The best part of D’s Manila homecoming was the two weeks of leave he took upon arrival in the Philippines. Ordinarily, we try to maximize our vacation days for travel. In fact, this might be the first time during our nine years in the Foreign Service – other than when our kids were born – that either one of us took an extended period of time off and just stayed home.
Getting over jet lag was one motivation for not jumping right back into work, but what D really valued about the break was the ability to spend time with Munchkin and Junebug, who seemed to have changed dramatically in just the three months of our separation. And not just seeing them and getting them through each day with a minimum of tears and sibling strife, but actually spending time with them: reading books, playing board games and doing puzzles, talking with them, taking Munchkin swimming and to soccer practice, snuggling with Junebug and chasing her around the house.
After a summer in which Munchkin ran wild with boredom, the start of kindergarten has brought some much-needed structure to his life. Asked how he liked his new school, Munchkin replied that he liked it just fine, but that the school days were too short. We later found out that this owes largely to his incessant chatting. It seems he spends most of his days talking to his friends non-stop: sometimes during instruction time, and always at lunchtime – so much so that he rarely has time to actually eat his lunch. “We know he can be quite chatty at times,” S ventured during a parent-teacher conference. “Oh, there’s no question he’s the most social kid in the class. By far. Sometimes it’s a problem,” his teacher replied.
This transformation is quite remarkable considering how Munchkin behaved just a couple of years ago. He’s always loved school, but he was much more apt to play on his own than in a group. We distinctly remember a birthday party in Kigali a couple of years ago at which the hosts set up an obstacle course and gave each kid a kitenge cape so they could pretend to be superheroes. Munchkin donned his cape and then ran off to play by himself in a distant corner of the yard while the rest of the kids swarmed the obstacle course.
The other big development D missed was Munchkin learning to swim. S tried to get the Munch to do swimming lessons at a rec center in Maine the summer Junebug was born, but he hated the experience so much that he subsequently resisted any instruction for years. It took only a few lessons in Manila to finally turn the corner, however, and now he has developed a moderately effective doggy paddle. It ain’t pretty, but at least we now feel reasonably confident that he won’t drown in a pool. Swimming has become a lot more fun, as a result. Before he learned to swim Munchkin was too afraid for horseplay, but now he loves nothing more than to be flipped and tossed in the air, which D is happy to oblige.
Junebug, being much younger, underwent a much more pronounced transformation during the three months D did not see her. Potty training was a big milestone D missed, and her recent speech explosion was an even bigger one. At two, Junebug was just beginning to vocalize parts of some words consistently enough to start accumulating her own vocabulary when S left for Manila with the kids. Now, Junebug too has become a regular chatterbox, not only saying whole words, but also using complete sentences. Of course, she still has her own pronunciation, which approximates the words without actually using correct syllables, but she speaks clearly and consistently enough that we understand her quite well.
Being able to spend quality time with the kids without the constraints of work responsibilities was such a joy that it has left D wondering whether he made the right choice by spending several months apart to line up a job he could continue performing from Manila rather than simply taking some time off when he couldn’t land a position at the Embassy. Now that he has started work again, the dynamic with the kids has shifted considerably, even though D works from home and can put Junebug down for her afternoon nap when she returns from daycare and welcome Munchkin home when the school bus drops him off several hours later. It’s as if the kids sense that someone else now has a claim on D’s time and resent him for it.