Guest blogging for Little Puggle

Aside

A week of building work issues and Christmas panic have meant I’m off my blogging game – while I crack open a bottle and ruminate, fingers poised, I thought I’d share a couple of guest blogs I’ve written for the wonderful Little Puggle about the fun we’ve had with their fabulous children’s craft boxes.

Roaring through half-term

Ooar me hearties

Happy reading

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Bad habits die hard

In July, I posted about doing my first triathlon next year, and since then I’ve been learning to swim front crawl.  Boy is it slow going.  But today I had a second swimming lesson, with a new teacher.  It was great, but it seems I have already picked up quite a few bad habits – legs, arms, breathing. Trying to correct them was hard.  And that was only the start of the journey.

Four recollections floated into my brain while ruminating on my lesson.

The first one was: Yesterday was our school parents evening (aka afternoon – in no-one’s book but a teacher’s is 3-6pm evening). I noticed the new Early Years curriculum for 0-5 year olds included being aware of and able to articulate one’s own strengths, and recognising those of others.  How much have I talked to 3.5 year old Littlest H about his strengths?

The second was a conversation with my daughter at bedtime yesterday, the eve of her 6th birthday.  I told her how much I loved her and what a good and lovely person she is.  She paused and said “Not always, Mummy.”  I wasn’t sure if she meant I don’t always love her or she’s not always good, and as we cuddled and I said I always love her, she clarified “Yes Mummy, but I’m not always good.” (No-one is, I replied)

The third was a recent occasion when I heard her refer to herself as being useless at something she was trying to do.  And the final one was another conversation we had yesterday when I asked her if her friends had noticed her ‘I’m 6’ badge at school.  She said “Yes, even XXX in Apple class. You know, Mummy, XXX isn’t very nice to me.  At lunchtime she is rude to me and laughs when I hold my knife and fork a different way round to everyone else.”

What do these have to do with either bad habits dying hard, or my swimming lesson, you may ask.  Well, as I went to bed last night, I found myself wondering if I spend enough time telling my children what amazing people they are – their characters, not just their achievements.  Do I do enough to build their self-esteem and self-worth, and to help them be strong enough to feel that being different is okay?

And following from that, am I in the habit of giving my children the best of myself, or do they more often get what’s left of myself?  Do I treat them with respect and kindness as the default, do I use language that builds their self-worth, even when managing their behaviour, and do I role-model the way to treat other people, including those you love?  I wonder.  Sometimes I feel the worst of myself comes out with those with whom I am closest.

I recently posted about ambition vs happiness, saying that striving to be a good parent is a given once you are one, not an ambition.  Yet, with an ambition I have set for myself like learning to swim front crawl, I prioritise practising, I pay for an expert to watch me and offer me ways to improve, I am patient with myself as I know it will take time and effort and I won’t be great to start with and maybe not at all.  When I have a bad session, I try not to give up, I shake myself off and say, well Annabel, you still went and you’ll just have to try again next time.

Oh to apply that process to parenting.  There is no teacher or learning environment, only real life doing, supplemented by watching others and occasional reading of parenting books, usually when things have gone seriously awry.   Parenting can’t be separated from rest of life and put in a box to pull out and ‘practise’ at certain times.  And yet, as a person who has always responded best to learning in learning environments, that is what I could do with.  Constantly evaluating and thinking about how I am parenting when I am in the thick of it is tough.  And yet responses to situations quickly become habit.   Often in fact, a bad habit that I know will die hard.  To kill it off properly will take the same, or more, mental and physical effort as I’m applying to learning to swim.

So how can I work harder at parenting and while I’m doing it, arm our kids with a thick enough hide and strong sense of self-worth so they can handle being picked on?

As with so much in life, to some extent they just have to experience it and grow in their confidence to take teasing or jibes in their stride.  But I also think as a parent I can help.  Having an open ear to hear when they are telling me something where I can help reinforce a strong sense of self. Asking questions about how they think they handle situations and helping them develop different strategies.  Gently teasing them to build their resilience. Telling them not just how much we love them, but why we do – what about them and their characters.  Not using damaging language in anger, frustration or impatience that make a specific instance of behaviour sound like a damning character flaw – “You’re so clumsy”, “You never think” “Why are you always so impatient”.  Ensuring I’m careful with how I talk about myself – not saying I’m useless at things in a typically self-deprecating English middle class way.

The past couple of days have not just included parents evening and a swimming lesson, but also a first physio session for a hip injury and a specialist dentist appointment about my gums (nothing like getting old, is there).  All have resulted in exercises that require me to learn new habits and break old ones.  Perhaps while I’m at it I should throw in a few parenting / personal bad habits, just to get my brain fully engaged.  You never know, some of it might just stick.

A Thursday Rant: Kids birthday parties

Before children, I thought the wedding industry was the most commercialised con industry preying on emotion-ridden occasions, but now I know different. That honour goes to kids parties.  How did we get here, when kids (parents) feel the need to invite 20-30 friends to a hall for a (probably) cheesy entertainer to charge 200 quid or more for an hour, followed by mountains of E number food (the healthy stuff is always left behind, however high we parents pile it on their plates), a much-anticipated cake and expectant faces waiting for a party bag filled with plastic tat and more sugar?

Okay, so I may be being a tad harsh.  There are variations: less cost = more E numbers, a dose of playground politics or more stress to organise yourself; more cost = healthier, more interesting food, stunning cake creations and different, or mildly less cheesy entertainment in a slightly less well-used venue…*sigh*

The guilt-trip parent trap is just like the wedding couple trap – if I don’t do it, will my child  feel hard done by, if we don’t do all the typical things will the kids/parents think we are cheapskates; if I don’t invite so-and-so, will the parent get the hump, let alone the child; if I buy a cake instead of make it… and so on.

Even more discombobulating (my word of the week, isn’t it fabulous?) was last year, Little H’s 5th birthday.  I decided to see how much it would cost to do a DIY version. So I chose three crafty activities, bought all the bits and hosted it myself, with craft, then food, then party games. What I failed to register was that 5 years old, the first year of school here in the UK, is when parents assume parties are drop and run.  So there I was, faced with managing mask, jewellery and paper chain making with 20 four to six year old boys and girls.  Thank bloomin’ god for my husband, mum and the smattering of my friends who stuck around.  One friend commented it was lovely to go to a traditional party for once.  It was great, but it was such hard work for me, especially while working, and when I totted up the cost it was nearly the same as an all-in venue / entertainment / food option would have been (although we did end up with a lot of crafty bits left at home, to be fair).

And it’s now that time of year again.  I started the venue call around with a heavy heart, feeling both resentful of the industry of the thing and totally conflicted by the fact that I knew Little H would love a party.  And, if I’m honest, a lot of my rant is about me, not Little H.  She would be happy at home, but I can’t bear the idea of loads of hyper kids (and mess) rampaging through our house on a winter’s day.  She would be happy with the same venues/entertainers as her friends, I like variety and the idea of something different.

But I’m very glad to report we’ve found an excellent solution.  Little H is happy, I’m happy, Mr H is happy (Littlest H just wants to know he’s coming too).  We’re doing a cinema and lunch outing. Five friends who we chose carefully together to be people she actually likes and plays with.

Very little politics to manage, only five invitations to make (aren’t they cute?!), only two calls to organise cinema and lunch, no need for a huge cake, and party bags replaced by cinema/restaurant entertainment goody bags.  I am totally in love with the small event version of children’s birthday celebrations.  I don’t even care if they eat oysters and champagne for lunch or their body weight in over-priced cinema pick’n’mix, the lack of hassle and stress is fabulous.

I’m already watching the seven year olds’ party options with interest – roll on the small home-based or outing-based options with a few good mates.  When it gets to her wedding, Little H is going to go absolutely bonkers…

Rant over 🙂

Ambition: does being a parent help or hinder?

If ambition is striving to better one’s situation (or self), and happiness is satisfaction with where your life is now, where does parenting sit on the spectrum?  A blog post about the trade-off between ambition and happiness got me thinking about this question.

Quite frankly, parenting often feels like it ticks neither box – as a friend put it, it’s more a case of survival.  And never more than after a full-on week of half-term, even if the kids were mostly lovely.  But if I had to choose, I’d say it makes me happy more than it fulfils my ambition.

For me, ambition has always been about whether I am reaching my full potential (a bit of a stretch goal, let’s be honest).  Being a ‘good’ parent, although incredibly important to me, doesn’t feel like it sits in the same box.  I think that’s because striving for good parenting is a given, not a choice – the choice was made when we leapt into parenthood in the first place.

More often being a parent has felt like a brake on ambition.  I know few mothers who haven’t had to readjust their ambitions as they realise parenting is too important to squeeze too hard, and squeezing everything else can be almost as tough. I’m sure many fathers feel the same way, but, for whatever reasons, it seems more often the women who choose to / have to take the career hit.  I certainly felt that way before I stepped off the hamster wheel to find a better way.

And that goal, to find a better way, is where ambition and parenting get interesting.  The handcuff of something you simply cannot ‘not do’ forces an increasing number of women to get creative, look at different avenues, really think about what they could and want to do.  It becomes a driver of ambition, not a brake – almost liberating if it wasn’t so bloomin’ stressful.

How many women do you know who have agonised over how they can continue their career after kids, only to explore completely different and ultimately fulfilling directions to find that elusive fit of fulfilling work and family life?  I know quite a few.  And I find their journeys really uplifting.

Yes, nearly all of those I know have been through a tough transition period, many returning to their pre-children career through one or two kids, others SAHM, but all ultimately coming up with an idea they believe in. They cope with the huge stress and knocks that come with taking a risk and trying something new.  But their successes give me hope.

When I read that blog post, I felt a penny dropped.  All my life I’ve been trying to balance striving to reach my potential and satisfaction with the here and now.  I don’t have the answer, but I know I have it in me to do something different.   Parenting was a brake, but now it is a driver of my ambition – to find a fulfilling job that fits as well as possible with family and (the biggest challenge) pays what we need it to pay.

I am inspired by the amazing women I am watching take risks and push themselves to do brilliant things.  My fave five are linked below.  Help me and my other readers feel inspired: tell me, who are your fave five?