Caught in a drift Net

I have been caught in a drift net. Like a helpless dolphin (only not as cute) I have been stuck with my face pressed up against the net, held there by the fast flowing information pouring over me – rendering me inert. Eventually my senses dulled, and even the will to struggle was lost.

Psychology studies have shown that rats who are regularly rewarded for pressing a lever will give up on the lever as soon as the reward disappears. Interestingly, rats who are only intermittently rewarded will keep pressing the lever almost indefinitely after the rewards disappear – sometimes reaching a frenzy of frantic lever pressing – with desperate optimism that this time the reward will return.

Well just call me Dr Ratty. (Rodent I may be, but I’m a rodent with a PhD, and I’ll thank you not to forget it!)

The internet is my rat pellet reward. Email from a friend. A choice item of news on The Age website. A funny status update on a friend’s facebook profile.  A quick check on the readership stats on my blog. An interesting blog somewhere else.  It didn’t take much to keep me pressing that lever. The best pellets were personal – a mention on a friend’s blog (positive, of course) – or an emotional connection via email. But even these were strangely hollow and temporary, causing me to gobble the pellet, pause, smile briefly, and then go back to frantically jiggling that lever up and down, in the hope of another reward in my little ratty inbox.

It used to be that a spot of free time would see me calling a friend on the phone, going for a walk, reading an interesting (paper!) book or magazine, or getting something done around the house. Now my free time is spent largely hitting that refresh link, hoping for a new pellet.

Recently I had a birthday. I got a few birthday wishes on my wall, a few more in email, and more by sms, and not one of them left me feeling loved and connected. In startling contrast, I received one phone call from some old friends (lest I get hit, I must point out that we have been friends for some time. They are in no way old.). The call was challenging – kids were creating distractions on both ends of the line – but that immensely higher bandwidth left me with a much stronger sense of who had just called and why were are still friends. I have been just as guilty of facebook birthday greetings as the next person (in fact more so, since the next person is my husband, who doesn’t even have a facebook account – astounding, isn’t it?).  And I have slowly become more depressed, more isolated, and much less connected with the people I love.

It has finally dawned on me that all these pellets were, at best, emotional junk food. At worst, that lever was the handle on my depression. So I have boldly gone cold turkey. No, I have not trashed my email accounts (it’s clearly a bad sign that they are plural) or revoked my facebook access. Instead I have a new rule – email access happens once a day, and then the browser is closed. I am allowed to access the internet to look something up, or make a specific contact with a particular urgent aim. But by and large, I am going to upgrade the bandwidth of my communications.

Need to ask a friend a question? I’m going to call them. Want to wish a friend happy birthday? No more quick scribbles on their facebook wall. I’m going to call, or maybe even drop by. Not necessarily on the day (I’m a parent, life doesn’t often go to plan), but soon. More coffee, more talking, more looking into people’s eyes and reaching into their souls.  Oh, and more writing. Possibly even more blog posts, but they’ll be hit and run affairs. I’m off to pull the plug. See you!

Space, I need space!

Aardman devotees may remember the Brazilian big cat (a puma, I think) from the original “Creature Comforts” Heat Electric ads. “Space! I need space!” It finds an echo in my own soul (together with “and it goes ‘Bing!’ when it’s finished!” but that’s a topic for another day).
In any list of fundamental human needs you will see food, water, air (sometimes prefaced with the word “clean” although that seems like the height of luxury in some parts of the world), shelter, and sometimes even love. But you rarely see space. Perhaps because it’s a requirement for sanity, rather than life itself, but it certainly seems fundamental to me. I don’t play well with others. I find it difficult to inhabit someone else’s space, even when the most offensive thing they do is ask if I want a cup of tea. I find it challenging to be standing blankly in the middle of the room, wondering what I came in for, to have the owner of the house enquire pleasantly if there is anything they can help me with. I don’t know! But I don’t want to have to explain that.
I need space to be vague, blank or puzzled, without needing to explain myself. I need space to be grumpy without anxious enquiries about whether everything is alright. Yet it seems churlish to greet the enquiry “is there anything I can do for you?” with the answer “Space! You can give me space!!!” This is my own, personal neurosis, and should not be inflicted upon others.
Together with space, I need music. It has to be the right music. All music has value to someone (we could debate the merits of the compositions of George Dreyfuss that were inflicted upon us in the choir at school, but somebody must love them), but only some music is fundamental to my particular variety of sanity.
We have spent the last week watching High School Musical way too many times. My 6 year old was somehow addicted before she even saw the film, such is the power of peer suggestion. My 2 year old asks for it constantly “Can we watch a bit more high school mooosical?” (accompanied by her most winsome smile and much fluttering of the eyelashes.)
Indeed, it is a chick flick to warm my heart, and cause their father to retch. But even for me, there is a limit. I enjoyed the music, but that’s not the stuff that soothes my soul, quickens my heartbeat, makes me smile and transports me magically back to happy times. There is only so long I can survive without my own music, without going completely around the bend. Other music may lodge itself in my brain, looping continuously, as some of the songs from High School Musical have done this week, but it won’t contribute to my ongoing sanity and stability. It may even undermine it.
Under stress, which is the way I seem to spend far too many of my days at the moment, I tend to cling to anything that helps to keep my feet under me instead of flying into the air (as they did the first time Di took me riding on her trail bike – another story for another day! She was certainly surprised to see my feet in front of her eyes when she revved the bike and took off. Sorry – my digressions appear to be digressing today. This may be a symptom of music deprivation.).
My reaction to music is quite visceral. It bypasses the higher centers of my brain and interacts directly with my body. It can calm me, arouse me, and drive me crazy. It can make me dance, cry or sing – sometimes all at once. It is, somehow, a key to my subconscious, and one of the rocks upon which I balance. It is dangerous to separate me from my music. Be warned!

Taking no for an answer

How many times can a girl be pushed away with a sharp stick before she gets the message?

Most of us like to think we would not walk past a person in distress if there was something we could do to help. But what of the situation where your help is firmly rejected? It is not in me to walk away from someone in distress – particularly someone I care about – but I also respect personal choice. I am talking about adults who make their own choices, and if their choice is for me to leave them the hell alone, it seems right to respect that. But in the situation where I know they are not seeking help elsewhere, and the distress is extreme, I find myself in a quandary.

In my youth I simply barged in regardless – often to good effect, but occasionally with catastrophic results.  In many ways I admire my younger self’s naive simplicity. These days I am more aware of the complexities of human relationships. I also have more experience of the catastrophic possibilities. “Once bitten, twice shy” clearly doesn’t apply to me, but one would hope that “100 times bitten” would lead to a fraction more caution in extending the hand. Or at least a decent suit of armour.

In dealing with depression, well-meaning but ignorant amateurs blundering about could do real damage. But walking away from someone right out there on the edge could be just as bad, if not worse. What to do?

Sadly I have no answers, only a huge host of questions. BeyondBlue have a lot of suggestions for talking with someone suffering from depression, but they don’t say how to get them to talk in the first place. They talk about encouraging them to seek professional help, but are silent on the subject of how, exactly, one should go about that.

At what point are things so severe that it’s time to gather all the friends and family together and say “You need help”. Do I even have the right do to that to anyone? Do I, in fact, have a responsibility to do that?

That’s what I keep coming back to. This tension between not interfering in some else’s right to self-determination, and not walking away from a loved one in distress. Depression is an illness, and pushing everyone away can be a symptom of it. Conditions that alter the behaviour are so difficult to get your head around. “You’re pushing me away because you’re sick. You want me to walk away, yet if I do, you may get sicker.” Notwithstanding the fact that I am in no way qualified to diagnose depression. Perhaps it’s not depression, and they are fully in control of their own behaviour (inasmuch as any of us ever are!).

There is also an element of personal risk. It is traumatic to be savaged by people you care about, and pushing in too hard where you are not wanted (and have been warned off) can lead to that. I speak from experience. I would unhesitatingly expose myself to that if I knew it was the right thing to do, but it adds a note of caution in a situation where the right response is by no means clear.

What do you think? Is it only fools who rush in? Do we have a responsibility to force locked doors open? Or does the right to self determination have primacy?

It shouldn’t be this way!

In response to an impassioned cry of “It shouldn’t be this way!”, Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax once said “There’s no should. There’s what is, and what we do.”

I have a huge list of things that “shouldn’t be this way”. There shouldn’t be manmade climate change. There shouldn’t be homelessness or poverty. There shouldn’t be pollution. There shouldn’t be slavery, and there especially shouldn’t be child slavery. There shouldn’t be needless death (particularly from things we could do something about, like diseases of poverty, or road deaths). I could go on and on and on, but it would be too depressing.

So that’s what is. What do we do? Speaking purely for myself, I am making a new list.

1. I want to work (professionally) at something that makes the world a better place in some tangible way. Otherwise work is just a waste of time and resources. This involves (for me) a career shift which is proving challenging in the current economic climate. It’s the old “you can’t get experience until you have experience” conundrum. But I know my educational and communications skills will serve me in good stead for some kind of communicating role somewhere, and meanwhile I put my energies into volunteering for Oxfam, working on their training packages. With any luck this will be the experience you get when you’re not being paid to get experience. So to speak.

2. I want to reduce my carbon footprint. I was hoping to get a cargo-bike, but I wasn’t happy with the way it handled, it seemed very unwieldy. So I will have to find another way to make the school-run without a car. And the shopping runs, too. Human power is so much healthier for me, and for the planet. Another work in progress.

3. I want to increase my hug footprint. By which I mean I want to contribute to the hug-ification of the planet. There are too few hugs, and too much stress in the world. Personally, I need more positive, emotionally fulfilling contact, and less angst. The best way to achieve that seems to be to make a conscious effort to connect with as many of the people I cross paths with as possible. From a cheerful comment to the bus driver, to inviting unexpected people to my home. It also means reaching out in no uncertain terms to those people I feel a real connection with.

4. I will (I swear!) spend less time trying to avoid being sneered at, and more time seeking out people who don’t sneer, either in front of me or behind my back. I will worry less about what people are thinking of me, and worry more about how to connect with them. Sneerers begone! I would sneer at the sneerers, but that might defeat the purpose just a tad. That’s the thing about sneering – it is infectious. I promise to stomp heavily on any urge I might feel to sneer.

5. This one is going to be hard, but I will try very hard to reduce my shout footprint. (goodness, this footprint metaphor goes a long way, doesn’t it?) The way I see it, shouting begets more shouting (just like sneering – worse than viruses, these things). I shout too much, generally at my kids. I need to learn to put myself in their shoes and try to understand where they are coming from, before I morph into a shoutysaurus. So often when I know why they have done stuff, there is no reason for shouting, just room for a little redirection or adjustment. So no more shoutysaurus. Well. Less shoutysaurus – let’s be realistic!

6. Email/sms/facebook less. Call and face-to-face more. I recently had a birthday, and I felt so good about the calls and face to face contact, but the electronic contact felt really flat. Let there be more voices, faces and hugs in the world. ‘Nuff said.

That’s my list. All work in progress, every one of them. What’s yours?

(grateful thanks to Suzukisinger for inspiring this blog)

Positively angry

I have tried very hard not to grow up. Many people would probably say I have succeeded, although they might not use the term “admirably”. They’d probably be thinking more along the lines of “distressingly”, or perhaps “alarmingly.” But it has been of considerable benefit to me in my parenting journey. Empathy is an essential component of relating successfully to anyone, and nowhere is it more crucial than in a parenting or carer relationship. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is fundamental to understanding where they are coming from, and how they are feeling.

A friend recently asked for my perspective on an article on “unconditional parenting”. In a nutshell, the article argued (with reference to some fairly compelling empirical evidence) that children who are secure in their parents’ love, and know they are loved even when they mess up or do the wrong thing, grow up to be more secure, well adjusted adults. The article claims that conditional love, whether in the form of “positive parenting” – praise when they do the right thing – or “negative parenting” – withdrawal of love when they do the wrong thing or don’t measure up – both damage children and lead them to feel insecure and inherently unlovable.

It’s a somewhat frightening idea – I don’t know a parent who can claim never to have shouted in moments of stress, or when the kids do something incredibly frustrating, dangerous, or just plain wrong. I shout far more often than I should – being human, there are times when I lose my temper. And I know my daughter feels less loved when I do that – she says so. There is nothing more heart rending than being in the middle of a screaming tantrum (parents have tanties, just as much as kids do!) and having your 6 year old look at you tearfully and say “it feels like you don’t love me anymore.”

The idea of deliberately withdrawing your love, for any reason, is anathema to me as a parent. Yet it obviously feels to my daughter as though I do that when I am angry. And it’s not realistic to aim never to get angry. I am certainly working on it, I don’t like being a tanty monster. But I am human. There will inevitably be times when I lose my temper.

There are times when it is appropriate to be angry – perhaps even important to express your anger. If a child has just done something dangerous, or potentially dangerous, to themselves or the people around them, it is important to make it very clear that a line has been crossed, that this behaviour was inappropriate, dangerous, and should never happen again. There are many other times when children provoke our anger, and I believe it is important to be genuine with your children, to express your emotions without making your children the brunt of them.

That’s a fundamentally difficult thing to do. To express my anger without wielding it as a weapon is something I find remarkably difficult, and I suspect I am not alone. There have been in times when I have been raging, and suddenly focused on Chloe’s face, and put myself in her shoes – 185 cm of raging adult towering over her, clearly out of control. How terrifying must that be to a 6 year old?

My own guilt and anger at my failure to control myself make my emotions even stronger and harder to control. Still, I do what I can and work to handle my emotions better. My goal is for those angry moments to be learning experiences, rather than permanent scars.

The key, I think, is to differentiate between the behaviour and the child. “I am angry about your behaviour. I am very disappointed in your behaviour, but I am not disappointed in you. That’s a fine distinction that is pretty difficult for kids to understand – obviously I am not making it clear to Chloe with any success. But then, as my friend Tim recently pointed out, it’s a difficult point even for adults to understand. Certainly when my husband is angry (or more to the point when I think he is angry), I automatically assume it must be with me. I start going through a frantic review of my recent behaviour – all the things I have done, all the things I have left undone – to try to work out what I have done, and how to fix it. Then I get defensive, about something I am only guessing is a problem, and get angry with him for getting upset with me about it – all before I am even sure he is upset, you understand. Certainly without knowing for sure what the problem is – if, indeed, there is one! I can have the whole fight inside my own head, without his input. The results of this are often something of a surprise to my supremely rational Engineer husband.

I believe that this is a learned response, and it is one I am anxious not to teach my kids. The best strategy I can manage so far is to debrief afterwards, without fail. Never waste a teachable moment, as someone wise once said, and messing up is always a teachable moment. While I struggle to learn better ways of dealing with my emotions, the fact of the matter is that I will sometimes mess up, regardless of how emotionally skilled and wise I manage to become. So will my kids. Learning from those mistakes, and helping my kids to learn from them, may be the best education I can give them.

Off Limits

Many years ago I read a book – The Cat who went to Paris, by Peter Gethers – in which the author proclaimed that there are no times that are inappropriate for humour. I have to agree with him – I have laughed in some of the worst moments of my life, and it may be the reason that I survived them. My husband is singularly skilled at making me laugh, and helping me to survive those dark moments. But I have recently been pondering the question – are there things we should not laugh at?

The Chaser team have been firmly told that some subjects are off limits. Indeed, their skit about terminally ill children (which I must confess I didn’t see) certainly upset people. But does that mean it was inexcusable? Does that mean it is never ok to make jokes about terminal illness? I know from experience that people who are terminally ill joke about it. Is this one of those situations, where you can only make the jokes if they’re about you? Laugh from the inside out, but not from the outside in?

Many years ago my best friend was killed in a car accident. She was the other half of my brain, an integral part of my being. I consider myself very lucky to have had a friend that close. Her death ripped my heart out. But it turns out that even when your heart has been ripped out, it is still beating. I laughed at her funeral – at some very inappropriate jokes – because even though she was dead, I was still alive, and I had to survive somehow.

A year or so later, Princess Di died in a car accident. The media coverage of the event and its aftermath was amazing. It was impossible to avoid. For me, car accidents and death were incredibly raw subjects, and I couldn’t bear to talk about it, think about it, or be reminded of it. For those of you who have never lost a loved one, the second year can be harder than the first, as the shock wears off and you have to get used to life without them. I stopped watching television and reading newspapers, but even staring out of the car window, headlines screamed from outside milkbars and newsagents. It was painful in the extreme. But not because of those headlines – it was my own pain. It didn’t make my pain worse. It just stirred it around a lot. And I wouldn’t for a moment argue that there should not have been media coverage of that death, in case it upset people who were already bereaved.

The Chaser skit certainly poked hard at raw nerves. But they didn’t make the raw nerves. They simply triggered pain that was already there. Did it make things worse for those people? My guess is that it stirred up emotions that were already there.

Are there things we shouldn’t joke about? I don’t know. There are certainly things that aren’t funny – but if they’re not funny, don’t watch them/read them/listen to them. That’s a personal choice. Should people be hounded and vilified for making jokes that are in poor taste?  I don’t believe so. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. It would be nice if that sort of behaviour didn’t rate, but let’s face it, it does. Shock jocks like Kyle Sandilands, hate merchants like Andrew Bolt – they rate, and they sell newspapers. Should we censor them? I think it would be vastly more productive to talk about them openly – to use their behaviour to trigger rational public debate.

I’ve found that one of the hardest things about death is the taboo that surrounds it. The painful hush, the editing out of the dead person’s name, in case it upsets someone. For me, talking about things openly is the road to health and sanity. But talking about death is something we don’t do very well, as a society. It’s the same with miscarriage – when I had one and was open about it, I was amazed at the number of people who contacted me quietly and said “hey, we’ve been there” – and some of them were close friends. But there’s this taboo. You don’t talk about grief, and you don’t talk about death. And as for laughing about it…!

So far with the Chaser Skit, and Kyle Sandlilands’ comment about concentration camps and weight loss, the ‘debate’ has mostly consisted of a lot of moral outrage. I think it’s ok to be outraged. But let’s use it as a prompt to talk about things that are “off limits”. Making things off limits makes them, in my experience, vastly more potent, and immeasurably harder to deal with. Let’s talk about terminal illness. Let’s talk about death. Let’s talk about abortion, miscarriage, depression and drugs. Let’s talk about being human.

I agree with Peter Gethers – I don’t think there are times that are inappropriate for humour. I do think that jokes that hurt people aren’t funny. But they’re not a crime (at least, they shouldn’t be!). Instead of banning them, and beating our breasts in horrified outrage, let’s learn from them. Let’s use them to advance debate, and to talk about taboo subjects. Bring death into the room and recognise it as part of life. Learn to get over those taboos. I think it’s the road to health and sanity for all of us.


One of the highlights of working in the city recently has been buying the Big Issue. At first I hesitated to spend the extra $5, since I am trying to keep spending down until I get a paying job. But on the spur of the moment I decided to buy the magazine instead of a coffee – after all, it only comes out once a fortnight.

At first I saw this as an altruistic sacrifice – I didn’t really want the magazine, but I wanted to support the concept. For those who aren’t familiar with The Big Issue, it is a magazine sold by people who are, or have been struggling with life, one way or another. Many of them are homeless, or were until they became Big Issue vendors. The sales concept is simple – vendors take home $2.50 for every $5 magazine sold. The idea of people supporting themselves through difficult times by doing something productive like selling a magazine is very appealing to me. It’s the constructive aspect of it that I like – these aren’t handouts, this is earning a living.

It only took one issue to discover that it was even less of a handout than I thought. The magazine is a riveting read, and it generally has an engagingly different perspective on the world to the average, mainstream media. There are regular columns by the likes of Helen Razer and Mic Looby, feature articles on a range of fascinating topics, and contributions from Big Issue vendors – some poetic, some rambling, but all compelling. Each issue has a theme, anything from celebrity to literature to the health care system, and the range of thought provoking writing inside is amazing for such a small magazine.

But that’s not even the best bit. This morning as I headed into the city I was feeling rotten. I had a killer headache, I was feeling wretched for shouting at the kids during the early morning scramble that is a school, childcare and work day, and I didn’t feel like I was kicking goals on the project I am working on. Nothing was going right. As the train pulled into Melbourne Central, it occurred to me that it was probably Big Issue time again, and I brightened up.

As I left the station I scanned the crowd for a vendor, but was momentarily disappointed to see none around. Then the crowd parted and I saw a smiling, bright eyed vendor standing near the curb. He caught my eye and called a cheery good morning. I had never seen him before – for some reason this patch seems to have a different vendor every time – and he had no way of knowing that I was a customer. This is his approach to everyone, and he is absolutely typical of all the Big Issue vendors I have met so far. They have a positive outlook on life that is utterly infectious. What’s more, the interaction is real, warm, and wholly human. Today’s vendor made me feel special and appreciated. For a sum total of about three minutes’ chat, I got a day’s worth of lifted spirits. All before I even opened the magazine.

It was such a contract to the daily chaos of the city streets. Think of all the times in the day when you interact with someone, while utterly blocking them out. Passing people in the street, buying something at a supermarket, refusing a brochure or determinedly not making eye contact with someone trying to do a survey, or looking for a donation. Hanging up on telemarketers, or burying yourself in your laptop, iPod or phone to avoid conversation or embarrassment on the train. Cutting yourself off from the world, and from other people, in thousands of tiny ways, all day every day.

Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence” calls these “I-It interactions”, where we don’t engage with the humanity of the person we are dealing with. We simply get what we need and move on. We might as well be interacting with a vending machine. On a hectic day in the city, we can’t afford to engage with every person we walk past. It would take hours to traverse a city block. Nonetheless, all of these efforts to block people out can create a habit of removing yourself from the world.  Of failing to connect with anyone. Each I-It interaction wears away a fragment of our humanity and empathy, separating us from everyone around us.

The opposite of an “I-It” moment is the “I-You interaction”, where you connect with someone, even briefly, sharing eye contact and emotions. Goleman points out that empathy is instinctive and built in – when we see someone smile, our body often responds by smiling back before our brain has had conscious input. It’s infectious. In I-It interactions, we block this response, often by not even looking at the other person. But when we have an I-You moment, the impact of the other person can be profound.

Big Issue vendors seem to have an extra talent for making it past the block and promoting I-You moments. I have bought maybe 10 Big Issues so far, and have walked away from every transaction with an extra bounce in my step, and a broad smile on my face. I started out feeling all virtuous and altruistic, and wound up feeling simultaneously uplifted, and humbled. It has reconnected me to the world. It has led me to engage more with the people around me, and block less. The impact of The Big Issue on my life has been profound. Who’d have thought?

We’re already there!

I am learning to give up control. It’s a work in progress – heck, at 37, I’m a work in progress. Before becoming a parent, I was used to being in control (or at least having the illusion of it). It’s very easy to become fixated on what we need to do, where we need to be, and what time it is; to focus on our own agenda with an intense kind of tunnel vision.

The irony is that this is precisely the behaviour that drives us crazy in our kids. When they don’t answer us because they are absorbed in what they are doing, whether it’s building a high chair for Black Bear out of boxes and sticky tape, or making a card for the beloved prep teacher. Or when we ask them to do something, like get dressed, hang the towel on the towel rail, eat breakfast, or tidy their rooms, and half an hour later we find them right where we left them, absorbed in something which is NOT what we asked them to do. The truth is that this is a two way street. We get frustrated with them for not prioritising what we see as important, while they are frustrated with us for not understanding their priorities! Why should they acknowledge our agenda when we refuse to make room for theirs?

Giving up control is really, really hard. Even when I learn to do it, I find myself reverting to type time and time again, getting back into that rut, seeing straight down the tunnel and missing the panorama that’s visible if I could only turn my head. Life is like that. In reality we have deadlines, we have worries, things we need to do, places we need to be. We’re tired, we’re sick, we just want to get things done and have a chance to rest.  Successful people have drive, they get things done, they motor through problems and forge ahead. They soldier on. We’ve been trained all our lives to be in thrall to these pressures. Stopping and smelling the roses is a romantic notion with no place in modern life. As for stopping to finger the slugs…

Children, though, don’t naturally work that way. At least, not in response to an external agenda. Kids have agendas of their own. They are “in the moment” in a way that most adults have forgotten how to be. They are free to stop to admire the sunrise while we are grumbling at being awake to see it. They can stop to inspect a flower or wave to a pigeon. They examine every pebble and count every blade of grass. We label this, and other playful, exploratory behaviour, “mucking around”. We sometimes think of it as trivial at best, and deliberately unhelpful at worst. We become frustrated and angry, ready to scream “Come ON!  Or we’ll never get there!” What we forget is that we are there. This stuff is important. This is how kids learn about the world. They explore, they play, they build things, they tell stories. What we need to learn to do is to stop thinking of these games as obstacles, and start to see them as the point of life.

Taking the gates down

Today I took the gate down from the top of our staircase. The stairs look startlingly open and dangerous now. I stand at the top of them and feel very vulnerable, as though the big open space where the gate used to be is the mouth of a canyon, and I am teetering on the edge. Our youngest daughter, Jane, is more sure footed on them than I am (which isn’t hard, I must confess), so there is really no need to lock off the stairs anymore. At least, not for her safety. In actual fact the gate hasn’t been locked for a long time – since she learnt how to open it unaided (which happened much earlier than I expected). We kept it there to stop her accidentally slipping onto the stairs, but she is careful about playing near them, so the gate seemed redundant.

The wide open, gaping mouth of the stairway gave me second thoughts  – I very nearly put the gate straight back again. But I realise that the gate was protecting me from my own fear, not saving my daughter from the stairs.  My desperate instinct is to keep those gates up all over her life. Her innate drive is to learn how to open them. And she is a distressingly fast learner.

Growing up with protective parents, and 3 older sisters, who variously viewed me as their own private baby doll, or an uninvited gatecrasher, there were quite a lot of gates around my childhood. My own inclination is to put up all of those gates, and a lot more, to keep my beloved babies safe for ever. But of course they’re not actually babies anymore (and woe betide anyone who suggests that they are!), and it’s not possible for me to keep them safe. Wrapping them in cotton wool now might even make them more vulnerable in the long run.

It’s a real struggle, though, to find the right level of freedom, balanced with a reasonable level of protection. A few weeks ago my eldest daughter’s school newsletter reminded us of stranger danger. “Of course, I’m sure we all tell our kids not to talk to strangers,” it said. It made me wonder – have I stressed that enough with my kids? Neither of them is keen to talk to strangers, and we have tried to help them get past their shyness. Jane, who is 2 and a half year old, doesn’t like new people smiling at her, because “I don’t want to talk to them.” Perhaps we should be encouraging this trait – after all, we know that talking to strangers can lead to all kinds of traumatic scenarios that we’d rather not contemplate. Maybe we should be encouraging her wariness of strangers, rather than trying to help her relate to them.

But is teaching our kids that strangers are dangerous and scary really the best preparation we can give them for life? We certainly need to protect them from lurking horrors, but we also want to prepare them for a happy and successful life, and that inevitably involves meeting new people.

I struggle to find a balance that I am comfortable with, between protecting them from falling out of the nest, and encouraging them to take to the air.  I have to fight my instincts almost every day, in order to strike a balance that doesn’t leave the kids feeling as though they are permanently locked in the house. It will be an eternal struggle – I think my own parents still struggle with it, and I am 37. I know that I need to push the boundaries, and edge outside of my comfort zone, in order to allow my kids to grow and thrive. They need to push their own boundaries, too – and my role is to cheer them on, and resist the urge to put those gates up.