It's weird how reading books opens up a whole train of thought and associations that don't tie directly to the plot of the book being read but nevertheless encourage reflection. I was thinking the other day how important relationships that we make during our teens and at universities can be. The impact of either positive or negative friendships we make can resonate years later. Who we are in our late teens, who influences us and why and how, massively impacts who we become.
That's generally what was on my mind as I started reading Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' and the things it made me ponder on during and after were loosely linked to that. The book made me reflect on how little I actually know about my kids' friendships for example. What I do know, shows itself mainly in a fierce desire to protect them, which can be harmful to their personal and social development. It led me to think about friendships that I've had in the past that perhaps went a bit sour and now, for a whole host of reasons, are too late to fix. The book also had me feeling gratitude for connections I've retained and new ones I've formed. For example, I've been privileged to be back in touch with the mum of a friend who passed away when we were younger. So, although 'Normal People' wasn't about any of these things it is interesting to consider how literature shapes our thoughts into some kind of coherency. Perhaps all a good book is, is a fancy form of word and thought association!
I do like 'naturalistic' or 'realistic fiction' and 'Normal People' explores family and friendship, looking at how these cannot be separated in the relationships we form. Isn't it strange how there are some things you'd tell your friends that you'd never tell your family, and yet family is often likely to be more permanent than support from friends? Families come with a battery of assumptions and pre-formed views and attitudes about you so you would think they'd know you inside out, YET a friend quite often knows you better, or at least knows the 'current you' better. It's a messy cocktail and one that I find fascinating but don't pretend to begin to understand. For example, I'm likely to see things from my kids' perspectives, and I'm likely to be sympathetic, but I think that can also underestimate my ability to understand that they are complex humans.
In this book the protagonist 'Marianne' has a lot of negative stuff to deal with, and we see how she does and doesn't handle it well. Her family set up is BAD. The boy protagonist though, Connell, has a supportive mum, yet he also struggles to find his place, and is acutely aware of 'self' and lives with a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. The text reminded me what being at university can be like and was a poignant reminder that what twenty year olds go through is no less signficant or important than any other experience. I think it is a bit too easy to dismiss student exisential angst as 'just a phase' and dismiss the complexity of emotions that it creates. Perhaps the book made me feel a little bit like I was twenty again. It is not just for millenials!
So as you can see Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' resonated with me. It was a study of 'mankind' that parallels the excellence of Simone De Beauvoir's 'She Came to Stay' or 'The Second Sex'. 'Normal People' is a perfect micro-example of excellent writing that illustrates how good fiction helps us to address the vey fundamentals of who we are, what makes us human and how we interact. It has gone straight into my top ten books and I can't wait to hear what others think of it.
I was in Kinokuniya (a large bookshop in Bangkok) yesterday, choosing book gifts for Betsy’s teachers to say thank you for the encouragement and help they’ve given her. I wanted the choices to be perfect. They needed to be amusing but not shallow; original yet of personal relevance; challenging but not inaccessible; and most importantly approved of by Betsy. Meeting this criteria was a challenge. Also, I knew I was once again, over-parenting (when will I learn?) and that Betsy would probably want to choose the books herself. However, it was a window of shopping opportunity and I forged ahead!
I made a few purchases, and when I got home had a look at what I’d bought. This is the weird thing though, amongst the books was 'Brave, not Perfect' by Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. I do not remember choosing this book, nor taking it to the cashier - yet somehow, I had bought it.
I’m thinking it must have been an act of fate as it is completely relevant to me as a teacher, mum and daughter and also a great book for both my daughters to read (once they've both finished their exams-there's a certain irony there!). In a nutshell, Saujani says: don’t try to be perfect, and don't let anyone else make you behave in a certain manner, instead take risks as it is better to be brave than to adhere to an outmoded of being perfect.
The first half of the book explores how girls are conditioned into striving for perfection, and illustrates how this can be at great personal cost. It then changes focus a little bit with more self-help emphasis on ‘girl power’. It has shorter chapters which provide a kind of check list of things we can do to feel empowered to take risks.
So, as mentioned a main thread of the book is how individual women should aim to worry less about being perfect in their own domain, be it the work place, family or with friends, and how they should essentially take risks and please themselves, not others. In addtion, the text also touches on how in wider society there is a sense that women are becoming less ‘pleasers’, as we speak out more about institutionalised sexism and inequality. It was written as the #MeToo movement was at its peak and addresses how the public sphere for women is changing. It is not a sign of imperfection to speak up for what is right, it is the brave thing to do.
I raced through the text and agreed with, pretty much, everything Saujani says, though it doesn’t always make easy reading. I know I am, frequently, a people pleaser and that I care lots about the mistakes that I make. However, I am also aware of this, and know that I need to be braver and care less about these errors (defined by the perfection ideal) that make me ‘imperfect’. Oddly enough, by caring about my mistakes I remain in ‘the girl trying to be perfect’ box, and thus perpetuate the ‘damsel in distress’ sexism that exists within society-I am rescuable and I let myself be rescued. Does that make sense? It does to me - nearly! It's disheartening. Even more disheartening is that I know that I have encouraged the same traits in my own children and probably also the students I’ve taught. Yikes! This is bad, not good.
My imperfections at instilling in others an institutionalised desire to be perfect are many! I bet in the classroom, I’ve probably crushed assertive girls’ voices more than those of boys. That sounds and is terrible, but haven’t you ever found yourself laughing at cheeky chappies – "boys will be boys" - whereas you’d reprimand a similarly cheeky girl?
It’s not just in admonishments where genders are treated differently. I wonder if you have ever been a bit harsh with an assertive girl and then because you've felt guilty you have gone on to spend ages coaxing her back to feeling ok. Perhaps? I also wonder if you’d have left an admonished chappy to ‘get over it’ and done less of the making up. Saujani doesn’t say much at all about boys, but does imply, I think, that they are left to be resilient when criticised, and expected to not be 'overly' sensitive, which apparently gives them better skills at managing failure and not striving for perfection.
If you get chance do have a read of the book. I’d say it is essential for educators (Saujani draws heavily on Professor Carol Dweck if that might lure you in), it’s insightful for parents, and kind of freeing to read; it's conversational, brave, honest and thought provoking. However, just to play devil’s advocate a little bit, Saujani states, quite critically, that young girls feel they can be assertive, but have to do so nicely, and that they then can go for what they want, so long as it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes. I wonder - is that so bad? In addition to encouraging girls to be ‘brave not perfect’, shouldn’t we also be encouraging boys to be nice, sensitive, and caring? Softness isn’t a sin and not all characteristics associated with aiming for perfection, as critically presented in the book, are weaknesses.
Gosh, I just took a break from writing (I'm in a coffee shop in a shoppign mall and popped into Zara. Lo and behold ‘Perfect to Me' by Anne-Marie was playing. What an inspiring song and video. This exploration of ‘perfection’ really is fate!
Last word - if this was a TV Show, not a blog, then this 'deleted' sentence would be in the blooper section:
"So in my quest to not worry about not being perfect, I am also trying not to worry about perpetuating the perfidary myth of perfection through this post!"
What a blooming nonsensical tongue twister. But hey, no one's perfect!
Exam season is upon us and, as my daughter. Betsy, pointed out this morning, (note it was her, not me who said it) there are no more safety nets. Now it’s for real. Her first exam, Higher Level History, is on Tuesday, followed by further History papers on Wednesday and Thursday … honestly how much does any one teenager need to know about Chairman Mao?
It would probably be fair to say that Betsy seems a little stressed, so I’ve sensibly suggested that she makes a list of what she should achieve today. I’ve no idea why this has led to such an elongated ‘mummmmm.-e’ response - (do anyone else’s kids do this?) and such extensive eye-rolling. Anyway, she has now disappeared off, fingers cracking, to her room!
Call me Mrs Marple if you like, but I’m not convinced I’m getting the calm supportive mother role exactly right, so I’ve just loudly announced to Betsy that I am going to leave her in peace and read my own book, ‘A (Kids) Parents’ Survival Guide to the IB Diploma, to seek advice on how best to support her at this difficult time. More eye rolling- more ‘mummm –e’, but also just the hint of a smile. (This was written with a friend a couple of years ago, who has had four kids make it successfully through the IB. It is amusingly illustrated by NokIsMe.)
So, what did Lorraine and I say when we were writing the book, safe in the comfort that the exams were not this week?!
Well we’ve written a large section on staying positive, listening, laughing, being a confidence booster, keeping it calm and remembering it’s not forever. That all sounds fine and I’m quite good at that.
We’ve then gone on to talk about having a host of healthy snacks in during the gruelling revision period. I reckon Lorraine must have contributed more to this chapter than me as all there is in my fridge right now is a walnut-whip brought from my recent trip to the UK, (without the walnut - hadn’t realized I’d bought cheap inferior versions) and a plate of mango! Think I better get to the shops or Betsy will be fuelling up on fresh air alone! So much for the healthy breakfasts!
We’ve then gone on to discuss regular exercise and good sleep. I do think these are fantastic stress busters, but Betsy has already told me she has cancelled Tuesday’s gym to prepare for Wednesday. I do understand why to be fair, so maybe I’ll suggest rescheduling. The sleep is crucial, though I think I may have been living on fantasy island when I suggested leaving devices outside of her room. (As if she’d put up with that!)
In the book we talk about encouraging independence in your child. Hmm… I’m not so good at that. Why oh why can’t I sit these exams for her? But then again, thinking about it, I do want her to pass and as my Spanish, ESS, History and Maths knowledge is practically zero that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Hopefully I would do reasonably ok on the English papers at least!
Anyway, what will be will be. I guess the very fact that the exams are upon us means that we have just about survived the IB. Our sections on coursework completion and time-management have been helpful, and if I say so myself, there’s lots of good common sense advice that really has worked. Where the book falls down is perhaps not focusing enough on how I can do a better job of avoiding being an annoying mum! Any tips?
To be honest I am pretty chilled about the exams. Any nerves are only because I want Betsy to feel good about her achievements. She has worked really hard so deserves to do well. What matters to me, so much more than grades, is knowing that the process of doing the IB has set her up with fantastic study and life skills. What matters even more than that, is knowing that Betsy is one of the kindest kids I know and is an all round smasher. (Not that I’m biased, you understand.)
There’s a quote in our book, from one of the very perceptive students who contributed to it, demonstrating that my attitude is perhaps not so helpful.
“There’s typically the assumption among students that
parents fall into one of two categories: The first is “My
parents aren’t bothered about my grades, they just want me
to try my best,” and the second is “My parents will probably
disown me if I don’t get top grades.” Obviously these are
sweeping generalisations, but neither are particularly
helpful. There’s a difference between ‘trying your best’ and
‘reaching your full potential’ and the latter can only be
reached with motivation from both school and family.”
It’s a bit late for me to address that now, but at least Saint Mick of Thana is on the ball. He has just told us both that now is not the time for either of us to start philosophizing about ‘what is the purpose of exams anyway?’, and that Betsy needs to crack on and do some studying. (More dictator than saint today I feel!)
Good luck Betsy and everyone else starting their IB Exams this week.
Holidays for carers? 5 star resorts? Expenses paid? Whatever next? I can feel eyes rolling. Surely not. I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous! I’ve heard it all now. But pause for thought. Could it be a viable solution to the billions of pounds currently being spent on residential health care that is neither desired nor wanted by patient and family alike?
The ideal situation, for families and the state too, is for elderly or ill people to be cared for within the familiarity of their home environment. I don’t think though that the emotional toll this has on a ‘carer’ has even begun to be addressed. Our Western society framework means that the care often comes down to one main person – quite probably a spouse, with others only opting in and out. The strain of this is why so often people end up in residential care, when it is the least desired option for all concerned, at huge emotional and often financial cost to the family, and definitely huge financial cost to the state.
Being a full time carer is tough going. It is not good enough for health professionals or government leaflets to constantly say ‘look after the carer’ too. They need to enable this care.
Let’s face it, none of us show our spouse our best sides. It’s hard enough caring for a partner with the flu, or a broken leg for a couple of weeks, so imagine yourselves in the shoes of someone (often elderly themselves) trying to look after their spouse 24-7 with no reprieve in sight. They may well be attending to specific physical issues affecting their loved one’s mobility, whilst also quite frequently addressing quite severe mental health concerns or behavioural changes. On top of all that and both debilitating and frustrating, is the impact of worsening sight and hearing.
Have you noticed the first question health care professionals ask is ‘are you their carer?' It’s not are you their wife /husband? It’s almost as if, the past years of marriage and being a spouse with all that entails is stripped away as a new role is adopted. The carer (previously known as spouse) is left to grieve for the person they once were, and come to terms largely alone with their changed circumstances.
The carer, a.k.a. spouse, may have family support (with all the complexities of sibling and children dynamics that brings) and theoretically there is usually local help available. Accessing it, however, may require the patience of a saint, the intellect of a PHD and pay packet of a banker! Definitely some friends may rally round, and these are worth their weight in gold, but the carers still take the bulk of the strain. Hardest, and the cruellest cut of all, is that the spouse the 'carer' has leaned on for the last thirty, forty, fifty years, can no longer provide the reciprocal support that s/he needs too. The emotional weight of all this is huge.
Despite this, home care is usually what both husband and wife will fight tooth and nail to uphold. It is only when some kind of crisis point is reached that caring from home is deemed unmanageable and the move to a care home is made.
This ‘tipping point’is completely unsatisfactory and inappropriate as a reason to make that move to a care home. Everyone is exhausted; the primary carer is left bereft feeling that they’ve failed, when the reality is that nothing is further from the truth. What about the ‘caree’ (is that even a word?). Significantly the person being cared for really doesn’t want to go or ‘be put’ into a care home’. They may feel abandoned, unloved, or if of a more understanding disposition, an emotional or financial drain on resources and ‘nothing but a bloody nuisance’. The move for them is unsettling and disorientating. Leaving the home environment is what everyone has been trying to avoid and yet it occurs at the worst moments. For everyone else this sometimes unsaid, but very large elephant in the room, adds still further to the emotional strain on the carer and other family members.
So we need a new approach. Mr Hammond and other government ministers, what about this for an out of the box solution? We continue with our 'at home' care, and carers continue to be given an attendance allowance. In addition though, respite care is provided for the carer two or three times a year in the form of a proper holiday. During that time, a health care professional stays in the family home (at far less cost than full time residential care) and the ‘carer’ is given a proper holiday, at minimal cost (or ideally free). The cost still is far less than full time state residential care for the personal being cared for. A reprieve is properly given, the person being cared for gets to stay in their home and costs are lower than other alternatives.
Could it work as a viable option that people can opt into? I think it’s worth investigating. What do you think?