12 things I wish I’d known …

This has never been a parenting blog and it’s not about to become one. But with our youngest having just started university I’m now in my third week as an official Empty Nester, and as a result parenting has been on my mind a lot. So FOR ONE POST ONLY, I wanted to write something about raising kids.

Here, in no particular order, are the 12 things I wish somebody had told me before I started.

  1. The best way to be a parent is the way that allows you to get most enjoyment out of your relationship with your children. This will not be the same way as anybody else’s.
  2. There will always be parents who are better or worse than you and it is impossible to tell the difference. Get over it.
  3. Every time you think you’ve got the parenting thing sussed, at least one of your children will move the goalposts.
  4. You cannot hide depression, not even from babies. Get help the minute you glimpse its ugly face.
  5. Best parenting advice ever: ‘Do not exasperate your children.’ (Ephesians 6:4)
  6. If your child’s music practice (read: lack thereof) is stressing you out, have a serious think about why you are still paying for the lessons.
  7. One day you will share a dish of olives with your fussiest eater.
  8. Failsafe remedy when the day is going pear-shaped: the children’s section of your local library (I just hope there will be some left for the next generation).
  9. Regular family meals, sitting round a table, eventually pay dividends of approximately 5000%.
  10. If your primary aged child has at least one good friend and no major illnesses, the thing you are worrying about probably doesn’t matter that much. (However the thing they are worried about may be very important indeed.)
  11. Teenagers always start the most important conversations when you are on the point of going to bed.
  12. In the unlikely event of your having some spare money, memories are a better investment than stuff. (And a bit of help at home may be the best investment of all.)
Our three on their way to a wedding circa 1999. Height order has since been reversed

Our three on their way to a wedding circa 1999. Height order has since been reversed

our children, our teachers

Something they don’t tell you before you become a parent: your children are your best teachers. I remember a London park on a hot sunny day and me boiling with frustration over our toddler who simply would not appreciate the wonderful outing we had planned for her. We had all come out together, we had found swings and slides, there were plans for ice cream later and here was this tiny person, so beautiful on a good day, turning redder than the strawberries on her cute little sun hat and yelling with rage.

I was close to stamping my feet and storming out of the park myself when I remembered the tantrum I had had at breakfast the day before and waves of guilt flooded me at the memory of my little girls’ bewildered faces. Chastened, I made another effort to work out what was going on with our miniature Fury. As I flopped down on the grass beside her, I suddenly saw the park from her point of view. Masses of feet and legs hurrying around, the heat oppressive, the noise unintelligible to a two-year-old. We scooped her up and went home.

Later that afternoon, our bundle of rage was transformed into an angel of light, splashing quietly in the paddling pool in the garden, radiating peace and contentment. Watching her I understood more of my own anger the day before, how it had stemmed from lack of sleep and from refusing to acknowledge that introverts like myself get excessively grumpy when they ignore their need to be alone. Like my daughter I had exploded out of simply being unable to cope with what was being demanded of me.

That toddler is nearly twenty now and we had some tears the other week, about facing new challenges, about the difficulty of moving away from the familiar. I kept hugging her, telling her it was the right thing to do, that life goes in seasons, that you can’t stand still or you stagnate and become boring. When we left her at university just over a week ago she was beaming and I was full of a good kind of proud, like when her elder sister returned from Madagascar, like when the team you have been cheering through thick and thin suddenly makes it to a cup final.

Then – bam! After a couple of really good years I am suddenly back with the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the feeling that everything is too, too much to cope with. I thought I was through with this, that I had learned to manage it but I start to feel panicky at the prospect of more isolation, more days, hours, weeks lost to the numb inactivity that is depression.

I don’t know what makes me connect with the memory of my tearful teenager but as soon as I do I understand: she reflects me back to myself just as she did that day in the park, just as all three of our young ones do over and over again. It isn’t just they who are moving into new seasons, shaking off the familiar, called to embrace the new. It is me as well and I am as scared and reluctant as any teenager; probably more so because somehow this year autumn is reminding me more than usual that winter is not far behind.

Life goes in seasons, you can’t stand still …  I am repeating my own advice over and over and drawing strength from the beaming smiles of that young woman in her first university flat.

a letter to my daughter as she returns from Madagascar

I am so excited to think that you will be here in just a few hours. It was lovely to hear your voice on the phone from Heathrow – every word distinct, unlike those couple of Skype calls we tried when you were deep in the bush. I can’t wait to hold you and hug you, to see your face-splitting smile that I have missed so much, to admire your tan and perhaps your exotic insect bites too and to listen to the words that I know will come tumbling out of your mouth all afternoon.

For now, though, the house is quiet, your sister still asleep upstairs, your brother getting ready for school and your dad, you will be pleased to hear, out training for that marathon you hope to run together. I want to savour this moment of anticipation, this sense of everything suspended in stillness before we burst into a weekend of chatter and laughter, before we do the bittersweet work of rearranging ourselves as family when your sister leaves for university tomorrow and you settle back in your own bedroom. A real bed! After all those weeks of a tent floor!

Here in the quiet, I am thinking about another young woman, the same age as you, who moved fleetingly and unseen across my path yesterday. I was in a community centre not far from here, doing some of that work I get sometimes to assess students in their spoken English. As usual the simplest questions elicited the most heart rending answers. ‘How are you today?’ I asked a woman a little older than me, smiling brightly in the hope of putting her at her ease for the test. ‘Not too good,’ she replied. ‘Yesterday my brother died in Syria.’

I asked another woman where she came from, thinking I might see whether she could spell the name of her country. ‘The refugee camp in Ethiopia,’ she replied. I forgot about the spelling question. Later I asked her about her family and she told me of her four children. She lives with them in a small flat near here; one of them is a young woman aged twenty-one, like you.

I keep wondering about the differences between our experiences as mothers. I have worried about how many sweets you might eat but never about whether you would have enough food. I have been anxious about your safety when you have been out late at night and breathed in deep relief when I heard you come in; to my shame I have never even imagined what it would be like to decide that our own home was too dangerous a place to be.

I do not know what that refugee woman’s hopes for her daughter are and I wouldn’t presume to guess them. I would love to know, though, what makes her heart swell with pride as a mother – because we do all have those moments, you know!

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments as your mum. It was when I read the email you sent me from Antananarivo and poured out the many ways that your heart had been changed through meeting development workers and joining them in the work of repairing schools and planting trees. It was when you told me that the vision of justice that is set out in Isaiah 61had taken root deep within you; that the words about binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free and restoring devastated places had become the words that would shape the rest of your life.

I salute you, Miriam, for your courage and your fierce sense of justice. I pray that as you settle back into this privileged life we have here, you will discover the next steps on your journey. I know you will remember all the young women round the world who are your contemporaries and lead such different lives, whether they are refugees down the road from us or maybe young mothers in Madagascar whose babies stand a forty percent chance of dying before they are five.

I pray that you won’t be overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that you see around you but that you will be able to take up your place in the fight for justice with joy and humility. I delight in the knowledge that you will not be alone: from what I can gather reading the blogs that I do, it seems that all across the world young people are joining together to say ‘enough’ and to give their lives to building a more equal world.

There’s a photo one of your friends put on Facebook that made us laugh because it looks as though you are flying.

Fly into your future, Miriam – be bold and be you!

But first sit down long enough to eat the raspberry pavlova I made you.