We love going to Center Parcs. For my husband and me, it represents a reminder of the first real break we had from the responsibility of parenthood. For our children, it means exciting freedom, a chance to discover new things and time to play with parents who, for the duration of the stay, are released from the cares of providing breakfast, lunch, tea and doing the laundry. It also helps that it is not too far to travel from our home, as L is sick at least twice on the way there and once on the way back without fail.
For us all, there is the familiarity of several years of short breaks that brings relaxation in itself. Sam, particularly, suffers from the stress of the unknown. We have had several camping holidays and we have always returned home with a palpable sense of relief, not just because camping with children is a lot of hard work, but because Sam’s anxiety leads to sleeplessness, which in turn leads to the rest of us feeling wrecked and bad tempered. Which is kind of par for the course for families on holiday, but one would like to try to avoid it if one possibly can.
One of the things I particularly like is the break from wrestling everyone in and out of the car several times each day. Instead, as a family, we enthusiastically embrace the bicycle. Riding a bike has always been one of the key skills that we were keen for Sam to master. I was more than happy to leave this one to Daddy (having a baby around kind of gets in the way of running behind a bike), and, all credit to him, Sam was pretty much riding by the time he was six. Riding at a pace slower than walking, mind you, and more often than not, due to our familial desire to actually get to place,s attached to a tagalong, but riding nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the acquisition of such life skills has the effect of leading me into a bad case of overconfidence. Of course, go mountain biking, said I to beloved husband. I will collect the children from their activity. Sam and A can ride or push their bikes and I will take L on the seat on the back of my bike. No problem.
I didn’t reckon on the tow bar obsession rearing its ugly head, and I didn’t think that Sam would take such offence at being asked to transport himself without support. I didn’t think that he would throw his little bike down in a temper, leaving me, with a baby in a bike seat, unable to do anything to stop him, or, not having three arms, to help. What had seemed like a simple exercise rapidly spiralled out of control. I found that hills, babies, bikes, bags, boys and temper just don’t mix.
I realised (eventually) that we weren’t going anywhere fast, and, even though I was thankful that A wasn’t doing what he normally did by riding off into the sunset, full of the confidence borne of living for four years, I did what many of us do when faced with circumstances that have got way out of our hands; I prayed. Now, I don’t know what your religious convictions are, and mine aren’t the subject of this blog, but at that moment I know that I prayed the desperate kind of prayer that goes straight to the heart of God. I was filled with the instant conviction that, somehow, my, ‘Help me!’ had been heard, and that help was on its way.
Now, the funny thing about help is that I like it the way I like it, if you know what I mean. Having lived a long way from my parents and any sort of family support for the vast majority of my parenting life, I have got used to being self-reliant. So, when someone stopped me and asked if they could help my first reaction was not to fall gratefully at their feet. Instead, my experience with Sam’s tantrums led me to shake my head, firm in my belief that it would soon be over.
It took three offers of help before I cottoned on to the fact that it wasn’t coming in the form I had hoped for. All I wanted was for Sam to stop shouting and do what I wanted him to, and it took me a while to realise that wasn’t going to happen. We had struggled along together, with me alternating between encouragement and increasingly desperate begging my child to at least push his bike along if he didn’t want to ride it, until we reached the bottom of The Crazy Hill. At the top was our chalet, rest and safety, but in between there was an enormous obstacle.
As I stood at the bottom of a long, winding path that led up a steep hill, alone and responsible for three small children, one of whom was having a major rebellion, I knew, with that strange clarity that hits you in these situations that, not only was I struggling with a present problem, but I was faced with a metaphorical mountain too. That moment of clarity showed me that I might know where I was going, or more properly, I knew where I wanted to go, but that I had run out of ideas.
I knew where I wanted my lovely eldest boy to be, I knew the steps he had to take, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see how I, even with all my drive and passion, all my ingenuity and creativity, could get him there, and certainly not with a lively younger brother snapping at his heels and a baby sister permanently attached to my apron strings. I had no idea of how I was going to get from here, at the bottom, to there at the top. It wasn’t as if I was Hercules, with all the strength in the world to push that boulder up. My hands were tied.
So the third time someone stopped me and asked if I needed help I burst into tears and said, ‘Yes’. I never had myself pegged as a particularly proud person. After all, as a primary school teacher I regularly humiliate myself with fancy dress or by standing in front of grown adults reciting something ridiculous or crawling about on the floor. My piano playing in concerts has often borne a striking resemblance to Les Dawson. So why was accepting help so damned hard?
I learned that day that to accept the offer of help from someone, in this case a total stranger, did not constitute a failure on my part. It didn’t mean that I sucked as a mother and it didn’t mean that I couldn’t cope. It just meant that there are times in your life when it takes more than just one person to raise a child, and that’s OK. I can’t supply every need my children have – and neither should I have to. It’s OK to let other people play their part.
And I found out that the act of helping me, or helping Sam, blesses other people too. It’s not our thanks that does it; it’s the act of helping that gives other people pleasure and purpose. In their act of giving, they are strengthened by my weakness.
My husband tells me that I am a bit like the man in the joke who prays to be saved from drowning and refuses the rope, the lifeboat and the rubber ring because he is looking for a different kind of rescue. I’m glad that I accepted the helping hand when I did, because the stranger who helped me didn’t only see us to the top of the hill. He took us right back to our front door, and his mere presence took the wind right out of Sam’s sails. For me, that day, I was in the presence of an angel.