Standing at path level
under this old tree in this old forest,
I imagine them
(1) Top leaves
Full of the arrogance of youth –
brand new and above all –
joyous, soaking up the daily sun –
taking for granted the light, the wind, the sky –
looking down at the ones below
living with less wind, less light, less sky…
But still! (and less battered too)
Unaware of the alternative –
that top leaves become bottom ones when (if) the tree grows.
(2) Bottom leaves
Looking up, indulgent and wise, glad
to enjoy the rays and the air getting through, feeding.
Layers upon layers, they create a vision,
of greens and browns, of light and shade,
branches and foliage swaying,
rocked by the wind – it is dark – it is bright.
Probably a consequence of being pregnant – and of having moved again – I find myself thinking more and more about the choices that we make, how these choices impact our children, and the notion of Home. After leaving my country of birth at 25 and living in three European countries since (the Netherlands, the UK and now Ireland), it appears to me that the notion of home is actually a hard one to define. It is a subject that comes back very often, especially in times of political upheaval.
What is your Home? It seems unimaginable to a lot of people that the identity of one’s home may change. Some say it is your country of birth. Others that it is your country of origin. What if these two are different? What if they are the same but you left years or decades ago?
Some say that they couldn’t leave their country of origin and/or birth. Or “you will go back” they say “people always go back”. But my mum didn’t and she left her country 40 years ago. On behalf of my son I try to explain that although the country of birth (the Netherlands) and the country of origin (France) are important, the place where you grow up, where you live, is also important (Ireland from now on, hopefully). It is where you learn the codes, the language with the local accent, the culture, you follow the news and the TV, be it cartoons – they are different in different times and different countries – or films. Jokes are made and spread based on movies, events or politics, and your relation to others is linked to this. How many jokes and cultural references have I missed since I left France? How many of our jokes – or even the words we use – does our family not understand? If we were to go back, I try to say, we would never be totally French anymore, not in our eating habits, our references, our points of views.
I truly believe that we would not be able to live in a small village and be accepted there. We would be seen as different, the ones always discussing subjects from another point of view, always taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. The ones who would not care if children eat in MacDonald’s once a month or watch so many hours of TV, or are breastfed past their infancy or in public… A lot of the local opinions we wouldn’t agree with anymore, or wouldn’t care about. We would stand out.
My country of birth is France. My country of origin is France, but also England, or the UK: my mother was born in the UK and left when she was 20. One of her grandfathers was Scottish of origin (from both his parents who had been born and bred there), and one of her grandmothers was Irish, again of origin if not of birth.
My dad is French from French parents who lived in two African countries in the 50s, he was still little when they came back to France. One of his great grand father was born in Columbia in the 19th century, from French parents, who decided to go back to France when he was in his teens.
Am I French? Part British? I believe I grew up a mix, about 60 to 75% French because of school, TV, having a French dad, growing up in France… 25 to 40% British because we went to the UK regularly to visit our family there. My mum probably raised us a bit more like British children than French (how could she do otherwise?) and as a girl I showed interest for where she came from.
Then I left France when I was 25, to the Netherlands, where I lived for 8 years. The first years were tough, I was homesick for my family, for parts of the culture, for the language (though we speak French at home). But it passed and Amsterdam became Home. Not Dutch, we were something in between. We became what is known as “non-residents” of France. Not expats as we didn’t pay taxes in France, but French citizens living abroad, paying our taxes in the Netherlands, voting for the local representative AND for the French president. We had bank accounts in Amsterdam and kept a bank account in France. We had to give my parents address for that one: there was no possibility to give a foreign address! People always come back I suppose 😉
Over a year and half ago, my husband was offered a position in Cardiff, Wales. After eight years in Amsterdam, and with a son not yet of school-age, we thought why not? Now is the time if we want to try something else. So we went. I and my son have British passports thanks to my mother and we hoped that my husband could ask for one in a few years. Then many things happened, not the least Brexit. We started looking again and, 6 months pregnant, we recently moved after accepting an offer for a position in Dublin, Ireland.
When asked where we are from (you can’t hide the accent), we say we are French – and if I have time I explain a bit more, though most people probably don’t care, they just want boxes – but I don’t actually believe that we are French anymore. We are not registered to vote there – I feel a bit guilty considering, but should we vote, really? I don’t think we will ever go back, though who knows? But why should we? Home is not there. We have family there. There are things we like there and things we don’t. We speak the language and know the history. Home is not here yet either but it could become.
The thing is, home is not necessarily where you were born or where your parents were born or where you grew up, it can be where you choose (or were forced) to live for love or for work or for any other reason. It is as much a given as a choice. It is made of the place and the people. But it doesn’t mean you have to leave all your past experiences behind. Or that you have to like everything about the place. And who does?
Will we move again? I don’t know, I hope not. Will we go back to France? I don’t know, I think not. It would be like giving up our dream, like going back to live with your parents at 35 after a divorce – we might feel like we failed. People wouldn’t care about our life in those years of living abroad. Of course we came back, it’s France! Well it’s a great country in some ways and not in others… To blend in we would probably have to pack up our memories and experiences and lock them up. We would have to follow the French rules of behaviour and communication again, some of which have probably changed since we left. I don’t even know what kind of music or TV shows or films people watch and listen to there!
To conclude, here are two links for poems that I wrote on the subject:
A woman cried when someone gave her a box of tampons, I read in a newspaper. Living in a refugee camp, in her own country, she didn’t have access to that luxury. A box of tampons. Sanitary napkins. It was like the whole world had gone down on her. What did she do one week per month? Use a towel to wash? Toilet paper to change every hour? She only said that it was the worst, not the lack of things, not the loss of objects and house, but the lack of dignity. Bleeding and unable to do anything about it in a camp full of men and children. Why was she ashamed of that? How could the world allowed her to be so?
Every healthy woman, from about 13 (I was 11) to 50 years old or so, has her period once a month. Belly ache. Blood loss. Hormones. Mood-swings for some of us – who could blame us? We carry babies, create life, and in exchange of that we lose blood in a waterfall once a month, for years and years past and to come. We do not talk about it. It is not a polite subject in polite company. Sometimes a joke in a non-polite one, at best we smile when we shouldn’t.
I didn’t really think of it or realize, not so much. It is there but I forget most of the time. I cannot imagine attracting dogs in a muddy camp because I cannot wash properly or do not have access to something as basic, in the modern world, as sanitary towels or tampons.
Then we moved, country and houses, to another European country with lots of pharmacies and supermarkets. But the shower doesn’t work well. No pressure, temperature above 40 degrees. The landlord doesn’t want to do anything about it, we don’t use it. We’ll move. For now, we also have a bath. It works fine. But it is old and a shower cannot be fitted to it – even if it could the tiles are not high enough to stand while washing oneself. So what? It is fine most of time. We wash in the bath, using ridiculous amounts of precious clean water. Most of the time.
Three to four days a month, I get to remember that I am a healthy woman of bearing age. Sanitary towels? Check. But wash in a bath while my own body tries to get rid of unused ovocytes, filling the bath with my own blood. Huh. No. The shower is my only solution. No pressure, high temperature, but no choice. I need to clean myself. It is a matter of dignity, of health, maybe even life and death if I want to avoid an infection. So I don’t wash my hair for three or four days. Or with a kitchen beaker – five minutes to fill with burning water, once, twice, more.
It is not so bad. Three days a month, I am reminded that I am an animal. As much as I could want to forget, it always comes back, like a tide. But I have supermarkets and hot water. It is easy, I can deal with this beginning of shame and powerlessness – why do I have greasy hair? Why do I have angry red spotches on my skin? The shower does not work well and I cannot take a bath…
Bubbles. It’s my son’s new word and new interest, so it’s now on the background of the blog. They’re great bubbles, fun and pretty and see-through. I’d like for things to be like this all the time. And I expect my husband would also like things to be like this for me all the time. No worries, just black and white like or not like, happy please and no complaints when we travel – we just went to Amsterdam. I love the town and the people, but he heard that I regretted moving out. No, I don’t regret moving, but it’s not so simple.
I really like our new life here, in Wales. The nature, the space, the people and people speaking English. I can already see the benefits this move had on my health. I suffer less from anxiety and I’m less on survival mode all the time. To the point that I’m really imagining the possibility to have a second child. Despite the fact that I’m still breastfeeding – yes, he is almost two years old, but he is still benefiting from it and I’m scared that I would have to make him stop, he is so happy like this. And despite the fact that we don’t really know the area yet. And that we only have one salary. But we will know the area if we stay long enough, it is so good for children, the schools are good, the people are nice, and my husband’s salary is good. I can see us managing! It’s new! I’m hoping! I’m enjoying life, seeing my son grow up and not scared all the time. Taking the time to visit farms and forests. Enjoying the easiness to go out of the house (no stairs!). Suddenly things look and feel good. We will take care with our expenses and put money on the side and we will try to buy a house as soon as we can. It will take a bit of time. If we stay here.
And that’s where it is difficult for me. Will we stay here or will we move again. I’m a bit lost there. I know what I want for our son. But will we be able to stay? Will we want to? Could we get bored or never settle? How do you settle…?? I loved Amsterdam and despite the fact that there were things I didn’t like so much, it really hurt when we left. I lost my roots. I lost confidence in us settling anywhere. I realized how little we left behind us after so many years. Not so many friends, most move around and having a child and anxiety issues changed things. Maybe we’re also not so good at it. Do we really need anybody else? Yes, it’s really nice to have visitors, people we know and trust. But could we really stay here, or anywhere?
Anyway, I was glad to go to Amsterdam, to see a few old places. I realized that I’ve already moved on for the most part. I love the city but it’s not home anymore. It’s good to know.
Then, in the middle of my reading about him and his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, my husband came home, we prepared diner and ate before putting our son to bed. On my coming back in the living room, we started talking about our move, his new job, and how important it is for both of us that it goes well, not only for practical reasons but because I know how much value he puts in his work, and because his career has become, somehow, a matter of pride for me too. I do not work anymore and his work is perhaps the only form of intellectual pride that I currently have. We talk about it, I see what he does, it is my way of participating in something different and talking of something else than the diet and nap schedule of our son.
Gradually the discussion evolved until it came to a subject that I have been ruminating for a few months already: my loss of status as a stay-at-home mum. It’s crazy and annoying and frustrating how much value I have lost in the eyes of some people since I stopped working to take care of our son!! I have become a waste – of time, money and potential! My education (I have a master’s degree) and my use to society is lost: I do not have a career.
But what these people do not understand is that I have no doubt that this is not true. I don’t know that I could continue staying at home otherwise. The individual, the wife and the mum that I am today are a result of my experiences and my education, which I know have been useful to my husband in the past (when making important decisions or organizing events) and are now useful everyday to both my husband and our little monkey.
The discussions that we have with my husband and my capacity to follow his line of thought when we talk about his work or his ideas are not a waste. It can even be useful for his work, once in a while. My knowledge and interests are and will be useful to my son, in his everyday life, from the knowledgeable decisions that we (will) take to help him grow, to his school work. It will give him someone to talk to, someone to discuss ideas or historical topics with, if not just someone to help him with his maths…
I might go back to work one day, or not. Both are equally possible and will depend on many factors. But even if I don’t, I know that I will be useful to society, if “only” by what I bring my husband and my son by being me!
It has been said that “behind every great man is a great woman”. To be sure, when a couple is concerned, who the great men were married to has probably made a huge difference. Clearly Mary Shelley was an educated woman, as were Marie Curie (1967-1934), Emma Darwin (1808-1896) or Sophia Tolstoy (1844-1919). These women are (mostly) not as well known as their husbands but even the ones who didn’t work made a difference in the lives and the work of their husbands, and most probably in the lives and intellect of their children as well. We do make a difference in their lives as they make a difference in ours.
Anyway… Big discussion for a weekday evening. Nothing new, it just rings a bell. So I went back to reading about Shelley and his wife.
Mary Shelley, as well as being an educated woman, was also the daughter of the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who wrote A vindication of the rights of woman in 1792. Funnily enough the first paragraph describing the book on Wikipedia is the following:
“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), written by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.”
Already back then 🙂
It’s been a few weeks and a few boxes for our coming change of home and country 😉
Something that is bugging me is that I keep wondering how we could tell our 19 months old son that we will be moving. Everybody I’ve been talking to seem to think that he won’t mind, as long as he is with us. But he looks really happy here, and even after a month of summer holidays, he still remembered where everything was, the books, the switches and the TV and how it worked. We have no way of knowing what he will think and feel and we can’t explain what is going on. I’d really love to be able to promise that we won’t be moving again and that the next house, or at least the area, will be the one where we will stay for him to grow up and make friends. I’d love that but we’ll have to see, I find it difficult to imagine us settling anywhere, really.
Because we are leaving soon, I thought I would post this poem written some time ago on the subject:
Some months and years ago we left
friends and family, we could not stay;
and going there sometimes we ache;
there was our Home, of which bereft
we will now be, always at bay.
Perceived by most as mad or brave,
we went like Cartier in his days;
recalling home, eager to make,
from then to forth, from breath to grave,
a side-way path with self-found ways.
So little time, so much to see,
still we settled – bills must be paid;
learned the culture, what we could take,
learned the language, the history;
in which tongue will our children play?
Here is our Home, and where we bide,
blending with years as odd mixtures,
we may ponder at our lives’ wake;
longing, and thrilled, we went, we tried!
Becoming for ever strangers…