Who Needs A Five-Year-Plan Anyway?

I fully accept that I am a control freak. I like things to be done my way, and I demand complete control of all aspects of my life. I haven’t always been this bad – though it’s true that even as a child I was bossy and convinced that the best way to do anything was my way. But my need for absolute control has emerged more in adulthood – and I can’t help wondering if it is due to my battles with CVID, a form of Primary Immune Deficiency (see My Story – https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/my-story/). This is the one element of my life which has proved impossible to control, and I still get extremely frustrated when bouts of illness prevent me from doing everything I want to do. So I suppose it is possible that I have tried to compensate for having absolutely no control over my health by trying to exercise total control elsewhere.

To this end, I have always been a planner. At any time in my life over the last 20 years, had I been asked “What will you be doing 2 years/5 years/10 years from now?” I would have always had an answer. So when I found myself single at 29 years old, I knew I needed a 5-year-plan. I wanted to get married and have two children by my mid-30s and time was running out. So I joined dating websites and ploughed through the available men until I found one who seemed right for me. We enjoyed our time together, he made me laugh, I was comfortable in his company and missed him when we weren’t together, and just over a year after we met we were married. My five-year-plan was looking good but I was now coming up to 31 and had the small matter of knocking out two kids before I was in my mid-30s. We set to work very quickly, conscious of the fact that it take many couples a long time to fall pregnant. I was completely flabbergasted when, 4 months after our wedding, I fell pregnant with twins. “Ha!” I thought. “In your face, 5-year-plan!! I’ve done it in 2!”

I’m now 34. It’s exactly 5 years since I made my big plans, and I’m now separated, with divorce looming on the horizon. And, without going into inappropriate detail for a public forum, my marriage was not a happy one. Of course I adore my children more than I could have dreamed possible, and so can’t regret my marriage for a minute. But have I achieved my 5-year-plan? Probably not. And did the pursuit of my 5-year-plan make me happy? Apart from providing my children, again that would be a “no”.

But old habits die hard. I was out for dinner with friends a couple of weeks ago, and a good friend, V, was discussing her work (making her miserable) and her relationship (making her happy). She was talking about whereabouts she might look for a new job and I immediately put forward my (cocktail-fuelled) opinion. “What’s wrong with you?!” I asked V. “You clearly need to get a job near where R lives so that you can move in with him! You’ve been together over a year, aren’t you going to talk about marriage soon? After all you’re 30 now! You need to have a plan!”

And then I stopped myself. It was at that point that I realised planning might not be all it’s cracked up to be. It seems obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t until that moment that it occurred to me that maybe you can’t force these things. But surely it’s good to know what you want from life and aim to achieve it? I expressed my confusion (probably not helped by the cocktails). That’s when my good friends patiently began to explain to me, in voices usually reserved for the very young, the very stupid and the very drunk, the difference between making a rigid plan, and having ambitions.

So now, 5 years after the inception of my big 5-year-plan, I find myself in uncharted territory. For the first time that I can remember, I don’t have a plan. Five years from now, maybe I’ll be in a relationship, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll have a job, maybe I won’t. And the most bizarre thing of all? I don’t care. My plans don’t extend beyond wanting to be happy and make my children happy. I have to say, it’s a very liberating feeling: I only realise now what pressure I was putting upon myself to try to achieve my plans within my deadline. And you know the other thing about making a five-year-plan? You’re setting yourself up to fail. Freeing myself from that pressure was one of the kindest things I could have done for myself … although it’s going to take a bit of getting used to. After all, giving up my rigid planning means relinquishing some of the control that I love so much.

But being without plans doesn’t mean there’s nothing I want to achieve. I’m just following the advice of my very wise friends, and simply allowing myself to have dreams and ambitions rather than forcing them into plans. So what ambitions do I have for myself? To learn to cook. To take my children abroad. To lose weight. To work with teenagers again. And possibly the biggest one, which has actually mainly been prompted by the writing of this blog: to be a published, recognised writer. Maybe a journalist, or a columnist, or an author – I’m not sure. And the best thing is, I don’t need to be sure. I don’t know how or when I will achieve any of these ambitions, and I’m not losing sleep trying to plan for them.

Five-year-plans? You can stick them. I’ve got something much better. I’ve got dreams.

Does every girl need a Sweet Talkin’ Ken?

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for a couple of months. It started because I was having a truly awful time at work and ended up being signed off with stress, and my occupational therapist had recommended counselling: but of course given recent developments in my life, the counsellor has become more valuable and important to me than I could have known.

Last week we moved on from picking over the details of what had gone wrong and how it made me feel, and started talking more about the future. I’m pleased to say I’m generally very optimistic about what lies ahead. I feel like I’m already getting my life back on track and reclaiming my house, my happiness and my sanity. However, my counsellor asked how I felt about the idea of future relationships, and suddenly the solid foundation I had started rebuilding began to feel shaky and unsteady. I answered that I had all I needed in my children, my family, my friends and my home, and that the thought of another relationship couldn’t be further from my mind.

My counsellor dug deeper. I began to explain, tentatively, that I have lost all confidence in my ability to choose a relationship that is good for me. Looking back I could see that time after time I have made bad choices, and formed relationships with people who are, quite clearly, not right for me. I took a deep breath, then dug deeper still. And as the session went on, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that my sense of worth – my own measure of how interesting, attractive and funny I am; my perception of how much I am wanted – has always come from men.

As a teenager I very much wanted a boyfriend. I thought being someone’s girlfriend was a way of showing the world (and myself) that I was important and desirable. And after some perseverence on my part, the boyfriends started, followed in later years by three fiances and an eventual husband. My counsellor asked whether I had ever stopped to ask myself how I really felt about each of these men, and the honest answer is no. Time and time again I have got so caught up in the excitement of a relationship, and been so delighted that someone wants to be with me, that I’ve not taken the time to examine my own feelings.

But why? My inital reaction is that this clearly points to low self-esteem: it suggests that I am “grateful” for someone’s attention and grab it with both hands. But this explanation doesn’t feel right. I don’t believe my self-esteem is particularly low. If anything I was a confident, extroverted teenager, and while the gregarious side of my nature has lessened a little over time, I still feel that in many ways I am confident in myself and my abilities.

So why then? Why have I sought approval and attention from males for as long as I can remember? I was at a loss to explain this … until this afternoon. Yesterday I finally completed the redecoration of my 3-year-old daughter’s new bedroom, and I went to Toys R Us today to buy her a reward for staying in her new bed all night.

It was here that I came across “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”. This doll proudly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ultimate Boyfriend” in a variety of languages. The owners of this doll are expected to press the heart on Ken’s t-shirt and whisper sweet nothings into his ear which he will repeat back, in his own voice. The recommended age on the box? 5+. Little girls from the age of 5 (and it is not unreasonable to suppose it will be mostly girls taking Sweet Talkin’ Ken home with them) are clearly not only expected to want a boyfriend, but to know what he will say to them too. And he’s not just any old boyfriend; oh no. As any discerning 5-year-old will tell you, she needs to have the ultimate boyfriend.

The back of the box bears the legend “The Ultimate Boyfriend always knows the right thing to say!” and bears a photo of a young girl twirling her bunches around her finger as she exclaims “Oh Ken! You’re such a sweet talker!”

Further investigation led me to the Mattel website, where the wonderful Ken has received rave reviews. One delighted customer says: “Bought as a Christmas gift for my niece……she LOVES it”. The happy Auntie has rated the doll 5/5 for “age appropriateness”. Her niece falls into the 3-5 years category. Worse still is the review on amazon.co.uk from a London-based mum:

“My 4yr old has had, and continues to have, lots of fun with this doll. Really enjoys getting Ken to tell the Barbies how handsome he is & how lucky they are to have him. She has about 4 barbies and now they have Ken (lucky doll!).”

It simply astounds me that this disturbing doll and its horrific packaging are seen as OK. The message that this toy gives to young girls is nothing short of terrifying. Before they have even left primary school, girls are expected to want the perfect boyfriend who always knows what she wants to hear; and are equally expected to respond to him with coy flirtatiousness.

Which all leads, in my journey of self-discovery, to the question: was I subjected to these kinds of influences as a child? And of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. For as long as I can remember I have adored Disney films. And what did I learn from them? Cinderella’s step-sisters only recognise that she is someone to be respected when her handsome prince comes to save her from the drudgery of her former life. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is saved from her coma by her prince’s kiss; no doubt to then, in her overwhelming gratitude, devote her life to being the perfect wife. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel falls instantly in love with Prince Eric despite knowing nothing about him, and then like Sleeping Beauty, must wait for her prince’s kiss to save her.

And there we have my answer. Since I was a very young child I have received messages telling me that I need my own prince in order to feel valued and loved; just like little girls now are being told they need the ultimate boyfriend. Last week my counsellor uncovered the fact that I have never taken the time to examine my own feelings for someone before jumping into a relationship: much like Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel I have been happy to wait for a man to tell me I am important and to show the world I am of worth.

Phew. That’s quite an epiphany. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to darn well sweet-talk myself.  I ‘m going to try to focus on the things I do well, and the things I’m proud of.  I’m going to try to be happy with who I am and what I have. I’m going to remember that my life is full and happy and often pretty darn wonderful without needing a man to validate me. I’m going to try to bring up my own daughter to be confident and strong, and to know that there are no limits to what she can achieve alone. I’m going to question the fact that the bedroom I’ve just completed for her is a Disney Princess themed room …. oh dear.

Well at least I can take a little comfort from the time I spent getting to know Sweet Talkin’ Ken in Toys R Us today. Once I had worked out how to record Ken’s message I set to work on the three Ken dolls remaining on the shelves. And so I can’t help smiling when I think about the fact that the next three little girls to take Ken home will hear his deep masculine voice saying “I respect you for being a strong, independent woman. Of course I will support you in your career. There’s nothing you can’t do”. Aaaah, my work here is done.

Accepting Rejection

I went back to my old school today. It was their annual “open house” day for all alumni to take a walk down memory lane and meet up with former classmates and old friends. I was very privileged to have attended a prestigious public school and I thoroughly loved my years as a student there, so I am always pleased to have the opportunity to go back. Today I was excited to take J and L so they could see where Mummy went to school, and as we walked through the imposing red brick tower into the rather beautiful quadrangle, L breathed “Wow! A castle!” A few minutes later they discovered the joy of sliding down the grassy bank at the side of the school field, and this kept them enthralled for the rest of the afternoon.

I had arranged to meet up with an old school friend, M. We had only seen each other a handful of times since we left school 16 years ago but we talk regularly on Facebook and I was excited to meet her son and her fiance (both of whom turned out to be lovely). We were shortly joined by a couple more old friends, and before long we were reminiscing about passing out in Maths exams, where our lockers had been located, and trying to remember who had dated who. We started talking about ex-classmates with whom we are still in touch, and those who we are friends with on Facebook. I mentioned that a girl I had once been friends with, S, had rejected my friendship request on Facebook. It emerged that others in the group had experienced the same when trying to reconnect with S.

As we watched our children playing on the field, someone whispered “Look who’s just arrived! It’s S!” I turned to see her strolling past and smiled expectantly, looking forward to catching up with her after 16 years. To our astonishment, she continued walking. She passed within a few feet of us, resolutely avoiding eye contact as she chatted with friends of her own. She and her friends stopped a short way down from us and stood in a group, talking and laughing. I stared open-mouthed at the people in my own group, who returned the same bewildered expression. Why on earth had S pretended not to know us, when we had been classmates for seven years? S and I had been to each other’s houses on numerous occasions. We’d been to parties together and done each other’s make-up. I had never argued or fallen out with her in our whole time at school. After uni we had met up for coffee a couple of times, but simply lost touch. I bore S absolutely no ill-will whatsoever. Yet here she was, a few feet away from me, acting as though she had never met me. Then, as she sauntered over to the bar, she looked straight at me. I raised my hand in a wave and smiled at her. She looked away and kept walking. I was completely perplexed.

I tried to join my group in laughing it off; pretending it didn’t matter. But the truth was, it did matter. I wished I was brave enough to march over and demand answers. But instead I was left feeling confused. To varying degrees I felt angry, upset, amused, hurt and suprised. I knew, rationally, that it shouldn’t have mattered to me. Someone I’d barely seen in sixteen years and am unlikely to see in the next sixteen years didn’t want to have a conversation with me. It shouldn’t have mattered to me. But it did. And I continued to brood over what I could have possibly done to offend S to this degree.

Until it suddenly hit me. This was precisely the kind of thing I’ve been writing about in this blog. The lyrics from Wicked. The Serenity Prayer. Why was I letting myself get upset over something I couldn’t change? So this is what I did:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

… I decided that S’s issues were for her to deal with. If she chose to reject my offers to reconnect with her, there was nothing I could do about this.

Courage to change the things I can;

… I really enjoyed talking to other old friends. So I made a date with them to meet up at the pub in a few weeks time.

And wisdom to know the difference.

… It took me a while but I got there. I cannot change the way others choose to act and respond to situations. I can only change the way I behave and the decisions I make.

I still can’t help wondering why S behaved the way she did, but I suppose I’ll never know. I’m still very pleased I went to my old school today. I enjoyed catching up with my old pals and am looking forward to seeing them again in a few weeks time. Accepting rejection is hard for anyone, but today I think I may have managed to do it.

Fifty Shades Of Wrong

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last month you’ll have noticed a lot of talk amongst women about a certain Mr Grey. Around 11.00pm, Facebook is awash with updates along the lines of “I’m off to bed with Mr Grey now!”, and online discussions reveal the depth of many women’s ardour when it comes to this particular gentleman. In case you have just woken from a month-long coma, Mr Grey is the “star” of the phenomenon that is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy: books that started life as Twilight fan-fiction, went on to be ridiculously dubbed “Mummy Porn”, and are now being read by virtually every woman I know.

Of course I had to see what I was missing and am now halfway through the third and final book.

I have to confess to feeling perplexed. The books are, in my opinion, not terribly well written. The sex scenes are certainly explicit and frequent, but they quickly become monotonous and simply get in the way of the (often weak) storyline. Yet somehow, I am hooked. Despite all my logical objections to these books, I have found them to be compulsive reading – borne out by the fact that I have nearly reached the end of the trilogy.

But even more confusing are my feelings towards Mr Grey. I have to grudgingly admit that I am amongst the throngs of women who experience a shiver of excitement at the mention of his name. There are no two ways around it: he is attractive. Sexy. Downright hot. My confusion comes when I question why.

Christian Grey is controlling. He is obsessive. He has unpredictable mood swings. He suffers from paranoia and is deeply insecure. He is mistrustful and refuses to be open and honest with his partner, Ana. When Ana “defies” him (ie acts like a grown woman capable of making her own decisions) he physically abuses her. He expects constant sex. He has serious, deep-rooted emotional issues. He has a highly disturbing sexual history. In short, if Mr Grey was real I wouldn’t be in a relationship with him if he was the last man alive. It’s true that he is disgustingly, obscenely rich and is very generous with his money. And it is true that he very good-looking, and is an experienced and skillful lover. But these factors cannot possibly make up for his considerable shortcomings.

So why am I, and thousands of other women, inexplicably attracted to him? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that this isn’t the first time I’ve been attracted to a man who’s clearly not right for me. I have had four serious relationships as an adult. At the time, I honestly believed each one was Mr Right but in hindsight, it’s glaringly obvious that they were all Mr Wrong. I think it’s clear that I need to evaluate my criteria for choosing men – although at the moment I’m vowing to never step near another man again!

Am I the embodiment of the cliche that women can’t resist a bad boy? Perhaps I am an optimist who always chooses to see the good in people? Maybe I subconsciously think I can change someone to be the person I want them to be? Or could it be … there is no Mr Right? Is the answer as simple as saying that every man (OK, OK, every person) is flawed and has some less pleasant character attributes, but just to varying degrees?

For now my questions go unanswered. However I heard this evening that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more copies in a week than any other paperback, breaking J. K. Rowling’s record. So whilst my attraction to Christian Grey is fifty shades of wrong, I can at least be happy in the knowledge that I’m in good company. Right, you’ll have to excuse me. Chapter Seventeen is beckoning and I’ve got a hot date with Mr Grey.

To Status or Not To Status?

Just over a week ago my husband and I separated.  It was my decision (hence my previous posts about making changes in my life) and it was a long time coming, but this didn’t make it any less upsetting.  And following the day our marriage ended I had the difficult task of telling my immediate family and closest friends what had happened.  I dreaded these conversations, which were heavy with emotion … but little did I know this was the easy part.

Over the next few days it occurred to me that I needed to start telling people beyond my close circle.  But I had no idea how to bring it up.  It’s one hell of a conversation-stopper.  And that’s when I started considering the possibility of announcing my separation on Facebook.

I have read and heard a lot of negative opinions about people who live their lives through Facebook – those who document their lives in photos and status updates.  But for me Facebook has always been a lifeline.  I love sharing the hilarious things my children do and say.  I love that I have a whole community of friends who can pool their knowledge and wisdom on any problem I have, from what to do when my children are ill, to how to fix my laptop keyboard.  I love seeing photos of my friends’ families.  I love enjoying reading about the good things that happen in my friends’ lives.  Mostly I love the fact that, no matter how lonely I might feel, or no matter how difficult it is to get a babysitter so I can go out, real friends are only a click away.

So in a way it felt natural to let my Facebook friends know that I had ended my marriage.  It felt almost deceitful to continue chatting with them online and posting comments to their status updates whilst pretending everything in my world was normal.  I agonised over my decision for a couple of days.  Announcing the end of a marriage on Facebook was not something to rush into.  But I knew what I wanted to do.  It was important to me that my wider circle of friends knew how dramatically my world had changed, and this was the easiest way to do it.  My final decision came one evening when I was feeling tearful and low, and feeling the need to talk about what I was going through.

In the end I chose an indirect way of telling people.  A status saying “I’ve ended my marriage” seemed too callous.  So instead I wrote a status update saying “Think it’s just hit me how much harder life is going to become”.  Usually I am irritated by people who write statuses clearly designed to make others respond with “What’s wrong?  What’s happened?” but in this case I felt it was justified.  The friends who cared enough to ask were the friends I wanted to tell.  The inevitable questions came quickly, and so I replied with the truth.  And it was done.  I had announced the end of my marriage on Facebook.

And how pleased I am that I did.  The messages of support and love were completely overwhelming.  Each time someone sent me an encouraging message I felt a bit stronger and a bit more able to cope with my new reality.  I’m sure not many of these people knew the true impact of the few minutes they had spent sending me their good wishes, but the cumulative effect was tremendous.  Maybe you’ll see what I mean if I show you just a selection of the comments I received:

We are all here for you.

You’re such a strong person.

I’m here if you need any advice.

You know where to find me.

You are such an amazing person.

I have found it easier on my own.

It does get easier.

You’re stronger than you think.

Big hugs.

Let me know if you need to talk.

Really praying life gives you a break.

Your two beautiful children will keep you strong.

You deserve to be happy.

I think you are incredibly courageous.

I’m always on the end of a phone.

The hardest part is over.

I hope you’re OK.

Sending lots of love.

Been thinking of you.

You are amazing.

You will be the best Momma there ever was.

Sweetie, always here for you.

You’ve kicked the arse of adversity in the past.

The comments above are all genuine quotes from messages I have received on Facebook in the last few days, and each of these comments was sent by a different person.  Some are from friends I speak to daily, some from people I haven’t seen for 15 years.  Alone, each message is kind and gives me a boost.  Cumulatively they make me feel I can take on the world.  If this many people have faith in me and my ability to cope; if this many people think I’ve got what it takes to be a great Mum; if this many people are only a click away when I’m feeling low – how can I possibly fail?

So.  To Status Or Not To Status?  My answer to this question is clear.  As another wise friend also commented on Facebook: “Week One is the hardest”.  Well if that’s the case, I’m laughing.  Because I have survived Week One in tact, thanks to the love, kindness and support I received after one little status update.  Thank G-d for Facebook.

Because I’m Worth It

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m worth. There have been some pretty major aspects of life causing me a lot of unhappiness and the message from those who care about me has been consistent: “You’re worth more than this. You deserve better.”

But who’s to say what any of us are worth; what any of us deserve? Is there a scale against which such things can be measured? It feels like the kind of quiz you’d find in a teenage girls’ magazine:

What are you worth?

Q1) Would your friends describe you as:
A) Kind and generous
B) A bit lazy
C) Deeply offensive to everyone you meet

Q2) Do you prefer:
A) Giving your time to those who need it
B) Spending money on things you don’t need
C) Kicking puppies in the head

Q3) Would you ideal job be:
A) Nurse
B) Accountant
C) Assasin

Results:
Mostly As: We’re not worthy! You’re one of life’s good people and definitely deserve the best of everything.
Mostly Bs: You put yourself first a bit too often, but still deserve some good things in your life.
Mostly Cs: You’re completely worthless. You deserve for everything to go wrong and for life to be an uphill struggle.

Of course this is silly. We’re all complex and changing. We’re all capable of being “good” and “bad” and have all done things of which we are proud and things of which we are ashamed. So what do I deserve? What am I worth? And is it any different to anyone else? Surely we all deserve a life that is simply the best it can be?

And if we decide we’re “worth more”, whose job is it to make that happen? Is it enough to know we deserve better and wait for the universe to put things right? I do believe in fate (and in G-d for that matter), so maybe this idea isn’t so ridiculous. But I also believe in free will. I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves to grasp the things we deserve and to make our own life, and the the lives of others, as fantastic as it can possibly be.

My friend Debbie wrote a recent post in her own blog (http://morahmummy.blogspot.co.uk/) in which she discussed the difference between choice, destiny and luck. It was very thought-provoking and felt very relevant to me in light of changes that have been happening in my life, and it’s what inspired this post. Debbie has her own take on it which I’ll let you read for yourself.

But for me, it goes back to my core belief, and the basis of this blog: summed up by a verse from a song in Wicked that I keep quoting:

I’m through accepting limits
‘Cos someone says they’re so.
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try I’ll never know.

So what are the things I cannot change? I cannot change luck. Or can I? “You make your own luck”, or so the saying goes. So maybe luck is more about creating the right set of circumstances for something good to happen – being in the right place at the right time, so to speak.

OK, well I cannot change destiny. Or can I? I do believe in fate, but I believe in free will more. Do I really subscribe to the notion that the person I’m meant to be, the things I’m supposed to do, the attributes I’m intended to have, are all written in stone? No, to be honest. I believe all of these things can be changed, according to the paths I choose to follow.

And what about choices? Well this is the most difficult one of all. Because choices – the big choices, I mean – are scary. So often we stay in a situation that makes us miserable because we’re frightened to make the choice to change things. What if I regret my choice? What if it makes things even worse? Until I try I’ll never know.

So, in the name of staying true to myself and my beliefs, I have made some choices recently. Some pretty bloody big ones. The months I spent agonising over them were awful, but as soon as I made them and saw them through, I knew they were right. Because no matter how you measure it, I do deserve more. And it’s up to me to make sure I get it.

It’s Important To Be Nice

I’m going to use today’s post to tell you about some really nice things that have happened to me.

Firstly, to put it into context, I’m currently going through what I guess could be described as A Difficult Time.  Health, work, money – it’s just all a bit stressful right now.  So when A Nice Thing happens, it means a lot.

Nice Thing No 1.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my son J is obsessed with shop logos.  Same goes for adverts on TV.  He has a few that he loves (can’t get enough of those meerkats) but his absolute favourite is the advert for the insurance company Direct Line.  So deep is his love that for his third birthday in March the only cake he would even consider having was a Direct Line cake.  My very talented friend V made a beautiful edible replica of the red Direct Line telephone which was almost too brilliant to eat.  Almost.

Now, when J is feeling stressed or anxious, one of the things that calms him down is sitting at the laptop together and doing a Google image search for Direct Line. On one of these occasions, a few weeks ago, we came across a photo of a little boy holding a copy of the Direct Line phone that looked just like the real thing.  We clicked on the photo and found ourselves looking at a website made by a man about his family.  The little boy was his son.  I clicked the “email me” button and apologetically asked the man where he had found this wonderful toy.

A few days later I received a reply.  The photo was, he said, over ten years old and the phone was long gone.  However – surprise – the man told me he actually works for Direct Line, and would ask whether there were any more of the phones around.  Nearly a month went by and I heard nothing.  Quite frankly I’d forgotten about him. Then out of the blue I received another email: “Hi there!  Good news!  We’ve finally tracked down one of the phones!  Can you give me your address so we can send it to J?”

I had confirmation that the phone was posted today and will arrive tomorrow.  I can’t wait to see J’s face.  Of course the cynical amongst you will comment that Direct Line are obviously good at public relations.  But I choose to see this as the kindness of a stranger.  The man didn’t have a big box of the phones under his desk, waiting to be posted out to anyone that asked.  It took him weeks to track the phone down.  The email trail shows me that he went from department to department – asking, nagging, expressing a wish to provide a treat for a little boy with autism.  He didn’t need to do it, but he did.  So there we have it: Nice Thing No 1.

Nice Thing No 2.

I have come across an excellent charity who provide iPads for autistic children and schools in return for old mobile phones.  iPads have been shown to be wonderful resources for children on the autistic spectrum, helping them to develop their communication skills, their co-ordination, their language … and *all* I need to do is send them 165 old mobile phones.  So last week I duly sent an email to everyone I know, and posted a plea on my Facebook.  Lots of people have pledged phones to me and are asking in their workplaces, so I’m hopeful, though so far I’ve only received four.

Out of the blue, I received a Facebook message from a friend.  She had been speaking to her Mum (who I know well) and another mutual friend about how much they would love to help.  She asked whether I would object to them organising a fund-raising event to buy J his own iPad?  Would I object??  How could I possibly object?  It was one of the kindest, most selfless offers I’ve ever received.  Rather than object though, I did ask whether I could change the focus.  Whilst it would be fantastic for J to have an iPad, what I really want is to turn his bedroom into a calm, welcoming sensory space, tailored specifically to his needs.  I asked how they would feel about raising funds for this instead, as it would be completely beyond my means without some financial assistance.  Very quickly I received a reply from my friend – and she didn’t only readily agree to the suggestion but had even taken the time to do some preliminary research into suppliers of sensory equipment.

They will be discussing what the fundraising event will be in due course (watch this space!) but I am just so incredibly grateful for these three people who wanted to do something nice for my little boy.  The kindness of friends should never be underestimated.

I once knew someone who had a fridge magnet that said “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice”.  I secretly scorned these words.  At the time I was embarking on a new career, had just bought a house, and was moving up in the world.  Now, quite a few years later, I understand exactly how true those words are.  The kindness of friends and the kindness of a stranger have been more important to me than they could ever know.

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

As a secondary school teacher of PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) one of the topics I have taught for the last seven years is Sex & Relationships Education (SRE). My favourite lesson, year on year, has always been the “ask it basket”. This enabled students to write their questions anonymously and unless they were completely inappropriate, I would answer them in the following week’s lesson. The reason I enjoyed this lesson so much was that it was always refreshing to see how little my students actually knew about S-E-X. As teenagers in a tough inner-London borough there was an unspoken assumption that they knew it all, yet I had the opportunity to see an innocent side usually hidden from my colleagues.

For the first couple of years I thought their questions were pretty darned hilarious. They ranged from “What is camel toe?” (it was hard work persuading them it wasn’t an STI) to “How do you make a sexual intercourse? Do they shake?” A regular that kept popping up was “Is it true that if you drink enough Dr Pepper [sometimes there was a Red Bull variation] you can’t get pregnant?” Again, I confess to having a bit of a giggle in the staff room at this one. However when the same question was written for me multiple times in every class I began to feel uneasy. And when dozens more students asked me exactly the same question a year later, I realised how un-funny it actually was.

The borough had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country. As teachers we would not usually be told about student pregnancies, and if a girl came back to school after a few days off it never would have occurred to us to wonder whether she had had a cold or a termination. But I remember being told in my second year of teaching that 12% of girls in our borough would be pregnant before they were 18. Even then, this statistic didn’t mean much to me. But one day I did the maths. Every class I taught had around 32 students, around half of whom were girls. This meant an average of 2 girls in each class would fall pregnant while still at school. I taught 20 different classes a week. So in the course of a year I would teach around 40 girls who would fall pregnant whilst still in childhood themselves. It was a sobering thought – especially given that it was my responsibility to teach them SRE. We covered STIs, contraception, abstinence, risky behaviour … yet numbers of students were still convinced that avoiding pregnancy was as simple as quaffing a particular soft drink.

But our teenagers will not change. They will continue to put themselves at risk rather than admit to their peers that there are things they do not know. The shame of ignorance is too much to bear – and because teenagers are, by and large, mean and sadistic creatures, the likelihood is that they will laugh and mock the student who dares to raise their hand and admit they do not know what camel toe actually is.

OK, so we know that teenagers would rather chew off their own arm than confess to being less “streetwise” than their peers. But am I the only one who still, in my mid-30s, nods and smiles rather than ask someone to explain a term they have used? The workplace is probably the worst place for this. I know how businesses work. I watch the Apprentice. Though actually the public sector is no different. Nearly all working environments are full of jargon, acronyms and specialist vocabulary and most of us must, at some point, feel that admitting ignorance is to show weakness. It’s not only at work that this happens. Other mothers at my children’s play groups happily talk about whatever all-the-rage fad is currently doing the rounds for the todder-about-town … a certain range of food; a brand of clothing; a pre-school singing class. Not wanting to be the pariah, the outcast (or in my mind, the “saddo”) who hasn’t yet caught on to that particular trend, I stay quiet rather than announce loudly: “I’ve never heard of that range of nappies! Please tell me what I’m missing out on and where I can buy them!” I want to be accepted by these women, not pitied or laughed at.

But why? Why do we feel it is more important to worry that people will think less of us, rather than trying to avail ourselves of all the information we can gather to help us live happy, safe and well-informed lives? As my students show us, ignorance is not always bliss. Ignorance is sometimes a teenage mother living on a council estate, struggling to make ends meet and wondering where it all went wrong.

So I say wear your ignorance proudly! You have nothing to lose by asking questions. It’s the not asking that will get you into trouble.

… Oh and if you don’t know what camel toe is, you only have to ask!

Don’t Limit Me, Dammit!

Right now I am feeling limited, frustrated, irritated – downright pissed off, to be honest – by the incompetence of others.  You’re going to need to read my previous post “Accepting Limits” to know what I’m talking about in this one.

So having spent a painful couple of hours on the phone to the nincompoop (great word huh?) at Job Centre Plus on Wednesday, yesterday I received a letter from them which I’ve only just got around to opening.  In it is a 26-page document, which details all the answers I gave the nincompoop.  It states that I have until 6th July to check the answers and provide the missing information.

Hang on … missing information?  How can anything be missing?  I answered every question in detail: explaining, spelling, explaining again.

So here’s the source of my pissed-offness.  It’s full of mistakes.  Why ask me a question if you’re going to totally ignore my answer?  I specifically told Mr N C Poop that I bought my house on 13th August 2006, so why did he type in 21st April 2009?  I took the time to spell the name of my GP, so why is it spelled wrong on the form?  The form agrees that I am caring for someone with a disability, but why does it say he does not receive DLA when I clearly said that he does?  The list goes on.  He’s typed in the wrong start date for my own DLA.  He’s spelled another name wrong.  After asking me who my mortgage lender is, he’s chosen not to enter it in to the form (which is information I am now being told to provide by 6th July OR ELSE).  And worst of all – after the whole discussion about my Primary Immune Deficiency and the weekly antibody replacement therapy I receive, without which I’d probably die – I am stunned to read “Specialist treatment: None”.

Aaaaaaaaargh.

So now I have to type a response, providing the”missing information”, trying to explain yet again what my condition is and what specialist treatment I receive.  I feel about ready to give up.

And here’s the thing.  Without wanting to brag (for more on bragging see my previous post “Embracing Limits?”) I am of above-average intelligence.  I went to an excellent school and achieved First Class Honours in my degree.  I am a qualified teacher, and have post-graduate qualifications.  I have an abundance of common sense.  So if I’m struggling, how on earth is Jane Average supposed to manage?  I asked myself the same question when I was filling in the 40-page form to claim Disability Living Allowance for my son.  The questions were complex and confusing, and the form took me three weeks to complete.

I am not trying to claim anything to which I am not fully entitled, yet I am meeting barriers and difficulties at every stage.  It doesn’t only take intelligence to answer the questions and complete the forms – it also takes confidence in one’s own ability to challenge supposed authorities, for whom it is in the job description to speak in a patronising tone and make people feel guilty for wanting what’s rightfully theirs.

So to any Sun and Daily Mail readers who like to wax lyrical about chavs “sponging off the state” I have this to say: TRY IT.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to sponge??  Believe me, I wouldn’t be forcing myself to see this through if I felt I had any other option.

So far in this fledgling blog I’ve written about accepting our own limitations whilst supporting and encouraging others.  But today my right to claim what’s mine, and my chance to support my family, have very nearly been limited by one person’s complete incompetence.

OK rant over.  I’d better get on with writing my response to be sure they receive it by 6th July.

Dear Mr Poop …