This, too, shall pass

Today, around 2 hours after I picked up my girls from school, my 6 year old, JB, had still not paused for breath in the rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness chatter that started the moment we met at the gate. (I was going to say “conversation” but that implies a certain give and take that was noticeable in its absence.) I found myself remembering with a kind of fond, slightly desperate nostalgia the time when she was 2 and we wondered if she would ever start to talk. Back then she was shy and clingy. She never wandered far from her parents, and she never, ever talked to anyone she hadn’t known for her entire life.

Today she roams free, talking confidently to anyone within earshot (and earshot is much further than you would expect). She is happy to approach people, whether kids or adults, she has never met, and when on holiday with her 10 year old sister, it is JB who approaches other kids to ask if they can play, or talks to shop assistants, or answers the kind questions of strangers.

Back when she was 2 she suffered from undiagnosed silent reflux. She rarely slept. She screamed during the day for reasons we couldn’t fathom. She cried at night until we were beside ourselves with distress and exhaustion. Doctors told us she had a sleep problem, or we had an anxiety problem, or there was nothing wrong. Just surviving from one day to the next seemed like an unrealistic pipe dream some days. My mantra became “This, too, shall pass.” I spent a lot of time reminding myself that she wouldn’t be 2 forever. That there was light at the end of the tunnel. That sleep would one day be within our grasp once more. And that a social life would some day be more than a distant, hallucinatory memory.

Listening to her chattering today I suddenly realised that this had, indeed, passed. She wasn’t two anymore. Now she sleeps. Not infallibly, but almost every night. Now we are more likely to be woken by her older sister’s anxious nightmares than by JB’s reflux. Now my main cause of distress is not JB’s sleep but her sister’s intense emotional distress.

Today I bumped into a very wise friend, who was bringing her baby in to work for a visit. She told me a story about a niece who was just like my ten year old. She used to be paralysed with distress. Her parents did much the same things we are doing, and now she is coping just fine. It dawned on me that I am still looking for an instant fix to a lifelong problem. I wanted JB’s reflux/sleep problems to miraculously disappear overnight. (Or during the day – I wasn’t about to be picky!)

My fondest conscious wish is to teach my ten year old the coping skills I am still learning at 41. So that she can manage her anxiety and not be paralysed by it. So that she can encounter adversity, be distressed and keep going. Unconsciously I want what every parent really wants, deep down. I want her to not be distressed. I want to make all possible sources of trauma miraculously disappear. I want to wrap her in the softest of cotton wool and protect her from everything.

And yet, in the wise words of Dory (from Finding Nemo) “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him!”

In reality we are teaching her coping skills. And I have seen her use them. Today’s meltdowns are tomorrow’s object lesson. I can’t make the meltdowns stop, but I can teach her the self-awareness and mindfulness skills to survive them and use them to grow.

As a newly fledged high school teacher I bonded strongly with my first cohort of students. Last year they graduated, and at the start of this year I looked around at my next class and thought “in a couple of years they’ll be gone, too.” It brings some perspective to the trials and tribulations of both the teaching and the parenting year. Crises come and crises go. If I spend too much time fearing tomorrow’s potential dramas I will fail to appreciate the joys today might bring.

This, too, shall pass. Tomorrow will doubtless bring both joy and sorrow, and we will all survive and grow. That’s worth remembering.

Are you any fun?

When I was a kid my grandfather (known for reasons that elude me as “Poppa”) used to play lawn bowls. In those days (just pass me my walking stick) lawn bowls was a game for old guys in white hats, and old ladies in starched linen uniforms.

Poppa and I used to play carpet bowls in his rooms downstairs in our family home, and when I won, which was implausibly often, he would give me a lolly from the Quality Streets tin that was permanently full and readily available. He also taught me to play Campdown Racetrack with one finger on the piano in the next room. He was fun.

Too young at the time to recognise that it was an “old codgers’ game”, I relished the time I spent with Poppa, and the occasional mild success in getting a bowl to tap the kitty just right on the slightly sloping floor in that room. I’ll admit that I also relished the lollies. As I got older Poppa moved into a nursing home and lost the ability to play, and I became aware that it was a game for old people and forgot the game.

Sometime over the last 30 years lawn bowls has had a makeover. Barefoot bowls is the way we celebrated our work Christmas party last year, and today we played it to celebrate a friend’s 30th. Apparently the magic ingredient that makes it a young person’s game was taking the shoes off. Or Possibly removing the white hats. Or adding alcohol. I don’t actually know what changed, but it’s no longer a massive social gaffe to be under 70 and admit to a penchant for bowls.

Sadly the carpet bowls I played in my youth failed to prepare me for lawn bowls in my 40s, and I am woefully bad at it, but in the games I have played there has been a lot more focus on being sociable (and the occasional touch of sledging) than on any competitive angle that might otherwise have crept in. Today we played with quite a lot of kids, and I was fascinated to see that the small people hurtling about the place tended to gravitate naturally towards particular adults.

When I thought about what made those particular people kid magnets, I realised that, although their physical ages varied, each of those people shared an ability to pay close attention to their own inner child. Sometimes a comment like that is code for “hopelessly immature”, but today it was clear that the kids intuitively understood what some of us fail to grasp – that our inner children are awesome to be around.

Sure, kids sometimes break things, say the wrong thing, and don’t know when to stop, but next time you are tempted to shout “Don’t be such a kid!” perhaps you should consider the upside.

Children accept others easily, whether they have different skin, religion, or income. They don’t stop to ask your salary, your address, what school you went to, or your political beliefs before they play with you. All they want to know is “are you any fun?” And they give themselves wholeheartedly to the things they enjoy.

The people the kids were gravitating to today are also the people I find myself seeking out. They make life more interesting. They bring a smile to the darkest days. They are always ready with a bad pun, or to throw something at you – but it will be something soft to make you smile, never something that might wound.

We tend to muffle our inner children with the demands of work, mortgages and social pressures, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves what kids seem to know is the important question: Are you any fun?

Don’t scare the butterfly

On Wednesday I was rushing to get the kids to gymnastics after school. It’s not a terrible hurry – the venue is only 5 minutes away, and they have to have a snack and a drink and get changed, but we have half an hour to play with. It does rather depend on the girls coming down to the school gate reasonably promptly, however, and on this occasion I seemed to have lost Miss 6.

When she finally appeared my time-stress was starting to make itself apparent, and I called up the hill to her: “Come on, Kiddo! We’ve got gym, we’ve got to get going!” but she still didn’t pick up the pace. When she got to me I started in on the usual lecture about needing to hurry on Wednesdays, and she stopped me with a beatific smile on her face.

“I couldn’t hurry, Mummy. A butterfly landed on me, and if I hurried I would have scared it away.”

Well. How can you argue with that? Who wants to be the mum who scares butterflies? Or worse, who forces her children to scare butterflies. So we slowed down and talked about the butterfly, the colours and patterns on its wings, and what an honour it was to have a butterfly land on you. And indeed we made it to gymnastics in plenty of time, even with snacking, changing, demonstrating some particularly tricky moves, and playing with friends while the room was setup by the coaches.

Then I rushed off to do the fruit and veggie shopping, hurtled home to put everything in the fridge, and realised that we weren’t quite out of the one crucial item that would have made a trip to the supermarket mandatory.  With that I stopped. I sat and had a cup of tea while I contemplated that notional butterfly.

buttefly on a floral skirt
don’t scare the butterfly

I think I spend my life not so much scaring butterflies as tramping all over them. When my yoga teacher, Roman, commented yesterday that we spend our lives in a state of permanent emergency, it struck a loud and violent chord within me. I am always lining up the things I have to do like tin ducks to be shot one by one in a side show. Perfectionist that I am I have to shoot every duck in precise order and time, and can’t possibly leave any ducks until tomorrow.

I don’t have time to do everything I need to do – and yet I spend hours at my computer, even when I’m not working, idly browsing blogs, news sites and comics, rather than shutting the laptop and doing something more positive like playing with my kids, playing the piano, or reading an interesting book. And then I go to bed wired and stressed about the things I have still to do, the lesson plans that aren’t perfect, the things around the house that never get done, and all the ways in which I don’t measure up to the standards in my head.

In yoga we do a breathing exercise where we lie down and focus on breathing into the abdomen. This requires a deep and sustained breath in, and a very slow breath out. Now that I am used to this exercise I find myself aware that most of the time my gut is tight as a drum (but not, sadly, anywhere near as flat!), and breathing that deeply is something I rarely slow down and relax enough to do. Roman is right, I do live in a constant state of emergency – and yet it is utterly artificial.

We actually meet deadlines and make it on time to our commitments more easily when we relax and handle things steadily. When I shout at the kids in the morning about getting ready for school it actually slows them down – and yet I am shouting at myself all the time inside my head. Slowing myself down.

So that’s my lesson for this week. We can still reach gymnastics with time to spare if we don’t scare the butterfly.

Learning to Fail

Last year I was privileged to hear Nobel Prize Winner Peter Doherty speak. His career stories were fascinating, but the single most crucial message he had to impart was electrifying. It was this: You’re going to fail. A lot. Get used to it.

Here at Pathological Perfectionists R US, we specialise in all or nothing behaviour. We either nail it or fail catastrophically. We’re either awesome or disastrously useless. Given the inherent difficulty of being permanently perfect, disastrously useless (and hence rather depressed) is a common feeling in this house.

The school system, too, tends to encourage this approach. You do something, submit it, get your mark and move on. You either nail it or not. There’s often no opportunity to learn from where you went wrong – exams, reports, teachers, students and parents alike focus on the final mark, at the expense of the learning experience. Awards are given for students who top the subject – regardless of how hard they had to work to do it. Students who make immense progress but “fail” to top the subject fail to get that recognition.

The Dux of a school is the student with the highest overall mark. Yet the Dux of life is surely the student who learns the most. The student who knows how to fail. Who takes failure, learns from it and moves on. Who knows how to get back up after being knocked down. Sometimes the student who started at the bottom and climbed to the middle has come a lot further and learnt a lot more than the student who finishes at the top.

How do you take a child who sees things only in black and white – success and failure – and teach her that failing is one of the most valuable things she can do? That she will learn more from her mistakes than she can ever learn from her successes? That every time she stuffs up she has an opportunity to become a better person?

You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school
Billy Joel – You’re Only Human

That’s not a problem I know how to solve – yet. The best I can do, I think, is lead by example. I have started telling my kids more about my own failures. It’s tempting to be your own press secretary and only let the good stories go to air, but if we learn a lot from our own mistakes, why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Academic publications have a bias towards successful papers – they like to print the papers that solve the problem. But equally important in science are the papers that explain why solving a problem with method (a) doesn’t work. These papers provide the foundation to move on to methods (b) (c) and (d). They eliminate possibilities one by one until an answer can be found.

Maybe it’s the same in parenting, and even teaching. We may not be able to teach them that failure is a chance to learn and grow, but we can certainly show them. By confessing our mistakes and being open about what we learnt from them, maybe we can help them to recognise that failure is an opportunity rather than a catastrophe.

The halting problem

Struck down with a particularly vicious virus, I wanted to head to the shops for a miracle cure. Or at least some vitamin C, which is probably the closest I can get to a miracle drug that won’t also poison me for some reason. In my current state of health riding wasn’t an option, so I leapt into the car. Click. whirr. groan. All the unmistakable sulking of a car with a dying battery. Forward progress was clearly not going to be a happening thing.

I dragged myself back inside to await my beloved’s descent from the nap cave, where he was trying to persuade our 3 year old that sleeping for an hour or so was a vastly preferable alternative to spending the afternoon crying hysterically whenever something happened. Or didn’t happen. Or nearly happened.

Fortunately our Christiania bike has carrying capacity for the evacuation of a small town, so it was more than adequate for a quick trip to kmart to buy a new battery. Sadly  there were no safe sources of vitamin C at the same shopping centre as the car batteries, so the waiting, the shopping, and the battery fitting delayed my urgent trip to the shops by over an hour. Which time I spent lying on the floor with my 7 year old, making loops out of train track, and deciding which bits of track needed outfitting with trees, hospitals and people that made the trains and buildings look Lilliputian. All part of the same set, so you have to wonder what the manufacturer was trying to say with this combination.

My point, should I ever manage to stop digressing long enough to make one, is that despite feeling extremely seedy and wanting a new head, respiratory system and immune system pronto, not being able to continue with my plan to hurtle about meant that I chilled out, had fun, and bonded with my daughter. Quite by accident. Oops.

In an absurdly hectic week, far more full of chaos and rushing than justified by my effective progress on any of the tasks I was allegedly pursuing, I had forgotten how to chill. Too often when my kids ask me to play with them I wind up saying “I just have to…” and then listing 5,000 things from the top of my todo list. Fortunately the whole idea of having two kids is paying off beautifully and they spend a lot of time playing together, despite a 4 year age gap. In fact they play so well that I sometimes forget that every time I say ‘not right now’ is a missed opportunity.

We have lots of cunning games involving me lying on the couch. It’s a dangerous position, because something about a recumbent adult just BEGS children to leap onto them and apply all kinds of pointy anatomy at speed. Elbows. Knees. Bottoms.  I know that bottoms aren’t typically pointy, but somehow these particular bottoms are. I can’t explain it. But I have the leg wounds to prove it.

Whether I’m lying on the floor playing with trains, or lying on the couch being a vet (surely if this gets out it will trigger a radical rethink of the standard veterinary surgery), reading stories or looking at old photos on the laptop (“Mummy! What’s that on Daddy’s neck???” “It’s his hair.”), there are plenty of ways to relax and still play with my kids. They don’t require me to leap about and perform amazing feats of ingenuity (apart from untangling the slinky). They just want me there. Physically, and mentally. Away from the laptop. Not reading a book. Present in their game, and in their world.

Not just for the big stuff, like performances, but for the wandering around afterwards eating sausages. Not just at key points like bedtime and school pick ups. They just want me with them. And how great is that?