der har jeg rod, derfra min verden går

Kære Aarhus,

It has been two years since we arrived. An unbelievable two years.

Making the decision to move here was difficult. Saying good-bye to my mother at the airport was heart-wrenching. I know a lot of people were surprised to see us move so far from home, but as my wise cousin said to me that was a decision that could only be made by those affected, and we didn’t have to justify it to anyone. Those words have given me more strength than I think she knew. I made my peace with my decision; though I won’t lie, there are moments of regrets. But I know my mother didn’t want her illness to hold us back. Like any mother really.

We stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, out into a taxi rank, tired, stressed, bewildered at the magnitude of what we were doing. Our son, M, then 18months old, produced two new words that first day, “windmill” and “cold”. Perhaps he understood what this country was about.
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It turned out that a free online course and the first season of Borgen were not great preparation for the reality of getting by amongst Danish speakers. I’ve come a long way since selvfølgelig seemed like the biggest tongue-twister out there. We went for a walk just after Christmas on a day with bitterly cold winds. My cheeks and lips were so numb I struggled to shape them into consonants. Perhaps this why Danish sounds the way it does. Though this would not explain why Norwegians speak so beautifully.

But the language barrier is not so great since virtually everyone speaks fantastic English. Even those that insist ‘only a little. Not very well’ before launching into complex sentences with multiple clauses and only making a mistake when they have to pronounce a ‘v’. Anti-waxers had me stumped for a while. But really Danes, you are very patient with our fumbling attempts to learn your language. At least you know nobody ever arrives on your shores with a high school level of Danish. So you welcome all these beginner level speakers.
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Or do you? It seems, based on your recent elections, you are becoming less tolerant. I think the stress of being more welcoming than most of Europe has become too much. You shouldered a larger burden of migrants while other countries turned their backs. And it has been hard for Denmark. When for so many centuries nobody wanted to come here. To this ‘lille land’. So for centuries there has been only one way to be Danish. All us migrants are changing that, and some of you want that to stop. But I think that horse has already bolted. And perhaps the greatest threat is not people who don’t eat flæskesteg for Christmas, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas, but your growing intolerance.

And we do try to be less ‘udansk’. I realise now we made some grave errors in decorating our apartment. We hung our lights in an incorrect way. You are right, they are not very hygge. Our furniture is not minimalist enough. But I have a Kähler vase now, so I hope that counts for something. I confess that two years here has not taught me to understand all your ways. Like the obsession with the light wood floors. Tell me Denmark, how do you keep them clean? Especially in winter, when the streets are salted and gritted and you have a pre-schooler? Is it possible? Or do you all sweep multiple times a day too?

Often the locals ask me ‘why?’ Why did we move here? To this land of winter, rain and wind. I admit on paper they seemed quite daunting. But looking closer Aarhus, you have half the annual rainfall of my home town. And while your wind is cold, it is hardly ever gale force. To my surprise it is easier to take a pre-schooler out here, in a cold, dry snow than in a boggy soggy Wellington winters’ day. Sure the summer is hardly spectacular, my Australian friends would be very unimpressed. But I find much to admire in your fierce embrace of what summer you get, – sun bathing on your decks at the first rays of sunshine, regardless of temperature.
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I love the seasons. The silver frosted trees -winter blossom my son called it- replaced by tiny green buds. The clichéd red, orange and brown cascades of leaves in autumn. It is the variation of light that I have learnt to enjoy the most. The long, long summer days with nights where the sky never goes truly black, only a deep blue, a promise of sunshine only a few hours away. To the grim grey of winter. I am always amused to find myself staring at a patch of cloud, only to realise that, yes that is the sun hiding behind it. I never understood that the sun would stay so low on the horizon that even day would be so dim. Or that the cloud would be so thick that the temperature does not vary from midnight to midday. But shift slightly either side of that grey, you have whole days where if the sun makes it out from behind the clouds it casts that beautiful magic hour glow you usually only get just before sunset.
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You’ll never win any beauty contests Aarhus, but there are places, views I have learnt to love. The dinosaur sunrises down at your industrial harbour. The Rainbow perched above the city. Those particular shades of orange and mustard yellow stucco on old cottages. Our nature walks along the Brabrandstein. I’ve learnt where to go to get a great coffee, and a pastry. Where to buy decent fish. Where to pick blackberries.
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These are perhaps the greatest achievements to me. That after two years I feel I have solved some of the great challenges of expat life. They are not just good coffee shops, but my favourite coffee shops. My favourite walks. My local shops. We have managed to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I’ve written before about my wish to give my children turangawaewae. At times I have misgivings about our choices. I wonder if the costs have been too high. But today I think we have made roots here. We know our future here probably does not extend further than 2017, so they will never be deep. But this will always be the city my son spent his preschool years, the city my daughter was born in, the city I grieved my mother in. So I know I will look back and be able to say:

Aarhus, for a time at least, you were home.

K.H.

Only the best is good enough

Before my son was born I went to the free breastfeeding class at the hospital. It was terrible. They didn’t spend time discussing common problems women have. No mention of tongue tie, delays, or even mastitis. It was a typical ‘agenda’ class. Breastfeeding is natural. Baby will latch on, your supply will magically match itself to baby’s needs. They did have a mother come in to discuss feeding her infant. She hadn’t had any problems feeding, her baby slept through from six weeks (wtf?), and when she fed her baby in a class full of women there to learn about breastfeeding, she used a cover. I’m not sure what we were meant to learn from this experience.

Feeding a newborn is hard. It is work. It is work when it works out, and work when it doesn’t. New mothers are often so badly supported by the networks who are meant to help them. You can go to a class, and not learn anything, other than they thought they should teach a group of heavily pregnant women who had voluntarily turned up that they should at least try to breastfeed. As though that wasn’t exactly why we were there. And then things go wrong, and people say ‘I didn’t know’.

So in the hope that these words will be read by someone who needs them, I offer up to you my story. My stories that should be. Two very different experiences of feeding newborns.

My first. I was lucky. Oh so lucky. How I hate that word. Not only did my milk come in, I had an abundance of it. A massive oversupply that meant I was so engorged my son couldn’t latch on without me expressing first. That sent huge gushes down his throat that promptly came back up again. And that I was in so much pain I wouldn’t sleep, waiting to get him feeding again to ease the pressure. He vomited and vomited and vomited. But he gained weight. ‘He’s just a happy chucker’ they said, though my son was anything but happy. We were drowning in a sea of milk-covered-washing but he was gaining weight. So we had nothing to worry about. He went from the 10th percentile at birth to just over the 50th. ‘He was born hungry’ they told me, ‘babies don’t overeat’ I was assured again and again and again. So I kept feeding. And he kept screaming.

Our doctor eventually referred us to paediatrician, but we had a long wait; ‘baby screams a lot’ doesn’t exactly get you on the priority list. I spoke to multiple midwifes and health nurses. I gave up dairy. I wept. He wept. Then came the night he refused to try feeding after he got upset. The next morning I managed an appointment with a different doctor. ‘Have you tried medication for reflux?’ No. We were told multiple times a baby gaining weight could not have reflux.

It was silent reflux.

Even though we had to pin him down to syringe the medication down his throat, his mood and then mine improved dramatically. Not quickly enough to keep him growing. He developed a phobia of us putting anything in his mouth. He was well into seven months before he would try solid food. My milk supply finally let me down, I couldn’t keep up. He woke hungry multiple times a night. His weight plummeted down to just below the 5th percentile. But once he started eating, he didn’t look back, and was fully self-weaned at ten months.

My second. A difficult birth, with a severe haemorrhage. Blood loss of that magnitude typically causes delays in milk production. My body barely had enough fluid to keep itself going, of course it couldn’t manage colostrum as well. My daughter was a healthy, hungry baby. She latched on straight away and just kept trying. I’ll say this for my babies, they are suckers. But as we got into the second day, she got angrier. Quite frankly we were relieved when a nurse walked in carrying formula. She fed and fell into a happy sleep. She had a few more top-ups that night, as well as sucking away at me. The next morning she was weighed, she’d already lost nine percent of birth weight. We kept going with breast first, formula for afters. Eventually she began to regain weight. And by a month old we were exclusively breastfeeding.

This is where I know I was lucky. We had a cast iron reason for why my body was not producing what she needed. Did I feel like my body had failed? Yeah. I felt like it failed when my uterus went walkabout and tried to kill me. But I survived, so after that we just had to deal with where it left us. But lying in the hospital bed, watching my husband feed the baby I wasn’t strong enough to actually hold yet, I cried. Of course I cried. I cried many times. I cried once we were home and I couldn’t tell if she was hungry crying, and needed more formula, or crying because she just wanted something to suck to help her sleep. The two of us were a big crying mess a lot. And while she was louder, she was also cuter.

Sometimes I wondered why I was so persistent, considering how much I hated breastfeeding the first time round. Once it was working, mostly it was ok. Sometimes it was frustrating to be stuck when my boy wanted me to play. Sometimes boring. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when it’s just me and her it can be nice; I’m not pushing her to quit. Sometimes after four years of pregnancies and feeding I really look forward to putting this work behind me and my body being my own again.

When you have a new baby, and you go out and see other women with theirs, it’s easy to feel that they’ve got it all worked out. That you are the only one struggling. But everyone has a story, or will get one eventually. Those Mums might have had a start as difficult as yours, and with just a couple of months under their belt are able to get out and look ok, because things do, and will get better.

We tell each other this, we tell all new Mums this ‘It gets better’. But that doesn’t always help someone now. There are too many judgey people, and too many people unable to look beyond their own problems. I was told so many times to stop complaining about oversupply because it was not a real problem. And that hurt. When I sat in bed crying, trying to convince my son to stop crying, those words hurt. We have to remember it is not a competition and there is no one legitimate problem.

So here is my most important point: how you feel matters.

‘Fed is best’ might be true. But it is also reductive.

It implies that as long as your baby is fed, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it.

There is no job where you are expected to love every aspect of it. People have a moan about loving the work but hating that their colleague is always yelling. The retail worker complaining about not being free to take toilet breaks when they need them. Or, a waiter, who always gets food spilled on them staining clothes and making large quantities of washing. Or the plumber on call 24/7 receiving midnight call outs when they want to sleep. See if it is an actual job, a real job you get to complain.

Newborn babies can spend eight hours in a day feeding. That is a full-time job. A full-time job where at best they fall asleep, or at worst they crap on you.

So, go ahead complain that it hurts and doesn’t work. Complain that you are sore. Complain about being tired. Complain about the mess. Complain that you are heartbroken that it didn’t work out. Complain that people judge you for choosing not to try breastfeeding, because you are still feeding your baby aren’t you? Reach out in the middle of the night when you feel alone and as though you are doing it all wrong. And the rest of you reach back to lift others up when they need.

Feel how you feel. Own it.

But also know this. Eventually you have to let it go.

And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

It’s true that nowadays people are more accepting of the wide breadth of gender expression that people feel, rather than the strict gender binaries of yore. And while I fit into a fairly conventional gender role myself, I think it is really important that people have these freedoms. But I worry that our kids are being forced to define themselves much more narrowly than us adults. That while we dream about every colour of the rainbow, big business seems determined to tell how children how they should look.

Have you been into a kids clothing store recently? Where is the green? Red? Orange?

It’s pink. It’s blue.

And it isn’t that I think there is anything wrong with blue or pink. Or boys who like trucks, and girls who like ponies. My son has a very healthy obsession with various modes of transport. When M was born I quite happily stocked up on baby clothes from the boy section, mostly in blue, lots of cute puppies and robots. I love blue! I love robots! But as my son has grown I find the clothes are less cute puppies, more Angry Birds. I bought him a Batman t-shirt, but Batman looks quite frowny. My son loves flowers and cooking, and cuddling his little sister; he worries about growing up and being old enough to go for walks on his own because he will be ‘alonely’. It seems crazy to dress him as though his default emotion is rage.

Now I have a daughter, and my eye wanders over to the girl department, and they glaze over. I find myself frightened to enter. I swear those sparkly ponies are waiting for a chance to stampede. I swear if I squeeze through the aisle of pink frilly skirts I’ll get lost and end up in Narnia.

But what about when she is older? I want her to dress to please herself, not other people. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted. That she doesn’t have to look a certain way to have her bodily autonomy respected. I don’t want her to think she should look like a Disney princess. Or that looking like a Disney princess is somehow a reflection of inner character, and that all the baddies she meets in life will look like Ursula. That looking like Ursula means you are bad. Though tentacles would be unfortunate…

I want my children to know they are loved however they express themselves. I want them to wear a riot of colour, or black from top to toe. They can be as conservative or not as they like. But the messages all around them are so strong. The boys’ side, and the girls’ side of the clothes store. The shoe shop. The toy store.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to swim against the flow of that message.

And before you say, it’s just clothes, don’t you have bigger things to care about? The answer to that is ‘Yes’. I do have bigger things to care about than if dressing my daughter in too many of her older brother’s hand me downs confuses people. I have more important things to do than to shop once for a boy, and then do the same thing three years later when I already bought clothes that size, just because of a double X chromosome. I have more important worries than if a stranger thinks dressing my son in floral t-shirts because he loves flowers is ‘a bit gay’. Because frankly if he decided he was gay that wouldn’t worry me in the least. And also, that’s not how it works.

The wonderful thing about small children is how accepting they are. They are so curious, and can ask awkward questions, but when we show them things are normal, acceptable, they accept it. But they also take small samples to representative of the whole; my son saw one train driver, and since then every duplo train has a female duplo figure driving it. We need to stop dividing our children into dichotomies of girl/boy, beautiful/boisterous, nurturers/adventurers. Because if we teach them that this is how it should be, how can we expect true equality for them when they are adults? If we teach them these rules matter, how can we expect them not to conform?

I could choose to push hard myself against it. Choose to dress them defiantly. But them I’m forcing that. It has to come from them. I think living as immigrants makes it harder. M is the foreign kid at daycare; with foreign parents who, as one child charmingly put it, understand nothing (but I understood that!). He is a foreign language speaker, and although he is pretty fluent, danish is still his second language, and he has a slight accent. He gleefully wears his pink Hello Kitty glasses; even on dark winter mornings because actually they are eyeglasses, and ‘oh-oh everything is blurry.’ He wears t-shirts with dandelions and other flowers on them, because he loves them. How much more do we let him stand out before the wolves start circling?

It’s too early to know who my kids will be when they grow up. A is only eight months and her preferences are pretty limited so far. Three year olds change so quickly too. Every winter I quietly worry over how much my boy will change. So far each spring when the buds break through the soil my little florist returns to me. He wants to pick every flower. We are barely able to go for walks we spend so long collecting dandelions.

And this is how I want to parent. I don’t want to tell my children how to be. I want them to be. I want to nurture the best of them. To embrace and cherish what makes them unique. To keep it safe. Not in a glasshouse. Not dried between pages of a book. But wild, fresh and blooming for all the world to see.

New Zealanders – looking for gender neutral clothes for kids? This online store Freedom Kids is awesome.

Forgive me for my sinny sin sins

The night after my mother’s funeral my son discovered potato chips with dip. He stood at the coffee table absolutely devouring them. He was so full of junk food, he barely touched a more nutritious dinner later, and I could not have cared less. Quite frankly after the week we’d had, certainly the most stressful week of his life, if not mine as well, I thought the fact that he wouldn’t go to bed hungry was good enough. My extended family were still around; if any of them thought I should find the energy to instil good eating habits in my nearly-two-year-old they knew better to say anything. They joked about it with me, while playing games to keep him entertained.

How lucky I was that in a difficult time, experiencing a ‘parent fail’, I was surrounded by kindness.

Sometimes I wonder why kindness is hard to come by.

Online can be this amazing place where we share or get support, and I love it. Except for when it goes wrong, and then I hate it. Someone makes a joke, or has a bit of a whinge, and so often someone has to come along and throw in their expert ‘advice’, and all of a sudden people are made to feel shit about perfectly normal things that happen.

Here’s a test. A friend posts: So tired, the baby cries for hours and I just want it to sleep. Do you comment:

 A) That sucks. Hugs.
B) Feel for you. Bob used to do that. We ended up using a white noise machine. Do you want me to drop ours off for you to try?
C)We had a good bedtime routine and never had any problems getting Bob to sleep. He learnt it was bedtime, and always slept fine. You should read all the baby books.
D)I knew someone whose baby cried. It had this really awful disease, and they had to pay a doctor a million dollars to rub coconut oil on them and wave crystals around.

Congrats if you chose A or B. If you chose C or D, you actually get a big fat F for Fail. Generic advice that is actually criticism, or diagnoses for perfectly normal baby behaviour are never, ever helpful. Why is this so hard?

And then you get offline, and out in public. Oh boy. That’s when the real evil-eye, sledge hammer judging comes along. Obviously it is all our fault – can’t we all just control our children?! People look askance at the parents of the tantruming toddler, forgetting that tantrums are completely age-appropriate behaviour and not a sign of poor parenting. If we give in to get out of a humiliating situation then it’s our fault, because we are teaching them ‘to get their way’. Or people think we should be prepared to pack up and go home. But once I have dressed two kids in snowsuits, mittens, hats & boots and gone out, maybe, just maybe, I would prefer to arrive home with the food I wanted to cook for dinner tonight. And if we ride it out it can be terribly embarrassing. Like the time M had a meltdown over wanting to ‘choose’ the bottle of coke, and I’m standing there like ‘I swear he doesn’t know what it is!’ but everyone is watching…I felt slightly better when the next time it was a 2kg pack of birdseed. Slightly.

The other day I found myself in town, with A asleep in the pram and a bit of time to spare before I needed to collect M from daycare. I decided to try clothes shopping. And of course I manage one shop before A wakes up; while I’m trying on a t-shirt. And you can’t pick up a baby while wearing a top you aren’t going to buy, so I have to change quickly, while she cries in the pram and everyone is staring, and I’m pretty sure the guy talking to his girlfriend in the changing rooms copped an eyeful of my stretchmarks and feeding-bra while I scrabbled to get clothes on and comfort A in her pram parked outside the inadequate curtain. And of course A doesn’t stop crying even when I pick her up. But I did like a cardigan, so I push the pram one-handed over to the counter and wait, and everyone is staring and going ‘aww’ at the poor baby. Because of course I am just a shopping obsessed woman who cares more about clothes than making sure her child’s basic needs are met. And this is why my wardrobe is entirely made-up of maternity clothes or clothes that don’t quite fit. Apart from one nice new cardigan. And how often do you see or hear snarky jokes about how Mums with babies don’t dress nicely?

Then people judge the parent who over-reacts at naughty behaviour. Without asking if that was the first or the millionth infringement of the day or week. Children are experts at winding their parents up, and sometimes even the best parent loses their cool. That doesn’t make them bad. Or their kids bad.

Or we judge them for ignoring something that we think should be stopped. I know I ignore some behaviour that other parents wouldn’t. But there are only so many boundaries I can enforce each day; and only so many times I can tell him off before we get into a negative spiral, that leaves me feeling like a nag, and my son feeling picked on. So sometimes, when it doesn’t matter, we turn a blind eye. Less ‘No jumping on furniture’, more ‘No jumping on the furniture near the full length glass windows please’. We’re not the only parents who do this. It’s not ill-discipline. It’s just that we expect our three year old to get carried away, to forget himself, to be over-exuberant, and we save our energy for the times we think discipline really matters.

And then, oh god, feeding a baby in public. Breastfeeding = bad. Bottlefeeding = bad. Solids = messy and gross to watch. Then you have a small child, and if you give them a treat then the wrath of god falls upon you. Don’t you realise you are setting them up for modern ‘lifestyle’ diseases? Because people can make an accurate judgement of your child’s actual diet based on one that one time (ok, more than once) you bought them a cake.

We spend our lives around people we don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know who’s sick. Who’s grieving. Who has just lost a job. Who is celebrating a new one. Whose kids have genuine behavioural disorders and special needs. Who was up consoling and comforting a loved one when they desperately needed a sleep.

And it can be hard to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s really going on. It can be hard to know the right thing to say, or how to help. And sometimes we say or do the wrong thing. I know I’ve done it.

Try not to judge me too harshly for it, please?