We’ve been having a bit of a tricky time with Elke lately. She’s about to hit her teens with force and after a year of limited social access, is desperate for human interaction. Anyone else with a child in their early teens or ‘preens’ (pre-teens) will know how big an impact the pandemic has had on children of this age. Just at a time when they should have been discovering their social independence, starting to meet new friends and spend more and more time away from family and the home, they were instead forced into a very limiting social situation and into spending more time with family than ever before.
Throw technology, and access to instant messaging and social media into the mix, and you have a heightened sense of social awareness in a way that society hasn’t experienced before. No generation of parent before us has parented their children through a global pandemic in which young people have had access to this level of technology and virtual communication.
Our collective teens’ social life has predominantly been lived out through Snapchat and Instagram over the course of the last year. You can instantly be with your friends at whatever time of day and night you choose. As a result, instant messaging, image-sharing, ‘Tik-Toking’ and face-timing have been truly ramped-up a few extra notches.
I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say how challenging it is; trying to manage the realms of young people on tech and social media through a global pandemic. I am super-conscious of the dangers of constantly communicating in this way (of the social risks, safeguarding concerns and overall affects on a child’s mental health) whilst also recognising that this is currently their lifeline; their only direct contact with the real world and to support from their peers, which has made them feel less alone.
Specifically in relation to our own family experiences, I am all too aware that for Elke, she has also been in almost constant, close proximity to Martha for the whole of the last year. With very little opportunity for time apart (the girls tend to go to their Dad’s together, at the same time) it’s easy to forget that sometimes Elke needs a bit of respite from her sister too!
One of the things that really (really) upsets me if I think about it too deeply, are the sacrifices made by Elke, over the course of her life, to accommodate Martha’s needs. Don’t misunderstand me when I say this, because there are also many things Elke has gained by being Martha’s big sister, for sure. Firstly, she understands more about Autism and has a more open and understanding attitude towards all people with additional needs and disabilities, not just her sister. That first-hand experience, certainly makes you review any pre-conceived ideas or judgements you may otherwise have had without such exposure. It also gives you a heightened empathy towards both individuals and their families, which Elke certainly has.
When Elke was about to leave primary school and head to secondary school, I attended her Year 6 leavers ceremony at the local church. Within moments I felt super-emotional. Here was my first baby about to LEAVE primary school when it felt as though she’d only just started! That time had gone by in a flash, and with all the distractions created by Martha and getting divorced, I honestly didn’t know where it had gone. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the whole school stood up and delivered the most tear-inducing rendition of ‘We all Stand Together’ (or the ‘Frog song’ as we used to call it when I was a kid) where on said line, they literally all stood up together holding each other’s hands in the air. (Waahhhhh!).
Then, came the moment in the ceremony where they were about to announce the winner of the year’s most prestigious school award: ‘The Love for Learning and Learning for Life Award’.
Now, I’d had the ‘head’s up’ from Elke’s teacher that she was going to receive an award that day, however I had no idea that it was this one, or quite what it was for. Elke’s teacher stood up and gave a few minutes’ speech about what the award meant and represented, and how it could only go to someone really special who truly deserved it for their constant hard work and efforts over the year. She went on to say that this person was the most helpful, polite, caring and considerate pupil who put their full self into everything but still always made time for others. She continued to relay a whole host of wonderful things about my daughter before announcing her as the recipient of said award.
Well, I blubbed. Like a baby. Literally sobbed.
I was bursting with pride like never before but also felt incredibly overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. In spite of having been through a really rocky few years; (Martha was going through a particularly tricky time and a lot of our time was taken up with paperwork and meetings as we worked towards her diagnosis.) Elke (a very mature child) was also dealing with her parents’ divorce, transitioning to two homes and shared parenting time, as well as getting to know (and learning to live with) our respective new partners. In addition to this, she would regularly arrive at school with injuries to her face having been mauled by Martha, who at the time seemed to target Elke relentlessly.
How had she managed to navigate all of this while remaining calm and collected at school, dedicated to working hard, always doing her best AND helping others? All the while, according to her teacher, ‘maintaining outstanding manners’? It was really quite beyond me. Where had my little girl gone and who was this young woman before me finding her own way in life despite all her personal challenges?
Then came the revelation. Perhaps that’s exactly it! Perhaps it was BECAUSE of everything that happened she had become that person. Perhaps those experiences are exactly what had made Elke stronger, more determined, more able to go it alone. Whatever it was, the realisation that this young woman was far more resilient, capable and headstrong than I had ever been, started to dawn.
I’ve recently finished reading ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle which had so many moments of realisation and relatability for me. One of the points Glennon makes, which particularly resonates with my current parenting experiences, is regarding her take on the current generation of ‘over-parenting and under-protecting our children from the real world’. She suggests that instead of wrapping our children in cotton wool and keeping them away from life’s negative experiences, we should step back more and allow our children to experience, first hand, the more difficult things in life, that will allow them to become strong people. Albeit, in a safe environment, and where we, as parents and carers, are there to support them whenever they should need us. The following quote regarding her ‘new parenting memo’ resonates the most:
It makes me very sad that we’ve not been able to give Elke all the focus and attention she deserves throughout her childhood. It’s definitely bettered her as a person in many ways but it’s also made for a more indignant child in others. And I get that. Karl sometimes says that I make too many allowances for Elke; and I probably do, however, I feel like she’s made so many sacrifices in her life, that I sometimes give her a bit of a break when it comes to other things. I realise it’s not a great parenting method, as the two things don’t always correlate; and what is deemed acceptable in one area of life, doesn’t automatically translate to another, however I can’t always deal with dishing out any more punishments when I feel guilty enough about the ones we’ve had little to no control over.
She’s missed out on lots of things. Going to busy events or meeting up with friends and families, which I’ve tended to avoid over the last 5 years or so because it’s just been too stressful a prospect to navigate, and I can’t put ourselves in a situation where Martha may hurt another child.
One of the things made more difficult by divorce is that you’re often parenting alone, and so can’t single-handedly always keep both children happy and safe in any given environment. While Elke may want a conversation about whatever it is we’re looking at, Martha may kick off because she’s not getting the full attention. If Martha has to be physically restrained, you’re on your own – and so is Elke. Not to mention the embarrassment that comes when your little sister shouts, swears and asks inappropriate questions at the top of her voice. ‘The shame.’
One of the most frustrating things is not being able to put the efforts, energies and support in place for the one child you have who might actually be capable of achieving great things. And before you say anything, I’m painfully aware of how dreadful that sounds.
For clarity, there is no pressure on Elke to achieve great things. And before anyone also challenges my expectations of Martha, I know she will also achieve great things, but I am already aware that they will be within the realms of her capabilities which I accept. I will be delighted if she finds a job and a life that makes her happy – be that becoming the village lollipop lady (not sure about the safety aspects of this one!) or mucking out at the local stables (or this one!), either of which would be top of her list at the moment.
But Elke already has wild ambitions. She wants to travel, she wants to earn good money – maybe be an entrepreneur (Karl and I both wish we’d done that sooner in our careers and are secretly hoping we might be inspiring her in that direction!). She’s capable of wonderful things. She knows her own mind and is far more grounded and self-assured than I was at her age. I’ve supported her as much as I can under our circumstances but I’m always acutely aware of the experiences she’s missed out on; the conversations I haven’t had time for, and the extra help with homework I’ve been too tired to give.
With everything going on lately, I have begun to feel that I’m losing her. She’s navigated life quite independently so far and although I like to think we have a good, close, relationship overall and that I’ve hopefully managed to provide a safe and loving environment in which she can grow up (as well as hopefully a bit of fun, inspiration and certainly encouragement from time to time) I am super-aware that she’s going to go her own way and shine brightly.
Ultimately, all most parents ever want is for their children to be happy, right? And all I really want at the end of it all, is two happy, confident girls. Girls who know their own mind, who know what they want and who aren’t afraid to ask the questions I was.
Actually, thinking about that criteria specifically, maybe I haven’t done so badly after all. Perhaps I have already succeeded …