Why I Didn’t Let My Son Wear an Elsa Dress to School

It’s hard to believe it, but my son is now 5 years old. He loves to play, and his favourite games are imaginative. “Let’s be Octonauts” he will declare on the way to school.  “I’ll be Captain Barnacles, you be a Lemon Shark.”  Bathtime consits of repeatedly drowning Sir Topham Hatt (AKA Fat Controller) with cups of water as he heads off to Tidmouth Sheds.  At any time of day, our playroom could be a shopfront, (“Hang on” my son scratches his chin “We may have some in the back. Do you have a clubcard?”) the set of Masterchef, (“I like all the colours you’ve put on the plate Daddy, but sorry-you’re going home.”) or a dentists office. (They’re all rotten, but never mind, I’ll just take them out. You probably wont be able to eat anymore.” ) 

As you can imagine, he loves dress up, and he has an inclination towards the sparkles. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t provide for boys who want a bit more flair than a Darth Vader costume can provide, so when we’re out and about at friend’s houses and he pulls out a Cinderella dress or a ladybird costume from the dressing up box, I’ve always been pretty chilled about letting him explore his theatrical side. Take a moment to look around the Disney store next time you’re in there. At last count, I could see 22 different types of princess dresses and not one prince outfit. My son could be Olaf, Luke Skywalker, or a Pirate. (White, brown or more brown.) I wouldn’t be too impressed with that selection either. So when R asked me for an Elsa dress of his own this year, we only had to pause for a moment before we added it to his make believe collection.

And then we got the following invitation from school.

“As a class treat, the Reception children have voted for a dressing up party on Friday.  Could you please send in a dressing up outfit for your child.”

And he cocked his head to one side and asked quietly, “I can’t take Elsa… can I?” 

Oh.

Anyone who knows me knows that I take real exception to gendered toys of any kind. Play is play. Make believe is make believe. And if a girl can be a fireman without a raised eyebrow in sight, my son can be the prettiest, sparkliest princess in the room. You better believe I have all the pithiest, wittiest, scathingest replies necessary if you dare to tell me that my son can’t skip around your garden in your daughters Sleeping Beauty outfit.

But at school? Without me there to give him a reassuring nod and smile when the classroom assistant automatically smiles in surprise on instinct as he walks in? What if he doesn’t remember to say “there’s no such thing as boys toys and girls toys” in response to one of his peers saying “that’s for girls”? What if a child in his class says “You’re not a princess” and he’s too embarassed to remember to say “I know- and you’re not Spiderman either”?
And worst of all, what if he doesn’t realise what he’s asking?
At home, or out with me or C, he feels completely safe to express himself in any way he chooses. If he was ten or eleven years old and he wanted to wear a dress to school in play (or even not in play) then it may take some getting used to, but I wouldn’t be worried about being supportive. If my teen goes to school in sparkles and high heels, he knows what he’s letting himself in for, and has all the information in his arsenal to make that choice for himself. But at five, does he really know what he’s asking? As an introduction to ‘kids can be mean’, letting him walk in front of the firing squad without a warning, and risking him feeling embarrassed and unprepared….

Dear reader, I agonised.

I asked my husband, I asked my best friends, I asked his teachers and then I asked my  best friends again. And while I got a wealth of opinions when I broached the question, nearly everyone pursed their lips and and looked just as agonised as I felt. How I wish someone had been confused and asked me what I was worried about. But that’s not the world we live in, not yet anyway.
As a proud feminist I wanted to be able to say “Of course you can be Elsa!” As a proud parent I wanted to be able to say “You wear whatever makes you happy”. The reasons why I ultimately steered him away from that choice, out of fear that well-intentioned people would be mean, or that he would lose some trust in me if he ended up in tears, don’t make me feel proud to be either.

I did realise one important thing though. R doesn’t care about the world we live in. He isn’t looking to make a stand for gender equality, he isn’t trying to push boundaries. The kid just wants to wear a sparkly dress. He doesn’t need to face even the risk of a ruined day because his parents believe in giving him the gift of being anything he wants. He has plenty of time to be anything he wants, and if we can give him another year or two before he learns that kids (and indeed grown ups) can be mean, well thats a special gift too.

My little Gingerbread Man came out of school that day full of stories and excitement, the grin on his face the only thing more edible than the candy buttons on his outfit. And while the little voice inside me wonders if I made the right choice, it’s overwhemingly silenced by the feeling that my Elsa wouldn’t have come out anywhere near as happy. Can you tell me that I’m wrong?

feminist parent.jpg

 

 

Wobbly Wednesday 2015

My eyes never stop moving.

That’s not a clever way of saying I spot everything (quite the opposite actually) or that I’m constantly busy (ditto), it’s just a statement of fact. it sounds like a small thing, eyes which jerk or swing from side to side, the way mine and my R have done since we began to see, but as a member of the Nystagmus Network, named after the condition we both have, I see so many questions daily, so many confused parents and worried adults, people who have to work just as hard as their eyes do to get on with a normal day, that when Wobbly Wednesday (a day to spread awareness for Nystagmus) rolls around, I can’t help but jump on the bandwagon.

Spreading awareness is a funny thing. Especially in a blog form. While my closest friends probably know more about Nystagmus than the average person who has the condition themselves, I can ply them with lattes and croissants, and distract them with questions about themselves interjected into an otherwise self-centred conversation about my life and my child and my fears, y’know, to make them think the conversation is two sided.

I can’t do that anywhere near as effectively on a blog. I probably have only about 3 more minutes of your attention span before you realise the jokes are drying up and click through to something about Kanye West. So I’ll try for a top 3.

Top 3 things I wish you knew about Nystagmus

  1. My glasses don’t mean I can see as well as you, any more than a walking stick turns an arthritic into a cross country athlete. I wear glasses, and so does my son. They support us, help the development of the eyes, and in my case-improve my vision where short-sightedness is involved. But Nystagmus means our vision is poor, with or without our specs. In R’s case, it means he is registered partially sighted. No amount of “lens 1, or 2? better with? or without?” will make a difference to that.
  2. We’re so tired. The simplest way of explaining it is that our brains have to work a lot harder to produce a still image for us to understand what’s going on around us. It’s an extra step in processing information, in seeing what someone is showing us, in reading a book, in playing a game. New settings are particularly difficult. It can be frustrating (especially if you’re five), it’s always exhausting, and often when I’ve been to a new place for the day, my eyes physically hurt by about 4pm.
  3. I just can’t see that. Whatever it is that you’re pointing to on your computer screen, yes even if it’s font 18. The faces of the people on stage, yes even from the front row. That sign out of the car window, yes even if you slow down. The detail in that drawing, yes even if I hold it closer to my face. Your face in the sunlight, yes even when it isn’t hot ouside. Who you are when you drive past me in the street, yes even if you beep and wave.

Next week, my R is having an eye surgery to help with some of the symptoms of his Nystagmus, in particular his head tilt, (adorable though it may be.) We are nervous about the operation as any parents would be, but we are also indebted to the UK Nystagmus Network and the Barnet VI team for being not only a font of knowledge, but also a community of kind listeners and intelligent answers and support. There is no cure for Nystagmus, but people like the ones we’ve come across not only never stop tirelessly looking for answers, but also help us get on with our daily lives so effectively that we have to suffer through people insisting there’s nothing wrong with us in the first place. A great testament to their hard work.

Lastly, I don’t run marathons, I don’t do sponsored mountain climbs, but I do write things down.

If you enjoy my writing, if you’re one of the people who stops me in the street and says “Hey, you haven’t blogged in ages”, please consider texting WWNN15 followed by any amount at all to 70070 to donate to Nystagmus Network.

Wobbly Wednesday

The Formula for a Happy Baby

I took a bus ride today with my daughter. She is 11 weeks old. About five minutes into the bus journey a woman sat down adjacent to my seat, and smiled at my baby girl. “What a pretty baby” she commented. “She looks so happy and healthy.” I thanked her, and smiled in return, and then checked the time so that as all mothers of new babies do, I could begin the arithmetic we all spend the first few months working out. How many hours since the last feed, how long the most recent nap was, when you want the baby to settle later than night, and all the other futile calculations that our newborns ignore and do whatever they fancy regardless of.
I mentally calculated that it made sense to offer her some milk, and I put her back in the buggy and reached for my nappy bag. I took out a muslin and placed it over my shoulder. I unscrewed a bottle of sterile water, and reached for my nifty formula holder thingie which allows me to measure out an exact feed and take it with me for the day. I mixed the powder into the water, gave it a shake, and reached for my little girl.

“Oh,” the woman commented with a sad shake of her head. “What a shame to give something so processed and fake to her when she’s so tiny and innocent.”

Now don’t get me wrong here. I have a lot of opinions on breastfeeding, and nearly all of them are wholeheartedly pro. I believe Breast is Best. I believe that it’s a huge failure of the media and an important feminist issue that so many teenagers and even adults believe that breasts are solely for sex rather than feeding our children, I even agree with the ban on discounting formula and I have no bad feelings towards the many NHS hospitals who do not provide it on the post-labour wards.

I do not however, believe that it has magical properties which raise my children’s IQ, or stop them from becoming obese. I don’t think my breast milk will imbue them with a great work ethic or even protect them from allergies and intolerances. Most of all, while I believe that it is an amazing start for your baby if you can do it, I don’t believe it’s the right choice for everyone. And dear stranger, until my offspring is looking far less than ‘happy and healthy’ than you yourself just noted, I certainly don’t believe it is any of your damn business what choice I make and why.

I won’t bore you with my own journey, as we all have different reasons for how we choose to feed our children, and as I recently said about career choices, we only have our own families to answer to. I do however have something to say to the woman on the bus, and anyone else who thinks I or they should be ashamed of the processed nature of the food we give our ‘innocent’ children.

You aint’ seen nothing yet.

If you’re looking for something for me to be ashamed of, come round at 3am, when I tell my baby to shut the hell up when she’s been awake for 3 hours straight for no apparent reason, and then stay to hear my 4 year old repeat it to his Thomas the Tank Engine the following day. Pop by at 5am when I forcibly drag him back into his bedroom and threaten to take away everything he owns if he doesn’t leave me alone until 7. Watch me take lazy mornings off from being the mummy of a new baby to chat to old friends and continually replace the dummy in my daughters mouth rather than interact. Peek through my living room window on the days where I just simply cant be bothered to entertain my son and he has about 4 hours of unadulterated iPad time on the sofa, or when I look at my watch, notice that I’ve missed supper time, swear loudly and announce “Cereal for dinner!” to his great joy.

I could keep going, because like all parents, I have tons that I could label a ‘shame.’ Enough to keep me up at night if I suddenly decide I’m looking to self-flagellate. But reaching for the formula container by choice or by necessity, ensuring that my child is gaining weight, is well fed and happy, simply isn’t on the list.

'Does it come in soy lite?'

Is it any of your Business, if it’s Working for me?

I turned on my computer this morning to find links to four separate articles about working versus non working mums on my Facebook newsfeed.

I have no issue with people discussing the topic, after all, it’s a difficult and often heart-wrenching choice for anyone to make, and deserves discussion. This is especially true today, where the costs of childcare often make the financial side of having a career almost irrelevant, and yet the costs of living are so high that every penny counts. This dynamic forces women back into the workforce where they might otherwise choose to stay home, all for the couple of hundred pounds difference between the salary they receive from their employer, and the cheque they hand over to their childcare provider each month.
We also live in a time where taking five or ten years ‘out’ to have kids, often results in the way back ‘in’ being an impossibility. All very well while the kids are at home, but most of us are hoping for another thirty or forty years of more than waiting by the school gates once they’re out of nappies. Feminism is in the spotlight more than ever, and the debate is still raging whether your parenting choices reflect your opinions on equality of the sexes.

Yes, there’s a lot to say on the topic. If you fancy, we can go out for coffee and I can tell you my own story of how I came to work part time. The bits I like, the bits I don’t like so much. The guilt I feel when I ignore my 9 week old for an urgent deadline, the happiness I share with my 4 year old who I am lucky enough to pick up from school every day.

Oh no, sorry. I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to the organisations and media outlets who want to get up close and personal with me. Who know what’s best for me, my husband, and our children more than I do. The newspapers who have clearly had a quick look at our yearly income and budget and know how much we need to get by. The university lecturers who eavesdrop on me and the hubby in bed at night when we discuss our work/life balance. The research bodies who know how good I am at my job, and how much my kids like or dislike their childminder, who understand without even asking what my plans for the rest of my life are, the personalities of my children, the aspirations of my other half. I am just so glad that they feel like they know me well enough to give me their opinions as scientific fact as to how I live my life.

I’m talking to Harvard University, who for some reason are putting manpower and funding into research that tells us that “the daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those raised by stay-at-home mothers.” Well, I’m somewhere in between on the working scale, so my daughter isn’t completely screwed up then, but I’ll be sure to tell all the strong, unselfish women I know who have made the hard choice to stay at home with their kids that their offspring will be minimum wage women in abusive relationships. Cheers Harvard.

I’m talking to the National Childrens Bureau, who have asked “whether ‘outsourcing’ motherhood is the best way to create a healthy society”. Give me a minute while I call all the fantastic women I am proud to know who work both in and out the home, whether it’s to make ends meet, or to be excellent role models for their kids, or simply because they are bloody great at their jobs, and let them know they are contributing to the loss of functional society as we know it.

I was referring to the EU council, who have thrown their two cents in, calling the “number of mothers working part time… a social challenge.” May I just take this moment to apologise to the whole of Europe, for the gall I’ve had to dare to find some work/life balance in our household. I can’t believe I ever thought I had the right to do a job I enjoy, at the same time as attempting being a hands-on parent.

That’s just three examples, all from the month of June, outlawing working mums, stay at home mums, and part time working mums. In one calendar month. Can you just stop to think for one second what an article that suggested that men were “outsourcing fatherhood” would be like? What the reception would be to the suggestion that the sons of stay at home dads are going to be incapable of forming well adjusted relationships or holding down jobs?

I have hardly met a mum in my life who doesn’t carry around some level of guilt for the choices she makes in terms of her career and kids. The ridiculous thing is, it’s clearly a completely personal decision, based on your finances, your family planning, your own goals, or simply how much you enjoy both your job and being with your kids all day!  And yet so many incredible women carry regret or uncertainty, fuelled by the ridiculous media attention and the questions they force on us collectively every time we switch on the computer or open a paper. “Should you wait to have kids? Do you work too much? Is there ever a right time to go back to work? Should you give in to social pressure to find a job?” The list goes on, when the only question any woman needs to ask herself is, “Is this the right choice for my family?”

We’re there already media, we’re judging ourselves right left and centre. We really don’t need your help.

Wobbly Wednesday (or ‘What I Saw Wednesday’)

By far the most common question I get asked when I mention that my son R has a visual impairment, is “How much can he see?” Although it’s an innocent question which seems simple enough, there is no clear answer for a child (or an adult for that matter) with Nystagmus, the condition my son and I were both born with, which causes an involuntary eye movement. While sight will vary from person to person, the far more interesting fact about Nystagmus is that it also varies depending on situation, stress levels, schema and mood. As part of Wobbly Wednesday, I thought I’d write a little about our own ‘out of the box’ visual experiences with R, many of which were just as much a surprise to us at the time, even with my own experience with Nystagmus, and bringing up a VI child.

So here we go.

Five times my son could see less than expected. (Yes, even with his glasses on!)

1. As a baby, it was nearly impossible to tell whether R could see in any given situation, but once in a while it was extremely evident what he couldnt see. One day at a lunch with friends, one of the guests was speaking, and I noticed R crawling towards the radiator, which I knew was on, and hot. Not wanting to be rude and leave the table, I uncovered an extremely sparkly charm bracelet I was wearing, and dangled my hand down by my chair legs, at his eye level, moving my wrist so that the sunlight and faux gems could attract his attention and move him away from the heater. I was less than a metre away from him.
R, around 14 months old was sitting up, facing in my direction, but however fiercely I moved my arm, he had absolutely no idea anything was happening. Not knowing I was wearing a bracelet, or that I wanted his attention, with no auditory cues, I may as well have been doing nothing at all. I realised how important my verbal cues had been to him up until that point.

2. I am told all the time what a surprise it is to find out that my son has a VI. He runs, jumps and plays like any other 4 year old boy. Thankfully, he has no fear. But once in a while, this can backfire. On holiday last year, he was almost 3, and we were visiting Hershey’s Chocolate Factory in Philadelphia. The room was large, and it sloped downwards on a walkway and then turned to the right. I told R he could run ahead, and warned him that the floor wasn’t flat, an issue of depth perception that we take for granted, but a person with Nystagmus would find it hard to notice. He took a couple of cautious steps, got a feel for the gradient, and ran down the slope to the end. Before we knew it, he was lying flat on the floor, after running into the metal handrail at the end of the room. it being parallel with the wall, he had not noticed that it wasn’t flush with the wall, another issue of depth perception, and had underestimated how much space he had to go before he needed to turn right. This kind of situation, where he feels like his eyes misled him, can be extremely distressing for a child with Nystagmus, and can cause temporary fear. Completely of his own accord, for the rest of the day in this unfamiliar place, he walked alongside us and did not run ahead.

3. We all know the slightly unnerving feeling of coming across someone in a mask or full costume and not knowing who it is, relying on their voice to give them away. A visual impairment makes this so much more complicated. The Jewish holiday of Purim, (think Halloween for a good VI comparison) means that many familiar faces are suddenly covered. While this is obviously difficult, what you may not expect is how much as small a change as a funny hat or glasses, or a design drawn in face paint can confuse someone who is partially sighted. Last year, R joined in with his friends in dressing up, and was unable to recognise people he saw every day and knew well, because of such simple additions to their attire as a sparkly hat. Friends of mine who knew his condition cottoned on quickly, stooping down to his level and announcing their name when they said hello, (a sensible thing to do with R even in a usual situation) but many people rushed past waving at him, or just said hi breezily, forgetting what a struggle it was for him to recognise them now that they had pink hair, or a huge red nose. By the end of the day, he was more exhausted than I’ve ever seen him, and he slept for close to 15 hours that night.

4. It’s okay, he can sit right at the front.  Another reassurance I get a lot from friends and family. But sitting close up does not help in every situation. (Although it is obviously better than sitting far away!) One good example is the first time we took R to a child’s birthday party, once the kids started graduating from tea and cake and onto entertainers. I sat R directly under the nose of the entertainer, and sat next to him so I could point out anything he might miss. For an adult, the misdirection and horseplay is obvious and predictable, but we forget that our children are seeing all of this for the first time. When the entertainer held his wand behind his back while it flip flopped all over the place, complaining bitterly that he couldn’t find his wand ANYWHERE, looking out into the crowd of children laughing and pointing behind him, my R looked at me blankly. All he could do was follow the entertainers eyes and instructions, which were telling him nothing about what he should be focusing on. The children’s raucous laughter only made him feel left out, which to be honest-he was. Quick tricks with lightning fast fingers meant nothing to him, and fiddly characters looking out of windows and hiding back down again, met with cheers and whoops from happy kids, but confusion and stress from my own. After 5 minutes, he started misbehaving, and after 10, I took him out of the room. His speech delayed, I was moved to tears when he turned to me and said clearly, “I just couldn’t see that.” Nowadays, friends may be offended when I show up late to those kind of parties, bringing him for birthday cake and music rather than the sit down and watch portion of events. But it’s not something which can be solved by him sitting at the front, or another common answer, getting him stronger glasses.

5. Another common struggle is when something isn’t where it’s ‘meant’ to be. R, like I’m sure all VI kids, likes to make his visual field easier to navigate. That means that every single thing has a place. If it isn’t where he left it, even if it is 3 inches to the right, it may as well be in Siberia. As a toddler, he would wait for all the other kids to finish playing with a particular activity at nursery, so that he could put it all away and put it back in it’s right place, for fear of not finding it later. He will talk to me sitting on a particular chair, run off to play, and then run right back to the same chair to show me something else, stopping suddenly about half a metre away from it, because it takes him that long to realise I’m not there any more. If someone appears out of context, where he doesn’t expect them to be, he will not name them until they name themselves. If a person is where they ‘should be’ however, where he expects you to be, he might be able to wave at you from across the room, or maybe even respond if you motion him to come here without words. That doesn’t mean he’s being naughty the next time he ‘ignores’ you, it just means you caught him knowing what was expected of him or in a situation which he found visually easier. Maybe it was a familiar place, maybe he already walked past you and took note of where you are or what you were wearing, maybe he simply slept better the night before and it’s helping his sight today.

There is clearly no easy answer to “How much can he see?” but I don’t mind you asking. I know that it’s a complicated response, and I appreciate anyone who tries to understand it. The only comments I don’t know how to respond to are “Oh wow, he saw that Aeroplane!”  or “I’m sure he recognised me from across the playground!”  because yes, sometimes it may seem like I’m making a fuss about nothing, or that his vision is as good as any other kid in specs that you’ve met before. And some days it is. Which is why most of the time I love how no one has to treat him any differently from his peers. And I’m so proud to know that you can be happy for all that he can see and achieve. But if you happen to come across him on a day where he needs that bit of extra help, I’d really appreciate you knowing how to do that too.

Wobbly Wednesday is today! It is a day of fundraising for better understanding, support and research of Nystagmus and it’s sufferers.
To help, you can Text WWNN14 £ and the amount you want to donate to 70070 or visit https://www.justgiving.com/nystagmusnetwork/donate

The Lying Game

A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)

The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.

And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleep on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.

But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.

Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.

But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.

I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”

I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.

For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?

The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.

That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.

tooth fairy

Overworked and Underpaid

We writers have a special ailment all to ourselves. Arriving without warning, with no hint to how long it’s going to hang around, and no hard and fast cure (although many old wives tales to try while we suffer) this is known as Writer’s Block. It attacks our inspiration, it stifles our muse, and leaves us with ineffectual fingers hovering uselessly over a keyboard, or nibbling absent-mindedly on the end of our pencils.

Once in a while though, something magical happens and an event occurs which causes the complete opposite of Writer’s Block. Writer’s UN-block if you will. It generally happens like this. You see something which is so obvious, that the words pretty much write themselves. A gift from the universe, an article fully formed in visual form in your minds eye, before you’ve even opened your laptop.

That happened to me this week, at a place which is well known for its inspiration to me, Soft Play.

But truthfully, once I got home, I realised that this is one of those cases where a picture really does speak a thousand words. And all I really needed was a title. So here we go. I had many runners up, but I find the beauty of my choice is that it can be read as entirely sincere, or as totally sarcastic and judgemental. I’ll leave you to decide which way I meant it. Enjoy, and you’re welcome.

Who says Dads nowadays don’t do their fair share? 

This looks like a totally unobtrusive place for a quick 40 winks..  I'm sure the 4 year old will watch the 1 year old... Zzzzz...

This looks like a totally unobtrusive place for a quick 40 winks.. I’m sure the 4 year old will watch the 1 year old… Zzzzz…

Eight Years On

I grew up with a father who loved me more than any single thing in his life. He put me first, he loved me fiercely, and he would have done anything in the world for me. Eight years ago this week he died, and as most of you who read my blog know, it is a loss which I carry with me daily. It hits me unexpectedly, it catches me unawares, and yet sometimes it also arrives with a punctuality I almost admire; on birthdays, on anniversaries, at moments when I know he would do anything to be there. It’s a dart through my heart and yet I feel it in my throat. choking me, blurring my voice with tears until all I have are my fingers to write, or the very emotion of it will drown me entirely.

Like I said, none of this is news to those of you who read my blog. And tonight is a dark night with my grief. But he brought so much light into my life, so much kindness and joy, and that should be remembered as well. So this year, I’m going to try to push aside the crushing weight of the loneliness, and blink through the stinging ferocity of my tears, to tell you eight things about my daddy, eight little pieces of light which I’m remembering this week, on the eighth anniversary of his death.

1. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, so I have no memories of them under the same roof. My main memories of my dad as a child are ‘weekend’ memories. Walking the journey from my house to his together on a Saturday morning, playing the number plate game and 20 questions. Being tucked in a bed that was never quite ‘my bed’ and playing silly games like a version of hide and seek where we hit each other over the head with a long green polystyrene tube when we found one another. As I got older, he played board games and card games with me tirelessly, and it’s only now when I think about how exhausting it is playing with my own son, that I think about how he never suggested he needed a rest.

2. As I got older, and craved more independence, he used lifts as a way to spend time with me. In high school, he offered to drive from Hendon to Mill Hill to pick me up every afternoon after school, driving me to Wembley and then himself back to Hendon. It must have been a nearly two hour round trip, to spend 15 minutes hearing about my day. What naivety I had, the days I turned him down so that boyfriends I barely remember could pick me up, or so as not to miss out on the bus gossip. I must have thought that time would be endless for us.

3. The year before he died, I was 18, and we talked more deeply than we had the whole of my life. He told me the reasons why he made aliyah to Israel, and how frightened the decision made him at the time. How happy he was there, how much he felt like he belonged. How he carried around in his wallet a dollar from the first pay cheque he made in Israel, a dollar I still have to this day. He gave me Zionism as a gift, packaged up with happy stories as wrapping paper and fierce belief as a ribbon around it, and told me how important it was that we had a homeland. He taught me with his actions that even though he had been forced to return to England, we should never stop striving to be there.

4. He told ‘Dad jokes’ more often than anyone I’ve ever known. Tell him something was cool? The reply was inevitably ‘has it been in the fridge?’ He would ask what my hairstyle was called, only to hear me say ” a bun” so he could reply it looked “more like a doughnut.” If I made similarly terrible puns in response, his answer would be an expression I to this day have never heard anyone else use, the weird sounding, archaic, yet grammatically correct, “very comedical”.

5. His best friend was my mother. Despite the divorce, despite a fierce custody battle, and years of ups and downs, the very last day of his life he spent on an outing with my mum. They were closer than many married couples, and I put much of my own happy marriage down to the kindness of only a handful of unhappy memories of the two of them together. There were times they understood each other better than anyone in the world, and times where they were making the effort just for me, but I never once in my life felt put in the middle by him.

6. He had magic. Instead of a toy kitchen or a workbench, we had a puppet show and hundreds of card tricks. He made up songs and remembered the nonsensical lyrics long after he remembered why we made them up to begin with. He used to write me birthday cards from all the stuffed animals I had. Not just when I was little, I still have the one for my 19th birthday, four days before he died, signed by Tom Teddy and Herbert the Hedgehog.

7. My son R reminds me so much of my dad. Whether it’s his bright blue eyes, so different from our green ones, his kindness and interest in animals, when we have little interest, or the uncanny way in which R reaches straight for a map when we arrive somewhere and peruses it throughout the afternoon, with the exact same studious expression that my father did.

8. I tell him about his Zeida in little snippets, how he sneezed so loudly that strangers often screamed, how he gave me my first bike and ran alongside me while I practiced, how he made me spaghetti every Tuesday evening, and let me have as much ketchup as I wanted on top.

I tell him how much his Zeida loved me, and how much he would have loved him too-had he been given the chance. And then I tell R not to worry, that I have enough love to give him for the both of us.

Keep Listening

I recently wrote an article about how difficult and frightening it can be as a parent of a child with a special need, when it comes to approaching your child’s teacher. I discussed the fears and the expectations we all try to balance daily, and the fierce ‘mama bear’ instinct that can be so hard to suppress when we are advocating for our children.

This instinct doesn’t only rear it’s head when we are facing a particularly difficult or frustrating situation, It is there all the time, and probably exists outside of the special needs world as well. It’s an overwhelming urge to do the most you can for your child; a surety that our children give so much just to get through what would be second nature to their peers, that they deserve to have equal opportunities, and sometimes perhaps more than the children around them. Like any parent, we want our kids to have everything. But they sometimes need that bit more help.

Once in a while, we meet a person or a teacher who goes above and beyond. Who waits outside the building to meet you in the morning, because the room looks different today and they know your son doesn’t like change. A friend who brings an extra copy of the story book to rhyme time so that your child doesn’t have to simply sit and listen to words which refer to pictures he can’t see. A teacher who takes the paperwork for his statement home to make sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted before an important deadline. Who never forgets to crouch down to his level to say good morning, so that he can see their facial expression clearly and know who is speaking to him. Someone in your life who phones you before booking their own child’s birthday party to see if it’s accessible for yours. A visual impairment specialist who somehow knows exactly how to bring your child out of themselves, help them learn confidence and social skills and pride in their own abilities. Who not only encourages your child to be the best they can, but encourages you to give them the freedom they need and simultaneously find confidence in your own parenting.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that my writing is broader than any specific person or place. I am overwhelmed by the response I have received for my special needs article, from parents in countries around the globe, whose children vary from toddlers to teens, all of whom have sadly experienced the emotions I wrote about. I am so glad that my words resonated with all of you, and I truly hope you’ll forgive my foray into the personal just this once, and that the following speaks to you too.

Because once in a while, as the parents of a special needs child, you have experiences that make you forget why it is ever difficult. This week, my 3 year old walked out of nursery with a ‘welcome to big school’ folder, with all the same photos and drawings as his peers. The only difference was that unbeknownst to me, his folder had been made 3 times the size of anyone else’s. My heart burst with joy as he easily showed me who he will be taking with to big school, and explained to me what every page in the folder meant. And the ‘mama bear’ inside me was proudly redundant.

This week, as my son says goodbye to his nursery, I am sad. He entered the building barely two years old, with no language, little confidence, and zero understanding of his own limitations. Among so many other incredible leaps, he can now clearly tell me when he cant see something, is strong enough to ask for help, and yet somehow still has no idea that there is anything in this world which he cannot do. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

Being the parent of a child with additional needs is often hard, and there is no setting or person in the world who will know your son or daughter and what they need as well as you do. I can only hope I continue to find people in our life who go above and beyond to ensure he is always as happy and secure as I saw him this week.

Do as I say, not as I do?

I saw a post on a forum recently that made me think. The lady in question was asking for advice on making friends. She is a stay at home mum, and lonely. The friends she does make, she feels like it is only ever her who is making the effort, and they disappear if she stops doing so. She joked, in the way we all do when something is too painful to address head on- that when is she unwell or out of action, the only people to notice are her parents.

We tell our kids to be nice to everyone. We chastise them for leaving someone out in the playground or for excluding one of their peers from a birthday party list or a play date. And when they come home and say that little Jane Smith is not their friend, or remark that they don’t want to play with Billy Jenkins, we are full of ready encouragement to build bridges.

“I’m sure she is lovely when you get to know her”

“It’s not nice to call someone boring. Maybe they were just shy”

“Give him a chance, I’m sure you have lots in common.”

If our children become openly rude, or ignore us, we often resort to threats.

“If you aren’t nice to people, they won’t want to play with you.”

“Remember, you won’t get invited to Sally’s birthday if you don’t invite her to yours. And her mummy says she’s having a Frozen theme…”

But at what point do we change the rules? As adults we readily accept we can’t be friends with everyone. We hoard our free time zealously and portion it out to the creme de la creme of our social circle, the people who make us feel fabulous, who bring out the fun in our lives, the ones who really understand, those who are in sync with what makes us, us.

We might not be as blatant as the average four year old, but don’t we all have our ways of saying ‘you can’t play with us’?

It wasn’t a big deal, I just had a few people over.

Oh, I didn’t see you or of course I would have invited you to join us!

I didn’t know you would be interested in coming with, definitely next time, remind me.

Some of us are nicer than others. We make the small talk, we invite those along who would obviously feel left out or hurt. But at the end of the day, life is busy. We all have kids and jobs and homes and responsibilities, and our time is never our own. We all repeatedly choose one thing or person over another, even down to as simple a choice as whether to call back a friend, or use that precious time for 5 minutes peace and a cup of tea.

I don’t have a judgement to make. Although I have been a victim of it from time to time, generally I’m probably one of the worst culprits of this cliquey behaviour. I make snap judgements about people, I hate it when friends invite a third person along on an outing, regardless of how nice they might or might not be, I just don’t really want new people in my life most of the time. I have zero patience for those that for completely arbitrary reasons get on my nerves, and probably the worst of the list, I don’t dislike any of this about myself. I have no desire to be a nicer person or to be the one who goes out of their way to make the new girl feel welcome.

I just wonder what I will say when I have a 4 or a 5 year old. When R starts deciding he has an opinion on his birthday guest list. Can I in good conscience tell him he has to play nicely with everyone, when I don’t follow my own rules? And why bother anyway, when it’s only a matter of time before he learns the euphemistic language necessary to tell people to go away in a socially acceptable manner.

In fact, maybe I should just teach him that instead.

It’s almost worth it for the day I receive that call from his teacher.

“Mrs Sokolic, your son has told one of the other children that ‘Usually I’d be happy to include you, but we’ve had this game of hide and seek organised for a while now, and I wasn’t the one to set it up…. so….'”

poplar trees