Today I revealed that I don’t understand most of what my daughter says speaks German. Luckily for her, I don’t. Motherhood is so complicated.
Head on over tothe Washington Post for my take on language acquisition, the power of circumstance in shaping parental identity, and children’s earliest individuations — or, put more simply, on being the dumb American at my kid’s daycare.
I wrote a piece that I feared would offend everyone I know about life as an expat in Vienna. Luckily no one has written me hate mail who was offended has told me so! Yay!
(Life as an expat: Lots of dirty baby clothes. No dryer.)
When my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria, two years ago, we were frequently set up on friend dates. This is par for the course for a new expat — someone hears that you’ve moved to some faraway city, and their coworker’s cat’s former owner’s cousin always knows someone who — can you believe it? — just happens to be your neighbor. No matter how outlandish the setup — they were born-again Christians or Hassidic Jews, they were hated by the very people who’d put us in touch — we always went.
After these meetings, I would invariably turn to my husband and say: We’d never be friends with these people in real life.
Real life: this was my phrase. Not in New York, where I had lived for 12 years, or the vague back home, but in real life, as though I had skipped a track and found myself in a different, parallel universe.
What does one do at 1,000 38+ weeks pregnant? This is an honest question. I am sure I am doing something wrong. My list includes:
Watch reruns of Homeland and weep (over what, exactly? Brody? Carrie’s insanity?)Apply for a Fulbright.
Buy a diaper genie and some diapers, while I’m at it Work on the book.
Enjoy my last few nights of getting up to pee every hour still not being able to drink.
Take a long nap walk.
Obviously I’m conflicted. Here in Austria, most women go on you’re too huge and tired to work anyway so go homeMutterschutz at 32 weeks. This means they are legally obligated to stop working — so obligated, in fact, that a friend had her phone and email shut down by the company she works for on her last day. On a scale of Austria to America, this is a wonderful thing.
To be honest, however, I’m not exactly sure what the time is for (who am I kidding? It’s for watching Homeland) but it is certainly a much-appreciated gesture that acknowledges you’d rather not go into labor at work how much your life has already changed, with a nod toward the fact that it’s about to change a hell of a lot more. In other words, you might want to spend the next two months sleeping preparing for it.
Have I mentioned that you get paid while on this little “break”?
This is so un-American it almost makes me never want to go home uncomfortable. These days I don’t have a fulltime job, so I don’t get paid to buy a stroller this little Austrian benefit doesn’t really apply to me. But I’ve tried to go native, at least psychologically speaking.
But it is harder than I imagined to do nothing — or rather, to accept that there is this reprieve, this break, in which you are meant to prepare for the biggest change of your life. In which you are meant to prepare by doing less. By slowing down. By putting your pregnancy, your impending motherhood, before everything else. Any mother in the world would say to me — and many of my own friends have said — WATCH TV. SLEEP IN. REALLY. DO NOTHING. LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK. And yet, to misquote Colum McCann, the great world keeps on spinning, whether you’re pregnant or not. My husband goes to work every day, as he did last month and last year, and I have the nagging feeling that I should be doing the same (because back home I probably would be doing the same). But his mind hasn’t left the building He keeps writing and reading and pushing himself to get as much done before the baby comes, while I take a guilt-filled nap every afternoon.
I know that soon a leisurely day in bed will no longer be possible — but what happens next is so utterly unimaginable that it’s almost comical. I’m not even sure what metaphor would apply here. When else are you so completely on the precipice of something so hugely unknown and life-altering in so many ways? When you have to live with the mystery and wonder and instability and joy of not knowing when this will happen, and how, and who will come out the other end, and what life will look like afterwards? I keep thinking of something Cheryl Strayed wrote as Sugarabout the birth of her first child: “It was a penetrating, relentless, unalterable thing, to be his mother, my life ending and beginning at once.”
What does it feel like to have your life begin and end at once?
People, we have reached the stage where everyone here in Vienna is asking me, “Haven’t you had the baby yet?” “Have you started drinking the tea?”
To which I reply, of course, “40 weeks is ACTUALLY TEN MONTHS. IT’S A VERY, VERY LONG TIME.” “What tea?”
Apparently once you hit 34 weeks, it is customary to start drinking mysterious teas that you must go to a special Apotheke to get. These aren’t of the standard raspberry leaf variety that you can pick up at any health food store and have been put together by, say, Lipton. You also can’t get it at a BIPA, which is akin to a CVS. From what I can gather — which, let’s be honest, is usually not the whole story — these are special concoctions made on the spot for you by a pharmacist/magician in an off-limits back room. My midwives gave me a whole booklet of items to ask for. It took me three hours of translate the seven-page leaflet and includes a recipe for a power bar I am meant to eat while half-clothed and screaming my head off in labor.
I first heard about these teas from the women in my lovely Pregnant-and-Uncomfortable Ex-Pat-Ladies Weekly Bitch FestMom’s Group — a lifesaver, really, so far from home — since most of them are due a few weeks before me. Sitting around at a juice bar staring in jealousy at the ladies sucking on fresh Apple/Mango/Celery Drinks drinking water (because of my borderline Gestational Diabetes diet I can drink nothing else), I would hear them ask over and over again, “Are you drinking the tea?” and also, “Have you started acupuncture?”
In New York, I was addicted to acupuncture — in fact, I had the best acupuncturist ever — but I have yet to try it here, mostly because I am terrified of letting someone I can barely say hello to stick a needle in my ass/forehead/armpit. Back home, if you were to tell your O.B. that you were doing acupuncture to induce labor, the doctor would probably laugh at you might humor you.
Here it is standard practice at the end of pregnancy. In fact, you actually do it at the hospital.
Let me tell you what else is standard practice:
This massage oil goes you know where.
According to my midwife — who got into a squat right in her office and demonstrated the technique for me — this makes labor easier because you’re all…oiled up. She also said that starting at 34 weeks, I could do it with Olive Oil.
There are so many reasons I am happy to be giving birth in Europe even though the Austrians won’t give the baby citizenship and apparently the nurses in maternity wards give newborns fennel tea — FENNEL TEA!!!: A midwife-centered birthing culture, Kindergelt (a monthly allowance for each kid), free health insurance, a law that makes women stop working up to two months before the baby is born, and a standard one-year-long paid maternity (or paternity) leave. But mostly for these hilarious moments. How often does someone tell you, with a totally straight face, to get your husband to massage olive oil up there?
PS: I realize I’ve been woefully bad about updating you on the pregnancy. This is out of sheer laziness wanting to keep some things off the interwebs. If you’re feeling like the last time you checked, I wasn’t pregnant at all, here are two posts to get you up to date: Number One and Number Two.
Today I learned the German word “Wolle.” This is a word I should have learned months ago — it’s simple enough, and useful — but despite the fact that we now live in Vienna, I have avoided learning German a very small vocabulary.
The word came up today as I did laundry, which I have done nearly every single day a few times a week since we moved here (because apparently I have become a housewife). In New York, I sent my dirties off to the ladies on the corner when I was flat out of underwear once a week, but for various reasons — the lack of a dryer, a husband, a very small machine — I seem to constantly be hanging our wet socks and pants all over the apartment.
Anyway, socks and T-shirts in hand, today I faced the washing machine and took in this daunting image:
Okay, the words might be too small here for you to read, but let me reassure you that there are a lot of them. A plethora of cycles! One of them washes for 90 minutes (!), another for 8 (this must be to wash your thongs dish towels). All through the fall, I picked a setting at random because I don’t really know how to do laundry couldn’t be bothered to actually look up any of the words. But since I am about to enter linguistic hell take a five-day-a-week German course, I decided to turn over a new leaf, so I picked up my husband’s our Deutsch/English dictionary and discovered what any moron mildly curious person could have guessed eons ago: Wolle means wool. I’m practically trilingual already.
We just returned to Austria from a whirlwind winter in sunny California, Nevada, Montreal and New York. In all those places we were visiting family and friends and were surrounded by people who speak English we love and know well. In New York, especially, once I no longer wanted to hurlwhere I lived for 12 years, I relished my ability to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations fend for myself. I also loved having dozens of friends right at my fingertips (literally, since for the first time in 5 months I had a phone that actually worked).
This story of moving across the world and starting a new life is an old one — so many people have done it, with incredible success and aplomb. My parents lived in Paris when my sister was a toddler, and although my mother hated it it wasn’t all Pinot Noir and warm baguettes, their eyes still get a little twinkly when they talk about wandering in and out of galleries on Saturday afternoons and consuming vast amounts of unpasteurized cheese. I thought I’d be one of those people who took to Europe without a hitch. But I am continually startled by my resistance: to adapting to life here, to admitting that we actually live here, to the reality that learning German is not a fun hobby but a necessity.
Or perhaps there is a larger, beautiful shock to it all: As a friend pointed out to me in New York last week, “If someone had told you two years ago that you’d be pregnant and living in Vienna with your husband, would you ever have believed her?” Despite the fact that I often have to pinch myself when I think of my great good fortune in the husband and pregnancy department, and even though I am over the moon about the idea of living a European life, maybe sometimes it takes us a while to align our realities with the unexamined fantasies — or presumed life — we had built for ourselves. (Mine basically involved all the things I am now so lucky to have, but in a Brooklyn brownstone. Forgive me, it was a fantasy.)
And yet, it is never that simple. When my husband and I spent last summer in a sauna, AKA: the hottest apartment in Brooklyn New York, I thought my fantasy had come true: I had my love and my friends and my job and my city all in one place. And yet. It felt a little like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Like trying to jam two separate lives into one old one. This isn’t to say we didn’t have a blast, but it wasn’t the perfect merging of worlds I had imagined.
This is all to say, perhaps this is a moment when my fantasies have to bend to my reality — or maybe my reality has to become more of the fantasy my friends imagine it to be. Or maybe I should just throw out the idea of fantasy altogether and just live the life that is before me: exciting, unexpected, foreign, challenging, lucky.