What it Means to Be a Dad

On the rare occasions my son speaks with his father on Skype or Facetime, I often contemplate his distant role in my child’s life, and what it really takes to be a proper dad.

I have a very loose relationship with the father. I allow him as much (or in this case as little) contact as he wants with his son. He initiates the contact when he has time, and when he is not travelling somewhere. When he makes an appearance, it is always via a video call once every five, six o sometimes eight weeks, depending on whether the father has something to say, or whether he wants to find out how the child is doing at school or on a holiday.

The last time the two met in person was on my initiative, when we were ready to move out of New York in August 2015. I have so far failed to get the father to visit again or meet us in South Africa, even though there is a pressing need for his presence to sign the forms for our son’s South African passport. It is always too expensive, or there is no time. I try to process, and get over,  my resentment at how little my ex contributes, and how much he complicates our life by the mere fact of his legal status and existence as a father. It hurts my pride that I have to pursue this futile effort of demanding his cooperation on some issues, passport approval and travel permissions for instance, when in fact he bring next to nothing to our lives.

I know my son enjoys the long or short conversations he has with with his father. The man is technically savvy, and a bit of a nerd when it comes to subjects that interest my son. Yesterday evening they spoke about aircrafts, airlines, international aviation and travel. They shared information about YouTube videos they both follow, and opinions on recent air travel trends. My son is quite knowledgeable in these things. The problem that I see, though, is that my ex teaches my son certain attitudes. They spoke, for example, about germs and how they spread during air travel. According to my ex the worst places to carry germs are the tray tables, the magazines, the safety cards, the carpets and the top of the headrest where people usually grab a hold to get into their seats. This information might be of some importance, but I fear that it will make my son into the kind of germophobe my ex is. I have nothing against people who are aware of the possibility of contagion. I always carry a hand-sanitizer in my backpack, although I rarely use it. I do, however, look askance at people who make a show out of opening and closing bathroom doors with pinky fingers or using a paper towel. The action itself is not a problem, it is the attitude that underlies it that bothers me. And this is one of many things that eventually eroded any pretense of companionship I shared with my ex.

For me what is most important in a dad is to show moral leadership. My ex shows nothing of that. He is a man with an attitude and a grudge against the world. He is critical of people of certain body types, grooming, intelligence and sexual orientation. He does not come outright against them, but he has this poisonous attitude of one-upmanship. This poor parenting style is quite different from what I experienced as a child. My father is an old man now, and he is quite set in his opinions, attitudes and mind. He is quite inflexible on some moral arguments to the point of rigidity and sometimes extremism. He has always been, however, a principled man, who can show deep compassion. His love to us, his children, is the one constant that always shines through. He can argue with us for hours over petty things, and a minute later offer some huge amount of material or physical sacrifice if he felt we needed help. I could never expect any of my son’s needs to trump his father’s sense of entitlement or comfort.

My son loves his father. He said that to me, with a bit of an accusing tone, “I will always love him, no matter how he is”, and my heart ached for my little boy. I know that he enjoys what little the father offers. But I truly wish I could have brought a better father in his life.

Son, I wish you had a good man for a father. Someone who can teach you to accept and love people, the way they are, without judging them. Someone who could love you in the same way without judgment and accept whatever choices you make in life, and whatever path you follow. A man who would teach you how to respect women, protect their rights and treat them as peers and equals. I would not trust your father to teach you these things correctly.

I am also sad that I could not offer you someone to step-in as a father figure. Good men are hard to find, and when I did find one, he was already taken.

Joys of Parenting

004One of the best times of the day for me is when I pick my son up at school. Usually we make up a small convoy of one, two sometimes three parent-child pairs. The kids run along the sidewalks, and roll on the grassy stretches of the island, with the parents in tow carrying knapsacks and school bags, like weary porters following intrepid young explorers. I usually watch from afar never forgetting to bless the day my son was born, and thanking providence for allowing me to have him and enjoy his company.

Another pleasure is buying him the things that he really wants. The toys or things that make his eyes sparkle. Last week was the auction for his school PTA. The only thing he wanted was a toy tram, and I made sure to make the winning bid for it, which was more than double its retail price. Robert’s joy with it though was many times worth it, and I shared with his pleasure and again thanked and blessed providence for allowing me to buy him things he wanted.

I cannot help but think back to my childhood, and now I appreciate how much my own parents saved and how hard they worked to give us kids the things we wanted. A colour television for example, or a swing set. My dad worked and saved for these things and my mom used her ingenuity and creativity to save in the household. She fixed things we broke so we got to use them longer. She reused old items in new ways and redesigned out of fashion dresses into home decor items or into new clothing items. She still breathes new life into things in that way and it gives her a lot of pleasure. For me however the memory that I have of my childhood is that of caring parents who made sure the children had the best of everything while negotiating the constraints of middle class life. I will be very proud if my son would look back at me in the same way, knowing that I gave everything I could within the constraints of living as a single working parent.

A Working Mom’s Guilt Trip

Today was the last of the spring break. I mostly spent time with my son, looking after several outstanding issues, taking him for a dental and doctor checkups and putting our home in order. I have only ventured near the office on Sunday, the last day of the month, to put in a last translation to boost my average for the month of March.

That afternoon I had taken some good friends from the office out to lunch. We marked the 2nd anniversary of my arrival in New York, and my confirmed appointment as permanent staff. After lunch we walked to the office, and I took my son Robert along, thinking I will be out of there in an hour. I forgot that the office was like a black hole. It swallows all sunlight, brightness, joy and enthusiasm. So I made the mistake of reading my email, and was immediately consumed by fury at one of management ill-advised and badly thought out plans.

It seems that we in the lower ranks need a little more mental stimulation, never mind that we barely cope with the workload. Therefore we need to get excited about collectively reviewing the Arabic terminology database, by order of management. It should be noted that we the little people were singled out for the task, the seniors were excluded from it, although they are the ones who supposedly correct our work, and set us straight with terminology. There were many more problems with the division of labor, as the letters of the alphabet were considered all equal (or almost equal). This means that one colleague has to check the WHOLE section starting with Q, while letter sections like A and S were simply split down the middle between unhappy colleagues. One particularly unlucky (or unloved) person ended up with the chunk starting with P on his own, maybe seeing that p and q can simply be mirror images from each other. This review is done in addition to, and in parallel with, the work done by dedicated terminology staff, and I would not even try to explain the unwieldy process we are required to follow in order to mark the records needing reviews.

One of my good friends at the office has this brilliant strategy of just working through his task and not checking any emails until he has finished his allotted work for the day. This is something I should try, because normally if it is urgent someone would phone. Email is for less urgent stuff, or the downright annoying bickering. After reading this email, I was stuck in the warp of indignation, righteous anger and the need to vent. I started reviewing it with some of the colleagues who also showed up to work on Easter Sunday. I made tables and rebuttals, showing how badly planned this whole thing was, and soon it was night-time. My poor son was keeping busy on his tablet, making drawings, designing posters, playing the ukulele and generally being an angel. When I finally turned to the work I was supposed to do in the first place it was past his bedtime. I walked with him out of the office after ten. Throughout the hours we spent in that cave, he never complained, and although he asked to go home half a dozen times, he never raised a fuss when I told him I had to finish what I was doing.

Robert’s maturity on Sunday night broke my heart and made me regret that I made him suffer my office for so many hours, when we should be doing something more fun instead. We had walked three blocks away from the office when I realized that I left my USB key on my desk, and I said: “Oh I forgot my USB”. Robert said: “Mommy we can go back if you want”. I cried when I heard him say that. No matter how hard I try, I can never be free of working-mom guilt.  Sunday night as I registered the delivery of my document, I did not feel my usual sense of accomplishment at a job well-done, there was only the bitter taste of guilt. I felt a lot of resentment against a workplace that causes me to be unfair on my son. A lesson learned from my past, however, is that I can never influence the politics of the workplace, I can only change my reaction and attitude towards it, maybe I should ignore work emails and half-baked plans. Concentrate instead on my own plans, and on my growing son.

When The Stage Entrance Matters Most

At times having an absentee father is more frustrating than having none at all. I am sure I am not the only single mother who has come to this conclusion. Sometimes, it feels like all I do is damage control from one or other of my ex husband’s well-meant (or not so well-meant) comments, letters, or gifts.

The latest came late last week in the mail. Robert was so excited to get a letter from his dad in a lightly padded envelope. It contained a card with a picture of a reindeer. Inside it his father drew a detailed picture of a Christmas tree complete with presents underneath and an electrical plug for the lights.

The main thrust of the letter, however, was the “present”. A magic shell that his father and stepmother found washed out on the beach. They put in a lot of effort to make it into a necklace that “will protect Robert from hurricanes and bad wizards”. For the magic to work, the father said in his card, Robert has to sleep with the necklace under his pillow before he puts it on. Now it all might have been good with me if the shell hasn’t arrived broken into a dozen little fragments. I immediately bemoaned the cheap father who was unable to put the thing in a proper protective envelope. Admittedly I wrote a very uncharitable email to that effect, saying that next time please a plain card would do very well, since he cannot afford the expense of good packaging required.

In a later conversation with my mom, bless her kind heart, she gave me a different perspective. She said that it was perhaps a good thing that the shell arrived broken to smithereens, and that the good power of the universe was obviously not happy with the hogwash in the card. She thought that it was not good to bring a child up with superstitions and belief in magic. A child should believe in God and guardian angels, rather than black magic and superstitious stuff. I was amazed at her insight and though that it would have been a burden for Robert to carry this meaningless talisman from his father, whether out of love or duty. My mom said that the way she understands my ex, his actions are ruled by his ego, and that he has to be put centre stage, and that was basically the function of the shell, so that Robert would keep it always, a permanent reminder of his father, like a doggie tag.

My mom also laughed off my fears and trepidations at reading the card to Robert. She advised me to play it off as a joke. His father is joking with this story about the shell. Another of her ideas was to tell Robert that the good angels destroyed the shell en-route because they knew it was fake. I was so relieved to hear this simple wisdom.

As for my ex he will always be ill-equipped as a father. In the old days he used to draw inspiration from me on what to send his children, and that was years before I became a mother myself. Now obviously he draws it from his 3rd wife, who has deep insecurities. I have seen my son’s father wearing a necklace that must have come from her, his own tag. I can see how she might have contributed to the necklace idea.

In any event, my son’s father was never good at choosing appropriate presents. Last year the holiday present he sent his son was sparklers, which may have been an illegal airmail item. Some people simply lack the parent mindset, Robert’s father is one of many.

My Little Boy Turns Five

I received my last age-based email from BabyCentre today. The site congratulated me and Robert on reaching this great milestone. The implication was that the parenting journey is still long but it can now be enjoyed at leisure, as the years rush by and the little boy slowly evolves into the man he is destined to become. Robert was just a tiny bean when I registered to receive weekly updates, describing in breathtaking detail every development my tiny yet unnamed baby has achieved, deep within the warm darkness of my womb. I would read them with a sense of wonder, grateful at my ability to procreate and nurture, after years of hardly daring to picture myself as a mother.

Shortly after Robert woke up today his father called from South Africa. Lest I confuse myself endlessly with this unexpected generosity, he was quick to explain that he was calling from an office internet phone. He pointed out that he can hardly believe it has been five years. Reminisced about the first time he saw Robert, just before he gave his first cry.  “I remember the doctor saying, what a serious little guy”, he said, “Do you remember that?”. I had to make him repeat this over the static of the line, and then told him honestly that I never heard that, immobile from the waist down as I was, with my head at the opposite end of the table. Robert turned out to be quite a funny little fellow, he cannot resist using daily objects as comic props. Walking along one day on 2nd avenue he picked up the handle of a public phone and mimicked lathering himself in a shower. He cannot stop clowning around at school, but deep down he remains a serious little guy. After posting yet another picture of him on Facebook, a distant friend commented, “does he ever smile?”. Only then did I realize that his smiles on camera are very rare.

If I take a snapshot back at this last year I am amazed at the progress my little boy has made. Only a year ago he was a little more than a baby, who cried almost every morning when I left him at school. Today he walks in happily, starts immediately working or interacting with his friends, and cheerfully waves me goodbye.

A week before his fifth birthday I took him for a playdate with his friends at the Victorian Gardens, a small amusement park for kids exactly his age. Initially I thought that I would have to force him on one or two of the more docile rides, and steeled myself for having to go along with him. To my surprise he ran along with his friends and went on all but very few rides, we left when the last of his friends had to go home.  A year ago this was not possible.

He is still shy with strangers he meets for the first time, but he quickly warms up to people, and I watched him make friends easily with peers and some adults.  I have no worries about him socially as the day of starting in the big new school approaches. He would have some difficulties though in a team environment. He can be sometimes very stubborn, and that could prove detrimental in any group setting. I believe that this fierce individuality cost him a Kindergarten spot at the only private school I applied for.  But I also think that he will be better served in the Gifted and Talented class, amongst equally bright kids. I also have plan for enrolling him in sport, and other creative team activities on the island. The first step is soccer practice, then perhaps creative drama for kids. I think he is a natural performer, I used to be like that as a kid too, but shyness got the better of me.

I know I am starting to sound like an ultra-competitive North American mother, but I will never push him into anything he doesn’t want. This is a time for exploration and experimentation to discover his aptitudes, and his talents. I will be happy when a few years from now, when he would start to tell me what he wants, even if he concentrates on one or two activities he really enjoys, or is very good at. I just hope to help him develop to his full potential, and I am optimistic that I am at the right time and place to do so.

New Beginnings Beckon

Early this week I stated that my life is on autopilot and there is fair weather ahead. I think I spoke too soon. Less that 48 hours later I get news delivered to my inbox that might bring a monumental change into our lives; a change even more profound than what divorce wrought on almost three years ago. In short, we may be departing the South African shores in the next few months. I have very mixed feelings about this particular development although I worked towards it since June 2009. I have been living in South Africa since 1999 and although this doesn’t seem like a long time, it is still half my adult life, the other half I spent between my native Syria and the UAE. So when I leave it behind I will also leave a huge chunk of life, memories, experiences and very dear friends.  And without a doubt Cape Town will always be the place I call home, and where I shall hopefully return in due course.

As this happens my son has started at a new school. He is now officially a pre-schooler or Grade-R pupil. Initially I had some trepidations about starting him in a pre-school that uses German as a teaching medium, but I always wanted him to retain the connection to this language, and in my mind I wanted the German taken care of at school so that I can perhaps introduce the Arabic. Admittedly, having my child tackle three languages will be a challenge but I feel he has a keen interest and keeps asking about words and their meaning in another language. He often inquires what is this “auf deutsch” or what do you call that “bel3arabi”(in Arabic). He also asks me to play some of his DVDs in Arabic, or German (or even French and Spanish), so I am encouraged about capacity for learning language.

As early as his first day on Tuesday, he already told me that he likes this new school and prefers it to his old school. There are a few hurdles to conquer, though. On the first demonstration of “Play Ball”, one of the extramurals offered, he went into total strike and was the only child crying. Throughout the demonstration he sat glued to my lap and only approached the tasks of kicking the ball once or twice and very timidly at that. I tell myself that I distracted him with my presence and that he will do better next week, but I still worry about his shyness. It is largely my fault, I know. I have never been one for socializing, so he does not get the benefit of play-dates and parties very often. I am hoping this will change with time as he gets into his own character, but if social aptitude is genetic, he will probably end up on the reticent side, because he gets it from both parents.

It breaks my heart that I have to tear him away from the few friends he has. On Wednesday I watched him play naturally and spontaneously with Britt’s little girls, and this is something that had just started to evolve after many months of visiting. I wondered about the adjustment required of him in the future. I keep hoping that it will be easier for him than it will be for me, I know I will pine for my friends here and for my warmhearted Africa.

Review of 2010

The year 2010 is for me definitely a watershed year, where I tested the ropes on great many things and I am glad with the way they all turned out.

Early this year I finally made what I have been threatening to do for a long time, namely quit my office part-time job and concentrate on my home-based translation business. The decision was brought on after long consideration, and quite by chance on the day I handed in my resignation I found out that I qualified for an interview for a translation job with a high-profile international organization.  Of course, this did not mean I got the job but at least I travelled to the interview unencumbered by excuses to an employer, and I faced my interviewing panel as an independent language practitioner.

In April I found out that I passed the interview too and I braced myself for a long wait, loitering in a roster, without any idea when or where I will be called, but this did not concern me much at the time, there were other things to look forward to.

In June the World Cup came to South Africa, and my desire to live the experience to the full was also one of the reasons behind quitting my job. Robert had a prolonged holiday from school and we had our fill of the festivities, street parties and the fan walk. I was also fortunate enough to see two matches live, including the one Semi Final held in Cape Town between the Netherlands and Uruguay.

I am a World Cup baby, and I celebrated my 40th this year in style. And  a ticket to Algeria Vs England was a present to myself (the match itself a dud though). My birthday month also saw me sign a contract for buying a tiny new flat in a brand new block just around the corner from where I am renting. It was a huge leap of faith as I was not sure whether I can afford it, but my parents stepped in and rescued me with a generous loan that saved me from resorting to the banks (and risking getting turned down by them). My flat was scheduled for completion in February 2011.

Later in the year I had some stress with deadline and projects but in general I gently plodded on doing my work, looking after Robert and not forgetting to have a good time.

Late in October the saga with my lengthy job application progressed one step further and I was nominated for a job in New York. The rest of the year I spent doing some paperwork and speculating about how long the process will take.

I finally told Robert’s father of these plans in November and he did not take it easily. I had a few days of emotionally exhausting talks with him, where I stood firm on the fact that my life is going on – without him. He understood that the move will only benefit Robert in the long run.  I met him halfway, by offering him to rent my new apartment at a rate considerably less than market value.  Of course he was very pleased with that. He saw the flat with me a few days after Christmas and was involved in suggesting some minor changes.

Befitting my new amicable relationship with my ex we had a picnic on Christmas day at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and he was with us to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

We had a simple celebration at home with music and dancing (provided by Robert). We had champagne then walked downtown to watch the Christmas Lights on Adderley Street. Later we came home and had a quick late supper then walked up to Ocean View Drive to watch the fireworks at midnight. It was a quiet end to a wonderful year and I hope 2011 will be just as great.

The Party Post

Robert’s birthday went better than anticipated considering that he had a temperature in the morning.

We first had a party at his school. He was very proud to put on his crown, which Melanie made in green, and I am sure he requested it specifically, because it is his favourite colour.

He blew three (pronounced by him almost like free) candles

I baked the cake and the cupcakes for the schools and prepared little party packets for him and his classmates.

and the best part of the party for all kids including Robert was eating the cake, and here he is doing just that.

We went home after the party and decided against sleep-over with his father today because of his cold/flu symptoms. I took him out of school early and after we bought his present, a box of lego and some Disney DVDs we went to his 2nd birthday party at Britt’s house. There I took the remainder of the party packets and the other cake, which I was too lazy to decorate this time. Britt, Maria and the girls did the rest. There was another lovely cake there, two other friends and Robbie had lots of fun. I never noticed it at the time but he was indeed the only male with a harem of little girls fussing over him.

The day was warm and the kids played in the garden, and when Britt finished teaching for the day we sat down a little with one of the moms and shared a glass of red wine. It was a pleasurable conclusion to a lovely day. I couldn’t be happier and I am sure Robert felt on top of the world as well.

Happy Birthday my son my sunshine. I love you more than anything in my life, you are the reason I take every breath. God keep you for me healthy and happy forever.

My Little Boy Turns Three

After all the milestones of first smiles, first steps and first words I can tell that here is nothing more remarkable than the milestone of turning three. It all happens so fast, one day I am dealing with a little toddler with moods and tantrums and the next day I am listening to instructions, opinions and stories from a little boy. This is not to say that I am not dealing with tantrums anymore but the little personality is getting itself established very quickly.

I had put cream on my sore nose one day, and the little boy came up to me instructing me to rub it in “wob it in mommy” he said. Another day I was hugging and tickling and rough-housing with him and in between giggles he said: “I call the pleese” (I will call the police – a line I discovered later that he picked up from 101 Dalmatians, and used almost appropriately).

He is aware of himself growing, “I am biiiig” he tells me on a daily basis, and my heart expands with my love for him, and I wish to tell him, do not be in a rush to grow up because growing up is a tough job indeed. He will have his tough days ahead. Along with turning three he becomes a pre-schooler, no longer a toddler and he will be leaving his baby class, his beloved teachers Melanie and Yvonne, and all the little friends he got used to. There is no denying that he is ready as far as educational development is concerned. He is way above the level of the 0-3 class already.

When I speak to him he answers like an adult. Did you have a good time at school I ask, and he answers : Yes I did. Always in full sentences, never a yes, no answer or a nod of the head. He can count from one to ten, and recognizes almost all number digits and many letters. He has been able to recognize his own name for almost a year now in upper case and he now knows it in normal print writing. Recently I introduced him to the computer and he can use the mouse skillfully. He can also operate the DVD player on the computer and navigate some of the simple menus.  He always impresses me with his quick learning, but whether he will be emotionally ready to change into another class and later next year to another school is another matter.

I have been suffering with a bad flu all last week, and I tried diligently not to pass it on to him as an evil birthday present, but for all my attempts he woke up today with a little temperature and I was in doubt whether he will be fit enough for his party. Fortunately everything went well and he had a double birthday party, one at his playschool and another at Britt’s place. It was great fun for everyone.