Page from my personal journal, March 29 2013
Page from my personal journal, March 29 2013
This long-awaited landmark. I’ve been thinking about this date for two years or so now, wondering where in the world I’d be, wondering what I’d be doing. You’d think at this age I’d have some of those things figured out, settled.
I’m 40 today. I’ve been thinking of myself as 40 for a while, but at the same time holding the knowledge that this actual date, this actual birthday, feels like a really big deal. I don’t really have plans, other than lunch with my boss and wearing a purple scarf Gimli brought me back from Afghanistan. I’d kind of like to get a hair cut, and a nap would be nice if I could fit it in. I wonder if anyone will get me a cake?
There are silver strands in my hair that weren’t there a year ago. My face is dark from the equatorial Andean sun, and the lines seem starker and clearer than they did just a few months ago. I’m still breastfeeding, although both my kids are in school. My weight seems to have stabilized at a level I feel comfortable with, for my age. I wear no makeup, no jewelry except for my wedding ring. I don’t shave anything (but I do tweeze my eyebrows).
Next Monday I’m doing a goal-setting exercise with my life coach (who continues to be awesome). I’m really looking forward to that. I ended up making new year’s resolutions of sorts last year at my birthday rather than January 1, so it feels apropos.
I find myself thinking over the past decade – all the twists and turns that took place in the last ten years. When I turned 30, I was working at an intercultural youth-serving organization in Virginia; I quit shortly after in order to do some work with my husband’s university, leading a group of 30 students on a semester-abroad program. That experience was so emotionally taxing that I went into a significant depression for about six months afterwards. I was also sad that at at 30 I hadn’t yet had a baby although we didn’t start trying until I was 32. Then came three years of experiencing infertility, in the midst of which I began and then quit yet another job at another youth-serving organization. I started grad school again, pursuing the PhD in Anthropology (that I’m still working on). I had two babies while in this program. then my husband quit his university job, we moved to Albania, and two years later took this joint position in Colombia, where we find ourselves now.
So in ten years I’ve been a social service program worker, unemployed writer, university instructor, grad student, infertile, pregnant, stay-at-home mom, and now I’m back in the field that dominated my 20s – international development worker.
I wonder what roles and revisions the next ten years will bring?
Putting up the bat-signal for Laine at Anona-mom, who is experiencing serious and scary pregnancy complications. I know she would appreciate your prayers.
Here is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, from a few different angles: what it means to parent kids cross-culturally. It’s been really interesting having them in school; it pushes me in ways that I didn’t really have to deal with in Albania so much because they were at home, and our child care person was very open about negotiating cultural differences.
Now that they are immersed in a language they don’t yet speak, I’m also reminded of the migrant children I worked with in the US – only now the tables are turned. I keep thinking about those little migrant kids, and the challenges they faced, and the strategies we used to help them adapt culturally and learn English, and I feel so much more deeply what all that meant to them and their families. I see how tired my kids are at the end of the morning, even more so when they are with their Spanish-speaking babysitter for the afternoon as well. I understand better what it means for them to have home be a refuge where they can speak English and make themselves understood.
And yet I feel ambivalent about that cultural divide as well, about the little bubble we create within the walls of our apartment, that is somehow separate and disassociated from the world around us. In, but not of, Colombia.
I also think about how the migrant kids were so subject to disapproval and judgment from teachers, sometimes due to factors that arose out of poverty (11 people living in a mobile home – out of necessity – and sharing one bathroom simply won’t shower as often as those who have greater access to hot water and privacy), sometimes due to differing understandings of how to show respect, or even just different expectations about the role of parents in relation to the school. A really great ethnography about these culturally-patterned differences is Con Respeto, a very readable yet theoretically rich examination of just this topic.
So, knowing what I know about middle-class urban Latino cultural patterns, I am not only anticipating but living some cultural disjunctures and thinking a lot about how to manage and negotiate them, particularly with respect to my children.
First has to do with cleanliness and general appearance. For most Latinos, this is vastly more important than for most US Americans. Some recent visitors here commented, “everyone is so dressed up!” US Americans tend overall to dress more casually than Colombians, even more so Bogotanos, and this extends to children as well as adults. The other little girls at our preschool come with hair carefully combed and braided. Their faces are perfectly clean, their clothes in good repair, their shoes are clean. In contrast, I bathe my kids once a week, and I never brush or comb Illyria’s hair at all (instead, I pour on tons of conditioner when I do wash it, so at least it´s free of tangles). Oz’s shoes are scribbled all over with green marker, yet I let him wear them to school. A Colombian mother with any other option would not.
And I don’t push the issue. And that right there is another huge cultural difference. Although we do set boundaries for our kids, and we do discipline then, we allow them far, far greater autonomy than most Latino parents ever would. We negotiate, where our Bogotano counterparts would command. So right now I’m feeling like a slacker mom with the dirty, unkempt – and occasionally rude – kids.
Respect for authority is shown in other ways too. And I’m more Latina in this than my US American husband is. For example, when we heard that Illyria had shoved her teacher one day, Gimli was all “Go Illyria! Stick it to The Man!” Whereas I was horrified (and the teacher was NOT amused). I remember as a college student being likewise horrified when my peers would mock certain professors behind their backs, giving them humorous but gently ridiculing nicknames. This felt so disrespectful to me, but I think it goes along with a democratizing attitude in a way. So it’s been a little bit of a conundrum how to approach this issue – I want my kids to have an appropriate level of respect for authority, but what is “appropriate” and how it is manifested varies from one context to another…
Recently I read this post by Jen at Here We Go Again, about where we invest our parenting energy. I confess I got all depressed feeling like the laziest parent ever – I don’t do organic foods, or cloth diapering, or homeschooling, and I do the bare minimum when it comes to personal hygiene and appearance. But then I realized that what I do put my parenting energy into is this nomadic life we lead, raising my children cross-culturally, learning multiple languages and contextual contingency of cultural rules.
I remember as a child, around 8 or 9 years old, walking into a room where my parents were meeting with a group of Quechua men all sitting around in a circle. “Saluda!” my mom hissed at me – “Greet them!” But I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or say and I just stood there mute and hid my face. I knew that the rules were different for different groups of people, and I wasn’t sure which rules applied in this situation. Should I shake hands? Kiss cheeks? Did I have to greet each one individually, or could I get away with a group hello? I didn’t know, so I did nothing, and felt the shame of embarrassing my mother.
I know I can’t protect my children from ever experiencing such embarrassment, and I know that with our life choices we are deliberately putting them into situations where they will. At least I can remember what it was like for me, and hopefully help them navigate this life more gracefully than I did. And I believe the tools they’ll gain through this process will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
To follow up on that heavy post, we also had a moment of celebration in the household last night and again this morning as Oz used the potty for me, twice! I sent him to school in underpants… his choice… which is the major breakthrough. Last Friday, the aide asked me to send along underpants and extra changes of clothes because she said he seemed very interested in using the potty like the other boys in his group, so she wanted to start him on the potty. So I did, and Monday through Wednesday the aide and our afternoon babysitter worked with him so well that Wednesday, he was dry all day, AND did #2 in the potty! I was too wrung out to follow through very well in the evenings, but I was home with them yesterday afternoon so kept pushing it gently and we had success 🙂 I’m very excited. I would not have started him yet if it hadn’t been for the support of his other caregivers. I felt like he was ready, in terms of maturity, I just didn’t have it in me to enact the discipline of it (in the sense of structure and boundaries and consistency, not in the sense of punishment). But now I feel like he’s taking ownership of the process, holding it even when he has a diaper on. This will be a nice surprise for Dada when gets back Sunday night 🙂
Beyond tired. Cried three times in 24 hours, twice over silly things. The other time, I was in the middle of interpreting a presentation (Spanish to English) for a group of Canadian pastors whom we are hosting for what our organization calls a “learning tour.” Part of what they are learning about here is the complicity of Canadian mining companies in widespread land grabs throughout Colombia, contributing to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The mining companies take advantage of the armed conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the actual Colombian military (which are ALL hand in glove with the narcotrafficants) to move into depopulated areas, and it is just incredibly complicated and messy. Anyway. We were visiting one of our partner organizations that works mostly in advocacy with communities that are under threat and trying to hold on to or reclaim their agricultural land, and they began describing the phenomenon of ” false positives” – something that began happening a few years ago when the previous administration began offering cash incentives to soldiers for killing guerrillas. These are mostly 18-year-olds, people… someone shaved their heads and shoved automatic weapons into their hands and told them they are heroes if they rack up a body count. So they did. Thousands of civilians were killed, dressed in combat fatigues, and dumped into common graves.
I was chugging along with the interpretation, but suddenly the mental image – mass graves of young men’s bodies, none of whom were actually guerrillas (and even if they had been, were still their mother’s sons) – slammed into me and I couldn’t go on. I choked. Someone else in the group was able to take over for a few minutes while I composed myself (and I was profoundly embarrassed), and then I was able to go on.
I’m not sure why it affected me so much, this is something I knew about, I knew this all had happened – there’s something different about having to say it out loud. It made me think about a book I’d read by a journalist who covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, in which she recounts the secondary trauma experienced by interpreters at the TRC – interpreting the stories of the victims in the first person deeply traumatized the people who were hearing and repeating the stories.
This was such a small sliver of what that must have been like. And obviously nothing compared to living it – displacement, massacres, threats. But I think it’s important to somehow stay connected. I need to remember why I’m here. That our work here is about supporting processes of healing and reconciliation in the middle of all this violence.