Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Summer holiday blues

This was the year I was going to crack it. I was determined to enjoy the summer holidays and family time.

My daughter has just finished primary school, and this is her last summer before secondary. It feels like the right moment to push a little harder to get her to step gingerly out of the nest and start flapping her little wings. And it also feels like the right moment to get her to help clean the nest up, frankly. I put some activities in the diary, and sat back, thinking, "And they can amuse themselves around that skeleton structure". In those words, damn my hubris.

As I sit here this evening, catatonic, I look back at the diary, and realise we've done an awful lot, and that I am simply tired. In the last fortnight, we have been to Sussex, the Cotswolds, and Wales, our son has starred in Frozen, I've had reflexology, and started running, I've worked on a book my daughter and I are writing, picked pounds of summer fruit, gone to an urban beach, daughter has gone tree walking, we've been down a mine, and that's not counting the cooking, family time, monopoly, dancing, yoga, seeing old friends, meeting our new kittens.

At first this ridiculous over-doing of things went well, and there was I feeling utterly smug, thinking that the kids are finally old enough to be reasoned with, to help around the house. to put themselves to bed, and that I will, this summer, for the very first time, be able to complete a piece of writing, and combine this with time with the children. For the first time, it won't be 'mother does childcare' so much as simple family life. I was to get time to myself, without needing to cough up to put the children in some sports camp; I could model the writing life for them; they would amuse themselves — as they do quite a lot of the time at the weekend, these days. It seemed to be going in that direction, with a few "I'm bo-red"s along the way, but as nothing compared with the earlier summers of despair and depression I had endured. (Mine, I hasten to add, not the kids'.)

However, then I took the children to my mother's, in Cardiff, for three days. I can explain what happened next in various ways, but the basic problem is that I took my eye off the ball that is the kids' constant need for attention and stimulation, in order to spend time focusing on my mum.

So the kids promptly stayed up till gone 11pm and then slept in until 10am. They were rude, sullen, and argued back when I asked them to help clear up. In the swimming pool, they were told off for bombing, chucking things, shouting, by me, my mother and the life guard. My son, abetted by small cousin, raided my mum's sewing boxes up in the guest room, and made a kind of Mona Hatoum installation of thread, connecting toys, chairs, beds, lamps. If I'm honest I was quite impressed. But he and little cousin lied about it, and so the heavy hand of parenting had to come down. The next day it turned out they had thrown great handfuls of the thread out of the skylight onto the Acer beneath, where I found it, like fairy bunting trammelling up the twigs. When the cousins arrived, son rushed downstairs and tried to lift older girl cousin up, causing her to fall headlong against the hall radiator. Son and cousin chopped up a scrapbook they had found into paper aeroplanes, which they then flew out of the skylight into the gutters below, there to block rainwater and lead to overflow. Egged on by small cousin, my son cut his whole fringe off, right up at the hairline. That night, I found my son holding a large red wastepaper bin out of the skylight, trying to catch the rain, because he "wanted to see what it tasted like". Water was running back along the tilted window and dripping onto the books and carpet beneath.  I went nuts.

In the end I cut short the trip, and drove them back to London, in silence. When we got home, I insisted that son write a letter to his grandmother to thank her, and apologise for all the damage. It took two hours of steadfast insistence, with him screaming, swearing, breaking his own pen, screwing up paper, trying to run around. I do not know how I managed to control myself, but I did. I got to a point where I was able to observe his behaviour without being drawn into it. It helped me understand how the idea of possession might have seemed plausible. He resorted to an absolutely extraordinary array of toxic manipulations to get out of taking responsibility for his actions, and making amends. But I was determined. Gradually his resistance wore down, and he eventually wrote that letter, describing what he had enjoyed, and apologising for the Mona Hatoum, promising to buy more thread.

I thought we were there, and the rest of the afternoon and early evening went well. Then I put them to bed and it all began again. I don't know about you, but the summer months this year have seen the children's sleep patterns blown to pieces. They seem unable to go to sleep if it's light. I can remember the delight of reading after lights out, standing on my pillow up against the window, with the curtains over half of me. I've tried to be indulgent about it -- my daughter had no work to do post-SATs, and my son's only 8, so it hardly seemed a crime for them to stay up a little later if they were safely in bed. My father used to beat me for reading after lights out -- this seemed somewhat excessive to my child brain, and still does to my adult brain. But although I can picture my child self, avidly reading just one more chapter, my sad adult self just wants the kids to go the f**k to sleep, aware of storms the next day, or of being unable to wake them at a reasonable time, all our days knocked sideways, my copycat somnolence… we live in such interdependence that our circadian rhythms seem as locked together as loom bands.

So there was shouting from me, and from the children. There were apologies. There was renewed storming up and down the stairs. And now I sit here at 11pm, not quite certain that my son is yet asleep, in the ruins of my bid to calm and contain his wilful behaviour, typing "I cannot cope with my children" into Google, and reading the many, many accounts of despair, guilt and grief that may be found posted online.

Looks like this summer holiday is going to follow the pattern of all the others.


peter telford said...

It takes a lot of courage to admit that you're being driven to dispair by your children, well done. In my experience, once you've accepted the fact, then your solution isn't far away.

I regularly got smacked for reading the Beano in bed by the light from the landing, when I was supposed to be asleep. Still sends chills down my spine.

Kirkegaard said...

Thank you Peter. Now we're back home after our trip away, it seems as though the comforting routine of home has kicked back in, and the behaviour has calmed. It doesn't feel like courage to admit despair, thank you for thinking it is. Writing about it definitely definitely harnesses your thinking, and helps you regain control. I found your comment about being smacked for reading the Beano after lights out very moving — particularly the fact that the memory of it continues to upset you. I have no wish to punish my children for reading, it's much more that by 10.30 or 11pm, my exhaustion is so total. I look back now and can to a certain extent forgive my father, whom I must have driven to distraction. But it is because of how angry he so often was that I try so hard to handling being a mother differently. The difficulty is that I am very much my father's daughter. Sigh. Onwards and upwards.

Anonymous said...

Reading your blog made me very sad. Whatever has happened to make children need to be entertained all the time?
I suspect that you know what you want to do but feel guilty, afraid or unable to carry out the changes needed.

Take courage and take charge. You are the adult. They are the children. You are equally deserving of quality time.

Sit the pair of them down and explain the new ground rules. They are both old enough to help you out and be rewarded and likewise you are entitled to take away privileges for bad behaviour. (Remove computer games, tv's and other things which they love).
Be brave and stick to your guns. It might be a rough ride but it will be worth it.

spec sisters said...

I also have an 8 year old boy–an avid reader and a lovely boy. Except in the holidays when he transforms into a devil child bent upon torturing his small sister. The routine that works for me is park/football/swimming/biking in the morning to wear them out, then DVD/computer time in the afternoon, so i can get (a little) writing done.

Kirkegaard said...

Hi Anonymous, thank you for your very kind and thoughtful comments. Don't be sad! All is not lost, and what prompted my post was an aberration. We do have all this in place, and the kids are generally good at entertaining themselves, which is why the trip to Cardiff came as such a shock to me.

It's just depressing that one has to keep reinforcing so relentlessly. Writing's really hard around children... and ground rules themselves keep shifting as the children age, so have to be recomposed. And through it all, all I want to do is read and write... it is nearly impossible to do either unless one has a room of one's own....

Kirkegaard said...

Hi spec sisters, thanks for your comment, yes, I agree, wearing out in the morning and then quiet time in the afternoon is also something I like to do. Today was really good -- we worked together to wash the car and weed the path, then had quiet time, then went to the park, and I took a book. We found masses of blackberries, it was like a reward from nature for not fighting! Then supper outside, with blackberry dessert. Son is currently camping in the garden. We'll see.

litlove said...

This brings the summer holidays back to me!I can well recall the years of trial (and I was always in the middle of some research and up against a deadline too - ghastly). The issue is more that we expect WAY too much from mothers these days - when did kids EVER behave themselves beautifully? In what Golden Age of Lore did they sit around with their tapestries and their compass sets quietly amusing themselves? I can at least assure you that it does get a great deal better in years to come. And getting your son to write that letter was a triumph (I say this mindful of similar struggles in the past!).

Kirkegaard said...

Litlove, I love you! I DO think it is getting easier as the children get older -- also when I put my foot down, and expect more for myself, and them to do more for themselves. That's what's come out of this latest episode. It made me reassess how much excess work I was putting into the holidays, and we have all re-balanced. You're so right that it's the ridiculous EXPECTATIONS placed on mothers to do it all that is actually the problem, and not children's behaviour. It's in the doing it all that I lose sight of my actual, physical, lovely children.

Georgina Green said...

My 93 year old grandmother was telling me how at age 3 her mother used to send her a mile or two away to sit at the end of the road and wait for her father to get home. She was also allowed to wander free in the woods with a neughbours dog called Bruce, pretty much all her childhood, from what I gather! Sounds like your children are very creative!

Kirkegaard said...

Hi Georgina, the closest we get to a tramp in the woods are Just William audio CDs; your grandmother's childhood sounds wonderful. I really loathe the feeling that I am SUPPOSED to be thinking up activities for the kids -- that's their job! It turns holidays into more school (at least for me).