Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Confidence... too much and not enough

Every now and then I bemoan the fact that my son is just like me (and just like his father). When he tucks his head down against his shoulder and hides behind my skirt, saying, "You ask them Mummy," or "You tell them Mummy," rather than being able to talk to a friend or teacher directly, my heart sinks and I wonder if he will ever break free from the nature and nurture that I have foist upon him.

And then, there's the flip-side. His utterly excessive physical confidence. His complete faith that he could, should and will be able to achieve anything he attempts, be it scoring a goal with an overhead scissor kick, or climbing Scafell Pike (neither of which MeanMummyBear is letting him attempt just yet). Which brings us to the final swimming lesson of term, in which all the children were lined up on the edge of the pool and presented with a hypothetical dilemma...

Teacher: Imagine that this summer, while out playing with your friends, on a really, really hot day, one of them suggests that you jump into a lake to cool down. What do you say?

Child 1: No

Child 2: No

Child 3: No

Child 4: No

LittleBear: (with glee) Yes!

Teacher: Really? Even without your parents there?

LittleBear: Yes!

At this point, from my position poolside, behind the children, my hands are clutched to my head, which I am shaking from side to side, my eyes wide in disbelief, while the other parents laugh mercilessly at me.

LittleBear turns to look at me, delighted with himself, only to receive the stern imprecation, "No, not ever, never, under any circumstances, definitely not." And he looked genuinely bewildered.

Needless to say, both Teacher and I exerted ourselves to impress upon LittleBear the importance of Not Jumping In Lakes Without Mummy.

And maybe one day we'll navigate ourselves towards some sensible middle ground, where LittleBear is sufficiently confident he can speak to people, but sufficiently cautious he doesn't risk life and limb at every opportunity. Which would be nice.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Hangovers... real and metaphorical

The overwhelming anxiety I was feeling last week has abated somewhat, eased by time, space, good friends and alcohol. Some of these are a good and sensible solution. Some are not. It has also helped to have four days in a row where, very conveniently, I have not had to cycle home via the Path of Doom and Angry Bloke.

On Friday we went to the park, in the opposite direction.

On Monday the Path of Doom was closed by the council for resurfacing works.

On Tuesday LittleBear has an after school club, so we go home an hour and a half after Angry Bloke and the Path Blockers.

Today I collected LittleFriend as well as LittleBear, and used the car, thus leaving school in the opposite direction.


Meanwhile, my friend invited me out to listen to live music and drink Pimms on Friday night, and on a whim I went, because I didn't have time to over-think it, and I had a lovely time sitting in the evening sun, drinking, chatting and singing along to pop hits of my youth. Having managed to socialise without the world crumbling around me, I girded my loins and went to a 40th birthday party on Saturday night.

There were so many people there, but so few that I knew, that I was able to sit at a table with a handful of good friends, and not worry about who I was or how I seemed to strangers. I didn't have to put on a brave face, or make awkward social chit-chat. It was a seventies-themed night, and I drank too much wine, talked nonsense with my friends and danced to 70s disco hits, occasionally borrowing a friend's large, blonde afro wig for strutting my stuff. And it was brilliant. It was life-affirming, and reassuring, and simple, unadulterated fun.

And then I woke up on Sunday morning. Ouch. I'd gone to bed without rehydrating and had a miserable hangover. Fortunately, I have lovely bears, and they allowed me to stay in bed until I felt a little bit more human.

Meanwhile, I have had the metaphorical equivalent of that same hangover. I am coming to think of it as my anxiety-blogging hangover. I gorge myself on feelings and thoughts and emotions, and allow them to spill all over the page. I hope that my words reach people who feel the same way, or enlighten those that don't. And then I go to bed. And when I wake in the morning, I start to feel the after-effects of my honesty as I read the responses to my post. There are indeed those who reach out to me, to say "I didn't know you felt that way, I do too, thank you so much for saying it out loud." And there are those who say, "goodness, you're brave for admitting to all that." And there are those who say, "I had no idea, you hide it well." None of the responses are anything beyond that which I either expected or hoped for.

Nevertheless, I begin to feel slightly alarmed, and a bit queasy at the thought that I have just washed my dirty linen in public, and that I now have to speak to, and smile at, a wide range of people who may be fearing that the crazy lady is going to suddenly start crying, or do something erratic or eccentric at any moment. Because a large proportion of my audience are people I know. People I meet in the street. People I see in the playground. Conceivably teachers in LittleBear's school. The desire to hide from anyone and everyone becomes remarkably strong, as the idea of actually talking about any of this is anathema to me. I may be able to write honestly about how I feel, but face-to-face I'm generally up to a thoroughly British, "I'm fine," with a nervous grin.

After a few days, I begin to relax again, and feel moderately confident that I won't be ostracised for my oddities or honesties. The feelings of fear pass and I start to believe that there are not judgemental glances being thrown my way, and I am neither being avoided nor treated with kid gloves. But it takes time.

Half a day for a real hangover. Several days for an emotional hangover.

Drinking is beginning to look like a better option than blogging...

Monday, 9 July 2018

My version of a madelaine

For Marcel Proust it was a madeleine that instantly and vicerally evoked memories of times past. For me, it was a soggy swimming costume. His was more romantic and picturesque.

On Sunday, LittleBear went to a party and he and his cohort spent a splendid afternoon charging round the birthday girl's garden in their swimsuits, hurtling down a water slide, sploshing in a paddling pool, leaping on a trampoline and generally having a high old time. Eventually I brought him home, rinsed out his costume and went to hang it out on the washing line...

... the heavy, damp cling of the fabric in my hands.

... the wet costume gently brushing my cheek as I reach high above my head to peg it up.

... the hot, crisp, burnished grass beneath my toes.

... the glare of the bright, hot sky above my head.

... the heat of the sun on the back of my shoulders.

I was transported immediately, heart and mind, to my grandparents' house in Johannesburg, to summers that seemed to last forever, but can't have been more than the standard two-week Christmas holiday we got from English schools. Afternoons spent leaping in and out of their pool while being reminded to keep quiet so Granny and Grandpa could have their afternoon nap. I could see the fly-screen door into the kitchen, and feel the uneven weight as I pushed it open. I could hear the Hadedas as they flew over the jacaranda tree at the end of the drive. I could taste the tea my grandparents served, that I have spent a lifetime failing to recapture. I was immersed, if only for a moment, in their garden, in the aloes and red hot pokers, the lemon trees and peculiar topiary.

I've spent the last twenty-four hours diving beneath waves of nostalgia and trying to remind myself that the time and place are now long gone, remembered only in the minds of a handful of people and preserved only in a few snippets of yellowing cine film. And I still don't know what blend of tea my grandparents drank.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Consequences Part I

I have carefully chosen my post title in a tempting-fate kind of way, in the hope that by describing this as "Part I" there may never be a "Part II".

Last night I wrote about a minor run-in with another human being as I cycled home with LittleBear. I wrote about it in a relatively flippant way, making light of the anxiety I was feeling, as I try to bring a level of amusement to my friends so they see the absurd contortions my mind takes as I battle, almost daily, with anxiety that can be paralysing. It's not only for the entertainment of my fellow-man however, it's also to try and shed some light into the darker corners of my mind, to bring them into the open and allow other people to realise that even people who may, on the surface, appear fully functioning, happy and well-balanced may be struggling underneath. I hope to bring understanding and compassion to the world, in however small a way I can manage.

I'm not sure that yesterday's post achieved those aims. I don't think I conveyed the true depth of my own distress. Distress that I had made a stupid and rude mistake in speaking out loud when I didn't need to, and incapacitating fear of the consequences of my actions. I wasn't joking when I said I'd already spent six hours worrying. I was not joking that I would lie awake at night pondering the possible outcomes. In the darkness of the night I pictured Angry Bloke tracking me down in the playground and confronting me as though I were an American referee he was a Colombian defender*. There was finger jabbing; there was pushing; there was shouting. I got up this morning feeling physically sick. I struggled to eat my breakfast. I considered texting my friend to ask if she would collect LittleBear from school so I could avoid The Path Of Doom. I didn't offer to go to school this morning for reading-time with my LittleBear, just in case. I let BigBear go instead. I actually chose to miss doing something I love, with the child I adore, because I was shaking and sick with anxiety. This is me. This is who I am. This is who I hate being.

Then I turned my phone on.

And I found a message from a stranger. Someone who reads my blog, but whom I don't know.

She told me,
... or cycle on the right side of the road as a vehicle should.
That was what she took away from my attempts to light-heartedly describe my day while revealing my own mental struggles. She decided to presume that I was guilty of a minor traffic infraction** and to reprimand me.

And I was left wondering whether some of my readers, this stranger included, think this is all some kind of joke? That I exaggerate my feelings for dramatic effect? Or maybe that this whole blog is a work of fiction? Some sort of anti-Yummy-Mummy page where I pretend to be a bit kooky to get page hits? I don't. I am real. I am not just words on a page. I am a living, breathing woman who makes mistakes, who gets things wrong, who fights to be a better person but sometimes fails. This is me.

I drove to work in tears because a stranger on the internet had criticised me. I spent the night lying awake, afraid of what a different stranger might say to me in person as a consequence of my own actions. I am considering not going to a friend's birthday party on Saturday because I have reached humanity-overload. I am not sure whether I can actually face interacting with other people, with putting a smile on my face and pretending that I can function in society. And all of this has come about because of my interactions with two strangers. People whose opinion should not matter one iota. People who have no duty of care towards me, beyond basic civility. People who have probably not given a second thought to the ongoing ripples from their transient encounters with me. People who are not to blame for my reactions.

This is why my life is exhausting. Every day is strewn with moments such as these. Moments of passing remarks, casual comments, glances, expressions, that create in me an agony of over-thinking and fear.

* Not a reference that will stand the test of time I suspect. For my future self - World Cup 2018; England v Colombia; penalty awarded by a US referee to English captain Harry Kane resulting in serious objections by the Colombian team.

** I have also spent a large amount of time mentally drawing maps and diagrams to explain the actual layout of the area in question, and the intersection of a cycle path and a road so that I can demonstrate that while my comments were rude, my cycling was entirely legal and responsible, and that my use of such terms as "pavement" and "path" were not precise and accurate descriptions of the actual thoroughfares in question. Because that's what anxiety does. It forces my mind into a hamster wheel of panic and self-defence.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The perils of passive-aggression

I collect LittleBear from school by bicycle every day. 

We take the same route home from school every day.

And every day the same group of parents stop in the middle of the path, at a point where it splits, and prevent anyone else getting past in any direction while they exchange inanities before going their separate ways. They make absolutely no effort to take the additional three steps forwards that would allow everyone else to go about their day.

Today, being a Bear Of Insufficient Sleep and Commensurate Levels of Patience, I snapped, and as I finally managed to cycle past I muttered to LittleBear that I didn't understand why people had to block the path. Which provoked Angry Bloke to shout after me that they were saying goodbye to their friends. 

And I have spent the last six hours stewing on this and feeling stressed and anxious. I am running through in my mind whether I should try taking a different route home so that I never have to risk seeing him again. Or perhaps making sure we spend an extra five minutes in the playground every day from now until the end of the year to make sure we don't encounter them at that corner again. I have been fretting about whether tomorrow he will see me and accost me about my rudeness, or perhaps deliberately block my way. Or maybe he'll push me off my bike? Or tell everyone within earshot that I'm a rude and selfish person? Or find some as-yet-unimagined manner of publicly humiliating me? But it's OK, because I've got all night to lie awake and imagine the things that are as-yet-unimagined.

It perhaps wouldn't be quite so bad if I didn't know I'd been in the wrong to make over-hearable comments instead of just saying "excuse me". Though (in my feeble defence), "excuse me" has completely failed to penetrate on any day so far.

If anyone spots me hiding in the undergrowth near the school, I'm not a weird stalker, I'm just hiding from Angry Bloke and the Path Blockers. Which might be what I name my band when I'm forced to run away from home to escape the howling mob pursuing me with flaming torches and pitchforks over my poor path etiquette.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Tears and rage

Today has not exactly been a nadir of parenting, but it certainly hasn't been a zenith. I would certainly place it in the lower half of my parenting orbit. Any day that features me yelling at my son to walk home on his own because I've had enough, while he sobs that he will never, ever like me ever again can't be all good.

Let me take you back to how we reached this point...

It's summer. It's brutally hot (for a country that doesn't design people, or buildings, or life, to cope with heat). The fair has arrived in the village. LittleBear has seen the fair and is desperate to go. We*, however, are spending the weekend at GrannyBear's house. But, we drive home on Sunday morning, so that we can spend some of the weekend with BigBear. This handily means that we can also go to the fair on Sunday afternoon. Hooray.

Have I mentioned that it was hot?

And that I'd already spent a couple of hours in the car on the Motorway From Hell?

Nonetheless, to the fair we went. And it all started swimmingly. We met the friends we were due to meet. We loaded our respective boys into giant inflatable balls and let them roll around in a pond. We sent them down a huge helter-skelter a few times. But then... then LittleBear spotted Items Of Great Joy. The various dart-throwing, ball-tossing, air-gun-shooting stalls were festooned with row upon row of enormous cuddly tigers and leopards. There is nothing that brings more joy to my boy than large cuddly predators. And there was nothing he wanted more than a chance to win said large cuddly predators.

I explained to him that the games were all designed to look easy but to actually be really hard. And then I let him try to throw hoops over a block. And of course, the block is only fractionally smaller than the hoop, so even with perfect aim, you require a huge dose of luck to win anything. Unsurprisingly, LittleBear had neither perfect aim, nor a huge dose of luck.

I refused to engage in firing guns at anything.


Despite the proximity of giant cuddly felines to the air-gun range.

I allowed LittleBear to attempt to throw baseballs into milk churns. Milk churns the mouths of which are only fractionally larger than the balls, and whose edge is shaped in such a way that the ball always bounces away. Almost as though they're designed to be impossible to win. Once again, and still unsurprisingly, LittleBear had neither perfect aim, nor a huge dose of luck.

For a while I distracted him with a go on the bouncy castle.

Then I refused to engage in firing guns at anything again.

And then I conceded to attempting to win a tiger on his behalf by throwing darts at a dartboard. Thanks to a misspent youth, I used to be relatively proficient at darts, but naturally, the game is rigged against the player. The dart board is mounted somewhat higher than is customary, and the winning requirement is to get four darts each scoring higher than ten (from four throws). Being relatively proficient was in fact a disadvantage in this case, as I came painfully close to succeeding by reaching the required score with three of my four throws. And the trouble with "painfully close" is that it merely makes a small boy think that next time his mother could actually win.

Then I refused to engage in firing guns at anything again.

And LittleBear refused to consider going on any further rides, or even eating ice-cream.

And we both began to inch towards tears. LittleBear got there first. And being a foolish woman, rather than quitting before things got worse, I attempted to appease the weeping child by having another go at the game of darts. In fact, in total I had another three games of darts, as I agreed to two games, then hit the bullseye in one game, thus winning myself another turn. I still didn't win a tiger though.

Not winning a tiger appears to be almost the worst thing that has ever happened to LittleBear. He stood and sobbed and wailed, and insisted that he would never go home, but would stay where he was forever. So I picked him up and carried him home, all the while telling him to stop crying and listen to me.

By now, I should have learnt the utter futility of attempting to reason with a sobbing child. He was not ready, willing or able to listen to reason. So telling him that I understood that it wasn't fair, and telling him that there were other sources of cuddly toys did not penetrate. It turns out that carrying three and a half stone of recalcitrant, sobbing child in thirty-degree heat is hard work, and renders a slightly hot, tired, tetchy mother into a raging beast from the bowels of hell. Which is why I then plonked him down on the pavement and yelled at him that he could walk home on his own because I had had enough. I may also have called him a foul child. And I think the phrase "abominable behaviour" cropped up. And my episode of hyperbole received the dramatic response it deserved: "if I walk home on my own, I will get killed." At least my road-safety lectures have sunk in I suppose.

I can't quite recall how we got from shouting at each other to stomping along the path again. But stomp we did. With more mutterings and dire imprecations from both of us. I'm pretty certain LittleBear is never going to play with me again. And that he doesn't like me any more. So I informed him sternly that in the next patch of shade we were going to stop and sit down and cuddle until we were friends again. Because nothing says "I love you" quite like being ordered to have a cuddle.

But once we were in the shade, and we were sitting leaning against a fence, and my boy was snuggled up on my lap, and he'd stopped crying, and my eyes were only leaking a tiny bit, we managed to make our peace. I explained to him how fairs work and that it's a job for the people who run them, and that they have to make money, so they make their games look as lovely, and as tempting and as winnable as possible, just to make us really, really, really believe we might win a huge cuddly tiger. But hardly anybody ever does, and really, if we want a huge cuddly tiger, we would do better to choose one and buy one as a birthday present. We should just go to the fair to go on the rides and eat ice-cream, but we should never, ever believe we'll win anything.

And my precious baby boy understood, and he believed me, and we both said sorry for being mean to each other, and we cuddled some more, just because we could. And my heart broke a little bit, because I remembered my own childhood sense of being cheated by the games at the fair. And my heart broke a little bit more because I hate to introduce my little boy to the cynical realities of life so soon. And my heart broke another little bit, because I don't want to be the mother who keeps apologising for being mean and bad-tempered. I know that admitting when I'm wrong and saying sorry is a good thing to do when I do make mistakes, but I would be a better mother if I didn't reach that point in the first place.

I am left with several conclusions from today:

(1) LittleBear would like a giant cuddly tiger for his birthday.

(2) I need to take a Mental Health Day to bring a halt my current cycle of bad-temper and lack of patience.

(3) I need to find a more permanent answer than (2) to my tendency to lose my temper and say deeply unkind things to my sensitive little child before "sorry, I shouldn't have said that" ceases to be enough to undo the damage that I'm doing.

* "We" in this case is me and LittleBear only, as LittleBear's school had a teacher training day on Friday, but BigBear's place of work did not. Therefore LittleBear and I took Friday off and pootled down to spend Friday and Saturday with GrannyBear.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

It's not him, it's me

Mostly you can rely on me to complain about LittleBear's eating or sleeping habits, interspersed occasionally by intemperate ranting about politics or work. But when I know that you really deserve a treat, it's time to wheel out the big guns. It's time to talk about the weird stuff that goes on inside my head.

We'll start, as I so often do, with LittleBear's ability, or lack thereof, to go to sleep in what I feel is a timely fashion, with what I feel is a reasonable level of parental attention. Basically, my view of reasonable is that I shut his bedroom door and that's the last I hear from him until the following morning. Why I think this is reasonable is probably worthy of a doctoral thesis in its own right, as it has no basis in the reality of any six-year old children of my acquaintance, particularly not my own. In fact, LittleBear's current levels of post-bedtime-needs is trundling along at what I have to acknowledge is an utterly normal level compared to his little friends.

Because I'm me, I raise the subject of sleep with almost everyone I speak to, whether they know me or not. And this over-eagerness to discuss the sleeping habits of small children means that I'm fully aware that LittleBear is no harder than, and largely considerably easier than, many, many children when it comes to bedtime.

Why am I making such a meal of this preamble?

I'm just laying the groundwork. Making sure that you know, that I know, that LittleBear is basically a pretty amenable small boy. Clarifying the fact that my rational mind is completely relaxed and reasonable and cognizant of all the facts. All so that I can reveal the disproportionate, visceral manner in which my unconscious mind and body betray me every evening.

From the moment that I tuck LittleBear into bed, for a minimum of forty-five minutes, I sit on the sofa, nominally reading, watching television, surfing the interwebs, or some other mild and undemanding occupation. And throughout that time, I almost entirely fail to concentrate on what I'm doing. I look at my watch at least once every five minutes to check how long it's been since LittleBear went to bed. If there is so much as a rustle or a murmur over the monitor, my stomach muscles clench into a knot such that I curl up, with my knees tucked in close to try and ease the stomach ache. If LittleBear goes as far as to actually want something, then the period of time for which I sit, anxiously checking the time, extends for another forty-five minutes beyond Last Contact.

After an hour of silence has passed, I begin to uncurl. My stomach starts to un-knot, my jaw unclenches, the nausea begins to pass. I start to relax enough to concentrate on, and enjoy, whatever I'm doing. I start to believe that my boy is asleep.


Why do I care so much?

What is it that I fear so much that I feel physically sick when my son doesn't fall instantly asleep?

I cannot even tell you what it is that I'm afraid of. If you were to ask me what's the worst that could happen (or the worst that has ever happened) it would simply be that LittleBear doesn't fall asleep till "a bit late", and then life continues as normal. There is no terrible, life-changing catastrophe that arises from a slightly late night, but you'd never know that from the way I react. I know all this. I know my physical and emotional reaction is utterly absurd. And yet, still it happens. Every evening.

LittleBear's been in bed for an hour and a quarter now. Do you suppose he's asleep yet?