Thursday 30 June 2011

Advice in Unexpected Places

I was going to upload a video of my children eating sand for your delectation, but I don't have the right cable and I'm too tired to hunt for it. Everything feels a bit much at the moment, even stupid things like looking for a cable. I wanted to post the video because trying to write anything also feels like too much - way too much. There's a lot of stuff that I need to process but I can't because there is no time to do it. My head is in a terrible mess at the moment, about fourteen different difficult things all churning away in there together, making me feel like my skull has turned into some kind of industrial grinder of confusion.

In other news, my brother has been teaching me how to play his ukelele. Do you have any idea how much fun that is? Tons of fun, that's how much fun. There's nothing that's not fun about the ukelele. It's even fun to type the word 'ukelele' - try it. He's really good. I'm absolutely not, but happily I'm starting to form a callous on my left index finger and I'm hoping that I will improve once my fingers numb up a bit and I stop getting such burning pain every time I try to play E minor.

These two things, the angst and the ukelele, do relate, because the best advice I got for dealing with the angst was during a ukelele session with my brother, when he introduced me to the song in the video below. To set the scene: this is the crazy genius who did the music for the movie of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Wonderfully uncomfortable interview first up, but to hear the music, forward to 1:55. (And if you want to learn how to play this, here's a tutorial, although obviously you would have to buy a ukelele first. Obviously). 

Good advice, no? Harsh but brilliant. I wish I'd heard it years ago. Now, if only I had the self-control to put it into practice...

Monday 20 June 2011

Subtropical Hometown Blues*

Returning to my hometown always feels strange. Not because I've changed, but because I haven't. Since I've been away a decade and had a long journey, it always seems like I should be coming back wiser, transformed, but I am not that guy from The Odyssey and real-life journeys don't usually do that, they just give me jetlag. Sometimes when I come home, people are disproportionately nice to me because I've been away so long and I feel like I have to justify their expectations by pretending to be more interesting than I really am. But living abroad hasn't made me an interesting person, which isn't really surprising because all I do when I'm there is go to the supermarket, moan about my life and search on youtube for videos of cats. In other words, I am exactly the same person I always was.

And that person finds it really exhausting to spend lots of time around people. Without my customary seven  hours per day of time alone, I start to seize up and quiver and become prone to unexpected fits of weeping. The dilemma when I am here is that there are so many people I want to see, so many people I want to spend time with, so many people I really love, that I end up vastly overcommitting myself. I don't want to do it, I always swear I won't do it this time, I come up with strategies to mitigate it, but when it comes to the crunch I do it anyway. I have a big extended family – to give you an idea of scale, I have twenty cousins – and they are all great people who I love spending time with, who I can't imagine not spending time with. But when I divide the amount of time I have by the number of people I want to see the answer to the sum is always FAR, FAR TOO BUSY. This trip, with the babies, everything feels multiplied by ten. It seems ten times as important to see people, to introduce them to their large and enthusiastic fan club who have been loving them from afar since before we even knew who they were. These people are so important to us as a family; seeing them is not negotiable. And yet.

And yet. It seems I am not the only person in our family who finds day after day after day of seeing people to be utterly draining. They are totally over it, ten times more over it than me. We've been here about ten days now and the babies have officially had enough. Every day they have been meeting new people, going new places or waking up in new rooms and it's too much for them. This feels like one of those times when I need to say a whole lot of Yeses, even when the babies' immediate needs would be better met by Nos. The big picture tells me we are doing the right thing by being here – I am sure of it – but the small picture we are living in feels really difficult. They are overstimulated. They are perpetually tired. After a week and a half of the 'Turns Out My Family Is Twenty Times Bigger Than I Thought' show, Pink is constantly crying and clinging and Blue is ricocheting from person to person, charming all the ladies and striking fear into my attachment-paranoid heart.

And so we are perpetually tired too. Looking after them is five times as hard as it usually is, and it is usually pretty hard. My parents in particular are being great at supporting us and helping with the childcare but I feel like someone has held me down and beaten me with a plank, and I know J feels the same. We're at the beach at the moment on week away with my parents, siblings and all of our kids which is amazing in lots of ways but it's more change and ….. well, see above. Also it turns out that Pink is sort of scared of sand, which makes beach fun more challenging than expected. I know how lucky we are to be having this long, long holiday and taken as a unit, a month in Australia sounds like a lot of fun. But each one of the thirty days feels tough at the moment. 

J and I had been planning on taking two nights and going off on a mini-holiday on our own. I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to this, but what with the clinging girl and the sudden reappearance of ping-pong boy, we're no longer sure this is quite such a good idea. Yeah, cue the violins, I know. First world problem, definitely. But man oh man, I have been looking forward to that break for I don't know how long. I wonder if I could just make a singing hologram of myself, if that would fool them into thinking that their mother hadn't prioritised sitting next to a pool somewhere drinking a cocktail rather than staying by their sides working on remedial attachment parenting. So I don't know what we're going to do about that. I know that we need to put their needs first, but I don't honestly know what their needs are in this case, and I also know that cocktails are delicious. D'oh. 

But it's all about the memories, right? In ten years time, I probably won't remember that Pink refused to eat yesterday and Blue had four tantrums in the space of an hour. Well, I wouldn't if I hadn't just written it down. But I will be glad that Blue loved the beach so much he got a head full of sand. I will be glad that I bought Pink a swimsuit with a built-in tutu, even if she only wants to wear it in the house. And I will certainly be glad that I got to watch Pink reading Shades of People with her uncle. Here are the obligatory heartwarming photos: 

Hard bits and good bits aside, there's always a lot of stuff about coming home that's always just plain weird. Like the fact that in a city of well over a million people, I just happen to run into an ex-boyfriend's sister. Or the fact that a disturbing number of people always feel the need to analyse my accent, with conversations that go like this: “Oh, you totally have a British accent now! Oh hang on, you just said 'chips' and that sounded Australian. So I guess you don't have a British accent at all. Oh but then you said 'dancing' and you sounded British again. So you do have a British accent. And then when you told me you were going to punch me in the face if I didn't stop assessing your accent you sounded sort of a bit of both. Hang on, now your fist is connecting with my nose! That's not very Australian!'  

Anyway. It's late, and I'm rambling. I should really go to sleep and recharge for the day ahead. I keep thinking - tomorrow, we'll just have a quiet day. But then tomorrow comes and somehow it never is. But what can we do, huh? I've got no idea. 

*With apologies to Bob Dylan

Monday 13 June 2011

No Such Thing As A Vacation

So a few people have told me that there is no such thing as a vacation with small children. 

These people are telling the truth. This post will be scattered, because I am scattered. We've been here nearly 72 hours but I'm still not quite sure which way is up.  One thing I am sure about- you know that place where you live? Take it from me, the place where you live is fantastic. It's great. You love it. You never want to leave. There is no need for you to go on a long plane journey with your kids, ever. The rest of the world isn't worth it. Trust me. (Joking- sorta).

If you don't trust me - here's reason #1 why you should stay home: Fake Aeroplane Night.   What is WITH this? I'd forgotten that airlines seem to think that once you're in the sky, it's night time. Every long haul flight, no matter what time of day it happens, no matter which timezones it crosses, seems to begin with lunch and then immediately segue into this odd, pitch-black affair where all the cabin lights are turned off, the shades on the windows are compulsorily down and the stewardesses only talk in whispers. FYI: this is not ideal when travelling with bored toddlers. We got on a plane at 11.30am, and within two hours it was too dark for our children to play with any of the myriad toys that I had lovingly packed (in identical pairs) into ziploc bags.  Unfortunately, it was not too dark for them to kick and scream, or jump on things, or try to destroy the aircraft.  Also - the A380 is weirdly quiet. I was counting on engine noise to drown out their yelling but it didn't work and  - this may be the only time anybody has ever used this sentence - I really wish our plane had been louder. We did have a laptop for videos and two old mobile phones (these were GREAT in the dark - wonderful, wonderful idea, thanks Shonda!!!) but I don't think they have ever behaved with quite the level of naughtiness that we saw on our first flight. I know it was hard for them, etc etc etc, but it started in the car on the way to the airport (seriously, Pink and Blue?) and  by the time we were flying over Turkmenistan I was filled with a hollow, aching rage and inches away from storming the cockpit and demanding that the pilot turn the plane around or at least give me access to an ejector seat.  We were stuck in oppressive, whirring darkness with two children we were utterly unable to control, fielding angry glares from the other passengers and trying not to shake them and say 'if you think you can do better you are welcome to do a few hours of mid-air babysitting, pal'.  There was a moment of relief when they finally, finally, FINALLY both went to sleep, but within sixty seconds - sixty seconds - the seatbelt light came on and we had to remove them from their bassinets to comply with safety regulations. Something to do with the oxygen masks. Because obviously, by the time the oxygen masks are dropping from the ceiling, everything is going to be fine, and we are totally not going to die at all, and it's really really really going to matter that my kid is in a bassinet.  (If you are an airline safety engineer and know a good reason for this rule, I'm afraid I don't want to hear it - I'd rather stay mad about this). I told the stewardess - if you make me wake this boy up I guarantee he will scream at you for every remaining minute of this flight - but she did make me get him up and the whole experience went from tortuous to apocalyptic as I held him, screaming, through the rest of that too-dark imaginary night. Next to me, Pink slumbered peacefully on J's lap and he kept making a face at me, the one that says 'can't you keep your kid quiet? I've got a child here who's trying to sleep, you inconsiderate woman'.  It's a good thing it's not possible to file for divorce in mid-air, is all I will say about that particular experience.  

After a few not-too-bad hours in Singapore, we got on our next flight and had - you guessed it - lunch, and were then plunged back into night again, although it was 10am in the country we were leaving and midday where we were going. Fortunately all the yelling on leg one had so tired the children out that they fell asleep as soon as the bassinets were fixed to the wall. I got out my phone to take pictures of them - finally, finally, finally sleeping - and before I had put the phone away the seatbelt light came on again. Horrified, we decided to see if we could get away with sitting there quietly and not doing anything. Ummmm.... 'no' is the answer to this, for those of you ever planning to fly Singapore Airlines. The stewardesses began to mass behind us in battle formation and I'm afraid I started to ugly-cry.  "They haven't slept for about 23 hours" I wept "and I just cannot doooooooo it. I cannot wake them up. I can't beeeeear it" and then I put my head in my hands and sobbed, because nothing says 'mature, successful, in-control woman' like boo-hooing at the top of my voice in front of a few hundred airline passengers.  Anyway, they clearly cover this kind of emergency in stewardess school because five minutes later they had found us enough spare seats for both children to stretch out and stay asleep, where they then slumbered peacefully for the next five hours while my blood pressure returned to normal. They also obviously designated us as 'high risk for crazy' because they then kept on offering me extra drinks,  snacks, blankets and crayons for the kids and nobody even batted an eyelid when Blue threw his brand new Dora the Explorer toy watch at one of them during landing. 

Oooh, sorry, that was only supposed to be a few sentences but once I started it seems I just couldn't stop. Anyway, I'm glad that's out of my system now. And of course, now that the flight is finally over it is so good to be here. So good. Watching my kids play with their cousins is just the most fantastic feeling. Blue is particularly crazy about his oldest cousin and is having the time of his life with her as his new tickle-partner. He loves to roughhouse, and Pink hates it, so for once he is getting enough rough and tumble and she is getting enough personal space.  They remember their grandparents, which I wasn't really expecting and is both really nice and a little scary. Whose says tinies don't remember stuff, huh? 

Anyway. Scattered. We still are. J and I seem to be taking it in turns to not be able to sleep, which is making it hard for us to do ordinary things like finish sentences, or drive. I've already broken one of my mother's plates; fortunately not an expensive one.  The babies are sleeping strangely well, or perhaps we're just so deeply asleep when we are asleep that we don't hear them when they wake up. 

And then - last night we had our first ever allergic episode. After dinner I looked over at Blue and he had a fat lip. I looked again and saw that it was a really really fat lip and getting fatter, and that his face was covered in hives. Within seconds his eyes started to swell and suddenly I'm thinking about anaphylactic shock and asphyxiation and I start to totally. freak. out.  Fortunately my Dad is a doctor and realised it wasn't serious or life-threatening so we didn't have to take him to the hospital. Unfortunately my Dad is a doctor and realised it wasn't serious or life threatening so didn't quite realise how dramatic it seemed to me. For while I was standing there thinking my son's face is swelling up WHY IS NOBODY PANICKING??? I guess they thought I was doing enough to cover everyone else. It was utterly terrifying and although it didn't take long to find out that his breathing was fine and he wasn't in any real danger, it's one of the scariest parenting experiences I've had so far and triggered ugly-cry #2 for this trip.  And of course, we had no antihistamines with us after what happened last week gave us The Fear. He was so uncomfortable and itchy that we decided to risk the crazy and bought him some more - a different chemical, and fortunately it worked fine and didn't send him off the edge. I'm not sure we would have noticed if it had, though, because later the same evening my tiniest niece took a dive off the sofa and opened up her forehead on my parents' coffee table.  She's just come out of general anaesthetic to be stitched up, and my sister's two eldest are staying with us at my parents' while my sister and brother-in-law stay up at the hospital with her. That certainly put our not-actually-anaphylactic-shock episode in perspective. We're all incredibly glad she's doing well, but it's been an extremely rough 24 hours for her and my sister and her husband. 

There's other stuff going on too, which I'll write more about when I'm in the mood to make jokes about gene-linked cancers.  Nobody is sick, there's just a lot of stuff I need to think about, and it's already been the cause of ugly-cry #3, although I suspect that was partly due to jetlag. Did I say it was really good to be here? It is, but it's been a bit draining too. 

I think I'd better go and make another coffee. Or look at hotels online. 

I need a vacation. 

Tuesday 7 June 2011

This Is For Everyone Who Told Me

to test the Benadryl.


From the bottom of my heart.  The only good thing about this afternoon is that it's not happening on a plane.

Thursday 2 June 2011


This is how my children were unreasonable today:
They got angry and frustrated at me for cleaning cat vomit off the floor.  They didn't want me to get out the cleaning kit; they wanted food and they wanted it right then. My selfish insistence on getting the puke cleaned up rather than putting their highchairs in the middle of the goopy brown puddle was impinging on their Cheerio time and they did not like it, no they did not like it one bit.  I cannot say just how crazy this drives me. If they were getting antsy because I was reading a book, or learning to make cake pops, or doing one of the twelve hundred other things I want to be doing and don't have time for then okay, fair enough. Yell your little hearts out, kiddos. Mummy is being selfish; shout until she remembers her responsibilities. But seriously, children. Cat vomit? I can't find any way to make them understand that I do not want to be cleaning up vomit. Do they really think I am choosing to do this because I don't love them? Do they really think I would be on my hands and knees getting a face full of this particular substance if it wasn't absolutely necessary?  Apparently so. They howled and howled and I got madder and madder as I scrubbed it up and wondered how did this happen, that I even get an earful of mother-guilt when I'm doing stuff that I don't want to do? 
This happens all the time. Later they were at it again. Blue had filled his nappy in impressive style and based on the smell, it needed changing pronto if we didn't want to throw out all of our soft furnishings.  This led to a four-legged, four-handed cyclone because Blue didn't want to have his nappy changed and Pink didn't want me to put her down so I could do it. Blue writhed on the changing mat, kicking and screaming, angry and frustrated because he wanted to be running-running-running, not staying still and attending to personal hygiene. Pink wailed down below, clutching my knee and throwing her little body to the ground, angry and frustrated because I wasn't quick enough to get Blue off the mat, pick her up again and cuggen, mama, cuggen.  None of my entreaties to look at Mummy's face look at mummy's face LOOKATMUMMY'SFAAAAAACE had any effect on either of them. Again, I was facing serious toddler-wrath even though I didn't even want to be doing the thing that was making them mad. And that made me really mad.  
So I guess this is how I was unreasonable today:  I got angry and frustrated at my children because they were acting like (almost) two-year-olds.
I try to remind myself that actually, it's reasonable that they don't have any concept of time. It's reasonable that they can't see even thirty seconds into the future and understand that what is happening RIGHT NOW will not always be happening. It's reasonable for them not to realise that the cat-vomit-cleaning, the nappy change will end and the cheerios or cuddles will start again. It's reasonable that they don't understand any of this. 
But I guess it's also reasonable that I don't like being kicked in the windpipe by a raging child. It's reasonable that I don't like being bitten so hard that it draws blood. And you know what? I really don't like it. And so their reasonable plus my reasonable equals one great big fat maelstrom of unreasonable.  This is where I get angry at them for being angry. I yell at them for yelling. Sometimes, as the words stop shouting! come roaring out of my mouth I hear myself and think Okay, which one of us in this room is acting  most like a toddler right now? Oh right, it's me.

When I think about how frustrated and angry I get with them, I swing wildly between self-loathing and self-justification. On one side, I say to myself 'You've had a long day, they're being utterly unreasonable, it's no surprise that you snapped'.  The other side says 'How could you have yelled so angrily at your precious baaaaaybeeeees! You are not worthy of them! They deserve better than you!' 

I suppose both sides are right, and both sides are wrong.  When they are being little horrors, losing my temper with them is understandable, but it's not okay.  Just like their kicking and biting is understandable, but ultimately not okay. We are the same as each other, them and me. The problem isn't really the frustration, it's what we do with the frustration.  I need to train them to learn self-control in difficult situations, but sometimes I feel like such a hypocrite. 

I never thought I had difficulties with my temper until I had toddlers, but r
ight now I struggle more than I could ever have imagined.

Christians often say that having children opens surprising new windows into what the Father-love of God is like.  I was sceptical about this while we waited for ours. I knew I would love my children a lot, I knew God loved me a lot. No surprises lurking there, surely? In a way, I was right. The love I feel for them is deep and true and wonderful, but it hasn't been a surprise. I longed for that sort of love and now it's here, hooray. No, what has surprised me is that sometimes my utterly beloved children are so awful I don't even want to be in the same room as them. And yet I still love them. 

At the moment, as I see my toddlers spin around, confused an unaware and totally unable to control their impulses I keep being hit by the fact that God must see me in just the same way. They want everything right now. They have no patience. They have no self control. They destroy things. They are always complaining. And every time I put this into words - to complain about them- I am forced to admit that the person I am really describing is me.  
Yet God as my Father continues to love me like his own precious toddler. For me, this has been my new window. Not the depth of God's love, but it's strength - that it must be strong enough to keep going even when I'm really, really annoying

So that's a reason to be thankful, and I am. But what am I going to do about the fact that my own behaviour is toddlerrific? After one of my children has a tantrum, the way our house works is that they need to look at my face and say sorry.  Then I tell them I forgive them, give them a cuddle and it's over, forever, forgotten (if it was an infraction against the other twin they have to apologise to them, too).  I don't want them pretending that they didn't do anything wrong, but I don't want them to keep thinking about it, either. I don't want them to sit there feeling guilty for what's already happened, I want them to leave that behind and do better next time. 

I think this is what I should be applying to myself as well. When I lose control and get angry with my children, I need to stop making excuses about why I couldn't help it and man up and admit I was wrong - to God, to myself, to the children. Whatever the provocation, I should not have done it. I need to ask for their forgiveness, and then I need to get over it and do better when the next pressure point comes.  Which will probably be in about ten minutes' time.  Sometimes I wallow around feeling guilty about my parenting because it's easier than actually making changes. Guilt sort of feels good because it makes me feel like whoever did that yelling and screaming wasn't the real me. Guilt is cheap. And ultimately, it's a bit of a cop-out.  Believe me, I speak from experience. 

So what can I say? It's easy for me to make grand resolutions right now; my children are napping. I was a great mother before I met them, and I suspect I'll be really great again once they've left home. But in the days and weeks and months (and aeroplane flights) ahead, I need to practice modelling the kind of self-control that I would like them to be learning.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Failing and falling and trying again. And again. And again. 

Hmmmmm. Nothing about this mothering thing is easy, is it?