Wednesday, 23 May 2012

What stillness means to us.

On reading Time, Space and Stillness a very good (and supportive) friend of mine remarked "I just don't know how you're going to get the stillness bit!", so I thought it might be nice to write a little bit about what stillness means in our family life.

Certainly there is not a great deal of sitting still in our home, although any opportunities for this are quickly taken! Stillness for me personally is about feeling calm and peaceful rather than anxious and stressed. The stillness is about what's going on inside, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. Adopting this state was a matter of choice for me. I remember very clearly in the weeks after Callum and Charlie were born feeling almost overwhelmed by the demands of a 2 year-old and newborn twins and telling myself:

"These are your children and this time is precious, don't waste any of it feeling stressed".

I remembered all the women who had approached me in the street, looked at my children and told me that this is the "happiest time of your life". I knew they were right and made a vow to make the most of every aspect of parenting, even the ridiculously difficult bits! This will sound over-simplistic to many people but it has really worked for me. Please don't think I am some vision of saintly calm though, I get frustrated, cross, stressed and irritated plenty of times along the way! I've learned that this doesn't help at all though, and that if I can feel calm then the whole house calms with me! Finding my own stillness makes life easier to manage.

As far as the children go, stillness comes in moments. We get outside and watch nature at work as much as we can, and very often the boys will just stop and be still as something fascinates them. Even young babies love to watch things like sunlight through leaves in the trees. I would always try and stop and be still with my boys when I noticed them doing this...I feel as though I've rediscovered the world through their eyes. I point out the things I find beautiful in the world and Joseph now does this back for me, often when I most need reminding!

Silence can work wonders! It's a great source of amusement in this house that Oliver enjoys filling our home with noise, switching everything on and constantly singing, while I love silence! Obviously there is always the noise of three small boys at home, but this is a lovely noise most of the time! I often use silence to diffuse difficult situations, for example if the boys are starting to argue or get ratty I'll just say "Shhh boys listen!" and they all stop in their tracks and listen. The crazy thing is, they always find something to listen to! This silence breaks the momentum of the moment and often prevents situations from escalating, not always but a lot of the time.

We try to encourage a home where anger and frustration pass quickly and we don't dwell on one another's outbursts. I'll often tell the boys to gather up their anger or frustration when they are in the middle of a paddy and throw it out of the window! They usually find this idea so amusing that the paddy is over, again not always but often. This isn't to negate their feelings, it's simply to accept that young children often have impulsive outbursts that they usually don't understand or remember the root of themselves, so dwelling on these outbursts usually seems pointless to us. Because leading by example is important here, Oliver and I need to allow our own anger and frustration to pass too...forgiving the children their outbursts is often a great deal easier than forgiving each other, but we're a work in progress!

So there you have it, stillness here is not about sitting still or living in a perfectly tranquil home, it's about a feeling of calm that maintains itself even when utter chaos is breaking out in your living room, taking time to notice the beauty all around us, and encouraging one another to pass through anger and frustration peacefully. We live in a lively, bustling home so this isn't always easy, but when we manage it life is great!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

My mummy's boys, and the fear I can't be enough.

These boys really love their Daddy but there's no doubt about it they are Mummy's boys, and just recently this seems to have intensified. I am being fought over throughout much of the day in one way or another; they fight over who will be the first to kiss me in the morning, deliberately take up as much of my lap as possible so that the others can't get in for a cuddle, squabble over where I will sit at the table when we name it they argue over it! A lot of the time I don't think Charlie and Callum really know what they're arguing about, but this doesn't stop them shouting "Middle! Middle!" when I am giving all three of them a hug or reading them all a story, because Joseph has led them to believe that the 'middle' is the prime location on the lap!

Currently Callum wants to be held and carried around a lot, Charlie wants to come everywhere with me and Joseph has been telling me "Mummy I want to stay with you all day long". I suppose it's Joseph's recent need for a lot of close physical contact that has surprised me most lately, not that I feel in any way bothered by it. I see all of this as fine and natural, I don't feel anxious or worry that the boys are 'clingy' at all, however exhausting it might be at times. This is definitely a challenging phase for us all and it's led me to ponder, why now? No doubt it's largely to do with where they are developmentally, establishing identities, discovering themselves as separate from me etc, but I've also had a good think about what is specifically going on within our family unit, and how that could be impacting things.

Callum and Charlie are talking! The amount of words they now use, and the ability they have to string these together has increased massively over the past couple of months and I wonder what impact this might be having on Joseph. Over the past 2 years I've noticed that Joseph's behaviour becomes quite challenging whenever his brothers acquire an important new skill. The first time I really noticed it was when they began to sit up unaided. I wonder whether all of a sudden they looked to him like proper little people not only able to sit, but to sit playing with toys in the kind of ways he might. Now, with their ever improving communication skills, Callum and Charlie can tell us with words how they are feeling, what they want and what or WHO has upset them! Oh yes, they can tell tales! I guess for Joseph this presents a new threat, and perhaps erodes a bit of the control or influence he felt he had within the family. When at breakfast I ask the boys what they would like to eat, Joseph finds it very difficult that they can answer for themselves and make a choice. He'll often say something like "I'll have honey on my toast, and Callum and Charlie want jam" despite the fact that they are clearly telling me they want honey too. Often Joseph will get upset about this and tell me "Noooooo, only I can have honey!" Being able to talk to me in this way using words that the whole family can understand was not long ago something only Joseph could do, and he's having to come to terms with the fact that now his brothers can he's outnumbered by them! Joseph, your Daddy and I know how that feels!

Joseph has recently had his 4th birthday and Oliver and I have probably told him on more than a few occasions what a 'big boy' he is now. I wonder whether we may have told him a little too often, and whether we may have given him a sense that there are different expectations or greater responsibilities associated with his increased age. I wonder this because his behaviour has in some ways become more 'baby-like' of late. The way he cuddles me, some of his playful behaviour and the way he cries all remind me at times of a much younger child. He certainly enjoys imitating his brothers, and if he feels smaller people get more or different attention then I guess it would make sense for him to behave more like they do, but I do wonder whether his recent birthday may have something to do with it too. I've spoken to several people in the past who say that children have a difficult few months behaviour wise in the run-up to starting school as they prepare for the increased expectations of a school child, for example that they can dress themselves and take themselves to the loo etc. There is no talk of school at home for Joseph, but it's quite possible that simply having turned another year older might have given him a sense that more is expected of him.

In addition, I have temporarily been working a few hours a week and Joseph is bothered by this. He has told me he doesn't want me to go even though he is at nursery most of the time I'm there, and when he's cross with me about something he has taken to shouting "Go to work Mummy!" At bedtime he tells me he wants me to stay with him in bed, or that he'll come and help me tidy downstairs because he wants to make sure that I'm not going anywhere. Oliver often works away during the week and we don't always know in advance if and when he is going or when he'll be home, so I understand why the fact that I'm working too may create anxieties for Joseph.

When I discovered we would be having twins, one of my huge fears was that I could not be enough for three such young, dependent children. I am aware that somewhere along the way in my own life I have absorbed the idea that love is finite, that there is only so much of it and if someone else is getting a lot of it, then there is less available to me. I want to make sure that my children never feel this way, but when they are all fighting so hard for my affection its difficult not to feel inadequate at times.

So how to manage all this? My choice is to be there more, both physically and emotionally. To really be present with the boys when I am at home, rather than allowing myself to be distracted by other things or jobs that need doing. To spend less time with them in busy places such as toddler groups, and more time with small groups of friends or alone, just the four of us. I allow Joseph to be 'babied' by me if that's what he needs, sitting on my lap to eat, cradling him in my arms, playing the kind of games he sees me playing with his brothers, and telling him stories about the things I used to do with him and the places we used to go together when he was a baby. I grab opportunities for one to one time when it's available; last weekend Joseph and I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon wandering around the gallery looking at a Turner exhibition, looking out to sea with binoculars, walking along the harbour arm and chatting about everything and nothing. We decided that it was such a beautiful day we should go home for his daddy and brothers, and take them all to the funfair! I tell all of the boys as much as they need to hear it that my lap is always big enough for all of them and that I will never run out of cuddles, and I try to notice every beautiful thing they do and show how proud I am. I try never to belittle their need for me, involve them in everything I'm doing as much as possible and keep them with me if that's where they want to be whenever I can. I tell Joseph that wherever I am, I'm always thinking about him and that my favourite place to be is at home with our family, and it's true! At bedtime I put a piece of pink agate under his pillow and tell him that this is said to represent the love between parent and child, and so will link us when he is asleep and I'm downstairs. He loves this, and the last few nights has gone to sleep holding it! My choice in dealing with their dependence is to give as much of myself as I can in the belief that they will create space between us when they are ready. Sometimes there is space, sometimes they need to be close.

This is a phase that will pass and I will one day long for it! I therefore make a conscious choice to enjoy rather than be bothered by it, for as long as it lasts. This doesn't mean that it isn't demanding, tiring and frustrating at times, it just means that I try and accept it.

I know plenty of people would disagree with this way of approaching the situation, and I often feel like there's quite a drive in popular thought to encourage children to be independent from their parents and discourage 'clingy' behaviour. Not long ago I heard a mum talking about how clingy her 1 year-old is, and how she thinks he needs to go to nursery and learn to be away from her. Lots of people would tell me I'm creating a rod for my own back in my choices, this is fine, it's a rod for a very happy back if that's the case! The wonderful thing about parenting is that you are free to follow your own path, I have no idea what the outcome of my choices will be any more than the next person does, and as such I can only do what feels natural and right for myself and my family. When Joseph was around 11 months old I went back to work part-time and he spent some time at nursery, it didn't feel right or natural. Our children are their own people too, so whatever we decide is 'best' could be fundamentally different from what they might decide in the future would have been best for them, or how they may react to our chosen way of parenting. I chose not to worry about this too much, and just do what feels right.

My hope is that by providing a secure base and allowing my children to decide how much of the world they want to explore and how (and with whom) they explore it, they will feel greater confidence in doing so both with and without me. Today despite his recent need to be with me a lot, Joseph chose to go to the funfair with a friend rather than come to the beach with me. He had a wonderful time. I have also found that being there for the boys good for me. It has taught me that there is always enough time, attention and love to go around, and that love will never run out! Nothing has given me a greater sense of abundant love than being it for them.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Today we discovered.....

Today we discovered that wet sand sticks if you throw it at things like your brothers, outside walls and the kitchen door!

A bit of mess is fine here, the boys often enjoy helping to clear up. The only irreplaceable things in this house are the people who live here!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Questions people have asked...

I thought I would write down a few of the questions people have asked and comments that have been made regarding our decision to learn at home, and answer them for anyone who may be wondering and just hasn't asked! It will also help me to be clear about my thoughts on some of these things. I'd like to say a big thanks to anyone who has asked a thoughtful question about all this, it gives me a great opportunity to reflect on my own thoughts, feelings and motivations, and helps to remind me why this is such a good decision for our family.

Are you intending to use a curriculum?

No. I'm intending to look out for the things they love doing, experiencing and hearing about the most, and ensure that they get as much opportunity for these things as possible. I don't want to make value judgements about what needs to be learned when, when they find an interest or fascination I want to give them the opportunity to follow it wherever it takes them. All subjects are linked so I don't see the need to separate topics out, Joseph's current interest in anything with an engine covers every subject I can imagine, even music as I am happily reminded when we all sing together "Down at the station early in the morning...."!! At some point depending on how their interests develop I guess a curriculum may be useful, but at the moment I'm not even going to look at what they 'should' be learning so that I can be with them where they are.

How will they be socialised?

Not really sure I understand the question. Socialising, like learning, seems to be something that happens as a natural part of existence to me. If the question is actually asking how they will meet other children their age, I'd say they already do. They won't be going to school that's all, they'll still be playing with children who live nearby, seeing the friends they already have and attending any clubs they are interested in. I know it's hard to think outside of the school system because we're all so used to it, but if you wanted to find a way to make me feel at my least sociable then put me in a room with 30 other people exactly my age and then compare us all :/ No thanks!!

Will you ever send them to school, if so when?

No idea! We're going with the flow. If at any point its what they want, or if school seems like a better option than learning at home then they'll go.

What if Joseph said that he wanted to go to school aged 7, would it be a kick in the teeth to you?

If Joseph or any of the boys really want to go to school at any point then that's fine and no, it would not be a 'kick in the teeth'. This is not about me, it's about them. Although I can't really say how I'd feel without knowing the circumstances involved, I hope I'd feel fantastic that I had a child who felt confident enough to make such an important decision for himself, and I'd feel grateful for the extra time they had at home, preparing them for formal learning.

How will you manage teaching Joseph with the twins around? Won't it be difficult to find activities that all three can do?

Because I'm not intending to 'teach' I don't feel that this will be a problem, in fact from observing the boys both together and with other children, they seem to really benefit from interacting with children both older and younger than themselves. The fact that children are the same age does not mean that they are at the same stage of development anyway. I remember watching the boys playing with play-doh together one day, Joseph was making snakes and slithering them along the table, so Callum and Charlie joined in and Joseph began giving a context to the things they were making with comments like "oh look, Charlie has put his snake on a hill" when Charlie rested his snake on a lump of play-doh. They contributed to one another's experience of the play. Another great example of how happily this can work happened the other day during a role-playing dinosaur game between Ollie and the three boys. Oliver (the Tyrannosaurus Rex) could eat Joseph (the Triceratops) because he was a meat eater with sharp teeth, and Joseph could bash him away because he had armour in the form of spikes on his head! Joseph was cementing what he has learned about dinosaurs from books, while Callum and Charlie were just enjoying a bit of rough and tumble with dad! All getting what each of them wants and needs at that moment in time :)

How will you cope with being with them all the time, won't you need a break?

See the post 'Quality time apart?' (May 2012) for a full answer to this one. I get breaks when I need them with the help of some great friends and family, and Oliver and I are pretty good at being kind to one another when it comes to the need for a bit of space!

How will you separate learning time from everything else that happens at home?

I don't see a separation. Learning results from everything that happens. There will be no school hours, terms or school holidays.

School gives children the opportunity to try out different activities. If they don't have the opportunity to try these things, how will they know that they enjoy them?

School only gives them the chance to try out certain activities though, the ones that are believed to be relevant to the things they 'need' to learn or tick some other box. Something tells me that being out there in the world offers far more experiences than a classroom can.

How will they learn the three Rs?

In the same way they have learned everything else so far; by being given a rich, stimulating and interesting environment, time to develop the skills, space to develop the motivation and all the support in the world when they are ready to make the move. I often tell a lovely story about Joseph at bedtime one day when Oliver and I were putting Callum and Charlie to bed and asked him to wait a few minutes for a story. He replied, "No, there are two grown-ups so one of you can put the boys to bed and one of you can read to me"!! Given enough talk and experience of numbers and a lot of motivation, he could perform a simple division at the age of three! In a real life context, without us adults over complicating things, children seem capable of some pretty impressive stuff!

You're brave!!

I guess is it brave to go against the grain, especially where something so precious as your child is concerned. I don't feel like I'm being brave though, I'm just doing what feels absolutely right and natural to me. I'd need to be far more brave to send the boys to school knowing that I don't think this would be the best place for them to learn, how could I justify this decision to them or anyone else if ever I needed to? Whatever happens, whatever they or anyone else thinks of the decision to have them learn at home, I know I made this choice because I love them and absolutely believe it's the best thing for them. A decision based on anything else would simply not be good enough.

Thanks again for your questions, I am never offended by a thoughtful question and always hope to give a thoughtful response.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Little things that happened today...

A couple of lovely little observations from today. They were just passing moments, but they really reinforced for me a great deal that I instinctively feel about learning.

Joseph woke up earlier than usual today with a blocked nose and wanted breakfast straight away. I told him that I wasn't feeling too good and wanted to have a rest until his brothers woke up but that he was free to play until then. He told me he would hold my hand down the stairs, assuming that I had a back ache as his Daddy has recently! I told him my back was fine and that I had a sore throat, so he handed me a cup of water and said, "here mummy have a drink of my water, that will make it better. You can drink it all if you want to". It made me feel wonderful to know that he has enough experience of having his own needs met that he is able to respond with empathy to the needs of another, and to know that he has experienced enough kindness that he is able to be so effortlessly kind. No doubt he was partly thinking, "if I can help her feel better then maybe I'll get breakfast quicker", but it felt kind not manipulative!

In my post 'Why we've decided to learn at home' (April 2012) I wrote about my hope that our children will be able to learn by example rather than 'teaching' and I think this is a sweet demonstration of that. I'm not sure how I would start to 'teach' warmth, empathy, compassion and kindness, instead it feels wonderful and natural to immerse them in these things and allow them to learn from experience. When Oliver and I looked around a local school with Joseph last year, we were told about work some of the children had been doing on 'using kind words'. I'm not naive enough to think that all children are hearing these at home, indeed I've no doubt that for some children school is the only place they hear anything close to kind words, I just question how effectively such things can be 'taught'. Being kind, and using kind words seem like two different things to me anyway. In my working life I spent several years working with young offenders as a drug and alcohol practitioner, and observed many an attempt by the system to make them aware of the impact of their offences on others. In many cases these young people had experienced traumatic, disrupted childhoods and I couldn't help wondering how we can expect compassion and empathy from people who may never have experienced these for themselves. I'm not going to make any judgement about the extent to which a child will receive warmth, empathy, compassion and kindness at school, I can only say that I know my children will get an abundance of this at home, and I see this as integral to all the learning that happens.

The other little moment was humour! A situation had been brewing between Charlie and Joseph and resulted in a slap thrown from Joseph to Charlie as he stomped tearfully across the room. He shoved himself into a corner knocking a couple of empty nappy boxes on his head. We looked at one another, laughed and I said "It's not your day today is it!" which is a little line Oliver started with him whenever a minor mishap occurs such as when something is dropped or a toe is stubbed. He was soon giggling away, and within minutes the three boys had made a tunnel with the boxes and were pretending they were badgers, playing happily together. We didn't dwell on the argument or the slap, it all dissolved in the laughter. One thing I love about learning at home is that we can choose what does or doesn't become an issue in any given moment. I think a four year-old could back themselves into a corner pretty easily with impulsive outbursts of one kind or another whether they be excited, angry or frustrated in nature. As someone who loves him completely, I want to give Joseph every opportunity to come out of a situation feeling ok about himself and so as soon as the anger and frustration had passed for him, it had passed for me and all of us. He let it go and laughed, and we all knew that the incident was not worth pursuing. Sometimes an argument or tussle between the boys needs to be followed up and sorted out in one way or another, but this didn't and I love that we can make that call and he doesn't have to spend any time feeling bad about himself, and doesn't have to hear the tale of his poor behaviour recounted later. Instead he had an opportunity to learn how quickly negative feelings can pass if you allow them to, how peacefully we can all move through a blip.


As for the humour...I have his daddy to thank for that!!
Charlie and Joseph

Friday, 4 May 2012

Quality time apart?

One of the major things that strikes people about allowing our children to learn at home seems to be the fact I will not get a 'break' from them. I've heard many people say "I can't wait for my so-and-so to go to school so I can have a bit of time to myself". Who can blame them? Parenting is an exhausting and all-consuming job, and one of the big debates I've had with myself has been over whether I will miss out on 'quality' time with Callum and Charlie because their older brother is about all the time. Even expressing this thought in writing is making me very uncomfortable, I just couldn't send Joseph to school for any other reason than because I strongly felt that this would be the best place for him to learn, and because I don't have that feeling in the slightest I cannot send him.

I've done a great deal of soul-searching over the last year or so, asking myself where all this is coming from and whether I am responding to a need or some unresolved issue in myself. I feel I can confidently say that this is not the case. I've also had to think seriously about the time commitment that will be required on my part and the fact that all three boys will be with me pretty much all day every day. Recently another parent we know approached Oliver and told him that there's no way I'll be able to put up with having Joseph around me all the time and that he'll be in school within 6 months! I'm not offended by this, I completely understand the need of parents to have time away from their children and this statement probably reflected a fair amount of projection on the part of the parent involved. Who knows maybe Joseph will be at school in 6 months, I'm planning to go with the flow and do what seems best for him so I wouldn't rule anything out. What I do know though is that if and when he does ever go to school it will be because that seems to be the best place for him, and not because I need a break from him at home.

People have often asked how I cope being at home with the boys all the time, and commented on how difficult it must be not to have the 'break' of paid work. As I have grown into my role as mother though, I have found that I don't find it a 'break' to spend significant periods of time away from my children. Of course I love a bit of time alone, as I write this I'm sat alone in a cafe on a sunny afternoon while Ollie is at home with the boys and it's positively blissful! There are also times when I would say I need time alone too; at the beginning of the year I had a lot on my mind, decisions to make, and needed time alone to think it all through. Never more than a few hours though. What I've learned about myself is that I feel more calm and peaceful at home with the children the more time I spend with them, and I think there are two main reasons for this:

The more time I spend with the boys, the more 'in tune' I feel with them and the better I feel able to respond to their needs.....and the better I am at responding to them, the more peaceful our relationship is. Because I'm with them all the time I understand their flow throughout the day, I feel better able to read their cues and can often anticipate issues before they arise. I do a better job when I'm with them more, I'm not saying everyone does, but I do. If I've had a few hours away I find it really difficult to step back into the pace of home life, pick up on where everybody is and respond accordingly. It often takes a little while to readjust after all we have three small boys, our home life probably seems 'chaotic' to some, but not to me if I don't step outside of it!!

The other reason I feel more peaceful the more I am with them is the whole issue of rushing around. Unless I am leaving the boys at home with Oliver, leaving them takes a lot of organisation and planning. Recently I've been working 4 hours, two afternoons a week for a short period and this has caused far more upheaval than I expected; we all need to be ready (and I need to stay clean!), everybody needs a lunch made (although I often forget my own!), car seats need to be transferred between cars and the children need to be delivered to their Grandad. In reality I spend as long getting to work as I do working. Then there's getting home, transferring car seats again, packing up belongings and taking three tired children home for baths and bed. The tired end of the day is not the best for any of us, I'd be sad if this was all I saw of them during the week. Being with them all the time means that our time is not pressured, we can just be together. Our time feels of greater 'quality' the more of it we spend together, and the less we spend it rushing about trying to get somewhere else.

I know from speaking to plenty of other women that this is not how it is for everybody and some people really do feel that they benefit from time away from their children whether that is work, holidays or just time spent doing something else. No parent should feel guilty if this is the case for them because in my opinion the most important thing is that you feel able to give the best of yourself, and if you achieve this by spending time elsewhere then that's a great deal better than feeling frazzled at home! For me, getting out for a coffee with a friend or having a morning at home alone is usually enough of a break, anything more starts to get a bit stressful although I'm sure this will change as they get older and are less dependent on me. I've no doubt that the time will come when they will happily let me know when they need a break from me!! So where learning at home is concerned I'm not worried that I won't have a break while they are at school, our home will be messier for it but I do believe our family will be happier that way. In any case I love being with the boys, they are wonderful, interesting, thoughtful company and I learn a great deal from being with them. 'Me Time' is not something I get from being away from them for significant periods of the day or week, I am the best part of me when I'm with them, and I don't feel ashamed of that.