Places and choices

Mix3_couleurs2
A mixture of places and choices by A Mum +

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 that is all. There are things we like there and things we don’t. We speak the language and know the history, yes… 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, even for those who didn’t move from their country of birth?

Will we move again? I don’t know, I hope not. Will we go back to France? I don’t know, I think not, I hope 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, and certainly not the centre of the world, as much as some could wish it 😉 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 and which I think illustrate all that with different words:

Non-residents

Back Home

Back home

“She gave us this gift from back home”
Understanding they are good neighbours, friends even. 
But what her voice and her skin do not say 
is she left this home her country 40 years past. There is no forgetting.  
She cooks one way one day and the other the next,  
speaks to her children in the language for them to access the knowledge, 
the culture. They learn the major tongue elsewhere.  

Uprooted at six months old he lived here for forty years.  
What his voice does not say he tells strangers willingly: I am from there” he smiles and chooses to remember. 
He tells stories and asks for them, 
visits landmarks with his children. 
Did they laugh in school at his name, at his parents' voice,  
until he owned them? Not from here, different” some say, some whisper.  
What does it take to be accepted or tolerated? What does it take  
to not be? A voice, a skin, a remembrance of identity food, people, places, customs? 
Blend in some cannot, would they want it or not, 
a mixture made over time they have a foot over some line,  
drawn with changing references it forgets history and choices. 
Oregon_state_university_flickr
Source: Oregon State University, flickr

I made a crochet stuffed toy

I’ve just finished making a crochet stuffed toy for my son and he points and smiles at it 😀 Watching him play with it, my brains got away with themselves and I imagined him grown up, keeping that toy somewhere, maybe treasuring it because I made it; or myself treasuring it because it is a reminder of when I made it. Like my mum treasures my favourite stuffed toy that I took everywhere with me after I got it as a present when I was 6…

Except that she had not made that stuffed toy. This is something that I do, I stopped working and I crochet during naptime. That’s me, not her. My maternal grandmother wouldn’t make a crochet toy either, she was too busy running the house with four kids. Neither would my paternal grandmother who loved working and had a good and busy career.

Does that mean that the stuffed toy I made will have more value for me, or for him, one day? Will it end up forgotten in a box, or prized on a shelf? I have no idea and there is no way of knowing, because we are in uncharted territory.

There are many things that I love about my childhood, and try to reproduce, and other things that I have tried to do differently. But my only point of reference when it comes to being a parent is my parents. So I keep comparing myself and our life to them, to what they lived and what they decided. I guess it is because I am scared, I need a point of reference to know that it’s going to be all right. What we do now is not new so it’s going to be all right.

But I am not my mum or my parents, I have already lived a different life than the one they had at my age. Everything is new, from myself as a parent to our move to the UK.

It’s scary, so I try to recreate parts of the childhood I had, the environment, the Christmases, some birthdays maybe, some time spent with my parents (where I now play the parent 🙂 ). To create memories like the ones I have in the hope that he will grow up healthy and happy, and remember some of these memories fondly. There is nothing wrong with that. I want him to be happy and safe.

But taking some of what was good in my own and my husband’s upbringing (we have to learn to be a parent somewhere…) and basing some decisions on our parents’ experience shouldn’t stop us from making something new.

Because we both grew up in the countryside doesn’t mean that growing up in a city is totally wrong for a child. It is different. Because I lived in a house or a friend had a dog, does it mean that we should make the some choices? Because my mum worked when I was little, does it mean I should too? Or that I shouldn’t? Because a friend didn’t get along with a sibling, does it mean we shouldn’t have a second child? Because my dad was an only child wanting siblings, does it mean that our child will feel the same way, even if we, as parents, are different from my grandparents? Because my husband and I had siblings, does it mean we should have a second child soon? And make ourselves miserable if we can’t?

Have two children. Have at least three (I actually heard that one). Don’t wait too long to have another, but don’t have them too close or they’ll never get along. Move to a house. Get a pet. Stay close to the family, but not too close or you’ll go crazy. Don’t move to a small village/a big city/another country… So many rules we make for ourselves based on our fears and our own, our families’ and our friends’ experiences!

One of the first things we learned as parents is to (try to) not listen to other people’s opinions. You never see the end of it and everyone thinks differently! But I find it more difficult to not listen to my own deeply ingrained certainties of what we should do and be as a family: that it should be that way because that’s the way we will be safe and happy. There is no certainty in that; we are not our parents.

Happily, it also means that some of the things that they went through may not happen to us…

Uncharted doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous, it is just new. Uncertain. Free.

Terra Incognita, source: http://www.faena.com
Terra Incognita, source: http://www.faena.com

Writing

Again two poems that I wrote a few years ago, this time on the subject of writing. The first one is the first that I wrote (took me a bit of time!) when I started writing poems again after I’d stopped during my studies. They’re a bit old-fashioned in their style and the second one is a bit too simple for my current taste, but I still like their content and meaning 🙂

Choices

To live life without torment, without fear,

I put aside the risky and the queer;

No dark alleys and no drinking,

No broken men and no writing –

 

But fear has come and distress will;

Fear of sicknesses, fear of violences,

Fear of future pains for future losses;

Helpless I wait, dread and stay still –

 

Lying as wood when one should stand,

Makes a coward as decades blend,

Skin-deep sinks in a bitter smell of fright,

A trail I hope to wash, now that I write.

 

Reasons to write

If you were to become famous

  Alive; what value would it have?

  A nicer house maybe you’d have,

Prouder, richer than all of us,

But would you be really happy?

  For some say that fame and money

  Are there to entertain only,

No lights when you’re sad and lonely,

(Well, this is not completely true)

No knights against Fear and Worry,

  So live, enjoy, and stop thinking,

  Stop worrying, go on writing

For yourself and yourself only.

Until maybe, maybe, one day,

  Someone from his own library,

  Will grab inches of ivory,

Hand them to a dear one and say:

    I read this book and thought of you,

    I’m sure that you will love it too.

Source: 语录 图说, flickr
Source: 语录 图说, flickr

On accepting change

I seem to be on a roll of writing lately, and reading this article (A strange kind of homesickness) got me into thinking mode.

What changes us? Do we really change, deep down? Or is it only our reactions and points of view that change? What is the difference between ourselves and our reactions? Is change reversible? Is change a positive or a negative thing?

The woman from this article went back to a place (Paris) where she went before change happened, a place where she remembers herself as happy and free. But it turns out the place is not making her become what she was again. She changed.

I also have a few of these places that I love, the before places I could call them. I haven’t been back to any of them yet, and it scares me a little, that I might find that I cannot enjoy them anymore. And that going back might damage my memories.

For me, change wasn’t as dramatic, I think, as it was for her. It involved 4 years of fertility troubles, 2 years of inseminations in a foreign country (though we’d been living there for a few years, the language is still a barrier), the family far and getting older, a work which gave me some sort of PTSD – I’d have to develop on that but this poem already gives some info, though it wasn’t that bad, but I did go to three natural disasters sites from 9 months to up to 15 years after the events, which took up to 50 lives, took place. Not Nepal, but enough for me… Then a pregnancy which went well physically but not-so on the psy front with high levels of anxiety, which cumulated into panic attacks and isolation. And then birth 🙂 I now apparently have a higher probability than average for postnatal depression (which could still happen, with peaks 4 years after the birth).

All this over the course of a few years, plus the reactions of the family and friends, who just didn’t understand why I couldn’t get out of the house, let alone work, or have them over for a week end or even on the phone… Surely I was making this up, it couldn’t be so bad. And why now? Surely I could understand their needs to come, to phone, to see us and hear about the pregnancy?

But while I was screaming in panic rolled in a ball and held by my husband at 11 at night, then rushed by taxi, 5 months pregnant, to the nearest hospital to find solutions – proposed medications actually – the family and friends had no idea of what was happening to us and they waited, impatient to see us. For at the time we couldn’t talk about it, we couldn’t explain, so wrapped up in survival and fear for our son. Could the panic and daily anxiety hurt him (it can according to a paediatrician)? And what should we do about those bl..dy meds??

We tried talking to them about all of this, later, explaining what had happened. But most of them still don’t understand (or don’t care?) why they lost those train tickets or had to cancel our dinner plans, and not see me pregnant. Surely it wasn’t that bad, I could have made an effort. Well f..k you people. I just couldn’t breathe, get out of the house and chat, and it changed me.

I cannot avoid my fears anymore, I have to look at them and work to defeat them, make them less important. That is one of the lessons I kept from the weeks of therapy I did until the birth. I have to identify my fears and the things that make me uncomfortable, and stop avoiding them to spare others – I cannot afford to keep what I think hidden for too long. As a result, I am more straightforward about what I need and what I cannot do, though I may sound old as a result (“No you cannot come that week end. No we don’t have anything particular that week end, but we have something the week end before and the one after, and I know I will be tired and will need time to rest and clean things up”). I have had to accept and work within my limits. When it is too much I have to stop, even if it may hurt or inconvenience others. And I have less patience and acceptance for what is not part of my top priorities; i.e. my son’s and my husband’s needs…

Things have gotten easier but I probably won’t change back. A lot of things are not so important anymore and my energy cannot be wasted on such things – I have so little energy left after feeding, napping, playing, carrying, caring and worrying.

My reactions changed, but have I really changed as well? The feelings are the same but my way of handling them is not. I still like books and movies, going out a little (though less I suppose), travelling or the idea of travelling (at least I hope, it is to be tested, everything stresses me now and travelling with a little one is such work!). But my actions, reactions, decisions, and distribution of energy changed. Maybe it is what really matters in the end? Not the inside but the surface and the result? That I am not the same person I was. I might not be able to travel or go out as much or to the same places (crowds!).

Maybe a test, to see for myself how much I have changed, would be to go back to these before places. Could I still enjoy the sights? Or am I only stress and fear now?

But maybe such trips would only show me that I am older and a mum. These are changes in themselves, and though the “15 year-old-greenpeace-lover” and the “25 year-old-who-left-hopeful&free-for-another-country-and-got-married” me may still be there but unattainable, it is only normal that I am something different now, inside and out.

As a matter of fact, such changes may not only be “normal”, but “necessary” or “natural” ones. Ones with which we evolve as individuals and without which nothing would happen and we would shrivel or die – not becoming a mum per say, but making important life decisions about work or a family, becoming older (what is the alternative?), falling in love… These can be positive changes, if not easy ones.

Drawing from that, I imagine that there are at least two types of self-changes: the ones which come almost “naturally” or “easily” with age or by choice; and the ones that happen against our will, because of external pressures or because of unknown consequences to previous choices/changes.

None of these changes are really easy on us, be it by choice or not, but the last ones are probably the most difficult to accept. I wanted to get pregnant and become a mum, but I didn’t know it would take so long or that I would get sick, or even how life with a baby really is, how I would deal with it and how it would change me – I choose without knowing (but knowing that I didn’t really know, which scared me, if it makes sense).

These changes may be the most difficult to accept, but (1) do we really have a choice in the matter? It doesn’t seem like we could go back, and our life might be easier if we could just accept who we’ve become. And (2) who is to say that they cannot bring on something positive, at some point? Increased empathy, patience or self-respect?

In all this, what I find almost funny is that I already felt a bit old and damaged back then, when I was 15 or 25, a bit like I feel now – and maybe like when I was 21 and thought that I was fat, before putting on 10 more kilos over 5 years of time…

As damaged as I feel now, things could actually get worse, with what life as in storage for us. No more time to lose feeling sorry for myself then…

And maybe things will improve – I did lose those 10 kilos after all, and now that I am back at my 21 year old weight, I find myself quite pretty and thin :). Who knows? One day I could find that I prefer who I am then to who I was before.

One can hope.