Wednesday 23 June 2010

Episode 174: In Which Claudia Has The Temerity To Complain

Here's what's hard at the moment. J's work has just moved so that it's about 15 minutes further away - and it was already pretty far away. So that's an extra half hour out of our lives, every day. And last month, we decided that the babies weren't really coping with staying up waiting for him to get home from work, and that I should put them both to bed on my own from now on, half an hour earlier. One adult, two squirmy tired babies, every day - turns out this is no joke, people. The babies are better for it, but I am not. And because J is also later home now, I don't have anybody to help me with the daily pickup of detritus afterwards. It used to be that he would do this while I cooked dinner, but now I do it and then I cook dinner, and although he's been at work, winning bread all day, I cannot shake the knowledge that during the very worst part of my day, he's sitting on a train reading a novel. And I wish it was me, and then I snap at him when he gets home.

Oh, poor me, with my two perfect babies and my perfect life. I hear myself whining, and I want to slap myself. My complaints are so minor, and I know it. I hear echoes in my own words of all the things that other people said to me in the years before I acquired two tiny humans of my own, and I remember the burning resentment I felt when I heard them. I already felt so excluded and shut out from their lives - which now revolved around their children. To make it worse, I felt like they did nothing but complain to me about how hard it all was, when all I wanted was what they had. I did a lot of gritting my teeth and saying 'uh huh, uh huh, that sounds awful'. But mostly, during these conversations, I was just trying not to cry.

But I also remember consciously wondering - how will I feel when it is me on the other end of this conversation? When it is me who hasn't slept / showered / left the house in twelve days? Then, I had a perspective coloured by loss, and grief, and waiting, and envy, and anxiety, and fear, and hope. I knew it wasn't a normal perspective. It was certainly a painful perspective. So I asked myself: am I really just completely wrong? How will I feel when I have a different perspective? And now, I realise that I have some kind of answer, and it's not entirely the answer I expected. You know it physically pains me to type this, but I've got to be honest - there are some things where I'm going to have to eat humble pie and say: folks, I was wrong. In fact, there are many - so I'll keep it to my top four. My current top four, that is, for this week.

I was wrong about how easy and quick it would be to leave the house with the babies.
This continues to amaze me. Honestly, they are very small. How hard can it be? I used to have a mantra that I would say before I left the house: 'purse, phone, keys, yes, yes, yes, out the door'. Now, it's : 'purse, phone, keys, milk, muslins, babies, socks, jumpers, books, pram toys, oh forget it, I'm staying home'.

I was wrong to expect that naptimes wouldn't matter.
They do - they really do. My babies are totally different creatures depending on whether or not they have had their daytime sleeps, and they get by far, far, their best sleep at home in their darkened room. This absolutely destroys any possibility of me being spontaneous during the day, which is an absolute bummer. Sometimes, I take them out during naptime anyway, even when they should be asleep - to go to hospital appointments, for example, or travelling to see grandparents. Without exception, there is a price to pay later, so I try to avoid doing it unless there is a really good reason. This is hard, because I'm not a particularly 'routiney' person.

I was wrong to think that going to church with babies wouldn't be particularly hard.
What can I say - ouch. Our church doesn't have a creche, so we need to look after the babies in the service (which is pretty traditional, ie quiet!) J and I are both committed Christians, and, barring serious illness, being at church on Sunday is a top priority. But suddenly, it's become really, really hard. I wasn't expecting this, and I feel like an idiot. Last week I was pretty much in tears, thinking 'what is the point of me even BEING here? I haven't taken in a single thing'. This week was better. But it's going to be a loooooong time before I can sit in my chair, pay attention to the sermon and not need to be managing tiny people on a Sunday.

I was wrong about how much stupid, small things would matter to me
Today I made a new batch of baby food for them. It took ages, and made my already-hot kitchen pretty unbearable. And then they would not touch it. Not even a taste. And I had plenty of other food to give them, and they were probably just tired, but I came pretty close to crying because a baby wouldn't eat some mashed root vegetables. I know it doesn't matter at all, really, but in that moment it was all that mattered and I suddenly felt like my whole life was unbearable, a wasteland, a desert.

So yes - some of it really much harder than I thought it would be. And sometimes I do sit here, feeling sorry for myself, and thinking 'why does it have to be so HARD?' Yesterday, baby boy was cranky pretty much all day. There was a lot of shouting. He's got teeth coming through (you'd think he'd have more teeth than a shark by now, with the amount of time he's spent teething lately) and he's feeling pretty rotten. She's doing better, but she's not at her sparkling best either. And there are good days - great days - but sometimes it all feels like more than I bargained for.

But while this is true, while there were things I was wrong about, I still feel like the same person I was then. I haven't become someone different with children. And while I do have a new perspective, now that I have children, it owes an awful lot to the old perspective. I think once you've stood in that place, you can't - or at least you shouldn't - ever forget the view.

And yet. It is hard, but all of what has gone before means that I don't really know how to talk about the fact that it is hard. If I'd acquired these babies by drinking one glass too many of red wine after dinner and tumbling cheerfully into bed, I would probably go to facebook and post something like "Claudia.... should not have gone for the buy-one-baby-get-one-free-deal. Srsly. ROFL." * And wait for people to 'like' it, and go away feeling better.

But I can't do it. Because I'm too grateful for these children to turn the difficult bits into a joke, cheesy as that sounds. And I can't seem to do the other option either, the heart-to-hearts about how tough it all is. This year, on balance, my life is the happiest it's been for as long as I can remember, but I've had more people than I can count be incredibly sympathetic about how hard I must be finding it. And it's nice that they're kind, but I think 'where were you LAST year? That was when I really needed some sympathy'.

Parenthood brings a whole new bundle of challenges to my life, but I guess it will never, ever be to me what it was to some of my friends. It will never be my first truly adult experience. It will not be the first thing that shows me 'oh, so you mean life is really difficult from now on?' and it will not be the first thing to keep me up at night, questioning everything that I do and am. I'm not saying it doesn't do those things. I'm not saying it's not a profound experience. But I didn't become a real, proper adult when I gave birth to a baby - I think I became a real, proper adult when I had to deal with the fact that I wouldn't. Childlessness, to me, was a much more profound and character-shaping experience than motherhood, so far. Complaining about what I've got now feels too much like denying all that I learned, then.

But some days.... some days are really hard. Sometimes, I find myself thinking - yes, this is what I wanted, but I didn't want it to be like this. And I really, really want a kind word or a hug, but I find myself utterly unable to ask for it. The memory of listening to others' complaints, for all those years when I wanted nothing more than some children to complain about, is still too fresh and too raw for me to suddenly become that person. I am still too marked by what went before. I still feel prickly and I still feel brittle. Here I stand, in this post-adoption life of mine, knowing too much about what else my life could be like to really put my heart into complaining about the one I've got.

Also, I feel like admitting things are difficult means buying into the whole urban mythology about motherhood being the most difficult (yet profound) experience in the cosmos, and I am unwilling to do that. If we want to talk difficult experiences, I think, how about caring for elderly parents? There's some poop and wee stories that aren't so cute. How about dealing with bereavement? Surely, I think, we are kidding ourselves if we let ourselves believe that this early, intense motherhood is the hardest thing we will ever be called upon to do.

See what I mean? Prickly.

But the thing is, I still can't bear to hear variations on the theme of : Until you've been a mother, you just can't understand how hard it is! Because I hear that, and it makes me want to scream. Even though I am a mother now, It just still feels like such a deeply excluding thing to say. My life is harder than yours, and you can't say I'm wrong, because you may have done any number of other things, but you haven't done this. It puts motherhood up onto an untouchable, unquestionable pedestal, and on behalf of my former self and childless women everywhere, I do not want to hear it. On one level it's true, of course, but then the same could be said about everything else in the world, surely? Until you've directed a multi-million dollar feature film you you just can't understand how hard it is. Until you've put together furniture from IKEA you you just can't understand how hard it is. Until you've styled the Olsen twins for the Oscars, you just can't understand how hard it is. Until you've bred rottweilers you you just can't understand how hard it is. And I'm sure all those things are true, too. But nobody has ever pulled me into a corner and sat me down and said that the problem is, really, that the lady rottweilers are so ugly that it's just terribly difficult to get the boy rottweilers to go near them** and nobody understands because until you've bred rottweilers you you just can't understand how hard it is. And I don't know for sure - maybe somewhere, somebody is having that conversation, but not with me - with me, it's just the one about being a mother. And I hear it, all the time, and even if it was said in sympathy to something that I brought up find myself thinking - hey, it's not THAT hard! Because okay, it is hard, but did any of you people have a job before you had a kid? With deadlines and politics and demands and budget cuts and layoffs and late nights and managers and deadlines and okay, a paycheque, but did I mention the deadlines? Mothering is very hard work, but having a job was pretty hard work too, and being childless felt so impossibly hard that sometimes I was pretty sure I was just going to crumple. But maybe until you've been childless, you just can't understand how hard it is. Heh.

I am also so aware, every time I open my mouth, that I don't know what is going on behind the sympathetic smile of the person I'm talking to. I don't know whether a complaint from me will feel like a knife in their chest. Or maybe that spasm wasn't pain, but boredom - one lesson I need to remember from my years on the outside is that listening to stories about someone else's children is about as interesting as watching that person eat a sandwich.

And so I find that all too often, now, I just don't quite know how to Be with all of this. Sometimes I wish I could embrace the naivete of the friends who dive into this whole thing, headfirst, and forget that there was a before and that there will be an after, and that there are people who are on the outside. But I can't. I can't. There's too much tension between what was, and what is. Between what I've always known, and what I'm finding out. I guess I just want to say that I do find things hard, without sounding like I believe it is the only hard thing. But I can't seem to find the words.

*Is this still how the young people talk? I kind of quit facebook after reading too many status updates like that.

**This is purely a guess. Lady rottweilers may, in fact, be very attractive. No rottweilers were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Like a photo, but it moves

I am all about the photos - video just confuses me. But 9 months after getting the video camera, I wanted to figure out youtube and so on, and I have spent the longest - seriously, the longest - time trying to clip this video. It's 2 and a half minutes long, because the babies did something very cute and then I kept the camera running, unsure of whether they might do something else worthy of recording for posterity. They didn't. Sooooo, I wanted to trim it so it was just the first 45 seconds but there is some kind of technical conspiracy operating that means I can't do it. Obviously it's not because of any error or ignorance on MY part. Personally, I blame Windows Movie Maker.

Anyway, in the end I figured that it would be simpler to just post the whole thing and let you clip it yourself by pressing 'STOP' at about 45 seconds, after the baby boy crawls away. I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but if you do choose to keep watching, eventually baby girl's hat blows off. And really, that's it.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

My Children Are Not Educational Toys

[By popular demand.... #5. My thoughts on this were not as coherent as I had hoped. This nearly killed me, y'all.]

I've made a decision - the next person to ask me whether I need to put suncream on the babies is getting a punch in the mouth. I'm not quite sure why this is every white person's 'go-to' question about raising black children, but that seems to be the case. Like if they suddenly found themselves in my shoes, it wouldn't matter if the child grew up totally unsure about their identity, where to fit in, lacking any positive black role models and looking down the barrel of casual racism every day; that would be fine, but heaven forfend the baby should get sunburned.

I know I'm overreacting about that particular question, and if anybody I know in real life is reading this then they are definitely going to be offended, because I'm pretty sure that every single white person I know has asked me this question since the sun came out here, about two weeks ago. And I do take sun safety very seriously. And on one level, it's fine that people ask me this. It's sunny, we're at the park, they're slapping the suncream on their kids, it's a reasonable question. And I prefer curiosity to someone saying 'oh, seriously, your child isn't white? I didn't notice! Because we're all the same on the inside!' But sometimes, this question, and others like it, ('what do you do with their hair?') can make me feel really uncomfortable, and I don't quite know what to do.

I think I've almost figured out how to deal with conversations that are openly racist, or, more commonly, just plain ignorant. No matter who, no matter where, don't let it slide, ever. Challenge. Disagree. Not just when it's a conversation about people who share the same colour skin as my children, but anything racist, all the time. Zero tolerance. There's a lot of stuff that I used to let slip by me, but now - no way. I'm acutely aware that many adult adoptees say their parents weren't active enough as their anti-racist advocates, particularly with extended family, and those of us who have had the opportunity to learn from their experience have NO excuse if the same is said about us.

But I find this kind of thing much harder. It's not a racist question. It's not even a particularly stupid question. But it makes me prickle. I think that what upsets me is this. I get the distinct impression that some of my white friends ask me questions about my black babies that they would never ask if I was a black mother. Or at least, ask them in a way that they wouldn't ask a black mother. This is difficult to articulate, but I feel like there is an unspoken assumption that we belong to the same club, they and I, a club to which my children do not belong. And that our sameness means that it's okay - indeed, expected - for us to share information and experiences about our encounters with those who are not the same. Even, in my case, if those who aren't the same are also my children. We all know that the first rule of White Club is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHITE CLUB, so none of this would ever be said out loud. But honestly, in some conversations it is palpable.

It feels similar to what I experienced when I moved to the UK from Australia. When I came across other Australians, we would always form a huddle and complain about the same things - usually the price of food, how cold it was, how long it was since we'd seen the sun and the impossibility of really getting to know anyone properly. Then we would tell stories about Rude English People I Have Met, and What They Said To Me. It was comforting. But time went on, and something changed. I began to feel at home here. I worked out how to navigate the supermarket, bought a decent coat, resigned myself to a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder and made some friends. My accent was Australian (and it still is) but I didn't feel quite so partisan anymore. I began to feel that at least part of me was becoming British. And then the moaning sessions weren't quite so welcome. When people would hear my voice, and then want to talk about what was wrong with the UK, I kept finding myself thinking 'what makes you think I'm on YOUR side in this conversation?'

And that's how I keep feeling now. White people see my skin, and I think it makes them think that I'm on their side. I'm not going to go down the 'now that I have Ethiopian children, I consider myself to be Ethiopian too', road, because I think that's a pile of horse manure. I'm still white, I'll always be white, and there's nothing I can do about that. But that doesn't mean I'm on their side.

It does feel, sometimes, like people view my children as educational toys. They're a safe, easy way to learn about black people. You know, without actually having to talk to a black person. And I get frustrated, because my children are not a bridge. They do not have a responsibility to my friends to link all the colours of the world into a complacent little circle. And they are not objects; curiosities to be examined. They are their own selves, with their own complicated histories, and neither they nor I owe my friends any information about their skincare regime. I think that sometimes people are wanting some kind of inside scoop - for me to go into detail about how hard it is to care for such 'difficult' hair or skin, but it's just not going to happen. They aren't entitled to that information, even if it was the case. I am not on their side.

But sometimes it's a hard balance. Because sometimes I ask myself - are these the opportunities I've been waiting for? Is the problem not too many questions about their skin, but too few? I think most of us can agree that a fake-o 'colourblind' approach to life doesn't do our children any favours. And I wish that I could have more frank discussions with my white friends about race, not fewer. But I want them to be real. Surely the really important issues around skin are privilege and prejudice, not, well, skin. I want to talk about how we approach our own whiteness, before talking about anybody else's blackness. I don't really know how those conversations would sound, but I'm sure they wouldn't just be about sun safety or hair products. I hate that I am still so bad at making those conversations happen.

So, back to the sun cream. Mostly, when sun cream comes up, I say 'Well! The babies take longer to burn than a very pale baby, but they will still burn. I do put sun cream on them, but we don't need it if they're only going to be outside for a little while. We have suncream that smells like coconut. Doesn't their skin smell delicious? What type of suncream do YOU use?' And questions about hair get 'isn't their hair BEAUTIFUL? I just can't wait until her hair is long enough to braid. Do you think your little Susie's hair is going to stay blonde?' And none of this is going to set the world on fire, and sometimes I wish I could have the courage to be a lot ruder, but for now, for questions that aren't outright impolite, I've decided to stick with simple answers that affirm my children and then move swiftly on.

All of this feels almost impossible to write about, because I'm so painfully aware of how little I know. And maybe my approach is wrong - maybe I'm reading too much into comments that are totally innocent, or maybe the reverse is happening and I'm ignoring something really big, and I should be... well, I don't know. And of course some of my friends don't do anything like this, and I need to remember that I never used to care about race until I realised that it was going to affect my family. So I'd better not climb too high onto my high horse, or I'm liable to fall off. This is all really hard. I know I'm making mistakes. I hope I'll be willing to learn from them. But whatever happens, I hope the babies always know that I am on their side.