We all love documenting our lives and our obsession with it continues to grow at breakneck speed. You’ve probably heard statistics about the number of photos we all take: a conservative estimate of the number of snaps that will be taken in 2017 stands at 1.2 trillion (1,200,000,000,000), up from 380 billion (380,000,000,000) just five years ago.
About half of those are of first-born babies. About a quarter of them are of my first-born baby. Just kidding, although I don’t think a day went by in those first few months where we didn’t take a whole series of adoring shots of our beautiful arrival. (Sorry to my second-born, just as beautiful but who has the time when you’re balancing a toddler and newborn, often literally.)
Anyway when you think about it, there are a LOT of gigabytes or terabytes or whatever taken up by photos taken of babies and children. We keenly document their smiles, their tears, their naps, their waking moments, in fact their every bloody move.
So it’s not surprising that these kids are now so used to having their (mama &-)paparazzi around that they’re wondering where we are when we’re not pointing a phone at their latest incredible achievement. Like an unusually large bogey, a noodle balanced on a nose or some such thing… ‘Can you take a video?!’
I think it’s a pretty universal phenomenon, in our culture anyway, but I wonder if my kids (and other kids in separated families) have this tendency more than most, due to the fact that whatever they’re doing, there is always at least one parent absent. Much as I find it annoying that they need to take a photo to send to Daddy at every significant (or not so significant) moment, I do of course love being on the receiving end when the roles are reversed and they’re staying with him.
It’s all pretty harmless at the moment, and of course fantastically amazing that we are all able to stay in touch with each other in a way that would have been impossible without WhatsApp. But I do worry about the patterns we’re creating for our children around documenting and sharing their lives through photos and videos. Sharing with your parent on WhatsApp is one thing, but the next step is only a couple of platforms and a few years away – the slightly terrifying prospect of kids on social media.
Don’t want to sound over the top but I do particularly adore my children just lately, I pretty much love everything about them.
I love that M cut out 30 bits of paper and wrote a joke on each of them for every child in her class. I love that L has not let the cast on her leg or her crutches stop her from having fun – she hopped into the playground yesterday and saw only what she could do, rather than the things impossible for her right now. I love it that they both still really care if I’m there on sports day. I love their silly jokes, their delicious giggles, our conversations. I love the way they love each other, even whilst driving each other up the wall.
They’ve always been pretty damn excellent as children go, but things are now just so much easier. I think this might be the golden age range for parenting.
At around 7 to 9 years old, they’re old enough to get ready (almost) by themselves, to go out without whinging, to amuse themselves for ages while I get on with something else, to have intelligent, fun conversations, to learn all kinds of amazing things and to express their emotions. But they’re young enough to get excited about sleeping in my bed because it’s the weekend, to want stories read to them, to demand loads of hugs, to come and perch on my lap whilst I’m doing something else, to need me.
But it’s not just their age. For me, there is something very lovely about being a single parent and that is the self-sufficiency I’ve come to feel as a unit with my daughters which brings with it a different kind of closeness. For all the times over the past couple of years when I’ve really felt the gaping hole in our new family set-up, these days I’m feeling a sense of contentment and completeness when it’s just the three of us.
Yes, it can be harder when I’m the only adult in the room, outnumbered. There’s no-one to whom to deflect arguments and no-one to back me up, but it’s also less complicated. When two parents decide a rule or a boundary, there will always be subtle differences in your versions of the rules, because, well, you’re human. When it’s just me, my version IS the rule. Amen to that.
The hard times can be more intense, but so are the good times. When we’re snuggled up in bed on a weekend morning, I’m not sharing their cuddles with anyone. I feel like the luckiest person alive when I have my gorgeously sleepy daughters nestling in to me, one on each side. When we’re out and about and we walk hand in hand, sometimes I tune into the warmth and energy from each small palm, and I feel it flowing into my hands, and mine into theirs, so that the three of us are like a single being, three-headed and invincible (yes!), energy flowing round the circuit of us.
I know the days of them both wanting to snuggle in bed for as long as possible and both clamouring to hold my hand are seriously numbered so I’m making the most of them right now. And of course things aren’t rosy all the time, we have plenty of grumps, fights, shouting and tears, but the ratio of rosy to dark is favourable right now so I’m grabbing it all with both of my coveted hands.
In the year after my ex (let’s just call him X while we’re here, that works) left, I cried a lot. I mean, like really A LOT of tears. Tears of anger, sadness, grief and frustration, in varying proportions. Every day, for a while. Then every few days… every week… now probably about once a month, which is pretty healthy I reckon.
So I was thinking about how the frequency of crying is quite a good measure of how far I’ve come, and maybe I’ve been buried in too many statistics and metrics in my work lately… but I thought wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could record the volume of tears we cry and use that to measure the states of our lives – geek-tastic, I know. But hey, there should be an app for that!
The app would produce graphs and mine would look something like this (just a bit less amateur) with the 2015 peak dwarfing my teenage tears and even my baby boo-hoos:
Now, ahem… as can be seen from the data collected, according to the tear-o-meter, things are getting lots better. There are days when I feel like I can accept the way things are now and on one of those days recently I suggested to X that we all go for a bite to eat after M’s annual dance show.
For a little bit of context: two years ago, this show was a heart-wrenching experience that I cried most of the way through as it preceded X taking the girls for the weekend for the first time. Back then the thought of having to sit through dinner with X would probably have literally made me throw up so this was progress. We hadn’t sat down to a meal together since we were actually, well, together so it was kind of a big first.
So anyway, there I was before the show, ready to meet X and my little one L (it was X’s weekend to have the kids). Feeling pretty ok about things, emotionally stable. Then he turns up with a big bunch of flowers. Reader, they were not for me.
“Who are the flowers for?” I asked, my smile strained and fake. Because I knew they were something to with his girlfriend (let’s call her Y, because WHY would you start having an affair with someone who has two young children, it’s just not cool sister). So it turns out the flowers were from Y, for M after her performance. She had just left after the three of them had seen the first show.
Well that’s lovely of her, you might think. Or, ‘Can’t you just be happy about it? It’s a NICE thing’ as X put it, when I couldn’t help pulling a face of extreme ‘WTF?!’ in place of actually saying ‘WTF?!’ which I couldn’t, as little L was standing right between us.
The thing is, of course it is nice that my daughter has someone else in her life who supports and celebrates her. However my heart has not quite caught up with the cold logic needed for me to reach that conclusion. So when he told me she’d just been there watching my daughter’s show – which meant that I could so easily have bumped into her, totally unprepared for such a difficult situation, it was like a punch in the gut and my heart went double time with mild panic.
So, no unfortunately I could not ‘just be happy’ that the woman who is a big part of the reason I now only get to see my daughters for half the week was there. But what really pissed me off was the fact that he didn’t have the guts to tell me she was coming. Either that or he didn’t even think about how brutally painful that possible surprise encounter would have been for me and how confusing and upsetting it could have been for L. Probably a mix of both. I was fuming.
Luckily we went in to watch the show soon afterwards. Sitting in the darkness of the auditorium I let my tears come and I let them go. I cursed that I was still crying at this show two years down the line when I thought I’d come so far.
But I pulled myself together and managed to box away my anger for a few hours, so we went for the meal and actually it was fine – we’ve become pretty skilled at acting ‘normal’ in front of the kids. When I got home I put my feelings in writing to him, the line of the tear graph saw another little rise… and now it’s levelling out again.
It’s good to shake things up a bit – you can’t underestimate how far a bit of novelty value will go. Usually it takes a good 15 minutes to rouse my littlest one from sleep and a good bit of cajoling to get her dressed before she flops (and sometimes strops) down to breakfast.
But last week the kids and I were out of the house by 7.30am for a pre-school breakfast picnic and play in the park, four days in a row. Each day they woke up happy, got dressed and ready by themselves without a word of complaint and pretty much bounced out of the door. Hurrah!
I had the idea of breakfast in the park a while ago, but didn’t necessarily think we would manage it at all, let alone for nearly a whole week. I have to say, the novelty of getting packed lunches and packed breakfast ready that early in the morning wore off pretty quickly for me. But every day the kids would ask if we could pleeeease do it again the next day and I was of course happy to say yes.
The park is pretty peaceful at that time in the morning (I actually wanted to go earlier to get that real early morning buzz when it feels like no-one else is awake, but discovered the parks don’t open til half seven). It’s quiet. You notice everything more: the birdsong, the summer blooms, the leaves rustling in the breeze. There are a few dog walkers, joggers and a bit later people walking to work across the park, but the playground is empty and it feels like we own it. Without having had a bite to eat, the kids race off to their favourite play spots, hunger forgotten.
It’s pretty gorgeous. Except… every morning there is a depressing selection of litter in little spots across the fields and the playground, where other people have obviously been having their own special picnics the night before. It seems to be standard that people just leave their food and drinks packaging exactly where they were sitting so you get a messy map of last night’s parties. Somebody got lucky at one of the parties and left their used condom at the bottom of the slide. Yeah… breakfast picnic suddenly not so appetising.
So I spend some of each clear, fresh morning picking up manky fried chicken boxes, beer cans and plastic bottles (luckily I didn’t have to pick up the condom, a mum and a little boy helpfully appeared at that point, and she was a practical sort, swiftly disposing of it), and wondering why people don’t give enough of a shit to put them in the bins, which are sometimes literally just a couple of metres away.
It’s sad because it feels like people don’t care about the park and the neighbourhood. It feels like they don’t care about the park wardens who must pick that crap up every day, and the kids who come and play in the playground early. And the bigger picture: not caring about the environment – using plastic bottles, cutlery and bags like there’s no tomorrow, like those tiny but tough particles are not going to end up in the earth and the oceans for centuries to come, toxins leaking out and – the even bigger picture – making their way into our food stream, so that we are literally poisoning ourselves.
It’s all too easy to judge the teens or drop-outs or wanderers who might have made the mess and assume they don’t care. It’s hard to relate but we’ve all been there at some point, to some degree: that state of mind where we’re not able to see much further than ourselves. So thoughts might not even go as far down the line as the park wardens or the next day, let alone the oceans, ourselves as part of a whole ecosystem or some future scenario, many years down the line.
That me-me-me thing is partly a natural development stage for a lot of teenagers (I definitely remember feeling like I didn’t really care about the wider world around me because it was so messed up anyway, and like that was like a really cool, teen rebel way to feel, yeah?) and partly it’s a product of our mind-centric culture of instant gratification, where we feel entitled to quick-hit pleasure after pleasure without ever having to think about the real price.
So what to do? Well I’m thinking about my children, who are still a few (but not that many) years off being teenagers themselves. A few years down the line when they might be the ones drinking cider in the park in the evening (I hope not…..and I don’t even want to think about the rest of it but you know, I’ve been a teenager). And maybe just maybe they might be the ones to go, come on dudes, let’s just put this stuff in the bin.
Teaching young kids to live consciously, to appreciate our planet, to be aware of the wider world, to take responsibility for their actions and to know their own power is the best way I know to work towards a more positive future, so whether it’s pointing out the beauty of a flowering weed growing by the roadside on the way, picking up other people’s rubbish, just having conversations about why people act the way they do, and what the hell we’re going to do about all this plastic, it’s all important.
The early morning park trips weren’t intended as anything more than injecting an extra hour of fun into the day but we also got that little bit closer to nature and to thinking about how change can start with one action – like putting the damn rubbish in the bin.
I’ve been feeling a bit less than successful lately, especially when it comes to this blog. I’ve just found it hard to get down to writing. There have been all sorts of things, emotional, mental and practical getting in the way, but at the end of the day I just haven’t been doing it.
The dreaded overwhelm has got to me – too much to write about, too many other people writing about it all, too many writers better than me, not enough time, not enough ideas, not enough energy. The excuses come thick and fast and sometimes I see them for what they are.
So if they are ultimately excuses, what exactly is it that’s stopping me? Or rather, why am I stopping me? And who is that ‘I’ and who is that ‘me’ and why do I think they’re separate?! Not quite ready for that philosophical and/or spiritual question right at this moment so just keeping it close to surface level for now – in which case it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that it’s just the classic fear of failure, not being good enough, not being successful enough, not being enough.
With thoughts of that nature stewing in the back of my brain, something I read yesterday really struck a chord: in his book ‘The Confidence Gap’, Russ Harris talks about redefining success according to values instead of goals.
Isn’t it interesting how the language of success usually refers to material goals people have achieved – a certain amount of wealth, a level of seniority at work or the size of their house? So if someone talks about a ‘successful man’ or a ‘woman who’s made a success of herself’ we’ll usually assume they’re talking about jobs and/or money (see the lovely Michael J. Fox, above), even if our personal measures of success are different.
I like to think my definition of success for myself is less about money and more about the fulfilment which I would like to feel in all areas of my life – work, family, friendships, fun – but whatever it is, it’s still goals, things I haven’t achieved yet, at least not to the degree I would like. The thing is, that’s the way we function isn’t it, we’re always working towards something, we’ve never arrived at the place we want to be, and so from toddlerhood to old age we’re always trotting along or leaping or dragging our feet towards the next thing, thinking we’ll be ‘done’ when we get there.
Sixties philosopher and Zen dude Alan Watts expresses it so well in this excerpt from one of his talks ‘Why Your Life is Not a Journey’. In it he wonders why we’re all acting as if the point of life is to rush along to school, then university, then a job, then retirement… Couldn’t we live life in the same way we listen to a piece of music or the way we dance, he suggests, where the point isn’t to get to the end of the piece of music, or the dance (because that wouldn’t be much fun would it) but instead where every moment, every note, every shimmy of the hips, whether in the beginning, the middle or the end is as valid and worthy of attention as any other.
Which is why defining success according to values makes a lot more sense. While goals are by their nature in the future, and often the fairly distant future (‘when I’m a famous writer’ or ‘when I’ve paid off all my debts’, ‘when I’ve bought a house’ or ‘when I’m a proper grown-up’ – is that ever going to happen by the way?… ) and mean that success is always just out of reach (because even if you reach that goal, there’ll be another one lurking just behind it), values are just there all the time and that means you can measure your success by them at any time – and hopefully with more positive results.
First step then is to figure out what your values actually are. It might feel like a cheesy exercise, but that’s just because we’re cynical middle-aged Brits! Well I am anyway. Fighting my resistance to the task I came up with: authenticity, compassion, contribution, creativity, open-mindedness, respect and responsibility.
So to put the theory to the test… Have I created a marvellous, ‘successful’ blog with 100,000 subscribers and an self-generating income stream (that would be nice wouldn’t it)? No, I have not, yet… (goals). And I have been the most authentic, compassionate, giving, creative, open-minded, respectful and responsible person I can possibly be? No, not yet (still goals). But have I lived in accordance with my values this very day? Yes actually I have! I genuinely have. Hey presto, I am successful and actually I can feel pretty good about myself because of that.
Of course it’s not a magic formula, it is a shift in perspective which requires actual effort. Harris’ view is that using mindfulness as a tool every day can get you there. It’s worth checking out the technique he advocates called ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) which at its core is about working with ourselves as we are and has proved to be significantly successful in the treatment of those suffering from depression and addiction. So it’s not just playing with words, this has the potential to be a powerful shift in mindset, especially of course if it’s applied early on in life.
So the mission is not just to apply it to myself but also to the kids. Unfortunately, being in our school system, which seems to be valuing hard academic goals over less measurable values and skills such as creativity, responsibility and adaptability more and more every day, means that kids absolutely cannot avoid falling into the same trap to at least some degree. Measuring their own success or failure by these goals that the system has put in place is sadly not setting them up to be confident, bold, happy people.
Countless studies have shown that focus on play and creativity provides the most widely beneficial start for all young children and exams are not only unnecessary but potentially damaging for primary school kids. But my nearly 9 year old is terrified of SATs and the possibility of the 11-plus, while half the kids in her year are being tutored to prepare for exams that are over a year away; the pressure of goals is rising.
Getting the best education for your child is a minefield which is becoming ever more precarious and there’s obviously no easy answer to this, but I think that recognising children’s achievements in living by their values – at least as much as academic goals – has got to be a start. It may even be the secret to their future success – fulfilment in work, relationships and all of life.
And if all that fails, I’d just like to end up floating on a giant fountain of champagne (now THAT’s the dream).
Gratitude has been talked and written about a lot in the last few years as one of the keys to happiness. It always seemed like a bit of a no-brainer to me – well of course if you appreciate what you’ve got, you will be happier, doh.
But it turns out that deliberately cultivating an attitude of gratitude actually physically changes your brain: participants in a study on gratitude experienced “profound and long-lasting neural effects’ and were more likely to benefit from psychological benefits such as reduced depression and increased wellbeing. In a lovely cycle of positivity, you practice gratitude, feel happy, notice more things to be grateful for, feel more happy etc etc.
Well I want in on that. And I want it for my kids too. So for about a year now, M and L and I have had a gratitude jar. Or as I like to think of it, a small brewery of happiness.
The idea is very simple: at the end of every day you each take a moment to remember something you’ve felt grateful for that day, you make little note of it, fold it up and drop it in the jar. When the jar is full, a few months down the line, you take the notes out and read them out loud together, maybe with a bit of ceremony, maybe taking turns to guess who wrote the note, which can be fun. Not only does it remind you to be grateful every day, it also gives you sweet little memories you might otherwise have forgotten. (It also reminds me of just how bad my memory is, that’s less sweet.)
That’s the theory anyway and the first time we emptied it after five months or so, it really was quite gorgeous to unfold the little blasts of positivity from the past, surprising, funny and sometimes touching to see what the kids had really enjoyed and valued over the last months.
But as with everything in life (sigh), while it was new it was exciting and we eagerly scribbled down our little snippets of happiness every day… then every week… then not so much. Enthusiasm waned/we forgot/I remembered but didn’t want them to do it because that would mean ANOTHER 10 minutes before they went to bed (sometimes the notes turned into little gratitude essays…)
So last weekend, when M excitedly asked if we could ‘do the Gratitude Jar’, I wasn’t feeling overly thrilled about it – I’d seen M dropping notes into the jar amid fits of giggles and found myself annoyed that she wasn’t doing it properly. I was pretty sure it would be lacking in both quantity and quality.
And yes, it’s true, the jar contained a not insubstantial number of notes about poo, a few about wee. One containing a well-preserved pressed bogey. Some nonsense. Some trick ones supposed to look like they’d been written by someone else. Some drawings and some illegible scrawls. But actually it wasn’t annoying. It was thoroughly entertaining just to see M’s face so pleased with her trickery and laughing at all her own jokes, which were actually very funny, bless her. I suddenly realised how grateful I was to see that – is there anything more lovely than laughing together with your loves?
And I shouldn’t have doubted, there was also a seemingly endless flow of notes expressing real gratitude – a small sample here:
My other favourites included ‘I am gratchood for TV’, ‘SWEETS’, ‘Vomite’ and ‘I am not grateful for anything’. Jokers. Love it.
So, we’re getting back into the habit with renewed vigour, safe in the knowledge that if (when) it does slip, it doesn’t matter, in fact quite the contrary, I’ll be grateful for it.
Must be hard being eight. Not speaking so much from my own experience (I have enough trouble remembering what I did at the weekend, let alone three and a half decades ago) but from the recent goings on in my daughter’s world…
Your best friend gets angry with you for not letting her use your favourite scented pen.
Everyone is better than you at football, swimming, ice-skating and EVERYTHING.
Your mum won’t let you watch Rogue One because she thinks it might be too scary for you, but you know it won’t be.
But The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe definitely WAS scary. And sometimes you can’t get to sleep at night because of it.
Also, your parents don’t love each other any more and you don’t understand why.
And you worry whether your mum is ok on her own.
Your dad goes away for work to the other side of the world and you worry about what would happen if he never came back.
There’s stuff on the radio about bombs and people dying.
What if that happened here?
Also, you think you might be fat.
On top of all that you keep overhearing conversations about this guy whose name makes him sound like a character from Captain Underpants but who is now President of America. It’s confusing.
For some reason you start getting tummy aches and feeling sick, then you worry about getting tummy aches and being sick.
When I start putting myself in my eight year old’s shoes, I get why she’s anxious. There’s a lot going on for a little one to deal with – although in fact, she’s not so little any more. She’s left pure innocence well behind and she’s smashed into the ‘age of reason’ – the term used in psychology for when children start to be able to have a more complex understanding of life and the world around them: that people do sometimes go away and never come back and people do stop loving each other and well, life is sometimes a bit shit.
Along with that comes what I call the ‘age of embarrassment’ – the rather sad side-effect of becoming more self-aware where you start worrying more about what people think of you (unfortunately hard for the parent too as we have to get used to the demotion from uncontested world’s best grown-up to constant source of potential embarrassment).
Dealing with your child’s problems becomes hard in a whole different way at this stage, partly because you might not really know what the hell the problem is, which can make us feel a bit helpless as parents. And you have to accept that actually these problems might be not for YOU to deal with, you might just have to be there for them and facilitate your child dealing with them as best they can.
Recently there’s been a whole lot of anxiety in our house, expressing itself in various forms: panic attacks, tummy aches, not wanting to go to school, not wanting to go anywhere new or do anything even vaguely outside of the comfort zone. I think it’s to do with things still changing in our family situation, which has meant less of a safe, comfortable routine, less time at home and consequently a loss of security. I guess this is part of the deal with any separation or divorce and I’m realising more and more that just because we’re two years down the line, that definitely doesn’t mean we’re in the clear.
So what helps? No one size fits all of course but for me it’s helpful to keep coming back to these little nuggets:
Reassure, reassure, reassure. It doesn’t have to be with words. It might be about themselves, their place in the world, friendships. Let them know they’re loved, they’re needed, they’re good enough just as they are. It may also be that they’re worried about you: when families separate, the children may feel a burden of responsibility towards the parent who is alone, or the parent who has had to leave the family home. We definitely have some of that going on, so I reassure them that their dad and I are ok too.
Remember they’re not doing it out of choice. It’s a physical reaction to stressful situation. So easy to get frustrated when they’re playing up, being overly dramatic, pretending to be ill, refusing to leave the house or whatever it is. When things get heated, I try and take myself back to awareness of the root of what’s going on.
Explain the physicality of stress and anxiety – it’s a normal reaction to life, it’s part of life and once they understand that, it at least eases the stress of feeling anxious. I recently read an excellent piece about this and did then talk to my kids about what’s happening in their bodies when they feel nauseous, feel their hearts racing or have tummy aches – it’s their bodies doing a great job of trying to protect them from a perceived danger with the fight or flight reflex. Before I read this I would have thought this was too much to try and explain to them, but it wasn’t at all. It really did help.
Talk about the big wide world, the good stuff and the bad. They’re going to hear it on the news anyway. Talk about the positive things you can do to make things better.
Be calm and consistent. Maybe the most important in all of this. For your kids to feel secure, they need boundaries, and they need you to stick to them, calmly but firmly. I love the way a friend recently described this, he said he visualises himself standing strong like a tree, a huge, ancient, wise oak tree with very deep roots. He channels the tree’s quiet power when the kids are pushing his buttons to push those boundaries, he stands firm and doesn’t react to the drama around him. It’s not easy but when you manage it, it works.
Life is complicated, whether you’re eight, or a hundred and eight (or forty-two). It can be really hard dealing with this stuff – ongoing process, onwards and upwards. And if all else fails, be a tree.
So this is pretty exciting, I have a new name… I am Tiger Leo – hear me roar! My new blogging pseudonym comes from my Eastern & Western star signs and it feels fitting to use it now because I am ready to embrace my double-big-cat-ness. So if you’re new to this blog and you don’t know me, great. If you’re a regular visitor and you do know me, forget everything you ever knew!
In truth, the reason I’m using a new name is less about jumping into a new identity, rather it’s about wanting to lose my identity on this blog. Thoughts of going anonymous have been simmering for a while – in fact since I started writing here. From the first post, I’ve struggled with the balance between personal and public. Anyone who knows me would confirm I’m a naturally private person and I like to keep my cards close to my chest, a protective mechanism that has served me well and kept me safe in many ways. Part of that is just the way I am, and I’m learning to accept and love that for what it is. But part of it comes from fear of showing my real self to the world and there is a price one pays for keeping oneself to oneself.
I was kind of getting to grips with all of that when I started writing here and it felt like a big and significant step for me to put at least some of the real me out there and accept the vulnerability that comes with that. It was terrifying… but lovely. The feedback I got on my writing really did feed me, and I saw for myself how true it is that the more you give the more you get. Love, support and inspiration come flowing in, in direct response to what I’d put out. Obvious I guess, but it seemed quite magical. Friendships have deepened, new connections made and work opportunities have arisen all as a result of my putting myself out there.
But…the more I write, the more I realise it’s not just myself that I’m putting out there, it’s also my family and anyone else about whom I may be writing. There have been a few posts that I’ve had to consider carefully before I published, and I haven’t felt easy about the decision. Then there have been things I’ve wanted to write, but just couldn’t because they involve other people, mainly my children, whose lives I don’t have a right to broadcast.
When I came across this article recently about posting pictures of your kids on social media, I had to admit that my actions were not line with my views on this. I’ve always been wary of exposing too much of the children’s lives online not just because of online safety (did you hear about the trend of ‘Baby Role Play’ where people use photos of your kids and present them as their own children – super-creepy) but also because of our children’s right to privacy. The digital footprint many parents are creating for their children is incredibly detailed, possibly embarrassing, potentially damaging and it’s not going to go away.
It’s not unusual now for there to be 5,000 (FIVE THOUSAND!) pictures of a child online by the time they turn 5. It’s not unlikely that when that child grows a little older they might not be entirely happy when their classmate/boyfriend/girlfriend/potential employer finds that picture of them running around naked or the video of them in a screaming rage on the supermarket floor…
So I’ve mostly been careful about sharing images but then I realised that what I was doing by writing about them was potentially even more revealing and personal. Seeing as my older daughter can now be embarrassed by my mere presence, the last thing I want to do is give her even more to be self-conscious about. And thus, Tiger Leo was born. And I can now write whatever the fuck I want about whoever the hell I want. Ooh that was liberating. RRROAR!
Yes, it’s a bit late for a Christmas post, but we’re still within the 12 days, right? And I’ve got to get this baby out, she’s been trying to come out for days, well overdue.
Two years ago, we had what I thought at the time was the loveliest, jolliest Christmas we’d ever had. A full house of grandparents, aunties, uncles and kids, a small mountain of presents, as much delicious veggie food as I could wish for, and everything just about coming together with the right balance of order and chaos. Slightly drunk at the end of the day, I sneaked upstairs with my youngest to read some of her new story books snuggled up in the bottom bunk (glad of an excuse to lie down to be honest) and I remember feeling so grateful for my gorgeous family and such an idyllic Christmas.
Wrapped in my own tipsy love bubble, I was completely unaware of the fact that my then partner, was already in the thick of his affair and that we were around 7 weeks from the end of our relationship.
Which goes to show a few things at least: 1) you NEVER know what is just around the corner 2) he was very good at pretending and 3) I was completely out of touch with our relationship. Now isn’t the time or place to dissect that, but I wanted to set the scene for our latest Christmas, and why, two years on, I have been trying to create something new.
The one last year, as you can imagine, was better forgotten but this year I felt ready to reclaim the season. I love the way that family traditions grow around Christmas, like our box of decorations that gets a little fuller every year and now holds precious memories… there’s the misshapen star painted with chubby fingers at pre-school, the felt angel, sewn with very first stitches, and the salt-dough shapes M and I made when she was two (and L was almost brand new, having arrived in the snowfall just a few weeks before – she was one of those babies who actually sleeps for a misleadingly peaceful few weeks of grace…)
And the traditions too simply evolve organically when you have a young family, until (I imagine) without ever having stopped to think about it your little ones have morphed into teens and between you you’ve created an unshakeable routine for Christmas Day where it seems like things just have to be done that way, and if they weren’t, well it just wouldn’t be Christmas! But our traditions have been very much thrown in the air, and whilst I try very hard to put them back together in a way that has continuity and comfort, there’s no denying that things are different, so what better opportunity to take stock and really think about what I’m creating here.
What do I want Christmas to mean to my children? What will they remember? Which parts will mean so much to them that they want to continue them with their own children? Giving…or shopping? Experiences or objects? Christmas is a magnifying glass on the best and the worst of us. Everything softens with inspiring love and charity on the one hand, but the monster of consumerism is reaching the annual peak of its power on the other – good luck trying to fight it in those panicky days in mid-December!
Buying stuff is fun of course, and giving is a sweet pleasure. But I have to ask myself why one gift doesn’t seem enough, and why am I spending hundreds of pounds on my family who are in need of nothing, when there are people not so far away in desperate need. Shopping, in its modern form – buying things we don’t need, for ourselves and each other – is at the end of the day a great excuse to ignore the deepest needs of our true selves (you know those times when you feel a bit shit, then make yourself feel better with a harmless little purchase… yeah, nice little rush of dopamine to the brain… and just like that your pain is gone, but part of you knows that you’ve in fact just buried it a little deeper.)
Christmas highlights all this of course, and I decided this year that I would stay a little truer to myself which has meant thinking about:
Making instead of buying
Giving second-hand stuff (the kids were absolutely thrilled with my old stamp albums which my mum had wisely kept for all these years)
Choosing to buy experiences over things e.g. a talk on saner living by Ruby Wax for my sister, ceilidh tickets for my mum (if she knew it involves actual dancing she wouldn’t go, but she will LOVE it)
Buying things with use or meaning e.g. the ‘age-appropriate, relatable, empowering’ Lottie dolls (which come armed with tiny fossil hunting gear and telescopes) for the girls after a slightly worrying conversation about body image; Kids Kanteen water bottles to get them thinking more about single-use plastic; foodie/boozie presents for people you don’t know what to buy for
Being conscious of the environmental impact of everything I buy
I failed in some of these – didn’t manage to make any presents, however did help the children make theirs, didn’t manage no plastic but definitely MUCH less than I might have bought a few years ago – and compromised on some. Also a last minute panic where I felt that the Star Wars soft toys really were a necessity… but all in all… getting there. I did worry a bit about the fact that there would be less under the tree for the children this year (partly because our family doesn’t spend the day together any more so the presents are spread out over a few days, but also because of my new Christmas intentions) and I was ready for them to be disappointed or ask why there’s been more in previous years, but they didn’t.
So, taking steps towards a more conscious Christmas… I would like the children to feel and be able to express gratitude for all the good things that surround us but just as importantly I would like them to be looking beyond all of that, to other people and the planet, and to know that they have the power to change things. And I want them to remember Christmas as family time, however complicated the arrangements for that might be now. Things were still really hard for all three of us in ways that I hadn’t even anticipated – I realised that sometimes I’m so busy getting on with the new stuff that I forget the importance of acknowledging the pain of letting the old stuff go. There was even a classic Christmas blow-out after a few too many glasses of port (which NEVER used to happen in our family, we’re a peaceful bunch!) but everything turned out alright in the end with our new Christmas, new memories and traditions nicely brewing for the years to come.
“When they’re little, it’s like having a limb removed.” Ouch…
A sympathetic comment from a fellow single mum in response to me telling her earlier this evening that I didn’t have to rush home to my kids because they’re not at home tonight, they’re with their dad and his girlfriend, and although that’s not new in itself, it’s new because it’s a school night and so far they’ve been sleeping at home all through the week. I don’t like it (I hate it), but there is no escaping the fact that I’m just going to have to get used to it. Suckage.
I remember when the girls were little, maybe 2 and 4, maybe younger. We’d left them at their grandma’s for a few days and were on the way to pick them up. I’d had a brilliant time away from them but missed them of course, and the closer we got, the more I felt I was being pulled to them, like they were two tiny but super strong magnets and I was a big old horseshoe magnet that had been magnetised when they were born.
Just like a magnetic attraction, whilst far away there was a pull but it wasn’t that strong: I could turn from it, wrap myself up in sun and music and mediterranean seafood (not literally wrap myself in seafood, that would be weird); but now in the car, getting closer to them, it was powerful and I knew that when we got there I would be helpless, the kids and I would ping towards each other like magnets and hold on very tightly in big bear hugs (with little bears). I tried to put this feeling into words but he didn’t quite get it…
Not to be discriminatory against men or anything (would I?!) but it’s not the same for them. Without having grown the tiny bones and organs and toe nails and everything else for 9 months inside themselves, or made the milk that turned the tiny bodies into chubby babes, Dads just can’t have the same physical attachment. Yes Dads hold them and love them but it’s not the same. Doesn’t mean the love is any less strong or valuable, but it’s not the same. Maybe that’s the reason that so many men can walk away.
So is the limb removal analogy is a LITTLE dramatic?! Yeah, ok maybe… But for me it’s along the right lines. Maybe more like a digit removal? Or a fingernail? Urgh sorry… But my little ones are part of me, it doesn’t feel right that they’re not here with me at those times when they would usually be. Yes, the whole of parenthood is one long exercise of letting go, realising that magnetic force is getting weaker, allowing the beings that were literally once part of you become completely independent of you. Kahlil Gibran wisely said you are like the bow and the children are the arrows; you can point them in a certain direction but who knows where they will land? But that doesn’t really make it any easier. For me this serious letting go is coming so much sooner than I expected, and it’s really bloody hard.