Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Mother-In-Law Conundrum

Mother-in-laws. They are the butt of so many jokes and entire movies have been made around the mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship. Advice columns regularly post letters from both sides of the table; distraught daughter-in-laws who can't abide by their overbearing mother-in-laws and mother-in-laws who feel as though their daughter-in-laws are the devil's spawn, aren't good enough for their sons or are simply raising their grandchildren the wrong way. Many times these uneasy relationships start long before the wedding begging the question of whether any mother thinks a woman is good enough for her son. One really shouldn't stereotype the mother-in-law relationship since there are so many positive and healthy relationships between mothers and their son's spouses, but for some reason they do. Some mother-in-laws are wonderful, others benign while some are toxic at best and down right horrible at worst. It really runs the gamut.

I am a daughter-in-law. My relationship with my mother-in-law can at best be described as frosty. She has many qualities that make me uncomfortable or on some days down right angry but I will readily give her credit for raising an incredibly caring and sensitive son. At the same time I'm sure her list of my deficiencies as a daughter-in-law is equally extensive. But I was raised to respect my elders and for the first few years of knowing her I bit my tongue entirely when she confronted me with things that frankly I thought were none of her business. Had I been younger or even older at the time I would have likely confronted her comments directly and established boundaries that I was comfortable with from day one. But at the time, and because my relationship with her son was still in the fledgling stages, I said nothing. In hindsight this was a mistake because this only perpetuated my resentment of her since at heart, I am someone who speaks my mind. I finally started speaking my mind when I became a mother myself. To put it mildly, it didn't go well and my honestly continues to place a strain on our relationship. Some days I wonder if our relationship is one I can salvage but I have come to the sad conclusion that because we are both stubborn it is impossible for either one of us to budge or change our ways. Geographic distance makes it a bit easier to deal with this friction and because I love her son deeply I usually do my best to maintain peace when we are together. It isn't easy and sometimes it isn't possible and it pains me to put my husband in a situation where he would need to choose between the two of us. 

But I am also a mother of a son. Although he is barely out of diapers I often find myself thinking about his future and what it might hold. I envision his having a wife, children and a fulfilling life. I would like to think that I will embrace a future wife as she will me but I need to be honest. Will I ever think anyone is good enough for my little boy? How will I feel when I am not the number one female in his life? Will I be able to accept the fact that his focus --as it should--will turn to his new nuclear family rather than me? When I think of my own mother-in-law and our issues, I pause to wonder how I would feel if any future daughter-in-law feels the same way about me. First, it saddens me. Would I honestly be able to step back, even if it meant not being an active part of his life, in order for his relationship with his wife to be stronger? I try to be open minded and view our situation with detached indifference but it is really hard since the issue is so personal. I am just too close to it.

And this is a conversation I've had with several friends who are all mothers of boys. We all think we will be different from our own mother-in-laws. We say we will welcome our daughter-in-laws with open arms and respect their boundaries. We say that we will not critique their parenting skills nor will we comment on how they treat our sons or raise their families. At the moment we promise we won't lay on guilt trips over forgotten birthdays or holidays spent elsewhere since we will recognize that their focus is now on their immediate families. Now we say we will wait for invitations rather than force ourselves on our sons and their families. We promise to step back and go on with our lives if our sons choose to support and side with their spouses over us, the women who gave birth to them.

But will we? I hope so, but only time will tell.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Mulberry Harbor Of Arromanche

The Mulberry Harbor in Arromanche, also known as Gold Beach

We've all heard about the Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Perhaps we've seen pictures or watched movies depicting what happened on that fateful date. Or if we're really lucky, we've visited the landing beaches themselves. My family and I had the opportunity to do so this past summer and it was a truly moving and unforgettable experience. As I stood on the flat and sweeping stretches of sand where so much blood had been shed I was struck by this very geography. With dramatic tides and long stretches of sand the beaches were more impressive than any picture could ever depict. I wondered about the soldiers, sailors and their equipment who stormed these beaches. What I hadn't thought about, or even known existed, were the intricately built harbors that had been built by the British to ease the beach landings. These structures were called "Mulberry Harbors".  While the actual origin of the concept for the Mulberry Harbors is disputed what is agreed upon is that these concrete and steel structures were engineering marvels that for six months, enabled the necessary men and equipment to be efficiently brought ashore and therefore power the Allied sweep across German occupied Europe.

Gold Beach and the Mulberry remnants today

The harbors were loosely based upon the World War I German strategy of using sunken ships as jetties. In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion British engineers experimented with various designs for the proposed harbors. The design was to include a series of caissons, or water containing structures, which would create  breakwaters, piers and interconnected roadways which would be used to move equipment from ships to the nearby shore. Not only would they have to hold up to the heavy weight of the tanks and other artillery that would cross their spans, they also had to withstand the heavy sea swells that were common along the Normandy coast. The caissons would be built in England then transported across the English Channel before being reassembled on the Normandy Beaches. It was an ambitious and forward thinking plan but three days after the Allied forces landed in Normandy, two sets of Mulberry Harbors were indeed constructed.

The first, located off of the American landing spot on Omaha Beach, was quickly destroyed by a fierce Atlantic storm. The second one, constructed of 600,000 tons of concrete spread over 33 jetties and spanning a total of ten miles of floating roadways, off the coast of Arromanche, or Gold Beach, withstood the storm. Over the next eight months more than 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies rolled ashore along this series of jetties and roadways.

Remnants of the "harbor" today
Today all that remains of this Mulberry Harbor is a series of sea worn concrete bunkers. At low tide they sit like old cast offs on top of the sand while at high tide they are all but invisible. When the tide is low you can walk amongst them, peering inside their hollow hulks and look at their pock marked exteriors. The day we visited was cool yet sunny and a surprisingly large number of brave soles were wading then swimming amongst them as the tide rolled in. If I hadn't seen pictures of what they had looked like, it would have been hard to imagine how they were used. A visit to the nearby Arromanches Cinema Circulaire and the D-Day Museum give you a better sense of the role these novel structures played in the war effort. At the D-Day Museum you can even see a film that provides a complete history of the Mulberry Harbors. Both are well worth the visit and provide a unique insight into an important part of history that many people (Americans at least) never learned about in history class.
If you go:

Arromanches Cinema Circulaire 
Arromanches, France
(33) 02 31 06 06 45
Open daily
5 Euro for adults, 4 Euro for children and seniors

D-Day Museum
Place du 6 Juin
14117 Arromanches
(33) 02 31 22 34 31
Open daily
7.90 Euro for adults, 5.80 for children and students
Reduced rates for military members

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Story Of Corrie Ten Boom

The story of Anne Frank is perhaps the best known and well documented personal narrative of the horrors inflicted upon Jewish families during the Holocaust. But unfortunately, these conditions were a reality for tens of thousands of Jewish families throughout Europe. During the first part of the 1940s, as millions of Jews were being rounded up by the Gestapo and marched away to concentration camps, other families were putting themselves at risk by hiding the persecuted within their homes. Whether they did it out of principle, religious conviction or moral obligation, their brave actions saved the lives of thousands of innocent people who would have otherwise perished in Germany's death chambers. One such family who risked everything, and made the ultimate sacrifice for their actions, was the Ten Boom family of Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The Ten Booms were a devout Christian family who earned their living at their clock and watch shop while actively pursuing and contributing to social causes in Haarlem in the century leading up to World War II. Even before the War their house served as a refuge of sorts for anyone who was in need of assistance. As the Gestapo began rounding up Jews, the Ten Booms provided them, along with students who refused to cooperate with the enemy and members of the Dutch underground resistance movement, temporary shelter until they could be smuggled out of Haarlem to safer areas. They knew their actions were placing them in danger but standing by their convictions, they continued to provide a place of refuge to those in need until they were betrayed and taken to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany. Corrie survived her ordeal but her 84 year old father and sisters did not. In the thirty-two years following her release from the prison Corrie travelled to sixty-four countries spreading the word of her Christian faith. Her family home above the clock shop was turned into a museum that continues to serve as an open house for visitors who wish to come and learn more about her family's beliefs and brave actions.

Today no visit to Haarlem would be complete without visiting the Corrie Ten Boom House. It is easy to miss since it is tucked away on along a narrow street. A jewelry and clock shop sits on the first floor the same way it did when the ten Boom family resided here. The building is actually two houses that have been cobbled together into one with a ship's mast serving as an anchor. You would never know this by looking at it from the outside, thus making it the perfect place for hidden nooks, hallways and rooms. On the day of my visit the English speaking guide led us up a narrow set of stairs and into what had been the family's front parlor. Sitting amongst the original piano and walls lined with family portraits, she relayed the story of the Ten Booms to us. Their story is so moving and made more so as I was able to gaze at portraits of the actual house residents while she spoke. Later in tour we were lead up more narrow stairs and into the hiding room, a space built behind Corrie's bedroom where people took refuge when the Gestapo came calling. I was able to climb through the wall and into the narrow hiding space that sheltered people for hours on end. I can only imagine how dark and stifling it must have been but the alternative was simply unthinkable. I've walked and stood in a lot of history since we moved to Europe but standing in the very place where lives were saved was truly a moving experience and one that shouldn't be missed.

If you go:

Corrie Ten Boom House
Barteljorisstraat 19, 2011 RA Haarlem
The Netherlands
 0031 (0) 23 5310 823

Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 to 15.30
Closed on Dutch holidays
Tours are free but donations are gladly accepted

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Littlest Butterfly

Raising boys; its enough to make my hairs turn gray. Sidney has always had an independent streak which is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating. Whether it is picking out his own colorful outfits or the games he plays on the playground, he marches to his own drum and doesn't openly care what others have to say about it. This makes him less susceptible to giving in to peer pressure (which is a good thing) but this same behavior is also increasingly drawing negative attention to himself (and this is a bad thing). So here is the issue I am pondering as of late: how do I encourage independence, creativity and non-conformity while not exposing my son to undue ridicule, potentially being picked on or generally setting him on a coarse for a harder path through childhood?

Sidney is small for his age (its honestly in his genes) which in itself is going to make for a long and sometimes turbulent course through childhood. But why is this? It is all so unfair that boys are expected to be bigger and stronger yet it is acceptable, if not desirable, for girls to be smaller and more fragile in stature. So much of this is dependent upon genetics so is it that as a society we look look down upon smaller people (especially males) who really have no control over their height? Even at the ripe old age of five I see the games that go on in school and the taunts that are made because of size. Until recently Sidney has never let his small size stop him; he's scrappy and fast and is the first to jump into the game and try something. But in recent months Sidney has been asking why he is so small and when he will grow bigger. I encourage healthy eating and tell him that he will grow but he wants to know when. As in a date and time when he will be the size of his peers. I just don't have an answer for this inquiry.

Through a series of recent unpleasant events I've learned that Sidney is being picked on by one of his  larger classmates and thus his desire to be bigger and taller. This simply breaks my heart. This same boy--a fellow American--taunts Sidney by calling him names, teasing him until he is on the brink of tears and on more than one occasion has even pushed, poked and choked him in class. Sidney feels that if he was bigger he wouldn't be the object of this boy's attacks. I'm not sure this is entirely the case since physical size is only part of it. Mindset and personality are the other. As rough and tough as he can be, he is also incredibly sensitive at times. And he is still a little boy. One who will play with girls as long as other boys aren't around ("because they will make fun of him"). Sidney is a little boy who doesn't like loud noises and is afraid of the dark. He wants to be liked and have friends and his feelings can sometimes be easily hurt. But somehow, for some reason, being small, sensitive and with a strong streak of individuality has made Sidney the object of this other boy's torment.

The physical assaults are horrifying but it is the words that are the most upsetting, and leave the longest lasting scars, of all. As far as I know, the physical assaults are no longer happening and things have calmed down in class but the words and taunts are continuing. (Of course I am only hearing one side of this story so I am a tiny bit skeptical). Words can be easier to hide and in the vast space that is the lunchroom and even worse, the playground, a large, loosely supervised area filled with children playing and proving themselves the way growing children do, words are often the weapon of choice. He's asked me what certain words mean. Words that I don't want to repeat let alone put in writing. Sidney has heard them someplace and he tells me that these are words that this other boy calls him. I in turn find myself at a loss for appropriate words. I can tell him that these are words we don't repeat, that they aren't nice. I can tell Sidney not to use them in reference to others because he knows how it feels to be called them. Teachers can't see and hear everything and kids will be kids. But how much is too much? And most importantly, how do I instill confidence in my son while protecting him and realistically, not making him the target of increased negative attention.

But most of all I am angry. Yes, I am angry at this boy, and by default his parents, since he has to be hearing and learning about these things someplace. But most of all, I am angry and disappointed in our culture that sets stereotypes and stifles individuality. And I hate the fact that I actually found myself suggesting to Sidney that he not say, do or wear things that might make him a further target of ridicule. Am I no better than our culture by suggesting that my son needs to conform to these pervasive stereotypes? As a mother I want to protect him from harm but I also want to encourage creativity and freedom of speech. But like I said, I want to protect him....

So for the past few weeks Sidney's class has been studying butterflies. They've talked about the phases of a butterfly's life and have even watched their own cocoons turn into butterflies. Sidney has been mesmerized by this lesson and has taken to running, flapping his arms and chanting that he is a butterfly. Yes, my little camouflage clad boy is proclaiming independence by identifying as a butterfly. He does this at home, on the playground and the soccer field. He's also the same boy who continues to spend hours playing soldier, racing matchbox cars and trains like there is no tomorrow and then goes to sleep sucking his thumb and clutching his favorite baby blanket. He is only five, but......

What is a mother to do? His teacher can serve as a buffer in the classroom and I can at home but neither protects him from the realities of the larger world. If it isn't this bully it will be the next one. Sidney is small yet tough, creative and caring, sensitive and stubborn. Part of the beauty of our society is that we all have differing views, opinions, and expectations. We don't all have to be friends but we really should respect each other. This is something I can teach my son. I can also help him put a Teflon coating on his butterfly wings then trust him to fly.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Names & Faces

You know you have settled into a community when you begin to readily recognize people. Its a comforting feeling; no longer is everyone you see a stranger, rather you are all a part of the same community. But simply recognizing someone doesn't mean you know them. Even after you begin to greet them when you see them, do you really know them if you don't know their name?

Right now we are living in a diverse but relatively small community. Where ever I go I immediately recognize the people I see and I can categorize them into where I know them from. There is the staff at the post office, the clerks at the store and even the gate guards who check my ID each time I drive by. There are the people who hit the gym each morning at the same time I do; the moms who shop on base immediately after dropping their kids off at school and the people who stop by the cafe for coffee each afternoon before picking their children up. And of course there are the parents, mostly moms again, who I recognize from Sidney's school and soccer team. I can recognize most of them by the class their child attends and if they are one of Sidney's class or teammates I know them as that child's mom. With this group I am known as "Sidney's mom". (All this makes me wonder whether we all follow the same schedule!). But do I know their names? For the most part no.....It is all strangely anonymous but not really.

I'd been pondering this not knowing any one's name issue for awhile. First, I'm horrible when it comes to remembering names so even if I've heard it once I'm likely to forget it. Second, after talking to someone on a daily basis (fellow moms for example) it feels awkward to months later, as, someone what their name is. Sometimes Glenn and I will serve as each other's foil with one of us introducing ourselves to someone the other knows yet doesn't know their name. But inevitably we all quickly return to being known quasi-anonymous as so-and-so's parent.

But last week something changed. Like I said, I pass the same people each day as I go about my routine. I was at the post office and walked passed a fellow American mom who I see just about every morning and afternoon. We both smiled at each other but then as I passed her she stopped and introduced herself telling me that she saw me everywhere but didn't know my name. Here I was feeling the very same thing but she took the step to change all of that. We made our introductions then went along our way (with my repeating her name to myself several times so that I wouldn't forget it). Since that interaction I've seen her just about every day and we now greet each other not only with a smile but an acknowledgement using our names. As simple as it is, it feels so much nicer.

And her initiative has now spurred one of my own. At a minimum of once a week (I do need to remember all of the names after all), I am going to make it my mission to actually introduce myself by name to someone I see regularly and inquire about their own as well. I've already done it twice and I am now able to refer to people by their names rather than as the mom of Sidney's classmate ______. I wish I had started doing this sooner since my already small community is suddenly feeling cozier and more friendly than it was before. I love it. Now I can't promise that I am going to remember every one's name but I'm going to give it my best shot.