motherhood

When mothering doesn’t come naturally

March 10, 2017
When Mothering doesn't Come Naturally - Fiona Lynne Koefoed-Jespersen

Over two weeks ago now, I left my children – both in tears as they watched me walk away towards the station from the living room window – and got on a plane to Vancouver to meet a room full of women, most of whom I had never met in my life. It was incredible and powerful and I am still trying to unpack everything that happened there.

Today, ten days after I got home, I had no plans again. I don’t do well on no plans, so after the little one had napped this morning, I got us all ready to go (remembering at the last minute that the laundry needed to be hung up, and so giving them cheese straws to much to stop them yelling with impatience at my bad planning) and then headed for the same train station. I decided on the way that we’d just get on whatever train came first. There are only really four directions that could take us in and I was ok with any of them, but when the lift doors opened on the platform and a green train was just rolling in headed for the city, I realised I’d been hoping for this.

The river is my happy place in London. Ok, I have a lot of happy places in this big beautiful city, but there’s something about the river. Maybe it’s the space of it – it’s wide at this point of course, and so you’re given a reprieve from the mass of buildings rising up and stealing the sky from view. I reach the edge of it’s muddy grey banks and feel like I have some breathing space again.

It was drizzling with rain when we got off the train, so we wandered around Borough Market first and bought a pretzel to share, and then slowly made our way along Southbank to the Tate Modern, where all local parents-of-toddlers know that there is a massive open indoor ramp to let your bored tinies off the leash and run. Kaya went from top to bottom, each time making me nervous she’d just keep going out the doors at the top, but she’d always turn around, stand looking around until she located me, then grin and sprint off down the ramp towards me. Oskar was just as happy trying to keep up with her and failing.

Later, I tried to buy them lunch from my favourite healthy fast food place, but they both rejected it (apparently fish finger wraps are not nice when they include hipster condiments) and we all three had a minor breakdown in the middle of the station.

It was one of those days – and they are most of mine – that is both wonderful and horrible depending on what moment you ask me.

After my six days away in Vancouver, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked was, “did you miss the kids?” And of course the answer is yes. I missed them. The day they both cried on the phone when we video called, I struggled to let go of that image the rest of the day. But truth be told, it felt like the most natural place in the world to be. To be learning and sharing and speaking and connecting and praying and writing – this is where I feel most myself.

I know I am a good mama.

It’s hard to actually write it out because I’ve conditioned myself over many years to not say nice things about myself, even if I think they might be true (and I think society does this to a lot of women). But I think I am a good mum. I work really hard at it. I read lots of articles and I pin all the activities and I try to treat my children as fully formed humans, with opinions and emotions that matter and are reasonable in their little world. I play with them and feed them mostly-healthy food and apologise to them when I yell too much. I look up books at the library I think they will enjoy and I keep rocking them to sleep because they like it even though they make my arms ache and I try always to take their opinions into consideration.

But it never feels like it comes naturally. A thousand times a day I am taking a deep breath and beginning again. There are days that Rasmus comes home, hears the strained sound in my voice, notices the glazed look in my eyes, and gently steers them away from me like I’m a bomb about to explode. I adore them, and many moments they make it easy for me. They can be funny and sweet and interesting and affectionate, and in those moments it feels wonderful. But a lot of the day is just the business of mothering – the nappies and the mealtimes and the washing hands and making sure someone is not falling down the stairs/eating days-old food off the floor/knocking over mama’s favourite lamp.

Why am I writing this? Because I think there are more mamas like me out there, who love their kids intensely and yet do not find that this motherhood thing comes as naturally as they feel like it should. Mamas who frequently lock themselves in the bathroom to get a minute’s peace. Mamas who will spend hours reading and researching because we care enough to want to do this right, but who feel like it never gets any easier.

The media and our Western society has a huge problem portraying mothers generally, but one of the things I think is especially harmful is the idea that the best mothers are the ones who can do the whole thing without ever breaking a sweat or wanting to throw anything/one out of the nearest window.

Somehow the idea of a good mother has become knotted together with the idea of the natural mother. Maybe it’s time to untie the knot? Maybe we can admit a bit more often that it doesn’t come easy, and we really need that glass of wine by the end of the day, and that’s really ok. That I am working hard at this? That makes me a good mum. That I am willing to start over again and again? That makes me a good mum. That I chose to model commitment and vulnerability to my kids? That makes me a good mum.

I sounds sure of it right now, I bet. But believe me when I say I fully preaching to myself right now. I need to hear this message every day. Some days that looks like messaging a friend or family member for the reminder that this is normal. Some days I just tell it to myself over and over as I sip that glass of wine. And some days I forget it and I go to bed in a defeated, exhausted mess.

I learnt a long time ago that if I am feeling or experiencing something, chances are I’m not the only one. So if you’re currently hiding out in the bathroom, I’m here to remind you, you are doing a really great job. I mean it.

It doesn’t need to come naturally. It’s ok if you struggle and fail and swear a bit too often. It’s ok if you feel like you find your easy rhythm in a different context. It’s ok if you really really need the space of a wide river or the retreat of a locked bathroom door every so often. I know you love your kids and are doing your very best for them. Me too. That’s all that matters.

faith, moments

Rest is the place we begin – learning a new rhythm for living

February 20, 2017
rest is not something to be earned. Self-care is not something we're only allowed once we have crossed a certain number of things off the to-do list. Rest is the place we begin. - Fiona Lynne Koefoed-Jespersen

We live in a terraced house that backs onto a railway line. Trains come by every 5-10 minutes depending on the time of day, a fact that my young son adores. The tracks are the same height as our bedroom windows, and the embankment up to the tracks is covered in thick overgrown shrubbery and gnarled trees, which is perfect urban wildlife habitat.

The foxes have been appearing daily over the last couple of weeks. In the first year we have lived here, I’d only spot one maybe once a month, so it’s quite a change. We’ll be sitting at the kitchen table having lunch when Oskar will squeal excitedly, or Kaya will glance up from her play on the living room floor and say, “Oh, a fox!”.

There are two of them. One is almost silver, just her head still showing rusty red. She’s small and thin and cautious, stopping frequently to survey the landscape around her before trotting quickly on to the next spot. She runs along the train tracks, down through the shrubbery and then we’ll spot her jumping into a neighbour’s garden.

The other one is larger, and such a bright bronze that she took my breath away the first time I saw her. Her tail is bushy, her ears jet black. She’s the kind of fox that defies all stereotypes of her urban companions. I’ve only seen her a few times.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the kitchen alone when I saw her wander along the wall at the back of the gardens towards us. When she reached our garden she hopped onto the roof of the shed and sat down. Her eyes were half closed in the bright winter sunshine and she looked entirely at peace. I stood at the sink watching her until she flopped down to sleep on the warm roof, head on her paws.

It felt like a really intimate moment. Maybe that sounds weird, but I felt like I was intruding on her personal rest time, so I took myself away from the window and left her there to enjoy the warmth of the sun.

Her presence spoke to me though. I am bad at resting. I have a suspicion it might actually be our whole culture that is bad at resting, but I have noticed it in my own life this past year. Mothering a baby and a toddler is intense work, but it is also so hard to just switch off. As soon as they are napping or asleep, I am tackling my long list of things to get done to keep our lives ticking over – call the insurance company, hang up the laundry, put in a groceries order, write that birthday card that should have been sent last week, book the rental car for the holiday.

I always think, oh I’ll just get a few things done and then I will feel better about stopping, more entitled to a real rest.

But rest is not something to be earned. Self-care is not something we’re only allowed once we have crossed a certain number of things off the to-do list. Rest is the place we begin. 

My spiritual director has been trying to get this through to me for a while. She’s probably inwardly sighing in frustration at me in every session, but she’s ever patient when she reminds me again that we work out of our rest, that Adam and Eve were created on day six, meaning their first full day of life was day seven – the Sabbath day of rest.

It’s completely counter-cultural, this call and command to rest. Of course, there’s no off button to being a mother, especially when you have tinies. When they’re sleeping, you always have one ear on them, you never entirely switch off. Maybe you have a really intense job, you work long hours, or you volunteer in your spare time, you have an ageing parent to care for or a church ministry that believes your time and energy is infinite (have you noticed churches can be the absolute worst at this?).

But I do have moments I could stop and rest, and the great temptation is to just keep going in those moments, to embrace martyrdom and the lie that I am only worth as much as I have crossed off that list. Or to lose that rest time down the dark deep hole of social media and Netflix. I’m all for a few episodes of Big Bang Theory to help you flick the internal off-button (belly laughing to Sheldon is hugely rejuvenating) but when every night of the week ends that way, I finish the week feeling like I haven’t truly rested. And social media is pretty much the opposite of restful.

If I’m honest, I often feel guilty for resting. It’s so hard to break the lie that rest is something to be earned and I have not yet earned it. And so I come back to the fox, taking her moment to simply lie down and enjoy the warmth of the sun on a cold winter’s day. I watched her, and it was as if her enjoyment was just spilling out from her to me. I could sense it so powerfully.

I am a better mother when I rest. I am a better wife. I am a better writer and friend and neighbour. Because rest doesn’t just refresh my mind and body; it refreshes my soul by reminding me I am more than the sum of my accomplishments. I am enough, I have enough, there will be enough. It’s a statement of trust in the Creator who teaches us to rest before working.

expat, new horizons

8 ways to flourish as you re-entry from expat life

February 6, 2017
8 ways to flourish as you re-entry from expat life

It’s been eighteen months already since we moved from Luxembourg to the UK. When we moved here, it had been eight years since I left as a fresh-faced graduate, and I came home with a foreign husband, a toddler, and a baby quickly expanding inside me. There were a lot of things to adjust to, some specific to our situation, but many I am sure are common to the experience of re-entry, of going home after a period of time as an expat.

(A quick note about language. Expat is definitely a label of privilege – we apply it generally to white, wealthy Westerners who move abroad to live and work for a period of time, but generally don’t expect to settle indefinitely. Actually, we’re all immigrants – temporary maybe, and usually arriving with a huge amount of privilege relative to the local population, but immigrants all the same. It’s a sign of the times that we like to disassociate ourselves from that label. There are so many ways that is problematic, but for now let me sneakily side-step that discussion and focus on the coming home experience of us privileged white Westerners…)

I have some friends in the leaving process now, and others who have recently left. It got me thinking back to my coming-home experience and both the good and the hard of that. I’ve put together some of the tips that got me through that period. Maybe they might be helpful for you or someone you know.

 

1. Be kind to yourself. You will likely swing between many different emotional states – euphoria, boredom, frustration, relief, loneliness, excitement, grief. It’s normal and it’s ok. Lean into whatever you are experiencing, and try to be gentle with yourself. The adjustment may take longer than you are expecting, and that’s ok too. Plan in moments of self-care in each day. Journal through the transition if you find that helpful; connect with other expats who have come home and share your experience; or just take a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a good book. Whatever you need.

2. Recognise that you have CHANGED. You are not the same person who left your home country. Your cross-cultural experience – whether you were the only non-local in town, or mostly existed in an expat bubble – will have stretched you and impacted you. Other people back home won’t always understand this, and may even expect you to be exactly the same as when you left. You might find yourself disappointing people because you’re different than they remember or expected. Don’t be tempted to hide this new you – celebrate it! Bring your whole self home with you and be authentically and unapologetically you. (This post about being a triangle is a helpful concept).

3. Recognise that home will have changed. Life has moved on while you were gone, and that is totally normal. You will need to spend some time figuring out where you belong and how to relate to the people you left behind. Try not to see this as a negative thing, but instead as an opportunity for new and fresh relationships and activities. It can often be up to you to do the work of re-finding your place. Have the same attitude as when you moved overseas – be ready to explore, see it as an adventure, and put in the effort to make it work.

4. Spend some time re-nesting. Yes, I mean making your new/old living quarters feel like “home” again – put up those pictures, get out all the possessions which make you feel like yourself (the guitar, the knitting supplies, the Le Creuset pans, all the books), unpack those last boxes as if your life depends on it. There will be a period of resettling in to your friendships and community, and that can feel destabilising. Let your home be a safe place of rest during that period. And make it ready to invite people in!

5. Re-enter your home neighbourhood with new eyes. Make new memories, explore your home city/neighbourhood as if it was a new destination. Even if you are heartbroken to have left your expat life, there are good things back home too. Find them. Remember them. Don’t deny the things you are missing from your expat life, but also be on the look out for the gifts that are here. At the same time, be ready for some degree of reverse culture-shock. Things that were normal to you before you left may now feel weird, awkward or even plain wrong. That can be a gift too, if you are willing to accept it as one.

6. Spend some intentional time reconnecting. Loneliness is a real danger when you return home. After the initial excitement of having you home, everyone goes back to their regular routines and it may seem like there isn’t space for you. Seek out your old friends and spend some quality time rebuilding relationships that might have scraped by on facebook updates and the occasional skype the last few years. Remember that their lives have moved on too. Try not to be offended by this, but instead celebrate all that has happened for them, and be intentional about being there for them again (and don’t freak out when some relationships don’t rekindle – there will be shifts and changes and new friendships).

7. Be honest about your needs. Probably, most of your family and friends have not had the same cross-cultural living experience that you have had. They may not understand the muddle of emotions you are experiencing right now. Be as open as you can be about your needs – are there practical and administration tasks that you’ve forgotten how to do here? Do you need help finding work/childcare/church? Do you need friends? Say so. I started saying it to anyone I met – at the library, at the coffee shop: “I just moved here. I know no one. I’m looking for friends!” It surprised people but I also made some great connections that way.

8. Think through the values, traditions and practices from your host culture that you want to hold on to and plan a way to do that. This is how we become better people, by purposefully learning from the people and traditions we come into contact with, from the experiences we have, and letting them impact us for the better. Also, this can be a beautiful way to introduce people at home to some of your life the past few years – host a cultural night where you can tell some of your stories.

 

What have I missed? What is your best piece of advice for people returning home after living in another country? And was your experience of re-entry easier or harder than you had imagined? I would love to hear!