(These were all published in 2013 in a blog I used to write called “Belamama”. As I was putting the blog down, I picked a few to publish later here. Now, at the end of 2014, the time seems right. The pictures are not all the same as in the original posts, and the links might have changed somewhat too.)
Three weeks ago my mother-in-law passed away. She left us suddenly, unexpectedly. An irreplaceable loss. She loved her son and her granddaughter immensely. Like mothers do.
We came to Bosnia, where she lived, in the beginning of January to help her out with chores in the mountain lodge. She was feeling tired and a little ill. None of us knew it was only weeks till she’d be gone.
As I’m trying to write about her, I find it hard, I’m lost with words. I didn’t know her well enough. There are things I can’t say here, things that belong only between a mother and her son. Family tales, secrets, and stories from during the war. I can say that none of us would be here, if it wasn’t for her.
What I knew, and will remember for a long time, are mere fragments. How she made pita (Bosnian pie), how she put milk in her coffee, how she held her hair, or smoked a cigarette. She taught my daughter how to blow a kiss. And now our baby is blowing kisses to photographs of her. I’ve asked my husband to tell stories about grandmother to the small one. I don’t have those stories of her, and anyway, he’s the storyteller of the family.
She left behind a home, a lodge, and several mountain dogs. We stay here to take care of them. We shift our lives, but it’s not simply gloomy or sad. We have a life to live. She would want us to enjoy it. She would be thrilled if we loved it here, if we found happiness, together, anywhere. Whenever unexpectancies happen.
My husband lost his mother, my baby her grandmother. My family misses her sorely. To me she was the only mother-in-law I’ve ever had, and I’m forever grateful for what she gave me: the love of my life, my family.
Mothers and friends
It’s nearly midnight in March and the five of us are outside a closed restaurant, laughing so we’ve got tears in our eyes. We’ve been talking about kids and the various lifestyles and situations we’re in. One of us is taking her family to the jungle in Brazil during her fieldwork there, one has just come back from the freaking cold and fierce Finnish winter, and me, I’m moving to a seemingly remote location to the mountains in Bosnia. After an evening of having dinner, talking about our joys and frustrations, and enjoying a few glasses of wine, our reality looks nothing but wacky and absurd. So there we are, standing on the street on a Tuesday evening, in an empty town, cracking up. Me and my four best friends.
The next day we drove to Bosnia with my husband and spent three weeks there, making a home. During that time we saw a few of our friends in Sarajevo – but I didn’t have the girls around, the support net that we’ve woven in the years in Ljubljana. Surely the net is there, but 550 kilometers is a long drive away for an afternoon coffee.
We went back for a few days last week, and I was reminded how lucky I am for having these incredible women in my life.
They are smart, funny, beautiful. They are brave, trustworthy, creative. They are mothers (all except one) and career women. They are also all Finnish. I never intended to surround myself with fellow Finns when I moved to Slovenia. Accidental as it is, it’s not surprising. We’re the same age, in similar life circumstances. We live abroad, in a tiny country, coming from a tiny nation up north. We share a cultural background, we’ve grown in a special kind of climate (be it weather, environment or social life) and we’ve swapped all that to live in very different circumstances, mostly because we’ve fallen in love.
Quite possibly there is no-one on this planet that could understand me better than they can.
When I got pregnant there was only one child among the five of us. Within seven months after my girl was born, three more babies had joined us. The first six months of my motherhood are among the happiest in my life. I was thrilled to have the baby I had longed for, the love hormones were going wild, of course, and she was so beautiful to me. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that I could share the happiness with my friends.
They say it takes a village to raise kids right. Although I’ve just recently moved to a village, I’d like to think my village is a different sort. It’s the friends and loved ones we have around the world. I like to think that when my children grow up, they’ll have many homes to return to. And vice versa, my door is always open to my friends and their children, whenever they need a place to rest or another adult to listen to them. So I can’t really believe my luck of finding these women with whom I share so much of values and views of life.
We’ve spent together Christmases, New Year’s Eves, Midsummer nights, and birthdays. We’ve heard the birth stories, the love stories, the unhappy endings of past times. We’ve laughed about the weird dates and the never-agains, and cried about losses and disappointments. When one of us goes to Finland, she brings something to all of us: chocolate, books, magazines, packages from families. Together we could open a Finnish design and bookshop, but we settle for organising parties with all the right decorations and nostalgic music.
We talk about work (“Should I take the kids to the Amazon with me?”, “When are the clients from India arriving?”), politics (The Yugoslavian heritage, capitalism, socialism – the soil is fruitful for any political talk), and art (exhibitions and gigs we’ve missed, or aren’t going to miss this time). We talk about relationships, naturally. Kids, family relations, friendships. When I’ve been tired or worried about the baby, there’s always the four of them, listening to me, giving advice if needed, and offering help.
Our families and old friends are far away, so we’ve become each other’s local family members, in a way. We often have kids with us, when we gather. On some evenings it’s just us girls. Our husbands and boyfriends are ever astonished listening to us, speed talking in Finnish, and laughing aloud. (Yet they quietly thank their fates for us girls having us girls. For it’s the five of us that circle around in the good and the challenging times, thus taking a little off the burden of the boys.)
I see us as girls – more than mothers or career women – and I see us being silly, drinking champagne and talking about boys and lipstick when we’re in our seventies. And just the thought makes me giggle. In one way, I can’t wait to get there! On the other, I’m really looking forward to sharing the years in between with them. But most of all, I’m just happy about my friends in the now.
I once heard this morbid declaration of friendship: Friends help you move, best friends help you move bodies. There’s a wide gap between the two. Though I sincerely hope I’ll never need to move a body, it’s good to know I have a few people I could call.
So mothers and friends all around: Be fearless in sharing and giving. Happiness lives in giving, and your motherhood will thrive the happier you are.
P.S. I’m writing this in a café in downtown Sarajevo, and I see girls talking, holding hands, and laughing. It makes me smile. So much love around.
Tom Stocky, a director at Facebook, updated his fb-status (7th of July 2013) about his paternity leave. He spent four months taking care of his daughter, a lengthy paternity leave (not long enough, some might say, though!) that is rare in many countries and cultures. I reposted his text on my own wall, as did many others. I quote Stocky: “What I never got used to was the double-standard for fathers when it comes to childcare. I experienced it predominantly in three forms: (1) low expectations for fathers, (2) negative perceptions of working mothers, and (3) negative perceptions of “non-working” fathers. (Side note, the term “working mothers” is bad because it implies at-home mothers aren’t working, which is of course not true, but I don’t know a better term to use.)”
It still amazes me how fascinated we are by fathers taking care of their children, in the year 2013. I’m constantly reminded that my view on children and family life is not exactly mainstream. Some are struggling with – what seems to me – the very basics: who’s turn it is to do what (change the baby’s diaper, feed her, put her to sleep, etc.), who is capable of what, who has the right to go to work, to see friends, to excersise etc.
What I think is wrong or strange with this is that it’s such a power struggle. As if there was a fight between the good and desired and the not-so-interesting and less-of-value, work vs. children, going out vs. staying with the kids, doing the chores vs. being free. And the way I see it, is that all of the mentioned activities (and countless others) can be enjoyable when you’re happy and balanced.
Especially after becoming mother myself, I’ve had trouble understanding couples fighting over who’s to stay behind and take care of the kids. I get that if it’s always the one and never the other, it’s killing all joy in the family life. What I don’t get is why someone wouldn’t want to stay with the kids.
I’m not saying I’m getting an actual pleasure out of changing my baby’s diaper, but I do enjoy the fact that she lets me do it, and I get to spend that time with her. If she didn’t feel comfortable letting me change her diaper, I would be very worried. If I never got to work, read, go out with my friends, or spend time with my goats (!) without her presence, I would quickly wear out. Needing one’s own time is a simple, often expressed fact by many parents.
Yet when it is the father staying with the baby, it still makes the headlines.
Stocky mentioned that he was often encountered with admiration and / or surprise when seen taking care of his child. He mentions he got “ridiculous praise for changing his baby’s diaper or going grocery shopping with her”. How is that so? How is it possible that we don’t expect men to participate on these mandatory and completely normal duties of a parent?
I did have expectations towards my husband. I didn’t think of them, though, until our baby was born. I believe I am unquestionably as entitled to have a life outside the home as he is. Even though I married a Balkan man (not always known for their liberal thoughts or belief in equality, I’m afraid) I’ve never doubted my “rights”.
My husband didn’t take an actual paternity leave since he was freelancing at the time our daughter was born and was able to spend lots of time with her from the beginning. My maternity leave was 12 months – a normal duration in Slovenia – so we were pretty much hands-on both of us.
Equality in a relationship doesn’t mean all is 50/50, it doesn’t mean you keep count of what’s who’s share. At least in my family it means we try to fix things so that we’re all content with what we have and do. I was perfectly happy to be with our daughter almost 24/7 the first four months. I had complete faith in my husband’s baby caring skills, but I wanted to be close to my girl. Gradually after the first months my husband was spending more and more time with her alone. They would go walking in town, sitting in cafes or my husband would take her to meetings he had to attend to. We never really even discussed this. It was just the way we did things.
And, it didn’t always go the way I wanted. Often when they were leaving home, I would fuss “did you remember to take diapers”, he would look at me certain way or laugh straight at me, and I would back off. He might put funny clothes on her or forget to pack some food. Sometimes I phoned him to ask if he took spare whatever with him. But I always trusted she’d be in the best of care with him (why wouldn’t I?!). And they always returned looking so happy.
What I learned was that he does things differently (and sometimes better). I admire my husband for being so relaxed with our daughter. He doesn’t worry or get tensed when he needs to take her with him to work. He trusts that it’ll all be cool. And if anything does come up, he’s quite capable of handling it. What he says he learned was that it’s fun and easy with her. That they can go almost anywhere without hassle or too much worry. But more important than all this, is that our girl knows her father and he knows her. They trust each other, they feel each other.
Or as Stocky puts it: “It was nice to have her like me so much, to come to me for comfort when she fell, to come and cuddle with me when she got sleepy, to run toward me screaming with excitement after I’d been away for awhile. I realized that’s just because I spent so much time with her, but I didn’t care, it felt really good. Maybe it was also because I got better at childcare. It feels nice to be good at something, and I got much better at the work I was doing at home”.
Pink isn’t the issue
We’ve lived on the mountain in Bosnia for half a year now. It’s the perfect natural setting for any child. We have endless amounts of wild, beautiful nature around us. We’ve got donkeys, goats, dogs, and cats. Our girl is not yet two years, but she’s loving the place. She’s a free range child, allowed and able to run, climb, wander free (with minimal restrictions, mainly due to safety reasons). She picks up flowers, she’s amazed by the moon and the stars, she is fascinated about ants, butterflies, birds – sometimes for two seconds, sometimes ten minutes at one go.
Nevertheless I’ve been told we need to move to the city (Sarajevo) by the time she’s six years old. Or when she’s four, or when she’s reaching her teens. And anything in between. Six is a definitive turning point, since that’s when kids go to school here. Perhaps four would mean that then – at the latest – she needs to go to kindergarten, and teenagers, of course, they need to be out in the “world”.
This particular issue worries others, but not us. I think we’ll stay on the mountain for as long as it feels good and as long as it’s possible. We’re only about 20 minutes drive away from town, so if we absolutely needed, we could pop down on a daily basis. Renting a place in downtown Sarajevo costs anything from 200 KM (100 euros) a month at the moment. So we could even have a second home there. The next move is years away, if ever, and I’m pretty sure it’ll all work out organically, in due time, as it’s done so far.
What I am worried about is a more conceptual matter. I’m not at home in the tough-love, boys-are-soldiers-girls-princesses, a-slap-every-now-and-then-never-hurt-nobody environment. I’m not happy with the gender-based upbringing of children that I see around me. It’s a culture shock to me, a conflict of perspectives. Many issues here (and all over the world, of course) are addressed with “that’s how it’s always been done”. There’s little space for unconventional thinking and acting when it comes to children. Boys have plastic guns for toys, they’re expected to be tough, loud, good at sports, competitive, and they’re definitely NOT – god forbid – supposed to cry! Girls are sweet, mellow, pretty, soft, and basically nothing like boys. And that’s the way it stays.
The radical gender-neutral upbringing trend, that I’ve read about, doesn’t appeal to me either. What I don’t get about that approach is that it implies the gender being the problem, and what needs to be addressed is the gender itself. I didn’t and will not have any intentions of giving my children gender-neutral names (that don’t indicate the gender of the person). Nor do I have trouble dressing my daughter in dresses and skirts. I don’t think those are the real issues.
What troubles me is that our daughter is already considered more fragile than boys her age. When we’re watching her doing her thing, there are often others gently trying to rear her to safer games, or lifting her up and down stairs. I watch her trying to refuse the assistance, and I see the frustration. And again, the problem is not offering her help, that’s simply kindness. The trouble lies in the back of it all, in the general way of thinking that where boys will be fine, girls will struggle. We try to give her space to learn on her own, and offer our help when she needs it.
Although we’re not crazy on the material side of family life, I was excited to find A Mighty Girl. It’s a great tool when you’re looking for books, toys, clothes, or films for the kids. They’ve done a lot of work putting together items that promote the growing up of “smart, confident, and courageous girls” – no doubt the stuff is as good for boys, too.
I was brought up in the 80’s, thinking girls and women can do anything. My childhood heroes were Astrid Lindgren’s characters Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and Pippi Longstocking, both strong, witty, and courageous girls. I was brought up in Finland, of course. Finland is said to be a pioneer in gender equality, being the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and stand for election, back in 1906.
Perhaps the upside of this is that while living in Finland I might have taken the gender-neutral perspectives for granted, thus not paying too much attention to what’s really happening in the playground. At least now I’m actually addressing these issues. And while I don’t always even notice the seeming extraordinarity of it, my daughter is as joyful playing a princess holding gently her soft doll as she is play driving our old truck. That’s the way kids are, they don’t divide things to girls’ stuff and boys’ stuff, until they’re told or taught to do so, by us, the media, or whoever it might be. I just hope that time is still light years away.
Free range kid
A few times, especially in the last six months, I’ve said we free range our daughter. And a few times I’ve been asked what does it mean. In our life it means she’s allowed and encouraged to do things she doesn’t know yet how to. It means that we don’t stop her when she is climbing stairs or painting her face (instead of paper).
Our daughter is soon two years old, so in a way she’s just began free ranging. She’s allowed to wander around the house and our mountain inn without us parents following her every second. But our eyes are on her. She seems naturally quite careful and she rarely goes behind the guesthouse where there are more dangers lurking. But when she does, we’ll accompany her. When she wants to go somewhere she’s not allowed, or it’s just too difficult to get there on her own, she often asks for our help and company.
There are reasons for us to do this. We believe that kids need freedom to explore and challenge their abilities from day one – this is the only way of learning. We believe that us parents are not always best evaluators of what kids need to learn and when – kids themselves are. And we believe that if the world is wide open to the kids, they’ll learn to trust their own instincts and find their own bounderies.
I love standing back and looking what she does. What she sees and finds and understands next. What attracts and interests her. It’s sometimes extremely demanding not to help or show her how. I fail, over and over again. I interrupt her and guide her (when she doesn’t need or want it), I lead the way, and I correct her mistakes (that aren’t mistakes, of course, to begin with).
In the long run I think our free ranging means unlearning many things us parents were brought up with. There are far less ‘wrongs’ and ‘mistakes’ than we were told. When our daughter puts on her clothes the wrong way round, I remind myself that she’s learning, not making a mistake. When she plays with her shape sorter toy and puts blocks into the box by lifting the lid (instead of the right shaped hole), she’s not doing it wrong, she’s being resourceful. And she definitely doesn’t need our help all the time. Especially not when she’s playing, which is what she’s doing most of the time.
On the other hand free ranging is, in many ways, going back to what us parents had when growing up. Born in the 70’s, we had more freedom than many kids these days. We were out most of the day (and if we didn’t go, our parents would be shoving us out), running in the forests, going rough riding with our bikes, playing with the kids in the neigbourhood until dark. Often our parents were unaware of where we were. We came back for mealtimes and simply said we’d had a lot of fun. We had few organised or paid for hobbies, and we had, so it seemed, endless amounts of time. I remember coming home wet to my underwear from playing in the rain and puddles, or shivering of cold after a snowball fight, or heart pounding for running around playing cops and robbers. And that was all fine. I was only doing what a kid was supposed to do. For our daughter, this is all in the future.
I don’t know what comes out of this. I don’t know for a fact that trust in oneself and the world are built exactly like this. But I hope so. I’m not sure if this is good, or any better, for our relationship than some other kind of parenting. But it feels right. This comes naturally, and in this setting it feels like the only way of bringing her up.