Intuition

Your heart is alive; I know this

by the way you change your grandson

gently enough to nurture him and firm

enough to keep him from rolling off your knee.

I know this by the way you speak of your special needs child

who could go into residential care but you do it all

yourself, because you love the bones of him.

I know this because you are ferocious when this

government, yet again, lets your boy down.

You, on the other hand, you who call her ‘scum’,

who turn away as her child stims loudly in a supermarket,

who call yourselves poor as you cash in your Air BNB profits

from the spare cottage on your estate. You who

complain about immigrants and scroungers,

who want everything to stay the same, the way

it’s always been, how it used to be, how it suits you,

you are the walking dead with already rotten hearts.

Daughter

Flung together into the ocean,

some found safety,

some disappeared from sight

and some stayed alongside her

as she clung, disrobed and

white-knuckled, to debris.

The future shrank to terror, of

salt-eyed thrashing through

mountainous waves and needle-sharp rain.

Darkness tore her to unearthly spheres,

ravening lions, bulls of Bashan,

starless, infinite stretching of night.

Hands beneath, above, around, she

gasped at raw morning air and

saw the faint, tangerine-tinged horizon.

The good enough parent

Perfectionism and modern day parenting

As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.

When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!

And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.

I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!

In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.

And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.

This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.

I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.

If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.

There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

Billy

An unapologetically soppy poem by me as a young mum. I am still crazy about this boy and he is still a cuddly one, but he’s now known as Will, mostly keeps his clothes on and is slightly less obsessed with his Gameboy.

Bare feet thudding across landing, slow scuffle-drag of wooden door on carpet;

he glides spectrally towards me, perfectly, unabashedly bare,

and confidently scrabbles into the darkness,

where he snuggles dazedly into sleep-laden arms until

the alarm shatters the body-warm bed nest, and my finger tips

tickle his sturdy, satin back while he squirms and chortles,

then turns around and unfailingly takes my breath away with

a long-lashed milk chocolate gaze.

We walk into the freshly-laundered morning;

his wind-chilled hand homes into mine until an aeroplane,

a cloud, a cat or a lorry demand his body’s focus;

words and images squeezing and

bubbling from an internal picture-store through

an unsatisfactory vocabulary and sometimes a

stutter and another squeeze of the hand as he

galumphs in rhythm with the need to tell.

After school he has a happy sticker, he did not

roar at story-time or dive joyously into mud.

He stands proud, stomach protruding and

knock-knees unashamedly together, splayed feet;

the innocence of bodily ignorance.

He earned his game boy and he sits,

milk-moustached, after his bath,

pink tongue lolling and a slight

frown as he tackles real monsters;

with spring-loaded tension

he directs frantically jabbing fingers.

Night time, and he is a graceless rag-doll,

a discarded duvet twisted lumpishly

in one corner of its football-themed cover.

His bluey-white skin wears

a slight flush and the musk-mint breath

is almost imperceptible; parted lips

display outgrown crazy-paving

teeth and his sun-bleached cow’s lick

invites my palm.

The inconsequential and the meaning of life

Little things over the years have included: my son jumping into my car to fetch his bag, accidentally sitting on the handbrake and rolling the car down the road, damaging the door badly (April 2014), me writing off a car because I drove it very quickly through a ford, for no logical reason (March 2003) and a car being stolen from outside our first house (1993).

These things were very stressful at the time, with phone calls galore, insurance claim wrangles and unexpected expenditure.

Bigger things have included negative equity (1995), moving to Japan for several months with two small kids (1997) and training as a secondary school teacher with three (2005).

The biggest things have been falling in love (1992 and 2015), having children (1994, 1996 and 1999), getting divorced (2015) and my daughter’s bulimia (dates are a blur).  The trouble is with Generalised Anxiety Disorder is that there is little difference in the stress levels between the levels of perceived threat like financial loss and practical inconveniences and the biggest, most life changing situations.

I had a moment today, though, when I got a blinding moment of clarity as I was driving home from Aldi.  I have these sometimes, pootling along through life, and BOOM there it is.  Sudden awareness and a spine tingling, tearful moment of pure joy and gratitude for the insight.

For the last four days I’ve been stressing (nothing new there) about my buyers suddenly announcing, last Tuesday, that they wanted me to complete decking as a condition of their offer.  They told me that the estate agent should have told me.  It wasn’t on the offer, nobody had mentioned it before, and the estate agent denied all knowledge.  I had promised ALL my house viewers, upon viewing, that if my buyer wanted decking I would do it, as the garden is half finished.  But she never said that she was going to offer, never mind that decking would be a condition of that.

I’ve got two weekends left in Leicester before going away to Scotland to get married and then, hopefully, completing and moving.  So it isn’t much time!  I told my solicitor that the buyer can have decking but will have to pay a further £1000 to cover the costs and the inconvenience.  She already got £13000 less than the asking price.  I haven’t heard back since last Thursday.  She texted me today to ask if everything is ok and it seems that her solicitors haven’t passed on any message.  I’m wondering if the sale’s going to fall through.  I need to move by September as my new job starts then, and blah and blah and yadda and yadda and the full screamo band of crappy nonsense was skadoodling around my poor, addled brain when I remembered, with a smile, an earlier phone call from my daughter, pictured above as a cute little babby.  She wanted to catch up about life and talked a while about her Summer job.

After completing her first two years of a degree course at the University of Durham, my girl has secured a Summer job prior to going to Germany then France for her year abroad.  She has just started work as a National Citizenship Service group leader, working with a group of 16 year olds.  She was tired and a bit frazzled after a weekend at an outdoor camp, and long working hours, but feeling engaged in the role, chattering enthusiastically about managing the youngsters and clearly enjoying their company, their talk, how they share their problems and how she might encourage the quieter ones to contribute more and be less dominated by the few noisy ones.  As a teacher, I knew how she felt and how rewarding she was finding it and I loved hearing about her experience so far.

When my baby was 15, she had anorexia.  She was brave and honest and told me just after Christmas how hard she was finding her obsession with dieting.  She went to the GP, got a diagnosis, and we waited hopefully for treatment.  Anyone who has a child with a mental illness, however, will know how naïve we were.  The CAMHS waiting list was long.  The most acute cases took priority.  The anorexia morphed into bulimia, accompanied by depression, anxiety and self-harm.  She got some interim CBT which didn’t help much.  I wrote letters monthly.  I quoted NICE guidelines.  My local MP, the wonderful Jon Ashworth, got involved and after a year, she received treatment and made a good recovery.

Any recovery from an ED takes time, patience, setbacks and triggers.  Going to university was difficult for her even after a year out.  Transitions are difficult times for people with mental health conditions.  I know that even more as I now realise that I have had similar mental health issues for years, although mine were more buried beneath layers of denial.

I’m not going to go into the hell of her ED.  It’s in the past and it’s private.  If you know, you know, and if you don’t, good.

All I’ll say is that my baby, my beautiful, innocent, precious child who I swore to protect and love forever, was hurting so badly that nobody and nothing could help her.  I felt guilt, frustration and deep, raw, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying pain.  Knowing that her pain was worse was only bearable because she needed me not to fall apart.  I learned so much from her.  Her courage and honesty led to mine.  She has become an advocate for the mentally ill and has promoted mental health in her role as president of Heads Up Durham.  She was determined, brave, even humorous about her illness.  She became my hero.

And as I drove home from Aldi, with my head full of decking, house sales, buyers, deadlines and completion dates, I suddenly remembered the phone call and I thought, ‘she is ok’.

And that – THAT – is a Big Thing.

 

Older and newer: embracing the grey

When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection. So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.

I have started this blog to document some of my thoughts and experiences relating to perimenopause, which is, for me, more than a bunch of hormones conspiring to age me beyond all recognition and turn me grey.  Far more than that.  And a million times better, too.  I feel as though I’ve been gearing up for this for years, starting at the age of 33 when I developed feelings for a man other than my husband.  That was the beginning of a process of reassessing my life, and it started with an infatuation.  I thought it was love, but it was really a glimpse into a multi-faceted world of opportunities: different people, places, conversations and friendships.  It turned out to be nothing; we were both married and he wanted an affair, nothing more.  I stopped seeing him and spent months agonising over what had become of my marriage.  When I told my husband that I thought it was over, we decided to go to counselling (Relate) and managed to negotiate some changes that suited us both and gave it another go for ten years.  But the unrest of that fling stayed with me.  It was the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning.  And that’s what I think this midlife business is all about.  Whether we stay in a relationship for life or not, our relationships do change.  We change.  I started to want more for myself.

I was brought up brethren.  Plymouth brethren.  Strict parents, nothing worldly, long hair, a head covering in meetings and a skirt and never trousers.  No discos, no version of the Bible other than the good old King James with its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘sayeths’.  The meeting was a solemn affair and women were under what was termed ‘the headship of men’.   I married under that and we didn’t really stray far from the tree until I went to university to study English Literature at the age of 32.  Suddenly I had options.  I was getting good grades and realised I had a brain and over the next years I graduated, took my PGCE and became a teacher.  I left the brethren, got fit, ran two marathons, raised my three kids, kept an eye on my ageing parents and got grey hair.  I coloured it religiously, obsessively, red, purple, blondey, streaked, dark, covering the roots increasingly often, sometimes every three weeks.  I couldn’t afford hairdressing fees and did it myself using L’Oreal products and then, scared of carcinogenic chemicals, Holland and Barrett brands.  The greys grew in abundance.

My marriage ended, finally, in a fizzled out mess of empty abandonment.  He moved to London with his job and I got to spend all week raising my two youngest whilst holding down a job and dealing with the middle daughter’s bulimia.  They were the most heartrending two years of my life and certainly the most difficult and painful of hers.  Whilst he was away pursuing his dream job, I wrote letters, chased the NHS, called my MP, shouted a lot about the CAMHS waiting list and funding problem and finally she got treatment.  During her time waiting for treatment, she went from mild anorexia to full blown bulimia, characterised not only by binge-purging but also regular panic attacks, self harm and, on one occasion, after a relationship breakup, an impulsive suicide attempt.  He told me I was exaggerating her illness and he continued to return home later and later on Friday nights, we returned to Relate, nothing changed and I ended it.

For the next year, I battled depression and anxiety, took a course of antidepressants, learned to look after myself, started dating again, had loads of fun, and developed more grey hairs.  When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection.  So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.  His response, ‘Is that it?’ surprised me.  I still hung on to this idea that men do not fancy grey haired women.

Now, I’m a feminist.  Honestly.  A strong-minded, educated, mid-40s woman who believes in absolute equality, despises shallow frivolity and obsessions about perfection and considers our brains to be our biggest asset.  But I still want to be considered sexy and that, although I hate to admit it, equates with youthful.  I think we all do.  Men, too.  But lots of women I know struggle with the whole grey hair thing.  Although, I was talking about this with a colleague the other day and he said he reckons loads of men dye their hair secretly.  Loads.  Anyway, I toyed the the idea of going grey for some months and finally went to the hairdresser, asked them to chop out as much colour as they could, take it as short as they could without shaving my head, and went natural in one fell swoop  I bought a L’Oreal purple shampoo, which tones the remainder of the previous brassy overtones, and now I have silver streaks that are all mine.  People think it looks lovely.  I’ve had so many compliments.  My fiance loves it.  My kids think it’s cool.  My students have commented positively.  And I feel like my hair now matches the rest of me.  Older and newer.

My youngest is about to go to university, my house is on the market, I’m saying goodbye to the first half of my life: the day to day life of a working mother and the packets of hair dye.  I’m about to move away, buy a place with my fiance and say hello to the second half which is still brand new, with doors to be opened and memories to be made.

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