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.

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.



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.