Archive for May, 2008

And here, at last, is something good — something very good. It’s been coming on so slowly and for so long now that it hardly registered with me, but I have been virtually pain-free for a while now… at least a fortnight, and maybe longer. I still get mild bouts every few days, particularly after a feed, but nothing like before. And the liberation — not just from the pain, but from the fear of the pain — has made an incredible difference.

To achieve it, we have been absolutely ruthless in cutting soy out of my diet. This has meant that something like 80% of foods are off limits to me, as is anything of which I can’t check the ingredients. The number of foods that soy hides in quite startling, and it has a legion of possible aliases: miso, gum arabic, carob, emulsifier, guar gum, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, lecithin, stabilizer, starch, textured vegetable protein, thickener, tofu, vegetable broth, vegetable gum, vegetable starch… Soy flour eliminates almost all breads and pastries, and there have been nearly no desserts that I can have. Sauces, toppings, and everything preprepared is suspect. Restaurants, take-aways, and any kind of eating out are completely out of the question, and that has been a real let-down for us — when life is as stressful as it has been lately, small things like going out for dinner (or even just coffee and cake) really help to lift the spirits. These days I eat almost exclusively plain meats, plain vegetables and fruits, undressed salads, and two kinds of carefully scrutinised bread. And of course, because of E2’s allergies, I have had to also cut out eggs, all nuts, and most dairy. Eating, these days, is about about filling a hole and nothing more.

But it’s been worth it — so absolutely, completely worth it! It has taken a full four months to work the build-up of soy out of my system, but the freedom from the pain is marvelous!!! Just knowing that I can go places and do things is such a relief — not having to worry that, halfway through, I am going to be wracked with stabbing pains, unable to control my face and breathing, embarrassing myself and needing desperately to curl into a ball, but having to gather the girls up instead and try to rush them away. I feel free to take the car out now, knowing I will be able to drive all the way to wherever I’m going without having to pull over for 30 minutes to let the waves of pain wash over me. And the best thing is being able to sleep at night when the baby lets me. It was such an infuriating robbery, to be lying awake in my dark bed, knowing that she was sleeping peacefully and I was wasting that precious time fighting this pointless pain. So ok, my food choices have narrowed to a sliver of what they were previously, but that matters not one jot — the price is so worth the reward.

And one wonderful side effect of this pain-imposed diet is that I have been losing weight like mad. The fat-stores that these babies heaped on my once-fit frame has been melting away and, though I don’t yet look anything like fit again, I have felt so much better in my own skin. My ‘fat’ clothes from after the second pregnancy are history and I can now wear the fat clothes left over from the pregnancy before, and I know it won’t be long before they are too big on me as well. I thought that shedding this weight was going to be a struggle, but limiting myself to only the most basic foods has really made it quite easy. Hip hip hooray!

My one great saviour in all of this has been Trader Joe’s. In stark contrast to every other supermarket in town (including the sainted Whole Foods), Trader Joe’s seems to have resisted this inexplicable compulsion to add soy to every product under its roof. Where in other shops I am putting item after item back on the shelf, in Trader Joe’s I am only putting a few back. I can eat their vegetable-and-flaxseed tortilla chips with abandon, their curried chicken soup, their Parmesan crisp breads, their pasta sauce, their tortillas, their pea soup, and their gloriously heavy honey-and-oat bread. Their prices, to my utter amazement, are better than any place in town! Unfortunately, the only Trader Joe’s is clear across on the other side of the city, but the pilgrimage is well worth it.

Last time we were there, my mother ran ahead to score as many loaves of that lovely bread as she could carry. She came back with wild eyes and a huge grin, “Look what I found!” It was a beautiful apple pie, with a golden puff-pastry crust covered in cinnamon sugar. For a moment, I didn’t get it, so used to not being able to eat any kind of dessert at all. She suddenly realised my confusion. “It has no soy!” she said in rush. I grabbed it and scoured the ingredient list in disbelief. She was right — it read exactly as you’d expect for an apple pie: apples, sugar, flour, butter… Nothing superflous or unnecessary at all. Nothing evil. No soy.

We ate apple pie after dinner for three nights running, a small sliver for M and great big slice for me. On the third night, he said, “Apple pie again?!?!?” and then in an I-told-you-so voice, “You’re gonna get fa-at!” I plonked his plate down in front of him and, holding mine in close to my chest, pushed my spoon down into the warm pastry-sweetness.

“Darling,” I said, “it’s been a long Lent.”

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‘You can never go back home.’

I’d heard that repatting was particularly hard — harder, I’d been told, than expatting was in the first place — but I’d hoped that that somehow wouldn’t be the case for us… that the adventure of it all would smooth out the bumps. But, as you all know, the reality for us has been textbook. And that, whilst we’re dealing with all sorts of other difficulties that would be arduous enough in themselves under any circumstances, the fact that we’re facing them against the backdrop of making this move to another country just magnifies every hurdle.

So, whilst I am very sorry to see that she been struggling so much, it was a bit of a relief to me when I read that Deliverance has been finding her move back to the US as difficult as I am — so difficult, in fact, that she is closing her repat-blog. It makes me feel a little less crazy for finding ‘home’ to be so… well, so foreign. It’s not just me.

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There is a part of me that is telling me I need to write something positive or I will start to lose my readers but, if I’m honest, I have really been struggling, both in finding that something positive and in life in general. Things have felt very dark for me lately — very dark — and I have had great difficulty in pulling myself out of that, be it for M’s sake, for the girls, for my mother, or for myself.

After another rough night with the baby, I slept in later than I’d planned, which meant we’d have to go to the mid-day mass — not my favourite choice because it feels like the whole day is gone by the time you get out again. Grumpy and groggy from my broken night, I was checking my email in my PJs when M came in with a face that broke my heart. We go back and forth, taking turns having little break-downs, and it was obviously his turn. I shook off my sleepiness and turned to face him so I could listen properly.

He can’t get past this lay off. He can’t find closure. There are loose ends to it that haunt him, taunt him — a few things that just don’t add up (but which I won’t disclose here because… well, you never know who reads a blog and I am not trying to grind any axes) and make us quite certain that there was more to it than a simple lack of work. He and I have gone over it and we think we understand what happened, but it still eats away at him. Could he have done something to prevent it? Did he do something to bring it on?

One local company has agreed to let him go out with one of their guys for a few days to see if he’s up to the job — it’s a wonderful opportunity, given that his strange foreign qualifications have slammed so many doors shut. He has done two days already. But he hates the work — it is nothing like what he did in Britain, nothing at all, and so he feels like he is starting over again, as clueless as a first year apprentice, and just as useless, and that tears strips off his confidence and his pride in equal measure. And then, when his pride and confidence are lying in tatters on the floor, leaving him weak, his mind goes back to the lay-off and all those nagging unanswered questions…

By the time he finished talking to me, it was too late to go even to the mid-day mass — I had to go to the last-ditch Sunday evening one on my own. As I sat there, I let my thoughts go back to my conversation with M. He had asked me if we could go home — was there any way? — and I had looked up airfares and rents on the web. The flight tickets would cost us around $5000 and the rents… well, our landlord had appreciated having a tradesman in his house and had kept our rent artificially low… The best we could get now for the same rent would be a one-bed flat. If only we hadn’t left, I thought… If only we’d known… I considered that one-bed flat. Could we do it? Could we all pile into such a tiny space — a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, no garden, and those hated night-storage heaters — and make it work with four of us? Compared to the alternative — no work, no health insurance, all these paralysing unknowns — it suddenly seemed quite plausible.

A thought occurred to me — probably the first positive thought I have had in days… Maybe this is a lesson we needed to learn. Maybe this whole failed move has been a lesson in humility and gratitude that we neither of us would have learned any other way. Back in Britain, we moaned about what we had: the tiny terraced house with only two bedrooms and no heat upstairs, so crammed with people and things that you had to move something out the way every time you reached for anything else; M’s job where he was on his broken knees all day, or in someone’s cobwebbed loft, or driving hours to an out-of-town job; our financial situation, which seemed hopeless, the status quo slowly draining our savings down month by month. But the fact is, we were housed — dry and sheltered every night and, more importantly, secure in our lease that the house was ours. And M did have a job, one he knew how to do, and an autonomous and responsible one at that. And though we were hemorrhaging money… could we have done anything else about that? Something… something… Could we have drained ourselves down to nothing and stretched it out a few years until the girls were in school and I could go back to work, or M could make more money, or something…?

The fact is, we moved because we wanted. I wanted to own a house of my own. I wanted what I had grown up with — a nice, big detached house with a yard and a dog. And because it had been a part of my past, I thought — I assumed — it was supposed to be part of my future as well. M wanted a job that paid as much as life cost us, that made him feel all the dust and sweat and skanky cobwebs stuck to his head were worth it. We wanted a babysitter, and nights out, dinners in restaurants, and trips to the bar together. We wanted holidays. We wanted, we wanted, we wanted.

And, having moved to the other side of the world, it turns out that we can’t go out because I can’t eat anything here that isn’t homemade or has a label I can scrutinise. So we have no dinners out. We don’t even order in pizza. And the babysitter is driving me slowly round the twist. And the house of our own seems a far-off, distant hope. And the job not only doesn’t pay, it doesn’t exist. And as of the end of the month, we will be uninsured, barring the possibility of COBRA, which M’s ex-HR department tells us is particularly expensive for this company.

So I sat in church tonight, next to heavy column that rose up to a towering ceiling covered in gold-leaf and saints, and asked God to help me. As I did, the thought occurred to me that I’d had everything I needed back in England — and it wasn’t enough for me. I told God that I thought I’d made a big mistake and I wished I could just go back. And the thought occurred to me that I could — the only reason I thought I couldn’t was because of a fear that we would lose more stuff if we did and be in a worse position, but that perhaps that love of stuff was what got us in this mess in the first place. I baulked that we’d never own a home if we went back — we’d be renting until we died and living month-to-month — and then wondered if that was so bad, if I was perhaps still letting wants rule my thinking. The priority at this point, surely, was to focus on the basics: a roof over our heads, a job, and health cover.

And that’s when I realised how changed my standards have become, and I thought… I thought perhaps this was a lesson we needed to learn. M has said that this experience has changed him — that he appreciates now what he had, and thinks maybe now he could do the things which had seemed impossible then and which might have helped to make it possible to stay. This experience is changing me as well. The challenge, I think, is to channel that change so it alters us in beneficial ways, and not bitter ones. It would be so easy to let it run out of control, and get swept off in the wrong direction.

So I am not sure at all what we ought to do, or where this will go. Perhaps this try-out will come to something and M will land a job here, or perhaps we will go back to a one-bed flat and a more philosophical attitude to the world. Either way, I am glad at last to have something positive to hold onto.

And yet, there is one selfish, stubborn thing in my heart that will not give way to my new enlightenment. If we went home to squeeze ourselves into a rented one-bed flat, I can’t shake the idea that I’d have to drop all the friends I had before — not contact them at all — and start over making new friends. I just don’t think I could stomach the shame of being friends with so many people who own their own beautiful homes — who have their lives sorted and sussed — and then have them come round to our flat to witness our obvious failure. I know that isn’t the way to think — and I know my friends wouldn’t see us that way and would be agast to hear me say it — but I can’t help feeling the shame and inferiority.

Everyone hold on tight — it would appear that I have not yet had all of my painful lessons.

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When my credit card company sent me a sheet of what looked like cheques, I was confused and asked my mother what they were for. She explained that they were exactly that — I could write them as cheques for any vendor who didn’t take a credit card, and the charge would end up on my bill like any other charge. This was new to me — I don’t think credit card companies were doing this back when I lived in the US before — and I thought it was a brilliant idea. So useful!

The week before tax day this year, I inadvertently wrote the last cheque in my chequebook — I hadn’t realised that the thickness I felt beneath it was all deposit slips, and I am used to the way UK banks automatically send their customers a new (and free) chequebook long before the last one runs out. I realised with horror that I now had no way to write my very painful cheque to the IRS for the taxes I owed — a new chequebook would take 10 working days, and I had less than a week to post my return.

My mother offered to write the cheque for me, and I could withdraw cash to pay her back. But there was no need to put her to any inconvenience — I had these new credit-card cheques, and I could use one of those to get me out of this pickle, and then pay the balance off within the grace period so I even didn’t pay any interest on it. What a clever girl! And I was so pleased not to rely on my mother’s help for what felt like the first time since we arrived back in the US.

But it pays to read the small print — and it costs money when you don’t. The cheques, as I discovered today to both my mother’s and my surprise, are not treated like any other charge: they are subject to a finance fee — several percentage points of whatever amount they are used for and the bank, as it turns out, is not at all interested in waiving that fee for its more idiotic customers. More fool me. Now I have needlessly lost us a three-figure sum to add to the very painful four-figure tax amount — a blow we can nary afford at this point in the unfolding disaster that our move back to the US is rapidly becoming. It was entirely my mistake for not verifying in the small print what my mother told me. I felt absolutely sick sick sick to my stomach when I realised — and well and truly a fool.

The impact of that destroyed me today. I could not let it go.  My mother and I had had plans to go out and run some errands together, but I should have thought the better of it and stayed home to deal with my self-damnation on my own. Instead I abbreviated our schedule only slightly and then carried on, but I could not muster any enthusiasm. My mother, as is her way, tried relentlessly to perk me up with what felt like a never-ending barrage of chatter and deliberately cheery questions — the very worst thing she could have done. I desperately needed some space, but she desperately needed me to return to normal, and with both of us firmly entrenched in opposite ends of this spectrum, it ended badly. I felt badgered and bullied to be something that I was not (that is, happy), and she felt my numbed silence was sullen and rude and aimed at her.

Our relationship has been intensely difficult for years now. I had hoped that removing that great distance between us might create something more normal and relieve some of the tension, but the present circumstances have swung the pendulum so far in the opposite direction — such that I see her nearly every day and am so dependent on her for almost everything — that the tension feels like it is near to breaking point. She had invited us to celebrate Memorial Day with a barbecue and I had been waffling about accepting. On the one hand, it was a nice, social thing to do — perfectly normal to get together for a family cookout on the holiday weekend. On the other hand, my heart sank at the thought of seeing my mother again — I am just sick of seeing her.

A few hours after she left today — angry and upset — I realised I needed to enforce a break, for both our sakes. I rang and explained that I thought it would be good for us (me, M, and the girls) to have a family weekend on our own, and she agreed. I also resolved to myself that I wouldn’t see her this coming week if it weren’t necessary — I’d just quietly go through the whole week without us getting together. And making that decision felt so good — a wave relief rolled through me at the thought of it.

And then I realised that I had relegated myself to a week alone in the house, with no car to go anywhere and not a single friend in the whole city. The relief vanished into thin air and that same numbed and sickened feeling that had come over me when I opened the credit card bill rushed in to take its place. Four months here and I’ve made no friends at all. I’ve had no one but my mother and my struggling, stressed husband for company, and I have made no contingency arrangements for when those relationships start to crack under the pressure. As much as the credit card mistake, and possibly more… more fool me.

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It was E1’s birthday this week, and I found myself going through pictures of the day she was born three years ago. I suddenly became aware of how much has changed in that time, both for her and for our whole little family. It quite takes my breath away!

When I look at her then — so tiny and pale and grumpy-faced — and then look at her now, easily as high as my waist, I am shocked that she could have lengthened so much in such a short space of time. Surely I should have been able to hear her stretching as she slept at night?!? And when I see my own face in those newborn pictures — exhausted, stunned, sheepish, unsure — I realise how little I knew then what a journey I was about to undertake. I had no idea what was coming, or how incredibly hard it would be. But I also had no idea how much I actually had inside me to help me cope.

And, to be honest, I don’t remember feeling that intense moment of love that I supposed to in those first few moments, just bewilderment, exhaustion, and fear. I had no idea how much I did love her, even then, and how much I would come to love her — more intensely than I had ever loved anyone in my life, so intensely that, when it finally hit me a little more than a week later, it put me into a panic, a frenzy of vulnerability that I stayed with me for months andinvaded my every moment, awake or asleep. It was — and is — the most intense feeling I have ever known.

And now, three years on, it is a marvel to me how much has changed: new jobs, new house, new country… And I know that I would do it all again, without hesitation. All the changes, all the joys, all the pain, all the upheaval… I wouldn’t change any of it just to have these two daughters that I have been so blessed with. They are worth everything that has happened, good or bad, and so much more besides. I hope and pray that I can be the mother that my wonderful, beautiful daughters deserve.

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My sister asked a very logical question tonight — “Have you thought about getting a job?” — and it made me cry. Not right away — first I tried to discuss it, dissect my hesitations and the hurdles I see — but I found it hard to explain and eventually, I felt so conflicted by the whole thing that hot tears began to run down my cheeks. And my sister doesn’t really get why, and I can’t really explain it to her.

She is single and younger than me and, in the place she is in her life right now, it’s just natural that my going back into the workforce should be a logical step. He isn’t earning, and may have trouble getting a job, so I should step in — it’s obvious. Isn’t it?

After awhile of trying to explain why it didn’t seem so easy to me, I went silent. I just didn’t know what to say, and my brain seemed to stop for a few minutes. She didn’t understand, she thought I was being rude or was angry with her. She thought I was being stubborn and negative, that my protestations were being ‘all doom and gloom’ instead of the real hurdles that I (think I) see.

Why don’t you get a job? It’s not that easy… I’m still feeding the baby four times a day, and two or three or four times a night. With her allergies, I don’t know how to wean her. She can’t have eggs, dairy, nuts, avocado, or soy. Where will she get her fats from? And enough protein? I’m trying to find a nutritionist to guide me, but even still, I think weaning of that sort might take awhile…

Couldn’t you just pump during the day at work? She said it as if it were the easiest thing in the world, to ask one’s employer to accommodate several the long breaks that it would take to pump, and to provide a private room to do it in, so you can stop in the middle of a workday to get your breasts out and milk yourself. That’s a conversation that I’d cringe to have with a boss I’d known for a while, but to have to lay it out in the interview? A daunting prospect to say the least.

Besides, she won’t take a bottle — at least, she flat out refused the few times we tried when she was younger. There’s a chance that she would now that she’s older, but also there’s every chance that it’s become even less likely. My sister breezily told me about some friends of hers who ‘made’ their baby take a bottle and had eventually won that battle. I tried to think how to respond, and drew a blank. Unless you’ve been a full-time carer for more than one infant, it’s probably difficult to understand that what works for one baby might be impossible with another, that you can’t ‘make’ a baby do anything, and how much age and temperament can completely alter the chances of success.

She doesn’t get how sleep deprived I am. I said dejectedly that if I had to be up at 7am for work every day, I’d likely have only had four hours’ broken sleep by then. She replied, “Well, no one said it would be easy!” But two naps of two hours each night… I’m sure it wouldn’t be long before they’d fire me for falling asleep on my keyboard.

I tried to explain my strong feelings about daycare, my growing concerns about my mother’s ability to adequately watch over both girls on her own (she’s been scaring me quite a lot of late), and my strong misgivings about E2 in particular — so small, so scrawny, so insecure and needing me so much. But, to be honest, there is no way for my sister to fully comprehend what I was trying to say, looking at it from her point in life, never having experienced the same events that have shaped my views. Things were so much more black and white to her, so many options so much more acceptable.

And I pointed out that I didn’t know what kind of job I could get anyway, having been out of the workplace for three years. Could I get something that was worth all the arrangements that would have to be made in order for me to take? Yes! she enthused. She saw endless possibilities. I saw brick walls. Probably neither of us was right.

The truth is, I don’t want to go back to work yet. I believe I have a job and that it is not only an important and irreplaceable one (regardless what reasonable substitutes could be made), but one that has become even more so due to E2’s weight loss, temperament, and allergies. At the moment, this is my job. And while I have always intended to go back to paid work after a time, I had never thought that now would be that time — I haven’t had a chance to prepare for this, I’m not ready yet… they’re not ready yet… she’s not ready yet. I wanted to be there for her for as long as she needs me. Through all the ups and downs with her — the hospital visits, the testing, the endless nights of never-ending screaming, the long nights of pain, her weight-loss, her frustrating clinginess — through all that, my belief in the importance of my being there for her and giving her what she needed was what drove me on, night after dark night, day after exhausting day. To end that now, before I’ve finished the job, to find neat substitutes in a breast-pump, a bottle, and a daycare center… It is not something I can easily come to terms with, and certainly not in the course of one phone conversation. It is, in essence, the whole reason we left the UK in the first place.

And yet the pressure I felt from my sister’s (logical, innocent) questions was enormous. It named me a slacker for staying home. It called me a coward for not attempting to scale these hurdles. It shamed me deeply, and left me flustered and speechless.

The conversation ended in a mess of misunderstanding and hurt feelings. I sat quiet for awhile after we hung up. I ate my dinner and fed the baby down. I thought about what she’d said. After awhile, I realised I could get a job, if I worked for a few hours — perhaps four — during the afternoons. If my mother could watch the girls, they’d actually be down for their naps for most of that time and that would reduce both my worry about overtaxing her childcare-skills and my misgivings about not being there for them. If they are napping, they wouldn’t be ‘without’ me. I began to feel a little less flustered. I looked on a couple of websites — the local bank is hiring, as is a dentist’s office around the corner. I don’t think I’d particularly like the work in either case — it sounded dull dull dull — but it felt remarkably invigorating to think that I could do something myself to help solve this problem we are in, rather than having to leave it all to M and wait to be rescued. After so much stress and worry, that possibility was incredibly refreshing. I decided to talk to my mother and see if she would consider looking after the girls…

But I cannot lie — if there is a way for M to support us, then I don’t want to get a job. Not because I’m afraid of the work or — despite my nagging guilt — out of any laziness, but because I do believe I already have a job — and if it’s at all possible, I want to keep that job until the work is done.

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On the surface, M has been handling all this remarkably well — he has remained calm and focused, and thrown himself into the jobhunt with energy and an admirable attitude. But there are flashes of the reality under the surface that are really very frightening to me. The other day, during one of his few moments of weakness, he pulled me close and, after holding me for a few moments, said, “I don’t know what to do with this anger. I have to find a way of getting rid of this anger.”

Anger is not in M’s repertoire. Comedy, compassion, grumpiness, and pessimism are his stock in trade, but anger… anger is something he forbids himself, and when it threatens to rise to the surface, he neatly sidesteps the emotional fallout it would create by turning it in on himself instead. He lets it attack him from the inside, swirling around and causing its caustic damage to both his mental and physical state, rather than let it do anything so dangerous on the outside. And it does do him enormous damage. I have no doubt that many of the physical things he suffers with — the migraines, the sinus attacks, the nagging pains in his joints and muscles, the terrible debilitating funks he sinks into — are caused or exacerbated by the emotions that he holds within himself.

There are a few things about this lay off that feel like they don’t quite add up and we neither of us can help wondering (dwelling… obsessing…) as to whether there was possibly more going on than he was told. Though the situation is what it is and the only thing to be done is to move forward, that possibility nonetheless creates a sense of hurt and injustice which, in turn, gives rise to a certain (understandable and healthy) anger — an anger that would be no problem if it were able to run its course and dissipate in the natural way, but which is a real problem when it is held bottled up the way M does.

Yesterday, he handed me a wooden clothes peg, snapped neatly in half. “Here,” he said sheepishly, “I broke this. Sorry.” As if I care about a clothes peg! That was his full expression of the anger he feels at being dumped, unemployed and underqualified, into a foreign jobmarket, after having brought his family to the other side of the world on the offer of a job that would see him through whilst he trained up to full qualification. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d lined up a thousand punchbags in front of him — he won’t take a single swing. He has spent a lifetime learning to cope with difficulty by holding everything inside and that much self-training is a very difficult thing to un-learn.

All that swirling emotion, all that anger and injustice, and with it… he crippled a clothespeg. In truth, held in and attacking him from the inside, it is a sure thing that his anger is crippling him much more painfully than that clothespeg ever suffered.

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