Prisms and Peace

20131021-184639.jpg

“The more you approve of your own decisions in life, the less you feel the need to have them approved or accepted by others” – Unknown

I shared this quote on my Facebook page last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

One thing I strongly believe is that if we truly have peace with and faith in our own actions and choices, both as parents and human beings, we can take the sting out of almost any criticism and in doing so help to diffuse negative self-talk at the same time.

My breast-feeding story was an example of this. After having my daughter I spent the best part of two years berating myself for being unable to breast-feed her. As a result I was highly attuned to any conversation on the topic and would often find judgement where perhaps there was none intended. I really didn’t have peace with my inability to breast-feed and this clouded not only my interpretation of events but also my opinion of myself as a mother. I viewed every conversation and article on the subject through the prism of my own experiences so was extremely sensitive and self-critical.

Theodore Roosevelt once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”.
There will usually be someone who you perceive to have or be a better x, y or z than you. Perception is the key word here. I’ve said before that we never really know the struggles others are enduring behind the scenes and anyway, no-one else can lessen what you already are, even if they’re cleverer/richer/thinner/happier than you.
No one has the monopoly on any feeling or any characteristic and comparing our lives with others’, whether to make ourselves feel better or worse is never the healthiest of pastimes.

I belong to several Facebook mums’ groups and I never cease to be surprised (and often disappointed) at the fervency with which opinions are often communicated. I’ve witnesses many openly scathing online attacks on those with different viewpoints, and even more quietly judgemental and passive-aggressive debates turning into conflicts. Each one makes me feel both anxiety and despair at the sometimes seemingly non-existent sisterhood or solidarity amongst certain mothers online.

“What other people think of you is none of your business. If you start to make it your business, you’ll be offended for the rest of your life.”
Deepak Chopra

I genuinely believe that most of what people say is not about me or you, it’s a reflection of them, viewing life through the prism of their own experiences and often their self-doubts, too.

I spend a lot of time observing people’s behaviours. Watching a storm descend online I often pontificate on why people are conducting themselves in such a way…. What drives them? I wonder if sometimes, without even realising, criticism of others is a strategy for boosting a flailing self esteem. I suspect that much of the more embittered denigration of other mother’s methods comes from a place of buried inadequacy. Proving superiority. Knocking others down in order to build yourself up, as it were.

Having faith in our own choices could go such a long way in removing the need to be validated by the approval of others and the subsequent tendency to see an “us and them” pattern with other mothers who may do things differently.

Some choices are easier than others to reconcile and there will always be mistakes. But our mistakes don’t define us, they’re just learning opportunities.

I’m working on giving myself some grace and remembering that setbacks or minor-catastrophes can also be viewed as chances to practice self-kindness and cut myself some slack. Parenting seems to be one huge learning curve and every time you think you’ve sussed it, the goal posts seem to move again.

Rather than always elaborating on the most negative interpretation of events I need to remember that I’m human. Sometimes I shout and sometimes I cry and that’s OK. Because the decisions I make, whether right or wrong, are always made in love and with the best interests of my family heart. I truly believe that the vast majority of mothers out there are the same as me. We’re trying our best. Sometimes our best will be better than other days and sometimes “good enough” will have to suffice, but there is always love.

When looking back on why I reacted in a particular way to a situation, Often, on reflection, I realise that I’ve been looking to others to help me feel good enough about my decisions or choices.

I’ve said before that we can’t control what others say to us, but we can try our hardest to control our reactions. If, for example, your mother-in-law comments that your child isn’t dressed warmly enough for the cold weather you have a choice as to how you react. You can assume she thinks you’re a dreadful parent who doesn’t have a clue what’s best for your child and spend the rest of the day admonishing yourself. Or, you can remind yourself that you know your child better than anyone. You know your little one will get cranky and cross if she gets too hot. You can move on from the conversation and get on with your day by having faith in the choices you make.

The same goes for almost any decision you make for your children; feeding, weaning, co-sleeping, schooling… you’ve made your decisions with love and care. Others are entitled to do the same and it’s no reflection on you or me if their choices are different. Your instincts are usually right for your children and the same applies to other parents, too.

Now, I don’t think I’m ever likely to become to type of person who genuinely doesn’t care what other people think. However, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that by recognising my own strengths I can work towards nurturing a mindset of not needing everyone else’s approval or acknowledgement that I am a good enough person or parent.

Because, I’ll let you in on a little secret; I am a good enough person and parent. And so are you.

Please help spread the Mummy Kindness by liking my Facebook Page!

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.

Guest Post: When I Grow Up, I Want to be Like My Children.

I’m lucky enough to be on holiday at the moment. I’m hoping to write a post during my break, but so far, on day three we’ve managed to lose Monkey once, Madam has escaped from her cot (head-first) and we’ve had several smashed glasses in restaurants! Luckily we’re in a family friendly resort and there’s usually several children misbehaving at any one time, so we feel right at home!

I’m sharing a post that my dear friend Lizi posted last night. It’s from her blog Through Accepting Limits which you can find here. Lizi has four year old twins, J&L. They’ve been in our lives for only a year but it feels like we’ve known them forever. I strongly suggest you read and devour every word on her site. You’ll be glad you did.

20130510-113938.jpg

When I Grow Up, I Want to be Like My Children

About six months ago, L started to notice that J was “different”. She asked why he sometimes ignored her when she was talking to him. She asked why he always needed to repeat his daily scripts as we passed certain points when we were out in the car. She asked why he clamped his hands over his ears and shouted during tannoy announcements in supermarkets. She asked why it would sometimes take J a few minutes to answer a simple question; why he could not cope with making choices; why he would lay in bed screaming in the early hours of the morning; why he was obsessed with meerkats. She asked a lot.

At the same time J listened to L’s questions. Her enquiries meant that his difference, his “strangeness” was being pointed out to him. And whilst he made no comment I could see he was absorbing L’s questions. I saw the anxiety and confusion flicker across his face as L reeled off the ways in which he failed to behave like “normal” preschoolers. And I knew that my reply: “Because that’s just what J likes to do!” wouldn’t cut it for long.

So that’s when I first considered the idea of introducing the term “autism” to my 3-year-olds.
I initially broached the subject by gently introducing the concept of “disabilty” to them. L had only recently noticed that one of the presenters on CBeebies is missing the lower half of one arm. We had discussed some of the things she might find difficult and how others might be able to help, both practically (offering to tie her shoelaces) and emotionally (not saying mean things to her). And suddenly L’s world changed. Difference was all around her. She was, inevitably, full of questions. Why did that lady need to sit in a chair with wheels? Why did that man sound funny when he talked? Why did that big boy keep hitting himself on the head? Why did those people need sticks to walk? She very quickly grasped the idea that sometimes there will be part of someone’s body that doesn’t quite work the way it should, or work like everyone else’s. She understood that it might make life a little harder for that person, and that we should all do what we can to be kind and helpful to each other.

We talked about the infusions I do each week and she grew to understand that part of Mummy’s body doesn’t work like everyone else’s either – but that you can’t see it. L learned what an immune system is, and shouted angrily at her “fighters” to “make those germs scram” when she caught a cold. And finally we talked about J. I explained that whilst J’s body works fine (I’ll save the explanation of hypermobility for another day!), he sometimes thinks and feels differently to others. We revisted all of L’s “whys” and she started to put the puzzle together. J shouts in the supermarket because he hears everything really loudly and it hurts his ears. J sometimes ignores her because he can only think about one thing at a time. J screams in his bed because his brain isn’t very good at going to sleep. And gradually I introduced the word “autism”. At first it was hard to explain such an intangible condition. But then L would start to ask “Did J do xxx because he is autism?” (I still can’t get her to say he has autism!). Sometimes I would reply “Yes, I think J probably did xxx because he has got autism”. And sometimes I would reply “No, I think J did xxx just because that is what J likes to do”. Again, J listened and absorbed. And as autism by its very nature likes facts and answers, rather than intangible questions, J seemed at peace with the answers that were emerging.

And of course, we talked again and again about how much we love J, and how the things that make him different also make him very, very special. I knew I had overdone the “J’s autism makes him special” when L tearfully insisted that she is “a little bit autism” too. I didn’t protest too hard. We’re probably all a little bit autism after all.

And as time has gone on, “autism” has become just another word in J and L’s ever-increasing and hugely impressive vocabularies. It is simply another descriptive term. L has got blue eyes and curly hair, is very little, and loves to sing and make pictures. J has a wicked laugh and autism, is great at reading, and loves shapes and tickles. Sometimes J will refer to his autism and a little more often L does. Occasionally I have found it very useful in explaining J’s own behaviour to him, when he seems confused by his physical and emotional responses to different stimuli. But mostly no-one in our house mentions autism because no-one needs to.

I did not take the decision lightly to tell my children at such a young age that J has autism.

After I had done it I worried constantly about whether it had been the right thing to do. Their response reassured me to a certain degree. But it was a conversation we had today that finally left me in no doubt that I had done the right thing.

A little boy, B, has recently joined J and L’s class in nursery. B has autism. I know very little about him, but it is clear that he not at the same point of the spectrum as J. He is non-verbal and it seems that his autism is notably more severe than J’s. In the car on the way home from nursery today J suddenly said “Let’s talk about B!” I asked what he wanted to tell me about B and he said B had kept opening the classroom door today. I remarked that this was funny – B likes opening doors and J likes closing them. J said “Yes, B is like me!” A split second later came L’s inevitable question: “Is B autism?” “Yes” I replied, “I believe B has got autism”. “Oh!” said L. “That’s why he doesn’t talk!” Bearing in mind J’s verbal communication skills are excellent I was surprised she had made this connection. L went on to explain all the autistic traits B displays during an afternoon at nursery. I have to say her diagnostic observations are impressive.

Then L told me B had pinched her today. She said it hurt. I thought about my response before saying that I didn’t think B meant to hurt her or be naughty, but he still needed to learn that he mustn’t pinch people so L must tell the teacher if it happens again. Then L said something that brought tears to my eyes. I have reproduced her words as faithfully as my memory allows:

“Poor B” she said. “Maybe he wanted to be my friend but didn’t know how to tell me. I don’t mind that he pinched me. He probably knew that I would be kind to him because I know all about autism. If he does it again I will say ‘No B, pinching makes me sad. Do you want to play instead?’ Do you think that will make him happy Mummy? It must be very upsetting to not be able to talk or to tell people what you want. Maybe we should have a play date with him”.

Then J, who had been quiet for some time, added: “B has got autism like me. I will be his friend”.

If my children go on to climb Everest and win Nobel prizes, I can’t imagine ever being prouder of them than I was in that moment. At four years old they have openly understood and accepted difference and, through their own volition, considered ways to embrace it. They have shown empathy, compassion and kindness. The thought that B will grow up remembering the two children who offered to be his friend rather than shying away from him fills me with joy.

I have learned an important lesson today. I have been so busy trying to change the world so that everyone is loving and accepting and understanding towards J, I forgot that he has it in him to be all of that for another.

A year ago I could never have imagined being grateful for J’s autism. Now I am just starting to realise how many gifts it has given us. And the greatest of all is that it has made my children into the kind of people who wish to befriend a boy who might otherwise remain friendless. What parent could ever ask for more?

20130510-113843.jpg