Getting into a groove and other news

November 3, 2017

This month we’ve been getting to know Kate. Newborns remind me so much of miniature old people. They’re all shrivelled, toothless, hunched and sleepy. It feels as if I’ve had a 105 year old woman sucking on my breast. Newborns, especially those in a sling or wrapped against their mom, also remind me of treefrogs. It’s the way they suction to their mother’s chest and their limbs are so thin and angular and crunched up under their trunks. Once I said to someone with a newborn, ‘Awwww sweet! He looks just like a treefrog.’ I honestly meant it in a good, complimentary way.

I’ve set the bar very low (or is it high?) and my primary focus has been to keep Kate alive. Last week I nearly dropped her. I read somewhere that babies have no worries or fears except for one – they are scared of falling. My poor girl. I’m trying so hard to be a good mom and there I go, almost legitimizing her greatest fear. As you can imagine, that incident gave me a sleepless night as I lay in bed, stared at the ceiling and worked myself into a tizz over the what ifs.

Kate’s two older sisters love her so much and probably a bit too much. It is a very real possibility that they could kiss or hug her to death. Megan and Jessica like to hold Kate and have a fixation on carrying her around the house. I think they want to copy me. Megan says, ‘I want to walk and carry her.’ This cannot happen, it must not happen without adult supervision so I cannot leave Kate unattended for a second. This is the most stressful and exhausting part of having a newborn baby. I can’t even go to the loo on my own and I now do my ablutions at high speed. Megan and Jessica mean no harm but they don’t understand how delicate Kate is or how easy it is to trip or slip on the toys and other land-mines strewn on the floor.

Playing with make up … and Kate

My saving grace is my Moby Wrap. Best invention ever! I tie it round me and stick Kate inside it and this frees up my hands. I’m rather like a kangaroo and Kate is my little joey tucked in my pouch.  She sleeps soundly when she’s in it, possibly because this is the only place where she feels so safe and protected from her over loving sisters.

Even when I am around to supervise, things get a little hairy such as when I was driving and I noticed in the rear-view mirror than Megan had shoved her foot into three week old Kate’s face. ‘I’m just showing her the hole in my sock,’ she said.

This is why Kate struggles to sleep during the day unless she’s in the wrap

I turn my back and they’ve painted Kate’s nails. Luckily it’s just marker pen and not real polish.

For over two weeks after Kate was born, I was laid up with horrid flu. I developed a cracking, whip of a cough that left me more limp and weary than I’ve felt in ages. I was worried Kate would catch it given the way I was breathing and spluttering all over her. ‘Are you breastfeeding?’ the midwife asked, ‘Then she will be absolutely fine’. And she was. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t catch any of my germs, not even the slightest sniffle. It was like my breastmilk was this magical protective shroud. Nature can be so awesome.

My problem – and it’s a good problem to have – is that I have an oversupply of milk and my boobs are squirting left, right and centre. Every feed takes me less than five minutes but Kate takes in a lot of air as she gulps down the milk. I spend a while helping her burp out these elusive air bubbles that cause her such pain and discomfort and make her thrash and writhe about like she’s a hooked fish. I’ve forgotten how onerous this burping malarkey is. I don’t have the patience or skill for it. I angle her in all directions, thump her on the back, bounce her up and down, rock her about and still nothing happens. Sometimes, when I’m really tired and the burp won’t budge, I want to hang her upside down and bang her on the back with a judge’s gavel. It must be confusing for Megan and Jessica that we disapprove when they burp but there’s relief and celebration when Kate does it.

My mom was here for seven weeks and has now left. Alastair and I agree that the best way to love us is to love our children and Granny does this so well. Now that she’s gone, I’m figuring out my new routine and ironing out the weak points. Dinner time with three little kids is a particular challenge. It’s like a chimpanzee’s tea party. Why is it that everything falls to pieces at dinner time? I hoped that Kate would sleep while I feed the other girls but she’s wide awake and rock n roll. I’ve always had visions of sitting round the dinner table and calmly reflecting on the highs and lows of our day. Instead, Alastair’s still at work, Megan and Jessica turn feral and there’s generally a lot of weeping and wailing. All three children want to sit on my lap and Megan and Jessica suddenly become incapacitated and unable to feed themselves. I say to them, ‘Why is it that I never need to spoon feed you ice cream but I have to spoon feed you your lasagne?’

Then we have a lot of: I WANTED THE PINK PLATE! WHERE’S THE BUNNY SPOON? I CAN’T EAT THIS WITHOUT THE BUNNY SPOON! I don’t understand why food tastes completely different if you put it on a green plate vs a pink plate. Why does food taste better on princess utensils? One of my friends said her children have the same reaction if they break their arm or if you put their juice in the wrong cup. Hell hath no fury like a 4 year old whose sandwich has been cut into squares when he wanted triangles.

Alastair says that if dinner time becomes too much of a battle, then I should just give up and send the children to bed with empty tummies. I can’t bear this because I want them to eat my food dammit. I put so much effort into making fresh, home-made meals from scratch and it breaks my heart to see it unappreciated. I know I just need more discipline. ‘Consequences Julie’, my mom said. ‘They just need consequences.’ But what are the most effective consequences for bad behaviour? I’ve tried star charts, treat deprivation, no TV, time out etc etc. I find the best thing is threatening a paddywhack on the bum, but this is not really the mom I aspire to be. I don’t like frothing at the mouth and chasing my kids round the house with the wooden spoon.

Next to Kate – doing a poo and watching the iPad

During this past month, I’ve realized that love is limitless but my attention is not. I only have 2 hands and there are only 24 hours in a day. That’s the juggle but, after the years of mind-shrivelling, soul-corroding jobs in my twenties, I’m up for the challenge.

My friends love sharing articles on Facebook that go viral because they are about how amazing moms are, how hard core parenting is and how we need to give ourselves grace and carve out more ‘Me Time’. They share articles and advice on how motherhood is the hardest and most unappreciated job in the world. They discuss sleep deprivation and how gruelling this phase of our lives is and what a fantastic job we’re all doing. It’s very go-girl, mom-power, sisterhood kind of encouragement. I thought I was the only person on the planet who finds these things so nauseating until I read one of these articles on a Facebook link and then skimmed through the comments at the end. Some person somewhere in the world, called Sydney Chandler, wrote a response that resonated with me so much that I copied and pasted it into my journal.

Whenever I feel frazzled or like I’m operating as a flying saucer looking for a place to land, then I read it for some healthy perspective. Here it is verbatim:

Sydney Chandler ·

This is the life you chose and every other day there’s some article with these women patting themselves on the back for making a choice no one forced them to make. You are not a soldier dropped in a hot zone risking your life. That’s REAL stress and battle. You’re not law enforcement, federal or otherwise, once again risking your life. You are a mother and many women before you and after you have and will be one. Stop acting as if you’re reinventing the wheel and applying for sainthood and martyrdom. My mom was a professional and raised 3 kids and guess what, not one time did she whine, moan and complain, she and my dad just got on about their lives and that was that. She had tons of friends, went to lunch, dinner, shopped, had a successful career and was a role model to us. She never said I had to become a mother, she said live the life I wanted to live. Enough with these poor me, I need constant adulation and gold stars articles about motherhood. You’re not special. If you’re having a hard time and let yourself go, then that’s on you. Toughen up, pull up your big girl panties and stop the whining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exquisite pain and then … Kate Rose!

October 10, 2017

Birthing each of my three children has without a doubt been the highlight of my life.  I love the buoyancy and general zen I feel while pregnant.  I enjoy the suspense and anticipation of exactly when the birth will happen, the searing raw agony of the event itself and then the final glory and that enormous firework display of pride and love at the end.  I’m blown away by the vast, screaming, mucousy, bloody, pulsing majesty of it all.  I have never felt so fully alive as I do in the moment of childbirth. It’s almost spiritual, like I’m the closest I’ve ever been to heaven on earth, like I’m on holy ground.  It’s been my personal burning bush encounter.  No recreational drugs, no bungee jumping, no sky diving and other stereotypical high-inducing activities could possibly beat the emotional, physical and spiritual buzz of pushing a baby out through my hips.

Kate Rose Surycz was born at 19h41 on Wednesday 4 October.

Whenever you have a vaginal birth, the first question people ask is, ‘Did you have an epidural?’  When you have your appendix out, no one asks if you had an anaesthetic.  I suppose that giving birth without pain relief is the equivalent of putting your body through a challenging physical feat such as the Ironman or Comrades Marathon. It’s impressive and a big test of stamina.

I decided many weeks ago that this time I would have no epidural. When Jessica was born, I suspected my epidural had been administered too late and had therefore not worked anyway.  This time, and since it’s my last baby, I wanted to go for the burn and feel what pure childbirth involves. I’m not the slightest bit sporty so childbirth sans epidural seemed an interesting opportunity to test my physical endurance, just for the fun of it. On Wednesday evening when I was in the midst of intense contractions and only a measly 3cm dilated, the gynae asked if I would like an epidural.  I fleetingly remembered my commitment to no pain relief and said without hesitation, ‘Yes please! I would like an epidural’.  That was a quick test of my willpower – i.e. non existent.

It turned out the epidural was not necessary as I went from 3cm to fully dilated in about 20 minutes and it was too late anyway. I had to just ride it out head on as the pain chewed into me and turned me inside out.  Screaming required too much energy.  Instead I groaned and grunted, like an animal.  I’ve never heard sounds coming out of me like that before.  Childbirth is so raw and primal.  It only lasted about forty minutes and then it was over.  It wasn’t so bad, in hindsight.  In the moments of pushing, I felt as if I was being unzipped and torn in two from top to bottom but, in actual fact, I didn’t tear at all or require any stitches down below, which was a surprise.  I’m not sure if I’m most chuffed with myself for doing childbirth without an epidural or doing it all in French.

This time I got Al to video the birth and I’ve watched it over and over.  Al couldn’t understand my interest in reliving such a gruelling experience  and didn’t see the point in video souvenirs.  I said, ‘Al if you don’t video this for me, we will need to have a forth child’. Needless to say, he did a super job of filming.  I also wanted to watch the expulsion of the placenta.  It looks like a big steak.  I can’t believe my body made that.  I’ve examined Kate’s fingers, nails, eyebrows, eyes, ears, toes and other body parts and thought ‘My body made this.  My body made that’. (Well, God did but using my body – you know what I mean). It’s surreal and amazing that a new and complete little human grew out of me.  I keep studying her and whispering, ‘Kate, I can’t believe you were inside me.’

One of the reasons I’m so awed by childbirth is this raging torrent of love I felt when blue, bloody, mucousy Megan, Jessica and now Kate were finally pulled out and then placed on my chest.  It’s amazing how love expands and multiples.  It’s not like you get a finite quantity of love to distribute among all your children.  There’s so much to go around. I love them all equally and abundantly.

There are different types of love in a family.  My love for Alastair is completely different to the love I have for my children. The love between a husband and wife is conditional whereas my love for my children is not.  I always scoff when people say they have unconditional love for a spouse.  Alastair and I agree that our love for each other is dependent on certain non negotiable deal breakers – fidelity is an example.  This makes spousal love like a crystal glass. It’s beautiful and treasured and precious but oh so delicate and breakable.

There is nothing fragile about maternal love.  It is like a thick steel rope that connects me to my girls. It cannot break.  It is completely and utterly unconditional.  There are no deal breakers, it’s for forever and always and will never ever end.  There is nothing that can possibly make me love them less.  I will easily maim, kill, or destroy anyone who tries to harm them.  I am the lioness and they are my cubs.

My milk has come in fast and furious and for Kate it’s like drinking out of a burst fire hydrant.  Breastfeeding on both sides takes about 10 minutes.  As expected, now that I have given birth and I’ve got my milk, I’ve lost the zen I had in the last months of pregnancy and my hormones are ricocheting around my body.  I knew this would happen.  I braced myself for the hormonal backlash and expected it would feel as if I’ve freefallen off an emotional cliff face.  I believe this is a fault in our design and a flaw in the childbirth process.  Why, God?  Why does one need to feel so emotional and unhinged in the aftermath and especially as the milk comes in?  It’s ridiculous!  

Megan and Jessica are enthralled by their new sister.  They seem to love her, possibly a bit much.  I may have to teach them how to channel their love and adoration in calm and gentle ways because I’m worried that their version of a hug is putting Kate in a head lock and their version of a kiss is more like mouth to mouth resuscitation.  I can already see that Kate will build up good germ resistance, thanks to her big sisters.  Megan and Jessica discovered her dummy when they arrived at the hospital for a visit.  They each sucked and sampled it and gave it a good fiddle in their grubby paws.  Once they left and before I could give the dummy a thorough clean, the midwife popped it back in Kate’s mouth.  I remember when Megan was born, I sterilized her dummies every day.  Sorry Kate!

I’m looking forward to starting our new normal as a family of five. Some people take it upon themselves to be prophets of doom and warn me how hard it will be to juggle life with three kids but my theory is that running an efficient household and feeling on top of things is mostly about routine, organisation and general good project management.  Now to put that theory to the test.  

This picture of a sleeping Megan and Jessica basically sums up my desire for my children – that they always love each other, that they become best friends and that they have each other’s backs.

 


Drowning, twirling and other news

September 17, 2017

This past month, I nearly drowned. For about two nights after the incident, I couldn’t sleep as I tossed and turned and contemplated the what-ifs and beat myself up for being such an idiot for putting myself in such a precarious situation in the first place.

It was Saturday and a sunny day so we picnicked by the lake. I watched from the shore as Alastair, Megan and Jessica pedalled on a hired boat out on the water. ‘That’s not too far’, I thought. ‘I’ll swim and join them’.

I walked out as far as I could and when the ground disappeared under my feet and the water was deep, I swam. I breast-stroked towards the boat, feeling light and buoyant and overflowing with the joys of life (remember I told you I’m always so zenned and energised in the last phase of pregnancy?)

I kept going until I reached the buoys demarcating the end of the swimming area. Alastair and the girls looked too far away – further than I had originally anticipated – and I was tired so I decided to toss my plan and head back to shore. No sweat. I turned around and then, OH MY GOODNESS, I didn’t realize I had swum out so far! ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ I whispered as I panicked and my thoughts rushed around my head like frightened rats in a burning building.

It’s funny how, in just an instant, things can go from OK to not OK. The lake, which had been so inviting and refreshing, all of a sudden turned ominous and menacing, as if it would devour me and suck me down into its depths. My muscles burned and I felt so tired, so very very tired. My big tummy became a lead weight and I felt it pulling me downwards. I swam a little further on my front, then on my back and realized that my hands were not giving me enough pull and momentum, like the flippers they had been in the beginning. I lost all notion of strokes and flailed about as the water slid pointlessly through my open fingers.

I quickly realized I couldn’t cope and I needed to call for help, but how? Everyone seemed to be in the distance, small and oblivious, completely and utterly absorbed in their own fun – laughing and chatting and splashing and boating and building sandcastles and eating their picnics. No one noticed my plight. I was invisible. I wasn’t sure I even had the energy to muster a big splash or yell. I imagined myself sinking quietly to the depths of the lake with no one realizing a thing. I pictured my family returning to the abandoned picnic blanket and wondering how and to where I had vanished. ‘Oh God, I’ve done something so silly. I’ve made a terrible mistake. Please help me,’ I begged.

Out the corner of my eye I saw a guy on his paddle board about 20m away. I coughed and spluttered and waved for him to row to me. I clung to his board while he towed me to shore. My saviour, my heroic little tugboat. Long story short – a lesson learned. This incident gave me a massive jolt and left a deep impression on my already fear-inclined psyche. I will never ever again swim out in such deep areas on my own.

School

Megan started school and seems to love it. I always greet her after school as if I’m a Labrador. She’s not into recounting her day in the intricate detail I pant for – she mostly just gives me scraps. Sometimes she is a fountain of feedback at 21h30 at night when she’s supposed to be asleep, but other than that she’s not very responsive when I pepper her with questions. How was your day? What did you do? Are you happy? Who did you sit with? Who did you play with? Did you sing/paint/draw/colour? Did you enjoy the snack I made you? What did you like about it? She’s always gung-ho to go to school, so she must enjoy it. I wish I had a Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak so I could observe what goes on when I’m not around.

Most kids must be similar because my friend’s son started school in the UK and he loves it but she reckons it’s like a secret society because, when he gets home, he can’t seem to remember or relate what he did there.

I’ve noticed Megan and Jessica are starting to absorb and display interesting nuances of French culture. These are Frenchy quirks that I haven’t learned about from my books and studies. An example is they tend to exclaim, ‘oopla!’ when they, say, drop something or make a little mistake. I think ‘oopla’ is the French version of ‘oops’. They’re also mixing French words with English ones so Megan may say, ‘Mom can I grimp (climb) that tree?’ When she’s asked her name in French, she responds in a French accent with the French pronunciation which is ‘Mare-Gun’ and if she’s asked in English, she just says ‘Megan.’ It’s so cute.

It pleases me that Megan and Jessica are integrating into the Swiss/French society because I want them to have a cultural identity to which they can belong and identify. They aren’t South Africans (in spite of Al and me) and they aren’t British (in spite of their passports).

People say that in this day and age where we are so connected and mobile and spread apart, the world is our home rather than one particular country. I don’t like that idea. I want Megan and Jessica to feel rooted somewhere – here ideally.

Megan’s prayers

Every night Megan prays this prayer or a version similar to it:

Megan’s favourite drawing subject – princesses!  This is a princess mermaid.

Thank you Jesus for pink.

Thank you Jesus for unicorns.

Thank you Jesus for princesses and French toast.

Thank you Jesus for ice cream tomorrow.

Thank you Jesus for Mommy and Daddy and Jessie.

Thank you Jesus I love you.

AMEN

It’s getting colder and the girls can no longer wear dresses and skirts. Today, Alastair insisted Jessica wore trousers and not a skirt. She was fed up and said to him, ‘How am I supposed to do twirls? I can’t twirl in trousers!’ I adore the purity and simplicity of a happy child’s life. Life is grey and dull when we lose our appreciation for things such as twirls and pink and unicorns and princesses.  I reckon the world would be a happier place if we all twirled more.


Rollercoasters, doughnuts and other news

August 25, 2017

Our lovely, unobtrusive Swiss neighbours have moved to the US and are renting out their house. I’ve been hoping for friendly tenants with young, housetrained kids, no vicious dogs and no cats. Our horror of a neighbour on the other side (with the out-of-control bamboo) has about 6 cats and that adds a lot to the already large neighbourhood contingent of roaming felines. I detest these cats especially since one of them peed on my pram and it took me forever to remove the embedded pine-coney hone.

We’ve noticed some activity in the house and I saw two cars parked outside but I’ve not yet met the people. I observed to Al that, judging by their cars, these new neighbours appear a bit low class and scruffy. He then pointed out that, ‘Julie, judging by our cars, we also appear low class and scruffy.’ Oh yes, true.

Rollercoasters

I’ve said this before and I will say it again and again. The thing that most stuns me about parenting is how it can be both absolutely exhilarating and absolutely petrifying at exactly the same time. It’s a lot like the thrill and adrenalin rush of a rollercoaster.

Last week Megan, Jessica and I went for a walk with the scooters along some farm roads nearby. Jessica doesn’t yet know how to brake. With a burst of bravado and self-confidence, she broke away from my grip on her just as we approached an incline. She then lost control and careened down the hill, screaming in terror. The incident lasted about 10 seconds but in that time I used up my entire body’s supply of adrenalin as I sprinted after her in spite of my 9 month pregnant belly and my bust-up coccyx.

You know how you have those dreams where you need to get somewhere desperately and urgently but you are stuck and can’t move? It felt like that. I pushed my body to the absolute limits in those 10 seconds. I literally galloped, just like a horse.  Talk about a mother’s love. I still couldn’t catch up to her. Do you know how much speed a scooter can gather in 10 seconds? Jessica eventually veered into the verge, tumbled a few times and stood up weeping but remarkably unscathed. I feel like cats get nine lives but children are allocated a lot more. One of my great challenges with parenting is to keep the kids alive and intact without being neurotic and overprotective. It is such an enormous responsibility. I’m surprised I haven’t yet developed a nervous twitch.

Jessica and the potty

Talking about Jessica, she’s now almost fully potty trained. Whoop, whoop – big milestone! My theory is that she was ready ages ago but she was too lazy to give it a go. She preferred to stand still on the spot and continue colouring or watching TV while she did a whizz in her nappy. Now that it is the peak of summer, it is hot and stifling in a thick nappy so she’s been more game to try panties and run to the potty. We leave it in the lounge, so at least there is easy access.

Playing Lego, watching TV, doing puzzles, playing with the kitchen and doll house … while on the potty.

The other day Al said he noticed flecks of poo on the wall in the downstairs loo. This is because Jessica won’t leave her business in the potty and let me empty it. She likes to follow through the process to the very end and do it herself – ‘I do it! I do it!’ – so I must drop what I am doing, spring up from wherever I am and race to prevent her from sloshing the contents across the house as she heads to the bathroom.

Doughnuts

I’ve been wondering. The other day, when we were at the self-service bakery section of the supermarket, I caught Megan and Jessica licking their fingers and then gently wiping them on about 6 luminous pink iced doughnuts. Do you think it would have been socially respectful and responsible for me to have then bought all 6 doughnuts? Maybe it depends on who saw them do it. As that saying goes, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ If a child fiddles with a doughnut and no one is around to see it, does it matter?

I asked a friend for her opinion and she said that her son recently popped up next to her at the checkout at the supermarket with sticky brown paws and a miniature toy car. She realized he had just squeezed open a Kinder egg so she reprimanded him and then beetled out the shop at high speed. She felt she spends enough money at this store and why the heck do they put these sweets at adult thigh height and within easy reach of a three year old?   .

Another thing that surprises me about parenting is how completely and utterly dependent children are on us for protection, guidance and moral instruction. They exit the womb as a blank sheet of paper and tend towards the feral. It is our responsibility as parents to mould them and tame them and turn them into well-adjusted, respectful citizens. When I saw Megan and Jessica giggling and pawing the doughnuts, I wanted to grab them by the feet and lasso them across the shop but I also have to pick my battles and I didn’t feel that was one of them. I already have my hands full teaching them how to brake on a scooter and not pee in their trousers, so it frustrates me that shops make our already challenging jobs so difficult by deliberately putting pink doughnuts and Kinder eggs within easy reach of hungry, inquisitive toddlers.

The next phase

One more month and then the baby arrives. I am always so zenned and content in the last phase of pregnancy. It’s not like the beginning bit when I vomited every day for three months. I’m bracing myself for that period after the birth when my hormones ricochet around my body and, for about 3 weeks, I feel like I’ve free fallen off an emotional cliff and I cry for no reason at all.

I will miss my belly. I love feeling the baby inside me, alive and well and kicking about but still safe and protected. It amazes me how I can love someone so much already, before I’ve even met them. As with the birth of all my children, it is strange to finally meet someone for the first time and for which I already have a vast, solid, unshakeable kind of love. The pain is worth it, just so I can meet them once it’s over. It’s an exquisite kind of physical pain. In all the negativity and brokenness of the world, it is special to have and to remember the privilege of having experienced three such moments of peace, beauty and joy.

Our big girl growing up. First day of school and what excitement! Her happy moments recently have been ‘Going to School’.

Megan’s 5th birthday party which we did at home with games and the works. We pulled out all the stops. Kids’ parties are hard core. Al and I were so exhausted and that night we toppled into bed like felled oaks.

Megan and Jessica’s play quirks continue to amuse and baffle me. The other day Megan carried 5 undies on her doll carrier at the back of her bike. I also came across undies stuffed in my Tupperware containers.

 


August already?!?!

August 7, 2017

I can’t believe we are in August already. I remember this time last year and this time the year before and the one before that like it’s just the other day. This summer has disappeared in a busy blur. In fact, this whole year is flying by. It is as if time is this whirlpool and I am a leaf spinning around the top of it.

I remember before we moved to Switzerland and had kids, I was stuck in a series of grey, stultifying, dead-end jobs and the days were a yawning void of slowly ticking minutes. Now that my world feels more benevolent and my life is happier and fuller and much more technicolor, it has me by the hand and is pulling me along so quickly that my feet don’t seem to touch the ground and I feel like I’m flying.

Jessica’s hand

Megan and Jessica’s school created a mural for the entrance and used the children’s hand prints to create the sun. The picture translates to ‘All these little hands are our sun of every morning’. Here is a photo of it. You can see the hands are arranged in a circle for the sun but there is a random one out of place in the middle of nowhere in the top right hand corner. No surprises there. That’s Jessica’s hand. I’m keeping this photo forever because it’s a perfect memento of Jessica now, at almost three. Al and I reckon nothing sums up her personality at the moment better than this picture – strong-willed, feisty and on her own mission.  Lately she’s taken to calling me ‘Julie’. Megan did that for a while too. Cuddle me, Julie! Juice please, Julie! Carry me, Julie! I feel a bit like I’m her au pair, or nanny or personal slave.

The expat life

One of my closest friends in the area will move away at the end of August. This is the second dear friend who has left Switzerland and it takes a while to adjust and reorganise my life without them in it. It feels like a sort of grief, like a vacuum as I adjust to having them around and then, as if in a puff of smoke, they are gone.

The problem with the expat community is that it is so transient. People come and go and it’s disruptive and upsetting when you meet someone you really like and then they leave. People always say, ‘We’ll keep in touch’ but you don’t. I have enough long-distance Facebook and Whatsapp contacts and it is inevitable that the closeness and day-to-day intimacy and knowledge you have of each other slowly dissolves.

I’m on a quest to widen my pool of close friends so I have more to fall back on when people up and leave. As I’ve said many times before, meeting new girl friends is similar to dating. You check them out, get their number, connect on Facebook, meet up and gauge whether you can take the relationship further. I recently identified someone who has potential. She’s open, gossipy and prone to over sharing – all qualities I enjoy in a friend. We will see what happens.

Just because you are the same nationality, have kids the same age or live close by doesn’t necessarily mean you will become best buddies.  In order to properly hit it off with someone, you must have that intangible connection, that click, and you can’t create it because it is either there or it isn’t. Chemistry between two people is a slippery, elusive thing so the process of finding a decent BFF will take me a while.

My coccyx

This week I’ve been in agony as I’ve bruised my coccyx. Now that I have back pain that is chewing at me, slow and steady like an animal, I realize how physical being a mother is. Bending, lifting, pushing, carrying … did I mention bending? Oh my goodness, motherhood demands so much bending!

Jessica is in the process of weaning herself off nappies and she did her first poo in the potty. Alastair, Megan and I clapped, cheered and had just done the can-can when I decided to sit on one of her plastic chairs and cheer her on at her eye level for the final few pushes. I pulled out the chair and didn’t realize it had tipped and I slammed my heavy 8-month pregnant backside into the tile floor.

The challenge is that my busy life must carry on as normal in spite of my bruised and aching tailbone. Megan and Jessica were vaguely sympathetic, but only at first. ‘Mommy’s hurt herself. I’m in pain’, I said but that didn’t register with them. Little kids are some of the most self-absorbed creatures on the planet. They will stare at you writhing in the death throes of agony and still demand you pick them up, wipe their bum or get them a glass of juice.

Birthdays

Megan’s birthday is at the end of August and Jessica’s is mid-September. I know my children inside out but toy wise, I have no clue what to buy them. Every time I see a toy I think they would love (or I love), they aren’t bothered. The train set – not interested. The indoor play house – never used. Balls and tennis set – forget it. Lego – couldn’t care less. The Cabbage Patch doll I searched high and low for – not phased. Kitchen set – bored of it. VTech camera for children – waste of money. The bikes and scooters – ok, but not majorly time absorbing. The doll’s house – five minutes a day max. I’ve learned that if you are at a playdate and the children are particularly drawn to a toy or game, don’t buy it for your own home. That’s why I refuse to invest in a trampoline for the garden. Once it belongs to them, they will never play with it.

I’ve told Megan and Jessica they should choose their own birthday presents and they seem to like these crappy, plastic made-in-China mini dolls that you can fiddle with and dress with various accessories (or ‘assesseries’, as Megan says). Whenever they get hold of the iPad, they watch toy reviews of these pocket sized dolls on YouTube.

Toy reviews are like infomercials, but for kids. Megan and Jessica are mesmerized by them. It’s crack for children. They watch them in a kind of trance. Toy review YouTube videos are generally not professionally filmed. Some random person will unpack a toy and video themselves describing the various elements of it. Sometimes this person puts on voices and acts out scenes involving the toy characters. You only ever see the toy and someone’s fingers as they play.

Entranced by the toy reviews.

Megan and Jessica most enjoy the reviews of Disney princess dolls. They would rather watch this type of amateur, home-made show than a proper movie. Sometimes the quality of filming reminds me of the Blair Witch Project, but they don’t care. I ration these mind-numbing (to an adult) shows and they can only ‘watch princesses’ as a special treat. When we were at the airport flying back from Chicago, I noticed a kid watching toy reviews on his mother’s iPad. There is no better way to immobilize and quieten down a toddler. A few of my friends said their children love them too. I can’t understand the appeal. Toddlers are such fascinating, surprising, bizarre little creatures.

I will end off with a picture I saw the other day.  It amused me no end because it sums up the toddler years so beautifully:

 


America

July 24, 2017

Megan, Jessica and I have just got back from a three week trip to Chicago to visit my brother.

I’m reluctant to fly Air France again. One reason is because they don’t allow you to take prams as a form of hand luggage and you have to check it through to the final destination like an ordinary suitcase. Normally airlines allow families to fold the pram at the aircraft door and retrieve it at the same place on exiting the plane so you can use it while traipsing through airports. Prams are essential, non-negotiable pieces of equipment when travelling with little kids. You cannot do without one.

I kicked up a fuss at the horrifying thought of dealing with two weepy, tired children at American immigration with nowhere for them to sit or lie. Paris airport is also a hellish maze and required me to walk miles and take 8 lifts to get from one gate to another. How on earth was I to organise that with two children, some hand luggage and a big pregnant belly?

In the end, Air France made a special arrangement for me on both legs of the journey. Victory! And I negotiated it in French too, which I am chuffed about. I speak the best French when I am incensed and fed up.

On the journey from Paris to Chicago, the chief air hostess placed my pram in the cockpit, somewhere under or behind the pilot’s chair. On the return leg from Chicago back to Paris, they put it in the exclusive big cupboard reserved for first class passengers. It was surreal that my filthy, clapped up pram travelled in luxury while I squished myself into economy class with my legs wrapped around my neck. Alastair said I should have suggested that I swop with the pram and let it take my seat 25B and I could have happily sat in the first class cupboard instead.

I’ve always loved America. I like living in Switzerland but if I had to choose anywhere else to be, it would be North America. I enjoy the spirit of the place. Once you get beyond their venomous, brick-wall border control, I love the openness and warmth of the Americans. There is a sense that you can dream big because anything is possible. They don’t have that built-in greyness and cynicism of the Brits, for example. Maybe this positive spirit has something to do with the vastness of the American landscape. It once again struck me how much space there is in America. It doesn’t surprise me that many Americans act as if their country is the only one earth because the vast and endless sprawl of it genuinely makes it feel that way.

America fascinates me because it is more foreign than one would imagine. Even though it is an English speaking country, it feels different – in good and bad ways – to other Anglophone countries. I love the variety in America. Options are limited in Switzerland so when I go to the US, the choices are a novelty. Even eating something as simple as a burger is a huge thrill because you can’t get a decent one in Europe. I love the fact that you get more bang for your buck in the States and they are so generous with quantities, especially in restaurants.

The funny thing though is that what I love about America, I also hate about it.  I like the value for money yet I detest the waste and indulgence that goes with it. I am a World War Two history buff with a particular interest in the Holocaust so I find excessive waste upsetting. I noticed waste in subtle ways that maybe pass other people by. For example, I love it that ice is so liberally and generously available in restaurants and you can fill your glass yourself at home in a jiffy with those fancy ice-distributing double-door American sized fridges. In Europe, you are lucky if you get a measly three cubes in your glass at a restaurant and filling ice trays at home is a faff. Yet Americans forget that it is wasteful and unnecessary to fill your cup with ice you won’t use because ice blocks are not cold, reusable pebbles but actually it is water that is a precious and scarce commodity in most of the rest of the world.

I also find American public toilets wasteful. I don’t know why they need to use a couple of gallons of water for every flush and the quantity of water that rests in the bowl makes it more of a bidet than a loo. Megan noticed that the public toilets are different because the seats have a gap in the front. ‘What’s that for?’ she asked. I don’t know. I wonder too. Have you ever realized that although the bowl itself is so massive, the pipe down which your business must disappear is so narrow? What’s up with that?  Every time I’m in North America, I need to plunge the loo at least once. Maybe American bowel movements are smaller than elsewhere in the world. Perhaps that’s one of the few outputs of the US that is small.

This trip it struck me again how germ phobic Americans are. At the entrance to shops, there were hand sanitizers and next to cash points, there was generally a Purell bottle to disinfect your hands too.  One shop assistant told me that her colleague, who liberally uses the hand sanitizer, is always sick. Duh! Germs aren’t all bad and they help build up a healthy resistance. Americans confuse sterile/disinfected and clean. I reckon the only thing that should be sterile is a hospital.

Sanitizer at the entrance to the supermarket, at the library and next to almost every cash desk I came across. Americans must have really, REALLY clean hands.

This trip I noticed garden services spraying weed killer almost every day. I saw them spraying the verges at the library, at the shops, at the park, in residential neighbourhoods etc.   The funny thing is that I rarely saw people out romping on their pristine, golf-course lawns. Maybe weed-free lawns are more to be admired from a distance, like through the window as you get dressed for work.

Wipes, wipes, wipes all over the show. Americans hate all germs, insects and weeds.

Every day on my daily walks round the neighbourhood I always saw these warnings on people’s freshly sprayed grass. Pity my children can’t yet read so the skulls and crossbones weren’t effective in keeping them at bay.

People don’t realize that hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps are actually low-grade pesticides. There is no way I am lathering that shit on my hands. I wish people understood that pesticides are not harmless. In the Second World War, both sides raced to produce and stockpile chemical weapons. It was a real, legitimate threat and that’s why everyone carried around gas masks.

What happened to all those chemical stockpiles after the war? They were sprinkled on crops and worked wonders as insecticides and – ta da! – that was the start of modern day, commercial, chemical farming. If pesticides can kill weeds and insects, trust me, they ain’t good for you either. When pesticides are tested on rats, they affect their endocrine and reproductive (fertility and gender identity) systems first. America uses over 550 million kilos of pesticide per year. I think it’s interesting how every Tom, Dick and Harry has thyroid issues (including me!) and did you know there are over 1.4 million transgender people in the US?  I’ve become very green so I would probably identify better with places like California which seem to be more on my wavelength.  I know I should probably go off into nature and live in a hessian tent in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, I always enjoy trips to the US of A.  Even though America seems more divided than ever into the pro and anti Trump factions, I still think Americans are one of the warmest, most open, most positive (and naïve!) cultures on earth and often it is a tonic to be around them.  God bless America.

I took this photo of a menu at a fourth of July function. Fried Twinkies and Oreos – can you get more American than that!?!?!

 


Crete

June 5, 2017

In May we went to Crete for a week. Al and I have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal holiday. I enjoy self-catering cottages that involve driving around, exploring and then stopping off at interesting places for picnic lunches or dinners at quaint restaurants. I like long drives because that’s when Al and I have our best heart-to-hearts and bonding chats. These sorts of trips don’t work well with kids and, when we do holidays involving lots of driving, it is always Al who does it so it is not as fun or relaxing for him. Al is an all-inclusive kind of guy. He dreams of island/beach holidays at a hotel where breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided and you can spend the day in the pool resting on a lilo while sipping a pina colada with a mini cocktail umbrella in it.

We forgot how much children love the beach – running from waves and building sandcastles … the simple things.

I agree that these types of holidays, especially with children, are great (although you can no longer bob about on a lilo). It is just that after a while I find the waste and gluttony of all-inclusive hotels to be excessive. I chose the last mini-break which was to a camping site. We stayed in a prefab hut that was the size of a shoebox and we all had to sit on the bed while the other person manoeuvred about the tiny cabin. It rained and eventually I admitted, ‘Ok, this sucks’ and we left a night early. This time I am glad we chose an all-inclusive option in a hotel. We saved up for the treat and, after Al’s intense busy period at work, he needed to be sheep-dipped in instant relaxation and happiness.

Al at lunch – happiness!

One of the reasons Al adores all-inclusives is because I think he has four stomachs, like a cow. He takes advantage and gets value for money by eating every meal as if it is his last on earth. I know we should embrace life and live in the moment but sometimes, when I look at Al’s plates at the buffet, I suggest that maybe he shouldn’t embrace it quite so much.

What gets to me about all-inclusives is the sheer quantity of food involved. I also generally overeat at a buffet. It’s difficult not to. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t indulge at an all-you-can-eat set up. I adore Greek food – tzatziki, the yoghurt, the olives, the feta, the phyllo pies, the pitas, moussaka, souvlaki. Eating at a Greek buffet is a bit like cramming a month’s worth of clothing into a child-sized suitcase. I enjoyed the meals but then after each one I felt so bloated and roly-poly and it was as if I was constantly incubating an immense, round food-baby.

Our strategy to keep the children still and quiet so we could tuck into the buffet

A thought on Greece

This is the second time I’ve been to Greece and every time I go there, I wonder, ‘What the heck happened to the Greeks?’ They were once one of the most sophisticated civilizations on earth and it is as if they sat back and thought, ‘We’re done now!’ and let themselves go. Everything about Greece feels clapped up and incomplete. Many of the flat roofed buildings have metal spikes poking out the tops, as if they intended to erect another level but never got round to it. I’m blown away that Greece is allowed to be part of the EU. It makes a mockery of the whole set up. They’re like the EU’s shady second cousin who keeps borrowing money and can’t hold down a job. They don’t even recycle! Shocking!

Classic Greece – half finished or abandoned buildings with metal spikes poking out the top

Grumpy old goats

Most of the people at the hotel were couples in their 50s or 60s. It amazes me how people forget what it is like to have little children and they are quick to judge those that do. I think they forget the pain, like one does with childbirth. When the girls were overtired and weepy or happy and exuberant, I sometimes got the feeling that the people around me didn’t approve of the noise level. There is very little grace from adults who no longer have regular contact with toddlers. They think they did better or could do better. You could see it on their faces.

Take the aeroplane as an example. During the three hour flight to Heraklion, Jessica fell asleep and I had to wake her for landing. She was enraged so people turned around and many gave me The Stare. It’s that deathly look where they hope to direct the situation by the depth of disapproval on their faces. People do not have a right to sleep quietly on an aeroplane just as I do not have the right to make a noise and be disruptive. Sunbathing old fogies do not have the right to dead silence round the pool so they can read a book, just as my children don’t have the right to be too boisterous, wild or over-the-top.

Sometimes little old ladies stop to ogle or tutt-tutt at a tantrum in the supermarket but they don’t appreciate that my child is hungry and exhausted or maybe I’m in the process of teaching Megan or Jessica that they can’t have everything they want when they want it and I would love some grace and sympathy from the greater community. You can’t assume someone is a bad mother or that a child disobedient just because they are having a wail and a bellow. It’s hard for a two year old to be woken from a deep sleep when they don’t understand why. I dreamed of saying to the lady in front of me in the aeroplane, who turned around and huffed, ‘Hey lady, I see your scowl and I raise you my middle finger.’

Happy moments with my favourite people in the whole wide world