Monday, 30 January 2017

Boys don't cry


I knew from very early on that I had a sensitive child – he would cry at the sound of a bus driving past or the mere sound of someone coughing. He was difficult to appease. I felt like I was failing him – that he was not happy. I thought perhaps he’d grow out of it; that he’d get used to this crazy world; that he’d become laid back like his dad. 

I hoped he wouldn’t become like me.

He was barely a toddler when I saw the first sign of empathy – a little girl had fallen over on the pavement opposite and she was crying. We had to stand there for what seemed like an age, just waiting for the situation to calm down. He would not leave until he knew she was alright.  “Come on,” I said, “she’ll be okay. She’s with her daddy,” but he just stood there like an ice sculpture, tense with the unease. 

But as he got older, the tears did not stop. He cried the first time I took him to the cinema – he felt every emotion that was meant to be felt but ten times harder. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want people to describe him as soft. I wanted him to be strong in the hope he would never be picked on - I wanted him to grow a thicker skin.

I didn’t want him to be like me. I hoped to God that he was different.

One day he hurt his hand and cried. He had cried a lot that day. I started to feel the weight of it - the discomfort. This isn’t how boys are supposed to be, right? I somehow believed the hype; all that playground bater; boys don’t cry. I had believed all these years that crying was for girls and that, though I would never say it out loud, we must have somehow been lesser human beings because of it. Why was it such a bad thing? I’m not sure if the grazed hand was the last straw for him - but it was for me. I snapped at him - "man up!" I said in frustration.

Man up?

What does that even mean? 

Hide all emotion? Don’t show hurt? Don’t show any empathy to others?

I’m not sure why as a culture we have embraced this notion that a man mustn’t cry. Despite the fact that higher numbers of women experience depression than men (or get help for it), more men commit suicide. It is, in fact, the number one killer of men under 50. Men aren’t talking about pain or sadness. They’re avoiding vulnerability and tears. If hiding emotion is a coping mechanism – a sign of strength – it is failing us. 

So I have a choice. Do I want to protect my son by teaching him how to fit in with society and hide all emotion? Or do I prepare him for the future by encouraging helpful ways of expression so he can talk to friends about problems and get help when he needs it? Do I want him to be someone who battles on on his own and has less human connection? Or do I want him to be free to be truly himself?

Some researchers have argued that the gender difference in tears is at least partly cultural. Stories from long-ago cultures — including those in the Bible, "The Iliad" and the medieval knights' tales — are replete with sobbing, powerful, manly men. And until puberty, with its hormonal onslaught that affects boys and girls very differently, both sexes cry about equally, according to a 2002 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.*

For a long time I have associated crying with weakness. As someone who also feels things very deeply, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have a son who feels such emotion. Along with sadness, I feel immense joy. I perhaps feel heat and cold more than others. I sometimes find daylight too bright. I hear a pin drop. I am distracted by all sorts of colours and sounds and movements. My brain does not switch off. This is why I make a good artist - I am observant at least; I find details in things others would overlook and I make connections with things that help others to connect too. There are times when I have experienced crippling depression and anxiety, and there are times when I feel as though I am higher than the milky way. 

But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Certainly not my children. I don’t want them to feel things deeply because at times the lows are frightening.

So I tried to squash it – to distract my son when he got a little too upset – to change the subject. I tried to train him not to cry because I hoped it would stand him in better stead. I stopped him avoiding films that had ‘sad bits’ in to see if he would get used to sadness, and when that didn’t work I vetted every film or programme for hints of unhappiness.

I was left with Peppa Pig.

And Peppa Pig was not going to get him through high school one day. Or is first day of work. Or his first heartache.

Then something happened. My nana died: His great grandma. Someone who, only weeks before, my son had offered his little hand up to in order to help her into her seat – a voluntary act of empathy for her as he saw her struggle. One minute she was here in our house; one minute he was telling her about school and football – and the next she was gone. 

We were scared to tell him - how would he react? And how would we help him? 

He cried. He cried big tears. 

I cried. I cried big tears.

We sat and hugged and cried.

For what seemed like a long time.

And he looked at me and I looked at him, and we knew. We knew each other like never before – He understood. And for the first time I recognised he had this gift – this beautiful gift of connection that would help him to have strong relationships and do great things. It felt kind. I knew it was important. I didn’t want to suppress it. 

When the funeral came around I told him he could sit at the back with his Dad, or he could sit at the front with me. I knew that, in the same way he refuses to watch films he knows might be sad, he would avoid getting too close to the emotion. He wanted to sit at the back and be distracted by snacks and colouring in. He wanted to be close to the exit, just in case. We told him he could leave if he wanted to – his dad would take him out.

Five minutes into the service and he got up from his seat and left the pew. But instead of heading for the exit he walked right to the front of the church and squeezed in to the pew right next to me. He sat close to me and cried with me. He grabbed great wads of tissues and thrust them onto his eyes. 

He wanted to cry. He needed to cry. I needed him. We needed each other. 

Since that day we have spoken about his great grandmother with fondness. No tears. That day was closure for him. And me. What could have left him angry and frustrated has been transformed into something good. I don’t know how these emotions will change as he grows or whether they will seem, as they often do to me, overpowering and exhausting, but what often seems like a thorn in your side can be the very thing that is your healing – not just for yourself but for others too. I never want to suppress his emotions - to tell him that boys don’t cry. He is stronger for his tears. He knows what pain is because he has allowed it to happen – he connected with it in order to let it go. 



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Monday, 31 October 2016

The unseen things.



This week:
I will be taking my youngest to nursery without a fancy dress costume.
I won't get into work until 11am.
I will turn up to meet an acquaintance, wearing no make-up.
I won't make any cakes for my son's bring and buy sale.
I won't have tidied up when my neighbour knocks on the door.
I will turn down a night out again because I can't be bothered to make an effort.
I will get caught screaming at my children in the street.
I won't reply to a close friend.
I won't write a blog post.

I know what you're thinking, I'm really letting myself go. How could I be so uncaring and inconsiderate? So lacking in professionalism and pride? Surely it's not hard to bake a few cakes or just slap a bit of lippy on. Make an effort. Pull yourself together. But these are what people focus on - the seen things. They do not perceive the unseen things. And of course, these are not self fulfilled prophecies – this is a list to my past self of the things that have happened since, but it could well be most weeks. This is not a downward spiral, or forgetting to look at the roses in amongst it all. It is a story of an upward struggle – one that cuts through the crap of appearances – the good, the bad, and those covered in weetabix and snot stains. 

This week I will be taking my youngest to nursery without a fancy dress costume. He will, quite possibly, be the only one. The nursery staff will ask if I forgot and I will likely say yes in a sheepish manor in order to avoid a long winded story. I will likely look like the mother that pays no attention to her children, like the time I didn't do the arts and crafts homework with him because I had no pipe cleaners in my cupboards (like, what kind of mother am I?!). The truth is that I spent two hours looking for an outfit and couldn't find one his exact size. I thought about the way he doesn't like things on his face and what he would find itchy or uncomfortable or just down-right scary. I attempted to make something; something we could create together before he ran off and had a melt down because he wanted to draw cats instead. I figured that he's not even two years old and wouldn't understand why I was trying to attach plastic bat wings to his back or plaster his face in green paint. I will opt out. I will opt out because I care more about him than I do about what others think of me. At least I think that's the reason. Or maybe it's because I'm too exhausted and he won't notice the difference. So we sat and drew cats.

I won't get into work until 11am on Monday. I work for myself so I can do stuff like that. The other workers in my building see me coming in late and going home early. Sometimes I do not turn up at all. I will look unprofessional. Someone will joke about me being a slacker and I will laugh apologetically. They do not know I have children to drop off and pick up or look after on sick days. They do not know I often work into the night, once my children have gone to bed, getting through deadlines. It's not on anyone's radar that I've been up since 6:30am, battling tantrums, cleaning up rejected cereal and forcing socks on feet and toothbrushes in little mouths. They do not know how defeated I sometimes feel before I've even ushered my children out of the door. No one looks at me and sees my passion; no one is aware of how dedicated I am, or that I want my children to grow up with a good work ethic, with passions of their own too. They do not know that this is not a part time job for me; that this is not a hobby. They do not know how hard I work. And why should they care?

I will turn up to meet an acquaintance, with no make-up on. I won't have had time to get changed or wash my hair in-between getting my children bathed and rushing out the door. My keep-fit routine consists of me solely weight lifting my two year old up whenever he tries to eat dirt, and my muffin top will likely pertrude out of my jeans more prominently than any of the cakes in the cafe I meet her in. She hasn't seen me in a while. Perhaps she will think I have let myself go – that I do not care about my appearance or that I have a bad attitude to life. I will say I don't have much time and she will suggest combining exercise with my daily routine. I will say I am really tired and she will say exercise will cure me. Not sleep. Not catching up on the 3360 hours of sleep I've missed out on since having children, but pushing a buggy up the hill in my Nikes. She does not know I was up playing musical statues before she'd even opened her super soft, bagless eyelids. She does not know how tired I am.

I won't make any cakes for my son's bring and buy sale. I will ask if I can buy some and I will get funny looks. They perhaps think I'm lazy or inconsiderate. They do not know that I always listen to my son read every evening or that I help him with his homework. They do not know that I added all the ingredients to the shopping list and planned a nice baking activity with him, but then forgot the sugar because I was stopping my other son from smashing all the free range eggs over unsuspecting passers by. They do not know that I nearly contemplated going back to the shops once my husband was home in order to bake some later that evening, but by that time my children were in bed and I had a deadline to work on and I knew I was only considering the seen things again.

I won't have tidied up when my neighbour knocks on the door to collect their parcel. I keep wishing someone would call in at 10pm because that's when my house looks tidy, after everyone else has gone to bed and I've cleaned up all the toys and the plates and the clothes thrown on the bathroom floor. Admittedly, it's a limited window of opportunity, because by 7am it will look like a rubbish dump again and I won't have time to clean it if I want to get into work by some half respectable time. And if it's half I'm onto a winner. 

I will turn down a night out again because I can't be bothered to make an effort. I literally can't be bothered to go. Like, how rude and lazy. I have been so exhausted that the thought of socialising with people and mingling with complete strangers (who make no allowances for muffin tops and tired eyes) makes me want to sleep for a million years. They will greet me with the usual 'you look tired.' They do not know that missing another few hours of sleep makes the following few days the equivalent of running a marathon backwards with trainers made of pinecones and two tonnes of Duplo strapped to my back. In fact, who am I kidding, that's what it feels like already. Besides, I have nothing to wear – I haven't been to a mall in about two years and all my going out clothes make me look like I'm from a 1980s episode of Neighbours. 

I will get caught screaming at my children in the street. I'm that mother that loses the plot – that doesn't know how to show her children respect whilst exerting authority, or know how to at least demonstrate calm and collected behaviour. They don't know that I was calm and collected when my two year old chucked his breakfast cereal all over my clean top. They don't know that I was calm and collected when my five year old peed all over the bathroom floor just as we were about to leave. They don't know that I was calm and collected when my two year old found the rice and proceeded to spread it all over the kitchen floor. They don't know how well I handled it, or how calmly I told them to put their socks on for the sixth time. But then I will lose it, right there in that public place. And on my head be it.

I won't reply to a close friend. She knows I've seen the message and I still haven't replied. She probably thinks I'm a shit friend because I just had time to post a status about losing it in the street with my children, but I didn't have the time to find out how she is. The truth is that I care too much to reply to her in my tired state – I want to give a decent reply, to be able to read about how she is and really focus without distraction. I want her to know I think about her often and care about how she's doing, but that sounds weird all on it's own without a 'how are you?' or 'how's the work going?' or with another long awaited response to her reply. 

I won't write a blog post.
But hey, I did. This is it. I almost didn't. People ask why I'm not writing regularly when it's been so helpful to so many people. Instead, I'm blogging about things connected to my career and scheduling social media posts to market myself and my work. I'm pouring all my efforts into other paid passions, making sure I'm earning a living so we can afford fish fingers and Pokemon magazines. I'm doing it to invest in something that makes me feel sane; something that makes me feel alive. I no longer feel the need to debate breast or bottle, or justify pain relief. I'm done with my identity being solely wrapped up in motherhood. I am so much more, fighting for my right to be treated as an equal to my childless equivalent. Is that possible?

This week someone will joke about me being a part-timer.
This week someone will question whether my children are happy while I'm at work.
This week I will wonder whether I can be taken seriously in anything anymore.
This week I will be told that women who want careers should't have children.
This week I will question whether it's acceptable to invest in my own interests and passions.
This week I will get told I'm boring for picking up my kids over going out for drinks.
This week one of the school mums will insinuate that I'm a diva for not bringing cakes.
This week I will make my children laugh.
This week I will pass my husband on the stairs and we will embrace for a second, mid chaos.

Can I be respected in my profession when I have to leave work before 5pm? Can I still be good fun when I can't go out drinking every week? Can I be classed as a good citizen when the only people I have capacity for are those closest to me? Can I be classed as a good mother when I don't always bake buns or make fancy dress costumes? Am I allowed to say I find things hard when this has been my life choice? Am I allowed to ask for a leg up when I'm told I just need to work harder? 

Are the unseen things enough? 

Am I enough? 






Monday, 5 September 2016

Working: a luxury mothers cannot afford.




I’ve struggled with being honest lately. I’ve chosen not to write. I can’t seem to write without being honest, see, it’s just not me. Over the past year I’ve felt the need to develop some sort of weird split personality now that I work for myself. It’s often hard to come across as a highly professional career woman when you write about snot and poo in the same sentence. With every blog post I ask myself, how will my clients respond if they see this? Will they view me as unprofessional if I reveal I am a… wait for it… a mother?

Having a career and being a parent is no easy thing to juggle. On the whole I think it’s harder for women, but then, how can I know what it’s like to be a working father? I am not one. And no doubt there are lots of single fathers who perhaps have it the hardest of us all. But if I speak of the difficulties of being specifically a mother, I am often told I should keep quiet. I grew up being told that feminists were all man haters and shaved their heads. Or was that vegans? Anyway, women who spoke up about equality were seen as a little bit arsy. It’s as though people think I want to put men down as opposed to giving women a leg up, simply by speaking truthfully about overcoming the difficulties I face. It’s as though I do not value the men I work with (and it’s entirely because I do value working with them that I write stuff like this). It’s not poetic licence to make me sound all diplomatic by saying I am an equal fan of the male gender. It’s a no brainer. I married one of them. I gave birth to two. If anything I prefer working with people who are different to me; who think a little differently and challenge my work in new ways.

To be honest (here I go with that honesty thing) I wrote myself off the moment I found out I was pregnant with my first child. To you that sentence should probably say ‘I wrote my career off’, but to me they are one and the same. It’s not that I didn’t want a family, just that I was passionate about lots of other things besides. People informed me that my career was done – that I was all about the kids now. I was literally told to throw my diary in the bin. You can’t have it all, you know? They would tell me, and god knows they are right. They are right because my house is untidy and I don’t get much sleep, but they’re wrong about the passion I have always had for my career. And when I say career that sounds like a shallow word to a lot of people – like it’s all just about making money and spending time away from my kids. But it’s not like that, it’s an expression of who I am: a vocation. When people tell me to stop doing it I feel like they’re telling me not to eat. 

I’ve realised how quick some people are to assume that because, say, I’m at home with my poorly child, I’m actually a stay at home mum and my career is somehow a hobby. I often ask myself, if I were a father would it be assumed that I were a stay at home dad or less professional in any way? But women who speak out about everyday sexism are just accused of being divas, aren’t they? And I’m really not, you know? I really just want there to be no issues. I really want to whole-heartedly invest into my work and my kids without anyone or anything making it harder for me. And that’s certainly not that I’m afraid of difficulties or hard graft, but that I could do without more of those things than my male counterparts. I could do without having to fight for equal pay on top of everything else I have to do. I could do without having to work harder to prove my professionalism, simply for having children. For a time I felt the need to retreat; to just crack on with my work and not kick up a fuss – to just accept everyday sexism is something I would have to live with. And with all things there is perspective to take into account. Like, how many vulnerable women are forced into slave labour and work that is exploitative? But that shouldn’t stop us speaking up about the things that are important to us or seeking change that includes these women (and men) too.

I recently went on holiday. With my friends. People asked me: "Does your husband mind?" and "Who’s looking after the kids?" I told them what an amazing man I married who can – yes – actually clean up shit. No kidding. He doesn’t sit there like a robot with the tv remote. He doesn't think, crap, how do I use a spoon? Or, how do I communicate with these strange beings with chubby cheeks? And little do these people realise by asking such questions they have degraded both sexes in one fell swoop.

So, yeh, I went on holiday with my friends and had the most amazing time. But after a year of working for myself it suddenly hit me how incredibly hard I have been working. It’s funny that, isn’t it? That it takes you to stop for you to realise how crazy your life is? I feel rested yet exhausted. Confronted yet enlightened. Fulfilled yet needing change. I feel like giving up yet persevering all at the same time.

But how can anything change? And how can I even complain? What, you’ve just had a week with your mates in the sun? What, your husband let you do that? Lucky bugger. Yes I am. So what of those that aren’t so lucky? Who will stick up for them? Who will give them a break? How can things change? 

And no, I don't just mean for me. Because every working mother I meet is exhausted: doing too much. Most of whom are barely braking even; there’s no financial gain to them working. What does that tell you? They need to work. They need to have careers for their sanity, their passion, their personalities, their desire to learn, their self esteem, their relationships. People ask me "are you doing too much?" Yeh, I say, I’ll give up the kids (as I do with the sarcasm that makes most people laugh nervously – wait, is she serious?) But that question – me doing too much – isn’t really about that, is it? What they’re really saying, no matter how well intentioned, is do you think you should pack in your job? Just focus on the kids now. And I in no way want to insinuate that my career is more important to me than my children, but just that it is important. Is that okay? It’s important the same way my husband’s career is important to him. It’s important to me the same way The Queen’s job is important to her, or the lady at Tesco who needs her three shifts a week in order to have a break from family life. It’s important to me the same way it’s important to the majority of male career men. And sure, I talk about snot and poo, but behind all that is this massive passion to create and to learn and to invest into the world around me. And not only that but the desire to kick ass at what I do. To be competitive. To be a good businesswoman. To make money. To do those things I was told girls couldn't do.

Is that okay?

Recently a friend told me of all the passions she had and her drive for learning new skills, only to end with a huge sigh at the realisation that there was no possibility of investing in her career. Who will look after the kids? How could they afford childcare? I wanted to help her, to give her a leg up. But how could I when I’m still only on the ground floor myself? Of course there are those that want to give up their careers to look after children, but shouldn’t this be down to individual couple’s preferences as opposed to circumstance? The vicious circle is that mothers are, on the whole, the ones who stay at home because they typically earn less. It doesn't make sense for them to work. And here we have a problem because it leaves even the most equal of relationships still unbalanced. My husband is the one who encouraged me to pursue my own work and has made considerable sacrifices in order for me to do so, but I’m still the one who does the school runs and sick days. The fancy dress costumes and homework. The bath times and bed times. It’s not financially viable for him to cut his hours any further until I’m consistently earning more than him. That’s not a sympathy vote in any way, I'm grateful I have a career I love, but I would love for future generations of mothers to have an easier life should they choose to work.

"How do you do it?" I get asked that question a lot, probably along with all working mothers. And I hope in years to come more fathers will be asked that question too as opposed to whether they are hands on dads or whether they are babysitting whenever they are simply parenting their children.

"How do you do it?"

I do it because I work late into the night.

I do it because I don’t often take breaks.

I do it because I often skip meals.

I do it because I don’t always get around to tidying up.

It's not advisable, is it? People don’t see that side, do they? They assume that you’re somehow a superhuman. But those are the hows and not the whys. If you were to ask me why I do it, I would say:

I do it because I’m passionate about my work and it makes me feel alive.

I do it because I want to give something back to the world around me – to add colour, ideas and thought. I want to make people laugh, or shed a tear - either way to make them react through a connection to my work.

I do it because I want my boys to grow up with a work ethic, that’s not solely from their father but their mother too. I want to teach them to invest into their passions and live life to the full. I want them to treat women equally.

I do it because I want to be an encourager to future generations of creatives. I want to be honest about my journey and make life easier for those one step behind.

I do it because I want to learn about business and leadership. I want to have confidence to sell my services well and make money. 

Is that okay?


The hows are all based on circumstance, and the whys are not. And maybe my boys’ generation will be the one to make the changes for the circumstances women often find themselves in. Maybe they’ll grow up to be the first CEOs who give part-time workers (majority mothers) the option of investing in their skills and career progression. Maybe they will be the ones who are able to work part-time to help raise their children, should they choose to or be able to have them. But regardless, I will keep on working hard and pushing a few more glass ceilings like the women before – those whom I am forever indebted to. Here’s to the next generation of mothers and here’s to their choice to work should they want to. Here’s to the amazing fathers who work alongside us. And here’s to my amazing husband, who has given me the chance to pursue a career I love, one that other women may not be so privileged to do.

women of steel
During both World Wars, thousands of women were conscripted to work in the factories and steel mills to keep them running whilst the men were away fighting. The women took on these roles on a lot less pay, which were often dangerous and physically demanding, alongside looking after their families. 



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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"I should never have had children"




"I should never have had children," she said to me with anguish in her face. I was shocked that a lady in her nineties could be so filled with regret, not least about the two lives she had created.



"I just couldn't cope," she sighed.

Maybe there was evidence of mental health issues undealt with: Maybe it was being forced to move away from home at a young age to do a profession she didn't want to do. Maybe it was the trauma of witnessing war first hand; of nursing injured patients who'd had limbs blown off. Maybe it was having her husband die of illness and marrying into a second abusive marriage.

"You could understand why he hit her," people would say. 

Maybe she never really wanted children at all. No doubt it was even more taboo to choose not to as a childbearing woman in the 1940s. Society didn't allow for women who wanted to make choices. Society didn't allow for trauma or mental health issues. Many have praised the time as more positive than today: Mental illness didn't exist in our day, they say, we just had to crack on.

And crack on she did. 

She's the same woman who told me I'd always suffer too, that I'd never be able to make a good decision. "It's a curse," she would say to me. And I don't think what she meant was the curse of a bad decision, but the curse of not being able to accept any sort of outcome. Every decision feels like the wrong one: inflicted with the deep rooted perfectionism that has plagued my life too. Perhaps she was right.

"I should never have had children," I found myself saying in my head this week. I suddenly caught the thought and named it for what it was; utterly ridiculous. Of course I'd never say that to anyone else - people would misinterpret that as me wishing my children away, which is an entirely different thing altogether. Perhaps only perfectionists will truly understand that juxtaposition; that feeling of things not being altogether right, and so your brain instantly writes it all off as useless. You fall off your bike and you're reluctant to ever get back on it again. What could I have done differently? Perhaps never have got on a bike in the first place? And you say these things to yourself in a split second; a ridiculous moment of self loathing for not being good enough: you should never have got on a bike in the first place, you say to yourself, despite the fact that of course you will, and the fact that you will have countless more enjoyable bike rides thereafter.

"I should never have had children."



And what that meant was: I'm not a good enough mother. I'd not had time to bake cakes for my son's school like every other parent seemed to. Who am I kidding, I can't even bake. The last time I baked something it welded so hard to the tray you could pass it as kryptonite. Except less edible. I can't bake, I'm not fit to be a mother. Why didn't anyone tell me that baking was a requirement? I arrived to school late again. My 18 month old had had me chasing him round the house waving a pair of Clarkes shoes at him, until I had to pin him down and force them on his deliberately curled up toes. Meanwhile my five year old was not cleaning his teeth as I'd asked, he was instead distracted - stood in the middle of the lego bricks he's left out with his jaw open, gawping at whether the pictures on the wall were straight. See, he has it too. There's only so long before I start to hate my own raised voice amidst the screams and moans and the general chaos. Its only a matter of time before I can't even hear myself think and I feel like screaming so loud that all the universe can hear. I don't, of course. I just crack on.

I find myself longing to be at my work desk, a place of escape. I feel guilty at the pleasure I get from silence, deep down knowing I'll look back with rose tinted glasses at a time when my children curled up their toes to stop me putting their shoes on. I sometimes think about whether I'd have children had I not felt pressure from society. Maybe I wouldn't. I believed it when people told me I was selfish. I loved children, but I found them exhausting. What's wrong with me? Where's this maternal gene I'm supposed to have? I felt like an anomaly, like if I owned up to the truth no one would accept me as a decent human being. But everyone was always on at me: "when are you going to have a baby? When are you going to have a baby? Your body clock is ticking." I got told I was selfish not to want children.

Now I just get told I'm selfish if I don't enjoy every minute.

Or bake scones. 

It seems utterly ridiculous now that I would make a choice simply out of fear of what others thought of me, and that's of course not the main reason I had children. I remember when my husband and I decided to have a baby - It was out of a place of love and trust. We told each other we would be there for one another despite the hardships and the judgements and the sleeplessness. We told each other we would do things differently; that we would shut out the expectations and the need to be perfect. I forgot all about the lack of desire to hang out with kids, and thought about the love I have for people, for relationships, for fun and stupidity, for water fights and silly dancing, and for my man who would make an amazing Dad. I secretly hoped that it would bring me more joy than pain; that it would bring me a new sense of purpose; that I would have a greater capacity for love.

And it did.

But it's been hard. I sometimes feel like I'm not coping. I sometimes wonder whether my kids will grow up to hate me. I've realised that the old lady's regrets are not out of a selfishness, but out of a desire to do things right. Deep down perhaps she knows that she wasn't always there for her children; that she had a lot of other stuff to deal with. I don't for a second think that her regret means she wishes her children don't exist. I don't for a second think that she doesn't love them. I feel a deep sense of empathy for her and I wish I could have helped her before her life got so full of regret; I wish I could have been that friend that told her it's okay to be imperfect. I wish she could have read a blog post that told her it's okay to find things hard sometimes. I wish, amongst the perfect housewife personas, someone could have stood with her and said 'I've got your back.'

So what if I find things hard? So what if I don't match up to the kind of mother society says I should be? I may be imperfect but I love these little people in my life and I want them to know that no matter how screwed up their mother is, she wants them to live lives without regret: lives free of expectation and pressure. She wants them to look at the wonky photos on the wall and find acceptance. She wants them to know that all the shouting and screaming and toe curling in the world won't stop her loving them. May they live lives without regret and without perfection. My life would be less without them, and there's not a day I am not thankful for the lessons that they teach me.

So here's to imperfect mothers everywhere. I've got your back.



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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

How do we respond if our kids choose a different path to us?



I have been very lucky to grow up in a really loving family; a family that loves deeply and cares selflessly. They are good people. My dad can't sit still in my house without finding something to fix for me. My mum scurries round emptying the dishwasher and offering me tea as soon as I've finished the last cup. On arrival at my auntie and uncle's house I am presented with an actual dinner-plate full of cake, all for me, and if I can't eat it all they seem perplexed and ask if I've lost my appetite. My grandma recites silly poems and my nana slips me a tenner to buy sweets (this time for my kids, but I'll be damned if I don't get any cola cubes thrown into the bargain).

They are good people, and I'll defend them to the grave.

Sort of.

Growing up, it was a given that you stuck by your family. Loyalty was of utmost importance – and that didn't just mean favouring them over others – it meant favouring their beliefs too. I wanted to be like them; to impress them; to please them, and so it made sense to believe in everything they said, as I'm sure is the case with most children. Of course, they would never condone dictatorship, nor would they want me to feel under control in any way, but if I ever disputed or questioned anything that came out of any of their lips I was met with dropped jaws and silenced with another dinner-sized portion of cake. It wasn't that they thought me disrespectful, but perhaps they simply hadn't accounted for the fact someone might think slightly differently to them, not least a child in their bloodline. My questions were always met with a defensive argument that never really answered them at all. You don't argue this stuff, this is just how it is.

Growing up in a small town, most people shared similar views about life outside of it. My family never went abroad and they were the first to believe in the scaremongering surrounding visiting other countries. 'Well, I've heard....' they would say, and everybody would lean in intently. Each person would share their own tale of lament about the world; the things that got them angry. They each had a fascinating ability to turn something drab into an epic story that had you either crying with laughter or with utter despair.  I look back on it all with fondness; they left you wanting more of their storytelling and I have taken their love of it into my own life – I love a good story, albeit a fabricated one. And their storytelling talent not only left you amused, but willing yourself to think the same way as them about anything - politics or religion - because there was this feel-good factor in joining in with their side of the debate. It was a lot more fun than the alternative; the tumbleweed of a disagreement or a disputed fact. Is this what loyalty is, I asked myself? Could I still be part of the family and believe something entirely different to them?

Since I left home at nineteen (something that was not the norm for my family and did not come without a challenge) I started to meet people who did not share our point of view. I felt the fight for loyalty rising in me every time someone disagreed with me, like I had to defend my beliefs – my family – to the grave. How could anyone think any differently? Is this not what everyone believes? I wasn't always respectful of other's opinions - sure, I tried to listen, but I always had an agenda. But the more I went on in life, the more some of the things my family believed did not sit right with me. And although those beliefs worked well for them, and although they came from good intentions, they no longer made sense. I had travelled and seen the world (or some of it), I had met people from lots of different backgrounds, I had become good friends with people of different sexuality, race, class and religion. I no longer saw these people as other to me and I didn't see them as people who should be avoided but people I wanted to understand, live life with and learn from.

Of course, I look back and see how my youthful enthusiasm could have come across as naive to the older generations. I hadn't, of course, been through all the things that they had and perhaps I should have listened more instead of trying to find out about life all by myself. I made a lot of mistakes; I trusted people I shouldn't have; I got hurt. But I was exploring life and ideas and I wanted to ask big questions. Sometimes the hurts had to happen to gain full understanding; sometimes I even found myself in the very position of someone I had judged harshly only years earlier. I became a loather of judgemental people, knowing full well that I myself had been one: a recovering critic, humbled by life's events. I learnt that questioning should come before judgement. But whenever I questioned my family's beliefs it felt as though I were sticking a dagger into their hearts; how could I be so cruel as to doubt my own flesh and blood? Do I not trust them? It was easier to go it alone.

So we fast forward fifteen years and I'm faced with a referendum. I explained in simple terms to my five year old what that is and what it means and I asked him for his thoughts on it. He didn't answer but responded with 'what do you think mummy?' I saw the same loyalty in him as I had myself as a kid, desperate to please me with his answer. And with it brings about a challenge: do I just seek to tell him what I believe in order to bring him up with the same beliefs as me (because of course I think they're right, in the same way my family thinks theirs are), or do I present him with options to choose from? And what if he grows up to believe in very different things? How will I respond? Will I defend my view point to the grave? Will I get angry about what I so adamantly believe, or will I swallow my pride and listen before I share my views?

We all have people in our lives that we can't discuss politics or religion with. Perhaps I have been that person myself. As much as we try to have open-minded discussions, opposing views aren't readily welcomed but instead often taken with offence. They are not received as thought-provoking or even challenging, but instead as a means of attack. So we avoid talking about such things in order to avoid an argument and things get left unsaid.

I do not want to be this person when it comes to my own children. I want to be someone they can question without taking offence. This isn't about bringing my kids up to believe that 'anything goes' or not instil any morality or wisdom, what little of it I have. I'm under no illusion that no matter how open minded I try to be, my own beliefs and lifestyle with have a huge influence on them and will largely dictate how they make a lot of their early independent decisions. But should they choose a different path to me, what then? Do I lament over their different choices? Or do I accept that they are very different people to me and cannot possibly think in the exact same way? I hope I can give them space to question my own lifestyle, and in turn earn enough respect to be able to do the same to them. I hope to give them opportunity to debate with me and find out whether my beliefs have depth. Could it be possible to have a healthy banter about the deeper issues in life that can open up more opportunity for truth to reveal itself? Do we need to take ourselves a little less seriously and accept that we can learn things from those younger than us too?

These are challenges I face as a parent – we all do. Perhaps you're a parent of older children reading this and you're rolling your eyes at my idealism; just you wait till your kids are grown. I hear you, but what's the alternative unless we try? We cannot be life long mentors of our children, as much as we would like to be. When a bird flies the nest it does as it pleases. One day they will grow up to be their own independent people, making important choices about life. I hope they still come to me for advice, but that doesn't mean they have to listen to it. It's in these early days that I have the opportunity to shape them and influence them with the things that are important to me; to learn to respect others, to be honest and to be kind. But once they are out on their own in the big wide world, I have no right to inflict my beliefs on them, any more than I do any other adult. I can have open discussions with them or I can choose to shut them down and tell them they are wrong.  

I'm not sure it will ever be easy to hear that our kids have beliefs we don't agree with. And of course, if their belief system has hugely negative implications I hope that I can be outspoken about such things, but this does not mean I can force my way of life upon them in adulthood. Telling someone how they should live is not helpful, but asking questions to glean understanding is on both sides of the relationship.

So, I want to be an encourager of questions. I want to learn to allow mistakes. Most of all, I want to give my children the keys to make good decisions. And what if they still choose things in life differently to me? What if they vote differently or choose a different religion? Then I shall ask them more questions and in turn I hope they do the same. And in the questioning, perhaps there's more chance that truth shall will out for each of us – all, I hope, with good humour, humility, understanding and a dinner-sized portion of cake.


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