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…


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Whale Watching

Two posts in one week, this must be a record. We had an unexpected adventure today that turned out to be amazing. This morning I had planned on spending our day running little errands like getting a birthday present for a party Ella is invited to this Saturday. I happen to look at Facebook when I saw a post on a local mom’s group I am a part of, someone mentioned there was a pregnant whale off of Long Reef Beach very close to the shore. As I was getting ready I just kept thinking how much fun it would be for the kids to see a whale up close and how much I want to see a whale up close, not just off on the horizon. I decided to make a detour and see if we could find anything, we grabbed the camera and headed out the door.

I had never been to Long Reef beach so we had to find it and then we trekked down to the beach only to find it empty and no sign of anything. We walked up and down a bit but there was nothing to see but at this point I had been selling a whale sighting pretty hard to the kids and I was determined to find something. Maybe chanting “we’re whale explorers!” should have waited until I knew if we would actually see a whale. There was a headland at the end of the beach so we drove down further and before getting the kids out I jumped to see if there was any sign of a whale or a crowds and didn’t see anything. It’s amazing how helpful things like a community group could be, there must have been multiple people like me driving around looking because when I checked the mom’s group again someone had just posted that she was a Warriewood beach and the whale was right there. We quickly headed down and got to the beach as fast as we could.

It was unbelievable, there was a Southern Right Whale about 30 yards off the shore. There were people above the beach taking pictures and people on the beach watching but not huge crowds, the kids were able to run around on the beach and play while the adults took pictures. The first thing I noticed was a woman in an orange vest walking around handing out fact sheets on the southern right whale, she came up to us right away once she saw the kids. She immediately reassured us that the whale wasn’t beached and appeared to be perfectly healthy and happy. There were NPWS rangers there that were out in the water at a distance from the whale and on the shore, I assume they were there to assist should the whale become beached or to prevent people from getting too close. While we were there I didn’t see anyone trying to get close or in the water, everyone seemed happy to just sit back and watch. It sounds like later in the day they had some problems but while we were there it was one of those unique environments when everyone is just excited and happy to be seeing something so rare.

We happen to run into a mom I met through the mops group I joined so we just sat on the beach and chatted while the kids played. I found myself too slow to catch the more dramatic photo opportunities and reminding the kids to turn around and look at the whale. Turns out a 2 and 4 year old don’t quite appreciate how amazing the experience of seeing a whale up close is but they did get some good sightings in between running around with their new friend. The whale wasn’t doing huge jumps or putting on a show but instead it just seemed to be swimming around the area, rolling over, and poking its head out.

We ended up not accomplishing any errands today but it was a very good day.