Tag Archives: parenthood

25/52

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

I will never get bored of watching these two together.

Arthur loves his dad so very much, and it is wonderful after the hecticness of the past few months to be able to slow down, and breathe, and revel in each other’s company.

Now that we are past the intensity of Leigh’s med school training, I hope that we have worked out a way forward that will allow for more moments like this, where father and son can just hang out and enjoy the day to day.

He is only going to be little for such a very short time, and we fully intend to make the most of it.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Together we are stronger

Whilst momentum gathers for the kids’ strike on 3rd May, there are still a lot of parents who are undecided. Unsure if they are the sort of people who do this sort of thing, unsure if they or their kids will be punished for taking a stand, unsure if the issues at stake actually effect them very much at all.

One of the things I am hearing time and time again is that people love their schools. They don’t want to insult their kids’ teachers, they don’t want them to feel like they’re doing something wrong. But seriously – the time has come for us to act together. I remember – when I was teaching – having conversations with colleagues despairing over the negative impact of the Key Stage 3 SATs. We longed for parents to recognise how counterproductive this whole process was for their children, to petition us to stop the tests, to refuse to send their children into school. But they never did.

Fast forward ten years, and I am thrilled to see parents making their voices heard to say enough is enough. I am a parent now, too: and whilst my son is still a few years away from the Key Stage 1 SATs that initially inspired this campaign, I am already concerned about their impact on his future education. So much so that, at the moment, I can’t see any other option but to homeschool.

It’s not just the SATs though. There is so much that has changed in education in the three years since I took a step away from teaching, so much that the Tories are getting wrong.

So if you’re doubting whether or not to take a stand, wondering whether or not it applies to you and your kids, then I ask that you take a few minutes to consider this.

1) I would fail the new Key Stage 2 SATs

I am 38 years old. I have an A* in GCSE English, and an A in A-Level. I taught English to secondary school students for over ten years, and was head of faculty for the last two of those. I am currently in the process of writing my third novel.

And yet, last weekend, I sat a sample SATs test, and I only managed to get 50%. It’s taken me this long to admit it, because on one level I am mortified. But actually – I had trouble even reading to the end of the questions without glazing over, and my considerable knowledge of the English language has taught me that many of the answers would most definitely be open to debate in the real world.

Which brings me to my next point…

2) The knowledge and skills our kids are being told to prioritise is almost entirely irrelevant

I am (thankfully for me) far from the only well-educated person to have taken these tests and be utterly humiliated. Teachers, academics, writers, and many more people who in theory should know better have fallen foul of the particular demands of these exams.

It’s not that the technicalities of grammar aren’t important – it’s just that there are so many different ways to learn about them than by being able to recall the ins and outs by rote.

It’s ok for us – we have already found our path in life, have already succeeded. But what of the ten year old who takes these tests and declares themselves a failure because they are not able to jump through this government’s spectacularly misplaced hoops? If this action were to spare just one child from that fate, then it would have been worth it.

And the fact is, our children are suffering.

So much so that…

3) The relentless assessment regime our kids are subjected to is starting to seriously effect their mental health

One in ten children in the UK is diagnosed with a mental health problem. That is an alarming statistic, by anyone’s standards.

It is a leap to say that this is entirely down to the assessment regime, but there is a general consensus that it is a major factor. It would be very hard not to jump to this conclusion when reading the many testaments from parents that have come out of the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign. There are so many heartbreaking stories, but just this one from a parent of a year 6 boy should be enough to make us want to act.

In fact things are getting so bad that questions are being raised about whether the way in which our children are being treated in the education system is in breach of their human rights. I would very much argue that it is, and cannot imagine subjecting my son to the situations being described by parents in just three years time.

He’s ok right now, but it is the world that he is entering into that scares me.

Which is why…

4) Even if your child is not yet old enough for SATs, now is the time to act

Very few protests have the potential to directly impact on the people who are taking a stand: it is future generations who will benefit most.

I’ve been discussing this this week with my soon-to-be-a-junior-doctor husband. The doctors on the picket lines, the ones resigning their posts and speaking out so eloquently, are not protecting their own interests. The people who will immediately be affected by the new contracts are final year medical students, like my husband, and all of the future doctors currently slogging their way through the training system. It is likely that all junior doctors will ultimately be affected, but the action they are taking at the moment has very little to do with them and everything to do with the bigger picture.

It’s not a direct parallel to the kids’ strike, but it’s not a million miles away either. The parents who initiated this whole campaign have children in year two. Those children will still, most probably, have to sit the tests this year (unless of course a miracle happens and Nicky Morgan actually listens). The children who will most benefit, though, are the children who are facing the SATs in the years to come.

The NUT are considering a boycott of the SATs for next year: they will be even more likely to act with the strength of the nations parents behind them.

And anyway…

5) It’s not just about the SATs

The pressures on the curriculum at all levels is completely squeezing out arts subjects. The proposal to force all schools to become academies is essentially a back door to privatisation where we lose all ownership and democratic control of our schools. The knock on effect of the raising of the bar at Key Stage 1 is that Early Years education as we know it is under threat. Teachers are feeling such despair at all of this that they are leaving the profession in droves.

And yet…

6) The government does not expect you to act

If you are sitting thinking that it’s not really about you, that there is nothing you can do to make a difference and that your kids seem ok right now so it might be better not to rock the boat, then you are doing exactly what the government wants you to do.

And if you are not that bothered by the points that I’ve made above, then fair enough. But if you think our kids – your kids – deserve better, then maybe now is the time to make a stand.

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There are 16,743 people behind the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign on Facebook, and that is growing by the second. News outlets across the country are starting to take notice of the movement that is emerging. In my small town alone I know that there are two major television news stations planning to cover the events of the day.

And the question I would ask you is, what would you like to show them? Would you like them to see just a few parents out there making their voices heard, and silently applaud their intentions whilst not being quite brave enough to make the move yourself? Or would you like to see parents out there in droves, saying that our children are better than this? We are all better than this.

My son is only three, so we cannot strike as such. We will be doing what we do every day which is to seek out learning in the world around us. I am only hoping, on the 3rd of May, that we might come across you, and many, many other parents too, doing exactly that: and making the government fully aware of just how much their plans for our children are unwelcome.

 

In the absence of any real striking power my son and I, along with many other parents across the country, are participating in the #THISislearning campaign. Click here to find out more!

 

11/52

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

Looking back over my photos from this week, it is the ones of me and Arthur together that stand out the most. I know it’s cheating a little bit to call this a portrait of him, but in my defence he still, even as a confident and independent three year old, feels in many ways like an extension of my self.

I wonder if it always feels like that, being a mother? There’s a quote it brings to mind:

“Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” Elizabeth Stone

For me these toddler years, with all of their wonder and challenge, are a critical moment in this. Perhaps it is because I have chosen a route through parenting where we are very much attached, but it is only now that I am really starting to feel us begin to articulate our separateness. Him as an incredible bundle of energy and potential, me as a whole new creature to the one I was before I bore him.

It’s exciting, but it brings with it too a sense of loss.

The cuddles help with that though. And this week we have loved exploring our together-yet-apart bodies through yoga. By which I mean mainly me attempting to rediscover well-worn poses whilst he clambers delightedly all over me.

I pretend to be annoyed that it makes it near impossible to practice how I used to, but secretly I love it.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

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Dear daddy

It’s so good to have you to myself again. I know you’ve been busy, making people’s ouchies better in the hospital. I know you’ve been working hard.

But I’ve missed you.

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Life is so much more fun when you’re around.

I love going on adventures with you and mummy – I asked her where you were, every time, when we set out on our own. We had lots of good times together just the two of us, but it’s even better when you can come too.

Your shoulders are broader, and your hair doesn’t tickle so much.

I always got so excited when I saw your car pull into the drive: clamouring against the window, nose pressed to the glass as it misted up with my giggles. You would come right up and put your nose against mine and draw love in the cloud of our breath. When you disappeared again I would worry for a moment, but then I would hear your key in the lock and run as fast as I could for cuddles in the kitchen.

Thank you for always having time for me, even when you had been up since before dawn and had been ground down by mean consultants and endless traffic. Thank you for not even waiting to take off your coat before kneeling down to play train tracks, for finding the patience to do washing things before bed even when you would rather be having a glass of wine and collapsing on the sofa. Thank you for making me laugh and reading me stories until we both fell asleep in the chair.

I love it when you read with me.

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Thank you for the tickles and the Gruffalo cuddles and the prickle kisses.

Thank you for making mummy smile.

I know that sometimes I am hard work with my throwing and my hitting and my frustration at the world. But every time you listen to me it helps me begin to work it out, and every time you hold me it helps me remember how much I am loved.

I love you too, daddy.

Thank you for being.

Solitude

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For a long time my greatest fear was being alone.

I’m not sure when it started. Possibly around the time that I stopped believing in the fairies at the bottom of my garden and realised how mean people could be.

Often I would feel lonely even in a crowd. Especially then.

It took me forever to shake that gnawing teenage angst that no-one really understood me – or even wanted to. I had friends. Some really great friends, I can see that now. But at the time my paranoia wouldn’t let me appreciate them as much as I should have.

As you can probably imagine this didn’t bode terribly well for functional relationships. In my twenties I pinballed between variously inappropriate men: some lovely, some not so lovely, but none the right person to fill that chasm in my soul, however much I tried to convince myself that they were.

I began to think I should maybe look elsewhere, and decided to give internet dating a shot. It wasn’t really my thing, but I convinced myself I was being old-fashioned. I knew an increasing number of people who had found their soul-mate online after all.

One evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I settled down to fill in the (rather lengthy) questionnaire which would give me access to one of these internet dating sites. As I made my way through the questions, responding as honestly as I could, I couldn’t help but begin to feel excited. This site was building such a detailed profile of me that it promised to only show up ‘deeply compatible’ potential partners. Whatever idiosyncrasies I feared I may have, well, they would have them too! No more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. This was it: my chance to find the perfect partner.

And then the results came back.

They started by saying they were very sorry, that this didn’t happen often. Well, ever actually.

But in their database of over three million people they did not, in fact, have a match for me.

This really makes me giggle when I think about it now. And it did then too, once I’d got over the initial shock. No wonder I’d had trouble finding love, had never been able to shake that niggling feeling of being alone – there simply wasn’t anyone out there who I was compatible with!

I decided it was time to make peace with myself, to accept my wonderful uniqueness for what it was, to begin to revel in being solitary rather than being afraid of it.

It didn’t last long. A couple of months later I found my future husband (sort of online as it happens) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst I think I had finally got to a place where I was happy on my own, it’s hard to put into words how wonderful it was – and still is – to have found the person I’d been looking for. We have only been together for five years, but in that time we’ve shared so many adventures.

Now that we’ve embarked on this great adventure of parenthood together I’ve pretty much forgotten what it feels like to be alone. And the little person who has shared almost every minute with me since his conception almost three years ago does not care that I’m a bit peculiar. In fact he probably loves me even more because of it.

I admit that nowadays there are even times when I crave a bit of solitude.

But then I look back at how far I’ve come, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am finally happy in my skin. And whilst it might now be a moot point, I am no longer afraid of being alone.

 

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Y is for yawn

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This is one of the earliest pictures I have of Arthur. He’d been born less than two days before, and was still very much adjusting to being in the outside world. Everything was new. When he yawned, he scrunched up his big eyes and his tiny fists, and my heart melted.

Just as he was experiencing everything for the first time in those early days, so my world had transformed too into something I barely recognised. Its boundaries had shifted, the things that had seemed important before had become insignificant if not invisible. The edges of the universe had blurred as if to throw into sharp focus this being which had hurtled into its very core.

We didn’t move far from our bed at first. The bed where he was born. We snuggled up against the December cold, a family born along with this precious baby. Others came and went, cooing and crying and declaring his perfection. It was lovely to have them there, but lovelier still when they were gone and it was just us three.

Slowly we adjusted to our changed reality, venturing down the stairs and into the open air, that little being tucked up close beside my heart. Every step we have taken since has been an adventure, but I will never forget the magic of those moments when we lay still, cuddling and stretching and yawning and nurturing, watching and listening and glowing with the wonder of it all.

 

Joining in with The Alphabet Photography Project over at PODcast.