What is it about school?

Heading off into the world…

There was one moment when I just wanted to grab her hand and pull her back to me.

Unfortunately, that would be quite embarrassing to have the entire busload of kids laughing at the mom who couldn’t let go, so I backed off and moved back up the driveway so she could get on without a desperate mother clinging to her little hand.

What is it about school? Friends have told me and told me, “Oh, once they start school time just starts to fly, and they just move further and further away from you all the time.”

Good God, there is something really sad about that, until you realize in many ways they are just moving further and further away from you from the moment they are born, from the minute they eat their first solid food, the second they take their first steps. Is that sad or is that joyous? I feel a bit of both. It is the ultimate in bittersweet, really. I rejoice in every first in my babies’ lives, and yet I feel a twinge of sadness. Last week I finally hauled all of the baby gear and sweet wee clothes out of every closet and from beneath every bed and got rid of all of it. Other babies are using it all now. This was due in no small part to the fact my youngest child was about to start kindergarten and is clearly far from being a baby anymore. But it still hurt.

It is a letting go like nothing else I have experienced in my life. I am no longer a parent to babies, or toddlers, or even pre-schoolers. I am out of that club. I can offer wise words as someone who has been there, but a new parent would probably think to themselves, “Oh, she is not HERE where I am, so she does not KNOW.”

So here I am with two schoolgirls. I am the lunch maker, the form-signer, the one who tries every afternoon, like a dentist trying to pull teeth, to extract some meagre nugget of information from our children about their day at school. After years of spending most hours of the day with her, it is hard, really hard, to be relegated to this seemingly secondary role. Yikes, could I be taking it personally? Yes, other than sleep time, a teacher now spends more hours a day with my child than I do. Who knew that could be so tough to swallow? Even when the teacher is wonderful and caring, it still burns.

When our kindergartener comes home from school, she is exhausted and exuberant and bursting with all the new experiences. I try to see it all through her eyes, all the glittering freshness of being out in the world on your own for the first time. Every thing we take for granted, it’s pretty darn thrilling to her, bus rides, lunch kits, recess, a whole class full of other children who she just knows will be her best friends.

I smile and I enjoy the moments when she bursts out with some little story about her day. I look into her eyes and I see the baby that she was just a short while ago, the way she used to look at me when she was tiny and her parents were the centre of the universe. And I see that we are still her centre. Her universe just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Sunshine and blue skies

off into the world

Okay, it actually is not sunshine and blue skies outside my window this morning, but it will be later today, I think. Lots of things flitting through my mind this week, which is only appropriate for a blog called “the mind does wander.” I’ve got a list going in my head at all times of things to accomplish, goals to wish and strive for, little tasks to tackle, and of course Big Goals that keep getting added to every list in hopes that one day they will be achieved. (Write novel. Pay off debt. Get up earlier. Have date nights every week. Or at least every six months.)

This week’s goals include celebrating our “baby’s” fifth birthday, and I am feeling a little weird about that. It seems to launch us into a whole different realm of parenting. We go from being parents of very young children, preschoolers even, to being parents of school-age children. Since kindergarten is a full-time affair here, that is huge. It means both of our girls will be gone off to school in September, leaving at 8 a.m. and back home at 3:40 p.m. It means I am no longer in the baby-toddler-preschooler-mom’s club. So how do I feel about that?

I am feeling a bit ambiguous, to be sure. It means letting go of all that is wrapped up in that pre-school period, including my role as a part-time worker and full-time parent. Of course parenthood is always full-time, but the time I have spent at home with the girls the majority of days is pretty much over, and this brings with it a sense of sadness. Already I have moved into the role of more work and less time at home, as Dan has been more the full-time parent this year. I feel that this summer is the end of a certain period in our lives that will never come again in quite the same way, but I suppose that can be true of every moment in our lives.

With that in mind, I am focusing on truly being present in every moment this summer, on looking ahead to the future and what it holds but also just soaking in the joy that is right now. Here are a few things on my wish list for the coming months:

1. Grow more of our own food. Gardening is earlier this year than it has been in years, so we are making the best of that. The greens in the cold frame are cropping very nicely and we are all enjoying the freshness every day. Ava and I actually got most of the garden planted the other day, including my first attempt at growing tomatoes from seed. So far, so good, and I already have visions of the gorgeous tomato sauce made with our own roma tomatoes and red island garlic.

2. Get out camping more. Now that we have resolved that a camping trailer is not in the cards this year, we will enjoy our lovely new tent instead. Destinations? Wish list includes Cape Breton, Fundy National Park, Graves Island, and as always, the Annapolis Valley. The girls’ legs are longer this year which means we can do more hiking trails without having to resort to carrying tired (and heavy) little ones.

3. Spend as much time outdoors as possible. We all love geocaching, so that is definitely on the summer bucket list. It is such a great family-friendly activity that seems to work for all ages. It gets us outside, discovering many gorgeous spots off the beaten track, and the girls always feel like they are on a treasure hunt. Plus, with many hundreds of caches in every province, we can do it anywhere and everywhere we have our GPS.

4. Take holidays. Forget about work completely and absolutely. Sometimes I think we feel somewhere deep inside (or maybe not so deep) that our workplace will fall apart without us, that chaos will ensue  the minute we leave, and that all sorts of crapola will build up there to haunt us when we return to work. It may be disconcerting to admit, but even without you everything just continues on just fine. There are lots of competent people holding things together just as well as me.

5. Hang out. Be a kid. Go to playgrounds every week. Eat ice cream.

6. Take better care of our bodies. We all have bikes now, so I really want to get out biking the trails as a family. I was never a physically active kid (sports??? Ewwwwwww!) but I want to provide the example of being active to my girls. I am even attempting to take up running, and in some sick and twisted way I like it. Of course I am only running about five minutes, then walking, then running. But still, the only thing that could have motivated me to run in the past was if some horrible purple monster were chasing me. And that never happened, thankfully.

7. Have fun.

8. Be loving.

9. Read lots of fluffy books.

Happy Birthday, baby!

How to be quiet

The sea can be quiet.

Silence is an interesting thing. It can speak volumes, like when someone is glowering silent disapproval all over someone else’s third spilled glass of milk that day. Or, if you wake up early enough in the morning, before everyone else is up and chatting, silence can just be gloriously, miraculously restful.

I am not good at quiet. In my work, I chat non-stop, which is kind of funny considering I work in a library. It is a one-person branch in a small community, though, and people don’t come there to study in silence. They come to chitchat about the weather and their children and most of all, books. I love that, because getting paid to talk about books is just about the closest thing to heaven I can imagine from a professional perspective.

Still, I do crave silence sometimes, and with two little girls in the house silence is not an everyday (or every week) occurrence. We seem to get louder all the time, raising our voices to be heard over the din of raucous giggling, yelling, singing, crying masses. Okay, it is not masses, it is only two but sometimes they feel like more.

So this past week when I was hit with a whopping case of flu, complete with silence-inducing laryngitis, it got me thinking about ways to be quiet. I suppose that is the easiest way to shut me up, to strike me with laryngitis. So everything I said has had to be whispered, while at the same time the sore throat meant I was extremely frugal with what I had to say at all. If it was not important, I just saved my breath. I waited for people to come to me, rather than trying to yell over the din.

Hmmmmmm. I might have something there.

Could this be a new way of communicating effectively? Because frankly, I am tired of raising my voice.

Anyhow, the other side of the coin is that it was just nice to feel like I didn’t HAVE to talk. I could sit silently. We are, in these days of extreme connectivity, apt to fill silences as quickly as they arise, when really some empty spaces would be good for all of us. Being quiet means you can hear the wind blow, or the birds sing, or the soft breathing of a sleeping child across the hall. It also means you can be completely present in that moment, rather than clicking away on your smartphone or cranking up your earbuds.

Last fall, as part of a mindfulness-based stress management course, I had to take part in a one-day silent retreat. That meant for the full day, there was no talking, no eye contact with the other participants, just silence. Let’s just say right up front that I have never, ever in my life been silent for an entire day, and I was intimidated. Even while eating lunch at a table with others, no talk, no eye contact. We spent the day doing relaxation exercises, meditating, yoga, writing in a journal, or just sitting in a peaceful spot staring at the sea. There was a little boathouse down by the water with a hanging swing chair, and I remember sitting there, idly swinging and thinking “I want to do this every week.”

Which leads me to try to find ways of being silent in my everyday life and in the life of my family. Getting up early seems to be the best way for me, while staying up later seems to work best for Dan. Carving out even a half-hour of time to be alone and quiet makes such a difference to my day. Sometimes I do some yoga or stretches. Other days I make a cup of tea and just sit down at my little desk with a notebook. Some mornings I sit and watch the birds outside the window. It sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, but it is amazing what a difference it makes. Last year I had just been finding that stress was hijacking my day right from the second I became conscious in the morning. The moment I heard a child wake up, I would leap out of bed with my mind already on overdrive, thinking of all the things I had to do, my heart rate already pounding and that cranky feeling already well-established for the day. THAT is not healthy.

We are trying to help our children find a little quiet as well, which is not easy. But the most simple way to do it is to allow a bit of time at the end of the day for them to read in bed on their own. Just giving them that silent 20 minutes to sit in bed alone with a book helps them unwind and quiet their minds enough to really relax for sleep. Of course Ava can’t read yet but we encourage her to just look at books, which she loves to do. What is really important is that our children learn ways to quiet themselves.

We are always saying “Take a deep breath.” This is a catchall phrase that is sometimes an attempt to divert someone from a tantrum or from smacking their sibling across the head with a Groovy Girl. But it is also a way of diffusing a kid who is getting so wound up that her eyes are actually unfocused and her heart is pounding. It is healthy for children to learn ways to self-soothe, and just taking five deep breaths with the eyes closed is a simple technique they can use anywhere. Heck, it’s a simple technique we should all use.

Needless to say, going on silent retreat is not an option for everyone, and laryngitis isn’t an easily-acquirable solution either, but a little quiet time is good for everyone in the family. It helps us to ground ourselves in the world, to just “be” without constantly having to “do.” That is a huge challenge especially for busy parents, but if we can provide that example to our children it will also help them to handle stress and busy-ness with greater calm.

So take a deep breath. And for heaven’s sake, be QUIET.

 

 

To have no limits

Flying

Children can do absolutely anything. They can be ballerinas and space scientists, at the same time. They can excel at any sport, any style of dance, any subject at school. They can turn cartwheels and create mind-bending art and win any competition in the world in any skill. They are superheroes.

It is forever amazing to us grownups that our girls seem to see no barriers to success, no restrictions on what they can achieve, and no one who can do more than they can. OH, how I wish that invincible confidence could last forever! Already I see a difference in our older child, as the pressures of school and classmates start to take a toll on invincibility.

JUMP!

I admit, sometimes that confidence is frustrating, like when I suggest they take swimming lessons and Kat informs me, “I don’t need to, Mummy, I already know how to swim.” Which, of course, she doesn’t REALLY but she does paddle and dunk very nicely. I remind myself that you really have to respect that attitude of complete and total belief in yourself and your own abilities. Like today, for example. The girls watched a bit of the world championship figure skating, which they were really loving. During a break, they ran upstairs, put on figure skating “costumes”, came down and started recreating the skaters’ routines on the kitchen floor, sliding around in their socks. Kat’s reenactment of the medal-winning woman’s sit-spin was especially moving. This is fairly typical for us…we watch a dance show, the girls recreate it. They hear a Taylor Swift song, and become rock star girls, dressed in what they think rock star girls wear. Usually jeans and a sparkly shirt. Or they read a fairy tale and become the heroine.

Little Red Riding Hood in genie pants

We have often said that our older daughter hurtles through life at full-speed, fearing nothing and slowing for no one. I admire that so much. I don’t recall being that way even as a child, and certainly it is not my style now. I sometimes wish I could borrow just a bit of her fearlessness. As I get older I have learned to care less about what others might think of me, but through my teens, 20s and early 30s I cared, OH, I cared. When I think of the time wasted in dwelling on others’ perceptions of me, it is frankly exhausting.

So what can we do  to keep that spirit of fearlessness alive in our girls? None of us can control what other people say or do or see, so we can only work on our own family unit. Here are a few things we are trying.

1. Explore different sports and activities to discover strengths and find what they love to do.

It’s not about competition for us. It is about having strong bodies that do amazing things, and having healthy outlets for all that energy. Neither Dan nor I were ever sporty (if there is such a thing as anti-sporty, I was that) in the least, but we try to encourage the girls by being active as a family. I believe that having a strong, healthy body that dances and cartwheels and plays soccer will go a long way to boosting confidence as they get older.

2. Don’t get hung up on the “Oh, you look so pretty/you are a princess today/what a nice frilly outfit you have on” kind of feedback.

We try to focus on ability, and love and respect for each other, and what makes them unique. The girls have selected their own wardrobes since they were old enough to talk, and it is so fun to see what they come up with. There are times when they may look a little bit eccentric, but those are just the times when my heart surges with love for their little individualist souls. Let your freak flag fly!! (Sorry, but I always was a bit of a geek.)

3. Talk to them like people, not just kids.

I think, and I hope, that even with all the whining that goes on at times (“You NEVERRRRRR let me do what I want!”) our children feel respected and valued as members of our family, and just as important people in the world. If they ask me a question, like “Mummy, did I have any clothes on when I came out of your belly? And how DID I get out of there?” then I answer as honestly and sincerely as I can without over-sharing. Since they were babies, we’ve used the mantra “they’re just little people.” Little people with their own specific agendas and opinions.

4. Let them get bored.

The most amazing play comes out of being bored. We limit television to a couple of hours a week, which leaves lots of time for other stuff. Television has its place for sure, but it is mostly an imagination-killer. Who needs to come up with a new game to play when you can pretend to be Dora, or a Disney Princess, or Strawberry Shortcake? I would much rather have them make up a game out of whatever household materials they can scrounge up and what’s in the dress-up trunk. There are no limits in a child’s imagination, but sometimes we place limits on them inadvertently by what kinds of toys we buy or what entertainment we provide. That’s not preachy, I hope. Not meant that way.

Anyhow, this is all to say that children have no limits. What a beautiful quality that is, to believe that all things are possible. If we as adults could learn a little of that, or remember when once we felt that way, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing?

All things are possible.

Give me strength

Early morning, Horsefly Lake

Serenity, where are you?

It is a good thing I just got home from my refresher class on mindfulness-based stress management. Strangely enough, one of the topics of discussion was the potential role of mindfulness education in the school system. My Grade one child tells me when I get home that we should not send her snacks and lunch in the containers we always use, because a couple of girls have been teasing her about them, telling her they are “baby containers.” One of these girls is also apparently telling all the other kids she doesn’t like to “shut up.”

Oh my GOODNESS. Holy crap, even.

Alright, they are baby containers, in that we have had them since the girls were babies and we still use them. But the real issue for me is how to teach my children to withstand these kinds of petty but hurtful exchanges. There are times when I am completely at a loss. I think I am hyper-aware, for as a child I was relentlessly teased and bullied, both on the bus and in school. I remember with perfect clarity that feeling of being completely helpless, profoundly alone and at the mercy of those taunting kids, never knowing what to say or how to fight back. It really does have a lifelong impact.

It makes my face feel hot just thinking about other kids being mean to my child. I find myself wondering why there always have to be children who  pick on other kids to make themselves feel powerful. I suppose school is in some ways just a microcosm of the world. Now that one of our children is in school, I am always on the lookout for signs that anything is amiss. I do find that negative attitudes sometimes seem to breed on the schoolyard, and a few nay-saying apples can spoil the whole bunch. More than anything I want to teach the girls skills that will help them keep a positive attitude, be brave and resilient in the face of teasing, never bully and to help those who are being bullied.

I know, it’s a tall order for four- and six-year-olds. My expectations are HUGE.

Seriously, though, mindfulness and the power of positive thinking are life skills that I myself am studying and working on constantly, and we are trying to impart some these ideas to the girls. We all know negative thoughts and words just create more negative thoughts, and any of us who have struggled with depression know all too well where that road leads. As more children are diagnosed (or not diagnosed) with mental health issues, I think the time has come for parents and schools to take a new look at how mindfulness and empathy affect how a child grows and develops.

The wonderful “Roots of Empathy” program is a perfect example of something that really works. From their website  I pulled this description:

Started in 1996, Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who engage students in their classroom.  Over the school year, a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor guides the children as they observe the relationship between baby and parent, understanding the baby’s intentions and emotions. Through this model of experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a catalyst, helping children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.

Empathy is something that doesn’t always come naturally, and it can be tough to teach. Kids are pretty much “all about me” and that is developmentally appropriate up to a certain point, or so the books say. I am thinking that children who learn to empathize are less likely to hurt or tease others. Teaching children social and emotional competence begins at home, of course, but if that kind of assistance is lacking, the school could at least give students a chance to learn those vital life skills. A little classroom time spent on mindfulness exercises, basic meditation to teach children to quiet their minds, simple yoga to help get the wiggles out, all of these could fit. Better for them to learn skills that will help their mental health and concentration than to spend their off-time playing video games.

So how did I respond to Kat’s baby container complaints? Well, I suggested she tell those girls that SHE is being environmentally responsible, bringing a litterless lunch with reusable containers, and everyone should be doing the same. I will be interested to see if she uses that comeback. In the meantime, I am off to do some deep calming breaths.