Children and choices

Anna went horse riding for the first time on Saturday afternoon, as part of her friend’s birthday party. She absolutely loved it, and has talked of very little else since. Seriously. What I don’t know about the beauty of Poppet’s long-lashed eyes, the velvety texture of her nose or the all round angelic sweetness of her disposition is surely not worth knowing. Although I suspect that won’t preclude me being told more about it anyway.

anna riding

When she was a baby, horse riding was a bit of an in-joke for husband and me, because our antenatal teacher had a daughter aged 10 or so, who was obsessed with horses, and  the teacher joked that she basically had to remortgage the house to afford the lessons. She advised all of us parents to be to keep our offspring well away from the stables if we wanted to avoid a life of equine induced penury. So, on a country holiday when she was six months old we would dramatically shield Anna’s eyes if we passed a field of horses, and I haven’t introduced her to any of the series of pony books I devoured at her age. Luckily for my parents I am allergic to horses, so they were saved from that potentially expensive hobby.

It’s made me reflect more, though, on something I’ve pondered before. As parents, husband and I want our daughters to fulfil themselves and to reach their true potential in whatever gifts they have. But, how the hell do we know what these are?

The thing I was good at was reading, making sense of what I read, talking about it, and then writing things myself. It set me up nicely for a degree in English Literature, a career in healthcare management (umm) and most recently becoming a blogger and novelist. How did I know this was my talent? Well, my parents were both librarians, and our home was filled with books. I gravitated naturally towards them, and of course the school system is well set up to deal with children who like reading and writing!

But how to discover and nurture other talents in our children? There is so much choice these days, such a plethora of weekend and evening and holiday activities available, but I am firm in my belief that it’s not a good idea to spend too much time in organised activities, as children need time to just be. We’re very lucky that Anna’s school runs some fantastic and affordable after school clubs, and so she has been able to try lots of different things. I am strict about no more than two activities a week, but that has still given her scope to try out French, art, running, choir, and drama, and she’s about to start football this week. I don’t think any of them are going to be her lifelong passion. She hated French, and dropped it very quickly. She loves choir and singing, and it has been brilliant for her confidence, but I don’t see her as a professional singer.

Obviously in many areas you can discover a passion as a teenager or adult and pursue it independently. But in other areas – ice skating, ballet, horse riding, music – my understanding is that if you don’t start young enough then you will never be able to reach your full potential. Which feels like an enormous responsibility as a parent!

If we respond to Anna’s wave of enthusiasm for riding by booking her a course of lessons, then we might just be setting her on the path to a place in the Olympic 2028 British show-jumping or dressage team. Or we might be wasting time and money which should be spent on piano lessons to nurture our little Eileen Joyce.

Some parents get round this dilemma by signing their child up for every conceivable extra-curricular activity, theorising that this gives them the chance to see where their talents and interests might lie. I can see why this approach might appeal, but I can’t help thinking it is also quite likely to result in a jaded and exhausted child who wants nothing  more than to spend their teenage years lying on the sofa staring blankly at the television and eating Wotsits.

So, what do we do? Do we wait for the children to express an interest and encourage them to follow that? But what if their fancy lights on an expensive trombone, only to wane a few weeks later? Do we just encourage them in our own interests? Well, yes, to a large extent we already do this, and Anna is perhaps already more interested in history, architecture, books and politics than a typical eight year old. But that approach seems a little narrow, not to mention narcissistic. Is the manic activity drive the answer after all? But how can children develop independence and creativity if they never have any time to themselves?

We will probably continue to bumble along much as we are now; sharing our own enthusiasms with our daughters, supporting them to try new things which cross their path, taking advantage of the opportunities provided through school, allowing a healthy amount of down-time and keeping our fingers crossed!

What do you think? Is over-scheduling a problem for modern children (and parents!)? When does supportive become pressurising? Or does our duty to help our children fulfil their potential mean that we should expose them to as many different opportunities as possible?

A day in the life

vintage-exhausted-woman-photo

By the time husband arrived home at about 7pm last night I was almost crying with exhaustion. At first I couldn’t really understand why, because Sophia had (miracle of miracles) actually slept through the night before, therefore I’d had the Holy Grail of an uninterrupted 8 hours sleep. Then I reflected on the day. Lots of it is actually fairly standard stuff in the life of a SAHM – which actually goes some way to explaining why I haven’t managed to stay awake long enough to watch the 10 o’clock News in eight years.

Preparing for school was the normal fun. Anna now gets herself ready, by and large, but every single morning she seems astounded at being asked to do so. She finishes breakfast sinks onto the sofa with her book, still in PJs, and when I ask her to go upstairs, wash her face, clean her teeth, get dressed, brush her hair  and so on, she looks at me with the not unwilling but startled and slightly sceptical air of someone who has been asked to borrow a giraffe from the zoo and teach it to play dominoes, rather than someone being asked to perform the same standard routine she does every single weekday. If I forget to mention a stage, hair brushing for example, then it is not carried out. Looking at her tangled bed-head I ask “have you brushed your hair?” and she gazes back all wide-eyed indignation “but you never told me to brush my hair”. Well, no. Maybe this morning I didn’t specifically mention it, but I’ve never yet let you go to school without your hair being brushed, so it perhaps wouldn’t have taken a super-human level of ingenuity to see that one coming.

Whereas Anna’s ultra-passive approach to the morning routine might irk, I still find it infinitely preferable to her sister’s very strong desire to play an active part in proceedings. The exclamation “No, Fia do it!” rings round our house from morning until night. We are barely permitted to do anything for her, regardless of whether or not she is capable of performing the activity for herself.

With teeth-cleaning I have the twice-daily choice of standing helplessly by while she contentedly chews her toothbrush for a few moments, or attempting to put her in a headlock whilst jabbing the brush in the vague direction of her mouth as she screams and writhes and kicks. As fast as I fasten one side of the nappy, she is unfastening the other side. I’m going to try potty training very soon, not because I have any evidence that she is ready, simply because I’m exhausted by the ongoing struggle to get a clean nappy onto her bottom. Getting her dressed is my morning workout, as she sprints from one end of the house to another in between each stage. One arm in vest – and she’s off. Chase, catch, other arm in vest. And she’s off. Chase, catch, one foot in tights…etc etc etc. I’m really looking forward to the warmer weather when there are fewer clothes to worry about.

Finally everyone is dressed and abluted to a halfway acceptable standard. We leave the house. It is pouring with rain. School is only a five minute walk away, but by the time we get there we are all drenched. Undaunted (well, only a little bit daunted), I press on with my plan to take Sophia to the library. Uncaged from her sopping wet buggy (she refuses to have the rain cover on and kicks it off if I am unwise enough to make the attempt), she proceeds to completely ignore all the books and treat the library as her own personal Olympic training ground – climbing, bouncing, running, jumping. In the split seconds between trying to coral Sophia, I managed to choose two picture books for her, and two chapter books for her sister. One of Anna’s books even tied in with her history topic for the term, so I think I get some extra mummy points for that. Even though I’m in minus points for allowing my toddler to use the little sofa in the children’s library as a trampoline.

Thankfully the rain has stopped, so I abandon any attempt to get Sophia back into the buggy and we walk home together, exclaiming at marvels like diggers and vans and puddles and discarded Happy Meal boxes as we go. If I’m not in a rush to get somewhere on time, I genuinely enjoy being forced to slow down to toddler pace and observe things I wouldn’t otherwise notice.

We get home, and I am about to prepare lunch when there is a knock on the door. Thankfully not an insatiably greedy tiger, but a charming man from Thames Water who wants to talk to me about the new meter that has just been installed, check the property for leaks, put water-saver things in our toilet cisterns and do a questionnaire on water usage with me.

“Shouldn’t take more than half an hour, Madam.”

Quickly insert Charlie and Lola DVD, and attempt to focus on all the Very Important Things being imparted, as well as ensuring that Sophia is still contentedly zombified in front of the telly, and not attempting any of her extreme gymnastics moves or tormenting the cat. Absorb fact that we’re going to be paying between £100 and £200 a year more for our water, and crack on making lunch.

Put Sophia down for her nap. SHE DOESN”T SLEEP! She’s quite happy playing in her cot, calling me back every few minutes for a little chat, but she is determinedly awake. Until ten minutes before we need to leave for the school-run when she falls into a deep and impenetrable slumber from which I have to almost shake her awake. She is tearful and grumpy, but we’re running late, and I’m also collecting two of Anna’s friends to come round for tea and play, so I have no choice but to dump her in buggy and dash off to school. It’s pouring down again, inevitably. Mid-sprint my dodgy hip joint decides it is not happy, and I have to limp-run the rest of the way.

Get home with Anna and her two friends, B and L. They have snacks and then go into the garden to play (it’s now stopped raining). I am reading to Sophia when I hear splashes and muffled giggles from the kitchen. I go to investigate and find the kitchen floor awash with muddy water and the three girls standing round the sink.

“What are you doing, girls?” I ask in the faux-honied tones you have to adopt when dealing with other people’s children.

“We’ve found some rocks in the garden, and are washing them in case they have silver or gold deposits in them.”

Right.

“Well, perhaps you could wash them outside, what do you think?”

Off they go again. Peace once more, until Anna and B arrive back.

“L is upset.” they inform me.

“Why is L upset?”

“Because she’s stuck.”

“Where is she stuck?”

“On the shed roof.”

Yes. Of course she is.

I abandon Sophia to their tender care and go to the rescue. Enquiries as to why L was on the shed roof are met with an eye-rolling world-weariness at my stupidity.

“Because we’re the Top of Roof Gang! So we have to be on the roof.”

I gently suggest alternative activities. One of which, heaven help me, is a continuation of rock washing. Inevitably they decide to use the hosepipe. Inevitably they are all drenched. I despatch them upstairs to get dry whilst I prepare dinner with a now exhausted and clingy Sophia clamped on one hip.

B and L’s dad arrives to collect them, just as Sophia (still surgically attached to me) does an enormous poo. Uncomfortably aware that she, I and indeed the whole house, now stink of human excrement I nonetheless make polite small talk and proffer an explanation as to why his daughters are now entirely clad in my daughter’s clothes. I manage to keep off the topic of shed roofs.

We then have the evening version of the morning wrestling match, this time to get Sophia out of her day clothes, cleaned up and into pyjamas and a sleeping bag. Then stories and into bed. Downstairs to do Anna’s nit-combing (she had them again recently, and while they seem to have cleared, I am so paranoid that I attack her with the Nitty Gritty comb and Vosene deterrent spray at every opportunity), before hearing the blissfully welcome sound of husband’s key in the lock. I delegate Anna’s bath and bedtime story to him, pour the vinegary remnants of a bottle of Chenin Blanc left over from the weekend into a glass, and sink down on the sofa to try and work out why I am so bloody exhausted.

My February Books

Bit late posting my February books, but my excuse is that there was a very important 8th birthday this weekend, so I’ve been extremely busy baking cakes, wrapping presents and escorting a small bunch of delightfully over-excited children to Build-a-Bear workshop! It all went really well,  Anna has had a lovely time, and I can now start to focus on other things again, which means getting some blogging done.

helen-chandler-february-books

Happy Families by Janey Fraser

Nothing new year means no new books (with an exception for e-books), so as well as regular visits to the library and re-discovering old favourites, I’m keeping my eye out in charity shops. I picked this up during a browse one morning, but I think it will probably be getting re-donated as I didn’t particularly love it. It was a light read with some interesting characters and situations, but I felt there was a bit too much going on to be able to sink into any of the storylines properly, and some of them didn’t feel totally convincing.

Hurrah For Gin  by Katie Kirby

I follow Katie’s hilarious cartoons depicting the ups and downs of modern parenthood on Facebook and Instagram, and actually bought this book as a Christmas present for a friend I felt would appreciate it, but hadn’t actually read it myself, so was thrilled to spot it on the shelf at my local library. As bad luck would have it, Sophia came down with what turned out to be an ear infection that very night, and so I read this during the many, many hours I spent between 10pm and 6am trying desperately to soothe her to sleep instead of sleeping myself. It couldn’t really have been a more appropriate read, and as well as making me laugh, it also helped me feel I wasn’t alone in this midnight madness called motherhood.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

Regular readers of my book blogs will know that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. This book is my secret shame. Amongst Christie aficionados this is generally considered to be one of her worst novels – but I absolutely love it! It is an adventure story, rather than pure detective fiction, and I just love it for the sense of period and atmosphere. When I read it I feel I am living in the roaring 1920s, about to discover a clue to an exciting mystery and immediately head off to South Africa on a luxury passenger ship. Which isn’t an embarrassing thing to admit to on a public blog. At all.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

This was a birthday present from my mum as she knew that for ages I have been dying to read Sophie Hannah’s modern Poirot novels. I love Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, and I was very excited to think that this might be an opportunity to read some new ‘Agatha Christie’ novels, but it didn’t quite work out like that. I thought this was a great detective novel – gripping and compelling – but to me it wasn’t a Poirot novel. The character of Poirot as depicted by Sophie Hannah just didn’t resonate with me at all, and so the only way I could enjoy the novel was by reading it as a stand-alone book, and not thinking of it as a Poirot novel at all.

False Colours, The Grand Sophy, A Civil Contract and Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

February was a bit of a mixed month for me. The first part of it was lovely – I had a great birthday with lovely presents, a fantastic day out around London with my little family and a great dinner out with husband and friends. Then it was half term and I chilled out with the girls in Liverpool, which was lovely. Then somehow I lost my mojo a bit. After struggling a lot last year with mental health, I have been feeling much better in the past couple of months, but then had a bit of a relapse for some reason, and it has necessitated self-medicating with vast quantities of Georgette Heyer. These brilliantly witty period romances have to be the ultimate comfort reads, and they seem to be doing the trick to get me back on track, so I might try and expand my reading horizons again soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Georgette Heyer, just do yourself a favour and get your hands on one as soon as possible!

Being Kind

Last week was not a good week. It kicked off with Sophia ill with a high temperature and a cough. The cough was worst at night, so we were getting woken up every couple of hours by  distressed little girl. Then I discovered Anna had nits (again), and so we had to add daily assaults with the nitty gritty comb into our daily routine, which was popular with everyone. The weather was cold, grey, foggy and, it turns out, poisonous. Air quality in London hit a record low, and it felt impossible to get properly warm. Then Anna fell off the climbing frame at school and hit her head, and then vomited, and then complained her vision was blurry, so we ended up at the GP and then being sent off to A&E. She only had a mild concussion, and is fine now, but it was fun at the time. Then Sophia fell downstairs, top to bottom – she was totally unharmed, but this was the morning after the night in A&E, so my nerves were pretty shattered. The week was rounded off by Sophia falling off the bouncy castle at a party on Sunday and having one of her seizures. And this is before even thinking about the terrifying and depressing political developments in America.

But yesterday, even though it was Monday, and (still) January and (still) cold things suddenly felt better. I had a text message telling me that some friends of ours had had a baby daughter at the weekend, and baby news always makes me happy. I took Anna out for a hot chocolate and some quality mother and daughter time whilst my MIL looked after Sophia, and was reminded how lucky I am to have this bright, funny, imaginative girl. I went out for dinner with my closest friend from those early, blurry, sleep-deprived first baby days and we had a proper catch-up and marvelled at the passing of time which means we are now parents to nearly-eight-year-olds. And after pre-school, Sophia asked if she could sit on my knee to have lunch instead of going in her high chair. I agreed, and she leant back into me, snuggling her head against my chest, and said contentedly “Love you” for the very first time.

Someone I know from years back posted on Facebook this morning that protests against Trump’s policies or against Brexit, are utterly pointless, and instead we should be directing our efforts to loving our friends and family, volunteering at church, supporting colleagues at work and taking the time to be nice to people who we come across in daily life. I couldn’t agree, or disagree, more.

Being kind to the people around us is what we should be doing anyway, and all the more so when there seems to be such a dearth of kindness in high places. And the only way to get though these dark political times is to take time to appreciate and value the little things – sharing a meal with someone you love, the sleepy weight of a child on your lap, a conversation with a friend. But right now I also think those of us who believe in hope not hate should try to do a little more, go a little further, and make our voices heard just as clearly as those I firmly believe are far fewer in number but shout much louder.

This morning I have followed More United‘s advice as to what we can do to fight the horrendous ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US – a ban which is going to tear families and friends apart. I donated some money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the ban. I posted a supportive message on my MP’s Facebook page, as Stella Creasy is being very vocal in encouraging the British Government to speak out, and MPs who are taking this stance need our support, just as those who are not speaking out need to know that this is something their constituents care about. And I co-signed the letter which Hope Not Hate are sending to Theresa May, asking her to unequivocally condemn Trump’s actions.

None of this took very long out of my day, and none of it stops me also continuing to try  (even though I don’t always succeed) to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbour and friend. Love and hope are stronger than hatred and fear, and we can, and must, prove that.

be-kind

Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

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Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

christingle

There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.