Sunday, 18 March 2018

Third Culture Parents

I remember explaining how things would be, ahead of time. Setting her expectations and painting a picture of the church hall, the teacher, the other kids. We’d already picked out her little outfit that she was so excited to wear. And, even as I held her hand and led her into the dance class for the first time, introducing her to the svelte dance teacher with the smiling eyes, I imagined her skipping around to tunes I had danced to when I was her age.

I’m used to that role, you know? Preparing my little one for new environments and staying by her side as she navigates everything for the first time. It’s a little disconcerting when I don’t know what’s going on, I’m not sure where things are, and I have no way to prepare her for what is ahead.

It’s happened a lot since we’ve lived in Spain. Every situation in which I would know what to expect were I in either of my other ‘home countries’ is done differently here. And, just as in every place, there are unspoken rules and norms that everyone assumes were downloaded to me at the same time as we loaded our GPS with updated European maps.

Of course, there’s the normal stuff of where to be when. No biggie, right? You can pretty much figure that out in the first few weeks in a place. Then there’s what you do and don’t do at certain times. Like, don’t call on anybody between 3 and 6 in the afternoon during the summer. It seems so obvious now. And always serve bread with a meal, and only make deposits at the bank on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you can park how you like but cyclists always have right of way, even if they are riding three abreast.

Well, we’ll have been here five years in August and we’re bimbling along. We can ask for directions and actually understand them when they’re offered, and we can follow maybe 25% of the 375 WhatsApp messages that hit our message groups every day, from school, or other parents, or the running club, or the language class. I still hate speaking on the phone but, when I do, I don’t break out in a sweat. All that’s progress, I can tell you.

Yet, sometimes, as I approach a new situation, I still feel like a little child on the inside; slightly nonplussed with a frisson of anxiety. 

Yesterday, our youngest attended the birthday party of a school friend. We’d organised ahead of time that another mum would take our girls to the party, and we would collect them. The venue was changed about 30 minutes before the party because of the likelihood of rain. Neither venue was a place I knew, so I didn’t think it made that much difference. I spoke to Manu before she left, explaining which adult she was to talk to if she needed anything, that she was to stay with her friends at all times, you know the spiel. “I’m not a baby, Mum!” she reacted. Well, no, but you’re my baby, I thought.

As she went off confidently with her friend, chatting fluently in Spanish, I realised how often our roles are reversed. She feels completely comfortable while I am the one who needs my hand holding. Fetching her later, already stressed by navigating the so-not-obvious highway system of on- and off-ramps, and the busy commercial complex with no clear signs indicating the place I wanted, I struggled to find her. Everything inside the amusement centre appeared chaotic to me, apparently the kids were at the Go Karts, and where in the hell was that? And is a Go Kart a Go Kart in Spanish? And who do I ask, in this sea of kids and families, where this particular party group is located? Standing close to the hotdog stand, surrounded by a wall of noise, trying to contact other parents who might be here, for help, suddenly I see Manu.

She’s with her friends, she knows exactly where she’s supposed to be and what’s happening, she’s had fun and is full of stories. She leads me over to the birthday girl’s mum so we can say goodbye. And then I wonder, will it always be like this here? This is more her world than mine, she knows how things work, and she is the one taking me by the hand to steer me through what seems strange and anxiety-producing to me.

Parenting has its different seasons, for sure. As our kids get older they need us less, and we have to get used to that. They have a heap of good ideas and helpful advice, and we learn from them just as they learn from us. Raising a third culture kid takes this up a notch or ten. We are raising kids in cultures and language contexts which are second nature to them, and which still feel a bit strange to us. As parents, we will always be a step behind our kids in language fluency and cultural ease. 

I think I can embrace this as a good thing, you know? While she’ll always need her mum, our relationship is already enjoying the benefits of knowing we are both learners in this world. But I’ll be honest with you, I sure would like her to stop correcting my accent in public!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Still a Brit, after all these years

I’m thinking back to an exchange I had with a neighbour when we lived in Cape Town. He owned the lovely stone cottage we rented, and lived in a much larger, grander home a bit higher on the hill. The area we lived in was called Kalk Bay, a gorgeous old fishing village in the southern suburbs of Cape Town proper. Still functioning as a place for catching, buying and eating fish, Kalk Bay had by then also become a bit of a hippy-chic place. And we were into it, I tell you. The slightly run-down feel hid a brilliant book shop, a tiny and fabulous theatre, a film club and countless others touchpoints for creatives and wannabe artists: heaven on earth!

And I felt like a local. I loved nothing better than walking down the hill in my flip flops, after a trail run on the mountainside, to buy fresh croissants from the bakery and exchange a few words with familiar faces. I’d pop into the small supermarket for some milk and coffee, or to post a letter at the post office. This was home to me and it felt like the best fit of anywhere I’d ever lived.

So when my neighbour dropped a throwaway comment about my true identity, I felt as though I’d been caught as a fraud. He said something about how British we still were, after several years living in Africa. Well, what does that mean? I grumbled to myself. Both our babies were born in South Africa, all our friends were South African. We were doing a pretty good job of blending in, dammit!

Since that time, we have spent a couple of years living back in the UK, where I felt less British than ever in spite of the ease of the familiar. And now of course we are in Spain, where I just feel culturally muddled! 

So I got to thinking: in what ways am I still culturally very British in my ways of interacting with others? What does it mean to be British, anyway?! Here are five things I came up with.

1. As a rule, we tend to be more private than some other cultures.
I have lived in group cultures where everyone knows everything about one another and it makes me a feel a bit nervous! After all these years living out of Britain, I have retained a pretty private approach to life (Facebook notwithstanding!). I probably won’t talk freely or easily about my finances, or my marriage, for example. And my private space - my home, and in my home, my bedroom - are the places where I feel most at ease. It's always a relief to withdraw to my own space at the end of the day.

2. A cup of tea really is the answer to most situations.
It’s an instinct that's hard to break: if someone is upset, or something difficult or shocking just happened, something deep within me wants to put the kettle on! And no, it doesn’t matter if it is 35°C outside, there is no wrong time to have a cup of tea. Of course, as an abject snob I am snobby about my tea; loose leaf Lady or Earl Grey really is the way to go. In caf├ęs around the world, getting used to being served a cup of tepid water with the tea bag on the side has been one of the harsher realities of living cross-culturally. There are just so many things wrong with that.

3. It comes naturally to downplay either a crisis or an achievement.
Brits are mostly brilliant in a crisis, quite simply because they don’t make a big deal about it but just get on with it. Making a big deal about anything, really, is slightly frowned upon. Which is why we have to learn to celebrate achievements (I have been practising this one, believe me). We prefer to downplay things, especially our own moments of brilliance. This is where Brits and Americans can really part ways - Brits tend to see the ra-ra of bigging up achievements as a bit fake, not really sincere. Unless it’s football, that’s quite different.

4. It is normal for us to cheer on the underdog.
There is something hard-wired within us that somehow sees this as a justice issue. We don’t want the winner to always win, we think it’s bad for their ego, or something. No, we want the underdog to have a fair go, and all the better if they actually win (just not too many times, obviously). I think this is connected with downplaying achievements, but I haven’t figured out exactly how. It might also be connected to football.

5. Rules and queues are there for a reason.
In general, we do like things to be done properly. Properly means in the way that’s been agreed upon. Why would you agree a certain way to do things and then not do them that way? This is why we prefer to be told the way to do things, because then we can do them the correct way. Having to discover, by trial and error, the right way to do things, is a real pain in the neck. And potentially thoroughly embarrassing because you might get it wrong. These things matter, somehow. Some of this is to do with things working smoothly and efficiently. Which is why we like queues (that and our penchant for justice; it’s just more fair than having people butting in).

So, if you see me around and about, queuing for hours because everyone else keeps getting in line ahead of me, don’t make too much of a big deal of it. Just offer me a decent cup of tea and all will be well.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Top 5 Titles for Today

You know you've read a good book when you find yourself recommending it to several friends, right? I tend to have a few titles on my bedside table at once - a book for every mood, you know? This morning, I thought I would share with you those recently read books that I keep returning to.

1. A book about the Spiritual Journey

This is a great book if you want a clear perspective on what life as a follower of Jesus (or indeed, as a human) is all about. It's straightforward and clear, and the second section takes you through a number of practices to help you grow. Plus, anything endorsed by Ruth Haley Barton gets my vote - I am listening to her podcasts at the moment, and there are always at least of couple of mic drop moments in there for me.

2. A book about Failing

If you find yourself in the middle of a difficult season of life, one you wonder if you will ever exit from in one piece, this is the book for you. It can be a little dense, but Rohr shares some invaluable lessons about the meaning - and indeed the necessity - of coming to the end of our own resources. There is life after failure, crisis, bereavement, wilderness. And if you surrender to the process, you might just find it!

3. A book about Desire

I cannot remember how many times I have recommended this book! It makes sense of why my life is the way it is, of what I can do to invite change, and of how the things I do on a regular basis form and shape my life. If you want to toss out the endless need to drum up motivation to do the 'right' thing, by finding ways to nurture good desires, this is the book for you. For a sneak preview, search for the title on You Tube which has a bunch of great videos by the author.

4. A book of Poems

I know not everyone considers herself a poet, or even reads poetry. But this anthology is a treasure trove of beautiful words that speak to the human journey. I have used these poems to open teaching times, as meditations, and as inspiration. If you want to take a peek into the world of poetry, this would be a great place to start!

5. A Novel

This title is probably more familiar to you and it is well worth the rave reviews. Beautiful, lyrical and a great story. If your stack of bedside reading doesn't contain a novel, add this to your list.

Happy reading, friends! And I am always on the lookout for great books, so feel free to comment with your own fave reads of the moment!

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

If you are a young mum, this is for you

I remember what it was like to have my first baby. I felt powerful and exhausted, all at the same time. It was a season in life of learning to surrender my own desires - for sleep, for time alone, to be able to run without boobs that felt like melons - to the journey. 

In other words, I had to grow up, put up and shut up!

I’ve always been someone who’s a little too ambitious for my own good. I thought I could do everything - have this new baby, adjust to this great life change, and still get to the gym to work out, or go for an early morning bike ride.

In some ways, it’s true. Where there’s a will there’s a way: by making it a priority, I did manage to work exercise into my new rhythms. I lost the baby weight and made time for the things that were important to me. A super-supportive husband helped a lot, of course! All this was part of my own coping strategy; physical exercise helps to moderate the emotions, flung this way and that by hormones and lack of sleep, and it strengthens you mentally to do something that is just for you, when the rest of life is all about your new little human.

On reflection, though, I think I could have been kinder to myself, a little gentler. I would have stayed in my PJs more often, taken more naps, read more books. I still would have worked out - being comfortable in your skin is a huge gift you can give yourself - but I would have found a way to do so that was kinder, less hard work.

If only I had known then what I know now.

If I could give one gift to all new mums it would be a subscription to Beachbody On Demand. I’m not just saying that. At that season of life, I would have loved to have had access to dozens of different workout programs, put together by excellent trainers, streamed to me in my own home. There is even a program especially for this season of life, along with many others you can progress to in your own time.

The biggest advantage of this is that when you get 30 minutes in the day when your baby is taking a nap, or their dad is on hand to help, you can invest in yourself. You can get your blood flowing, re-energising your body with all that oxygen, elevating your mood and helping you to sleep more deeply when you get the chance. I guarantee that this energy expenditure will increase your energy throughout the day. And it is priceless, really, to know that in the midst of the maelstrom that is new parenthood, you are strengthening yourself to be the best parent you can be. 

Heck, you can workout in your PJs if needs be!

There are a few young mums who have joined our Whole Fitness group on Facebook. So now they’re not only exercising, but they are also part of a supportive community of people who will cheer them on and celebrate their progress.

If this sounds like something that would help you in this season of your life, do message me. I’d love to get alongside you in your journey to be a great parent and a great YOU!

Friday, 2 February 2018

Mental Health for Runners

I’m distracted and fragmented. My mind is all over the place. I imagine myself as some figure made from magnetic filaments who is pulled first in one direction and then another, particles trailing in the wake of the latest magnetic tug.

My running clothes are still there on the floor, where I left them last night. I told myself I would head out as soon as I woke up, but I had a disrupted night’s sleep and coffee was all I could think about this morning. The pile of brightly coloured kit taunts me from the corner of the bathroom, pestering me to get dressed and get moving.

It’s almost dusk when I finally capitulate. I feel like I am gathering puddles of myself from here and there, scooping the bits together until I fill out the snug contours of the runner’s uniform. Even so, the centre is vacuous; something is missing.

I make my way into the gathering gloom, legs heavy, struggling to find my rhythm. For a while I think of turning back, of giving up. The street is littered with these flyaway parts of me - thoughts and feelings, obligations and concerns, comparisons and fears. All chasing me, trying to catch up, to cling on.

Demands, responsibilities, concerns. They cling; they pull. Distractions, an overload of stimulation that thins me out. My soul yearns for something robust enough to hold me in all of this; something still enough and quiet enough to hush the inner noise.

Somehow, as my body shakes down into this rhythmic pavement beat, my thoughts and feelings do too. There is some kind of drawing together, the centre becomes once again sufficiently weighty to hold all the disparate pieces - not in a way that makes sense but in a way that has form.

When stillness is illusive and silence hard to find, give me a pair of running shoes and I'll pound my way into a settledness for my soul.

Monday, 29 January 2018

My Solo-Parenting Survival Plan

The man returns today from his latest trip. Already I am grateful that he will do this afternoon's school run, pick up a few groceries and help with maths homework. Honestly, if you are a single mum and reading this, I don't know how you do it. Sure, the odd week here and there isn't too diabolical, but to single parent every day? Well, hats off to you, is all I can say!

For those of us less practised in the juggling act that is the life of the working single parent, I have pulled together the things I do to make Tim's absences a little easier to bear. If this is not your life season right now ... lucky you! May this serve as a wee glimpse into this aspect of our lives.

1. Lower your expectations
I have found that my usual, overly ambitious self has to be put firmly in her place when Tim is gone. Far better to reduce my expectations of myself for a short time. I need to focus on the essentials and postpone my plans to host guests, or run races, or participate in everything on offer, whether socially or at work. If the kids are fed and clothed and where they should be when, I pat myself on the back. This enables me to get number 2 right, which is ...

2. Leave plenty of margins
It appears to be a pattern that is almost predictable, that when Tim is gone the dog will get sick, or the washing machine will break, or a tree will get blown right onto our fence. Somehow, I have learned to expect the unexpected at times like these. (This week, for example, my lower back totally seized up.) Unless I leave margins, I will get completely overwhelmed by such small dramas. When I leave margins, I can be more present to the kids and have extra energy to spare should the unexpected happen. Which sort of connects to number 3 ...

3. Keep the main thing the main thing
It's hard when your dad is not around. You miss the way he reads out loud to you, which just seems to make everything feel alright with the world. You miss his help with the sort of homework that he just explains so much better than your mum. You miss his silly jokes and walking the dog with him. In short, the main thing when Tim is gone is my ability to be present to the kids. Does this mean that I give them all my attention all the time? Uh, no! But it does mean that we might skip church because it feels more important to spend the morning in our PJs, chilling with books and hot chocolate. Because their mental health is my mental health!

4. Simplify anyway you can
Yes, this does mean we might eat (veggie) burgers more than once. It does mean the dogs get their basic walk and that has to be enough. It does mean laundry is pulled straight from the dryer and folded, without passing the ironing board (oh, wait, that's what we always do!). Anyway, you catch my drift. Life has to be simplified, and that isn't a bad thing.

5. Have enough structure for things to run smoothly
I'll be honest, when Tim is away I feel like it's a great opportunity to drift away from structure just a bit more than normal. Bedtimes can easily get extended, workouts skipped, homework or music practice postponed. It feels like life should be easier that way. In reality, though, everyone gets overtired because they went to bed late, I get grumpy because I missed the energy-boost of a morning workout, and we have meltdowns because homework has piled up and become overwhelming. Everything runs more smoothly when I pay attention to getting the girls to bed on time, when I set my alarm to get up early and spend an hour with my bible, journal and dumbbells, and when I track the girls' homework schedule. It also helps to post on the fridge the days until Tim's homecoming and to have Manu tick them off (perhaps along with a motivational quote chosen with my teenager in mind!).

6. Don't forget to have fun
When you have to be the all-singing, all-dancing solo parent it is very easy to forget to do any singing or dancing at all! But a dance party after supper, or a sleepover in the sitting room, or even putting the clearing up on hold to take 10 minutes to laugh over silly online videos, can really lighten the load. I am a task-oriented person and when I'm feeling too much responsibility, I need reminding to stop all the busyness and just giggle with the girls. It's the best therapy there is!

Parenting isn't easy even when there are two of you. Solo parenting requires the prescription of great big chill pill. At least, that's what helps me survive.

And now, off to the airport to draw this particular solo parenting escapade to a close.

Friday, 26 January 2018

They know my name

It was a spur of the moment thing, really. I hadn’t really trained for it but I figured I’d been feeling pretty strong. I could run for two hours; heck, why not do a half marathon?

I went ahead and filled in the online entry, taking a quick look at the map of the 21km route. Since this is an annual event in the town where we live, I’d be running from the local sports centre and right past the bottom of our street. Who knows, I might even get Tim and the kids to get out of bed to cheer me on!

I checked in with the running club via WhatsApp. And yes, a few others were taking part in the shorter, 7km route. Just one other woman would be running the 21km. We’d probably see one another at the start line and that would be it. But I’m used to running solo, so I don’t need to feel supported, necessarily, and I didn’t think too much about this being a community event.

We’d entered the shorter race as a family a couple years prior. It rained the whole way around and as I remember it took us more energy to get the kids to the finish than it took to actually run! That was early in our time in Spain and I don’t remember seeing any faces I recognised lining the route. We thought that by entering a local event we would feel a sense of belonging, but it sort of had the opposite effect. We got home, soaked through and feeling miserable. Another of mommy’s bright ideas fallen flat.

So my expectations for the half marathon were not high. So much the sweeter, then, to receive unexpected gifts of encouragement along the way.

Women from the running club had congregated at the start line. I’m not as regular a participant as I would like in the club - sometimes the hundreds of WhatsApp messages about hairstyles, kids or where to find good deals on running shoes all work to obscure the vital information about where and when they are meeting to run - but they still treat me as one of their own. Which means, I wear club kit and get to be included in the endless round of team photos at the beginning, middle and end of club runs. Somehow, in spite of the muddle I sometimes make of communication, I do feel I belong with these women. I run, they run, we’re all female - it’s as simple as that.

It turned out that another friend had also entered the race and we ran a short part of it together. He lost me on one of the many hills and I found myself looking for him for the remainder of the race. In the end he only came in 1 minute ahead of me, but during the race that minute kept him out of sight. So, after we’d passed the point at which the 7km route turned towards its finish line and the half marathoners toiled on, I mostly ran alone.

Yet, all along the route, non-particpating members of the Corredoras de Alhaurin were cheering and supporting the runners. And here’s the thing: they knew my name! They called out, yelling for those they recognised as one of them. And, somewhat to my surprise, that included me! Those standing close to the finish held out a hand and ran a few metres with me. All of them cheered their strength and support.

It was a special moment for me. Not because the race itself was spectacular, or because I am some sort of champion. But because I felt as though I belonged, that this is my home. I am known by name, included and recognised as part of the group.

During our 4½ years in Spain, I have not always felt this sense of belonging. Often, I have felt confused and shut out, missing vital cues that might explain why all the shops are closed on a particular day, or why all the other kids have gone to school in some costume or another. It takes time to learn enough of a language to feel competent in following directions, or asking for some help or assistance. It is not easy to feel the one who is perpetually a step behind everyone else, finally figuring out how to become a member of the local swimming pool, or turning up for appointments on the wrong date. 

I am sure those humbling moments are not completely behind me. But in the meantime, I will revel in the sense of belonging I had, to run as a local in a local event. 

Believe me, it was sweet.