Tag Archives: Family

Raising children in a country which is not your own

23 Aug

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.

Why I (try to) practise Attachment Parenting

3 Apr

After I separated from my daughter’s dad I thought seeing a counsellor for myself would be a good idea to keep my thoughts straight and find a way through the confusing mess created by the issues he kept secret throughout our relationship. I was extremely lucky to see a great counsellor through my university’s free counselling service. I had had counselling before, but this time there was so much going on that my counsellor decided to work with me for just over a year. Obviously we covered many issues to do with my relationship, but as many people probably know, ending up in a co-dependent role as I did is usually the outcome of childhood programming which has gone wrong at some point.

With my counsellor I worked out that my attachment with my mother is likely to have been ambivalent attachment. There is a very concise list of possible manifestations of this attachment style here, if you want to find out more. My counsellor didn’t go as far as diagnosing anything because she does not practise that kind of therapy, but what she told me about this kind of attachment style, and what I subsequently read on my own, resonated with me. I know, and she knows, that my mother has her own issues, and I have certain theories about her childhood and attitudes to my sister and me, but I don’t want to go into them now.

Suffice to say, I do not want my daughter to grow up feeling how I did. I never felt close to my mother, or comfortable spending time with her. If for Sartre ‘hell is other people’, then for me hell is sitting in a quiet room on my own with my mother because I know that the way I am sitting, every breath I take and every time I swallow my saliva will be judged, and that judgement will be expressed through glances, humming, and hurtful little digs designed to undermine my confidence. My mother has never told me she loves me. Really. Ever. This is not normal. The only time she told me that she was proud of me was when I told her I had made my husband move out (with good reason) because she had not managed to do this in her own marriage until the situation had gone past untenable. I still feel awkward when it comes to physical affection, or even just proximity, with friends and acquaintances.

My daughter is kissed and cuddled every day, and she recently started telling me occasionally that she loves me, indicating, I hope, that she feels loved, and that she understands that what we say to people can have an impact on how they feel. I hope affection will be a part of normal life for her. Similarly, I want her to be independent, as well as supported. She will never be told that I have to say no in order for her to learn frustration tolerance. This does not mean I will allow her to do anything and everything, but in everything I do I strive to show her that I acknowledge her wishes and to treat her with respect. Most of all, at the moment I think avoiding extremes and rigidity is important, and seeking moderation and picking one’s battles might be the most healthy way forward.

At the moment, although I have been feeling great recently, some of my issues with my mother have been coming to the fore again because of her visit. This visit has followed the usual pattern of excitement at her arrival, feeling overwhelmed by all the gifts she has brought with her, disenchantment at the realisation that she is still locked in the same thought patterns, resentment, feeling guilty for the resentment, and finally feeling sad when she has to leave again because she is my mother, and she does try hard to be better sometimes.

This time her visit has been especially taxing because my daughter has discovered a small, but very important word since the last visit: ‘no’. She enjoys making up her own mind, having her own plan and sticking to it. I know this is healthy and normal, she’s testing her boundaries etc. etc. Usually I would do some reading on how to handle this new phase in my daughter’s emotional development in a way that makes her feel safe, loved and taken seriously, and that lets me remain calm and positive.

This time though, the new phase hit out of the blue. One week we were enjoying the birthday comedown, the next we have hours (well, feels like it) of negotiations regarding on which side to get out of the car, as well as constant attempts to run across roads. Putting it like that, perhaps it would be best for all of us to avoid cars for a while. I couldn’t find any parenting inspiration because I usually do that online, and my mother has a deep suspicion of people who use the internet for longer than two minutes.

On top of this came my mother’s insistence to be involved in every single negotiation I had with my daughter. Often our conversations didn’t even start out as negotiations, but simply as quick conversations about what we would do next in order to go to the park while it’s still sunny. My mother’s  insistence on being involved, talking, being heard, giving instructions, commands, on taking over my role, meant that by the end of most days daughter and I were a frazzled heap of mixed emotions and short fuses. For my daughter this was complicated by the fact that her grandma and I spoke German to each other, and I’m never sure how much she understands. For me it was difficult because my mother’s way of handling diverging opinions reminded me so much of how she was when I was younger and still living at home. As I said to my daughter’s dad on the couple of occasions I made him stay after her bedtime so I could offload my annoyance, I’m not surprised that I became the person I am. Even my just three-year-old daughter gets no compassion, no empathy, no understanding, no niceness from her grandma as soon as she has her own opinion.

I am not proud of the way I handled these difficult situations. On a couple of occasions I lost my patience and ended up picking up my daughter and carrying her where I wanted to go rather that trying to talk her round or letting her have some autonomy, although I had previously decided only to do this in dangerous situations. I did not confront my mother about how her behaviour was making my daughter feel confused and isolated. One morning I attempted explaining my current strategies for diffusing tantrums about to happen and key phrases that seem to work well, as well as my reasons behind them, only to be met with a host of parenting tips (‘at this age they really need to know boundaries’ – well yes, but not such harsh pointless boundaries that they end up too scared to say a word in public or to form any opinion at all! / ‘Please don’t leave her at home on her own while you go out in the evening’ – It hadn’t even crossed my mind, and I’m insulted that you think I might do this before she is at least 16!) that made me feel so misunderstood, patronised and disrespected as a parent that I decided keeping my mouth shut for a while would be the safest option.

Our contact is already limited because of the great geographical distance, and after deliberating for several months I have decided it would be beneficial for my daughter to have some sort of (heavily monitored) relationship with her grandma. But before the next visit int the summer I have some serious preparation to do, as well as work on standing up for my daughter’s best interests more.

I’m just glad to have done so much counselling, because I’m not sure that I would be able to disentangle my emotions arising from my daughter’s behaviour from those brought about by the way I was parented.

Baby Angst

19 Oct

I have a huge issue with other women’s pregnancies – whenever a friend announces theirs on Facebook or a celebrity announces theirs in the media, I feel a searing jealousy and sadness that is difficult to describe  to others and to understand myself.

It more or less started the day my daughter was born, possibly even before then. During my pregnancy I’d had hyperemesis and was completely bed-bound for  about 4 months, and I only left my flat between 10 and 15 times during the whole of my pregnancy. That includes antenatal checks and wedding-related appointments (my daughter’s dad and I got married when I was 7 months pregnant). This made it pretty clear that a further pregnancy would take careful planning and lots of support. When I was still in the throes of hyperemesis I begged my husband to remind me if I ever mentioned the possibility of another baby that I could never go through this horror again.

Then my daughter was born and from the first moment I saw her proved to be an amazing, captivating and utterly heart-melting tiny being. When she popped out, my first thought (after ‘wow, so there was a real baby in there!’) was ‘I want to do this again’. This thought got louder and louder with every gurgle, smile and milestone. When she started noticing other children I thought ‘She would be really great with a baby sibling’.

And then my husband and I separated.

A year and a half later I am still trying to come to terms with the dashed dreams of my perfect family. I feel sad for my daughter who has now lived in a single-parent household for longer than she ever did in a two-parent household. Co-parenting is a nightmare at times. I’m dreading the possibility of her dad’s insistence on overnight stays. The idea of a potential step-mother for my daughter makes me feel sick to my stomach.

So now I have no idea if or when I’ll have more children. And it’s so difficult. One reason it’s so difficult is that I just don’t understand why I feel this way.

But sometimes I read something that throws a little tiny light on the jumble inside my mind. Today it was this post about the representation of motherhood as a reward.  Katherine Don from bitch magazine says:

I’m wary of Bravo’s chronic portrayal of motherhood as some final reward for being a no-nonsense, hardworking, trend-setting capitalist.

My most recent friend to announce her pregnancy comes from a family of travellers. She went to an excellent school thanks to a grant system which no longer exists, received counselling while at school to help her deal with her mum’s emotional abuse, got her A-Levels, got her degree, passed her driving test and bought a car, trained as a secondary school teacher, got engaged, bought a house, got married this summer, and is now expecting a baby. She’s a middle-class capitalist dream come true.

Part of the reason why hearing of my friend’s pregnancy has thrown me back into a downward spiral of melancholy is that my friend has chosen to organise her life in the traditional way that most people around me choose too. It’s not how I’ve done things, but it’s how I wish I had done it. Constructing a family by numbers (car – tick, job – tick, house – tick, husband with stable and moderately impressive job who likes to play football in his spare time and gets on well with your girly friends and their boyfriends – tick) symbolises safety for me. Being a single mother while studying rather than being in a stable relationship and working makes me feel like a teenage mum whose lifestyle is frowned upon by all of society. I worry that when my daughter goes to school I’ll be the flaky mum with the odd dress sense who is shunned at the school gate and thus ruins her daughter’s social life and emotional development forever. I keep thinking that perhaps if I quit the PhD and get a ‘proper’ job, I can have another baby. Now I know that I’ve been trapped in a ‘motherhood as reward’ thought.

On the whole giving birth and being a mother has been a hugely positive, transformative experience for me so far. For the first time in my life I have a feeling of purpose. Although I am frequently uncertain about how to deal with tantrums and how I will ever manage the potty training hurdle, I am a lot more confident than I was before I had my daughter. I seem to have endless reserves of strength and energy. I just need to get over this feeling of sadness and disappointment.

Toddler <3 Baby

14 Aug

While we’re in my home country we’re spending some time with my sister and her 12-week old son. It’s been really lovely and amazing to see my daughter with him. My sister likes to hold the baby most of the time (fair enough, I would too), and my daughter really likes putting her arms around him, squeezing a bit (at which point my sister winces), and giving him big kisses. Whenever he cries she says ‘baby worry’ in a very serious way, so I explain to her that he’s ok as he is having lots of mummy cuddles. It’s so lovely to see her be so caring. Of course she plays with her babies (dolls) and teddies at home, but with her cousin she puts on the most adorable protective, awed and loving face. I think I now understand people who say they want to have another baby ‘for’ their child. Of course there’s more to fostering a successful and close sibling relationship than simply creating another person for the first child’s companionship, but this is really one of the cutest things I’ve seen and it’s making me broody I think.

Family time

13 Aug

Sadly, my grandmother passed away a few days ago, and my daughter and I are travelling to my home country to attend her funeral. I’m not upset as such, more filled with regret at not having visited more often. At the same time, I’m full of admiration for this woman who raised six children single-handedly, worked on her family’s farm and, after she left her village in disgust at its inhabitants’ rightwing leanings, in a busy city hospital kitchen, and spent large stretches of time living with five of her grown-up children in order to provide childcare for the grandchildren. My grandma didn’t have the easiest life, but despite all societal and personal obstacles reached the grand age of 90, an example of her strength and willpower. I will always have fond memories of my time with her. When we return, I shall bake a marzipan cake in her honour (her speciality).

Generations of Dysfunction

29 Jul

My mum is going home to her country tomorrow. She was here visiting us for three weeks, as she does every summer. She has been visiting for two weeks in the spring and three weeks in the summer ever since my daughter was born. Before I became pregnant I didn’t speak to her for three years. But when I was pregnant and in and out of hospital all the time in the early months I thought I probably ought to let her know about her first grandchild. At first our renewed relationship was marked by a sort of cautious superficial politeness, which I quite enjoyed to be honest. But since I have been living on my own with my daughter, the power balance seems to have shifted slightly and she no longer sees me as someone’s wife, let alone my own person, and I’m back to feeling and being treated (some of the time) like an incapable teenager who doesn’t know how to clean, what to pack for a day out or when to put a jacket on my daughter.

We’ve never had an easy or close relationship, and it’s too long a story to tell here. But what I found really interesting during this visit were the similarities between my mum and me. Not in a good way though. I noticed one day when I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how little attention she was giving my daughter while supposedly playing with her that I often do precisely what annoyed me about my mum’s behaviour: I insist on getting stuff done when it  could really wait until daughter is in bed or at her dad’s. I constantly have to prove to myself that I can get things done. I can build a big solid 185 x 185 bookshelf while keeping my daughter busy. I can pack up five years of my life while cooking lunch. It’s not really necessary. Sometimes there is no rush, so I have to remind myself to focus on my daughter instead of rushing ahead with other tasks and sidelining her.

My mum has been a great role model in some respects – from her I learnt how to stay calm in a crisis and that I can rely on myself. But there are also other things I’m determined to do differently: my daughter will have healthy balanced meals, I won’t tell her she has to be a vegetarian, but if she decides to become one on her own, she will still eat healthy balanced meals with all the nutrients a growing person needs so that she doesn’t end up severely anaemic without even realising it. I will try very hard not to talk negatively about anyone’s appearance, or intellect. I tell her every day that I love her, I kiss her and cuddle her. If she ever has a sibling, I will let them develop their own relationship.

Now my maternal grandmother seems to have reached the final few days of her life, and even though my memories of her are entirely positive, I can’t bring myself to visit her for one last time (she has advanced dementia so is highly unlikely to recognise me) or make plans to go to her funeral because doing so would entail a stay with my mum and a lot of time with both her, my sister and my new nephew. After these three weeks I just don’t think I could cope with being forced back into still-too-familiar patterns of behaviour and power struggles. If my mum already feels more entitled to interfere and direct in my house without my husband, I don’t want to imagine what it would be like in her house.

And since my sister is the favoured daughter and her son is only a few weeks old, I think the person who would be most at risk in this melange of emotions and dysfunction is my daughter. Sure, you might say I’ll be there to look out for her needs, and I would, but the way my family works, she would still fall through the cracks, or be painted as too noisy, boisterous and aggressive when she behaves like a toddler rather than a 2-month old. And I can’t risk that even for three days. Perhaps I’ll feel different in a few days once I’ve gone back to my own routine. I think I’d relish the chance to prove to myself that I can do a plane trip with an energetic inquisitive toddler on my own.