The Best Laid Plans

I learned a valuable lesson once. I don’t remember when exactly, but a long time ago.


I learned that even the best laid plans often don’t come to fruition.


I certainly didn’t absorb the lesson immediately. And I probably still haven’t: not so entirely as to be inoculated against making plans that fall apart – sometimes softly, sometimes with jarring abruptness – ever again. But each time I am confronted with a plan that doesn’t, well, go to plan I am less indignant than the last time.


The first shocking adult revelation that some plans go awry long before inception was when my Dad died at 47 putting paid to plans to combine my 21st birthday party with his 50th.


The second came soon afterwards: when my plan to marry a Dulwich-living Lloyds broker fell apart long after a deposit had been placed on a gown in Tatters on the Kings Road. Long after the church had been booked. Long after the fabric for the bridesmaids’ dresses had been purchased. But, blessedly, just before I trotted up the aisle to make what would, indubitably, have been the biggest mistake I ever made.


Lots of plans since have been derailed: by life, by circumstance, by something I hadn’t seen even though it was lying heavily in the plan’s path all along.


My plan to send our children to the prep school my brother went to? So that they might benefit from similar advantages: sport, chapel on Sunday evenings, tradition, convention, good manners, the doffing of school caps?


That plan went pear-shaped when Ben was bullied. We plucked him out and sent him to an international school where sport wasn’t as strong, where there was no chapel at all, not even on Sunday evenings (there were no Sunday evenings: it was a day school) and where the doffing of school caps was replaced by the thumbing of noses. At convention mainly. At conformity. As in: don’t try to make your children conform to what was the norm when you were young.


Our plan to make our millions when we invested our life savings in a farm we called home and grew to love began to fray at the edges quite soon after we’d signed the dotted line. By the time we realized we’d made a colossal error of judgment, the plan had disintegrated to nothingness.


And so another recent plan has evaporated to be replaced, as is sometimes the case but not always (I will never stop being sad Dad and I didn’t share a birthday party; we will probably never stop regretting that we invested in a farm that went bankrupt), by something much better (marrying a farmer in Africa was an infinitely happier plan than becoming the wife of a London broker).


My son was offered, on the condition he attained certain grades in recent IGCSE exams, an assisted place at an independent school in England.


He thought, ‘Oh goody: more cricket’.


I thought, ‘Oh goody: chapel on Sunday evenings, tradition, convention, good manners, the doffing of school caps …” (as I said, sometimes the first failed plan’s lesson takes a while to sink in).


But before the results were available I began to notice that my son’s enthusiasm for More Cricket had begun to wane.


And I also – uncharacteristically – began to notice the obstacle lying in our plan’s path before we all tripped over it.


One Saturday afternoon, post exams, pre results, I took a cold beer into the garden and joined my almost-seventeen-year-old who was hanging in the hammock.


I proffered the bottle for us to share.  ‘Spill the beans’, I said, ‘you don’t want to go, do you?’


He didn’t, he said, not anymore. He had once, he added hastily, and apologetically, so that I might know the effort had not all been in vain. But not now. ‘I am happy where I am, Mum, I like my friends’.


He was tired of change, he said. I empathized: it had been a year full of it.


‘So don’t go’, I said. Just like that. ‘Don’t go’.


It was easy. No angst. No sleepless nights. No deliberating. Not even, and this is the best bit, a twinge of indignation.


Just a change of plan. Another change of plan.


Friends, some friends who have their hearts set on schools like the one we have apparently just dismissed – chapel, tradition, convention, doffing of school caps – pretend they understand our choice. But they don’t. They think we have wasted an ‘opportunity’. I can hear it in the briefest of pauses after I have told them, ‘He’s not going, you know?’ and before they say, ‘Oh!’ I hear it then. In that tiny silence. Before they draw breath.


Have I? Squandered an opportunity? My son’s first Big Break?


I don’t think so. My friend E doesn’t think so either : “Good for you, boy”, she said, emphatically, because she meant it.


I think, instead, we have given him a different opportunity as the ManChild he is, teetering on the precipice of GrownUp: the opportunity to affect some influence on his own life. He has made his first big choice, by himself. Taken responsibility for himself. The gently stretching self-confidence is evident days after he returns to his old school – happy, smiling, buoyant, laughing with his mates: he calls me to tell me which subjects he plans to take and which exams he will retake. He does not ask my advice, my opinion. He simply delivers his decision as a fait accompli.


I say, ‘That’s great, well done. And if you decide to change tack, you know you can’.


Because, of course, he has had another opportunity – to learn that plans change.


And that sometimes that’s OK.


Sometimes it’s a bloody good thing they do.






39 Responses to “The Best Laid Plans”

  1. Mud Says:

    If you can give him the confidence to grasp his independence and make educated choices, rather than the simplicity to just ‘rebel’ against what ever his parents want – you’ll have provided him with far more than Sunday chapel.

    You sound like a great mum.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you Mud. I’m not. I muddle. sometimes plans that go awry help me muddle less. sometimes they make it worse. But thank you x

  3. Almost American Says:

    Having worked in boarding schools for 18 years, I can assure you that if the kid doesn’t really want to be there, it doesn’t matter how fantastically ‘good’ the school is – they won’t make the most of it. What a great decision on both your parts! It must have been hard to see him let that ‘opportunity’ pass him by, and hard for him to tell you how he really felt about it.

    I remember as I was leaving for the US, at age 24, my mother said at the last moment – “You don’t have to go you know, if you don’t want to.” I felt I had to because I’d already bought the plane ticket – but she was right, at any moment up until stepping on the plane I could have chosen not to do so.

  4. Roberta Says:

    Good on him! Good on you!

    Take it from one mother that watched painfully as her son tried to follow his own best laid plans – almost to his own demise.

    Years later, he is happy and is starting to realize the fruits of his “u – turn”.

  5. Iota Says:

    Good for you and good for him.

    I share with you a feeling that those kind of schools must offer the best education (all those people spending all that money can’t be wrong, can they?). But then I step back, look at the big wide world of the 21st century, and think “uniforms? tradition? convention? teachers (masters, I think they’re called) who have gone from that kind of school to that kind of university back to that kind of school having neither teacher training nor a brush with the real world? chapel on a Sunday evening, for goodness sake?” and think that perhaps a healthy dose of normal life is the best preparation for life.

  6. R. Sherman Says:

    As someone said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

    My high school guidance counselor sent my transcripts to the wrong university, thereby disqualifying me from a number of scholarships and necessitating I go to a state university. Of course, it was there I met my wife of twenty years and got three wonderful kids as part of the deal.

    Great post!


  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Almost American. I don’t think it was hard to see the ”opportunity” go by. For me it means he will be that much closer for another two years. Of course I could not have inflicted that on him. But since he has volunteered to stay closer to home for longer, I can heave a small sigh of relief. And swallow a tiny smile!

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Roberta; U-turns are sometimes good. U-turns sometimes, in the case of your son and mine, point us in a better direction? x

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Hello Iota: it’s not so much that I think they offer a better education, they don’t, just that they present a system I understand simply because I am more a product of the same old system than a newer one. And of course that means bucking the trend of many of my contemporaries which can be intimidating! But why educate our kids the way we were educated? My son’s world is a very differenet place than mine was at the same age, almost 30 years ago. And I think it is probably his brush with the real world that gave him the confidence to articulate what he wanted to do: he – lucky boy – has seen both sides and has the experience to understand which suits him best. As to chapel on Sundays – I agree. x

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    And a really great story, Mr Sherman. Thank you. I loved that.

  11. Kathleen Says:

    Yes, a good decision. I’ve always thought outside the mainstream and non-conformity until these past few years where my son is so much more conservative, he is in his final year in college, so I find myself confronted with traditions, conformity, conservativism and it feels strange but he is so comfortable and has excelled in this environment. It feels strange but I realize that all of that is important to him, where when I was his age I threw it all out the window. Funny how life goes in cycles like that.

  12. FoodFunFarmLife Says:

    I’ve been a silent reader of your blog for a long, long time now. (Okay, I admit – I’m a lurker !) SO much of what you say in ALL your posts really hits home with me & I admire you for standing up for what you & your family believe in, & not going along with what SOCIETY dictates.

    Goodness, living as a Tanzanian expat I know all about that & I REFUSE to do what everyone else does just because it’s the “done” thing. I simply will not join in the politics & cliques here & if I’m branded as odd or reclusive – well so be it !

    Your son must be proud that he has made such a huge decision on his own & I guarantee you that having the support of his parents and the rock solid stability of knowing that you are there for him no matter what, will mean more to him than any private school or overseas education ever could, and I bet he’ll be a much happier and well balanced adult as a result of it !

    Thanks for a great blog and for being so honest with your readers – and also for your hilarious (and oh-so-true) take on Tanzanian life ! (Sometimes you have me both laughing and crying at the same time !!)

    Bye for now
    West Kili, Tanzania

  13. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Isn’t it Kathleen: I agree. Funny how life turns in circles. what we kicked against, our children may not. It certainly adds to the interest.

  14. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Lynda: thank you so much for visiting. And for commenting. It can be hard to resist the pressure, it can be hard to confront it or not feel overwhelmed by it at times. But I am getting better, bucking lots of trends, particularly in regards to education. Denying two of my children an expensive overseas education and the third any kind of formal school at all … ah well, they’re smiling. For now. And that’s really all that matters x

  15. lori Says:

    dear r.m. i love that you had faith in him…and yourself, to say just that, don’t go. it is that easy, if you let it. you sound so wise and compassionate to me. i think you gave your son a huge gift, the gift of confidence in him. and i agree, we can think on things too much and then they don’t go the way we’d “like” anyway. they just go. in buddhism it is said all suffering is caused by expectation. My mom always said make your plans,but leave room for change. And last here is a line from a movie i saw recently that i love “so instead of asking our young people, “what are your plans? what do you plan to do with your life?” maybe we could tell them this- Plan to be surprised. So sorry about your Dad. xo

  16. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Lori, how kind. I wanted to weep when I read your comment. I’m not wise. But I have learned that not listening to my children is a mistake. Even when they aren’t talking parents need to listen. Sometimes especially when they’re not talking. I love that: suffering is caused by expectation. How true. I love what your ma says. And it’s not often movie’s spout wisdom but plan to be suprised would be a good mantra to live by. Thanks for words about Dad x

  17. Yvonne Young Says:

    Home is where the heart is as they say. Both of my lads went to University in our home town, cost more than anything. The eldest, 30, is just here for a good time and remains single, sporty and enjoys sailing. The youngest, 28 has been married 2 years and now lives 4 hours away, they`re ready to move on when they`re ready, good that you understood, you know your own kids.

  18. Janelle Says:

    absobloodylutely. don’t see anything wrong..only right..someone making The Right Decisions For Themselves. Lovely. Gad you get a LOT of comments eh?? lots love xxx janelle

  19. Potty Mummy Says:

    Well done RM – sounds like the plan to raise a well-adjusted independant son worked in any case.

  20. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Yvonne. You kind of know that as a parent: that kids move on when they are ready. But it is enormously helpful and reassuirng when people wiser than yourself remind you: of what you hoped you knew. Thanks.

    Janelle: thank you. Baby boy all growing up. Sad that they have to: grow up. But gratifying to watch the soft unfurling of self confidence. Of self, really.

    Potty: thank you very much. Though parenting plans like all others frequently go awry: like the one where I’d raise daughters tidier and better organised than their mother? Alas, seem to have failed there, to the eternal disappointment of the men in this house!

  21. lori Says:

    dear r.m.,…wish i knew your name. when i read your words i see so much of myself about 10 years ago, i bet thats how far apart we are in age. anyway, what i’m getting at is i wish i could give you the wisdom that i am finally getting(why does it take so long?) the doubtful critical self talk, your words have so much power. you know this…you would not want any of your precious children to feel a failure or to like themselves anyless because they were not organized or tidier or braver or whatever. what i know from reading your words you are a loving, present, mother,wife,friend. you are a lucky woman to have loving children and husband and friends. you could replace every negative with a positive and see if you dont see a change in your life. i wish we were friends, but i guess in a way we are. you could maybe try meditating on this matter, choose a word that makes you happy. feed your mind healthy words everyday. i think your blog is wonderful and you inspire me to write…someday.

    peace + love

  22. valley girl Says:

    You definitely did the right thing there, and he will thank you for it. My parents were expats in the Far East and sent me to a tradtional girls’ boarding school a little like the one you describe. I hated it, was vastly homesick and after two years begged to be taken away and allowed to go to the local school. They deliberated over it, but in the end persuaded me to stay at the boarding school as they were worried the other school would not offer such a good education. (Not true in hindsight: I ended up at the same University with friends who had gone to the local school). Eventually I grew to tolerate it, but I look back on those years as the most miserable of my life. I don’t blame my parents, but wish they had had your courage.

  23. Teena Says:

    I can’t help but think you’re way to late to have squandered his first big break! Clearly he’s already had plenty of those to turn out so happy and confident at 17! Well done you. At the end of the day the only good school is one where a child is happy. What suits one child will not suit the next and happy children learn better than unhappy ones, whatever the school’s abilities! I’d go with happiness every time! t.x

  24. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    lori – I’m inclined to be self-deprecating. it’s an easy way make light of things sometimes. without sounding too sorry for oneself! or too serious … if that makes sense. I’m not as young, sadly, as you may think I am though! And thank you for being so kind about my writing x

  25. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    valley girl: thank you for that – for bravely citing your own experience to bolster my confidence about our decision. That was generous of you. I’m sorry boarding school was such an unhappy time for you. I was OK boarding in England. My husband hated every single moment of the five years he was there, as did many of his friends. Lots of mutual empathising over the ether then.

  26. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Teena: I agree. happiness is all. With a mum who has battled with depression since she was younger than I am now, I understand how precious and how very fragile happiness is. Without it nothing works. Thank you x

  27. lori Says:

    oh oh, i have learned another new thing, drinking wine,staying up past midnite and writing words on the computor do not mix. perhaps it was meownself and not you those words were for! need to go make some jam now!!

  28. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    you are funny, Lori! make jam, drink wine, stay up too late and write. it’s all part of threading life’s rich tapestry and making it all the more colourful x

  29. ExpatKat Says:

    Wow. What a wonderful post. I totally agree – you gave him a great gift, the freedom to express his true feelings without pressure or judgement. This is a wonderful thing. There is ‘opportunity’ in everything if we choose to see it. When something like this comes along, only you know in your heart if it is right for you. We are all different and bucking the trend takes courage and maturity. You can be proud of your son on both counts.

    My 16yr old daughter had to decide whether to take a running start program (College associates degree in High School) or continue where she is. It would appear that everyone here aspires to this. It saves a fortune in college fees and has ‘status’ attached. As we’ve only been in the US for 3yrs, she wisely chose to forgo this ‘opportunity.’ She said: a) she’s not ready for so much change after the cultural upheaval she’s so recently endured; b) she wants to have the whole American High School experience! As the first member of our family to go through a US High School, she values the cultural experience above anything else.

    It is hard for others to understand this choice, but as the child of an expat family, she looks at life differently from those around her. She knows that one country’s educational ‘status’ symbols is not anothers. She also knows better than anyone else, exactly how she feels about life at any given time. We support her decision.

  30. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    ExpatKat: thank you very much. And I shall say to your daughter, same age as my son, what my friend E said to him, ”Bloody good for you!”. It does take guts. But developing guts is a useful thing x Wish her good luck.

  31. Expat Mum Says:

    Well done RM. You gave him so much when you didn’t jump in and try to persuade him or insist he went to a school that he wouldn’t enjoy. Now he’ll know that when you do argue with him, you’ll really really mean it, and he’ll be much more likely to listen and respect you.
    Having gone to a girls’ convent school which I hated for all 7 years, I am envious of teenagers who enjoy their school experience. He will probably go on to far greater things than he would have managed under a more opressive school system.

  32. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks Expat Mum: I hope so. I hope so. Not always easy this parenting lark though is it?!

  33. Hadriana Says:

    Yes…you are listening to your children (meant to say that) and that’s absolutely wonderful. It’s possibly your greatest gift to them apart from love.

  34. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Hadriana – thank you for that. And for visiting. I think you’re doing what’s right for you. It can be very, very hard to buck trends and do what feels right esp when it doesn’t appear to feel right for anybody else. But they’re not living our lives: we are. I have been very fortunate: my mum has never cared much for what other people think and my adored grandmother flew in the face of convention. Both provided me wtih great lessons. Doubtless that’s why I had the confidence to listen to my son. And good luck with your venture. x

  35. doglover Says:

    Well, well. Not as in “well done”, but as in “what a surprise”.

    Making the right decision – have you? Has your son? Or is he just lazy and not wanting to get off his backside and take a new step in his life? Maybe he wouldn’t like your independent school, but if he’s 17 now, he wouldn’t be there long. And he might like it. Most boys do. And it might make a man of him – he might even learn to doff his cap.

    Just thought I should express an opposite view to all the above flattering comments!

  36. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    hello doglover. absolutely; do throw an opposing opinion into the pot. i suspect a number of my friends would agree with you too. I still maintain that we have made the right decision. that he has. I believe that being at the boarding school he attends, going to classes with an eclectic hybrid of kids from all kinds of backgrounds might be a more realistic grounding for our multicultural, frequently transient, world. And I think that given he’s only been there for a year – a move made necessary on account of our own – he probably deserves the opportunity to enjoy it since he worked to make friends and adapt to a different school and boarding lifestyle. What do you think? Oh. And he doffs his cap already!

  37. Marianne Says:

    Just scrolling down, catching up with who you are and felt moved to make a comment on this post, because it resonates so strongly with me – much of what you say resonates with me. I have family in Nairobi, I live in Kent, near a girls’ boarding school – yours perhaps? I have looked into the abyss of bankruptcy – married the public school city banker, but it all went horribly wrong. I too have sons, one of whom is 17.

    As I struggled to bring up this troubled child without his father’s love and support, and it all kept falling apart for us again and again, of all the advice that was flung at me by concerned but detached professionals, the best piece was to give him control of his life, let him make his own choices, his own mistakes, forge his own path. And that is what I try to do, and what you have done for your son. Sometimes what you don’t do is as important as what you do. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing, the letting go.

  38. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    this is lovely, Marianne; thank you. And all the best in the world to you and your boy. I think it sounds as if you are doing a tremendous job. x

  39. Is bullying ever useful? « Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] whilst sitting at a desk in an Outpost despite criticism from friends. It’s why I supported my son’s decision not to take up a place at a sixth form college. And it’s why, on my way to a snow bound England to […]

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