Here we are. Halfway between ‘pre-covid’ and what is yet to come. The pandemic still rages, and although there is light and hope somewhere ahead, we are not yet quite free of living in a restricted and strange, disconnected way. Here we are in this odd, ill-fitting in-between space.
I sometimes have to tell myself this, that this is really happening, and remind myself that once life was different, and it will one day be different again. I have to remind myself, from the small, cloistered world of home and family and work and schooling and all of us here all of the time, that this is an interlude. This is life, yes, but we are living in in-between times.
So it was with a huge sense of relief that I read the opening pages of Katharine Hill’s new book, A Mind of Their Own, and found these very feelings echoed. She starts with the recognition that we are living in a liminal space, unique in our generation. Could there be a better time to look at things afresh than during a time of disruption and disjuncture? The emotional wellbeing of our children is an important topic at any time, but right now it has a weightiness and relevance like never before.
Katharine’s book is profoundly practical and down-to-earth, backed up with extensive references and resources for the inquisitive to explore and interrogate as they wish. Its reach and relevance is far beyond the pandemic, indeed it was written in the majority before the start of 2020. It holds space for all parents with families in all their myriad forms, and myriad concerns. I found myself immersed in a space of safety. Perhaps I would find safe harbour for my own parenting concerns and failings within these pages. Perhaps even a way to navigate beyond the present crisis and into calmer waters. I found so much hope here, and my scattered thoughts and slightly broken heart found healing and possibility in each chapter, each useful action point, each purposeful activity offered for our parental toolkits.
Shut Down and Curtailed
The book struck home at a deeply personal level. In the midst of another dreary day of learning-from-home for our ten-year-old son and sixteen-year-old daughter, the words Katherine spoke breathed fresh life into my rather battered perspective. I found myself looking at our son as if for the first time. Was he really objecting to doing the maths exercise his teacher had sent? Well, yes he was, but that wasn’t all that was going on. He was objecting to yet another experience of staring at a screen without being able to talk to his teacher, without being able to explore the problem in a classroom with his friends, without knowing that in half an hour they would all be able to run around outside in the school playground after having their school lunch. He was objecting to his life having been up-ended for almost a year, and he was objecting to so many of the activities and friendships which meant so much to him having been shut down and curtailed. No wonder, then, when I got frustrated and angry at his lack of engagement, he would yell back, “it doesn’t matter!” I knew something mattered, and so did he. The only problem was I didn’t understand exactly what it was, and that was where he was getting stuck, too.
For our sixteen-year-old daughter, who has spent her teenage years planning adventures and activities with friends, and who has been dreaming of the possibilities life will hold for her as she comes to the end of her time at school, she and her peers have been faced with the shock of rites of passage dematerializing before them. She has yet to sit an actual exam, and school dances, trips and expeditions have been cancelled; life post-pandemic seems to be a bit like Schrodinger’s cat – simultaneously feverishly planned-for and non-existent. On the outside looking in, I see a girl doing her best to flourish under such challenging circumstances. Silently, I think we are both wondering how this is possible.
Katharine’s book gave me the opportunity to step back, and to reflect. What do my children see? What is the world like to them? How do my husband and I parent them well right now?
For the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to explore Ignatian spirituality through participation in some wonderful, life-giving courses. Most recently, I’ve been learning more about listening well to others, and I have found some beautiful congruence with Katharine’s observations and research here. I have been prompted to become more attentive to my children – not in the helicopter-parent sense, but in the sense that I try to notice what they are actually saying and doing, rather than what I wish they were saying or doing. I’ve become freshly attuned to my own demeanour, and how significant this is in our shared family life. Noticing my own desires has also been revelatory. Do I want our children to do well at school for their own sake, or (rather embarrassingly) because I perceive it as a reflection on our family? What does ‘do well’ even mean? I notice I am re-examining our values even as I am re-examining the questions.
The word ‘resilience’ stood out for me as I read on; it has become a watchword in the communications from our children’s schools over this last year too. I often wonder what it actually means in terms of their lived-out experience. What does resilience mean when navigating a world of uncertainty? I hold these thoughts and questions in my heart, little wordless prayers before God. I wonder what he sees. Does he see our desire to live well? To enable our children to grow up strong, loved, secure? I hope so. Some days are bountiful, productive and filled with the particular bounce that joy can bring to the most mundane tasks. Other days are leaden and long, and we limp through, feeling both too far apart, and far too close in proximity. Who is the God with us here?
I reflect on the Ignatian language of consolation and desolation, and realize I am imagining the last year as a set of old fashioned scales. Shall consolation or desolation tip my scales? Shall my children look back on this last year and emerge stronger, or will it always leave a scar? Will our souls somehow always be a little under-nourished now, or will we find soul-food, soul-restoration together?
I find myself thinking about the baking of bread, the effort and necessity of kneading, waiting, knocking back and kneading again. Perhaps resilience comes a little like this; through being pushed and pulled and formed and finally, over time, in the right circumstances, however improbably, we shall rise.
I finished the book with a satisfied sigh, like one would do at the end of a delicious meal in a special restaurant (remember those?). Words come to mind from scripture which feel like a promise.
“To all who mourn [in Israel] he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory” (Isaiah 61:4 NLT).
About the Author
Vicky Allen is a poet and artist living in Scotland. She also works for HopScotch Children’s Charity and as a creative community engagement project worker for Discovery Church Dunbar. Vicky is the author of Broken Things and other tales (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020). You can follow her on social media @bringonthejoy