It takes a village

WARNING: this may include an element of smug mumminess – it is not normally something I feel that comfortable in engaging in so forgive me – it hopefully has some level of creative (?!?) purpose.

It’s that time of year again – the summer holidays are finally in sight and I for one can’t wait. I feel so tired that this afternoon I have had to crawl into my bed and have a little afternoon nap. So roll on 7 weeks of not having to make pack lunches (I can’t even put into words how much I hate making pack lunches!!!!!), not racing out the door each morning checking the right clothes are being worn and that right equipment is packed or the right letter has been signed, 7 weeks of not having to ferry from drama to music to swimming to parties. Yes I will still have to get myself to work but that break from all the rest of it feels like a little piece of heaven, a little piece of selfish heaven.

And with this time of year comes the annual school report – my child is no genius, she is very normal, she struggles with some stuff and shines more in other areas but it bought me to tears. It talked about a polite and delightful little girl, a little girl who was always willing to help, always willing to try new things and always gave everything her best. Obviously you want your child to do well and go out and find their way in the world but to some extent the academic stuff is secondary to me – I want to see kindness, generosity, compassion, a spirit of adventure.

If I am being honest there was a moment of pride in myself – single parenting is incredibly hard at times, its incredibly lonely and it can be scary – you feel solely responsible for the way this human being turns out, there is no-one to share that responsibility, no-one to share the amazing bits or the really tough heart breaking bits. So reading that report made me thankful that despite everything that has happened we are doing ok.

I very quickly got over myself though and started to reflect on the fact that getting Lucy to this point, getting her to year 10 of life in a fairly good state wasn’t down to just me.

I remembered that old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child and my heart became full as I thought of the village that had helped me raise my child, for all those people that can take some of the credit.

For her GJ who continually goes above and beyond, who makes numerous sacrifices and who quite frankly neither of us would function very well without. For her other grandparents, here and no longer here, who love her so well. For an uncle who has loved her so beautifully from day one, who makes her feel safe and makes her laugh and a beloved aunt who she knows adores her. For her wider family who encourage her, invest time in her, listen to her.

For her “best adult friend” who has been such a steadfast presence in her life, who has always made her feel special and has been so generous in her time and love. For a whole community who have been her family, her places of belonging, who have provided “siblings”, who have helped her create so many happy memories. For her teachers, an amazing teaching assistant who was a gift in a tough year and will always have a special place in our heart. For her babysitters who have not simply come and put her straight to bed so they could get on with their own thing but who have got down on the floor with her, and played with and talked to her and read to her.

For all those who have prayed for us from day one, and have been so faithful in those prayers, people we know and love well, and those we don’t know at all.

And above all for a heavenly father who has poured out his grace time and time again, over and over – my child has witnessed more of my tears than I would have cared for her to see, she has seen me battle and wrestle more than I would have liked, she has seen more loss, illness and grief than most of her peers but I thank God that in his grace he has protected her, he has used those things to shape her in good ways, and that despite my failings, and there have been many, she is a good and happy kid.

This is not something that I talk about too much because on the whole I have found peace with it but there is a sadness at the children I never got to have, those I didn’t get to love and parent. I would never have chosen to have an only child. However I am so thankful that I didn’t get to love just one child I get to love a whole host of gorgeous kids, who I have loved since the minute they arrived, who I have loved watching grow, who I have prayed for over and over, who have made me laugh and cry, and who I can’t wait to watch become amazing adults. For all those conversations I have had with their parents, about their struggles, their achievements, their character, their friendships. I have loved being part of the village that has helped and will continue to help raise them – because what a privilege that is.

This parenting lark is amazing, it’s a wonderful gift, and I am so so thankful I got the chance to do it but I defy anyone to say it is easy, there are moments that lift your heart as high as it can go but there are plenty of moments that break your hearts into pieces, where the tears flow, or the frustration takes you to breaking point (for me it is usually maths homework) but I am so thankful for that village that I get to do it with. I am thankful for that village because in all honesty it would probably be unbearable without them but I am thankful for them because my child’s life is so much richer because of it. Yes she needs me, I am her number one and I am the centre of her life but I can’t give her everything she needs, and the people that make up her village bring her life, and colour, and experience – different things than I can offer her.

So lets be part of the villages of the children around us, invest and love those children, support and care for their parents, pray for those families because there are very few greater privileges.

Things I wish I had told you

So the other day Simon text me to say he was listening to “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles and thinking of you – you see you are never far from our thoughts. I think I think about you at least 10 times a day, sometimes it is something that reminds me of you, other times it is something I want to tell you and the rest of the time it is simply because you are part of who I am and so therefore never far away.

I can’t believe that in a few days time it will be three years since I last saw you – I remember in those last weeks sitting talking with you and thinking that very soon you were no longer going to be there to do that with but not really being able to get my head round that thought because you had always been there and so I couldn’t understand my world without you in it.

But that day came sooner than we realised – once you had decided it was time to go home you didn’t stick around. One day you were sat in your chair talking to me, the next you were lying in your bed, struggling to talk or breath and it was clear the end was near. I was too scared that day, I was scared of what I knew was coming and so I didn’t say what I wanted to say to you – I knew you knew it but still I wish I had said it. I wish I had climbed onto that bed and lain next to you and told you thank you, thank you for loving me and for always believing in me.

You weren’t perfect, in fact at times you were a total bugger – you could be stubborn and difficult – so many times you drove me to distraction but I wouldn’t have swopped you because I guess for all the times you drove me mad I drove you more mad, for all the times you were difficult I was more difficult. And for all the rubbish times, and there were some, there were so many good times and you gave me and taught me so much.

So now that the dust has settled, and I have healed up I want to tell you what I wish I had told you that day. I want to say thank you for always listening to me, for always understanding and never judging – I miss you most when it comes to making decisions, after John it was you and now you aren’t here either, the silver lining being that I am learning more and more to make those decisions with my heavenly father but nonetheless I miss you. I wonder what you would make of my career change, whether you would be in the camp that thinks I have totally lost the plot or whether you would think it was a good thing. It has been so good for me, and so I hope you would be in the latter camp, but I am not so sure. How I wish I could tell you all about it!

Thank you for always being on my side – when I think of you one of my strongest memories was of your arm never leaving me on the day of John’s funeral and from that moment onwards you fought for me, you told me it was crap and in saying that made me feel understood and safe. I know how hard it was for you to watch me in pain and how much pain that caused you but it showed me how much you loved me, even though the words never came easy for you, and in a funny sort of way I will always be grateful for that.

Thank you for never pushing us, for letting us be who we were and never putting pressure on us – for gently and quietly always being behind us, encouraging us and letting us find our own way.

Thank you for loving my child so much – how proud you would be of who she is becoming and how much fun you would have had with her. She has taken your chair at the table when no-one else could sit in it. And oh my goodness how you would have fallen in love with your new little one – she has bought so much joy in her short 5 months, joy that has been so desperately needed, and if she is a ginger (there are early signs) I think the blame will be firmly falling at your feet!

Thank you teaching me the importance of being kind to people – so many people since you have been gone have talked about what a kind and giving man you were. You were a good man.

Thank you for working so hard to provide for us – there are not many who work harder and who sacrificed so much for their families.

Thank you for sharing my dark sense of humour – there aren’t many people around who get that but you always did and always laughed with me!

Thank you for being brave – you battled so hard and so courageously. You never showed us you were afraid, which I am sure you were, but in that you gave us such a gift. I think part of that courage came from knowing where you were going and your certainty in that and I will forever be thankful for that because it made letting you go easier.

I would have told you, that as I knew would be the case, even before you had gone, there would be such specific things that make you feel near – for Simon it may be Beatles songs for me it is the Carpenters. It is the smell of cigars in your car. A pinstripe suit. A Chelsea boot. Seafood. So many memories.

But most of all I would have said thank you for being my Daddy, how grateful I was for you and how much I love you x

P.S. I got a tattoo – but it is too late for you disinherit me!!!

When there are no answers

Do you ever doubt? Or is it just me?

Do you ever question where God is in life and how he works? Or again is it just me?

I don’t ever doubt God is real or that he is incredibly good and loving but sometimes I just don’t get the way he works and I can become like a dog with a bone, I wrestle and wrestle, until I am exhausted with wrestling, I lay it down again until something happens that means those questions come to the forefront again.

I came into this year excited about what was ahead, expectant, full of hope and faith – it felt like a new season, I had experienced God move amazingly in my life in the last few months of last year and again into this year and it felt like the past was truly the past. Then the other week, out of nowhere one of those phone calls came that left me curled up in a ball on the floor screaming “No” and “I don’t understand” over and over again. One of those phone calls that means that your family is changed forever, again.

My heart broke because even though the news on the end of that phone wasn’t a direct loss to my life it was news that has shattered the lives of two of the most important people in my life, the two people who are the closest I will ever have to sisters, and I knew the depth of their pain and what is ahead.

And so the questions and the doubts and the wrestles came flowing back and to be honest left me feeling lost, a little bit scared and very heavy hearted.

Does God have a plan for our lives? Is he there and working for our good? How does he choose when and how and when not? I have lost so much sleep over the past 10 days trying to work out the answers to these questions – even though the last 9 years should have taught me I will never have the answers. As ever there are angels there who listen and help me process, who reminded me that it is always about truth and grace, and that sometimes truth is messy but that grace is always grace. That doubt and wrestle can sit side by side with worship.

I said to my brother that his work were going to start thinking he was making up things, given the number of times he had to phone in and say there had been a death or medical emergency – to which he responded that he had only said the same thing that morning.

He then went on to say that we were going to keep choosing life.

Since that phone call I feel like I have been walking a tight rope where I literally could fall one way or the other, one being right back into the valley of death, that valley which I know God lifted me out of. I feel like there has been a battle raging inside me.

Last night as I spent time talking to God and being quiet and I felt a peace return – I felt that all God had done in the last 6 months was coming to the forefront again. I want to keep choosing life. That doesn’t meant my heart will stop hurting for those I love, I have a feeling I will be hurting for them in some shape or form for a long time to come but I want to be their hope when they can’t hope for themselves, I want to be the one who is strong for them, as so many people were strong for me, I want to be able to push them forward when they don’t have any strength left.

I don’t want to keep asking the questions, it exhausts me, it takes away my peace – I want to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, in the way he moved in John’s life, in my Dad’s life, the way he bought me through, the enormous blessings I have in my life, the way he showed up and pursued me at the end of last year when I was ready to throw the towel in and the way he breathed life back into me – that same God who was faithful in the past, is still faithful today and will be going forward.

This world and this life can be overwhelmingly hard at times but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful. I love that unexplainable feeling of seeing God at work, the excitement that it brings that is so difficult to articulate. I love the people he gives us, I love that we don’t have to do any of this on our own, so yes there are times in life where the pain is unbearable, where the loss feels too great but he puts us in families, in communities and in relationship which help us to survive, heal and thrive again. In the first few days after that phone call I wanted to hide away, to stop caring about people because actually it hurt too much and it hurt too much to see people I love hurting but the reality is my heart is already too entangled with them and so many others to simply stop loving. It is just not the way I am wired or in fact any of us are wired – we have no choice but to love people despite the potential costs.

I still don’t understand but I am putting the questions down and learning to trust that I may not know but he does, he knows the answers, the reasons but also the pain, he holds it all and us in the midst of it – I keep coming back to the fact that I can’t but he very much can.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brene Brown.

Teaching our kids to care

If I get to the end of my parenting journey and can say my child is kind to those around her and to the world in general I will feel like I have succeeded. I may be being totally naïve but for me that is one of the most important lessons I can teach her. Most days I will ask her if she has been kind, if she has looked out for people in the playground who perhaps are not always included in the games and who do not naturally have lots of friends around them – she has now reached the age where I receive an exasperated response along the lines of “yes I know and yes you have told me enough already”. Educating the heart is just as important as educating the mind (stolen from a cheesy American website!!).

As part of some research I was doing for work I started to think about engaging children with charity and helping them to learn about our responsibilities as human beings to help our neighbours and those in the world around us – I think in schools it is taught as being a good global citizen.

I guess when it comes to parenting there will be different schools of thought about what we tell our children about the pain and suffering in our world. As parents our natural instinct is obviously to protect our children, and not cause them harm or upset. I personally though am a big believer in being real with them, because the realities of life will at some point affect them personally and I wanted my child to have the tools to cope and I also want her to learn compassion and kindness to reach out and help people around her who are struggling and who are in pain. It is for that reason I have never shied away from letting Lucy visit family members in dementia homes, she has done that since she was a baby and likewise my Dad spent 3 years in and out of hospital for his cancer treatment and she spent a lot of times in those hospitals and maybe witnessed things that she was too little to see – I don’t know. When my Dad died there was no question she would come to the funeral, even though she was only 6 at the time, and we talked openly and honestly with her about the process and what would happen and let her be part of the discussions with those leading the services, allowing her to give her memories and share what she loved about her Papa. My hope is that these experiences will make her more compassionate, will give her understanding and will equip her with tools to take into later life.

I don’t though just want it to be about sensitising my child to pain and suffering in the world but I want to empower her to make a difference, to know she can play her part in making the world a better place and to teach her about the importance of giving so that she grows up to be generous.

Not only that but when I look at what my child has I sometimes feel a little bit sick – Christmas morning in the past has verged on the obscene side and that is without me having spent more than £30 – my child is lucky she has lots of people around her who love her and want to show her that love by giving to her but I want to move away from that “me me me” “I want” expectation to one of giving and generosity.

So I took to our good friend Google to come up with some ideas about how we as our little family can together engage in charity and here’s what I found:

  1. Children learn best by example – model everyday acts of kindness to them. Share your values with them. Whether it be financial giving or smiling at someone on the street, holding open a door for someone else or visiting someone who is sick.
  1. According to a United Nations Foundation study talking to our children about giving is one of the most effective ways to encourage philanthropy and increases the likelihood of them giving as adults by 28%. The study is quick to say though that the way we talk to our children is the key – be specific, don’t just say we give because it is a nice thing to do but talk to them about how their actions affect others and frame it in a way that can relate to. Allow the subject of giving and charity to be part of your every day conversations.
  1. Allow children to be part of the decision making process of who as a family you give to – allow them to hear about different charities and causes and let them make the choice – let them direct the process. The greater their involvement the more they will learn. Make it fun!
  1. When it comes to pocket money (and I am rubbish at this – I so want to teach my child good financial skills but find it a rather overwhelming subject so often put it off!!) give them 3 jars and explain that they can have some to spend, some to save and some to give away. Giving cash can be an abstract concept to children, especially when these days it is often simply an on-line click so think of ways to make that giving practical. Is there an old lady who lives on their own who would be blessed by a bunch of flowers, or could they go with you to the supermarket and use the money they have saved to buy some money for a foodbank?
  1. Create family traditions. We try and every year to make up a box for Operation Christmas Child – we go to the shop together and pick out items, and I let Lucy chose and think about what another child may like.
  1. Set your children challenges – ask them to do something nice for 3 other people every time someone is nice to them – to teach them the importance of giving back.
  1. Giving is not just about money but time too – could you as a family go and do something which will help or bless another person.
  1. Partly because I am marginally OCD before every birthday and Christmas I make Lucy go through all her clothes and toys and decide what she wants to give away – some go to friends others to the charity shop.
  1. Sponsoring a child in an overseas country – that makes it more relatable – one child engaging with another where letters can be exchanged.

Those are just a few ideas that I am going to try and be intentional about implementing but if anyone else out there has other creative ways I would love to hear from you.

A lot of my working life has been about “legacy” and what people leave behind and I have seen plenty of the bad as well as lots of the good but I passionately believe we have a responsibility to teach kindness, generosity and respect to our children. I don’t get this stuff right all or even most of the time but I like to think of it as a work in progress!

Thank you little one

The other night I went for a run and I ran avoiding hills at all costs (not easy when running in Sheffield) but I found myself totally out of run and faced with a long walk home in the dark up lots of hills – on my walk home I walked along a certain road in Sheffield which always makes me think of my sister-in-law as she loves the houses along this road. I then got to think about my nephew or niece (currently at home in my sister-in-law’s belly) who will be here in 2 months time and I became a little overwhelmed and a little tearful – this little person will be right up there as one of the most important people in my life, someone I will have an overwhelming love for but yet I don’t know them, I have no idea what they will look like or what they will be like.

It got me to thinking – it was a very long walk – about how we don’t know who or what is ahead and I had a sense of excitement and anticipation and hope. Those blessings when they come can be big or small but equally life giving.

My thoughts then led me to reflect on a couple of encounters over the past few weeks – all with total strangers which were so full of encouragement, hope and reassurance and each little thing has allowed life to bubble up inside me a little more.

The other week I had to go into Lucy’s school to sort some teddies out for a charity I have been helping with a bit – I knew the task ahead of me was fairly large and that I could do with some help and after exhausting obvious avenues I put a note out on the charity’s Facebook page to see if any fellow parents could help and a lovely lady responded saying she could. We spent a lovely few hours as we sorted through literally hundreds of teddies talking life, families, and careers. A few days later I got a message from her asking if she could sponsor me for my run – it was only something small but I was so blessed by it.

A few weeks later I took Lucy to a party and got talking to a gorgeous lady I had never met before but it was totally a conversation I needed to have – to anyone listening in the conversation may have sounded slightly depressing but to me, and hopefully her, it was totally full of life – a couple of hours of chatting shared experiences, feelings, questions. That conversation felt like a real gift.

Then only on Friday I was meeting with a lady that supports the charity I work for about the possibility of her appearing in a video I am putting together. I had never met this woman before and had never heard of her before. The first thing this lovely old lady asked me was was I the girl whose husband had died when she was pregnant and I said that I was and she told me that her and her friends had regularly prayed for me and Lucy over the years – I really had to compose myself to get through the rest of our time together. I was blown away that a stranger who didn’t know me had not just said a few prayers in the weeks after John’s death but for years after had faithfully upheld us in prayer and that years later our paths crossed– I was completely humbled and massively impacted.

These three incidents were small and passing but have encouraged, inspired and lifted my spirit so much.

6 months ago I didn’t know the group of people I spend my working days with now– didn’t know that these wonderful people existed, these people that inspire me, challenge me, care for me and make me laugh (and reintroduce me to the music of Whitney – thanks Mrs W) – these people who have become lovely friends.

So little one I can’t wait to know you, to love you and to be your auntie and thank you for reminding me on a cold, dark autumn evening always to try and hold onto hope and anticipation – that the unknowns of what is ahead, big and small, are worth pushing through for.