Declutter my life? No thanks, my things make me happy.

We recently moved back to New Zealand from Northern Ireland and even though we were only away 18 months we somehow managed to acquire lots of things – not to mention the identical twin boys that gave our firstborn son two instant little brothers.

We were fortunate and had a furnished house waiting for us when returned home, and our shipping container stuffed with boxes and furniture arrived back home months after we did. Most of it went straight into the garage where it still sits, unpacked and gathering dust and the odd cat who sleeps in there to avoid the twins.

It was only at Christmas time that I ventured into the cats’ cardboard box kingdom to dig out our tangled strings of fairy lights when I looked around and had a ‘Do we really need all this stuff’ moment.

We had everything we needed already, I thought, so why bother holding onto all these things. Emboldened by a daytime television interview I had seen with someone who billed themselves as a “decluttering expert” (they said it makes you happier and calmer) I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.

In the first box there were old dinner plates, ones I had almost forgotten about. They were chipped and cracked, old Crown Lyn ones, brought from the Grey St Market in our last week in Hamilton for me to take to Northern Ireland as a small and comforting reminder of home.

There was a giant glass decorative bowl that was sitting on the mantlepiece of our overseas home when we got there. Given to us by friend’s of my husband’s parents, we never knew quite what it was or what to do with it but could never seem to part with it nonetheless.

There was a broach handmade by an old neighbour, a pottery artist who fired her clay with soil from Hamilton, so that on my wedding day in Ireland I would always have a piece of home with me.

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There were my before-three-babies clothes, impossibly skinny jeans and party dresses and heels, kept as I had always fancied giving them to a daughter, now nothing but a faded memory of a life before kids.

But then I realised that was exactly the point of all my stuff. They were memories, ready to be recollected in technicolour detail every time I held up an old dress, the smell of nightclub smoke and perfume still in a sleeve, or when I served dinner to my sons on a plate bought when I thought I would never return to my home.

I thought about the things I wished I had kept – my Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy that won me “Best Smiling Bear” at a teddy bear’s picnic when I was five, a ceramic owl jar stuffed fulled of handwritten notes I used to leave for the fairies in the garden, my late father’s typewriter he used to write his rugby columns for South African newspapers.

So I will keep all my things, and no doubt the pile will grow over the years as my sons stop playing with toys or reading picture books that I will never be able to bring myself to give away.

I will be a cluttered, hoarding, mess with 27 pairs of jeans that don’t fit and casserole dishes I will never cook with but I will have my memories and I will be the richest person in New Zealand.

Why Chinese families make the best type of Kiwis.

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Recently my own prejudices, buried so deep I had no idea they were even there, reared their head.

It was a ‘meet the newly enrolled families’ evening at the local Playcentre and there was a Chinese-born mum and dad with their baby boy, and the boy’s grandmother, who would be taking him to the sessions.

The grandmother couldn’t speak much English, and, ashamed as I am to admit it, I began to wonder what, if any, contribution she could make to our little group of young, mostly white and English speaking mums.

Come the first day of term there she was, proudly beaming with her grandson, 10-months old and a gorgeous blob of blue-black hair and dimples to die for.

She introduced herself as Nai Nai, the Mandarin word for grandmother, and plopped little Ray (“I call him Ray Ray”) on the floor with my twin boys, who were roughly the same age.

Over the days and weeks I watched Nai Nai struggle with Ray Ray as he went through all the usual baby things that drive us all mental – teething, fussiness, tiredness from skipping naps and refusal to try new foods.

But twice a week, every week, she fronted our little group, always with a smile, and the effort she made to learn my boys’ names – and to tell apart the identical twins – was second only to the effort she made to be the world’s best grandparent.

And she did it all on her own, her son and daughter-in-law, whom she lives with, both work full-time as they build a new life for themselves and their child in New Zealand.

In broken, stunted English she would offer to make me a cup of tea or scoop up a twin when they cried. One hellish day when my toddler threw the mother all tantrums and I burst into a flood of frustrated tears she was there to give me the warmest and most comforting hug I’ve felt in a long, long time.

That was the first time I cried in front of Nai Nai. The second was even more personal, for both of us.


It was when she brought her grandson over to me, sat him at my feet and shyly handed me a picture book.

Read to him, please”, she asked. “I want him to learn English. He can’t from me.”

And there it was, the secret of all overseas-born grandparents the world over who give up everything, their own brothers and sisters back home, their independence, their everything to look after grandchildren.

They do it so their sons and daughters can work or study full time (and keep the economy running) and avoid insanely expensive childcare options.

They do it because they love their grandchildren so much they are willing to live in a country where they can’t understand a lot of what is being said or written around them, but march on nonetheless.

And, in the case of Nai Nai, they do it knowing that even if they can’t teach their grandchild English they will do whatever they can to make sure someone else can.

So next time some bigot masquerading as a politician goes off on a rant about how they don’t hear English spoken in playgrounds any more, or if you catch yourself, as I did, wondering what Value they can add to country where they don’t read or speak the local language, or work, think of Nai Nai and Ray Ray.

Because I guarantee you wee Ray Ray will grow up to be a bright and beautiful Kiwi and the type of person New Zealand will be proud to claim as its own.

Xiè xie Nai Nai.

New Zealand, hydrangeas and my father’s secret longing for home.

Amy Bell Photography, Wedding Photography, Waikato, Tauranga, New Zealand

There was a particular rose that grew by the back door of the house I grew up in.

It was tall and kind of ugly with great big thorns that would catch my sleeve when I walked past it, but every year it would redeem itself with the most beautiful creamy pink flowers with a fragrance that would fill the back yard with sweetness.

It formed part of a magical garden for me in what was otherwise a modest, rather uninspiring brick home.

There was a great big orange and lemon tree whose fruit would drop on the ground with a satisfying thud all year long, hydrangeas that exploded with bunches of blue blooms over summer, honeysuckles whose flowers I would run my fingers through to lick off the nectar and a big old tree I called the “Christmas flower” because every December it would break out in red flowers that looked like little festive baubles.

The garden was my father’s pride and joy, and as I grew it became our secret playground, a rare moment to be alone together outside the confines of school and work. When my mother would be in one of her moods mowing the lawns became his sanctuary, a crude tree house fashioned out of the bough of a pine tree mine.

When my father died the garden became neglected, then all but destroyed. The citrus trees and my favourite little Christmas blossom were cut down, a new barbecue area and stepfather taking their places.

I never gave the old garden much thought after that, there was nothing to keep the memory alive.

It was 20 years later, when I moved from my hometown in Australia to the New Zealand town where my father grew up, that I saw his old garden again.

Only it wasn’t in photographs, or a faint memory recalled. It was in the rose section of the public botanical gardens, close to where dad’s mother and father are buried. There I saw, and smelt, the familiar pinky cream rose from our old back door.

In every front or back yard there was a fruit-laden orange or lemon tree, the sandy soil so close to the town’s river making for perfect growing.

There were the hydrangaes, which I learned grew in dad’s childhood home where his mother would arrange the blue blooms on the hearth each Christmas.

There were the honeysuckles, that grew like weeds, and there was my mysterious Christmas bush, a feijoa tree as synonymous with New Zealand as sheep and rugby and whose tart fruit are eaten by Kiwi kids each summer as it falls from the tree.

And there it was, the secret that my father had hidden from us all those years in Australia. He had been terribly homesick for Hamilton, New Zealand, and had filled the garden with little reminders of home.

Now his three grandsons he never had the chance to meet play in a garden in the town their grandfather grew up in, surround by the same trees and flowers that followed dad all his life.

One day the boys will learn the significance of their own secret garden, but for now I am happy to watch them throw rotting lemons over the back fence into the paddock while I pick the blue hydrangeas to put on the hearth and wait for the feijoas to ripen.

The time I flew my cats to Ireland and back.

When I was seven years old a stray kitten showed up on our doorstep. With its big blue eyes and fluffy white and grey coat, it appeared to be a pedigree breed and someone’s much loved, and no doubt missed, family pet.

But with no collar or means of identification we had no means to return it to its home, and as we already had four cats of our own I wasn’t allowed to keep it, no matter how much I begged.

Instead my mother made me take it up the road to a children’s playground, and leave it there. I presume she thought it would find its way home, or someone would take it in, but either way it would no longer be in our garage and bothering us.

So, through tears, I did it. Hours later a flyer was pushed through our letterbox from a frantic mother searching for her little boy’s new kitten. “Son fretting,” I remember it said.

30 years, I was heavily pregnant with our first son when my partner and and I took in a pair of abandoned cats, a mother and her kitten. They had been zipped in a suitcase and left for dead in an alleyway. We called them Daisy and Puku.

For the first week they kept us awake all night and cried all day, messed up the carpets and ruined everything, including Christmas day when Puku took ill and was rushed to a very, very expensive after-hours vet clinic.

But they became part of our lives and when we brought our son Charlie home from the hospital Daisy adopted him as her second kitten and Puku fell instantly in love with the little human.

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But months later when the time came to leave New Zealand we were faced with an agonising decision – do we rehome our little ladies or spend thousands of dollars taking them with us?

It was an easy enough decision to make: we thought the move would be permanent, and in our post-baby glow nothing seemed to difficult.

But after only 18 months in Northern Ireland we were ready to come home  with Charlie and our new twin baby boys, but the cats posed a bit of a problem.

The move had left us all but broke, and the cost of flying them back around to the other side of the world was well into four figures (I never did bring myself to calculate the total cost and my husband won’t tell me).

It was also a logistical nightmare. The UK had all sorts of animal diseases, including rabies, that NZ didn’t, and customs weren’t too keen on letting them back into the country.

It started to dawn on me that perhaps it was best to rehome them in Northern Ireland, to leave them behind.

I gave myself a week or so to think it over. And I remembered that little kitten I had been forced to dump at the playground because it was all too hard for my mother to deal with, to take care of.

And then I realised, that’s the key, the secret to owning pets when you have children.

You have to understand, and accept, that animals are going to find their way into your kids’ lives, and their hearts, whether you want them to or not. They did with us, we never expect our boys to become to attached to Daisy and Puku, but they did and in the end we couldn’t break up their little wolf pack.

I never wanted them to feel how I did that day in the playground, and I never wanted them to one day ask whatever happened to the scruffy little cats spotted in the backgrounds of all their baby photos.

So after six months of waiting and wrangling and paying lots and lots of money a cage arrived at the front door of our Kiwi home with two slimmed down and smoochy cats.

”I never want Daisy and Puku to leave us ever again mama,” Charlie said.

”I am happy they are home.”

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Spoiling your kids with too many Christmas presents? That’s love, actually.

I can’t remember the sound of my father’s voice but I remember every present he ever gave me, and how much he loved me.

 

As the years go by the threads of my childhood memories, of the happy times before my father’s death when I was nine, grow frayed and dull.

Birthdays all blend into one, I struggle to remember my school days, or what my bedroom looked like, how my father’s voice sounded when he sang to me.

But I remember in exact, shining detail every single present he – and Santa – gave me for Christmas.

Mostly they were gifts I had written to Santa for. A Gloworm toy, a Cabbage Patch doll, a tape deck and the new Collette tape single (google her, kids of today).

There were surprise presents, too, like pink vanity mirror that lit up with love hearts, a battery operated robot, and a porcelian doll in a straw bassinet that I accidentally smashed to pieces on Christmas day and sobbed so hard I was sick.

They were piled up under the tree, left at my bedroom door at midnight, hidden in the garden to be found on a treasure hunt. So many that often come Easter my dad would find some long-forgotten gifts squirrelled away in the rafters of the garage.

When my father died, the presents stopped. A bike that he had promised for by 10th birthday became a cheap outfit from K Mart, all my mother could afford on her widower’s pension, and Christmas presents, well, I don’t remember what they were, nor if I got any.

Now I have children of my own and I find myself buying them toy after toy, treat after treat, often daily.

And I, as I am sure my father was, have been warned about the dangers of spoiling children by buying them too many things.

The warnings come thick and fast at Christmas, with cries that it’s become too commecial, that Santa was invented by Coca-Cola (he wasn’t) and I am just a cog in the corporate machine.

But I never feel guilty, and I don’t believe you can ever spoil a child with too many presents. And that’s because I, like my father, and so many others out there, give gifts to our children because it makes them happy, and shows them they are worth something to someone.

It’s not about money, either. Charlie, three, takes more joy out of a 40 cent lollipop or a $2 toy car than he does from a fancier, more expensive toy.

I don’t plan on leaving my three sons any time soon, but if I did they would remember this time in their all-too-brief childhood when their mama loved them so much she couldn’t even come home from the supermarket without a little something tucked inside her handbag for them, and that the delicious thrill of counting down the sleeps until they unwrapped their Tracy Island was because of me. They would look at the set of precious family photos we paid a lot of money to have taken and see Charlie clutching his beloved Thunderbird 2 rocket, twins Tommy and Henry holding their favourite wooden plane with the red wings and propeller that spins.

So this Christmas please leave us parents who like to buy lots of stuff for our kids alone. Because you may not know why we are doing it, or when the presents are going to stop.

Trump or Brexit in New Zealand? Yeah right.

Think Trump-style wedge politics or a Kiwi-style Brexit movement is on the cards? Yeah, nah, not going to happen here bro. And here’s why.

 

Before we moved back to New Zealand earlier this year my husband Paul and I and our growing family had been living in Northern Ireland for 18 months.

While we were there Paul had only one rule, and that was I was never, ever to answer the door during any type of government or council elections. He was terrified that some ignorant sod from some ultra-conservative political party (which is *all of them in Northern Ireland, to be honest) would set me off on yet another rant about why politicians should do crazy things like leave my uterus alone, allow people who love each other to marry or not let packs of foaming dogs rip apart a live fox.

But one afternoon Paul was busy upstairs tending to a patch of baby spew on the rug and a man clutching a plastic shopping bag rang the doorbell and, forgetting the House Rule, I answered the door.

His name was Jack Irwin, he was standing for the Conservatives, and he wanted my vote. Well, I don’t know if old Jack was just having a bad day or what, but our little doorstep exchange ended with him screaming at me from the top of my driveway.

“And go back to where you came from” were his parting words.

And so I did.

Now that wasn’t the moment we decided to pack up our beautiful, centrally-heated home filled with IKEA furniture (that doesn’t travel well, FYI) and fly back to New Zealand with twin seven-month-old babies and a toddler, two. That decision had been months in the making, a combination of homesickness and terrible weather and a political and social and education structure that just never felt right.

But those words were a kick in the guts notheless, a rare glimpse for me, an Australian born into a world of white privilege, of the cruelness and bigotry that so many can wield.

It made me cry tears of relief when our plan landed back in New Zealand, back in a country where my sons’ play group has everything labelled in English and Maori, where their little play date friend is a boy born in New Zealand to Chinese parents, where it doesn’t matter where you went to school, or what your religion is, where you can marry who you love and make your own choices about your reproductive health.

There’s been the odd opinion piece make it into print down here about how a Trump/Brexit-style movement is going to sweep across this beautiful country and, depending on the writer’s leanings, we get a ‘this is a good thing/bad thing’ lesson.

While I sort of admire their stick-beating approach, I can tell the rest of you right now that it ‘aint going to happen, not now, not ever. Because I have come home to Aotearoa, a country I want my children to grow up in.

And when a country is good enough for my children, where my sons can marry who ever they fall in love with, well, that love is always going to trump hate.

* With the exception of the wonderful Councillor Owen Gaith of the Social Democratic Alliance party, who keeps fighting the good fight.

I have three boys under 3 and I haven’t slept in four years – but I still find time to write.

I am a stay-at-home mum with three boys under three and I haven’t slept in four years.

On a good day I have enough time to maybe sob quietly into my lukewarm cup of tea while my kids – Charlie, three, and identical twins Tommy and Henry, – are momentarily distracted by one of our two cats coming inside to vomit on the rug.

But whatever happens, writing, and words, are never far from my thoughts.

It has been, however, a while since I tapped away at the old keyboard so please forgive my rustiness.

It wasn’t always like this.

The daughter of two journalists, I grew up in the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, surrounded by newspapers and books and magazines. Home was where I stayed up late to watch election night results, where I was encouraged to write short stories and poetry and, no matter how awful it was, I was heaped with praise during my living room recitals.

When I graduated high school in 1998 I got my first job on my town’s local paper. Before long I had moved onto a bigger paper in a neighbouring town, and then another, until I landed a job at the Fairfax-owned Sun-Herald.

In 2011 I moved to New Zealand, to a North Island called Hamilton, where my late father Harold Cuming had grown up. I took a job on the local daily paper, the Waikato Times, and became the fourth generation Cuming to write for the venerable masthead.

My father, his father, his uncle and grandfather had all worked there, and I was thrilled to discover I would be working alongside reporters who had worked with my father.

But life, as Mr Lennon said, is what happens when you are busy making plans and 2013 I became engaged, fell pregnant, postponed my wedding, had the baby, moved to Northern Ireland, got married, fell pregnant with the twins, moved house, had the babies, and and then moved back to New Zealand with my little family.

I’ve kept one foot in the journalism pool by working as a sort of overseas-correspondent at large for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio service, phoning in once a week to its ABC Overnights programme to bring my home country news from Northern Ireland and now New Zealand.

It’s unpaid work, but I do it because one day my three boys will be able to sit down and listen to their mum talking in a funny accent about what was in the headlines when they were growing up.

And now the writing that was put on hold is now tugging on my sleeve like a hungry toddler and it’s time to start again.

If it’s only ever my children that read all of this, then so be it. It will be worth all the late nights and thumpings of the desk when the computer screen freezes and stiff necks and sore fingers.

Because they may be only words, but it’s the only thing I will ever be able to leave behind.

Do not fly with kids until you read this!

My husband and I recently decided to pack up our lives in Northern Ireland and move back home to New Zealand with our boy, Charlie, and seven-month old identical twins Tommy and Henry.

Our journey included a two-hour drive to Dublin followed by three flights spanning three countries and 30 long, long hours. Yes it was hell, and yes we’re still married, but here’s what I wish someone had told us before we boarded the plane.

Find out your airline’s carry-on baggage allowance, then ignore it

When we checked-in at Dublin we had a carry-on bag filled with enough food and ready-to-drink milk for two babies to last 48 hours or so.We hadn’t been told or read anywhere online that carry-on luggage had a weight limit so when someone at the check-in counter weighed our bag and, without blinking, told us we had to halve the weight I almost passed out.

Rather than face a long-haul flight with minimal supplies for our twins, we did what any right-thinking parent would do in our position. We left the line, rummaged though our bags and pretended to throw things in the bin before calmly queuing at a different counter. She didn’t even weigh the bag and we were on our way.

Know your airline’s bassinet policy

We found out the hard way that each airline has different ways for babies to sleep in bassinets on the plane. We flew Emirates, which requires you to place your baby on your lap with a seat beat around its waist each and every time the seatbelt sign goes on for turbulence. Every goddamn time. So every time our twins were snoozing soundly and the seatbelt sign went on, we had to wake them and set them on our laps. Same goes for toddlers, they have to be on their own seat with seat belt clicked in each time the sign lights up –  and that’s a lot during a 30-hour flight. I’ve since learned some airlines have bassinets designed so that the baby can stay in it when the seatbelt sign goes on. I strongly recommend you find one that does the latter.

Use, but don’t lose, a stick pram

You can use a stick or collapsible pram, in the airport and take it right up to the gate with you. The airline will put the pram in the luggage hold for you. A warning: the airline might tell you they will check the pram right through to your final destination, but don’t count on it. We found that every time our plane landed the ground crew would bring up all the prams and car seats and dump them on the floor right by the plane’s door, so hang out there with the flight crew in case your pram comes up.

Prepare to get separated

We only found out once we were on the plane that air safety regulations prohibit two babies being seated in the same row so one twin had to go to one row with their daddy and one twin with me. At one point I looked across the darkened cabin to see my husband clutching a crying baby while silently weeping. The flight attendant, bless her, brought him a glass of wine in a plastic cup.

Pack a breastfeeding pillow

Your one ‘must-have’ item, even if your baby is bottle fed. We used it to prop the twins up in lines, on airport floors, to sleep on, for us to sleep on, or simply just to hug for comfort at the 19-hour mark. If it’s a cheap one you can always leave it behind at the end of the flight if you are sick of lugging around so much stuff.

iPads, chocolate and gel stickers

Your job as a parent is to get your toddler through the flight by any means possible, and if that means shoving chocolate buttons in their face every time they grizzle, then for god’s sake do it. Same with screen time. I downloaded a bunch of Charlie’s favourite shows onto our iPad and it kept him entertained for hours. He also took a heap of great photos on my iPhone that are precious memories for us now.

Kids’ gel stickers (found in any $2 shop) are another great distraction tool. Plonk your angel in the window seat and they will happily stick and peel off stickers for hours.

Pack changes of clothes for mum and dad for the flight

Because you will get spewed on. And that’s just the start.

Don’t be a martyr

I am usually a bit cautious about strangers picking my kids up, but let that go when traveling. With three babies and only two adults the act of making flight connections would have been all but impossible if not for the kind souls who carried our kids, our bags and our sanity. If someone offers, let them.

Disposable everything

We used disposable nappies, bibs, bottles and teats, burp clothes, everything, and used nappy bags to bundle up all our rubbish. Flying is messy for babies and you don’t want to be carting around a bag of soiled stuff through customs. Use it and bin it.

Forget about the other passengers

Traveling with young children is a bit like breastfeeding in public for the first time – at first you worry about what other people might think and then after three seconds you care only about yourself and your kids’ needs.

So forget all this BS about handing out sweets and apology-in-advance notes to your fellow fliers, or caring about what they think.

Babies cry, toddlers cry, you will never see these people again in your life. Focus on you and your family because, honestly, the other passengers will almost certainly not care one hoot what’s going on with you and the kids.