The Breakfast Club

It’s not often I drop my kids at school. The thirteen year-old is in charge of his own schedule and the ten year-old, who almost is, cycles in with his father. On the rare occasions I am in the a.m., I usually spot The Breakfast Club.

On any given school day the mothers of the Breakfast Club are there with boxes of cereal and loaves of bread and pots of yogurt and cut up fruit. Someone is inevitably keeping an eye on someone else’s kids, doling out napkins and juice and spoons. The entire thing is messy and full of spilled milk and crumbs and yogurt streaked faces.

Yet, somehow these mothers have managed to grab hold of an often stressful situation (and oh my God, why is eating and getting ready for school so damn stressful anyway??) and make it into something special and communal.

And really, when you think about it, what’s more communal and tribal than literally breaking fast together?

Many of The Breakfast Club members are sharpening their pencils to write new chapters this summer, and this week we did our ritual goodbyes. I listened as they wept at the idea leaving behind this extraordinary community they’ve been a part of. And then one said something which hit me directly in the heart: she mentioned that by watching the women around her she learned how to be a better mother–that among this tribe of expat women, and yes, it is a tribe, she felt uplifted rather than torn down, supported rather than burdened. That no matter how stressed out or angry or irate she was coming into that school building, whenever she left she always felt better. Someone was always there to shoulder a part of her burden, whether it was feeding her kids breakfast or lending a listening ear.

In the expat world, there are a lot of women and children left behind due to logistics. They have spouses who travel extensively, who commute not just an hour on a train but a few hours on a plane to be home on weekends, or every other weekend, or two weeks every two months. I used to call them lifeboat expats, women and children somewhere safe but slightly adrift. But that’s not accurate, because they’re not adrift, they are moored to the larger community.

When you’re in a foreign country alone with your children, finding a village to anchor yourself to isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

You need to have someone who is going to pick up your kids from school if you’re felled with the flu, or someone who you can call in case of emergency. You need sustenance and daily nurturing. You need a tribe. You need a village. You need a community, a group who can shoulder some of the burden of doing it on your own in a place where you likely don’t even speak the language or get confused by the currency.

You need a Breakfast Club.

Expats, especially women, fill these roles, mostly without even thinking about it. We form and reform, knitting and re-knitting groups and clubs and clans and tribes. Looking after one another’s kids, feeding them, comforting them, shepherding them around. Supporting and lifting up. Learning and teaching. Listening, nurturing. You lean on the collective village.

The Breakfast Club is just one example of village magic.

The ones who are leaving are, understandably, sad about losing all of that–the connectivity, the tribe, the village mentality.

To those leaving I have this to say:

You’re forgetting the role you played in shaping that community. Yes, you were welcomed into a village which already existed, but you molded it, changed it, and made it into exactly what you needed. And if you’ve done that once, you can do it again.

When we welcomed you in we taught you the words to the spell, and now that spell? It’s bound up in you. It’s a part of who you are.

The beauty is, the magic is portable. It goes with you, wherever you go. When you leave, wrap it up in bubble wrap and put it with the expensive stuff you don’t trust the shippers to handle, the magic is this too precious for international freight. Then, wherever it is you land in this crazy game of map darts, take it out. Unfold the tissue paper it’s wrapped in, pop the bubble wrap, and plant the magic.

You are the seed. Share that wisdom. Lift up instead of tearing down. Ask and offer help. Support rather than dismantle. Remember, you came in and helped to shape a community. You’ve seen how it works. There is no reason you can’t do it again.

Somewhere out there, there’s a lonely woman spooning yogurt into a pot for her kid’s breakfast. Find her. Join her. And then teach her the spell so that she has it written in her as well.

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I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I hate asking for help.

But…living away from family and the familiar, I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s a necessity. And while my natural inclination is to come close to killing myself trying to do 600 things by myself, I have gotten much better at asking for help when and where I need it.

Example: Like many Americans, I learned to drive in an automatic car… and that’s all I’ve ever driven. (This is stupid, by the way. Americans should learn to drive, like the rest of the civilized world, with a stick shift). After three and half years in Denmark with nothing but bikes, we finally got a car. Guess what? It’s a stick. There are a hundred reasons why I didn’t learn to drive it, none of worth going into here, but only a few involve my fear of careening into a Danish cyclist while I am busy trying to figure out what gear to be in.

Anyway, my kids go to this amazing brand new school out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by water. It’s great. It’s also a complete and utter pain in the ass to get to. If my husband drops them in the morning in the car, our transport options home are limited.

Pro tip: biking home in sideways wind and sleet is environmentally friendly. It is also not fun.

So sometimes (ok, often), I shuffle over to a friend and if they’re headed my way, ask for a ride. Like a teenager looking for a lift home. I suck up my pride (or embarrassment at the notion of being a 47 y/o woman who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift, a la Driving Miss Dina) and ask for a ride. Sometimes people say yes, sometimes no. And that’s cool. But they always say “just ask”

So I do.

And you know what? It makes my life so much easier to get a ride home. So I ask.

I need a little help, so I ask.

Almost every woman I know will literally run herself ragged because she doesn’t want to ask for help. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s fear of appearing weak or incapable. It’s the same reason that women get pissed off if their partner suggests getting someone to ‘help’ them clean the house.

Pro-tip: If you say “maybe we should get a cleaner because it looks like you could use some help,” a woman is going to hear “you think the house is a mess and I’m incapable of keeping it clean.”

Pro tip: Just do it. Just hire the damn cleaner, don’t outline the reasons why you think your partner needs ‘help’.

I think it’s a byproduct of having to do everything twice as hard and three times as well to get a foot in the door. I think it’s fear of giving anyone a window into a vulnerability or a weakness that can be used against you. Fear of not living up to expectations, or perhaps a fear of proving someone’s negative expectations right.

Pro tip: Everyone else is lying about what they can do as well as they say they can all by themselves, and if they’re not lying, they’re probably miserable, over-tired, or sex-starved.

This is….not me. Not even in my head.

(Note: I’d be interested to hear if stay at home males–more and more common on the expat circuit–are averse to ‘help’, and/or internalize the suggestion as a failure to keep up….or, if, as I suspect, they are smart enough to take the damn help and free up their day for other things.)

There are only so many hours in the day and you only have so many hands and there are only so many directions you can stretch in at once, even if you’re Elasta-Girl.

Sometimes you need to ask for help.

The most successful people are successful because they don’t try to do everything by themselves. They hire other people to do the stuff they aren’t good at or don’t have the time for or just can’t do. But so many of the smart, successful women I know insist on doing everything, driving themselves into the ground. When I ask them why they don’t reach out, they always say “I hate asking for help.”

The twist? These are usually the very same women who will bend over backward to help someone else in a pinch, who will take on extra kids and extra volunteer hours to help out another woman who can’t, who will stay up until midnight cooking enough spaghetti Bolognese for seventy-two Boy Scouts. (You know who you are…)

Here’s the thing: asking for help, far from being weak, should be a sign of strength. We all know what we’re capable of. Smart people recognize when and what and where their boundaries are and don’t try to do it all. CEOs are not writing checks and answering phones and setting up meetings for the designer who’s going to re-do the conference room. They pay other people to do that stuff. It’s all important stuff that needs to get done…but it doesn’t all have to get done by one person.

What women do, what mothers do, what stay at home partners do is important, but even when presented with the evidence of a hacked up lung, so many won’t ask for help.

Pro-tip: Ask for help when you need it. I’m not talking about asking an acquaintance to loan you fifteen thousand bucks. I’m talking about help here and there as you need it. A ride home, an unscheduled playdate, a sleep-over. And trust that if it’s too much, the other person will say no.

Pro-tip: If someone asks you for help and it’s going to throw not just a wrench, but the whole toolbox into your plans, say no. Help is a two-way street. The person asking must abide by the answer, and the person being asked, must manage their own answer.

I hate asking for help.

Nah, scratch that. I used to hate it, but you know what?  I have accepted I can’t do everything. Nor do I want to do everything. Like bike home in the Danish wind, which blows in every direction at once.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

 

 

The Perfect Kid

I don’t want to brag, but I have the perfect kid.

Well, I would if only I could take the best parts from both and ditch the rest. If I could take a little splice of that one and a little slice of the other and stitch them together with pink thread into some sort of Frankenstein creature type of thing, zap it all with Mom juice and presto change-o, perfect kid!

If only, if only, if only!

If only I could take the philosophical musings from one and pair them with the confidence of the other. If I could take the calm, slow to anger personality of that one and splice it with the self-awareness of the other one and bolt it all together at the neck….

I’d take a dash of the big one’s humor and tailor it with the younger one’s affinity for puns. I’d dig up the small one’s inner drive and pad through the dead of night to steal some chutzpah from my first-born. I’d secure a little motivation from here and a little natural charm from there. Grab my darning needle and voila!

Perfect child.

I’d take the genome that apparently dictates whether or not you remember to flush the toilet and mix it with the ability to make the bed without daily reminders. The bit that drives one to brush his teeth without threats glued to the other’s ability to remember which day of a nine-day cycle it is at the drop of a hat.

I’d lay out one’s happy go-lucky nature and combine it with the other one’s leadership qualities. One’s patience with the other’s determination.

Oh, what a kid I could make if I could pick all the best and get rid of the rest.

But of course, I can’t. And honestly, where would the fun in that be? And plus, who am I kidding. I don’t have a darning needle.

So I’ll keep harassing the thirteen year-old to brush his teeth because he also never gets angry and I’ll keep calmly explaining to the ten year-old why he can’t spend his life in disgusting pajamas because he also does his homework in Greek, just for the fun of it, and I’ll overlook the last-minuteness of the older one because he’s a stellar friend and pretend I don’t mind the way the younger one whines sometimes because his heart is so big.

No cut and paste stitch together, lightning bolt perfect kid over here.

I’ll take them just the way they are.

 

Mothers: We Get the Job Done

I remember making a quip a long time ago about sending a mother in to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

I was mostly joking.

Mostly.

There are times when I watch, in aghast amusement as football tournaments blunder along, as team travel plans are made at the last possible minute, ensuring confusion and delay, when I stand and bear witness as what should be an easy organizational exercise turns into the Olympics of incompetence.

Sometimes I’m with a group of women, mostly mothers, and we just kind of nod and chuckle. Inevitably someone will say, you know what this (fill in the blank) needs, don’t you? And someone else will say “A woman!” And we’ll laugh and laugh and laugh. Until they come over and ask one of us to help sort out the mess. Then it’s no fun anymore. None at all.

But seriously….why wouldn’t you want a mother in charge? I mean, mothers have got this shit down. I mean down. I suspect women in general do, but it’s hard for me to separate pre-mother me and post-mother me. It’s been a long time since I haven’t been expected to pull, with total recall at a moment’s notice, a schedule of who has which sport on what day and which socks they need. Plus where said socks were last spotted.

And it’s always there, that little list of who/what/where/when/how. Exactly when and where I need it. Because mothers? We get the job done.

Organizational skills? Please. On any given day a mother remembers exactly where her child/children need to be, how they’re going to get there, and who is going to take them home. What they need to eat before they get there, the equipment they need to take, and an extra snack for someone else’s child in case they forgot. I’ve seen mothers bandage a flesh wound, make plans for Halloween costumes, RSVP a birthday party and arrange a car pool. Simultaneously. A mother can carry on at least four different conversations at once, remembering exactly where she was at any given point. Total recall. But with Mom instead of Arnold. (This last Jedi mind trick drives my husband b-o-n-k-e-r-s, but it’s handy when you are doing twelve things at once. Which mothers usually are.)

Negotiating Experience? Pah. Mothers spend almost every waking moment in negotiations. We are experts–experts–in the bribe/distract/threat school of getting shit done. You don’t know what hard negotiations look like until you’ve negotiated yourself out of a hostage situation involving a hungry toddler draped over a kitchen chair whining about how he doesn’t like the same meal he had three helpings of two days before all while helping your older one with homework, listening to your spouse tell you he’s going to be late, speed dialing the sitter with an eye on the clock to get everyone bathed and in bed before the sitter comes so you can go to book club. (And let’s stop pretending. Let’s just call it Wine Club). You know that 10,000 hour to be an expert rule? Yeah, done. And dusted.

Fierce advocate? Check! Hell hath NO fury like a mother whose child has been unfairly targeted. (On a serious note, look how many successful activist and advocacy movements were started by mothers. Candy Lightner’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) four days later. Shannon Watts planted the seed for Moms Demand Action the day after Sandy Hook to address gun violence in the US. Autism Speaks was started by grandparents.) You do not screw with our children. You do not overlook them or sideline them or under any circumstances put them in danger. We will come for you. Hard.

I’ve said it before. If you ever need the impossible done? Talk to a mother who has lost or is in danger of losing something dear to her. And watch it happen. Mama magic isn’t just kisses and band aids.

Able to cope with stress? Check! Watch a mother whose alarm didn’t go off get a household of kids out of the house in under ten minutes on a school day. Pb&J sandwiches–boom, like a boss. Lunches, breakfast, find the football socks, the keys, the homework, stuff the backpacks, supervise brushing of teeth, combing of hair, on and on and on, kiss, see ya later, door slam.

The Art of the Deal? Puh-leeze. Any mother worth her salt knows how to make a deal. She knows threats don’t work for long. Compromise is the mainstay of motherhood. It’s your bread and butter. We’re good at it. Scratch that. We are great at it. You know why? Because it takes a mother about 15 seconds to realize living in an environment in which everyone gets a little bit of something they want/need is much more pleasant. A mother knows Jimmy doesn’t like rice, but Josie does. So she’ll make the rice for Josie but make sure dinner includes at least two other things that Jimmy does like. Every damn night. Times infinity. It’s not giving in. It’s not weakness. It’s listening and doing what you can to make sure everyone gets a piece of cake. Everyone in life–everyone, I don’t care if you are the President, or a toddler throwing a fit in the middle of IKEA, everyone wants to feel listened to.

Recently I went away for a week. I left food in the fridge, lunch cards stocked up with money. I made meatballs. I listed who needs to be where on what day, with what gear, with which food. I left numbers and prearranged pick ups and playdates. The list took up most of a kitchen cupboard. It was color coded and highlighted.

When I returned everyone, as I expected, was absolutely fine. My husband is an eminently capable adult who manages other adults through their crises for a living. As he stood in the kitchen upon my return he said, you know, I can maintain what you do. But I could never actually DO what you do.

As far as compliments go, it was a pretty dang good one.

So next time, before asking us to clean up the mess (we’re pretty good at that too), maybe ask a mother to take charge beforehand.

Because, mothers. We get the job done.