There’s no place like it

English: Illuminatable Earth globe, Columbus, ...

Pick a spot, any spot

Home. As usual our time in London has flown past in a blur of rainy days, sunny days, drinking, late nights, laughter and love, this year with a bit of Olympic excitement thrown in for good measure. We are physically exhausted but emotionally refreshed, and for a brief shining moment our Camelot-on-Thames has been the centre of my world once more.

With each passing year I get more used to the hellos and goodbyes, but this year as the faint whiff of hope surrounds me that one day we may come back, I have started to really think about what it would mean to return to London for more than just a holiday. There will be many good things about coming back that would have been lost on me had I never left. Staying in London as a comparitive tourist rather than living and working here has opened my eyes once more to what an incredible city we have at our feet. Walking the streets (walking! An unimaginable pastime for the average citizen of Dubai) and enjoying the weather, the people watching, the architecture, the noise – it is something of a musical dance whose moving parts make up the sum that is this city, full with life in a way that Dubai cannot possibly hope to master. The wonderful parks, museums, galleries and theatres that we have enjoyed the past ten days would never again be taken for granted or left unvisited by the repatriated version of me. Neither would the myriad of bars and restaurants and coffee shops that decorate the streets, or the boutiques and nick nack shops that nest amongst them. But have I been gone so long that I can’t see my city through anything but my sunglasses? And rose tinted ones at that?

With all the thoughts of registering with schools and so on, to plan for this hopeful but currently unsecured comeback, it occurred to me that I may have left a Londoner, but I will return as one third of an international family, a repatriated trailing spouse with an american husband and a third culture kid in tow. It is not going to be as easy as I think to become ‘English’ again, if ever.

My son will be homesick for a place neither me nor my husband call home. And yet, Dubai is our home, and by the time we return it will have most likely been so for nearly a decade. We are long time expats now, and even for me, the only true brit in the family, calling London home again will take time. I struggle with the basics of contemporary London life already, like how to charge my oyster card, and what can I recycle in those orange bags, and do I turn right at the lights if there is no oncoming traffic? And that’s just the start. I have no idea about tv (there were 5 channels or sky when we left), I’m a nervous wreck getting on the tube with my son in case we both magically leap off the platform or get split up by a closing door, and pretty much everything I have in my wardrobe is too white/shiny/expensive to be trotting round cobbled streets in the rain. To repatriate will be a difficult journey, I see now. I will not just simply slot back in, and pick up where I left off. I think it is good to be aware of this now, to start accepting that things will feel different, and that we may not always like it.

We are lucky to have a relatively international set of friends, full of expats and repats and hailing from around the world. They all call London their home and the city is such a melting pot that it hardly matters we’ve been away in that sense. But as I pack our bags and leave behind my beloved city to travel across the pond, I realise I am, these days, just as excited about returning to the US – I get that same familiar, easy feeling from the cities of Boston and New York as I do from London, and with the other 66.6% of the family unit holding a US passport, I am finding it increasingly important to promote American culture in the house and feel as comfortable with it as I do my own.

I wonder had we not lived abroad if I would have found it as easy to bring two cultures under one roof. I wonder if it would not have seemed so important, that my son who belongs to two countries and was born and raised in a third, should have the best experiences of them all and be truly international in his identity, rather than coming ‘from somewhere’. I wonder if coming ‘from somewhere’ has actually ceased to be as important to me. I certainly feel distinctly foreign when people talk about the jubilee, or the Olympics, or David Cameron. Well not foreign, just remote. I can’t relate to these things that people feel so passionately about, and yet I feel like a I should because I am ‘from here’.

But I fear I am not, anymore. Part of me is sad about that, that I have accepted a slightly nomadic existence that will no doubt continue to affect the way I live for a long time to come. That other part of me embraces the fact that I am living this incredible life that spans continents and oceans, that I have learnt and adopted new and different ways of doing things because of who I married and where we live and all the things we have seen along the way. I am daunted and yet excited by the prospect of raising my TCK to appreciate his place in this world. To belong ‘everywhere’ instead of ‘somewhere’, which must surely mean there are more places in this world to call home. To feel connected in these huge cities but undaunted by change. I hope this for him, but for myself as well, that the lessons I have learnt through moving away will stand me in good stead for moving back. To say ‘home’ to me now it means so many different places and I love each one for different reasons. So, from one home to another, we fly off on the next part of our summer journey. Tell you what, if Dorothy lived my life she would have been hard pushed to end up in the right place even with those ruby slippers…

I can’t get no sleep

My son slept until 6.20am today. I could count the number of times this has happened in the last 31 months on two hands and it would have been perfect…except for the 5am shout out to the masses about some grievance or another that needless to say woke me up with with a start and left me unable to go back to the land of nod. Sod’s law and all that, you might say, but it’s a classic example of the general sleep deprivation that rules our house on a near-daily basis.

There is no doubt that my son is a historically terrible sleeper. When he was a newborn, I used to think I must be doing something wrong that all the other babies around me would sleep, well – like babies. Mine would be staring at the ceiling (or more accurately at a particular spot on the top of the door frame) for hours on end whilst I frantically tried to rock him into the land of nod so I could have five minutes of down time. Once he was asleep, staying asleep was the next challenge. While my friends were busy enjoying a coffee and a chat as their cherubs snored blissfully in buggies, mine would be thrashing about within fifteen minutes flat, demanding attention or food, or both. The other day I watched with horror when a woman wheeled her three month old into the nail spa. Irritation that I would have to now sit and listen to someone else’s small child during the precious few hours I didn’t have to listen to mine was quickly replaced by envy as the baby gently closed his eyes, and as if on cue, fell asleep and stayed asleep while his mother had a full manicure. The stuff of dreams. Only not mine, because I’m never asleep long enough to dream.

Go the Fuck to Sleep

One of my favourite books read beautifully by Samuel L Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As my son grew older he adapted to a routine of about four naps a day. Which was great in theory, if only they didn’t last 20 minutes each, approximately the length of time it takes to go to the bathroom, boil the kettle, make a cup of tea you will never get round to drinking and – oh no, that’s it, he’s awake. Night times he learned to sleep with only a few wake ups…until 4.30am. Yes, for an entire summer we were woken before dawn, trying every trick in the book to make him go back to sleep and all in vain. Finally as he turned a year old, he figured out sleeping solidly at night. For six months we rested and enjoyed comparative lie ins until 5.30am. Then at about 15 months his night times got increasingly eventful until finally he decided to stop sleeping altogether. Every hour he would wake up, screaming and crying, and I would have to stay by his bed to get him to sleep again. I implemented the ‘gradual withdrawal’ method to extricate myself from the room, moving a few inches back from the bed every night for over a month until finally he learnt to go to sleep by himself again.

By this point I was actually turning into a zombie. I love my little boy but I love my sleep too. Other mothers would bemoan how they had been woken up at 6am whilst I sat wishing my child would ever sleep until that time. He dropped his naps quickly too, down to a single nap of an hour or so by the time he was 18 months old, and getting rid of that just before he turned two. I actually wept the day he didn’t sleep at lunchtime. I wasn’t ready for the relentlessness of the day without a break, and thought I’d easily have another half year or so before I had to worry about it. Wrong.

Fortunately the big boy bed arrived without too much of a hitch and he now settles quickly at night so we don’t have endless wars at bedtime like some. I must have done something right for this to happen and I am now officially the world expert on sleeping and sleep methods, so many did I try to crack the code. But we still get regularly woken between 5 and 6am, and most nights he throws in a couple of screeches or wails for good measure, that leave our hearts pounding and break up our much-needed sleep. I think now, that his sleeping isn’t so terrible, but that the residual effect of over two years of sleep deprivation means that anything less than an uninterrupted seven hours leaves me exhausted.

Parents of children who sleep do not understand what it is like, to have one that doesn’t. They suggest all kinds of things – over the past couple of years I have been given so much advice my head could burst. “When he starts solids, he’ll sleep through because he won’t be hungry.” (No, he won’t.) “When he starts school he’ll sleep no problem.” (No, he won’t. He’ll be tired but that’s not the same as sleeping.) “Have you tried black out blinds?” (OF COURSE I’VE TRIED BLACKOUT BLINDS!) “Sometimes children sleep better if they have a nap.” (And sometimes they don’t, they just won’t go to bed on time either because they’ve had too much sleep.) “Maybe you should try putting him to bed later.” (No, thanks, I quite like the two hours I have to myself at night before I collapse in a heap.) The problem with all these suggestions – apart from the obvious fact that they don’t work for me – is that they worked for the child of the person concerned. Hence their child sleeps. So back to my original statement, that parents of children who sleep do not understand what it is like, to have one that doesn’t. They only understand what it is like to have one that didn’t used to, but does now. And that is a different thing altogether.

This post wouldn’t be complete of course, without mention of the Sunclock. The magical piece of gadgetry that parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers swear by. So many people recommended this to me and assured me it was the answer to my prayers, that despite my reservations it would ever work I decided to give it a try last month. I was encouraged by my son’s quick grasping of the concept (stars out = go to sleep, sun = wake up) and was even vaguely hopeful that one day I could enjoy a 7am lie-in on the weekend. Although to be honest I would settle for a regular 6am. But folks, here’s the catch: the Sunclock only works on children that were predisposed to sleep in the first place. Children who rise early to count the stars left on the LED display do not qualify. Children that couldn’t care less if the clock has stars on it or a sun and continue to sing at the top of their voices anyway from the second they wake up, do not qualify. Children who you can hear muttering “It says “five, four, seven ‘A’ ‘M’!” do not qualify. I have been experimenting with said clock for three weeks now, just to give it a chance, and have to tell you for anyone with a child who simply doesn’t want or need to sleep any later in the mornings, it’s a heap of crap.

I live in hope that one day my son will sleep until 7am and beyond. I know that it is only another 10 years or so until this is guaranteed to happen. And from today I will never mention again how sleep deprived we are, to avoid any more well meant but unfortunately useless advice coming my way. My child doesn’t need sleep to sleep past dawn. I do. These are the facts and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. So if you see me with bags under my eyes, instead of trying to solve the impossible problem, do me a favour and recommend a decent concealer.