Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Post Potty Training

Ran into my friend Sue the other afternoon in the "Ladies." Had time for a nice little chat, the two of us. If any explanations are necessary, Sue has a three year old daughter. Would have had time to order out for pizza and order a six-pack.

Aidan and Matthew were so suprisingly easy to toilet train (apparently one of the advantages of twins) that it has come as a complete shocker that I now spend more time on their toilet habits than I did when they were both in diapers.

I often spend what seems like all afternoon in the bathroom with one or the other. I even have a little perch, on the corner of the bathtub, with my feet placed up on a stool, right across from the throne itself. It beings when one of my little princes announces, quite delightedly, that he has to go potty. Or pee-pee. But the star attraction is a poo-poo. Because, you see, for this phenomenal event I am expected to drop all that I am doing, rush delightedly into the bathroom and take my seat breathlessly for the thrilling moment. My prince proudly sits himself upon his throne, a serious process that involves getting the training seat off the hook on the wall, lifting the toilet seat, positioning the training seat, hauling out a stool, and finally perching proudly atop the seat.

Next comes the moment of entertainment. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my prince now has my undivided attention. Hands folded, eyes gazing directly into mine, he proceeds to engage me in deep, meaningful conversation. "Matthew potty" he begins. (To be honest, is IS usually Matthew!) "Yes, Matthew potty" I wearily reply. "Matthew no poo-poo in his pants." he continues, either completely unaware of my disinterest or choosing to disregard it. "No, Matthew no poo-poo in his pants. Matthew poo-poo on the potty." I elaborate. "Matthew big boy." he proudly asserts. And it continues in the same vein until I finally ask if the deed has been accomplished. Usually not, the conversation having been such a scintillating diversion. And so I wait. To be perfectly honest, I have tried bringing in a bit of light reading to pass the time. No such doing. "No Mommy read book." my prince complains, "Matthew potty."

With both of them content to spend such quality time with me, and two other kids besides, the bathroom turns into something resembling Grand Central Station. Ryan comes in with a paper for me to sign for school. Andrew wants help with his spelling homework. And often Damon pops in with a question on afternoon schedules, to find me still perched on my corner of the tub, surrounded by my perfectly contented children. Honestly kids, we DO have a sofa. Which is where the dog spends his time.

Closing the bathroom door happens so rarely that I'm almost insulted when I do find it shut. How are we supposed to coordinate the weekend activity calendar with the door shut? I've tried to close it once or twice myself, but the dog tends to panic if I'm in there alone. And then one, or both, of the twins find me out, running quickly, calling to oneanother in their excitement. "Mommy potty, Mommy potty," they shout down the hallway, just in case anyone has missed this astonishing series of events. One can perch on the seat of honor at the corner of the bathtub and engage me in dialogue. "Mommy pee pee?" he begins. I believe the definition of privacy begins with not having to outline your toilet habits to your three year old.

It's better when I have them both in there with me, standing at my knees, once again completely entranced by what is going on. "Mommy pee pee, " beings one. And the other bends down to make sure. Great. As if the birthing process weren't degrading enough. "Mommy big boy." answers the other. But I really don't feel like getting into it right now and simply agree.

The alternative to having them in there with you though, is NOT having them in there with you. As in when you have two one year olds who refuse to go into the public restroom with you. Which leads either to an awkward meeting with a complete stranger, as you sit with the door open in a vain attempt to keep an eye on the kids, or to meeting a complete stranger carrying one or both of your kids in their arms and wondering what kind of a mother would let her kids wander around the ground floor of the mall on their own like that.

Quality time wih the children. I just didn't think it would mean so much time with our pants down.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Have A Hairy Christmas

Life is in the big, fat, hairy, messy, ugly, painful struggle.

Damon and I took the kids to the Esslingen Medieval Christmas Market on a Sunday two weeks ago. We hadn't been in three years, not since the year Aidan and Matthew were six months old and we dressed them in their matching Santa outfits (courtesy of Grandpa back in the U.S.), tucked them snugly and warmly into their double stroller and proudly - but slowly - pushed our way through the merry masses. Or maybe that was in Horb.

In Bebenhausen that same year, the market took place within the walls of a real medieval cloister, making for fantastic ambiance but also making it a two person job to maneuver the double stroller around the courtyard. (Read: Lots of stairs, but no double strollers 500 years ago!) And Stuttgart's internationally renowned (internationally in Europe at least) market has been out of the question since Andrew got pushed off the kiddy-train when he was two. By an adult.

When Aidan and Matthew hit 18 months, their second Christmas, we tried out the Christmas market at kindergarten, where we promptly lost sight of them, and the two others, in the amazingly large throng of people. (Germany does Christmas really really well - Christmas events, in any shape or size, are heavily attended.) We ended up huddling together inside the kindergarten building for warmth, and safety, as they both threw tantrums on the floor. In their snowsuits, I remember it well. Most people looked on in shock and bewilderment. Shouldn't we do something? Like what? The exit was blocked, the evening was dark, and we were stuck until the Gluhwein ran out. The other twin mom, four years ahead of me, just smiled in sympathy and understanding.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that we ventured out this year at all. We'd hit the Tuebingen Chocolate Festival two weeks earlier, on a Friday afternoon when it wasn't too too crowded yet, and done okay. By which I mean Damon and I swallowed our ennui at yet ANOTHER quaint old German marketplace (which really are very pretty!) and the kids swallowed their disappointment at not being allowed to stay home and play computer games. First stop, chocolate Santas, eaten on the steps of the famous Tuebingen church. Next, chocolate covered marshmallows on a stick. (I know, I know! And in health-conscious Germany too!) On to chocolate covered waffles. Topped off with steaming mugs of hot chocolate on the steps of the fountain in the old town square, in front of the pretty painted Rathaus. If nothing else, it got us out of the house for a few hours.

Determined to appreciate the beauty of a German Christmas, despite the Scrooge-like thoughts running through our brains, ("It's too cold. It'll be too crowded. Been there, done that, drank the Gluhwein.") Damon and I summoned up genuine holiday enthusiasm for the Esslingen market this year, our favorite of all those that we've visited. The ground was blanketed in a light carpet of white, thanks to the first snowfall of the year the night before. And the temperature hovered at 0C/32F, surely not all that unbearable if we dressed ourselves appropriately. We just needed to pull ourselves out of our winter stupor and get out the snow clothes.

Snowpants. Check. Snowboots. Check. Gloves (times six). Check. Hats and scarves. Protesting nine year old. Grumpy seven year old. Two happy three year olds. Damon and I were psyched too. Hot Gluhwein! And we knew just where the log fire was.

We arrived in Esslingen, cheerfully Christmas-carolling our way out of the parking lot and into the old section of town, Andrew bitching and moaning the entire way. (A new one for us; Ryan sang and danced happily along. What do we have, one good mood between the two of them?!) But by the time we reached the market - and the edge of the crowd - it was COLD. Bitter, icy, windy, gray, cloudy cold. "Come on kids, some hot food and a fire will warm you right up." we optimistically chimed. But, to be honest, the thought of standing around a barrel with strangers, in the cold, eating food off a stick, was less than thrilling. It was going to take a heck of a lot of Gluhwein. Andrew wanted to go to Starbucks, the familiar green sign a welcome beacon of warmth amidst the stately centuries-old buildings.

But we perservered. Flammkuchen, hot from the oven, cold almost immediately, eaten around a barrel with friendly strangers who offered to take our picture for us. (Turns out they were from England, basking in the tropical warmth of a German Christmas.) Pig on a stick, always a classic. Potatoes that failed to pass as french fries to Aidan and Matthew. No drinks - it was just too darn cold. Starbucks was looking good.

The kids had their typical Christmas market view of what our friend Jay, now warmly spending Christmases in Virginia, calls "asses and elbows." So, still trying to make the best of it, I took Aidan and Matthew by the hand, past a crowd of fur-wearing ancient warriors and their Land's End wearing kids, threading our way amongst wild-looking Vikings freely interspersed with matching retired couples, to try to catch a glimpse of the jugglers in the center of the marketplace. It was optimism overcoming common sense. (Which is a good thing, and entirely necessary if you are attempting to enjoy a German Christmas market with four children under the age of ten.)

I tried, I really did. Matthew on my shoulders. Aidan in my arms. Both so bulky in their snowsuits that I was barely able to bend over (with Matthew hanging on for dear life!) to pick Aidan up at all. And then their bulk worked against us as their layers repelled one another like magnets. I tried to hold Aidan at arm's lenght, the closet the snowsuits allowed him to get, but he was just too heavy even with the extra hours I'd been putting in at the gym. He slid down and Matthew gratefully followed. I was laughing at the absurdity of the situation, not at all angry at the failure, just satisfied with myself for the attempt.

And then it finally hit me. Words of wisdom for tourists everywhere, something I think the Germans must have figured out long ago. GERMAN CHRISTMAS MARKETS AREN'T FOR CHILDREN!! Sure, they have an occasional kiddy ride (the train Andrew got pushed off of in Stuttgart) and Esslingen actually has an entire section devoted to children's activities such as candle making (over a hot fire) and axe throwing ('nuf said!) One- or two - kids would be bearable for an hour or two. But as a family activity? It's like bringing your kids to an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day - in Boston. For the culture. We meant well, American tourists bound and determined to show their kids the best Europe has to offer, but sensible German families with kids were home baking home-made cookies - or had ditched the kids with Oma and Opa.

In the crowded medieval center of Esslingen though, I found the Christmas I'd been searching for. Christmas found me, thoroughly defeated, miserably cold, hemmed in on all sides by asses and elbows.

Life, for me at least, isn't about the perfect holiday moment. In striving for perfection, perfect memories, perfect home-made crafts and cookies, I'm missing the real thing itself. Life lies in the attempt, not in the accomplishment. Life is in the trying.

Life is in the big, fat, hairy, messy, ugly, painful struggle.

Have a big, fat, hairy Christmas!!! Love from the Connors

Saturday, December 19, 2009


You know profiling, at least if you're American you do. It's when the police pull you over for suspicious activity, and base that decision on the fact that you are a young, black male driving an expensive sports car. The only time I have EVER been stopped entering the Canadian border was when I was with a male British national of Indian descent and this was on the liberal CANADIAN side AS WELL as the American on the way back. I know a guy from Columbia who disappoints the Swiss border guards every time they search his trunk for cocaine and come up empty. Depending on your point of view it involves decision making based on statistical probability or it is blatant racism. In either case it involves making a judgement based on a person's external appearance, be it color,race, age or ethnicity.

I don't like it.

And it didn't hit me that that's what I've been doing until just the other day. Sure, I knew there was an awful lot of German-bashing going on whenever I got together with other English-speakers. But it was harmless, necessary venting and really nothing personal.

And then, suddenly, it hit me how offensive and personal it was. Not the venting, not even the bashing; we ALL need that when we're dealing with a foreign culture, some sort of commonality and some sort of comic relief.

But the ugly thing about abstract generalities is that they slip into preconceptions. And all of a sudden everyone German is anal and uptight and rude and unhelpful and just generally unfriendly and in all ways inferior. Except in matters of cleanliness; I don't think anyone can fault them there. THEM. Funny joke at their expense. Although really, it's a sort of awe there with the cleanliness, we ALL know to stop at the restrooms BEFORE crossing the German border into any other neighboring country. DARN IT! I'm arguing FOR profiling here. Stop it.

I'm not ALWAYS guilty of profiling. Guilty of guilt, yes. Whenever I read an article about black Americans integrating into upper class suburbs and finding it hard to fit in, I think....oh my God, I don't have any black friends. What is wrong with me? Am I not liberal enough? Do I need to get out more? (Answer: yes.) It's only for a second, classic suburbun white guilt (which, funny enough, is what the black families are talking about!) And then I quickly come to terms with the fact that I do, in fact, have no black friends.

I remember my friends from Haiti, my friends in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, India, the Philippines, South America...and realize, first of all, that I am fortunate enough to know a large number of really cool people and second of all, that I tend to forget what color any of them actually are. (Turns out I have African-American and Hispanic friends too, I just didn't know where to put them in that sentence without blowing the whole concept.)

I mean, I KNOW all of my friends from Haiti are black. But that's not what I think of when I think of them. I think of WHO they are, and mostly of how I miss them, and not necessarily what they look like at all. I really believe I put the color/race issue aside, in Haiti, the day I realized that that man was really and truly an asshole. No excuse for race, color, socioeconomic/political circumstances, just really and truly and asshole. Liberating. But it's nicer to think that my memories of friends are emotional, and not at all, visual ones. Essence not appearance.

Color is clearly not my issue. Yay for me, pat on the head, pass the liberal exam.

But nationality clearly is.

When I walked in to join our monthly Writers' Group in Stuttgart this month I was joyfully greeted by Karin, a person of such warmth and exuberance, and always such a delight to see, that it didn't even cross my mind that she'd greeted me with a big hug. (All profiling aside, hugging is just not a big social custom here in Germany; it just isn't done.) I mean, it was KARIN, what else did I expect? And it felt right. So right, in fact, that when Caroline held out her hand, I jokingly said, "Come on, what are we, German?" and hugged her as well. Caroline is Dutch. I don't know their customs at all, so how presumptuous of me. I happen to be half German so, how stupid of me. And, as Reinhild pointed out, before she also embraced me, she IS German. How rude of me.

Bet you'll never guess what nationality Karin is either.

She's a hugging German. And, because these people are my friends, I never gave a thought to their nationalities. It's the same with Nikki and Martin; I honestly forget they are German. Because they are friends first. Or when I spend an hour on the phone with Claudia complaining about the school system. Or when Kirsten brings me a sweater she thinks I'd like that she doesn't wear anymore.

There was an old TV ad on in the 70s (you know, when I was still a twinkle in my father's eye!) talking about racism. A little boy tells his grandfather that his friend , so-and-so, called him racist. "Who is this so-and-so?" asks the grandfather. "Oh, he's my Jewish friend."replies the kid. I didn't even know what Jewish WAS at the time, but the point is the same.

I can't afford to have German friends any more than I can afford to have black friends.

I really really need my friends. I can't afford to profile them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Family Size - Whose Business Is It?

Germany is not a child-friendly place. 50% of college educated women have no children at all. The average family size is 1.3. The government is paying women to stay home with a child for a year AND pays monthly "child-money" - per child - to encourage families to procreate.

Sure, some families do the responsible thing and have their two kids. There are even some LARGE families with three children. And, to be honest, my town has at least 3 German families beside mine with 4 children, and I know of one German family in a neighboring town with 6. But see, I can count them. And I know of them because they are pointed out to me - as one fellow freak to another.

I actually have it very easy. First of all, I have the twins, spaced four years apart from Andrew. Still totally respectable, in terms of family planning, to go for that last baby at a decent time interval apart from the first two. A little crazy, that number three, but still "done." That baby number three turned into three and four is a source of amusement and some pity. But at least it isn't my fault that I had four.

I'm also American. Which excuses me (in a manner I do take laughingly, but is actually rather condescending) in the same way you'd excuse someone from a developing country from sending their boy to kindergarten with a girl's pink backpack. "Well, see, they just do that where they come from. They just don't know any better." When we were visiting the castle in Ludwigsburg this summer, and people didn't realize we spoke German, I began to feel like a cultural example of a backward country. "Oh my goodness, look at that poor woman with all the kids." Like I had to beat out all their clothes by hand on a rock by the river.

That poor woman. That silly woman. That obvious religious fanatic. The last is for my friend Maria, also an American living in Altdorf, who is expecting her fourth child in what will be six years. "I wonder what they think of me," she says. And I know it exactly. She goes to church regulary, as in EVERY SINGLE SUNDAY. She dresses modestly. And she wants a large family. She's obvioulsy been brainwashed by some cult, church, same thing.

Her German neighbor, trying to be supportive and understanding of a primitive tribal value system, told Maria that her daughter has asked her why Maria kept having children. Which is already a pretty sad thing, and tells you a lot about German attitudes towards children, when this is asked by a child. (I had one 8 year old tell me they admired me for all the hard work I must be putting in with the twins. Well meant, but my goodness, do their parents teach them nothing about JOY?!) Maria's neighbor told her daughter that when you come from a large family, which Maria does, then you often also wish for a large family yourself.

Okay. But why does there have to be an explanation? What is the obsession with the size of someone else's family, someone else's truly personal decision? And wouldn't a better explanation be simply that Maria loves children? That she WANTS to have children?

It honestly doesn't occur to people that we have a choice in the matter knowadays. We DO know about birth control and we DO know how to use it. We aren't forced by our in-laws to produce a male heir or enough children to run the farm. We aren't held back by primitive beliefs. We actually WANT these children.

They don't get it. I have a lot of friends with only one child. That was enough. Life altering. Hard work. And enough. And while it would never be enough for me, anything less than four for me just wasn't half chaotic enough, it doesn't occur to me to question them. It's not my family. It's not my choice. Or friends who have chosen to have no children. My guess is they get as much crap as I do, but again, who is it for me to decide how another woman is to fulfill her journey, reach her potential, be happy?

My German friend gets it the worst. Nikki also has 4 children within 6 years. But she, apparently, should know better. Her eldest son, now 8, has started to take offense at the number of comments they receive on the streets of Stuttgart. Obviously not well-intentioned. "Are those ALL YOUR children? Are you the day-care provider?" Philipp has started telling people that there are families in the world with even more kids than they have. Poor kid, defensive at 8. (It is HARD to be different in Germany.) When we visited the other day, and later all trooped out to the car, the only other minivan on the street besides theirs, I heard him counting off the kids. "One, two, three, FOUR." He ran back into the house and joyfully announced to Nikki, "Mommy, they have just as many kids as we do!" Phew - he fit in at last.

There are so many ethical issues surrounding family size. Octomom. IVF. Welfare families. World poverty. Although, maybe to salve my conscience, I see this last as a matter of redistribution of wealth and of education and opportunities for women. In Haiti, most women I knew would CHOOSE to have two children. They just need a means of birth control. Given the choice, I truly believe most families would have two to three children, some none and some more, all evening out in the end.

My message is just one of joy. Crazy, religious, American, uneducated (or worse yet, educated and raised PROPERLY and should know better), sending-your-kid-to-kindergarten-with-the-wrong-backpack, scrubbing-your-clothes-by-the-river JOY!

When you find joy in yourself, you will see it in others, regardless of what color they are, where they come from, what language they speak, or even how many children they are - or are not - towing around behind them!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Time Management with Two (or More)

"I don't know how you do it with twins." You hear that over and over.

And so you try to explain. Play it off. Laugh at the humor of an impossible situation.

But then again, it turns out they're really not interested in how you do it anyway. Just looking for something to say.

"They" are never really going to get it anyway. But let me try.

I remember the advice I got from a girlfriend of mine, who had just had a baby, when I was pregnant with my first. Let's face it, as a working woman, when you are pregnant with your first you just can't believe all the free time you are going to have off from work. What a luxury. "Just don't think you're going to be able to sit at home with the baby and finally be able to organize your old photos," my friend told me. "You would not believe how much time one small baby takes." Which I did not believe and was exactly what I figured I would be doing with all my time off - finally getting all those unfinished details of my life in order, the stuff you never find time to do because you are working full-time. You know, instead of on break at home with a baby.

And I still honestly can't believe how much time that one baby took. I mean, what was I doing all day? It was one. No other kids at home. She was an easy baby. And yet I distinctly recall days in the beginning where I literally just sat on the couch with her all day, or at least felt like I had cared for her all day, without any time off, without getting anything else at all done. And I'm a really relaxed mom compared to most. Not at all panicky or worried about perfection.

Must be that parenting is a learned skill after all.

So, you remember how much time that one baby took. You could really say 100% of your time at first, but let's give it an easy estimate and say, what seventy percent of your time? You had time maybe for a cup of coffee and a shower? Maybe even slept a bit at night?

Double that. No really, do it. Double the seventy percent that the one baby takes up of your time and double it for two. One hundred and forty percent of your time. With twins. And since that isn't possible just assume that me stating that twins take up one hundred percent of your time at first is not an overexaggeration. (Please don't make me think of the poor parents of three or four or more. Please.)
When Claire, a new mother of twins, recently told me she was getting five hours of sleep at night - of course not all at once - she was justifiably proud of herself. Infant twins. Some sleep at night. Maternal love is truly miraculous. Being happy with five hours of interrupted sleep is just as miraculous. And we do it.

"Come on," you say. "Twins can't be that bad. One hundred percent of the time is such an overexaggeration." Because people without twins honestly figure you can just multi-task those two infants into one super infant. I've actually had women tell me that they always thought twins would be the way to go because (and listen to this)with two at once you could just do a LITTLE extra work and then be done with it, instead of doing two in a row. Twins are just way more efficient than two singletons.

Until you remember trying to nurse - or even just feed - your one infant. Some mothers find it really hard. Nursing is not as easy as it looks - pretty physically demanding, requiring some amount of coordination and muscle strength. You actually get sore muscles in the neck, back and arms. And then try it with two. One technique is actually called a football hold. It is not a leisure activity. It is a contact sport. It is time consuming and it is physically exhausting. Not saying it can't be done- mothers do it every day - or that it isn't rewarding. It just takes a lot of time and energy.

I remember feeding my twins - they must have been about 8 months old at the time - at a friend's house one morning. I wasn't even thinking about it. Got out the baby jars and started at it. 'Oh my God, Christine," she cried. "how are you able to do that?" Do what? Huh? I hadn't even noticed, but the speed and efficiency with which I was spooning the food into two baby's mouths was truly impressing - and I think frightening - her. You don't have time to casually do anything with twins. You don'thave time for niceties, or to worry about perfection. You just do it.

It requires double the energy at double the speed double the amount of time. At least.

Man do you turn into one super human being.

I'm not bitching. I'm not moaning. I loved every minute of it and am so proud at what I was - and still am -able to do.

BUt it doesn't help when people tell a new mother of twins that she cannot possibly do this alone, that she needs to get help she can't afford or send for family members that cannot possibly come.

Managing twins is totally impossible. I can't even imagine triplets or more - also just inhumanly possible. You just can't do it. Period.

And yet we do.

I guess it doesn't matter that noone else will ever understand.

It's an exclusive club.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two Years To Live

Don't worry. This is not a proper medical diagnosis. It's just a sick game that popped into my head while driving home the other day from the hospital.

I'd been in for a routine checkup, which turned into a not-routine checkup and then a special look-and-see at the local hospital. No biggie really, the day off from the kids and a chance to hear some medical terms bantered about. Kinda fun for someone like me really. Even tried to get a little writing done, although it really sucked.

I just kind of wish they'd let me stay awake for the whole camera-on-the-screen in three weeks. It'd be really interesting and...well...though I do have the utmost confidence in the diagnostic and surgical skills of the attending physician, I was less than impressed with the history taking. In Germany, one doctor, your own, examines you and follows up in his office, but hands you off to doctors at the hospital for anything surgical. All of which means that it is not YOUR doctor performing the procedure. So you kind of have to count on them reading your chart for any previous history, medical or otherwise.

And, though I really hate to complain, I was less than impressed when I learned upon discharge that I had a tentative diagnosis of uterus septus, a condition present at birth where a vestigial fibrous septum divides the uterus into two, making it less than thirty percent likely to highly unlikely that a woman could carry a fetus to term. Which the intern was really happy to tell me about since it is a correctible problem, would neatly explain the previous year's miscarriages, and then allow me to carry a pregnancy to term. Nice.

My first reaction was one of utter relief and gratitude. Mind you, I have enough of a medical degree to understand what I was being told, and I just couldn't believe how fortunate I was to have carried three consecutive pregnancies, including a 39 week twin pregnancy, to term while having this condition. What a miracle! Uh yeah- the drugs must have still been wearing off.

Really hated to do it - I do know how nice it is to have a nice, pat answer, especially as an intern but...I had to ask. Was I understanding her correctly? Wasn't this more likely to be something that had developed within the last three years? What were the chances of three consecutive successful pregnancies, and twins to boot, with this condition?

Her face fell. She had no idea I already had kids. She hadn't bothered to read my record. History, history, history. They even teach it to veterinarians for Christ's sake. I can only hope she hadn't presented the case in rounds yet or she was going to be in serious trouble. "Oh. You probably don't have it then," she replied. "See you in three weeks." Great. I'm hoping they don't take off my left breast by mistake. Either one of them actually.

So I relied on basic medical knowledge - and the Internet - to come up with the major differentials on my own. I'm pretty sure I know what they are looking for - and even if the intern wasn't in on it, the chief of staff had mentioned something about it when I was coming out of the anesthesia. Always a good time to explain something to the patient, when they are half-coherent. But it registered enough that I'm not really worried, mostly interested, and just relieved to finally be taken seriously after three years of everyone telling me my symptoms were all in my head. Literally. And sending me to the shrink. (Who, by the way, thinks I'm just as crazy as everyone else, only not certifiably, and certainly not medically!)

But there is always that tiny feeling, that one-in-a-trillion chance that something goes wrong...that it could be the"C" word after all. (It's not, I promise, I looked up the chances and it is a billion times less probable than the uterus septus, if you don't believe me I'd have to go into all the medical details of why it is so highly impossible and my guess is noone needs to hear any more than they already have, honestly, it is not the"C" word.) But uterine cancer, which once again I do NOT have, has only a fifty percent five year survival rate. It is not good.

Which is what got me thinking about the two years to live.

Honestly, what would you do if you were given only two years to live? It really makes you prioritize your values.

My list does not bode well for my current European suburban housewife status.

1. Go to the beach. Swim in the ocean. Often.
2. Spend time in the sun. Again, regularly.
3. Work with wildlife again.
4. Hang out in the wild outdoors, the jungle, the desert, places with no people.
5. Live outside. Really be outdoors, not just venturing out into it in brief respites from rain and cold.
6. Have FUN with the kids. Teach them to be independent-thinkers and creative and to ignore the status quo, to be who THEY want and do what makes THEM happy and proud.
7. Hallucigenic drugs. Really. This one surprised me too(or doesn't it surpise you?) since , although sometimes reckless, I was always pretty cautious about not breaking the brain. But if I'm going to go anyway, might as well take a couple trips before the big one. I'd do yoga too, so get off the high horse! Really, you wouldn't try ANYTHING? Really? Two years to live, remember.

THE LIST will probably change my life more than the procedure. You see, the big shocker here, or maybe it's only a surprise to me since I've been hiding it from myself for the last seven years in order to be a good little girl and support my husband, well the truth is that most of what I value in life isn't present there at the moment. The kids obviously. And Damon too. (He just doesn't make the list out of discretion, count him as one of the kids.)

Maybe if I take enough drugs I won't miss the rest of it so much.

Or maybe I have more than two years to live and it's really time to start living NOW.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Testosterone Domination

We honestly never stood a chance, Ryan and I.

I hadn't noticed it was truly gone until the other night, when I thought it'd be nice to watch an old VHS tape I'd dug up while cleaning out the cupboard. Cinderella. Whitney Houston's Rodgers and Hammerstein version, starring a black Cinderella, a Philippino Prince Charming and a cast of multiracial families - oh and lots of singing and dancing. Good fun, racial harmony and romance all in one. Pink. Polifically correct, lots of fun, and most of all pink. Girly pink.

I remembered when we bought if for Ryan, for Christmas right before she turned four. And then we gave it to her early, at Thanksgiving time, when she was suffering from a bad fall off a tricycle at kindergarten and a bout of the stomach flu. We'd had to take her to the emergency room when she started vomitting a few hours after the fall just to be certain. And, bruised around the nose and eyes, she looked just as terrible as she felt. She was really sick.

And so I whipped out the Cinderella movie as a special treat and sat with my daughter on the couch for two days, cuddling and bonding, and rinsing out the throw up bucket placed strategically at the foot of the couch. I don't know what the boys (Andrew and Damon) did. Could it be possible that even miserable, screaming Andrew just wasn't as much of a handful as the three of them together are now? He was only one, but he was walking at seven months. What WAS he doing that entire time?

There is no forgetting them now. Mad whirling dervishes of almost maniacal energy, bursting forth after days of enforced hibernation due to rain. These boys need to get out!

The other option appears to be street-dancing in front of the TV to a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Damon is not amused. Neither am I. This is a LOVE story, for crying out loud. SIT DOWN and WATCH THE TV! Did I really just say that?!

The three of them were really cute popping and spinning and striking a poses. But it just wasn't the same.

There are just too many of them.

I was never a girly girl. Ryan either. More of a jeans and T-shirt kind of crowd. With horses rather than dresses. But still, it'd be nice to have SOME sort of feminine aura in the house. Scented candles that aren't carried around the house due to some sort of male fascination with fire. Bubble baths that aren't used as a competition to see who can slide down the side of the tub into the bubbles the farthest. Or the fastest. Or whatever. With the end result being bubbles on the floor, bruised kids in the tub, and oh yeah, no scented candles since they were carried off for fire worship just the other morning. Forget the feminine aura. Peace and quiet would be nice too.

All action, all the time. Just what I wanted about twenty years ago. Surrounded by loads of interesting men, just dying to impress me.

Watch what you wish for.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nature versus Nurture : THE BOYS!

Believe me, I do know SOMETHING about dogs. I studied for 8 years to become a veterinarian and when I tell you, in casual conversation on the playground, that some breeds of dogs are more temperamental than others or that sport dogs require a lot of time and attention and probably aren't the best dogs for a mother of young children to acquire, just take it for granted that I was probably paying SOME attention in school and in the years of practice prior to it and afterwards.

Do NOT tell me that dogs are just like children. And then proceed to lecture me on raising them both properly. While you smugly stand there with your one three year old and a baby who hasn't learned to walk yet, let alone answer back. Honestly, it does NOT make me want to be your friend. Let's talk again in ten years. Or not.

Let's maybe also assume that I've also learned at least SOMETHING about raising children in ten years of raising them.

Having Andrew - and then the twins - has taught me more about genetics than any of the courses I took in college or veterinary school. Three year old Aidan is racing around the BMX track on his mini-bike, taking turns with and accepted by the seven year olds also on the track, while his twin, Matthew, clings to my leg and cries because his bike tires got muddy and he'd like me to help me clean them off. No sorry, really desperately NEEDS me to clean them off.

What do you think I did - enroll one in a course on self-confidence while teaching the other one proper hygiene? I can't say I am raising them identically - I am responding to their individual needs based on their very individual personalities - but I don't think any environment can be more similar than that shared by twins.
And they are still turning into two separate human beings.

I personally wouldn't want it any other way. Do we need any more cookie cutter children? Do I WANT my kids to be perfectly boring imitations of perfectly boring adults? No thanks. I leave that to you, dear friend on the playground. Your daughter is a delight and a joy. What a shame you seem to feel the need to pattern her on some out-dated perfectly mundane role from the fifties. I'd be curious to see her in ten years, to see if you really do 'nurture" the sparkle right out of her eyes, patterning her smiling lips into a hard, straight, no-nonsense line like yours.
Or was her personality predetermined? I'm rooting for the genes on this one.

let's now assume that I am keeping up with my medical journals - or at least a health column in Newsweek and an occasional article over the Internet - and have read something about epigentics. I know it's hard to believe the mommy journals don't hold my interest anymore but this epigenetics thing is even better than the latest theories on early potty training. (I'll clue you in, they ALL go through it, they ALL learn it.) Epigenetics is the science of how the environment our genes reside in - ie, our human body and its health and diet and stress levels and well, just about everything - influences the activation and expression of our genes. As in, you may carry the gene leading to a higher propensity for lung cancer, but the gene may or may not be activated depending on the lifestyle you lead. Don't smoke. Eat right. Exercise. Be healthy.

I like to think I did that epigenetics thing with Andrew - and I am doing the same with Matthew now. Andrew was a little monster for the first two years. I honestly worried that he might be a serial killer or a rapist when he grew up. I mean, he was just so miserable. And, despite the constant criticism from others who knew better, there was nothing I could do in the end but accept him as he was and let him cry. Honestly. Famous last words from my father. "Oh stop pampering him and just put him in the car. There is no way a three month old can cry that hard for two hours." Two hours later Andrew was still crying his head off and my father lost his bet. Kind strangers at the barn in Switzerland where Ryan was taking riding lessona (at the age of three!) almost insisted on driving us directly to the hospital because they also truly believed that no nine month old could cry that hard, that long (also just over two hours), that consistently without there being something seriously medically wrong with him. The child was obviously in pain. I promised to come back if he didn't stop on the walk home - and sure enough, the minute he realized he was getting what he wanted - he stopped. At Christmas-time we were kindly asked to leave a party- and a children's party at that - because noone could stand it anymore. Again, stopped the minute we stood on the other side of the door.

Obviously the pediatrician also blamed me for his poor sleeping habits. Older women on the bus criticized my lack of compassion. My father was sure it was due to my coddling, even after the two hour car trip from hell. And I proudly take full blame and responsibility.

Because that child, that nasty, unhappy, screaming monster of a child, is now a bright, glittering ray of sunshine. I didn't reprimand him, punish him, set expectations that he clearly wasn't going to reach, only to force him to fail and feel defeat. I didn't withdraw my affection in shame at his behavior or to prove to him that he only deserved it if he behaved "properly", by which of course we mean the way I wanted him to and the way society expected him to.

I just accepted him and loved him. It wasn't even that I was patient - I honestly didn't expect him to change. But the right environment, accepting who he was even when he wasn't the way everyone else expected him to be, loving him at his worst instead of criticizing and condemning him for it, gave him the self-confidence to become the young man his is today, and the young adult he will be in the future.

At least that's my theory. And I have the chance to test it again with Matthew. Although Matthew isn't the monster Andrew was, he has his own set of challenges and his own special needs and insecurities, as the dark child to a golden twin. Don't get me wrong - they both have blonde hair and light eyes (one set blue and one green) but Aidan walks into a room and lights it up the way Andrew does. And Matthew, God bless little Matthew, but he can be a little mean and domineering. What a nightmare to have a brother like Aidan, exactly your age, whom you are constantly compared to negatively.

And so I encourage Matthew to develop his own friends, to find his own activies and unique interests. I accept him for who he is, not as an imperfect copy of his brother, well both brothers actually, but as a unique little guy with unique worries and concerns. And tell him he's just fine - just perfect really - the way he is.

The world was made for Andrews and Aidans. But it's going to be Ryan and Matthew who make it truly interesting.

I'd like to take a little credit for it in the end. After all, I did contribute half the gene pool, carefully select the other half (mostly for his possession of a half full bottle of Haitian Five Star rum but the less said about the selection process the better) and then provide the correct epigenetic environment for those genes to express themselves in.

Go ahead, friend on the playground (and I do use the term loosely), teach yours to sit and stay. I'm taking mine to play frisbee.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Twin Birth

The obstetrical nurse on the other end of the phone line just wasn't getting it.

"I'm 39 weeks pregnant with twins, and I just saw a little tiny bit of orange and thought it might be the mucus plug, and so I'm coming in."

"Oh honey, " she tried to reassure me, "how far along dilated and effaced were you at your last checkup?"

"Not at all" I replied "see you in about an hour."

"No no dear" she continued. "It could still take hours to days. How far apart are the contractions and how strong?"

"No contractions. No dilation. And I'll still see you in about an hour. And I'm not leaving without my babies - outside of my body."

It had been a long month. I'd held off on a C-section at 37 weeks. But enough was enough! I mean my SINGLE babies had been born earlier than this! I knew I was fortunate; I'd seen the other twin moms at the hospital, 27 weeks along, groggy from medication to stop early contractions and just praying that they'd keep them in just a little bit longer. Or mothers of preemies born at 26 weeks, weighing in at one pound, while I lumbered along the corridors with TWO perfectly healthy full-term babies in my swollen belly.

I knew I was lucky, but I also knew I wasn't doing this anymore. C-section was fine with me. My next appointment was tomorrow and the doctor had said she wouldn't let me go much past 39 weeks anyway, so I was ready. MORE than ready.

I got to the hospital three hours later. Still no contractions. Just a determination to get this over with. To my relief I was 3 cms dilated. Looked like labor. I was still worried they would send me home, but then all of a sudden I had the urge to vomit. Damon pressed the emergency button frantically as I held my hand over my mouth - there was NO WAY I vomitting into the clothes hamper at a German hospital as he'd suggested! 5 nurses rushed in - Damon was really pushing frantically - and I made it into a kidney pan.

Damon has never been more disgusted. I never felt better. "YAY" I thought "there is no way they can send me home now, contractions or no." And I was right. They immediately inserted an IV catheter and prepared a room. Relief.

Trying to be accomodating, I also felt the first twinges of what MIGHT have been a contraction, at 5PM, about 6 hours after first calling and informing them I'd be a staying guest, like it or not.

Having been through this twice before, I knew EXACTLY what to do. I sent Damon out for fried chicken and fries. As the contractions increased pretty regulary, I snuck in as much chicken as I could before the nurses could tell me I really shouldn't be eating anything anymore. It felt great. Once again, Damon was less than happy, when I vomited a second time somewhere about five hours after the chicken, but I have never regretted anything less.

This was like my best delivery ever, thoroughly disgusted husband or not.

The staff also asked if I would like something to speed the labor along; some homeopathic concoction whose only ingredient I remember is something alcoholic. Now this was my kind of delivery! I didn't really expect it to work, having labored for two days with my first child and 24 hours with my second, and so I sent Damon home at 8PM so that he could sleep before the birth the next day.

By midnight I was pacing the halls and hoping I could hold them in before he came back.

I did. It took five hours total, a real breeze in comparison to the first two. I did get my epidural. Although it took a good deal of swearing and threats to get the nurse to actually insert any pain medication INTO it!

And at 5 AM, honestly just as the sun was coming up and I was noticing that the birds were beginning to sing, the little guys decided to come. Or the nurse decided I could start pushing. The epidural having FINALLY taken effect, I really could have waited as long as they wished.

Aidan popped out so quickly - as the nurse was rallying the medical team and the student nurse was alone in the room with us. Nice. Poor girl literally held him in until help arrived. Thank goodness for epidurals.

And within seconds you heard a stampede in the hall and the room filled as the obstetrical team arrived followed closely by two perinatal teams. I think the nurse handed Aidan to the doctor - probably just so he could get paid - and then Aidan went off to his team while the rest of us - the doc and at least 4 hurses - focused on getting Matthew out.

There was a bit of playing with the U/S and fetal monitor. Two nurses were pressing on my abdomen to keep Matthew from doing flips in my now spacious uterus, another was on the U/S, another at my feet and another apparently monitoring the heart because after a few minutes of fumbling - I believe the plan had been to turn Matthew from breach to head first - the doctor firmly called everyone off and told me I needed to sit up and push, NOW! In retrospect, there was some real concern with a rapidly dropping heart rate, but I was blissfully unaware at the time.

All I remember thinking, along with the U/S nurse, was "Hey, wait a second, didn't we skip a part here? Isn't his HEAD supposed to come out first?" BUt there was a note of seriousness in the room, and a couple of the nurses spoke to me softly about REALLY needing to push HARD and to do it NOW. They sat me up - and out he came. I really wasn't worried about pushing out baby number four - I'd had TWO come out before the doctors were fully in the room - and butt-first made no difference.

It was quick and I never learned what had happened. Although Matthew's APGAR was only 5, so I can well imagine it had been a heart concern.

And the doctor fairly kissed me with relief. "You can do that again any time you like" he told me before even cutting the chord.

I was wheeled out of the room two hours later - with two bundles in my arms - and the first thing I could think to ask Damon was whether we could do this again.

"I'll think about it." he answered. "But there will be NO fried chicken EVER again!" Wimp.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We're Not Going To Take It!

I've taught the kids some "Twisted Sister" lyrics this afternoon. And then we all practiced headbanging - which, it turns out, hurts my neck more than it did 15 - 20 years ago - jumping off the furniture and yes, defying authority.

What have I been thinking? Here I am, trying to teach my kids to fit into a society that actually will benefit more if my kids don't try to fit into it.

Let's face it, I was really self-conscious, as an American who expects immigrants to adapt to America, that I should try to integrate into our adopted country as well. Learn the language. Respect the culture.

Yada yada yada.

Been there. Done that. Bought the Lederhosen.

Ryan (yes Ryan again, I don't want to get into it) came home almost in tears because her bicycle didn't pass inspection again this week. Let me explain. The fourth-graders in our part of Germany all study, and practice, and then are tested, on bicycle safety and traffic laws. By the police. Which all sounds nice and harmless and very civic minded - until you see the list of bike requirements.

I told Ryan she could tell the police officers that if they expected every child to have a safety kit - including first-aid, repair and pump - then they should feel free to go ahead and provide one. I also told her to tell them that her family didn't feel they needed one, since we just stopped and asked a German for theirs if we ever ran into any trouble. And, I have to be fair and honest here; whenever any of my children gets injured on the playground, two or three people come running to us with first aid kits. And we have asked a passing bicyclist for the use of his pump when one of our tires went flat; of course he had one and he was glad to help.

Poor Ryan. It has to be the year she takes a bicycle class from the cops that I decide to start resisting authority again.

On the other hand, her bike finally passed inspection on week three when she explained to the police that, although her rear light was not the required red, the light blue showed up in the dark just as well. Reasoning with the police! In Germany! You go girl!

The problem lately has been unreasonable demands/expectations from the school. Too much homework. Money for books. The bike thing. But the other problem is that the other mothers just go along with it. They bitch and they moan. Their lives suck too. But it's the way it's always been. It's the way it's going to be. And it's just something they have to get through.

Germans may not like the rules, but they will follow them to a T.

Which I why I finally called an Italian mother about the book thing. I had just received a letter from the school telling me that my daughter had destroyed a book to such an extent that we were being required to pay for it. Huh? Come again? I had seen the book in question - albeit last year - and never noticed any damage. Had she torn the pages out, defaced it with doodles, scrawled all over the margins? Nope. It's a little tattered, dog-eared from use. But the way the letter was worded in German was as if she had intentionally destroyed it. And it begged our forgiveness but was sure we would understand and forward the required money. A German friend of mine said it was standard and that she'd had to do the same thing the year before. It was the school's way of getting new books subsidized a bit from the parents, she figured.

My Italian friend and I saw it differently. "I've been here ten years," she said, " and it's time to draw a line and tell them when they are wrong. I'm not just going along anymore." How did I even know she had received a letter about a book? Because her daughter and mine were chastised in front of the entire class. Her daughter is also distraught that her bike hadn't passed inspection yet either.

The police had told the children that if their bikes hadn't passed inspection by next week they would no longer be allowed to participate in the program.

Let me repeat that. The police had told the children that if their bikes hadn't passed inspection by next week they would no longer be allowed to participate in the program.

The authority figures are threatening - and shaming - the kids in school. Is it only the tea-dumping Americans who see something wrong with that?

I could obviously start in on a rant about the German mentality - again - or I could just teach my kids that it's not only okay to be different, but that I expect them to defy the status quo when they feel it is wrong. I tried it this afternoon. "The Germans are crazy." I told them. "But you have a choice about who you want to be. You're only a quarter German which still gives you a fighting chance." My sarcasm , fortunately, goes right over their heads at the moment.

We talked about doing what was right, even when the powers that be tell you not to. We talked about freedom and individuality and standing up for yourself; about being who you are and not who the system is trying to force you into being.

It may be even harder for Andrew than for Ryan. At least she never stands a chance of being what they want her to be. Andrew came home from school with his first math test. 52 questions in 20 minutes. The test that took Ryan 22 minutes - and she got half right. He not only got all 52 questions right, he did it in 9 minutes and then had time to draw an intricate mural on the back. How do I know it took him 9 minutes? Because it turns out they are timing - and praising - and comparing - and therefore - once again, shaming, the other kids in the class who aren't meeting the gold standard.

It's easy to be the golden child in Germany.

Which is why he's letting his hair grow and learning to play electric guitar!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Looks like I am learning and maturing after all.

Sat through two parents' nights this week and managed not to get upset at all. The system can't really bother you if you've already decided to ignore it anyway.

Looks like Andrew's 2nd grade - and others all over Germany - will not only be learning how to write essays but will be perfecting and polishing them as well. They'll also have the multiplication tables completed and memorized. They've squeezed a 13 year curriculum into 12 years recently, allowing kids to graduate in 12th grade like other European countries and the USA but not taking into account that those countries start teaching in kindergarden, essentially making it into a 13 year program. Also not taking into account that other countries spend more hours per day at school. (They myth of the German warm meal at home will be explored in another blog.)

The second graders will also be pushed harder, compared earlier and taught about grading requirements. They have more lectures and fewer field trips since there just isn't enough time to teach all of the material required and have fun too.

It's not half as upsetting to me when I realize that the teachers and parents find it ridiculous too. I've got some rants about the German education system already written but it's nice to know that there are Germans up there willing to fight the system as well. Or at least voice their displeasure.

It's a start.

It's also helpful that Andrew isn't phased by any of this at all; sheer luck there.

And after all the worries about Ryan's math abilities - or lack thereof- it turns out that they've fired last year's math teacher and this year's teacher is appalled by how little the children have retained. Never mind that I find it ridiculous that 3rd graders are taught different subjects by different teachers, it turns out that Ryan's entire class is behind enough to allow us to have our primary teacher for German, Math AND English. What a relief! Ryan is happier in school, does her homework FAIRLY well and actually seems to understand what it is all about this year.

No grades yet, but that's not the point. She actually appears to be a fair student this year! I was about to have her tested for a learning disorder and it turns out it might have just been a bad teacher. Really amazing what a difference that makes especially in a country where one year lost - third grade - could make the difference between university or trade school.

Ryan's not a perfect student - I was embarrassed to raise my hand to ask what the heck the Reading Tree was since my daughter hasn't mentioned it, or as it turns out, participated either. ""It's a competition, Mom." she explained. "And I don't really need that." Okay - I like the attitude.

I also asked her teacher to ASSIGN the multiplication tables as homework again - since NONE of the kids seem to know them. Ryan memorized the 3s and 4s today. Two years too late is not too late. The curriculum has been whizzing by so fast the past two years that it is nice to finally slow down and LEARN something.

And it appears that I am learning something too - to keep my mouth shut and not always fight for generalities. When the teacher reconfirmed the school's no cell phone policy, I was tempted to question her about it. Does it apply to cell phones that are hidden and turned off during the day? Is it fair to expect parents NOT to send their child with a phone when the school can't assure that a child won't be left to walk home alone? Yada yada yada.

Have I given up fighting for what is right? I think maybe I have. I'd still like to see less stress on the kids, especially in the first six grades. I'd like longer school days incorporating lunch and allowing teachers to teach and children to learn in school and not at home. I'd like them to stop sorting the kids so early, to stop trying to treat everyone the same by forcing them to learn at the same pace. I'd like more money for more teachers. But I'm a protester now, not a fighter.

And I can slip the cell phone into my daughter's schoolbag without making a public debate out of it.

Guess I AM adapting to new technology after all!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cell Phone Future

Ryan got her cell phone the other day.

It's a really old model, about twice the width and length of what most of us are carrying around nowadays; kind of like watching a rerun of an 80s sitcom and noticing these really huge phones the characters so proudly pull out of their handbags. Ryan's phone is 5 years old; Damon and I used the dual set when we first came to Germany, before we had a permanent place of residence and a home phone number. (I know, I know, those are terribly old-fashioned too; turns out I'm an old-fashioned girl after-all, in regards to technology if not to ideas.)

It was a big deal - for me and Damon anyway. The day before, Damon went out and got a third (fourth if you include the home phone) number for the family, a prepaid phone card, and instructions on the whole deal. Can you imagine the amount of phone numbers that will be attached to my family of six within a few years? I'm assuming we'll get rid of the home number at some point, but by then we'll NEED tattoos to remember which phone number goes with which kid.

It reminds me of a twin scene from Harry Potter, an exchange between the Weasley twins, Fred and George, and their mother. "Honestly Mom, can't you even tell us apart?" they tease. I imagine calling for Aidan. "Hello, Aidan?" "Honestly Mom, can't you even keep the phone numbers straight? This is Andrew...and I'm not even one of the twins." "Oh, yeah, well, sorry then, my mistake." (Befuddled, looking askance at the phone, kind of scared to just start pushing buttons, still not really sure WHERE the address book function is found.) "Would you mind sending a quick SMS to your brother, reminding him to pick up some pizza on the way home?"

Like that'll work. Looks like we'll be eating a lot of spaghetti.

Turns out you can program numbers into an address file. This means you don't ever have to remember them. Although what happens when you lose the phone - or lose power, world-wide, forever, which I still fear can happen, much the same way I still don't trust power windows because what happens if the car DOES carreen off a bridge and into the water, and the electricity goes and you can't open the doors and you need to unroll the windows by hand to get all four children to safety?

You can see how I am never going to buy completely into this technology thing. I trust my hands; my actual physical being. I find it hard to trust something invisible - and at times unreliable.

So Damon and I spent the evening going over the cell phone. When I asked him to write Ryan's number down on a sheet of paper, you know, something I can tear off the grocery list and hang, tattered and torn, from the corkboard...he had the nerve to turn around and take Ryan's picture, before saving it - and the number - in the address book on my phone. Just like Troy and Gabriella. I didn't even know my phone could take pictures! Here I am thinking we're too poor to own the technology everyone else seems to have and it turns out I've had it all along. I'm just too lazy to learn how to use it. Or too stubborn to admit it exists.

I was really concerned the following morning as Damon taught Ryan to use this new technology. I mean, she had to know how to turn it on, how to find the number, how to dial......and turning it on is really really really hard. You know, you have to push the button for a really really really long time before it works. And then those endless function lists - I know I certainly don't know what they're all there for. And finding our number in the address book? She hasn't even taken algebra yet. What were we expecting?

Remember when you used to have to open the child-proof medication bottles for your grandmother when you were a kid? Turns out it's just like that.

Ryan came home after barely a little over 4 hours of owning the phone, the phone having spent most of that time in her schoolbag, off. She not only had figured out the on/off function on her way home, she had dispensed with bothering to phone home and learned instead how to get into the game menu. Game menu? I didn't even know it HAD one of those! She spent the better part of the afternoon playing games on the phone, until she decided it was time to figure out how to get the music working. Music? REALLY? My guess is it takes pictures too. Who knew?

Damon tells me that the new cell phones are coming with built in GPS systems now. This is technology I can appreciate. I swear, I heard some American military mothers the other day wondering how the heck people found their way around Europe before GPS systems. "Google Maps," I ventured to reply. "" I was too embarrassed to mention that we still had some maps in paper form. That you could go to AAA and get a detailed route of your voyage, complete with paper maps. Another mom told a story - true - about finding her way around Paris with a paper map. "Yeah, it was unbelievable, I really knew where I was going." she said, a little in awe of her own ability to master this ancient technology.

Now we never have to know where we are going anymore - until the little voice tells us that we've arrived. If only I could remember where the hell it is I want to go. Or does it matter, as long as I can take a picture of it and Twitter to all my friends that I've been there, checked it off, bought the T-shirt.

Ryan got her cell phone the other day.


These kids are dragging me kicking and screaming into the future.

Humor an old lady; please let me bring a paper and pencil along to document the journey.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Oh Mother!

I am a mother.

I am not a piece of furniture, a place to rest your head, a source of refuge, a security blanket, a cup holder, a provider of food and beverage as well as various articles of clothing, a pack mule, a place holder, a trash can, a hand, face and nose wiper, holder of the kleenex.....

Oh, who am I kidding?

We all went to the International Motocross in nearby Holzgerlingen the other week. I don't get to watch the races much; see the list as to what I am invited along for.

For one brief moment, I was able to lay on my back on the grass, eyes closed, for what passes as solitude in my current existence; motors roaring, you take what you can get. There were no kids around for a second.

I opened my eyes to find a tall, lean, good-looking blonde man in his early thirties looking down at me. (True story. It was actually rather disconcerting.) "Hello." he smiled, eyes certainly twinkling at me behind his trendy sunglasses. "Do you mind watching my bag?"

I give up. There must be a sign tattoed on my breasts. "Mother," it says "the source of all things."

I like to think other women are taking care of my men when I allow them out alone.

It got me to thinking though. Honestly, if men were REALLY running the world, I mean REALLY running it, managing the grocery lists, the household chores, the kids' school schedules in addition to their "real" job, I think the world might actually be a better place. If more chaotic and messy.

Hear me out. I mean, even Obama, darling of the free world and one of the most powerful men on the planet, admits in his book that his wife still yells at him for not putting the butter away. This man is in charge of the largest armed forces in the world, and he can't remember to clean up the kitchen. That's not cute. That's insulting.

So, if it weren't for Michelle, and all of the Michelle's out there, getting food on the table, buying winter jackets, taking the car in for it's 30,000 mile checkup, keeping vaccinations up to date and all the rest, I'm thinking the world would fall apart. Peacefully. Daddies everywhere would be too busy trying to figure out how to coordinate the Tuesday soccer/ballet carpool to even bother trying to invade another country.

Then again the American military has been doing it without any real strategy for years now.

I tried my own strategy for world domination - or at least a little peace and quiet - the other day. Nobody was really thrilled with the lunch I had whipped up, admittedly rather hastily. (Am I the only mother on the planet whose kids don't like spaghetti?) When Andrew came into the kitchen half an hour later to ask for a granola bar, I gave in. However, when Aidan heard the wrapper and came in too, I also asked Andrew to get one for his little brother. By the time Andrew had opened one for Matthew as well, he just looked at me in exasperation, gave a deep sigh and said, "oh Mom, those two are just too much sometimes."

Welcome to my world son. Let's change it together!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Than Handy

Call them what you like. The USA has cell phones, the British use mobiles and the Germans call them Handys. I just looked, it's telephone portable in French and telefono celular in Spanish.

I see kids texting and playing games with them on public transportation. Disney's "High School Musical", the first movie, has Gabriela and Troy taking eachother's pictures with them before programming in their numbers. This is technology I don't yet get. And if you don't know who Gabriela and Troy are you're in worse trouble than I am. Also I wonder, do girls still give out the wrong number if they don't really like the guy?

With all the hype about the amount of time teenagers nowadays spend online - that they interact more through typing to one another than through actual one-on-one face time - I really wasn't in a rush for my daughter to join the crowd. When she asked me for a Handy two Christmases ago I blew it off as a child's fantasy. MAYBE when she was 12. Or 13. I mean, what does she really need this for?

I'm sorry to say I've been forced to change my mind. And it's not the status quo or peer pressure this time either. It's that damn black Mercedes, popping up in Altdorf again year after year for the past three years. Not sure til now if it was just an urban myth, or suburban housewife overexaggeration, the man has now apparently attempted to physically abduct a young child at the local supermarket in nearby Holzergerlingen. He was thwarted by a grandmother who noticed the child's struggles and went over to help. But he may be the same man who has physically molested - and later released- a child in Stuttgart. And there is another child missing.

Am I hysterical? I don't know. I do know that we left the USA in part because we felt life would be safer for our kids here in Germany. Only to learn that a small boy had been found dead in neighboring Weil in Schonbuch a little over ten years ago. And then the school shooting in Winnenden, 40 minutes away.

To be honest, we have it pretty good. There are no land mines in the neighboring fields. Military planes aren't dropping bombs. There is no invading army at the border, no military dictatorship. We have food, education and freedom.

And now Ryan gets a cell phone. An old one, with no games or camera or texting capabilities and with a 10 Euro pre-pay card. Only to use in case she ends up stranded at school without someone else to walk home with her. (Andrew's crew stays together, but the girls tend to be less reliable.) Between the two evils of cell phone versus walking home alone, I choose the phone. She is to call.

I'm betting my mother will be sending her more pre-paid cards - and her phone number in the USA - within a week.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sorry, We Broke Your Kid!

Damon and I broke a kid the other day. No biggie really. Nothing that a Saturday evening trip to the emergency room couldn't fix. Three stitches. He'll be up and walking again - with crutches - within a couple of days.

The only problem being that it wasn't one of our kids we broke. Oops.

I hate returning something I've borrowed in less than perfect condition. Although this isn't as bad as the time I dropped Babette's copy of Amy Tan's "The Opposite of Fate" in the tub while I was reading it. I ordered her another copy through but she preferred the old, now wrinkled version with an interview of the author in the back. So did I.

I dropped Lennart into the tub too - gently - to rinse off the wound and apply pressure after Damon handed him off to me at the top of the steps, blood streaming from the bottom of his foot. Our neighbor, a paramedic, confirmed the verdict - "Yup, stitches." - and then we ALL piled into the car to deliver the news - and Lennart - in person.

Lennart's dad and mom were cool about it; they have an older son too. The more kids you have, the more immune you seem to become to their injuries. My friend Nicki's son , the oldest of 4, came up to us on the playground earlier in the week after falling on a stick - with his EYE. After briefly making sure the eye itself was not injured we proceeded to watch the two small cuts grow into a nasty bruise over the next two hours. "Think of how cool you'll look at school on Monday." we said. Nine years ago I was crying because I'd allowed Ryan to bump her brow on the changing table - first blood. As we added Andrew the rule became "no blood, no foul." Since adding two more it really has to be enough blood to be convincing. "I'm bleeding Mom." "Yeah - how bad? Can you apply pressure to it for a minute? I'm on the phone with a friend right now." The kids know where the band-aids are.

Of course, this wasn't one of MY kids.

And we are all worried about the effects this will have on our soccer team; Lennart is the other goalie for Altdorf. Lennart wondered if he'd get to use crutches for the first day of school on Monday. (Turns out he did, making him the hit of the school for that morning.)

I wondered what the other moms would say when they heard. "Oh Lennart? Yeah, you know they say he cut his foot on a piece of glass playing out back in the creek while he was visiting the Connor's." "It figures." My guess is they'll be wondering what the heck we were doing letting the boys play barefoot in September.

I wonder if I'll be allowed to host any playdates after this.

And I'm wondering what I can do to get out of the bake sales too!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Billy Joel's song keeps going around and around in my head. "Pressure." Just like we played it over and over again the first year of college.

"But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you'll have to deal with

But who would have thought that that place was your children's first day back to elementary school after summer break?

Honestly, these people are nuts.

I announced my new "no stress, no pressure" policy while walking over to the church for the traditional start of the school year mass. The other mom looked at me like I was crazy. But had I noticed that the teacher had left something off the list of things we needed to buy? She was sure we'd need a large cover for the large German notebook. She was getting it this morning. Would I like her to pick me one up as well. "No," I said. "If the teacher finds it important she'll let us know." In the meantime I figured Andrew was able to write in the notebook even if it was missing the proper cover. "But everyone knows that German is red, and it's always been that way and....." she went on.

Later she worried that she had let her son label his notebooks himself this year. Last year she had typed his name onto tags and stuck the tags on herself. On one hand, she figured, the children ought to be encouraged to do these things on their own. On the other hand, she worried, he had very messy handwriting and was still having trouble with the X in his name and she wasn't sure how damaging it was for him to see those messy notebooks day after day.

I am not making this stuff up.

When I announced, to a group of moms in front of the church, that I had learned math on regular lined paper, and that I thought three separate notebooks, one with no vertical line on the right hand side, one with a vertical line on the right hand side and one with two vertical lines on both the left and the right side was overkill, I drew blank stares. "I know. I know." I said. "Ordnung muss sein." After all, I am half German too.

But it's more than a penchant for neatness; it's the necessity of placing everything in it's proper place, of putting everything in order, of following certain rules. It's called the status quo and we have it in suburban households everywhere. But it's a damaging part of the German character. Germans may not like the rules, but they will follow them. Right down to that proper notebook cover in second grade.

Even though I felt it was all ridiculous, and have vowed not to take part in it this year (or ever again), I still felt the pressure. Later, when a friend asked me what I was planning to cook for lunch this afternoon, I honestly answered that I wasn't sure yet. (It was 9 AM.) She didn't understand. "No, I mean today's lunch. What are you cooking?" When I mischievously replied that I might just let the kids eat cold sandwiches, the way we did in the USA, I swear THREE mothers turned around to look at me in disbelief. They think I'm making this stuff up.

Die Aertze (translated as The Doctors), a German punk rock band, sum it up nicely. "Lass die Leute reden." Let'em talk.

Not to care what other people think - it really is dangerously liberating.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Pants Of Shame

Matthew came home from kindergarten on Tuesday with FOUR pairs of wet clothes in the "bag of shame."

This is a term freely stolen from my friend Holly, whose daughter came out of our kindergarten one day two years ago wearing this horrible, 1970s, very German, pair of rainbow colored striped jeans, a pair that Ryan and Andrew had worn home often enough in their potty training days. She laughingly called them the "pants of shame" because it was just so obvious that whoever came out wearing them had NOT made it through the morning dry.

I have since discovered - mostly through Matthew - that there are a variety of pants of shame - and that they come with socks, T-shirts - and even pink flowered girls underwear if you wet yourself often enough to start deleting the stock. You should have seen the look on Damon's face when he saw Matthew in pink underwear.

Funny thing is, shame only works if you let it. (For the record, Holly's term is a joke, and the kindergarten isn't intentionally shaming the kids either. They just have a rather horrid selection of second-hand clothes.)

Matthew certainly doesn't care about the pink underwear. And now that I've decided to give up things like guilt (I swear, I shook it off in yoga class the other day!), and anger and shame - well, the clothes my kids come home in don't bother me either. Honestly, if I am going to let a pair of soiled pants ruin my day, I might as well give up now.

I'm learning that it's not about being perfect, it's about dealing with it as it comes.

Other signs that I am learning not to care about what other people think:

1. I let the kids go home from the pool with wet hair (within reason; in the winter we use the hairdryers a bit and then make sure everyone is wearing a hat or hood - or in some cases, a towel over her head - on the icy way to the car.) They also run around in wet bathing suits - a big German no-no. No signs of the bladder infections or kidney disease this is supposed to cause and they have fewer colds than most kids I know whose mother's dry their hair. I suspect a strengthened immune system. See #4 below!

2. My kids are the ones running around without jackets on when everyone else's are wrapped up in hat, scarf and mittens. Or wearing mittens in April.

3. I'll wip out a bag of cookies at the playground when everyone else is feeding their children peppers and cucumbers.

4. Damon and I used the "5 second" rule in Legoland the other day when Matthew spilled the 3 Euro bag of lego-shaped french fries on the ground while in line for the train ride. I briefly thought of the dirt, and of what the others in line would say, and then I thought of the 3 Euros for 15 fries - and we scooped them right up and handed them back to Matthew. Gross. I wasn't going to eat them, but....noone in line said a word, whether out of shock, understanding or because they attributed it to the fact that we were American.

HAVE YOU NO SHAME? No, I'm glad to say I gave it up this summer.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

She's Back! (Parenting Ryan)

"Life is good." Both kids were wearing new T-shirts and sporting a summer tan when they arrived home last Sunday. Ryan came slowly and shyly through the front door, first up the stairs but pushed aside by Andrew's exuberant sprint. They both were full of stories of family and friends they had met in the USA, on Damon's side dozens of young cousins we hadn't yet met and didn't know to place with which parent. Lucys and Logans, Cole, Ryan, Jade, Jax and "oh yeah, those came from Lily's Grandma." Okay, and Lily is?

They had a world of their own and they were perfectly comfortable in it without us. "What kind of parents are we that we send our kids away for a month and they don't miss us at all?" asked Damon. "Good parents with happy, confident kids." I replied. They were at home without us but then slipped right into home here again too. (I'd been a little worried that the grandeur of the USA would make them see Altdorf for the sleepy little farm village it is, but no, the thrill of society at the local pool and the allure of the village soccer team still held sway.)

Andrew was just the same but I felt like I had to get to know Ryan all over again.

Little did she - or I - know that I had changed too. In subtle ways, but firm ones. You see, it turns out that I have found myself. At least a little piece of me anyway. Without the chaos of four young personalities swirling around me, the constant needs of two young infants and the demands of two older ones, my own personality was beginning to emerge again after a 3 year shock- induced coma. For over over two years after the twins were born, I simply coped and carried on. The kids thrived; I survived.

But now I was beginning to breathe again.

I'd also forgotten what it was like having Ryan around. You see, she's so quiet and unassuming in appearance that you forget the monster will lurking within her seemingly innocent charade. Nine year olds. OH YEAH! Vacation was definitely over.

I couldn't believe she already had my hand imprinted on her left thigh after only 26 hours.

It started innocently enough - my innocence. We were visiting the Bebenhausen cloisters on Monday afternoon when Andrew asked if he could sit in the back of the VW between the twins. (We'd used the smaller car all summer while the older two were gone.) It seems my previous blog on entertaining older children was as true now as before the summer; Andrew wanted to go home and play soccer with his friends and Ryan was just bored and pissed she had been forced to come along. In the meantime, seating arrangements for the car ride home were first priority.

Ryan had already sat in the back seat twice, wedged in with a lapbelt while Andrew rode in the front. Grandpa and Damon had the 7 seater Chrysler to themselves, but it was fun. I liked having all my kids packed in around me like sardines! But it seemed only natural - again to me - that the older two should take turns in the choice back seat between their brothers. Ryan made a big stink, but my word was final. After all, I am the mother here, right?

Half an hour later - we were walking and biking back from the Bebenhausen cloister - Andrew pedalled back in tears to tell me that Ryan had spoken to the twins about the seating arrangement and coerced the two of them into taking her side. So she was sitting in the back and he didn't think that was fair. From innocent summer back into the reality of older children. Wow. But wait, wasn't I the mother here?

Back at the car, I calmly continued to override Ryan's objections. Mostly because I'd forgotten how hard that can be to do. She cried and screamed and physically resisted. And then she sat in the front seat next to me and pouted. Loudly. And I thought, "Wait a minute, I don't feel like dealing with this shit anymore. This is unacceptable." My hand came down on her left thigh in a brief burst of - let's face it, appropriate - anger. And then I calmly but firmly asked her to get out of the car. I opened my car door - and she stopped. Just like that. Either I got really lucky or she could sense that I really was going to let her out of the car. I am sorry - no, I'm not - I just am not dealing with shit like this anymore. (Damon was in front of me, both of us pulling out of the parking lot, so she wouldn't have remained abandoned on the road side for more than a few seconds.)

As a parent, I realize it was only one battle, but I'm hoping to win the war by just refusing to get into it. (Maybe I should direct American foreign policy, but that's another topic.) As a pacifist, I still left a mark on my child's thigh, but I figure anyone with older children will understand the difference. I'm not proud of the mark, but I am proud of the calm that descended on us all when I just refused to fight.

We drove to Weiler Huete - our favorite summer Biergarten - where Ryan spent over an hour pouting next to the car while the rest of us sat outside to eat. But there was no pall over the meal, no lingering unhappiness or sense of doom. We had fun and Ryan was forgotten. She had made HER choice to be miserable and I had made mine not to be dragged down by it. I was remembering that I had no choice in her behavior, but also learning that I had a choice in my response to it.

It is WAY easier said than done. And we're only a week into it today. But I think the key is that I didn't see Ryan standing at the car as an appropriate punishment, something she deserved through her bad attitude or her behavior. It wasn't a need to "show her the consequences of her actions." All of that just seems spiteful to me now, not worthy of a loving parent, just another muscle game of a powerful parent over an essentially powerless child. I wasn't punishing or proving anything; I just refused to go to war.

I get it now. She doesn't want me to rule over her. (I believe they call it democratic parenting, something I don't yet 100% believe in.). This house is NOT a democracy, or even a republic (do you remember the difference from highschool history?!); it is now officially a "kinder, gentler nation." (Tell me I did not just quote Bush Sr. - where the heck is that from?!) Ryan will be Ryan. And Christine will be Christine. Two women in a housefull of men. Like two cats warily circling eachother in a household full of Labradors.

Ryan did eventually join us at the table, smiling and cheerful and all traces of resentment forgotten. A happy ending, but only because my happiness did not depend on it. Ryan is back. So am I. Life IS good.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Status Quo Part One: The Schultuete

As mentioned before, there is a lot more ironing going on in the world than most Americans realize. Also more stair sweeping, window washing and flower bed tending then they would believe. Cars get washed AND vacuumed every Saturday, bikes and boots cleaned after every use. Breakfast is served with fresh flowers on the table - and the butter in a real butter dish, not straight out of the package. Lunch is a three course affair and school snacks consist of hearty whole wheat bread with sliced peppers and fruit. No Fruit Loops, no Mac and Cheese and certainly no Twinkies. And yes, people really do iron T-shirts and jeans.

All of which is NOTHING compared to the social stress of arts and crafts in kindergarten. I used to be pretty proud of myself for using a pair of scissors to cut out figures and stick them on a straw. Fingerpaints and homemade Play-dough. Or just a piece of paper and some crayons. I'd even let the kids do it. You know - creative play.

Then I enrolled my kids in a German kindergarten and learned how naive I had been. It started innocently enough with a parents' afternoon to make lanterns which the kids here carry around the neighborhood at night for a few weeks at the end of October/beginning of November culminating in a big celebration on St. Nicholas Day. Less sugar than Halloween. A strong moral message about a kind Catholic saint. And burning candles inside of paper lanterns carried in the dark by small children.

Now one CAN buy lanterns in the store. If you want your children to be the laughing stock of the kindergarten. If you want to emphasize, yet once again, how really not German you really are. And so I sat down excitedly with the other moms on tiny little stools around tiny little stairs and learned the hard way that making lanterns out of cardboard and wax paper was not for the faint of heart - and certainly not for children.

At Christmas time we got a sitter so that both Damon and I could join the other kindergarten parents in baking Christmas cookies. I brought a rolling pin and some cookie cutters. And learned about pralines and sauces and creams and all sorts of concoctions that required more equipment than the American army invading Iraq. Or is that a bad analogy? I also learned that children were not invited to help with the felt fruit we were making for the Christmas fair, or the painted wooden Santa figurines or the scented candles, tie-dyed scarves or hand-painted ceramics. I gotta hand it to them, for a nation of engineers, these women can craft.

For the various obligatory bake sales, I've pretty much learned to get by with baking an American wedding cake, putting the dough in muffin tins and topping with rainbow colored sprinkles. No icing - even a German child wouldn't dare touch American icing. But the sprinkles are pretty special. I use the same sprinkle trick for sugar cookies and those sell really well too. The secret lies in doubling the sugar, but what they don't know won't hurt them.

But there was pretty much no escaping the Schultuete, a large cone made out of cardboard and filled with school supplies, sweets and small gifts, that the first graders carry on their first day of school here in Germany. It's a rite of passage and a very big deal.

I went in to the parents' (meaning, of course, mothers') afternoon full of expectations - that we were doing this together, that we would be led through the process together and that the kids would of course be participating. As mothers fought for pink and purple paper and started grabbing various things and speaking about a "charbon" I realized how wrong I had been yet again. Charbon? Isn't that the French word for charcoal? Why were we making charcoal? What about the school bag - shaped like a cone? (Envision a horn of plenty from an American Thanksgiving.) I would have started with a cone. And then decorated it. Silly me.

It was ugly. I did sit at a table with four other moms also working on the unicorn motive and so we cut out pieces of paper for each other. Four hooves times 5. Five horns. Ten eyes. By now I had figured out that a charbon was a template. But the work was grueling, boring, and serious. No chitchat, no help or instrucion and - as with most social events in Germany - not something I as an American considered working as a group. I didn't even look at the moms with glue guns and ribbons. Heaven forbid, I actually also let my child help with the cutting.

All of which meant that my daughter had the only unicorn Schultuete that looked like it was made by a child, and not by a professional wedding designer. And we stuck stickers on it and decorated it ourselves at home. It looks like something put together by a kindergartner - which in fact it was.

Which is why I got tears in my eyes this week when my friend Sue announced that she had gone out and BOUGHT a Schultuete for her daughter this year. You go girl! "I am just never going to be able to compete with what these women crank out and frankly I just have better things to do than to bother trying." she calmly explained. My hero! It turns out Lori had bought one for her son last year too, out of ignorance of the entire bastelling process she says, but a step into freedom just the same. I chickened out with Andrew too, and sent Damon to put together a simple Indian theme. But Aidan and Matthew are going to the toy shop and picking out their own. I'm a wimp, but I have role models now.

I still think the whole homemade Schultuete thing is a cultural quaintness worth preserving - for the Germans and especially to those who enjoy it and to whom it means a great deal. (Seeing the prices in the store, I also tend to think that most Germans are too cheap to fork out the 12 Euros.) I also believe that I felt so much pressure to make Ryan's so special because I remember moving to the USA the summer before first grade and asking my mother, with profound disappointment, where the heck my Schultuete was. "Oh, they don't do that here ," she nonchalantly replied, not aware as an American that she was taking away a big rite of passage I had come to expect as a German kindergartener. I also believe it's the reason I am still drawn to little German pencil cases, complete with sharpener, eraser and pencils in every color of the rainbow, sharpened to peak perfection. I never got my Schultuete.

I got something else though. Living between two cultures, I became myself, not a carbon copy of what any one of the cultures expected of me. And my children, all of our children, Sue's and Lori's and the rest of us between two (or more) worlds have that same opportunity.

You know, the kids don't care if they fit in like all the other kids. They aren't like all the other kids. And they know nothing else. Instead of trying to make them into little "charbons", one just like the next, trying to fit the mold, I'm going to give them a blank sheet of paper and let them draw whatever they like.

And I'll be damned if I'm going to teach them how to iron!