I am taking a break from the newsletter next week because I will be seeing family in Argentina for the first time in three years! See you on April 20!
There is a story that my mother has repeated so many times that it is hard to know whether it is actually accurate — but that is true of most stories, isn’t it? The reason I am fond of this one is, among other things, because it can work as a sort of origin story for my attraction to travelling and for my interest in childhood trauma too.
It’s a story of independence — for both children and their caregivers.
Travel and feeling abandoned
Apparently I was 13 months old, and I had just started to walk. One afternoon I was playing while my mother was preparing food. Worried that I was getting too close to the fire, she told me to get out of the kitchen. I left, angrily.
After not seeing me for a while, my mother became worried. She went to my bedroom, but couldn’t find me. She walked around the flat until she did: I was standing in the doorway, on my tiptoes, with one hand outstretched trying to reach the doorknob.
“Irene, what are you doing?” she asked.
“Io Chambul,” I answered, in Italian. Something along the lines of “me go to Chambul.”
My mother tells the story in such an entertaining way that everyone laughs and looks at me with a certain sympathy. If they know me well, they can just imagine my angry expression (it has barely changed since I was a child). But being who I am, I can’t simply laugh at this anecdote anymore.
Inevitably, I teleport myself to a city that was always somewhat special to me. Because in my childhood language, Chambul was Istanbul, the city straddling Europe and Asia, which my parents always talked about. Moreover — and this is where I begin to guess — I think of what Istanbul meant to me as a very young child: in some corner of my unconscious mind, the city was probably a synonym for abandonment.
Travelling with(out) kids
When my mother weaned me — I was five months old — my parents went on a week-long trip. To Chambul, obviously. That November afternoon, when I was trying to open the door at home to leave, it was only a few weeks before my parents were to leave me — again — for another trip to Istanbul.
Perhaps because I have been doing therapy for the past ten years, and because I can’t stop thinking about how early childhood experiences shape us as we grow up, lots of questions pile up regarding my attempt to flee to Chambul.
Did I want to tell my mother in advance that I would be independent and that I wouldn’t need her? Was it a way of letting my parents know that I had figured out that I could leave them before they could leave me again? Or was I trying to tell her that I wanted to travel with them and get to know this mysterious city that was so important in their lives? Was it perhaps just a meltdown for having been told I couldn’t be in the kitchen right at that moment?
My parents travelled — and still do — for pleasure. But they also travelled for work. They are compulsive collectors of objects of ethnographic interest. Seeing the fascination that their summer shopping aroused in their friends, they decided to start collecting things from exotic places and sell them in Italy to finance further trips.
They also bought a camper van in which we travelled around mainly eastern and southern Europe, stopping at every market and little shop we came across. Istanbul was one of our first destinations, when I was four years old.
Why am I thinking about this, 40 years later?
Maybe it is geographical proximity: we now live in Greece, and Istanbul is just a stone’s throw away.
I also just recently finished reading The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin, a writer from Brooklyn, U.S., of Turkish descent. The novel is a beautiful exploration of family history through a Turkish-American girl’s summer in Istanbul, as the political situation becomes more volatile, and the girl tries to retrace the steps of her late father.
But, perhaps more importantly, it’s because I am about to embark on my first solo trip with my son León, who is five months old — the same age I was when my parents left me for the first time — and I simply can’t imagine leaving him.
Now, the understanding of the developing brain and early childhood has evolved a lot over the past decades — and as a result, many attitudes towards children have changed. We are lucky enough to have access to information and research that were not available to our grandparents’ and parents’ generations.
In the 1980s, when I was growing up, breastfeeding was less widespread in the West as formula milk was seen as a novel and amazing invention and more women were working away from home. Plus there was still a strange belief that too much cuddling and time together could spoil a child.
Some of the most groundbreaking research when it comes to understanding the importance of early stimulation, touch and care was the one conducted with Romanian orphans who suffered neglect in their early days in institutions, and that first paper did not come out until 2003.
Now I am not trying to say that I suffered from neglect — my parents left me (and then me and my brother) with my great-aunts, who were incredibly loving. (And research is very clear in showing that as long as there is are caring adults that can act as a stable point in a child’s life, children are OK.)
But I do wonder what I might have felt at the time without my mother, with whom I was the closest as a young infant. I know that she cried when she left — and keep in mind, there was no WhatsApp to stay in touch. They would send telegrams to say they had landed safe and sound!
Maybe I am also a bit jealous. I don’t have the equivalent of my great-aunts around — our family is in Italy and Argentina, and our closest friends are spread around the world. Since Lorenzo was born four years ago, my partner Nacho and I have had three nights out! We’ve both travelled solo and gone out with friends alone, but Lorenzo has never really been without at least one of us. Now I think he would be ready to spend a night at a friend’s, but León has just been born, and I am far from ready to leave him behind.
But get this: León’s first trip will be to … Istanbul! Unfortunately, it is just a stopover on the way to South America where I will be presenting at a conference and seeing family. But I keep dreaming about a weekend alone with Nacho exploring that magical city as a couple — maybe some time soon?
But for now, me go to Chambul. But I won’t be alone. This time, I’ll be with my son León.
What I’ve been reading
“It is a very strange part of our culture where we gauge a woman’s postpartum period in terms of how they look, rather than how they’re feeling,” Sharon Oakley, a Canadian woman living in the UK, tells the BBC in this piece. “I look fine — but I have these birth injuries that I’m still navigating every day,” she adds, talking about her urinary incontinence. The piece looks at how damaging the culture is that asks women (and men) to “snap back” into the bodies and behaviours they had before having a child. Thanks to Marius, a member of The First 1,000 Days community, for the recommendation.
What I’ve been listening to
This episode of the Uncuffed podcast, from Solano State Prison in California, is a tough but important listen. It briefly touches on several men’s relationships with their mothers, and then goes into the story of Francisco Magaña. As child, Magaña was scared of his mother, who would beat him regularly. The violence described is disturbing. He talks about how much those experiences impacted him — and how he eventually managed to forgive her.
What I’ve been watching
I watched Athena, the 2022 drama-thriller by France’s Romain Gavras about racism, violence and injustice in the Paris banlieues. It’s spectacular and violent, with vivid colours and Greek tragedy style music. It tells the story of several brothers of Algerian origin who live in the Athena housing estate and the different paths their lives take — only briefly. It offers an interesting insight into how tough growing up in a banlieu can be, with images of children and parents escaping a police siege.
Who’s been inspiring me
These parents in the U.S. knew what they were doing when they put up this sign on their door and left free booze to co-celebrate their newborn’s arrival. Thanks to Molly, an old friend and new member of The First 1,000 Days community, for sharing some light relief!
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.