Looking at the rollercoaster of family life from baby to adult and everything in between

Friday, 28 March 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

In Praise Of Older Children

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 above 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 could never 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 your children grow, they just get bigger." How right she was! It is so difficult to watch your older children face obstacles and problems and to be unable to do 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 when you know from experience that it will all end in tears. Sometimes you have to adopt a policy of tough love and leave your child to deal with the problems they have caused, all the time desperately wanting to demolish all the obstacles in their path like a giant wrecking ball. Letting go is hard but necessary and definitely gets easier with practice.

I remember when I was a teenager telling my parents to have faith and I often remind myself of that when dealing with my own children. I always told my parents that they had done a good job bringing me up 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 never abates, just the same as the total all encompassing love 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 gorgeous children. 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 are interested in one another and always take the time to ask me about my day. They behave well at school, make polite conversation with my friends, and show an interest in visitors. 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 need to have the recycling system explained to them but they do respond when being nagged (eventually) 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, by making me a cup of tea just when I need it most or by just giving me a hug when it's all getting too much and I feel on the verge of tears.

The teenage years are tricky ones but also so much fun. I love the discussions about world issues we can have over dinner, I love the fact that sometimes my children will tuck me in at night when I'm so tired I just need my bed, I love the way they put so much thought into birthday and Christmas gifts for me. I love how they introduce new music to me and check my downloads list to see if there's anything 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 if they're out late or are away from home. I love how they have the courage to tell me very calmly when I'm in the wrong and have taken the wrong approach with one of their brothers and I love how they are also kind enough to tell me when I've made the right decision even if they didn't agree with it at the time.

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 see on a daily basis are incredible; they are confident, caring, polite and enthusiastic young adults who, for the most part, do us all proud. I know that tomorrow I will have to nag my teenagers to make their beds but I also know they will hug me when they leave for school, hug me when they return from school and when they go to bed, and they will make me smile and laugh many times in between.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

It Takes A Village

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 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 meal but all I wanted was a cup of tea, some baked beans on toast and sleep. One friend was the exception; although she was absolutely adamant that she never wanted children (and 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 and magically 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 and so weren't physically on hand to help much, although I did regularly go to stay for a week here and 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 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 my children 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 it would stop him 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 down to the mystical magic properties of Grandma's cream! It was my dad who would be charged with the task of looking after my current infant while the rest of us went for a brisk walk along the beach, to the playground and to feed the ducks. It didn't matter how long we were away and how long it was since the baby had last been breastfed but we would always return to find a very content pair often both snoring away by the fire.

Each time my parents came to look after the boys when I was in  hospital having the latest addition to the family 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 holidays or sleepovers because they will always pack spare clothes because "you never know" and they always make sure that I have some 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 then find the petrol gauge hovering precariously over empty!

Let's all help each other
New motherhood brings with it the need to establish one's own support network and 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 and why the bulk of their conversation revolves around their little bundle of joy. 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 who 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 benefitted from exposure to other adults and to 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 his car seat with a baby monitor beside him while we all ate in a posh adult only 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 or your own ill health and even if you rarely see them you know they will always be there for you and for your children. Those who have children of their own provide an extended family 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 and early adult years, can provide a more neutral sounding board for them.

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 can 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 everything without fear of any confidences being broken; you can tell them absolutely anything and they will never think any less of you. I think these are the ones you need 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 it is your fault.

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 advice 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.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

He's Not That Bad! (ex-files#2)

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 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 also helps that having five children there is very little that any single child can ever get away with since there is always at least one sibling who will drop him in it, either accidentally or very, very deliberately.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 sabotaging and 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 a similar position. And even though he couldn't for the life of him tell you which year of school they're in, the names of 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 long series of decisions and the only thing I desire is to have one decision to be taken out of my hands. As children become older the decisions become more complicated as they start to involve alcohol, sex, partying. It becomes difficult to make those decisions in isolation particularly if you, the decision-making parent, had a particularly strict or particularly relaxed teenhood. It's equally difficult to involve the absent parent who may have little contact with other children of the same age or with parents of teenagers . I am very glad that my children know that it is up to me to make those decisions and that 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 position of cool parent and will suddenly change the rules to achieve this. My boys' dad often doesn't know the current rules and, although there have been a few occasions when he has made totally the wrong decision (a quick text or call would have helped!), he 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 my 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 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 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 evening spent trying 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 remind the boys that they are fortunate that I will provide this service and reminds them that they shouldn't presume to make plans before checking with me first. And although I get all the late nights to deal with, the nagging over homework, laundry, laundry and even more laundry, and constant demands for food, I also get all the good things and I 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'll be another story.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Give yourself a break!

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 food, 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 God'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 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 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 before we have to go on maternity leave, or we're making mistakes at work because we spend all our time either throwing up or wanting to. We feel guilty because we haven't introduced our foetus to Mozart or the Entire 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 rush to the 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 have forgotten that carefully packed bag of goodies essential to a beautiful birth. Ha, if only it were that simple. In spite of your best laid plans you end up being discharged from hospital wearing pretty much the same as when  you went in with your baby wearing the only baby gro that could be found by a desperate (and now very very sober) dad. Super Yummy Couple meanwhile smugly leave wearing beautifully co-ordinated outfits. How do you feel? Guilty! But why? What does it really matter? Does it make your baby any happier, will it help your baby to 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 every one 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 with a baby, it's trial and error with the 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 the baby were crying and I just 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 understood that sometimes they just had to wait for attention.

It's hard juggling the needs of multiple children, particularly when we are bombarded with 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 every day events; the laundry, food shopping, clearing out the cupboards, even unblocking drains. She had the ability to make the most mundane task seem fun simply by singing silly songs, involving me and I think, fundamentally, 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, it will for him too.

I have many 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 a 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 mind that I could do better.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Teenage Tantrums

Being a parent of teenagers I remember fondly the days of toddler tantrums although at the time they could be 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 when I did although there was a time when my toddler finished the counting for me and told his brothers and me that we could all go to bed. Instead we deposited him in his cot to scream it out while we beat a hasty escape 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, 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 (and I'm not short). They seem to have amazing memories when it comes to previous decisions, my misdemeanours, my promises even though they forget everything else. They will bring up the one occasion when I wrongly blamed them for something another family member did and ignore all 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. If I try to talk calmly that will be 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 reach the stage of knowing 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 being more independent prior to starting school teenagers too are preparing themselves for the adult world. It's a good thing that they are prepared to question and challenge rather than blindly accepting what they are told. And it's imperative that they learn how 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 tantrum 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 I failed to get it in writing so they'll probably deny ever having expressed such sentiments.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Guilty Pleasure

OK, it's time to own up to my guilty pleasure, a very embarrassing one for  a caring, gentle, nurturing mother. I love watching films and television series about organised crime, things like The Godfather, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire all of which I have watched many times over. Part of my interest in The Godfather stems from the historical aspect, I love the scenes portraying the family's arrival at Ellis Island and their early years in the US, but I am also fascinated by the way in which the characters switch so quickly from warm family men to sadistic killers. This is particularly in evidence in The Sopranos where the main character does everything he can to shield his children from his "job" and to steer them towards academic achievement and lawful futures. I am amazed at the almost Jekyll and Hyde personalities of these people, one minute acting as the loving, dutiful son but the next beating a waiter to death for serving the wrong food.

I abhor violence; I really am a gentle person who is patient and loving and kind. I have five sons who have been brought up not to resort to their fists in settling arguments and I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the number of times my children fought each other (they did have horrendous verbal arguments but that's another story). I don't like blood or dead bodies (I can't even remove a mouse from a trap) but when it comes to entertainment the more blood and gore the better. When my children were young I could only indulge my guilty pleasure once they were all safely tucked up in bed and fast asleep; I would watch with the volume turned down low not wanting even the faintest sounds of violence to penetrate the innocent ears of my children. My children gravitated towards gentle toys like cleaning sets, play kitchens, play shops, arts and crafts and spent hours immersed in an imaginative world where violence played no part. As they grew older they started to show an interest in the history of the World Wars and learned about the weaponry and battles but still were gentle and non combative.
We had many discussions about the futility of warfare and how violence did not solve problems. Little did any of them know my guilty pleasure.

But boys grow up and become men and become aware of the cruelty that exists in the world. At some point my eldest son wanted to watch The Godfather films, mainly as background to learning about 1920s America, but also because he'd heard what amazing films they were.  I was happy to oblige and dutifully sat to "supervise" his viewing. I think at some point during the films it must have become obvious that I had watched them many times before. The proverbial cat was definitely out of the bag! The bonus was that the two of us could dust off the boxed set of The Sopranos (hidden away during those years when the boys went to bed too late to allow me to watch alone) and we could start watching together from the beginning. Interestingly he too was fascinated in the psychology of the gangsters rather than watching purely from the point of view of the violence. He too is the gentlest of people, proof that watching violence doesn't make us condone it or become violent ourselves. One thing these films has taught us though is that you can't always tell what a person is like from the outside; many seemingly innocuous people are in reality monsters just as some people who appear gruff on the outside are really pussy cats.

My eldest child is away at university and my youngest still far to young to watch such things so my guilty pleasure is once more on the back burner, although I have been watching Game of Thrones, which has no shortage of bloody scenes, with two of the teenagers, so for the most part now I indulge my totally innocent pleasure of romcoms; one extreme to the other! But I am sure in time I will return to the gangster movies, perhaps I will become like my own Grandmother who loved watching films in which Charles Bronson played a vigilante. Actually, I seem to remember having to stay up to watch with her to make sure she got to bed afterwards. Perhaps that's where it all started.....

Anyone else out there who shares my guilty pleasure?