The 2nd Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

How many decisions do you make in the course of your life? Cereal or toast? (Neither) Coffee or tea? (Coffee) Open the bottle of wine or not? (Is it Friday? Then yes.). Life is chock-a-block with decisions, from the mundane to the momentous.

Every now and then you’re whistling along happily enough, tearing through the mundane decisions like a boss, when you come face to face with a giant one.

Marry me?
Should we start a family?
Should we buy a house?
Should we open the 2nd bottle? (Is it Saturday? Then yes.)

Sometimes they’re expected decisions you’ve been sort of prepping for your whole life, but sometimes they come out of nowhere.

In the back of my brain I knew my husband’s job might offer the opportunity to move overseas. But you know, when you’re talking about it, it’s all sure, great, what an adventure! It’s in the future. It’s the abstract. It’s not real.

Until he comes home one day and says, “Hey! There’s a job opening in Cyprus. What do you think?”

What did I think?

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Have I told you how much I love NYC? Really? I mean have I really told you? Have I told you how the city boogied down deep into my bones until it became part of my DNA? Have I told you…oh, I have?

Forget Leaving Las Vegas, if there was an alcohol sopped memoir movie of this mid-section of my life, we could call it Leaving New York.

Leaving the city of my heart, where I fell in love, got married, had my babies…was tough. Like drag me away tough. Kicking and screaming tough. New York, man. It gets into your blood, it seeps into your pores, it worms its way…but enough about New York because I was leaving it.

On a jet plane, with two kids, a couple of suitcases, and a plan of action so loose it was jiggling like my post-baby muffin top.

And then there I was, in the middle of The Mediterranean. Me, my two kids, and a Yiayia down the street named Poppy. That was it. Me and a Greek Cypriot Granny. My entire life turned upside down because one momentous decision we made sitting in bed on a sunny Sunday morning while our second son slept a few feet away in our too small for two kids apartment.

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For the first year, I was convinced it was, quite possibly, the worst decision I’d ever been a part of. Worse than the plaid pants with the ribbed yellow turtleneck get-up in 3rd grade. Worse than my hair in high school. Worse than every shitty financial decision we’ve ever made. (Note: Should you buy the one-bedroom apartment? Hell, yes you should).

I cried because I missed the election of Barack Obama. I cried watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. My mother and my sister came to visit us and when they left, I ugly sobbed on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. It was…not good. It was in fact, bad. Really bad.

Of course things improved, even within that first year. As nice as Poppy the Yiayia was, I made friends who were slightly closer to my own generation, more Breakfast Club than the Early Bird Special club. But still, it wasn’t until after we left Cyprus and, if I’m honest, well into our Copenhagen cycle, that I started to really think about the decision we made all those Sundays before.

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It’s not always easy being an expat. There are times it is appallingly hard. Being a family unit without the support of nearby relatives as a buffer can be–well, let’s just say intense. Family time, I am often caught saying, is overrated.

Some things about it actually are great. Being abroad has given us an opportunity to bond in a way I’m not sure we would have had if we’d stayed in NY. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had a bond, it would just be a different one. This one is born of living a specific experience all together, simultaneously.

Our horizons? Not broadened as much as exploded.

I’ve learned to stop fearing change, and, dare I say, embrace it. Or at least more so than before. I’ve gone so far outside my comfort zone, I’ve gotten jet lag. Bizarrely, I’ve learned how to relax. Let’s just say I’m now type B- rather than type A.

Is it Friday? Drink the wine.

Living as an outsider in a country that isn’t yours, when you don’t speak the language, or understand the nuance of the culture itself, often at the mercy of a job, teaches you nothing if not this: you can’t control everything. Some stuff yes, other stuff, no. I think, for a long time I got them mixed up.

It’s taught me that I really only truly need the people I love around me and a decent wine shop. Should we open the wine? (Is it Sunday? Sure.)

Being an expat has taught me how to offer my friendship..and receive friendship in return. It has redefined my concept of home, on every level imaginable. It has honed my criticism of my own country, but it has also deepened my love of it.

It has given me an understanding of being the odd one out, of being on the back foot, of having to pay attention. It’s deepened my appreciation for difference, from the minor to the major.

It’s taught me how to bake from scratch and how to live with less choice, and how to start using cloth napkins because paper products in Denmark are stupid expensive. Also that I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without an electric kettle.

It’s taught me that when someone is meant to be in your life, you find a way to make sure they stay in your life.

No dinner, no drama.

This decade long adventure has allowed us to get to know each other in a completely unfettered way. It’s just us over here. No insulation. All family, all the time. No Sunday dinners, but no Sunday drama either.

It has, quite honestly, fundamentally changed who I am as a person.

For the better.

So as I meander through the mundane, bus or train? (Bus) Pizza or Thai? (Pizza) Should we open that bottle of wine? (Is it Monday? Then no, you big lush), I can look back at some of the momentous with more clarity.

That decision we made all those Sundays ago, saying yes to taking that chance? It hasn’t always been easy, but it was probably the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

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An Apple a Day (My Love/Hate Affair with Technology)

soapboxAs a parent, there’s nothing I like better than a good black and white moral conundrum. In our house we call them Berenstain Bear moments, and just like Mama Bear, there is nothing I like better than a story with a glaringly obvious life lesson, an open/shut case of right vs. wrong all tied up with an ethical bow at the end. I live for them. Of course life, let alone parenting, would be easy peasy if everything was a Berenstain Bear moment. Unfortunately it’s not.

Recently I’ve found myself standing on a (presumed) moral high ground shouting hoarsely into the nether. And whist up there on my soap box on top of my high horse at the highest point of said moral high ground, I realized that I am out of my depth.

It’s not often as a mother that I admit that. I am a hard-core believer in common sense parenting by the gut. Usually I have a pretty good sense of what is acceptable to me as a parent. If it falls on the unacceptable side of the fence, it doesn’t take long for me to scramble up to my pulpit where I will pontificate and preach–to whoever is listening–in my loud, American, children’s theatre trained voice. My voice is one of backyards and big skies. It is not meant, as my husband will tell you, for high ceilinged apartments in a country where silence is a national pastime.

It is no secret how I feel about screens, particularly iPads and video games. I hate them. Every maternal instinct in me wants to hurl every Apple product we own (and we have a fair number) out the window at times. I want to write long scathing letters to the late Steve Jobs. Screw you, Apple Man, for making so many cute, affordable gadgets that I now have to constantly battle with my kids about.

Allow me this rather lengthy piece of vanity, for there are so many factors at play here that the only way I can sort out my feelings is by sitting down and writing about it.

I don’t want to escape technology. Recently our broadband was down for nearly 10 days and it was me (me!) who complained about it the most. I missed my online thesaurus, being able to do my online grocery order, return emails, etc. That said, I have never been a game person. I don’t play Candy Crush or Farmville or Angry Birds  I never played Space Invaders or Pac-Man as a kid. This could be down to my personality, (I don’t watch much television either), or it could be my sex. It could be both. I simply don’t get the fascination with video games. I don’t understand the appeal, don’t understand the pull, the draw, the addictiveness of it; and because of that, I am limited in my acceptance of it. I am wiling to admit that is a weakness on my part. I don’t have room in my brain for ‘let me just finish this race’ or ‘one more round’ or ‘I’m almost there….just….just….just.”high-horse

The problem is that I don’t have girls who have similar personalities to me. I have boys. I have boys who do like Angry Birds, MineCraft, Injustice, and sixteen others I would be hard pressed to name.  I have boys who like games who have access to technology. I have boys who like games with access to technology who are growing up in a generation when ‘social’ is automatically followed by ‘media’, when play dates are two boys sitting next to each other connected on a MineCraft server, where bowling is done on the Wii and when as a fellow mother and friend pointed out, game has changed from a noun to a verb.

Is this what boys do?  I guess. I don’t know. Do they? I’m out of my depth, lost my perspective. I feel, in my heart, that my kids should be outside in the sunshine, beating the shit out of one another as opposed to crafting (anything noun turned verb) things on a 10 inch screen.  Yet I let them.

I let them because they enjoy it. I let them because it is a cultural connection to their peers, the same way we used to discuss last nights’ episode of Happy Days (Did you see when Fonzi jumped the shark? Yeah, it all went downhill after that….). I let them because we live in an apartment in a foreign city. I let them because in Denmark it is dark at 3 pm in the winter. I let them because when they are plugged into whatever fantasy world they are addicted to at the moment, they are leaving me alone. Yes, I admit it. They are quiet. It is pleasant. So what’s the problem, right?

The problem is, it is at odds with my own feelings about what they should be doing. The problem is, it is too easy to bask in the relative quiet of two gaming boys. The problem is, even with limitations, they are always asking for more. The problem is that I end up resenting having to be the enforcer of arbitrary limits, limits which are constantly tested. The problem is, I resent the fact that they seem unable to be able to entertain themselves for more than ten minutes without asking if they can ‘just look something up’ or watch an instructional video on how to create a mini Lego Ben 10 Way Big or “listen” to music on the iPad.

I say it again, screw you Apple and your minions for making my job as a parent that much harder. No, it’s not fair to blame a company, but it feels good to say it.

stock-footage-targeting-red-apple-on-head-hit-by-arrow-colorful-background-close-up-zoom-out-clip-idMy oldest is going to be ten in a few months. He is slowly easing out of the imaginary play scenarios of the last decade (oh for a round of Playmobil Pirate football!) and is in the no man’s land between being a kid who is happy to play and being a teenager who is happy to do nothing. He’s not old enough to go out and do his own thing, but he’s growing out of his toys. He’s bored. Because of our decision to live the life we do—in a foreign city in an apartment–time with friends has to be arranged and managed rather than simply walking out the door and finding someone to play with. We don’t have a back yard for him to kick a ball around in or watch the clouds roll by. We have a beautiful park behind our building, but it’s no fun to be on your own when you’re a kid. So yes, I fall back on screens far more than makes me comfortable. And I struggle, because this seems to be the new normal.

Yet it feels wrong to me.

But what if I am wrong?

This is what happens when you lose perspective. I wish is were clear-cut. I wish it was a Berenstain Bear moment. Instead it is a gray area that I have trouble navigating myself,  yet here I am trying to guide my children through it. It is difficult to reconcile yourself to the fact that something you don’t feel comfortable with is something that you have to learn how to live with, regulate, and compromise about.

The technology conundrum. Sooner or later I feel in my bones that there is going to be an iRevolt, led by mothers. Probably mothers of boys. Who love MineCraft. Boys who take over our nouns and make them verbs. Oh, I don’t know. Just as likely that they’ll all end up becoming perfectly normal, contributing members of society who like to game a bit on the weekends.

It is a scenario I will gladly step down off of my high horse for. If only I could be sure.

 

Thanks to all my FB parents who contributed to this piece by sharing their own limitations and feelings about kids and iPads. And thanks, AG for calling attention to the travesty of turning nouns into verbs ;-).

For more of my techno-rants, you can see:

It’s the End of the World as We Know it

Balancing Acts

If You Give a Kid a Cookie

 

 

A Test of the Emergency Parenting System

EBSLife is full of tests.  Spelling tests, math tests, vocabulary tests; hearing tests, vision tests (which way is the E facing?), tests for scoliosis and lice.  Driving tests, blood tests and pregnancy tests, hold your breath until the results come back HIV tests.  Tests of the Emergency Broadcasting System.  Remember those?  Every now and again, after a high pitched-racoon caught in the garbage disposal sort of squeal, a box of colored rectangles would appear on your television screen.  Sometimes you would be in the car merrily listening to She Bop and the entire AM/FM bandwidth would shrill a tone higher than Kajagoogoo.  After an interminable sixty seconds or so you would hear a message along the lines of:  This was a test, only a test.  If this had been an actual emergency…

Every now and again down in the rabbit hole that is parenting, the universe throws in a test of the Emergency Parenting System.  The parenting powers that be, the same ones who like to screw with you just because, the ones that make sure you have one child going through a phase from hell at any given time, like to sound the alarm as a reminder.  It’s a reminder that you need to be aware, be alert, be on your toes; that in the case of an actual emergency, you’d better have your shit together and ready to find that storm cellar in 100 mph winds and black, white, or hot pink-out conditions.  Sometimes it’s the parent him or herself that face the test (remind me to tell you the story about my husband and pin-worms and a flashlight in the dark), other times it’s your children that will face the challenge.  Sometimes they will pass with flying colors and you will stand illuminated in a halo of pride.  Sometimes they won’t, and you’ll immerse yourself in a self flagellation ritual which involves smarmy parenting books and teacher conferences and nightmares about the cost of psychotherapy.

My eldest son faced a test recently.  By our standards of parenting, he failed.  Faced with a minor ethical decision, he made the wrong choice.  He made the selfish choice.  He made the choice we thought we had been raising him NOT to make.  And then, just to add icing to the insult cake, he lied about it.

EBS color

In the large scheme of life, in the marathon endurance challenge that is raising functional human beings, it wasn’t a huge deal.  No one was hurt, physically or emotionally.  It wasn’t a who would you chose to save on a sinking life boat type of scenario, but it was a litmus test of sorts.  And his alkaline and acid balance was all off.  So admittedly, in terms of severity, this hardly even ranked.  But as he gets older, he will be facing greater and more meaningful challenges.  When to ask a girl (or boy) out, when it’s ok to have sex, should he try that cigarette, that joint?  Should he join in poking fun of someone else, should he go along with someone who’s ideas aren’t so…ethical?  What should he do when his ride home has been drinking or someone comes up with the brilliant idea of stealing a bag of Cheese Doodles from the 24 hour Mobil station?  Should he post that naked picture on Instagram?  All these things are coming his way, bearing down on him like a tsunami, like a tornado, like the kind of storm that swept Dorothy and her house and her little dog too all the way from Kansas to Oz.  It’s important that he has the strength to remain upright  in the winds of teenagerdom and young adult hood.  As parents we need to make sure he is able to solidly plant those feet on terra firma and do the right thing.

That’s our job, it’s what we signed up for.

I  hope we found the right balance this time between making sure that he understood what he did was wrong and letting him know that the benefit of making mistakes is that you can choose to learn from them.  He was upset.  There were tears.  The word disappointment meandered its nefarious way into the conversation.  We didn’t pussyfoot.  We didn’t pander.  We told him he made the wrong choice and outlined the different choices he could have made, should have made.  We talked about times when we had made the wrong choice and what we learned from it.  He got to hear the famous, ‘time I burned down the woods’ story.  He’s hardly alone in his morally ambiguous haze of growing up, peers, temptation and just to mix it up a bit, hormones.

Photo: americablog.com
Photo: americablog.com

Perhaps we were a bit harsh.  He is only nine, but he is not a baby anymore, not a toddler to be redirected or a young child who needs constant reminders.  He is old enough to understand that he is responsible for decisions and that the decisions he makes have repercussions.  Did we want him to feel bad?  Kind of, sort of, yes.  Sometimes remembering how you felt gives you pause to stop and think when a similar situation arises.  This was no tornado, no hurricane; it would barely register as a tempest in a teapot.  It was, however, a preview.  One which has made us realize as parents that we can’t necessarily rely on the fact that he’s a good kid.  And he is a good kid.  He’s going to make mistakes and we would never withdraw love and affection from him for mistakes he’s made or is going to make, but neither will we turn the other way and pretend they didn’t happen.  It’s our job, it’s what we signed up for.

There are going to be so many times in his life when he is going to stand at a crossroads and be faced with choice.  When he will have to play his own poet and chose a path.  Sometimes the decision will be clear, other times murky.  Sometimes there will be two distinct roads to choose from, sometimes 100.  It is our job as as parents to make sure that he’s got the right supplies in his emergency pack to set off down the path of his choice and be ready to weather whatever storm comes.

I used to hate those tests as a kid.  They interrupted The Brady Bunch reruns or Creature Double Feature or your favorite song on the radio.  All that high-pitched siren wailing for no good reason.  As an adult, as a parent, I understand that those siren calls are a warning.  Sometimes you need them to shell shock you making sure you are prepared.  Because one day it may not be a test.  It may be an actual emergency.