Friday, March 28, 2008

Cooking with small children (as a partner, rather than an ingredient)

A friend asked me the other day what I did with Jemima while I cooked. (Remember I am living in Expatria – the land where everyone has a cook). I replied that she cooks with me of course, doesn’t everyone do that? Ok, maybe not here, but in the normal world, surely this is just what mothers do, right? Judging by the look, of surprise and vague horror, on her face, apparently not. Well of course I have to blog about this! Because cooking with your toddler is simply brill. Even for control freaks like me.

When Jemima was 20 months I hosted toddler group. Six children, between the ages of 18 months and three years, came over with their mothers and we made cookies from scratch. It was a first for me, and my friends said I was crazy, they were too young and it would be mayhem. It was somewhat messy of course, it was supposed to be. But actually we were all amazed at their capacity for concentration and staying power. They followed the process through from start to finish and were so excited when we got the biscuits out of the oven - a delightfully sticky, sprinkled spronkled pile of misshapen lumps which, of course, they found delicious. It was pretty hands off for most of us, depending on our own individual ability to resist intervention that is, something I have had to work at.

My kitchen has always been my sacred space. It has to be colourful, full of family photos and, one day, if we could ever afford it, big enough to have a table, so that it becomes the main room in the house. I am totally unimpressed by huge, shiny steel and chrome fitted regalia – give me a crumbling, clashing old cottage kitchen any day. Really, even in my tiny, rented, sweltering Cambodian kitchen with hideous glass and mirrored cupboards (cockroaches like the dark so I shall never change these), I have successfully achieved the cosy, scruffy family kitchen effect that makes me think of home, earl grey tea and toast at 4pm. You can see how important this is for me.

I tend to make a ritual out of cooking. The right music (this has replaced Radio 4, cooking used to be the time I would catch up on the world), clear everything up first, cup of tea or glass of wine… I.e. Cooking has always been about ME. Friends and family are welcome to join me, but they normally have to sit and chat while I get on with the work. I have never been good at sharing this particular task.

So, anyone who knows me well would be seriously impressed to see how happily I have learnt to share my kitchen and my cooking with children (mine and strays) and the ants, over the last few years. This really is quite some feat. At the beginning I understood why my mother’s catch phrase when we were young was “GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN!” yelled at the top of her voice when it all got too much. There were four of us… For me, it has been a gentle process, beginning with a nervous “Yes you can stir…” about two years ago, to “Come on, haven’t you cracked the eggs yet?” yesterday.

I have to say that cooking with Jemima is one of my favourite things to do. We have our own ritual now. We take turns choosing the music and she sits up on the sideboard next to the oven in her Winnie the Pooh apron demanding to be involved in every stage of the process. At 18 months she could make a huge mess with her hands, at two she could stir and pour, grate cheese and chop soft vegetables, at two and a half she could crack eggs (egg shell is good for you right?), make flour and butter into perfect pre-pastry crumbs, and stir over the hob, at three she just wanted to lick the bowl (“I’m tired of cooking. I just want to watch you and eat”) and now, at three and a half, she can pretty much make a whole quiche/ lasagne/ cake under my supervision.

It has been very good for me actually, a huge learning curve in the whole field of relaxed and empowering parenting that I am such a fan of. I am also quite strict - you would be too if your entire oven, knobs and all, heated up on the outside as well as the inside. But this is the thing – small children are capable of so much more than we imagine, if only we allow them to try, get it wrong, make a mess and keep at it. They happily take on board simple rules, such as stay away from the oven/hob or ask me first before you use a knife. (Ok, a friend did walk into my kitchen the other day to find her daughter sitting on the sideboard, flanked by Jemima on one side and another child brandishing a bread knife on the other. But that was an exception…)

All this works in our favour too. They can run errands for you! Jemima has been getting my glass of water when I find myself stuck on the sofa breastfeeding for months now. James stiffens every time he hears me ask. He hovers behind her nervously (I have forbidden him to intervene unless she asks for help) as she gets the glass jug out of the fridge and puts it on the tiled floor. Then she gets on her stool, opens the glass cupboard, gets the glass, climbs down and pours the water from the glass jug into the glass glass, on the tiled floor. Then she carries the glass across the tiles to me muttering: “Ooops, spilt a bit, ooh it is quite heavy today…” Ok, I accept it sounds slightly risky given the harsh material in our house but the point is she can do it. She is just as likely to drop the glass as I am, given how much concentration she devotes to the task compared to how careless I can be. And then she feels great about what she has achieved. Everyone wins.

Obviously cooking with your child requires more time than usual, but this can be a good thing too, if you are at home with your kids, or on a weekend, and you are wondering how to fill the day. I can turn the task of making dinner into a whole afternoon’s activity if I need to. Sometimes Jemima will get bored and wander off and do her thing, sometimes she will want me to go and do something else too, but I can usually get her to stick at it if I have to finish, by giving her a bowl of flour and water and getting her to ‘make dough.’ Bella tends to play on the floor with a bowl of water and some cups. One she stops eating everything in sight I may upgrade her play things to some real ingredients too.

If I am in a hurry I let her get stuk into something messy with her hands while I do everything else without her input. Being flexible is something else children do well, if normally given time to do things their way. Jemima understands there are times when I just have to get something in the oven quick, if I give a good reason - Bella is about to wake up, her friend is coming - because most days she is allowed to linger over what she is doing.

But generally a lazy afternoon in the kitchen with my children is a lovely way to pass the time and I recommend you try it. In our hurried lives it is very healing to spend half an hour indulging in a simple task such as mixing. They don’t put sand trays in the therapist’s room for nothing!

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Coping with change... or not, rather

Jemima has just stopped coming into our bed in the mornings when she wakes. Instead we find her sitting on her bedroom floor utterly absorbed in her books. In fact she spends more and more time each day doing her own thing. While I love to see her lost in her own play, I have to admit I struggle with how fast she seems to be growing up.

I have just come back from visiting my friend Tone’s new kittens. It was a beautiful sight. The mother lies still all day while her two skinny, wobbly babes scramble about her body, fumbling for milk. Their fragility reminds me of how it felt to handle my own new born babies, terrified I might do some damage with my hands – hands that suddenly seemed so huge and rough. I can’t believe how long ago that seems now. This week, time seems to be rushing by.

Having struggled for two years to get to grips with living in Cambodia, I suddenly find myself feeling incredibly happy and at home here. My Khmer is flowing, the children are happy and I am brimming with ideas about how I can throw myself back into the local community again after my year of time out with Bella comes to an end in September. (Given our mutual attachment to each other, whatever I do will no doubt be breastfeeding related.)

Yet it almost feels as though time is running out. Our contract ends at the end of next year, many of our friends are leaving at the end of this year and there are major changes afoot at Jemima’s wonderful pre-school. Buildings are being knocked down before our eyes, replaced by high rises and four storey villas. Everything seems to be changing around me and so much of it is quite beyond my control. I have no idea how I will ever thrive in this expat existence if I am so easily thrown by change.

Until recently I have always looked forward to the day we go back ‘home’ to live, so that I could resume my life. Today I surprised myself by feeling sad that we will one day have to leave this place. Honestly, I finally accept that my life is here and all I can do is worry about leaving in two years time! People say the ideal length of an overseas contract is four years. I think I probably need six. If it takes me two to settle in and two to prepare myself for saying goodbye, I’d jolly well like a couple of years in the middle just to be here, no looking back and no looking forward.

Then of course there is Jemima. I often wonder how she will be affected by all this. Will she care that her friends are leaving? Should she care? Should I be relieved that, so far, she does not seem to mind it much? Or worried that this is a sign she is already protecting herself and will probably have life long issues with forming attachments? (Oh goodness this should be a cry for help post on an expat mothers’ forum – if any of you out there are reading, please do share your experiences.)

At least Bella is too young to absorb much of all this, though she too is growing fast and definitely on the move. Last night I woke to find she had crawled out of her cotbed and was sprawled over my body, just like the kittens, fumbling around for some milk. It made me think – those kittens are just a few days old. It takes a human baby many months before they can move themselves towards their mother. Hmm, I could easily go off on another of my ‘this is why attachment parenting is so important’ rants here but I won’t. This post is rambling enough. I will publish it anyway though. That’s the best and the worst of blogging, depending on who is reading it.

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Friday, March 21, 2008


I can’t decide what to write about today. I have been sitting here for a while now, pondering what might be interesting for you to read. It is nearly time to get Jemima, I have eaten most of the biscuits I brought back from the UK for James but have yet to write a word. Ho hum. The children in the garden are distracting me.

I have written about our Khmer neighbours before – here. They are very lovely and, we discovered recently, very rich. Yet their children come here every day to play with our things because they have no toys in their tiny house. And their three year old boy has been having tantrums several times a day, every day, for over a year now, because he hates cold water baths and his mother leaving for work. Actually that is what I shall write about. Tantrums.

Since I wrote that mind blowing first paragraph I have been chatting with the neighbours. (I know, I really am procrastinating. I now have 30 minutes to write something coherent. Ok. To work). But I am so glad I did. I just wish I had done so a year ago. Every day I have listened to him scream and thought about going over and sharing some of my own experience with dealing with tantrums, lending a book and offering to help. But I have been so worried about offending them that I have let my Britishness hold me back. Just now I realised that the boy’s lovely mother was extremely open to any kind of help and advice I could offer. Of course. So would I have been. Damn it. I may have been able to save a lot of emotional damage if only I had been more proactive.

All I did was ask how Tom Tom is doing and what they do when he cries so often, so bloodcurdlingly (I did not use that term!) and for so long. She said that she or her mother held him and tried to calm him down. Then I showed her my Science of Parenting book (Margot Sunderland, my bible) and explained to her in KhmEnglish what I had learnt from it when Jemima was having tantrums.

Very briefly, Sunderland looks at the causes of ‘bad behaviour’, such as poor diet, tiredness, emotional immaturity and lack of attention. She also distinguishes between two different kinds of temper tantrums.

She calls one the ‘little Nero’ tantrum. This is usually controlled, articulated rage without tears, aimed at controlling or manipulating us. These should be ignored when possible, to prevent rage becoming an ingrained personality trait. The parent should then try to consider why the child is behaving this way and consider ways of breaking the habit (i.e. time in, teaching them acceptable ways of expressing anger – punching a pillow etc).

The other is a ‘distress tantrum’, triggered by strong feelings of loss, disappointment or frustration. These often involve uncontrollable tears and screaming - expressions of genuine pain. These must not be ignored. Sunderland explains what is going on in a child’s brain when these tantrums occur. She describes a situation:

“Two-year-old Ben [is] writhing on the shop floor because he had set his heart on shoes that did not fit, is in emotional pain. One of his brain’s alarm systems has triggered, and stress chemicals and hormones are flooding his body, making him feel dreadful. He needs comfort.” (Pg 123)

In these instances it is our responsibility as parents or caregivers to help our child cope with the overwhelming emotions he is experiencing, by holding them close, calming them with our own bodies, and trying to help them understand the pain they are suffering and what caused it. If we ignore their pain or punish it, we are simply teaching our child that their feelings are not worth expressing or attending to. We also create increased stress and pain that could cause permanent emotional damage.

I have followed this advice with Jemima and found it extremely affective. I’ll just tell you about Jemima’s first full on tantrum, because despite being very upsetting, it was also extremely illuminating. She was about two years old and by chance I had just been reading Sunderland. I did as she recommended and here is what happened.

It was Christmas and Jemima was totally over-excited, having spent several days with all her cousins and aunts – I think there were fifteen of us in the house. She had gone to bed far too late for several nights in a row, and the general excitement of presents, family and too much lovely food was getting to her. (I.e. all of Sunderland’s advice re sleep and food had gone out of the window long ago.) One day after lunch I told her she was going to have a nap. I scooped her up, gave her a cup of warm milk and her blanket and was about to carry her upstairs. Jemima however had other ideas. She had been in the middle of a game with her nine year-old cousin Claudia, who is probably Jemima’s favourite person on the planet, and, well, let’s just say she lost it… big time.

She kicked and screamed and by the time I got her upstairs I was exhausted. She was so frantic and hysterical I thought maybe I was making it worse and that if I put her down on the bed for a minute she might calm down. When I did this she just kicked and screamed even harder, punched the air and, the most heartbreaking bit, grabbed her hair and pulled at it very, very hard. It was quite scary actually. It was definitely the most upsetting moment of our lives together so far to see her so out of control that she was causing herself pain. I immediately picked her up again and took her to look out of the window to try to calm her and distract her. I just held her and made soothing sounds for a few minutes while she very slowly calmed down. I did not say anything – she was too upset and confused to absorb any words. Only once she was calm enough to listen to me, did I talk to her, still holding her tightly while she wept into my neck:

“You are very cross with Mummy aren’t you?”

“Yes I am” she sobbed. “I don’t want to go to bed”

“You want to play with Claudia” I continued.

“Yes. You did take me to bed and I did get upset ‘coz I did want to play with Claudia”.

“I am so sorry. I know how much you love being with Claudia and I promise you can spend the rest of the afternoon with her after you have had a rest. But I can see how tired you are and I know you need to sleep. I am so sorry I upset you so much. Do you feel any better now?”

“I feel a bit better”

After this she just collapsed into my arms on the bed and hugged me tightly and said: “I need you Mummy. Just lie down with me”.

It was so awful to begin with and yet it ended so positively that I could have kissed Margot Sunderland right there and then. I would not have known about helping Jemima to express what she was feeling had I not read about it first. And it soon stopped feeling as corny as it sounds. I appreciate that it was greatly helped by the fact that Jemima was able to express herself well then, but even if the child is not yet talking, they understand a lot so it helps to express out loud what they are feeling. I hate to think how differently this could have turned out had I just thrown her on the bed and walked away, and how many more tantrums she might have had since, out of frustration and inability to cope with her own very strong feelings. There were more of course, but she never pulled her hair again. Sunderland’s advice made me realise that this was not a fight between me and my daughter, but a genuine crisis for her, one which I had the power to help her with.

Anyway, this post has become very long and rambling after such a slow and laborious start. I shall let you know how Tom Tom gets on and leave you to enjoy your Easter eggs!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Night waking is normal... sleep training for mothers

Yesterday I woke up feeling rather desperate after another night of incredible activity. Bella woke so many times I lost count. She is teething, so unlike the usual quick cuddle or feed back to sleep, she stayed awake for ages each time. In a panic that she will never ever sleep through the night I posted a question on my two favourite forums, and the Continuum email forum: Has anyone successfully trained a co-sleeping babe? The answer was no. I am so glad I asked.

I am serious. The responses I received restored my faith in what I already knew to be true: 1) that babies are supposed to wake at night and 2) that eight months is way too early for sleep training. I just needed reminding.

To spend long hours in a deep, lone sleep may be desirable for western parents but it is not a natural state for a baby. It is the result of being placed far away from human warmth and physical contact and, as expert James McKenna clearly explains below, is biologically entirely inappropriate for several very good reasons:

“(Physiologically): Born with only 25% of its adult brain volume the human infant is neurologically the most immature infant primate of all, the slowest developing and the most reliant on its mother for the longest period of time for physiological regulation and support. Indeed, nothing that a human infant can or cannot do makes sense except in the light of the mother’s body.

(Breastfeeding): Human infant milk composition, characterised by its low protein and fat content and high lactose, necessitates short intervals between breast feeds making human mother–infant co-sleeping not only expectable but biologically necessary.

(Security): Moreover, mammal infants whose mothers leave them to sleep alone in nests neither cry nor defecate until she returns (to lick them) so as not to attract predators. Human infants cry and defecate spontaneously when their mothers leave indicating that the constant physical association between them is evolutionarily stable and appropriate.

(SIDS): The supine infant sleep position evolved in tandem with both breast feeding and mother–infant co-sleeping (an integrated adaptive system). It was only after breast feeding was replaced by bottle-feeding and solitary infant sleep environments replaced maternal–infant social sleep that recommendations to place infants prone (i.e. on their stomachs) for sleep made sense, or was even possible. But it was a tragic mistake that led to the deaths of thousands of Western babies from SIDS. Several studies show that without instruction, the supine infant sleep position is universally chosen by the breast feeding–co-sleeping mother as it is extremely difficult for the breast feeding infant to move to initiate and receive a breast feed while sleeping next to its mother on its stomach, the most dangerous position for an infant to sleep. Western parents paid a big price to learn that!”

I have already written about co-sleeping here and here and you can read the whole of Mckenna’s argument at So rather than extol the virtues of co-sleeping again today, I just felt like saying how lovely it was to receive so many responses that reminded me that allowing my baby to do what comes naturally to her, waking to feed or cuddle, is the best thing I could possible give her right now.

The usual reaction to my confession that my eight month baby wakes every two hours at night to feed is: “What are you going to do to change this?” When I say “Nothing, look how happy she is!” I feel that somehow this is not the answer they were looking for.

“But what about you?” they reply. And they are right. As caring friends they remind me that I need to look after myself. I do tend to look exhausted and sorry for myself when I talk about Bella’s sleeping habits, so I can hardly blame them. This is where another response came to my rescue: sleep when your baby does, rest when you can, concentrate on as little else as possible other than your baby. (I.e. Bella is not the problem, I am!)

I felt ashamed when I read this response because this is advice I am constantly giving out to other mothers, but have ceased to practice myself. I have written a whole bloody book about letting go, and allowing my baby to lead me; about giving up control and living in the moment, for me and my baby’s sake. Four years ago I chose not to earn any money for the foreseeable future in order to allow my children to develop as naturally and peacefully as possible. And yet here am I considering training my baby out of her natural, biological, behavioural patterns for the sake of a good night’s sleep, so that I can carry on with life as normal!

I have learnt a lot of lessons today, which both Bella and I are going to benefit from. She will be able to carry on as normal and I am going to enjoy the moment instead of worrying about the future. Beginning right now. I'm off for a nap.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

This ex-pat life for our children... living more locally again

On Jemima’s first day back at school after our visit to the UK I discovered that two of her closest friends are leaving Cambodia in June – to Iceland and Azerbaijan. Her other great play mate already upped sticks to Madagascar in February. Oh, and her long-term friends, the twins, are headed home to Canada in August.

I admit a bit of me finds all this terribly exciting – her childhood seems so exotic at times. But my main emotion is that of a fiercely protective lioness who simply must protect my daughter’s fragile heart... and mine for that matter. As my friends told me of their plans to leave I could hear another voice in my brain telling me: “Start to have less play dates now! Emotionally prepare! Loosen the bonds gently!” (This is the problem with the ex-pat lifestyle – never tell anyone you are leaving more than a few weeks before you go or you will be friendless for the last months of your stay.) No, I am not really planning to abandon my friends before they leave, but I have actively started filling her life with more permanent pals as well.

The street kids have come in twice this week already to play with Jemima and the neighbours' children are here every day again, as they used to be before Jemima started school. There is also another big change in our daily life. Srey Mach is no longer working with us. This is a long story which would not be fair to share here. We miss her but now have a lovely, older woman Sophy, mother of two older children, working for us instead. Not only is she a calm, quiet, grandmotherly type who helps me keep the ants under control (they are marching over my keyboard right now, the little bloggers) and adores Bella, she speaks no English and loves tea. The result of all these changes is that our lives have come to feel a lot more local lately, and my Khmer is improving dramatically.

I ought to explain that I do speak Khmer, though many who have heard me might beg to differ. I can travel around the country, direct a Tuk Tuk, shop, chat, enjoy a conversation with people on the streets, and talk on the phone. Actually I really love the language, but I do find the tiny and subtle nuances between ten different words with ten very different meanings hard to grasp. I was thrilled to hear that Khmer was ranked one of the hardest languages in the world recently. So there is a reason to put it on my CV after all! I have been wondering how I can justify showing off my prowess at a language so utterly useless anywhere else in the world but here.

Seriously though, after giving up the lessons when Bella was born I was getting increasingly frustrated at having to stop a conversation as soon as it started to get interesting because of my limited vocabulary. I also wanted to improve my pronunciation so that I could be understood by the foster mother of the children we support in Takeo province. (In the provinces people tend to tell me they do not speak English when I start to speak to them in Khmer. Of course at the same time they cheer and clap when anyone manages a mere Sok Sabai! They run around saying “The Barang speaks Khmer really well!” even if that is your only word. I do love Cambodians!)

So I had my first lesson in ages yesterday and am back on track. Hoorah! I have a brilliant new teacher who started to correct me before he even shook my hand. It turns out there are some words which I have been using every day for two years which I do not say quite right. This man is a perfectionist and I could not be happier about that.

Sophy joined in my class - mainly because this week I asked if we could devote my lesson to the long list of things I wanted to express to her. After watching me mess about with about various concoctions this week (ginger water for a natural antibiotic, olive oil and garlic for ear infections, olive oil and citronella massage oil for mossies, olive oil and lavender for bedtime, chamomile tea for bottom washing…) she has asked me to teach her how ex-pats look after their children. Obviously I am taking this opportunity to tell her how I believe ex-pats should look after their children, being the objective and nonjudgmental woman that I am. So lessons in natural, positive, attachment parenting here we come! We must have made a funny scene yesterday. A tiny Khmer man and a tiny Khmer woman, both in their 40s - ooh, I wonder if he is married? Sophy kicked her useless husband out long ago… - sorry, where was I? Oh yes, a tiny Khmer couple with a huge white Barang repeating and translating: “Carrying babies is very good for their emotional and physical development!” and “Chamomile tea is very good for nappy rash!”

Long may it continue! Next week I shall ask him to teach me how to proselytise about breastfeeding. And the week after that we need to get Jemima on board... though that is another struggle altogether, to be posted about sometime soon. Off to get her from school now. Have a great weekend everyone!

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Some Julia Hollander inspired ramblings

I have just been reading the feedback to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme on Maternal Ambivalence – (you can Listen Again to it here) and India Knight’s related column about Julia Hollander, a mother who has written a book about giving up her five-month old disabled daughter. Knowing very little about it all, not having read the book or been able to successfully Listen Again (abysmal internet connection), I do not feel qualified to comment. How could I, happy mother of two easy children, possibly presume to understand what she has gone through? But I cannot deny that the story has got inside my head and made me terribly sad.
My gut instinct agrees with some of what India Knight says about it all (makes a change, agreeing with something written in the Times): I am finding it very hard to empathise with a woman who has chosen to give up her baby daughter – younger sister to her older, ‘normal’ child -, remove all trace of her from the house, and then write a book about it.

It is also the media portrayal of her ‘bravery’ that I am uncomfortable with. While we should not judge a woman for her decision about what she feels is right for her and her own child, surely glamourising the abandonment of a child who was born disabled (from an older woman who must have been well aware of the risks) is simply promoting the conventional western belief that to give birth is a right we should all be entitled to, and that when we have done so, our needs as parents rank above those of our babies. And Hollander’s deed aside, the fact that she is now famous because of it troubles me.

Perhaps I am just bitter because, for the same reason that my book, encouraging positive, relaxed parenting, will never get published, it is a well-established truth that if you have had a miserable life experience you will have no trouble selling it! In my most desperate moments I have wondered about this – could I publish stories about the darker moments of my life? Would that not just be exploiting someone’s pain? I suppose I would always have to be guided by whether or not anyone would be helped by it. As a writer I believe in the value of sharing our life experiences and stories, but I also believe some things should remain unpublished, or at least, not for sale. I imagine Hollander expected that she would be helping other parents of disabled children for speaking out about the lack of support, but judging by some of their comments, it seems she has just alienated them for doing something they could never contemplate, and then making money from it.

Anyway I shall spare you any further ramblings on the subject, though I am interested in your views. I thought I would share the link because it is an interesting subject and followed by more discussion about post-natal depression. The overwhelming feeling as I read everyone’s comments was immense relief and gratitude. It was just one more reminder that I live in a world so full of suffering – and here in Cambodia it is laid out right in front of our eyes – and I am one of the lucky ones. So remind me, next time you hear me grumbling about my travelling husband, my wakeful baby, or never getting published, that my life without the first two would be hardly worth living, whereas the latter would really not make much difference at all.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Travels with my children (2)... thank heavens for my breasts

Yesterday I breastfed Bella about one hundred times. This is a calculated estimate, not a wild exaggeration. Honestly, I don’t think she left the breast for longer than about 20 minutes at a time all day. This is not entirely her fault, I should say. It is quite true that my answer to pretty much any sign of discomfort with my babies has always been to try the boob. She has had a very snotty cold for nearly a week now and as a result I have found myself sofa- or sling-bound with boobs on permanent stand by. I simply cannot imagine how people cope with a sick baby if they are not breastfeeding.

And the same goes for so many other aspects of attachment/continuum parenting. My trip back to the UK, alone with two children, would have been hell were it not for breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping and baby-led weaning. Actually it simply would not have been possible. As it was I had one baby on my back, one toddler walking, her own small rucksack on her back, and holding on to the strap of one small wheely suitcase, while my hands were occupied pulling said suitcase and carrying my hand bag (you know what I mean – I don’t actually have a hand bag, but my shoulder bag whatnot thing filled with all sorts of things I should have left behind – really, I carried four copies of the Guardian Weekly and a thick novel around with me for three and a half weeks. I finally read the papers in an airport delay on the way home, and the novel is waiting by my bed) … oh and an inflatable booster seat thing that folds up small and straps onto chairs to act as high chair. I know that was a long sentence - it was a long trip.

This was all perfectly manageable, provided Jemima was in a good mood, until the moment we stepped inside the underground/train/bus/plane and started to overheat because I had cunningly dressed all of us in most of our clothes so that I could fill the suitcase with eco-disposable nappies that you can’t buy in most corner shops. Inevitably we would emerge from the underground/train/bus/plane with ten items of clothing tied around waists, onto suitcase handles, hanging out of the sling pockets, and me wearing Jemima’s rucksack on my front. Depending on the length of the walk then necessary to reach our final destination all our layers would then have to be put back on again… arrrggghhhh just writing about it exhausts me.

I suppose had we been able to afford to hire a car, take regular taxis, not cared about eco-nappies and not have friends and family strewn inconveniently across the entire country then this trip would have been a little easier. But had we needed to add travel cot, bottles, formula, a buggy, jars of baby food, baby toys and dummies (the latter two replaced by having fun looking out of sling, and my boobs, respectively)… to the equation, well I would never have left the house. The fact that Bella could eat whatever we were eating, could feed whenever she was hungry wherever we happened to be, and we could all share one bed made the whole thing possible, and more likely to be invited back.

So was it worth it? Absolutely. We got to spend lots of time with nearly all members of both our families, and my two friends with their new(ish) babies. I could not manage the expat existence without these regular trips home, so I would happily do the whole thing again tomorrow. Even Jemima agreed. I asked her after collapsing onto the tube one evening. She was exhausted and sobbing because she had had to carry her rucksack for five minutes more than she wanted because I simply did not have a hand free to take it from her.

“Jemima? Do you enjoy these trips back to England to see family or are they just too tiring?”

“I enjoy it!” she sobbed dramatically, “I really enjoy it!” I made sure the following day was a quiet one.

There were a few hiccups along the way. After arriving at Bangkok airport the night we left home, where we were due to wait for three hours before boarding our 12 hour over night flight to London, Jemima managed to shut her hand in the lift door. The doors jammed half open, her hand acting as an indestructible wedge. She screamed for what felt like three minutes before I could finally slide the doors to release her hand. Her fingers were squashed flat a la Tom and Jerry but no harm was done. Having no arms free to lift her, as I was pushing an overloaded luggage trolley, I had to convince her to walk with me to the lounge where I was planning to plead my way in.

Have you ever been to Bangkok airport? It is huge. So we walked side by side, Jemima howling with pain and exhaustion (it was 11pm), stopping for cuddles along the way, for about 15 minutes, while helpful passers by threw me disapproving looks because I obviously did not love my children very much to be putting them through all this. Her tragic condition did secure us a nice sofa and all we could eat for free in the first class lounge though. Good old Thai airways, BA would never stoop so low. Of course this brought us more unwelcome peers from above the laptops of some fifty be-suited business men. Apparently it is not customary to have to share your air mile privileges with a stressed out mother changing her baby’s nappy on the plush velvet sofa while her unruly toddler spills cake and hot milk all over the carpet. We blagged our way in on the way back as well :-).

I also nearly lost Jemima in the London Underground at one heart stopping moment. She simply stepped out of the doors at the wrong stop and luckily they stayed open longer than usual so that I could grab her and pull her back in. I cannot think what I would have done otherwise. She had no name tag or mobile number on her and I had not even discussed with her what we would do if she lost me because that simply was not going to happen. Oh god… Having Bella on me meant that I could have easily jumped out with her of course. If she were in a buggy? You see? Slings are gold dust. I love them like other women love their shoes. So much so that I now have the updated Ergo, softer, cosier and cuddlier, in beautiful blue to add to my collection. Another reason going back to the UK was such a good idea.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Doing nothing...

I am sitting on the sofa doing nothing. Well, I was until I decided to write about it. I have spent the last hour sitting here with a poorly Bella asleep on my lap, watching Jemima play with her friend Marina. I admit it was not easy to resist the urge to move Bella from my lap and go and tidy up/check emails/think about dinner, but I stuck with it and it was great. Just sitting still, holding her, watching her sister. It reminded me of the title of the great book by Naomi Stadlen What mothers do, especially when it looks like nothing.

After an hour of marvelling at the creative capacity of three-year-old girls to make up exciting games out of nowhere, using more or less no props, and at the softness of a baby’s cheeks, I decided I badly needed a cup of tea, some bite cream (the mosquitoes were making the most of my inactivity) and a pee. Now I have returned to my spot, the girls are outside, both dressed in several layers of Jemima’s clothes, hats and carrying bags – a couple of true expat kids, they are on the way to the airport. Bella is on the sofa still asleep and I shall continue to do nothing – or at least write about doing nothing.

Two new mothers, both dear friends of mine, recently reminded me of what my life was like when Jemima was a baby. I wrote a whole book about it for goodness sake! As I watched them both just hanging out at home with their babies, cuddling, feeding, changing nappies, reading, sleeping, thinking, I realised how full my life had become recently. So I have resolved to spend more time doing nothing with my girls – it is after all when they are at their happiest.

Two other friends of mine have just seen their last child off to school for the first time and they have reminded me just how quickly time flies. I know I must make the most of the chance just to hang out with my girls, watching, listening, photographing... imprinting these days firmly in my memory forever, and in the albums for when the memory fades. I am incredibly fortunate to be at home with them (though it must be said that I would live in a shed and grow my own food rather than go to the office and leave them in the care of someone else) and I am lucky to have an age gap that allows me frequent time and space with Bella while Jemima happily entertains herself alone or with friends.

“You are sure it won’t be too much?” Marina’s mother asked. On the contrary, having a friend over for Jemima frees me up to do whatever I need to do. Play dates are brill!

So I plan to sit here until Bella wakes. She can keep me company while I cook dinner – what’s the point of doing it alone now? The ants that I am watching march in through the front door and across the walls will have polished off the girls’ biscuit crumbs and left again by the time I move anyway, far more efficient than me getting up and wasting valuable energy. The editor I was going to call will only say No, not interested… I can definitely do without that right now. The Khmer vocabulary I need to learn has waited six months already, an extra day can’t hurt. The toys can be put away at bed time. My sister has a postcard on her fridge that says: “A tidy house is a sign of a wasted life”. Too right. The nappies can fester.

The only thing that stops me from feeling entirely comfortable with my plan to do nothing is that I live in a country full of desperate people in need of help, in a city where voluntary opportunities abound. I have always filled my time with good deeds – in my former NGO career before children and since, as a volunteer with my children tagging along too. Ever since Jemima reached about three months, naptimes for children have always (mostly) meant me doing something worthwhile (mostly). I don’t want to do anything for anyone else right now, but there is a voice in my head saying I ought to. I think the best way of getting round this is by inviting the street kids in to play again. That way I shall have to be at home to watch them and they will have some sacred fun time just to be children for a change. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Tomorrow. I’ll just get another cup of tea first…

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mud glorious mud: my English holiday

I am back in Cambodia and finally getting my act together. It is hard to discipline myself to sit down and write again after a month’s holiday - well, if you can call carting two children around England a holiday. Actually, in retrospect, I can. Chronic exhaustion aside, I had a brilliant time and so did the girls. Crisp blue skies and freezing winds, what a perfect break from our life in tropical Phnom Penh.

I loved watching Jemima run up and down the Herefordshire hills with her gaggle of cousins, jumping and cracking through icey puddles to squidge around in the mud beneath. Ah! Call me a romantic but this is my idea of a perfect childhood. Hot sun and outdoor swimming pools may sound glamorous but surely, for a child, it just doesn’t get better than mud.

Every day I was amazed at how much energy Jemima had and how much more exercise she could cope with than she ever gets here in PP. She only ever wanted to leave the swings/hills/woods when she had lost all feeling in her hands and feet, and only then she had to be lured with promises of thawing her nose over a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of hot buttered crumpets. As a friend remarked yesterday, the English don’t half do Winter well!

In Cambodia we often sit around the table at 4pm and have a traditional English tea with cake, biscuits or toast and marmite. It feels good because it reminds us of home but really, in the sweltering heat, it just adds to our lethargy rather than fuelling us for our next venture into the bracing winter weather. And that is what it is all about, for me anyway. When people ask what I miss most about home the answer is easy: ‘Weather!’ I know we are famous for talking about it all the time, but if you go there you really will understand why. There is just so much to say about it!

In England one’s entire emotional and physical state is quite likely to be largely ruled by the weather. We complain about it but without it I somehow feel only half alive. Be it battered by winds, drenched in a down pour, depressed from days of drizzle, uplifted by a much awaited glimpse of the sun, baked on a rare scorcher of a summers’ day, or tingling with tummy butterflies when the Autumn rain brings the smell of wet leaves and the new school term… I miss being at the mercy of the weather. Here it has taken me two years to notice the changing of the seasons, so imperceptible are they. (Not that this stops people talking about it actually – weather chat is not particular to the British after all. Here I find my Khmer friends say one of two things every day, each time with varying degrees of astonishment: “Oh it is so hot today!” and “Oh, it is not so hot today!”)

So yes, England was great. But I am very happy to be back. Not least because… it is not so hot today, and has not been since I arrived. And this is important because unfortunately in Cambodia it is not so much me but my poor family who are at the mercy of the weather. As April looms, the hottest month here, I can see James is already preparing himself and the children for the inevitable onslaught of foul language and a total intolerance of any kind of physical contact unless attempted immediately after a cold shower, or in the stream of a powerful fan.

But until April comes at least, we are happily reunited and I am extremely grateful for the extra pair of hands that comes with having a partner. Every day in England I said a silent thank you for James. Once again I have been made to feel awe and empathy for single mothers or fathers. The energy I loved seeing in Jemima also drove me completely crazy several times a day – conveniently when anything had to be done. Getting dressed/undressed/ready for bed was fraught with negotiations and physical grapples as I dared interrupt my frenzied, bed-bouncing daughter from ‘just having fun, Mama!’ Leaving the house required more patience and positivity than I could muster without the help of my weekly Kundilini yoga practice (this I badly missed - it makes me a much nicer mother and far more effective negotiator… but more on that another time). Suffice to say trying to catch a toddler who needs to put on roughly ten different items of winter clothing - the novelty of which wore off on day one of our 25 day trip - while staying in a house with four floors is not an enjoyable experience, however much you are in touch with your third, naval ‘power’ chakra. I am a lot fitter as a result though, to look on the bright side.

I have lots to say about the trip – how the trusty sling and baby-led weaning made the whole thing possible, some airport and London underground adventures and how right I was about my health visitor fears, – but it will all have to wait… Bella summons.

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