Measuring what matters

One at a time, they came forward and stood on the big white X on the floor. The big white X which meant ‘THIS IS WHERE YOU STAND’. You could see the concentration on their little faces. They looked out to the audience of parents and carefully delivered the lines they had been practising over the last few weeks. They recited poems and held up their art work. They talked about their favourite moments from this year. They stood proudly and spoke clearly. And then…..well, then they got into position for their Africa-inspired dance. They leapt and twirled and weaved around each other whilst waving brightly coloured bits of fabric. They danced their little hearts out and made mums and dads cry.

At the back of the hall, with parents seated either side of her, their teacher danced with them – full of enthusiasm, she leapt, twirled and waved a ribbon; encouraging her little charges along.

This was Year 2’s Leavers’ Assembly, which marked the end of these children’s three years at infant school. And what a long way they have come.

After this wonderful display, parents went into the dining hall where tables were laid with tablecloths and little vases of flowers. Teas, coffees and biscuits were served. ‘Oooh, we didn’t expect this‘, muttered appreciative mums and dads. This all felt like……..well, like a proper occasion. So we drank tea and ate biscuits as our little ones chatted away excitedly; and there was a real feeling of warmth and loveliness in the air. Many of us parents didn’t know each other three years ago, but a solid community and support network has built up around this school and these children. And now this group of parents mingled happily as they drank their tea, delighting not just in the achievements of their own child, but in the achievements of all of these children who have come so far since their first days in Reception.

As I left the school that morning, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame that the people who measure our schools and put together charts and graphs and league tables don’t see more things like this.

It’s a shame they can’t measure the pride these parents feel, the community that has been built, and the good feeling in the air over those teas and coffees.

It’s a shame they didn’t see that teacher, doing everything she could to encourage her class from the back of the hall. Joining in with their dance, leaping and twirling as she waved a ribbon around.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the child who was so shy during Reception that assemblies for parents used to make him freeze. He would never have looked up, looked out, delivered lines, or twirled around with a pink scarf the way he did in that leavers’ assembly.

It’s a shame they can’t see the confidence these children have developed – confidence when dealing with each other, with their teachers, and with other adults. Confidence to try new things, to step out of their comfort zones.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these youngsters have learnt to organise their play, resolve differences, take turns, and bounce back when things don’t go their way.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the little one who, a year ago, desperately wanted to join in with the football at lunchtime but didn’t think he was good enough. Look at him now as he runs off to join in, a huge grin on his face.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these children have gained in independence, maturity and resilience. How some of them used to struggle when they didn’t get the results they wanted, but have begun to learn how to deal with disappointment.

It’s a shame that, while we’re trying to decide how good schools are and whether we are ticking all the right boxes, so much about who our children actually are gets lost.

It’s a shame that so many of the important things don’t seem to get recognised these days. People, community, values. The determination, thoughtfulness, resilience and confidence that our children will take with them as they move onto the next stage.  Because ultimately, it is these things that will be the difference in the world. Not how quickly they can learn their times tables, or their understanding of a split diagraph.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Balancing boys

On being a bit of a teary, emotional mess at the end of a school year

We’re nearly there now, the home straight. One week to go.

You’d think I’d have got the hang of this by now…..this is my third year after all. But it’s still exactly the same, and with every end of term event it hits me just a little bit more.

It’s a slightly-teary-but-I-can’t-quite-express-why feeling.

It’s feeling the need to look through baby photos and toddler photos and….well, just all old photos; and tiny shoes and tiny clothes and then wondering how we got to this point. It’s knowing that I’m officially letting go of something that I’ll never get back.

It’s the end of a school year feeling.

Over the last few weeks the letters have kept on coming – discos, end of term assemblies, transition day, class photos, end of year reports. 101 events to remind us that our children are moving on, moving up, leaving this stage behind them. And then there are lists and more lists of what we need for the next school year. Forms to complete and sign and return. Us parents are full of good intentions – we will be organised and get onto this immediately (of course we will…..). In my end of term daze, I am trying my best not to be a walking ball of tears as I come to terms with the thought of the end of a milestone school year for us. No more Reception (this alone is enough to make me weep – I LOVE Reception) and one boy moving onto Juniors (which means a TIE…..if I think about it for too long, this will also make me weep).

It is hard to sum up just how much one school year means in a small person’s life (and in mine too). How far we have come since last September. How many excited stories and over-tired tears. How many milestones, achievements and proud moments. For the little ones down in Reception, getting used to the school day – registers, bells, menu choices, lunches, assemblies. Grazed knees and accident forms (we get a lot of these). New friends and new routines.  Grappling with holding a pen properly. The painful process of learning to read. Biff, Chip and Kipper. Bob Bug. Sounding out C-A-T and putting this together to make ‘GOAT’. And then that magnificent moment when something clicks and suddenly words (or some words at least) become recognisable as actual words and not as impossible puzzles to be solved.

For the bigger ones, overcoming fears, developing new skills, trying things which are way out of their comfort zone. Growing in confidence and maturity. Ready to take on new challenges.

And our teachers and TAs have been there with us through it all. Through the worries, the fears, the tears, and the proudest of proud moments. And I look at the thank you cards sitting in front of me and wonder what words could possibly express our gratitude, or how much this year has meant to us.

I’m not sure that the emotion that comes with the end of a school year will ever go away. It will change, but I suspect it always be there. There are other huge milestones in our children’s lives; but unlike other milestones, this is one that everyone is going through at exactly the same time. Every child, every parent, every teacher – getting ready to say goodbye and then go through it all again in September.

So please ignore me over here in the corner. Blubbing away as I say my thank yous whilst small boys tug on my arm desperate for snacks and more than ready to start their summer holidays.

I’m pretty sure I will be exactly the same again next year.

boys looking out

 

A Spoonful of Sugar

Are the Sherman Brothers real, mummy?’ / ‘Do they live on our planet, mummy?’ / ‘Do they live on our road?‘ (….because if they lived on our planet, why wouldn’t they live on our road, after all?)

I know quite a lot about the Sherman brothers these days. If you’re wondering who they are and why the obsession with them……well they wrote the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. Yes they did; along with countless other films. And we are very much in a Mary Poppins phase. If, like us, you are lucky enough to own the Mary Poppins soundtrack and if, like us, you listen to it on repeat in the car, then you will know that at the end of the CD there is an interview with the Sherman brothers – yes, we love listening to this too. If you want to know how the song A Spoonful of Sugar came about, just ask us.

Our Mary Poppins obsession has been going on since the beginning of this year and shows no sign of waning. You might think I’d be over it by now but the thing is, well I actually quite like it. It can continue for a while longer as far as I’m concerned. I mean firstly, the songs – they are just so good, aren’t they? Who wouldn’t want to hear a little boy singing Sister Suffragettes with gusto as he goes about his day? Equally joyous is seeing your children attempting to recreate the whole Step in Time dance routine. And I challenge you to try singing along to Let’s Go Fly a Kite without raising a smile….I’m not sure it is possible – it must be one of the most uplifting songs ever written.

It has never been particularly easy to get my three boys to sit down and watch a film together, but Mary Poppins is one of the few films that manages to keep them all gripped. It might be old, and it might not be as flashy as today’s children’s offerings; but I think this might actually be a big part of the reason why we like it so much. I know it makes me sound about 83 but…..well they just don’t make films like Mary Poppins anymore. So many children’s films now seem to be so complicated. I am the first to admit that following a complex plot is not one of my strengths, but if I can’t follow what’s happening in a film then what hope do my four year olds have? Often there are too many characters, everything is moving too fast, the whole thing is too loud, I struggle to understand what anyone is saying; and plots are long and convoluted.

Yes I know, I really do sound about 83. But there is something very comforting and reassuring about Mary Poppins. Yes, there are parts of the plot which might go over the heads of very small children – Mrs Banks the suffragette, for example. But the gist of what’s happening – a flying nanny with a bottomless bag who takes two children on magical adventures in London, and a father who, in the end, fixes a broken kite – well, we can all understand that.

Yes, I know it’s all very saccharine and Julie Andrews actually sings about spoonfuls of sugar, but isn’t the message of that song actually quite a good one for children? Not taken literally, obviously. But isn’t it saying that if we try to make everyday jobs fun then they will be easier to carry out? And isn’t that what we all try and encourage our children to do if we want to encourage them to get on with something? When their little legs get tired on a long walk, or when they don’t want to tidy their room, or when they’re bored sitting in a traffic jam? Try singing a song as you walk……Or making a race out of tidying up to see who can be quickest……Or playing I Spy to help pass the time.

So in these uncertain times when the country frequently feels like it’s falling apart, I’ll happily take a spoonful of sugar. In these days of special effects and flashy superheroes, I’ll take dozens of chimney sweeps stepping in time. I’ll even take Bert’s ridiculous accent. Films these days may be ritzier and louder and flashier. They might have more impressive special effects. But when you’re 4 and 6, nothing can beat those magical opening and closing drawers in Mary Poppins.

Sometimes, less is more. There’s a lot to be said for a plot you can understand. For catchy songs. For dancing on roof-tops. And for Mary Poppins soaring over London with her magical umbrella.

We love you, Mary. You can stay a while longer.

Mary Poppins

Happiness on a background of sad

It’s the end of half term. And it’s another day of awful news.

I have loved this half term; but the backdrop has been heartbreaking.

We’ve played under (mainly) blue skies and eaten too many ice-creams. We’ve walked miles, had running races, and scrambled up trees. We’ve ridden on trains and buses, and almost reached the riding-bikes-without-stabilisers milestone (or two out of three have, at any rate). We’ve had mini-adventures and some big adventures too. Of course there have been all the usual challenges, and plenty of them…… getting out of the house is still probably up there as the biggest challenge of them all. But overall, I have loved this half term.

It’s a strange feeling, though, creating happy memories against a backdrop of tragic news. It’s a strange thing watching your children joyfully race each other down a hill when your mind can’t stop going over recent events……. Manchester. Kabul. London. Sharing laughs and giving cuddles when you are struggling to comprehend what and why and how. When hearing that a van has driven into pedestrians triggers ‘attack‘ rather than ‘accident‘ in your mind – these are the times we are living in. And yet you, my beautifully innocent little boys, you know nothing about these troubled times. You have no idea what could make anyone angry enough to hurt so many other people. And so we carry on as normal – singing songs, laughing at jokes, eating Cheerios, watching Paw Patrol, squabbling over toy trains.

And yes, I know that for some people, for some families, this is their everyday. Trying to maintain normal for their children against a backdrop of horror…..often outside their own front door. Trying to explain to tiny children that the time has come for them to leave their home and all their belongings behind because it just isn’t safe to stay where they are any longer. Trying to keep some sort of routine, some semblance of normality for the sake of little people who have already seen and heard too much. I don’t know how they do it, these people.

In between all the bad news stories, political parties are canvassing for our votes. Telling us they’ll bring us together again, make sense of it all; put money here and save money there. They’ll make us safer. And as they canvas for votes, we wonder what sort of world you little ones are going to inherit. We read stories about underfunded schools and underpaid nurses. We wonder why the very things we value, the things which hold our society together, don’t appear to be worth investing in.  We want the world to be safe for you, and we are desperately sorry that right now, it doesn’t feel like it is.

And yet still, we laugh as you race down hills and whizz down slides – because that is all we can do. We can’t control everything that is happening out there; but, in these uncertain times, we can do our best to give you a haven, and to give you happy half term memories to hold on to. I hope that’s what we’ve done this week….I’m just so sorry it’s been against a backdrop of sad.

boys on bikes

A tale of three mums

This is Mum #1.

Business woman having boring call in office

Mum #1 has a job, but not what she would call a career. Mum #1’s job fits conveniently around her role as a mum. Mum #1 doesn’t mind her job, but it is probably not the job she would be doing if she did not have children. Mum #1 knows she is lucky to have a job that fits her current life; but at the same time Mum #1 spends a lot of her time feeling a bit embarrassed and like she has to justify herself.

No, I’m not sure it is what I want to do forever but it works around my life at the moment‘.  / ‘It’s so handy working close to home.’ / ‘I really like being able to do most of the school runs.

Mum #1 trots out these lines on a regular basis.

Mum #1’s job may be convenient and flexible but it is largely unchallenging. Mum #1 sometimes thinks about the path her life might have taken had she made some different decisions along the way. She thinks about the mums who have what she thinks of as proper jobs. Jobs that they would be doing whether or not they had gone on to have children. Mums who have a professional-looking headshot and mini-biography on an organisation’s website. Mums who attend important meetings. Mums who have a job-title which doesn’t require an explanation. Mum #1 frequently wonders what her life would be like if she had one of these jobs, but at the same time she knows that she likes picking her children up from school.

Mum #2 has a job with a proper name, the job she aimed for from being 15 years old. She puts her children to bed and then logs on to do a few more hours work Very busy business woman (2)
in the evening. Mum #2 knows that this is what is expected of her – she knows that no allowances will be made for her just because of her other role as a mum. There are plenty of others out there who would jump at the chance to do her job, so she needs to be at the very top of her game. Mum #2 feels guilty asking for a couple of hours here or there to attend her little one’s school assembly, and promises she’ll work later that evening to make up for it. Sometimes she can’t bring herself to ask for a couple of hours off; so she asks a friend to take photos for her instead.

As well as work, Mum #2’s head is full of before and after school childcare arrangements, and of the need to plan childcare for the next school holiday.

As soon she walks through the door in the evening, Mum #2’s children are hanging off her legs and wiping their noses on her favourite jacket.

Mum #2 spends a lot of time feeling like she has to justify herself to all the people who ask her why she has made the decisions she has.

I work because I like to set a positive example for my child/children.‘ / ‘We need my salary to pay the mortgage.‘ / ‘Things change so quickly in my field of work – I wouldn’t be able to get back into it again if I took time out.’

People ask her how she finds it being back at work. How she manages to do it all. Why she made the decision to return to her very demanding job. People don’t ask these questions of her husband. People don’t ask him why he decided to continue in the job he’d worked so hard for. People only tend to ask a man this question if the man decided to take a step back from work post-children. Mum #2 has noticed this.

Mum #2 loves having a job that is stimulating and challenging. She loves being with people who don’t only think of her as a mum. But sometimes, just sometimes, Mum #2 feels like she’s had enough of juggling all these balls. She feels like she’s had enough of trying to be everything to everyone. Of trying to give her all at work and at home. Of answering questions about why she does it and how she copes. Of attempting to make important phone calls from home while a sick child coughs and splutters and just wants to curl up for a cuddle. She thinks about Mum #3, who is always around if her children are sick and doesn’t need to frantically make alternative arrangements.

Mum #3 had a career and generally a very busy life Mother With Child Girl Draw And Paint Together
before she became a mum; but now she spends her days kneeling on the floor playing snap or building towers out of wooden bricks or pushing a swing, or doing finger paintings. Mum #3 didn’t go back to work after she had children – her hours were long and unpredictable, and her other half works shifts. She couldn’t quite see a way to make it work. Mum #3 always told herself that maybe she would go back to work once her children started school; but then her children did start school and Mum #3 wondered what job she could find that factored in a 9-3 school day and a 6 week summer holiday. Mum #3 still can’t quite see how to make it work and has lost confidence; even though she knows she is competent and qualified and was very good at what she did.

Mum #3 loves being able to pick her children up from school, and being at all the assemblies, and taking photos for her lovely friends who can’t make it to the assemblies, and going into school to read with the children, and doing library duty. But at the same time Mum #3 misses her old life. She misses spending time with people who know her as someone other than X’s mum. She misses using her brain for something other than deciding what to cook for tea, or remembering when the reading books need changing.

Mum #3 also spends a lot of time feeling embarrassed and like she has to justify herself. ‘Yes I do miss my old job but I can’t seem to find anything that fits around my children.’ / ‘My partner works shifts and my hours were really long so it just wouldn’t have worked.’ / ‘Yes, I know it’s a shame I’m not using my degree’.

Mum #3 sometimes gets tired of justifying herself, and of comparing herself to other mums.

So does Mum #2.

And Mum #1.

These aren’t all the mums, of course they aren’t – there are all sorts of variants out there. And of course there are the mums who are happy with the choices they’ve made…..mums who would never have dreamt of going down a different route – the confident-in-the-choices-they’ve-made mums.

But if you’re anything like me, you probably veer between feeling like you’ve made the right decisions one minute, and feeling like you should be doing everything differently the next. And whatever sort of mum you are (I am Mum #1, btw), you will often feel like you have to explain your choices to strangers.

boys on log

Mary, about those fishcakes…..

Now Mary, before I start…..let me just say that I do really like you. Everyone does, don’t they? I like your floral jackets, your pink nails, the way you stand (or stood, I suppose I should say) with your hands in your back pockets during Bake Off; the cheeky glint in your eye when you talk about enjoying a glass of wine in the evenings.

I love that you admit that life is too short to make your own puff-pastry.

I put up with the fact that the producers of your latest series, Mary Berry Everyday, milked the vintage/floral/cutesy/twee clichés for all they were worth; because….well because I like watching you. I like your sensible advice, and your food always looks delicious.

But Mary, it was the fishcakes that made me switch off when I was catching up on Episode 4 last week. Don’t get me wrong, Mary – they looked amazing. They really did. They looked perfect and crispy and had that amazing sauce oozing out of the middle. Yum.

And you tucked into them, knowing how amazing they were going to be and said something like ‘mmmmm, now those really are special. Do you know, I think that really is the perfect everyday supper.

Everyday supper??

EVERYDAY SUPPER????

The thing is, Mary, I find fishcakes a bit fiddly at the best of times. Even just regular fishcakes, let alone your extra special fishcakes. But here you are, popping your beautiful piece of smoked haddock in the oven, making your white sauce, merrily flaking the fish and mixing it with your already-cooked mashed potato, dividing your mixture and forming four perfectly round balls, making a little hole for your oh-so-indulgent filling, spooning in your sauce, folding over the tops of your fishcakes, dipping each fishcake into egg and flour and panko breadcrumbs (this bit, which is awkward and fiddly and always leaves my kitchen covered in egg-y, floury breadcrumbs; just looks so EASY and NEAT and TIDY when you do it Mary), then frying them until they’re beautifully golden (oh, but if you have time, you should also CHILL them for 30 minutes before you fry them so that they don’t fall apart…..you’ve already spent 5 hours on these fishcakes so what’s another 30 minutes?!), and THEN…..FINALLY putting them in the oven.

And after all that – the shaping, and the spooning in of the sauce, and the dipping and the frying and the baking; all you’ve got is a fishcake for your tea! I mean, they do look amazing and everything but surely you need more than a few leaves to go with your fishcakes don’t you, Mary?

All those steps, Mary – so many that I’m not even going to count them all – mean that your amazing fishcakes just aren’t going to work for me. Or for so many mums, dads, and people with normal jobs and normal lives. People who have to travel home from work and get in, tired and hungry, at 7.30 or later. People who have children to get to bed, work to catch up on; or just don’t have all day to spend preparing fishcakes.

For an everyday person, this is not an ‘everyday supper’.

Let me just explain a little bit further, Mary. My ‘everyday supper-time’ scenario usually looks like one of the following:

Scenario A:

Cooking a speedy after-school tea for the family because daddy will be home from work early, so we are all eating together at 5pm. One boy is having a meltdown because I won’t allow him to use knives unsupervised, another boy is forming a human bridge as he attempts to lie across two chairs which are currently placed some distance apart; and a third boy is astounded that I don’t automatically know who finished in the top five in the 2001 Premier League table. As I frantically try to cook and answer questions and keep my offspring away from sharp knives; I know that at least one boy will soon declare that he no longer likes a key element of the supper that is about to be served up to him.

Scenario B:

Making my way downstairs at around 7.45pm, ravenous but knowing that the last thing I want to be doing is chopping, stirring; or indeed anything that involves standing up. Worn out and beaten from at least 90 minutes spent getting my children washed and tucked up in bed. From fighting with a grubby boy who doesn’t want to get IN the bath, then fighting with the same now-slightly-cleaner boy who doesn’t want to get OUT of the bath. From playing let’s-hide-under-the-duvet-before-stories and remembering the order in which I’m supposed to do and say everything…..’go out of the room, now come back in, now lie on the bed, now say “where are those boys?”, now say “oh look, it’s a laughing duvet” ‘. Saying night night, sleep tight, see you in the morning, then saying it all again, and again; then taking a boy to the toilet once more, then giving another cuddle, another kiss; and then another one and another two because apparently this boy’s had more cuddles than that boy. Then answering questions about how long it is until morning, and what day it is, and what we’re doing tomorrow, and when we can go to Italy. And Portugal. And France. Then reading with the eldest boy, and saying perhaps it’s time to turn your light off now darling; you have done a lot of reading….. And the thing is, mummy really needs to cook the tea, sweetheart. Mummy is tired out and mummy is REALLY HUNGRY. 

And so Mary, tempting though your fishcakes look, as I stumble down the stairs at almost 8pm craving something quick and tasty and preferably cooked for me; the last thing I have in mind is coating my amazing indulgent fishcakes in panko breadcrumbs before chilling them and then frying them and then popping them in the oven.

I won’t hold it against you Mary, I still love watching you in your floral jackets. But perhaps in the next series, ‘everyday’ could actually mean ‘everyday’.

Mary Berry

School holidays are made for bickering

This year’s Easter holiday was when you perfected the art of telling tales. You had been working on it for a while but this holiday gave you a good couple of weeks to really work on your skills.

He called me poo.”  

“He says he’s not my friend.”

“He called me a BUTLER…….Did you hear me, mummy? He called me a BUTLER and it is NOT funny…….No, I don’t know what a butler is, but he just said it AGAIN.”

“He just TOUCHED me on the HEAD!” 

“He said I don’t know how to do my SEATBELT!”

“He tried to eat my SHOULDER!”

Don’t get the wrong idea, boys – I love having a job which is term-time only. I love not having to worry about childcare over the holidays. I love not having to think about sticking to a timetable. I probably spend around 80% of my work days looking forward to the holidays; I really do. I have grand ideas of things we are going to do during during our long and leisurely days…..We are going to make a pizza from scratch. We are going to make Easter cakes and biscuits. We are going to grow cucumbers (HA!).

I suggest that you write a list of some of the things you’d like to do over the holidays. Not today, you say – you’ll do it tomorrow. The list never gets written…..obviously.

But still, list or no list, we begin the holidays optimistically.  You enjoy the simple things – having time to play in the garden and to re-acquaint yourselves with your toys and books. I am doing my very best Julie Andrews impression – it is exhausting, let me tell you.

By the end week one, I am ready to poke my eyes out.

Apparently you all need to talk at the same time, nobody is able to talk at a normal volume, and everything mummy says has to be repeated at least three times. I wonder how anyone possibly manages to home-school their children. Seriously…..how would you get ANYTHING done?

But at the same time, I know that in a few years you will be doing your own thing during the holidays and I will probably long for these days back again. I won’t long for the fights and the squabbles and the tale-telling; but those bits probably won’t stand out to me as much as the special times. The excitement on your faces when I tell you that we’re gong to stay with your grandparents for THREE WHOLE NIGHTS over Easter. The cuddles and the squeezes and the little hands holding onto mine. Easter crowns, sitting at the front of the bus, picnics at the park, running up and down hills, ice-cream moustaches; and you begging mummy to join you for a game of football.

I know that at some point in the not too distant future, the very idea of mummy playing football with you will be truly horrifying.

The excitement when you, eldest boy, lost one front tooth and then the other a few days later. That beautiful, gappy smile and your eyes twinkling with joy when you found your coin from the tooth fairy.

I know that these days won’t last forever. I know that us tired, flustered parents need to do our best to see through the bickering and the squabbling, and treasure the special moments. And I will treasure them, honestly I will.

But it would help enormously if you could just remember that you are NOT poo (even if a four year old says you are, you’re really not), that despite your squabbles over who gets to choose their cereal first, you are all friends; and that…..well, there are worse things in the world than being called a butler.

boys on the bus