To do, or not to do: that is the question

I actively try to avoid wishing time away, especially in relation to my boys growing up. As my husband remarked some months ago, post-family-movie-time, what if this is as good as it gets? They’re such good company, mostly. They’ve never really fought, but instead forged a close bond from the very beginning: our family unit is strong and self-sufficient and wonderful.

But I cannot wait for 14th June to roll around, for this is the date when boy one will sit his final GCSE exam. I seem to seesaw between willing this period to be over, because of its effect on the harmony in our home, and wishing for more time, so that he has longer to prepare.

I am finding this particular stage rather tricky: one strong-willed, hormonal activist forcing a strong-willed, hormonal teenager to spend hours and hours doing something he really doesn’t want to do in order to get an outcome commensurate with his ability, thus paving the way for an options-filled future.

Obviously, the aim is for him to leave school in just over two short months, having earned the right to enjoy a long, relaxing summer safe in the knowledge that he gave it his best. (We’ve always put the emphasis on effort levels: how can you ask any more of them than their best? Which is all well and good if they agree with you on what their ‘best’ is).

His favourite subjects are maths and computer science. He enjoys physics, chemistry and biology. He quite likes Spanish. He’s lukewarm about history. He tolerates business studies. He detests English. In his favourite subjects he is self-motivated and increasingly self-taught, such is his enjoyment of the subject matter: going by his grades and tutor feedback, it’s working. This bodes well, these being the subjects he will study at A Level.

Trying to chivvy him up to study English, on the other hand, is grueling. The set texts are tedious, the technical aspect of the language, tiresome. There is a ridiculous amount of information to learn by rote (and not just for this particular subject). It feels like a test of memory capacity and recall, when surely the whole point is being able to understand, analyse, compare, contrast, communicate. I can’t help but think that the new curriculum and, whilst we’re at it, the new grading system, are a bit bonkers.

There is so much pressure on the Y11s, and school are keen to impress upon us that they also need a reasonable amount of downtime, doing the things they enjoy. Absolutely. As with much of parenting, it’s not easy to strike the right balance: too relaxed, too anxious, too confident, too nervous, peaking too soon, leaving things too late, not studying enough, burning out.

I want to take away the stress. I want his life to be easy and calm and fun. I want him back. But I also don’t. Because that’s not how life works. All that good stuff is interspersed with hard work and pain and disappointment. Just as it should be. So, as much as I want peace and harmony restored (as soon as possible please) I also accept that a vital part of my job as a parent is to help my children develop skills they would rather not need: in this case, choosing long term goals over short term discomfort, building a strong work ethic, and accepting a need to ‘lean in’.

I’ve tried to impress upon him the power of acceptance. More often than not, the struggle is in the indecision rather than the actual action. Make the decision as quickly as possible, be absolutely fine with that decision, and move on to getting the shit done. Don’t waste precious time, energy and psychic weight entering into a protracted internal debate about whether to do, or not to do, especially when you already know what is required to achieve your desired outcome.

In an episode of the incomparable Life Coach School podcast, Brooke Castillo describes this as ‘hearing your own no and deciding not to suffer’. This can be applied to all manner of things: exercise, eating, alcohol, spending money, ending a relationship. And yes, revision.

I’m having to practice acceptance too. There’s no getting away from the fact that life is a bit stressful at the moment, but as that familiar parenting adage goes, ‘this too shall pass’: just as apt now as when they were teething, or not sleeping through the night. I know that as a family we have a solid foundation, and that peace and tranquility will return. Until we go through it all again in two years’ time with boy two, just as boy one is finishing his A Levels.

March hares

To complete our March 50k virtual running challenge we opted for a change of scene. Rather than running around the residential streets of our ‘hood, we parked outside Winchester and ran the beautiful, well-trodden, reasonably flat path into the city centre and back: 7k in total: we needed eight to reach our target distance, but I figured I’d cross that bridge near the end of the route.

We set off at a gentle pace winding our way alongside the River Itchen, out past St Catherine’s Hill, through the Cathedral grounds and onto the High Street (this introduced an element of slalom as we dodged the dilly-dallying shoppers browsing the market stalls). Then past King Alfred’s statue and through the park alongside the river to re-join the outward route. It was getting to be quite hard work for Tom whose legs started to feel tired. It was a beautifully mild spring day, and 40 minutes of running had us both and hot and bothered. By the time we passed St Catherine’s for the second time, just as I was considering how to tell Tom about our 1k shortfall and the subsequent need, as we were tantalisingly close to the car, to double back for half a km then rerun the same half a km, he asked through laboured breathing “so when we get to the car that’s 8k?”.

He took it well and I gave him the option of running that final kilometre the next day (31st) instead but no, he chose to grit his teeth and push on. When I know he’s at the edge of his running comfort zone I always give him a choice about whether to carry on, whilst also reassuring him that I absolutely know he can. I also make it clear that I would never ask him to do more than I thought he was capable of: I think it’s really important for him to feel he has some control, and it’s empowering for him to choose to keep going. If I can tell he’s really had enough we’ll stop and pat ourselves on the back.

Once he realised we had a little more to do, at about 7.5k he said he’d like to run 8.4k, to beat his previous longest distance of 8.3k. I don’t generally lie to my children, but I knew he had a little more fuel in the tank and having a touch of OCD I decided that 9k would be a fabulous goal. I didn’t tell him this because I could tell he was digging deep and just wanted it to be over. On the first half of our extra km I’d sneaked a peek of a track off to the right: a long straight, with a slight downhill slope and some white gates in the far distance. I figured it would make a perfect end to our run with a visual “finish line”, and take us to 9k. As we approached this path on the way back to the car I said “right,  I reckon if we run down there to those white gates in the distance we’ll have reached our 50km March goal, but if you want we can just run back to the car, which would also do it”. The determination and resilience he’s been unwittingly building since we started running six weeks ago paid off. Without so much as a wince he said “let’s do it”. During the last few hundred yards we picked up the pace and then as my Garmin buzzed the end of that split, just after the gates, I turned to Tom, who still thought we were doing 8.4k, and said “you’ve just run 9k”. A sweaty, breath-catching hug followed as smiling passers-by moved to the edge of the path to give our wobbly bodies some space.

Those last couple of kilometres were tough and I know that Tom gave his all. Recently as a family we had watched a motivational speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger, my husband’s bodybuilding hero. In it, Arnie talks about Muhammad Ali’s famous sit ups quote . I used that quote to coach Tom through the last third of our run, telling him that this is the bit that will grow his resilience, his fitness, his mental game, his ‘I can’ attitude. I told him that six weeks ago a 3k was tough, but it now feels like a warm up. A month ago a 5k was as challenging as this 9k, but he wouldn’t think twice about whether he can just go out and run 5k now. I couldn’t be more proud of him: 13 years old and making the transition from being pretty sedentary to a determined and dedicated runner. Incidentally, that last split was our fastest, by twenty seconds.

Now, I used to be a proponent of the “no pain no gain/go hard or go home” mindset, but not any more. Doing what you can on any given day is good enough. However, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s largely in the struggle where the real growth happens.

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

Muhammad Ali

Runs with son

February was so grim. Tom (13) was hating school and every morning was a gut-wrenching battle. Given my strong bias for action I had to do something. Keeping him at home wasn’t an option so instead I signed him up to the 7k virtual run I was doing. I figured that exercise/endorphins are a game changer for me when life isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, so I thought it was worth a try for him too. We did a few short jaunts and then the 7k, which he found really tough: we had to stop a few times, but we got it done.

We then signed up for another virtual run: 50k in March. We’ve done 2ks, 3ks, 4ks, 5ks and a 7k. We’ve run in the dark and in the rain and early on a weekend morning. We’ve run with snotty noses and headaches and whilst feeling crap. We got behind due to an enforced 6-day break because he was poorly. We’ve mostly run together, and sometimes with a local running club. One day he went off to do a 3k on his own (I had an extra 15k in the bag) and he ended up doing 8.3k. Just like that. No stopping. We’ve done 42k and we have two days left to crack out our final eight, which we’re going to do in one go.

Entering a virtual challenge forced us to drag each other out during March when we wouldn’t have otherwise bothered. And what a difference it has made. He’s now perfectly happy going off to school (new friendships have helped), and is of course fitter and faster. And most importantly he has his oh-so-special spark back.

Running helps build resilience and it’s so accessible. All you need is a pair of trainers and off you go. It’s much like life: put one foot in front of the other and keep going. And the other benefits shouldn’t be underestimated because fresh air, sunlight, Vitamin D and being in nature are generally always going to make you feel better. We’ll certainly carry on running together and in a few short weeks it will have become a habit.

I didn’t really think about our March challenge improving my running, but it has. This morning I did a 3k for speed and managed a sub five-minute 1k, which I’ve never done before. The credit for that has to go to Tom and his willingness to put his trust in me, and see our commitment through to completion 💙