How to know if your child is ready to ride a bike.

I remember my eldest daughters first steps.  She’s always been determined and when she decides she’s going to do something, she dedicates herself to it completely.  A week before her first birthday, we were in the kitchen.  I was tidying up after breakfast, putting the butter away.  She pulled herself up to standing, using her little table.  This wasn’t new, she’d been pulling herself to standing for months now.  Usually, she sat down quick smart, as if something in her brain had just registered the potential risks associated with this new upright position.  She has also always been rather cautious.  Once she knows she can do something though, there is no holding her back.  This day, however, she was done with being wary.  As I bent to put a plate in the dishwasher, I caught a look of intense concentration on her face. 

As I bent to put a plate in the dishwasher, I caught a look of intense concentration on her face.  First, her right foot shuffled forward, then her left.  She still had hold of the table, but she was moving.  She lifted her foot, and took a proper step, and then another.  She reached the end of the table, and paused, seeming to weigh up the distance to the cupboard, and then she stepped.  One, Two, Three.  She arrived at the cupboard, then promptly turned around and walked back to the table.  One, Two, Three.   For four hours, she walked from the table to the bench, back to the table, to the other bench, and back again.  She refused to do anything else.  She was not interested in her lunch, nor was she interested in playing outside.  All she wanted to do was walk.

Her tenacity and her focus inspire me.  Sure, it’s frustrating when we are at a stand-off, but it remains to this day, one of the things I love most about her.  This last summer, she decided she wanted a bike.  She was 4, it was time.  I had wanted to start her off with a balance bike, but my husband wanted a bike with stabilizers.  On holiday in Italy, we happened to be in a sporting goods store where upon the girls pounced upon a couple of bikes with stabilizers and proceeded to race each other up and down the aisles, giggles flying in their wake.  They were so excited, so I surrendered.  

My girls spent the rest of our holiday terrorising tourists in the many piazzas surrounding Lago di Garda.  Fortunately, they are still cute enough to get away with it.  Especially when my eldest, who had decided at some point during the holiday that underwear was not an essential clothing item, stopped her bike just before a puddle, to hoik her skirt up to her shoulders so that it wouldn’t get wet, revealing her dimpled bottom to everyone in the piazza.  

Back at home though, (after my husband had finally figured out how to get the girls’ bikes on the plane to Amsterdam, apparently bubble wrap, miles of packing tape and a sweet smile at the check-in counter will do the trick) I noticed the stabilisers were actually causing more problems than they were preventing.  Both of my girls were repeatedly coming off their bikes because they were turning too sharply.  The stabilizers were giving them a false sense of security and of stability, and consequently, they were not learning how to manoeuvre the bikes safely. 

When my husband was away on a business trip, I took the stabilisers off.  My intention was to turn these bikes into balance bikes by simply removing the pedals.  I’d looked it up on YouTube, how hard could it be?  Hard, it turns out.  Actually, impossible with the bikes we had.  My eldest, having grown frustrated with the length of time I was taking to give back her bike, decided that she would just learn how to ride it as it was.  And so, for the next half an hour, she pedalled and steered, while I ran along behind her till she had a feel for it.

‘Don’t let go,’ she said, glaring at me.  

‘I won’t dare, not until you are ready,’ I reassured, huffing and puffing and wishing I could sit down.

‘Let go,’ she said ten minutes later, as though I were some overbearing helicopter Mum she couldn’t get rid of. 

‘Let go,’ she demanded ten seconds later when I hadn’t let go fast enough. 

I let go, and she was off.  Legs pumping furiously, hands over correcting wildly.  It wasn’t perfect, but she was upright and she was riding.  Two hours later, she was still riding.  Up and down the same stretch of road, over and over and over again, but she had it now.    

‘Mama, Mama, watch me,’ she called out, blissfully proud of herself.  

This morning, when I woke up, I had no idea today would be another milestone day.  Sometimes this job is pretty amazing. 

Read More

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.

Read More

How to Get Comfortable with Your Own Nakedness

‘I’ve booked us in for a massage at the deco spa,’ my husband says, typing something into his laptop and then turning it around to show me a luxurious Art Deco building with dark panelling, gold, lines and motifs that even Gatsby would drool over.  

‘Yay!  I so want to go!’  I clap my hands together.  I could definitely use this after the morning we’ve had. 

‘There’s just one thing,’ he says to me, winking, ‘it’s a naked spa.’

‘What?’ 

Read More

When Caring and Fear Dance

My eldest places her pink bunny on the toddler swing, carefully doing up the seatbelt that will not hold her bunny until it nibbles the correct side of  Alice’s mushroom, but she does it up anyhow.  Her bunny falls to the ground.  She picks it up, dusts him off and places him tenderly back onto the seat.  

She pushes the swing with all the care and love I used to push her.  She’s bigger now, and no longer needs me, ‘I can do it,’ she insists whenever I attempt to recreate one of those earlier moments.  Now I get to sit and watch her.  I smile, I can’t help it.  

‘Watch her,’ she says to me, running over to get her croissant.  She tears off a chunk with her teeth but she doesn’t race back, the way I used to with her.  ‘Tell me when the swing slows and I’ll push,’ hers is a much more relaxed approach.  I wish I’d been more like that.  Less panicked that something disastrous was going to happen the minute I turned my back.  She eats her croissant leisurely.  

Read More

On Coming to Terms with Your Inner Perfectionist

Thursday before the light festival, I look out the window at our courtyard.  It is filled with autumn leaves.  In my head, I see my girls and I out there, cleaning up the garden, raking up the leaves and then jumping in them again (cue schmaltzy music), before finally lighting a fire in the fire pit to toast marshmallows and celebrate the end of Samhain.  It’s so idyllic I can barely stand myself. 

I’ve a bee in my bonnet about festivals and establishing our family culture through celebrations that reconnect us with nature’s rhythms and cycles.  Probably it’s because I feel disconnected from them.  Days and weeks flow by, and I feel caught up like on a treadmill, with so much doing.  Summer flies by, turns into autumn and before I know it, winter is here, and I feel like I’ve forgotten to make time to connect with any of it.

Of course, this is not entirely true. The girls and I spent much of this summer climbing trees and riding our bikes.  We’ve spent time at the beach, and swum, and collected shells, and we’ve made sandcastles.  This autumn, we have collected autumn leaves, we have danced in them, and rolled in them, and thrown them about.  We have cooked pumpkins and baked muffins and explored painting in autumnal colours.  Yet my inner perfectionist is still not pleased, it’s not enough.       

When Sunday finally arrives though, we are sick, and tired, and ratty.  My husband is due home this morning, but his flight has been delayed.  He’s been gone a week, and I’ve slept maybe 12 hours over the course of the week.  Nothing has gone to plan, but still, I am holding fast to the idea that our family will have a magical time around the fire pit this afternoon.  Instead it drizzles all afternoon, and all my girls wind up doing is snuggling up under blankets reading books and drawing. 

It is lovely but it is not a fire. 

Read More

Flowers, candles, cards and chestnuts. Celebrating death and celebrating Life.

It is the Day of the Dead, and it is pouring with rain.  My phone beeps with a message from our AuPair, who was leading us in this Peruvian celebration.  She is not coming.  I contemplate cancelling.  Maybe it is a ridiculously morbid idea to drag two young children to a cemetery for a picnic.   When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

‘But we all die,’ I say, trying to understand him.

‘I’m not going to,’ 

I raise my eyes sceptically.

‘I’m going to be frozen, then when technology has advanced they can bring me back.’ 

His answer is so much worse than I thought it was going to be.  ‘Like Disney?’ I ask.

‘Exactly.’

‘But we’ll all be dead.’

‘That’s okay, I’ll just start again.’

‘Glad we can be so easily replaced,’ I laugh.

My tin man shrugs.  

‘Don’t you need to be frozen alive though?’

‘No, they’ll have figured that all out by then.’

‘Will they?’ I ask, curious about this new future world he thinks will be waiting for him.  

‘Yes, I’m going to come back when it’s like Star Trek, and I can travel the universe visiting other planets and galaxies.’

I’ve heard this speech more than once now, and I still do not know what to do with it.

As rain fills the streets, I ask our nanny ‘Should we still go to the cemetery?’ 

She looks up Buienradar, the weather app that governs our lives, she shrugs, ‘it’s going to rain on and off, but if we rug up and take our umbrellas…’

‘How bad can it be…?’ I finish for her.

So we go.  The girls climb into the bike, I secure the cover and our nanny and I follow google maps through parts of Amsterdam I’ve never seen.  We pass a skatepark and I drop a star, we’ve been looking for one ever since the girls got their scooters.  We ride through a really picturesque neighbourhood, and I drop another star.  Just in case my husband and I decide to live out our current fantasy about staying in Amsterdam inevitably.  

At the cemetery, my phone switches itself off.  It still has 23% battery and I’m determined not to make anything of it.   How bad can it be…?

We collect our picnic, paper, pencils, flowers and candles and walk into the cemetery.  The rain has stopped and there is nothing but blue skies and sunshine.  The russet oak leaves glow in the sunlight, and we make our picnic under a tree with leaves that look like fingers.  

‘It’s a, a, …castagne tree, oh I can’t think of the name in English,’  she says, bringing her hand to her face.
‘A chestnut tree?’ 

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘is it the same in English?’

‘No, but it’s the same in Italian.’  

There’s something really lovely about trying to communicate in different languages.  It’s like playing a game of charades, only I really can’t draw.  

The girls eat their snacks, draw their pictures for Gigi and then pick a tree to bury our letters under.   

A leaf mulching tractor screams its way down the path, and my eldest jumps up onto the park bench and refuses to get down.  I love that being in a cemetery doesn’t phase her, but the leaf mulcher does.  It takes me five minutes to convince her the tractor is not coming back before she finally climbs down from the chair. 

The girls race around delivering flowers to the different graves around us.  They pick up the plastic vases that are on offer and proudly fill them up at the tap on their own.  It’s possible they are having more fun filling the vases than decorating the graves.  My youngest pushes her vases in next to her

My youngest pushes her vases in next to her sisters so that we have about three graves that are very well decorated.  I stifle the urge to move the vases.

My eldest discovers the fallen chestnuts and dumps the rest of the flowers unceremoniously into the vase before racing to fill every container and bag we have with chestnuts to roast on the fire later.

There is something lovely about collecting the fallen treats, a symbolic representation of life’s cycle perhaps, and a reminder of the indefatigability of life.   It was the same feeling I’d had when the girls and I visited the monument to the 6000 murdered Jews in Berlin last year.  A place that you would expect to be incredibly somber, and yet, the site remains my children’s favorite ‘playground’ in Berlin.  Flashes of pink appearing between the grey pillars that from the outside all appear the same height, but from the inside tower at differing heights as the uneven ground rises and falls in undulating waves.  Parents chased giggles as kids disappeared, then reappeared and then disappeared again. 

Having celebrated both life and death, we piled ourselves, and our basket now overflowing with chestnuts, back into the bike and attempted to find our way home.  Inexplicably, my phone turned itself back on.  As the rain poured down on top of us, we peddalled as fast as we could, our hats jammed down over our heads, feeling a little more alive, than we had that morning.

How do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?

Read More

As the veil between this world and the next closes, who are you thinking of?

For the last few months, my eldest has been interested in death.  Every time she opens up the photo book my Mum made her for her first birthday to the page with my Grandmother, she asks the same question.

‘That’s Gigi isn’t it.’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Gigi isn’t alive anymore is she?’

‘No,’ I say, smiling at the last photograph I have of my grandmother.  It was taken at my brother’s 30th birthday party, just six weeks before my grandmother died.  She was holding my daughter, she looked awkward and sad as if she knew what was coming even if we didn’t.  But she was smiling too, a brave smile. ‘She died when you were only four months old.’

‘Can we do something for her?’ she asks. I can see her mind trying to grapple with the ineffableness of death.  What is it?  What does it mean?  Where do people go?  She’s not asking these questions yet, but I know they are coming.  I recognise the anxiety she has.  It flares up at night when the world is quiet and the shadows come out to play.  That’s when mine flares up too.  I’ve always been terrified of death, for as far back as I can remember.  When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember waking up inconsolable from a dream.  In it, I’d watched my entire life, myself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, getting married, having children, having grandchildren, a long and glorious life, over in a flash.  ‘It’s so quick,’ I remember saying over and over to my Mum.  ‘Then it’s all over.’

‘Of course, we can do something for her,’ I say, hugging her tight.  ‘I think that’s an excellent idea.’  I often think about my Grandmother.  I think about the terrible sadness that shadowed so much of her life, and the soul-destroying anxiety that plagued her, till her last day. My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is in storage now.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is holidaying at my Mum’s.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

Our AuPair is from Peru.  ‘November 2nd is the day of the dead,’  I tell her.  ‘But I don’t know anything about it.’

‘It’s a big celebration in Peru,’ she says, pushing her wild, dark curls back from her face.  Her dark brown eyes light up, as she talks about how her family would get together in the morning to prepare for the day.  Together they would bake bread, with fruit inside for luck, they would make candles, and tie dozens of posies, and then they would all sit quietly writing their letters to their dead.  ‘Then we take a picnic and wine, lots of wine, the wine is very important, and we all go down to the cemetery and have a party.’

‘And you decorate the graves with the flowers and the candles?’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘we leave flowers on the graves of people who don’t have anyone to celebrate them, and we light candles, and we drink.’

‘We could do that, maybe without the alcohol, we could have kombucha and mineral water instead!  But we could definitely make candles, and posies and have a picnic at the cemetery.’  I google the nearest cemetery and find that it is only a 20-minute bike ride away.  I really like cemeteries, I’ve always had a weird fascination for them.  For the stories they tell. The lives that have been lived that I know nothing about.  I used to spend hours walking around Melbourne cemetery when I lived in Carlton North.

‘What if we draw a picture for Gigi?’ I say to my eldest, who is busy playing shops with her sister, ‘and then we make a picnic to take to the cemetery and we bury it there, as a way to let her know we are thinking about her.’

My daughter’s smile grows wide, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ she says so enthusiastically her sister begins to cheer also, despite not really knowing what we are talking about.

Read More

Our First Halloween

‘Mama, I need green,’ says my eldest as she cuts the paper plate into a circle. 
We tape the black hat and orange paper hands she had already cut out, onto the plate to make the witches hair, and then she draws a face, with a big pointy nose.  For some reason, witches have pointy noses.
‘There!’ She says with pride, sticking it to the wall. 

It is the first Halloween we have celebrated.  My daughter’s teacher is American, and so we are learning to embrace American culture as well as Dutch, and Peruvian.  Ignoring my daughter’s tendency to pronounce ‘tomato’ with a short a, rather than the longer ah sound that I am used to, this multicultural approach to living is proving to be richly rewarding and a whole lot of fun.   

Our house is now completely overrun with pumpkins, toilet-roll bats and paper-doll ‘ghosties’. 

Read More

How to Break Your Own Rules

‘I kind of want to add a coin,’ says my friend as we stand in the middle of a great paddock in Yorkshire looking at a log peppered with one and two pence coins.  It is modern art, the gallery tells me.  It looks a lot like logs I used to climb when I was at school, except that instead of a pox of chewing gum it is covered in coins.  I like the coins more.  I don’t know what it is about art museums, I feel more intelligent, more cultured and at the same time completely uncultured and uneducated.  I cannot remember the name of the artist.  My friend knows his name.  She knows most artists names.  She is an architect, and fun to walk around with because she sees the world so completely differently to me.  With her, I am assisted to see the lines of the building, the size of the windows, the way space and light and environment has been used.  Whenever anybody references artists by name, she knows exactly who they are talking about and can name artworks by them. 
I sit there listening mutely. 
‘Me too,’ I say, feeling that youthful recklessness, that was behind our meeting. ‘is that wrong?’ I ask, grinning at her.  It is this same line of conversation that led to us jumping out of an aeroplane together.  Granted there was a significant amount of alcohol that went into that decision.  I look around us, but the wooded paddock is empty.  There is just us, the artwork, acres of long grass and wildflowers, and a grove of trees hiding us from view.  A thrill runs through my belly.
‘It’s not your artwork,’ rants the fun police living inside my head. I grab a coin from my purse and press it into a split in the wood before I can talk myself out of it completely.
‘Big spender!’ she says, when she sees my 50p peeking out.  She brushes her blonde hair behind her ear, it’s been years since her hair was long enough to tuck behind her ears like that.  She looks more girly than she has in a long time.  It’s funny, she seems to be softening as she moves into her thirties, even letting a few colours that are not black or purple into her wardrobe.  Whereas, I’m wearing a lot more black, and grey and navy blue, and embracing more structured clothing and contemplating cutting off all of my hair.  We seem to have swapped, which entertains us no end.  I always suspected she had a softer side, it’s one of the things I love about her.  I also admire her sharper, edgier side.  Sometimes I think I need a little more edge, a little sharpness.  Mostly I feel too soft, too watery, too weak.  Too afraid of what other’s might say if I tell them what I really think, of the potential for conflict.  Of the conflict. 
The coin won’t stay it’s too big. I bend it with my finger, moulding it around the branch.  It stays.  

Read More

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!

Read More