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!

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.

In pursuit of the happy medium

People constantly talk about ‘striking a happy medium’ and I’ve often wondered if this is, in fact, possible? So many factors would have to be finely balanced in order for this to be achievable and human nature is so inherently fallible (certainly in my case, anyway!) that somewhere along the lines the potential for error must arguably be too great!

I’m always utterly fascinated by family dynamics and I derive huge comfort from seeing that my parental struggles are by no means unique! The notion that the ‘second child’ is always something of a handful certainly rang true in our case, but then I’m the fourth out of six – so I’m not entirely sure how that should have affected my own personality or emotional development… Perhaps being ‘somewhere in the middle’ has left me ‘floundering’ (in hierarchical terms at least) and unable to voice my wishes / feelings with any degree of conviction? I suspect, though, that my colleagues might (ever so politely) disagree! 

I’ve written before about the sibling rivalry that pervades our home-life and (by association) my largely unremitting role as judge and jury. However, as the boys get that little bit older, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of certain (almost desirable) traits coming to the fore, and I find myself daring to hope that they will, eventually, manage to reach an ‘uneasy peace’.

The fact of the matter is that my boys couldn’t be more different. My eldest is shy, relatively sensible (he is a prepubescent boy, after all!) and prefers to observe first, then join in later. My youngest is self-assured, quick-witted, and impetuous – and causes us far more heartache as a result. In this regard then, I must confess that I am utterly guilty of wanting my boys to ‘strike a happy medium’. After all, being polite and unassuming doesn’t tend to fare all that well in a Saturday morning league match but then again, neither does one want to be the parent of a child for whom a red card might almost become a ‘badge of honour’!     

With the return of a third UK lockdown, I’m fairly confident that parents far and wide have been desperately striving for a healthy balance between ensuring that their children continue to make some sort of academic progress, whilst trying to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing too. For those parents also trying to hold down a job, it can feel like something akin to being a trapeze artist, where the margin for error is depressingly slim. It seems to me then, that the quest for a better work-life balance, the holy grail of parenting or indeed the happy medium, is something that is destined to haunt us all for many more years to come. If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, please don’t be shy in coming forward; my liver and /or sanity might depend upon it!

Guilt: rite of passage, or wasteful emotion?

I’ve literally lost count of the number of times that I have sat worrying about whether or not I could have done things differently or handled a particular situation better. I try to tell myself that this is because I am constantly striving to improve. In reality though, I suspect that it has more to do with nagging self-doubt, and the awful realisation that life simply doesn’t come with a handbook.

I remember attending an antenatal class with my husband when we were expecting our first child. There we were, eager to learn the craft of parenting – and somehow naïve enough to think that three 45-minute sessions would suffice! We sat on the edge of our seats, earnestly focusing upon the midwife whose (unenviable) task it was, to talk us through labour and birth – which she did, with almost unseemly alacrity, and in glorious technicolour! As I glanced around the room, a real assortment of reactions was on display; from the overt smugness of a young (and very glamorous) couple, to the mild panic etched upon the face of a young single mum-to-be. And I don’t mind admitting that we were undeniably in the ‘Oh my goodness, what have we let ourselves in for?’ camp, clutching at thinly veiled humour to bolster our ever so rapidly dwindling confidence! One of the things that struck me then though (and haunts me even now) was the stark realisation that we would be taking on enormous responsibility and that, quite possibly, nothing that we did from this point onwards would ever be quite good enough. A truly sobering thought!

Anyway, whilst this facet of our lives is still very much a ‘work in progress’ (both boys mercifully having lasted an awful lot longer than any house plant hitherto entrusted to our care), it feels like an opportune moment to share our progress to date…

At nearly 35, and having recently lost both parents, I was blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. At a whopping 9 lbs 1 oz (and making his appearance in something akin to a Superman pose) he certainly made his presence known! However, as if by way of atonement, he was an incredibly easy baby – sleeping through the night at just a few weeks old and calmly embracing each developmental milestone at his own pace. And so, having initially been rather doubtful as to my suitability as a Mum, I began to wonder if I was in fact Mother Nature?! I became enormously adept at accepting coffee invitations and chatting amiably to other mums (often above the shrill cries of their new-borns) whilst my own little bundle of joy slept contentedly in my arms.   

Imagine my shock then, when a ‘real’ baby arrived some three years later… One that had an aversion to sleeping, feeding or in fact complying in any small way with my (evidently) feeble attempts at parenting! Literally overnight, I seemed to have gone from having a calm malleable pre-schooler to being that parent who feels duty bound to apologise on arrival for the chaos that will inevitably ensue as a result of her child being within a 5-mile radius.

I can’t tell you how many times I have left a soft-play centre, school playground or children’s party at breakneck speed (and with tears pricking my eyes) because my youngest has (in true wrecking ball style) ‘imposed’ his ideas upon his peers. Or frantically scoured the area for any sign of a little boy in a (deliberately chosen) bright red coat who has managed to take advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration and disappeared without trace, only to re-appear many long minutes later unashamedly proud of the utter panic that he has managed to engender. And each time, I have blamed myself unreservedly – not just for his distressing behaviour, but for the woeful negativity of my response to that behaviour too. Because for every loss of self-control, lack of empathy or act of belligerence, there will also be a spontaneous hug, infectious giggle, or funny retort just around the corner and I’m left wondering how on earth to strike a ‘happy medium’, whilst also reeling at the complexity of it all. 

Rather regrettably, 2021 has begun in very much the same vein as 2020 ended – peppered with challenges, uncertainty, and heartbreak. The ‘new normal’ at work is quite alien from the job I used to love, and ‘remote examining’ feels very different from being ‘on the road’ too, where meeting candidates of all ages and backgrounds was a large part of the attraction.

For once then, my New Year’s resolution has nothing to do with weight loss, fitness goals, or even a commitment to consume less alcohol – although the latter would certainly be beneficial! This year, although my role as a parent remains largely unchanged, it is my approach that I am hoping to modify, because I have come to realise that (whilst I never hesitate to berate myself savagely for every time that I have lacked the composure to deal sensitively with a situation) I frequently fail to acknowledge the successes too.

Perhaps ‘guilt’ is simply the mantle borne by all parents? A rite of passage, as it were? However, if nothing else, the last 12 months have demonstrated to us all that life presents numerous challenges (some entirely beyond our control) and I wonder, therefore, if we shouldn’t all be a little kinder to ourselves – and dispense with what my Dad frequently referred to as a ‘wasteful emotion’?        

Do I need a licence for this?

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m not terribly brave when it comes to animals. If truth be told, I’m a complete and utter wimp!

Now, I’d like nothing more than to regale you with some terribly alarming account of how I almost lost a limb, during a particularly ferocious canine attack. Or better still, describe in glorious technicolour the wounds I sustained (during a prolonged altercation with a Canadian Lynx) whilst visiting Alaska. But alas, as with most phobias, there would appear to be no tangible reason for my fear. If I’m completely honest though, I suspect that it has something to do with my slightly controlling nature and the fact that I’m simply no good at dealing with unpredictability.

You’ve heard of the old adage ‘Never work with animals or children’? Well, I found myself contemplating how it was that I had managed to spend the last 20+ years working closely with children, whilst avoiding animals at all costs – a truly curious state of affairs!

Having never owned a pet myself, I decided to find out a little bit more about what might be involved. Rather ironically, I decided to focus upon what a dog might need (they are meant to be ‘man’s best friend’ after all) and good old Google obliged by providing the following (albeit rather simplified) list:

Food
Shelter
Company
Exercise
Medical attention
Training

So, not all that different from the needs of children then – although nurturing / educating might be a slightly better description than ‘training’, assuming that you’d like to avoid a call from social services!

I had also imagined that owners might be required to hold a licence for their pets, and I learned that this was indeed the case, for certain types of exotic bird and domestic-wild hybrid animals. Fair enough.

So, why don’t you need a licence for raising children then? After all, herein lies great responsibility and yet anyone (who is physically capable of producing a child) is free to go ahead and do just that.

When you consider just how challenging and complex a task the raising of a child can be, it’s a minor miracle that there are no assessments to pass (or qualifications to gain) beforehand. You can’t (for example) jump into a car and drive on a public road without first proving that you can handle a car safely, and that you are also familiar with the Highway Code. Nor can you walk into someone else’s home and re-wire their house for them without providing the necessary documentation.  And yet you can walk straight out of the maternity ward and into (the veritable minefield that is) the world of parenting, and no-one bats an eyelid.

I, for one, wish that I had been better prepared; it’s been one heck of a learning curve so far!