In this MAMA TALES we meet up with the lovely Merel and discuss the learning curve of being a first-time mum, pushy baby whisperers, breaking up and embracing imperfection.
Merel (30) lives with her little boy Koen (1,5) in Amsterdam. She teaches Dutch at a secondary school in Amstelveen and initially named Koen, Koenraad. Her students thought that this was a ridiculous name until they found out that Koenraad has a really nice meaning*. For now Merel calls him Koen though because it seems to fit him better, who knows what he’ll choose when he grows up!
What has your kid taught you?
That perfection isn’t an option. Raising a kid – like all things in life – is something that you try to work your very hardest for and that is really the best that you can do. As a first time mum I tried to learn everything there was to know from books on parenting and all things baby. I would listen to advice from all these different people with what seemed like contradicting opinions. Eventually it was Koen who taught me that there is no “one” right way of doing this. By being less rigid we both became happier, maybe because I could really see him now or maybe because he was a little older. He changed from this passive baby-thing into a wonderful little human. And did this all by himself, which really showed me that you can pick up knowledge that feels important to you whilst simultaneously closing off all other noise too. A delightful comprehension!
How did motherhood influence your relationship?
I got pregnant on an impulse. We were so full of faith; you could almost call it naïve. I had to stop with my MS-medication during my pregnancy, which for a lot of women is not a big problem as pregnancy naturally protects you against MS. But I got really sick and then ill-fatedly my boyfriend discovered that he had a bi-polar disorder and became sick too. We just couldn’t understand each other, which became more and more apparent through out the pregnancy. It became such a push and pull in which we could never agree with each other’s vision of parenting. But we wanted to stay together so badly for Koen’s sake and tried to save our relationship, maybe too long. But weird enough now that we broke up, and there is less tension, we actually agree on a lot of things. It’s best for all three of us I think. Koen adores his dad, who is a truly sweet and caring father.
Have friendships changed?
Not essentially but I do see people less frequent. Which luckily hasn’t changed the quality of the friendships.
I’m the first of my friends to become a mother and am so happy that two other friends have had their first baby’s now too! Although it did take a while, so Koen is doomed to be the cool older dude now. I would love it if my sister would get babies too and then we could have crazy fun family holidays :-)
Who is a massive support in your life?
My parents, brother and sister have been absolutely indispensable, especially now that I’m a single mum. They’re incredible, always helping out where possible even though they have their own things to deal with. It feels unconditional, which I find really special. My younger brother Pepijn studies here in the city and always saves me if I urgently need a babysitter for an hour. All my friends have been great too but I have to name Bibi, who has been such a star. She was a massive help at the birth of Koen and accompanies me on my hospital check ups; the staff even know her now!
What do you love most about motherhood?
Getting closer and closer with your kid, from little jokes to conversations, and that he understands me more and more and I him. Koen makes the happiest caveman noises when he is really enthusiastic. Like when he gets a gift or just some fruit especially for him. And no one taught him this, but it really cracks me up! I’m so happy and proud to see the tiniest progressions; something I used to think was pretty hysterical before I became a mother.
What kinda sucks?
When the only communication your kid has is crying. I used to be so scared that I was doing things wrong and just didn’t know what was going on when he was crying. This feeling of guilt and inability would creep up. It was especially horrible when it happened out on the street and random passers by would say things like: “Maybe he’s hungry!” Like seriously?! This actually happened 3 or 4 times, it just amazes me how total strangers think they are the baby whisperer and feel the need to share it.
What is most important for you to pass on to your kid?
That the most beautiful things in life have to be pursued by yourself but also to realise that there really are an infinite amount of fun things to do. That’s how I felt as a kid at least; hopefully he shares this feeling too. Also, being honest and resilient.
How do you juggle being a mum and working life?
I work four days a week and Koen goes to crèche 3 days a week, which he really loves. One day a week its grandpa + grandma day and 1,5 days his dad looks after him. I enjoy working because of Koen and vice versa, and wouldn’t want to do either full-time. I’ve chosen to spread a 3 day work week over 4 days, this way I don’t have to rush as much and we can spend extra time together in the morning and make sure that I’m always home before six. I would love to work 3 full days at some point though, who knows in the future.
I teach Dutch to the first to sixth years of a secondary school in Amstelveen. The first years are really fun but it can be quite tiring too. I’ve really found that my passion for the Dutch language comes across best when teaching the last years. All the essays and literature dossiers the students have to hand in means that there is a lot of review work tied up in my job too though. I used to do a lot of this at home and in the weekends but because of Koen I’ve really tried to cut this back as much as possible or to make sure that he’s with his dad.
It’s quite tricky actually to find the right balance of being a mum and my job. As a Dutch teacher I feel that your lessons get really excellent when you put more time in them than is actually healthy. But I can’t do this anymore, even though I really want to strive to make a special curriculum. I’m still looking for the secret solution; maybe it’s just gaining more experience.
Why did you choose to live where you do?
Well, I studied in Amsterdam and nearly all my friends live here. I just love the city, with all her different, and colourful people. It’s a beautiful place where no day goes by where I haven’t had a little chat with a stranger. There are so many fun things to do here, just in my own neighbourhood, which on occasion feels more like a village with all the neighbours, the bakery, flower shop; they all adore Koen. There is much more culture and history here than the Frisian village that I grew up in myself, I like that.
Has it changed your style? Is there such a thing?
I think that I actually try a bit harder to occasionally wear something fashionable because I don’t want to end up looking exhausted. But what I really like is that I actually don’t care about what other people think about my style anymore. Except for when it’s positive! If I like an outfit then I’m super happy and will gleefully dance around the room. I just don’t have the time and energy to let my happiness be ruined by insecurities.
How would you describe motherhood in our day and age?
It sometimes feels a bit exaggerated, especially when you look back at the past when children were less fussed upon. Now you have thousands of books written on babies, preaching the most detailed sleeping schedules en so forth. This made me so neurotic as a new mum that I sometimes feel that we are over-thinking things too much. I recently read a book called “Geef dat kind een slok jenever – 70 jaar geleden sliepen ouders vredig en omgestoord”* (translated: Give that child a sip of gin – 70 years ago parents slept peacefully and unbothered). The author expressed that parenthood nowadays is seen as a special party where the kid is the honoured guest; I do recognize this attitude around me. I don’t think that everything used to be better of course but I do believe that you shouldn’t raise kids to believe that they are little princes or princesses with a world that rotates just for them. But this is easier said that done, Koen is quite the little king ;-)
Is motherhood a part of your identity or can/should it be switched off at times?
Yes it’s part of who you are but also yes, as it’s a good thing to be switched of at times: in the sense of being able to think and talk about other things too. It’s important for me to do this although it can be quite challenging, you are constantly alert and want to protect you child. When I know he’s in good hands then I can momentarily pause this feeling and have a nice lunch with friends, or go to the cinema or drinks.
Anything you would like to say to all the momma’s (to be) out there?
When all the parenting books and contradicting advice were stressing me out my sweet neighbour texted me: “Is he eating? Is he sleeping? Then close your ears to any advice!” That was my most beautiful maternity gift.
*Koenraad is an old Germanic name and means “brave advisor”.
*Book: “Geef dat kind een slok jenever – 70 jaar geleden sliepen ouders vredig en ongestoord” Author: Dorine Hermans and Els Rozenbroek
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