Feed on


So, this will probably sound a bit lame, but imagine our surprise and delight on arriving in Spain to discover that we had a Sky box that picked up all the UK TV channels.  Yeah, I know, it’s ridiculous.  It’s ridiculous to live in a culture as old and rich as Spain’s and spend your evenings watching the television stations of your native land, a land you haven’t even lived in for seven years.  But man, it was great.  It was great to watch in our own language and watch all the shows and in the pattern that we’d been used to from childhood.  So this is why we took it badly when all this recently came to an abrupt halt.

The launch of a new satellite means that Sky’s signals no longer beam down to Southern Spain as they have done for the last good many years.  Just our luck. After all these years, we arrive, and six months later the sun sets on the golden age of television for the Brits of the Costa.  There are options of course.  There are ways to watch television in our native tongue, but they all involve the internet, and they all involve intent and planning.  And that’s what makes me sad.

I know the way we, all of us the world over, watch TV is changing.  I know we do a lot more binge-watching, and on the whole I completely approve.  I think the TV revolution is a good thing – watching a series an episode (or generally several) a night for a week or two intensifies the experience, with the tension building episode on episode almost like an awesome twelve hour film.  But I will mourn for broadcast TV now it has become a thing of the past in my life, and I will also mourn for it when it becomes a thing of the past in the world at large.  And it’s the random discoveries that I’ll miss the most.

Here’s what I mean.  The kids’ dad and I take it in turns to get up on weekend mornings, and when it’s my turn, here’s how (up until recently) it used to go.  The kids would get fobbed off with the iPad for a while (they would play games and we would doze) but once they got too hungry I would make them their breakfast.  After that was when we would generally turn the TV on for a bit.  I would flick channels aimlessly, still half asleep, and when they saw something black and white they would tell me to stop, usually with the words: “Stop, stop, old movie, Mum, old movie!”  And apparently this is because, at some point not so long ago, I stopped on some such film, announcing a preference for old movies, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the results.  Just a few weekends ago, we enjoyed Enchanted April (1932).  The weekend before that it was Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) – which was probably not the most appropriate viewing for a four and five year old but they loved it and it certainly provoked some interesting discussion.

But now that it’s all about choosing something to watch on the computer of course I don’t put old 1930s movies on for them.  I put on Monster High or a Disney film, which is OK, but just think of all that classic James Cagney that we might have come across on that rainy morning instead.

One of my fondest childhood memories is watching the original Terminator film in bed with my mum and a box of chocolates late on a Friday night.  And I’m pretty sure this isn’t just the memory of one occasion but of a whole series of times when they showed that film on a Friday night, so that it kind of became a tradition of ours to spot it in the TV listings in the paper on the way home and stock up on chocolate and get ready to hide behind the duvet for the bit where the skeletal remains of the Terminator just keeps on coming.  I already know I’m going to miss those moments, memories and maybe even traditions that are created by being served up with something surprising.

Look I know it’s not cool to like TV, but I do.  In fact, I love it and I always have.  And it’s not popular to like showing it to kids but I do, and I defend my right and privilege to do so. The moving image has been around for more than a hundred years, and by now it is probably just as much a part of who we are as the written word, and I want my kids to know it and even love it like I do.  And while I approve of this brave new world in which we have any number of the TV shows we love at our fingertips, I will miss discovering new and unexpected things while channel hopping.

So we’re experimenting with Spanish TV these days.  So far the results have been a little mixed – a nature show that got heckled off screen, an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares dubbed into Spanish and a weird cartoon about animals who seem to have lost all their fur – but it’s OK, we’ll keep trying, because you never know what could come on next.

December Birthday Blues


Dearest C,

You can only imagine how delighted I was the day I found out I was pregnant with you, only to realise with dismay after an hour or so that you would be born right in the thick of the festive season.  It just seemed so unfair to me that you would celebrate your birthday and Christmas within a couple of weeks and then spend the rest of the year watching everybody else have parties and get presents while you had nothing to look forward to.  I also worried that you and your special day would get lost amongst it all.  Sure, it’s a nice time of year and there are twinkly lights and songs on every corner, but it always ends up so chaotic.  There’s just so much to do, with lots going on, all that shopping and endless lists of stuff to organise.  And somewhere in the middle of all this – there’s you, turning four.

This year, your birthday fell in the last week of term, just before family descended for the festivities, and through an unfortunate series of events it managed to surpass all predecessors in sheer craziness.  Your birthday was a shambles.  And all I can do is tell you how sorry I am that it turned out the way it did, but you just need to believe me when I tell you that it was meant to be the perfect birthday that you so completely deserve.  But it wasn´t, and it wasn´t my fault.  I blame it all on timing.  I blame it all on December.  And you´ll see that there really is no other explanation.  Here´s how it went down:

Friday Afternoon: Jail time at the Christmas Fair

Dad and I are working at the school’s Christmas fair (bottle raffle and food hall respectively) so you are bunged in a classroom with a teaching assistant for the duration.  We have five-minute visitations with you as we might have done had you been in prison, smuggling in provisions.  I even manage to facilitate a jail break at one point and convince one of your friend’s mums to take you to sit on Santa’s knee, eat some candyfloss and stand in an endless queue for the bouncy castle.  After that brush with freedom you are back in your cell, colouring in yuletide pictures while odd reindeer cartoons play on the whiteboard on an endless loop.  Finally, Dad and I are done humping tables up and down the stairs and we find you inside a pet carrier with the adopt-a-kittens.  And we have nearly done it, we’ve nearly escaped, when you tell me your tummy hurts, seconds before hurling bright pink candyfloss vomit all over the school corridor lino.

Friday Night:  Puke-o-Rama

No need for details beyond the fact that I spend the night holding you over a bucket every hour or so while you bring up everything that passes your lips, even water, and I feel sad.  I mean, of course I feel sad, watching your precious little body heaving away like that even when there is nothing left.  But on this occasion I feel most sad because the next day is your new best friend Sophia’s birthday party and I know how much you have been looking forward to going and it looks like that is now completely out of the question.

Saturday Morning:  Christmas Waits For No Man

Now, look, as I’ve already said, this is basically the week before Christmas and with family about to arrive and festivities soon to be underway, there just isn’t time for you to be ill.  So, armed with a bag to be sick in you are bundled off into the Christmas shopping crowds where we lose your sister on an escalator, lose you in the linens department (all because we’re trying to buy you a Barbie in secret), then shove you in the seat of a trolley and haul you round a supermarket.  Trembly, green and still unable to hold anything down, you gamely choose a gift for the birthday party you are so unlikely to make it to – not that you’ve accepted the fact yet.  I make a deal with you – if you can hold down a piece of toast and some water then I’ll let you go to the party for an hour or so.  Once we’re home you tackle your toast and, in typical fashion, in a triumph of mind over matter, it is the first thing that doesn’t come straight back up in almost twenty four hours and you are in your glad-rags and off to party in Puerto Banus.

Saturday Afternoon: (Almost) Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

And I think we both let ourselves believe it is all going to be OK, right up until the moment that we walk through the door of Jack’s on the marina and you chuck all over the floor, right in the middle of the busy lunchtime crowd.  I’m so mortified I hardly even hear your repeated assertions that you’re fine, you feel great etc as the waiters rush over with mops and buckets and tell us it’s OK and the party is upstairs.  So up we go, sheepish and vomit-splashed, to where the party is in full swing and as you trot off completely happy into the throng, I’m thanking my lucky stars that we managed to have our ugly scene downstairs well out of harm’s way, when the hosts of the party explain to me that the restaurant actually belongs to them.   In any case I try to relax while stealing looks at you jamming mini burgers, chips and nachos in your little mouth and trying not to imagine how they’ll look on their way back out.  And my God you pull it round – eating, playing, even getting picked by the mad Russian magician to be his assistant in doing a pretty impressive trick that involves setting fire to something in order to make a live goldfish appear.  Standing and watching while chatting with the other mums is pretty funny too – particularly when, within the space of five minutes, I am told by six separate mums how glad they are to meet me because apparently you are each of their daughters’ best friend.  But this is you.  You’re not as outgoing as your sister, you’re a slow burner, but once people fall under your spell, there’s not a lot they can do about it.

Saturday Night: Christmas Dos (and Don’ts)

Home, and after a sleepless night and crazy day, you and I are looking forward to our beds.  But they are to prove elusive.  Tonight is the school’s staff Christmas party, a pretty lavish affair happening at a hotel up the coast.  So for me, it’s a quick shower, cover-up on my eyebags, dress and heels, and for you it’s welcoming a colleague’s kids for a sleepover.  Your dad and I aren’t sure who wins out in this deal (I think it’s him) but either way I’m off up the coast in my LBD and he’s left attempting (and failing) to convince the four of you to watch The Polar Express.  You don’t last the course for long, and apparently pass out on the sofa half an hour after I go, leaving the other three to bounce off the walls and give Dad the run-around late into the night, while I eat turkey and am deafened by a club singer doing ‘Love Is in the Air’ and variations thereupon until 2am.

Sunday: Frozen in Fuengirola

Although it’s still a day away, this is the day we have decided to celebrate your birthday with you, so first thing in the morning we wheel in your brand new bike to much delight and take it down to the park.  You’re a bit tentative at first but it’s amazing how quickly you get the idea.  All this time I’m already feeling pretty nauseous but it’s far more reassuring to put it down to a mild hangover than to let myself consider the other possibility (horrible winter vomiting bug that eventually cuts a swathe through everyone we know).  Anyway we have tickets to the matinee, in English, of the big Christmas Disney movie, and you and your sister have been looking forward to seeing this celebration of sisterly love with all your hearts all advent (you have Frozen advent calendars).  So we head off to Fuengirola, a town we’ve never been to before, and follow a completely fictional map to an imaginary cinema before nearly running a few people over, feeling like we’re in a pinball machine of narrow Spanish streets and finally finding a local who can give us the right directions.  So it turns out, following a lot of sweat and stress and one-way systems, that the cinema is deep in the bowels of a gargantuan uber complex of a shopping centre where THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF SOUTHERN SPAIN is currently doing their Christmas shopping.  This combined with the fact that we got lost and are therefore a bit late, renders our lunch plans impossible.  So after agreeing to make do with popcorn we queue up (forever) to go into the cinema only to be turned away at the front because our tickets won’t scan.  I am then sent to the back of yet another of the longest queues in the world to wait for the problem to be solved while you head to the scruffy looking concession stand and I ponder a bit more on my queasy stomach and banging headache, while talking myself out of having a bit of a cry.  Anyway whatever, the film turns out to be good, and I seem to be able to ignore the clenching grip that is tightening in my stomach and it’s only once we’re back out in the foyer and your sister’s looking a little green around the gills and I’m feeling it that the wheels come off once and for all.  Picture this:  your sister and I jostling for space as we simultaneously hurl our popcorn down the cinema toilet, being steered by your dad through the endless surging crowds, gagging in the greasy cave of Burger King while begging for a paper bag to be sick in on the way, me bent double vomiting noisily in a busy car park while horrified shoppers look on aghast.  And it doesn’t get much better at home.  We can’t face dinner but we force ourselves to sit at the table so that we can do your cake and candles; regrettably we don’t even make it through the happy birthday song before your sister has to make a run to a bucket and so do I, leaving you alone with the abandoned camcorder, finishing off the song yourself and blowing your candles out against a background of puking noises.  Happy birthday.

And yeah, guess what, Monday, your real birthday, wasn’t much better.  We all went to work and school despite getting almost zero sleep, at a supermarket stop your dad’s laptop was stolen out of the car, and back at home we were greeted by a sea of sick-stained sheets, pyjamas, floors, buckets, you name it, which all had to be made presentable for the arrival of your grandfather and uncle the following morning.

Well, look, you get the picture.  Proof if ever you needed it that life doesn’t always work out the way it does in Disney movies.  You can plan the perfect birthday weekend and it can still descend into chaos, and vomit.  And believe me it was supposed to be perfect, because you deserve nothing less.  I want you to know how heartbroken I was that we weren’t able to show you how much we love you, because you are just such a joy to us every single day.

So,yeah, having your birthday at this time of year wasn’t part of the grand plan, but I guess if you hadn’t been born when you were you wouldn’t be you, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about you.  Look, I’ll level with you – the truth is I was never the biggest fan of Christmas; I’ve been accused of being a Scrooge on more than one occasion. As I’ve said it’s so busy, so commercialised, there’s so much pressure to have a good time, so much danger of the whole thing being an anti-climax and descending into disharmony.  But here’s the thing – all that changed on 16th December 2009, four years ago today, when I got the best Christmas present anyone ever had…and it was you.

Mi cielito lindo, I wish you the happiest of birthdays.

All my love, as always,






Take This Broken Wing

5th Birthday on the Beach

5th Birthday on the Beach

Dear N,

Another birthday, another letter, and yes you are still amazing, maybe even more so than you were last year, if that’s possible. You’re asleep as I write this and we’re in Spain, having moved here about seven weeks ago. I have no idea at this moment whether you will read this, aged twenty nine, and smile to think of us new and unsure in the country that became your home, or whether you will find it strange to think you once lived here in a place you have no memory of. All I can tell you is this last year was a big one for all of us, moving from somewhere we had lived for four years (almost all your life) and arriving here to start all over again. And I can’t even tell you my darling, how wonderfully well you’ve taken having the rug pulled out from under you like that – how you’ve never complained and never stopped smiling and have gone rushing into school and everything that’s new with all your usual enthusiasm.

But I can’t talk about this year without acknowledging one major milestone you reached. It was probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you, and also one that should never have happened at all.

It starts like this: April 27th 2013. Our leaving party. I’m laughing, in the middle of a conversation when I see a friend, stricken, running towards me with you in her arms and I know instantly that a Very Bad Thing is in the offing. I know even before I see that most precious of arms completely, visibly, snapped in two, that the going has gotten tough and it is time for the tough to get going.

Back into town towards the Hospital De Ninos is probably a journey of about twenty minutes, but on this day it takes twenty years, and every moment of the way you, who are still yet to cry, repeat your steady yelped mantra: Ow…ow…ow…ow…ow…. You are so brave, so stoical and yet so obviously in agony that it’s all I can do to stop myself from crying. But I know it isn’t an option – I know that watching me break down in tears would serve nothing but to make your terror complete.

Cut to this: me and you on a wooden bench waiting for the X-ray, and you have entered a Zen state. No more yelling, still no tears. Instead you are quiet, utterly still, blinking slowly and gazing at me with soulful eyes, and we are cradling the arm gingerly between our bodies, guarding it.

“I promise you it’s going to start getting better now,” I tell you. “The worst part is over.”

But I am wrong.

You are brave against all odds while they sandwich your arm between two battered bits of wood for an x-ray while I stand four feet away in an iron apron as if abandoning you to the radiation. Outside, waiting for the result to develop, you even manage to fall asleep. Your system, overwhelmed, simply shuts down. And all this while I am holding in my arms the most precious perfect thing that has ever been mine, and it is broken.

But it is back in the osteopathy department that things really start to get interesting, and by interesting I mean excruciating. The bones, you see, have not just snapped but have then proceeded to slide back over each other. This means that someone is going to have to pull them back into place. Fine, seems straight forward enough, until I learn that all of this will happen with NO pain relief and I am expected to pin you down while they do it.

In the end, though, you don’t need to be pinned down. That’s so not your style anyway. All you need is to have it explained to you that this has to happen, that this is it, this is the real worst moment of the whole thing and after this, I PROMISE, things will start getting better. And so with eyes as wide as oceans and a deep swallowing breath, you ride a tidal wave of agony while doctors twist and manipulate and pummel at that little arm, and set up your steady mantra of ows while staying completely calm, until it is done.

I’ll gloss over the next four weeks, because it would probably just be extremely boring to read my repeated testimonies to your resilience – the way you had to shower with a plastic bag over your cast every night, the way the cast weighed almost as much as the rest of your body put together, the way you never complained, never let it hold you back from doing everything you do, the way you learnt to write and draw and eat with your left hand like it was the most natural thing in the world, the way you never, not once, said it was itchy.

Instead I’ll cut to May 27th, exactly a month after the Very Bad Thing, and exactly a month before we leave Costa Rica for good. This is the day we go to the hospital to get the cast taken off, and I go into it bouncing with enthusiasm and an air of celebration. We get a taxi into town, you and I, giddy like it was Christmas Eve. But what happens is NOTHING like Christmas Eve.

I should add here that I feel so blessed that we had the Hospital de Ninos, the biggest and best childrens’ hospital in Central America, right there on our doorstep and I cannot fault the service we had and the staff we met. The guy who takes the cast off is a perfect example – he does his level best to prevent the terror from seeping into your heart the way it does (showing you the little circular saw he is about to employ and reassuring you that it won’t hurt) but seemingly it is inevitable.

“Are you scared?” I ask you, disorientated, so rarely have I seen fear etched on your face.

You shake your head, an adamant no, but then proceed to quake so hard I can almost hear your bones rattling. But after a bit of high-pitched whirring the cutting is done, and the guy is parting the halves of the cast like someone shucking a corn on the cob, and there is the arm.

It’s your arm alright, but not as we knew it. It’s shriveled and noodle-like and grey; it’s tiny, and it even emits an odd, slightly cheesy odor. And God only knows what it feels like, but I assume it doesn’t feel great since you take one horrified look before cradling it in against your chest and bursting into tears, refusing to let anybody look at (let alone touch) it just as if it was broken all over again.

Maybe it seems odd that getting the cast taken off was more traumatic than having it put on, but there it is; and though I was surprised at first, on reflection it seemed perfectly natural to me. You’re your mother’s daughter and I would have reacted exactly the same way (in fact I did, not so long ago). Just like me, you are fearless at the business end of illness: blood and guts – no problem, excruciating pain – we laugh in the face of it. It’s the atrophy that scares us, the alarming swiftness with which your body starts to fail you, to decay. It’s far too visceral, this ugly reminder of our own mortality, far more horrifying than the fresh brutality of blood and pain, which after all mostly show us just how alive we really are.

I carry you to x-ray just like I did a month previously, but this time you weep sadly against my chest. While we’re waiting we start to integrate the alien arm back into our lives. I convince you to let me touch it and it is cool, lizard-like, utterly limp. I pass my thumb back and forth across it as wads of brown dead skin ball up and drop away; you are actually quite amused and join in until I get a bit too carried away and blood starts to bubble up through the fresh pores.

X-ray done, we wait outside the doctor’s office for a while, mostly because, as is typical with the Costa Rican health service, about thirty other people have the exact same appointment time as us. I’m annoyed about it until I realize the transformation that’s coming over you as you watch all the other kids that are lined up along the wooden benches. Many of them have casts on their arm or leg, or are cradling a little shriveled limb just like you and they are, to a man, saucer-eyed and ashen faced, just like you. But it is the boy on a gurney who really catches your eye, poor little thing that he is, plastered from toe to hip and staring down the barrel of months on crutches.

“I’m so lucky it wasn’t my leg, Mummy,” you whisper, color returning to your lovely cheeks. “That would have been awful.” And I kiss you and we hold hands, and we both begin to feel a hint of Christmas Eve again, because it could have been so much worse, and it wasn’t.

We get the all-clear. The doctor seems slightly bemused by how well your rubbery little arm has knitted itself back together in four short weeks (during which you persisted to bash it about so much the plaster had developed several cracks) and we are assured that the arm will be good as new in a matter of days.

As if you had simply been waiting for this confirmation you start to tentatively use it on the way out of the hospital, and in the shower that night, we slough away at it until its sad unshed layer of skin is gone and there is a brand new arm, pristine and freshly pressed and beautiful as ever, and it is like it none of it ever happened.

And here you are aged five with a great story that you love to tell and an arm that functions perfectly and it is all behind us. And yet inside, deep down, there is a scar, a memory written in your bones. Some doctors say an arm that has been broken and has healed is stronger than it was before. I can see how this could be true. The things we go through have a habit of doing that don’t they – of making us more resilient than we were. You will learn that soon enough, if you haven’t already.

All I know (and this might sound strange) is I feel lucky every day that you broke your arm. A broken limb is right up there in the top ten of best case scenarios when it comes to problems with your health. Sure it hurts like hell…but it heals, it is completely fixable. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am not going to get to the end of my days without seeing you ill or in pain. I just hope that every time I have to do that I get to see you perfect again the way I did this time, fixed and healed and stronger than you were before. And the good thing is that now I know just how tough you really are. My darling girl, it is quite clear that nothing is ever going to stop you.

Happy fifth birthday.

All my love, as always,




The Odyssey

Dear Costa Rica,

I wasn’t nervous at all when we left England for lands unknown in Africa. I suppose that seems really weird. But back then I was twenty-nine, just married, looking for new adventures and just so ready to take the world on.

Things changed once I became a mother, and this was the reason why when it came to leaving Africa to come here to you, I was only ever totally focused on finding a safer place for my family. I was ready to leave behind the difficulties of living there, the omnipresent threat of malaria (and the memories of having had it), and the sacrifice of losing the friends and the home that I had made there seemed one worth making.

Nothing could have prepared me for the happiness I found in you, our next home, for how perfect you were, for how eerily well things clicked into place, so much so that sometimes I wondered if you were just a dream. So much so that I named my second child for the heavenly peace I had found in you. And this is why now, on the verge of leaving you behind, I know that this move isn’t going to be like the others. This time it’s going to be really, really hard.

Don’t get me wrong, this time as before, I know this is the right move for my family. We’re heading for Spain which, on paper anyway, couldn’t be a more perfect destination. It’s warm and sunny, quality of life is high, we already speak the language, we have jobs and free school places and (here’s the kicker) we’ll be just a short, cheap flight from the friends and family we’ve neglected for six years. And I do firmly believe that we’ll be happy there. None of this is in doubt. It’s simply that I have fallen deeply and irrevocably under your spell. Under the spell of my laid-back life here, under the spell of my network of wonderful friends, under the spell of your staggering natural beauty, under the spell of your sweet, reserved people.

When visitors first come to you, I don’t know, but I think maybe all they see is potholes, big iron gates and barbed wire. Your capital certainly doesn’t have the kerb appeal of some. I guess you have to live here to really know your heart. To know the way the weather is so often just that perfect sunny, breezy summers day; to know the way the mountains can suddenly loom out of passing cloud; to know the way the chattering parrots at sunset can lift the spirits on a simple walk to the corner shop; to know the way it simultaneously drives you mad and soothes your soul that strangers in the street tell you how to manage your children.

We found a home in you. We love our cool, light-filled little house and its sweet quiet neighbours that bring the girls presents when they return from travels. We love driving to the beach on a Saturday to soak away the cares of the week in the blood-warm pacific. We love your hearty breakfasts. We love that you’ve led us to some true and lifelong friends. We love that you gave us the time and space to really know our children while they still want to be with us.

And now we have to throw it all up in the air and start again. Again. And to be honest sometimes I don’t know if I can do it. When I first found out about Spain I was over the moon – I had a great new job, my parents were thrilled by our upcoming proximity and we were being given free education for the kids. Plus we would be back in Europe – the land of culture and old buildings and cheese and camping and cycle paths and lots of other (on reflection pretty silly) little things that you have never been able to offer us. But since the first flush of joy subsided I’ve realized I’m struggling with this. I’m finding the thought of leaving you really tough. We’ve still got almost three months together and already I’m losing sleep, already I’m worrying, already I’m missing you.

There’s been times over the last four years when I’ve wondered if you would be our forever home – the unexpected, inconvenient, wonderful place that we ended up staying in for good. Life is like that – always full of surprises and paths that take you in different directions – you taught me that. And I think we could have been happy together, you and I; I think we could have made a beautiful life. But then Spain came along and was just too good to ignore. I’m sorry I let another place turn my head when what you and I had was so special. And I may well live to regret it, but I guess that’s just a risk I’m going to have to take.

You gave me so much, so many precious gifts, but none so precious as the one which you may one day claim back. My Cielo is your national through and through and always will be, and I know that you will call her home one day, even if just for a short time. I allow myself little daydreams of her spending a summer here, falling in love with you just the way I did, maybe even staying long enough to mean that I visit her, that I get to come back to you.

And so here we are getting ready to say our goodbyes. And when the dreaded day comes when I must leave I will be strong, I will be brave and I will try not to cry. And as my feet leave your ground just know that I love you, that I always will, that I never loved anywhere the way I love you and I doubt I ever will. Just know that you healed me, that you made me feel safe, that you made me believe that anything was possible, and that no matter where I go or what I do, a part of my heart will always be here, with you.

For everything you gave me, mi pais, muchisima gracias. And I hope that this won’t be adios, but merely hasta luego. Let’s make sure these last months are just as memorable and joyful and perfect as all of those that have gone before.

With all my love


Bajo Este Cielo

Dearest C,

As I did with your sister I am starting an annual tradition of writing you a letter on your birthday, starting with this, your third. And you know what? I hardly know what to say. I could write a book about you, about how much I love you, about all the things you are, so how can I possibly hope to distill it down into only a few pages? But for you, I’ll try. For you, I’ll try anything.

You were born three years ago today, on a typically beautiful mid-December afternoon – breezes off the hills, nicely warm temperatures, blue blue skies that were crystal clear to all horizons. Small wonder then that we named you for this Costa Rican sky, under which we have found such a deep and satisfying contentment. Cielo, a word that means sky but also has other meanings – Heaven, angel, darling – and oh, how very aptly you would turn out to be named.

It’s a funny thing having a second child. I had a one year old when you were born so I haven’t always had much time to enjoy you – in fact you spent a good part of your first year sitting in your bouncer chair in a mostly observational capacity while I ran around after a busy toddler. But just the fact that I was already comfortable in my skin as a mother meant that I didn’t waste as much time worrying as I had the first time. So when I did have a moment for you it was almost always a happy one, a snatched minute of pure unadulterated joy, during which I could get drunk with love on the smell of you or the feel of your little arm curled around mine.

At first we had no idea that you were blond, or that you would have the same chocolate-brown eyes as your sister. You were born completely hairless, blue-eyed, and though your eyes changed quickly we didn’t see that beautiful bombshell-blond hair until you were more than six months old. This was around the same time we heard that infectious giggle of yours too – the one that elicits a reciprocal laugh out of everyone who hears it.

Even from the start you had the most expressive, mobile little face. You never need to tell us what you’re feeling because we already know – it’s right there in that gorgeous pout, those drawn together eyebrows or that light-the-room-up smile. Even before you could talk you had us all wrapped around your little finger. No wonder men already fall in love with you. Despite being the quieter sister you still charm the socks off nearly everyone you meet and I have watched people fall irrevocably under your spell. In Tortugero you bewitched our tour guide – who even told me he planned to come to England in eighteen years to find you… bit sinister really, let’s just hope he isn’t a man of his word.

One of the things he found most adorable about you was the fact that you are, at heart, a true Tica. Being born here you automatically qualified as a Costa Rican national (earning us permanent residency as your family into the bargain) but it would appear that there is more to this than simple paperwork. Somehow being born under these peaceful skies ensures a nationalism that is bone-deep, soul-deep… certainly, in your case, stomach deep. You are a fantastic eater, you love your food, but nothing more than the classic dishes of your nation – Gallo Pinto, Tres Leches, Cas juice – these are you staples, these are always your first choice in any given situation. What’s more, you even sleep patriotically – taking up the position of that most emblematic of local animals, the tree frog. You grab your pillow into your chest and draw your knees up on either side of it, and there we find you when we come to check on you each night, just as if we had turned over a big banana leaf and discovered you there.

How appropriate then that your first best friend should be a fellow English-speaking Tico, born just six days before you and a main character in your everyday life ever since. Your friend Ian has been at your side from day one, but there was no reason to assume that you would actually get along the way you do. But, almost as if he was the brother or cousin you have never yet had, you and he are the perfect little pair, comfortable undemanding companions, an invaluable source of support, and I don’t recall that I have ever seen you fight or disagree. How wonderful it was that you started school together, hand-in-hand on the first day in this new stage of life so that you instantly earned the reputation of being best friends and have done nothing but reinforce it ever since.

I think one of the things people find so irresistible about you is your vulnerability – that sweet little worried frown you have above your smattering of freckles, your little bell-like voice, porcelain skin, the way your lips turn blue when you are even slightly cold – no-one can resist coming to your rescue. But heaven help anyone that should under-estimate you, because beneath this exterior lies an inner-strength forty times that of anyone else you know. In truth you are tough, you are absolutely confident, you know exactly what you want and, crucially, how to get it. As your grandmother put it, you are a force of nature – you are as strong and utterly unstoppable as an ocean. Up until just lately we never saw any evidence of ‘terrible twos’ in you – you were always able to get what you want without resorting to these kinds of tactics. But as you have become more vocal, grown up a little, and the things you want have become a little more difficult to get, you have employed some of the more classic tactics of your peers and have experimented with the tantrum. And my oh my, what an expert in them you are. You could teach a class. Yours, though less frequent than those of most people your age, are more like seismic events in size and scale, and have you absolutely incandescent with rage. But hey, Dad and I have been here before, and we know it doesn’t last. We just need to batten down the hatches and wait for Hurricane Cielo to pass.

And you have another little secret – you are fiercely intelligent. All we need to do is see you complete a jigsaw puzzle in record time (studying each piece before slotting it into the correct location) to see that you are an engineer, a scientist or an academic in the making. You might disagree with this however, since your current ambition is to become a princess (Cinderella to be more exact). Knowing you, you’ll probably somehow manage to be both.

Considering how precious you are to us, I find it bizarre that we’ve managed to lose you twice. Once in the market – we got distracted buying green coconut drinks and before we realized what we’d done you were gone. I don’t think you were gone more than fifteen or twenty seconds but for me it was an eternity. All there was in this world was my inability to breathe; I couldn’t see, couldn’t think, until you were back in my arms. The second time was at the children’s race – you ran the race, got to the finish and there was such a scrum of parents that I couldn’t get to you. I swear I tried to rip the world limb from limb to find you, while everyone stared at the crazy woman screaming in English and flailing through the crowd, fighting tears. This time it may have been as long as two minutes or so, during which I aged fifty years. And then you were there, fished out of the pack by your dad and it transpired that you were being looked after by a kind stranger (that irresistible vulnerability of yours) and not trampled underfoot, which had been among my worst imaginings. On these occasions one of my other worst case scenarios is generally that you’ve been taken by someone. I know fine well you are a prize worth risking it all for so why wouldn’t other people think that too?

I know some day someone really will come along and take you from me. I know I won’t always be number one in your heart the way I am, unabashedly, now. At this point in your life, given the choice you will always choose me. You want me to hold you, me to help you get dressed, me to strap you into the car. And though it drives me nuts sometimes, it also makes me proud to be chosen by you. And when whoever it is that usurps me in your heart comes along, all I know is they had better deserve it – because it is the greatest honour in the world and I will have loved every single second that it was mine.

All my love, as always,


How To Be a Good Loser

Loss. An interesting concept, and not one that makes much sense sometimes, especially if you’re aged four and nearly three. It’s only recently crept into our life, in a couple of the multiple forms it can take. And it all happened at once, all over the course of one seemingly interminable weekend in October, centering around South Wales as if some kind of mystical portal had opened up there, destabilizing the status quo and leaving everything irreparably changed.

First, we lost a family of dear friends, but thankfully only in as much as they moved away to pastures new. We have seen our friends and near-neighbours the Ropartz family every few days since they arrived here at the beginning of 2011, so it was with some shock that we received the news that they would be pursuing new challenges in the UK. And within six short weeks there was a Se Alquila sign up on their garage door, and they were gone.

Now, look, this is what it is to be an expat. This is what happens constantly. You meet someone, you connect, you become friends, you live your lives as part of a close-knit community, allowing some part of you to believe that things are always going to be the same. Except they’re not. Because one of these days you are most probably all going to move on, move to separate corners of the globe and sure, in some way you’ll still be friends, you’ll still know about each other’s lives, but not as a participant. You’ll go from being friends who appear in each other’s photographs to friends who comment on each other’s photographs on facebook. And that’s just not the same.

This is certainly a major drawback of being an expat. The people you have come to care about are always subtly threatening you with desertion. I wouldn’t know, but I guess people who live in their own country don’t have as many conversations about the future as we all seem to. Well, even if they do I guess these discussions don’t involve as many possible international moves. It seems that life once you’ve left where you started out is always in a state of flux.

However there are benefits to this mad way of life. I had great friends in London and then I left them all behind. I had great friends in the North East and then I left them all behind. I had great friends in Africa and then I left them all behind. Except I didn’t, not really. My true friends are still my friends and always will be. Always. And the day you turn around and realize the distance doesn’t really matter is the day you realize your friendship was built to last. And what about those friends who don’t stay the course? Well, I’m still glad I met them. I’m grateful for everyone I’ve known along the way and there have been so many of them, so many more and of a greater variety than if I had stayed put. What would I know about life in Wisconsin/Canada/Peru/Uruguay/China/Japan/France/the Congo/Germany if I hadn’t known the people I’ve known and learned about their lives? And in any case it’s a constant turnover. We’re in our sixth year abroad now so we’ve seen people come and go, and just about the time you are due to lose someone you find that someone else appears to fill their void.

The lucky thing about the Ropartz family’s relocation was that it took them to one of the rare spots on the globe that our paths will inevitably cross – South Wales, just a short distance in fact from H’s parents’ house. Almost like fate. And in a perfect illustration of yin and yang, of cosmic balance, on the same weekend South Wales gained, it suffered loss as well.

H’s dearest Aunty Mag died suddenly from a brain aneurysm at the age of just sixty-four. Having had her here for a visit just this past February and seen her also in July, we were knocked for six. On reflection, once the initial shock had passed, we began to realize how fortunate we had been to have that wonderful time in February to spend with her. We had this absolutely idyllic trip – a perfect rental house down on the rugged Southern Pacific coast, evenings spent soaking in the infinity pool while watching the sun slip into the sea, dolphins chasing our boat, turtles grazing on coral beneath the waves, fabulous food. But more than that – wonderful conversation, a truly happy feeling of family togetherness and contentment, boundless generosity, rounds and rounds of eggy bread for breakfast in the garden, seemingly endless patience and time for the kids. It was a really lovely visit, and a wonderful opportunity to get to know her (and Uncle Ken) better.

I came to admire her deeply. She always seemed so absolutely centered to me, so grounded, so utterly sure of things and yet entirely open to other possibilities and views. I loved that. And I loved that she still laughed at her husband’s jokes, loved how much they still seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even after all those many years together. You can’t help but be inspired by that.

What a shock it was for the whole of this loving family, for whom this strong, sweet soul had been a touchstone. As the only one of six siblings still living very close to the house where they grew up, it now seems she was something of an anchor for a family that is expanding and moving away from roots that go back centuries, spreading its many branches far and wide like a great Oak tree. In this way, Aunty Mag represented the absolute polar opposite of the kind of life I currently lead. Where I am floating and drifting from community to community all across the world, she was an integral member of her own local network, a member of the church, a familiar face, friend, family member, a constant in the place and the people she had always known and loved. Which isn’t to say she wasn’t adventurous – she had travelled around the globe and flown across the Atlantic countless times. But all her journeys always led her home, to the one home she had always known. And, you know, I really got the sense that she was a completely happy and contented person. Maybe that’s the key to it – to real lasting happiness – or one of them anyway.

So how did our girls absorb these losses? The first, the relocating Ropartzes, was accepted completely. Of course. Of course people live in countries on the other side of the world. That’s what people do in their world. That doesn’t mean they’re gone – it just means they move into the computer screen and wave at you from in there. And then they appear about once or twice a year for a few days before disappearing again. This is the funny life that is the only one our little girls know.

But how to explain the loss of Aunty Mag… how to approach this most difficult of subjects for the very first time. We started with blunt facts, and I guess fairly naturally this led Nyika to develop a bit of an obsession with death for a few days: Ted had died, Dolly had died, why wasn’t her teacher in school today? She’d died. I think experimenting with the concept like that is all part of starting to accept it. But as for really understanding it? Well, it’s only once you start trying to explain it that you realize how little sense it makes. She was here and she was alive and she was all the things she was to so many people, and now she’s gone. Just like I will be one day. Just like you will be. Why? Because that’s just what happens to humans, we aren’t made to last forever, we get tired and worn out or broken, and then our story ends.

Then our story ends. But that’s just it. It doesn’t really, does it? There’s more to it than that. There’s all the things we leave behind, the new people we brought into the world, the things we taught them, the way we touched their lives, the way their smile plays in the eyes the exact same way ours did. There’s our legacy, whatever it may be. I was thinking this as I was putting the hand-knitted dolls Aunty Mag made for the girls away in the cupboard. H and I had decided we wanted to keep them safe, stop them from getting damaged or worn out, preserve them for the years to come. Only the girls wouldn’t let us. They wanted them out of the cupboard, on their beds, at their tea parties, in their play buggies, out in the garden playing picnic. Which is exactly what Aunty Mag would have wanted of course, and also just goes to show that the kids are probably actually way ahead of us in understanding how this whole thing works.

So the dolls are out of the cupboard, living on with us, just like everything Aunty Mag taught us and everything she was and everything we loved about her, built into the mosaic of our story and the one that comes next. Which is something we can always keep, whatever else we may lose along the way.

The Clouds Are So Clever

Dearest N,

As is now becoming traditional I am writing you a letter on your birthday. I want you to know in the years ahead what a joy it was to be around you at these precious ages, while I still know everything about your life. It won’t last forever, so it seems all the more important to remember all the things that will inevitably get lost with the passage of time.

This year we celebrated your birthday at the beach. We have no idea how many times in your life you will get to enjoy your mid-October birthday this way, so we figured we should make the most of it while we can. So we transported you and all your friends down to the aptly named Playa Hermosa where we celebrated your birthday and your friend Antonin’s with a gorgeous poolside party in a little rancho. We ate barbecue, we had a fabulous Black Forest cake, we smacked around an Elmo piñata, and you barely left the pool from dawn until dusk (at which point you had to be forcibly removed and put to bed). At this point you are swimming just like a little fish, your lovely lean body slipping through the water like a torpedo, and the only part of it you haven’t quite mastered is the bit where you come up to take a breath. I think you really should have come equipped with gills, but seeing as you didn’t, watching over you in a pool can be a nerve-fraying experience. The only person who is never frightened is determined, fiercely focused and fearless little you, and you are so so close to being an excellent swimmer, just like your dad. Anyway we had a wonderful weekend, despite the strong earthquake that greeted us on arrival, that rattled our house on stilts in a sickening dance. At this particular moment in our lives we are blessed with an incredible group of friends, and it was just perfect to celebrate with them all and you had an absolute ball.

So what are you like in general at age 4? I hardly know where to begin. As you already were at 3 you are still acutely intelligent, astonishingly perceptive, wonderfully sociable, full of joy, curious and interested in everything. You are also still breathtakingly beautiful, deeply loving, loyal and devoted to your family. You are funny too, you say so many priceless things each day that Dad and I have a session each evening where we make each other laugh with the latest of your wonderful observations. The adults who count themselves among your friends also love hearing your take on things. Walking to ballet the other day with a good friend you pointed out that the blue of the sky was in the shape of a horse. “The clouds are so clever,” you marvelled.

But if this makes you sound like an extrovert, there is far more to you than that. At times, you are incredibly quiet and thoughtful. You have an amazing ability to concentrate – you are a real film buff and you will happily watch an entire movie and, if you’ve really enjoyed it, ask to watch it again. You also adore drawing and colouring, and this is another activity which you will lose yourself in for hours at a time. You are a deep thinker and you pick up on things that kids far older than you would miss. Just last night I read you a story, and it took you less than a half second to realize that there was a moral to this tale, and it was that it was good to share with your friends. Earlier in the day I had watched a teacher tease this conclusion out of an entire class of six year olds over the course of five or six minutes. But then, this shouldn’t surprise me. On the whole, sharing is something you do naturally; which is probably why you are an effortlessly popular playmate and friend.

You still adore your little sister, and the feeling is definitely mutual. You have several times announced your intention to get married, even exchanging rings and practising your first dance, at the end of which you always kiss and have a long-sustained cuddle. It’s only since your Dad pointed out that, since being sisters already guarantees you the ability to be best friends forever, marriage is unnecessary that you have actually given up on the idea. It’s no wonder it occurred to you though. I can’t imagine two people more compatible – you love the same things, but at the same time your differences and strengths complement each other perfectly. Of course you also have your disagreements and stand-offs, but then what married couple doesn’t? You also have quite a fondness for baiting her. At two and a half she is tantalizingly easy to wind up and you never miss your chance. But you also understand how it feels to be this age, after all it wasn’t so long ago, and sometimes if she is really melting down about something, you’ll concede even if there’s no reason why you should. Take your princess spoon – it’s yours, it’s always been yours, and yet sometimes C gets it into her head that it’s hers. You’ll stand your ground a little bit, but when you see her heading into a rage spiral, you’ll just hand it over. You even donated several of your birthday presents to her this year, and you made it look effortless. This is the kind of heroism no-one would expect from a four year old, but you do it regularly, and Dad and I are eternally grateful.

This speaks volumes for your absolute dedication to your sister, and to family harmony in general. If you feel that Dad and I aren’t being nice to each other, you’ll come in and tick us off, and you won’t leave until you’ve raised smiles or even supervised the hug and kiss that you’ve insisted on. You believe in being loving and demonstrative at all times, and you even manage this via Skype, on which you’ve been known to tell people they look beautiful, announce how much you love them and even blow kisses.

You are so appreciative of the good things in life – you often tell us how happy you are, how much you love a present we got you or a day out we had, all completely unprovoked, and it makes our day, it really does. This is why it was hard for us when we realized we’d missed the mark on your birthday. You told us you wanted a play kitchen several times but we didn’t get it for you, thinking you wouldn’t notice. You did though, and it was written all over your face. I guess we must have looked a little crestfallen when we realized what we’d done though, because that evening you took Dad’s hand and said: “I love all the presents you got me, Daddy, really I do.” Because this is the other thing about you – you are strong and you always look on the bright side, and nothing makes you happier than knowing the people around you are happy too. (And incidentally, you’re getting the kitchen for Christmas!)

On your third birthday I wrote about how we were struggling with your tantrums and how I hoped that they would soon pass and wouldn’t you know it – without my even noticing, they have. I won’t swear that it never happens, but you have found different ways to make your frustrations known. You are so articulate these days (in two languages) that you don’t need to resort to these kinds of methods anymore, and this has had a huge effect on family life in general. Even when I went back to work and wondered whether you would struggle to adjust to spending all day every day at kinder, you remained your calm, practical self and supported your sister through a period of transition without a single issue. I can’t even tell you how much I admire your courage and independence, and how much I miss your company now I have the pleasure of it so much less.

So this is four year old you – brave, intelligent, perceptive, charming you – you with that irresistible twinkle in your eye, you who tell me I smell of flowers because you know it makes me smile, you who so carefully brush your teeth twice every day, you who are so long and skinny that no pair of trousers in the world will fit you, you the wonderful actress, you with bruised legs beneath the hem of your favourite fairy dress because you are the perfect combination of princess and tomboy, you who loves your ballet lessons, you with the dirty laugh, you whose favourite film is Kung Fu Panda, you who thinks earthquakes are funny, you whose hair I must smell every night before I go to bed, you who are unequivocally the best thing that ever happened to me by a country mile.

My precious girl, you are my reason, my hero, my inspiration – and even now you can count so very well you will never be able to count the ways in which I love you.

All my love


Back to the Future

Time travel hasn’t been invented yet.  Just think of all the interesting opportunities that will open up once it has.  We’ll be able to travel back into eras past and find out what they were really like.  We’ll be able to see dinosaurs.  We could head into the future and ride around on a hoverboard like Michael J. Fox.  We could even travel and see ourselves in the future, or back in our own past.  What would you say to yourself if you could do that?  Don’t make this or that horrible decision?  But perhaps using time travel to effect changes in our own lives would be too risky; after all, we have no way of knowing which tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions have led us to be in the right place at the right time.  Maybe all we could safely do is give our former selves a little heads-up, to make them more aware of the things that are ahead.

As an example, I know what I would like to do.  I would like to travel back to just before I became a mother for the first time.  I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I could have been more prepared for the atom bomb of change that detonated the day I entered parenthood.  I would set the clock to August 2008, and the map to the Northern Tanzanian coast, a campsite aptly named Peponi (Heaven in Swahili).  After running through the swirling black and white time spiral like someone in a 1960s TV show, I would fall face first in powdery white sand.  Blinking and looking around I would spot myself, a little way up the beach, reading serenely in a roughly hewn wooden lounger, glancing up at sun dancing on water, hand rested absently on my rounded baby belly.

“You realise this is going to be the last time you read quietly on the beach for at least four years,” would be my opening shot to myself, and once we get past all the bewilderment etc, I will tell a younger, browner, far less tired me just a couple of the things she needs to know.

“It isn’t going to be easy,”  I’ll say.  “But labour and childbirth aren’t the kind of thing you can tell someone about.  They must be experienced to be in any way understood.  A lot of motherhood is like that; and you’ll sometimes wonder why no-one warned you about how hard it can be.  But after a while you’ll find yourself doing the same thing to women about to enter the fray; you’ll realise there’s no point in telling them anything beyond generalisations and platitudes.  She will experience it in her own way, as will you, and no amount of warnings would ever put someone off trying it out for themselves if that’s what they’ve decided they want to do.

“For years, you will work harder and be busier than you have ever been.  At times there will be no rest.  You will find it impossible to remember what you did with your time before you had kids, and you will not be able to imagine what your childless friends spend their hours on.  You will need your husband to be your teammate, and he will be, and you will notice that the work doubles when he is not around, but you will still have to remind yourself to be grateful for him and remember that not everyone is as lucky.

“Though the whole idea of a ‘mothers group’ makes you cringe now (conjuring images of doilies and inane chit-chat), you will quickly become someone that belongs to them and even helps establish them.  You will realise they have a value beyond words.  You will be touched by the deep, gently unity between these women.  Your fellow mums will move you with their honesty, and with their strength.  It will surprise you how much it soothes you even in your darkest moments to know that you are not the only one who feels this way, who makes these mistakes.

“You will spend part of every day bored, part of it frustrated, part of it drained.  You will battle, threaten and bribe; you will be filthy, smeared and puked on; you will sweat, heave and drag; you will be frazzled, grumpy and forgetful.  But you will also laugh, you will also be amazed.  You will sing, dance and tell stories; you will walk, talk and wonder; you will see the world the way your children do, and it will never be the same again.

“Then the day will come when you leave your children and go back to work.    Using your brain this way again will be a challenge, but one that you will relish.  In many ways, being back at work is the most rest you’ve had in years.  And yet you will miss your children keenly.  You will find yourself running through the streets on your way to pick them up at the end of each day, kissing their little faces greedily when you get to them like someone given a drink at the end of a trek across desert.  They have been your constant companions for these last few years and you hardly know how to get through a day without them in it.  They, on the other hand, will move effortlessly into the groove of spending seven hours a day doing their own thing, just as if they were born to do it.  Because, of course, they were.

“So anyway, why am I here?  What did I come to say?  I’m not sure really, except that I wouldn’t tell you to turn back now even if you could.  I suppose I just came to say: savour it, enjoy it, even on the days when you can’t.  Because it all goes by so quick.  Life begins to move at some kind of warp-speed, rushing past your ears in streaks of light.  One day you’re wishing they would get a little older so they can hold their head up/sleep longer/walk/talk, and the next you turn around and they’re in their school uniforms, shrugging off your kisses, so busy playing with their friends that they forget to say goodbye.  This is when you realise that this has always been a one-way street.  Every day they are inexorably, irresistibly, moving away from you.  And while that is what you want more than anything and it will make you happy and proud, it will also hurt a little.  By the time your eldest is four you will already be crying at the end of Toy Story 3 when Andy’s mum looks around his empty bedroom on the day he moves to college.  ‘I just wish I could always be with you,’ she says, and it slays you, every damn time, because you already know exactly what she means.”

And this is when I will walk away, off into the distance, all mysterious.  Maybe I’ll take a little swim in the gloriously warm Indian Ocean before I leave, just for old times’ sake.  And perhaps the old me will come after the new me, full of questions.  But I’ll leave them unanswered.  Hey, I wouldn’t want to spoil a single one of all the wonderful surprises she has to look forward to.

Home From Home

I wonder whether people in England realise how much I miss them.  They should.  It’s obvious.  After all, why else would I spend eighteen hours navigating the horrors of long haul flights and airports single-handed with my two very young children?  Why would anyone do that for anything other than pure and unconditional love?

I won’t dwell on the journey; we all know the drill – sweaty American airports with hostile security, giant bagels, broken fitful sleep, chronic dehydration, capped off by being tipped out into a summer dawn in a London under siege to a rapidly approaching Olympics.  But anyway we were here/there, and this time the kids remembered it and Skype (God bless you Skype) had ensured yet again that the people waiting to meet us weren’t strangers – they were grandparents.

This is the only thing that makes us question our decision to live our funny little expat life; this is the main sacrifice we have made.  Our children’s relationship with their grandparents and vice versa is no doubt affected by us living so far away.  And it’s such an important relationship; there’s so much they can gain from each other.  And it’s only really when you see them together that you realise how sad it is that it can’t happen more often.

That’s just part of living in a country that isn’t the one you started out in.  And it is pretty much the only thing that calls me back.  It’s funny because I remember missing ‘home’ at first and now, more than five years after I left, I guess I don’t.  Home is a funny concept.  Once you’re married and have your family your home just kind of follows you around, like a snail with a shell.  Home is wherever you are.  But even if it’s also about friends, and places, and familiarity, I suppose after a few years you’ve set up a broader sense of home in the community you find yourself a part of; and similarly, you’ve kind-of subtracted yourself from the one you left behind.

The last place we lived in the UK was Gateshead, and we left there, as childless newlyweds, in the summer of 2007.  Small wonder then that our sense of being at home in the UK has faded over the intervening years.  So now, when people ask me if I miss it, or if I feel a desire to go back, I have to say that I don’t.  Well, that’s what I would have said, before this summer’s visit.

I can’t tell you what made it different this time.  Every time we go back ‘home’ there’s something of a disconnect.  When we’re here in Costa Rica we rarely think of the UK, and when we’re there we don’t think about being here.  We’ve always missed our family, but we’re incredibly happy where we are so we don’t long to go back.  But this time, I don’t know, all the things that drive me a little bit nuts about the UK were also the things that made it hard to leave at the end of the visit – the language, the television, the crazy weather, the way it’s such a small place that everyone ends up getting the same ideas, the comfort of being with family and oldest friends, the outward pessimism and inward optimism, the familiarity of places that you’ve known for many years, the way everybody seems to feel like the place is going to the dogs when the truth is that this courageous island nation will keep on surviving no matter how crazy the world gets.

There is no big international move imminent.  Indeed the very thought of leaving Costa Rica is painful.  Who even knows what the future will bring? I don’t, and that’s the way I like it.  But it was a great trip, and it was wonderful to realise that we have two homes now, and we are welcomed and loved and blessed with good friends and totally happy and contented in both of them.

Two’s Company

Double C

How do you know when your family is complete? I wasn’t sure until recently, but now I do. Well, I think I do. No, I know I do. Most of the time anyway.

I’m pretty sure the way you feel is that you’re glad you’ve got your body back. It may not look quite the same, but it has survived the rigours of multiple pregnancies and childbirths, and it is now back to being fit and strong. And it is my own, it’s not nourishing anybody except me and all the weight and whatever else I gained and lost is a thing of the past. And I’ll take a few battle-scars, they were worth it and, besides, I’m proud of myself for being tough enough to bring two new lives into the world.

I’m also pretty sure you feel glad you’ve got your brain back. Granted, sometimes life with two pre-schoolers robs me of the ability to think straight, but the true Baby Brain years are behind me now. And what with the extra time available to me with the girls at kinder three mornings a week, I am actually working – using my brain and earning money to boot.

I’m pretty sure you look around at your perfect family, more beautiful than you ever dreamed of, and think you’d better quit while you’re ahead. What more could I have wished for than two healthy, thriving, intelligent, happy, gorgeous children? I don’t underestimate the lucky star that has shone on me these last four years. And yet…it almost didn’t work out this way. I don’t mean the kids, the kids were always perfect. I mean me. I almost wasn’t here to see all this; I almost wasn’t here to be a mother at all. Bringing my girls into this world was rough on me, and I nearly didn’t make it through. And now I’m here and I love my life and I’m more important to other people than ever, I can’t risk anything going wrong that means I’m taken out of the equation. Not being here for my girls, missing out on anything that happens in their lives, is now my greatest fear. This is probably the best reason I can think of not to go down that road again.

But there are other reasons. You get older and wiser, and you start to think about how much money this whole show costs to run. They eat, they need clothes and shoes; there is an endless parade of birthdays and Christmases. And every time you thought it wasn’t possible, you love your children even more. So you find yourself wanting to give them the things they need, the things they want (not all of them, but the reasonable requests), and right now there’s no end in sight. Soon there’ll be hobbies, sporting pursuits, school trips and, before we know it, university and then (gulp) weddings. And we’ll want to be there to help, just as our parents were for us.

I was thinking about this recently, when my cleaning lady told me she was pregnant with her fourth child. The thing is I know that money is short for her, and I found myself thinking: FOUR? Are you nuts? Here’s me with a lot more money than her and I already feel like I’m not going to be able to give my girls everything I would like to. How does she plan to manage? What will she do if one of them asks her to support them through medical school? Of course I didn’t say any of these things to her, but it did get me thinking. Maybe it simply comes down to expectations; maybe it’s a case of feeling that we need to give back at least as much (preferably more) than we were given ourselves. Our parents set the bar pretty high. In general baby boomers have been able to give their children comfortable childhoods, generous allowances, support for study and maybe even a little leg-up on the property ladder. Realistically I’m not sure if as many of the current generation of parents with young children will be able to be as helpful. At least by limiting myself to two children, I can give myself a cat in hell’s chance of being able to be there for my girls in a tight spot the way my parents have been for me.

But when I reacted in horror to my cleaner’s announcement (I’m sure I wasn’t able to control my facial muscles) I was also thinking about her family situation. I know her husband would fall into the general category of ‘no good’. He doesn’t seem to have a job, and there are rumours that he isn’t faithful or kind. So while I stood there grimacing I was wondering what had possessed her to bring another child into that house. It’s bad enough that the existing children have to deal with it on a daily basis, let alone making it the reality for yet another young soul.

Look, I realise I’m not making myself look good here. I promise I am not trying to suggest that people with less money and dodgy home lives shouldn’t have children. Of course they should if they want to. I remember talking to someone a while ago about their decision not to have children, and their position, basically, was: What kind of world is this to bring children into? To which I could only respond honestly: But what kind of world would it be if they didn’t?

But it is thinking about this, about the kind of family situation you provide for your children, that occasionally makes me wobble on my resolve to stop at two. Sometimes I look around at my happy, blessed, fun-filled family and I think: this is too good to keep to ourselves. There’s enough joy and love here to spare, to share around a little more. Sometimes I remember that I always wanted three, that palm readers and fortune tellers always told me I would, that I used to love the feeling of sitting round the table with a large and noisy family and be sure I wanted that for myself.

The thing is somewhere along the line that changed. Back in the days I thought I wanted a big family I wasn’t yet a mother. I had no idea how much incredible joy and love it brings, but also what it costs you in so many ways, what it takes out of you physically to bring a baby into this world and on a daily basis over the course of the years. Probably a lot of people are stronger than me, better at it all, but I know my limits. I know when I should quit when I am more ahead than I ever dreamed I’d be.

So I do know I don’t want more kids – my two precious girls are going to create more than enough excitement (and noise!) for me, and I am going to invest everything I have into them. And what do I even have to invest? The change in my pocket, a little flat in Gateshead – not much at all. But there’s more than that; there’s me. There’s the fact that every fibre of me is totally and utterly devoted to them, there’s the fact that I will always do whatever I can to make them happy, there’s the fact that nothing, NOTHING, will ever stop me getting to them if they’re in trouble. And having two people in this world I feel that way about is more than enough for me; I don’t think I could take a third. So my two girls, my legacy, my project, have got my undivided attention and resources for life, and whatever they intend to do with them is none of my business. It just better be something that makes them happy, or there’ll be hell to pay.

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