Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Times They Are A-changin'

I turned around the other day and realized that things have changed around here. We are in our 2nd month of school and as I watch the kids each settle into their new school year, this year in particular feels like the beginning of a new phase. It’s not hard to figure out why this year feels like a bigger change than others. Patrick started Sr High School and now goes off in his senior uniform. The realization that after this there are only 2 more school years until he is off to university is a very hard thing to wrap my head around. I’m so excited for him but at the same time can’t imagine a day when he isn’t here with us all the time. Kellen started Kindergarten and has settled in so quickly. He is so pleased with himself to have homework like his big brother, he beams when he makes progress on his reading, and he now has a little group of boys he has fallen in with. Then there is little miss Ella, she started preschool two full days and week and as the preschool teacher says “she has blossomed”, in other words her personality and desire to be the centre of attention has exploded over the last 2 months. But it isn’t just the kids this time, I feel like I have changed and have entered into a new phase too. I’ve started doing some part time consulting work and it feels amazing!

I know our new phase isn’t very dramatic, we are going from babies and toddlers to young kids, but it is a big change. I’ve realized that I haven’t bought diapers or pull ups in a long time. I no longer feel the need to carry an overflowing bag everywhere I go, if I have wipes on me it’s a bonus not a necessity. Getting in the car everyone is using actual seatbelts no more 5 point harnesses which is a small victory in my book. It is also small things I don’t always recognize in the moment but then in retrospect realize how nice it is to have. I can now say everyone put on their shoes and everyone can go find appropriate shoes and put them on. All 3 kids can work together to pick up the playroom and it actually ends up clean. In so many little ways things are getting easier. The flip side is I’ve noticed the battles I do have seem to be getting more difficult. As Ella’s personality ‘blossoms’, as they like to say at preschool, her wilfulness just increases. The two of us go to battle all day every day and I’m scared to think that I have about 20 more years of this ahead of me. Today the battle was over fruit snacks and ended when she threw her glass of milk onto the floor and I marched her to her room… Kellen seems to be doing so well in school but when he does waiver my heart breaks for him. He has to do news every Thursday when he gets up in front of the class and tells them his news. Standing in front of the class and speaking is so far the hardest thing for him about school and watching how nervous he gets is terrible, but then seeing him so proud after school is comforting. The thought of Patrick driving now that he is 16 is so scary. I think back to when I was 16 and allowed to drive to and from school, to my activities, out with friends, and I think my parents must have been sick worried all the time. I want him to do these things but don’t want him to do them either. We are definitely entering a new phase of worries and frustrations.

With Kellen in school 5 day and Ella in 2 days I figured I would have all this free time I didn’t have before. I’ve learned that school 5 days means your time is taken up with drop offs and pickups and then trying to fit everything else into the space in between. We also have to move all of our regular activities to after school time so we are busier than ever. I also wanted to do something for myself with the 2 days I have kid free. Through networking with some of the moms I have met I was connected with a company that provides exit, stay, and on boarding interviews to their clients. They hire contractors as independent consultants so I had to get a business number and was hired on a consultant to do interviewing for them. So far it is great, I am able to schedule my work around my own availability and once I’ve filled my available time I don’t have to take on any more work, or if I have more time available for whatever reason I can schedule more interviews and bill more hours. I’ve enjoyed it so far, I’ve been assigned multiple law firms, a pharmaceutical company and two large mining companies. I am talking to different people who do different types of work and it has been really interesting. I’m enjoying having something to focus on outside of the stay at home mom realm I’ve been in for almost 4 years now. It gives me an outside focus and I will actually be earning some money. It’s already burning a hole in my pocket, I have a list of really exciting things I want to go out and indulge in. I think a trip to the new Williams-Sonoma that opened near us is on the agenda. I started going through the interview process with Apple for a recruiter position they are hiring here in Sydney and while there is something really exciting about the chance to go back full time, work in the city, and make a full salary. The thought of going form home full time to never home was just too much. In the end the role wasn’t a good fit and it helped me realize that I’m not ready to go back full time but working part time and getting to work while still being home full time is perfect for me right now.

So we are changing over here. Some things are getting easier and other things are getting harder. The kids are gaining their independence little by little and I am too.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Year and a Half In - Reflections on Living in Australia

Note - this is Jamie writing, not Nicole. She has not in any way endorsed the content below.

Today marks eighteen months in Australia – we landed here as a family on the 1st of August 2013 – jetlagged and squinting from the unfamiliar sun that had eluded us for most of our lives prior to then in Seattle and Reading. Funny to think it was only a year and a half ago – now the kids’ entire lives are in the sun, the beach and the water. They have integrated into their Aussie schools, made friends, picked up the local dialect and play local sports. And Nicole and I have as well, maybe less dramatically, but we have settled into a life here where we can always hear and see the water. We have made friends and adjusted to local custom. We have over the last couple of weeks met good friends for BBQs on the beach with the kids playing down in the water as the sunset and had the whole work team and their families up to our house for a post MYR celebratory BBQ. We have celebrated two Christmases now in Sydney, in the hot of summer and with a surf before dinner. We have made the flight with the kids back to Seattle to visit and had the feeling that it was nice to see family but we really want to get home, back to Sydney. I am not sure when this happened, this sense of home, but it had to be sometime over the last eighteen months. A moment there when we no longer missed the UK and Australia had become our home. I am reminded of Grandma Bly’s advice - home is where your family is. Maybe it is as simple as this.  

It is an awkward milestone – eighteen months; it lacks the evenness of one year or two years or a decade. But it is an interesting milestone nonetheless for me as it is the moment when we decided that our adventure in England had about run its course and we started to consider our next step – reaching out into the network, debating the whole move back to US or stay abroad, phone interviews, etc… which led to a move at the two year mark. If we were again to move on the two year mark, say this August, I would need to get the ball rolling now – where do we want to live, what roles will be available there, what makes the most sense on the work side and the family side, etc… It is this debate that we have started to go through, this tiring and maybe futile assessment of would we be better off doing this or that, what will be best in the long term, for the kids, for work, for us. But aside from the debate on stay or go, the eighteen month milestone has made me lean back and reflect on our experience thus far which is what I wanted to share today.

People say that Australia is a hybrid of UK and US culture. I believe Nicole already wrote about this so I will spare you my impression, but it is at least at a basic level a reasonable assessment. What sticks out to me the most about Australia is how similar it really is the US, or more specifically, how not dissimilar it is. In England we really felt that we were in another world – everything felt different from the US – the language was undecipherable at times, most things felt much smaller than they should be (cars, houses, fridges, etc…) and we were surrounded by an immeasurable wealth of history and culture. We could run into London and see Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, St. Peters, Tower Bride, etc… Or step into a museum and stand before the Elgin marbles, Michelangelo statues, Van Gogh’s sunflowers. We could hop into the car and explore any number of castle ruins before a cosy lunch and pint of ale at a pub that dated back before the US was founded. And once we tired of exploring the UK, Europe was at our doorstep. This is not to say that the UK was perfect. We found living there hard in a lot of ways, and wet. I love that we had the opportunity to do it, but I do not yearn to go back by any means. But it felt different, distinctly different, an experience that we and the kids would remember, justifying the distance from our families and friends in the US.

Australia in contrast has appeal in a very different way. The museums here in Sydney fall a bit short, as does the historical architecture and to my knowledge there are no castle ruins or even real pubs to explore. Asia is at the doorstep, although the journey is an eight hour or more flight to get there. A long driveway if you will. Australia, or Sydney more specifically, is however beautiful. Water is everywhere – from inlands protected bays and coves to breaking waves on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The flora and fauna is unworldly and in abundance – wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, lizards, spiders along with beautiful eucalyptus or gum trees, banksia, creeping jasmine, giant agave and the incredible frangipani. The weather is temperate and mild and allows for shorts just about every day through the year. The sunsets are unbelievable every night. Pollution is about as low as you will find in a developed country, crime is not something that occupies the public imagination (neighbours leave houses unlocked) and people are friendly. It is all unnerving at first, I found myself aching for a little biting sarcasm or a cold rainy day at first. But you quickly succumb to the pleasantness, drifting into life here in Australia.

It is this pleasantness that is at the heart of our debate over staying or going. Pleasant is a funny word, synonymous with agreeable, amiable, and likeable. Pleasant is good, but is it great? Is pleasant enough to justify the financial cost, or the emotional burden of living so far from family? Or is pleasant just what we need at this formative time in the kids’ lives?

While we may no longer be exploring new countries or rich history, our life here is very nice. I work with a great team and enjoy what I am doing. Patrick just started year 10 and is in all advanced placement classes, is almost as excited about his studies as he is the upcoming beach bonfire or surfing with his buddies, learning to drive and maybe even kissing a girl (gasp). Kellen is starting ‘real school’, or kindergarten, on Monday and cannot wait to tell us about his science studies which he is sure he will do on day one. Ella had her first few days of preschool last week and is proud to be the big girl who gets to stay after having brought and picked up Kellen every day last year. Nicole has integrated well and made her group of friends as she always does and is even considering going back to work here in Sydney. We live on the northern beaches outside of the city, a long commute into the Sydney CBD but a stones throw from an idyllic little village with a grocer, a butcher and a baker. The house overlooks Bilgola beach to the back and Avalon beach to the front, with view of the water from most rooms. The community is small but great, with the same people at the ballet recital as at the nippers morning or soccer or just in the grocery store. Not that everyone knows everyone, but it is close. A place I feel good with Patrick running around town. Almost what I imagine stepping back into time would be like, to the town my parents grew up in with the exception of being on the east coast of Australia vs. the plains of northern Minnesota. Small difference. The family is happy here, the lifestyle is great, the environment perfect for raising a family.

But somehow something still pulls at me. Maybe it is lingering wanderlust, a yearning to get out and explore the world, new cultures, meet different people. It is this that set us out to begin with.

We are approaching an inflection point – if we moved this August, Patrick would be entering his final two years of high school in the northern hemisphere. I could not justify moving him later than this which leads us to the conclusion that either we push on this winter (August) or we hold tight and let Patrick graduate down here in three years. We either pack up and start again, likely in mainland Europe somewhere, or really settle in – apply for Australian residency, maybe buy nicer cars, think about getting a dog. The shift from living somewhere where you anticipate being a couple of years vs. somewhere you plan to be longer, maybe a lot longer, is subtle but real. Little decisions around cell phones or where to live or gym membership are put into new light. Vacation planning changes. Work and career conversations shift. College research for Patrick takes a different light. We would need to get local drivers licenses.

I am not sure where we will land with the decision – my heart pulls me to move on while my mind tells me the best thing to do is to stay for a while and enjoy life – see Patrick graduate, the kids build deeper friendships and Nicole not thrust into a new place again to make friends from scratch. Fortunately it is not a decision we need to make today, so until we do, we will be enjoying the pleasant life and be swimming between the flags.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fork and a Foon

This morning I got the best news, it looks like we are finally at the end of what has felt like an incredibly long process. Kellen had always reached all his milestones within the ‘normal’ timeframe and once he started talking he would chatter away like any toddler. While his vocabulary would grow and he would put together multiple words, and eventually sentences, it seemed he was hard to understand. Not long before he turned 3 I remember asking a friend when her son started to speak more clearly so that others could understand him and she thought it was around preschool time when mom wasn’t there anymore to translate. So we plugged along and Kellen started nursery school in England. At this point Jamie, Patrick, and I were really the only ones who could understand him. It would break my heart to see him trying to talk to someone else and unless they spent a lot of time with Kellen and were used to the way he would talk they really couldn’t understand what he was saying. It seemed like everything was mumbled and some of the sound substitutions he made were unusual. He would get a lot of blank stares and smiles while people waited for me to repeat what he had said more clearly. But I told myself that he was little and eventually it would click.

A couple of months after starting nursery the teachers said that they felt his language was impacting his ability to interact with the other kids and it was difficult for the teachers to understand him. It was also getting progressively more frustrating for Kellen to constantly be misunderstood. At times when we would be at home or in the car and he would use a new word I often couldn’t quite get what he was saying and he would continue to repeat it, to the point of yelling, not understanding why I couldn’t understand him. This started a series of tests and appointments to try and figure out what was wrong and how we help him move forward. We went through long waitlists to get his hearing tested and get assessments done on what the issue might be. As we went along I learned a lot about all the different things that can impact speech. I was also given information explaining how delay in language can be an early indicator of delays in literacy, etc. So as we went along I worried about every potential issue we could be dealing with and what this could mean for the long term.

The NHS is amazing for many reasons, braces being 100% covered for one, but it does have its downsides. We finally did see a speech therapist and were given a few things to work on at home and told that they would check in 6 months later to see how he was progressing. To be fair there are children and adults in much more serious situations then Kellen’s but it was extremely frustrating to be essentially pushed through from appointment to appointment with no real clarity on what we were working on or how to do it. Then we left England and never ended up having the follow up appointment. Once Kellen started preschool here in Australia it felt like starting all over again. He had progressed some as any child will between 3 to 4 but was still far off from speaking clearly. I asked the preschool director for her opinion as she has so much more experience with kids at that age and no surprise they were actually going to suggest we have Kellen assessed… The saddest example was the day he brought in things from the Australian Museum. The museum had a special dinosaur exhibit running and we went to go see it. The school encourages the kids to bring in pamphlets or ticket stubs when they do interesting things so they can share with the rest of the class. Kellen brought in his dinosaur ticket and stood in front of his class excited to tell everyone about his day at the museum. The teacher said he was up there confident and excited but the other kids really couldn’t understand him. We were referred to a speech pathologist for an assessment of Kellen and I expected the same result but hopefully we could actually start some speech therapy as we are on private healthcare now.

The woman who assessed Kellen was great and actually came to his preschool and did the assessment there so he hardly even knew what was happening and didn’t have to go to another doctor’s appointment where the adults talk about how poor his speech is. When I got the assessment report I was amazed, she actually pinpointed what she felt was the source of Kellen’s speech challenges, tongue tie! What?! I had never even been asked about tongue tie and had never discussed it with anyone up until then and he was 4 years old. The first thing I did was make an appointment with the ENT she recommended and then searched online. I don’t suggest doing that unless you want to see terrible pictures of recently separated tongues. What I did learn was that while tongue tie is fairly common it is normally caught as an infant and can be corrected right there in the paediatricians office without even an anaesthetic. When caught as an older child it is an operation that requires going under a general anaesthetic. We were torn between relief that it was finally something tangible we could work on and a little concerned about the thought of our 4 year old going under a general. We have been very fortunate health wise, while I know many families have had to deal with far more serious operations none of us have ever had to go under and general and it was scary.

We met with the ENT and he agreed that Kellen was tongue tied but it didn’t appear to be very severe so suggested we try speech therapy for 4 months, at the end of the 4 months based on his progress we would either move forward with the procedure or continue to address it through therapy. While it was tempting to want him to say “Oh I can fix this tomorrow” I did feel good that we weren’t just jumping into anything and were doing the work on our end first before putting Kellen through a procedure. So we started going to speech therapy every Friday morning. I was so proud of Kellen during is sessions and then with his homework, he really did work hard even when it wasn’t easy. We were encouraged as we went along because we did see progress. As the end of the 4 months drew closer it was clear that while he did make progress he was really having a hard time making the sounds appropriately, and when he did it would be very slow. So instead of Long Kellen would say Lll-ong, since he would have to work hard to get the L sounds right and then hold it before moving on to the rest of the word.

We met with the ENT again and he agreed we should move forward with the procedure and was able to get us in just a couple of weeks later. Kellen’s appointment was for a Monday and since it was a fairly minor surgery they were able to do it from their day surgery and luckily we didn’t have to go into a hospital as I imagine that would have been overwhelming for him. We talked about what was going to happen the Sunday before, we didn’t want to build it up so much that it became a big scary thing and instead the day before we just talked about seeing Dr Taplin again and what was going to happen. I think I was the most nervous the night before first because he was going to have to go under a general anaesthetic and second because I really didn’t know what to expect as far as recovery. The next day we were at the doctors early and they were so good with Kellen, trying to make him and I feel comfortable. Once we were called back it was all very fast. I was able to stay with him while he went under the anaesthetic then I was taken out of the room. It was only about 30 – 40 minutes later when I was called back because he was in the recovery area. As he woke up he was understandably groggy but we were lucky that he didn’t get sick. After waiting to make sure he was eating and drinking we were sent home. The first time Kellen stuck his tongue out I was amazed as he was easily able to stick it out further than I have ever seen. He was lethargic for most of the day but by that night he was running around the house. By Wednesday he was back at school.

I assumed the change in his speech would take time but only a few days later we were in the car and he said something with an L in it and the sounds was not only clear but his speech was fluid. I was so relieved. Our biggest concern was putting him through the procedure only to have it not make a difference. Over the next 2 weeks the change in his speech was remarkable. He is speaking more clearly and much more quickly, it has been noticeable at school and at home. We had our post-op appointment with the ENT and he said that Kellen has healed perfectly, no need to continue to see him. The day of the surgery we only spoke with the nurse after as the doctor was held up in the surgery after Kellen’s. So it was only during out post-op that he had a chance to tell me that once he was in Kellen’s mouth he was surprised by the severity of Kellen’s tongue tie, he said he would categorize it as severe. He had to separate 2 ½ cm of tissue and it is no wonder her movement was so restricted.

Now to the best news. This morning we had our first appointment back at speech and I was looking forward to her seeing how far Kellen has come in just 3 weeks. She ran him through all of the sounds we have been working on and she said that it is amazing but he is fine, totally age appropriate now. The work he did the previous 4 months taught him how to make the sounds, it was just physically hard for him to do it, now that he had the ability he was naturally speaking in the right way. Kellen just turned 5 and this is the age where the R sounds becomes clear. She said that when there is an earlier speech issue it can then cause a slight delay in the progress of the future sounds. She even ran him through his R sounds and while he isn’t doing the perfectly in his normal speech, he can make the sounds and is right on track with any other 5 year old. We are going to meet again in a month just to touch base but as of now there doesn’t appear to be a need to continue with speech sessions.

The relief I feel at hearing that news is unbelievable. At different points over the last 2 years we have been worried about long term learning disabilities, hearing, his ability to process, etc. There has been concern that the difficulty in speech could impact social interactions especially as primary school starts in January. I was really focused on doing everything we could before he starts primary school. Right now the kids are so little and half of them talk in their own funny ways that it hasn’t been something to be embarrassed about or something other kids would tease about. I know once primary school starts even small differences can become the target of teasing and the last thing I wanted for him was to be teased for talking like a baby. I also think about how frustrating it is that it has taken so long to find out the issue was so easily addressed. Why wasn’t this caught as a baby or in any other assessment? I vaguely remember talk of tongue tie when he was first born and we were still trying to master breastfeeding but I was in such a confused state of post C-section pain pills and all the hormones that come along with just having a baby that I really can’t remember what was identified or why nothing was done. I also have to sit back and recognize how lucky we are that the issue was something that could be addressed. Last week I met a mom whose son is 7 and completely non-verbal due to autism. That was a much needed dose of perspective.

So today has been a graduation of sorts for Kellen. No more assessments and regular speech appointments. No more doctors’ appointments where he has to for the 20th time open his mouth, stick his tongue out, let them take pictures. No more having to correct him and work with him as he is just trying to have a conversation. No more having others not fully understand what he is talking about. Now if I could just do something about the percentage of time what he is talking about is Scooby Doo…