Is it crazy?
To wake up in the early hours
The rest of the family
Still deep in slumber
And steal a look at you,
So serene and peaceful
In the early morning sunlight
Streaming through the window
I drink in your loveliness
The dark tufts of hair
The gentle up and down of your chest
My finger gently caressing your cheek
As you breathe peacefully in your sleep
The scent of baby skin
Milky and sweaty
Your tiny hands curled upwards in sweet surrender
This time we have together is fleeting
A version of you that will be gone too soon
The surge of love that threatens
To break through my wall
Cascading through my heart
With pure tears of joy
Through the misty haze of tiredness
I long to freeze this moment in time
To hold onto the beauty of your smallness
Delicate, soft, tender yet tenacious life
Joy at was is
And grief of what will be gone forever
The ‘riot in my heart’
That is love
Lecco, August 2019
It’s been a long journey but I think we are getting there. My stepchildren have valiantly taken on the challenge of being subjected to my cooking these past two weeks and have reluctantly conceded that there may, in fact, be more to life than the staples of French cuisine……
Let me backtrack somewhat.
I come from a long-line of family cooks, my mother and grandmother being legendary in their hosting and cooking skills, and I too love to cook. Whilst baking is probably still one of my favourite things to do, I also adore cooking in all it’s forms and especially love cooking food that embraces the colour and vibrancy of the places where I have travelled. In the different homes I have had across the world, I have offered up lunches and dinners, parties and afternoon teas, picnics and soirees in different forms and I love, love, love opening my home and dining table to all who cross the threshold of our experience.
I adore food that is flavoursome and diverse, evidence of a world full of colour and delight, diversity and expression of the myriad gifts that different cultures can bring. This past few weeks, I’ve been delving into the recipes of ‘Persiana’, cooking influenced by the Middle East, as well as incorporating other dishes inspired by my travels – and what’s available in our herb garden too!
However, my stepchildren, have, in the past, revolted against my desire to introduce them to new foods. On one momentous occasion, even the humble Victoria sponge cake was rejected on the basis that ‘jam doesn’t belong in cake’. Now, I realise I am living in the country supposed to be the cradle of the world’s most sophisticated cuisine but I have come to learn that, much as I love a good boeuf bourgignon or a yummy tarte aux fraises, French cuisine has, unfortunately, ossified into a state of complacency and is failing to keep up with the times . And that famed French arrogance could do with taking down a peg or two. Indeed, it has become a great sadness to me to find this resistance to change is holding France back so much in so many areas of life and I see the small battles I face at my dining table symptomatic of so much that needs to change.
So, it has been a small victory to observe three or four teenagers gobbling up the fare I have offered these past few weeks of the summer holiday:
On the menu has been chicken with saffron and rosemary with ‘mojardara’ rice, lentils and friend onion; feta, courgette and mint muffins; sun-dried tomato, mozzarella, spinach and basil filo parcels; roasting tray vegetables with chick-peas; Camargue red rice with grilled vegetables and an orange and honey dressing; garden-grown rhubarb and marzipan crumble (offered with English custard – yay!); and the decadent rose, cardamom, vanilla, pistachio and honey rice pudding. I’ve had a particular fondness for rose-flavoured food this summer, starting off with my English-rose cake at our pudding party. Rose is a frequent flavour in Middle East cooking and Persiana provides a lot of it. Yum!
To me, food is about love. It’s about providing abundance and bounty for everyone, creating a table for everyone to congregate at the end of each day, sharing news and swapping stories, laughing and interrupting, occasionally fighting and debating but always embracing the diversity of the people around the table and the food on their plates. And conspiring to change the world to boot. To love that diversity is to welcome and embrace everyone at your table. And that diversity is a spiritual quality that I take deeply and dearly into my home and family.
As an Englishwoman who has lived abroad most of her life, there is one thing that I have brought with me on my travels – a love of afternoon tea and cake!
When I lived in Beijing I used to host regular ‘pudding parties’, where I would invite my friends for 9pm in the evening to feast on an array of English puddings and desserts until the small hours of the morning. The evenings were convivial, fun occasions that provided the opportunity to bring together diverse friends and encourage creative connections.
Fast forward many years and, as a mother to young children, all night gatherings are a thing of the past and we now host an annual afternoon tea summer garden party for friends and neighbours alike. Our garden is converted into a mini play park of sorts as we bring out the trampoline, paddling pool, swings and slides, sandpits and even convert a tent into a haven of arts and crafts activity.
The adults come for the cake of which there is a lot! Our most recent event starred a fabulous English Rose cake, layered with whipped cream and raspberries with pink frosting and accompanied some of my old regulars: pistachio and cardamom with white chocolate ganache, coffee praline, almond and marzipan, carrot cake with orange frosting, chocolate button layer cake, rhubarb crumble cake, sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce, lavender shortbread, scones with clotted cream and jam….the list goes on.
One of my favourite things is to host people at home. Growing up abroad, friends were the new family to me, far away as I was from my genetic family. A sense of inclusion and welcome is something I hold dear to my sense of home and I have strived to find ways to open my physical house to others as I have travelled the world.
Cake, of course, is a wonderful way to bring people together. Cake, with its sweetness, colour and creativity is something nearly everyone can get behind and food in general is such a marvellous way to encourage exchanges of ideas and conversation. And, for me, with a life that blends my work and family in equal measure, it can be an opportunity to forge new connections and introduce others to each other also. I love food that warms the heart, that has nothing but pleasure as its goal and makes people feel equally loved.
Baking too, is also therapeutic for me and in my efforts to blend harmoniously the different strands of my life I find often that a break in my working or parenting day to cook can act as a way to incubate ideas, mull over or consider a difficult decision or even to play with my children and introduce to them the love of good food and the joy that making and giving things to others can bring. Also, in a world so driven by technology, the simple art of making something by hand can be a very grounding activity.
And if sitting around the table sharing stories and good food could be an avenue for world peace…..ah, let me dream!
A few pics from last week’s gathering…..
Oh the dreamy summer days....the sound of my teenage step-daughter swinging in the hammock with her toddler sister, the baby perched on her bouncy chair, surveying her half-brother and his friend playing football, my husband hanging out the washing whilst I get dinner, and the sound of music drifting on the breeze whilst my eldest step-daughter reads....
When I was a child, I used to dream of both having and being in a big family. I had only one sister and longed to have more siblings and, growing up, came to believe that big families were innately happier than smaller ones. I had a vision of family that included my own and 'adoption' of other children, in whatever form, of big age ranges and an enormous house in the country to contain the happy chaos of multiple children.
Now my weekends and holidays are full with a minimum of 5 children at any one time when my husband’s teenage children come and stay – often accompanied by an assortment of friends and cousins along for the ride. It has been such a joy to see the way in which they have embraced their two younger siblings and I joke that I hardly see anything of my toddler all weekend, such are the opportunities for her to play with the older kids. Screeches of laughter accompany the sound of jumping on the sofa or the trampoline, little feet wobbling around in older teenager’s high heels and the sweet voice of my daughter asking her computer-obsessed brother if he will go and play Playdoh with her.
I have a theory that more children is actually easier than fewer. In a big family, everyone mucks in and keeps everyone entertained. My middle stepdaughter is a wonderful babysitter to my toddler and I have no qualms about entrusting her care to her older sibling. She’s wise and sensible and fun to be with and my toddler adores her and her other half-siblings. And the fact that she is centre of attention when they come to stay creates ample space for me and my husband to relax and do what I enjoy over the weekend too!
I believe also in the importance of multi-generational living, or at least spending quality time, together. My parents and my husband’s parents are regular and frequent attendees in our children’s lives and, as outlined in other blog posts, are crucial to enabling my husband and I to continue our work and parenting journey. Whilst it’s a cliché to admit that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, diverse perspectives and ages, along with colours and cultures, are important for me to expose my children to.
My eldest daughter walked at a relatively early age (10 months) and I’m sure that had much to do with having older siblings. Additionally she is being exposed to music that neither my husband nor I know much about so that, in complement to the inevitable nursery rhymes and children’s songs she is learning, she frequently requests Mika and Adele to dance to, as well as waking up to Vivaldi streaming through the house. It is a childhood rich in multiple and diverse influences.
As family structures shift to include later marriage, blended families and opportunities for inter-generational living, it's a joy to see the possibilities this can open up in helping to raise warm, inclusive and open families.
In my mid-thirties, I met my soulmate, and inherited three stepchildren to boot! A year or so into our marriage we talked about what it would mean to have children together. I had long wanted to redefine what marriage and family could look like. Having come from a family of divorce, I was really looking for a model that could inspire me of a happier version of family life, of partnership between men and women in the raising of children and building a home, and, of course, I didn’t want to have to compromise between this vision and the continuation of my professional life which was important to me.
Indeed, my career had been founded on the kinds of values which were and still are important to me in my marriage and parenting journey too. My work uses participation in theatre and other creative techniques to empower the potential of migrant and refugee women and children and the same ideas of love, inclusion, empowerment, feminine leadership, equality and integrity were something that I would want to see blossom in my role as a wife and mother too.
I’ve never really bought into the career vs motherhood debate. I think it’s a false dichotomy that we are sold by the media and requires deeper thought to see a more nuanced version of life. It should never be a zero sum game. The reality is that women have always worked throughout history, combining raising a family with paid employment or a career that satisfies them intellectually. But, critically, what we need to see more of is the full and total engagement of men in the parenting journey too.
My husband had actually been a stay-at-home Dad in his previous marriage so there was ample proof that he knew what to do! Moreover, our marriage was founded on a deep love and mutual respect for our ‘callings’ of careers of service, his in the public practice of Christian Science and my work as a serial social entrepreneur. So there was never even a discussion on either of us giving up work to parent.
Rather, for us, it has come to mean a beautiful unfoldment of blending our respective careers with the hugely important task of raising children that requires both parents to give of their time and energy. Practically, this means a complete and utter fair division of the ‘work’ – and the joy – of raising our children.
I have written a blog about how we make this work on a day-to-day basis in a practical way but it’s really more about the mutual respect we have for each other and our work, coupled with a deep love for each other and desire to work as a team. And my husband and I BOTH believing at a deep level that parenting is as much his responsibility as it is mine.
This is not just a feminist ideal. Men and women bring different qualities to parenting. I have seen it up close, the huge importance that father’s play in the upbringing of children. I say this, not to state the obvious, because I think there is still too little discussion on why this is important. My husband and I each bring very different, but complementary qualities to being parents. These are not so much gender specific but rather the reflection of different personalities that our daughters are benefitting from on a daily basis. My husband is more physical than I am, more encouraging of the rough and tumble play and outdoors than I am; more practical with his hands in teaching our daughters DIY or gardening, and remembers more diligently than I do to explain how and why things work the way they do. He is often better at getting our babies to sleep than I am and certainly brings a big healthy dose of calm to my sometimes more anxious tendencies, having already been in this parenting game much longer than I have.
Alternatively, I bring a greater sense of adventure and curiosity about the world at large, a strong commitment to being respectful and considerate of others with a concern to make sure our daughters make a contribution to society. My husband has lived in France for most of his life whereas I have lived all over the world and he is so excited to have his own mind opened with my firm desire to ensure our children travel and explore. My background in the arts and training as an actress bring a cultural sensibility and determination that our daughters should read, dance, sing and play music and express themselves creatively as much as possible.
In short, it is in the blending of our respective qualities, as well as the masculine and feminine elements of human potential (whether they are expressed by men or women) that, I believe, should be the bedrock of healthy parenting. It is so fundamentally wrong to believe the mother can and should be the primary caregiver and this over focus on the woman leads to so many challenges in the world at large as we know, but also within marriages and families at a more intimate level too.
Am I just lucky to have a husband who gets this? Yes and no. Of course, I am grateful. But I also know that I would never have settled for anything less. It took me a long time to find my soulmate and I think I knew at some deep level that anything less than true teamwork would define my marriage. I was and never have been attracted to alpha-male types who are too insecure in themselves to step out of the roles society expects them too – but, I also know that, as a woman, I can and must stand up for myself and my own needs and desires. Blaming men is only half the problem if we don’t claim our own rights too.
To me, it is not so much about ‘having it all’ as it is allowing the different threads of our lives to weave together in the most harmonious way. And, I need hardly spell it out that this shared responsibility has knock on effects to other parts of our marriage too :-)
My husband and I both work from home which we consider to be a huge blessing in the mutual responsibilities of raising a family. Though not without its occasional challenges, we have found a way that works for us. We believe that teamwork is key and have applied that to all aspects of running a home and masterminding family responsibilities too. Whilst considering that each day is different, we have found it super helpful, both when travelling and being at home, that we try to keep as regular a routine as possible, not just for our daughter but also to manage our work.
Our day looks something like this:
5am/6am My husband and I get up for spiritual study which is important to both of us in grounding us for the day ahead.
7am Our daughter wakes up and I feed her whilst my husband continues to work
8am We have breakfast all together and discuss the day’s activities
8.30am We take our showers, usually with our daughter playing on the floor
9am Our daughter plays in the family room (which is also my office) whilst I check email, send messages to my team in China and Europe, and sort out any administration piling up on my desk. My husband starts his half -day shift of work in his office
10am Our daughter has a feed whilst I read her a story and then goes down for her nap; I put in the first load of washing!
10.15 – 12pm I speak to my team in China, do client calls to Asia and/or write a blog
12pm Our daughter wakes up and she and I hang out the washing and prepare lunch and play together
1pm Lunch as a family
2pm – 7pm My husband takes over care of our daughter and I work all afternoon, writing fundraising proposals, talking to clients, working with my team and dealing with other work matters. During this time, my husband usually does the house cleaning and work on admin matters, as well as bathing and playing with our daughter and then dealing with his own work when she naps between 3.30 and 5pm.
7pm Dinner as a family
8pm I feed and put our daughter to bed as my husband clears dinner
8.15 – 10pm Evenings for us are a chance to catch up on both work and personal reading, as well as improve my language skills through Duolingo (Chinese, French and Arabic!) and spend time together as a couple
On Wednesday’s the day is reversed, with me working in the morning so that I can take my daughter to see friends in Paris, especially English-speaking parents, to enable her to improve her English.
The concept of splitting our day works well for us and enables us to still be with our daughter as much as possible. And she gets the benefit of having her parents very active in her life.
I marvel at the fact that we are both able to keep a 7 – 8 hour work day whilst also spending plenty of time with our daughter but it does come down to the fact that we take an equal share in raising our daughter and respecting each other’s work time.
A few things to think about:
As many parents comment, having a baby really helps you to focus! You are super strict with how you use your time and any work that takes me away from my precious baby has to be worth it :-) I’ve also come to understand more and more the importance of not being reduced to the money = time equation and to understand that wealth is created more on the basis of the value you produce rather than hours inputted. There are tonnes of articles and books out there now that are challenging the notion that work should be 40 – 50 hours per week, in an office, and that childcare is outsourced to someone else. We have found that it is possible to maintain momentum in your career whilst also taking care of the family and building a life together. That our day is more than the sum of its parts and that we have a vision for family that is our mutual responsibility.
It’s important too, that our daughter does not suffer from her parent’s work. Working from home in partnership with my husband in this way ensures that each of us is able to give our full attention to our daughter when we are with her. The ‘baby in a backpack’ metaphor extends to the travels she accompanies us on for our respective work as it does in the day to day adventure of exploring the every day more ordinary aspects of life. She is as happy helping me hang up the washing as she is strapped on my front during a workshop with refugees; or helping her dad vacuum the house or being cuddled by a New York policeman.
In any case, the values we wish her to grow up with – interest and concern for others, kindness, an awareness of the world, openness to other people and cultures, comfortable with travel, tolerance, leadership, social responsibility, flexibility and openness – are all facilitated by our choices as parents and entrepreneurs. She is growing up right now with adoring friends from all over the world - China, India, Syria, Pakistan, the US, Germany, Latvia. And a fearless understanding that she can do anything she puts her mind to.
Mum, stepmum and honorary foster mum. Passionate about fulfilling the potential of all the world's children - both big and little. Serial entrepreneur and life traveller now living in Paris. www.carolinewatson.org