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Mama Said: Independence is the name of the game

When can they start doing things for themselves? Emily Martin is ready to test the water

I got a step-counter for a present. It’s OK, I wanted one. And, as I fastened it to my wrist on Christmas morning, I was curious - how many steps do I do? I had no idea, but I know I spend most of my life walking around the three rooms of my small house.

Anyway, at 5.27pm on December 27 it suddenly vibrated and I looked down to see a little digital firework display. “Smashed it!”, it congratulated me. I had walked 10,000 steps. Five miles.

I enjoyed the digital fireworks and then looked up at my family who were sprawled out on the sofa, surrounded by plates of crumbs and empty cups, watching Paddington. And I thought, as I went to clear away the dishes, I wonder how many steps THEY’VE done.

At 7 and 3, I’d argue my children have now moved confidently into the ages where they can do things for themselves. And when I say I’d argue, I DO argue. We argue about it all the time. And yet here I am doing tasks for them that they’re more than capable of doing and racking up those miles day after day. It’s good for shifting a little lockdown weight, but it’s increasingly less good for the soul.

Girl’s New Year’s resolution in 2020 was to “wash her own hair”, but we’re yet to make a start on helping her self-actualise in that department. Instead, each evening she and her brother have their shared bath (which I referee) and are then assisted into dry, clean towels (which they like to have pre-warmed), which they then leave on the floor outside the bathroom.

I shuffle in after them like a hotel maid, picking up strewn bath toys, letting out the bath water, rinsing away bubbles and grime, picking up their clothes, unrolling tights and socks for the wash, drying the bathroom floor. “Mum!” one of them shouts, “can we have chocolate biscuits?”

I find them both in my bed firing up the TV, waiting for me to wheel in my room-service trolley. “Sure, hang on,” I say, as I hurry to finish my bathroom tasks and head into the kitchen. “MUM!” they shout again. “Sorry! Just coming!” I call back, assembling things into bowls. “Can I have a fresh squash?” says Boy. I return to the kitchen and make squash. “This is not FRESH!” he complains when I hand it over. “Can I have a drink too please, Mummy?” says Girl. My step counter vibrates - “Smashed it!” It looks so happy. Another five miles in the bag.

I sit on the stairs. I feel like I have more to offer than merely working below deck for my two tiny captains. “MUM! Can you pass the remote!?” one of them yells.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. “Can you… just get it yourself?” I say back. There’s silence. One of them appears to look at me. Then the other. I smile. They don’t. The universe jolts. The shackles fall from my wrists and my Aladdin’s lamp clatters to the floor. I feel for the first time in seven years that I am free.

So, I’m now practising a new way of life called “Helping the children help themselves”. When you look after tiny people from the moment they arrive - sleepy, floppy, useless - you almost don’t notice them growing up into capable humans with actual working hands. There is no reason why I’m still always straightening their beds, tidying their toys, clearing their plates, making them drinks, and so now when I get an outrageous request, I invite them to have a little go at it themselves, and then I make myself a cup of tea.

The other evening I was lounging on the sofa (yes actual lounging!) and they came over and said would I like a massage? “Ummm, sure, OK?” I shuffled up a bit as they climbed around me - my son started making little circles on my face with his thumbs and my daughter squeezed my foot.

This is more like it. I’ve turned the tables on them and I’d like to reassure the people at my step-counter’s headquarters, please don’t worry I am alive and well. In fact, I’ve “smashed it”.


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