Monday, 12 January 2015

#Microblog Mondays: Little scraps of life

Girl Wonder is a tiny little thing, weighing in at just under 5 kg (she was 8 months on Christmas day). To my mind, this has numerous benefits. I love her compact nature, which allows me to lie to myself about the passage of time still cuddle and cradle her like an infant even as she's fast approaching the end to this stage of development. (I can't imagine how my back would be faring if I were carrying one of the larger babies I see everywhere around us!) And while it made locating baby clothes for her tiny 2 kg frame a challenge in those first few months, she has spent longer in some of our favourite little garments - she's now typically in a three month size, depending on the brand - which has allowed us to retain her wardrobe accordingly.

But much as I might wish to stall the ceaseless march of time, she is growing, as babies eventually do, and with this new year we're having a clear out too. That means finding a place, or purpose, for all those beloved items she no longer fits. Initially I thought of repurposing some of the sweet fabrics for a home-made sensory book for Girl Wonder. However I quickly realized that this sentimental mama can't bring herself to cut through those tiny memories ('she wore this when she first smiled'...'this is what she had on when she first met her uncle from Canada'...), while the practical side of me is loathe to discard still very-much-usable baby items.

Their lack of utility for us is not merely a reminder of how quickly Girl Wonder is growing up, but also of the fact that, however much I might will it otherwise, this is it for us; the end of my child-bearing years.

But we're in a small city centre flat, which leaves me with a dilemma. Staying in the moment might present its own challenges, but right now it's the letting go - even of those things which are mere symbols of what was and what will never be - which is wrenching my heart.


Bloggy friends, am I the only one sappy enough to feel a twinge as I discard too-small baby items? What have you done/will you do with the items your children no longer use?

Friday, 9 January 2015

A tale of two playgroups

I'm the kind of person who really likes my own company and can be a bit of a loner by nature, but I think when you're trying to integrate into a new cultural space, it's do or die. I've moved to enough new and strange cities in my time to have a keenly developed survival instinct telling me to get out there and vigorously mix, integrate, interact. Volunteer opportunity at the local homeless shelter? Sign me up! H's second cousin wants to meet for coffee and practice her English? Yes please! Plus, there is the small detail of my small daughter now spurning me on; she has a couple cousins here but both are school age and if I don't want Girl Wonder to become a little hermit baby I'd better mom up and make an effort.

So we've been checking out playgroups. However - leaving aside the strangeness that is my new social role as a mom - my German is still wobbly enough that I'm not confident just waltzing into a local group to make my own way in a language which still feels foreign to me. So we went for 'special interest' groups as a first step.

First up: there is a very active, city-wide, English-language playgroup that exists for the many foreigners who call this place home. A good place to start, right? Well, sort of; we might have had language in common, and even the experience of being newcomers, but to be honest? (Of course I'm painting with broad strokes here, I only dipped my toes in, after all), that might be where the commonalities end.

Because this city hosts the headquarters of a number of international organisations, expats here tend to be of the well-travelled and well-heeled variety. While we may be the former, we are certainly not the latter. Our home isn't big enough that we can play host to fourteen (fourteen!) sets of moms and babies, as others in the group have recently done. And while we move in some pretty interesting circles, we can't tell you about our last visit to the ambassador's residence for a semi-formal buffet dinner.

So there was already a certain socioeconomic divide, although that wasn't really the thing that singled me out and made everything seem awkward. Nope, our family history took care of that. Since my own brush with terminal illness in my teens, which left me with a pronounced limp, I am accustomed to answering intrusive curious questions about 'what's wrong with your leg?' my complicated medical history. When I know the intentions are good, it doesn't really bother me and I'm happy to oblige. Though I'm finding that things get a bit more sticky when it's your child(ren) concerned, I'm also someone who wants to contribute to the destigmatization of topics like infertility, disability, unconventional family building, etc. and so I generally try to be open and matter-of-fact. Our stories, all too often shunted to the margins for the comfort of a complacent society, should be part of the conversation too. Also, I (naively?) like to think that if I share my experiences in a way that shows they're not a life-defining tragedy for me, it might demystify some of the fear and pity for others as well.

Uh, except...maybe, on some occasions, this is more than a room full of terrified, pregnant fertiles most people can handle. So when stories were being exchanged about birth experiences and starting solids and yadda, yadda, yadda and, rather than come off like a wallflower, I honestly contributed...'born six weeks early by cesearean'...'intra-uterine-growth-restriction'...'Down syndrome'...'we're starting solids later because of her surgery at 36 hours old and feeding tube for first nine weeks'... Well, I'm sure you see where this is going...

I wasn't just the lead balloon in the room; I quickly became the bogey man, the personification of everyone's darkest dreams. You guys, that was before we even got to the infertility and loss stuff. People just looked at me. And despite the fact that my life may be dreamy these days and is certainly a long way from dark, it wasn't the most comfortable experience to see myself through other eyes.

I felt isolated. Like a fake, a freak. And though I know it wasn't intentional, that no one had set out to ostracize me, I couldn't help but feel like the awkward new girl at school facing The Plastics. (And if you haven't seen Mean Girls, go check it out; I'll wait. Tina Fey and Lyndsey Lohan in a previous incarnation. Love.)

(As another aside, I'm not really sure why people think 'I can't possibly imagine what you're going through' is in any way a good thing to say to someone facing life challenges. In my experience this only underscores otherness, leading to the person feeling all the more isolated and lonely. Also - while the subtly but crucially different 'I won't pretend to know what you're experiencing' is honest and direct, which I appreciate - in saying that you simply can't even imagine, you're pretty much saying that you lack the compassion or humanistic imagination for any kind of empathy. Way to go. But I digress...and that is deserving of a whole post of its own, really.)

So where was I? Ah yes, back to the playgroups.


Luckily, that finely honed survival instinct of the expat prevented me from throwing in the towel after my initial difficult attempt. The following week, there was a playgroup put on by and for the local parent's network for families of kids with Down syndrome. (Again, at the risk of generalising,) I've said it before and I'll say it again: I like how people from this 'community' think and approach life.

There was the kind of shorthand that groups who have found themselves on the margins tend to share, and none of the awkward horror at all our baggage: was she born early? Did we get a birth or prenatal diagnosis? Did she have any medical anomalies? What is she doing with her early intervention therapist?

In a few brief conversations, I also learned that two of the babes in the group close in age to Girl Wonder were the product of fertility treatment. Do I think that there's a relationship between this extra challenge in family building and potential parents' attitudes towards chromosomal anomalies? Probably, yes.

Am I saying that if you've experienced hardship you're inevitably going to be more empathetic and have your priorities worked out? Not at all (and Loribeth wrote a great post recently about how people who do experience adversity in life are expected, often for the benefit of everyone but themselves, to fit a certain redemptive cultural narrative).

But I do think that once you've been through some of life's nastier shit storms there is at least the opportunity to gain some perspective; some gratitude. Not to get hung up on life's little 'problems'. So many of you have shown me that, with grace and humour and generosity of spirit. And while this ALI club is certainly not one that any of us would have voluntarily joined, I think the higher-than-average levels of compassion and determination not to sweat the small stuff are a significant silver lining that make me glad to have you all for company. But again, I digress...

The gist of my second attempt was this: I felt accepted. Embraced. And - perhaps ironically, given that shared language was not the common denominator here - understood. It was such a good feeling, and one that made me think I'll do fine as we move forward, even juggling as I am a new hometown and my new role as a mom and my newbie status in the world of Down syndrome.

I'm not saying that difficulty is something to be lauded. But maybe difference is, or should be.

With our unorthodox background stories, our transnational lives, our off-the-curve road to reaching a family, our high risk pregnancy, and a host of other variables, ours was never going to be the typical, 'normal' story. And as much as others may have a hard time with that, I'm ok with it; better than ok. I'm grateful for and sensitive to complicated, less-than-'perfect' realities. I'm happy. My life is full of love.

Leaving that playgroup, I found myself, not for the first time, feeling like we've landed on a really good side of 'normal', and oh so happy to be here.

And we don't even own a dryer! Source.