Monthly Archives: March 2013

Boredom is good for kids

With all the miserable spring weather we’ve been having – sorry if I’m repeating myself here – it’s easy to forget that the children have basically been hibernating indoors with me for the last several months. Yes, there have been occasional excursions to the park, where I’ve stood around counting minutes on my watch and exercising meditation (I try to visualize a warm beach). But for the most part I’ve led them from one coffee shop to another in my quest for distraction.

It’s scary, but the three-year-old orders ‘babyccinos’ (this is a cappuccino without the coffee) like a pro. ‘I want a babyccino,’ she says to me on Saturdays, a slight whine in her voice. She’s got addicted to them, I fear. The other thing she orders with regularity is a dose of television.

Both kids would happily watch wall-to-wall television if I let them. I don’t. But apparently a few hours a day is not detrimental, according to a recent study. The headline? TV time does not breed badly behaved children or impair their social development.

The Medical Research Council in the UK studied more than 11,000 elementary school children and found that watching television or using another screen (think iPad) does not lead to hyperactivity or social problems.

One doctor in Glasgow went so far as to say that it was ‘wrong to blame social problems on TV’. The article doesn’t say who or what should get the blame, but I wouldn’t be surprised if parents were top of the blame list.

Let them be bored

Yet another expert, in another news story that will probably confuse parents, said that it’s okay to let children get bored.

The senior researcher at a school of education argued that boredom helps kids develop their creativity.

I’m all for a bit of boredom, frankly, and the long winter has provided plenty of opportunities for staring out the window at the frozen landscape.

Modern, middle-class parents seem to think that if Annabella isn’t doing piano lessons on Monday, Mandarin on Tuesday, ballet on Wednesday, swimming on Thursday and vocal lessons on Friday she is going to suffer some sort of stimulus deprivation and end up without meaningful, well-paid work as an adult.

I don’t know how many of my friends shuffle their kids from one activity to another, constantly searching for something that will tap into their child’s inner genius and get them into the holy grail of education, a decent high school that doesn’t cost the earth.

As a working mother, I can’t be part of this frantic ferrying around, so there’s not a lot of extracurricular activity.

I feel bad about this sometimes, but I’m starting to reevaluate this useless guilt. We need mental space; doing nothing is not always negative. It can lead to bursts of creativity. Study the sky, watch the clouds.

Lay off the lamb

What I fear more than boredom is kids who literally don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t holding some sort of electronic device in their hands.

I’ve seen what an obsessive social media habit can do to adults. There are people who can’t live without checking their iPhone every few minutes; they feel totally lost if they leave the phone at home by mistake.

This, I’m telling you, should be more worrying than a few hours of television a day.

As proof that our social media habits are out of control, a little black lamb – resuced from the snow in North Yorkshire – has its own Twitter account and has already tweeted 200 times since being born on March 24. The ‘micro lamb’ has over 1600 followers and mostly tweets about being stuck indoors; she signs off with a lot of ‘baas’.

You know what, this lamb should just be allowed to get bored.

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Winter’s icy grip

daffodils

Brave but droopy daffodils make the best of a frozen spring

I’ve been hibernating. The sky alternates between bruised purple and milky white. The trees are like arthritic hands. They are bony, twisted things, all knuckly branches.

Outside I see the remnants of the latest snowfall and it doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting. The snow is dirty slush, leaving behind opaque puddles and bits of ice.

Last year I was in San Diego. My concession to winter was occasionally wearing close-toed shoes and a sweater; I never wore socks, the joy of it! Winter doesn’t really exist over there. The days get shorter and the nights certainly get colder, but it’s not truly winter. Not in any sense of the word.

So I have been living in a bit of denial since November. I made it through Christmas and then the three long months that have followed but I am on the verge of losing it. No matter how many years I have lived in England, I still can’t get used to it. Does anyone? I don’t think my native friends especially like it, but they seem to cope with it. Meanwhile, I get bouts of terrible homesickness.

Today I was reading the newspaper, and a writer said that the word ‘home’ feels heavy, burdened with ‘a standard nowhere ever meets’. I know exactly what this author means. My childhood home, the golden light of California, has attained mythical proportions. No place will ever measure up to it, perhaps not even the place itself.

So I feel paralyzed to make decisions; I am incapable of seeing myself in one place for long. I can’t commit. I am the bachelor who can’t settle down. This has undoubtedly affected our life in London. We continue to pay extortionate rent instead of trying to buy. Every conversation about this purgatory begins with an ‘if’ – ‘But if we move to California’, I will say hopefully.

Having lived nearly as long in another country as in the country of my birth, I feel constantly bereft. I can’t shake the feeling that I should be there when I am here. When I was there (in California) last year, I felt like something still wasn’t complete.

I started this blog because I felt trapped between two worlds. I still feel that way. It makes me wonder about other immigrants. Do they feel this displacement all the time? Do they have a constant yearning? Do they always feel the outsider, even in the place where they were born?

I know from experience that spring will cure me of the worst of these thoughts, at least for a little while. And I will be going to California in the summer for five weeks. I will see the sky open up, nature’s aquamarine jewel. I’ve missed it.

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My child the critic

Children are renowned for their candor. They don’t tend to hold back their thoughts or mince their words.

The other day I wore my hair differently (I couldn’t be bothered to blow-dry it ) and the six-year-old Chatterbox said to me: ‘You look pretty today. I like your hair that way.’ I could see her caramel eyes taking me in, judging me like a friend might.

Her observation took me a little by surprise. Here we go, I thought, she’s going to start telling me what to wear next.

I didn’t have to wait long. The very next day we were getting off the bus and she told me that I looked nice. Then she seemed to back pedal slightly. ‘Your leggings do look a little short.’ I glanced down, noticing a thin strip of pale winter skin showing between the hemline of my trousers and my socks. She was right – they did look a tad short.

It’s a strange thing to suddenly get appraised by your kids. She’s seeing me as a separate person, someone who isn’t just her mother. It’s like she’s developing the ability to see me from a distance and not with the myopic view of a toddler.

My three-year-old sees me as a Mommy blob. She doesn’t yet have the ability to view me as another person with a life outside of motherhood. To the Raging Bull, I am probably still just the arms that wrap around her in comfort; the breath on her blubbery neck; the hand that crushes hers when we walk across a busy street.

My new critic is still mostly complimentary, but how long will it be before I become a source of embarrassment and not a source of pride? I give it a few years at most.

Oldsmobile

The Oldsmobile looked something like this. The scenery didn’t.

I think back to my elementary school years in San Diego. My mother used to pick me up in this huge burgundy Oldsmobile. Even in the early 80s, it was starting to look like a relic of American engineering. It had the biggest back seat you could imagine. It was less a car and more of a boat. There was nothing sophisticated about it.  

I remember feeling slightly embarrassed by this car. In the United States you are judged by the car you drive, believe me. This car did not make me ‘cool’. I already felt like an outcast and this only seemed to verify it.

I got over this eventually and, luckily, my parents traded in this monstrosity and bought a much more sensible Honda Accord in silver. I loved that car – until I crashed it at the age of 16 and left it in a state of ruin. My parents, who disregarded many of the unkind things I said to them as a teenager, forgave me.

I know my children will say something that will hurt me one day; it’s inevitable. Until then, I am going to bask in their praise and try not to forget to praise them back.

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Working from home: the backlash

Raging Bull with Chatterbox

Two reasons why I might want to work from home occasionally

What is it with women? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent a memo to her employees telling them that she is going to ban working from home. By the way, she has a small child. Predictably, this has kicked off a storm of negative reactions, with many people saying that it’s a step backwards for the high-tech company.

Now, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has weighed into the debate. She doesn’t like working from home either. She has one son, now nearly grown up. Shulman’s mother supposedly went back to her writing job within two weeks of giving birth.

Shulman’s argument is that she likes her team to be around. In a UK national newspaper over the weekend, she also says this: ‘Some of the best stories in any publication I have worked on have come out of a glancing remark somebody has made about their night before, or a piece of gossip, or a joke.

‘The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way.’

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, there is some truth in this. But it’s hardly a reason to demand that your employees sit every day in the office, just so that they can contribute to a piece of gossip or have an occasional bright idea overheard by others.

As a working mother, I really could list a number of reasons why working from home would help me a great deal. I don’t work from home, so you know, mostly because I’ve been told that I can’t have certain software applications outside of the office for security reasons. I honestly do believe there is a way around this, but I’ve not wanted to push it.

I can tell you this, however: if my employer gave me the right to work from home, even occasionally, I would work that much harder to keep the job. I would be loyal and I’d be happier, which I believe would ultimately make me more productive.

I used to work from home two days a week – and I got quite a bit done. I also never used it as an excuse to do nothing. I’d argue that I was as productive as someone in the office, maybe even more so.

This ‘gossip’ that Alexandra Shulman talks about can also be detrimental to productivity. Just because you’re in the office, sitting in front of your computer, doesn’t mean you are participating in work conversations or even doing actual work. You could be chatting to friends on Facebook or checking your Twitter feed for pleasure. You could be incessantly talking to the person next to you about your weekend or the night before, keeping both of you from doing anything at all.

We need to get away from the idea that being in the office somehow means that we are doing more work than someone who is sitting on their couch or at their dining table.

London mayor Boris Johnson said last summer that people might use the Olympics as an excuse to work from home and ‘open the fridge and hack off that bit of cheese’.

Hilarious, isn’t it? As if home workers do nothing more than sit around and snack on food. The reality is far more complex. Sure, you may take breaks at home but so do people in the office. I can’t tell you how many distraction techniques I can come up with.

And if you are going to be the type of person who likes to take advantage of people’s trust in you, the fact is that this won’t change whether you are in the office or not. You will always find a way to work the system to your advantage.

The best is to find a balance. Like drinking wine or eating cakes, it’s all about not doing too much of one or the other. I find that some working from home is complemented by time in the office – but this is my personal conclusion.

What I find most depressing about this debate is the fact that it’s being propagated, in part, by very successful women. You know what, let’s cut each other a break. Isn’t it enough that there are so very few women in high-level politics or holding down jobs as CEOs? There are two female chief executives in the FTSE 100 working today.

Couldn’t we be a bit more forgiving? Couldn’t women, who give birth and get lumbered with the child-rearing, recognise that working from home is not some evil offshoot of better technology but a fact of modern life?

Even if you’re a successful woman, who opts to go back to work two weeks after giving birth, leaving your child to your nanny, couldn’t you see that not everyone would want the same or even have the option of top-level care?

My dad, who is an engineer, once told me that he didn’t very much like working with the few women who made it in his profession, because they were often tougher and less forgiving than men. I kind of see his point now.

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Mars space mission

I think my many years in London has taught me quite a lot about tiny spaces, marriage and adversity. This, I’m certain, makes me well qualified to take part in the space mission to Mars in 2018 or at least act as some sort of consultant.

American businessman Dennis Tito wants to recruit an older married couple on a 500-day trip to the planet, in what will be a privately funded space mission. But he has warned any potential applicants that the conditions will be spartan, cramped and tough.

The only company the couple will have is about 300 pounds of dehydrated food and each other.

I happen to know a thing or two about tight spaces. It’s hard to live in London without feeling eternally cramped. There’s the daily commute on the tube, where I have spent many journeys unable to even raise an arm to read my book because I am pinned to a person’s body or a pole. For my disbelieving American readers, this is not an exaggeration.

There there were the three years I spent in a one-bedroom flat, living with the English Husband and the newborn Chatterbox, who used to sleep in a crib next to our bed. She eventually got a bed of her own and could walk and talk. She was still sleeping next to us. It started to get kind of creepy.

When I was 7 months pregnant with our second child, we finally moved to a flat with two whole bedrooms. I’ve been living in something that size ever since. I’m hoping that one day I might move up to three actual bedrooms, but this seems an unattainable goal in London for people on average wages.

In the meantime, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on size and get used to squeezing into boxes that also double as bedrooms, offices that effectively become closets and my indispensable coffee tables, which have served as my dining tables for many, many years.

So I have a word of advice for this unknown couple who would be foolish to undertake a solitary trip to space in a high-tech shoebox:

  1. Develop the ability to tune things out. If you can’t meditate, grab some ear plugs and use them whenever you sense a fight is in the zero-gravity air.
  2. Get separate beds or sleep in bunks. You will not survive 500 days sleeping next to this person. Don’t even think about it. It will save you endless intergalactic tossing and turning.
  3. Take in the view. What you will certainly have on your side is this amazing wide expanse of space. Drink it in. Imagine yourself out there when your partner starts to get on your nerves. Count yourself lucky that you aren’t staring into someone else’s bathroom window.
  4. Learn to let things go. No matter what you do, the capsule will always feel that little bit messy. Just go with it.
  5. Drink. If they aren’t planning to provide you with alcohol, insist on it. Use it as a form of tranquilizer.
  6. Listen to music through head phones. Only take them off at meal times or in a space emergency.
  7. Engage in conversation only when you have something pleasant to say. If you can’t think of anything nice to say, put the head phones back on and pretend you can’t hear.
  8. Get yourself ready for the space flight by standing in a tiny shower cubicle. Stand there for several hours, attempt to bend or shave your legs. I can lend you mine if you need it.
  9. Never show your adversary loved one any form of weakness. It will be used against you.
  10. If you don’t have small children, borrow some. Go to a hotel room for several days and don’t leave. If you can survive the ordeal, you are ready.

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