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Archive for August, 2008

In all the emotion and confusion of moving and trying to get settled, it is easy to forget that — even though we have spent seven months living in a house furnished with only two chairs, a dining set, the girls’ cots, and our mattress on the floor, and even though our lives are still so unsettled that I have not felt able to commit to even so much as a mobile phone plan — there are some things about our lives that this move improved instantly and incredibly.

Tonight my daughters are sleeping soundly in their own rooms, safely tucked high up above the world on the second floor and just across the hall from us.  Unlike this time last year, neither of them has to sleep in a hastily converted dining room, alone all night on the ground floor, right at the front of the house and literally 4 feet away from the street, where lorries and tractors rumble past at breakneck speeds, and drunks stumble past on their way home from the pub, separated from them by a window whose fragile glass panes are over a century old and whose old wooden frame no longer fits securely and rattles loudly whenever the wind blows.  Tonight, E1 is not sleeping in a room with a gas fire only a few feet away from her cot (and where it is thus actually illegal for her to sleep, even though M shut off the gas supply to it).  She is not in a room which always had a lingering smell of mildewy dampness that I could never get rid of no matter how much I cleaned, and which always also had a faint smell of what I swore was leaking gas, even though M ran test after test and assured me there was no leak, but which always worried me afresh every night when I laid her down to sleep.  Tonight I do not have to spend the night separated from her by a whole flight of stairs, and lie half-awake, listening listening listening all night for any noise — inside the house or out — that might be a threat to her safety while she sleeps so far away from me.

There are many things about our lives that we are struggling with at the moment, but for this simple fact that we can now afford to rent a house that has enough room for us, and so I can put my daughters down to sleep near to me, in safety and comfort, I am deeply deeply grateful.

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It is a pretty well known fact that the six month mark is a particularly difficult point for expats — a time when homesickness often sets in with a vengeance — so last week was probably a bad time for M to go home to England for a week, but he did. I didn’t mention it here because I’m not comfortable announcing to the world when the girls and I are on our own, but I’ve spent the last 10 days run off my feet doing all the parenting and household tasks on one side of the world, and he has spent that time trying to cram in as much quality time as he can with his family and his kids on the other side of the world.

I was afraid of how this trip would affect him — and so was he. Talking to him in those first few days after he arrived, he was clearly on a high. It was so nice to hear his voice filled with that quiet  joy of being home again. And a relief too — I’d been afraid that he might find being back amongst all the familiarity suddenly too overwhelming. But the arriving is the easy part — I was aware that it was the leaving that would really tear him up.

And so it has. He rang me from work today, in tears and hiding in the back of his van, killing himself for being so far away from his two older children. I listened and reassured, useless on the other end of a phone line, as he attempted to gather himself together so that he go back to the job in front of the client and the guy he was working with. I suspect this might happen quite a few more times before the rawness of returning finally wears off, and I dread it.

The morning after he got back — yesterday morning — he woke me up early to talk, the way he does when something really heavy is on his mind. He was wide awake and serious, and I rolled my eyes around in my head as I attempted to peel them open, eventually succeeding with only the left one. “Promise me we will move back,” he said, and I nodded. “I don’t want to die here.” He dropped his head into his hand, then sighed heavily and ran his hand over the top of his head and lifted his face again to look at me.

“I know. You won’t,” I replied, forcibly dragging my consciousness back from the comfortable brink of slumber.

“So, what do we do? Do we buy a house? Is there any point? Maybe we should just rent for a while and get ready to go back…” There was a despair in his voice that I hated hearing, and a panic that made all his questions start to slide into one another. “Should I even go to the school for my local qualification? Maybe I should drop that plan…” He was getting ahead of himself, his mind tripping over itself. I was awake by now, and so we talked about it. I don’t have the answers to his questions any more than he does, but we eventually agreed that we might as well carry on with the plan to buy here, but still with an aim to move back as soon as is reasonably possible. And that he should carry on working toward his local qualifications in case it ends up taking some time to organise our return.

Coming to that decision soothed his anxieties enormously, but it has stoked mine into a roaring fire. I don’t know how we’ll possibly afford this. International moves are not cheap — even more so when you’re dragging a whole family with you — and each one is a massive hit to the finances. To make two such moves within a few years of each other would be crippling… suicidal. And always in the back of my mind is the knowledge that time is not on our side: starting over from scratch is best done when you’re young and have time to recover career-wise and financially from the impact, but I am nearly 40 and M — our breadwinner — is only a few years off 50. If we try to head home in four or five years’ time, will he have a hope of finding a job? Will we have time to recover from the second financial hit before he has to retire?

And so, since his return, I have been as unsettled as he is, wondering how I can magic up this insane and impossible move I have promised him. And, more than that, hating hating hating this constant backing-and-forthing, this constant indecison, this constant second-guessing. All I have wanted, for such a long time now, is to be settled and to make a home for our children — somewhere. We left everything and traveled halfway around the world to do it, and now I feel we are no closer than we were before. If we travel back — when we travel back — will we be any closer?

Honestly, I suspect not. Honestly, I am beginning to suspect I will never find my home.

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There is no beer aisle in our supermarket. There’s no wine there either. In fact, there’s no alcohol whatsoever but, because I’m breastfeeding (and so drinking nothing beyond the occasional stolen sip of M’s beer at the pub), it had completely escaped my notice until I tried to find some beer yesterday afternoon. Our estate agent was hosting a cookout (barbecue) for his clients today and, not wanting to arrive empty handed, I found myself marching mystified from one end of the supermarket to the other. We were fast encroaching into the girls’ naps and I was running out of time — where was the beer?!? But before I got the chance to ask anyone, the girls erupted into the kind of embarrassingly loud chaos that only two overtired toddlers can create, and so I gave up and just got out of the shop as quickly as I could. I would ask my mother where to get some beer and pick it up on the way to the cookout.

My mother arrived 30 minutes late to babysit and so I asked her in a rush, where does a person buy alcohol around here? “They’re not allowed to sell it in regular shops in this state,” she said. “You have to buy wine or spirits from the State Store.” Oh! Is there one nearby? And do they sell beer? “No,” she frowned and thought for a moment, “No, they don’t sell beer at the State Store. You’d have to go to a beer distributer. I know where they are near my house, but I don’t know where any are around here.” This was a blow. Never mind, I thought to myself, I was quite late by now — I’d just have to turn up empty-handed and hope it didn’t look too bad.

But as I drove, I became more and more uncomfortable with that, so I stopped at a convenience shop and asked if there were anyplace nearby to buy beer. The gruff old man behind the counter eyed me warily at first and then, hearing my accent and realising I wasn’t local, softened a bit. “Ya can’t buy beer or wine from shops like this in this state,” he began. I smiled and tried to look as if he were telling me something I didn’t know. “Ya need a State Store for wine, or a beer distributer for beer. We can’t sell it, y’see.” Ah, yes, I see. So… is there a beer distributor nearby? “Now… now… let me see…,” he said, scratching his gray hair, and then looked up and yelled at the only other customer in the shop. “Tom! Tom, can ya tell this lady if there’s a beer distributer ’round here?” Tom screwed his mouth up to one side as he thought, then brightened and gave me directions to one just a few miles down the road. I repeated the directions, thanked them, and was on my way. If I hurried, it would only add 15 minutes to my lateness, but it’d be worth it to escape a social gaff.

Tom’s directions were spot on and, within 5 minutes, I had pulled up a gravel drive to a breeze-block building fronted by a huge garage door, which was completely open to display the cases and cases of beer inside. I nodded to the young man sitting with his feet propped up on the counter as I walked in and started to pick my way between the stacked pallets. Here, at last, was an awful lot of beer. …But no six-packs, no individual cans. I couldn’t find anything smaller than full cases of 24s. I headed back to the front of the shop.

“Umm,” I paused, momentarily mesmorised by the tattoos and the blond mullet straight out of 1983. “Do you sell anything less than cases?”

He looked up with disinterest. “Nope,” he said slowly. “Just cases.”

“Umm… What would I do if I only wanted a few cans of beer? A six-pack?”

“You’d have to go to the Six-Pack Store for that.” I let out a sigh of exasperation and my hands dropped onto the countertop with a thud. This was getting ridiculous. They have separate shops to sell beer in six-packs or cases?

I took a deep breath. “Is there a Six-Pack Store nearby?” I asked carefully, with growing irritation and fading hopes. He said there was one in a town about 15 minutes away, and I gave up. I asked for a case of M’s favourite beer and decided I would just steal six bottles out of it to take to the cookout and the rest would be earn me Good Wife Points with M.

After I’d paid and as I was about to leave, I asked, “I, um… don’t suppose you have a plastic bag, do you?”

“Nope.” Of course he didn’t.

“Just beer in big boxes,” I said with a sigh.

“Just beer in big boxes,” he replied and, just for a moment, the corners of his mouth crinkled into an almost imperceptible and wry smile.

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My daughter is three years old and she still drinks her milk from a bottle. I know this is a Bad Thing, but up to this point, I really didn’t care. Dealing with all of E2’s food and sleep issues took so much of my time and energy that I was happy to let the bottle-battle slide until I had more resources to tackle it.

But the time has come. E2 is vastly improved now that we have cut her allergens out of my diet, and she is finally finally finally giving me some good nights’ sleep — at least three times a week now, I get as much as five or six (or occasionally seven!) hours in a row. But more than that is the fact that I am embarrassed that E1 is still drinking from a bottle. She is big for her age — she was in clothes for four year olds when she was only two — and people assume she’s older than she is. So it looks really quite wrong to see her with a bottle stuck in her mouth. It’s time.

Her bottle is more than a mere container to her, though — it’s a habit …and a comfort. It’s what she’s been doing for as long as she can remember, and she is very very attached to it. The first time I offered her milk in a sippy cup several months ago, her reaction stunned me. She was beside herself — wracked with sobs and actually panicking at this unexpected change. There was nothing I could do to console her — and I tried everything in my repertoire — except to back off and let her have her bottle again, which is what I eventually did. And all subsequent attempts got no further.

But yesterday, walking around the county fair, I was embarrassed. People were staring at my daughter — people wearing clothes that gave damning testimony to their own sense of appropriateness were staring at my daughter …and then shifting their contemptuous gazes to me. “Drink it! Drink it quick!” I hissed over the back of the pushchair, as I hunted for a less conspicuous area to duck into until the offending bottle could be hidden away again. We left the fair with my maternal pride dented and my resolve renewed.

She had her first-thing milk this morning in a bottle, as usual — no sense in trying to start this off when she’s sleepy to boot — but I explained that her next milk would be in a cup, like Mummy’s drinks are. “No cup,” she said with calm determination. I explained it several more times as the morning when on, and her reply never changed, “No cup.” I lifted my eyes to the heavens as my heart sank through the floor — I did not want the fight.

What was I going to do to make this work? How was I going to get round her resistance? I could forsee only another fruitless battle of wills, when I suddenly had an idea. “Shoes on, girls!” I called out, and they looked up from their toys, perplexed. “I fancy a coffee,” I explained, as I bundled them in the car and began madly clicking their seatbelts into place. As I backed out of the garage, I could see their faces in the rearview mirror, pictures of complete confusion at their mother’s sudden burst of activity.

At the coffee shop, I asked for my decaf in a paper cup with a no-spill lid, and then settled us down at a table. “Mmmmm…” I said dramatically, as I took a sip through the tiny hole in the lid. “Mummy’s coffee in a cup!” I reached into my bag. “A cup just like your milk!” I said with lashings of enthusiasm and a lot of nervous hope. She looked at the sippy cup I produced with a stony expression, and then at my cup, and then up at my face. Ah, she got it now — Mummy wastrying to be clever but she’d been sussed, and E1 wasn’t best pleased.

I felt the tide turning, so I quickly pulled out the second line of attack: a piece of her favourite fruit leather. She brightened immediately, and I tore off a small piece and handed it to her. “No!” she exclaimed with a look of horror. “Don’t tear it! Let me have it!” What on earth was Mummy thinking, feeding her little pieces like that?

But I’m no fool. “Drink your milk first,” I said, and watched her weigh up the options. Then she picked up the sippy cup and took a good drink. She put the cup down, held out her hand, and I deposited a small square of fruit. She protested again that she wanted the whole thing, but I stood firm and, before long, we settled into a nice rhythm: milk, fruit, milk fruit… I occasionally pointed out with glee that we were both drinking from cups and her enthusiasm grew. Eventually she broke into a wide milky grin despite herself, dribbling a bit onto her dress. We were both enjoying this now, and she was downright excited by the time we got in the car to come home. “Mummy, we had coffee together!” I was just as pleased, and it showed as I praised her profusely: Yes, my dear, we certainly did!

When I woke her from her nap later in the afternoon, her first words were, “No cup. Milk in a bottle!” She protested at first when I told her it was in a cup, and then gave up, happier to do without it altogether than to drink it from a cup again. At dinner, I quietly put the sippy cup on the table and we both carefully ignored it all through the meal.

And then, after dinner, she picked it up and began drinking — and carried on drinking (with the occasional prompting) until it was done. Just like that. I praised her more casually this time — as if this was exactly what I’d expected all along — but, inside, I was over the moon.

So now, three cups and one bottle are filled and in the fridge, ready for tomorrow. No doubt there will be more battles before this is finally over, but today was a good start — a better start than I’d expected. And hey, if it takes me going to the coffee shop for a nice relaxed cuppa with my daughters every single day, that’ll be just fine too.

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I was washing the dishes when there was a loud, brief scream and then a sudden silence. This could mean anything. I counted silently, 1… 2… 3… 4… Ah yes, there it was — the ear-piercing wail to follow up. Someone was hurt. E2 came running in first, with big wet tears streaming down her cheeks and crying at full volume, and flung her arms round my neck. E1 followed, looking concerned but hesitant and more than a little guilty, and hung back in the doorway.

“What happened?” I yelled over the screams. E2 had not drawn breath and I was sure the windows were about to shatter — certainly my left eardrum was not far off it. E1’s mouth moved as she pointed to her finger and then gesticulated out into the hallway, but I couldn’t hear what she said. I asked again and managed to catch, “…I closed the door…” Ah, I see.

I held E2 for a bit longer and let her cry it out in the safety of my arms, and then pulled back and picked her hands up. “Is it this one, or this one?” She held one index finger aloft. Her eyes were huge and doleful, her lip stuck out, her cheeks red and wet, and her nose streaming. I inspected the injured finger — nothing serious — and then kissed it gently. “There. Is that better?” She stopped crying and looked at her finger pensively and a little surprised, then looked up at me. She brought her finger up to her own lips, furrowed her brow in concentration, and kissed it herself. I smiled. “Good girl.”

Having thus comprehended this magic, she turned and toddled over to her sister with her arm up and the injured finger outstretched. E1 kissed it without hesitation — she knows this is serious medicine. And with her cure now complete, E2 reached up and took her sister’s hand and they disappeared through the door and down the hall together — friends again, as ever.

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M got an emergency call-out yesterday and had to spend 5 hours of his Sunday dragging unwieldy supplies and heavy equipment up the three flights of stairs to the customer’s front door. He had a dolly to take it all from the truck to the bottom the stairs but, from that point on, it was all him, going up each tread backwards and hoisting his gear up one step at a time. He came home absolutely drenched in sweat, completely knackered, and in an unsettled mood.

I hate it when he’s in these kinds of moods — the air around him goes dark and stagnant He’s best left alone but it can be difficult to do when the love of your life — who also happens to be everyone’s only breadwinner — comes home from work looking like the sky is about to fall. I did my best but, eventually, I could stand it no longer and prodded: what was the matter? “It’s the same as it always is,” he said, then added, “I’ve told you all this this before!” He began to growl a bit. “I’m too old for this. I’m not far off fifty and these other guys [that he works with] are in their 20s. Their bodies can take it but mine can’t. Things ache and it’s just not going to last!” Yes, he has said this before, and I know it’s true. He’s an older guy doing a young man’s job. When the young men reach his age, they are supposed to have a wealth of experience that either ensures their jobs despite their increasing limitations or helps them to move onto less physical roles. But he retrained into this field when he was made redundant only 6 years ago (and discovering, sadly too late into his training, that he didn’t much care for the work), which means he doesn’t have the benefit of all that experience behind him and so has to do the work as if he were 20 years younger. He struggles with it — physically and mentally — and I know that very well.

It’s not easy being the non-breadwinner under any circumstances, but particularly not under these. When you depend on another person’s income, there’s a real feeling of helplessness that can be incredibly unnerving, in the same way that some people find being a passenger in a car unbearable because they feel out of control if they’re not driving. The non-breadwinner is a financial passenger, entirely reliant on another person’s career achievements… or failures. When M has a good day — or a string of them — and is happy in his work, I can push aside that lingering uncomfortableness that being financially dependent gives me. I bask in his contented glow and tell myself everything is fine. But when he has a bad day — or a string of them — and his mood turns dark, I feel my own panic rise. I handle problems by doing things, working towards solutions — even if I can’t actually fix the problem, the doing something will alone help assuage my fears — but in this situation, there’s nothing the non-breadwinner can do. My only choice is to watch it all unfold and hope it turns out well. And the watching is all the more painful because the way M handles these sorts of problems is the polar opposite to me: he doesn’t act — he resigns himself to the ‘inevitable’, a self-fulfilling prophesy in the making if ever I saw one. And my panic goes sky-high.

So I spent tonight trying to think how I was going to fix this. M’s work doesn’t suit him. The work he did before won’t pay enough to support us all. I will have to go back to work, and perhaps he should stay home with the girls. It makes sense — of the two of us, I have always been (by mutual agreement) the one more likely to go further, I have the better job prospects, I am the more… the more…. I don’t know, but whatever it is, I am it. I sat on the bed in E2’s darkened room, trying to feed her down to sleep, and feeling the pressure rise. I need to get M out of this job, I need to get our family out of a dead-end… But I don’t know what to do. I haven’t worked in 3 years and, despite my ‘better prospects’, this will be a formidable barrier. And, though I am not afraid of hard work by any stretch of the imagination, I dread the thought of going back to kind of work I used to do, which I found so uninspiring that I wanted to push pencils into my eyes all day.

As I went over it again and again in my mind, I realised that I hate that I feel like it is down to me to solve these problems. The truth is, I don’t want the burden of that much responsibility. For a moment, I really envied my mum, married to a man who is incredibly focused and driven, a man who solves problems the way George slayed dragons — I doubt that she has ever once felt that she had to step in and take over. But envy doesn’t solve things, action does. As much as the burden of it wearies me, it’s best to just get on with it.

When at last I got E2 down to sleep and went back into the living room, I found M with his head in one hand. I put my arms around him. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, “that you’re in a job that you struggle with like this. We chose badly.”

“It is what it is.” He sounded dejected. “I’ll just have to keep going …for as long as I can.”

“We could find you something else, something better suited. And I’ll go back to work as soon as the girls are in school. Or,…” I paused, not really wanting to say it out loud, “or maybe sooner if need be.” I spotted the paper out of the corner of my eye — last night’s lottery results would be in it. “Hey, maybe we’ve won the lottery! Wouldn’t that change everything?” I said brightly.

“People like me aren’t meant to win the lottery. It will never happen.” He buys a ticket every week, but honestly believes he’s fated never to win. And there’s a part of me that believes I will never win the lottery either, because I’ve been given a plethora of talents and opportunities in lieu of that one colossal stroke of luck.

“Nor people like me,” I replied.

“No,” he agreed. And then added, “You were supposed to make something of yourself.”

The accusation of it touched a nerve, and I pulled away from him, and looked at his face for a moment. Then I turned and walked into the kitchen, and made myself a cup of tea. I don’t need him to push the heavy burden of responsibility onto me like that. I’m there already .

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Warning: this story contains direct references to poo.

E1 did a big poo in her potty yesterday. As I bent down to wipe her bum, I could see that it was composed of some small pellet-like poos at the bottom, followed by a huge big cow-patty of a poo sitting on top.  In our world, this is a very good thing and deserving of high praise.

Before I had a chance to say anything, E1 piped up, “Mummy, I had a lot of baby poos!”  Yes.  “And then a big mummy poo!” Yes. I told her it was a fabulous poo.

“And Mummy…” Yes? “The mummy poo is squishing the baby poos, and the baby poos are crying!”

There was a over-analytical part of me that felt I should evaluate this. Why is my daughter assigning such detailed personification to her bowel movements? And what could possibly be the source of this rather disturbing idea of a mother squishing her children?  But it was over-ruled by the part of me that was trying desperately not to laugh out loud, stop my shoulders shaking uncontrollably, and thinking, “Just wait until I tell her daddy about this one…!”

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