Monday, 14 September 2020

Out With a Fizzle

My youngest, my baby, started school today. And just like that, I have two schoolchildren. My days as a mum of a pre-school-age child are over.

This is not how I saw that stage of my life ending.

I'd had lots of plans for the last Spring and Summer with my little boy. I was going to start taking him swimming, go on little adventures with him, and generally enjoy our last weeks of just the two of us. Of course, none of that happened. It's a small thing compared to how coronavirus has impacted many other people - we're fortunate that we have all stayed healthy, as have the people we know and love. But I still can't help but feel a sense of injustice over the loss of the last of my one-on-one time with my son before I have to share him with school five days a week. We have had happy times as a family, yes, but balancing the very high and very different needs of my two children has been difficult, and I can't help but feel that Boy Child has been short-changed. 

Of course, he knows no different. He doesn't really understand what has happened over the last six months, and it probably hasn't occurred to him just how much mummy-son time he's missed out on. But I know. I know what I'd planned, I know that all his lasts before this big first have been taken away. The end of his pre-school life, and the end of our time together, feels like a big anti-climax. Even starting school feels strange as I know that his 'bubble' could get closed and there's no knowing if or when that will happen. How I'll explain that to him I don't know, but it adds a layer of instability to how we can approach the next few months. And milestones like his first harvest festival, his first nativity - well, they look very unlikely right now.

Then of course, there's the looming question of what's next for me. I've been a stay at home mum for almost nine years now, and the last six months was meant to be my time to come up with a plan. But, in the words of Phoebe Buffay, now I don't even have a pla. After such a long time where my life basically revolved around my kids, I was looking forward to carving out a new path. But there's so much uncertainty now. It definitely doesn't feel like a good time to be job hunting, when so many other people have lost jobs and businesses face a challenging future. So for now I feel like I'm entering a holding position, a limbo between having at least one child to keep me busy most of the time (or all the time over lockdown) and finding a role for the future. Even the volunteering roles I had before lockdown have shrunk or disappeared so I feel like I've stumbled into being a housewife, which is not a role I planned or wanted to have!

So in general, I feel like what should have been a big moment, for both my son and me, has turned into a damp squib. No big bang of a new start, just a fizzle of uncertainty.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Peer Support in a Pandemic

Today I did something I haven't done in months. I went to a breastfeeding peer support group. And it was lovely.

In normal times, I'm a volunteer breastfeeding peer supporter. I help to run a local peer support group, which before lockdown was welcoming around 12-18 mums per week. That might not seem huge, but for those women, it was a chance to get support with feeding problems, meet up with others in their situation and generally feel heard and accepted.

And then, the week before lockdown, we had to cancel all sessions indefinitely. I was gutted. How were all these women, and the new mums to come, going to get the support they need?

Peer support since then has been difficult. We set up Zoom sessions but numbers dwindled and providing support with problems over a video call is a big challenge. We have a Facebook group which mums can use to share concerns which has been great for the more commonplace issues as other mums are often very ready to share their experiences as reassurance, but it's hard to address more complex problems via keyboard. And the backdrop of all this was not knowing which services were still running and not being able to signpost to breastfeeding counsellors who would usually offer home visits but, for obvious reasons, are unable to now. As a peer supporter, I am trained in the basics of breastfeeding support but much of my role is signposting, so this has made things really difficult.

This week a report was released called 'Babies in Lockdown' which highlights the challenges new and expectant parents have experienced during lockdown. One of the issues highlighted was the lack of breastfeeding support. Some of the stories women told almost made me cry with frustration at what they've had to deal with. It's genuinely heartbreaking to see mums struggling and being unable to provide or refer to the support they need.

Today, to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, we tried out a peer support group in a park, with strictly limited numbers and social distancing measures. It felt very different to the usual meetings we have in a children's centre - I kept getting the urge to offer tea and biscuits (another big part of my role usually) and not being able to get a sneaky cuddle was rubbish. Now I'm done with baby making myself, the biggest perk of peer support is being able to nab other women's babies for a cuddle on a regular basis. But that aside, it was so lovely to be able to talk to mums about how they'd been doing, offer support and reassurance, and see them chatting to each other and getting the social support that these women have so lacked in lockdown. It reminded me why I love the role. 

I really hope that as we weather the ups and downs of the next few months - because it's become obvious that it's not going to be a steady relaxing of rules, and situations can change very quickly - more thought will be given to the needs of new parents. They need support in so many areas, but breastfeeding definitely needs more protection. This isn't a judgement on formula feeding. My role is to facilitate mums to meet their own feeding goals, not beat them round the head with a 'breast is best' message. It's a recognition that there are challenges specific to breastfeeding than need support, and that for many mothers being able to feed their baby how they choose is a priority. 

I hope I will be able to get back to more regular peer supporting soon. I hope that mums get the support they need. I hope that the government will prioritise the families of infants and toddlers who have been almost entirely overlooked so far.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Pandemic That Proved I Can Parent

A photo I took on the last school run before lockdown. It feels really strange to remember it was still spring.

Back in September last year, when I was noting down term dates and realised that this year's summer holiday would be seven weeks long, I felt a vague sense of dread. I've always been daunted by school holidays. I stress myself out wondering how on earth I'll keep both kids happy, healthy and entertained. Seven whole weeks? Didn't bear thinking about.

Ah, 2019 me, so naive, so blind to what was coming.

Here I am at the beginning of that seven week holiday. How do I feel? A little worried, yes. But nowhere near the dread I used to feel. After all, it's now seventeen weeks since schools closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Aside from Preschooler having two days a week at the childminder's for the last seven weeks, and Girl Child having two hours at school on the last day of term to get to know her new teacher, I've looked after both children for all that time. Without recourse to playgrounds, libraries, cafes or anywhere interesting, really.

I realise now how much I used to doubt my abilities as a mum. I worried about screen time, I worried about providing enriching activities, I worried about the kids getting enough exercise, enough time outdoors, enough time with other children. Enough, enough, enough. I worried I wasn't enough.

Have I been the perfect parent over the last seventeen weeks? No. Have the kids had the optimum amount of screen time, education, exercise etc etc? Also no. Have I managed to stop myself from shouting until I'm hoarse some days? A big, emphatic no. Does it seem to have damaged their development irrevocably? I don't think so. I am concerned about the early education Preschooler has missed out on, and I weep for the progress Girl Child has lost - she was having such a good year. But it hasn't been nearly as horrendous as I thought it would be when I saw the news that schools were closing and terror gripped my heart.

I have to say I'm fortunate in many ways. I haven't had to worry about working from home like many other parents. I have a laptop and a printer, which made doing school work at home a lot easier. My husband has been able to work from home, which meant he could occasionally step in to help during the day (although it also posed the challenge of keeping the kids quiet during conference calls!) so I haven't had to do it totally alone. And, thankfully, we've all stayed healthy. But even so, I never thought I'd be able to cope in this situation. And I have. The kids are OK. And at the moment, OK is good enough.

I've said before that I don't want to home educate. This experience has very much confirmed that view! While I'm aware that home education normally involves going places and meeting up with other home ed families, I know that I would not have the patience. Preschooler only started at the childminder's last September so I was only just getting used to time alone when lockdown hit, but my word have I missed it. And I'm neither mentally disciplined enough to create a solid home learning routine, nor relaxed enough to go down the unschooling route. If it hadn't been for the work school provided I would have really struggled to know what or how to 'teach' Girl Child. And my efforts to teach her meant that Preschooler was often left to watch TV as I just couldn't find any other way to occupy him.

I have, however, loved having time with Girl Child again. It was like a return to the days before school, when I wasn't just getting the scraps of her in the evenings and weekends. I've seen her creativity, her intelligence, her humour and her affection in whole new depths. I've also seen the bond between her and Preschooler grow even further. In many ways, it's been lovely. But at the same time I know I will breathe a sigh of relief when she returns to school in September!

I wish it hadn't taken a pandemic to have these revelations. It's been devastating and terrifying seeing what's happening in our world and our country. My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones. I'm in no way making light of the situation. But I now know that I am a better mum than I thought I was, and I'm stronger than I thought I was. And my kids are far more resilient than I give them credit for. We'll get through this, hopefully with our health intact, knowing that we can cope with more than we realise.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

I Quit Twitter At The Best And Worst Possible Time

It's not much of a secret that I love Twitter. There's something about the brevity and transience of tweets that appeals to me - I can use it to record fleeting moments and thoughts. I've also made a lot of online friends through the site, some of whom I've met but most stay reassuringly distant. There's something quite addictive about expressing your thoughts to a bunch of people you're not going to bump into on the school run or in the shops.

And addictive is the right word - at the start of this year I realised I was spending unhealthy amounts of time on Twitter. I tried limiting that time to 2 hours a day (yes, you read that right, that was a reduction) but I felt like I needed to take a proper break. So I decided that I'd give it up for Lent, only dipping in on Sundays.

When Ash Wednesday rolled around, coronavirus was a concern as the first cases in the UK had been recorded earlier that month, but numbers were still low and we hadn't had any deaths here. It's strange to think that was just seven weeks ago. I had no idea of the impact the virus would eventually have on our country. 

In one way, being off Twitter as things descended into dystopia was a relief. As much as it is a good place for a chat, it's often like you're having that chat in a very crowded room with lots of very angry, shouty people. Constant retweets bombard you with outrage and fear. It's not great for an anxious person. (The irony is there seems to be a lot of anxious people on there.) So not having the facts and opinions around coronavirus shoved in my face all day every day was actually really helpful.

But then, when things started to ramp up, I missed having my Twitter 'family' to talk to. When, on my birthday (16th March), the first significant restrictions of movement were brought in and I said goodbye to my mum not knowing when she would be able to visit again, I wanted to fire off a miserable tweet. As that week progressed and my autistic daughter's life was plunged into chaos with friends and school staff disappearing into isolation, then the announcement of school closures, I wanted to go where I knew there would be people who could relate. And as lockdown began with the loneliness it brought, I missed that connection even more.

One thing about the Twitter app is, it's needy. Even if you're not using it, it'll send you notifications alerting you to popular tweets. And this was another thing which made it really hard to stay off - the tweets went surprisingly quickly from the usual parenting chat to people who I've chatted to for years falling ill or even losing relatives. I felt awful for not responding to their tweets.

Ultimately I think taking a break was a good idea. I wasn't to know what was to come but it would probably have made me feel worse to keep reading tweet after tweet of bad news and criticism of our government's approach. On Sundays I would check in and retreat from the 'noise' very quickly.  And it's meant that I've talked online more with "real life" friends, who are the ones I'll need to connect with when this is all over.

Time will tell whether this break will change how I use Twitter, but I think I'll definitely become more selective about which tweets I read and engage with and focus more on the chats and friendships that make it a good place to be without paying too much attention to all the shouting.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Review: 'Mister TV' by Julie Fulton and Patrick Corrigan (gifted)

DISCLAIMER: I was provided with a copy of this book for the purpose of this review but all words and opinions are my own. 

It's been a while since I blogged - before Christmas I was starting to find it more of a chore than a pleasure so I took a little break which turned into a few months - but now I feel like I need an outlet and a distraction from what's going on in the world. (If you're reading this from sometime in the future, this is the era of Covid-19 lockdown, remember that? Things get better, right? RIGHT?)

Anyway, a little while ago I got a lovely package of books from the ever-fabulous Maverick Children's Books, one of which was this great non-fiction picture book about the life and work of John Logie Baird.

For those of you who, like me, get their inventors mixed up, John Logie Baird was the inventor of the television - and let's face it, right now that is something to be very grateful for! This picture book begins in his childhood, when poor health meant that he was often unable to go out and see his friends. But this became the driver for his inventions, giving him the will to find other ways of communicating.

The story doesn't just talk about how he invented the TV but it explores many of his inventions, including the ones that went wrong. This is something I really love about the book - it shows that sometimes things don't work but that if we keep trying we can find something that does work. It's a great message of resilience, perseverance and creative thinking.

The story part of the book communicates John's achievements in a clear, accessible way and the illustrations are very engaging and help to tell the story really well. There are also little fact boxes scattered through the story for further context, and the introduction and endpages give lots of great factual information too.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I think it would be great for younger school age children to introduce them to the work of this great inventor. I love the message it gives of keeping trying even when things don't go how you want, and the fact that Logie Baird's inventive nature was born out of isolation is very timely!!

'Mister TV' is due to be published later this Spring so keep a look out for it!

Linking up with 'Read With Me' hosted by Mama Mummy Mum and Kids Love to Read #KLTR hosted by Laura's Lovely Blog, Acorn Books and BookBairn.

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Friday, 29 November 2019

So Your Kid's Friend (or Friend's Kid) is Autistic

I've had this post turning over in my head for over a year now but hesitated to write it. As just one parent of an autistic child, it feels a bit fraudulent to be dishing out advice. Especially as I've still got so much to learn about autism myself.

But still, I know that some people want to support neurodiverse families but don't always know how. Maybe their child is good friends with an autistic child but they don't know how to behave around them. Or their friend's child has just been diagnosed and they want to support them, but don't have the words. So here are some pointers I have thought of in my limited experience, hopefully it'll be a starting point.

Photo by Max Goncharov on Unsplash

Get To Know The Child

This is the absolute first rule. Autism is such a broad spectrum that, like anyone, every autistic person will be unique, with their own strengths and challenges. So getting to know the individual is really important. If they are old enough and able to talk about their interests and their triggers then they are the experts on themselves, but younger children may not be able to self-reflect enough for this, and some autistic children may not communicate with words and so it's harder for unfamiliar people to understand them. Others can be reticent around people they don't know well. In these cases, talk to the parents as they are the next best sources of information.

Including The Child

For many autistic children, events like play dates and birthday parties are difficult to navigate. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't invite them over for tea or to a party if your child is close to them, but it's best to talk to the parents about it to see how they can be accommodated.

Some autistic children struggle with unpredictable situations, so knowing in advance what they might be doing and what food there will be will help them prepare mentally. Play dates with a set activity, such as a craft or watching a film, can work well. It might be wise to avoid competitive situations like board games if that child is particularly sensitive about losing.

For parties, there are more things to consider such as noise levels, crowds etc. If you think the child might struggle chat to the parent, it might be that with a familiar adult there and with enough prior information, they will be OK. If the party would be too much for them but your child is really keen to involve them, maybe arrange a play date instead, or see if there's a way of them coming to part of the day. I remember reading a lovely story a few years ago where a family arranged for their son's autistic best friend to come round an hour before the other guests so the two of them could play on the bouncy castle they'd hired.

Understanding the Child

There is a lot of great information out there about autism. There is also a lot of outdated, stereotyped and occasionally dangerous rubbish. The key to understanding and supporting autistic people and their families is knowledge, so finding out more about autism from reliable sources is a fantastic way to show that you care.

Sometimes autistic children will behave in ways that look like they're 'being naughty'. I personally don't believe any child is naughty for the sake of it, there is always a reason for their behaviour, and that is even more true with neurodiverse children. Living in a world set up for neurotypical people must be exhausting, even more so for children who are also still developing self-control, emotional regulation, communication and coping skills. So be understanding if you see an autistic child behaving in a way you wouldn't expect or allow your child to behave. They will almost certainly require a different set of 'rules' to your child.

Supporting the Parents

Being a parent of an autistic child is great in many ways, but seeing them struggle to cope with the world around them is hard. If you're close to the parents, offer opportunities to get together for a chat. Just asking if they're OK when you've seen them having a difficult day shows that you're on their side.

The flip side of this is celebrating with the parents when things are going well, and their child is making progress in a particular area. While some milestones come quickly for some autistic children (like Girl Child learning to read) others will take longer and feel really momentous when they arrive. So if your friend is talking about their child's big achievement, even if it doesn't seem big to you, be happy for them - and show it.

Above all, remember that nothing about autism is a tragedy. If someone tells you their child is autistic, don't say, "oh I'm sorry," or similar. Yes, it can be challenging, but autism is what makes my daughter who she is and she's pretty amazing. I wouldn't change her for the world. Although if she could learn to get ready for school on time, that'd be great.

I've probably missed all sorts of things out, so if any autistic people or parents of autistic children are reading and can think of anything else, please comment below and I'll add it to the post when I can. But I hope this will be helpful to anyone who is close to a family with an autistic child, to know how they can be an ally to them.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Review: 'Agent Starling: Operation Baked Beans' by Jenny Moore

DISCLAIMER: I was provided with a copy of this book for the purposes of review but all words and opinions are my own.

How far would your kids go to get out of a test at school? Go off on a secret service mission involving time travel?! For the hero of this new middle-grade novel, it's worth the risk!

'Agent Starling: Operation Baked Beans' is the story of 10 year old Oliver Starling, who finds him thrust into the world of a very inept secret service. His mission is to travel back in time to the Roman era to save history as we know it from the evil Dr Midnight and his efforts to introduce modern products, including baked beans and nappy pins, to the ancient civilisation. Along the way he meets Jules, an escaped slave desperate for a new life, one where she can be equal to males.

There is a lot of humour in the book, with the rather bizarre secret agents, a running gag about pink frilly knickers and of course the odd joke about the effects of baked beans, but I found that as the story went on the humour became more sparse and the tone shifted to more of a straight adventure story. There were some really quite scary bits - I won't spoil the story but it does include lions in a gladiator arena - which further changed the tone. I did feel that this shift made it harder to read, as the two styles jarred a little the more serious the story became.

That said there are a lot of positives to the book. It would be great for lovers of 'Horrible Histories' and books about ancient civilisations as there is a lot of authentic detail about Roman history in the story. I especially liked the character of Jules, a plucky heroine with a love of learning. Her story would be a good springboard for talking about equality, both in terms of how slaves were treated and in terms of how girls were (and sometimes still are) seen as inferior and undeserving of education. She's a great foil to Oliver, encouraging him not to give up on his quest to stop Dr Midnight.

Girl Child read the book too and said it was, "good but a bit weird." I did ask her to elaborate but no luck! She read the whole book over two evenings so I think she was interested in it, but it's not really her usual genre so I can understand her reaction.

Overall, despite my reservations about the tone I think this is an enjoyable read which would appeal to older primary-age readers who love history, adventure and the occasional joke about underwear!

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum and Kids Love To Read #KLTR hosted by Laura's Lovely Blog, BookBairn and Acorn Books.

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