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.

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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.

May the Force-Field be with you

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‘What does this button do Mummy?’

Joe’s twitchy finger flies towards the On/Off switch on my laptop.

‘Noooooooo! We don’t touch that one sweetheart.’

The kids are fascinated by how I spend my time when I’m holed-up in the office working. They will regularly use all their guile to convince Daddy they are playing peacefully, and then sneak out of the house and run down to my writing cave to say ‘Hi’, brimming and grinning with their own cleverness. Unless I have an imminent deadline I don’t mind these brief interruptions – in fact, I love that my freelance life creates this possibility.

But.

I do wish my laptop was equipped with a protective force-field button. They gravitate towards it like orbital bodies on a collision course with planet Mum. Of course they do. It has winking blue lights. It beeps. And Peppa Pig lives inside the U-shaped-Tube hidden beneath the shiny back-lit keys. It bestows the gift of black-and-white colouring sheets to the printer on demand, and magically creates playlists on the ipod of all those chirpy songs from Disney movies. What’s not to like?

I can imagine that in their eyes the laptop receives an irritating chunk of my daily attention quota and has, therefore, assumed a somewhat mythical quality – ‘If Mummy devotes so much time to this piece of electronic wizardry it must be pretty special, right? And I’m a kid, so if it’s special – I WANT ONE!!!’

Hmm. I feel a make coming on. Surely a laptop can’t be that hard to create? And if it distracts jam-covered digits from my working lifeline for at least five minutes then it has to be worth the effort …

It was. Here’s how it played out:

What you will need:

  • Cardboard or thick card
  • Scissors
  • Paint
  • Plastic document sleeve
  • Sticky tape
  • Glue stick
  • Blue tac
  • Circular stickers
  • Colouring pens
  • Thin black or blue marker pen
  • Velcro

How to make it:

  1. Find or cut out a piece of cardboard or thick card that is just a little more than A4 length (30-31cm), and about 2.5 times A4 width (51-52cm). Lay it flat??????????????????????
  2. Mark a line at 15cm in from each end and create an inwards fold along each line – this will create a centre section that is just slightly larger than A4 in all dimensions
  3. If you have the time (and patience!) you can paint whatever colours you like, on both sides. My mini-Mummys were too excited to wait, so we skipped this step. Brown is the new black in corporate-kid world
  4. Take a plastic document sleeve (like the ones you clip into ring-binders) and place it squarely in the middle of the centre section. Use sticky-tape to secure it down its long sides. The strip with holes in can pass onto one of the folded sections and be secured there. This is you laptop ‘screen’??????????????????????
  5. Turn the card so that the narrow end is towards you and the length stretches away from you on the table. The strip of hole in the document sleeve should be on the section closest to you. Take some Blue tac and place a small blob under the bottom two corners of the card. Press them down onto the table in front of you to keep it still??????????????????????
  6. Reach for the top fold of the card, and lift and bend the top fold upwards and towards you, creating a triangle that acts as a stand for your ‘laptop’. Use two more blobs of Blue tac under on the top edge of the card to keep the stand upright
  7. Take some stickers and make a line of 11 small-ish shapes along the row of holes in your document sleeve. Use the marker pen to write the numbers 0-9 on the stickers. On the last one draw the On/Off symbol (incomplete circle with a small line cutting into it vertically from the top)
  8. Using other stickers if you have them, or colouring pens, create a ‘Keyboard’ of letters and other symbols on the flat section of your laptop. For small kids the Alphabet in the right order and a Space Bar is probably sufficient??????????????????????
  9. Ask you child to choose a few favourite pictures and insert them into the document sleeve. Place their favourite on top. This their ‘Screen’, and show them how rotate the pictures to keep it interesting. They can add new ones as they create them
  10. There is one final flourish to add. Unpick the Blue tac but leave it attached to the card. Fold the smaller sections in over the ‘Screen’ – the bottom section first, then the top one. Make a mark in the middle of the overlap on both folding sections. Take a small square of velcro and glue the fluffy section the bottom, and the scratchy section to the top. Now your kid’s laptop is portable??????????????????????
  11. Et Voila! A laptop – just like Mummy and Daddy’s??????????????????????

My two kids (6 and 3) loved this – I suspect any children much older than 8, or any that already have a wealth of electronic gadgets of their own may not be so easily fobbed off with something that doesn’t actually switch on, but you never know! It may not be a force-field, but it could just provide enough distraction to prevent your own kit being destroyed by inquisitive little fingers. It kept mine busy for about 30 mins (Ella) and 5 mins (Joe). Less time than it took to make. Naturally. But that’s not the point is it? Spending time away from the real thing and actually doing something with the kids is what it’s all about 🙂

 

Do the Strop

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Do you ever feel like smiling when your kids are acting out?  I know that might sound like a weird reaction, but if yours are anything like mine, you may relate to this.  From time to time their attempts at throwing the mother of all strops result in me catching a fit of the giggles.  I could laugh until my sides split at some of the oh so serious faces they pull.  I appreciate that this is not the response of a sensitive and nurturing parent.  But I’m only human.  And their expressions are to die for.  And on some days I feel I am touching hysteria myself.

Admittedly I restrain myself if I sense their outburst is coming from a place of deep upset.  And this can be in relation to the simplest of things.  My daughter erupted the other day because little brother had disrupted the precision-made fairy bed she had set up on the coffee table, complete with acorn cups.  She was seriously affronted and close to acute internal devastation.  Clearly, a light chuckle from me was not appropriate at this juncture.

Yet sometimes … well, frankly they are just faking.

And they know it, and I know it.

And they know that I know it.

A gentle upturn of the corner of my mouth is enough to reveal the true nature of their actions, as they invariably redouble their efforts to gain my attention, with a challenging look in their eyes that dares me to proceed.  So I do.  For these instances I have developed an effective arsenal of responses:

  • A skeptical look and a grin – is often enough to diffuse the situation and send them happily away to seek out mischief elsewhere
  • Pulling their face back at them and then laughing out loud – shows them how ridiculous they look, and can lead to a fun gurning session
  • A declaration of war – in the form of a challenging “You are SO faking right now!” can often set them giggling too.  When swiftly followed by tickling and a little play-fight this settles things down nicely
  • I do the Strop – depending on the severity and nature of the fake, the kids have a great line in hopping from foot to foot, or stamping their feet.  Copying this can infuriate or delight them in equal measure, but usually makes them laugh in the end.  One time my girl actually went on to make a little dance routine out of it.  This, of course, was a very serious business.  No chuckling allowed.

Some days life can feel a little heavy.  I like to lighten the mood when I can, and most of the time the children appreciate this.  At least, I think they do!  I’m sure they’ll let me know when they have therapy later in life.  By which time I’ll be so old I won’t care, and will have perfected my own version of the geriatric strop.  Funny how life goes full circle!

A Mint Idea

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I cooked curry.  We had an aromatic prawn and tomato dish, vibrant red and pulsating.  A white basmati rice barrier kept the sharp sauce apart from the relative sweetness of the chicken dish that beamed yellow across the plate.  The whole delicious combination was delicately contrasted with a light, green scattering of fresh coriander.  Mm mm mm mmmmmm!

I’m an organised cook, and had extracted the necessary spices in advance from the depths of the shelf where they live in harmony alongside the herbs.  These brightly coloured jars were like a magnet to my little boy.  He found a stool and clambered up next to me, all busy and full of excitement.

“Mummy, me taste this?” he asked, proffering a jar of shockingly extra-hot chilli powder.

“Erm, no sweetie, not that one.  How about this?”  I offered the jar of cloves as an alternative.

Intrigued, he scattered them across the worktop (and the floor, and the stove, and down his jumper).  Then he tasted one.

“Bleurrrgh!”  he said.  “I not like that.”

“Well,” I explained, “these are flavours.  We add them in little bits to the food, and together they mix with all the other stuff in the pan and make it yummy.”

We spent the next 20 minutes opening jars of aromatic coriander and cumin, blinding yellow turmeric, woody cinnamon sticks and nutty cardamon pods.  We worked our way along the line of 20-30 spice jars, sniffing, dipping fingers, and rolling shapes and textures between our fingers.  We had a ball.  When at last we’d finished I got on with cooking, Joe keeping a watchful eye on me from his car in the corner.

“Can me have for tea?” asked my lad when I’d finished.  He is game to try anything edible.

So today we had what I call “Little Boy Curry” for lunch.  A mild chicken korma, packed with flavour, but light on spicy heat.  He loved it.

It got me thinking about flavours.

I’m pretty passionate about food, and love to cook.  I’m not always great at it, but can turn out a decent meal.  For me, getting the kids involved in food, and in the process of cooking, is really important.  I want them to learn about how to make healthy food choices.  It’s important they know that chips are made from potatoes.  But most of all I want to give them options.  If they choose later in life to stuff themselves with unhealthy processed gunk that’s their choice.  At least they will understand what they are doing, and know how to make a change if they want to.  So I encourage my kids to experiment, and take them shopping whenever I can.  When I have time, we grow our own veggies too.

Here is a great game to get pre-teens thinking about the food they eat:

  1. Decide on a flavour that can be found in many different forms.  Mint, Orange, Chocolate and Strawberry all work well
  2. Select 5-10 edible things that contain that flavour and create little samples on a plate – keep this hidden from the kids
  3. Sit your child down and blindfold them – working in a small group works best, as they get all giggly and really have fun
  4. Give them a little sniff, and then a taste of each food, and invite them first to guess the flavour, and then the food itself
  5. NEVER force a wary child to sample something if they are afraid – you can do it without the blindfold if necessary

This game is a great way to encourage children to engage with food, and to really think about the flavours they experience every day, but may never even consider.  You can talk about where the flavour comes from, how it is added, and other foods that might taste good as a complement.  It works best with the more adventurous child, but in a gentle form with only 3 different variations that you know will be a hit, it can also be used to encourage cautious kids to try new things.

Here are a few suggestions for sample foods for the flavour MINT:

  • A leaf from the herb itself
  • Toothpaste (just a little, we’re not going for fluoride overload here!)
  • A mint sweet – tic tac, polo, mentoes, humbug, any of these will do
  • A peppermint cream
  • Minty chocolate, such as an After Eight or Matchmaker
  • Mint sauce/jelly
  • Mint tea
  • Cucumber and Mint raita – a refreshing accompaniment to curry, made by mixing plain yoghurt with chopped cucumber, dried or fresh mint, and salt
  • Minted peas – cook the peas and toss with a little butter and fresh or dried mint
  • Minty chewing gum

What’s In the Box?

© Husky, via Wikimedia Commons

Pebbles make a certain sound when they are rattled in a cardboard box.  It’s different from the sound rice makes.  And pasta spirals make a pleasant but light clatter when they are shaken.  Would you know the difference relying only on your ears?

This is a great game for young kids of all ages, and once again is inspired by my resourceful little girl.

Take a cardboard box.  Any box will do, as long as you can close it.  Smaller is better so the children can hold it in their hands and manipulate it easily.

Then take it in turns to put different things in the box.  The one who chooses the contents gently shakes it and the other person has to guess what’s inside.  So simple, but an incredibly addictive and fun game.

Things we found to put in and bamboozle each other with included:

  • A walnut – one that the squirrels had missed!
  • Blades of grass – dry produces a subtly different sound from wet
  • Small stones
  • Twigs – one, or several
  • Pasta
  • Dried rice
  • Cotton wool – this was particularly sneaky of my girl, who was delighted by my failure to guess!
  • A sock
  • Scrunched up pieces of paper
  • A lego brick

The sensory aspect of this game really tests the brain’s ability to associate sounds with shapes, and different materials.  The children loved it.  We will play again.  I have to find a new box first though …. Ella’s experiment with water produced a great splishy-splashy sound when shaken, but reduced the box to a grey mush in minutes.  Nice!

The KISS Flag

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Come on, hands-up – which of you has ever embarked on a craft project with your child that you know is over-complex?  My hand is up.  I know I am guilty of this.

When my son was 18 months old he loved cars.  (He still does.)  I decided it would be a great idea for us to work together to make him a car from boxes, toilet rolls and bottle tops.  He’d been walking for only 2 months, and was still in a high chair.  But I persisted.  It would be GREAT I told myself.  He’ll LOVE it.  What a fabulous way for us to bond.

I was so full of my own cleverness of course that I totally lost that this was supposed to be about him, and for him.  And I made it all about me.

We found boxes together, and he then sat getting increasingly frustrated whilst I manically tried to glue toilet rolls to cereal boxes.  Why does it look so easy on the TV shows?  He started crying.  I nearly did too.  After half an hour I triumphantly presented my poor sobbing lad with a “car”.  He threw it on the floor.

I don’t blame him.

I tried to learn my lesson, but even now when one of my angelic charges approaches me to ask if we can make or paint something I find it hard to rein in my own natural enthusiasm to go large.  What they really want, and need most of the time, is to do it simply.  And in their own way.

Today my daughter reminded me of this.  We embarked on a painting session.   She wanted to use small delicate brushes, so we did, and I painted too.  I was enjoying myself a lot, I’m no Picasso but the act of taking time out to be creative is very therapeutic.  I lost myself in my picture and became aware she had started mixing paint with straws and daubing big blobs on her arms.  A sure sign that boredom had set in.

“I’d like to hand paint” she announced.  Wrenching myself away from my own mini work of art I realised I had done it again.  I looked at her pleading face and reminded myself of the phrase I so often heard in corporate life:

Keep It Short and Simple

So we did.  She wanted to make a flag, a single hand-print either side of a sheet of white paper, and stapled to a garden cane.  That was it, and it worked a treat, I hope you like the picture.  She was delighted.  And I was once again reminded that the simple things often make them the happiest.

Her creation has become the KISS Flag, my emblem and reminder to listen to what my children need.  I’m sure I’ll forget again, but hey, I’m only human!