Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Benefits of Being That Mum Who's Usually Late

And we're off! Charging down the street with the wind in our hair, a walk-sprint with a waddle.  Baby in the carrier, toddler finally in the buggy, merrily rolling along the pavement.  I'll admit that we've left the house a little too late, but it's a miracle that we've made it out the door after a broken night of milk feeds and night-terrors, fully clothed and well fed, and I still think we've got a chance, however tiny, of actually making it on time.  A short-cut across the grass should do it.  I manage to push a heavily laden buggy up a hill while singing the baby to sleep *mini fist-pump*. The class starts at 10 and it's now two minutes to.  One more corner and then it's straight along for the sprint finish.  I'm unclicking the buggy straps at 10:03 as there's a buzz of introductory chatter at the open door.  We've made it. Just.

I don't mean to cause offence or show disrespect. I'm not even talking about big sod-off-in-your-face-more-than-fifteen-minutes late. Just a cheeky five minutes, or the occasional naughty ten. Even though I know we should have left earlier, there really are some benefits to being a tiny bit late. So, if you're like me and struggle to get yourself and the kids anywhere on time, stop beating yourself up and reap the rewards.

  1. Optimism.  Even though I leave the house late, I always think I can somehow make up the time and be punctual.  There may be a hint of delusion, but I’m definitely more of a cup half full kind of person.  This is the same optimism that guides us to try new classes, playgroups, or to discover and develop new skills or make new friends.
  2. Organisation.  Don’t laugh.  It’s true.  Knowing that we’ll be rushed leaving in the morning has actually made me a more organised mamma.  My happy-go-lucky last-minute sprints rely on a pre-packed nappy bag and keys/wallet still in the coat pocket from yesterday.  N.B. This doesn’t apply to weekends or Monday mornings.
  3. Risk-Taking.  Okay, so I’m not talking about taking preschoolers scuba diving or babies base-jumping. I like to risk a last-minute short-cut and have consequently discovered some lovely cobbled streets, new picnic spots and cafes to return to at a later date.  Being that mum who’s happy to cut it fine also goes hand-in-hand with being content not to belong to a mummy/nanny clique; it doesn’t matter if the last chair’s taken in the mamalicious circle when you chat to a range of folk.
  4. Exercise.  There’s no better way to get your feet moving quickly than when you’ve prepaid for a baby class that starts at 10 and it’s already quarter to before you’ve got everyone fed, clothed, changed and out the door and strapped into the relevant buggy/carrier.  Racing twice daily through suburban England, pushing a toddler in a buggy and jiggling a baby in the carrier has kept me far fitter than my old weekly aerobic class.
  5. Automatic Body Warmer.  Icy days don’t put me off leaving the house as within a few minutes of buggy-bolting we’ll be peeling off the hats, gloves and scarves.
  6. Humbling.  Despite always leaving late, my determination to arrive on time leaves me truly ashamed when we’re late!  My apology is always so genuine and heartfelt that it strips away any pride and maybe makes me more approachable to other rabbit-in-the-headlights mammas!
  7. Mindfulness.  The great thing about trying to make up time means that every swift step is fully focused on arriving as soon as possible.  I’m not looking at my phone, or day-dreaming about a tropical getaway.  Every nanosecond is dedicated to the cause.  I’m fully in the present.
  8. Practical.  There’s nothing worse than arriving early, especially when the class/playgroup/whatever has been unexpectedly cancelled.  On the odd occasion that this has happened to me, I’ve never felt so cheated by the tragic waste of time.
  9. Minimal Time Wasting.  I routinely leave fifteen minutes to get to a class almost a mile away.  I hate the idea of using the car and since making it on time in twelve minutes, I know we can enjoy that extra slice of toast or read that book one more time, rather than hanging outside a locked church hall in the wind and rain.
  10. Maximum Child Entertainment.  When you’ve got a couple of tots to keep seated and/or entertained, arriving too early for anything can be bad planning.  We've all watched the early kids get fidgety during rhyme time at the library, before sprinting laps around the fishing section or tunnelling under the counter to the staff room.  Better to be late than early.  Always.
P.S. I was lucky enough to have my parents with us today so I only needed to transport one portable child to the baby class. Despite walking in the face of Storm Doris, we made it eight minutes early. It was kind of nice with nice chats about the best reusable nappies, but I couldn't help thinking about that second cuppa I could've had or that game my two year old wanted to play. We didn't get started until ten past anyway. Nope. Being early just isn't worth it.

"RUN! Don't walk!"
Photo- author's own 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Where To Find A Glimmer of Hope

Our future is suddenly uncertain.  Our simple values of humanity: to be kind, thoughtful and welcoming, have been kicked to the kerb, beaten and spat upon, all in a matter of days.  Yet, I want to invite you into a new world with a glimmer of hope, hidden away in your local library, or children's school.

This time last year, I was teaching English in a London school, my last term before maternity leave.  Since then, I've nurtured our little ones, day and night feeding, singing them to sleep and reading the same book multiple times.  As I begin to consider an eventual return to the classroom, I'm feeling a little bit hopeful, maybe a window into a better future, filled with possibility, change and kindness.

Even the worst behaved, or most apathetic of students, in my opinion, can enjoy a good story.  Sharing books, discussing, reflecting, writing about our response to Literature is therapeutic as well as informative.  Lessons can induce laughter and sometimes tears.  I've cried with Year 7s at the end of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful, a tender and unflinching tale of the senseless injustice of war; we've laughed reading Holes, set in an American boy's juvenile disciplinary unit, by Louis Sachar.  Well-known Shakespearean characters draw us in: the desperate lovestruck Juliet; we pity Othello and Desdemona as Iago's web of lies lead them to the bloody marital bed; or the mighty warrior, Macduff, reduced to tears as he learns of his family's slaughter in the haunting Macbeth: "all my pretty ones?  Did you say all?"

Books can teach us so much, but above all, they teach us empathy.  The longevity of a book affords us the time to imagine ourselves in the scenes; to consider what we would have done or how we would have reacted.  The main characters become our secret friends, who reveal their inner most thoughts, whose dreams we share.  The breaks from reading allow us to reflect upon the themes and the plot, the characters and their relationships.  Books can transport us back in time, or into the future, like the favourite Year 9 text, Unique, by Alison Allen-Grey who creates a world where cloning is possible, asking us what it means to be human?

My last classes before maternity leave were studying a range of heavyweight fiction.  The senior class was reading George Orwell's 1984: a hot favourite in the wake of Trump's Presidency.  Only twelve months ago, we tried to link this to our present day and discussed issues of surveillance, social media and a free press.  The issues of Newspeak, torture, erasing historical facts and creating "Alternative Facts" like 2 + 2 = 5, were dismissed as being more relevant to fiction, or maybe episodes of European history.  As dark as current affairs are, take comfort in the fact that students around the world are learning through History and Literature, how to make a more tolerant world.

They were also studying texts of the Holocaust, including Art Spiegelman's Maus and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, provoking upsetting reflections, but necessary discourse.  This included a trip to the Holocaust Exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. The teenagers and teachers moved slowly around the museum, stony faced and sick to the stomach.  In a mixed faith co-educational school, every student felt the chill of history and the resolve to never allow such abhorrent fear to  govern again.

Another class was reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a popular book to access American Civil Rights, with themes of bullying, prejudice and morality.  This monumental text has inspired many to fight for human rights, stand up to racism and to study Law.

The younger students' class reader was The Breadwinner.  Written by Canadian peace activist Deborah Ellis, this is a short and simple text told by charming and characterful Parvana, living in Taliban occupied Afghanistan.  Every student seemed to relate to her everyday sibling squabbles or keen sense of parental injustice.  When her family become victim to the regime, the students suffer along with her, sharing her fear and urging her bravery.

Even my two year old's reading is preparing him for a world where kindness prevails.  A current favourite is Julia Donaldson's Zog with Princess Pearl, the trainee medic who rejects a life of  riches in favour of helping people and "giving them my care." Room on the Broom, by the same author, teaches us that there's always more room to welcome others.  Even when the broomstick breaks, they work together to fight the dragon and (with a little magic) they all help to create a new broom.  His love for Thomas the Tank Engine show children the benefits of compassion and being helpful with the repetitive conclusion of being "really useful engines".   A trip to the local library has become a weekly must, borrowing sky-high piles of picture books to feast on, taking us on global adventures through time and space.

The news may be heart breaking and the headlines tragically sad, but your local library is full of hope, packed with stories to inspire, cheer and soothe.  Orwell's main character in 1984, Winston, is convinced that "if there is hope, it lies in the Proles".  Maybe he's still right.  Maybe the resistance will grow and become politically mobilised to win votes.  I would say that our inspiration for hope lies with our children, their innocent joy for life, their unwavering need for justice and above all, their love of a good story.

For another feel good read, try Wonder in Mankind.  Or for a total break from the jaw-dropping headlines, try 10 Unexpected Highs of Motherhood.  

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Mothering Rebels and Rebellious Mothers: The Women's March

Little Red Riding Hood from Deans A Book of Fairy Tales.
Illustrated by Janet & Anne Grahame Johnstone. 1977.
If 2016 ended in a dark cloud of anxiety, 2017 has begun with a snowstorm of sisterhood and a tidal surge of rebellion.  On Saturday 21st January, we’d usually all go swimming or I’d head to the shops while my husband takes the boys to the playground.  It's also Trump’s first day as President.  Because of this, we’ll be joining millions of people across the world's cities to march together in the name of justice, equality and the rights of all humans, present and future.  This is the Women's March.

As a human, woman and feminist, I support the march.  As a mother, I feel it is fundamental for me to join the protest, to show solidarity with people the world over, to register discontent with institutionalized prejudice and casual misogyny, but also to feel good about our children's future.  There's nothing like that wonderful feeling of marching with hope and tenacity at your side, empowered and encouraged.  True, we currently have a female PM, female bishops, recognise equal opportunities and have laws to safeguard individual choices, including abortion, same sex marriage and transgender rights.  Brilliant, but I'm also marching because I’ve been inspired by the zeal of Jo Cox; because the Headmaster described his new female staff team as a “pretty bunch”, in front of the pupils; I’ve been told that what I was wearing (a sleeveless high-neck blouse and knee-length A-line skirt) was distracting; that my friends and I still say “text me when you’re home safely” and I was once asked to sign a professional contract that stated that my job would terminate if I got pregnant.  We're also marching to support our American sisters and brothers, whose new President may not recognise the need for equality or respect choice; it is a reminder to those in power that we care, we listen and we all need progress.

Mothers force progress, rebel.  It is in our nature to seek out a better world for our young, to secure a better environment.  We may have to cross borders, make perilous journeys, do a paid full-time job or stay at home, face judgement or criticism for simply trying our best.  My own mother challenged the expectations of what she should study, who she should marry, learning this strength from her mother, an unsung hero who allowed her children to dream and to be who they wanted to be.  My mother-in-law defied tradition by leaving home to study abroad, paying her own way because if her brother could, so could she.  Her mother, an inspirational great-grandmother, with six children by 28, self-taught Dressmaking, English and Mathematics to allow her to supplement the family income.  These choices weren't always popular, at times divisive, but were made in the spirit of integrity and betterment.

My childhood is remembered by a sequence of rebellious acts.  At birth, I was not Christened even though my brothers were both baptised and Confirmed.  "Until women have an equal standing to men, at the highest levels of hierarchy", said mum, "my daughter will not be baptised".  I remember refusing to wear a ‘pretty’ red coat that my mum loved seeing me in.  I didn't want to look like Little Red Riding Hood, though, I wanted to look like the wolf or the woodcutter.  By eleven, friends 'went shopping' on Saturdays, or wore Adidas sweatshirts or Kickers shoes.  When I wanted something, my reason "but everyone else does" was annoyingly, now appreciatively, met with "why do something just because everyone else does?"  And then, "Will you be paid to advertise their logos?!"  Family dinners were usually loud affairs, arguing about the latest Neighbours plotline, or laughing at John Major's cone hotline.  We weren't shielded from the history of slavery, or the realities of sweatshops, scars of war or the bloodshed of Empire; we were left to play ghoulies in the dark and build dens after sunset.  We knew the meaning of 'Holocaust' and 'Apartheid' before we left primary school.  We applauded the heroism of Boudica, David, Luther, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mandela and Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen.

Children force progress, rebel.  In the spirit of my own fortunate upbringing, I hope to instill this energy for advocacy and plan to take my boys on Saturday’s march.  I don't mean to romanticise my toddler’s occasional stormy tantrums, but I do see that when he absolutely refuses to wear trousers, or insists that "No! I can do it myself", it’s this natural tenacity that will equip him to take his first steps in claiming his identity as his own.  As grows, I hope that he can channel this determination to try and make the world a better place and can challenge me to adapt as I age.

After years of keeping quiet, observing, reading, night feeding and hoping, while our babies have snuggled in happy ignorant bliss, blessedly naive to the demons of war and the powers of democracy, beginning this blog broke my nighttime silence.  Reflecting on the public and personal, refined into words.  But now it’s time to take my voice to the streets and midday air, to shut the laptop, paint the placards and polish my boots.  Women, men, mothers, fathers: all humans who value respect, dignity and progress, show your support and join us on Saturday in a city near you.  For, like Emmeline Pankhurst, “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

10 Unexpected Highs of Motherhood

January has sobered us up and stolen all our glitter.  The once-adored and illumined Christmas trees now lie naked and abandoned by the bins.  The world is back to work and pavements pound with brand new runners.  My news feed is full of New Year Resolutions that "all mothers should be making", guilt that I shouldn't be allowing myself to feel and tips for a healthier, fitter, happier 2017.  I choose to glance at an email from a company who know the ages of my children, jolting a hazy memory of an airbrushed "Bounty woman" (an odd sight amongst labouring women, anxious partners and around-the-clock NHS staff) disturbing our post-birth recuperation, giving me forms to complete. I assumed she was part of the team and dutifully signed on the dotted line.  Ink staining paper as post-birth blood stained the towels. This company now sends me an email saying that while"nursing a newborn", I can use "8 tricks to look beautiful before 8am", including using two different shades of mascara to widen my eyes... WTF!

Ironically, these tips are sold as "saving your morning sanity".  Instead, I think I'll aim for an uninterrupted shower and trip to the loo with the door closed.   I'm making this the year of gratitude and acceptance, beginning with my list of 10 unexpected highs of motherhood.
  1. Self-love.  I knew I'd love my children long before we met, but I didn't expect to regard my own body with such newfound tenderness, for its absolute incredible baby-growing, baby-birthing, baby-feeding skills. Every wobbly bit is proof that the most amazing miracle actually did happen. Twice.
  2. Learning to be au natural.  Despite Bounty's suggestions, I've not worn make-up for about two years (except for my wedding day) and my skin prefers it too. Plus, the liberation from scrutinising my reflection is life-changing.  And then there's the pounds saved on products and my adopted laissez faire attitude to hair.
  3. Professional Multi-Tasker.  I can imagine that I've always had the skills, but never before have I needed to rock a baby to sleep while changing a toddler's nappy and reading a book aloud/ holding a bizarre conversation about dinosaurs or whatever it takes to keep his attention until a new nappy is on.
  4. Aware of the seasons. Most days force us out and like a real life spot the difference, we'll notice the changing colours of leaves, the new blossom buds and the rotting windfalls. 
  5. The everyday is transformed into the sublime.  Seeing the world through my children's eyes has seduced me into loving our world anew. My toddler's excitement for a passing train, plane or chugging tractor is contagious; we've all learnt to delight in the incredible inventions of mankind.
  6. Beauty in words.  Trying to decipher our children's first words and sentences brings about much hilarity and awe. The amount of phrases he picks up and repeats is astonishing.  
  7. Talking to strangers.  There's nothing like wheeling/carrying/chasing after two little ones to elicit random conversations with anyone we meet out and about.  My two year old will suddenly announce his baby brother's name to whoever he fancies, initiating entertaining small talk with whoever's game.
  8. Toddler Dancing.  Me and their dad have always liked a dance, but our eldest has taken dancing to another level.  He will start dancing to any tune, albeit from a passing vehicle, or tinkly baby toy.  He'll wiggle and jiggle, jump and shuffle, hop and bop, bounce and drop.  Sometimes, without any music at all.  When I've run out of ideas and still have a tiny fraction of energy left, I'll put on Kisstory and we'll all dance around the living room and party like it's 1999.
  9. Everyday's a school day.   I now know the names of more than twenty different species of dinosaur, the daily workings of a farm and I'm fast becoming an expert in skin rashes.  Becoming a parent is like becoming a child, learning everything from scratch, from feeding to bathing, changing nappies to knowing the location of every soft play centre within a fifteen mile radius. 
  10. The moon.  Thanks to regular night feeding, I've come to know the shape-shifting moon very well.  She's been my companion throughout and even when it's too cloudy to see her, I know she's out there somewhere, watching without judgment, waxing and waning, ready to guide me to the dawn. 
The January air is full of hope.  The sharp winter wind blows out the cobwebs and can force a teardrop with a single gust.  The blinding horizontal sunlight casts shadows on our past and illuminates the path ahead.  I have a lot of respect for any New Year endeavours for a new you in 2017, but I imagine that you are already trying your best and already rather fabulous.

Please add your own unexpected highs of motherhood in the comments section below. Thank you & all best wishes for 2017. Xx

                   Photograph: R. Gurnham 

Friday, 16 December 2016

Unexpected Loneliness of New Motherhood

There's that lovely moon again, a kindly face watching over her sleepy brood. Awake for another nocturnal milk feast, I treasure these simple moments of just baby, moonshine and me, but those first months of motherhood were tinged with loneliness - a surprising predicament that I hadn't prepared myself for.  I associated loneliness with the elderly and the bereaved.  What right did I - a healthy, mobile person, with a family and a home- have to complain of loneliness?  Encouraged by similar experiences shared on social media (see Channel 4's special loneliness season). I finally feel able to share my thoughts on this wonderful and challenging chapter.

Photograph: Amal Hirani
Why was new motherhood so lonely?

1. The Monologues.  I went from teaching full time in a secondary school, talking with hundreds of people a day, to being alone with my newborn, nine hours a day, everyday.  Sure, we 'chatted' in our own way and those delightful smiles and gurgles went a long way, but I would yearn for my partner's return, that wonderful moment of hearing the key in the lock.  Of course, I have a phone, but people weren't always available for that rare window when I wasn't feeding, changing, bathing or settling him to sleep.

2. Physical Discomfort.  My partner's paternity leave flashed by in a pain-killing haze of stitches, engorged leaking breasts, haemorrhoids and post-birth bleeding.  I dreaded his return to work; I still felt so broken.  For me, breastfeeding didn't really become comfortable until the fourth month.  Staying at home in greater comfort, attempting the perfect latch was the better option.  Loneliness was the price I paid.

3. Mental Anxiety.  I'd like to think of myself as outgoing and confident.  New motherhood found me lacking in this self-assurance and I hadn't yet learned to trust my instincts. I dreaded social occasions, becoming panicky in large groups.  Having always been a confident speaker, I was now rather sullen and if I did say something, I would usually regret my contribution.

4. Exhaustion.  It's hardly a news flash, but the regular night feeding is tough.  Everyone tells you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but it's not that straightforward.  For the first week, my adrenaline was so high, that all I wanted to do was to stare at this tiny human, this miracle of life.  He'd only really properly sleep on me, or my partner, which is lovely, but after the SIDs warning, I was petrified of squashing him.  This new level of tiredness made socialising impossible.  Again, it was better to be lonely than face the world.

5. The Mission of Leaving the House. My parents visited when they could and weekends usually brought family and friends.  But in the day-to-day, fresh air and conversation were the best remedies for loneliness, but that meant taking everything necessary for nappy changing, feeding, leaking, soiling, thirst, hunger, cold, warmth, rain and sun.  I would have preferred to use a baby carrier, but I quickly developed mastitis if I walked too far with our little one pressed against me.  We did have a pram but to avoid the crying, I usually ended up carrying him and pushing the buggy one-handed.  Our local station had too many steps to take a buggy and the 'Mind the Gap' warning suddenly provoked real fear.  The tradition of confinement in some cultures seemed like a good idea.

6. Fear of Rebuke. I cared too much about what people thought and wanted to be regarded as a 'good' mother who had her shit together.  If my baby suddenly started crying in a shop, I'd quickly want to soothe him, but also not to attract negative attention.

7. Isolation. Few of my friends had children and my family all lived a train or plane away.  Because of numbers 2-5 above, making new mum-friends wasn't easy. I really wanted to meet other mums. I was astounded at what all mothers had endured to bring new life into the world and enraged anew at how maternal strength had been dismissed by the patriarchies of history.  I wanted to know their stories and share my own. Playgroups or baby classes were good options, but could be very hit and miss. Some were very unfriendly and didn't even ask your name, some were brilliantly led and gave you tea and cake.  In the early days, the few I went to were rather rubbish where I paid £8 to feed and change my baby amidst the chaos of a baby sensory disco, next to nannies who stared at their phones.

8. Routines.  I did make some lovely new mum-friends, but hanging out wasn't always possible. Their babies actually slept in stationary buggies; my little one would need walking outside in a sling.  My spirited wide-eyed baby would usually be too distracted to feed out and about; my friends mostly bottle-fed and could feed and pause without their rejected leaky boob hanging out.  Conversation would go between how much milk the babies drank, sleep times and weight percentiles.  I never really knew and would often return home feeling like I was doing everything wrong. 

My experience was very mild compared to other new mums.  Moreover, it was only when I was alone with my baby that I truly got to know him.  By the time my first baby was six months old, I was more confident to mix with the world. I've now got two little boys and despite moving to a new area, I've not experienced that same intense loneliness again.  I've regained my self-confidence and have learned to trust my instincts.  I've made new friends at playgroups and playgrounds and it's my chatty confident toddler who now makes the introductions.  If I see a parent who's also braved leaving the house, I try to make the effort to say hello as it's far too easy to ignore everyone else once you've found your clique.  But sometimes, we don't leave the house, or my only adult chat is with the check-out cashier, but that's ok these days because it's the price we pay and we'll soon hear that key in the lock before bath time.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Winter Lethargy and Advent Joy

We had almost given up on winter.  The heavy artillery of chesty coughs had begun its offence.  Sore throat patrols left no tonsil untouched; runny nose gangs rampaged in their wake.  The eldest was dosed up on Calpol and the baby's chest smeared with snuffle-balm.  It took a ninja's speed and a pianist's dexterity to wipe the snot streaming from the little noses.  "No, Mummy.  No wiping.  Put it back."  After a few indoor days to recover, it was time to emerge into the world again.

Leaving the house with two tots is challenging enough, but by winter, the effort is near-impossible.  It takes a whole morning of ebullient positivity, chattering about all the fun things to do in the cold; precision timing to ensure the baby is fed, changed and layered up; expert persuasion to will the toddler into woolly layers and waterproofs; a scout's preparation to have pockets stuffed with snacks, drinks, tissues, gloves and keys... where are the keys..?! And then I've missed the narrow 'get out the door' window: baby needs feeding/changing again and playgroup will be finishing soon anyway.

Hibernation seems like a better idea, curled up and snuggled down for weeks on end: safe, warm and cosy. The depressing daily news and shaky political climate make indoor time a more attractive option anyway.  The world seems hostile and I gather my little ones into the warmth of the sofa-den.  The elder echoes my mood: "stay at home, stay at home," his rosy nose glistening in the electric light.  We're lucky to have a warm home to enjoy, I think, with food, toys, books, TV.  I'm feeling so tired too, yawning just on cue.  Okay: maybe just one more day at home.  One more.

Then Advent begins and with it a renewed duty to my family to get out the house.  Having failed to get an Advent calendar, I need to think on my feet.  We've got a little Christmas tree but it's fairly bare, awaiting hand-me-down decorations.  I imagine that pine cones might look ok, so I scribble a note behind a big number 1, cut from an old Christmas card: collect and decorate pine cones.  Sealed in an envelope and dropped on the doormat, he discovers it the next day- in spectacularly dazzling sunshine, fit for this magical month: "look Mummy!" And then the miracle happens, he gets his boots and his coat and his hat and his gloves and with our little baby bundled to my chest, fed, changed and layered-up, we set off on the hunt.

Each step on the crunchy frozen grass shakes off our lethargy.  We look up at the various trees, peeping above the rooftops and try to find some green amongst the spidery barren branches.  After a morning of cheerful marching, my boy attempting random conversations with any passer-by and pine tree spotting, we locate our bounty and spend the afternoon with PVA glue, glitter and ribbon.  Inspired, I scribble another note for day two: find some holly and we become arborists, locating the spiky trees, laden with toxic-red berries.  We even make a wreath from a coat hanger, to display proudly on the door.  Day three receives a special visit from Granny and Granddad who give our Advent quest to find a donkey more energy than a double caffeine shot, braying and singing all the way to the zoo.  Day four's draw a robin forces us out again for red cheeks and stomping, singing and searching. By day five, we've become an outdoor family, living in muddied boots and chunky knitwear, with permanently rosy cheeks and wild woolly hat hair.

And then it's day six, find sticks to make a star, and disaster looms: "No mummy.  No more numbers".  We just about manage a little stroll in the fog: a mini miracle that we left the house at all.  I end up having to carry my two year old on my back with the younger in a carrier on my chest.  Just enough twigs are harvested in a desperate act of determination to make this count.  A few hours and tantrums later and I'm sat at the kitchen table, still struggling to tie the dank crusty sticks into a star shape.  The baby's getting bored in the Jumparoo while the older one finishes off yet another 'Andy's Dinosaur Adventure', having lost interest ages ago.  This wasn't the plan.  I momentarily rest my head in my hands and can hear my toddler rummaging in the cupboard.  I look up as he leans on my leg, to see that he's put the yellow cone part of a lemon squeezer on his nose: "I'm a pelican.  More numbers on the door mat?"  By bedtime, he's gone off to look for more envelopes four more times.

I'm glad I forgot the Advent calendars, otherwise we wouldn't have a chain of festive numbers ascending along the fireplace, the vacant string promising more: outdoor treasure hunts, crafting and random acts of kindness.  Advent has ushered us out into the world again.  A little blast of fresh air in the morning makes our cosy afternoons more relaxing, albeit making, baking, being a pelican or bingeing on CBeebies.  The runny noses seem to have magically cleared up too, a white flag in the face of Christmas: the season of possibility and joy.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Parenting in a New World of Walls

All a parent ever wants is a better world for their children, safe and full of opportunity.  Over generations, my family has gradually bettered themselves financially and academically.  On my dad's side, he was the first to attend a university, juggling school work with weekend shifts at his parents' fish shop.  On my mum's side, daughter of a Punjabi Civil Servant, her grandfather travelled on a dhow across the Indian Ocean to find new opportunities in British East Africa; her parents had emigrated on British Passports to escape Idi Amin's racial purification programme in 1972.  My childhood was happy and comfortable in bucolic charm, with a colour television and piano lessons.

I was twelve before I really understood racism.  Growing up in Tory Lincolnshire, the current hotbed for Farage's Brexit fans, I was aware of being a little different:  I had a Granny and a Naniji; I worshipped in a Church and in a Gurudwara and my mum sent me to my friend's pyjama party in a salwar kameez- an etymological master move ("pajama" is Hindi for loose trousers).  At age seven, I heard the school bully, eleven-year-old Walker, call my brother a "brownie".  Misunderstanding his meaning, I proudly interfered, stressing that I was a Brownie and my friends are Brownies, too.  My gang of Girl Guides then chased the offender around the school field, rudely chanting "Walkers Crisps".  Later in detention with my shamed face against the wall, the racial slur swept under the carpet, the Headmaster simply concluded, "Well, Walker, you're hardly a Golden Wonder".  

My plucky confidence was undone by one single incident at high school.  I remember walking alone down the corridor at lunchtime.  Up ahead were a group of boys, but it was fine because some were from my primary school and I'd even been at one boy's tenth birthday party, joked with his mum and eaten pizza in their kitchen.  That same boy gestured at me and as I smiled, he sputtered, "Paki".

Wounded, I gave no rebuttal and quickly walked along the corridor that seemed to go on forever, bursting into tears as I finally turned the corner.  It'd never occurred to me that I was so different to him.  I felt humiliated by this loaded word; my ego was shattered.  I felt unwanted, exiled from my hometown, my place of birth.  A friendly face found me at the end of the corridor and ushered me off to the Head's office.  Later, I silently accepted a muttered apology, but I couldn't meet his eyes.  The matter was closed, but I have never forgotten that moment.

If the Head had been a known favourite of the KKK and Neo-Nazi party, would there have been an apology, a consequence, or would I have had to accept the abusive language of fear and division.  Would we have studied race, abuse and identity in Literature?  Would the History syllabus include Apartheid, American Civil Rights and the evils of European Fascism? Would we have been so sure that the future could be free from prejudice?

Twenty years later, we are a generation on and we feel lucky to be able to build on our ancestors' hopes of raising children in a better world: freedom of religion, LGBT rights and instant global communication.  Our two little boys have a mixed heritage from England, Kenya, Tanzania and India; Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, but what defines them more is their delight in the moon and the stars, swings, trains and dinosaurs.  To have openly xenophobic leaders is an uncomfortable truth and our path forward is suddenly unclear and frightening.  For the sake of our children, all children, we have to speak up against hatred, smile at strangers and perform random acts of kindness.  Little by little, we can dismantle the walls (or fences) of fear and make the world a welcoming place.