The Art of Letting Go

L Sea

There is a big stone slab outside the washblock at the campsite in Wales where I holidayed a child, and where I now take my family. The stone is where the big kids congregate- the 7-10s during the day, clambering and tumbling and shrieking, with a slash of silver sea beyond the fields behind them. At night, the teenagers lean there, flirting and texting and churning inside, beneath an obscenely radiant starscape.

The campsite is the perfect setting for kids to taste freedom: quiet, remote, filled with friendly families. Even I, who can find danger in everything, can see that the biggest risk to a child there is a car driven at 5mph by a watchful mum or dad. I can remember the heart-pattering thrill that came from hanging out at the rock as the sun set and it got dark when I was a pre-teen: I was out, after dark.  It was ace.

Last year, when our daughter was six and our boy was three, I looked at the big kids at the rock, and I felt a similar thrill, looking forward to the time when my children would not be hanging off my hands and crammed into the shower cubicle with me shouting about why was I shaving my legs and would they be prickly any more- but would be Big Kids, running free at the campsite.

I have never mourned the passing of babyhood or wished I could pause time. I love my children getting older and more independent. But this year on holiday, I realised that kids don’t just become independent magically- we have to facilitate it. And that realisation was bittersweet.

Our fierce and feisty daughter craves independence– she always has. Of course, at seven,  she is still years from hanging out at the rock after dark. But now she is on the cusp between being a little kid and a big kid. This year on holiday, she would beg to go the loo on her own (visible from the tent, if I craned my neck), or to take a shower on her own (with me shouting from outside the door: ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?’). One day, we let her take the breakfast things and wash them up, on her own, and the beaming pride on her face as she carefully walked the few metres back across the field with a bowl of clean plates and spoons (but not the washing up liquid, sponge or brush, which she had left in the washing up room), makes me well up to think about it.

I tried very hard to give her these jewels of freedom, this year. I know that my overbearance frustrates her already. ‘You have to trust me Mummy. I am trustworthy‘, she says with her funny, formal turn of phrase as she scrambles over seaweed-slippery rocks away from me, or scampers off to the washblock alone. ‘I do trust you,’ I tell her. I don’t say out loud that I don’t trust the world, with its people and its vehicles and its unknown dangers.

But I can hear the heat of annoyance in her voice. I could see the reproach in her eyes when she walked to the washblock , and then turned back three times to see my eyes still on her. I don’t want to stifle her- not least because she will only kick back if I do. I know my girl, and I know now that I have to start letting her go. Slowly, slowly, but I do.

I thought I was letting go before- when the kids started childcare and school. I was proud of myself for doing it without feeling too tragic about it. In reality, I now realise, I was just passing them into the extremely watchful care of somebody else. The real letting go comes from allowing them to do stuff, on their own.

And I am only just realising is that it doesn’t just suddenly happen. There isn’t a ceremony which transforms a child from a tiny nugget who curls up in your lap while you toast marshmallows on the barbeque, to a great loping thing leaning against a rock with a phone in their hand, who only comes back when you shout across the field that the burgers are ready.

It isn’t a process- like your kids growing up phsyically- that you don’t notice day by day,  and then suddenly you see that their legs are too long for their jeans and their mouth is full of gaps and giant teeth. It doesn’t happen passively.

No, it’s an active process. As parents we have to make it happen. My girl is not so much slipping through my fingers, as being let out, let through, in tiny increments. A trip to the toilet on her own; a shower where she does it all herself and comes out with shampoo still dripping down her ears. A few minutes playing on the rock at the campsite while I do the washing up. The moment when I was upstairs packing to go on holiday, and she appeared- to my half-horror, half-pride- with a perfectly brewed cup of tea that I had no idea she was making. We have to let her have these small tastes.

I’m not very good at it, so far. But I’ve plenty of time to learn. Because as sure and natural as the tide, she will pull away, and her brother next. There’s nothing I can do about it, and nor would I want to. I can’t stop the tide, and it is my job- with a smile on my face even if I don’t feel it inside, and my heart it my mouth- to let go.

 

 

 

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The Unbearable Smugness of Being (on Instagram)

Grapes

When you type in ‘Instagram makes’ to Google, the first suggested result is ‘Instagram makes me sad’. Not far behind are: ‘Instagram makes me feel ugly’, ‘Instagram makes me jealous’, ‘Instagram makes me insecure’.

This is backed up by science and that. According to research, Instagram has a negative impact on young people’s mental wellbeing. You might think the same is true for parents. Which parent among us hasn’t clicked through to Instagram and been faced with image upon image of every other family doing all the stuff you feel guilty about not doing with your kids.  And of course, at summer holiday season this reaches a peak. My feed is filled with pictures of my friends and acquaintances grinning wildly as they enjoy #familytime with their tanned progeny, going on educational day trips, frolicking in the surf and somehow managing to transport under-fives around European cities in 40 degree heat without, apparently, losing their minds.

And that’s when ‘Instagram makes me sad’, as I compare these images to our own home, where I am succumbing to letting the kids watch another round of Puss In Boots on Netflix- because these summer holiday days, they are long, and there are many of them (I bathed the children at 3.30pm today, I think I need an intervention). I can’t help but feel it’s all rather smug. That’s when ‘Instagram makes me insecure’.

But is it smug, though? I was given pause for thought when I took the photo at the top of this post yesterday. We were down on the allotment, and there was high excitement about minibeasts and runner beans and- yes- actual grapes in the greenhouse! I was going to post the photo on Instagram. But my thumb hovered above the screen, and I didn’t- because I suddenly realised that, to others, it would seem idyllic. It would seem smug.

What people would see from that (filtered) Instagram post is a wholesome family trip to our wholesome allotment, teaching the kids about produce and wildlife, enjoying time together instead of squabbling over the ipad. AND she’s wearing a bike helmet, which means we totally won at parenting because we took the kids out on their bikes.

And you know, our Saturday morning was all of those things. For a good 30 mins I did feel rather smug.

What the photo wouldn’t show was our daughter an hour earlier, whining ‘I don’t WANT to go the allotment’, then thundering up the stairs yelling “I’M NOT GOING”. Our son refusing to walk and having to be transported in the wheelbarrow. The fact that we forgot about suncream and I felt guilty the whole time that the kids’ necks might get burnt. The weeds that threaten to overpower our plot, and about which we have had a narky letter from the committee. The surprising but real allotment resentment that can erupt between co-parents, where ‘essential labour’ to one means ‘hallowed me-time that I’m not getting’ to the other. The fact that we stayed too long and didn’t feed the kids lunch until 2pm, which, DISASTER STRIKES.

It made me think: when we, as parents, post these aspirational moments on Instagram, maybe we aren’t inviting other people to aspire to be like us or slapping ourselves on the backs (well, some people are, either to make themselves feel better or to attract brand sponsors, and I have no truck with that sort of carry on). We’re reminding ourselves that there is magic in the mayhem and the mundane.  We’re aspiring to be the versions of ourselves that we live for: that version that catches their breath at how happy a moment can be, instead of swearing under our breath. We’re capturing the golden moments in a sea of ‘what the fuck am I doing?’

It’s a miracle of being a parent, that a day can be essentially quite tiresome, moment-to-moment, but when the babies are sleeping and the food is scraped off the floor, you can look back and it feels like the best day ever, because your kid said something funny or laughed when they went down a slide or held up a bunch of grapes with a cocky grin in the middle of your overgrown allotment. We’re all, it seems to me, seeing life through a filter, and that’s what gets us through.

So, fellow parents, bring me your pictures of allotments and your holidays, your gambolling children and your prosecco on the patio. I want to see your kid grinning in front of a dinosaur skeleton, mastering riding their bike, looking like an angel with the sun in their hair.

I celebrate the fact that you are watching your kid slide down a slide laughing, and for 30 seconds you can be in that moment, and not worry about lunch, or whether they have wet their pants. You want to share that, and I get it. Because so do I.

I see you, I’m with you. And I know you’re not (that) smug.