, they’re now part of the family. They make us laugh every day and they display endless devotion to their new parents. We recently went away on a short holiday and we missed them terribly. I simply cannot imagine my home without these happy hounds.

As for human babies … Well, that’ll be a while. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading those mommy blogs.

 

Talking about postnatal depression and anxiety

When Belinda Mountain asked if I would write a guest post for her blog, Making Mountains (one of my favourite, favourite mommy blogs – I read every article!), I had a lot of ideas. In the end, I decided to write a piece on postnatal depression and anxiety.

It took a long time to write, as I wanted it to be personal and true, without being overly dramatic. I also knew I’d be putting this very personal experience into a very public space. This wasn’t just an account typed quickly into a Facebook forum, soon forgotten about amongst all the other questions and comments. No. Belinda’s blog has a well-established readership, and between her social media following and mine, we would drive even more traffic to the post.

Eeesh. Yes, it felt quite strange publishing these details online. I am quite a private person when it comes to these things. But it is because of what I’ve experienced that I feel it is so important that we start talking about mental illness. I feel more strongly about this than I do about my own privacy.

When Belinda published the post, the responses reaffirmed this for me. Some people left public comments; some messaged me privately:

  • Hi Kels – you’re brave and wonderful. I am actually crying with relief… xxx Can’t say much now, hot tears 🙁 🙁
  • You are so so not alone.
  • I have read your blog post three times now. I wanted to say how 1) brave you are – not only for sharing your story of PND with the world (I know it’s not easy), but for just being damn brave. 2) it was wonderfully written and it shocked me, because as friend with many moms you ‘forget’ about the mother – it is always the ‘how is the baby?’ and ‘they are so cute’; it then turns to ‘how are you coping?’ and not really listening because the baby is just too adorable. So yeah, that’s pretty much what I wanted to say.
  • Well done on the courage to tell and own your truth lady- very inspiring!
  • Your honesty is empowering and inspiring.
  • I went through the same thing and felt so alone at the time, you are very brave to write about it.
  • I read your blog. I take my hat off to you and salute your bravery. We all have dark parts that we hide from the world, and I can only hope to ever be as brave and honest as you were.

I was struck by how many people used words like ‘brave’ to describe my account. This is exactly why I decided to do this – because it shouldn’t have to be brave. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that someone you know experienced this.

We need to talk about this more. It’s important.

Here’s the piece:


I grew up around mental illness. I’ve lived in a house where visitors weren’t allowed because socialising was too hard. I’ve played along with hallucinations to get a relative to calm down (the worst one: worms coming out of the skin). I’ve hidden sharp objects and strong medication from self-harming, suicidal family members before.

So I knew that postnatal depression and/or anxiety may be a risk for me, genetically. But when I was pregnant and getting all those PND/PPD flyers thrown at me during antenatal classes and doctor’s appointments and clinic open days, I thought that my family history would actually make things easier: unlike someone unfamiliar with mental illness, I knew the signs, the symptoms. I would be able to recognise it. Surely.

That’s not what happened.

There were days, months into motherhood, when I would still just cry and cry and cry. On those days, I admitted that I needed help. But then the next day, I’d feel a bit better and I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, so getting help didn’t seem … justified. I was used to seeing the extreme side of mental illness, you see. I didn’t think what I was experiencing was bad enough to seek treatment.

But it was pretty bad actually, and I only realised how bad when I started feeling better. In the beginning, I chalked a lot of what I felt up to exhaustion. The sleep deprivation was pretty intense, and I’d underestimated the physical recovery that even a natural birth would require. As the months rolled on, I measured my mental health by how much I was crying or not crying, but it went much deeper than that: the sadness was intermittent; the anxiety and anger were what affected me every day.

I was paralysed with worry. Everything was so hard. Too hard. I entered survival mode. I carried on with work and I socialised when I had commitments, but the thought of going out filled me with dread. There were just too many things to think about, to worry about.

I was also hyper-vigilant and felt immense pressure to do things ‘right’. My anxiety about everything meant I had thought through every little, tiny detail about how best to change a nappy, pick a baby outfit, pack the cupboard, run through the bath routine … I was surviving through systems. If anyone else deviated from what I had worked out as ‘the best way’ (in my mind, also the only way) to do things, I would get upset and angry. And I wasn’t just a little cross. I was so often filled with rage – a hot rage that boiled up and shook inside me – over something small and stupid, like my husband dressing the baby in a different outfit than I’d planned. I tried to control it and I didn’t always explode with fury, but I still reacted by being cold and mean.

I didn’t recognise myself. I believe I am an inherently kind, fair person, and mom-me was a horrible mess – a shell of my former self; it felt like there was no me left. One morning, I told a friend that I didn’t know how to be a mom and also be a wife, friend, and business owner. I couldn’t do it. Motherhood had swallowed me up and spat out a person whose sole drive was to get through the day without falling apart. That’s all there was for me. That had become my life.

Thankfully, I did start to feel better and I did start to enjoy motherhood. And I even started enjoying other parts of my life again. The past few months have felt like the whole world has opened up to me again, where before I was stuck behind a glass window, looking out in wonder and bewilderment.

So how do you get yourself or your loved one out from behind that sheet of glass? Here’s my quick guide:

  1. If you know your wife/daughter/daughter-in-law/sister/friend is battling, call up a counsellor and/or doctor, put her in the car and take her to the appointment. Honestly, while I was often oblivious to just how bad things had become, there were days when I did recognise that I needed help but I still didn’t follow through because it was too hard for me to do it myself. As independent as I am, what I needed was someone to take control of the situation and take care of me.
  2. If you’re wondering if what you’re experiencing is legitimately bad enough to seek treatment, it probably is. I spent a lot of time googling ‘postnatal depression signs’ and seeing how many symptoms I could tick off. The fact is that the way this illness presents itself is different for everyone. You are allowed to ask for help. No medical professional is going to tell you to go back home because what you’re experiencing isn’t badenough. If you think something is wrong, it probably is.

So many people don’t speak about these things. Sometimes it’s stigma. Sometimes it’s just that it’s not really anyone else’s business. And I agree – it isn’t. But I also think it’s important that we start to talk about it more … so we know we’re not alone, so we know how to help each other, so we know how to help ourselves.

Sickness and sleeplessness

I started this year in full January-cliche mode – energetic, full of ideas for the new year, excited about all the plans I had. I wrote here about our marvellous Mauritius trip and how I’d returned feeling ‘rejuvenated’.

What a reckless word to use. The thing is, when you’re a parent, you just can’t use words like ‘rejuvenated’, ‘revitalised’ or ‘energised’. Either you’re already lying to yourself, or it won’t last long.

We got back from Mauritius and the next day, Reid was a bit out of sorts. At first, I thought it was the adjustment to being home and the late night he’d had the night before. (Our plane landed in the evening and after the whole passports-luggage-customs thing, we screeched into our driveway after 9 pm with Reid screaming in the back. Yes, Reid can handle new environments, but late nights – no.) Then later that day he sprouted a tooth, and we could see another tooth right under the gum. Ah, teething! More explanations for grumpiness.

But then he got a runny tummy that wasn’t going away and a fever that went away but then came back. He vomited all over me at 2 am, and stayed awake most of the night, not really crying, but just moaning for hours and hours in Mom’s arms. My baby who eats everything (except butternut, of all things) now wouldn’t eat at all. So while the nanny and the rest of the family kept telling me it just looked like bad teething symptoms, I still carted him off to the doctor.

Of course, the moment we arrived in the doc’s waiting rooms, Reid acted like he was cured, turning on the charm for the receptionists and giggling at their fish tank. The doctor ran some tests regardless, and we continued to monitor his symptoms during our no-sleep week.

The test results came back a few days later. Reid not only had salmonella but also E.coli bacteria! I was shocked and horrified. The doc said he likely caught something on the plane – possibly from food he ate, but it could have been something he touched (which had also been touched by someone who hadn’t washed their hands). And Reid touches everything. On top of this, he got two new teeth in the same week. The poor kid.

Sadly (but also thankfully, because yay for medicine), he had to go on his first course of antibiotics. Previously, I’d been so pleased that our fairly healthy baby had avoided antibiotics. But here we were, scratching off another baby first. The medicine’s packaging depicted a grinning dinosaur and stated ‘tasty banana flavour’ so at least there was that.

I’ve tried not to dwell too much on the helplessness I felt – helpless that I couldn’t have protected him from getting sick (short of staying home and not going anywhere, ever); helpless that hugs and boobs and bum-patting were not enough to cure him. But I guess I’m glad that my instincts were right – that I knew it was more than just teething and I took him to the doc – and that despite my own exhaustion, I made it through the horrid week somewhat sane and still conscious enough to comfort him.

Reid is feeling much better now and we have had a bit more sleep this week. I don’t think I’ll be saying I feel ‘rejuvenated’ any time soon, but I can say, without hesitation, that I feel very grateful for my healthy, happy baby. And of course, for the extra zzzs.

 

Getting my house in order

My dad was a hoarder. Now, I know you hear ‘hoarder’ and you think, Ah, we all hold on to stuff we don’t need, don’t we? Most of us have a bit of a hoarding problem. But no. No. My dad was a real hoarder. He kept everything.

Once, I was on my way to the rubbish bin to throw out a badly chipped glass – so badly chipped, it was unusable … or so most people would think. But I was intercepted.

‘How could you think about throwing that away?’ His voice reached a higher pitch. He was astonished and anxious. After all, what would have happened if we’d lost the opportunity to repurpose that glass, to use it to store something?

My mom once tackled his cupboard and found 13 (thirteeeeeen) pairs of jeans that no longer fitted him. This included three pairs of bellbottoms from the 1970s. Even if they did eventually come back into fashion, my dad hadn’t been that size since before I was born.

And that’s what this really comes down to for me. Those jeans, and genes.

I, too, battle to throw things away but – ever aware of my inherited idiosyncrasies – I try to keep this in check. Although my instinct is to hold on to things in case I need them later, I have a system: I ask myself if this item is something my dad would have kept in his cupboard for 20 years. If it is, it gets tossed.

A week before I went into labour, I was struck by the nesting instinct. Feeling like a pregnancy cliche, but driven by a hormonal force beyond my control, I cleared up cupboards and decluttered drawers in a tidying frenzy. My theory about the nesting instinct is that the pregnant mother naturally understands that there will be zero time to tidy up once there’s a burbling, babbling, bawling baby in the house, so she tackles the task beforehand … and then collapses in an achy, sweaty heap on the bed, because, y’know, pregnancy means being hot and sore.

This theory is certainly how things panned out in the N-Y household. Nine months: the age of our child, and also the time it has been since we tidied properly. Don’t misunderstand – our house has been kept clean and liveable, but it is astounding how much stuff a small family can stockpile in such a short time. The kipple has reproduced itself.

And so we are addressing the mess. I’m finding it both a conflicting and liberating process. Using the Dad’s Jeans Test, I have managed to ignore my instincts and cast away a whole range of potentially useful but ultimately useless items. It feels like a detox for my house.

What I’m really feeling at the moment, though, is like I’m going through a process of clearing out the mind; a casting-aside of thought patterns that don’t serve me. A centering. In new-parent survival mode, it was hard not to hoard up information, not to hold on to advice and expectations and anxiety. It’s felt frenetic and unsettling.

Now, as we slow down and saunter towards the end of an eventful year, I’m making space … for family, for friends, for good foundations – stuff that never goes out of fashion and doesn’t clutter up the cupboards.

Despite himself, I think my dad would have been proud.

 

Photo by Viktor Hanacek via Picjumbo.com