Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hello, I'm Sophie, and I'm a bad parent

I used to think that being a parent was about knowing what was best. I'm your Mum, I know what's good for you, do as you're told. Eat your greens, brush your teeth, go to bed early. Say please and thank you.

In practice, knowing what is best actually means issuing lots of commands, albeit commands sweetened with love and good intent.

I used to think that being a parent was about being the one who was in charge. I'm always right, don't think you can get one over on me. Who do you think you are?

In practice, being the one in charge actually means being the only one allowed to make decisions.

My daughter will soon turn 11 - a decade, and a bit more - and now only now am I learning that I have to let her make some decisions. I have to meet her half-way. Or more often, three-quarters of the way.

This isn't the soft gush of a well-intentioned pre-teen's mum. I'm not talking about letting her make her own mistakes. I don't mean that I need to treat her like the adult she will far too terrifyingly quickly become.

I'm talking about the humbling experience of learning very late on that my child needs as much control as she can possibly have, and that my job is simply to temper that, rather than wrestle it away from her for as long as I can in order to Teach Her What's Right.

Earlier this week I sat through a day's training for autism professionals and parents and was told very simply that because of the way my child's brain had developed she would always take authority and that the best I could do would be to find the mildest way of imposing it.

This is so far away from how I've always seen being a good mum. I've always prided myself on dishing out the same kind of tough love and setting the same lofty goals as my mum did for me.

However I realised a while ago that entrance exams and grammar schools and swotting and straight As are all out, where my daughter is concerned. Now I realise too that laying down the law in the way that my parents did (and which I have always believed was a sensible model which instilled humility and respect - go on, call me old school) is also out.

So this week I took a deep breath and agreed some very basic stuff with my daughter. I had a conversation with her in which rather than insisting on having my way because that was just the way it went I listened properly to her explain why the flush of the toilet is too loud and the rush of water alarms her and why, after 8 years of fighting me about it, she simply cannot bring herself to do it. So we've agreed that for now, she doesn't have to. After that we did a deal about how many times a week she has to have a shower. And after that, after of five years of negotiating and yelling and ordering her to bend to my will, I accepted that my daughter simply won't use the hot tap. She's too frightened of the sudden change in temperature. So we bought medicated wipes and antibacterial gel instead.

I'm sure that some of you reading this will have got there way ahead of me and may well be shaking your heads in disbelief at my ignorance and idiocy in trying to impose 'normal' parenting strategies. Others of you probably think I'm a sap and may already be predicting that within weeks I will find myself trying to master the three-ring circus that my child insists I provide before she will contemplate getting out of bed. (Though frankly given the battle that is getting her up in the mornings, I would gladly provide clowns and elephants if I thought it would solve the problem.)

This feels a bit like standing up among a circle of strangers in a slightly draughty church hall and announcing: "I'm Sophie. I've been parenting my kid wrong for years."

But at least now I can start trying to do something about it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In which I have an inappropriate strop

God, I'm so sick of looking after other people's hurts.

I'm sick of being the one to smile, and count to ten, and say let's sort this out.

I'm sick of being the one to listen while I'm shouted at, or keep a calmly blank face while others' expressions shrivel with anger or temper. I'm so sick of being the one to patiently maintain eye contact and coax the conversation along while others look away, or avert their gaze to signal displeasure.

I'm sick of doing the conversational equivalent of tugging my forelock, of hovering at my master's elbow, of smiling and bobbing and hoping to please.

I'd like for once, just once, to bellow and stamp and roar, to shout. To clench my fists or narrow my eyes or flounce and storm and say: "Fuck this. What about ME?"

I shouldn't be thinking this. Today, I have to remind myself, is a good day. Today - though you won't believe it after that intro - brought good news. I received the email that told us Grace has a place at the secondary school we have been desperate to get her into. It's the school that has hovered like a vision of Xanadu at the edge of my thoughts for the last two years, throughout the time I've learned how to make nice and fill in forms and attend meetings and cudgel my brain to learn more, to absorb and understand and file away personal hurt that I don't have the time to indulge because I have to stay on track. Today, a nice man who works as Grace's case officer at our local authority - a man to whom, to my shame, I have previously referred on this blog as the Scarlet Pimpernel because he so often seemed to be just out of my reach when I had questions - well, then, this man wrote me an email to say, we've had a letter saying she's got a place so I'm emailing so that you don't have to wait for me to send you a letter.

It was good news. I shouldn't be in such a bad mood. But I am. God, I really am.

I picked Grace up from school today weary after work - though I sprint out at 4pm like a faker I do manage an 8-hour day and a 3-hour round trip commute, smiling and nodding as I squeeze into the carriage alongside sour-faced commuters. My reflection in the tube windows today looked about 74. I blame that loud Sunday night party that our neighbours held til 3am Monday morning, when even the polite couple across the way were throwing up the windows and yelling at them to shut up. I'm 41, it'll take me til Friday to get over the din and the excitement. But as I walked down to the school this evening the thought of telling Grace the news made me smile. I collected her from afterschool club, holding my message inside until we were on our own, as we said goodbye to friends and teachers and collected bag, coat, and the countless daily bits of paper that Grace covers with drawings and doodles and cartoons during her day. We walked to the exit doors, and then suddenly Grace was gone. She was gone because she'd seen a parent and a child that she wanted to avoid. I can't say much more than that because I've been asked not to. Suffice it to know there had been an incident recently in which Grace caused hurt. So once again I went and made nice, which was quite hard because the other party didn't want to make nice. But I persevered. (My shit-eating smile is coming along nicely.) Then I went and coaxed Grace out of the corner in which she was hiding and took her back to the car, where I explained to her again why I'd had to do what I did. Then she shouted and raged and said it wasnt fair. I coaxed and soothed until it passed and ignored the scowls and the cutting eyes.

Then I said to her: Guess what.
She turned to me blankly and said, what.
I said, no you have to guess.
She said, impatiently, I don't know. Am I going to be on TV?
I said, no. Try again.
She pulled her hat over her face in frustration and said, I don't KNOW.
I said: You've got a place.
She paused, then whipped her hat off and turned to me and named the school and said: there?
I said: yes.
And she whooped. A shriek of pure joy. And turned to me with dancing eyes and said, really?
I said: yes.
We laughed.
She said: I love you Mummy. Thank you.
I said: I love you too.

Then we rushed home, ate food, and rushed back to the school for parents' evening, where I made nice some more with another party I can't name for more reasons I can't go into. But then, o joy, Grace's teachers welcomed us with smiles and jokes and sat Grace down beside me and told her what a good term she'd had and how well she done and how pleased they were. They said, you're doing really well. Grace smiled some more. And so did I. And this time it was real.

And here, normally, I'd have the homily. The neat conclusion about what I've learned. But I don't have one of those tonight. Good things happened today, but still, mostly I felt cross and shitty. Grace teaches me vast reserves of patience. It's just that sometimes, I wish other people had more.