It’s easy to forget

15 May

Last Sunday I had a flashback. As I watched a harassed looking mother trying to restrain her rowdy son in the play area of a pub garden, I remembered what it was like to have a difficult, small child. One that couldn’t yet talk in proper sentences or even understand the real meaning of the word ‘sorry.’  At one point her son hit one of my children. She was very apologetic. “He’s always like this! I can’t take him anywhere. And he’s so different to his sister,” she said, pointing to a very quiet girl in the corner. “I’m better off staying at home!” I told her that really, it was alright, and my son was not hurt. What I would have loved to have said was “Over time, things will get easier, I’m sure” but I didn’t because this may have sounded patronising, glib or just lame.

I felt for her, I really did. Every few minutes she would release her struggling child into the tangle of otherwise happily playing children, and within seconds he would destroy the peace and calm. Other parents scooped their children up and away from the rough play. Having only half drained her glass of wine, the poor woman dragged hard on a cigarette a few times, before stubbing it out and grabbing hold of both her children and leaving. For me, it was like watching a video of myself and my daughter a decade ago: now I’ve passed that particular stage in parenting, one that once seemed relentless and exhausting, it’s easy to forget how hard things once were. For me, it served as a necessary reminder for how my daughter’s behaviour has improved over the years.

Of course, I knew nothing about this woman’s situation so it would have been very presumptuous for me to assume that things would get easier for her. But for me, things did. My first child was hyperactive from the word go. She didn’t sleep. She screamed every evening for the first six months of her life, and nothing would calm her. I regularly wanted to throw her out of the window. By the time she had started nursery at 10 months she was biting, quite aggressively at times. As soon as she found her feet, she took great pleasure in hurling herself, with the force of a Mexican wrestler – onto other children. She would claw their faces and leave angry purple teeth marks on their arms (or any other bit of exposed flesh). I dreaded pick up because it was often a tally chart (no names were allowed to be provided) of the  children she had harmed that day, rather than a break down of what she’d eaten or how regularly she had napped. I felt useless. I would ask her “Why? Why are you doing this?” I would cry at night. I felt ashamed that I didn’t like her very much at times. I wanted her to behave like ‘normal’ other children.

Of course, she had little understanding of why she was doing these things. She was still a baby. But I wanted someone else to take the responsibility and the burden, and so as if speaking to another adult I would question my toddler’s motives. She was an early talker, and had an impressive vocabulary (bugger off aside) and was therefore entertaining around adults. They enjoyed her company in short bursts, because she was bright and amusing. Other children and babies however, did not feel this way because she continued to hurt them on a regular basis. Playgroups were not a chance for me to make friends with other parents because I was always trying to restrain my daughter. In a sandpit once, I turned my back for five seconds to grab her water cup from the bottom of the buggy and when I looked up I saw she had drawn blood on another girl’s face. The father of the baby was horrified. “You really must keep your daughter away from little ones.” The irony was, my daughter was little like his girl. I wasn’t actively encouraging her attacks on other children: on the contrary I was desperately trying everything in my power to stop them. I apologised profusely and left. I stopped going to crowded playgrounds. Parties weren’t a problem, or tea at other people’s houses. My daughter rarely received invites and as a result, we either hung out on our own, or with other adults. When I look back now, it seemed at the time that I was dealing with a highly aggressive, anti-social teenager. But the truth was, my daughter was still very much a baby, one that still wore nappies and drank from a bottle at bedtime.

Her behaviour was making me feel stressed, isolated and hopeless. I sang ‘The Message’ to myself on a loop, usually whilst pushing my daughter around the park at high-speed: “Don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.” I spent a fortune on Amazon buying books that the world and his wife had recommended (one time at Brixton Rec changing rooms I was trying to retrieve a poo from inside my daughter’s swimsuit gusset. She was bouncing up and down, screaming shut up at me repeatedly. A woman in the next door cubicle said “I’ve slipped a piece of paper under the door. I think you’ll find this book useful.” It said ‘Liberated Parents, Liberated Children’ READ IT! I already had a shelf of parenting self-help books, most of them with vomit inducing titles, but I thanked the well-meaning woman through the door all the same.

I spent many a late night trawling the internet (a minefield of information that was at best useful, and at worst fear inducing tripe.) I read “We Need To Talk about Kevin” with equal measures of interest and fear (perhaps unwisely, when my daughter was going through one of her trickiest years to date, aged 3). I started to blame my her behaviour on anything and everything that my parenting may have lacked: a full-time stay at home mother, a present birth father, grandparents in close proximity, lack of fish oils in her diet (yes, really), and the fact that I’d been stressed when pregnant (but I’d like to meet any adult who isn’t, at some point in 40 weeks, stressed). I realise now that while these things might have had some impact, they were not the only reasons that she acted this way.

The good news is, that while my daughter’s behaviour can still be very challenging (I am scared when the house is too quiet because it reminds me of when she pierced her friend’s ear with a safety-pin, aged 8), things have become easier with time. She has more of an understanding of what is ‘appropriate’ behaviour. She knows the value of companionship, and tries to nurture friendships she has made throughout her supportive primary school years. Following her diagnosis of ADHD four years ago, she has received expert help from the NHS on ways to manage her emotions and impulses. When medication was recommended we decided to try without, though for some Ritalin seems a sensible choice.

My daughter’s growing, learning to focus on the positive, and is putting her enquiring mind to good use. She still doesn’t get invited to as many parties as most of her class mates, because part of the hangover from her bad behaviour early on in school still resides. As a result she sometimes has issues forming new relationships, but the few good friends she has know her idiosyncrasies, just as she knows their’s. And I am more confident as a parent, partly because I’ve had three children, but also because I’m aware that difficulties can arise further along the line, above and beyond the childhood years. But I’ll always be able to appreciate that certain things have changed for the better.

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