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July 17, 2018

What Petty Theft & an Afternoon with my Dad taught me about Meeting Children where they Are.

As the mother of a four-year-old boy keen to understand the ways of the world, I often find myself having awkward conversations for which I can’t quite find the “right” answers.

Sometimes I stammer and grapple with the concepts of truth and action that are still relatable to a preschooler. My son often tests me, and recently—on Mother’s Day—I found myself outside of my comfort zone playing a mother versus son football match at his local Aussie rules league.

Parenting brings with it a need for active involvement and flexibility. It’s a test of willpower, stamina, and withstanding discomfort—but perhaps most of all, stoicism and unconditional love. When things get tricky and waters are murky I am reminded that parenting does not come with a manual. There are grey areas in which we grow as parents and people by merely “winging it” and doing our best. And whenever these moments occur, I think back to a story of my own dad’s unconditional yet simple act of devotion, which taught me that parenting isn’t always about getting it right.

Just prior to this adventure I had experienced crippling depression and some really dark thoughts. The mental health professionals in the private psychiatric rehabilitation facility described me as “suffering mania,” and then made a quick and drastic medication change. Suddenly, I felt excited, hot, and sweaty but had the energy of a small child who’d inhaled several candy floss sticks at their first fair. I felt alive to the point of sensory overload and I could have talked the leg off a chair at the speed of lightning. When my poor old dad came to visit, he pretended not to notice.

My father acted as though everything was fine. He played it cool and tried to subdue me with the normality of generic conversation. I surprisingly convinced him to take me on a one-hour accompanied leave because I wanted—no, wait—needed a lukewarm, double shot, espresso coffee (primed to down in a gulp). So we, perhaps mistakenly, embarked on an adventure to get me, the “manic girl,” her fix of caffeine.

Dad is a sucker for my pleading puppy dog eyes, and given my degree of helplessness at that time, I could have talked him into just about anything. As we made the walk back from the coffee shop, I recall the wind whipping my face. I could smell the pending rain—and it smelt of freedom. I ran ahead, telling Dad that I knew my fellow patients needed cheering up. So I concocted a plan to steal flowers, mainly roses, sunflowers, hydrangeas, and the odd tulip, from every spring garden we passed. Dad didn’t seem keen on this to begin with, but I pressed him—and as a direct result, our relationship was about to experience a new depth.

I briefed Dad quickly and excitedly, “These people have gardens full of flowers. They might not even notice if we take some. I’ll be like Robin Hood taking from the privileged to give to the needy. None of us have any money to buy flowers.” And while that was true, Dad and I both knew that was because we were quickly spending our part-time wages on cigarettes, alcohol, and even gambling. But my dear dad, who knew about the recent heartache I’d endured, was grateful just to see me up and about again. I don’t think he could stomach bursting that momentary bubble of excitement.

Our usual 15-minute walking route ended up taking an hour, while I leaned up against, over, and under fences, snuck up to porches, and crept through stranger’s yards like a tomcat on a mission. I stole bundles and brought them back to Dad, who stood stoically keeping a lookout while I clutched more floral treasures. He’s an honest man and had the circumstances been different, he never would have agreed; but not wanting to see me in trouble, he refused to let me go it alone.

At one of the final houses before we reached the hospital, an old Eastern European woman shouted at me as I approached her porch on my hunt for a sunflower and I shrieked as we ran away with our stash. The excitement was dizzying and the wind equally exhilarating when she gave chase on her one-stick walker—but she only ever made it to the letterbox. She wasn’t quick enough for me, the “manic girl,” and my blood-bound paternal accomplice.

And so it was that Dad and I committed theft together for the first, and only, time.

For a man who prides himself on being “as honest as the day gone by,” I give my dad credit for meeting me where I was at in terms of mood and mental state. My plan wasn’t dangerous or reckless, more silly with a side of disrespect, but in that moment, my dad let his morals slide and pledged allegiance to his daughter, who needed him.

By the time we got back to the hospital, we were both puffed out, red faced, and looked like we may have been part of a travelling road show for Better Homes and Gardens. We eventually found vases at the hospital and I made some unexpected deliveries to grateful patients in need of a lift—and my goodness, did they bring some cheer.

But, of course, I kept a few of those flowers for myself. They were a memento of freedom, fun, excitement, adventure, and the one time I conned my dear dad into releasing his morals because my circumstances called for flexibility. It was also a token to remind me that my father could be fun and silly—as if the time he did the Harlem Shake live on the Australian Rules Football television show wasn’t quite enough.

Then, as my previously elevated mood dropped along with my manic state, so too did the petals start to fall from their high vase pedestal. And as the mood stabilizers and antipsychotics kicked in, we wilted—both me and the flowers. Eventually they went in the bin and the nurse insisted on washing out my vase, in line with the way I felt. But what I’ve been left with ever since is a vivid memory of that experience with my dear old dad. Here was a man in his 60s being conned by his manic daughter into a silly game of Robin Hood down a highway on a walk back to her psychiatric facility.

And as a parent, my takeaway from this is clear: there is a time and a place for almost anything in bonding and parenting. As adults, we need to feel embarrassed, do ridiculous things, and feel challenged to grow as parents alongside our youngsters in order to build a rapport and meet them exactly where they are. Parenting is not all discipline and keeping kids in check. Our own boundaries and comfort zones need to be pushed and flexible as much as our children’s do, and our relationships need memories of shared adventures in order to bud.

And most of all, when we do this the love will be all the stronger, deeper, and more colourful for it—just like a good floral arrangement.

~

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Naomi Fryers

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