Tag Archives: motherhood

She Stands at the Window and Weeps

The suds slide slowly,
Abandoning the porcelain
For the cooling, greased greyness
And a diminished, laboured repetition.

They echo, with their soft descent,
The trickled tracks
Of raindrops;
Crystalline sisters, wedded to glass.

Their tired decay
A contrasting parallel
To tears
As she stands at the window and weeps.

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Sunday Best

I had the oddest experience the other day. As you (probably don’t) know, I moved house recently and, as the nights are drawing in and I have reached the conclusion of my hemming and hawing, I thought it was about time I sorted out some sitting room (the hubs calls it the lounge, which I tease him by declaring that that name is horribly bourgeois) curtains. I found a nearby branch of a fabric place I have used before (I’m not what you might call skilled in the matter of sewing), and off I trotted, measurements in hand – and they refused to sell me any. Not in so many words, you understand, we ran out of time and I had to make a dash for it (slave to the school-and-college run that I am), but still. I got the distinct impression that something was…off.

I thought about it afterwards as I scratched my head and googled around to see if there was anywhere else I could get hold of something to keep the darkness at bay, and I came to a depressing conclusion. I think it was something to do with me. Not that I barged in to the shop and demanded to be served, not that sort of thing (people who do that never seem to have any trouble getting what they want, after all), but that I didn’t look like someone who could afford to spend the kind of money that the curtains are going to cost (don’t worry, I have saved up – I’ve bought curtains before, I know they are costly things). Seeing as I had been cleaning the house (the other treadmill of my life), and the fact that it was raining, I had not considered dressing up a necessity – rather, I was considerably dressed down. Outward appearances did not tell the truth of the matter.

I’ve come a cropper in this way before, you see. I went through a phase of dressing up for church, when the kids were little. In an unconscious echo of my teenage years, when I dressed up (or down, depending on which way you looked at it) for the evening service, it was my one opportunity of the week to wear something swish, after a week of anonymous dressing in the ubiquitous uniform of early motherhood.  I’d even do my hair (well, sometimes) and put on makeup. I knew I wasn’t presenting the right kind of image after I had one very difficult conversation with someone or other (I had done something wrong, spoken the wrong way or asked for the wrong thing – in the wrong way) and I had to point out that I, as the mother of a disabled child, was the very person that, perhaps, they were seeking to reach.

Sometimes I think it was the same when  Sam was at primary school too (although we never had the same full and frank exchange of views about it). I didn’t fit the mould of the person who might need a hand, every now and again. Some people get all the help in the world, the cups of tea, the signposting to official people who you can ask for help, some people get the sickly sweet patronage of the welfare state and others, those hampered by their membership of privilege, instead of helped, are pathologised. Demanding. Fussy. Pushy. Difficult. Asking in the wrong way and at the wrong time, not following the plan, or being the right kind of mother.

I don’t know, maybe I should just suck it up. Maybe I should dress up for shopping and dress down for church, just so people know I mean business. Maybe I should cry in school playgrounds, not save my tears for the washing up or when I’m cutting onions; maybe I should publicly broadcast a somehow acceptable disability story so that everyone can feel sorry for me, and good about themselves for helping. Maybe I should hide who I really am, don the cloak of hypocrisy so that they don’t get defensive and I get…I don’t know what I get, a relief from disappointment, perhaps.

I’ll go back and get my curtains. I’ll screw up my courage, flick my hair over my shoulder, put on my sunglasses (even if it’s raining) and remind myself that I don’t have to care what other people think, or appear to think of me, that it’s the results (in this case, curtains) that matter. One day, I’ll transfer the lesson and I’ll stop being phased by the criticism of wrongness and then we’ll see.

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?

Passport

“It is a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be somebody else, or nobody at all.” Sylvia Plath

I’ve been doing quite a bit of Sorting Out lately.  First, it was the Teaching Resources.  When I went back to work after my long baby break, I re-started a collection that I threw out, not long after Baby Number Two. I wasn’t going back, I decided, and so, all those lovingly hand drawn worksheets, detailing various aspects of the Tudors, or the Egyptians, made their way, as it were, to the classroom in the sky. (I kept a fair amount of the books, it has to be said; you never know when you might need to rustle up a quick spelling activity or build a Saxon Hall with toilet roll inner tubes.) It didn’t take long to fill ten or so box files. I’m terrible at throwing things out (see above), and I hate waste. The last four years have seen me better at keeping things to a minimum, but still.

Our coming house move has been the catalyst for my uncharacteristic sorting. Once the worksheets were gone, I turned my attention to the filing cabinet. An annoying piece of furniture, stuffed in a difficult to reach corner, it has been easier, for the last ten years, to pile the ever-growing number of letters and other bits of Useful Paper Based Information relating to three children, on top of it, rather than attempt to wrestle with the Hanging Files That Fall Apart At The Slightest Touch. I decided, as I had about ten or so empty box files, that I would transfer the contents of the filing cabinet to said box files (we won’t have room for it when we move, anyway) and do some Sorting Out while I was at it.

It’s been a worthwhile exercise (despite R’s protestations).  We have discovered the whereabouts of a fair number of important documents (along with several that were important in 2011 but are no longer), had a good discussion about pensions (confusing and depressing at the same time) and had (or rather, I have) a lovely trip down memory lane.

I didn’t feel it was necessary to keep hold of all of Sam’s old Statements, and the three or four draft EHCPs we received last winter. I haven’t kept every letter from every paediatrician or visit of the school nurse to check his hearing, although I have kept the first – the educational psychologist report and my original parental statement make interesting, and, to me anyway, somewhat heart-rending reading; one day I’ll tell you about it. I like to keep significant documents, papers that represent a turning or a starting point.

I’ve got the lovely little booklets that came from nursery, a record of a learning journey, a blast from the past that went in a flash, gobbled up by school runs and tea times and bed time and bath times. I look at them, I read the comments, and I see snatches of the people they are now; I am assailed by memory, of the time we went to Cornwall with grandad and took Macey, the class cuddly toy, the play-doh picnic and snow that came over the top of wellies.  A record of the baby years, gone, but not forgotten.

And in amongst the letters and the school reports, the certificates of birth and marriage and the last will and testament of me and him, is a plastic pocket (I am a primary teacher, after all) containing passports. A and I looked at them together, marvelling at the size of the official dark blue, at his resemblance to his father, from an age before I knew him, and to me, a photographic record of change in ten year jumps. (The VERY NICE man at the Post Office told me last time how little I’d changed. I don’t think he’ll say the same next time, that’s for sure.)

There she sits, shyly giving a half-smile to the boxed camera, wondering what the future has in store, and I wonder that she is me. Or at least, she was.

Trench Warfare

Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker?  (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now.  I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on.  I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly.  Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.

A couple of things stand out in my memory of them.  A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.

But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’

In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.

We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.

It’s the same with teaching.  Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.

And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.

You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes.  When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.

How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.

When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child.  It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all.  Being something and nothing, a split person,  a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.

Have you been there? Do you understand?