Holidays for 7 weeks and other news

July 16, 2018

Summer time! School holidays … for seven weeks! Most days feel like Groundhog Day but I really can’t complain because Switzerland in good summer weather is the best place to be. We have so many options – the lake, the mountains, indoor playgrounds, outdoor playgrounds, the pool and I’ve arranged some swimming, ballet, art and sport camps here and there.

The children are on holiday but I am not. This time of year is always intense and, as the French say, chargé (busy, full, hectic).   I’m privileged to stay at home with my children. It is a special gift and I treasure it but the extra summer activity, my faulty thyroid and Al’s long working hours mean that every night I crash into bed like a felled oak.

My approach to the summer holidays is that we need to get out the house and at least do one thing every day. A challenge in the holidays is that Kate’s routine and opportunities to sleep go out the window. Not that I had a routine to start with, mind you. Kate tags along, catnaps in the car and withers off to sleep wherever she is whenever she’s desperate. One day I was in the kitchen preparing her food, then I turned around and …

I’ve learned that when I’m tired, it is essential to keep moving. On my sluggish days, I must stay busy because the time passes faster and I’m not tempted by a quick power kip on the couch. Once I lie down, it’s hard to get back up. Chilling horizontally is no longer possible during the day because my children think, ‘Yay! Human trampoline!’

Before I had children, I craved a run or some form of exercise every day. When I didn’t have exercise, I felt pent up and agitated. It was as if my body begged for it. Ever since Megan was born, in August 2012, I haven’t felt that racehorse-in-a-cage feeling again. It’s not as if I don’t exercise. I walk a lot. I’m always bending, running, lifting and carrying. It’s just that I haven’t felt the need to formally exercise in six years. If I did an aerobics class, I would probably collapse.

I complain about the winter paraphernalia but I realize there is a lot of that in summer too – costumes, swimming t-shirts, sun cream, hats, slops, armbands, sunglasses and let’s not forget the bloody snacks. Megan and Jessica are insatiably hungry at all times, except during formal meals. They require constant sustenance. ‘Snacks!’ they will exclaim within a few minutes of settling at any venue. ‘Where are the snacks?’ I have to prepare healthy snacks and picnics because otherwise they demand ice creams. We can’t have lollies and ice creams every day. Once they’ve claimed the snacks, they then wander around the pool eating popcorn, sit on the swing with a container of pretzels or jump from rock to rock at the lake while holding their watermelon.

Remember I said I needed to make the garden more interesting to encourage the children to play outside on their own? We now have a path of stones, a new flower bed packed with wood chips and a trampoline. It appears my theory was correct because the children now spend about an extra 12 minutes playing outside every day.

Megan and Jessica are pro tv-watchers. They can do it in any position.

Sometimes Megan and Jessica play quietly together and that is pure magic. It’s beautiful, like heaven on earth. There is no other way to describe it. This never lasts long. When I think, ‘This is too good to be true’, it is and I usually hear a bang or a crash or slap slap and a thump, silence and then someone starts weeping and walking towards me for mediation and a cuddle.

Lately I’ve been thinking about parenting and my approach to it. My theory is that one of the reasons modern day parents find parenting so heavy-going is because we treat children like little emperors and so they start to act like them too. The message we give the children is that we exist to serve them. In the old days, kids were put to work early on. A three year old like Jessica would gather eggs, feed the chickens, clean the stables and possibly carry a pail of water up from the river. My children can’t even walk a few steps without bellowing for snacks or demanding to be carried, let alone lug a bucket of water. Back in the day, the family was a team, they helped each other and everyone pulled their weight in the household. Yesterday I asked Megan three times to simply turn off the kitchen light and she looked at me as if I crawled out of cheese. I’m convinced that parenting is not supposed to be so tiring. We must be doing it wrong.

I recognise that my disciplining technique needs work. I keep going with the patience of Job until, in one random moment, I crack and go batshit crazy, like absolutely mental. Recently Jessica sat on the leather couch in the lounge and smeared expensive, top of the range sun cream on her body so she looked white like a snowman. I lost it because I have told her repeatedly not to do that. I shouted at her in a tone that left her quivering at my feet. She still talks about ‘the day that Mommy shouted at me about the sun cream.’ She was so traumatized by me that on the Sunday after the incident, she said to Al, ‘Can we go to church and leave Mommy at home?’ That upset me. I have no clue how to get children to consistently obey instructions. I can’t do it effectively. I’ve said to Megan and Jessica, ‘How come you expect me to listen to you but you never listen to me?’ However, I’ve realized that more than I want them to listen, I don’t want to be the sort of mother that loses it, who is calm and then goes nuts and screams like a demented banshee. It’s just not worth the emotional fall out.

One of my friends has a brilliant parenting technique. She separates the person from the behaviour and teaches her children that their behaviour is something they choose and can control. So, when her children misbehave, she won’t make statements about their character such as, ‘You are a naughty boy’ and ‘Stop being disobedient’. Instead she says, ‘Why did you choose that unacceptable behaviour?’  I do this too now, and I like it. You can unconditionally love the person, but not necessarily the behaviour and it’s important to establish a clear, consistent boundary between the two.

I don’t think society does much to help us parents. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the village is becoming toxic.  First of all, the speed and accessibility of technology means we’re distracted from distraction by distraction. We are glued to our phones as if we are nuns clutching our rosary beads. We think that we have to share ourselves in order to be ourselves. An experience didn’t happen unless you took a photo of it. Relationships are about breadth, not depth. It’s no wonder the teenagers I know are all depressed and confused.

I think the biggest challenge to my children’s generation is relativism. Morality and the rules that govern it have become relative to a particular framework, such as our ethnicity, our upbringing, or the culture or historical moment into which we were born.  Morality is now a personal opinion, your personal judgement or viewpoint.   You believe what you want, I will believe what I want. You have your rules but I have my rules. There’s no absolute truth anymore. Everything is right and good, as long as you are happy.

Two of my friends recently posted on Facebook about the importance of gender neutral education for our children. They advocated using interchangeable gender pronouns when reading stories to kids. It freaked me out. I don’t want my children to think you can choose your gender or that gender is fluid and interchangeable.   I’m profoundly disturbed by this so I discussed it with some other friends and one of them said in all seriousness, ‘But think about it Julie. Who said only women can wear dresses?’ How on earth am I supposed to keep my children sane in this crazy world?

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Summer!

June 23, 2018

I’m feeling much better now that I am on my thyroid meds. It was only three weeks ago that I felt hot and anxious as if I was trapped in an oven and I experienced ludicrous adrenaline as if I had mainlined 200 Red Bulls. Hyperthyroidism is formidable. I’ve had every listed symptom and am now 10kg below my normal body weight. Today I ate half a milk tart and didn’t feel guilty.  Thankfully I’m on the mend.

Sunshine and happiness

It’s summer! It’s the light and the long evenings that I love. When I looked at my phone app this week, I just saw sunshine.  Happiness!

Duvets

I’ve noticed that every summer the Swiss air their duvets by hanging them out the window and down the side of their houses. At least once a week I drive past duvets and pillows suspended from homes. It’s so strange, but maybe the Swiss keep their window sills and walls cleaner than I do.

Flies and ticks

Summer brings some challenges. When it is hot, we are inundated with flies. Once I baked a fly into a lasagne (dug it out and carried on eating). Last year we put up fly screens and they make a difference but I still swat flies every day. We live in a farming community and I suppose the flies are a small price to pay for cows on our doorstep.

Traffic jam on my way home

In the summer the Swiss are neurotic about ticks and the possibility of getting Lyme disease from them. I understand the risks but the paranoia is out of proportion. I’ve already listened to umpteen radio broadcasts on the topic this month alone. The Swiss would never cope in the African bush where there are mambas and adders and things to be legitimately freaked out about.

Now that Megan is at school, I see this tick fear more because she has had two field trips recently and we parents were told to spray tick repellent on the children beforehand, pack spray in their satchels and inspect for ticks afterwards. The children were instructed to wear long pants on a hot, 30 degree day in order to avoid the terrifying ticks. Megan said the children resprayed themselves during their picnic lunch and she borrowed some from a friend and sprayed ‘over my whole body’.   This annoyed me because I refuse to pour pesticides over my kids. I’m convinced that our blasé use of pesticides in agriculture and in our homes is the modern day equivalent of lead toys, arsenic in paint and asbestos in houses. Future generations will look back at us and wonder why we were so stupid.

Play

For some reason, Megan and Jessica rarely initiate playing in the garden. I told them there are no ticks. One of my friends remarked that their lack of interest in the garden could be because it is a large square of grass with little/no shade and we don’t have enough nooks and crannies. This friend has lots of ‘activity stations’ in her garden. For example, her children wash their hands and fiddle with the water in the bird bath and she has stones in a flower bed that they spend hours relocating. I remember my grandparents’ garden in South Africa had many hidden, interesting spots and it provided hours of intrigue and excitement.

Megan and Jessica’s lack of enthusiasm for garden play puzzles me because it’s not as if they want for imagination. Sometimes when Megan is quiet, she says, ‘I’m watching a movie in my head.’ This reminds me of me. I still daydream, even at age 38. Is that normal? I’m not sure. I may wonder what it would be like to live off the land in a cottage in Alaska or be President of the USA and I then spend the next 20 minutes gazing at the wall.

I never anticipated the chaotic, unpredictable play habits of toddlers. Megan and Jessica follow a hunter-gatherer approach to playing. They are chronic fiddlers. This is why I must make the garden more interesting. They wander round the house, collect unrelated objects and pile them into packets, mini trolleys, Tupperwares, baskets or their backpacks. They then drop them in random places, like little toy turds.

A bag filled with junk on the stairs. Next to it is a pack of (incomplete) playing cards

Megan and Jessica rarely keep games as originally intended. Let’s say I buy them Snakes and Ladders. They play it a few times and then they split it up and perhaps put the dice in a pencil case and the pieces in a Tupperware. That marks the end of Snakes and Ladders. Our Happy Families card game is now defunct because the families are incomplete – Mother Mouse is in a plastic bag, Daddy Frog is in an old biscuit tin etc. It is near to impossible to keep puzzles together. Today I saw some puzzle pieces in the trolley mixed with plastic vegetables, underpants, playmobil, some coins and sunglasses. This frustrates my square, perfectionist sensibilities but I’ve learned that, in the words of Elsa, I have to Let It Go.

Jessica fills a bag and then poses with another one containing keys, a coin, a unicorn and a piece of Lego

Our zoo

Kate is now passing the baby age where she was cooperative and easy(ish) to bend to my will. She now wriggles and resists nappy changes unless I distract her or pin her down. She refuses purees and prefers to explore soft solid food with her hands and feet. Jessica was also a fan of baby led weaning which made eating a full body, messy experience. Megan loved purees and I spent hours cooking different concoctions which I then dropped into her open mouth, as if she was a baby bird in a nest. That was so rewarding.

Feeding time in our zoo continues to be hard core and challenging. Before I had kids, I imagined chatting at the table, unpicking our day and talking about our feelings but this kumbaya vibe hasn’t yet materialised. Maybe it’s because the children are tired. Maybe it’s because I don’t give them their preferred cuisine of chips, nuggets, IKEA meatballs and ketchup. Maybe it’s because they can’t eat in front of the tv. One child will complain about the food I’ve served, another cries over an aching body part, there’s spillage, punch ups, pleas to be fed by me and random wandering around while Kate observes the chaos and quietly squishes sweet potato through her toes and on to the floor.

Kate’s foot on the table and Jessica wanders round the kitchen at dinner time with her pyjama pants on her head

Kate is crawling and has mastered the pincer grip. She’s into everything, like a puppy. This week I removed a bead and a dice from her mouth and I’m training Megan and Jessica not to leave their scissors on the floor. Oh my nerves. I only have to turn my head for a split second and Kate is already at the front door chewing on the shoes.

Kate LOVES standing

Life is busy so I’m relieved that I’m not at all sleep-deprived. I sleep for 8 hours every night mainly because when Kate wakes in the night, she spoons with me in the big bed. She’s not a fan of being alone in her cot, same as her sisters. Maybe there’s something wrong with it? Megan used to stand in it, shake the bars cry and rage that I had the audacity to confine her. When she was quiet and I thought she was sleeping, she was actually yanking the animals off her cot mobile or standing up and knawing on the wooden rails like a budgie sharpening its beak. Eventually she would collapse and wither off to sleep. Jessica used the cot at night but only after much coaxing and she slept in the car for day time naps.

I saw this video and thought, ‘This is my life! It sums it up.’

Feminism

I see the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern just had her baby. She’s taking 6 weeks leave and then it’s back to work. Apparently this is progress for society. The article I read said this is a breakthrough for feminism and gender equality in New Zealand. I’ve realized I’m not a feminist at all. I’m like the anti-feminist. They say women can have it all but I don’t want it all.

I think it’s a great joy to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Many women find motherhood distracts them from exploring their potential but I found myself in my family. Some of my friends have climbed the corporate ladder, are highly ambitious and have achieved great things in business. I no longer compare myself to them. I think, ‘Good for you but it’s not for me.’ It is my gift and privilege to spend my days in sweatpants cooking, cleaning food off the kitchen floor, rocking kids to sleep, hunting for the Snakes and Ladders dice and being my children’s personal slave. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.


My overactive thyroid and other news

May 31, 2018

I love being pregnant and I love giving birth but I struggle with the aftermath. My thyroid goes haywire. I’ve developed postpartum thyroiditis or an overactive thyroid three times now. The only symptom I enjoy is that I can eat like a horse and still lose weight. I’ve lost all that pregnancy doughiness and I can now fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes and even those are baggy. The worst of the symptoms are the intense exhaustion, racing heart and hot flushes. It’s as if my body is a very hot car in first gear with a foot flat down on the accelerator.  I started some medication and am already feeling better. I feel my mojo is coming back, thank goodness.

Fortunately the children have been so supportive. Every afternoon, they say, ‘Mommy, we see you are a bit knackered so we will play quietly by ourselves while you have a lie down on the bed for an hour or so.’ They help around the house, pick up their toys without being asked, eat their dinner without whinging and they obey instructions first time round. They’ve been a wonderful help.

JUST KIDDING!!!!!!!!!!

I do indeed have thyroid issues but the children couldn’t care less. Life goes on!

It turns out that every second person I speak to has either an overactive or underactive thyroid. That’s not right. I reckon there’s something about our lifestyles or our environment that affects the thyroid. Our bodies weren’t designed to be so faulty. Are we doing something that contributes to our wonky thyroids? During my investigations into organic food, I read that when agricultural pesticides are tested on rats, it affects their reproductive and endocrinal systems in a big way. Over 5.6 billion – yes, BILLION – pounds of pesticides are sprayed into the air worldwide each year. You can’t tell me all that junk in the atmosphere doesn’t affect our health. If it stuffs up the fertility, gender and thyroids of rats, it must surely impact us too.

My doctor said that I must stop breastfeeding in order to take thyroid meds. I told him I read on the internet that it is ok to breastfeed and he said, ‘Um, er, um, ok let me check.’ And I was right! What incompetence to demand something so life changing of a mother and child without being 100% certain first. Never blindly trust what a doctor says – always do your own research too.

Travels

This month Al went to London for work. I think that tipped me over the edge, thyroid-wise. I really miss him when he is away. He often says, ‘Julie do you miss me or do you miss what I do around the house?’ Both! I couldn’t ask for more helpful, hands on husband. Al is not a scary disciplinarian but, for some reason, his mere presence in the house maintains order, calm and sanity.

Usually Al puts down Megan and Jessica while I sort out Kate so, when he’s away, bed time is a challenge. It feels as if I’m going nowhere slowly. There’s a lot of wondering around the bedroom and faffing about – ‘I’m too hot, too cold. Turn off a light, turn on a light. I need another wee/poo. I have a sore tummy/throat/eye/foot etc. I need a drink.  Can you make me a hot water bottle? I need another hug. Can you lie with me?’  The children remind me of those birthday candles that keep burning no matter how hard you blow.

School and parties

Megan loves school. It’s been interesting comparing the Swiss system to the one in South Africa. It’s different and a novelty for me too. For example, every morning the children line up outside their classroom and shake their teacher’s hand and greet her as they walk into the class. Teachers in Switzerland must have rock solid immune systems. One of my friends recently told me how her eight year old twins were going to make apple compote in their class. The parents received a letter asking them to supply a peeler and sharp knife.  Imagine all these eight year olds running around with knives in their backpacks.  It’s a whole new world.

I like the Swiss system because there is less pressure to read and write so early on. The first two years of school are about structured play and learning self-discipline and respect for others. They gently introduce maths and literacy and build the children’s desire and enthusiasm for learning.

The Swiss system doesn’t appear to be soft and cuddly and worried about feelings. One week Megan had to draw a picture of herself with her ‘preferred friends’. Someone’s delicate, 5-year old feelings are going to get hurt. I know life is tough and the world is a beast but can’t they learn that a little later?

Megan and her preferred friend

 

I’m very concerned about children’s feelings. When I was about five and in nursery school, I remember a girl handing out pink, flowery party invitations and I didn’t get one. I remember exactly where I was standing when that sad fact dawned on me.

Party invitations drive me crazy and so do the blasé and insensitive parents who allow their children to hand out invitations to selected friends at school. Parties are one of the most important things in a child’s tiny universe so they hurt when they don’t crack the nod. Almost every week I see kids excitedly handing out invitations and I also see children waiting for one that never comes. It breaks my heart. I told my girls that we will invite the whole class or we will invite people via their mothers discreetly, off the record, on the QT and very hush hush. We will not hand out invitations at school.

The other day we arrived at school and Megan whipped out a bunch of papers from her satchel. On each paper there was a person’s name and Megan’s birth date of 31 aout 2012. She then waltzed round the quad and handed these papers to selected friends. When I asked her what she was doing she said, ‘I’m handing out my party vinnations.’ What can I do?  I try, at least I try.

Megan’s vinnations (invitations)

French

Megan has thought a lot about her party in August and she told me, ‘Mommy I want to have my party in francais.’

Talking about French, recently the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, was in Australia. He thanked the Australian prime minister in a speech and said in English, ‘Thank you and your delicious wife for the warm welcome.’ I absolutely loved that.

I can totally relate because I make those sorts of duff ups all the time when I speak French. Lately I’ve had a crisis of confidence. Speaking French is like this stubborn muscle that I must constantly keeping working otherwise it becomes slack and stiff. I’m in one of those thick-tongued phases at the moment.

The expat life

One of my dear friends is leaving this summer. Drat. I love living in Switzerland but one of the big cons about life in the expat community is that people come and go all the time. Each time someone close to me leaves, I experience a sort of grief and loss and then I must reorganise and restart my life without them in it.

This particular buddy of mine lives down the road, has children similar ages and is my go to person when I have a free afternoon. She’s gung ho and up for anything. She’s like a comfortable old shoe. I think it is a great compliment to be considered someone’s familiar, comfy slipper. It takes a while to get a friendship to this special level of intimacy and now I have to start all over again and find a new BFF.

Growing older

It distresses me how fast my children are growing, particularly Kate who has changed so much in the past 8 months. Of course this is a good thing. It’s just that having kids has made me more aware of the passing of time and of my own mortality.  I don’t think I will grow old gracefully.  I’ve even put aside a box of baby souvenirs for my future grandchildren, which is a very aging thing to do.

I know that soon, in the blink of the eye, my children will start to unspool themselves from me and I will have to let them go. Right now, I’m enjoying having them to myself, being with them almost constantly and knowing them so intimately. I am even aware of the timing and content of their bowel movements. Yesterday was a milestone because the texture and smell of Kate’s poos changed for the first time now that she is on solids. It was a little sad  because I adored the sweet, unoffensive smell of yellow breastfeeding-only poos. I loved knowing I was sustaining Megan, Jessica and Kate and that my milk alone was making them grow. It is a gift and privilege I treasure.

Note to self: Go to dentist

Megan can’t wait to lose her first tooth. Some of her friends have lost some already and she’s envious. I explained to Jessica how the process works. I said, ‘When you’re about six years old, your teeth start to fall out and then you get new, adult ones just like Mommy and Daddy’s.’

She then looked up at me and said, ‘Yellow ones?’


Easter Holidays

April 15, 2018

We’ve had two weeks of school holidays over Easter. School holidays are intense. Maybe it’s just me. One of my friends said she loves the time off from the usual routine. I said, ‘Really? WTF? Are you serious?’ My children are my beloveds, the highlight of my existence and the apples of my eye so I feel guilty that I really enjoy the three hours when they are at school every day.

School holidays are nonstop go go go. Megan and Jessica’s stamina astounds me. Their energy could power a jet or send a rocket into outer space. By bath time, I’m done for the day and I crave backup. I use the app called Find-my-iPhone to track Al’s progress home. While the children splash about, I watch this little dot moving slowly along a map. At 19h00, it’s bed time (for them, mine is only slightly later). One of my friends posted this on Facebook and it sums up our evenings:

Easter Sunday was good fun. Megan and Jessica gorged on eggs and then I suggested we put the rest in a Tupperware to save for another day. It’s been about two weeks and they still haven’t enquired as to the whereabouts of their chocolate. Isn’t that weird? I’ve been contemplating how bizarre this is as I nibble through their eggs and Lindt bunnies every evening.

We went away for three nights. After Al’s busy season at work and this never ending winter, I so appreciated the change of scenery and the quality time together.

As we drove back home, Al said he had a superb time but didn’t feel relaxed. Every day the children were completely and utterly exhausted from glorious, happy, busy days. Alastair and I wondered if they may sleep late and if we might score a bonus lie in. Not a chance. When children go to bed early, they wake up early. When they go to bed late, they wake up early.

It wasn’t a true break where we detached from all daily responsibilities, enjoyed leisurely lie-ins and veged on a lilo in the pool while drinking a cocktail with a mini umbrella sticking out the glass. Travelling with three small children is like going away with three chimpanzees. It’s a tall order to expect to be relaxed by the end of it. Happy and bonded, yes, but not revived and zenned.  For now, we don’t have holidays as such; they are more like family trips.

We spent two days at Europa Park, the big amusement park in Germany and one day in Colmar in France.

During this trip, I remembered a snippet out of the very interesting book called ‘The Band of Brothers.’ The book is about the group of American men that landed in France on D-Day and then pushed eastwards until they finally stopped at Hitler’s country home town of Berchtesgarten. The author interviewed these men and asked them which country they liked most out of all the areas they passed though. They unanimously agreed the Dutch were tops. Second in line was … Germany. Even though they were liberating Europe from the German clutches, they actually enjoyed and identified with the German culture and way of life.

They said that when they bombed the living daylights out of a German city, the following day the citizens emerged from their bunkers and were all hands on deck to repair the damage. In contrast, the French didn’t give a toss and waited for someone else to eventually get round to filling craters and repairing smashed up buildings. I think that mentality endures to this very day. I remembered this when we were in Germany last week because I like Germans too. They are so organized and productive and motivated.

Europa Park is in Germany on the border with the Alsace region of France. Alsace Lorraine switched between France and Germany a few times over the years. This makes it my favourite part of France because it is French but with a structured, disciplined German influence. There is a marvellous two-room museum in the basement of a building in a village just outside of Colmar. It is very unassuming but it’s one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited. Unfortunately I didn’t explore it in any detail because my three little chimps aren’t interested in history or the Second World War.

Al is holding Jessica and Megan looks awkward because they are both terrified of life-size dressed up creatures. They never sit on Father Christmas’s lap and they shed their skin when they saw the Easter Bunny roaming round our local mall.

I love German food. They are aces at cooking pork and I enjoy spatzle and a good schnitzel. We rarely eat out in Switzerland. It is too expensive and the food is generally underwhelming for the price. This sacrifice and deprivation means that when we are away and go to a restaurant, it’s a major thrill. These days it’s easier to eat out with Megan and Jessica as we tranquilise them with colouring, cards or the iPad. Kate is the challenge because she bounces and wriggles around like a hooked fish. Al and I take turns to hold her so one of us always eats at high speed and the other has cold food. It’s a pity the children don’t enjoy restaurant food as much as we do. They only eat marguerita pizzas, french fries and their body weight in mayonnaise and ketchup.

Europa Park is magical. We loved it. It is divided into different sections each representing a country in Europe. The children were so happy and that made us happy too. I can’t wait to go back.

It astounds me the way Europeans are so tolerant of dogs in public places. Do you know dogs of all shapes and sizes are allowed at Europa Park? I can sort of understand a poodle or a little lapdog but we saw big, fierce looking dogs there too. While we waited for Al on a rollercoaster, I spotted this man and his massive dog. It was taller than Megan and had testicles the size of tennis balls so I had to take a sneaky photo:

I like visiting other countries in Europe because it boosts my confidence with French. I’ve now expanded my repertoire enough to offer French as a communication option in addition to English. I don’t understand a lick of German and I hate that lost, clueless feeling. I don’t understand how people live for years in a foreign country and not learn the language. I used to have this thick tongue and deer-in-headlights disorientation when I first moved to Switzerland but that has gone now. It is only when I am away that I realize how much I’ve progressed and this gives my self-confidence a nice boost.

When we were in Colmar, it suddenly poured with rain for about 20 minutes. The wind blew with an end of world fury that turned my umbrella inside out. We ran in search of shelter but the tiny patisseries and cafes nearby weren’t suitable. They wouldn’t look kindly on our double pram (dogs yes, prams no). We ran around like rats in a burning building and then we noticed a homeless man who beckoned a crowd of us into the cathedral. We sheltered in the church while the rain pounded outside. I’m sure there’s some deeper symbolic meaning in that. It felt special, as if we were characters in a real life picture of how God gives sanctuary and refuge from the storms and greyness of life. It was one of many spontaneous Happy Moments during the trip.

 


Spring, Charged, Discipline and Parties

March 19, 2018

Look what I found in our garden under the snow.  Buds!

Spring!

This seemingly interminable winter is finally coming to an end.  I’m over the general winter heaviness, the grey, the minus temperatures, the freezing winds, the rain, the short days, too much time indoors, the children’s addiction to tv, walking to school in all weather conditions and dressing kids in winter jackets and other bulky paraphernalia.

One of the things I love most about spring is that it doesn’t appear gradually.  It bursts forth, all of a sudden.  One day it’s winter and then – BOOF! – it’s spring.  It’s like an eruption of light and colour.  I like the way all this life was lying in wait, having a little rest, under the deadness of winter.  Everything feels more crisp, clear and fresh in spring and because I have weather dependent moods, I feel fresher and lighter too.

I like watching things grow.  I think it is pretty amazing the way you plant a little seed and then a shoot pushes through 15cm of soil as it stretches up towards the light above.  Last year we started a vegetable patch for the first time.  We have a small metre by a metre one.  It was fun and educational for the kids so this year we’re expanding it.  There’s something extra delicious about a freshly picked courgette that you’ve grown yourself.  We didn’t know how many seeds to put in so I said to Al, ‘Just chuck them all in.’ I didn’t have high hopes because for a few weeks, we watered it and nothing happened.  But by the end of summer, our veggie patch was bursting.  It reminded me of the fairytale about the magic porridge pot that kept overflowing with porridge and no one could stop it.

Charged

The French have a beautiful descriptive word for when things are busy and full-on.  They say c’est très chargé which translates to ‘it is very charged’.  Charged makes me think of hair standing on end, of static electricity, of hovering over the edge of a cliff, of walking a tightrope, of a lit match near petrol, of a hissing firework just before it explodes.  Some times of the day are particularly busy and then I think, ‘Wow, this feels charged’.  People often ask how I am coping with three kids and I say, ‘It’s great, just very charged.’

Comedian Michael McIntyre said there are four basics that you have to do every day when raising children – feed them, wash them, clothe them and get them to sleep.  Simple things on the surface, but not in practice.  Each of these daily tasks is a battle and the source of charged moments in our house.  For some reason, children resist them and you are forced to compromise in various ways.  Why do they do this?  It’s a mystery.

My most recent intensely charged situation was on my birthday, when Jessica got gastro and vomited multiple times during the evening – once on the lounge carpet, once over the kitchen floor, once in her bed and once into my cupped hands.  Of course it started at dinner time, the most charged time of my day anyway.  I put Kate down so she wept (she likes to be in permanent physical contact with me at all times).  Jessica stood naked in a pool of sick and demanded a hot water bottle (a hodda boddle, she says) for her achy tummy.  Megan cried too because, at that precise moment, Netflix buffered and My Little Pony stopped working and to any child that is a catastrophe.

Sometimes I am so busy and things are so charged (tantrums, tears, spillages, mess, not listening, general obstinance, Al at work, vomit and other sickness) that if one more thing is added to the mix, I may combust in one big pop, like a popcorn kernel in hot oil.  What does one do in a charged situation like I experienced on my birthday?  Call Daddy.  Guess what he said?  ‘I will be home in ten minutes’.  He dropped everything for me and that made it one of the best and most memorable birthday gifts ever.

Discipline?

Discipline.  This is my weak point.  I need more discipline because most of my day I feels as if I am herding cats.  I know of a child who threw stones at cars and others who tried to jump from a first floor apartment window on to a trampoline in the garden below.  That is hard-core naughty and Megan and Jessica are not like that at all.  They just don’t listen well and this creates most of my charged situations.  It’s as if they are a bit deaf or their ear canals are clogged.  So when I say, ‘please put on your shoes’, then they don’t respond.  It is as if I am speaking English and they only understand Chinese.  Or it’s as if they only transmit a certain sonic frequency (like a whale) and don’t register the pitch of my voice.  This is my latest challenge and area for personal development.

What are the best ways to get children to listen?  Someone recommended the book ‘How to talk so children listen’ but I don’t feel like reading it even though I need to.  I love reading but I find the parenting, self-help genre is mind-numbingly dull.  Maybe I’m just not that desperate yet.

When I am pushed to my limit, my reflex is to wave the wooden spoon and threaten a whack on the bum.  But this doesn’t seem fair to me.  I’m trying to teach my children to be self-controlled and less physical.  Spanking as a primary means of discipline doesn’t feel like a good example to them.

The children listen to Alastair more than they do to me.  Al’s method is to count to three.  One!  Two!  Three!  I have no idea what will happen at four, and I don’t think he does either.  Fortunately his deep, no-nonsense voice rallies them to action when he hits about number two.

Many of my American friends do timeout but that hasn’t worked for me.  It is only effective in certain contexts.  If I want someone to eat their dinner or put on their shoes or get ready for bed or get in the car, I can’t send them to timeout.

I tried a star/reward chart but it fizzled out because it took forever to collect stars.  We even got into negative star territory and it was becoming too mathematical and complicated for a 5 and 3 year old.  In the beginning I said that after collecting ten stars for obedience, help with chores, being kind and listening then they could choose a treat. Ten stars was too lofty a goal so I reduced the required number and then it seemed stupid to get treats after just two stars.  I chucked the chart in the bin when I told Megan she could earn a star after she cleaned up the lounge and she said, ‘Don’t worry Mommy.  I don’t want a star.’

Parties

I recently hit on a technique which has been working well in getting Megan and Jessica to do what I want.  If they’ve been invited to a party, I tell them that if they don’t eat their peas or get in the bath or go to bed then they can’t go.  Birthday parties are very important to kids.  Every time Megan and Jessica fight, they shout ‘I won’t invite you to my party!’  If one of them has something the other wants, they’ll say, ‘If you give me that, I will invite you to my party.’

I’ve gathered that Megan and her pals talk a lot about parties at school.  She has already started thinking about her vinnations (invitations) for her party she’s planning in August.  I asked her what cake she would like and she said, ‘a wedding cake’.  I’m under a lot of pressure to live up to their party and socializing expectations.  This is challenging for an inhospitable introvert like me.

How to survive charged moments

The thing about kids is that you can be completely worn out and fed up and then they will do something so surprising, so precious and so adorable that it fills your tank right up and gives you the will and energy to overcome the next charged moment.  This morning I was lying in bed with Jessica, who had woken at 5am and wouldn’t go back to sleep.  She whispered in my ear, ‘Mommy, you’re my best friend.  I’ll invite you to my party.’

I turned around and saw Megan and Kate holding hands in the car. Moments like these make the charged ones so worth it!

 


Heidi, Faith and Rose

February 27, 2018

About ten years ago, I was comforting a friend who was in the midst of a devastating family crisis. Her middle name is ‘Hope’. I overheard her conversation with her sister who said, ‘You need to have some faith. You’re not called Hope for nothing.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I liked the way her parents took a wish for her life and a quality that they esteemed so highly and then they carved it into her name so it could become part of her identity, of who she is.

No one gives a toss about middle names. They are rarely used, except on official documents. Alastair and I decided that we didn’t want the second name to be a bit of extra nothing sandwiched between the name and surname. We’ve got Megan Heidi, Jessica Faith and Kate Rose but all three children could share the same middle names because the Heidi, Faith and Rose bits represent a kind of tattoo that we hope embeds into their identity and becomes a permanent reminder throughout their lives.

HEIDI – a thought on happiness

Megan’s second name is Heidi. We named her after Switzerland and nothing seems more quintessentially Swiss than Heidi. Switzerland is not utopia and it is not all yodelling and romping from hillside to hillside while feeling alive with the sound of music. They say the grass is not greenest on the other side but actually it is greenest where you choose to water it. Switzerland is the first place I have lived where I have felt the most settled. This is where I want to sink my roots and water my grass. Our new upgraded life here was such a contrast to the grey, damp misery we felt in London and we thought we would name Megan after the place both Alastair and I are most happy.

When I was living in London, there was a time when I didn’t know how to get out of the rut I was in. My job bored me to the point of screaming. I would cry every morning before work so my muesli was mixed with milk and tears.

I remember saying to a friend that I was in limbo, as if I was a surfer treading water in the sea while I waited for the next big wave. He said, ‘Julie! In life, you don’t wait for waves! You make them!’ I will never forget that advice because I now firmly believe that happiness comes from deliberate action, from effort on your part. Actions create reactions. One thing leads to another. Don’t stand still. This name, this Heidi is a reminder to my girls to persistently and deliberately angle their lives in the direction they want it to go.

Things rarely fall into your lap. You are unlikely to be handed a life you dream about, like a sparkling gift – here, take this life – but actually you must try to make the life you want. As you’re doing that, you need to find joy in the small, day to day things and create happiness throughout the journey, rather than putting it on hold until you get to a final destination.

Even though our choices and decisions are important, the things in life that don’t go according to plan are usually more character-building and formative in the long run than the things that do. You need to expect the unexpected and make sure your beliefs about your life are anchored internal certainties rather than external circumstances. The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. Contentment is more often linked to what you’re made of inside rather than the circumstances outside.

Funnily enough, Megan even looks like Heidi!

FAITH – a thought on trust and courage

It is through my husband and little girls, my beloveds, that I have felt my greatest joy … and my greatest fears. I would like to wrap them in cotton wool and stow them under the bed to keep them safe. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Fear is the only shadow in front of my sun and no matter where I move and what I do to evade it, it lurks around and blocks out some of my light.

I waste a lot of time by future-tripping and stewing in ‘what-ifs’. My overactive imagination needs to be disciplined and kept at heel and the best way for me to do this is to surrender my family up to God every day. By the time I had Jessica, I realized I needed to let go and lay my babies like my Isaacs on the altar and accept that God loves them more than I do, which is difficult to imagine. That’s why Jessica’s second name is Faith.

I copied this out a book I read and stuck it in my journal. It’s so good. Pity I can’t remember who wrote it –

You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

I want my children to be brave and courageous. No matter what life throws at them, I want them to remain resilient and unbowed. The sad reality is that life easily tends towards the negative so you must push against that and decide you won’t fall. Like a lighthouse. Lighthouses make a great metaphor for life. They stand firm and solid while they resist storms and waves and darkness. I love this painting by a South African artist called Therese Mullins. It’s called ‘Defy’.

As you know, I devour books on World War 2. My favourite hero of all time is a Swedish man called Raoul Wallenberg. He saved around 100,000 Jews during World War 2 by issuing them Swedish protective passports and sheltering people in safe houses. He led one of the most successful and extensive rescue efforts during the war. I bet you’ve never heard of him though. It upsets me that he isn’t more famous and celebrated.

This Jewish lady called Edith Wohl worked with Raoul and recalled the impact he had on his staff: ‘He gave us courage. He was so courageous that he made the rest of us ashamed to be afraid. Because of him we all became more optimistic. After a while, it became impossible for us to consider him a normal human being. Instead we came to see him as superhuman; someone who had come to Budapest to save us, a Messiah.’

I’m not sure I have the courage to resist like a lighthouse or like Raoul Wallenberg but I wish I did. I’m not nearly as brave and resilient as I would like to be. I hope that my children will have a superhuman faith and courage in the face of hardships. That’s another reason why Jessica is called Faith.

ROSE – a thought on contribution and compassion

Kate has ‘Rose’ in her name partly as a tribute to my mother Rosemary who is top notch and the most devoted, adoring granny ever. We are so blessed that she visits us often.

We also chose Rose to remind our children that they should not exist in a bubble or a state of oblivion. They must be roses among the thorns. Al and I would like our children to be net contributors rather than net takers. They must leave a good fragrance in the world around them. I reckon that happy, kind and courageous people are great to be around and leave a pleasing fragrance that draws others towards them.

Al and I want our children to be compassionate. We should care for people and our planet. I think that most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone was just kind. It’s so simple but it’s a very difficult thing for human beings to do.

Al and I don’t want our three girls to waste precious time reinventing the wheel. Maybe they can learn from their parents’ mistakes and insights and use their names as a head start in creating rich and splendid lives that are unencumbered by worry, discomfort and the judgement of others. We wish them Heidi and Faith and Rose.

 


2018, winter and other news

January 27, 2018

2018, here you are. This year my primary resolution is to manage the time I spend on electronic devices. I find that people are half present these days because they always have at least one foot in cyberspace.

I worry I’m too preoccupied with my iPhone. The problem is that it has become my one stop shop for so many things – photos, to-lists, maps, encyclopaedia, conversations with friends etc.  In my defence, at least I don’t yak on the phone for hours the way my parents’ generation did so maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty.

I need my phone and other devices because they are my pipes to the outside world but I’ve decided that, in 2018, if I’m going to be on my phone or computer, it has to be worthwhile. I’m going to spend less time twirling around the internet and reading toxic, fear-mongering articles and news reports that give me a nervous twitch.  This year, I’m going to spend more time with my new friends Judy, Gordon, Aaron and James.   I bought myself a subscription to masterclass.com for Christmas and it is fantastic. I’m taking virtual cooking courses with Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, writing classes with Judy Blume and James Patterson and I’m learning screenwriting with Aaron Sorkin, just for fun. Annie Leibovitz is also going to teach me how to take decent photos. The masterclasses are filmed as if these fabulous people are talking directly to me, as if I am their pal and we are having a chat at a coffee shop. Wonderful!

Winter, urgh

I always divide winter into two parts – there’s the bit before Christmas and the bit after Christmas. November and December are fun because there’s the festive build up to Christmas and the excitement of the first snowfall. January and February are intense. You just have to hunker down and focus ahead to spring. The problem is that I have weather dependent moods so if it is grey outside, I feel grey inside. The low lying cloud over the lake has reappeared and I hate the Wuthering Heights, mist-in-the-moors vibe.  I find that the longest, most exhausting days are the ones when we stay at home and unfortunately we do this more often in winter.  We also walk to and from school so we are at the mercy of all weather conditions.  Try walking in horizontal rain with three kids.  Fun.

Skeletal trees and day in day out greyness

One thing I struggle with in winter, particularly with little kids, is the heat. Yes, you heard me right. I said the heat. The Swiss heat their buildings to roughly the temperatures of the inside of a pottery kiln. Swiss buildings are hotter inside in winter than they are in summer.

Overheated buildings are challenging because as soon as the kids feel the slightest bit warm or uncomfortable, they strip.   They are quick to fling their clothes off but slow to put them on. Often when we leave the house, Kate is bundled in my wrap and becoming hot and agitated while the others are still half naked and faffing about. Jessica thinks it’s fine to leave the house in ballet pumps and a leotard when it is zero degrees outside.

Sometimes I wish Megan and Jessica helped me a little more. They are only 5 and 3 years old, I know, but I’m not asking for them to make their own dinner or operate the washing machine. I would just like them to help me by putting on their shoes and a jacket when I ask. Maybe I expect too much.

I’ve concluded that children are exactly like these collapsible push puppets. Whenever you push them and need them to do something – put on their shoes, eat dinner, get in the car, tidy up their toys etc – they collapse and become floppy and uncooperative.

Other news

This is Al’s busy period so he is working long hours. He’s warned me well in advance so when he phones and says, ‘I’m going to be late tonight’, then I can’t be passive aggressive and disappointed like I usually am when he is 15 minutes late (15 minutes feels like 150 minutes at dinner/bed/bath time).

A picture of Daddy drawn by Jessica (age 3).

Kate is chunkier and losing that newborn fragility. She still has no interest in her baby toys, possibly because she has enough stimulation from her two older sisters who are like two human, life-size rattles.

Boisterous sister love

Kate usually sleeps non-stop from about 8pm to 4am, which I consider sleeping through the night. Whoo hoo! It baffles me why babies insist we stand while soothing them. Whenever I sit down and rock Kate in my arms, she objects until I stand up and do it. That’s why parents are so zonked – we can never sit down. It was the same with Megan and Jessica. Why do babies do that? It’s a mystery.

I find I sometimes struggle to go back to sleep from 4am onwards but any sleep deprivation is my fault, not Kate’s. I sit quietly breastfeeding in the dead of night and my body sees this as a moment for deep thinking – dissecting the past, planning for the future and analysing the present. My brain careers around like a runaway horse. I remember one of my favourite writers saying, ‘My mind is a scary neighbourhood to wander alone in at night.’

My newest challenge is the TV. That’s another reason why I hate winter – because we are indoors more and the TV or ipad are such temptations. It’s crack for kids. It is a mood-altering, trance-inducing sedative that turns Megan and Jessica weepy, sluggish and irritable after the initial high. It may give parents respite but the aftermath is annoying. Today I had enough of the tears and rage when I turned off the TV so I’ve banned it indefinitely … or until tomorrow.

Megan and Jessica adore their schools. I’m so happy they’re happy.  They rarely recount what happened during their days but Megan jabbers in French and she plays by re-enacting her experiences in the classroom with Jessica as her pupil so I see what goes on indirectly.

Beef

To end off, I want to share a profound thought from Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass course.  He said that in life you will never be able to please everybody so you shouldn’t even try. He said, ‘Think of beef.  There are so many ways to prepare beef.  You can make boeuf bourguignon, filet mignon, beef wellington, you name it. But, if you want to cook beef in the way that the least number of people find objectionable, then you would make a McDonald’s hamburger.  McDonald’s hamburgers are nice, but they’re just ok, nothing special, nothing memorable.  If you were a chef, you wouldn’t aspire to make them.’  This a lovely lesson, especially for chronic people pleasers like me.  Do I want to be the human equivalent of a Big Mac? Ew, no way.  I love this image so much that I’ve now absorbed it into the daily Surycz family lingo.   Be steak, be stew, be a roast.  Be interesting, be different, be you.