Anywhere but here

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I haven’t blogged for months and months, mostly because of some Interesting Life Developments that diverted my attention. I’ve had so much going on in my brain, so many thoughts about Living, and none of them have been coherent enough to shape into a single post.

But the only thing worse than a shitty blog is a neglected blog, so today I’m going to try to write about one of the issues I’ve been absent-mindedly dwelling on in the last few months. Not the quandaries of a second pregnancy (I’m halfway into mine, despite believing I’d not be able to get pregnant again, and not knowing if I even wanted to), about which I could wax lyrical; not about an imminent change in the texture of my workdays (after the baby, I’m resigning from work, and starting as a freelancer, so for the first time in my adult life, I won’t be on anybody’s full-time payroll); and not about my husband’s abrupt about-turn into taking leadership of a start-up and what that will mean for our family of three-nearly-four.

It’s about something a lot more general, but it’s also something I’ve got more questions than definitive thoughts about: staying in South Africa. (Edit: It irritates me when bloggers preface posts containing their personal opinion in this way, but I can see why they do. Reader, please know that if you are thinking of emigrating, or have emigrated, and I know you as a friend or family member, this is not a post criticising you or your motivations to leave. It’s more a statement on my experience of the politics of what it means to be a white middle-class South African in this day and age, using as a launchpad the instance of recently hearing that a friend – who is not a social media connection, so it’s probably not you – and her family are in the process of emigrating, and my feelings when she told me. It’s not about you, or anyone in particular. Thank you.)

I had to ask myself this question a few months ago: Why is it that when friends tell me they’re emigrating, the first thing I feel is betrayed? I wouldn’t feel that way if they were moving to a different city, so it’s not because they’re leaving Cape Town to live somewhere else and thus denying me their company.

And then: Do people in other countries feel this way when their friends emigrate?

Or do I feel betrayed at news of friends leaving South Africa because of where we’ve been in the last 20 years, the narrative of the Rainbow Nation – the idea that we’ve built this amazing, brand-new, free and open and wonderful society together since ’94, and you don’t get to just opt out of that? Even though we all know by now that the Rainbow Nation narrative was just that – a tall tale, a yarn – and that the majority of South Africans are poor, and desperate, and dismayed with all the things that haven’t happened in 20 years … Or is it because it makes me question my own choices, because it casts aspersions on my own satisfaction with our life here, because it makes me feel inferior for thinking that this is an incredible place to live?

It could be a little bit of all of those things. But after a while, I started to realise that the reason I feel betrayed is this: I feel like my friends, middle-class white people who leave South Africa because they’re dissatisfied with the way they live here, are just being ungrateful.

Because as a middle-class white South African, I know that we live a charmed life. We must be the most privileged group of people anywhere in the world. The end of apartheid did not mean that our lives changed – we never needed the stockpiles of bread my mother kept in the freezer, or the tins of beans she collected in case of war; we kept our sturdy homes and our schools and our private healthcare and our beach houses and our dignity and the respect of others, at least overtly, and hell, even our cars and books and electronics and TVs; we got to keep all the things we’d denied so many people. One of the only ways our lives changed was that now we could feel better about ourselves; our white guilt could start to be erased. We’re all equal now under law, right? If I succeed, it’s because of the work I’ve put in myself. I’ve worked hard every single day of my  life, and so I deserve everything I’ve got. The poor are the way they are because of bad decisions they’ve made. It’s basically their own fault. This kind of thing is easier to say now than it was for our parents. Of course, it’s all utter bullshit, but it’s so easy to adopt this attitude these days. If anything, since the end of apartheid, I feel like white middle-class South Africans have actually become more privileged.

So I look at my friends who have big houses and comfortable suburban lives and medical aid and every convenience they’d have in more developed countries (and, in many cases, more than they’d have overseas) and listen to them say that they’re leaving “because of the crime” (never mind that they’re safer in their suburbs than 99% of their fellow South Africans, and that the reason they feel so vulnerable is because so many people have so much less than they do, and maybe the best way to address this would be to start trying to solve it, like making monthly donations to organisations that give people a head-start in getting an education, finding work, learning skills) and “for their children”, and I just think – how can you be so ungrateful? What kind of life will you live in the UK, in the States, in Australia or New Zealand, that would be better than living here, right now? Tell me – what tangible or intangible privileges will your children have there that they’re not getting here?

And I’m coming up blank.

I love it here. I hope to never leave. I feel lucky and privileged and guilty every day, and in my own ways I’m going to keep trying to correct the terrible things that have happened and keep happening to put me and other people like me in this position of privilege.

But I can’t say any of this to people like me who are desperate to leave. The irony is that the reason they can choose to leave is their privilege – their other passports, their education, their resources, all the things that being white and middle-class in South Africa has allowed them. But the poor, the ones whose lives are really rotten? They’ve got nowhere to go.

Things I don’t want to forget about you

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  • Last night, you wanted to read a “magazazine” instead of a storybook at bedtime. The only one we have is a freebie from the pharmacy and it’s very boring, but you turn every page carefully and look up and say “what’s that.” and then I have to try to explain the sparse pictures and ads: “The man is sick.” “Shame, poor man,” you say.
  • Hot days have “big sunshine”.
  • You tell me when your food is “too spicy”.
  • You know that you have hazel eyes and red hair, and that I have grey-green eyes and brown hair. And that your Daddy’s hair is too short for a bun, and you ask me to put your hair in a bun, or a “pewtail” or “two pewtails”.
  • You know your left from your right, and can direct me to and from school – “turn left!”, “go straight!”, “turn right!” – and you know what red and green traffic lights mean.
  • You call spiders “crabs” but then correct yourself and say “it’s a crab no maybe it’s a spider”, every time.
  • You’re convinced your full name is “Ava Schell” because our cat’s full name is “Oskar Schell”.
  • When you’re feeling sick, I ask if you’re okay, and you shake your head and say “Ava’s not okay.”
  • Right now, at nearly two-and-a-half, I am your favourite person. When you’re with me, you don’t want anybody else. “No, Daddy, go’way!” and “No Naume today!”. I’m trying to stop you from being so mean but I want you to be allowed to feel what you feel.
  • When we tell you to smile for photos, you say “Show me your teeth!” and then you hold your mouth open like you do for when we brush your teeth. It is not an attractive look.
  • You are obsessed with your shadow. “Come shadow, go get dressed now,” you say when it’s time to get ready for school.
  • You are completely potty-trained except when you sleep, but you refuse to use any toilets other than the ones at home – and you haven’t had an “accident” yet. You are clearly very determined.
  • Restaurants are your favourite places. Every evening you say hopefully, “Go restaurant?” You love sitting at the table with us, colouring in, and talking to the waitresses. (Garage petrol attendants are another favourite of yours. “Bye, man!” you say as we drive away.)
  • You also like to run through the shops (“sops”). It is not my favourite habit of yours.
  • Clothes don’t bother you too much – you don’t really care what you wear. But you have strong opinions on shoes and hats. I usually dress you according to the hat you’ve chosen.
  • Your favourite colour to name is beige, but, somehow, when given a choice, you will always choose the thing that is pink. (Painting your room blue and refusing to dress you in anything pink might have had the opposite effect to what I was hoping for.)

One of my greatest fears

This is the Writers’ Bootcamp Day Three topic. I’m not a fan, I’ve got to say.

The temptation is just to write

SHARKS

And be done with it. But that defeats the point of the bootcamp, which is to spend 60 minutes writing. Unless I typed one letter every 10 minutes,

SHARKS

is not going to cut it.

There’s no way this is going to be an interesting post, to write or to read, if I just go on about the things I’m scared of. I fear what I imagine most happy, comfortable, middle-class people fear: loss (of love, money, security, a parent, a child, my home, a pet, respect); pain; being a victim of violence; failure; growing old without dignity, alone and forgotten; car accidents; plane crashes; cancer; heights; people not liking you; dying.

And my fears as a parent are fairly pedestrian: choking-drowning-suffocating-notbeinghappy-drugs-eatingdisorders-lowselfesteem-ridingintheopenbackofabakkieonOuKaapseWeg-drunkdriving-rape-emigrating-beingbullied-hatingherbody-beingstuckinaburningbuilding-notlikingme-strugglingatschool-neverfindinglove.

Nope, nothing much of interest there.

No matter how terrified I am of things going wrong, I am privileged enough to feel pretty secure almost all of the time. My husband and I are in a marriage of equals. I am university qualified and have a job I enjoy and am reasonably good at (though obviously, for financial reasons, I wish someone had steered me away from Journalism and pointed me in the direction of the BCom section of the university flyer before I enrolled). I am healthy, and my child is of robust health and developing completely normally. And even if she weren’t healthy, our private medical aid would take care of the financial side of things if there was a problem. We own our house and aren’t overwhelmed by the bond repayments. We have private security, live in a very low-crime area, and have airbags in our cars.

I am as safe in my happiness and comfort as I think it is possible to be. I am a middle-class white South African, with all the support that that entails. Through nothing more than an accident of birth, I belong to one of the luckiest groups of people alive today. (Caveat: I will continue to try to atone for the lucky breaks that people like me get for the rest of my life and that is exactly as it should be.)

My fears are vague. Occasionally, they nag, but they’re not all-consuming.

Our nanny, though.

She spent the first two years of her daughter’s life living in a wendy house that leaked constantly for five months of the year. Even though she can now afford to live in a flat, her daughter’s cough and rattling chest will never go away. When she takes her to the clinic, the nurses tell her that because she’s not South African, she shouldn’t be there, that she should pay for private medical care because her daughter is taking the place of South African children in the queue. Her daughter’s father drinks too much and doesn’t work. She has to go to Home Affairs every three months to renew her asylum seeker’s permit, every time knowing that there’s a possibility it could get revoked and that she’d end up back home, with no job and no prospects. She left her son there because couldn’t afford for him to live with her when she first arrived in Cape Town. Now she’s thinking of bringing him to live with her, but he’s just started doing well in school after recovering from breaking his leg in three places – he had to miss six months of school while he recovered because there was no way for him to get there if he couldn’t walk. She’s got a good salary but work as a nanny can’t go on forever because the child she loves (mine) is almost old enough to go to full-time preschool and then what if she doesn’t find another job, or what if she does, and it’s with a family that doesn’t respect her and kids who don’t love her like mine does? Or what if she can only find a job that pays less, which means she won’t be able to feed her daughter the preservative-free food she needs because of her allergies, and she ends up in ER again and again, and won’t be able to keep sending her son to private physios for his leg, and he ends up with a permanent limp that will mean he is overlooked for certain jobs as he gets older? Then what?

I reckon if I asked our nanny, who is about as vulnerable as it is possible to be, to write about her greatest fear, this post might be worth something, because I don’t really know what it is to be afraid.

My favourite collections of words

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Here are my five favourite sentences/lines from children’s books (the topic for Writers’ Bootcamp for today is Your Five Favourite Words, but I’ve exercised a bit of artistic licence here).

1. “That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew … and grew … and grew, until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

The assonance and alliteration in that part of the sentence, the way it rolls around in your mouth, is just a tiny part of the late Maurice Sendak’s genius.

From Where the Wild Things Are, or, as Lil A calls it, simply “Max”.

2. “Night came with many stars.”

I never read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a kid. Lil A got it from an American cousin and every time I read it to her, it breaks my heart. That one sentence conveys so much desolation and beauty, wrapped in such a simple little package.

3. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

There are so many lovely little gems in Winnie the Pooh. On Lil A’s bookshelf is a copy of the first version of Winnie the Pooh ever published. It used to be mine when I was little. It’s written in AA Milne’s own voice, addressed to his son Christopher Robin, who has a beloved bear called Edward. Even before he became known as Pooh Bear, the sense of exactly which kind of bear he’d go on to be is right there in that very first book.

On a trip to New York a few years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at the original Winnie the Pooh toys at the Public Library. They’re all faded and their fur has been loved off – whether by time or Christopher Robin, it’s hard to say – which made them even more charming than they are rendered in fiction. They were real toys. And despite the Disneyfication of the “brand”, I like remembering that it all started as a real story told to a little boy by his Dad, about his favourite bear.

4. “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.”

Miss Rumphius is another favourite from an American cousin that I had not read myself as a child. The watercolours are gorgeous, for one thing, but I also really love how it carries so many truths about old age that children are usually shielded from in books and pop culture. It’s about an old lady who is not a witch – which is unique in itself. But further to that, it’s about an old lady who used to be a little girl. These sentences capture that idea very neatly, and I think it’s an important thing for all of us to remember on a visceral level. As adults, we all know intellectually that the elderly were not always elderly, but I know that I forget at times that not very long ago, they were exactly like me.

5. “I know a bear and when it is sunny, we go for a picnic with brown bread and honey.”

This might sound like another line from Winnie the Pooh, but it’s from Lil A’s favourite book, I Know A Rhino. I bought this book for her because the main character is maybe a boy, maybe a girl. He or she is equally happy playing in the mud and dressing up in a tutu. Their gender doesn’t matter, which is unusual for a children’s book. So I bought it more for the pictures than the words, but now I love this sentence about the bear. It always makes me hungry and seems like a good way to live. When it’s sunny, we go for a picnic. Yes.

And, as added value, here are some great resources on feminist-y children’s books. You’re welcome.

  • A Mighty Girl’s guide to cool picture books for little ones
  • A Mighty Girl’s favourite fairy tales
  • This Guardian article from 2009 (yes, pretty old, but does include Pippi Longstocking, of which I wholly approve)

Is there such a thing as a girl brain?

Spoiler alert: no. Well, not from birth, in any case.

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My two-year-old has become obsessed with the idea of babies in tummies. We’ve got four good friends who are pregnant enough to be showing and since hearing that so-and-so has a baby in her tummy, Lil A has started saying that basically everybody has a baby in their tummy: she’s got one, one of the expectant fathers has one (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, he loves).

This obsession raised the question round drinks recently: is Lil A “programmed” to be interested in babies? Would a little boy be as intrigued?

I expected my feminist husband to jump in as soon as I started saying “She’s only interested because we put a lot of emphasis on it, and we might not if she were a boy,” and “Even if boys and girls were programmed to feel a certain way about babies and modes of transport and sport, which I’m convinced they are not, she’s two years old and I doubt there’d be any reproductive hardwiring kicking in yet,” and “You’re joking, right?”. But he didn’t.

My husband has thought of himself as a feminist for years, since we were in university and I was still scared of the term, and didn’t like its connotations (until my best friend told me to stop being insane and that to not be a feminist was not far off being a racist and I realised what feminism actually means). But when it comes to the physiology of the brain, my husband admitted to believing that those of men and women were necessarily different. And not just because of experience – because of the way they were created in the womb. The way they were wired.

And so I realised that if my pretty progressive, “enlightened” husband thought that, pretty much everybody else did as well.

So, here’s my PSA. There are no “hardwired” differences between male and female brains from birth. Except these, of course. The only differences that are at all meaningful have been created by individuals’ experience. If studies show that same-hemisphere connections are stronger in male than female brains, while women’s brains show stronger cross-brain connections, making them able to multitask and “be good hostesses”, it’s not because they were born that way. It’s because those men had been praised for being singularly focused on a task at hand since they were little boys (and probably because their fathers made a special effort to teach them how to read maps, for example). It’s because the female participants were encouraged to be able to multitask by watching their mothers help with homework while supervising a toddler in the kitchen and making dinner when they were young girls – because that’s what was expected of mothers; because their social connections were emphasised by the women’s parents and teachers while they were growing up.

And so, basically, the reason Lil A is so interested in babies in tummies is that it’s something we pay a lot of attention to when our pregnant friends are around, and she is shaped by what she sees. And also because, ew – it’s a weird thing, when you think about it. A little baby. In an adult’s body. Did I mention how broody I am, by the way?

And there’s the nod to Writers’ Bootcamp, Day 1. Even if you know me well, you probably don’t know this: that I’m finally ready for another baby.

Famous last words (and a few first sentences)

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“Nope. I’ve never had that.” I tried not to make my relief too visible.

We were at our local bar-slash-restaurant, our group of neighbourhood mothers whose kids are all around the same age and at the same school, and one of our party was describing her daughter’s tantrums.

“She flails around and looks like she’s possessed? And just screams her head off?”

The other mothers could identify. Most of them had had to carry their toddlers, in the throes of serious meltdown tantrums, through shopping malls at least once; or have to steer their screaming progeny into the special naughty corner of their bedroom every few days.

You never want to be the mother to admit that, actually, your two-year-old just doesn’t do tantrums. She is extremely stubborn, yes, and has a very set idea about how things should be done, but she’s just too even-tempered to ever throw her toys, literally or otherwise. So I just muttered quietly that I hadn’t experienced that particular parental rite of passage, and then, when the subject changed to our kids’ wilful independence, tried not to feel a bit embarrassed when one of the other moms told me how her daughter tells her every day that she has to help Lil A put on and take off her shoes at school (how is it that my kid is the only one in her class who can’t dress herself? I obviously didn’t get the memo about making your kid independent enough to have total dominion over her footwear). At the end of the night, I walked home with the unsettling suspicion that Lil A was developing differently to her peers.

But then there was Sunday night, and Lil A’s first full-blown, fear-instilling, limb-flailing, blue-in-the-face-howling tantrum. And then her second, about an hour later. Both meltdowns left me quaking, shaking, baffled – they were both at bedtime, usually a very tranquil hour in our home, involving a storybook, a cuddle from both parents, laying her down in her cot and hearing her saying “bye, Mummy” as I close the door. Last night, instead, she started wailing and flailing as soon as I lowered her into her cot, and then stood up and screamed so loudly and for so long that she went hoarse and her lips went blue. The whole time, I was fighting every instinct to pick her up, knowing that as soon as I did she’d be less likely to go down again. But when she got to the blue-lip phase, I finally gave in, only to be kicked and pummelled, and told “porridge!” in no uncertain terms.

“Oh my god,” I thought as I carried her quickly through to her high chair in the dining room, “I’m basically an abusive mother, making my kid go to bed when she’s starving.” But then I tried to put her in her high chair, to  more kicking, more shouting, furious shaking of head. Then I left her standing in her room alone, with the door open, hoping she’d get bored or distracted, but had to go back in five minutes later when her wails hadn’t changed in pitch or intensity. I checked her nappy, checked for fever, tried to cuddle her, tried to rock her, tried everything in my comforting-mom repertoire, and eventually left her in her cot so that she didn’t see my tears.

She fell asleep, eventually, after an eternity of my adrenalin-fuelled heartbeats.

And then woke up an hour later, must have remembered that she’d been expressing her dissatisfaction at something or other, and continued where she left off.

This time, I picked her up immediately and took her to her high chair so that she’d eat something. She’d been too tired to eat supper a couple of hours earlier, and sure enough, she immediately grabbed the piece of toast I put in front of her.

She took a few shuddery breaths before taking a bite.

Then: “Ava’s cry.”

A few bites later.

“Ava’s sad.”

(Chew, chew, chew)

“Ava’s noise.”

A small pause, and then, matter-of-factly:

“Ava’s naughty.”

Cue my already fragile heart breaking a little bit.

I assured her that she wasn’t naughty, but that her crying and making a noise wasn’t very nice, and next time she should say “Mummy, toast please”, and then I put her to bed, and she said “Bye, Mummy” as I closed the door.

I stood outside her door for a while afterwards. So it turns out my daughter does do tantrums, I thought. And that I was just as helpless in the face of her overwhelming distress as the other mothers had described themselves as being. I’d scrambled around, trying a million different things to appease her, hoping she’d guide me on what she wanted and needed, but of course, she was too tired and too upset and too little to communicate properly with me, and I should have been firm but kind, and just made her sit in her highchair until she’d calmed down enough to eat the first time around. But, in those moments, I’d literally been unable to think. I don’t think I’ve felt as useless as I did that night since the time Lil A threw up all over me in the reception area of a very fancy game lodge (and then rushing with her to the hospital two hours away when she didn’t stop throwing up) just before her first birthday.

All I can hope is that it’s another year and a bit before I feel like that again. As the mother of a generally chilled child, I am ill-equipped to deal with any deviation in her behaviour. Basically, the problem is, my daughter has spoiled me.