Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Autumn Updates

So now that we're back on an even keel (and, thank god, we are), I should do a couple of updates on everything.

I have two big life improvement projects this autumn.  One is food, and that will require a post of its own sometime.  The other is to ditch the stroller (I know, I should say 'pushchair'; it's one of the Americanisms that we've adopted).  I am a firm believer in the rule of thumb that a child can walk a mile for every year of its age (although I'm a bit fuzzy on where you stop), and so, now that it's not too hot to carry my daughter if she does get tired, we are going on excursions sans buggy--with a very few exceptions for all day trips.

This also means I don't have a stroller to load up with paraphernalia, so I'm trying to cut down on what we take with us.  There goes the nappy bag, too!  I've reverted to my usual handbag, which in previous years was sized to hold my wallet, phone and a paperback book.  Now it holds my wallet, phone, nappy (or two) and a pack of wipes.  And that's it!

In practice, I quite often take the camera bag with me as well, so I am lugging that around, but for the most part it's bliss to just walk around the zoo, or the botanical gardens, or the playground without having to look for ramps or find a place to park the stroller.  I feel liberated!

It's a relief in many other ways.  One of the mistakes I made when my daughter first started walking was to let my three year old son get into the stroller when she wasn't in it.  Suddenly, riding in the stroller became a coveted position by both children and they started fighting over it.  With the stroller gone, they don't worry about it.

It's going to be an ongoing thing to build my daughter's stamina up, but I've been trying to get out alone with her twice a week for a little walk at her pace, and the cooler weather here has meant that we've been spending almost every afternoon outside too, and I'm already seeing improvement. 

If she asks to be picked up, I try and encourage her to keep walking, distracting her if I can... but I don't push the issue further than that.  If I end up carrying her, I'll usually try and set her down again after a few dozen yards, usually at a change of path (i.e. at the start of a boardwalk, or by an offshoot trail) or when something particularly attractive comes into view.  Generally, that works.

As I said, she's already doing better.  This afternoon, we went for a walk around the Botanical Gardens, and although she had to be carried for a little way on the path back, I was able to set her down to 'climb' a tree, and then she walked the rest of the way.  She was clearly tired, because she was going so slowly, but she held my hand tightly and never once asked to be picked up.  I'm thrilled.  I can't wait to be able to do proper rambles with the children, exploring woods without having to always be 'in carrying distance' of home / the car. 

Also, one of the things we figured out while we were in the UK this year is that walks are one of the best ways of tiring your children out without tiring yourself out.  I find that if I take them to the playground, I get worn out before they do, but with walking it's the other way around.

Meanwhile, way back at the start of the year, I tried to figure out how I wanted my son to learn to read and what my role was in that.  He's still plugging away at the moveable alphabet at school, 'writing' words by sounding them out but has not made the leap to reading by the same method.  I've followed a variety of different activities to support his literacy, but what is currently working for us is to just look at the front cover of whatever book we're about to read and talk about the sounds in the title. 

Since he knows all the basic sounds, i.e. his letters, I'll usually point out a few letter combinations to him.  Mostly 'oo', 'ee', 'th', and 'ar'.  Also because he has a strong vowel in his name and a 'y' ending, I've explained to him that those letters can make two sounds (I've been saying that 'y' at the end of a word is usually an 'ee' sound). 

I'm trying not to require anything of him with this exercise, it's just a time that works for us to talk about this kind of stuff.  We spend a few seconds on the title, or one word in the title, before reading the book.  (We also talk about who wrote the words and who drew the pictures, and where the book came from, because he likes to know).

The other thing he's been doing lately is running his finger along the line of text in books he's memorised, or virtually memorised.  It's only a handful of books he's doing that with, but when he forgets what the words say, I'm trying to get him to look at the first letter of the word to know what sound it starts with and jog his memory.  That's not producing notable success, but I figure that any reminder to look at the individual letters is a good thing.

He recently found Where the Wild Things Are at Barnes and Noble and was greatly excited since he'd had it read to him several times at school.  For almost a week, that was the only book he wanted to read!  But he started drawing his finger across the title and saying the words, so I got him to find the 'W's for 'where' and 'wild' and the 'th's for 'the' and 'things' and the 'ar' for 'are'.  I'm not entirely convinced that he is spotting the letters, but he now says the correct word for where his finger is, and gleefully shouts 'Arrrr!' at the end.

So while there are still daily ups and downs, and various other "Well, bugger, I failed at that," moments, the past week has felt very much like constructive progress.  Hooray!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


The vacuum of posts in this blog is ridiculous, but it had its reasons.  We've had a rough few weeks in various small ways, the little drawbacks of family life all piling up and leaving me in a place where I didn't want to write about it, because it would mean dwelling on the stress in my free time.

Three Year Old Regression
The core of this has been my son's recent behaviour.  It's not the only factor--travel fatigue, sickness, etc. etc. have all played their part, but he has been the big issue.  I'm not going to go into the details, because I think that would be counter-productive. Suffice to say he's been having tantrums and meltdowns at the drop of a hat, and we've seen a lot of regression to baby mannerisms and clinginess.

This is pretty normal for late three's (he's three years, nine months), from what I can tell through Google and talking to my friends.  Contributing factor A is mental development. He's more aware of the transitory elements in life, object impermanence if you will, but certainly that there are few guarantees, and this is making him insecure. 

Contributing factor B is sibling rivalry. As his sister (now 19 months) grows older, he's relating her more to his age group, and therefore any difference in treatment is more obvious: e.g. I'm more likely to pick her up and carry her if she's upset; I won't insist on her using her words when she asks for something.

So this is normal and not in itself anything too tough to handle, except for a couple of nights last week when he woke up in the middle of the night and flat out refused to go back to sleep or leave us alone.  The real problem with it was my highly subjective reaction, which let his behaviour get under my skin.

Disclaimer before I continue: I am writing about the bad times.  There have been good times in the past few weeks where I was thrilled to bits with my son.  I'll get back to those at the end of the post.

I Don't Like Not Liking Him
I find tantrum-throwing four year olds and relentlessly whiny children deeply unpalatable.  This is a hangover from work where I've had to deal with both of them.  While I learned how to cope with them, I regret to say I privately scorned the parents for their children's behaviour.  Now karma's come back to bite me as my own child exhibits this behaviour.

Also, up until now, I've always been able to tell myself that my son's misbehaviour is age-appropriate and only to be expected.  This kind of behavioural regression, even if it actually is age-appropriate, is a lot harder for me to be philosophical about.

Just to really highlight things, my daughter is (mostly) delightful and a strong reminder of how gorgeous my son was at this age.  I feel like I've lost the little boy I loved and have ended up with... something I'm not comfortable typing for posterity.  Something unlovable.

I'm not proud of my reaction or my feelings.  I've read before that there will be times when you find it hard to love your child, or put another way, that you won't be able to like them despite your unconditional love.  I thought I'd experienced that before now, but I hadn't appreciated that there will be long term phases (not just a few hours) where I will be so disappointed in my child that I become one mass of maternal insecurity, blaming myself for letting him get to that point and hating myself for feeling this way about my own child.

And that's why I felt I needed to post this.  To admit that I struggle, and to share those struggles with other mothers who are going through or will go through the same thing.  Half the purpose of this blog is solidarity.

Problem Solving
Anyway, we've been tackling this issue ever since we got back and I realised pretty quickly that I was going to need to tone down my gut reaction and remain calm when my son kicked off.  This promptly turned me into a pressure cooker, and I started snapping at my husband instead--or worse, losing my temper with him for losing his temper with our son because if I was having to hold it in, everybody else could too!

We did discover that hay fever had been aggravating him, but for the most part, dealing with his behaviour has been trying to figure out his insecurities and tackling them one at a time. 

He started crying at the school drop-off, something he hasn't done since his fourth day of school, eighteen months ago!  I talked to the school, finding out who deals with him the most during the morning which turned out to be the new assistant.  The old assistant, who left at the end of last year, was probably his favourite member of staff.  I've been explaining to him that Miss L will take good care of him, can always call me if he needs me to be there and will give him a hug if he needs one.  He seems unconvinced, but I like what I've seen of the new assistant, and I think once he's got used to her he'll get more confident.

She told me that the first thing he does when he comes in in the morning is go to the reading area and read a couple of books before going to work, so now at drop off, I kiss him goodbye and tell him to go and read a book.  It's all trying to help him move through that transition.

Equally, he's suddenly developed a fear of the dark.  I took him to Target and let him pick out a new nightlight (we have one already, but it's not very bright).  He doesn't want us to leave the room when he's going to sleep, but we are firm that we want him to fall asleep on his own. 

This seems to be clinginess rather than an active fear of monsters or anything, but it's been really tough getting him to stay in his room until his nightlight goes green (which happens at 6:15am).  He's on Benadryl for the allergies right now, which has definitely helped.  Beyond that, we're just trying to be consistent and enforce suitably dire consequences.

Et cetera, et cetera.  I'm trying to reduce the double standards, either being more demanding of our daughter or being less demanding of our son--where appropriate.  I'm being quicker to cuddle him and carry him on occasion.  I don't think a little bit of cossetting now will do him any harm, and honestly, I tend towards a pragmatic attitude with both children. 

Still to work on: being better about planning in advance what we're doing and telling him.  I do try and ask him what he wants to do, but I think the not knowing whether we're going out or staying home is causing him some anxiety--he always wants to go out, and he is afraid he will be disappointed.  We're particularly bad about this at weekends.

None of these are overnight solutions, but we do seem to be coming out the other side of this phase.  Whatever bug(s) was running through the house has passed, and after a patch of sleep deprivation last week (assorted causes), I'm back on an even emotional keel--aided greatly by my husband taking the children out for about four hours over the weekend; I cleaned the kitchen thoroughly and felt both virtuous and mentally-rested.

More to the point, I feel happier about my son again.  He's still whiny and he still has meltdowns on occasion, but it's getting easier to focus on the good stuff, the stuff that makes him him and the son I adore.

Positive Thinking
On that note and to sign off, I'm going to list some of the lovely things about my son.  Both because it's good for me to remember them and because it's not fair on my son to omit them.
  • I love listening to him play games, making up his own adventures.
  • I love how he dances spontaneously and sings songs that morph from standard songs to his own creations and back again.
  • I love that he wants to go and open the door for his sister when we hear her wake up from her nap.
  • I love his wicked, gleeful smile.
  • I love how he wants to play with his sister.  He's yet to reach a 'no girls' phase (I've probably jinxed this now).  Not only that, he can play nicely with her.  Yesterday, they amused themselves for forty minutes and I only had to intervene twice.  Twice!
  • I love that he's recently got over a huge hump of fussiness and has started eating things with cheese in, drinking milk and sampling different kinds of meat!  (Still fussy, but drastically less so).
  • I love how he's running his finger along the text in books he's memorised, still trying to figure out the reading thing.
  • I love reading to him. I'm surprised by how much more fun it is reading to a three year old than a toddler (more interesting books and no "Again!" as soon as I've finished).
  • I love that for all his flaws, he's still above average when it comes to listening to me, behaving appropriately, taking turns and saying 'sorry'.
  • I love our moments when it's just me and him.  For two years, it was just me and him most of the time, and there is something unbelievably special about reclaiming that every now and then.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Post Holiday Post

We've been back for a week, but I haven't felt much like writing.  It's always exhausting going back to the UK.  Most of our family are in the north of England (and Wales) and some of my family are in the southwest; in the road-trip between the two, we try and incorporate meals with a few friends in the south, and then there's always a pack of mutual friends from university who we meet up with for one weekend.  It's insanely fun and I love it, but it's not at all restful.

The annual trip is something I consider hugely important, all the moreso for our children, so they get to meet their extended family and get some experience of England.  Thinking about it though, this wasn't something I had the option of in my childhood.  My father was in the navy, and we moved to Hong Kong for three years when I was one, back to the UK when I was four, and then to the States when I was nine (we came back when I was eleven, at which point I started boarding school and gained a permanent base in the UK, wherever my parents traveled). 

During those posts, I never saw England, though in my earliest memories I was always very clear that we would go home there one day.  My mother's sister and my father's parents were up for traveling out to visit us, but I would only see the rest of the family when we lived in England.  On the other hand, when I grew older, I was very conscientious about making the trip abroad to see my parents every year, and this has carried on now that I'm the one living abroad. 

While some people have felt that I must lack roots, leading such a childhood, I've always identified very strongly as British and been very firm that England is my home (even when my husband and I moved out to the States, I insisted on the proviso that it was only temporary).  That said, there's a cultural knowledge base that I lacked.... not so obvious these days, but I remember struggling with it through high school and university.

I hope to assuage this in my children.  It's a lot easier for me to keep in touch with the UK than it was for my parents.  When we were in Hong Kong, international phone calls had to be carefully scheduled by letter and kept as brief as possible owing to the cost; today, my parents and I video chat most weeks in my living room, with the camera trained on the children playing on the rug.  BBC America is a channel, and it's not difficult for us to get hold of current British children's programmes.

That said, you can't beat the firsthand experience of a trip through the motherland.  Not to mention so many of our friends have children the same age as ours, who (for now!) our children are eager to play with.  Just having some idea of what British children are into is going to be such a big deal when we do come home and the children have to make a fresh start at a British school.
I'm realistic enough to know that I can't give them a completely British childhood, nor would I want to.  They're American too, and I think it's absurd to dismiss that or make them feel its undesirable.  I'm just trying to give them as much familiarity with the UK as I can.  Because that's where we'll go, "when we go home."