Dear Son,

There are so many things I want for you: health and happiness. Your father’s brains and your mother’s hairline. Principles and appreciation for a good piece of cake.

I want you to be confident, not arrogant.

Brave, not foolish.

Interested, not obsessed.

Optimistic, not deluded.

I want you to be strong enough to stand up for what you believe and strong enough to change your mind when you realise you are wrong. Because you will be wrong, but how you deal with mistakes will make all the difference.

I hope you have interests and are never ashamed of them. Whether you’re a bookworm or a model builder, a sportsman or a cook, do what you love with pride.

I wish good things for you: an education, a decent job, a home, and a family. But above that, I wish good feelings for you: self worth, self belief, happiness alongside the ability to deal with sadness, satisfaction with the little things, fulfilment from doing and being, not having.

You will need to have things, of course. You were born with the opportunity to do anything, be anyone, or have anything. There is no shame in that; perhaps just be careful how you use that priveledge.

May we always be friends, even when we think differently. May we always communicate, even when there’s nothing to say. May we always be welcome in each other’s lives, as guides, as supporters, or as non-judgemental observers.

And last but not least, I hope you do good in this life. No single man can save the world, but if you put in as much as you take out, more even, and can feel well doing it, then I will feel I’ve done my best by you. 

 Yours forever,

 xx

Photo credit: RDP

Finding Your Normal

Walking down the street the other day, I heard someone say something to the effect of, …and it’s just not normal. Well, not normal by our normal, anyway.

I wanted to go and shake the woman’s hand. Damn it, I wanted to hug her. In all my years of searching for normal, I never considered that I could just define it for myself.

There’s a running joke in our house where, when confronted with a problem, we ask ourselves what normal people would do. I live with this perpetual notion that I’ve missed a trick, that everyone else knows what’s going on and what to do in all situations, and I am a klutz that gets everything just a little bit wrong. My furniture doesn’t match and my clothes are never quite right for the weather. We sometimes use plastic bowls from the picnic set because we don’t have enough china. I use a jam jar as a toothbrush holder and I don’t own a pizza cutter. I’d rather walk to the next bus stop than wait more than five minutes for a bus. The list goes on and contains an oddity of behaviours and reflections on things I presume are a bit, well, abnormal. So I apologise for them, or worse still, I hide them.

When it boils down to it, though, normal is just a set of expectations that a group shares. And if you boil anything down for long enough it becomes nothing. (Right..?) Sure, sometimes normal is good for society, like the norm of regularly showering or covering your mouth when you sneeze. Public health aside, a lot of the other things we do are based on what we presume other people want to see. We think others expect certain things of us, and we go with it to make sure we don’t seem like a weirdo. It can be big or small, from how we spend our money and our politics to how we drink our coffee. (Confession time my caffeine aficionado friends: I often drink weak-tasting instant coffee. And I like it.)

The confident people out there might not get this. They live how they want to live and don’t care what others think. Maybe “normal people” are actually just confident people. There’s definitely something appealing about individuals who are passionate about their interests, however unusual, geeky, or off-the-wall. For sure, living your chosen life-style apologetically is more abnormal than most of the things you’re apologising for (with notable exception, cheaters, liars, or thieves to name a few). Probably no one is normal, just more or less confident about how they go about their day.

But for me, this hasn’t always been obvious. For me, there’s always been a fear of getting it wrong, a somewhat destabilising and debilitating worry of being considered weird that leaves me feeling awkward and uptight. And it’s probably not normal that overhearing a stranger’s out-of-context commentary on normality would make me reconsider this, but, well, it did and I’m not sorry. How I live is basically like everyone else, with its own brand of me splashed in. And it’s okay to be okay with that.

So I say to each his own normal, quirks and all.

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Oderwald, Standard Normal distribution with shading between -2 and 2, https://openclipart.org/detail/171054/normal-distn-shaded-inside-2s, 2012-07-05 accessed 24.06.17

Coffee And Strangers

When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know
Downtown

Petula Clark

The rattling of trays and the clinking of coffee cups. The indistinguishable chatter, voices gradually getting louder, each conversation competing with that to its left and its right. Not loud, just noise-some. Not overbearing, simply loud enough, so that no single voice dominates. Each tête-à-tête easily heard by those who need to hear yet lost on nosey, prickling ears. The sound of friends together, sipping their tea or colleagues grabbing a bite in a hurried lunch hour.

There are things to see in every direction. The couple with their heads together, plotting, perhaps romancing. The mother, worn with the day by noon, ignoring her bundle of joy as he bangs the spoon more and more ferociously on the china cup. The businessman, all suited and booted, who tries to ignore the banging. The young, the old, and the inbetweeners all in one place. The coffee lovers and tea drinkers all sharing air space. Everyone different, with their own baggage and dreams. Everyone interesting in their own, private way.

Then there’s me in my spot on the comfy red and grey sofa. A cup of milky coffee sits next to a plate of crumbs, the remnants of today’s quick bite or daily treat. The little guy lies on his blanket, cooing at the white ceiling like it’s a miracle. Ageing ladies peer over and smile fondly. Nearby caffeine junkies look on nervously, perhaps afraid we’re going to disturb their peace.

And I am happy. There’s no need to talk to anyone; occasional eye contact and the odd smile is enough. I am alone with my thoughts but never lonely, watching the world go about its business. I sit hearing but not listening to the voices of folk I don’t know. Baby and I are delighted to be out, and happy in the company of strangers.

 

Three Months 

It wasn’t just that the world turned upside down. No, the world was uprooted, rigorously shook, and then replanted on uneven ground.

Everything familiar changed. Night and day switched, mixed, and became one continuous and tired existence. The confidence we’d honed over thirty years melted away as every decision was now for three not two. Suddenly, this tiny being was entirely dependent on us. He took our time,  our energy, even part of ourselves. He still does.

When you can count life in hours, every hour counts. Ups and downs are magnified; emotion is intense and inconsistent. Then hours become days, many dark, as the enormity of it all overwhelmed until the first time he grabbed our finger or opened his eyes. Magical moments were enough encouragement to feel like it was possible to cope, to keep going on this rollercoaster we’d created.

As days became weeks the spinning world began to slow. A touch of predictability, coupled with an ability to cope with unpredictability cushioned the ride. Confidence crept back,  day by day. One month passed, then a second and life began to feel familiar again. The first smiles rescued us on days when we felt like we were failing. The miles we strolled, the hours we spent in the small hours feeding and rocking all became normal features of our new existence. 

Now three months have passed. Three whole months. The world is still spinning at a different rate, it’s still a different way up to the way it was before, but it’s a pace to be grateful for, a way of living that we wouldn’t swap. Our own wonderful new world order.

 The Side Less Seen

There’s no other way to talk about this without starting by saying that I love my son. Very, very, very much. This waiver is essential because, without it, it’s too hard to acknowledge and admit the plethora of other feelings that go hand in hand with having a baby.

It’s quite the cocktail and it causes regular hangovers. Sure, like every bloody thing about being pregnant and having having a baby, you’ll hear chapter and verse of it‘s totally normal and it’ll pass, but that’s not super helpful. The emotional fall out is also different for everyone – another damn annoyance: every single person has their own baby playbook, from ease or otherwise of conception to pregnancy symptoms and beyond. It makes it hard to compare or find that much promised “normal”.

And so, with all sorts of rollercoaster and marathon metaphors rolling around my head, I set out to write about and process some of the emotional challenges that go alongside parenting. Then, I promptly remembered that I hate rollercoasters and thus choose not to ride them. I can’t choose to avoid these emotions, however, so I need to write about them as literally and as matter-of-factly as possible.

First, then, there’s the frustration and resentment. Yes,  I find it hard that I can’t live my life like I used to. Bugger this idea that it’s okay to have a messier house or sick on your shirt. I hate these things and being told to lower my tolerance for unwashed dishes and greasy hair drives me insane. INSANE. I care about my environment being tidy and, although I’ve never been stylish or well-groomed, it at least means a lot to feel well-presented and, er, showered! Not being able to always have these things eats me up and leaves me feeling inadequate. Now, of course it’s true: your friends don’t care if there are no clean cups (the good friends come over and wash their own!) and most people are too busy making appropriate cute noises at baby to notice you’re not wearing makeup or jewellery, but I care and no amount of telling me not to will change that. When baby is crying or not settling, I feel frustration when I look around and see all the things I could be doing if only he’d go to sleep. It feels awful to admit that. I’ve got one job. One precious job that is incredibly special, and yet sometimes I want a break to do the most mundane things, so that when I come back to my job, the world around me is harmonious. Crazy? Maybe. But it is how I feel, and I am tired of feeling like that is something to be ashamed of.

But with that sentiment comes the guilt. Wanting my baby to be peaceful, to sleep, to eat well, and generally be okay are instinctive and easily qualifiable as normal. However, there’s a little but loud voice that keeps telling me that my motivations for wanting extended periods of peace are selfish, that I want an easy life first and a happy baby second. It’s madness. The two go hand in hand, but it seems impossible not to question my motivations and feel bad when I know they’re all wrong.

While a new mum is almost never alone, it can be lonely. When baby will only sleep in your arms and then wakes, feeds from you, and then needs comforting, it’s easy to feel pinned to the sofa. It’s easy to feel all on your own. I have a great husband, a steadfastly supportive family, and some wonderful friends, and yet I still can feel like there is nowhere to turn. Then, (until now, I guess), there are some people who I don’t want to face when I feel bad. There are people who I can only be around during an I feel like super mum phase. It comes down to trust and confidence, I guess. However, there is definitely a desire to hide these negative emotions and make out like I know exactly what I am doing when an hour earlier I tried to put a nappy on the wrong way and was walking around with toothpaste dripping onto my baby’s head while frantically trying to put the washing on and drink a cup of tea. All at the same time.

Feeling both bored and boring are common. There are only so many things you can do one handed and squeezed into the two hour window between feeds. I walk, go for coffee, write/type one handed, read, try and study German, but you can never give these things 100% of your attention. What’s more, and back to the guilt, I question if it is normal not to want to spend every waking moment starting at my precious ball of newness or playing with him.  As a result, it often feels like there is nothing to talk about other than my darling boy. Now I love talking about him. He’s the best, truly. However, I get that most people really don’t care that he smiled twice in one hour yesterday or that he hasn’t pooped for four days. My chat just isn’t good for most people, and I am very aware of boring them silly.

Most of the things I have described are probably fairly understandable on some level. It’s the sadness that’s hardest to put into word. Even today, out walking, baby fast asleep and settled with the sun warming my face and a cup of coffee in my travel mug, I felt sad. Really, really sad. For absolutely no good reason. For no reason at all.  I had no desire to appreciate the beauty around me or enjoy the mesmerising rise and fall of baby’s breathing. Little problems played over in my head, and I muttered along to myself about all the things that needed taking care of and wondering how I’d manage. Nursery rhymes were going around my head and driving me crazy. But mostly, I just stared blankly ahead and kept walking. On and on, staring into space.

So, yes, yes, that’s almost one thousand words of complaining about the best thing that’s happened to me. And that, I suppose, is the crux of the problem – understanding and coping with the fact that you feel bad during this wonderful, life altering time. For me, it’s okay. These feelings don’t last long. They come and go. They are intense, but manageable. For some, I know it is a lot, lot worse. I’m definitely more of a baby blues sufferer than a post-natal depression sufferer, for which I am very thankful. Personally, I think the answer is probably acceptance that these feelings are normal, willingness to share with friends how it’s going, and self-awareness so that I speak up if it does get too much.

People who know me won’t have seen much of this “other side”. I keep it tucked away at home, and that’s okay. I don’t need anyone to do anything differently, or help me. But I don’t mind admitting that for all the appearance of I’ve got this mamma thing down to a fine art, there is a lot of desperate paddling under water whilst the me on the surface holds it together.

And finally, and importantly, I felt the most joy this morning when my baby smiled at me because I was singing a made up song to the tune of Soft Kitty from “The Big Bang Theory”. The highs are often very high and they are much more frequent than the lows. It’s just, like everything, you don’t get the highs without the lows, and you don’t win any prizes for making out you’re okay all the time.

Image: Moini, Stork carrying baby (silhouette), https://openclipart.org/detail/264662/stork-carrying-baby-silhouette, May 10, 2017

Three Piles of Laundry

Where once there were two piles of laundry piled high in the room, now there are three. A trio of vaguely folded clean clothes, a symbol of all that has changed. In less than three weeks. In no time at all. We two became three.

Now there are three voices to be heard.

Now there are three sets of well-being to consider, to balance.

Now there are three contributions to every decision.

Two, not one, smiling faces to enjoy. Two people, not one, to love and to care for.

Life changed in the space of that one long night and one long day. Click. Just like that. Covered in goo and squirming around, just under four kilos of matter and it all altered. Life became harder, of course. Yet every challenge is outweighed by a reward that can’t be measured, pushing tiredness from our eyes and worry from our minds.

Three sets of fingers and three sets of toes. Three hearts and three minds.

Three piles of laundry now, instead of two. Since two became three became one.

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Family

Who Am I In My New Language?

For seven months of my life, right at the start of my twenties, I was Hélène rather than Helen. While living in France sounds glamorous, don’t image long evenings spent drinking red wine or afternoons in the sun under a parasol eating cheese. The small town that became my temporary home was on the choppy English channel, closed up for winter, and a playground for rich, more elderly Parisians. For all its lack of appeal to my younger self, I did speak French pretty well by the time I left. It’s sad that in the intervening decade I’ve lost those skills, but for a while, there were days and weeks where I spoke French more than I spoke English. French came out naturally, without real thought. I started dreaming in French.

And it was the strangest of feelings. Almost as if Hélène was someone slightly different to Helen. The friends I made speaking French knew nothing of me at all. We had very little that was shared, neither culture nor language, not personal history or presumptions. What’s more, there existed an imbalance in the amount we could communicate. My French self was forced to listen more, forced to craft thoughts more carefully and express ideas and opinions by drawing on a more limited vocabulary.

Not being able to make a joke or react as fast as everyone else was frustrating. However, as my language skills developed, I remember that I began to like Hélène more than Helen. Hélène took her time to say things and accepted not having anything to contribute. When she did say things, she’d thought about them first, clarified her views and gave a more reasoned opinion. I felt, at the time, that this made her truer to herself. A lack of nuance in language didn’t necessarily result in a lack of nuance in expression. Having to talk about religion, for example, in simple vocabulary forces one to be clear about what they want to say.

That was ten years ago, and Hélène doesn’t exist anymore. However, I think die Helena might be morphing into reality. Having spent the last twelve months taking German classes, I’ve started to feel more confident conversing in German. My teacher and I talk about books, politics, films, and, naturally, the weather. I make mistake after mistake, but as a firm believer in communication being the first goal of any language learner, I sigh and plough on.

As my German gets better, I’ve started to have this odd feeling of otherness, just as I did ten years ago. This article cites research that has shown how people who speak multiple languages have slightly different personalities in their different languages. Whether it’s culture, experience, age at which you learn a language, or other reasons, it’s fascinating to consider. Especially if you’re experiencing this  phenomenon. It is both frightening and wonderful the first few times you say something in a different language without really thinking about it. It’s like an out of body experience as you wonder whose voice that was and whose thoughts they were expressing. You stop translating and somehow just understand and internalise, respond and react.

This is only just starting to happen in German, but as with my French selfHelena’s main difference to Helen is that she talks a lot less (an inescapable reality caused by lazy vocabulary learning and constantly being surrounding by English speakers).  Helena is less self-conscious, however. She has to be. Being self-conscious and a language learner are rarely a good mix. She apologies less and is more forgiving of herself for the mistakes she makes. Again, I think I like her more.

But do I think I am someone slightly different when I speak a different language, or am I just waiting for the time when the gap between my English and German is not so chasmic? 

In a year I could be reading Goethe or still deciphering the difference between dative and accusative. Language development is no x=y graph. What’s clear to me, though, is that learning a new language unlocks parts of you you didn’t know existed. It also forces you to keep parts of you hidden. It challenges and changes the way you think and it can teach you an awful lot about yourself.

Also, I’m hardly living a life with a split personality. There is nothing fundamentally different in the values I have, but I do think they come out differently depending on whether I’m stumbling over them in German or English. What’s key, however, is seeing what I can take from these quirky differences that start to develop between Helen and Helena. If I can learn to listen more, contemplate what I want to say more, or feel less self-conscious about saying (what I perceive to be) the wrong thing, then these personalities can begin to merge back into a better whole.

They are all, ultimately, me so they can work together to bring out the best in Helen, Hélène, Helena, to bring out the best in Me.

En France, in England, in Deutschland – Same, but different