Sunday 24 April 2011


Jerusalem, about AD 30. 

They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Matthew 27:33-28:8 

Happy Easter, everybody. 

Thursday 21 April 2011


The older I get the more convinced I am that every woman, every girl, is beautiful. And I'm not talking about that inner beauty nonsense, I mean good old-fashioned external beauty, the type you can see in the mirror. Most of us aren't a size four, many of us don't have perfect skin or an expensive haircut, but all of us look good when we make an effort, all of us have something about us that makes us beautiful. I am an average-looking woman, but that's okay because I'm coming to realise that average is quite beautiful enough.

I did not always know this. When I was growing up, I did not feel beautiful. My parents didn't say I was beautiful; I'm not sure they realised it was important. My mother knew enough from her own childhood not to actively criticise her daughters' features in the way her parents had done to her, and I'm grateful for that. I like to think we're improving with every generation; at this rate I expect Pink will be entering her daughter in pageants. But I think I needed more than just not being criticised. Like every teenager, I stared in the mirror and had no idea whether what I saw was beauty or horror. Some days I was convinced it was one, other days, the other. My face was never going to launch a thousand ships, but I had nice hair and I don't think it would have been too much of a stretch to find something to compliment. Occasionally my mother would look at my colouring and sigh and say ' I do so envy you that you can wear beige. I cannot wear beige at all'. And she was right - she couldn't - and it was the nineties so being able to look good in beige was no small advantage. But I craved more. Once, in desperation, I asked my mother whether I was pretty and she paused and said 'you are quite nice-looking. Now, your sister is very pretty' and you'd probably think that would leave a bigger scar than it does. Thing is - it was true. She got the blue eyes, you see.

But now I have a daughter of my own, and I realise just how fiercely I want her to know that she is beautiful, always, all her life. I have a degree and a PhD in engineering. I do not have a Disney Princess view of a woman's role. I support education for women, and equal pay for equal work, and the right for all of us to do whatever we want to with our lives without being held back by anybody's expectations of what a woman can or should do. I also support being a nice person, nurturing inner character, and not confusing a person's looks with a person's worth. But I think every woman does want to be beautiful, and I don't want her to grow up wondering.

When I was sixteen, for the first time a boy wrote me a letter and told me that he thought I was pretty. If I could go back in time, I would tell my former self not to take this too seriously, that it was not destiny, that sixteen year old boys are attracted to anything with a pulse. But at the time, I honestly thought that this meant we were going to be together forever. I began to make plans for our future married life. I really wish I was exaggerating, but I am not. For the first time in my life I felt beautiful, and that gave him far more power over me than it should have. Fortunately for me - although it did not feel fortunate at the time - he did not really want that power and he did not really want me. But I would have moved heaven and earth for this boy, if he had asked me to. And when it became clear that I expected more of this relationship than he did, it was all I could do not to shout at him but you told me I was pretty! Doesn't that mean anything? Because of course it doesn't. But I didn't know that at the time.

And so, my daughter. What is it going to mean for me, a white mother, to raise a black daughter to see herself as beautiful? Sometimes I wonder if the reason us white folk have been so eager to embrace Ethiopian adoption is because Habesha beauty is.... how can I say this? Maybe this is what I mean: typical Habesha beauty is easy for Europeans to relate to. High cheekbones, slim noses and oval faces? We get that. Loose, long curls? Ditto. It is not a big leap to look at Habesha women and see beauty that we recognise, beauty that reminds us of, well, us. A coffee-coloured, slimmer, taller, more elegant version of us. I'm not saying this preference for this type of Ethiopian beauty over other African beauty is a good thing, by the way, I'm just noticing that it's there.

My daughter does not fit this mould. She has a tiny little button nose, and chubby cheeks rather than sharp cheekbones. She has a high, prominent forehead. She has tightly spiralled curls. She looks nothing like Liya Kebede. And she is beautiful, so beautiful.

When I first met the babies, they seemed so unknown to me. They didn't have my hair or my eyes or my nose. I did not recognise them. Now I know every fold of their skin, every expression of their face, every curl of their hair. It's a strange thing, learning to love a beauty that is not your own, and a beauty that is, if I am honest, different from the beauty I expected. It's intoxicating, too. I know every mother thinks their child is the most beautiful creature the world has ever seen, but my daughter? Honestly, you should see my daughter.

It startles me when I remember that not everybody sees my girl this way. Everywhere we go, people compliment her little toddler curls. But several people have sighed and said 'oh, she's going to hate that hair when she's a teenager'. And I am reminded that not everyone sees her spirals and sees beauty. Cuteness, maybe, but not beauty. It takes my breath away that people say this out loud, in front of her. I usually snap something like 'I hope she always knows her hair is very beautiful' and think remind me to keep my daughter away from your son.

Right now, she's just a toddler and beauty usually means clean clothes and a mostly-clean face. I know I have a lot more work to do on how to nurture her awareness of herself as a black woman as she grows. I see the specialist hair relaxers for children on the shelf at the supermarket and swear never. But then I remember that I don't really know what it's like to have this hair on my own head. I see how beautiful her curls are, just the way they are, but one day she may well wish they were different. I was reading the comments on this totally fantastic post and realised that I shouldn't be tempted to use how she feels about her natural curls as a barometer of my own success as a transracial parent. They are her curls, after all, they are not about me. So I guess she gets to decide. Well, maybe when she's eighteen.

Much, much more work to do. In the meantime, I'm going to tell her how lovely she is until she squirms with embarrassment. And make sure her father says it too, over and over again. I remember reading somewhere that daughters take a big chunk of their self-image from what their father says about them, and I can easily believe that it is true. My parents really did a great job, no complaints, but I don't remember my father ever even mentioning what I looked like. He could probably pick me out of a police line-up, but I think that's as much notice as he took. I just don't think it was important to him. But I want Pink to know that there are always at least two people in this world who look at her and see beauty. Not just because of who she is on the inside, but because of her unique combination of skin and bones and flesh and hair that make her beautiful to look at, too. When she is sixteen a boy tells her that she's pretty, I don't want her reacting like I did. I want her to say Thank you. But then I hope she opens her lovely eyes a little bit wider, looks at him again, grins and say I already knew.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Work / Life

On Friday, I had a really bad meeting at work. Well, bad for me. I'd done some work for a senior member of staff, and he loved it, which was great. Unfortunately, he loved it so much that he wants to roll it out further, which means it has to be handed over to someone else. Because I'm part time. And I felt really frustrated that I wouldn't get to complete the project I had spent so long working on.

Work is a funny old thing. I'm not one of these crazy lucky people who has a job they adore, a job they would do for free, but when I try to think of something I'd rather get paid for, I can't. (Except maybe hot air balloon attendant. And I'm not entirely sure that's really a job). And the less I'm there, the more I think about how getting good feedback for doing my job well is a fantastic feeling. Work, when it's all working, is an amazing adrenaline rush. Pouring myself into a project, thinking it's never going to get done, then finding a solution and suddenly seeing it all come together? Magic. Pure magic.

There are big downsides, of course. Those great days come along with a lot of bad days, a lot of frustration, a lot of, well, work. I'm not doing a grass-is-greener thing here about working full-time, I know how difficult it is to get up every morning and go to the office, again, then again, then again. But it turns out that not being there every day really does make a difference to how well I can do my job. I'm less committed; I have to be, unless I want to be working unpaid on my days off, a toddler under each arm, typing on our tiny netbook with my nose. So I can't promise to get something done by tomorrow, because I'm not going to be there tomorrow. It used to be the case that when something needed doing, if it was my kind of thing, people would come to me. But then I was off for a year, and now I'm hardly ever there, and instead I sit in the corner and most of the excitement passes me by.

Which means I'm not the go-to girl anymore. There's a new go-to girl now. This stings*.

A few people have told me that working part time is the perfect solution. These are not usually people who have done it. At the moment, I feel like working part time gives me an unparalleled opportunity to fail at two jobs simultaneously. Sure, I get to do two things, but it's not very satisfying to do two things badly.

I guess I could go back full time, but that's really not what I want. And yes, I know we can only make this choice because we are fortunate. (Although from another perspective you could replace 'fortunate' in that previous sentence with 'willing to stay in a small house'). It's not what I want because I really, really do value all the quantity time that I am able to spend with Pink and Blue.

Sometimes it's easy to talk about making sacrifices for our children but in the same breath we talk as if what we're missing out on isn't that important, actually. This is one of the reasons I'm not keen on talking about motherhood as The Most Important Job In The World®. This implies that sacrificing all that other stuff, like having a job where people take you seriously and you get to flex your brain and hey, they pay you, is just a nothing, a cipher. It's not important, so it's doesn't really matter if you make that sacrifice.

But the thing about making sacrifices is: you have to give something up. And that only matters if the thing matters. I'm really realising that making compromises at work for the sake of family life is no small deal. Accepting that I'm only going to be able to tread water in my job for the next few years is hard. J is having similar difficulties.

And then I went home after work and J was there, and the babies were freshly washed and had just eaten their dinner. We decided to go for an evening trip to the park, since it was still warm and sunny. I took off my work shoes and massaged my sore feet, while J put on some music and danced around the living room with Pink. Low evening sunlight streamed through the window, hitting her curls and lighting them up like a corona. Then we went to the park and Blue walked all the way home, even though it's a third of a mile. He's getting so big, and finally he's worked out how to use the momentum in his little-boy body so that his steps flow and he has lost the plodding gait of an early toddler. He was so pleased with himself. By the time we were at the end of our street, he was so tired that he was weaving like a drunk man. I picked him up and carried him the rest of the way, inhaling the smell of his sun-warmed skin. And I didn't wish that I had made my life's choices any differently.

But I still felt sad about work.

[Update, August : I've just linked this over at Tortoise Mum's 'Opportunity Cost' blog hop].

*Can I please say, for the record, that the new go-to girl happens to be one of my favourite people on the planet. Just in case you ever read this, H, you know I love you, right?

Monday 11 April 2011

Monday Movies

The stupid no-real-blogging-before-finishing-chapters promise I made to J has officially come back to bite me in the butt. Since I'm still beating my head against a brick wall working on the same chapter I started about a fortnight ago, this blog is strictly a no-musing zone today. So less talking, more movies!

Welcome to my house, which my children seem to think is basically a theme park called ToddlerWorld. Star attraction? The world's most patient cat, guarded by an attendant who sounds reeeeeally grumpy. (Is it just me or do all of you find that listening to your own voice on video makes your spine want to dissolve with horror?) Like all theme parks, someone is wearing a silly hat that she will later regret.

Even the accommodation has entertainment. If you know this song, you know that the actions for the first half are supposed to be head in hands, quietly pretending to sleep. But our two little bunnies love this song SO MUCH that they just can't keep the hopping in until the second half starts.

While I was uploading these, I found that I never worked out how to got around to uploading videos during our first six months or so home. So there was a big backlog. These were the two that brought back the strongest memories.

Splashing the baby girl. This used to be her favourite, favourite thing.

(And just for comparison - here's seven seconds of one taken this week in the exact same spot. I find it hard to believe this is the same child, only a year later).

Can't really think of any way to explain this one. Taken during our first two weeks or so home. We were encouraged to help them move their limbs. It was winter. I was inside the house a lot, and we had banned visitors for the first month.

I think what I'm maybe trying to say is that I was just the teeeeeensiest bit bored.

Oh, and their father got them dressed that day.

And I have clearly not got a shimmering career in front of me as a choreographer.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Why Motherhood Is Like A Diet

I love to cook and I love to bake and I love to buy cookbooks and most of all I love to eat. Unfortunately, this has consequences. In 2008 I had to admit that my weight was creeping up and I decided to diet. It worked, I forgot about it, all was good. Until recently, when my jeans started getting tight again and I thought how can this be happening to me? I honestly had no idea. And then one day I was feeding the children their lunch and I realised that I had eaten all of their crusts. And they have a lot of crusts. And then I realised that the night before, I ate a good few mouthfuls of their dinner to check it had cooled down enough for them. And the night before, the same thing. And again the night before that. What's going on? I asked myself. How did I become this person? How did I become the woman who thinks that second-hand bread is a good snack? Do I really have that little self-respect?

Apparently so. For while I was standing there asking myself this question, I grabbed a half-eaten slice of Blue's discarded pear and unconsciously ate that, too, because it was easier than walking across the room and putting it in the bin.

I guess that explains the squeezy jeans, then. And I'm horrified at myself. It's one thing to get overly Rubenesque on loving good food too much, but quite another to do so on table scraps, on fruit that has already been chewed once and is now covered in breadcrumbs from the highchair tray. And so I've begun to think about dieting again. And thinking about this has made me realise how similar it is to what I've been doing for the last year and a half. These are the ways that I think motherhood is like going on a diet:

It's all about saying no
When I was dieting, I felt like I spent my life saying no. Bad: no to cake. Worse: no to chocolate. Unbearable: no to chips. Unimaginable: no to wine. They became occasional treats, and I think that was probably the time in my life when I developed my extreme aversion to the word 'treat'. It's so mealy-mouthed. I hate the way it suggests pleasure carefully meted out. I hate the way it suggests that I should be pathetically grateful for whatever the 'treat' is, like a peasant being granted a favour by a king. I don't want to see wine as a treat. I want it to flow through my life like a rich ruby river, flowing over the chocolate and the cake and the chips that surround me in abundance. But that way lies heart disease, so I learned to say 'no'. I learned to count and ration and measure and weigh and it wasn't the end of the world.

What does sometimes feel like the end of the world, to me, is all the times I have to say no because I am the mother. No to them: no hitting, no scratching, no biting, no tantrums, no standing up on the sofa, no touching the diaper genie. No to other people: no, we can't come over because it's nap time. No, I can't take on another commitment because right now I'm barely keeping my head above water and my children clean. No, we can't travel that far in a day because the children are awful at being in the car. No, we can't come over for dinner because we have nobody to watch them unless we call in a huge favour. No, no, no. No to being the cool and competent mother I always hoped to be: No time to do all that I want to. No chance to recover from one tiny crisis before the next one hits. No way to keep one child happy for any length of time without upsetting the other. And of course: no to myself. Every day, trying to mother them well calls for a thousand tiny sacrifices, of which my three most painful are always no to sleeping, no to reading, no to writing. I feel like my life is spent saying no. That is:

Except when it's more important to say yes
I found that the hardest times, dieting, are when the food is out of my control. I might know that I have seven points left for the day, but if I am eating at someone else's house, they don't know that, and they also don't care. I had times when I was almost weeping because I had been so good - so good - and then I felt like all my efforts for the day (or in extreme cases, the week) were derailed by someone else's menu. Sometimes, the buttery creamy delicousness tasted like ashes in my mouth because I was only thinking oh nooooo, the caaaaaaloriiiiiiies! And yet, at those times, I ended up deciding that it was absolutely worth it to eat up, be happy, say thank you and ask for seconds. Food is how we show love, so it stands to reason it's how we receive love, too, and refusing to receive the buttery creamy love is a stunningly effective way to passive-aggressively hurt the hostess' feelings. If I go to someone's house and make a face like I'm sucking a lemon when they bring out dessert, then diet or no diet I'm not being a very good friend.

If it's not possible to diet and be polite at the same time, if it's not possible to diet and be a good friend at the same time, then the diet is going to have to take a hit. Manners are more important than my jeans size. Friendships are more important than getting thin as quickly as possible. And as long as I'm not using the friendships as an excuse (meeting someone for coffee doesn't mean I have to order a venti gingerbread latte with whipped cream, much as I wish it did, Starbucks does have other options) I need to prioritise people over food control.

I think the same principle applies to parenting, to baby control. Mothering is stonkingly hard work, and requires so much of me that it's easy for me to forget that I have other responsibilities too, as a friend, as a wife, as a human being. I remember very well how it felt to be on the receiving end of maternal de-prioritisation, when my friends had kids before me. I know I don't get the balance anywhere near right, but I'm trying to remember that sometimes other people's needs have to come before my children's immediate needs, or their routine. Sometimes a friend needs me more than my children do, and I need to get in the car even though it isn't the best thing for them. I don't do this enough. I'm working on it. The world does not revolve around my children, no matter how much I love them. They need to know that they are unutterably precious to me, but they are not the centre of the universe. I struggle and fail to get this balance right. My brain hurts. My body is tired. And so:

Some days, I don't really feel like doing it
No, really. Too much effort. For both categories. And yet:

It's such a good problem to have
When the babies were tiny, we were once stuck for an hour or so without formula. I can't remember why it happened, but I will never ever forget what it felt like to look at my babies and know that I couldn't give them the food they were screaming for. I knew it was temporary, but it tore my heart in half. For too many mothers and fathers across the world, this is not a temporary problem. Too many mothers and fathers know this reality daily. For them, I suspect give us this day our daily bread is prayed with more fervour than I can muster. I know this, I've seen this sort of suffering with my own eyes, and yet I feel sorry for myself because I have too much food to feed myself and my children? I feel sorry for myself because I get too many calories in a day? I feel sorry for myself because oh, it's so hard to say no to the butter and the cream and the delicious delicious pistachio macarons? Bored, with three hours until dinner, it is hard to say no. But honestly, this is such a good problem to have.

And so it is with motherhood. I know that there are so many women who are still waiting for this to become a reality, whether they are waiting for their first child to come home, or their second, or their seventh. Right now, I'm particularly thinking of those of you who are waiting for court or embassy or travel - those of you who are in that almost-but-not-yet stage of motherhood which is more painful than I can describe, which felt, when it was happening to me, more painful than I could bear. And I am painfully aware of the other mothers, too, the women who have had a child, but said goodbye. And I am reminded of how much I have been given. I longed for these children for so long, and here they are, safe and well and happy and in my arms. Right now, they are sleeping in their cots upstairs, with their heads buried in their blankets and their bottoms pointing heavenward and I could not be more thankful that they are there, that they are mine.

This job - some days it feels like too much. But I stroke their curly heads and snuggle their warm little bodies and watch them learn to say duck and car and cat and I know with all my heart that this too-much-ness is such a good problem to have. Of all the problems in the world, I am grateful to have this one.