Tag Archives: Holidays


I do wonder sometimes, if the long summer break, the One Big Perk, isn’t one of the reasons why people give teachers stick when they meet them at social occasions (that, and the way they suddenly remember all the teachers who ever told them off or made them feel silly over something or other).  They always mention it, that and the 9 til 3 thing.  No matter how hard we try we just can’t seem to persuade the general public that actually, teachers work really long hours.

The contrast between term time and holiday time is also one of the reasons, I am quietly convinced, that many people give up on the job after about five years.  It’s a bit like the way I once heard airline piloting described: hours and hours of sitting around doing very little punctuated by minutes of intense activity and stress – only the other way round.  It’s all very well if you are partnered up with a teacher and you can go off for the entire summer, live at the beach or a month and pretend that you are one of the gentry, so rich that you don’t need to work, but it doesn’t exactly promote a balanced work/life balance.  The constant see-saw between pressure and nothing is stressful in itself.

I’m not saying that children should be in school for any longer (if you don’t count my idea to make the school day longer, but with longer breaks contained within) – they are only children after all, and there is only so much learning and sitting at school desks, staring out of the window and longing to be as free as the birds that a child can reasonably be expected to do – but really, when you think about it, do we have to structure the school year this way?

Children can struggle with the long summer break – and especially those, like Sam, who have special needs, or who live in chaotic or unhappy homes – six weeks is a long time, and long enough to do some prodigious forgetting.  And while I’m at it, does it have to be in August?  I’m sitting here, watching the rain come down and thinking of July, when it was sunny, and too hot to teach, and everyone was grumpy because they had to be in school when really all they wanted to do was loll around doing nothing very much and that was just the grownups.

And we all struggle with the Autumn term.  I know the summer one goes a bit bonkers, what with sports days and end of year shows and assemblies and reports and exams, but that is nothing compared to the darkening marathon towards Christmas.  We start in September, all mellow and gentle mornings, and we end up, carols coughed out in the semi-gloom of the winter solstice, with about three days, taking away all the enforced visiting and merrymaking we have to do, just to spread the germs around a little bit more, to recover ourselves and get on with the next bit.

The thing is, though, that we can’t have schools trying it out, just as an experiment, like.  Schools are made up of families, and coordinating INSET days, from a parental perspective, is bad enough.  In my house, if you include my erstwhile school, we have four institutions to placate (including one parent who can’t just take a day off when she needs to).  If we’re going to make a change, we all have to do it together.


(Actually, if it were me, I would have July off, two weeks in October and three – at least – at Christmas.  Give us all a bit of time to decompress, get a bit of balance and restore good health.)

Growing Up

IMG_3597The first time I slept in a tent I must have been about eight or nine years old.  Up until that night, my main experience had been under a very thick green triangular canvas held up with red-and-white survey poles.  There was no inner, and no groundsheet and it was full of flies and the distinctive aroma of fly spray, so it was a revelation that tents could be orange and have rooms inside.  It was not a success.

Family friends had chosen to end their camping holiday at our house, and, as we had a big (although hardly what I might call flat) garden, as a treat for us kids, they pitched their tent so that we could play in it, and have a night in it if we so wished.  Everybody wished it, so out we went.  Boy and dad in one room, girls in the other.

I spent the night unable to sleep, partly because I was desperate for the loo, and partly because I had convinced myself that I would find the back door locked, even if I dared navigate two sets of stone steps (one more rustic than the other) in the dark; separated from the facilities by the Burglar Lock until the sunrise.  The following night, despite the transports of delight from all other child-members of our group, I did not join them.  The following night I slept, happily I might add, in my own bed.  It was a while before I was tempted into tenting again.

It might have been the Saturday job I had for a couple of years, while I was doing my A Levels, in a camping and outdoors shop, but I suspect it was really the Duke of Edinburgh.  Or maybe it was Bikes.  Or possibly a combination of the two.

You see, the first year we were married, R bought me a bike.  And not long after that, the idea that it might be nice to take our bikes on holiday with us had snowballed into catching the train to Inverness, and cycling across to Gairloch and back, camping along the way.  He knew all about that sort of thing, thanks to the Duke.  It was great.

There is something about packing everything you need into a couple of bags and cycling off into the sunset, the pitter patter of rain on canvas while you are toasty warm inside.  After a year of living and working in rooms, being in the outside all day and all night makes a more than refreshing change, even if you can’t sleep until you are too tired not to.  So, when the children were little, we upscaled our three-person dome tent and bought a family sized one.

Only, it’s not quite the same when there are children involved.  For a start, there is the size of the thing.  Instead of it taking mere minutes to put up (R and I are a good team where tent pitching is concerned), it takes at least a couple of hours, once you have identified which bit goes where and persuaded excited children to stop running into the walls.  Putting it away is no better.  There’s something about tent bags that means they never quite fit back into them, and, for a larger tent, the problem is proportionally multiplied.  And that’s all before the magical moment when, tired and sweaty, you finally stand back to look at your handiwork only to be greeted by a little voice saying, ‘I’m hungry’.

They always look so great when you go and have a look around the tenting shop.  You pop excitedly in and out of them and before you know where you are you have purchased one that not only gives you the unexpected pleasure of being able to stand up inside, but also room to play, should the weather prove unfavourable.  Separate bedrooms for all.  It always sounds so great in theory until you are attempting to put a nervous child to bed and go to sleep yourself before the clock strikes one, two, three in the morning.

Sam, like the eight-or-nine-year-old me, is not a particularly happy camper.  He’s fine during the day, like the others, he finds the packing and the pitching almost unbearably exciting, but once the dusk falls, and he realises that we are not, in fact, going straight back home, and that the tent is not, as he had thought, part of an elaborate game, but scarily real, he finds the shine coming rapidly off the experience.  I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I think it’s some sort of combination between the restrictions inherent in a sleeping bag, the slope of the ground (the ground always slopes), the movement of the tent walls (it is always windy) and the strangeness of the sounds of other people’s families, invisible and yet close at hand, that means that sleep, for him, and therefore for us, is an elusive prospect.  And when the child doesn’t sleep, everything else takes on a strange red glow.

So you might be surprised to hear that this year, in a fit of enthusiasm (or something), we have invested in yet another tent.

This time, though, it’s a tent with a difference.  This time, instead of complicated poles and pegs and inside rooms hanging from fiddly toggles, we have opted for a one-room wonder.  And a couple of weeks ago we gave it a try.

It really couldn’t have been any better.  The wind was gentle and the skies were clear.  The sun shone and so did the International Space Station.  There were camp fires and marshmallows, and special boys we always watch so closely cycled round lakes (about a mile) about six times on his own and told me all about it in the longest set of sentences I have ever heard him utter.  We went to sleep, all together, and Sam held my hand (and no one had to get out of their nice warm sleeping bag) and didn’t wake up until morning.  Well, he woke up with a whispered ‘yesssss’ at half past five (presumably he was relieved at his survival of the night), but being as he was right next to me, I told him the time and he nodded right back off with a huff.

It wasn’t just that, though.  It wasn’t just the weather, and the food, and the fun of sailing off with the washing up and sailing back again, or even of the unexpected growing-up-before-your-eyes of our eldest boy.  For me, that weekend represents a bit of a watershed moment.

You see, when you have a child with special needs, you experience something I can only really describe as a loss of independence.  You can’t do things, the way you used to, on your own.  Packing up your tent and putting it on the back of your bike and cycling off into the sunset is no longer an option.  Yes, this is the same for every young family, you need a community around you, to help you bring up baby.  But sometimes, for some of us, this state of dependence carries on for far longer than you were expecting.  Most of the time, we need assistance just to exist.  In a funny kind of way, it’s almost as if you aren’t really a grown up after all.

But that weekend, it was something we did all on our own.  It was great.  It was great to be growing up.

Would you just look at that beauty.
Would you just look at that beauty.

Pneumonia Christmas

Tonight, as I sit here in front of the fire, my children warmly tucked up in bed, it is easy to forget that, for a while, this time of year, these few weeks when we are at our darkest, dampest and coldest, this particularly quiet empty time between Christmas and New Year were not always so cosy.  Winter has long been a problematic time for me; many years have seen me cough my way through plays and concerts, descant parts that still ring in my mind remained unsung as my throat  stopped working in protest and internal temperatures rose, but nothing, nothing that had gone before prepared me for the onslaught that was winter-with-baby/toddler/child-with-Down’s.

The summer when Sam was about five months old we headed into the hospital for a sleep study.  He made this funny little duck noise (it’s the sound of a floppy larynx) and struggled for breath when he slept; an overnight stay hooked up to numbers and beeping diagnosed sleep apnoea, but not bad enough to do much about, and certainly not enough to warn me of what lay ahead.

I’d never been in an ambulance before.  I’d never had anything to do with nebulisers, but when he wouldn’t stop coughing, when he couldn’t catch his breath, when my little baby didn’t cry, kept on trying to play but couldn’t, when his skin took on a strange papery texture, I took matters into my own hands and we rocked up at the small injuries unit (we know the staff there quite well).

Later that night, as I sat, itchy eyed, swimming slowly to realisation that he wasn’t just a little bit ill, I watched a young doctor watch my son, dry nappied and dressed only in a mucus-and-calpol stained vest; I watched her check his oxygen sats again and again, and I heard her say, ‘come on Sam’.  I wondered emptily if it was at this point that I needed to worry; seriously worry.

It’s a strange state, the one where your tiny child is in hospital.  They haven’t been in your care very long, and, when they were born with an extra little complication, the ward is never very far away.   It’s almost as if that small person doesn’t quite belong to you.  To be shuttling backwards and forwards, in and out for appointments and consultants and overnight stay feels almost normal.  Strange, but normal.

Hospital is where I realised that Sam was signing.  It was just before New Year, and we were playing with him, chatting over the possibility of going home, as there wouldn’t be many people around for the 31st/1st, when we noticed that whenever my name (mummy) was mentioned, he made the same action (putting a telephone to his ear, make of that what you will).  Hospital is where R realised that there is a certain selflessness about motherhood, when he came upon us both, he sleeping upright in a plastic chair thing, head tilted back, under a perspex oxygen box, me, fully dressed, medium pregnant and crashed out on a sort of pull up bed, casually draped with hospital blankets.

I remember those years, those pneumonia Christmases, with an echo, a vague sense of unease that the doctor’s surgery will be closed, that the chemist’s doors will be locked for the length of the holiday.  I know that, even though, for us, the trials of the season of good will are lessened by growth and strength and sleep, that there are many, parents who are starting out on their journey into special parenthood, who are where we were, in the quiet week, sitting on the edge of chairs next to hospital cots and beds, wondering how low the sats are supposed to go.

I’m not one of those who sees no need for stopping at this time of year.  It’s not only the fact that the children become impossible, wound up into a frenzy of excitement and expectation by the glitter and tinsel, the making of cards and practicing of carols and plays, such that they are good for nothing except a bit of colouring and story time.  It’s not just that we adults are tired, exhausted by the efforts of keeping on keeping on, the agony of dragging ourselves out of our warm beds into the dark and cold (and that’s the kitchen), the forcing of breakfast between reluctant lips.

We are fools when we think that we are somehow beyond the dictates of the natural world.  A large part of me rants and raves at the nonsense that demands that we eschew the Christmas crafts in our classrooms, in favour of carrying on with the serious stuff of learning whatever it is we are supposed to be teaching them now, but the bigger part, the part that has endured the snot, the coughs, the temperatures, the vomit, the fear that all might not, in fact, turn out well, that part of me sits back wearily and sighs.

One of the funny things about Down’s syndrome is that it acts like a magnifying glass.  When Sam is unhappy or worried or doesn’t get it, you can guarantee that other children feel the same way.  His confusion may be greater, but confused they still will be.  While Sam, and children like him, might grace the wards at the end of December/beginning of January, the others, the ordinary, the typical children, and their parents and teachers, they need rest and recuperation too.

Give us all a break.


Bigger, stronger, playing a game, but still vulnerable.
Bigger, stronger, playing a game, but still vulnerable.



It Takes a Holiday Village to Raise a Child


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.

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