DARON: MIKE, 45 – architect, Teacher and entrepreneur
DARONNE: ELS, 37 – founder of ELISA.KOOKT, food stylist
FAMILY STATUS: They got married 2006, together they have a daughter called Lou (9), son Dries (14) is born from Els’ previous marriage.
A turbulent love story. That’s how the story of Els and Michael – Mike to his friends – can be summarized. After a first teenage romance, leaving Els with a broken heart, they found each other back again after 10 years. Meanwhile Els got married, she had a 3-year-old son, a mortgage to pay and a successful restaurant with her former husband.
Mike: “Els was 15 and I 22 when we first fell in love. I ended our relationship because I simply didn’t like her anymore. She then married this other guy (laughs) and got Dries. A couple of years later, we ran into each other again and we fell back in love again… I can sincerely say we never crossed any line, as long as she was married. I didn’t want to start like that. She had to divorce before we would start over again, and that was and is still the strong foundation of our relationship today. If we had been playing around at first, we would have become lovers, nothing more.”
In what kind of family situation did you grow up? “My father came from the ‘Kempen’ (north-east Belgium), my mother was German. They met during my father’s military service. She was a pharmacist, he studied Germanic languages. They were both intellectuals, who gathered their knowledge of the world through their books rather than by self-exploration. It wasn’t an easy marriage: they were an example of a generation that stayed together for their children’s sake, out of duty. I remember Christmas dinner parties turning into nightmares as soon as alcohol was served. The merry thoughts were quickly exchanged for accusations and frustrations. But on the other hand, I can say they were always there for each other and they also took care of each other until death parted them. So basically, there was some sort of constant tension in the household, which we clearly don’t have in our family today.” Do you manage to keep your work and life in balance? “I personally went through a difficult period just recently. I was constantly asking myself, what’s the point of it all? The big midlife question, you know? By talking a lot, I’ve managed to get out of it, and I was able to put everything back in perspective. Today, my mind is much more in balance again. I work a lot, but I also spend a lot of time with my family. And I do find me-time a necessity. For example; I enjoy eating out alone, preferably twice a week. I love to lie down on the sofa, to check out new series on Netflix or kite surf during summer. The downside with kiting is that I can’t schedule it. It all depends on the wind and whenever it’s good, I’m gone. Then it’s up to Els and the kids if they want to join me at the beach or not.”
It ‘s not so much the children, but it’s the whole Western system that creates this feeling of being stuck.
Has fatherhood changed your life? “When Lou was born, I found it difficult to cope with my freedom being restricted. It really was a big adjustment. Before her birth, I was single, I did what I wanted, went surfing … I suddenly couldn’t do what I wanted and when I wanted anymore, but that’s usually the thing when you start a relationship with someone, isn’t it? (Laughs) It ‘s not so much the children, but it’s the whole Western system that creates this feeling of being stuck. Especially when you are ambitious and you want to start up a business. I became self-employed to be free and to not have to work for a boss. Being your own boss is possibly even worse, because you’re stuck to your schedule and your responsibilities towards your employees.”
Do you manage to keep your work and life well balanced? “I believe so. But it wasn’t easy. I was still very young when I started out working at the restaurant I owned together with my ex-husband. During his first three years, Dries spent every weekend at my parents’ or in-laws’ place. Which was actually very similar to my own childhood. My parents also had a restaurant and worked around the clock. So suddenly I was faced with the same problem I had experienced as a child. I was never home and I didn’t really know my child. I then decided to not work any longer during weekends or evenings. One thing led to another, and in the end I didn’t only change jobs but also husbands…(laughs) When Lou was born, I worked in a bakery and later I started a breakfast and lunch bar with a friend. Again, I was in the hospitality industry but without weekend and evening work this time. The bar was a great concept but we opened it in a wrong part of town. When it closed, I followed some classes to become a teacher. Teaching was, in terms of hours and holidays, ideal. Today with Elisa.kookt things got more hectic again, although it doesn’t really feel like work. The feeling that I couldn’t fully focus on my work nor on mothering, really made this journey difficult. So I had to make a choice. That’s just the fate of a mother, I guess. You do either one or the other, but both at the same time? Well, I chose my kids. I’ve always been attracted to classic role models, like that. Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen classic stereotypes as a child? The idea that men put out the garbage and women take care of the household is something that sounds very simple and satisfying to me. For instance, I really love it when Mike takes up one of my chores, like putting the children to bed or doing groceries. Things like that make me very happy, more then flowers or an expensive handbag. Although a diamond would be nice, too… (laughs) For the record, I can understand the choice businesswomen make. But that simply wasn’t an option to me.”
The idea that men put out the garbage and women take care of the household is something that sounds very simple and satisfying to me.
What are your most preferred children’s activities? “I like to go out for a meal with the kids. But separately. A one-on-one between parent and child, I believe every child is entitled to this. A private moment they don’t have to share with anyone else.” What is your biggest worry regarding your children right now? “Dries is hitting puberty and starts to take his distance. I can see in his eyes that I’m no longer the most important person in his life. It hurts to realise you have to let them go and comes a lot earlier than expected.”
How do you keep the fire burning? Els: “Our relationship comes first, the children second and that’s always been the case. We started this with the two of us, and will sooner or later end again with the two of us, right? Don’t get us wrong, we’re not pushing the children aside, we rather make sure that we always make time for each other, despite work, children and other obligations. Yesterday for instance, Dries went to soccer practice with his father and Lou was allowed to go to the movies with a friend for the very first time. We suddenly had four hours off. We went to the sauna and left all obligations home. You know, it doesn’t have to be much, but at least once a week, we make time for each other. It’s crucial to do things that get you out of your habitat, out of your daily routine. It’s important to get yourself all dressed up like you would go on a date for the first time.” Mike: “We don’t give each other birthday presents anymore, we plan a city trip instead. It certainly doesn’t have to be an exotic or far away destination. A weekend in the capital for instance, or a cheap Ryanair destination such as Budapest. It’s bustling city with a lot of squats. A bit like Berlin but with fewer hipsters. We found a great place to stay via Airbnb, with a lot of mirrors, black satin, soft lighting, a bathtub in the bedroom. Porn-style. Loved it.” (Laughs)
We don’t give each other birthday presents anymore.
Who does what within your family? Mike: “At the moment we’re kind of stereotypical, but we’re gradually trying to change that.” (laughs) Els: “I lost my head a little with Elisa.kookt, my work at school, the household and the children. Luckily Mike acknowledged it in time, and started to take care of the laundry.” Mike: “A household doesn’t need to be managed according to the classic stereotypes to succeed. It simply must be well organised. To me, folding the laundry is very relaxing and we decided to outsource ironing, because it simply took too long for Els to get it done. It led to silly discussions that we simply had to solve. Instead of discussing, we dealt with the problem and found an appropriate solution. So I outsourced our ironing, but Els didn’t approve at first.” Els: “I found it difficult to let go of some household chores. They’re sacred to me. And worst of all, he is better at folding than me! Meanwhile I thanked him for what he did… by text message.” (laughs) You both combine two jobs. Does this create extra pressure? Els: “We are both self employed after hours and sometimes that’s too much. For us, but also for the children, who don’t like it when we keep on working, even though they’re at home. At some point we planned a business lunch with the two of us, to make clear agreements on that. For example, if we are all at home, we don’t work. On Saturday morning, we all work together. The kids do their homework, I’m busy preparing for Elisa.kookt and Mike has always some things he needs to follow-up. Everyone is working 2 to 3 hours at home and then everything is ready by noon for the weekend to really start.”
A blended family, stepchildren and stepparents. It seems complex. Mike: “Els allowed me to be a father figure for Dries from the very start. I never had to restrain myself for setting the rules in the household. Dries was still small when we met, so he never questioned my presence. He recently started to ask questions about the divorce, though. He wonders how both parents would have been had they still been together. He starts to rebel. That’s normal in the evolution of a child. I have to admit that Els’ ex husband has always been incredibly mature throughout the separation. He gives us his full confidence when decisions must be made about Dries’ education or studies. So we’re not in a constant struggle of opinions and positions, which is better for everyone.” Els: “I’ve always been trying to make the best decision in terms of Dries, sometimes at my own expense. Dries and I recently had a chat about that and he realizes that the situation as it is now, is far better than before. Now he’s able ro grow up in a safe, stable home at our place, and every two weeks a few days with his father. “
Do you involve the children in the household? Mike: “Their contribution is very important. I inherited that thought from my parents. Just as I inherited the importance of courtesy, hygiene, structure … The typical Deutsche Gründlichkeit. When you actively show your children that there are chores that have to be done, they eventually learn to notices them as well. As a result, you don’t have to nag the whole time, because they will do their chores spontaneously in the end.” Els: “I don’t always like that approach. When I was a teenager, I always had to help in my parents’ restaurant after school. I prefer things the other way around. I would do anything for my children; even pick up their dirty nickers and socks lying around. On the other hand, if they don’t help once and a while, they suddenly forget where they can find the stuff they need in the kitchen. That’s my call to intervene. If they don’t do anything, they will never grow into independent adults. But into spoiled brats.”
Encouraging the positive is not easy. It’s much easier to be negative than to give a compliment. It’s a natural reflex to want to improve your child’s shortcomings.
Do you punish your children? Mike: “We looked for professional help, when we noticed that our punishments were not working anymore. We used to limit their freedom: no TV, no soda … Today we focus on positive affirmation. Because in the end, it’s about parental attention. When you always give attention to negative behaviour than that’s the behaviour you’re encouraging. Because then, kids learn that by being bad they get attention. When a child does something wrong you can reprimand it, but when you start raising your voice it doesn’t help … at least not in our experience. Long sentences – like 3 weeks without television for instance – really don’t work. After a day, kids don’t even recall the true reason why they were punished in the first place. But we still do punish. When certain values or rules have been violated for instance. When that happens, we ask our children what they believe is an appropriate sanction for what they have done. Together we compromise. Encouraging the positive is not easy. It’s much easier to be negative than to give a compliment. It’s a natural reflex to want to improve your child’s shortcomings. Everyone wants his or her child to do well in school and in life. We are focussing too much on improving weaknesses than on strengthening our talents. That’s hard for us, let alone for a child. The pressure to be perfect is too big. If we all would be more focused on developing our talents and learn to live with our shortcomings we would all be a lot happier.”
The pressure to be perfect is too big. If we all would be more focused on developing our talents and learn to live with our shortcomings we would all be a lot happier.
Do you often question your way of parenting? Mike: “Sure! It’s important to question yourself as a parent. The previous generation didn’t do that or much less in most cases. They lived, of course, in less complex times. Whenever we are wrong about something, we apologise. For instance, when we both quit smoking, it had a big impact on our family. At first we were cranky and bitchy … we warned the children for that. I remember saying regularly “Sorry for my reaction earlier, but I really can’t do much about it now.” The children were very understanding. They also really wanted us to stop. That might have helped them to endure us.” Els: “You’re never too old to apologise.”
A study once concluded that eating together is the foundation of a happy family. Els: “We don’t eat together that often. But we consciously choose the moments we do. When we eat together, it’s important to be really present, and I mean not just in a physical way. Smartphones and tablets are not welcome. We talk and ask each other how things are. We try to schedule this certainly twice a week. Every Friday for example we get together for pre-dinner drinks and snacks and then we get some Chinese take away or French fries. It’s a tradition! Sometimes the children also help to cook. We even play “restaurant” from time to time. Then, we split up in two parent-child duos, one team cooks, the other play the customers. It is not only cool and fun, it’s also a great way of bonding! ”
How do you deal with fussy eaters? Els: “There have been times when I put three different menus on the table, considering everyone’s preferences and tastes. That was too much. Today, the kids are at an age they should learn to discover and taste “our” food. When I believe a dish will not be working for the kids, I’ll make something else for them. So I’m still aware, but not always. No one is made to eat but they have to taste at least once. Only when they regularly won’t eat, I will start asking questions and worry.”
What’s an absolute a no go in food & beverage terms, or a must? Els: “They’re not allowed to drink any energy drinks. On weekdays no sugars are allowed because there are too many of them everywhere and that’s bad for them. On the other hand, every morning they have to drink one of my homemade juices: lemon, banana, ginger, kiwi, apple, spinach … I throw everything in the Thermomix. Sometimes it’s green, sometimes red. I like the idea of giving Mike and the kids a healthy vitamin shot every morning.”
“We always travel with our camper. During summer holidays we’re off with the four of us for 3 to 4 weeks.” Four people in a mobile home. Sounds claustrophobic. “Sometimes, but when that happens we ask the kids to get out and to go explore the neighbourhood on their own. Living so close to each other is also a great experience: you really get to know each other very well.” Mobile home trips usually stand for very long drives. How do you mange those with a couple of kids in the backseat? “For many years we refused to use multimedia to keep the kids busy during those long rides. It’s not consistent with who we are nor with our idea of a holiday. But the kids didn’t stop bitching or nagging in the back. We had to stop constantly … We got all so frustrated and always arrived at our destination completely exhausted. So – much against our own will – we finally took along an iPad. Now we can keep on driving and it remains quiet in the backseat. Once we arrive, all iPads and screens are put aside and only come out, when we drive back home. So yes, we caved in, but at least we travel a lot more comfortably now.” Have you ever travelled in a different way? “We once chose for a resort holiday in Egypt. You know, with those folded swan towels on our bed and doing nothing the whole day, just laying by the pool … The kids really liked it, but we got so bored. We also rented a house a couple of summers because Dries didn’t want to go on these really long rides anymore. He changed his mind, when he realised the freedom and adventure of travelling with a van like ours. Renting a house feels much more like moving your household, right? Travelling by mobile home is adventurous. We choose a country or direction, and that’s it! We buy a guide on arrival, wherever we are.”
Any destinations you can recommend? “Definitely the Isle of Wright or the small French village of Cavalaire which is quite idyllic in winter and Slovenia for its mountains and unspoilt nature. Tourism is almost non-existent there. Our trip to Tarifa in Andalucía was also quite special … the hippie atmosphere, the Moorish influence, and perfect for kite-surfing.”