The Terrific Twos

Being two is amazing: people finally start to understand what you’re talking about, you are allowed chocolate, and your opinion counts for something (although apparently not everything when it comes to wanting the adult definition of too much chocolate – an arbitary figure determined by an unknown formula).

Two year olds are, however, often misunderstood. We are considered difficult, unpredictable, and prone to throwing ourselves on the floor. With a little more knowledge though, you will soon see the fabulousness of life with a toddler. So here’s my handy guide to ensure there is nothing terrible about your interactions with me.

Firstly, language. The following translations might come in handy:

  • don’t like it means don’t want it.
  • Tired means I know I am in the wrong but want you to let me off.
  • Shat means mummy sure is glad I can’t make the short i sound and wishes I wasn’t such a parrot.
  • Daddy? means mummy said said no.
  • More means more, lots, another one.
  • Not working means I can’t do it, so the only explanation is that it is broken.

Secondly, you need to understand the following:

  • I don’t walk anywhere. I run. On the occasions when I travel slower, it has nothing to do with the destination you have in mind, rather it’s connected to my need to inspect the sticks and rocks along the way.
  • A stick is never just a stick. It is an aeroplane, a giraffe, or a helicopter.
  • The only toy I wish to play with is the one that belongs to someone else.
  • I will test your patience regularly…
  • … but melt your heart almost minutely.
  • If it’s got wheels, I need to point it out to you. Bin truck! Bike! Car! The appropriate response is wow!
  • My talent for stalling at bedtime is remarkable. I will ask for milk or water, and it will always be the one you don’t have. I will want, then immediately not want, my teddy. I will be hungry, then thirsty, want blanket then be too hot. I will suddenly be able to sing songs all the way through at the top of my voice to distract you from how frustated you are that I am awake.
  • I will turn and look at you, drop a kiss on your cheek or grip your hand, and any memory of a tantrum will be erased.

That’s about it, the lowdown and language of me after 25 months on planet Earth. It sounds like hard work because it is, but mum and dad sure do smile a lot, so I figure I am doing okay.

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Weighing the Doubts

Day in day out, I don’t give it a second thought. I’m happy. Happy in a flat that is far from perfect but perfect for what we need, our growing family. Happy with my job and fortunate in my friends, the family we adopt when flesh and blood are further away.

No, I never give much thought to the downsides when I am a plane ride away from the country I was born in and busy living the life I chose to live.

You see, the upsides to living abroad are numerous. Germany gives me the chance to embrace another language and the chance to hop to France or Austria on a train. Families are better off, with parental leave and childcare more generous and equal for both parents. Plus, we live in a fairy-tale city, a city that people flood to in order to visit the famous castle, take a river cruise, and enjoy a beer on a picturesque square. I don’t mind sharing with the tourists and their self sticks, because I know I live here, I have my home here.

Heidelberg

Against all the upsides, there really is only one downside. It’s just it’s big. Really big.

My family are almost 900 kilometres away. Some days, that’s too far. It’s too far when you need a cup of tea and a chat in a house where you can help yourself to the tea. It’s too far when you need a tap fixing or a dress hemming. It’s too far when your son asks if he’s going to see Nanny and Granddad soon. Then, when you say yes, he replies in five minutes? It’s too far to not have the odd doubt.

It’s true that the doubts are rare. I know that the life I have is one of privilege and opportunity. However, lying in my bed at home, and I mean at home, in the bedroom I grew up in, the night before a flight back to the home I am registered at, the doubts creep in.

There are doubts about the consequences for the kids of not being close to family.

There are doubts, tinged with guilt, about how our emigrated life affects family. The cost and burden we place on them if they want to visit.

It nags away as I try to sleep, knowing the 5.30 alarm will ring, I will get on the plane and go back to my charmed life.

It passes, as it must and should, weighed up and watered down by the upsides of living where I do. I hug my son, who is clearly muddled by all the coming and going of family, and tell him it’s ok to feel sad. It’s good to feel sad, in fact. It means we’re lucky enough to have a good family, one we miss. It means my doubts are well placed, and if examined in that light, a peculiar upside in this life of mine.

Invisible Lines

Arriving in Paris, you can be on a metro and on the Pont d’Arcole before you can say un croissant s’il vous plait. From there, you are only a decent zoom away from a memory card full of pretty postcard pictures; the Louvre, l’Hôtel de Ville, and Notre Dame all lie within a gentle stroll.

Paris. Beautiful Paris, with its chalky white buildings and iron balconies, with its iconic bistros and brasseries, its tourists and its traffic. Jump on the metro on arrival and you’re in a Parisian love story in less than 15 minutes.

If, however, you have the time and the inclination, a stroll back to the Gare de l’Est, merely a case of walking in a straight line from the banks of the Seine, is entirely possible and extremely eye opening. Take the Boulevard Sebastapol then the Boulevard de Strasbourg and you’re back at the train station in a conservative 40 minutes.

In that short time, you cross more than just a few city blocks. You cross an invisible border. Somewhere around the Port St Denis, romantic Paris falls away. You cross the street, and the love story fades a little.

Gone are the designer home interior stores and high street names. Gone are the wealthy tourists sipping coffee and nibbling pastry. Gone even are the public toilets. Somewhere between one side of a zebra crossing and another, the city is other.

Less than a kilometre from proposal spots and selfie central is ordinary life. Suddenly, you are on the same street but not in the same place. The boulevards that stretch out to the east station lose their glamour somewhat. The stores have less sheen and less appeal. The pavements are grimier. There are boarded up restaurants and graffiti.

None of this is particularly problematic- unless you are looking for a 60 euro cushion or especially offended by graffiti – it’s just very different. And it gets different fast.

Within a ten minute walk, you can go from paying 7 euro for a Croque Monsieur to restaurants that look as if they haven’t served food in a decade.


The crowds and crowds of people, speaking a multitude of languages, discussing which sight “to do” next fade to background noise and up pop a range of more diverse shops and people going about their Sunday business- alll without a souvenir shop in sight. Presumably on a week day it is buzzing with locals interspersed with tourists staying in cheaper hotels or making the walk to the station.

This is pure observation. From the sights and sounds to the feeling that something has changed, Paris, like many a city, has it’s neighbourhoods that, despite all running into each other, are varying and diverse. It’s a pretty cool thing.

Cool and mysterious: it’s hard not to wonder, as you wander past shops packed to the rafters with groceries or selling off brand goods, who drew these lines, when, and what makes the contrast from neighbourhood to neighbourhood so stark. It’s hard also not to wonder if the lines will move and change, in which direction and to whose detriment.

Eventually the Boulevard ends, train station restaurants selling quick and tasteless food start to pop up, and homeless souls ask for money in front of the shiny station entrance. Inside, there’s a return to hoards of non-Parisians, chain stores and over priced fridge magnets. Another change. Another invisible line crossed.

Words To Think With

Therapy is a glass of wine with a friend, raking through the fine details of a happening until it can be seen clearly, processed and filed away.

Therapy is a long run, feet and pavement arguing it out so your mind needn’t.

Therapy is a yoga class, time to notice, take a breath and accept.

Therapy, of course, is also sitting down with a counsellor and talking. It’s taking time out of your day or your week to meet with a professional and help sort out whatever it is that is unsorted and thus in the way.

That kind of therapy still has a little stigma attached. I’m seeing my therapist tonight can still shut a fine conversation down. (Anything medical runs a similar risk, but if it’s mind not matter under the microscope, the pause is often awkwarder still.)

That kind of therapy, with a counsellor or psychiatrist, can, however, be the most useful kind. No offence to your BBF, they always have a role to play, and while your trainers likely don’t mind a weekly hammering, there is something to be said for someone who is qualified to help with problems that can’t be easily fixed with a bar of chocolate.

And the main thing to be said, I believe, for professional help can be summarised in one word: Words.

Therapists hear you and help you name the things you don’t understand. They can take a knotted necklace of emotions, name the knots, pick them apart in a methodical way, making the chain at least useable if not entirely knot free.

I have examples.

A counsellor taught me what anxiety is, really is. She taught me that it is an automatic response our ancestors used to escape from anything that wanted to eat them. She taught me that the risk of my straighteners being on did not pose the same threat level as a  hungry mammoth. (Because apparently, sadly, I couldn’t work that out for myself.) Having the word anxiety in my vocabulary gave my brain a new script to work from. It meant that I could name anxiety when it happened, argue with it and, slowly, (s l o w l y) diffuse it.

A counsellor taught me what intrusive thoughts are, what catastrophising is, and what emotional reasoning is, all of which are words that helped me confront a number of problems and retrain my brain.

words text scrabble blocks
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So, I am big fan of friends. Big fan. I am a big fan of exercise, a scribble in a diary, meditation, chocolate, and punching a pillow. I think they are all excellent forms of therapy.

But I am a big, big fan of straight up therapy to and it’s all down to the words.

Therapy is lunch with friends, a spin class, or a guided meditation.

Therapy is new vocabulary, the language of your problems, and a problem articulated is a problem halved.

No Things To No People

While there are plenty of things I do half-heartedly – cleaning,  paper work, pairing socks – being a mum, a partner, and an employee aren’t things I typically take lightly. Sure, everyone has an off day, off week perhaps, but most people I am lucky enough to know take the things that matter seriously and let go of the things that don’t. (Don’t, for example, look behind the neat files on my book shelf. You will find the odds and sods that didn’t  belong in any file.)

Of course, on any given day, despite anyone’s best efforts, some things have to slide. I send the odd email with one eye on my kid playing. I nod and make listening noises at my husband whilst doing a puzzle with my son. I put of marking for a day so that I can be home to cook dinner for my family. You can’t be everywhere and do everything.

This February, however, too much slid. Time, attention, focus, good habits. Tired, overwhelmed and never really present, the month skulked past in a haze of too much to do, too little time, too much worrying and rushing around, and far too little achieved given the energy spent.

And I hate that.

I hate slipping down that slope. That slope where I’m quick to temper, quick to presume the worse, quick to assume everyone is against me.  The bottom of that trickles out to a rut, and, with no momentum to slide back up, and one is simply stuck.

I really hate that.

I hate mis-prioritising, over prioritising and ricocheting from day to day without ever feeling alright but not doing alright by anyone else, either.

Last month, I was no things to no people.

Then the calendar ticked over, a mere coincidence really, but as the dust of a busy month settled and the appointments and deadlines thinned out, so a little clarity peeked through.

You can’t be all things to all people. Not ever. I was doing okay accepting there were times when my son didn’t have quite all my attention, when a few less important items slid down the to do list, when I was forgiving with myself.

How silly to lose sight of that. How human.

The breaks are on now, thankfully. My bod snapped and said enough was enough. There’s only one goal as a story March rolls in: the best I can be for the people close by. No more, no less.

lightning and tornado hitting village
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Empathetic or Sympathetic

Recently, I felt empathy in its purest form when my son had a small operation. It was neither serious nor urgent, but I had to stand with him, singing, smiling, and soothing while the doctors put him under general anaesthetic. The strength one can find for their kid amazes me; my voice did not crack and my ability to remain calm while he struggled against the obvious discomfort and fear of the situation came from a place of strength I didn’t know I had. Of course, the second he was under, I burst into tears.

Thirty minutes later, sitting next to him while he slept off the anaesthetic, I saw another parent emerge from the operating room with raw eyes and my own eyes burned for the second time that day. Tears sprung up, not because I was in any discomfort, but because I was feeling her pain, or, more realistically, my own pain again. I saw myself in her and when she looked at me, she saw herself in me.  We understood and shared each other’s feelings entirely.

Sitting there, waiting for my son to wake up, I wondered if it was possible to feel deep and true empathy without having shared an experience. It was an unsettling thought. Most people want to be somewhat empathetic – I hope – but shared experience isn’t necessarily all that common.

From friends with illness or seriously sick children, I am damn grateful that there are many experiences that I don’t understand. That sounds awful, of course, but no matter how much I want to support the people I love, empathy is incredibly hard to tap into in many cases. It doesn’t mean that one can not be supportive, caring or sympathetic. What it does mean is that phrases like I know how you feel are absolute rubbish a lot of the time. I can’t imagine what you are going though (but I am here with you) are much more accurate and useful.

Of course, emotion can be shared without having shared experiences. Most people have experienced loss of some kind or another and thus can empathise with someone who is grieving. Most of us know what it is to be disappointed or happy or confused or frustrated, and empathy can come from recognising the times when feelings are shared rather than experiences.

That said, some experiences bring such a depth of emotion that it seems a shared experience is really necessary to have true empathy. I can’t empathise with someone who is fleeing war or starving or living on the streets. I just can’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything, but it is closer to sympathy than empathy.  (Something this video explores.)

After 45 minutes and a lot of other wanderings in my mind, my son woke up and I returned to the present. This process of reflection didn’t end though. As a teacher and parent, I am often in a situation where I am trying to educate others to be empathetic. Empathy is a wonderfully human thing that I value deeply and am grateful to be able to feel. I am just not sure that it is a level of understanding that we reach quite as often as we think we do. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am being too hard on myself. Or maybe you can empathise entirely with being around someone who has a heartache you just can’t quite relate to, however hard you try.

two person wearing sunhats sitting on rock
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Mindful Tuesdays

Mindfulness is getting a lot of air time at the moment. It’s discussed as a treatment for various mental health conditions, as a teaching resource, and as a lifestyle choice. None of this seems a bad thing, except of course that it starts to sound fad-like and what it is, isn’t and could be becomes very muddied. (When in doubt about these things, I consult my trusted NHS.)

I was introduced to mindfulness meditation by a counsellor about eight years ago. She gave me a book and a CD to try out at home to help me calm down when feeling anxious. It was okay. I was neither convinced nor unconvinced. After taking up yoga in 2016, the concept became more and more a part of my life, and now I would say that mindfulness is a tool I use a lot in my life. For me, it involves a lot of sitting up tall, relaxing my shoulders and asking my brain to notice what is going on right now. I don’t live exclusively in the present. That seems careless. I think about the future and reflect on the past; mindfulness is just a tool I use to stop obsessing about both concurrently.

When it comes to really practicing mindfulness, which, for me, is the cognitive act of telling my brain to slow the hell down and notice how I feel, I find Tuesdays are the best day. Tuesdays, you say? What’s the significance of Tuesday?

Well, Tuesday is the day when I home from work with my kid.

My son might just be the most mindful person I have ever met. That makes him sound unique, when what I mean is that I think all little kids are incredibly mindful. (It helps that they can barely remember anything that has happened to them and have no concept of future, but let’s not split hairs). Little kids don’t look much further than a metre in front of them. Literally and figuratively. It is why they are always bumping into things. It is also why they notice cracks on the ground that are fun to jump over, or ants, or dog muck. Kids notice everything that is in the now. Planes in the sky. Every. Single. Bus. That. Passes. A car that looks like the car of someone you know.  Going for a twenty minute walk with a child is an incredible mindfulness training exercise.

Kids are also absolutely in tune with what they are feeling. Of course, as parents we don’t always like this, especially when that feeling results in them throwing their cup across the table in frustration, but you can’t deny that they are in sync with every acute emotion. Their deficiency is not in feeling or expressing negative emotions, it is their inability to control the expressions of these emotions. Adults all too often sit on negative emotions, which isn’t healthy either. Kids need help with what is and isn’t a healthy expression of an emotion, but they don’t need help identifying that they are feeling something important.

When my son gets cross, I label that that emotion with him. I tell him it is okay to be cross, but it is absolutely not okay to hit out at your little buddy because he doesn’t want to give you his digger. When he laughs, I tell him it is nice to hear him sounding happy. I tell him how I feel to help him understand that I am lying down because I feel tired, or sad because I feel poorly. Seeing as Tuesdays are when we spend most time together, Tuesdays have become my most mindful day: I am mindful of what is around me, mindful of my emotions, and I am even better at leaving the house, because I am mindful of the effect my paranoid checking can have on my son.

I have got no idea if mindfulness as it is discussed today is around to stay. I am no expert. My gut feeling is that being more present is a good thing and some mindfulness tools such as meditation or body awareness do some people some good, myself included. It’s far from an exact science and, as such, should probably be approached with an open mind and a dash of scepticism. (I think most things in the world should be approached this way.) What I do know, however, is that when I spend a day with a little voice pointing out noises that are loud, birds in the sky, and pavement lines that look like train tracks (then proceeding to pretend to be a train), I am calmer and more with the now than any other time of the week.

person holding black magnifying glass
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