Monday 26 September 2016

Six things my toddlers taught me: 'I'm grateful for those pint-sized gurus and these insightful lessons they've taught me'

Orla Neligan reflects on the lessons she's learned from her three small children

Orla Neligan

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Family fun: Orla Neligan with son Flynn (3), and four-year-old twins Martha (front) and Ruby (back). Photo: Kip Carroll.
Family fun: Orla Neligan with son Flynn (3), and four-year-old twins Martha (front) and Ruby (back). Photo: Kip Carroll.

Having children changes everything. EVERYTHING. Your furniture, your phone calls, your TV habits, your walls, your body, your car. Children change the landscape, by bulldozing it.

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Of course, I knew my life would not be the same when I had children. I knew to expect the sleepless nights, the 150-nappy changes a week (we had twins closely followed by a third), endless worries, like would they electrocute themselves while I nipped to the bathroom or would they develop a taste for E-numbered foods as a result of my jelly-bribing techniques. But, other things were a complete surprise: overwhelming love that seems to grow every day, the ability to multi-task like I've never known before (although, I often wonder how well anything is actually being done), my wavering patience that only three children under two can test, their immunity to the movie Frozen on permanent repeat, their perfect skin, brilliant bed-hair, infectious laughs, how utterly different they all are despite two of them being twins and how wonderful that is, and how non-judgemental and forgiving children actually are.

Throughout our lives we strive to be good at life: successful in work, in relationships and if we become parents, good role models for our children. We are not taught how to do it but do the best we can. The twins are now four and my son has just turned three, and I find myself looking back at the last four fun crazy years of motherhood and realising I have learnt a great deal from my children and that there is still so much more to learn.

This Mother's Day I celebrated the fact that I still have my wonderful, brave mum, who has fought a battle with cancer this past year with dignity and courage, but I will also be celebrating my own - often challenging but equally rewarding - role as a mum. It is one of the hardest jobs I have ever done: memories of a family holiday when they were all under two years old with no direct flights and a delay of six hours on the plane springs to mind, as does the time they all, including my husband, had the vomiting bug and I spent a week in Marigolds on all-fours scrubbing carpets. But vomit-stained carpets and crayoned walls were a distant memory when I woke up on Mother's Day to three homemade cards and plenty of hugs. I have discovered many things about myself, some good, some not so good - the journey is what it's all about and I'm grateful for those pint-sized gurus and these insightful lessons they've taught me…

Forgive and forget

This morning, my son had a full-on mini-Hulk meltdown. The causes are many and diverse. This morning his banana broke in half. Yesterday, I poured honey on the wrong part of his porridge. The day before, the cat "gave out to him". You get the picture. The fierce conviction of a three-year-old's tears can undoubtedly make you question your actions, but no sense can be made of it so there's no point trying. The great thing is, their disappointment only lasts for a few minutes and they're on to something else. Life's too short and adventurous for them to hold a grudge or sulk and there's a great lesson in that: as adults we waste far too much time in petty disagreements and grudges that destroy precious time together.

Be present

My friend's son recently told me that his mother's favourite sentence is, "I'll be there in a minute", but, he added, "It's never a minute." It is the peril of being a working mother. While making dinner, my brain is so often in combat work mode or I'm juggling several things at once while trying to respond to my four-year-old who, just last week, stamped her feet in anger yelling, "Mummy, you're not listening to me." She was right. I put the phone down and sat with her while she told me all about how her doll had broken her leg. Children live exclusively in the moment and unless you can join them right there, you will have missed the moment and quality time together. Now, I just need to figure out how to put the phone away and relieve the gnawing guilt that comes with being a working mother.

Learn to say 'No'

I'll admit to feeling a little perplexed and frustrated on hearing my son shout the word 'no' for the 20th time in an hour. On the other hand, I have to admire his determination not to do something he doesn't want to do and the conviction with which he says it. He is exercising his will and arguing with me is one way he can gain confidence and control. I think of the many times I have nodded my head and agreed to something while inside I'm screaming 'NO'. I hate to let people down but it's always good to slap down your inner people-pleaser, partly for the sake of your own sanity but also because there is great power in saying no and meaning it.

Don't ask silly questions

Or boring ones, or vague ones. You'll more than likely get a 'dunno' answer. "How was school today" is akin to asking your grandmother what 1924 was like - a school day is an eternity for a young child and they won't remember. Offering an option is much more rewarding: "Do you prefer the red dress with the pink spots or the blue dress with the flowers?" Giving children the option to decide makes them feel empowered. I've also realised that one conversation does not fit all. As a child I remember feeling irked at adults talking 'down to me', it was condescending and I knew it. Children, like adults, deserve respect and they know when they're not getting it.

Enjoy the little things

Every day on our way to crèche, we pass a field. It doesn't have a playground, or children running about or interesting trees or flowers. It is very ordinary. But every morning, my son shouts, "Look mom, the field" with the same enthusiasm he has for seeing an aeroplane, or his fire engine. I am amazed at how much joy my kids get from simple things like collecting sticks in the park or jumping in puddles. And, while the latter can be frustrating when you're trying to get everyone into the car, it's a great reminder to enjoy the little things in life and make the most of it.

Be the eejit (and a role model)

There is something comically wrong with the innocent sweet face of your toddler delivering a swear word like it's part of a Peppa Pig sing-a-long tune. Not so comical when their teacher mentions it to you together with the condescending head tilt. Yes, yes, I know I should stop swearing in front of my kids, I am, after all, supposed to be a role model. I am making a hard effort to replace the F-word with a euphemism (although it doesn't have the same oomph) since I have learnt kids pay attention to everything you say and do and relish the chance to imitate. So, you may as well give them a bit of slapstick. Think distraction and invention. Most nights my husband makes a complete eejit of himself rolling around on the floor, imitating wild animals, allowing himself to be 'made over' and indulging their fascination with toilet humour. They love it. When I join in, I surprise myself at how much fun it is to let go and play without shame. It will always result in laughter. Those moments are to be treasured, because in a few years those smiling faces will likely change to disapproval at your inability to act your age.

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