Thursday, July 24, 2008

Having two children

We are off to the UK tomorrow. I can’t believe it is one year since we were there to welcome Bella into the world. I had not even started this blog (this is my 101th post!). Just over a year ago there I was for a lazy month on my own with Jemima, Bella still on the inside and James still out here, wondering how I could ever love any child as much as my first child. I had pangs of guilt at what it might mean for Jemima to share me with a new sibling. The night she left to stay with my sister Alex, as I was going into labour, I wept at the thought of never having that life with just her again. I am writing this post for my friend J, who is pregnant with her second child. Because I just want to say “Don’t worry, nature takes care of it”.

These last few months, as Bella has begun to be more active, nearly walking, talking constantly and fluently - in what could be Russian, I am not quite sure - I have been deeply touched by Jemima’s response to her little sister. They have never been inseparable like some siblings. I mean they both seem to happily go off and do their thing. They are interested in each other of course, and play together for limited periods, but neither idolizes the other (not yet anyway). Actually I am almost relieved at this – I had visions of Bella constantly being hurt or left out as her big sister got bored of playing with her or ignored her advances. All of this may be yet to come I suppose, but at the moment it is quite beautiful to watch them together.

I have a stinking cold at the moment and it has been good for me. It has forced me to just sit still, watch the kids play, and feebly join in when required. I could watch them for hours. Bella is hilarious and keeps us constantly entertained with her games. She likes to go out of the front or back mosquito screen and hide for a minute before popping her head round and screaming with delight because she knows how easily she can make us laugh. Even when she doesn’t try we still can’t peel our eyes off her. She is just so yummy and squishy. Even when she cries she looks sweet. She pours over books for hours, stopping and peering close up at a particular picture for several long seconds before saying “hmmmm” and then something in Russian that I think means “That is so fascinating”, turning the page and doing the same all over again. She always has something in her arms. She’ll find something random – yesterday it was Jemima’s pants – and holds onto them loyally for an entire day. And when she is tired woe betide anyone who tries to separate her from her chosen item of the day.

All of this she does while Jemima rearranges the furniture around her and does gymnastics, jumps from one island to another and makes a ‘baby school’ a la ‘gymboree’ for Bella. I just have to sit there with my tea and assume a range of undemanding roles such as mummy mermaid, crocodile or friendly monster. Actually we made the mistake of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last weekend so now I am the child catcher. Apparently I have a ‘nice big nose’ so the role suits me perfectly.

Jemima always addresses Bella as ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’ and laughs when she does something sweet, strokes her face and tells her she is ‘such a sweetie’. She seems to genuinely rejoice in Bella making us laugh, looking lovely in a dress, enchanting all the Khmers we meet. I’ve no idea how long it will last but I am determined to enjoy and cherish and nurture the lovely friendship they have. They adore each other and it makes me wish I could remember the early years with my sisters. I have three older sisters and it is lovely to think that when I was a baby I was fussed over as much as Bella is today.

As for me (and James feels much the same), once Bella was born I never had to think again about whether I would be able to love another child as much as Jemima. It just happens. But I am not saying it feels the same second time round. It is a very different thing I find, loving a little baby, than a three year old child with a mind of her own, which she expresses loud and clear and often. I know Jemima so much better than I know Bella. Or at least there is more of Jemima to know, if that makes any sense. So while my love for Bella is deep and protective, it is still very physical. I still breastfeed her on demand, sleep with her, pick her up whenever she or I need. Of course we play and talk and listen to each other a lot as well, but I don’t understand Russian. Jemima’s relationship with me feels a lot more emotionally intimate. It feels strange writing this because as a mother of just one baby I am sure it would be hard to understand. Until your child begins to talk and share their view of the world and life within it with you, and then you have another baby to remind you what it is like loving a baby... then you will understand. Hmmm, do any other mothers of two share these feelings or relate to what I am saying? Ho hum... anyway my point is, dear J, it is different but all good. Lovely. Cherish what you have now but relax in the knowledge that you have something to really look forward to and be excited about.

I am off to steam my cold away. Yesterday Sophy made me lie in a boiling hot bath full of Kafir limes and lemon grass and sweat it out. I recommend it actually – as long as you have lots of drinking water at hand. She is telling me to do the same today so that I am well for the flight tomorrow. So that’s what I’ll do. And I will try to blog from time to time from England. Bye all 

If you like this post have a read of this one too, about Attachment parenting for making life with siblings easier.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tips for travelling with kids

I have been saying for so long that I would share a few tips for travelling with children. I am so sorry it has taken me this long – especially when many of you have reminded me a few times now! Well seeing as on Friday we are off to England for our summer holiday (hooray) I may as well do it right now! I need to remind myself and psyche myself up for packing anyway, so what better way? Here goes... actually I do not have that much to offer when I think of it ... but maybe that is because my main advice to travelling families is to keep it simple.

Ok, here is my list of things you may want to take with you. I would say the toys are probably the least important but included them anyway. We took some to Vietnam, but our kids mostly played with their environment (you know, rubbish, old tin cans, cigarette butts, plug sockets, hotel loo brushes, filthy shoes) or other people.

1. Ergo or your favourite baby carrier, and a cloth sling that folds up small.
2. A wet cloth in a bag for washing faces and hands – more eco-friendly and less heavy than a pack of wipes.
3. A bag of dried apricots and prunes... for snacks that last for weeks and are filled with iron for when their diet becomes less balanced.
4. A bendy plastic catchy bib you can fold up and shove in handbag.
5. An inflatable highchair (really - it makes having to eat out three times a day bearable).
6. Stories, songs and cbeebies on an ipod with headphones and/or speakers.
7. A bag with small toys that you can empty onto the floor of an aeroplane, bus, train, hotel room, airport... anywhere when it becomes necessary. E.g. finger puppets, sock puppets, face paints, fuzzy felt, rubix cube (!), small dolls with clothes, beads for making jewellery, plastic water bottle (Bella’s favourite for three weeks), bouncy ball, balloons, small dolls with long hair and a hair brush (hours of fun for me at any rate), play doh, bath crayons for writing on tiles and bath tubs and bodies – washes off.... sure have more ideas, can’t think of them now but would like to hear yours!
8. A book of children’s songs or the words to your favourite songs - be prepared to sing for hours and hours and hours...
9. Essential oils... lavender for sleep or nausea, chamomile for nappy rash or swelling/sunburn/sleep, tea tree for antiseptic. And rescue remedy for shocks (like flying out of bunk beds on night trains in Vietnam or being attacked by a dog when you are only one foot high), Echinacea and olive leaf tonic for vitality after way too many long bus rides for a three year old.
10. My boobs.

Oh, and a few lessons learnt about travelling overseas (from my travelling with kids chapter in my book)
1.It can be fun! (Just as long as you accept the fact that it will be different to the good old days BC).
2.Travelling with kids can help you see a place with new eyes.
3.Most children love new food, new places and new faces.
4.The journey can be part of the holiday…
5.but if it’s by bike, make sure she loves it as much as you do, before you set off!
6.Travelling with children is easier in countries where people love kids and are willing babysitters.
7.My children are a lot more resilient to heat and mosquitoes and jetlag than I am.
8.Exposing my children to new cultures will help them see the bigger picture, be thoughtful and open to difference.
9.If you plan it right, you might even be able to have the odd night out, exhaust them so thoroughly that you get a lie in the next day, and have sex in the middle of the day when they nap…
10.failing that, going to bed early when they do with a good book is pretty close to heaven (oh dear, I am definitely in my thirties…)

If you like this post you might like to read about our travels in Vietnam or about my travels with my girls.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Incoherent ice-cream fuelled ramblings about mothers' guilt

Ok. Starting again. I am officially working part-time and loving it. My new career as a yoga teacher feels totally brill and meant to be. That is, as long as everyone else is happy. You know what I am talking about ... the night you go out with your friends and have a ball and come home to find the baby has been screaming and you suddenly regret the whole evening and never want to see your evil friends again. Or when you come home blissfully relaxed after spending two indulgent hours reading Hello! Magazine at the hairdresser to find your husband exhausted and cross, the house a mess and the children hungry. Suddenly you hate your new haircut and catching sight of it in the mirror makes you utterly feel self-indulgent and unfit to be a mother and wife. How quickly our feelings of elation can turn into tormenting guilt.

This is what I am going through at the moment. Although, after all my fretting, it turns out that Bella is not the one I need to worry about. Despite my guilt about leaving her so young (if I did not have one more year in Cambodia to do this course and certify I would put the whole thing off until she was two.) she is just as happy as ever, playing with her beloved Sophy and her little friends in the mornings while I work. It helps that I am only out for two hours at a time so I still feed her and put her down for her nap. No, to my surprise, it is Jemima that seems most affected by my new pursuits.

At first I was just impressed by her emotional intelligence and cheekiness. Last Monday morning as I was taking her to school, hurrying her along as I had a class to teach, Jemima pointed out that I am working every day now. When I reminded her that I worked in the mornings only and asked what was it she wanted me to do while she was having fun at school, her response was: “You should wait outside the gate until I have finished”. I laughed (while feeling guilty because really I know I should be spending that time alone with Bella before her big sister comes home).

But, a week later, I realise it is not actually very funny after all. Today I learnt that Jemima’s feelings about my new career are obviously more intense than I thought. She chose not to go to summer school in the morning (“I am so tired of playing!”) and got very upset when I said I had to go out to teach for a couple of hours. And then after lunch she disappeared to the bathroom and refused to let me come in. She left the door open though, but would not tell me what she wanted to do or why I could not come in. I left her for a few minutes and when I returned I found her behind the bathroom door having pooed in her pants. Jemima has been fully potty trained for ages - this was not an accident. At first she cried and pushed me away but after a minute or so of me coaxing her gently she eventually allowed me to wash her off. When I flushed her pants down the loo by mistake we had a moment’s reprieve to laugh about it, but really I found the whole thing quite heart breaking.

As I gave her a bath I asked her:

“Did you just want to know how it would feel or did you do it for another reason?” “Another reason” she replied.
“Did you want me to come and find you and help you or did you want it to be a secret?” “I wanted you to come and find me” she sobbed.
“Has it got anything to do with me working this morning?”

Ouch. How do full-time mothers do it? Ok, this last ten days has been more intense than usual because James has been away so I have had to leave them with baby sitters on Sunday and a couple of evenings when he would normally have them, but honestly I am here for three meals a day, nearly every afternoon, bedtimes, during the night on demand, and yet my nearly four-year-old child is missing me. This is the same child who makes new friends every day and frequently tells me she wants to go and play at X’s house and “You can just me off, you don’t need to stay”. It makes me wonder just how much we teach our children not to need us.

Surely children who have been in nursery from an early age do not express themselves like this? Surely it is only because Jemima has had me to herself for three years, and shared with Bella for nearly four, that she feels so strongly about this. Not just that she misses me, but that it is her right to have me around. The belief that young children need and deserve to be at home, do things in their own time, and have their mothers with them seems to be firmly ingrained in her mind and heart simply by that being her experience so far. Jemima has been reminding me of my duties regularly since I started teaching a month ago. “You don’t play with me enough, Mummy” or “You really do not need to do yoga every day!” or “You never take me to school” (James, does, and I pick her up, except when he is away when I do. To her credit, when I point this out she says “Oh yes, that’s true.”).

Today was the first sign of real distress and it quickly passed when I cancelled all our plans for the afternoon and took her swimming alone while Bella slept. She was so happy. She fell asleep telling Bella and me what a lovely day she had and how much she loved us both. But at the same time she also explained to Bella that she could not be there for her in the mornings because she had to go to school, which was her work, so Bella would have to learn to be without her for a bit. Oh god, is this what I really sound like?

I’m trying to work out whether she is actually missing me or simply picking up the vibes of me having something else big and important in my life, other than her and Bella. She sees me coming home from a class on a bit of a high and while she reaps the benefits of a happy, more energised and playful mother (oh the joys of yoga), does she also detect a new passion in my life?

I ought to say at this point that I miss both of them too. I just cannot imagine how it must feel to walk out of the house in the morning and come home at night in time to put your child in bed. (And then in another bed... sorry, no more co-sleeping rants I promise). Even after two hours away I find myself interrogating Jemima on what she has played, eaten, thought about, how she has felt... And although I know that I would do nearly anything possible to avoid working full-time and leaving them whatever my circumstances, I do feel incredibly grateful that the choice that I have made, to be (now mostly) at home with my kids, has been made so much easier by living here.

I suppose all I can do is try to work more in the evenings and look forward to James’s return and our holiday in England in August. And, along with all mothers worldwide, I shall probably continue to love my new job on a good day and want to give it all up on days like today. Oh goodness. I have finished the ice cream. Something else to feel guilty about.

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Snuggling up

It is 630pm and the girls are asleep. Hoorah! I am steadily making my way through a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream to celebrate. While James has been away I have discovered that putting them to bed together means that I can leave Bella awake and she just falls asleep quietly next to her big sister. They look so darling curled up together it makes me want to cry. We keep talking about buying one big mattress to put on the floor in Jemima’s room and move Bella in with her. At least to start the night off with at any rate. But even as I write this I am shaking my head. No. It’s too soon. While some people say that Bella is so happy and independent that she must be ready for the move, I see it the other way round.

Yes she is so happy and independent. So why on earth would I risk changing that when I have not a doubt in my mind that those attributes come largely from her sharing our bed. Anyway this is not another post about co-sleeping actually. Today I am writing about my new, anxiety-fuelled, role of being a part-time working mother. But I mention the bedtime thing because that I absolutely believe that the reason Bella seems so unfazed and happy despite my increased working hours is because she spends all night snuggled up to me, waking for feeds and cuddles from time to time. Hmmm, actually I think I shall stop here and start a new post about the whole working thing... read here or here or here if now in the mood to read about co-sleeping!

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bella’s birthday blog (and a tribute to single mothers everywhere)

Today is Bella’s first birthday. In fact as I write this it is almost to the minute that she first looked up at me, opened her eyes wide and latched on to my breast. We were in a holiday-let bungalow in Winchester with views over the garden and golf course. The landlady’s daughter was a community midwife hence had no qualms whatsoever with me giving birth on her sitting room floor. Bella was delivered by the same midwife as Jemima, though our home birth plans did not work out first time round. This time it was perfect (the birth I mean, not the hours of agony before hand). Given that she could effectively have been born in any one of six different house-sits and spare rooms, none of which felt quite right to me as I tried to make my nest, and that Sheila was only on call for about three nights in July, the beautiful circumstances of Bella’s coming into this world really were a miracle. And I could swear she has been smiling ever since (teething nightmares aside).

Sheila and her co-midwife Sue stayed for tea and toast, put me and Bella in the bath and helped James clear up. They stayed for hours, making me feel like I was the only woman they had ever helped to give birth. Sheila even asked me for a CD of the music I had playing on repeat for nine hours. James never wants to hear it again – he said it was like being in a time warp where the only thing that changed was the intensity of my screams. (For anyone living in Phnom Penh the music was from Boom Boom Room – their female chill out mix. I never planned to have it as birthing music but once it had played through once I needed it with a passion. I still love to listen to it. I think I will put it on right now actually).

The rest of the day was spent resting in bed between receiving visits from family and friends while Jemima had a day on the beach with her grandparents. She had come home from her cousin’s house where she had spent the night, greeted her little sister with a mixture of excitement and indifference, not really understanding what all the fuss was about. My only anxiety over that time was how it would affect her and how they would get on. I found it incredibly emotional giving her a little sister and imagining the life change to come after nearly three years of her having me all to herself. Now a year later we have to try hard to remember life before Bella.

Today I cannot help wishing I was back in England in that bungalow bedroom being spoilt and cared for by family and friends. I am not complaining. Really it is lovely to be here in our own home in Phnom Penh. The sun is shining (of course) and the weather is cool. Jemima has spent all morning telling Bella she is ‘such a funny sweet heart baby’ and for the first time ever Bella sat patiently beaming in her high chair as though she knew something was up while I made her breakfast and we sang to her. But... you knew there would be one, this is expatria... James is away, Jemima is off school sick, and I have not slept for three nights thanks to their remarkable waking antics caused by anything and everything from needing to pee, 40 degrees fever, ants in the bed attracted by strawberry flavoured medicine, Bella’s tormenting teeth and a cockroach in the mosquito net. My mouth feels like it has lost all feeling and my face is sliding towards my feet... I thought kids were supposed to keep you young. I am quite fine really, but put it this way, for the sake of the kids I am doing a lot of meditation for emotional balance.

Seriously I am so in awe of single mothers and fathers. Maddy you are an angel! Last night at 3am, still not having slept, I felt I was on a slippery slide. I left Jemima and Bella in my bed and retreated to a quieter place, my parting words to Jemima being: “Bella may cry for a minute, just ssssshhhh her and she’ll be asleep in no time”. What was that? And what will come next? By Saturday will I be asking her to make my tea and take her sister for a walk while I lie in? By day it feels manageable again but in the dead of night when there is no one around to calm you down... I just don’t know how single parents keep their cool.

Anyway Jemima is tiring of making Bella’s card and is covering each crayon, or fish, with glitter glue, sorry, tomato ketchup, so I should probably go. It has been good therapy to blog after such a long while. Thank you for listening. I'll be back later to tell you about her tea party we are having this afternoon and a picture for you.

If you liked reading this, you might enjoy this.

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