You don’t need a Uterus for it to hurt
Feature image Untitled 2008 coloured pencils on paper by Yoshitomo Nara
It is a beautiful Melbourne day and I am wearing a cute but functional outfit: Hot pink t-shirt, dark blue denim overalls that I got in Japan and my blue leather ankle boots. It is 9am on a Tuesday, and I got up at 6:30am in order to get two trains so I am not late for my volunteering day as a gift wrapper for presents donated to kids whose mothers are in maximum security prison.
The presents are going to be from the mothers, who would get to give them to their kids at the prison christmas party. My friend had put a call out for a couple of extra volunteers as she had to pull out due to work commitments. I jumped at the chance to do some actual proactive good in response to all the Orang Is The New Black I had watched. I had also read the book.
I am walking up A side street in Brunswick. There is a creative solutions building and a car repair place. I find the factory loading bay and walk towards the friendly looking people standing around the entrance to the factory warehouse.
”Can I help you, lovey?” One woman asks with a smile.
”I’m here for christmas gift wrapping.” I say.
‘Oh, wonderful!’ She says. ”Walk all the way to the back and turn right.”
I thank her and start walking past all the crates and boxes and men in high vis. When I turn right I find a windowless artificially bright room with tressell tables set up with wrapping paper, sturdy tape dispensers and sharp scissors. Around the five tables was huge cardboard boxes filled with various donated toys. Each box has an age bracket written in black permanent sharpie: 0-3 4-6 7-9 10-12 13, 14, 15. Each age bracket was also had F or M written on the sign as well. There was a box for 0-3 Boys and 0-3 girls and so on. What was required was that you pick a name from the pile on the front desk, check the age and gender and then go to the appropriate box and choose what you think is best. You take the chosen gift, wrap it with ”generous amounts of wrap and sticky tape. The piece of paper with the child’s name on it and age/gender, also has the name of the mother who the present is to be from. The mother’s name would not go on the gift tag. On the tag you were to write the child’s name and then ‘Mum.’ I did not simply write ‘from Mum” I wrote what my own mother wrote on gifts that she would put under the tree as family presents, which was always ”with love and hugs MUM.” There would also follow at least 2 or 3 kisses in varying sizes.
The lady who led me through how the whole enterprise worked was a kind and very grateful chaplain volunteer called Dee and her husband Dennis. They were both in their 60s. There was one other volunteer who had responded to the call out. Her name was Susan and she worked in marketing. Later in the day another chaplain lady would arrive who was a catholic (Dee and her husband were not). She was in her 50s and was incredibly affable and did not mind when I kindly responded to her suggestion of putting in my next story that a kindly chaplain lady saves me, ”Im not much of a god person, sorry.”
”That is perfectly fine. We are very respectful and don’t judge.” She says.i bit back a question about women’s autonomy over thier bodies in regards to reproductive rights.
I do not tell her what I am thinking. That when I was at The Royal Childrens Hospital after my spine surgery, I always pretended to be asleep when the chaplain came to see me. I think my mother needed those visits more than I did. I did not need some strange lady coming to annoy me, I remember thinking. I don’t need that. I have my Mum! As soon as I saw the lady standing at the door to my hospital room, I would shut my eyes and not open them until the lady went away. My mother knew exactly what I was doing and would say, ”You can stop playing possum, now.” With that, my eyes would snap open in relief.
The gift wrapping is fun and I enjoy selecting and sorting through the toys in each box and carefully considering each item. It might sound strange but I took the name of each child and pondered their possible wants and dreams and their current situation very thoroughly and with much imagination. There are some disappointments though in the amount of boring clothes that are useless. You cannot wrap clothes as a gift for a child whose size you have no idea of. Can you imagine being a little kid at a women’s prison christmas party and having the one gift you get from your ”Mum” being a t shirt that is too small? Or, even worse a pair of underpants that don’t fit. I know these are donations and that people are doing something nice. It would just help more kids if the donations were a bit more thoughtful at times.
I wrapped a horse riding barbie (that came with an actual toy horse). The barbie was sitting atop her noble steed and looking very pleased. I actually squealed a little in excitement when I pulled it out of the bottom of the 7-9 box. I was never a horse girl as a kid but, I was a weird one. I was sure the little girl who opened this would love it. I filled out the card and wrote with love and hugs from MUM. I also added kisses. I didn’t while doing this for any of the children. I did not cry but, I did find myself writing the children’s names with care and solemnity as if this was a great responsibility. And it was.
These kids were never going to know me and I was never going to know them.But my heart my heart my heart. It filled and ached and hurt within my chest as I wrote the words ‘love’ and ‘hugs’ and ‘mum’ so many times.
I was never going to be an actual mother to an actual creature that was made of my cells and the cells of someone else and then pushed out through the power of my tiny girl hips and magic vagina. That was never going to happen. Its why I want to do things like this. I have no idea what it is to care about something that you have carried inside you for nine months and experienced the crushing lows and highs of hormones and food cravings. Its the children who are not as lucky that I want to help. The ones who do not have a mum like mine.
I found myself consciously thinking as I wrote the names in black pen: I would look after you and your baby brother and sister so you would not need to be staying at separate addresses. I knew I was in no position to do so. But as this was a day dream, in it I was independently wealthy and able to run a foster care bed and breakfast super fun hostel. My staff would be feminist wonder kids and paid a more than adequate wage for all their hard work. It would not be religious but respectful.
At a quarter to one we are all ready for lunch. The chaplains and Susan go to Tibets for cheese pies but I want to make the most of my time out this way. The sun is high and bright as I walk to the Eddy Castle.
I sit at a table in the front bar that is deserted but for the bar staff. I sit in silent contemplation as I eat a chicken Parma and chips with a coke. There is good music playing and I feel incredibly fortunate. I think about my mother.
I was not a cool kid. I believed in father christmas far longer than any of my peers. In grade three Bradley Kerber told me that ”Santa is not even real.” I burst into tears and snotted all over the picture I was drawing in brown texta that I had stolen from my best friend of that week.
It was not until a few days before the christmas that I was 12 that my mother led me into her and Dad’s bedroom. She sat on the edge of her side of the bed and I sat next to her. She held my hands in hers and explained to me the truth about Father Christmas. She did so with tears in her eyes, so horrified to be destroying a part of my childhood. My mother loved me so much that she would not allow me to start high school while still believing in Father Christmas. High school was going to be difficult enough. I was warned not to destroy the illusion for my four younger siblings.
I lurch from the past and into the present. I look at the time on my phone, it is 1:30pm. I shove some more chips in my mouth and gulp the rest of coke. I walk back to the factory with my polka dot uv protective umbrella up and shielding me from the hot sun. I am a daily sunscreen wearer now. I burp as I am walking, thanks to the quickly sculled coke. It feels gooda release, to let something out.
As we wrap presents I ask Dee about the prison where the women are. It is as she talks about it that I realize just how similar it sounds to Orange Is The New Black ( the Netflix series and the book on which the series is based). The prison is privately owned and so there are people making money and a great deal of it, from the incarceration of disadvantaged women. These women, I am told, are there because of partners, mental illness. A vast majority have suffered terrible abuse both sexual and physical. It sounded to me that, as far as the prison CEOs are concerned, its lock them up and throw away the key. I wrap up a train set for a little girl.
I continue wrapping presents, this time a Smiggle zip up hard cover case with 10 coloured textas, a sparkly notebook and a holographic grey lead pencil inside. I wondered where these kids were staying while their mothers were in maximum security prison. What had their little lives been like before their mother’s incarceration? I can assume it would not have been perfect. Were the children also victims of abuse? Was there intergenerational trauma? As I am wrapping another present a woman comes in and reads a print out of a sermon or something written by a reverend someone or other. It is about the light of god not being something that is reserved for christmas alone: it is something that can shine and be shared all through the year. I try not to groan or sigh with impatience. I just dont think you should do nice things because it is ‘gods will.’
When there were no more names to pick up it meant that we were finished. Before leaving we all had a cup of tea and some treats. We sat around a big table with a plastic table cloth over it. I drank my tea from a Leopard print mug and ate about 6 Tik Tok biscuits. I had forgotten how good these are. As we sat and sipped our tea. I got to explain what Cis Gender meant to Dennis and his wife. ”There is even a name for what I am.” He exclaimed with a pleased and surprised smile. ”I cant believe I did not know that.” Dee says. ”Im usually up to date with these things.”
”It doesn’t matter. You know now.” I assure her.
Before I leave I am informed thanks to checking my Facebook,via the same friend who let me know about today, that there is a need for toiletries to be donated. The toiletries are put into packs that get sent to the women’s prison as well. My eyes light up. I love shopping for stuff like shampoo, soap, nail polish and lip balms. The stuff needs to be ready to be posted from the factory by Thursday. I decide to do it. I have a little money from baby sitting yesterday, I think. I can use some of that money for a good cause. I finish my tea and wash the cup in the sink with some spy hot water. ”I will get some toiletries tomorrow and bring them here. Is that the right place?” I say to double check.
”Yes and that would be so wonderful.” Dee says. ”That is very much appreciated.” I shrug. ”It is no big deal. I want to do it.”
I say goodbye to everyone at the table and make my way back out onto The main Road. The sun is still bright and I pop my umbrella. As I walk to the tram I think about my Mum.