Eighteen Months

Sophia was eighteen months old last week. To celebrate, we went for a blood test. However, once that was out of the way, I decided we should make the most of being out and about in London on a sunny day.

We popped into M&S to buy a picnic lunch, and then hopped on the tube to Green Park. Sophia was thrilled to have the chance to run free and chase pigeons, unrestrained by pesky hand-holding or reins. That’s pretty much all she ever wants to do.Green Park

Then I heard music coming from Buckingham Palace, and headed over to investigate. I’m not sure, but I think we caught the end of the changing of the guard. It was certainly something very ceremonial with a brass band and lots of soldiers in dress uniforms and bearskins. I pointed all this out to Sophia, but she was too transfixed by the bin lorry she’d spotted to take much notice. the guards

We fought our way through the crowds of tourists on the Mall to St James’ Park, and had our lunch on a bench over-looking the lake. This was a huge success because two of Sophia’s favourite things are ducks and dogs, and there were plenty of both to spot. Okay, so sometimes the ducks were actually swans, but there’s a whole fairy story about how that’s an easy mistake to make.cygnets

After lunch we went round to the playground. It’s a really great playground in St James’ Park, and I used to take Anna a lot before she started school, but it does get very busy at the weekend, which is a shame. Last time we were there I was about three months pregnant and feeling very sick and tired, so sat pallidly on a bench whilst husband ran round with Anna. Two years later and I was running round myself with the result of the pregnancy. I can’t quite believe how the time has flown.playground

My littlest girl is so determined and so fearless and so resolutely independent. Qualities which I hope will stand her in very good stead in later life, but make keeping her safe as a toddler (and I imagine, heaven help us when the time comes, as a teenager) quite a challenge. There was a big slide, far too steep for me to let her go down by herself, especially as it was just the two of us so there would be no-one to catch her at the bottom. So I took her down on my knee. She absolutely loved it, laughing and squealing with sheer delighted excitement. Then she saw a little girl of about four going down with her mum, side by side, holding hands. That was it, nothing else would do for Sophia, and for the next approximately forty-two times we went down the slide side-by-side.

By this time she was shattered, so I popped her back in her buggy for a nap, and walked through the park, up the Mall, through Trafalgar Square, up Pall Mall East, and through Piccadilly Circus. I love seeing London through tourist eyes and feeling proud because this is my city. I had a lovely browse in Waterstone’s, and then checked out the Cath Kidston sale in their flagship store on Piccadilly but resisted buying anything. I feel I need some credit for this as both a little red leather handbag and a gorgeous flowery dress, which I spotted back in the new Spring catalogue and have been lusting over ever since, were reduced. Not by enough for my budget though. I’m going to have to play Sale Roulette and see if they come down any further or sell out first.

By a miracle Sophia was still asleep when we got back to Walthamstow, so I bought a drink and a chocolate brownie in a little local cafe which has outdoor tables, and had a peaceful fifteen minutes reading my book in the sunshine before she woke up.

brownie

An absolutely perfect day with my lovely girl. Sophia at eighteen months is feisty, determined, active, adventurous, independent, strong-willed, mischievous, joyful, enthusiastic, loving and absolutely gorgeous. Can’t wait to see how many of these personality traits continue as she grows up.

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Stronger together: Why I’m voting In

I am a European. I am British. I am English. I am a Northerner. I am a Scouser. I am a Londoner. And I am a European. I see no contradiction in owning  these multiple identities. Moving to London hasn’t eroded my pride in where I’m from, and I will always, always, always have a bath not a barth, but I’m happy to have the chance to live in the greatest city in the world, raise my children here and call it home. Similarly, I am no less British because we’re part of the European Union.

I am voting in because membership of the EU provides us with a potent and irreplaceable mix of security and freedom. EU law protects our employment, our maternity benefits and our human rights to name but a few, whilst EU membership enables us and our children to travel, or to live, or to study, or to work in Europe at will.

I am voting in because I have read  the history books. For centuries the great European powers were almost continually at war. My grandparents’ generation made enormous, unthinkable sacrifices to ensure a peaceful Europe, and when they had done so Winston Churchill laid the foundation stones of the modern-day European Union to secure that peace for future generations. And it has worked. The main European powers have been at peace for seventy years. That has never happened before, and it is hardly coincidence that it has happened now. Looking at some of the terrible situations round the world it would be beyond hubristic to say that we are protected from war closer to home by good luck or inherent moral superiority. We are protected because we chose to work together rather than to fight each other. If Britain left the EU, that could be the beginning of the end of decades of unparalleled peace and prosperity.

I am voting in because I have worked in the NHS and been treated by the NHS, and I know that without European doctors, nurses and midwives the NHS could not function.

I am voting in because I have good friends and neighbours who are Spanish, Belgian, Polish and Italian (to name but a few) and I see them working hard, paying taxes, contributing to our community and I know that this microcosm close to me is replicated across the UK.

I am voting in because I want the best possible future for my children, and that includes living in a country which attracts vast amounts of investment in business, research, science, technology, medicine, education and the arts explicitly because of its membership of the EU.

I am voting in because, when push comes to shove, I will always want to be on the same side of the argument as Barack Obama, Stephen Hawking and Carol Ann Duffy rather than Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin.

I am voting in because, instinctively, atavistically, I know in my heart that human beings are always stronger when we work together. That no progress has ever been made from looking inwards instead of outwards. Because, in the words of Jo Cox  MP – tragically murdered because she stood  up for tolerance and inclusion against fear and hate –

we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us

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On the Jumble Trail

I have always loved shopping. As a child it was a real treat to go into town with my mum on a Saturday, just the two of us while my dad and brother did ‘boy’ things. She’d treat me to a fry-up in the C&A cafe (showing my age now), or delicious cakes in our favourite little cafe on a side street. My favourite shops then, aged about ten were good ol’ C&A and Tammy Girl.

Then when I was into my teens I’d still spend Saturdays hanging out in town with my girl friends. A Spicy Bean burger and a milkshake in Burger King, and longing looks at the clothes we couldn’t afford in TopShop, River Island and Miss Selfridge, before buying a new brightly coloured nail varnish and getting the bus home.

When I had my own pay check to spend and was working in Central London I could sneak out at lunchtime or after work to browse the shops and Oxford Street, and I had the money to treat myself sometimes. I will fit into that much-beloved size 10 leather pencil skirt again one day…

After having children, actually going to the shops could be less pleasurable. Tantrums and sticky fingers and cramped (or, heaven forbid, communal) changing rooms made it more chore than pleasure. Luckily for me I became a mum in the age of internet shopping. It’s a great way to pass the time when you’re pinioned to the sofa under a breastfeeding baby, and you can try the clothes on in the privacy of your own bedroom. Preferably by candlelight for that flattering glow. I also discovered some new favourite brands for my dress-like-a-mum style – hello Boden!

yellow dressFor me, though, there is no shopping experience more pleasurable than hunting down that elusive bargain. I’ve blogged before about my fabulous local Sell or Swap group, and how much I love combining local community with the chance to acquire some lovely new treats. Yesterday was one better than that with a local Jumble Trail. Around one hundred local people put a stall outside their house, selling off their unwanted goods, and the rest of us enjoyed the very British experience of a jumble sale in the pouring rain. I took the money I’d recently made on Sell or Swap to spend, and for the grand total of about £30 managed to get Anna a huge pile of books in the Rainbow Magic series which she is obsessed with at present, a beautiful turquoise gravy jug which looks lovely on my dresser and can even be called in to service for gravy dispension as required, a yellow chiffon dress, a White Stuff skirt with a cute bright pink bird print, an Orla Kiely scarf and a stunning navy blue silk top embellished with silver sequins for me, two pretty dresses for Anna, and a gorgeous wooden rocking horse for Sophia. rocking horseOh, and some home-made cakes, of course! I was on a total high at my lovely haul of stuff, but also at the chance to catch up with local friends, and meet some more. My idea of a perfect Sunday!

Ten things I love about parenting

My last post was a grumpy but fairly therapeutic rant on the things I hate about parenting. Yesterday someone posted on my author Facebook page to say that it sounded like I shouldn’t have had children. I’m sure it was a joke. I hope it was a joke. Nonetheless it got to me. Mainly because of the constant guilt which was point 10 on my most hated list. I love my children more than anything in the world, and can’t imagine life without them, however irksome the day-to-day practicalities can sometimes be. To think that I have written something which makes it seem as though I might regret having them feels like an utter betrayal. I’d planned to write this post at some point anyway, but in view of the Facebook comment I felt an urgent need to redress the balance. So here is a list, not an exhaustive one, of some of my favourite things about parenting.

1) Their faces when they’re asleep

Obviously I love their faces awake as well. But the exquisite vulnerability of a sleeping child is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

2) Holding hands

The feeling of your child slipping their little hand into yours is a perfect summary of the trust they place in you to protect them and guide them and get it right for them. Sometimes it is a responsibility which feels overwhelming, but undoubtedly the most important thing I will ever do.

3) Sharing things you loved as a child

From favourite books, to classic childhood experiences like paddling in the sea or feeding the ducks, to treats like fish finger sandwiches and fairy cakes, re-living elements of your own childhood and watching your children’s pleasure in their turn is one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting.

4) How efficient I have become

Free time might now be in short supply, but my goodness when I get it I can make the most of it. An hour’s nap time gives me the opportunity to hang out a load of washing, put another load away, clean the bathroom, hoover downstairs, wash up and prepare our evening meal. A couple of hours when my husband takes the children out on a Saturday afternoon and I can have a restorative nap, bake a cake, write a blog post and catch up on my emails. My first novel was written in a year’s worth of Thursday afternoons when my MIL took care of my eldest daughter.

5) The sense of perspective

I might have lost my sense of perspective in once sense. A missed nap can sometimes seem like a catastrophe and adverts on the Tube can leave me in floods of tears. In other ways, though, I have gained one. Things which would once have really upset me – my jeans being too tight, a nasty book review, a snide comment – can now generally be put out of my mind just by looking at my children and reflecting that while I have them and they are ok, nothing else can really be that bad.

6) The cut-the-crap world insights

My seven year old is getting better and better at these. My longwinded explanation of something I consider to be a complex adult issue she will summarise in one pithy sentence. This has the effect of making me wonder exactly why we complicate our lives so unnecessarily.

7) Nurturing

I might moan about the relentlessness of it, but I also love the feeling of nurturing my children. Whether it is watching my youngest sleepily suckling as I give her her bedtime feed, or seeing two empty plates and happy faces after they’ve enjoyed the meal I made, or bestowing the  consolatory kisses and cuddles after a bumped knee, baking cakes for a weekend (or weekday) treat, or even folding and putting away a pile of freshly washed brightly coloured little clothes all ready to be worn again, I find the physical act of caring for my children deeply satisfying. I was browsing Mumsnet this week, and came across this lovely quote on a thread:

I think we should coddle them all while we can, life is short and I want mine to think of home as a place of unconditional love, safety, chats and belly laughs, dry towels and a full fridge

This is my new motto, because it is exactly how I want my girls to think of their home as they grow up.

8) The parenting community

I have made some fantastic friends since, and because of, becoming a mum. Whether it’s my NCT buddies who helped me adjust to the brave new world of motherhood and were always happy to conduct an in-depth analysis of sleep cycles, feeding patterns or nappy contents whilst eating a lot of cake, or the school-gate friends who’ve been there as our children have started to find their independence, allowing us to rediscover ours a little bit too, to the nameless mum in the park who lets me use her suncream when I’ve forgotten ours, or the one on the train who smiles sympathetically rather than sighing huffily when my baby kicks off on the train. I have also discovered new levels in friendships I had BC (Before Children) as we exchange panicked texts about the symptoms of croup or dehydration, or Facebook messages throughout a sleepless night.

9) Enhanced relationships

I love seeing my husband as a father, and my parents as grandparents, and my brother and sister-in-law as uncle and auntie and it makes me love and appreciate them in whole new ways.

10) Watching them learn

I find it inspiring how both my children are on a constant quest to learn, and as soon as they have mastered one skill there is no resting on their laurels, it is straight on to another. At eighteen months, my youngest is working on walking up and downstairs unaided, jumping with both feet off the ground, and her first words. The seven year old is concentrating on her three times table, handwriting and spelling that other people can actually read and an in-depth understanding of the issues underpinning the EU referendum debate. Watching them is a reminder that learning and self-development shouldn’t be a chore but a way of life. It’s a huge privilege to be able to help teach them at the moment, but also to learn from their determination, optimism and courage.

A & S Merton

 

Ten things I hate about parenting

 

Before my first child was born, I had lots of worries about parenting. How would I cope with the lack of sleep? The over-whelming responsibility? The loss of freedom? Obviously I have had issues with all these things, but generally the things which really get me down and have me furtively stuffing chunks of Dairy Milk in my mouth in the downstairs loo so that the children don’t see and be set a bad example (I mean, steal it), are the little niggles which add up and occasionally threaten to subsume me.

1) The relentlessness of meals

Three meals a day, seven days a week. Plus snacks. All of which need to be healthy, economical, tasty, nutritionally balanced and provided on time. There is no possibility of skipping breakfast and grabbing a muffin mid-morning if you’re hungry. Or waking up too late to make a packed lunch so popping out to M&S for a sandwich. Or feeling far too knackered to cook and ordering a takeaway. My saviour had always been toast and houmous. Anna would eat that for all three meals a day given half a chance, the ingredients can be bought in our local Tesco express, it takes a couple of minutes to prepare,  and with a few cherry tomatoes or slices of cucumber on the side it’s pretty well balanced. Unfortunately, Sophia doesn’t like it. She’s not a big fan of toast at all. Or houmous. And definitely not houmous on toast. Anyone got any ideas what I’m going to feed her for the next decade, or two please?

2) Always having to get up

You know how it is. You have a streaming cold. Or you’re doubled up with period pains. Or shattered because you’ve been surviving on five hours a night broken sleep for the last fortnight. So you plot ways to sit down for twenty minutes. Get a selection of toys out and arrange them on floor. Move all breakable objects out of reach. Grant permission for some TV viewing. Provide drinks and snacks. Then sink down with a sigh of relief and put your feet up. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Drinks get spilt. Nappies get filled. Toys mysteriously bury themselves in totally inaccessible places. The remote control goes AWOL. And, inevitably, you have to bloody get up!

3) People I haven’t given birth to calling me ‘Mum’

Health visitors (the worst culprits), shop assistants, teachers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, playgroup leaders. I know it’s hard. I know you meet hundreds of parents each week. I know you can’t be expected to remember everyone’s name. I know that in the modern world it isn’t safe to assume that the parent will share a surname with their child. I do feel your pain. But it is lazy and patronising to call me “Mum”, it irritates the hell out of me, and when it happens day after day for seven years it gradually erodes my feeling of being a person in my own right.

4) Bright blue children’s toothpaste

Colgate hate me. I assume. Why else do they make their children’s toothpaste a) the stickiest substance known to humankind and b) bright blue? However many times a day I wipe the sink down, there is always bright blue residue in the basin, on the taps, on the tiles around the sink, on the toothbrush holder and IT DRIVES ME BONKERS.

5) ‘Don’t worry about the dirt, just enjoy the kids while they’re little’.

How many times have you heard that advice from a well-meaning friend or relative, or seen similar sentiments expressed on postcards or gift magnets. The only conclusion I can come to is that these people have either never lived with small children or had cleaners. I am about as far from being a neat freak as you can get. I am not spending precious time when I could be snuggled up reading, or running through wild flower meadows with my precious offspring engaged in daily scrubbing of the front doorstep, or colour-coding my store-cupboards or even hoovering under the bed. I don’t even iron. No, what I spend several hours a day doing is ensuring that we have clean dishes to eat off, clean clothes to wear, and that the floors, kitchen work surfaces and bathroom are hygienic enough to avoid attracting vermin or giving us all E coli. And the house still looks a total tip 90% of the time.

6) All the STUFF

Paintings. Colourings. Collages. Models of space-ships. Lists. Interesting pebbles or leaves collected in the playground and brought home. Letters from school. Felt-tips without tops. Stickers. Free gifts from a magazine bought three years ago. All of which are liberally scattered around the house on a permanent basis, largely ignored, but apparently far too precious to be thrown away. On the odd occasion I do get ruthless, inevitably the next day we have near hysteria because one of the discarded items isn’t to be found.

7) Party Bags

When I found the National Union of Parents the first item on my agenda will be the abolition of party bags. Surely one of the biggest causes of misery in any modern family. Seriously, who wins? The parent bestowing the bag has to spend eye-watering sums of money on plastic tat, and then precious time stuffing it into the bags, and worrying that there will somehow be extra, unaccounted for guests who don’t have a bag. This worry results in buying more bags, and more plastic tat.

Then the parent of the child receiving the bag has to accommodate yet more STUFF (see above) into their already overcrowded house. We already have more spinning tops, crayons which don’t work properly and little yellow rubber men than you can shake a stick at. Even the child doesn’t really win, because inevitably the most favoured toy is broken within the hour, which coincides with the sugar comedown after the party and leads to frustrated tears and all round grumpiness.

If you really want to bestow a parting gift, may I suggest wrapping a piece of birthday cake in a piece of kitchen roll? Or perhaps a small bag of chocolate buttons. Both of which have the advantage that if I’m quick off the mark I can scoff them myself. In the downstairs loo, of course.

8) The inverse proportion of time spent planning an activity to time it keeps child amused

When I have browsed Pinterest, chosen a craft activity, purchased the necessary supplies and planned a fun yet educational afternoon it is a near certainty that child will engage long enough to create total chaos, spreading glitter across every surface in the house and covering their new cardi which they’re not even wearing at the time in paint, before declaring that they’re bored and wondering what’s on telly now. On the other hand, Sophia was happily engaged for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon carefully peeling the sticky address label off a parcel I’d taken in for a neighbour. Every time I declare no more planned activities, but somehow I’m always drawn back in again.

9) The assumption I possess skills I blatantly don’t

I can write. I can write, if called upon, academic essays, business plans, board reports, discussion papers, blog posts and novels. Back in the day I was also pretty good at running a department and managing a team of staff. I can’t sew, or knit, or crochet. I can’t paint or draw. I can’t make fancy dress costumes or scale models of the Eiffel Tower from toilet rolls. I do my best to decorate cakes which look like Mr Men or fairy toadstools, but I’m not very good at it. Before I was a parent, no-one expected me to do these things. Lots of people can do them, and enjoy doing them, and that’s great, but no problem at all if it’s not your bag. Yet there’s an expectation that the act of giving birth, much as it enables your body to produce milk to feed your child, also mysteriously conveys the ability to spend the next decade crafting with the best of them. Except it doesn’t.

10) The constant stream of guilt

Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Is it my fault? How do I improve? Why can’t I? Why can’t they? Pressure from mainstream media, social media, friends, family and, most of all, my own insecurities mean that I am always wondering whether I am doing enough to be the mother that these perfect little scraps of humanity I somehow created clearly deserve.

ducklings