Category: "Family/Parenting"

More Lingering Lessons From Grade 4

by Helene Louise  

As I wrote in September, I loved my grade 4 teacher. She didn’t smile much and she was very stern but I thought she was wonderful. Back then, in the late seventies, her stories about “the good old days” included anecdotes about how it had been when she had gone to school in a one-room school house. I was completely fascinated by the idea that the person standing right in front of me could have actually gone to school like a “pioneer girl”.

We all thought it sounded so terribly old-fashioned and that the kids back then, or “children” as she insisted on calling them, couldn’t possibly have learned as much as we were learning in what clearly seemed like such modern times. After all, they hadn’t had all of the fancy stuff that we had—cassette tapes for listening to music, walkie-talkies for talking to a friend, antenna TVs for watching our favourite shows and digital wrist watches for keeping track of time so we didn’t miss our show the only day of the week it was on.

To our surprise, however, our teacher believed that the kids back then might have actually been learning faster than we were. She said that because all the grades had been together in the same room, the younger kids learned the more advanced concepts along with the older ones by just being in the same room with them. Nothing fancy, just looking, listening and being part of what was going on around them.

Sometimes I wonder if with the ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives, we sometimes forget that there are also simple ways of learning and doing things. I’d be absolutely lost without my iPhone. It has replaced almost everything…the cassette tapes for listening to music, the walkie-talkie for staying in touch with a friend, the antenna TV for watching my favourite show and my watch for keeping track of time, even though I can now essentially watch my favourite show any time and place I like, day or night.

However, I still appreciate the inherent value in the “older ways” of doing things. And, I regularly seek out opportunities to hear live music, talk to a friend in person, go for a walk rather than watching yet another episode of something I find entertaining and while out, not worrying too much about the time.  And, looking back on about a decade and a half of helping my daughter with her rehabilitation after a childhood stroke, I’d say that playing with her older sister in the park when she was younger, seeing other kids swimming, skipping or doing anything at all that she hadn’t yet learned, has often been equally effective as anything I’ve tried to do to help her—learning and inspiration can still come from the simplest of sources.

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Capitalizing on Cupcake-Making

by Helene Louise  


Planning a child's birthday party can be fun but it can also be a lot of work. And, coming up with new ideas each year can definitely be a challenge. As a single mother, I already have plenty to do just keeping the basics moving along—from getting home from work as quickly as I can to planning meals days in advance in order to have enough time for homework, housework and after school activities, not to mention activities related to my daughter's rehabilitation after a childhood stroke.

 I am continuously thinking of new ways to improve my efficiency but sometimes, all I have to do is use someone else's great idea. A good friend of mine, with whom I share a deep appreciation for strong coffee, regularly translates her culinary and artistic abilities into the most beautiful cupcakes. She added, however, a strategic element to this skill, applied it to the birthday party dilemma and came up with an excellent solution. 

 Basically, her idea is to prepare a large quantity of cupcakes, icing and sprinkles. Then, when the party-goers arrive, the “activity” for the afternoon is to decorate the cupcakes, which is something that all kids love to do. Each child gets to fill up a box and that becomes the "loot bag" that they will take home at the end of the party. Once a child's own box is filled, the kids start filling up a tray so that together, they create the "birthday cake". My daughters and their friends had so much fun the first time that we did this under my friend's careful cupcake coaching that we recently had our second cupcake party which was, once again, both fun and efficient—thanks to my crafty friend's outside-of-the-cupcake-box thinking.

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Questions for Mama - Part III (Conclusion)

by Helene Louise  

“Do you know what makes a good mother?”

 Just as my daughter’s question about why my face always looked so sad opened my eyes to the need for some self-reflection, so did a chance meeting with a well-travelled friend one lunch hour many years ago.  I was back to work after six years out of the workforce and in the first year of living on my own with my young daughters. He asked me how things were going and I launched into an long update, loaded with anecdotes and details. In retrospect, I was probably feeling sensitive about being a single-mother and wanted to be sure to convince everyone of how well I was managing everything on my own.

 When I paused, he asked, “Do you know what makes a good mother?” I felt uncomfortable because I thought a criticism might be on its way. “A good mother,” he said, “ one that doesn’t give everything”. This comment was as unexpected as my daughter’s questions that I wrote about earlier (Questions for Mama Part I and II) and equally thought-provoking. He was right. Just like I wrote in the posting about what to do “in the unlikely event of a decompression,” in the same way that it’s critical to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your child, if you want to be a good parent, you have to make sure that you yourself are thriving. That’s not easy to do when you’re already overwhelmed with everything else that has to get done. 

 In my case, it took time before I managed to carve out some time for myself. For years, I was fuelled by the sense of purpose that came from being a mother and the feeling that I had to make up for the fact that there was only one parent in the house—combined with managing my daughter’s rehabilitation and my long to-do list, this took up every waking minute that I had. 

 Eventually though, I found time to think beyond my responsibilities. In the same way that I try to appreciate the tiny things that are beautiful in each day, the things that I did for myself were equally tiny. Leafing through my favourite magazine after a long day even though I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open, making an especially good cup of coffee for myself as I helped my girls with their homework and, as the they got older, taking half an hour to go for a run. All of the little things that I did for myself—even though thinking of myself sometimes seemed contrary to my goal of being a good mama—made me feel like a happier mama, and as a result, I probably was a better mama. 

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Questions for Mama - Part II

by Helene Louise  

“Do you know why you’re a good mama?” 

As I wrote in Part I of Questions for Mama, when my oldest daughter was two years old, she asked me why my face always looked so sad. Not long after that, I was to go through some major upheavals in my life, including the unravelling of my marriage. Although it seemed that this difficult time would never end, eventually it did and five or so years later, my life was relatively stable again. I working full-time and raising my two daughters on my own. 

One day, as we were walking home from school, my daughter looked at me and asked, “Do you know what makes you a good mama?”

- “Is it because I love you so much?” I asked.

- “No,” she said.  

- “Is it because I pack nice lunches for you?” 

- “No.”

- “Why am I a good mama then?” I asked her. 

- “You’re a good mama because you find something beautiful in every day.”

I was sincerely surprised by what she said because that’s not necessarily how I saw myself—my mind was usually busy processing and reprocessing all of the items on my to-do list, trying to figure out how I could best manage it all...appointments at the rehabilitation centre, deadlines at work, what to make for dinner, homework, occupational therapy exercises to be fit into the evening's activities and all that. 

Still, after everything that I had been through, I was indeed conscious of how much the little things in life now meant to me.  Like the tiny triumphs of my younger daughter’s progress as I wrote about in my book, like the very fact that I had children to take care of along with the means to do so, were all among the positive things that I appreciated every day.

At the age of two, my daughter had noticed that my face “always looked so sad” and, five years later, with many changes behind me I was much better—good enough so that she noticed that instead of looking sad, I was consistently pointing out something good in each day. 

My daughter’s first question, opened my eyes to the need for some serious self-reflection. Her second question, years later, opened my eyes to the extent to which I had moved forward since then. So, I say again, we should definitely be careful not to underestimate people—small, big or different in whatever way.

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Questions for Mama - Part I

by Helene Louise  

“Mama, why does your face always look so sad?”

 My older daughter started speaking at a very young age. While others babies were sitting in their high chairs babbling away, she was pointing at bananas and saying, “Mama, nana.” to let me know what she wanted to eat. By the time she was two years old, she was very aware of the world around her and able to comment on it. One time, she sat on the floor, reached around to her back and said, “I have a very beautiful spine.” I’m not sure where she had learned the word spine but she had, she knew where it was even though she couldn’t see it and, she knew how to use the word in a sentence. 

 One evening, we were sitting on the floor playing and she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and asked, “Mama, why does your face always look so sad?” I didn’t know what to answer. I had no idea that my face “always looked so sad”. Overall, I thought that I was actually rather happy. I thought that I had everything I had ever wanted—a family, a house, a little garden. Every day, her father went off to work and I took her to the park, on long walks along the river near our house and on play dates with other children. We spent mornings baking and doing crafts and late afternoons puttering together in my garden. What about all of that could possibly be making my face look so sad?

 But, one of the things that I have learned from the process of rehabilitating my youngest daughter after a childhood stroke, is the importance of not underestimating someone.  Just because a person has something that makes them different, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re less capable or don’t have a valuable contribution to make. The same can be said for young children—we may think that they are just kids, too busy playing to notice much of anything but they too can have valuable insights to contribute. 

 In this case, although I was giving my daughter all of my love and as happy a childhood as I possibly could, she was able to look at me every day, with her two years of life experience, and register that something was inconsistent with everything else that I was messaging. And, she was able to formulate a question around what she was noticing. As it turns out, she was right—deep down, there was a sadness.

 As I described in my book, I was ultimately to go through significant challenges and upheavals in my life stemming, in part, from the realization that I was in a situation that was not sustainable. I had been able to convince myself for years that I was fine, but my little two year-old daughter saw me as I actually was. 

 I've learned a lot from my daughters and in particular, I've learned that we need to be very careful not to underestimate people—young, old or different in whatever way.

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