Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Influenza and Project Runway

My six year old has been home sick for a couple of days.

It just wouldn't be winter without a bit of influenza in the house.

I have to admit, though, that I've really enjoyed the two days we've spent quietly together. Little Sister, still fighting fit, has gone to daycare as usual. Daddy has been at work. It isn't often that it's just My Big Girl and me, but for the past two days we've had our Own Time.

We've watched DVDs. We've done crosswords. We've read The Folk of the Faraway Tree (My Big Girl enjoyed it as much as I did at her age). 

Best of all, we made a new game for ourselves.

My Big Girl has several books containing outlines of "models", with stencils that you can use to trace clothes onto them. We got bored with just tracing and colouring, and started to wonder whether some real models' clothes might fit our girls...

I grabbed a couple of old InStyle magazines that had been relegated to toilet-reading, and we got to work:

If My Big Girl ever ends up on Project Runway, I will claim this as the day it all began.

She is almost better again now. I probably should feel happy that she will be well enough to go back to preschool in a day or so. Except that I'll miss her so much.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


“Every day you speak Finnish better and better!”

Yesterday, after listening to my laborious efforts to talk to his 4 year old in Finnish, my neighbour offered this kind comment. He knows that I started an intensive language course earlier this month, and (like all my Finnish friends) he has been hugely supportive of my efforts to learn his language.

If it’s true, though, that my Finnish is improving, I wish I’d start feeling it myself.

The other morning I got a phone call from an unknown number. The woman’s first sentence was completely incomprehensible to me. She was unable or unwilling to speak in English. She powered on in Finnish, her tone firm and insistent – urgent, even. I strained to pick up some clue – anything – that might enlighten me as to who she was or why she was calling me. Was someone trying to deliver a package to our apartment? Had my younger daughter (at Finnish daycare) had some kind of dreadful accident? Was I in trouble with the police? Had I forgotten to return my library books? The possibilities were endless, and anxiety froze my brain and blocked all comprehension. I was spooked, too, because this woman knew my surname and had my phone number, and at some point she revealed that she knew my husband’s name, too.

Finally, she asked me a question that I understood: “How often do you recharge the credit on your [prepaid] cell phone?” And then it dawned on me, with angry relief – this was a bloody sales call.

It is times like this that I’m furious with myself – furious that I haven’t managed to learn better Finnish in the two years we have lived here; furious because whether or not I learn Finnish is completely up to me, and I wouldn’t still be in this state of frustration had I tried harder to study and learn; furious because I’ve been LAZY and have caused myself stress as a result. For years (even before we moved here) I have wanted to speak and understand Finnish, and yet for years I’ve managed to find other ways to occupy my time.

I do have moments that give me hope. Last weekend, I took my daughter to see a movie that was dubbed in Finnish. I fully expected to be lost within the first 5 minutes, but was happily surprised when I managed (more or less) to follow the story of Alvin and his chipmunk friends. Yes, I was able to get the basic gist of a movie intended for 7 year olds. 

Positive feelings were heavily overlaid with the realisation of just how far I still have to go.

I really should take a leaf out of my daughter’s book. Talking to her after the movie (hoping to get her to explain some bits of dialogue I hadn’t grasped) I realised, with interest, that she hadn’t caught everything either. In fact, in some ways she had missed more than I had, because not only was she unclear on the language in places, she didn’t have the life experience to give her extra clues. When I pointed out that perhaps she, too, was not quite sure what happened in places, she shrugged and said, completely unconcerned and unapologetic, “I don’t know ALL the Finnish words yet, Mummy.”

Her calm words spoke volumes, implying complete confidence that one day she would, in fact, know “all the Finnish words”, proclaiming that in the meantime she could manage perfectly well, and gently chastising me for being unnecessarily impatient about the organic process of language-learning.

The trouble is, though, that it’s harder for adults, because it’s assumed that we are not clueless; it’s assumed that grown human beings can handle a given range of tasks and situations without assistance. Yet, when not just the language but the whole way of life of a country and its people are new to you, there is going to be a lot that you don’t know and have to learn. You are in the weird situation of trying to act like a knowledgeable, responsible, socially-adept adult, even though in many situations you know less than a 7 year old. For instance:

* In Helsinki, if you are traveling on a bus with a baby in a stroller, you are permitted to enter via the back door, without paying. However (as I now know) this is not so if you’re traveling with a baby who is not in a stroller, or if it’s winter and the baby is in a sled. In my experience, if you try to enter via the back door in one of the latter situations, the bus driver comes and yells at you in front of your children, or simply drives off and leaves you standing in the snow.

* Some swimming pools have specific days on which bathing suits are not obligatory. If you use the pool at such times, you will find yourself doing 50m laps alongside (or worse - behind) people who are completely in the buff. You have been warned.

* When my daughter started Finnish daycare, in accordance with their guidelines I stayed there with her for several days. My daughter couldn’t speak Finnish, and the teachers expected me to guide her through the various routines. Talk about the blind leading the blind. At the time, I barely understood words like “eat” or “nap”. I half-guessed at what the teachers were saying. I couldn’t communicate with the other children. My kid cried a lot, confused and overwhelmed. I felt like doing the same.

* I come from a city where (to my knowledge) it has never snowed, and where we drive on the left-hand side of the road. When we left our Helsinki home this morning, it was 15 below zero with snow everywhere. Imagine you are me, and then try to (a) liberate your car from a cocoon of snow and ice with sufficient competence to enable you to drive the damn thing out of its parking spot; (b) on your return home, do a reverse (parallel) park on the “wrong” side of the road into a space bearing a car-shaped imprint bordered all around with half a metre of banked-up snow. With your two children whining in the back seat and your neighbour laughing at you from the side of the road.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m up for this, really. I want to make this Helsinki adventure work. Most days I see my cluelessness as a challenge – my chance to extend myself. Most days I can even laugh at myself if these things – which, in the end, are just minutiae after all - don’t work out perfectly.

On days of lower optimism, though, I just feel humiliated in my cluelessness. I wonder if this steep learning curve will ever taper off. Some days I long to feel capable; confident I can tackle daily life with some degree of basic competence.

I have spent 36 years learning to be an adult, only to find myself, constantly, in situations which make me feel like a child. Some days I just want to be a grown up again.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Wee Voice

I first wrote this post some 4 years ago, but found myself giggling over it tonight :)

A friend once admitted that since becoming a parent, she has found herself saying extraordinary things, like “Please keep your bottom to yourself” and “No, I don’t want to smell your fart.”

I thought fondly of this friend the other day when I found myself pretending to be my daughter’s urine.

Recently, Little Sister (almost 3) suddenly got possessive about her pee. After going at bath time, she would then hold it all night, through the next day’s morning routine, and sometimes even until after we’d arrived at daycare--some 14 hours after she’d last relieved herself. She must have needed to go (surely??) but she valiantly resisted doing the deed. She would hold out to the very limits of her strong will, not to mention her bladder of iron, notwithstanding gentle suggestions, heartfelt pleas, bribery, or threats.

On our recent overseas holiday, I started to get more anxious than usual about this little quirk of hers. I needed to know that the crucial moment would not come in the middle of a two-hour bus ride, or in a crowded check-in queue. I needed, somehow, to achieve pee on demand.

It was at that point that I remembered the words of Big Sister’s amazing daycare teacher: “They love it when you animate ordinary objects. If they don’t want to put on their shoes, give their shoes a sweet little voice: ‘Hey! Please put us on! We want to be on your feet! Pleeeeease!’ ”

And so it was that, in absolute desperation, last week I took a shot at being the soft, high-pitched, lovable Voice of Wee Wee.

“Hel-lo? Can anyone hear me? Little Sister, are you there? It’s your wee wee! Hey, I really want to come out for a lovely swim in the toilet. Please would you let me out? Oh, pretty please?”

I felt like a prize idiot. No one except my daughter could hear me, but that didn’t change the fact that I was a 36-year-old woman pretending to be piss trapped in a toddler’s bladder. I pondered my 18+ years of formal education and wondered where it had all gone wrong.

That was, until I heard an unfamiliar hissing noise, and realised in amazement that my cringe-making efforts had actually bloody-well worked!  Never before had the sound of another person peeing been such a balm to my frayed nerves.

I was caught off-guard, though, at Little Sister’s effusive reaction. In a giggly, high-pitched voice (how else would a front bottom speak, after all?) she replied grandly: “There you go, Wee Wee! You’re welcome!” Front Bottom went on to express the sincere wish that Wee Wee have fun swimming in the toilet, and to point out a few exciting possibilities, e.g., availability of used toilet paper for floating games, not to mention more friends potentially dropping by after Big Sister’s turn on the toilet.

I couldn’t have predicted the overwhelming popularity of The Voice of Wee Wee. As you can imagine, he/she/it did not manage to get away with a one-time performance. On the contrary, Little Sister has generously stepped up her efforts in the toilet department in order to give Wee Wee more air time.

And on top of that, it turns out that Wee Wee has a deep-voiced friend called Poo Poo.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tower of Power

I just got back from a week-long family trip to Tenerife. Apart from the necessity of 6-hour flights to and from our chosen destination (seriously, when oh when will the brilliance of science give us teleporting?) it was a blissful and uplifting oasis of sunshine in the middle of a dark northern winter.

Maybe it was the sudden burst of wonderful, warming sun, maybe it was the holiday atmosphere, or very possibly it was the effect of one or ten too many sangrias, but I felt an internal shift during our week in Tenerife. 

As a result, I recaptured some of the I Am Fantastic And Invincible inner power I thought I’d lost irretrievably somewhere in my childless and self-focused 20s.

For the past 6 years, holidays have been about looking after my children – fretting gently but constantly about their food, sleeping arrangements, safety, jet-lag, sunburn, bodily functions, and all those countless other things that are thrown into mild disarray when we are away from home (and don’t get me started on those years of family holidays when, on top of everything else, I was tethered tightly to my Blackberry and rarely able to escape the work-related knot in my stomach; those years when getting the kids to sleep in strange beds took on added importance, because of the feverish hours on my laptop that loomed into the night ahead of me…)

During this trip, however, I realised that family travel had suddenly become a whole lot easier. The kids’ performance on planes and in unfamiliar places has improved over time, and Little Sister has finally reached that first milestone of basic independence and resilience that seems to come around the age of 3. There were times last week when I was actually able to lie on a sun-lounger and watch my two children happily together, not to mention this memorable moment of contented colouring in Helsinki airport baggage claim:

This was the first trip where my husband felt confident he could watch both the girls without major trauma of some kind being suffered by anyone concerned. And (happily or sadly, depending on your viewpoint) following my recent resignation from Biglaw, this was also our first overseas holiday as a family where I was truly free to be on holiday 24/7.

The combined force of all these realisations was sizeable. Suddenly, I saw the reality that this could actually be MY holiday, too, and I could spend some part of it doing something that was MY treat, something that didn’t have to be forfeited or watered down because of the kids, something I wouldn’t have even thought of doing since those All About Me days of my 20s.

I knew what my big treat would be the minute I saw it (at Siam Park waterpark).

The Tower of Power.

A fantastically, terrifyingly tall beast of a waterslide.
28 metres high, with an almost vertical drop.
A four second rush of terror.

The Tower of Power in all its glory
(featuring Young Goddess in White Bikini
who looks as unlike me as it's possible to look) 

I rushed at the stairs and climbed them at high speed (a reckless action resulting in humiliatingly wheezy breathing as I waited in line at the top, a red-faced Bridget Jones-esque figure surrounded by shredded and ripped Young Whippersnappers. But I digress.)

I waved to the far-away specks of my spectating husband and kids as I climbed into the flume. I lay down carefully and assumed the cross-everything position. The lifeguard gave me a push-off and I fell, plunged, flew, the dazzling sky above and the roaring rush of water all around. It was terrifying and exhilarating and amazing. I thought about screaming but was rendered speechless by velocity and adrenalin. I shot like a bullet into the pool below, and burst up to the surface triumphant, pumping the air with both fists. I haven’t felt so truly alive in years. It was a rush that kept me on a high for the rest of the day, if not the whole week.

Just writing about it makes me long to do it again. And again.

It was a huge experience which taught me something big. Strictly speaking, I didn’t need the Tower of Power Experience. And yet, it gave me something that, honest-to-God, helped me be a better parent and wife, a better person, for hours and days afterwards. What was it exactly? A moment of challenging my own limits in the best possible way; a moment of pure freedom and head-space; an energizing rush of kickarse proportions. A moment when I recaptured and embraced my own power as me, an individual.

This went above and beyond self-preservation; it was much more than an Oxygen Mask Moment. This was self-enhancement – suddenly realising, in an instant, the possibility of being a stronger and better and happier me.

I have made my New Year's resolution for 2012: this year will be the year I seek out and grab Tower of Power Moments, left, right and centre.

I will keep my arms open to the heady rush of life, and I will open my eyes to the colours of everyday life, in all their brightness. I will push boundaries I’ve drawn unnecessarily for myself, and explore what lies beyond.