Mum is a permanent marker. Explaining unconditional love to children.

I am not a patient mother. I am also not an attachment parent and have never been a dedicated stay-at-home mum. My kids mean the world to me, but I also value my own freedom. A lot. And sometimes the two clash a little, especially when I am busy. Mum-guilt! I end up raising my voice, losing my temper, saying things I regret later. I know when children play up, it’s mostly because they want your attention, but some days I just don’t have the energy. I am only human. Do I sound familiar? Still, children do not always recognise that mum still loves them, even though she gets angry or impatient with them. How do you explain unconditional love to a sensitive child?

My eldest boy, nearly nine, is a worrier. He has always been a little nervous and anxious about things. On the surface he is a very active, happy and social boy, and he easily makes friends. He is not shy, is very creative and gets on with most people. But at home, he tells me he worries. About whether his writing is good enough, whether he looks OK and if we love him enough. “Mr Worry is bothering me again”, he says.

Figuring out the meaning of relationships

At this age, he is very much figuring out emotions, friendships, family relationships – and the meaning of love. He is especially confused about the difference between ‘liking someone’ and ‘loving someone’. I had to explain several times that I may not like his behaviour when he misbehaves, but I will always love him, no matter what. He worries about many things, but lately he worries that mummy will stop loving him when he is naughty. It breaks my heart to think he would even doubt my love for him, so I knew I had to come up with something.

How do you get through to a child with such anxiety? Where do these feelings come from? Is it my own fault? Does he need more guidance? It’s not as if we don’t show him affection at home. We cuddle him, play with him, spend time with him, read to him. Does he need more of it? Surely I don’t need to tell him I love him every 5 minutes? Or do I? His younger brother doesn’t show any of these insecurities, instead is cool as a cucumber, and very independent. The eldest one wants reassurance ALL. THE. TIME. How do you deal with that without going nuts? Oh, parenting, it ain’t easy, is it.

My love is a permanent marker

Last night, the worry was back. “I just think that you won’t love me any more in the future and I’m worried about that”, he said in tears. The boys were both in bed, it was about 9pm, and I was about to do the bedtime stories. I sat next to him, held him close and dried his tears. “Mummy loves you always” I told him, “That will never change. My love for you is permanent, it will always stay, even when you’re a grown-up. I will love you until the end of my life, I promise”, I told him, and of course ended up getting all tearful myself. “You mean, like a permanent marker?” he replied, obviously trying to make sense of the word ‘permanent’. “Yes, sweetie, like a permanent marker. It never rubs off. It will always stay on.” What a brilliant metaphor I thought! “So just remember, being angry, worried or scared is only like writing in pencil. You can rub it out, those feelings don’t stay forever.” He looked at me and smiled. “And mummy’s love you can’t rub out.”

This Monday morning we were rushing as usual, trying to make it in time for the school breakfast. Mr Worry was back. “Will we be late mummy, will we miss breakfast? Will we be late mummy, are we late?” my son kept asking in a panic. Normally I snap at him, telling him to stop asking the same questions over and over again, because surely I already told him it was going to be OK and can he please just be quiet. Today I stopped in the middle of the pavement, looked at his face and asked him:”Do you just need some more permanent marker on your cheeks, sweetie?” “Yes”, he smiled, quietly. I held him, covered his face in kisses, and he was happy. I squeezed his hand tightly as we walked into the school playground, calmly, and lovingly.

Escaping algorithms, just what the doctor ordered

We all hate wearing face masks right now. They are uncomfortable, make breathing difficult, cause skin rashes and, to be honest, just look silly. In Spain, where I live, face masks are compulsory almost everywhere, unless you are at home, stuffing your face in a café, lying on the beach, hiking in nature or doing sports. My children and their teachers have to wear the masks for up to 8 hours a day: in class, at break time outside AND at P.E. They only take them off at lunchtime, for obvious reasons. Many other countries don’t have the rule of face masks in primary schools, but here in Spain, the numbers of contagion are so high right now, that everyone is petrified.

How long will this go on for?

I was and still am critical and sceptical about the severity of the virus compared to the enormous long term economic impact of the lockdown and ongoing restrictions. There is no doubt the strict lockdown was needed back in March when thousands were getting seriously ill and were dying. Many families lost loved ones and are still grieving. Hospital staff was working around the clock. The problem is, however, that we don’t know how long the virus is going to go on for. The world is eagerly – or less eagerly – waiting for a vaccine, but will this actually work?

covid conspiracy theories

And what would we do if there suddenly was a whole new virus? Would we just stop living? Another lockdown? Wear a face mask forever? Create another vaccine? More money to Big Pharma? And what about other diseases, are we not worried about them any more? The news is hysterical, politicians are fighting, people are becoming more polarized on social media. Businesses are going bust. It is exhausting. I noticed myself getting more frustrated and angrier by the day, rolling my eyes at stupidity on social media and hating the face mask with a vengeance. Then this week I happened to stand beside two GPs, or family doctors, outside the school gates, who are among the parents in my son’s class. I decided to ask them about the situation. Most doctors have a certain calm over them and a great skill of putting things into perspective. I needed some of that.

Overly cautious

“What do you think about the mask wearing in primary schools?” I asked the mum GP. “Oh, I know, they are horrible. I am wearing one all day too in the clinic. It saves on having to use makeup though!”, she laughed. “I have cousins in the Netherlands”, she continued, “and I am aware of schools in other countries too not having the mask rule for children. Children are not the problem. But right now, in Spain, schools have only just opened, and we all need them to stay open. We have waited so long! They want to prevent anyone from getting sick, so are extra careful. Maybe too careful. I expect, in a few months time, when we start to see that infection hardly takes place in schools among primary aged children, rules will be relaxed a bit.” I hope so.

covid conspiracy theories

I asked her husband what he saw in his profession right now in terms of Covid infections and whether it is as bad as the media tell us. He said: “After the first wave in Spring, we had nearly no one getting sick in July, but now we see a rise again, yes. The symptoms are very different though and most newly infected patients have no symptoms at all. They have had a test done for whatever reason, ended up being positive, and they call us up because they don’t know what to do. They don’t feel sick, and they are confused.”

No symptoms, no problems…then why still panic?

So why are we still so worried and hysterical about the virus if symptoms are so mild and almost nobody is dying? I asked him. “Because there is always a small percentage that will end up in hospital and ICU”, he answered. With only a few infections, that small percentage is negligible, but with the big rise we are seeing right now, that percentage naturally means that more people are going to need hospital beds. We need ICU beds for other illnesses too, they haven’t disappeared. And now we are heading towards winter. Traditionally every January hospitals are full of patients suffering from complications from the normal flu virus. We just do not have enough capacity for both COVID patients and flu victims. We have to flatten the curve. That is the reason. There is hope that we may not see such a big spike in normal flu infections among older people due to the use of face masks this year. But we just don’t know.”

And the vaccine? I asked. Will we all have to line up for a compulsory vaccine next year? “No, I don’t think so”, the dad GP replied calmly. “It will take a while before it is here anyway and then I expect it will be offered first to the people who are most vulnerable, like older people, like with the normal flu vaccine.”

Rabbit holes and rubbish blog posts like mine

Our conversation got cut short as we were overrun by excited kids coming out of class, but I am glad I spoke to actual doctors, face to face (mask). In a crazy year like this, it is so easy to get caught up in social media feeds and online discussions, mistrust mainstream media and do your own ‘research’, going down all kinds of rabbit holes, searching for ‘the truth’. It is great to inform yourself, of course, but not everyone is aware of how they are manipulated online in their opinion shaping without even knowing it. With every click.

If you haven’t watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix yet, I recommend it. You suddenly understand how dangerous and misleading the algorithms of platforms like Facebook and Youtube are and how you end up only seeing and finding posts, documents, videos and groups that constantly confirm what you already believe in, and which only strengthens that belief, so you see it as the truth. You are right, they are wrong. But this also happens on the other side of the scale. The result? More extremes, less middle ground. Conflict. In politics, in pandemics, across the world. We all have our own beliefs, and that is OK. You don’t have to agree with me. You may even think this blog post is rubbish. Those GP’s might be wrong. Sometimes however, getting offline and talking to actual people, away from the spell of algorithms, is just what the doctor ordered.

How to make the best cappuccinos at home without an expensive machine

I am not a coffee expert, but I love drinking it. Frugal as I am, I once bought a secondhand £20 Krups espresso machine on Gumtree in Scotland and it lasted us for a good six years. And that machine saw some heavy traffic in our house. Unfortunately, during the 2020 lock-down this Spring, it gave up the ghost. Great timing, right? I almost lost the will to live. I mean, not being allowed out for a proper cafe con leche, home schooling two small children, not sleeping well AND no working coffee machine at home? You get the picture. The dragon was unleashed.

Rediscovering what you already own

But there was hope. My husband, clearly having had enough of my moaning, but too stubborn to just order a new machine online, did an emergency search through the cupboards looking for an alternative. He dug out an old stove top coffee maker. Not quite producing your creamy machine coffee, but it had to do. I still grumbled. But then my man stumbled upon a Youtube video that made all the difference. If you own a cafetiere or French press, read on.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The basics: selecting the right coffee bean

First up: a crash course in coffee beans. They make all the difference if you start making cappuccinos at home! There are two types of beans, namely the Robusta and the Arabica. The Robusta is also known as the “average supermarket coffee”. The Arabica bean is more highly regarded and has different qualities. It has a more refined smell, a soft, full taste and low caffeine content. Also, the acidity is higher in the Arabica bean, which is a good sign when it comes to coffee. You can make nice coffee with ground coffee from a package, but if you want to go all barista, you can of course grind the beans yourself.

Coffee Lovers Variety Gift Pack on Etsy £17.50

Making great coffee in a machine or a stove top coffee maker

If you have a proper espresso machine at home, spread the ground coffee evenly over the filter holder. This ensures optimal extraction. Then press the coffee firmly and place the filter holder back in the machine. Then immediately brew the coffee, don’t let it sit there, to avoid a bitter, burnt taste. If you are using an Italian espresso pot for on the stove, you basically do the same: spread the coffee grounds evenly, press it down well and put it on the stove until ready.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

Make the best cappuccinos at home with a French press

If you want to make the best cappuccinos at home on a budget, read on for the trick that totally improved our morning routine! Frothing milk is quite a job to make a cappuccino that tastes the same as in your favorite coffee bar. There are all kinds of machines and milk frothers for sale, but did you know that you can also use a cafetiere for this? Heat a little milk in a pan, until just short of boiling, and pour it into your cafetiere. Then go up and down with the plunger / whisk of the cafetiere and beat the milk for about a minute until it foams. Carefully pour the milk foam over the coffee, slowly reducing the distance between them. For the last layer, keep the cup straight so that the top layer on the inside is beautifully white and surrounded by a brown edge. Voilà, barista!

Home schooling in times of a pandemic. Worth it?

In week one of lockdown due to the coronavirus we were having a lot of fun at home with the kids. My boys are just 6 and 8 years old and generally have heaps of energy but not an equal amount of patience to sit down and do school work. So we were dancing, baking, drawing, singing, playing, dressing up and cuddling. A LOT. It was lovely. At bedtime we’d read a book and the next morning we would again come up with brand new ideas. I felt I was catching up on lost time. In Spain they are normally at school five days a week from 9 till 5. You hardly see your children during the week.

Then came week two. First an email from the teacher of infantil for the 5/6 year olds, then swiftly followed by another one from the teacher of Primaria 2. Five, six, seven or even eight attachments for several subjects, accompanied with a plan for the week and I’m sure well meant suggestions for how to focus your day around your children’s education. Your DAY yes, not hours, or a morning, but DAY. Because, sure, us parents in lockdown are suddenly all jobless and twiddling our thumbs and dying to get retrained as our children’s dedicated primary school teacher.

covid 19 mental health impact
We are lucky to have a little bit of outdoor space. Many families in Spain live in apartments, sometimes without even a balcony.

I knew it should not make me feel stressed, after all we are all in a very unusual situation, worrying to say the least, and the main objective surely is to stay calm and love our family. I admired my friend Marie who bravely emailed school administration to tell them they wouldn’t be doing any home education whatsoever (read her very funny blog post here). Good, I thought, let’s all jump on the barricades! But another friend pointed out to me that “Nina, you are rebellious, but you also want to please the teacher”… Damnit, I’m caught out, I admit it, I suffer from a split personality and it’s bugging me.

You cannot get a bunch of high wired children to do a week’s worth of maths, when they haven’t been out running outdoors for over a fortnight. Anybody who is a parent of young children and boys especially knows that these monkeys need to be ‘walked’ in the fresh air regularly just like dogs, to regulate their energy and emotions. Now in other countries with less restrictions around lockdown you can still escape to a nearby field or forest as long as you are pretty much on your own, but not in Spain. Unfortunately dogs currently have more rights to public space here than children, so the poor puppets are stuck between four walls for the next foreseeable future. Imagine living in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor and not having a balcony. Seven Spanish million children are not allowed out. It’s like a high pressure cooker.

covid 19 mental health impact
Quarantine action shot. Noise, mess and multiple activities going on all at once.

So yes. Homeschooling dilemmas. We try to find a compromise. Our children normally have week plans at school with their various assignments they have to finish by Friday, so I decided to copy this concept and make up my own simplified plan per child. In week one I got them to make up their own plans, which included anything from cuddling mummy, joining an online dance class to eating an apple in ten seconds. I mean, essential life skills right there! Last week I incorporated a few more ‘educational’ tasks from the teacher’s email. But I also happily skipped others, such as ‘sing these traditional Spanish songs with your children while dancing together’ and “do page four full of problem sums” (key: meltdown – I’ll leave that for the classroom, thank you very much). But it turned out that my children were actually OK with an hour of doing a few sums and/or spelling exercises, followed by an hour or longer of drawing (Art for Kids Hub is now a firm favourite here) and of course investigating weird and wonderful stuff on Youtube. I mean, who doesn’t want to know everything about megalodons or how cars are made? And why do animals not have belly buttons?

covid 19 mental health impact
Who needs to know about Picasso when you can learn how to draw a poop emoji?

Week three has commenced and suddenly the teachers are ramping it up. Four separate emails with attachments (our printer is broken, but “if you don’t have a printer, just let your child copy the text by hand in their notebook”. Yeah right.), and basically the same amount of tasks they normally get in class. Just as I felt I had cracked it during the very laid back and enjoyable second week of semi-homeschooling, the knot in my stomach was back. Nina, please, I told myself, just ignore them, these people are crazy. But what if, I kept on thinking, what if all the other children are neatly keeping up with their tasks in their notebooks and so when school opens again, my children have nothing to show to the teacher? If you’re like me, you will have surely had a similar non-stop stream of Whatsapp messages from anxious parents about the various assignments, showing off their kids in photos sitting at the kitchen table working and seemingly being a much better home-schooler than you’ll ever be.

covid 19 mental health impact
Need your child to write? I asked mine to make up a recipe. A favourite task that day.

Bullocks of course. First of all, for all we know, we may have our kids home until September. Yes, let that sink in. It doesn’t matter if they do the homework that is being sent. They’ll start afresh once they are back. They are not going to fail in life because of this. Secondly, while any curriculum school work is put on hold, or lessened, suddenly an opportunity is created for children to discover a wide range of other things and have control over their own learning. Indulge in their current crafts obsession, learn how to cook, find fascinating facts about nature and science on Youtube, enjoy baking cakes, help out with daily chores, read lots of comics, have a disco in the living room each night and have heaps of snuggles with their favourite people in the world: YOU. And just chill. The modern world asks a lot of our children. This morning I read this awful article in the Washington Post about how ‘homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children‘ and how long breaks end up in ‘learning losses’ and a ‘mess’. Ugh. How about adding some extra pressure to us parents while we are already stuck indoors and worried about our health. Because, oh wait, why are we all indoors again? Yes, a deadly virus.

covid 19 mental health impact
The best way to play a knight is with a waste bin on your head of course and a laundry bin lid as a shield.

Of course I can see what the article was also saying: theoretically there is a risk that those children who live in homes where parents have no time for, or even interest in spending time playing with their children or do any kind of reading or revising with them while in lockdown, may be worse off than their peers in a more stimulating environment. Children are always learning, in their own way, every day, but if one child keeps working hard on their maths, with a private online tutor if one can afford it, and another sits in their bedroom only playing Fortnite for two months… You know who will likely pass their maths exam. But that would mainly be an issue for children in secondary school. Also, more importantly, this kind of inequality will always exist, with or without a pandemic. I don’t think in any case my 6 and 8-year old will ‘academically fall behind’ by keeping on reading daily, doing the odd sums and spelling words after breakfast and for the rest just playing and bonding with their family. You might just end up with happy and resilient children.

It is great to ask your child to make their own work plan for the week. You’d be surprised what they come up with.

So what are we doing as a family at home every day? I made up a bit of a day plan, which we all religiously try and stick to or else we’d still be in our pyjamas by 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Normally it’s 8 o’clock wake up time here and straight away getting dressed, 8.30am breakfast, 9am school! We work on sums or spelling for an hour, then do another hour or more of art or science if the kids are not moaning too much yet. Around 12 we’ll take the school papers off the kitchen table, make lunch and let the kids play. We stick to this schedule as much as we can. But we are only human and sometimes we change our plans. This morning we all felt tired and grumpy and the boys just really wanted to go and build a city out of Kapla. Who then am I to drag them to the kitchen table to do sums? I may as well open the gin bottle straight away. One rule we do try and stick to is no computer games before 4 o’clock. These things are fabulous babysitters, I know all too well, but enough is enough and 2 or 3 hours a day of square eyes is plenty!

covid 19 mental health impact
Who wouldn’t rather build a parking lot than do a sheet of sums at 9am?

Balance, it’s all about balance. And while some children love having homework, doing sums and writing stories, others would be better off using this lockdown time to indulge in things they have a keen interest in, whether that is cooking, crafting, building or dancing. While the numbers of infected people with the coronavirus are still on the rise, and many people are dying from it, we surely need to have our priorities right. We need to stay stay strong and healthy, all of us. Not just physically, but mentally too. No child benefits from parents at home who are losing the plot, getting frustrated by the amount of school work while also trying to hold down a job and working from home, who are turning into alcoholics in the process (right!) and literally missing the opportunity to just ‘be’ with their children. If you can, relax. (Yes, I am also taking note!). We are not teachers, we are parents. We are doing enough, we are doing our best, we are not expected to copy a normal school day. Let’s guide ourselves and our families through this storm on a calm ship and let our children remember this time as special, despite the crisis going on outside.