Tuesday, January 31, 2012

You can have whatever you want for your birthday. Except maybe that...

Caleb turned three this past Saturday.  So, we took him to the one obvious store in town - Nakumatt (think Target or Walmart, where you can buy toast and a toaster oven and the countertop to put it on) - to pick out his birthday present.  

For weeks he had been excitedly talking about the “purple bike” that he wanted for his birthday.  And by “purple” Caleb meant “pink,” and by “bike”, he meant 3 wheel plastic tricycle built with your 2 year old daughter in mind.  
Not the exact model, but you get the idea...

Colin and I wanted to indulge the little guy (it is HIS birthday after all) and also to not betray our progressive openness to the non-gendered nature of all colors in the spectrum.  But when he boarded his little princess bike in the Nakumatt we found ourselves, pushing him, like used car salespeople, in other directions.  

“Look Caleb, don’t you think this police bike is pretty cool? It has bigger wheels and even a walkie-talkie!”   

“This blue car goes so much faster. Why don't we just hop on for a little a test drive?”  

And finally: “What’s it going to take to get you in this metal green number with the basket?”                                                                                                         
No dice. He wanted that pink bike.  

Lucky for us, toddlers are also easily distracted and fickle. The new guitar on aisle 8 caught his eye and he dragged us away from the whole mini car dealership area!  He excitedly started strumming it, and we saw a glimmer of hope. 

“Caleb” (we asked with cautious hope) “Do you want this guitar instead of a bike for your birthday?”  

“Yes Yes!  I want the guitar” he said strumming it in his unique wrong handed wrong directional fashion (which is sure to catch on when he’s a bona fide rock star – Don’t you think Mama Hendrix witnessed a few smashed guitars when little Jimi was a toddler?  These things start early!).

Here he is loving his new guitar. Not a thought for that emasculating pink tricycle… yet…

P.S. He’s already written 2 songs: “I’m in Nairobi” and “I’m on a mountain.”  Similar theme and almost identical tune, but when I try and sing them he insists I’m getting it wrong.  So, there are probably subtly important differences… You can’t argue with genius.


Oh, and just so you don't think all we did was take him to Kisumu's answer to Walmart for his big day... here are some pics from his birthday party on Sunday.  It's not exactly the elaborate goat roast celebration we had for his 2 year birthday, but it did make us realize that we know more people in Kisumu than we thought.  Mostly there were friends from work, neighbors and some new expat families we met once or twice.
You should have seen the look of delighted surprise when the whole room broke out into Happy Birthday.  (And you could have if I hadn't accidentally deleted that most awesome photo!)

Really, all you need is a bunch of toys on the floor and some cake and the kids think it's a bang up party

But just in case that's not enough, we played pin the tail on the punda (donkey).  And a classic is new again!

Turns out the kids could all see through my blindfold as evidenced by the fact that thy were all suspiciously close to the target. 

So, we got a better blindfold and the tails ended up all over the wall!  Caleb stumbled to the wall to the point he nearly kissed it.  But he must have thought that was pretty fun because he couldn't wait for another turn.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

You’re having this baby WHERE now?

I gave birth to Caleb in Boston.  You can’t throw a rock without hitting a world-class hospital in Boston. Mass General, Birgham and Women’s, Beth Israel...  Take your pick.  We went with a midwife practice situated in Mt. Auburn Hospital and had the patient and attentive care of trained midwives with a lifeline of doctors should they be needed (and they were).  My midwife sat next to me and held my hand through the c-section that devastated my expectations of a natural birth but that we all knew was lifesaving.  It was ideal.  

During my pregnancy, like any first time prospective mom, I was afraid of unknown amounts of pain but I was never afraid for the health of myself or my baby.

Flash forward to 2011.  I’m pregnant and in Western Kenya – a place where it’s not unheard of for women or child to perish in childbirth.  But it’s not common.  I’d seen many of the women I work with become pregnant and deliver healthy babies (in area hospitals) since I’d come to Kenya.  

Then I became pregnant, and we immediately started talking about the “safest” option, which was definitely not in Busia.   It all made me very self-conscious and directly conflicted with my “do as locals” sensibilities.  My running internal narrative was, “What makes me so much more special that I have to go somewhere else to have the baby?”  

And I certainly didn’t relish the thought of telling Kenyan friends that we would be heading to some capital city to have the baby – when there was a decent hospital in Kisumu, one that many couldn’t even afford to go to.  It all made me very self conscious. 

So, we settled on Aga Khan hospital in Kisumu – definitely the best in Western Kenya, and a few of my Kenyan colleagues had even delivered there, which help lessen my feeling of “little American princess” exceptionalism.


My first few neo-natal visits were OK.  They seemed to do the same tests that I was used to at home, and the nurse joked easily and remembered me visit to visit.  The doctor was a bit kooky – telling me that the nausea likely indicated that I was carrying a girl - but was reassuringly gray-haired and confident and seemed to have a good reputation.   

But when I asked basic questions of staff about how the birth might go and if I could see the maternity ward, the response was either uncomfortable laughter or that combination smirk/eye-roll people do when they think you’re insulting them.  I guess questioning the doc or hospital procedures is simply not done here.  And the subtext, as mzungu expat, is that I don’t trust them or their hospital.  

This was all very upsetting.  The very last thing I want to do is insult someone.  I spend a lot of conscious energy trying to tiptoe around the minefield of possible cultural insensitivities.  But, people, I come from a place that has pregnant women interviewing half a dozen docs to find the “right one,” and I myself sat through a “meet the midwives” night complete with a birthing room tour to calm the nerves of anxious new moms.  So, I thought some basic questions about how they might determine if I needed a c-section would be above board, but it was cause for offense and, worse, never quite answered.

Despite all of this, we thought we’d stay in Kisumu.  Moving to Nairobi with a toddler just for the delivery seemed incredibly uprooting and inconvenient, given we don’t have any support network there, much less a place to stay.

But then… it started to happen.  When we'd tell our expat friends they would respond with a mix of shock and concern.  One, someone who has lived here for nearly 2 decades, had a 45 minute… --I’ll just call it an intervention--with me about the decision.  

“Sure, it’s the best hospital in Western.  There’s probably a ‘best hospital in all of Namibia,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”  

“Sure, your baby might make it, but what if they took just a little too long to deliver it and it suffered brain damage.  You’d never know!”

“Sure, you met some missionaries who delivered safely there.  But, you don’t know what they think.  If the baby is harmed, they might just explain it away as god’s will.  You need to think about the health of the baby!”  

All of this made us wonder if we were being sensible yet “down with the people” or simply foolhardy.  If anything did happen to this child and I could have prevented it I would never forgive myself.  


So, I decided I needed to make a more informed decision.  But because I can’t get any information from the hospital there’s really no way to assess the risk.  

Luckily, there is a CDC office in Kisumu filled with medical-types and families.  So, I sent out an email asking for people’s experience with the local hospital and advice about my decision.
I got a torrent of responses back and each one of them advised me to have the baby in Nairobi.  There’s no neonatal emergency care in Kisumu, so (heaven forbid) if something went wrong I could be in serious trouble.  A few people retold horror stories they experienced or heard of.  Yes, doctors are by nature risk-averse and cautious, but I guess that’s how I should be when it comes to the health of this little one.

So, that’s why we’ve decided to have this baby in Nairobi.  

I still feel self-conscious when I tell Kenyan friends and colleagues. But I’m now reframing the whole thing. 

I’m not “special” nor do I think I deserve better than the “best hospital in Western.”  I guess I think EVERYONE deserves a hospital with minimal risks and that is well prepared for an emergency.  My discomfort is that we live in a world in which that is not an option for most people.  It’s an unpleasant reality and it’s made more stark by where I live, but putting myself at more risk than I need to doesn’t change that.  It does, however, make me want to try and help the situation for mothers who don’t have access to safe medical care.  

If you feel the same way, please look in to giving to the following NGOs or suggesting others:


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Update: Playtime for Little C!

Just to allay the concerns of those of you who may be overburdened by pity for poor little lonely Caleb:  We went back to Busia for work yesterday and Caleb was greeted by about a dozen little friends coming from all directions.
Not the most in-focus shot and Caleb is sporting some serious heat-ravaged nutty professor curls, but you get the idea...

Can't you just feel the love?

Caleb sharing his toys

The poor little guy played so hard all day, despite an intestinal bug, that he spent a good part of the night throwing up. Can this kid not get a break?  It exhausted us all and I'm nursing a stomach bug too, but it's amazing the mommy adrenaline (is that a thing?) you get when your little one is suffering. 

Oh, and we were also treated to thumpy club music blasting out speakers until 4 AM as part of a fund-raising effort (common here in Busia).   Was I just lamenting the boredom of quiet Kisumu? 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Country mice move to the big city

We recently moved from Busia to Kisumu Kenya – a difference most of you reading this probably don’t appreciate.  They’re both little known places on the global scene. 

But for us, the difference has been immense.  Busia is a small border town with one main road, flanked by dukas (shops) and fundis (carpenters/welders) and small hotels, lots of foot traffic and wandering livestock.  Walk 10 minutes off the road and you are basically amid shambas. 
Busia commerce

A 10 minute walk away from the main road
Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya with paved roads and restaurants that serve more than ugali and beans.  There’s actual traffic and sidewalks.  You can buy more than one variety of cheese.  There’s a hospital with fancy new equipment and doctors who have studied abroad.  There’s an international school.   
Source: www.east-africa-safari.com

And… where we live in Kisumu is quiet.  

But, then again, where we live in Kisumu is quiet.
Let me explain.  Kisumu has neighborhoods complete with the inevitable class divisions – something we did not experience in Busia. So, of course, we picked a “safe” neighborhood close to the office and immediately find ourselves surrounded by quiet.  You’d think this would be a relief.

But we had come to enjoy being so surrounded by people in Busia - so unavoidably enmeshed in the community.  Sure, there were not a lot of things you could "plan" to do other than visit a hotel/restaurant or go to the market.  But something unplanned always seemed to happen.  Visitors stop by unannounced. A 10 minute walk around the house would mean an encounter with an old friend or someone looking to be new friend. 

And best of all, Caleb had instant spontaneous playgroups just by stepping outside our house.  What he lacked in playgrounds, he more than made up for in playmates.

Here.  This picture pretty much sums it up.  

We’re just outside our house in Busia. Smiles on our faces, waving to people we know, Caleb with ball in hand assured of playmates.

This is the view from just outside our new compound.

And the street we live on...

It's definitely pretty, but also pretty desolate.  

Colin and I are busy enough to not mind the boring quiet.  Caleb is quite another story.  The other day, after searching the neighborhood for playmates to be met by only locked gates and quiet streets, he turned to me and said, “Where are all my little friends? I want to find some little friends.” and it nearly broke my heart.

I guess it’s an age old story.  You move from a village to a city and gain in convenience and opportunity what you lose in community. 

We’re actually lucky in that we have 3 other houses in our compound of friendly people, some of whom have invited us for tea and all of whom are lovely to Caleb.  There are even a few kids.   

But something seems to happen when you move up the socio-economic ladder.  People’s time is precious and planned out and there’s not the same expectation and appreciation for unplanned visits or easy way of just being together without an agenda.  

It's funny.  There is one sliver of our lives here that is reminiscent of village life.   At night, the househelp and guards of the compound get together and sit outside around that modern campfire, the television, with their kids, forming an easy and relaxed kind of community.  The kind you don’t plan for or drive to but just exists.  The kind we left in Busia.  I know I’ll never be totally a part of that. But sometimes I go out there with Caleb and he plays with the groundskeepers little girl and I just sit with them and try and revel a bit in what we left behind. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Name Our Baby

Today I'm hooking this post up to Alison and Ado’s 1st Blogoversary Blog Bash - two wonderful bloggers I've discovered recently. 

Not sure if this is my favorite post per se (I find something I don't like about all my posts, because, well... I need therapy), but since my life as of late is revolving around my newborn, this one had some ironic resonance. Punchline at the end.

Time is running out.

I have only 5-6 weeks left until what’s-his-name makes his appearance.  And, that’s exactly the point.  What is his name, by god!!???

So far, we’ve called him Jelly Bean.  This works just fine to describe a growing bump around my mid-section, but he’ll need something more respectable when he comes out.  Though, goodness knows, we’ll be referring to him as “angel cake” and “muffin cheeks” for about the first year, so does that buy us some more time?

But, we need to get serious here.  We’re kind of at a loss.  With Caleb I really believe we nabbed the only great boy name that both could agree upon and now there seems to be something wrong with every name we think of.

Add to all of this that I keep reading about couples who have meaningful and interesting stories about how they came to name their kids.  Something with particular meaning in the local language they both learned while doing their PhD dissertations in Nambia.  Or something from a work of art mom produced while they were falling in love.  Oy, the pressure!

Really, we’re approaching this from the other angle – what NOT to name him.  Nothing that could get attention of the class bully.  Nothing so popular that he will forever be known as “John C.”  Something unique, but not “Mookilala” unique.  Something strong but not meat-head strong.  Names of people who have wronged (or simply annoyed) us are out.  So are ex-boyfriends (unfortunately, because there are some real gems in there.)   Probably can’t use names of close friends’ and relatives’ kids.  And not their pets (damn you Ezra the cat!)  What’s left?

All of this makes me see the appeal of “Colin Jr.” custom.  
Source: www.babyfirstyear.org
Colin and I were joking this morning that we should just force ourselves to name him something ridiculous like “Christian Christensen” or, better yet, “Mordechai Christensen” unless we come up with something else by a certain time.  You know…  As motivation

And we’re probably making the mistake of telling too many people the list of names we’re kicking around.  With Caleb, this was no problem.  Everyone LOVED the name.  (Or at least told us they did).  

For this one people are being a bit more brutally honest.   We like(d?) Emet.  Seems like a strong and unique name and means “truth” in Hebrew.  Seems to go with Caleb. But some people (more than one) respond to this name with that scrunchy face you make when you eat something sour, saying  “Um… it’s a little…uh… hillibilly.”  Hadn’t thought of that before.  But now…

I know what you’re going to say.  Just don’t tell people!  They’ll love the baby and whatever you name it when it arrives.  My dad hated the name Jesse when he was in utero, now he’s in love with Jesse the boy.  

Problem is that we truly don’t know what names we like, so we kind of welcome the… um… feedback.  Sort of.  We’ll still name him whatever we want despite what people say because we know the “jesse the boy” story.  But since we’re at a loss, we kind of need to anticipate if we’re stepping in to a landmine.

And don't try to tell me not to stress, that we'll know the name after we meet the baby, because we won't. We'll be arguing about it until Baby Boy Christensen graduates from college.

So, we’re open to suggestions.   Anyone?


In the end, we named our little hillbilly baby Emmet.  Now, as predicted, everyone loves it.  And if they don't, they stay silent.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is there such a thing as PREpartum depression?

I have a friend who used to live in Nairobi.  It came up in a conversation about the weather.  You know the one: Would you be bored to tears if the weather were beautiful, but the same, every day?  

Nairobi is sunny and warm with a crisp breeze.  Every. Day.  

She said “You know, it’s impossible to be unhappy living in a climate like that!”

Mmmm…  Maybe not “impossible.” 

Here I am in Nairobi, visiting friends, meeting wonderful new people and eating delicious meals we relish even more because we can’t get anything like it in Kisumu.  Here I am sunning myself in this happy-inducing climate, feeling utterly depressed.

And I’m hesitant to write anything since it can only come across as whiny and self-pitying given the much more serious problems other people in this part of the world face.  In a better person that realization might be the kick-in-the-pants that would pull her out of her wallowing.  And that awareness only inconveniently adds a bit of self-loathing to my sadness.  But I can’t escape the emotions I feel.

I know all about postpartum depression and was lucky enough to avoid it with Caleb.  But is there a pre-partum depression I can diagnose myself with? That’s got to be a “thing,” right?

You see, I’ve felt this way frequently since my third trimester:  That there were tears piling up in my tear ducts just waiting for an excuse to let loose at the littlest inconvenience.   That I would need to swallow hard to pull them back and avoid embarrassing myself with irrational sadness.

The other day I couldn’t get the water to be less than boiling hot in the shower.  The painfully hot water forced me to leave half way through the shower and I proceeded, half naked with soap still in my hair,  to not just cry, but to sob.  A full body, shoulder-shaking, gasping-for-air, minutes-long sob.  

Caleb walked in on me in another recent crying jag and tried to comfort me with: “Mama, you crying because you want a donut?  You can have one later, OK?  So, now you not sad, right?”  

And that actually cheered me up.  For a while.

I don’t think anyone, save my husband and son, has ANY clue what I’m going through (And yes.  I know I say this on a BLOG, which means they could all know now, and that’s fine).  This is partly because I’m actually cheered up by company.  My depression is often sparked when I’m on my own too much, which doesn’t bode well for my indefinite maternity leave.  (Really, my job contract just ends when my baby is due)  

But, I’m not sure entirely how to disentangle what is hormone-provoked hyper-sensitivity with what might be real issues here.   Sure, the shower being too hot would not normally send me over the edge, but might some of this other stuff?

Like feeling a loss of self watching my husband’s career take off and my own stagnate with this move to Kenya.  Like feeling a bit too old to reinvent myself entirely.  Like wondering if living here is worth not watching my nieces and nephews grow up.   

Maybe I’d have answers or at least a better perspective on these things if I weren’t fighting back tears thinking about them.   Maybe not.  The thing is until depression clears it’s hard to think about any of this stuff with any objectivity.  

And I suppose it’s risky writing things down when I’m in this state – much less sharing it.  I’m sure it’s some kind of Murphy’s Law that when you write about this stuff, and perhaps even evoke some sympathy, that’s just about the time that your depression lifts and you not only don’t need the support but are embarrassed by everything you just wrote.  

I’ll take that chance since writing about this, and even knowing it might be read and might even resonate with someone, is helping now.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pay for performance

Maybe some of you can help settle an argu… versation Colin and I had recently.  It took place after we may or may not have been swindled by some mechanics who may or may not have fixed a problem that may or may not have exited with the car.  But we’ve vowed never to talk of this incident, so you’re spared the details.

So, as would naturally happen, we got to talking about street con artists -- who run the gamut from “fake” homeless to people with elaborate stories looking for a lot more than a dime.  

Two examples:

Colin saw someone at an interstate rest stop talking-- loud enough to hear but not loud enough to be considered crazy -- about a sick relative he was trying urgently to see. But now, you see, he was stranded at this rest stop with no more money and no way to get to them.  Time was running short. He was a tough looking guy choking back tears.  Some women who overheard this heart-wrenching tale, reached in to their pockets to help him out.  When they left, the man started this exact same “phone call” within the earshot of some different marks. 

When I lived in Philly, a common scam was for a person to ask you directions someplace. It would always be a place at least 4 modes of public transportation away.  You’d have to give this person the bad news that “No, you’re on Chestnut Street.  Chestnut Hill is about a 30 minute car ride from here.”   The person would then break down and cry.   Real tears!  She doesn’t have near enough money to get there and she’s been trying all day.  Now she is sobbing and you’re standing there awkwardly.   And just like that, you’re inextricably tied in to her drama as the barer of the tear-inducing news.  You have a few bucks to spare, don’t you?  She’s crying because of what you just told her fergoodnesssakes! 

My stock answer for why I often end up giving to one of these more thespian pan handlers is that even if their elaborate tale of woe was totally fabricated, it was a pretty good show.  There were tears and emotion.  It was better than Cats. 

 So, I justify giving a few bucks for a good performance.  Not because I’m a sucker.  Never that!

Plus, you just never know.  What if those tears weren’t fake?   Could you really deny a person with such a sad story a dollar?

Anyway, Colin thinks all of this is mildly ridiculous.  He thinks giving to con artists of this ilk just encourages them to rip off other people.   People who might actually need that dollar more than you. 

Plus, you’re rewarding a cheater.   You’re not paying for a performance, you’re paying for a lie.  And where does it end?  The grandmother who gives her life savings to a fake Nigerian prince would hardly argue it was “worth the performance.”

He makes a good point.

Here’s my counterpoint:  Excluding the major league con artists who wipe out people’s savings, generally, when you give a few dollars, it’s to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can’t say they won’t spend it on liquor, but I also can’t say I wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing having walked a mile in their shoes. You just don’t know.  Yes, you “earned” your dollar the old fashioned way.  But, let’s be honest, you had some help.  We all did. 
Am I being naive?  Too forgiving?  What do you think?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Happier moments

Since I’ve inflicted the saddest moment of a very happy trip on you, it’s only fair that I share the happier moments from what is becoming an annual trip to see Babu (grandpa in Swahili) in South Africa. 

Despite the Christ in Colin’s last name, neither of us are actually Christian.  (We’re Jew-hais – Baha’i and Jewish blended family).  Nonetheless, we ate our faces off at a deliciously unkosher Christmas dinner served up by the loveliest people in the Southern hemisphere. 

We took beautiful long hikes in an area of South Africa that is more Ireland-meets-the-Amazon than anything you’d link to Africa.

But the wildlife reminded us where we were.
We met this fellow at the beginning of our hike

Caleb watched way too many cartoons.  But since we don’t have a TV at home, we let him watch until his eyes glazed over and he morphed into a mini holiday couch potato.  Or couch latke.  Whatever.
In a rare moment when he is not slumped in the couch ala Al Bundy

We (well some of us) indulged in way too much of what I’m told is great coffee. I think Colin has a coffee addition problem.  He thinks I have a “being too judgey” problem.  I think we can agree we’re both right.

We failed at completely “turning off” the technology.  Some of us. ; )

The bad reception on our hike thwarted most of this kind of behavior

But best of all, we spent 10 days unencumbered by work or household responsibilities enjoying the company of the love of our lives and watched him find the new love of his life (Kimberleigh). 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The saddest moment of a very happy trip

Entering a cemetery can be oddly comforting.  The sea of tombstones tells you that your loss is part of something so clearly inevitable, that thousands of others feel pain just the same yours, that somehow death is part of life and it’s all OK. 

But then you find the tombstone you came to see and the name “Deborah Hubbard Christensen” etched so permanently in granite, and it hits you like a sucker punch.  She’s gone.  And all those other tombstones don’t make it any better.

Colin’s mom passed away over 2 years ago now and this was the first time I had been back to see her grave in South Africa.  I hadn’t known her long but she made an indelible impression on everyone she knew.  She was sensitive, compassionate, graceful, loving, and intuitive and would have made one hell of a grandmother to Caleb.  Her friends called her a “spiritual giant” and not just one of them confided to me that she had saved their lives in one way or another.  She had a calling to help people heal.  Colin simply worshiped her.  

I didn’t know her long but some of my tears where simply for that.  Others were from watching my son playing among the tombstones, oblivious to his loss.  Still others were from watching her son - my husband - hunched over at the foot of her grave, feeling the full and agonizing weight of his loss.  

It was a powerfully sad and poignant moment.  

Just as we left the cemetery the blue sky turned a deep almost purplish gray and rain gently poured down on us, as if to wash away our sadness. And this is exactly what she would have wanted to do.