Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas from Phnom Penh!

It is kind of strange spending Christmas in Phnom Penh, what with it pushing 30º and being a Buddhist country and all. The Cambodians are trying their best to indulge us. The supermarkets and hotel lobbies have garishly decorated Christmas trees and my favourite shop, Rajana, full of beautiful goods crafted by hill tribes and disabled Cambodians, was playing ‘Frosty the Snowman’ the other day. Oh, and the American Embassy looks like it is on fire.

A little part of me is tempted not to do anything for Christmas this year, apart from to reflect quietly on what it all means and to make my resolutions for next year. But the rest of me is a mother of two small children and one of them is very excited about Christmas! So of course we are celebrating. And since we can’t be back home in the cold, putting the stockings by the fire and making mince pies, I have decided to make the most of being here, away from the advertising and consumer frenzy that this season involves in the UK.

For me Christmas mostly means a magical day for children, thanks to my mother’s art of making everything beautiful. I do not have many childhood memories but those that I do have are of Christmases, birthdays and Easter Egg hunts. So on Saturday we played carols from King’s (College Cambridge for those non-Brits among you), put up our little tree (fake of course but a pretty good fake) and adorned it with an uncoordinated collection of decorations gathered over the years. Jemima came home from school with lots and lots of painted angels and tinselly jingle bells which are now hanging all over the house. I am even contemplating making mulled wine for a tiny party we are having, but would anyone want to drink hot wine in this heat? Hmmm, perhaps I can make it iced…

What I am loving about Christmas in Phnom Penh is the immediacy of giving. I know children in England are encouraged to make shoe boxes filled with toys that are sent to less fortunate children somewhere in the world, but they never get to see where they end up and how they are received. Somehow it feels different being here. It is easier to explain about giving and receiving at Christmas in a country where my children are seeing the ‘less fortunate’ all around them.

Jemima’s school had a party last week and invited pupils from a school which looks after children who live and work on the rubbish dump. Each host child bought a small gift for the guest children and they had party food and games. Last night we sang carols by candle light in a local garden bar and all the children brought a ‘previously loved toy’ to give away.

Don’t worry, they do also get to have their own fun and gifts without the conscience-bashing. Last Wednesday we watched Jemima take part in her first carol concert. She stood bang in the middle, right at the front and sang loudly, while I cried. Then she hid from Father Christmas for a while before finally gathering the courage to go up and get her present. Why do children find a big, round, rosy-cheeked and red-coated man, with a snowy, white beard, so frightening I wonder? We looked up in the sky all the way home for the reindeer, so it was confusing when she saw him pass us later on a cyclo.

Thanks to Jemima’s blissful ignorance of exactly how many presents her peers back in the UK are likely to receive on Christmas day, she is getting very little this year. I am making her a wig-wam for her bedroom and a stocking with a few small presents from Father Christmas. If I find myself worrying whether she’ll be happy with this, I will remind myself of her words two nights ago:

I was trying to get the girls to bed on my own and encouraging Jemima to go to sleep alone. "Would you like your music?" I asked. "Your pretty lights on?", thinking how lovely that would be. "Here's your blanket and your milk".

"No Mummy. I just want you Mummy!" Jemima replied.

Says it all really.

Anyone wanting to resist peer pressure but finding it hard, here are some ideas for the hols.

We are heading to the temples in Siem Reap with James’s sister’s family for a few days, and will probably toast Happy Christmas with a beer by the pool, or at sunrise at Angkor Wat, (no doubt with the other 10,000 tourists who have the same plan.)

As I am unlikely to post again until after the 25th, Happy Christmas wherever you are in the world! If you liked this post read this.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When our toddlers 'misbehave'

This is a post for any other parents out there who are wondering why on earth your toddlers are suddenly calling strangers in the street “Poo!”, telling your adult friends to “go away!” or embarrassing you in any other such lovely way. Next time your angel shouts “No!” at you, in public, don’t get angry, or wonder where you have gone wrong. Just sit back and feel proud that he is behaving just as a small child should.

When Jemima started showing utter disregard for my words or requests it really took me by surprise. I suppose I had always expected that she would be sensible and able to understand my explanations of why we have to behave in a certain way. She was a perfect child, after all. Yet here she was, confidently exercising a sometimes hostile, sometimes plain furious new form of self-expression. (I ought to be clear that I am not talking about tantrums, though I shall soon of course. This post is about what we generally consider defiance or bad behaviour that exasperates us, whereas tantrums are about extreme emotional distress or a desire to control.)

I couldn’t understand why she had to spoil an outing to a café by climbing all over everything? Why wouldn’t she listen when I asked her to please behave herself? How unappreciative! Why, when I asked her nicely to please help me tidy up, did she have to shout “No! You do it!” with a look that I imagined I would not see until she reached puberty.

It particularly got to me when it happened in public. I realised that I had no idea what to do about it. I wanted to stand there a while, scratch my head and think about the best way to respond. But the (perceived) pressure of other adults’ expectations made me jump into some un-thought through response, usually involving bribes, a sharp tone, or desperate pleas – all totally ineffectual.

A good example is her kid’s yoga class, run by the mother of one of her best friends. Every Tuesday afternoon Jemima and I would have this conversation before hand.

“When you see Sofia you must remember that you will have ages to play afterwards. During the class I just want you to listen to her mother and enjoy the yoga with me. No more messing about and disrupting the class, ok?”

“Yes ok, I really won’t mess about Mummy”.

I would then resolve to relax, be very zen, and we’d enjoy the class together. But each week, we’d end up in a battle again. Jemima is unable to resist the charms of her gorgeous little friend and the two of them would just giggle and run around. For some reason I found this very stressful and heard myself whispering ridiculous things in her ear. “I did not bring you here to play, you are supposed to be doing yoga! She’s barely three years old for goodness sake! You will be pleased to hear that, by the last class, I finally realised it simply did not matter as long as she didn’t spoil it for the others. That afternoon I pretended to be a jelly fish with the other kids while my own daughter played outside with her friend.

It’s not just with me of course. At school she was put in time out for chatting too much, and, after teacher Lisa asked her to sit down for story time, she laughed, ran about and sang “We’re being naughty! We’re being naughty!” It sounds silly now but at the time I was thinking, where did I go wrong?

I found myself obsessing about it. Had I failed Jemima in some way when she was younger? Was she stressed? I decided it was caused by the horrible few weeks when we sleep trained her, using controlled crying. She was roughly the same age as her tiny sister is now. I have written about this episode before so I won’t go on about it here, (except to say that I deeply regret it and would not dream of doing it with Bella, now I am more confident and no longer swayed by what other mothers are doing with their babies.)

So you can imagine my delight when, after weeks of thinking there was something wrong with me and my child, I discovered last night that she is perfectly normal after all (still not sure about me). I know I keep talking about my parenting bible ,“The Science of Parenting” by Margot Sunderland, and no she is not paying me commission. It is just that it makes such brilliant reading and is so relevant to my every day experiences. So let me just tell you what I read last night. Actually it all sounds so obvious when I write it here, but still, we all need reminding don’t we?

Children under five simply do not yet have the brain development to control their natural urges to run, jump and climb. They are naturally impulsive, easily distracted, unable to focus and prone to lots of manic behaviour. If a child is lost in some activity it is ‘truly difficult for her to respond to you’. Name-calling is normal way of expressing anger, particularly when they do not have the words to express how they are actually feeling. Hoorah! I knew my child was perfect! The book explains exactly what is going on in their brains at a given moment – it is fascinating and such a great way of helping us understand our children.

But now we understand, what can we do about it? Of course the book gives us lots of tips for how to deal with it all. Most of them have a running theme – listen, watch, respect and try to empathise with what your child is feeling. Be aware that rationalising may not work, draw boundaries for unacceptable behaviour and cut them some slack.

Here are some of my recent methods. I encourage Jemima to jump all over our sofa (we don’t have grass and there are no parks here) to get some of her energy out. We play loud music and dance. When she says mean things I try to ask her what she is feeling and tell her that it is ok to feel that and but let’s find a kinder way of expressing it. E.g. I’m not happy with you because you did this. I mostly ignore her unless she talks to me nicely. I try to make things like tidying up into a game or a race. I cuddle her a lot when she is tired and grumpy. I try to avoid her getting bored. I try to make a point of not disciplining her in public because it occurred to me that if I hate public conflict, she may well do too. And finally, I let things that used to drive me crazy waft over my head, while repeating my mantra: “She is only three. I am 34. She is only three. I am 34.”

I’ll write again with more tips soon, but there is one last and powerful thing I want to share with you.

As I said, I hate any kind of conflict in public. I really am hopeless at dealing confidently with a defiant Jemima in front of friends or strangers. I became one of those guests who well out-stayed her welcome, simply because I did not have the energy or confidence to deal with the endless arguments and negotiations that come with trying to leave a place where your child has been having fun.

And then I remembered something my Kundalini yoga teacher said the other day:

“When you want someone to hear what you are saying and take you seriously, or act upon your words, speak from your third Chakra. Your navel is your power base, visualise it as you speak.”

It works. The last two weeks I have used this technique and it has worked every time. I use it sparingly, only when I really need Jemima to listen and act fast, be it to get her shoes on, get dressed, stop doing something or help me with something. It is amazing. Even James, forever a sceptic when it comes to energy and chakras and what not, admits that there must be something in it.

Go on, have a try. Just when you feel you are losing control of everything, your child will respond to you and it will make your day! Then you can congratulate them for being so fab and give them a big hug to celebrate, all the time feeling warm inside that it was largely down to you!

And remember, your child is not misbehaving. There is no ill intent. She is simply being a child. Something else worth congratulating yourself about.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

About their father

Last night I was telling my husband about the comment I received on my latest post. It was from an anonymous father, pointing out, very kindly, that I never mention the role of fathers in parenting.

“I didn’t know I had any male readers” I told James. I was brushing my teeth and he was in the bedroom so I could not see his face.

“Anyway I published it and spent ages thinking about the best way to reply, because really it is a blog for mothers, but he is right that I never mention you, and I often say ‘mother’ when I could say ‘parent’… why are you laughing?”

James is not usually a practical joker so when he did finally show me his face it was particularly full of glee.

“I thought you would know it was me immediately”, he didn’t apologise, “I didn’t think you’d publish it.” He was positively reveling in his deceit.

We had a good laugh but although he denies it, he obviously read the post and thought “Hang on! What about me?” So this post is all about James, the beautiful father of my children. Seeing as he hates me writing about him, I am also getting my own back. Killing two birds with one stone.

James is right. I forgot to mention yesterday that there are two pairs of welcoming arms to greet Jemima when she wakes in the night. Or that, every lunchtime, he comes home from work (a very good reason never to leave Cambodia) and cuddles Bella and plays with Jemima. Or that last night while I was feeding Bella and getting ready to meet a friend, James dealt with a very tired and contrary Jemima, never once losing his calm as she refused to brush her teeth, get her pyjamas on and get into bed. I left them curled up together, Jemima falling asleep in his arms.

There are two things I will always be thankful for now that I have children: that I am still in love with their father and that he shares my views on parenting. To begin with I suppose I lead the show a bit, simply because I was at home doing it all while James was out of the house for 12 hours a day (a very good reason never to go back to England). But he’s never had an issue with co-sleeping, me breastfeeding a walking, talking two-year-old toddler… James even dealt with the nappy bucket when he got back from work for god’s sake! By the time Bella was born he could no longer imagine using a cot or a buggy again. (We do use a buggy from time to time – Jemima sits in it with Bella on her lap. It’s very sweet.)

James is the kind of father who would much rather just climb into bed with his child in the middle of the night, than teach her to go back to sleep alone. One who will always hold his baby rather than put her down. If I try to picture him with the kids, he has Bella jiggling about on his lap during dinner, or slung over one shoulder at a barbeque, or he’s lying on the floor playing with Jemima. He’s not really interested in reading about why or how to get it right, positive parenting just comes naturally to him.

James’s work has always involved regular travel. When we first arrived in Phnom Penh he was away in the region more than he was here for a while. Now he has a new job which is Cambodia-focused only, he makes much shorter trips. I don’t mind him travelling, it is in his blood so to deprive him of it would be cruel. But boy are the days long! His absences give me a glimpse now and then into the life of a single mother, particularly here where we have no family around us. I really empathise with and admire any woman who goes it alone with children. Having another pair of hands is obviously a huge help, but what really keeps you sane is having someone to debrief with at the end of the day, a bit of adult perspective around the house, and someone with whom to discuss the news.

I think this is enough. I feel satisfied that I have had my revenge. Do remember though, when I write about ‘me’, I probably often mean ‘us’.
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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The way we love our babies

People keep telling me how lucky I am to have such a happy, mellow baby. I am - Bella is sweet-natured, full of fun and relatively uncomplicated when it comes to digestion and feeding. But are they therefore saying that if she were unhappy and stressed I would be unlucky? The implication is that the happiness of my baby is a matter of chance, rather than ultimately dependent on the way she is raised. This bothers me, because while colic, teething pain and other health problems can be largely beyond our control, causing terrible distress, the emotional state of our baby is pretty much down to us. It may be a frightening prospect, but surely far more frightening is how many parents seem to be ignorant of the abundant evidence that shows us how easily we can enhance or prohibit the emotional development of our babies’ brains, simply by the way we love our babies.

Let me be clear from the outset. I am not saying that a baby who suffers chronic pain, which causes him to cry a lot, is anyone’s fault. Bella had almost constant stomach ache for the first month of her life. But a baby in pain can still feel loved and secure, and happy when the pain ceases. To help Bella cope with her discomfort we carried her constantly and let her nurse for hours (sucking motion relaxes babies’ tummies). She squealed and squirmed and groaned for most of every night, but she did it in my arms.

There is a great difference between a baby screaming with pain in a pram in the corner to one who is held in loving arms. Uncomforted crying causes dangerous, toxic levels of the stress hormone Cortisol to be released in our babies’ brain, which can cause long-term emotional damage. Comforted crying enables the baby to cope with his pain and feel loved and secure. (To read more about how we can enhance the emotional development of our babies’ brains throughout childhood, I cannot recommend enough The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland. It is written simply and concisely, is full of photos and addresses everything, sleep, tantrums, behaviour, play and more. It is my motherhood bible.)

I do wonder, when someone comments on how calm and contented Bella is, whether they notice that every time they see her she is in my arms, on my lap or in the sling. Or that when she wants the boob she can have it, when she cries I cuddle her straight away (usually, of course there are times when she has to wait a bit), and that every night she sleeps in my arms, or next to us in bed.

One mother I know who compares Bella with her ‘difficult baby’ does not seem to draw any correlation between her child’s insecurity and protests at being put down with the fact that he is left to scream in his cot for twenty minutes each morning when he wakes up too early, and deliberately made to wait, when he cries, before he is lifted out of his play pen. This child is not difficult, but simply responding to negative parenting. He is learning that his needs are not as important as his mother's. This makes me sad. Why do so many adults believe their needs are even equal to, let alone more important than their undeveloped, immature, emotionally and physically dependent children?

I know it is not always easy. I am not a model mother. I deeply regret certain moments with Jemima. There were times when we got into such battles over bedtime that, when she ran out of her room crying, playing up a bit, but obviously feeling insecure, I, a supposedly mature, educated, supported mother, would pick up my tiny two year old daughter and storm back into her bedroom, plonk her on the bed and leave, closing - no, slamming - the door on my way out. Just when she needed my cuddles and warmth most, I rejected and traumatised her.

Admitting this here is painful. I want to delete it but I won’t because my main goal in life these days is to encourage mothers to respond lovingly and promptly to their children’s expressed needs. And I believe this can only happen if mothers are open about the trying times and bad things they have done with their children as well as all the loveliness. I’ve a pretty good feeling we all go around believing that we are the only one among our peers who have ever felt tempted to hit our child, or who ever raises our voices.

Women need support, solidarity, and encouragement in order to fulfill our true potential as mothers - and not just when their babies are smiling and cooing happily like Bella. I have been quick to judge a mother with a crying baby in the past, but now I see this is the time when they most need support. Crying babies can drive us to do desperate things, particularly if we isolate ourselves at home. My sister’s baby screamed with pain all day for nearly five weeks due to severe neck ache. She felt embarrassed to take him out because even when close to her in the sling he still cried. Instead of congratulating her for bravely loving and holding her screaming baby, people stared and assumed it was her fault. My friend Tara was in the supermarket with her daughter Elia, who was crying due to very bad and on-going ‘colic’. A woman commented helpfully “Ah poor mite must be famished!” You will be delighted to hear that Tara responded, “No, actually, she has very serious health problems and is a lot of pain”. Brave woman!

Positive parenting should be encouraged by society – I often wonder why the government does not invest in more support and information for parents (and I am not talking stupid sleep advice leaflets), given that we are basically undertaking the extremely important job of raising the next generation. Meanwhile I’ll just get on with it at home with my own two, and maybe they’ll become fabulous and influential politicians one day and save the world.

Seriously, second time round I am determined not to make the same mistakes with Bella as I have with Jemima. I am resolved to love and nurture both my children and respond to all their needs with loving kindness. When Jemima doesn’t want to brush her teeth and I feel at the end of my tether, I no longer raise my voice (well, I’m still learning!) but instead make up a game to make it fun for both of us. When she turns up in the middle of the night and I am tired and grumpy, I remind myself that she will soon be a teenager shrugging off my advances. Even if I don’t feel like it, as soon as I make myself smile at her and welcome her into my arms and our bed we both benefit from the rush of opioids, (feel-good hormones,) to our brains. Loving my children more consistently every day, is good for me as well as them. Positive parenting makes the world a nicer place. I think I might write a post on positive parenting ideas later this week just to get my happy hormone fix.

P.s. Please excuse my rather inarticulate, rambling posts lately. It is due to no lap top at home and pressured time at my neighbour’s. Thanks.

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

In memory of Sok Chan

This post is about a beautiful and inspirational mother and her four children, who she has left behind. When my lap top is returned to me I shall add a picture of Sok Chan. I have decided to write this story in three sections, as I have experienced it and as it makes sense to me. It is very long and not brilliantly written but the story is worthy of your attention. You should probably get a cup of tea before you start reading.

Meeting Sok Chan
When I met Sok Chan in April this year she was already talking about finding a new mother for her children. I was seven months pregnant with my second child.

We were sitting in a room behind the hospital, where she had been living for over two months. Vanar (m), 15, Makara (f), 14, Srey Pov (f), 9 and Rotah (m), 4, lived there too, fetching food and nursing their mother. They knew she was dying of breast cancer and did not want to leave her side.

There was no furniture in the room except for two hard, wooden beds without mats. The doors and windows had no screens to protect the family from the sun, rain or mosquitoes. Sok Chan was recovering from malaria and feared that her children might also get sick.
The medical attention the family received at the hospital was minimal, with sporadic visits from the doctor and inadequate medication. Sok Chan was in constant pain.

I was there as a volunteer journalist and fundraiser with Hagar, an NGO which helps women and children who have suffered trauma and crisis, e.g. domestic violence, rape, trafficking for work or sex, and disability, to name a few. In this case, they had been helping Sok Chan, whose husband had died several years earlier, since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She moved into Hagar’s women’s shelter with her children, but when the time came for her to go to hospital, Sok Chan chose to go back to her home town where she could be closer to her sister. Despite the abysmal conditions and inferior quality of care offered at this hospital, Hagar could only respect her wishes.

They were providing the family with food, fruit juice, hammocks, mosquito nets and weekly medication for her pain. A caregiver was employed to help look after the family and they received regular visits from both the women’s shelter and a counsellor from the children’s programme.

This particular visit was to break good news to Sok Chan. Her children would not have to go to a centre after she died, but would have the chance to live a normal life. Hagar had found a family who were happy and ready to welcome and love her children as their own.
When I asked her what her message would be to this family she told me:

“I want my children’s new family to raise them well, teach them respect and good manners, and especially encourage them to study hard. I want them to have a big heart, love my children, and treat them with gentle, loving kindness.”

Recognising that the best thing for a child is to have family, Hagar has recently launched their foster care programme. They look for foster families that value education and that already have a regular income, to ensure that they do not rely on the extra income provided by Hagar for anything other than fulfilling the needs of the new children. And they look for sponsors for each family, who, as well as covering the $100 per child per month, they hope will encourage them in life, love them and keep them in their thoughts and/or prayers.

They also offer emotional support and counselling for the children. They do this through art therapy, and regular chats with counsellors. Sok Chan’s children had each been given a memory book, in which they are encouraged to write and draw pictures. These are to help them remember whatever details they choose to record about their mother and the life they shared together during the years before she became ill.

I was able to see for myself that the children find great comfort in these memory books and in family photographs. When the oldest daughter, Makara, broke down into tears over the imminent death of her mother, she looked immediately for her photo album, without any prompting. She quickly became cheerful again as she showed Hagar counsellors the photographs of her mother and father dressed up for their wedding day.

My role that afternoon was to get the stories and photographs and write some fundraising materials to help Hagar find ‘Family Home Partners’, or sponsors for the foster care programme. Having spent the morning in court with three sisters, tiny fragile girls, who had been sexually abused by their step father (the mother’s third husband had then tried to sell one of the girls in exchange for a debt), I was pretty depressed when I arrived at Sok Chan’s hospital. But although her situation was desperate, Sok Chan and Hagar restored my faith in humanity and the power of good.

As a mother, and pregnant again, I felt overwhelmed with grief and admiration for Sok Chan. I could not begin to imagine what it must feel like to know you will soon say goodbye to your children, let alone think clearly about who will look after them for you. The dignity and composure with which Sok Chan talked about the future of her children after her death, despite her desperate physical and emotional pain, was humbling and awe-inspiring. The few hours we spent together are ones I will never forget.

I went home to write up the stories for Hagar but knew, before I got there, that we and our family would sponsor one of these families. Sok Chan’s was the one most urgently in need, as Hagar was still exploring other options with the young girls I met in court. Now, with family and friends, we are the ‘family home partner’ of Sok Chan’s new foster family.

While I was in England having Bella, Sok Chan had the chance to meet the new mother of her children. It was a painful emotional experience but I know that she was happy to hear that their house was next door to a school where the children would study.

Sok Chan died shortly after that meeting. I choose to believe that she was at least peaceful in the knowledge that her children would be cared for and never abandoned. I hope she remembered what I heard the counsellor saying to her children when they were by her side, the day we visited her at the hospital:

“We will always look after you and protect you. You will never be separated from your brothers and sisters. You will be loved and cherished by Hagar and your new family”

Hagar is still looking for sponsors for other families like the children in this story. $100 a month covers all the costs (food, health, school, counsellors, etc) for one child. Hagar places siblings together and in extended family whenever possible or appropriate. Contact me here or on if you would like to become a ‘family home partner’. Hagar is a Christian organisation. Their work is that of professional care givers, educators, trainers, counsellors etc, helping all women and children in need. They work with Christian foster families only, at the moment, because they believe this is enables them to best protect the children. Working with local church pastors enables them close contact and regular monitoring of the families. Foster placements often break down without support and intervention.

Sok Chan’s funeral
I went to Sok Chan’s funeral with one-month-old Bella, just after we got back from England. It took place at Hagar’s women’s shelter and was a morning of incredible beauty, pain and shared suffering. It was a Christian ceremony as Sok Chan requested, but felt unique and homegrown. I had the impression it was a very organic process, driven by the needs of Sok Chan and her children, but also by the women at the shelter, her family.

The women stood up and sang songs and told stories about Sok Chan’s life. All these women have their own story of suffering, two of them were badly scarred and crippled by acid burns. (In Cambodia there are acid victims everywhere. It is a common treatment of women by angry or jealous husbands. The shelters have women with acid burns waiting at their doors everyday. I recently heard about a one week old baby who was rescued from the arms of her dead mother, both victims of an acid attack. Her mother died from the burns. Only the child’s face and the side of her body that was close to her mother is unscarred. Perhaps she was breastfeeding at the time. Nothing is sacred anymore.)

I was moved to see women express their pain and loss so openly. The shelter was obviously somewhere where they felt safe and loved. Such open expression of emotion, other than laughter, is something that most Cambodians are not at all comfortable with.

The children from the centre also sang. Sok Chan’s own children were sitting near me. The two youngest, Srey Pov and Rotar, were playing and talking throughout much of it. Makara wanted Bella on her lap for most of the ceremony. She was listening to everything, obviously taking it all in, and when she got upset she seemed to find comfort and distraction in cuddling my little darling. I must tell Bella about that one day when she is older.

Vanar, the oldest boy was sitting with the men. It worried me a bit because the women rally round the others and you get the feeling they will get the chance to express their grief and be comforted. But the men sit apart and are reserved. I wonder if Vanar will have the chance to cry and be comforted. Although I am sure Hagar are well aware of this and will address it through counselling, I wonder how it will be in the new family.

The new foster mother was visibly distraught. You know when you can see someone just wants to wail and cry out loud but is desperately keeping it in? And her poor husband was sitting several rows behind her looking utterly helpless, as though he wanted to comfort her but couldn’t. I wanted to put my arms around her but I don’t think she wanted me to. She hadn’t met me before after all and I don’t think she wanted anything that would make her break down with people around.

I wished my Khmer were better that day. I felt totally unable to express any words of comfort or encouragement to her or the kids. Luckily children just accept your actions and the few words you do have and seem to understand my Khmer so much better than adults do. But as a mother and with a tiny new baby of my own I desperately wanted to be able to tell the new mother exactly how wonderful I thought she was and thank her for looking after these children. Her very presence at the funeral gave everyone some hope because at least these children had a future and another family to love them.

Once again through Sok Chan I was experiencing humanity at its greatest. On a country so full of suffering here was a group of dedicated staff and counsellors and the women themselves expressing love, solidarity and loving kindness. There is nothing as inspirational as a group of women who have a shared suffering and a determination to fight for their cause and to change things.

Visiting the children in their new home
Last Thursday we set off to Takeo province, about an hour out of Phnom Penh. I borrowed a friend’s car (the same dear friend whose computer I am on now!) and driver and took both girls and Srey Mach, so she could help translate. I speak enough Khmer to talk about school, to play and muck about with children. But when it comes to talking about deeper feelings I am out of my depth. It turned out that Srey Mach was invaluable because the mother, Leang, did not understand a word I said. This is common I have noticed when talking to people from the countryside whose own accents are different.

The family live in a traditional, wooden Khmer house in a village, ten minutes off the main road. It was peaceful and the front yard was big enough for the children to play and run around. Leang makes clothes for local customers. When we arrived the children gave us a huge warm welcome and Makara stayed by my side until we left. She showed me her English books and held Bella all morning. All the children look about four years younger than they actually are, so that nine-year-old Srey Pov looked more Jemima’s age than Rotar, who is four but looked about two.

The morning was happy but frustrating. Jemima became very shy and stuck to me until the last half hour when she finally played a bit with Srey Pov and the other girls from the village who came to see the ‘barangs’. I had envisaged them playing together all morning, but they obviously need some time to get used to each other and the language barrier. Had we done this a year earlier it would not have been an issue but at three, Jemima is more self-aware and therefore more self-conscious than she used to be.

Mostly I just felt powerless. I wanted to be able to talk and listen to Makara, who clung so closely to my side and has always shown me such affection, but we had to rely on Srey Mach’s translation, which obviously inhibited Makara. We had a lovely time laughing and playing and it is surprisingly easy to communicate with children without language, but I wanted to get closer to her. Perhaps next time we will go for a walk together and I will learn some more relevant vocab before we do!

What worried me was that when I asked the mother how the children were she just laughed and said that they were fine and too young to really understand that their mother had died. Obviously this is not the case. The counsellor told me that the older boy shows real signs of trauma and the girls dream about their mother at night. She comes to them and plays with them and they feel so happy. When they wake they are once again overcome with loss and sadness.

By Cambodian standards these children are lucky. They have a new family and weekly counselling so they will not have to bury their pain and suffer the consequences later. They will finish their education and have many more opportunities than most children here. But no mother could help but put her own children in their shoes. The thought of Jemima and Bella grieving for their mother and father and having to start a new life in a strange family in a strange village is my worse nightmare. I think of Sok Chan’s children at night before I go to sleep and wonder how I can make some difference to their lives. All I can think of is to continue to support them financially, visit them regularly, bring them small treats and take them on outings. James and I have pledged to do this one Sunday every month.

Goodness me sorry this is so long! Though I doubt anyone has got as far as this anyway… I’ll sign off now and will tell you more about their progress after my next visit.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

My right hand

My lap top is broken. In a country where children die from diarrhoea, mothers beg on the streets with their babies in their arms and a poor family could get evicted from their house any day without notice or compensation, I realise this is hardly something worth writing about. And technically, given that my lap top is broken, I can't write about it anyway. Yet here I am, writing as usual.

Except that I am at a friend's house and in a hurry, so this probably won't read very well. I'm just posting really to explain why I won't get much up this week. I have written all about our visit to the four orphans in their new foster home and desperately wanted to post it so that people might be inspired to donate or even sponsor another foster family. But it is on the lap top and I can't reproduce it here in a hurry. Arrrrgggggggggghhh.

On the scale of small, personal western tragedies, a broken lap top for a writer is pretty serious. Actually I am shocked at how upset and frustrated I feel. It has been four days now and I am utterly miserable. They tell me I need to wait for six weeks for a new fan. This cannot be true so I shall drag the kids around the city this afternoon looking for a better answer.

Other writers out there must know how I feel. Most mornings, when Bella falls asleep, or joins Srey Mait on a trip to the market I begin my ritual. I put on some music, whatever suits my mood, I make my tea, and sit down to write. Even as the lap top boots up I feel a vague sense of excitement about the two hours that await me.

Sometimes I get so absorbed in whatever I am writing that I wish I could just disappear for a week to a hut in the country. I could never do that though. I can barely go a few hours without seeing my children before I miss them terribly. But without being able to sit down and write I do not feel quite whole.

It has always been this way. Ever since I was a child I have written. Terrible adventure stories (I could never write a novel), with chapters and illustrations, a book of my life we had to do for school, with family photographs, but mostly letters. That was my favourite form of expression, which is probably why I love my blog so much. I wrote love letters (mostly to my best friend Gayle admittedly), letters to my sister, missives home from university and travels in South America, and long unedited emailed accounts of work trips to Africa to compensate for the short, censored published articles.

My piece de resistance was a faxed letter to James which I wrote over the course of a three week trip to Uganda. You can imagine how impassioned it was - we were new lovers, it was my first work visit and my first time in Africa. I faxed it to his hotel in Costa Rica where he was due to arrive two days before my return to London. He checked in with his boss and was handed a thick scroll covered with my large, messy scrawl. The receptionist said it just kept on coming out of the fax machine. The fact that he was not embarrassed was just one more thing to love about him. He still has it, tied with a red ribbon, the ink is so faded it is barely readable now. It reached wall to wall of our first flat together.

Writing is how I live. It is how I communicate, resolve my problems, and express my emotions. Of course I love to talk too, but when anything at all unusual happens, I run to write it down. And of course here, that is every day. I have just seen yet another crash on the corner of our street. That is about five in two months. This time it was two cars, and although there were no casualties it was the worst so far. It terrifies me, as I come down this street several times daily with my daughters. My head was swimming when I saw it. It brought up all the doubts and fears about living here that regularly plague me. I called James who is away in some far corner of the country this week, and could not get through. So the only thing I felt I could do was sit down somewhere quiet and write about it.

I am lucky to have a gorgeous neighbour Deidre who lets me use her lap top in the mornings. But it is not the same as sitting in my room watching Bella breathe as I write. So perhaps I shall just have to take to good old pen and paper. I'll write to my father, perhaps the last man in England to have resisted the charms of email. See if that helps soothe my twitching fingers and buzzing head. If not I'll just have to go and wake Bella.

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