Monday, July 9, 2012

What to expect in your 39th year

As I get older, I’m constantly amazed by how long ago things that seem recent actually happened. 

The event itself doesn’t matter: my mind is equally blown when I consider Bill Clinton became president twenty years ago as it is when I realize Right Said Fred released their first album the same year.  

I don’t know where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain died, but I can remember with precision that I was driving to Ace Hardware in Iowa when I heard that he had been dead twenty years, because it didn't seem possible and made me feel old. 

I didn't feel the same disbelief last Saturday, which was the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death. It feels like half my life since I saw my mom, so it came as no shock that it is.  

I’ve gone through many episodes in my life since she died. I graduated from university, started a career, lived in several states and countries, went to graduate school, got married and divorced, had two children. I’ve navigated my 20s and most of my 30s without my mom, and I think she’d be mostly pleased with how it’s all worked out. 

From birth children begin the gradual process of surviving without their mothers. That’s the point of parenting: to help them grow into self-sufficient people who can live in and contribute to society. Parents only get so many years to prepare their kids before letting them go, and we are relaxing our grip slowly every day. For me, that means allowing my son to drink from a grown-up cup even though I know he’ll likely spill all over himself.  

It is not my job to keep my children from making mistakes. They have a right to their mistakes. It’s my job to help them develop the intellectual and emotional capacity to recover and learn from the mistakes they will make. But it's tricky when progress looks so precarious. It is not easy to allow my son to walk down our steep, dangerous Dutch stairs by himself (with me a step away, of course) while resisting a primal urge to grab him in a bear hug and carry him.  

I can appreciate how difficult this gets when the stakes are higher. The first time my mother agreed to let me drive with her as a passenger, she – not a drinker – had to down a digestive Ouzo at the restaurant we were in to get the courage to do it. She spent the duration of the journey in the backseat, singing the Wolfe Tones’ “We’re on the One Road” and trying not to panic. 

My mother had far less time than many parents to make an imprint on her children, to teach us what she wanted us to know, and to see reassuring signs that we were going to be okay. When it was clear she was going to die, she told me if there were windows in heaven she'd be looking down at me. I suggested maybe we could agree to a schedule, as there may be some things she didn't need to see.  

Being a parent makes you worry. Before having kids, I wasn't really afraid of much. Now I feel more vulnerable, because I have so much more to lose. I worry about something happening to them, but I also worry about something happening to me. After focusing for years on my own loss, now that I’m a parent I think about having to leave my kids – she was only eight years older than I am now – and I grieve more for everything she missed out on than I do for what I don’t have. 

My mom taught by example. She had a wonderful optimism, and never lingered in anger or sadness or resentment. She told me once that if she was scolded as a child, she would just picture herself in her mind riding her bike really fast on a summer day, and imagining that if she had very long hair, it'd be blowing in the wind. She never lost that ability to thwart negativity, even when sick. 

She wanted my sister and me to feel good about ourselves, to act with integrity no matter what we did. When I was cast as the cow in the nativity pageant as a child, rather than landing the coveted role of Mary, she assured me that the cow was very important, because it breathed on baby Jesus and kept him warm. 

She was assertive but not pushy or defensive. She was principled but not judgmental or exclusionary. She had a fantastic sense of humor, threw better parties than her teenage daughters, and, being roguish herself, forgave my teenage trespasses – even appreciated them, if I could make her laugh. 

I had a great mom who managed to teach me a lot in a short time. I know how to laugh at and forgive myself. I know how to feel comfortable in my own skin. I believe people are basically good, in spite of being flawed. More so than anything you can read in a What to Expect manual, my mom helped my sister and me understand how to live good lives, just by being ourselves. I can only hope to do the same for my kids.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3 ...

Today is my birthday. I am now 39-years old and 20-weeks’ pregnant, which means it’s time for a champagne-free celebration and some words about maternal maturity.

“Elderly primigravida” is a term for women who have their first child at 35 or older. I learned this during my first pregnancy, and it made me feel sci-fi dangerous. I imagined myself strapped to a table in a post-apocalyptic lab with mad scientists toiling away at me, mankind’s last hope.

But I’m not such a rare breed. Twenty percent of women in the United States have their first baby after 35, and an increasing number are waiting into their 40s and beyond. This time around, I don’t let jargon scare me. You say “post-mature,” I say, “finally mature enough.” You “obstetrically senescent,” I say, “look, I’ve been busy with other stuff.”

For me, deciding the best time to have a baby wasn’t a matter of science or statistics, but of lifestyle and personal development. Parenting is something I only wanted to do if I was ready and able to make it my priority, to commit my time and focus. But there were other things I felt I had to do first, and I don’t regret waiting.

I’m not suggesting I did anything extraordinary instead of having children in the last decade, but I’m satisfied that I gave myself enough years to explore my options. If I haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro or gone to law school by now, it’s certainly not because I didn’t have the time.

My life has balance today that it didn’t have when I was younger, and I have the privilege of being a working mother who is not overly tormented by logistical tangles, emotional conflicts, major financial strains, or laments for what could have been.

But with me at 39 and the Irish fella 52, we are hardly “babies having babies,” and there are of course downsides to that, too: older women carry higher risks of having children with genetic and chromosomal abnormalities, such as cystic fibrosis and Downs syndrome.

At my last midwife appointment, I was asked whether I wanted an amniocentesis, a test for fetal defects. It’s a procedure in which a long narrow needle is inserted into the uterus and a fluid sample is taken. I opted to do it in my last pregnancy, because I was curious about everything to do with my fetus, and because it sounded straightforward enough.

But the uterus is the Fort Knox of organs. It is formed mostly of muscle and is fiercely protective of its contents. Puncturing it with a needle took a fair bit of force and was met with an angry contraction (well played, uterus!), and, moreover, it hurt.

Still, far more disturbing for us was watching our baby on the ultrasound screen scurry away from the pointy intruder, and being told afterward that if I didn’t bleed for two weeks, I probably wouldn’t miscarry.

The test can trigger miscarriage, and this gives a lot of women pause—particularly older women who worry about their declining chances of conceiving again. And because any abnormalities identified are untreatable in the womb if at all, your only options if a problem is identified are to continue on or terminate the pregnancy.

For these reasons, some argue that the test would have more benefit to younger women, who generally have more childbearing years ahead of them—and to whom more babies with Downs are actually born, simply because younger women have more babies overall.

We decided against the test this time. We don't want to take any level of risk with this baby—not because I fear looming menopause, but because learning of an abnormality would not be a deal breaker anyway.

Of course I want my baby to be healthy, and I already know my chances. A simple Google search will tell you that a woman of 39—regardless of health history or any other factor but age—has a 1 in 250 chance of having a baby with Downs. But I don’t think of this as a game of odds. I doubt any parent raising a child with this or any chromosomal disorder would tell you they gambled and lost.

So I’m celebrating my birthday with a bit of irony: I am statistically more likely to have a child with birth defects than I was ten years ago, but I also feel more personally, financially, and emotionally prepared to provide my child whatever he or she needs, for however long. Even if I'm the oldest mommy waiting in the schoolyard.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Parenthood: Because change is good

Today is my son's first birthday—happy birthday, baby boy. We spent the morning marveling at our wobbling, babbling, chubby-legged fellow, and at how fast the time has gone and at how far we've all come in the last year. This afternoon there will be presents and cake and photos and fun. But for now, in the spirit of blogger self-indulgence, I'm going to make it about me.

Parenthood is something I always figured I'd enter into later in life, if at all. Although I knew it would be enriching in many ways, I assumed it would be limiting in others, a sort of wing-clipping, and I wasn't ready for that in my 20s or early (or even mid) 30s.

I've been reflecting this morning on how my first year of motherhood has changed me. I can report that life is definitely not what it was before my son was born, and so far, that's overwhelmingly a good thing.

I have broadened, rather than narrowed, my social circle.

When you have a baby, you get to know a lot of other moms, just as when you have a dog, you get to know a lot of dog owners, and, to steal a line from a friend, if you have a beer, you get to know a lot of drinkers. I’ve always considered “mommy friends” a pejorative term, and envisioned a social life reduced to discussions of feeding schedules and diaper rash cures. And I was not entirely wrong: I have met a lot of other moms, and we do discuss these things, but it’s anything but dull. And at the risk of getting all mommies are people on you, among the moms I’ve met over the last year is a program director for a major Amsterdam classical music venue, a project manager for a development consultancy, and a clothing designer with her own line at an international firm. The pram may be the icebreaker, but what I have to discuss with and learn from the mom friends I’ve made goes far beyond that.

I am becoming more interesting, or at least I'm trying.

One of my first jobs was with a San Francisco-based book publisher. As each weekend approached, the kitchen bulletin board would be covered in flyers inviting staff to various events involving my creative genius colleagues: so-and-so would be reading from his book of haikus this Friday, such-and-such would be performing in a musical Saturday night. It made me feel so dull, having nothing to counter with but that I’d be sitting on my ass drinking beer all weekend. Pregnancy and motherhood have forced me to broaden my horizons, in part because I don't want my son to think I’m useless, but also because you have to get more inventive with how you spend your time when you can’t just hang out at the pub. You also have more hours in the day. For example, before my son was born, 9 am on Saturday was technically a time, but it went largely unseen and unused. Now it’s when I am available for coffee or yoga. I was inspired to do more in the last year, including participating in a writing group, a cooking class, a belly dance workshop, and intensive Dutch study, as well as earning my first by-lines as a freelance journalist.

I sleep better.

As a night owl with a day job and an enthusiasm for the, shall we say, cafĂ© culture, I have never been a good sleeper. Everyone says that parenthood is the death of sleep, but for me, I’ve never been so well rested—probably because I've never been so genuinely tired at the end of the day. I always worked a lot and I always worked hard, but work was really all I had to do. Now I have just four hours of baby-free time to work each morning, and I am far more focused and efficient. Afternoons with my son aren’t billable, but they are no less busy, especially with a child who thinks naps are for suckers. I am grateful that I can divide my days between work and motherhood, and I try to do both at full capacity. It’s tiring, in a satisfying way. And while I used to struggle to wind down at night, there’s no tossing and turning now, only deep, lovely sleep.

I am a better partner.

I learned a lot from my divorce, including that successful relationships rely on accountability as much as romance. Most divorces are not sudden—every action strengthens or weakens a relationship, and before reaching a crescendo of inelegance and despair, a failing marriage begins its demise with subtle apathy. You stay up late watching TV by yourself. You leave your dishes in the sink. You cancel weekend plans to catch up on work. Not occasionally but most of the time. I love my Irish fella, and we are plenty romantic. But some of the best ways to show your appreciation for your partner are completely void of passion, like scrubbing the toilet because it’s your turn, or turning off your laptop to engage in what’s going on around you rather than feel irritated by it. That we are now parents makes it all the more important that we be strong as a couple. The Irish fella and I both love a boy whose life we want to make great, and we adore being parents so much we’re having another baby. But at the core of our family is our partnership, and not wanting that to fail makes my priorities clear.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

MAD love

(c) Time Out Amsterdam, July 2011

Four years ago, Mariette Fehmers canceled a romantic getaway with her then-boyfriend so she could take her daughter to meet Sinterklaas – and the response wasn’t exactly what she expected. ‘He flipped, and I realised we were talking about my daughter like she was a problem,’ Fehmers says. ‘My daughter is not my “problem.” She’s my asset. She’s my light. She’s everything.’

It was then that native Amsterdammer Fehmers, now 44, decided she would only date men who had children. ‘I was fed up apologising when I couldn’t do something because I had my daughter,’ Fehmers recalls. ‘Of course I have my daughter – she’s my daughter. That is something a father understands.’

Fehmers isn’t bitter. She radiates optimism and her energy is infectious. I’m betting the slender blonde former ‘Hart Van Nederland’ TV presenter attracts plenty of male attention. Instead of being discouraged by a few men who couldn’t handle the fact that she was a parent, she was inspired by it: two years ago she quit her job at a PR firm and started her own business: a dating website for single parents.

The site, MAD Company (, was launched in January 2010 and now has more than 2,500 members in the Netherlands, the vast majority in the Randstad. MAD stands for ‘moms and dads’, Fehmers explains, ‘But it’s also tongue-in-cheek – you can feel mad when you divorce, but you can also fall madly in love again.’

As with other dating sites, members create profiles, search for other members based on various criteria (age, sexual preference, etc) and send messages to anyone who strikes their fancy (and the site is monitored for inappropriate conduct). But unlike other dating sites, everyone knows upfront if there are children involved, so there’s no game-playing around the subject.

The gratis membership option – versus the €6 a month paying version – limits the number of messages members can send or photos they can post, but generously allows access to the site’s many resources, including blogs, a relationship column, dating tips, alimony advice and suggestions on ways to help children deal with their parent’s divorce.

‘It’s not just about dating,’ Fehmers says, ‘it’s about forming relationships. It’s a community.’ Members plan ‘offline’ events that are open to everyone on MAD Company and that range from morning picnics to late-night dance parties. These events were the main draw for member Maui Maurer, 48. a former Hell’s Angel who recently won full custody of his two children, a daughter, 4, and a son, 10.

‘I didn’t really join for dating,’ he told me. ‘My children are my priority. It took seven lawyers to get them back. I thought with the activities – going to the park, the beach – I could do more things with them, and with others who understand my situation.’

Mirka Van Beest, 40, joined MAD Company after meeting members on a sailing trip, even though she doesn’t have kids. Anyone open to dating a single parent can participate. ‘I don’t have children, it’s just not how my life went,’ she explains, ‘and sometimes I feel I missed out. But it’s nice to have kids in your life.’

Although friendship is what most members say they’re seeking, Cupid has definitely struck for some. There are many success stories, and a new one is shared every week on the main page of the site. ‘There is couple that met on the site and are now expecting a child, Fehmers says, ‘the first MAD baby!’

Fehmers hasn’t met her own true love through the venture (it’s her personal policy not to date site members, to avoid mixing business with pleasure), but she remains open to a new relationship, and encouraging others to stay positive about the search. ‘I tell people: this site is about looking ahead,’ she says. ‘Don’t only look to where the sun went down or you’ll never see the sun come up.’

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hell on Wheels

In movies, when someone takes a pregnancy test, it is a scene of excruciating waiting, of squinting at the stick, struggling to decipher the result. In reality, the bright blue “+” sign appears while you are still midstream. It could be made clearer only if a small mallet was released to whack you between the eyes.

For me, while the physical changes of pregnancy came slowly, the mental shift from non-pregnant woman to host body was made just as quickly as the + turned blue. Psychologically transitioning back to normalcy post-pregnancy, however, has been a far more gradual process.

For a while after my son was born I still carried myself as though I had a big bump, giving myself unnecessary clearance when moving through narrow spaces. And long after the actual post-natal period was up—it officially lasts from birth to six weeks—I caught myself wondering why people no longer offered me their seat on the bus. Could they not tell I had just had a baby?

Pregnancy comes with many discomforts and restrictions, and after the baby is born there are even more physical, hormonal, and emotional changes to face. I got used to being in this state of adjustment. Unconsciously, I used it as a sort of qualifier: I was in pretty good shape, for someone who had just had a baby. My house was pretty tidy, for someone who had just had a baby. And so on.

But now as my eight-month old son crawls around the floor and flashes me his one-tooth smile, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t “just” do anything. It is time to let go of my post-natal mindset, to be a little bit more demanding of myself, to reclaim my body. To that end, in part, I decided to join a gym.

I reviewed the fitness classes offered. One promised me the hindquarters of Jennifer Lopez, but its name – “ass blast” – sounded far too much like a colon cleansing. I opted for spinning. The spinning room is the VIP lounge of my gym. Its glass walls allow you a tantalizing glimpse of what goes on in there: it’s dark, with flashing, disco-like lights, and there’s a DJ station. My first mistake was thinking spinning looked fun.

On a Sunday morning, I met the spunky, upbeat instructor – Pepper, from Texas – while walking to the class. Pepper was initially delighted when I said I would be joining the class, but she expressed concern on hearing it was my first time. ‘Are you cardiovascularly fit?’ she enquired, furling her brow. ‘I run every day,’ I said, because this used to be true, and for a minute I felt like my old, marathon-running self. Cardiovascularly fit? Absolutely.

There were about ten of us in the class, men and women, mid-20s to early 50s. Pepper helped me adjust my bike seat. She strapped my feet to the pedals, and explained the basics: turn the small knob between my knees left to get more resistance, right for less. We were ready to go.

My own bike is my main mode of transport, aside from my feet, but the spinning bike was different. I’m not used to my seat being higher—way higher—than my handlebars. I felt I was being hung from the ceiling by my back belt loop. I gripped my talons on the handlebars like an anxiously perched bird.

We began with what is called sprinting, which means sitting on the narrow, hard seat and holding the closest of two sets of handlebars, pedaling fast with relatively low resistance. Immediately I understood why the others wore padded pants—rookie mistake. But I was optimistic. From her front and center bike, Pepper cranked up the music and smiled at me.

Then Pepper changed. ‘I will work you hard,’ she charged, and began staring individuals down, reprimanding them by name, accusing them of partial effort, reminding us that she was watching. Then she yelled ‘climb’ and it all began to go wrong. Climbing means turning up the resistance, lunging forward to a farther away set of handlebars, and biking in a standing position.

The pain that shot up my thighs was the wailing of muscles long dormant, and my heart felt ready to fly out of my chest. The sweat from my forehead was blinding. I tried to picture my baby’s face. Was it so long ago? I looked at the clock and we were only ten minutes into the hour-long class.

I clenched the handlebars, staring down at my white knuckles and feeling all my weight in my arms, shoulders and neck. This apparently is not good form. Pepper dismounted her bike and walked over to me. She insisted that my impossibly raised tailbone was my center of gravity. ‘The force is coming from your thighs and abs,’ she instructed, grabbing me in both places.

And suddenly my left leg came free from its pedal vice, but the flywheel's momentum kept the pedal spinning at dangerous speed while I held my free leg out of its reach. Meanwhile, my right leg, its foot still firmly attached to its pedal – piston to crankshaft – cycled on madly against its will. Panic-stricken, I looked to Pepper, who shook her head and offered, matter of factly: ‘If you had enough resistance, that wouldn’t happen.'

Far more than actual ability, I rely on pride to pull me through situations in which I really ought not be. But here, I had to submit to failure. Not even the music could inspire. The songs I heard during that hour are ruined for me forever (Gwen Stefani? You’re dead to me.) I didn't leave--I really didn't think she'd let me--but I gave up, pedaling away at my own slow pace, avoiding Pepper’s eye contact and ignoring her commands, until at last the class was over.

With my face held up to the showerhead, I closed my eyes and let the humiliation wash away. And then I heard someone say my name. Standing beside me was a soapy Pepper. She was smiling again. ‘Did you have a little trouble?’ she asked. ‘I recently had a baby,’ I said, hoping that it would exonerate me, but instead she said she’d see me next week. ‘The class is a little treat I give myself every Sunday,’ she said.

Spinning that morning had been one of the worst times I’ve ever had doing anything. Clearly I have a long way to go in regaining my former fitness level, but the first step is letting go of the post-natal excuse. The second I knew I was pregnant, my body belonged to someone else, and I looked forward to getting it back--and now, at last, I have. Except on Sunday mornings, when I surrender it to Pepper.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Shirley temple

(c) Time Out Amsterdam, June 2011. Photos by Marie-Charlotte Peze.

After climbing onto her barstool, Emma Jelinkova, 10, waved her hand slowly in front of her 8-year old sister’s face. ‘Josefina? Can you see me?’ As their eyes adjusted to the dearth of natural light, my six companions, aged 8 to 13, took in the swanky, art deco style of Door 74, where I’d brought them for a cocktail-mixing workshop.

The children rested their elbows on the bar like mini-regulars. The sight was like, say, a dog in a turtleneck. It didn’t seem right, but it was irresistibly cute. ‘What is this place?’ asked 8-year-old Olivia Carey, large green eyes gazing at the array of bottles and fruits and other mixing agents before her.

Behind the bar, award-winning cocktail maker Timo Janse, offered a diplomatic answer: ‘This is somewhere people come when they want to meet their friends, to relax. While they do, I make them some drinks.’ Put that way, a cocktail bar seemed a perfectly appropriate place to bring children.

Janse, author of ‘Shake-It’, a cocktail recipe book for kids, explained to my shakers-in-the-making that they would each be creating their own drinks. Although he started by saying ‘there are no rules’ to bartending, he offered a pointer: ‘You have to have a little bit of sour taste and a little bit of sweet, and you find the right balance for yourself.’ He encouraged the group to be imaginative. ‘If you really like a sweet drink, you can make it with bubble gum or chocolate sprinkles.’ Then he blew their minds by adding that they could even make drinks with pure gold.

'I would just put all the fruits in the whole world in a bowl and squish them all up together with ice cream and yogurt!’ cried Olivia, her high-pitch English accent soaring over the other voices. The other kids loved this idea but Janse counseled, ‘If it tastes like everything, it tastes like nothing.’

Janse invited Freya Lowe, 9, to join him behind the bar (‘a magic place,’ he said). Wearing a green hoodie and sporting a ponytail, Freya was a sharp visual contrast to the tall, dark, impeccably dressed bartender. He taught her how to measure with a jigger and to use a muddle to create her strawberry, lime and mineral water cocktail. ‘I dare you to drink it!’ the others called out as Freya carefully carried her overflowing creation back to her barstool.

Next up was 9-year old Lola-Sophia Goldman-Webb, who stepped up to the bar wearing a white shawl. Janse suggested she remove it before vigorously shaking Ernest, the penguin-shaped shaker, to create her mixture of blueberries, red currants, strawberries, lemons and cranberry juice.

Emma confessed that she prefers sour flavours to sweet, so she juiced a lemon with a Mexican elbow to create her lemon, lime, orange and ginger beer cocktail while her sister Josefina learned to use a pestle and mortar to grind lime and sugar for her watermelon-based concoction.

Saul-Patrick Goldman-Webb, 13, was feeling bold and spicy, combining hot chilies with vanilla, lemon and cranberry juice. Fruit fanatic Olivia used a strainer to pour her mixture of blueberries, strawberries, oranges, mint and pineapple. The end result was the same bright ginger colour as her hair, and her appreciation for its taste could not be contained. ‘So good!’ she called out, before quickly returning her straw to her mouth.

A variety of glassware was used – some of it more than 50 years old – from delicate champagne flutes to silver-plated lowball glasses to a chunky goblet with a face. Janse stressed the importance garnishing – ‘Pretty drinks taste better’ – offering the likes of ginger, chili peppers and edible flowers as options.

When everyone had downed their potions, Janse gave each participant his business card, ‘in case you want to email me a good recipe.’ High on natural sugar and with berry-stained grins, my budding mixologists reluctantly dismounted their barstools. As they prepared to face the bright, busy street outside, part of me wondered if this early introduction to cocktail culture would encourage them to become drinkers, the way chocolate cigarettes make kids think smoking might be cool. Could kiddie cocktails be a gateway drug?

‘People think a cocktail is about alcohol,’ Janse answered, ‘but it’s really about the balance of tastes.’ He encourages kids to experiment with different flavours, from passion fruit to peanut butter, from basil to chocolate and to explore with all their senses. I’ll definitely drink to that.

To organise a workshop for kids, contact Timo Janse at His book, in Dutch only, is available on

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