parenting

Alice Munro and all those women who had to find the time

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Some time ago a friend sent me a link, just saying: “I thought about you while reading this. Have a look”. I have a certain aversion to links and seldom open them. Most of the times any email containing a link ends up straight in the trash. But this time it was real good. The article, published by The Guardian at the beginning of October, is a sort of anthropological study of famous writers’ daily habits. It took me a while to understand why my friend thought of me. After all, I don’ t indulge in alcohol and drugs (not as much as my creative side would like, anyway), don’t wake up at dawn, am unable to stick to a schedule and, most of all, I am not a famous writer.

Towards the end of the article I found the only lines I could relate to and felt something between elation and depression:

” Alice Munro.

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In the 1950s, as a young mother taking care of two small children, Munro wrote in the slivers of time between housekeeping and child-rearing. When neighbours dropped in, Munro didn’t feel comfortable telling them she was trying to work. She tried renting an office, but the garrulous landlord interrupted her and she hardly got any writing done. It ultimately took her almost two decades to put together the material for her first collection, Dance Of The Happy Shades”.

I have been writing since I learnt to and, to put it simply, there is not much I can do beside it. (cooking, maybe. But I only briefly toyed with the idea of making a living out of that). From the essays and literary competitions in school till the day I sat in front of a laptop as a professional journalist, I have felt that urge to put my thoughts and feelings into words, to observe, analyze and sometimes detangle lives, habits, dreams and weaknesses in my fellow human beings.

When I was on my own, I spent my whole day reading, writing, watching films and bad tv. It was great. Then life happened, and I wanted it to happen, don’t get me wrong. Those thoughts that once became words, letters, emails, essays now stay in my head for a couple of hours while I look at the chicken’s expiration date, pay the weekly grocery shopping and drive absent-mindedly, so that I always get lost and forget where I was going. They come while I talk to the children and suddenly I keep saying yes or no or I don’t know without listening to their question and they get upset and yell: “Mami, are you listening or whAt?”.

At some point, passed the early infancy stage, I thought I had it under control. I worked hard on a book I ended up hating for almost a year. And it worked. Then came November, and my first NaNoWriMo. I still remember the overwhelming joy on the morning of the 1st of November, 2012, sitting with a huge teapot in front of my unfinished novel. Unfinished, but still loved, every time I lay eyes on it. I walked on clouds for barely a week. Then pneumonia hit the house and goodbye literary aspirations. More or less at that same time, I started this blog. If I can’t keep focus for longer than a day, at least I’ll be writing something.

I wasn’t new to blogging: I’d had a couple in my 20s. One that covered the time between my engagement and my married life. It was fun but once at the end of the ride, I didn’t think it could live simply as an online, public journal of a too ordinary life. I tried out another one on being a new mom and lasted a couple of months. Truth is, I had some lyrical moments while busy with prams and milk bottles and my friends urged me to cheer up a larger audience but I realized almost immediately that it didn’t define me. It was, and it is, a part of me, probably the best. But I felt like I was talking of an arm, when I wanted to write about the whole thing.

I started this blog impulsively while high on powerful antibiotics and thought none would listen. Plus, I struggled between languages for a few days because I had never written actively in English (sauf emails and some crappy free-lance articles) yet I didn’t want to stick to my native language, which I don’t master  they way I used to. The first like happened in the middle of the night. When I found it in the morning, I laughed. it felt like when I was six, and got an obsession for putting letters into glass bottles and then leave them to the sea. Someone actually found that bottle this time.

I have blogged as much as I could this past year. And yet, it is not enough. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in and out of the hospital with one of my children (he’s fine now, thanks) and as every time a small disaster hits home, I go back into brackets and wait, silently, for the storm to pass.

I maybe suck at running my household but I feel I am not alone. How many women, out there, put their dreams in a drawer to dive into real, happening-now, heartbreakingly bare life and at the same time keep opening an inch of that drawer some nights, when everybody’s sleeping, just to make sure those dreams are not gone?

I chose to raise my children in total freedom and every day I am more convinced I couldn’t have it any other way, given the circumstances of my everyday life and the joys of the job. (Yes, it is filled with joy. And a few migraines. But there’s strong stuff to cure that).

Still, I can’t but wonder: what was Alice Munro thinking during all these years, when she was filling lunch boxes in the mornings and getting up in the middle of the night to change a wet bed?

Going home and living in a bubble: when you take a holiday from expatriation

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Everybody needs a holiday once a year. Some need physical rest, some others a change of scenery. Some need time to spend with their loved ones and yet some need space to find their true selves. My expat self (which counts for a shocking percentage of the whole thing) needs its own vacation from time to time. Going to the homeland is not enough, as an expat often goes through a phenotypic transformation that prevents any true relaxation in familiar surroundings. I have to confine myself to my parents’ house, in the middle of a sun-kissed countryside, rich in olive trees and vineyards and cats. And not much else, to be honest. Here I am not an expat, nor a mother and not even an adult. It’s my personal Neverland.

My two decades of expatriation translate to my parents as a series of odd and worrying eating habits (some years I rant about the importance of organic, some others on my new egg-dairy-wheat free regimen, this year I am all into protein and greens powder in my morning smoothie…); a mild weight gain related to growing old, having kids and living in a sun-deprived country and maybe (maybe!) a surge of occasional wisdom. That’s it. They never asked a single question on how life is out of the national borders or who I made friends with or what people say, up there, about us down here. They don’t care. I am just their child and as unnerving as it was in the early expatriation years, when I just wanted to tell them over and over again how cool I was for living abroad my little adventure, I ultimately find it relaxing. The show is over for a few weeks and since none is interested in my personal philosophy I can even take some time off from my usual rantings.

My children are the actual stars of the season and I can’t even compete. Who’d want to spend time with an almost middle-aged and compulsively dieting child when you can hang around with a couple of blondish, angelic-faced little things who will love you more for every candy you hand them? And what child would obey to the same ol’ lady he sees and hears every day when reality suggests she’s not boss anymore?

So that is how I stop being a mother in my little home bubble . My children don’t recognize my authority anymore and deliberately choose to follow the grandparents’ lead. Which is always sugar-coated. Literally.

There was a time when I tried revolution. You know, teenage style. Like telling my parents all the time how child rearing was a different story up north, how they were stuck in pre-liberal era, how we should educate children to become independent individuals and not spoiled pets. How plastic toys were to be banned, as were DVDs and candies. How mine was a sugar free house and how “youknowsugarisreallybad”, how modern people live now and eat healthily and so “no carbs please, what with all that pasta?”. It didn’t work. I didn’t insist.

I now enjoy this magic place where I can retreat to my room as my 16 years old self (minus the oily skin and the perpetual love chagrin) and when I occasionally switch on my hearing to catch my mother telling her grandsons that “there is a big, nasty man going around houses to take away all the naughty children” in the same way her mother used to talk me into eating my lunch I don’t care anymore. I’ll tell them later there is no such thing as the nasty man, in case they’d be actually worried about him. In the meantime I’ll just lie down and savor the free time.

When holidaying becomes a job: packing for four

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Expats are not all made the same but they often tend to be independent, restless, always-on-the-go individuals. Who like to travel light. I never understood how it could take a day to pack a luggage or what was the point of bringing literally your house on your back as a snail risking major physical injuries when you could just grab the essentials and give yourself the freedom of changing plans, running to catch that last train and hop on the overcrowded bus. Well, now I do. Understand.

Last Friday was “Graduation Day” at school. Theoretically it’s an actual school day, the last of the year but the teachers made very clear since the previous week that, well, “parents can come around 10.30 to have a drink and talk to us” and “maybe you can take your children home at 12.00”. So a very tired group of moms paraded in class, with the half-scared look of someone who’s about to enter jail while the teachers looked for the first time in the whole year rested, made-up, with whiter teeth, rosier cheeks and a happy, bright light in their eyes. They, on the other side, were prisoners about to be released. For a couple of months.

Since then, it’ been a roller coaster ride. My childhood memories are of drawing, coloring and sitting quietly in a corner, not even supervised by an adult. Thirty years ago children weren’t much more of a job than pets. This generation, though, is definitely more demanding: my boys get bored easily, know always what they want to do (eat candies, go to the cinema, make cupcakes, eat pizza, climb trees and break windows while playing football…not always in this order) and won’t take no for an answer.

After being their slave for the past four days, I have finally found a way out: a mosaic class, where they will decorate some frames with a bunch of well behaved, pink clothed and pig-tailed girls. I needed the day off not to go get that pedicure I am dreaming of since a few weeks but to accomplish the terrible task of packing for four.

My light travelling days are gone and I have to stack clothes, medical equipment, favorite stuffed toys and a mountain of sticker books with the performance anxiety linked to Ryanair’s luggage weight standards and the risk that I forget that very little thing that of course they needed the most.

So, I apologize for not being a good chat right now but packing for four has certainly taken the best of me. I will be back soon, hopefully. If Ryanair doesn’t detain me for breaking some of their absurd regulations.

Little Expats II: Tiger mothers and The Pursuit of Happiness

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Some say that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens here will eventually happen to the rest of the Continent. It is indeed the place where different and far away cultures manage to mix together with the privilege of remaining largely unaffected by the host country. In this frameless picture I made my first real life encounter with a tiger mother.

The picture above shows my son’s kindergarten homework. They started to familiarize with letters and sounds at the beginning of the school year and although teachers stressed the importance of having a routine in exercising a little bit everyday, they also insisted that children shouldn’t be forced to do their homework at this stage (thanks God!) otherwise they could develop a negative attitude towards the whole learning process (catastrophic as it sounds…).

My son is doing his letters, as often as I remember to pull the notebook out of his backpack. Which is not everyday but at least once a week.

The other day I walked him to class and my eyes fell on an open notebook, in a corner of the room. Unlike my son’s, that notebook was immaculate on the outside and letters were neatly drawn, minuscules and majuscules. All with the same, perfect black ink. Instead of the usual three lines under the given text, a full page of letters was completed and there were no finger or food marks around the lines. I looked around for the owner of the perfect notebook and it came out it belonged to the Chinese girl of the class. The teacher followed my look and understood what was going on in my head and tried to console me. “She has a tiger mother, don’t look at that notebook!”.

The Chinese, perfectly combed girl may have a tiger mother but then what about the Indian kids in the class who moved last September from Mumbai following their dads’ hi-tech jobs and walked into class the first day already knowing the whole alphabet?

I asked an Indian friend if all Asian parents were so competitive regarding their children’s achievements in school. She wasn’t surprised: “Yes, of course they are. It’s pure logic: if you want to stand out in countries like India and China you have to be the best and to be sure you’ll be exactly that you start to work hard. Since the very beginning”.

Standing out and working hard were part of European post-WWII education. The stuff my parents’ generation was made of. My generation got it a little softer: we had to work, and enjoyed being first but the idea that maybe it was not all about success had started to make its way into our head, and behavior and inner values.

The generation after mine – say, guys in their early 20s – are way less attached to past symbols of success. They want to change the world more than they want to make money. They want to get a degree but don’t think anymore that the world will fall apart if they don’t. They want to know who they are and they crave happiness and self fulfillment way earlier than we did. This is old, comfortable, sinking Europe at least.

When we went to California, The Husband met a friend who has moved there a few years ago. “I set a rule in my house for the kids: no more work after 9 – he said – otherwise they would be up till midnight to study as their American classmates do. That is not healthy”. Working hard to achieve one’s objectives is still a typical American trait while in Europe we think that you should never forget that there is more to life than work.

When I told my Belgian friends about the tiger mothers at school, they shrugged their shoulders: “Yes, but then what? Do we want stressed, overachieving children? Don’t we prefer them to enjoy childhood, play outside and be happy?”. Of course we want them to be happy. But my point is: Can we still afford it?

In a global world, where the work market is almost free of entry barriers, can we still think that competitiveness is a wartime thing? Will happiness really matter in twenty years time?

What do you think?

100 years of feminism and a little boy

8th of March, International Women’s Day. Around 8.30 am, I am strapping two reluctant kids into the car for the daily, exhausting, school run when something makes us have a surprising conversation. We cross our next-door neighbor, en route for work, power dressed and sort of stressed. Orange-haired by some incompetent colorist who probably took her seriously when she asked to go straight from a dark brown to a sun-kissed californian blonde, she is pregnant with her second child and I don’t like her. She has the lack of social skills a good number of career focused persons (men and women alike, but I always found it worse in women) show these times, her house smells of trash and her kitchen floor is full of empty glass bottles she apparently can’t dispose of. These few lines to give you a honest though maybe slightly biased description of the facts.

So, we cross the orange-haired career gal and my 4 years old asks: “where is she going so early in the morning?”

“Well, I guess she is going to work”

“To work? Where??”

“In her office”

“A office? Like a dad? That can’t be”

“Yes, of course, an office. Like a dad. Why are you surprised?”

“Because only dads go to work. Mothers have just a laptop at home. They don’t go out”

“Well, she does have a real dad’s job in a office with other people there. And many mothers do as well”

“Do you have an office?”

“No”

“Why not?”

Because I quit my job when i had you and never really got in the business again and so I’m stuck at home drinking way too many caffelattes and writing.

“Because I want to spend my afternoons with you and be there after school”

“Really? I thought mothers couldn’t have real jobs”.

That means at least a couple of things:

I am raising my boys as if they were born in the 50s

Belgian society is actually still in the 50s, where most of the mothers don’t work while their children are in pre-school and sometimes resume a career in their mid-40s to escape the empty nest syndrome.

My feminist side was in some shock after yesterday’s school run. And what an irony, to discover two more male chauvinists in the house (beside their working-a-real-job-in-a-real-office dad) on Women’s Day.