Fixing things that ain’t broke yet

At every point in my life, I have thought to myself that this is it. I am more busy than I have ever been before, and I have reached capacity. I thought it when I was doing my GCSEs (oh, the irony!) I thought it when I was doing my A levels and learning to drive and working, all at the same time. (You know, just writing that made me realise why it is so frustrating when my students complain about balancing those 3 things. Should I have more sympathy, or should I tell them they ain’t seen nothing yet? Choices, choices…) I thought it at University, then again when I was working a few different jobs at once straight after Uni. I thought it when I was working full time and volunteering as a Quaker treasurer. I thought it when I was at home with one child, and then with two. I thought it when I was training to be a teacher. Now, as a full time teacher with still fairly young children, I know it’s true. I really have reached capacity. Never, ever let me take anything else on. Ever. Well, unless something better comes along, obviously. Or something really fun. Or something really worthwhile… And there I go, doing it all again.

Looking back on those earlier times in life, the thing I miss more than anything else is the time to stop, and read, and think. Even in the very early days of motherhood, I remember reading – book in one arm, feeding child in the other, making plans. Of course, I had no idea what was coming, so most of my planning was thrown out over the next six months, but what a glorious luxury that time was, and how little I realised it then.

Time is not something anyone seems to have any more. I recently realised that I have no actual physical parenting books at all, now that even The Cowgirl has officially outgrown Penelope Leach. (On a side note, any recommendations of good books about parenting pre teens would be really appreciated. I can buy them and feel guilty every time I see them unread on my bedside table…) Instead of having time to plan, I go with whatever works – usually whatever leads to a marginally easier life. And once I’ve found the sweet spot of something that gets the job done, I would rather chew off my own arm than change it. Bedtime is one example of that in our household. We still have exactly the same bedtime routine that we set up when The Cowgirl was six months old, at the same time in the evening, because you know what, it works, the girls sleep through, and we have some time in the evenings to do marking, catch up on emails, or, you know, watch The West Wing from start to finish. Again.

It’s ok, I reassure myself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s working well, so let’s not tamper with it. The problem with this, of course, is that the world is changing all the time, and children tend to change five times faster than the rest of the world. As they change, our expectations and responses as parents need to change too. And if we’re going to do this well, they need to change preemptively. By the time you notice that an old favourite isn’t working any more, in my case at least, it’s usually not been working for quite some time, and I’m running to catch up lost ground.

When The Paleontologist was young, her desperate cry when upset was that she wanted a Mummy hug on the sofa. It was a beautifully simplistic time (except for the time when she refused to walk home because she was cold, wet, and wanted a hug on the sofa. It took me half an hour of persuasion, swearing and tears – all from me, obviously – before she agreed to start walking home so that we could actually sit on the aforementioned sofa to have said hug…) Could I use the same comfort now? Well, the hug and the location remain the same, but they have lost some of their magic. They are no longer enough to cure any ill, and instead of being all perfect, the hug is for comfort, not solutions, and the talking, and the crying, and the questions, and the not-having-answers-but-that-has-to-be-OK is where the magic is slowly, so slowly, being brewed. My ways of dealing with childhood devastations have been forced to shift and shudder and get through on a wing and a prayer in a desperate attempt to keep up with growing minds and developing bodies.

Almost every day seems taut with new decisions: tiny individually, but when matted together they become a hedge of thorns that it is almost impossible to get through without getting scratched to shreds. Do we let them open the door without an adult? (Answer: no – remember we live in a vicarage and so you never quite know who will be on the other side of the door, and in what state.) Do we let them check to see if the milk has been delivered? (Answer: yes, but never again – by the time we came downstairs, they had not only got the milk in, they had also drunk the lot of it…) How much freedom do we give them online? How much do we nag The Paleontologist to do her homework, and how much do we let her suffer the consequences of leaving it undone? Do we let her read as late as she wants to (just like her mother…) even if it means that she’s an absolute misery in the morning, because she didn’t get enough sleep (just like her mother…)? I let The Cowgirl choose for herself who to invite to her birthday party, rather than inviting the entire year, and my goodness me, the horror on some people’s faces when I mention this is frankly terrifying.

Looking at the world around us, and our relationship with it, I can see a number of parallels. It’s not broken yet – though the continuing devastation caused by Cyclone Idai tell us that it’s not exactly unbroken either. We don’t want to mess with what works. Our lives and our communities are doing just about alright using the methods and priorities we have set up over a number of generations, and frankly, we just don’t have the time to stop and work out alternatives. Particularly alternatives that will probably not be as convenient. It means letting go of something very dear to us, something that has seen us through some really tough times. It means letting go of the things that made us feel like we are in control and we have this, and moving into the unknown, where we might not be in control any more, and we certainly don’t have this, and accepting that we may never have it again. Why on earth would we do that voluntarily?

But we know the answer to that. Nothing lasts forever, and desperately clinging on to it with both hands still doesn’t stop time passing. Everything changes. The world might not change quite as quickly as our children do, but it still moves faster than we would like. We need to change our relationship with our children preemptively, before we destroy it by trying to keep it static; we need to change our relationship with the world just as much, or we won’t only kill our relationship with our environment, we will kill the environment itself.

Of course, with both parenting and, you know, saving the world, recognising you need to change the approach is only the first step. The even greater challenge is working out what to do next…

A canal in spring, the towpath fading into early morning mist, concealing the way ahead and the familiar landscape around.

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