Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mommy's high heels

This is Zoe's favorite book. I bought it directly from the author when Zoe was just a baby so it even has a little handwritten greeting inside "To Zoe with cupcake kisses". It has provided references to Zoe's world since she was old enough to realize that I go somewhere else when I'm not with her: I go to work. I went back to work when she was 4 months, a generous maternity leave in the US where we lived at the time (however, it was obviously without pay) but a very short maternity leave from a Scandinavian perspective. To me this was ideal, I would do it exactly the same way again if I got the choice. The book has provided Zoe with the logical perception that when I put on my high heels (okay, more likely high boots here in the cold Stockholm winter) it is because I have to go to work. When I take them off I have been to work. When I wear flats it is a Zoe day (=weekend).

Recently though we have started talking more specifically about my work. Zoe has been with me to work. She jokingly asks if she can go with me to work in the morning. ("Zoe not daycare, Zoe go mommy work") Today we were especially in a hurry because I overslept a bit, hitting the snooze button for half an hour without really realizing, and I had a funding proposal deadline in the afternoon. Zoe was not corroborating and kept repeating that she didn't want to go to daycare. It doesn't always work just rushing her and in my attempt to practice positive parenting, I try to reason with her rather than ordering her. But how do you explain a funding proposal to a two and a half year old? I went down on my knees and looked straight at her. Then I told her that I had a lot of letters to write to ask some people for money. This money would mean that Zoe could go and visit grandma more often and that we could travel for example to see her friend Milly in Paris. Essentially, this is exactly what research funding will enable me to: I will be able to travel to see co-workers, often dropping Zoe off in Copenhagen, and research funding will enable me to go to conferences, for example in Paris. It will also help me get research students but there seemed to be no direct benefit for Zoe. She thought about it for a moment. Then she said "Ohhhhkay mommy. Zoe go daycare". And so I put on my high heels and managed to submit my funding proposal later in the afternoon.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The price we pay

Yesterday I had to finalize our plane tickets to our next big upcoming trip: I have a conference to got to, Zoe's dad is also going and we therefore decided to bring her rather than trying to drop her off at Grandma's. The conference is in the US so I am also making it into a visiting trip where I go to see a colleague/friend for some quality research time (he has kids Zoe's age and a nanny who can look after all of them during the day) and then seeing an even dearer friend in-between for some relaxation and red wine while Zoe sleeps at night. The plane ticket turned out to be insanely expensive and this is even without the internal return flight over to my first colleague (which his university is generously paying because I will be giving a talk). The problem is that we live in a not-so-well-connected city with few direct flights to the US and I had a few constraints (which could have saved a few hundred dollars but not more than that): I am not taking a 6 am flight from Stockholm. The airport is far out of the city and we need an hour and a half to get there. Getting up at 3 am with a two year old is just not an option. Flying through Frankfurt is also not an option; I have only bad experiences from there, cancelled flights, late flights and the airport is the most unpleasant one I know. Munich okay, Frankfurt not. I am also not having a five hour layover when we land and our body clocks are 9pm. That is way beyond Zoe's bedtime and she would not be able to walk from one gate to the other without crying and screaming. In the end we got the magic tickets: A fairly late start from Stockholm, direct to the US and only one more leg to the destination. On the way back I convinced my friend, whom Zoe adores, to take the same flight. I might be traveling on my own with her, but there will be somebody else to take the edge off if things get out of hand.

So I paid $1500 for Zoe's ticket. I tried to do a comparison and basically I am paying the equivalent of two new iPhone 5s for Zoe's ticket. Okay, her dad and I are sharing, so I guess we are paying an iPhone 5 each. Kids are expensive, but traveling kids are extremely expensive. I keep thinking of the saying "travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer". Not entirely sure of the sentiment but it reminds me that Zoe and I get richer on experiences at least.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Friends around the world

The other morning when Zoe and I had breakfast as usual, her sitting on the kitchen counter and me standing within reach of my espresso machine she got a bit sad. "Milly", she just said and I knew she was missing her new friend in Paris. Yeah, Emily is in Paris, I said and tried to comfort her. "Far away, Milly far away", Zoe said and I said yes, Zoe you have friends around the world. She then went into naming the long list of her friends, which surprised me not only because it included grandma and my aunt who often looks after her when we are in Copenhagen, but because it was extensive and clear and included people from very different realms or her life. I got tears in my eyes thinking about what I'm doing to my daughter providing her with friends around the world but at the same time keeping her from seeing them regularly.

Today my eyes teared up again when I got an email from a dear friend in the US who we will be staying with for our upcoming trip. Because I got friends around the world too and I tend to forget during the dark and biting cold snowy days in Stockholm where I feel alone in a country I never wanted to live in and in a city where they speak a silly language I'm not good at. My friend reminded me that I am not alone at all. It is a side effect of the semi-nomadic lifestyle I have had since I moved to the US to go to college almost two decades ago. Since then I have not stayed in one country for more than three to four years at a time, and although I have been back and forth, I have not been going back the same place (I have lived in Florida and north and southern California almost equally). But more importantly, a research career like mine fosters friendships across distance, through collaboration and mutual intense conference experiences; some of my closest friends I have never lived in the same country as. The benefit is that I am always welcome places around the world (and I do take advantage of that, vice versa, my friends are *always* welcome at my place) but the downside is that I can't just see them and calling is complicated due to different timezones. Besides, seeing someone is completely different from calling. It means that I sometimes forget that I am valued and loved by these friends who seem so remote. So occasionally I need a reminder.

I also needed a reminder to do something I should have done long time ago: Go to Copenhagen without Zoe *only* to see my friends. Despite all the moving around my three best friends are still in Copenhagen, they simply never left. They have put up with my sporadic calling and demanding social schedule when I am finally there ("I can see you Wednesday between 5pm and 7pm") for 10 plus years. And magically they stuck. I owe them big for that because they are still the girlfriends I turn to when I have a broken heart, when I'm frustrated about work and when I argue with my parents. They are also the first ones I told that I was pregnant with Zoe and they are the first ones to know good news in terms of jobs and big moves. I hope they see me a bit the same way but I also know they have closer friends themselves because distance is complicated. Which is why I feel stupid not having done this before. So in less than two weeks I'll be on a train to Copenhagen without Zoe and I'm already planning each hour of friendship time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Trilingual me

As I have described before Zoe is growing up trilingual, except of course ironically she is strongest in Danish and English, because she is in an English speaking daycare and the only one who actually speaks Swedish to her is our Swedish friend and her occasional babysitter. In fact I am very happy to hear just how much Danish she picked up when we spent two weeks there over Christmas. She still mixes the languages and always says 'not' and 'like' in English. "Zoe not like fyrværkeri" [fireworks] was a classic around new years. I'm very aware that her lack in Swedish reflects my attitude to that language, a language that I should easily be able to master, but which I genuinely hate speaking (I don't mind reading it so much, I don't articulate words in my head, I merely comprehend them and move on).

Working in a cafe after chores in the morning, I wondered how my Swedish aversion in combination with our international lifestyle will prevent Zoe from learning any Swedish of significance. But they are not helping us. At this Södermalm cafe they serve the food, calling out the dishes in English. People switch to English when I attempt to speak Swedish with the statement that I have an American accent. I'm still utterly useless in Swedish small talk and it is not getting any better, I mainly just keep quiet. If I can't even do trilingual myself, how am I to expect that Zoe will? I have hired a Swedish tutor to try to learn a bit more and get more confidence. I'm meeting her next Monday for the first time and she seemed nice on the phone. "I can already tell now what we need to work with you on" she said in a teacherly tone. I look forward to that. Perhaps Zoe should join me.

Friday, January 11, 2013

New York in Stockholm

For roughly 20 years my big dream has been to live in New York City. And from about 10 years ago when I started frequenting NYC for a week or so regularly, this dream has turned into a major goal of mine. New York is, apart from Copenhagen, the city where I feel instantly at home with its busyness, diversity and cheer coolness. It is the ultimate living space for me. Yet, I never managed to relocate there. Instead my choice of career and field have dictated other temporary homes and my personal life has lead me to places I never thought I was going to live, Stockholm being the most odd one of them. I am now living in a Scandinavian capital, clean and airy, friendly, yet reserved. It is a small capital (a bit smaller than my native Copenhagen) but at least is it one and the public transportation beats any city I have ever been to. Still, this was not a city I would ever have chosen myself. Ever. And I am now living here, not because I chose it but because I have to. I could certainly get a job somewhere else (I have recently had several serious suggestions) but my daughter and her dad is here.

On the surface this seems to potentially lead in one of two directions: I could either become a bitter, angry and generally grumpy person who hates everyone here because here is not where I want to be, or I could "suck it up" and learn to live with my situation for better or worse. But neither of these options really feel right. I must admit that I occasionally am on the verge of being slightly bitter but the better part of me refuses to even entertain that thought. But I am in no way a person who would ever "suck it up" either; I sometimes stay quiet in situations where I don't want to get into trouble but in my personal life and career, I am not known for just letting be. If anything, I do too much and tell everything about my detailed problems at that moment, just to make a slight change and get out of my problems of my own.

Instead, I realized, I am trying to create my own New York in Stockholm. I live in the most urban area with tons of cafes merely a few blocks away. I have American friends that I work with in these cafes and I speak mostly English throughout the day, even with my Swedish friends. I live on 33 square meters with my 2 year old daughter. We eat bagels. I go out for dinner despite not being able to afford it and buy no clothes for myself for 3 months to make up for it. I enjoy the fast pace of the Swedes and listen to loud electronica in my earphones when I take the subway. I travel as much as I can to get out of here which of course is a bit of a contradiction but it gives me momentum to continue staying. I still believe that one day my dream will come true, one day I will have a small apartment on Manhattan and live my life there. But until then I just try to create my now little NY here where I am stuck until further notice.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Don't panic

Arriving back in Stockholm this past Friday, after a short flight from Copenhagen, I was reminded again of all the impossible situations I put myself in, traveling alone with Zoe but also just living the lifestyle I do. Situations where I almost panic, loose it and do something I know I should not do. This time I ended up in the arrival hall with three roller suitcases and an overtired toddler. And because Zoe had to use the bathroom the minute we got out of the plane and it was a major traveling day, there were no more luggage carts available. Apart from the big ones that the staff use to transport bags out to the plane and which Zoe so happily likes to play with. Asking the staff for luggage carts, I got the lovely Swedish answer: "nej dom är slut" [literally 'they have ended', more like 'there are no more'].

So there I was, two hands and three suitcases. Plus Zoe's little play suitcase which she had insisted on carrying herself onto the plane, after the check-in guy had refused to check it in (yep, she asked herself, the word 'check-in' is an integrated part of her vocabulary), but which now was "too heavy". After waiting to see if something would happen in terms of luggage carts I decided that we couldn't just wait aimlessly. I hauled two suitcases to a point, then asked Zoe to stay with them while going back for the last one. That worked until we got to the big sliding exit doors that people are not allowed back through. How would I be able to get out and back to pick up the last suitcase? I decided that there had to be nice people leaving the airport who had one hand free to pull my last suitcase. I asked the first people I saw but they ignored me. They just walked on. I heard them speak Danish to each other and I approached them in Danish. That's when I decided that people would be able to see how I needed help.

I started dragging the two suitcases together, one of them obviously flipping around and sliding over the floor rather than rolling. That way I very slowly got through the sliding doors without anyone even looking at me, out to a staring crowd with tags, looking for other people. I finally eyed two abandoned luggage carts ahead of me and asked Zoe to go get one. Unfortunately they were stuck together and my 2 and a half year old could not take them apart. I left all the luggage on the floor for a second and got the luggage cart. I was shaking at this point. Wondering what kind of things other people were thinking. "Why is she that stupid to travel with so much luggage on her own?" "Why didn't she just take a luggage cart?". I guided Zoe to the elevators down to the train and we barely made the next one with me dramatically throwing all the luggage into the train while instructing Zoe not to walk into the train unless with me. My biggest fear on these journeys is of course that we get separated, her on a train, me outside or vice versa. Luggage, I couldn't care less about. Except when we sat down and the train took off, Zoe looked at me and asked: "Zoe kuffert?" [Zoe's suitcase]. Shit. Her little suitcase was somewhere between the arrival hall and the train platform.

But the moral of the story is that we survived. We did fine and I did much better than I have done many other times, I didn't loose my cool at any point. And all these situations help me realize that it is doable. And I don't even try to pretend that I know what it is like to travel with more than one child or that I know better than any other parents. But these impossible situations are what helps me realize, in retrospective, that I don't so so badly. And yes, my new years goal is to be more calm and not panic. This was a good beginning.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Years festivities

As someone with a small child new years parties are usually out of the question for me. The past three years (that includes when I was pregnant) I have completely skipped any festivities, and have actually been in bed before midnight one year. This year, however, I was the luckiest parent: I had babysitters (my parents) and a party to go to. The latter part being even more lucky since I have not lived in Denmark for over ten years and although I have three close friends here who have been very forgiving of my exile, I would not expect them to be able to include me in their new year plans. But it turned out that one of my friends were actually hosting a party, one where I knew other attendees through past social get-togethers and colleagues (said friend is also an old colleague). I ended up having a smashing time and a bit too much champagne for being a fit mother the next day. All I managed was to take Zoe into the living room where we watched old disney cartoons for three hours while I 'rested' my head. But it was worth it, this party definitely made up for the past three years of non-partying.

Christmas presents

With a traveling and moving lifestyle like mine I automatically keep a life fairly minimalistic in terms of materialism. Zoe has few toys compared to other two year olds (what I have seen at friend's houses and based on comments I get) and I try to keep my things to what I need, not what I want. I'm not as good as some others but I like the practice of recycling good quality stuff rather than buying new things all the time.

This Christmas I was a bit concerned with Zoe's presents; she had a few key things on her list that she had specifically mentioned when in a toy store and she always likes books and nice clothes. But with many people wanting to buy her presents, I was worried she would have a hard time dealing with all of if and not appreciate any of it. I ended up doing what many parents do: spread out the presents from the 23rd all the way to the 28th with most of the presents of course on Christmas eve but her dad's present the 25th and my friend's present the 28th. She did really well and was almost as excited when giving presents than when receiving them. As long as she got to unwrap whatever present it was.

Look at my new playground!
She got four favorite things: A wooden playground from my brother, a xylophone from my friend in Stockholm, a doll in a car seat from my mom and a doll changing set from her dad. Listed in no particular order. Nobody gave her bad quality useless presents and she didn't get that much after all. She spends time playing with each in turn, fortunately less with the xylophone here after new years. I think we are continuing the minimalism lifestyle fairly well with the addition of a few really good presents. But now once in a while she does ask: "more presents for Zoe?"