Monthly Archives: December 2011

What’s the point of Christmas?

Christmas can be tricky when you’re little. All that talk of Santa, not to mention the tantalising agony of Christmas presents that you’re not allowed to open for what must feel like an eternity, taunting you from beneath the Christmas tree. It must all seem like an exercise in torture.

I’m already tired of telling my lads off for trying to peak at their presents, and am torn between hiding them all in order to rescue my blood pressure, and earnestly trying to persist in teaching them the art of patience, despite the fact that mine has already worn woefully thin.

This feels like the first Christmas where my kids know the score. Last year at 4 and 5 they didn’t really remember all that much about the year before, so the whole day was punctuated by wide-eyed wonder and amazement. I have a strange compulsion to keep as much of that wonderment going for as long as possible, and am obsessively-compulsively trying to stamp out the merest hint of entitlement whenever I overhear them talking confidently about what Santa’s bringing them – when does wonderment get replaced with that sense of certainty, I wonder?

It’s so hard to get this stuff right. I’ve been restrained in my gift-buying this year, acutely aware that what the children experience in these formative years fast becomes the precedent for the future. Yet as the hours tick down until the shops shut I have an edgy compulsion to panic buy, fuelled by the fear that I haven’t bought ‘enough’ and that they might be disappointed with their spoils. It feels all kinds of wrong and yet they’re such palpable, real fears. I suspect the secret is to stay well away from shops and TV adverts.

Days ago my sons spent some early Christmas money on new toys which they’ve already misplaced. They mope around the house complaining that there’s nothing to do, and I look at the playroom full of toys and regret every single new toy I’ve bought them for Christmas. What’s the point?

We’ve donated some toys to charity and have talked together about kids who won’t get much for Christmas but it all seems so arbitrary. In a bid to underline the Christmas narrative I asked my sons who bought special gifts to Baby Jesus and the youngest answered, without hesitation: “Santa!” I long for my kids to feel the joy and wonder of the Christmas story, not just get caught up with the compulsion to consume.

And yet it seems strangely fitting that the beauty of Advent is somehow hidden on purpose – you have to follow a star or see an angel to reach what it’s really all about. Stars – and indeed angels – might be all around us but you won’t see them if your eyes aren’t open. You have to really look, and I have to teach my sons to do the same – to seek out the point of Christmas instead of being distracted by the pointlessness of it all.

This year I took a leaf out of a friend’s book and persuaded our lads to part with some of their own money to buy a present for one another, plus one for me and one for Dada. The five year old skipped along the pavement with unbridled joy, and practically broke my heart into pieces when he declared:

“I feel so happy because I am doing my own Christmas shopping, and I think I like giving other people presents even more than I like getting presents of my own.”

Alas, he later broke the golden rules of gift-giving by telling his brother what he’d bought him, and issuing exact instructions as to what he expects to receive. But when choosing his Dada’s present he asked ‘Which one is the most?’ and I was taken aback to think that he was already working out his budget so as to maximise the change he would be left with.

In fact, he opted for the one I pointed to, so I began to assume he had already assimilated his father’s sense of economy which is essentially that Most Expensive = Best. Afterwards he explained that he was asking which of the two similar items had the most product inside, and settled on the biggest one ‘so that Daddy never has to buy any more of it himself.’

To top off my pre-Christmas angst I’ve just realised that I’ve bough the wrong joint of meat for our Christmas Day dinner, and fear my beef wellington extravaganza might have to be abandoned. I’ve made no home-made mince pies this year, the gingerbread house is un-made in its box and I’ve got buyer’s remorse about the most expensive present purchase I have made.

There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to light the fire, listen to Christmas music, and read Christmas stories to my kids with my eyes wide open, looking for the light that’s waiting to be found.


Me-time for Mums… and Dads

Yesterday we abandoned our kids and ran away. Come on, don’t judge me, I know you’ve contemplated doing just the same.

The brilliant blogger South of the River Mum hosted a blog hop last month and the prize was dinner for two at Hotel du Vin or Malmaison plus four glorious hours’ of free babysitting with a registered babysitter from London childcare agency, Likeminders.

The theme of the blog hop was ‘Time4You’, and South of the River Mum explained it like this:

“I’m actually talking about time out with your partner. Yes, just your partner, getting to know him again after the madness of colic, sleepless nights (and not in a good way) and feeding schedules, when all you wanted to do was slouch in front of the TV when you had any spare time. There comes a point  when it’s actually time to take your head and body out of mummyville for a few hours and reconnect, relax and ideally have some fun with your other half.”

I wrote this post about a cheeky little habit we’ve developed of slinking away for a breakfast date when it all gets too much and we need some time out. And… drumroll please… I won the blog hop!

I couldn’t take up the free babysitting part as Likeminders are based in London but, as luck would have it, my parents have just relocated to Ireland and now live around the corner from us, so guess who got lumbered with the little darlings while we hot-footed it out for lunch at the Belfast Mal? Talk about karma. It was glorious.

We dug around in the depths of our wardrobes for something beyond our usual scruffy look. I laughed when I realised we’d both resorted to the old ‘throw-a-smart-jacket-over-this-haphazard-look-and-it-might-pass-muster’ trick. I managed to put all my make-up on for once, instead of my usual habit of reluctantly braving the bare-faced look, having forgotten where I put my make-up bag the last time I hurriedly applied it in the car.

I did threaten to call the whole thing off when the kids went berserk in the frantic half hour before we left the house, but tried to celebrate the madness of the moment and remind myself that I’d won this prize in honour of the sage truth that taking time out for parents is a feat of wondrous endurance in itself.

Screaming like a banshee while dripping from the shower, clad only in an inadequately-sized towel is not the way I like to start a date, though, it must be said.

Still, we had vichyssoise and goat’s cheese tart to start, then aged rib-eye steak with bordelaise sauce, followed by chocolate yule log for him and a selection of to-die-for artisan cheese for yours truly.

We only had to pay for drinks but still managed to rack up an eye-watering bill of £35 despite restraining ourselves to a single glass of red wine and an after-dinner glass of port for him, and a scrumptious espresso martini for me.

Incidentally – Carrie Bradshaw was so wrong about Cosmopolitans – my signature drink when I’m a famous novelist will unquestionably be an espresso martini, and I’ll throw a diva-esque strop if it’s not garnished with the requisite three coffee beans. Mine wasn’t on this occasion but I first fell in love with what my husband pointed out is basically an Irish Coffee gone cold at the Belfast Mal on a press trip, so I decided to let it slide and save the strop for when I’m actually footing the entire bill.

After lunch we indulged in a spot of retail therapy (I kicked myself later when I realised we’d forgotten to order the coffee and chocolates after our meal) and then it was time to pick up my brother from the airport in time for our first family Christmas on the North Coast, and head back to reality… and parenthood.

Fortunately the lads had behaved themselves impeccably (despite fleecing their grandfather in an expertly-manipulative manouevre at the local toy shop) – to the point that their grandparents gushed about their delightful charges while their father and I exchanged bemused glances and wondered silently where we’re going wrong. Back at home they reverted to their normal demanding assertive selves, and there were tears before bedtime.

But that’s you-time when you’re a parent, isn’t it? An epic effort to recapture, for a fleeting moment, the care-free social whirl that once came so effortlessly, interspersed with various logistical challenges of giant proportions, to the extent that you wonder if the you-time at the end of the tunnel is actually worth it. But at the end of it all, the warm fuzzy glow of an espresso martini in the middle of the afternoon and the unmistakably alien sense of feeling relaxed, thanks to the joy of uninterrupted conversations, labouring over lunch instead of speed-eating before anyone throws a wobbler, and meandering around shops without negotiating your way out of tantrums over must-have toys. It was heaven.

Thanks South of the River Mum, Likeminders and Malmaison Belfast for giving us a brilliant excuse to start our Christmas celebrations with a bit of pzazz.

And thanks to my lovely lunch date, too! The next one’s on you…

Christmas… Health & Safety style

My brilliant cousin sent me this and it made me smile…

All employees planning to dash through the snow in a one horse open sleigh, going over the fields and laughing all the way are advised that a Risk Assessment will be required addressing the safety of an open sleigh for members of the public. This assessment must also consider whether it is appropriate to use only one horse for such a venture, particularly where there are multiple passengers.

Please note that permission must also be obtained in writing from landowners before their fields may be entered. To avoid offending those not participating in celebrations, we would request that laughter is moderate only and not loud enough to be considered a noise nuisance. Benches, stools and orthopaedic chairs are now available for collection by any shepherds planning or required to watch their flocks at night.

While provision has also been made for remote monitoring of flocks by CCTV cameras from a centrally heated shepherd observation hut, all users of this facility are reminded that an emergency response plan must be submitted to account for known risks to the flocks.

The angel of the Lord is additionally reminded that, prior to shining his/her glory all around, s/he must confirm that all shepherds are wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment to account for the harmful effects of UVA, UVB and the overwhelming effects of Glory.

Following last year’s well-publicised case, everyone is advised that Equal Opportunities legislation prohibits any comment with regard to the redness of any part of Mr R Reindeer. Further to this, exclusion of Mr R Reindeer from reindeer games will be considered discriminatory, and disciplinary action will be taken against those found guilty of this offence.

While it is acknowledged that gift bearing is a common practice in various parts of the world, particularly the Orient, everyone is reminded that the bearing of gifts is subject to Hospitality Guidelines and all gifts must be registered. This applies regardless of the individual, even royal personages. It is particularly noted that direct gifts of currency or gold are specifically precluded, while caution is advised regarding other common gifts such as aromatic resins that may evoke allergic reactions!

It’s ok not to be ok

Why do we construct pedestals and place people upon them so readily, sometimes without knowing if the life behind the smile, frozen only in time and photography, is even real?

I once cried over a photo in a tabloid newspaper of a pop star laughing on a beach in the sunshine with his new wife.

I don’t know why I cried. Perhaps because other people’s happiness, worn easily in expressions that seem so carefree – sometimes only serves to underline your own pain. Happy-ever-after seemed elusive then (it doesn’t anymore, I can happily report) and the sight of it gracing famous faces with its perfect presence made me feel more keenly the things I thought I had lost.

Barely six months later the veneer was cracked unceremoniously across the front pages of another tabloid paper. The truth appeared to be that the happy couple had little to laugh about together.

Who’s to say what’s real and what is not – I know broken hearts can mend and I hope the same is true of a popstar’s broken promise to his unknowing, smiling wife.

Making any pair a poster couple for anything is perilously dangerous ground. Falling from grace must hurt all the more without a soft place to land, under the shocked, frozen gaze of those who thought you were unbreakable.

“We are all falling apart…” 

That’s what someone wrote in the comments of a blog I read last night, written by a woman whose writing I’ve admired for years, and whose life, while not without its heartache, I’ve admired too.

But her life is falling apart right now. Mine did once, too, so I nodded sagely and blinked back empathetic tears as I scrolled through comments from other people who’ve crossed waters not so very different, who can say from across the raging waves that it’s not so bad over there, that she can get through this to dry ground as they have done, and maybe even grow and bloom there beyond survival.

I’ve never lost a child but the pain of those who have is palpable. And pain is immeasurable. No-one can quantify the things that cause us pain, or grade heart-ache according to some sliding scale.

Life hurts, but it is also beautiful. We are all falling apart, but even in the falling apart there is redemption. Pain can bring us to our knees, but it can also make us stronger than we ever could have imagined before its coming… and that kind of alchemy is seriously under-rated.

I’m sorry for the pedestals I’ve forced beneath unwilling feet, but sorrier for those who lose things or feel pain while being held aloft under such an envious gaze.

Perfect lives do not exist, nor should they – isn’t ‘perfect’ the antithesis of ‘life’? So be careful who you envy and how your wishful gaze might embalm others in a place that makes failing harder than it has to be.

And if you’re the one who’s failing, falling, floundering, know this: The life that you rebuild from broken pieces might not be the one you had before, nor be worthy of the perfect pages of a glossy magazine. But it can be real, healed and whole, and that’s infinitely more valuable than the veneer.

Need vs Want

A new pair of boots is top of my Christmas list this year, and I genuinely ‘need’ them – my current pair were a gift two Christmases ago and now they let in rain, which is a no-no for winter in Ireland. But my heart just about broke and my perspective was well and truly re-aligned in a charity shop today, when I overheard a couple talking while they browsed through racks of scuffed second-hand shoes, most of them still bearing the distinctive, eery shape of the previous owner’s feet.

He wanted to treat her to a ‘new’ pair of charity shop shoes for Christmas, but she protested: “I can do without.”

That’s ‘need’. I want for nothing.

It’s easy to say all the right things at Christmas – that we’re fortunate to have a roof over our head, food in our fridges, money in our bank accounts – and yet still feel the tug of supposed ‘needs’ and the heart-sinking sadness that seems to lurk in the air as we’re bombarded with pressure to buy ourselves the perfect Christmas – on credit, of course.

I paid for an expensive gift with cash recently and the cashier looked at me askew when I turned down her ‘buy now, pay later’ offer and handed over a pile of £20 notes. It’s all kinds of wrong when having the money to pay for what you buy is the anomaly while easy credit is the norm.

But that’s consumerism, not Christmas. You can have next to nothing – no place to lay a baby – and still receive the gifts hidden in the Christmas story. Or you can have everything and miss the magic in the manger.

Would you do something with me to pass that magic on? Find something you don’t really need this Christmas and ‘gift’ it to your local charity shop. Make it something special, then make a wish that it will light up someone’s darkness this week as they browse for last-minute gifts or treats hidden among other people’s unwanted things.

I longed for that couple to linger long enough to find the shoes I’d impulsively tossed into my bag of charity shop donations earlier in the day, wondering who could possibly want them.

But more than that, I wished for a brand new pair of shoes for her. Ones that put a spring in her step and a lightness in her soul.

Those walking in darkness have seen a great light…

I was determined to be organised about Christmas this year.

So much so that I whipped up a gigantic batch of home-made vanilla fudge for my kids to give as Christmas gifts to their teachers and classroom assistants at school.

But it’s ironic – that snap paints such a vivid picture of perfect Christmas craftiness – and yet I burnt the second batch and yelled at my child for distracting me at the crucial moment.

But THAT’S what I love most about Christmas. Not burned kitchen disasters and family rows but the fact that no matter how insane the world gets and how seemingly-far away we seem to move from the Christmas story, it only ever gets more poignant, real, meaningful.

That stable, that must have seemed a million miles away from what the birth of a king was supposed to be like, and the immense vulnerability Mary must have felt. The precarious treasure of it all amid such mayhem, upheaval, societal obligation.

Out of all that comes hope. Pure, and unadulterated. Hope that transcends everything and infuses even burnt fudge and family fall-outs with the promise of something other… and not hope that disappoints.

Sometimes it’s difficult at Christmas to reconcile that with the reality of our lives. My mind’s on people who lost a baby in tragic circumstances this time last year.

But in an online conversation earlier this week I remembered one of my favourite quotes:

Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while it is still dark.  

Even when it’s dark – whatever the cause of your darkness – Christmas gives us cause to remember that light exists.

Is this what they call Christmas spirit?

“Mummy, I feel very happy, and I think it’s because I shared out my Christmas cards with my class.”

Z, aged 5.

It is indeed beginning to feel a lot like Christmas in these parts…

Boys behaving badly: boundaries and idle threats

Flickr: mdanys

Every parent knows that boundaries are the bedrock of family life.

But knowing something in theory is not the same thing as applying it well to daily life. I could do with a little more wisdom on maintaining boundaries.

I understand that boundaries matter and more than that, I’ve witnessed t how helpful they can be. In our house, the kids aren’t allowed to watch TV in the mornings before school – it just distracts and slows them down exponentially and I end up harassed, spending the whole time haranguing them through the morning routine. That’s just too high a price to pay for the few moments of quiet that TV might buy.

What’s more, my children have their best play time of the day in the morning, without the TV to distract them. The 90 minutes between waking up and leaving for school  is a riotous mix of getting ready and executing elaborate rescue missions or galactic battles. I sincerely believe they’ve learned how to co-operate by spending school mornings playing like this. There’s something about the brevity of the time that quickens their capacity to problem-solve, and lately they’ve begun plotting to continue their morning game at school with all their friends. There’s one particular game they play a lot at the moment, based around a TV programme on CBeebies, funnily enough, and this morning my four year old announced that he had ‘converted’ half of his class into playing it too, instructing them in great detail on the plot and characters, and that an epic game was planned for break time at school today.

So I know that this boundary is a good one. Instead of passively watching a TV programme, they’ve made it come alive, and learned a raft of valuable things about real life interactions along the way. They never even ask to watch TV on school mornings anymore. In fact, I don’t think it even occurs to them to think about it, and if I suggested ten minutes of telly time I’d wager that they’d howl with protest and argue that they’d rather play.

A similar boundary about the Wii being a Fridays and weekend-only treat works just as well. The thing I like most about boundaries is that they eliminate any element of uncertainty, which has the knock-on effect of vastly reducing the amount of time they spend whinging, pleading or pressing my buttons just to see what happens, and what it takes to make me crack. I’ve no doubt that they’d change these rules if they were in charge. Obviously their preference would be unrestricted access to the Wii and TV, but with that boundary firmly in place I find they just accept it, and I’m a calmer and more confident parent, even under pressure. Those simmering conflicts over things like screen time that can be so repetitive just dissipate entirely.

But what do you when the boundary you’d like to build relates specifically to something your child says or does?

In the interests of keeping some things sacred I’m going to invent a fictitious scenario instead of telling you my exact dilemma. But imagine for a moment that your child picks up a certain word or phrase, something of which you disapprove, and starts using it at home, usually only when he’s fizzing with frustration. You don’t want him to say it. Not least because it doesn’t fit with the family vibe or the agreed house rule that we should all use kind words and gentle hands, but also because of how it might make him appear to others. You know he’s a deeply compassionate, empathetic kid – he won the school prize for citizenship in P1, for Pete’s sake – but those qualities tend to come with big feelings, and they can be hard to contain when you’re a little person.

We’ve tried a variety of techniques to help him curb this habit of verbally lashing out. He understands that the words he uses are hurtful, and that while they’re expressive of a momentary surge of anger, they’re not truthful.

I’ve been reading a book which puts the emphasis in parenting on creating freedom rather than seeking compliance and control. Aspects of that approach resonate with me – but I know boundaries matter – and while I don’t want to control him or the words he uses as if he were an automaton, I would like him to use his freedom to better advantage.

And we’ve all seen parents get boundaries really wrong – they threaten A, B or C if the child doesn’t do X, Y or Z, but invariably end up backing down. I know no-one parents like that on purpose and that maintaining boundaries can be exhausting. Sometimes it’s easier to let things slide but I know it’s best not to let boundaries blur into idle threats.

So we’ve ignored the behaviour we don’t like, issued time-outs for it, removed treats and privileges and even bent over backwards encouraging the ‘good’ behaviour. We’ve shouted, we’ve appealed to his better nature, we’ve dished out the same medicine to drive home that it’s not pleasant, and, to my own shame, I’ve probably used a few choice words intended to shame him into seeing the error of his ways. None of which is effective.

This morning I erupted, and spent the school run explaining in no uncertain times (and at rather an assertive volume) that this particular blend of unkind words will not be tolerated anymore.

But where do you go from there? I hate that feeling, mid-sentence, of knowing you’ve got nowhere else to go, no more tricks or strategies to apply. Just a desperate, exasperated sense that this has got to stop. He apologised, sincerely, and I think he understands – but lately I am increasingly realising that what I say and what my children hear is not always one and the same. (Case in point, they know the ‘truth’ about Santa but this week I overheard them describing in great, imaginative detail precisely how Santa gets back up the chimney…)

So my question is, what would you do in a situation like this?