Archive for the 'Home and Hearth' Category

Baby, you don’t know what it’s like

NS May 8th, 2010

I know I’ll probably be struck down by the yellow ribbon brigade for daring to speak even remotely ill of the military, but this article in a California newspaper, about a Marine base holding a day where military wives could spend a day in their husbands’ shoes — wearing camouflage and heavy equipment, performing drills, shooting guns and so on – annoyed the hell out of me. It irked me not because I don’t think it could conceivably be useful for the Marines’ spouses to get an idea of what they do at work and while they’re away at war, but because the Marines stressed it as a way for the women to be ‘more understanding’ and ‘sympathetic’ to what he’d been through when he comes home at the end of the day or after a tour of duty.

That’s all well and good, I’m all for a person having greater understanding of their spouse’s responsibilities and daily life when they’re apart, but there was absolutely no mention of what difficulties the women face in running the household and looking after any children they may have, perhaps in addition to working at a 9-5 job themselves, while their husbands are gone. The message seemed to be, ‘Ladies, when the men get home, give them a break. Don’t ask them to contribute to the household or do any ‘babysitting’ if they don’t feel like it. That’s your job and they’ve had it tough.’

While I don’t doubt that being in the military and serving in a war is indeed difficult, gruelling, emotionally and physically taxing work, the implication is that their wives, in comparison, have been on a bon bon-eating, all expenses paid spa break. This is just another way in which men’s work (especially anything requiring physical strength or manual labour) is framed as more honourable, more worthy or respect and more legitimate than the work women do.

Oh, but a housewife’s life isn’t in danger while she’s cleaning the house, raising the kids, doing all the shopping, home repairs, financial management and so on, right? Therefore, she should be grateful and ‘more understanding’ when hubby just wants to put his feet up and drink a cold beer at the end of the day. She just doesn’t know what it’s like!

I think this ‘Jane Wayne Day’ (as they call it) is a good idea but instead of inviting a Marine to come smugly watch his wife crawl through the mud and shoot guns, maybe he should spend that time doing everything his wife does when he’s away, including working her job, taking care of absolutely everything in the household and being a sole parent. I’m pretty sure that if Noble Husband ever had to spend a week or two alone with the children, without anyone else around to help or keep him company and with all of the usual weekday commitments and requirements instead of the unstructured freedom of weekends and holidays, he’d have a MUCH better understanding of why I sometimes thrust the children into his arms the minute he walks in the door and then shut myself in a dark room with a large glass of wine. I’d be more than happy to go spend a day in his shoes, dealing with office politics, lazy colleagues, looming deadlines, belligerent bosses and pack ‘em in like sardines commuting, to remind myself that working a paid job isn’t exactly a cakewalk either. Sometimes I do forget.

I think we all need reminding now and again at just how hard our partners work, but it has to be mutual. Empathy should be a shared quality between us, not a one-way street or who-has-it-harder competition. I’m grateful that NH, while not having first-hand experience in my role, knows that I work just as hard as he does. As he always says when he’s working long hours and I’m weary of doing everything on my own, “When I work overtime, you work overtime.”

I’m not sure if I even mentioned it here, but NH has been away on a two week business trip and only returned a few hours ago, which is why this article probably caught my interest. Because he travelled overnight on a red-eye flight, he’s upstairs sleeping and I’m keeping the children at bay. But he knows as well as I do that he’s not the only one who deserves a rest and a break. Tomorrow will be my turn to sleep in, have a break and put my feet up a bit.

At times,  in our early parenting days, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever get to this point. We’ve had a lot of misunderstandings, arguments and resentments along the way. But I’m happy with where we are now. I know he values what I do and I him. Our marriage isn’t 50/50 and it isn’t always equal, but we’re constantly trying to compromise, empathise and evolve to better understand each other and help ease some of the stress we each experience in performing our roles. It’s not perfect but it’s progress. And a willingness to make that  progress, slowly but surely, is good enough for me.

Welcome home, my lovely husband. We’ve missed you.

Writing Workshop: House number six

NS April 15th, 2010

The following was written for Josie’s Writing Workshop #20, using prompt number one: ‘Tell me about a time you decided to move house’. I may write a second part to it, describing more about the house itself (which was fascinating in its own right, and just as dear to me as the farm).

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Of the seven houses I lived in as a child, number six is the only one that ever stole my heart.

It was called Shadow Lake Farm and was off a country road, in a country town. We rented the farmhouse which sat on a 362-acre plot of land and could only be accessed by the winding, gravel path that twisted for a quarter mile from road to hearth. I walked up that lane on the way home from school many a time, kicking up gravel dust with my school shoes and shouldering my heavy backpack, unable to even see the house until I was almost upon it. At the height of summer the corn on both sides engulfed me, making it seem as though I was in a crop tunnel. Just the crickets, the corn and me. When I got to the top of the lane I would often turn, one hand shielding my eyes from the golden sun, and look all around me, at the corn and the waving wheat, the scattered masses of grazing cows, and the grain silos that punctuated the cloudless blue sky like exclamation points, clinging on to the remains of an era slipping by. My heart swelled with a quiet joy and sense of pride; ‘This is my kingdom!’ I wanted to roar. And it was.

I never needed to go to theme parks or petting zoos or hiking trails to get my fill of adventure and nature. It was all around me, every day. Anywhere my legs and imagination could carry me, I went. Book and apple in hand, head in the clouds and calloused, bare feet dangling on either side of my horse, Applejack, I could do, go and see anything I wanted. I secretly fancied myself a female Huckleberry Finn.

The land, owned by a renowned surgeon in the nearest city, included three fishing ponds, a disused cottage and an old abattoir, its red-streaked walls and rusty meat hooks evoking in me a sense of fascination and sadness on the few occasions when I stacked up bricks to peek inside the barred windows. In my younger years I often sat on a rock by the side of the pond, casting my rod into the water below, hoping to catch one of the fish darting between my submerged feet. I used worms I dug up in the gardening patch. Failing that, I would borrow my dad’s tackle box with its vast, colourful array of lures and bobbers, hooks and lines. He was usually too busy cutting the endlessly-growing grass surrounding the house to even notice. I remember looking at him on the riding lawnmower executing sharp turns, narrowly avoiding trees and rocks and forming neat rows of shorn lawn for us to enjoy for a whole week before he had to do it all over again. I sometimes wondered if he ever felt like throwing his hands up in the air, saying, “I give up!” But he never did. Instead he mopped his sweat-soaked brow with his red bandana and then headed inside for a large glass of iced tea and a rest in his favourite chair before getting up resignedly to confront another vast expanse of grass.

Down by the pond, my yellow labrador, Dino, often sat beside me, occasionally jumping in to cool off and then splattering me with the droplets when he decided to shake dry. We’d had ducks at one point but Dino, being a fowl hunter by nature, had taken them out one by one, often depositing their heads in odd places around our house. I used to joke that he was like a one-dog mafia. As far as the fish went, I rarely caught anything of size and even when I did, rarely kept it. Gutting and cleaning fish was not something I’d ever been particularly fond of, though my fishing-crazy cousin had patiently shown me how many times. One would think I’d be tempted to go vegetarian as a veterinarian-wannabe with all this animal killing going on around me, but it was just part of life at Shadow Lake Farm.

As I got a bit older and outgrew fishing and playing in the fields, I took instead to one of three favourite ‘hiding spots’: in the tree house, at the top of the hay stack in the barn or underneath a grove of pine trees near the abandoned cottage towards the back of the property, where I could sit for hours on a bed of soft, fresh-smelling needles, protected from the sun and the eyes of anyone who wanted to find me. If I grew tired of walking or taking Applejack (who often dumped me off and raced back to the stable to bury his nose in the oat bucket) to the far corners of the farm, I would sometimes hop in the golf cart or red go-cart that were kept behind the barn, alternate modes of transport for those of us who couldn’t drive cars yet.

When I ventured home, hungry for lunch, I could usually find my older sister sitting on the sofa, flipping through magazines and listening to her favourite radio station. Her allergies and asthma prevented her from pursuing many of the things I did so she was always more ‘indoorsy’ than me. I sometimes wished she could come out and go on one of my adventures with me, but at the same time I relished the independence. In retrospect, it did me a lot of good. Perhaps that is why, even today, I crave solitariness when I need to get out of head for awhile. To be joyful with other people is lovely, of course, but to be alone and happy is a gift, one I feel that time alone on the farm gave me.

On warm nights when we had company, my dad would get the grill out and barbecue some burgers or chicken. I’d always volunteer to pick a few ears of corn from the field to add to our meal. I loved standing on the edge of those majestic plants, like so many soldiers in neat rows, before stepping into the maze. I never ventured too far towards the middle, being too nervous of getting lost, but the fire flies, always thick in the sky at nightfall, lit the way home. Back at the house, I prepared the corn with my sister. Peeling away the outer layers (called ‘shucking’) to reveal the sweet, golden kernels within was almost as enjoyable as slathering the finished product in butter before it hit our plates. Oh, how I loved summer on that farm.

My childhood was a charmed one in many ways, despite its sorrows and hardships, not because we were well-off (we weren’t) or because I had a perfect family (we weren’t), but because I had the gift of space and time. Space to roam and explore and time to be and do things on my own. The land we lived on wasn’t mine, we didn’t own it, but it was just as much a part of me, and I of it, as the seeds were part of the soil.

When we left Shadow Lake for a much smaller house on a much smaller plot of land in the middle of town, I was heartbroken. Leaving my horse, the ponds, the fields, the lane, the house….it was almost too much to bear. In retrospect, it was the perfect time to leave as I was entering into my teenage years and the new house’s more central location was ideal for getting lifts, going to friends’ houses and so on, and I probably would have quickly outgrown all the wonders of the farm, but at the time it felt like a loss; another loss on top of the one we’d already suffered.

But as with many things in life, I adapted and moved on because I had to. Like a childhood friend who fades from your life but never your thoughts, this house, number six, will always live, perfect and true, in my memory.

The unbearable monotony of mothering

NS April 8th, 2010

Doing funny voices all day? I can deal with that.

Waiting patiently for a tantrum in public to subside? Unpleasant, but doable.

Breastfeeding a baby for hours on end and then a toddler who pinches and kicks and squirms? I bear it.

Changing nappies, preparing meals, rounding up all the items needed for an outing, arranging playdates, doing the school run, ensuring they are eating well, meeting their developmental milestones, learning manners, empathy, self-confidence, the alphabet and how to navigate this complex world successfully? That seems like the easy part most days.

You know which bit I absolutely cannot abide, the bit that, no matter how many times I am confronted with and know I cannot escape still manages to drive me up a wall?

The mess.

The endless, self-perpetuating, infinitesimal cycle of spills, crumbs, soggy towels, muddy shoes, water all over the bathroom floor, every nappy taken out of its package, every item of clothing removed from the dresser, made beds instantly unmade, toys underfoot: toys on the sofa, under the bed, in the washing machine, in the car, in my handbag; marker pen dragged along the recently-painted wall, cat food dumped out, containers placed (empty) back in the fridge, overflowing bins no one else seems to notice and a pile of laundry that moves from body to floor to hamper to basket to machine to airer or radiator to basket to bed to drawer and back onto the body where it will remain for perhaps three to four hours before being soiled and removed yet again.

These things —  not the tears or fighting or whining or being jumped on, poked, awakened, kept up, tried, tested and put through the wringer — is what usually ends up being the straw that broke this camel’s weary back. Maybe camels and mothers have more in common than previously thought — we both store reserves of fat and patience to see us through the long, hard slog in the brutal, relentless desert but eventually, if provoked, we get mean and spit; we lie down and refuse to move, dumping our hapless hangers-on headfirst into the quicksand.

Sometimes I look at another mess I have to clean up, another lovingly-prepared meal uneaten or another load of laundry I have to fold and put away and I do one of two things (and on a really, really bad day, both): explode or cry. I have seen a bowl of purposely-dumped cereal turn me from a normal person into a seething, shaking, quivering ball of internal fury that manifests itself with a clenched jaws, fistfuls of hair, eyes filled with teary, apoplectic rage and a river of self-pity and hatred that rushes through me so suddenly and with such force that it dulls the sharp edges of my heart a little.

It can’t be normal to have such a strong reaction to water dumped out of the bath, can it?

It’s not about the mess itself. I know that kids will be kids and that they don’t mean it (most of the time) and that it will get better as they get older. I know that in the grand scheme of things (and even in the not-so-grand), messes don’t matter. I know that Noble Girl doesn’t know how bat-shit crazy it makes me when  she starts chanting, “I’m hungry!” every 30 seconds right after lunch and while I’m doing my daily freelance gig, on deadline; I know that Noble Boy doesn’t know how soul-destroying it is to have to say, “No. No. NO. Don’t touch that, please. No. Please, don’t touch it. No. No! I said NO!” about 90 billion times a day.

But it’s not that.

It’s more about the monotony and knowing that if I don’t do it or say it, no one else will. It’s knowing that while I’m busy cleaning up one mess another will be created in the next room, and then the next, and so on. It’s knowing that even if get down on my knees and look them in the eye and do everything a good parent is supposed to do in teaching their child about appropriate behaviour, it will go in one ear and out the other and I will feel like a broken record, scratched and spinning out of control with no one listening. It’s knowing that nearly every other mother on the planet feels or has felt this way too, and even that is not much of a comfort.

It’s knowing that I will do this every day, several times a day, for years to come, because I have to.

Children and media: overhyped or underestimated?

NS February 2nd, 2010

Is a lot of ‘screen time’ for kids really as horrific as people like to make out? Are children rotting their brains, giving themselves virtual lobotomies, by watching television, playing video games, working on computers and using hand-held music devices/e-readers/mobile phones? A recent report showed that children in the US spend nearly eight hours per day consuming media — nearly as long as the average adult spends at work. I’m sure statistics are similar for children in the UK. This has really freaked some people out. It used to freak me out. I felt (and still feel) guilty for the amount of time The Noble Child spends staring at a screen. But increasingly, I’m asking myself why children consuming media is considered such an atrocity and why we are so panicked about it.

Full disclosure: my three-year-old watches a couple hours of television a day. She knows how to play simple games aimed at pre-schoolers on the computer. She can take photos on our digital camera. She instinctively knew how to use an iPhone when first exposed to one, with little explanation or demonstration. She could double-click and click-and-drag by the time she was two years old. The girl is tech-savvy. But so are her parents. My husband’s career is in computers. We are both active members of online communities; he on his sports forums and I with the blogosphere and Twitter. We both have iPhones. We both like to watch films and a few select TV shows. We stream videos. We take photos and upload them. We read a lot of our news on the computer screen, not from a newspaper spread over the breakfast table (though I do buy a broadsheet a couple times a week — nothing beats the weekend papers in bed). We’re fully linked in, wired up and logged on. So why wouldn’t our daughter (and eventually our son, too) be?

If that’s ALL she did then, yes, it would undoubtedly be unhealthy. If she lacked imagination, social interaction, literacy and communication skills or physical energy then, yes, I would be concerned. But she doesn’t. She is unimaginably sociable, friendly, outgoing, polite, empathetic and energetic. She can watch Finding Nemo contentedly but then jump up (sometimes in the middle of it) and want to play Bears or Hot Lava or Horsey Ride. She’s plainly thriving and developing at a normal pace. So the more I hear and read about the hysteria and see chests being beaten and hair being torn out by guilt-inflicted parents and drama-loving media sources, the more I think we’re blowing this all out of proportion. We all know that “studies say” and “experts suggest” that children have limited screen time, but what is the impetus for all these studies being conducted? Why the money, time and resources spent on finding out whether something that is unavoidably a part of our lives, and our kids’ lives, should be kept away from them?

The first response is to say they are being done for legitimate scientific and social purposes, to ensure that consuming all this new media will not have detrimental effects on us (which is a legitimate concern, certainly), but I have to wonder if at least some of this concern stems from the fact that advances in technology and our lifestyles have changed so rapidly in the last 10-20 years, leaving us little time to grow accustomed to it gradually, that our heads are left spinning, unsure how to process all of the information, choices and consequences. I also wonder if it’s something every generation does, where those who were once young and hip all of a sudden realise that they have grown older and a new modernity has set in, one which vastly influences the way they, and particularly their children, live their lives and spend their time. Often, it is our children who are least scared of these changes and we are the ones left scratching our heads and muttering phrases like “Back in my day…” while fixing whatever newfangled invention is ‘taking over the youth’ with a suspicious stare.

Rock music used to be considered the devil incarnate. Then it was films and TV. Then it was rap music and racy ads. Then it was video games. Now it’s mobile phones and computers. Different decade, same ol’ worries. Old/familiar = good, virtuous; Young/new = scary, unknown.

I saw a poll recently (can’t remember where or I’d link) where parents were asked how much TV their kids actually watched versus how much they told other people their kids watched and the discrepancies were not marginal. More than three-quarters said they felt their children watched too much television but, when asked, most halved that time. So are kids consuming too much media or are we just making each other feel guilty about it by under-reporting and hiding it because we don’t fully understand it? Is this just one more way in which parents are blamed for not being perfect, or are the ‘experts’ right to caution us about the effects of the Age of Tech?

I haven’t fully made up my mind yet. I vacillate between beating myself up and trying to curtail media usage to embracing it and reminding myself that my children are well-rounded, loved and properly cared for, regardless of ‘screen time.’ After all, you wouldn’t be reading this post if it wasn’t for CBeebies. I get time to ponder and write (which makes me a better person and mother) and my children learn yoga poses from cute little animated figures, set to soothing music and chattering laughter.  Is that really so bad?

Photo credit

I had a vision of love

NS January 25th, 2010

And after all that waxing lyrical about staying indoors, what did we end up doing yesterday afternoon, less than two hour after I wrote about looking out windows and staying warm? Strapping the wellies on, driving out to Richmond Park, tromping up and down exceedingly muddy paths and then having a good run around the playground.

The lazy, cosy morning and the outdoor, active afternoon…they were perfect. Each on their own but especially together. And when we pulled up in front of our home, just as darkness was throwing its blanket over the half-lit, golden hue clinging to the edges of the sky, The Noble Husband and I turned to each other and smiled. I switched the ignition off and we sat in silence, holding hands for a moment before we turned around to see our children, both asleep and with their faces turned upward in identical, open-mouthed poses, the very picture of vulnerable, lovely innocence. Our eyes met as we gathered our things and silently relayed every emotion our hearts were bursting with. Before we scooped them up and woke them from their peaceful reveries, we looked once more at their soft faces, breathtakingly beautiful, and watched their chests rise and fall, rise and fall, with the breath that we gave them.

“Is there anything more incredible and wonderful then this?” my heart asked his.

The trembling of his lips and the brightening pools of his eyes said that, indeed, there was not.

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