Category Archives: parenting

D is for Dad

notepadWinter has us, and our children’s sports, in its sopping, phlegmy clutches. Football games are cancelled days ahead because of waterlogged pitches. Frosty ground encountered one Sunday provided variety, but the same outcome. “It wouldn’t take a stud,” explained the official dolefully, as if he was a horse breeder excusing the performance of his mare.

Each of the children has missed activities as their constitutions struggle to ride out the waves of respiratory viruses that ebb and flow through their classrooms and settle in our home, making stately progress from one upper bronchial tract to another. The 1&onlyD, who cannot be stopped practising gymnastics by a sodden floor or icy bars, has had to be collected mid-session, when all her spinning and tumbling had the effect on her, that it would have on any of us: an acute headache.

Confined to quarters, we take up indoor pastimes. My children (15, 13 and 10) have moved on from the games of their younger childhood when the roll of a die decided everything. No.1 son, almost ten years ago, had a phase of playing snakes and ladders with the earnestness of a grandmaster. I had to leave him mid-game once to help Mother in the Middle get his siblings ready for bed.

“I’ll play for you,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, already on my way to the stairs.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a shout of, “Daddy, Daddy.”

I came to the top of the stairs. “Yes, what is it?”

“You’ve won,” explained no.1 son, who was punctilious in completing the game according to the rules and with fairness to his absent father. I humbly accepted his congratulations on my victory.

From games of luck they all progressed to electronic gaming: DSs, Wiis, Kindles, PS3s and X-boxes. I was and am alienated, but also complicit in my alienation. Their screen time gave (and continues to give) me time to pursue my own interests at home. But computer games, above all the ravenous FIFA, remind me powerfully of our mortality and that time is short.

This winter, we have begun to play classic indoor games of duelling: draughts, backgammon, chess and darts. With chess, we strain our minds, but tend to stumble across a checkmate, having no sense of strategy informing our play.

We play darts in no.1 son’s room, stepping carefully over school uniform and electronic accessories that layer the floor, to collect our darts from the board. 301, nearest the bull, around the clock, darts cricket. Our host plays his spotify play-list as our accompaniment. None of us has the consistency to win routinely. Big leads are built and then frittered away as the final dart to finish the game keeps missing its target.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager. Alone at home, revising for another in the wave of exams that just kept coming, I would take my study breaks at the dart board. After a game of around the clock, I would set myself challenges to stay alive – or return to my revision if unsuccessful. Each set of three darts would have to score above 30; or every dart had to be within the circle bounded by the treble band.. or back to the books.

Reassuring and familiar, yet recently I had a jarring moment of disequilibrium, of falseness. I was setting up the score-sheet on a scrap of paper, each player’s initial underlined. Both boys, G and R, then me. Hesitantly, I inscribed D. It felt like that time you call your partner’s parents by their given names for the first time. Self-conscious and awkward. D stood for Dad and Daddy. Me for over fifteen years; addressed that way by my children up to and beyond 100 times in any single day. Yet when I went to self-identify as Dad, it felt odd and artificial.

I don’t believe I am experiencing any deep-seated denial of my parenthood. It is such a prominent part of my identity in the physical world as well as here, my on-line presence. I think it is because, ‘Dad’, when vocalised by me, or written in my own hand, has to mean my Dad. Taking that title for myself felt like I was taking it from him.

Next time we play darts, I may write C, or just let my children do the writing and have their own D. I know how important that is.

 

 

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Cloth ears

earI’ve been thinking about cross-country running a lot recently. Running that I did 30 years ago.

By the time I reached the sixth form, I had no interest in school sports. The school didn’t have much interest in me as a footballer, on merit, and rather than play cricket for the school I preferred having a Saturday job where I earned the money to go drinking with my Club cricket pals after Sunday matches.

Double games on Friday afternoons was a permissive business. I was allowed to jog off into the Buckinghamshire countryside, returning an hour later, changing and heading off for the weekend. Looking back, the surprise is that I did often go running. Not always.

Some weeks, two or three of us would visit a friend from the girls school, who had lost interest in school and whose Mum was happy to have her home for company. We would have tea and biscuits with them before jogging back to school.

What brings back these memories is something that happens a lot with both of my sons. With the older boy, typically we will be in the car, me driving and him in the passenger seat. The radio will be on, a window open. He’ll make a comment or ask a question. “Sorry,” I’ll say, “What was that you said?” Whole journeys will progress like this, with me straining and failing to pick up what he’s saying, asking for him to repeat himself.

The answer could lie in a trip to the doctor’s for a hearing test. I don’t think so, though. My wife, my daughter, my work colleagues, touchline pals and cricket club cronies can all be heard clearly.

With the younger son, the situation is also when we’re on the move. Walking to school, along suburban pavements, he’ll mutter something looking down into the gutter. Or, time his interjection for the moment that a car passes. Then he’ll look up at me. “Sorry. What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” He’ll look down and away and repeat his comment. “What? I couldn’t hear you.”

The temptation, and this is when the cross-country memory comes most strongly, is to nod and smile, give an affirmative indication, not let on that I’ve not a clue what he’s going on about.

On one of the surprisingly many Friday afternoons as a sixth former that I really did go running, I had taken a route with two or three others through a beech wood. We had cut back alongside the road that led up a steep hill back towards school. We made our way along an embankment a couple of meters above the road, until the path disappeared and we had to scramble down to the road. I went down ahead of Mark, reaching the road on the inside of a bend, and let my momentum carry me on up the road.

Behind me Mark shouted something that I didn’t hear. I turned and he shouted, incomprehensibly to me, again. “Yeah,” I replied to the unknown question. He pitched forward, ready to launch himself down the slope to the road when a car tore around the bend from behind him and up the hill. With a cold jolt I realised he had wanted to know if the coast was clear.

It was, in the language of health and safety, a near miss. There was no incident. I had beckoned a schoolmate into the path of a speeding car, but he had seen the danger just as he was about to charge down the slope to the road, trusting the clearance he thought I had given him.

When I strain to hear something my sons have muttered, that has floated away in the wind, I think of Mark’s near miss. I fight the temptation to nod, to let a matter of no consequence pass with a pretend acquiescence.

I don’t fear that I am going to usher them blindly into oncoming traffic. But I do worry. I worry that I might miss a sentence of import:

“Dad, there’s this girl..”

“I’m really frightened to go to school..”

“Daddy, what does.. mean..”

“Dad, I need some money..”

And if I don’t hear it and ask too bluntly for a repetition, it might be followed by, “Nothing, it doesn’t matter.” But it might matter, long after my cloth ears missed their chance.

 

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Time-keeper

refNo.1 son stood with head respectfully bowed. But I could tell he was looking at his watch, counting down the seconds before he would have to blow his whistle. His very first task as a trainee referee was to supervise two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. A weedy peep, betraying his anxiety, barely audible on a wind-buffeted playing field, signaled the end of the silence and that play could get under way.

The role of the time-keeper is essential to sports. From timing races to determine winners on land and water, to careful marshaling of the playing duration of rugby, hockey, netball and football matches, to clocks that limit breaks in tennis, constrain routines in gymnastics and force attacking play in basketball. Even cricket’s colonisation of whole days is prey to the clock, with lunch, tea and drinks breaks to be timed and enforced.

How well suited would my older son be to the task of time-keeper? All the evidence from home-life is that he would not be playing to a known strength.

The morning of one of his football matches typically involves him having to be woken up. He may even have to be woken a second time. “We need to leave in 45 minutes”, Mother in the Middle or I will specify. A little later, as he takes a leisurely breakfast, irritation ill-concealed, “Can you get dressed now. We’re going in 20 minutes.”

This prompts a move to the shower. The argument that he should wash after, not before, a game was made, won and ignored long ago.

“Five minute warning!” we yell, which may disturb him from his social networking activity.

When we’re kicking our heels at the front door, already swaddled in jumpers and coats, glancing at our time pieces, there will be a flurry of activity. “Where’s my socks? Which kit are we playing in? Who’s had my shin-pads?” Frantic searches, allegations, cross words enliven the house. Whatever’s lost will be found stuffed in a school bag or buried beneath clothes heading to or returning from the washing machine.

“Are we going to be late?” no.1 son will ask urgently, accusingly as he stumbles out of the front door, feet not properly in boots, coat dragging on the ground. Some days I resist the impulse to set out how any degree of organisation or time-awareness could have negated the need for this rushed, bothered exit; and some days I don’t. This, with age appropriate adjustments, has been going on for years. And my contribution truly sits among that list of futile things parents do (and should stop doing, but somehow don’t).

Once, when no.1 son was only nine or ten, I decided not to nag. Having told him the time we would be leaving the house, I left it up to him to get himself ready promptly. Half an hour after we should have left home, he was sat watching TV. We arrived barely before the match started. My stand had achieved nothing but inconvenience his coach and teammates.

Therefore, alongside the referees, umpires, scorers and judges, as time-keepers critical to junior sport, we should recognise the parents. Not equipped with high-tech chronometers, or backed by rule books, it’s mums and dads persuading, chivvying and marching their offspring out of the door that ensure junior sports fixtures start promptly. 

Watching the first half of no.1 son’s first match as referee, I started to become anxious. His nerves before the game were overt as he questioned me about various aspects of under 12 football: the duration, substitutions, off-side, identity of linesmen. With all that uncertainty in his mind, I began to worry that he might have forgotten to time the half. I tried to work out how long the game had been going. An even bigger puzzle was how I was going to gain his attention when, by my estimate, the first half would be over. I paced circuits around the pitch, trying to work out if he seemed aware of the passage of time.

Then suddenly and with impeccable timing, two loud blasts on the whistle, as no.1 son brought the first half of the first game of his refereeing career to an end.

 

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Mothering a Teenage Son – A Moment

It didn’t happen overnight, him being taller than me. It just felt like it did.

For so long, he was a little, little boy, catching up with me, inch by slow inch, agonising about how long it was taking him to grow, about how all his friends were towering over him. One year, he was under my chin, the next up to my mouth, then my nose, my eyebrows, my hairline; small amounts, year on year.

Then one day, I glanced over at him and realised that my eyes had to adjust upwards, to take in a defined jaw and handsome, long face. I realised that the tiny, incremental, years-long changes had crystallised into a beautiful young man, my teenage son.

……………..

When he was a very little boy, before he learned to speak properly, he would nevertheless make his views perfectly clear, as only toddlers can. ‘Big Up!’ he would command, imperiously holding his pudgy arms aloft in my direction, demanding to be picked up and carried.  ‘Big Up!’ I would repeat, swinging him up to my lofty height, showing him the world from my vantage point as he nestled his smooth cheeks into my neck and clung on to me.

The Big Up phase seemed at the time to last forever, an oft-repeated refrain punctuating my long, stay-at-home-mother days. A demand I found increasingly difficult to obey, as he grew heavier, as my belly swelled and my arms filled with his siblings.

Now, it seems like it went in a flash and I wish I could hear his baby voice lisping the command one more time.

………………

Last week, he came home from school and showed me the work in progress of the muscles in his  biceps whilst I was cooking the children’s tea in the kitchen. ‘Punch me there, Mum’ he exhorted in his deep, deep voice, ‘punch me, so I can see if it hurts’.   I explained, patiently, mother-like, as I carried on cooking, that I was not in the habit of punching my children and I had no intention of starting now.

He was briefly distracted by food, but waged an impressive campaign throughout the evening, continually urging me to punch his upper arm. ‘I don’t want to hurt you’, I repeated and he just raised his eyebrows at me quizzically, dismissing that notion as so self-evidently ludicrous that it did not even require a comment.

So, eventually, I did. I danced around on my feet to try to make him laugh, telling him I was going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, as he stood there, bicep clenched in anticipation of the blow.   I didn’t put my back into it, of course. I wasn’t about to try to hurt him deliberately and I like to think I would have punched an assailant with considerably more force. Nevertheless, my pride also made me want to impress him with some modicum of strength.

Is that it?’ he said, with a disarming grin, when I had landed my blow – ‘never mind Mum’ and he ruffled my hair with a devastating smile, adding ‘Is there anything else to eat? I’m still hungry’.

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Ten

We had a difficult start, my last child and me, ten short years ago this month.

Three pregnancies in four a half years, a difficult birth keeping me in hospital for several days and the demands of mothering a four year old boy and a two year old girl had left me bone-weary and ill-equipped to give him the attention he deserved in those early days.

I don’t think any of us coped very well that first year. He cried, they cried and I cried: my memories of 2006 are a blurred confusion of tears, sick, nappies, double buggies, plastic animals and plain boiled pasta. His (as then undiagnosed and now outgrown) food intolerances to dairy and egg led to prolonged screaming and endless vomiting from him and frustration from me as he tried to digest the milk I produced on my dairy and egg rich diet.

A decade on, it is almost impossible to conjure up the difficulties and the tiredness I felt then. My baby is now a beautiful, mostly cheerful, entertaining, irreverent and endlessly affectionate boy who has a great capacity for joy and who makes me laugh every single day. As the youngest in the family and the only child still at primary school, I see him now testing out a number of roles for himself – the joker, the sportsman, the Mancunian man-in-waiting, the eternal baby of the family.

At a time when I am having to reconcile myself to my older children of 14 and 12 growing up and away from me, I find great solace in the manifestations of the physical attachment to me which have thus far not left him. He is still keen to hold my hand, to sit on my knee or to ask me to lie next to him in his bed to help him go to sleep. More than this, though, he has a touching tendency to communicate the exact nature of the comfort this gives him: ‘I like this part of your shoulder the best Mummy’, he said to me recently, intently stroking a specific two inch length of my collar bone for a couple of minutes. Or, at the point of drifting off to sleep, whispering ‘I missed you in Maths today Mummy and wanted you to be on the seat opposite me so I could look at you’. As a younger boy, his class were asked to write a description of somebody and he wrote about my ‘soft hands’. In fact, he sets great store by softness generally. He has a special furry pillow case and will usually only wear soft trousers with a fleecy lining.

Another defining characteristic of my boy at ten is his enormous physical energy. I have often heard it said that boys are like dogs and, whilst it is a lazy analogy, the comparison certainly holds partly true in his case. He needs at least one outing a day, preferably more, otherwise trying to contain his energy indoors becomes painful.  He has a propensity to roll in mud and chase balls and regularly comes home from school in another child’s spare trousers, presenting me with a mud-soaked bundle of his own clothes with a rueful smile.

Although there are some encouraging recent signs that he is starting to sleep later in the mornings, he has thus far in his life awoken ready for the day, metaphorical tail a-wagging, at a painfully early hour and gone into everyone’s bedroom to enquire in a stage whisper whether they are awake yet. He is constantly hungry, wolfing down his favourites in surprisingly large quantities for a boy his size, big brown eyes looking eagerly for more. When he is happy, his energy erupts from him, causing dives and rolls around the floor, leaps around the furniture and an uncontrollable, infectious belly-laugh which can make adults in nearby rooms pause and smile at the wholehearted joy of it.

He is a committed, enthusiastic and competitive sportsman who has his older brother’s achievements in his sights. He is fast, bold and strong, often beating bigger and older boys at running and football. He is fearless and heroic on the field: his spells in goal often have me wincing and shielding my eyes as he launches himself towards metal goalposts to throw himself in the path of a hurtling ball.

He is careless of injury and impressively stoical when it invariably happens, enduring the studs in the leg or balls in the face which have other children understandably crying and being led from the pitch. In stark contrast to his first year of life, he now rarely cries in pain and I feel true panic if he ever does cry. He is also stoical when ill. When his siblings are occasionally struck down by illness, they will cry or throw up where they are, rendered instantly vulnerable and requiring rescue, but, since being very little, he has trotted obediently to the bathroom to complete the necessary unpleasantnesses in the neatest way possible.

However, whilst displaying stoicism in the face of physical challenges, pain or illness, my boy at ten is increasingly showing vulnerability in other more cerebral areas, as he comes to terms with growing up in our particular family, in our particular world. He is recently tearful, fearful and jumpy, imagining that strangers will attack our home, mistaking the noise of fireworks for gunshots and worrying that we will be gunned down if we travel to Europe on holiday. He is easily spooked by the tall tales from boys at school about ghostly faces in windows and is easy prey for an (occasionally) merciless older brother, who is trying to distance himself from his own previous insecurities by mocking his little brother’s.  The boy who shows no fear of physical challenges or danger can be reduced to a shaking, shivering, crying child who can only get to sleep with an overhead light shining directly in his face or a parent next to him holding his hand, the furrowed brow and quivering lip softening into a toddler-like curve of flushed cheek and swoop of long eyelash as sleep quickly overtakes him.

He is acutely aware of his place as the youngest child in the family and displays increasing vulnerability when comparing himself to the achievements of his brother and sister, particularly living in an area still ‘blessed’ with a selective secondary school system, which is now looming large for him. Whilst his teachers do not recognise my descriptions of a boy who hates school, he usually comes out of his classroom sulky and miserable and declares on a daily basis that he hates school and is no good at anything (or at least anything academic – he acknowledges some sporting prowess). Perhaps this is some sort of self-protective mechanism against his fear of failure, the result of having siblings decreed by the system to be clever and successful, or perhaps he genuinely just does not enjoy school and I am over-analysing the situation. Either way, it upsets me that my lovely, clever, intuitive boy feels this way and I am at a loss as to how to resolve it for him.

He also shows that he is testing out an identity for himself as a northern boy, in a northern town. He revels in his northern accent (consciously making it stronger and broader), prefers the nylon football strips of his sporting heroes to the jeans and jumpers I buy for him and spends time perfecting his goal celebration signature moves, usually involving thumping his chest, running around in circles whilst acknowledging the adulation from an imagined thousands-strong crowd and sliding on his knees. I gave him dolls and even dressed him up in his sister’s princess outfits in his early years, but he has rejected all my attempts to avoid stereotyping and deliberately chooses mannerisms, actions and clothing which signal his preferred role models to the rest of the world.

 

My last child entering double digits is a rite of passage for me. For nearly fifteen years, I have found my identity as a mother to young children. My last child leaving single digits heralds for me a brave new world of less physical parenting, more time to myself and the need to develop a new relationship with my son as he grows, when I know I will still see the face of the beautiful baby he was in the face of the beautiful, complex boy he is becoming, when I turn off the bright light shining in his sleeping face.

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Twelve

party_12

 

Occasionally, now, she can be prickly,

As hormones without warning ambush her,

Diverting her from habitual dimples and smiles,

Into causeless tears and despairing shrugs.

She does not know why she feels this way,

But I do. I remember.

 

So I open my arms and pull her close –

Small enough still to tuck under my chin,

With room to spare.

As she nestles into my chest,

Her father’s blue eyes look up at me

From her upturned face, freckled and pale

Like cinnamon sprinkled on milk.

 

She is all elbows and knees, jabbing into me,

Lithe and lean,

Limbs like knotted rope

From the hours upside down or swinging high

In her purple velvet leotard,

The slightest curves beginning now to break the lines.

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An Inspiring Mother

hands2If you were to catch a glimpse of Anne walking down the street, you would not think her extraordinary in any way. Perhaps you wouldn’t even notice her in the first place – most people don’t notice old women. If you did pause to look for a moment, you would see a white haired, stooped, smartly dressed eighty three year old who still moves quite briskly for her age. If you looked a little longer, you may pick up in her unflinching, challenging gaze a hint of the steeliness and determination that sustains her.

Anne’s son is nearly fifty now. He does not live with her, but she sees him three times a week. One day she visits him, one day he is brought to see her and one day they are supported to go on an outing together. If they have enough staff on the rota to provide him with the two-to-one cover that is required to keep everyone safe, that is, so quite often it gets cancelled.

She told me that she knew from when he was a toddler that something wasn’t right. To start with, people told her the tantrums were a phase that he would grow out of and that all children behaved this way. She so wanted to believe that her beautiful, bewildered boy would stop the biting, the head-butting, the rocking, but as time went on and he didn’t grow out of anything, she grew more and more worried. As the months and years ground on, it was clear to everyone that he wasn’t developing as he should; that he was not ‘normal’. The few words he learned were simply not adequate for him to articulate the frustrations he felt with the world and so the lashings out continued. He clung to Anne as to an anchor in a stormy sea but, sometimes, she got in the way and the older he got, the more it hurt.

Friends drifted away. He was too difficult to be around and people – even the kind hearted, sympathetic ones – didn’t want their children to be around him. Eventually, when their boy was five, Anne’s husband left too and neither of them have seen or heard from him since.

The doctors tried to help her, but they couldn’t find an answer. He was definitely autistic, they told her, but that couldn’t explain everything. There was no other specific diagnosis, but talk of ‘developmental delay’. They talked about finding him a place in a children’s home, about how this would be the best place for ‘a boy like him’. So she went to look at the one they wanted to send him to and decided that no-one was going to lock her son up and throw away the key.

Who will love him when I’m not here?

So she fought the doctors who thought they knew best and kept him at home with her. She fought the social workers and she found a special school that would take him. She fought the local authority and she got the budget for transporting him to school and home again and for some respite time for her, so she could keep going. She fought the system and – eventually – she got the disability benefits to which they were both entitled.

Who will fight for him when I’m not here?

When he got to be adult sized, Anne realised she could no longer cope by herself. She couldn’t keep him safe and she couldn’t keep herself safe. She couldn’t believe that he wanted to hurt her, when she knew he loved and needed her so very much, but she did keep getting hurt. The amount of physical restraint required to control him became impossible when there was only her there to do it and he was bigger and stronger than she was. The complexities of dealing with a boy whose hormones, cruelly, developed normally whilst the rest of him did not, were too great for her to manage alone. So he went to live in a house with ‘boys like him’, with staff there day and night. And then, in due course, to another house, with different men.

Now, at almost fifty, he has been living in the same house for nearly two decades. Other men have come and gone, carers’ faces have changed regularly but there has been stability and security for him and always his mother at the centre of it all. Anne has continued to fight for him every step of the way, has been at every assessment and has protested against every repeated attempt to cut his care package. She has taught herself about the law and about his rights and she has been tenacious at securing those for him.

And now, as she progresses into old age, Anne is preoccupied with trying to make sure everything is as secure as it can be for her child before she dies. She has made sure that her son is not just locked away, that he has the opportunity to have physiotherapy in a hydropool, that his physical health needs are not neglected just because he cannot articulate what those needs are, that he is taken out into the community with an appropriate level of support.

Who will make sure he gets what he deserves when I am gone?

She has made friends with each and every one of the underpaid, endlessly replaceable carers assigned to be his key worker, to show them she appreciates what they do in the hope that they will be more inclined to look kindly on her son.

How will he cope in a world when he is difficult to like and there is no one left who loves him?

She is dismayed at the news of the austerity measures and the public sector cuts and what this will mean for her boy. She has refused to accept austerity-inspired attempts by harried social workers to ‘still meet his assessed needs, but in a cheaper way’ and has harnessed the support of charities and solicitors to prevent her son being moved, aged 49, to a care home with people decades older than him.

Who will protect him when I’m not here?

Anne once told me that she wished people who said they never wanted their children to grow up had some understanding of what having a child denied the opportunity to grow up was like for a mother. Meeting her, witnessing the strength of her love for her son and the extent of the fight she has made, has been humbling and moving.

She is an inspiration as a woman, an (unsung) disability campaigner, carer and mother.

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