Defying belief!

Most people will be familiar with the phrase “Never work with children or animals” coined by W.C. Fields all those years ago. However, I’m willing to bet that (following an extended period of COVID driven home schooling) an even greater proportion of adults now have a better understanding of the potential pitfalls of even trying to achieve something useful whilst the ‘ankle biters’ are around!

As a mum of boys, I discovered quite early on that my children needed ‘exercising’ in almost the same way as a dog. Any fleeting thoughts of spending a ‘lazy day at home’ were usually swiftly dispersed upon realising that there would almost certainly be ‘pay back’ – in one form or another. If we were lucky, it might simply be under the guise of incessant bickering and the joyful refrain of “it’s not fair!” being emphatically chorused on auto repeat. On a bad day though, the afore mentioned arguments and protests would gradually escalate into the damaging of toys, furniture, or (much to my husband’s annoyance) the paintwork. And so, a genuine love of the great outdoors developed (amongst their parents at least) and with it, tangible improvements to behaviour, sleep quality – and (I’ll admit it) home décor!

Having moved to Derbyshire in 2014 we have been fortunate enough to have acquired an enormous natural playground, right on our doorstep. Many a Sunday is spent happily exploring the astonishing beauty of the rugged terrain and majestic rocky outcrops of the awe-inspiring Peak District. Bracing climbs and spectacular views do wonders for one’s physical and mental wellbeing and only the most appalling weather conditions can generally dissuade us from heading out there.

Shortly after Christmas then, ever mindful of the usual post-turkey resolutions, we took the decision to brave the snow and head out to the Peaks. We had chosen a circular walk from ‘The Fox House’ in Longshaw and (at just over 4 miles and supposedly well within our capabilities) headed confidently in the direction of Higger Tor.

All went well to begin with, both boys happily running ahead and delighting in trying to shatter some large sheets of ice that were dotted about at the edge of the trail. In no time at all we had reached the first proper ascent, stopping only to watch a handful of intrepid motorists do battle with some horribly icy country lanes. As we picked our way carefully amongst the rocks, my husband became aware that his phone battery was almost flat and that since this was our only means of navigation (coupled with the fact that an ominous mist was threatening to obscure the landscape altogether) there might be genuine cause for concern. Without a feasible alternative though, there was no real choice but to carry on – and besides, our youngest was making short shrift of the rocky ascent, emulating only the most experienced of mountain goats!

Eventually, (and after an undignified fall on my part that ironically followed a plea to ‘be careful’ to my two infinitely more agile children!) we reached the summit and discussed the quickest route down. The snow had fallen more heavily on that side of the tor and so it was quite difficult to gauge (with any certainty) what lay below. The mist was closing in more rapidly now too and so we promptly chose our ‘path’ and began our descent.

Having negotiated countless twists and turns (largely of my ankle joints) and numerous precarious screes, we stood at the bottom, peering into the distance. We knew the general direction of our car’s whereabouts but a veritable minefield of boggy land and grassy tussocks (blanketed in snow for additional challenge) lay between us and welcome refuge.

And that’s when it happened.

My husband (very much pack leader on such occasions) literally disappeared into the marshland letting out a cry of anguish as he began to sink deeper into the quagmire. I, of course, was expected to leap to his aid but, having now been utterly paralysed with laughter, could do nothing but crumple in a heap and giggle inanely from afar. Fortunately for him, our eldest (upon realising that his father was not in the least bit amused by his wife’s shameful behaviour) swiftly regained his composure and rushed to my husband’s assistance.

Just as we were taking stock of the collateral damage to both my husband’s clothing, and his dignity, we heard a mighty splash nearby. All three of us whipped around to see what on earth had happened now. There, only a matter of yards from where my husband’s ‘rescue’ had recently taken place, was our youngest – up to his waist in bog and waving his arms frantically above his head as a means of attracting our attention. This time (mercifully) the maternal instinct kicked in and (instead of giving in to helpless laughter) we all rushed to hoist him out. The fact that there was a sort of tide mark just above his nipples was a clear indication of just how deep the marsh had become now that the thawing process had begun in earnest.

But before you devote too much sympathy to our ‘little man’, I feel that I should tell you that he later confessed to having in fact ‘chosen’ to launch himself into the bog… Apparently, the reasoning behind his actions was that because he knew that he was considerably lighter than his father, he “thought (he) would just skid along the surface of the ice and not sink in at all”!

Nice one, kiddo!     

Selective hearing

How many times have you held a ‘conversation’ with one of your children, only to discover (much later) that they weren’t in fact listening to a single word that was said? If your children are anything like mine, I’d hazard a guess at it being quite a few!  I’ve noticed that husbands can sometimes be guilty of this particular affliction too. My own husband is particularly adept at claiming that he has absolutely no recollection of the many minutes that were invested (sometimes only a couple of hours earlier) into making sure that he knew what the plans for the day were. That way, of course, he skilfully avoids having to take ownership of, or responsibility for, any small part of the planning or execution. Ingenious, right?!

Even more remarkable though is the breakneck speed with which auditory, cognitive, and memory function is miraculously restored just as soon as the subject matter holds greater appeal – or that a particular game has finally finished! So, you’ll have to forgive me if there is just the tiniest hint of cynicism in what follows…

‘Stuck on repeat!’ by Gaynor Hall

There’s the faintest of suggestions that their eyes are growing glazed,
They’ve moved on from ‘feigned interest’ and they’ve reached the ‘tuned-out’ phase,
They glance down surreptitiously – tapping deftly all the while –
Pretending that they’re listening can take a lot of guile!

They assure me that they’re “engaging” (despite appearances to the contrary),
Whilst avatars dart across their screens, each action wholly voluntary,
I press on with the schedule detailing exit, and arrival
But still they seem oblivious, seeking only ‘virtual’ survival.

I pause to gauge their reaction – not a word escapes their lips –
So I busy myself fetching coats and all the things we’ll need for our trip.
I remind them (once again) to bring their current game to a close –
As time for a shower evaporates, I catch sight of the garden hose.

What fun it would be to douse each one in water both strong and icy,
The thought makes me smile, they’d move quickly then, I’m in danger of getting feisty!
I resist the urge and content myself with another gentle nagging,
As finally they deign to respond, they can sense my spirits are flagging…

They leap into action (well, gently crawl) and head out to the car,
(The usual arguments quickly ensue even though we’re not going far!)
And then the questions tumble out, like ‘Where?’ and ‘What?’ and ‘When?’
I remind myself to take deep breaths before I explain again!

Trailblazing (of sorts!)

We’ve all come across them. Those individuals who demonstrate an enviable flair for coming up with ingenious ideas. Or those for whom pushing the boundaries to the absolute extreme, is nothing more than idle sport.

For most of us mere mortals, however, we learn to content ourselves with exhibiting professional competency, and a good day at the office tends to equate to the conquering of one’s inbox (albeit only fleetingly) whilst perhaps managing to snaffle the last Dairy Milk Chunk from that rapidly depleting tin of ‘Heroes’!

Small victories, and all that…

Imagine my surprise then, when almost 12 years ago I unwittingly found myself poised to become something of a trailblazer amongst the ranks of my burgeoning NCT friendship group.

We’d all met during the summer months of 2009 and our babies were due to make an appearance in the autumn. Our group was an impressive mix of professionals, all eager to excel at the next assignment – Parenting. We’d sat through sessions on birth plans, pain relief, relaxation techniques and feeding and we were all now raring to go.

One by one the various bundles of joy arrived (delivered, I seem to remember, with wildly varying degrees of grace and composure!) and the journey began in earnest.

Many an afternoon was spent exchanging tips, sharing concerns, and I don’t mind admitting that a wealth of delicious biscuits and cakes were consumed along the way too. And very quickly, each new mum assumed their vital role within the group. It was almost as if we’d been cherry-picked to provide as broad a skill set as possible because (rather conveniently) we had two teachers, a surveyor, a designer, two amazing creators of ‘all things delicious’ and even a readymade parent in our midst. Surely, we were collectively ‘holding all the aces’…

Now as any new mum will know, the value of having a support network (particularly of friends who are going through similar experiences) should not be underestimated. After all, there is no postpartum handbook (and each ‘model’ seems to throw up sometimes quite literally its own unique challenges!) so being able to talk things through, surrounded by sympathetic company, was an absolute blessing.

Any chance of losing those post pregnancy pounds was looking pretty slim though, my little man being only too content to sleep soundly in my arms whilst I chatted away happily – and indulged (utterly unstintingly) in a wide assortment of pastries!

In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of laughter, a few tears and much soul searching over what would be best for our little ones and it was an unexpected honour when I began to sense that my friends might be starting to look to me as a sort of ‘benchmark’ for parenting. My baby had been the last to arrive, and yet it seemed that all eyes were on me when it came to feeding, nappy changing etc.

Was this my chance to shine? Was I to become a much-revered model of motherhood?

Of course not! For when the cake-induced vanity eventually wore off I realised that, far from setting the gold standard for parenting, it was more a case of “Well, Gaynor’s already done that (and her baby is still alive) so it can’t be all that bad”! And so, the gradual shift from breast to bottle, cotton wool to wipes (and oh so many other guilt-ridden adjustments) began.

Trailblazer?
No.
Source of reassurance – albeit tinged with mild dismay?
Let’s hope so!

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.