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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Welcome aboard

You are held up in traffic on your way to the airport. It’s as though the universe wants you to feel anxious. Miss one turn.

You arrive and join the queue for check-in. Your child’s nappy needs changing. Luckily you roll a Six and have time to run through the airport pulling her shoes off as you go, reach the changing area, clean nappy, and run back, before your husband reaches the front of the queue.

Airport security. You must scan you boarding pass and enter through the gates one at a time. The gate opens and the toddler rushes through first, followed by the preschooler who gets stuck as the gate closes. Miss one turn while airport security let him out.

You manage to control your children while waiting for carry on screening. Miraculously you haven’t forgotten any liquids or picnic knives in your overfull bags. Five.

You’ve got through security in plenty of time. Just in time to read your flight is delayed. Miss one turn.

Duty Free. Race through, nervously keeping children away from hazardous objects and temptingly placed chocolate. One staff member offers you a whisky taster; you turn it down as you rush past. You will regret this decision. One.

You find seats at the gate, but they are not close to the windows. Your children spend most of their time watching planes out of the window anyway. The toddler makes an occasional dash for freedom. Luckily no-one alerts security to your unattended baggage while you are running after her. Five.

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Boarding commences. You miss the boarding opportunity for families – because, toilets. You and your husband bicker the whole time you are queuing, whilst walking across the tarmac, and getting on to the plane. But you also successfully juggle passports, boarding passes, bags, and two small children. Three.

You get side-eye from fellow travelers as you claim your seats. You remember you are supposed to bring goody bags to hand out to other passengers to placate them for the inconvenience of you paying to use a form of public transport. You opted not to bring any as you had enough to carry in the form of kid’s books, changes of clothes, and nappies. This is the right choice. You need nappies. Four.

Your preschooler is thrilled with your seats; he has a  window and can see the wing and jet engine behind him. As you zoom up into the air he chuckles watching everything get smaller “The cars look like toys.” You both pretend to pick up houses and trees and cars between your fingers as the plane climbs. When you fly through cloud and come out the other side he gasps “Are we flying all the way to the sun?” Six.

Joy is short lived and  boredom sets in. The kids are fidgety. In a moment of desperation you consider allowing your toddler to kick the seat in front of you repeatedly. This makes you a very bad person. The plane begins to experience turbulence, and now you have to hold your squirming toddler on your lap long enough to truly regret your thought crime. Miss five turns.

Drinks. You booked a low-cost airline and so will have to pay for your coffee. You desperately need this coffee. They don’t have lids. Drinking black coffee out of a paper cup balanced on a tray-table at high altitude whilst sitting with small wriggly hazards humans seems like a terrible idea. You desperately need this coffee. Buy one after all. You do not scald yourself or your children. Six.

Landing. You locate the toddlers dummy, and find toys that will keep them occupied during landing. Your toddler occupies herself by repeatedly dropping the toy through a gap in the seat back and onto the floor. Another passenger repeatedly hands it back to you. Neither of your children are having a hissy fit. It’s tedious, but we’ll call this one a win. Four.

Passport control. The queue is long, but your preschooler announces, loudly, that he needs the toilet. There are no toilets this side of passport control. For once airport staff act humanely and you are fast-tracked. Free roll of the dice.

Baggage collection are advertising a long wait. You find a bench, and sit down next to a well-dressed middle-aged woman and her husband. She asks you how old your children are. Mistake! The talkative preschooler latches on to her and begins to tell her his version of your family history. Take the chance to relax while your husband checks over-sized baggage for the pram. Five.

You relax a little too much and switch back on to realise the toddler is attempting to ‘share’ her breadroll with the well-dressed woman. Sharing involves pushing the breadroll towards her face while the well-dressed woman leans back. ‘Thank you’ she laughs ‘but I don’t eat carbs.’ As she says this you are distracting your child by allowing her to ‘share’ with you. Shame on you for eating anything as hideous as bread. One.

It’s late and you need to feed your kids before you leave the airport. The only thing here is Burger King. You buy over-priced fast food and wonder what the well-dressed lady would think of you now as you eat your fries. The only problem is the kids don’t really like Burger King, so you have to actively encourage them to keep eating the evil-capitalist-crap whilst hiding the crappy plastic toy you don’t want and to this day is still lurking unopened in its wasteful plastic bag somewhere. Finish your kids meal for them. It has been a long day. Two.

Congratulations! You have successfully completed the Game of Air-travel. We recommend our next level game Domestic Train Travel. Estimated playing time: 3hrs and 27mins.

We’re going where the sea is blue

It has been a stressful time recently, so we decided what could be more relaxing than a holiday with kids? We decided to take advantage of a long weekend and traveled to Ebeltoft for a night. For the most part it was fabulous. Fabulous. But it was also testing and tiring.
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We don’t have a car, so travelled by bus from Aarhus. On the way there it worked perfectly. But on the way home, tired after new exciting experiences, M decided to be – difficult. I’ll take some responsibility; we did briefly lose track of time, and then we realised we needed to rush to make the bus home. They are only hourly, and waiting for the next one was getting too late. Have you ever tried to rush our son? After working hard to keep the holiday calm and relaxing it suddenly turned into GET YOUR CLOTHES ON! GET YOUR SHOES ON! While he yelled NO! NO! And then we really only had 15min until the bus, with a 10min walk to the bus stop. So I said WE JUST HAVE TO GO EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE SHOES ON!!

He went from uncooperative to hysterical. It was awful. I realised that he hadn’t seen me shove his shoes under the pram, and so thought I meant we would leave his shoes behind. Hysterical, but also cooperative. Shoes on, M dumped down on the buggy board, and I raced off; my husband grabbed the bags and locked the door. We made it. But my son spent almost the entire walk crying. It was not the end to our holiday we had hoped for.

* * *

Nobody has asked why I chose the name I did for this blog. Perhaps some vague assumptions about Scandinavian design, and innovation. The behemoth of furniture shopping that shall remain nameless. Of course that was on my mind. But it is also how I feel about this nomadic-expat lifestyle my husband and I have fallen into. This year will be our tenth wedding anniversary, and we have lived in four countries during those ten years. Not by design, or even strong desire. Life just kinda worked out that way.

Every time we move we have to dismantle our lives. Pack the boxes. Choose what to take, and what to sell. Say goodbye to friends and places and routines. And then arrive somewhere new. Reassemble our lives. Unpack the boxes. Fit our old belongings into a new house. Try to make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

And like flatpack furniture, things don’t always fit together the same as they did before. It is always a little different, the angles have shifted slightly.

The folk-wisdom of expats is something like this: the first year is either exciting or depressing. Then you know your way around, but you don’t really feel like you belong. Three years feels like maybe you could stay. Five years to feel like you really belong. We’ve never managed the five years.

We have gained a lot, and had such wonderful experiences with this life we’ve led. But I also know that every time we leave somewhere we lose something too. There is a part of me that will always call Wellington, Cambridge, Canberra ‘home’. And my childhood homes too – Lower Hutt, and Germany. Some parts of me will never be at home again.

If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that even when you know you are leaving eventually, you can’t live in a state of impermanence for long. You have to make yourself a home. Dig your heels in and build a new life. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

* * *

Ebeltoft is situated on the Djursland peninsula which juts out in to the Kattegat; the strait between Denmark and Sweden, that eventually opens out into the Baltic Sea.  The Kattegat – around here at least – can seem strangely calm to a New Zealander, who has grown up near coasts where winds blow straight from Antarctica. Ebeltoft was particularly idyllic. Nestled into a bay, the opening of which is tucked in under the peninsula, the seas were very calm. It would be spectacular in summer. We’ve had a couple of cold weeks, sleet and hail, wind and rain. They say in Denmark you always need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Well, we were not prepared for the amount of sunshine we got.
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On that stunning Saturday afternoon we walked out to the end of the harbour pier, where in this peaceful place the cannons are still fired weekly. Ahead of us was blue sky and blue sea, green hills curving in to mark the entrance to the bay. Somewhere behind those hills, further down the coast lies our home, Aarhus.

Our home. Hjem. It feels like that to me. And certainly to my son.

I stood at the edge of the sea, feeling these northern winds blowing gently on my skin, the hush of a calm northern sea. The Dannebrog waving above us. And I knew, then, one day we will leave a piece of ourselves behind. One day we’ll ask our son to lose something much bigger, much more important than his shoes. Maybe a different child would take it easily, but we have to deal with the child we have; he is not going to find it easy.

We have a good life here. We are able to give him some wonderful experiences. But we also have to teach him how to uproot himself. This isn’t something that can be done in a rush. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to our life here. To start again, somewhere else. But wherever we end up, we’ll do it. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

I also know, we’ll carry a little piece of Denmark with us when we go.

Only one half of him slept at a time. The other head was always awake

It’s 1am, or 2am, or perhaps 4am. I hear footsteps, or coughing, or crying. I want to bury my head in my pillow. Why can’t you just sleep? Either of you.

It’s 5pm. My son is asking to watch TV. I don’t want him to watch TV all evening, but I need to get our tea ready. I cave and switch the TV on. At least one of you is happy. My daughter crawls around under my feet, whining to be picked up. I know what you want but I can’t hold you all the time. I just want to be able to drain the pot of boiling water and pasta without worrying about lifting it with a baby underfoot. That’s obviously a bad idea, can’t you just give me one minute to finish a job?

It’s 11am, I’m trying to read to them both. Providing quality, enriching experience. My son is happy enough. As long as he gets to choose the book. And where we sit. And as long as his sister doesn’t chew the book. But luckily she’s crawled off. Somehow she’s found paper (again) on the floor and is eating it.

It’s 3pm. My son and I stand at opposite ends of the living room, I’m trying to follow his complicated instructions. I’m not doing it right. He flings his arms wildly, his whole body full of frustration. I have no idea what this stupid game is about or what I am doing wrong. His sister sits in the middle of the floor, bemused.
I understand what I’m meant to say

‘How far is it?’ I yell
‘ten past three centimetres’ Is his gleeful reply ‘Now swim like this to me’ He wriggles.
So I copy his wriggle, swimming across the floor to him. He laughs. His sister laughs too, and claps her hands in delight. Suddenly there is nothing more important than wriggling across the room and laughing with my children.

It’s 11am. He chooses The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He finally stays in one place and his sister crawls back over to stick fingers in the holes. When I lift her onto my lap too, she grabs my hair and pulls my face to hers rubbing her mouth on my cheek in her gross but very adorable gesture of affection.

It’s 5pm. My son’s favourite TV programme is on; the one where the presenter Rosa bakes cakes with children to surprise their loved ones with. He turns to me
‘We could fly to New Zealand and sneak into Grandad’s house and find out what he likes, and then bake him a cake with his favourite colours.’
His sister is still whining. I look down into her big blue eyes, and marvel once again that I managed to produce two blue eyed children. I know she’s hungry. Perhaps she knows after I move metal objects around on the stovetop food will be presented. But she doesn’t know it is a necessary part of the process yet. I pick her up and she snuggles against me.
‘Grandad would love a cake’ I say.

There is a character in the Doctor Doolittle novels, the Pushmi-pullyu. It’s so long since I’ve read the books I don’t remember much other than the name and some troublingly racist colonial attitudes that mean I might not urge the kids to read this one. But I love the name. It is a name that deserves a life of its own. It is a word that sums up how I so often feel when I am surrounded by the needs of my small children.

They push me. They push me when I am tired and stressed. When the days are long. And miraculously the nights are even longer. The push me when the amount of rest I get is dictated not by my own body, but by the needs of two small dependent children. And sometimes I want to say ‘enough!’

It can feel like the world expects us to have children that behave every minute, or for us to be enjoying every minute. Instead of just enjoying the ones that are actually enjoyable. It can be easy to feel despondent when your child is the one misbehaving, eating-pickily, or refusing to put their socks on. We forget no parent ever has had a child that did exactly what they were told, every time, without argument. So we joke about being ‘bad’ parents.

This is how I know I’m not really a ‘bad parent’.

Because every time they have pushed me to the edge. Every time I swear under my breath. Every time I snap and take away a toy just so I can get them to listen. Every time I lean my head against the door frame for a split second thinking they might just magically go to sleep in that pause. All of those are not the summation of my parenting, because every time, in the end, I open the door and I hold them.

I don’t pretend to be perfect. Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I see another Janet-bloody-Lansbury article. I spend half my days torn between what needs to get done, and what my children want right now. I can feel pushed and pulled in a dozen directions at once. And I have to remind myself to stop. That even if I yell sometimes, or distract them with TV, or the floor is covered in books and toys, it’s ok. Because the house is clean enough, my children are fed, my children are loved.

When it is good it can be wonderful. When both my children laugh it is the best feeling. Watching my son push my daughter on a swing while she laughed last weekend felt like the highlight of my life. A highlight. Because life is not like that all the time. Never. Nobody’s. So when it’s tough I just have to breathe, and remind myself ‘pushmi-pullyu’. We’ll be on an upward swing again soon enough.

It’s 1am, or 2am or perhaps 4am. I want to bury my head in my pillow, but I don’t. I sit on my son’s bed and stroke his hair. Or I rock my daughter in my arms. In the dark we sway together. To and fro. To and fro. To and fro.

 

 

 

 

I’m a mummy, I scare people

I’ve been asked to post three photos that show why I love being a mother.

Gosh. Only three?!

Of course I love my little darlings. But motherhood is so much more fulfilling than smiling photos of my cherubs could show. In fact sometimes I feel the state of ‘motherhood’ is important than the unique ‘personhood’ of my own children.

And there is so much a photo can’t show. Like the beautiful pitter patter of feet on the way to your bedroom at 3am. The triumph of getting pram buckles closed while your baby is planking. The sense of superiority I get from my son learning to use the word ‘Fuck’ correctly in a sentence before his so called peers.

But I don’t want to sound like I think I’m too good for this sort of thing. So here we go.

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I love knowing no matter how much time I spend picking things up my daughter’s curiosity means she’ll instantly find something else to spread over the floor. Dvds, duplo, plastic containers in the kitchen, the contents of our change bag if I forget to zip it up. Books are a special favourite; I love seeing those getting good use. And while I’m at it, I love reading; I’ve always been a re-reader of old favourites. What a joy when I discovered the hidden depths of Thomas and The Bumpy Line. And you know Mr Skinny is very funny, Every Single Time we read it.

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I love watching my children turn there dreams into reality. Little A has had her eye on the drain for a while. Today, I went to get the camera as her brother was having fun playing in the sink. She seized the moment and I returned with said camera to see this. Oh those cheeky monkeys, I can’t turn my back for a second. No seriously. Because while I was changing her into dry clothes, her brother washed the soap.image_1 I managed to find some pieces, as you can see. The rest of them turned up when my husband unscrewed the pipes later. What larks!

Cooking has always given me great pleasure. That pleasure has only been deepened by the addition of whining for snacks. Of course I have to say No, otherwise they won’t eat their dinner later. Or they can nibble on healthy veges while they wait. I’m no angel though, sometimes they do test my willpower. So while they chomp down on cucumber slices, what I love most is knowing about this packet of chippies I keep on the top shelf…

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