Over the past two years we have needed to recalibrate often. Life has been a bit up and down, with heart breaks and ill health, exam stress and working too many hours… The tumultuous times come and they go, and I am learning that they are not something to be scared of. There is very little that can be thrown at us that our family can’t survive together. I am learning that with the tricky times come the most growth, and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
With Charlotte’s illness came the need for a deep selflessness on the behalf of her siblings, especially her twin. Was this hard? Of course it was! Did my other children want to play second fiddle to Charlotte? Of course not! But they understood that this was necessary for the time being. And we all grew closer for it. Thomas stepped up as the protective elder brother time and time again, making sure that Charlotte was not exposed to anything physically or psychologically harmful. He made difficult decisions for her, when she did not have the strength to do so herself. Now, this protectiveness and deep love is second nature to him. They have a closeness which is even more special than before her illness.
The littles learnt the important lesson that when one member of the family is down, the rest gather round and pull out all the stops to help and nurture that person. They put up with less attention and learnt to lean on their older sister, Lillie, for many of their needs during Charlotte’s illness.
And Lillie, who was nursing a very bruised and hurt heart covered the gap as and when necessary. She gave up her room for Charlotte (and with it her beloved art area), she helped school the little ones and was generally my right hand woman. And she did all this whilst achieving an A grade in her Photography Level Three Diploma.
For a year, Charlotte was our main concern, and this was right and proper. She was terribly ill and a shadow of her former self. We did everything we could think of to improve her chances of a full recovery. And it paid off. One year later, almost to the day, Charlotte announced tentatively to all that she was beginning to feel better. Three short weeks later, she announced she was going to school in September. In order for this to happen she would need to take her Latin GCSE and her Classics GCSE in just three months time.
Granny, Dad and I were not sure. The work it would take surely would bring on her illness again, wouldn’t it? Lillie struggled too. She had been Charlotte’s carer for the past year, and as the less dominant twin she shone in this role, and came into her own, even considering nursing as a career. Now Charlotte was better, Lil’ felt bereft; add that to the fact that Charlotte wanted to leave her to go to school and we had a very unhappy Lillie on our hands. She was already struggling to come to terms with the end of a very important relationship, and now she was faced with losing her twin also.
There began five of the hardest months of parenting my five lovelies. I was working such ridiculous hours, helping Charlotte pass these exams so her dream of going to school could come true. When I say ridiculous, I really do mean ridiculous – think seven days a week, 17 hours a day, rinse and repeat. I barely saw Gary. I barely had enough time to cook dinner so we all relied on take-aways more than was healthy. I learnt more Latin than I ever thought possible and ever wanted to, at the same time as watching Charlotte closely for any signs of the ME coming back. Add to that schooling two elementary aged students and helping Lillie with her Photography and Art & Design, and you get a recipe for disaster.
I was juggling so many balls and trying to be so much to so many people that one more thing would mean all the balls would come toppling down all over me.
Easter came and went. Exams were firmly on the horizon. I was two stone heavier and in a great deal of pain in my heals (due to the extra weight), more tired than I had ever been in all my life and extremely worried about both Lillie and Charlotte (for different reasons). And then Thomas and his girlfriend were attacked by a youth with a hammer. His girlfriend was whacked over the head with the hammer and Thomas needed to protect both her and himself from further attack. We later learnt that the perpetrator also had a knife with him.
Somehow Gary and I held it together enough to support him through the second attack on our son in the past two years. He was incredible throughout, but even he had to have some reaction to what might have been. He was very well supported by his Church family and by his college, as well as the police who dealt with the whole incident.
Now I needed to be watching Charlotte for signs of the ME returning and making sure she balanced her life well enough that her goals were met without deteriorating her health; Thomas for signs of post traumatic stress and Lillie for signs that her feelings of loss over her sister going to school and also feeling left behind weren’t getting out of control. I kept saying to poor Lillie over and over that if she could just wait until the exams were over I would turn all my attention to her and help her deal with all these understandably strong feelings she was having.
I was exhausted.
Charlotte took her exams. She needed just to pass with a C. She achieved an A (in Classics) and a B (in Latin). I was delighted. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to help her achieve her goals. As a home-schooling mum, the buck stops with me. If she failed, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, I would have felt like I had failed her. But she was so motivated and worked so very hard within the parameters Gary and I set (for health reasons), she thoroughly deserved those grades and more. Never was I so pleased or proud when I picked up her results. We had just one more exam for her to sit – dreaded maths. Again she applied herself with a grim determination and managed to pass by just one mark. But a pass is a pass and we were all delighted.
August I took off. The twins visited their Grandparents in Northern Ireland and began to heal from the past year. I sat and binge watched House. I literally sat stared at the screen, exhausted and burnt out from a very difficult year. There are many, many episodes of House to watch, and with each passing episode I felt my stress levels decrease, my headaches fading to a dull roar and my energy levels slowly coming up again.
September came too quickly, and I emerged pale and tired with very little motivation to start school. I decided to start the littles with their ACE work books and then add things in when I felt able. At least they would be getting a decent amount of schooling and I could focus, as promised, on Lillie.
Charlotte had started school and she and her brother were driving up each day together. Lillie felt very much left behind. And then Oscar died. Lillie used the word mourning to describe how she felt about Charlotte not being with her at home, and now she was mourning the loss of our beloved dog. He died aged sixteen and the girls had never known a life without him. It hit us all hard, but Lillie sunk into a sadness neither she nor I had ever experienced. She cried a lot.
Lillie’s plan this year was to do the GCSEs she needed to do nursing, but I could tell she was finding them hard and very stressful. From the first time she did a GCSE aged fourteen she came home and told us all that that was the last exam she would ever take. She had hated the experience so much, she was sure that no more exams could only be a good thing.
Move forward three years, with a sister who was going of to study A Levels, and the pressure she felt (from herself and perceived from others outside the family) to be like Charlotte was immense. She decided then and there that she too wanted to do GCSEs and A Levels, with the ultimate goal of being a nurse. This goal had kept her going through Charlotte’s illness and then her exams. It had given her something to focus on and something tangible to build up her confidence.
Problem was, it was not really using any of her giftings and talents. Both my mum and I felt she would be better off pursuing her art and photography – two things she was clearly gifted in. I took her out for a coffee to broach the subject. I knew if I told her what I thought, she would feel that I was saying she wasn’t good enough/intelligent enough/anything enough to take the exams. So instead, after she shared with me how sad she felt all the time, I asked her to write down everything which made her smile. She wrote a long list (phew!). She showed it to me, and to my joy it contained everything I knew it would – words and sentences around anything creative. I asked her to look at all she had written and tell me what they had in common. She looked, and I could literally see a cloud lifting from her eyes. She turned to me, and sheepishly, with the glimmer of a small smile, said that they were all, to some extent, creative and arty farty!
I then tentatively suggested that maybe she might be happier pursuing all those things that made her happy rather than trying to be like her sister, which was clearly not working in the happiness department. I told her to go away and think about it, and that Gary and I would support whatever choice she made whether it be to continue down the academic route or pursue an artistic one.
This was about a month ago. Since then, we have bought her a puppy (she calls him her mental health puppy!), which she has full responsibility for; she has left her job working with children and started another one working in a jewellery store where they will be training her up to pierce ears; she has decided to pursue her creativity and come January she will begin to study towards a Foundational Diploma in Art and Design (level 3 and 4), the equivalent of three more A Levels and a great route to studying art and design at university. This has no exams, and will be very similar to her Photography Diploma x three! She will be taking functional maths, which she will pass very easily being a very strong mathematician.
With her new job, her sign reading classes and her youth group she is learning to be apart from Charlotte. She and her twin are in constant contact throughout the day, and both make huge efforts to spend time together away from school. Lillie is finding that their relationship, whilst changed, is just as close, if not closer. They have moved bedrooms (a whole other story for another day) and are now sleeping in what was the littles’ room, with twin beds. This means they go to bed and chat into the night.
Most importantly, Lillie is back to her normal self. With no exams to worry about, and a future which is so different from her sister’s as to be incomparable, she is gaining confidence each and every day. She and I spend a lot of time together throughout the day (in a way which was not possible last year) and our already lovely relationship is enjoying the giggles and fun which come with a relaxed Lillie and a mother who is working normal hours. None of Lillie’s fears about her sister leaving have materialised. She has not been replaced in any way shape or form. Charlotte craves for her company just as much as she craves for Charlotte’s. She has not been left behind, more she has chosen a different path; a path which is so eminently suitable to her home-loving artistic nature that she can not help but rejoice.
Charlotte is LOVING school. Her teachers have commented that her transition from homeschool to school has been nothing less than miraculous. She adores all her classes, is already known as a bit of a nerd and is educationally one of the strongest. I am so relieved! I did not ruin her by homeschooling her. She is able to hold her own educationally and socially. A pressure I didn’t know was there has lifted.
Thomas is also enjoying college. He just has nine months left. Last week, he and Gary went to visit NEXUS, a small Christian university. He wants to study a degree in Contemporary Worship and Live Sound. He loved everything about it. It was a small home-from-home family orientated campus, and the man he went round with made it very clear that he would welcome an application from Thomas. It feels good to know Thomas has plans for his future which are exciting to him.
The littles are also doing well, although we are still only doing the work books each day. But they are learning, are happy and they always have the afternoons off which makes them very joyful indeed! I think we will probably continue on this path until half term and then begin back with all the optional extras which makes our homeschool such fun.
As I feel more and more myself, I will start writing here more often. The break has been a necessary one, but one which is slowly coming to an end. I hope you are all enjoying the new homeschool year, and that God blesses you all greatly over the next twelve months and beyond!