Sunday, April 14, 2013


Babies are born aliens. Squirming, transparent, unintelligible. They are born coated in slime, and they maintain that alien nature for months. Babies are not really human. Or at the very least, they’re not really people. I didn’t much love being a mother of two babies, at the same time.

It gets interesting after one year or so. They transition from aliens to goblins, or pixies or sprites – something archaic and mythical, something that exists and doesn’t exist, something that is still other than human. Those huge heads and stumpy bodies, making them seem like wicked dwarves – always with the archetypes. They are at once endearing and untrustworthy. They’re just like pixies of yore. As I watch them grow into the fully-fledged humans they will eventually become, I feel I’ll miss these little spirits terribly. 

Felix and Max speak a language that is becoming English – but it’s not there yet. It’s coming quickly: last week, grammar seemed to descend on Max from on high: he woke up one morning, and said to me “Mummy where’s my dodo?” – a first ever grammatical sentence. He’s kept doing it since: “Mummy what you doing?” “Daddy gone shops.” I am shocked.

But there’s still a good portion of impenetrable babble. They speak to one another at length, often conspiratorially, and what they’re saying makes no sense. I don’t believe this is a twin language: it’s jargon, practice-language; but it’s very convincing to hear spoken. Then they laugh uproariously, and dance, wild tribal dances in praise of yoghurts, or Gran, or trousers. They are precious and solemn, and just impossibly cute: one day, just as we were about to leave Seoidin’s house, Max and Felix walked around the room carefully hugging each person there (6 adults and one child), before turning to each other and hugging each other. They are affectionate, abandoning a task halfway through in order to kiss their parents.

They’re also demonic. They sabotage our home for mischief: this week they squirted two juice cartons all over the living room; Max upended his yoghurt on the kitchen table, and his head. They write on walls, they hide important things (where’s my hairbrush,; where are my keys; where on earth are my shoes??) These actions keep us in our place. If we think as adults that we are in any sense in charge, they put us straight. We have no control. Think you can plan a family? Ha! We are twins, and we control you!

The tantrums don’t merit discussion. All two year olds have tantrums. And so do Max and Felix – Max more than Felix. We try to ignore them. When they snap out of them, it is as though they never happened.

As they develop language, it becomes increasingly clear that they won’t always be demonic sprites. Some day they’ll be straightforward boys, capable of discussion and negotiation. There’s a photo that Simon took which I love, of Felix holding an apple, his head big with a dirty funny grin on his face. I commissioned an illustration of the picture, and I was a little disappointed with the final product: a lovely image of a cute little boy, with none of the mischief in the grin. That gap between photo (which for me was the essence of Felix) and picture is the change that I expect from little goblin to boy. And excited I am about embracing Max and Felix finally as actual human beings, I’ll miss those two little sprites immensely, because I know they won’t ever come back. 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Return from the field

(written in May 2012, but not published until August!)

So I spent a week in Sierra Leone, and it was wholly unremarkable. I did the things I do on field trips: I met people who know things, I facilitated some workshops, I gave my opinions on a range of things that I'm less informed about than I should be. It was as simple and uneventful as you can imagine. I loved it. At first I was preoccupied trying to keep in touch with home - this was pointless as the internet connection was almost non-existent. And it's not that I didn't miss my family. But early parenthood is such a self-obliterating process, and being in Africa made me feel so completely myself again. It was like the experience of going walking in the mountains after months of not leaving the city: that exhalation of delight as you realise that you have been missing a part of you deeply, without even knowing it. By Saturday, wandering the old town with my colleague and her friends, I felt at ease and confident and just completely myself.

 It took a while for me to work out how to feel this way. At the beginning of the week I was antsy. I wanted to be busy, I wanted to meet as many people and see as many things as I physically could. It took me a few days to remember that I had spent a year and a half longing for time to myself to read a book or write an email (does anybody write letters any more?). Slowly I stopped searching for adventure and remembered to spend time with myself. And inevitably, that's when I met people to spend time with. By the time of my departure on Sunday, I felt relaxed.

Being on a field trip for me can be like going on retreat. It involves chunks of unstructured time without the easy distractions I'm used to. No phone, tv or internet in the hotel room. No friends or cafes to spend stretches of time. I'm forced to read and think and write. It's the best therapy imaginable. I don't have specific stories to tell about my week away, but I wanted to note that it was good.

I got home on Monday afternoon, after 18 hours of travel, dirty and wrecked. Worried that the boys would punish me for leaving them. The last time I went away, they were quite sniffy on my return.

This time, Felix and Max were just getting out of their buggy, they made no comment on my surprise reappearance. They climbed up onto my lap, and sat there together, as though I'd just come back from buying milk. Then they cheerfully started blowing kisses at Alice their childminder. "Bye bye now, we don't need you, mummy's home". Alice left, and we played.


Professionally, I’m an advisor on governance, participation and accountability. I’ve got the analysis down: some people have money and power, others don’t. Those who don’t have power get ripped off, ignored, never receive basic services. Ultimately, they might resort to violence to resolve the hundreds of intractable problems that thwart their lives. The trick is, the ones with money and power also have obligations to the poor: we are all supposed to be bound together in a web of taxation, election, representation and service. There is supposed to be an accountability network. But it will only deliver rights if everybody uses it, and makes it work.

There’s the analysis, in the most pithy form possible. I have experience too: of local mayors, government working groups, and most of all, local groups of activists trying to make sense of the whole mess to see if “accountability networks” are any better than NGOs or churches at making sure that things get done; that a road gets built, and then serviced regularly.

I know the problems, because I’ve read the research; and because I’ve walked around with those committees and the organisations helping them. Telling people to make demands of their local authorities can be risky. It’s not like Dublin, where you can whine about the government, and they’re obliged at least to acknowledge your letter. In Congo, my colleague Lea told me yesterday, “the government is the biggest problem in my life”. Nobody expects anything of agents of the state apart from extortion. And when you encourage people to withhold their taxes until they can see how they’re being spent – that might endanger them. Those people might end up at the bottom of a river. Why bother? Why risk your life in the interest of saving 10 cents?

Those aren’t the problems I confront every day. My problem is that I don’t know how to relate my supposed area of technical expertise to my own community.

A few weeks ago, a man was stabbed in his house on the street facing mine. Days later, I watched a frenzy develop outside a vacant house, as kids and adults crow-barred the railings off a window and smashed in the front door and window. On Monday morning I left my house to go to work only to find my four tyres slashed, my car in a useless slump. Disaffection and violence has momentarily taken over my community, because of a couple of deeply troubled households. It may move on. Or it may become entrenched.

What do we do? This is not a neighbourhood of apathy and anomie. I know most of my neighbours by name and they know me. We exchange Christmas cards. We don’t socialize much, our neighbours and us; but what we do do is go to meetings. We are all mad for the meetings.

So last week we met with the community garda, and an inspector who is taking a special interest in the mayhem which has taken over our streets lately. We have a close and ongoing relationship with our local councillors. We have the numbers of the landlords responsible for the difficult houses and the difficult people. I fell I’m in a similar situation, now, to the communities I claim to help: feeling powerless and vulnerable; trying my hardest to lobby for change, and wondering if it can make any difference.

I’ve always known that there’s a risk when you organize people that they may not get results. In the field (that term again), we talk about the danger of “creating expectations”, and the importance of “quick wins”. It’s highly instructional now for me to experience this reality in person.

I have a neighbour a few doors down who’s lived here all her life – we’ll call her Shirley. She lived through the hope and semi-vigilantism of Concerned Parents Against Drugs in the 80s, and she knew the streets when this was the hard core inner city and there were no falafel-buying hipsters looking for the flea market. Shirley doesn’t come to meetings. When some of us younger residents first got organized (about the waste on the streets), she was encouraging – although what she’s most likely to say is always “it’s worse it’s getting”. Shirley was mobilized once, against the heroine epidemic, and the whole experience beat her down. She doesn’t believe we can change anything any more.

I believe in citizen activism, I run little tests on myself all the time to check that I am an active, responsible citizen. And when I look at problems around the world, I look at them with a single lens: how can organized citizens resolve this problem themselves, or force governments and institutions to step up and resolve it?

I’m struggling a lot with my current situation, and how to relate it to my frame of reference. There are so many injustices, and I’m not the ultimate victim. The people who are intimidating and threatening me are far more excluded than I am. The government has failed them. But they’re taking that out on me; and the state is doing very little to protect me. I’d get laughed out of the room if I suggested organizing a meeting to do a power analysis and a problem tree… yet if I was in Honduras that’s probably what I’d suggest. That, and stronger bars on people’s windows. (We don’t have bars on our windows).

The advisor on governance sits back and watches me smugly, sees the arc of protest begin to develop: nothing in my story is new, or noteworthy. You know what comes next though: it’s noteworthy because it’s my story. I get it. And I don’t have a clue how or if we’re going to resolve this problem. I hope though that it’s good for me to learn what it is to battle against multiple, opaque forces that are both bigger and smaller than me. I hope at the very least that out of this whole battle I can grow some empathy with the people who have much bigger issues at stake.

(This is a kind of professional post. It doesn’t point out the strain on my relationship, the worry about my boys. It also doesn’t discuss how much I love that flea market, and Dublin 8 generally.  The accountability network is the least of my worries right now. It does give me pause for thought though. It does.)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

I don't blog any more.

I've been driving for two years.

From time to time people ask me why I don't blog, and they tell me they'd like me to. I feel like there's a new development, a Web 2.5 maybe, rather than Web 3.0. And I don't feel comfortable there. I get facebook, and blogger - but I'm a shy, self-conscious tweeter, a non-RSSer; I don't quite know how to drum up interest in my dusty little corner of the net.

Still though, I liked blogging. I like blogging. Maybe I can just stay in this corner and witter away to myself, and maybe that's fine. The implicit audience - that was always a bit of a barrier anyway to me expressing myself honestly.

The Field

I am a development professional. I work in Ireland, advising people who work in poorer places. There's lots of jargon involved, and lots of euphemism, and one of my least favourite euphemisms is this one. "The field".
Among development professionals, "the field" is anywhere poor, and in receipt of well-intentioned aid money (like my agency's). A wise academic once crankily dismissed my use of the term, saying "fields are for cows" - but what better to say? If the agency I work for was active in community development in Ireland, then I would live in "the field", a relatively deprived neighbourhood with lots of NGOs and social workers milling about (though not nearly enough). But we don't work in Ireland, so "the field" is located inconveniently at the end of multiple long-haul flights. That's where I'm going next week. Sierra Leone in West Africa, to be exact, for one week.

Since they were born 17 distant months ago, I've left the twins overnight on two occasions - both blessed escapes for me and their father; in both cases thanks to the immense generosity of my sister. Now I'm leaving them for 8 nights. It's not very long, and I'd be lying if I said I was terribly anxious about it. Simon is fabulous: he's laid back and fun and completely on top of things with the boys, and a week is hardly a long time for him to be on his own with them. I'll miss them - but the time always passes incredibly quickly on field trips, and I'm looking forward to the adventure.

There it is. I'm a development professional. When I wasn't an anything professional, desperately trying to break into the NGO sector, I dreamed about having a job like mine, with regular international travel, casual familiarity with airports and slums across three continents. And when this job frustrates me, I do remind myself that I'm still living exactly the dream I once had.

I don't know if it's still my dream. I don't know if I want to be that breezy chick on the back of the pick-up whose husband is at home with the kids. I have a manager who used to live in Mozambique and travel frequently in Southern Africa. She told me about her two year old son strapping on his little backpack and marching out into the back garden, with a cheery: "bye bye mummy, I'm off to Angola!" When she told me that story, it made me sad (I was 6 months pregnant at the time, and to be fair I was easily saddened). The poor boy had such low expectations of the people nearest to him: normality for him was departures, separation, parents being available in shifts, never both at once. Once, I would have seen it as exactly the kind of glamorous life I wanted.

Now, I don't really know how I feel about that story.

This Sierra Leone visit is an experiment. To be effective in my work, I believe I need to travel way more than I ever have before. To be happy and content as a parent, I'm not sure whether I believe that's possible. Maybe it is. Maybe the boys will grow up with their backpacks on, confidently striding out to Africa, just like their mum. Or maybe they'll just miss me, in an unglamorous, uncomplicated way. Maybe I'm just being self-important and self-indulgent.

I will probably have thoughts about this on my return. With any luck, I'll make the time to blog about them.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tiny Despots

The babies parade about the living room on their adult chariots. For pre-verbal creatures, they're pretty effective communicators. If one of their minions stops walking, stops bouncing, or - god help us - sits down, the commanding baby screeches until full service resumes. From their perches draped on our shoulders, or sitting up on an adult arm, they survey the wreckage of our adult lives, and finally,imperiously, they smile.

And goddamn them, the smile gets us every time. Our indentured state is assured.

I feel wholly bullied, and there's not a soul I can complain to. Last night, I passed an important milestone. At 6AM, wrestling with Felix while trying to keep a dummy in Max's mouth, I finally and utterly dropped the analysis. No more spinning rationalisations: they slept less than usual today/ perhaps if I hadn't drunk 2 coffees/ Felix is teething/ if I had picked Max up first maybe I'd have got him down before Felix woke... There is no logic, no system, no cause and effect. They are just unpredictable, adorable bullies. And all the bedtime routines, early weaning, dietary adjustments, baby massage courses and special songs I throw at them won't make them quiet placid babies who sleep through the night. But it won't always be like this.

Some day, when they're willful pig headed toddlers who won't do a thing we tell them, we'll look back at this time longingly. Strangely, that knowledge doesn't quite help.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dispatch from Dingle

We have moved to Kerry for 2 months, to avail of a loving grandmother, a bigger house, and less rubbish-strewn streets. The babies are having their first encounters with nature: with beaches, cows and hedges. And though I love Dublin 8, it would be churlish not to seize the opportunity to move to the country when we can, while I'm on paid maternity leave (and I do know how fortunate I am to have this), and Simon can work from a little broom cupboard downstairs.

But let's be honest here. A baby is a lot of work, and two babies is a lot of baby. I miss the support and solidarity of other mums I know in Dublin. It's all a bit of a gilded palace: I look out at the magical light, hard and clear on the hills climbing behind the house - but I can never leave the babies, so I can't get beyond town.

Both babies are teething. Felix lies on his playmat, a menagerie of jungle animals suspended just above him; Max wails helplessly in my arms. Felix is remonstrating loudly with a favourite toy, the one we call Colonel Giraffey. Pacing the kitchen, I interpret his crescendoing acks.

"Your time is up, Giraffey! We will institute a no fly zone!" (Felix has been mandated to negotiate with the Colonel by Nelson Mandelephant).
"Screw you baby!" replies the Colonel. " Our plan is to live and die in Libya. You will never secure a UN resolution in time."
"Well at the very least I'll have you indicted by the International Criminal Court" insists Felix, whose grunts are growing more urgent.
"Ahahahahahaha!" The giraffe laughs evilly. "But Libya does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC!"
Felix responds with a shriek of pain. "We'll get you... in Switzerland!" he protests weakly. By now though he is crying uncontrollably, and can't be left any longer.

I put Max down, to continue the negotiations, and pick Felix up.

Simon appears to make coffee. "I suppose if you're going to go stir crazy" he says, "you might as well do it somewhere with a view."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Nothing to say...

I promised myself I'd blog weekly, but I find I have so little to say. I sit on the sofa feeding. I eat an indecent amount of cake. I marvel at their solid, doll-like bodies.

This is close to happiness. I'll try to come up with something worth writing about though.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The X-Men

And yet, in spite of this, you want to know what they're like. And surely I must know, I spend 24 hours a day with them. There is a paradox here: how can we possibly love two creatures so profoundly, and yet be incapable even of telling them apart? It's a fair question.

The x men were 9 weeks old yesterday; not quite 6 weeks if you correct for the fact that they were premature (and you do, apparently). They are infants, and infants, unless they're you're own, are essentially guts with faces. Profoundly beautiful faces in this case, but hopelessly inefficient, ineffective guts. Since ingestion and digestion are all that babies do, it seems reasonable to expect they'd be able to do these things quite well. But no: pooing causes immense physical pain; burping and farting are impossible without adult assistance. For their first few weeks, to know them was to burp them.

9 weeks on, they are becoming more face and less gut. Mostly eyes. Both boys have deep indigo eyes, almond shaped, huge in their small silky heads. Perhaps Max's gaze is deeper, more thoughtful-seeming; perhaps Felix is cheerier. These comparisons seem inane. Their personalities are inchoate, flickering in brief glances out of those faces before they crumple again into wails brought on by basic wind or hunger.

I am incapable of describing them with any greater sophistication - although I feel like we have a more sophisticated relationship with each of them. We do know them individually, and yet it's indescribable how. I have a sense of each boy, yet when I try to put my finger on it, it dissipates: I know it best when I mistake one twin for the other, and then correct myself: the individual personality is there fleetingly in the moment of realisation of my mistake.

Between them we see a collection of traits, a bag of possibilities from which will eventually emerge two personalities. Among these are stubborn, miserable (the little-boy-devastated face just before it explodes in a wail of despair), pensive, tenacious (clutching at the giraffe above their cot; grasping for my breast), sweet, adoring (gazing up at either parent -this not nearly often enough), jealous, impatient.... They are in a process of becoming. They are becoming people. For now, still guts with faces, but less so every day.