Friday, November 30, 2007

I've been busy watching Bella breathe

I love my blog. Not only do I get to write about my favourite subject whenever I want, in whatever way I want, but I actually have readers who tell me what they think, and even come back for more. But perhaps the most surprising and rewarding aspect of MOTHERLAND has been the inspirational women it has introduced me to. In the last week alone I have talked attachment parenting with a couple here who are about to adopt nine-month-old twin boys, and have received an email asking for friendship and support from a British woman living and working and mothering in Mongolia. What a privilege. Both of them should have blogs – they would be far more interesting than mine.

Still, there are days when I wake up and wonder what on earth I was thinking starting up this beast so soon after the birth of my second child. Those are the days when all I want to do is stay in bed with Bella, or go and read a story at Jemima’s school, but I know that if I do not keep the momentum up, I will lose readers. This week I had to remind myself that while I will always be able to write, my babies will be up and fleeing the nest before I know it. As a result I have hardly written a thing.

A part of me feels anxious because when I do not post regularly my readers don’t come back so regularly. And I need to be able to show agents I have a fan club, if I am ever to get my book published. But a greater part of me has just loved wallowing in motherhood this week, rather than writing about it.

Instead of running to the computer as soon as Bella falls asleep each morning, I have sat and held her in my arms, on my own or with a friend and a coffee. Just watching her breathe.

In the two afternoons that Jemima has gone to play at a friend’s house, I have not rushed home to write, while Bella feeds and sleeps on my lap, as I so often do, but have lounged on the sofa with a friend and her own new baby, talking about life, death and the wonders of explosive breast milk poo. It has been bliss.

Yesterday I took Jemima and Bella to visit four siblings who were orphaned earlier this year. I have only met them twice before. The first time was at their dying mother’s side, in a room behind the hospital where they lived for three months. I was seven months pregnant. The second time was with a one-month-old Bella in my arms, at their mother’s funeral. Yesterday was a happier occasion, at their new foster home in the countryside. But despite their beautiful smiles, I know they miss their mother terribly. I can imagine the butterflies they feel in their stomachs when they wake after a night filled with dreams of her.

I will write all about them and their mother on Monday. For now, I just want to sit with my children and give thanks for the chance I have to watch them grow each day. These are precious times.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Toys are over-rated. A few simple play ideas for the Christmas hols

I’m writing this post on our bed with Bella lying next to me. I’m trying to interest her in a multi-coloured musical bumble bee with crunchy wings, though I am sure it won’t be long before she finds it exhausting and decides to chew on her thumb instead. This is not surprising given that she is only four and a half months and spends most of her life on someone’s lap or in someone’s arms. Still, I think toys are over-rated.

I remember when Jemima was a baby, a friend told me that she could never do what I was doing - stay at home full-time with her child - because she would go crazy “sitting on the floor playing with toys all day”. So would I. I love the whole peek-a-boo, tickle and raspberry-blowing thing for a short while – I’ll be doing that any minute no doubt – but I soon get bored of cooing. And I didn’t get into using toys for play until Jemima was well into toddlerhood.

No, no. Generally my favourite way to pass a day with a baby in my care would be to spend much of the morning in bed, drinking tea, eating toast and cuddling, feeding, reading and writing. You can’t beat taking a bath together in the middle of the day. Ideally this should be followed by a massage, a feed and a long sleep. Then I’d take a walk with my babe in the sling (Ahhh, my sling. A parent's best-friend). If it’s raining, I'd get inspired in the kitchen listening to the radio and cook dinner, also using the sling. And at some point a friend turning up for tea would be nice.

Hmmm, writing this has me dreaming about the old days with Jemima in England. It is a little harder to achieve all this with two children. Although with Jemima at school in the morning Bella and I do a pretty good job of it. The only difference of course is that we live in Cambodia where the heat makes the sling a less attractive prospect – particularly in a kitchen with an ancient oven that heats up more on the outside than the inside. Oh, and there is nowhere to walk. I miss parks.

The thing I have always loved about being at home with my children is having the time to do things that I never could when I was working. Shortly after Jemima was born I began to volunteer for a refugee and asylum seekers’ charity. She accompanied me to meetings and home visits for a year. I loved the fact that I could do something that I felt passionate about, and that gave me plenty of intellectual stimulation, without having to be separated from my baby. Together we also made a beautiful garden, planted vegetables and I baked enough cakes to feed an entire colony of breastfeeding mothers.

Friends from the office asked whether I missed work and London. How could I switch so easily from an exciting, vocational NGO career involving travel and constant learning to domestic drudgery in the suburbs of the tiny city of Winchester (‘city’ because it has a cathedral, ‘small town’ in every other respect)? I never understood their concern. I had more time than ever to read the papers, listen to the debates on Radio 4 and, as every first-time parent knows, there is no learning curve steeper than getting to know and understand your baby. Besides, most babies and toddlers sleep for hours every day. I had precious time to write for the first time in my life. Oh, and housework and supermarket shopping are far more interesting with a little person in tow.

Really, when I think about it, toys don’t have to come into the early years at all. Even now Jemima is three, and has plenty of them (no matter what I preach I am still vulnerable to peer pressure), she can spend half an hour lost in a game of her own creation, with a couple of pencils or rubber bands as props. At the moment everything she gets her hands on she personifies. She invents conversations between wooden spoons and plastic cups, and plays ‘mummies and daddies’ with an earring and a paper clip. She does have dolls, but post-it notes are apparently more interesting. She also has this amazing pink Barbie tent-castle thing in her room, given to her by her ‘spirit mother’ (I’ll explain another day), but she’d rather make her own camp with a couple of chairs and a sheet. We bought her a second hand toy kitchen, but she insists on taking a few bits of the play food and a plate over to the table and pretends to cook them there.

For totally child-led play I’m all for letting my child loose in the house, under my relaxed supervision. That way I can find out pretty fast what will keep her happy when I need a rest. I make sure all the cupboards within her reach contain the stuff she can play with – plastic pots, harmless kitchen utensils, saucepans etc. I allow her to rifle through my desk when I am in the mood, but am thinking of making her a little one of her own, which I could fill with all the stationary items I mentioned above, and a hole-punch and some scrap paper. Just imagine how many hours respite I could get once she discovers how to punch holes!

I’m also very happy for her to dismantle all the cushions on the sofa and arrange them on the floor. Not only is this one of her only forms of physical exercise in a city with no green space, but it is just so brilliant to play with her when she does this. We play boats and crocodiles, islands and monsters, trains, planes… the list is endless and it all comes from inside her head. All I have to do is sit there with Bella on my lap and a cup of tea and join on her on her journey.

Housework is always a good one too. Jemima loves dusting and helping me hang out the washing. Sometimes I give her a bowl of water and a bar of soap and some clothes. James and I discovered that gem one Saturday morning when we were both hung over - we watched her from our hammocks for nearly an hour.

And then there is cooking. Jemima has been chopping vegetables with me since she was two. She sits on the side next to the oven and stirs sauces … oh dear, this sounds bad. I realise that some people reading this will be horrified. Don’t be. She knows it is hot and dangerous and I do not leave her alone in the kitchen. As a result she offers to help mash potatoes, grate cheese, break eggs, weigh out flour, melt butter, and of course, lick the bowl. She makes a fine pizza. I can’t imagine how I would ever cook dinner if I did not encourage her to help me. It may take a little longer, and create twice as much washing up, but surely it will pay off soon. I am hoping she will bring me breakfast in bed by the time she is four. Besides, Jemima also loves to wash dishes.

Cooking is not the only way to satisfy a child’s urge to get messy and experiment with texture and touch. Jemima loves creams (what child doesn’t?). From time to time it goes very quiet in the house and I know that she is hiding behind some piece of furniture with her hands deep inside a pot of something – hopefully vaseline rather than expensive moisturiser. It took me a while to think creatively about how to deal with this carnal urge she has to smother her entire body with cream, but one day it dawned on me. Massage! I have been massaging Jemima since she was two days old, and, just as with breakfast, it’s surely about time she returned the favour. Now she is welcome to slather me with cream anytime she likes as long as she puts some muscle into it. On a good day I can get a whole five minutes out of her on each foot and leg.

When she is not working for her keep, my other favourite for Jemima is her dressing up box. It is filled with ridiculous dresses and shoes from the market, and scarves, beads, hats etc from charity shops back home.

I could go on and on but this is way too long already and Bella is waking up. I hope I have got your creative juices flowing in time for Christmas. If you are as fed up with the material gluttony of the west as we are, or as broke for that matter (relatively speaking of course, for all my dreaming about English playgrounds I have not forgotten I live in Cambodia), please rest assured that your kids really won’t be any happier with expensive shop bought toys. A little inspiration is all it takes to help enrich your pocket, your environment and your child’s imagination!

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Elephants, guns and goodbyes... just another week in PP

I have spent the last fifteen minutes trying to work out how to start this post. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is not easy to find a neat, concise way of explaining that, last Saturday, while my three-year-old daughter was riding down the road, perched high upon the back of Phnom Penh’s only resident elephant, Sambo, a man tried to throw rocks at the poor beast and threatened to shoot the mahoot. Yes, it’s a messy sentence, whichever way you look at it. This is what happens when I let James take care of the children.

Life is full of surprises here. I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday afternoon I had the rare opportunity of some time alone with Jemima. (Srey Mach stayed for the afternoon and looked after Bella). We took a cyclo down to the river to watch the preparations for the Water Festival which starts today.

Phnom Penh was excited! Large boats packed with people travelling from the provinces blasted music out to let us know they had arrived. Some towed long, dug-out canoes behind them, soon to be decorated like ancient war vessels. More of these sped by, powered by at least 20 perfectly-synchronised paddles on each side. The men on the end of each oar were standing up and chanting something, presumably to keep the momentum going. They were practicing for the boat races which will go on over the next three days. It reminded me of being back home in front of the telly cheering for Oxford to win the annual Oxford Cambridge boat race. My father still has his commemorative oars hanging on the wall of his study.

Sitting by the river watching the village teams at work, I realised that I was feeling something for the first time in Cambodia – community spirit. I wonder if this existed before the country was traumatised by thirty years of war and terror. And how many generations need to pass before it becomes possible again. If there is anytime of year when it feels likely, it is now. For the next three days Phnom Penh will be bursting with crowds. Most of Cambodia flocks to the city to celebrate the reversal of the Tonle Sap’s water flow, and the beginning of the fishing season. Most expats will be headed in the opposite direction.

I never understand why. This is the most colourful and festive national event in the Khmer calendar, and unlike most other celebrations, it takes place in the city rather than in the village pagodas. Phnom Penh lights up, literally. At night the trees, monuments, Royal Palace and main boulevards twinkle with white fairy lights, and fireworks flash in the sky. Last year we tuk-tuked through the crowds to the river and sat and watched the huge floats go by, each with its own light structure (Angkor Wat, Apsaras, ANZ bank’s corporate logo…). From a distance they look like flames on the water.

I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, by the river with Jemima. We stayed there for about an hour talking to the mottled crew that lives and works along its banks. Tiny, naked children and ancient women with toothless smiles tried to sell us snacks and toys. Polio and land-mine victims, and mothers, breastfeeding toddlers from empty, withered breasts begged for a few riel. As I ran out of cheer and small change, and Jemima tired of having her cheeks pinched by fascinated strangers, we retreated to a café and sat high up, overlooking the river. Jemima was delighted with her ice-cream. I was left with the now familiar feeling that that I had somehow copped out, that I could and should do more, the usual conflict of what is good for my daughter and what is good for Cambodians.

Then suddenly we forgot everything, because there, ambling along the river front, weaving in and out of SUVs, Tuk Tuks and motos, was Sambo, who is, as I was saying, Phnom Penh’s only resident elephant.

Although we have seen him many times walking alongside the traffic like this, (he goes home for his tea and rest at 4pm after a day’s work carrying tourists around the bottom of Wat Phnom), it never ceases to be surreal to see a tired, old elephant strolling along amidst the hustle and bustle of busy modern city life. As usual I wished I had had my camera.

“I rode on Sambo’s back at Lucy’s party!” Jemima shouted excitedly.

I did know this. James had told me when he came back from the farewell party on Saturday morning. Lucy’s mother had hired the elephant to take the kids for little walks up and down her street. Ingenious I thought. I do not generally support the use of elephants for our leisure but it is hard to begrudge a few small, very light kids an experience they will never get back home. And what a way to say goodbye to three years of living in Asia! I admit when I found out I did feel a little concerned about the chances of Jemima falling off on to the hard concrete, but then Sambo was a city elephant so he was hardly likely to trip or run.

What I had not yet been told (five days later) was that in Cambodia it is considered good luck to pass underneath the belly of an elephant. And, that apparently, to miss out on this rare, potentially life-changing opportunity incites a man to throw rocks at said elephant or threaten to shoot his mahoot!

Ah well, its all water under an elephant’s tummy now, and no one was hurt. We said good bye to Doris and Lucy last night after she spent a lovely afternoon playing with Jemima. They hugged for ages and it was a very odd feeling watching them walk down the street knowing that we are unlikely to ever see them again.

Ho hum, just another week in Phnom Penh. At least I can never complain that being a stay-at-home mother is dull.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Expecting too much from my toddler

I love my daughter’s pre-school teacher. She is a gorgeous, petite Australian with a smile that fills her whole face. By night she’s something of a party animal, with outrageous stories and a brilliant sense of humour. By day she is not that different. The best bit about ‘Teacher Lisa’ (There's no Miss … here) is that she is totally relaxed and entirely child-led. You know the kind - one who calls your child ‘spirited’ instead of ‘naughty’.

“Jemima needs a bath!” she laughed as I arrived the other day.

Jemima always needs a bath after school. She looks like a well-fed street urchin after a morning at Garden and Gecko, the small, parent-run pre-school that she has attended since she was three.

“So how’s she doing?” I asked, as we watched her bury her friend in the sand.

“Oh she’s full of fun” Lisa replied. Further investigation revealed that she was referring to the fact that Jemima likes to encourage other children to run about the room instead of sitting still.

I was not quite sure whether to laugh or apologise. I’m still getting used to the whole school thing and sometimes I feel a bit like I do at the hairdresser. I find I leave some of my self-esteem on the door step on the way in. And of course, although I know that this is normal behaviour for a happy, confident three-year-old girl brought up attachment style, and ‘child-led’ (ahem, mostly), I also want Jemima to be respectful and not to disrupt the few moments at school when they are actually required to sit still and listen. I was still fumbling for the right response when Teacher Lisa continued,

“It’s no problem. At this age we expect far too much. It’s not normal for them to sit still and it’s not good for them to be told what to do by a teacher all the time. This is why we do learning through play”. I wanted to hug her.

“Children need time and space. You know they have absolutely no concept of time until they are about eight? And when you really want them to do something I find tickling is really useful! I say ‘Oh I’ll just have to tickle you then!’ and they love it. They get on and do it straight away.

“And if they are taking too long over something I call out ‘last one to the door is a rotten egg!’ Works every time”

Everyday I learn a new technique from Jemima’s school for making getting out of the house fun, getting dressed into a game and generally ways that make us all much happier. And these days I find I really need to.

Five mornings a week of learning, through play or otherwise, is a lot for a tiny person to cope with. It is only three and a half hours and she adores it, but she is very tired as a result. I have no idea how children cope with longer school hours. Or their parents for that matter. I’ve yet to discover something more exhausting and soul-destroying than a tired, grumpy toddler at dinner/bath/bedtime.

Everything is fine as long as we do nothing in the afternoon. I have noticed a huge difference in Jemima’s mood and behaviour when she just hangs out at home or plays with one friend. It’s easy, she is happy and relaxed and bedtime presents no issue.

As soon as things get hectic, however - I have filled our weeks with too many afternoon activities involving too many children and adults recently - she turns into a demon child round about 5pm. Sorry, sorry, ok, call her ‘spirited’ (It has two meanings right?). Her tortured screeching of NO! Nooooo! can be heard from half way down the street. I always wondered why parents call this time of day the ‘witching hour’. Now I know. But I know that, in our house at any rate, it is entirely my fault and entirely avoidable.

It is frightening to behold my child change so dramatically in front of my eyes. I can see she is completely overwhelmed with exhaustion and distressing emotions that she simply cannot cope with alone. (Check out Margot Sunderland’s Science of Parenting for brilliant explanation and advice on this). I have to remind myself of this at the time of course. It is so easy to feel angry with her and raise my voice, when all she needs is gentle arms, soothing tones and a lot of sleep. These days when things get out of hand we play babies. I sit her on my knee and feed her supper and carry her around the house wrapped in a sarong and sing to her. She coos and pretends to talk in baby language. She loves it and I have learnt that Teacher Lisa is right. I expect far too much from Jemima and if I watch her and listen to her carefully, I can see she feels the same.

So I’m resolved to make her afternoons a lot more relaxing from now on. In fact I think my next post will be about ideas for toddler play at home. And given that there is ANOTHER national holiday in Cambodia coming up, I shall have lots of time to try them out before I share them with you!

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Wedding bells

Weddings again? Well I tend to write about what I know and feel. Right now this is about it. Perhaps if I can get these weddings out of my head and onto paper (virtually speaking) I'll make room for some greater inspiration.

It is not yet light outside our thick glass windows, shut tight against the solid rain that drums heavily on the roof and concrete ground. The fan whirs noisily. It is cold so I snuggle down under my sheet. I could almost be back home on a dark, wintry morning, were it not for the strange, tuneless wedding music ringing loud in my ears.

Not the modern Khmer pop music - crooning love songs, so often blasted at weddings. At least today they are playing traditional instruments. From under my pillow I think I identify a khaen, or high-pitched pipe, and the roneat, a large wooden xylophone. A monk’s song meanders up and down distractedly, not quite fitting the music.

Next door the dog howls and cries like a wolf. I think he is singing along but Srey Mach says he sees the ghost of his dead canine friend. Either way the total affect is surreal. You could laugh or cry. I laugh, somewhat hysterically, as one does when deeply sleep-deprived. Unfortunately my laughter wakes James. How unfair is that?

Normally I like this music. As part of Khmer culture I appreciate it and love to watch the musicians play. It reminds me of the group of landmine victims we came across in the forest near the temples of Angkor Wat. Each one was missing a limb. We stayed and listened for nearly an hour. Normally I find this music evocative of a culture I understand so little, hardly accessible in Cambodia today, so worn away by years of war and genocide.

But the culture of infiltrating every inch of the city with one’s own wedding music is a modern one and, at dawn it’s one I can do without.

Visitors to Cambodia will think me philistine, just as I love the sound of the Imam singing from the minarets in Muslim countries, where I have only ever been a visitor. But, honestly, you have to hear it to believe it. Six hours have passed since I woke to write the first bit of this post, and still they sing, chant and pipe down their megaphones and into my throbbing head.

There is only one thing for it. I’ll go and get Jemima home from school. She’ll help me see the funny side. Jemima loves to dance Khmer style. She’ll stand on one leg, hold her arms up in front of a dead serious face, eyes rolling, and twist her wrists and wiggle her fingers.

“Is this how the dancing women do it Mummy?” Bella will squawk with laughter, her latest acquired talent, and I’ll lighten up again.

Until tomorrow morning that is.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Today I discovered that, on Wednesday morning, at the same time as I was sitting at home writing my last post about the fragility of life, a young French woman was robbed from the back of a moto-taxi, just a few blocks away from our house. When they grabbed her bag she was pulled off the motorbike and into the middle of the road. As she was getting back up again, she was hit by a van and killed instantly. Both the motorbike and van drove off. Her name was Aurelia Lacroix and she was 28 years old.

I did not know her but I feel deeply saddened by this news and offer my sincere condolences to her family and friends. I also want to urge anyone who might be reading this in Cambodia to please take great care if taking a moto-taxi. I stopped taking motos several months ago after seeing too many accidents and hearing too many stories of bag snatching. There have been at least five in our street in the last month. Foreigners are being targeted more and more, particularly women. It's not surprising. They know we have money and women are easy prey. Every day I see western women sitting without helmets, side-saddle on the back of motos with their bags on their lap, or over their shoulder. It feels so free and it's such a cheap and easy way to get around. But it can't be worth the risk.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007


This week I am feeling intensely aware of the extreme fragility of life. I want to hold my children close to me all night, imprint the feel of their soft cheeks in my memory forever. My pressed up nose barely makes a dent in Jemima’s, they are as smooth and firm as an unpeeled mango. Bella’s are squishy like marshmallow, my nose sinks right in. I am so fortunate yet I can’t quite believe that my luck will hold.

Last night I opened my emails to see one from a dear African friend who has been seeking asylum in Britain for many years now. I will not disclose her personal details as her case is, unbelievably, still pending. But the content of her email was something we have both been waiting for. She has found her children! They are in her home country and she can speak to them over the phone. This should have been great news.

My friend has been living alone in a tiny flat on a depressing housing estate for four years. If it were not for her condition, she would be on the streets. But, as she is severely disabled, she is entitled to this social service. As a result of five years of torture, she is partially paralysed, doubly incontinent, regularly blacks out and falls down and in constant physical and emotional agony. I visited my friend every week for a year when Jemima was a baby, until we moved out here, never sure how she could stand the pain and injustice of seeing another mother with her children, while hers might have been dead for all she knew. News of their safety would lift her out of her depression, she was sure. It was all that she needed to hear.

Except that now her imagination is calmed, she has to live with what she now knows to be true. The pictures in her mind of her small children, just as they were when she was parted from them ten years ago, have been replaced with the knowledge that these young adults, always believing they were orphans, have been on the run, homeless, and hungry, though in the care of their aunt, for most of their childhood. The burden of guilt for having a roof, food and safety in Britain has made it impossible to sleep at night. She has not watched them grow up. She did not recognise her son’s deep, teenaged voice. She is helpless, unable to feed them, or reach out and touch them.

All around me it seems that people and animals are suffering. While my life is full of joy and ease, others may never experience anything beyond pain, loss and loneliness. It feels self-indulgent even to write about the suffering of others, as if I am assuming to know their pain, as if it makes a difference to my own happy existence. James wonders why I dwell on it all so much, given there is not much we can do about it. I don’t try to, it just consumes me sometimes. The young boy with the rust coloured hair, a sign of malnutrition, comes to me in my dreams, or interrupts my play with Jemima. He spends his days tied to his blind father, begging in the full sun outside James’s office. He must live nearby, along the ‘canal’, a stinking open sewer. This is his whole life, his childhood over, his future just as grim.

So if I write it all down perhaps we will all be reminded of the simple fact that most of us just don’t know how good we have it. And that actually there is always something we can do.

On Monday I came home from dropping Jemima at school to find a crowd of people on the corner of our street. The small crossroads was blocked by an enormous gold Lexus and underneath was a mangled motorbike and a woman’s shoe. I’ll put you out of your misery straight away, the woman was safe. She was sitting huddled on the side of the road. No one paid her much attention, it seemed more interesting to try to come up with the solution for removing the motorbike with minimal damage to the car. This sight is nothing new. Accidents are so common in Phnom Penh that we see them several times a week. Last week in the same spot the offending vehicle drove off leaving three boys lying injured in the road. A tuk-tuk followed it and got the registration number – how lucky that they actually had one, many don’t bother – and the police caught up with them in the end. No doubt they got off with a hefty bribe. Sorry, I mean ‘fine’. James watched a man go flying a couple of weeks ago too. The driver sped off without waiting to see if he got up afterwards. He should have stayed because now he will never know, which presumably keeps him up at night. The man was ok.

Also on Monday, late in the evening, our night guard brought our tiny sweet cat to the door. She was in shock, covered in bites and scratches, had a tooth hanging out of a ripped gum and could not walk on her hind leg. Our neighbours’ (not the closet Khmer millionaires, but a Belgian/Vietnamese family) two dogs had savaged her in the street. In the summer they killed my friend’s cat in the same way.

I have never paid Puss Puss much attention. Pets in Cambodia have always seemed rather a waste of money given the level of human need. And we always worried about what would happen to one after we left. But she adopted us last year and after a month of trying to ignore her, we gave in. We had her vaccinated, named her Sophie Anna, according to Jemima’s wishes and have been feeding her ever since. She is not allowed in the house because James is allergic, and anyway it is just as warm outside. She has a good life but I have often felt guilty that I hardly ever touch her. Apart from regular mauling from Jemima, she is somewhat starved of affection.

So when I took her in my arms to examine her wounds, I was surprised to find myself filled with fury and pity. I washed her and carried her round to the neighbours, determined that they would see the damage their dogs had done. When they did not answer the bell, no doubt hiding inside, I called to them several times from the street until they could no longer ignore me.

“Monsieur! Puis-je parler avec vous s’il vous plait!”

My stifled outrage was met with shrugs and ‘what can I do?’ Apologise, do something about your dogs, and pay the vet’s bill, I replied. His final insult, after kindly agreeing to pay the bill, was to tell me that I only cared about the money and not my cat. This is untrue. In fact I have since felt so fiercely protective of her that it feels like I have a third child. Watching her dragging her floppy leg around the house (she is now inside, most of her fur has been shaved off anyway), her head in a cone to stop her from grazing her dog- teeth wounds with her rough tongue, inspires serious maternal instinct. It must be all the breastfeeding hormones.

You might be thinking it is inappropriate to write about my traumatised cat alongside such human suffering. I nearly didn’t. In Cambodia animals have to come second after all. But I come from a culture which places a value on animal life. And this experience is just one more reminder of life’s brutality and of life’s fluidity. It feels as though it could run out at any second. Besides, Cambodia is a Buddhist country so in theory any one of us could come back as a cat one day.

It is only Wednesday, so there is still time to cheer up. Tomorrow I am taking the kids to visit four orphaned children who are now living in with a foster family which we and some friends and family support financially. This should be a happy day. While we continue to mourn their mother we just are grateful that they have a new loving family to care for them. No doubt I shall write about this next. But maybe not this week.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Trapped between two weddings

Families following a Gina Ford style approach to parenting should not come to Cambodia right now. I’m not just talking about a holiday, either, though I am still unsure how anyone bound by such strict routine manages to get out of the house, let alone board a plane. Living here with children who require silence and blackout blinds in order to sleep might be problematic at any time of the year. But this month is the start of the wedding season in Cambodia. I am talking serious noise pollution.Take this weekend. Exhausted and recovering from a concoction of nasty viruses, we left Phnom Penh early on Friday morning (Independence Day), and headed for the sleepy, seaside town of Kep.

There really is nothing much going on in Kep apart from a few restaurants by the beach and a number of hotels dotted around the surrounding hills. In the 1960s it was a popular resort for the French living in Cambodia and was full of holiday villas overlooking the sea. But these were soon abandoned in the time of the Khmer Rouge. Now the blackened, mouldy shells of these houses stand eerily empty behind crumbling walls. Pretty wrought iron gate posts lead the way into overgrown jungles that must once have been beautiful, lush jasmine-scented gardens.

Actually, they are not quite abandoned. Most appear to be quietly occupied by poor Khmer families judging by the tell-tale signs of washing hanging out to dry along the walls, or a skinny white cow tethered among the weeds. There is not much to do other than swim, take a boat to one of the islands, eat seafood with picnicking Khmer families by the beach and watch the sun set over the water. Perfect for a lazy weekend with the kids. I intended to catch up on some much needed sleep.

On our way out of the city we passed so many wedding breakfasts that we lost count somewhere after 30. All over town bright canopies, usually red, orange and gold, are set up in the street outside the bride’s family house, slowing down the traffic as they take up half of the road. Underneath, round tables are laid for breakfast, each with its centre piece of a huge wrapped basket of crackers, sweets and fruit.

To one side, in the open air, the catering staff light charcoal fires and stir huge vats of rice porridge flavoured with tiny pieces of meat or chunks of fish and shiny round mushrooms. Later they will prepare more dishes for dinner, all to be eaten with neat little mountains of white rice. Whole baked fish covered with herbs (sweet basil and others I do not recognise, some more pungent and less delicious than others), hot and sour Tom Yam soup, stir fried peppers and cabbage with fat oily noodles, fried shrimp, pork, and chicken with green beans, Vietnamese spring rolls and perhaps Amok, the famous Khmer fish curry made with coconut and steamed inside banana leaves. Smells of fish sauce waft in the air, so familiar and yet this is something I will never get used to, let alone learn to love. Although we were relieved to be leaving the weddings behind for the weekend, I do love to watch them as we drive by.

At this time of day the tents are full of families, though the men often sit apart from their wives and children. Men often dress casually, but the women will always be stunning, if unrecognisable under so much make up, their black shiny hair perfectly sculpted on top of their heads. For breakfast and the day’s ceremony and visit to the temple they wear cream lacey tops and traditional sarong style long skirts woven with gold or silver thread. In the evening they will exchange their blouses for matching tops, or elegant, vibrantly coloured dresses, made of thick, raw silk, with short sleeves and long narrow skirts. If you ask any of the Khmer women we know to see the pictures of a wedding they recently attended, they are likely to pull a small photo album out of their bag. However you might be disappointed if you want to see the bride or groom, who sometimes wear up to 13 different outfits in one day. These albums are usually full of photos of the owner only. They will show you 20 different pictures of just her, in a range of outfits and poses. Srey Mait looks like an uncomfortable super model in hers, but she is far, far prettier in the unpainted, unadorned flesh.

After breakfast the tents often stay empty until 5pm, when the party reassembles for dinner. Sometimes there is a lunch, but usually the wedding families will spend much of the day at the temple while the guests go back to work. There is just one feature of the wedding that keeps going all day. The music. Sounds fine in theory I know, but did I mention the giant loud speakers that create the finishing touch to every Khmer wedding? Or sometimes it is a megaphone. Either way the point is to ensure that everyone in the neighbourhood knows that your children are getting married and that it is an honourable match. Unfortunately I think the main effect is simply to cause people, however much they appreciate parties and family celebrations, to groan in dread when they see a wedding tent go up in their street.

So you can guess where this is going. It is Saturday and I am ridiculously excited about the prospect of sleeping during the day while James is splashing about with Jemima. But as I lie inside our cool, whitewashed bungalow with Bella asleep in my arms, just slipping into what I know will be a deliciously deep midday nap, I hear it. The unmistakable plinkety plinkety of wedding music fills my ears. Bella does not stir, she is used to sleeping with any kind of noise around her, just like her sister. We have positively encouraged this, along with sleeping in the light or dark, and it has turned out to be one of our greatest parenting achievements. Given our nomadic lifestyle and the fact that we currently live in a country where fireworks and thunder resemble bombs and grenades, rain drums on the metal roof all night long for half the year and the day begins at 5am to the tune of howling dogs and the rhythm of sweeping of yards and clanging of pestles and mortars, you can see why this would be an advantage. I keep my eyes closed, trying to find something lulling in the man’s voice, and I can. It’s going to be ok. I can fall asleep to this. I am, I’m falling… you’ve got to be kidding! I jump up in a rage as I hear a louder, harsher tune competing from the opposite direction. The vocals of this one are high pitched.

We were trapped between two weddings. I hate to sound melodramatic but ask any expat living in Cambodia what is the worse thing that could happen to them and I am pretty sure that ‘to be trapped between two weddings’ would feature high up on the list. I left Bella sleeping and decided to go and watch. If you can’t beat them, join them, right? We could take some pictures, I told Jemima, and off we went.

Of course this is the only picture we got because it was midday. That is to say, that, while this music was blaring out ruining any chance we had of enjoying our afternoon, the tent was empty and the wedding guests were somewhere else, no doubt enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's this expat life like for our children?

Living in Cambodia, far away from family and close friends, can play havoc with my emotions. There are days when I question what the hell we are doing here and scour the internet for last minute deals on flights back home. I complain so much you would think I was in exile, rather than on a chosen adventure. Other days I just feel thankful for all the opportunities this exciting life gives us. Either way, I wonder whether it is the right thing for our children. Usually I am confident that it is.
Today was a good day. As Jemima, Arabella and I were coming home from a friend’s house in a tuk-tuk, I felt totally happy and at home. Dusk is my favourite time of day in Phnom Penh. I am always surprised at how huge and dramatic the sun looks as it sinks down behind roof tops, leaking red and orange all over the sky. The streets were full of people going home on their motos, smiling and waving at us. Colourful wedding canopies were being setup on the pavement outside houses.

“Did you enjoy today?” I asked Jemima, knowing that she would say yes. We had been with her best friend Sofia, whose mother Anya teaches yoga for kids. She had taken us on a journey to the beach, where we played with dolphins, swam like jelly fish, sea horses and octopus and scuttled like crabs. Jemima loved it. I am sure I could find a kid’s yoga class in Hampshire too but I doubt I could afford it.

“We’re going away this weekend and so I will never, ever, ever see Sofia again!” she announced.

“Yes you will, darling! We are only going to the beach. You’ll see her at school on Monday.”

Although she seemed entirely unmoved by her statement, I was taken aback. She has been talking about ‘home’ a lot lately.

Yesterday she wanted to go to England to see her cousins and live in her ‘other house’. And this morning, as she packed a small bag and put her doll in her buggy, she explained, quite matter of fact:

“I’m going home. Good bye, Mummy, give me a hug, I’m leaving now.”

“You are home already, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m going to my other home. The great big home with a swimming pool!”

Clearly she is confused. And it is hardly surprising given that we have only recently returned from a long summer spent house-sitting for five different friends, before and after Bella’s birth. She knows that she is not Cambodian, that she once lived in England, where she was born, and where her extended family lives, and that we will one day go back to live there again. I am not sure where the swimming pool fits in, but she is allowed to dream.

It is not that I am not worried about her happiness. She has a great life here, adores her small, parent-run pre-school as much as I do, has a ridiculous number of little friends to play with, and, most amazingly, gets to have breakfast, go to school, and eat lunch and dinner with her father nearly every day. She doesn’t know this, but she enjoys a life of luxury that we could never be able to afford in the UK. From exciting holidays in the region, to the little things, like going out for breakfast, or an ice-cream, I am trying to teach her to value and appreciate it all. (I am not sure I always go about this the right way though. I told her the other day, when she complained about her dinner, that she was lucky to have anything to eat and that the little boy who comes to the house will eat anything he is given because he doesn’t know when he will next get to eat. It worked - she ate up her entire meal very quietly, but I think I could find gentler ways in future.)

She doesn’t know, either, that life in the UK would be a lot more humdrum. Much more of her time would be spent strapped into car-seats looking at roads full of cars and no people, being pushed around supermarkets, having to find indoor pursuits on cold rainy days. She would miss the freedom of hopping on a tuk-tuks, the constant stimulation and interaction with people on Phnom Penh’s vibrant streets, and the lifted spirit that comes from having constant sunshine and blue skies. Apart from missing out on the brilliant parks and playgrounds, which are entirely lacking in Cambodia to my eternal chagrin, she has a pretty good deal here.

Still, it is hard to feel so confident that this is the right choice, when your daughter persists in role-playing at flying home, and wanders around the house looking for her passport.

I suppose I have been waiting for the time when Jemima would start to ask about our life here, and this is the beginning of it. She understands that there are many different languages in the world, and has recently resisted speaking Khmer. Instead she delights in telling Cambodians, when asked “Sok Sabay?” that “We speak English, and you don’t.”

She understands that most of her friends are not Cambodian and she can tell me where they all come from. One friend is about to leave Cambodia for good, to go back to Germany. All of this she seems to take in her stride and it is pretty easy for me to explain it to her. More complicated will be the questions about why her life is so different to the Cambodian kids she sees on the street every day.

Yesterday, as we waited for James outside his office, which faces onto an open sewer, a young boy came up to us, tied by a rope to his blind father. I gave him some money and asked him if he went to school. Jemima wanted to know what we were talking about and kept looking as we drove off. When I asked her what she thought that must be like for a little boy, to have to stand in the hot sun all day asking for money for his father who could not see, she just looked blank. Obviously this was way beyond her sphere of imagination, but somewhere deep inside her, this experience must have made its mark. Somewhere in her sub-conscience, as we pulled up outside our house, in our clean, leafy street, she must have registered the injustice and plain, simple wrongness of what she had seen. I hope so. Because on a good day in Cambodia, I think this might be the main reason why we are here. We have little impact on the lives of Cambodian children after all, how ever much we try to do for them. But we are raising two children of our own. And while I don’t want to compromise their own idyllic, care-free childhood, just because other less fortunate children can’t have the same, I do want them to grow up to be compassionate, socially responsible adults, with an appreciation for what Cambodia has given them and a desire to give something back one day.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Having kids need not cost the earth

Find below an article on the ethical dilemmas of modern parenting published in October 2005, in the brilliant ethical living magazine, New Consumer.

From nappies to toys to prams, we must have it all! As new parents become perfect prey to the advertising industry how can we continue to consume responsibly and do the best for our children? Georgiana Treasure-Evans examines some of the ethical issues facing parents today and looks at the alternatives to the mainstream production and consumption of disposable nappies, baby’s equipment and toys.
Born free

I thought becoming a mother would mean I could switch off from the world for a while and think about nothing but my new baby. But as I came away from my last antenatal class with my Bounty Bag full of free samples of Persil, Johnson and Johnson baby oil and a Pampers disposable nappy, I realised I was in for a rough ride.

My conscience troubled me enough before I had Jemima, but parenting is an ethical minefield. Not only do I see her face in every child worker in a toy factory, I also know that even if I don’t live to see the impacts of environmental destruction and overflowing landfills, she might.

Balancing this heightened conscience with the desire for everything to be just perfect for your baby requires more energy than most new parents can muster. If we buy a second-hand car seat in the interests of the environment will it be safe enough for our child? Will her development be hindered without the latest toy from the Early Learning Centre? Once confident individuals who knew our own minds, we can soon become timid, vulnerable creatures desperately seeking approval as we stumble precariously into the baffling world of parenthood.

Not only are we ideal prey for advertising agencies, we also have to cope with peer pressure – real or perceived. There is nothing like a mums and babies coffee morning to destabilise your confidence in everything you believe in. I have always followed the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle (the National Childbirth Trust’s Nearly New sales are hard to beat.). But my bargain second hand pram did not seem so great when parked up in a line of shiny new buggies half its size. Suddenly it seemed huge and ungainly: positively pre-war. Luckily for me Jemima prefers to ride on my back. It will probably end up back with its friends at Winchester’s recycling centre - a fine home for all those things we thought we could not do without.

Bombarded with advice from all corners we rush out to buy toys, cots, highchairs, car seats, baby baths, bouncers, bottles, sterilisers…the list goes on. Much of it comes from China, whose government forbids any Trade Union to operate other than its own, and other countries where many factories employ cheap labour under sweatshop conditions. And it is nearly all made of plastic.

Most major toy companies, (e.g. Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Disney, Mattel, Hasbro), children’s fashion retailers, (e.g. Gap, Matalan, Asda), and baby equipment retailers (e.g. Britax, Graco, Mamas and Papas, Maclaren), have sourced their products from sweatshops in the past, have poor environmental records. Though they are apparently in the process of improving their working conditions, they remain under the eagle eye of corporate watch groups. Many of the big pharmaceuticals (e.g. Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Johnson & Johnson) that produce disposable nappies, medicines, and baby bath products, are more powerful than governments. Their influence is more often used unethically, e.g. to support oppressive regimes or deprive poor countries from life-saving drugs, than as a force for good.

Despite this most corporate watch groups (e.g. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Corporate Watch, Asia Monitor Resource Centre) and campaigning organisations (e.g. War on Want, Clean Clothes Campaign, Friends of the Earth) agree that it is better to lobby the companies to encourage best practice, than to boycott.

If this advice does not sit comfortably with you then do not despair. From PVC free potties to recycled cardboard Wendy houses, there is a world of green and fair trade alternatives out there and they are thriving. Jill Barker started her company Green Baby five years ago when she couldn't find environmentally friendly, safe products for her son. She started out selling real nappies from a tiny shop in North London, and since then the business has → grown and grown. Now they sell organic cotton clothing and nappies, organic toiletries, maternity wear, baby equipment and colourful toys - all produced in an environmentally sustainable way, and following the principles of fair trade. Although a little more expensive than the impossibly cheap mass-produced high street brands, they do not cost the earth.

Which brings me to what is arguably the biggest single ethical issue facing parents today: the great nappy debate. Despite the recent controversial Environment Agency findings that there is no significant environmental difference in using real nappies instead of disposables, the overwhelming evidence shows that Britain cannot ignore the devastating impact of the latter on our environment.

In the UK we throw away about eight million nappies a day - nearly three billion every year - according to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN). 90% of these end up in landfills, costing individual local authorities hundreds of thousands of pounds per year (Nottinghamshire estimates £1 million per year). Disposable nappies are the largest single product in our household waste. While waste amounts are still rising, the EU Landfill directive requires a reduction of 35% in biodegradable waste over a 25 year period.

WEN advocate the use of real nappies, preferably organic cotton or hemp, washed at 60°C with eco-friendly detergent and dried by airing rather than tumble dryer. Following this advice can have a low global warming impact → compared to the hugely destructive manufacturing processes and waste management of disposable nappies that contain superabsorbent chemicals, paper pulp, plastics and adhesives.

Washable nappies can also save a family £500 per baby. While disposables will cost parents about £800 per baby over a period of two and a half years, real nappies can be used over and over again, becoming more absorbent each time. My daughters’ nappies are on their 4th life and are already promised to another baby who is yet to be born.

Sceptics take note. I am not talking about the terry towelling square and safety pinned affair that our mothers had to struggle with. Modern washable nappies come in all shapes and sizes, are colourful, practical, easy to use and effective. No boiling or pinning required.

Fiona Garrett, of WEN Scotland, set up the Renfrewshire Real Nappy Network, with the aim of educating mothers in the most disadvantaged local areas. She and fellow volunteers visit mothers and toddlers groups, nurseries, and health professionals, to introduce the idea of using real nappies. She says: “The women are very receptive. They are concerned about the cost of disposables, but they also care about the environment. We describe the landfills in some of the most socially deprived parts of Scotland. They relate to that. And they are always amazed by how easy real nappies are to use.”

So why, given the benefits to our environment and to our purse, do few parents use real nappies? The extra effort involved may put some people off, but surely the fact that supermarkets and chemists do not stock real nappies is a greater disincentive. Once again we are at the mercy of advertising. There are many parents out there who are simply unaware of the alternatives to disposable nappies. Even the existence of partially biodegradable, compostable nappies is a well-kept secret. You can find them in the bottom far corner of the supermarket shelves if you look carefully, though WEN would urge you to limit your use of these to times when you are without your nappy bucket!

The women Fiona meets often feel angry about the poor availability of real nappies in the big stores, and the aggressive marketing campaigns by disposable brands: “They are frustrated by the lack of information about real nappies in antenatal classes. Instead they are given disposables in their Bounty Bag.”

For low-income families the initial investment in a set of real nappies may be hard to afford, despite being so much cheaper in the long-term. Such families are currently entitled to formula milk vouchers. Surely the government could concentrate its efforts in encouraging and supporting women to breastfeed, in the interests of the baby and the economy, and offer real nappy vouchers instead?

Fiona agrees that women need an incentive to use real nappies from the start, when motherhood is at its most overwhelming. She hopes to set up a scheme similar to the West Sussex Real Nappy Incentive Scheme, which offers the choice of cash for a starter nappy pack or a free nappy laundering service for a number of weeks. They are also currently working on an alternative bounty bag with cotton nappy samples and organic baby wipes.

Motivated by the success in her work so far, Fiona hopes for one more thing: “all nappies should be fair trade and organic!”

Now that the nappies are washed, dried and folded (instructions for which can be found on the WEN website below), I must tidy up. I am hosting the next mums and babies tea and already worrying about what my new friends will think of my eco-friendly nappy system – unhygienic because I only use water & cloth instead of wipes and lotion? Will I sound like a spoilsport if I decline the invitation to go on a group outing to Toys r Us? Should I abstain quietly or suggest we support the local toyshop instead?

All these dilemmas and Jemima can’t even talk yet. Just wait until she asks me to take her to MacDonald’s. How will I succeed in raising her ethically without ruining her fun? And heaven knows what she’ll say she learns that we asked our friends not to buy her any presents for her naming ceremony but to join the Make Poverty History campaign instead.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

The art of bed-hopping

Do other families do this? Our sleeping arrangements have always been rather haphazard. I recently found Jemima, who has been sleeping in an adult bed since she was one, curled up as though back in the womb, in Bella’s tiny co-sleeper one-sided cot thingy, while her baby sister lay spread-eagled in the middle of our bed. But this week we excelled ourselves. This week I have seriously questioned our decision to forgo the good old traditional cot.

For whatever I may feel about them, there is something about a cot that conjures up images of order and peace. As if everyone whose baby sleeps in one has a quiet night, 7-7, a la Gina Ford. Having used one myself (as a mother I mean) of course I know this is not necessarily true. But the very presence of a cot in a house is somehow reassuring. It seems to imply that everything and everyone is in its right and proper place.

Given the blurring of boundaries at home lately, this seems a particularly attractive concept. Seriously, even Goldilocks would have scratched her head had she happened upon our house at six o’clock this morning. For in the child’s bed she would have found Mummy Bear, in the middle-sized bed, Daddy Bear, and in the giant-sized bed… two cuddly, fluffy, baby bears! They’d have such angelic looks upon their faces that surely they had been in this peaceful slumber all night. She’d probably want to curl up with them, but she’d "BETTER BLOODY NOT WAKE THEM!"

Since Sunday night, Jemima has been arriving in our room, at some unearthly hour, having woken herself up coughing. She has a stinking cold and has been utterly miserable all week. (Despite two and a quarter years of breast milk she appears to have had every virus going since she started pre-school in September. She hardly ever gets the fevers though, so it may have helped a little I suppose.)

Every parent knows the story. You do your ritual bedtime calculation of how many hours’ sleep you can get in before morning, subtracting the minutes that would be taken up with feeds… (Hang on, it's just me isn't it. Does it count as an OCD, do you think?), and you turn out the light.

You are just slipping into a deep and blissful sleep when you hear a pitter patter of tiny feet that stops somewhere level with your face. You close your eyes even tighter as you pretend you can’t feel the warm breath on your nose. There is a silent yet highly tangible presence so charged with expectation that you can only ignore it for a few seconds. And although you knew she was there, you still jump when you open your eyes to see hers staring right back at you, so close that your eyelashes touch.

The trouble is that Jemima always looks especially sweet in these, all too, frequent instances. She seems so tiny in her pyjamas, cuddling her blanket that drags along the floor behind her. Her golden curls are usually plastered to her sweaty forehead, with the rest of it sticking up in every direction. Hairdressers across the world spend hours trying to achieve this ‘bedhead’ look. She’s hard to resist, and anyway we’ve always found it easier to get into bed with her (She’s been in an adult bed since she was one) or let her join us, than to faf about in the middle of the night trying to get her back to sleep alone.

But last night it all got too much. There are only so many nights in a row I can cope with sleeping next to a wriggling, kicking, coughing, squirming child who, though only a metre tall and a few centimeters wide, can easily take up an entire king-size bed. Did I mention her endearing habit of murmuring “Cuddle me Mummy!” and flinging her body on top of mine, at well-timed intervals, just as I am dropping off? Or the fact that, on more than one occasion this week, after Jemima finally fell into a deep, unshakable sleep round about dawn, Bella woke for a feed, and then pooed all over the bed.

Yes, last night I confess I would have killed for a cot. Extra large with extra high sides. Think how peacefully I could have slept inside one of those.

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