Category Archives: transitions

The working mother, week 1

I’ll tell you what astonishes me – how much quicker I can get out of the house without two children who slow me down with their inconsistent demands and illogical thinking. I have spent what I fear are hours trying to get the Raging Bull to understand that tights don’t function in the same way as leggings. She insists, though, on walking out of the house half naked. Normally this daily routine – she cries, I lose it – slows me down by about 2o minutes.

But, with the English Husband in charge of the kids in the morning, I walk out of the house to work on Day 2 feeling remarkably unencumbered. I am not holding three coats, a change of clothes, two bottles of water, a huge bag, an empty stroller, two umbrellas and someone’s toy monkey. I’m only holding my handbag. A miracle.

My feeling of lightness lasts about one minute. It dissipates the moment I see the bus pulling away from the stop. I spend the next 7 minutes staring at my watch and cursing the rain. Bad commuting memories come rushing back.

My life is full of these little contradictions. I am loving looking in the closet and wearing clothes I would normally reserve for a special night out. Some of these clothes have been worn so rarely I’ve almost forgotten why I bought them. I no longer have to fear that someone is going to come along with sticky fingers and smear my top with hummus (my default lunch staple for the kids).

Yet I feel a little sad that I’m never there in the morning when they eat breakfast. Or that I no longer hear the Raging Bull chant her refrain – ‘I want cheese’ – for the thousandth time before 11am. She could give Tibetan monks a run for their money, I tell you.

I love the novelty of adult conversation. I have discovered that people in the office listen to me and laugh at what I say. I don’t have to repeat myself ten times, wondering whether I have suddenly become invisible or mute. The kids have a remarkable ability to tune me out.

But around 3 o’clock – the hour when I would pick up the Chatterbox from school – I start pining for a bit of time with the mini terrors. I even start to get nostalgic about doing an art project with them. What has possessed me? A three-year-old with sharp scissors and a stick of glue can do more damage to a house than most hurricanes, and yet here I am, almost wishing for it.

This kind of reverie doesn’t last long. Within minutes of picking the kids up, it comes flooding back – exactly why I was desperate to get out of the house in the first place.

The worst thing about my new, responsible working life is that the minute I get home the REAL WORK starts. You know those days when you used to get home from the office and flop on the couch, fix yourself a bit of salad and finish it off with a big glass of wine. That’s OVER.

I get home now and it’s like the day ramps up a notch. The kids need their dinner. There’s nothing waiting in the fridge, naturally, because I never know more than five minutes ahead of time what these kids are going to eat. Then it’s the usual dinnertime disaster, with the kids getting up from the table several times to wander around the house mid-spoonful. Despite my six+ years experience in motherhood, I still don’t know how to get them to sit. I suppose there are always chains, but it does feel a bit cruel…

Then it’s the misery of bathtime and getting pajamas on before bed. Before I had children, I naively assumed that you told a child to put on his pajamas and, lo and behold, the child would do it. Ah, what an innocent I was back then. I laugh at the child I was. Everything takes three times longer than you think it should and normally there are a few threats and tears before the kids are ready for their storytime. I’ve blinked and it’s 8pm.

Then it’s our own dinner, our own dishes and several other chores before I can actually sit down and rest. By this time I’m literally ready to drop into bed and start the whole thing over again.

Some nights I don’t even have the energy for an evening drink – so I know that something is seriously askew with my body clock. I never say no to a drink. Ask the English Husband. But this week I’ve had less than my normal take-the-edge-off-my-day dose.

Today is Friday, though, and I feel like rewarding myself with two vodkas, some wine and good food. I have already indulged my shopping habit and bought myself a new sweater. And I have arranged a night out with a friend. And I have the money to pay for it! How will I manage with so much excitement? Yes, the perks of working life. I hope my eyelids don’t droop by 9pm. That’ll just spoil the fun.

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A married bachelor

The English Husband and I have spent an entire year apart, the result of living in two different countries. I wanted to move to the United States, he stayed in London. I returned to the UK in July and found that my husband had adopted some curious habits.

Habit no. 1: I discover this one as soon as I open the microwave. It was like the moment I stepped off the plane in India – it’s the odor of the country that hits you first. This odor was most definitely curry, stale curry to be precise. I also found congealed, unidentifiable food stuck/melted onto the microwave walls. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to deduce that he has been microwaving ethnic food more than a couple of times a week.

Habit no. 2: He’s acquired a lot of men’s toiletries and lined them up neatly in the bathroom. Now, I’ll be honest here, I’d rather a vain man than one who walks around like he is still hunting and gathering food in 50 BC, a time when deodorant was still several thousand years off. But he had left very little room for my toiletries, which weigh about the same as a one-year-old baby. I wondered, ‘Is he staking this bathroom out as his own and leaving me to share the other bathroom with the kids?’

Habit no. 3: He’s thrown a lot of kitchen stuff away. When I question him about the missing lemon squeezer and muffin tray, for instance, he acts like I am speaking Mandarin. The implication is all too obvious: he hasn’t used any kitchen stuff and has probably thrown some of it out without bothering to ask me whether I might need it.

Habit no. 4: He’s thrown a lot of my stuff away. My handbags are gone. This is really like no. 3, but even more annoying. Sometime in the move from one place to another to another, my handbag collection has dwindled. ‘Where are they?’ I ask several times, trying to control the note of desperation. Well, it’s like asking the Pope if he prefers GQ or Playboy. I only get a blank look. Yes, it’s the deer-in-the-headlights look. I sense I’m getting nowhere.

Habit no. 5: There are some bizarre shows recorded on the television. I’m hazy on the exact titles, but this is a close approximation: The World’s Craziest Police Chases, Traffic Cops, The World’s Worst Car Crashes, The World’s Worst Prisons, Russell Brand Live, Peter Kay Live and Nothing To Declare (Australia version). He tries to persuade me that I will enjoy some of this, but I’d rather be staring at my emails on the laptop, which is what I usually do.

So, last night we have a battle about the television once again. Now that the Olympics are over, we are at a loss. We both feel bereft. He wants to watch Breaking Bad, season 4. I’ve yet to watch the third episode of season 1. ‘I’ll catch you up,’ he says. ‘It’s really not that difficult to follow.’ It’s like he’s doing me a favor.

We end up watching a few episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We are tourists in the TV equivalent of Switzerland, neutral territory.

The reality is that I desperately want to watch The Killing, an internationally acclaimed Danish series that first premiered in 2007. I’ve been wanting to watch it for years. There are quite a few things I’ve been wanting to do for years.

I seize my chance – the English Husband was out tonight. Yes! I have the whole sofa to myself. I can gulp wine without getting the ‘you’re not having another glass’ look. Should I be this happy about spending the night alone? If I’m to watch the whole series of The Killing – all 20 episodes – I’d need him to be out for the next three weeks consecutively.

It will never happen. I wonder if I can strike a deal: he gets to watch Breaking Bad while I watch The Killing. If only we weren’t so damn European and had two television sets, like a normal American household. (The average is actually three in the US, as I discovered while writing this post.) We’re in the television Dark Ages around here. At least, though, the English Husband doesn’t smell like he’s living in Medieval times.

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Back to school (update)

After my post yesterday about the difficulty of getting a primary school place in London, I have learned the following from the ITV News:

  • 800 children in the capital still have no primary school place as of today
  • 10,000 applications were turned in late to the local council for the school year
  • 6,000 more children applied for a reception place (equivalent to kindergarten) than the year before, bringing the total number of children needing a school place for their first year to 100,000
  • the shortage of school places in London (primary and secondary) will rise to 90,000 by 2016. The cost to meet the demand will be about £2.3bn in four years

In the news segment, one local council official blames the government for not giving them the money they need to build more facilities to meet the demands. The councils claim they are doing what they can with the money at their disposal. The government probably has a different view, not aired in the program.

These are the big headlines. But beneath these big headlines are people like me, who only want to find a decent local school for their child. Yesterday I blogged about how I didn’t get any of my preferred local schools (there were five of them), so I’ve been given a school a fair distance away with a below-par reputation.

Yesterday someone finally calls me back from this school – the one I didn’t even list on my application form – to ask me why I had been leaving messages for them. I explained the situation for the third time.

Turns out that the staff haven’t been around to deal with any of the potential admin problems that arose over the summer because they’ve been on break. No surprise there. What’s surprising is that they literally don’t return until the day before the new term starts.

The woman was very nice on the phone, but knew nothing about my child, didn’t even know the local council had offered us a place and was wading through ‘hundreds of emails’ to see if she could find something about it.

‘Oh yes, here we go, I think I found an email from someone at the council telling me about your child,’ she informs me after five minutes.

Why is the local council sending emails to people who aren’t around to deal with the problem? They clearly sent the email and washed their hands of it. The council – in this case Haringey – should take responsibility for this until people at the school can pick it up, preferably not the day before the new school term.  The lack of communication is incredulous. It takes a small problem such as this one to expose the utter shambles in local government.

Meanwhile, my child did go to her first day of school this morning. She was very thrown by it all and was in tears, clinging to me and begging me not to leave her. It’s the first time she’s acted this way on the first day of a school year. It would have probably helped if I’d been better able to prepare her for where she needed to go. Instead, I had to explain to her last night that we were sending her to this school last minute. I didn’t bother to add that we are still hoping she’ll be offered a better school closer to us.

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Back to school

September. It was one of those peerless late-summer days. The last week in London has been something of a damp disappointment, and I was thinking that this was it, Summer was packing up her bags and floaty dresses and heading further south to flirt with gentler climes. Today, though, the baby-blue sky was bottomless and there was warm sunshine. If I closed my eyes, I was back in California.

The only thing that was spoiling my enjoyment was the thought of going back to school. I dreaded every September for this reason, but this time it’s my six-year-old child who is going to have to negotiate the choppy waters of making new friends and trying to fit in. It’s her third school in three years and I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about all the moving around. I’m good at guilt – read this post to find out why.

Chatterbox with backpack

The Chatterbox on her first day of ‘big’ school, Sept 2010

I’m also fed up with the London school admissions process. To say it’s shambolic is to say that Kim Kardashian is an intellectual. In actual fact, the system seems to verge on the ridiculous. Here’s how it works in London:

  • you list your top schools – usually a total of six – on a form administered by the local council, which gives parents the illusion of choice
  • if you’re lucky you’ll get your top choice (meaning you are literally a stone’s throw from the school) or you live in a less-crowded part of London where there is a better choice of schools that aren’t full. As far as I’m aware, this doesn’t exist.
  • if you’re unlucky you won’t get any and you’ll be put on a waiting list for the schools you prefer; in the meantime, you might be given a school that could be miles from you. Generally, this school will have a medicore reputation or it will be in a rough area (usually it’s both), which is why it has places.

I’ve fallen into the last category. We were unlucky because we arrived in London in July and everyone who was on a waiting list got allocated their places back in May. So we have kind of ended up in no-man’s land. We got none of the choices we listed on the application form and were told that we could accept a school that was about 35 minutes away by foot (I don’t have a car). It also has a below-average reputation.

Meanwhile, the school five minutes from us by foot has an excellent reputation but is more full than a Baptist Church in the Deep South on a Sunday. We’re currently on the waiting list.

But it gets worse. School starts imminently and I’ve had nothing to inform me that my child has been placed on an admissions list for the school we didn’t even want. I call the school yesterday to try to figure out what’s going on.

‘Yes, my love, what is the child’s name?’ the receptionist asks.

I explain the situation carefully, devoid of emotion. We accepted a place at this school in early August but have heard nothing since. We don’t know whether she’s been allocated a place or not. School starts in two days and I don’t know whether to show up.

‘My love, the admin staff aren’t here today, but I’ll try to find someone who can call you.’

I don’t know whether the receptionist’s tactic of using terms of endearment is to keep me from shouting obscenities. I hang up.

No one calls back. Why would they? I call back again this morning, the day before school is due to start.

‘Oh yes, my love, I spoke to you yesterday. The admin person is now on a training course and our computer system is down. Maybe you should just show up tomorrow morning and speak to her in person.’

Helpful? Not really. In the meantime, what do I tell my child? You might be going to school tomorrow, you might not. You might have to walk into a classroom with a roomful of kids who already know each other. You might be the only one without a uniform.

I try not to get into the whole US vs UK thing too often, because I know it’s useless. This is a different country and it’s better to adjust than to complain. I feel like venting, though. In the United States I would not have had this problem. My mother works at a school in California and all the admin staff return the week before school starts, precisely because there are people like me, who move into a new area in the summer.

Last year when I moved to California in the middle of summer, the school admissions process was straightforward. The admin staff helped me wade through all the forms I needed to fill out before the first day.

How is it possible that, in the UK, no one shows up until the day of the new term and no one can tell you if your child has been given a place? Seems crazy to me. Is it too hard to show up a few days early or are budgets really stretched that tight? I don’t know. Forget trying to ask the local council. It’s like trying to get a straight answer about human-rights abuses from a ruthless dictatorship.

So I give up. I don’t think I will take my child to school on her first day. She will just have to cope with showing up sometime this week or maybe next week. I’m feeling reckless.

I’d be interested to know if anyone in London has had this experience with the admissions process to primary schools. Anyone care to vent frustrations?

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A week in London

It has been a week and I’ve realized how much I’d forgotten about London. It’s all come rushing back. Something which has struck me is how the city seems to suffer from a persistent personality disorder. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It has many sides, all of them equally valid.

This great capital is leafy, polluted, beautiful, old, historical, seedy, squalid, tawdry, grimy, complex, intriguing, addictive, bohemian, cultural, artistic, ponderous, wild, etc. I could go on and on. There seems to be no end to London’s many sides.

In the last few days I have seen its extremes close up. There’s nothing quite so depressing as going to visit a local council office. It’s right up there with getting your tooth pulled in a Third World country without anesthetic. On Friday, still feeling jet lagged, I set off for Haringey’s youth and children’s centre to discuss getting a school place for my oldest child, who will be 6 in August.

The journey doesn’t start out well when I get lost in the thick, concrete forest that is Wood Green. If you know nothing about Wood Green, its name would give you the impression that it was a rather pleasant, verdant place. Far from it.

Wood Green should really be renamed Horrid Dream. It’s a vision of hell, I’m sure, if you think hell is a bunch of tacky shops strung together. There is also the local mall, a place that looks like it was constructed by an 80s heroin addict suffering from halluncinations. Even someone who loves shopping as much as I do can’t quite bring myself to go there – the place makes your heart contract.

Away from the tube, things get a little better. I pick my way through the wet pavements littered with garbage and find a place that I thought was Haringey’s adminstration building. It turns out to be connected with Haringey but not where I needed to be. So off I go again towards the tube and to my destination, a huge nonentity of a building with automatic doors that are being blocked by a couple of strollers and tired-looking mothers.

It’s shabby inside. Old chairs with their seams splitting sit by the entrance. A man who takes his job too seriously reprimands me for leaving the Raging Bull, who is fast asleep, in her stroller by a pillar.

‘What are you doing?’ he barks at me in a thick African accent.

‘She’s asleep and I thought I would leave her to rest where she is out of the way.’ I’m not relishing the prospect of pushing the stroller through a long, narrow line hemmed in by an elastic cordon.

‘You can’t leave her there.’

‘But I can see her from where I’m standing,’ I protest, feeling like he is calling my motherly judgement into question.

He proceeds to tell me that there are crazy and unpredictable people around here, any of which might try to whisk the Raging Bull away from right under my nose.

‘Where I come from,’ he continues, ‘children are looked after by everyone. But not here. Not the same here.’

So I’m ordered to sit down on a sofa next to my sleeping toddler. He’ll call me when it’s my turn to speak to someone behind the reception desk. This makes me feel uneasy. Everyone else is standing patiently, and I’m singled out like an invalid or someone too good to wait her turn in line.

When we leave the building I squeeze antibacterial gel on my hands. I imagine germs following me out to the street. The bus looks like a breeding ground. I’ve become so American again, I think.

On Sunday I find myself without kids. I take a long walk to my ballet class through some of central London. It’s not raining and the walk is enjoyable. It takes me a moment but I remember how London is interconnected. I stumble across a huge parade with people, all Italian, in Christian costumes enacting different scenes from the Bible. It’s totally surreal and unexpected. I get lost in the throng for a moment and the sun peeks out from behind its grey shroud.

This is what I loved about London – its unpredictability. I buy the Sunday paper and stroll to the shops near my new flat. This is the London I could get used to. Today, though, it rains all day and I feel pissed off with it again.

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Hello, London

I’ve made it to the other side of the Atlantic ocean, but not without a few near-disasters. The first of these occurred at LAX, where I was worried I would be turned away when the airline saw how much luggage I had with me. I suspect I was Air New Zealand’s worst nightmare – a woman traveling on her own with two small children, one of them with a terrible cough, and hauling about 200 pounds worth of stuff.

New house

Outside our new house on a rainy day. I think the kids better get used to the drizzle

I was tipped off that my largest suitcase (one of four) was horribly overweight when the porter picked it up and said in disbelief, ‘Wow, this must weigh about 90lbs.’ He was right, of course, because the woman at the check-in desk told me that they wouldn’t even put this suitcase on the plane unless I could lighten it.

You can imagine what comes next – I have to open all my suitcases in front of better-prepared, less frazzled travelers, to redistribute the weight. Since all the suitcases are ludicrously full, this is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The Chatterbox had to sit on one of the suticases to get it back shut. I feel like I’ve won the lottery when I’m told it will only cost $140 to get all this crap to London.

So it’s with a small amount of relief that I board the plane, still nearly intact, but already feeling as exhausted as a marathon runner in the desert heat. When the cheerful flight attendant asked me if I was well, I couldn’t resist saying no. He shot me a sugar-sweet smile and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re here now and we’ll take care of you.’ Sure, I think, I’ve heard this before.

What the flight really needed was a full-time babysitter for the kids, who refused to go to sleep. I could hardly blame them, since sleeping required folding themselves in half and twisting their heads to the side. It’s not conducive to anything but a terrible neck ache. I somehow survive 10-plus hours, but leave the airplane looking like a wrinkled wreck.

My first view of London is on the tarmac, where I see that my fears have materialized – it’s winter in the middle of summer. The sky is gunmetal grey, and rain splatters the windows of the plane. At least it’s not hailing, but the captain did warn us that it was a chilly 16 degrees Celsius outside. In California, the temperature was nearly double that.

I drag the now sleep-deprived children through Heathrow and to the immigration desk. I forgot how huge this airport is. We pass an entire section of the airport dedicated solely to people coming to the city for the Olympics. They have what looks like an entire wing to themselves. A large wall is decorated with a glossy picture of a beefeater (in his traditional costume), saying ‘Welcome’.

I don’t feel much like I’m coming home. I feel weighed down and tired, both physically and pyschologically. If you think moving is exhausting when you are on your own, double it when you have kids, and triple it for moving countries. There is no end to my exhaustion right now and it’s not great for my state of mind.

But I am now firmly esconced in the flat, which feels a bit like a cozy cottage. We are living in the heart of Crouch End in north London. This is a middle-class inner suburb with more cafes than you’d find in the Latin quarter of Paris. In London speak, this means we are living in a place where the average house price is over £1m. You kind of need to be rich to own a house around here. Hence, we have the basement of a once-grand house. It was probably once used for the servants or for storage. I can also hear everything our neighbors upstairs do, and I suspect they can hear everything we do, too. I will probably never meet them.

When I stare at my things, many of which look too flimsy for this weather, I do wonder how I got here. What’s next? I’m not sure. I know it’s not a trip to the beach.

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Goodbye, California

I’ve said many goodbyes over the last couple of weeks. The hardest is coming. I’ve been here before, though. Exactly a year ago I had to say goodbye to all my friends in London. I wish I could say that you get numb to the experience. You don’t.

For me, the sadness comes in waves. I’ll be doing something totally ordinary and then it will wash over me: a pain in my chest, and a feeling like I am choking on something. There’s a reason it’s called a heartache – it honestly does hurt.

So, the suitcases are mostly packed – they look like they are leering at me, with their zippered mouths wide open. They are full to the point of exploding. There’s nothing like a bit of packing to make all your possessions look so inadequate and pathetic. You have all this stuff and what does it amount to? I am loaded down with a bunch of heavy junk.

My idea was to come to the United States and start a new life. I’ve not been that successful. Namely, I haven’t found a job. For that reason I will be going back to London, where I have a husband with the means to support our small family.

What I will miss:

I will miss the sky, the expansive blue dome of sky that you get in California. It’s endless. It looks like someone has thrown a baby boy’s blanket across the roof of the Earth.

I will miss the beach, the canyons and the gentle winters.

I will miss my friends. Thank you for listening to me, for supporting me and for trying to help me. I will not forget all your generosity. You have done what all good friends do – tell me the truth about myself.

I will miss my family. It’s not easy to live with your mother when you are a mother yourself, but we’ve made it work somehow. I am so glad my children know you well enough to ask for you when they wake up in the middle of the night.

I will miss my brother. We can laugh at each other. The wine helps.

What I have learned:

You can get used to almost anything, even sharing a bed with your child when you should be sharing a bed with your husband.

You are stronger than you think you are.

You can’t have everything all at once.

A year goes too quickly.

Driving requires coordination and confidence.

Insurance is expensive.

Every relationship, even the one with your parents, requires patience and compromise.

Thank you to everyone who has read my random scribblings so far. I am afraid that my blog has kind of lost its reason for being. I will keep you updated with my experiences from London.

I’m off to catch a plane and I should be in bed. The end.

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