An Open Letter to the SATs Teachers

The SATs results tell us something, but they do not tell us everything…

Today I sent this letter to J and L’s teacher.  Whilst some of the details will be different for each teacher and each parent, the sentiment holds true for so many dedicated, patient, hard-working, caring teachers.

Dear Miss B,

This week your pupils will take their SATs.  Many, many parents across the country have publicly voiced their opposition to testing our young children in this way, and some schools were rightly praised for writing to their pupils assuring them that SATs don’t test or recognise all their special gifts that make them unique, wonderful people.  At the same time, concerned parents received the response that we should not feel worried as SATs are there to test schools and teachers rather than the pupils themselves.  If this is true then perhaps it is the teachers rather than the pupils who deserve the most reassurance.

With this in mind I wanted to write to you to recognise how little the SATs results will show about what kind of teacher we know you are.  The results won’t show, for example, how your class adored you from the day they met you.  The SATs won’t reflect the warmth with which you greet our children each morning; the way you have got to know and care about them as individuals; the way you recognise when something is wrong; or the way you deal with problems so sensitively and professionally.  The SATs don’t acknowledge the long hours you work in the evenings and at weekends, or the fact you come to work with a smile even on the days when you’re not feeling terribly cheerful.

The SATs don’t know that J and L fight over who gets to “be” you when they play schools at home.  The results won’t acknowledge the time and care you have put into thinking of creative ways to engage J in his learning; the fact you’ve never made me feel like his autism is just another problem for you to deal with; or the huge strides he’s made this year in his ability to participate in a lesson thanks to you.  The SATs don’t see how much L loves going to school, or the way her eyes shine with excitement as she tells me about your innovative lessons.  They don’t reflect the fact that you have inspired her to create books and further her knowledge at home, or that she has already shed tears at the realisation that you won’t be her teacher next year.

Your class’s SATs results won’t reflect the time you spend listening patiently at parents’ evenings, never making us feel rushed or a nuisance, and always responding in a positive and proactive way.  They won’t show what it means to us as parents to leave our children in the care of someone who makes them feel so safe, nurtured and happy.

The results of your class’s SATs tests do, of course, tell us something.  Naturally we want our children to receive a high standard of education.  We want their knowledge, understanding, and skills to improve while they are at school, and for them to reach their full academic potential.  The SATs results tell us something, but they do not tell us everything.  As an ex-teacher myself I remember the anxiety of knowing my abilities as a teacher would be judged on the basis of how my pupils performed under exam conditions.  I want you to know that I – we – have judged you on so much more already, and are deeply indebted to you for the very, very many ways you have enriched our children’s lives since they started Year 2.

Warmest wishes.

Back To Where I Came From

In a world that feels balanced precariously on the edge of terror, please don’t feed the hatred that will be all our undoing. Think. Think about what is making you angry and scared. And then by all means say it. But in your own words.

“You don’t want to live in Britain?  Well you know what you can do!  Assimilate or get out!” scream the mesages from other people’s Facebook accounts.  Or versions of that.  Different words, same message.  Photos of women in burqas holding guns.  An image of the Qu’ran with a blood-red cross stamped across it.  All overlaid with the same words.  “If you don’t do things the way WE do them we don’t want you here”.  Although usually much angrier and more insulting than that, sometimes containing thinly-veiled, badly-thought-out threats.

We live in a climate of hate and fear.  And we feel helpless.  Powerless to protect ourselves and our families from the threat: that dark ominous cloud of hidden faces and foreign hieroglyphs;  millions of people who, we are told, will stop at nothing to see our grisly demise.  It is no wonder that in the absence of more meaningful options for taking action, those tiny, infinitesimal acts – “like” and “share” – feel like at least we are doing something … expressing our outrage; standing strong; showing defiance in the face of extreme adversity.

More and more of my friends are turning to these images, to the act of “sharing” on social media, as a way of expressing their growing fear and anger.  And it is not for me to comment on whether that fear and anger is justified.  Certainly this is the first time in my nearly-forty-years of existence that I have felt anxious about being part of the Jewish community in Britain.  Not scared exactly … but nervous.  But it is exactly this that I would like to ask you to consider before clicking “share” next time.  So many of the people who have passed these images on are people who I know care for me.  Love and respect me.  So please.  Consider this.

My faith is not your faith.  I have no desire to leave my religion and join yours.  Am I being disrespectful to your beliefs?

A large percentage of the friends I socialise with regularly are Jewish.  I like that.  I like being with people who are like me and who share my culture.  Am I a racist?

My children go to a Jewish school.  Many of their friends are Jewish and they are being taught about the Jewish way of life.  Should we try harder to integrate?

I like traditional Jewish food.  I like the way it forms such a strong part of our culture.  I read from a prayer book written in letters that are meaningless to you.  Yiddish words frequently drop into my conversations – words that you probably don’t understand.  Should I do more to assimilate?

I would be offended if you walked into my place of worship and ate pork – a threat I have seen directed at people of another faith in some of the images you “like”.  Should I get out of your country?

My children wear a school uniform that bears a Star of David and sometimes I wear one around my neck.  Occasionally I even leave synagogue forgetting I am still wearing my kippah (skullcap).  Would you like us to go back to where we came from?

I’m not saying don’t be angry.  I’m saying be specific in your anger.  You don’t really hate 1.6 billion people; that’s just not possible.  But I accept you might hate the handful of people who make the news.  You don’t actually hate them because of their religion.  But I understand you might hate them because of the way they use their religion to justify horrendous, unimaginable actsI’m not telling you not to hate.  But be specific in your hatred.

Yes, you may be fearful.  But every time you mindlessly pass on a generalised, all-encompassing warning to those who are different, you are including me in that, and you are increasing my fear and my feelings of alienation and otherness and unwantedness.  If you care enough to click “share”, then care enough to write your own words.  In a world that feels balanced precariously on the edge of terror, please don’t feed the hatred that will be all our undoing.  Think.  Think about what is making you angry and scared.  And then by all means say it.  But in your own words.

It Doesn’t Take Much

Birthday parties can be a minefield for children with autism, and for J they used to be very traumatic experiences. For someone with extremely heightened senses it is no wonder that the noises, colours, excitement, and chaos of a children’s birthday party can be enough to trigger a full-scale meltdown. J was scared of balloons because once a balloon burst and frightened him. J got anxious when people sang “happy birthday” because he knew they’d finish with a loud cheer that hurt his ears. J got stressed when he was in fancy dress because people would say “Oh look, you’re a pirate!” and he was not a pirate he was dressed as a pirate. J found children’s party entertainers confusing because they’re often loud and fast-paced, and they don’t explain the rules of a game slowly and explicitly. And J stood on the outskirts watching his peers charging around a hall, leaping on a bouncy castle, chasing each other back and forth, completely bewildered by the unspoken rules and nuances of children’s play. Rare and tentative attempts to join in were overlooked by the other children who were having way too much fun to stop and be patient with the slightly clumsy boy who said slightly strange things.

So mostly birthday parties went like this.

J would put on our only fancy dress costume that he was willing to wear. We’d arrive at the designated hall and take a deep breath before submerging ourselves into loudbrightscreamingexcitednoisynoisynoisysmilingcryingchaos. J would immediately take both my hands and put them over his ears, holding them tightly in place with his own hands, and would make screaming noises or repetitive chanting sounds to drown out the din around him. Meanwhile L would also be fighting for my attention because, to be honest, she wasn’t much of a fan of parties either, except for the goody bags we got at the end. And with J screaming as I briefly withdrew my hands from his ears, I’d find a spot to sit in, take off our coats, put him on my lap, replace my hands on his ears and wait it out. When the rest of the party danced I’d stand up with J and sway with him. When the rest of the party played musical statues I’d try to encourage J to freeze in position with me in a safe little corner. When the game of pass the parcel began I’d carry J to the circle and join in with him on my lap. At some point, some kids would start bashing each other with balloons and J would shriek in fear of the inevitable bang. And when the candles were lit J would begin to yell loudly throughout the singing of Happy Birthday, attracting strange looks from the other parents. I would constantly be looking at my watch, counting down the minutes until it wasn’t too rude for us to leave. And I would question my decision to keep bringing J to parties. But keep bringing him I did. Because I didn’t see how he could go through his life never going to a single party. Because I knew he would have to learn to cope in loud and overwhelming environments. Because I wanted to try to expose him to challenging situations in as safe and supportive a way as I could.

And gradually it got easier. Slowly, ever so slowly, parties became less painful for J and he began to join in with tiny bits. Because actually, children’s parties do have a set formula. Play. Bring in the cake. Sing Happy Birthday. Sit and eat. Play some more. Party bags. Go home. So J learned how to do parties. Bit by bit. And every year I made a party for him and L on their birthday, though of course I worked hard to try to make it a party that would suit them and that they would enjoy. He usually enjoyed bits of them. When he couldn’t cope with any more he would literally shut down and go to sleep. And alongside all of this J started nursery and then more recently school, and his play skills and social skills began to develop. The children in his class got to know him better, and to understand his ways. Some got frustrated with him. But others were wonderfully accepting, patient and thoughtful, and it is through these children that J has begun to truly and fully enjoy the experience of being at a party.

It is only in very recent months that I have seen, with sheer delight, J forming his first true friendships. There is a group of children in his class, mostly girls, who love spending time with him. They think he is funny, and he in turn loves to make them laugh. They hug him. They have deep and meaningful conversations with him. And more than that, even at four and five years old it is clear to see that they understand and accept some of J’s difficulties and have taken it upon themselves to support and help him. The way friends do.

Last week J and L turned 5 and they had a birthday party. Throughout the afternoon I and my parents held back the happy tears as we watched J joining in with the games, dancing with the others, roaring with laughter, winning prizes, fully interacting with the other children, and genuinely having a wonderful time. Partly I think this was down to my years of perseverance, doggedly dragging J and L to party after party. Partly this was undoubtedly down to finding a wonderful entertainer who made small but significant changes to accommodate J’s needs. He turned down the volume on his PA system. He made a game out of singing of Happy Birthday very verrrrry quietly (which one mother later commented was actually very moving and emotional to watch), and finishing the song with “yippee” instead of “hooray”. He was careful to explain each new game and activity clearly, and when he called J to the front of the party to speak into the microphone he didn’t rush him. And as well as plenty of exciting, high-energy games, he also provided lots of quieter, more controlled activities which J really enjoyed. Our face painter was equally lovely, as towards the end of the party J was starting to flag and zone out a little, and she asked whether he wanted to paint her as he hadn’t wanted to be painted himself. He spent a happy 20 minutes quietly absorbed in covering her with technicolour stripes, which was the perfect time-out that he needed from the excitement of the party.

Image Image

The final part of the jigsaw was J’s friends – the first birthday he has had with real friends rather than just children he knows. It was lovely to see the way his classmates ran up to him and L when they arrived, and equally how he went to the door to greet them all. It was beautiful and heartwarming to see one of the girls instinctively explaining to him that the entertainer wanted J to go up to the front, and for her then to pat the floor next to her indicating that J should sit back down afterwards. It was incredibly sweet to see another girl take his hand and dance him around in circles when the music started. I get the feeling that some of his classmates understand he is slightly different and some haven’t realized – but that it doesn’t matter either way. He is simply accepted.



I belong to a lovely, supportive group on Facebook for parents of special needs children, and I shared with them a photo of J sitting next to his best friend smiling happily as he watched the entertainer. I hoped like-minded parents would share in my delight at how far J has come from the screaming meltdowns that parties would trigger. The parents’ responses were shockingly heartbreaking. “This gives me so much hope that I’ll one day perhaps even be able to invite other children to my son’s birthdays..” said one Mum. Another replied: “That post cheered me up, as unfortunately NO-ONE came to my son’s party!” And so it continued. “We rarely get invited to parties these days”. And maybe saddest of all: “It is X’s birthday tomorrow and he really wanted to have a party but i knew that we would get the usual excuse to why people couldn’t come so i talked him out of it and it is breaking my heart.”

I felt close to tears. No matter what special needs a child has or how extreme their differences, surely every child should have the right to have a party to celebrate their birthday each year – if that is what they want? I remember the parties from my own childhood. The excitement I would feel in the planning: in choosing my birthday cake, in picking the decorations and the fancy dress theme, in feeling like the most important person in the world for a few hours. Children with special needs are still children. The special needs should be secondary to the magic and wonder of childhood.

So what is the difference? Why does J have friends who wanted to celebrate his birthday with him despite his autism, whilst other children cannot muster enough classmates for a party? Partly of course it is because J’s form of autism means he is still able to communicate well, albeit in his own unique way. He is likeable, funny, cheeky … whilst children with more severe or different forms of special needs might be harder for their peers to get to know and identify with. They might display behaviours that are more disconcerting for others and harder to understand. BUT. But. There must still be a way.

It must surely lie with the parents. The parents of all the other children who come home with an invitation in their bag. Picture the scene. Mum pulls out the invitation. “Oh look darling, you’ve been invited to J’s party”. “I don’t want to go Mum. J is weird. He makes strange noises. No-one likes him”. “Oh OK then. I’ll let J’s Mum know we can’t make it”. It probably happens. More often than we’d like to imagine. But there is another possibility. Just imagine if every parent did it this way instead …

Child doesn’t want to go to J’s party. After all, he’s weird and makes strange noises. But Mum and child have a long chat. Mum helps child understand more about what it means to have special needs, and why J might make the noises. Mum helps child to see that despite J’s outward “weirdness”, inside he is just the same. Mum encourages child to imagine how it would feel if no-one came to his party. Mum teaches empathy and kindness. Mum teaches that one of the most wonderful and selfless acts of kindness is to do something we don’t want to in the pursuit of making someone else happy. Mum phones child’s friends’ parents and discusses the situation. They consider how it must feel for J’s mum to want to make her son feel special on his birthday, just as they all would for their own children. Parents jointly resolve to practice kindness and love, to teach their children by example. Not to force them to go to J’s party, but to encourage them to make kind, generous, loving choices. And for children to go to J’s party knowing he has needs that are greater than their own, and recognizing what a special thing they have done. And surprising themselves by having a brilliant time at a party that has probably been more meticulously planned, resourced and facilitated than any they have attended before.

Yes, I realise that J’s special needs are probably easier for other children to process and accept than those of some other children. But I also believe there are one or two children in his class whose parents have taught them to be kind and helpful, whose parents have explained that J has additional needs, whose parents have asked them to be a little patient with him. And that those children have then led others by example.

There has been a very recent media frenzy around a boy in America. With his 11th birthday approaching his Mum asked whether he wanted a party and was devastated when he replied there was no point as he has no friends. The boy has disabilities which make social skills difficult for him and consequently he felt ostracized by his peers. Desperate to do something for her beloved boy, the Mum set up a Facebook page where her family and friends could leave birthday messages for her son so he could feel he did have friends after all. The response was overwhelming for the family – at the last count the page has 2.2 million “likes”, countless messages of support, and they have received thousands of birthday cards and gifts in the post. This boy’s story, rightly, touched the hearts of so many who felt they wanted to make some gesture to show solidarity with this loving mother and her son.

What those outside of the special needs community don’t understand, however, is how common this story is. And whilst it is kind and thoughtful to leave a message on a Facebook page, there is a much bigger thing that can be done. Just imagine if each and every one of those 2.2 million people committed to teaching their children, their parents, their colleagues, their friends, what a difference they can make through real acts of kindness to those who are different. Engaging in conversation with those who seem a little odd or different. Asking if they can do anything to help. Going to their parties. It really doesn’t take much. But it does take all of us.

Easing The Pain

It’s been a long time since I last wrote a post.  The truth is that I’ve had a rough time over the last few months, both emotionally and in terms of my physical health.  For a while this blog felt like a pressure rather than the outlet it had come to provide for me – and whilst I have had plenty of ideas and inspiration for posts, I came to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the idea of writing and so I stopped.

However, one thing has remained.  I have spoken at some length in this blog about my unhappy marriage and my decision to leave it, and one of my posts on this topic was featured on the NetMums website ( generating 1000s of extra hits for my blog.  And what remains is this – the huge numbers of women, both friends and strangers, who contact me to tell me they too are in unhappy marriages.  Many say they wish they could find the courage to leave, and many others tell me they have made the decision to end their relationships.  Most of the women who contact me just want to tell someone what is happening in their lives and their heads, and I tell them that I’m happy to listen but am in no way qualified to give advice.

But the most common concern for these women is the effect the separation will have on their children.  They want to know how to explain what is happening, and how to support their children through the early days.  And this is an area where maybe I feel I can be of use.  I am not a professional – I certainly am not qualified in child psychology, and there are probably dozens of “experts” whose advice is available on the internet and in books.  However I am a mother who has supported her own children through a marriage breakdown.  And I did find some specific ideas and techniques that I think could be of use to other parents looking to minimise their children’s pain and help them to make sense of their feelings. 

And so that is the purpose of this post.  To write down the things I and my children found useful when, nearly 2 years ago, I told them their father was leaving – in the hope that some of it will work for others.  If you have any other suggestions for ways to support children through their parents’ separation, please do comment below so others can benefit from our shared experience.

1. Your children aren’t stupid

The chances are your children have been just as unhappy as you have.  Whether they have been living in a house of anger and arguments, or whether they have been picking up on less obvious tension and wondering whether they need to decide on their own allegiances, you can be sure they have not been oblivious – even if they are very young.  My twins were barely 3 when I ended my marriage, yet L’s immediate reaction when I told her was to say “Good, now I don’t have to listen to Daddy shouting at you any more”

 2. Don’t try to make everything better

When our children are upset our automatic response is to try to fix it.  It feels natural to say “Don’t be sad!” or “Please don’t cry!” as we wipe away their tears.  But I realised that this is telling them the sadness they feel is not allowed.  Everything seemed to change for L when I simply said “It’s OK to feel sad about this.  It’s a very sad thing that’s happening.  It makes Mummy feel sad too.  Would you like a cuddle?”

3. Crying can help

It seemed to really resonate with L when I said: “It’s OK if you want to have a cry.  Tears can wash away the sadness”.  By suggesting the idea that crying could make her feel a bit better, it appeared to actually have that effect on her.

4. Use a good book

There are lots of books tackling the way a relationship break-down can affect a child, and I asked around for recommendations.  One friend suggested “It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear” by Vicki Lansky, and I’m so glad she did.  It’s a great book for young children, and deals simply with the feelings Koko bear experiences when Koko’s parents separate.  Halfway through the book there is a very useful page of questions to discuss with your child which can help them to talk about how Koko is feeling and, by extension, how they feel too.  My suggestions in points 5 and 6 below were ideas that I developed from the Koko Bear book.

5. Show them you’ll always fit together

Using an idea from Lansky’s book, I told my children that when Mummy and Daddy got married we fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw.  However as time went by our pieces stopped fitting so well and that’s why we didn’t want to be married any more.  However the good news, I said, was that I would always be a perfect fit with both of them.  I demonstrated this by each of us spreading the fingers of one hand and slotting them together like the joining of two puzzle pieces.  In the early days of our separation, both J and L would often, and at random moments, ask me to check we still fit, and derived great comfort from seeing our fingers intertwine.  It was a solid and physical way to reassure them that no matter what happened between me and their Daddy, they and I belonged together forever.

6. Have regular feelings-checks

Again, an idea I adapted from Lansky’s book was this way of showing that whilst we felt low and tearful in the early days, it wouldn’t always feel like that.  I said “today we feel very sad, but next week we’ll feel a tiny bit less sad, and the week after that we’ll feel even less sad.  Every week that goes by will be less sad than the week before, and one day we won’t feel sad at all”.  Then each week, on the same day, we discussed the fact that we didn’t feel quite as sad as we had the week before.  It seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – I told them they’d feel a bit better next week, and lo and behold, that was indeed their experience.

7. Let them talk about it … but not wallow in it

L quickly caught on to the fact that saying she felt sad about Daddy meant instant cuddles and attention, and I had to learn to differentiate between the times she was clearly feeling genuinely low, and the times she was milking it a little.  On these occasions I’d briefly remind her that she was feeling better than she had the previous week and then suggest a fun activity for us to do together.  That meant she was still getting the Mummy-time she was clearly craving, but in a positive and happy way.  The weekly feelings-checks meant there would always be a scheduled time to talk about how we felt – so J and L never felt I was dismissing them or trivialising their feelings … and of course when I knew she was genuinely experiencing a low-day I supported and comforted her as much as I possibly could.

8. Get family and friends using the same techniques

All of these ideas are well and good, but are of limited effect if they are not used consistently by the people who have significant input into your child’s life.  In the early days of separation there was a day when the children were visiting my ex parents-in-law.  L told them she was feeling sad only to be told not to be silly, and was then subjected to a crazy and overwhelming display of hand-clapping, “comedy” dancing and loud singing as a way of “cheering her up”.  I had asked their grandparents to respond instead with “We know you’re sad darling, it’s OK to feel sad about this” but unfortunately stubbornness and ignorance prevailed from that side of their family.  My parents, in contrast, provided a calm and loving environment in which their grandchildren could safely express their grief and worries.  The difference in J and L’s emotional state when returning home from the different sets of grandparents spoke volumes.

9. Tell their school

The end of your marriage is a deeply personal and emotive experience, and the last thing you may want to do is share this information with a near-stranger when it is still new and raw for you.  But your children cannot switch their feelings on and off, and cannot be expected to only express their sadness, worry and frustration at home.  The support of the school will be invaluable to your child during the early days, and you can also ask their teacher to keep an eye on them and let you know how they are when you cannot be there to watch them yourself.

10. Accept that this will affect your children forever

J and L are immeasurably happier now we are a family of three instead of four.  They very rarely even mention their father, and live a contented, safe and fulfilling life with me.  They barely remember a time he lived with us – this is the only life they really know.   And yet, over 18 months post-separation, L suddenly grew tearful one day and asked why all the other dads are nicer than hers.  The following month J asked apropos of nothing why Daddy used to shout at Mummy.  The pain of what he did to our family remains with them and probably always will.  And so I have learned that part of my role as single mother is to continue to support my children through their journey of understanding and acceptance, and for them to always feel safe and validated in expressing their emotions.

The Right To Happiness

A little over a year ago I told my family that I had ended my marriage, and they were shocked.  They hadn’t seen it coming, and wanted to hug me, console me and counsel me.  And when I said to them “I’m alright.  Really, I’m alright” they didn’t believe me.  They thought I was putting on a brave face and trying to be strong.

The irony was that I really was alright, as opposed to the preceding years when I had put on a brave face every single day.  My family never had a clue.

I was happy for most of the first year of my marriage, living in ignorance of what was happening when I was looking the other way.  The remaining three years of my time living with my husband grew increasingly miserable and oppressive, and during our final year together I cried almost every day.  And yet I never gave my family the smallest clue as to my misery.  It was usual for the two of us to have a big row before going to an event or family gathering, and yet I would walk in with a smile on my face, presenting the picture I felt the world needed to see. 

On one occasion my husband could not find the shoes he had been planning to wear to a formal family gathering and began shouting at me to find them as he started feverishly hurling items out of the wardrobe and from under the bed.  Unable to find the pair he wanted, I hunted down every other shoe he owned, and presented them to him in turn, trying to placate him, to convince him he would still look fine.  He grew angrier and angrier with me for not knowing where the desired shoes were, until eventually he screamed that he would not be coming with me.  I cried and begged him to come.  This was an important family occasion.  I wanted my husband by my side.  I did not want to go alone.  I sobbed and sobbed, and then once he was satisfied I had been punished enough for not knowing the location of the shoes, he calmed immediately and said he would come.  Because of the time spent dealing with the shoe crisis, I was left with no time to do my hair and make-up, and I left the house feeling frumpy and unattractive, instead of looking good, the way I had planned.  In the car on the way there I bit my lip and said nothing, trying to fight back the tears so that I would not arrive red-eyed and puffy-faced.  My husband was oblivious, trying to engage me in light-hearted chit-chat.  When I was short and quiet in my answers he grew angry with me for my mood, which led to me shouting back at him.  We yelled at each other through the whole journey.  I swore at him and told him I hated him, and he responded with a wounded expression, pleading with me not to say that.  As we arrived at the family event I pulled down the car mirror to check whether it was obvious I had been crying.  It wasn’t.  I left the car, slamming the door behind me, and walked briskly to the entrance, not waiting for my husband to catch up.  As we entered I smiled.  A big, broad smile that told everyone I was the happiest one of all to be there, and that all was well in my world.  My husband and I exchanged playful banter.  To others this might have even seemed flirty.  For us, the undertones were there, and were painfully clear.  I was deeply, horrifically sad and miserable.  But I didn’t think it was right to let my family know.

This example is one of many.  Many.  It’s actually quite a tame one compared to others.  The point of recounting this story, though, is not to garner sympathy for the way I was treated.  It is because I still sometimes wonder why I did not tell the people I love most what I was dealing with.  Yes, there are things that happened in my marriage that I felt I had no choice but to keep secret – things so horrific that, had my family known then, there could have been absolutely no future for the marriage that I wanted to try to save.  But the shoe incident.  Why did I feel the need to present the big fake smile?  Why didn’t I quietly tell a couple of people that we’d had a big row and that I was feeling shitty?

The reason I’m mulling this over now, so long after the event, and so long after my spate of blog posts thinking about my marriage, is because of something that happened yesterday.  J was looking through my wedding photo book.  I have considered putting the book away many times.  Hell, I’ve considered burning the book.  But J and L like to look at it.  They like to see Mummy looking beautiful, and the photos of their family.  And it is part of their history.  I want them to know that I brought them into the world for the right reasons.  That I believed I was bringing them into a place of love and happiness and security.  So I keep the book.

After J had finished, I picked up the book and started flicking through.  And then I saw something I’d never noticed before.  Two photos next to each other on a page, one after the other, telling a clear story.

The first picture shows my husband and I walking along a corridor towards the marquee, where all the guests at our wedding reception were waiting to greet the bride and groom.  Our heads are bowed together as we walk and it looks as though we are in deep conversation.  However, it is actually a photo of our first argument as man and wife.  We were furious with each other over something that had just happened, to the point that the toastmaster and caterer were trying to intervene, pleading with us not to argue on our wedding day.

Cut to the next photo, taken no more than a minute after the first.  We have just walked into the marquee, our guests on their feet applauding us.  We are holding hands and I am smiling.

As I looked at the second photo the emotions came flooding back to me.  Trying to subdue the feelings of anger and sadness, and push them to the back of my mind.  Knowing I had to show the world I was happy.  And from that moment on, that is the way it was.

Over the years that followed I didn’t want my family to know how unhappy I was.  I didn’t want them to worry.  I didn’t want their sympathy.  I didn’t want to have to answer their questions, or face up to a reality I was trying to ignore.  I didn’t want to end up feeling forced into defending my husband in the face of their anger.  So it became part of who I was and what I did.  I dealt with the truth about my relationship at home.  Then I put on my mask and dealt with the world.  As our marriage hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion I think the cracks sometimes started to show.  But still, my family was shocked when they heard we had split up.

All except for two people.  My children.  When they were babies I hated arguing in front of them but consoled myself with the fact that they were too little to understand.  But they were three years old when we separated, and almost without me realising it they had gone from understanding nothing to taking it all in.  The day I told my husband not to come home there were three “final straw” moments.  One of them was an argument that took place that morning.  As was usual he had, completely apropos of nothing, lost his temper with me to the point where I was sitting on the bed sobbing as he stood in the doorway shouting loudly and aggressively.  This was nothing new.  What was new was this.  J had his hands over his ears and was repeating: “Don’t shout, don’t shout, don’t shout, don’t shout”.  And L was stroking my leg, looking up at me saying “Don’t cry Mummy.  Please don’t cry”.  And in that moment I stepped out of myself and saw my family.  My sad, angry, fucked-up family.  And I knew enough was enough.  That was the last morning my husband ever woke up in the family home.  And when I told my children that Daddy was going to live with Grandma and Grandpa, L replied “Good.  Now I don’t have to hear Daddy shouting at you any more”.

But today I was talking to a friend and discussing the notion of “staying together for the sake of the children”.  And I have to admit that this is the main reason I didn’t end my marriage earlier.  Despite everything we were living with, there was still that deep, ingrained belief that I needed to keep my family together, and that I had to do what I could to save our family before I took the last resort of splitting it up.  It took an extreme situation for me to realise how utterly flawed it was for me to stay with my husband for my children’s sake.  Now of course, it is obvious to me that in relationships where children are submitted to watching and hearing their parents argue, and where they are living in an environment of anger and sadness, it is always in the children’s best interests for their parents to live separately.

But not all marriages end like mine.  As a teenager I had a friend whose parents separated when we were 17.  They explained that they had fallen out of love some ten years previously but had decided to stay married in order to raise their children together.  Now that my friend and her sister were old enough to be less dependent on them her parents finally felt free to separate and live the lives they wanted to.  But my friend hadn’t asked them to give up ten years of their lives for her.  And she had to live with the guilt of knowing her parents had lived half-lives, putting their own happiness on hold “for the sake of the children”.

And so I’ve been thinking about a parent’s right to happiness.  Because the received wisdom is that, as soon as you become a parent, your own happiness; your dreams, desires, passions, ambitions; must immediately cease to have any importance in comparison to those of your offspring.  We are told that parenting is about sacrifice.  About giving up the things you want so that your children can have the best of everything.

It goes without saying (and yet I’m going to say it anyway) that I know a lot of parents and we would all give our children everything we have and want if it was necessary.  But – and here’s the thing – most of the time it’s not necessary.  Of course there are families (way too many families) in which parents really do have to go without in order for their children’s most basic needs to be met.  But for the rest of us – the lucky ones – our children can be happy and safe and loved and fulfilled and challenged and excited … and so can we.

So this is where I think I’m going to get just the tiniest bit controversial.  Because I think it’s OK for a parent to simply say “I want to end my marriage because I deserve to be happier than this”.  Not because they are abuse-victims, or affair-victims, or any other kind of victims.  Just because they know we only have one shot at life, and that this life is not the best, happiest life they could be living.

And their children might find the period of breaking up sad and difficult, but like the vast majority of children from divorced families, they will adapt.  And their new reality will be fine.  They can still be happy.  But now so can their parents.  Because let’s face it.  I certainly wouldn’t look back and wish things in my childhood had been different, if I thought it would bring my parents misery.

Life now, as a single Mum, is hard.  It’s bloody hard.  But compared to my life as a married  Mum, it’s bliss.  And my children are happy, not only because they are in a calm, stable, loving environment, but because I am (mostly) happy.  And the best thing is that the “brave face” mask is banished forever.  At last, when I am smiling (which is most of the time) it is a real smile.  And when I am miserable, I tell people I am miserable.  Because being honest with myself and everyone around me is what has, at last, brought me true happiness.

When I Grow Up I Want To Be Like My Children

About six months ago, L started to notice that her twin brother J was “different”. She asked why he sometimes ignored her when she was talking to him. She asked why he always needed to repeat his daily scripts as we passed certain points when we were out in the car. She asked why he clamped his hands over his ears and shouted during tannoy announcements in supermarkets. She asked why it would sometimes take J a few minutes to answer a simple question; why he could not cope with making choices; why he would lay in bed screaming in the early hours of the morning; why he was obsessed with meerkats. She asked a lot.

At the same time J listened to L’s questions. Her enquiries meant that his difference, his “strangeness” was being pointed out to him. And whilst he made no comment I could see he was absorbing L’s questions. I saw the anxiety and confusion flicker across his face as L reeled off the ways in which he failed to behave like “normal” preschoolers. And I knew that my reply: “Because that’s just what J likes to do!” wouldn’t cut it for long.

So that’s when I first considered the idea of introducing the term “autism” to my 3-year-olds.

I initially broached the subject by gently introducing the concept of “disabilty” to them. L had only recently noticed that one of the presenters on CBeebies is missing the lower half of one arm. We had discussed some of the things she might find difficult and how others might be able to help, both practically (offering to tie her shoelaces) and emotionally (not saying mean things to her). And suddenly L’s world changed. Difference was all around her. She was, inevitably, full of questions. Why did that lady need to sit in a chair with wheels? Why did that man sound funny when he talked? Why did that big boy keep hitting himself on the head? Why did those people need sticks to walk? She very quickly grasped the idea that sometimes there will be part of someone’s body that doesn’t quite work the way it should, or work like everyone else’s. She understood that it might make life a little harder for that person, and that we should all do what we can to be kind and helpful to each other.

We talked about the infusions I do each week and she grew to understand that part of Mummy’s body doesn’t work like everyone else’s either – but that you can’t see it. L learned what an immune system is, and shouted angrily at her “fighters” to “make those germs scram” when she caught a cold. And finally we talked about J. I explained that whilst J’s body works fine (I’ll save the explanation of hypermobility for another day!), he sometimes thinks and feels differently to others. We revisted all of L’s “whys” and she started to put the puzzle together. J shouts in the supermarket because he hears everything really loudly and it hurts his ears. J sometimes ignores her because he can only think about one thing at a time. J screams in his bed because his brain isn’t very good at going to sleep. And gradually I introduced the word “autism”. At first it was hard to explain such an intangible condition. But then L would start to ask “Did J do xxx because he is autism?” (I still can’t get her to say he has autism!). Sometimes I would reply “Yes, I think J probably did xxx because he has got autism”. And sometimes I would reply “No, I think J did xxx just because that is what J likes to do”. Again, J listened and absorbed. And as autism by its very nature likes facts and answers, rather than intangible questions, J seemed at peace with the answers that were emerging.

And of course, we talked again and again about how much we love J, and how the things that make him different also make him very, very special. I knew I had overdone the “J’s autism makes him special” when L tearfully insisted that she is “a little bit autism” too. I didn’t protest too hard. We’re probably all a little bit autism after all.

And as time has gone on, “autism” has become just another word in J and L’s ever-increasing and hugely impressive vocabularies. It is simply another descriptive term. L has got blue eyes and curly hair, is very little, and loves to sing and make pictures. J has a wicked laugh and autism, is great at reading, and loves shapes and tickles. Sometimes J will refer to his autism and a little more often L does. Occasionally I have found it very useful in explaining J’s own behaviour to him, when he seems confused by his physical and emotional responses to different stimuli. But mostly no-one in our house mentions autism because no-one needs to.

I did not take the decision lightly to tell my children at such a young age that J has autism. After I had done it I worried constantly about whether it had been the right thing to do. Their response reassured me to a certain degree. But it was a conversation we had today that finally left me in no doubt that I had done the right thing.

A little boy, B, has recently joined J and L’s class in nursery. B has autism. I know very little about him, but it is clear that he is not at the same point of the spectrum as J. He is non-verbal and it seems that his autism is notably more severe than J’s. In the car on the way home from nursery today J suddenly said “Let’s talk about B!” I asked what he wanted to tell me about B and he said B had kept opening the classroom door today. I remarked that this was funny – B likes opening doors and J likes closing them. J said “Yes, B is like me!” A split second later came L’s inevitable question: “Is B autism?” “Yes” I replied, “I believe B has got autism”. “Oh!” said L. “That’s why he doesn’t talk!” Bearing in mind J’s verbal communication skills are excellent I was surprised she had made this connection. L went on to explain all the autistic traits B displays during an afternoon at nursery. I have to say her diagnostic observations are impressive.

Then L told me B had pinched her today. She said it hurt. I thought about my response before saying that I didn’t think B meant to hurt her or be naughty, but he still needed to learn that he mustn’t pinch people so L must tell the teacher if it happens again. Then L said something that brought tears to my eyes. I have reproduced her words as faithfully as my memory allows:

“Poor B” she said. “Maybe he wanted to be my friend but didn’t know how to tell me. I don’t mind that he pinched me. He probably knew that I would be kind to him because I know all about autism. If he does it again I will say ‘No B, pinching makes me sad. Do you want to play instead?’ Do you think that will make him happy Mummy? It must be very upsetting to not be able to talk or to tell people what you want. Maybe we should have a play date with him”.

Then J, who had been quiet for some time, added: “B has got autism like me. I will be his friend”.

If my children go on to climb Everest and win Nobel prizes, I can’t imagine ever being prouder of them than I was in that moment. At four years old they have openly understood and accepted difference and, through their own volition, considered ways to embrace it. They have shown empathy, compassion and kindness. The thought that B may grow up remembering the two children who offered to be his friend rather than shying away from him fills me with joy.

And I have learned an important lesson today. I have been so busy trying to change the world so that everyone is loving and accepting and understanding towards J, I forgot that he has it in him to be all of that for another. A year ago I could never have imagined being grateful for J’s autism. Now I am just starting to realise how many gifts it has given us. And the greatest of all is that it has made my children into the kind of people who wish to befriend a boy who might otherwise remain friendless. What parent could ever ask for more?


Can You Feel The Love Tonight?

What a difference a week makes. Last Friday I was excited that I would be taking my children to see their first West End show and thanking the gods of calamine lotion that L’s chicken pox had cleared up just in time for us to go. Fast forward a week and I’m now looking back at the past few days with amazement. So much has happened in such a short space of time that I think I need to reflect and take stock.

Over 6000 people have now read my post describing our trip to the autism-friendly performance of Lion King. I know some blogs have tens of thousands of hits a week, but for me 6000 in three days is A LOT. I have received literally hundreds of emails and messages from other people who have children or family members with autism, thanking me for my post and for raising awareness of the challenges we face. I have lost count of the number of people who told me my post made them cry. My post was re-blogged, tweeted and linked to more times than I know, including by Theatre Monkey who called it: “The Most Moving Theatre Blog Ever”. I have been asked by Disney’s PR company if they can use my post to promote next year’s performance, and they have circulated it amongst their journalist contacts. I have been thanked by various members of the Lion King crew for being so complimentary about their involvement (They’re thanking me! How ridiculous!) I’ve had phone calls with one of the stars of the show who is now my Facebook friend (I couldn’t be more excited or star-struck if it was George Clooney). I was invited to talk about our experience at the show on a national radio programme, which I did this morning. I have been contacted by the director of another London theatre as well as someone from a small local drama group, both of whom are planning to look into organising similar performances after reading my blog. And possibly most overwhelming of all has been the outpouring of love and encouragement from the hordes of friends and family who have been texting me and sending Facebook messages over the last few days. So please excuse the twee and slightly tenuous Lion King reference but … can I feel the love tonight? Hell yes!

It’s certainly been a whirlwind of a week, but I find myself asking – what now? How can I harness this incredible love and support and carry it forward, so that I can continue trying to make the world a better, more accepting and understanding place for J and children like him? I can’t help thinking back to our difficult experience in a large toy store and the negative and dismissive response I had from one reader, and wondering – is it enough? It is unrealistic in the extreme to think I can single-handedly wipe out all traces of prejudice and discrimination from our society. But I can’t help feeling I must be able to do more. This isn’t quite as selfless and altruistic as it sounds … and if I’m being completely honest I think one of my motivations here is fear. Fear of how the world will treat my precious J as he starts to grow up and find his way.

And so I find myself in uncharted territory … I am being pushy. I am doing everything I can think of to get more media exposure, so that I can reach the widest audience possible. Obviously if my write-up of last Sunday’s performance leads to more of the same then that will be great. More than great, it would be bloody fantastic. But I need more than that. I need people from outside of the autism community to understand WHY these performances are needed, and WHY children and adults with autism need to engage in behaviour that might be perceived by others as unusual or disruptive or naughty. And then to take that a step further, I want people to understand what they can do to help. I want them to know that it really doesn’t take much. Giving our children a little time to think and formulate a response after asking them a question. Giving parents a smile instead of a disapproving stare. Asking the parent with a tantruming child if they need help, rather than muttering about them behind their back. Recognising the unique way that so many autistic children see the world, and considering what we can learn from them. Looking for ways around their challenges and limitations, rather than writing them off.

So I will continue to push for more media coverage … but assuming I don’t become an international writing sensation on the back of this, I need a Plan B. And luckily I have one. I’m planning to utilise all this love that’s been flooding in all week. Because ultimately, the more people who read this blog and other accounts like it, the more we really will start to change the world one person at a time. Up until now I’ve only really ever written this blog for myself – as a cathartic way of dealing with some very difficult times in my life. But now that changes. For the first time I’m asking those of you reading this to share it with your friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends … because maybe my Lion King reference isn’t so twee or tenuous after all. I AM feeling the love, and I can’t help thinking it’s that very love that’s going change the world.

Hakuna Matata On A Sunday Afternoon

From the moment I heard there was to be a one-off autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, I knew we had to go. Musicals have been my greatest passion ever since I was a teenager, and even when I was pregnant with my twins I’d dream of sharing this joyous experience with my children. I would lay in the bath singing show tunes to my bump. In fact I went to see Wicked when I was about three weeks pregnant – before I was even aware that my little ones had been created.

Once J’s autism came to light, however, it seemed less likely that he would enjoy a West End show with me. J has hyper-sensitive hearing, can be overwhelmed by large crowds, and does not seem to grasp the need to be quiet in certain situations. So when I heard there was going to be a performance of Lion King aimed specifically at an autistic audience, it seemed too good to be true.

I asked my parents how they would feel about buying the tickets as the children’s birthday present, as the performance fell two weeks after their fourth birthday. Of course they said yes, so having bought our tickets for Row H of the stalls, I waited patiently.

When the tickets arrived, there was an accompanying letter inviting me to use the resources on the website prior to the performance. Clearly considerable time and effort had gone into producing the visual story which enabled me to prepare J for our visit. It meant he knew what he would see when he arrived, and how the show would start. And indeed, when the big day arrived and we had experienced the excitement of a Tube journey and a taxi ride, J was very excited to see the theatre, exactly as he had seen it on the laptop screen the day before.

But it wasn’t until we took our seats in the Lyceum Theatre that I started to realise quite how special an experience this was to be. I looked around as the 2000-seat auditorium began filling with a truly unique audience. All around me were children, teenagers and adults with varying degrees of autism. Many were flapping their hands and jumping up and down. Some were rocking back and forth ferociously in their chairs. Others were making unusual hand gestures, or clapping their hands over their ears. Many were wearing ear-defenders to block out the sounds around them. Some were spinning around in the aisles, others sat on the floor and refused to stand. And the noise level grew and grew, with the sound of people groaning, screeching, hooting and laughing. To the uninitiated this might have looked daunting, even frightening. But to us, the parents and families of people with autism, this was pure happiness. Unlike J, many people with autism are non-verbal. The best way they had to express their growing excitement was to make these strange-sounding noises. And for some, like J, the noise and the crowds were overwhelming. Some made their own noises to block out the sounds around them. But this was fine too. This was part of giving our children an experience many of them would never have otherwise been able to have. And then I realised – a large part of the increased noise level was due to the parents who had excitedly brought their children to this special event. A theatre visit usually involves the audience taking their seats quietly, rustling through their programmes as they wait patiently for the curtain to go up. Not so here. All around me I could hear people introducing themselves and their children, comparing experiences, empathising. We were amongst friends.

The show started 15 minutes late. The organisers probably underestimated how long it would take to seat a special-needs audience. In that time, J had insisted on sitting on my lap and fallen asleep. Like many, many children with autism, J is a very poor sleeper. He had been up since 2am. (Incidentally, like many, many autism parents, I am permanently exhausted. I had also been up since 2am!) But at last, two cast members in full costume took to the stage. The audience grew quieter: something was about to happen. And then the man in the lion costume spoke.

“My name is George” he said “and I play the part of Scar”. This was clever. This helped the audience differentiate between the actors and the characters. Good start. George went on to speak briefly about what an honour it was to be able to present this unique performance to us. And he meant it. The emotion in his voice was clear. The audience applauded loudly. This made those with hyper-sensitive hearing groan louder. He introduced the woman standing beside him, who plays Rafiki, and explained that she would be singing the first song in the show. Again, a thoughtful measure to help prepare the audience for what would come. “Much too often” said George meaningfully “autism has to adapt to society. It’s about time a little bit of society adapted to autism!” The audience erupted. I burst into tears. The woman next to me handed me a tissue, as she also stifled a sob. They understood. All these people around me – the families, the cast and crew, the staff of the theatre and the National Autistic Society and Disney who were lining the auditorium ready to help: all of them understood.

And then the show began. I didn’t want J to miss the exciting start, as the huge jungle animals walked right past us. “Wake up J!” I said. “Look darling! Look at the elephant!” He opened his eyes blearily, and then rubbed them. He stared in open-mouthed wonderment at what he was seeing and whispered to me: “Mum! I see a giraffe!”

I cannot imagine the cast have ever performed to an audience like it. At times the noise in the auditorium made it difficult to hear what was happening on stage. But at no point was anyone shushed. No-one was on the receiving end of dirty looks, whispered comments about controlling our children, tutting and head-shaking. It was all OK. In front of me a teenage boy was rocking so hard in his chair that his mother tried to stop him and turned to apologise to the woman behind her. “Please don’t” said the woman. “He’s absolutely fine”. Each time Scar, the baddie, appeared on stage, a young man wearing ear defenders leapt into his father’s lap and buried his face in his neck. Behind me another teenage boy was completely overwhelmed. He stood up waving and flapping his arms violently. “Please sit Paul!” his mother pleaded. “Please just try!” In the end his father took him out of the auditorium, where they went instead to the thoughtfully planned relaxation area, full of large bean bags and tactile, sensory toys. Next to Paul’s mother, another boy was so lost in the wonder of the African drumming that he sat with his eyes closed, drumming his own beat loudly and enthusiastically on his thighs. Two rows in front of me a girl put her coat over her head as the show started. She left it there for the entire performance and no-one from her family asked her to remove it. Every time the audience applauded at the end of a song or scene, J clapped his hands over his ears and shouted until the applause subsided. He then thought of something funny his cousin had done last month and repeated what she had said again and again, very loudly, for about 20 minutes.

When the song Hakuna Matata started J recognised it and tried to sing along. The words of the song seemed so poignant at that moment. “It means no worries for the rest of your days.” Sadly I realised, the opposite would be true for so many of the young people sitting around me. The challenges caused by their autism will likely mean the rest of their days will be fraught with worries. But, for that moment at least, their worries were suspended. Hakuna Matata for a few hours.

When the curtain fell for the interval I needed to change J’s nappy. We went to the relaxation area where I sat on a bean bag to do it. No-one batted an eyelid. Every parent I passed wanted to engage me in conversation – about the show, about our children, about autism. I remarked how wonderful it was to allow J to behave exactly as he needed to, without fear of being judged as a bad parent. Everyone I spoke to felt the same.

The second half passed with as much noise and excitement as the first. Paul finally returned to his seat behind me, where his mother kissed him exhuberantly saying “Thank you Paul! Thank you for coming back! See how beautiful it is!” The drumming boy laughed loudly and hysterically at Timon and Pumbaa. J screeched with laughter when, on the stage, Zazu walked into the wall. “Zazu went crash!” he shouted joyfully. I wondered at times whether the cast had fully realised what they were letting themselves in for. It must have been the first time in their acting careers that they had to fight to make themselves heard. I hoped they could feel how enraptured we were by the beauty of their singing and the breathtaking staging.

When the final curtain call came, I leapt to my feet with J in my arms. I whooped and cheered for all I was worth. J hated this and screamed at me to be quiet, but I couldn’t. I had to let all those responsible for this incredible production know just how grateful I was and how much it had meant to me. As the house lights went up and we put our coats on, J started sobbing. “I don’t want to leave Lion King!” he pleaded. “I want to stay at Lion King!” He was placated by the Lion King flag handed to him by a smiling staff member on the way out, which is now taped proudly to his bedroom wall.

I don’t know whether the cast and crew of Sunday’s performance realise quite what an important thing they did. This went way beyond allowing people with autism to experience a trip to the theatre. What this performance did was to make us normal. For a few hours, our children and family members were free to be themselves and to behave however they needed to, without fear of judgement or retribution. For a few hours, we did not feel the need to apologise for our own children. For a few hours, no-one felt they had to explain anything. For a few hours we had no worries. Hakuna Matata.



My X Factor Journey

I am officially an X Factor reject.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.  Let me tell you why.

Many months ago I entered the famous TV talent show by way of a video audition and then promptly forgot about it.  Then on Friday an email arrived in my inbox saying:

“Congratulations!  You are through to the next round of the X Factor 2013 auditions.  You are one step closer to achieving your dream”.

The email went on to give details of my second round audition, which was to be held the following Monday at 7am.  After miraculously sorting out the most complicated child-care arrangements known to humankind, and a weekend of outfit-choosing and song-singing, I duly arrived at the London venue yesterday at 6.55am.  I stood amongst hundreds of other nervous hopefuls, queueing in the cold for two hours.  And when I say cold, I mean that I couldn’t walk properly having lost all sensation in my toes.  Eventually I reached the front of the queue and was asked to read two pages of small print before signing a form.  My fingers were so cold I couldn’t hold the pen, so I scribbled a barely-legible mark without reading the text, knowing full well that it was simply asking me to sign my life away to the money-making machine that is X Factor.  At last we were shepherded indoors – into a space closely resembling an aircraft hangar.  A few auditionees made a grab for the handful of available chairs, but were given short shrift by the production crew who informed them the chairs were only for those in real need – the concrete floor was evidently good enough for the likes of us.  After a further hour of waiting (and with a derriere now as cold as my toes) my name was finally called, and I joined a group of others as we were led to our fate.  A skinny blonde girl (there were lots of those) started jabbering to me. “Oh fuck!  Oh fuck!  Shitting fuck!  I’m shitting myself!  Are you shitting yourself?  I’m like, totally shitting myself!”  I was nervous but not shitting myself.  Didn’t seem right to say so though.  “Yeah” I replied.  “I’m shitting myself too”.  She gave my hand a squeeze.  “Don’t worry babe” she reassured me.  “You’ll be fucking brilliant”.  I asserted that she, too, would be fucking amazing.  Her sparkling beam confirmed that this was the correct response.

We were led down a narrow corridor and told to wait outside door 11.  We sank to the floor again, grateful for the carpet.  The corridor was buzzing with people humming their first lines repeatedly under their breath; strumming guitars; reapplying their make-up; and my skinny blonde friend screeching “Has anyone got a pen?!  I need to write my words on my hand!  I’m gonna forget my fucking words!” Every few minutes someone would appear from an audition room.  Some, jubilantly clutching the red slip of paper that meant they were through to round 3, skipped back down the corridor shouting “Good luck guys!” over their shoulder.  The rest came out red-faced and downcast, trying to slip away unnoticed.  One boy muttered “Not enough confidence?  They don’t even bloody know me” as he stomped past us.

It was impossible not to get caught up in this frenzy of nerves and excitement and adrenalin, and as the queue in front of me gradually diminished I felt the butterflies in my stomach growing.  My breathing started quickening, my hands trembling.  My mouth grew dry.  I felt certain I would go blank when it was my turn to audition, so started quietly singing my first line over and over.  I sipped water.  I sprayed Rescue Remedy on my tongue.  I wondered what the hell I was doing there.

Finally the door opened and a crew member said “Your turn.  Just stand on the X”.  I walked into a room that was much larger than I had been expecting.  I beamed at the two producers sitting behind the table, with a huge floor-to-ceiling window behind them making it difficult to see them them clearly.  I took my place on the hallowed red-and-black cross on the floor in the centre of the room.  I confirmed my name with as much excitement as I could muster.  “And what do you do?” asked the man.  “Well up until a year ago I was a secondary school teacher.  I taught Sex Education to teenagers in London!  It was brilliant!” I wittered.  I decided they wouldn’t be as interested in the Human Rights modules I had taught, or the Government and Politics.  Sex Education would surely make better TV. “Really?” asked the woman.  “So lots of putting condoms on bananas then?”  “Oh no!” I responded with more enthusiasm than a CBeebies presenter on ecstasy. “We don’t use bananas, we have blue demonstrators!  Ours was called Bob!”  The producers smiled at me.  They looked vaguely amused.  So far so good.  I went on to tell them that I’m now a single mum to four-year-old twins, and made some general chit-chat about how challenging yet rewarding that is.  Yadda yadda yadda.  “OK, well when you’re ready?” the man said.

This was it.  Time to show them what I was made of.  My hands were still shaking.  My throat felt dry.  I fixed my eyes on a point just behind the judges’ heads, assumed the correct posture to give my voice the best fighting chance, took a breath from deep in my stomach, and began to sing.  After three words I knew I was out.  My voice sounded weak and reedy.  I’d started singing way too low which meant there was no power behind the notes.  Quite frankly I sounded crap.  Before I could even hit the chorus the man raised his hand in a “stop” signal.  “Thanks” he said “but it’s going to be a no today.  The standard is very high”.  Translation: you sounded crap.  “I know that was rubbish” I said.  “I started singing too low.  That’s actually not what I usually sound like at all.  Can I do my second song?”  “Sorry” he replied.  “We’ve got a lot of people to see”.  Translation: you sounded so crap we just want to get you out of this room.  “OK” I said.  “Thanks for taking the time to see me”.  “Thanks for coming” came the reply.  And I left.

And so, like I say, I am officially an X Factor reject.  My friends commiserated with me and I said “It doesn’t matter!  I wasn’t expecting to get through anyway.  It was a good experience”.  And I meant all those thing.  It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.  And I really wasn’t expecting to get through.  But why do I feel it was a good experience?  Reading through my description of the day, it sounds hellish.  Yet I am pleased I went.  To understand why I am pleased I need to take a big step back.

Anyone who watches the series will be familiar with the concept of a contestant’s “journey”.  When they are voted off by the public and the celebrity judges, they hear the immortal words “Let’s take a look at your X Factor journey” before being shown a video montage of themselves during their months of involvement with the show – singing with their eyes shut tight; crossing their fingers with a tear sliding down their cheek; leaping joyfully into a judge’s arms; ecstatically hugging their fellow contestants – essentially a summary of all the key moments that had led them to this point of rejection, accompanied by an appropriately emotional soundtrack.  They go on to thankfully express all they have learned from the process, and describe how they have changed and grown as a person.  For them this journey began with their first audition.

My journey has, so far, taken me up to my X Factor audition.  And it has spanned years rather than months.  But it explains why I feel that my experience yesterday was overwhelmingly positive and even triumphant.  This has been the third consecutive year that my first video audition was deemed good enough to get me through to the second round.  Twice before I have received the congratulatory email, inviting me to the second round of auditions.  But both times I bottled it.  I found excuses not to go.  The thought of entering X Factor had been fun when sending in my video, but when faced with the reality of being judged and, in all likelihood, being told at some point that I wasn’t good enough – well, that was enough to convince me the whole idea was ridiculous and most certainly not for me.

But this is hardly surprising when I think about my circumstances.  I was in a very different place.  I was in an oppressive and abusive marriage, which left me permanently tearful and constantly feeling that I wasn’t good enough.  I lived on tenterhooks, forever fearful that the next sentence to come out of my mouth would be one that triggered anger and aggression and mean little mind games.  I exhausted myself trying to be the wife my husband wanted, but whatever I did, I could never please him.  No matter how hard I tried to be all he could want, I was never enough.  Unsurprisingly given the strain I was under at home and my fragile emotional state, my work began to suffer.  I started to make mistakes and miss deadlines.  And when I went to a manager to explain exactly what was happening in my marriage and how it was affecting my ability to work, this information was used to bully me, make me into a scapegoat, and eventually push me out of the career I had loved.

In hindsight it is obvious why, in previous years, I couldn’t face singing for X Factor producers.  It was because my husband and my employers had completely convinced me I wasn’t good enough.  I wasn’t a good enough wife, I wasn’t a good enough employee, I wasn’t good enough for anything.  (For more on being good enough please read this amazing blog).  I certainly wasn’t good enough to stand amongst the other auditionees and believe I had as much right as them to be there, and to sing a song.  My self-esteem was at an all-time low.

This year, however, I went to the audition.  And it took some doing.  I had to arrange a succession of four different people to take responsibility for childcare throughout the day.  I had to get up at 5am to be there on time.  But I did it.  I showed up and I sang.

The interesting thing is that, in a way, I still didn’t think I was good enough.  By that I mean I don’t think I’m a good enough singer to win the X Factor.  I think I have a nice voice, and given the right song and the right circumstances I occassionally think I sound really good.  But (and this is being realistic, not putting myself down) I do not have the kind of voice that wins X Factor.  Or the kind of looks.  Possibly the kind of personality.  But I did not, even for one fraction of a second, think I was ever going to get close to “making it” on X Factor.

So why did I go?  I went to prove to myself that I could.  I went because I now have enough confidence in myself that it genuinely doesn’t matter to me that two people I don’t know didn’t like my singing yesterday.  If I’m being completely honest I was just a little disappointed.  I had hoped to go one round further than I did.  But the important thing is that I was there.  As a friend put it yesterday: “Here’s to showing up and being seen!”  A year ago, showing up and being seen was terrifying.  This year I did it and it felt great.

So … my X Factor journey.  What would my video montage look like?  Well it would show my transition from tearful, beaten-down despondency to confident optimism.  It would show the look of adoration in my daughter’s eyes when we sing together.  It would show the hordes of friends encouraging me and cheering me on every step of the way.  And my montage soundtrack would have to be “I Will Survive”.

I entered a different contest to the other people queueing in the cold with me yesterday.  They were there to prove something to others.  I was there to prove something to myself.  And I won.

I Am A Scratched Diamond

I want to be perfect.  There, I’ve said it.  I’m striving for absolute perfection and nothing else will do.

I want to be the perfect mother.  I want to be the perfect friend.  I want to have a perfect home; a perfect figure; perfect health.  And in all these areas I find myself lacking.  I feed my kids too much processed food.  I can’t always give my friends the time and attention they deserve.  My front garden is in a horrific mess; I hate my legs and stomach; I can’t make my own antibodies.  I am so far from perfection it’s laughable.

Probably I spend too much time dwelling on my imperfections.  I have a hard time with the idea that I make mistakes.  I worry that men who find me attractive do so because there is something wrong with them.  I feel sure that the choices I make for my children are the wrong ones.  And I invest an awful lot of time and energy thinking about how I can be better, thinner, kinder, smarter, braver, shrewder; how I can be more patient, more insightful, more confident, more fashionable … the list goes on.  But try as I might, I know that I am unlikely to achieve most of these things – at least not to a degree that will make me happy.  And so I know I must learn to live with and accept my imperfections.

Yesterday, though, I was in synagogue for a barmitzvah and I listened to a reading I had never heard before.  It was a Parable of the Preacher of Dubno (no, I’ve never heard of him either) and it went like this:

“Once there was a king, who had a beautiful, large pure diamond. There was no other diamond like it in the world. One day, it became deeply scratched. The king called his best diamond cutters, “I’ll promise you a great reward if you can remove the imperfection from my jewel.” But they could not. The king was very upset.

Many months later, a man came to the king. He promised to make the diamond even more beautiful than it ever had been. Impressed by the man’s confidence, the king consented. He watched as the man engraved an exquisite rosebud around the blemish and used the scratch to make its stem.”

The king saw the diamond’s scratch in much the same way that I see my own shortcomings.  Just like me, the king sought perfection, and believed the only way to achieve it was to remove any imperfection he could see.  And just like me, the king felt saddened when this seemed an impossible feat.  But this is where the similarities end … whereas I want to accept my imperfections, the man in the story has gone much further.  He has embraced the diamond’s imperfections as being crucial to its absolute beauty.  Without the scratch the diamond was perfect on a superficial level, but actually had nothing to make it truly special.  It was only when the man had the wisdom to view the scratch through different eyes that the diamond’s imperfection became its true beauty.

So can I do that?  Really?  Can I learn to not only accept my imperfections but to embrace them?  It’s a tall order: what I am proposing means truly believing that my beauty comes from my messy house, my lack of confidence, my offbeat sense of humour, my wobbly stomach, my frizzy hair, my heart-on-my-sleeve attitude, my deepest fears and insecurities.  It doesn’t mean telling myself that I can be perfect in spite of these things.  It means knowing I am perfect because of them.