The mother is in a language limbo, the eldest child now faced with Swiss German in kindergarten while the smallest only understands English despite being born and raised in Switzerland by Swiss parents. It's been nearly two years since we left London Town. Time for an update.
For our children's sake, our family language is still English. We want our kids to grow up bilingually, which is relatively easy since Mister M and I are both fluent in English and we have a lot of English speaking friends locally here in Zurich. But of course things have changed since we left the UK and the English speaking territory. Here's how...
Two years into our life in Switzerland, it appears our language set-up has brought me into some sort of limbo. Most of the local mums I hang out with are English speaking - I didn't actively search for this, rather it just happened. 80% of my week is being spent speaking English; to my children, mummy friends and husband. I have the occasional chat in Swiss German in the shops, to my old friends, relatives and Mister M which accounts to about 20%. Most of my social media interactions are in English, and I only read English newspapers, magazines and TV shows, just because their cultuture still feels closer to my heart. And here's the language limbo: of course I'm still fluent in Swiss German, although even there I often struggle to find the right words. However, Swiss German is a spoken language only. For writing I use English and German. My English has become less complex and rich because I'm not fully surrounded by the language anymore. And my High German, which we Swiss use for writing, has become very lousy. I haven't used it much during the past 8 years and it bothers me a lot that I can't write in German properly anymore. Of course I can write stuff but I used to be able to write complex, intelligent things which my current level doesn't allow anymore. So I'm a bit stuck with two inferior language skills. As someone who loves writing and the complexity of languages, this is bothering me a lot.
The 4.5 year old
Big Sister arrived in Switzerland as a three year old with poor Swiss German levels. For 18 months now she's spent regular time with all four of her grandparents and a babysitter. While English is still her mother tongue, she's become near fluent in Swiss German. Her English is flawless, the Swiss German still accompanied by many mistakes but she can talk fluently and her accent is a very Zurich town one. She started the local kindergarten last week and loves it. She doesn't say much there yet since it's all Swiss German and High German, but her German will improve quickly and she'll open up soon. Also, the kindergarten offers free German classes twice a week to the non-native speakers which will help too.
The 1.5 year old
Little Sister is our other language guinea pig. She was born in Switzerland to two Swiss German native parents but has been raised in English since birth. She's around Swiss German speakers sporadically only. During the past 6 months she's been more interested in developing her physical skills (which is so often the case with younger siblings, it must have to do with walking being a more efficient survival skill than talking if you have to defend yourself against an older sibling all the time). She's only very recently started to pick up new words every day, and they're all English. She understands a lot in English but not much in Swiss German. It'll be interesting to see how this develops but I'm sure her German will be better and the English poorer compared to her older sister once she starts kindergarten in three years time.
This is how things are here language-wise. Other than that I think we've all settled well in Zurich by now and enjoy the peaceful lifestyle here, compared to hectic London.
Mid April I decided to take a break from all my work stuff because I started to feel it was getting too much again. The weather was bad all April, so the weekly Forest Playgroup was cancelled anyway. Also, I had a good look at my Wunderlist and postponed all work-related tasks generously. The only thing I kept doing throughout April was processing shop orders if there were any but none of the additional stress of doing advertising, worrying about how to increase sales and so on. Instead I started reading a book (Under A Mackarel Sky, Rick Stein's autobiography) and watched TV (currently Rick Stein's food documentaries) - both luxuries I hadn't allowed myself to do for years. Furthermore I started a Swiss food blog, but just for fun so no pressure there. I'm mad about food so this little food themed holiday makes me so happy!
It's been three weeks now since I stopped the work stuff, and I have to say it's amazing. For the first time in four years I don't feel stressed. It's the first time since Big Sister was 6 months old, four years ago, that my work day ends already at 8pm when the kids are asleep and that my weekends are proper downtime and time to get other things done. I feel so relaxed. And I can enjoy family time with my beloved ones without constantly having to think about those work related tasks that need to be squeezed into every free five minutes I can gather during the day. Don't get me wrong, it's far from a life of the lady who lunches. There's still two little ones to look after, including countless nervous breakdowns of immature little brains that need emotional first-aid, siblings fights to solve, hundreds of questions of a four year old to answer each day, and whatever else it takes to raise two happy children, hence never more than a one minute break during the day, and the work day still only ends at 8pm and I still do the night-shifts with at least four wake-ups. So, I still have an, at times tiring, full-time job with long days. But for the first time in my life as a mother I give myself a little bit of pastime instead of squeezing another job into every spare minute I can find.
So, why did I ever start this double job thing and why haven't I stopped it earlier? For one, I love to work (but I also love spending the first years with my children like my mum did with us, which is why I didn't take on a regular daytime job). I love creating things and find out whether other people like it too. Also, even though it may be only a little money, it's nice to have some money to spend which I earned myself rather than spending my husband's money. Secondly, after Little Sister was born, a big part of doing all that work was my attempt to forget how much I missed my life in London - I did have an emotionally very tough time adjusting to life back in Switzerland. And lastly, for another large part, I did it so I can be 'someone'. Because, if you're a stay-at-home mum (SAHM), officially you're out of work. I hate every situation when, at a new doctor or anywhere else where I have to get registered, someone asks: 'Do you work?'. If you're a SAHM, you're requested to say 'no', because they have to tick the 'no' box. But then, what's the difference to a nanny who looks after two little ones full-time? If she was asked that same work-question, they would tick the 'yes' box. Just because the two little ones I am looking after were produced by myself, I'm officially not working. Where's the logic in that? Also, I hate the German word for stay-at-home-mum - Hausfrau (housewife). It sounds as if all I do is stay within my four walls, operating the washing machine and calling my friends. But anyway, I know that my negative thoughts have more to do with my own perception and my struggle to shake off societal prejudices. It might have taken me a shocking 4.5 years but I can honestly say that slowly I am feeling like a valuable (and valued) person in our Western society, despite not having a paid job. I just need to find another word for Hausfrau and for the question 'do you work', because that just really annoys me.
I love my current break so much that I even don't know whether to go back to my work things or not. I still plan to get myself organised with work for when both kids are in school. But that's another three years. Do I really want all this pressure for three more years? Because, let's face it, a person like me who needs a lot of sleep won't create a business empire during those embarassingly short evening shifts and the weekend slots I'd rather spend with my family or doing something relaxing or fun. Neither do I make tons of money. And the kids are only small once, so maybe I should just plainly and fully enjoy them being small while it lasts. But then again, I do like working and doing something unrelated to parenting. Aah the 'you can't have it all' - the same questions for every mother, no matter whether she's in employment or at home. I've only been on this break for three weeks so it's too early to make a decision. But I'm thinking about it while enjoying more of this awesome break.
It's Mother's Day today and officially it's the day to say thank you to mothers, but in my particular case it's more about saying thank you to my husband. That he's put up with me and my struggles to feel valued as a SAHM for such a long time and that he's given me all this time to do the work I so much needed to do. He's been so patient during all these years. I think it's time now for me to give some family time back to him.
Lastly - Happy Mother's Day to all the mums out there. Whether you work full-time, part-time or whether you work in private childcare as I do, you're all doing a fab job, even though there will always someone be who says you're doing it the wrong way round. Just ignore them, keep going and know that you're doing great.
- Kaizen. I'm a huge fan of the Japanese principle Kaizen (Continuous Improvement), a strategy used in business where employees at all levels of a company work together proactively to achieve regular, incremental improvements to the processes. The key to Kaizen is to continuously make small improvements, observe the outcome and make more small improvements. It can be applied to personal life too - make improvements, observe, decide on more improvements and never give up - it's easy to fall into a routine and not realise that things could be smoother, so Kaizen is a good reminder to keep working on making our lives better with tiny steps.
- Rearrange the home and keep it tidy. Rearranging rooms and keeping the home tidy has a huge therapeutical effect on me. Ever since we moved into our flat half a year ago, there were two rooms whose arrangements never satisfied me, I didn't know why but it somehow just felt wrong. Once I felt better after my ear infection we rearranged these two rooms and swapped some of their content, and now our home finally feels right. I don't know much about Zen but I think we managed to bring that Zen calm into the house with these rearrangements. I also did a big tidy up and have analysed our shit spots (the spots in a home where clutter constantly starts to pile up) and am now determined to keep these shit spots clutter free. I feel like an eagle, constantly trying to spot clutter and instantly put it away, and I'm now tidying up a tiny bit whenever I'm home, and it seems to work. It looks a lot tidier. This really makes me feel good. I've also invested in some bits and pieces like a daytime blanket for the bed and a nice basket to put in clutter that needs to go upstairs or downstairs. Small things that can make a big difference in terms of a neat looking home, providing a calming effect for the nerves.
- Being very strict with myself. Now this isn't easy for me. I have a mind full of ideas and an even bigger urge to write and create things, but I realised that at this stage in my life, resting my body and not trying to be an over-achiever is more important than anything else. I have become very strict with myself. I'm in bed early each night, at 9pm latest and sometimes even at 8pm (because Little Sister's sleep is still a bit rubbish, which, due to the newest research is due to the genetic setup and not how we deal with their sleep, which is what I always believed), and I now rather let some of my work stuff untouched for a week or more if needed. I still love doing stuff but I'm now taking it very easy, getting on in slow-mode. I know I don't need to prove anything to anyone (above everything, not to myself, which is the hardest part!), and my family and I benefit from me feeling well and in a good mood. I know it's a no-brainer, but not an easy one to follow for people like me.
- De-cluttering. I have started the process of de-cluttering and selling things/giving them away. It's immensely liberating.
- Wunderlist. After several attempts of having a task list on my phone I downloaded Wunderlist, and, oh my goodness. Finally I found a task list I actually use. I love it. For me, apps and I have to click, we have to love each other, otherwise I won't use them, as it happened with all my smartphone task lists previously. But this one, what can I say! It's like a mirror of how my brain patterns. It's amazing. I have all my tasks in there now, neatly organised like I always wanted them to be organised, into the categories private and work, with a to-do list for each day and each week. I have to admit, I'm so much in love with it that I now spend a considerable amount of my me-time staring into the Wunderlist, rearranging tasks, planning the week and thinking about how and when to get things done. But it's worth it for me because, finally, I'm cracking on with tasks that have been neglected for months, some even years. And this again feels so liberating and calming. Ticking that little box of a task and hearing the 'task finished' sound, what a feeling. We've now also added our family tasks and can conveniently share the needed information in there, and another ingenious thing I've added is my entire dinner planning. Now, for every day in the week there's an entry for dinner so I easily can plan what we're going to eat. If I have dinner ideas but don't know yet when to cook them, I make an entry without date and like this I have a handy list of soon-to-cook meals for when I need to plan a new week. Nutrition and eating good meals is such an important factor for feeling well and happy, and the constant rush and search for ideas for nourishing my family really was wearing me down. Now every meal is planned in advance which makes me calm and happy.
- Meditation. It's been 10 years since I started my Vipassana meditation journey. It's not easy to keep up with regular meditation in the early years of having children - I won't be able to attend any longer retreats until they're much older (during a Vipassana retreat you're completely isolated from the world and aren't allowed to talk to people or write messages on a phone), and I just can't find time for that daily, ideal hour or two for the sitting meditation. But I've started to meditate for 10 minutes before I go to sleep to offload the daily stresses, plus I practice the short but very effective Body Scan in bed both before I fall asleep and when I wake up. It seems to make a big difference.
It's the last day of 2015 and the year seems to want to leave me the same way it treated me ever since it started - after (yet another) four days in a row without sleep. 2015 has been both absolutely amazing but also extremely tough. Two weeks into the new year, Little Sister was born. I absolutely love the first year of a child's life with all the snuggles, smiles, new discoveries and pure joy they bring to one's life. But for me this time round it was enormously difficult too. The start was not so easy with an emergency C-section, followed by mastitis and nipple thrush which made the start of breastfeeding incredibly painful and difficult. After that there was the usual first year baby stuff such as nightly feeds, sleep regressions, paired with now two children who can't sleep due to stuffy noses, coughs or fevers, once autumn came. We've had several serious bouts of siblings rivalry/jealousy too which takes a lot of energy - either you stay calm and understanding and absorb all of your children's frustration and deal with this accumulated negativity later on when you're alone, or you get angry to get rid of your own stress immediately and make everything worse. Often this year I was simply too tired to stay calm and understanding, so I've added to the girls' tears myself and wasn't the mummy I want to be. That said, the main reason for my tiredness and not being able to keep cool was that I was extremely low on iron and Vitamin B12. I should have known it but only realised it this summer after several years of exhaustion. After two iron and B12 intravenous infusions late summer, I felt as fit as I hadn't done in years. So, very silly me, but with a lucky ending at last.
I might not have achieved as much as I wanted this year in terms of work - I crave the opportunity to use my brain as I'm a workaholic stay-at-home mum - and I was tired a lot, but it's still been an amazing year. Our daughters were a joy to be with, we've had some great family time and holidays, plus I'm immensely grateful for my local mummy gang who keep rescuing crappy days with playdates and a good chat, and, after years of tiredness Mister M and I have managed to watch the entire BBC Apprentice season and I'm nearing the end of the first novel I've been able to read in years. Plus, we have a roof over our head, enough money to buy food and everything else we need, we have amazing families and friends, healthy children and live in a stable country. That's a whole lot to be grateful for.
The biggest thank you goes to my amazing husband, Mister M. It hasn't been an easy year (or years) with an ever tired wife who makes herself even more tired with her urge to do some work besides raising the girls full-time, and a frustratingly never-ending series of events such as sleep regressions, illnesses and jealousy that shake up family life time and again, as soon as things *finally* seem to settle down for once. Mister M keeps supporting me and the girls and helps out as much as he can while he keeps hoping for an easier and quieter life. The girls are still small and it will get easier. There will even be a time when I'm going to be able to stay up at night for an entire movie. But that's an serious milestone and still some time away. Until then we keep enjoying the good days and remind ourselves that the kids are only small once with all it brings - it's utter joy and all the hard work.
Thank you Mister M. I love you forever.
- My books are the soul of my home. Without them it doesn't feel like home. But they must be sorted by colour, not by height or any random order.
- I like living in the front row. Our Tooting (South London) pad was in a busy high street just behind a busy bus stop. Now we're overlooking a square lined with restaurants and shops. I love it.
- Our new Zurich flat is in a newly planned, former industrial area. Everything from buildings to parks is lined up in rectangles and squares. This regularity makes me feel at peace, I guess there's a bit of OCD in me.
- I love open plan kitchens. It means I can spend time cooking a little more elaborate meals while the kids can play next to me or while I can talk to my husband. This one truly makes an enormous difference for me. Small kitchen = rushed cooking in a confined space while kids are impatient.
- I'm grateful for my inside toilet. When I lived in Glebe, Sydney, the toilet was in a shed at the other side of the garden. The nightly visits did freak me out a little since the police were looking for a rapist in that neighbourhood. I've dealt with many other outside, walk-around-in-the-night-toilets in China, Vietnam and some other places. Inside toilets are sooo good.
- Strange one: We're now living in a maisonnette flat. It's the first time since I moved out of my parents' house 17 years ago that my place has stairs. It makes me feel more grown-up and like a real mama.
- I've gone all the way from not having to open the windows due to crappy old single glazed windows with lots of draft (Balham, London) to not having to open the windows due to high-tech triple glazing with automatic ventilation (Zurich).
- I loved living London's Victorian house dream but won't ever miss the never ending supply of mice we were hunting each evening and all the chewed food packages and mouse poo in the kitchen.
- I lived in the same house from birth until 19 years of age. After that, I lived in 12 flats (plus 2 years of traveling) within 17 years. I don't know anymore what it feels like to feel properly at home somewhere, nor do I know how restless I'm going to be once we do settle somewhere for 'good'.
- I spent the first 19 years in a small town. After that I either lived in the middle of Zurich, Sydney or London. Zurich is as small as I can go today.
This week is a special week. A year ago Big Sister and I arrived in Zurich for a new old life here. Mister M had to stay in London for some more weeks and Little Sister was still in my tummy. We've been here for an entire year now, have been battling the re-entry shock, put down new roots, met old and new friends, got to know the kids stuff in Zurich and we introduced a new family member to the gang. Time for a little retrospect.
I was prepared for this to happen, and happen it did. Being back in Switzerland after 6 years abroad was quite a shock. Now, 12 months on, I've got used to most things again - the high prices for everything, the reserved and sometimes rude people, the more rules and less pragmatism. I still don't quite feel like belonging here but I'm at peace with how things are here.
Where is home?
This is something I'm still struggling immensely with. I'm ok with the Swiss way again and I enjoy my time here, but the UK still feels like my spiritual home - I guess my heart has stayed there, at least a large part or it. I still miss it a great deal which makes me sad pretty much every night when I lie in bed. Also I still don't fully feel settled in Switzerland. So on that front, 12 months haven't been enough time to turn things around for me.
Admittedly, despite my heart still being somewhere in London, life with kids is way easier and more enjoyable in Zurich than in London. There's so much to do and everything is so easily accessible. Plus it's clean (we didn't live in a posh London area, and there was rubbish all over the place), quiet and calm.
Close to family
This is one of the reasons why we came back. It's great to live close to our families again. But this also means getting involved in family dramas again which can be mentally draining at times. The geographical distance to one's family when living the life as an expat can be a bit lonely, but at the same time easier on the nerves.
On this one, London will always win. My favourite seasons are spring and autumn, so the mild winters and cooler summers of London are totally my cup of tea. Also, somewhat surprisingly, London receives only 50% of the rainfall that Zurich does. When we arrived in Zurich we first dealt with the here usual 4 months of winter fog, plus a long and cold winter with lots of snow and then a crazy long summer with constant temperatures between 30-35 degrees. Far too hot for me.
A definitive win for Zurich. We came back to our old friends (not all though as it's nearly impossible to maintain all existing friendships while abroad for 6 years and many have moved away) and I've made a great bunch of new, superlocal mama friends here. This is in stark contrast to London where most of my existing mama friends moved away to smaller towns or abroad before we left too.
Even though Big Sister still talks about her favourite London playgrounds sometimes, I think the kids prefer their Zurich life. There's a lot more to do without long distances to travel and since nearly every playground is equipped with water and sand and there's a lot of forests, lakes and rivers too, outdoor play is a lot more sensory and imaginary (mud, sand, water, sticks, stones) than just fenced playgrounds with rubber floors with equipment to climb on and jump off. Also, I much prefer the thought of Big Sister starting kindergarten next year and then being able to play for two more years rather than starting her academic journey in a year's time like her London peers will do.
So, you might wonder as much as I do what my verdict is after a year in Switzerland. It's been nice to be back, but I still don't feel at home here. They say that the re-entry shock lasts up to two years - as much time as it takes to settle in a new country as an expat. So, let's wait another year and see how things change till then...