Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Dear Teacher, Sometimes You Need to Believe Without Seeing

What if I come and have lunch with you at home one day? Then I can see the meltdown for myself,” suggested my son’s teacher at the height of the school troubles.

The thing is she just didn’t get it. I couldn’t make her understand. My highly sensitive child won’t perform for just anyone. He needs to feel safe. He only lets his emotions go in a trusted environment, with people who love him unconditionally. His lunchtime meltdowns are reserved for me. Not for his teacher, not in her classroom, nor in our home.

Three hours at a time with thirty other children has its toll on my highly sensitive son. Let’s be honest, for many people some kind of minor breakdown would be on the cards after a day with thirty children. For a child with heightened senses a busy classroom is a minefield.

We use the metaphor of a bucket; every direct interaction my son has, every indirect interaction he witnesses, goes into his bucket. Every sight, sound, smell and action gets thrown in there unfiltered. With a classroom teeming with small children his bucket fills quickly. In no time it overflows.

Photo Credit: KD Kelly
But my son doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. Anything but. He lets that bucket flow over without a word, a sensory overload seeping over the sides of his bucket, forming puddles around his feet. He walks around silently in emotionally sodden shoes until he leaves the classroom, until his teacher leads him out onto the playground, until his eyes meet mine over a sea of children and parents. I can read in those eyes, in a split second, that his bucket is too heavy for him to carry. In the split second it takes to meet my eyes he knows it is safe to let go and his face contorts with anger and confusion, his eyes darken and a thundercloud appears over his head. But his teacher’s attention is long gone as he runs to me.

I put my arms around him and I feel the energy raging within his little body, stress with nowhere to go. Words stumble over each other to get out of his mouth, trying to sum up the whirlwind that has been his morning, trying to empty his overladen bucket.

We walk home. Either there are tears as we walk, or the beginnings of a meltdown. Or silence. But no matter how the short walk home has been I know that when I open the front door to our home, once he crosses that threshold to safety, he will fling the bucket he has spent the morning filling across our hallway.

He will scream, cry, lash out, fight my every move; nothing will be right. His jacket refuses to hang on his hook. He can’t get his shoelaces undone. His sandwich filling is wrong. The bread is cut wrong. His brother is making too much noise. His plate is the wrong colour.

For eighteen long, emotional, stressful months we search for solutions. We talk to his teachers. I share that he is highly sensitive. I share that he needs time out, he needs quiet time, a place to reset, to empty his bucket out before it fills to the top. But I face a brick wall.

His teachers say he doesn’t want quiet moments, doesn’t need time alone. They tell me he’s a good learner, that he’s their idea of a perfect child in the classroom: he listens; he follows instructions; he doesn’t make a fuss. They tell me he’s enjoying himself. They tell me he’s never had a tantrum in school, never kicked a chair in his classroom, never shouted at them or a classmate. They tell me they see no problem in school, it has nothing to do with them; it’s a problem our family needs to solve at home. We need to leave the scientifically unproven idea of highly sensitive children at home, and let him get on with it at school, where he’s the perfect student.

They refuse to scratch beyond the surface, to see beyond the fa├žade. They don’t see me dragging a screaming, crying little boy over the threshold of safety back into the world every day after lunch. They don’t see me coaxing a five-year-old boy out of the house for an afternoon at school. They don’t see the bruises on my shins from the kicks I get as I try to get shoes back on my distraught child to leave the house. They don’t see my tears, the conflict raging inside me. I want to keep him home but I can’t, not every day. They refuse to see the conflict raging inside my son.

By the time the battle is over and he’s back in school both our tears have faded, his anger has subsided.

I tell his teacher it has been a struggle to get him back there. I can see her rolling her eyes. Not literally of course, but I know she’d like to. And I walk back home, knowing I’ll do it all again in two hours because his bucket will fill unhindered during the afternoon.

He will come home overwhelmed because the new girl has been crying on her first day, because his friend fell over and hurt his arm, because the last piece of the puzzle he was doing did an impromptu vanishing trick, because the noise levels in class reached a new high, because he couldn’t get the teacher’s attention for help, because he hated the drawing he made.

He’ll come home overwhelmed because he’s highly sensitive and he doesn’t yet have the tools to filter out the things he doesn’t need to keep in his bucket. He needs help with it all. He needs support. He needs a reminder to seek out a quiet space. But for some reason I can’t get that for him in his classroom, where he spends most of his day.

Instead I get the offer of a lunch date at our house. Failing that maybe I could videotape one of his meltdowns for them. Because seeing is believing, right? Perhaps it would be better to accept the word of a mother, a mother at her wit’s end trying to help her son, a mother whose heart breaks every time she picks her son up from school because she sees his soul being destroyed little by little in a classroom that is a long way from being suitable for a highly sensitive child.

He’s in a different school now, one that understands that all children are individuals. That the boy at home and the boy in school is part of the same whole. His teacher understands that he needs time, space and quiet to empty his bucket. She believes without seeing. She supports him, without needing to see him at his worst. Sometimes seeing is believing, but other times it needs to be a matter of trust.

Photo Credit: Karolina Michalak


Monday, 27 October 2014

Seeing Home Like a Tourist: The Beauty Of Cornwall

One of the most surprising things personally about becoming an expat is how you one day end up seeing the country you were born in through the eyes of a foreigner. I haven't lived in Britain since August 2000. I've been gone long enough now not to feel quite like I am home when I return. Of course I am not a complete foreigner when I am back, but I do see my own country through different eyes than fourteen years ago. And I now totally understand why tourists come from across the globe to parts of England they think are 'quaint' and picturesque. I feel the same way about some English places and Cornwall remains at the top of my list.

We've just spent herfstvakantie in Cornwall, primarily for my husband's 40th birthday. It's a place all five of us love. We again stayed at Glynn Barton. Once you have been, you'll know why we return year after year.

Glynn Barton - beautiful at any time of the year
In fact, whilst we were there last week, we met a lovely expat family from The Hague. It's the first time we've met anyone there not from somewhere in Britain, so we were surprised to meet a family from so close to where we live in the Netherlands. It got even more surprising when I learned that the family was there because of reading about Glynn Barton on this very blog. Fantastic!

There were more surprises lined up. I'd organised an art day for my husband as one of his '40 days of presents for turning 40' and he came home with three stunning pieces he had painted. This was one of them: turns out I have my very own van Gogh at home.

A van Mulligen original

We also got out to dinner sans kids. First time in a year I'm sure - and it was worth the wait. We went to Trewithen restaurant in Lostwithiel and the food and service was top notch. I definitely recommend  a visit if you are in the area.

We also enjoyed a lovely cream tea at Wreckers in Charlestown, after clambering over the rocks and exploring the rock pools on the beach. The cream tea included the biggest scone I have ever seen (see my Silent Sunday post from yesterday for a picture of that). 

Charlestown - great for rock clambering but watch out for that tide sneaking in
The weather was kind to us whilst we were there, and we got to explore a little and relax a lot before heading home at the end of the week. In this case, I think photos can do more justice to the beauty of Cornwall than my words. So here are a few snapshots of a place I have grown to love, and which I guess I now see through the eyes of a tourist. 

A boat moored in Rock, Cornwall
The view from Rock, Cornwall
Polzeath Beach on a very windy day
Charlestown

Time to relax with my joint favourite pastime


I hope those of you in the Netherlands enjoyed your herfstvakantie too - I would love to hear what you got up to you - and for those of you with children off school this week in the UK - what do you have planned?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

5 Things to Do Before You Become a Parent

 I have three children aged seven, four and two. I know what I am talking about when I say there are things you should do before you become parents. Five things to be exact.

They sleep, but not for long.
1. Sleep. 

Seriously, I wish someone had told me how much sleep you lose during the first decade of a child's life and particularly during that first year after becoming a mother. Mind you, had I known then what I know now I might have slept through my entire 20s and missed that decade.

Sleep when you can, lie in on a weekend, spend lazy Sunday mornings (to hell with it, and afternoons) eating breakfast in bed and, reading great books and watching fabulous movies. By the time your days are filled with nappies, milk feeds and rocking a baby sleep is a distant memory.

2. Travel

You don't travel light with a baby or toddler in tow. In fact, if you've got any sanity left you just won't bother travelling at all.

Entertaining a hungry, cranky, bored toddler waiting for an overdue flight in a busy holiday shouldn't be on any sane person's wish list. And long haul flights? Baahahhaaa. It's why the local motorways are blocked up in the summer holidays with cars filled with car seats and little people, and every possible item you could never imagine you needed before you became parents packed in every other spare centimetre of car space.

So, before you have a baby go see the world, spread your wings and enjoy what the world has to offer - it will be a decade or more before that idea becomes fun again.
Trust your instinct and ditch the parenting books

3. Ditch the Parenting Books

Once you know you'll imminently become a parent there is an urge to run out and buy, borrow or read every parenting book you can get your hands on. Don't.

One thing the books can't teach you is this: trust your instinct. A mother's instinct is the most powerful tool at your disposal. Once you are a parent, you can better understand your own parenting style and then seek out reading material as an aide, or other people with the same parenting philosophy. Reading every book or article with the word parent in the title before that time will only confuse, upset and mystify you. There is conflicting advice everywhere you look so let your instinct guide you in the right direction.

4. Read

I know, I just said ditch the parenting books but I'm talking about other reading material, the reading that you have always wanted to do. Now is the time to grab those classics on your reading bucket list. Now is the time to make the most of your favourite magazine subscription. Sign up at your local library and make your library card work for you.

Enjoy the peace, quiet and time that you have before a baby arrives. Trust me, you won't pick up another non-parenting book until long after your baby has turned one.

5. Prepare for a Lifetime of Change

Life will never be the same again.
That is easy for me to say of course, I have three children. I know the before children and the after kids life very well indeed but before you actually have a baby it's hard to imagine all the ways life will change but, let me assure you,  nothing in your life post kids will ever be the same again.

Your living room turns into one giant play room. There are potties and toilet training seats filling bathrooms and the downstairs loo. Your dining room floor always looks as if a food fight has just taken place (and usually it has, just not in the same way as during those fun student days). Your garden is filled with plastic houses, slides and balls and the beautiful flowers you plant last one hour after they have bloomed before they are plucked by chubby little hands.

But the biggest change of all is not inside your house. It's inside you. From the moment you become a parent your heart is filled with unconditional love. You will have no idea where this love comes from but it is all consuming. You are no longer responsible for just one person on this planet, and that feeling is overwhelming. Welcome to parenthood. Life will never be the same again.

Life will be better. So much better. Even without sleeping and travelling and reading, without peace and quiet and even though your home no longer feels like a sanctuary, life will be better. Because you have a little hand to hold, a little person to lead through life. Because you are somebody's mama.

What would you add to the list? What should you do before you become parents?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Why I've Had A Change of Heart About Public Toilets in the Netherlands

I was a relative newbie expat in the Netherlands when I first formed my opinion about paying to use a toilet when I was out and about.

During my three pregnancies I needed pockets full of change just to be able to leave the house. I moved from one public toilet to the next, leaving coins on white plates for the pleasure.

I felt like I was being robbed blind. Paying to use a toilet indeed.

All that changed when my eyes were opened to the joys of a free public toilet during my summer holidays in Cornwall, England.

"Rancid," said my husband, shaking his head, as he brought our son back out of a public toilet still crossing his legs and looking more and more visibly pained and upset.

I've ended up taking one or both of our toilet trained sons in to the ladies toilets on many occasions. British women, it seems, have higher levels of public toilet hygiene than British men, and a quick visit is doable as long as you don't touch anything. Ever. You need to master the art of hover weeing.

So I've learnt the hard way that I'd rather pay my 25 cents for a visit to a clean, fresh smelling toilet with an ample supply of toilet paper and soap than have a free wee in a stinky, pee covered cubicle with no sign of toilet paper or soap.

Oh, fourteen years ago I could never have imagined myself uttering these words but ..... the Dutch sooo know what they are doing when it comes to public toilets.

What do you think? Happy to pay for clean facilities? What is the norm where you live - is it free to pee or are a few coins usually needed to use public toilets?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Kaaskop Piet and Stroopwafel Piet

The question of who will accompany Sinterklaas
this year has finally been answered.
This year, when Sinterklaas arrives with his Petes in Gouda we will not only see 'traditional' Petes but also stroopwafel and kaas Petes. Both products are very much related to Gouda itself.

Yep, you read that right, we will see Petes the colour of golden, yellow cheese and the brown colour of stroopwafels, with a chequered design like the surface of the yummy syrupy biscuits. I, for one, was a little surprised with the announcement made yesterday by Gouda's council. I couldn't have dreamt those changes up in even a drug or drink induced stupor but I am pretty sure my kids will love the idea.

But let's get to the crux of the matter. I do foresee a problem for those stroopwafel fanatics like my dad who may well be tempted to lick the faces of future Petes. It's going to be a struggle keeping the many stroopwafel fans under control I fear.

As for the cheese Petes, well, a whole other story. Kaaskop Piet. Which has caused a bit of a stir amongst some Dutch article commenters, stating that the Dutch already have a problem being known as cheese heads, and this certainly won't help.

However, these new Piet 'flavours' will make up only five percent of the total Piet collection on the 15th November in the great city of Gouda.

The debate gets crazier every year, but, as I said last year, change was on the cards. The changes are not enough for some. For others it's too much. It's a debate that will continue, and it's one that is still  causing a huge difference of opinion in Dutch society.

Me? I have no further words.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Mama, What's Wheelchair in Dutch?

Photo Credit: Karen
Life with bilingual children is filled with surprises and giggles, from watching with amazement as they pick up words in a new language and just run with them, to situations created outside the home when people expect a Dutch word but get an English one instead. Or vice versa. Like the time the kinderarts assistant thought my eldest son was casting doubt on Bert's (as in Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie) sexuality......

Last week Mr C, my four year old, both surprised me and made me laugh as he launched into a story in Dutch telling his dad about his day in school. His Dutch has always been much stronger than his English but I have noticed that speaking English is getting easier for him, especially after three intensive weeks in England over the summer.  In any case, he said,

"Een meisje was vandaag in een....." ("Today one of the girls was in a ....") and then he leaned over to me and whispered in my ear,

"Mama, what is a wheelchair in Dutch?"

"Rolstoel!" I whispered back.

"Oh yeah, zij was in een rolstoel," he finished.

"Waarom?" asked his dad. ("Why?")

"Geen idee," said Mr C.  ("No idea.")


Thursday, 9 October 2014

16 Must Have Items to Survive a Dutch Autumn

The weather this week confirms what we were all trying to deny: the arrival of autumn. We've been enjoying an Indian summer over the last few weeks, we were getting complacent about hauling those weatherproof jackets back out of our closets.

However, in the blink of an eye the extended summer has faded and an unpredictable weather front has crept over the Netherlands with a mischievous smirk on its face. Most of us weren't quite ready for the onslaught of the rain, wind and sudden greyness.

It's that time of year known as "four seasons in one day", also known as autumn, fall or herfst. To survive it you need sixteen items.

1. Sunglasses - the sun is still bright and strong when it does actually make an appearance so you need eye protection (can also prove helpful as protection against errant leaves - see number 8).

2. A sense of humour - you have to be able to see the funny side of getting hailed on whilst wearing your sunglasses.

3. A rain coat - a waterproof version of outdoor wear is very much recommended at this time of year.

4. A rain hat - unless your rain coat has a built-in hood that actually remains on your head (unlike mine which was apparently designed with the Gruffalo's enormous head in mind) it is worth investing in a rather fetching rain hat. Okay, it may not be attractive, but the 'drowned rat with limp hair' look isn't so hot either.

5. Waterproof trousers - particularly if you don't like to be parted from your bicycle. You have probably gathered by now that there is nothing sexy about the Dutch autumn look - however, it is a dry look.

6. Two plastic carrier bags - unless you enjoy the sensation of a wet bum you will need one plastic bag to put over your bicycle seat and another big enough to put over your child's bike seat, should you have one.

7. A gale proof umbrella - if you have a choice between a bog-standard umbrella and a super-duper windproof monster version, opt for the latter. The Netherlands is a wasteland of decrepit, washed out broken umbrellas, torn apart by gale force winds and lashing rain. Make sure your umbrella is not the next victim.
Sure, the leaves look pretty. Wait until the wind blows and you get smacked in the face with them.

8. A scarf - the Dutch autumn wind blows cold and wild when the mood takes it. Not only will a scarf keep you warm, but wrapped properly around your face it is also a clever way to avoid getting a surprise smack in the face by wayward dry crispy leaves. Alternatively see essential item number 1.

9. Jumpers (or sweaters if you are American) - the temperature drops and it gets a bit nippy out there so an extra thick, woollen layer is sensible.

10. A summer jacket - some days the sun shines and it's actually quite warm so don't banish that summer jacket to the closet just yet.

11. Short sleeve T-shirts - some days it is so warm you'll start thinking you dreamt the hail, rain and wind of two days ago.

12. A winter coat - and then reality hits, the sun decides it's done for the year, tucks itself up behind a big blanket of clouds and sleeps until spring. Be prepared. Before you know it it really is time for the summer coat to retire for the year and you'll be needing that big, thick, snuggly coat.

Wellington boots or soggy socks - it's a choice you make.

13. Wellington boots - whether or not puddle jumping is your thing you will need some kind of waterproof boots before the year is out, unless walking around in soggy socks is your thing.

14. De-icer for the car - chilly mornings gradually arrive and what begins as a friendly layer of frost on your windscreen soon turns into a stubborn blanket of ice that ensures you start your mornings with some serious muscle ache.

Squirrels are not the only ones hoarding at this time of year - kids do it too.

15. A selection of plastic zip up bags - it's not just squirrels that are collecting stuff in autumn, kids do it too. They collect conkers, acorns, fir cones, leaves and general crap from the floor. You're going to want to put it all in a sealed off bag. Trust me.

16. A big rucksack - last but not least you will need a really big bag to put the other fifteen items in. Think the kind of bag you see crippling hikers and campers. Like I said, think of this period of the year as "four seasons in one day" and you can't go wrong.

I wish you all good luck with the decline to colder, wetter, darker days. See you all again in spring when I crawl out from under my rock!

Monday, 6 October 2014

Bilingual Children: How Rumours Start

When you are raising bilingual children there will undoubtedly be frustrations, but there will also be laughs.

When we are out and about people outside our home obviously expect to consistently hear Dutch from my sons once they have struck up conversation in Dutch. They are not expecting them to suddenly switch to English. But sometimes it happens.

The funniest moment so far was when a pediatric nurse cast serious aspersions on Bert’s sexuality, the grumpier of the Bert and Ernie duo.


My son, two at the time, had to go for an appointment at our local hospital. Whilst we waited for the nurse, he was busy with various toys scattered around the waiting room. He picked up an Ernie, of Sesame Street fame, and began to play.

The nurse appeared and to get him comfortable with her (some two year olds are not too happy when a stranger wants to poke and prod them) she asked about the cuddly toy he was holding,

Nou, wie is dat?” ("So, who's that?")

“Ernie,” replied my son looking at her as if she had landed from an alien planet.

En waar is Bert?,” she continued. ("And where is Bert?")

“Bert’s at home,” he replied, turning around to get back to the important business of playing with Ernie.

The nurse looked a little shocked and turned to us and asked,

Wat zegt hij nou?” ("What did he just say?")

Bert is thuis,” my husband said “maar dan in het Engels. Hij heeft een Bert knuffel thuis.” (Bert is at home, but then in English. He has a Bert toy at home.")

The nurse broke in to hysterics and the three of us looked at her as if maybe she needed an appointment in a different section of the hospital. Until she explained,

Ik dacht dat hij zei ‘Bert is een homo’.” ("I thought he said Bert is a 'homo'.")

It wasn't the first time I had heard that rumour, but in the sterile surroundings of a hospital examination room, it certainly broke the ice.