I've just done 6 loads of washing back to back. Apparently that's what happens when you go away for a week and do no washing at all. That's right - none. Heaven! We've just returned from a week at Embercombe, tentatively attending our first of their annual Grow the Grown Ups family camp.
To be honest, we didn't know an awful lot about the week before we signed up. I can't remember if I saw something about it in an article I read, or if it popped up on my Facebook feed, or if possibly even a friend might have mentioned it. But somehow I heard about it, and it sounded wonderful to me: lots of family time, outdoorsy activities for the kids (and parents!), adult-only sessions to delve deeper into this intense and complex work that is parenting, no meals to cook… What more could a busy parent want?
So why so tentative? Well, as it began to loom larger for us in the last few weeks before we went, we realised a few things. They were all things we kind of knew, but the reality began to hit us a bit more as the days went by. Firstly, we were going to have to stay in a yurt (although in all honesty, it was just me in our family who was lacking in enthusiasm on that front) - the camp is very eco-friendly, and we try very hard to do what we can at home, but the idea of walking outdoors to get to the (compost) toilet did not fill me with joy. Secondly, the whole week was to be screen free. Gulp. I love and hate my phone, and I love and hate Facebook (don't we all??!), but I have a wonderful, supportive group on there, and the thought of not being able to check in with everyone each day, and make sure things were running smoothly in the group, was faintly terrifying to me. Thirdly, when you go on a parenting camp, where everyone is trying to parent in the same peaceful, loving sort of way, are you going to be judged in those inevitable moments when you lose your s***? And finally - and for me this was the biggy - it looked like it was going to be a very unconventional, earth-loving sort of week. Which is just fine - if you're fairly 'out there' with your free-spiritedness. But I'm not. And nor is my husband. We definitely feel our connection to nature, and to our fellow humans, but outwardly showing it? Well, that's another matter. And that felt huge, and difficult, and unwelcome to us. What if they spotted us? What if we were the only ones who didn't fit in? What if we weren't welcome there??
Well, we were going to have to suck it up weren't we? We were booked, we were going, and we were bloody well going to enjoy it! But we did do some Listening Time on it before we went, to ease the tension we were holding about it!
I'm now going to sidestep the anticipation I can tell you're all holding (!) on whether we would enjoy ourselves or not: we loved it. We loved loved loved it. I can't quite emphasise that enough: we really loved it! Have you ever found a place that feels like home? A place where you feel more like yourself than you've ever felt anywhere else? A place where the highest possible value is placed on love, acceptance and support? This was that place. Every interaction from those working at the camp started from a point of listening; of striving to empathise with our position. I lost count of the number of times, as one (or more!) of my children kicked off about whatever it was they needed to express in that moment, that someone would approach me, lay a gentle, non-judgemental hand on my shoulder, and say 'Is there anything I can do to support you?'
And I learned to say yes. Yes to the support, yes to finding it hard, yes to having someone please please listen to me. Parenting is exceptionally isolating and badly supported in our society, and it is all too easy to become inwardly focused, and to feel that you have to do it all (I mean, everyone else has their own problems right?). And yet here was a group of people showing just how it can be done - how it should be done.
As for the other parents in the camp, who we'd imagined might judge our behaviours towards our children (in spite of our best efforts, we are far far from perfect parents, and we have to constantly strive to do better) - nothing could have been further from the truth. Here was a group which emanated understanding and compassion, and where you could turn to anyone, at any time, without fear of judgement or condemnation.
Mornings at the camp were spent going for walks, helping out in the garden, or engaging in sessions of craft or music. I say engaging, but really everyone was free to do as much or as little of the planned activities as they liked, which added hugely to the relaxed atmosphere of the camp. In the afternoons, Joanna Watters led truly exceptional, Hand in Hand Parenting-inspired sessions for the adults, designed to help us engage as fully as possible with our role as parents; again, parents were free to come and go as they wished, depending on the needs of their children. And as for the children themselves; whilst the younger ones spent time next door to the adults, in a loving, nurturing creche, the older crowd were taken by the outstanding play team all over the grounds of Embercombe, where they were invited to participate in a wealth of wonderfully captivating activities, like cooking bread on sticks over an open fire, hauling water up from the well, and extracting honey straight from the bee hives. As it was for the adults, involvement for any individual child in any event or activity was in no way compulsory, and we in particular found that a huge relief as we strove to support each of our children in whatever way they needed. (As an aside, separation, for various reasons, is something of a challenge for all of our children, so to have our middle one (aged 5) go off with the play team to the woods for the whole afternoon towards the end of the week, was a massive credit to them - both in terms of the sense of safety they must have created for her, and in terms of how they helped us support our other two children in what they needed as well.)
The whole camp was everything we could have dreamed of and more - not only did we feel fully accepted, included and supported, we also gained a huge amount of clarity about some areas of challenge in our life right now; not least our amazing son's unique way of thinking and being, and the impact that has on those around him. Whilst we wouldn't change him for anything, we realised we had been muddling along in a sort of 'stiff upper lip - this is just how it is' mentality, when actually there are things about having a child on the autism spectrum which are very challenging, and it was immensely helpful to us to recognise that, and to work through some of the feelings around the issues we face. We also felt profoundly the atmosphere of a slow pace in the camp, and have vowed that this is an element we just must weave into our much-busier-than-we'd-like lives when we're at home; focusing on, and connecting with our children, is always so much easier if we can just slow it all down a bit, and so it must become a priority, even in the face of the all commitments and pressures we encounter in our normal, day-to-day lives.
In short, the Grow the Grown Ups camp left me with such a feeling of hope - that we humans can, and must, work to do things in a different way from that which society instils in us. We saw children respected and accepted, we saw family connection prioritised and nurtured, we saw individuality celebrated, and love, hope and spirit shared. Is this not as it should be?
As for my fears from before the camp? I have learnt that our Facebook community group is even more amazing than I had realised, as the other admins took up the slack and did a marvellous job in my absence. And on returning home, I find myself less reliant on checking in on my screens, which is allowing me to be more present than before with my children. We continue our quest to simplify our lives with increased motivation - now that we have seen how different it really can be. And I hold the feeling of acceptance at the camp close to my heart - even as I take my beautiful children out into the real world again, and remember what it's like for them (or me!) to get the look of shame when my kids are doing just what kids should do.
And finally? I see that I am a fully-fledged, jeans-wearing, hoodie-toting hippy-at-heart, and that's just the way I should be. Oh, and I even survived the toilets! We will definitely be back next year.
I can't fully do justice to the camp in this post, but I must just recognise again the supreme efforts of both the team who run Embercombe itself, and the team who run the Grow the Grown Ups camp - and I also pay huge tribute to all the returning families who helped out to support the teams; in total, a group of more amazing individuals you would be very hard pushed to find. Thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make our week the most incredible experience we could have hoped for.
For some completely different perspectives on that same amazing week, please have a read of these wonderful pieces by two of our companions at the camp: