Category Archives: motherhood

Elastic

This week has been one of journeys, of visits, to the past, and glimpses of the future. Sam, at 16, is leaving the care of paediatricians, moving towards adult health services, and together, we are making our way between appointments, visiting the places and people of our shared past.

There are changes in us all. Instead of a rough collection of post-war prefabricated huts there is a brand, spanking new Children’s Centre, but, funnily enough, many of the faces are familiar; over the years, the medical staff have rescued one or other of my children from the jaws of whichever illness was threatening to pull them under more than once or twice. One of the reasons, after our housemove, we have opted to stay on at the same trust is the continuity. Many of the health professionals who see Sam for routine check-ups have known him, and me, since he was born.

This week, after the hearing aid debacle (I have checked everywhere, in and out of pockets and bags, the washing machine and the reception desk at college), it was the turn of the heart scan. It’s been on the horizon since the summer; twice now we have had to postpone, due to holiday or work commitments. The date has been on the calendar for at least a month, a final check, just to be sure.

Sam’s heart hasn’t had such close attention since he was three days old. That day, bleak, and grey, the tail end of January, was wet. Instead of sunshine, the crispness of a golden autumn, it was slick. Brown and dirty; the dampness in the air, the remains of tears, the shaky sweat brought on by the hospital and a darkened room cooling in the cold air. Then, he was a tiny baby, he hadn’t been home, hadn’t had his first bath; now he is on the cusp of manhood. This was the morning when together, we looked in the bathroom mirror as he shaved the beard that is slowly roughening his baby face.

It was supposed to be no big deal. Like I said, it’s been on the calendar for months. Over the years, we have got used to dividing our time, not exactly taking turns, but attending the appointments, of which there are many, separately. Most of them are mundane. Most of them require only the polite boredom of waiting your turn, the oft repeated recitation of a medical history, the everso slightly defensive spike, the sensitivity to unsaid, but assumed stereotypes. I was unprepared for the wash of emotion, the tidal return of a day long gone, when I feared, when I truly feared what our future might be.

There was no reason to fear. There was no sign of breathlessness, no dusky tinge to his skin. As he has grown, he has become a vision of good health. I knew that this scan was a formality, a chance for a doctor to see the baby grown, to shake his, and my hand and say goodbye. But still. There are moments when reason does not feel strong. There are times when the echo of the heart is an unstoppable force. It overwhelms, and it catches you out.

We left with a smile. A wry admission that we hope never to meet again was our goodbye. We move on. We may carry the echo of that dark January day, but today there is sunshine. Today, there is tomorrow.

via Daily Prompt: Elastic

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That September Feeling

Today was the first day I noticed the morning mist. It hangs, golden, over stubbled fields heavy with dew, slowly disappearing, soaked up by the still-warm, late-summer sunshine of September. We are entering the final third of the last act of summer, and I am surprised that it has taken this long. It’s usually the first week back, the shock of the first INSET morning after the long rest that has me noticing it, curled around the valley floor, but not this year.

This year, September has been, not the delicious irony of glorious settled Indian Summer, but wet. Muddy, wet and cold and an unaccustomed early start to the wearing of long trousers. Instead of sunglasses, I have shivered, donned a raincoat and sadly abandoned my summer shoes. They sit, with the t-shirt I wore only once, on the floor of my bedroom, ever hopeful that warmth will return before they must be put away, hibernating in a dusty box beneath the bed.

It’s used to be that I was invigorated by the September Snap; that first breath of chill as you step out of the front door on the way to school. After a long, boring summer, with nothing to do but read, or hang out with the young people who just happened to be there (as opposed to young people who were actually friends), or, even, reluctantly perform the homework tasks set by teachers who would no doubt forget they ever asked, I was ready for the change, the challenge of a new school year. Now, though, now I am not.

For six long weeks I have them. For six long weeks, my children are mine. Our lives, for a time relive, they ring with the echo of when they were first born, of the time before timetables and bells and detentions and punishments for lateness. For six long weeks (bar the times when I must work, the bills needs paying, after all) we please ourselves. 

You don’t realise the freedom, the release from other people’s expectations, other people’s agendas, until it ends, until the moment when the hamster wheel of packed lunches and school runs, checks for homework and the paying for trips and clubs and music lessons takes up its relentless motion. You thought you were in control – of your own life, of the way your children are brought up – until that moment, and you see again the grey hairs and the burgeoning lines upon your forehead; you feel the pinch of other people’s expectations, etched upon your skin.

Your fingers itch to reach the keyboard, to fill in the blank pages of the home-school diary, to tell the people who don’t know your children all the things, all of the things, to reassure yourself that they know the mountain you are climbing, that they will help, not hinder your progress.

That first breath of September, no longer the chill that rosed the cheeks and quickened the step, must now be held, until you learn to trust.

Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

Sats Hell

Next week will be first time in a while that I haven’t been involved with end of key stage two assessments in a professional capacity. I don’t miss it, I’ll be frank. I don’t miss creeping through the school, shushing younger children, or sitting with the anxious ones, reading questions and watching them squirm in their seats and yet still plump for the wrong answer.

I don’t miss hour after hour of practice papers. (And hour after hour of subsequent marking.) I don’t miss sending home homework involving page after page of sums in those shiny brown revision books (also to be marked). I don’t miss spelling tests and mental maths tests, explaining how it will be on a CD just the same so get used to the funny voice and no, there will be no second chances, no opportunities to go back over a question you missed.

I suppose the quizzes and games were quite fun, and visiting schools with the LA badge was endlessly fascinating, even if I used to come away with a frowny sense of perplexion that our schools should be materially so different, and yet so similar; so full of hot and cold writes and purple polishing pens (it’s probably something different now, fashions change quickly in edu-land), so many guides to keeping miptors to assess. But I don’t miss the sight of science books with one date in September followed by pristine empty pages, the heavy knowledge that the Borderliners spent a dry year doing two subjects in the morning – and the same two subjects again in the afternoon. I don’t miss the negative, waste of time answer to the question: where is the poetry? Did you study any poetry?

This year, it is different. This year, although I am working still in education, I am not in the classroom, and, instead of guiding other people’s children, with a smile and an encouraging nod, this year I must support my daughter.

I’ve seen my sons through the experience. Sam, divorced as he was from the goings on of the class, wasn’t aware that Sats week was even a thing. A, assessed on a curriculum he had completed and supported by a teacher who made him feel special, funny boy that he is, enjoyed it. But L, my baby, born into a year, 2006, a group of children who have had their increasingly tired looking teachers attempt to squash four years of learning into three, is having a very different experience indeed.

She doesn’t say much, but she has changed this year. She still likes school. She still goes willingly into the building, obediently walking because running is forbidden. But she who has always been Little Miss Enthusiasm has started to complain. There are tests every day. Homework is met with deep reluctance and music practice and lessons with tears. Her sleep is disturbed, and I am worried about her, about her health and her mental wellbeing.

She’s only in it for the party, she says (a picnic on the school field, the food provided by home). She wonders what Sats stands for, what does it mean?

I don’t want to tell her that she is caught in an international political dance. Instead I tell her that I don’t care if she writes sausages for every answer if she likes. It won’t change how much we love her, whatever she achieves on paper, how high she comes in someone else’s measure doesn’t matter to us. I remind her that to try her best is to be kind to her teachers, because it is they who are being assessed for competence, not her.

She won’t be the only child beset by anxiety, I know that. She won’t be the only child perplexed by the overblown importance of school tests for eleven year olds.  But after another broken night, I look on next week with deep concern, and I find myself wondering what the hell we adults, with our obsession with measuring and testing, of bathing in reflected glory, think we are doing?