I became a bigger awkwardness (literally) to my Mum’s condition when I tried on my new school uniform for Big School and stuck out my belly as far as it would go and joyfully exclaimed “Look Mummy! I can be pregnant like you!” My Mum, who was very concerned that the size of my uniform was so much larger than the size of my age, looked at me and retorted “Well, you’ll have to stop snacking then, won’t you!”, and looked away in disgust.
My very pregnant Mother came to my school with a beautiful home-made cake for my sixth birthday. My grade one class sang me a Happy Birthday and I was ecstatic. My Mum was allowing me to eat cake! Better! She’d made one especially for me. I’d actually never liked the confected cream sponges that usually featured at kids’ birthdays in Australia in the 80s. I always secretly hoped for an ice-cream or cookie cake. But I loved my cake anyway, because Mum loved me! Cake proved it.
Two days later my Dad woke me early to visit my Grandma. I had no idea why Dad was so insistent on visiting Nan, especially so early in the morning, because I got the distinct impression that Dad didn’t like Nan. I had just previously learnt the art of the eyeroll, and Dad practised eye-rolling a lot when Nan was around. I was happily playing with my Mum’s old sheet music on the old piano in Nan’s dark and musty lounge room, when Dad called to inform me that I had a new baby brother. My Nan asked me if I was excited and I told her that I was, even though I was really a little bit disappointed because I had wanted a sister. I asked if I could have some of the special chocolate almonds from Christmas and she said “Ok, but only a few. Your Mother has told me not to give you too much food”. I told her that my neighbours and some of my aunties had reassured me that I was in a ‘puppy fat phase’ and I’d grow out of it soon enough. But she gave me a doubtful look and suggested I go for a swim instead.
It seemed as though over Christmas, my weight had become a matter of public discussion. It was clear that I had been seen a little too much, but not heard, while everyone discussed what would become of me. My Nan was the worst, she was the malicious matriarch of the family grapevine. I must mention here that my own maternal grandmother had, and has nearly maintained a girth that rivals her height. But pointing out to her one day while I was hugging her a goodbye, that my arms could barely go around half of her, caused me to slip dramatically down the ranks of ‘favourite grandchild’, which was a real and serious competition amongst my cousins and I. Especially after it was discovered a Christmas later that Uncle Steve was really Santa Claus, and Nan was bankrolling him.
In Grade two, Mum decided I needed to start swim squad: laps up and down, up and down, after school, for three days a week. Unfortunately, club night (the carrot part of squad) was on a Friday, which clashed with Girls’ Brigade; think Scouts, but Baptist. After Mum decided it was too difficult for her to be a Christian with a new baby, she sent me to Girls’ Brigade to assuage her guilt. And it suited me fine, because my thieving habit hadn’t slowed, and my own guilt could have formed a whole new religion. My emergency stash was now being used to remedy my new generalised anxiety disorder, which I mistook for hunger for the better part of 25 years. And I was always hungry…
Girls’ Brigade was perfect except for the fact that it clashed with Swim Club Night. So while all the other bronzed squad kids were watching their laps of labour pay off by racing each other, eating sausage sizzles and Redskins and shivering beside each other while tentatively holding hands with the opposite sex, I was learning about how Jesus is the greatest person ever because he even forgave the prostitute, Mary Magdalene. I didn’t know what a prostitute was, other than that it rhymed with ‘Frosty Fruit’ and was really bad. My laps of labour were just torture. I was going to fat camp, one afternoon at a time. I couldn’t feel myself getting faster; I could only feel the severe punishment for the sin of being fat. And I often filled the pool with my tears.
I lost a lot of weight, despite gorging on secret pleasures, because Mum had also scheduled me in for tennis training on the other two weekday afternoons. I had already started piano lessons when I was four, so by the age of seven, I had enough scheduled daily extra-curricular activities to make sure that my presence was never too much of a burden to my parents. I had been kicked out of the ‘family bed’; it wasn’t big enough for four. So in the mornings, when everyone would find their way to my parents’ room, I curled up on the floor at the foot of the bed with Cleo, the cat. That is, until Cleo decided that she wanted to be a more intrinsic part of the action and climbed aboard too. My parents never kicked her off though. This led me to really want to become a cat for a lot of my youth.
Very shortly after my seventh birthday, my Dad told me I wasn’t allowed to have showers with him anymore or walk around outside with my shirt off. He never explained to me why, and my baby brother was still allowed to do both! I started to feel like preparations were being made for my imminent departure. That very real fear was confirmed when I was eight. My brother (a particularly terrible two-year-old) had my Mum wrapped around his little cherubim pinky after he won second place in a baby contest in Carindale Shopping Centre. Here was the beautiful boy child my parents had always wanted. My brother had recently discovered a new way to elicit a reaction from me, by pulling my hair. After a prolonged period of hair-pulling one afternoon, I tried the F-word out for the first time. My brother ran to tell on me and I was summoned before a jury where I was pronounced guilty and sentenced to 20 lashes.
So fearful was I, of this unjust decision, that I ran to hide in my wardrobe with my own little belt to defend my honour. When Mum came in to deal out the strap, I came out swinging. She quickly pinned me facedown on the bed and started belting me with the buckle end of the belt. The physical damage was severe enough to cause panic amongst the faculty of my school at my next swimming lesson three days later. After my Mum had finished with the belt, she leaned forward into my neck and throatily whispered “If you ever do that again, I’m gonna put you in a home”. And then she drove off to the Tupperware party that I was supposed to attend with her.
That day I learned that my parents’ love was not unconditional. And that if I wanted to live in this family, that I could never put a toe out of line. I could never disagree, never have my own opinions, I couldn’t be ‘different’, even though I secretly felt that I really was. My parents’ brand of tough love had alienated me from them and from understanding how to speak about my true feelings. And I had more feelings than most kids my age. So I ate my worries away, I just didn’t know it. In place of kisses I had KitKats.