A sporting chance

All the rumours are true. PE has a very small place in the primary curriculum. E has an hour every week but I think some of that must be to get them all changed. So the school encourages them all to run around at lunchtime in the playground each day to make up for it.

Each term we’ve had a letter home about optional football classes run by Soccer Star Coaching, that take place on Friday nights at the local secondary school. E had no interest in this the first term and was so tired I would have had second thoughts anyway. But when I offered it at the start of the second term I didn’t expect her to be so keen. She was thrilled by the prospect so we signed her up.

First up, to buy some trainers. S went to the supermarket and picked up some plain white ones which were inexplicably labelled for boys. *rolls eyes* And so to the first session. She loved it from the off, running about and occasionally kicking the ball. Now we’re five weeks in and she’s been through her first penalty shootout, the enthusiasm is still there. But here’s what I noticed. The first thing is that she’s one of about three girls in a group of maybe thirty children. She’s not at the stage where this has bothered her yet, and a couple of the boys are in her class so she’s happy enough.

The next is that we clearly haven’t practiced football with her very much. There have been occasional kickabouts and the like but it’s not a serious pastime. Many of the boys have obviously been spending a lot of time with their dads in the garden.  E is also quite polite in games and won’t take the ball off another player because “he’s playing with it.”

All of this resonated with me as I’m currently reading Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play. It’s about women in sport and how society doesn’t encourage women to participate, or celebrate exercise – messy exercise. It’s a fascinating read and full of yet more barriers that we still have to overcome. The school element is important and it has been pointed out that children don’t do enough exercise from an early age which translates into teenagehood and adulthood. But also I remember being actively discouraged from sport from PE teachers at school, who were only interested in the netball team. God forbid the rest of us might be encouraged to do something, even walking. No it was ritual humiliation and sarcasm.

So, despite E not being v good at football, and I’m not sure she’s particularly good at her dancing class either, the fact that she enjoys them so much is key to me. There is a female coach at football and the whole thing is very inclusive for both sexes; there is a competitive element but it’s in a sporting way. We also took her swimming this afternoon, something she’s taken to very slowly, but there she was having fun and actually swimming in the pool today. She joins in with my yoga if I do it at home when she’s about, and she watches me go for a run each day. There is much giggling. I figure if I can give her a positive role model for enjoying sport then that’s half the battle.

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Action, adventure and kick ass heroines

fantastic-womenE received a book for Christmas called Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst (yes a descendant). It tells the story of some pioneering women who made changes for the good – including Jane Austen, Coco Chanel, Mary Seacole and E’s favourite, Mary Anning. To make sense of why they changed the world you have to start by explaining what was wrong in the first place. It starts off making a bit of sense – in Jane Austen’s day women didn’t really get to work and weren’t allowed to write books (I realise this is women of a certain class but one thing at a time eh?) but soon descends into nonsense. Women weren’t allowed to wear trousers? Chanel. Women weren’t allowed to vote – why? Because they were not seen as educated enough and too emotional. Pankhurst. Black women (and men) weren’t allowed to sit on the bus? Rosa Parks. Women (and men) had to hide behind a bookcase because they were Jewish? Anne Frank. Boiling it all down to terms a four year old can understand brings out the pettiness and stupidity behind much of this. Yet, I read somewhere that it’s best not to bring children up blind to difference but to talk to them about discrimination and to recognise it so they can help do something about it. This is a good start. Buy the book – it’s really good.

But sometimes you get bored of explaining the good fight. Sometimes you really want to be treated equally. Which brings us to the next thing. E and I celebrated the end of school and work by going to the cinema to watch Moana. I’d heard good things about it. It’s hard to say which of us loved it more – it’s packed with great songs and humour. But there was more. In so many books with female protagonists the main storyline, the main challenge, is a girl wanting to do something and being told she can’t because she was a girl, because she had to get married, because she has to look after her ageing parents. I was so disappointed in the new Julia Donaldson ‘Zog and the Flying Doctors’ when Princess Pearl is told she can’t be a doctor because she’s a girl, despite having proved herself. She has to prove herself again before she’s allowed.

Moana doesn’t have any of that. She’s the daughter of the village chief and he happily brings her up to be the next chief and leader. There’s no nonsense about her not being able to do anything because she’s a girl, the challenge is for her to sail beyond the island into the open ocean. A challenge, because that’s not what her people have done for a long time, not because she’s a girl. In short, she’s treated like you would a male character, a person, a human being – with universal experiences and issues. Yes, there’s a subtle gender thing going on – the conflict in the film results from the actions of men (or demi gods) and is resolved by women – but this is a minor detail and you’re not hit over the head with it. The film is better for it. And it’s got great songs. Did I mention the great songs?

2017-01-03-20-50-22What we need is more examples of women doing things men do, just doing it. Which is why I was so pleased to learn about I Am Elemental action figures. Started by an American mum who was concerned about a lack of female role models, I Am Elemental are series of action figures, female superheroes, that all embody aspects of Courage, Wisdom or Justice. I got E Persistence and Bravery from the Courage series as Christmas presents. She easily accepted that they were female superheroes – why wouldn’t she? women can do anything in her world – and spent much of Christmas afternoon using them to defeat the Stormtroopers she got in a set of Star Wars figurines.

The figures come with a shield, two swappable cards and an element poster to put on your wall, as well as a little bag for the figures to go inside. Ours are too busy kicking ass to get inside the bag yet. I got my figures sent to me from After Alice, a new website designed to provide toys and gifts for girls – check them out, they’ve got some really good things on there.

I can’t write a blog post about great role models for women and girls without mentioning the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. They both found fame with roles played when they were 19 and both made it because they regarded themselves, and acted as absolute equals with older and more experienced men in their casts. As they should, you’d say, but not everyone has the balls to do that. As a result, both women shone on the screen and provided so much joy and inspiration for generations of women, me included, and my daughter too. On the morning of Debbie Reynolds’ death, I sat and showed her some of the dance scenes from Singin’ in the Rain which she loved. And of course, we both love Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher was more than that though, as you’ll know, she was a mouthy advocate of a woman’s right to say, do and look whatever the hell she wants.

Bless you both, and thank you.

Here’s to kicking ass in 2017.

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Pies and friendliness: our holiday in Copenhagen

Here’s a tip: if you’re booking a hotel online and request a family room for two adults and a child, double, triple, quadruple check that the booking agent does not include a note to the hotel that reads: “the child can sleep in the parents’ bed.” While it was a large double bed, the five nights we spent co-sleeping with E were a nightmare. Never believe any parent who says they happily co-sleep with their child. It’s a downright lie. (I realise it wasn’t her fault that she had a hacking cough, but the subsequent dribbling and tooth grinding were dreadful, and then there’s the fact the she doesn’t keep still. At one point her legs were literally climbing up S’s back.)

So tip: if the cheap Ibis airport hotel can provide me with a double and a single bed then so can lots of hotels.

Aside from that. we had a lovely time in Copenhagen. The Danes are a child friendly country, they smile at children, say hello to them in the street, generally acknowledge them and don’t tut if they open their mouths. They are a friendly country altogether, even airport security staff are nice. They leave their bikes unattended and unlocked outside shops and railway stations without fear of theft, and I did once see the mythical unattended pram outside a coffee shop.

E took to travel very well. Aside from a slight fit when she saw that our plane didn’t have as pointy a nose as she expected, she was fine, going through security and passport control with aplomb, dealing with flight and ear popping nonsense easily. Her new found reading skills were tested somewhat by the Danish words but she understood the difference in language and the concept of speaking differently so that was interesting to her.

The Radhus

The Radhus

Copenhagen is a relatively small city and you can get tourist travel tickets that cover the bus, boat bus, train and metro, though I would recommend hiring a bike if you’re not like me who gets thoroughly flummoxed by foreign roads where they drive the wrong way. (I lived for a year in America and it’s only by the grace of god that I didn’t get flattened by a Cadillac, looking the wrong way every time I stepped into the road.) Anyway, the Danes have a great road system for bikes and everyone seems very rule abiding when it comes to lights, pedestrians, drivers and cyclists.

Among the tourist sites we visited, we saw the Lego flagship shop (obvs), the Little Mermaid Statue and harbour area including Nyhavn, The National Museum of Denmark (GREAT for children), the notorious Copenhagen Zoo, Conditori La Glace cake shop, a day trip to Malmo (over the bridge), and Tivoli.

Tivoli is the amusement park in the city centre and I’m still a little unsure about it. You pay to get in, and there are rides, stalls of tat, stalls of food, decorations, music, theatres and restaurants inside. Everything inside must be paid for extra to the entry fee. Dealing in Danish, I was unsure of how much it actually cost (the exchange rate at the time was 8.29: the pound and I had no hope of translating it) but while I understand the need for paying for gifts, theatrical performances and dinner, the rides narked me. If you paid more to start with you got unlimited rides but as many of the rides were not suitable for E, we didn’t get that. So it was buy as you went for the carousel rides and so on. Having done the maths, I believe entry for me was £20, she got in free. Additional rides were £3 per person. But that’s £20 to walk around a park. A nicely decorated park with a lovely atmosphere, granted, and I did enjoy going there with her but… The other thing was that the rides were not very long. Not by British standards. We went on a carousel and went round three times. When I told her it was time to get off she said “already?” It wasn’t very long. The roller coaster lasted 30 seconds. So I did have a good time at Tivoli (S had gone back to the hotel to catch up on sleep) but if you go, beware: value for money is not its strong suit.

2016-10-20-14-08-17The rest of the attractions we liked very much. The Little Mermaid was rather lovely, despite all the guidebooks telling me it was a disappointment. E loved it, though her actual highlight that day was the lady who slipped on the rocks to get near the Little Mermaid and nearly fell in the water. (They moved the statue to stop people vandalising it.)

Copenhagen Zoo is notorious because a few years’ back they killed a giraffe and fed it to the lions. They said it was natural. They’re right. I believe zoos these days are the best way we have of preserving wildlife, given how many creatures you see in the news having been killed by poachers/ American dentists/members of the Trump family but I was uneasy about areas of this one. We did see a lot of the animals, so got good value for our entrance fee but of course the reason for this was that the enclosures were quite small. The polar bear (I’ve never seen a polar bear that close before) paced back and forth on a tiny patch of his enclosure (which wasn’t very big); I’m sure that’s not a good sign. The lions and tigers didn’t have far to roam either and were in good view all the time. The areas for elephants, giraffes and so on were much bigger and better but the big cats and bears seemed cramped. So more to do.

A final word about food. Pricey, yes. The pies are absolutely worth it. We stocked up on our hotel breakfast each day and snacked at lunch time, but if you are going to eat anything in Denmark, make it a fruit pie in a coffee shop somewhere. I had two during our five days and they were heaven. The cakes in the posh cake shop were good but a bit too much. The pies were lip smackingly great.

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A World Without Downs – a different POV

A documentary last night by the actress Sally Phillips explored some attitudes towards Downs Syndrome. It was called a World Without Downs. I read some preview interviews with her and decided I couldn’t watch it. But my Twitter feed was filled with watchers. I’m glad they found positive messages in it. And I tried not to protest at the comments.

But.

I’ve blogged about my miscarriage before.

Here, for instance.

What’s lesser known is that the reason I miscarried is because we had the test for Down’s Syndrome. The invasive test. With the big needle.

The pregnancy was not planned. For the 17 weeks it lasted, many of my thoughts were of sheer panic, about what might happen if the baby died, about how I was not sure how to manage as a parent. I knew nothing about parenthood. Both me and S were in low paid jobs with few prospects and our families lived far away. It was just us and our meagre income. And no clue about children.

We were told there was a higher risk of Down’s and that we could have the test. We were told the test came with risks. This information was presented in a factual way. We were not indoctrinated by health professionals towards any kind of decision. We were treated as adults by people telling us all we had to know. We took the test. Here’s why:

Because I wanted to know, either way, if the baby was alright. For me, a baby with extra needs was even more terrifying than the prospect of a baby. Because I had enough to deal with.

Because you play the odds.

The invasive test is terrifying. You see the baby in the scan, she’s doing somersaults and you have a moment where you think you should just trust her to be ok. But you don’t say anything and then you see the needle heading straight towards her. You turn away because you get queasy with needles and you hear “has the baby grasped the needle?” You turn back. She’s fine. You throw up. Everywhere.

There is now an non-invasive test. How different would life be if we’d had that.

If the test had been positive, my mother had already decided she would up sticks to help us. So we needed time. But when it comes down to it, I’m pretty certain I would have aborted. I don’t know what I would do if in that situation now. But back then, younger, less experienced, less well off and scared out of my mind, I was certain.

I know several parents, friends of mine, with disabled children. One has a daughter with Downs. My admiration and awe for all of them is beyond bounds. I’m just not sure if I could’ve done it, or what my life would have been like. And what the baby’s life would’ve been like.

Our society today is less tolerant of disability and health issues than it was 12 years ago. But even then, a full and fulfilling life with a child with Downs is easier with money, support, tolerance and time. You don’t have an Olympic gymnast with Downs without giving up your entire life for them. Very few people can do that. I also know that people with Downs don’t all have the same symptoms, health issues or attitudes. There are wild variances. You hear a lot about amazing families with wonderful lives treasuring their disabled children. But not everyone is like that. There can be terrible complications, there can be stress, depression, violence, despair.

I think we should talk about our attitudes towards people with Downs Syndrome or with any disability. We need to discuss how we support parents. We need to discuss how many times a mother needs to jump out of a plane to fundraise for her child’s wheelchair.

But from the comments I heard last night, two things became clear to me. We shouldn’t be blaming health professionals for talking about the possibilities. The possibilities can be awful, or not, and you can’t know this in advance. This is not eugenics. This isn’t Gattaca. Any child can have severe health difficulties, Downs or not. The screening process should be seen as something that can be used to prepare parents if they want to go ahead with the birth, and many will. Especially if we can have a sensible discussion about the issues. And if we can as a society provide more support to parents with disabled children.

But some parents won’t want to go ahead. And so the other thing that was clear was that we cannot, should never, start blaming parents for the decision they make about their own children. We shouldn’t be sitting in their kitchens asking them to justify why they had an abortion. Every person is different. I stand by my decision to take the test, to find out that my girl was ok. It cost her life. Don’t think I don’t still grieve for her. But I also stand by what I would have done if she had been Downs.

We need a proper debate. I’m not strong enough to lead it. I admire Sally Phillips for trying to start one. Let’s hope others join in.

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New school – a week in

We’ve made it through the first week at school! It feels like an achievement. I dropped E off on the first day and felt like I’d done something amazing by even getting her there in one reasonably smart piece. (I mean keep this achievement in perspective, you understand, it’s not like we’ve just made it out of Aleppo or something…)

She’s had a pretty good week, I think, all things considered. We have discovered that her knee high socks are actually thigh high (an Asda problem – she’s shorter than average but not that short) and her skirt is too big to stand up to running without a safety pin to hold it up but her uniform has held up in all other areas. Walking into school on Monday she was amazed by the number of people going but this has eased off now. They also have a complicated lunch system with a choice of three meals and corresponding coloured wristbands (green – meat, purple for potato or pasta and yellow for veggie) and she has to remember which wristband she wants. She’s made two pictures and a cardboard rocket and started doing letters and words, as well as numerous other things she can’t remember.

The teachers like her. I have remembered to pay her milk money. We’ve had an incident and two wobbles, both brought on by excessive tiredness. The incident was on her first day where she was knocked down in the playground and landed on her forehead. She was unclear about what happened when asked so they asked me to collect her. By the time I got there she was fine and ran home but the bump on her head is large. I think this has contributed to her finding the playground a little overwhelming and by Wednesday and Thursday she told me the same thing, that she had told the dinner ladies she wanted to go home.

Talking to me on Thursday about this she had her first wobble, and it was awful. She was visibly shattered and couldn’t stop crying while she told me how much she missed me, how she would tell the dinner ladies this all the time and she wanted to go home when she was in the playground. She was inconsolable and wept on my shoulder for ages. It obviously made me cry too, nothing I could say about being brave and promising to pick her up after school made any difference. Sometimes they just grab hold of your heart and wring it out. We put her to bed early and by the next morning she vowed to be brave “like Rey” (from Star Wars). “I will tell myself Mummy is coming to pick me up as soon as school is finished.”

I felt happier picking her up on Friday, having had my first day to myself, and remembering her happy face that morning. She goes into the classroom and settles in really well. I had a conker, a parcel and a chocolate cake waiting for her at home. She started crying as soon as she saw me. It turned out she’d drawn me a birthday card and it “got lost” according to the teacher, or it “got given to another child because the teacher was too far away to hear my say it was mine” according to E. A small drama, perhaps, but she takes these things to heart and sobbed, clinging to me for half the way home. This was difficult, mainly as carrying her, her school bag, a cardigan, a raincoat and a cardboard rocket is a little too much for me.

By today, of course, she’s forgotten most of it and has made me a new card. I know this all gets easier as she gets used to going to school.

And what of my new routine? Well, I decided as there were changes to how I did things, I may as well really make some changes so as well as a new working time routine, I also have new morning pages and a new running routine. For the first week I dropped E off having done work over breakfast, and did more work in the afternoon at home having picked her up. This worked fairly well, though I was very conscious of making sure my work was absolutely attended to, and as such felt exhausted and burnt out by Wednesday. Next week, E will be picked up on Monday and Wednesday by nursery and S can collect her on his way home. On this week’s evidence, there is a possibility that on a good day on the M1, he will be at nursery before she is. It’s almost worth him faffing about just so we get our money’s worth.

It’s early days but it does feel like this will work out, busy and hectic as these days should be. Fingers crossed.

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A new era

They were putting up football posts on the park playing field today – the true sign of autumn. My favourite season coincides with the annual return to school or, this year for us, E’s first term at school.

E has remained fairly sanguine about the whole thing, accepting quietly that she will be off to school and a new nursery (twice a week for pick up) and looks rather bored whenever some well meaning adult asks her if she’s excited. For her last day at nursery she was more interested in handing over the box of chocolates to the staff than any momentous occasion. And she’s been working diligently on her ‘homework’ for the summer (decorating a shoebox).

I think, despite her being one of the babies in the class, she’s ready to attend school and start more formal learning. She can just about write her name, she knows her letters and numbers but wants to know about reading, and will benefit from structured instruction. I also think she will be better at becoming independent once she’s settled at school, doing things like going to the toilet and getting ready for bed by herself, for example. She can do these things, she just chooses to have us with her.

A friend asked this week if it doesn’t seem 5 minutes since I was pregnant. I know I’m supposed to say “oh yes, how time flies,” but the truth is, those days seem a long way away. Partly because I hated pregnancy so much I was happy to forget them, but also the baby days. I have no idea what to do with a baby now, and dealing with nappies and weaning and potty training seems ancient history. This seems like an exciting milestone to pass, for us as well as her and certainly people are treating me like I’m going to weep and fall about the place at the school gates. (I can’t comment until I’ve done it.) But when it comes down to it, we’re all ready for E to move on, to go out and learn, to come home and tell us about her day. Perhaps it’s easier to transition when you’ve had a child in nursery since 10 months.

Of course, we think of school as a place to learn things but when I think back to my memories of primary school, I mainly remember the milk in blue plastic beakers, children laughing when I wore the same shoes as a boy in my class and Carolyn Fairbrother taunting me for not winning any races at Sports Day while she had several medals. (I loathed sports day ever since. I’m also a terrible loser. I attribute both of these to Carolyn Fairbrother so I hope she’s satisfied.) Other than this, there are few memories so I think it must have been quite a benign experience. The big stressful stuff starts later, or so we’re told.

Reports come out all the time about how girls do well at school, but recently there was one that acknowledged this while pointing out that girls’ experience of school is often negative and can affect mental health. We have so many things to look out for – bullying, sexual harrassment, confidence issues – that I feel we’ve had it so easy up to now. School years are formative. I know few people who don’t bear some scars (and I’m not talking sports day memories but other, more serious stuff.) Perhaps so many of us are coloured more by the teenage years but evidence suggests that some of the problems in school start in primary age. If you’ve not checked out the Everyday Sexism campaign to get strong Sex and Relationships Education in schools, I urge you to do so. It’s shocking.

I can only advise E to enjoy her school days, to stay confident, to be aware of consent issues, harsh words and nasty comments. I can only advise her to be kind to others, to study and find comfort in books. I can only hope she will come to me with any problems and, as long as they don’t involve quadratic equations, I will try to solve them with her.

In the meantime, it feels like a new term for all of us, and I don’t just mean because I’ve treated myself to a new notebook. In order to work out her new school life, I’m having to change my working habits and try a bit more flexi work from home (to be honest, I always get so much more achieved away from the office this could work out v well – we tried it this evening with me on the laptop and E playing with Lego.) I’m also aiming to have regular writing days on Fridays, and have got myself into a new exercise routine. More on how this works out for us to come, but for now we’re all quite excited.

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Gloworm festival: a review

We had an inauspicious start to our day at Gloworm. E woke us far too early and through my groggy eyes I could see it was raining. The tired feeling didn’t go away, and so when S announced he wasn’t feeling up to it, I downed more coffee and me and E set off. 

E has, in the last two weeks, developed some kind of random car sickness. I believe this is a thing that happens. It was warm in the car despite the aircon being on, and we’d nearly got to the site when, sitting in traffic, she announced she didn’t feel well and promptly threw up all her breakfast. I managed to pull into a nearby petrol station where she stood in her pants while I raced around realising I’d come put without wipes and the kitchen roll normally in the car wasn’t. I dressed her in waterproof trousers and a hoodie from my bag and suggested we go home. This did not go down well and I admit, I didn’t want to deal with more upset so on we went. 

The car seat was covered in vomit and E clearly couldn’t sit back in it, so being only a few miles from Clumber Park, I strapped her in the back seat and hoped we didn’t get stopped. It stank so arriving at Clumber in the middle of a gang of HaRkey bikers meant I had to close the windows due to the noise freaking E out. Great. She was tetchy and so was I, so the traffic jam to get in didn’t help our moods and then I missed where we were supposed to turn for the festival car park and ended up in the main car oark instead. It wasn’t much further away but it felt like a big deal so I’m embarrassed to say I was nearly intears by the time we reached the gate.

Luckily, that was where Gloworm did its bit for us. E was immediately enthralled by the flags, fairground and the buses (one was a bar, the other I think a playbus) and didn’t know where to go first. She played by the Gloworm letters, posing for pictures and then ran off to see the buses, the mermaid signing autographs, and then to the food stalls. Her enthusiasm was perfect to kick start me out of my over emotional funk.

We lunched. Locally produced food, and easy to buy for children, if a little unimaginative (lots of burger stalls). And then we roamed. E met Peppa Pig and then Thomas the Tank Engine, before joining in with a performance by Johnny and the Raindrops which she very much enjoyed, especially the superhero song and the air guitars. 

Following that we went up to the White Post Farm bit, animal petting, with goats, ducks, chicks and more goats. E was thrilled to handle a baby chick, and even more when it pecked her. We made a bug hotel from a toilet roll, now pride of place in our garden, and then she discovered the ‘dressing up like a horse and trying to do showjumping’ section. If you ever need cheering up from feeling feeble and alone, this is my recommendation. “Gallop, gallop” she said before throwing herself in her horse outfit over the barrier face and hand first. Hilarious. 

We stopped off at some of the stalls, and made a diplodocus from a balloon and some cardboard, before a doughnut and drink rest by the fairground. I know what you’re thinking, a sick child, doughnuts and a fairground – what could possibly go wrong? Well, E was fine but she insisted on going on the teacup ride. I would’ve been fine had the proprietor not insisted on spinning us extra hard every time we went past and after a while I gave up trying to enjoy it and just prayed for it to end. Then I sat down for about half an hour. I hate rides. Next time, S HAS to come to take part instead. 

There were bands playing but to be honest, we paid little attention to them. The workshops were sporadic so the dinosaur and the junk music man were all we got to do. But this is Gloworm’s first year so allowances can be made and there was much to like. There was a great range of stalls,with a family friendly approach. The sponsors seemed generous and sensibly minded for a festival with so many children – soft play areas, sand pits, baby changing facilities, rest areas for parents and so on. The fairground part seemed the busiest and there were long queues for each ride. I was glad E only wanted to go on one. This is an area where having more than one person in your group must have helped. However, all the rides and workshops etc were free and the cost included in the ticket price so the only extras were the food and drink, and any stall purchases. I did appreciate this. Workshops at Deershed (some were free) may have only been £1-3, but it does make a difference. 

The atmosphere seemed v pleasant, and although we left by about 4.30, so didn’t stay late or overnight, the day rate seemed reasonable. I bought early bird tickets, children under 3 were free and E was only a nominal price to get in. I think there’s much for Gloworm to build on for future years. 

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