Something old

There was a bit of an autumnal chill in the air this morning, so I pulled an old tweed jacket out of my cupboard to go over the ubiquitous skinny jeans and Breton top mumiform. Anna immediately commented on how nice I looked, and asked if the jacket was new. It most definitely isn’t, it’s just that she hasn’t seen it for a while –  last autumn it didn’t fit me post-Sophia, and the autumn before it didn’t fit me pre-Sophia, and I don’t suppose Anna can remember three years ago! tweed-jacket

When started to think about it, I realised it must actually be one of the oldest items in my wardrobe. When I bought this jacket, from H&M (who says they don’t make things to last!), I was 22 years old. Then-boyfriend-now-husband and I lived in a scruffy and extremely untidy rented flat in Moseley in Birmingham. I was still a graduate management trainee for the NHS, and Anna and Sophia were nothing but twinkles in my eye and a panic-stricken glint in my husband’s. I bought it to wear over a dress for the wedding of a university friend – said wedding was taking place in Scotland, in a marquee, and I have an intense dislike of being cold and a profound mistrust of Scottish weather. I then wore it with tailored trousers and heels for work, and now with jeans and a t-shirt on the school-run.

It’s not actually my oldest item in regular use, however. I have a very much washed, faded, oh-so-soft t-shirt which was actually my uniform when I helped out at a summer school when I was at university. tshirtThe summer school was designed to encourage bright kids from deprived backgrounds to consider Oxford as a university choice, as research had shown that such students were as likely as any other applicant to get a place, but far less likely to apply originally. It was a cause very dear to my heart, and I absolutely loved doing the summer schools two years running, even though taking responsibility, at the age of 20, for a group of eight 14 and 15 year olds, many of whom were away from home for the first time, was umm, interesting. A development experience, as they say. For some reason, the t-shirt became my adult comfort blanket. I only wear it to sleep in, and because it is now quite threadbare I save it for times when I really need comfort – when I asked husband to bring t-shirt and leggings to the hospital when I was spending the night on a camp bed next to Sophia, this was the t-shirt he brought.

But if we move away from clothes and onto jewellery, then my 15 year old t-shirt is suddenly the new kid on the block. When I was about 13 or 14, my nanna gave me some jewellery which had belonged to her mum. It was only costume jewellery – mostly rings. They were too big for my nanna, and my mum, so one thing I know I inherited from my great-grandmother is my chubby fingers! ringsI loved them right away, and although my tastes in almost everything have changed since I was 13, I still love these rings. I save them for special occasions now, as in my everyday life I spend too much time changing nappies/washing up/cleaning/wiping sticky faces and fingers/kneading dough to cope with big rings, but I still think they’re beautiful. And, as my nanna was born in 1921, and they belonged to her mum, they may well have broken the 100 years barrier to become not merely vintage but actually antique!

What’s the oldest item you regularly wear?

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Worried sick

When I started writing my blog it was intended to be fairly lighthearted, a way of recording the ordinary moments of my life as a stay-at-home-mum. A way of coping with the truism of parenting that the days can feel as though they will never end but the years fly by in seconds.

By and large it has stayed lighthearted, with the odd foray into political rants when I felt so inclined.

This post is a bit different, because I want to write about one of the less happy elements of my life at the moment – not doing so is starting to feel a little bit like lying by omission, and is also doing a disservice to all the many people struggling with mental health issues.

Why is it such a big deal to write, or talk, about mental health? When I broke my foot or had tonsillitis I blogged about it without a second thought. But there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems. I worry that I will be judged, that I am over-sharing, or that I will make others unhappy, but after a lot of thought I’m going to go ahead anyway.

Ever since Sophia was born I have been aware of not feeling quite right, often in ways I couldn’t define even to myself. I’d checked the symptoms of post-natal depression a couple of times, but that didn’t really fit with how I was feeling. So, I dismissed it, pushed it to the back of my mind, resolutely ignored it. There were times when I felt absolutely fine, and during those times I could convince myself that the panic attacks, flash-backs, waves of utterly overwhelming and incapacitating guilt, terror or despair which literally stopped me in my tracks when they occurred had been a temporary aberration and were now behind me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and they kept coming back.

I hadn’t told anyone at all. I felt ashamed and guilty that I wasn’t totally happy. I had everything anyone could want, my wonderful husband, adored eldest daughter and now a beautiful baby girl to complete my perfect family. With good friends both in real life and online who are having ongoing struggles to conceive I felt an especially strong compulsion to be happy and grateful for my astonishing good luck.

Then one evening back in May, a chance remark of my husband’s led to a particularly intense flashback. I cried. And cried. And cried. Then cried some more. Then hyper-ventilated. Then cried again. And finally told him some of what I had been experiencing. Saying it for the first time was the most difficult, but after telling him I also felt able to talk to my parents a week or two later. Husband and parents were incredibly supportive.They didn’t think I was making a fuss about nothing, which was what I had been telling myself, and they encouraged me to get proper professional help.

That was another big step, but with their support I managed it. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by my youngest daughter’s very difficult birth, which came after an intensely stressful high-risk pregnancy, and a series of miscarriages.

Basically, my mind had got locked into danger-alert and I just couldn’t relax out of it. I didn’t think I would ever have Sophia. I had been told that I only had a 40% chance of having a healthy, full-term baby – and my previous ratio of pregnancy:live birth indicated that was accurate. I worried every single day of my pregnancy that she was going to die. For the first half of my labour I was terrified she was going to die, for the second half, when the epidural stopped working half way through my c-section leaving me able to feel everything, I was worried I was.

We didn’t die. But that didn’t stop my anxiety. Instead, those feelings of panic, inability to breathe properly, crushing, immobilising fear, increased.

I saw risk and danger everywhere. Stairs. Roads. Cars. Illnesses. Sleep. Falls. Accidents. I had become fixated on the idea that I didn’t deserve to have Sophia, I was simply too lucky, and that the universe would punish me by separating us through my death or hers. Sounds pretty bloody irrational when I write it down, but makes some sort of twisted sense in my head. Sometimes my anxiety expands to include panics about the health of my husband or eldest daughter or parents, but mainly it is about me and Sophia. All those times when my body failed me and the babies I wanted so much slipped away, those nine months of obsessively monitoring every twinge, cramp, spot, and kick left me with a profound mistrust of my own body and an unshakeable conviction of Sophia’s fragility. Of course, her episodes of Reflex Anoxic Seizure when she collapses apparently lifeless in front of me haven’t exactly helped with this.

I couldn’t talk about this at all for 17 months after Sophia’s birth. I still can’t easily talk about it. I have now told a few very close friends, and I am seeing a fantastic psychologist who is helping me a lot, but I still find it difficult. Partly because talking about it makes it feel more real, and makes me cry. Partly because I worry that others will judge me, think of me as a fusspot, a hypochondriac, ungrateful, undeserving, emotionally incontinent, weak. All of which are accusations I’ve thrown at myself over the last year or two, but not ones I’m ready to hear from others.

But if I can’t talk, I can write. I can use my blog to say loud and clear that mental illness is incredibly common and nothing to be ashamed of. That having a baby may be the happiest thing that ever happens to you, but that it is also a cataclysmic event that turns your world upside down, and the cocktail of wild hormonal changes, sleep deprivation and overwhelming responsibility can cause, or contribute to, illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Suffering from them doesn’t mean that you’re not happy to be a mother, or that you don’t love your baby, it just means that pregnancy and childbirth can leave scars and stretch marks on your mind as well as your body.

I am getting there, I hope. Proper professional help has been invaluable, as has the love and support (and patience) of my husband and parents and the friends I’ve told. None of them have judged me or belittled me or hated me, and that encourages me to believe that maybe  the rest of the world won’t either. I’m trying to take care of myself, and not see occasional long hot baths, lie-ins, naps while Sophia naps, a lunch with an old friend or a child-free weekend afternoon as selfish indulgences but more necessities for staying sane. I have noticed the tireder I get, the longer I have gone without a break, the more likely I am to have a total meltdown which stops me functioning at all. But this summer, there have been many more days when the sunshine wasn’t obliterated by clouds of anxiety, and moments when I could allow myself to enjoy the present without worrying about the future.

beach

Back to School

After a warm and sunny summer it felt appropriate that we woke up this morning to grey skies and drizzly rain. And, of course, inevitable that the rain cover on the new buggy promptly broke. It was a bit of a squelchy school run, but that didn’t dampen Anna’s enthusiasm at all. She’s been a bit nervous about the big move up to Juniors over the summer, but then getting together with some of her friends at the park last week for a class picnic, and then again yesterday for a cinema ‘n’ Pizza Express birthday party seemed to remind her of how much fun she has at school with her friends, and excitement took over from nerves.

One of the children at the party who has an older sibling told everyone that they had to have their own fully equipped pencil case, so we had an emergency trip to Wilkos yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t exactly reluctant – I absolutely love buying new stationery, and in between the pencils and rubbers I also managed to sneak in a couple of pretty little notebooks for me. Ahem. Oh, and a full set of multi-coloured pens. Husband did question the necessity for those given that Anna isn’t allowed to write in pen at school yet, and when she does it will be with a specially approved ‘handwriting pen’, but I thought they might come in useful for, ummm, stuff. And they’re so pretty!

back to school

Having been really looking forward to Anna going back so that I get that golden nap-time window all to myself each day and can start to try and organise the chaos that our lives and home have descended into over the summer, inevitably Sophia fell asleep in her (damp) buggy at 9.10am just after dropping Anna off. Grr. There’s no point fighting it, so instead we splashed down to Boots and I cheered myself up with a new nail varnish (Rimmel, ‘London Bus’ – a girl can never have too many red nail varnishes). Of course she then wouldn’t settle in her cot for an afternoon nap, so I ended up letting her amuse herself playing with a feather duster and a handful of fridge magnets while I hoovered, before setting off with the buggy to walk her to sleep for another little nap to prevent an evening meltdown. So much for time to myself for organising everything!

I really missed Anna as well, and the house felt very quiet with just Sophia and me in it. Thanks to my MIL looking after Sophia, though, I got to go and pick Anna up by myself and take her for a milkshake at our local cafe so that she could give me a proper debrief on her first day without interruptions from her little sister. It all seemed positive, with the highlights being a reading corner they are going to decorate themselves with covers of their favourite books, and the news that for the first time since Reception there is a class bear who will come home with different children over the course of the year. I’m hoping we’re fairly early on before the competition intensifies and we end up having to take Humphrey to Euro Disney or book a box in Covent Garden in order to show him a good time.

Anyway, tomorrow is another day. I have now at least made a list of all the jobs I need to do should I manage to get Sophia to have a nap in her cot. And we have crisp mornings, opaque tights, sausage and mash, cashmere cardies, and after-school hot chocolates and crumpets to look forward to over the coming months. Not to mention the fact that Anna just announced that now it is September she feels it is acceptable to start getting excited about Christmas…

July and August Books

I’m cheating a bit and doing a joint post for July and August, using the summer holidays as my excuse. Back to school tomorrow though, so back into all our usual routines as well, including a book blog each month!

summer books

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I have had this book for absolutely ages, bought on impulse on a Waterstone’s BOGOHP offer a couple of years ago. Somehow, though, I never quite got round to reading it until July. I’m so glad I now have, because I really enjoyed it – far more than I was actually expecting to. I knew from the blurb and a couple of reviews I had read that the ‘hive’ in question is a group of school-gate mums, all buzzing around the ultimate Yummy Mummy Queen Bee. To an extent this is my life, although I’m glad to say that school gate politics at my daughter’s school are either nothing like as complex and all-consuming (or they have passed me by completely!), and so I was a bit concerned that the satire in the novel would feel personal. I am generally very happy with my decision to be a stay-at-home mum and fit my very part-time writing around my young children, but I have had to fend off the odd nasty comment from acquaintances who have suggested I am wasting my education and training, missing out on the fulfilment of work and failing to provide a strong role-model for my daughters by making this choice, and I think I was worried that the whole novel might feel like fending off that kind of criticism.

Happily, it didn’t. The satire was biting at times, but rightly or wrongly I felt that the target was pushy mums and cliquey mums rather than stay-at-home mums who were the target. The characters were well-drawn, and while many of them were instantly recognisable deliberate caricatures others were better rounded and developed protagonists with whom you could feel a real rapport. It was well-written, engaging and thought-provoking and definitely deserved better treatment than a couple of years gathering dust on my shelf. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

My mum bought this as a present for me at the beginning of the summer, and she chose very well, because everything about it from the title onwards it is pure catnip for me. I love Veronica Henry’s books anyway (so much so that I even forgive her for beating Two for Joy to secure the RNA Contemporary Novel of the Year award a couple of years back!), and I love bookshops, and I love love stories, and so a Veronica Henry love story set in and around a bookshop could have been written for me.

As with many of Veronica’s books, there are several different characters and story lines depicted, with a common thread to link them all – in this case the link is a beautiful independent bookshop in a pretty Oxfordshire town. Emilia has been left the bookshop on the death of her father, and is trying against the odds to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. The novel also follows the stories of others in the town to whom the bookshop is important – the rich lady of the local manor and her daughter, a lonely teacher obsessed with food writing and cookery books, a new mum struggling to adjust to life in the countryside away from her busy London career. The characters are warm and believable and you are are instantly engaged with them, and the author has a magical gift for evoking a sense of place and making you want to pack your bags and move in immediately. This is a total feel-good, comfort read which I know I will come back to again and again. Thanks, Mum!

Superfluous Women, Death at Wentwater Court, The Winter Garden Mystery, Requiem for a Mezzo, Murder on the Flying Scotsman, Damsel in Distress, Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I have my mum to thank for all these as well! When I went to stay recently, she lent me the latest in the series of Carola Dunn’s  historical detective novels featuring Daisy Dalrymple. She thought I had read the entire series, and I vaguely thought I had as well. I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Superfluous Women, which is the latest book, but as I was reading I decided that the characters weren’t all that familiar. I did a bit of research on Amazon, and discovered that I’d actually only read one or two of Carola Dunn’s previous twenty-odd books in the series, and hadn’t fully realised there were others. Luckily for me, the first four were available in a Kindle omnibus, so I bought those and raced my way through them while we were on our staycation, and I’m now systematically adding them to my Kindle collection as I work my way through the whole series.

They are modern novels set in the 1920s. As I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for a cosy crime type novel, and a sucker for anything set in the 1920s/1930s/1940s/1950s, so this series is a bit of a winner for me and I’m really enjoying them. They’re page turning  and totally enjoyable to read, whilst not being too intellectually or emotionally demanding, which has suited me perfectly over this summer. I’m absolutely racing through the series as well, which is good for my 52 books in 2016 target. The only thing which might stand between me and the whole series in the first half of September is the limitations of my Kindle budget!