Messy families matter
And everything will be alright. Cover me in sunshine!
It is quite possible this song will never end. Pippi and Penny are singing lustily and dancing with inexhaustible energy.
They’re about to launch into Chorus Number eight.
Tell me that the world’s been spinning since the beginning
I look across the room. The rest of my family watches with increasingly dazed expressions. We have dinner guests, my writing mentor and her daughter. We’ve not met in person before today. There are so many things I want to ask her. This woman is a national treasure, a living legend. But neither of us can say a word. We are both held hostage to the performance of two pint-sized minstrels. The song is about to loop around again. I seize the moment.
“Hooray! Well done!” I clap loudly, drowning out the music. The others follow suit. Pippi has frozen, mid dance-move, hands above her head. She glares at me, then her face crumples. She rushes from the room wailing loudly. Penny hesitates for a fraction of a second, then sobs as well. They have both exited but remain close enough for the sound of their extreme lamentation to pervade the room with effective clarity. I draw a long breath.
General wisdom seems to have it that families are the best place for children to grow into adults. This truth is so well-accepted that, in 1993, the United Nations declared May 15 as the International Day of Families. Why families? Families can be messy and chaotic and they don’t always get it right. Surely it would be tidier and more effective to raise children in well-run institutions? A large child-raising operation could take advantage of economies of scale so that the children might be fed, cleaned and educated with a ruthless efficiency. Why is this not best?
It was in the middle of last year that my family life and my professional life came together in the most unexpected of ways. For many years, I have had a writing mentor. She is a highly acclaimed writer and poet whom I would email regularly. We knew each other well, even though we’d never met.
Cate’s daughter was staying in Melbourne on a regional exchange program (she usually lives in the country). By a bizarre twist of fate, the school hosting the program was the same school where my eldest was a student. Cate’s daughter Rosie was supposed to be billeted to stay with a family, but this plan fell through.
The solution presented itself to me with perfect clarity. Rosie should stay with us. The thought was overwhelming, but it just seemed right. Here was my chance to do something small to help the woman who had helped me in immeasurable ways throughout my writing career. Plus, I felt God tapping me on the shoulder. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? That pull. That sense that God is saying, “You don’t have to do this, Kate, but as opportunities go, this one comes highly recommended.”
Here’s the thing. I know how to make my family look awesome for short stretches of time. If we’re only meeting for an hour or two, we can be our best selves. Polite, patient, sweet-smelling, well-turned-out. But two hours is the limit. And I need a lot of prep time beforehand. If I had someone stay at my house for two weeks, she would definitely see the wheels come off.
Despite my strong sense that this was right, I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive. What happens when somebody sees how we really live? The rooms where we hide all the mess? What if Rosie sees the inner workings of our family and then rejects us? And then tells her mum? And then I lose my mentor? What then?
We sit now in the living room, slightly dazed, as the twins, no longer covered in sunshine, make their distress widely known. We didn’t even manage two hours of apparent normalcy.
I go into the next room to find two distraught little girls. ‘You didn’t like our music!’ ‘We had something special for the ending, but you clapped too soon!’
We can hear voices from the other room, Cate, Rosie, my husband and my other kids are calling for an encore. As we reassemble for this one-night-only repeat performance, I look around the room. I don’t know what it is that makes the family, with all of its accompanying oddness and mess, such a profoundly important institution, but it’s the keystone of every great society.
In the end, Rosie had a wonderful time. An only child, Rosie experienced a house full of siblings for two weeks. There was mess and there were meltdowns, yet despite this Rosie helped us to feel like, as a family, we had something wonderful and profound to offer. And that felt amazing.
My career as a writer and my career as a mother always seemed at odds with each other. Family responsibilities crowd my writing time. Writing often means neglecting my family and taking domestic shortcuts. I never realised that one nourishes the other. The constant push and pull is not causing damage. It’s like the pistons of an engine.
This Wednesday, we will share a family dinner together. It’s been a few months since we last caught up. The kids can’t wait to see Rosie again and I might even try to have a writerly conversation with Cate. It will be messy and chaotic.
The food will be unimpressive and we are sure to forget something important.
It doesn’t matter. We are family, after all.
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