I've been thinking about the concept of independence quite a lot recently. With H about to set off to High School in September, learning to walk to school safely by himself and (attempt to) pack his own bag each day it was bound to be playing on my mind. However, I'm actually referring to independence in the context of his younger siblings - because H IS actually gaining independence, and in a terrifying-but-oh-so-liberating way I am watching him grow and mature with a smile on my face day by day. In fact that smile is fairly smug if the truth be told, since we have come within a hair's breadth of total exclusion, Special Needs placement, PRU and respite care more times than I care to remember over the past years. But there he is, eleven and a half - going on 15 in oh so many ways and yet still emotionally so very young. Yes, I'm pretty smug about that.
But the twins are a different "kettle of fish" entirely. A in particular hangs on to me, paws at me, "needs" me in a way his older brothers never did. You might say this is not that surprising given that he has complex health issues - but so does H, and so do an awful lot of other children I know who do not have this strong immature attachment at seven and a half.
I've pondered this at great length, with a large dose of self blame and not a great deal of clarity or insight. But today, whilst baking their "free from" sausage rolls, the penny dropped. Or more precisely, H's cat decided to steal one when my back was turned - and the complete over-reaction this precipitated and the depths of despair I felt caused the "penny" to sink firmly and completely at last.
Babies and young children depend so completely on their mothers for food and care (well, usually their mothers - let's not get caught up in a circular politically correct argument) and the umbilical cord of pregnancy in fact continues metaphorically well into childhood. There are many papers and books written about children's development and their growing independence - how they learn to loosen the ties sufficiently to promote healthy independence. (This isn't an essay requiring careful annotation and quite honestly I would rather get my point across but you can of course google.) I do remember reading such a book when J was small, how it depicted a child's mother at the centre of a number of concentric circles. Each circle represented the distance a child of a particular age would stray from its mother, with each circle's radius growing as the child grew older. I remember we considered this a completely crazy idea at the time, since J would enjoy wandering and never once look back - secure in the knowledge that his Mum would never be far behind him!
Which is, in a convoluted way, my point. You need that security, that certainty for independence. And it is an interesting fact that children who are pushed away too fast often end up being more clingy or withdrawn, because they lack that secure foundation. Any child with additional issues to cope with, be they health or social, economic or political will probably (and I am no sociologist or psychologist) take longer to develop that natural and increasing independence from their parents as they grow up to be their own person and make their way in the world.
So yes, you could argue that the twins have had a lot to deal with and it is understandable that they might be a bit clingy. But there is something more. That metaphorical umbilical cord - it's all about feeding and sustenance. To be independent you need your basic needs met and you need them to be second nature, 100% reliable. Children on medically restricted diets all too often lack that basic security for several reasons.
With my two, I am the only person in their world who can safely feed them. Now aside from the fact that that is a huge burden for me - it's a MASSIVE restriction for them. Socially of course - at parties, school lunches, holidays, eating out - I have to provide their food at virtually all these occasions. But emotionally the knowledge that they could not feed themselves, that there is only ONE person who is fully familiar with their needs and medications, allergies and restrictions is one Hell of a restriction and a major impediment to independence.
You might challenge that and ask what is so odd about children relying on their mother for their food - but they are 7. And a half. (Very important that half when you are 7!) They cannot eat anything without thinking, checking and having it confirmed as safe. Throw in a generous dollop of fear that they might become unwell if the food giver gets it wrong, and you begin to realise their level of dependency.
They are the ones who hang back at cake sales, or open their "safe" cake from home. They are the children who have a biscuit from their teacher, which was sent from home when the school have a "French Cafe" to experience other cultures. They will be the ones unable to fully participate in the "Bushcraft" trips in Key Stage 2 because it is absolutely NOT the idea for me to tag along, and how would that promote the independence such an event is held for the purpose of encouraging?
Children on exclusion diets (or those tube fed) are held back in SO many ways, denied their natural right to independent life. Later on, they will learn to read packets and navigate their own way through the minefield that is food labelling. But for now, that's my job. I'm sure there is the inevitable dose of bad parenting, with not a little over-protection at the more daunting times too but I won't apologise for either. I'm human like the rest and we muddle through. But I can at last understand one of the reasons why they are perhaps in some ways overly dependent.
So, given that the penny has well and truly landed........ what now? What can I do to help tackle this? Firstly, I think I need to really focus on the one thing I have avoided - for good reason. I've tried to limit their knowledge and the time they see me spend thinking about food and ingredients, because they are children. We crave normality and my version of Health Eating is that food is fuel, and that we shouldn't dwell too much on unhealthy concerns about eating or try to demonise certain foods. (Health Eating Blog post here) But I think we are now moving into "Health Development" and "Healthy LIVING", where knowledge can indeed by power and might release the twins a little from their dependency. For them, "Healthy" is to feel secure that their fuel source is secure and safe, and that THEY are involved.
So this summer, whilst we will be enjoying a lot of time together, I will be working on loosening those ties a little and preparing the ground for passing on that baton of self care. With a good few cookery sessions thrown in too hopefully I can empower them and build some confidence to take those baby steps to greater independence. Power to the Little People.
Dedicated to my friend Renata at "Just bring the Chocolate" who is the best example I know of teaching her little people to be independent.