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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Living with the Foreign Service: Summer R&R

It's almost May, which means that it's one of my least/most favorite times of the year: time to plan summer leave.  Summer is a tricky time in the foreign service.  It is the time when most people move to their next post and it is also the time when most people go on R&R.  Theoretically we can take leave whenever we want because of homeschooling, but in reality we are part of the majority of foreign service officers that take our R&R in the summer.  Because WE may be free of traditional school calendars, but it turns out that everyone else with children mostly isn't and summer is the best time to see people.

But even more importantly, summer is the time when my family goes to the beach.  I was raised in North Carolina, where the yearly pilgrimage to the beach is an ingrained part of the local culture.  My family has gone to the beach every single summer of my life and they don't intend to stop any time soon.  It is the highlight of everyone's summer, and so that's when we go on R&R.  Because the beach doesn't work nearly as well in November.

This summer we have two weeks at the beach planned.  Brandon's family has a family reunion every three years and this time the reunion planning fell to us.  There was a lot (a lot) of discussion about what to do and I looked at a lot (A LOT) of places where we could house nineteen adults and twenty-four children for something approaching a reasonable price that didn't involve camping.  After months of research, Brandon and I settled on the beach.  It wasn't any more expensive than anywhere else, it provided easy entertainment, we could rent a house almost big enough to fit everyone, and most of all, we would get to fly in an out of the same airport.

So last summer, after a lot of discussion, we set the dates.  My own family usually takes the first week of August so we could take the last week of July or second week of August, both which were unavailable to various members of the family.  So my family agreed to move to the second week in August and the Sherwoods got the first.  I talked with the beach house owner and had them mark our rentals on their calendar (the owners are friends with my aunt).  I paid a deposit and rented another beach house.  Everyone in the family put it on their calendars.  They started looking for plane tickets.  I looked forward to spending my whole R&R in the same state.

After we came back from North Carolina, Brandon got asked for his summer R&R dates.  Every summer we take three weeks because it's just painful to spend forty hours traveling (with all the children) and four or five days getting over jet lag just to turn around and spend the last three days of your two-week vacation getting back home.  Maybe you could do it without children, but with six children it's less than pleasant.

But this summer his office is in one of those turnover times - two years ago Brandon was the only person in the office for a couple of weeks - and half of the office will be empty this summer because of officers leaving and their replacements not coming till the end of August.  Some of the leadership at post is also leaving, which means that Brandon's boss will be filling in and Brandon will be THE political section.  It's always hard on small sections when people leave.

We knew this, so when Brandon requested leave he only asked for two weeks.  I figured that I could fly out early with all (all!) the children by myself because the best flight options are 1. Saturday and 2. Saturday.  And when your beach week starts Saturday afternoon and you are coordinating the arrival of almost forty people and shopping for groceries for all those people and feeding all those people that evening, you don't want to show up with six children jet-lagged out of your mind at 9:30 at night.  It's just a very, very bad idea.  Very bad.

Brandon figured that he'd only get one week of leave, but we thought we could at least start by asking for two weeks.  Two weeks would mean that I would only have one trip alone instead of two.  One is bad but two is worse.  So he turned in his leave and we waited for the negotiations to begin.  I thought maybe he could counter offer with one and a half weeks and then at least he would get some of my family's beach week, too.  I didn't really care if he saw my family, I just wanted a little more help.  Because six children.

A few days later I got an email from Brandon.  Not only was two weeks out of the question, there was a very big possibility that he wouldn't get any leave.  I freaked out a little and started considering alternate plans.

1. I could go all three weeks by myself.  Horrible.  2.  We could reschedule.  Also bad - we have already paid several thousand dollars and booked plane tickets.  3.  We could just skip the entire lets-go-to-America idea and just go to Thailand instead.  My personal favorite.  After all, we had just spent three months in America, right?  But also the most selfish option because the children want to see their cousins, the grandparents want to see their grandchildren, and family and stuff.  Oh, and we're in charge of the whole reunion thing down renting linens and shopping for all the food and knowing which seafood restaurant on the island is the best.  But really I am so so tired of flying to America right now.  And doing it myself is really a depth of depravity that I can hardly handle considering right now.

I discussed it with Brandon's siblings (yea Facebook messenger!) and we all came the conclusion that moving it isn't really any better because somebody else would miss the reunion and also all that money is really a lot of money.  I still secretly wanted to go to Thailand instead.  But really it looked like option number one was the most reasonable one.  Sigh.

So right now we're waiting to see if really, truly, honestly, seriously, Brandon can't just take one little tiny short (well, regular-sized) week off this summer.  Brandon's not holding his breath and neither am I, but hope never dies until the life is crushed out of it forever and irreversibly.

But even if he can get that measly little week off, I'm still flying alone both ways.  I am already dreading it.  A lot.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Return of Adventure Saturday!

This Saturday we went hiking.  It's been over six months since we have been out adventuring because, as it turns out, I didn't much want to go hiking when I was pregnant.  And there didn't seem to be anyone else who really wanted to go, so we just didn't.

But spring has come to Tajikistan and I'm not longer pregnant, so that means it's time to get back to the mountains!

Taking pity on my children and husband, we opted for an easy hike close to Dushanbe.  We walked up the hill for an hour (with a break), ate a snack and then went back.

Shockingly, everyone enjoyed themselves.  It may have had something to do with only hiking up for an hour.  I don't know.  Maybe.

William was non-plussed.  Little does he realize that he will be spending lots and lots of time being hauled up and down mountains in Central Asia.  Mwhahahahaha.

Eleanor was very generous about sharing 'her' baby carrier with William, making sure to let me know that Jesus is happy when she shared her baby carrier, and walked the entire time.

Edwin was a dinosaur for pictures.

The wildflowers and redbuds were blooming.

And William enjoyed his limited view.

One day Edwin will regret that picture (and many, many, many others).  

One day when Eleanor is a world-class trekker she can point to her beginnings in the mountains of Tajikistan as the spark for her passion.  The rest of her siblings will just be glad that I won't be forcing them to go hiking anymore.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sythroid + Sleep + Not Pregnant = Awesome

I am feeling really good.  On Wednesday I washed laundry, ran almost three miles, schooled four children, had a Russian class, baked six loaves of bread, folded and put away the laundry I washed, sliced and put away the six loaves of bread I had baked that day, cooked dinner, fed the children, cleaned dinner up, and took a nap.  All before seven in the evening.

It has been a long, long time since I've had a day like that and I had forgotten how great it felt to get a lot of stuff done and still have enough energy to be happy about it at the end.

William is sleeping through the night and so I can get a solid seven hours of sleep which hasn't happened in months.  No longer do I have to drag myself out of bed every time my deepest sleep is disturbed by the soul-sucking cry of a hungry baby in the middle of the night.  I can close my eyes at night without wondering how long it would be before I had to open them again.  The sleep-deprived haze of the first six weeks has cleared and it's amazing.

I'm not pregnant and so when I do sleep I can actually sleep without rolling over twenty times a night and waking up to go the bathroom a couple of times.  And when I'm awake I can do amazing things like bend over, hold children on my lap, and not bite people's heads off when they ask me to do things like tie their shoes or wipe their bottoms.  Waddling through my day is now a distant memory.

And to top it off, I have the miracle of Synthroid.  The symptoms of hypothyroidism crept up so slowly that I'm not sure when I wasn't suffering from it, but I know that they were noticeable a year and a half ago.  It's great to climb stairs without having to stop halfway through to catch my breath, run faster than Brandon's walk, and not need an hour nap each day just to function.

I suppose I can thank the last year and a half of feeling some level of exhausted constantly for helping me feel so happy about being normal again.  But really, it's great to be one hundred percent functional!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

On Having Six Children

I just tucked Eleanor into bed.  It has been a long Sunday today; we hosted church followed by a group dinner for twenty people.  Everyone had a great time but hosting is always work - work that is worth it, but work nonetheless.  This dinner wasn't too bad.  We finished dishes and had the floor swept by 7:30, early enough that Brandon could read a short chapter of Harry Potter to the children.  Usually at the end of these days my number one goal in life is to throw the children off to bed so that I can finally rest.  No stories, no twentieth kisses, no five-minute monologues on dinosaurs or horses.  Just bed.

But tonight wasn't that bad.  William is sleeping through the night, I'm not pregnant, and I don't have undiagnosed hypothyroidism.  Even after cooking, hosting, and cleaning up on less sleep than I'd like (William's definition of 'sleeping through the night' is waking up at five) and no nap, I wasn't that exhausted.

So when Eleanor asked for a story I agreed after only a few seconds' hesitation (even though I knew that her sister had already read her The Giant Cabbage).  I read Caps for Sale as Eleanor nestled into the crook of my arm, sucking her thumb and pointing out that the peddler really is small and the monkeys have different colored caps on.  After the story I prayed with her and tucked her in to bed.

As usual she asked for a kiss and then gave me a kiss, hugged me and then asked for a big hug.  Then, as usual, I tickled her.  Because when you're two and being tucked into bed, being tickled is the best thing ever.  As I tickled Eleanor and she giggled hilariously (two year-olds really are so easy to please sometimes) I thought about how one day she would be a teenager and I wouldn't be able to hold her close and tickle her and read her a story and make everything better with a kiss and so I kept tickling her, hoping to store up the memories so that they would be able to last for the rest of my life.  And then I gave her a few more kisses and hugs for good measure.  Because hugging a sweet little two-year old as they wrap their chubby arms around your neck and their wispy hair tickles your ear while their little hands pat your back is really one of the best things ever.

This story would not have happened when Kathleen was two.  Or Sophia or Edwin.  It might have happened with Joseph.  Maybe.  But probably not.  Because when they were two I didn't notice how quickly they were growing up and how sweet those little giggles were.  I was too exhausted from parenting my young children and too ready to snatch some time for myself after a trying day of saying no twenty times over and answering the same question over and over (and over) again.  Giggles weren't sweet, they were piercing.  Requests for one more kiss weren't endearing, they were maddening.  And my children couldn't grow up fast enough.

That is why I'm grateful that I've been able to have six children.  I've been granted the opportunity to do toddlers over and over (and over) again until I have been able to see how they are endearing even when they are driving you crazy.  I don't have to worry about whether or not they will grow up to be rational creatures because I know they will.  I don't fret about whether they will learn to dress themselves and feed themselves because all normal children eventually do.  I know that the threes will eventually end and I will enjoy my child again.

And even when they're driving me crazy I can laugh at them.  I don't flinch when their grubby hands pat my face.  I tickle them at night and actually enjoy it instead of counting down the seconds until I can bolt.  I finally understand why people don't want their children to grow up.  I understand why Jesus told us to be like little children.

And so when people ask how I can handle having six children, I want to tell them how really great it is.  More children to love, more chances to get things right, more hugs and more kisses.  I will never regret having all the children I have.  I don't care about trips I didn't take or stuff I didn't buy or even sleep I didn't get.  Those things are fun, but when I'm ninety-two I'll have something more.  I'll have my children.  All six of them.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Long Slog Home

At five am last Saturday morning we finally stumbled in to our house, shooed the children out of the toy room, put them to bed, and fell into bed ourselves right as the sun was rising.  We had made it home with everyone intact, no meltdowns, and even seats next to each other on every single flight.  Of course none - not a single piece - of our luggage made it, but we were just happy to be in Dushanbe with or without luggage.

William's visa came on Tuesday after it was issued bright and early Monday morning.  While on the phone with Air Canada unsuccessfully trying to get all eight of seats assigned together ("Well, it looks like there are only middle seats left. Sorry about that"), I checked our itinerary again.  We had had all our flights changed to be one week later, exact same flights.  But as I was looking through the flights I realized that 06:10 is not the same thing as 18:10, something I had failed to notice at 4 am when I told the travel agent to book our tickets.  

I had changed Brandon's tickets before noticing the am/pm problem - for the low, low price of $522 - and was looking at a fifteen-hour layover in Toronto by myself with six children.  After a thirty-second debate with my inner Scrooge who was dying a slow painful death over all the money we've been using to all of our problems, I laid down another two hundred so that Brandon could share the pain.  I'm very generous, I know.  

So at 3:30 (Hey, at least it's not 2:30 or 11:30, Sophia cheerfully pointed out) Thursday morning we crawled out of bed and began the Great Return.  The six am flight had us arriving in Canada at 8 am and out at the shuttle bus stop for our hotel by 9.  After some research had I narrowed options for surviving a 15-hour layover to 1. Take ninety minutes (one way) of public transportation to go to a local science center, 2. Shell out $770 (but hey, it's Canadian dollars!) for business lounge passes, or 3. Shell out $350 (American) to rent a hotel room for two nights.  Turns out when the check-in time is 4 pm they won't let you check in at 9:30 am.  

It also turns out when the free breakfast ends at 9:30 and you show up at 9:35, there is no more free breakfast.  But good news! Domino's pizza is open at ten in the morning.  When you haven't eaten in seventeen hours and you're nursing a baby, pizza sounds like an excellent breakfast.  

Two pizzas, an order of cheesy bread, an order of cinnamon sticks, two liters of Sprite, three hours of napping, an hour of swimming, an order of singapore noodles, sweet and sour pork, chow mein, five fortune cookies, a couple of showers and a lot (and I mean a lot) of stupid TV later, we were ready to return to the airport.  In the snow.  Because, Canada.  Remind me never to live in a country where its southern areas get snow at the end of March.

After our newly-purchased-for-a-fifteen-hour-layover stroller tested positive for chemicals (which ones? we don't know), all six backpacks, my purse, the baby car seat, and our rolling carry-on got to be inspected by hand and run through the x-ray machine where, once again, it was found that Kathleen had put scissors in her backpack (When you asked me if I packed them, I forgot they were in there!).  Along with nine Breyer horses (well, I didn't want to wait until they came in the later shipment, okay?).

Even though we had spent about forty-five minutes going through security, we still made it in time to wait around for our 11:10 (pm) flight.  Thankfully when I had checked in Wednesday morning I made the happy discovery of a whole block of unassigned seats and assigned ourselves seats all together so nobody had to ask seven people to move so that they didn't have to spend a twelve hour flight seated next to one of our children.  The flight was long, uneventful, and many movies were watched.  William and I slept, some of us with the aid of sleeping pills.  

We had taken off an hour and a half late because of late incoming passengers and de-icing.  Our layover in Dubai had only been two and a half hours to begin with and so we didn't have much time to 1. get off the plane 2. get our stroller 3. get new tickets for our next flight 4. get our baggage transferred to the next flight (non-code share flight means our bags and tickets were only to Dubai, not Dushanbe) 5. take a shuttle bus to another terminal 6. go through security and 7. find our gate.  Thankfully nobody made us take William, who was sleeping so peacefully, out of his car seat and he slept through the whole thing.  

We made it to our gate just in time to get into line, board the shuttle bus, and squeeze into the cumin-scented cattle car that is a FlyDubai flight.  After boarding the flight attendants politely informed me that FlyDubai doesn't allow car seats for any child under six months old.  At that point I didn't really care what FlyDubai's policy was about car seats because William was going to be spending the flight peacefully sleeping in his car seat and not on my lap.  Which he did.

The flight, in contrast to our previous Fly Dubai flight, was once again uneventful even if it did take off an hour late.  What did I care?  We didn't have any more airplanes to catch.  

When we landed the expeditor walked us passed the crowds thronging passport control (who knew the Dushanbe airport was such a happening place at 3:30 am?) so that we could wait for our luggage.  After forty-five minutes of waiting the expeditor asked if maybe we would like to wait in the embassy van (oh yes, what a nice suggestion.  Was it my toddler sprawled out on the floor while I did absolutely nothing that gave you the idea?) while Brandon waited for our eight suitcases and three car seats that were never going to come - and weren't going to come until four days later.

As we staggered into the house, Kathleen announced that she didn't want to go on any more airplanes for at least six months.  And I am much inclined to agree.  While sitting in one of the four airports on three different continents while clutching eight passports, I asked Brandon if he had considered this particular combination of long-distance travel and multiple children when he thought about becoming a diplomat.  He confessed he had not.  It's probably a good thing neither of us did.  Because I'm not so sure he would have signed up.  It turns out traveling the world isn't nearly as posh when you're hauling six children along with you.