… they’ve ‘done some work for you’, it can only mean one thing when your work is books –
Occasionally I like to read blogs by parents who live abroad because there are certain issues when bringing up children (mostly of an emotional nature) that only crop up when you live in a different country. The other day I found this post on Babelkids (check out this family’s mind-boggling language mix, it’s inspirational how they organise their life to enable their children to learn several languages as they grow up). It struck a chord.
“A realisation dawns on me: My children will probably never take part in adult celebrations in the UK. We have no family here; the only celebrations we get invited to are children’s birthdays. […] My daughters are missing out on this part of culture, because neither of BabelDad nor me are home.
I wonder how this will impact on their perceptions of fun and sense of belonging somewhere. Where will home be for them?”
I had actually been thinking about this, prompted by my mum’s recent visit. Although my daughter’s dad is British, he is estranged from his family for good reasons. My family all live in Germany, but it would probably be accurate to say I’m estranged from all of them except my mum, and I wouldn’t see them more often than I do now if I lived in the same city as them. I realised that my daughter is probably going to miss out on many aspects of a typical childhood, positive and negative: it’s unlikely she’ll ever experience stifling family occasions with coffee and cake, play with and look up to cousins, confide in aunts, be mildly uncomfortable and bored in the presence of uncles who have no idea how to talk to children, proudly show off achievements, cringe when I show off her achievements… While I’m glad most of these experiences are behind me, they nevertheless constitute staples of childhood which are so common that they frequently occur in books and film, and I’m worried that if she doesn’t experience these aspects of life she might have issues later, or feel lonely.
What I have been preoccupied by recently is that there are several types of relationships that my daughter won’t get to experience. I’m trying to tell myself that this is fine, after all, for example, as a heterosexual woman I won’t experience a romantic relationship with another woman, so perhaps there are just some relationships people miss out on. The difficult part is that her life is already deviating from the life I had, so in a way it’s all uncharted territory because I don’t know what her life feels like. Her life is already not the life I had hoped to give her, and the older she gets, the more it will deviate from the paths I had hoped to make available to her. There were plenty of things wrong with my childhood, but having my daughter has also demonstrated to me how privileged my upbringing was. My daughter will, to varying degrees, miss out on (full) siblings, a gentle school starting age, music lessons (at least to the extent to which I had them), holidays, geographical stability, visiting family and feeling anchored in a place and traditions (and knowledge about certain things) through them. Added to this is that she doesn’t even share my language because I have been rubbish about teaching her, which means she won’t be able to read the books which shaped my views, e.g. age-appropriate books about the Second World War, or the book that made sure I’d never try drugs, or appreciate the truly great bands from my home city.
There are of course also things I valued as part of my childhood which I can’t provide my daughter with either because I don’t have the knowledge (gardening, bird calls) or the financial resources (spacious house with big garden in a thoroughly middle-class area – seriously, I realised the other day that only one of my friends in 13 years of nursery to secondary school was brought up by a single mum), or the inclination to live my life in that way (e.g. I’m much happier in the city, but as a child I loved running around in corn fields and generally being aware of how the countryside, farms etc., works).
What I will pass on to her is the assumption that university is where you go when you have finished school because that is just how it works because university is interesting and allows you to do cool things. (I am aware this probably reeks of privilege and arrogance, but my parents were both the first of their families, and the only ones in their generation, to go to university.) I am trying to establish seasonal traditions, partly because they help children to orient themselves in the world, and also because it is an easy fun way to share my culture with my daughter (who usually shouts ‘no!’ when I say a word in my language), and because traditions make a family, which is hard enough to do in a single-parent-only-child family.
I’m aware my recent posts have been quite negative, mostly because that’s how I feel at the moment. Most of it can probably be summarised as a feeling of sadness/horror to find myself in circumstances which are not of my choosing and totally beyond my control, together with crushing parental guilt. The guilt is bound to come around occasionally, so I guess this is my turn. But dammit, I just want to go home.
I was thinking this morning how a more traditional division of labour in families means that mothers experience most of the emotional impact of their child growing up.
Some of my daughter’s friends are now 4 years old, which means it’s the season of goodbyes at nursery. Her first best friend was there for her both of the times she progressed to a new group at nursery (there are 3 age groups at her nursery), which I know she liked, and it also greatly reassured me to know she’d definitely have a friendly face to greet her in the mornings and show her the ropes. Her friend even used to take her to the toilet when the grownups were too busy (hmm, that’s a whole other story!).
So I’m getting a real heavy-hearted feeling this week knowing that after tomorrow my daughter will probably never see her friend again after seeing her almost every day for two years.
Next year it’ll be my daughter’s turn to start school. Obviously it’ll be a massive change for her. And in addition I will lose the four-days-a-week routine of seeing the same people and feeling part of the nursery community. I’ve already lost the pushchair phase as my daughter is now finally too big not to walk, the sling phase ended a long time ago, and soon life as we’ve known it for two years will change completely.
So my daughter’s growing up, as well as bringing new friends and skills, entails the loss of all these experiences. What seems unfair is that no one else in her life shares that loss with us. Her dad’s life will stay exactly the same as he has not been involved in nursery life apart from three birthday parties and ca. 5 drop offs/pick ups. This post is not to blame him for this, this is just the way we’ve organised things because the nursery is on the university campus.
I’m just sad about losing this part of my daughter’s life and the people associated with it, and it seems really strange to be the only person in her life who will experience these changes together with her. That’s one of the downsides of having dysfunctional families I suppose.
*Sung to the tune of ‘I’m a Believer’
When my daughter was eight months old, the other PhD students in my department insisted that I attend a bi-weekly research seminar. Our university had recently started a new initiative of postgraduate research training, and they were keen to bring me into the fold from which I had been absent for over a year. I kept getting secretly annoyed that they weren’t able to see that there was no way I could attend seminars without childcare, until they said ‘you can bring your baby, we can hold her for you when you’re talking’.
The first time we went was an autumn afternoon, and after meticulous nap-, toy- and snack-planning, it was great to be back where I felt like I belonged. I didn’t even know what I’d been missing, and I felt revived after that seminar, as well as proud of what I and my daughter had achieved together. (When I was new to mothering I lived in perpetual fear of public crying and wriggling, so a 2-hour university event was a challenge.) I also realised that this group of childless academics of various ages, nationalities and convictions had made one of the clearest feminist statements I’ve experienced first hand. If I ever finish my PhD, it will be in no small part thanks to them.
My daughter and I went to the seminar every other week for two-and-a-half years until my daughter decided she wanted to use her new talking skills to make herself heard in the seminar. It was not necessary for anyone to ‘hold her’ (the idea of trying to confine a baby who was enjoying crawling all over the place made me chuckle) as she was usually happy to play or cuddle with me. Even the occasional hunt for dropped crayons, Duplo-clattering or surprise smelly poo didn’t disrupt proceedings (or perhaps the gagging took place while I was out of the room changing her nappy). We spent our final seminar together with her on my hip, eating a banana, taking her own ‘notes’ and looking at my work on the big screen while I presented my research.
Now I have been asked to take over running the seminar, which is a lovely progression. I’m officially a ‘convenor’ on all the paperwork, with no idea what that actually means. Hopefully I can do a good job and make people feel as welcome and accepted as I felt.
I came across this article via one of my PhD supervisors. It’s about gender and reading: the challenges children face when choosing which books they want to read, socialisation, and books as bibliotherapy for transgender children. Also includes a huge list of gender-diverse books for children.
By Bluemilk on Feministe: Meet Your Local Extreme Breastfeeder.
I like the term ‘Extreme Breastfeeding’ when used by feminist mothers, i.e. not in a derogatory way – makes it sound like a challenge (in a good way), or an achievement to be proud of.
My favourite line from Bluemilk’s post:
“it seemed he wanted to talk to my breasts about the guinea pig’s death”
It made me laugh to imagine this three-year-old having a word with his mother’s breasts and seemingly seeing them as entities separate from her, and how lovely for him to have this option to make himself feel better when he’s sad.
Every time my daughter feels sad or hurts herself she sobs “I’m saaaad, I want some nom noms make me feel better”. Who could refuse?