Long haul: co-sleeping on the move

This is the second in a series of posts I’m doing on our recent trip to South Africa and the UK.

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The candelabra chandelier at out cabin on the farm. We never lit it but in winter, with a fire going in the grate, this would be gorgeous. No electricity is lovely!

When planning this trip and getting in touch with all the people we’d be staying with, the question was always, ‘oh, what about a cot for the little one?’ And the response was always, ‘oh no, don’t worry, he sleeps with us’. Most people, I think, know this is what we do.  Some probably just think, okay, whatever, don’t know why you’d do that but okay. Others probably think the ‘rod for your own back’ thing. And obviously some, who do the same, realise how easy co-sleeping can make things. Not that I’m saying I’d have chosen to co-sleep before the Dude arrived. In fact, I was staunchly against it when my midwife first broached the subject. But it has given us more sleep than trying to get him to sleep on his own in a cot, that I’m absolutely certain of. I have a dream that the next one will be like I was as a baby and sleep 12 hours a night from three months. Ha!

So, on this trip, we slept in a lot of different places (including the plane, although I don’t know I’d count that as sleeping, more passing out temporarily from exhaustion, only to be woken by a kick in the face and an angry screech). First up was our good friend’s parents’ place in Krugerstorp, just outside of Johannesburg. They have a typically South African gorgeous big rambling house with heaps of room, pool, tennis court, beautiful grounds, all surrounded by tall iron gates. We spent one night there before driving out to ‘the farm’, and we stayed in a lovely big room which was sort of outside the rest of the house, or at least the entrance was, with an ensuite bathroom across the way. The bed, we were informed, was very old, apparently made by our friend’s grandfather or great-grandfather, beautifully carved wood, but sadly only a standard double size. We have a queen at home with the Dude’s cot side-carted (he has finally started rolling into it sometimes when he’s asleep, woo hoo!) so lots more room. It was very peaceful in the room. I finally succumbed to sleep when I put the Dude down about 8:30pm and he did manage to stay asleep for a couple of hours. We dragged a big old piano stool to my side of the bed and put pillows all around, just in case he decided to roll off, and that sort of worked although he did push it away when he was really restless. Of course, because of jet lag, he woke about 2:30am and started playing around. I gave him some travel flower essence and some rescue remedy for sleep that I’d bought in preparation and let him play around a bit. Mr C, who’d stayed up far too late having beers and catching up with our friend’s brothers, was in no mood to be jumped on, but he sleepily tolerated it. Amazingly enough, Dude was awake about 40 minutes, and then I switched off the light, laid him back down and he went back off to sleep! That was pretty much the extent of his jet lag, and when you consider that Sydney and Johannesburg are something like nine hours apart time-wise, I think that was pretty impressive.

The next day, we drove through to our friend’s parents’ game farm, which is about 90 minutes away.  I sat in the back between our friend’s mum and the Dude.  He slept part of the way and was pretty good, but towards the end he got really upset and just wanted out. Of course, I’d forgotten: TIA! This is Africa! Stuff keeping kids restrained and all that! His mum said to me she’d actually prefer me to have him on my lap and that it’s no big deal, they wouldn’t get pulled over for it. I realised she was right when I noticed all the utes with half a dozen guys just sitting in the back, cruising along the dusty, pot-holed highways at 100km/hr.  So I put him on my lap, held him firmly, fed him, and he was happy. When we arrived at the farm, it dawned on us that there is no electricity. None at all. But paraffin and gas lamps, gas hot water, and even a paraffin fridge meant we had all the comforts of home, more or less. It did pose a bit of a problem arriving home after dark and having to get the Dude changed by the light of lamps, or when we were feeling too tired, our phones. On that first night at the farm, the Dude woke again around the same time, but he couldn’t get up and play because it was absolutely pitch black.  Mr C found it quite unnerving, being unable to see even your hand right in front of your face, but for me it was just brilliant not to have that distraction of electricity and technology. And because it was so dark, I think the Dude must have thought he was still asleep, so he wrestled around for a few minutes, had a booby, and fell back to sleep. And that was it for jet lag, all done. I seemed to have recovered fairly well too, but Mr C struggled the whole time, waking at 2am and being unable to sleep or see anything. The cabin we stayed in was well ventilated but no fly screens were on the windows which we left open the whole time. Luckily it cooled down nicely at night. The Dude had to sleep between us which was a bit squishy, again, in a double bed, but it worked and made things so easy without having to work out the logistics of fitting in a cot and trying to get him to stay asleep in there. The interesting thing about co-sleeping is that when I’m telling others about it, I always find they have their stories about how they did it, even though it wasn’t the done thing. Our friend’s mum had stories like that, and she’d had five kids, all grown up now.

After our five night in South Africa, we headed over to the UK for the Dude to meet his grandparents in Manchester. We had explained to Mr C’s mum that Dude doesn’t sleep in a cot, but I think she had a hard time working this out in her head as her kids had all slept in cots whether they liked it or not. She had gone to the trouble of getting us a travel cot (which was never even unpacked) and even another little blow up bed which was really cute, but again, the Dude just jumped around on it for a few seconds and then was totally disinterested. Because he’s always slept with us, he doesn’t get the concept of having his own bed and I wasn’t about to try and transition him when he’s already in a strange place. So he slept between us in the spare bed, again, a double, which made it pretty squishy. I’d forgotten how much smaller everything is in the UK, space-saving.

We’d decided we’d try and take advantage of having grandparents around and head out a couple of nights. The second night we were there, we had tickets to see Ben Folds at the Manchester Apollo.  I got the Dude down to sleep at 7pm and we headed out. Nanna was in charge. I’d warned her that he almost never stays asleep and that he won’t just go back to sleep after a bit of a grizzle.  She’ll need to go in and pick him up and rock him back to sleep, or lie down with him and cuddle him. Even that, I was pretty sure, might pose problematic. I knew he’d scream because he’s used to me being there, or even daddy coming in sometimes to lie down with him. He barely knew this person, despite the fact she is is nanna. When we got home, shortly after 11pm, the scene was pretty dismal. Nanna was exhausted, having tried everything to get him to chill out, and Dude had eventually passed out once or twice but was lying half awake in her lap. She whispered at me in horror, ‘he’s not normal!’ as I went upstairs to get him back to sleep again. I knew this would happen. It’s nearly impossible to impart to someone with such different ideas about parenting just what we do and how we do it. And I don’t think she realised that the Dude doesn’t ever back down, he never gives up, he tells you what he wants and will keep telling you as loudly as possible until he gets it! I don’t see this as a negative thing necessarily, not for an 18-month-old, as I think he isn’t aware of himself as an individual yet and is just expressing his needs and happens to be very good at doing so. My mother-in-law is of a different school of thought. She believes babies and children should be placed in their cots when the adult determines it’s bed time and the door shut and the baby left to get to sleep any way possible, even if that means lots of screaming and crying. Personally I believe this can permanently damage a child. And aside from that, I don’t agree with ignoring cries of distress from any loved one, adult or child. If my husband was afraid and confused and needing the comfort of my arms, I’d give it to him. Why not a baby?

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London, man, you can’t beat it!

Anyway, the ten days or so we were in Manchester were very interesting. I know my mother-in-law doesn’t see eye-to-eye with me on many aspects of parenting, and I know she mentioned it a few times to Mr C, but to her credit, she didn’t try to have a go at me about it or start a fight. She mentioned a few times politely what she thinks should happen and why, and I explained why that wouldn’t work for us and we really just left it at that. I would love the Dude to sleep in his own bed, and yes, in his own room, I’m not going to deny that, but I know that’s not what he needs and it’s not in keeping with the basic, instinctive needs of babies and children, which dominate more than our learned behaviours, particularly at this age. One day, he will transition to his own space, perhaps with some gently assistance from his parents, but never will I force him into anything. I know someone who is now desperate for love and touch and comfort because he never received enough as a baby. I don’t want the Dude to end up that way.

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The pond down the road from Mr C’s nan’s house in Carlisle. Gorgeous and icy!

On our second last night in Manchester, something interesting happened. We went for dinner with friends, leaving nanna to deal with the Dude again. When we got home, he was miraculously sleeping peacefully by himself in bed. Apparently he’d woken as usual but she’d done something different this time. She got the distinct impression that he was afraid of the dark, so she turned on the light. He saw she was there and quickly fell back to sleep! Of course, I don’t know how long all this took or what else happened, but he seemed very different. My mother-in-law said she just knew he was scared to be in the dark and as soon as he could see where he was and that someone was there, he was fine. I have had that idea before, but I can’t say it’s ever helped me, although my experience of getting him to sleep is always going to differ because I’m the mummy with the boobies! So I was relieved that MIL managed to work out how to get him settled and he was happier to be around her. I was also glad because I think she had been feeling somewhat rejected and this really turned things around.

We stayed in London with friends for the last five days of our trip. They’d asked the cot question too of course and had kindly arranged a whole bunch of other stuff for us which we actually didn’t need, like a highchair and stair gates. It was interesting because they have chosen not to have kids, so while they like them, they are happy in their lovely house, just the two of them. We tried our best to make sure the Dude didn’t trash anything and that meant turning off most electrical stuff at the wall and turning the bin around so it was less accessible. The bed, thankfully, was a queen size, so we were pretty comfortable. Of course, the Dude getting sick and vomiting in the middle of a restaurant and then later in the hallway and in the bed (luckily we’d already put towels down) was a pretty hideous way to end the trip, but what can you do? He is a vomity person, it seems.

Overall, co-sleeping worked really well for us while travelling, and saved the hassle of organising cots and rearranging rooms. Small beds are hard to deal with, and I know sometimes he is disturbed by us being next to him, but other times he is woken because we’re NOT there.  It’s hard when the Dude is between us and kicks off the covers as we all end up cold. So there are pros and cons. As I say, if I had a child who would fall asleep and then be put in a bed without waking, I’d be doing that. But I don’t. Next time we go, he’ll be in his own bed, I hope.

The next and final installment in my series of posts on long haul travelling with a toddler will be about coping with big cities and non-child-friendly places.

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The quest for belonging

As I’ve mentioned here before, we’re not sure whether moving to Australia was the right choice. When we were in the UK, we had this idealistic view of Australia. I thought I wanted to go home to settle down. I couldn’t imagine how people have children in London with no space and high rent. I imagined us finding a nice big family home with plenty of space outside and bringing up kids. Mr Chewbacca, who’d been to Australia about five times previously, had this rosy picture of Aussie life: days lying on the beach, nights drinking in the pub and watching rugby. Between us, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d move back. And we were in a rush, for some strange reason. Not once did I really contemplate the idea that I might not feel very Aussie any more after having lived in the UK for a few years. Let’s face it, Aussie culture never made a lot of sense to me and I always considered myself ‘European’ before going to Europe and realising I actually did like my own country. I don’t think Mr C ever thought it would be what it has turned out to be either. Without going into details, neither of us are particularly happy here, for a variety of reasons.  We’ll be giving Australia one last chance in September next year when we move 1000km south to Melbourne.

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Tomorrow we’ll be taking the Dude across the world to meet his British family in Manchester, via South Africa. This is the first time he’ll meet his nanny and granddad Chewbacca and the rest of the family, and it’s the first time we’ve been back since we first came back to Australia in 2010. I can’t express just how mixed my emotions are about the trip. I agreed to a stopover in South Africa on the way, to stay at a friend’s parents’ game farm just outside Johannesburg.  I’m not apprehensive about being in South Africa as such, as I’ve been before and it’s not a scary place. I am a bit concerned about being the only one with a small child in a group of 30-somethings, most of whom don’t seem to have worked out they’re not in their 20s any more, but it’s only five days so I’ll be right. I’m not keen on the flight at all as the Dude isn’t two yet so he won’t have his own seat, which means I’m going to have 12 plus kilos of wriggling toddler sprawled across me for most of the 24 odd hours each way. How we’re going to entertain him when he’s hyped on the plane is completely beyond me, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

The major part of the rest of the trip will be a couple of weeks in Manchester and London. I’m so looking forward to the cooler weather and soaking up a bit of real northern hemisphere Christmas spirit, which feels somewhat diluted here in Australia. There’s something so special about those Oxford Street Christmas lights, despite the crowds of chavs in their soggy ugg boots fighting for a bargain in Primark. And the Christmas markets, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, ice skating, ferris wheel, mulled wine, the possibility of snow, shopping for warm boots and being relieved at the stagnant heat trapped deep underground in Victoria station.

Our street in West Hampstead, London – February 2009

After five days braving the rough heat of the game farm, we’ll fly straight north to London, where Mr C’s good friend, let’s call him the Northern Intellectual, is going to pick us up at Heathrow and drive us straight up north a couple of hours to Manchester, where the Chewbacca grandparents reside. Hopefully by then the Dude will at least have recovered from jet lag, as, although South Africa is a good ten hour flight from London, it’s only an hour or two time difference. Anyway, needless to say nan and granddad C are very excited at meeting their grandson. And Mr C and I are looking forward to catching up after so long.  We’re also secretly looking forward to a little bit of time off from the Dude, whose nan will I’m sure be happy to hang out with him while we go to a movie or two.  We’ve also got tickets for Ben Folds Five on the night after we arrive, which is particularly exciting as we had tickets to see Ben Folds on 13 May 2011, which was one day before I was due to have the Dude.  Needless to say, he came a week early, and I missed the concert.

We’ll spend most of our time up in Manchester with a couple of nights at Mr C’s nan’s place in Carlisle.  There we’ll see her of course, along with most of the rest of Mr C’s extended family, as that’s where they’re all from and where most still live. We’ll catch up with two of his sisters back in Manchester and a few friends there, then we’ll end our time with five days in London. It’ll be mainly catching up with friends there, checking out our old haunts, and doing a few touristy things before the big flight home.

The most nerve-racking element to all of this is that I’m not sure it will be as we remember. Yeah, okay, it’s only been three years, but I have this feeling I’ll remember pretty quickly why I left. It’s been pretty hard for me not to get sucked into all Mr C’s ‘everything Aussie is inferior to its European equivalent, if it has one’ mentality, and I kind of secretly hope he gets a bit of a rude shock and realises it’s not quite the utopia he remembers. It’s hard because he is actually English, and he feels at home in London. Me, on the other hand, I don’t feel truly at home anywhere. I wanted to leave London, even though I did develop a love for it, and I wanted to leave Canberra, even though it was where I grew up.  I’ve never wanted to be in Sydney and wish I could leave every day. I’ve not had enough time in Melbourne yet to say anything, so we’ll see.

Furio Giunta: The Sopranos (image courtesy of Wikipedia

Watching The Sopranos the other week (we’re finally watching this brilliant drama after everyone else did a decade ago), we saw the episode, season four I think, where Italian mobster with a heart of gold, Furio, returns to Naples after an extended absence setting up his life in New York State. He tells someone, Carmela, I think, about how he can never go back for good because he has changed too much. He just doesn’t feel like he can belong in Italy any more. Yet when he returns to America, we see him staring wistfully out of the window of the taxi as it passes typical suburban middle-America, star-spangled banners displayed almost defensively in front yards, and we know he feels no affinity with that America either. Culturally, he’s suddenly in no-man’s land. I wonder, will we have a similar experience in the UK? We’ll see.