Thursday, June 28, 2012

How to avoid stress hives and therapeutic drinking

Growing up as part of a set of triplets I remember that my mom belonged to a support group called "Mothers of Multiples" or MOMs. We would go to picnics in which a bunch of little twins and triplets would run around making unsuspecting picnic-goers do double takes and wonder if someone had slipped something in their lemonade.  My memories were of picnics. I'm guessing my moms were of crying on other MOM's barf-stained shoulders, relieved that other people could relate to her circle of hell.

So, I feel funny about this post even before I'm going to write it.  I'm getting used to 2 kids, separated by 3 years. Certainly not the chaos my mom suffered through, but it's been an adjustment.

This is why: As a mom of your first baby you are showered with a weird kind of anonymous love from all corners of humanity.  That once surly bus driver looks at you with your new life and offers a smile.  Strangers spark up conversations as if you were two dog owners at a park.  You haven't had this many people smile at you since that day you inadvertently tucked the bottom of your skirt into your underwear.  You and your baby are a lightning rod of goodwill and peace.   You emanate love and earth-mama goddessness.

But once you are the mother of more than one, you become "that lady at the grocery store."  You know the one - she's got cheerios in her unwashed hair, screaming over her crying baby to plead with her toddler, who's hopped up on apple juice, to stop wiping snot on upbought merchandise, FERTHELOVEOFGOD. People no longer look at her with affection but with pity and maybe a bit of disgust. Her.

So, I guess that's me now.

But the reality is that I vacillate between feeling like a multitasking superhero (Japan: that one is mine, OK?) and like I wish someone would just commit me to an institution so I could take a nap or three.

When I'm on top of this stuff, it's like I have an efficiency high from my multitasking prowess. I'm rubbing the back of one kid to lull him expertly to sleep, while simultaneously nursing the baby and emailing my husband with my left toe.  I'm just like my multitasking superhero "Octomom," (meaning that I can do 8 things at once not that I am a media hungry delusional with too many offspring). My brain is high fiving itself repeatedly.  I'm hoping they give awards for this stuff.

But when I'm not "on top of this stuff" I'm screaming "JUST WAIT A FREAKIN MINUTE" at my confused child for asking if he can have something to drink, which is a reasonable request, but the baby has been screaming in my ear for the last 30 minutes, has just shat all over himself, and I've been wearing the same tampon since yesterday.  So, I'm no longer Octomom.  I'm Chaotic Crazypants Mom, whose superpower is irrational behavior and ability to repel people with unpredictable anger.

I'm guessing this resonates.  I mean 47% of all momblogs have the words "wine" or "vodka" in their title or tagline, so I'm thinking we're all a bit harried.

But here's the thing, in Kenya I've rarely seen a mom lose her shit because junior refused to get dressed or go down for his nap.  The response I've seen most often to a tantrum is laughter and a shoulder shrug.  Then the kid gets over it and we all move on.  I could be off on this, but it seems the moms in Kenya are just not as tightly wound as in the US.

Maybe it's because the "village" is helping to ease the mothering burden.  Or because children are more obedient out of necessity.  Or because a tantrum looks like small potatoes when compared to the bigger stress of finding enough money for school fees and keeping the children healthy in the face of poor medical care.

I'm not positive (as an "armchair anthropologist" I half make this stuff up), but I get the sense that there is something else here. I think it's about expectations and our willingness or unwillingness to let life control us.

Take sleeping.  We Americans expect our kids to nap.  And to nap, more or less, when we ask them to.  Even babies.

I have cried heaving sobs when a child or baby would not take a nap at an expected time so that I could have JUST ONE MOMENT to do something for myself.  Like laundry.

When both kids are sleeping at the same time, I congratulate myself.  When I'm losing the sleep battle, I'm rage-filled Chaotic Crazypants mom.  Wouldn't it be nice if I could just go what life deals me a little more?

Yesterday afternoon I was nursing Emmet to sleep.  All three other children in our house were asleep.  He was exhausted and "overdue" for his own nap, and if he were to fall asleep, as expected, I would get that near mythical mid-day moment of silence.  I sat there until my arm fell asleep as he sweetly suckled himself to slumber.  And then, just as I was about to put him down, his big eyes sprang open and his lips formed into a smile.

But this time, instead of brain screaming "YOU MISERABLE BASTARD, WHY WON'T YOU SLEEP?!?!" and sprouting a stress hive (as I am wont to do), I tried to savor the sweetness of the moment.  Not what I wanted it to be, but what it was.  Channeling my image of that Kenyan mom, I chuckled to myself and shrugged my shoulders.  And it worked.  I didn't get Emmet back to sleep, but I got myself back to happy.  

Linking up again with the wonderful yeahwrite community.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Ungraciously Accept this Honor

I won a bloggy award!

It's the result of tireless deliberation by a distinguished panel of one who was bestowed this same award and has to now pass it on to 15 others.  I'm among the 15 other bloggers that she considers "very inspiring."  So, I'm super flattered.

Wow, if you read that a certain way, it sounds really bitchy.  I was trying to strike a more gracious modesty and tone here, but I suck at getting compliments.  If you minimize the compliment you're ungrateful, but if you say, "Wow, I'm really honored that you think so highly of me" you sound like an ass.  Maybe I should just say "Thanks."  Took me 37 years to figure that one out.

OK. Enough musings.

Erin at Common Threads (who has one of the most thoughtful and beautiful written blogs around) has passed me the baton, and I will not shirk my duties as per my usual pattern.  So, the deal with this bloggy chain letter award, is to:

--  Expose 7 things about yourself (I've already done "can't take compliments graciously," so I'm down to 6!)

--  Pass it on to 15 others (as already explained)

So, here we go:

7 6 Secrets Revealed

(1) I cheat. At card games and the like. I started doing it just to be funny and kind of mock everyone else's seriousness, but there's probably an element of sore loser in there. Now, it's just my schtick and I can't get anyone to take me seriously or deal me in.   

(2)  I'm a triplet.  But from way back when being a triplet was something special, not like today where it's so trendy that only the Gosselin progeny and Octochildren get any the attention. Back when we were coming up, the local paper would periodically (on slow news days) cover our birthday, ala "Local Triplets Turn 4," and my mom struggled to find workable strollers. 

(3) I have an unexplained fear of the crevice of my elbow, or "crelbow."  (Don't look it up, just trust me it's a word.) I can't touch or look at mine -- or yours -- without getting all eebie jeeby-y.  I absolutely refuse to get blood drawn there, even if it means the nurse has to jab that rolly vein in my wrist 5-6 times.  

(4) I suffer from the "Grass is Always Greener Syndrome" or GAGS.  Again, don't look this up.  The DSM, as usual, is way behind on this, but I'm sure the next addition will have it in there. Basically, I'm pretty sure I'd rather have whatever life path you've chosen for yourself. 

Water engineer?  Now that's something useful to the world! Doctor?  Compassionate and useful. Teacher?  The most noble profession of all.  Crossing guard?   Lucky bastard gets all that fresh air.  Prisoner?  Wow, what a gritty and real existence.  I mean, talk about blog fodder!  You get the idea.....    

(5) I periodically make myself sick binge eating sugary treats, like jelly beans and candy corn.  

(6) I have the attention span of a hyperactive toddler and about as much patience.  E.g. I have never read the instructions to a board or party game.  If there's no one there to explain the rules to me I'll just make them up and we'll go from there.*  So, I end up skimming most blogs posts.  

But there are some (those below) that I never skim; that I become engrossed in and sometimes read twice.  These bloggers always have something insightful to say and an often humorous or sometimes touching way to say it. I'm just going to go ahead and put my Mama Mzungu guarantee on each one, so you should check them out.  (Even though I just painted myself as an ungracious, impatient, neurotic, sugar-eating cheat, I have really good judgement and you should totally trust me.)

[Some of you may have already received this award since it's going around our corner of the Interweb.  If so, stick this feather next to the others in your hat.]

* And I lost patience for correcting this weird highlighty thing blogger has plagued me with after about 3 failed attempts to correct it, so sorry if it's hard to read!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Co-mothering: stress inducer or life saver?

I've long bored readers with my rants on the superiority of extended families when it comes to raising children.  The "it takes a village" adage is kind of a recurring theme of this whole blog. It's a cure for everything from bored children to overworked moms. It's the way we should raise our children and have for centuries.

So, I finally had a chance to test out this theory with my actual family.  Like many of you know, I'm currently back in the US visiting family, and staying with my parents. My sister has also moved in for the month with her 4 year old and 6 month old.  And we were also taking care of my brother's 2 year old for the days when his wife was at the hospital having the latest addition to this family.  So, that made 5 children under 4 and 4 adults.  9 souls in 4 bedrooms.  And that's about enough numbers for one paragraph, no?

Coming in to this arrangement I had a lot of ideas about how this whole co-mothering thing would go.  There would be a harmonious division of labor.  Someone would make sure the children didn't kill each other while swinging bats in the back yard, another would make everyone grilled cheese.  Babies would be passed around and easily soothed. Everything would somehow get done, and with a lot less effort than doing it alone.  It would be like that scene in Cinderella where the woodland creatures work in joyful and seamless choreography to make her ball gown.  That is if the ball gown were raising children. And the technicolor birds were us moms.  

Anyway, point is, no one would ever have to scream, "I'm on the phone, nursing your brother and making your peanut butter sandwich with my left foot, so you'll just have apply pressure until I can get there!!"   It would all get done but no one would have to do it all. At the end of the day, children neatly tucked in, we'd laugh over wine at the suckers who have to do it alone.

That's what I pictured.

But the reality was a different thing all together.

The reality was chaos.

Instead of a group of co-parenting moms reinforcing each other's discipline strategies and dividing all the work, there was just a lot more noise.  A lot of yelling and feet stopping and tantruming.  And our children didn't behave much better.

First of all, everything was a lot more ... schleppy, for lack of a better word.

Case in point: We planned one outing and it took us longer to get out the door than we actually spent at our destination.   Most of the out-of-the-door-getting was Tetris-ing the 5 car seats into 2 cars.  One child ended up in front (which we agreed to pretend was legal in the state of Illinois) and there just may have been an infant in a booster seat. I'm not sure.

Also, all the kids were out of whack - missing their fathers, adjusting to time zones, new beds and the prospect of a new sibling - so bedtime was total chaos with each kid playing us off each other.

One night, while trying to convince the kids to fall asleep in their new beds, Jesse introduced his cousin to the nightmare-inducing prospect that there might be ghosts in the house.  The next night Caleb lost his mind insisting his pillow be continually flipped over to the "cold side" and his water was not juicy enough.  This fit lasted... THREE hours, during which time I had to nurse his baby brother (no co-mom for that) and figure out how to quiet Caleb so he wouldn't wake the other 8 souls in the 4 bedrooms.

Each night we'd descend to the finally child-free living room around 10 PM, exhausted, craving liquor, chocolate or some other palliative, only to have a stray child wander down asking for something unproduceable like their father or a colder pillow.

It was shit like that a lot.  There never seemed to be enough adults to handle the concurrent meltdowns.  Of course, there were also adorable moments with giggling kids running around the backyard and babies being babies.  But also a lot of yelling and wondering who was was watching Elijah.

I literally had stress hives from the whole thing. I count them in the shower. It's a little game I invented to distract myself from being stressed.

But I'm not totally abandoning my conviction about extended family parenting.  And this is why:

It's since gotten a lot better.  The early kinks have been worked out. We've fallen into our rhythm, and the children have gotten over their various neuroses and become more used to living with each other.

And now we're approaching the utopia I had originally counted on. There does always seem to be a spare pair of arms to hold the baby or make some breakfast.  There's always another person to laugh with about the ridiculously funny stuff your kids say and to relish in the babies "firsts."  There's always a shoulder to cry on when your child pushes you to the breaking point.

After things got better.  This scene means another mom got to sleep in.  Or I got pancakes made for me.
The kids do seem happier to have constant playmates and the babies are getting a lot more smiling faces shoved in front of theirs.  And having more than one mom also means that someone can take an hour to herself every once in a while.  I've gone on two runs and to one yoga class this past week, which was more physical activity than I had managed in the entire year prior.  That is enough to join a commune of moms.

It's a win-win-win.  For now.

There's probably another post in me about the difficulty of melding different discipline strategies and not silently judging each other's parenting choices. But for now I'm going to focus on enjoying the company, the break from doing it alone and the constant companionship for the kids.


Hanging out with yeahwrite again this week.  Just about the most supportive and talented group of bloggers you'll find on the interweb...

Friday, June 15, 2012

House Help

I recently posted this piece to World Moms Blog.  It's a great site that features perspectives of moms around the world.  Check it out!


Before moving to Kenya, along with updating our vaccines and strategically packing our belongings to fit our meager bag allowance, one of the things I prepared myself for was the possibility of having house help.  Both my husband and I would be working and we’d be living in a rural area, so we’d need someone to help look after our son.  And unless I wanted to spend 20 hours a week washing our clothes by hand, we’d need to hire some house help. I’m not exaggerating when I say I hated the idea.  

I consider myself hardworking and self-reliant, so I hated the idea of someone doing something for me that I could do myself.  I’m a private person, so I hated the idea of someone observing, maybe judging, the interior of our lives.  I’m a natural people pleaser, so I hate the idea of being someone’s boss in my own home. 

More than anything I hated the prospect of putting someone in what I thought was a subservient position and, if I’m being honest with myself, bringing someone in who would be a continual reminder of the uncomfortable inequities of the world.  Someone who could see what we spent on things like groceries and petrol and compare that unfavorably with her monthly salary.

And coming from the US, there was probably something in the recesses of my subconscious that was reflexively uncomfortable with being a light skinned person hiring a darker skinned person to clean my unmentionables.  It’s a relationship loaded with historic and cultural baggage.

I was about as uncomfortable with the idea of taking on house help as I was with the very real possibility of my family getting typhoid and malaria.  It’s true.

But, when we arrived in Busia, I was smacked with the economic realities of the situation. 

People were lining up to ask to work for us.  Unemployment is enormous and paying what to us seems an exploitative salary is twice what someone might earn otherwise. Not hiring someone would in essence be denying someone a job – a job we could afford to pay and a job we needed done.  It would be irrational and unfriendly.  So, I had to quickly become comfortable with the situation. 

I’ve come to learn that there are little of the same connotations about house help here in Kenya.  People who are just above poor tend to have some form of house help.  Maybe it’s a cousin from the village who helps around the house in exchange for more meals and a more comfortable bed than she would otherwise have.  Even the lowest paid staff in the small NGO we work at had house help.  In more affluent cities even the house help have house help. 

A good friend of ours in South Africa grew up with a mother was worked as a “domestic.”  The job allowed her to put him through college and keep him out of trouble.  He now works as an HR manager for a large company.  He has all the trappings of an upper middle class existence.  And he was baffled by my discomfort with house help. 

But over the last two years I have become more comfortable with the arrangement.  We’ve found people to help us who we’ve come to love.  They do the work with pride and dignity and have been able to send their kids to school, buy land and build houses because of their jobs.  I’ve come to find out that both women who’ve worked for us had previously been abandoned by their husbands, so the work was a lifeline for them.

Since the birth of my second child, I’m no longer working.  For the time being.  So, Mary* and I are home together all day – a situation I would have at one time thought unbearably uncomfortable.  But it’s not. 

We share lunch sometimes, play together with my 3 year old, and occasionally sit outside together and gossip about mutual acquaintances.  She gives me insights about things like village life and gender dynamics that I would struggle to otherwise uncover.  We pay her twice the going rate and for her daughter to go to college and make very few demands on the particulars of the house.  Like most liberal-minded expats, I believe we are fair and generous and I consider her a friend.  I have no way of knowing if the feeling is totally mutual. I hold all the power in the relationship.  I won’t delude myself that she feels as part of the family as it feels to me. 

I’m still not totally at ease with having someone working in the house. Maybe I never will be. But I no longer feel as I once did.

I work(ed) for an NGO that assess and attempts to scale up anti-poverty interventions.  Sometimes I wonder, as do most NGO workers, what kind of impact we are ultimately having.   But one thing I’ll know when we pack our bags for our next phase of life, is that in the very least by being here we helped someone by giving them a job and treating them fairly.  It’s not exactly a recipe for solving world poverty, but it is a recipe for putting my privileged discomfort with house help into proper perspective. 

What are the connotations of hiring house help in your neck of the woods?   Have you ever felt uncomfortable about hiring someone to help you out?  How have you come to terms with it?  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Raising Little Foreigners: What's a Time Out?

This is the second post in a my "Raising Little Foreigners" blog series.  It's simply my observations about raising children in a different culture.  I firmly believe that no one way of bringing up kids is superior to the next, and that we all have a lot to learn from one another.   I feel privileged (and often confused) to experience multiple answers to the question of how to bring up humans. 


"Ashley if you throw sand one more time, it's going to be a time out!"

It was last Sunday morning during my visit to D.C., and I sat on the fringe of the playground rocking Emmet in his stroller and watching the moms and dads chatting to each other as they sipped their grande mochas and periodically stepped into the toddler fray to break up a fight, wipe a tear or beg little Ian, for the love of god, to give someone else a turn on the train.

Ashley, forgetting or willfully defying her mother's warnings, threw that sand again.  She joined me in the park periphery but served her time out with a quiet dignity.

Ahhh....  the time outs, the 5 minute warnings, the slow counting "one......twwooo.....threeeee" for a last chance before a punishment that's more threat than reality, the"if I have to tell you again, there's going to be no more...."

Like it or not, this is my tribe.  They were speaking my toddler negotiation language.  I know these battles are the bane of parents' existence, but it felt like music to my ears to hear this stuff repeated by nearly every parent in that park.
My people's credo

This is why: where we live in Kenya, there are not a lot of time outs, loss of "privileges" or three strikes you're out schemes.  This is based solely on my limited observations and conversations with Kenyans, but it seems that toddlers are generally indulged.

Why battle with a tiny person who has a lot less to lose and nothing but time?  Just give them what they want when possible or distract them with something else, but for the love of god, do not engage in protracted battle of will and reason.  It's like Socrates arguing with Jessica Simpson.  Socrates may "win," but Jessica won't care.  

[The mystery for me is that children in Kenya do not act the least bit spoiled. In my experience, they are incredibly obedient, well mannered and respectful of adults.  I've been told that's because at about 3 years old, the gauntlet is layed down, but that's a subject for another post.....]

And when I have tried to insert some boundaries in the face of a "I WANT THAT SWEETIE MAMAAAAA!!!!!" public tantrum throw down, I'm generally admonished by Kenyan strangers to "Just give the boy the treat" or even "Don't harass the child, mama."   So, I sometimes just sheepishly give in, avert the tantrum and further public humiliation, and go home to wonder simultaneously where my spine went and what the right response should have been anyway.

As ambivalent as I was about my own discipline techniques, Mary*, Caleb's caregiver, was sure of hers.   In that she didn't have any.  She would never hit Caleb but was also loathe to tell him 'no' or give him any consequence for bad behavior. I became worried that he would, unlike his Kenyan playmates, ultimately become irrevocably spoiled.

I know this is typical of nannies around the world.  Why discipline the child and risk incurring their wrath when you are mainly judged by how the kid reacts to you on mom's departure to work?  You need to be the softy. There's little incentive to discipline no matter the cultural norms.

So, we had a lot of discussions with Mary about not wanting to spoil him and wanting Caleb to grow up with humility and discipline and to basically be a "good guy," and she would always fully agree.  But given she had grown up in a context in which behavior was generally corrected by a thwack or the threat of a thwacking, she'd need to learn about "time outs," and the only way was to model what they's look like.

So, one day before I left for work but after Mary arrived, Caleb did something I told him not to.  I can't even remember what it was.  He probably threw his food or refused to get dressed.  After a warning or two was issued, it was time for our newly instituted "time out."

Caleb HATED time outs at that particular time.  A thwacking would have probably been more welcome.  I had to carry him kicking and screaming into the corner.  He was writhing and protesting so much in my arms that he almost threw me off balance, and I had to turn my head away to avoid ear damage. When he got in the corner, he tried to run away several times after which I repeated my fireman's carry back to the corner.  I was firm and consistent, and, finally, he was defeated.  He served his "time out" with bitterness and defiance, but ultimately apologized and settled down.  Nanny 911 would have been proud.

I felt mildly triumphant until I looked over at Mary doing all she could to suppress laughter.  I could almost hear her internal dialogue "You want me to do that!?!?  You've exhausted yourself fighting over god knows what started this whole thing in the first place."   I saw the whole exchange through her eyes and could almost agree.  It was a ridiculous spectacle totally out of proportion with whatever petty offense started the whole thing.

And I can see why a village mama, raising 12 kids (Mary was one of 12), while also busy with a daily regimen of fetching water, fire wood, washing clothes by hand, and tending the shamba would chose the path of least resistance when it came to discipline.  Indulge the little ones, whack the bigger ones and don't negotiate.  Spending 30 minutes sticking your ground on a point of principle to teach a lesson would seem absurd.

I know. I know.  I've read the books too.  Time outs are hard at first and it takes time, but then they learn.  It's kind of what we have if we want to discipline our kids without hitting them.  And Caleb now responds, most of the time, to warnings, time outs and 1....2....3s making our lives easier while avoiding physical punishment.  

So, we'll still discipline our toddlers the way the latte drinking yuppies at the DC park would.  But I won't be as dogmatic about it.  I won't feel like a failure if I have to give up and try again.  I'll laugh at the absurdity of it all even as I know about the eventual pay off.  And I'll recognize that there's more than one way to tame a toddler

Hooking up with yeah write this week after a brief hiatus. Go check out the site, read some awesome blog posts and vote for your favorite.  You won't regret it!