On grief and gratitude

grief_gratitude

Image from Grief to Gratitude blog

To Little One

It was your 7th birthday last month. Facebook popped up a picture of you, 2 years old in your yellow corduroy party dress (you might not even know what Facebook was if you read this in the future). You had a little sprout of hair tied up in a hair bobble. Even then your fringe liked to fall in your face! Your blue eyes were as beautiful and expressive then as they are today.

I hope you are able to read Mummy’s blog in the future. I know you get cross sometimes when words are so hard they make your brain hurt. I promise we will keep playing musical bumps with your word cards, and laser tag – remember how you love dancing to Minions music and the Trolls soundtrack? We are so proud of how hard you try and how much you love it when we read poems and stories to you.

You had a pizza making birthday party last month – do you remember? You and your friends loved squeezing the pizza dough and rolling it into big ropes to bash on the table! There’s a pang of sadness sometimes that we don’t have pictures of your first birthday party – because we didn’t have one. I’m sorry. Mummy was still so very poorly. I’d love to have made you a cake with chocolate buttons and one pink candle to blow out. But now I get to make you Rapunzel cakes, and rainbow meringue cakes (your big sister is very good at those unicorn poop meringues isn’t she?)

Almost every night-time, Daddy and I pop into your bedroom before we go to bed. You sleep so beautifully! Did you know, sometimes you pucker up your lips in your sleep – just like you are feeding from mummy, or from your bottle. I really missed feeding you when I had to go to hospital. I love it when you lay in my arms even now you’re 7, just to pretend that you’re a baby again.

You love to carry your baby doll in the sling we bought you for your birthday – do you remember it? Grandma and Grandad bought you a talking baby doll who giggles and sounds like she’s saying your name sometimes. She looks so snug when you hold her on your chest. You’ve always loved pretending to be a mummy. You kiss and cuddle your baby dolls and you talk to them in a soft sing-song voice. I love to watch you play ‘babies’ – because I think maybe you learned how to be a really good mummy from me, even though I was poorly for a very long time. That makes me feel very grateful.

You love your new baby cousin Maisie so much. I wonder if you’ll have a chance to feed her some mashed up pear in the holidays? I know you’re very excited about that. Sometimes I have an aching heart, hoping for a lovely person for you to be a parent with in the future. It might be harder to meet a special person when you have learning difficulties… but we’ll find a way. Daddy and I think we might like to be called Pops and Nanna if we are grandparents when we are older. Won’t that be funny!?

Little One, our hopes and dreams for you remain the same. That you know you are deeply loved, that you find fun and purpose in your life, that you have people to support you through sorrow and joy. Love you forever.

xxx

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An Inclusive Nativity

This is my dream

Angels with Asperger’s flap their hands

The audience hang on the words of stammering staccato narrators

Gabriel’s port-wine stained face is radiant with joy

The troublesome Holy Couple lay their babe tenderly in the straw

And we feel As One.

nativity

I know I’m not going to be alone in the community of special needs parents who feel a little heartbroken during these last weeks of term.  The empty school tray at Christmas Post collection time.  The Christmas cards that perhaps can’t be written independently.

I can’t help but feel that the nativity play could be such an opportunity to model to our children than no-one needs to be marginalised.  After all, isn’t that what the humility of the stable points to?  Kings and shepherds, Gold and sheep.  All are welcome.

I’m writing while it’s still raw.  I left the school hall having watched my last ever nativity play tonight. Only that wasn’t the reason for the tears.

Little One was a sheep, slender bare feet peeping out from her black leggings.  They’d lost her sheep headband that she had made at school.  She hadn’t been able to tell us that we were supposed to make her another one at home.

She is positioned by the door, TA close to hand.  We strain to see her enjoying the songs she’s been singing in random lines over the dinner table or in the car.  Her moment… up onto the stage, we try to catch her eye.  The Year 1 sheep come to the front for a song, but the Year 2 sheep don’t join them.  She sits beautifully, arms crossed, back upright.  Glancing up at the stars above her, awaiting the cue.  She has a chance to ‘baa’, sitting dutifully with her shepherds.  Time for the next number, she leaves the stage.

There are parents of other sheep out there tonight.  Little One wasn’t the only sheep singled out to miss an opportunity to sing or dance on stage.  But in this last year she’s learned so much and is able to be part of a performance, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other children, to remember a few of the words.

It would have been so precious to us if she had been given the chance to “access the curriculum” in this – an area where she has strengths and abilities.  Love of music, intrinsic rhythm and the biggest smile you have ever seen on a sheep.

I’m keeping my dream.

 

 

 

 

 

Transition

During childbirth, there’s a phase called transition.  You move from riding contractions to the urge to push.  Often, this is a time when you feel utterly convinced that you can’t do this any more.  That your body wasn’t designed for this degree of effort.

I remember the sips of cold orange squash my husband gave me through a straw as I hit the wall during my own transition in labour just over 12 years ago.  The sweet, icy energy and the tenderness of a husband in waiting.  I stepped out of the birthing pool and into the bathroom of the delivery suite. From there my body took over.  Determination, resurgence of physical strength, intense focus.

And then she was here.  The moment of tearful announcement from my husband:

“it’s a little girl”

Holding her, wrapped in a towel, eyes dark as ink.  Our new life begun.

liminal

I find myself in another ‘liminal’ space now that the little bundle has begun her life as a high school student.  On the boundary between being needed and being in the way.  Between parent and confidante.  Sometimes the ‘cool mum’ who her friends like to be around, sometimes completely out of touch.

It’s definitely been unsettling, but most days it’s kind of fun.  Our new life begins.

 

Dhal, happy tears and sequins

Yesterday was the last day of the girls’ summer holidays.  We planned an outdoor pool swim at Exeter University (Little One in her wetsuit!) and a vegetarian lunch in the city centre.

Sitting in Herbies cafe I felt a rush of emotion. I looked at my girls and blinked away the happy-sad tears. This was the space where I had begun to truly find my love for Little One three years ago. The space in which I became a mummy again.

Back in those days we would arrive early, after the “Jumping Beans” dance session at Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre. The same waitress would greet us with crayons, a colouring book and a smile. She would bring a red wooden booster seat which made Little One feel so special. I would have the lunch special: warm, comforting dhal spiked with ginger and chilli.

Yesterday we had other plans for the dhal. In our car park we had found a young girl curled up on flattened boxes, shrouded in a grubby white blanket.  My girls were very shocked and upset, so I suggested to Eldest that we could ask if she’d like us to bring her some food after our lunch. We took back a warm foil box, a paper bag of fluffy naan bread and chatted for a few brief moments.

I can’t even begin to imagine the circumstances that had brought her to sheltering in a car park.  On the way back to the shops, I held my girls’ hands that little bit tighter. When we returned we were relieved to see another stranger sitting down with her and talking about her appointment with a housing officer later in the week.

Shopping for an Autumn outfit for each of the girls, I smiled at their different personalities evident in their choices. A ‘Millenial pink’ batwing cropped jumper with shoulder studs for Eldest (when did pink re-enter her consciousness?) I didn’t tell her that batwing was a favourite of mine at her age!  A maroon sweater with gently gathered shoulders and a heart made out of reversible sequins for Little One. She spent a happy half an hour smoothing the sequins up and down with her hands. Deep, sparkly gold in one direction and muted, matte gold on the other.

On our way home I dropped a card at Herbie’s for the waitress we met three years ago. I wanted to thank her for being a special part of my recovery. For helping me to build memories of myself as a good mummy, not a depressed one.

Thank you, Herbie’s – we will be back.

Mother & daughter

heart

We share the same hands

Elegant fingers

Nails so tough they’re brittle

One ruby-encrusted, one with a single sapphire

One as yet unadorned

Except for the chipped plum nail varnish

Our hands have

Brushed away tears

Smashed stained-glass windows

Thrown broken heart pebbles

Coloured and stitched

Finger painted and planted seeds

Sliced and stirred a thousand recipes

Held on tightly

Held tightly on to each other

 

 

Sanctuary

Once again I find myself speaking through the lens of Nashville, but really – this says it all for me at the moment.

(In the spirit of avoiding plot spoilers I have chosen to share a cover version of this beautiful song.  If you’re in the UK and haven’t watched season 5 of Nashville, promise me you won’t Google it or follow any of the other YouTube links in the sidebar!)

As a mother, I’m finding myself in a season where I need to be a sanctuary for my girls, and especially for Eldest to be her safe place.  Being a sanctuary calls on me to shift my priorities, to seek the way of peace in my own life and to bring beauty to a very ugly situation.  Protection, justice, compassion.

I’ve cancelled work this week

I’ve bought mini-Oreo’s for the walk home from school this week

I’ve wept this week

I’ve taken Eldest with me to swim in the sea this week

 

I’m so thankful for the space to find my own way to be a refuge, and I guess I just wish that all kids had a safe place to fall.

 

 

Squiggly

Life sometimes feels very squiggly when you are in a period of remission.  You’re busy trying to rebuild life and pick up old threads but there is messiness in trying to find your equilibrium.

Recovery_reality

I used to feel quite scared of the scribble, the days when out of nowhere I don’t feel like getting up again or I find myself mind-busy and frazzled.  But as you look at the featured image for this blog don’t you think that in some ways that the messy line is actually quite beautiful?

Quite a few things have been squiggling me lately (but I’m learning to accept them as part of the beautiful tangle of life and recovery).  I was offered an ongoing role facilitating mums’ mental health courses from September this year.  In many ways it’s the role I have been dreaming of – but I knew I had to turn it down at this point in my own life journey.  I felt torn between guilt and relief as I sent off the email to say no.  No is a hard thing, but a precious thing too.

Little One has been providing us with some very tangly challenges.  The shift from winter to spring has really unsettled bedtimes and we have had more than a few nights of really screaming at the top of her voice “It’s day not night! I don’t go to bed in the day!” There have been moments of parenting genius like digging out the ‘Sunshine at Bedtime’ poem from Shirley Hughes Out and About collection. There have been many more moments of wondering what on earth to do and the pain of listening to an angry, crying child behind the bedroom door who is so very, very tired but doesn’t understand.

Eldest is going through her own messy time at the moment too and I’m there helping her to untangle some of it. There have been many cups of tea and slices of cheese on toast at the end of another upsetting day at school.  Friendships for pre-teen girls have always been challenging and fraught, but it doesn’t make it any easier knowing this when your precious girl is in tears as she tries to be her authentic self and gets knocked back.

I had something of an epiphany in the midst of the tangles.  I’ve been searching so long for that time I go “back to work” and I’m healed, whole, a functioning member of society again.  That time when I’ll have the career success I imagined when I headed off to University back in 1994.  But the thing is I already have a career.  The most important, draining, fabulous, meaningful work I could have imagined.  I’m a mother to Little One and Eldest.  The paid work is going to have to continue to take a back seat, as much for my wholeness and well-being as theirs.

Glorious mess

Zen and the art of losing it

I guess there was a certain inevitability.  Mindfulness as a parent is hard work, it’s discipline, it’s continual practice.

It all started with the trees.  I tend to drive in some kind of reverie – caught up in lists, planning, evaluating, daydreaming.  In the spirit of everyday mindfulness I kept trying to bring myself back to the present, to notice the different shapes and shades of the trees along the journey.  Trying, trying, trying.  It wasn’t gentle and it certainly wasn’t very peaceful.  I found myself increasingly frustrated with my flighty mind and its insistence on fleeing back to the future or the past.

As best you can.  It’s a mantra often repeated during mindfulness-based therapy and I see it written down a lot in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books.  Cultivating a compassionate mind towards myself, can I accept that in each passing moment I will bring my attention to the present as best I can?

Moment by moment parenting.  Now there’s a challenge.  In the ‘spaces’ before and after school there is time pressure, competing demands, a structure and a schedule needed. Little One has a completely different schedule to mine. It consists of “play babies until it’s time to leave for school”.  Breakfast, getting dressed, phonics – mere distractions, taking mummy away from the important business of pretend play.  In contrast my mind is ticking over – lists, lists, what next, what time is it, has Eldest done her homework, how can I give her some time and attention before she skips out of the door to meet her friends?

I held it together before and after school yesterday.  I made a conscious decision to set aside time to be absorbed alongside Little One in ‘baby world’.  It wasn’t very long, perhaps ten minutes in the morning and half an hour after school, but still trying, trying, trying to be present and not planning the dinner or the work e-mail or the blog post.

I’m going to be honest, I felt proud of myself but also depleted.  It takes energy and commitment to shut out the world and play.  I think it takes practice too, and wisdom.  For me, the sensory world of playdough is better at the end of the day than the demands of the imaginary ‘baby world’.  Little One has learning difficulties, and so she likes quite routinized scenarios for playing babies yet often flits from one topic to another.  One minute we’ll be feeding baby in the high chair and I’m taking on the role of granny, the next minute Little One is ‘Jan Vann’ the paramedic rushing the baby to hospital.  It can be at the same moment boring, repetitive and difficult to keep up.

The rupture

Things reached boiling point after dinner.  You know those moments where it all feels perfect and delicious and then you’re suddenly plunged into a power struggle?  Eldest and Little One were sharing a bath, which doesn’t happen very often nowadays.  I was just looking at their beautiful bodies, enjoying their sisterly love and simply feeling grateful for them.  Time for a hair wash.  Trying to imagine my best mindful parent I gave Little One the choice, “shall we wet your hair with the pot or the shower?”  She chose the pot.  Wriggled away, climbed over her sister, resisted the water at all costs.  Patience, patience.  “This isn’t working love, I’m going to use the shower OK?  Put a cloth over your eyes and tip your head up”.

More wriggling, arching her back, standing up, turning around.  Absolutely no looking up or sitting still. Lather up, with help from Eldest.  “It’s time to sit really still now OK?  We need to wash the bubbles out of your hair”.  Climb over sister, arch back, wriggle away, stand up, repeat.  After imploring her three times to sit down with a cloth on her eyes I just lost it, spraying water directly above her head and down her face.  Shampoo in her eyes, stinging, shock and crying.  I felt so guilty and drained.  Too late after the event I tried to ask her why she didn’t sit still for the shower.

Children need to experience this, too, namely that their parents are human, that at times we can be insensitive, misattuned, even unempathic – that we can get upset and angry.  Much can be learned from such moments of stress and disconnection, and from the important process of repair and recovery… the strength of the parent-child relationship… is based as much on this tumultuous process of rupture followed by repair as it is in feelings of closeness and safety

Everyday Blessings, p.73

The repair

Little One dried her own hair with the hairdryer.  I gently toweled her body and told her I was sorry.  She said she didn’t like the shower, so I asked her if she would like to play with it a bit while brushing her teeth, to get the feel of the water.  We shared a story, a song, a goodnight kiss, an “I love you”.

As best you can.  It’s all we can ask of ourselves.

Mushrooms, mindfulness and multitasking

I took down my copy of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef from the shelf this evening. When it was printed back in 1999, Jamie was a fresh-faced TV chef fond of sliding down the banisters of his trendy London flat and zooming around on his moped.  I was a newlywed girl with a kitchen full of beautiful new stainless steel cooking equipment and Denby crockery carefully unpacked from our wedding gift boxes.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure in those days (and still does) than leafing through my recipe books and planning something delicious to cook for my husband.

I wanted to make risotto today.  The cold air has returned and a bowl of something rich, warming and simple seemed fitting.  I chose mushrooms, thyme, parsley and garlic to flavour the creamy arborio rice.

The real secret of a good risotto, I’m afraid, is that you have to stand over it and give it your loving and undivided attention for about 17 minutes, but it’s worth it. (The Naked Chef p.170)

Undivided attention.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently as I read about mindfulness practice and mindful parenting.  I’m part way through Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings and am finding myself really challenged to give my full attention to my daughters in our everyday moments together.

Back to the risotto – how did I get on with the ‘loving and undivided attention’ it needed? The recipe calls on the cook to add the stock ladle by ladle over 17-20 minutes. Each time a ladleful is added, you stir smoothly and continuously until the stock is absorbed. Over time this gently and slowly swells the rice giving the risotto its creamy texture.  Here is what actually happened after each addition of stock…  I clearly still have some way to go in practising everyday mindfulness!

Ladle 1 – stir, clear up the vegetable peelings, realise the food waste bin has a gross blob of Weetabix inside the lid, take off the lid and wash it, tie up the food bin bag (in between nipping to and from the hob to stir)

Ladle 2 – stir, turn the heat down, kiss husband hello, look at Little One’s picture, ask Eldest to put some TV on for Little One and please set the table

Ladle 3 – stir, shove cardboard for recycling into the cupboard, stir for a little while and enjoy the waft of white wine and celery rising from the pan, congratulate myself on a moment of mindful attention (!)

Ladle 4 – stir, think about this blog (!) and make a mental list for the grocery shop tomorrow

Ladle 5 – stir, wipe the table and kitchen surfaces, look at Little One’s house-point certificate from school

Ladle 6 – stir, chop parsley in a cup with scissors, taste the rice to see if it’s cooked, wish that I was better at just staying still and paying attention to the risotto

Ladle 7 – stir, think about what I’m going to cook for the rest of the week, grate cheese and put it on the table, shout the family to tell them dinner’s ready

Although in many ways this is a funny example, it really got me thinking about how my modus operandi is multitasking.  I have this idea brewing…  What about using a 17-minute ‘risotto space’ to practise just stopping for a while to give what I’m doing my full and undivided attention?  Little One loves to play ‘babies’ – but we often need to set a timer to help her understand when the game has finished and mummy needs to do the next thing. Why not set a timer for 17 minutes and be fully present, holding a baby doll and changing its clothes, watching my Little One smile up at me, listening to her little names for the dolls, being grateful that she loves to nurture?  Could I manage a 17-minute cup of peppermint tea with no smartphone, no agenda? How about 17 minutes to sit down with Eldest and hear about her day, or look through our baking recipes together?

I do want to make a risotto without multitasking.  I want to create and enjoy moments where I am fully present with my girls and my husband.  Life means that there won’t always be 17 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, but maybe there will be 17 minutes to live just that bit slower and more purposefully.