Friday, November 30, 2012


Have you all ever heard of momsomnia? How about insmomnia?  No?  That's because I just made them up because there has to be a word for this.

All of which is ironic because I hate, HATE, when people mom-ify words, like momtrepreneur and momversation and momut butter and jelly.  (OK. I've never heard that last one.  Yet...)  But here I am, momifying words like a boss because all this momsomnia has eroded my brain.

So, momsomnia is the state of sleeplessness you achieve despite the fact that you have a sleep deficit of 149 hours and you've only averaged 4 hours of sleep (not in a row, mind you) each of the last 8 nights.  Despite your biblical levels of exhaustion you spend the only 2 hour stretch of quiet your baby gives you a night, with your heart racing, unable to sleep.

You find yourself in the dark of night, lacking even the energy to move your head to a more comfortable position on the pillow.  Even thoughts of movement tire you out, as you lay sprawled on your bed like a ragdoll thrown from a plane.  You're definitely too tired to sob silently on the bathroom floor, which was your strategy the last 2 nights.  All signs point to sleep.

But your body is kept awake by your rapidly firing nervous system which is now stuck on high alert for the dreaded baby cry. The more frustrated you are about wasting this precious opportunity to sleep, the harder it is to sleep.

After a bout of momsomnia you might fall into a weirdly intense dreamstate. Like you're dreaming that your husband is lying next to you and trying to... ahem... get frisky, but when you turn over to respond, you find there's someone ELSE in the bed who's laughing maniacally at his attempts to ensnare you.  Then you do one of those dream screams to wake yourself up, and your husband comes in from the other room (he's no longer sharing a bed with a momsomniac) and shakes you awake reminds you not to scream, you know, because of the baby.  But it turns out THAT's a dream too. It's like that. Or so I've heard.

That's momsomnia.

I hope this ends soon.  Then I can go back to my regular, run-of-the-mill Ambian-curable insomnia.   Like normal people. - Congrats on the new baby. You can sleep when you die.

P.S. I *thought* I invented "momsomnia," but a quick google search told me I'm delusional.  Of course other people have made this obvious word momification.  So, I'm unoriginal, but at least I'm not alone.  I'll take it. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mother of Brothers

We decided to learn the sex of our kids before they were born. But not for the usual reasons. Not because we were worried about planning an elaborate gender colored nursery and trousseau.  Hell, Caleb ended up in a pink crib anyway when we moved to Kenya. And not to make things, like naming the child or imagining after school activities, easier.
Completely secure in his manhood, practically daring you to say something about that pink crib.

Some parents wait to find out the gender so it will be a surprise when junior or juniette pops out, but we figured it would be a "surprise" just an earlier surprise in a different doctor's office.

Truth is, a "surprise" is not always such a great thing.  I wanted the news early so that the moment of birth stayed totally and completely magical.  So that there was no twinge of anything approaching disappointment marring that beautiful moment of birth.

I know, I know.  First time parents will always say "We don't care.  Just as long as the baby is healthy."  And I truly did not have strong preferences one way or another, but I felt myself starting to assume that I was having one particular gender. I summoned all my feminine and budding maternal intuition.  I placed my hands on my belly and meditated.  I had dreams.  I really *listened* to my body.  And it told me I was having a girl.  I started expecting her and even being excited about her.

And I told all my friends. I told my husband.  

And then my radiologist announced a congratulatory... "It's a little boy!"  My husband looked at me with this at once precious and monumental news, and asked me if I was going to cry.  You know, because of all the disappointment.

I was disappointed. I had pictured a girl. People tell me that new moms often picture a girl.  It's the gender whose experience you relate to the most. You can picture your relationship with a girl because you were a little girl to your own mom. Maybe I even started to picture taking her to dance classes and putting those cute little bows in her hair that she would immediately angrily remove.  I would be frustrated but secretly admire her pluck. Oh... the times we would have...

So, I guess in that radiologist's office I was a bit disappointed.  What am I supposed to do with a boy?

But he came and his gender, for the first few years, was completely besides the point. Like a typical new mom, I was completely and utterly in love.

When I got pregnant again, I learned not to listen to my clearly faulty intuition.  My husband passionately wanted a little girl though, so I suppose I absorbed some of that.  Having a girl would lend some finality to our child-rearing; make our family complete. I put some effort into willing myself to have a girl.  I may have even prayed on it.

I sat in my radiologist office thinking that God would be good to us, that little bean we saw on our last ultrasound would start to form girl parts, or lack of boy parts, or whatever.  My radiologist patiently pointed out all healthy grown parts of my fetus, " This is your baby's kidney. It's healthy kidney. This is your babies heart.  Very strong.  This is your babies penis...."

What?  Ok. So... huh?  So, I'm having another boy. I guess it's just all odds. Roll of the dice.  Probability.  We have no control.  No one upstairs is "listening."  So, my first thought when I was told I was going to have another boy was: "There is no God."


This all makes me sound a lot more disappointed than I was. I mostly felt sorry for my husband who had his heart set on a girl.  I had actually come to love the idea of boys.

When you tell friends you are pregnant with a boy, you get a lot of  "Oh, that's wonderful!" And then a whispered almost conspiratorial, "You know, boys simply adore their mothers."

And I have to say it's true.  I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions, but it seems that girls often have complicated and even competitive relationships with their mothers, but sons simply put their moms on some kind of an irrational pedestal   They are protective and admiring and unconditionally loving to their moms.  Want to touch a nerve?  Tell a man a "your mama" joke.

Right now it's terrific. I'm adored from all corners of my family.  My babies want nothing more in life than to snuggle with their mother and run to her to make it all better when anything goes wrong.

But I'm starting to think about the future.  Soon enough, those tiny legs are going to stretch out into sinewy gangly boy legs, Adam's apples will emerge, voices will lower, hair will sprout, and I'll be surrounded by little men.  By testosterone and acne and competitiveness.  By people who are into things I cannot relate to, like video games and boobs. So, while they'll still be "in love" with their mama, their mama might start to feel a little estranged from their world.

At that point, I suppose I'll be lonely, even achey for some female energy in the house.  I'll be outnumbered, outvoted, out-manned. There won't be anyone interested in talking at length about their budding romances.  There won't be anyone not disgusted by my tampons.  

But we won't be a having any more children so I suppose I need to make my peace with this uncomfortable prospect.  Lots of women do.

My high school boyfriend had all brothers and his mother was overjoyed by her sons' first girlfriends who finally brought some female energy to the household.  I know this because she said things like "I'm overjoyed to have some female energy in the house!"

There were a bunch of mothers of all boys in the neighborhood. You probably knew the type.  They hungered for a girl to talk about things like Hollywood gossip and how piggish their sons were.  They took some surrogates under their wing, maybe even took them shopping.  They'd lurk around the kitchen table where the kids were gathering and try not to appear desperate in their attempts at initiating some girl talk.

So, that's going to be me, surrounded by testosterone and desperate to impart the lessons I learned as a girl entering womanhood to anyone.  I'll be that aunt that my one niece can go to when she doesn't want to tell her parents something.  I'll be that mom that girlfriends can confide in. I'll have that house that my sons' friends want to gather in.  Because while I can't have my own girls, I can have yours.  Keep your daughters close.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Defense of Missionaries

We moved to Kenya for reasons equal part idealism and adventure.  We got jobs working for an NGO that does research on anti-poverty programs to assess which strategies (microloans, fertilizer subsidies, free bed nets...) were actually helping the people they intend to.  Not every program you give your money to actually works well and there are often unintended consequences.  The mission of this organization is to find out what works best and advocate to scale it up.  We believed in it. We still do.

But working in the environment of research and policy development is like addressing community problems - problems that were right under our noses - with a sanitized 10 foot kiboko.  We wanted to help in a more visceral way.  We wanted to dirty our hands, but instead we were straining our eyes, looking at data and financial systems.

Still, living in this part of the world it's hard not to feel the heavy weight of your relative privilege and be pushed to do something more directly in your community.

So, we did little things.  We raised money for an orphanage, sponsored some kids to go to school, gave a number of gifts and no interest loans.  We were loose with almost all harambe requests. Now, that I'm only working very part time, I'm volunteering at a nutrition clinic.

But the real paid work feels too removed, too technocratic.  The direct help we do give feels like a drop in the bucket.  I've resigned myself to this unease.  The shine has worn off my idealism and the pretense that we can move here and make some kind of a difference.  I'm not sure how anyone sustains their idealism or feels they are making a tangible difference.

Most expats I've met here would share my sentiments and conflicts.  Most, but not all.  Probably not missionaries.

You know like most politically liberal spiritual agnostics, I was prepared to disdain missionaries. This idea that anyone would go to another part of the planet and tell people that what they have believed for millenia is wrong, even that they would burn in hell unless they changed their world view, is anathema to me.  That any help missionaries could provide would be contingent upon a religious conversion seemed unjust and harmful.  The whole thing smacked of paternalism.

But, let me tell you something: Sub Saharan Africa is already largely Christian.  It's fully woven in the fabric of life.  For better or worse, there are few left to convert.  So, today missionaries come here largely to help.  Sometimes it's to help churches, but often it's to help people - street children, orphans - the most vulnerable.  Christians yes, but also Muslims and others.  Sure, there's still a lot of God talk, and missionary sponsored self-help groups often start off with an opening prayers, but so do NGO staff meetings. Like I said, country is already very Christian.

And the missionary families I've met have been able to harness that elusive idealism and embed themselves into the community in ways not found among other expat families.  It makes sense.  It's easier, personally, to endure the distance from grandparents and Cheez-its if you believe in your calling to be somewhere.  It's easier to be the odd-person out in a community of culturally different people and to commit to staying long term when you believe that you can make a difference.  It's easier to push away the creeping cynicism of development work when you are taking the long, even eternal, view.

So, they are the expats who know Kiswahili, know the community and build actual tangible things that help people in the community.  There's a part of me, an admittedly non-religious person, that longs for that.

But maybe that's weirdly selfish.  NGO expats work on programs that help people, but often from a fancy office. Kenyans do the implementing because they know the community, the language the cultural barriers. Maybe that's how it should be?  But it means that the expats, who are often in positions of power, don't know the community as well. We could probably use some missionary-style community integration.  

Still, I've come to unexpectedly admire these missionary families and what they are able to achieve personally and in the community. I'm sure the criticism of paternalism might still be apt in some cases, and I'm not saying the whole model is without problems.  Listen, I'm Jewish, for crying out loud, so all the Jesus talk often feels exclusionary. But we're all here to try and make a positive difference, and I think there's something to admire about the model of striving for solidarity with the people you are here to help, and anchoring your idealism in something larger than your self.    

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Watching Obama Win in Kenya - Not What You Think

Here I am in the our newly re-elected President's ancestral homeland, Nyanza Kenya, literally an hour's drive from his grandmother's home. I'm not all that surprised that I'm surrounded by Kenyans who are also rejoicing in this win. He's their guy, son of a local man risen to the highest heights imaginable. I expected this jubilation. 

What I didn't expect was this reaction from my Kenyan friend: “Wow, that Mitt Romney gave such a nice concession speech. He really praised Obama and even wished his family and two girls well...” She kept going on about what a nice speech that Mitt Romney gave.

Yeah, I thought cynically, graciousness in defeat is a requirement of politics. Anything other than that would make him look like a jackass. I may have even said something along those lines. 

 My friend, ignoring my dismissiveness carried on, “And it was close! Half the country voted for him, and he still conceded so nicely.” She shook her head in disbelief.

And that is the thing that impressed her most. Sure, the Kogelo progeny made good and everyone proud, but she's just as amazed by his opponent's quick willingness to accept defeat. To me, it's so ordinary I've already blithely assigned cynical motives to his graciousness. We take it for granted that the opponent will accept his loss, take some Prozac and move on.  As will his supporters. Our country will not erupt in violence like Kenya tragically did in 2007 during their last presidential election. Half the people in the US are disappointed but will not take to the streets.  Why?

Real social scientists have better answers to that question, which I am sure have a lot to do with things like the faith people have in the justice and transparency of the voting system, the history of peaceful handovers of power, unemployment rates, and the overall percentage of young people (those perennial rabble rousers).  

But I think it's also that the outcome of an election simply matters more in other places. In Kenya, if your guy gets a seat in Parliament you just might share in some of the spoils.  Presidential homelands have better roads, hospitals and services. One of the most insightful books about Kenyan politics is called "Our Turn to Eat," a phrase basically meaning: It's enough of the other group's hand in the government kitty, it's our tribe's turn. It does matter, in some material sense, if your guy wins. 

But no matter who won this US election, not much will change for me or my family personally.  Despite all the talk about the "direction of the country" and who can "get the economy moving" the fastest, neither guy was going to wave a magic wand or even get their playbook implemented and suddenly change the array of opportunities available to me.  Yes, a president makes some key appointments, sets a tone and, if he's lucky, an agenda, and has a bully pulpit.  But much of what they can accomplish is hindered by things totally out of their control, like Congress, financial markets, natural disasters and Fox news.  

So, maybe the question isn't why the losers aren't taking to the streets, but why do we care about the result at all?  

And here at least part of the answer is surprisingly tribal. I want Obama not because I think I'm going to personally benefit but because I think he represents my values more than the other guy.  That the government's role is to protect our precious public goods like natural resources, public health and human rights, which are sometimes trampled by capitalism; to protect our growth and development by investing in quality education for everyone despite where in the country they may have been born; to ensure that the winners of capitalism don't use that power to undermine our democracy; to use our considerable wealth and power to make the world a more peaceful place.  He represents my ideological tribe. And I want my people to win.  

My husband, who shares my politics, was remarking that when he really thought about it Obama has disappointed him in certain ways and Romney, given his proven track record as a manager and history as a fairly progressive Governor, might not even do that bad of a job in the White House given a a more moderate Congress. Still, he said, he had an emotional attachment to the Obama win that felt something like his emotional attachment to a Patriot's (football team) win, which borders on the obsessive.  (Let's just say the Superbowl loss of 2008 resulted in a sick day.)  He was baffled by his own crushing disappointment after Obama's lackluster debate performance and euphoria when the poll numbers started turning back around in his favor. His took another look at his own emotions. They were tribal. He wanted his team to win.  

So, again here, we might not be all that different. Unlike a lot of new democracies, our political parties stand for something other than identity politics (though maybe the post-mortem political commentators need to be reminded of that!). But still, our identities are now wrapped up in our ideology instead of our ethnicity. "The other" in my America is not necessarily someone who looks different than me, but someone who thinks differently from me.  And, I'm thinking more and more that how we tolerate those differences is going to define the future of our country. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Death Poems and Catwalks: A Graduation Ceremony

For Caleb's graduation ceremony, there were quite a lot of things done differently here in Kenya than they would have been done in the US.  The first of which is having a graduation ceremony.  He's three.  He's moving on to another year of coloring and block building.  But Kenyans, it appears, love ceremony and celebration and his "closing day" festivities were no exception.

The notice to parents said to arrive at 8:30 AM.  So, I showed up at 9:30 and the festivities began promptly at 10:00.  (I'm getting better at this.)  The school had erected and decorated some tents, placed out plastic chairs and offered tea and mandazi (doughnuts) to the waiting parents.
The expectant parents, like parents around the world, checking their smartphones while waiting
Finally the children emerged, looking all kinds of adorable in their matching uniforms.  Welcoming speeches were made and then...the long awaited "entertainment" portion.
See if you can spot Caleb.
Holy pre-school - the cuteness of it all. Is there anything more heart-swelling than watching your small child stand, for the first time, like his own independent person, reciting something you had no idea he ever learned?  No. There is not.

Caleb's class recited 3 poems, 2 in Kiswahili and the third in English. My Kiswahli is not terrific, but even native speakers struggled to get the gist with 20-odd three year olds stammering memorized sounds accompanied with jerky pantomimed gestures.  The first was something about a tea pot, and the second about growing up, ended with a sad wisdom beyond the tellers' years about getting older: "mateso imeanza" (the struggles begin), which got a quite a few laughs from the audience.

But the English poem was the most surreal.  The subject: Money.  Our little darlings regaled us with a tale about how money is ... well... generally good (buys you an education), but can ultimately corrupt you, shout-citing "people DIE over it" while hand motioning death with their little faces leaned against clasped hands.

(Yes, they scream "What the Devil!" at the end. But Caleb remains true to his Jewish roots with his hand gestures.)

The older classes had equally bizarre poetry choices; the first about child labor (with the refrain "For I.  Am only.  A child.) imploring their parents (middle class Kenyans who are paying for a private school, mind you)  not to force them to sell mangoes in the market or carry heavy loads. The second was cheerful little ditty about HIV/AIDS ("AIDS, Where have you come from? I am like a ball being kicked from all sides...").  The only thing I can figure is that some NGO is claiming credit to their donors each time school children recite their poetry no matter the relevance or audience.  Their third poem was about the sky being blue.  Thank goodness.  I had been bracing myself for a safe sex talk.  
"For I... Am Only... A Child" (in case you heard otherwise)
After we were sufficiently entertained and the class 3 (3rd grade) graduates were given their certificates, it was time to bestow the gifts upon the students.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any cuter - tiny graduation gowns and hats 

And.... diplomas?  Not sure.
The teachers had very sweetly wrapped little gifts (crayons and notebooks and the like) in shiny wrapping paper, painstakingly labeled each with a students name and stacked them to ceremoniously present to each student .  It was all well organized. Only one problem: Who to bestow said gifts upon the waiting children?

"Mama Caleb," announced the microphoned Master of Ceremonies, "Would you please come up and help us hand out the gifts."

Heck yes! I've been here long enough to know that the lone mzungu at a ceremony will at some point be appointed some such honor.  So, I rose from my seat and started happily handing out the individualized gifts and shaking little hands like an American dignitary.

But then I heard some laughter slowly build from the audience.  Feeling self-conscious, I adjusted my skirt, only to realized the subject of their laughter was not the awkward impromptu dignitary, but the small White boy slowly creeping over to his mother from the other side of the field, making a tenuous lone walk right in front of an amused audience.  They found it cute - the little mzungu boy pulled out of his seat by the presence of his mother.  But they got it wrong; it was really the presence of the shiny presents that ripped him from his seat.  Argh.  Parenting fail.  I screamed "Sit down Caleb!!" with my eyebrows.

Wanting to stave off a scene, the school administrators, simply indulged him, found his present and he skipped off happily.  But it was a short sighted strategy because once the other 3 year olds got wind that there were PRESENTS, they got out of their tiny chairs and stormed the present table.

Chaos ensued. Teachers were pulled up to help search through the well organized pile and quickly dole out individual presents to the mob of short people.  I was told to sit down.

This doesn't quite capture the scene.  Just picture a mob of small children beyond the frame, frustrated administrators and an audience of parents in hysterics.

The triumphant little gift thieves.
But the coup de gras of the whole morning was the ... fashion show.

Now, one of the things you might not understand about this part of the world is the ubiquity of amateur fashion shows.  Every graduation ceremony I've been to, even in more rural areas, has had one. I went to a modern dance performance, and it too started with a fashion show. Even the Liberian refugee camp I worked in held fashion shows and beauty contests.  Children at the tender age of three already know how to "walk the catwalk," one hand on swaying hips, jauntily skipping forward to pose and "smile with their eyes" to a nonexistent camera at of their walk. Caleb schoolmates were no exception.  Caleb, taking a cue from his friends, started his walk strong, skipping along to the music, but then saw me and took off running full steam (are you sensing a theme here?). Again, the subject of much amusement for our audience, but SO not getting to Milan Fashion Week with that kind of behavior.

While American parents are busy trying to shield their children from the ego-crushing pressure to measure up to some impossible beauty ideal perpetuated by the fashion industry, Kenyan parents are busy light heartedly celebrating it.  Why the difference, is a subject for an entirely different post. Maybe a dissertation.

But the one thing that is was not different - that is universal across the globe - was the pride and joy the parents felt watching their tiny progeny perform, strut, celebrate their accomplishments and assert themselves in their own unique and unabashed way.  Heart strings were universally pulled.  People smiled easily at the nascent displays of individuality and were quick to snap pictures and hug their children.I was the only mzungu, but despite the tremendous appearances and events to the contrary, I didn't really feel separate. I felt more a part of a group of parents sharing a common joy than apart as a foreigner.
I captured the moment capturing moment.