What Kind of Parent are You?

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I was lucky to receive three cards on Mothers’ Day. The first to arrive was a sparkly depiction of two unicorns-large and small-portraying an idealised, rainbow-backed vision of motherhood, cosy, pretty and delightful. The second a hand-drawn picture of two figures side-by-side, one larger in trousers [me], the other small in a dress [Grand-Offspring]. The third a photo of a ravaged old hag.

Of course I’m delighted by all of these depictions of myself, as parent and grandparent, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they’ve all remembered the day. If your Offspring have negotiated all the hurdles on the way to adulthood and continue to communicate with you it must be some kind of miracle.

Parenting is like navigating the seas, periods of calm punctuated by violent storms. Sometimes the storms are catastrophic. Sometimes the calms are flat enough to believe you are becalmed and stranded, never to reach the shore.

When the offspring are safely grown and in their own nests you may consider your duty done but that is very far from the truth. You continue to feel responsible, to offer support, to care, in a way that few creatures in the natural world do [except perhaps for elephants?].

Myself, 38 years ago and pregnant, I was an ignoramus on the subject of babies. While I was acquainted with the development and behaviour of young children, when I had the first I was exhausted and  panicky in equal measures-a rabbit caught in the headlights. My long held belief that babies ate and slept was shattered. As they grew I was unprepared for the frustration, penury and utter boredom that life with toddlers can be. But in other ways they were, at that time, the very best part of my life.

Becoming a grandparent is well documented as delightful and easier [in that you ‘can hand them back’] although there are hazards and traps to avoid. I was prey to much advice as a new mum-‘Pull yourself together; you’ve only had a baby’ was one gem [as I lay strapped to various devices in the hospital bed, post Caesarian Section]. So I try to stick to merely describing my own experiences while also attempting to adhere to parental rules and guidelines regarding treats etc

There is a huge variety of parenting styles, from controlling to liberal and most are dependent on our personalities as adults and, perhaps, our own experiences as children. There is no such thing as a perfect parent so we must rely on guesswork, friends or manuals to solve conundrums like faddy eating. The fact that I came to depend on the quaintly old-fashioned ‘Baby and Child Care’ by Dr Benjamin Spock demonstrates how long ago I became a mum. But if not trendy, his approach to child rearing seemed calm and sensible at the time.

Above all I do hope I’ve managed to maintain some vestiges of humour as they’ve grown up. Long may it continue!

 

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How we Roll-

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These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

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St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.

 

 

How do you Watch?

My maternal grandmother measured around four foot six inches in height and looked about the same distance in width. She was a complex character, at once merry and childlike but also prone to emotional outbursts. As a young child I adored her and loved nothing more than to snuggle up in her bed [once my austere, child-hating grandfather was up] listening to her nonsense rhymes and the funny stories that caused her to laugh with an infectious guffaw.

She ate an appalling diet of cream cakes, sweets and puddings, never moved unless she had to and lived to a ripe old age of ninety-eight.

She was also addicted to television, watching it for as many hours as it aired, which in those days was not twenty-four/seven but test card to close-down, when the screen would diminish into a tiny dot and disappear. She loved to sit on the sofa munching her way through a bag of sweets and watch whatever was on, distracted only by the sound of an approaching ice-cream van tinkling its jolly, summoning tune, at which she’d reach for her bag, withdraw a note and send one of us out to get a round in.

Spending time with my grandparents became trickier as I got older. The nonsense rhymes lost their appeal along with the long sessions of lolling on the sofa watching endless TV. One of her favourite programmes was ‘Peyton Place’, an American soap opera of the sixties which kick-started the careers of such actors as Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. We children were not allowed to touch the TV buttons, on pain of the wrath of my grandfather, who also considered that the court drama ‘Perry Mason’ was too ‘deep’ for us.

During stays longer than a couple of days I’d feel an urgent need to get out and away from the endless hours of television, although the soulless estate the claustrophobic bungalow occupied was not over-conducive to walking. I’d wander the identical streets and stare into the windows of the shops in a small row called ‘The Cut’. At last, in an area of wasteland near to the estate I discovered a diversion that would take me as near to heaven as a pony-mad child could be: a riding stables. Thereafter I spent all my pocket money riding and any other time cleaning tack, mucking out and volunteering my services.

Grandma would be astonished to see how many channels there are on TV now and even more amazed at the ways we can view; recorded, I-player, Netflix and the rest. But what astonishes me is that despite the plethora of footage of one sort or another, how little there is that is worth devoting any time to. Since we returned from travel we’ve watched a so-so detective serial, some historical drama and the news. We almost never watch anything on commercial channels except for the channel 4 news.

The future of TV is even more uncertain as the young turn away in favour of alternative screens, gaming and interactive viewing. So It’s unlikely I’ll follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, few as they were!

Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

History Lessons

What will be said, in the future, about the events of the twenty first century?

We still read, write and discuss wars and atrocities of the past. It is constantly said that the ghastly horrors of The Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again. We think that we’ve made progress and we’ve moved on. There are historical novels detailing civil wars, world wars, unspeakable acts perpetrated by countries against others, individuals against their own nations, extremist religious groups against innocent fellow countrymen, random acts of cruelty and subjugation. Movies are made-sometimes heroic, sometimes merely grisly.

Getting towards the later part of life leads to a lot of reflection, which can be irritating for younger generations but is inevitable. They’ll be doing it, too when the time comes.

I remember how horrified and frightened my mother was at the end of her life by the news that an Australian nurse working in Saudi Arabia had received the punitive sentence of some extreme number of lashes. It was more than twenty years ago. Supposing she were around today to learn that dozens of children and teenagers have had their lives and the lives of their families destroyed by a random, pointless deed?

I also remember that Offspring 2 was at uni in London during the events of the July 2007 tube and bus bombings. I was at work on that day and only discovered during a coffee break that the atrocity had occurred. I remember the feeling of terror and foreboding as I tried to reach her by phone and the powerful waves of relief as I finally heard her voice. She’d missed the events by an eyelash, returning to fetch forgotten keys and then attempting to catch a later train. She was stranded but alive. It seemed all that mattered then.

How easy it is to say, ‘We will not be cowed. We will not be threatened and forced to change how we live!’ These are the words of those untouched by the violence and loss.

But the lives of those whose children or parents are lost or maimed have been changed for ever.

There is less of my life in front than behind now. My concerns are more for those generations below mine; with how their lives will pan out and a part of me wants to know how it will be for them in the future. Looking at history in terms of human nature I think it unlikely that there will ever be true ‘peace on Earth’. More probable is the likelihood that climate change will have escalated and usurped human nature in terms of threats.

But what will be learned in history? Because the world seems incapable of learning anything from history so far…

 

Ditch the Bucket-

By the time you read this we’ll be wending our way into the next adventure.

If anyone were to ask me what the most important ways to enjoy retirement were I’d have to say having adventures.

Adventures come in many forms. They may entail travelling somewhere, but travel is not essential to having escapades. All I’m saying is escape from routine is a requirement of happy life. It doesn’t matter what the escape is. A visit somewhere different, an encounter with someone new, learning a skill, joining a shared initiative-these are all adventures, as was the move to a new house we made last year.

A friend who, [by her own careful, clever planning], achieved early retirement tackles a different, arty hobby each year. Some enterprising older folks in Devon have established a business growing and marketing oysters-and have provided employment for many younger people along the way.

You hear a great deal about ‘bucket lists’. In my view these smack of the ghastly ‘targets’ that those of us who are retired are so relieved to have left behind. You don’t want your adventures to be a source of anxiety. It is a blessing to be flexible, to be able to change your mind, revise plans. As we age there are going to be many things we’ll never do, skills we won’t learn, marathons we won’t run, places we’ll never visit, foods we won’t eat, books we won’t read and plays we won’t see.

Three years ago we’d a mind to escape the chilly UK spring and take our camper van down to the Spanish Mediterranean coast where we would visit friends and find somewhere without too much development to enjoy some sunshine [not an easy undertaking, as those who know that coastline will know]. Passing heaps of scruffy snow in northern France we got down as far as Bordeaux and realised the temperatures were not likely to improve any time soon, so took the decision to turn right instead of left, aiming for Portugal. As soon as we crossed the border from Spain it was warm sunshine all the way. Result!

Of course much is published about the poor, subsequent generations and how we, the Boomers have robbed them blind and how they’ll be working themselves into their graves. Most of us, however have done all we can to support our children through further education and beyond, while also caring for aged parents. But having read that life expectancy is increasing by five hours per day I feel that our children and grandchildren, too will enjoy the benefits of retirement, albeit at a later age. I’ve pledged to do my utmost not to be a burden to them when they get there!

Until that time I remain unapologetic about enjoying our freedom. I imagine there may well be a time when I’ll only be able to enjoy the photos and the memories so I’m making sure there will be some to look back on…

 

2016? Sleep on it…

Christmas-yes it’s lovely, yes it’s festive. There is a warm, fuzzy glow everywhere-in the shops, in the pubs, in the cafes, along the streets and in the homes. We decorate, we shop, we cook. We send cards and receive them, exclaim over seldom contacted friends’ messages, speak to long-distance relatives. We deck the halls. We peel, chop and baste. We make table decorations, lay out crackers, pass things around, pour drinks, make toasts, watch the Queen/don’t watch the Queen,  play games, hand out gifts, open gifts, watch TV’s lack-lustre, festive offerings, crash out, wake, get up and begin again.

We eat too much, drink too much, feel bloated. In the mornings there is a swathe of last night’s glasses bearing dregs, demanding to be washed; and chocolate wrappers festooning the surfaces along with crumbs and pieces of nut shell. The dishwasher groans as you heave open its door, its bulging contents demanding to be dispersed.

I look forward to Christmas as much as the next person, preparing and anticipating but then when it comes all I really want is for it to be over. It belongs to children, this winter celebration with its pretence of magic and if you’ve access to a small child there is pleasure to be got from their enjoyment-otherwise there is a tendency towards anti-climax.

Nobody should wish their life away, especially when what remains is dwindling but 2016 needs to be behind us. It has been the year the world turned grim, forgetting any lessons history should have taught and returning instead to crude, emotions-led political decisions, territorial feuds and downright bestiality.

I’ve said before that I don’t do resolutions but planet earth needs to do some. There is an alarming deficiency of concern over climate change as we are about to be plunged back into over-reliance on fossil fuels. Genocide and brutality abound within and outside of conflict zones and how on earth is any of this to be tackled if we exacerbate hostility to foreigners and visitors by cutting ourselves off?

Though not a fan of cold weather I’m feeling introspective at this, the dormant part of the year. Yesterday the frost painted a stunning picture of a tree on our bedroom window, reminding me that there is still a lot to love about the world around us if we choose to preserve it. In winter nature reins in, hibernates, repairs and prepares. We should do the same, appreciate and cherish what matters the most. So I’m not going to feel guilty for spending time doing very little; for watching the garden birds or staring at a view or sitting quietly and thinking-because it’s just me doing what the season dictates and having a dormant spell until spring rushes in and stirs everything up!

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Happy New Year, Anecdotage readers-here’s to better things in 2017!