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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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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Just the way you are

Last week we had to take my oldest child for a check-up, and foolishly I took both kids on my own. I thought that my son knows what to expect, and his little sister is used to sitting through appointments too, it’ll be fine.

It wasn’t fine.

Actually the doctor was fine. That bit was fine. I’m a pro at doctor’s appointments. What I apparently can’t manage is taking kids to the toilet.  Trying to cram a toilet visit in was probably a bad idea, but it really looked like waiting would be a worse option. Instead of recognising my motherly wisdom my son just starts yelling
“No. I don’t need to go. Noooo”
And I kinda have to drag him in and practically pry his fingers off the doorframe. Eventually I hustled him in, with his sister toddling along and squeezing in with us. And the whole time he is yelling, and I’m trying to appear competent by remaining calm and collected and firm, not permissive, so I’m saying
“Okay, let’s just try before we see the doctor because we can’t go during our appointment.”
And I don’t know why I even bother because he is not listening, he is just yelling, and it is true he doesn’t need to go – anymore. At some point someone knocked on the door and I tried to hurry him up by pointing out people were waiting but it didn’t help. After resisting sitting on the toilet he is now resisting getting off and washing his hands. Then the toddler inexplicably decided to add to the experience by yelling ‘fart’ loudly and repeatedly. After what felt like a hellish eternity I opened the door, only to see a very tall young doctor about to knock, again.

Unfortunately, I blush very easily.

To be honest, I think I handled it fairly well. It was embarrassing, but kids are kids. The doctor was lovely and took it all in his stride. Too often though, people around you don’t react like that. Like that time when that old man shouted at my upset son on the bus. (To be fair, he was again behaving appallingly, but since he came down with a fever soon after, I think he wasn’t at his most rational. And I know my son well enough to know when yelling isn’t going to work, so I wasn’t yelling and guess what dude, you’re yelling didn’t achieve anything – did it?) Sometimes my husband says I must see the worst come out in people. Sometimes I think I’m just more observant than my husband. Or maybe I’m less competent at parenting than him. Or maybe I’m held to a different (higher) standard of parenting than him due to ingrained patriarchal values. Maybe.

And if you just took these snippets of my days when my son is behaving poorly you might think he was this dreadful, out of control child. He’s not. He has been ill a lot lately, and that does affect his behaviour, but most of the time he is lovely. So I should also tell you about how much he loves to help in the kitchen, and how he helps his father chop vegetables, Child chopping vegetablesdiligently snapping broccoli florets up and even *gasp* eating some of them. Or his limitless curiosity especially when it comes to things like outer space or dinosaurs. Or how patient he is with his sister’s silly games, especially the one where she plays ‘bump, bump’ in her chair and we all have to ‘bump, bump’ along with her, and if he doesn’t bump she yells “Wah-wah bump bump” across the table at him until he bumps. (And no, Wah-wah is not his name, it is just what she calls him. Which is very cute, but as far as legal names go it would be a bad one and what kind of mother do you think I am?)

If you took the snippets of my days when I’m not handling things well, you might think I’m not a great parent. Things don’t always go well. I get cross. I get stretched too thin, especially lately, when I’ve frequently been stuck at home with sick kids. My kids can be infuriating, and it’s exhausting. I definitely, definitely, do not love every minute.

It is never as simple as a good day, or a bad day. My children are all quicksilver. The stars can be all aligned and then along comes a new gravitational body – everything wobbles on its axis. Can I maintain a steady course or will a terminal slide into chaos ensue? Tears dry just as quickly, their eyes sparkle again, and their mother better be ready to leave her own frustrations behind, because the fun is happening, now. They create joy in the most mundane events. A cold wet downpour is a chance to spring from puddle to puddle. Games are invented seemingly out of thin air, and you are all laughing, and life is good and the minutes fly by. Then there are the quiet joys. Like the joy of seeing your four year old intent, concentrating hard on his latest art project.puddle splashing

My hours are full of books and kisses and toys and cuddles and crayon on my walls and TV and chasing and trying to buckle a pram and jumping on the bed. Life. They are full of life.

These little lives feel like they came from nowhere to take over your own. Did you know, did you really understand, how much possibility there was the first time someone handed you your baby? Getting to know your child, to learn how they interpret the world and think and feel is the ultimate privilege of parenthood.

At this age my children’s behaviour can be ridiculous, and appalling, and embarrassing.  But they are four and one. Sometimes people act as though the process of civilisation is something that should take just a couple of weeks, in between weaning and toilet training at what is considered to be the proper time. As though our children are not individuals with their own needs and impulses and fully contained personhood. Instead they are to be controlled and whipped into shape and if you just do it right they will never yell fart at you while locked in a public toilet.

A few weeks ago we had another public argument with my son. Everyone was avoiding our eyes and hurrying past us. It’s funny isn’t it, how there is never anyone stopping to tell you to enjoy “every minute” in these really unenjoyable minutes? Tears dried and noses wiped, we arrived at the pharmacy we needed to go to.  There were long queues, but oh joy, a wooden track with wheels to roll down it. I took the kids to play while my husband waited.

This toy just happened to be in the euphemistically named ‘feminine hygiene” aisle. While the kids played happily a couple approached, and stood whispering in front of the pregnancy tests. There is a lot to think about when buying pregnancy tests. For many it is the first of the arbitrary and important-seeming hurdles that really don’t matter when you look back on them, but boy did you agonise about it at the time. Does the brand matter? And how many should you buy? One might give the answer you want – expect – but will you believe it? What if it is wrong? Perhaps you should buy two just in case. Five, maybe five. Just to be sure. Or maybe this is a false alarm, but what about next month, or the next. Should you buy extra so you have them? Just in case?

They stood, heads bent together and while I tried not to listen they caught my son’s interest. He wandered over, peering around them, cluelessly butting in as only a four year old can, and while I tried to gently re-engage his interest my daughter spotted her opportunity. Gleefully she darted forward, hands mussing shelves, then with a tube of something called ‘intimate soap’ in each hand she sprinted down the exit ramp. I followed the trail of laughter, and luckily caught her before she passed the security alarms.

By the time I had returned all the feminine hygiene products to their proper place the couple were queuing hand in hand. Trepidation, love, possibility spilling out of them, an almost visible aura of hope.

My children were back to playing. These wilful little beings who have taken over our life. Who can make an afternoon or evening a tedious drag. Or make a mundane chore a hilarious adventure. Who test and defy me on a daily basis. Who embarrass and delight me in equal measure. Would I really have them any other way?

And maybe we came across as chaotic. Maybe if my children look willful and defiant that is because they are. But one day they will be adults who won’t throw themselves down to the ground in despair in supermarkets, or sob on buses because their favourite seat is taken, and one day I won’t have to worry about them accidentally shoplifting.

Until then, would I want my son to be less curious? Would I want my daughter to be less cheeky?

I’m lucky, my hopes for the future are already here, right in front of me.

I might not love every minute, but I love them. Every minute, of every day, I’m loving them.

A wish for the New Year

The two headed god. The Roman god of transition.

The god of doorways, and boundaries. The god of births, marriages and deaths, who guarded the entrance to the heavens. The god who opened his temple gates at the outbreak of war, and closed them when peace returned. The god of beginnings and endings, in both space and time.

The god invoked on Kalendae Ianuariae. The first of January; the passage from the old year to the new. Romans made offerings of spelt cake and salt to Janus. To everyone else, they gave cheerful greetings of good will, an omen of hope for a New Year.

Head of Janus

I imagine this ancient deity looking back, and looking forwards. I wonder what he sees.

For so many people 2016 has been a tragic year. Around the world people are fearful of what 2017 will bring.

We’ve seen a demagogue voted into power in arguably the most powerful country in the world. We’ve seen a Middle Eastern city torn to shreds, live on our television screens. We’ve wrung our hands, many of us have donated money, we’ve asked our politicians to speak, and to what avail? We’ve watched migrants drown in record numbers in the Mediterranean seas. Arctic temperatures have climbed. My old home town has been rocked by earthquakes – the destabilisation of the world made physical. Meanwhile political alliances have been torn apart by words and ink ticks on paper.

The world feels on the brink of something. But what?

Janus. The carved pillar, a head facing forward, a head facing back. Immovable he stands and watches. The world so different from the one he ruled over. Millennia of change and yet the image – the idea – he invokes still carries its power. We understand his meaning, even if we no longer understand the Latin prayers offered in his name.

We pass under his threshold. A New Year.

Here in the north the days will grow longer. Winter still has its grip on us. Cold winds blow. The real snow has yet to hit. It will come, we are confident in the predictability of this. One day soon I will look outside and see the white ground, grey sky. The world will be cold and still, but for the ice blowing through the air.

Change is the only constant in the universe. It creates the ancient rhythms of the world. From ice, to water. From winter, to spring. From dark, to light.

Here in Denmark we will begin the year surrounded by fireworks. Each New Year a cacophony of light and noise. Fireworks that last from early evening to long after midnight, as each party will have their own. The crackle of fire, then the boom and the light that will rend the dark. Colours spread through the night, ephemera in the sky. The following day will smell of smoke. But that too will pass.

Last year we huddled inside as the old year was blasted away. Our children were terrified by the noise, the unpredictable but constant explosions. We soothed them, confident these blasts brought no danger, our walls would remain intact. A luxury not everyone in this world shares.

I was not sorry to see the end of 2015; it had been a difficult year. I looked back, and I looked forward, holding onto a hope that the next year would be better. And for all the destruction 2016 has wrought worldwide, it has been a better year for us, for my own small family. Sometimes with the dark, there comes the light.

This Christmas Eve we wandered through the quiet streets to a playground. My son ran ahead to the swings with my husband. The sun hung low in the sky. As I followed up the hill he swung back and forth, eclipsing the light as he passed through it. I felt my breath catch in my throat as my children laughed.

By the time we walked home Danes were on their way to their traditional evening gatherings. At the traffic lights I could see men in ties, and women with jewellery burning brightly in their ears and around their throat. Faces lit with joy, smiling at us as we passed in front of them. The usual social barriers have been broken down; we are reminded of our commonalities. The desire to mark the passage of time, the ritual celebrations, is the human constant.

Small children change daily. Milestones passed as they march towards that great transition: from childhood to adulthood. Each achievement incremental, sometimes hardly noticeable. We need the rhythms of the year, the seasons to remind us of where we once were – last birthday, last Christmas, last Year.

Many of us feel that bit more fearful for the world our children will grow up in than we did last year. Yet still we celebrate. We mark the change from the Old Year to the New. Because that is all we can do. Because this time, however fragile it might be, is all we have.

The world will swing through space, from light to dark, from winter to spring to summer. As it always has and as it always will. We carry on, and sometimes we hold our breath, unable to see what lies before us. As we all swing our children laugh; even in the darkest winter there is light.

Sometimes I think that all we can do in this world is nurture that light at home. Love and laugh and hope. There will always be suffering in this world, but we have faith in our children, that in small ways or perhaps even big ways, they will make the world a better place.

This is my non-religious prayer to a god no-one believes in anymore.

This is my wish for you in the New Year.

May our children be the starburst of colour that lights the dark.

New Year Fireworks


Image Credit: Head of Janus by Loudon dodd licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0


Don’t you cry my baby/ sleepy-time is nigh

I’m tired.

I’m so tired of being tired.

I’m tired of spending days in a fog. Of headaches in the morning. Of heavy limbs.

I’m tired of the dragging myself through my days. This is it. This is my life. This is my children’s childhood and I want to have energy for it.

I’m tired of who tiredness makes me.

I’m tired of the way I wake up short tempered, longing to go back to bed, just for a bit more. And then I perk up, but by late afternoon I’m running on empty. I’m short-tempered again.

I’m tired of knowing my son is underslept too. Of not knowing how to convince this stubborn child that sleep is good for him.

I’m tired of hearing him say ‘I’m tired’ all afternoon, and then ‘I can’t sleep’ all evening.

I’m tired of being told that that is just life with small kids, they don’t sleep when we want them to and we just have to live with it. Because the reality is this lack of sleep isn’t just affecting me and my husband, it is affecting the kids too. Not just because it makes me a grumpy bitch sometimes. Though I’ll admit it does.

I’m tired of hearing his feet running down to our room, multiple times a night. Of getting up and leading him back to bed.

This getting out of bed, it’s a bad habit. But it is also an act of kindness.

You see, my kids share a room. MJ gets out of his bed and comes to us, instead of yelling, so that he doesn’t wake his sister. I wonder if he knows when I slowly lift my head off the pillow, and we both sleepily stumble back down the hall, that I see this? That even then, in the dead of night, when I would do anything to still be asleep, I still see the best in him.

I’m tired of thinking that maybe it is our fault. Maybe if we waited to have kids until we could afford a place with three bedrooms? Maybe then, would we have waited until it was too late? That’s the choice you see. And how do you know, before you have them, that you will be blessed with the children that do not sleep, instead of the mythical beasts that do? Perhaps a reflection on my own childhood could have informed me.

Mythical sleeping babies are lovely
Mythical sleeping babies are lovely

I do not wish my children away for a full night’s sleep. I just want both. Is that so much to ask for?

I’m tired of our ridiculous bedtime routine. I’m tired of battling every night. I’m tired of all four of us in the bedroom at once. Me with AJ who adores her father deeply, except for at bedtime, where she will cry and cry if he tries to put her to bed, so it has to be me, and if she doesn’t go to sleep quickly I have to stand with my hand on her chest so she stays quiet while her brother goes to bed, and my back begins to ache and my arm goes numb and I stand there and wait and wait and wait until finally she drifts away. And I listen to MJ who rolls over and over, and whispers, and gets up for water, and for more cuddles, and then the toilet, and then rolls over and over, and I finally leave the room, and we ask him to be quiet a million times, and then he whispers and rolls over, and *What The Hell* now he is doing head stands on his bed, and then he wakes his sister, and then he gets cross because she is being too noisy for him to sleep, and the irony of this is apparently completely lost on him, and so I leave him with my husband, and take her to our room. I lie in the dark with AJ cuddled in my arms, her head on my shoulder. She relaxes and I hear MJ and my husband arguing about him at least trying to lie down, and I’m so tired.

Outside a car honks its horn, AJ lifts her head “Noi” she tells me with her surprisingly nasal N. “Yes” I whisper “Noisy car” I stroke her hair and she lays down again arm hooked around my neck. Holding me as close as possible.

It is quiet now. I am tired, and I lie in the dark, listening to the silence in my house. Her breathing slows as she drifts back into sleep, and I know I have to move her, I know there is tidying still to be done, and work to do, and a son who will ask me for cuddles again, and a husband it would be nice to talk to, but for now I am content to lie here with her.

I am tired, but each soft breath is a blessing on my cheek.