We’re just over half-way through the long summer holidays, and (as I sit here trying to chop courgettes finely enough to pass for herbs, and do it quickly enough so that I’m finished before anyone comes into the kitchen and susses what I’m up to) I am asking myself whether I ought to tell a few little, harmless lies on this blog. Perhaps, just for the sake of relateability (and engagement stats) I should pretend that I am huddled in a corner, rocking back and forth, swigging gin straight from the bottle.
Everywhere you look on social media at this time of year there are cartoons and comedy graphs depicting the various stages of parental breakdown as the holiday progresses. The majority viewpoint expressed seems to be that parenting is a miserable, almost unbearably difficult ordeal — and I’m not talking about ‘special needs’ parenting. It makes you wonder why anyone bothers to have kids at all, especially in these days when (in this country, at least) contraception is easily available, and, if that fails, abortion seems to be regarded as little different to going to the beauty salon to get those embarrassing and inconvenient chin hairs waxed into oblivion (and what woman wouldn’t want to get rid of them? It’s so antisocial isn’t it, to go around sporting facial hair outside of the socially-accepted parameters?) Perhaps it’s the innate human drive to procreate that spurs them on, perhaps it’s the pressure that society exerts on people to pair up and reproduce, or perhaps they get duped into it by all those willing tools of the patriarchy who pretend that parenting is this cosy, fuzzy, rainbow-tinted bubble of perfect happiness and fulfilment. People like me, you might think.
Except that I’m not pretending. I really have enjoyed every stage of parenting, and I haven’t found it all that difficult. This doesn’t mean I’m a better mother than anyone else, or a better woman. It also doesn’t mean that I am a liar. We’re all different: there are some people who have half-a-dozen driving lessons and then pass their test first time, and others, like me, who have held a provisional licence for 27 years and are no nearer to passing the test than they were on the day of their first lesson.
These days, it seems to be deeply unfashionable, almost a crime, in fact, to suggest that any woman might actually relish the traditional, stereotypical, gendered role of child-carer. But I do, and I want to be able to admit it without being accused of telling lies, deluding myself, or of doing other women a disservice; or being denounced as anti-woman or anti-feminist.
O.K. — I think we can safely say that I’ve rejected the idea of telling a few porkies for the sake of relateability, in favour of telling the truth.
And the truth is, the summer holidays are going rather well.
Things are not perfect, of course they’re not. As I’m chopping and pondering, Freddie wanders into the kitchen, ever-so-nonchalantly hooks his fingers over the rim of my glass of grapefruit juice and, ever-so-casually, pulls it off the table onto the floor. I shoo him out of the room so he doesn’t cut his feet on the broken glass, and clear it up without saying much else: because if I throw a big, frilly, arm-waving tantrum about it, it will only make it more fun to do it again in the future. Mummy has made a concious decision to be very boring.
This summer both Daddy and me think that we have spotted the first buds of an emerging maturity in Freddie. He’s responded well this year to a ‘token economy’ — a sticker chart with the promise of a reward at the end of the week if he collects a certain amount of stickers, given in response to ‘desirable’ behaviours, such a cooperating with the routines of the day, or for doing a ‘chore’. Previously this kind of deferred reward system hadn’t meant much to him, but now he seems to be grasping it.
Daddy had two weeks off at the beginning of the holidays, and one sunny day we went off to New Brighton. On the Promenade we spotted an ice-cream van that sold proper ice-cream, not that Mr. Whippy gloop (which Freddie won’t touch). As we approached the van, though, we realised we’d run out of actual cash and the van wouldn’t take card payments. With trepidation we tried to explain the situation — that we’d have to walk away from the van without buying ice cream, and find a cash-point, or a cafe or shop instead…
He accepted it calmly, no tears or protests. He walked with us, holding our hands, for maybe fifteen minutes or so before we found one of these options, a cafe that sold the same brand of ice cream as the van. There was a queue, but he managed to wait his turn really well. We were so proud of him, so happy for him that he had been able to handle this situation without distress. He got an extra bonus sticker on his chart that night.
Another sign, perhaps, of this emerging maturity came when he needed the toilet while we were out. Daddy took him into an accessible (for some) cubicle. Through the door I heard him say he wanted to ‘copy Daddy’, i.e. he wanted to go standing up. And Daddy agreed.
Up to now, for the sake of our bathroom floor-covering, and because we’ve heard from other parents that hypertonia can make it difficult to tense your legs enough to keep you upright whilst simultaneously relaxing your bladder enough to pee, we’ve always had him sit down on the toilet.
Envisioning the likely results of any attempt to ‘copy Daddy’, I was glad we’d brought a change of clothes for him, and wished that I thought to bring spares for Daddy as well, and maybe a shower-proof hat, or something. But they both appeared quite dry when they emerged, so I gather he must have been successful without too much carnage.
One of Freddie’s teachers told me that, in her experience, a big change like a house move can precipitate a leap in maturity. I was concerned before the event, as to how Freddie would cope with such a huge upheaval, given how much he craves routine and familiarity. But he did cope, and the move has been good for us in many ways. The fact that we can, and do, walk to school now, and into town, means that Freddie legs have become stronger and his stamina has increased, and I suspect that perhaps he also feels more confident out in the street. Being so much closer to town means that we can get out and do things together, just the two of us, and even just knowing that we can do this has been a big boost psychologically for me.
The first Monday of the holidays coincided with the opening of the new library building in town. We strolled down just for a nosey, and ended up signing up for the summer reading challenge. We had a lovely afternoon exploring the shelves, came out with six books — enough to complete the challenge in one hit, and Freddie didn’t turn a hair when I said that, no, he couldn’t borrow Peppa Pig books because he’s too old for them. Peppa Pig is a Very Bad Influence — I, for one, won’t be sorry if George Pig grows up to be part of a Club Sandwich. Freddie’s behaviour is so much worse when he’s been watching it. I banned it in our house, and nobbled all the devices so that Freddie couldn’t use Safari to find it. Even his teacher commented on how much his general conduct and willingness to cooperate improved after I did this.
Our second visit to the library, to return the books when we’d completed the challenge, did not go so well. We were OK up until Freddie had chosen another six books — the maximum you can borrow at one time. Then he spotted a seventh. It was a book that’s part of a series — he has one, and had asked for this other one specifically, to which I had said that he could have it for his birthday. I suppose I could have suggested he swap one of the other books he wanted to borrow for this one, knowing that he would be distressed when we had to take it back in three weeks time (he absolutely loves these books and this particular subject), but I decided instead to persuade him that it would be better to leave the book in the library and wait for his birthday, when he could have the book for keeps. He was too upset and disappointed to listen. He threw the book, narrowly missing a baby in a buggy. Then he made a run for it, sprinting straight for the street door. I dropped my bag and the pile of books and sprinted after him, clutching desperately at his collar just as he reached the doors and they swished open. He grabbed another book and threw it, narrowly missing the same buggy again.
I picked up my bag, told him that we mustn’t throw books about because we might hurt someone, and for that reason we were going to leave the library right away without borrowing any books — and I would have to think very carefully before I took him in again. If ayone was staring, or tutting and commenting, I didn’t notice because my attention was focussed on Freddie, who needed my help to cope with his feelings.
I took him outside, sat down on a bench, lifted him onto my knee, and held him until it all sank in and he started to cry, and I kept on holding him until he stopped crying. When he at last agreed that he was ready to walk nicely with me, we set out for home. Half way, when he mentioned the book again, we sat down once more, on a bench overlooking the park, and I tried explaining again that if he borrowed the book now he would have to give it back after three weeks, but if he waited until his birthday he could have the book as a present and he would be able to keep it forever. We talked about how long it is until his birthday — three months, and how we could count down the time by crossing off days on his wall planner, which I got initially to show him how long the summer holidays are, and when he would have to go back to school. We also talked about the things that will happen between now and his birthday (back to school, hallowe’en, bonfire night) and how soon after his birthday it would be Christmas. He was calm enough now to be willing and able to listen.
There were other solutions to this dilemma, I know, like letting him borrow the book now, then giving him a copy of his own on his birthday, but he would still have had to choose which of the other library books he would put back, so it seemed to be an organically-arising opportunity for him to learn a little life lesson about disappointment and waiting. He’s ready now to begin learning these things. I don’t expect him to be able to self-regulate his behaviour when he’s upset, he needs me to help him with that, but, bit by bit, we can build on each experience to increase his understanding of now and next, action and consequence. If we support him with love and understanding, he will get there. But if, by some chance, he doesn’t ever get there, then we will just find another way of doing things. I firmly believe this.
Perhaps this self-belief is the reason why I don’t perceive parenting to be difficult. It’s not that I am any better at it, just that I believe in myself more, so I stress about it less. Some might call this arrogance, but I can live with that. As a younger woman I would never have imagined myself feeling confident about anything. But here I am.
Of course, it may just be that I have easy children. I think this is a pretty fair assessment of the situation, actually.
Now, there’s another truth that people find difficult to accept — that children with disabilities or ‘special needs’ can be ‘easy’ children. But mine are, despite the fact that two out of the three of them have not-insignificant additional needs. They have difficulties, yes, but they are not difficult people.
In the words of Arundhati Roy: ‘We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes, but these are only aberrations.’