The Best Days Of Our Lives… And Other Such Lies.

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Tom Bodett

Every day, twice a day I do the school run. Well, the school walk, really. It’s twenty minutes each way and once the mayhem of shoe location, lunch preparation and eventual depositing of Monkey safely in his classroom has been achieved, I can walk back with less haste and collect my thoughts a bit.

School mornings are a bit like groundhog day, in that we generally see the same faces at more or less the same junctures of the route as we half walk/half jog and scoot uphill on our way, usually seven or eight minutes behind schedule. There’s a particularly cross-looking couple who are always hastily chain smoking before they get on the tube. My son will usually make a comment about the stinkiness of their cigarettes, within earshot. There’s also a guy who looks almost exactly like an old colleague of mine but with his eyes slightly further apart. If he’s reached the bottom of the hill by the time we start our ascent I can be sure that we’ll arrive after the school bell.

An array of dog walkers holding little bags of dog poop pass us, not forgetting the ubiquitous elderly ladies with shopping trolleys. My daughter likes to wave and smile charmingly at them before breaking into a lion’s roar once she’s gained eye contact, causing surprise and alarm amongst some of the more mature passers by.

But those who really provoke flashbacks in my memory are the teenagers – the girls in particular. I see the same ones each day and it’s difficult not the cast them all into different roles based on the hierarchy which prevailed at my and I’d imagine pretty much every other secondary school in living memory.

I see the immaculately groomed girls with perfect make up, glossy swishy hair and a well practised scowl. There’s an exceptionally tall and broad young woman who, despite her flat shoes, towers above the boys who hang around outside the coffee shop next to school. She hunches herself over in an attempt to look smaller, looking as if she’d rather be absolutely anywhere else but here. I see the awkward looking girls who don’t quite have the right coat or school bag, walking a few paces behind trying not to be noticed and find myself transported back to my own early teenage years in the mid 1990’s.

Factions of them stand at the bus stop, gathered around someone’s smartphone sharing in-jokes whilst others linger in solitude, pretending not to care.

As a teenager I remember thinking if my school days were to be the best of my life, I was done for. I really, really didn’t like school. I found the swishy-haired girls intimidating and wondered if there was a handbook or memo I’d missed, explaining how best to communicate with the upper echelons of the school’s clique system. I always felt on the outside looking in and that’s because, really, I was.

Image

So it’s with that in mind that I wish I could somehow communicate with the girls I see each morning and afternoon. I wish I could ask the pretty and popular ones to use their powers for good. To smile more if they can and to extend an olive branch to the geekier girls who they barely acknowledge unless it’s to ridicule them for wearing the wrong shoes, bag or shade of lipgloss. I’d love to sit down with the lonely and left out ones and tell them that it’s okay, or at least that it will be. That these tough times will be one day be behind them. And yes, far tougher days may well be ahead, too. But school ends.

You don’t have to stay in touch with the girls who torment and tease you. You can one day leave it all behind. I want them to know that often the worst offenders in the school-ground cruelty stakes actually peak in high school. Life may never get better for them, but it will for you, it really will. The ones who tease you for your good grades will still be standing at the same bus stop in a few years time when you drive past them in your shiny new car.

I realise, of course I do, that I’m making vast generalisations and judgements based on appearances here and I do so with my tongue half in my cheek. I have no way of knowing the circumstances of any of the strangers I see each day on my travels. I’m well aware that behind each hurried or distracted face lies a story and an individual. With feelings, experiences and struggles that I know nothing about.

I can’t help every angsty or surly teenager survive high school. But I can use my own memories and experiences to help raise two children with the strength to hold their heads above the parapet when they reach their teens. At the moment they are two and four years old. I have several years before the onset of their teenage years. Somehow I hope to find a way to make them brave enough to include those who are left out and to not base their self worth on their social standing at school.

But the question is, how? More than anything I want my husband and I to be the people they can turn to regardless and unconditionally. I hope that the knowledge that we love and support them 100% will be enough to help them weather any and every storm. But will this be enough?

Image

Some of my class of ’95.

I’d really love to hear if and how memories of your school days have shaped your parenting in any way. Whether your children are little like mine or currently going through the teenage stage right now, I’d be so grateful if you’d please leave a comment below. You’ll be asked for your email address, which will be kept private and you don’t have to use your real name. Thank you, lovely readers!

Advertisements

School of Thought

20130920-121216.jpg

“Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are.”
Dr. Brene Brown.

For many of us, finding ourselves back at the primary school gates again, thirty-odd years after our own first days can bring a whole host of memories rushing back, some of which are more welcome than others.

My own school memories are not really the greatest, particularly in high school. Underneath it all, I usually felt I was on the outside looking in. It seemed like there was a secret instruction manual of how to be cool and my copy had got lost in the post. I used to look enviously at the blonde girls with the Naf-Naf bomber jackets and swishy hair which seemed to sway in slow-motion before falling perfectly back in to place. I don’t know what kind of aura I gave off but it certainly wasn’t one of effortless cool. I remember exactly what invisible felt like.

This obviously played a big part in my own anxieties about Monkey starting big school last week. The thought of him feeling left out or excluded from things was enough to induce several weeks of horrible anxiety dreams. I was so busy stressing (completely unnecessarily, as it turns out) that I didn’t really give any thought to my own experiences at the school gates with the other parents until I got there.

Fortunately for me, so far the other parents have been lovely and this morning the school held a coffee morning for the parents to meet one another. I don’t see evidence of cliques forming yet, although it is early days I suppose.

However, my friend Laura* shared this online yesterday:
“This morning I realised I feel like I am 11 again……. all the well-dressed blonde mummies were standing in groups moaning about the school and I was invisible. I can’t decide if I am being over sensitive but where are the normal mummies?”.

Understandably Laura received lots of messages of support and encouragement. She is a mum of three children under five, including a newborn and in my view deserves a gold star from the teacher on a daily basis for making it out of the house.

However, one of the replies really disturbed me, for a number of reasons:
“Mums that have time to look that good spend less time doing things they ought to be with their children. I like to sit at the breakfast table and discuss the day ahead and have a giggle with my children rather than have them sitting in front of the telly whilst I cement my face. Please don’t let them make you feel insecure, they probably wouldn’t be nice people to be around anyway.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I try very hard not to judge. It’s a work in progress for me. I try to see different sides of arguments and remember that the opposite of what I know is also true.
But this particular comment has buzzed around my head for almost twenty-four hours now.

It was intended to make Laura feel better and it’s coming from a place of kindness, I hope. But it’s also making huge, sweeping generalisations and judgements, literally saying that women who wear make-up are worse mothers than those who don’t. It’s perpetuating exactly the type of us-and-them mentality which drives wedges between women, wherever and whatever their circumstances.

I’ll share my reply too, for some context.
“I worried about the other mums too before we started last week. I actually made a conscious choice not to let myself feel like that, strange as it might sound. I think that the older I get, the clearer it becomes that anyone who doesn’t like me how I am is unlikely to become a friend that I need in my life. I did enough jumping through those hoops in my own school days. Anyone at the school gates will be lucky to count you as a friend. In the meantime, I also try to remember that the make-up and blonde highlights etc can also be part of someone’s armour. I bet they have their own issues going on too. You’re are doing an incredible job with your three gorgeous babies and your business. The rest will eventually fall in to place.”

Now, I may occasionally go almost a week without washing my hair, but I will always apply at least a smudge of make-up in the morning. It’s like my armour. I’d also argue that it’s for the benefit of all mankind, really, as they’re the ones who have to look at me. It makes me feel better about facing the world and prevents concerned glances from friends and neighbours. (I’m not kidding. Last time I left the house au-naturale my close friend and neighbour genuinely thought I was poorly. I was tempted to go along with it to elicit some homemade soup). But this isn’t the point.

20130920-122600.jpg
We have to stop comparing ourselves with others. Whether we’re doing it to make ourselves feel inadequate or to prove to ourselves that we’re better than someone else. Either way, comparison is a dangerous pastime. Good rarely comes from it.

I did a quick online poll to get an idea of how some of my readers are finding things at the school gates. As you’d expect their experiences so far have varied. I’ve heard stories about both children and parents being left out from play dates and parties because the parents aren’t part of the right clique. I’ve been told or parents who couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about playground politics. There are others who are simply too busy to notice or to care. For some, the playground parents are their only source of adult conversation all day.

Interestingly, one reader viewed the image situation differently:
“Some mums are friendly, some keep themselves to themselves and others are in little groups… I am quite sensitive although I may not appear that way. I have highlights and wear make-up so worry about the image I give off. School was a struggle for me growing up and brought back a lot of memories not all good. Had my cries last week!!! Trying to be stronger.”

Everyone’s experiences are valid. They all matter.

Some would say that if you don’t notice a clique, it means you’re in one. Outside of school, my closest group of friends are a circle of seven other mums and we have fourteen children between us. None of them are at the same school as my son.

When we all get together at a children’s party or somewhere, perhaps we do seem cliquey. We don’t get together as often as we’d like and we try to make the most of our time together. But at the same time, each of us would be horrified to think that we’d left someone out, or caused anyone to feel excluded.

The main reason this is so important to me, as I’ve said before, is that I want my children to be the ones looking out for others. To take the new kid under their wing and certainly to never feel left out themselves.

The only way I can think of to teach them this is to lead by example.
I don’t want my children to be the target of any playground cruelty, either deliberate or otherwise. Schools grounds should not a place for popularity contests, for parents or their children. We need to model the kind of behaviour we’d like to see them exhibit, and that means being kind, friendly and welcoming to everyone. Whether they look and dress like you, parent like you or not.

First impressions can be deceptive.
Defence mechanisms like shyness can make somebody seem dismissive or rude. At the same time, I’ve said it before and will undoubtedly say it again, we don’t know what’s going on behind even the most perfectly made up, smiling face. I, for one, turned up at pre-school made-up and smiling each day through some of my darkest days. It’s taught me not to pigeon-hole a woman who seems distant or sulky. She may well have her own struggles going on and be fighting her way through each day and it’s not about me. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as a result.

It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child and I think it takes different types of people to make a society. As parents we can nurture an environment which embraces children, parents and human beings in general from of all walks of life.

We will miss out on so much if we limit our (and our children’s) friendships based on whether someone fits-in to a preconceived ideal of what we feel a friend should look like. You or your child may or may not meet life-long friends in the school playground. But in any case, you’ll be spending several years there and, as Oscar Wilde said, you can only really be yourself… Everyone else is taken.

You can find the Mummy Kindness Facebook page here.

Only Being Honest?

“If you can’t be kind, be quiet” Timber Hawkeye

20130824-164247.jpg

I wonder at what point it became socially acceptable to be rude or judgemental under the guise of “just being honest”?

I belong to several mums’ groups on Facebook and as a result I often see questions from various mums in my newsfeed. One in particular caught my eye last week, prompting me to reply.

Anna* posted a question in relation to a forthcoming holiday which I immediately felt compelled to reply to because had Anna proceeded with her idea, her child’s safety would have been in question.

I suggested a few alternatives and told her what we did on holiday to get around this issue whilst pointing out why I thought her idea was too risky to entertain. She replied with thanks and immediately said that she felt embarrassed about her post and would not, under any circumstances, be following through on her original plan.

One would hope that would be the end of it, but sadly this was not the case. Immediately dozens of women began throwing in their opinions, with very few of them employing any tact whatsoever. Again, Anna replied. This time re-iterating that she felt awful for her post. That she would never deliberately do anything to put her child at risk and felt mortified that so many people now thought she was a dreadful mother. Anna asked them to please stop commenting.

Still, they didn’t stop. Some felt the need to comment a second time, to re-iterate how shocked they are that she would post such an idea. Wasn’t her child her world? What would cause any mother to think this way?

It was at this point that I felt the need to pipe-up again. I was horrified at the way Anna was being treated. Granted, there was no doubt that her idea was out of the question and could’ve put her child in danger. But she had clearly stated her regret at ever raising the topic, she was sorry and was very upset.

I told the group that I felt the tone of their messages was becoming increasingly hostile. That their words were attacking Anna unnecessarily and I believed that support groups should be just that, a place for support. Honesty should be served with a helping of tact, in my opinion.

To this I received replies defending the aggression used. One woman said “If you share a post on here, you should expect an honest answer. We’re all shocked at Anna and she should expect a response like this. We’re only being honest.”

Only Being Honest?

How have we arrived in a time where we can attack people and wear them down like this, with our justification being that we’re “Only being honest”. What about tact? And compassion? What about concern for our fellow mothers?

I was frankly horrified by the words unfolding on the screen before me. All I could think of was a time in which I was unable to cope with any criticism whatsoever. If the same thing had happened to me during that very low point in my life, I can’t even imagine what would’ve happened to me. I think I would’ve ended up hospitalised and I’m not exaggerating. It was all I could do to keep my own negative voices at bay, without strangers in so-called Facebook “support groups” bullying me.

Because, without question, this was bullying. Anna repeatedly asked them to stop before eventually removing herself from the group altogether. These are all mothers of young children, who quite frankly should have known better. From an outside perspective it seemed almost a pack mentality, with one, possibly vulnerable target.

20130824-164332.jpg
I sent a private message of support to Anna, who explained how “utterly cyber bullied” she felt. She realised she’d made public what should have been a fleeting thought, quickly dismissed. There was no question that it was a bad idea but she did not deserve such treatment.

As a mother of two small children who keeps up to date with news and current affairs I’ve been shocked and saddened by the recent spate of teen-suicides linked to cyber-bullying. The world is such a different place to the one in which I grew up and I worry a great deal about a future where bullies could target my children even in the comfort of their own bedrooms. Some children will be resilient enough to bounce back and will have parents they can turn to with their problems. Others will not.

In my view, the first step towards supporting our children through potential difficult times ahead is to ensure that they can talk to us, openly and about anything. Let them never feel that they have no-one to turn to.

In order to achieve this, we need to be approachable and to lead by example. This goes for our online as well as offline lives. We need to treat others with the kindness that we all deserve. There is a real person on the other side of the screen, with real feelings. However much we may disagree we must respect one another; take a few metaphorical steps in somebody else’s shoes and ask ourselves if we’d like to be on the receiving end of our own words.

I’m pretty sure some of the women involved will be reading this post. I hope they digest it and take it as it’s intended. Not as an attack on them but as an opportunity to stop and think about words and the pain they can cause.

Like I said at the start of this post: if you can’t be kind, be quiet.

20130824-164915.jpg

*I changed Anna’s name to protect her identity. I have also deliberately not included details on her original question.