Ordinary

‘I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends

nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.’

Wendell Berry

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots.  We walk by the river and up and down paths, over leaves and around trees.  The girls have found sticks which they have named Isla and Lauren and Logan.  They walk their ‘pets’, stopping regularly to let them ‘drink’ from puddles and mud.

It’s a great picture, isn’t it?

There’s a kind of family life I want to sign up for – one that involves muddy welly boots and sticks called Logan. Yet, when I am in the middle of it, I can’t see its goodness. 

There’s this feeling inside me about how children should spend their afternoons, and it doesn’t involve homework.  Yet, when we’re off following our gentler rhythms, it doesn’t seem good enough.

I am beginning to notice this subtle but damaging tendency I have to upgrade ordinary life, to polish it or measure it, to justify how we spend our days.

I talk, and write, about ordinary life, about every day, about celebrating small things.  I pay attention, I find beauty in overlooked places, I tell about it.

Yet.

Yet, I am also paying attention to how that ordinary beauty (that twisted, crazy-looking stick-dog called Logan, for example) does not feel so very beautiful at the time.  It’s a great story, later, a great picture of childhood.  But I didn’t feel like celebrating it in the moment – I felt cold, I felt bored.

I tell stories, other people take pictures.  We celebrate the ordinary.  I’m glad about that.  I want to see images of coastlines and back gardens, of cups of tea and blanket forts.  I want to see those things more than I want to see images of some glossy, magazine-style life.

Yet, I am also paying attention to this radar inside me that seems to be constantly scanning for a glossy kind of ordinary.

I think it’s related to this idea that ordinary life is something we sign up for, like we choose this type of life, over this one, and it leads to this outcome.  I choose welly boots and books and hearty meals and early bed times!  So I get the healthy, happy children on the front of the magazine, don’t I?  The ones with rosy cheeks, the little Boden-models.

“They’ll sleep well tonight”, we declare, after a long walk or a day outdoors.  There’s truth in that, but there’s danger too.  They might not.  It’s not an equation.

I make time for the park, largely because I have read articles about how much daily free play and outdoor play young children need, how they need a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences, how they need uneven, unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.  I try to make space for this kind of play even when I’m bored because I am convinced by articles that say it’s good for their motor-skills, for their resilience, for their mental health.

I find justification for my stance on homework from the articles that say there is no evidence that there is any academic benefit from assigning homework before high school.  I read about how the negative effects of homework are well known, and the irony that more is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.  I read about schools who ban homework and the parents who protest.

I can argue the benefits of ordinary activities – academic, physical and emotional benefits.  In those moments that don’t feel beautiful and don’t look idyllic, there is something worth doing.  But what I realised, this week, is that I don’t want all our ordinary days to be an argument for something, to be a ‘position’, to be a life I have signed my family up for.  I don’t want to be measuring our day by how well they sleep that night or by how much I think I have invested in their future intelligence or emotional health.  I don’t like these subtle equations in my head, this idea that our ordinary has to be special, has to lead to success.

A question forms in my mind, in the grey mizzle of a small Ballyclare park: What’s wrong with ordinary life? What’s wrong with providing them with ordinary days?

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots, bickering and snot, cold and bedraggled and ordinary.

 

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The Sisterhood of Crackpot Mothering

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A free spirit. A wonderer and wanderer. Quirky. Day-dreamy.

These are words I often use to describe my 5 year-old, and now that I think about it, they are words that are sometimes used to describe me.

She is often the easiest of company. If she can take the world on her own terms, all is well.

But I noticed, early on, that she struggles with anticipation. She gets nervous if there’s a build up, if there’s fuss about something. Half-way through an expression of excitement she has changed her mind and doesn’t want to do it. She feels under pressure sometimes, when there really isn’t any… a kind of performance anxiety even when nobody’s watching.

September was tricky. P1. She developed a clingyness she hadn’t had before. She was one of those children who needed prised off their mum, finger by finger. But still, September of P1, that’s understandable, right?

*

It’s June now and since the middle of May she has, once again, needed peeled off me every morning.

This morning her Principal bent down and carried her in to school in her arms. They are so gentle with her. So positive and kind. Yet here she is on 1st June freaking out about going through that door.

The school office phoned on my way home. She’s ok. She’s settled. The Principal’s wearing her sun hat. She’s laughing.

Of course she is. I know she is. She enjoys school. But, yet.

*

Her little sister got baptised on Sunday and when I get in from the school run there’s a text from my mum.  She has sent a few since Sunday – texts that are careful not to make a fuss of me but that are checking in if I’m ok – if I have ‘recovered’.  She knows me.  The baptism was good, important.  Among people who are gentle and positive and kind.  But my mum knows me.  I freak out, sometimes, even in safe places, even in the midst of things that I want.

We joke, now and again, about the little triangles of pancake my mum produced a steady supply of in the run-up to my wedding.  She was well practised by then in the low-key art of caring for a daughter who feels sick when she’s nervous.  She just plated them up and left them quietly at my elbow, bite-size pieces of sustenance that would get me through.

Last night at bedtime Livi said it out loud: “I’m nervous about P2”.  It’s what I suspected.  It seems so early, so pointless, to start worrying about it now.  And yet, I get it.

*

I have described to friends how I feel like my intuition is broken these days, like I used to “KNOW” how to work with Liv, and now I don’t.  But I read this recently:

Intuition is not independent of any reasoning process. In fact, psychologists believe that intuition is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process- like a mental puzzle. The brain makes an observation, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a “gut” on what we’ve observed.

Sometimes our intuition or our gut tells us what we need to know; other times it actually steers us toward fact-finding and reasoning. As it turns out, intuition may be the quiet voice within, but that voice is not limited to one message. Sometimes our intuition whispers, “Follow your instincts.” Other times it shouts, “You need to check this out, we don’t have enough information!”

In my research, I found that what silences our intuitive voice is our need for certainty. Most of us are not very good at not knowing. We like sure things and guarantees so much that we don’t pay attention to the outcomes of our brain’s matching process.

[Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection]

It’s a lovely idea that we might be wonderfully, naturally intuitive parents.  But it’s much more comforting to me that intuition is something I can go looking for, and remind myself of.

I have been doing that this week. I remind myself of my own nervous nature and how it hasn’t ruined my life.  I remember what it feels like to be cared for by an empathetic mother.  I read old favourite articles and books.  I take wise counsel.  I reawaken my instincts.

I started this blog post one evening and when I read it the following day the old gremlins were whispering – people will read it and think ‘Well of course Olivia has issues, her mother is a clearly a crackpot!’.  I told a few friends. They said: Me too.  Welcome to the Sisterhood.

*

My friend Tory told me a story this week about her son Noah at his nursery sports day. 60 kids walked out all completely fine, and in the middle of them, Noah, “walking along crying his little head off, upset and miserable.”  Everything in her story reminded me of Liv – how she could tell how difficult his first race was by the way he was running and the weird way he held his mouth.  Tory said so many wise things but among them this : “I hate that he cried at his sports day but I totally understand why he did.”

It’s not just going in to school that’s hard for Livi at the moment.  It’s been the Mayfair and her cousin’s play and swimming and church and choosing an ice-lolly.  I hate that she cries at these things she should love, but I understand why she does.

In my favourite parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne calls it a “soul fever” when a child is being rushed along by too much stuff, speed or stress.  “Something is not right; they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. And most of all, at odds with their truest selves.”  He advocates simplification – stripping away the distractions and clutter that monopolise our attention and threaten our connection.  “It’s about giving kids the ease to become themselves, and giving us the ease to pay attention.  To more fully develop, and to trust, our instincts.”

In an article I love about slowing down kids’ schedules, especially introverts, the author writes about how his 6-year-old son Felix “isn’t always cognizant of his needs”.  I have to deliberately remind myself of this.  Olivia isn’t cognizant of her needs.  She wants to do All The Things.  But all the things exhaust her, especially at the minute.

June is full of events and outings and changes in routine.  Each one seems like a good thing, but when Olivia anticipates what’s ahead, combined with finishing P1, it sends her running to the toilet.  So we have cancelled some outings, replaced them with things like ‘Chicken drumsticks for dinner’ and ‘Walking to the café for a bun’, and truthfully, even CBeebies on the sofa instead of ALL the time in the sun.  And she hasn’t complained like we thought she would, in fact she seems at peace with the schedule.  There is a certain kind of anticipation, is there not, in chicken drumsticks and a wee bun, that couldn’t make anyone nervous?

*

I have thought all week about Liv, about my mum, about my own anxious self.  Liv has wobbled and I have wobbled.  It’s Friday now and I feel like the quiet voice in my gut has got a bit clearer, and calmer.  She’s out of sorts.  That’s ok.  I can care for that.  And also, it isn’t everything she is.

We walk home from school on Friday afternoon and she sidesteps into the doorway of the old music shop to do this geeky dance to the music.

She always does that.

It’s one of my favourite things.


photo credit: Poison Ivy via photopin (license)