It started out normal and happy enough.
These pictures are posed, yes. But they aren’t fake. Conrad holds his finished gun that he made in woodwork. “Mama, I got three medals! One for my first weeklys, another for my second weeklys, and one for football.”
He was holding them all scrunched up in his hand, impossibly making his way down the stairs with giant fluffy dog and magazines and paraphernalia clutched somehow in that same grasp. It was I who seized the moment to ask him to hang them all on, so I could take a picture – here it is.
He runs into the school building to get his half-term report. The contents are enough to gladden any mother’s heart.
So when, midway into the journey home, Conrad talks wistfully of his old school, I wasn’t expecting it.
“I don’t mean to be difficult, Mama. But I’ve thought about it in my mind for a few days.” (How I love the way he says this to me. There is such unconscious poetry in my children. I was walking next to Blake towards our car; and suddenly I clock this tall, striding lad, in blazer and cords and black leather shoes. “My goodness, Blake. You’re getting so tall.” “I know. I can feel myself growing.” 💛)
Four magic words I teach the boys. “What do you mean?” My turn to use them, asking Conrad.
“I miss Hill House, Mama. They were kinder there. And there was more friendship.”
This landed hard. But I write with fidelity. It is what it is. And my job is to honour the truths of my child.
My job is also to feel out the supporting space around these truths. And to help my child to place his self within a wider context.
So that he can use that context to adjust the meaning of his feelings and thoughts for himself. And in so doing, exercise his application of empathy towards the others in his space.
The choice, in this very moment, presented itself clearly to me.
Do I hear him out, holding space for him in his natural, ongoing grieving, for having left behind a world of friendship where he was so happy, ensconced in a circle of long tight-knit familiarity?
Or present to him the challenge he’s facing, that of re-establishing his sense of equilibrium and wellbeing in an entirely new milieu – a challenge that’ll come with its price to be paid, but bearing the promise of rich lessons to be learnt?
Maslow’s quote recurs in my head here:
“In any given moment we have two choices – to step forward into growth or back into safety.”
Isn’t this what this choice in front of me as his mother and guide boils down to?
I have never liked binaries. My multifarious nature not only rebels against these sorts of “either/or” frameworks. More than that – I actually find, empirically, that they are *wrong*.
It is not true that you have to choose one OR the other.
Through my recent learnings from teachings and readings, I have come to a realisation that I personally find incredibly powerful here.
I have learnt that, by mindfully and self-compassionately dwelling in this discomfort – what actually happens is, I can dwell in deeply reassuring psychological safety WHILE stretching out in growth AT THE SAME TIME.
I’ve told you before that Niels Bohr quote is a favourite of mine, for good reason. It is resoundingly true; and by “resounding”, I literally mean that it crops up in my life experience again and again.
“Two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd.”
This odd, simultaneous-paradox, Moebius-strip-type feeling is an actual visceral feeling I can feel. It’s a queer sort of vibrating energy. Like two polar opposites squashed together into the same pinpoint. There is a sense of *movement*, at these levels of profound truth, for me. A kind of aliveness. That’s how I recognise them.
You must understand that my instinct comes from having heard them in music for decades. Seen them in art forms. How something can be tender and terrifying at the same time. Reserved yet passionate. Free and structured. Sacred and profane. The artists and philosophers will recognise that I am hardly ploughing new ground here.
Well. What the heck does this have to do with my parenting?
Because I can teach my children that the deepest essence of life IS paradox.
It is BOTH to be grieved for, and freedom from which to be celebrated.
It is understanding that one can – and should – fully allow oneself to experience both, with the application of great self-love, self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-care.
That to leave the certainty behind of a warm, loving home-away-from-home, with caring friends who know and treasure you, is hard enough in itself.
That to enter into a foreign new environment, with new frictions, challenges, and shapes and flavours of characters, is potentially even more destabilising.
To learn to digest this, with great patience and exercise of acceptance.
To then start to see, some of the underlying seeds for growth.
To perceive the fact that one’s old environment was an unusually cosy environment, being composed of a core group of sweet, loyal children whom have been there for one another from age 4. Stop and think. At age 8, this is half their lifetimes.
To throw one’s line of sight far forward, greater ahead than he could ever have imagined had he stayed in his wonderfully loving comfort zone; and to understand that the very process of adjusting himself to this new environment with its new and sometimes sandpapery elements, is PART AND PARCEL OF GROWING UP.
My children have been taught for years that the structures of school and home are rehearsals for the independence of life awaiting them thereafter.
There are many parallels here. “Comfort zone” could mean Hill House. A special friendship. Battersea. Mama.
“Stretch zone” could mean Cothill. A frenemy who has morphed over the weeks into a choice for playdate. (True story.) University. New country. CEO. Astronaut. Parent. Retiree. Last will and testament.
But perhaps the most powerful piece of all lies in the deceptively plebeian phrase, “Home is where the heart is.”
The WAY to “dwell in deeply reassuring psychological safety WHILE stretching out in growth AT THE SAME TIME” is simply to find that your home IS your self.
Has been, will be, all along.
Finding your way through to that clarion sense of self, though – ah. That’s work.
You see what I really mean by “rehearsal”, now?
There are some fundamental learnings about life, that can be utilised again and again and again. They can be abstract, slippery to grasp and articulate. But I can feel they exist.
I seek these out. Because they are, by their very nature, such powerful, universally-applicable tools. And I am finding more and more of them.
And the more we practice well… the better we get.
“You should also remember, Conrad. Many of your friends may not be used to being taught how to be resilient. I bring you all up to be resilient. That means that you get knocked down, and you can get yourself back up again.
I’ve heard a bit from some of the other mums. I know it has been hard for some boys to be away from home. They’re not used to it. And they’re hurting, and lonely. And not everyone knows how to handle their feelings. And when they don’t know how to let them out safely, some get angry, some start to wind others up. They should take responsibility, yes; but sometimes they just don’t know better.
And you don’t have to take it unto yourself. The letting-go practice? Doesn’t it help when you can just let that unpleasant incident go and it doesn’t bother you any more?
You told me some boys were teasing you for crying when you were trying to tell them that ‘strong men cry too’. I want you boys to understand that you will always find people around you who don’t understand or agree with the way you respond to things. That’s okay. You’ve been brought up a bit differently. But know that it is always okay for you to cry with me. Even if you’re 45 and I’m 70-something. It doesn’t matter. I’ll still hug you.”
“That’s what I mean, Mama. I mean. Hill House is a day school. And I miss the lessons.”
I was confused. What lessons?
“You know. Like when something happens and I tell you about it and then you always explain it to me. Like when you tell me how to let go. These lessons.”
Blake spoke. “We are very very lucky. To have a mother who can teach us all these.”
Dear reader – I was overcome.
It really is worth it all.