Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Far away from home and the hardest goodbye

I kept looking at the Christmas tree hoping that by some miracle I would feel that warm holiday feeling. It was the first week of January and I still had not given up hope. I wanted it to come. I wanted Christmas to feel as it did every year: cozy, fun, nostalgic.

But on Christmas Eve 2017 I lost my grandmother. The two weeks prior to her loss were filled with emotional ups and downs of her coming out of having a stroke. Along this ride was the struggle I faced going on inside of myself: whether or not to get on a plane and leave my children behind to tell her goodbye.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my life. I didn't know what I was suppose to do or what was best for me and my family. I struggled with the fact that I would never ever be able to see her again or to hug her tight one last time. I would deny myself a sense of closure if I didn't go, but on the other hand, I would miss my son's 10th birthday and my kids Christmas. They would forever remember that Christmas as a sad one, and my heart could not take that.

And I am sure my grandmother would not have wanted that either. I told myself, maybe even convinced myself, that she would want me to stay with my kids. So that was what I did: I slowly watched my grand mother die from thousands of miles away.

The two weeks leading up to her death were difficult and I became obsessed with being online, specifically Facebook messenger. Here my mom would give us family updates on her prognosis. And she would send photos and videos that I would analyze over and over just hoping she looked more responsive. Yet, she didn't and slowly I watched her die via social media.

Sounds strange and uncaring somehow, watching my grandmother die via Facebook messenger. But for me, it was a connection, it was the next best thing to being there, virtually. It provided me with the opportunity to be in both places at once: in Amsterdam, at home with my babies and at home in America with my family.

I will never forget the moment on Facebook messenger that my mom said my grandmother was slipping away. I was desperate to FaceTime and my mom said there was no time. She did the next best thing: she sent a video of my grandmother. It might sound horrible, morbid or cruel to some people, but for me, it was my way of being there with my grandmother, and she would have wanted it that way.

She was an avid Facebook user, especially after she was bed ridden in her final years. It was her connection to the outside world and what kept her sharp. I would always get a kick out of her posts and status updates. She would wish people happy birthday in her status or ask my mom a question via her status update. And since she never really figured out how to see posts from the family, my mom would tag her.

I always thought it was so cool that she learned how to use social media, but that was my grandmother, young at heart, always reading and learning and brave.

Matter of fact, one of the things my grandmother always told me was that even though her body was old, in her mind she was still a young girl, ready to learn and eager to experience the world. And this is how I will remember her.  And I will never regret my decision.

Friday, July 28, 2017

When a dentist mommy shames

A word of advice: Don't let your kids go to the dentist with a corn flake stuck between their teeth!

It happened to me this morning and guess what, I got mommy shamed. By my dentist. Who is a mother. Who has three young kids. Who also works full time. And it still happened.

For those of you who have never been mommy shamed let me tell you how it feels: frustrating, betrayed, lonely, angry. The list could go on. Bottom line: it sucks.

It all started when the dentist found a corn flake in my daughters back molar during her six-month check-up this morning. She pulled it out on the hook of her prodding tool and help it high in the air.

"Look at this, did you even brush your teeth this morning?" she asked my daughter. "Maybe you need to go to the dental hygienist to teach you how to brush your teeth."

Luckily, my daughter's teeth were otherwise perfect. I guess the corn flake threw the dentist for a loop because she never even mentioned my daughter 10cm overbite from sucking her thumb.

Then it was my son's turn in the check-up chair and guess what? She pulled out a ball of what she called plaque. "I see we have a family problem, so it's a good idea to go to the hygienist." No cavities, but you would never know by the way she reacted to the plaque.

And finally I was in the hot seat and that's when she cracked. She started stabbing my gums and scrapping my teeth until she collected another ball of plaque. "Yes, you all have to go to the hygienist and learn how to brush your teeth!" For her I think it was a personal slap in the face.

She then began lecturing me on how I need to take time to brush my kids teeth for them until they are at least 10! Ok, I know she is right, but let's get real: what parent has brushed their kid's teeth until they were 10? Twice a day.

I could feel that she was trying to make me ashamed. It wasn't really what she said, but how she said it.  It was her judgmental glare and the way she cut her eyes and held up the corn flake on her dental pitch fork.

The positive part of this experience is that I didn't feel a bit of ashamed at all and I didn't feel the need to defend myself. I was frustrated that she didn't show understanding and compassion to a full time working mother who loves her children and tries her best to take care of them. No one is the perfect parent. And then I was angry and felt betrayed. We are in the same club of parenting!

After I walked out of her office, I then felt a little sorry for her. I thought maybe she had a bad morning with her kids and felt frustrated or sad herself. Maybe she was too hard on herself and was projecting. Then I thought, you know what, that is her problem and I was not going to allow her to make it mine. I would stay kind and calm and just hope her day would go better.

And now I can laugh about it. I can laugh when I think about the golden corn flake being held high in the air and what it represented: the most beautiful imperfection of being a parent. I wouldn't change a thing!

Monday, July 10, 2017

A gift for my daughter

I could see her eyes watching me and soaking in my every move. I would watch her mimic my words, my mannerisms and even my way of thinking. She was my little shadow for so many years, silently learning how to face the world.

And I that is where I failed her. At the time, I didn't understand the importance of being her role model. Honestly, I didn't think twice about it, I actually didn't think of it at all. I just assumed that I was enough for her to learn how to thrive in the world, and I never expected for her to be my mirror.

To make a long story short, my eight year old daughter has been bullied on and off by various kids at school for the past two years. Mostly by little girls who see her kindness as a weak point and then they use it to either bully or manipulate her.

In the beginning, I was mad at the world. How could these little girls be so mean, I would ask myself over and over again. First it was a classmate, then it was someone in another class and then it was a little girl at after school...the list could go on, but I soon realized they all had one thing in common: my daughter.

Each time she would tell me what happened, I would watch her transform from the flower that was once her self-confidence shrivel and barely cling to life. She then learned to put on a brave face when telling me, but I recognized the sadness behind the smile.  And at once I could only see a life-long struggle she had ahead of herself in desperate search for self-love and confidence.

It was up to me to break the cycle. I tried everything I could to learn how to prevent this fate. I read books on teaching girls self-confidence, I said all the right things and I even pretended I was someone else in front of her, someone she could look up to.

But it was all in vane. And it was time I gave her the only gift I could give her, a true role model. Someone she could really learn from. Someone who I wanted my daughter to be like. Someone self-confident, smart, beautiful from the inside, and most importantly kind with a twist of sass: My sister!

My sister is a 26 year old ball of sass and sweetness rolled into one. "Don't mess with the Jess". That's her motto and trust me she means business. When I think of self-confidence, I can only see my little sister.  She is who I wanna be when I grow up! And someone I want my daughter to be like when she grows up.

So this weekend, when my daughter was crying from frustration from being bullied/manipulated by a "friend", I asked her, "What do you think Aunt Jessie would say to your friend". And that's how it started.

I told Charly to imagine Aunt Jessie speaking to the girl and I then watched Charly transform into a self -confident, witty little Jessie-twin I knew she could be. I watched her eyes sparkle as we talked about how Aunt Jessie would solve the problem.

I told her that the next time she gets in such a situation to remember: WWJD? What Would Jessie Do. We turned it into a game and spent the rest of the day repeating WWJD giving ourselves permission to be confident.

And that was my gift: my daughter now has a role model. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How babies are made

You can only imagine the shock I felt when I checked my internet history and found someone had searched for naked women. And it could only be one person: The nine year old who uses my computer to play Minecraft.

Of course, I should have enabled the safety procedures before I let him use it, but I had no idea boys were interested in women at such a young age, much less without clothes.

I have to admit, I was upset at first. I was in disbelief and not ready for this step in parenting. It
was a real eye opener for me, my entire parental guidance system immediately went into a higher gear. I wasn't dealing with tantrums and teething anymore. I was dealing with issues that would affect my kids for the rest of their lives.

My instinct was to pretend that I didn't see the search and go on like my son was still a baby. I could have done that very easily and just put on the internet safety controls.

However, the first thing I did was contact a friend of mine who raised two awesome, happy teen boys. I needed mama guidance and I knew that I could trust her advice and I was right. I wasn't going to sweep this under the carpet, I was going to face this issue, even though it was the hardest thing I had to do as a parent.

When my son and I were alone, I casually asked him what he searches for on my computer. And that sparked our discussion on the subject I most dreaded to talk about: sex.

Thanks to my friends advice, I created an atmosphere that was safe for my son to talk about things that might embarrass him. For me, it was a parental out-of-body experience. I had to detach myself emotionally and think logically how to carefully explain the delicate topic.

Here I was speaking openly, honestly about sex, ovaries, sperm and vaginas. I am not sure where I gained the strength from, but I found it, and the talk ended up being one of the most positive experiences I have had along my journey as a parent.

My son really opened up and asked questions and I was able to explain the answers in a way that he understood. I thought about myself as a nine and what I would want someone to say to me. I was able to keep the conversation in a context that his level of understanding could handle.

When he was done asking questions, he gave me a hug and said he loved me. I felt our bond was stronger and I could feel he really trusted me.

And even though we had a conversation about an adult topic, I still  had my innocent little boy in tact. He was just curious, and I reassured him that is human nature to be curious. I told him he could always come to me or his father with any question about sex.

You would think my nine year old jumped up a level of maturity today, but it wasn't him that grew. When I look at him I still see a sweet soul who needs his parents to guide him along his path.

But when I looked in the mirror today, I saw a strong, loving mother, who grew more than she ever had before. I finally felt like a legit, genuine mama of two beautiful people.

I was all grown up now. It was a right of passage I had been waiting for and it never seemed to find me. Then by chance, I found it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: Good riddance!

If I were a lizard, then 2016 was a dark tunnel I crawled through. It was a tunnel filled with unexpected jagged edges and razor sharp experiences that slowly ripped away my outer layer of skin.

When I crawled into the tunnel this time last year, I would have never expected to encounter the things that I did. 2016 was suppose to be my year -- to celebrate me and enjoy life, but instead I survived life.

I was sick a lot of the year to top it off and I struggled with my new body that my chronic disease has given me. I had to come to terms with the fact that this was the new physical me no matter how hard I tried to fight it. It was so hard to look into the mirror and accept what I saw. I struggled for endless nights thinking of new ways to try to get the weight off. I became obsessed and lost sight of the fact I just needed to be healthy, no matter my clothing size.

I also had to begin searching for a new job, which sounds quite exciting.But after 13 years of being in he same job, it was frightening. I wasn't the person from 13 years ago when I was last applying for jobs. I had to face reality that I was no longer the 20 something bouncy, full of confidence young women, but a middle aged, insecure woman who applied for job after job and received rejection after rejection. I had to find the positive in each rejection I was lucky enough to get several interviews, but for two of them I was deathly ill.

Even more painful was realizing that my kids were transitioning from little kids to big kids. They no longer wanted to do some of the special things we would do. They no longer wanted me to kiss them goodbye at school. They began to have strong opinions and talk back. They began to challenge me and confide in me their big people fears about life. My son realized we are all mortal and asked me every night before bed if I would die in my sleep. I could no longer protect them from the truths of the world. I could only hold their hands through the experiences and guide them. Gone were my babies, and I had to mourn that period.

It seemed 2016 was against me in every facet of my life.

I'm not gonna totally bash 2016, there were definitely good times. I look at  my kids and I see all the good 2016 had to offer. They are happy and healthy and that is all I ever want for them. And they grew into a new life phase with confidence.

But 2016 was a dark tunnel and somehow I emerged, and if I were a lizard, you could say I shed my old self in 2016. I look at myself now with this new shiny skin and know that I would not have this new outllook on life without the sucky year of 2016.

I came out stronger, wiser and able to face 2017, no matter what it brings. I have no expectations anymore. If there is one thing 2016 taught me, it was just to take one day at a time, that is all we have.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

When my son saw me as different

When I became a mother, I never took into consideration that my kids would be growing up in a culture different from my own and where often I am looked at as an outsider. I never in a million years would have thought my kids would think of me as an outsider, or different from them.

But it happened today, my son was embarrassed by me because I was different from the other mothers. It was open day in his class and the students had designed a quiz for the parents to participate in. Walking up to school, my son asked me if I could please not participate in the quiz.

Immediately I knew why, he didn't want me to speak Dutch in front of the class. So I asked him if this was the case and he innocently said, "Yes Mommy, you don't sound like the other mothers when you speak."

My initial reaction was hurt because my own son was embarrassed by me, but of course, I understood. I understood that it was important for him to fit in and not be teased because his mother spoke Dutch with a funny accent. I explained to him that I understood and promised not to participate.

When we arrived in his class, he told me to pretend that I didn't have my mobile telephone so I could not participate. He sat quietly at his desk, looking down drawing while the rest of the class geared up for the quiz.

I wanted to be there so badly, to participate and laugh with all the other parents, but I had to do what was best for Luca.

I bent down and whispered in his ear that I loved him and that I needed to get to work. I asked him to please participate with the rest of the kids. I took the pencil from his hand and put his drawing away in his drawer. I grabbed his hand an led him over to a group of his friends and their Dutch mothers.

I asked if he could join their team and he immediately lit up. He jumped right in and began to discuss the quiz answer with his friends. I blew him a kiss goodbye and bit my lip hard hoping to hold back my tears.

I stood there for a moment pretending that I was that mother circled by my son and his friends. I imagined what it would feel like. For those few seconds I lived vicariously through that mother and became enveloped by the laughter and teasing that was going on.

I hurried out of the classroom with a smile on my face and the tears were no longer controllable. I know my son loves me and I really do understand why he felt the way he does, but it still hurts.

I know in my heart one day I will be the coolest mom in the class because I am different. In the meantime, I will keep being different and be myself in hopes that one day they will do the same.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The moment I belonged

It was like bolt of lightening striking me on the head - the moment I truly felt like part of the Dutch society.

I have patiently waited for 14 years to have this feeling and I was about to give up, and then BAM: I am sitting at a table with seven Dutch ladies at a cooking class talking about life, love and our family, in DUTCH!

The journey to get to this point in my life started about a year ago, when I became friends with my daughter's school friend's mother. Over the past year we have met for dinner a few times and we cultivated a friendship.

This is something I had hoped for for years. I wanted desperately to feel like I belong here, that I am a part of the community. And I tried a lot of different ways to obtain this feeling, but I was never really let into the tight circle of the Dutch culture. It made me very sad and I always felt like an outsider. I felt like that kid on the playground that no one picks for their team.

Don't get me wrong, I have made so many friends over the years. Great friends, really special people that have touched my life in many ways. But they are all expats who tend to move away and never really set down roots in Amsterdam. They leave and my heart breaks.

During the past year my friend invited me several times to her cooking club, but I never had the courage to go. However she didn't give up on me and I finally said yes.

I was so excited and also trying to keep my hopes under control. I was nervous because I was the outsider. I was scared by going to the club it would make me feel like more of an outsider. And to put icing on my anxiety cake, my friend - the only person I would know there - was sick at the last minute and couldn't attend.

I almost cried after our phone conversation, but she promised that her friends would take care of me. I was desperately thinking of ways to get out of it, I even took my time getting arriving to the class.

I walked up to the door of the cooking school and felt a bit of symbolism. I felt so small and scared and somehow found the rocks to ring the bell. I was greeted by the sous chef and lead into the most amazing space - a huge modern kitchen and an old fashioned dining room at the far end overlooking the Herengracht canal of Amsterdam.

The ladies greeted me immediately and I felt a warm blanket of hospitality wrapping me up and carrying me into the class. They asked if I wanted to speak English.

"No," I said bravely. "No, I would like to speak Dutch and if I don't understand you, I will ask in English."

The chef/teacher lead me to a table to make a fancy French passion fruit and custard dessert. My assigned cooking partner immediately began to explain what I should do and soon we were cooking side-by-side and chatting about life.

Not even for a second did I feel uncomfortable. I felt like I was with a group of my girlfriends at home. It wasn't until we sat down at the large rustic dining table did I realise the significance of this moment. It was so surreal, this is what I had been waiting for years and it was happening. I was part of a group of Dutch women having a good time, laughing and connecting.

As we ate our four course meal, each one talked about their lives and struggles. Each person had such an interesting story, it was almost magical. I just sat back and listened and tried to contribute to the conversation in my best Dutch when possible.

For a moment I gazed out on the canals watching the boats glide by against the backdrop of the brownstone Amsterdam houses, and I thought to myself life here is good and I as a small town girl from a country very far away, I was so happy to be a part of it, even just for a few hours.