I guess some things can be seen best through close inspection, whereas other things are more aptly held in the corner of your eye.

The things happening lately are part of that latter category. I started a new blog which isn't, and yet really is, all about it. (You can email me if you want to know where it is. You may even see a reflection of this old place in the title.)

It helps to write, sometimes anonymously, sometimes indirectly. So I am writing again. But not here.

My sister did a lot better with my parents. ("How did she manage to get the information out of them?" The Earl asked. "By being my sister?" I guessed. My father-in-law once commented collectively that my sisters and I were a determined bunch, but his comment was triggered by a thing this particular sister had done.)

So my mother does indeed have breast cancer. Again. A carcinoma, to be more exact. It was detected at her twenty-year checkup and is still very small, for what that's worth. They think it's unrelated to the last episode - an entirely new growth - and although they haven't finished hunting for signs of metastasis they haven't found anything yet. There is a meeting with the surgeon next week, and they will learn more about what sort of things they're planning to cut off and how and why. At some point we will also figure out if there's to be any followup treatment, such as chemotherapy - that plan is still in the process of being formulated. Meanwhile, my mother is reconsidering her position on genetic testing. If she decides to go ahead, and turns out to be positive for any of the known genes, I may have some decisions to make on that front as well.

I feel calmer - actually everyone feels calmer - having put that level of information together. My mother even deigned to talk to me briefly on the phone this morning. My father has instructed me to continue planning the 2014 big family holiday we'd been talking about.

I think we will do better this time. We are all older, and wiser. My sister has obviously gained the knack of putting her foot down and insisting on being informed, as opposed to disintegrating into a blithering mess. My father has learnt a trick or two. (A friend asked him if she should come over to visit my mum and give her comfort. "She's not accepting visitors," he replied, "but don't you need me to have a look at a problem with your laptop or something? We'll both be home Saturday morning and I can check out your machine for a few hours, just make sure it's free of viruses and everything, and maybe you can wait for me in the kitchen with my wife and have a cup of tea, if she feels up to it?") And I, well. I have a couple more tools than I did when I was a teenager, too.

So this is just how it is and we'll just have to do our best and see how it goes.

Maybe I'll go ahead and change my hair colour after all. Why not?

I thought I'd be writing one of at least two different posts today. In my head, I'd half-composed something about the fact that I was finally asked if we'd had Young Master assessed for some sort of behavioural disorder. Then Mel wrote this intriguing post about communal parenting, and I was going to muse on the subject in a cross-cultural context. But actually what I'm going to write about today is how I've decided to not change my hair colour. Well, it is and it isn't about changing my hair colour. You'll see what I mean.

The first time I met my current hairdresser he asked me, in incredulous tones, how long it had been since I'd last had a haircut, and why. I opened my mouth to explain it to him - some people do with their hairdressers - and closed it again because it was all too hard. I'm not sure I could have conveyed - in fact, I'm not sure I can now - the tortuous year of failed FETs from that first cycle; how in the end we lost Jester and had our recurrent pregnancy loss workup; how something changed, somewhere inside me; how I made the decision to shelve our remaining embryos in order to move ahead with a fresh cycle, a fetching swept fringe and some highlights.

The last time I saw him he asked me, in incredulous tones, who'd cut my hair most recently. I admitted I'd had it done by someone else whilst on holidays - again. The story of my hair is a story of getting bad haircuts on holidays. "For the longest time I told myself it was because I never got time time during a normal week," I told him, "but I've realised that's not it at all. It's actually harder to make time when you're away. And it takes longer, because you first have to find a hairdresser. No - the reason I always get my hair cut when I'm away is because I like the surprise of not quite knowing what I'll end up with. It's a little travel game, like ordering "a coffee" or "a tea" just to find out what comes and in what ways it's different to the stuff you'd get at home."

"But with a tea or coffee, if it's bad, you can't always just stop drinking it," my hairdresser responded, still incredulous. "With a haircut you have to walk around like that for as long as it takes." I shrugged and observed that eventually it grows. Then I explained that since I had no holidays coming up, I was thinking of booking in for a new colour instead. Something other than boring old mouse. I thought about discussing how this related to my life's increasing stability and my aims to start progressing again with my career, but I skipped it because we obviously have different philosophies on hair.

This morning I found myself standing in front of the mirror with my hair brush for a very long time. Young Miss and Master were outside "planting flowers" in the box on the patio, which is code for "spreading dirt around everywhere and tracking mud through the house". I wasn't really paying attention. The forefront of my mind was occupied by the thought that I didn't want to change my hair colour after all. At some point, Young Master wanted help with something, and when he didn't get a good response he peered at me curiously.

"Are you crying?" he asked. And I confirmed that I was. "Why?" I muttered something about Grandma being very sick, maybe. Actually, I don't know what's going on - my parents have never been very good at transmitting this sort of information. I know there was some sort of problem with my mother's last mammogram which happened at some ill-defined point in the past, or perhaps it was an ultrasound, and that the GP is in the process of scheduling some sort of surgery, and that maybe there will be other treatment as well, or not. Is it a biopsy? Is it a mastectomy? They got a "confirming phone call" from the GP earlier in the week. Confirming what? It's like getting blood from a stone, and about as successful. My father assures me he will tell me more as he gets to know more, except he won't - I know I will be hard pressed to draw what he knows out of him, and there will be countless questions he simply won't have thought to ask. Is this a scare or is this the real thing? And if it's the real thing - I mean, it sounds like they've completed several steps of workup already - does that mean the cancer my mother battled twenty odd years ago is finally breaking out, never to be fully contained again? My mother is not speaking to anyone and won't come to the phone. My sisters don't know. I wouldn't either, if I hadn't rung this morning and asked if my mother could chat.

I've always felt that my mother's breast cancer was part of my infertility story, or perhaps it's more accurate to just say it's part of my story. I met The Earl during her initial battle. It informed my sense of timing and my decisions on treatment. I'm not really sure where to go with this paragraph. I don't actually know what's going on - at present, I am only imagining the worst. At least I hope it's only imagining. But it doesn't sound very much like previous scares. And I don't know what to do.

I had a lot more to say in my head. I was going to end with some profound metaphor on life, and hair, and how I like the thrill of not knowing quite knowing what they mean by "tea" in Cambodia and ordering it anyway and perhaps getting stuck with something unpalatable, and how I don't mind if I sometimes walk around looking like a bad eighties music video for a month or two at a time. But there are ways in which I also long for predictability and continuity, and times when the most I can do to achieve it is to fail to visit the hairdresser for a while. In any case, I think, for now, I'll stick with mouse. I don't have much else to conclude with.

I lose my temper every day.

Sometimes these things aren't apparent to a blog reader. In fact, sometimes they're not apparent to many outside the household at all - I tend to lose my temper towards the end of the day, just before The Earl arrives with his cavalry, by which time we are usually out of public scrutiny. So I am telling you all here, now, for the record, so that you know.

Recently, Young Master has started to get the hang of peer interactions. After years (wasn't it centuries?) of trying to explain to him how people get along, something suddenly clicked and he got it. I didn't realise how much of a mental burden it was to me that he hadn't got it yet until after he got it. All of a sudden I can relax when he is playing with other children: I don't feel the need to anxiously monitor his interactions and head off potential disasters, whilst at the same time trying to stay well enough back that I'm not interfering unless actually needed - all whilst running after an early toddler.

He has also figured out how to handle me. Yesterday, I was stressed and distracted, trying to deal with a bureaucratic issue (that has not yet been resolved), spending way more time than usual on the phone and computer. Towards the end of the day I was writing yet another email when The Young Master appeared beside me, saying something. I didn't hear him, and I told him in a frustrated tone that I was still trying to sort out "this whole mess" and needed to send another email, but when I raised my hands to the keyboard he took them gently and gave each of them a little kiss whilst speaking in a soft tone. Distractedly, I gave him a smile and a pat on the back and lifted my hands to the keyboard again, whereupon he repeated his act, and this time I heard him: "Mum," he said, "I wish you would use these two hands to come and play my game with me instead of using them to type another email."

I blinked for a moment. Where the fuck does he learn that? But of course it worked, because I kissed his hands back and, looking into his face, assured him that I would come and play games in exactly two minutes, whether I had finished sorting out "this mess" or not. And I did.

I do marvel at how he gets these things. Did I teach him that? I don't think I did. Probably I taught him to be shrewish and hysterical and the rest he worked out on his own, as if by magic. If I can take credit at all, maybe it's for choosing a school where someone else could teach him good lessons - even then, I chose it largely on convenience, so not much credit at all.

The cynic in me says I did teach him that in a sense, but what I have actually taught him is not love or kindness or some other lofty attribute, but how to manipulate me skillfully for his own ends. When I go mad at him he hugs me and tells me he loves me. Result: I quickly stop being mad. One day he looks up at me mid-hug and says, "Mum, whenever you get mad at me I always give you a hug and tell you I love you."

"I've noticed you doing that," I reply. "Out of interest, why do you do it?"

He nuzzles my stomach and squeezes me extra-tight. "I just don't want you to forget." Even if it's just a tool of manipulation, can I really be upset that he has decided to manipulate me by returning anger with affection? So many times I've preached that the best response to abuse is empathy. People, I have said, don't set out to be mean just because they want to hurt everyone. If they are being mean, it's because something, somewhere, has gone quite wrong. Solve the problem: starting with sympathy. I find it hard advice to follow, of course, but I should be glad that someone in our house seems to be fighting fire with water, whatever his motivation.

I lose my temper every day. Recently I lost my ring, too, or I thought I'd lost it, but really I'd just dropped it into an obscure corner of my purse. The Young Master found it whilst looking for something else, and when he held it up to me I gasped dramatically and he flinched. "Why did you just gasp?" he wanted to know.

"I'm surprised to see my ring!" I answered. "I've been looking for it for a whole week and I'd decided it was gone forever and I was very sad about that, because I've had it for such a long time and it was given to me by an old friend."

"Oh. So you're happy?" he asked.

And I bent down to him and cupped his face in my hands and looked into his eyes. "Do I get mad a lot?" I asked guiltily, searching for the answer in his expression as much as his words.

"No," he said. "A bit. Sometimes you get very angry. But I know we can always be friends again afterwards." And he smiles and hands me my ring.

One thing about raising children as an expat is that your local children's library doesn't have the same cultural filter as your children's library "back home". The differences can be subtle, and surprising. You see, where I come from, my local librarian was actively trying to create a culturally diverse set of reading material - a little Roald Dahl, some Zen Buddhism, and one or two folk tales from Africa. And the thing is, it's easy to list off the things you've read your kids that are also being read to children in Russia, Qatar, or Milwaulke. But how do you tune in to what you're not reading? Well, you could do a hit and run trip through your local children's library, like we did last week.

Here's a short list of recent stories:

  1. A book whose name I have already forgotten, so great was my haste to return it. The story revolves around a boy who is playing happily in his room one day when his friends drop by, unexpectedly. His grandfather comes up to the boy's room to ask him if he'd like to come down and play, and the boy declines. The grandfather advises him not to be grumpy, and he assures his grandfather that he is not grumpy, he's just not in the mood for unexpected visitors who are, after all, unexpected, and kind of just wants to finish off this thing he was right in the middle of doing before they dropped around unexpectedly. The grandfather, with a knowing smile, sits down on the bed and tells him an "allegorical" tale... about a fish who is playing happily in his anemone when ditto ditto ditto and ditto. In the end, the fish learns that he should "stop being grumpy" and play with his damned friends already. Moral of the story? It is not ok to be an introvert. (Secondary moral? Some people do not know how to write allegories and prefer to write bricks that will shortly hit you over the head thinly wrapped in what may technically be called an allegory.) 
  2.  Today, Maybe (Dominique Demers and Gabrielle Grimard). The story revolves around a girl who sits passively at home making tea and jam sandwiches and entertaining visitors and talking to her pet bird and basically guarding her chastity and honing her domestic skills whilst her One True Love travels all over the world looking for her (and probably developing a fulfilling career at the same time). In the end, he turns up, they lock eyes, and... I guess... we are supposed to believe that they just lived happily ever. Because they are destined for each other. What is that? That is a book which should be ceremonially burnt by anyone who believes in either a) gender equality or b) real-life relationships.  Because, honestly. Grudging points for making the One True Love a bear, and not a white Anglo-Saxon prince (although the bear is still male).
  3.  Why Cats Don't Wear Hats (Victoria Perez Escriva and Ester Garcia). The story is translated from Spanish, and the language retains a charming foreign air. Using a series of "logical" steps, the book explains that cats don't wear hats, because that would lead to a chain of events which would eventually necessitate the renouncing of the cat's essential "catness". To be a cat is easy, the book concludes, as long as you don't want to wear a hat. This is a delightful book about foresight, unintended consequences, the true weight of material objects, and the way one desire can lead to another, transforming you as you follow each call. Its subtlety begs discussion and allows the reader the freedom to frame the moral within his or her own set of values. (Reading the back cover, for example, gives the impression that the authors think they have written a book about the importance of being yourself.)
  4.  John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (Jenny Wagner). A true classic. A dog and an old woman live happily together, until a black cat tries to join their household, invoking jealousy on the part of the dog. When the dog sends the cat away, however, the woman becomes sad and ill, leading the dog to relent in order to make her happy. The reader has the opportunity to learn not only that an extra friend doesn't lessen the original friendship, but that sometimes loving someone means putting their wants before your own. Again, the story is subtle enough to invite thought and is open to individual interpretation.
  5.  Green Eggs And Ham (Dr Seuss)*. Another classic - the story needs no summary. Again, one of its strengths is its subtlety - the messages are there, but they are not explicitly spelled out. This also allows the book to grow with the child. The more obvious moral - that you can't decide if you like something or not without trying it - suits younger children. The less obvious moral - that just because someone annoys you doesn't mean you will dislike everything they have to offer - can come later on.
  6.  MOM (Mom Operating Manual) (Doreen Cronin and Laura Cornell). This is a genuinely funny book, even if they did miss the opportunity to create a title joke by using a meaningful acronym (Mum Upkeep Manual?). Unlike another book which I also hastily returned and cannot now name, it does not employ sarcastic humour of the kind that its readership is unlikely to appreciate. (The other book contained advice such as: "Be sure to wake your parents up super-early so they'll have time to stop being tired before work." This book employs the type of humour which is not only funnier but less dangerous: "Your mum is likely not getting enough sleep if: 1) She has packed you a lunch of unsweetened cocoa and a raw egg." I know which I'd rather read to my preschoolers.) The inescapable message is that your mother has needs and will not function well if those needs aren't sufficiently met. Of course, realising that other people have needs and that harmonious relationships will result from having everyone's needs acknowledged and addressed is an important lesson which goes well beyond the home hearth.

Mel's recent post made me think about what our kids learn from the stories we tell them. Fiction is a powerful tool, because of its ability to engage a reader's interest and dispense with the bounds of reality. It can teach in ways - and on topics - that non-fiction cannot. I have this wild** idea that we should form an online picture-book club, to over-analyse what we are saying to our kids through fiction and make use of the internet to help set aside our cultural filters. It would be like any other book club, but less time consuming. If you want to join, please review a book you've read to or with a child (depending on their agegroup - it doesn't have to be a picture book if the kids are past that stage, neither does it have to be your own child - it could be a niece or the pupils in your class) on your own blog, provide a link back to this post, and leave me a comment asking me to add you to the list. I'd like to be mindful of the lessons I'm teaching.

Picture Book Club List:

  • Be first!

*The Dr Seuss is part of our own collection, but seems to be a favourite at the moment.

**Obviously my definition of "wild" has changed since my teens and twenties.

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