Learning to Let Go. Just a Bit.

© Fieldwork - Dreamstime.com

© Fieldwork – Dreamstime.com

I fixed a cheery grin on my face as the coach pulled away and my daughter’s face became a distant blur behind tinted glass in the early morning half-light. We’d touched palms through the glass just seconds before, but by the time the coach disappeared around the first bend the condensation from my hand print on the window had already vanished.

Taking my daughter with it.

My precious seven-year-old angel.

Still very much my little girl.

I’m not a clingy parent. I encourage my kids to be independent. But this was a first. My daughter was off on a school trip for 6 long days, and 5 dark nights. Staying on a boat. Her longest time ever away from home. In fact, before this she’d only ever before spent the odd single night at a sleepover just minutes down the road. And even then she had cried for Mummy in the early hours. My heart clenched at the memory.

I knew she was nervous. Apprehensive. Scared.

So was I.

I brushed the tears from my eyes and got busy strapping little brother into his car seat, determined to put on a brave face. Why? I guess so as not to upset him. But my sensitive little lad had no such inhibition and burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. His concept of time is still limited, but he knew Ella was gone. For a while at least.

And maybe I wasn’t containing my own emotions as well as I’d imagined. He was picking up on my distress too.

I held him and loved him through it. Loved us both through that immediate sense of loss that filled the space where she had been only minutes before.

The house felt empty. All of us were a little lost. I began to find significance in the mundane, lingering over the cup she’d drunk from that morning, the spills of milk around the cereal bowl she had left. I made her bed. Scooped up her PJs from where she had cast them, as usual, in a heap on the floor. No hint of irritation in my mind.

I paused.

If I can be so calm today, why do I let the little things make me grouchy when she’s around?

Her absence made life more simple, of course. No sibling spats to referee. Only one child to guide through the daily round of dressing, washing, teeth cleaning, eating, bathing … But really, what is going on in those moments where I lose the plot over a pair of knickers on the floor? Is my life that shallow?!

No, it’s not. It’s completely normal.

But that first, tough day that my little girl was away was like a wake up call to all the little things I miss because life gets in the way. If she was never again here to leave clothes on the floor again I’d miss it. My heart would ache for it. For her. As it did that morning.

I resolved to take a step back and take a sense check when I feel myself getting irritated over the small stuff.

It has already made me more patient. I’m aware that I actively appreciate both kids more.

Just for who they are.

Just because they are there.

Because one day soon they will no longer be here. And that is right. It’s the natural order of things. And I need to be ready for the day when all that remains in their rooms are the echoes of spirited play, and the faint shadows of clothes once discarded without a care.

Letting go has to be one of the most challenging things a parent can face. That first morning at nursery. The start of school. The first sleep over. The first school trip away … these are the appetizers for the inevitable bitter-sweet dessert of their ultimate, permanent departure from home.

As the week progressed I became more at peace, and little brother started to enjoy his new-found prominence as Big Kid on the block. He even got to be boss of the TV remotes. The school posted short daily updates online, and a group photo. Until those images appeared I never realised what the potent mix of emotions that can be stimulated by a single, static image:

  • She looked tired. Or was she just squinting in the bright sun??
  • Wasn’t she wearing that T-shirt yesterday too? Are they not encouraging cleanliness? Have they even showered??
  • She was standing to one side. Had she fallen out with her friends? Was she feeling abandoned and lonely??
  • I’m sure she looks thinner. What are they feeding her? Is it enough? Does she even like it? What if she’s living on bread??

And so it went on. My mind in overdrive. I just wanted to hug her. How could anyone else possibly take as good care of her as we do at home??

Sheesh. Get over yourself Mum!

It’s natural to worry. But when she arrived home it confirmed all that I already knew in my heart – at a base level she was absolutely fine. All basic needs had been catered for. The rest had been left largely up to them.

And she had survived.

No …

She had thrived.

Proud doesn’t even come close.

The week took its toll on my girl, that much is certain. She had bottled up a lot of emotion during the week in order to get through the homesickness. Although securely nailed-in for the week these emotions have surfaced since she returned home. It’s like she’s been learning to feel again.

And me too.

Relief flooded through me when she stepped off the train into my arms at the end of her adventure. I cried that night, finally able to lay to rest all the fears I had been carrying all week, not daring to voice or even acknowledge them. I was going to write this post while she was away, but found I couldn’t. The emotions were too close to the surface. I was in danger of losing myself in them completely.

But you know, we were both okay, me and my girl.

I was able to hold it together because I’ve had practice over the years at simply having to cope sometimes. What my daughter learned as much as anything in her week away was that she, too, can survive out of comfort zone. And she is the stronger for it.

I learned to let go of her during that week.

And she me.

Just a bit anyway.

The clothes are back on the floor. They still make me grouchy, but I pick them up with better humour now. And I’m one step closer to being ready for the day when I’m scooping up shadows.

Why Setting Expectations is Key to Encouraging Positive Behaviours in your Kids

© Karammiri - Dreamstime.com

© Karammiri – Dreamstime.com

Have you ever noticed how children seem to sense when you need them to behave … and do just the opposite?

I’ve become aware of a pattern developing in this vein hereabouts. I only have to mention that we’re off to the shops, Doctors, or anywhere that requires me to concentrate on something else for five minutes and they’re off. With a glint in their eyes and hands clapping in glee they shift subtly into planning mode.

‘How can we make mayhem for Mummy today?!’

They invariably come up with a set of behaviours that deliver maximum disruption for apparently minimal effort. Not to mention the fun-factor of watching me flounder and fluster as I wrestle to maintain dignified control in public. Of them. And of myself.

Rational me knows that they don’t actually go through this process.

Logical me understands that they are just being spirited, and its my own expectations that create the stress.

Detached me sees that they are looking for boundaries in a different environment, and that it’s my job to define them.

But in the heat of a busy situation, where I’m following an important adult agenda of one form or another, I’m not Rational, or Logical, or Detached.

I Am Stressed!!!

And that’s completely allowed. But that knowledge and freedom-to-be don’t really help much.

Last week I took Joe on an Admin quest. We have been registering our UK car here in France, and Gallic bureaucracy demands documentary-hoop-jumping of Olympic proportions. Flushed with the success of Phase One (which I had completed in blissful solitude the week before) I embarked on Phase Two with Joe in tow.

And a foolish level of optimism.

As we waited, he spotted a water cooler in the corner. He clocked a slightly older child playing ‘Snap!’ with the retractable corded barriers. He saw the pens, dangling invitingly from shiny chains.

Our number was called, and we approached the desk. From behind a dense plastic barrier, thick with grime, a lady babbled at me as I juggled reams of paper. I was distracted. Joe sloped off to explore. My Mummy radar was tuned only to keep track of his presence, not of his actions. My brain was too busy elsewhere.

Halfway through my game of document-tag with the lady I became aware of hushed murmurings behind me. I turned in time to see that Joe had balanced a plastic disposable cup brimming with water atop the pole of the retractable barrier. And was priming the cord for an impressive (and inevitably soggy) Snap!

Papers scattering, I lurched inelegantly for the cup and managed to avert disaster.

Joe looked miffed.

I muttered a few firm words about ‘behaving’ in his ear and returned to the now impatient lady in her plastic cave. Minutes later, glancing nervously behind me once more, I found Joe about to surreptitiously scribble on the wall with a pen. Cue more slightly panicky words on ‘behaving’.

Joe looked resigned. I could see he was already gearing up for his next episode of Mission Disruption. In a mad brain wave moment I lifted him up onto the narrow counter next to me.

He beamed at the lady.

She glared back.

I shuffled my papers together. Phase Two was just about complete. I allowed to relief to seep into my bloodstream a little. The stress began to slip away. I turned to smile at Joe …

Just in time to see him lick the plastic window and blow a loud, spittle-ridden raspberry at the lady.

I didn’t stop to see her expression.

So what is going on in these moments?

This Adventure in Admin was just one example of how the children act out when away from home.

In the supermarket they love to rush up and down the aisles. And steal grapes.

At the Doctor’s they seize the handheld cheque stamp on the desk and thump out ink onto hundreds of post-it notes.

In the DIY store I am forever liberating sharp things from tiny hands, or evicting one of my small charges from a kennel or dog basket that’s on sale.

These environments are new. Exciting. Different from home. The boundaries, rules, and unspoken understandings of how life works at home don’t apply.

Fresh places require fresh limits.

When I muttered to Joe that I needed him to ‘behave’ while on my Admin quest he really had no idea what I meant. Sure, he knows at an instinctive level that standing still and keeping quiet would probably deliver Mum-smiles.

But really … he’s only just 4. To his mind I could have been saying any one of the following:

  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’ve just had chocolate (running madly in circles)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’re tired (irritable and a displaying a lack of impulse control)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you’ve just been told off (subdued and upset)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do at school (largely compliant and doing what he’s told, when he’s told)
  • ‘Behave’ … like it’s your birthday (bouncing off the walls with excitement)
  • ‘Behave’ … well, you get the picture ….

Asking a small child to ‘behave’ in an alien situation is like asking them to suddenly speak a foreign language. Without direction they simply don’t understand. And it’s their job to try out different modes of being in any given situation until they work out what is acceptable. And what’s not. It’s no surprise they opt to try out the fun stuff first.

‘What kind of ‘behave’ do you mean, Mummy?’

So now, when we go out anywhere I make sure we chat in advance about where we are going. I tell them what they can expect to find in the new place. We talk about what other people may be there, and how they will be acting.

I lay out a pick-and-mix of behaviours that are okay for them to choose from in that situation.

And I identify and share a few possible behaviours that will definitely not be okay.

This advance boundary-definition sets expectations that they can safely hang their hats on. They know what’s coming. They are prepared. They feel safe and secure in that knowledge. And they can assume some responsibility for their own actions.

I don’t expect my kids to be perfect (in fact, I hope they never strive to achieve this unattainable non-reality). But I know they expect me to let them know what’s expected.

How else can they be expected to learn?!

The Importance of Being Heard

Pink Flower

© D Sharon Pruitt via WikiCommons

It always amazes me how something so apparently inconsequential can make such a big impact on meaning. In these two phrases, it is the simple change of one little vowel that makes all the difference:

One of those days … as in, where nothing seems to go right …

OR

One of these days … followed by a wistful wish for something

Language is beautifully, artistically, creatively giving. Yet it is simultaneously unforgiving in its demand for vigilance. A misplaced pause or a simple mispronunciation can alter the intent behind the words. Depending on your audience, the repercussions have the potential to be significant.

Now imagine you are a young child.

Your vocabulary and sentence construction are a work in progress. Your efforts at verbal communication are often further frustrated by a limited comprehension of the world around you.

You know what you need and want to say – but lack the tools and skills to vocalise it. What do you need in this moment?

  • A patient listener
  • Someone who is prepared to share a guess at what you’re trying to say
  • A person who will not mock you, but who will see your frustration and work with you
  • Suggestions to help you find the right words
  • And time …

When my children were learning to speak, I tried hard to meet all of these needs.

I still do, and always will.

Because no one – child or adult – can find the right words all of the time.

With this, I can truly empathise.

Part of my job as a writer is to play with words. I love this element of my work. Rolling them around in my head and seeing which way up they land. This is something that comes naturally to me in my native English. But is an eternal struggle for me in French, the language of my adopted country.

Every communication I make in French requires significant brainwork. And more often than not I know I’ve stuffed up big time on some element of grammar, or use of vocabulary.

Frequently when I was first learning French my attempts at communications were met with incomprehension or frustration. And it wasn’t pretty.

It was demoralising.

It made me want to cry.

It felt like my voice was irrelevant.

My self-esteem took a hit.

And every time we fail to hear our children we condemn them to the same.

To stay sane I would tell myself that ‘One of these days I’ll be able to speak well enough to make myself truly heard’.

After 10 years I have one of these days more often than one of those. But those days do still happen. They are a useful reminder of how vulnerable it can feel when you are struggling to make yourself understood.

So whenever I see that my children are having one of those days, I drop what I’m doing, and I pay as much attention as they need. For as long as they need it.

And I remind them (and myself) that one day, one of those days will become one of these.

The Conscience Gap

To Lie or Not to Lie?!

It all went quiet in the living room. That’s generally not a good sign. Between two kids and the dog there is usually some movement, muttered chunterings, outright yelling, the clunk, grind or blip of toys being used and abused. This is comforting. They are the sounds that say ‘All is well’.

But all went quiet.

All was clearly not well.

Thinking back, scraping the dim reaches of my subconscious, I had been aware of a sharper-then-normal clatter. The unnatural ‘crack’ of something that shouldn’t contemplate such sounds. These noises occur from time-to-time and something resonates deep inside when they do, like a primeval drive to leap in and sort whatever problem has arisen. Yet there also exists the parental-sanity-chip that overrides this drive. You know, the one that just hopes the sound never happened, and that the meaning behind it will quietly go away.

Alas, this time, no.

Joe appeared. Padding into the kitchen. Bowl in hand. Broken. He presented a studied picture of innocence. Pretty impressive in retrospect. He must have genuinely believed in the fabrication of a lie he was about to impart.

‘It’s interesting Mummy,’ he began … Even his body langauge had been sorted into a casual half-shrug and open-handed gesture of bemusement. He continued …

‘It’s broken, but I didn’t even throw it.’

Bam! In that simple phrase, at just three days away from the dizzy age of 4, my boy fell into the Conscience Gap. This is the name I give to the space that exists between the desire to Cover-Your-Backside-With-A-Lie, and the Knowledge-That-Honesty-Is-Best.

These two places are worlds apart, yet inextricably linked. And there is no way to reconcile them in the same sentence. The translation of my lad’s simple statement goes something like this:

‘Mummy, I know I shouldn’t have thrown the bowl, but the fact is I did. And it broke. And now I feel bad because I didn’t mean to break it, and I guess you’re going to be cross. I was just angry in that moment. It was an impulsive act, a burst of frustration that was never meant to cause damage. I want to be honest, but I’m not quite sure how to fess-up and avoid your wrath, so I’ll hedge my bets and tell an honest lie.’

‘It’s broken, but I didn’t even throw it.’

The Conscience Gap. A place where our children begin to learn about responsibility, and truth, and lies and consequences. It’s a tough place to be, but I’m glad he’s arrived and I can be alongside him to guide him through.

I don’t mind lies like this at all. They show me that he is slowly learning right from wrong. Their innocence means he is unafraid to test this new space he has found. And I can be there to hold his hand through his uncertainty. I’m proud that his conscience is kicking in. Maybe I’m doing something right after all.

A Huntsman Spider in my House – Book Review

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We love books in our house. They are precious gifts to be cherished and loved forever. So when I was offered the opportunity to review a new children’s book for my blog it took me all of 0.35 seconds to say yes.

A Huntsman Spider in my House
Written by – Michelle K. Ray
Illustrated by – Sylvie Ashford

I have to confess I’m not a fan of spiders, or any other creatures that have wiggly legs and that scuttling behaviour that makes me go all prickly. But I am super-keen not to pass my own issues onto my kids and so am very careful to control my response to bugs when confronted with them. Where I fall short is in actively promoting a happy and lively interest in them and that’s a shame, especially for my little boy, who seems very inquisitive where small creatures are concerned.

A Huntsman Spider in my House addresses all of these issues perfectly. It is a delightful and charming tale of a Huntsman spider who lives in the house of a young girl. She is afraid of the spider, and the story follows her beautifully simplistic childlike thought process as she explores her feelings about it, and the ways in which the spider could be dealt with.

The story manages to deliver a valuable lesson on treating all such creatures with respect, without falling into the trap of being preachy. It leaves you with a deep sense of satisfaction, and provides a practical fear-resolution solution to which kids of all ages can relate.

My six-year-old daughter was able to read the book to me, and my three-year-old son listened attentively – the simple rhyming rhythm of the text creates a natural flow for the story, which is beautifully illustrated with images that are rich in colour and engaging in their reinforcement of the story.

Many children’s books on spiders seek to down-play the scary-spider imagery with caricatured animations that detract from the real creature features. Not so in this book. Although he has a friendly face the spider is depicted as big and brown and hairy – just like a real Huntsman Spider. When I first saw the cover I had to suppress an involuntary shudder, but the more I read this book the more I feel comfortable around the images. My kids had no such preconceptions (my efforts at concealing my own spider-fear issues are thankfully paying off!). My son actively enjoyed touching the pictures of the spider on each page. It was as if he found them reassuring.

And that’s the point. This book isn’t just about what you can do if you find a spider in your house. It’s about raising awareness about them, demystifying them, and dispelling common myths. I particularly like how, at the end of the book, there is a section of facts about the Huntsman spider, and website links where the curious can find out more. One final lovely touch is a colouring page that invites children to adorn their very own Huntsman spider picture in whatever colours they choose.

We don’t have Huntsman spiders where I live (in France) but some pretty fierce-looking House spiders tramp in and out each Autumn and Spring. Just last night I found one resting on the wall above my bed. It’s always been our habit to simply evict spiders who have taken up residence a little too close for comfort, but as I watched my husband capture the not-so-little chap in a glass and wander up the field in the moonlight to release him I thought about this book, and felt content that its tale may cause even one person to pause for thought before they mindlessly kill a spider they find in their home.

The book is the first in an intended series entitled ‘Little Aussie Critters’. If the rest of the stories are as well presented as this then they will make a valuable addition to any bookshelf.

A Huntsman Spider in my House is widely available, via Amazon and the like, in both hard copy and e-book format.
ISBN – 978-1-61448-842-2

Angry Birds and Flying Cornflakes

© Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons

© Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons

An air of evening calm settled over the charming family campsite we were staying at. It was 9pm. Crickets chirped, Cicadas chattered, and Children chuckled their way from toilet-block teeth-brushing into snuggly sleeping bags.

And then. The foghorn sounded. Just as the children were drifting off to sleep …

‘Baptiste!!! Viens-la! Dépêche-toi!’

Which roughly translates from French as ‘Baptiste! Come here! Hurry up!’ It was the first outburst of many in a verbal tirade that lasted twelve minutes. It took place at the play area – just the other side of the hedge from our camping pitch, and about nine metres as the crow flies from the children’s tent. Mercifully the wee ones were so tired from their outdoor day that I could have detonated a kilo of explosives in the tent and they would not have stirred.

But still.

Such disturbance of the peace was surely unwarranted? Not to mention unnecessary. I’ve no idea who Baptiste was, but the poor lad’s only crime seemed to have been playing out and having fun in the designated play area. When Mum had decided it was time for him to return to the bosom of his tent she fired off a machine-gun burst of linguistic abuse that prompted a similar response from her harassed offspring before he reluctantly (and who can blame him?) unpeeled himself from the climbing frame and shuffled, sloth-like back to his canvas abode.

As peace descended once more I sipped my wine and thought what a perfect example this little episode was of the way kids reflect the manner in which we communicate with them. A purposeful, calm approach, sans yelling, would almost certainly have kept the whole interaction on a more relaxed level. Baptiste would doubtless have attempted to negotiate a little extra time at play – it’s what kids do. It’s the parent’s job to manage that. All that shouting achieved was to make both parent and child stressed, and to unsettle the lives of the 70 other individuals in the immediate vicinity.

It’s not always easy to keep your cool with kids. They have a knack for pressing all your most sensitive buttons, and seem to relish winding you up and setting you off to paddle furiously like a bath time turtle, before laughing in your face at the absurdity of it all.

Little tykes.

But an air of calm in the family can only be cultivated if Mum and Dad lead by example.  So next morning, when Joe inadvertently stood on his bowl of cornflakes, catapulting milk and soggy orange shapes all over his Duplo, the cool-box and the camping stove I didn’t shout. I suppressed the feeling of mass irritation that welled in my chest and molded it into something resembling mirth. With a smidgen of careful counselling on the avoidance of future cereal flinging thrown in for good measure.

Joe looked both sorry and relieved, and gave me a big squidgy hug before helping me clean up. I smiled as I silently banished my inner Angry-Bird back to her nest.

 

 

 

It’s all relative

© Rotini - Yellow, Red, Green By Stilfehler, via WikiCommons

© Rotini – Yellow, Red, Green By Stilfehler, via WikiCommons

 

Back in the day, in the time I like to fondly refer to as BeKaS (Before Kids and Stretchmarks), a Good Day usually involved some kind of achievement along the lines of the successful negotiation of multi-million pound deal, or timing a journey along the M6 to miss the worst of the traffic. Such was corporate life. As parent I find that nothing much has changed – I still regard a day as Good when I feel like I’ve achieved something, it’s just that my priorities have shifted a little.

Yesterday was a Good Day in PoKaS world (Post Kids and Stretchmarks) – I replenished the tubs in my kitchen which house my pasta (sprials, spaghetti, penne, macaroni …).

How times have changed.

Honestly though, the completion of this simple task felt amazing. I have a bit of a fetish for buying pasta. I am physically incapable of passing the requisite aisle in the supermarket without a powerful magnetic force dragging me to face the serried ranks of wheat shapes before me, all begging me to lob them in the trolley and make a run for it.

Pathetic it may be, but I’m powerless to resist the charms of the various pasta shapes, and feel compelled to ensure home-stocks remain high and with sufficient variety to make me feel like a daring cook. (Hey, look at me, I can boil three different shapes of pasta … even as I write that I know it sounds daft. As if the kids could care less anyway, as long as it’s hot and has cheese on it.) Still, we all have to get our kicks somehow.

To run out of pasta would be a fail of monumental proportions. Consequently, my cupboard is stacked full of the stuff. Ages ago, when I was still firmly entrenched in BeKaS and my appreciation of time was skewed, I acquired some useful storage tubs to feed my pasta passion, and kept these replenished religiously after every shopping trip. These were Good Days too.

Until December 2007 when my daughter arrived and the concept of ‘free-time’ took on a whole new meaning. Thereafter, the crinkly packets just got shoved in the cupboard in favour of nurturing my crinkly baby. I worked hard to ignore the tubs that winked spitefully at me each time I ventured in.

Babies rock your world in so many ways. Like many new parents I discovered that some days just finding time to get dressed was a luxury. That was my Good Day right there. Refilling pasta tubs? Forget it. Of course, things improved with time, but the fragile family-management structure we’d achieved was disrupted again when my son arrived in early 2011.

Slightly panicky, I ring-fenced a precious half-hour each week for me-time – a little space where I could have a pee and a proper shower without having to break off to stop my toddler creating murals on her bedroom wall, or unpeel my newborn from his vest after an over-enthusiastic bowel movement. So Sundays became my Good Day. For a while. That was three years ago.

And yesterday, tub-filling once again became my Good Day. Life has gone full circle, and yet it hasn’t. The kids have changed my world forever and I couldn’t be happier about that. My daughter was colouring at the table; my son was engrossed in a game with his duplo. Both had batted me away when I offered to play. The independence of little people growing has entered my home.

As the dust settles on the frenzy of my early parenting years I can begin to fully appreciate the relativity of time. What seems important now, may become irrelevant tomorrow. But that’s okay. I’m going to live in the moment. Good Days will come and go, but the best days will always be the ones on which my kids were born.