In Praise Of Older Children

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I often find myself wishing I could turn back the clock and relive all those early stages with my children. How much easier it would be with the benefit of hindsight, above all with the knowledge that time passes so quickly and, almost in the blink of an eye, your children are no longer cute little bundles but handsome young adults who tower over you. I have loved all the different stages of my children’s lives; I was one of the really lucky ones for whom breastfeeding was a breeze (which is fortunate as I never could get the hang of sterilising bottles), I thrived on lack of sleep, was super organised and an ace at multi-tasking. I adored having lots of little people around me who all thought I was the most wonderful person in the universe. Life was hectic, I was always exhausted but I was happy. It was always so easy to solve my children’s problems and so easy to make them happy. I literally could “kiss them better.” How different it is as your children grow older. My mother always said to me. “the problems don’t go away as they grow older, they just get bigger”  and how right she was! it is so difficult to watch your older children struggle with obstacles and anxieties and to be able to do no more than offer reassurance that you will love them no matter what. And sometimes you have to stand well back and let your children do it their way even though you know from experience that it will all end in tears. Instead of keeping Humpty Dumpty away from the wall you have to figure out a way of putting all the pieces together again.Sometimes you need to adopt a policy of tough love (easy to say,not so easy to do) and leave your child to deals with the problems they have caused, all the time desperately wanting to demolish every obstacle in their path like a giant wrecking ball. Letting go is so very hard but necessary and definitely gets easier with practice (or so people tell me).

I remember when I was a teenager telling my parents to have faith in the way they had brought me up and I often remind myself of that when dealing with my own children. I always told my parents they had done a good job and had instilled good values in me so why were they so worried? Now, of course, I understand perfectly – the worry starts the moment they enter the world and it never abates, just the same as the total all encompassing love that you feel for them no matter what.

So I look at my own children and yes, of course I worry for them, but at the same time I can see that I’ve done a good job and that I’ve succeeded in raising five incredibly well rounded gorgeous boys. They can be infuriating. untidy, lazy and inconsiderate but if I’m honest a hundred times less so than I was at the same age and I wasn’t a difficult teenager. Most of the time they are a joy to be with. They make me laugh every single day, they support one another, they support me, they are interested in one another and always take time to ask me about my day with genuine interest. They behave well at school, are sociable, hospitable when we have guests. Yes, they often need to be reminded to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher or throw their rubbish in the bin and even after five years still seem totally incapable of understanding the recycling system but they do respond to clear, direct instructions and will pull together if the house is a mess and “I absolutely must have it tidy right now or I will explode!”And sometimes they surprise me by emptying the dishwasher without being asked, bringing the laundry in off the line if it starts to rain, making me a cup of tea because I look as if I need one or by just giving me a hug when it’s all getting too much and I’m on the verge of teas.

The teenage years are tricky ones but also so much fun. I love the discussions about world issues we have over dinner, I love he fact that sometimes my children will tuck me in bed at night when I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I love the way they put so much thought into birthday and Christmas gifts for me. I love how they introduce me to new music and also how they check my recent downloads to see if there’s something they can “steal”. I love how polite their friends are when they come round for meals and how kind they are to the eleven year old. I love how protective they are of me and how thoughtful they can be about keeping in touch by text when they are away from home or out late. I love how they have the courage to tell me very calmly when I’m in the wrong and also how they are generous enough to admit it  when they’ve been proved wrong.

I would hate to be a teenager in today’s world; there is so much pressure on them from such an early age to perform well, to look good, to be sporty, talented, cool. And all the time they seem to get such a bad press. Yet, for the most part, the teenagers I encounter on a daily basis are incredible:they are confident, caring, polite, enthusiastic young adults who do us all proud. I know that tomorrow I will have to nag my teenagers to make their beds and tidy their rooms but I also know that they will hug me when they leave for school, hug me when they return and when they go to bed, and they will make me smile and laugh many times in between.

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It Takes A Village

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Everyone’s heard the old proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”  and yet so often today it seems to be forgotten and people are becoming more and more isolated in their parenting journey. So many of us live away from family and so have no natural support network when we first enter the parenting game. Many of us may be the first of our friendship group to have children and so find ourselves suddenly plunged into this new world for which we are totally unprepared and for which our friends have no real understanding or empathy. I was in this situation when I had my first child and remember well-meaning friends coming round very late in the evening to see the baby. Yes, they came armed with bottles of champagne and sometimes even the makings of a gourmet meal but all I wanted was a cup of tea, baked beans on toast and sleep. One friend was the exception; although she was absolutely adamant that she never wanted children (and she has stuck to this) she would telephone me every lunchtime to see how I was (sometimes that was the only adult voice I heard all day) never minding if I had to suddenly break off to deal with a baby crisis. And when she came round to visit she would always leave me feeding the baby while she disappeared to wash any dishes lying around the kitchen and generally tidy up. She was a real godsend in those early days providing gentle and constant support in whatever way I needed.

My parents lived a five hour drive away (on a good day) and so weren’t physically on hand to help much, although I did regularly go to stay for a week here or there so that I could enjoy being looked after myself, but they were always at the end of a phone and always seemed to know instinctively when I was worried about something. It didn’t matter how minor the issue was they would always listen and be able to set my mind at rest. And when I visited them or they came to stay they gave the children so much love and attention that I could see them blossoming before my eyes. It was my mum who sat with one of the boys in the bathroom for two hours at a time when he was experiencing toilet fears. She gave him a little pot of “special bottom cream” which he could pop on when going to the loo and which would stop him from falling in and being flushed away. I think he only needed it for a week or so and then he was cured of his fears; all thanks to the mystical magical properties of Grandma’s cream. It was my dad who would be charged with the task of looking after the current baby while the rest of us went for a brisk walk along the beach, to the playground, to the shops, to feed the ducks….It didn’t matter how long we were away nor how long it had been seen the baby had last been breastfed, we would always return to find a very contented pair snoring in unison by the fire.

Each time my parents came to look after the boys when I was in hospital having the latest addition to the brood, my mum would take them for a daily walk always armed with some “emergency money” because “you never know”. This foresight has stayed with them through the years; I am always amused when they are packing for trips away because they will always pack spare clothes because “you never know” and they always ensure that I have emergency money in the car because “you never know” -it’s a good job they’ve learned this as I frequently go out without any cash only to find the petrol gauge hovering precariously around empty!

New motherhood brings with it the need to establish one’s own support network and new mums inevitably join baby and toddler groups simply because they need to make new friends; friends who can understand why they haven’t managed to wash their hair for a week, why they have no idea what day or month it is or what’s going on in the world, and why their sole topics of conversation are nappies, feeding and sleep.I moved house and area within six weeks of my first child being born so knew absolutely no-one. The local National Childbirth Trust became my lifeline and I was soon part of a lovely group of women some of whom are still good friends some twenty years later. We supported one another through all the usual traumas of bringing up small children and were able to look after one another’s children whenever the need arose. Our children benefited from exposure to other adults and from the experience of different homes and different rules.

Friends often come and go as one journeys through parenting. Sometimes you leave old friends behind as they can’t adapt to your new role. I had some who simply couldn’t understand why I refused to leave my baby in the car with a baby monitor beside him while we all ate in a posh restaurant. Needless to say our friendship didn’t survive. Some old friends though become like honorary members of the family, prepared to visit no matter what sort of chaos they may encounter and, even better, prepared to let you visit with your brood, sticky fingers and all. They will step in during those times of need so you can concentrate on dealing with a child in hospital, ailing parents, your own ill health and even if you rarely see them you know that they will always be there for you and for your children. Those who have children of their own provide an extended family of pseudo cousins for your children, those who don’t can be the ones who introduce your children to some of the more sophisticated aspects of adult life. They can influence your children in a way that you, as a parent, maybe never can and, particularly in those tricky teenage years, can provide a more neutral sounding board for them.

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And then there are the other really special friends who are always there for you when you feel at your worst, who will listen to you rant and rave about anything and everything and know instinctively when you need a hug, a glass (or bottle) of wine or huge quantities of chocolate. They are the ones you text in times of trouble and they will drop everything to be there for you, they’re on your side no matter what and will tell you what you need to hear even if sometimes you don’t want to hear it. They’re the ones you can open up to about absolutely anything without fear of any confidences being broken and without any fear of being held in any less regard. I think these are the ones you need the most as your children grow into adults. they may not see your children much but they play an instrumental part in their lives by providing you, the parent, a lifeline, someone to whom you can recount your “child’s” latest escapades in all their gory detail without for one minute being made to feel that you’re a bad parent

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It really does take a village to raise a child: all those instrumental in caring for baby and child in the early years, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and above all the friends who give us so much love and support no matter what. I guess we can also add to that list the support of all those people out there on Twitter and other social media sites who are prepared to respond to cries of help with kind words of support and encouragement just when you need them most. No one can make this journey by themselves, we all need help and in return we all need to give as much help and understanding to others as we possibly can.

 

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He’s Not That Bad! (ex-files #2)

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In my last ex-files post I berated my ex for his lack of support with our children. But this week I’ve been feeling a little like Bridget Jones when she’s talking to her fellow inmates in the Thai prison about how badly treated she’s been by her boyfriend only to hear just how awful things really could have been.

I’ve had a number of discussions with my ex over the last week or so which show that we are at least singing from  the same hymn sheet in respect of the values we want to instil in our  children even if we sometimes disagree over how best to achieve that.It’s good to know that we can put up a united front rather than fall into one of those awful situations where children with divorced parents learn to play one off against the other. That doesn’t mean the boys don’t ever try to do this, just that their dad and I seem to have a sixth sense about when we’re being played and can communicate enough to avoid falling into the trap. I think it probably helps having five children as there is very little that any single child can ever get away with since there is always at least one brother who will happily drop him in it. There have been many instances since our divorce when I have felt very isolated in dealing with the children but at least I have never really had to deal with their father blatantly overturning my parenting decisions.To be fair to him his lack of input into the boys’ lives probably has more to do with his faith in my abilities rather than a lack of concern. There have been many instances when I have felt alone but at least he is still part of the boys’ lives and hasn’t given up on them like many parents in similar situations. And even though he couldn’t for the life of him tell you which year of school they’re in, the names of their teachers or friends or current favourite foods, and will often forget their birthdays and other key events, he does love them and will always be there for them in some shape or form.

Bringing up children alone is hard work. I have a multitude of roles to fulfil and the bottom line is if I don’t do it then it won’t get done. There are times when I feel like I have so many demands on my time I just don’t know which way to turn and I can end up feeling like a dog chasing its tail, in perpetual motion but getting nowhere. Life with children involves constant change; just as you get on top of one phase you enter new uncharted territory. And life has a habit of throwing a few curve balls in along the way so the best laid plans tend to go awry. Some days feel like one big series of decisions and the only thing I desire is to have one decision, no matter how insignificant, taken out of my hands. As children become older the decisions become more complicated as they start to involve alcohol, sex, partying etc. It becomes difficult to make those decisions in isolation particularly if you, the lone parent, had a particularly strict or particularly relaxed teen-hood. It’s equally difficult to involve the absent parent who may have little contact with other children of the same age or with other parents of teenagers. I am very glad that my children know that it is up to me to make those decisions and there is no use going whining to their dad if they don’t like it. This certainly isn’t the case with many divorced parents I know or, for that matter, in many families where the parents are still together. Rather than backing each other up each parent seems to vie for the position of cool parent and will suddenly change the rules to achieve this. My boys’ dad often doesn’t know the current rules but, apart from  a few occasions when he has made totally the wrong decision (a quick text or phone call might have been a good idea!),will normally be sensible enough to ask at least two of the boys, ensuring of course that neither has had the chance to confer beforehand and that any decision would not benefit them in the slightest.

I am resigned to the fact that I am both good and bad ‘cop’ and to be honest I think it works in may favour. The boys know that if they please me in little ways then I will be more inclined to be flexible when it comes to their social lives. They know that if they help me with things around the house or in the garden then I’ll be in a better position to transport them to meet friends. there’s no one else to do it so they need to work around their siblings and around my schedule, understanding that they are one small cog in  a very large wheel. Their dad totally escapes the job of taxi driver and the evenings spent trying desperately to stay awake until it’s time to pick up, something that I do naturally resent from time to time (I’m only human after all) but at least he does frequently point out to the boys how fortunate they are that I will provide this service and reminds them that they shouldn’t presume to make plans without checking with me first. And although I get all the late nights to deal with, the nagging over homework, the never ending piles of laundry, and constant demands for food, I also get all the good things and get to be with my children virtually every single day of the year.

So this week I’m feeling pretty good about my status as divorced mum. I feel like we’re working OK together and that my ex is providing moral support albeit very much in the background. Will this last? Of course not! He’s due to collect them on Saturday for a weekend visit (a night of freedom-YAY!) so will probably say or do something so annoying that my hackles will rise again. But that, as they say, will be another story…..

 

Give yourself a break!

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Why are we mums so hard on ourselves? So often when I get together with friends we spend time berating ourselves for not being good mums, for having an untidy home, for only cooking simple meals, for not being thin enough or glamorous enough, for not finding time to see friends, for not having read a book lately, for not being stars in the workplace. The list is endless. When for heaven’s sake are we going to give ourselves a break?No one person can be perfect in every single way every single day! Why is it that when we become mothers we start expecting too much of ourselves and end up living in a perpetual state of guilt?

I think it starts even before we see that thin blue line and realise that this is it; we’re committed. We often take the decision to start a family and then immediately start to feel guilty about letting people down at work or leaving our friends behind. Then during those long months of pregnancy we feel guilty because we’re not eating healthily enough, we haven’t been to antenatal classes, we’re not resting but running around like headless chickens trying to get as much work done as possible before we have to go on maternity leave, or we’re making mistakes at work because we spend all our time wanting to sleep or are so nauseous we can’t think straight. We feel guilty because we haven’t introduced our foetus to Mozart or the works of Shakespeare unlike the Super Yummy Expectant Couple who constantly remind us how badly we’re doing at this parenting lark. And that’s even before it’s begun!

Then comes D-Day; you’re about to pile into the car to rush to hospital but then remember there’s no petrol in the car and anyway expectant dad is still too hungover to drive. So you arrive at the hospital in a cab only to realise that you’ve forgotten that carefully packed bag of goodies essential to a beautiful birth. Yet another fail, you think. In spite of your best laid plans you end up being discharged from hospital wearing pretty much what you did when you went in with your baby wearing the only babygro that could be found by a desperate (and, by now, very sober) dad. Super Yummy Couple meanwhile smugly leave wearing beautifully co-ordinated outfits. How do you feel? Guilty! But why? Does it really matter? Does it make your baby any happier, will it help your baby grow and thrive? Of course not!

Thus starts the journey of parenthood where we constantly compare ourselves to other people and find ourselves wanting. Everybody else’s baby seems to be sleeping through the night from day three, other mums look svelte the week after birth, everyone else has a happy, gurgling, bouncing baby. Bollocks! The truth is everyone struggles in their own way and if they don’t then it’s down to pure luck. There is no right or wrong way to deal bring up a baby; it’s trial and error with emphasis on the error.

Then along comes baby number two and oh boy, the guilt is magnified a thousand times over. Never before will you have felt so torn, never before will you have felt such an abject failure. I remember the day after my second child was born being in floods of tears as both the toddler and baby were crying at the same time and I simply didn’t know what to do. It took an awfully long time to learn that all I could do was my best and that children would not be harmed by having to wait a while for attention.

It’s hard juggling the needs of multiple children, particularly when we are constantly being bombarded by the idea of ‘quality time’ or ‘one-on-one’ time. I had a wonderfully happy childhood but when I look back I can’t really remember my mother sitting down to play with just me. Our ‘quality’ time was experienced in the course of everyday events: the laundry, shopping, clearing out the cupboards, even unblocking drains. She had the ability to make even the most mundane task seem fun simply by singing silly songs, making up rhymes and by actively involving me; and I think, fundamentally, by not feeling guilty about doing them. I had loads of fun and acquired a multitude of practical skills along the way. On other occasions my brothers and I would be expected to just get on with it and as a result we played together a lot using our imaginations and became closer and closer in the process. She was a great believer in children having time to do nothing but would never allow us to say we were bored, she always said that showed a lack of imagination. I always think of this on those days when my youngest child asks me what the day’s plans are and my response is ‘cleaning,laundry and meals.’ No need to feel guilty at all-it worked for me and it will for him.

I have many moments when I feel like a bad parent but I do know that this could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of the time my children are happy, well looked after, well fed and enjoy living in a warm home full of love. But on those days when I sleep through my alarm, realise no-one has a clean shirt for school, have to scrabble around looking for matching socks and lost homework and then spend the rest of the day careering from one ‘disaster’ to another, I can feel like the most useless parent in the world. I forget about all the other days when things run smoothly, forget about the myriad of things I manage to achieve in an average day on top of looking after the family, and can end up feeling worthless. My head tells me that’s not the case but my heart tends to disagree. I know I can’t always get it right and I know that my family and friends understand that I am doing my best so when will I stop being so hard on myself when things go awry?

I’ve been a mother now for over twenty years and slowly, very slowly I’m learning to take better care of myself and to set aside time to do things just for me whether that be reading a book, having a long, relaxing bath, coffee with a friend or just sitting doing nothing. I am becoming more relaxed about leaving jobs until the next day, after all they’ll still be there. But it’s hard to escape that niggling guilt trip of motherhood, that little voice at the back of my head that tells me I could do better.

Teenage Tantrums

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Being a parent of teenagers, I often find myself remembering fondly the days of toddler tantrums although at the time they were inconvenient and trying to say the least. I was lucky and never had to cope with the mortification of a full blown toddler tantrum in a public place; my children kept such behaviour for the privacy of our own home (or sometimes car). So it was relatively easy to deal with, either by distraction techniques or by exhorting them to stop by the time I counted to three – I never did get to three and never worked out what I would do if I ever did, although there was the time my toddler beat me to it ‘2,3, you all go to bed!’ Instead we deposited him in his cot to scream it out while we beat a hasty retreat before dissolving into gales of laughter.

Oh, for the days of being able to scoop up my cross child, place him in a safe place, and give myself time to take a deep breath before having to deal with things. And oh, how quickly did my purple faced child transform into his usual happy smiling self. There were never any recriminations, every bedtime ended in kisses, cuddles and ‘I love you’s, every morning was a fresh start. Sulking would never last more than a few minutes with the child becoming bored, forgetting they were cross or being distracted by a sibling, a game or a silly song.

How different it is now! My teenagers are physically bigger and much stronger than me; I can’t help but feel at a disadvantage when having to look upwards when telling them off. They seem to have amazing memories when it comes to  my misdemeanours and my promises, even though they forget to put their laundry in the linen basket. They will bring up the one occasion when I wrongly blamed them for something another family member did and ignore the millions of times I have supported them. If I’m lucky they will actually tell me what they’re cross about but most likely they’ll just mooch around being uncommunicative and surly and generally making everybody else’s life a misery. It I try to talk calmly that will be held against me and portrayed as a lack of concern. If I disagree with their argument that means I’m not listening to them. If I raise my voice even slightly to be heard above the general hubbub of family life then I’m shouting. Basically, no matter what I do I’m in the wrong.With teenagers the sulking can go on for a long time and can often be accompanied by snide comments either directed at siblings or parents. the worst thing is that they know exactly which buttons to press to exact a feeling of guilt in their parents. This can be hard to shake off and tends to linger at the back of our minds with the result that we become convinced that we have made a total mess of parenting and that our child is beyond hope. It is only when we look at things in the cold light of day or have talked things through with friends that we can accept that it’s not that bad and that our teenager’s behaviour is perfectly normal.

Teenage tantrums are challenging in the extreme although the basic premise is still the same; tantrums are a way of testing the boundaries and teenagers are just the same as toddlers in that deep down they are happier if you can stand firm and stick to your guns. Just as toddlers are negotiating their path into becoming more independent prior to starting school, teenagers too are preparing themselves for the adult world. It’s a good thing that they are ready to question and challenge rather than blindly accepting what they are told. And it’s imperative that they learn to deal with conflict and stress and to develop an appreciation of how their actions impact on other people.

I’m not sure that a teenage tantrum will ever make me laugh in the way that a toddler one could but I can accept that this is a necessary and important phase. It’s exhausting and emotional but really worthwhile when one day they turn round and thank you for being firm but fair. That really has happened with some of my boys, with others it’s still a work in progress. Unfortunately though, I failed to get it in writing so they will probably deny ever having expressed such sentiments.