Like half terms, summer holidays and inset days, the Easter breaks can be hard for parents and foster carers, not just for practical reasons such as childcare if you’re working, but for the inevitable and dreaded words ‘I’m bored’. J, at nearly 10, is still up early in the school holidays and after a bit of obligatory Disney Channel watching, he is open to suggestions of bike rides, dog walking in the park, the occasional cinema trip or building a new world in Minecraft. He is also good with his own company and will play with other children in a group once he’s comfortable.
M at 14 is the complete opposite; sleeps until midday (or longer if she can get away with it), is allergic to the outdoors, thinks the cinema is lame entertainment for old people and wouldn’t be seen dead with me unless we are shopping. She has a large online social network but rarely actually meets up with them and her Facebook profile is the centre of her world. You can imagine her dread at me announcing we were going into London to ride bikes for the day.
I was sick of listening to her moan about being bored and I had made countless suggestions to her about how she could fill her time from meeting up with her dance friends to earning extra money by mowing the lawn. Each had been met with the eye roll of doom that only a teenager can perfect. I made a decision for everyone and researched how to hire the cheap and accessible ‘Boris Bikes’ (official name Santander Cycles) in London and told M it was obligatory – even hubby had to join in. J had an outdoor activity planned with a school friend for the day so I told the others. My idea was met with eye rolling from M and an ‘if I must’ barely hidden sigh from Hubby.
The journey was difficult as M’s sullen mood was impacting on my determined enthusiasm and she refused to sit with us on the train, head deep in her iPhone, and dragged 10ft behind us as we walked around central London. I did a little research on how to hire the bikes and was sceptical that it would be as easy as suggested, however, it was straightforward and it seemed a popular activity judging by how many bikes were gone. Whilst we were unlocking bikes I had to remind M that a cycle helmet was obligatory and she glared at me. We decided the London roads were too busy and dangerous for us and we stuck to Hyde Park and other designated cycle routes. Almost as soon as M sat on the bike the weight of teenage expectation seem to drop from her shoulders and she zoomed off ahead, fitter than I realised. I immediately challenged her and the two of us raced up and down, with M even giving me a head start. I could hardly believe the change in M, could it really be this simple?
The next few hours were spent racing each other, climbing hills, gentle teasing and laughing at M’s attempts at wheelies and watching hubby ride a bike after years of no practice. M allowed herself to be a child and delighted in riding a bike and at one point even stuck her legs out going down a hill and freewheeled. We stopped for coffee and cake at a cafe and refuelled for the afternoon ahead. We cycled until we were all tired and the rain which had threatened arrived. Hubby, who knows London well, suggested a mystery bus tour and we allowed M to choose a random bus to ride. We climbed to the top deck and watched the famous London sites glide by for the price of an Oyster card ride and rested our tired legs.
M’s normal cynical distain for the rest of humanity had gone and we all were happy watching the world go by, relying on Hubby’s knowledge as our unofficial tour guide. He suggested we stop somewhere he knew for dinner and we ate cheap but tasty burgers in a back street restaurant that lived up to its reputation. He was right; dinner was delicious and we loaded up the calories we had burnt off during the day while M chatted about the day and teased Hubby about his saddle sore behind. We talked about the day and surprisingly M asked if we could do it again and could she bring a friend? I tried not to slip off my stool in shock and agreed.
J is very much a child and is happy climbing on an adventure playground or building a Meccano racing car, but M is very self conscious and feels that the world is not only watching but judging her every move. She is settled in our home and knows she will be here until she chooses to leave which will hopefully be after university and not at 16, but she never really allows herself to be part of the family. There is a defensive wall around M that leaves me sad. It’s not just her foster family she keeps at bay but her friends, family members and the world in general; considering her background, it’s unsurprising. We chip away at it and she lets us in a little at a time but usually, she quickly rebuilds the wall as she can’t seem to allow herself to be defenceless.
M had allowed herself to be a child for the day and she sat with us on the long train ride home and didn’t retreat into her room as soon as we got back, but stayed in the living and dining room watching television and telling a slightly jealous J how cool the bikes were. I expected the usual slightly aloof M the next day but got a warmer version that was happy chatting to me and asked if she could dig her bike out of the garage. Hubby helped her pump the tires up and wipe off cobwebs and she cycled off to the park to meet a friend. The only issue was the cycle helmet but she even wore that… in my eyesight anyway.
I was surprised that once she accepted she had to participate on the London trip how much she let herself not only be a child and enjoy the freedom of bombing down a hill on a bike, but how it seems to have had a longer term effect on her. It’s been nearly a week since the trip and the barriers are still at an all time low. I realised it could have easily gone the other way and she could have sulked her way around London and spoilt it for everyone but this time we had a victory. One I plan to repeat.