Just me

I recently took my son on an exciting camping trip near Chester. We pitched our tent on a small site, made friends with the people with marshmallows, explored the haunted caravan, spent one long day at the aquarium and another, longer day at the zoo, then packed up early one morning and headed to a festival for…let me see…fourteen hours of careening from spectacle to spectacle, before staggering through the doors of a hotel just after midnight where we would wake up at 7am sharp and lounge around getting our money’s worth, later watching a post-breakfast episode of Friends that Mak was completely engrossed in for some reason.

The amount of times along the way that strangers were shocked and sympathetic that it was ‘just me’ orchestrating and operating whichever part of the extravaganza they were witnessing was notable. Which, I mean, I guess is understandable. I’ll be the first to agree it takes a village, and there have been many times in the past where, lacking such a robust support system, I have struggled with parenting. But this was a choice. A choice I make regularly.

It was hard going sometimes – he has a lot of five-year-old energy and he hogs the airbed as effectively as if he were a European bison (we were looking at an animal atlas today). But when it’s just the two of us, boy, are we nimble. I like the freedom of catering just to our own whims.

Also, sleep deprivation really amps up my social anxiety, so navigating a group setting all day, after sharing the bed with the bison all night, is not my idea of easier. Which does occasionally make me worry that I’m just avoiding, on account of my own frailty, a situation that would actually be more enriching for Makaloo than ‘just the two of us’.

I’ll never be perfect. But we had a fucking excellent trip. And ‘just the two of us’ did involve me pretending to be a mermaid singing a sea shanty for a large group of fellow festival-goers, so I’m giving myself some extra points for that too. I probably just have to keep playing to my strengths.

Vindication

In an ideal world, I’d homeschool my son. Correction: In an ideal world, I’d solicit the help of experts in many fields, establish a school according to my own evidence-based values, and send my son there.

Once Upon A Time, I thought homeschooling was what I would do. I was entranced and enamoured with all the learning I could facilitate for my son; the places we could go, the ideas we could share, the freedom we could enjoy, the people we could meet, the space we could create, the projects we could complete, the interests we could satisfy. The person he could become. The person I could become.

After we broke up, my son’s dad made it clear that that wasn’t something he would ever permit. And, don’t get me wrong, if he had agreed to it, it would have been really fucking difficult for me to find a way to sustain us financially while homeschooling, but at least I could have tried. I felt like my dream had been stolen.

I lost so much of the future I had envisaged for us when I broke up with my son’s father. Not only did I lose half of my life with my son, but I lost the life I had promised him when I was pregnant; the future I’d been designing before he was ever conceived; before I’d even met his father. I had dedicated so much time, love and energy to exploring how to raise a child who not only expands into their true potential, but feels entirely at home in themself, eager and empowered to contribute to this world in beautiful, meaningful ways. And now it was off the table.

Okay, well at least let me have the extra year. School is not compulsory in the UK until age five. Children can start school at age four, but they don’t have to. Let me try it ’til he’s five. Let me homeschool before we need to declare it homeschool. Let me show you what it could be. Give us the gift of that year.

Hard no.

Crestfallen but determined to make the most of the situation, I scoured the marketing materials of the local schools and found a beacon of hope. A fairly new school, not bound to the standard curriculum. Based on a nature park, and matching my loose philosophy, it offered children two days of outdoor learning, plus the option of a Flexi Day. I had found a school I would feel comfortable sending him to. And I’d at least get a day each week where we could live out the future I’d so carefully and painstakingly dreamed of.

The school was an easy sell, primarily because it was closer to Daddy than me. But when I held out the flexi day agreement for him to sign. No. He needed more time to think it over. He didn’t think it would be good for our son. Who is this man and how did I ever let him put his reproductive apparatus in me? Weeks passed, my son in school, no flexi day, no reason to oppose, just no, and a range of evasive fallacies. My character called into question. My ability and knowledge diminished. My motives deemed suspicious.

I centred myself. Reminded myself there was still time. Reminded him that this was the most important time. I pushed for some justification for his refusal, so at least I could begin to resolve it. No justification; instead fine, I’ll sign, if it’s that important to you.

So…what was all this for? It has never not been that important to me. You just stole more of our time for no reason. Just take it, Yve, your indignance will get you nowhere.

All of this is to say, after submitting evidence of what we’ve been doing on our hard-won flexi days, the vindication of my son’s teacher’s positive comments is visceral. Because, like it or not, I’ve internalised my ex’s tendency to question, criticise and undercut my intentions and my self-belief. I don’t know how long that’ll take to undo. But, until then, at least I have evidence that I’m doing a good job.

White hot intensity

I have a tendency to hyperfixate on people. Mostly, these people are not people I know. This is lucky. It means they are buffered from the white hot intensity of my enthusiasm for their existence. I once wrote that I burn through things; I am always worried I will burn through people. At least if I never meet them, I can’t burn through them.

Sometimes, the hyperfixation runs its course and dies a natural death, leaving in its place a simple warm fondness. Like my childhood fixations on H from Steps and Pierce Brosnan. Other times it goes dormant only to resurface at moments of repeat exposure, like my fixation on Hugh Laurie as House. Other times, it is a commitment I must simply accommodate indefinitely. But, let me tell you, the accommodation is fucking worth it. Not only is the dopamine payoff for this extracurricular activity astronomical, but additionally, in my humble opinion, I have the best fucking taste in long term hyperfixations. These people go the fucking distance. They are just stellar human beings. They constantly teach me how to be a better one myself and inspire me with their all round spectacularity.

One person on my list of long term favourites is Guy Martin. I first encountered him on TV covering the World Sheepdog Trials in 2011 and was sort of uncomfortably attracted to him, because I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of him and thus couldn’t decide if being attracted to him was an acceptable course of action. Over the years I would come to understand; it very much was.

Cut to a few days ago; my son finding his autobiography and asking who he was, and me telling him with just fucking unreserved exuberance. Words of aclamation just streaming from my lips in a plain yet pointedly sincere soliloquy of veneration. And then I saw the way he was looking at me, and looking at the portrait of Guy Martin, and I thought oops, I’ve done something here.

So now my son wants to go to Guy Martin’s house so he can teach him how to build vehicles, and he keeps climbing on the arcade motorbikes because he really likes motorbikes now, and I’m a little bit worried I’ve set into motion a chain of events that causes him to follow in Guy Martin’s footsteps, which, as a mother, is a terrifying prospect.

Unveiled spectacles

I’m quite a reserved person around most people. When those people aren’t looking, though, I am an unabashed, all-singing, all-dancing spectacle. I don’t know if the same is true for other outwardly reserved people. I’ve come to believe it is not, based on what I have heard, even though intuitively it feels like it should be.

My son is an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle. But, often, around other people, he’s gone quiet. At nursery, in particular, he was not at all the same person as he was at home. I worried that my reservation around people – my ineptitude with small talk, my politeness overbearing my warmth, my stance of one foot in and one foot out when stopped in the street – had rubbed off on him. I worried he’d already caught my reserved-person-ness, and that is not something I want to burden another all-singing, all-dancing spectacle with.

When lockdown was decreed, my concern was heightened. Now he wasn’t getting the socialisation he was previously getting, away from me. Now, not only was I his overwhelmingly primary influence, but it was also mainly just me and him, and some occasional strangers we had to stay away from. I tried not to entertain the visions of him refusing to make eye contact with anyone outside of the home by the end of all this.

But something different happened. He doesn’t go quiet around strangers anymore. An old man went by and asked if he’d found anything good in the dirt he was sifting though, and instead of looking down with a shy smile, he said he’d found some rocks, and they had a fairly extended conversation where they exchanged names and opinions about worms, cleared up some questions about his trike, and talked about how old and decrepit I am.

Now, he’s even started soliciting conversation with strangers. He shouts hello to other children he likes the look of. He talks very loudly about the huskies we see so their owners feel obliged to stop. We passed an old lady in the street the other day, he said hello, and when she replied, he asked her if she’d been shopping. He was climbing a tree in the park today and when a young girl walked past with her dog he shouted to her “look at meeeee!”. We had a short conversation with my neighbours earlier, and when they went inside he kept repeating ‘see you later!’ louder and louder until they replied.

Something has changed, and I don’t know if it’s something I did right, or if this is a developmental thing, or if he’s just so starved for human interaction that he’s had to take it upon himself.

But now I think it’s time to start worrying about what my version of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ needs to be.

Expand and retreat

Out walking today, it was very, very windy. After aborting our beach walk, we were heading inland, my son in a carrier with the cover over his head like he hasn’t been for about two years now. We’d had quite the adventure racing to shelter when the wind picked up. He’d had enough of the ‘sand wind’ and wanted to be safely wrapped up against my chest, with my cardigan secured over his legs. He went very quiet and very still, resting his head against me. Amidst the screaming wind, he seemed like the centre of all peace.

I’d taken provisions for a full day out – I guess I should have checked the weather more carefully. As it happened, about 20 minutes after we got to the beach, we were headed home again, my son no longer even in the mood to visit the swans at the park. I hadn’t intended to be carrying a nearly three year old on my front, my rucksack full of clothes and drinks and snacks on my back, and his little rucksack stuffed full of toys in my hand, for essentially a two hour round trip. But it was an unanticipated blessing.

I’ve been doing my best lately to give him space to grow and flourish into the human he is becoming. To make myself a little less important. It’s challenging and relieving and rewarding and terrifying. But to embrace him as the baby he still in some ways is is as comforting to me as it is to him, I think.

We are all in need of both expansion and sanctuary. One without the other soon becomes a bleak existence. But residing on the borderline does amplify the contrast. It creates a tension which can be uncomfortable, especially during times when we feel the balance of our needs shifting. Ultimately, though, it allows us to sink deeper into each space; to enrich ourselves more fully. Like all aspects of duality, it’s the dancing on the borderline where we find the most living to be had.