Monday, 27 April 2015

Hill training - an analogy for life

I got back on my bike last week.

I have been training at home, indoors, on my turbo trainer while J naps and O is in his bouncer. I find O likes the hum of the flywheel and I can chat to him while I pedal.

But last week, with a bit of coaxing from my husband and an offer of babysitting, I went out on my bike. It had been years and I was nervous. On top of everything this new person that has been me for the last ten months felt unease: would I be able to make it? 

The hills looked bigger than ever before. I questioned my ability to go up them. Something that in my past life never fazed me suddenly became "a thing" in my mind. As I got dressed it made my heart pound. As I mounted my bike it weighed on my thoughts. As I warmed up it almost made me turn back.

The first hill was tough. My legs burned, my breathing was heavy, my hands gripped the handle bars while my heart felt like it wanted to jump out of my chest. But after a while I got into a rhythm and after a little while more, before I knew it, I was at the top. 

The view was stunning. The burning quickly subsided. I took a moment to savour it then I cruised down the hill liberated and at that moment it hit me: climbing hills is like a metaphor for life. It's tough. It's difficult. At times it gets ugly and you question your commitment. But two things struck a chord:

1. Hills sometimes look scarier when they loom on the horizon. Yet when you're on them, doing the hard work, they shrink or don't quite feel like the monster they looked like. I'm proud to say that so far in life, my life, my fear has rarely stopped me climbing that hill. 

2. Hills always have a crest. You can't always see it from the bottom and sometimes you wonder whether it is close or whether there's more uphill round this next corner. But eventually they run out: the difficulties in life soften. Then you can cruise downhill, wind in your hair. 

In the last seven years since D and I moved to Greece we have had our share of hills: unemployment, illness, death, miscarriage, surgeries. It has not been easy. But we kept climbing, often with help from each other, often with help from others. And now the view from the top is simply stunning. And so very worth it! 

Here's to the hills in our lives. Here's to the rolling terrain that is life. Here's to the ups and the downs and the people that help us conquer them. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

But do you love them the same?

A week after I gave birth a friend who had come over to help me cope with newborn plus toddler on my own finally asked the question. She did so in the most tactful way and in a way she only put a voice to the thoughts I'd had all the way through my pregnancy. Would I love them the same? Mixed in with the thoughts was guilt and fear: would J find it hard, would he feel less our child for being adopted, had I ruined his life? 

After O was born and while I lay in hospital looking at the little baby next to me my main worry was: will I ever love this baby as much as I love J? I felt something for him, I certainly did, but it did not resemble the love I felt for J. I felt protective and like I needed to care for him, but nothing like the deep feelings I had for my eldest. A week later, when my friend asked me things were not very different.

Three months have passed. Our love has grown. I love them both so much. I cannot imagine my life without them. But do I love them the same? 

I don't think I do. I love them differently and I don't think it has anything to do with birth vs adoption but with who they are and what their needs are. I love them with the same intensity, fiercely and with a kind of love I'd never felt before I became a mother. But it's not exactly the same love.

I know now that love grows. Mummy love grows too, deeper and different in all its stages. What stays the same? My heart sings when they smile. My heart aches when I think about something bad happening to them. I have fears and hopes and wishes for them both. That I am sure stays the same for as long as I'll live. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The days are long...

...but the years are short. Well, the months in this case. 

My husband just walked in to find me crying over a onesie.
I remember like it was yesterday (wasn't it yesterday?) that he had to do an emergency trip to the shops the day after O and I came home from the hospital to see if he could find something, anything that would fit our little boy. O was born a little early and was small, not tiny tiny, but at 2.3 kgs he was on the small side. The few things that I had bought (being very cautious with the pregnancy I had not bought much) were way too big for him. D took J and went off to the shops. When he came back with the zebra outfit (complete with stripy legging and hat) I remember laughing. When I put it on O it was still big!!

Three months on and I'm clearing out the drawers for the second time! He has grown and grown and grown and he is now, at only 3 months, in 6 month old clothes. Weighing in at a hefty 6.3 kgs. 

I love that he is growing, thriving really. But holding onto that onesie this afternoon I realise just how quickly it happens. Next thing I know they'll be off to school and then a few, short years later they'll be leaving home. 

I fed him a little later. And for those few moments I held him close, looking at his rhythmical sucking, feeling him so close to my heart, smelling his perfect baby smell. Oh little O how quickly you are growing! 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Default Parent and parenting roles - Part 1

I have been considering (and writing about) parental leave lately. When talking about it with others, both mums and dads, as well as some who are also employers, I have come to understand that one of the central arguments within this whole debate, especially in Europe and Canada, where maternity leave has come to be taken for granted is equality in parenting. Equal parental leave surely equates to more equal roles when it comes to active parenting. 

While contemplating all this (an activity that usually happens between the hours of 3 and 4 in the morning, when baby O will not go back to sleep after his middle-of-the-night feed) I came across This article on the Huffington Post. It is all about "the Default Parent". It also got me thinking long and hard about mine, and my husband's role in parenting our two sons. 

D is a very involved dad. He chooses to be, having chosen a profession that gives him time to be with me and our two boys. I think that is the biggest investement we have both made in their future. That might mean that professionally he has had to make sacrifices and made choices that make us time-rich, but money-poor. For now and while the kids are small that is exactly how we want it to be!

Because of the different way that J joined our family, through adoption and not birth, I got to experience something that most mothers don't: I became the "other parent" while D was the "default parent". J was adopted from Ethiopia and I was not able to fly out there, due to pregnancy complications. It was not planned that way, for sure, but I think it made a huge and very positive difference to the way D and J bonded. 

D became dad in a hotel room. He was handed our boy with only the clothes he was wearing and very little understanding of his routines and needs (the carers at the orphanage spoke no English and D's Amharic was basic at best). He writes a little about his experience here

The result of two weeks of exclusive parenting (also known as being thrown into the deep end and having to swim) was that when D and J came back to Greece they had already done a fair bit of bonding. D was the default parent. I found myself the "other parent", outside looking in. 

For ages J would only go to sleep when cuddled by D. He would calm down only when carried in a sling by his dad. He would seek his dad when hungry or needing a change. I found myself in a supporting role and had to sit down with D and make a plan. We had to actively discuss our roles, and what we wanted out of parenting. 

We decided that it would be good for J (and also what we wanted, as parents) if we both became "default parents". We wanted to have equal roles in the upbringing of our son and we wanted J to be equally happy with either of us (or both of us together). That couldn't just happen. It took a lot of work from both. It took D being aware enough and willing to step back. It took me volunteering to get up in the night. It was an intimate dance of the three of us, taking turns, balancing and reassessing the whole time. 

In a nutshell: becoming an equal parent takes two! It takes willingness from the dominant parent (usually the mother in most families) to step back a bit and the will from the otehr parent to step up. 

Quite often when mothers "complain" about being the default parent it is in a way a "failure" of both parents. It is a failure of the one to give up and the lack of will of the other to take over. In most societies (definitely in Greece!) the mother is very happy to be the default parent and dad's get pushed out of their roles. A friend recently wrote to me saying: "It would be great if my husband could take a little more of the childcare duties but his parenting style is too permissive". My feeling on this is that dads are too permissive when they are "second in command". Then they become the fun parent, the weekend dad who gives treats and plays, not the one who disciplines, washes behing the ears and feeds the kids vegetables. 

One final thought: I am in no way saying that parenting should be equally split between mums and dads. That is for each and every family to decide for themselves. For us, it was a decision that we consciously made long before our kids joined us and it is a decision that I value each and every day. Especially when I have time to have a shower undisturbed! 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Seasoned parent question

Baby shoes...

I'm hoping this is going to be one of many posts in a series where I ask for advice from more seasoned parents: those who have been there and done that and have lived to tell the tales. More importantly whose kids have lived to tell the tale...

So, here's my question this week. What are baby shoes for? Does my child really need them or are they simply a ploy to make me spend more money? 

Also, why do people care to point out that my tiny baby, who is probably a good few months from walking, is not wearing any shoes? And finally, when one does succumb (read: remembers) to put on said baby shoes on, how do you keep them on? How on earth do you keep shoes on feet for longer than a few minutes? 

I know: it was meant to be one question and we've ended up with lots. But really, seasoned parents: what are baby shoes for? 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Adoption is not charity

Here's something I want you to know: when I'm out with my 21 month old please don't stop me to congratulate me, it really bothers me. 

In case you've missed it my eldest, J, is adopted. It is fairly obvious even if you've only just laid eyes on us, especially when we are out as a family. 

People stare. I don't mind that and I hope neither will J when he grows up, it's part of being different in quite a homogeneous society like the Greek one (his dad also gets stared at for being taller than normal and ginger...).

I also don't mind people asking questions, provided they are being tactful and genuinely interested. And if I nod and smile politely that means you overstepped the mark... 

But I do object to people congratulating me for my choice to adopt. Especially when this is done in front of my son. I don't deserve congratulations any more than you do for deciding to have a child. We did not adopt to save anyone, we adopted because we wanted to be parents; that's all adoption is: an alternative way to have a family. 

What hurts me and worries me more is the message that is implicitly passed onto my son. The message that he is a charity case, that we adopted him to save him and that he should somehow be grateful to us. That can't be further from the truth. If nothing else, and this is something that we should all keep in mind when talking about adoption, there are waiting times for both domestic and international adoption. Contrary to urban mythology, especially here in Greece, those waiting times are not because the state is making us wait, or keeping available kids from being adopted. The truth really is much simpler: there are more parents waiting to adopt than available children. That means that if we hadn't adopted J, someone else would have! 

I can't imagine my life without him- he has brought so much to our lives and being a mum to him is simultaneously my biggest challenge and my biggest joy. Celebrate us, our multicultural family, but please don't congratulate us. All we wanted was a child to love! 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Mummy tummy and getting back into shape

This is me the day before I gave birth:

Not small and neat by any standards, but also not the biggest pregnant lady I have ever seen. Keep in mind O came almost a month early- another three weeks would have quite possible pushed me into "huge". 

After a relatively quick and very straightforward delivery I looked down at myself and realised that... I still had a big belly. In fact when I went down to the cafeteria to get an orange juice the next day people gave me their turn in the queue: I still looked about 6 months pregnant! 

It was quite a shock to me. I knew that the belly would not totally disappear overnight, but I didn't quite expect to be quite that big. 

I got the go-ahead to start gentle exercise 3 days later: my doctor was happy with everything. He told me not to push myself, but he also knew that I had endured a good 6 months of no exercise (walking aside) and that I was itching to get going. 

Three days post-partum I started isometric contractions and kegels. A few days later I got down on my mat for a modified Pilates workout (basically nothing that engaged my rectus abdominal) and at ten days I took the double buggy and started walking on the hills around my house. 

As soon as I was fully healed I jumped onto the turbo trainer for some cycling too.

 I honestly thought the weight would drop off. Coupled with breastfeeding I thought I would spring back to "normal" in a few weeks or so. 

Here's what normal was, for reference: 

And here's what I looked like at 14 weeks pregnant: 

So when at two weeks post partum the lady at the local supermarket asked me when the baby was due, I felt cheated. I felt like I was failing... When, after I told her I'd already had the baby, she suggested I put on one of these belts that holds everything in, I got cross! 

New mums face a lot of challenges. Sleepless nights, establishing breastfeeding, getting to grips with baby care and keeping any siblings and themselves fed, clean and in some sort of routine. The expectation I had of myself was clearly an unreal one, based on my images of new mothers out there: namely celebrity mums. And guess what: it was a truly unrealistic one. Not only were my expectations completely unreasonable, but so were those of others around me (I should mention here, NOT my husband) who also expected me to spring back into my previous shape within weeks.

Guess what? It is now close to three months since I have birth. I have been cycling, run/walking and swimming regularly. I have been doing strength work with my boys at least once a week. Do I look like I did before? No, I'm still way off what was normal for me.

Can my body do what it could before? Apart from the running, which really feels like hard work due to breasts three sizes bigger than before (!) and some remaining laxity in my pelvis, I am extremely proud that my body can still cycle, swim and lift weights. On top of that it can make milk, lift a toddler and a baby approximately 40 times a day, grow a baby and give birth quickly and without drugs or complications. Am I proud of my body? More than I have ever been!! Yes, I still have the mummy tummy, but my body has never been such a hardcore machine before! 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

On leave

I am writing after a sleepless night (here I was thinking that once we hit three months baby O would sleep in longer than two hour intervals...) and with the help of a sling. Baby O is blissfully asleep against my chest, probably lulled by the rhythmic movement and sound of my fingers on the keyboard. 

As a new parent I have been reading a lot of articles on parenting. This week this one made quite an impression on me: 

I am definitely a newbie at this parenting thing, yet I have already done quite a few of the things that I had vowed never to do: I have given sugar to my 20 month old, have bribed him with bananas and breadsticks if he would sit on his buggy so we could leave the playground, have more than once violated the sacred 7 pm bedtime and have more than once dressed him in yesterday's clothes (more on a post to come). It's ok, I can live with myself. 

However, there is one thing, an idea more like it, that I am adamant about keeping. And that is the idea that D and I are both equal parents. I might be at home more, I am still on maternity leave after all, but we still try to keep a balance for our sake and the sake of our two boys. 

Maternity leave in Greece for most mothers (but not all, some have more, some have a lot less) is around 9 months and I am hoping to take most of it. I was shocked to find out that paternity leave is only 2 days! I guess what a lot of dads do is take some of their annual holiday at the time of their partner's birth, yet that's not possIible for many, including teachers. And so two days it was.

I know that in the UK they are keen to get you out of matenrity hospital as soon as possible (and I can see why) and I realise that a lot of women don't even go into hospital to give birth - homebirths are certainly on the increase, but for my first birth I wanted the reassurance of a big hospital and intervention, should it be needed, close at hand. I also enjoyed staying in hospital for three days after the birth, food and care being provided while all I did was cared for my little one and rested. I did miss J and D, and J could not visit due to rules saying that children are not allowed on the maternity ward, but he didn't seem to unsettled and very importantly I got some time to establish breastfeeding with my little one. 

I was upset by the two day provision, however. O was born right at the end of the Christmas holidays and D was not allowed to take any further leave. That meant that less than a week from the birth of his second son (and if it hadn't been for a snow day, before I had come out of hospital) he had to return to work, leaving the exhausted new mother with a tiny baby and a toddler. 

I was lucky - a quick and natural birth had not left me exhausted or hurting and O, although premature, started gaining quickly and took to breasfteeding with gusto! Also J seemed to like his new brother and jealousy was limited to feeding times, which after about a week I managed to coordinate around naps and activities so as not too upset him. 

But the two days paternity leave has still been on my mind. All the more when I read articles like the one above... How is a man to bond with his baby? What is the role of the modern father? Is he just default breadwinner, while mum still does the bulk of the childcare? And how might that affect the children? Not to mention how it affects women's employment possibilities... 

We are unlikely to have any more children (at least not for a long while!) so maternity and paternity leave rights are no longer relevant to me. I do, however, think about just how lucky families are in Sweden, with all that quality time to gel, to get to know each other and to cement themselves in their new roles in the family. 


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