Friday 26 February 2010

Glass half full.....

Six o'clock already, I was just in the middle of a dream.....

And so I was, this morning, at some time past six. For once, a really great dream about going out for an exciting evening and having to pick out some glamorous clothes and shoes. I was just squirting on some delicious fragrance and then the phone started ringing.....

It kept ringing in my dream until I woke up, and even then I didn't manage to get out of bed to answer it. Neither did The Doctor. But I think we both knew what it was.

Snow. School cancelled.

The Doctor peered out of the window (a bit difficult, considering it was completely covered in wet, crusty snow). "There's quite a bit...." He immediately donned his ski clothes and went outside to do a recce. Ten minutes later he was back, reporting that we were completely snowed in and it would take several hours to dig the driveway and the cars out.

"I'm damned if I'm going to be forced to take a PTO," he muttered. A PTO - or Personal Time Off - is what it was suggested to him that he take last time it snowed and he didn't make it to work. Having spent all day slaving away on his computer at home, while I tried in vain to keep the Littleboys out of his way, he quite rightly refused. After all, why should he take holiday when it was such a furious blizzard that the forecasters were telling everyone not to travel?

This time, he was going to make it in whatever. He zipped up his ski jacket and stomped off to the Long Island Railroad station, where luckily the trains were still running.

I, meanwhile, was huddled under the duvet with my tea, not particularly wanting to face yet another day of being housebound with two manic children. (I wonder if I could take a PTO?). I mean, the snow is pretty, but this is the third time in a fortnight we've had a blizzard. And, we were supposed to be going out for sushi tonight, with a friend from the City who no doubt won't be able to get here now.

Then Littleboy 1 came into the room, yawning. I told him to look out of the window.

"Snow!" He exclaimed in delight. On his face, an expression of undiluted happiness. "We can go SLEDDING!"

Thank goodness for little boys.......

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The gnashing of teeth

Littleboy 1 is on a field trip to the dentist. Yes; the dentist. When the preschool teacher informed me of this visit, I made the heinous mistake of laughing. I don't really know why, I just imagined this minibus of kids turning up at the dentist thinking they were going somewhere fun and ....oh.

But the teacher smiled thinly, clearly thinking. "Here goes the crazy English Mommy again...". I had forgotten, you see, that dentistry is sacrosanct in America. It is not, as it is often in London, regarded somewhere a bit grim you are forced to endure every six months or so, your main worry being whether they still provide NHS treatment and whether the hygienist will be nice to you or berate you for not flossing enough.

Here, the average child will end up spending many, many hours in the dentist's chair, as orthodontic treatment is as much a rite of passage as taking exams or learning to swim. A favourite discussion of mothers I've met here is which dentist you go to; people will travel for miles to go to one they like, and they are rightly suspicious of dentists who are trying to con them into unnecessary treatment, considering the amount of money involved.

Dentists must certainly make a fortune. The boys' dental surgery is more like a home entertainment centre, with TV screens on the ceiling and every room decorated in a different theme. Insurance covers some of it, but certainly not all; Americans spend a LOT on their teeth.

And you can tell. I have noticed, for instance, watching the Winter Olympics, that you can always tell which athletes are American, before it pops up on the screen, by their dazzling, perfect, straight, white teeth. Take Lindsey Vonn, the downhill skier. I'm willing to bet she's had a few mouth smashes over the years; yet she has the most perfect set of gnashers. European athletes in contrast are immediately recognisable by their crooked smiles.

It is well known that Americans think British teeth are awful. My new dentist has already informed me that I have the 'classic British overbite' before going on to suggest adult braces. Are you joking? I nearly spluttered. My UK dentist (a Scandinavian who coincidentally used to work in New York) has always said my teeth are fine. I hated the plate I wore for about a year as a teenager and even with these new invisible braces there is no WAY I am going back to orthodontic treatment in my mid thirties. I humoured him by agreeing to ask his receptionist to find out how much it would cost me and whether our insurance would cover it (it didn't even begin to, so I had the excuse of saying I couldn't afford it). The receptionist flashed me a dazzling smile; "Oh, I had those braces, and they were JUST GREAT."

But I also felt rather indignant; I may not smile like Julia Roberts but I am not, as far as I am concerned, Ugly Betty. Meanwhile The Doctor has been told that his teeth are Beyond Help but it doesn't matter so much because he's a married man. Which is quite funny, but also pretty insulting......

I guess we Brits just have a different attitude, although I know this is changing; cosmetic dentistry is becoming much more popular in the UK. Maybe one day we will all smile like Americans?

So on reflection it's not surprising that an integral part of preschool education is a field trip to the dentist. And I can see the rationale - to educate them and make them think it's something fun, so they won't dread dental visits.

Anyway, judging by both my sons' thumbsucking habits, there will be plenty of those to come.....

Thursday 18 February 2010

The Age of Innocence

Littleboy 1 had a friend round to play today. This boy is clearly someone he looks up to at preschool, as he's always quoting him and has been begging to have him over for a playdate for weeks. But, while the friend was here, the differences between the two boys really surprised me. Although the same age, the friend has an older brother and seemed light years away from Littleboy 1 in manner, interests and general maturity. Friend was a sweet boy and well-behaved. But he struck me as much older than his nearly-five years.

The three boys rushed upstairs, where Littleboy 1 was determined to show his friend his collection of Thomas the Tank Engine trains. But his friend looked clearly bored by this, and although he was able to name the trains had an expression on his face that clearly said: "This is baby stuff and I outgrew it years ago...". He certainly didn't want to look at Littleboy 1's Richard Scarry counting books with him and he also looked horrified when Littleboy 1 enthusiastically showed him a Dora the Explorer book which he is rather enamoured with - Dora was clearly just for girls.

Instead he wanted to tell the boys all about Ghostbusters, which he'd clearly seen a few times, and said was 'really scary'. Now, I love Ghostbusters, but I remember watching it at the cinema at age 11 and finding parts of it distinctly terrifying. Littleboy 1 cowers under the sofa at anything even vaguely spooky, and I really couldn't imagine him liking it at all. "Don't worry," said his friend. "It's rated PG. You can watch it at my house when we have a sleepover.."

"You have sleepovers?" I asked him. (He was a little vague in the answer, so I wonder whether it was just his brother). Then I mentioned that we had some brownies downstairs for them to eat. "Do you like brownies?" asked Littleboy 1 eagerly. "Y_E_S" he replied, spelling the letters out like a bored teenager.

To encourage him, I asked him what other films he liked - mentioning that the boys love Madagascar and Finding Nemo. He looked distinctly unimpressed and said he liked Power Rangers better....

I was beginning to wonder whether perhaps I had babied Littleboy 1 too much; he's only allowed to watch preschoolers' TV and seems quite happy with games designed for little kids, which is perhaps not surprising considering his best friend is his three year old brother. But then I remembered: what it's like to be the older child. I, too, had friends at school with older siblings and they always knew SO MUCH MORE than me. They'd all been to the cinema to watch ET when I was still on Pinocchio. They knew naughty words like willy long before I ever did; they were into Michael Jackson and David Bowie when I was still listening to Disney long playing records. I always felt naive compared to these friends and somewhat out of the loop, because by the time I'd discovered these things for myself they'd always moved on.

Compared to his friend, Littleboy 1 seemed such an innocent baby. And I love that, I really do. But I do wonder what it will be like when he starts proper school in September. Peer pressure will undoubtedly mean that he wants to leave Thomas behind and exchange his Lego farm animals for Nintendo. I hope he doesn't feel left out, but equally I hope there is not too much pressure to grow up too quickly. And most of all I hope that, at four, Littleboy 2 doesn't become the worldy-wise younger sibling......

Monday 15 February 2010

The white stuff

Watching the Winter Olympics in America is a little different from in the UK. For one thing, you're suddenly in a country which is likely to win medals, and lots of them - and to a Brit, that makes quite a change. You can even get excited about your adopted country winning - I was definitely rooting for Apollo Ohno in the skating, and even half-cheered, I am ashamed to say, when the two Koreans in front of him crashed out just before the finish line, nettting him the silver medal.

The TV coverage is relentlessly Team USA-biased; they'll show all the American contenders, but cut to an ad break when a non-American athlete is doing that impressive ski-jump or waiting breathlessly for their figure-skating scores. While I'm sure we'd probably be the same in Britain if we had lots of athletes who were going to 'medal' or even 'podium', it is rather amusing when you're a foreigner.

We also had a giggle at the NBC studio where the pundits sit and discuss the Games - a sort of mocked-up ski lodge, complete with roaring fireplace and comfy armchairs. I couldn't swear to it, but I think there may even be antlers on the wall. A bit different from the usual rather sterile BBC studio....

The Games have coincided with a sudden burst of winter sports activity in the Nappy Valley household. Having decided to forego a skiing holiday this year, until Littleboy 2 is old enough for a lesson or two, our ski clothes have nevertheless been put to good use by the huge blizzard which dumped over a foot of snow on Long Island last week.

Yesterday was spent sledging with friends on a local golf course. Littleboy 1, in his usual fearless fashion, put his sled at the top of a steep hill and simply set off. Unlike the more cautious Littleboy 2, who bails out at the first sign of speed, wiping out does not seem to faze him in the slightest and there seems to be nothing he likes better than to end up flat on his face in the snow. He has already announced that he wants to try ski-jumping 'when I'm big like you, Mummy'. (I think I might have to try to steer him towards a safer sport. Like golf...)

Today - a bank holiday - we braved the local outdoor ice-rink for the first time. At first it did not bode well; I felt exhausted and tetchy before we even reached the ice, by the time we had got everyone's boots off, ice skates on and laced, and gloves and mittens attached. Of course neither boy could even walk in the skates, let alone skate; meanwhile I had only skated twice before, as a teenager in Hong Kong, in a tiny rink in the middle of the swanky City Plaza shopping mall (which seemed completely normal then, but vaguely bizarre now).

The first circuit was pretty comedic and stressful, with flailing boys and lots of shouting. But the sun was shining, the air was crisp and - perhaps inspired by last night's magical figure-skating - I was soon enjoying the sensation of gliding slowly over the ice. The Littleboys even improved with a few turns, holding onto our arms and throwing wistful glances at the tiny American tots who were already bombing about (why are THEY going so fast, Mummy?).

So, just when we were beginning to seriously tire of the winter here, the snow and the Olympics have conspired to make it fun again. As I write The Doctor is dragging the boys around the garden on their sled, while I am enjoying a cup of coffee and some Nordic skiing (on TV, that is. I am not that energetic.). I don't even particularly mind that more snow is forecast for tonight. And, although I'm sure that in a few weeks I'll be dreaming once again of living in a warm, Mediterranean climate, last night's conversation even had me agreeing with The Doctor that Vancouver would be a nice place to move to next.....

Tuesday 9 February 2010

I am becoming a Mommy

Sometimes I feel as if I am getting the hang of being a Mommy. That's as opposed to an English Mummy, who is blithely ignorant of customs and culture (I am often baffled by Littleboy 1's homework - for example this week he was asked who is pictured on the 'penny'. I had no idea that in America, this is a one cent piece).

I now know that if the preschool sends home a message, pre Valentine's Day, telling you how many kids are in the class, this means that you must buy, and write, cards for every single child as well as providing a 'treat' (we were even told to provide a bag with handles for 'all the goodies'). And that there is no opt-out clause, unless you want to be a complete killjoy. But also that there is no need to panic - every shop sells huge packs of tiny cards to which you can attach lollipops, precisely for this purpose.

I know that in the summer, it is imperative to have organised some kind of 'summer camp'; with school finishing in mid June, the summer holidays would otherwise be interminably long. And I also know - for next year - that you sign up on the day camp registration opens. I thought I was being incredibly organised signing up the boys at the beginning of February - luckily we scraped in by the skin of our teeth, getting the last two places available....

I know that it is not just customary, but obligatory, to send out a Christmas card that features a photograph of your children. I know this because I happened to glance at a school noticeboard recently where all the cards were pinned. Every single other parent had sent a glossy card depicting their grinning offspring (and sometimes themselves too) with a message like 'Happy Holidays from the Waltons'. Our card, a run-of-the-mill picture of a snowy scene, looked, frankly, crap and lazy.

However, I am still clinging to my Britishness in some regards. For example:

We did not give, or attend, a Superbowl party. We watched a very short snatch of the Big Game (which was extremely baffling) and rather spectacular Halftime Show. Then I turned over to watch the BBC's adapation of Emma, which was being shown on PBS. I suspect that I was one of the few people in the whole of America to do this. We also missed Barack Obama giving a key interview on CBS just ahead of the match (can you imagine if Gordon Brown addressed the nation just before the FA Cup final?)

I still refuse to drive a large people carrier, and am happy to zip around town in a little Honda (the Dodgy Dodge having being relegated to the status of The Doctor's car.) No doubt this is viewed as very eccentric.

I still call my children 'darling' and 'sweetheart', not 'honey' and 'buddy'.

We will be having pancakes next Tuesday. According to the internets, cooking up a pancake with lemon and sugar is a firmly British tradition, despite celebrations of Mardi Gras etc. But, I might serve them with maple syrup. After all, when in Rome......

Sunday 7 February 2010

The wrong birthday boy?

I was just reading a lovely post by Iota at Not Wrong, just Different, a longstanding chronicler of what it's like to be a Brit in America, about name pronunciation, and how children's names can end up as something completely different once you move Stateside.

We had a slightly different problem in the NappyValley household this weekend. Littleboy 1 was invited to a birthday party, along with everyone else in his preschool class - the child's name, on the invitation, was Keval and instinctively I read it as a boy's name. It was also a party in a sports hall with soccer, etc. so I had imagined lots of little boys running about (although in fact, plenty of girls here play soccer too).

So yesterday morning, when I realise that we haven't yet bought a present (oh, super-organised Mummy that I am) I say to Littleboy 1 that I am off to buy something for the boy whose party he is going to. "Whose party is it?" he asked. I tell him. "But, Mummy," he says. "I think that's a little GIRL."

"Are you sure?" I urge him. "You really think it's a little girl who's asked you?"

He then looks confused. "Whose party again?" I repeat the name. "I don't know who that is," he replies vaguely and wandered off. (This is not untypical. I don't know if all four year olds are like this, but he is NOT good with names and often doesn't seem to know his schoolmates are, even if they come up to him and greet him in the playground...)

Still not convinced, I go ahead and buy a slightly boy-ish, but at-a-push unisex present.

We arrive at the party; there are children milling around everywhere. Littleboy 1 still doesn't seem to know who the birthday boy/girl is and although I identify the parents, their kid is already on the sports field. Luckily Littleboy 1, after wandering around vaguely for a while, recognises some other friends, so I leave him to it.

A little later I return to pick up my highly excited son, and finally identify the birthday BOY giving out the going-home presents (CANDY! cries Littleboy 1, sounding as American as they come).

So, when we get home, I say this: "So, you know who Keval is now, do you? Did you sing happy birthday to him?" (At this point I will reveal that I pronounce the name Kee-val, although, as the boy is Indian, I am not at all sure if this is correct...)

"But, Mummy," he replies. "It wasn't his birthday."

Oh. "So whose birthday was it then?"

"It was Kivvel's". (to rhyme with swivel).

So, Kivvel. Clearly a good mate of his. Glad we cleared that one up.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Why winter is a bitch for working mothers

This morning I have managed to lose two boys, but gain a third. While the Littleboys are at nursery, I am looking after a friend's three year old boy as a favour while she is at work. (As I write, he is happily playing with the boys' trains; thank goodness for the universal little boy fascination with Thomas).

Now, I am not a natural childminder - looking after my own small boys is hard enough. But the reason I offered to do it comes down to an issue I feel so strongly about; how hard it is to be a working mother with a preschool child in the winter months.

My friend went back to work three weeks ago, after a three year maternity break; since she started, she hasn't managed to work a full week. Her son has been ill three times, including on her first day at work. Last week she phoned me in tears as she had taken him back to preschool after two days' illness; the school then demanded a doctors' note to say that he was OK, which she didn't have. She spent two hours in a side room on the phone trying to get hold of her doctor (it's a little different from the UK where someone else would probably be at the GP surgery, paediatricians here are quite often one-man bands); meanwhile her son was crying because he had to miss the pyjama party at school.

Yesterday he was sent home from school early again because of a stomach upset; the school won't have him back for 24 hours after the incident, even though he is absolutely fine this morning and shows no signs of illness. I had already offered to help out if I could, so last night she called me and asked whether I could take him today.

Of course I could. I know just what this is like. Although on one hand, as a freelancer, I have not always been so tied to having to go into work, it is always sod's law that just as I am commissioned to write something huge, one of the boys will go down with something. But then again, no-one is going to give me an extended deadline because my children have chicken pox, so I end up writing the thing with a sick child at home, demanding drinks, cuddles and attention as I'm trying to conduct telephone interviews.

The winter months are a nightmare for working mothers, scuppered by kiddie illnesses, temperatures and colds. I know plenty of mothers who will dose their child up with Calpol in the morning so they'll last until lunchtime before the nursery suspects they are ill and sends them home. (And so of course the illness proliferates throughout the nursery and everyone else ends up in the same situation......).

These people are not being cruel parents; they're just desperate. It's either that or one parent takes holiday to look after the child. Because, let's face it, most employers are unsympathetic to repeated childhood sick days; one might be fine, but when it's January and your child is coming down with something new every couple of weeks, their sympathies start to wear thin. What usually happens is that whoever is not the major breadwinner of the family takes the day off; and that's potentially damaging for career prospects if it happens all the time.

Nurseries are also, I feel, sometimes pretty hardline about these things. I realise they have to prevent infection, but my children's nursery states that the child must not attend if they have 'green discharge from their nose' or 'a cough'. Well, sorry, but my children have almost permanent nasal discharge throughout the winter months, and coughs can take weeks to disappear....

My friend, being an expat like me, does not have an extended family to fall back on if something goes wrong. It is simply herself, her husband and any kind friend who happens to be around to help out. Short of employing a full-time nanny (which most people can't afford), there isn't really any other option.

I don't know what the answer is - if anyone has any ideas, I'd like to hear them - but I do feel there isn't enough said about this issue. The government can talk as much as it likes about flexible hours for working women, hand out childcare vouchers and the rest. But until employers recognise - or are forced to recognise - that parents need to take time off work for sick children, mothers (or fathers) are going to be penalised, whether it's missing out on a promotion, being shunned by colleagues who think they are taking the piss, or simply giving up because it's all too much.

Monday 1 February 2010

10 reasons you know it's February on Long Island

1. The outdoor Christmas decorations are finally coming down. There is still the odd house where a lonely wreath, or a plastic Santa, lingers, but most are now looking rather forlorn without their strings of fairy lights and red ribboned wreaths on every window. Still, it is never too far away from the next holiday, and red tinsel hearts and Valentine's flags are now starting to appear....

2. The supermarket is awash with huge crisp packs, popcorn and chicken wings on promotion. Even Whole Foods is offering a 'free game-time dip'. Yes, it's almost time for the Superbowl....

3. Other seasonal merchandise includes green felt hats and green tinsel - presumably for St Patrick's Day. In March....meanwhile the Valentine's cards have been shoved further back, because that's, like, so over.

4. It's been a whole two weeks since the last bank holiday (Martin Luther King day). Now Presidents' Day, and a week off school to boot, is looming. Everyone in town seems to be headed to the Bahamas or Florida Keys. Except you, who will be stuck at home with two bored boys in the freezing cold....

5. You no longer remark on how amazing it is that the sea is actually frozen, as you drive along the shore front. It just seems normal now.

6. Everyone's coats and snowboots are looking quite well-worn, and you would gladly never put another mitten on a child in your life.

7. Your husband decides that a morning when the thermometer is reading minus 9 is a good time to go for a run. He comes back looking like he's about to expire.

8. Popping outside to put something in the recycle bin can be a major Polar expedition. You may be gone some time....

9. While out there you spot a neighbour barbecuing outside his back door, at 9pm on the coldest night of the year.

10. People start asking you what your kids are doing for summer camp......