Advent

With only a couple of weeks until the little person currently hiccupping away inside me makes an appearance I am definitely going into nesting mode. Or maybe preparation mode would be more accurate. It’s a funny stage of pregnancy. You know that within a very short space of time your life is going to change beyond recognition, but at the moment everything is still exactly the same, give or take a few stone here or there and a clinical dependency on Gaviscon.

I am developing a mania for getting ‘things’ sorted. ‘Things’ can be anything from niggly little household jobs I know we won’t have time for post-baby, to batch cooking for the freezer, to finalising my preparations for Christmas. Some of this drive to prepare is clearly hormonal, some comes from doing this second time around and knowing that those crazy hazy early days are as demanding as they are miraculous, and wanting to do as much as possible to make sure everything that could make our lives easier is already in place. And then Christmas is the elephant in the room. If everything goes to plan, our baby will be born on December 15th. Clearly ten days post c-section with a newborn to care for I am not going to be able to do Christmas quite as intensively as the previous couple of years, but equally I still want Anna to have a special time, and I love Christmas myself, so there are lots of traditions I would be sad to miss out on.

One of these is making biscuit decorations for the Christmas tree. Anna and I have baked and decorated Vanilla and Clementine Biscuits from a recipe I found in Sainsbury’s magazine for the last three years, and when we were talking about her favourite Christmas things, this was one of the first she mentioned. The recipe makes an enormous batch, so we usually eat the ones which don’t quite turn out right, and save the best ones for the tree. Of course, by Twelfth Night they’re no longer edible, but I think they definitely give our tree a Scandi-chic, hand-made kind of vibe, which I love. And we have huge fun making them for at least ten minutes, before Anna starts to get bored, I start to get obsessive compulsive about the placement of the silver balls for decoration, and then I realise that Anna, I, and every utensil and surface in the entire kitchen is covered with a sticky film which is strangely resistant to all cleaning agents. Looking forward to that.

Anna is then going with her dad to collect the Christmas tree, and we will decorate it on Sunday. It feels slightly wrong doing it in November, but it IS Advent Sunday. I keep repeating that to myself. Another Christmas tradition is getting Anna’s Christmassy books out, and I gave in on that one this morning, so expecting that I’ll be reading Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, Topsy and Tim Meet Father Christmas, Jolly Postman’s Christmas and The Donkey’s First Christmas on loop from now on. I don’t mind, though. The Lucy and Tom book is mine from when I was little, and reading it still gives me a nostalgic glow.

So, what are your family Advent traditions, and/or essential tips for preparing for a new baby?

Iced Vanilla and Clementine Biscuit Decorations

Ingredients

350g plain flour

250g cold unsalted butter

125g icing sugar

Pinch sea salt

Zest of 2 clementines

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

5 tablespoons whole milk

1 large egg yolk

1 packet instant royal icing sugar

Edible silver balls

Method

1. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Grate the fridge cold butter into the flour, and rub in using your fingertips until the mixture is the consistency of breadcrumbs.

2) Sift in the icing sugar, and add the clementine zest. Add the egg yolk, milk and vanilla and bring together into a dough.

3) Divide the dough into two rounds, wrap in cling film, and place in freezer to chill for half an hour.

4) Pre-heat the oven to Gas 4/160. Remove the dough from the freezer, and roll out to thickness of a £1 coin. Use shaped pastry cutters (we like stars, bells, Christmas trees and angels) to stamp out your shapes. Use a skewer to make a hole in the top for threading ribbon through. TIP – make this bigger than you imagine you will need as it shrinks a lot during baking.

5) Bake for 15-20 mins, until light golden. Leave on baking trays for 2 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

6) When completely cool, make up the royal icing according to pack instructions, and decorate the biscuits using either a piping bag or a teaspoon, depending on whether you want them completely covered with icing, or just decorated. Add silver balls to wet icing. When set, thread string/ribbon through the ones for the tree. I like very thin red satin ribbon, but you can use pretty much anything you like. Scoff the rest!

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Friendship

I am very fortunate that I am still good friends with a group of girls I’ve known since school. Scarily, that means our friendship now dates back over twenty years. I’m not quite sure how the time passed so quickly, but it is an extraordinary privilege to have people in my life who’ve been around for such a long time, and since such a formative stage.

We’ve seen each other through innumerable bad haircuts, unfortunate clothing experiments and unsuitable crushes. Of course, the nature of our friendship has changed over the years. Twenty years ago I knew their wardrobes and make-up bags like my own. I could tell you every boy they’d ever kissed and exactly who they fancied right now. We would spend all day together at school and then the second we got home be on the phone to do the equivalent of a post-match analysis. This was pre-mobile phones, and (as far as we were concerned) pre-internet, so all these crucial conversations were conducted in furtive whispers on the landline in the corner of the living room. One of the happiest days of my teenage life was when my parents bought a cordless phone. They may have regretted it, of course, because it then vanished into my room and they didn’t see it again until I left for university. I suppose they and my younger brother must have resorted to carrier pigeon for any communications with their own friends.

Inevitably that level of intimacy doesn’t survive into adult life. Geography is one factor – I see less of them than they see of each other, because most of them still live in Liverpool. Our lives got busier and more complex; careers in completely different fields, relationships, houses, babies. I no longer have time (or inclination) to spend an hour analysing which Body Shop lip balm I should buy. My go-to person when I have a problem to discuss, or good or bad news to share, is now my husband. From being each other’s entire world we now have much wider and more diverse groups of friends from university, work, NCT classes etc. Sometimes months go by with little more contact than a couple of emails or an exchange or two on Facebook.

But when I do meet up with them, as I did for the day on Saturday, it is always, instantly, as though we saw each other the day before and the last fifteen years haven’t happened. Saturday was an especially lovely day as they’d all come to London to hold a joint baby shower for me and one of the other girls, who is expecting her first baby on New Year’s Eve. My husband took Anna off for a day of quality Daddy time and so, despite my enormous bump, I instantly felt carefree and ten years younger. We had a long, lazy pub lunch, a spot of vintage clothes shopping, and then retired to the Air B&B flat the girls had rented for the weekend to eat our own body weight in cake and for J and I to be totally indulged and spoilt by enormous numbers of thoughtful and generous gifts. pinata cake!We had a huge catch up, and decided that with two babies expected very shortly, and quite a lot of broodiness around, the next few years would be a blur of child-rearing, and so lazy and relaxing get-togethers would be few and far between, but we pledged that we would save up, and make sure we organise the restrictions of pregnancy and breastfeeding sufficiently so that we can have a weekend away together to celebrate our 40th birthdays in around six years time.

So thank you, ladies. I had a wonderful day on Saturday, and feel so lucky to have you all. And to have experienced pinata in cake form…

On the Third Day of Christmas

I’ve blogged before about my frustrations with pregnancy tiredness and lassitude, and nowhere has that been more true than with regard to my writing. I launched my second book, To Have and to Hold in June – luckily this was all finished, bar a few edits, before the blue line in the pregnancy test appeared – and would have hoped that five months later my third book would be well under way. It hasn’t quite worked like that. For a start there have been many days when my body saw me sitting down as a cue for instant, overwhelming sleep, and so I could virtuously settle myself down with my laptop only to wake two hours later with keyboard imprints on my face. And then there was the problem of what to write

The book I started, with a plot which had been spinning around in my head for a long time, focussed on three couples experiencing the miseries of fertility problems and miscarriage. It’s a subject close to my heart, and in large part I think I had planned the book as catharsis; a way of coming to terms with the babies I had lost, and coping with the fact that my much-wanted second child might never be born. When I was lucky enough to become pregnant, this subject suddenly felt far too loaded. I struggled on for a few chapters, but always ended up depressed, anxious, in tears or, frequently, all three. The combination of hormones, my ongoing anxiety that this is indeed too good to be true, and that something will go wrong with my pregnancy, and an emotive storyline proved too much for me. I decided to shelve that project, at least for the time being. The characters are still in my mind, and I have a feeling that I’ll come back to them one day, but now is not the time.

on the third day of christmas coverSo, if not that, then what? Almost without thinking about it I decided that a short story would be the perfect project and, as Toby and Julia, the lead characters from my first book Two for Joy are very close to my heart, it seemed natural to return to them. At the beginning of Two for Joy they are both thirty, and the reader discovers that they have been friends since meeting at university 12 years earlier. There are a few hints and flashbacks throughout Two for Joy, but the entire time I was writing it I felt that I knew Toby and Julia’s back story, just as clearly as I know my own or that of my friends. And so I wrote it down. As readers we share Julia’s trip down memory lane as she reflects on the Christmas she has just spent with Toby, and what it might mean in the context of 12 years of their friendship and romantic near-misses. The result is a short story/novella called On the Third Day of Christmas which will be published as an e-book on 4 December 2014 (coincidentally just a few days away from my due date!), and is available to pre-order now. I hope it will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Two for Joy, but it is also a stand-alone story.

As for Book Three, well, I do have a new idea I’m working on, but there’s absolutely no way that the book is going to beat the baby. And although it’s nearly six years ago, I do seem to remember that life with a newborn isn’t exactly conducive to literary endeavour. Or getting dressed, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, leaving the house etc etc. So I am going to award myself a few months of maternity leave from writing, although I will continue to blog when time and sleep levels permit. When I emerge from the fog of the early stages it will be brilliant to have something all lined up and ready to work on. I definitely found that having one child increased my motivation, efficiency and productivity, so am hoping that a second baby will have a similar effect. In which case I could be looking at a third book by my baby’s first birthday. Watch this space…

Material Girl?

One of the things I was utterly certain about when my daughter was born was that she wouldn’t be spoilt by a plethora of material possessions. I was slightly horrified at some of the clothes, equipment and toys which fellow parents seemed to consider essential for a tiny baby. It helped that we lived in a fairly small two bedroomed house at the time, so there wasn’t an awful lot of room for baby walkers, activity centres and the like. We were also on a strict budget as I was hoping that I would be able to stay at home with Anna after my maternity leave finished, and so we were saving my maternity pay and living on my husband’s salary to see if we would be able to get by.

I threw myself into the baby on a budget mentality and enjoyed making rattles out of dried pulses in old water bottles, a sensory box out of bits and pieces we had lying around, and our local Children’s Centre and libraries were fantastic for free baby/toddler activities. Of course, as an adored first grandchild on both sides of the family, not to mention the fact that we were the first of our various friendship groups to have a baby so there was huge novelty value, Anna was also indulged with plenty of cute outfits and toys which didn’t come via my kitchen cupboards, but the indulgence felt manageable.

We continued with this philosophy through the toddler and pre-school years, and it seemed to work really well. Books were a bit of an exception, but as I’ve never been able to resist buying books for myself, it wasn’t likely I’d be able to control my bibliomania around all the gorgeous picture books we came across. And the full box set of Famous Five books might not have been an essential purchase for a not-yet-two-year-old, but it was clearly an investment. Luckily Anna enjoys being read to as much as we enjoy reading to her, so her extensive book collection is at least well used. Some women justify clothes purchases on a cost-per-wear basis; on a cost-per-read basis then most of Anna’s books were free.

The cracks started to appear at her 4th birthday party. She had a joint party with her best friend from nursery, and between them they amassed a fairly long guest list. All these children bought Anna a present, and so suddenly she had twenty presents, not including what she’d already been bought by family members. They were entirely appropriate, thoughtfully chosen books, craft sets, games, stickers and the like, but there were an awful lot of them. Far more than one four year old girl could take in or play with in one go. I sequestered some of them away, to be brought out on rainy days or bored moments in school holidays.

This worked up to a point, but we were still working our way through them when the tsunami of 5th birthday presents hit. Anna’s 5th birthday was, I am adamant, the biggest party she is going to have until her 18th. Wanting to do everything possible to facilitate her settling well into school and making friends, we gave her complete free reign with the invitations, and so ended up with nearly thirty guests. All of whom, of course, brought presents. Many of which are still untouched in their boxes.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely toys, and I feel guilty pangs every time I think about them languishing unused. But actually, with school taking up so much time, and often leaving Anna so tired that the only thing she really wants to do is cuddle up for some stories, there are only so many hours in the day. And at weekends and holidays, we love to make the most of the fabulous city we live in and go out and about to museums, parks, galleries or cafes, or to visit family and friends. When she is at home,  Anna’s preferences are pretty clear. She loves imaginary play – mostly with the Peppa Pig characters or Octonauts set which were her main presents from us two successive Christmases – but also popular are her play kitchen (largely made by me out of painted cardboard boxes), her shop till and her doctors kit, and she loves being read to, or sitting looking through her books by herself, or baking with me. When friends come round they seem to have the most fun either taking all the bedding from all the beds and piling it up in the spare room to make a den or, alternatively, piling up all the sofa cushions in the middle of the living room to make an avalanche. Very recently she has been more interested in arty things, and has spent ages with colouring books or nagging me to get her painting things out. (Tip: Whatever Mr Maker says, splatter painting is a) hopelessly, ridiculously, ohmygod-call-the-decorators messy, and b) doesn’t produce anything except sludge coloured sopping wet paper. DO NOT try it at home).

And then a couple of weeks ago:

“Mummy, I wish I had some real dressing up costumes.”

“How do you mean, real?”

“You know, proper ones. From a shop. Not just lots of old clothes.”

Now, Anna has always loved her dressing up box, started for her by my sister-in-law, and combining a mixture of clothes, bags, scarves, jewellery, masks, and one or two commercial costumes. Closer questioning revealed that it was a friend from school on a play date who had asked where all the real (for real, read ‘from the Disney Store) costumes were, and it had set Anna thinking. It is, I think, the first time she has ever spontaneously asked for a toy. Previously she’s come up with Iists for Father Christmas, or gazed wistfully at things in toy shops, remarking on how much she likes a certain thing, hint, hint, and she’s even announced what she will be saving up her pocket money for, but she has never nagged or whinged or begged for things. I know this will be the first exertion of peer pressure amongst many, and I don’t quite know where to go with it.

On the one hand, I want to maintain our relatively non-materialistic approach. I don’t want a six year old cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I don’t want the cupboards stuffed with yet more stuff she has no time or inclination to play with. I want to continue to carefully choose the toys and books which I believe will stimulate her imagination and creativity. But…equally, I don’t want Anna to be the laughing stock of the playground because she doesn’t have the ‘right’ toys or clothes or games. And whereas I’m not going to bankrupt us or run up enormous credit card bills to clear Hamley’s out of stock, we are in the fortunate position of having a little more disposable income than we did a few years ago, and I’m more than happy to use it to indulge my own Cath Kidston passion on occasion, so why not treat Anna a little more too? And, for heaven’s sake, a couple of dressing up costumes, it’s hardly like I’m buying her personalised diamond studded hair clips from Tiffany’s,

So far I have compromised. Her Halloween costume was a witch outfit, costing the grand total of £7 from Sainsbury’s. And in terms of sheer pleasure it’s given her, it must be one of the best £7 I’ve ever spent. Not only did she wear it, after trying on, the entire evening I bought it – including dragging my (not unwilling) husband out for a twilit walk because ‘this is the time of night witches like to prowl’, she wore it to her friend’s Halloween party on Friday, and then nonstop all weekend. She played ‘witch school’ – an imaginary game of her own invention, based fairly heavily on Jill Murphy’s ‘Worst Witch’ books every moment she wasn’t either out or asleep. I did manage to get the costume off and pyjamas on at bedtime, but it would be back on (rather incongruously over pink rabbit print pyjamas) by the time she came into our room of a morning. She just loves it.

And I don’t know if this is a vindication of our approach to date – we haven’t over-indulged her, so she is capable of appreciating a fairly modest treat, or if it’s an indication I should lighten up a little bit and accept that we are indeed living in a material world, and nothing I can do will really change that, and perhaps it isn’t such a big deal anyway.