Language Gaps

In my language classes we learned words like table, went and cold.

We learned how to describe our homes, our families and our interests.

We learned how to talk about our home countries, its weather and how people celebrate Christmas, or not as the case may be.

We learned so many useful things. Things  that I use on a daily basis. Language that helps me go to the shops, to pick up the kids from kindy, to pass pleasantries on the bus.

But I never learned the words for breathing. I never learned the word for bleeding, or vomit, or rash. I never heard the word for seizure.

I never learned these words until I needed them. Until after I needed them. I learned these words in hard places. In doctor’s offices, or in panicked late night phone calls.

No matter how good at a second language you get there are always gaps. Little gaps mostly. Ones that you can work through if people repeat their words slowly, laying the bricks down like a bridge forming in front of you. Or that you can shrug off, walking away from a stranger with a smile, sure that whatever it was being said it was, at least, kind. Or gaps so small you can just skip over them, without slowing down the tempo of your already clumsy conversation.

The gaps might just be single words that you can fill in. A connect-the-dots conversation where you are a very determined five year old. Pencil gripped firmly between your fingers. Eventually the time comes where you are tired and you lay your pencil down. Brain done. Can I watch TV now?

We learned how to ask someone to speak English, or to speak slowly. We learned the common phrases, you’re welcome, how are you, how much is this apple? But we never learned what the operator will say when you call an ambulance at night. So your brain catches when you hear it. A slight panicked freeze in which all you can find are your gaps. Because in these gaps are all the important words.  All the fear of the what-ifs that can’t be spoken out loud, no matter what language you try to say it in.

People are kind. They hide their frustration. There is always that fortune of living where English is widely spoken. Even then, those times when defeat is admitted, or the conversation is too important for my mistakes the gap is there. Each doctor finds their own unique gaps. Our conversations slip and slide as our languages are mixed. A word here and there, untranslatable – do you understand? Mutual incomprehension is, thankfully, rare.

We nod, our brains churning. The glazed stares of parents still in shock. The English slides over us too. Important facts snagging, to be held onto and inspected later. Only now in the moment we must keep moving forward. Any questions? Always. There are always questions. The deeper you go you find that there are not always answers of course.

We are grateful, so grateful, for every person who makes that effort to speak to us in a language we can easily understand. Those who take incomprehensible facts and lay them out in front of us so we can understand them. But it is hard to show grateful when you are scared for your child.

In this we are no different to any other parent. No matter what language we speak.

There are no words for some things, in any language. No word for the measured look in a doctor’s eyes as your questions stumble out. No word for the silences that grow louder as they listen, and measure, and poke. No word for the perspective trick that makes your child appear smaller on a hospital bed, or under a mask, or surrounded by machines, electromagnetic waves aimed directly at the heart.

There is a word we learned. Hjerte.

Then there are the things we don’t need words for. They are the same whatever language you speak. The whispered lullabies. Fingers that stroke gently across foreheads, smoothing down the hair. The questions posed by little arms that clutch to you for safety and the answering beat of your own heart.

A beat that is the simplest, most universal message of them all. A beat that says I love you. I am here.

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My Not Very Ethical Christmas

Anyone else feeling the pressure with Christmas around the corner?

We hit an early peak in this house, as we try to get presents posted in time for them to wing their way round the earth to our family. I spent too much time standing in packed shops full of Christmas themed housewares nobody truly needs, listening to Mariah Carey and waving my bankcards around with abandon as I spot just one more perfect little Christmassy thing, just a wafer thin one. Go on. ‘I can make room for that in my life’ I cry as my shopping bags begin to erupt in a slow tinsel-lahar.

It’s not just the pressure to have a good Christmas though is it? There is also the pressure to have the right Christmas. The ethical Christmas. The one that is a perfectly festive celebration which by necessity involves consumption but at the same time not excessive consumption.

I’m not having a particularly ethical Christmas this year.

Yes, I have read THAT George Monbiot article where he terrifies us all over how we are killing the planet with our excessive consumption.

And do you know what? I don’t really care.

I mean I do care. Obviously, I do care. I’m just not going to let caring take away my Christmas.

Putting up the Christmas tree was so special and the kids loved it. Every mismatched ornament was hung with enthusiasm and a complete disregard for the overall aesthetic.

I’ve made a big rich fruit cake because I always do, and we’ll make Danish risengrød (rice pudding) for Christmas Eve because it is the law in Denmark and I think they’ll deport me if I don’t.

I’m going to buy my kids presents. I feel my son has had a hard year and I want to give him something good. Something he’ll love. Not a book about how we are all slowly destroying the rainforest with pictures of orangutans (Sad Face). Not a candle making kit because making your own candles is both environmentally friendly and Fun!

There’s going to be wrapping paper, and ribbons, and little gifts to be unwrapped and cooed over and hopefully used and not just chucked in the corner to moulder away until next year.

I want to have all these things.

More than that I want to have all these things without seeing a billion different articles telling parents that they are individually responsible for wiping out polar bears.

We’re not okay?

Okay. Maybe we are. But not any more than any other individual on any other day of the year.

Christmas – it isn’t just another day of the year. It is a special day for lots of people. It is a festive day. With that comes consumption. Any consumption is still consumption. Regardless of whether it is ethical or not.

Like it or not this is the society we live in. There are aspects of consumerism I find bleak. That doesn’t mean that every purchase is ultimately hollow. Giving gifts to those we love is an act deeply rooted in our minds. Humans have been giving their children toys for millenia.

There are a lot of families who are low consumers most of the year but for whom Christmas is the one time they splash out on their children. Who have toys on lay-by for months for this one day.

There are a lot of families who are grieving, or living with serious illnesses, or facing uncertainty in their futures, who just want to make this one day special. To forget their troubles and celebrate for just one day.

There are families like mine, scattered over the globe, far away from their grandchildren, or niblings, who don’t get to spend time together. The best they can do is wrap a little gift, take it to the post office and send it on its way, sealing some kisses in the box to say I think of you. I wish I could spend time with you. I love you.

If you’re feeling good and your needs are being met in life then yes, it can seem easy to simplify and minimalise. Maybe your family is super happy with Laura Ingalls Wilder-esque childhoods and a 100% biodegradable corn cob for a doll. I mean, great. You still don’t get to judge people for the ways they have of bringing joy into their lives.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Corn Cob Doll

Giving experiences rather than presents is a lovely idea. We’d love to go to the Christmas markets at the theme parks. But like many families that isn’t very accessible to us, and not just because of finances. My son loves to go out but he rarely has the energy for that at the moment. Last weekend we managed only a short trip to an outdoor museum we live only minutes from. It is always a lot of effort for minimal reward. Frankly, he is much better off having days at home playing with his Lego. I don’t want to give him experiences that exhaust him and stress us out. I want to give him that awesome present he has his heart set on and watch his face light up when he opens it.

Besides, there is a lot of unpaid labour going into these low-impact Christmases. It’s not good enough for a parent (Mum, 99% of the time it is Mum) to grab a roll of wrapping paper as they go through the checkout anyway. We’re supposed to find rolls of craft paper, and nice non-plastic-based-ribbon, and environmentally friendly dyes and a potato. Who is taking the time to sit with the kids while they decorate the paper? Who is tidying it up afterwards? Who is organising the cupboard to save the ribbon for next year? Yes. It is doable. It is all doable. But surely we are at the point now that we recognise we have got to stop putting the burden on individuals and change the structures everything is running on?

It is great if people find ways to incorporate ethical products or homemade presents, but if you don’t have the time or the space to do so then I don’t think that makes you lazy, or thoughtless.  I know we are so fortunate to be able to have the celebration we are having. We are keeping things pretty simple but it still takes time, and effort. Christmas might be a time of joy but it is a hard time for lots of people, and if that is you reading this, then I want to tell you that whatever you are doing is enough. Not being able to live up to some ethical ideal doesn’t make you a bad person. Buying presents doesn’t make you a shallow consumer.

Every year at Christmas I shed tears for my mother who isn’t alive to celebrate with us. No amount of Christmas Cake or wrapping paper can fill that void. However, creating Christmas, filling my home with the echoes of Christmas past, is important to me. I know my children are making memories they’ll hold close all their lives. A sense of family. A sense of celebration of the passing of time, and the rituals that accompany it. A sense of joy. That means something.

As a wise friend of mine once wrote

Celebration is why people love Christmas, even when they’re not Christian.

Celebration is a fundamental part of our human experience. It is something humans have done in every culture, in every part of the world, since prehistory. Celebrations add meaningfulness to our lives. They give us a sense of belonging within our communities and families. Let’s not use Christmas to shame each other, but as a time to celebrate each other.

Merry Christmas Everyone – however you choose to celebrate.

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Happy Families Are Made In a Multitude of Ways

Parenthood. It can be hard and fraught sometimes.

It feels that even talking about our decisions or feelings as parents suddenly means we are opening ourselves to a pile on of reckons, and answers to questions we didn’t ask. Every word open to misinterpretation. Making different choices mutated into judging other’s choices. Uttering our darkest fears seen as revealing a rotting core.

Why does it have to be this way?

I guess it is because we all have so much skin in the game, but damn, if that skin isn’t thin sometimes.

I’ve been a bit quieter here on this blog, mostly because of fear of this. That opening the door even the tiniest crack on aspects of our life means I’ll have to justify myself, or apologise for slights I don’t intend.

Talking about things can be hard. It feels risky to fess up to the time you yelled because the kids wouldn’t stop fighting and you felt completely overwhelmed. Or how you were driven bonkers by the lack of sleep and decided to sleep train, or decided to co-sleep and it worked for you. To admit to having a picky eater. Or a hopelessly messy home.

If we can’t talk about these things without treading carefully, then how do we talk about the things that are harder? Should we pick our way gingerly across the minefield? Or swallow them whole? Keep them burning a pit in our stomach for fear we, or our child, will be seen as failing.

I started reading a book recommended to me – The Highly Sensitive Person. I never finished it. I gave up about the time I read a passage stating that only half of people experience adequate parenting as a child.

Screw that.

There are some terrible parents in the world. Some children suffer terribly at the hands of their parents. Some highly successful people carry scars all their life from parents who failed them in very important ways.

But – half?

I don’t think there are any perfect parents in the world. No matter how understanding, or nurturing, or independence-building, or loving parents are, there will always be mistakes.

There is no one way to raise a child.

I refuse to believe we are all going around fucking up our children with our incompetence. Fucking up days? Weeks, even? Maybe. But the vast majority of us provide lives that are stable enough, loving enough for our children.

I think of Anna Karenina’s famous opening line

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

It’s a fabulous sentence, and who am I to judge Tolstoy, with his bestselling classics, 14 children and a whole religious-socialist movement named after him? Yet, I think he couldn’t be more wrong.

Happy families are made in a multitude of different fashions.

We don’t need each other’s permission for the choices we make. Other people do not need your permission for the choices they make. There are happy families with happy kids whose parents are doing things you wouldn’t agree with, wouldn’t do, can’t imagine. So what?

Parenting is hard, and it is fraught, but ultimately the world is full of functional adults who work hard and look after each other, and who have people they love. Who bake cakes for friends in need, and visit their grandmothers for tea, and in turn have children that they love. Despite everything, I choose to see the best in people.

Right now, parenting can seem hard. Sometimes after an evening with my son bouncing off the walls, and tears, and slammed doors, I slump on the couch with a lump on my throat and wonder what I have done wrong. I delete nice things I’ve written because I feel like a fraud.

I’m not a fraud. I know it is not about me. I know my son’s problems are larger than my acts as a parent. I know they are also much, much smaller than him. He is my own sweet child, as complex as any. I haven’t written about it because I don’t want to hear the solutions, or the judgement. There is nothing you can offer him or me in two minutes typing that I won’t get from the professionals we see. He needs some more help at the moment and we are getting that for him.

In many aspects of his life he is thriving. He has a very blessed childhood that he enjoys. He gets a lot of positive attention and family time. He has interests we support. He is learning to read. He has two parents who love him, and a sister who only pulls his hair occasionally.

We are a happy family in our own way.

Ultimately I am only parenting my children. I answer to them. The only people who have the right to look back at the decisions we make about bedtimes and mealtimes and playtimes and judge will be my children. I don’t want to hear ‘have you tried…’ I don’t want to justify the minutiae of our life.  Nobody can create the perfect environment for their children 100% of the time.

It is clear that I’m not always going to be the kind of parent I thought I would be, or that many parenting columns tell me I should be. What I am being is the parent that my son needs. I think that this is a better parent than any that only exists on paper, or the stock photo parents who are nothing but the ghosts of our internet imaginations

Parenting is hard and fraught and it is a long, long game. My son might have some problems, and they might weigh heavily on us at times, but he’s only five. We’ve got a lot of life and growing up to do together still. I’m pretty sure one day I will turn around and see a young man, and be enormously proud of how my wee boy has turned out, and wonder what miracle it was that brought him into my life, and is this really the same young man who could never stop talking, or sit still, or go the fuck to sleep despite being eye-rollingly tired?

I am sure I am not the only parent who feels this way. Who can feel weighed down in the now. The future may be bright, but the getting there is hard. Nonetheless we carry on, finding glimmers of hope. Sun rays that burst through the clouds. Auroras that play across our night skies.

My life isn’t perfect. I never expected it to be. The choices my family makes are just our choices. We’re making the choices that enable all four of us to carry on as best we can. You might make different choices in my place. That’s okay too.

All of our families are finding their own ways to be. To hold it together and build the best worlds we can for our children. Building with little things and big things. A whole messy jumble of things.

Happiness finding its own way into our life.

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A Dinosaur Train Hypothesis

The kids favourite TV show at the moment is Dinosaur Train. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. In fact one might even say I’ve been overthinking it a lot. On the surface it seems like positive, inclusive preschooler fare, but once you’ve watched as much Dinosaur Train as I have, you begin to question what is really going on. There are some things that just don’t quite add up. But its okay guys, I have a hypothesis. Hypotheses?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show let me explain it’s premise:

The Pteranodon Family, whose members are Mr and Mrs Pteranodon, their three biological children and one adopted Tyrannosaurus Rex, Buddy, have good old fashioned family adventures, which revolve around getting to ride on the Dinosaur Train. The Dinosaur Train, guided by their good friend Mr Conductor, not only travels across the world, but also through time. Mr Conductor is a troodon, that’s the dinosaur with the largest brain relative to body mass doncha know and also, presumably, the smartest. He is able to offer the Pteranodon Family a lot of educational information about the Mesozoic Era which makes for an absolutely riveting show.

Now, having read the premise I’m sure you’ll be able to see there are some astonishing inaccuracies, and anachronisms in this show. In fact, I have rather a lot of questions for the makers. PBS, if you are reading this, can you help me out?

Lets deal with the most troubling question. It is well established scientific fact that Tyrannosaurs lived at the very end of Cretaceous, whereas Pteranodons lived in the mid-Cretaceous. There is a whopping 20 million years between them. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? C’mon. Even my four year old knows that. This is a genuine puzzle to him, and I honestly don’t know how to answer him. I don’t like to pry into private family matters, but I really think we need some answers as to the circumstances of Buddy’s adoption. Given that the Pteranodon family have exposed themselves by participating in this show, then I think it is fair to ask. Was Mrs Pteranodon really surprised when one egg hatched and revealed a T-Rex, or is this some kind of long game played on her unsuspecting children?

And who exactly brought the egg back to the mid-Cretaceous? Brought, or should I say smuggled? The only one with unfettered access to a time-travelling device is Mr Conductor himself. What exactly is his part in this? Is he an unsuspecting dupe? Or is he (an intelligent troodon after all) the great Mastermind behind this “adoption”.

I have noticed a quite lackadaisical approach to biosecurity across the program as a whole, not just in this egregious example of a fertilised egg being transmitted through time. Maybe my opinions are skewed having grown-up in New Zealand with our tight airport screenings for unwashed shoes, and bananas neglected in children’s backpacks. The biosecurity risks NZ faces, however, seem tiny compared to criss-crossing the entire Mesozoic! That’s the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous just in case you didn’t know. Some 186 million years. Have PBS considered the pathogens being transferred around willy-nilly by these sight-seeing hordes? They don’t just stay on the train you know. The get off and wander around, they eat, and as we all know from watching your excellent ‘Dinosaur Poop’ episode, everybody poops, and OMG what kind of microbes are these dinosaurs spreading throughout time?!

I guess it’s possible that having invented an amazing time-travelling train they’ve also created some sort of containment. We never see it but perhaps they’ve edited out the decomination showers for when they get on or off the train? Still doesn’t explain the poop though. Unless.

Unless they all have to poop on the Train?

Is that how it works PBS?

Speaking of how it works – how does this whole thing work? The only person who ever seems to work in the show is Mr Conductor. He is constantly walking up and down the train checking the tickets that everybody bought. What did they buy them with? Carrion? Money? Mr and Mrs Pteranodon don’t have jobs. Are they recipients of tax welfare? Are you trying to tell me that dinosaurs had money and a welfare state? THAT’S JUST CRAZY!!!!

I know I’ve expressed some concerns about this whole Dinosaur Train organisation but, I’m going to give Mr Conductor the benefit of the doubt, he seems a nice guy. A really nice, cheerful guy.

A really nice, cheerful, intelligent guy.

Too cheerful?

Is Mr Conductor’s cheerfulness a cover for a broken heart?

I just have to wonder, in episode 322 Back In Time they travel all the way back to the Permian (the time period before the Mesozoic), but they don’t ever travel further forward than the Mesozoic. Why?

Because even though they must know their life is but a fleeting blip in the march of time, to travel into the Cenozoic would be to face a truth too cold for their reptilian hearts. It is easy to fool a pteranodon Mr Conductor, but you can’t fool me.

I have two hypotheses as to what is the cause of Mr Conductor’s heart break:

1) No matter how hard he tries he cannot travel any further forward in time. The technology won’t work. The Cenozoic with its mammalian dominant life-forms is off limits to the Dinosaur Train. This torments Mr Conductor. At night, alone, after fretfully picking at his carrion, he lies in bed, staring up at the distant stars and wondering what it is that happens in the Year 186 Million of the Mesozoic. What horror lies ahead? Can it possibly be worse than his imagination?


2) He knows. He knows. Oh, he wishes he didn’t but he does. He can’t forget. He can try, he can put on his whole ‘howdy-doody’ act, he can smile and sing and dance, but every time he yells ‘time tunnel approaching’ he dies a little more inside. Knowing that everything he loves so dear won’t die the gentle death of natural selection but will come to a catastrophic, cataclysmic end. He can’t bear to travel any further forward. It might as well be the end of the world for all he cares. All he can picture is that time he stood close, but not too close, at a convenient-for-sightseeing-but-safe-distance, and watched the intense red and yellow flames streaking through the sky. The enormous BOOM of the impact. The distant blast that knocked him off his feet as he watched the plumes of dust and rock and smoke shoot up into the atmosphere, obliterating the light and suddenly it was cold. So cold.

He couldn’t stay there for long though. He had to get back on the train to poop.

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No Air


The background rhythm of life.

The first breath. The long awaited wail of lungs opening and the shock of air for the first time. Every parent, I think, holds their own breath until they hear it. Some parents have to wait longer than others. Too long.

Then we hardly notice it. Our lungs continue a pattern, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. It is the white noise of our life. If you were an astronaut in deep space, cut off from radio contact, just this noise would be left to assert you are still alive. The swish of your blood through your ears. The air moving through your nostrils as they flare.

We take it for granted. Unless of course, something goes wrong.

The first wrong thing we noticed was a cough at night.

I’m a lifelong asthmatic and I knew what it was. I was not too worried then. I knew what asthma had meant for me and I was confident we could manage it. We started MJ on steroid inhalers. They helped, but not as much as we would have expected.

We noticed more wrong things. A cough after running. A cough on cold days. Snoring. He complained of being tired, constantly. Between his coughing and a baby our nights were sleepless, leaving three of us with dark rings under our eyes.

More than a year later, the dark rings are still there.

Our son has lived the last two winters with a very real constriction in his chest. We as parents, have faced our own metaphorical one. A slow suffocation of our hopes as we try to care for a son who might be playful and cheerful and loud, but who, try as we might, is never quite well.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to think he is improving, that the most recent change to his medication has helped. Even now I think this might be the case. It is hard to hold onto the faith it will last.

Winter is fading. The grey skies are being replaced with blue. The frost coverings on the ground replaced with purple and white crocus. Hope creeps in with the advance of spring. We will get a temporary reprieve at least, without the cold air that shocks his lungs into submission. New worries arise too though, the memory of days last spring where thick white pollen blew through the air like snow. Will it trigger his asthma this year?

I think back to my childhood, with the delay in diagnosis due to me lacking a typical wheeze. For years I thought I was just an uncoordinated and unfit child, now I suspect the truth has more to do with my asthma not being as well controlled as we thought it was. My failure to keep up in PE class was due to a tightness in my chest that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite beat.

I didn’t learn to swim properly until we realised chlorinated pools were one of my triggers. I remember trying to time my breathing to the rhythm of my arms. Always I would end up gasping. Not able to last from left arm, to right arm, to left arm and breathe. I would end up standing in the pool, sucking in the air, watching my peers swim ahead.

MJ is four, and his kindy has a strong emphasis on outside play, whatever the weather. He loves it, and so do we. Lately though the story has changed. He tells us he can’t run as fast, he can’t keep up with his friends, that he was too tired for games. I look at him and I see myself reflected. I see his childhood constricted. I want to set him loose but it is not within my power.

I do not torture myself asking “why’s”. Why him? Why us? Life is unfair and, in balance, I know we are very blessed. Asthma is just the hand we have been dealt. Like any parent, parents of chronically ill children just get on with it. We are all just doing our best. Living our lives. We just have an extra ball to juggle.

We all get extras ball to juggle, sooner or later.

I am not interested in speculating if there is something we could have done differently to avoid it. Asthma and allergy rates are rising, and it is right for scientists to try to understand why that is. Whether it is because we are “too clean” or whether it is exposure to antibiotics or overuse of paracetamol. But on an individual level those questions are meaningless. There is nothing we can point to other than the genes he so obviously inherited from me.

My son has asthma. There is the fact, the truth. Why? Why is meaningless.
Night time arrives. Our bedtime routine with the medicine he resents is fraught. We limp through, he lies down. We sit in the room next door and every evening we listen, on edge. At some point, inevitably, the coughing starts. Every time my heart sinks. It is as though the air leaves the room. Ventolin is a wonderful life saving medication but it is not without side effects. Nervousness. Shaking. Palpitations. Headaches. Insomnia. Would you be surprised to learn that after one, two, three or four doses of Ventolin my son struggles to settle? Too often the price for his breath has been sleep.

I love this bright, sparky, funny son so much it takes my breath away.  Sometimes when I watch him run and play he is so full of life. Other times he runs and then he stops. He just stops. When I see him standing there, when I hear him gasping, again, again, again, it is soul crushing.

We are never more vulnerable than we are in the depths of the night. Asthma visits, like the relentless Nightmare from myth. It rides us hard. My son is left winded, me with the crushing weight of failure on my chest. Failure despite the privilege of access to modern medical knowledge, a socialist health care system, and pharmaceuticals to make this stop. I throw all my balls in the air and hold his medicine to his mouth. I count each breath as we catch them. One, two, three… I feel the coughing ease. I feel his body relax. His symptoms have been kept at bay once more, the Nightmare banished. The air comes back.

We breathe deep, in the dark of his room, in the dark of the night, as he slips back into a sweeter dream. And all that I am left is the weight of a mother’s love.


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