Letting Go

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A couple of weeks ago I started an evening course as a step on my journey back into the workforce. It’s only two evenings a week for a few hours but it’s the longest time I have ever been away from Little P.

I know, I know. I can almost hear the eye rolling from here and believe me I’ve seen plenty of it from family and friends. A small child being left for a few hours a week with her Dad??!! A real tear jerker. Practically a remake of ‘Who Will Love My Children’! But it’s not so much the fact that I’m leaving her now for a few hours that’s causing me upset. It’s the fact that this is just the first step in a process. The first ‘letting go’, whether it happens at two months or two years, is always going to be a heart breaker because it will end in the ultimate letting go when child disappears into adult.

I remember when she was a tiny newborn and a combination of breastfeeding plus co-sleeping made me feel, at times, like the umbilical cord hadn’t really been cut. A trip to the shops without her felt so odd, as though I had left an arm behind. Many times I’ve read articles or heard friends speak about the importance of me time, time spent away from being a parent. But, although I understand and appreciate how important it is for many, the concept has always felt alien to me. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt the need to be apart from my daughter. The rare occasions I do get out on my own are spent mostly looking forward to getting back to her.

But admitting this is difficult. I feel people will think I’m some kind of hyper judgmental Supermum or a martyr to motherhood or, worst of all, a bit odd! Maybe I am a bit odd, a bit over invested in being a Mum, holding onto my daughter a bit too tightly and losing sight of myself in the process. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels like our relationship is a very organic one, happening at our own pace. I feel completely happy, possibly the happiest I’ve ever felt. My daughter (and her Dad) appear to be pretty happy too!

Perhaps it’s just taken me a little bit longer than others to begin the letting go process. Every Mum is different but, unfortunately, every Mum is similarly exposed to judgment. Leave your baby too soon and you’re uncaring or neglectful, don’t leave them soon enough and you’re suffocating or over indulgent.

So the process of letting go has begun and the sky hasn’t fallen in. But my partner, who knows me too well, left a poem stuck to the fridge door. A subtle message perhaps. The poem? ‘Walking Away’ by Cecil Day Lewis and I feel that the final lines are those most apt for me.

I have had worse partings but none that so

Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly

Saying what God alone could perfectly show –

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go. (16-20)

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School. Does She Really Have to Go?

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This morning Little P was thrilled to have the entire playground to herself. She was dizzy with choice, running from slide to swing to roundabout and back again. There was a soft drizzle falling and the only sounds were the seagulls and the waves. As I watched her play I realised that this is probably our last free September.  Next year she will be old enough for preschool and then our Septembers will become all about back to school.

I like September it always feels full of possibility and fills me with the thrill of expectation. As a child I mostly enjoyed school and looked forward to returning after the summer holidays. I used to get so excited about my new school books and uniform. But for some reason I feel a resistance about sending Little P to school. I realise I have the usual reluctance that most parents have about letting go of the baby years. A sadness about the passing of time and children growing older. But there’s something else niggling away at me, something more than that.

I know that that there are many positives about school. Making friends, learning to cooperate, feeling part of a team and that’s before I even get to the educational benefits.  But now that I have my own daughter I feel the need to question the fact that she’ll go to school rather than just accepting it as the status quo. Although I enjoyed lots of elements of school I can also remember the relentless routine. I distinctly remember feeling trapped by that routine. Some days I really wanted to play outside, stay with my mum or just do my own thing. The pace of learning didn’t always suit me either. Too much time spent on the subjects I found easy or didn’t enjoy and not enough time on the ones I found difficult or did enjoy. Art was my favourite and it was frustrating as a child to be interrupted in the middle of painting to move on to maths or Irish. There never seemed to be enough time to get into a subject in any really depth, particularly in a large class with a busy teacher.

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Perhaps conventional school isn’t necessarily the best option for every child. Some children are just suited to a different way of learning. Maybe they need more time or less time, maybe they’re visual learners or more physical learners. Maybe they learn better when left alone. Schools have evolved to function in the best way to suit the majority of children. They obviously need to work effectively for large groups. Our education system, with hard working and dedicated teachers, delivers incredibly well teaching the curriculum. But it’s often not possible to include everything in that curriculum and certain things are inevitably left out. Things like problem solving or critical thinking, risk taking or decision making, even creativity. Sometimes there just isn’t the time or the resources or maybe there are certain things that simply can’t be taught in a classroom environment. School is limited because it is such a static environment. A classroom can’t recreate the dynamics of the real world going on outside the windows. Could children learn more valuable lessons out there?

But even as I write this I know that these are the words of an idealist, a dreamer. The truth is that when the time comes Little P will probably head off to school just like most of her peers. We need to make a living just like every other parent and what other options do we have? The time required for home education seems like a luxury that is just not within our grasp. Maybe in the future education and work will both become more flexible. Time in the classroom could be combined with projects completed at home or outside in the real world. For learning is something organic that doesn’t start or end at the school gate. I realise that I’m learning just as much, if not more, from my daughter as she is from me.

So my words may seem a little impractical, even dreamy, but whether my daughter goes to school or not I hope that she’ll still grow up questioning the status quo. Just like her mum.

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Future Proofing ‘The Rose’

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When I was a little girl my Nana used to have a Rose of Tralee party so we could all watch it together on the TV. She would buy my favourite biscuits (Toffy Pops) and I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime. I can remember sitting on the sofa listening to all the debate about who should win, the comprehensive (and often harsh) critique of the dresses and of course the fulsome praise for host extraordinaire Uncle Gaybo. I certainly enjoyed the sense of occasion and the excitement of staying up late and trying to predict the winner. But I do remember being a bit bemused by the show itself. My Nana would often say to me ‘Maybe when you’re older you could be on the Rose of Tralee. Would you like that?’ Being a shy introverted eight year old, I always just smiled and nodded. But I would internally cringe at the thought of being interviewed on national TV by Gay Byrne. In my own childish way I knew it would have made her heart burst with pride should it ever have come to pass.

Many years later, although I didn’t make it to Tralee as a Rose, it was one of my very first TV jobs. My Nana was as proud as if I were wearing the winning tiara. However it was my first live TV experience and it was far more stressful than enjoyable for me.  Although I was mostly distracted by my work duties there was something about watching young women, just like me, preparing to compete for a sash and tiara that left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Although it wasn’t a beauty pageant, it felt suspiciously like one.

Now I find myself living on the very doorstep of The Festival, as it’s locally known. From a distance it’s easy to be cynical about the Lovely Girls competition. It seems oddly old fashioned, appearing to reward an idealised version of femininity that finds it’s origins in a 19th century ballad. Many a disparaging article has been written about it and there will be many more to come I’m sure. But living here it’s not so easy to be disparaging. Witnessing first hand the economic boost that the festival brings to Tralee, and the surrounding areas, I see the positive impact that it has on local business. Although a relatively small town The Rose has literally put Tralee on the world map.

But how does a festival that began in 1959 keep itself relevant in a changing world? Well in 2008 the festival lifted the ‘ban’ on unmarried mothers, allowing them to enter for the first time. Better late than never I suppose. Once again in 2014 it was propelled into the 21st century when winner Maria Walsh revealed that she was gay. She was particularly engaged and engaging, outspoken on a number of issues and proved to be one of the best ambassadors the festival has ever appointed. Similarly in 2016 another opportunity presented itself to the festival in the shape of Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins. Ireland was in the throes of debate about the controversial eighth amendment. Parkins bravely used her opportunity in the spotlight to call for a referendum giving Irish women control over their reproductive rights . Unfortunately (and some would say not unexpectedly) Parkins was not crowned that year. A much missed opportunity, in my view, to prove that the Festival truly is about female empowerment. This year’s glimmer of hope for me is Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey. The first mother to appear on the competition stage since the festival began. She is a beautician, young Mum, breastfeeding advocate and keen DIY enthusiast. Essentially, a modern young woman.

To be effective ambassadors for the festival the winning Rose needs to be reflective of modern society. We want our daughters to grow up believing they can be anything. Gay, straight or gender fluid, political activist or musician, mum or teacher, accountant or astronaut. So if The Rose of Tralee is to move on into the next century, and I really hope it does, it needs to be representative of today’s young women. Because the festival does have an underlying positive message. That message is about celebrating the achievements of young women. It’s also about female solidarity and support. But that message often remains hidden beneath the shiny wrapping of a beauty pageant.

So what would my Nana think about the modern Rose of Tralee? She was a modern woman in her own time. A career woman who travelled and married comparatively late in life. So I imagine she’s up there in TV heaven loving every minute of it. And this year she would probably tell me to pin my hopes on the Carlow Rose. Someone pass the Toffee Pops please!

So I’m an ‘Older Mum’. How Did That Happen?

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For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a Mum. No interest in weddings, no dreams about big white dresses or tiaras. But ever since my Mum brought my younger brother home from hospital, when I was only five years old, I’ve been besotted with babies. As an older sister I looked after my siblings with enthusiasm. I babysat for all my cousins, the neighbours’ babies, friends of my parents. Then when my own family and friends starting having babies I was the first on their doorstep when they came home from hospital (after a respectable interval of course!). The chubby legs, the baby smell, the downy little head all work like a tonic for me. It’s impossible for me not to be happy with a baby in my arms. Toddlers are fun and funny in equal measure. And children? Usually at a wedding, christening or any family function I could be found at the children’s table. Most of them can be much better company than adults in my view.

So how did I become an older mum? Barely (and luckily) managing to have my own beautiful baby before it was too late. As my friends paired off and gradually had families they watched me expectantly. But I sailed through my twenties and most of my thirties blissfully single and in complete denial of the passage of time. As a foolish romantic I always held the notion that romance should just happen. So, I made very little effort to actually make my dream of having a family a reality.

But fear not dear reader, fate intervened and I managed to fall in love just in time. However I would NOT recommend this approach. It’s all very well being romantic but if you really want to meet a partner and have a family, like every dream in life, it does require SOME effort. Socialising, making attempts to meet new people, giving potential partners a chance even if they don’t set your world on fire at first meeting. All stuff at which I was beyond useless. I had lots of dreams growing up and having children was up there in the top three. But I sort of assumed it would just happen (fortunately it did eventually, but only in the nick of time).

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I became aware that I was of ‘advanced maternal age'(!) during my pregnancy but everything went so well that I didn’t really give my age a second thought. And now it’s only when I find out the ages of other mums that I meet (in real life or online) that the realisation dawns on me as to how old I ACTUALLY am. I feel eternally twenty-eight in my head and becoming a mum has only reinforced that feeling. Having a baby gave me a completely new lease of life. Firstly giving birth made me feel like Wonder Woman, as did breastfeeding. Now that my daughter is older I’m making so much more effort to eat healthily, because I want to lead by example, and exercise? Well that just comes automatically with the job of looking after a small child! She has also given me a whole new perspective on life. Seeing everything again through my daughter’s eyes makes even the most mundane of experiences seem exciting. Suddenly even the automated checkout in the supermarket is an adventure! Becoming a mum has also provided the impetus to really embrace other dreams I had put on the back burner. My daughter provides a huge inspiration to me and I’ve returned to lots of creative activities that I had long abandoned. I’ve started drawing and painting again, taken up photography (I hardly ever took a photo until she was born) and of course I’ve started writing again.

Naturally there are moments I can’t help but think ‘if only’ I were ten years younger. Maybe then I could have more beautiful daughters and sons too. But those moments are few and far between. I had reached a point in my life where I had resigned myself to the fact that there would probably be no children at all. Every moment I spend with my little girl makes me feel so incredibly lucky that there’s not much room for regrets.

So, if anyone asks me what it’s really like being an ‘Older Mum’. My answer? Oh I have no idea, I’m only twenty-eight don’t you know?!

What ‘Slow Parenting’ Means To Me

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Over the past few weeks, we have had a few interesting things happening. Birthdays, a holiday with Nana and Grandad and ‘Little P’s first road trip! All things that took us out of our usual routine. They were all great fun, very exciting and she certainly enjoyed the new faces and all the moving around. But now that things have settled back to normal it made me realise how much I treasure the small mundane details of our days.

We do pretty much the same thing every day. It varies a little depending on weather but it’s generally breakfast, beach, playground, lunch, nap, garden, dinner, playground, bath and bed.

On rainy days it’s drawing, reading, dancing to The Beatles and playing with the toy farm animals. Not exactly thrills and spills but I have to confess that I love it. I love the little chats we have over breakfast about whether seagull poo is bigger than pigeon poo. I love the fact that we have to do the toddler swing BEFORE the big girl swing in the playground and I love the way she always pick the same blue colouring pencil no matter what she decides to draw.

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It’s a world away from my previous life. I used to make television programmes and no two days were ever the same. I was always travelling and meeting new people. My life was exciting but at times exhausting. There was so much to do and very little time to savour the moment. Often months would pass in a blur where I didn’t take the time to really enjoy the experiences I was having. When I became a parent for the first time I was determined not to allow the same thing to happen to the time spent with my daughter. So, kind of unwittingly, I made my decisions about slow parenting very early on.

As parents, we are bombarded with rules, advice  and ‘best practices’. There is so much information out there about every aspect of parenting that sometimes it can add to a never ending cycle of worry about whether you are doing everything correctly. It’s possible to become so focused on the routines and the practicalities from feeding to sleeping, weaning to potty training, screen time to exercise and forget about just being with your child. Suddenly months then years can go by in a flash. Babies become children, then children become adults. All of us recognise that feeling of ‘where has the time gone?!’ For me that is really what slow parenting means. Taking time to enjoy the moments. Forgetting about what I ‘should’ be doing and just ‘being’.

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Usually the most joy can be found, not in the big monumental occasions, but the small moments of togetherness. While I’m in them I’m not concerned about whether ‘Little P’ should be eating that biscuit, or climbing on that rock, or whether I should have brushed her hair or changed her grubby t-shirt. I just enjoy her giggles or watching her get totally absorbed in dropping stones into the water, or listening to her try to remember the lyrics to her favourite Beatlessong. Slow parenting is not about trying to be the the best parent or the perfect parent it’s simply about enjoying being a parent. Sometimes it’s very low key, maybe even a bit routine. Other times it’s exciting and exhilarating. But the important thing is that it’s happening and happening to me.

So I’ve yet to make my plans for the future but for the moment I’m happy with my choice of the slow and simple life. Or boring, depending on your point of view!

Why Are Breastfeeding Mums Still Being Sent to the Toilets?

While I was pregnant we went on holiday to Portugal. It was Christmas time and the markets were full of tiny Nativity figurines. One thing that really struck me was the number of miniature breastfeeding Marys. They were everywhere and perfectly detailed complete with tiny nipples and a milk-drunk baby Jesus. There were real life ‘Marys’ everywhere as well. Women breastfeeding on public transport, park benches, sitting outside Cafés among the crowds sipping coffee and having loud animated conversations with their companions. They were not using shawls and blankets or hiding in special breastfeeding rooms. Why would they? They were occupying the star tables in the restaurants and the front seats at events. As I was pregnant and intending to breastfeed all this positivity really buoyed me up.

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But that was Portugal. Almost three years of breastfeeding later I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read in the media or heard anecdotally, in Ireland and the UK, about women being asked to feed ‘somewhere more private’ or ‘do that in the toilets’. At this stage I’ve fed my daughter in many places. Beaches, playgrounds, restaurants, shopping centres, churches, garden centres….. A good eclectic mix of locations (but I’m sure others could offer up many more exotic or unusual!). Some by choice, others by necessity. I’ve never fed her in a toilet nor would I ever. But once she grew from baby to toddler I have to admit that I felt awkward and embarrassed about feeding her in public. Often retreating to my car instead. That Mediterranean positivity had left me.

But how do you think a Portuguese woman would react if she was asked to feed her baby in a toilet? Or a Norwegian, or an Italian, or a Dane? I bet the person asking would be told in no uncertain terms where to go. So when I read yet another story this week about a Mayo fan being told to use the toilets when she needed to breastfeed her baby at a GAA match I felt angry. Not just angry with the steward who had asked her but angry with myself. What was I doing allowing other people (with dysfunctional ideas about breastfeeding) make me feel awkward or embarrassed?  I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons why some people still hold those dysfunctional ideas. Religion maybe, lack of education, lack of experience? The truth is, I’m tired of making excuses for these archaic attitudes. But if I want my country to have the same positive attitude toward breastfeeding as other Europeans then it’s time for me, and all breastfeeding women, to step up to the plate. Yes, we may feel a bit awkward, a bit shy, a bit embarrassed or exposed but we have to just do it anyway. We owe it to each other and to our daughters, our nieces, sisters and every woman who makes the choice to breastfeed. If there are more of us out there publicly breastfeeding then WE can make it far too embarrassing for THEM to send us to the toilets.

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So, while I was out this week late one evening my daughter, over tired and cranky, asked to be fed. We were in a public place surrounded by people I didn’t know very well. Ordinarily I would try to fob her off until we got home but this time I channelled my inner Portuguese ‘Mary’ and fed her there and then. And you know what? Nobody batted an eyelid.

Why I’ll Never Tell My Daughter She is Pretty…..

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Recently I had to do that thing which seems to cause parenting angst the world over. Give my daughter her first haircut. Unfortunately she seems to have inherited my hair. Fine, flyaway & somewhere inbetween curly and straight. Watching it falling into her eyes when she was trying to play, sticking to her food when she was trying to eat and covering her face when she was trying to run I knew it was time for the chop. So, I cut her a fringe and gave her a bob. She was thrilled and no longer had to squint or constantly push it out of her eyes. But I wasn’t prepared for the extreme reactions from everyone else. My mother practically refused to speak to me for a whole 24 hours. ‘Her lovely blonde curls’ she cried. ‘But she looked so pretty’ she wailed. ‘She looks like a boy now!’ was the final accusation.

It got me thinking about how we can send a message to our children, from a very early age, about the importance of how they look. Particularly girls. Was my little girl supposed to suffer discomfort just to look pretty?

During my teenage years I spent a huge amount of time and efforts on my appearance. Imagine all of the other stuff I could have been doing. Learning a musical instrument, skydiving, bungee jumping, having fun, living! I also missed out on alot because maybe I felt I didn’t have the right outfit or I had a spot or a bad hair day.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up with a skewed notion about the importance of her appearance. Of course I believe that it’s important to be clean, look after your body, brush your hair!! But hours in front of the mirror worrying about eyebrows, fake tan, nails or waxing. Is that really necessary? Think of all the other great stuff that girls could be doing with that time.

I realise that when my daughter becomes a teenager she will most definitely get distracted by make up and clothes, just as we all do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Clothes and make up can be a fun and creative way to express yourself. But I don’t want her appearance to become a burden, an obsession or an impediment to anything she wants to do. Most of all I don’t want her to feel defined by it.

She has a life to live and she’s not just here for decoration. There are people to meet, places to go, food to eat and fun to be had. My daughter is kind and brave, funny and smart, noisy and impatient. I’ll tell her all those things. But I won’t tell her she’s pretty. She is so much more than that.

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