Sometimes you can’t be there for your kids.

‘Sint Maarten,’ explains our nanny, ‘is like the Dutch Halloween.’  It has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween of course, instead, it celebrates Saint Martin, a man who took his sword to his cloak, slicing in half, so that he might share it, along with his bread with a cold and hungry beggar he met on the road.  

During the day, children make lanterns and when the sun sets, they take their lanterns out onto the street and go from door to door, singing songs to their neighbors in exchange for treats.  I didn’t love the idea of all of the treats, but I did love the idea of the festival.  I wrote the date on the calendar and then of course, promptly forgot it.  

‘I thought we could go away for the weekend for your birthday,’ I say to my husband.  He doesn’t really care for birthdays, especially his own, and generally, prefers to be on a plane heading somewhere.  For the last four years, he has managed to be on a plane, away from his family.  I love birthdays, but his general disregard for them, along with his tendency to just buy whatever he wants, makes him incredibly difficult to buy for.  So this year, I figured I’d come up with a winner.  This year, I would take him away for his birthday.  That way he would be on a plane, we would get to do something fun, and I’d actually get to celebrate his birthday with him.  Which he would hate, but I would love.  ‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘Too cold,’ he says, not looking up from his laptop where he is busily typing emails.

I close off all of the open tabs I have for hotels, restaurants and things to do.

‘Maybe we could go to that detox place Jeroen went to.  In Spain.’  Jeroen is someone he works with, and he had come back after four days away raving about this retreat.  My husband loves a retreat.  Somewhere that feels luxurious where he can practice yoga, get daily massages and ideally fast and get colonics.  Not exactly my idea of a good time.

‘Sure…’ I say, figuring I could opt out of the colonics and join him for the massages.

We settle on a place, book the accommodation, book the flights, and organize for our nanny to stay the weekend with the girls.  Everything is set.

My husband’s birthday, it turns out, is the same day as Sint Maarten.  By the time I realise everything is booked.  It is too late.  So I am in sunny Spain when my girls are making lanterns.  I am singing happy birthday with the waitress who has just presented my husband with a candle-lit chocolate cake for his birthday when my girls join the neighborhood kids and sing the Sint Maarten songs to everyone who answers their door.  I am not there to see my eldest’s face light up with delight at all the candy.  I am not there when my youngest, decides she is tired and cold and wants to go home three houses in.  

‘Look,’ I say, showing my husband the photos of the girls as they appear on WhatsApp.  

‘Nice,’ he says, without a second thought.

‘I’m sad.’

‘Why?’ he asks, genuinely confused.

‘Because we’re missing it.’  I wanted to be part of that memory, part of that experience.  It was the same way I’d felt when Mum had sent me the video of my eldest crawling for the first time.  I had barely left her side for more than an hour since she had been born, and she chose the one afternoon Mum had sent me away to buy some clothes that would actually fit, to crawl.   I felt sad and guilty and bad, as though I were committing a major parenting offense.  

‘I don’t,’ he says, completely unfazed and unemotional.  Sometimes I envy him that detachment.  The complete freedom he feels to just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  If he was there to share it with them great, if he wasn’t, great.  

Two days later, Sinterklaas arrives.  

‘The girls are making pictures for Sinterklaas to put in their shoe for when Sinterklaas comes tonight,’ messages our nanny while we are waiting at the airport.  

‘I thought Sinterklaas doesn’t come until the 5th December,’ I type back quickly, suddenly confused.  ‘Everything I read said that the shoes were set out on the night of the 5th,’  I say to my husband, as though there were something he could do about it. He shrugs, still nonplussed.  

‘Doesn’t this bother you at all?’ 

‘No.’

‘He arrives in the Netherlands today, but his birthday is the 5th December.’  Says the message from our nanny.  ‘They get the big presents on the 5th.’  

As we board our flight, my phone beeps.  A photo of the girls’ shoes lined up neatly in front of the fireplace, scrolls of drawings tied with ribbon poking out of each shoe.  Next to the shoes sit a block of chocolate for Sinterklaas and an apple and some water for his horse.   It’s darling and I want to cry.

At home, I ditch my bag and race up the stairs to my secret present cupboard, the one I’ve been filling since September.  Christmas thrills me and I select a necklace and bracelet, for each of the girls, some stickers, and new crayons.  Then I sneak back down the stairs.  I take a few bites out of the apple, eat several squares of chocolate, the same way my Mum did when I was young, and become part of an age-old tradition that keeps the magic of childhood alive.  

I take the drawings out and unravel them. Avarose looks as though she’s picked up whichever crayon was nearest to her and scribbled about on the page.  There is brown and blue and a little green.  It looks like she became bored quickly.  Grace meanwhile, has colored every inch of the page.  There is pink and purple and blue and yellow around the border and a picture in the middle, Sinterklaas maybe, and possibly his horse, Amerigo.  Maybe that’s what Avarose was drawing too.  I replace them with the beaded necklaces and bracelets, some stickers and new crayons.  Their favorite things at the moment.  Then I tiptoe back down the stairs to bed, impatient for the morning.

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When kids are the mirror you may not want to see

‘Stop arguing,’ says my eldest, dropping her fork on her plate and folding her arms across her chest.
‘We’re not arguing, darling, we’re just discussing,’ but my husband has gone quiet and refuses to make eye contact.  At least I didn’t think we were arguing.  I hadn’t meant to argue, I was trying to make a light-hearted point about him reorganizing my fridge.  It was light-hearted, wasn’t it?  Well, it started out that way, but then I went on and on about it, continuing the joke, the jibe, pushing just a little further.  The frustration taking over, and turning it into more of a poke than a jibe.  The table is quiet.  The aupair, is awkwardly smiling, pushing her food around.  My eldest is very clear that if it was a joke it stopped being funny a little while ago.  And my husband has that familiar flush he gets when he’s embarrassed.  I’ve shamed him.
So what?  My self-righteousness argues, if he’d bother to ask a question here or there then we wouldn’t be in this mess.  Sure he was trying to help, and I really appreciate that he was trying to help, but he would so make my life easier if he would bother to find out what would actually help, rather than deciding himself what the problem is and then going about solving it.  More often than not, it just creates more problems, more work for me.  So yes, I’m grateful for the effort, but I wish it didn’t have to cost me so much. 
‘You were in bed,’ he said to me.
‘Yes, but I had already organized with our Au Pair, what to put in the small fridge so as not to upset the system I’d spent about 2 hours this afternoon creating.’
‘2 hours, that’s a bit of a stretch.’
‘Did you ask her, how you could help, or what you could do that would help?’
He doesn’t answer, avoids eye contact, and I can see him winding himself up for a rant that has absolutely nothing to do with the point I’m making about asking.
‘Well, next time I just won’t help,’  he says, his jaw hard.
‘Well, now we’re fighting.’ 

The thing about children, is they have a knack for pointing out things you haven’t yet noticed.  But they also ensure you get time before you can respond.  The girls don’t go to bed for another hour and a half, we cannot talk about it now until they are asleep, and at the moment that takes at least half an hour.  So that’s two whole hours to sit and stew and be self-righteous and process and then be curious and self-reflective and … eventually even remorseful. 
‘Are you not talking to me?’ I ask him as I leave the girls room and sit on the floor in the lounge.  He is reclining into the corner of the couch, his iPad open in front of him.
‘I’m reading,’ he says not looking up.
‘Are you angry with me?’ I say to the back of his iPad.
‘Yes,’ says the blue glow behind the screen.
‘I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to embarrass you, it wasn’t my intention to shame you.  I took it too far.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it now, the girls aren’t quite asleep yet.’
‘Okay.’

A little while later, one of the girls are snoring, I contemplate staying in the lounge to do all the things that I need to do, my dutch homework sits there expectantly.  I’m so far behind.  I’m meant to do an hour tonight.  That’s not going to happen, I decide, tired.  I collect my books, my laptop, my drink, and head up the stairs to our bedroom.  He looks about the same as he did in the lounge.  Reclining on the bed now, iPad in front of his face.
‘Are you ready to talk now?’  I ask, keeping my tone light.  I don’t feel anxious this time, which is new.  Usually, I do when we argue.  I feel okay, safe, well safe-ish, I never really feel completely safe.  But this is the closest to safe I’ve felt arguing with him in a long time.  Usually, the first sign of conflict has triggered a massive upsurge in cortisol, which in turn stimulates too many memories of conflict turned dangerous.  Screaming, swearing, threats, and punches being thrown.  But not tonight.  Maybe the antidepressants are helping. 
‘About what?’ he says, his voice deliberately distant, almost cold.  He’s still angry.
‘About the argument.’
‘You’ve apologized, I’m still processing that.  It’s fine.’
‘Have you said everything you need to say?  I may have apologized but you might have more to say.  You don’t seem fine to me.’
‘Well, I’m angry.’
‘Yes, I see that.  But what else, what’s caused the anger?’  Growing up, my husband learned there are only two emotions, joy/pride and anger.  Everything else is rolled up into one neat package called anger.  When he is sad he is angry, when he is embarrassed he is angry, when he is confused he only shows anger.  It’s taken years, 4 of them in therapy, for him to begin to learn to scratch the surface of anger and see what lies beneath.
‘Well, I don’t like the way you spoke to me.  You were disrespectful. You were…’ he continues describing how bad I was, how wrong I was.
‘Yes.  But how did I make you feel when I was being disrespectful.’
‘What?’
‘Well, when I say someone was disrespectful, it’s usually because I didn’t feel heard or valued.  What did it make you feel?  Sad.  Embarrassed.  Ashamed….’  His face lights up.
‘Yeah, that one.’
‘Which one.’
‘You know I don’t like talking about this stuff.’
‘I know.’  It’s like I’m back at work.  It’s hard that he doesn’t know how to do this stuff.  It takes so long to get anywhere. 
‘Shame.’
‘I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to shame you.’  We made it!
‘Okay, thanks’ he picks up his iPad. 
‘We’re not done yet.’  I ignore him rolling his eyes.  ‘I’m frustrated.  I know that you were trying to help, but I don’t understand why you don’t ask for more information.  You didn’t ask Gabriela what you could do to help, you just took the job over and did it the best way you thought.  That’s completely okay if there is no one to ask.  But why didn’t you ask her what she was doing, or whether there was a plan before taking over?’
‘Well, I just won’t do it anymore.’
‘But that’s not helpful either.  I love that you want to help.  I love that you’re trying to help.  I don’t want you to think that I don’t want your help.  It would just be really helpful if you found out what you could do that would be helpful rather than decide that for yourself.  I don’t expect you to know everything, and you are not going to do things the way I would do them, but if you had asked, Gabriela would have been able to tell you what food needed to go into the other fridge without you having to rearrange the veggies that I had organised earlier that day.’  The conversation goes on because I cannot say anything simply or succinctly, but when I get to the end, he tells me that’s ‘fair enough,’ and I think, wow, did we just get somewhere?  And within half an hour?  Years of therapy, and I think we can finally do it – well, today anyway!

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To be loved like this

‘Mama, Mama, Mama…’ says my youngest, wrapping herself around my head like a boa constrictor. She presses her soft cheek against mine. I can feel her cheekbones. Her limbs slither about me, and then she rests. She can’t possibly be comfortable. I know I’m not, but it’s nice to be loved like this. My eldest loves on her own terms, and affection is given out in much smaller doses.

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Oh, the fighting…

I remember when I was a kid, my Mum was always talking about how much my brothers and I would fight. She used to tell us that our Uncle, who happened to be staying with us at the time, would hide in the garage until we had left for school just to avoid the noise. My brothers and I would laugh. Now, I find myself saying something similar to my girls it makes me wince. My girls have discovered the art of fighting. Yelling, crying, whinging, hitting, pinching, taunting, you name it, it’s in their armoury.

Now, I say similar things to my girls, trying to find the ‘thing’ that will make the yelling and crying, the whinging and the hitting, the pinching and the taunting stop. You name it, it’s in their armoury.

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How do you feel about living in Amsterdam?

‘So… how do you feel about living in Amsterdam for 12 months,’ says my husband, somewhat sheepishly.

Sure we’d talked about living in Europe for a year, Italy specifically, you know given that he is Italian. But doesn’t everyone talk about living abroad somewhere fabulous? At some point though, we know it’s just a fantasy, a tasty and delightful dream to live inside your own head, you know when the weather is bad, or you’re kids are marathon tantrumming. It’s not real, because then you have to deal with the cold realities of living in a country where you do not understand the customs, or why they have a chemist that is not actually a chemist, or why no one seems to accept credit cards.

‘Umm, what?’ I ask, trying to stall.

‘I’ve been working on a deal for the last six months. We put in a bid to buy a company in Amsterdam, and they just accepted our offer,’ he looks just above my head, as if the way out of this conversation were up there.

He keeps talking and I recognise words like ‘not definite’ and ‘pending due diligence’ through my flaming white rage/panic. I mean seriously, who works on a project that could completely change their family’s life for 6 months(!) without discussing it with their wife?? Special ops maybe, but my husband is no Arnie Swarzenegger in True Lies.

I yell a lot inside my own head, mostly the word No, repeatedly, I yell it a lot at him too. I feel a little better, not great, but definitely more satisfied. I’d spent less than 24 hours in Amsterdam. I knew people went there to get stoned. I knew they had great museums that were impossible to get into without planning, I knew they loved Miffy, because when I was there, decorated statues of the little bunny were everywhere.

‘You can’t get good food there,’ my effortlessly chic French friend, who always looks impeccable at school pick up tells me. ‘But it’s a good lifestyle, you’ll love it.’

‘It’s like the best bits of Melbourne and Byron Bay,’ says my husband, you’re not going to want to come back.

I read a book by an Australian woman who lived on a houseboat for two years.

‘Can we live on a houseboat?’ I ask my husband, looking up from the book. He glances at our 2 and 4 year old and raises his eyebrows.

Fast forward several months through the yelling and the ranting, the indecision and the panic attacks, and there we were, my husband and I, our four-year-old, our 2-year-old, our 10 bags, our Australian nanny, her fiancé (sure, we did not really know him, but she loved him, so he had to be pretty great, right?) and my mother, (because our nanny had injured her back 2 weeks before we were scheduled to fly out and was deemed unfit for work for at least 4 weeks), all of us, blinking in the garish fluorescent lighting at the check in counter at Tullamarine at stupid o’clock in the morning. All of us, embarking on this wild european adventure, together. How bad could it be?

‘It’s just an experiment’, I say to my husband, ignoring the buzzing feeling in my head and trying to remember how to breathe.

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