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?

The curse of the bunk bed (and other perils of modern parenting).

A friend posted on Facebook last week to say that if she’d known that changing the sheets on a top bunk would not only demand every atom of patience she possessed, but also risk serious physical injury, she would never have bought them in the first place. There was an instant flurry of responses from those of us who are the unfortunate owners of bunk beds or high cabin beds ourselves, with similar tales of woe from the parenting front line.

The general consensus was one of ‘if only we’d known’. It’s the kind of thing you don’t read in the ‘What to Expect’ books. About five years after having your little bundle of joy placed in your arms, the lure of the high sleeper will start to be cast out.  bunk beds of dreamsYou will think of the space saved, the practicality, the ease of siblings being able to share a room or having someone to stay over, the fun of an under-bed den or room for a bookcase or desk. Images of beautiful rooms in the GLTC catalogue will allure. Before you know what has happened, you are locked into a cycle of sheet changing which will take you to the very limits of your endurance and possibly beyond.

For those of us who have succumbed there is no way back. We have the choice of leaving our children to stew in their fetid sheets for years to come, or risking our health and sanity to ensure their hygiene. Or, as one savvy mum recommended on Facebook, bribing your children to change their own sheets.

In the interests of public service blogging I have also rounded up some of the other unexpected perils I have encountered in eight years of parenting. There were many things I expected to be difficult – sleepless nights, poonami nappies, tantrums – and they have not disappointed. But these are the hidden horrors, the things only discussed in whispers at the school gates or toddler group, but for which forewarned is forearmed.

Some time during your baby’s first weeks you will hear the phrase Tummy Time. It sounds like a children’s TV programme, and you don’t pay much attention to it at first. Then, suddenly, it is everywhere. Your health visitor asks you about it, it’s the only thing (other than shades of poo) discussed over coffee with your NCT pals, and you are bombarded with marketing emails flogging products to make tummy time easier.

For the uninitiated, ‘tummy time’ is the practice of placing your newborn baby on their tummy for a certain amount of time each day. This apparently encourages the development of all sorts of muscles which are needed for sitting, crawling and walking. If you are negligent in this respect you will end up being the mother of one of those hordes of otherwise entirely healthy children who never manage to sit up or move by themselves…

All babies seem to hate tummy time (except when you want them to go to sleep – advice to avoid cot death is to place babies on their backs to sleep, and so of course they want to be on their tummies). Anna used to scream blue murder when I placed her on her tummy, and I would be alongside her on the floor crying too, panicking because she’d only done five minutes of tummy time instead of the recommended fifteen. Then I had a lightbulb moment, and stopped trying. Just like that. If she ever let me put her down at all (rare) I put her on her back, on her play gym, where she could see me and her toys and look around. She was happy. And despite my dereliction of duty she learnt to hold her head up, roll, sit, crawl and walk just fine. If your baby doesn’t like it, just don’t bother.

A cute toy on the market for babies and toddlers is a bright yellow egg box, filled with six eggs which crack into two separate pieces to reveal a little chicken in the middle. The chickens squeak. Utterly adorable, non? Actually, seriously, NON. eggsOnce this toy enters your home, you will never know another moment’s peace. Curating all twelve pieces of egg in the box simultaneously has been scientifically proven to be as likely as Donald Trump turning down a sunbed session. You will find half eggs everywhere. And even if your attitude to tidying is as relatively laissez-faire as mine, it will niggle more than you care to admit. Every so often your toddler will have a meltdown because they can’t find all their ‘neggs’, and you will spend the next two hours on hands and knees peering under multiple items of household furniture. Eventually you will triumphantly recover the missing four half eggs, only to discover that in the meantime your toddler has lost all interest in Project Egg and has taken advantage of your distraction to draw a beautiful flower for you. On the wall. And has lost the original egg anyway.

If someone gives you a set of these as a gift then this is what you must do. Smile. Thank them. Immediately walk out of the house to the nearest charity shop and donate them. Hesitation or deviation could be fatal. If the present comes from an older family member or friend, or one without children, then they were as deceived as you, and no blame can be attached to them. If, however, the gift is from someone with children under ten, then I am sorry to be the one to break this news to you, but they hate you.

Another purchase you will be seduced into, little knowing the havoc it will wreak on your back, shins and shredded nerves is the mini scooter. How cute will your toddler look scooting along? How lovely will it be to leave the pram behind but not have to tax little legs with too much walking? How bruised and battered will you be when your pre-schooler tires of scooting and you end up awkwardly carrying them on one hip with the vicious scooter in the other arm, relentlessly banging against your knees, shins and ankles? How mortified when your previously angelic little darling suddenly scoots off at the speed of light down a crowded high street, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake? How fast do you think you can move when your child spots something of vital interest at the bottom of the steep hill you are on? The hill which leads down to a main road…

If you insist your child wears a helmet, then it is yet another item to be found and coaxed into before you leave the house, and another item to carry (along with child, scooter, change of clothes, travel potty, snacks, drinks and toys) when the inevitable disenchantment with scooting occurs during your day out. On the other hand, if you let them scoot sans helmet you will be continually plagued by horrific mental images of A&E waiting rooms, x-rays, concussion and broken bones. Your choice.

Never buy glitter. As soon as glitter enters the house, nothing in it will escape unscathed. Shiny flakes will lurk at the bottom of cups of tea, on the cat, between floor boards, in the bath. glitterYou will never be free. Of course, even if you don’t bring it on yourself, there is a very high probability that some lovingly crafted and lavishly beglittered piece of art-work will make its way home from nursery/preschool at some point. My friend is a primary school teacher. When she got married, her class made her an enormous card, liberally bedaubed with multi-coloured glitter. Two years and a house move later, she was still finding glitter in unexpected places.

 

There are more of course. I could mention World Book Day, and all the other occasions which require your child to attend school in an imaginative fancy dress costume lovingly created with just 24 hours notice. Or the Class Bear, who arrives unexpectedly one weekend and demands not just 72 hours of top-class entertainment, but also that his exploits (educational, healthy but also fun) be documented for the perusal of your child’s teacher and all the other parents in the class. Or the party bags which surge in, filling your home with more e-numbers and plastic crap than you can shake a piñata stick at. But the thing about these, painful as they are, is that they are unavoidable, inflicted on you by outside forces. Bunkbeds, tummy time, toy egg boxes, micro scooters and glitter are all brought into our homes voluntarily, even enthusiastically, as we are ignorant of the chaos and misery they will leave in their wake. It is too late for me. But if I can save just one other family from their fate then I will not have blogged in vain.

 

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.

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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.

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Roots and wings

Sophia started pre-school last week, and after a few days of settling her in, today is the first day I’ve left her on her own. I’m huddled in the nearest cafe to pre-school (a good three minute walk away), watching the snow fall outside, and wondering how my tiny little baby is suddenly big enough to cope for two hours without me. At least, I hope she is.

Sophia is an independent, feisty, determined little girl, who rushes headlong to meet life and new experiences, so I think she’s going to be fine. So far she’s seemed to love it, and when Nanna and Grandad came to visit she was excitedly telling them about the ‘yide’ (slide), ‘beep beep car’, ‘yand’ (sand) and ‘tiny house’ she’s been playing with. She is going to benefit so much from the play and socialisation opportunities which pre-school can offer. And to be honest, I’m going to benefit so much from three mornings a week to have a little break from 24/7 childcare and a chance to do some more writing, maybe a little exercise, and remind myself I’m a person as well as a mother.

But, but but. It brings to the fore the contradiction inherent in parenting. My job is to create two independent adults who can go out and make a place for themselves in the big wide world. We celebrate every little step along this path – holding their heads up, rolling over, sitting up, eating solid food, standing, walking, running, talking, feeding themselves, coming out of nappies, getting themselves dressed, holding a pencil, learning to read and write, making friends, starting school, singing in the school Christmas concert, making their own snacks for themselves, and many, many more. We teach and encourage and nag and cajole and bribe and praise. We are so proud of every tiny yet enormous achievement that our hearts burst with it. And yet they also break a little. Because every one of these milestones, necessary and celebrated though they are, is a step along the road to them not needing mummy any more. To mummy and daddy not being the lodestar of their lives. To interests and loves and experiences and mistakes that we will not, cannot, should not share.

If I do my job properly, one day Anna and Sophia won’t need me anymore. All my efforts are directed towards this end, and I would be devastated if I failed, and yet when I succeed I will grieve bitterly for the little girls whose every need from milk to cuddles to comfort to company I could provide for. At nearly eight Anna is already at a stage where she has problems that I can’t necessarily solve, but I still know what the problems are, and a cuddle still makes her feel better at least. In a few years there will be issues with friendships, crushes, schoolwork which she won’t even want to tell me about.

I visualise my love for the children as a very soft, very warm, invisible blanket which surrounds them at all times. They might not be with me, and they might be having problems I can’t solve, but I can’t shake the sentimental belief that my love is so strong that it will enfold them and protect them wherever they are, and that our unconditional love and acceptance will make them strong enough to cope with whatever life throws at them.

And, of course, if they’re anything like me, and they have babies of their own one day, I will suddenly be needed again. “Mum, is this normal?”, “Mum, what do I do?”, “Mum, can you babysit for me?, “Mum – help!”

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Beautiful bespoke lino print created by Free the Birds