Children and choices

Anna went horse riding for the first time on Saturday afternoon, as part of her friend’s birthday party. She absolutely loved it, and has talked of very little else since. Seriously. What I don’t know about the beauty of Poppet’s long-lashed eyes, the velvety texture of her nose or the all round angelic sweetness of her disposition is surely not worth knowing. Although I suspect that won’t preclude me being told more about it anyway.

anna riding

When she was a baby, horse riding was a bit of an in-joke for husband and me, because our antenatal teacher had a daughter aged 10 or so, who was obsessed with horses, and  the teacher joked that she basically had to remortgage the house to afford the lessons. She advised all of us parents to be to keep our offspring well away from the stables if we wanted to avoid a life of equine induced penury. So, on a country holiday when she was six months old we would dramatically shield Anna’s eyes if we passed a field of horses, and I haven’t introduced her to any of the series of pony books I devoured at her age. Luckily for my parents I am allergic to horses, so they were saved from that potentially expensive hobby.

It’s made me reflect more, though, on something I’ve pondered before. As parents, husband and I want our daughters to fulfil themselves and to reach their true potential in whatever gifts they have. But, how the hell do we know what these are?

The thing I was good at was reading, making sense of what I read, talking about it, and then writing things myself. It set me up nicely for a degree in English Literature, a career in healthcare management (umm) and most recently becoming a blogger and novelist. How did I know this was my talent? Well, my parents were both librarians, and our home was filled with books. I gravitated naturally towards them, and of course the school system is well set up to deal with children who like reading and writing!

But how to discover and nurture other talents in our children? There is so much choice these days, such a plethora of weekend and evening and holiday activities available, but I am firm in my belief that it’s not a good idea to spend too much time in organised activities, as children need time to just be. We’re very lucky that Anna’s school runs some fantastic and affordable after school clubs, and so she has been able to try lots of different things. I am strict about no more than two activities a week, but that has still given her scope to try out French, art, running, choir, and drama, and she’s about to start football this week. I don’t think any of them are going to be her lifelong passion. She hated French, and dropped it very quickly. She loves choir and singing, and it has been brilliant for her confidence, but I don’t see her as a professional singer.

Obviously in many areas you can discover a passion as a teenager or adult and pursue it independently. But in other areas – ice skating, ballet, horse riding, music – my understanding is that if you don’t start young enough then you will never be able to reach your full potential. Which feels like an enormous responsibility as a parent!

If we respond to Anna’s wave of enthusiasm for riding by booking her a course of lessons, then we might just be setting her on the path to a place in the Olympic 2028 British show-jumping or dressage team. Or we might be wasting time and money which should be spent on piano lessons to nurture our little Eileen Joyce.

Some parents get round this dilemma by signing their child up for every conceivable extra-curricular activity, theorising that this gives them the chance to see where their talents and interests might lie. I can see why this approach might appeal, but I can’t help thinking it is also quite likely to result in a jaded and exhausted child who wants nothing  more than to spend their teenage years lying on the sofa staring blankly at the television and eating Wotsits.

So, what do we do? Do we wait for the children to express an interest and encourage them to follow that? But what if their fancy lights on an expensive trombone, only to wane a few weeks later? Do we just encourage them in our own interests? Well, yes, to a large extent we already do this, and Anna is perhaps already more interested in history, architecture, books and politics than a typical eight year old. But that approach seems a little narrow, not to mention narcissistic. Is the manic activity drive the answer after all? But how can children develop independence and creativity if they never have any time to themselves?

We will probably continue to bumble along much as we are now; sharing our own enthusiasms with our daughters, supporting them to try new things which cross their path, taking advantage of the opportunities provided through school, allowing a healthy amount of down-time and keeping our fingers crossed!

What do you think? Is over-scheduling a problem for modern children (and parents!)? When does supportive become pressurising? Or does our duty to help our children fulfil their potential mean that we should expose them to as many different opportunities as possible?

5 things that made our Easter holidays

This is the first spring for a few years that we haven’t been abroad. In 2012 we went to Santa Margharita in the Italian Riviera. Anna was just three, and it was the first family holiday abroad that felt truly enjoyable as we were freed from the constraints of nappies and naps and highchairs. The weather was perfect, and we discovered Anna’s enduring passion for all forms of seafood. In 2013 we were meant to go to Copenhagen over Easter, but I was pregnant with a pregnancy we had been told was high risk, and I decided I couldn’t face travelling. Sadly I lost that baby, and a few weeks later we booked an impulsive last-minute long weekend in Amsterdam to try and give us something positive to focus on. It was a bittersweet holiday, but I absolutely loved the city and would love to go back at some point. In 2014 we went to Bruges, and it was while we were there that I started to wonder if my literally insatiable consumption of croquettes, combined with an uncomfortably tight bra, might mean that I was pregnant again – which turned out to be the case. In spring 2015 the result of that pregnancy was three months old, and we set off on one of our most memorable family adventures, inter-railing around Italy and Switzerland. Last year, with a toddler in tow, we had a lovely Easter break in Paris and Marseilles. This year, the combination of our income reducing drastically as husband starts his own business,  Brexit price hikes, and a toddler who can be a challenge on the 15 minute train journey to town, let alone a long-distance train or plane journey, we have decided that 2017 will be a year in the UK.

Husband is super-busy at work as well, and so couldn’t take time off, other than the bank holiday weekend itself, so I had 18 days of two children and no school. When we kicked off the holidays by Sophia throwing up in her pram on the way home from the final school pick-up of term, I must admit to feelings of slight trepidation. Happily, things improved, and we ended up having a very relaxing couple of weeks thanks mainly to the following things:

1. Parents/grandparents

We spent most of the first week of the holidays staying with my parents in Liverpool. Thanks to my mum and dad being wonderful, I felt that I had a real, true break – definitely by laziest period of time since Sophia was born. We weren’t at home, so I had no cleaning, tidying or laundry responsibilities, and my dad did all the cooking. I was also given a lie-in every morning, and had a long, relaxing shower by myself every day. Between them my parents read stories, played games, went for walks and pottered in the garden with the girls. The children had their fill of positive, loving adult attention, and I got to join in if I wanted, or relax with my book if I felt like that. They even babysat for an evening so I could go out for a meal with some of my friends who still live in Liverpool.

Back at home my mother-in-law contributed her bit by looking after both girls while I did some blogging, and then hosted an indoor picnic at her flat.

2. The National Trust

Three of the nicest days over the holidays were courtesy of the National Trust, two old favourites we were more than happy to revisit. and one new discovery. Speke Hall is, apparently, Anna’s “favourite place in Liverpool, apart from Nanna and Grandad’s house”, and I think she makes a good choice. childe of hale instrumentsBoth children loved the Childe of Hale trail with its oversized books and musical instruments, not to mention a snoring giant. Sophia spent ages on the little playground while her big sister whizzed up and down on the zip wire. And we spotted the nests the swallows were making in the eaves.

After we got home, all four of us went off for a picnic in Morden Hall Park. Anna paddled in the River Wandle, the children both got filthy on the natural play area, and we saw two gorgeous families of ducklings on the wetlands board walk, before finishing the day at a city farm to see, amongst other things, some very sweet lambs.

morden hall park

On Easter Saturday Anna and I went to Fenton House to join in the National Trust/Cadbury’s Egg Hunt. The egg hunt which was ultra controversial this year because the word ‘Easter’ was dropped from it. Given that the word Easter comes from the pagan goddess of springtime and that, whatever your views on Christianity, surely no-one considers the true meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection to involve chocolate bunnies, this seemed like an odd thing for the Archbishop of York and the Prime Minister to get their knickers in a twist about. I would have thought that as a Christian Mrs May might have concerned herself more with the distressing  news that 30% of British children are now living in poverty – the highest level since 2010. But what do I know?

easter egg hunt

Anyway, controversy aside, Anna and I had a lovely couple of hours searching for the Mad Hatter’s crockery in the beautiful Fenton House orchard and rose garden, before being rewarded with a chocolate bunny for our troubles.

3. Weather

There’s not many British Easters when you can get sunburnt, but my husband managed it this year! My moisturiser and make-up both contain SPF, and I make sure the children are protected with sunhat and t-shirts, but husband just didn’t think of using suncream in early April, and he ended up a literal (though thankfully not metaphorical) red-neck. Day after day of glorious blue skies and sunshine was so uplifting, and made the vivid green of the new leaves, and the yellow daffodils and clouds of pink and white blossom particularly beautiful.

sunny apple blossom

4. Local friends

Right at the beginning of the holidays, my neighbour (who is also dad to one of Anna’s classmates) came to the rescue with baby wipes when Sophia was sick, and an offer to take Anna off to the park with his kids so I could concentrate on taking Sophia home and cleaning us both up. Anna has had a few playdates with local friends to break the week at home up (and give me an excuse to do some baking, as if I needed one!) and it seems like every time we step outside we bump into someone we know and have a little chat. chocolate cakeOn Good Friday we met up with old friends who aren’t exactly local, but more local than most as they live in North London. Between us we have children aged 8, 4, 2 and newborn, so it’s not massively easy to think of activities to suit everyone, but thanks to the lovely weather the fantastic playground and sandpit at Finsbury Park, followed by ice-creams all round (except for the new baby!) did the trick.

5. Seaside and extended family

We spent Easter Sunday with my aunt, uncle and cousin-by-marriage down in their home on the Sussex coast. Husband’s aunt is a superb cook, and we had one of those lazy and relaxed lunches with delicious lasagne and salad and a couple of glasses of wine which aren’t always easy to achieve with small children around but somehow worked perfectly this time. Maybe the girls were just in a stupor from over-consumption of chocolate!,Anyway, we were able to reward their forbearance later with a wonderful, blustery time on the beach. They (and my husband) jumped in the shingle and climbed on the breakwater and collected shells. I love my London life, and by and large wouldn’t change it for the world, but being by the sea does have a special lure for me.

beach a and t

Anyway, back to school and to routine now, but feeling totally refreshed, and not having missed (much!) our traditional trip to Europe. And there was only one day when I phoned my husband in tears at 5.30pm begging him to leave work early and buy wine on his way. Winning all round.

My March Books

Better late than never, as they say. My less than grand plans for the Easter holidays took a rain check when Sophia was violently sick all over herself and her pram within ten minutes of me collecting Anna from school on the last day of term! We had a few days of poorly toddler, sleepless nights and frantic bleaching, but thankfully she was well enough to go up to Liverpool as we’d planned. What I was right about, however, is that I haven’t had much (any) time for blogging. Mother-in-law has stepped up to the plate this morning, however, and agreed to look after both my little darlings for a couple of hours, so I am sitting in a cafe, relishing the perfect peace of being responsible for no-one except myself and a laptop, and thinking that it might be a good idea to get my March books post written before I’ve entirely forgotten what I read!

The Unmumsy Mum Diary by Sarah Turner

I follow Sarah on social media, and love her wryly witty take on life with young children. I somehow missed her first book when it came out, but when I saw someone selling this on my local Facebook Sell or Swap page, I leapt at it. I really wasn’t disappointed. Sarah writes so well, and she can switch gears effortlessly from laugh-out-loud funny poo stories, to capturing the anxieties and frustrations of balancing work life and family life, to moving and bittersweet reflections on mothering without a mother, as sadly her own mum died when she was a teenager. Much as I love reading blog posts online, there is nothing quite as satisfying as curling up with a nice, fat hardback book to get stuck into, and this one was a real treat.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Another massively serendipitous moment in a year when I’m not buying anything new, was spotting Lisa Jewell’s latest novel on the free book-share stand in my daughter’s school reception! I have to say, the offerings there are normally more along the lines of ancient copies of Gina Ford – spines battered and broken where they have presumably been hurled across the room in frustration as parents realise that diligently as they have studied their child’s ideal routine, the baby doesn’t seem to have read the book at all. But this was freegan gold!

As I’ve said before, I do feel slightly guilty about second-hand books, because writers do have to eke a living out of writing them. However, for whatever reasons, lots of people don’t like to keep books once they have read them, and will pass them on to friends or charity shops or the book stall at the church bazaar. So someone is going to buy them second hand, and frankly it may as well be me.

I like the slightly darker and more suspense driven tone of Lisa Jewell’s most recent novels, and this one was a case in point. A man turns up on a beach in Yorkshire having lost his memory, and meanwhile a young woman in the South-East is investigating the disappearance of her brand-new husband. Discovering how these situations relate to each other takes us twenty-five years into the past, and Jewell is predictably skilful at juggling different viewpoints and time periods in a way which keeps the reader’s interest at fever pitch and never ends up being confusing.

My only criticism of this novel is that I would have liked it to be longer. There are several fascinating characters introduced, and in pursuing the central ‘mystery’ plot I felt like some of their stories were under-developed or side-lined, which is a shame as I still think that Lisa Jewell’s most luminous gift as a writer is her ability to create characters as compelling as people we meet in real life. I would have loved another couple of hundred pages to explore some of their stories a little bit more.

Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin, The Corinthian and Venetia by Georgette Heyer

After breaking out of the mould and reading two completely new books, I reverted to some more comfort reading. Actually, Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin and The Corinthian are all more or less new to me – Kindle purchases this month. I may have read them from the library when I was in my early teens, but my recollection was hazy enough to make me feel I was enjoying the treat of a new book. Heyer’s effervescent, sparkling wit is the perfect tonic, and whatever horrors may be happening in the 21st century I find it impossible not to be cheered up by a trip to Georgette Heyer’s Regency world. To misquote AA Milne – “no-one can be uncheered with a Georgette Heyer novel”. Or, as a meme I saw on Facebook this week had it – “Imagination is the only thing that stands between us and reality”.