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Ontario Education: Open Letter To The Teachers At My Sons’ Schools

3196112204_8903a3cdce_zDear teachers,

There are many people who think you have a cushy job, with seven-hour workdays and two months off every summer. They say that you are overpaid, underworked, lazy and uncaring. Any time there is a labour dispute in the Ontario education system, like there is now, you are accused of trying to suck the taxpayer dry in order to line your own pockets.

Let me tell you what I think, teachers.

I think you guys totally ROCK.

Since my firstborn son started school in 2007, I have gained an appreciation for just how hard you work. I have come to understand that your workdays extend far beyond classroom hours, that report cards and IEP’s involve a lot more than simply punching data into a computer, and that a great deal of thought and time goes into the lessons you teach and the projects you assign.

Being a teacher is HARD. You have to juggle the needs of your students, the demands of their parents and the rules of the Ontario education system. While you understand that other people sometimes have bad days, you are on your game all the time. You spend your days doing a job that most people wouldn’t want for all the money in the world – which is kind of ironic, considering that many think you should be paid less.

While people across Ontario have been hating on you for pursuing your right to do your jobs properly, you have kept going, helping my boys learn and grow, giving your work the same dedication and focus that you always have.  Here are just a few of the things you have been doing, over and above teaching my kids.

* You have taken my son and rest of the track and field team to their competition events. Even now that the competitions are over, you are still showing up at school early so that those kids who want to continue their morning runs can do so.

* You have taken your eighth grade classes on their graduation trips, and you have been hard at work planning extra-special graduation days for them.

* You came to school early one morning on a day that you were not assigned to teach, just so that you could fulfil your before-school yard duty and ensure the safety of my son and his friends.

* You hefted a cardboard box out of your car one Monday morning, and when I asked what it was, you said that it was projects you had graded over the weekend, as well as materials for an upcoming student assignment that you had prepared and photocopied on your own time.

* You dug around in your classroom searching for a book that you knew my son would enjoy reading during the summer.

* You organized a water play day for the younger kids, and you allowed my son and his classmates to help run it, so that they could develop their leadership skills.

* You have not gone to bed before midnight for the last week, because you’ve been putting together picture slideshows and videos for your Kindergarten class’s graduation celebration.

* You have been tirelessly working on ways to help my autism boy develop his speech and communication skills, and you have been helping him develop life skills that will take him far beyond the classroom.

Here’s a little something that I know about you, teachers. You don’t just do this for the money. You do it because you truly care about the kids you are teaching. This is more than “just a job” for you. When you go to work every day, you are not simply earning a paycheque. You are shaping futures and opening up worlds of opportunity for my boys.

I will miss getting report cards for my boys this year. I will miss reading your carefully thought out commentaries on what their last term of the school year has been like. It will be strange to not see their grades for each subject.

But I understand why you’re not doing them. I understand that you are taking on a government that wants to choke the Ontario education system and make it more difficult for you to teach my kids effectively. There are people who are trying to claim that this is all about money and benefits, but I know that is so far from the truth that it might as well be on another planet.

I know that right now, you are not fighting for yourselves. You are fighting for my children. You are fighting for the future of our society.

For that, I thank you. Stay with the fight, teachers. And when you hear or read about parents criticizing you for taking a stand, know that there are parents out there who completely support you.

Sincerely,

A grateful parent

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: woodleywonderworks. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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Autism And Mental Health

I'm Blogging for Mental Health 2015.

My son George hops off the yellow school bus and bounds up the driveway with his fingers in his ears – a throwback to last summer, when the sound of the tree-feller’s chainsaw hurt his ears. He shucks off his backpack, removes the hoodie that he will not abandon even during the height of the summer, and kicks off his shoes. Then, and only then, am I permitted to talk to him.

“How was school?” I ask him, as I always do.

“School was fine,” he says, as he always does.

“What did you do today?”

He doesn’t reply. Instead he starts peering at the brim of his hat, or running a finger along the edge of the door frame.

“George?” I ask, needing to engage him before he gets too far into his own head. “What did you do at school today?”

“School was fine,” he mutters.

“Tell me one thing you did today.”

“Played outside,” he says, after a pause.

“And what did you do outside?” I ask, hoping I’m accomplishing the tone of gentle persistence that I’m going for. He cannot feel forced, but he needs to know that I’m not giving up on this conversation. It’s a delicate balance some days.

“Kicked the soccer ball,” he says.

“Wow, that sounds like fun!” I say effusively.

Sensing that he’s fulfilled his obligation to talk, he runs off to turn on his computer. I sit on the stairs for a moment, feeling both exhausted and elated by the fact that I actually had a conversation – albeit a brief one – with my son. For most kids, this kind of exchange would not be a big deal. For George, it is.

George, now eleven years old, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. We had him assessed because he wasn’t talking, and even though he has come a long way since then, his speech and communication skills are far below those of his typically developing peers. This comes with a number of challenges, but there is one challenge in particular that I have never really spoken about.

How do I know if he’s OK?

I’m not talking about “OK” in the physical sense. George is able to tell me when he feels sick, or when a part of his body is hurting. He has even started to identify emotions, telling me when he’s sad or angry.

What I’m talking about is whether he’s “OK” from a mental health perspective. With my younger son, who is typically developing, it’s fairly simple. I have conversations with him, I talk to him about how he’s feeling, and from his natural expressiveness I can get a sense of whether everything is all right or not. I am well aware that childhood depression is a very real problem, I know what signs to look out for, and I have a reasonable degree of certainty that I would recognize it in my younger son.

With George, it’s a little more complicated, and from a statistical standpoint, it’s more of a concern. Individuals with developmental disabilities are more likely than the general population to experience mental illness, but they are less likely to be diagnosed, because it’s less likely that the people around them will realize that something is wrong. George, with his speech delays, does not have the words or the cognitive functioning to describe depression in a way that would enable me to recognize it.

Even the behavioural cues present in typically developing children may be different for those with special needs. It is easy – far too easy – to blame everything on autism. When a child with autism has a meltdown, or starts to cry for no reason, or gets lost inside his or her own head, everyone assumes it’s because of the autism. That is not unreasonable: in many cases, it is because of the autism.

But what about those times when it isn’t? What about the times when a child is banging his head against the wall because his mind is in a dark, desolate place and he doesn’t know how to express it? What if the other-worldliness is not symptomatic of autism, but of withdrawal? What if no-one realizes that depression has become the child’s companion, because in their well-meaning attempts to manage the autism, they just haven’t thought to consider anything else?

These concerns are part of what drives me to try to have conversations with George. Every single thing he can tell me – no matter how small it might seem – is like a golden nugget that I treasure. I lavishly praise his attempts to communicate, and every day, I encourage him to tell me something – anything – that happened to him that day. It is my hope that if, at some point, anything is going on in his life or in his mind that he needs help with, that will be the thing he tells me about that day.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, written for APA’s Mental Health Blog Day. Picture attributed to the American Psychological Association.

 

 

 

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Sporting Life 10K: Lessons From A Tough Race

Sporting Life 10K - before the race

Sporting Life 10K Start Line

On Sunday, I ran my first race of 2015. It was the Sporting Life 10K, a massive event that takes over 25,000 runners down Toronto’s iconic Yonge Street. I was just a little bit apprehensive going into the race, because my training has been somewhat sporadic of late. I have been doing my weekly long runs, but the shorter mid-week runs have been on-again/off-again. I have done a little bit of speed training, but no hill training whatsoever. As for strength training – well, that hasn’t even been a gleam in my eye.

Still, I thought this race would be fairly easy. My weekly long runs have had me doing distances longer than 10K, and I figured that since the Sporting Life 10K is basically a downhill run, my lack of hill training wouldn’t matter. The race did in fact start very well, and the first 5K went quite quickly. As soon as I ran over the halfway timing mats, though, the wheels started to fall off, and I ran the second half about three minutes slower than the first. I finished with an official time of 1:07:02, which is nowhere close to my best time. In fact, it’s probably one of my worst.

My spirits were somewhat lifted yesterday morning when I checked my race stats and saw that I still managed to come in just a fraction ahead of the middle of the pack. I was comfortably in the top 50% of women, and in my category – women aged 45-49 – I was in the top third. I’m not under any illusion that I actually did well – I’ve run this same course almost seven minutes faster – but these stats do tell me that race conditions were difficult on Sunday.

For a start, it was a lot hotter than I thought it was going to be. I have a feeling many people were caught off-guard by this. Everyone has been training in mild temperatures: being hit with blazing sun on race day would affect the performance of most runners. Then there was the fact that there were so many people. Even allowing for the fact that runners were released in corrals 15 minutes apart, there were still thousands of runners in each corral. During the early stages of the race, and to extent later on, I was doing a great deal of ducking and weaving to get past people who were slower than me. It took a lot of energy and it made it very difficult for me to find any kind of rhythm.

So maybe I did OK in light of the conditions.

But still… I have come to expect more of myself. I am intending to run a 2:15:00 half-marathon in October, and I will not do it with the half-baked efforts that I have been putting into my training. I am a runner. It’s time for me to start acting like one.

Sunday’s race woke me up to some things that I have to change. Immediately.

1. I have to step up my training. I am not going to become a better runner if I’m not consistent about it. Yes, life is very stressful right now and yes, time is a big issue for me. But for several years now, I have been very low on my own priority list. It’s time for me to devote more time to my health. All it takes is a couple of hours on Sundays and an hour on four other days each week. If I cannot manage to carve out six hours a week for exercise, then I’m just making excuses.

2. I have to resume my oatmeal breakfasts. I need to fix my eating habits in general, but I’m not expecting myself to accomplish that overnight. What I can do overnight, though, is bring back one simple routine that was healthy not only for me, but for the rest of my family.

3. I have to get more sleep. I have reached the point where six hours counts as “a good night’s sleep”, and I am experiencing permanent bone-crushing exhaustion.

4. I have to get a sports bra that fits properly. The chafing that I go through after every run is excruciating. The longer or harder the run, the worse the chafing. On Sunday afternoon, the feeling of clothing against my skin was making me cry.

5. I need to make a proper display of my bib numbers and finisher’s medals. Seeing the distances that I have run and the bling that I have earned will keep me motivated and remind me of what I am capable of.

6. I have to regroup, reset and make a new plan. For the last few weeks, I have been scrambling to train for a half-marathon on May 24th. This is a hard thing to admit, but people, I’m not going to do it. I could do it. I know that I have the physical ability, at my current level of fitness, to complete the distance. But it will be with a lot of pain and anxiety, and I wouldn’t enjoy it. As soon as I feel dread rather than excitement about an upcoming race, it’s time for me to bow out. And so I have transferred my registration to another race in the series, and I am plotting out a new training plan that will take me to a fabulous half-marathon in October.

As I contemplate the races that I have coming up, and the new plans that I am making, I can already feel the excitement building in my gut. I can feel that once again, I am going to run for the love of running.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

 

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In Defense Of Ontario’s Sex Education Curriculum

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I was educated at a girls-only Catholic school run by nuns. Our sex education was fairly basic and had a singular message: we weren’t to have sex, or engage in any physical contact with boys. When we did start having sex – only after marriage, of course – the only form of contraception we could use was the rhythm method. Every sperm was sacred, and all of them had to be given a chance. Sex was there for procreation only. If we could manage to avoid enjoying it, so much the better.

The concept of “safe sex” was never taught – why would it be, when abstinence was the word of the decade? Our sex education did not comprehensively cover the area of consent, and if anyone had even mentioned respect for gay rights, the nuns would have had a heart attack.

The simple truth is that we were not told enough, and we suffered for it. I mean, we knew about the mechanics of sex. Most of us had mothers who did a good job of preparing us for menstruation, and we knew that if the sperm hit the egg, pregnancy would result. We had a good grasp on the biology of it all. But sex is so much more than biology, isn’t it?

No-one thought to tell us about body image and self-esteem – if anything, we were all encouraged to be skinny so that we could appeal to the boys we were forbidden from having physical contact with. We were given no information about how to reduce our risk of sexually transmitted diseases, or where to access birth control. Any discussion about rape was centred around two themes: how we had to make sure we didn’t “ask for it” (the clear implication being that rape victims were responsible for the crimes committed against them – an attitude that is frighteningly prevalent even today), and how abortion was not acceptable even if the pregnancy was a result of rape.

When I look back at the quote-unquote “sex education” that I received at school, I cannot help being utterly befuddled by the current spate of protests against Ontario’s sex education curriculum. If me and my peers had had access to the information being taught today, many of us might have been better equipped than we were to navigate the world of sex and relationships.

Those protesting the Ontario sex education curriculum are tossing around some statements that are either untrue or unreasonable. Here are some of the prizewinners and my responses:

They are teaching young children how to consent to sex. No, they are NOT. They are teaching young children that nobody has the right to hug them, touch them or have any kind of physical contact with them without their consent. They are teaching them how to tell what kind of touching is never OK, and what they should do if they find themselves in a difficult situation. They are teaching them that they, and they alone, are in charge of their bodies.

They are giving graphic information about sex to grade schoolers. Sorry, but teaching a child the proper terms for their genitals does not count as “graphic information about sex”.

Sex education is the job of parents, not the schools. Some kids are fortunate enough to have parents they can have completely frank discussions with. Others have parents who tell them nothing. Most kids fall somewhere in the middle. Their parents have the best intentions, but they – the kids – need to be able to talk to another trusted adult about some delicate issues. Having an organized sex education curriculum ensures that all kids have access to information that is really important. Besides, what would you rather have? Kids learning from people who are trained to teach them, or kids learning from each other and from Google?

They are teaching kids about masturbation. Look, it’s not like they’re giving illustrated how-to manuals to Kindergartners. They are merely teaching young adolescents that exploring their bodies is a normal part of life and that it’s not something to be ashamed of. Quite frankly, what they’re teaching about masturbation now is less graphic than what they taught four or five decades ago.

The sex education curriculum needs to be respectful of our religious freedoms, and we believe that homosexuality is a sin. Actually, no, the curriculum does not need to be respectful of “religious freedoms”. It needs to be consistent with the laws of Canada, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But it’s wrong to teach that homosexuality is normal. Our kids are growing up in a society that has many versions of “normal”. There are traditional households with a man, a woman, two-point-four children and a dog named Rover. There are single moms and single dads, blended families, gay parents. We live in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and our education system has to reflect that.

I don’t see why I have to subject my child to this sex education curriculum. Ah, but you don’t. You have the choice to opt your children out of the sex education curriculum. You have the choice to make your child sit alone in the library while his or her peers are learning about the realities of life.

What are your views about sex education? If you live in Ontario, what do you think of the curriculum?

This is an original post for Running For Autism by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting. This pictures has a creative commons attribution license.

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Autism Advocacy: 8 Survival Tips For Parents

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Yesterday, I shared my family’s recent success at securing a good Grade 7/8 program for my son, who has autism. The short version of the story is that my husband and I knew immediately that the program George was slated for would be very bad, not only for him but for his classmates. And so we went to bat for the kids. Over a period of seven months, we had meetings and phone calls with all kinds of people in the school board. A couple of weeks ago, George’s principal called to tell us that a Grade 7/8 program was being introduced in his current school. The news could not have been better. We would have been OK with a good program at any school, but George’s current school, which is fantastic in so many ways, was definitely the prize we were hoping for.

George was diagnosed with autism seven years ago. In that time, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to fighting in his corner. Here are some of the big ones.

1. Know what your child’s rights are. Don’t go into any meeting with your child’s teacher, principal or any school board representative without having a clear idea of what you are entitled to ask for on behalf of your child. A few pointers: in Ontario, you cannot be forced to homeschool, you cannot be forced to relocate and you cannot be forced to accept a shortened school day. Your child is entitled to an education in a public school in his or her neighbourhood, with the same number of instructional hours as any other student, regardless of what his or her abilities or disabilities are.

2. Have a clear idea of your desired outcome. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we simply want things to be different, or better. You have to ask yourself what that looks like. Perhaps you love the teacher but feel that extra assistance is needed. Maybe you simply want clearer IEP goals or better support during transitions. Or maybe you need a completely new direction for your child. Whatever it is, you have to know what you are aiming for. Ask yourself what the outcome would be if you got to be in charge of all the decisions.

3. But be prepared for compromise. This means knowing what you are prepared to settle for. In my case, first prize was a new program for George in his current school. There was always a chance that that wouldn’t happen, so we were prepared to settle for a good program at a different school. Aim for what you are really, really hoping for, but have some acceptable alternative scenarios kicking around in your mind as well.

4. And know what you will not accept. Sometimes, you may be offered a “solution” that just doesn’t work. You are not compelled to accept anything just because you’re told it’s the only option. What we were not prepared to accept was the program George was originally supposed to go to. We made that crystal clear early on in the discussions, and we did not budge. Negotiation is always key in discussions like this, but you have to be clear on the points that you will absolutely not move on.

5. Don’t go in looking for a fight. If you walk into the room assuming that the people you are meeting with are on the same side as you, the entire tone of the meeting can swing in your favour. The thing is, most of the time they will be on the same side as you. Advocating for your child does not always have to be a battle. Principals and teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they genuinely care (or they should) about the best interests of your child. On the other hand, they have to operate within rules and procedures that they cannot control. Show understanding towards them, and more often than not, they will show understanding towards you.

6. But don’t let anyone intimidate you. Look, from time to time you will encounter ass-hats. That’s just life. Smile serenely, know that if someone is being an ass-hat to you, they’re probably an ass-hat to everyone, and identify who your allies are. If there’s no ally in the room, politely tell them you need to reschedule the meeting, and go out and find an ally. You can bring anyone you like. You can even hire an advocacy consultant to accompany you. We were fortunate in that George’s principal was firmly on our side right from the start.

7. Remember that the special education community is small. No matter how frustrating the process is, no matter how badly you want to scream and swear, try your best to take the high road. People in the special education field tend to crop up again and again in different capacities. The person sitting opposite you today, whose head you badly want to rip off, could be in a position to help you three years from now. Don’t let anyone walk all over you, but keep your cool and stay polite.

8. Be persistent. If a meeting doesn’t yield acceptable results, call another one. If you agree on a course of action but something isn’t working, go back and see if something can be adjusted or tweaked. You are never obligated to just accept something for your child that is not working.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Woodleywonderworks. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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Autism, Advocacy And Hope

George writing wordsMy son George started Kindergarten just four short months after being diagnosed with autism. It was a bit of a terrifying time for me: I felt as if I had been thrown into this mysterious world full of mazes and obstacles with no map, no compass, and no fixed destination. I didn’t know where I was supposed to be going or how I was going to get there. I had no idea how to navigate the terrain of special education.

Over the seven years between then and now, we have had to do our bits of advocacy, but for the most part, George’s time at school has been very positive. He has had a series of compassionate, competent teachers and every year, we have seen progress. We have kind of breezed through the K-to-6 years feeling good about George’s education.

In recent months, this sense of security almost came to a screeching halt. George, currently in Grade 6, is in a K-8 school that we love. The teachers are fabulous, the principal encourages open dialogue with parents, and the kids in special needs classes are treated with kindness and respect by their typically developing peers.

The only problem with the school is that it does not have a special education program for Grade 7 and 8, so we were facing the prospect of sending George to a program in a neighbouring school. When we went to visit the program last year, when George was finishing off Grade 5, we were not happy with what we saw. We just knew, with that instinct that parents have, that if George went into that program, we would start to see a regression within days.

And so we started the process of advocating for a better Grade 7/8 placement, not only for George, but for all of his classmates. Starting with the principal at his school, we escalated the issue, insisting on meetings with trustees, superintendents, and anyone else who might have any kind of influence in deciding my son’s future.

About seven months after our first meeting with the principal, we got word of the school board’s decision: George will not be going to the overcrowded, under-resourced program that we saw and hated. Instead, a special education Grade 7/8 program is being introduced in his current school. George and his classmates will stay in the environment that they know and love. They will continue to be a part of a student community that is caring and supportive, with a principal who has been firmly on our side all the way.

Advocacy can be difficult and frustrating. It can be time-consuming and, at times, heart-breaking. But when it results in a better future for many children who need other people to fight for them, it can be the most rewarding thing in the world.

Come back tomorrow for some tips on advocating for your children.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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The Pitfalls Of Competitive Parenting

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When an article entitled “5 Things You Should Never Say To A Stay-At-Home Mom” appeared in my Facebook feed a couple of days ago, I knew there was going to be trouble. The article itself was innocuous – a little unintentionally judgy, perhaps – but the comments section was a virtual bloodbath. Work-outside-the-home moms were claiming to be busier than stay-at-home moms. Stay-at-home-moms were claiming to be there for their kids more than work-outside-the-home moms. Each side was claiming, without actually saying it directly, to be better than the other side.

As I was reading this, I was thinking about what a shame it is that there even are sides. What happened to the days when parents were just parents? At what point did moms and dads become so insecure that they started resorting to competitive parenting? There seems to be a constant game of one-upmanship in which people talk about the sacrifices they have made and the difficulties they have endured in order to be the Perfect Parents.

Here are some of the problems I see with today’s trend of competitive parenting:

It smacks of judgment, and that’s just not right. Unless you are beating, starving, neglecting or otherwise abusing your kids, you’re doing fine. Stay-at-home moms are not better than work-outside-the-home moms. Work-outside-the-home moms are not better than stay at home moms. You’re not a better or worse parent just because you give your kids boxed mac-and-cheese, or limit their screen time, or give up on arguing with them over a chore and just do it yourself. We are all parents, and we all do the best we can with the circumstances we find ourselves in.

It ignores the fact that everyone’s situation is unique. We humans love to categorize and compare things. Stay-at-home moms vs. work-outside-the-home moms. Breastfeeding moms vs. formula feeding moms. Free-range parents vs. helicopter parents. The trouble with classifying everything is that it leads to division, and it assumes that everyone in the same “group” is the same. Some stay-at-home moms love spending all of their time with their kids, and others yearn for the workplace. Some formula feeding moms would really love to breastfeed, and some breastfeeding moms really don’t enjoy it. Even within the same family, things can be different. I can free-range parent my younger son, but my older son, who has autism, requires a much more hands-on approach.

It places too much emphasis on the distinction between doing things out of choice and doing things out of necessity. Many work-outside-the-home moms really don’t have a choice. They need the income just to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. But some work-outside-the-home moms choose to work outside the home. And guess what? That’s OK. I don’t know why so many people have this notion that parents are not allowed to make a single decision in their own self-interest. I mean, sure, if you’re leaving your three-year-old at home alone for eight hours a day just so you can pursue a career, that’s a problem. But if you are taking care of your kids, protecting them from harm, and doing what you can to help them become mature, well-rounded individuals, nothing else really matters.

It takes the focus away from what we really need to be doing. When it comes down to it, these attempts at competitive parenting don’t accomplish a single thing. They are merely distractions that give parents something to argue about when there are so many other things for us to be devoting our energy to.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Jason Bolonski. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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10 Surprising Things I Have Learned Since Becoming A Mom

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I was born in the last month of the 1960’s and went through little-girlhood in the 70’s, when gender stereotyping was so much the norm that the term “gender stereotyping” didn’t even exist. Little boys played with guns (yes, they were even allowed to take them to school without being branded as mini-terrorists), and little girls played with dolls.

I think my mother was quite concerned when I didn’t turn out to be a typical girl. More often than not, I abandoned my dolls to play “cops and robbers” with my brother and his friends, and when my parents enrolled me in ballet classes, I was without any doubt the scruffiest member of the class. When I was little, my mother bemoaned the fact that I didn’t play with dolls like other little girls. As I grew older, she was concerned that I wasn’t ladylike or feminine enough.

I didn’t want to be feminine. Being feminine seemed too much like hard work. I’d have to faff around with my hair, worry about my clothes and my nails, and spend hours trying to get my makeup just so. Don’t get me wrong – I liked to dress up from time to time, but I wanted to save it for special occasions, not everyday living.

All of this added up to the idea that I was probably not going to grow up to be marriage material. And if I couldn’t even keep a doll alive, what were my chances of being able to raise an actual human baby?

Fast forward to today… that tomboyish little girl from long ago is now a middle-aged woman who is Mom to two beautiful children. In my eleven years as a parent, I have learned that I possess some previously hidden talents and skills. Like these ones:

1. Contrary to prior beliefs, I actually do have a mother’s instinct. I used to think that if I ever had kids, I would not survive without the aid of a million parenting books. To my surprise, I have been able to muddle through based on my gut feel and a hefty dose of common sense.

2. Although I do occasionally lose it, I have far greater reserves of patience than I ever thought would be possible.

3. I can survive on very little sleep.

4. I have the ability to completely tune out the constant talking of another human being, while giving the talker the impression that I’m listening intently.

5. I can accomplish long lists of tasks in very little time.

6. I am good in emergencies. Like one kid hitting the other kid on the head with a gardening tool, or someone trying to flush Bob The Builder down the toilet.

7. I am capable of organizing and hosting successful kids’ birthday parties without going completely insane. I do tend to need a good shot of wine afterwards, though.

8. While I regularly do without sweet treats so that the rest of my family can have some, I am not above occasionally hiding chocolate so that I can have it myself.

9. I’m brilliant at multi-tasking. I can cook dinner, help a kid with homework and conduct a telephone meeting with a client all at the same time.

10. I am a lot more creative in the kitchen than I ever gave myself credit for. If I lack both ingredients and the will to go to the grocery store, I’ll still be able to get something resembling a full meal onto the table. I’ll never be Gordon Ramsay, but at least no-one will die of food poisoning.

What hidden talents have you discovered since you became a parent?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Peter Becker. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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His Brother’s Keeper

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It is a cold snowy afternoon, and the boys have just finished doing their homework. George – eleven years old now and as tall as me – is sitting on the couch trying not to cry. I am on the floor with my back up against the couch, holding his foot in my lap. I start ministering to his sore toe as gently as I can, knowing that no matter how hard I try, it’s going to hurt.

For the last couple of weeks, George has been plagued by an ingrown toenail. He was at the doctor earlier in the week – a feat in itself for this boy with autism who finds doctors to be mysterious and scary – and I am carefully following the care-and-cleaning instructions that I have been given.

He tries so hard to be brave as I clean and bathe his toe, but he cannot help getting distressed. As he cries out in pain, James suddenly appears in front of us. James – nine years old and full of energy – is just in from throwing snow in the back yard. His gaze moves from his brother on the couch to me on the floor surrounded by First Aid supplies.

“I want to do it,” he says.

“You want to do what?” I ask, not understanding.

“George’s toe,” he says. “I want to do it. George is my brother. I’m the one who gets to take care of him.”

I regard my son, blown away yet again by how much love and compassion is within him. I think about the practicalities of him dressing George’s toe and how I have already been kicked several times during these First Aid sessions. I don’t want James to get hurt.

But my Spidey-sense is telling me to listen to James. I switch places with him, and following my instructions, he calmly takes care of George’s toe. George is still crying but he is visibly less distressed. Maybe James’s small, light fingers are gentler than mine. Or maybe George is responding to the love of his brother.

James uses a little bit too much of the antiseptic lotion, and the dressing and bandage are a little haphazardly applied. But none of that matters next to the waves of kindness that are radiating from James.

With the job done, James gently kisses the newly applied bandage and gets onto the couch.

“You’re my George,” he says, wrapping his arms around his brother.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.

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2:15:00 in 2015

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At the beginning of 2014, I had grand plans for my running. I was going to run my first 30K race with a view to building up from there to a full marathon by 2016. I already had eight half-marathons under my belt, so while I knew it would be a challenge, I felt that it would be achievable. I registered for the Around The Bay 30K which takes place in March, and I drew up an ambitious but doable training plan.

The plan got derailed when the Polar Vortex hit. The temperatures were lower than anything I have ever experienced. Even with all of winter running gear, I wouldn’t have been able to handle running in that cold. The bigger obstacle, of course, was the ice. There were sheets of it on the roads and sidewalk that were inches thick in places. Even the most seasoned of winter runners were staying indoors.

As a result, I was forced onto the treadmill for most of my training. I did do a couple of grueling runs in heavy snow, but for the most part, I was clocking up 18K runs and more at the gym. A month before the 30K race, conditions were still too severe for outdoor winter running, and I decided to pull the plug on my training. I did not think it would be wise to attempt my longest ever distance right at the end of the worst winter in recorded history.

I went with Plan B: I sold my bib for Around The Bay and instead registered for the 30K Midsummer Night’s Run, which happens in August. That way, I would have the summer to train in safer conditions.

Enter the Ankle Of Doom. More than 20 years ago, my left ankle was seriously injured. In spite of a lot of medical intervention over the years, it has never really been right since. It always hurts for about 24 hours after a long run, but as long as it recovers quickly, I can live with that one day of pain each week. Except that this summer, when I was running distances of 22K and more, my ankle wasn’t recovering. It was constantly hurting and I developed a semi-permanent limp. When I set out for my long runs each week, I was still in pain from the previous week.

I knew I was pushing myself too hard, but I kept telling myself that it would improve, that all I needed was time for my body to get used to the longer distances. Even though I knew this wasn’t working, I was continuing on with desperate hope.

I was finally forced to face up to reality one day in July, while I was doing 25K along the lakeshore trail. Ankle Of Doom throbbed the entire time throughout the first half of the run. As I reached my turnaround point, I knew I was in trouble. I took a two-minute walking break and then, feeling a little better, I started running slowly again. About 3K later, I was feeling OK, so I decided to kick up my speed a notch. Five minutes later, I felt an almighty twinge in my ankle, as if someone had pulled back on an elastic and then released it.

There was instant agony. I could still put weight on my ankle, but with every step, I felt as if a hot poker was being skewered through my foot. I forced myself to continue: I was on a trail, nowhere near a road, and I did not have the option of calling my husband to come and pick me up. Only 8K to go, I kept telling myself. You can run 8K in your sleep. This is nothing for you.

8K is excruciatingly long when every step feels like torture. My ankle got more and more wobbly after every step, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful, it wouldn’t be able to carry me all the way home. For about 3K, I alternated fifty steps of walking with fifty steps of running. The counting definitely helped – it gave my mind something to focus on other than the pain, and alternating walking with running enabled me to keep going. Those three kilometres or so went a lot more quickly than I thought they had.

But then I reached a point of meltdown. I sank down onto a rock facing the lake and burst into tears. By this point, I had less than 5K to go, so I knew that I would make it home. It would take a while, but I would get there. But the realization hit me that I would have to forego the 30K. I knew that in all likelihood, I would never get to achieve my dream of running a full marathon.

I went through the rest of the season in a kind of haze. I switched my 30K registration to 15K and had a good race, and I ran my autism fundraising half-marathon, which also happened to be my 10th half-marathon. A doctor told me that if I concentrated on rehab exercises for my ankle for the next year, I might be capable of training for a marathon.

But I’ve decided that enough is enough. After having pushed myself very close to the point of not being able to run at all, I have accepted that a marathon is not a viable goal for me. I am proud of the fact that I can run half-marathons – for someone who, let’s face it, is not naturally athletic, that’s quite an accomplishment.

And so instead of hurting myself trying to chase a goal that could permanently disable me from running, I am going to improve on distances that I have already accomplished. I am going to get my 10K time back to under 1:03:00, and I am going to run a sub 30-minute 5K. Best of all, in 2015, I am going to run a half-marathon in under 2:15:00.

As modest as these goals are, I have my work cut out for me. But instead of making me weaker, working toward these targets will make me stronger.

Am I sad about giving up on the marathon dream? Of course I am.

But I would be sadder if pursuing the dream took away my ability to do anything at all.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Ludo Rouchy. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.