My November Books

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In an unprecedented move I’m actually early with this month’s post rather than late. November has not been the greatest. I had a heavy cold when it started, and the cold became sinusitis and a chest infection, then the chest infection became suspected pneumonia, a diagnosis downgraded to bronchitis only after spending six hours having all sorts of fairly unpleasant tests in hospital. You can tell I’ve been really ill, because I haven’t even felt like reading, and if I have read I’ve wanted a well-thumbed comfort read rather than something new.

However, despite  a sluggish month, my grand total of new books read for the year is now 61! Back in January I set myself the target of 52 new books in 52 weeks, and so I thought I should go back through these posts and count up how I’m doing, and see what I have to manage in December. But I’ve smashed it already. It’s been a really good resolution, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the push to try new things rather than just relying on my favourite comfort reads, although of course there’s been a lot of that too.

Anyway, my November reads:

Five Go Parenting by ‘Enid Blyton’

You’ll probably have seen these spoof Enid Blyton books around in the last couple of months. This one arrived as a fantastic surprise for me one rainy afternoon because my parents thought I needed cheering up and sent so sent me a little treat. It was accompanied by a notecard instructing me to read it while Sophia had her nap, with my feet up on the sofa and with a mug of hot chocolate to hand. Well, everyone knows you have to do what your mother tells you…

I did just that, and I really enjoyed it. I was a huge Famous Five fan as a child, and hugely enjoyed re-discovering them with Anna as we read the entire 21 book series together over the last year or so.

The vintage-style illustrations in these editions are absolutely perfect, and the gentle satire on the difficulties of modern parenting (favourite moment: Julian and Anne pretending to be Catholic in order to get the child they’re looking after into the best local school!) absolutely suited my need for amusing distraction without intellectual exertion!

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

If you want comfort reads you have to go a long way to beat Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Sparklingly witty dialogue, loveable heroines, devastatingly attractive heroes, hilarious and achingly romantic plots. I thought I’d read all of them, but I was browsing around looking for something to read, and The Nonesuch caught my eye. It’s one of a number of lovely hardback books I inherited from my great-aunt a couple of years ago – mostly book club editions from the 1950s and 1960s.

The first treat about this book was that when I opened it, my aunt had written her name and the date (1964) on the inside cover. This is one of the things I love about books, and why my Kindle, with all its convenience, could never replace them in my affections. In 1964 my dad was still at primary school. The Beatles were at the start of their career. Mary Quant was just pioneering the mini skirt. The death penalty was yet to be abolished in Britain, homosexuality was still illegal, and the contraceptive pill had only been available for three years. The internet was still a generation away.

I can imagine my great-aunt coming home, maybe having been to tea at her sister’s and read a story  or played a game with her little nephews and niece, looking forward to the new Georgette Heyer that arrived from her book group that morning. She opens it and writes her name and the date, begins reading and is instantly transported into Heyer’s magical Regency world. Fifty-two years later, I come downstairs after putting her nephew’s grandchildren to bed, and open the same book, begin reading, and am transported to that self-same world. And because this is 2016 I then blog about it!  The word and naught else in time endures…

Living Dangerously by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde, my other comfort read heroine! I have no idea how many times I have read this book, but I love it every time. Bizarrely I have now caught up with the heroine, Polly, in age terms. When I first read Living Dangerously I was about fifteen, and thirty-five seemed absolutely ancient.

At one point in the book an unpremeditated night of passion leads to her considering whether she could be pregnant, and I remember genuinely thinking that of course she couldn’t be, she was far too old. And feeling a little sad for her that, although she ends the novel in romantic bliss, she probably wouldn’t be able to have a baby because of her age. Now, thirty-five myself, I have a (still, just) one-year-old, and a very high proportion of my mid-thirties friends and contemporaries are up the duff or have new babies. I sometimes can’t believe I was only 27 when I got pregnant with Anna as it seems so…young!

But even though I read this first as a teenager, living with my parents, studying for my GCSEs, as footloose and fancy-free as it’s possible to get, I still love it just as much twenty years later when I read it as an escape from the responsibilities of a house and mortgage, two young children and a novel of my own waiting to be completed.

 

 

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Nothing new

I recently read a blog post by a mum of two toddler girls who has decided not to buy anything new for them, or herself, during 2017. It has got me thinking about challenging myself to do the same thing.

I definitely buy too much, for all of us. Whether it’s popping a cute t-shirt in the trolley as I do the Sainsbury’s shop, or racing straight for my laptop the moment a Boden 30% off voucher pops through the letterbox, or being intrigued by a beautiful outfit by a retailer I’d never come across posted on Instagram and tracking it down, I do love a bit of retail therapy. But. It’s not a great habit to have got into for lots of reasons. Obviously the financial cost is a big one, and now my husband is running his own business we have to live a little (lot) more thriftily. And then there’s the cost to the environment of old things ending up in landfill long before their useful lifespan is passed, and the production of new things consuming fossil fuels and leading to masses of wasted packaging. I also feel there’s an emotional cost; there is an immediate satisfaction in a new pretty dress for me or, more likely, for one of my girls, but it doesn’t always last very long and it can all too easily be replaced by a sense of guilt at my spoilt spendthrift ways. In fact I often find hunting down a bargain on Ebay or my beloved Walthamstow Sell or Swap gives me a feeling of satisfaction which is far deeper and longer lasting.

The idea of abandoning all this consumerism for a year, and getting what we need on Sell or Swap, eBay, from charity shops or as hand-me-downs is very appealing. There would, of course, be exceptions.

Underwear for example. For almost three years now I have been living in maternity/breastfeeding lingerie. Comfortable and appropriate it might be, pretty and sexy it certainly isn’t. As soon as Sophia has stopped breastfeeding I have been promising myself a trip to Debenhams to restock my underwear drawer, and I’m not giving up that for anyone. Neither is there any way my daughters will be wearing second-hand knickers.

Footwear for the children would be another exception. I’ve always been a big believer in having their feet measured regularly and properly, and buying good quality leather shoes. I really think it makes a difference when they have such soft little bones, and I don’t want to store up podiatry problems for them in years to come. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the odd pair of hardly-worn canvas pumps of Anna’s which will be passed on to Sophia, and I’ve got nothing against second-hand wellies or party shoes, but I think that the shoes they wear most of the time should be properly fitted to their feet rather than pre-moulded to the shape of another child’s.

I would also be gracious enough to accept presents of new things, as I think it is a bit much to try and dictate to other people if they have been generous enough to think of getting you or your children a gift. (Hello, Mum. *waves*)

And obviously food. I live in London. I do not have a big garden or green fingers. The limit to my kitchen garden activities is a pot of supermarket basil on the kitchen windowsill (and that’s looking a bit brown and crispy at present), and it is a far bigger leap of imagination than I can possibly make to see me feeding a family of four for a year on what I manage to forage from Epping Forest!

With so many exceptions it really does seem do-able. It would force me to ‘shop my wardrobe’ and discover clothes and combinations I don’t wear enough, or make repairs to things I love but don’t wear because of small tears or missing buttons. It would hopefully prevent the children, especially Anna as she is old enough to be more aware, getting spoilt and thinking that nice things grow on trees or that you need new stuff to be happy. It would cut our spending and our environmental footprint, and maybe serve as a reminder that the best things in life really are free. So really the only question is whether I am strong enough to change my spending habits.

What do you think? Could you say no to new for a whole year? Do you think I should? And what are the rules on frenetic spending in the Boxing Day sales?!

A & S Merton

Things Left Undone

kleenexI grew up going to church every Sunday, so the Church of England liturgy still resonates deeply with me. At the moment I am meditating on the Prayer of Confession, where forgiveness is asked for things left undone which we ought to have done – sins of omission as well as commission, and I feel like there are a lot of those in my life at the moment.

I haven’t been well for the last four weeks. I had a horrible cough and  cold which just wouldn’t shift, and finally last week my husband and mother-in-law bullied me into going to the doctors. Turned out that the cold was also a chest infection and sinusitis, which at least explained why I was feeling so unremittingly rubbish. I’m now half way through the course of antibiotics, and just starting to feel human again. Human enough to survey with dismay the chaos which results from me basically taking a month off!

Regular readers know that my husband is in the process of setting up his own business. Things are particularly intense at the moment (I suspect we might be saying that continually for the next few years!), and so time ‘off’ isn’t really an option for him, in fact he’s working very long hours and most weekends, so we’ve just had to muddle on as best we can. I have had to prioritise the absolutely critical tasks and save my energy for those. In practice that has meant feeding the children – they’ve definitely had more than their fair share of baked beans, scrambled eggs, fishfingers and jacket potatoes over the last few weeks, ensuring that we all have clean(ish) clothes to wear, bedtime stories, and spritzing the Dettol around to try and prevent my noxious germs inflicting their presence on anyone else. Oh yes, and administering cuddles and Calpol to Sophia at any hour of the day or night when the poor baby’s teeth started troubling her. As for things I haven’t done, well…

  1. Planted the snowdrop and crocus bulbs I was so excited about having bought (gardening types who read my blog – is it too late now?)
  2. Tidied. Anything. At all. You can’t actually see the dresser now under the piles of paperwork, odd socks, broken bits of crayon, stray toys and other detritus.
  3. Done any preparation for Christmas. In mid-October I was feeling fairly smug and ahead of the game as I already had quite a lot of stocking fillers for the girls and toys for friends’ children. I still have those, but things haven’t progressed any further. And I have a horrible feeling that I might have missed all the Ocado delivery slots – no worse crime exists for a middle-class, non-driving mummy come Christmas time!
  4. Kept up the homework routine I’d promised myself I’d implement now Anna is in Year 3. Instead it’s been a case of croaking at my husband as he returns home and I use the opportunity to take myself off to bed “oh, by the way, can you help Anna do her fractions worksheet/learn her spellings/write a newspaper article/design a remembrance poppy”.
  5. Provided Sophia with much in the way of fun or educational activities. We’ve staggered to a couple of baby groups, but it wasn’t hugely successful because, strangely enough, other parents seemed to note my hacking cough and copious phlegm production and give us a fairly wide berth. Luckily, having been a telly refusenik for the first 22 months of her life, Sophia has now developed a timely passion for ‘Awyee and Yo-ya’ (Charlie and Lola, obvs), and I have been slightly too willing to indulge her in it.
  6. Bathed the children. Well, not much. I couldn’t face it by myself, and husband isn’t always home at bedtime, so we’ve ended up giving Anna quick showers before school and bathing Sophia on an as and when basis.
  7. Done any of the ‘extra jobs’ I normally do on a weekly or fortnightly basis – proper cleans of bathroom and kitchen, changing the beds (I know, I know, it’s disgusting), vacuuming anything other than the area immediately round the dining table etc etc.
  8. Done any paper work. Nothing has been filed, meters haven’t been read, I have a horrible feeling the credit card bill hasn’t been paid and I have a massive backlog of unread/unanswered emails.
  9. Swept up the autumn leaf fall from the front path and garden. It now looks highly picturesque, but is lethally slippy as soon as it starts to rain. Which it now is!
  10. Cooked anything more complicated than scrambled eggs, apart from the Thai curries I’ve been frantically preparing in the hope that copious quantities of chilli, ginger, garlic, lime juice and fresh vegetables will cure me.

I could go on, but I’m starting to depress myself further. And yes, I know that theoretically instead of blogging about my failings I could start rectifying them, but I only have an hour while my MIL looks after Sophia, and I’m in a cafe not at home, so there’s not much I actually can do out of that lot. Plus, although I’m much better than I was, I still feel pretty exhausted, and have a nasty feeling that tackling the king-sized duvet cover or the paperwork mountain could trigger an immediate relapse.

I can’t quite work out how I’m ever going to catch up with myself, especially as we’re entering the busiest time of year when I struggle to fit in all the extra shopping, baking, wrapping, social engagements and so on under normal circumstances. I’m also very much hoping to finish the first draft of my third novel by the end of the year…Arrghhh!

I need to draw some deep breaths and write a list. Lists always make everything alright. Wish me luck!

Hope not hate

wales-1789697_1280For the second time in six months I woke up to political news which feels devastatingly catastrophic, a sensation that the world has shifted on its axis, that the dark forces in humanity are winning out. Melodramatic? I really don’t think so.

Clearly there are many people in the UK and America, and no doubt elsewhere as well, who feel that they have been failed by traditional politics, and who want radical change. Unfortunately the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump during the presidential election have utterly abdicated their moral duty to exercise responsible and moderate leadership, to promote hope not hate, and instead have chosen deliberately to appeal to the worst and darkest side of human nature.

We all have a natural instinct to look for someone to blame when things go wrong. When I stub my toe, I shout at my kids for leaving their toys lying around. We all have the potential to fear or mistrust people who seem different from ourselves. Responsible political leadership should focus on moving people away from these base instincts and reactions and bringing them together to fight for common causes of fairness, tolerance and freedom.

Unfortunately these individuals have done the opposite. They have appealed to people’s darkest side and most secret fears and have deliberately fanned the flames of hate and bigotry. Are you struggling financially, worried about your children’s education, fearful of not getting good healthcare? It can’t possibly be because there have been decades of being told we can pay less tax, abolish our traditional industries and still get richer and have better public services. It must be because the immigrants/the Muslims/the Polish/the Mexicans/the refugees are taking your jobs/living in your houses/overwhelming your public services. It’s not your fault, or our fault, it’s their fault, whoever they may be. It’s an effective tactic, as Adolf Hitler realised back in the 1930s. Germany was in a terrible state at that point, the Allies had handled the aftermath of World War One incredibly badly and the German people were suffering as a result. Hitler’s, initially democratic, route to power was to blame the Jews. And the gypsies. And the homosexuals. And the intellectuals. All those people who seemed a little bit different, a little bit other, and who made convenient scapegoats for the fact that life wasn’t working out for many Germans. Make no mistake, Messrs Farage, Trump et al are employing the same strategy today.

It is no coincidence that these electoral calamities are taking place as the generation who fought in the second world war are dying out. My grandparents’ generation knew where fascism took the world to. They knew that ridiculous aggrandisement of your own country and blaming another race for your troubles could lead to death and destruction on an unparalleled scale. In a few days time our country will engage in many acts of remembrance, but even more important than remembering those who gave their lives for their country is remembering the values they died for: freedom and tolerance as opposed to bigotry and hate.

I feel sick and angry and panic-stricken today. Heartbroken that I am raising two girls in a world in which the most powerful elected leader is someone who openly boasts of using his power to sexually violate women. Furious that we seemed to have learnt nothing from history, and that democracy has given power to those who believe that race, nationality or religion can and should be used to divide us from common humanity. Impotent and frustrated that this is not a direction I want my country or my world to move in, but I can’t think how to change it.

I believe in hope not hate. I believe we are stronger when we remember our common humanity and act together. I believe the world is a better place when we try to love our neighbours as ourselves. I am struggling today to keep that hope alive in the face of what seems like so much hatred, but of course this is when we need hope the most. I hope that love and tolerance and fairness will ultimately prevail. I hope that many individuals carrying out many small acts of kindness and love will add up to a powerful force for good in the world. I hope that I can be one of those individuals. I will teach my children to respect others and be kind, and I hope that everyone else will do the same. I hope that my struggling faith in the fundamental decency of human nature is justified.

 

This too shall pass: Advice for new mums

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Image from Science News

I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about a friend of hers who has just had her first baby and is feeling extremely overwhelmed and sleep-deprived.  I sympathised so much, because I found the adjustment to motherhood a real shock, going from being a bright, independent woman in charge of my own destiny and good at what I did, to being an exhausted wreck, totally controlled by the mini-dictator I’d gestated and with no clue what I was doing. Having now been there, twice, it made me think about what advice I wish someone had given me, and what the best things are you can do to help new parents:

Advice for new mums:

1. This too shall pass. Every phase, however draining, dispiriting or demoralising it is at the time, will pass. You will sleep again. You won’t spend all eternity breastfeeding on the sofa in posset-stained pyjamas. Just grit your teeth and repeat it as a mantra.

2. Keeping a brand new and totally dependent human being alive is a full-time, 24/7 job. Do not beat yourself up about all the other things you aren’t doing. So…

3. …Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you possibly can, get a cleaner, just for the first few months. Now is the time for takeaways, ready meals, and beans on toast for tea. When friends come round, don’t be proud, ask them to unload the dishwasher or pop some clothes in the tumble dryer.

4. Chocolate is your friend.

5. If your baby is getting fed and a few cuddles and is in a relatively clean nappy then you’re doing your job just fine, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

6. Try and get out of the house at least once a day. Even if it’s just to the corner shop. A bit of fresh air will give you a new perspective, and might help with baby sleep as well. But make it an expedition for you – a new baby doesn’t need anything except cuddles and the odd lullaby, so unless you particularly fancy baby massage or baby music classes or baby yoga, then I’d save those activities for when the baby is older and just go and have lunch or coffee with a friend.

7. Now is not the time to worry about ‘getting your body back’. You have just grown an entirely new human being and, if you’re breastfeeding, are exclusively responsible for keeping it alive. You probably aren’t getting much sleep. This is one of the most demanding things you will ever do. Wear comfy leggings and forgiving tunics and eat cake.

8. That moment at 3am when they haven’t stopped cluster feeding for six hours, or when they’re crying and crying and crying and you’ve no idea why, or when they’ve just done an explosive poo all over your last clean outfit, and you scream in rage and frustration that you’ve made a mistake, you wish you’d never had a baby – normal. Totally normal. Doesn’t mean you’re not a good mum. Doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. Doesn’t mean you really have made a mistake. It just means you’re exhausted  and overwhelmed and adjusting to the biggest change of your entire life.

9. After the first few days, if breastfeeding is still really hurting, you need to get some help. It shouldn’t be painful, and there is loads of support available. Your local children’s centre, NCT, La Leche League, National Breastfeeding Alliance – ask for help. But, if you hate breastfeeding, and it’s making you miserable, and you’re reluctant to pick your baby up in case they want feeding, and you feel sick with dread at the thought of doing it for the next six hours let alone the next six months then stop. You might have had a baby, but it’s still your body, and you don’t have to do something that you hate. Your baby will be perfectly fine with formula, and a stressed and unhappy mum won’t make for a happy baby.

10. You know all those people who tell you to “make the most of it” and “treasure each moment”? Ignore them. NO-ONE who’s actually going through it treasures bleeding nipples or surviving on a few hours broken sleep a night, or being constantly covered in bodily fluids. BUT in months and years to come, time will place a soft-focus Instagram filter over your memories, and you suddenly will treasure them. I get a warm glow as I think of sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom, breastfeeding my firstborn, gazing out of the window and watching dawn break and revelling in the feeling that me and my precious girl were the only people  awake in the world at that moment. That’s over seven years ago. Did I feel like that at the time? Hell no. At the time I was barely awake, and the two functioning brain cells I had were engaged in frantic calculations as to how much sleep I might manage in the rest of the night. “So, if she feeds 20 mins this side, and then 20 mins the other side, and then it takes me 1o minutes to wind her, then I rock her to sleep, I should be able to settle her by 4.30am,  and then she might sleep for two hours so I could…” etc. But that’s not the memory I treasure now. You don’t have to worry you’re not enjoying it as much as you should be because hindsight will paint the whole thing with a wonderful rosy glow.

How to help new parents:

1. Don’t question or criticise their decisions relating to the feeding/sleeping/comforting/play  routines of their child. So, you think breast-feeding is better, or that bottle feeding would give the new mum a break? Maybe you’re concerned that co-sleeping is dangerous or a separate room places the baby at risk? Did you read that dummies impede speech development or that cloth nappies are better for preventing nappy rash? That’s great, and if you have your own children you can put these theories into action, but when it’s someone else’s baby, keep your opinions to yourself and reassure them that they’re doing a great job. If you are specifically asked for advice then you can share your views, but still proceed with caution!

2. Don’t ask if they want help, just lean in and do something practical. The first time my friend Jenny came to see me and my firstborn she took one look at me and told me to go to bed. I came up with all the reasons I couldn’t – mainly centred round the fact that the baby would need feeding. She ignored me, and shooed me off. I slept for a blissfully restorative three hours while she employed goodness knows what witchcraft to keep my daughter happily distracted.

3. Home-made food is often a more welcome gift than cuddly toys or cute booties (although they’re lovely too!). Take a meal which can go in the freezer, or a cake which keeps well in a tin and will provide 3am sustenance for the next week.

4. Let them talk about the bad stuff if they want to Don’t assume that just because they have the most delectable baby in the world ever that there isn’t stuff they’re struggling with. Let them talk about their traumatic birth, or moan about their exhaustion or confusion or problems breastfeeding, or the fact that they’re really missing work, and don’t say things like “oh yes, but this little one makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”, because although it does, they’re probably feeling guilty enough already about not feeling totally happy the whole time, and they just need to vent.

5. Tell them they’re doing a good job! One of the things I found hardest was going from a life where I got constant feedback from managers or colleagues to one where it felt like no-one noticed anything I did. Someone noticing something nice I’d done with or for my baby and commenting on it could elevate my mood for days!

 

But if you feel that you’re not coping, that you can’t cope, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or you’re worried your friend is feeling that way, then get help. Post-Natal Depression is common, treatable and nobody’s fault. Any health professional worth the paper their qualification is written on will know that and will be able to get you the support you need.