Parental Mental Health

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?

As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.

I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.

The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.

In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.

This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.

This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.

For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.

Self-kindness  is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.

Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.

I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.

There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.

Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.

We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.

Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.

I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.

Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.

Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.

As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.

Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.

Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.

 

Parental Mental Health

My Father Has A Monobrow

Today’s post is a little bit different. It’s a piece of creative non-fiction I wrote for writing reasons but have now decided should have its home here. It is largely true (with some exaggeration for writing reasons) and permission to write about fatherly monobrows has been sought. I’m sure you’ll see its not really all about my eyebrows.

 

My Father Has a Monobrow

In the nineties, when I was growing up, no one had eyebrows. I assumed they did once, at birth at least, but somewhere between childhood and maturity they’d mislaid them, leaving in their place a narrow suggestion of an arc, maybe made of hair, maybe just a drawn-on pencil line. I’ve concluded they tweezed them aggressively or, the likes of Kate Moss and the Supers, employed minions dedicated to eradicating them, rather than just naturally acquiring hairless faces through superior genes. A stray hair could kill a career, probably.

It’s funny how, as a child, your parents just look like your parents – amorphous faces signifying safety and familiarity. You don’t tend to appraise the relative merits of that eye shape or jawline. You don’t consider whether those faces are beautiful or handsome or otherwise. They just exist and you fully accept them, like there being a sun in the sky or water in the tap.

I don’t know when I noticed the monobrow. Or maybe when I noticed that others didn’t have one. This was my father – his face as familiar as home – how had I missed the bristly caterpillar lurking above his aviators?

A teenager now, with a knowledge of heritability and a desire to be desirable, I became well acquainted with my tweezers. I squinted into the slightly too far away bathroom mirror, worrying at the place my nose met my forehead. There was, thankfully, a sizeable glabrous patch but the hairs at each inner edge of my brows grew wild and haphazard. Would they encroach with time, I wondered, like grass that sidles into flowerbeds and between paving stones? Was this the start of my very own monobrow? Certain this would only further my social challenges – brought on by an extremely uncool and insatiable desire to get only A grades – I plucked them aggressively away.

As the noughties approached and society demanded ever increasing levels of pre-pubescent smoothness, before people thought of Frida Kahlo as an icon and before Cara Delevingne made hirsute brows de rigueur, I cursed the blasted monobrow.

Eyebrow husbandry, it turns out, is a little tedious. You have the energy for it in youth but less so in the fullness time with a house to run and babies to tend to. Left mostly untamed, it turned out I was less lupine than anticipated – a happy accident coinciding with the trend for a fuller brow. I felt a little smug that I had not over plucked and could still grow a fulsome pair, unlike some of my friends who would be drawing them on forever. The monobrow got little thought, if a small nod of appreciation.

Then we adopted our youngest son and I gave the genetics of our faces a whole new level of consideration. Does he, I wondered, stare at my husband’s face, asking himself impossible questions about his future self? Does he know that he can’t inherit that distinctive nose, those hazel eyes, that mass of copper curls?

At least I knew about the monobrow. I suspected there was a comfort in seeing those eyebrows, those high cheekbones, that prominent nose, that triangle of moles, mirrored in the faces around you, anchoring you to your tribe.

I wonder what fears creep into the gaps left by not staring at your genetic brethren over the dinner table. Is our son concerned about his future appearance? Does he fear a particular feature – one he has concocted in his imagination – such as a bulbous chin or patchy beard? Does he wonder whose eyes he has or where he got his freckles? Does the lack of genetic sameness leave him untethered and lost? Or does it free him to not even wonder?

My father has a monobrow and I love a son I didn’t conceive. I don’t know if genetics are everything, or nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

My Father Has A Monobrow

The Virtual World & Me

Well, things have turned a little unpleasant of late, in the Twittersphere, let’s just say that. Despite my better judgement, the unpleasantness has temporarily silenced me and called into question the wisdom of blogging at all. I say ‘against my better judgement’ because haters gonna hate, it comes with the territory, and I don’t want to be someone that easily cowed. However, I am human and fallible and, it turns out, impacted by unpleasantness whether I want to be or not. I’m just as vulnerable to over-sensitivity as anybody else. In fact, within the current context of multiple writing rejections, perhaps even more so than usual.

This has all led to feelings of being conflicted about blogging and my use of social media. Should I be doing those things? Why? Why not? Do these things have a purpose or are they merely a reflection of narcissism?

Sometimes it is good to stop and re-think and I’m grateful for the reminder to do so.

My pause has taught me several things.

Firstly, Twitter (my main social media platform), plays a more important role in my life than I would have thought feasible or healthy. When I back away from it, I’m left with a hole in my support network. I want to explore this a bit because I am fortunate enough to have a very supportive network of living, breathing, touchable humans around me, so why do I need virtual ones as well? This thought has led to me analysing my network, who it is made up of and what role they play in supporting me. I’ve realised that I have a range of friends/ family and they support me in different ways.

I have the friend who is always there at drop off in the morning, has observed my difficulties at this very specific moment in time (as well as at other times) and empathises with the challenges. I have the friend working with many children whose backgrounds involve trauma. She is extremely knowledgeable and truly trauma informed and we have many an in-depth discussion about Little Bear, but also about work and families and cake. I have the friend I’ve known since high school, who reads my stuff and champions my writing and fills my brain with filth. I have the friends who are always on the end of Whatsapp no matter what we want to discuss. They are the completely un-shockable ones who are as happy talking parenting as they are strange gynaecological issues or niche celebrity crushes. There is the friend who is my longest friend from way back when who I don’t see often and who lives an entirely different lifestyle to my own but with whom I have long, deep and meaningfuls on the rare but brilliant occasions we get to see each other. There is the friend I have from University who is also on the end of Whatsapp or Twitter or a text and knows exactly what I need to hear when I’m fed up or self-doubting, but who is equally happy having a detailed conversation about The Voice or football or shopping. I name but a few (please don’t feel unloved if I haven’t mentioned you).

There are, of course, also my parents and Gary (my mum in law but forever more known as Gary because Little Bear couldn’t say granny) and my brother, who know and take a keen interest, in all the ins and outs of our day to day lives/ challenges/ high points and low points.

All of these people play vital roles in my life and also our lives. Not one of them is an adoptive parent or adoptee and I don’t need them to be. They still support us in multitudinous ways.

I should also point out that none of these relationships are one-sided. I hope that I am also there for all of them, in all the different ways they need me to be. Some of these ways are related to parenting, some of them are not.

I know that I’m very lucky to have this varied band of supporters in my corner. However, I still find myself reaching out to a band of strangers on social media. The main thing I have in common with virtual friends is that the majority of us are adoptive parents and there is undeniably something to be said for talking with people who just get it; no explanations. They just get it because they are living very similar daily experiences to us. It’s natural that a group of people with so much in common will gravitate towards one another – it isn’t exclusive or cliquey, it’s about commonality – a commonality that people often can’t find in their ‘real lives’. It’s a commonality I also feel with other parents of children with additional needs, adopted or not. Similarly, I have many online friends who are speech and language therapists because I too, am a speech and language therapist. I also have online friends who are writers, because I too am trying to make my way in that career.

Though I talk to different groups about different things, when I blog, it’s for anybody who is interested. Consequently, there are now speech therapists who are much more trauma informed and adopters who have heard of Developmental Language Disorder . That has to be a good thing. Social media has allowed a cross-pollination of knowledge and experience we couldn’t have achieved otherwise.

The links I have made with all sorts of different people on social media have been my richest source of CPD for a long time, if ever. I know more about stammering, attachment, adoptee voice, inequality of PAS, the impact of austerity, homelessness, issues around leaving care, what makes a good flash fiction, how to query literary agents, which Netflix series everyone is watching and about a gazillion other things, than I ever would have without Twitter. At its best, Twitter is a rich tapestry of information and knowledge.

Up until recently, groups of like-minded individuals have found safe corners of the tapestry in which to meet, chat, and in the case of the adoption community, hold one another if necessary. I know that sounds weird and like a virtual hug from a virtual stranger wouldn’t do anything for anybody, but I know that it has been a lifeline for some. Earlier this week, due to the unpleasantness, I was feeling fed up and more than a little over Twitter and took the uncomfortable step of admitting as much. Many of those virtual strangers reached out to me, with kind words, reassurance and encouragement. They’ve got me, in the way my physical support network also have. Those people are not holograms inside a computer cable. They are real people, with real friend networks, real hobbies, real challenges and real care for others. And as weird as people might think it is, I need them. We need each other.

There are those who will argue that you can’t be friends with people you’ve never met. You can and I am. And just as I hope to be there for my physical support network, I also try to be there for my virtual one. Isn’t that what friendship is: still being there when the shit’s getting thrown? Brushing each other off, making each other laugh, answering those pleas from the darkness?

There will undoubtedly be those who say that adopters only care about other adopters. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I will: I love my disparate Twitter friends, of whom there are adoptees, birth parents, adopters, foster carers, grandparents caring for grandchildren, social workers, teachers, psychologists, authors, accountants, musicians… (insert any role you can think of), of all genders, nationalities, colours, creeds, sexual persuasions. I will happily engage with anybody who behaves respectfully towards myself and others. I will offer a listening ear; a virtual hug.

Sometimes, the people who need those things most are unfortunately unable to reach out for them in a respectful way. That saddens me and I wish them well down the virtual waves and hope they find what they need somewhere out there.

The messages of loveliness restored my faith in what I’m doing in the virtual world. I’m not wandering around, lost. I’m learning, connecting, sharing. I’m becoming informed and informing others. I’m hanging out with my friends.

As for the blogging, there will be people who like it and want to read it. There will be those who learn from it, feel challenged by it, feel reassured or heard by it. There will be those who are disinterested or opposed to it. I would suggest they don’t read it. There will be those who wouldn’t miss it if it was gone and those who would.

I know I need it and that might be a selfish thing, but where some people talk or cry or box or run, I write. That’s what I do. It helps me sort out my head, organise my thoughts, get objectivity. It helps me be a better parent.

There will be those who say I shouldn’t write about my son, but, ultimately, that is between me and him. He knows I write, and as much as he is able to understand consenting to it, he does. Where I can include his voice, I do. I also write about my other son and my husband. Today I wrote all about my friends. I would argue the consent issues are universal, across all people, and I would never disparage those whom I love.

I use what small voice I have to spread the word about DLD, the impact of trauma, cuts to speech and language therapy services, how to improve parent relationships with schools and little talked about issues like PMS or continence. I try to use my (teeny) platform for something constructive.

I heard Mary Portas speak this week too. She talked about how we never hear people being honest about their vulnerabilities, especially with regards parenting, and how this impacts upon the cultures we create – both inside and outside of the business world. She’s right. We often think everyone else has it all sewn up because being honest about finding aspects of parenting difficult is hard and taboo. If I can make one parent, adoptive or otherwise, feel able to ask for help, take advice or just feel heard, then the blogging is worth it. Does that involve putting myself and my own vulnerabilities out there? Yes. A writer’s greater source is themselves and their own life and experience. Is that hard? Yes, sometimes it is.

As I’m learning with most things in life, nothing is wholly good or wholly bad. Blogging is the same. It has huge plus points but does it also have risks? Yes, of course it does. I’m more than aware of them. But, as with everything, you weigh it all up and you do what you see fit. Of course I exercise caution, of course I double and triple check my words for appropriateness and future readability, of course I keep my children at the centre of everything I do. Then, I make sure we are wrapped in the arms of our support network – physical and virtual – and try to remember that everything else is extraneous.

 

 

 

The Virtual World & Me

Self-kindness

I’m sitting here, a la Carrie Bradshaw, nibbling the end of a pencil and staring whimsically out of the window. Well, at the shelves above my desk anyway. This is not going to be one of those factually-correct-I-read-a-book-first kind of blog posts. This is going to be one where you have to try to follow me on a wandering journey of my deepest thoughts. Let’s hope it all makes sense once I’ve blurted it onto the page.

I wrote a blog, a while ago now, about Self-Care . I was saying how I was quite late to the concept, having previously been something of a sceptic, but was now fully bought in and getting better at meeting my own self-care needs. Since then, I’ve become further tuned-in and I’m not bad at it really. I’m certainly losing my shit less, so something must be working.

More recently, having had a fairly trying start to 2019, I’ve been pondering the idea that maybe self-care is not enough. I know, controversial.

The topics of my blog posts are pretty revealing as to how things are with us. This is how 2019 has gone so far: Conversations (about the time the Ed Psych was so bad he gave me a Migraine); Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)Promises, Promises (as in Little Bear couldn’t keep them); Holi-yay or Holi-nay? (about the unforgettable trip to Finland when we all became ill and I spent three days trapped in a cabin) and then Demand Avoidance . Just a few little challenges during the first quarter.

Now, I need to make it clear that I am not suggesting my life is in some way harder than anyone else’s or that I need anyone to feel sorry for me, because clearly neither is true and I’m really not down with competing about one’s stresses: we’re all in this crazy life thing together. I have to refer to myself and my own experience to illustrate my points though, because I just don’t know anyone else’s inner cogitations quite so intimately as my own. I have a very nice life and am indeed very lucky in many ways, so this is not whatsoever about complaining.

Still, the facts are the facts, and there are points in all of our lives when we feel a little challenged in one way or another.

As we’ve established, it is essential to care for oneself all the time, but particularly at these challenging times, so that we are physically and emotionally well enough to deal with them. I’m cool with that. It’s just that sometimes, self-care can be more of a chore than a joy.

At the moment, I’m doing an elimination diet and it’s pretty hard-core. The reasons for me doing it are health and wellness-based and therefore put a nice juicy tick in the self-care box. One has to try to keep oneself physically well – I think that’s a generally agreed upon wisdom. All good. Well, sort of.

I was already a teetotal vegetarian. That is quite a lot of abstinence already, but nothing I found hard. Add to the banned list: sugar of any kind, fruit, gluten, yeast and anything fermented, and things suddenly step up a few gears. I spent the first days wandering around wailing there was literally nothing I could eat. As long as it contains a vegetable, I’m pretty much sorted with my options now and it is do-able day to day.

However, say I have the kind of day where Little Bear won’t do anything I ask him or I have a difficult meeting or the travel company refuse to compensate us properly, where is the chocolate? There isn’t any, I can’t have it. Ditto a takeaway or a large bowl of pasta. I’ve realised that, like many people I think, I used food as a way of showering myself with a little extra kindness. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that ordinarily because there are days when we need that something to ease the stress; that way of soothing ourselves or giving ourselves a little pat on the back for having survived.

If I can’t do that with chocolate – which I won’t because I’m stubborn and there is no point in undoing all my hard work – how can I?

I suspect my second go-to vice is shopping. Again, I think a bit of that is ok. A pretty top or a new pair of Doc Martens really can go a long way to lifting a mood, I find. However, there are obvious drawbacks – bankruptcy – and, like chocolate, shopping can often come with a side-scoop of guilt. Did I actually need that item? How will I fit it in my already bulging wardrobe? What about the environmental impact? Have I contributed to the premature demise of the planet? That type of thing.

All this considering of alternative methods of treating myself – because I do think we all have a need for it – has got me analysing how I treat myself in general and to be honest, it’s a bit weird. I’ve discovered that I’m quite strict with myself. For example, I have a sizeable to-read pile and a few bits of crafts and a half-finished painting knocking about the house, but it is rare that I allow myself to engage with those things. I’m quite hung up on wasting time and seem to be clear in my unconscious thinking about which activities are a good use of time and which are more wasteful. I seem to have inadvertently fenced relaxing activities such as reading/drawing/crafting into the time-wasting field, which when I think about it consciously, I don’t agree with. However, I find myself telling me that I can’t do x or y fun/relaxing thing until I’ve achieved certain ‘useful’ things from my to-do list.

To some extent this is just good time management. I work on my own, at home, and am trying to break into a very competitive career (writing). I can’t just relax all day because nothing would ever get done. However, as is becoming more apparent as I write, I’m pretty self-disciplined and conscientious so in all likelihood, shizzle will get done. And when I’m asking these things of myself – to submit my manuscript here or there or write this or that piece – I’m not taking into account the other things I’ve done already. It’s as though I mentally wipe-out having done the washing/ the shopping/ the morning routine (which can be pretty challenging)/the school run (which can be very challenging)/ the meeting/ the organising. I’m not counting these things as useful, despite them being essential, and my to-do list is full of other things that aren’t those things.

That’s a bit weird. Though I doubt I’m alone.

My friend pointed out to me that in my weird mental token system of making myself earn the nice activities, I’m not allocating myself any tokens for tricky things like a difficult school run. Why not, she asked? Err… I don’t know. It was obvious when she said it, that there would be absolutely nothing wrong with coming home from a tricky drop-off and reading a book or watching an episode of something and having a cup of tea. In fact, it would probably be a welcome act of self-kindness. I never do it though, mentally shelving the drop-off debacle and getting straight to the to-do list.

I’m glad she pointed it out because now I’m more aware of it and now I can’t eat chocolate and I might break the bank if I do too much more shopping, these are the sorts of ways I can show myself some kindness.

I’ve been consciously practising it over the past week or so and it’s been enlightening. I’ve found myself shivering but not getting myself a cardigan or pair of socks. Why? I am allowed to be warm. I’ve found myself thinking it might be nice to lie down for a minute but staying resolutely upright. Why? Other people would just lie down – try it. I’ve tried it. I even had a power nap in the sun one day. It was just as lovely as it sounds. Grizzly was extremely shocked at my behaviour which just goes to illustrate how unlikely it was to happen before.

Instead of walking past my to-read pile, or thinking how nice it would be to read a book one time, or delaying my enjoyment by faffing about on Twitter (why?), I have been actually just reading the books. It isn’t rocket science, I know, but it has required a consciousness (or permission?) on my part that I evidently wasn’t employing before. Ditto, doing some drawing. Instead of thinking it would be nice to braid my hair one nebulous day in the future, I just did it.

I wonder if I have been considering these things selfish previously, but the more I consider them, within the context of my life, the more I realise they don’t negatively impact anybody when I do them but they do negatively impact me when I don’t. If I am harbouring resentment that I don’t get to do the things I enjoy (even though the only person preventing me is me), surely that impacts upon my happiness in a wider sense? If I’m not as cheerful as I can be, that isn’t great for my friends and family.

I have to confess that my little self-kindness experiment has been very enjoyable and there is undoubtedly an extra spring in my step that wasn’t there before. I can wholeheartedly recommend being a little nicer to yourself. And it’s good to know that I can still treat myself without a grain of sugar or spending a penny.

Life is short. Get the things done, move the career on, don’t wait for tomorrow or the next day. But in so doing, don’t skip the bits you enjoy. You deserve enjoyment and happiness just as much as anybody else.

 

 

 

Self-kindness

Three Years A-Bloggin’

I seem to start every one of these types of post by saying I can’t believe how fast time has gone ( see My 1 Year Blogversary  and Two Years of Adoption Blogging ). It’s true: the passage of time is swift (and I can rarely keep up) yet here we are, 3 years and 157 blog posts later. What sorcery is this?

As I’m sure you’ve come to expect, I’m prone to a moment of reflection at these junctures. What exactly has possessed me to write post after post, week in, week out for three whole years? What do I get from it? What does anybody get from it? What is the meaning of it all?

At points in 2018 I struggled to answer these questions. 2017 had ended on a high blog-wise, with a pleasing growth in reader figures and I set myself some targets for that to continue. However, as winter turned to spring, my figures took a nose dive. I tried not to be bothered but I think being bothered by figures is an affliction most bloggers suffer from. Some weeks I struggled to think of good content or there were times I thought I had written something scintillating but my audience appeared less than scintillated. I got a bit fed up with it all. What was the point, anyway?

At the same time, I had re-written my book, Finding Ezra, and had sent it out on submission again (see Am Writing ). Being new to how the publishing industry worked, I found the prolonged periods of time everything seemed to take difficult and also the inevitable rejection. With each drop in blogging figures and each ‘no thank you’ or complete lack of response to my queries, I became more dejected. What was I actually doing with my life? I felt like I was working really hard going nowhere. I asked myself many hard questions about whether you can call yourself a writer if you aren’t published and if you never achieve that accolade, is all the time (and there was a lot) you spend writing a total waste of existence?

I was a bit down in the dumps about my wannabe new career and there were several occasions when I thought seriously about folding the blog. See Stay at Home Mum to see what I mean.

However, my stars must have come into alignment in July because a couple of things happened which gave me a lot of encouragement. The first thing was that someone had read my blog and wanted to include part of it in their book. That book was The Adopter’s Handbook on Education by Eileen Fursland which you can purchase here: Coram Baaf bookshop

For the first time, some of my writing (5 pages to be exact. See, the numbers matter) appeared in print. The book might not have had my name on the cover but this was awesome and certainly the next best thing.

Later in the month, I found out I had been nominated for Adoption Blog of the Year as part of The First4 Adoption Awards.

These two things gave me back the spring in my step: perhaps I was alright at this writing malarkey after all? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in August I felt brave enough to make my first tentative steps into the world of fiction writing and began entering writing competitions. I realised that the only way to survive having your book in submission is to distract yourself with writing other things and flash and short stories were the perfect way to dabble and practise. I also thought, in for a penny, in for a pound, and started my first novel. I don’t want to say too much about it yet but let’s say that I have drawn on my knowledge and experience of developmental trauma as a central tenet of the story.

Without blogging, I wouldn’t have done any of these things. More specifically, without the readers of my blog and those who took the time for vote for me, I wouldn’t have done any of these things. You are a blooming fabulous bunch and I’m extremely grateful to each and every person who has read, shared or commented on any of my posts. As you can tell, this has all added up to a significant impact on me, on a personal level. It gave me the impetus to press on and helped me realise that success doesn’t happen overnight – it comes bit by bit: a few pages of print here, a longlisting there, an award here, a highly commended piece of writing there. Onward and upward I reckon.

My family and friends are all loyal readers of the blog and I think that has helped us all too. I don’t tend to take people aside and lecture them about DLD or explain the intricacies of why adopted children might struggle with eating or inform them about interoception over dinner, because, well, weird. However, if they choose to read my essays on such things, which, bless them, they do, they will absorb a lot more knowledge and become much more informed about Little Bear and his ways and the wider context of adoption/ SEND than they probably would have otherwise. I certainly feel lucky that the people in our support network are as knowledgeable and understanding as they are. I’m not sure we could have achieved quite the same level of awareness without the blog, mainly because I would be too lazy to explain all that stuff to all those people.

My most favourite thing about blogging though, is when I get a message from somebody saying “you’ve written my life” or “so much of this resonated with me”. When I first started out blogging I was a little bit tentative about how much I could reasonably share. I think most people would be cautious about sharing their deepest, most vulnerable feelings and experiences on the World Wide Web. However, every time I published a post I felt unsure about – because it felt too honest or too vulnerable – I received lovely feedback. I received messages from people saying they felt that way too and knowing someone else did made them quite emotional. I do seem to have caused a surprising number of tears (sorry about that). As this has gone on, I’ve realised we have far more in common than sets us apart. So far, no one has ever said I’m weird or parenting badly or don’t know my arse from my elbow, as I’ve often feared they would. I’ve realised that we all have similar anxieties and many of our children have similar behaviours and we worry about them similarly. Knowing that, has spurred me on to be more honest. Thank you, as always, for the lack of trolling in my readership and the times when one of you has taken the time to tweet me or comment on the blog.

There are a couple of downsides to blogging. My main fear is getting found out! Everybody who knows me well knows what I’m up to and many people who don’t know me at all, know who I am. However, the main people I don’t want finding out are school. My relationship with them is complex. I vacillate between loving them, being enormously grateful for the support they give us and wanting to hug them inappropriately; and feeling they are the bane of my life and will never, ever, understand. I think that navigating the education system for Little Bear is one of the biggest ongoing stressors in my life and having a place to air those stresses is essential. That place is my blog and I have written some pretty antsy pieces – Dear TeacherConversationsAdoptive Parent: Behaviour DetectiveSchool-Parent Partnership . As I do love school most of the time, I really wouldn’t want them to read these pieces. I do occasionally have nightmares about getting called to see the Head Teacher. Whilst I would never write anything defamatory or abusive, I still think they might not like it and this is the main reason I blog anonymously.

The other negative, as I mentioned before, is getting hung up about reader figures. I am trying to be less bothered but it’s a work in progress, along with taking rejection of my writing in my stride.

So, what next for the blog? I’m not someone who plans their content in advance so I’ll keep writing about how I feel at the time of writing. I think I’ve got a bit more vocal this year, in terms of using the small platform I have (and it really is teeny in the grand scheme of things) to raise awareness or rattle a few doors. I loved getting involved with spreading the word about Bercow10 (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action ) & DLD Awareness Day 2018 and certainly plan to be part of that again. Surprisingly, my most read blog of the year, in fact, ever, was the review I wrote of Nativity Rocks ( Why Nativity Rocks is Not For Care-Experienced Children ). It was another post I was unsure about writing but I’m glad I did because the content of the film was extremely inappropriate and it reached enough people that hopefully it prevented a few families seeing it and being upset by it. I did contact the writer/director directly and I did explain to her why it was upsetting and why I had blogged about it. I like to think it changed her perspective a little but equally, she could have been paying me lip service to get me to be quiet!

I’m always open to suggestions or guest posts so do get in touch if there is something you’d particularly like to read about. In the meantime, I shall continue my quest for publication with both Finding Ezra and my novel which I hope to finish in the next few months. That quest now feels more achievable and is being approached with more confidence, thanks to the support I’ve received from you lovely blog readers. Here’s to another year of weekly posts and no doubt a few surprises along the way.

 

Three Years A-Bloggin’

Pressing Pause

Christmas, as usual, was an exciting time in the Bear household, as I’m sure it was in houses up and down the land. Christmas Eve was punctuated by frequent bursts of dysregulation – I remember it being so last year too. Christmas Day was good and Little Bear even managed to spend the afternoon with my brother’s lovely but crazy dog without getting overexcited. Before we knew it we had stayed out until 9pm which is unheard of for us (Little Bear usually has an early and set bed time with good reason).

In hindsight, our Boxing Day plans were overly ambitious. We had booked tickets to take the boys to their first ice hockey game in the early evening. When we did that I suppose we didn’t anticipate being out so late on Christmas Day but as it ended up that way, it meant us asking two late nights in a row of Little Bear which proved too much. We all enjoyed the game but Little Bear struggled with the transitions to the toilet and between the arena and the car. You’d think not much could wrong in those short intervals but you’d be wrong. Trust me, it’s surprising how much can be achieved by a dysregulated/over-tired/non-compliant child in a short period of time. If it weren’t so stressful I’d be impressed at his efficiency for hell-raising.

The following day I knew we needed to re-group. We needed to hunker down, rest, re-set. After sporting events on a Saturday morning (horse-riding and football respectively) we usually have a period of rest at the weekend. Both boys need it but Little Bear seems to get particularly tired from a week at school. The horse-riding is a good outlet for some pent up energy, allowing him a satisfying rest when he gets home.

Over the first days of the Christmas holidays we struggled to achieve that type of proper rest. Everything was too exciting. There was too much anticipation; too many things to look at and think about. By the 27th we were starting to manage it. It was as though we had popped a balloon: Little Bear just kind of deflated and withered into a heap on the sofa. We watched films, played games, built Lego. That little rest turned into two days and then three and now we are on the fifth day of pressing pause.

Admittedly, neither boy has been feeling well. On Christmas Day, there was a huge cardboard box at my parent’s house from a chair my Dad got for Christmas. Big Bear got inside it, fell asleep and slept through his Christmas dinner. Whilst the location of the nap was notable, more so was the fact that Big Bear was sleeping in the day time – something he never does even on 7 hour car journeys. He hasn’t been well since and over the past couple of days Little Bear has also grown increasingly pale, culminating in middle of the night vomiting last night.

Obviously it’s rubbish for the boys to be poorly during their Christmas holidays. However, I have to admit to secretly liking being holed up together. I am loving the fact we have gone back to basics: quality time spent together. Because no one has much energy, I am not inundated with complaints of boredom. We have several ongoing Lego builds. Big Bear has completed a big superheroes set and Little Bear is slowly working his way through a mammoth Ninjago one. Santa evidently thought it was time to challenge him beyond a set which can be built in a day. So far, his perseverance and resilience have been impressive.

We have played Pit, Uno and Mouse Trap altogether several times. Grizzly and I have watched a few films while the children have been in bed but since then we have played games too: Boggle, Dobble, Bananagrams, Countdown.

We have done some excavating (with a new set that has buried dinosaurs and all sorts in a faux volcano), coloured the table cloth and shot at Big Bear’s new target machine that blows polystyrene balls in the air. I like the idea of getting things used. It can be tempting to buy a whole stack of presents then be so busy going out and about that nobody has time to take them out of the box. I want to see children playing with toys, books getting worn, games getting tired from use.  

We have tried to master the boys’ new UKick thingamabobs; we have read our new books; we’ve tried to get a little fresh air when children have been up to it. Although it does sound like we’ve returned to the 19th century, there has been screen time. Not too much, but enough that we haven’t had to get up too early. There has been a lot of pyjama-wearing, stove-lighting and eating.

There has been next to no socialising, planning or organising. I have not concerned myself with diets, step-counts, homework or to-do lists in any form. I know that our Interscotia has not been at all rock’n’roll but I honestly believe in the power of a pause. Doing nothing has been restorative on many levels. In fact, great swathes of time can be passed simply snuggling one’s children. Nothing gets done: the house is a hard-working tip, but it’s lovely. The children need it and we need it.

I’m not sure if everyone’s home is like ours but we are usually stuck on a hamster wheel of school – washing – shopping – organising – school – football etc. It never really ends. Grizzly works ridiculously hard and I’m not exaggerating when I say there are weeks when we barely speak to one another. It has felt more important than ever this year to just pause for a little bit. I know many people will be out tonight – all dressed up, going to an expensive venue, drinking cocktails. They probably look at us stuck in the house for the fifth day in our pyjamas with pity. I’m filled with JOMO though (Joy Of Missing Out) because our pause is lovely. I wouldn’t swap any of it for uncomfortable shoes, alcohol and a noisy venue.

Don’t worry, I’m not turning all hermit-y for 2019 (no more than usual, anyway), this is just a temporary intermission between the mania of the previous year and whatever is to come next. A time to rest and rejuvenate: ready to hit 2019 running. Naturally, all this pausing has led to some reflection too. I’ve been asking myself whether I’ll be setting resolutions or not. Last year, because I had recently left the NHS, I set myself some specific aims for the year because I was a bit lost and didn’t quite know how to measure my success (or lack thereof). I knew I didn’t want to measure myself solely against the ironing pile so I tried to be more constructive. Last night, I went back to those aims to see how I’d got on.

If you can’t laugh at yourself then who can you laugh at? Many of my targets are pretty laughable; as are the results. One was, ‘keep bonsai tree alive’. It’s dead. Another was, ‘grow baby melons’. You might have predicted this, but they’re dead too.

I set myself targets for monthly blogging figures which I didn’t meet and ones for increased annual figures which I did. One major aim was, ‘to get a publisher or a literary agent’. Well, I didn’t achieve that. And therein lays the problem with New Year’s resolutions – as much as I wanted that to happen, I didn’t really have full control over it. Maybe I should have made New Year’s Wishes instead. But that’s a bit airy-fairy and what’s the point? Refusing to feeling thwarted and as though my year was a waste of time, I considered instead the efforts I had made to work towards that wish. I considered the number of submissions I had made, the times I had put myself out there, the times I had picked myself up after rejection and tried again. I’m realising that writing success rarely happens overnight. It might not have happened in 2018 but I have made connections within the writing world, become more practised at writing itself, made forays into fiction and braved the world of writing competitions. I have taken some leaps of faith. There are some natural next steps – make more submissions, finish my novel, get braver with seeking feedback etc. Those things are my aims for next year. I’m not sure they really classify as resolutions and that’s fine with me.

The other thing is that New Year’s Resolutions don’t account for the unexpected things that might happen in your year. It doesn’t say anything in my aims about winning blogging awards but that happened and was very much a highlight of my year. It rather brings into focus things such as viewing statistics – I’d take my award over bigger numbers any day. It makes me wonder how we should measure our success, the pressures we put on ourselves and which are the things that really matter anyway. I have written myself a note which says, “don’t get hung up on viewing figures” as a handy reminder from Zen Paused Me to Cup Half Empty What On Earth Am I Doing With My Life 2019 Me (she will come, it’s inevitable).

Half way through the year of 2018, I stopped checking myself against my aims and started listing my achievements each month. I made myself write small things e.g. ‘submitted short story to x competition’ or ‘delivered successful workshop’. I keep it in a notebook that no one else is going to read so I can be free and honest and not worry about sounding boasty. I have found this extremely helpful because at the points where I start thinking I’m wasting my time on a career that will never be, I make myself read it back and remind myself that good stuff has happened. Us humans (amongst other flaws) seem to be programmed to remember all the failures, low-points and bad bits and somehow give them greater weighting than the successes. I’ve found my lists really useful for maintaining some balance and stopping catastrophising in its tracks. I shall certainly be continuing.

Anyway, I’ll end where I began. My main priority for 2019 is for my family and friends to be healthy and happy – stripped back, that’s all there really is. I’m also going to endeavour to reduce our plastic use further and stop distracting myself with shopping/Twitter. Family, friends, reading & writing. That’s where it’s at for 2019. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to doing nothing.

 

Loads of love for 2019,

xxxx

 

 

Pressing Pause

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge

Every summer, libraries do their Summer Reading Challenge to encourage children to read more books. I think it’s a really good idea but this year I had decided we wouldn’t participate*. We do alright on reading here, I really can’t complain. Big Bear will be getting some new books for his birthday and I know he will read them during the holidays, now that he has discovered the pleasure of reading for fun. Little Bear has a well-stocked book shelf, having inherited Big Bear’s picture books as well as acquiring a good collection of his own. He loves reading and we religiously read three books each night, as well as Little Bear reading to me (I have invested in a pack of Oxford Reading Tree books of the right level from The Book People to keep practise up over the hols).

I’m not complacent about reading and I definitely place a high value on it, it’s just that I have already given it a whole heap of my attention and I think we can afford to shift our focus elsewhere now, leaving reading ticking along nicely in the background.

I suppose I have always felt fairly confident in how to support and develop reading at home. Being a speech and language therapist, knowing about phonological awareness (the awareness of the sound structure of words) and how to teach it, is crucial. Phonological awareness underpins speech processing and development but it also underpins literacy. Therefore my career has armed me really, with the tools to help my children learn to read.

Irrespective of teaching the mechanics of reading, I have always believed that it is crucial for a child to feel successful at something and to truly believe they can do it in order for them to develop a confidence in their skills. When it comes to reading, that lightbulb moment often happens when children go out and about and realise they can read signs and labels and text they just happen upon in their environment. It is important to practise reading in a school book but I think children need more than that to truly develop a love and desire for reading. Where possible, at each stage, I have tried to pick books from Little Bear’s shelf that I knew he could read. He often didn’t believe he could because they weren’t colour-banded school books, but once I’d persuaded him to try, the fact that he really could was powerful for him. As was being able to read made up stories we hand wrote on a piece of paper or bits of a cereal packet or words on the TV.

Obviously Little Bear is not yet reading War and Peace but he has the foundation skills in place and is making good progress. As yet, the same cannot be said for writing.

I have to admit that I have been somewhat neglectful of Little Bear’s writing development. There are a few reasons why. Firstly, I do think reading is more important to start with and writing is a skill that can follow. That’s just my opinion: I’m not a teacher, so I may well be going against some sort of law of teaching or other. Secondly, I don’t have the same confidence to support Little Bear’s writing development. What on earth do I know about teaching writing?

As we have now got to the point where Little Bear is pretty happy and confident to read but frequently says he hates writing and that he’s rubbish at it and might sabotage his written work and is what school would term “a reluctant writer” I can no longer hide behind my excuses. The Eureka moment we have all been hoping for has not materialised.

I think what I mean to say is that the Eureka moment has not happened through school input alone. Now, I absolutely do not believe that my ability to teach Little Bear is better than schools. We have already established that I have zero knowledge of teaching writing and I love the Bears’ school and think they do an amazing job. The problem, and I think there is one, is with the curriculum and the pressure on our children to meet all sorts of crazy standards. I haven’t the energy for politics but all I know is that if I were a ‘reluctant writer’ and I found within me the effort to put pencil to paper and immediately as I did, were told my starting letter should have been a capital and that my ‘S’ was incorrectly formed, I probably couldn’t be arsed to try again either.

In considering a way to give Little Bear his Eureka moment, I had a little one of my own. I am no teacher but I am a writer. I don’t profess to ‘know my craft’ as I’m pretty new to it really and am certainly still developing my skills, but I do love it. I had a little think about what I love about it and the answer I came up with definitely wasn’t punctuation or grammar. Whilst I do understand punctuation and I think use it appropriately it really doesn’t excite me and despite studying Linguistic modules at degree level, the more I consider how to craft a piece of writing, the more I fear I know nothing about grammar. Grammar is starting to scare me, but that’s another story. I concluded that my love of writing comes from the fundamental concept that it allows me to take ideas from my brain and put them on a piece of paper. It allows me to express myself. I can say whatever I like. Anything, in the whole world.

That freedom is what I want to gift to Little Bear. I want him to write. I don’t care what he writes, how he forms his letters, if it’s massive or tiny, if it’s in pencil or biro, if he adheres to the rules of grammar or not. I don’t think it is possible, for a child lacking in self-esteem, who struggles so much with rules, to learn to love writing when there are just so many constraints placed upon how he can do it. I know that he will need to go on to learn the rules, of course he will, but it feels like there should be a stage before that in which he can experiment and figure out the whole raison d’etre of writing.

On Friday, the day school ended for summer, I got a couple of little things for the boys to keep them entertained in the holidays. I got them each a notepad and pens and I set them a writing challenge. When I did this I wasn’t too sure whether it might be one of those things Mum comes up with which she thinks is a fabulous idea but actually the children can’t believe what I’m doing to them. I did make my purchases as appealing as possible because every writer needs good stationery and I needed as much help as possible with marketing my idea. Little Bear has a notebook with sequins on it that can be brushed backwards or forwards which he LOVES and Big Bear has a green furry one that smells of apples and who could need anything else? I also provided new pens, in a delectable range of colours.

I set the challenge: to write every day for the whole holiday. Effort and commitment will be rewarded at the end of the holiday. If you don’t write, your chances of reward dwindle. The rules? There are no rules. You can write anything; a story, a list, a diary entry, a song.

I didn’t say this part out loud but I made a deal with myself that anything that got written would not get corrected and would not have to be copied out again. At school they do this ‘purple polishing’ thing which is about checking your work and drafting and re-drafting to achieve the best version of the work you can. I get it, obviously in my writing life I draft and edit and tweak and tinker until the cows come home, but I’m a grown up and I’m trying to get published and if I were a child I would be BORED. Like Little Bear, I would also be disgruntled that I had already tried my best and I simply didn’t have the energy left to do it all again.

On Saturday, after tea, the boys dutifully sat down to write in their books. Big Bear wrote a diary entry in lumo-green. Little Bear began making up a story, every few lines changing colour so it looked like a rainbow. Little Bear wrote a whole paragraph without any sort of encouragement which was more than I’d ever observed him write. We made a big fuss of how well he had done and he was made up when the other three of us each trooped over to read his words aloud.

I feared that my hands-off approach would hamper progress and development but I was heartened to hear Little Bear sounding his words out as he went and applying some of his phonic knowledge. When he got to bigger words he asked for help and I either helped or encouraged as necessary.

On Sunday, when I got up, Little Bear, ever the early bird, was already up and seated at the kitchen table. Apparently he fancied carrying on his story and had covered another page and a half in rainbow writing. It doesn’t make total sense. Some words are missing and I can’t decipher some of it but I am absolutely over the moon at his enthusiasm.

Later on, Big Bear chose to play a computer game and Little Bear chose to write some more.

After tea, Big Bear sat down to do his writing and I told Little Bear he didn’t have to as he had already written plenty, yet down he sat and more story appeared.

On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today, Little Bear picked up his sequined notebook at random points in the day and he wrote. I have not reminded him to do so on any occasion.

I don’t know whether this is his Eureka moment but he has never hitherto shown this level of interest, so I’m feeling optimistic. The curriculum feels quite restrictive to me at times. Why do we need to push our children into complex grammatical structures at such a young age? As if to prove my point, we have homework about extended noun phrases. The power of creativity feels massively undervalued in today’s schooling. Little Bear has a wild imagination. He could be a fabulous writer, but only if we can inspire him.

Having Developmental Language Disorder makes all aspects of literacy harder for Little Bear. He is already pushing a boulder up a hill before he picks up his pencil. I know he can achieve a good level of literacy despite this, but does he?

The whole point of the writing challenge is to ignite his self-belief because, unfortunately, his formal education doesn’t seem able to.

 

 

*When we popped to the library the boys decided they did want to do the Reading Challenge after all so we have challenges come out of our ears!

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge