We live our lives by routines.
When we put the children to bed we read them a story, then we ask them how many hugs and kisses they want (they aren’t usually allowed more than a hundred, because it takes too long), then we ask if they want a song, then we say the Lord’s Prayer. We do these things, in this order, every night.
The boys like to eat bread for breakfast, not toast, except at the weekend, when they have cereal. They do not want cereal during the week and they do not want toast at the weekend.
I buy the paper on a Saturday, every Saturday. If we forget or go away, I feel strange all week. I read the main section on Saturday, the Family section on Sunday, the Review section during the week, the magazine goes in the bathroom and I read it during my baths, because I don’t like getting real books wet.
So, yeah, we like our routines in this house.
I use timetables for homeschooling, and I work through planned lessons, carefully coveting the National Curriculum.
But, sometimes, stuff happens. Sometimes we have a visitor, or someone throws a major strop, or something important gets broken. Then we can’t stick to the plan.
Sometimes that’s a great thing!
This week, my mum brought the boys some plastic cubes when she came by. And they made beautiful patterns:
This week, I left our wellington boots at a friend’s house by mistake. So, instead of our planned walk in the woods, we popped into a garden centre. The boys were really excited to choose seeds and plant them at home.
This week was half term and we got a call to ask if we’d like to spend a day with a friend and her children. We ignored our schedule for the day and went to the zoo.
Schedules are great and – most of the time – they keep us sane. But some of the best fun, and some of the most wonderful learning, comes when the schedule gets messed up and stuff just happens.
We’ve had a few rough days recently. Eldest has discovered that he is pretty strong and I can’t actually stop him breaking things. I imagine this is a pretty scary realisation for him. I think we’d all hoped that he would be a bit stronger emotionally before he became so strong physically.
I am hoping that our regular routines and patterns will help him see that, though I can’t physically contain him anymore, I can still be trusted to keep him safe. I’m hoping that if I keep creating positive moments together, he will know that I still feel good about him, even if I get upset when he hurts me and breaks my things. He helped me hang our the washing, and I think he enjoyed being useful rather than destructive.
To be honest, I am only guessing at how this feels for Eldest. He hasn’t been able to talk to us at all.
I know how it feels for me, though, and that matters too.
I feel like I’ve failed. Since the boys came home, I have said that ‘we must help them control these tantrums before they get too big for me to cope with’. I haven’t managed it. We’ve reached the point where the boys are too big for me to control, and we haven’t managed to equip them with the skills to control themselves.
I look back on all the bad days when I lost my temper and wonder how many of those I needed to get right to avoid reaching this point. If I had been a bit better at taking care of my own needs in the early days, could I have given more to the boys? Or would I have needed to be completely different?
When I can’t give Eldest what he needs, I feel useless. What’s the point of having him here with me, if I can’t head off these tantrums? My husband has much more presence and is able to calm Eldest down much quicker than I can. That makes me feel useless, the lesser parent.
During the actual rows, I find that I fill with adrenaline. I want to fight sometimes; I feel so angry. Sometimes I am scared, not the good-mummy-scared that he might hurt himself, just scared that he might really hurt me. Sometimes I feel jealous. There are moments when I think it might be nice to stop being responsible and start smashing a few things myself. When Eldest taps into his darker side, he wakes mine up too. I have to work on controlling myself.
But, that isn’t going to help us now. I am certainly not the perfect parent, but I am the one that my boys have got. I may have failed to meet one goal, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still succeed in the long term goal of helping the boys to grow into independent adults.
We have a new goal now and we have new strategies. There isn’t a lot that I can do when Eldest loses control. But, I can do a lot in the aftermath. I can get alongside him and show him how to repair things and relationships.
I can love him through the tantrums. I can remember his positive qualities for him when he forgets them. I can hold on to the boy who is gentle with his baby brother, the boy who helps me cook, the boy who saved his pocket money to buy his Nana a present. Eldest needs me to remember that side of him, because he sometimes forgets it himself.
Most importantly, I can keep working on managing my own temper. I can try to show him how it’s done. I can show him how to handle anger and fear and how to walk away from a fight. I still have plenty to offer my biggest boy, and he still has a lot of growing to do.
Change can be rough for my boys. Suddenly realising that they have grown bigger than they feel inside is a lot to deal with. It’s as though they’ve been put behind the wheel of a land rover when they only just worked out how to control a bike. I anticipate a lot of crashes in the near future.
But, I also anticipate progress. So far, Eldest has astonished us with his persistence and his hard work. That probably isn’t going to stop now. He is a remarkable boy and I truly believe that he is going to achieve his own aims.
I guess that’s the answer to my hopelessness at the moment: I can’t fail completely, because I am not alone. I have my husband, my parents, my siblings, my friends; I have a whole team working on this. And the boys are not sacks of potatoes waiting to be shifted nor wild creatures needing to be tamed. They are active participants and they are also trying to get better at being the lovely young men they want to be. Together, we stand a chance.
Just to finish on a positive note, the big boys made each other a mug, here they are:
We will have plenty of good moments even in the worst of days.
It was one of the big questions before we adopted, back when we were still wondering whether adoption was ‘for us’, whether we could be the ones who took in one of those children smiling plaintively from the Local Authority posters.
Would I be able to love them?
Would adopting be ‘real parenting’?
Well, it was always a foolish question. I love my children, of course I do! And I am a very real mummy.
But, two years ago I suddenly found out whether I loved my adopted children like a birth child, because I had a baby boy.
The easy bit first. I do love them all equally. I was terrified that I wouldn’t (and I don’t think I would ever have admitted it to anyone, had it gone like that). But in the event it was fine. The baby came and I realised that the love I have for him is no stronger than the love I have for the big boys. I love all my boys just the same amount. Phew!
When I was first feeding the baby I found (as I am told many mothers do) that I leaked milk whenever he cried. Apparently it’s a hormonal thing. But I also found that I leaked milk when my big boys had tantrums! My hormones didn’t distinguish at all between a hungry baby and a tantruming school boy. Mildly inconvenient, of course, but also kind of reassuring. On every level, I love all my boys exactly the same amount.
But, the harder part is: do I love them the same?
And I don’t think that I do.
There’s an ease in my relationship with Baby. Firstly there’s the incredible ease of intimacy. When I first met my older boys they were four and three years old. I remember feeling incredibly awkward about taking them to the toilet. The first time I bathed them, I felt a bit weird. The first time they saw me undress (I was taking them swimming – even now I feel the need to excuse this) was frankly rather unsettling. I was terrified that someone was going to accuse me of some kind of abuse. They weren’t really mine yet and that level of intimacy seemed wrong.
When I first met my baby, however, it was completely different. He grew inside me, he was born out of me. My blood and his blood were all mixed up and I hugged him to me: bare skin on bare skin. Incredible. It has never felt strange to hold any part of my baby. Washing him, breastfeeding him, even having him climb in the bath with me, they all feel perfectly natural.
When the boys first came home, we had to grow closer and get used to each other. As they get older, I try to balance this need to bond with their need to grow up and away from me. With Baby, it is so much simpler. At first he was part of me, then he was almost constantly attached to me, as he gets older, he only has to grow in one direction: away.
Then there’s the cheerfulness of the baby. From a ridiculously young age, Baby has been happy to play by himself. If something doesn’t go his way, Baby needs a bit of a cuddle, maybe a distraction, and he’s fine. Baby simply doesn’t have the same panics and terrors that haunt his brothers. I just don’t worry about Baby in the same way. I don’t protect him in the same way.
On the other hand, lots of things are just the same. They all surprise me sometimes. They all challenge me sometimes. They are all just like me in some ways (examples: Eldest reads ALL the time, Middly makes up endless little songs, Baby will do anything for chocolate). They are all completely foreign to me in other ways (examples: Eldest has an amazing sense of direction, Middly can draw remarkably well, Baby has an innate sense of rhythm). They are all utterly gorgeous and smell wonderful!
I think I had kind of assumed that a birth child would be more like me, than adopted children would be. But the day to day reality is more complicated. All my children are a combination of genes and environment. My big boys have brought elements of their birth family into our house, Baby has brought in old genes from ancient and distant relatives. Sometimes I can guess where bits of them might have ‘come from’, most of the time it doesn’t matter at all. Most of all, my boys are simply themselves, unique individuals.
While I am confident in my closeness with the baby, and merrily (well, ok, sometimes sadly) watching him grow up and away from me. I am always watching the older boys, carefully trying to draw them closer with one hand whilst guiding them towards independence with the other.
I love them all. I want to cuddle them all. But, the older two need something extra from me.
I have finally decided that I don’t love them all the same. And I don’t want to.
When I started home educating the boys, I began with a traditional school-at-home approach. I knew that we all needed routine and structure to the day. I also value academic learning and wanted to be sure that the boys were making progress.
As the months have passed, however, I have begun to see how much the boys can learn from self-directed projects. We still have routine, but the lessons involve a lot more space for exploring and experimenting, and less of me talking!
With their research projects, the boys have been learning a lot about science without my doing any teaching at all. It’s very exciting! I wanted to try something similar for Maths.
Previously I have taught the boys Maths using National Curriculum linked workbooks, designing extra exercises when they were having trouble. I mixed in a few games – like Pontoon, shape bingo, and clapping games – but the style of me teaching and the boys (ideally) learning didn’t change.
Using The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat is a big change for us. I read the boys a story about a cat. Then we have a couple of puzzles to solve. We solve the puzzles together, which the boys enjoy. Then, if they want, the boys explore the topics a bit more.
My husband was a little unsure about this approach to maths. Both boys make mistakes in basic arithmetic, and husband thinks that we ought to stick to practising this. He worries that they both make random guesses when faced with any problem involving numbers (truthfully, this makes me a bit nervous too).
The Penrose book looks at more than just arithmetic. It covers the Fibonacci sequence, golden rectangles, magic squares and other things that delight people who love numbers. If the boys are ever going to catch the love of maths, this seems like the book to do it! My hope is that the boys will take an interest in numbers and begin to ‘get’ them. Then, they’ll be willing to do sums and see how random guesses don’t make sense. They can do the sums when they want to, I think what they need right now is to find the joy of numbers.
Besides, it will take a couple of months to work through the book, and we can get back to workbooks then if it looks like a better option.
So far, it’s going well! Eldest was fascinated with mathematical stars and fractals.
Middly really enjoyed looking at binary and square numbers.
One big plus has been that, because these are maths conversations rather than workbooks, the boys have been excited about telling their dad, their Nana, their grandad, their uncles (basically anyone who cares enough to provide an audience) about what they’re learning.
We’ve had chats over dinner and scribbled on pub napkins to demonstrate an idea. It’s early days, but, there is a slim chance that the boys are starting to see why numbers are so much fun!
Wish us luck!
Screaming, throwing things, hitting and kicking: clear and obvious signs that the boys are overwhelmed.
We try – obviously – to avoid Overwhelm. We have routines.
We have clear expectations.
(My ‘solution’ to the problem of the boys asking for things when I was in the middle of nappy changing, then getting furious when I didn’t respond instantly.)
We try to keep our lives as calm as we can. That doesn’t mean we are able to avoid Overwhelm all the time. Sometimes there are too many people and Eldest gets overwhelmed. Sometimes we have too many outings and Middly gets overwhelmed. Baby – being a toddler – can be overwhelmed by dropping a biscuit or being asked to tidy away his puzzle. Come to think of it, all three can be overwhelmed by being asked – or, even worse, told – to do something.
When the boys are feeling overwhelmed, it can help to talk or cuddle. We frequently have recourse to Biscuit Re-sets (when you have a drink and a biscuit and agree to start the day again). Eldest likes to retreat to his room and read for a bit. Middly likes to hide under things and close his eyes.
I wouldn’t say that I had it sorted, but I have a lot of ideas about how to help my boys get themselves through the feeling of Overwhelm.
Last night, however, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before. I was thinking about how behind I am with the laundry and how tricky next week’s plan has become and how long it’s been since I wrote and how long my To Do list has become. I started to feel panicky and hot. I couldn’t see where to start to unpick the complications and piles of neglected tasks.
Turns out I can suffer from Overwhelm too.
Obviously, I need to sit down somewhere with a drink and a biscuit. Time for a Mummy-Re-set.
I can’t do everything. I am never going to be perfect. But, I can take a few minutes to recharge myself, prioritise the To Do list (cut a few things to give me breathing space!), mess about online for a bit, and get myself through the Overwhelm.
My boys actually love to read. They both read for pleasure and talk enthusiastically about their favourite authors. I’m very grateful for this. So I probably shouldn’t moan, but . . . some of the stuff they read is abysmal.
They own a lot of books, of course. They read lots of fact books and lots of novels. They have Roald Dahl, Michael Morpuergo, C. S. Lewis and Dick King Smith: all perfectly reasonable. I have managed to get Eldest to try a few of my old favourites: The Prisoner of Zenda, Around the World in Eighty Days and Treasure Island.
But, other people buy them books too. So they have some Enid Blyton, some Cressida Creswell, even a few TV tie-ins.
Some of the nonfiction they’re given is a little strange too!
But, the really worrying stuff starts once we go to the library.
I won’t allow them to take books from the adult or the ‘teenage’ sections (you have to leave something to look forward to). So I hadn’t expected quite the problems we’ve had.
Why on earth are there so many disgusting books around for children?
I took the boys to the library today and this is one of the books that Middly chose:
Really? Did the world ever need a book called Fleabag Monkeyface?
I have two concerns about books like this.
Firstly, there’s the teaching potential. Are these books going to teach my boys crude language or bad behaviour?
Alright, to be fair, my boys know a lot about bad language already. That isn’t my biggest concern. Though, I think it is a concern for most parents!
Secondly, there’s the normalising effect. Seeing one another behave badly makes bad behaviour seem ‘normal’, which encourages similar behaviour. What if reading rude words and unpleasant behaviour makes that seem normal and encourages more of that?
We don’t need any encouragement to behave rudely in this house.
I am very aware of an attitude towards children – and, it seems to me, especially towards boys – that it doesn’t matter what they read ‘as long as they’re reading’. Personally, I cannot agree. There are only so many hours of reading, why encourage anyone, however young, to waste those hours on reading rubbish?
It does take an effort to read some books. I want the boys to be willing to make an effort for good writing.
I think it’s insulting and patronising to suggest that boys need to be tempted into reading by copious mention of bodily fluids. Boys are perfectly capable of enjoying adventure stories and making up their own gags about poo. As a grownup and a mummy, I feel it is my role to tut at the dramatic burping, not to join in. Eldest likes to giggle whenever he reads ‘but’ (because it sounds like ‘butt’), which is up to him. I don’t want a book to join in. If the grownups refuse to be grownups, where is the space for the boys to be boys?
I will admit that I’m a bit of a book snob. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t want to pass this trait on to the boys, which is why I let him take it out.
All my mum had to worry about was Enid Blyton and whether the books that I chose were ‘challenging’ enough. Bah!
We’ve done a few Great Lessons now, and the boys have given some pretty impressive presentations (considering that they’re quite little 😉 ). Perhaps I began to rest on my laurels a little but. Perhaps I told too many people how pleased I was with how well this style of learning was going. Perhaps it had nothing to do with me at all.
Eldest got fed up working on his project this time. He just about managed a bit of research. He definitely enjoyed a trip to Grimes Graves (a Neolithic flint mine) and reading a Horrible Histories book on the ‘Savage Stone Age’. For three weeks, he scoured the floor for flint on every walk we took. What he didn’t do was prepare a project to present. When the appointed evening came, he gave us a – very – brief and not very accurate talk and showed us a drawing of a mammoth.
(This isn’t it.)
I was a bit disappointed. I found myself wondering what I’d done wrong. Was it the topic? Was it the books? Was I too enthusiastic about his work? Was I too restrictive with his flint-knapping experiments?
Eventually I decided that it doesn’t really matter. We all have projects that don’t quite go to plan. We’ll just see how the next one goes.
The same night, however, Middly gave his talk on the heart. He had a model made from a kit:
He talked about the structure of the heart and what it does.
He had a labeled diagram:
And he had the longest presentation he’s done so far! I was impressed by what he’d learned and by how enthusiastically he answered our questions about hearts.
At the end of the day, these projects were never really about the talks. The real aim is the research and the enthusiasm. That, at least is still going strong!