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Archive for March, 2008

A dear friend of mine has just sent me a link to the webpage of the house that she and her husband are buying. She pregnant with her fourth child, and they need a house that is big enough to accommodate their now large family. I looked at the webpage — it is a stunning, 5 bedroom, thatched house — an old converted post office — in one of the nicest (most expensive) neighbourhoods in the area where we used to live. It has big inglenook fireplaces, a private garden, and the village has sweeping views across the Vale. The asking price is £500,000 ($1million).

My friend and her husband are a few years younger than I am but, in every other way, we are contemporaries. We have the same level of education, similar socio-economic backgrounds, and she and I are now both SAHMs to young children. In many ways, we have led similar lives. And yet, she is in the position to spend half-a-million pounds on a house and I am not even able to afford a starter home — something around £120,000 — and so have had to move back to the other side of the world in order to make ends meet.

And whose fault is that? Mine. I have made bad choices in my life. I chose badly in university when it came time to picking a major. I chose badly when I decided to follow my heart and move to Britain — accepting a go-nowhere job in order to make it happen — instead of putting my nose to the grindstone and building a career. I chose badly when I married a man I shouldn’t have, and then later divorced him (statistically speaking, successful people marry once and stay married). I chose badly when I fell in love with a lovely-but-unambitious man who was also divorced, with two children to support, on blue-collar wages. I chose badly when I missed my chance to buy a house in England back when houses were affordable. I chose badly when I decided to have babies while we were still renting, and then when I grabbed at redundancy after our first daughter was born, because it gave me enough money to stay home with her for a few years, even though I didn’t know what we’d do when the money ran out.

Where we are financially is my fault. This mistake in my taxes is my fault — my oversight — even as I was trying to be a wise steward with our money and do right by my family. I have made all our financial decisions, and so I have made all our mistakes. I look around at our friends and it kills me. They are all in the position — financially, career-wise — that you’d expect someone to be at our age, while we are still flailing around aimlessly like we are in our early 20s.

I had enormous amounts of promise. I had every opportunity that everyone else had — more — and I blew them all. While everyone around me was working hard and turning chances into stepping stones, I was being lazy or stupid or both, and grabbing at whims and dreams. The future felt like forever and there was time enough… plenty of time… I would make up for lost time later, somehow.

When I told my mother about the tax situation yesterday, she was shocked, and then wonderfully sympathetic. She hugged me while I sobbed on her shoulder — me embarrassed, she happy to play the role that I rarely indulge her in these days. I was struggling to keep things straight in my mind — I told her same things over again — and she listened patiently through it all. Then she suddenly smiled to herself, laughed, and said, “Oh, but you’ll write a book about this and make millions!” like none of it mattered because I am so special that I could turn straw into gold if I wanted. It was absolutely the wrong thing to say, though I knew the whole time that something like this would come, sooner or later — my mother’s soaring expectations for me always do, regardless of how inappropriate, regardless of how catastrophic my current failure may be. I hated it instantly — hated the endless faith that she has, the faith that I’d learned, and which had taught me to believe, erroneously, that I would always pull it all off in the end somehow. Her blind faith suddenly brought my failings into painfully sharp focus. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want it! The tears were hot in my eyes, my mother’s image blurred before me, and I hissed, “Mother, stop it! I am not going to write a book! I am not going to make millions! I am ordinary! JUST ORDINARY!”

But if I were ordinary, here in my late 30s, I would own a house. I would not be an economic refugee, starting over and taking my last chances to put things right. I would have married once. I would have had a decent career before I had children. I would be worried about soccer uniforms and whether the curtains should match the couch, not exchange rates, copays, and tax bills of my own making and startling proportions.

How can I regret my wonderful husband? How can I regret my beautiful children? I can’t. But my many many mistakes… oh, I regret, I regret, I regret.

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I keep sitting down to write something, but nothing comes. This week, it’s just kind of felt like everything has caught up with me. The copays have come to $80 in last fortnight, and at least $75 more will come from the appointments we have lined up. The prescriptions for E1’s epipens have cost $60. The medical bills are starting to come in, sitting on the kitchen counter-top waiting to be paid — but my mother says I should wait before paying them so I can be sure they’ve billed me for the right amount, and then I am supposed to ring the hospital and try to renegotiate (this all feels so wrong to me — I am British this way: if I have a bill, I want to just pay it, not to sit on it or try to weasel out of it). And my taxes… oh, my taxes… it turns out I’ve unwittingly made a mistake in my filing for a number of years and now that I realise and am trying to put it right, it’s going to cost a a lot of money to do so — a lot. When I found out the amount, I was nearly sick.

M’s work has moved him from the department he was hired to join and put him on with another department, which does work which bores him to tears and which has no possibility of overtime. He’s hoping against hope that it’s not a permanent move, but several of the guys were in the same situation a few years ago — and are still in this department — so the fear is justified. Last week, the work they were doing couldn’t be done during the day, so they had to switch to working from 7pm to 4am. Him gone all night and groggy all day, me doing the girls’ ever-fraught dinner-and-bed routine on my own — and, at the end of it, the lowest paycheque he’s brought home so far. Oh, please, please don’t let him be stuck in this department much longer!

I am missing my friends. I miss the make-shift family of people I had built up around me — the people I chose, the people who chose me. I have no friends here — some acquaintances, some family, but no friends. I want to go round and have a cup of tea, curl up on the sofa and natter. Email is not the same, webcamming is a poor substitute, I’m no good at chatting on the phone… I miss my friends.

I miss cows, and green fields, and gentle hills. I miss the Vale. I miss the smell of mildew in the air. And cowshit. I miss the cold wind and drizzling rain that suits the landscape on sad days, and the bright, cold sunshine on clear days. I miss the background noise of British birdsong, so different from American birdsong. I miss tractors going past the house four or five times a day, making the windowpanes rattle in their frames. I miss milk lorries flying down the road at speed — what a country-way to die that would be! I miss the gas fire when I’m cold. I miss the sound of church bells rolling across the fields, and I miss the view of the church tower from my bathtub. I miss walking — walking that is going somewhere, walking with a purpose. I miss having people to stop in to, and have a cup of tea. I miss being able to go to the doctor’s without a second thought, or checking networks, or filling out forms. I miss the accents. I miss knowing where I am from, and where I belong — I don’t know where I’m from anymore, I don’t know where I belong. I miss the excitement of remembering — again — that I am in England.

I know this is all part of the process. I know this is all perfectly natural and is just a stage I have to work through. Blah blah blah. Bollocks to it all. I want to go home.

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It is startling when you realise what incredible mimics toddlers are. As a parent, you really have to be mindful of every word you say if you don’t want to hear it repeated back to you… later… loudly… in some very public place.

But it’s not just her parents that a toddler will imitate — everything she hears and observes is fair game. Television… radio… overheard conversations… magazine images… everything gets absorbed as if by a sponge. When it surfaces again later, it is sometimes with perfect clarity, sometimes mangled a bit, and sometimes mangled beyond recognition — but that sponge-like absorption is always, always going on.

In the three-horse race that is the present 2008 presidential election, I am undecided. But my 2-year-old daughter, apparently, is not. We were watching the news today when the two Democratic potential nominees appeared on the screen. My daughter pointed to the telly and said, with confident excitement, “Mummy! Look! There’s Crock Obama!

It would appear she has made up her mind.

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Easter was difficult at the start, but the day got better as it went on. Tensions surfaced and were eventually resolved with M, my mother, and my sister, in that order. The food was plentiful and rich, the ingredients unknown. Soy, perhaps? I took the risk regardless.

And the chocolate… Six weeks without any chocolates, cakes, cookies, candy… without anything sweet at all. And suddenly, it is all there for me to have, as much as want. As is now my habit, I checked the labels: soy on every one of them. WHO CARES?!? It’s Easter! It’s chocolate! I dug in.

I am now in awful pain. Awful. It comes in waves and runs from my breast down my spine and, from there, it feels like it passes through every nerve in my body. It makes me squeeze my eyes tight and curl in a ball until it passes. If drug-free childbirth is a 10, and the pain I was in before was an 8, and cutting your toenails too far until they bleed is a 3, I would call this a 5. The baby is crying and I should go to her, but all I can do is try to control my breathing.

Never again. Never again. No matter what it is, no matter how tasty it looks… if it has that evil, evil word on the ingredient list, it does not pass my lips. I didn’t want to be one of those annoying people who are obsessed with what they eat, who read labels and say, “Oh no, I can’t eat that!” But I will be, because it’s been eight weeks and I’ve been in pain every single day, and I will not go on like this if there is anything I can do to stop it. I apologise to all of you, dear readers, for my continued fixation on the subject.

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At the age of two-and-a-half, my daughter has cracked the secret to living a happy life, and caused me to marvel that I have as much to learn from her as she does from me.

When she had her first toilet-training accident yesterday, the easiest thing to do was to strip her soaking clothes off and bung her straight in the bath. I repeated over and over to her what she should have done (ask Mummy for the toilet) while I rinsed her down, but I’d found the whole thing so humourous that I was smiling and chuckling to myself, and she was finding the whole midday-bath thing an exciting adventure. She splashed and giggled and chased bubbles round the tub. I was pleased with myself for staying so jolly with her, despite the huge wet-patch on the carpet.

Today when she had another accident, I wasn’t so pleased, but resolved to take it in my stride. I took her hand and turned toward the bathroom — and she cottoned on immediately and walked bowlegged alongside me, announcing with glee, “I have a shower!” A warning bell went off in my head: I did not want these necessary rinse-downs to become some kind of reward for weeing in her knickers, something she looked forward to and which counteracted all my stern admonishments. I looked at the dark patch running down her leg — it was a lot of wee and there was really no way to clean her up properly without rinsing her down… The only solution was to make this post-accident shower less attractive than her normal fun bathtimes.

So this time, I turned the shower a bit cool. Not cruelly cold, mind you, but just a bit on the less-comfortable side of lukewarm. It was, after all, only going to be a 30-second job. But she is two-and-a-half — drama is her forte — and when the cool water hit her skin, she screamed as if it were fresh out of the Arctic and yelled, “Mama, it’s COOOOOOLD!!!!” I explained that when she does a wee in her knickers, the water just can’t get very warm — as if it were completely out of my hands — and continued to rinse her down quickly while she complained loudly. I lifted her out, toweled her off and hugged her, and put fresh knickers and jeans on her. “There… nice, dry knickers! Doesn’t that feel better?” She ran off to play, none the worse for wear.

I went into the other room to check on the baby — she was happily reading a book to herself. Feeling slightly guilty now, I went back to E1 to play for a few minutes and assuage my maternal guilt. She had an odd look on her face. “Come here,” I said. “Let’s play with your blocks!” She hobbled over, biting her lower lip and holding her knees together. “Oh dear, have you wee’d again?” I checked — she had. I took her hand and we headed for the bathroom.

“No cold!” she demanded loudly and with a touch of panic.

“Yes cold,” I replied. “You wee’d, so the water won’t get very warm.”

There was a pause, and then she said with faltering determination, “I… I be happy in cold water.” What an odd thing to say — I didn’t really know what she meant. But when I put the water on her this time, she had that same look of shock for a moment — but only for a moment — and then quickly switched to a big smile. “I be happy in cold water!” she announced, and proceeded to soap herself up, and giggle and chase bubbles, just as if the water were as warm as yesterday.

I sat back on my heels and stared at her, utterly stunned. She had made the decision to be happy with the situation! She is two-and-a-half years old and she’d realised that it was no good crying about it and she’d be better just making the most of it. That’s something most adults struggle to do — her father struggles with it, I struggle with it. And she’d done it — consciously changed her attitude before my very eyes. She had grasped the thing that — if she held onto it and developed it — could ensure that she finds happiness in her life, no matter what life throws at her. What a gift! I resolved to do everything I could to foster this in her, to help her to keep thinking this same way as she grows up. And, I realised I needed to take a lesson myself from my own two-and-a-half year old daughter.

And then, as she giggled and splashed about in the tub and thoroughly enjoyed this rinsing down, I realised, with disappointment and that same guilt, that I would also have to turn the cool water ever so slightly cooler…

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One of the biggest differences between mothering a toddler versus mothering a baby is that you don’t notice the changes in your child quite so profoundly. A baby’s first step is a monumental, but a toddler’s change in perspective is much more subtle.

E1 is altering at an alarming pace, and I am in danger of not even realising it. She is showing the littlest of signs, but which signify huge changes in her mental outlook and abilities. When she wants to show me something in a book, she now turns the book around toward me so I can see the page, instead of assuming that I am seeing what she is seeing. She still refers to herself mostly by her name but, now and again, she has begun to use “I”. And the one that has really surprised me lately is the amount of focus she shows when performing tasks. She finishes whatever she sets off to do, instead of starting a task and then getting distracted halfway through and forgetting what she is doing — if she decides her doll needs a nap, she will carry her to the bedroom, take off her shoes, tuck her in, and come back to tell me I must be quiet because Lucy is sleeping. Happily for Lucy, she no longer ends up dropped unceremoniously and forgotten on the hallway floor.

These changes are so small, so subtle that they creep up on me. They happen without my even noticing and then one day I realise she’s been doing them for some time — that she’s a changed little girl, and I never even noticed that the child she was before has quietly slipped away.

All that said, we have embarked on one of the biggest and most noticeable changes of toddlerhood: we are toilet training. We introduced training pants about a fortnight ago, along with the very startling concept of having to perform the cumbersome toilet-and-handwashing ritual every time she felt the urge to go, rather than the previous and oh-so-convenient option of just letting it out where-ever she stood. It took a little effort to get her on board with the idea, but copious amounts of loud praise every time she produced the goods — not to mention the great prize of a sticker — soon did the trick. It wasn’t long before sitting on the toilet became a regular and happy occurrence.

Today, we graduated to cotton knickers. I tried to explain that knickers don’t work like training pants or nappies. I repeated over and over that you can’t do poos or wees in knickers. I asked her again and again what she was to do when she felt the wee coming and she answered correctly almost every time (“ask Mummy for the toiiii-letttt!”). We had a very successful morning — two wees in the pot and none in the knickers. I felt confident.

Then as I was feeding the baby before her afternoon nap, I realised the house had become worryingly silent. I yelled out, “Are you ok?” and the reply was a panicky, “NOOOOO!”

“What’s the matter?”

Silence.

“What’s the matter?!?”

“WEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

I ditched the baby and ran in. She was kneeling, legs spread, with her hands on the waistband of her jeans and a wild expression of confusion and surprise on her face. Her jeans were dark blue… and darker blue flowing down into the puddle between her knees.

I don’t know what expression I was supposed to adopt in order to encourage better success next time. I’m sure I was supposed to say something significant or disapproving. I don’t care. It was too funny a sight and I couldn’t help myself — the wet carpet be damned.  I fell about laughing, grabbed her in my arms, and gave her a big kiss.  We all struggle to adjust to new things in life, and lessons are learnt one mistake at a time.  And we all need someone to love us as while blunder through them.

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The pain continues to return daily and I am becoming obsessive in my quest to eliminate soy from my diet and get some blessed relief. Tonight I discovered soybean oil in my calcium tablets which I am taking because I can’t drink milk. My CALCIUM TABLETS!!! What is going on? Can’t they make anything without soy?!?

Bloody hell! I am going home — where I can just pick up food when I am hungry and eat it! Like a bloody normal person!!!!

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