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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Bad cop, moi? Oy vey!

To most of my friends I am a scatterbrain. Those, who know me well, also know that I have a talent to remember the most useless pieces of information that will be never put down to test or impress anyone.

Among those "golden nuggets" of useless information was always the knowledge that, given the choice, children prefer parents who don't tell them off.

 It was useless, largely, because I failed to take any notice or make the most of this advice.

Instead, I had a bust up with a 6-year old today, who, after our usual morning squabble over a half-chewed hamster and scatterings of minuscular lego particles on every flat surface, uttered what must be the most horrid line of all most horrid divorces: "I want to live with Daddy! He is Nice and doesn't tell me off like You Do!!"

Struck by the whole-heartdeness of my daughter's statement, I stood aghast and unprepared. "Whatever you do, you'll always be the bad cop" a friend's advice on being divorced bolted through me, as I shrank inside in despair.

I knew these things happened, but mostly to other people. Coming from a broken home, I knew better how not to alienate children or screw them up with the "guilt' thing. So, the advice was useless. Until this morning, when it caught me off-guard and drained by the battles, losses and general feeling of self-worthlessness that came with divorce. This was so unfair!

"Fine!" was the best I could come up with, avoiding my daughter's eyes. I was losing the argument and she knew it.

37 years of age, bilingual and a writer, I failed miserably to come up with a better solution when faced with a little girl still dressed in her nighty and standing in the middle of the kitchen with her arms crossed.  Ash-blond streaks of her hair were muddled with tears and her hazel-green eyes were wide open, as she watched my reaction.

"You can go and live with your daddy forever, if he is so lovely and please don't bother coming back!" I shrieked at my own ridiculousness, I was saying all the wrong things!!

Up, in her bedroom, I watched my little girl toss her pink 'n flowery belongings into her pink 'n flowery "trunky" (suitcase), as she packed to leave for "Daddy's place". I knew there was no point in trying to stop her - she had my stubborn streak.
She is also very smart (not my streak), so I'd have had to come up with a very good reason as to why she shouldn't leave this stressed mad, eternally exhausted and unadventurous mummy that I was, but logic was failing me.

Finally, I did what I knew best and what felt right: I wrapped my arms around my girl, pressed her little body to my chest and whispered "sorry, my flower" into the silk of her hair. She drew herself closer to me and half-whisered, half-giggled "I am sorry too, mummy"

We sat on the floor, next to the open "trunky", rocking gently to "twinkle, twinkle..."and whispering our promises to never ever leave each other.

I know this was just a taste of troubles to come and, with time, I will probably find an answer better, than "fine". Until then, "sorry" and "I love you" will have to do.

And if all fails, I can always play the ultimate trump card of every Jewish mother: guilt, of course... "Don't worry about me, I will probably be ok alone. After all, I only raised you and gave you the best years of my life"

I'd better start taking notes from my mum.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

FWF and the other SSs

FWF's (Friends With Families) gatherings are still a sore spot (SS).

Even when they're my FWF and I knew them well before we all had families and became decent. Actually, that's what made it so uncomfortable. We all started from the seemingly similar lifestyle, jobs and aspirations. We even began to date, got engaged and married within the same year.
Following the timescale, we entered the pandemic stage of broodiness (as can be seen from the age similarities among our kids) and settled down. And it looked like all, but me, managed to remain happy with this arrangement. Or they were putting on a damn good show.

Catching up with old friends is always a treat and the only thing I regret in the end is that there is never enough time to talk about EVERYTHING and ask ALL the questions.

Well, today I caught myself thinking "Can it really be only half past six?" and "how do I kill the next two hours stuck on coffee and next to a happy couple?" I didn't know them well enough to throw casually in the "I am going through a divorce and feel crap, is it ok to pretend I am not here?" bit. And I couldn't really share the joy of them finally moving closer to a xxx  private school which their "little Molly" simply adored, because she didn't have to put up with the riffraffs of the nearby state school.

I was bored. Maybe with sufficient amount of amphetamine and wine I would have joined in with their silly enthusiasm. Or if I was with a husband, I could've dragged him into the conversation and asked to "just nod at the right times", while I popped out to abuse the fore-mentioned substances.

But I had none of those. And, unbelievably, neither did I want to. Because that would've just made me cope and I've come to realise recently that it's the coping bit that drives many of us quietly and slowly insane. Not living life, just coping with it.

It wasn't really a struggle as such to be the only single parent at the party of 30+ FWF. But it sure was daunting. It was a different ball game requiring new coping strategies and behavioural patterns to survive in this "happy couples only, please" environment, without feeling bitter or twisted. It's like coming to a party where everyone speaks the language you no longer understand, and nobody speaks your new language. What's the right protocol on bitterness and twisted-ness in these circumstances? Tricky...

Still, it was comforting to see my old friends at the party and to know them well enough to keep the questions tirade flowing, while avoiding talking about myself. It was also refreshing to simply enjoy the celebrations of my dear friend's big day, rejoicing in her life's milestone, rather than commiserating about mine. It just wasn't the time or the place to feel miserable. It was time to live, not to cope.

And to hell with the small-talk. "The only thing my soon-to-be-ex husband and I have always agreed on was state education. Our children go to a state school and you know wot? I love their bleedin Essex accent!... Now, if you'll excuse me, I am going to get myself a drink"

And before the happy couple had a chance to small-talk on miseries of divorce and state education, I made my way swiftly to the kitchen and found my friend in there. Perched on a bar stool with her birthdays-only Manolo Blahniks shoved carelessly under it, she filled her glass with champagne (which judging by the sliding make up, wasn't the first time) and rubbed her feet. I smiled. She smiled back and sighed. I sighed too and perched on a stool next to her. Still silent, she poured champagne into my coffee mug (I was glad it was empty), put her hand on my shoulder and said:"I know this must feel shit right now, but you'll bounce back. You always do"

We hit the "remember that time, when..." part of the evening. The hours flew by, as we cried, giggled and gossiped in whisper (or so we thought), before we realised there was no more noise around us. Intrigued by the silence, we went looking for vanished party guests and suspiciously quiet children. We found most of them scattered around the house on sofas, armchairs and rugs, fast asleep and blissfully exhausted. At least, the children were.

And when we each gathered our lot of tired and chocolate-smeared munchkins, I knew, that single parenthood wasn't all my life was about. I was surrounded by the love and warmth of my friends, who genuinely cared.

I was single, but I certainly wasn't alone.

Happy Birthday, Valerie xxx


Friday, 20 April 2012

Glammy Mummy with substance

When most of our friends tied the knot and sold their London pads in favour of country dwellings, we saw it as a sign to follow suit.


Swapping cocktail dresses for jeans and wellies seemed like a fair exchange where our growing family was concerned. “I’m only 25 minutes away from the city!” I gushed to my London friends when they tried to picture the world outside the M25.

Dreaming in eggshell blue and tickled pink, I packed away my career ambitions and enclosed my world within the walls of our new baby-friendly house, ready to embrace the most natural thing in the

world – being a mother. Exactly how natural and fair this swap was I was about to find out.

Another morning began with a blast of information: early-riser friends’ text messages, a sneaky glance at the news before the TV is hijacked by the shorter population, Post-It notes from me to me on the ceiling lights, cooker and fridge.

Scribbled on yellow paper squares were reminders to feed the cat, complete a sci-fi story and a scientist costume for my daughter’s school project, a no-nappy day for my son, feed the kids, let the cat out, not let the cat in unless the neighbours complain about the loud meowing. Again.

Pleased with the steady decrease in the amount of the yellow notes, I check my Filofax for near misses in the task cascade before sweeping in a tidal wave the aforementioned short population towards the exit and out of the house.

Seconds later we are back in the kitchen to pick up the notebook with my sci-fi story, which WE left recklessly on the kitchen table. “Silly mummy...” mumbles my 4-year old “Look, I’m a writer, I like telling stories and imagining things. But I also forget things!” I run out of excuses.

The “so far, so good” morning threatens to show the first signs of failure when I see the results of parental enthusiasm towards the school project. Appearing from the surrounding streets and cul-de-sacs are alien invaders, space rockets and astronauts in very convincing moon boots, foil gloves and bubble shaped helmets. As I help my daughter out of the car, I reassure myself that some parents have far too much time on their hands. Wearing industrial goggles, oversized rubber gloves and her dad’s white shirt with a nuclear sign and "keep calm and carry on" badges pinned to it, my four-year old looked just as convincing.

As I shuffled back into my kitchen, deflated post-school run and armed with a mug of very strong coffee, I prepared myself for the next information blast – emails.

Scrolling through my messages and resisting the temptations of free spa trials or sharing billions with an African banker, I spotted a letter from my friend entitled "It's all in the name!"

Intrigued, I read on and found out that Jane was expanding her jewellery business, adding new lines of sea-inspired designs and art objects.

Slight ripples of self-disappointment went through me. Jane was now asking me to help her find a new business name. “Well, with all that time to herself and no children, of course she’s expected to do well

in something!” I carried on with my self-reassurance.

Feeling uneasy, I scrolled further through my emails and saw a Facebook message from Jenni - a long-forgotten friend and a former colleague.

From Jenni’s previous Facebook notifications I knew she had got married, bought a house, had a healthy baby girl and called her Scarlett. Reading on I expected this message to be news of a) another baby b) a pending divorce or c) a scheduled flight to the moon.

Nothing prepared me for the shock Jenni's email bore - she has written a book and was now marketing it through Facebook.

Jenni, who for years “slaved” in the same job as me and then, like me, moved out of London, severed herself from the blissful partying lifestyle and became a full-time mum, has now WRITTEN, COMPLETED, and PUBLISHED a book?

It is astonishing how quickly someone's good news can turn another’s day sour.

I knew I wasn't jealous. Far from it, I honestly wished I could squeeze both of my friends’ hands, do a girlie jump and scream "Oh my God, Jenni/Jane, what wonderful news!"

And yet I felt empty, suddenly seeing my perpetual rush as a sham, just filling time and my self-esteem with endless tasks and pointless mini-achievements. Was I missing something?

It seemed that while I moaned about my life as a mother of young children, others went quietly about theirs, achieving the uneasy goals of establishing themselves as writers and designers.

And while I fretted over not baking enough with my children, never having the time to play with them as washing, cleaning and cooking took priority, others developed plans, researched, no doubt sacrificed and, more importantly, worked hard to realize their dreams.

Was I too slow, ineffective or unproductive?

According to The Guardian’s recent article “Celebrity school run chic” it is no longer enough for a modern day mum to give up high achieving careers, move to the country, set up a standing order with the nearest Cath Kidston shop and produce an insane amount of cupcakes. It wasn't even about our feeble attempts to maintain the pre-brood glamour.

In the post “I don't know how she does it” world, it seems the glamour is only good when backed by substance. Like by achievements stretching beyond the perimeter of one’s back garden.

And just when I thought I had finally come to terms with my countrified living, clad with Hunter wellies and Barbour jackets, my friends’ refusal to stay or become stay-at-home mums revealed my own

insecurities. Was my life really slipping away achievement-free and worthless?

Why are there so many pressures on modern-day mums to achieve?

With 75 percent of women returning to work after having children, how many choose to do so for their ambitions and not just for financial reasons?

Many of the working mothers I know said they found it easier to return to work than to be a full-time mum. And yet they seem happier playing monsters or rolling Play-Doh snakes with their children than I ever manage to be.

Perhaps in the days of all-day children’s TV channels, playgroups and classes enrolling babies as young as four months old, raising children may seem an easier task than the pre-washing machine generation might have experienced. Yet how many of us avoid engaging in our children’s

activities and hide behind computers sending non-essential emails or looking for handbags online? I know I do.

Has hiding become a running theme in my life? And what was I hiding from? The world of grown-ups and their achievements, hoping to get away with my mediocre baking?

Or was it the fact that my friends’ achievements were more tangible, like an art object or a book, which they could decorate other people’s shelves with? Unlike the clean washing piled up unsuitably on top of my bed-side table.

Did I feel deflated? Yes, but also liberated. Maybe it was time for me to stop hiding behind the impossible schedules of a high-functioning full time mother, never achieving those goals or fitting into the image.

Maybe it was ok to admit that it never really was something that made me happy. It was ok to keep looking for my true self, even if it had nothing to do with being a yummy mummy. How about a glammy mummy with substance? And whatever it was that made me happy – a full day of uninterrupted writing or the silence of a city library – it was ok to embrace that too.

The pressures are there for us all to be busy mums and to strive to do more - this much is true. But so are the choices. The choice to stay professional, career-focused, not to feel guilty looking after yourself. I know it might be a tough game juggling motherhood with staying individual in the chaos of school runs, homework and school projects. And perhaps for some of us to maintain both sides of our

lives separately borders on insanity, but I also realize it is vitally important to keep juggling and not to lose sight of the women we once were.

As for the notorious cupcakes and being a writer? I made peace with myself when I realised that baking is a good time-filler on a rainy afternoon and an excuse for a messy kitchen and happy children. And however mediocre the baked result might be, there is never a crumb in

sight at the end of it.

As I was kissing my daughter good night that day, she wrapped her arms around my neck and whispered “When I grow up, mummy, I want to be a writer just like you. I like telling stories too. And I won’t forget things”.

Did I feel tired that day? Yes. Fulfilled? You bet!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Who is afraid of a call centre guy?

- Hello Madam. My name is Hashish. I am not trying to sell you anything, do not worry.

My mind is racing now. Do I know somebody called Hashish? Has my husband’s recent trip to the Middle East got anything to do with it? What does he want, anyway? Of course I am worried, I wasn’t expecting a call, or to talk. Let alone answer any questions. It’s the end of a day and I am contemplating what’s for tea.

- Our call is for research purposes only. It will only take 5 minutes of your time.
Is anyone in your household aged between 25 and ..4? Yes or No?

Where did they get my number and how dare they interfere with my freedom of doing fuck all on this balmy evening in May?

The silence on the other end of the line reminds me it’s my turn to speak. What was it again? Without waiting for a repeat I answer “No” and feel guilty. How predictable, how Western. Did I sound stupid? It was something about the age bracket, right? 25 – 34? Maybe 94?

He carries on with the question in a strong accent, making it hard to understand him. Will it be impolite to ask him to repeat what he was saying? Yet my resentment to cooperate is growing stronger.
Perhaps the questionnaire was to help stem research or something just as important, and yes, at a push and good persuasion I could've listened to the end of the question and give it a half-honest answer, but my adopted Western obsession with privacy kicks in and the foreign accent on the other end of the phone is just that – a foreign accent from a faraway place, asking me some detached from my reality and interests questions.

I am not a xenophobe who doesn’t care about the way other countries develop and is being a mere obstacle on their way to a brighter future. After all, I used to be that foreign voice on the other end of a line, speaking with a strong Russian accent and annoying the hell out of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Liverpodlian, Manculian, Lancashire, West country, Northern and all other call centre customers who happened to live in Britain outside (on the "wrong" side) the M25.

The voice is blowing silently into the receiver at the familiar signs of the inevitable rejection.

- What age are you, Madam? – He’s nailed it now.
- I am sorry, but I really haven’t got the time for this - I snap.
- You haven’t got 5 minutes?
- No, I bloody well haven’t. I’m putting my kids to bed! (read: I’m washing my hair/drinking wine/contemplating the next few hours of kids-free time/none or all of the above)

He’s stoically silent. I am increasingly uncomfortable.

Maybe, the more suave way out of this would have been in the lines of “Sorry, Hashish. I understand this somehow is important to your next career move, but you’ve caught me at the end of my functioning day. I’ve just put my kids to bed (yes, they do exist) and got a chilled glass of very good Chablis waiting for me outside in my newly discovered garden. Winters are so shittily long in this country, mate, it’s a crime to waste this unexpectedly long spell of hot summery days stuck inside my kitchen, answering your questions"

He waits patiently. I hang up awkwardly.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Russkiye in town!

It all started with Layla's promise to me on the way to a theatre "Ok, mama. I'll speak Russian for today."
We paced outside the theatre hall, Alex in the pram munching on rice crackers, Layla clutching her ballet suitcase and dancing in front of the glass entrance doors, looking at herself in the reflection. In few minutes she was going to meet Russian ballerinas, who were performing at the theatre that night. It's was Layla's big treat - meeting real ballerinas with her best friend Emily.

Minutes later we were escorted inside the theatre, where the ballet dancers were rehearsing on stage.
It was a truly spectacular view: A dozen or two of young dancers dressed in bright rehearsal gear stood in tidy rows, swaying their arms and stretching perfectly straight legs while holding on to the metal bars set up on stage. They were accompanied by a pianist, playing in the far corner of the stage. It reminded me of my childhood, getting ready for school in early mornings to the same kind of music on the radio where a voice commanded “Arms stretched. Legs apart. One, two, three, four and one, two, three, four...”

Jane (Emily's mum) and I pushed our boys in the prams to the front row, while Layla and Emily skipped along, holding hands. Enchanted, the girls watched the rehearsal in silence for the first ten minutes. The boys moaned, so we silenced them with more rice cakes and fruit juice.

The dancers threw squinted looks at us from the stage and carried on waving and swaying their arms and legs. Their coach glanced at us lazily too and continued to growl onto the stage: “Masha, Masha! Higher that leg, throw it higher! You are not in kindergarden anymore!” or “More enthusiasm, kids, more energy! We are not children, are we?!” I found it amusing to hear and understand everything the coach yelled and him not knowing that I did.

The dancers squinted and shielded their eyes with their hands. The very bright lights above them lit the stage and iluminated the sweat beads streaking down their faces.

“Alexander Ivanovich! Is it possible to reduce the light please, it is very difficult to rehearse in this heat!” they moaned to their coach

“I don’t know. We’ll see... Now, Katya, remember your left hand, for goodness sake! Don’t let it hang so lose, we talked about it, didn’t we?!” The coach continued to growl.

“Mama, I want to dance! “ Layla whispered to me. “Can I dance please? Can I put my ballet tapochki on please? Please?”

My heart filled with joy as I dressed Layla's little feet in ballet slippers. And as if by magic, she tiptowed very convincingly in her little ballet dress and satin pink slippers, holding on to a chair and imitating the moves of the ballet dancers on stage.

At this point the dancers began to notice the little girls in the front row. Suppressed titter shuffled across the stage. Some of them began to point towards the two toddlers holding on to the chairs, swaying their arms and falling over themselves.

As the first part of rehearsal finished, the dancers cleared the stage, moving away the bars and other supporting equipment. The music became louder and the dancers, some sitting, some standing, formed a circle. Now they were practising turning, twisting and leaping forward.

Excited by the sudden change, the toddlers desperately tried to follow suit. They gladly leaped and twirled in the auditorium's walk ways. This in turn sent further ripples of suppressed laughter on stage.

Unable to focus now, the dancers decided to take a small break. With the music still playing in the background, Layla and Emily carried on practising.

“Look at them, Alexander Ivanovich! Aren’t they adorable!” a slight girl, with a wide blue hairband and even wider blue eyes pointed at the toddlers.

“Hmm, yes. Particularly the one in pink dress. So tiny, but look how she moves! Very flexible, she’s natural!” The coach exclaimed smiling and watching Layla twirl.

“We’ll have to take her in!” the girl with blue hairband replied.

It all came to an end when the boys decided enough was enough and fidgeted loudly in their prams and no amounts of chocolate buttons and biscuits in shape of a bunny rabbit could buy their silence.

The girls were beginning to run havoc by now too, imagining it was a running competition. Untimely as it was, we had to make our way to the exit, where we were awarded with two rolls of “Sleeping Beauty” posters for tonight’s performance. This was a little token of Layla’s first encounter with a magical world of ballet. Tomorrow it will take the place it deserves - above Layla’s bed.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

best intentions

- I have invited our friends for dinner this Friday. I'm going to make my own pizzas! - I exclaimed excitedly with my head up high, wind in the hair and sparkle in the eyes. Jamie's and Nigella's best student (I've got all their books!) I considered my skills in stone-baked-effect pizza making from scratch to be a high achievement and expected a stroke on a head or at least a pat on a shoulder any minute now. From my mother. She's from Azerbaijan and is the world's best critic.

She rolled her eyes instead. Stirring her four-sugar black extra strong coffee ever so vigorously. As I held my breath, she opted for a silent treatment.

- Well? - I spat out.
Silently, she shrugged her shoulders and tapped the mug with a spoon.

By now I was busy building the emotional shield from any commentary acidity that was clearly brewing in my mother's head and which she was preparing to deliver to me. For a moment it looked like she was turning round to walk out of the kitchen.

- What do you want me to say? - Maybe not...

And then again:

-... A minute ago you told me your two-year old daughter knows better what she wants to eat. Now you want me to get excited about your snack food? When I see you and your guests standing up in the kitchen, crunching and munching on snacks I feel almost embarrassed for your rabbit food, which you call starters.

I could hear the familiar hissing noise of my deflating confidence.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Summer prelude

26 July. 2009. Baku.
8.30 am. Both my children are awake and have soiled nappies. Horror of all horrors, no clean nappies left. Emergency dash to a Baku supermarket. Unusual for this time of year hazy morning, ladas and Lexus RX "tanks" dart along empty streets. Like lazy teenager, this city is up all night and doesn’t wake up properly till the noon sun is piercing through the cloudless sky.
Street vendors and tea houses wash off the ever present dust with hose pipes, sprucing up the seldom greenery and greying whites of plastic chairs and tables.
As I walk towards the supermarket, I notice the delay in the sliding doors. They remain closed as I walk into them, where the sticker sign clearly states "IN". After my second attempt to crash-open the supermarket doors, a dozy security guy shuffles lazily towards me from inside of the shop and with the obvious annoyance forms his hands in the sign of a cross. "What do you mean closed? It's nearly 9am, for f***s sake!" But there is no one to hear my ranting, everybody is too busy drinking tea. Defeated, I shuffle back, wondering what is one to do with smelly children and what the world did before Pampers were invented.

A woman on a street in black and white polka-dot dress seems to enjoy her al-fresco breakfast, as she reaches for heavy-laded branches of a white mulberry tree. Her head and back arching backwards in search of the ripest fruit, holding the tip of the branch in one hand and picking the berries with the other.
I catch myself gazing at her ease and total ignorance of the hustle and bustle of the morning city, surrounding her.
Growing up amongst the orchids of varieties of mulberry trees and being so used to their sight, smell and taste, I never thought they will symbolise summer for me as much as the Caspian sea or dachas.
When Layla and I went out for a walk hours after we arrived in our Baku flat, we passed an old mulberry tree on our way. Keen to introduce my 2-year old daughter to all the delights of my childhood, I picked few juicy berries from the tree for her. She munches on the berries happily and I close my eyes with delight. As I look up and open my eyes, I see again this pain-stakingly familiar sight of the innocent blue sky scattered in between the green spread of mulberry leaves and their ink-coloured jewels of berries. This was the moment when summer officially started for me.