Mistakes

When I was pregnant for the first time and people realised that it was our first baby, there was just so much delight and happiness everywhere we went. Everyone had so many good wishes and plenty of advice to offer. The bits of advice that stuck with me the most – enjoy the time when they are little – it may be the hardest part physically, but it’s the most amazing part and it just flies past. The other piece of advice? Take pictures and videos of children as they grow up. Take them all the time.

The man who gave this advice, was actually the person who we were buying new sofas from. He was so excited to help us. Giving great advice on what to buy, as we would need something robust that children could climb all over. Something that would resist all the inevitable spillages associated with children. But the instruction that he was most insistent upon was – take millions of photos of your children as they grow up. They change in the blink of an eye and you will forget how little they once were.

I listened to this sage stranger who obviously knew his stuff about sofas and also about life as well. As a result, I take photos all the time – of silly random things. Photos of the girls posing but my favourites are when they don’t know that I’m taking a picture. When they are engrossed in a task. Or just playing and in a world of their own.

My eldest is now 8. She’s a very grown up, head screwed on her shoulders, wise for her age girl. She’s always been that way. This morning on Timehop, I saw a picture that I had taken of her from 4 years ago. I remember taking the photo and although she was only 4, I felt at the time that she was somehow older….and I look at this photo, 4 years on, this little girl, with chubby, baby cheeks, and the cutest smile is staring back at me…and I’m horrified with myself. I feel sad, guilty, angry – why did I forget that she was such a little girl at the time? I’ve always treated her – and still do, as though she is so much older than she is.

This photo has come as a timely reminder – because I was tough on her this week. Long story, but the point was that she wasn’t being herself and had done something wrong and I’d been extremely and at the time I felt, deservedly hard on her. But looking back at the photo, a flashback from the past, I see that only 4 years ago, she hadn’t started school yet. She was still a baby. I wasn’t wrong for telling her off this week – but perhaps I need to remember how young she is…

I think back to myself at her age. I did silly things. I said silly things. And even at my age now, I have said or done things that I know are stupid – and I should have known better.

I believe that the universe sends you messages and guidance when you need it the most. Sometimes a gentle nudge, other times a huge knock. But I’ll take this Timehop photo as a reminder to be kinder and more patient. We all make mistakes and that is fine. To remember that I’m talking to someone who in reality is so young and impressionable and not genuinely wanting to disappoint – just a little girl, who sometimes makes mistakes.

We all know better. Yes. We all know better. Despite that, we all make mistakes. That will never stop. But sometimes, I think I need to let my children behave like children a little while longer?

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Do what scares you…

Both of my daughters take taekwando lessons. They both enjoy learning the patterns, the different types of kicks, the punches etc. My eldest now is at the stage where she wears protective headgear, gloves and footwear – and this girl, who is small for her age, has to spar with others who are often a lot taller and bigger than her.

A few weeks ago, we picked her up from her lesson. She had tears in her eyes and looked angry. I’d not seen her like this before and asked what was wrong, ‘I don’t like sparring!’

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘I was sparring with my partner and they punched me in the stomach. It really hurt. I don’t want to spar anymore.’

She was sitting in the back of the car, directly behind me. Although I couldn’t see her face, (I didn’t want to look at her and see the tears in her eyes), I could hear her trying to control the emotions in her voice. Really trying to hold it together, not wanting to cry from anger at being punched, it hurt, the outrage – how could someone hit me. Worse still, within her voice I could hear a request. No. More than that. Thinly veiled pleading. Please don’t let me go back, Mum, I don’t want to be punched again.

Within that split second, I had two choices as a parent. I didn’t want my daughter to be punched. I don’t want her to be hurt. Clearly, she was upset – so I could say to her, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to go back. We won’t go again.’

That was one choice.

However, I made the other choice….

‘Baby, I know that you were hurt. But that’s what happens when you’re learning to spar. You learnt a valuable lesson today. You don’t like being punched. Next time, make sure you watch your opponent and put up your guard. Don’t get punched.’

It’s not what she was expecting to hear. The words left my mouth before I could even think. But the reason why we were sending both girls to these lessons was so they were confident out there in the big, bad world. Nobody likes being hurt – and the thought of my daughters getting hurt both angers and terrifies me equal measure – but I couldn’t teach her to give up.

Whilst we ate our dinner that night, we sat around the table and tried to talk it through a bit more. My husband and I both tried to explain to her that she must have punched the other person too – that must have hurt them too. (She wasn’t consoled by that).

Eventually, I said –

‘Well, the worst has happened. You were punched in the stomach and it hurt. But now when you spar again, you won’t be scared – because you’ve been punched. You know what it feels like, you won’t let it happen again!’

She turned to me and said, ‘You’re right Mummy, that does make me feel better. I do know what it feels like. So I’m not scared anymore!’

The following week, she went for her lesson and we kept reminding her, watch your opponent, remember to block, watch their moves. Are you feeling ok? She appeared to be fine but she’s one of those who puts on a front because life is sometimes easier that way. My husband and I just kept our fingers crossed and hoped for the best.

45 minutes later, he went to the class to pick her up. As he walked in, he scanned the room looking for Eesha. His eyes were drawn to a little girl sparring with a boy almost twice her size, circling him and sparring with him fearlessly. He sent a text to me immediately: Our little girl’s a warrior!

At the end of the lesson, she leapt down the stairs and ran towards the car with a huge spring in her step. ‘Daddy said that you’re a little warrior! Were you sparring with a much bigger boy today? What happened?’ I asked.

She just grinned and shrugged, sweaty, happy and slightly out of breath and said, ‘I chose to spar with him because he was bigger and I wasn’t scared anymore!’

I was incredibly proud of her and incredibly pleased for her. She was scared and worried – but those are the moments in life when you have to be courageous – it’s not that you’re not scared. You are. But you push through – do what terrifies you and have a go anyway.

I wished I could tell her that she’d never be fearful of anything again. But that would be a lie. The truth is that even as a big, grown up adult, I still get scared. I get worried.

This week I had to face some fears. I had to take part in something that I didn’t want to do and was worried about it. My husband was away and I was pretending to be strong and fearless in front of my girls. He sent me a text with a message containing just what I needed to hear:

Remember what we said to Eesha when she got punched in the stomach? Go back keep guard up and fight back – similar analogy 😘😘😘😘

And so I went, remembering the advice that I had given my daughter. Remembering that you never stop being scared but you have to step out of your comfort zone and do things that scare you anyway. And it was fine. Absolutely fine. And I realised that it was something that I needed to do, for my own good. For closure. To move forward.

If I could, I would always try to do things that frighten me the least – but growth comes from being challenged. From doing things that you don’t necessarily want to do, or feel that you can’t.

Sometimes – willingly or unwillingly, we learn most about ourselves when we do what frightens us. And when we come through the other side, we can look ourselves in the mirror and feel that we’ve changed somehow. Perhaps standing a little taller. Shoulders rolled down and leaning further back.

But it’s the eyes that give it away the most. The eyes show that you have been hurt, but you came through it and you’re that bit braver and wiser now….

A sense of shame…

I sometimes think about my life before I had children and how different I was at that time. I was so very definite about everything. Everything was so very black and white. I knew what was right, what was wrong. Who was right. Who was wrong. I knew everything. I always felt so strong.

Then I had children. And that is the most humbling experience in the world. Because what you thought you knew – you realise that you don’t. The world that was once black and white, had changed to innumerable shades of grey. The world that I had been so very much in control of, had changed beyond belief. Dangers lurked everywhere. Even a simple activity – a shopping trip, became something that had to be conducted at the exact precise time, with military precision. In between a nap, feed and nappy change. Woe betide you if you tried to be a maverick and attempted anything at a different time. Of course, you couldn’t just park anywhere. You had to park in a space that was wide enough for you to open your passenger door to its fullest, and take your baby, nestled carefully in her car seat, that slotted into your pushchair, which you had to assemble carefully, ensuring all the locks were in place. But of course, at the shops, all of those spaces were taken. Sometimes by gits who didn’t even have children.

Once you’re out and in the shops, of course a third of your attention is on what you need, a third of your attention is making sure that your child or children are ok and the final third is ensuring (a bit like Cinderella), that you’re not taking longer than the allocated time and you’re not encroaching on the nap/feed/nappy change time. Babies, I quickly realised, are incredibly inflexible and unreasonable beings. They want what they want – and they will scream until you give in. Which is obviously why God designed them to have big eyes, tiny noses and tiny, edible fingers and toes. You wouldn’t tolerate that relentless, unreasonable shit from just anyone who wasn’t incredibly cute.

Everyday is pretty much the same. Each day revolves around feeding, sleep, nappy changes and did you wind the child correctly? Any problems with the baby? The baby is crying for an unknown reason – did you wind her?

Yes.

Properly?

Yes.

Are you sure?

Yes.

Give her to me, I’ll do it properly!!

Top tip! Never ever say to a new mother, ‘Give your child to me, you haven’t done x, y or z properly!’

Trust me. Just don’t. It’s offensive and hurtful. The mother is feeling like shit as it is. This is new and scary and they are just doing their best. Often feeling like their failing….

So this tiny bundle, changes your entire life. And you have no control.

And people expect you to be able to cook and have a tidy house and be presentable and attend social engagements.

People forget over time, how hard the beginning is. I won’t. Not ever. They forget how much help they got from others, from family members who were around a lot and could give even half an hour of respite.

I remember when my mum would pop around after work to see how I was getting on and I would almost cry with relief. Without a word, or passing any judgement, she’d discretely start to tidy up around me, or she’d make me a cup of tea and say, I want to hold her, you go and have a shower. Or, she would just let me have a nap, whilst she quietly took over.

I hope I can be there for my daughters in a similar vein when they are older. I hope I will know just what to say and just what to do, to give them some respite and let them know, it’s ok to need help. You’re not failing, you’re a human and babies are hard.

But the title of my blog, is ‘A sense of shame…’ And it’s called this for a reason. My blogs are generally about female empowerment and how women can do anything in the world. Bringing up babies made me feel completely overwhelmed.

I’ve written about this many times before, but everything would have been bearable if my babies would sleep through the night. But they just didn’t. They didn’t take huge naps through the day. And they would keep waking through the night. For me this was an impossible situation because I had been a baby, a child and an adult who needed to sleep. My tiny girls didn’t need to – especially my eldest. Even now, her mind is so active she doesn’t want to sleep. Sleep is for wimps. Unlike her mother. Who needs to sleep.

But babies are unreasonable. If they need to wake up in the night – they just do. It doesn’t matter how tired you are as a parent. They don’t care. So, my husband would help me. He was never annoyed. He would pace around for what seemed like hours, holding his daughter to his chest so she would feel warm and safe, listening to the regular beat of his heart, gently soothing her. Never once did he complain. Never once did he say how hard this all was. Never once, did he make me feel inadequate…

I would listen to other women, who were doing it all. Feeding, nappy changes, naps, cleaning, cooking, managing to exercise, doing the night feeds, all on their own. Their husbands wouldn’t help. Wouldn’t even dream of helping. But there they were, these superwomen, doing it all, on their own.

I felt a sense of shame because I couldn’t.

I couldn’t do it all on my own. I physically wasn’t able to. And I was incredibly blessed to have people around me who helped me to stay afloat because I know I would have drowned.

It’s funny how resentful I felt of others. I resented hearing about how other people’s babies slept through the night. I resented hearing about other people’s babies having long naps during the day. I resented hearing how other mums had the energy to exercise and meet other mums and keep a household going with their pristine houses and delicious home cooked food. I kept wondering, ‘What was wrong with me? Why did I need so much help? Why couldn’t I get things done like other mothers?’

What I learnt years later, now that my children are slightly older – everyone is putting on a front. Everyone feels like their not coping with something. But it’s just not done to say, ‘This is really hard. Harder than I could ever have imagined!’

I certainly felt a huge sense of shame knowing that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was – and that actually my husband was incredibly strong and had a source of patience and energy that I simply did not possess. There were times when I thought, he’s going to be furious with me today. The house is a mess. Nothing’s been done. Today is the day he’s going to tell me how useless I am. But he didn’t. He just knew – the fact that I’d got through the day. Our girls were healthy, clean, fed, extremely loved and happy – nothing was more important.

Thank god he saw things that way. Thank god he helped the way he did – and still does to this day. Never once making me feel like I was a failure.

I see my mother, and see how millions of women like her, and many of my friends, just manage motherhood on their own. These incredibly strong, brilliant women, who do everything on their own. I admire them and am in awe of them.

There remains within me, a deep sense of shame that I was not as strong as some of the inspirational women I know. All I know is that the incredible support that I was and still am blessed to receive, I will pay it forward and help my loved ones when they need it.

Failure

When I was a tiny little dot, my father decided to take me to watch a karate lesson, to inspire me to take up martial arts. I think I was about 5 or 6 years old at the time. My memories are hazy, but I remember that my mum was not with me – that felt strange in itself, to be going somewhere without my mum and my sister. It just didn’t feel right. I don’t remember the building, or where we went. I simply recall my dad opening a door to a large room filled with men in pristine white karate uniforms with black belts tightly tied around their waists. All the men were carrying out synchronised manoeuvres and were shouting words in frighteningly loud voices. I remember finding these men terrifying! Within a few seconds, I must have started screaming and crying inconsolably because my father just could not pacify me, he drove me home.

Years later, I too have two daughters, and even before they were born, I also developed a huge sense of anxiety and fear – how am I going to keep them safe and secure? How am I going to protect them? How are they going to protect themselves when I am not around? So, when my daughters arrived, I already had a plan of action developed – Taekwondo. By hook or by crook, whether they liked it or not, they were going to learn how to stand up protect themselves if ever the need arose.

You see, I wish that my dad had taken me back to those karate lessons, perhaps when I was a bit older. I completely understand why he couldn’t – he was carrying out further studies after working all day, my mum didn’t drive at the time, it was a difficult time. But I know now why dad would have wanted me to attend those lessons, but he also knew that I wasn’t ready for them at that time.

I didn’t give my girls much of an option, or a choice about it. I spoke to them long and hard about what Taekwondo was and why I wanted them to learn it. I showed them videos on YouTube of little children learning martial arts and what they were able to achieve and the benefits of learning this amazing discipline.

Luckily, I found a family run club, the instructor understood straight away my anxieties for my daughters and reassured me that they would benefit and thrive from learning Taekwondo. She wasn’t wrong. What attracted me to this particular club was that the accomplished black belt instructor was female. I’d only ever seen and heard of male instructors. Since the girls have started attending the lessons, there are at least two other female instructors which is brilliant because my girls can see that it isn’t simply a discipline practised and taught by men. Women and girls can achieve and become warriors too.

In March when they joined, my eldest was already a confident, sparky little girl. It was my shyer, more reserved younger daughter that I was worried about – but to my delight, she is becoming more and more confident as each day passes. I do attribute a huge chunk of this success to Taekwondo. I don’t stay and watch the lessons – there’s no need for that, and my presence would be more of a distraction than a help. But I do watch her in the last 5 minutes of the lesson, before it’s time to finish, and I’m proud to see her looking at her opponent’s in the eye whilst they practice their kicking and punching skills. I’m impressed to see her having a go at carrying out ten push ups and then sit ups too. She’s become more assertive at home and at school too, more confident about disagreeing with others and putting her point of view across.

These skills you can’t grade: confidence, assertiveness, walking around with your head held high, becoming easy in yourself instead of anxious. But from a parent’s perspective, these developments mean the world to me.

When the children are ready, their instructor puts them forward for grading and inevitably, not all children pass their grading. What I loved reading later on, was the instructor’s attitude towards failing. The gist of what she wrote was this: failure doesn’t matter. Failure is a part of life. Not everyone passes everything on the first attempt or even second attempt. Failure helps you to develop, learn and grow and teaches the incredibly valuable skill of perseverance. It is ok to fail – the question is – what have you learnt from failing? And what will you do next time to succeed?

When I read what the instructor had written – by heart just swelled up with joy. This is what I want for my girls as well – to not fear failure. No one wishes for failure – of course not, we all want to succeed in life, I pray for their success all the time. However, at times failure is more valuable than success – it makes you more determined, makes you wiser, makes you empathise with others who have found something challenging and you learn to help others along the way. It helps you to develop coping mechanisms with life when other situations are challenging.

In terms of pushing forward and developing good emotional well-being in children and ultimately in adults – surely we should all look at failure in a different way? It’s not a bad, terrible thing – it’s an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to grow and develop. It may not be something that you would want – but it’s something that helps you nonetheless.

I was talking to my husband about this in great depth and we both shared stories about times when we had failed in certain areas of life – and how we had persevered because failing and then giving up was not an option. We discussed the strength of character it took to try again and ultimately how much sweeter the prize was when we achieved our goals.

We have to teach our children to able to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and go for their goals again if they did not achieve what they wanted, the first, second, third, fourth time – keep going, keep learning, keep growing.

Failure doesn’t mean that you are a bad, rubbish, worthless person. Quite the opposite. Life is telling you to have another go. Go on. Try again. Show the world what you are made of. And when you achieve your goal – there is no other feeling quite like it.

I’ll finally leave you with a story that I only heard quite recently but will stay with me forever. WD-40. WD-40 is an everyday household chemical that people use to lubricate and get rid of the noise from squeaky hinges etc. The reason why it is called WD-40, is because it was on the 40th attempt that the scientists developing it got the formula just how they wanted it. 40. 40 attempts! If that doesn’t illustrate the point that from failure and perseverance, comes success – I don’t know what else will.

Meanwhile, keep pushing yourself and the people you love to try new things in life – and if you fail, you fail. Shrug it off, try again and enjoy the journey.

Step back in time

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the app ‘Timehop’, most of you probably have it.  If you don’t, I’ll explain what it does.  You can link it to the photos on your camera roll, to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Dropbox etc, and everyday it gives an update of any photos, or Facebook statuses, or tweets you may have written on that day years ago.  I love it.  Everyday, it shows me memories of photos and videos of my little ones that I or others took and I marvel at how small they were.  I marvel at videos of them when they were only 18 months old and how I could understand them perfectly at the time – but I look back at their broken English, and attempts to communicate, gesturing and nodding – like a game of charades – and I think how nobody else would probably understand what they were trying to say, but my husband and I did.  

Yesterday, as is my daily ritual, I opened Timehop again, and saw a series of photographs and videos that physically hurt my heart.  It reminded me of a time when I desperately wanted to be in control of my life – but nothing could have been further from it. 

Let me digress and travel off track a little.  On the BBC at the moment, there is an advert that has caused a bit of a controversy amongst some viewers.  The advert shows a teenage boy and a fraught mother.  It’s Christmas time and the mother has to work – she can’t spend the time that she would have liked to with her son, and her son resents her for, as he sees it, putting her job before him.  As a viewer, you can see the conflict in both of those people.  Mum has to work.  The son probably gets that too – but he wants to spend some time with her.  The mum is also torn in half, she needs to work, but she also wants to spend time with her son.  We see shots of them both struggling in their different settings, both angry, both frustrated.  Finally, the mum runs out of work, races to be with her son and they spend the perfect evening together, reconnecting.  

Why the controversy?  I wondered why people were outraged.  I wasn’t.  I got it.  Having felt that way many, many times in my life, I understood how that mother felt.  I never wanted my own children to feel that way about me.  You see the objection to the advert was that it was a woman.  Why do women have to feel guilty about going to work and having a career and leaving children at home?  I think those people are misguided.  The advert wasn’t trying to say that.  My interpretation was, in a world where we seem to be living to work, instead to working to live – there are times when we need to take a step back, revaluate what is important, the times and moments that we will never get back, and grab those moments so that we can live without regrets.  

The photos and videos that I referred to earlier, was my eldest’s very first Christmas play, when she was in Reception.  I had resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t go.  I didn’t bother asking my boss at the time, whether I could go because…because I didn’t want to put anyone out.  It was alright, I convinced myself, my husband would be going, she would have one parent there to watch, that would be ok.  It didn’t matter if I didn’t go.  That’s what I told myself.  

The day of the performance finally arrived, and all I could think about was making sure that she was ok.  I hugged her and explained that she was going to be brilliant and that daddy was going to take lots of pictures and videos, so I wouldn’t miss a thing.  From an extremely early age, she has been incredibly emotionally intelligent, so she just smiled and said that everything was fine.  With a heavy heart, I drove to work.  Now the play was starting at 1.30 in the afternoon, and my husband had to pick his parents up from Heathrow that morning.  A completely straight-forward job.  He was keeping me updated about the flight and his arrival time and all was going well – until the flight was delayed.  The airport was about 2 to 2 and a half hours away – and we were in trouble.  Chances were that he wasn’t going to make it back in time, and our little 4 year old was going to have no one there to watch her in her first performance.  

I felt anxious anyway about not being to watch her, but knowing that we had promised that Daddy would be there, and for her to not see anyone in the audience was too much for my heart to bear.  Feeling distraught, I went to my head and explained the situation to her.  I’m not sure how articulate I was, but she could see the distress that I was in, she was completely wonderful and let me go.  

I made it.  I made it on time, to watch my daughter play the part of a sheep, singing her songs and doing the actions that she had spent hours at home learning and perfecting.  All the other parents were sitting together, they all seemed to know each other, I found an empty seat somewhere in the crowd and suddenly there was a bustling of excitement as the play was about to start and the children were walking in.  

Looking back through the photos, I remembered my daughter’s face, so wide-eyed with amazement as she took seconds to process the fact that I was there!  Mummy was there to watch her.  And then she waved excitedly as I blew kisses and waved like a crazy person back at her.  

The play began, and I sat back in my chair wondering at the might of God.  Even though I thought that this was an event that I was destined to miss – the Almighty had other plans.  Genuinely, it felt like a Christmas miracle.  My husband didn’t miss out either.  20 minutes into the performance, he arrived and saw the rest of the play too.  Both of us had tears of both pride and joy and relief in our eyes…

Although it pains me to look back on those times, I’m also extremely grateful that I was able to make life choices and decisions that helped me to redress the imbalances in my life.  I’ll be honest, a few years on and I had forgotten about that time.  But the photos and videos brought everything back to me, like a jolt of lightning.  

One of my mantras in life is to have no regrets.  Life is short and unpredictable, so at times, we have to make life choices that may seem bizarre to others – but are right for us.  I am grateful to God every day for being with me, and helping me to not live a life of regret.  And I will never forget the day that I was not supposed to watch my daughter’s play – but God had other plans.  And for that memory, I will be thankful and grateful forever.

The sunrise

This morning my youngest was getting ready in her room, putting on her school uniform, tidying things up, making her bed, finally pulling the curtains open. I was in my room doing pretty much the same things when all of a sudden she gasped with surprise. ‘Mummy!’ she screamed. ‘Mummy, it’s the sunrise. Have a look at the sunrise!’

At this point, I had two choices. Tell her that’s great and get on with my jobs as I was running late, or go and have a look to see what she was so enthralled with….

I chose option 2. And when I went into her room I thank God that I did. Out of her window, on the opposite side of the street, past the roofs and chimneys in the distance, the sky was incredible hues of pinks and purples. I couldn’t see the sun but it delighted me to see that she was making a grand entrance. Trees were silhouetted against the background and I hugged my youngest as tightly as I could, thanking her for alerting me to this beautiful sight.

I hope she remembers that. When she’s older and has children of her own, curly haired, bright eyed, beautiful children of her own who get excited about sunsets and sunrises and the colours of the sky – I hope that she too can drop everything in a heartbeat and share their awe and wonder with them.

Tomorrow is a painful day for me. My father passed away 31 years ago. He was 33 years old. There are so many things that I never got to share with my father, so many things I never got to tell him, that he never got to tell me.

I know that he would have loved his grandchildren. All four of them. Their curiosity. Their humour. Seeing the world again, through their young, innocent eyes would have invigorated him. He would have loved their spirit, their intelligence, how they care about others.

Life is cruel at times. When I think of him, I remember him as a giant of a man, kind, stern, brave, full of wisdom. Then I remember that I am older than he was when he passed away – and it never fails to astound me.

If getting older has taught me anything, it is this – growing old is a bloody privilege – not something terrible. A privilege. Grey hairs, sagging skin, hair loss, weight gain – none of it compares to growing old to see your babies grow into toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and then seeing them have children of their own…that’s a miracle. A gift – not something that everyone gets.

What I would give to share my excitement about the colours of the sky during the sunrise, with my father – I cannot even begin to explain. But it can’t happen. So I make sure that I share those moments with my loved ones so that they have those memories with me.

Life is too short to be busy doing jobs – and forgetting to live. So – you’re a couple of minutes late for work? You’ll never share that excitement of the sunrise again. Life is a gift. Getting old is a privilege. And your children – they are only little once. Spend time marvelling at how wonderful life and the world is when they are little…because looking at the world through their eyes makes everything more beautiful for you too.

Ocean of knowledge

I think it is fair to say that when I was a little girl, times were tough.  My parents had to scrimp and save for everything.  Times were genuinely hard.  My mother was the finance minister of the house, and every penny was accounted for.  If a purchase had to be made, it was thought about many times before a deal was finalised.  Necessities – we had them all.  Luxuries – few and far between.  As well as being the finance minister, she was also the education secretary and what she instilled in us was a hunger, a drive, an ambition.  Work hard.  Be educated.  No one can steal your knowledge from you.  If you don’t like the way that we live now – that’s fine.  The only person that can change that, is you.  And she was right.  I am grateful for the childhood that I had, I am grateful for the hard knocks, I am grateful that I had a mother who was no nonsense – because all those aspects combined, made me who I am today.  I know what it was like to struggle financially – I never want to experience that again.  I am full of gratitude for the education that I received – I am a living example of someone who had nothing – studied – and am living the life that I dreamed of when I was a little girl.

As well as being in charge of finance and education, Mum was also responsible for our spiritual and moral development.  We weren’t brought up with a sense of entitlement – in fact it was a sense of gratitude.  Be grateful that you have a free education – millions of children around the world would love to be in your position, going to school everyday, instead they have to work.  Be grateful for the food on your table – millions of people don’t have anything to eat – don’t waste your food.  And she would both terrify and inspire us with stories about people in India, more specifically Bengal – people who changed their own lives, and the lives of others for the better.

I distinctly remember the day that my father realised that although my sister and I were brilliant and fluent English speakers, we no longer spoke in Bengali at home and even though we could understand it, we would always converse and reply to our parents in English.  I’m really not sure what the final straw was, but one day my father declared that we were only allowed to speak in Bengali at home and if we wanted something, we had to speak in Bengali – or not at all.  There was a pin drop silence in the house.  Nobody spoke.  I remember my sister and I – probably aged 6 and 9 at the time, exchanging horrified glances!  I found myself panicking and wildly looking at random objects wondering – ‘What’s the Bengali for cup, or wall, or stairs?’  I couldn’t even remember.  My father wasn’t someone to be trifled with, so we took the matter quite seriously.  Initially, we communicated in very hesitant and broken Bengali.  However, in a matter of days we surprised ourselves with how easy and natural it seemed.  There was a method behind what appeared to be complete madness to us.

My mother then decided that I would learn how to read and write in Bengali…

And this was when I was introduced to a character who inspired me, and changed my life for ever.  She had ordered some Bengali books from India and they were all created by the same person – his name was Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar.  (Vidyasagar, in Sanskrit means ‘Ocean of knowledge’).   From a small age, Vidyasagar had a desire to learn and be educated, his father encouraged it too.  He was a poor Brahmin boy and would have to work during the day to earn money for his family.  Where they lived, there was no electricity in the house, so Vidyasagar’s father would make him study beneath the light of the lampposts on the street.  Sometimes, his father would find the little boy cross legged, slumped over, fast asleep with his book in his lap – so his father would tie Vidysagar’s small pony tail to the lamppost, in case his eyes did close and he drifted off to sleep, the pull on his hair would jerk his head back again, and the little boy would continue with his studies.  Vidyasagar grew up, went to university, became a successful scholar, championed the upliftment of the status of women in India, and fought for the rights of widows to be remarried.  He helped to reform the education system on India and set up a high school for children.

Throughout his lifetime, he wrote many books, but in 1850 he wrote some books for children learning Bengali, called Borno Porichoy.  More than a 100 years later, through this book, I was introduced to him.

My parents were old school in their approach to bringing up children.  I shower affection upon my own daughters, constantly tell them how proud I am of them, tell them that I love them all the time – it wasn’t how I was brought up.  It was a silent acceptance from both sides – we knew our parents loved us, we loved our parents – it was never verbalised – it was never discussed.  We were never publicly praised.  If we got an ‘A’ grade – there were no congratulations, or bright smiles, or pats on back.  The response was a simple ‘Good, do better next time!’ At the time the best grade was an ‘A’ – so there was that!  To be honest, I knew what that meant.  You can’t be complacent.  Good – you have achieved an ‘A’.  So have thousands of others.  Keep going.  Keep working hard.  This ‘A’ is not the ultimate goal – you have many more ‘A’s to achieve.  We knew that.  And we never stopped.  We never gave up.  We continued to keep going and secretly hoping that one day our mother would say ‘Well done!’.  I write that with a broad smile on my face as I type – because she always reads my blogs – and I know that the stubborn woman that she is – that’s never going to happen!  I accept it though.

But I have digressed – Borno Porichoy was full of short stories with a moral.  I had always found reading English extremely easy.  I remember when I was in Reception, my mum practised some key words with me, the next thing I knew, I could read every book on this blessed Earth.  Bengali – was a challenge.  I had to sound out every letter and blend them to read the word – which was a frustrating but helpful experience for me.  It helped me to empathise with those who didn’t find reading that easy.  I became more fluent, the more I practised – but even now, if I’m given a Bengali newspaper to read, I take a huge deep breath and know that it will take some time to decipher each word.

What I’m about to share with you is a story from this book, that made me view my parents in a different way.  I remember hesitantly sounding it out and reading it to my parents.  The story was about a boy called Gopal.  Gopal was a good boy.  He listened to his parents and always did as he was told.  Sadly, his parents died, and he was put in the care of his aunt.  He liked his aunt – and she liked him but Gopal soon discovered that he could behave in her care, in a way that would have been completely unacceptable for his parents.  One day, he stole from a shop – the shopkeeper complained to his aunt, and although his aunt knew of his guilt, instead of chastising him, shouted at the shopkeeper and said that Gopal would never do such a thing.  That became the undoing of Gopal.  It didn’t matter what Gopal did, his aunt defended him and never told him off.  Time went on, Gopal grew older and instead of being a successful man as his parents had dreamed – he became a criminal.  Stealing and lying had become second nature to him.  Eventually, in the middle of a theft, he ended up killing a person.  The sentence for which was death.  As a last request, Gopal asked to see his aunt before he died.  His aunt was touched by her nephew’s love for her and hurried to the jail to bid him a fond farewell.  Gopal saw his aunt from behind the bars and asked her to approach him so that he could whisper something in her ear.  Curiously, she sidled up to the bars and put her ear towards him.  Gently, he leant towards her ear and all of a sudden, with a huge strength of force, bit her ear off!

As a 9 year old girl, I had not seen this event coming and I was horrified with what I had just read, but I continued reading.

Gopal’s aunt screamed with terror and pain and shouted at her nephew – ‘I did nothing but love and protect you all your life, why did you do such a thing to me?’  But Gopal’s answer was painfully honest – and as a 9 year old, I remember thinking how his answer made so much sense to me.  He replied, ‘Oh Auntie, you didn’t love me.  If only you had told me off and corrected my behaviour when I was little, then I wouldn’t be in this jail now, about to be hanged.’

I have never forgotten this story.  I remember looking at my parents differently from that point onwards.  When they would tell me off, or expect more from me, or not let me do things that other children seemed to get away with – I suddenly realised why.

It is easy to be a friend to your child.  It is easy to be the good cop – always making excuses for their behaviour, allowing them to get away with things because they were tired, or not well, or had had a bad day.  It is much more difficult to be the ‘bad cop’ – enforce good behaviour, make sure there are consequences for poor behaviour.  It means being consistent – which is tiring.  It means facing the wrath and displeasure of your child – which is heart breaking.

Although my approach to parenting is different to that of my own parents, I will always be grateful for the richness, the diversity, the literature, the life stories that I was exposed to as a little girl.  I will always be grateful for the hunger to succeed that was instilled in me.  I will always be grateful that my behaviour was corrected when it needed to be.  I will always be grateful that my parents never needed to tell me how much they loved, because they always showed it in their own ways.