In which I waffle about parenting stuff.

Yesterday evening we left the children (aged 9 & 13*) home alone while we drove a couple of blocks to a quiet bar to indulge in half an hour of desperately needed couple time. We’ve been working up to this for a while, and we’ve left them alone for longer once or twice in order to spare them from unpleasant errands, but this is the first time we’ve left them unattended purely to see to our own pleasure. It felt wonderfully decadent.

I guess you could call us free range parents – our children often come home from school on the city buses, take their snack to eat in the park round the corner, or walk to the shop to buy a bottle of milk – but I find it hard to align myself with a movement whose proponents often take a stance against the attachment parenting style that coloured our earlier years.

I find it perplexing how frequently free range and attachment parenting are placed in opposition to each other when, for me, the attraction to both comes from the same instinct to trust my child in his assessment of his own needs and abilities.

Any philosophy will attract rigid adherents, people brimming over with self satisfaction at being purer than the rest of us and parenting, being both high-stakes and low status, suffers from this more than most pursuits. What we do as parents does matter, and there is value in going about it in a thoughtful, informed manner. There is less value in setting up false dichotomies and straw parents to reassure ourselves about our chosen path.

My parenting has always been about trying to meet my children where they are at – whether that’s an infant who is only settled when pressed against an adult chest, a toddler who prefers to sleep in the big bed with mum and dad, an eight year old who wants to ride his scooter around the block solo, or a thirteen year old bussing to the movies – I try to start with their expressed need and fulfil it as much as I can without intruding too greatly on the needs of other family members. I don’t see any substantive difference in accommodating needs based on closeness or independence or rank one more highly than the other – while the balance shift as we grow, both are lifelong needs. None of this is radical parenting but I’ve been told “You mustn’t let the baby rule the roost”, and “I’d be far too worried to let my kid do that” enough times that I do wonder sometimes.

There are times when I do overrule my kids, when I’m tired and touched out, when my experience tells me something is important in ways that aren’t readily apparent to a child, when I’m just not comfortable with something. It’s important that the relationship between parent and child is a two way street and I am certainly not anyone’s martyr.

So my babies, who clung to me like velcro and were convinced the cot was made from snakes and lava, now actively look forward to having the house to themselves, and hug me when I get home. As they grow from children to young adults there will be new forms of independence to negotiate and new ways of expressing connection to discover, and some of it is going to be quite challenging, but I think we’re going to manage.

*The law in NZ States that children under 14 can’t be home alone without reasonable provision for their care. This law is open to a degree of interpretation and we believe we are fulfilling our responsibilities by making sure the children feel comfortable, always being contactable and able to return promptly, and by keeping our absences relatively brief.

Advertisements

Tanked

I tend to think of our ability to cope with what life throws at us as fuel in a tank. Some of us have bigger, or more leak-proof tanks than others, some people have more opportunities to refuel, and some are able to use their resources more economically. We fill our tanks with love and fun, with comforting traditions, with stable routines and breaks to keep the routines from becoming stale, when we look after ourselves and care for others and allow ourselves to be cared for. Having a full tank doesn’t stop us from being sad, or angry, or hurt but it helps us stay strong while we find our way back to OK.

My family is running on fumes.

Five and a half years ago, before Jamie’s sister, Juliet, died, we must have had very full tanks indeed. Losing Juliet was heartbreaking, I remember thinking that the pain was like bright, sharp knives. We were sad, and we were lost, but we clung together and stayed whole.

Since then we have lived through thousands of earthquakes, lost our home to flooding, had our flood house burgled twice, and taken three cats on that final trip to the vet. Several dear friends have moved away, my father has had several worrying health events, and Jamie’s dad has been diagnosed with cancer.

We have had times when we’ve been able to refuel a little, holidays, and outings, family and friends have helped immeasurably but, if I’m honest, we’ve been living in survival mode for far too long. Too often we eat the meal we can prepare quickly rather than the one which is delicious or nourishing. Far too frequently we give up on plans when the logistics get the slightest bit tricky (this is a large part of the reason why asking when the wedding is will win you no favour) . Don’t even think of asking how I’m doing with the housework and gardening.

Right now (though I hesitate to say it too loud) things seem to be getting better. We are settled into our new house, with two new cats who are young and healthy, and the most pressing parts of our several insurance claims are settled or close to it (I see no need for haste in repairing a house on flood prone land when we don’t need to live in it).

On New Year’s Day I tweeted:

Not precisely a resolution but this year I shall find and create more opportunities for joy. Do things that fill our hearts and souls.

I am going to take whatever time we have between storms to find ways of filling our tanks. From now on I am striving for more: more love and connection, more laughter and fun, more food that nourishes body and soul, more opportunities to move our bodies, more making and creating, more magic and wonder, more gratitude and more care taken of each other.

Reinventing Christmas: Love, Change and All The Food.

Chronic procrastination led to this post sitting half-written until it is long past seasonal. Please pretend it’s still last year

My parents moved here, from England, in the mid 1960s. My father had fallen in love with the Pacific a decade earlier, during his military service as a nurse on Christmas Island so, as soon as an opportunity arose, he and my mother packed up and moved across the world.

Amongst the first friends my parents made were another immigrant couple, Pat and Brian, who had recently arrived in New Zealand after an immense overland journey with their young daughter Madeleine. I’m not sure who called who called who that first Christmas, but my parents visited Pat and Brian in the caravan they lived in and a tradition was born.

Every year Pat and Brian (and Madeleine and son Chris), would host, first in their caravan, then in a wee farm cottage and, eventually, in the house they built themselves on a patch of native bush near Cable Bay. Everyone was vegetarian so sharing a meal was easy. They would make the main course – a selection of savoury pies, tvp ‘sausages’, walnut balls, vegetables and salads. We took dessert. For years, until my egg allergic partner started accompanying me, and Pat and Brian became vegan, I made a pavlova. Christmas Eve was pav day. My parents only had a hand beater so a six egg pavlova took all afternoon to whip and anyone who entered the kitchen was commandeered to add their muscle to the task. One infamous year our cat slept on the (thankfully tea towel covered) cooling pavlova necessitating a hasty reassembly – whipped cream and kiwifruit will cover a multitude of sins.

The number of people around the table varied. Friends, relatives and assorted waifs were welcomed. Children moved away and returned, sometimes with partners. Madeleine, tragically, died, and I had children. I think Mum, Dad, Pat and Brian missed, maybe three Christmases in almost half a century.

A bit over a year ago Brian died, quite unexpectedly.

Pat decided she wasn’t going to host Christmas alone and would, instead, spend the day with Chris and his partner. We were left to figure out new ways to find joy and meaning in the season. We’ve had two Christmases without Brian now and, while there is grief there still, we have begun to establish some traditions.

My response has been a combination of over compensation and food-is-love. We’ve always done a Christmas dinner part 2 for my father’s Boxing Day birthday so I already had a good stock of festive recipes. We decided to keep the main meal in the evening and have a lunchtime BBQ. This gives us longer to produce the more complex dishes whilst happily fulfilling the eating all day requirements of a traditional Christmas. It also combines the two types of meals that my non-vegetarian friends wonder most about.

So much of the produce that is abundant around Christmas lends itself perfectly to BBQing. Asparagus, eggplant, capsicum and courgettes all come into their own when cooked this way. Add a bit of flavoured butter or a tangy dressing and nothing could be better. Most of our favourite bbq recipes come from Fired Up: Vegetarian by Ross Dobson. We were no strangers to marinated tofu and vege kebabs but the notion that cheese and filo pastry can also be cooked on the grill has been life changing.

For the evening meal I tend to focus on luxurious, traditional ingredients and flavours – nuts, cranberries, red wine. The central dish of a festive feast must be rich and decadent. This year I made a cashew nut loaf with herb stuffing – a recipe from the wonderful Rose Elliot variations of which occur in several of her books. At other times I have made rich pâtés of chestnuts or mushrooms wrapped in crisp, buttery pastry, savoury strudels, and a parsnip and cranberry loaf. The accompaniments would be familiar to anyone – cranberry, red wine or horseradish sauces, new potatoes, garden peas, green beans and asparagus.

Christmas dessert has been my domain since I hit double digits. It is perfectly possible to make a vegetarian or even vegan trifle. It all hinges on having some beautiful berryfruit and a decent gelatine-free jelly ( The Cruelty Free Shop is usually a reliable source), anything else can be fudged by way of a generous slosh of good sherry. If I don’t feel like trifle I might make a pie (one year I made 3: pumpkin, lemon and cranberry/nut) or a gussied up ice cream mould.

These last two Christmases have been strange and a little sad but we are finding happiness too. With my parents ageing and my children beyond the stage where they need constant entertainment, a quiet day of togetherness fulfils all our needs.