Be sure to pay it forward!

My dad was a firm believer in treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself and this is certainly something that I have tried to put into practice over the years. And should you find that the truism ‘kindness costs nothing’ lacks resonance for any reason, then ‘be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people that you’ll meet on the way back down’ might just help to focus the mind!

Perhaps one of the few positives to be taken from the ongoing pandemic is that there have been countless stories of people (from all walks of life) ‘pulling together’ and that the dying embers of community spirit have, to some extent, been rekindled. As we move forward into a period of recovery then, let’s try to hold on to those desirable behaviours, casting aside the all-consuming self- interest of before.

‘Be sure to pay it forward’ by Gaynor Hall

For every act of kindness, however great or small,
For every ounce of encouragement that helped you stand up tall,
For every time you very nearly let the demons in,
For every time you fought a battle you had no right to win,
For every time the road seemed tough, and strained at each small sinew,
For every time a friend endorsed the strength that lay within you,
For every time a passer-by their smile on you bestowed,
For every time a colleague helped to ease your heavy load,
For every time the sun still rose in spite of deep despair,
For every time that someone showed you just how much they cared.
Be grateful for each kindness, there’s no need to feel awkward,
Just remember the difference each one made – and be sure to pay it forward! 

To label, or not to label, that is the question

Over the years I have met a great many parents whom, at one time or another, have faced this particular dilemma. They have come to realise that their child is struggling at school, and they have begun to take those first tentative (but necessary) steps towards seeking some kind of help and support.

In my experience, when a group of parents get together over a coffee, the conversation usually adheres to a common theme – that of parental self-deprecation (after all, how many people honestly think that they are ‘acing’ this particular role?!) interwoven with the fundamental reality that most of us just want our children to ‘fit in’, be happy and to achieve their true potential. And it’s incredibly difficult to accept when something ‘isn’t quite right’. Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety begin to surface, and it can take a while for us to work through our own emotions, let alone ready ourselves for the inevitable challenges that we will need to help our children to overcome.

Society as a whole, of course, offers very little encouragement here.

As demonstrated by some of the abhorrent behaviour surrounding England’s defeat at Euro 2020, prejudice is evidently still very much alive and well. Whether pertaining to race, sexuality, age, or religion it would seem that ‘equality’ is the luxury of the few and there needs to be a concerted effort to change this. And like it or not, with every educational / behavioural diagnosis comes a certain amount of stigma too and (whilst progress is undoubtedly being made to address this) one can understand why a parent might be reluctant to authorise a comprehensive assessment for their child, for fear of them being ‘labelled’ and therefore viewed differently from their peers.

I remember taking part in an INSET session some eight or nine years ago that was looking at the common signs of, and useful strategies to help, those children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Being a subject that genuinely interested me, I had (rather uncharacteristically) listened intently – and made copious notes too! And just as I was beginning to wonder if my child might actually be ‘on the spectrum’ too, the presenter explained that most children under the age of five would exhibit a number of the behaviours outlined and that the mean age for ASD diagnosis ranged between 38 and 120 months. My relief was palpable (the proverbial weight having been lifted from my shoulders) and I settled down gratefully to the paediatric first aid course that followed.

All these years later, I have come to realise that my reaction was ‘normal’ (but also incredibly short-sighted) and this has made me much more empathetic towards those awaiting the diagnosis of a specific educational need for their child. The very notion that one’s treasured offspring might not be able to access education (or understand social convention) in the ‘usual’ way can be difficult to accept, and it is not uncommon for parents to feel a degree of culpability either – unwarranted or otherwise.

However, I wonder if an analogy with the labelling found on an item of clothing might be worth some consideration here? After all, without such a label there is a real chance that a particular item of clothing might become damaged or (in the event of it being dramatically reduced in size) rendered utterly worthless to the wearer. By attaching a ‘care’ label to a child then (rather than simply viewing that label as a set of arbitrary instructions) there’s a strong chance that this might help to alleviate some of their feelings of confusion and inadequacy. And better still, you might just be furnishing your child with an enduring sense of self-worth too.

New chapters

First days are seldom easy and, regardless of the setting, there always seem to be a fair few hurdles to climb. Most of us do ultimately survive them though, and the general consensus is that ‘things will get easier’ as time goes on.

With secondary schools starting back this week, there will no doubt be a large number of Year 7 children who feel incredibly nervous. This poem is for them. Be brave, be positive – and please know that ‘lunch’ is sometimes still the highlight of my day! 

‘First day nerves’ by Gaynor Hall

The waiting’s almost over, there’s only a few hours left,
The Summer passed so quickly, he hardly caught his breath,
Uniform named and ready, school bag neatly packed,
Bus route walked and memorised, timed both there and back.

He knows this is just the way of things, done countless times before,
By children who’ve felt just as scared as him when they stepped from their front door,
And yet a hundred butterflies seem to dance inside his belly,
What he wouldn’t give for one more day snuggled up in front of the telly!

The bus arrives, he scrambles on, not sure quite where to sit,
And then he spots an empty seat and gratefully seizes it.
He watches as the trees go by and drizzle strikes the window,
Relieved to have managed at least one ‘tick’ in this game of first day bingo.

The bus departs and the day begins with numerous introductions,
Each member of staff (all nice enough) reeling off a host of instructions.
He feels his head begin to spin and starts to get a hunch –
That the highlight of today, at least, might end up being lunch.

With his stomach full (and old friends found) he feels his spirits swell,
Just Art and History still to come and then the final bell.
The journey home flies quickly by, there’s a spring in this young man’s step,
What a shame that it’s only Monday then; there’s a while ‘til the weekend yet!

The quest for anonymity

The extent to which one’s perspective can change over time, is nothing short of extraordinary. What seemed desirable just a few short years ago can suddenly seem rather alien to us as we strive to understand the many different stages of our own ‘metamorphosis’.

Of course, some stages are easier to detect than others, conveniently highlighted by physical changes that are instantly identifiable. And whilst humans do not undergo the sort of conspicuous or abrupt change to their basic structure that occurs in insects (for example), subtle changes are often afoot – not least in terms of the developing personality. 

I recently took a trip down memory lane and spent a couple of hours thumbing through a series of photographs from my childhood. It will come as no surprise to learn that (rather than simply focusing upon the happy faces of the subjects captured within) I spent most of the time cringing at the various outfits on display – presumably fashionable at the time, but now nothing short of bizarre! From shell suits to rah-rah skirts, quilted dresses to satin bows (that were almost as big as one’s head!) I unwittingly modelled them all. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why I feel so grateful to be a mum of boys – unashamedly flaunting my right to fill their wardrobes with jeans and t-shirts that are both uncontroversial, and likely to stand the test of time. Hurrah!

As the new academic year begins to come into focus, the inevitable flurry of shopping trips and internet sessions (in an attempt to meet the increasingly stringent requirements of the secondary school uniform list) has begun. Trying to achieve the perfect balance between buying clothes that will last for more than a term, and clothes that look as though they were at least intended to be worn by a Year 7 pupil (as opposed to someone sitting their GCSEs) has not been without its challenges. The overriding consideration though (certainly from my son’s point of view anyway) has been to ensure that all purchases render him utterly inconspicuous so that he can avoid the unwanted attention of older pupils and blend seamlessly into the background.

I’m pretty confident that this is something that we can all relate to. After all, schools haven’t changed that much and neither, sadly, have children. That ‘pack mentality’ of looking for difference, weakness – or indeed anything that is likely to get a reaction – is as prevalent now as ever it was. However, I have to admit to having been rather taken aback when a friend told me that her daughter (a thoroughly personable young girl) had been going through a difficult time at school and that her circle of friends had started to alienate her. I suppose that I assumed that the age-old suspects (such as hair colour, poor complexion, budget clothes brands or unsightly braces) would be at the root of their cruelty. Imagine my incredulity then, when I discovered that it was because her daughter didn’t wear braces that she was being ostracised! I didn’t see that one coming… 

So, when does individuality become acceptable? And at what particular stage in a person’s development is it ‘OK’ to stand out from the crowd?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that there is a definitive answer to either of these questions. What I do know, however, is that I’m eternally grateful to have left the uncertainty of youth behind – and reached an age where, quite frankly, no-one feels the need to pay me very much attention at all!

Moving on

Life is rather like a novel, consisting of a series of different chapters that vary in both length and intensity. Of course, some chapters are more compelling than others, but each one has its part to play in the ‘novel’ as a whole, either endorsing what went before or striking out in an entirely new direction.

Yesterday afternoon, my eldest son’s primary school ‘chapter’ drew to a close and it won’t be long before he finds himself embarking upon the next one. He is by no means unique in having reached this particular milestone, and the wide range of emotions that he has been exhibiting over the past few weeks will have been typified by countless children around the globe. Nevertheless, he is the first of my children to have reached this stage and (quite apart from having made me feel incredibly old!) it has spurred me on to record my own feelings on the matter. After all, in a vain attempt to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ we sometimes neglect to give our children the resounding endorsement that they so desperately need.   

‘Moving on’ by Gaynor Hall

You’ve learnt so much already, achieved things great and small,
Managed each disappointment, risen bravely from every fall.
You’ve nurtured each tendril of friendship, and shown that you understand
That laughter and humour don’t always suffice, so instead you’ve offered your hand.

You’ve laid the best of foundations, established healthy routines,
You know your strengths (and your weaknesses) and appreciate the value of dreams.
You’ve experienced the shame of wrongdoing, and faced your punishment well,
Each one an important learning curve, not something upon which to dwell.

Step boldly forth on your journey then, and embrace the next new phase,
(You’ll be shocked to learn just how fast it goes, that 7-year ‘secondary’ haze!)
Embrace every opportunity with courage, good humour, and joy
But don’t forget to have some fun – after all you’re still a young boy!

Believe in yourself, be honest and true, stand firm in all your endeavours,
Success is by no means guaranteed, there’ll be plenty of storms to weather.
But know that whatever befalls you – be it fortune, or perhaps a low tide –
We’ll always be right there beside you, ‘midst a surfeit of devotion and pride.

The Adolescent

Parenting is undeniably one of the greatest challenges that I have ever faced, and I frequently question why quite so many of us put ourselves through this particular ordeal…

As voluntary jobs go, it is ‘right up there’ in terms of emotional investment and logistical planning and (once the prepubescent hormones kick in) the ‘goal posts’ certainly seem to move with baffling proclivity.  Nothing that I have encountered in either the exam room or the classroom has even come close to the dramatic surges in blood pressure that my own children have managed to induce, and (for a reasonably confident person) I’ll admit to having given in to feelings of utter inadequacy at one time or another.  It is then, as they say, just a happy coincidence that I am writing this now – before my two boys decide that they are old enough to contradict me!

Despite frequently thinking that a user manual might have been helpful, I’ve never been one for reading vast tomes on parenting. Besides, who actually has the time to read that type of stuff whilst frantically trying to juggle the demands of their job with the day to day needs of their offspring? On the other hand, if someone (who has done the necessary research) could please just explain to me how two children from the exact same gene pool can be so utterly different in temperament and outlook, I’d be ever so grateful!

What follows then, is my (deliberately tongue in cheek) ‘Attenboroughesque’ commentary on the ‘Adolescent’ – that most complex of human species!

If one looks carefully into the dense urban undergrowth, it should be possible to pick out a lone adult female scratching her head in bewilderment. The eldest of her offspring (at just over a decade old) is seemingly ill-equipped to take responsibility for any aspect of his existence and looks to her to ensure that his every need is met. Multiple items of clothing lie strewn about the enclosure whilst the parched bristles of a toothbrush show no sign of recent activity. A pair of glasses (the lenses of which look oddly opaque, buried as they are under a thick crust of grime) lie discarded upon the ground, whilst the pages of a book (heavily dog eared from the nocturnal pursuits of the past 11 hours) rest casually within the creases of a hollow fibre duvet. Contained beneath the solace of the cosy bedding, glimpses can be snatched of a bleary pale blue iris, tentatively attempting to take in its immediate surroundings, braving the relative intensity of the new dawn. But alas, this brief display of energy proves utterly overwhelming and (having issued a deep guttural groan for good measure) the adolescent willingly submits himself to the clammy darkness of his natural habitat once more.

Meanwhile, movement can be detected from inside enclosure two. Light streams in through the main observation point revealing meticulously organised sleeping quarters and a spirited young male engaging in the final throes of his morning routine. As he nonchalantly casts his towel over a nearby radiator, deftly selecting a playlist at maximum volume on his Echo Show, it is clear that this young mammal has no intention of awaiting instructions (or seeking approval) from the adult male who can be seen lethargically arriving upon the scene. Hackles rise as the two males begin posturing for supremacy, and the early threads of conversation swiftly escalate into the loud staccato tones of conflict. For now, at least, the young male grudgingly accepts defeat and beats a hasty retreat. From the confines of his den, he sets about laboriously (and vociferously) pacing the perimeter until the call of the alarm clock finally beckons. With a degree of calm temporarily restored, the adult male can be seen lavishly preening himself, as he basks in his first (and probably last!) victory of the day.

Learning to dance in the rain

As a young child I was definitely a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person. I can remember grumbling about all manner of things, frequently behaving as if the world were about to end. Looking back, I’m quite sure that this pessimistic outlook on life was one of the main factors in earning me the title of ‘Mummy’s little ray of sunshine’ in my mid-teens. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me, even then!

Of course, some of our character traits are inherited, whilst others develop in response to our experiences and surroundings. However, I’m inclined to believe that certain aspects of our personality can’t really be altered and that it is, therefore, simply a case of embracing those desirable qualities that essentially define us, and then working hard to dilute the less favourable ones – petulance included!

Like so many parents, my husband and I have (inevitably) had to weather countless ‘storms’ where prepubescent hormones have clashed violently with parental exhaustion and (as someone for whom a strong sense of justice is inextricably ingrained) I have genuinely struggled to tolerate such bouts of unreasonable behaviour. On each occasion though, I have just about managed to remind myself that I am the ‘grown up’ and that being drawn into a full-scale shouting match with a 9- or 10-year-old boy is neither dignified, nor productive. I’m not going to lie though; it’s often been a close-run thing!

Then came covid-19, a global aggressor intent upon flaunting uncertainty, fear, and anxiety galore. With daily liberties revoked, livelihoods at risk and a substantial threat to life, perspectives began to shift, and families had no choice but to adapt.

With trips to restaurants quite literally ‘off the menu’, the focus on home cooking intensified. With cars sitting redundant on the drive, walking or cycling became the favoured mode of transport or exercise. Little by little, daily routines evolved and (with them) so did our expectations.

We simply had to accept that instant gratification had been placed (rather ironically) ‘on hold’.

And it was being forced to live through this strange new existence that really made me stop and think. The stark realisation that my ‘glass half empty’ approach to life would be of absolutely no use to me now, hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer. With no legitimate timescale in the offing, I figured that ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ was probably not the best strategy here, but that ‘learning to dance in the rain’ might just be the better option! 

Is social media your new best friend?

I sometimes wonder if we, as a society, have lost the ability to really engage with each other. After all, the growth of the all-encompassing world of social media has meant that we can ‘friend’ (or ‘connect’ with) literally thousands of people, many of whom we have never actually met. And whilst this has enabled us to grow our business networks, expanding our virtual ‘audience’ with relative ease, I suspect that it has done nothing for that humblest of relations, Friendship.

When was the last time that you rang the friend who recently lost their partner to cancer? Or checked in on the mum who was worried sick over a recent spate of bullying at their child’s school? Or asked after the colleague who was struggling with mental health issues to the point of leaving their job? And yet, like me, I’m willing to bet that you have ‘liked’ at least five posts on Facebook today, without truly stopping to consider whether or not the author of that post might simply be putting on a ‘brave face’.

And so, in honour of my many wonderful friends (who frankly repeatedly put me to shame!) this poem is for you. Thank you for all that you have done for me (during lockdown and beyond) and I hope that you know just how much I have appreciated every text, every phone call, and every frantic wave that I have glimpsed as I have rushed about the neighbourhood trying to darn the holes that have inevitably appeared in life’s rich tapestry!

‘I owe you one!’ by Gaynor Hall

For every time you’ve texted, to see if I was OK,
For every time you’ve offered to have my boys to play,
For every time you asked me if there was a reason why
A tear or two had inexplicably formed and leaked just outside my eye.

For every time you’ve remembered an important family date,
For every time you’ve forgiven me for arriving a little bit late,
For every time you’ve invited me to unburden myself at leisure –
Or arranged a breakfast at ‘Wetherspoons’, indulging my guilty pleasure!

For every time you’ve allowed me to simply tease you rotten,
For every time you’ve allowed the odd cross word to be forgotten,
For every time you’ve offered me a friendly shoulder to cry on,
Showing me (time and time again) that you’re someone whom I can rely on.

Thank you, most sincerely, for all that you have done,
For supporting me, and celebrating each small battle won.
If I can return the favour, then you only have to say –
I’d be ashamed to take for granted those who’ve helped me along the way.

…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Preparing to be unlocked

Having recently entered the next stage of the government’s plan to ease restrictions, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. We’ve been here before, of course, but with the roll-out of 30 million+ COVID vaccines, there is every reason to feel quietly confident that we are taking back some of the control that was so ruthlessly snatched from us 12 months ago. Here’s hoping that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not simply a train coming the other way, ready to knock us off our feet once more…

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

Tell me it’s over, the incarceration
That stifled the freedom of many a nation,
Prevented the sharing of happiness or grief,
And threw up behaviour that ‘beggared belief’.

Playgrounds fell silent, parks were left bare,
Homes and gardens deemed unsafe to share,
Bus stops deserted, restaurants too,
Roads less congested; used by so few.

Hospitals quite literally bursting their seams,
Struggling to cope with a virus so extreme
That people were dying – regardless of age,
With figures quite simply impossible to gauge.

But slowly the tide has started to turn,
Children are back in their classrooms to learn,
Businesses fighting so hard for survival
Preparing to open, to start their revival.

And so, there is only one question to ask,
(Although it might seem an onerous task)
What will you cherish, and what will you change –
Having lived through an era unparalleled and strange?