Thursday 1 October 2015

A jolt of reality...

The thump itself was quite a shock.

Queuing at the roundabout on my morning commute, it certainly woke me up.

The driver behind me had moved forward prematurely. The result? Two shaken ladies and a little damage to both our vehicles.

After pulling over, we exchanged details.  She, having been at fault, was more affected than I was. I expressed concern about whether she was OK to drive again and she reassured me that she was.

I've only had my little Fiat (fondly named Guido) for a couple of months.  It's the newest vehicle I've ever owned.  What bad luck, eh? What a scunner, as we say in the north-east.  What a great excuse for a good old wallow in self pity.

Actually, no.

Let's put this little scenario in context.  There I was. In my shiny, nearly new car.  Commuting to a job that's stimulating, rewarding and which I'm well paid for.

I was unhurt. The damage to the car is minimal. If I need to fund the repair myself, then doubtless I'll be able to do so.

In the wider scheme of things, I'm healthy. My family are healthy. We are fortunate to have a nice roof over our heads and food in the cupboards.

Woe is me? I don't think so.  What happened is a minor pothole on the comparatively smooth road of my life.

My problems are first world problems. Which means they're not really problems at all. Open your eyes a bit wider - switch on any news channel - and you'll catch my drift.

I'm no saint but I like to think I possess a little perspective.

That's why I feel sorry for the lady who ran into me. She got a real fright. I certainly don't feel sorry for myself.

It's only taken forty years. But I may have finally grown up.

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Friday 21 August 2015

The power of parenting solidarity

Our eyes locked only for a second but it was enough.

"I know how you feel. I feel the same. And we're doing our best."

An important message, silently communicated between two strangers.

The scene? A crowded courtyard, alive with sounds, scents and colour during one of the world's biggest arts festivals.  People had travelled thousands of miles to be there.  There was no end of stimulation for the senses.  It should have been an amazing experience, for all ages.

And yet.

In the midst of this activity, my eleven-year-old had a face like a thundercloud. Her body language was closed.  She looked, quite frankly, as though she'd rather be anywhere but here.  And with anyone but her family.

At risk of sounding pathetic, I wanted to cry.  Four days away at the very end of the Scottish school holidays. That was all we had managed to squeeze in together as a family, between work and other commitments. I'd looked forward to it so much that I'd forgotten something essential: Kids don't have a happy button that you switch on along with the car ignition at the start of the trip.

And then I saw her.  A woman around my age. Nicely dressed, *normal* looking - but with an expression just like mine. Two feet away from her: A girl around my daughter's age. Nicely dressed, *normal* looking - but with an expression just like my daughter's.

We didn't speak. But I think we might have saved one another's day.

Please know that I don't take pleasure from others' struggles. But in the challenging world of parenting, I think it's important to let one another know that we all share these struggles.  And that struggling doesn't mean you are a bad parent. Or that you're getting it wrong.

All stages have their challenges.  The infants who won't sleep more than three hours at a time.  The terrible twos who turn into terrible threes.  The mood swings of adolescents. The full-blown rebellion of older teenagers.

As a fellow parent, we don't always have answers for our friends.  And sometimes that doesn't matter. What does matter goes beyond words.  It's what that anonymous lady and I did for one another.  It's letting someone know that they're not alone and they're not being judged.

And - despite how they may feel - that they're doing a really important, really tough job pretty damn well.

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Friday 31 July 2015

The predictability of package holidays

There's been a reason for the blogging lull. Well. Sort of.

Loyal readers may recall my last post 'Summer holidays the Scottish way'. Turns out that I couldn't survive the entire six weeks shivering on picnic benches in my fleece. Neither could my very dear mum.  So off we trooped to the travel agent and a last-minute week of Mallorcan sunshine was ours.

It's been several years since I was on a package holiday abroad.  And yet. Some things truly never change...

Here they are - in no particular order:

Whatever you wear to the airport for departure will be completely inappropriate for the temperature  at your destination.  And vice versa on the way home. (Bear in mind that my point of departure is Aberdeen International Airport, which takes this particular phenomenon to a new level of extreme.)

On queuing for check in 90 per cent of females will be anxiously clutching something resembling a polypocket containing passports, tickets and other essential travel information. Meanwhile, the men will be looking around vacantly, wondering how long they have to wait before they can scoot off to the bar.  

Regardless of your best efforts you will never, ever get through security first time.  Buckles on your sandals? Glasses on your head? And don't even start me on the liquids. They'll catch you out one way or another. 

Within five minutes of disembarking from the plane you will utter a statement along the lines of it being "far too hot". Despite the fact that you spend the remaining 51 weeks of the year fantasising about temperatures above 20 degrees.

While logic tells you that some of the people on your complex must also be new arrivals, they will all be golden limbed from day one. As you slap factor 50 on your sun deprived skin, you have a vague concern that you'll give the locals snow blindness.  

When it comes to the breakfast buffet, sunbed locations and dining out, everyone else will have it sussed.  Even the toddlers, who strut back and forth for their morning croissant with supreme confidence. You, on the other hand, will feel like a 'green' newcomer - right up until the day prior to departure. By then, you'll finally be starting to get the hang of it.

On your return home, you will conveniently forget all of the above. Instead, you tell anyone who will listen that everything went swimmingly. 

And you know what? In the big scheme of things, it really did. 

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Wednesday 1 July 2015

Summer holidays the Scottish way

It was a tropical 10 degrees in our patch the other week. No, I'm not joking. And I didn't write this post in February and schedule it for summer either.

When you live in the north east of Scotland you develop a certain stoicism about the weather. And yet, when the outdoor furniture and skimpy outfits hit the shops, we still rush out and buy them. 

If you're lucky enough to live in warmer climes, please admire our efforts to enjoy popular summer activities. (It's like *let's pretend* for adults.)

The family barbecue
The event: Impossible to plan in advance, this involves a frantic ring round of relatives on the morning of said barbecue. The sky is blue and the forecast is screaming little yellow suns for the duration of the day. On securing the attendees, a frantic dash to the supermarket ensues.  This is incredibly inefficient as everyone you know is in there too, desperately lobbing sausages in their trolleys for their own opportunistic family barbecues.  You stagger back laden with food for the five thousand three hours later.

The reality: Remember those little yellow suns? They lied. As your guests arrive, the skies mysteriously darken and little spots, which everyone manfully tries to ignore, start to steadily fall. Ladies clad in flimsy dresses and sandals begin to inch their way indoors.  Your relaxed al fresco gathering starts to resemble the family Christmas get-together with extra chairs squeezed into the living room and hyperactive children rampaging round the house.

Top tip: Always, ALWAYS, erect the gazebo. However promising the temperatures or forecast.

The beach picnic
The event: Another last-minute venture, also involving a last-minute supermarket splurge. As it's a *guaranteed scorcher*, you decide to make a day of it and invite some friends to join you for carefree fun and frolics at the coast.  Everything from swimsuits, towels and Crocs to beach balls, soft tennis kits and windbreaks is flung in the car.  The roof box is likely to be fully loaded too.

The reality:  Regardless of how much you spend on food, if you are going with another family, your children will prefer whatever is in their cool box. By the time you reach the coast, that north-east phenomenon known as 'haar' will have descended. You may have to retreat 10 miles inland to feel anything resembling heat.  Huddled round a picnic bench in your fleece, you feign enjoyment while the children whine "But why isn't it sunny here?".

Top tip: There is no such thing as a *guaranteed scorcher* when it comes to the Scottish seaside. Take layers. Lots of them.

The camping expedition
The event: Having succumbed to all those Tiso advertisements that make camping look like a healthy, fun and cost-effective family holiday, you feel duty bound to use the tent and all its accoutrements at least once a year. Waiting for a prolonged dry forecast is impossible.  You pick your dates and go.

The reality: By the time you've purchased a roof box and bike carrier for your cheap family holiday, you'd have been better off at a five-star hotel. You get drenched during both tent erection and dismantling. And let's not even mention the whole *drying out* saga after. No-one gets any sleep because it's either a) too hot b) too cold or c) too noisy.  You return home feeling you've endured the equivalent of Bear Grylls Mission Survive but without the benefits of looking like Vogue Williams.  You will also be in desperate need of another - dare I say *real* - holiday.

Top tip: Swallow the pain and sell the tent and accessories on eBay. Use the funds raised to book a hotel mini-break. Pronto.

Disclaimer: To the wonderful people at VisitScotland, I love my country. Really I do. Now if we could just fix the weather...

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Monday 8 June 2015

Why sport isn't all about winning

My recent post 'Earning Your Life Skills Certificate' touched briefly on the topic of children and rewards.

My eldest attended her first *away* swim meet this weekend. Her experience turned my thoughts back to the topic.  

Several of the youngsters representing her club were also *first-timers*.  By lunchtime, some of them had gained medals for their efforts.  Others - my own daughter included - had not. Cue a few disappointed faces.

As with many sports, swimming has its own set of rules and etiquette.  Over lunch, one of the coaches confessed to me that he knew the kids thought he was being hard on them.

For my own part, I was delighted with his approach - and with my daughter's experience.

Here's why:

1. In swimming, it's easy to get disqualified.  That's tough to deal with when you're very young.  But enforcing the rules from the start means that errors and bad habits get ironed out at an early stage. Judges feed back to coaches, who work with their charges to correct the mistakes. The process is handled sensitively and constructively.

2. There may not be medals for all but progress is acknowledged. Race times were made available throughout the day. And there were high fives and fist bumps for those who had achieved personal bests (PBs) too.

3. Representing a club brings responsibility but also camaraderie.  Forget the podium. My *proud mum* moment came when I watched my normallly self-conscious daughter stand on the bench and yell her lungs out for her new friends during the relays.  She was delighted to be part of it by association.

4. Win or lose, you stick it out until the medals ceremony at the end.  You grit your teeth, you smile and you applaud others whether they're on your team or not.  Dealing with disappointment (of which more here) is something that we all have to do in life.  Shielding our children does them a disservice; it leaves them ill-equipped for adulthood. Losing graciously is a skill that needs to be worked at.


Medals are great. Particularly when they're attained through perseverance and training.  When everyone gets one, they don't feel quite as special.  Some of the unsuccessful newcomers may decide that competitive meets simply aren't their thing.  Others may be inspired and desperate to give it another shot.  Their reactions will vary as much as their personalities.

For my own children, I hope that their involvement in sport encourages them to remain active and healthy in adulthood.  I hope that being part of a club helps them understand how to contribute to a team.  I hope that meeting other youngsters in different settings develops their confidence, communication skills and social circles.  

And if they achieve all that? Well, that's what I call a victory.

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You Baby Me Mummy

Friday 29 May 2015

The language of parenting

On reading the title, you might anticipate a post stuffed with pearls of wisdom about how to communicate with infants. If so, click away now.  Baby whisperer I am not.

There is, however, an alternative parenting language that I became fluent in with relative ease. You may have done so too.  See if you recognise any of these little foibles in your day-to-day speech...

Formulaic phrases

Embedded in your psyche from when you were a child, these come flooding back unbidden. Little gems such as "Look at me when I'm talking to you" and "What's the magic word?" become a regular part of your vocabulary. Admit it: Who's almost said the latter to a sulky checkout assistant?

Memory-loss improvisation

I'm not just talking about calling a plate a "thingmejig". Oh no. There's an element of creativity that goes with the absent-mindedness of the overstretched parent.  It's particularly evident when it comes to forgetting the names of others' children.  I've perfected the art of leaning into the pushchair and saying "How's this wee smasher/little toot/young man doing today?". While crossing my fingers and fervently hoping that the parent will address their child by name.

Selective ownership

I've acquired a seamless ability to disown and re-own (is that even a word?) my little cherubs. Any display of talent is instantly attributed to some sort of similar ability I had in my youth. (Remember Baby's mother in Dirty Dancing? "I think she gets it from me.")  And at the first hint of mischief? Mr Average is firmly told that he needs to teach "his" children how to behave. Hey, no-one said this life was fair.

Channelling messages via children

Most of us won't admit to this. But we all know that we've done it.  Ohhhhh yes.  It works particularly well before the children can speak properly themselves.  Picture the scene. You need to say something that won't sit well with a relative. You therefore adopt a sing-song voice and pass it off as your child's thought process.  "Oh dear. Silly Auntie Pam doesn't realise that we can't stay for lunch/drink fizzy juice/handle shopping centres yet."  Auntie Pam knows exactly what you are up to. And she's totally ticked off. But to retaliate would seem churlish.

Sometimes - just occasionally - children do have their uses.

Alternatives to expletives

Flippin' heck, I really should have mastered this one by now. Funnily enough, it's the only part of the linguistic parenting portfolio where I occasionally lapse into my pre-mother tongue...

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Mums' Days

Friday 22 May 2015

Earning your life skills certificate

My youngest attended a junior cycling event last weekend.  For his troubles he received a certificate for 'taking part, learning new skills and trying hard'.

Many people feel that today's children are over-rewarded. Everything is incentivised. Everyone gets a sticker, so that no-one feels left out.  Or has to deal with disappointment.

I'm still not sure where I stand on that one.  But as I paused to re-read the wording on the certificate , something struck me.

Taking part. Learning new skills. Trying hard.  These aren't just challenges for children.  These are ideals that all of us should strive towards.  Because, let's face it, these three seemingly simple concepts aren't as simple to put into practice.

Taking part
Easy huh? But how many of us like walking into a business networking event, a parent and toddler group, or a new exercise class for the first time? Thought not.  In the last week, I've grappled with butterflies and forced myself into two new situations - one sporting, one work-related.  Was I nervous? Yes. Did I enjoy it once I got there? Yes.  Did I feel better afterwards? Yes.  Will it be easier next time? Possibly not.  But deep down I know that I need to keep putting myself out there.

Learning new skills
Now, this is something I do want to achieve. The challenge with this one, for me, is discipline. I need to prioritise what I want to learn, then make the time to do it.  Meanwhile, I've decided that baby steps are better than nothing. Last night child number one asked if she could show me a new drawing technique she had learned. Two messy mats. Two pieces of A4. Two pencils. And the best 15 minutes of my day. For multiple reasons.

Trying hard
Possibly the biggest challenge of all. Particularly when there's no obvious progress or immediate reward. The ability to keep trying - even though your goal is distant and others are streaking ahead - is a tough proposition.  It requires determination. Strength of character. Resilience.  I believe that the ability to try hard - and to keep trying - is just as important, if not more, than natural talent. So often we tell our children to "try their best". The words are straightforward. In reality, it's a big ask.  

Take part. Learn new skills. Try hard. 

One innocent certificate.  Three pretty solid rules for life.  For all of us.

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