Monthly Archives: July 2013

In the kitchen

When the babies are in bed, I end up in the kitchen, that place of mystery and martyrdom. I wash bottles (with a greater or lesser degree of unwillingness, depending on the day), absentmindedly poke leftovers into my mouth, stare out the window into the trees, load and unload the dishwasher, wipe the surfaces, think about what we are going to eat for the rest of the week.

I also think about how the rest of my baby-farming days are going to look. I think about school lunches and P and C meetings (or whatever the Polish equivalent is) and the gigantic, ongoing logistical operation which I am apparently running. Sometimes I feel fine about this mixture of mundanity and  megalomania which apparently characterises motherhood. Everything depends on me! But it’s relentless and draining! But I’m in charge! Etc. And sometimes I feel utterly lost, as if I am growing into somebody I don’t quite recognise.

I have never liked the phrase ‘to be expecting’, which seems like a coy and euphemistic way of avoiding all the suspect physicality of pregnancy- how you get that way, what happens to you when you’re in that state. But somehow, now, I think it is an accurate description of my mental state this time last year. Just expecting. Not expecting anything in particular. Just waiting and incubating, thinking that somehow I  would just be myself plus 2 when the bloody and confusing business of birth was over, and wondering with a sort of abstract curiosity how this strange new equation might look.

And so, here we are. I am a Mother of Two. I still don’t really believe it, though my children finally realise that I am somebody of import to them and object when I leave the room. It’s a status I will have for life, and maybe it’s this permanency that I’m trying to assimilate.

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London London

A month ago I went to England to see an old and dear friend of mine from Australia. The trip made me realise how provincial I have become, and how far from a cosmopolitan world capital Warsaw is. Apart from one quick trip to Berlin, I haven’t left Poland since we arrived more than 2 years ago, and although I am used to thinking of myself as a stranger here, it turns out I am more acclimatised than I thought.

I hadn’t expected to find it problematic to leave Maja and Janek (actually, I had been waiting for some time for this opportunity), but I was struck down by 11th hour anxiety and paranoia about what might happen to them without me. Or what might happen to me, far from them. I imagined a war breaking out, me marooned on the other side of Europe. Or a crash on landing, that most unfair of deaths, when you have already sat through the torture of the flight and are about to collect your reward. I put them to sleep in a melancholy (or melodramatic?) frame of mind, as if I were doing it for the last time.

And then , London shocked me- the multiculturalism, the gratuitous smiles from service staff, the bizarre habit drivers have of stopping at pedestrian crossings, the immigration official and bus driver who both called me ‘love’ within half an hour of arrival. The great dirty sprawl and the smell. The wind blows through Warsaw and takes the fumes with it- London is saturated in carbon monoxide, and the city goes on forever. The curry house beside the Thai restaurant beside the Arab grocery beside the sushi joint which seemed to characterise all the suburban high streets. The huge, creaking, magnetic, filthy capital of a collapsed empire. I could feel my pupils gaping as I stared and stared and tried to process it all.

I came home feeling low and shellshocked. I missed Kat and felt faintly threatened and confused by the reminder that there are so many ways to live. In Dolny Mokotów, my babies were sleeping peacefully and somebody had sat on my Kindle.  My abruptly widened horizons had given me a sort of cognitive overload which I countered by not leaving the house for two days.

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First times

A friend of mine in Poland once commented to me, “Lots of  people have children because they think it will give them a chance to relive their own childhood.” There was something slightly scathing in the way she said it, and deciding what I thought of this idea and formulating a response in Polish was beyond me for the moment, so I didn’t say anything. But I have been thinking about it and will make the coward’s response by blog.

This was not my reason for having children and I have no  wish to relive my own childhood, which I recall as an especially complicated and confusing time. I do think, however, that there is something magical in recalling and reflecting on it, on that person who is at once you and not you, and who is gone forever. Having children probably makes you more likely to indulge in this melancholy pleasure, as you try to comprehend what is going on in their teeny tiny brains.

I never tire of the sense of vertigo I get when I fossick about in the past and come across memories of my parents, and realise that at the time I am recalling, they were the age that I am now. The things they did which were so incomprehensible to me then (sitting around and talking endlessly with their friends is the one that always springs to mind) are now my own pleasures; the moments of tenderness between them amongst all the logistics of baby farming repeat themselves in my own life with Marcin. I remember that I would know when they were feeling especially fond of each other because my mother would put her hand on my father’s leg as he was driving. One of these recollections comes complete with all its spatial features- we are driving to the beach, and I am sitting in the back seat, probably in the middle (a sign that I had lost a battle, since none of us sat there by choice), and I can see my mother’s hand on my father’s leg, my father’s hand on the gearstick. I can’t see their faces from where I sit. The sun is pouring in through the windscreen.

These efforts of imagination go  backwards and forwards across the generations. Going outside with Maja and Janek in the first spell of good weather after the endless winter, I show them the creepers on the wall, the leaves on the trees, and think, they are seeing this for the first time. They put food in their mouth and swallow it, pick up toys, roll over, sleep on their sides- all for the first time.

The world is so new to them that it starts to amaze me too, all over again. It’s not why I had them, but it’s one of the perks.

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He’s strong and she’s pretty

Janek has been fatter than Maja since the beginning of their lives. At birth it was a matter of 200 grams, but it quickly became about a kilogram over the first month or two. I have lost count of the number of times that people have told me that of course he is the boy, with his great big head and barrel chest, despite his pink ensembles and his caprices.  He is the master of the enraged howl, she reigns with the power of the trembling lip. She is now stronger than him in many ways, and the weight gap is closing, but it’s too late- he’s strong and she’s pretty.

I’m not sure quite what to do with gender stuff, apart from dress Janek in pink, and at the same time I am aware that it’s deadly serious. I feel exhausted when I think about the myriad of ways that I am probably teaching my daughter that she needs to be rescued- waiting for Marcin to come home to sharpen the knife (when I realise this I am appalled and run straight to the kitchen and pull out the file to do it myself), throw out the rubbish, assure me that I am not going to blow the roof off with my maiden pressure cooker meal. I let him put the baby seats on the bikes (I might forget to put in that screw!), organise the photos on the computer, take charge of the manly, once-a-month cleaning while I do the daily drudgery. He is the king of the stereo, the anti-virus software, the toolbox, while I founder in menu plans and-let’s admit it- planning in general.

I would like my daughter to change her own tyres and my son to plan his own menus. I would like them not to be trapped by assumptions about how they should look or act. I want them to enjoy food and the functioning of their bodies without loathing themselves for not looking the way they think they should.

I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding pompous or earnest. I don’t know how to react when I read an interview with a woman on what it means to be a feminist mother, who says that she thinks it’s important to constantly tell her daughter she is pretty, so that she has some beauty ballast to help her resist when the world starts to imply that maybe she’s not attractive enough, that she will teach her daughter about shaving her legs and wearing makeup because it will show her how to play the game and give her an advantage in a world that values a good manicure (on a female). I object to this logic, to the obsession with female beauty and grooming, but don’t know how it should translate into my treatment of my children.

I probably should have spent my pregnancy thinking about questions like these, rather than lurking about on the cervix forums or googling ‘celebrity baby body.’ I have a strong feeling that it’s important not to be intellectually lazy about gender, but find that a terrifying brief. I’ll most likely be thinking about this for years to come.

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‘Inspirational blog reading’

So, during my recent cleaning frenzy, in between groaning with rage over the handbag collection and trying to find a cupboard which would take the cherub out of my sight, I began reading this blog . I was in one of those write-a-list-and-become-a-better- person phases, so detailed instructions on how to clean out my kitchen drawers made fascinating reading.

When all my clothes were piled up in little rectangular mounds and my bathroom was lickable, I moved on to organising my online world. This mainly involved unsubscribing from a million newsletters informing of the latest specials in biking and performance wear in cycling shops around the globe which I had accidentally subscribed to while trying to buy something. I also tried and failed to impose some sort of limit on internet and Facebook time- the best I could do was ‘write a list and when everything’s done, go hog wild’  kind of structure.

There was, however, some good news alongside the legitimate claim that Facebook will suck the life out of you. Since the Slow Your Home guru is a blogger, she claims that ‘inspirational blog reading’ is a legitimate thing to schedule into your day. When I saw that, my heart soared a bit. So when facebooking is making me feel gluttonous and unproductive, or maybe even before facebooking, I go off for some inspirational blog reading.

As it happens, there are some organic criteria for this activity which have emerged as I go. The inspirational bloggers should be people not too different from me (always women, often mothers, often Australians) but more disciplined about blogging. They can be as brilliant as they like, since this no longer discourages me. My staples are morselsandscraps,   to see my lost world of south coast beauty and the richness of my mothers interior life, edenland  for burning and brutal honesty about depression and family life, bluemilk  because she appears to read something interesting and think something intelligent every single day despite being in charge of several offspring (there is hope!).

So it seems I have found a way to erase guilt about wasting time online. Give it a fancy name, put it on your list (alongside ‘clean teeth’ and ‘rewatch the entire 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls’), and Bob’s your uncle.

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Other people’s things

Last August, we moved house. We were looking for a building with a lift (I might drag one baby to the fourth floor, but not two) and a decent amount of space, and eventually we found what we were looking for out in the suburban wasteland of Dolny Mokotow. The price was right, the size was good, but there was one catch- we had to keep all the owner’s stuff in it, since they were going abroad and wanted to ‘store’ everything in the flat.

The furniture was not as hideous as that which you usually find in furnished flats (the inevitable brown couch was leather rather than polyester), but the extent of packratting only became fully visible when we actually moved in. Every storage space (the cupboards above the doors, which we had neglected to inspect while checking out the house) was bursting at the seams with things which made my fingers itch with the urge to fling them in the skip. Novelty twizzle sticks for stirring cocktails, a collection of squashed-up old handbags which writhed about in their confinement until the door sprung open and they leaped out onto my head, socks without partners, and all that kitchen debris which gathers in long-inhabited houses- silicon ice-cube trays,patty pans,  egg whisks, a tin of silkworm larvae, a comprehensive screw collection, more glasses and plates and eccentric little dishes than you would use in a debauched month of not washing up, springform pans missing  their spring or their form, lonely, splintery wooden chopsticks, still-boxed gift mugs.

And this was only the supposedly useful stuff- in addition there was a whole range of doubtful decorations- inlaid teapots, a stone Confucious pen-holder, a collection of naive paintings which appeared to have a motif of internal organs (I found a kidney, a liver and a large intestine), Buddhist busts, a wooden mortar and pestle with no crushing powers, a horrible and unkillable spider plant, red lampshades, and other knick-knacks and  geegaws too numerous to count. My favourite love-to-hate decoration is a great big plaster cherub, designed to lie along the window sill with its limbs dangling over the edge, giving it an awkward shape which makes it very hard to stuff into a cupboard. Clearing space for my clothes, I found the packaging of a blue dolphin dildo.

I have fought several rounds with this overwhelming pile of objects- the first during my pregnancy, standing on a chair at 3am and seeing how much more those storage cupboards could really take, so that ‘our’ zone would be clear; the second in the last month, overcome by some crazed and possibly hormonal passion for white space. To prove, however, that I am not totally anti-object, I will  post later about things which I love, because there are a number of them  (generally not belonging to the landlord) which I worship on a regular basis.

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Lactation, lactation, lactation

Ah, this is a big and complex topic. Now that I’ve been at it for more than 6 months, I am slightly less mystified by (or more hardened to) the fact that milk comes out of breasts, and less sensitive about the fact that my children don’t want it straight from the source.  My first lactating month or so was spent in a haze of mortification and incomprehension- weren’t they supposed to just jump on and suck? Not necessarily, as it turned out. After being fondled and bullied by every midwife in the Baby Jesus Women’s Hospital, after a couple of weeks I had to confess that I was not a breastfeeding success story. I had not really thought about this aspect of childraising, just assuming that I would do it the good old mammalian way, but I was surprised less by my failure than by the incredibly unpleasant emotions that it raised in me- the terrible guilt and the totally irrational conviction that I was a bad  mother. My children would end up obese, developmentally-delayed  meth heads with no appetite control, allergies and diabetes, and it would all be my fault.

It was a good few months before I could reflect on it sanely and realise that I had absorbed wholesale the whole breastfeeding rhetoric which implies that anything other than breastfeeding is a kind of child abuse. I remember my friend Renee (who also has twins), when we were exchanging emails during my pregnancy, telling me not to ‘get too wrapped up in the whole breastfeeding vs formula feeding debate’- it was only later, struggling with my own baby-feeding issues, that I saw what she might have gone through to induce her to make that comment. By the time Maja and Janek were  three or four months old, I could pull out my bottles at my mother’s group, alone in a sea of bared bosoms, and not feel the need to explain myself to anybody. Later, when we were exchanging our childbirth stories,  I realised that at least half of them had their own lactation nightmares to recount- latch problems, supply problems, the desperate (although in all cases temporary) resort to formula, and guilt, guilt, guilt.

So my perspective on the whole thing has strayed a bit from the usual viewpoint of people of my class and social group. There is endless debate about the need for breastfeeding in public to be accepted, about pumping rights in the workplace, about the wickedness of formula companies and the hideous poisons they peddle.  I feel instead a deep sympathy for  women who have trouble with it, and a sort of suspicion of the glibness of the ‘breast is best’ sloganeering. Women who formula feed (or pump) cannot prevent themselves from justifying their choice or parading evidence that their children have not suffered any lasting damage from their nutritionally deficient beginnings – I have lost count of the number of times I have read testimonies containing that fatal but. My baby was formula fed but is of normal health and intelligence, has never had an ear infection, loves me regardless. I have also lost count of the number of total strangers who have asked me if I am breastfeeding (I just say yes, not being inclined to explain my long relationship with the milking machine)  and applaud me, or tell me how long I should do it for, or regale me with the wonders of breast milk, or tell me how they breastfed their own baby for a hundred years.

I have come to the conclusion that this is just one of the many ways which women judge each other and compare themselves in the cutthroat world of motherhood. Though as I was finishing this post, I came across  this article , and it occurred to me that maybe all those women aren’t necessarily breastfeeding their babies AT ME.

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