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Milky Cuddles: June 2016

Friday, 24 June 2016

Behind the Scenes of A Mixed Race Family - Our Story

Originally published as a guest post on 3 Kids, 2 Dogs, 1 Old House

Our story started with us both chasing a dream. He was a South African Zulu musician singing his way around Australia with his choir and I was a young Australian organising his tour, dreaming of travelling and volunteering in Africa. I followed that dream and we reconnected in Durban, South Africa. I thought he was weird for always calling me, but eventually he charmed me and I warmed to him and a deep friendship started.

He taught me to speak Zulu and all about South Africa. Night after night we’d stay up late while I tried to perfect saying ‘x’ and ‘cha’ and day by day I came to trust him and see a man who was wise, gentle and strong. I became very drawn to him and an intense relationship grew. We went into this relationship knowing that we had a lot to learn, that we would have to be patient with each other and that misunderstandings and cultural differences would happen. Though now we have created our own culture, and I forget about culture and colour on a day to day basis, starting with this awareness was helpful. I knew our relationship and path would be different than if I was with a white guy, and I embraced it for all that it was.

Early on our relationship was wrapped in cultural misunderstandings. I wanted to go to his house. For me this helped me ‘place’ him, understand where he came from, and know his family. I invited myself many times before he finally let me come. When I got there his mum didn't speak to me and I sat on the couch. I later found out that’s not how relationships are done in his culture, that it wasn’t appropriate at all, that there was a specific process to follow before I ‘came into’ his home. Luckily for me, his mum is open minded and has given me grace for being the ‘clueless white girl’ and for all the misunderstandings since. Over time, she warmed to me and we started to understand each other, through my broken Zulu, her broken English and a lot of quality time. I stayed in her home for two months before we got married and three months since we got married. I got to know her well through these times, because our connection was not limited to words. Time, and lots of it, and being in the same house, seeing how things were done, helped me to know her, when words and conversation did not.

Early on I told a friend of mine that I thought I would marry him. I knew I was willing to ride the waves with him, and though I didn’t know what lay ahead I knew that very few things would make me walk away. At the time it felt crazy, a little extreme. I was only in South Africa for a few months. I was a volunteer with no money to my name. We came from opposite sides of the world, different cultures, different backgrounds, different languages. I couldn’t see how it could work. I wasn’t planning to stay in South Africa, I couldn’t imagine him in Australia. But he was so confident, and I couldn’t walk away, so he spent the next few years proving to me time and time again that it was possible and it could work.

We’ve lived in both South Africa and Australia together and we’ve faced significant challenges. A real low for us was the two years we spent doing long distance while we tried to get him a visa for Australia. Because he couldn’t get in to Australia, and I didn’t have enough leave from work to come to South Africa, we met in Singapore – half way in between – and he proposed. What followed was a frustrating and slow process full of documents and paperwork. I flew to South Africa and we had a traditional Zulu wedding. A week later I had to kiss him goodbye and leave. It almost broke me. We started our life together, apart. I booked our wedding in Australia and we waited for his visa. It was a tiny piece of paperwork, that our lives depended on. He got it and arrived in Australia only 3 weeks before our (second) wedding.

Race plays almost no role in our relationship. When we started dating it was a big deal, but as we created our life and a home together I started to forget. I do not look at him as a ‘black man’, in the same way that I don’t look at my blonde haired friend as a ‘blonde’, it’s not what defines her to me. Yes, I know he is black, but it’s not something I think about every day. I think of him as my husband, and within our own home our colour differences are so normal that we don’t notice them or think about them.

Early on we had a few comments, although they were mostly positive. I remember our dentist said that we were ‘changing South Africa’ and a few times while on holidays my husband was mistaken for being my driver. But over the years I’ve learnt that marriage is deep and long and what happens in your house and behind closed doors is much more important than what others think or say. At our Australian wedding our Pastor told us ‘your strength is in your difference’. It’s a truth that has stuck with us and something I’ve reminded myself of many times.

Both our families are open and supportive of our marriage and we have a great relationship with both. But many times I’ve seen the way our families struggle to embrace each other as family. They want to, and they try so hard, but they are divided by distance, language and culture. I’ve seen the way when our mothers get together they struggle to communicate. I’ve seen cultural difference after difference. I’ve seen the way my mum has tried so hard to get to know my mother in law. But the only way she knows how to do it is through an Australian lens, to make conversation and ask questions. On the other hand, when my mother in law has hosted my family at her home she has cooked and served food and left her guests to enjoy their dinner without her. My mum wants to talk, my mother in law wants to serve and be a good host and respectfully let her guests eat. I can see my mum doesn’t know why she is ignoring them and leaving them alone, my mother in law doesn’t know why my mum is following her into the kitchen asking questions. I can see the awkwardness, and I understand enough to know what is going on, but I’ve struggled to know how to help them overcome it. Sometimes I feel sad that our families can’t be together as one big family and that there are some very real barriers. Other times I am grateful that my husband and I have a good relationship with both. We are more than half way there.

Last year our daughter was born. She really lights up our lives. She was born in Australia but we chose to move to South Africa when she was 11 weeks old. Long term we want to live in Australia because economically it will be better for us, but short term we want to be here because we want her to know her culture and learn Zulu. Ideally we would have done this extended holiday when she was a bit older (2 or 3) but our work and circumstances allowed us to leave Australia last year so we decided to take the opportunity.

The main response we have had to our daughter is that she is very beautiful. People tell us over and over that she is the most beautiful baby they have ever seen. I know I am biased, but I am often overwhelmed by her cuteness. It’s not because she is mixed race, it’s because she is half me and half the man I love, and because she is full of smiles.

In South Africa we are part of a small, but very close, mixed race community. We have created enduring friendships with other mixed race families. When I see my daughter playing with the other kids it is nice to see her fit so well. I can see that they really are her people. I know that when we eventually move back to Australia her friends and cousins will be different from her. And I know we will miss this community of families who are just like us.

My biggest fear of parenting a mixed race, international child is that one day she will do what I’ve done to my parents – run away overseas and leave me. For now, while she’s little I hold her as much as I can. My biggest sadness is that she will always be away from one side of her family, from one of her grandmothers, that though there are good things about living in each country she will never be able to have both at the same time, that she will always be missing something. It’s what we signed up for when we started a journey that straddles two continents, but over time I feel it more, rather than feeling it less. And practically, my biggest concern is (though I LOVE mixed race hair) that I won’t know how to care for her big and crazy hair. But I have learnt so much already in this mixed race journey, I no doubt will learn that too.

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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Never be this loved again – the velcro baby days

Velcro baby, 10 months

As Nala clings to my leg, standing, wobbling on her feet, her total trust in me not to move a millimeter and I try to cook dinner without moving, I remember something I saw that said ‘you will never be this loved again’. And I know it. I have to know it. I remind myself of it 1000 times a day, when her love for me feels suffocating, when I find myself lunging across the kitchen to reach for a spoon to avoid moving the leg my daughter is attached to. It is, I am sure, the age, a stage, a phase. But honestly I hope it doesn’t last too long. I cannot put her down, from the moment she wakes up, until she sleeps. And even when she sleeps, she sleep in my arms. If I try to put her down she holds on so tight, lifts her legs off the floor, and cries.

I can see what has happened. Our little 10 month old has learnt to walk. She moves so quickly she is basically running. But though physically she can move around independently, emotionally she is not ready. Physically she can run – but only if it is to me, never away. I can sense the mixed emotions inside her – her excitement of finding her feet, her surprise at realising she is independent, and her fear of moving away.

So many things I used to do without thinking are now a daily struggle. Do you know how many steps you take each time you make the bed? If not, lucky you. Try doing it while either carrying a wriggly 10kgs or with one leg stuck in one spot!

I'm the only one who experiences this side of her. The minute her daddy is home, she rushes to the door and greets him, cuddles and hangs out with him for a while and then sits happily on the floor and plays with her toys! Whenever others are around she plays with them or on her own. Her 'don't put me down' personality is something she saves especially for when she's alone with me.

Nala has always been a very easy baby. Never unsettled, nearly always happy to chill in her bouncer or on her playmat or with her toys, friendly to everyone, able to be taken everywhere. So I didn’t expect this. But 10 months has been the most challenging age so far for me.

It’s challenging because for many years how I feel about my day has come from how productive I have been. How many items I’ve crossed off my to do list. And it is generally much harder to get things done at the moment. I’ve realised I need to detangle my self-worth from my productivity. I need to start going to bed feeling good about myself even if I have done nothing except keep my daughter alive that day. I need to realise that that in itself is a successful day. I need to change the way I measure a successful day. 

So today I’m counting my success by the number of tears (none so far), the length of the cuddles and how many funny faces my daughter can copy (plenty). With this as my criteria, I declare the day a success.

I’m starting to read up on attachment, separation anxiety and clinginess, but I still know very little. What I do know though is that babies do things for a reason. That right now she obviously has a need for me. And as her mother it is my job to meet that need. Over and over. It’s my job to put aside my to do list, hard as it, and sit on the floor and play blocks. Because that’s what she needs. And even when her affection for me feels suffocating, I remind myself, I will never be this loved again. And I choose to treasure these (sometimes trying) moments.  

I would love to hear from other parents – how long can I expect this to last? And what can I do to ease it in the meantime? Would some new and exciting toys help? She used to enjoy in her toys but doesn’t seem that interested at the moment. Any other tips or ideas?

(This is an image and quote I saw somewhere ages ago, but it's one of those images that really stuck in my mind and that I have recently been reminding myself of).