25 November 2019

After 17 Years as a Mum Here's What I've Learned

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My eldest boy turned 17 the other day, which is crazy because it feels like only yesterday that I began blogging when he was five.
Oh my word, what a journey we've had, what a rollercoaster ride. With one short year of schooling left, my 6-foot-tall manchild is almost ready to take on the world. I'm caught between shock and awe - shock at how fast it's all gone and awe that we have made it this far.

Let me share some of the things I've learned - the hard way of course - in the last few years of parenting. I hope to shed some light and sprinkle some hope for those of you just entering the teenage years, to encourage you that if we can survive, anyone can...

On my birthday my kids organised a "care package" for me

#1. It's all about the relationship

The number one thing I have figured out is this: focus on building the relationship, not changing the behaviour. Let's be honest - there are loads of things my kids do that I don't particularly like - attitudes, habits, choices. When I tried to fight the behaviour by coming up with various clever carrot-and-stick schemes all I got was a battle of wills. When your kids are taller and stronger than you, you've got to be canny to get cooperation. I've tried taking things away and offering incentives to get the behaviour I wanted but was endlessly frustrated and going in circles. Until I stopped focusing on the negative behaviour and started focusing on re-building the relationship between us.

As a parent of teens, I couldn't rest on my laurels as the nice kind mum that they loved as littlies. I have had to realise that they are their own people, with their own preferences and ideas, and begin to forge a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation, not coercion or threat of punishment.
All the big issues have had to be faced and worked through - sex, drugs, alcohol, mental health - you name it.

I have had to stop focusing on the stuff I was upset about and look deeper, see beneath the sucky attitude to the beloved person lurking within. I have had to get good at finding the glimmers of gold, spotting the small kindnesses, the little acts of generosity or responsibility and making a big deal about that stuff, letting them know that I noticed and appreciated their efforts.

We have a learner driver in the family now...

Sometimes, those nuggets lay hidden deep - we have to use our x-ray "parent vision" to spy them out.
I try to let my kids know I love and support them by telling and showing. I spend hours driving them places (or now, letting my boy practice driving me places). I try to say 'yes' as often as I can, so when I say 'no' it means something. I listen to their opinions and try to understand their perspective. I show them that they matter to me and that I value who they are, as their own person.

Even though I'm still a completely imperfect mum, the funny thing is that as I've stopped trying to be a Policemother (which I sucked at) and instead worked on building our connection, I've found that mutual trust and respect have grown and the attitudes and behaviour have improved as a natural flow-on effect. I can whole-heartedly say, that when it comes to parenting teens, the key is building the relationship.

Me and "my boys" -  love these guys

#2. Believe in them relentlessly

Back in the Nineties when I was doing youth work, I worked with teenagers deemed 'at risk', who came from backgrounds as tough as you can imagine (think 'Once Were Warriors'). There were plenty of people who had written these kids off (schools, police, social workers) but they captured my heart and broke it into pieces. I didn't know how to help them, there wasn't any quick fix or simple answer I could find to help turn their lives around. All I could do was be there when they needed me, show up, and simply keep believing in them. I didn't know what else to do, so that's what I did.
Just this year, I've reconnected with a few of them and been blown away by the lives they are now living, the beautiful healthy families they have. And the message they gave me was this: Thank you for never giving up on me. Thank you for believing in me.
I can't tell you what it meant to me to hear that.

In the middle of one crisis with my eldest, a friend of mine who is a Parenting Coach told me, "Every kid needs one person who believes in them - for your son you are that person".
That's my job - to be that person. There have been some pretty devastating and difficult challenges I've had to face as a mum on my own, with a teenage son battling his own demons. But somehow we seem to have come through the worst of it. I can see the light at the end of tunnel, and meeting up with some of my old youth group guys and girls has strengthened my resolve and given me renewed hope for my own kids.
If those teenagers who were "at risk" can turn out amazing, so can mine. I just have to keep believing in them and showing up for them like I did in my youth work days.

Ahhh the good old days when it was just potty training and sleeping habits

My daughter (now 15) does this thing where she tests me, to see what it would take for me to "disown" her.
"What if I got pregnant...got arrested...killed someone...? Would you disown me then?"
I keep telling her, "nothing you could do would ever make me disown you. It might break my heart, but I would be there for you no matter what..."
It's a game we play, but I mean it with my whole heart. I'm a mum, after all. These babies grew inside me. I couldn't turn away from them without ripping my own heart out.
In the end that's what they need. For us to relentlessly believe in them, show up for them, and love them even when they are being unlovable.
It will pay off in the end, I have now seen living proof.

My three precious ones and my folks

#3. The Learning Curve is Endless So Take the Small Wins

Just when you think you've finally gotten to grips with one stage of parenting, you hit a new stage with a whole new set of challenges.
And just when you've gotten one kid's crises sorted and think, "Ahhh I can relax now..." up pops another one with a fun new problem to deal with.
It seems like there's always somebody struggling with something, always some new parenting challenge.

The challenges of parenting human children are endless. Little people with their own thoughts, ideas, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, frustrations and fears trying to navigate a very confusing world, as their bodies grow and change and sometimes betray them, as friends grow and change and sometimes betray them... as they meet with success, failure, rejection, injury and even trauma. Helping these precious ones find their way in the world is surely the biggest and most important task any of us will ever face. It's rather daunting because the stakes are so high and the challenges are never-ending.

There are very few moments where we can sit back and 'survey the kingdom' with a feeling of satisfaction that all is right with the world. There's always something cropping up to throw a spanner in the works.

That is parenting life... just one long endless learning curve. A giant game of whack-a-mole where there is always some new challenge popping up.

I have had to learn to be OK with this. I spent way too many years trying hard to get to the place where I'd 'arrived' at being on top of things, as a parent.
I wanted to know that all my kids were happy and healthy and doing OK, that I knew what I was doing and had routines sorted and discipline strategies nailed instead of feeling like I was continually flying by the seat of my pants and parenting from the back foot... I just wanted one moment to feel like I had parenting sussed out - but that moment has never arrived and probably never will.

Take the small wins - like fun with the cuzzies

To survive this long endless learning curve called Parenting we need to take the long view. We are in this for the long haul, we've planted the seeds and nurtured the seedlings; we just need to be patient and allow time for what we've put in to bear fruit. Hang in there for long enough and we'll see - they will all turn out OK. (Just give it 20 years.)
We also need to recognise the small wins, in order to keep our sanity and combat the sheer mental exhaustion and anxiety we endure as parents.
Because the small wins are reassuring signs that the bigger wins are coming eventually. When I say "small wins" I'm talking about noticing little things like, he emptied the dishwasher without being asked. He asked my permission to go out when he could have easily just told me he was going. 
Little things like that are actually a big deal. My son is over 6 foot and I can't make him do anything or not do anything. I've had to work on building a relationship of mutual respect. The fact that he asks my permission or spontaneously helps out occasionally are marker stones telling me we are on the right road. Our relationship is healthy.

Taking the small wins

I'm on the lookout for the little clues that let me know my children are becoming kind and decent human beings. I'll take encouragement wherever I can find it to reassure myself that my life messages are getting through (mostly on the theme of "be kind"). Any small act of kindness or thoughtfulness, anytime they take responsibility for themselves or sincerely apologise for something - I take heart at their increasing maturity. The littlest clue is a positive sign - I take it as a win and cheer inwardly.

And sometimes, very occasionally, when we least expect it, we get to enjoy a truly warm fuzzy moment...

Picture the scene - it's your 50th birthday. A handful of close friends have joined you for drinks and dessert on the back deck of your new home. There are speeches and then - oh be still my heart - your 15-year-old daughter stands up and makes a speech too, unprompted...

It's all about RelationshipMy girl speechifying

She references the banter you share back and forth, and says, we are like best friends...
Right then, the joy is unspeakable and it has all been worth it.
Your 11 year old follows up with his own precious words; the tallest one stands at the back and listens. Later he tells you, "I didn't make a speech cos I don't like talking in front of people..." but if he did he says he'd say, "You are loving and caring."

What more could a 50-year-old mum ask for?

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