So You Want To Be A Parent?

My mother is a ‘ground-up’ type of person. She is like an iceberg. What you see is merely the tip, a lot goes on beneath the waterline to solidify the top that you see. She is a firm believer of substance, not form.

Thus, my mother had always taught me that I had to learn to love cooking before becoming a mum. Not merely to learn to cook, but to learn to love cooking. Her rationale is learning to love cooking is not merely about putting food on the table, but cultivating a mindset where there is a genuine desire to nurture and care for another human being.

“Saying ‘I love you’ is easy. We can say it without too much effort, without any sacrifice,” she would say. “But at the most basic level, feeding someone with the food that you have prepared with your hands and heart speaks more meaningfully.”

My mother made a lot of comfort food, especially in the winter months. I complained about her tendency to over-cook. I chided her for using too much cream, too much cheese and too much butter. But I fly home like a homing pigeon to her sunny kitchen in Portsmouth, Hampshire, lured by sweet memories of sitting here in her kitchen, doing my homework, waiting for her simple food to be served.

My mother’s food healed me, and slowly, as I grew into a young woman, I grew to love cooking, though it was not an intuitive thing for me to do. I was a physical, outdoorsy person, impatient and driven. Spending time in the kitchen was definitely not on my agenda. In my youth, I have always felt I had more important things to do in life than the menial task of cooking.

But slowly, there was a shift in my paradigm as I understood my mum’s philosophy. It doesn’t have to be cordon bleu. It doesn’t have to be show-off food. It can simply be a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes; it can be a piping hot bowl of spaghetti. It can be hearty soup made from leftovers. It is just something that you have dedicated your time to giving someone; it is the embodiment of your intention to care for another person’s wellbeing. It is like giving your energy to nurture someone else without the grand gestures or easy words.

When I lived in Jakarta, a man called Antonio Castellano cooked for me. He wasn’t a professional cook, but a management consultant working for McKinsey & Company. His specialisation is the global energy industry, but he has an Uncle Sal who sends him Sicilian recipes from home. Unusual food that you couldn’t get in an Italian restaurant in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or probably anywhere in Europe for that matter, except perhaps in Sicily. Spaghetti coated in anchovy oil and breadcrumbs, sprinkled with capers. I watched him cook for me, this diminutive blue-eyed Italian, and I finally understood the power of my mother’s philosophy. I rather think I fell in love a little, just a little, for this is the first time a man has ever cooked for me.

I saw the beauty of food cooked with love through Antonio’s giving. I morphed into someone who genuinely loves cooking. I began to smile and hum whenever I cooked. And in my late thirties, I went back to my mother to tell her that I finally understood what she meant about a love for cooking. I had met someone who showed me his love in this deep, honourable and beautiful way.

But my mother, she said, “You have to love gardening, if you want to genuinely love cooking.”

I disliked gardening, though I have put in the hours as a teenager.

“Gardening is like raising children, Jack,” she said to me. “You nurture a plant, watch it grow, and be pleasantly surprised by it each day. There is something to love about your plant each day. And most of all, it teaches you patience and acceptance.”

“I don’t see what it has to do with cooking,” I said sulkily.

And my mother told me. Cooking is not about what you put on the table. The process starts long before coming to the stove. It is about feeling Nature, and being thankful for what we have been so abundantly blessed with. It is not a science, but a primal emotion. If we can translate that thankfulness into the food we cook, we create family consciousness.

“I don’t know why cooking schools start with the fancy stuff,” my mother mused. “It should all be about going to the garden, smelling the herbs, tasting the fruits, being familiar with the earth first. Not knives and pots and pans.”

“Ma, I buy organic food,” I sulked, as I dug the earth this summer at the vegetable patch. “It’s good enough.”

“Oh, Jack, put more energy into your digging!” She laughed gaily at me, watching me with love in her eyes. “We need good soil for the new plant we bought.”

I frowned and sulked. She came to stand by me. “You need to get to the soil on the lower layers. “

With some difficulty, she knelt on the flowerbed beside me, and took the small spade from my hand. She began digging energetically, scooping the earth from the lower layers into the flowerpot.

“Jack, this is like parenting and grandparenting. We, the parents and grandparents, are the top layer. We have had our time. But the layers beneath, that’s where all the top layer’s nutrients have leached down to. We want that layer, because that’s the best of us. See?”

I looked at her in amazement. Yes! That is the true gist of parenting – we pass our goodness down to the next layer, protecting it, nurturing it, for it is our continuity, our immortality. From here to the kitchen table, the circle of life. It’s all related, in a magical way. Thank you, Ma, thank you.

“And Jack, no short cuts,” my mother said with a small smile that carried the warmth of the whole sun in it. “Learn to enjoy gardening, love.”

fruits

Seven Steps To Raising Really Strong Girls

Maybe it is just an affliction of the fairer sex, but we all have had at least a Train Wreck Girlfriend in our lives. Mine is Susannah (not her real name, of course). She is a successful musician. She is attractive, articulate and funny, with a wide circle of friends and a busy life. She lives in a nice bachelorette pad in a smart part of London. You would have thought she is happy with her lot in life. Yet for the better part of our friendship, she has spent many tearful hours on my couch, wringing the proverbial sodden tissue in her hands. Susannah lurches from one disastrous relationship to the next, and in the lull in between her emotional train wrecks, she mopes around like a lost puppy, lamenting about her single state and ticking biological clock, always on the lookout for THE man to fall in love with, and therefore end all her woes (HAHAHA).

She yearns to be loved (don’t we all) but in Susannah, that yearning stems from the myth that a man will complete her and make her life infinitely better. She comes across as desperate, and men can smell desperation from a mile away. They then head for the hills without a backward glance.

What makes Susannah a needy, childlike, romantic desperado?

Though she is musically brilliant (and earns well), she is emotionally stunted at the age of eight. She was eight when she was sent to boarding school. She fulfilled her emotional needs and got her emotional guidance from reading romantic love stories, rather than real family interactions. The result: an emotionally stunted woman. Puppy-dog eyes are cute on eight year old little girls and Mills & Boons heroines, but on a 40 year old fully grown woman, it is just not that attractive. It is rather sad, actually.

In the beginning, I tried playing matchmaker but her desperation drove them all away. I introduced her to my gorgeous friend, and she stalked him persistently, always there waiting for him with that puppy dog eyes. Later, when that fell apart, I mentioned to her that my colleague had a spare ticket for the Albert Hall – she was over in my house within the half hour, without asking me anything about my colleague other than “Is he male and single?”

I have two daughters of the ages 23 and 14. I am adamant my girls will never be Train Wreck Susannahs, and so far, they are on course, thanks to my Seven Stage Programme. In fact, they are downright feisty and independent, and both are single by choice, despite the wolves at the door.

  1. Teach little girls that Prince Charming does not exist.

Men are nice, but they are not the solution to everything. More often than not, they have more frailties and issues than you.

  1. Ensure that little girls are self-sufficient

Nobody can rescue you but yourself. Men might have the right equipment to complete women physically, but there is nothing more unattractive than a needy, clinging, emotionally deficit grown-up (of either sex) seeking completion.

  1. Live within their own means

It is unfortunate, but typically, women still earn less than men. Therefore, a man with a good job presents an attractive proposition (financial security and perhaps entrée to a nicer, more secure future). I think that’s the biggest trap that women fall into. Hello, this is 2014. You have to buy your own stuff rather than rely on the man you sleep with to do so.

  1. Enjoy their own company

I know of someone who sits like a faithful and sad Basset Hound waiting for a disinterested man to spend time with her, be it dinner or walk or conversation…..anything, gimme, gimme, gimme! She would kill time waiting for him to grace her with his attention.

Methinks Ms. Saddo is far better off having a good drink, putting funky music on loud and dancing her heart out. That’s what I am teaching my daughters. And to learn to love books, of course.

  1. Give little girls emotional security

We all have needs: shelter, food, sex. But Maslow’s triangle forgot emotional security. Many girls grow up with that piece missing in their lives because they have (i) distant, (ii) absent or (iii) busy parents. They grow into needy women, trying to fill the void by playing out roles to compel the men in their lives to give them that missing piece.

  1. Have strong family ties

It is raining in London as I am writing this. From my window, I see a couple walking past sharing an umbrella. It is an achingly romantic sight. I longed to be out there, walking under the umbrella and under the protective arm of a man.

The father of my children is halfway across the world on a football field. But strangely enough, he is not the man I thought of immediately. I thought immediately of my big brother Huw Patrick, a strong and solid presence in my life from childhood. Nobody can ever take his place in my heart. Nobody can ever take my mother’s, my father’s, my other brother’s, my children’s, my niece’s, my nephew’s, my grandparents’ place in my heart.   There is something true in the old adage: there is nothing stronger than blood (though I was an adopted child). Family are the ones who give you firm grounds to stand on, whatever the nature of your relationship. There is no place more secure than your childhood home, even if that home is just a construct of your mind.

  1. Model it!

Be a strong girl yourself! Live life with laughter lacing your days, genuine happiness lighting your path, learn to find your own solutions, love yourself truly, madly and deeply, and dance like no one is watching, except your daughter, of course.

 

A lot to be grateful for

Life is like shifting sands, it changes so quickly. Something you are grateful for a year ago sometimes is no longer there for you to be grateful for today – last year, I was grateful that I had all my children sitting in church with me, but this year, one has gone away for a tour of duty as an officer of the British Armed Forces in a dangerous part of the world. I had to search very hard in my heart to be thankful for that, namely to feel grateful that I had 25 amazing years with him and hope that with the grace of God, there will be more of those years with him.

But one thing I am eternally grateful for, which never changes, is my mother-in-law Anna. She is my second mother, because I was just a teenager, a spoilt one, when I joined her family and though her judgement of me was harsh, she never gave up on me, believing in me always. My mum taught me the pleasant things in life, such as cooking and planting flowers, and my MiL taught me the less-enjoyable things such as cleaning, getting up early, mending clothes, budgeting, serving … and kneeling in church for what seems like hours. Both are equally important, there is no doubt.

My MiL taught me to serve without resentment. That was a difficult lesson for me to learn, because I have always had someone serving me. I did not know how to give without taking pleasure in the giving. For example, I resented being in her small dark kitchen cooking for the family when they were all out there in the garden laughing away. I would bang the pots and pans, and heaven forbid if someone dared to shout for refreshments. But over time, as I matured and loved my MiL deeply, I saw that hers had been a life of sacrifice and service, and she bore her load in life with equanimity and even happiness. My MiL’s mother went blind when she was 11, and my MiL had been a carer since she was 11. But my MiL spoke of her mother with love only, never the difficulty, even though other members of the family often commented over the years how heavy the burden was. My MiL’s mother spoke no English, only Spanish, when she moved to live in a working class suburbs of South East London. Her husband died early, so her daughter, my MiL, shouldered the load all by herself since she was 11. If she could do all that for that many years but yet has not a single trace of resentment of being robbed of her childhood and youth, how could I then be resentful about having to spend an hour or two in the kitchen?

I can see my MiL’s grace and beauty in my daughter Kat. Kat has always been my tower of strength and voice of wisdom, and I have my MiL to thank for the genes. But I see her strength and resilience in all my children, in the way they triumphed over the little adversities in their young lives undaunted and emerging with a smile on their faces.That will be from my MiL.

My MiL taught me to love God in the deepest sense and to see that God hath no greater love than family. My children’s father is her beloved son, but sometimes, for the family, she would take my side…me, the ‘silly little girl’ who was immoral enough to have a one-night-stand with her son despite promising herself to another man.

Yesterday, walking through the streets of a Spanish city, I felt the desire to embrace every white-haired Spanish old ladies who walked past me to transmit the deep love I have in my heart for my MiL. Dearest Mum, my love for you is unchanging in this changing world. I have done my duty to your family to my best ability in the name of love and I hope you will know that, somewhere in your Alzheimer’s ridden mind.

This is the article I wrote about my much-loved MiL: https://raisinghappystrongkids.com/2014/09/25/my-much-loved-mother-in-law/

“Teaching Them to Find Beauty in Themselves”

Last week, when I was back in my hometown and staying at my parents’ house, I walked past my 14 year old daughter’s former nursery. Laughter and happy chatter assailed me as I walked past the high brick wall and wrought iron gates. I couldn’t resist peering in.

Inside, in the paved compound, about eight pre-school children were charging round energetically on a variety of mini transports, making a lot of noise. A young teacher valiantly managed his boisterous little charges as they zoomed round him boisterously in a sea of toy cars and toy trucks. He almost had his feet run over on several occasions by little wheels. It was a happy scene, what every childhood should be, despite this being in a school setting.

I was compelled to ring the doorbell to connect with this place once more.

For it was a happy place, and one that played a big role in G’s life. My niece Katie attended this nursery ,too, so we have a lovely sense of history within the warm brick walls. G was one when I moved back to my hometown. I was suffering from cervical cancer, and I had four other young children. I moved home with three of my youngest children. Moving home to a house within a stone’s throw from my parents’ seemed a logical decision, and it was. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

My children thrived despite my illness. We lived in a peaceful house not far from the sea, and within walking distance to my parents’ and brother’s houses. Every morning, we would walk to school together. Though it was physically and emotionally exhausting for me to be a single mother throughout the week, it was a happy time for us all.

Though I would have preferred to keep G at home with me – I do not believe in children starting school too early, because I believe strongly that home is the best place for them to learn – I had to send her away for a few hours each day in order for me to get some rest and to get my household in order.

G loved her little nursery. Storytime is run by Mrs. Janet Storey, who was a calm, strong presence in the nursery in G’s time. I was delighted to see Mrs. Storey still at the helm almost ten years later. One could immediately sense that she tolerates no nonsense, but there is an air of fair play and serenity about her.

Mrs. Storey, as serene as ever
Mrs. Storey, as serene as ever
Snapshots of Storytime Nursery with its sweet homely touches
Snapshots of Storytime Nursery with its sweet homely touches

Storytime Nursery was exactly how I remembered it to be. The classrooms were furnished like a home that is composed solely of activity-filled playrooms. Little touches of home are all abound, from the childish drawings tacked to the wall to misshapen clay statues to ornaments and toys. There was lots of artwork going on in this nursery, with chubby fingers pasting leaves or bits of coloured paper, creations that will be hung up on the walls to give it a colourful, homely ambience.

G used to love these art sessions, though she does not excel in the subject these days except when it comes to tribal war paint on her face and body before big athletic events that she is nervous about. Or designing my next tattoo. This is the extent of her artistic activity, despite the many hours spent cultivating it.

She couldn’t read when she left the nursery at five. In fact, she couldn’t read until she was ten. And I am eternally grateful to Mrs. Storey and her staff for not forcing her. You hear horror stories these days about competitive primary schools that expect five years olds to do written entrance exams.

“H is not for hamster,” G used to say stubbornly when shown the alphabet card hanging on the wall. “And that’s not a hamster, that’s a guinea pig!”

She was right, of course, because her father who is from South East London pronounced hamster as ‘amstah. Dear Mrs. Storey devoted her time teaching elocution, getting her collection of Portsmouth oiks and my Cockney child (as well as the well-spoken ones) to say “hot water” in three syllables instead of ‘or woer. I am pleased to report that in this endeavor of hers, Mrs. Storey had been successful: G is often complimented on her elocution. Here’s a short clip of her at five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RFONbabE6A

Though I am not an educator, I am a believer (from personal experience as a mother of four grown-up children) that the ability to speak well, charisma, charm and a touch of boldness should be included in every child’s success toolkit.  Sausage-factory education seems to be churning out bland, personality-less exam-taking machine that one begins to wonder, “What is the purpose of education?”

 

There is this famous Jesuit saying: “Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.”

There is no doubt that this little nursery had shaped my child in a beautiful, unusual way. She is physically confident, she speaks very well and she has an unbridled sense of curiosity about the world around her. Though she is not academic by nature (homework is done on the bed in the shortest time frame possible), she has great enthusiasm for learning new things. She speaks four languages, she is in the top set at school for all her subjects, she plays sports at international levels and she has won many trophies. I strongly believe that she is able to develop in this direction, because she was not forced to read and rote-learn things that should only come later in a child’s life. Indeed, she spent those precious early years growing other aspects of her being. A more focused nursery would not have the time or the space to allow her this sweet, beautiful exploration and organic growth.

In parting, Mrs. Storey said to me, “We cannot make children into who they are not. We can only help them find beauty in themselves.”

And dear Mrs. Storey, you have indeed helped my child find hers. Thank you. This is the happy, strong, confident, creative and fearless young woman you have helped nurture during her formative years. G: a force to be reckoned with.

G - a force to be reckoned with

 

 

 

 

 

No to Anorexia

“It often starts with the chipping away of self-esteem by thoughtless comments. Then an erosion towards body dysmorphia. And the downward spiral into anorexia.”

There are many positives about living in Asia, but for me, one of the biggest negatives as a mother is the obsession with being ‘slim’. Oh, how I hate that word, and the mindset of chasing useless and dangerous physical ideals.

I am three quarters Asian, so being slim is natural for me. But for my two daughters who have a big and muscular Caucasian father, it can be a minefield. My elder daughter Kat is a glorious goddess at 5 feet 10 inches in her stockings and has that strong Spanish built that would be envied everywhere else in the world, except in Asia, that is. Some of the comments that she had to weather during her time in Kuala Lumpur:

“Who is the mother, who is the dotter?”

“She looks older, hor?”

“Wah, why so big?”

“How to find a husband?”

The modeling agencies we went to suggested that she loses half her body weight. I walked out in disgust, dragging her behind me, her self-esteem bruised. Straight after her last exam, she was on the flight back to London, and no one has made a single comment since about her lack of slimness. In fact, she had not heard the hated word since, and that was six years ago.

My younger daughter G is made of sterner stuff. She had been called chunky and fat, and she would meet these ridiculous labels with a steely glare. “At least I am not stupid,” she would reply sweetly, with the hidden subtext, “Like you.”

G has my Asian build, so she is naturally slim. But here’s the thing: she works hard to put on muscle bulk. She trains three times a week on the football field and eats consciously. She glorifies in her ‘chunky’ body, because it is all neat muscles that she had worked hard for. Muscles that played a large part in making her the Malaysian junior national taekwondo champion when she was 10 and a very successful footballer on the British International Schools circuit. She won the Most Valued Player award for three consecutive years, and she is only 14. One of her powerful kicks could send a football from one end of the field to the other, and you could hear the thwack from the stands. She is 14, but she plays a full game of football against under-21 girls and even boys. A ‘slim’ girl would not have the strength and stamina to do that. I am glad that media pressure and the world she grew up in had not skewed her view. Strong and healthy is beauty, not skinny.

I have been skinny – or to use that over-used word ‘slim’ – during the times in my life when I was undergoing chemotherapy, when I was bereaved, when I was working so hard that I forgot to eat. These slim periods coincided with some of the unhappiest times in my life. Yet the compliments flowed in.

“Wah, so slim! Have you been on diet or doing yoga?” Greeted me when I got back into the Kuala Lumpur groove after burying my friend.

No, I have not been on diet. Nor have I done more yoga. My friend died, you brainless woman, and I am seeing psychiatric help to get over my anguish. I am not slim, but dangerously thin.

One of the things I did when I gave up work was building my body. I ran, did weights and yoga, and ate well. My focus wasn’t on getting the perfect body, but a healthy one that will see me through the second half of my life. At 46, I am the best I have ever been.

I owe it all to my chunky but perennially happy Welsh mother, who had always told me I am beautiful, and who showed me that there are other things in life that are more important than what people think about your body. It is yours, love it.

And here’s a humble request from me: please use the word ‘slim’ responsibly.

Body dysmorphia

Anorexia and bulimia

Campaign for body confidence

The Journey Home

My parents do not come up to London anymore, though it is  less than 90 minutes from where they live. They used to have a vibrant life here. My mother would always be there on the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show with her big hat on, and went to museums, galleries and operas. We had a big party at the Serpentine Gallery for my children’s christenings. We did so much here, once upon a time. Now, my parents rarely venture out of the sleepy little Hampshire town that they call home. I think the bustle and the fast-paced city life became too much for them.

I couldn’t lure them up to London, I had to go home.

Home is Portsmouth, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life. I have such a huge emotional investment in this town, yet most my life is in London. There always seem to be 101 things I had to do that are London-based, such as buy a hat, go to the Passport office, meet up with a friend, medical check-up, family business. It does seem like a chore, an obligation, to make the trek home.

It shouldn’t be. It should never be.

When the train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour, my parents were standing there on the platform. They stood there side by side, married for 52 years against the odds, radiant smiles on their faces. It hit me with a sudden pang that they have aged in the last few years: my father still carries his proud bearing but his ramrod-straight back is now stooped and my mother is visibly slower on her feet. But it didn’t seem that long ago that my mother was taking my many children to the town square, indulging them, running after them energetically.

And it didn’t seem all that long ago, too, that she drove all the way to Chichester to fetch my younger brother and I home at some ungodly hour of the morning, after we had too much to drink. That night, as we hovered on the cusp of alcoholic poisoning, my mother sat up with us, patiently urging us to drink water all night long, holding our heads up when we vomited into the washing up bowl that she unflinchingly held. Oh Mummy, how you proved your love that night!

And again in 2001, when I received the shock diagnosis that I had 2nd/3rd stage cervical cancer. My first impulse, which I followed, was to run straight home. I left my children’s father and took my children home to this sleepy little town that I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a restless teen. My children and I moved into a house 100 metres from my parents’ home. Here, my family nursed me back to health, and paradoxically, it was some of the most precious times for us, despite my illness. During that time, my mother nurtured me once more with her imitable devotion. My father and I found time to have deep philosophical discussions, which were the missing pieces in my early life. My brother looked in on me every evening after work. My nephew and niece became my own children, and they rallied round my children. My new best friends were Mrs. Tomlinson and Mrs. Foster, both in their eighties then, who provided the warm, gentle company I so badly needed then. I opted out of ‘real’ life in London to come back here, only for me to question myself, what is real life? A glittering existence in the exciting capital, peopled by folks who make the news, paying exorbitant prices for a pint of milk, or this sweet and unchanging life in this hamlet, my hometown, where my parents still live? Where will I choose to be, as the years close in on me? Would I wish to spend my final years at dinner parties with friends, or would I go for long walks along the seafront, remembering the days when I was still young, when my parents were still here?

I think of the sunny kitchen in my mum’s house, where I used to sit at the table doing my homework whilst she cooked with a big smile always on her face. How much she loved us, and food was her way of showing her love. I know she would have been cooking all morning, anticipating my return.

As my train slowly trundled past the stations on the way home, I felt a strong sense of homecoming. All my early life, my roots, came back to me, most notably, taking the train to school everyday with my younger brother.

“Darling,” my father said formally, but there is such a wealth of love in that one word.

“Oh, look at you!” My mum enthused, enveloping me into her arms, the only place I have ever felt truly safe in. “You don’t look a day older than when you were a schoolgirl!”

I have not been home for four months, and that is four months too long. So please join me in my intention to spend more time with parents. They won’t be here forever.home

 

My Much-Loved Mother-in-Law

I had one last thing to do in London before going home to my parents in Hampshire, and that one thing is to visit my mother-in-law. My MiL is in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease. She does not recognise me. She lives in a world where her parents are still very much alive, where she still goes to work. I no longer exist in her world.

Oh, Mum! I don’t have a husband but I have a much-loved MiL. Mum brought me up, because I joined her family when I was a spoilt, screwed-up teenager. She wasn’t going to put up with my nonsense, the way my family had. Her son and I used to sneak into bed in the afternoons, and she would knock hard on the door. “Get up, the pair of you,” she would holler. “Why are you in bed? You are not sick!”

We fought. Because I was lazy and spoilt and did not know the value of money that she had to work so hard for, firstly as a cleaner and then as an office clerk for London Electricity Board. She scrimped and saved all her life, whilst I did the opposite. My parents’ pleasure principle did not sit well with her.

She showed me how to clean the shower cubicle. With a toothbrush. And told me that I have to clean behind refrigerators. “Mrs. Lumkin does that at home,” I told her haughtily. “Surely you can get someone in to do this?”

We fought over sausages. I refused to let my children eat the cheap ones she bought from the local butcher. “Mum, 99p for six! What rubbish goes in there!” I would exclaim. ‘No way will I feed my kids that!”

“Nothing wrong with my kids,” she would retort heatedly. “And they were brought up on these sausages.”

“We’ll bring our own food for the kids when we visit your parents,” I said firmly to the poor man caught in the middle between his warring mother and the mother of his children.

“How do those poor children of yours ever survive?” my MiL would say, half in disgust.

There were always faults she could find with my parenting. Babies being breastfed on demand, no set mealtimes, clothes smelling of mildew, late potty training, kids jumping on the bed, parents sneaking off to bed in the afternoon, oh you name it, and you can bet your last penny that I had transgressed.

I was the daughter-in-law from hell, but Mum never gave up on me. She taught me to sew and knit with varying degree of success. She taught me to cook and clean, of course. In the process, she learned how to love me. We grew especially close despite the tempestuous nature of our relationship when we had to move in with the in-laws whilst saving up for the deposit for our first house.

“Oh, Jack, you didn’t have to go through all this trouble for me!” she would exclaim each time I brought her fresh flowers or a little cake that I had baked. She never wanted to trouble anyone. She was a carer for her mother who went blind when she was 11. Her father died when she was still in her teens. Mum never had anyone looking after her. She never had any frivolities. I loved treating her and see the light in her eyes  miraculously switching on.

“Oh, you didn’t have to!” she would exclaim each time, with my every little gesture.

Over the years, as the children grew, she could see that my extravagances and strange values had not marred her grandchildren at all. My children are still ‘salt of the earth’, equally happy in a rough working class neighbourhood as they were in Knightsbridge or the country. My second son especially did them proud. This boy had always been close to his father’s roots: during his school summer holidays, he would come home to this working class neighbourhood and worked as a furniture removals man. I know that through this son of mine, his father’s race continues. And through my youngest child Georgina, who fights in the same fight club in Woolwich that her grandfather had all those years ago.

My MiL used to come and watch G fight. She would take the front row seat. I could see the dreaminess in her eyes, as she reminisced about her late husband fighting in this same club.

“Nanny, I have beaten up all the English boys,” G would say proudly, sliding her little hand into her grandmother’s.

Children are indeed a wonder, because they are the source of my MiL’s love for me, and mine for her. I have a lot to be thankful for. My children’s strong Spanish genes, for example, and their physical beauty. The tough love my MiL had given me, that was the making of me. My strong relationship with God. A sense of belonging to the bedrock of England. My love for her grows forevermore.

Today, I hugged her close, glad I made this journey. ‘I had to,” I whispered. “Because you are my Mum.”

I hope somewhere, deep within her Alzheimer’s diminished brain, she knows just how much I needed to make this journey to tell her I love her.

The Importance of Family Support

On the second day after my second son was born, post-natal depression hit me. I was sitting in the bath at home, door locked, and Kit was screaming at the top of his lungs. My mother-in-law had come down from London to help, and I could hear her saying to OAB, “She’s not producing enough milk, the poor little soul is hungry, bless him.” I looked down at my leaky breasts and still-huge belly, and felt a right failure. All my friends were at University; I had to take another year out. We lived in a little house with no central heating except those run by the 50p meter, and my bedroom in my parents’ house is larger than this whole sodding house. I was stuck here with a penniless man, his disapproving mother and his screaming brat. I felt like my whole life was over.

I got out of the bath, got dressed, and announced with deadly calm to OAB and my MiL: “I am leaving.”

He was shocked and tried to stop me. His mother, in her infinite wisdom, said, “Let the silly girl go.”

The silly girl went straight home like a bat out of hell to her parents.
Obviously, I went back to the penniless man and his screaming brat. That was 25 years ago. I left him many times since, to move back to my parents’ house, albeit for a few hours, a few days, and even a few weeks. And here’s the thing: no matter how old we are, there is always traces of the silly girl/silly boy in all of us. Who do you take your drama, heartbreak, depression and neediness out on? Your long-suffering partner or do you burden outsiders with your woes? Or do you just bottle those up?

I am blessed that I never had to go beyond my family to seek help. I don’t expect the father of my children to be the solver for all my problems; after all, I am not his child and he has enough children to deal with. I don’t expect my friends to accommodate my occasional neediness; after all, they all have their own lives. There is nothing more unattractive than a needy, desperate clingy grown-up. Fortunately, I have brothers to deal with that unattractive side of me, that I bet you have too, hidden somewhere in your grown-up self.

Here’s my article on family closeness for Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jacqueline-koay/six-ways-of-growing-sibli_b_5871482.html

If you need someone to talk through your problems (don’t go through it alone), these are the people who are there for you:

The Samaritans

Pre and Post Natal Depression Support

Miscarriage Support

 

Six Ways of Growing Sibling Closeness

In the past week, I have had more emotional turmoil than I did in the last ten years of my life. But it took just one phone call, and my big brother Huw was there. In fact, he had always been there, silent and watchful, looking out for me.

“Fix you,” he would say. Like in the Coldplay song.

Even though we live in different continents now, the bond between us never snagged. I am closer to him than I am to the father of my children, whom I have slept with for almost three decades.

“Everything OK at home?” Huw would ask whenever we spoke. At family gatherings, he would try to get me on my own to ask those pressing questions. “Walk to the shop with me,” he would say. ‘We need to get more milk.”

Funnily enough, I have always thought I am closer to my younger brother Al, whom I used to take the train to school with everyday. Al and I fought like cats and dogs. Huw, on the other hand, had always been the big brother, serious and stoic, to be respected but not played with. Though he is only a year older than I, it had always felt as if he was much older and much more sorted out.

I could tell him anything, even my deepest secrets. I thought I had none, until I unburden myself to Huw. If I told anybody else about the darkness that lurks in my heart, they might stop loving me. But never Huw.

“History,” Huw would say. “We have history.”

And so it dawned upon me again, just how important sibling closeness is. You might have differences and angsts where your siblings are concerned, but at the end of the day, you rise from the same bedrock. When the chips are down and the whole world is against you, it is often your siblings that you can count on to shore you up. Thus, I am very thankful that my children enjoy the same closeness with each other that I enjoy with both my brothers. In fact, their father and I often bemoan the fact that they are closer to each other – with their first loyalties to each other – than they are to us, their parents. They have a shorthand way of speaking to each other, so that family news gets disseminated efficiently and discussed thoroughly, and decisions come to. One voice will speak on behalf of others. Even if there are disagreements within the group, they will speak with one voice.

This sibling cohesion made it difficult for their father and I to enforce anything against their will, because it had always been a collective will. Five voices speaking as one against “the management” aka the parents, either pleading for clemency on behalf of a wrongdoer, vetoing parental plans or pushing forward their agenda. When it comes to our kids, we could never divide and rule. Though that made it challenging to parent them especially in their teenage years, we are glad and relieved that they have this closeness with each other. Because we the parents will not be here forever to support, guide and comfort them. It is good that they have each other to turn to in times of need, and goodness knows, that need could hit anytime, as I have found out in the last week.

My six ways of growing sibling closeness:

 1. Model it first

Children learn best by copying. If you are close to your siblings, your children would naturally be (even if they fight like cats and dogs). It makes sense, because if your children can see the benefits you derive from your close relationship, they would want a piece of the action, too. Having sold this to them on emotional and psychological grounds, you can move on to the implementation as outlined in the next steps:

 

 2. Make time for family

It is a fallacy that if you live in the same house, you have a close relationship. I have seen sad incidences where parents and children are sitting round the table in a restaurant, each engrossed in their iPads and smart phones, rather than have conversations with each other. So set the first rule: talk to each other and make mealtimes family times.

 

3. Teach your children about your family history

Children love stories, so use this opportunity of telling them about your parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins. Give them a sense of belonging. Create that glue that binds the family together.

 

4. Teach your children to love each other

Many parents have the mistaken belief that because of biology, siblings will automatically love each other. This couldn’t be further than the truth. Children need to be taught love, and also taught to express that love so that it becomes richness in their lives. Simple ways to teach them to love each other:

If one sibling has done something selfless for the other, highlight that (in a casual way);

Encourage them to do nice things for each other;

Play team games where siblings are in the same team versus the parents;

Give them presents that they have to share with each other;

Encourage them to spend time together;

Devise a system where the older one helps his/her younger siblings as part of household chores that all children have to do (but do not overburden the older child with too much).

 

 5. Create the environment

Love does not grow easily in hostile environments. Have lots of love and laughter in the house. A golden rule of my mum’s is never go to bed angry with each other. From personal experience, I discovered that having fresh flowers in the house helps with creating a happy environment. These can be flowers that you and your children pick on your walks.

 

 6. Enjoy each other

There is a lot to be said about having good times together. Even when we struggled in the early days as cash-strapped young parents, we endeavored to put time aside to enjoy each other.   The weekends were for the parks in summer and free indoor events in winter (the museums in London were free after 5pm). We took long road trips to visit grandparents, we collected coupons from newspapers for free trips and we read bedtime stories every night. From enjoyment comes warmth and open hearts.

 

Note: if your child is an only child, use this model with their cousins.

 Song: Fix You by Coldplay

Education: What Are We Paying For?

My youngest child attends the British International School, Phuket. I must admit, I gulped a bit when I paid the school fees. But so far, I am fine with what I am paying for. It costs a lot to run this little piece of Great Britain in the tropical paradise of Phuket, and the money has to come from somewhere. Simple economics. It makes me feel better that it is a trust school, meaning that there are no greedy shareholders trying to fleece parents through turning education into a big money-spinner, putting profit before altruistic goals. My elder daughter attended a trust school as well, and yes, I did balked then when the invoices from Portsmouth High School arrived with ominous regularity.

But what exactly are we, the parents, paying for?

I had an unsuccessful academic career in private schools. I left with four mediocre ‘O’ levels instead of the standard seven that most half-wits in most half-decent non fee-paying schools can aspire to. Perhaps I was too excited about riding horses on the beach in the mornings to get rid of the hangovers obtained the night before than I was about getting the grades. I doodled during prep, dreamed about flying hovercrafts, greasy food at Trevor’s Caff and Snakebites at Smugglers’ Inn.

I applied to Havant Sixth Form College because I did not have that many options. The then Principal decided to give me a chance, despite my dismal ‘O’ level grades. And so I began my ‘A’ levels in this non fee-paying school.

I succeeded.

In the second year of my ‘A’ levels, I received an unconditional offer from Southampton, my home university, to read Medicine. I also received an offer from Cambridge.

Thus I must state the obvious: Havant Sixth Form College was the making of me. Somehow, this little school had everything just right. I will attempt to list down what I think the key success factors were:

(1) A proactive and ‘real’ careers guidance department
Secondary students need personal guidance, because the adult world with its seemingly infinite number of choices is a baffling place. Moreover, how could one possibly know at 17 what one will be at 27, 37, 47, 57? Throw in parental pressure and false representations from the media, and the poor students are lost in the uncharted waters.

The careers guidance department at Havant worked well for its students, because it was located on the corridor that all students had to walk past at some stage of the day. There were big posters to attract the eye, and over-zealous staff were always on the quick to pull unsuspecting students in.

Even the teachers got proactively involved. Mr. Jim Crow, in my case. I had a lot to thank (and blame) him for. He got me work experience at St Mary’s Hospital. I thought it was for a week when I signed up, but it turned out to be longer than I feared. For two days a week for a whole year, I had to show up at the hospital to do menial jobs, get insulted by patients and run foul of the matron. I vomited on my first day. Straight into the laundry basket. Things got progressively worse. I complained to Mr. Crow and told him that I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to study nuclear physics instead and be an astronaut. I could still remember his moustache twitching in amusement as he admonished me with a straight face.

But my work experience meant that I leap-frogged past the dreamers and fantasists and predicted grade A swots. Because I proved that I could hack working as an unpaid lackey in a busy hospital for one whole year. If members of the selection committee at Southampton University were privy to the tearful rants I had with Mr. Crow, life could have been very different for me indeed.

(2) Useful subjects
I did Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology. I loved Mathematics with Mrs. Balthazar because I found Mathematics easy; I enjoyed Chemistry with Mr. Haskins because he was not fazed out when we exploded things in the lab (I think he was secretly a bigger pyromaniac than all of us put together); I tolerated Biology with Mrs. Woods because she was sweet.

But I had to do Typing. I mean, come on! Mrs. Jean Bushby with her stiff grey helmet for hair took no hostages. She shot from the hip. Fearfully, I learned to type.

It served me well when I went up to Oxford and had copious amount of data to process. And hey, I have written four books to date without the help of any professional typist.

(3) Real people
There was a large population of ex private school students like my brother and I. There was also a big group of students who came from state school backgrounds. Folks who lived in council estates, who wanted to do well, and children of liberals who did not subscribe to private school elitism. It wasn’t all rich kids, but a mix that worked well, not only academically but preparation for life in the real world.
I had a fabulous two years at Havant. Among some of my most precious memories is taking the train to school every morning with my brother Al. There was always enough going on in school to occupy us, or we would hang out either in the town centre or on the beach near my house. Yes, we drank and partied, but never with the frenetic debauchery of my private school years. I skipped school often (for good reasons), and my three A level teachers helped, rather than hindered, my progress.

It is a testament to their abilities as teachers and to the school for its ethos that I managed to do passably well for my A levels, despite sleeping on the beach at the end of Woodgason Lane with the father of my children right up to the night before my exams.

So in conclusion, there is such a thing as free lunch, and free (high quality) education. I am the proof of that, and I guess this is why I wrote this article.

http://www.havant.ac.uk