Tuesday, 23 May 2017

An unexpected intersection

This is not about a motorway junction that sprung upon me in a surprising fashion. Instead it is about my experience today of an overlapping of two of my major preoccupations: anxiety and politics.

Those of you who live in the UK, and probably even some of you who don't, will have noticed that we have a General Election approaching.

Those of you who've read more than the occasional post here will have noticed that I have a tendency to express reasonably strong political opinions, and that those opinions tend towards the left-wing. I'm not ashamed of either of those things. I stand by my words.

Those of you who've really been paying attention will also have spotted that I have a tendency towards self-doubt and anxiety.

And it turns out that having strong political opinions, using Facebook, and suffering from anxiety and a fear of not being liked are a disastrous mixture. I'm going to preface the rest of this post by saying that it all turns out fine in the end. I wouldn't want anyone worrying on my behalf.

I had been planning to write a blog post about the Conservative manifesto position on social care for the elderly, and their subsequent change in position. Mostly because I think there's an interesting and worthwhile debate to be had about welfare spending on care, on what we (as a country) can afford, what those who have spent 40-50 years paying into the welfare state can expect in return, which benefits should be universal and which benefits should be means-tested (and by benefits I include the social benefits of education and healthcare as well as the financial benefits of child benefit, disability living allowance, income support etc).

I do have serious qualms about telling the elderly that they "should" pay for their own care if they have the money or assets to do so and that they "shouldn't" expect the younger generations to pay for them, when those elderly have spent a working lifetime paying into the welfare state for just this eventuality. They set out on their working lives within a state which promised them care from cradle to grave. And yet now the social contract they signed up to has been broken, and they're being told that we can't afford it, and that we'll look after them if they have a medically treatable condition, but that we won't if they have a medically untreatable condition that nonetheless requires a great deal of care.

Clearly, there is a problem with not enough money in the coffers, and an ageing population requiring more and more care. And there is a problem that wealth inequality in this country is increasing, partly fuelled by the absurd rise in house prices. So I can see there being arguments in favour of trying to ensure that that inequality is not exacerbated and that we don't bankrupt the country in trying to fund everything for everyone. We do need to prioritise spending. We do need to decide what can be afforded and what can't. We are already forced to do so within the NHS, with NICE assessing which drugs and treatments have a good enough cost/benefit ratio. But I cannot find it in me to agree that those whose minds deteriorate, through no fault of their own, are uniquely required to hand over their capital to fund their care, while those who suffer from other ailments are not. It seems fundamentally unjust. I would far rather see a lower threshold on inheritance tax and tighter controls to close the various dodgy loopholes that allow IHT to be avoided*. My idealism would rather we all pay a percentage to mitigate against the vicissitudes of life, not knowing whether we will fall victim to the stroke of terrible fortune that robs us of our minds, than that only the victims of misfortune pay.

Anyway... that was the blog post I wasn't going to write...

What I was really writing about, was making a few remarks on this subject on Facebook, and then finding myself defending my point of view to a friend. (Hello friend! Please keep reading!)

And then I went to collect LittleBear from school, knowing full well that I would be likely to bump into said friend. And I was wracked with fear and anxiety. I kept my sunglasses on, my head down, and sought out a fellow anxiety-sufferer to hide beside in the playground. I didn't want to engage in conversation with anyone, just in case. Just in case my views are weird. Just in case I've been too strident. Just in case I haven't thought things through properly. Just in case I've caused offense to a friend. Just in case she now thinks I'm an idiot. Just in case she doesn't want to be my friend anymore.

I know that for those of you with a rather more strong and stable disposition** this response will seem rather extreme. You may be bemused to hear that my hands were shaking and I was struggling not to cry in the playground waiting to collect LittleBear. I can only try to describe the effect that anxiety has - the cold wash that sweeps through me, the desire to run away, to hide from the world, to never have to speak to another human being. The welling tears that I fight to hide from the world. The terror that I may have put myself beyond the pale, and the escalating thoughts of catastrophe, of not only having lost one burgeoning friendship, but that this effect will sweep like a contagion through the school until there is no-one left who will speak to me. I am not exaggerating. The tears are returning even as I try and write this. The terror, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the dread of confrontation, the fear of rejection.

I am blessed in having one particular friend who I know gets it. I know she has had and still has her own battles with anxiety. And I managed to find a few seconds alone with her, to confess, to seek reassurance, understanding, absolution.

And then a voice piped up beside me, "we should carry on our political debate over a glass of wine!" Because the friend I was worried about offending is a normal human being, who interacts with other normal human beings in a completely normal way. And discussing interesting and controversial subjects with empathy, and intelligence, and wit is a completely normal thing to do, and not one that renders normal people into shaking, paranoid messes.

So we went on (without the glass of wine, sadly) to have a perfectly civilised conversation about the subject. And I'm relatively certain she doesn't think I'm a lunatic. Well, relatively certain she didn't think I was a lunatic.

Then I wrote this.

And this has been a hard post to write, and it may be that if you're reading it, the "today" that I refer to is now many days in the past, because I'm not sure that I'm able to admit all this just yet. It feels like a burden to place upon those who know me, who may feel that they have to temper their views, or filter what they say to me just in case PhysicsBear has one of her funny turns again.

But I don't want you to do that, I am not making a comment on you, nor do I want you to feel you have to moderate your words or actions towards me. In fact, please don't. Please, please keep being yourselves, and allow me to be responsible for my feelings, my failings, my fears. And if sometimes I write about those fears here, it's only to try and shed some light on how my mind works, so that if I sometimes seem to react in unexpected ways, those ways don't have to come as a total surprise. And if you too find your mind works the way mine does, you might not feel quite so alone. None of us should feel alone.

* In 2013-2014, only 7.2% of deaths led to payment of inheritance tax. See table 12.3 from the Office of National Statistics for raw data. Generally speaking for the past few years, HMRC are notified of approximately 250,000 estates per year on which tax is not due, and between 15,000 and 20,000 on which tax is due. There really is scope for the country as a whole to move away from the continuing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Instead of a few unfortunate people spending the bulk of their life savings on end-of-life care, perhaps all people should contribute to the care of the few, just as we do through the rest of our lives via taxation and national insurance. I know this is not necessarily a popular point of view.

** This is a deliberate joke. I feel the need to explain, in case my American friends don't get it. "Strong and stable" is the election slogan of Theresa May. There have been a lot of comedic riffs on this phrase. That is all.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

More awesome parenting

Today turned into One of Those Days.

The kind of day, when I spent at least 75% of it wondering if it's bedtime yet, and then when it came time to tuck LittleBear up in bed, I ended up holding him extra tight, for extra long, and reading him twice as many pages of his book as normal because I felt horrible for how horrible I'd been.

Let me take you back, 24 hours....

The PTA quiz night. BigBear wasn't feeling quite as keen as mustard, so I tootled along sans husband, and proceeded to have a raucous time with my friends. I think, but am not entirely certain, that I drank the best part of a bottle of Prosecco on my own. And then shared a bottle of beer with another friend, because I'd run out of Prosecco. Subsequently I have been informed that I'm "really competitive" and also that I'm "very like a man". The first of these I hold my hands up to. It's a fair cop. The second seemed potentially harsh to both me and men, as it was based upon my admission that the more I drank the more certain I was of my answers, and the higher the probability was that they were wrong. (It's not the first time I've been compared to a man. In fact, my colleagues have a tendency to make sweeping statements about women, and then append phrases such as, "but not you, because you're not a normal woman, you're more like a man." I digress. There's probably a whole thesis to be written on the men I work with...)

I managed to cycle home without incident, and then had a rather sweaty, disturbed and head-spinning night's sleep. Needless to say, I was not at my perky best this morning. I did start the morning reasonably well, as LittleBear and I cycled to the library and then retired to the local cafe so I could top up my caffeine levels and read the much-coveted books we'd collected to LittleBear.

So far, so splendid.

And then we went to a party.

In a soft-play centre.

With the remains of a hangover.

LittleBear ended up exhausted, dripping in sweat and tanked up on cake.

I ended up hoarse, aurally assaulted and randomly weeping in front of a good friend, and a new friend that I barely know. Because I find the best way to break down the stigma about mental health is to discuss post-natal depression at the top of my voice in a crowded public venue and then start crying.

The afternoon went downhill from there.

Once exhausted, LittleBear and I are both prone to irrationality, irritability, and inexplicable fits of weeping. We indulged in all of these pastimes liberally all afternoon.

LittleBear accused BigBear of kicking him during a game of football (untrue). LittleBear did kick BigBear in a fit of pique. Twice. LittleBear sobbed at the injustice of me scoring a goal in football when he "wasn't ready" and then he became immensely overwrought at his inability to play golf(!) on his first attempt*. Then it became clear that a certain amount of confusion existed about how exactly one played golf - "I threw the ball in the air ten times and I didn't hit it once Mummy!". Things didn't improve when I showed him that the traditional method is to start with the ball on the floor and to swing the club at it. He ended up hurling the club on the floor and stamping on it. Which is a state attempting to play golf has reduced me to in the past as well, to be honest. But nobody really wants him to grow up like me, so we had to Have Words.

Meanwhile I exercised all my best parenting skills: I shouted at him. I ignored him. I told him he was doing things wrong. I threatened to take his toys away**.

And then it was, finally, bedtime. And I cuddled him, a lot. And I said sorry for shouting. And cuddled him some more. And read to him. And cuddled him some more. And read some more. And cuddled some more. And we whispered sweet nothings to each other, and it will all be alright tomorrow. Because tomorrow is another day.

* Instead of the usual collection of random objects in a party bag, the children were all given a miniature golf club and four plastic golf balls. It would probably have been a good idea not to simply say, "yes dear, you have a go with them in the garden while I cook dinner."

** To do myself justice, I did also sit on the floor and write a new story with him, and read books to him, and giggle and play with him. But the crappy bits are easier to remember, and always feel as though they dominate.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The looming cloud

LittleBear has, in general, been a well-behaved and kind little boy. Not the sort of little boy to get into trouble. The sort of little boy, in fact, who becomes immensely distressed and remorseful if he even approaches being told off. Which is why it was such a surprise today to be taken aside after school by his teacher to be told that he'd been "put on the cloud".*

I was informed that he had been seen holding child "A" still, while child "B" hit "A". Which sounded pretty horrific. I was assured that LittleBear had immediately apologised to "A" and that it was completely out of character, and not something they'd expect from him at all. Which I suppose is a good thing, but nonetheless alarming.

And lo, a very woebegone little figure straggled his way out of the classroom, burrowed his way into my arms and promptly burst into tears. He was incoherent and begged only to go home. We sat on a bench for a little bit while I cuddled my forlorn LittleBear and assured him that I loved him and wasn't cross, and that I just wanted to know what had happened. Which proved too big a demand on his powers of explanation. So we went home. Except we didn't, because by the time we'd got to the end of the road he'd found two little friends who (with their mothers) had their eyes set on the nearby cafe. So we went there instead, since I decided chocolate was required to restore equanimity more than an interrogation was needed.

Once more or less restored to his sunny little self (a self that was going out of its way to be enormously helpful and accommodating I couldn't help but notice!) I began to get to the bottom of the police-brutality-style incident.
Naturally, LittleBear's version of events involved the obligatory "he hit me first" and "I wasn't even doing anything" statements. However, once such pronouncements are tactfully put to one side and greater detail obtained, it becomes possible to plot the middle ground between the playground supervisor's view, and LittleBear's view. I then come up with something that sounds more realistic...

It seems that LittleBear and two of his friends were playing on the pirate ship in the playground. Another group of friends (including "A" and "B") wanted to play a different game on the same pirate ship. LittleBear's group deemed this an unacceptable intrusion and refused to countenance it, citing the irrefutable logic "they'll spoil our game". It is unclear what form this refusal took - verbal or physical. The secondary group attempted to seize control of the ship by force, at which LittleBear's group responded in like fashion and prepared to repel boarders. A mêlée ensued. LittleBear attempted to grapple "A" off the ship, only to have "B", inexplicably in LittleBear's eyes, land a blow on "A".

It was at that fateful moment that the playground supervisor took note of the events, and reported back to LittleBear's teacher. You can see how it would look bad.

LittleBear feels that he has been unjustly victimised in being the only recipient of a "cloud". Though this in itself may not be true, as my drama monkey is fond of the absolute declarations still, and "I'm the only one on the cloud" is a statement to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So, here I am, using all of these events as a "teachable moment"...
  • we can learn empathy ("which human babies start to learn when they're 2 Mummy. It said so on the Blue Planet"). The other children also wanted to play on the pirate ship, and they would have felt sad if you didn't let them wouldn't they?
  • we can learn to share. If you'd taken it in turns, or found a space for two games, that might have worked better mightn't it? 
  • we can learn that violence is never the correct solution to a problem.
  • we can learn that life's not always fair. That sometimes you'll be told off for things that you didn't do, and that sometimes you won't be told off when you did do something wrong.
  • we can learn that it's important to always tell the truth. If you admit when you've done something wrong, then people will trust you and believe you, because it takes courage to admit to wrongdoing. And then if you ever need to say, "but it wasn't me!" you'll be believed. But if you always say, "it wasn't me" nobody will believe you, even when it's true. Just like admitting to hand-ball when playing football with Mummy and Daddy means we believe you when you say it wasn't hand-ball. (LittleBear is remarkably honest about declaring when he commits this particular infringement).
And when I write all that, it sounds to me like I've really cracked this parenting lark. Look at me, finding ways to help my son become a better person! See my smugness as I guide my son's development and understanding! I should be on the sunshine for that.

But I still want to tell LittleBear's teacher that it wasn't what it looked like, that he's a good child and that he didn't do what she says he did. I want to defend him. To insist he's not a thug and a bully. I want to clear his name, un-blot his copy-book, restore his reputation. I become one of those awful parents who never believe ill of their child, who insist that their angel wouldn't hurt a fly, who deny all wrongdoing even when they have no evidence to back their position. I want to rush in and change the narrative, restore my boy to his position as the child who's never been on the cloud.

I won't though. Because I wasn't there and I didn't see it. Because, no matter what I believe, I don't know what really transpired. Because helping LittleBear manage these events is a more important part of being his mother than defending him from all accusations of wrongdoing, justified or not. Because I need to let it go.

But if any of you see me heading towards LittleBear's teacher in the playground tomorrow, you have my permission to restrain me...

* LittleBear's school has a weather-based system for good and poor behaviour. General helpfulness, kindness or goodness and your name label is placed on a sunshine. Acts of helpfulness of kindness above and beyond the call of duty and you are elevated to the dizzy heights of the rainbow, complete with receipt of a rainbow sticker. Poor behaviour will provoke a visit to the cloud. Persistent or extreme acts of poor behaviour warrant the rain cloud and the parents must be involved.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The eternal cliché

My son is growing up too fast.

I told you it was a cliché.

I so clearly remember those first weeks and months when I was literally counting the days, and wondering how I would get through them. Wondering how old LittleBear would be before I started to enjoy being a mother. Calculating the percentage of time I was towards LittleBear starting school. Desperately finding ways to fill the days with other people or activities so I didn't sit at home, staring at my baby and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with him, and whether he would ever forgive me for being such a failure as a mother.

I wished the time away, I watched the clock and waited for BigBear to get home from work and relieve me. On one occasion I phoned him at work, begging him to come home* as I couldn't bear it, I was convinced my baby hated me and would never love me. I wanted anything but to carry on being mother to a baby. I didn't want to be needed so constantly. I didn't want to be responsible for the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of this helpless being. There was so much I could get so terribly wrong.

And then I was diagnosed with post natal depression, and I started taking anti-depressants, and I found my way back to the light, and I found myself again, and I discovered that I could be me and LittleBear's mother at the same time. And I began to enjoy days spent with him, and we bonded and played and fell in love.

And today Facebook popped up with a photograph of my little boy from 5 years ago, when he was 6 months old, and I was reminded just how adorable he was**:

My baby

And at that point he was still very much mine. He was my little baby, barely starting to play with solid food, grown in my body, fed from my body, every ounce of him a product of what my body could do***.

And now, come 7 o'clock in the morning, a child who weighs more than a third of my bodyweight, and is considerably more than half my height trundles into our bedroom and scrambles on top of me for a cuddle. And I can still manage to wrap him up into a ball of cuddle, both my arms enfolding him, tucking him under my chin to snuggle the silky soft hair, but he's so big now.

And he's so obviously not mine in the same way that that little baby was. He is not mine to own, to manage, to rule. He is a person, and one who I have the privilege to guide, to nurture and to protect. But he does not owe me anything. I have no power, and desire no power, to dictate the path his life will take. I am here to instill values of decency and humanity in him. To teach him how to love and be loved. To lift him when he falls, to hold him when he cries, to feed his body and mind and to help him do and be all that he can. But I do not possess him.

He is already an independent person. He is all that I begged and hoped that he would be. He does not need me, body and soul, every moment of the day. He does not derive all his strength and growth from my body. He does not learn all his knowledge from my lips. He is not mine. He is his own. And that is both wonderful and terrifying.

Please don't grow up too fast LittleBear.

* Needless to say, BigBear came straight home. He gave me strength when I had none. 
** Yes, obviously I'm biased.

*** Ever conscious of the implied and inferred criticisms that swirl around such things, this does not mean I am passing judgement on anyone who didn't breastfeed their child. I just remember it suddenly dawning on me that ALL his growth came from me in one way or another, and it was quite an extraordinary thought. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A drop in the ocean

Call it extreme if you like, but I propose we hit it hard and hit it fast with a major - and I mean major - leaflet campaign.
 Rimmer, Red Dwarf, S3, Ep3, "Polymorph"

Anyone who's known me for any length of time - say more than about 24 hours - will have discovered that my political leanings are generally left of centre. This hasn't always been an easy position to hold, given my start in life. I don't mean either that I started with a silver spoon in my mouth, or by being sent up a chimney aged five. No, I simply started life in the true-blue heartlands of the south-east, attending a private girls' school. 

It was the kind of school where, once my fellow pupils discovered that I was supporting what was then the SDP-Liberal Alliance, I was labelled a Communist. Seriously. A vaguely wishy-washy, unelectable, moderate, centrist party was tantamount to communism. Which was something of a shock after having stood as Michael Foot in my (state) primary school mock election without anyone batting an eyelid, either at my gender or politics.

It was the kind of school where one of my compatriots actually wore a black arm band when Maggie was ousted by her own party. I still hold that in my own mind as perhaps one of the most extraordinary political acts I have ever witnessed in the flesh.

It was the kind of school where I completely failed to convince anybody, ever, that being born to rich parents shouldn't entitle a child to an automatically better education than being born to poor parents. Honestly, it's a mystery. I kept trying to tell the daughters of well-off parents who were receiving a privileged education that having well-off parents shouldn't be a good enough reason to receive a privileged education, and somehow what I was saying fell on deaf ears.

The one thing that I did do as a child, more or less from when I can remember, is deliver election leaflets around the neighbourhood with my mother. 

And I'm now doing the same thing in my own neighbourhood, this time without my mother. And it has led me to conclude that Fen-village is a considerably nicer place to deliver Liberal leaflets than Home-Counties-town. I've even reached the point where I don't feel obliged to deliver leaflets under the cover of darkness just in case.

In Home-Counties-town I used to be terrified of the overweight, middle-aged stockbrokers and lawyers out washing their cars and mowing their lawns, because they would take one look at a scruffy little girl with a yellow leaflet clutched in her sweaty little hand and sneeringly say, "we won't be voting for them, you can keep it". And I would feel mortified. In Fen-village, I nearly sank into the ground the first time I encountered the resident of a house as I attempted to deliver a leaflet. He said, "here, I'll take it". I quaked. But he took it. I felt myself starting to flush scarlet and wonder whether there was anywhere to hide. But he didn't give it back. Or tell me he hated my party. Or wave a blue rosette at me. I nearly fell over instead.

In Home-Counties-town, every other house appeared to be occupied by either a small, yapping, psycopathic dog that wanted to rip my fingers off at the knuckles, or a beast the approximate dimensions and temperament of the Hound of the Baskervilles. In Fen-village there are lots of cats, and they all want to be my friend.

In Home-Counties-town, people had a strange habit of having letter boxes at the bottom of their doors, armed with sprung flaps strong enough to rip your fingers off - perhaps to provide tasty snacks for the psycopathic yappy dogs. Nobody in Fen-village has put their letter box very far from a conventional height.

So I'm now delivering leaflets in daylight, because I'm not quite as scared of the people in Fen-village. Because I'm no longer surrounded by people who keep pets who'd rather eat your liver than have their ears scratched. Because I'm surrounded by people with cats and sensible letter boxes. My people. 

And I'm going to keep delivering leaflets, for all the difference it's going to make. Because there isn't much else I can do, but I want to do something more than just put my "x" in a box. [And if you want to know why I won't be voting blue, and I will be voting yellow, it's pretty much the same reasons as last time].