Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Boys Will Be Boys

I remember my daughter, Ryan, running to greet me one afternoon when she was 18 months old with a fistful of flower petals in her little palm. She - and her father- were beaming with pride. "How beautiful!" I dutifully exclaimed, before she pretended to sneeze and scattered the petals all over the floor. Like snot. So much for father-daughter bonding.

Definitely a guy thing, and it soon lost its charm, but now I have three - no sorry, four of them in the house, and the times are getting ugly.

As we recently sat down to a family meal - all six of us at the table and the dog at our feet - Ryan and I were entertained by a cacaphony of fake belches from all sides of the table. Okay - two fake belchers; Andrew by now has mastered the art of the real thing. It would have been disgusting if it wasn't so funny. The little guys are obviously so proud of themselves. And they think they're hysterical. Belch. Hysterical laughter. Belch. Hysterical laughter. They could have amused each other for hours. The were like toddler versions of a fraternity house. I finally put a stop to it, imagining them all in ten years, each of them the size of my husband, doing the same thing. Lovely.

I've never understood humor based on bodily functions - the so called poop and fart jokes. But it seems to be ingrained in my men at least. How did it start that when I asked one of the twins if he had a poop in his diaper, that he turns to me and says, quite clearly, no, MOMMY has a poopy? And laughs and laughs and laughs. I just don't get it, but the boys consider it the height of entertainment. A "who tooted" dialogue can go around for hours. "Matthew tooted." "No Aidan tooted." "Ryan tooted." "Andrew tooted." You get the level of sophistication at our house. I still don't get why I'm always the punch line, but it has the rest of them rolling on the floor - and Ryan rolling her eyes. Thank God, I have one girl.

I'm waiting for puberty, but so far Andrew isn't impressed with the boy- girl thing. When we recently let him watch Pirates of the Caribbean, the last one, we were worried about graphic images of gore and violence. He hid it eyes for a few scenes at the end - the ones where Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley make out. "I just can't see this AGAIN," he exclaimed in disgust.

But there ARE signs. At the swimming pool the other day, a family of four joined us at the kiddy pool. The parents looked to be about 45, the teenage daughter about 16and then there was a two year old granddaughter, I'm going to assume was the 16 year old's niece. Both women - mom and daughter - were strikingly beautiful. Really, I could barely keep my eyes from them. And they had breasts the size of Dolly Parton. I tried not to stare.

My boys were checking out the family too. I figured they had their eyes on the two year old. But no. Aidan finally walked over to me and very somberly reached up to grab my breast. "Booby", he stated, and then stared back over at the family, still holding on to reassure himself that he too, had some, if a small part, of the treasure.

Whatever. I still think our family can take them on the fart jokes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Youth Sports - Soccer

Spring is here and with it the outdoor soccer season. Soccer is to the rest of the world what baseball is to America. As American boys and girls get out their bats and gloves, the rest of us change from indoor sneakers to cleats, pick up the same soccer ball we've been playing with indoors all winter, and head outdoors. This a serious sport; you don't stop playing just because the weather gets cold and the ground freezes up. You move inside, for cramped standing room only tournaments inside local gymnasiums.

German mothers have been bundling up their children in hats and scarves and gloves since October, something about catching cold if any body surface is exposed to the elements after September 30. (Funny enough, the winters here in southern Germany are actually rather mild in comparison to where I grew up in Connecticut; rarely do we have a day below 0 C/32 F) But once the sun comes out, literally days after the hats and scarves are packed away, out comes the sun screen and the brimmed hats. Something about sunburns, although my German father can testify that a German sunburn has nothing to compare with a Caribbean sunburn! My family runs around barefaced and uncreamed, thrilled to finally see the sun again and to feel the warmth on our skin. The Germans think we are nuts - but I have never had a child burn in Germany. It's 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, we're a continent away from the equator; how close can the sun actually be?

I wonder about a people who take cover from the cold AND from the sun.

So when it started hailing last Tuesday, in the middle of Andrew's second outdoor soccer practice of the season, I figured I'd better head out to pick him up. Better yet, I sent my husband. I figured Andrew would either show up at our door, driven home by a parent who had stayed to watch the practice, or we'd find him huddled in somebody's car, waiting for us to come and get him.

Damon called me laughing. They still had half an hour of practice left. Rain-drenched and mud-soaked, the kids were still running drills under a row of trees in order to provide some protection from the hail. After all, it was small hail. And it was soccer.

On Monday I'd had a phone call from a friend, celebrating the fact that our "A" team had won two out of three games last Saturday, soundly thrashing one team 8-0. Never mind that that team was our own "B" team composed of friends and neighobors; no hard feelings, but we'd still kicked their butts. She then proceeeded to give me play-by-play accounts of all three games; including the one we lost 3 -4; along with suggestions on improved tactics and feedback on each player's strengths and weaknesses. Mind you, these boys - and one girl - are SEVEN years old!

My daughter's third grade standardized tests - conducted in all three third grade classes - were postponed a week because the boys had a soccer game during the first scheduled week.

I personally don't enjoy the soccer games. Andrew plays goalie - and while he LOVES it - I can't stand the pressure. I certainly don't approve of the intense competition - the emphasisis on winning - at such a young age.

But I do recall fondly the summer of 2006, when I was full-term pregnant with the twins, and the World Soccer Cup took place here in Germany. Germany's little team - not expected to win - came close, working its way up against more experienced world teams. The boys - and their coach - became national heroes. The coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, came from our southern neck of the woods. And I still wear my Michael Ballack T-shirt to this day. Never mind that the one now coaches for Munich and the other plays for Chelsea, England. For a time, they belonged to all of us.

Screens were set up in squares, in restuarants, and even in the hospital. German flags flew from cars and homes, were worn on T-shirts and on tattoed faces. People smiled. Everyone was united. Germany lost to Italy - on July 4, the day the twins were born. But our third place finish was celebrated with more enthusiasm than France's 2nd place finish was celebrated in France. (They, too, succumbed to Italy.) First place would have been unbelievabely sweet, but it was about more than winning. It was about a community spirit that is rarely seen here in Germany. We saw ourselves as a team, and the rest of the world saw us - momentarily - as a naive, happy, fairy-tale ending.

We need more of those moments. And soccer - known as football everywhere except for in America - provides them.

I'd been thinking of making T-shirts for the boys. "REMINDER: My children will grow up to pay your retirement benefits." But now I've got a better one. "PATIENCE: One of these kids could grow up to win the World Soccer Cup for Germany."

It might be Andrew Connor, or Orazio Sortino, or maybe even Ghazi Al Aani. (The best player on Andrew's team IS of pure German descent - and also a girl.) More essays in the last line - and I promise, they will follow!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

We Don't Really Want To See Them Either

I remember reading twenty years ago in a travel article on Europe that if you wanted to visit Germany with your children, the best place to go was...Switzerland. Honestly, it said, the Germans do not like children, go spend your time - and money -somewhere where you won't feel like a leper for walking through the door with creatures under the age of 30. (MAYBE a mature 25 in some more tolerant circles.) You know - the whole children should be seen and not heard philosophy of our grandparents generation.

But we were on our way to visit Kat and Tim - and two year old Sam - in Munich this week, friends from our grad school days who were currently living in Albania and were now only 3 hours away by car. The opportunity was too good to pass up. We left the older two with my parents, who were also visiting from the U.S., piled Aidan and Matthew into the car, and had an amazingly pleasant trip - they both slept for almost 2 hours and woke up just as we were entering Munich around 12:30. Really too good to be true.

We were so psyched to be travelling light.

Kat and Tim - and Sam - were staying in a beautiful guest house on the outskirts of Munich, within walking distance to the zoo, really perfect for a two year old. In any other country. Us walking in with two MORE two year olds was more than the landlady could take. I swear, she was outraged just at the sight of us.

I was honestly shocked at the hostility. Since I speak German fluently, I'd forgotten how condescending SOME Germans can be to foreigners. (And to be fair, most are exceptionally friendly to Americans, speaking English and helping out when they see someone looking like they need it.) But this lady was pissed that we had the nerve, the absolute gall, to bring children into her home.

It was unpardonable and she took the offensive immediately. She rudely asked my husband to move our car off her space. The request was not unexpected, parking is ALWAYS an issue here, but the tone was inexcusable. And this was someone who earned her living in the hospitality industry! I obviously use the term loosely - any tourist magazine can tell you that Germany has a barely existent service industry. She followed Damon to the front door - like he was an errant schoolboy - and then waited on the front steps to make sure he did as he was told.

Kat and I sat in the garden watching the boys run around the lawn, while the men when to pick up some sandwich materials for lunch. Well - this was too much. "You are going to have to be be quiet. Will this be a problem?", she swooped down upon us to ask. Kat was used to the treatment - let's face it, this is how Germany earns its reputation - but I couldn't resist. "Well, since we are having a conversation, absolute quiet IS going to be a problem." I replied. "Well, I can't have those babies crying here, " she retorted and I promised her, that as two year olds I could guarantee that there would be absolutely no tears or tantrums all afternoon. Did she notice my sarcasm? She certainly noticed the comment I ostensibly directed at Kat as she turned to leave. "I see you've been experiencing German hospitality firsthand." I really couldn't resist.

After a thorough discussion in German - where I explained that her request was more than reasonable and that we would certainly respect it, but that it was her tone I had taken offense to -she went back to serving the man on the neighboring patio, bringing him two or three courses for lunch, pouring his tea, probably also cutting his meat for him and tucking in his napkin under his chin. Obviously her husband. No kidding. The elderly man with the suberservient, overly indulgent younger wife, the beautiful, immaculately tended garden you weren't allowed to use, even the little Schnauzer running around all our legs- all you needed was a son coming through the back door in his SS uniform, and the picture of old Germany was complete.

I don't like to play the Nazi card, but sometimes it just fits so perfectly. And I do wonder. The couple was definitely part of the generation known as "Nachkriegsgeneration", or kids born after the war. The husband might have been a child during the war. I can imagine they didn't have a warm and fuzzy "Sound of Music" childhood either. Life sucked. Kids were a burden. It's a lost generation really.

Later she chased me down and yelled at me AGAIN about keeping the kids out of the flower beds - while I was in the process of doing exactly that. (What did she think I was doing, giving them instructions on how to best go about pulling up a tulip?!) I couldn't help but think about the story of the Selfish Giant written by Hans Christian Andersen. (Who must have had some experience in this area himself.) The giant chases the children out of his beautiful garden, eventually building a huge wall to keep them out, and without the children, winter and cold move into the garden. Spring doesn't return until the children discover a hole in the wall and come back in to play.

I'm not saying that everyone has to love children. And I am the first to say that there are some places that should be off limits to children - I don't want to go to a fancy resturaunt or theater surrounded by noisy, snotty- nosed kids either. But what is life without some joy and laughter? What is the beauty of a garden - the cold, sterile beauty of a well-tended flower bed - without the occasion to enjoy it?

I feel sorry for the wicked witch. She was born at a time without joy and laughter -at a time when even children, or especially children, had no joy and laughter. At a time when there was a wall around the garden. All she has is her tulip bed and her routine, cold, sterile existence. A wasted life - only because she was not able to grow beyond the limited confines of what she knows. Kat asssumed she had no children, but I see the greater horror. She has two. Two who she has raised with the same emphasis on self-preservation, on taking care of one's own little corner, without thought to a greater good or to anyone besides themeselves.

But I digress. I'm tired of discussions on the German psyche - and I'm tired of everyone tracing it back to WWII. It's been 60 years. Get over it and move on. It's okay to say hello to your neighbors; it's okay to trust again. It's safe again to smile. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall." But that's a different fairy tale.

So we headed to the Munich zoo - so full of children and of parents obviously enjoying their children - that it was a different world altogether. Here we fit in. And this is Germany too - a small, fragile bud amidst the sterile tulip gardens. And this is the Germany that will win in the end. As the tulip gardens fade, the children grow. The angry old couple is left to their solitude as the rest of us procreate - into a better tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


My God, you find out someone you know is pregnant with twins and it is actually painful NOT to offer advice. It's well-intentioned; why have her spend three weekends looking for a twin stroller, and another on car seats, when you've already done the research and figured it out? You 've already read the books - and in retrospect figured out which advice to heed and which to ignore - so why not share this vast wealth of knowledge you've accumulated?

Don't worry. I know why. It's because, like anything else in life, everyone has to find their own way. I found the 500 Euro stroller small enough to fit through a single door and manueverable enough to take off-roading, but you may want to fork out the 1200 Euros for the Urban Duo - let's face it, I still do a double take and stop to admire one whenever I see it, kind of like my husband checks out classic automobiles.

The "stuff" is the least of it. The rest you will also read in books and on websites - the schedule keepers to keep track of feedings, the pros and cons of dressing the kids alike or not, blah, blah, blah, blah,blah. One could write a book about it - and so many have - that it is really NOT worth repeating here - in a blog that is SUPPOSED to be helping you MAINTAIN your sanity!

Two things you'll read and hear over and over. And you won't believe them until you've been there yourself. And then you'll repeat them to other future twin moms who will most likely not believe them either. But they are worth repeating. And maybe if you hear them often enough, you'll at least want to believe them even if you can't quite bring yourself to do it yet.

The first is that you too will wake up one day after the twins are two to three years old and realize you have made it past the hard part.

You're not going to believe it until you are there but you too will wake up one day after the twins are two to three years old and realize you have made it through the hard part. (Did I mention it was worth repeating?!)

The second is hard for me to bring up. Only because I promised myself not to preach. And also because I really didn't listen to this one myself. HELP! As in, get it. I think twin moms have it tough because, let's face it, with triplets NOT getting help is out of the question. But with twins, we're still on shaky ground. One COULD do it alone - and many do. And I, for one, felt I should be able to.

So I'm not talking about help as in a nanny or a nighttime nurse, even if you can afford it. Because that is a personal decision in any case and because I think the form of help is going to differ for everyone. I'm also not going to suggest finding time for yourself - because for the first six months I was totally content to immerse myself in the kids and to think of nothing else. Why should we feel pressured to be MORE than a mother, at a time when mothering is challenging - and rewarding enough - in itself? Others will need time alone at the mall, or an evening out with girlfriends - although my guess is that what most of us wanted those first six months was sleep.

Everyone's help will be different. Here's MY list:

1. Cleaning lady. I lasted three months without one. After that I had someone come once a week for the first year. I did it myself again the second year, again this need to prove I could do it alone, and now have someone come every other week. It's a luxury we really can't afford - but on the other hand we can't afford to have me lose my mind either. And a sparkling home every other week - even for only a few hours - keeps ME sane.

2. Daycare. It really helped me that the older two were in kindergarten and first grade respectively. It didn't seem like enough - they only go from 8 to 12:30 here in Germany- but it gave me time to devote exclusively to the twins. My big dark secret is that the twins started morning daycare early too. They are now in a morning "kindergarten" group for two year olds and will move to the regular German kindergarten (for three to six year olds) for four hours in the morning starting in September. There are endless debates on this - with more material for another blog entry! I did it for ME as much as for the twins.

3. Getting out. Definitely a personal decision, but for me, it is easier to be outside somewhere with the four kids than it is to stay inside in a cramped apartment. Plus, I get compliments and admiration for my fantastic mothering skills from strangers who don't know I was pulling my hair out and yelling at the kids to get into the damn car NOW please, on the way there. The kids are happier, I am happier, and the afternoon flies by.

4. Flexible husband hours. Not everyone can do this, but it certainly DOES help if dad can be home in time to help with dinner and with getting everyone to bed. OUR Dad works from home since he was laid off when the twins were six months old - with lots of cons but some pros - but we have used this to our advantage. He is able to help take the older two to music class for 45 minutes on Mondays and Andrew to soccer for an hour on Wednesdays. All little things that add up to a lot. If Dad can't do this, find some neighbors to help - you will be amazed at how many people are willing to help - especially if they are driving there anyway with their kid - if only you ask.

Like I said, I didn't listen to a word of this when I had my twins. (Have I mentioned that I'm a slow learner?!) Especially that part about asking neighbors for help.

You too will wake up one day after the twins are two to three years old and realize you have made it through the hard part.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dark Child

"Those definitely aren't all YOUR children." This from the lady at the entrance to the indoor children's playground we were visiting for Andrew's 7th birthday last week. But yes, they were - all four of them. As the lady glanced at me with mistrust - she wasn't sure she wanted to give us the free entrance for a fourth child that the family promotion promised - I patiently explained that, although they weren't identical, Aidan and Matthew were, indeed twins, thereby trying to alleviate the confusion with having two children so close in age they couldn't possibly both be mine.

I've been getting that more and more recently; unless I dress them identically, Matthew and Aidan look like siblings maybe, but not like twins. Except they are obviously very very very close in age - closer than many suspect. Twelve minutes close in fact. A lot of people assume I am taking care of a friend's child. This doesn't bother me at all, why should it, but I was beginning to get annoyed at having to prove that all my children are indeed mine.

And then I saw her glance suspiciously at Ryan, before sighing and giving me the discount, as if she couldn't force the truth out of my and had to reluctantly relent. My dark child. So it wasn't about the twins after all. It was about Ryan again. Fortunately Ryan was already excitedly talking to Andrew about which play station to hit first, so she missed the exchange - and the look.

I used to laugh but this time I couldn't find it funny. It's been happening more and more often.

Let me explain. Ryan looks EXACTLY like her father; spitting image in feminine form. Friends of his still freak out when they see even just photos of her. She's a perfect mini-Damon. Beautiful long brown hair, big doe-brown eyes, lanky limbs. She's by no means dark, or at least by American standards, but her looks belie the melting pot of America - maybe Italian, possibly Albanian, but just as likely Irish or German - my father has dark hair too. (But blue eyes.)

The boys - and I - are blonde. Andrew has brown eyes. Aidan and Matthew have blue and green - please don't ask me which has which right now. But they are blonde. I don't know that they look like me any more than Ryan does, in fact I think Matthew also resembles Damon, but they do match - me and each other - colorwise.

Last week I caught the tail end of a conversation where Ryan was defending herself from two girls her own age who refused to believe that she was part of our family. (Before we go there, the girls were actually dark themselves and were not German.) "Those are not your brothers," they said. "And where is your mother really?" When I stepped in - because Ryan looked really hurt - their eyes grew really wide. This blonde lady was actually telling them the dark haired child was hers.

Even before the twins were born, strangers have wondered aloud about how odd it was that two children from the same two parents could look so unlike one another. Chinese tourists have taken photos. And once a complete stranger asked me, in front of the children, if they had different fathers. Or rather, stated that it was obvious that they had DIFFERENT fathers. In front of my children.

I explain about the American melting pot and the wonderful variety of genetic combinations. But really it's getting old.

This week I spoke to a Chinese-American mother living in Germany who told me how tough it had been for her Chinese-American son to grow up looking different from everyone else. And I constantly hear - and see - how tough it is to be just a little darker than everyone else in Germany. This is not America; a LOT of us are blonde. Sure, we have our influx of eastern Europeans, Italians, Turkish, and every so often an African- American serviceman or even an African. The face of Germany IS changing, but it is still light years behind America.

I know that racial relations in America are far from perfect. But I see the ideal realized on the U.S. military bases here in Germany. - an institution I am less than comfortable with embodying the vision of a unity I love. 1/3 white, 1/3 Hispanic, 1/3 African-American. Hispanic women in positions of authority. It takes a while to get used to the unifrorms - and the weapons - but the dream of a melting pot is realized, at least on the surface, on a U.S. military base.

But how can this be about racial relations? My children aren't even mixed race. It's about looking different- and about having to prove WHO you are - and validate your basic being - because of how you look. So maybe it is about race after all.

These are ALL our children. They have survived flood and famine, corrupt regimes and civil wars and crippling poverty. Haven't they been through enough without us questioning the color of their skin?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Top Ten Things NEVER To Say To A Twin Mom

Things that make you (as a twin mom) realize that they just don't get it after all:

1. Would you like to sit down?
2. Do you guys ski?
3. When was the last time you guys took a trip to London?
4. You really need to find time for yourself.
5. You can't imagine how much laundry I have to do.
6. Can you even imagine how easy it would be with only one child?
7. I'm exhausted.
8. The baby was up TWICE last night.
9. You're lucky your two have eachother to play with. I have to occupy mine myself.
10. My two kids are only 15 months apart, so I know EXACTLY how you feel.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What I'm Giving Up For Lent

This idea first came to me over twelve years ago, while riding in the back of a Haitian taxi - the flatbed of an old pickup truck - with forty or so other people plus a few goats, chickens and sacks of yams. I was thinking of the reaction of my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Sarah, when I had told her that I was going to give something up for Lent. "Good God, Christine," she'd replied, "You are NOT going to give up chocolate or alcohol or do something equally stupid." She knew me well, and she knew that we all needed our little rituals, our relief, escape from the stresses of life as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Haiti.

As I thought it over, it became clear that the best things to give up, the ones we SHOULD give up anyway, are the things that are the worst for us. Not just at Lent. Not chocolate. Not even alcohol, or cigarettes, or other substances that aren't good for us physically.

At the time, for me, it was anger. I found this really profound at the time. I would give up my anger, at the apparent apathy of the Haitian people, at the apparent indifference of the governments - ours and theirs, at the inability to really get anything done, the inability to help the way I really wanted to.

In retrospect, anger at the fact that things weren't going my way. But that's ANOTHER essay.

Lately, I've stopped judging others. When I heard about the fifteen year old girl in England who had had a baby - with three thirteen to fifteen year old boys claiming paternity - my first thought STARTED to be, where the hell were the parents? But it stopped halfway out. My God, in six years MY daughter will be fifteen. I can't even get her to do her MATH homework right now. You think she's going to listen to me about condoms? Let alone abstinence.

And there's another essay writing itself.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pregnant With Twins

It has lately come to my attention that there is at least one woman pregnant with twins who is following my blog.

My sincerest apologies. You probably shouldn’t be reading all of this yet.

The Baby Bjorn thing is absolutely true. As are the military maneuvers depicted in Four at the Pool. And the exhaustion and the isolation. I think that is why there are so many amusing anecdotal stories written by twin moms; we use the humor as a tool for survival.

When I found out I was pregnant with twins - at eleven weeks, they missed it the first time - I was ecstatic. As I’ve already said, I am a little slow on the uptake. And an eternal optimist. I thought, this is FANTASTIC, I GET to have twins, YAY. Really. Yes, I had some moments of doubt - especially when the reality of buying a new car, and a super-duper, double-the-size, triple-the-cost stroller, and TWO carseats made buying stuff for the babies more stress than fun. But for the most part I felt sorry for those moms who were only having one child and couldn’t
believe how amazingly lucky I was to be having two.

When I was wheeled out of the delivery room, after a perfectly normal delivery at 39 weeks, with two healthy boys weighing in at 6 lbs 12 ozs and 7 lbs 12ozs, my first question to my husband was whether we could do this again. Back in the room, with two other women and their one babies, I sobbed with joy that I had TWO. 24 hours later, after nursing them the entire night while the other moms got to sleep, I sobbed again that I had TWO. But I attribute that to hormones and sleep deprivation.

Having twins is hard. (So is going to the moon or becoming a prima ballerina or just about anything else that is worth doing.) But is it FANTASTIC. I’m going to continue to write about the difficulties - but thank you for making me think of the joys. I don’t want you to go through your pregnancy worried about all this. It is yours to enjoy. And it’s not fair for me to tell you it will be anything but fantastic.

Of course I am DYING to advise you - on what to do with your older child, on which stroller to get, on what I might be able to hand down so that you don’t have to buy it twice - but this is not my pregnancy and these are not my kids. I guess the ultimate question is, would I do it again? I would. Cue in the personal growth stories, the search for finding the person behind the mom. But it’s more than that. It’s because this is really something special, something not everyone gets to have. You are really really lucky.

Of course, I am saying this from the end of the two year tunnel, the two years of madness that parents of multiples only acknowledge - or recognize perhaps - after it is over. A few days ago I was with Aidan and Matthew on the playground, a few towns over so that people weren’t used to seeing us, and it was a shock to realize that people were looking at us more than is usual. Not because I was speaking English to them in Germany, but because the two of them were running up and down the playground together, digging tunnels in the sand, sliding down the slide and exploring the landscape - all the while talking to eachother, working together and holding hands to pull one another up a steep incline.

It’s not always that idyllic - thirty minutes later I was pulling their hands out of one another’s hair - but it was a shock to remember that something that I see as ordinary, every day, is really in fact something quite special.

Welcome to the club. Enjoy.