Blast from the past

July 28, 2015

Remember I said that modern children’s books are generally underwhelming and unimpressive? I stand by that. So, I’ve been hunting down books that I remember reading when I was young. I’ve decided to become a collector of Ladybird fairytale books. The ones I read 30 years ago are now classed as ‘vintage’ which is rather depressing. It’s difficult to source them from Switzerland but so far I have Rapunzel, The Elf and the Shoemaker and Rumpelstiltskin. Unfortunately Jessica has already demolished the dust cover of Rumpelstiltskin and she’s ripped out the last page of Rapunzel and gnawed its spine.

In my opinion, the keys to a good children’s book are vivid, realistic, uncluttered pictures and a solid story that’s written in good English (or French!). I love stories with some underlying wit – that’s a gift for the parents, especially when you read the same book over and over and over.

I am old school when it comes to stories. I like books that convey traditional family values. Megan has the Usborne Book of Farmyard Tales. Mrs Boot is the farmer. She has two children, Poppy and Sam, and then there’s Rusty the dog. There is no sign of Mr Boot. Mrs Boot does everything. I think she’s a single parent but the book doesn’t specify. I have enormous respect for single parents but I want Megan and Jessica to learn that the ideal family consists of a Mommy and Daddy who love and support each other and share the farm work.

Two books stand out from my childhood.

alfieThe first one, Alfie Gets in First, is wonderful. It is by the brilliant and timeless Shirley Hughes and it was dead easy to find it on Amazon. ‘Alfie!’ Megan exclaims almost every evening when I ask her what she wants to read.

When I was about 6 years old, we took out a library book about a girl who attended her first dance class. I remember my mom laughing at the pictures of this girl bumbling about and I stared at them so much that they’ve been engrained in my memory for the last 30 years.

Since Megan was born I have searched high and low for this book. I couldn’t remember the title or the author. All I had to go on were the hilarious pictures and multiple Google searches came up with nothing. My mom hunted it down too with no success. I gave up and suspected the book was out of print, what with me being so vintage and all.

dancing classGuess what? I found it! Actually my mom did. Hooray! I’m so happy! It turns out the title was simple – The Dancing Class – why didn’t I search for that, silly me! This week it arrived in the post along with three other Helen Oxenbury books from the same series. I remember all of them. 1985 feels like yesterday.

The Dancing Class was my favourite as a child but now I prefer Helen Oxenbury’s book called Eating Out. It cracks me up. It is only about 8 pages long but I love it. It is about a mom and dad who go out to eat at a restaurant with their toddler. It starts off like this:

tired to cook

I asked Al, ‘Who does that lady on the couch remind you of?’

‘You!’ he said.

At the end, they vow never to repeat the experience. It brings back memories of our recent Wengen trip when we ate a 4-course meal in 20 minutes. Whenever we go to restaurants, my children also appear feral.  Never again, I agree.

Just to end off, I want to share something that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed this week. Usually I avoid the anxiety-inducing Chicken Licken stuff that people share (Teflon pans cause cancer! Wifi causes cancer! Tips to prevent cancer!  How to identify a melanoma!) but I enjoyed this. Parenting is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. This commentary about the absurdly hard part made me feel more normal. It’s long but well worth the read. The author is Terran Williams.  His wife is called Julie too so every time he referred to her in this piece, it felt like he was talking about me.  I lurked on his Facebook page and he is a pastor at a church in Cape Town.  I think he’s starting a blog and I’m going to follow it. He seems wise.  Here you go:

Permission to get SHOCKINGLY real about parenting small kids?

It’s hard. Much harder than you can imagine. Much much harder.

A few months ago a friend of mine who is a professional therapist said, ‘A family with a kid under the age of 3 is in crisis mode.’ At first I thought that was a bit negative. Upon reflection, I conclude they’re right.

Yesterday someone said to me, ‘My youngest just turned 4. I am starting to think we might be coming out of it. ’ I didn’t need to ask what ‘it’ was. She clearly meant the chaos. The crisis. The crazy zone.

My experience confirms that parenting infants and toddlers puts you under a kind of constant pressure that lttle else in life comes close to matching. To be fair, Julie and my situation of having five kids aged six and under only compounds this reality, but treat me as a magnification of what is still there for parents of fewer kids. (Besides, I know, I once had fewer kids.)

Of course there’s more to parenting nascent ones than it being hard. That’s what all the photos on Facebook are about – the sweetest things in the world, they are. Your heart walking around in someone else’ body. I get that, and it keeps me going.

However, in this post I thought I would get real about the (dark) side we don’t talk about. It’s no good running a marathon, and you’re doing uphill and you’re trying to tell yourself this is wonderful. Facing the fact of the agonizing incline is necessary if you’re going to make it.

As for those parents whose kids are all four+, looking back from your hard-earned view, it’s amazing how you tend to forget the pain. (One aspect of trauma is that you tend to forget the event itself, a kind of self-protective amnesia, I think.)

Would you mind if I get VERY REAL? Just so that I never forget, and maybe to help those of you who think something’s wrong with you as you suffer the little ones.

Here goes. Julie and I are experiencing the PHYSICAL strain of parenting. We’re exhausted. In the last two weeks, I get about 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night, but here’s the catch: it’s broken by the need to get out of bed and deal with a crying or calling kid, usually about 5 to 10 times per night.

One reason is their need for constant re-assurance. On this point, a curse be upon the inventor of the Pacifier! Our little suckers fall asleep more easily with those suckable things in their mouths, but by the time they’re 8 months they have formed a dependency on them, and every time it falls out of their mouths they wake and cry, lost in the universe. Do the maths on how many times per night a wriggling infant might lose their dummy. While writing this (5:30-7am) I ran through 11 times to put dummies back. Who’s the real dummy?

Other things wake our kids. At 4:30am this morning I got head-butted by my sweet lullaby of a 2-year old Ivy as she was waking up out of a nightmare. Unsatisfied that I was not-the-Mama, she ran down the dark passageway shouting for Julie, waking up the other kids. It’s impossible to fall asleep any time soon after that kind of ill-treatment from someone I love. (By the way, this assault provoked me to write this post an hour later.) Perhaps the sleeplessness is the real, foundational problem: all the other strains would be more manageable if our bodies and brains weren’t yearning for the unconscious state. Thankfully, we can grab an afternoon nap. Not.

And sickness. You know those new viruses that sweep the globe every year? I have to admit the original viral mutation happens in my house. Families with little kids can turn an ordinary flu that would set back a single person a few days, into a plague that loops through our entire family, two or three times – lasting a month on average, sinking us parents into our own mini-Great Depression. (Sick kids wake up a lot more, and sick parents need sleep if they are to shake off the virus they got from their kids.) In the last five years I have got more colds, flu’s and tummy bugs than in the preceding decade.

We have endured the FINANCIAL strain of parenting. Having kids necessitated that Julie and I fork out enough, not all at once thankfully, for a home more suitable for a family (bigger, garden, near a decent school), a bigger car, Mon-Fri domestic and child-care assistance and (gulp!) educational fees. Then there’s medical bills. For example, little Charlie (10 months) has cost us about 5k in doctor’s bills and medicines over the last 3 months. Next week he goes in for surgery to get grommets.

There’s also more mouths to feed. I spoke to a single dad in the beach-front parking lot of my surf spot the other day. He has one kid. He said, ‘Terran, I just got back from the shop. I am shocked by how much it costs to feed my little family. How on earth do you feed yours?’ Good question. By the time they’re two they’re eating almost as much as I do on some occasions. All these new costs are often augmented by a diminished income. In our case, Julie’s earning power went down (up till now she’s been a pay-by-the-job, part-time freelancer) at the very moment our costs escalated. That’s pressure.

There’s the MARITAL strain of parenting. On our better days Julie and I team together like Batman and Robin, but on our more stressed days, we turn on each other. Beat down people tend to beat others down if they’re not very careful. In the nights, we keep count of how many times we got out of bed, and when our number is higher, ‘gently’ nudge the other person who is pretending to be sleeping through the baby cry. By day, we play the ‘who is suffering more’ card, and sometimes have a go at each other verbally in front of these not-yet-pyschologically-scarred kids. Yes, we know how damaging it is upon a young child’s psyche to see mom and dad at each other. But the guilt doesn’t have power to stop the bickering.

This paragraph for the guys: there’s also little and sometimes weeks of no sex. Since it’s public knowledge that Julie and I have had sex at least five times (once on our honeymoon night, and four times for our five kids, the last arrow splitting into two), I feel the liberty to make this point. No seriously, pregnancy means less sex. Birth-recovering and breast-feeding moms (sorry Julie, I don’t know what other words to use) means no sex. The smells and sights related to changing nappies and wiping toilet-training bums mitigates against the daylong foreplay-messages that spice up a marriage. Stress and exhaustion work against one’s sexual capacities. As for the rare moments when the stars align, I am thankful that the Flight of the Conchords are right: two minutes in heaven really is better than no minutes in heaven.

There’s the SOCIAL strain. Friendships go into maintenance-mode. We have hardly anyone round. For all kinds of reasons: our house is a mess, we will be embarrassed if people glimpsed the real chaos of our lives, we keep telling ourselves that on the day we stabilize we will open diaries and think who to invite over for a meal. Would you be my friend?

There’s the SPIRITUAL strain. Maybe you can’t relate, but since I was a teen, early mornings have been a sacred time for me to tune into God so that I can keep sensitive to his promptings and stay within reach of his power and guidance throughout the day. Now that I need this kind of spiritual alertness and empowering more than ever, I seldom get the time that I need. I know God understands and loves me anyway. But I also know that not spending this daily time with God tends to put me out of frequency with the Spirit’s energies and nudges, setting me up for yet further stress-inducing errors of judgment and lapses of sanity.

There’s PROFESSIONAL strain. In the last decade, I have had two notably under-performing years in my work-life. My lack of sharpness has been evidenced in emails not responded to quickly enough, under-preparedness for critical meetings, increased strain from less quality attention to fellow-workers, and a tendency to lose composure when leading people requires that I stay calm. Those two years just happen to be the ones that immediately followed the birth of my third, and now the birth of my twins. (Would you let a pilot fly you if you knew he was bottle-feeding one baby, while trying to tame a volcanic tantrum in a toddler running amok in the cockpit, threatening to push ‘eject’? My policy: smile and wave boys.)

There’s LOGISTICAL strain. Our house is a mess almost all the time. Julie and I who are not A-type when it comes to neatness, but we start to come undone with the constant mess. Trying to keep a kid-inhabited house tidy is like trying to shovel snow while it snows. As for leaving house as a family: for every kid you have, add another 30 minutes to get-ready time. (For our first few months after the twins came, I was okay with us not having a car big enough for seven. I thought to myself, ‘Where can we go with this many kids? And when we get there, what will we do?’ So we just stayed at home.)

Air travel is another story. The fact that kids under-2 fly free makes bargain-hunters like me want to capitalize upon this fleeting opportunity. Bait for us fools. We just flew our family to another part of the country. It was as simple as one, two, three. One day of packing. Two cars to take us to the airport. Three tons of stuff. You have never seen people in a plane praying as much as when we queue in. ‘God, please no! Not next to me! No.’) When I notice enough people doing the count, and mouthing a silent ‘five’ to the person they just elbowed, I usually break the ice with one of my two jokes: ‘Yes, everyone. There are five! Our TV was broken.’ Or, ‘Who’s the lucky person who gets to sit next to us?’ The cabin laughter at that moment helps us all for what is about to happen in the next two hours.

There’s EMOTIONAL strain. Parenting introduces a panoply of negative emotions that are new to the lifetraveller: new fears and anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, the crippling curse of comparison, and post-natal depression for some moms.

In my view the most emotion-intensifying thing about family life is that we tend to absorb each other’s emotions. If we were all emotionally self-contained units, that would be easier. But as it is, every tantrum and tear and sibling-tiff emits an emotional toxin that the try-hard parents tend to take into their tender hearts. Our kids bounce back remarkably, but we parents, the emotional filters, are left with the residue. Keeping your head while all those around you lose theirs is easier said that done. I once came across a best-selling book on parenting titled ‘Keep calm and parent on.’ It’s one of those titles that say so much, you don’t need to read the book. That title is probably the best advice there is. But also the most unachievable advice there is. It’s like telling a person who is tumbling down a mountainside to keep calm and enjoy the ride.

My point? Parenting the youngest of humanity is not for the fainthearted. It’s brutal at times. It’s incessant in its challenges. To complicate it all, these strains – physical, social, financial, spiritual, etc – have a domino-effect, one causing or exacerbating the other. The result: life in a fully fledged crisis mode. A trauma being inflicted in slow motion.

It’s true. Parents of little lives are in nose-dive.

I don’t want to sound like I am complaining. Some of you have it much harder. I think of parents who lose their income, or single parents, or kids with severe disabilities. You guys are the masters of the universe. We are in awe of you. Some of you don’t have it as hard. The thing so many parents say to us is, ‘You know, when Lee and I are freaking out as parents, we think of you with five, and that helps us. So thank you!’ Glad we could help.

Do I have any perspective to share for the fellow-traumatized? Other than ‘Keep calm and parent on’? For starters, one thing I can say: You Are Not The Only One. Parenting is hard for almost all of us. The other thing I can say is that You Are Not Alone. A small verse hidden in the massive book of Isaiah says ‘God carries us close to his heart, especially those who have young’. It has helped Julie and me when we’ve been at our lowest. It reminds us there’s a Parent in heaven who’s there for you as you parent another. Our vulnerability, as we rear the most vulnerable, catches the loving attention of One Above. We might feel alone, but in reality there’s a Heartbeat as close to you as your child is to yours.

(Permission given to share with the so-journers who can identify.)




July 18, 2015

SUNThis month the temperature has been in the upper 30’s. Now it is not just Megan who is wandering round the house in her underpants.

It feels dry and airless, like opening the oven door. The countryside around our house was an undulating green lung but it’s now brown and scorched. The heat creeps everywhere. I daydream about how refreshing it would be to walk from the hot, dog’s breath air into the crisp, clean, surgical chill of an air-conditioned building but these are few and far between in Switzerland (good thing for the environment actually).

My friend described how she was lying in bed and her husband said, ‘You’re so hot.’

‘Aw, that’s sweet! Thanks!’ she replied and leaned in for a cuddle.

‘Not that kind of hot’, he said. ‘You’re radiating heat. DO NOT TOUCH ME.’

Remember how I said January was too cold and I longed for warmth that seeps down to my bones? Now I’m not so sure. Winter was too cold. Summer is too hot. I feel like Goldilocks.

The worst part of the heat is the flies. We kill around 200 inside the house in a day, no exaggeration. Even Megan is an ace with the swatter. There’s fly guts everywhere and if I don’t move quickly to remove their remains, Jessica pops them in her mouth. Cooking with 30 flies darting around from every angle is driving me so demented that I want to fire a pistol into the air to kill or disperse them.

There’s no school for the next two months. ‘God help me,’ said my French friend. We’ve been on holiday for two weeks and I’m already exhausted. I adore my girls. I feel that being a mother is my vocation. It is where my talents are, where my joy is and where I come into being. Then why is it that the thought of entertaining children day in and day out for the next two months feels so overwhelming?

mother with childrenFor a start, my overactive thyroid and general sleep deprivation make me insanely tired, like I’m drugged, like a hunter has fired a dart into my bum.

Another reason why holidays are daunting could be because I lack discipline and the ability to assert my authority in an effective way.

Discipline-wise, I count to three. A friend said, ‘Julie what happens when you get to three?’ Not much. I’ve tried naughty steps and time outs but they don’t work. I’m not against smacks but I hate the way I tend to lash out like some crazy, rabid psycho. When Megan hits Jessica, it doesn’t feel right saying, ‘Megan if you hit Jessica again, I will hit you.’

Good discipline, structure and an enforced routine make parenting easier.   Megan is at that wily age where she’s doesn’t listen and she pushes the boundaries all the time. It’s like herding cats.

The terrible twos are terrible. The mood swings are formidable and the whining is intense, like a constant, low hum. It’s not just Megan – all her little buddies are the same.   They hit, bite and pull hair. They can’t share. One minute they’re best friends and then the next minute, they are growling and circling each other. Playdates with children the same age means there is no clear hierarchy in the toddler kingdom and things usually get tense. I never realized that toddlers are territorial and carnal.

This sentence on the Disco Pants Blog resonated with me – Children, let’s be honest, can be self-centred little bastards who will watch you in the death throes of exhaustion and tactile sensory overload and ask for a glass of juice. Hahaha, so true. I wonder why kids are blank sheets of paper with the tendency towards self-centredness and resistance? Why do they need so much taming? I wish God had cut us parents a bit of slack. You have to teach children everything. You even have to train them to sleep, for goodness sake.

A two year old displays the same level of hysteria if they break their arm, you tell them to wait 5 minutes or you put their juice in the wrong cup. It’s all a catastrophe.

mom okSometimes I forget that the tantrums, mood swings, tears, hysteria and flailing about are a natural, normal part of being two. I wonder if perhaps I am not giving Megan enough one-on-one time or whether maybe I’m not fun enough. When Al gets home and she gallops into his arms and greets him euphorically, I can’t help thinking ‘Gosh am I really that bad?’ I often feel like I do the grunt work during the day and Al gets the glory later. It’s ‘Daddy-this’ and ‘Daddy-that’. When Megan hurts herself or is cross, she will wail, ‘I WANT DADDYYYYYYYYY!!!’ I want to ask, ‘How can you seriously think that Daddy is better equipped to handle this situation than I am?’

Maybe Megan needs more of my attention. Sometimes I wonder if she’s jealous that I am always holding Jessica or fending for her. It’s just that, at 10 months, Jessica is at that awkward age where she is crawling everywhere and exploring her surroundings but can’t be left alone for too long before she nibbles flip flops, eats playdough, chews wax crayons and sucks dead flies. I must also protect her from Megan’s love. When Megan gives her a hug, she puts Jessica in a head lock.

I wonder if Megan gets bored and whiney because there is little structure and order to the way two year olds play. I asked Al if there’s something wrong with our toys and should we buy more. We bought her a big plastic house for her bedroom and imagined it would provide hours of enjoyment. She doesn’t play in it. Instead she rings the doorbell and then chucks random clothing, toys and some of my kitchen utensils through the windows. The other day, while playing inside it with her (with my knees touching my ears), I noticed she was storing a full, unopened box of All Bran Flakes.

Homeless PrincessI call Megan my Bag Lady because she dresses herself in a random, mismatched fashion and loves bags of any kind – paper bags, hand bags, plastic bags and backpacks. She loads her bag with random junk and then  carries it round the house. I took a photo of her recent paper bag which contained some DVDs, her underpants, bibs, paintbrushes, playing cards and my oven mitts. She also creates piles of odds and ends in strange places. This week I discovered her arm bands and my egg beater in the fire place.

This habit means that we regularly lose puzzle pieces and have incomplete sets of everything.  Each night Al and I reorder the toys so that Megan and Jessica can play and destroy with a clean slate.  That’s why my favourite holiday activity is a playdate at someone else’s house so we can appreciate different toys and trash their place, not ours.


This joke made me laugh:

One afternoon a man came home from work to find total mayhem in his house.

He ran up the stairs, stepping over toys and more piles of clothes, looking for his wife. He was worried she might be ill, or that something serious had happened. He found her curled up on the bed, reading a novel.

He asked, “What the hell happened here today?”

“You know every day when you come home from work and ask me what I did today? Well, today I didn’t do it.”

Bunless burgers and French challenges

July 1, 2015

Last weekend we went to Wengen for a night.  I was hoping for a deep, peaceful, wallowing sleep and a leisurely dinner. It’s always a struggle to keep this overactive imagination of mine in check. Megan was drawn to the candles, salt dispenser and floral centrepiece and Jessica frisbeed her plate across the room so we ate our 4 course dinner at the hotel in about 20 minutes. Getting the girls to fall asleep and then stay asleep in the unfamiliar environment was another test of endurance (mine against theirs).

Travelling with little kids is a lot like childbirth – you forget the pain. One night in a hotel is all I can manage. We once did a week away at a self-catering place and that was easier in some ways but it wasn’t a proper feet-up kind of break. I continued most of my usual maternal and domestic responsibilities but in beautiful scenery and without useful utensils such as a cheese grater or a decent sharp knife.

Anyway, back to Wengen.

Wengen is in the Swiss-German part of Switzerland and, language-wise, it’s like a different country. I don’t even have a vague understanding of German and the disorientation is as if someone has blindfolded me and spun me round a few times. Al and I can’t fully comprehend a menu and, for us, this is a major setback. Is ‘suppe’ soup or supper? Is ‘fleisch’ beef or meat in general? What the heck is a ‘wurst’? Sometimes touristy restaurants have English translations but these are unreliable. The hamburger was a patty of meat but with no bun.

untitledIt is trips like these that boost my self-confidence and remind me how much I have progressed with my French. I tend to focus on the gaps, like what there is still to do, and I forget what I have already accomplished.

These days I handle most French situations, and can read all menus, but I still make odd duff ups here and there. Often these faux-pas are small but have big implications. Lately I keep mixing up ‘she’ and ‘he’. I often refer to Alastair as ‘she’ so my French teacher says that people probably think I’m a lesbian and that Alastair is a unisex English name like Terry or Tony.

I’ve noticed something strange though. Now that I speak intermediate French, there are some situations that I understand even less than I did when I couldn’t speak a word of the language and therefore admitted my cluelessness from the outset. If I talk to someone and don’t fully understand, I may say ‘pardon’ or ‘please repeat’ but after that I never admit that I still don’t get it. It’s a pride thing. I either infer my own meaning or simply ignore the statement or question. When a man came to refill our tanks with heating oil, he talked about valves, levers, sediment and condensation and as he was speaking I could feel my brain gently disconnect my body and drift off like a helium balloon. I didn’t understand what was he was on about but he seemed in control of the situation and I figured that was all that mattered. I suppose that is progress too – that I can glean from context and odd words whether an issue is serious or not.

Social situations are my Achilles’ heel. I struggle with general French chitchat. Often I randomly change the subject or my answer does not match the question. It is usually afterwards, when I do a post-mortem of the conversation, that I realize my mistakes.

accentBecause I am anal-retentive and a perfectionist, I don’t want to just speak French well, I also want to sound like a real dinkum Francophone. Some Anglophones (mainly Americans) don’t even try to adjust their accent to make it a little Frenchy. When it’s very hot, they’ll say something like ‘tray show’ for très chaud. French is so delicate and soft and it hurts me when it’s butchered.

People say to me, ‘Julie who cares if you mess up? People won’t laugh if you try. Who would do that?’ I would, that’s who. I chuckle all the time at the funny errors people make in English. Take my neighbour as an example. He seems to think that ‘bloody’ is the translation for très (very). So he will wave at me and say, ‘bloody hot today!’ or ‘I’m bloody tired, glad it’s the weekend’ or ‘heating oil is bloody expensive’.

Broken EnglishDid I ever tell you about the recruiter who helped me find my first job here? I asked him if I should be concerned it was taking so long to land a role. He shook his head and said, ‘No, but if you haven’t found anything by December, you will be … you will be … I can’t sink of zee word in English’. I offered some suggestions. He shook his head. ‘No no, zat eaze not zee word zat I want’.  He slapped his leg with frustration.  ‘What eaze zee word?’

‘Ah yes! Got it!’ he said. ‘If you don’t have a job by December, you will be fucked.’

You would think that because I am so desperate to fit in and speak like a native, I would focus on improving my grammar and vocab and spend less of my precious free time twirling round the internet.

While I’m constantly making vows to spend time on French every day, I actually don’t. Yesterday I decided to read a chapter of my new book each day. I won’t. This is my equivalent of when other people tell themselves they’ll stop smoking. I can’t seem to discipline myself to the practice.

It’s been a struggle to find material that challenges me, which I understand and that entertains me too. For a few months I read French news sites but that got slit-my-wrists depressing. Then I bought a couple of novels but reading those is like trudging through thick, sticky sludge because most literature uses the form of past tense – the passé simple – that is only for formal writing and speech.

I have two new strategies that I’m putting into play. I bought a book about how to train children to sleep better. The next one I buy will be on discipline. This will kill two birds with one stone because I can practice French and brush up on parenting at the same time.

I will also answer calls from call centres. We get at least two of them a day. I’m going to keep them on the phone as long as possible and practice my chit-chat. When they ask if I’ve ever considered the benefits of timeshare, I will say, ‘Never. Tell me more and start from the beginning.’