Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Motherhood, Passion and a Creative Hat: A Career Crossroads

A Career Crossroads is not always easy to negotiate
Photo Credit: http://www.uniqraphy.de/

I wanted a career that allowed me to wear my creative hat every day, not one that sucked the life out of me. So I made a change. So easy it was not....obviously.... but I did eventually make the switch to a career with the added bonus that I could combine it with motherhood. A career that gave me the freedom to work from home (or anywhere for that matter) and still be around for my children growing up.

I realise how lucky I am to have been able to make a change when I stood before my own career crossroads, to follow my heart and let my passion dictate my career - and my story makes up a piece I wrote for the latest Expats Blog writing contest. Follow me on over there.... take a read and tell me what you think on the Expats Blog page by leaving a comment or liking the post. And whilst your over there, check out some of the other great posts from fellow expats across the world.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

There Are No Words

Imagine waking one morning to hear the news that your children are missing. Suddenly. Without a trace. No one knows where they are. For two weeks you cling to a thread of hope that your little boys are unharmed and waiting to be found. Waiting for you to bring them home. The only thing you can think of is to hold them in your arms again, keep them safe for ever more. Your community goes out en masse to help with searches of anywhere the police think the boys may be. Complete strangers unite to scour woody terrain for any clues of life. The police and military are out in force to bring your boys home to you. Hundreds of thousands of unknown faces say prayers each night, hoping that their minuscule action plays some part helping in the safe return of two young boys to their mother. As days go by hope turns to dread. Everyone thinks it but daren't say it.

Two weeks of an agony that no mother should ever feel. A fortnight of frantic worry. A fortnight of panic. Two weeks of emptiness.Two weeks of hope. Hope suddenly extinguished on a Sunday afternoon as two small bodies are found by a passerby.

The mayor of Zeist described the family's grief as immeasurable. Immeasurable. An end so unspeakable. The emptiness of a mother without her children. Immeasurable. The tears for her lost children. Immeasurable.

I don't think there is a parent in the Netherlands who has not been touched in some way by the family drama that has unfolded over the last twenty days. It is incomprehensible. It is sickening. It is heartbreaking. There are no words.

The family of brothers Ruben (9) and Julian (7) do not want a "stille tocht" (silent procession) to mark the loss of the boys but recognising that so many would like an outlet for their feelings and so many want to pay tribute to two lives cut so short, they have asked people to light candles and place them in their windows between 7pm and 8pm on Sunday 26th May. There is also a national condolence register available online.

There are messages of 'sterkte' coming in from around the country for Iris, the mother of these precious boys and the rest of their family, but that doesn't convey how we all feel. Wishing her strength and courage and our deepest sympathy doesn't touch the surface of our feelings. As parents, we know there are no words for a mother who has lost her reason for being. For a mother whose grief is immeasurable now, and for all time. I pray she learns how to put one foot in front of the other again, finds a way to live with her loss and hold memories of her boys in her heart.

May Julian and Ruben rest in peace.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Filling Our Family Memory Treasure Trove

One of my favourite quotes
Photo Credit: Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Project
I've just booked a family photo session with Vinita Salomé. It's our second appointment with her and we'd really like to make an annual thing of a family photo session because whilst some days seem incredibly long looking after three young boys I'm very aware of how fast the years are flying by.

Fun was the key word of our first session with
Photo Credit: Vinita Salome
It's striking that we have thousands and thousands of family photos but the one thing that is notable looking through is how few we have of all five of us.  Take a look back at your family photo collection - how many photos do you have with all of you on there? A professional photographer capturing the five of us together at least one time a year is us "indulging in a (not so) modest splurge" (see Gretchin Ruben's The Happiness Project for more on this idea) to add something really special to our treasure trove of family memories.

We met Vinita for the first time last summer early on a clear, beautiful, sunny summer Sunday morning in an unforgettable setting: the Binnenhof in The Hague. The Dutch parliament square is usually bustling with tourists, media and politicians whenever it is featured on the TV news. It's been a hive of activity whenever I have been there in the past. This particular morning it was a deserted terrain. We had the Binnenhof to ourselves for at least the first half of the photo session. And our two eldest boys (then 2 and 5) revelled in the space and freedom to run around and play, chasing each other through arch ways and up and down stairs. Their energy was contagious and heart-warming. How funny to think they were having such fun just meters away from the political heart of the Netherlands!

Ending the session on an even higher note!
Photo Credit: Vinita Salome
As the minutes went by the Binnenhof began to fill up with people; police officers on horseback, the familiar face of the regular ice cream vendor and of course snap happy tourists from far off lands. So to round the session off we treated the boys to an ice cream and they were let loose with dripping, creamy covered cones.

Not only did Vinita capture precious moments with her camera but the six of us had a fabulous time. It was playful and relaxed - and that shows on every photo. We not only have prints and a CD of many wonderful pictures of my family, but we also have the memories of excited, carefree children running to their heart's content in a place they usually wouldn't be able to explore so freely.

The image of my two year old careering around a corner laughing uncontrollably to himself is ingrained in my memory bank. Peals of laughter filled the Binnenhof for ninety minutes - nice to think of such happy sounds replacing the usual political rumblings and grumblings that take place in that particular square.....

So, this year's session will take place in September so that gives us enough time to come up with another magical place.

You can see many more photos from our session on Vinita's photo blog.

Do you have any tips for our next location? Where have you had family photos taken? Do you think a family photo session with a professional photographer is worth the investment?

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Bilingualism: Keep the Brain Trained for Old Age

As we age wouldn't it be great to stay mentally
active as well as physically? Bilingualism may well be
the answer
Photo Credit:John Boyer
When we bring up bilingual children, we are not just giving them the gift of communication in more than one language, we are giving them the gift of efficient, quick working brains.

No really. I kid you not. Recent research showed that those in their 60s who had been raised speaking two languages could quickly move from one task to the other with almost an automatic action. People from the same age group who are monolingual reacted much slower to a change of task and had to use much more of their brain and effort to carry out the switch from one task to another.

It has been thought for some time that bilingualism slows down some ageing processes and helps slow down the onset of dementia in an ageing brain. This latest research may explain why. In essence being bilingual means that your brain is trained from an early age to switch from one task to another i.e. it switches from one language to another automatically. Two languages are always active in a bilingual person's brain. This early and constant training seems to make the brain work more efficiently when it comes to task changing. Bilingualism is brain training from an early age!

Yet one more reason to bring up bilingual children......

Monday, 13 May 2013

Why We Should Tell Our Children Expat Tales

A love story with a trailer
Photo Credit:Michal Zacharzewski SXC
My eldest son is at the age where he has started asking lots of questions about my past, about how life was in England, how I met his father and how I came to the Netherlands. It's a fabulous period of curiosity but also a great reminder for me and my husband of how far we've come. The details of exactly how we met (online in a chatroom) don't really make any sense for him yet (it's something we still find hard to believe looking back so we certainly can't expect a six year old to wrap his head around it) but the story of his papa coming to England by boat with a borrowed Dutch police trailer to collect his mama and all her belongings falls on eager, listening ears time after time. And we love telling the story.

There's nothing traditional about how I came to meet a Dutchman, sell up my flat in Watford, England and move to the Netherlands to make a new life and so it makes for some awesome story telling for our curious children at the stage where they want to know everything that happened before they arrived on the scene.

Last week, a great blog post by Drie Culturen asked whether there was a difference between children and adults living abroad.  In the post, Janneke argues that there is a big difference, namely because adults living abroad have already formed their own identity but a child's identity is still evolving. Whilst she talks about children from the point of view of them growing up abroad her tips are still relevant for those of us raising children in a country where they are native but we, as a parent, are not. She talks about helping children to form their own identity by telling stories about their heritage. She says tell your children stories about their grandparents. I couldn't agree more. And I would also add tell them about your own life back in your home country, about growing up in another country. Tell them their parent's love story. Tell them their birth story. Tell them every story you can think of about their family.

Not all stories need come from books. Share your
family stories with your children
Photo Credit: Patrick Nijhuis
Not only does it help mould their identity, it turns out that story telling is good for their memory too!  An excellent article called "The Stories That Bind Us" in the New York Times about research undertaken to find out whether children that knew more about their past faced adversity better than children with less knowledge about their family's past states,

"The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned."

That's quite something - research showed that children who have a good knowledge of their own family and past functioned better in challenging situations. Brian Gresko followed this topic up in an article and wrote,

"Storytelling has benefits beyond entertainment, which explains why humans have been telling stories for as long as we know. It’s one of the elements that makes us human, I think.........Having a shared story, a shared collection of memories, is a powerful unifying force between people – whether those stories be ones we tell as a nation, an ethnic group, a workforce, or a family."

And as expats, we have some amazing stories to tell our children.... so what are you waiting for? Share those stories today!

What stories do you tell your children about the country you were born in? What stories do you tell about grandparents and your brothers and sisters growing up? I would love to hear your stories!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Different Expats, Different Challenges

It's school holidays here in the Netherlands and we've just got back from visiting friends in Prague. My friends are also Brits but are abroad for a work assignment for a couple of years. It was a stark reminder of how expat life is a varied thing indeed. Some become expats for the adventure, for some it's a move to be with a partner and for others it's for work.

Keeping children in touch with
their grandparents needs to
be worked at if you live abroad
Photo credit: Gokhan Okur
The different reasons for being an expat throws up different challenges for our children. My children are not actually expats themselves but I am. That means there are cultural and language issues to deal with. There are issues keeping in touch with grandparents and aunts and uncles that live overseas. The issues are more mine trying to understand a school system I did not go through, understanding a culture that is not mine. However, whilst they stand out sometimes, most aspects of life for my children are stable and consistent and not effected by my expat status.

For my friends in the Czech Republic almost every aspect of their lives is effected by their expat status. Their challenges are more related to providing their children with some kind of stability in another country, knowing that their stay there will come to an end. Their challenges include making a temporary dwelling that is not theirs a real home for the children. Expat life means the friendships their children make are temporary, and indeed the friendships they themselves make mean learning to say goodbye after a year or two. It's not an easy cycle to go through.

A temporary stay abroad also means a change of schools for the children and provides another challenge once the expat assignment ends, because it calls for the children to slot back in to the British state system. After being in small classes with a varied curriculum and an abundance of teachers how do you help children to adapt to classes of 30 plus and overstretched resources? The flip side of course is the gift of excellent education for at least two years in an environment the children are thriving in! And what an opportunity for children to go to school with such a mix of nationalities alongside them, in a cultural richness you won't find in national schooling. We arrived in Prague two days after the new Dutch king came to the throne. Thanks to the Dutch influence in her class, my friend's daughter knew all about Willem Alexander and Maxima, made crowns to mark the occasion and she proudly told us,

"The new Dutch queen is much better, because she's much prettier than the old one."

I'm pretty sure she would have known very little about this Dutch event had she still been in a British primary school.

Old Town Square, Prague
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
And on top of that what a rich culture Prague has to offer. A bustling city full of history and beauty. A surprise around every corner you turn in it's Old Town. What an amazing place for children (and their parents) to soak up and store in the memory bank. An expat life that surely enriches their children, but that inevitably comes with challenges. There are pros and cons to every decision we make. Different expats, different challenges.

Yes, expat life is a varied thing indeed but there is one common factor - we're raising the global citizens of the future!

What do you think? How does the reason for your expat status effect your children? Is it better for children to have the expat experiences and deal with the challenges as they arise or play it safe and avoid the big changes?