Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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The Marcus Aurelius Meme

One of the tacit themes of Balthasar’s Gift is that everyone we meet, whether we like them or not, has something to teach us. It’s an adage I strongly believe in and try to remember, though not always with success. In novels, we like to see protagonists learning and achieving something with that knowledge – it’s called character arc, and if it doesn’t happen, we feel that characters are flat, wooden or too self-satisfied.

Litlove’s Marcus Aurelius Meme made me think of this, and so I am shamelessly plundering her ideas bank on this Tuesday morning to give you Gifts I Have Received from Other People:

From my mother, the Gift of Relentless Optimism: Her glass is not just half-full, it is overflowing. She believes in a benevolent and provident universe, and although she doesn’t have much in the way of material things, she leads a life that is surprisingly full of good luck and serendipity and Things Landing in her Lap. It’s been the experience of a lifetime being the child of a person who lives like this – guileless and believing in the good.

From my father, the Gift of Willingness to see the Funny Side. He is one of the funniest people I know and in another world, would have been a stand-up comedian instead of a lawyer. I love his take on the world and, when I remember to see the humour in a situation instead of freaking out and railing at unfairness (which he is also known to do – call it the Gift I’d Prefer Not to Mention), problems do diminish.

From my children, the Gift of Living in the Moment. There’s nothing like a baby to make the best-laid plans transmute into a spaghetti of terrible chaos. Though I have, and often still do, fight to plan ahead and organize, the moments when I allow myself to to sniff a child’s head, feel their warm limbs wrap around mine and melt into the joy of right now, this very second, are the best in the world.

From my husband, the Gift of the Oblique View. He has never been one to follow the pack, even when I first met him as a 17-year-old teenager. He holds the surprise factor of having viewpoints, ideas and ways to explain the world that knock me off my perch. My office (what my bedroom is known as during daylight hours) is next to his and I get a kick listening to him explain software to his clients on the phone. When a sentence starts ‘It’s like broccoli …’  I lose track of my protagonist’s problems and tune into the vagaries of global human resources management, because I have to know why software is like broccoli.

From my friends, I receive the Gift of Being Vastly Entertained. I love people to be amusing, witty, intelligent, provocative, a bit off-the-wall without injuring others and I have a treasure trove of people who do all of the above.

What gifts have you received from others?

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Scenes from a Diary

I came across my diary from July 1999, when I was expecting my first child. Never mind gestating a baby, I think I was a blogger waiting to be born:

“Waiting in the Tesco’s car park for Thomas to do the groceries. I went in with him, but after a couple of minutes of retching, gave up and on his suggestion came and sat outside. I am having much better days generally, but now and then am assailed by smells, combined with not having enough food in my stomach, and start to feel grim. The answer is constant eating (grazing).”

“Thomas must be buying the whole shop: he’s still in there! I wonder what he’s getting for supper. Food is a major focus at the moment: how does it look, how does it smell, do I feel like it, what do I feel like, I felt like that yesterday but don’t today. My main desire is for very bland nursery-style food, so things like mashed potatoes rank really high.”

“STILL no sign of Thomas. Could he be lost among the dairy products? He’s bought a lot of cheese lately, so maybe we’re getting some more. LONG PAUSE. There he is, looking dapper in his blue suit.”

“Right now, I’m making my second attempt to read Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath her Feet”, which I am finding intensely irritating. He is so intent on being clever. It is very tedious: laboured classical and literary references dropped in like bricks to spoil the narrative. I keep wanting to throw it across the room.”

“I have lost interest in work completely. While I am happy to earn money (furniture for the new home, minature Baby Gap items), I no longer find what I am doing particularly interesting or exciting. Baby Otter, you have taken over my life. I can’t wait to meet you, little darling. We are so excited that you have chosen to share our lives. Bless you, our little angel.”

Children, food, books. Not much has changed in ten years.


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Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition

It’s been a long time since my last edition of Tales from The Web. Things have got in the way, like writing a novel and developing a gym habit. I have discovered that an endorphin high from 45 minutes on the cross-trainer lasts a whole lot longer than the endorphin high from eating a 100 gram bar of Milka. Gym is my new drug of choice, and like any addict I get really crabby when I don’t get my fix. This week I’ve sick kids and have only been able to go twice, which has made me bad-tempered and irritable. My family have been practically forcing chocolate on me. “Eat this, Mummy! Eat this and smile again!”

As a form of virtual chocolate, I offer you the March edition of Tales from the Web. Consider it endorphins packaged especially for you, as feel-good as spring lambs gambolling in acid-green fields. And if that doesn’t constitute happiness for you, then imagine you’ve just come off the treadmill, all wobbly-legged and trembly, and you’re floating out of the gym on a cloud of hormone. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with eye candy. I bookmarked this in December, but these cakes could be Easter cakes too. The blogger African Vanielje is a chef, baker extraordinaire, photographer and writer. Take a look at her Truly Remarkable Once a Year Cakes and wish you were a friend of hers with a birthday just around the corner.

I love the Wallace Stevens quote BlogLily has as her blog tag: “It must give pleasure”. On days when I’ve felt like posting something gloomy, self-reflective and sad, I remember BlogLily’s mantra. I do think it is a good one. I have chosen a classic BL post for your delectation here. It comes from her visit to London earlier this year, where she soaked up a lot of theatre. Apparently in London in January, “it was pouring plays about sex”. Have fun reading Is Eros All?

Now we all know that sex can lead to babies, and babies, though delicious, bring a host of unexpected complications with them. Next up is a post written in response to a desperate plea. I saved it because I was taken with the thoughtfulness and kindness that went into shaping the response, and because I was once that parent, with a co-sleeping, breast-feeding baby who didn’t want to sleep unless using me as a dummy. I know the desperation that went into that original email, and I would have welcomed the same kind of non-judgmental kindness that Bluemilk exhibits here in trying to find a solution. I include this in the March Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition because I want to show that the blogosphere can be a good place, not just a snarkfest.

The lovely Anna is trying to work herself out of a job. Her three boys are growing up, and her resolution for this year is to mother them less so that they can learn the life-skills they will need when they leave home. I am a big fan of her blog The End of Motherhood where she is documenting this process with her great sense of humour. The post I’m linking to today is not about parenting teenagers, but is a tip for raising smaller kids. It’s what she calls “a secret sauce for parenting young children” and you can read about it here. Fifteen minutes a day to stop tantrums and reconnect with your child. That’s feel-good isn’t it?

I can always rely on Emily to make me laugh. In this post she talks about how, although she loves writing, she goes through the five stages of grief when she has write a half-page introduction to her company’s maths catalogue. As a procrastinator, I can relate. Read it, then go forth and complete all your admin. You’ll be so glad you did.

Ian is funny. But that’s no surprise since he’s Emily’s brother. Check out his Geekfield’s Guide to English Literature, a hand-drawn compendium of English literature from Beowulf to Dan Brown. Who thought graphic text books could be so much fun?

Helen was considering giving up writing, but then she needed the loo. Read how The Most Inspirational Toilet in Sydney gave her her writing mojo back. Could I have one in Heidelberg please?

For all-around chickeny cuteness, go and check out Mandarine’s new tenants, the Orpingtons. We had bantams as children, and they caused us no end of happiness. Unfortunately, they didn’t last long, because the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg were a cut-throat place even then, and they were taken out by a hardened gang of vervet monkeys. However, that’s not going to happen to Mandarine’s chickens because (a) they live in France, and (b) they have a lovely house. Oh, and if you read French, which I can if I try really, really hard, you can read Mandarine’s new blog where he details his attempt to farm a garden big enough to feed his whole family. (Which means he one day may have to sacrifice an Orpington, but we’re not thinking about that yet.)

That’s the Endorphin Edition for now. If I don’t get to the gym soon, I’m going to have to eat one of these:


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The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.


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A 29th Story of AIDS

This is my mother’s story, so I’ll let her tell it in her own words. Meet Toni:

“I was driving through the village to my bridge class when I saw an old gogo (grandmother) with a baby on her back. The baby seemed to be slipping out of the blanket and looked as if it was going to fall, so I stopped my car. I ran across the road to tell her, but when I got to her, I realised she was not an old lady but a child.

I could see she was very sick. I asked her how old she was and she said, ‘Seventeen’. I asked her where her parents were and she said, ‘My parents are dead’. I asked her who she lived with and she said, ‘I live with my aunt. She does not like me.’

I began to cry. My heart just opened and I wept. She said, ‘Please don’t cry.’

Then I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘To the clinic.’ I drove her to the clinic, and then I told her I would come back and fetch her. I drove to my bridge class to tell them I wouldn’t be joining them and I told them why. They told me the only thing to do is to turn your back and walk away.

I knew I couldn’t do that, so I drove back to the clinic and saw Sambeka sitting, feeding her baby. She seemed to be smiling, but then I realised she was grimacing with pain. Every breath hurt her and she could hardly hold her four-month-old baby. Her arms were too weak. The clinic sisters seemed kind but overwhelmed. They told me Sambeka was the tip of the iceberg. They also told me not to cry in front of her. They were waiting for results of a blood test, so all they could give her was porridge to take home and formula for the baby. They said that she was too sick to walk.

I told her I would drive her. On the way, I stopped at home and gathered everything I could find – food, cooking utensils, money, blankets. Then I took her home – to a small, two-room RDP house (RDP stands for the goverment’s Reconstruction and Development Plan) where she lives with her aunt and her three children, who were all semi-naked. It is a twelve kilometre journey from the house to the clinic. Sambeka would have had to take a taxi (a minibus used for public transport), crammed with people and then walk part of the way. It must have been such a struggle for her to get there.

I went home and phoned my neighbour who is involved with AIDS organizations in the area. She told me about the Umngeni AIDS Centre and a young man called Tony Shelembe, who helps people with AIDS and counsels children bereaved by AIDS. I phoned Tony and arranged to meet him to find out what else could be done for Sambeka. He asked some details about her and where she lived, and before we met up, went to visit her. I also went shopping and bought clothes for all the children in the house, and more food.

I collected Tony and he told me he was taking me to see Dan le Cordeur*, a Catholic priest, who also volunteers for the Umngeni AIDS Centre (UAC). Dan said that the UAC has had to close down because donors don’t want to pay for administration. The eight UAC employees are now jobless, except for Tony. They have managed to find R700 (€70) a month to pay his salary.

Tony and I then went to see Sambeka. He told me he had already applied for a birth certificate for the baby and ID for her. While I was away, he was going to take her to the Howick Clinic (20km in the opposite direction) to try to get her on ARVs.

Sambeka is dying. Unless she can get on ARVs immediately, her baby will be orphaned, with only a reluctant great-aunt to look after him. I don’t know what to expect when I get back. She might be gone, she might already be on treatment.”

I have a photo of Sambeka, taken by Toni. I thought briefly about posting it but I decided I didn’t want to without her permission. She holds her baby son propped up on her lap so that the camera catches his little face as well as hers. The camera doesn’t show the lesions on her chest and around her mouth, but it does show the devastating hope in her eyes.

Sambeka does not want to die. She does not want to orphan her child. But unless Tony and the UAC can help her cut through South Africa’s red tape, get her to a clinic – no mean feat now that she’s so sick – and help her access those ARVs that she so desperately needs, she won’t make Christmas.

* If anyone would like to make a donation to keep the UAC above water so that it can help people with AIDS like Sambeka, I can provide you with Dan’s email address


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Love is Like a Duvet

On Friday, after delivering my darlings to school and having breakfast with some girlfriends, I came home to mess. I loathe returning at 11am to an untidy kitchen and unmade beds, but the morning had been hectic and I hadn’t had the time to make neat before we left. There was a good window of opportunity for the Tidiness Fairy to have come in and sorted things while I was out, but she obviously had more pressing calls.

First I tidied and cleaned the kitchen, then I went upstairs to make beds. Usually the sight of three unmade beds would send a shot of righteous irritation through me, a brief blast of bitterness that bed-making has become my lot instead of, say, making high-level management decisions or travelling through Europe on visits to customers or perhaps editing a literary magazine. But this was not the case. Instead, I was touched by the duvet covers still shaped from my children’s bodies, their warm smell, and the fuzzy joy of belonging to a large, loud and very slightly messy family. I wanted to climb in and inhale their smell and fall asleep and dream a child’s dreams. Briefly, I wanted to be them and experience our home from their perspective. I knew that, whatever failings I believe myself to have, their experience would feel good, that they feel safe, protected, loved. As if wrapped in a very warm duvet.

I read two beautiful posts about parenting this weekend. One was by Bindi from Epossums, where she talks about having a child on the cusp of adulthood and another was from Rae of the JourneyMama blog, writing about having a baby on the cusp of being a child. Both posts made me think about the journey of parenting. When a child is young, and so freshly arrived via your own body, you tend to think of them as part of you. Parenting is the process of separating out from them, and teaching them the skills they need to live without you. I feel acute sadness in that, but also joy as I watch each one of my three taking their steps to becoming their own person.

My oldest is seven and has left fairyland behind her. She likes playing with boys, pretending to be a pirate and playing catch, but she also likes to go into her bedroom to draw and practise writing for hours. She is finding a balance between rambunctious play and her own inner life. I love her orderliness, her calm and her quiet confidence. Every day is a little journey of independence for her, a practice run for when she lets go and says goodbye.

My middle child is five, and still has moments of being three emotionally. She struggles to accept the transition that is facing her. She sucks her thumb, screeches and needs to be carried, but she is also a daredevil, who climbs trees and taunts me from the topmost branches, or who skis straight down mountains with scant regard for parallel curves. She told me recently that she can still remember heaven. I am so grateful that I don’t have to force her to fit a mould, that thanks to the relatively gentle German kindergarten system, she will only start formal schooling at nearly seven. She still needs time to dream and remember heaven, and to shuttle between being a baby and a big girl.

My actual baby will be two on Tuesday. He speaks in beautiful full sentences: “I have to draw”, “Come and play, Mummy”, “I need it”. He whines in words, not sounds. He is agile on stairs, slides and climbing frames, but still drinks from a sippy cup and makes a big mess when he eats. He is negotiating the transition from baby to boy with a huge sense of humour, acute compassion for others (“You okay, Daisy?”) and by identifying strongly with that centre of his universe – Daddy.

When I talk to my girlfriends about parenting, we usually agree that it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Some days are smooth and easy, others are rocky and leave me exhausted and drained. But what a privilege it is to be the one who gets to accompany these three individuals on their journeys to becoming who they are.


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This Christmas Week

Thirty-eight years ago today, a baby was born in a humid, provincial African town. It was 4pm on one of the hottest days in living memory. Her mother laboured in an open labour ward, with two other women. Their three husbands were in the room. There was no air conditioning. She was dimly aware of Christmas beetles singing their interminable song, and cars on the town’s main road outside. The labour was long and painful. Eventually, she was taken to the delivery theatre where she endured an episeotomy without pain relief. The baby was born safely, and the young parents were delighted with the arrival of their daughter.

The mother and her baby spent six days in hospital, with the baby being taken away and bottle-fed by the nursing staff whenever the mother needed to sleep. She struggled to breast-feed, but was eventually persuaded that bottle-feeding would be easier and more convenient. She complied. On the sixth day in hospital, she made a special request to be allowed to leave so as to attend the family’s Christmas celebrations. The staff considered – usually women spent ten days in hospital, it would be untoward to let them go early. However, it was Christmas, and apart from the usual post-birth discomfort the mother doing well.

Her eager young husband collected his wife and new baby, and took them home for a quick feed and change of clothing. The mother put on a cotton pants-suit – a flowered top and tapered trousers – and within an hour they were driving to the Christmas party. They drove up to a gracious red-brick house, surrounded by large gardens, and, bursting with pride, took their new daughter in to meet their family. The baby’s grandparents – well-coiffed, elegant, warm – welcomed their third grandchild into their house for the first time. Her aunts and uncles cooed and kissed her, and her two little cousins, only a couple of years older than her – peered at her with interest.

Despite the heat, they sat down to a large, hearty, English-style Christmas lunch: a turkey, a ham, stuffing, roast potatoes, various vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding with coins inside, mince-pies and brandy butter. There was jollity: crackers and silly hats. The new baby slept in her carry-cot, unaware that she was attending her first party. Her mother sat at the table, but her heart was with her baby, whose tiny hands fluttered as she slept.

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It’s completely fitting that the first place I went to after leaving hospital was a Christmas feast. Feasts are the way I like to celebrate. I’ve just finished a weekend of birthday celebrations and the focus for me was the food. We had a dinner party for some friends rich with north African and Spanish cuisine. The menu was: hummus, basil and goat’s cheese dip, and baba ghanoush with delicious bread, followed by harissa roast chickens with potatas bravas and three salads: tabbouleh, carrot and cumin salad and pomegranates with cucumber. Dessert was walnut, lemon and cardamom cake with creme fraiche. There were dates and membrillo on the table for picking. The next day, we had a German-style Kaffee und Kuchen nachmittag with an almond cake, gingerbread muffins and a chocolate cake courtesy of friends. After the coffee, we had a restorative sherry, put on some African music and danced with our kids.

This Christmas week is not only about feasts and fests, but also about births. Having just finished the washing up (but not all the cakes), the next celebration on the cards is my daughter’s birthday. Daisy was born at home, and the thrill and excitement of her birth completely matches the joy of parenting her. We celebrate her birthday reminding ourselves of the blinding surprise she gave us by arriving at home before we could leave for hospital.

So it’s a big day for Daisy, with her kindergarten and home parties on the same day. She will require two sets of cakes and yummy things to eat – probably a plain sponge cake baked in the teddy bear cake tin and chocolate muffins for kindergarten, and maybe a chocolate cake and lemon muffins for the home birthday. There will have to be party games, some crafting action, definitely a bit of wild and noisy play, and then some supper – possibly mini pizzas and sausages – before her little friends are collected and we can put one tired, sugar-wired birthday girl to bed.

Almost as soon as we finish with Daisy’s birthday, our Christmas plans step into higher gear. If you came to my house for Christmas, you’d be served goose, not turkey, and red cabbage with apple. I can’t live without roast potatoes and my husband needs brussels sprouts, but we spruce them up with pancetta and chestnuts. There’d be no mince-pies, Christmas pudding or brandy butter, but there might be a lemongrass and raspberry trifle or a chestnut cheesecake.

The traditions that I grew up with are English, but my own little family is making its new traditions – a serving from our German environment, a slice from our English heritage, a large proportion from the land of our hearts, South Africa. I like to think we’re becoming citizens of the world.

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