The single mother’s Santa Claus

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there …

When Bethesda wondered during a telephone call if she would see Santa in the living room again this year, her father, who no longer lives with us, replied, “You probably won’t, darling.”

Upset, Bethesda turned to me. “Santa doesn’t exist! I think it was Dad all along!”

I told her that there was one way to find out: to wait and see whether Santa would turn up.

“But you mustn’t get out of bed too quickly after he leaves, lest he never come back,” I said.

And so she waited, but no Santa appeared.

“Don’t be sad, bunny,” I said. “Even if it was Daddy, the Christmas spirit was alive in him.”

But then, at 12 a.m., there was the clatter of 12cm wedges on the bathroom tiles and the snorting resulting from the effort of trying not to suffocate, both under a heavy nylon beard and in a vast tomato red synthetic felt eBay Santa suit stuffed with feather cushions in 30 degree heat. (If you look at Santa’s spectacles in the pictures, you will see that they are steaming up.)

I suspect that Santa has an easier time of it in the Northern Hemisphere.


Subdued, that tinkle of bells stolen from an eight-year-old child’s toybox.

Santa – for it was the right jolly old Christmas elf himself! – wove his way into Bethesda’s room, trying not to trip over his red trousers in the wedges he couldn’t see because of his belly.


Ready for his big moment, he suddenly realised that as there was no moon out, he was completely invisible. So, holding his enormous feather-stuffed belly, he lumbered out of the bedroom as quickly as he could and into the kitchen, where he lit a candle (for Santa is, above all, resourceful). Praying that his nylon beard would not catch fire, he gingerly placed the candle on Bethesda’s desk, before crying, “HO! HO!” and, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” in the deepest voice he could muster (the end effect being something like Benicio del Toro the day after the Oscars).

In the candlelight, Bethesda stirred, paled, and – literally – gasped.

Her disorientation was adorable.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” she managed, causing Santa to worry that she would either:

a) have a panic attack, or,

b) be scarred for life, suffering nightmares about an obese geriatric stranger in a red suit suddenly appearing in her bedroom with a candle.

Santa was also worried that his voice would give him away, and so muttered, “HO! HO!” again, if with a little less alacrity, before lumbering out into the living room and changing at a speed generally known only to Peregrine Falcons. He stuffed the evidence under a mohair throw on the sofa and, just as rapidly, pulled on a long white skirt and pink camisole (Andrej Pejic Santa).

I crashed into Bethesda in the corridor.

“What’s going on?” I asked, wiping the perspiration from my face and throat. My hair was everywhere. “I just woke up – I’d fallen asleep reading a book, and heard a noise.”

Disorientated, Bethesda addressed me with glowing eyes. “I SAW SANTA!”

I slapped my head. “I THOUGHT I heard a ‘ho, ho, ho’ and saw a flash leaving your room!”

Her words fell over each other. “I know it wasn’t you, because you only missed him by a second! And he was really, really, really fat, besides, and had a HUGE beard and a long curling moustache, like Shifu in Kung Fu Panda, and his hair wasn’t long and dark. And he didn’t sound like you at all – he had a really, really deep, gravelly voice.”

“He did?”

“Yes! Like this [she made a sound like water flowing down a drain]. And then he took all these presents out from under his coat, and then I saw him turn into a pin prick of light and squeeze through the flyscreen, and then he turned into Santa again and leap up onto the roof like a superhero – mama, you should have seen him: he almost fell off! But I didn’t see the reindeer.”

Confused by the second half of her story, I said, “Maybe they flew off in a different direction?”

Bethesda nodded at this, delirious. “Oh, mama,” she cried, “SANTA IS REAL!”


Afternoon at the gallery

David Mackay Harrison is a gifted local artist with a gallery by the beach.


The weather was uncertain, but Bethesda and I wanted to see the latest exhibition.


This faun is nestled in one of the perimeter walls. I used to talk to Bethesda about it when she was a toddler. Sometimes we’d sit together on the grass beneath it and play with inverted hibiscus flowers, pretending they were girls in ballgowns, dancing.


This sculpture is one of my favourites. I imagine her shielding herself from the lashing rains.


The music of the fountain on the terrace competes with that of the wild surf across the road.


This ball reminds me of the Palantír in Lord of the Rings. In it, I expect to see the Eye of Sauron.


Inside, preparations for a party. I never drink alcohol. Cold milk is more my thing.


The first painting I noticed: Joanna Burgler‘s “Buttercup Dairy”. Detail is Joanna’s thing.


“Coiled Ropes,” however, was our favourite Burgler. Bethesda said that she felt that she could sink her hand into the painting and abrade it against the ropes’ tough fibres.


This is “Rebecca”, one of David’s sensual sculptures. I would find this too distracting around the house; the breasts demand too much attention.


“Nadine” has an entirely different impact.


David’s nod to Degas, “Juliette”, is all about the waist and thighs. The curve is almost musical.


This is “Tanya”. Again, the breasts hang like ripe fruit.


I was transfixed by French-Canadian artist Marcel Desbiens’ dreamscapes.


The petals of a flower, falling.


His work is simply rapturous.


When Bethesda saw David’s “Joseph and Lita”, she deeply blushed. “Don’t photograph THAT one, mama!” she said, turning away.


Robert Simpson‘s “White Ascension” carried its own glow.


This is South African artist Mel Brigg’s resonant and strangely delicate “Empty Bowl”.


In contrast, Susan Yacoub’s jewellery: as bright and textured as a reef.


A dramatic Susan Y necklace, made for a dramatic entrance … or exit.


David’s wife posed for the erotic “Kimberley”.


Here she is in black and smiling with a friend.


I love this picture of Bethesda. If I recall, she’d just spied a platter of grapes.


The music, too, was beautiful.


I gnawed on watermelon and celery. Not on the menu, but on a tray with canapes.


Of course, Bethesda wanted to sit on the two gigantic chairs at the gallery’s entrance.


And this is me, under my vented tartan golfing umbrella, making my way home with my girl-child in the rain. No collagen in the lips, just a weird fish-eye effect created by the angle.


Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution

Pre-orders are now being taken for Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, the book I was inspired to write by my experience of motherhood and marriage. From my introduction:

“Like almost every other woman I know, I once perceived motherhood as the consolation prize for women who didn’t have what it took to make it in the workplace. In her mid-thirties, a girlfriend – now, ironically, a family-cultivating politician – dismissed mothers as ‘drudges’ and ‘breeders’. To us, being a mother was acceptable only if motherhood was not one’s raison d’etre. As a sidebar mention, it passed muster; as a passion, it indicated only a paucity of capacity and imagination.

“In the West, this perceptual template is now near-universal. The nurturance of a child is considered a squandering of the educated and the elite. Female high-achievers now hunger for ‘challenges’ in place of connections. British economist Alison Wolf reported that women now make up the majority of undergraduates in the West. ‘There are now four women graduating with bachelors degrees in the US for every three men,’ she wrote. ‘In the UK, almost 60 per cent of students, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, are female.’ An American study of Harvard and Radcliffe graduates demonstrated that women ‘increasingly delayed marriage as the decades progressed, and nearly 40 per cent of women in all three groups never had children at all …’”

The afterword is about the shocking impact of Mama on every level of my life, from the professional to the most intimate. KJS Anand, Rhodes Scholar, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology and Neurobiology and the 2009 Nils Rosen von Rosenstein laureate, had this to say:

“Motherhood is not only the root for the survival of our species, but also lies at the core of all human functions – biological, social, cultural, spiritual, economic, educational, artistic, and every other aspect of human existence. In the context of our postmodern society, Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution is undeniably the most important book of the 21st century.

“It explores, with exquisite beauty, a magical and mysterious world of motherly being, fascinating and filial aspects of femininity, the developmental impact of being Daddy – for him and his child. The dysfunctions of our world emanate from the disastrous consequences of devaluing mothers and motherhood, sacrificed for sexual satisfaction, material benefits, and corporate profits in a male-dominated world. Humanity decides, often in retrospect, that ‘civilization’ or ‘progress’ were not all that they were made out to be, perhaps a return to our innate nature and natural ways may serve society better. Now is one such moment in time. Mama sounds the clarion call to return motherhood to its former glory.”

Dr. John Irvine, founder of the Read Clinic, best-selling author and high-profile child psychologist, added: “A seminal piece that draws a line in the sand on what motherhood should be all about. Mama is a statement that has the potential to realign motherhood, and is so intelligently written. [It is] to motherhood what Germaine Greer was to womanhood.”

Pre-order Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution below:


“I had not slept for staring at my child, for in herself, she was the dawn.”
- from Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution


Saturday in a small coastal town

Monkey and I packed our umbrella and stainless steel water bottle in its neoprene Ed Hardy tote, and strolled into town. The weather was insanely beautiful.


My darling girl had been looking forward to the Prawn Festival for months.


We passed her favourite stairs. As a big toddler, she would invariably ask me to stop so she could run up and down them twenty times. This after a day out. And I would watch her, awed.


Reaching the bridge, we stopped to look out over the water.


We arrived to the most glorious array of food smells – prawn dumplings, prawns marinated in garlic, Thai prawns with noodles, prawn rice paper rolls and gourmet chips, fresh prawns …


This handsome tiger snake was part of an environmental show for children. A British friend later noted that he would make a beautiful set of boots, the blackguard.


Perfect poster art: Paul Hogan in his faraway youth.


This ride reminded me of the pivotal – and tragic – scene in Revenge of the Sith, in which Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side. It’s a scene I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.


And this was the one-eyed ticket man, whose lips looked as if they had been seared by sun.


The colours of the rides were brilliant, like the colours in a dream.


I wondered what it must be like to find one’s face airbrushed onto a carnival ride. Megan Fox and Beyonce must find life very strange. Or perhaps not.


Chocolate gelato and 32 degree heat: a charmingly clownish derangement.


For the very first time, Monkey was tall enough to drive her own dodgem.


This discovery was the source of significant joy.


The experience was even better.


I love ferris wheels, but always worry that they’ll fall over. Reassurance is pointless; there’s always a first time. The most unlikely things happen. My lovely child, for instance.


This ferris wheel overlooked the Richmond River and the Pacific Ocean. From July to October, we watch hundreds of whales migrating north, the mothers breaching with their calves.


The carnival workers dried their boardshorts and rash vests on the equipment.


Lake Prospect, which we passed on the long walk home. Pelicans drift here at dusk.


In the water, a leaf that looked like a heart or a butterfly.


Monkey implored me to stop so she could climb and grapple and slide in the playground.


While she played, I was riveted by the green beauty of a tree.


She then dozed on her favourite hound. (“Mama, can we stop? I want to sit on the doggies!”)


A crow took centre stage on the road, threatening mynahs.


Above us, cockatoos wheeled in the sky.


Having walked for five hours, we could barely make it home through the rainforest. The exhaustion was delicious. Sometimes life is absolutely perfect.


Assault rifles, David Lynch and your child

I have never been a fan of David Lynch’s films, but his foundation is beautiful.

Stress is one of the biggest problems our children face; I address this at some length in Mama. From the book: “The other day, Bethesda and I caught the school bus together. Thirty or so primary school-aged children boarded. After a minute, their behaviour degenerated to a terrifying degree – they were literally screaming at the back, pouring water on each other, shouting, shrieking, jabbering. The driver had to stop to calm them. I mean, the degree of agitation was terrifying. Not [because of] bad parenting, [but] extremely stressed parenting.”

Before school each morning, Bethesda and I meditate on our mats for five minutes. She then chooses a single pose from her children’s yoga cards. I read the text, we practise the position together, and we begin school. This is not a straightforward procedure; Bethesda is intellectually high-octane, and not given to stillness. The first weeks were a little fraught. She resisted the enforced stillness, but has come to enjoy its effects. I’m hoping that with time, she will begin not only to explore this level of awareness, but to revel in it.

David Lynch is right; the difference meditation makes to children is significant, and the practice should be introduced to all schools. It helps mothers and fathers, too.

Homeschooling: nerd incubator or the future of education?

The decision to homeschool was fraught. I remember feeling as if the floor were dropping from beneath my feet. What was I doing? Would my daughter metamorphose into some kind of freak, falling behind academically and losing the ability to relate to other children? At a Mensa function, I met a university student who had been homeschooled. He was sixteen or so and in his second year of physics. Wide tie, brown suit, awkward. Brilliant, too, but that was beside the point. This was clearly a person with social difficulties. I knew of another, who spoke in a wheedly voice and made peculiar hand gestures. Did I want Bethesda to be a strange, hothoused flower? And how would I cope? Could I bear rehashing the bilge I was taught at school?


This last question in particular got me thinking. Maybe the problem isn’t the material we’re taught, but the way in which it’s taught. Since starting school, Bethesda’s manners and her enthusiasm for learning had deteriorated. On her return from school the first week, she shocked me. I had never seen her look sad before. Angered, yes; annoyed, yes; but never sad.

It broke my heart. Friends told me that I would have to develop a thicker skin, that her sadness was temporary. It would make her strong, they said.

They were wrong.

Over two and a half years, my ebulliently happy, sweet and gifted little girl gradually withdrew into herself. The child I walked home from school was newly surly, exhausted, cynical. Her expressions and behaviour changed. The pride she took in herself slowly eroded.

Should I homeschool? I asked. “No,” I was told. Homeschooled children become nerds.

Bethesda’s teacher at school, a prim, well-presented woman in her fifties, appeared responsible. And yet Bethesda would tell me that – despite having being evaluated by a developmental psychologist as being in the 99th percentile – she had been placed in the lowest reading group and that learning had become “boring”. Her handwriting was a mess – inverted Zs and so on – and her drawings reflected her dejection: rushed, executed without pleasure.

She was always sick, always unhappy.

I was quick – “Quick as a crocodile!” as Bethesda said – to respond to her reports of being bullied, and there were many. The school was not the problem; I was hearing the same reports from every parent. Her godmother’s daughter, a beautiful, slender girl and dux of the most exclusive girls’ school in the country, had been removed from her tony college after being singled out by a group of girls who taunted her – not about her looks or her achievements, but about the shape of her sex. Their language was unbelievable. The bullies in question were fourteen years old, white-cotton-glove- and straw-hat-wearing young ladies.


Similarly, a friend told of his experiences at one of the country’s most exclusive boys’ schools – being regularly spat upon and punched in the canteen queue, having things stolen, covering up for a paedophiliac classmate who had molested his five-year-old female cousin because he was “one of us” (the molester is now an enthusiatic life saver at our beaches).

The current level of bullying is almost incomprehensible. And yet we accept it. Bullying is the norm, “part of life”. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Problem is, bullying can and does kill.

Why? Because bullying teaches weakness, not strength. It teaches children to understand themselves as victims, and teaches them that terror is not only a part of education, but essentially ratified: a rite of passage. “But it prepares them for the workplace!” one mother argued. This, too, is wrong. Adults bullied in the workplace have options. They can quit, ask to be transferred or sue. But children have no options. They can’t leave the school or request a transfer to another class. A child can’t sue. Their only options? Endurance, internalisation or collapse.

Bethesda complained about the outrageous language – among six- and seven-year-olds! – and the casual violence. I wrote to her teacher again and again. Bethesda begged to be homeschooled but I resisted, convinced by others to persevere “for her own good”. And then, in her second year, Bethesda was targeted by a tall, strong girl and the bullying began in earnest. She no longer played with the other children, but spent her lunchtimes in the library emailing me. “When I’m at school,” she whispered, “I sit and wish I had a wooden plane so I could fly home to you.”


She began suffering agonising stomach pains at night, to the point where she would sob. We ended up in Emergency twice. She had ultrasounds. Physically, she was fine.

“It’s psychosomatic,” the doctor said. “Is she having trouble at school?”

I didn’t know what to do. The chorus around me kept repeating that it would pass, that she would adjust, but it didn’t and she didn’t. The stress became intolerable. I snapped the day the bully walked up to my seven-year-old daughter and said, “Fuck you.”

Having announced that I would be homeschooling Bethesda, I was approached by a teacher in the playground one afternoon. “I am so happy that you’ve decided to homeschool,” she confided. “I worked with Bethesda’s teacher. When I pointed out that Bethesda was in the wrong reading group – her reading is exceptional – the teacher ignored me. ‘They’re all idiots,’ she said. She ignored Bethesda’s needs. When she finished her work early, the teacher would tell her to rub it out and start again so she’d have something to do! It was unbelievable! And she read every one of your emails out to the staffroom – she read all the parents’ emails out to the staffroom! Her contempt for the children was disgusting. It made me wonder why I bother teaching.”

The following day, I withdrew Bethesda from school, on the grounds that I no longer felt that she was physically or psychologically safe. Having picked up her exercise books, I was shocked not only by the disastrous quality of the teaching, but by the dozens of worksheets. Teaching in 2013, it seemed, consisted primarily of printing worksheets from the internet.

I filed a complaint with the Department of Education, gave Bethesda a month off to recover, an inspector from the Board of Studies visited to ensure that we had an appropriate environment and resources, and then we began homeschooling in earnest. It was terrifying. And then, bit by bit, it all began to come together. I spent the first term establishing her level in every subject and then began to teach. Initially, not so easy. The behavioural aftermath of school was a challenge. Every morning, she would start an argument, throw a tantrum. I was bewildered. And then I noticed that the rage would always take place around the same time. I confronted her. That time. she said, was when the bully would target her. Every single day, her drink bottle would be knocked over, she would be called names, her schoolwork would be defaced. And then she wept: a catharsis. Bethesda was never difficult at that time of morning again.


This month marks our one-year homeschooling anniversary. 1200 hours of intimacy, joy and learning Bethesda would otherwise have wasted being taught the uninspiring by the indifferent. Her progress in every area has been astonishing. She anticipates her lessons, and revels in their difficulty. We watch documentaries about mythology, set up weather stations and halite crystal experiments, and she clamours for spelling tests. Her behaviour has improved immeasurably, as has her mood. And every afternoon, she plays with her friends. She is, at long last, happy.

And then this week, her exam results were delivered (all exams are undertaken with teacher supervision at the local school). This was her Naplan score …


… and these were her ICAS results:


Homeschooling. It’s the future of education.


The gift of loss

People react differently to loss. Some rail against it, perceiving the deaths of loved ones, missed opportunities and broken relationships as an insult or within a kind of a punitive framework. Others attempt to insulate themselves against loss by refusing to love, shying away from tenderness as if from a vampire, or by working and travelling compulsively.

Stillness in pain: a difficult task.

It is not difficult, however, to be immobilised by bereavement. The loss of a beloved has the impact of an avalanche or mudslide; it hits, and we are buried, lost to the world. A dear friend lost his wife to cancer late last year. I can tell whether he has been talking or thinking about her by the tenor of his voice. When absorbed by the day’s activities, he is characteristically jovial; when she has been present in his thoughts, his voice is low, broken.

Grief can raze the spirit. On hearing that a gentle, merry friend died suddenly of cancer, I burst into tears. This wasn’t the apocalypse of my brother’s suicide, but a fresh pain; I still cry every time I think of him. As a boy, he survived his mother’s suicide; as a man, he did not survive his wife telling him that she had fallen in love with another man. His twenties and thirties were lost in a delirium of cocaine and heroin abuse; in his forties, he fell in love for the first time, with a woman who had the same history of substance abuse but a different sexual history: one of infinitely sad and terrible abuse. Her swings were violent, disorientating. He didn’t care. They married and had a child. He desperately loved them both. His sickness shook his wife from her contempt. He died with her and their child by his bedside.

My gentle, merry friend did not understand that loss can be the greatest of opportunities, allowing for a revision of priorities and choices. The loss of his wife triggered the avalanche of his mother’s loss, a grief that had lain dormant for over fifty years.

In the first three decades of my life, I fought loss as if it were an enemy: tooth and claw. My brother’s death changed me. I now sit with loss and let it change me, let it blow open the windows of my soul to adventure, wisdom, a greater love. The sheer experience of life transforms. I tell my daughter, who is eight, that loss can also entail ecstasy.

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

- Pablo Neruda

August has been an extraordinary month for work. I have been asked to address a major scientific conference in the States next year – more details on that soon – and then this and this. Transformations and adventures. And contemplation of that which washes away.

AIR_Edward Robert Hughes_03