letter to my one-child self

Dear Me,

I really hope this doesn’t turn into one of those patronising “If I only knew then what I know now” type missives. If it does, I’m sorry. But recently I’ve taken to remembering what life was like five years ago, and I wanted to encourage you for all you’re doing.

You’re about to turn 30. You have a 1-year-old boy and have just found out you’re expecting again. I want to tell you that the jump from one to two children will not be that bad. You think it will – but I promise you, it won’t. You undersell yourself – but really, you’ve developed so many new skills since becoming a parent that you’ll cope with the new arrival – as well as your lively toddler – with your eyes closed. I’m not saying it won’t be hard – just that you’ll be fine. You’ll learn how to feed two, get in and out of the car with two and navigate swimming lessons with two. Soon, you’ll be able to assemble the double buggy in seconds, entertain your 2-year-old while you feed your newborn, and somehow find time to load the dishwasher. (Good purchase, by the way. It’s only been a few weeks, but this will turn out to be The Best Decision you ever made. Nice one.) You are no longer the anxious first-time parent who didn’t know how to change a nappy: you are assured and confident – even if you may not feel like it all the time.

One day, you’ll have more kids, and you’ll realise that it was glorious, glorious to have as many parents as you had children. But that’s for another time. Don’t think about that right now.

I want to tell you that, five years on, the parenting parameters have changed. I guess you remember the hell of All The Comparisons at baby groups – you know: which kid sat up first, crawled first, walked first, said the first word. Having crossed over from preschool to school territory, do you know what actually counts? That your son is kind and considerate. That he can make friends. That he’s a nice person to have around. And guess what? All the kids in your little boy’s class can stand, walk and talk. No big deal. They all got there.

Keep reading and singing – don’t forget the singing, just because he’s too big to sit demurely in his baby bouncer while you play the piano to him. Sing whenever and wherever you can, accompanied or not. Most of the time it will be not – but that doesn’t matter. They’ll tell you that all this is good for reading later on. You’ll nod your head but you won’t understand – until the time when he actually starts learning to read and you realise that it’s all about rhythms and rhymes, the fall and rise of speech and song – and that a wide vocabulary doesn’t hurt either. I realise he can only really say ‘duck’, ‘cricket’ and ‘chocolate’ right now, but he’s taking in every word that you speak or sing to him.

There are a lot of nappies and a lot of washing. Sorry about that. One day you’ll have twins and they’ll poo eight times a day and you’ll remember these days as a doddle.

You’re great at keeping busy. So many groups, so many playdates. You know what? Your little boy is learning, even now, the important skills of sharing, taking turns, relating to other kids, being hospitable, paying attention, trying things out, responding to adults. Keep up the socialising – it will pay off. But the small fortune you’re forking out for swimming lessons – that will not pay off. At least it hasn’t done yet. Honestly, utilise the free toddler groups at churches and children’s centres – he’ll get just as much from them.

You know the friends you’ve made in the last year? Some of them will turn out to be some of your best friends. You’ll share highs and lows together and, before you know it, the friendship will be deeply dug, strongly built, firmly cemented. There are one or two more special friends to come as well – you might not recognise that spark when you first meet them, but circumstance will bring you together more and more, until eventually your bond is stronger than iron.

Oh yeah, the adoption thing. It’s going to happen – but don’t worry, God’s going to get you excited about it in His own time. I know right now it feels like the scariest thing in the world – if it feels like anything, because you’ve been pushing it so far back in your mind, it hardly even exists as a concept. But the seed is there, and it’s going to grow.

Finally: I know he’s clingy. I know he won’t leave your side unless Dad’s around. I know he screams and screams and screams when you leave him once a week – at home – for an hour’s Bible study retreat with friends. I know you can’t understand why he doesn’t realise you’re coming back, why he’s uncomfortable with those he sees regularly, why he doesn’t just get on and play like the other kids. Guess what? I still don’t understand these things – and never will. And the boy would just laugh if I told him now. But keep doing what you’re doing. He will gain his independence from never having had you turn away his dependence. When he eventually learns to separate from you, he will do it with such confidence.

Keep going, Mama. Enjoy these days, they go so fast – but the best is (always) yet to come.

Love,

Me xx

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when the waters recede: who will still show up?

Recently my beautiful city flooded. There are two rivers here in York – the Ouse floods every year, sometimes several times, but, because the city is built for this, with nearby housing designed on the first floor upwards, the damage is limited. This time, the floods were so bad that the flood barrier had to be raised in order to let out some of the Ouse’s water into the Foss. This is the river near us and, whilst we are fortunately high enough above the river not to be affected, several friends had to evacuate their homes, with damage which will take several costly months to repair.

We were away at the time, and could only sympathise from afar via social media. As news of the events unfolded on local Facebook groups, it became apparent that a mammoth volunteering force was springing up – locals from all over the city (and non-locals from all over the country) were jumping to the aid of those they didn’t know: donating cleaning supplies, baby essentials, food and furniture; cooking and delivering hot meals to volunteers, the emergency services and the army; coordinating drop-off points, collections and deliveries. It was, by all accounts, an incredible example of the desire deep inside us to be generous, kind, sacrificial.

One guy posted on Facebook something which stuck with me. The gist was that his Christmas hadn’t turned out the way he’d expected – he’d ended up helping out in the donation centres – but that this had been the highlight of his Christmas, being able to help, and seeing so many others prepared to give of their time, energy, money and possessions.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that he felt more fulfilled helping others than indulging in chocolate or wine or whatever he might have been doing on Christmas Day. We’re designed to live in community, which means that we each have a desire to help those around us. Of all the ways we could spend our time, helping others is something which never disappoints, never leaves us dissatisfied. I’m not sure we will ever reach our full potential if we’re not actively engaged in serving those around us – it’s part of who we were designed to be.

One of the glossier round-robins we received at Christmas left me a little uncomfortable. For a few days, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was – and then the penny dropped: there was no mention of any activity designed to serve someone else’s needs. There were paid jobs, and there were indulgent hobbies – and that was it.

I’m not going to pretend that it is pure altruism which motivates people to give voluntarily of their time and energy, although of course that is a big part of it. Actually, people who spend some of their time volunteering have recognised that something in us lights up when we serve others. We’re made to do it, and when we do it we discover a little more of the people we were designed to be.

Friends, York is in need 24-7, 365 days of the year – and your locality is too. There are people who are addicted to all sorts of things, living right near where you live. Families are breaking down. People are living on the streets, or in carpet-less council flats, with barely enough money to feed their families. Pushing back evil with good is necessary all year round.

However, the good news for stressed-out parents, busy career types, elderly folk with declining energy levels, is that we don’t have to do this in our own strength. We don’t even ‘have’ to do anything. The battle is won, God is victorious – we simply show up and take part on the winning side. The question is: where are you showing up? Are you showing up at a toddler group each week, which could do with a hand welcoming new people or clearing up afterwards? Are you showing up at a school gate, where some of the parents are going through hell and need your listening ear? Are you showing up at a lunch for older folk who really need to know something of God’s hope? Are you showing up at work, where colleagues need to know their work is valued and respected?

Or are you just showing up and going home?

I know I said 2016 was not about resolutions (actually I’ve been a hypocrite and made one – more on that later) BUT perhaps it should be the year for Showing Up – proper eyes-open, ears-alert, hands-ready Showing Up. Who knows where God will take us?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

when the new year fails before it’s even begun

There is nothing like the seeing-in of a new year to convince us of our failures.

Take New Year’s Eve. Whilst I love the idea of it, I find myself caught in that awkward time of life when celebrating it in any way, shape or form seems near impossible. Lodged between my carefree twenties, when I was free to go anywhere and do anything, and my forties, which I sincerely hope are going to be like a second adolescence, as my kids grow into the right age and temperament for partying with us, these days I find myself generally doing very little to see in the New Year. Scrolling through Facebook, it would appear that my parent friends are the same. If we’ve managed a glass of something alcoholic and made it to 11 without passing out due to sheer exhaustion, then that passes as a decent celebration. I chuckled when I read that one of my friends had celebrated with a bottle of Prosecco and University Challenge, and admired their determination to celebrate whilst their 1-year-old slept upstairs. And yet something about my own lack of energy to put anything into New Year’s Eve makes me wonder: if I can’t even get this one night right, what’s the hope for the rest of the year?

Then there is the constant stream of end-of-year reviews, in every format. There’s nothing like a quiz about the previous year’s events to remind me at how rubbish I am at keeping up with the news. I don’t even know which celebrities have got married/divorced/enhanced, let alone the Important Events. Honestly, I watch Charlie Brooker chiefly to catch up with the main news stories of the year. Again, FAIL is written right over me.

And let’s not forget the constant pressure to be a Winning Mum – read: scour Pinterest for creative ideas to make the New Year meaningful and poignant for your 2 year old. Time capsules. Firework crafts. Chinese lanterns. Wishing trees. Over-optimistic lists of what you all want to achieve this year. I’ve done none of this. I kind of want to, but not enough to actually make it happen. FAIL.

Of course this leads us nicely to the elephant in the room: New Year’s resolutions. Surely nothing reminds us of our own failure more than vowing to do something you know is over-ambitious. And all around us, people seem to be actually achieving their goals: losing weight, running marathons, travelling the world. What about me? FAIL.

As I ponder this, I wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. Whether actually the passing of old seasons, and the arrival of new ones, is not about making oneself better, stronger, fitter, richer. Whether the change of year is actually no more significant than a new month, a new week, a new day – each one abounding in the same fresh hope and new opportunities.

The writer of Ecclesiastes had something to say about this:

“There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecc. 3:1)

After listing a variety of activities, he concludes:

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.” (Ecc. 3:12-14)

Perhaps the New Year is not so much about striving for more, but acknowledging what we have. Perhaps it is not so much about improving our lives, but noticing the good which is already there. Perhaps every day – not every 365 days – is a chance to grab opportunities, see the good, serve someone else, live with hope in our blood. Maybe what we need most is what we already have – and the One we already have is ready to do the impossible this year: acts which will endure forever, beyond whatever fitness regime or career ambitions or self-improvement plans we could set ourselves.

This is not a time for failures. We have already failed – and, try as we might, we will fail again. Instead, may we entrust our 2016 to God, with all the successes and failures it will bring. His works – not ours – will be of lasting substance. On 31 December 2016, I want to be content and encouraged by having sat back and let God take centre stage during the year. I want stories of His goodness and grace, miracles and wonders, the addicted released and the hungry fed. And then I’ll know, whether I party till the early hours or crash out at 9pm, that God’s love endures forever.

books, books and more books (and why now really IS the best time to spend money on them)

You know how most of us aren’t feeling up to any kind of expenditure right now? It might not seem like the time of year when we have money to burn, but most of us will have children to buy presents for over the next year, so why not save ourselves a few pounds? Any sassy spender will know that forward-planning is key when it comes to effective budgeting, so allow me to present…the Scholastic post-Christmas sale! Ta-dah! You’ll thank yourself when that birthday rolls around and you already have something appropriate (and cheap) stashed away!

I’ve really got into Scholastic this year. They cover all ages, and the span of authors and styles is very impressive – their aim is to keep children reading right through to adolescence, and the variety of books available makes this easy. And if you needed another reason to shop with them, for every £1 you spend, your school receives 20p in free books. This is a great way for grandparents and other interested friends/relatives to support a child’s school, even from afar!

My First ABC

One sale item, for example, is My First ABCa lovely, chunky book which is hardwearing enough for babies and toddlers – and it’s a snitch at £1.99 (RRP £6.99). Monkey and Meerkat (both 1) instantly loved the appealing pictures – and the book was larger than I was expecting, making it easier for small hands to handle.

Stick Man’s First Words

We enjoyed Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man on BBC1 on Christmas Day, and Stick Man’s First Words is a great introduction to the Donaldson/Scheffler duo. Again, it’s a beautifully vibrant, sturdy book, and an absolute steal at £2.99 (RRP £8.99).

 

Dogger

Next up, we have a longstanding classic: Shirley Hughes’ Dogger (was £6.99, now £3.99). We are big fans of Alfie, and have several books in that series courtesy of Granny, who’s also a fan, but have never owned Dogger. It’s a heartwarming tale, just brilliant for children whose attention span can cope with a narrative. Both Missy (4) and Mister (6) loved this, and it would make a wonderful birthday present for someone aged 3-6 (ish).

The Enormous Crocodile (Colour Edition)

The Enormous Crocodile – another classic (which Roald Dahl book isn’t?) – is down from £7.99 to £2.99. Slightly longer than your average short-story book, both my older kids enjoyed this one, and I reckon the typical Roald Dahl gruesomeness would appeal to many children in the 4-8 age bracket.

Rover Saves Christmas

Finally, although you’re probably feeling anything but Christmassy just right now, why not order ahead several copies of Roddy Doyle’s Rover Saves Christmas (was £5.99, now £1.99) to give to all your 5-10 year old chums for Christmas 2016? My 6 year old laughed his socks off, and the weird and wacky writing would appeal to older children too. I remember reading Roddy Doyle’s adult books at school, but now we’ve tried one of his hilarious children’s books, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

So there you have it: a little taste of the Scholastic sale. There’s much more on offer, with prices starting at 99p, so do hop over and have a browse. I think I’ll be steering my children there to see if they’d like to spend some Christmas money on books they can choose themselves. And don’t forget to select your school at checkout!

 

outnumbered

So this is how it is. You tick along nicely with your two kids, enjoying the luxurious 1:1 adult: child ratio, thinking how easy it all is and how much fun it’s become now they’re out of nappies and sleep through the night and draw things which look like things. Then you think, “Hang on a minute, life’s not hard enough – why not have another one?” And he or she arrives and you enter a fresh hell, where every minute of every day contains at least two demands made of you by at least two children, and where the definition of a productive evening is simply loading the dishwasher and collapsing with a large amount of chocolate in front of The Apprentice.

Well, friends, this is what my life has become recently: except where people are usually like “why not have another one?” we were like “why not have another TWO?” so now we’re realising the implications of that rash decision to hop over from two to four kiddoes. It’s kind of a big deal. Who knew?? Here are some differences I’ve spotted so far:

1) You have to stay on top of the house. Not literally. That would be a crazy stunt of David Blaine proportions. I mean the clutter. The mess. The spillages and unidentifiable stuff glued to the floor. With two kids, I could kind of get away with not tidying that well each night. Whatever was left out could be sorted in the morning. Not so now. Whilst I can hardly boast that our household is run with military precision, I know that if I don’t spend the first hour of the evening clearing the main rooms, it won’t be worth getting up the next day. Really. (And then by about 8am the next day, it’s back to Mess. But at least there was one gloriously tidy hour.)

2) There is not so much time for make-up. Fortunately, I predicted this, and have spent the last few months ditching the mascara so that people get used to seeing me looking like something out of a Tim Burton film, and don’t keep plaguing me with that awful concern-cum-insult “You look tired”.

3) Ditto replying to texts. I’m sorry. I really am. I will get better. In about 17 years’ time.

4) Ditto housework. Kind of a problem (see point 1). Note to husband: get me a cleaner. Please.

5) I’m very tired. Again, not great considering point 1. I’m a night-owl, and all four kids sleep pretty well, but I really do need to train myself to get more sleep. Apologies if you’ve had (or attempted to have) a conversation with me recently. I’m well aware that I’m largely speaking nonsense, making contradictory statements, or looking at you with a glazed ‘Who are you again?’ expression on my face.

6) There is always a child who needs something. With two kids, sometimes – just sometimes – I got a break. Every so often, they would both have full stomachs, full energy levels, fully working toys and a fully functional relationship with each other. Nowadays, there is always at least one who needs either a) a drink of water, b) a toy fixing, c) a TV programme switching on, d) a cut plastering, e) two Lego bricks separating (thank God for nails), or occasionally f) a trip to A&E.

The thing is, I’m told that one day our offspring may produce grandchildren. They will be fun and sweet and easy to buy for – and we’ll be able to give them back at the end of the day. This, my friends, is what we’re all aiming for, what should keep us going through the endless tidying and fatigue. So hang in there, parenting allies. Solidarity to you all.

 

seven ways in which adopting is different from bringing home a newborn

1. Newborns have their pictures all over social media, within hours, sometimes minutes, of their birth. Adopted children need a much higher level of security. Whilst we hope that our adopted children will enjoy a positive relationship with their birth family one day, this has to be done in a safe way, through the professional agencies involved – we want to minimise the risk of birth family searching and finding the children in an unsafe way. If you think I’m over-reacting, you could read this harrowing article, published by The Guardian in May 2015.

2. Newborns are spoilt by visitors. Adopted children need to be very carefully settled into their new ‘forever home’ before visitors are allowed. They also need to time to switch attachment from their foster carer to their new adoptive parents – this is a significant event in the life of any adopted child and no, it doesn’t make much difference how old the child is. Sure, a child adopted when younger will have fewer/no memories of their past life – but that doesn’t mean they haven’t attached to the one who has been feeding them, changing their nappies, putting them to bed, comforting them, getting them dressed, playing with them, and all the other countless ‘tasks’ which, to even the youngest baby, mean ‘love’. So, this awareness of who loves them, who is taking care of them, who is keeping them safe, needs to shift securely to the adoptive parents before other significant people are introduced.

3. Newborns get cuddled by everyoneLike the above point, for the first few weeks/months, all the main care-giving tasks (including lifting, carrying, cuddling) are supposed to be done by the adoptive parents. How else will the children learn to feel safe in their care? You don’t need to be quite so careful with a newborn, as he will have been developing an attachment to his parents in the womb: through hearing their voices, and living inside Mum. There will be plenty of opportunities for his parents to bond with him in the early weeks through feeding, sleeping (or lack of) and general caring. This is what we’ll need to do with our adopted children, even though their age might indicate that anyone can carry out these tasks for them.

4. Newborns are portable: you can pretty much take them anywhere, and make them fit into your life. Again, adoptive parents need to be very careful with adopted children, making sure that they don’t take them anywhere which could be unsettling or confusing. Imagine what will happen when we eventually pitch up at the school gate with our new offspring – friends will flock round like pigeons. From an adopted child’s point of view, suddenly there are too many people you don’t recognise, all getting way too close (are they about to become my new mummy or daddy?). So, for this reason, we will wait awhile before taking our adopted children on the school run. (And if you’re a member of our church, please don’t feel offended if I arrive late and disappear early for a while – it’s not because I don’t want to talk, I’m just trying to protect my children.)

5. People want to ask questions about newborns – and parents are happy to talk. There are lots of things we can tell you about our adopted children. Lots of things we will love to say. But other things that we just can’t. Their early life history, their birth family, and the circumstances which led to them going into care are not things that we will be sharing with anyone other than them, and the harrowing details will be left until they’re old enough to take them. It’s their story, and they may choose to share it with you when they’re older. But, for now, please don’t ask about their pasts. Why not ask about the present, or the future?

6. Newborns need an awful lot of milk. I won’t lie, I’m pretty happy about the fact I won’t be physically attached to my adopted children for the next few months. I never found the lack of adult contact and social life particularly easy in the first few months of having my birth children, so am looking forward to being able to nip out for the odd evening in the early weeks. In fact, I think we’ll both need this breather.

7. Newborns meet you at your least attractive. The other day, I started wondering what I’d wear on the day we meet our adopted children. I’m not a dressy sort of person, but I do try to make an effort when meeting new people, and the fact that we’re likely to have 45 glorious minutes of child-free time before we have to leave means that that effort is more likely to happen. But then I remembered how un-made-up I was when I met my birth children. Wet hair, years-old nightshirt, unshaved legs. Yeah, really attractive. They didn’t seem to care, though, and I’m pretty sure neither will our adopted children. But at least it’s nice to have the option of looking OK.

For more I’ve written on adoption, please click here.

adoption: am i excited?

We’re preparing to adopt. (For more I’ve written on adoption, click here.)

People keep asking me “Are you excited?” or pre-empting with “I bet you’re excited!”. Usually, for a quiet life, I respond with a simple “Yes, I’m excited!”, and that ends an otherwise awkward conversation. Apologies if you’re one of the friends I’ve fobbed off in this way – please understand that it’s only because the answer is so very long and so very complicated that you’d be at risk of missing your flight for next year’s summer holiday if I actually gave you the honest truth.

But I feel you deserve a bit more of an explanation, so I’ll attempt to explain how I’m feeling. Overall, I guess I’m excited – we chose this path, after all, and the arrival of new members of the family is always exciting. But this emotion, for now at least, is clouded by so much else.

I’m busy. Writing emails, taking phone calls, filling in paperwork, answering the same questions over and over again to myriad professionals.

I’m shopping. Planning what we need, what we can borrow, what to ask for. Scanning eBay and Gumtree for second hand bargains. Comparing prices, sizes, colours, efficiency. Reading reviews.

I’m preparing. Laminating family photos, shooting a DVD, sleeping with cot sheets and soft toys, recording our voices onto special toys. All crazy stuff I’d never have imagined would be part of welcoming children into our family.

I’m mothering. Preparing our birth kids, chatting to them, dealing with their emotions, asking questions, picking up on their clues. As well as the usual routine of school runs, clubs and groups, playdates, mealtimes, bedtimes, endless tidying and cleaning.

I’m nesting. Yep, you read that right. These children may not be growing in my tummy, but they’re growing in my heart. I’m painting, assembling, moving, re-housing, washing and arranging. Preparing their bedroom makes my heart skip every time I’m in there.

I’m catching up. By phone and in person. Coffees, lunches, dinners. Trying to make the most of my friends while it’s still easy to make time for them. Knowing that the next bit of life will be chaotic, that it won’t be so easy to get out in an evening, that my child-free daytime hours will reduce to zero.

I’m nervous. Nervous of meeting them for the first time, nervous of being watched by the social workers, nervous of how our birth kids and adopted kids will get on.

I’m clueless. How will we cope with four kids? Will we cope? Will I be able to ask for help when I need it? What will mornings look like? Bedtimes? Can we really protect our adopted kids from over-interested parties?

I’m naive. I know there’s lots that I haven’t thought of. Will I regret not having prepared more? Will it matter? Will we be OK?

And, I’m excited. Overall, I am. I promise. But perhaps, at this moment in time, you are more excited than me. Because you see the bigger picture. You’re not caught up in the detail – you don’t have to be. And, friends, please keep being excited for us, because it is this which sustains me through the long, long to-do list, and reminds me to keep focused on the end goal: the huge blessing of the children God is giving us to love for the rest of our lives.

And yes, I’ll hand it to you – that is exciting.