For those of us with children approaching secondary school, January/February are nerve-racking months as we desperately await offer letters. Our children’s fate seems to hang in the balance.
Friendships hang there too.
A mate of mine confessed recently that she couldn’t bring herself to text her friend whose son had a plethora of offers when hers hadn’t got a single interview. She had decided to put her own son through state school and tutor him at home, whereas her friend had put her boy through independent schooling from the start. “It’s so unfair” she wailed at me. “Now he’ll have to go to the awful school round the corner full of gangs and kids from Tottenham. He’s being written off”. She won’t admit it, but I know that part of her is questioning her decision to keep him in the local state school rather than trying to find the funds for an independent.
We are yet to hear whether Kaia has got into her chosen school, or indeed, whether she will be accepted in our preferred state school (which would financially make life far easier), but I have already been through similar self-examination. Just prior to Christmas it became pretty clear that Kaia had not been prepared for exams in the way that we had been lead to believe by the school. Although I calmed down following assurances that I shouldn’t worry, I was then overwhelmed to see the hundreds of kids that were sitting the entrance there – for just 60 places.
We’d played with the idea of tutoring her for exams for a while in year 4, but it was rapidly apparent that it would mean 2 years of misery for all of us with extra work every night (and the accompanying nagging and shouting). We quickly said no. We’re happy to provide extra support when they’re struggling, but we want our girls to have a childhood. They work hard at school. They need to do clubs and activities. They need downtime; they need to play and they need to rest.
And if I’m being completely honest – I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t cope with stopping my own work early to sit and shout and nag for extra work to get done. It was just too much.
But sitting in the waiting room with hundreds of other parents talking about this being number 6 of 8 exams (we did 2); namedropping the hothouse schools around us, I started to panic. Had we done the right thing?
My mate was right. It is unfair.
Sitting in that room it became rapidly apparent to me that whatever I may want for our girls in terms of their childhood or in trying to balance our own lives– there is a system – and if you choose not to play it, there are consequences. Had my eyes been open to those consequences when we took our decision not to tutor for these exams or had I really been naïve or even selfish? And would Kaia suffer as a result?
The following week I had lunch with another friend whose daughter is a year below and just starting on this journey. She expressed the same concerns as I had felt at the time. As I talked to her and explained my current self-doubt, I realized that were I back in her shoes, I’d probably do the same again.
I know of kids who have been tutored for several hours a night – I am sure that they will do expertly in these exams, but my heart breaks for them and their missed fun. And I also wonder how they’ll cope when they aren’t able to be tutored in everything, when they’re no longer first in the class and the pressure mounts up.
I realise that I am privileged to be in this situation. I am discussing an enormously first world, middle-class problem.
But the reality is that the path of parenting is fraught with self-doubt and regret. There are no right answers with anything. Whether it’s cuddling your baby to sleep or leaving him to cry it out; whether it’s breast or bottle feeding, allowing or forbidding sweets or encouraging certain friendships or activities over other. Every decision we make can have such an impact. A friend of mine joked when her first born came along, that she thought she’d just start a “therapy jar” now – putting a few notes in whenever she could, so that her kid would be able to afford counselling for all her mistakes later – because as she put it – whatever I do, there’s someone waiting in the wings to tell me I’m wrong.
We can only do our best.
At the end of the day, there are no guarantees. A child brought up denied chocolate and sweets can either turn into someone with no desire for sugar or someone who crams it down their mouth at every turn because it was such forbidden fruit. Equally, wherever my girls go to school, they will have different opportunities and face different challenges.
I have to be ok with that. I have to give up the idea of being the perfect parent whose decisions are unassailable. At some point in my life, the girls will probably turn round and say that I shouldn’t have made some of the choices I did.
I have to be ok with knowing that I made the choices I made because they seemed to be the most loving and appropriate choices at the time.
I reckon that’s about as much as anyone can do.