Published Blue Crow Magazine, April 2010
In the far-flung bowels of the public hospital there is a large tutorial-type room. ‘Parent Education’ is stamped on the door in black bold letters….
The back wall is stacked ceiling high with white, hospital issue pillows and beanbags; chairs line the outside rim of the room in a horseshoe shape. We sit, following the clear boy, girl formation established by the other couples. We do not hold hands, the other clearly set trend.
Perched on the edge of a plastic school chair next to a table stacked high with laminated teaching tools and a life sized cloth baby and placenta, is our Parent Educator, Iris Booth. Pitch black dyed hair is sculpted in a wave atop an aging face caked in yellowing foundation, penciled-in eyebrows and a painted red lopsided grin.
Dripping in gaudy gold embroidered two-piece suit outfits—my favourite featuring a bulging 2inch high leopard stitched in gold over the right shoulder—she stands, teetering on wildly high stiletto shoes and says, “something you should really all know about me is that I am, in fact, a true yogi”.
Her accent blends the rounded sounds of the old English upper class, with something muddled and unidentifiable. The word “centimetres”, called upon frequently in our cervix focused sessions, is given a particular sophisticated flair, becoming a long, drawn out, “sontametres”.
Iris, with pretend cloth baby and placenta, spends a lot of time telling us the same thing, and it soon becomes clear that her current incarnation as a midwife in an Australian public hospital is no indication of her true prestige. “In Oxford they do things differently,” she tells us, “and I am, as you all know, Oxford trained…”
She has a love for the words ‘smartly’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘facetious’, which she can construct entire sentences out of by using them all at once. One time, when recounting a story of having to attend an emergency home birth back in England, she masterfully combined this dexterity of language with some shameless self-promotion, telling us that “fortunately, I was able to get to this birth very smartly because I had a sports car…”
She starts the class by asking us what we all like to do with our spare time but almost everyone decides to instead tell us what their day job is, and we end up listening to a roll call of names and occupations.
First up, a quietly self-assured, Acupuncture Couple. As the class continues, they will display a fondness for politely raising their hands to ‘just ask a question’ that is always a statement seemingly designed to reveal something special and exotic about their herbal lives—they will be planting the placenta in the back garden, for example, just like the Aborigines. (Iris thinks this is ‘simply marvellous’).
They are followed by the Age Gap Challenged Couple, an older mum with a dreadlocked, Converse clad younger boyfriend. She has two children already and his poorly-timed, sexually themed ‘jokes’ end up putting him in close contention as the third.
Then there is the attractive and softly spoken American Psychiatrist Couple. Iris takes an instant dislike to the woman, who asks a question, twice, before Iris walks to the other side of the room saying, “is someone talking, who’s talking?” like she has a pesky fly buzzing in her ear. When asked when their baby is due, her partner raises his eyes to the ceiling. “I really hope I get this right”, he says, before guessing, “November?” like a hopeful contestant on a game show. The baby is due in September.
There is also Blondie and her older husband, who introduce themselves as “liking to travel”, but when asked where to, respond instantly with, “Borneo”. And finally, two cousins from Kathmandu (Iris ‘just loves’ Nepal) who sit there speaking Nepali throughout the first few classes, and then just stop turning up.
My partner and I are at the end of the circle and by the time the name game reaches us, everyone, including Iris, has long since lost any interest. She momentarily perks up when she hears my partner is a musician, but becomes thoroughly deflated to learn that he composes music electronically.
The class begins. Two flip charts are positioned at the front of the room with large, empty clock faces drawn onto them, and on the whiteboard a kind of comprehension/ brainteaser exercise has been scribbled up:
Joe, an IT professional, works full time in the city. He and Mary have just had a newborn baby. They live in the outer suburbs with a dog. Her parents are not in the same state, and his mother lives in the Northern Beaches and does not drive a car. How will they manage the 21 tasks (numbered and listed on the other side of the whiteboard) in a 24-hour day? Use a red pen for the primary carer, and a blue pen primary breadwinner, and fill in the tasks and times onto the clock face provided.
Iris instructs us to break into two groups, the carers and the money earners, and form circles around the empty clock faces. Confused, my partner and I stay rooted to our seats—he’s a full-time musician, surviving off a few short gigs a week, while I am a frugal tight-ass who plans to live off a one day a week wage. In the end we just follow our respective genders (you can guess which way they split).
For the woman in my group this is the stuff of pure pleasure. They are practically licking their lips and rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of fitting these long lists of dreary jobs onto a fixed little clock face.
While I sit staring at the list of the obvious and the absurd (it includes: feed the baby, change the baby, weed the garden and walk the dog), the over-eager women band together like a lost tribe from a female version of Lord of the Flies. The first thing they do is get rid of the man. A big blue streak across the clock sees him up at 6, out the door at 7, and back at 8 to walk the dog, eat his dinner and go to bed.
“Gee, that’s some kind of life this guy’s got,” I say, but I am drowned out by a cacophony of mums-to-be fighting over where to schedule the laundry, daytime naps and nappy changes.
“We will go to bed at 10.”
“10?—Is that good? Or 12, maybe we will go to bed at 12, and get up at 6.”
“Let’s have a shower at six.”
“Six? Why do we need at shower at six, can we just stay in our pyjamas?”
“No, we have a shower, change the baby, and then have a nap…”
“What about checking our emails?”
“And the laundry!”
“And who’s making the breakfast anyway?”
In unison—“He is.”
Stupefied, I can hardly keep abreast. I’m still baffled by the fact that we just had a fucking shower so we could go back to bed, but am determined to show some kind of allegiance to my gender and the bizarre ritual they are reveling in.
“What about playing with the baby?” I suggest.
“Oh, play with it while you feed it,” they dismiss with a wave of the hand.
The clock face has become a gash of red marks, delineating a day of domesticity, and there is a big wide empty space of blue that the breadwinner has disappeared into. But these woman are unstoppable, there are tasks that remain to be scheduled.
“Time for ourselves!” one quips. “Iris said we need time for ourselves!”
“And special time, what about special time with our husbands?!”
“Oh, for gods sake just walk the dog with him if you want some time together”, the older mum snarls.
In the midst of this frenzy, one of them asks, almost as an afterthought, “what about feeding the baby?”
A long, silent pause, before things become frantic.
“We should feed the baby!”
“Has anyone fed the baby?”
“Oh my God, we haven’t fed the baby!!”
I take this as my cue to leave; catching my partner’s eye and motioning to the door, we quietly slip away.
Walking home I hoped that the task was not really about timetabling, but rather the absurdity of it, and about demonstrating that in a 24hr day you wont have time to scratch your ass once the baby is born, but it seemed such messages were so masterfully disguised that they were lost on this tribe of hormonal women and bewildered men—as was any practical advice to help us prepare for the full-forced assault of birth and baby.
But as we left, no wiser than when we entered, it did seem there were a few lessons to be gleaned; namely, that gender roles and perceptions haven’t really changed all that much, and, that somewhere in a 24hr day we should remember to feed our baby…