Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To Be With You

  A childhood nightmare flashes.  Standing alone, but in a crowded courtyard.  Aging brick walls suffocate, paned glass mocks, trees whisper.  Faces stare.  Silence prevails.  I’m naked.  My eyes plead to the crowd for help.  No familiar face will extend a jacket.  There are no familiar faces.  Mumbles are exchanged between friends – the words foreign to my ear.  I stare at the ground.  Confused. Embarrassed.
   I lift my head.  I awaken from the nightmare and realize that I am clothed.  No one is staring.  No one sees me.  I am.  Invisible.  Like a ghost, I stare at my surroundings, unseen, felt, and acknowledged by the human forms around me.  I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd towards her first full week of kindergarten.

   In the Netherlands, children start public schooling the day after their fourth birthday.  Once we discovered we would be extending, we set to work to figure out where to send our daughter.  Two year waiting lists are common, and we were clearly behind.  Back in Texas, the decision is made for you – parents send their children to the elementary school closest to their home.  The curriculum is standard throughout the district, and in order to choose a different school than the one assigned is not an easy task.  We had interviewed the international school in Leiden and were very pleased with what we saw, but they wait until all children turn four years old and start them together in September (as opposed to the day-after 4th-birthday-rule).  Considering Baby Girl’s birthday is in April, and our departure date is October, this was not a feasible option for us.   We had even inquired of her Dutch daycare if they’d be willing to accept her (and our money) after her fourth birthday and they looked at us quizzically.  “Why would you send her here when you can send her to Dutch school for free?  And either way – our waiting list is too long.  We need her spot.”  Again, from our understanding, the Dutch children are not required to go to school until they turn five, with an optional start date of four.  But this option has seemingly never been exercised.  We contacted a few schools.  Most said their waiting lists were too long, but the school closest to us said they’d have a spot for her.  (Schools in your neighborhood give precedent to the children in the neighborhood.)  We made an appointment for a school tour. 
    November 2013 - The clouds did not part and rain pours from above.  V and I enter the school and I am instantly reminded of my own elementary school in the 1980s.  Red brick walls line the worn staircase.  Echoes and dim lighting cascade shadows on the dusty formica floors. That unmistakable gym-smell penetrates everything.  This building hasn’t been renovated in at least 40 years.  We are greeted and seated in the teachers’ lounge.   I shift in the hard plastic chair as the introductions are exchanged with the principal of the school.
    She is an elderly woman with short hair and a nice smile, and has been a part of the school for decades.  As she speaks, I begin to relax a bit.  “Oh yes – we have a place here for Cosette,” she speaks in clear English.  I nod.  We had not heard these words from anyone else.  A guaranteed place.  “Oh, and there is another girl, yes – who speaks English in level zero class.  We can see that we put Cosette in her class. Yes?” Also good news.  This lady is on a roll.  “A tour now, yes?”  I fumble with my purse.  My husband grabs my hand to calm my nerves. 
Level Zero Classroom
   We enter the first classroom and to my surprise, it looks much like what I’d picture a kindergarten (or as they call it, level zero) class to look like - almost.  A play house station is in the corner, bins of legos line the walls, and a circle of small chairs surround a circular table in the middle.  I cock my head to the side.  Not only are there about 28 tiny chairs (about twice the amount I would perhaps expect in an American school classroom) but they’re also covered in clothes.  Pants, shirts, and shoes litter the backs and seats of each chair.  “Oh yes – the children are at gym,” the principal says in way of explanation.  When she sees my confusion deepen, she continues “Oh yes, see the children have gym in their underwear.” My eyes grow wide. “Yes, see, it’s much too hot for them to run around in their clothes and it’s too time consuming to change into gym clothes.”  Visions of naked children kicking soccer balls does not compute in my American brain.  I look to my husband for help.  He gives me the look that says: Something is being lost in translation – it will be okay, Honey.  I nod and focus my attention back to the principal.  She’s pointing to the clothesline above the teacher’s chair.  Photos of the day’s activities are pinned to the string.  I nod with appreciation.  I like schedules.  The principal is pointing to the pictures and explaining them to me.  “Yes, so in the morning, after the children hang up their coats, and put away their bags, they sit in the circle and the teacher first reads them a bible story.”  My eyes grow wide, yet again.  Underwear and bible stories: two phrases I wouldn’t hear during a tour of an American kindergarten.  I look back at the art station.  The principal is demonstrating a traffic light.  “There are so many children, you see – the teacher can’t possibly attend to all of them at the same time, of course.  The children take their names from the board and place them next to the station they’d like to play in.  Each station has a limited number of spots.  The teacher directs the art station.  If the red light is on – it indicates to the other children to not interrupt.  If the green light is on – the children may approach with questions, yes?”  I nod.  I like this idea.  “Oh – that’s nice.  Where can I get one of those?” I smile.
   We complete the tour and we return to the office to receive the paperwork.  “When do we need to return this form?” my husband asks.  “Well. . . as soon as possible, of course.  There are waiting lists.”  We nod.  We understand.  We have little other choice.  The school is fine.  The principal is warm.  The school is half a mile from our home.  Our daughter has been understanding and speaking Dutch at her preschool for the past two years.  The Dutch kindergarten should be good experience for her.  We fill out the paperwork and return it the next week. 

March 2014 - Because each child comes into the classroom at different times, the classroom is well established.  Four sessions are scheduled before her first day of school.  Parent-guided for a couple hours the first time, then she could attend by herself for half a day.  I like the idea of this – introducing her (and us) into the new routine gradually. 
     My husband and I awake on the day of her first ‘visitation’.  We dress both kids, ourselves, and head out the door and a flurry of anticipation and nervousness.  V had thought we could bring Holden with us and the four of us could observe the class together.  I had my doubts.  Upon arriving at the classroom, we are introduced to the teacher.  “Sorry, spreek je Nederlands?” she asks.  My husband explains that he does, but that I do not.  She explains that she doesn’t speak English.  I’m floored.  Besides a few aging repair men, everyone in the country speaks English.  The teachers at their preschool have always conversed with me in English.  I love them.  I’m Facebook friends with one of them.  I stare at this educated woman in disbelief.  Dread seeps through my veins.  She explains that only one parent can attend the observation session, so clearly, my husband would be the one, considering the language barrier.  My husband and Cosette enter the class and the door slams behind them.  I peer into the window.  My daughter, shy and small, blonde and beautiful, dressed with hope and anticipation, sits in the tiny chair confused and staring at the other 27 children.  My husband sits behind her in the circle.  My Baby Girl - my daily responsibility for the past two years - looks at me through the window.  I wave and turn with tears stinging my eyes.  The mama.  Shut. Out.  I hoist Holden on my hip, hug him tight, and pedal him over to the local park in the cold.

April 2014 – Cosette turns four on April 2nd, and on Thursday, April 3rd, we dress her in a new outfit, snap photos, and pack her snack.  We pedal over to her school.  My husband on his bike, the kids and I on mine.  I’m anxious.  It’s a big day.  We hang her hoodie, put her bag in the cupboard, and help her find her seat.  After a flood of hugs and kisses, my husband and I grasp each other’s hands, and with Holden, exit the
Official First Day of School
door. We pedal slowly home.  We sip coffee and he works at the dining room table.  I split my time between idling around the kitchen, playing with Holden, and watching the clock.  Most of the school children stay until 3 p.m., but we’ve decided to pick her up at noon every day – at least for the first few weeks.  Vinny had originally been scheduled for a business trip to the United States during her birthday and first day of school.  We were both relieved he was able to change it and be here for this big week.  Just as any parent would be after dropping their first-born child off at their first day of school, we’re as nervous as we are anxious.  It’s compounded by the fact that we’re in a foreign country, but we tell ourselves that she’ll be fine.  She’s been understanding and speaking Dutch at preschool for the past two years.  She’ll make friends.  She’ll learn how a classroom operates.  We are all waiting outside the door at noon when she completes her first day.  She smiles, says it went well, and Vinny and I smile above her head, relieved. 
  The following week, Vinny is in the United States.  The loneliness that occurs anytime he’s gone is intense and magnified.  The week before, I had not noticed I was not greeted by the teacher when I dropped Cosette off at school.  I had not noticed that no other parent made eye contact with me.  We had reassured ourselves of Cosette’s comfort level being a part of a Dutch classroom, but I had not anticipated how I would feel as a parent.  My experience with their preschool was very similar to the one I had in America – I have a relationship with their teachers, and the other parents are friendly.  Their teachers and I discuss our concerns about the children.  They want to teach and share their culture with my family and are curious about Texas.  Starting my daughter at the new school makes all the insecurities, nervous-vibes, and invisible-like feelings I felt our first few months after moving here resurface.  I’m surprised at how vulnerable and clueless I feel.  The teachers do little to provide any reassurance.    
  During her first full week, I lock my bike in the courtyard.  I stare at the buildings and people around me.  I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd.  I walk her into the classroom and encourage her to choose a book from the table before she finds her seat.  Her hand is in her mouth, she hesitates.  She does not speak, but points to a book similar to the one we have at home.  She smiles when she sees it – it is something familiar, and slowly moves towards it.  Another girl in the class watches our interaction and moves swiftly.  She grabs the book, presses it to her chest, and rushes to her seat.  My daughter and I stand there, stunned.  I’m new at this.  I blink and encourage Cosette to pick another book.   Later, I ask the teacher about the interaction and explain that I found the girl to be a bit rude – and if that behavior was appropriate.  She shrugs as if to say, of course.  I cock my head as if to say, really?  “Oh yes, in America I suppose the classrooms are - how do you say – quite severe?” she challenges. I raise an eyebrow. 
   Weeks later, my daughter comes home with bruises on her arms.  “The boys at school grabbed my arms on the playground and would not let go.”  She says.  “My arms hurt, Mama.”  I ask who the boys were and what the teacher did.  I recognize their names.  They are 6-year old boys who tower above her.  She explains that the boys were sent to time-out.  I’m upset that 6-year old boys are beating up 4-year old girls on the playground, but more than that, I’m upset that the teacher didn’t bother to tell me.  V confronts the teacher the next day.  “Well, of course – I was not here yesterday,” (the teacher who prefers to not speak English to me works Mon-Wed, and this is Thursday’s teacher), “but I can tell you that. . . in America, I hear that you must sign a form for every little scratch,” and again.  A shrug.  Dumbfounded, V slinks away with the Paranoid American hat on that she’s just handed him.  He calls me and explains the interaction.  I’m livid – after 2 ½ years of learning, understanding, and embracing many facets of the Dutch culture, lectures in cultural shortcomings is not what I was looking for.  
Pregnant with 2 kids, pedaling my 'bakfiets' to Dutch school

June 2014 – In retrospect, I now realize the importance of researching the schools far in advance before children turn four years old.  Not all schools are created equal.  My husband and I are currently researching and weighing options for the fall.  As with many things, the Home in Leiden website has been an invaluable resource.  I have heard from many Dutch parents that the school Cosette attends currently has high ratings and a good curriculum.  Ultimately, I think our decision comes down to where we feel most comfortable, and of course, every child is different.  After such a positive experience with their Dutch preschool, I feel strongly that there’s a school out there that suits my daughter’s needs and makes me feel comfortable.  We just have to cross our fingers that we’ll find it and that the waiting list isn’t too long.  No one wants to be invisible.             

Hold on little girl
Show me what he's done to you
Stand up little girl
A broken heart can't be that bad
When it's through, it's through
Fate will twist the both of you
So come on baby, come on over
Let me be the one to show you
I'm the one who wants to be with you
Deep inside I hope you feel it too
Waited on a line of greens and blues
Just to be the next to be with you
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Thursday, June 12, 2014

ABC, Easy as One, Two, Three

August 2011 - The three of us glisten in the late evening sun.  North Texas has cooled to a balmy 88 degrees at 7:30 p.m.  “We’re close to the record – 60 days of over 100-degree heat.  I think we’re at day 56 or so,” V pants for air.  I nod.  Brace myself to speak.  It takes a lot of energy these days.  Baby Girl is comatose as we wield her stroller up and down the sidewalks.

Tanned and warm in Texas July 2011
“You know.  The Netherlands has probably never seen 100-degrees.  Ever.  In the history of the entire country.” I shuffle along the side walk.  My baby bump shortens my breath and hinders the spring in my step.  “Bump” being a conservative term – more like a beach ball by late August.  Flowers wilt in our neighbors’ yards as we pass.  Water conservation alerts in Plano mandate sprinkler systems can only be used once a week.  “The girl in Accounts Receivable asked again today,” I roll my eyes and attempt to shift the conversation away from the heat – although towards an equally dismal subject. 
“She didn’t,” V asks incongruously.
 “I swear – if she asks me one more time if I’m having twins, I’m seriously going to report her to HR. This has been the fourth time!  It’s not a difficult concept – small people give birth to normal sized babies.  I’m only 5 feet tall – there’s nowhere for the baby to go but OUT.  Duh!” I’m hot at the thought.  Lately, I’ve made a habit of waddling onto empty elevators at work and punching the door close button before anyone else can join me.  It’s the only opportunity I have for peace, otherwise I’m bombarded by questions in the claustrophobic space.  My cube is on the 9th floor – which proves to be plenty of time for the following seemingly innocent conversation to ensue: “Oh, when are you due?  Oh wow – October?  You look like you’re about ready to pop!” Which, on my good days, makes me want to want to ask about the progress of their own diet or fitness routines which have clearly failed.  On my bad days, I want to punch them in the face.  Most of the times I struggle a sarcastic smile and cock my head, which in the grand game that is Corporate America, isn’t much better than the former two options.  Good thing I’m moving to the Netherlands in six months. Game Over.  “You know what would be awesome?” I say to V as we turn the corner.  I see the shining promise of pink bricks basking in the sunset.  We are steps away from relief - A/C, Texas Rangers, and my fluffy couch awaits.  The evening exercise in the form of walking around the neighborhood after dinner, is almost complete.  “You know how we’ve always wanted three kids.” (V nods in agreement.  At the time, we are blissfully unaware of the challenges of two children.)  “Wouldn’t it be great if we could extend the rotation another year then have our 3rd child in the third year?  Imagine!” The idea formulates in my head and grows rapidly.  “No miserable Texas heat.  No one to bother me about how big I am.  I probably won’t even be working!  We wouldn’t have to tell anyone.  I could possibly, finally enjoy a pregnancy without having to hear all the ‘oh wow, you’re so big’ nonsense! And then, when we come back, I could get a job. . . or not. . . but either way, we’ll have it all out of the way!  Since you never want to start a job and then get pregnant six months later or whatever.” (Again, hands-on lesson learned in Corporate America).  “What do you think?” I say with as much excitement as a 7-month prego Mama can muster.    
Texas Rangers, couch, and A/C in Texas August 2011 
“Yeah!  Sounds like a good idea,” V nods and molds the idea with his own reasoning.  “We know the 1st year is going to be tough with this little guy,” he pats my beach ball affectionately. “But the second year should be awesome.  By the third year, we’d probably be ready to give it a go.” We grin like conspirators.  He puts his hand on the front door handle, gives me a sweaty kiss, and we enter into the cool of our living room.   

Winter 2013 “I always wanted three kids, until I had two,” my friend Alexandra laughs with me as we enjoy brunch over the holidays.  V is shuffling around the table refilling our coffee cups.  “Yeah – we knew the 1st year was going to be tough with Holden, but we didn’t expect the 2nd year to be tough with him, too.” We all laugh.  His curls are bobbing up and down the living room as he runs from one place to another for no particular reason.  Cosette is sitting quietly at her art table. “He’s put a damper on our plans.”  I smile.  I adore my son, but over the past couple of years, he’s definitely worn me out.  He’s dragging a dining room chair over to the TV.  He’s determined to get the remote controls I have placed out of his reach.  “But should we really let Holden determine our family size?  I mean, he’s not going to be this crazy forever.” (I hope!)  “I also don’t have a whole lot of time, me being in my mid-30s and all.”  I reason. 
“Oh, lots of people have kids in their 40s,” my friend Erin attempts to reassure a few days previously.  Pregnancy, amongst my expat friends, has been a hot topic.  I repeat the observation to Alexandra but shake my head.  “I already feel like I’m about 100 years old some days after chasing Holden around.” (Holden get down, no.  No remote.  Okay.  That’s good.  Curls race away. Vinny?  What’s he doing in the kitchen?  I hear him dragging the stool over to the sink!)  “Besides, I don’t want the kids to be too far apart in age and I’m worried if we don’t at least try, we’ll always regret it.  We’re so stubborn in our dreams.”  I raise my eyebrows at V and he pauses to smile and nod before returning the coffee pot to the kitchen.  “Oh, I don’t know. . .” Alexandra says, “Isn’t having a child an ultimate part of the expat experience, though?” She smiles. 
“True.  I mean – you only have a limited time to bear children.  We’re only in the Netherlands for a limited time.  It’s kind of funny that it corresponds.” I imagine myself with a cute baby bump in front of the Eiffel Tower, walking over the canals of Amsterdam with a sense of calm and purpose, and pedaling my bike around Leiden with 2.5 kids.  “It would be pretty cool.” I agree.  “Besides, we’ve always wanted three kids.  And who knows if it will even work.  We’ve had trouble before.  And surely, even if we do get pregnant, it will be a calm, sweet little girl.  The universe knows loveable, energetic Holden is all the boy I could handle.” 
January 2014 – I knew as soon as it happened.  In previous pregnancies, there’s a sense of wonder, confusion, and curiosity.  It wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew.  I felt horrible from Day 2.  Queasy, turned off by even one glass of wine (now you know something is wrong), and already tired.  By the time I took the pregnancy test, I was already showing.  V eyed my bump with suspicion.  “Yeah.  I’m pretty sure that’s not just. . . “ he trailed off.  I waited until the appropriate amount of days, anyway.  And while the pregnancy test instructions were in Dutch, French, and German, I didn’t bother translating.  The photos, and the pictures,
Baby Bump Feb 2014 - just a few weeks along
and resulting “zwanger!” line were clear enough.  I showed V the test and we both smiled and shook our heads in belief and disbelief.  Stubborn and successful.  He called and made an appointment with our general practitioner.
“So!  You come here because you are pregnant?” our family doctor asks.  “Yes,” I smile, a little sheepishly.  “This is good news, yes?” she is confused already.  “Oh no.  Yes, it is good news.” We say.  “You took a test, yes?”  Of course.  I nod.  “Oh-kay.  So. In the Netherlands what we do, is that we refer you to a midwife.  Unless.  There is a specific reason for you to see a gynecologist,” she shrugs and waves her hand.  I’ve heard this before.  Midwifes and home births are very common in the Netherlands.  It was the reason that scared me enough into giving birth to Holden in the United States.  I now know that home births are not common in the expat community.  “Actually,” I interrupt her dismissive waving hand, “I’ve had two C-sections.” This grabs her attention.  Natural births are also common in the Netherlands.  “Oh okay then.  That would be a reason to see a doctor.” She nods and takes out a pen a paper.  Time to get serious.  I’m glad she’s not going to fight me about this.  She interviews me about the details of my C-sections, my mother’s C-sections, and my sister’s birth experience.  She documents everything.  This is all important to state my case to see an actual gynecologist.  Whatever it takes.  In the end she says “Oh yes.  You have a very special case.  You definitely need to see a doctor.  Call tomorrow.  He should see you in about three weeks.”  My brow furrows.  Special case and three weeks do not add up in my head.  That means I won’t see the doctor until I’m nearly ten weeks along. I feel absolutely horrible, which of course is a good sign.  But I’m already showing and have questions – is it twins? Is it developing properly? What about my hCG levels? “Do you want to take my blood or anything?” I ask. 
“Oh no!” (Dismissive hand again)  “That would be too much trouble to transfer the results.”  The doctor’s office is next door to the hospital which houses the gyno. “You took a home pregnancy test, correct?” 
“Yes, of course.” I nod again.

“Then you’re pregnant.”  She smiles, shakes my hand, and ushers me and my husband to the door.  And with that ‘official’ assessment, my most courageous or crazy adventure yet, begins. . . 

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