Child’s Play

October 22, 2013

“Who was the first person to discover burps?”

“How do your bones come out of you when you’re dead?”

Spending time with people under the age of five is good for the soul. It takes us away from the real and imagined stresses of adulthood and grounds us in beautiful simplicity. It takes a pin to pent up intensity and pops it. It lightens the air.

To children, everything is play. It is difficult to imagine a mind so free of tangled woes and barbed thoughts. For most of us, clarity ended with adolescence. Such a cruel game of nature to take a brain mapped out along lines of simple, innocent thought, and twist it to see the sinister, the dangerous, the ugly. Of course, the mapping done in childhood is designed to make for an easier traverse through the hormonal jungle, but sometimes it is the very connections made during the formative years that expose the child to deeper thinking and thus the potential pitfalls of the heavy mind.

If there were no other onus upon us to ensure our children experience playful, carefree childhoods it should be this: they must enjoy it while it lasts. During the years from birth to five the foundations are being laid. The cement is poured. The brain retains a degree of plasticity but the wiring becomes more difficult to disentangle. Children do not need cocooning, but they do need a safe, familiar space for free-range, unencumbered play. 

This freedom to allow happy, carefree development can be derailed. Illness, loss and trauma can upset the applecart. Life can deal some shockingly heavy blows: even when you’re four the path may not be free of obstacles. It is ok to know that life involves struggle and hardship, but ideally, this should be learned much later in life when paths of resilience have been positively established. Life, of course, does not work that way, and so amid life’s harsher realities, the safe, the familiar, the playful must be employed in the care of our children.

They didn’t ask to be brought into this world. They do not owe us a debt. We owe it to them, and to the world into which they have been released, to provide as safe and as positive an environment for their development as we possibly can. It is a task not designed to be easy. But if we let in the fun, if we revel in the play, it doesn’t all have to be hard work.

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Community care

September 29, 2013

Childcare. Outside School Hours Care. Family Day Care. Occasional Care.

So much caring.

And yet it somehow feels a bit… isolating. Or institutional.

Or removed.

Across the span of three boys, my experience of childcare has ranged from utilising a service practically full time, to twice a week, to not at all. I have used an Outside School Hours Care service, and I am currently studying Children’s Services. I have friends who work in childcare services, friends who use childcare services, and friends enrolling their yet-to-be-born babies in a childcare service. It is pretty clear that, in the world I inhabit, there exists a need for babies and children to be looked after. To be co-raised.

This would be simple if we lived in a village, or perhaps on a commune. There you would find a greater sense of babies being born not just into families but into whole communities. But the economics and geography of our suburban way of life has seen a shift in expectation and need. Families are living separately. Grandparents are busy living their own lives. Lots of things are expensive and people just need to work. Babies and children are loved and nurtured and wanted, but they nevertheless have to fit in with this societal model. Eddie Groves and his ilk cottoned on to this and in an instant the care of our children changed from shared obligation to managed industry. It was outsourced, and with the change came profit, policy, and pressure.

But what if we could reverse the trend? Bring the care of our children back to a shared level of responsibility? Open up our doors again and repair our fragmented communities? Our streets are not empty during the day – there are those who do not face a daily commute who could provide the service and “mind the children”. There are wise retirees who could share their knowledge. Stay at home mums and dads who could share their care. Friends and neighbours with hours to spare. There are childcare professionals yearning to break down the walls of the industry and get back to the home.

We can and should return to a sense of shared community where our children are concerned. We don’t all have to bake scones and chat over the back fence necessarily but there should be a rejection of bureaucracy and an opening of doors. We can offer our own after school care. We can support the families who need to work outside the home by remaining in the community with their children. We can encourage the valuing of this support by reiterating its core task: the care of our most beloved. What is it really worth to us? Surely a priceless commodity. And not everyone is up to the job.

The pessimist in me fears we have lost too much trust. The walls are too high and the risks too great and the regulations keep us all safe. But the optimist thinks it’s all there in our hearts and perhaps all we need to do is ask.

Fine Lines

September 19, 2013

I am constantly fascinated by the ups and downs of this parenting life. The ever contrasting needs. The chiaroscuro of emotions.

Raising children makes for such an unpredictable ride, such that no two days are ever alike. The benign enquiry of “How are you?” should really be met with the response “As of today? Not too bad” or “Right now? Not so good” to resemble honesty. It astounds me how one day can be commenced with confident enthusiasm, to be followed by a day marked with angry resentment. An anxious Monday can lead to a victorious Tuesday.

The myriad emotions which mark the territory of parenthood are separated by the slightest of margins. We toe a very fine line between pride and shame, between admiration and disgust, between joy and despair. It pays to remember how close we are to the edge at any given moment. Tomorrow will shine a different hue.

The decisions made when parenting also come with a coin toss. How far is it ok to push? At what point does supportive parenting become aggressive control? Have we crossed a line if we force a child to do something, even if we know by experience they will appreciate it afterwards?

Sport is the typical arena where a push can become a shove. For competitive children, a challenge is something to be met and, if possible, bettered. More laps. More goals. A higher score. Why climb the mountain? Because it’s there. For these children, a little push can go a long way. As a parent, you are rewarded for your efforts, and the line between effective guidance and destructive parenting seems distant. It is easy to tick the boxes with a competitive child: their drive to win suits society’s demands. They will behave, achieve and aspire in a dread of losing to others. Their fine line? Failure. Skills to cope when this line is crossed are essential in the competitive kit.   

But what of the non-competitive child? The child to whom a race is at best, pointless, and at worst, already lost? Rather than seek to conquer a challenge, these children shy away from conquest, preferring instead introspective, cerebral pursuits. Why climb the mountain when somebody else already has, and it looks impossible anyway? It seems almost counter-intuitive that a child should baulk at progress, at their own achievement, even when rewarded. Yet if in the wrong field, or at the wrong speed, they may do just that. These children need pushing, but for them the line is wafer thin: push too hard and in the wrong direction and you risk rejection. A pull can be more effective: lead the way and they may follow. But in their own time. The non-competitive child can be paralysed in their fear – and expectation – of failure, or they can be unmoved in their apathy. For them, choice of pursuit and gentle praise are imperative, but you have to tread carefully: one false move and you’ve lost them.

The line is fine in love too. Our children are everything, and yet, they cannot be, for parenting should not be all-consuming. To be sensible we must tread carefully on the side of support, comfort, guidance. The line divides from smothering, suffocating, ultimate loss. We cannot give ourselves entirely to our children, for then we are left with nothing. The hardest times are those when we violate this rule: when we have given too much and are left raw. This is perhaps the toughest parenting line to tread. Where our instincts would have us give our all, our better judgement must be called to save ourselves. It is the line between loving our children enough, and loving them too much.

We step. We stop. We tiptoe. We dance, erratic between the lines, in the hope that we’re getting it right.

Parenting then and now

August 27, 2013

Much has been said over the last few years concerning the differences between the way we are raising our children today compared with how we ourselves were raised thirty or forty something years ago. The endless debates about overconscientious parenting, bland playgrounds and trampoline safety nets. The training wheels and helmets and constant contact. The hand wringing over the effects of 21st century popular culture versus the relatively benign (or so it seemed) media influences of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The difficulties traversing the technological autobahn compared with the slow coaches of past eras. It all seems such a stark contrast. Such a drastic juxtaposition. 

We have come such a spectacularly long way into territory which is both overwhelming and fantastic.

One profound difference which I have pondered lately, and which seems to underpin much of the change which has occurred in parenting over the last few decades, is what I would call the Fun Childhood Movement.

Parenting today, for many of us, involves a conscientious eagerness to ensure our children are not just kept safe and healthy, but are provided a veritable suitcase of happy and positive childhood memories to accompany them into their autonomous adulthood. Not content with simply letting our children hop helmetless on their bikes and ride off into the sunset, we are treadling along beside them, pointing out the minutia of the landscape in the hope that some of it becomes their happy baggage. Where our parents let us be – alone to author our own biographies – we have become co-authors of our children’s stories, because we want them all to be outstanding. We appreciate, perhaps more than our parents and theirs before them, that our children are sponges designed to soak up the world around them. In reaction to our expanding knowledge of how dark and dangerous that world can be, we are showing our children the world in technicolour: playdates and parties, pushes on the swing and bedtime stories until we are hoarse. The Best Birthday Cakes Ever. We are bringing in the sun where often there is little light.

In some ways it is overprotective. In others, smothering and oppressive. It can be clingy, and it certainly leaves you vulnerable to the effects of the inevitable day when your child no longer wants you to feature in his script. Whether or not an improvement on the parenting model bequeathed us, only time will tell. With safety nets and helmets there are still broken bones: there are never really any guarantees. But we can say that we tried in our endeavour to provide the safest and happiest childhood possible, and that’s got to be worth the effort.

You know you’re getting old

August 16, 2013

2013 marks a significant turning point for me, as the year I have become officially old.

I know this because of two things:

1. I am not coping with winter. I am constantly freezing and hunched over under my eight layers of clothing complaining about how cold it is. I am wearing thermal underwear to bed. I blow on my hands to get the feeling back into them, and when at home, I wear ugg boots and shuffle like a hunchback with a draped blanket around my shoulders. I wince audibly when I sit on the cold toilet seat, and find it difficult to get back up again. My joints are cracking. I am grumpy and moody and angry with the season. The backs of my hands are wrinkled and my lips are constantly dry. I am hoping spring will make me feel young again; and

2. I am intolerant of typographical errors. I have started circling typos I find in newspapers, and have become so frustrated at the online content of the course I am doing through an otherwise respected “educational institution” that I am sending links to the course administrators with the errors highlighted. I am sure they hate me. Everywhere I look there are typos and grammatical errors. I now expect to find mistakes in virtually everything I read that is of a “professional” nature: newspaper columns, articles, assignment outlines, websites, brochures. Sure enough, there will be a missing “to”, or a “the the” or an “actitity”. Perhaps things have always been this bad. People have always been this slack. I suspect they may have, and in my aging shrinkage I have become obsessed with these miniscule and trivial inaccuracies. Slack or obsessed? I’m not sure which is worse.  

Unfinished symphonies

August 14, 2013

One of the things I miss about being in paid employment – since quitting my “real” job – is the sense of satisfaction upon seeing things through to completion.

In my former life, I had more hours in the day. I had a clean desk, a room with a view, my own computer, my own coffee mug, an In Tray and an Out Tray. Bits of paper would float onto my In Tray with things needing to be done to them. I would do what was required – tick – then crisply slot them into my Out Tray ready for filing before moving on to the next task. There was a rhythm, a contented flow: job to do = job gets done. The course of my working day consisted of a series of completed achievements, of full stops, and whilst the filing may never in truth have been done, nor the coffee cup washed, I would leave at the end of the day feeling a sense of proud accomplishment and personal satisfaction. I had done something tangible. I had made a difference. The evidence was there in my Out Tray.

In stark contrast, being at home with children creates days with no flow, but a jerky stop-start-stop quality. The day’s time dividends are much smaller. You have an hour here, two hours there. Possibly three in the middle but that is precarious. You may sense a flow in the bracketed hours but just as you do it is cut. You are always in demand. You are constantly interrupted. For each small block of time there is a set of tasks. You may be lucky and achieve one. You have to prioritise and forgo the rest.

It is interesting to think of each section of time and reflect on what gets lost. For instance, a morning section might require: getting children up, dressed, washed, fed, and organised for the day. You too need to get up, dressed, washed, fed, and organised for the day. There are the household tasks – beds made, dishes cleared, kitchen tidied – all within a tightly defined time allotment: you have to be somewhere by a certain time.

For me, several of these tasks get culled, or at least postponed. Children don’t always get washed, I don’t always get fed, and we aren’t always that organised. Occasionally Boy 3 leaves the house in his pyjamas, which are often the clothes he had on the day before. Beds are never made, and the dishes and the kitchen can wait. I have whittled my morning time slot priorities down to the bare essentials: get up, get dressed, get the possibly unwashed boys fed and get to school on time. The other tasks often get started but invariably remain incomplete.

Other sections of the day might involve interaction with others, and it is here that the interrupted stop-start nature of being with children has its greatest impact. Again, you prioritise within a strictly allotted time: two hours to walk to the park, have a coffee, watch the children play, enjoy the moment, catch up on life. Finishing the coffee is an achievement, watching the children play – and enjoying the moment – is too often interrupted by need or emergency, and the catch up consists of a series of desperate non sequiturs and half entertained topics. I am so used to this unfinished business of conversation that I now find myself mentally sorting topics to ensure that I at least address the top three: how was the funeral, how is your son’s injury, how did the job interview go. Tell me now because we only have an hour and there’s no time to talk about the weather. Inevitably I walk away with a half drunk coffee cooling in my hand and a half complete conversation lingering in my head. Wishing I had more time to talk. I return to my house with the still incomplete tasks from the morning: the dishes, the kitchen, the beds.

Incomplete tasks have a habit of piling up.

I can forgo the coffees, the washing, the dishes, the tidying in this interrupted landscape. I am getting better at relishing the snippets of enjoyment before they are whisked aside. I know when to let a task fall by the wayside and not get perturbed. It is the incomplete conversations that I wish I could attend to. The times I have left thinking I wish I had said something more: we needed to talk about that. So many incomplete connections that I would love to see through to the final full stop, if only there were more hours in the day.

Repeat after me

July 25, 2013

Muddling and stumbling and fumbling our way through parenthood, several things tend to get forgotten. I think reminding ourselves of them should become mantric.

We forget who we once were. We forget that as children, we too had night fears and wet beds and phobias. Making friends wasn’t always easy, and not all of our teachers were terrific. We too felt the desperate, physical longing for a particular toy, and the need to sometimes just be by ourselves. Siblings and friends could make us lose ourselves in silliness, and yet cut us to the quick with a cruel word. As children our world was home, school, family, friends, play. The simple things that meant everything. If we now remind ourselves of this view, of these feelings, of these values, we will parent better. Our children have not yet been adults, but we have once been children. We should say: I was once a child and I remember.

We also forget about phases. Having been through a doozy with a seven year old recently, I realised how unprepared I was for it, and I blame this largely on the fact that not a lot is said about phases beyond Terrible Two. Babies and toddlers have obvious, explicit, universal phases: teeth, growth, talking, toileting. Beyond that, until adolescence, there is a large unchartered territory of childhood which goes largely unchecked. But the phases continue. They become idiosyncratic and more complex. As there is perhaps little or no uniform nature to them they are seen as personal problems. Individual issues. These they might be, but they are still phases, and if viewed as such, take on a far less ominous hue. To say “It is just a phase” can be quite a comfort.

Perhaps the most profound thing we tend to forget in the fog of parenthood is that every person, and therefore every family, is unique. No one model of family life suits all. We can pick and choose the chapters we like from the self help guides. Not all of it will fit. It is vital that we remind ourselves often, firmly, loudly, that we are doing what is right for our family. From a starting point of life we aim to travel to the point of happiness and wellbeing, and the path there will be different for everyone. You go your way and I’ll go mine. We may see each other along the way but for the most part our scenery will be vastly different. It’s whatever works for you.

Endings and beginnings

July 17, 2013

Something has been happening to me over the past two years. I have lurched from need to need. From mood to mood. From post to post. Nothing has been consistent, or clear, or smooth in my thinking. Directions change daily. An endless push-pull effect. As soon as one track has started it stops, to be replaced by another leading nowhere. Part circular, part messy crosshatch. Thoughts leap, overlap and submit in an exhausting directionless struggle.

I have been in transition.

This is what it feels like when you have a foot stuck in mud. When you want to stay but you want to go. When you wish someone would push you out or pull you in, but you know no one is there to do either. The next step must be committed: mud or water. But how to know? And if tempered by a reluctance to move, how to even start?

I have wanted another baby, a fourth child, for two years. At least I thought I did. Now I suspect the wanting was for the comfortable mud. For the halcyon days of pregnant attention, birthing triumph and newborn need. For the days when life was clearly signposted; when duty and purpose were apparent and unequivocal. Life was easier then. Decisions were made on your behalf. Life had a map, a route with detours and variations, but still a direction.

I followed the signposts and they led me to here. With no further directions I look back over old territory: the familiar, well worn tracks. Could I not just retrace my steps?

But I can feel I am edging my foot from the mud. It is taking time. A long time. Nobody told me this would happen. I wish someone had said: be prepared for the end of the map. Be ready to let go. Move on. Everyone fears they will be the one to say if only, and so we are hesitant. If only I had another baby. If only I hadn’t. I need to move away from this thinking. It is what stifles clarity. The water ahead is mysterious, deep and tempting. A map will emerge. I will find a new path. I just need to take that first step, and allow myself to move slow in doing so. This mud is hard to forsake.

Having the time of their lives

July 13, 2013

I love a good generalisation. While often risky at dinner parties, when cast in their broad sweeping arc they inevitably capture the odd accurate truth.

Generalisations about the generations are especially fun to fish with. For instance, is there not a modicum of truth in the notion of war-timers having a strong work ethic and a tendency to hoard? Salt of the earth with good old fashioned values and hopeless with technology? I know of at least two septuagenarians who would ably support this theory.

We all know baby-boomers as the greedy privileged egotists who spent their formative years stoned in the sixties, they received a free tertiary education before becoming economically established whilst basking in the Ken Done glow of the wealthy eighties. Shares, no cares, no mortgage. Struggle? What struggle? Their life is a cinch. But I could be wrong.

Their offspring, Gen Y, are well known for their dumbed down, spoiled, lackadaisical approach to life. Effort? Meh. Ill b thr whn I get thr. Set up and sponsored by their financially independent parents, these kids have got it made. Why not lounge at home until your mid-twenties? Save up a deposit on a house, attend an auction with your overbearing proud protector and have him outbid struggling couples on a house you may not even live in. You haven’t decided yet. Thanks for the help Dad. It’s a good investment Son. Cu lata.

And then there’s Gen X. The layer I call home. What are we? Jammed between the spoils of the boomers and the conceit of the Ys, it can be a struggle. We often seem guilt ridden, down trodden, misplaced and hard done by. We have revolt in our veins and compassion in our core but we are overwhelmed by information in an increasingly homogenous and consumerist world. Our character seems now to be anachronistic: nostalgic for originality we realise it has all been done before. We would have been great in the sixties. We are forever on the cusp: temporally, economically, technologically, environmentally. We are the sink or swim generation. Our revolution? Perhaps our offspring. Armed with more answers, more awareness and more urgency, we are carefully imbuing our children with a greater sense of the world whilst ensuring they have more fun. Painfully aware of life’s brevity, we are cradling our progeny as we hand them the precious baton. A generalisation about their generation? I’ll say it is hope.

F is for Fail

July 10, 2013

In the Degree of Life I fear I am failing my elective.

Having signed on for Parenting 1A (0-4) and 1B (5-9), and the myriad follow-on topics, I assumed they would merge seamlessly, each one the preparatory pre-requisite for the next. I felt relatively prepared for the rigors of 1A: the sleepless nights and nappies. The sore boobs and stretchmarks. The crying. The confusion. The frustration. The pain. Even the odd midnight dash to emergency didn’t phase me. I had done the reading, received minor tutelage and was excited by the challenge, and by the end of the topic my efforts duly warranted a credit. A pass mark at least. I enjoyed the learning. Those were the days.

The requirements of Parenting 1B appeared suddenly. Without warning. Life upped the ante.

The happy rewards and easy rhythms of this topic’s predecessor are gone and in their place await a bombardment of demands. Where previously intuition and instinct confidently underpinned much of my decision making and action, I now find they are letting me down. My response in so many situations now seems to be lost amid a frustrated internal scream and without any clarity I lose control and resort to anger.

I am shouting. A lot. The shouting feeds resentment which feeds more shouting and the ugly animal continues to grow and fester. It needs a cage.

I am not enjoying it much. At some point in my studies I lost control. The demands seem so great and so vast and so varied and for so little reward. Just as I feel confident with one assignment another looms to demand my attention. But I can only be in one place at a time and so vital work goes unfinished. Unattended. Such is life when you are outnumbered.

I don’t want to fail. Far too much is riding on this topic for me to founder. I know what I need to do. I need to see success in the small things. Even the tiniest assignment can bring reward. It is hard to see the celebration of shoes on when you are already late but it has to be done. The little bricks of good, of positive, of distinction are there beneath the rubble but they have to be sought and each time, celebrated.

I hate to say it goes against the grain. My instinct seems to be to punish: all too easy when things needing admonishment appear so often and so obvious. Perhaps the real assignment of this topic is to seek out the fragments. To build a positive foundation from those tiny bricks of good. Pay more attention to the smaller things and less to the more overt, however challenging. Perhaps, over time, the good will triumph. The shouting will stop. The animal will die. Perhaps this approach will lead to a pass.

I just wish someone had told me I would need a microscope.