Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Faking it or making it

One of the biggest compliments that I have received as a parent is one from a young colleague and friend of Mark. She has visited us and stayed a couple of times so she has seen the ins and outs of us dealing with parenthood. She says "you guys make it seem so easy". She visited when Zoe was less than three weeks old and she took me aside telling me I looked great and that she was so impressed with how we dealt with things. I broke down in front of her, sobbing (as one does 3 weeks postpartum) and told her that breast feeding was hell and I felt like a bad mother for not being able to nurse my newborn. She hugged me and said if I haven't admitted how hard things really were she would have thought there was something seriously wrong with me. So since then the compliment that keeps me going is her genuine statement that we make it look easy to have a baby.

This compliment was the one I was thinking about as I stood with Zoe in Cafe Nero, having placed her sitting on a high stool, dangling her little legs in the air (obviously holding on to her), while feeding her yogurt and drinking a cappuccino myself. The mother and daughter behind me peeked, especially the daughter, seemingly around 14, kept turning her head towards Zoe in that sweet 'I love babies' way that only girls who want an extra little sibling can do. And right that moment having a calm, cute, babbling 16 month old who gulped down yogurt from a bar stool in one of London's SoHo cafe's definitely was the easiest and most wonderful thing in the whole world. What the 14 year old and our friend couldn't see and didn't know was that 10 minutes prior Zoe had screamed hysterically in her stroller trying to fight her way out because she had rejected her lunch and was now really hungry but I had fed her my last cracker. All while I frantically looked for a place for a snack that was not a pub and not a restaurant.
And what they would never know was that 10 minutes later, I would have to run over to BabyGap to get a new pair of pants for Zoe because she, for the second time that day, had managed to pee through her diaper, soaking first her original pants, then the spare pants I always carried with me. What they wouldn't witness was my struggle to get said pants on Zoe in the world's tiniest bathroom after carrying her down a spiral staircase, leaving the stroller upstairs praying it would still be there when we returned. Yes, it does look easy, especially when you see only fragments of everyday life. But I still dwell in the compliment that we make things seem easy, even if they aren't always.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crash and Burn

Last night, Zoe and I flew our 44th flight together coming back to London from a long weekend in Copenhagen. It was a short flight, an hour and a half and I was in such relaxed state beforehand that I forgot to put diapers in her changing kit (I flew hand luggage only so I had some in my roller suitcase) and I didn't think of dinner before we were inside the terminal around 5.30pm. It was one of those journeys that ended up being 'interesting' rather than bland or eventless.

The security guard asked me, for the first time ever in Copenhagen airport, to take Zoe out of my carrier with the logic reason that "If not, they couldn't search me properly if I beeped". It might just be me who is particularly clever and capable of reasoning that in the case I beeped, they could ask me to remove her, but no, that would be to hard to figure out. He then proceeded to ask me if she could walk through the metal detector herself. Zoe is 16 months and if you have ever experienced a 16 month old you would know that 1. they do not like to be far away from their parents, and 2. sometimes they love being away from their parents, so much that they run off in a different direction entirely. "She is not walking through herself", I answered through my teeth. On the other side a security officer offered to get me a hand luggage cart, which I politely declined but applauded him for the help.

I was in perfect time for my flight, not too early and no need to rush. Except when I looked at the screen the flight showed an hour and a half delay. Nice. With a tired toddler in an airport. After consulting with information it turned our that Copenhagen airport has a little known, large play area with toys and seats for adults. We stocked up on dinner (sandwiches) and headed over there. Zoe played with a French boy whom she followed around like a puppy but who didn't think much of her. One hour was easily killed.

Zoe was her usual little happy self when we got to the gate and I let her walk onto the plane herself for the first time. Walking on as the last people, she was charming all the other passengers, waving her little hand as she walked down the aisle to 28A. Little did they know that they were to see and hear much more from her.

She sat in her own seat as we took off, fully occupied by the little stuffed chicken that they crew had given her along side a book that she flicked through. I was the proud mother of a patient, cute, calm little girl as we started out flight towards Heathrow. After take-off I asked for a blanket and a pillow for her because by now it was quite past her bedtime and I could tell she was getting tired. She adorably pulled the blanket over herself and tried to make herself comfortable on the seats (we were given a full row to ourselves because the replacement plane was twice the size of the original one) but she wasn't really able to lie down long enough to drift off. She knew she was tired but she couldn't calm down. I nursed her a bit, trying to help her sleep but she gradually went into her overtired overdrive that I know only too well.

I finally let her go into the aisle where she quickly looked around and then took off towards the front. I ran after and took her hand, explaining that she had to hold mommy's hand. We then walked up to business class where a flight attendant and I exchanged looks, me expressing that I knew she wasn't allowed her and her expressing that she had to ask us to turn around. I was mostly worried about Zoe turning her attention to passengers who did not want her attention because she waved and pointed and said hi (Bah? Da? Gaga) to most of the people she passed. After a few trips up and down, the most childfriendly of the flight attendants came down and asked if Zoe wanted a ride. We looked up and the stewardess lifted her onto the now empty drinks cart. "Hold on to the side", she demanded and Zoe did as she was told. The flight attendants then proceeded to push the cart up and down the aisle to Zoe's clear joy and amazement. When they finally came back, Zoe was certainly not done but I had to take her and thank them. She was now not just overtired but also set on getting another ride so she started crying when I held her close and tried keeping her in her seat. I explained to her she had to stay there, I tried with snacks, I kissed her and I tried holding her loosely, knowing we were about to land. At one point the stewardess from business came down and asked if her ears were hurting. I almost snapped. "Her ears are not hurting, she if completely overtired". "Is there anything I can help with", she said but I declined and this was probably my mistake. As she left, I almost lost my temper and I squeezed my hysterically screaming toddler so hard that I know I should't and hissed at her. I wanted to hit her, I wanted to pinch her. I took a bottle with rice milk and stuffed it into her mouth. She spat it out, still arching her back. I took it and stuffed it in again, now holding it more firmly. After three tries, Zoe finally started sucking and before she had sucked the 3 ounces down, she was fast asleep in my arms. Now I was the only one crying.

So after 43 flights with her, 1/3 of them by myself, I still have lots to learn. One of them is that sleepy toddlers need a bit more help sleeping because crash and burn is UGLY. Another one is that stuffing a bottle (as much as I hate her still having it) in her mouth sometimes works (there was no way I could have stuffed a nipple in the same way, that requires two hands). And the last one is of course to accept help when you need it and not try to be such a supermom. This is the closest I have ever been to hurting her our of anger, because of the frustration of the situation, one that is public (I know for a fact that her 5 minute screaming woke up several sleeping passengers) and one where there a limited remedies (like a bed where you can put your hysterical baby while you cool off yourself). Let's hope I will remember this for her next 40 odd flights.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Full Time Working Mother

Living in the US has made me aware that I am a full time working mother. I never thought much about that term before, even living in the US for years without kids, because growing up in Denmark, the concept simply did not exist; you were a mother and you worked. Like everybody else. But now, even though I could not imagine my life with a baby any other way, I have to relate to that concept and define myself as such. It makes me think about myself and motherhood in a different way. I feel I have to defend myself in my everyday interactions. When I am trying to get onto a full bus at 5.45pm with a stroller and a crying (because she is hungry and tired) toddler I am ready to defend myself: "sorry but she needed a haircut, she couldn't see out through her bangs anymore and the only appointment I could make after work was the 5 pm one". Why didn't I just go on the weekend? "Sorry but I have so many other things to do on weekends, like cleaning and grocery shopping and I also like to take my daughter to the play ground". Okay, I lose on this one, I should really have taken her on the weekend where she wouldn't have been so tired and hungry that she screamed even before the hairdresser got to the bangs (why did she start off so slowly, even pinning Zoe's hair up with hair clips? (which Zoe obviously took out)). And then perhaps Zoe wouldn't have run away from me as I tried to pay the hairdresser, galloping all the way out on the pavement of the busy street, sending my heart racing and me almost pinching Zoe out of frustration and fright. And I feel the need to defend myself when I take Zoe to the indoor play gym on Friday mornings and let her roam around amongst the other kids while I frantically try to catch up with a bit of email on my iPhone. I really should play with her myself, but the reason I can take a Friday morning with her is because I know I am able to coordinate some work while we are away.

What I don't feel guilty about or have any need to defend is that I am a full time working mother. I love my job and have never imagined doing anything else after having children. I could maybe organize things differently sometimes but I really do try my best. My last line of defense is always imaging myself screaming at strangers who give me the side eye: "Yeah, why should we mothers need to go out at all, why don't we just stay home, chained to the stove where we belong". Because that would surely make them see the ridiculousness of judging me for trying to get in to an overflowing bus at 5.45pm on a Wednesday.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Worst plane travel memory

Of all my air travel experiences one moment stand out as one of those moments that you never ever want to relive, one of those situations you think back to and swear never to get into again. Because I have traveled roughly 1/3 of my flights, train journeys and even ferry journeys with Zoe on my own, without the help from Mark, I feel I got most of the single mom organization down. Plus, I have mastered a special look that just hints at a bit of helplessness, without seeming too pathetic, which always works in attracting a helping hand. For example from the mother who helped me assemble my stroller one late night in an airport when everyone else had left and I literally would not have been able to do it with my 4 month old strapped to my chest. Or for example from a woman who resolutely told me not to worry about getting my stroller out the train with 4 steep steps because her husband was going to help me. But my worst travel memory is not one of these situations where I got immediate help. It is all but.

Last summer I was traveling from Stockholm to Copenhagen for a last weekend with my parents before going back to California and although I could probably just have carried 4 months old Zoe in the carrier, I had decided to bring the (fairly big but collapsable) stroller. I guess this came down to my inexperience with carriers and that I hadn't discovered the Beco Gemini yet. I arrived in Stockholm airport ready to buy my plastic bag for 40 Skr (which SAS charge according to their website) for the stroller, put it in and get on my marry way through security. The queue for dropping off luggage turned out to be 70 yards long, possibly because this was a Friday, possibly because they were short on staff. I go in line like everybody else, knowing very well that my flight will leave before I would be half way through the queue. But I have no choice. 10 minutes in a checkin woman comes over and picks me and couple of other people with kids out of the queue and take us over to another counter. She checks me in but she does not have any plastic bags for the stroller and therefore can not check that in. I have to go to the business class queue and get a plastic bag. I go back (this is not an insignificant walk, back and forth) and queue for the business class counter. When I get to the front this lady proclaims that she is out of plastic bags but I can go to the 'special luggage' counter and get one. I walk over there (remember, I still have Zoe on my chest and a bag on the stroller which I am pushing) and see yet another 10 person queue. Having now less than 40 minutes before my flight I skip to the front and ask for a plastic bag, which the guy reluctantly gives me, stating that since his card reader is out of order he cannot charge me. I frantically start taking the stroller apart, first the top, then collapsing the chassis, then taking off the wheels but for some reason the parts won't fit in the plastic bag. The chassis goes in and the wheels but it isn't big enough for the bassinet part. I try to take it out and reverse the packing order but to no avail.

This is the moment I start crying. I am going to miss my plane and I won't see my parents for 6 months. What is more sad is that they won't see Zoe for 6 months. I am trying not to hit Zoe's little head with the stroller parts, which makes it really difficult to shift things around in the bag but I must get it in there. I am sitting on the floor in front of the 'special baggage' checkin with 20 people staring at me trying to get a stroller into a plastic bag. In between sobbing and cursing I am trying to keep Zoe calm by talking softly to her. "It will all be okay, sweetypie". Finally, a British guy comes to my rescue. "Let me help you out", he says "I have a baby of my own at home". And then the stroller parts gets packed and the stroller bag checked in and I venture through security and catch my flight. As the last person entering the plane.

And then I stopped traveling with strollers except for very small light ones.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round...

Here in London, Zoe and I go on a lot of public transportation and I am proud to say I am learning to navigate the underground with a stroller. The trick is to know which stations have elevators and escalators and look helpless at the ones that don't, prompting a nice fellow passenger to help. In the beginning I would still carry her in the Beco or my wrap if we were not going out for long but she is 22 pounds/10 kg now and walking far with her is tough. She has never been a fan of her stroller, (which is one of the main reasons I have always carried her so much) she simply doesn't like to sit still and be driven around, which leads me to look enviously at all the calm or sleeping babies in the strollers around town. How do they do it? Do they drug the babies? Do they bribe them? Zoe might sit without complaining if we are walking through a particularly interesting area with many people, but as soon as I get into a train or bus, she wants up: "Bah? Bah?", she says, pulling her buckle and pointing down.

I had a particularly long train ride to Cambridge yesterday, one I do not want to repeat any time soon. The train we were supposed to catch was cancelled due to unavailable drivers (that's actually what the sign said) so we ended up on a completely full train where, even though I walked all the way up front, each and every single seat was taken. I pushed the stroller inside the train and prepared myself to stand up when a woman at the window graciously offered me her seat. Zoe promptly smiled and padded her on the head when she sat down on the floor in the hallway. Luckily our seat was around two women who clearly had children on their own because they smiled and paid her the right amount of attention, but diagonally across from us was an elderly lady with thin black hair who was not going to be Zoe's friend. She looked a bit at her when she reached out her hands but she huffed loudly when Zoe accidentally dropped a lime wedge (after taking it out of the plastic cup with fruit, biting in to it and making the funniest sour face), which bounced off the lady's stocking clad leg. I apologized but the lady just starred out the window, clearly upset. As I tried to give Zoe a bit of milk from a carton with a straw, something we have just recently started, Zoe squeezed the carton spilling a bit of milk, also on the woman's stockings. I thought she was going to have a fit at me, the irresponsible mother who let her baby eat on the train, but she just huffed louder, still not looking at us, which made the mother across give me an acknowledging look. She knew I was trying my best. I was relieved when we finally reached Cambridge and managed to carry Zoe on my arm, while pulling out the stroller where I put her in, to her loud screams.

So taking Zoe on public transportation is not my favorite activity but after learning a few tricks I am getting better. One trick is to always take the bus rather than the underground and then take her out of her stroller and on my lap for the ride. She often gets rowdy and difficult to hold because she wants down so she can run around, which is obviously not an option on neither a bus nor a train. I found that she likes my singing so I sing quietly into her ear: "The wheels on the bus goes round and round, round and round, round and round..." So far so good.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fried Brains

One thing that happens when you become a mother is that your brain gets fried. I’m sure there is a logical, evolutionary reason for this but for an evolved career woman like me it means that it is now impossible to focus on any intellectual task for more than a couple of minutes, if at all. This is why I am sitting at London's finest Harvey Nic's 5th floor restaurant drinking lattes and blogging about traveling with a baby. Or should I say blogging about not working, because this was what my life is all about at the moment. I have managed to get child care for Zoe, at least 5 hours every day, I got my library card to the British library where I have all the quiet, all the electrical outlets and all the lunch I need for a good work day. Yet, I keep finding excuses to go somewhere else, either because I really do need hair conditioner (I squeezed the last drop out of my travel bottle this morning), or because I am not entirely sure which research project to work on yet. Today I needed to go to the Danish Embassy to vote in the Danish general election, something I haven't had the opportunity to do for about ten years and therefore prioritized. (In fact the last election I voted in was the Scottish regional election in 2006, which I was eligible for as a European citizen, opposite the Danish ones which I haven't been eligible to vote in for many years. Don't ask, it is complicated.)

One of the problems with a fried brain is not that "they didn't tell me this would happen", because I sort of knew something like this would happen through reading about motherhood, listening to other mothers and simply realizing how much energy would go into a child. The problem is that I thought that I, with my amazing drive and great ambitions (ha ha), would be able to work past this quickly and get back in the grind or that I would at least be able to focus on work in little chunks of 1-2 hours. How could I not? I have always been hard working and master deadlines like the pro researcher, working 12-14 hours the last week, with focus, with attention to details. Yet, I find myself so overwhelmed with the back trail of projects that all need my attention, quickly getting older, outdating the empirical data and making me forget why I was studying that phenomenon in the first place. Not only do I feel the obligations of my research projects slowly unraveling me, I am also weighed down from my students' expectations of my involvement and for some a definite need of my involvement. I am letting them down by not working on their project, yet, I know I don't have the time to polish it enough for the deadline, so why does it matter?

So I end up going Harvey Nic's for breakfast on a Monday instead of working on my research, wondering when I will get my brain back.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Earlier this week I was on a secret mission at an undisclosed location (okay, who am I kidding, the knowledgable reader will quickly decipher that this, as any secret mission in the world of research, was a job interview). It was a single day trip, by my own request, since I am still not comfortable leaving Zoe at night if not necessary. It was a very strange experience to simply get into a black mercedes at 5.15am, doze off before reaching the airport, stroll through security (because all I had was a laptop and a book) and walk directly onto a plane taking me off to another city, in fact another country, where I then spent a good 6 hours before reversing the trajectory and ending up in the grotty London Underground at 10pm on a train that was stuck for 10 minutes in the tunnel. This was the only hiccup of my travels. As I stepped back into our little 19th century apartment on 2nd floor, the only evidence that I had spent the day in another country was my Ramlösa water bottle, which I had refilled with English tap water upon landing in Heathrow.

The most surprising part of the trip to me was how little I missed Zoe. Or how little I worried about her. The 'mission' had been planned only two weeks previously and the day, which they give you and which you cannot change, was less than ideal: it was Mark's second day at his new job, only one week into our stay in London so the childcare I had arranged was not somewhere I felt comfortable leaving Zoe at for 12 hours, even if the nice childminder (as they are called over here) had offered. Instead Mark brought Zoe with him the 1 hour commute to work and dropped her off at his boss' house where a nanny was taking care of her little one. He apparently went back for lunch and then picked her up again late afternoon. I was blissfully unaware of all of this, since Mark had been the responsible husband and said, after a brief discussion of what I was to do, "Don't worry a thing, you go to your meeting, I'll figure out what to do about Zoe". And with that I had turned my focus to preparation of the meeting. When it came to the actual day, I enjoyed baby-free travel, particularly the 2 hour flight from 7-9am that provided me with time for a dearly needed nap, since Zoe had woken up at 2am and stayed awake until 3am, leaving me to twist and turn until 4am where I had had to get up. She clearly knew something was up.

As for the outcome of my little mission I have to wait a couple of weeks. But if all goes well, this will be my way of getting into the next step of my professional life. Or that is, start getting paid again for all the work that I do.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The cup holder problem

Moving to another country, let alone another country across the vast Atlantic is not a simple task to undertake. We have been lucky to have the majority of the related expenses paid, including having a set of moving people come and disassemble our furniture, pack everything up in your apartment, load it into a container and send it off, through the Panama Canal. We hope that on the other end, another set of moving people will carry the stuff up to the new apartment, open up the crates and put the furniture back together again. On the surface this seems like a great service and I was happy to have it for the first time of my life, after having moved 15+ times, always packing my own boxes. However, I quickly realized that it was not just the packing of boxes that was important but the judgement of what needed to be boxed and moved, vs. the stuff that needed to be sold or tossed. See, moving a $20 Ikea lamp from the US to Europe makes absolutely no sense because not only would the lamp not work with European bulbs (which are apparently 0.4 cm wider than the US bulbs) or European current, but the cost of moving it would also exceed the cost of buying a new one in a European Ikea. Combined with the fact that I never really liked this lamp and that it was bought merely as a 'transition' lamp (like so many other household items...) meant that it was not to be packed. Multiply that with 50 because we also had kitchen appliances that would not work in Europe, even with a transformer, include pre-pregnancy clothes that I really thought I would fit into by now but which I really should just part with, and you have at least 4 days work. Add to that a nosy little toddler who likes to take out all items I put in a box and who specialize in taking items and putting them somewhere strange (what is your little shoe doing in the cupboard? No, mommy's book does not go in the bathroom drawer), and you have about 8 evenings worth of hard work.

I approached the task with rigor, writing lists, sorting things out beginning one month prior to our big move. For two weeks this was all I could talk about, frequently asking Mark what he thought: Should I bring both of Zoe's duvets or just the small one? Should we keep the big lamp that I loved, but which would need rewiring in Europe? Would it make sense to ship the $1 wine glasses that we never used? He eventually got really annoyed and we snapped at each other, he accusing me of worrying too much and me accusing him of not helping out with the decisions. Instead he kept talking about more abstract things such as the fact that we still hadn't heard from the estate agent in London in terms of where we could pick up keys to our flat, things we couldn't do much about other than try to call them during opening hours (which was never when he expressed his concern). Eventually we found a middle way, me managing most of the household stuff, putting lamps on craigslist, him endlessly surfing the internet for estate agent news and, to his credit, showing and finally selling the car.

Almost everything was ready a few days before the movers arrived, now I just needed pack and decide what things we could not live without for 2 months. It was tough, but I managed to squeeze everything for Zoe and me (Mark took care of his own stuff) into a large suitcase weighing 71 pounds. This was clothes (including light winter clothes, we won't see our boxes before November the earliest), two of Zoe's favorite teddybears, important papers such as immunization records, an inflatable tub for Zoe, two books for me and her cup and bowl. We were also bringing her small collapsable stroller in a separate cover so we could check it in.

For some reason those last days of packing melted into one another with us trying to make the most of it, seeing people for goodbye dinners, goodbye brunches and goodbye drinks. The Friday before the movers were coming Saturday morning was the most difficult day because Zoe had to say goodbye to her lovely nanny, something I still cannot even write about without getting tears in my eyes, and something that is worth a whole other post. I was in a blur, trying to finish some work, managing a new study (yeah, I had just started a new study 2 weeks before we moved, how smart was that?) and on top of that we sold our car, so I had to look after Zoe while cooking for the dinner party we held for our nanny that very evening. When our guests finally left just before midnight I realized that I still had to label everything that the movers were not to take, such as still unsold lamps, suitcases and furniture we were getting rid of. Mark went to bed and left me to it; around 2 am I tumbled into bed, my head still spinning, hoping for the best.

Zoe and the all-important cupholder
The moving men were nice and seemed a lot more professional and meticulous than I had expected. They asked for each item that was not clear, I explained that no electric appliances were to be taken, except of course for the ones that were actually going (our large nice lamp, which we would be rewiring) and they went about their packing tasks. Meanwhile I realized that it was not entirely safe to have a toddler running around, picking up their power drills (NO ZOE, those screws are not for eating!) and generally being in the way of big men with big boxes. Mark took her out in the stroller, leaving me to guide the movers and relax a bit.

Flash forward to the evening where Mark had handed over the car to its new owners and finally, the movers had emptied the apartment and left us with the bare minimum to live with for the remaining two days. We went out to goodbye dinner with a couple of friends and were having a relaxing conversation when I suddenly realized, getting a chill down my back, that when I had put Zoe in the stroller so Mark could take her out that morning, I had taken off the cup holder because I knew he hated it (it was apparently in the way of his hand), and put it in the coat closet. The coat closet where the movers had packed everything from, including cup holder. How could I be taking Zoe for walks around London without a cup holder? How could I get my caffeine fix now? I interrupted everyone with my serious realization to the laugh of particularly Mark who did not share my distraughtness. After a bit of grumpiness from my side, he looked at me and said: If that is the worst thing that went wrong today, then we are pretty well off aren't we. And I agreed. We dubbed these small problems that we deal with 'cup holder problems', which reminds us everyday that we are so lucky to have what we have in terms of each other and Zoe, and wonderful people around us. And now I am off to spend £15 on a new cup holder because I really miss it here in London.