Talking about menarche

How we speak to our daughters and sons about this topic is surely a pivotal time in their and our lives. My mother says her mother never spoke to her about her periods starting. Mum is the second daughter so her older sister got “the talk” from Nana and it was then my aunt’s job to prepare my mother.
Mum told me when I was 9. She was going to hospital to have my brother and she gave me a book called “Dear Daughter” and a set of sanitary towels. She obviously tried to improve on the preparation her mother gave her. I remember being confused about where the sticky part of the pad went and finally summoning the courage to ask a school friend. I asked Mum what she told my 4 brothers.
“That’s Dad’s job” she said. “He told me he’s told them the (Catholic) Church’s teaching”…

The subject probably comes up sooner and at younger ages for kids when bathroom doors aren’t locked and parents and kids are around each other for baths and showers.

Part of my problem here is that I don’t like any of the words we use. The Latin ones for a girl’s first bleed: menarche, and then menses and menstruation are all a bit distant and medical-sounding.
“Periods” just doesn’t convey anything much to me.
In secondary school, I had a headache and was accompanied to the Domestic Science room by a friend to request some paracetomol.
“Have you got your ‘friends’?” the teacher asked me.
“Well, C. came with me” I replied, wondering was there a new rule I’d broken, which stipulated 2 people got out of class to mind a sick person. It took a minute to click that this was the code word used by this woman in her middle years when talking to a teenager.

I see on facebook that AF (Aunt Flo) is the code.

I was in my late 30s before I read Anne Diamant’s book “The Red tent”, a wonderful novel which describes, among many other stories, the culture of menstruating women being apart from the community. It seemed to be a welcome break from the routines of home-making rather than a society’s attempt to isolate unclean females, but maybe I’m remembering the story incorrectly.

In our home, the youngest has haemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder, so bleeding can be extra-problematic and traumatic. I would probably hesitate to use the words bleed or blood to describe this occurrence.

I heard a woman on radio years back saying she describes the womb as a baby’s home and how the lining has to be cosy for the baby to grow and in the months when there’s no baby, the house has a kind of spring-clean and the lining comes away.

So that’s my dilemma: how to discuss this with my children, especially as my daughter is now 11, without being overly-medical and aloof, or coy and using euphemisms which convey the sense of the hidden and shameful.

Any suggestions welcome!


Understanding and ending domestic violence

We are on day 3 of Women’s Aid’s 16 days to highlight and end violence against women and children. The statistics of women dying at the hands of a current or former partner are chilling.
In an attempt to gain an insight, I was recommended Don Hennessy’s book “How He Gets into Her Head – The Mind of the Intimate Male Abuser.”
It’s not a light, enjoyable read.
But it did give me a history of the author’s work with the Cork Domestic Violence Project, established in 1991, to intervene and help families where intimate abuse was a pattern.
The author has no hesitation in branding the behaviour of the men he studied as “evil”; a word that is very seldom heard in mainstream discourse today.
He describes a process of brainwashing that leaves the woman doubting her sanity: “skilled offenders have a talent for slightly adjusting the memory of any incident to their advantage. Target women begin to accept their abusers’ recall of events and to question their own memory. Gradually this apparent loss of memory may convince the woman that she is losing her mind. This process is more frightening for a woman than any physical assault.” p.38
“He has a sense of entitlement before he meets the woman. His entitlement is based on his belief in male sexual priority… This woman must put his needs before her own.” p.26
“I have never met a group of people more adept at acting the victim than the skilled abusers who are about to be found out.” p.52
“Years of professional therapy have been used by some skilled offenders to generate more reasons why they are abusive rather than any reason why they need to stop.” p.53
“The goal of all his tactics is to have his sexual needs met without negotiation. We need to remind ourselves that all skilled offenders could kill.” p.102
“The skilled offender knows that a positive social image is an invaluable asset in helping to avoid ever being challenged for his evil behaviour.” p.176
“Our tolerance of male sexual priority is underpinned by our culture. Male abusers support all interventions that do not challenge this priority.” p.219

Probably the stupidest, least informed question we ask is:
“There is an old Irish prayer that wishes that the person may be dead for a few weeks before the devil finds out that they are sick. My prayer for my clients is that if they are going to leave, they will have found a new security before their partner knows they have gone. Sadly prayer alone will not keep a target woman safe.” p.236
“He will threaten suicide or murder… Some of my clients have been murdered while attempting to withdraw from the intimacy that was expected of them.” p.236
So let’s stop playing the boring old tune, “blame the victim”.
We can do better.
We can ask:
Why do men hurt their partners?
“Being unable to understand does not excuse us from trying to protect.” p.126

Celebrating the birthday of an adult who was my baby

Glass of wine?
Reminisce with baby photos?
Sentimental movie?
Check (The Time traveller’s Wife)
Check (A tub of Heroes, intended for 5 weeks time!)

I have a curious sense of dislocation with going through the hours of this day, when 28 years ago I was giving birth to my first boy. It’s not the time that has elapsed which gives me this sensation but it’s the fact that he lives far away on Maui, Hawaii with a time difference of 10 hours between us. It can be hard to get a mutually acceptable time to talk on the phone. Thankfully, there’s post and text and facebook messaging and so many ways to keep a connection.
It’s odd to be celebrating in his absence, but it affirms for me that this day was SO significant for me and needs marking, even without the guest of honour.
I remember the details so clearly.. my Dad driving me to the hospital in Dublin and then leaving me and returning to Wexford.
Does anyone labour without a support person of their choosing now?
I was 19.
I had done antenatal classes in a group of 5 women with a local midwife, in her home. When she finished the business part of the evening, we would lie on the floor of her sitting-room, eyes closed, relaxing to soothing music, while she made tea. I think now that those classes were more about educating me to accept the hospital procedures than about helping me make informed decisions for mine and my Baby’s care.
I was told I was “going nowhere fast” as the partogram was consulted… imagine the cheek of me, to not dilate at the required rate of 1 cm per hour. So my labour was speeded up with oxytocin and after 2 hours of that, I was going mad and asking for pain relief. I was assessed as being 3-4 cms at this stage.The pethidine made me space out and I remember a midwife being annoyed that I wouldn’t focus on her when she wanted me to. 10 mins later, I told them I needed to push.
“Nonsense!” I was told briskly.
Then she put her hand on my stomach and there was a sense of urgency as I was wheeled from labour to delivery…. honestly, who designed this notion of orderly women dilating at a set pace, in a certain room, which then had to change DURING TRANSITION?!!!
In my 4 home births, I have laboured in the kitchen, sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, polytunnel, lane … oh, and in the mobile home for one birth… but I never moved much for the grand entrance moment… that was about being in my space and being comfortable and reassured with my trusted midwife, whom I’d gotten to know during the pregnancy and previous births.

And who had the bright idea that labouring and birthing women should lie prone? I was squatting for my home births.

The pethidine made Darragh drowsy and unresponsive.

“He has no rooting reflex!” I told the medic who let me hold him for 5 minutes before taking him away for 12 (!!!) hours.
“Are you a nurse yourself?” was the response and then the condescending you-would’nt-tell-these-porkies-to-a-child: “He’s a bit tired; we’re just taking him for observation”.
I was brought to the ward and told to sleep.
I lay there thinking: these are the MOST important hours of his life and I should be with him.
I got up at various times and asked several people could I see him and was told to wait til morning.

Now, I would roar til I got to be with my son, but then, I was too compliant and a “good” patient. Back in 1986, there was no rooming-in at this (or any?) Irish hospital.
Despite the separation and the staff feeding him formula without my permission, when my chart clearly said “breastfeeding”, we managed to get breastfeeding happily… thanks in no small measure to having seen my 5 siblings breastfeeding and believing it was natural and having been loaned La Leche League’s “Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”.

I was sure of two things: I was absolutely besotted with this new person, (the song I couldn’t get out of my head was Billy Ocean’s “Suddenly”, with the line “you wake up and suddenly, you’re in love”) and there had to be a better way to give birth.
Thanks to the Home Birth Association (then Home Birth Centre) and some home educators I met who had home births, I discovered that birth can be empowering and even ecstatic.

I’m grateful that we bonded fiercely, despite hospital interference, and that our connection feels strong and true.

Happy Birthday, my firstborn, Darragh!

My 6 babies have made me a mother. Just as well there’s more than a handful of them and they are all so different, as I’m such a slow learner!
Here are just a few photos from the years, as Darragh turns 28 tomorrow and celebrates halfway around the world, on Maui, Hawaii, where he lives.
But this is us, before we got home from the National Maternity hospital.
This is my mother with Darragh, her first grandchild.
Here’s Darragh, aged 9 months.
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Darragh (7) and Oisín, 2 weeks.
Darragh’s Turtle phase!
A sunny day in Tullow, at Nanny’s and Granda’s home.
In our kitchen in Summerhill, Co. Meath… November 1994, just a week before Oisín’s 1st birthday, and 11 days before Darragh’s 8th.
All the lads, on holidays in Courtown.
Browneshill Dolmen near Carlow town, a favourite (free!) spot to bring visitors.
Darragh (16) with Oran (2). So heartening to see the children loving each other.
Eddie and Darragh, at Darragh’s Graduation in Cork.

Some lessons babies taught me

This time 21 years ago, I was eagerly looking forward to having my second baby, and to helping to heal the first child’s actively managed hospital birth, by having this birth in the comfort and security of our own home, with our trusted midwife, Ann Kelly.
I resented having to get up to the toilet at night as the growing baby took up some bladder space. It hit me one evening, braving the cold outside the bed covers, “there’s a person inside me!”.. I can still feel the shock, the realisation, the “don’t be such a bloody moaner”; count your blessings!
I called out Ann Kelly 10 days before my due date, with vague contractions and what became a thumping headache. She stayed with us overnight and when she took my blood pressure, she told us gently and firmly we needed to go to hospital. We had no car, and no arrangements to care for Darragh, nearly 7 years old. So she drove us to hospital and had Darragh to her home for the day.
A lovely midwife said into my ear, as I heard our baby’s heartbeat on the scan, “dear, we have to lower your blood pressure and we have to deliver your baby.” 2 hours after arriving there, Oisín was born by caesarean section under general anaesthesia and I had round-the-clock midwifery care for 48 hours until my blood pressure stabilised.
I don’t remember when I first saw him. I only know that whenever I woke, I begged to see him and to have him breastfeed.
We were in hospital for 10 days and lucky to have a midwife sit for 3 hours one night helping us to get a comfortable position and latch, made difficult with the c. section scar.
I recognised the kind midwife (who had taken the time to explain what was happening) 3 months later when I was back in hospital for a kidney check-up. I had no visual memory of her (apparently due to high blood pressure and medication) but I knew her voice and thanked her for taking the time to treat me as a sentient being.
There was so much to deal with in the aftermath, happiness at Oisín’s health, sadness at not having the homebirth, scar healing and a windy, sometimes unhappy baby. The words of one doctor were ringing in my ears: “I know homebirth is a nice IDEA but you’ll never be a candidate!”
4 homebirths later, the first 20 months after the c.section, I know that it’s possible to be grateful for medical expertise and yet seek other opinions and research; to count the blessings of a healthy baby and alive mother but still mourn the experience I’d hoped for.
I treasure the words of Mary Cronk, amazing midwife:
I guess the expertise comes in knowing which are those births!

Keeping my nerve on a road less travelled

When I first thought about home education, my son was 9 months old. I had met only one family, with a toddler and 2 children under 10. I knew no home educated teenagers or adults. Before this family loaned me their John Holt books “How Children Learn”, “How Children Fail”, “The Underachieving School” and their Education Otherwise (UK) newsletters, I hadn’t thought about the concept of children continuing to learn at home within the family, just as they learn to sit, crawl, walk and talk. Because I was born in Brisbane, I had a vague notion about the Australian “Schools of the Air” where children on remote farms maintained radio contact with a teacher and worked somewhat independently on their studies. We moved to Ireland when I was 6 and my parents’ idea was “the more education, the better” and for them, education=schooling.
I have to credit La Leche League and the concept of “mothering through breastfeeding” with giving me enough courage for each day’s challenges. My mother breastfed all 6 of us and I’m the eldest. There was never any formula in our house. I remember one brother having a bottle of diluted blackcurrant as an older child and that same lad, 21 months old when his “baby” status was displaced by another, asking for a soother. My mother got him one and it was soon discarded. No drama, no fuss.
La Leche League also hosts an annual conference, which has become an unmissable highlight in our year. There are often talks relating to education as part of the programme. Some of the most encouraging talks have been from parents who are home educating, telling their stories, being honest about what worked and what mistakes they made on the journey of accompanying their child’s learning. The conference bookstall has been a source of much take-home inspiration: Agnes Leistico’s books: “I Learn Better by Teaching Myself”, “Still Teaching Ourselves”, and Mary Griffith’s “Homeschooling Handbook”
We were weaned early, though. I first met a breastfed toddler when I was 16. I was highly impressed that when I took this child, aged 18 months, to the corner shop he asked for “babu” – his word for apple – and ignored the rows of chocolates and sweets. His mother loaned me her La Leche League book “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” 3 years later, when I was having my first baby. There was so much love and wisdom and many powerful, gentle examples in that book. It’s still a book I return to, and recommend highly to anyone seeking reassurance in following her/his heart in parenting.
So wobbly days, questioning myself days, wondering if this unusual path is really right for us? Dara Molloy from the Aisling Árainn network on Inis Mór, organised an “Alternatives in Education” day in Clonmacnoise in the summer of 1988 and from that, a list of home educators in Ireland grew and a newsletter “Sa Bhaile” (Irish for “At Home”). It gave a vital link to other people in Ireland whose children were learning at home and was a crucial channel of support and inspiration.
It’s funny how our ideas can grow and develop. I thought all my children would get a college degree. Eddie thought they would all do the Leaving Certificate (exam taken at around 18 years of age, on which access to college is largely based). So far, with 3 adults, we’ve both been wrong! The eldest did a few Fáilte Ireland courses in bar skills and hotel management after he sat the Leaving Certificate exams. The next did Leaving Certificate and 2 years of acting courses. The third is in third year of college (studying for a degree in music) without having attended any school or sitting the Leaving Certificate. He gained entry to college by studying piano at home and then attending a one year course, aged 16, in a local college and achieving a FETAC (Further Ed. and Training Awards Council) Level 5 in Music and doing well in the college entrance exam and audition.
I am amazed now at my daring, really. There have been times when I did the soul-searching: “Is this really the best path?”
“Am I cutting off some possibilities from their futures?”
When Darragh, now 27, was home from his travels, I had one of those moments and enough humility to ask him:
“Did I do ok? Did I give you enough? Do you regret the home educating?”
His reply was one of those “real Mother’s Day” gifts:
“Mam,” he grinned, reassuringly, “I LIVE in Hawaii!”

Discovering Our Baby Has a Condition

Discovering our baby has a condition
Once upon a time, a boy was born in January, beside the fire in his parents’ bedroom. He had 4 older brothers and a sister and he was ADORED. His mother was 40 years old, celebrating this milestone a few months before her eldest turned 21, and felt very blessed to be gifted with such a joy. Like his siblings, he was carried in a sling and breastfed whenever he wanted and life was just peachy.
When he was 5 months old and liked to sometimes lie on a blanket on the floor, he started to get bruises on his back. The first time, the family tried to reason what had caused this. He had startled in his mother’s arms; maybe that had somehow been the cause? The family often welcomed foster children… could some-one have hurt him? But he was never out of sight and hadn’t cried or been upset…
Two weeks later, he was having a bath with his mother and she saw a great fat purple-black bruise, like a slug, on his back near his shoulder. They had been at a birthday party with a bouncy castle but he had been in arms the entire time and nowhere near the castle….it was a mystery. The parents went to bed that night thinking “who can we ask for advice?” In the morning they thought of the lovely midwife, K, who had welcomed him with them. She was very clear. This needed investigation. So for the first time since his postnatal check, he saw a doctor.
“Tell me what you think it might be” his mother asked, as she was told to go to the hospital for tests.
The doctor didn’t want to guess. So the mother decided to list out anything awful she could think of so she would hear this expert deny it.
“Leukaemia” she said.
“He’s too young.”
“Haemophilia” she said.
“Your father would have to have it.”
He wrote the referral letter for them to attend the paediatrician in the hospital 30 miles away.
“No rush” said the doctor kindly. “You could go tomorrow.”
But she had to know as soon as possible.
She drove there that day and waited while the medics tried to get a blood sample from her distressed son. Then home and distractions, waiting to hear.

The phone call the next afternoon was quite casual.

“Something was a bit strange with one test. Please come in tomorrow to have it repeated.”
No clues, no hints.
“DON’T look on the internet” his aunt advised.

It was the day he turned 6 months old- Wednesday July 23rd 2008. She took a photo of him in a lovely outfit friends had sent from Australia.

That would always be the photo of the day the world changed. The day when not-knowing became knowing.
The blood test seemed harder.
They tried to get it from his foot. But the flow stopped before the vial was full. The junior doctor said he would go with the sample and implore the lab to try to test it, as they often found it difficult when there wasn’t enough in the vial.
The baby calmed and nursed.
“What does he eat?” asked the paediatrician.
“He’s fully breastfed. He‘s six months old today.”
“So you’re going by the WHO guidelines?” said the paediatrician.
“It’s what I’ve always done. He has 5 siblings from 21 to 4. None of them had much interest in solids before 8 or 9 months of age. The guidelines kind of caught up with me.”
“But you give vitamin D?”
“No. As I understand it, the issue is about sunlight and if we get 20 minutes even in December our pale skins can..”
“3 hours per week“ he interrupted impatiently. “We can’t tell Irish parents that… they’d park the babies down the garden for that length and burn them!”
The room began to fill with student doctors, some of whose skin colour at our latitude might need more than 20 minutes to get their requirement of sunlight for vitamin D so the conversation ended.
The bruises were photographed.
Somehow the time passed.
A nurse said “If we don’t find a blood-clotting disorder, we will be talking to social workers.”

She did not know what to pray for.

And then it was explained: it’s the APTT blood clotting test. Normal clotting time is 38 seconds but his was taking 73 seconds.
The doctor phoned a haematologist at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin.
“She says, a male with that clotting time, almost certainly it’s haemophilia. Go to Crumlin tomorrow and they’ll do more tests.”

Czars of Russia
Bleeding to death from a cut

That was all she knew
Lovely, blessed, cocooned ignorance

The phlebotomist in Crumlin was quick and sure when it came to taking a baby’s blood test so the distress didn’t last past a quick cuddle and breastfeed. The results would be available on Monday.
Somehow, the weekend passed.
There were lovely calls and emails from worried family and friends, promising prayers and candles and novenas and support. There was the usual family life of laundry and meals; routine things keeping a scaffolding around them as the world changed forever.

So on Monday, July 28th they were told he did indeed have Factor viii deficiency, Haemophilia A, severe. His body made no Factor viii (8), a blood clotting factor. The factors are like dominoes, the parents were told, so when 1-7 work fine , they try to set off 8 which is absent so 9+ can’t do their job. The most likely scenario was the baby would have bleeds into his joints which if untreated would cause arthritis. These would begin when he became more mobile and was walking so from around 2 years of age, he would need transfusions of Factor viii three times a week, for the duration of his childhood.
“We’ve never used a playpen” said his father. “Would it be helpful for him?”
“The bleeds are spontaneous” the doctor explained.
“What if we pad everything he might come into contact with when he’s walking?”
“The bleeds are spontaneous.”
“What if we…”
“It’s SPONTANEOUS bleeding” the doctor emphasised.
“Oh, so it doesn’t matter what we do?”

The hospital appointment explained many things. 30% of cases of haemophilia are new mutations, so having no family history. It’s rare enough.. About 100 people share the diagnosis in Ireland.
The specialist nurse and doctors assured the family the Factor was no longer from human blood but a recombinant product. Small children’s treatment was about €500 per dose, which the tax payer covered.
A social worker explained the supports that were available and asked them how they felt.
What the mother wanted to say was “stuff all the free meds and supports! I just want my little boy to be healthy.” So she said nothing. They went home with books, leaflets, a DVD, information about the Irish Haemophilia Society.
Time passed as it does.
The boy started to walk. He didn’t have bleeds.
She took him to Lourdes.
He turned two years old.
They dared to hope he might be in the 10% who didn’t have joint bleeds.
He turned three years old.
And then one day, on St. Patrick’s weekend in March 2011, his leg was swollen and hot and he couldn’t walk. So he and his mother stayed overnight in Crumlin for treatment with the factor viii replacement transfusion. The hospital discussed starting regular treatment.
“Maybe it’s a once-off? Can we wait and see?”
But at Easter, he and his mother were back in overnight in the hospital for treatment.
He began receiving treatment every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In July he had a port-a-cath fitted in his chest so his parents could do his treatment at home and not have to travel to hospital so frequently.
When they go to hospital they see children who are very sick and so they try to count their blessings and be grateful.
Sometimes the boy asks why does he have haemophilia and he says how wishes he didn’t.
So does his mother.

Making an example of oneself

You might not believe this, but we are actually a fairly “let’s keep to ourselves” family.

I know…

…we have a facebook page Home Education Support Fund which recounts our various media forays since our court case began rumbling…

…we have  a YouTube documentary “Homegrown Knowledge” (but we were being filmed to help film student Eoghan McQuinn in his final year assignment, and never thought it would be on the screen of the Irish Film Institute – as part of their “Stranger than Fiction” series)…

… a month ago, I began a blog…

but we are genuinely quite private, actually.

Sometimes, you just feel you have to make a stand.

And if publicity and an amount of public debate (plenty of it negative) is the result, well, then  you just read some quotes by Gandhi or other inspiring people or better still, do some finger painting, snuggle on the couch and read to a small child, make a cup of tea, breath deeply and remind yourself that “other people’s opinion of you is none of your business”.

A quick summary: we have home educated since finding out about it when eldest child (28 this month) was 9 months old… so really, we just continued facilitating his learning, as we’d done since his birth in 1986. Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, Article 42, specifically names parents as primary educators and says parents “shall be free” to provide education at home. A “new” law, (well, it came half way through our home educating journey) the Education Welfare Act 2000, says parents must apply for assessment, and if they are deemed to be providing “a certain minimum education”, then they are ALLOWED to educate at home… so the state asks us to request permission… which can (and has been) refused.

We can discuss whether you believe the state should ask parents to prove their fitness to home educate (but seeing as education is for us, a seamless continuation of our parenting, then you might as well require all people, hoping to have children, to prove their fitness to be parents).

I could offer the idea that what has happened to our family is evidence of a heavy handed approach by authorities to make lines-be-toed.. to what end, exactly?

How is one “educationally” neglected child in this state better off because we went through a court process, were convicted of “failing to cause” 2 children to attend schools, were fined and imprisoned?

I know people are afraid that we will make things worse and scare off potential home educators.

What I can say is this:

a mother in another county read about our court case, dropped her two children to school, drove to Tullow, enquired in a coffee shop, from a postman, from a man walking his dog and finally found our neighbours, who directed her to our home.

We sat for an hour over coffee and shared stories, She borrowed 2 books and left somewhat reassured, that home educating might be possible for her family.

Maybe she won’t home educate.

Maybe she would have anyway.

But she turned up at our door with doubts and questions, and we did our best to assure her that the ONLY requirement you need to home educate is



That’s our secret.

Your own success at school. college or life is fairly irrelevant.

Your (lack of) teaching qualification is irrelevant.

But your love for your child and joy of being on a learning journey together is the key.

Weaning gradually, with love

If new breastfeeding mothers had a cent or a penny for every time they got asked:

“How much longer are you going to nurse that baby?”

“When are you going to wean?”

“Surely she’s too old for that now?”

they’d probably have a good start on the child’s college fund.

When two of our six were tandem nursing, I was told authoritatively by a family member:

“You have NO LIFE!”

which meant: “you can’t come to concerts and the pub and places where real life is happening because you’re always with those babies!”

Ah those babies!

Little hands, little gurgles, little night time snuffly noises when they wake to nurse and don’t have to work themselves up into a frenzy to find you because they’re right beside you in the big bed and you can just snuggle and think of all the women who right at this moment are with their breastfeeding babies throughout the world:

in hammocks

on straw mats

in apartments

in farmhouses

in one-room dwellings with three generations sharing living space

in penthouses/palaces(?)…

you get the idea.

I found it hard to watch the news when my babies were very small. Any story about children being hurt, by accident or evil; any sad family tale would cause me to be a snivelling wreck (and the empathy with suffering people only deepened with each new baby). A side-effect of mothering hormones?

Language is so important.

There’s a wonderfully warm, supportive facebook group in Ireland called “Extended breastfeeding”. I joined before the membership was 100 and now it’s over 4,000. But what counts as “extended”? (Certainly, a distractable 5 month old wanting to watch their sibling playing and forgetting to unlatch before turning their head during nursing might fit the bill!)

There have been times I have answered the “and how long did you nurse your babies?” question with a truthful-but-not-the-whole truth reply on the lines of “well, they all had the World Health Organisation and Irish Department of Health’s recommended 2 years and beyond”…

The last child to wean was curious as to how long each of his siblings had nursed. On hearing that one had weaned at 3 years and 2 months of age, his thoughtful six-year-old reply was “that sounds like an early time to stop breastfeeding.”

Now, where could he have gotten that idea?!!

Learning to read

This feels like the biggest home educating milestone, doesn’t it? Still, 27 years into our home educating adventure, I’m not sure how the process happens.. but with a span of 6 children we have seen a variety of approaches and outcomes. I made the Montessori sandpaper letters for Darragh… but he was a year old and they were packed away in one of our many moves (14 in his first 8 years!) by the time they might have interested him. My mother had a copy of Glen Doman’s “Teach Your Baby to Read” but I was trying to be less parent- led about the process. He wasn’t a fan of flash cards.

He LOVED the Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles. So he was 4 years old and we we were walking back from Bushy Park in Dublin and he said “there’s Raphael’s letter” when he saw an “R” on a manhole cover on the road. Hmmm… maybe there’s some truth in this theory that children learn according to their interests,  my 23 year old self mused. We collected various props along our travels… magnetic letters being a favourite. All upper case because “PDBQ” are very different as capitals but “pdbq” are all the same shape, just oriented differently.

We read books. We listened to stories on tape: early 90s folks! (before CDs were much than a twinkle in some-one’s eye). The whole reading thing came together for Darragh before he turned 9, which didn’t seem late or early to me by then; it just WAS. The next 2 boys, Oisín and Emmet, read a Level 1 Ladybird (“3 Little Pigs” and “Little Red Hen”) around the age of 6 1/2 and were reading fluently and for pleasure 2 years later. There was a stage when Darragh stopped reading for his own enjoyment, it seemed to me. (Co-incidentally or maybe not? he went to school aged 12 years and 10 months.) He would read to his younger brothers, though. I tried all sorts. I bought “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. No interest.  I took out a year’s subscription to an astronomy magazine. The last few month’s envelopes lay unopened. I bought football magazines. Then when he was 14, he was given a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” and he’s been an avid reader ever since. He had finished his early school experiment by then, and came out after completing first year of secondary school. Tolkien remains a family favourite and the younger 5 all like Harry Potter.

“Letterland” was all the rage when Oisín and Emmet were beginning to read and we bought one book each but they were nearly £5 in old money, at least twice as expensive as other books and it felt a bit gimmicky to me.

Elva went from reading a Ladybird Level 1 to an Enid Blyton “Secret 7” 4 months before she turned 9, and by that birthday she had read the 7 Harry Potter books. She generally has at least 4 books on the go and will take at least 2 books on any journey, even if it’s to the post office or some quick errand.

Eamonn is 6 and sometimes demands “teach me to read!” when an older sibling tells him he needs to learn so he can take part in whatever board game they’re playing. He’s writing his own book and learning some words, but the “switch” isn’t quite there… when those squiggles all make sense.

A lovely souvenir we have for each child is a book of pictures and photographs with a line dictated by the child e.g.

“Here is Oisín’s family”.

“This is a giraffe”.

“We saw monkeys at the zoo”.

I made them from photo albums with photos, pictures form magazines and index cards with the words the child said.

I love that books and stories and words and ideas are important to everyone in the family and that most of the children see themselves as authors who are writing their own tales (with a heavy emphasis on mediaeval sagas:swords and horses feature alot!)