Today I Do…

Facebook reminded me this evening of the post I wrote last year, on International Women’s day 2016. It was called One Day I Will… and it was about how I look to my daughter when I can’t find the strength in the usual role models many women have.

Michael J Fox has said that Family is not an important thing, it is everything. This year, it often feels like the whole structure of my family as I once knew it has been ripped apart at the seams. And so if family is everything, it’s easy to slip into feeling like I have nothing.

I have seen so many brave and interesting posts today from friends and strangers alike about International Women’s Day. The worst of them were questioning the need for the day in the first place, as if they were somehow put out by it’s very existence, and couldn’t just get on with their Wednesdays. The best of them were supportive, proud, strong, and full of support. And it got me thinking. Aren’t those the very best descriptions of family you could imagine?

Unfortunately and painfully, this year, one woman in my life has turned against me for standing by another. The former is blood, and the latter is one of the strongest, most supportive women I could wish to have in my world, and is every part the family I would choose, and have chosen.

I agree with Michael J Fox. Family is everything. But just as so many incredible women have shown me, it isn’t just the family you’re born with. I have a family with whom I share no kin whatsoever, made up of playdates and favours, of shouting each other coffees and coming round with surprise gifts just because. It’s packed to the brim with jumping on a plane, or listening to each other cry, it’s laughing so hard you can’t breathe, it’s sending memes at all hours of the day and night. It’s made up of love.

A working mother’s Facebook group that I’m on has a tradition called ‘bragging Wednesdays.’ The entire point is that women can share their achievements, and be encouraged and applauded by other women. They range from starting your own business or making multi-million dollar deals, to getting the kids to school on time, or carving out some space for yourself in the busy never ending to do list of life. It’s supportive, it’s lovely, and it’s powerful.

There will always be negativity, and trolls, and people who think that you’re doing the wrong thing, failing to see just how much anxiety we all have about our decisions already, without their input.

Me? I surround myself with the family I choose, the ones who have proven themselves deserving of that word. You brilliant amazing women you, you all know who you are. Happy International Women’s Day, and I love you.

 

 

Don’t Fence Me In

“Everytime I see that daughter of yours, I’m reminded of the amazing playpen I used for my three kids.” 

My son has always had a really long concentration span. He started moving at about 14 months, and by that time he could sit and listen to a whole pile of books, or enjoy a shape sorter or a push button toy for 15 minutes at a time. He didn’t get easily distracted, and if you put him somewhere, he generally stayed there.

My daughter is now nearly 2, and if I tell you that a tornado would be a more friendly house guest, you might get some idea of the havoc she can cause. Shelves are for climbing, toys are for throwing, electronics are for biting. She can also sense a cupboard being opened from the other side of the house with the help of her spidey senses.

I’m not here to debate the merits of playpens. For some, they might be lifesavers. If you have more than one small child at home at a time. If you have work you need to be able to focus on at a moments notice. If your home is a rental and you’re unable to babyproof the really dangerous parts like stairs or wires. If you’re that selfish kind of parent who likes to pee alone. (How very dare you.)

Some people will say they teach firm boundaries. Other people find that their kids are even wilder once they are on the other side of them. All I know is, I don’t have one. And personally, I don’t want one. They seem a little too cage like for me, and it’s never been something I needed. While I know our parents generation will often sing their praises from the rooftops, I think I’m a little too ‘generation babywearing’ to see the benefits.

Anyway, my work is flexible and I only have M at home most days.  (Plus, she keeps finding things that I’ve lost, which would never happen if she were restricted to just one area.)

But seriously though, your comment bugged me.

My daughter has an unquenchable curiosity for absolutely everything. Whatever it is, she wants to touch it, hold it, yank it into pieces, devour it whole. While you used to call R a ‘good boy’ for ‘sitting so nicely’, M’s personality somehow means she needs walls, boundaries, reins. It’s as if her insatiable appetite for learning about the world needs to be tempered and calmed.

There’s safety, of course there is, but then there’s also just diminishing her personality.

I want to give her as much freedom as I possibly can. I want to be able to say ‘Yes’ as often as possible. What parent doesn’t? When we’re out the house, in the land of roads and cars and other people’s best china, I sometimes feel like the only word I say is no. I spend what feels like every minute lifting her onto my hip and away from cigarette butts or the long distance calls she seems desperate to make from other humans landlines.

When we walk back into our home, I breathe a sigh of relief that I can say yes, or turn a blind eye. That she can be free to explore and play without those words ringing in her ears. Stop. No. Wait.

So there are eggshells and sometimes lego men in my meatballs because she ‘helped’ me make them. The DVDs are never on the DVD rack anymore, let alone in their original alphabetized categories.. There are tiny bite marks in most of the candles in the one non-babyproofed bathroom cupboard. I regularly find jewellery in the toilet. And I’m pretty sure I’ve lost about 4 sets of keys and a whole lot of perfectly fresh fruit to the kitchen bin.

And you’re right, none of this would have happened if I had your “amazing playpen”.

But honestly? That makes me want it even less.

children-playpen-play-playing-toddler-kid-wda0122_low.jpg

There are other truths, too.

I’ve had a hard few weeks. Unsurprisingly, for those who know me, marking 10 years since my father died wasn’t an easy milestone, and while the day itself was filled with silly fun with my 5 year old, the days which followed were like trudging through thick mud in boots two times bigger than your actual size. Difficult, slow, cumbersome, and with a constant fear of falling and exacerbating an already precarious situation into something much worse.

While I’ve written in the past about grief, I usually write from the middle of it, from the trenches of it, while the bombs are going off around me and I’m struggling to keep myself hidden from target. Ironically, I’ve come to realise that if I’m writing about it from within the walls, if you’re hearing my war reports, the danger isn’t too great.
In this case, no news is not good news. When I can’t hear myself think to write beyond the sounds of gunfire, when there’s nothing to write because the fog is too heavy? That’s when I’m going to need the artillery sent in behind me.

So here I am, out the other side, tilting my head with interest at the woman who looks so much like me, but couldn’t feel more different. And there must be something I can take out of this, by examining her. Or do I just have to sit and wait helplessly for it to take over again, and then wait for it to pass another time, in a cycle of highs and lows that I’ve come to accept is the very nature of grief itself?

Academically I can say I have been miserable. It sounds like a word for a small child, and I suppose in the loss of a parent it fits. Worse still, this year it’s triggered a realization for me that while I have built for myself an incredible family of people who love me, the ones who are supposed to be there unconditionally just… aren’t. I haven’t spoken to my mother in several months, my father is dead, my siblings are… absent. I don’t have extended family around who have taken me under their wing, I don’t have living grandparents or kindly uncles and aunts. It may seem like a strange concern for someone who is an adult and has their own kids and home. But if you’re game, take a moment to think about the people in your life who have to love you. The ones who may dislike you from time to time, who you could make it your life’s work to ruin your relationship with, but would still be family after all is said and done.

I don’t have that.

Last week, and the week before, it was the only thing I could think about, on the forefront of my mind. It pushed aside all other thoughts and plans. Tears came easy, and cold shivery hopelessness too. The truth of it was overwhelming. If this is true, that I have no family, no people who will be there no matter what… how will I ever feel better again?  I reasoned with myself, and I knew it to be true, that I would never feel free of this burden.

And then…. it lifted. Like our good old English summer, the sun re-appeared through a storm cloud like the rain had never existed in the first place, and I felt warm again. Does this mean that I was wrong? That what I thought to be true wasn’t true?
Absolutely not. I have no real family. Not the kind other people have anyway. But while last week that truth was dehibillitating, this week… *shrugs*.

That shrug isn’t self pitying or sarcastic. The tunnel vision which comes with misery and hopelessness has passed, and I can see other truths as well as that one. My amazing husband, my beautiful kids, the fact that the summer holidays are almost finished and I can soon work during daylight hours again. The truth that I work in the field I love and can be entirely flexible with it, my two best friends who I would choose over blood sisters any day of the week. I couldn’t see those truths last week, and yet the weight of them now crushes any depression over a lack of family down to a mere concern at the back of my mind, a shrug in the same way I might say ‘sure, it would be nice to have some more disposable income’ or ‘imagine how great life would be if school took over teeth brushing responsibilities.’

I feel lighter. And yet simultaneously for next time, I feel slightly better armed to go into battle too. This mantra is a weapon, of sorts. Whatever may or may not be true in my life, there are other truths too.

Letting It In, and Shutting It Out

I’m a natural talker. An open book you might say. As I recently read (and stole) from Lena Dunham “I have a tendency to overshare”. Sit down with me for five or ten minutes and you’ll probably know my kids names, my labour stories, my gynaecological issues and the latest argument I’ve had with my mother. Ply me with coffee and cake and I’ll probably give you my internet banking details and let you know where we hide the family diamonds too.

I love to talk. And in sheer yin yang synchronicity, I hate keeping stuff in. Feelings are made to be felt, or we would call them ignorings. (Sorry, I won’t do that again.) I don’t try to push them down, I never apologize for crying, (except at the dentist) and I do my best to never let a problem go unspoken about for too long.

Most of the time, this works out pretty well for me. I surround myself with people who love to talk as much as I do, and who love the amazing moment in a confrontation where you see where the other person is coming from, where you understand something you didnt realise before, and where you get a little closer to one another as a result of the conversation. Most of the time I find a little more of myself along the way too.

But some situations can’t be talked to the other side of.

About three years ago, I had an extremely hard summer. My late father would have turned 70 that June, and the roundness of the number among other things made me feel drowned in grief. Not drowning, not fighting for air, not using my last vestiges of energy to wave and shout and grab attention from someone who could save me, but drowned. Lost already, floating face down and unable to even want help let alone ask for it. I walked around on autopilot, struggling to breathe through the feelings which rose like ice cold water in my lungs and throat.

Eventually, after about 3 months, realising I was being neither wife, nor mother nor friend, nor myself, I called Someone. I am blessed to have 2 or 3 Someones, grown ups who I would still be a lost 15 year old without. But this particular Someone has dealt with their own share of tremendous grief from a young age, and built for themselves a life to be envious of despite it. This Someone is a talker too. An expert in communication, quite literally. They lecture about it, counsel others in how to manage it more effectively, champion talking as the vital ingredient to both a happy marriage and good relationships. I was sure they could help, and they did.

What was the secret I was looking for? How could I deal with the feelings of loss and anger and resentment and just sheer missing? How could I get out of bed every day with the weight of loneliness pressing down on my heart?

Don’t let yourself feel it

I think it was the only advice that could work for me at that point. When you feel it coming in, that great wave of sadness and feeling, just say… No thank you, and push it away.  Maybe it appears at first to you like the terrible advice given to everyone’s favourite Ice Queen. It certainly did to me. I felt like a failiure, like a fraud. What? Just ignore the problem completely? Push down the feelings? That’s just not me. But as time passed, I began to wonder.

Grief comes in some great costumes. Some of them are safe, and others are not. Grief can be nostalgic or funny, or it can appear as a memory you didn’t know you had which makes you smile. Often it’s tears and hugs with loved ones you still have on Earth. Once in a while it’s seeing a lost parents exact expression appear on your own child’s cheeky face. It can even be early nights and the promise of a better day tomorrow. And sometimes…sometimes it’s so overwhelmingly sad that you want to give everything else up just to not feel it any more.

Grief isn’t like other feelings. It changes. And when it’s bad and angry and violent, it can’t be talked through. No one can explain it to you. And there isn’t anyone to confront who can give you any reasons or explanations. There’s no one to feel closer to once you’ve got all your anger out, because there isn’t anyone to respond, and even if there was, there aren’t any answers to give. There’s so little to actually know, that you can’t help but feel further and further away the more you explore it. So opening yourself up to that feeling by swimming further out into those deep waters, is often a surefire way to lose yourself entirely.

This weekend my father would have turned 73, and this summer marks another round number, the 10 year anniversary of his death. This is not a time of nostalgic tears or sad smiles. These are not the calm water of memories which I’m dipping my toes into.  I can feel the violent waves swirling around my ankles, threatening my balance, sharp stings of ice cold salt spraying me from time to time, grapsing for my attention, a very real danger refusing to be ignored.

But this time I’m shouting. I’m waving and thrashing and using the little energy I can find to focus on being wife and mother and friend and myself. I’m fighting every instinct I have to talk and wallow myself deeper into the foam. I’m turning my back on my grief for now, pushing it away while it’s too dangerous to submit to. I’m walking back, towards the shore.

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.