The World’s Best Wife

Valentine’s Day looms and I am single. I am not only single – I am VERY single. A failed marriage which has left me needy and insecure, with trust issues, self-esteem issues and body-image issues; a single mother to young twins one of whom has special needs; middle-aged, overweight and struggling to make ends meet … it’s fair to say the eligible bachelors are not forming a queue at my front door. So I’m very single.

The thought of 14th February coming and going without a card or rose reaching me shouldn’t be worrying me. It really shouldn’t. I received a card every year of my marriage. Some years I received flowers (which I love). Some years I received teddy bears (which I hate). These annual tokens didn’t mean I was happy or loved. They didn’t mean I was actually appreciated and adored. They didn’t even temporarily mask the growing misery and sadness that I was living with. They were simply obligatory for both parties, and with each year it grew harder to think of words to write in the cards I bought.

This will by no means be my first Valentine’s Day as a singleton and I have been mystified as to why I have felt so apprehensive at its impending arrival this year. Yet over the past few weeks I have felt that every shop I’ve entered has taunted me with its red-and-white displays of cards and chocolates and cutesy teddies. “To the one I love” declared one card I noticed this afternoon. “For my husband on Valentine’s Day” read another. “To the World’s Best Wife”.

The World’s Best Wife. Hmmmm. Quite a claim. Of course I had to wonder what attributes such a wife would possess? The World’s BEST Wife must surely run her own business from home whilst raising four children on wholesome healthy meals cooked from scratch every day, often using the fresh ingredients she lovingly grows in the garden. She keeps her home showroom-perfect and spotlessly clean; is never in a bad mood but instead alternately sings cheerfully as she manages her home, and intelligently discusses world events with her family. When her husband comes home from work the children are bathed and ready for bed; his four-course dinner is ready to be served after his half-hour of quiet time in his study (a room his wife insisted he needed when they bought their beautiful house). After he has eaten his delicious meal and enjoyed some witty banter with his slim, attractive, classily-dressed wife, she takes him upstairs where she displays her proficient and enthusiastic skills in the bedroom. Not that she had ever slept with anyone else before her husband. Yes, I think that MUST be pretty close to the World’s Best Wife, right?

Maybe Valentine’s cards need to be more realistic. “To my wife on Valentine’s Day, whom I love even when you are grumpy because the children have been bickering all day, and I come home to find you in baggy sweatpants and with a ready-meal in the microwave.” After years of receiving cards filled with meaningless, insincere words which in no way reflected my real relationship, I think I’d have preferred this. “To my wife on Valentine’s Day, who doesn’t deserve the way I have treated her”. Now we’re getting somewhere.

You’d really think I would be cynical to the whole concept of love and marriage. And yet. I still want it. Not my marriage (heaven forbid) but the tangible evidence that I am a valued and treasured part of someone’s life. Despite the way I was treated during my marriage; despite the plethora of “issues” I have been left dealing with; I still fundamentally believe in love. I believe in soulmates and true, deep, can’t-live-without-you love. I believe in finding someone who is the centre of your being – someone who occupies your first and last thoughts of the day and who makes you feel whole. I believe that this Valentine’s Day, all over the Western world, girlfriends and wives, boyfriends and husbands, will receive the validation that they are all of this to their beloved someone. And I believe I deserve that too.

So this Valentine’s Day I will be writing a different kind of card:

To the World’s Best Husband,

I know you are out there somewhere. And I know some day, somehow, I will meet you. I know that sometimes we will argue, and sometimes things will be difficult. But I also know that you will make me feel happier than I knew I could feel. I know you will be my strength when I feel weak, and you will allow me to support you when you are in need. I know that you will make me laugh until I cry. I know that you will be honest and genuine, and will always treat me with respect. I know that you will say what you mean and mean what you say. I know that you will understand the impact of my past relationships, and that you will deal with my issues and insecurities patiently, until they fade and disappear with the strength of your unwavering love. I know you are out there, and I know I will find you.

Happy Valentine’s Day my love.

L

xxx

The Power of Sincere Compliments

My friend R is beautiful. Like, completely beautiful. She has a perfect heart-shaped face with a wide, inviting smile and pretty dimples. Her eyes are large, chocolate almonds and her hair falls in glossy dark ringlets. She is slim and petite, and has a fabulous figure that makes her two children hard to believe. She is beautiful.

I have only known R for eight months but it feels like we’ve been friends forever. We clicked from the first meeting and now have regular get-togethers and put the world to rights while our children play. I feel like I can trust her with anything, and indeed, the second time we met face-to-face I told her much more about my life and my marriage than many others knew at that point. It just feels like we’re meant to be friends.

Aside from her absolute beauty, she is also one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. She actively seeks to do good and be good to others. Only yesterday I discovered she likes to leave change in parking meters so that others find it when they go to put their own money in. I know she is always genuine in the things she does and says. This only contributes to her beauty, as her inner gorgeousness shines through in everything she does.

It had never occurred to me for a moment that R did not know she is beautiful. Of course she is not the sort of person to let her beauty go to her head, but I thought she must know it. She has mirrors after all. It had also never occurred to me to tell R that I think she is beautiful. After all, we don’t do that sort of thing in our society. She’d probably think I was weird, or sucking up to her, or coming on to her.

Then this evening R made a comment on Facebook that made me wonder. It sounded like she doubted her own attractiveness. I didn’t see how this could be possible but there it was in black and white. So I texted her. I told her I think she is completely beautiful. And then to reinforce the point, I told her that others of my friends think the same. She replied with effusive thanks and said it was the nicest thing she’d ever heard, and told me I had made her cry. I responded by saying it was only the nicest thing she’d ever heard because she can’t read minds. If she could, she’d hear it every day.

So then of course, I started wondering. Why had it taken eight months of friendship for R to know what I thought about her? Why is it such a socially strange thing to do, to pay someone a deep and sincere compliment? And what would we all hear every day if we could read minds?

It doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s obvious why we don’t always share the negative views we have of others – it would hurt their feelings. If I thought R was ugly, or lazy, or a terrible mother, then of course I wouldn’t ever say that out loud. But what possible reason is there for us not being honest and open about our positive views of others? If everyone who thinks R is beautiful told her, just imagine what that would do for this wonderful person’s confidence and self-esteem.

During this past year I’ve received more compliments than I can ever remember. My new status as a single mother has prompted dozens of friends to tell me what a great mum they think I am. And I can categorically state that I now believe it. At first I’d dismiss the comments with an awkward “thanks” and continue doubting my ability to parent my children alone. But now every time I hear it I think “Yeah! Damn right I am!” And it was repeatedly hearing it from others that eventually led me to believe it myself. As Julia Roberts so wisely observed in Pretty Woman – it’s always easier to believe the bad stuff.

So I would seriously like to set a challenge to everyone reading this post. For one week, every time you think something positive about someone else, tell them. If another Mum at the school gates has done something great with her hair, tell her. If you admire your colleague’s ability to stay on top of her workload, tell her. If the busker at the tube station has an amazing voice, tell him. Because no matter how much you might think they already know it themselves, the truth is they probably don’t. And no matter how much you’re worried they’ll think you’re weird, the truth is you’ll probably make their day. Because just like R, none of us can tell what other people are thinking, and so it’s up to us to help them.

  • PS: R – I know you’re reading this. Now stop crying! You’ve got some fabulousness to be getting on with! X

    Conflicting Responsibilities

    I’m in a quandary: I’ve got a humdinger of a dilemma. A puzzling parenting predicament to ponder.

    J & L will be 4 years old in March, and after lengthy discussion have decided they want a “Ben and Holly” themed birthday party. For those of you not familiar with “Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom”, it is a children’s cartoon about Princess Holly the fairy, and her friend Ben who is an elf.

    L had the idea that all the party guests could come dressed as fairies or elves, which was met with enthusiasm by J – though when I suggested that L dress as Holly and J as Ben, J replied “I don’t want to be Ben, I want to be the Wise Old Elf”. I reassured him that this was not a problem, and I would get him a long white beard to go with his elf costume.

    The next day it was evident that J had been giving the party some thought. He told me he had changed his mind and no longer wanted to dress as the Wise Old Elf, but now wanted to be a fairy. “That’s fine” I replied. “King Thistle is a fairy, you could have a crown and wings just like him?” J seemed satisfied with this response. But then a couple of days later J told me “I don’t want to be King Thistle. I want to be Holly”.

    For as long as J and L have been playing “dress-up” J has enjoyed putting on pretty dresses. Sometimes he asks for lip-gloss too and announces to the mirror “I’m a very pretty girl!”: I have never questioned his choice or his right to do so, and haven’t given too much thought as to the reasons, as I couldn’t do more than guess even if I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Maybe he hears me telling L how pretty she looks in her princess costume and wants to receive the same compliment. Maybe the social difficulties caused by his autism mean he is less aware of gender-based notions of appropriate clothing. Maybe his sensory difficulties mean dresses are more physically comfortable for him than trousers. Maybe he is gay or transgender. Maybe he enjoys the joke of wearing the “wrong” clothes in the same way he often laughs when he says something of which he knows the opposite to be true.

    The point is, it doesn’t matter. At home he is free to wear what makes him happy and be a beautiful fairy princess alongside his sister. He doesn’t always choose the dress when we’re putting costumes on – sometimes he is Iggle Piggle; sometimes he is the Grand Old Duke of York; sometimes he is a robot. But the choice is always his.

    And so to my dilemma. Do I let J go to his own birthday party as Holly, wearing a pink sparkly dress and fairy wings? To be honest at first it didn’t even occur to me to tell him “no”. But then I got thinking. And now I’m confused. For every argument for letting him wear the dress, I can think of an equally valid counter-argument. Maybe a list of pros and cons might help …

    Reasons to let J wear a pink dress to his party

    1. He should be able to express himself in whatever way makes him happy.
    2. It won’t hurt anyone, and if people don’t like it that’s their problem.
    3. L can choose whatever she wants to wear (I wouldn’t stop her being an elf) so why shouldn’t J?
    4. It will be hard to explain why he can’t be “Holly” whilst still making it clear that his general preferences are valid and acceptable.
    5. We should be setting an example to other children that they should be tolerant and accepting of difference.
    6. A parent should teach their child to stay true to themselves rather than conform to please the masses.

    Reasons not to let J wear a pink dress to his party

    1. The other children might say hurtful things, either at the party or in the future.
    2. The other parents might judge us and talk negatively about J or me – to each other and to their children.
    3. J might be stigmatised for a long time as “the boy who wore a dress”.
    4. J already acts differently to his peers due to his autism – wearing a dress will only serve to accentuate his differences.
    5. There will be lots of other opportunities for J to dress up in pretty costumes without doing it in such a public way.
    6. It is normal practise to invite every child in the class therefore there will be a lot of children and parents at the party who I don’t know, and who don’t understand J.

    All I can say is that I am pleased I don’t have to rush into a decision. I believe that I have a clear responsibility to teach J to be true to himself and not ever feel he has to conform to please others. I also believe I have a clear responsibility to help J understand socially acceptable behaviour and to protect him from a world that is not always accepting of difference. My problem is in deciding which responsibility takes precendence in this instance.

    I can see that there is a third option here – a compromise costume. Maybe J could wear a pink top with trousers and fairy wings. And I’m not ruling that out … but for the purposes of this discussion that essentially equates to telling J he can’t wear a dress and be Holly at his party, as this is certainly how he will see it.

    So to anyone who is reading this post – I would genuinely love to know your thoughts. I’m not considering “parenting by majority vote” but it would be great to know what you’d honestly think if you saw a little boy in a pink fairy dress. Tell me what you’d do in my shoes?!

    Maybe asking for your opinions is highlighting for me the most difficult part of being a single parent. I had thought the most difficult part was not having someone else to take a turn when you’re called for the tenth time during the night. Or having to turn down fun social invitations because you can’t find a babysitter. Or caring for two children when you’re ill. But it turns out I was wrong: the toughest part of single parenting is having to take full responsibility for the most difficult decisions. Being solely accountable if the decision ends up being the wrong one.

    I guess I need to accept that sometimes I’ll make the right decisions as a mother and sometimes I’ll make the wrong decisions. The important thing is that all my choices are made with the very best intentions … made because I adore my children and want nothing more than their lasting happiness. And more than anything else, whatever I decide about J’s party costume, I think all I can really hope is that he’ll look back one day and say “Mum [didn’t] let me wear a fairy dress to my party because she loves me”. Whether J’s preference for wearing pretty dresses lasts six months or sixty years, as long as he knows his Mum loves him completely, truly and unconditionally forever, I will be happy to accept I’ve done a good job.

    The Man With The Nice Eyes

    This afternoon I was travelling up the escalator at my local shopping mall.  I glanced across to the parallel escalator.  A man was staring at me.  I looked away, then risked a second glance.  Still staring.  I raised my eyebrows at him in a “Yes, can I help you?” expression.  He smiled at me.  We stepped off of our respective escalators at the same moment, and he fell into step with me as I walked.  Starting to feel a little uncomfortable I quickened my pace: the man sped up too.

    “I’m sorry for staring!” he exclaimed.  “I just thought I knew you.  You look a lot like my … errr …. sister’s …. ummm …. friend”.  I stopped and turned to him.  “Oh right” I said, feeling this man’s behaviour could only possibly be explained by axe-murdering intentions.  My eyes scanned the packed shopping mall for a security guard.  “I’m pretty sure I don’t know your sister”.  “No, my mistake” said the man, and smiled.  I noticed his eyes.  Warm and kind, and mahogany-dark.  “Anyway, sorry for staring”.

    “No worries” I replied, and continued walking.  The man hurried to catch up.  “Busy today, isn’t it?” he offered.  “Mmmm” I murmured non-committally.  He tried again.  “Are you from round here?” I replied with a curt “Yes”, before turning towards a shop.  “Listen!” said the man with nice eyes.  “Could I take you for a coffee?”

    I did not pause even for a second before replying “No.  Thanks.” The man gave me another sheepish smile before disappearing into the heaving Boxing Day crowds.

    Of course I wasn’t going to go for a coffee with a crazy man, no matter how inviting his smile and lovely his eyes.  What kind of maniac behaved like that?  As I finished my shopping and headed back to my car, I mulled over the conversation.  If this had been a film rather than real-life, the man’s behaviour would have been presented as sweet and quirky and romantic.  The encounter would have no doubt been the start of something beautiful and lasting.  Maybe I should have gone for a coffee with him.  He was hardly going to butcher me in the middle of Costa.

    I stopped myself.  I was getting carried away .. daydreaming and romanticising (as I freely admit I am prone to doing).  I reminded myself the whole notion was ridiculous.  The man was clearly a lunatic: I was wearing saggy jeans and an old sweatshirt; my hair was a frizzy mess; I had no make-up on … what kind of sane, reasonable man would have stalked me across a shopping mall to ask me on a date?

    And then it dawned on me.  My suspicion about the man’s behaviour was about the way I perceive myself rather than the way I perceived him.  It just didn’t seem conceivable to me that the man with nice eyes could have found me so irresistably attractive that he was willing to completely humiliate himself in the hope that I would agree to a date.  Unless he was some kind of nutter of course.  Only then was I willing to believe I was desirable to him.  After all, the romantic male lead in the movie would have acted in a similar way in pursuit of a stunning model-esque beauty.  Not a short, dumpy, middle-aged Mum.

    Who knows?  Maybe the man with nice eyes was planning to hack me into tiny pieces before dumping my dismembered body in a river.  Maybe he just thought I looked nice, and like someone he wanted the chance to know.  Or maybe he found me captivating, alluring and irresistable, and is now sobbing into a cappuccino-for-one.  It’s probably a good thing that I’ll never know the answer.  Because just for a minute, I could believe I was the leading lady getting chatted up by a handsome, funny, eligible man with nice eyes.  And that thought left me smiling the whole way home.

    I Own My Happiness

    The last week has been a turbulent time for me, emotion-wise. I’ve been excited about my first Christmas morning with just me and my children and without the inevitable stress and arguments that came with previous years. I’ve been content that our house is looking tidy, cosy and inviting. I’ve been anxious about how my relations will feel during our first Christmas without a beloved family member. I’ve been exhausted, caring for a sick child throughout the night for two nights running. I’ve been frustrated that when I asked for help from the person who should be first in line to share the care of my children, we did not feature as a high enough priority. I’ve been furious that J & L keep being let down, with me having to comfort them and deal with the fall-out. I’ve been sad at what this means in the long-term for J & L. I’ve been hurt that I have been spoken to aggressively and disrespectfully. Like I said – a whole lot of emotions to deal with. But mostly, this week, the excitement and contentedness have been overshadowed by anxiety, anger, sadness and hurt. This week I’ve cried a lot.

    I’ve cried in frustration at another person’s selfishness. I’ve cried with worry and exhaustion as L spent 48 hours vomiting – and without the back-up and sounding board I needed and asked for. I’ve cried in despair as I have been completely unable to persuade another person to behave reasonably. I’ve cried with the hurt I felt at the mean, personal, unfair things that have been said to me. Each time I cried, I felt myself sink a little deeper into unhappiness, and a little less able to regain my usual positivity and optimism.

    This week someone took my happiness.

    Happiness is a valuable and tangible resource that each of us needs to be strong. The more of it we have, the better our own lives and the lives of those around us. And it’s a self-perpetuating commodity – happiness breeds happiness. The more you can find and the more you can keep within your grasp, the more you and your loved ones will have. Happiness is the ultimate goal for humankind … whatever we are striving for, be it love, wealth or fame, it is because we believe these things will bring us happiness.

    Happiness is also transferable. One person can take another’s happiness and keep it as their own. When someone used carefully calculated words to hurt and defeat me this week, the aim was not only to reduce my happiness but to increase their own – through the feelings of power and importance they achieved from their unkindness. This left me feeling helpless – someone was continuing to eat away at my happiness piece by piece, and I felt powerless to stop them.

    Until I realised. My happiness was not being taken. It was being given. Each time I cried, I was cleaving off a chunk of my own happiness, putting it in a box, wrapping it in sparkly paper and ribbons, and willingly handing it over to someone who could use it in any way they chose.

    So from yesterday I stopped handing out my happiness and started to think about how to hold on to it tightly. My happiness is not up for grabs – it is mine, and it is up to me to find ways to safeguard it. So I stopped replying to provocative text messages. I told people what was happening so I could feel supported. I focused on positive things happening in my life. And, remembering that happiness breeds happiness, I put my energy into things that make me happy, like having a tidy home, spending time with friends, planning treats for my children and finishing my Christmas wrapping.

    The pile of presents, ready and waiting for Tuesday, looks hugely inviting and appealing. I’m very excited to see the faces of my loved-ones as they unwrap my carefully-chosen gifts. This Christmas I’ll be giving more gifts than ever before, but my happiness will not be amongst them. That is mine to keep. You can share my happiness, but you can’t have it.

    J’s First Friend

    I worry about my kids all the time. I know this is natural. When you’re a Mum it’s part and parcel of the job description to spend our days frightening ourselves with all the imaginary obstacles that could get in the way of our little darlings’ happiness, safety or general amazingness.

    When J was first diagnosed with autism, my worries shot through the roof, and once pre-school loomed on the horizon my anxieties had reach the outer stratosphere. I wasn’t concerned with how J would cope with the work at school as he is extremely intelligent. At three years old he knows the difference between a pentagon, a hexagon and an octagon. He had to be told the names of trapeziums and parallelograms once and they were ingrained in his mind. He can name double-digits numbers (ie he sees 63 and says “sixty-three”). He can read. And we’re not talking “cat” and “dog”. We’re talking flashcards in the kitchen that say “radiator”, “drawer” and “dishwasher”. He has an astonishing memory. No, his learning abilities at school were not something that gave me cause for concern. What I was worried about were J’s social skills.

    So many times I have seen him wanting to get involved with the other children in the playground, but not knowing where to start. He tries to start conversations with other children, but they can be stilted and awkward (“Hello Girl. I am J.”) or just plain baffling for the other child (“Do you want to come to Sarah Beeny’s house?”). He has had plenty of exposure to other children, through his twin sister and his cousins, and through my friends’ children, but by and large plays alongside them rather than with them, and is unable to grasp the nuances and complexities of pre-school play.

    Friends told me time and time again that J would be fine at school – he would excel in all his subjects, take his A-Levels early and go on to win Nobel prizes and change the world. But I couldn’t care less about any of that. I just want him to be happy. If a genie offered me one wish for J it would be for him to have joyful, meaningful relationships throughout his life – with friends, colleagues, a life-partner. And this is where I was terrified that school would just be too big a challenge for him to manage.

    It is now two months since J started pre-school and I have been delighted to hear him talking about his classmates at home. His keyworker tells me that he knows every child’s name and has started trying to engage them in conversation. She has observed that sometimes his play has moved from playing alongside, to playing with. I was very happy, but still conscious of the fact that J’s rituals, behaviours and idiosyncracies can be something of a mystery to other children. Recently at a friend’s house J launched into one of his ritualistic behaviours, and the friend’s little girl said loudly to her mother: “See! I told you he was strange!” My poor friend was mortified and I had to reassure her that I was not offended in the slightest – to her daughter J’s behaviour was strange and I was pleased to have the chance to explain to her how J sees the world a little differently, and what she could do to be a good friend to him. I did not mind at all that the little girl had voiced her confusion about J, but I did mind terribly that his future classmates would, most likely, also think of him as “the strange one”.

    But today something miraculous happened.

    As I was dropping my children off at school I started talking to another Mum. And she told me that her son had specifically asked if J could come round to play. “Yes!” I exclaimed, “Yes, that would be wonderful!”. I got into my car and cried the whole way home. Then I phoned my Mum to tell her, and cried some more.

    So my darling little boy has done it again. I was surprised when he picked up the names of different shapes so easily. I was astonished when he recalled information he had heard over a year ago. I was flabbergasted when he read four-syllable words that he’d only been shown once. But all of that pales into insignificance at how I feel today, knowing he has made a friend all by himself. I should not be surprised. Anyone who gets to know J falls in love with him. He is sweet and quirky and wickedly funny. And I should have known that, given the chance, he would show everyone who met him how wonderful he is. So J’s first play date is on the horizon. And yes, I will be a little anxious at how he will cope in an unfamiliar house and with a family who don’t know his needs. But I also know he’ll be fine. Because today I feel like there’s nothing my little boy can’t do. And I’m the proudest Mum in the world.

    What’s Wrong With The YOLO Kids?

    I first became aware of YOLO a few months ago. Waaaaaay behind every teenager in the Western world, but definitely earlier than plenty of people my own age. In fact it was teenagers who caused YOLO to first enter my consciousness – I had noticed that my handful of Facebook friends who are 15-20 years younger than me were using it in response to each other’s photos and comments, usually accompanied by an exclamation mark and a smiley face. Not daring to admit my ignorance and actually ask these kids what they were going on about (for more on this, see my post: https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/is-ignorance-really-bliss/), I turned instead to my trusty friend Wikipedia.

    And so I started to understand YOLO. I discovered that it stands for “You Only Live Once”, and embodies the idea that life should be embraced and lived to its fullest. YOLO means life is too short for “what ifs” and “if onlys” and that every opportunity for enjoyment and fulfilment should be grasped with both hands. I was enthralled. So, so often young people are dismissed as lazy and apathetic, supposedly unwilling to seek out the good things in life and instead sit in front of their Playstations and Blackberrys waiting for good things to come to them. Yet YOLO seemed to me to be the antithesis of this image. Teenagers had essentially rebranded “Carpe Diem” with a 21st Century twist, and were going out into the world ready to seize the day.

    But then I read on. And discovered there is more to YOLO than I first realised. I read article after article crticising YOLO culture, claiming that young people use YOLO to justify reckless and dangerous behaviour. www.urbandictionary.com defines YOLO as:

    The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did:
    Guy 1: “Hey I heard u got that girl pregnant”
    Dumbass 1: ” Ya man but hey, YOLO”

    The more I read the more I began to understand the true meaning of YOLO. Rather than the exciting idea that droves of teenagers are suddenly filled with a new resolve to live life to its fullest, it seems they are, in fact, excusing behaviour that is dangerous, selfish, illegal, and plain stupid – all with a shrug and a grin as they proudly state “YOLO!”  Of course, the idea of teenagers pushing boundaries and behaving recklessly is nothing new.  I did it, my friends did it, and I’m sure my parents and grandparents did it too.  But what is new is the notion that they have found in YOLO a cast-iron justification for this behaviour.

    But surely YOLO doesn’t have to used in such a negative way? Surely the potential is still there for it to represent the idea of making every day count? Surely YOLO can mean life’s too short for dwelling on hurt and anger, and that instead we should always be looking forwards, grasping every exciting opportunity that comes our way? Is there really such a fine line between bravery and stupidity? What is the difference between spontaneously seizing opportunities, and making reckless, impulsive decisions?

    One of my absolute core beliefs is in the responsibility each of us have to ourselves, to make our own lives the very best they can be.  And to that end, there should never be any “what ifs” and “if onlys”.  It’s important to stretch and challenge our own limits, and to take risks.  After all.  You only live once.  But of course risks don’t always pay off.  Sometimes we will seize an opportunity only to find ourselves picking up the shattered pieces and cursing our own stupidity.

    But when it comes down to it, I think there are two significant differences between us (what I like to think of as “the Carpe Diem generation”) and the YOLO kids.  The first one is our intentions.  We all make mistakes (for more on this see my post: https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/i-am-not-my-mistakes/) and sometimes these have serious consequences.  But if our actions were carried out with the right intentions, we should not feel bad about the outcome.  The second difference is our reaction.  To shrug your shoulders and proudly announce “YOLO!” is a far cry from being horrified at the aftermath of a risk-gone-wrong, and wishing we could put things right.

    So, to the YOLO kids, I say this.  You’re right.  You DO only live once.  So don’t let yourself reach my age and look back with regret.  Knowingly acting in a way that is likely to cause harm or distress to yourself or others is unforgivable.  But so is allowing amazing chances to pass you by.  Don’t let yourself reach my age and wish you’d been a bit braver.  Stand up for yourself.  Stand up for other people.  Make your life and the lives of those around you as fantastic as it can possibly be.  Because hey …YOLO.

    “You’re Essentially One Of Those Whiny Mothers Who Has An Excuse For Everything …”

    I guess I’ve been really lucky up until now: the response to my blog has been so positive and encouraging it’s been completely overwhelming. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, sooner or later, someone somewhere would feel prompted to make an altogether less upbeat comment about what I’ve had to say.

    My post https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/an-open-letter-to-toys-r-us-4/ has so far received more hits than the rest of my blog put together, and has prompted interesting discussion both on my blog and elsewhere. I am delighted that it seems to have given other autism parents a springboard for discussing their own experiences. The comments left below the post have, without exception, been hugely encouraging. Until now.

    I woke up yesterday morning to find a comment from Lena which says:

    You’re essentially one of those whiny mothers who has an excuse for everything, aren’t you? He can’t sit in a buggy for sensory reasons? You are the mother, you decide the rules! If he suffers from sensory overload, just don’t go into Toys’R’Us!

    I took some time to decide how, if at all, to respond. The easy option would have been to decide not to give Lena space on my blog for her negativity, and simply delete her comment. But who am I helping by doing this? I am not naive enough to believe that Lena is the only person who thinks like this – she’s just the only one to have voiced such thoughts to me thus far. I’ve spoken elsewhere in my blog about the “tuts” and disapproving looks I’ve received when J displays “naughty behaviour” in public. I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of comments like Lena’s many times, but usually behind my back.

    And of course there is my core belief, upon which this whole blog is based, and which is a very good reason for at least attempting to put together some sort of response to Lena. “Some things I cannot change, but til I try I’ll never know”. Though to be honest, I kind of do know. I’ve spent enough of my life trying to challenge prejudice and discrimination to know how hard it is to do so, and I know that however carefully I think through the wording of this response, I am very, very unlikely to change Lena’s position on this.

    And yet. And yet I have to try. Not for me, but for J. There are many challenges and difficulties he will face in his life due to his autism, but possibly the worst of these will be the lack of understanding from others. So I have to at least try. It is highly likely that J will come across his own “Lena”. Who am I kidding? J will have to battle his way through armies of Lenas every day of his life. The people who tell him to stop making excuses. The people who tell him “if it’s difficult for you, why are you bothering to do it?” So if I can get just one of them to think a little more openly, and to feel a little more empathy, then maybe one day that will make J’s life just a little bit easier.

    So here we go. Here is my response.

    Dear Lena,
    I’m going to try to deal with each of your points in turn, though I’m a little confused about what you’re actually trying to say. When I read your first sentence about being whiny and making excuses, I initially thought my challenge was going to be to persuade you of the “realness” of J’s sensory problems. However the rest of your comment seems to accept that J does suffer from sensory issues – so I am left baffled as to what “excuses” you think I am making.
    Still, let me firstly deal with the accusation of being “whiny”, which to be honest is the part of your comment that I find most offensive. I would invite you to take the time to read the rest of my blog. I realise no-one’s life is without its difficulties, but I think it’s fair to say I’ve had it tougher than lots. I’ve recently walked away from a horrific marriage and an excellent career to be a full-time mother to young twins, one of whom has autism. I have serious life-long health problems of my own. To be honest Lena, I think I’ve got good reason to be a bit “whiny” sometimes. Except I’m not. I can’t stand whiners. I am someone who always looks for the positive. I face challenges head-on and always try to change the things in my life that cause difficulty, rather than simply moan about them. My letter to Toys R Us was an example of this – rather than “whine” to my friends about my experience, I have done something practical and positive to try to improve the situation. I’d like to make the point that autism is a disability Lena. Would you criticise a wheelchair-user for whining that a shop was not wheelchair-accessible? Probably not. In my letter I was simply asking Toys R Us to consider making their approach a little more autism-accessible – but in order to do so I had to describe our experience in their store. This is not whining. If there’s one thing I can say about myself with absolute certainty – it is that I do not whine. This, of course, is stating the blindingly obvious … but you don’t know me. So you’re going to have to take my word on this one.
    I’ll move on to your confident assertion that, as J’s mother, I should make the rules. You don’t say whether or not you are a parent, but I think it’s fair for me to assume you are, at least, not the parent of a child with autism. Because you know what Lena? I do make the rules. Until earlier this year I had a 7-year career as a secondary school teacher in a tough London borough. I know all about setting rules. However, I also know all about making the rules appropriate to the child and the situation, and luckily for J, I know about recognising the difference between behaviour caused by simple naughtiness and behaviour caused by factors out of the child’s control. J has a lot of rules in his life. It is an absolute rule that, no matter how frustrated or anxious he is, he does not hit his sister. It is an absolute rule that he does not hold the kitten by the neck. It is an absolute rule that when I say “no more chocolate”, there is no more chocolate. These are manageable, clear rules for J. However, I do not think it is unreasonable for J to have some rules of his own in order to help him make sense of the confusing world around him. J is terrified of the phone at my grandparents’ house because once, a long time ago, it rang and made him jump. So it is an absolute rule that they turn it to silent when we visit. J derives huge comfort from reciting the same “scripts” every day as they provide a constant in a world that is otherwise unpredicatable and frightening. So it is an absolute rule that, as we turn left at the traffic lights on our way home from school, when J asks “Can we go to this house?” I must immediately respond “No, we don’t know who lives there”. And, for reasons I have not yet discovered, J finds it very difficult to sit in the child seat in a trolley. So it is an absolute rule that I do not try to force him into one. So please don’t talk to me about rules Lena. My life with J and L is full of more complex rules than you could possibly imagine. They are rules that have been honed and developed to help them live safe and happy lives, whilst also teaching them as much as possible about socially acceptable behaviour.
    As for “having an excuse for everything”. Well yes, we do have an excuse. Not for everything, but for some. J has an excuse for having screaming meltdowns in public. I have an excuse for looking exhausted and stressed. We have an excuse for believing people should treat us with patience and compassion. My son has autism Lena, and as much as I don’t want us to be different, we are. We are not a “typical” family, and as such I sometimes need to ask for a little more understanding and for people to think flexibly.
    And finally your not-massively-helpful suggestion: “If he suffers from sensory overload, just don’t go into Toys’R’Us!” Oh Lena, if only you knew how much and how often I wished I could follow your advice. How much easier would my life be if I were able to avoid all situations that might be likely to trigger one of J’s meltdowns or anxiety attacks. It is worth me repeating a point I made in my letter to Toys R Us – even if I wanted to do this it would be impossible. I am a single parent and babysitters are not always easy to come by. Sometimes I have no choice but to take my kids with me. But, for the sake of argument, imagine I decided I was going to follow your suggestion. Where would I have to avoid taking J in order to keep him calm and serene at all times? Toys R Us. Supermarkets. Restaurants. Playgroups. My parents’ house. My grandparents’ house. Friends’ houses. The park. Soft play centres. Birthday parties. The doctor. This list is not exhaustive. So perhaps you are suggesting I should keep J at home at all times. Except even at home we are not “safe” from the sirens of passing ambulances; the drilling going on while our neighbours renovate their house; the buzz of a lawnmower outside … the million and one things that, without warning, can trigger another difficult episode for J.

    And even if home was a haven where J is protected from all outside influences that could cause him a measure of distress, would it really be helpful of me to keep him there, protected in cotton wool and bubble wrap and cuddles? Would it be good parenting? Of course not. One day J will be an adult, and despite the problems I have written about in this blog, I am hopeful that he will be able to live an independent, meaningful, happy life. But the journey from here to there will be a tough one, and I see it as my clear role to prepare him as much as possible. Sensory overload will happen everywhere J goes, and over the years to come I will have to help him find strategies for coping with this. And at the age of 3, it is enough that he is being exposed to these environments in a way that feels as safe and manageable to him as I can find. Yes, as he gets older we will move on to coping with the fact that he can’t always crawl into a trolley and put his hands over his ears, but for now it is about striking the balance. I do not want to keep J segregated from the real world but I do not want to traumatise him either. Therefore I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to take him to Toys R Us, and with my wish to allow him to ride inside the trolley.

    Finally Lena, I would like to make one last point. I am going to do all I can to teach J how to live independently. But I am also going to teach him a very important lesson – one that it has taken me way too long to learn for myself. It’s OK to ask for help. As I have said, my life has been full of challenges lately – and I have found almost without exception that when I have asked for help it has been there. Friends, family and strangers alike have been delighted to have the opportunity to make my life a little easier. And I am going to teach J that there is no shame in recognising his own limitations and asking for help when he needs it. Equally I will have to teach him that occasionally he will meet people like you who would rather criticise and jump to their own ill-informed conclusions, but hopefully he will learn as I have that the people in this world who matter are the ones who treat others with kindness.

    Thank you, Lena, for giving me the opportunity to respond to your views. I realise they probably come from ignorance rather than malice, and whilst I accept I am unlikely to change your opinion of mothers like me, maybe I have planted a small seed … so that maybe next time you start to “tut” and shake your head at the mother in the supermarket who is seemingly indulging her spoiled brat’s temper tantrum, maybe you will stop to ask yourself whether there is more to that family than meets the eye.

    Kind regards,

    L

    An open letter to Toys R Us

    Dear Toys R Us,

    My son J is coming up to four years old and has autism.  Here are some key facts about J that mean shopping trips can invariably become very stressful events:

    1)      J often refuses to walk when we are in large shops.  This may be because he also suffers from hypermobility which in turn can cause painful joints and a strange gait.  However, it is more likely that it is because stores such as supermarkets and Toys R Us are a sensory nightmare for J and children like him.  J experiences hyper-sensitivity in a number of his senses including sight, sound and proprioception, and when he walked into your store this afternoon he went into sensory overload.  The bright-lights, garish-colours, shelves-packed-with-toys, children-crying, lights-buzzing, trollies-squeaking, tills-ringing sights and sounds meant that he simply could not put one foot in front of the other.  Adults with autism have described a feeling of “shutting down” when they go into sensory overload.  So J refused to walk once we were within 10 paces of the store’s entrance.

    2)      J refuses to sit in the child seats in trollies and will only sit within the trolley itself.  I do not know why this is.  It may be because he once had a negative experience in a child seat and now will always associate these seats with this experience due to the difficulties with social imagination that partly define autism.  It may be because he feels more secure surrounded by the “walls” of the trolley, and has a sense of reassurance in an environment that otherwise feels so overwhelming for him.  Believe me, it is very unhelpful for me to have to allow him to sit in the trolley itself.  If you have ever tried to fit a week’s worth of groceries into a trolley that already has a child in it, you will know what I mean.

    3)      J equally refuses to sit in a buggy.  Again I can only speculate as to the reason, but I suspect he sees a buggy as being for a baby.  His inability to think flexibly due to his autism means that as he is not a baby, a buggy cannot possibly be for him.

    4)      J has a twin sister.  This means that whatever kind of behaviour J is displaying, I can never give him my undivided attention as I always have another young child to consider.

    5)      As a single mother I cannot always carry out my shopping trips without my children.  Sometimes I simply have to take them with me.  And sometimes I choose to take them with me, since sheltering J from the real world will not be helpful when he is grown up and forced to deal with the real world alone.

    I appreciate that some of these factors were not immediately visible this afternoon when, as we entered your store, one of your employees stopped me to tell me my child could not sit in the trolley itself due to “health and safety reasons”.  This is why I took the time to calmly explain J’s needs, and reassure the sales assistant that J would sit quietly in the trolley.  Explaining this calmly was more of a feat than it sounds, as by this point J was screeching loudly, clapping his hands over his ears, and shouting out the names of children’s television characters as this is one of his coping mechanisms when he needs something else to focus on.  When your employee replied that it was “company policy” and that I would have to put J in the child seat, I attempted to do so.  Your employee then witnessed my struggle as I tried to force my screaming child into a seat he did not want to sit in.  He witnessed J hitting and kicking me in an attempt to break free, then when I stood J on the floor instead, he witness J clawing at my clothes and begging “carry me, carry me”.

    When I turned back to your assistant I asked him what he thought I should do.  I told him that I could not carry J.  He is far too heavy for me, and I needed to push the trolley in which his sister was sitting (within the designated seat, you will be delighted to note).  I could not abandon our shopping trip as we needed a birthday present for a party we were attending later the same day.  Of course at that moment, witnessing my distress and having heard my explanation for J’s behaviour, there are a number of responses the sales assistant could have given.  Perhaps he would permit me to pass him and continue shopping provided I guaranteed to keep J seated in the back the trolley and not allow him to stand.  Perhaps he would even ask me to sign a disclaimer.  Maybe he would offer to accompany me around the store to assist a family clearly in some difficulty.  Or perhaps he would keep blandly stating “Sorry, it’s company policy.  Health and Safety”.  I think you can probably guess which option he went for.

    So, pushing my daughter in the trolley with one hand, and half-carrying, half-dragging J with the other hand, I proceeded into the store.  J’s crying by this point had reached a ferocious volume, and I was continuing to be hit and kicked for the duration.  Other customers stared openly at my “naughty” son, tutting their disapproval at his behaviour and, no doubt, at my parenting.  Once we were out of your employee’s line of vision, I put J into the trolley, where he immediately calmed and sat quietly for the remainder of our visit.

    I do understand the reasoning behind your “company policy” stating children may not sit in trollies except in the designated seats.  I realise that the purpose of this policy is to pre-empt an accident following which your company could be sued for large sums of money and receive any amount of bad press.  Of course I could suggest that Toys R Us are more concerned with protecting yourselves than with the wellbeing of your young customers, but I won’t.  I could launch into a bitter tirade about this being an example of “health and safety gone mad” (which it is) but I won’t.

    However, I can’t help but wonder whose health and safety was being protected this afternoon when we were essentially refused entry to the store until I took J out of the trolley.  Certainly not J’s.  The absolute safest place he could have been was inside the trolley, which would have avoided a sensory meltdown that could have potentially caused him to bump into displays or fall to the ground.  Certainly not mine, as I am currently undergoing physiotherapy for a back injury aggravated by J’s insistence to be carried when we are out.  The spattering of bruises covering my legs and chest are evidence of the kicking and punching I had to endure.  And I can only assume a Health and Safety policy would need to protect mental health and wellbeing too.  I don’t think it is necessary for me to point out the difference in stress levels for both J and myself when comparing a shopping trip when he sits in a trolley to a visit when he cannot.  Was your policy protecting the Health and Safety of your employees then, or of your other customers?  Again, I don’t think so.  A child who is so distressed and overwhelmed that his behaviour is temporarily out of control clearly poses a greater risk to others than one sitting in the confines of a trolley.

    I would therefore like to respectfully suggest that as well as making sure Toys R Us’ 70,000+ employees have a rigorous understanding of Health and Safety policies in order to protect yourselves from potential law suits, they also receive training in qualities such as “flexibility” and “compassion”.  I also suggest that your employees undergo autism awareness training.  Around one in one hundred children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  This means your employees come into contact with significant numbers of autistic children each and every day.  A little understanding of what a trip to your store is like for a child with ASD (and their parents) would go a long, long way.  Circulating a copy of this letter around your 1500 stores would be an excellent start, as it will give your staff an insight into the experiences of one little boy and his mother.

    Yours sincerely,

    Ms L

    I Am Not My Mistakes

    Everyone makes mistakes. Obviously. Some mistakes are annoying. Like tonight, when I put my new black jeans in the wash and turned the rest of the laundry grey. Some mistakes are funny. Like when I was introduced to a now-friend for the first time, and he misheard my name, calling me Libby for about two months before I worked up the nerve to correct him. And some mistakes have serious consequences. Like forgetting your contraception, or marrying someone who’s bad for you (I’ve only done one of these).

    My own mistakes have been weighing heavily on my mind, though. Specifically, my past-relationship mistakes. As I have mentioned in a recent post, I have consistently and repeatedly chosen the wrong men. There is one notable exception – a relationship with a lovely man, but which just didn’t work out. But by and large I have chosen men who are too old, too drunk, too angry, too dishonest, too arrogant … and a few weeks ago it hit me like a thunderbolt that, whilst these men were undoubtedly responsible for their own behaviour and actions, I was the one who kept choosing to be with them. The reprehensible behaviour was theirs. The mistakes were mine.

    I began to lose all faith in my ability to ever choose a happy, healthy relationship. It all started to feel doomed to be one big mistake. I talked it through at length with my counsellor, and discovered that making mistakes has always been a problem for me. Since school I have always had high expectations of myself, and I have never coped well with falling short – I have always picked over my mistakes and been critical of myself for achieving less than perfection. After a lot more work with my counsellor I started to see a way forward. We unpicked my past relationships and started to understand the reasons behind my mistakes. I began to feel a glimmer of positivity, that maybe next time could be different. I allowed myself to think that maybe, one day, I would be with someone who made me truly happy.

    Then last week I had an argument with someone who knows me very well, and whom I love very much. And I was left feeling hurt and shaken … because the crux of the argument was centred around their implied belief that I would continue to make the same mistakes again and again, and that I am unable to choose a partner who does not hurt me. The implication was that, due to this person’s love for me, they would prefer me to stay single forever, rather than be in a relationship – because there was no doubt in their mind a relationship would crush me again. Because of my own inevitable mistakes.

    I walked away feeling bruised, and in turmoil. Only a day earlier I’d been filled with a new positivity that I could leave my mistakes behind me, yet now here they were, being used against me and waved around in front of me with the promise that I would never be free of them. It felt like I had reached a new low. I was nothing but the sum of my mistakes.

    Then yesterday I was talking to a friend about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which is a couple of days from now. Just over a week later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. The ten days which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, in which we consider and remember our sins of the previous year and try to put them right.

    And as I discussed my plans for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my friend, he said something that stopped me in my tracks. “I like Yom Kippur” he asserted. “It reminds me that I am not my mistakes”.

    I am not my mistakes.

    I had never heard anyone talk about Yom Kippur like this. But it made perfect sense. Yom Kippur is a reminder that our mistakes do not define who we are, and more importantly, that each of us can always have the chance to try to put our mistakes right and endeavour not to repeat them.

    I have also learned this week that the Hebrew word for “sin” (“chet“) is derived from an old archery term used when an archer “misses the mark.” This informs the Jewish view of sin: all people are essentially good and sin is a product of our errors, or missing the mark, as we are all imperfect. A critical part of Rosh Hashanah is making amends for these sins and seeking forgiveness. (Source: http://judaism.about.com/od/holidays/a/Most-Important-Things-To-Know-About-Rosh-Hashanah.htm)

    “Missing the mark” feels like exactly the right way to describe my past relationship mistakes. I have gone into each one with hope and positivity. I made every choice with the right intentions. I wanted the best each time. But somehow I just kept missing the mark. This doesn’t mean I was a bad person or, as I have been worrying, that there was something intrinsically wrong with me. It just means I made mistakes, because I am human and we are all imperfect.

    Of course I have made mistakes in the past year that go beyond poor relationship decisions. I have sinned. And I will use the Days of Awe to reflect on this, and try to put things right. I will genuinely try to be a better person in the year to come than the person I was in the year that has passed. But I will also keep reminding myself that I am not my mistakes. My mistakes are separate from me. I will acknowledge them, consider what I can learn from them, and then put them to one side and walk away.