Summer survived

Eight weeks of summer holidays survived. And enjoyed! Now Mollie is back at nursery and we have all settled into new routines, influenced by our summer holiday learnings.

Inspired by the circus and olympics, Mollie now goes to gymnastic lessons every week. She is learning how to swing on the bar and balance on the beam and is loving it. In 5 weeks she has grown in confidence, strength and balance and is so proud of herself. Ballet and gymnastics have become central to Mollie’s days. She watches and recreates Strictly, puts on shows for her nursery teachers and dresses up in dancing clothes and sighs at my lack of flexibility.

In the hour between nursery and gymnastics we go to the library. We sit on the dinosaur rug and look through the train book box. We read books together and explore the pictures and discover new authors. Mollie has an Elmer book bag that is always overflowing and a new Elmer library card to match – the observant and inspiring librarians presented it to her when they spotted her bag, how about that for going the extra mile!

The library books have been sneaking into our lives since the summer holidays, inspiring and teaching us. Mollie discovered information books and is now soaking up books about the body and doctors and ballet, teaching us all with her incredible ability to remember new information.

Emily Gravett’s Spells introduced us to the Babbit. A crazy half bird half rabbit that has become a family favourite. Every family has them, the little sayings that sneak into the vocabulary and end up as part of family life. In our house they all seem to creep in from the literature we share and our playing with language. And now the Babbit, and the tickling and giggling that accompanies the word, is part of us. Emily Gravett is a genius.

The joy Mollie still finds in board books has reminded me that she is still little, even though she doesn’t sound it when she is bossing me about trying to recreate the positions in the ballet book. She is still little, but she is getting over her fear of spider webs – because Emily Brown puts her hands on cobwebs in Cressida Cowell’s Emily Brown and the Thing.

Books can teach us so many things.

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Soon it will be time to start looking at schools for Mollie and asking the questions about gym clubs and school libraries and phonics tests. But I’m less worried about Mollie’s learning at school now. I’ve seen her be inspired, follow something she loves and grow in confidence. I’ve seen her love of books and words develop. And I’ve seen us embrace it all as a family and change our routines to support her.

Perhaps those eight long weeks will have a longer lasting impact than any of us initially imagined.

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Love, not less

I am always saddened to hear motherhood referred to as a beautiful club that opens up previously unachievable levels of love.
It is not a contest. It is love. We shouldn’t measure it in these terms. ‘I love more than you love.’ ‘My love means more than your love.’ No. Love is personal and can’t be measured against itself.

So when Twitter started rumbling about the article in the Telegraph where Amanda Craig claims that motherhood gives you ‘a deeper understanding of human nature’, I read the article for myself. And then I got angry. There was the same old claim – ‘No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child.’ I had an emotional response to the article that was fed by my own experiences and of those of my friends. I had a bit of a rant on twitter, Stella Duffy wrote a very articulate response to the article and I congratulated her and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t. It bothered me for the rest of the day.

When my daughter was born I lost count of the number of people who exclaimed about the immense, overpowering love that I must be feeling. But I didn’t feel love. I felt broken and resentful and sad. And terribly, terribly guilty. And it was made so much worse by the huge expectation that a mother should love her child immeasurably and uncontrollably. It was also made so much better by my hugely supportive wife, and by close friends who were honest and open and admitted that they had felt the same way. It would come. It was okay.

And it did. But it was far from the uncontrollable passion held in such high regard. It was a gradual love, a learning of this new person in my life.

So, according to Craig, am I less of a mother? Less of a woman? Less able to experience human emotion? Less able to write about the human condition? Am I a bad parent because I wrote about needing my own thinking space during the summer holidays? Is my wife less able to understand human emotions because she isn’t the biological mother of our daughter? Or is she one of the chosen ones because her love for our daughter was so immediate and obvious and open?

Of course not. That’s what these horrible articles and this awful debate do. They make you feel less. And I am sick of feeling less.

I gave it some space and then read the article again. I was still angry. And confused. She seemed to be saying that as a mother you won’t be able to write properly because you won’t have the time or the energy, but if you are not a mother you won’t be able to write well enough because you won’t have a deep enough understanding of human emotion. So that leaves… men? Why must women always be categorised and challenged against their parental status? And why so often by other women?

I understand how lucky we are to have our daughter. Not that long ago two women would not have had that choice. A lot of women who want a child are not able to. We are lucky. But equally, I’m still a woman. Still a person. Still an individual. Not any more for being a mother and not any less.

Everyone writes from their experiences to some extent, but to say that you can’t write outside of them, and miss out on something essential if you don’t have children is ridiculous and really very sad. You don’t have to be a mother to experience motherhood. It’s all around us. And being a mother doesn’t have to define you or limit you. Everyone has something that gets in the way of their writing. Children, parents, work, illness. It’s called life. Virginia Wolf is set up as an example of the perfect woman writer. Childless of course. But her own mind got in the way of her writing. There is always something. Will always be something. The key is wanting it enough to find a space to make writing a part of your life. The key is knowing who you are and not allowing others to make you feel less.

Inspiring a generation

Mollie is in love!

With Miss Gabriella, one of the performers from the circus we visited last week. Since we watched Gabriella spin from the trapeze and somersault on the Russian bar, Mollie has been jumping around the house and spinning from everything that can be spun from. Including me. She has pranced about ‘being Gabriella’ and spent lots of time on her head with her bum in the air, trying to do a handstand.

But the real revelation came from the Circus Wonderland souvenir brochure. Miss Gabriella was an olympic gymnast in the Hungarian team. And, oh look, Mollie! The olympics is on the tv, in your lounge, every day! This has opened up a whole world of joy. No more early morning Fireman Sam. Now Mollie asks for the gymnastics every morning and has decided that, more than anything else in the world, she wants to be a ‘gymnasticer’ when she grows up. She has watched the gymnastics. A lot. And swimming, rowing, athletics, and tennis. She has a little flag that she waves while she cheers Team GB and jumps up and down, wearing her plastic medal with pride.

It’s a shame that Mollie isn’t old enough to have watched and understood the importance of the opening ceremony and last night’s successes. But if she has developed this level of passion from watching daytime events with a 3 year old’s understanding, think what the older children are learning. They are the children who will be Mollie’s role models at school, her future babysitters, mentors and friends. The Olympics really are inspiring a generation.

More than a generation. Mollie is inspired. I am inspired. Watching along with Twitter last night showed a whole timeline of inspiration. Twitter was a giant group hug, celebrating diversity and talent and hope for the future. We were all full of Olympic spirit. Team GB has given us positive role models who, rather than trying to be famous, are working hard to be the best in their chosen field. What a wonderful legacy to leave to our children. It’s not about what you look like, what size clothes you wear, how many people vote for you, who you love, where you come from or how much money your parents have. It’s about finding something you love and following your dream. And anyone, everyone, has the potential and ability to do that.

So we will continue to empower Mollie with as many experiences and skills as we can, start her with some gymnastic lessons, and see where she flies.

Learning through play

On Mollie’s last day of nursery one of the mums asked me what I was planning over the holidays. When I told her I was going to start teaching Mollie to read, she looked genuinely shocked. “Won’t she be bored at school if she can already read?”

Her reaction surprised me.

Perhaps she has an idealised vision of children sat beautifully in a school library, or the book corner of a classroom, enjoying a diverse selection of stories and rhymes with Miss Honey. In reality, there is no school library because it has been turned into a computer room. The books from the book corner have been locked in the teacher’s cupboard because the government suggests that children shouldn’t have classroom access to books beyond their phonics level. There is no time to interact with books because the children haven’t done their Phonics session. Miss Honey is turning bitter, frustrated by a system that she knows won’t work.

So no, I’m not worried that Mollie will be bored if she can already read by the time she goes to school. I’m worried that she’ll be bored by the rote learning of phonics every day. I’m worried that if we don’t teach her at home, she might not learn to read at all. Because she might learn to ‘read’ phonetically but will be lost with the words that don’t fit the mould. Because she might learn to ‘read’ words but wont necessarily comprehend their meaning and relation to story, picture, life. Because she might be put off by the pretend words, the learning from lists, the dull dried version of learning that is currently being prescribed to our children. I want her to experience the joy of language, the magic of words and stories and imagination. And if the government have their way I don’t think that will be easy at school, even with the Miss Honeys of teaching.

This letter from an Early Years Consultant to Michael Rosen shows how sad the situation has become.

I believe that children learn to read through immersion in words and language and books and drama and songs and stories. Through play. Through having fun.

In the first two weeks of the summer holiday we have had fun. A lot of this fun has helped Mollie learn to read. Without her even noticing. And that’s how children learn. No need for huge budgets and plans and rules, restrictions and tests. Just fun.

We turned a dog walk in the field into a Bear Hunt. And then into a trek through Our Jungle. We spotted strange beetles, took pictures and looked them up – in a book! We read books of poems and laughed at the silly ones and made up songs and nonsense smonsense rhymes. Mollie noticed that the words in the worm poem were written down in a wiggly worm line. We read stories together and Mollie pointed out that the word ‘splash’ in The Pig In The Pond sounded like a splash.

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We went to WHSmiths to choose new books with Mollie’s birthday giftcard (Thank you Lucy and Charlie.) There was only half a shelf of children’s books and they were too high for Mollie to reach. (Well done ‘Smiths!) But we didn’t let that put us off. We got lots down and looked at them on the floor. We looked through the pictures and talked about titles and authors and what the books might be about and what other books the authors and illustrators had created. Mollie chose three to buy.

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One of her chosen few was The Singing Mermaid. It is about a mermaid that goes to sing in a circus. We had seen the circus arrive at our local park just days before. So we went to the circus and had a magical time. Then we bought a programme and we spent time looking through it together and used it to explain all the fun of our circus trip to Mummy K and Grandma and Grandad.

We went to a charity shop and found a book of fairytales that another little boy or girl had loved before. We played shops and Mummy K made the big bottle for collecting copper coins into Mollie’s book money bottle, for the next charity shop trip.

And in two weeks of fun the closest we got to a phonics lesson was playing with foam letters in the bath.

I can read a rainbow

This week was Mollie’s last week at nursery for this school year.

I used my last hours of free time wisely and productively.

Inspired by Shelley Harris’ colour co-ordinated books, I decided to organise mine into a rainbow. I got this far…

And then a coffee break showed me that it wasn’t really working. My books are shelved under the stairs in the hallway. As you come in to the hall you see them gradually from the left side of the bookshelves. You couldn’t get the full joy of the rainbow.

So I tried again.

It still needs a bit of tweaking. But It’s looking gorgeous.

I learnt a lot while turning my bookshelves into a rainbow. I learnt that sequins really do get everywhere in my house.

I learnt that shelves that have been designed and built to fit my books don’t lend themselves to this level of messing about.

At one point all my pink books were by lesbian authors. I quite liked that.

I learnt that turquoise is a tricky colour.

Brown was also an issue.

At one point I was quite tempted to go out and buy some yellow books to even up the balance a bit.

I learnt that I am more anal than I thought. And that I have a lot of books. But the biggest surprise was how well I know my books. Initially I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find a book if I messed with them but it turns out that I know my books pretty well. I know what colour a book is and how creased the spine is and how faded it has become and where in the rainbow it is likely to sit.

I learnt that I appreciate my kindle and the flexibility it gives me but that I really love my books. Even more so now that I have given them a bit of love and they look so beautiful.

Next week… Mollie’s library!

Summer Survival (or using my daughter to live out my dreams)

It is nearly time for The Summer Holidays. Mollie has one week left at nursery and then eight weeks off. EIGHT! Bye bye writing time. Bye reading time. See ya sanity.

Eight weeks.

I need a project. Something that Mollie and I can do together. Something sanity saving that we can do on the inevitable deluge of rainy days. Something that wont need space or silence, ’cause there certainly won’t be much of that, but will provide sustenance for my book cravings.

I’ve got it! I will encourage hers!

Mollie has just turned three. She loves books. Hooray! She has loved books since she was alert enough to notice them. Exploring books and reading together is a big part of our family life. Mollie has a bedtime story (or six) every night and crammed bookshelves that she delves into during the day. She enjoys making up crazy and hilarious stories and songs and generally playing with words.
I think she’s got the book bug!
My wife and I both grew up with (and through) books and I want to encourage Mollie’s interest and empower her with the ability to read.

So here’s my Plan for Summer Holidays Survival

I will take her book shopping.
To real bookshops. Where she can touch and smell the books and look at the pictures and discover new authors and illustrators. Where she can see first hand the difference between new books and books that have been loved by others- and might have secret surprises scrawled inside the covers. Where she can start choosing her own books to bring home and devour.

I will take her to the library.
I have fond memories of the children’s section of the library where I grew up. It had a magical feel to it. It felt like freedom and peace and potential. It was exciting and full of unexplored words and worlds. I would devour fiction, explore craft books for inspiration, touch and smell all the books.
Our local library is small but has a wonderful children’s section. There’s a great range of books and enough space for the children to explore them. There’s a chair in the shape of a rocket that the kids can sit inside with their books. There is story time and singing time. And there are librarians who are kind and knowledgeable and passionate about books.
Libraries are incredible resources and we need to use them before we lose them. We’ve been taking Mollie to the library since she was a baby, but if I’m honest, I don’t take her often enough now that she goes to nursery. So we will go and we will see what we can learn.

We’ll read together.
I truly believe that learning to read involves more than phonics. It’s about instilling a love of words, books and pictures. It’s learning the connections between words and pictures, words and other words, words and their meanings.
So yes, I’ll teach her phonics, but I’ll also teach her about books and words and illustrations and rhymes and typography and authors and illustrators and drama and singing. Michael Rosen is very articulate about this on his blog here.
I like him. I think I’ll get Mollie some more of his books.

I will make her a virtual library
After a Twitter exchange with Gillian Stern about her daughter’s reading progression from Maisy to Marquez, I started thinking about Mollie’s love for books and how quickly she is progressing. That led me to think about all the books she has read and loved in her little life, how she favours some and asks for others when she’s in a particular mood. I often wish I’d kept a book journal when I was younger, so Mollie’s Library is my attempt to use my daughter to live out my dream – parental prerogative!

And for me…

I will turn this…

…into something that resembles this…

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Beautiful, isn’t it. I want a rainbow bookcase!
It’s Shelley Harris’ fault. She started it! “@shelleywriter: Here’s some book porn from my blog: http://t.co/cRJyNRVe

Ok, my bookshelves are tucked in under my stairs and are currently part my books, part Kerry’s records and part Mollies ‘art stuff’, but I WILL make it into a beautiful rainbow. You see if I don’t. In fact, you can see that I’ve already had a little test at the top of my shelves. I jumped in without proper planning and had to sit back and contemplate a bit more. But I’ll get there.

Updates on The Summer Project(s) to follow.

Not exclusive but inclusive

In the last ten years the fight for gay equality has come a long way. In 2004 we won the right to enter into a civil partnership. In 2009 we won the right to have our names on the birth certificates of our children and the legal parental responsibility rights that come with it.

Now we are fighting for equality in marriage.

I don’t believe that we are fighting for ‘gay marriage’. It sounds too exclusive, as if we need a special kind of marriage for gay people, a bit more pink and sparkly.

We don’t want to be exclusive, we want to be included.

We already have legal rights and responsibilities when we enter in to a commitment with each other and we use the terminology of a marriage. We have that in the form of civil partnerships. And it works for us. I already refer to myself as married and to Kerry as my wife. Our civil partnership was our wedding and we are in a marriage. What we are fighting for now is equality. Inclusion. Why should we be legally excluded from civil marriage? We deserve the same legal rights as others and we are campaigning to get them.

The author Shelley Harris has summed it up beautifully in her blog.* “The inequality which currently exists will be seen as barbaric, in the same way in which we now view male-only voting or Apartheid as barbaric.” She sees it for what it is, inequality. We don’t want to change marriage, or break it, we just want the right to take part.

Those who are voicing their disagreement and disgust are claiming that marriage is, and should remain, a union between man and woman. I understand their belief that religious weddings should remain between man and woman. Fine, great, as you were. But why civil weddings? We are not asking for the right to marry in a church, or any other religious establishment. We are asking for the equal right to a civil marriage by the state. No religion, no special circumstances or agendas. Just two people who love each other enough to make a legally binding commitment to each other, being legally allowed to make that commitment.

So to the dissenters, I hand you over to the chief executive of Stonewall, Ben Summerskill, ‘Our strong advice to anyone who disagrees with same-sex marriage is not to get married to someone of the same sex.’**

* http://www.shelleyharris.co.uk
**http://t.co/IsszWBA5 this website explodes the main myths surrounding the equal marriage campaign and also has a link to the petition to support it.