United we stand

fred rogers quote

I am writing this looking out of the window of a local cafe at a busy urban street scene in central Walthamstow. People from hugely diverse religious, cultural, national backgrounds going about their business – shopping, waiting for the bus, meeting friends, going to work, taking their children to the park.

I am also fighting back tears after reading the heartbreaking account of what happened in Manchester last night, and thinking of the families who will never know another ‘normal’ morning like this.

Life feels so fragile and frightening when horror like this occurs. It is incredibly tempting to retreat into ourselves, closeted away with our families and friends, shutting ourselves off from that scary world outside. I feel that temptation. When the attack in Westminster happened last month it was a real effort of will to get on the Tube with Sophia the next morning and carry on our usual routine. But this instinct to retreat is not the right one. Life is fragile and precious, so all the more reason to live it fully. We know and trust those closest to us, but when a dreadful event like this happens, what becomes immediately clear is the abundant kindness and humanity of strangers. People from Manchester and surrounding areas (including my hometown, Liverpool) have opened their homes, given lifts, made tea and offered whatever helping hand was necessary to those who needed it. There are queues of people wanting to donate blood this morning.

There is much speculation as to whether the suicide bomber will turn out to be a lone individual or part of a wider terrorist network. Obviously that matters for the police as they try to prevent more such attacks, but for us as worried onlookers, I don’t think it does. Whether through badness or madness or both there will always be people who do or advocate terrible things. But they are the exceptions and the outliers, and in no way represent the communities they come from.

When we have talked to Anna about terrorist attacks – figuring it is better she hears about them from us than convoluted versions on the school grapevine – we emphasise that whenever anything bad happens the people who try to help and heal always far, far outnumber the people who tried to hurt and kill. Whether that be hospital staff working through the night, or emergency services putting their own lives at risk or call handlers keeping witnesses and victims calm while they wait for help to arrive, or ordinary people opening their hearts and homes to those who need it.

Political campaigning has been suspended following the attack, and I very much hope that signals a sensible and grown-up approach, which doesn’t try to lay blame anywhere except on the man who detonated the bomb. Be deeply suspicious of leaders or politicians who try to stir up blame and hatred against immigrants or religious communities or any other wide group of people for the actions of a few, because divided countries and communities are weaker ones.

The best way we can show solidarity with the victims, the survivors, the bereaved of last night’s attack is to follow the example of the people who reached out their hands to help. Smile at a stranger, put some money in a charity collection tin, go and donate blood or register on the organ donation website and, above all,  teach your children the truth – good people in the world by far outweigh bad, and we are all stronger when we stand united.

Choose Your Battles

‘Choose your battles’ is the mantra in our household at the moment. Sophia has a will of iron, and if her ideas on what should happen and my ideas on what should happen don’t coincide then we have a problem. A big problem. A problem who, although under 3 foot with huge melting brown eyes, peachy soft skin, wispy blonde hair and an angelic smile, takes only a split second to turn into a tomato-coloured, screaming, screeching, thrashing, wailing termagant.

To be fair, this is usually caused by some gross stupidity or unreasonableness on my part. Only this week, for example, I asked Sophia if she would like a bubble bath. She enthusiastically agreed, but was then understandably furious that these bubbles went onto her skin when she got into the bath. I obviously should have realised the magnitude of this issue and forewarned her. And how could I possibly have given her pasta for dinner, when she doesn’t like pasta? Granted she had cheerfully, even voraciously, eaten pasta for around 60% of her meals since she was about 8 months old, but I should have realised that she doesn’t like it now.

Obviously I want to avoid these meltdowns as frequently as possible, but there are many times when I can’t. Unreasonable I may be, but she is not going to go to pre-school in her pyjamas, or watch Charlie and Lola for five hours solid or put my iPhone in the bath. Nor am I very keen on her communicating her views on where she wants her sister to sit by dragging her there by the hair, or going out in the pouring rain with no coat on, or swinging on the stair-gate. Her teeth are going to be cleaned twice a day, and she does need to hold my hand when she crosses the road and she must be fastened into her buggy so she doesn’t tip out onto the pavement.

With all these red lines which I have to try and stop her crossing, more and more I find myself murmuring ‘choose your battles’. In a perfect world she wouldn’t drop food onto the floor, or hide the green tops of the strawberries she has eaten down the side of the sofa, or dip her finger into her milk and use it to draw patterns on the table. I don’t know how much our neighbours appreciate her compulsion to walk along every front wall of a suitable height, or climb up and jump off every step to a front path. And wearing wellies to pre-school on a cloudless day when temperatures are reaching 20 degrees celsius isn’t necessarily ideal. I don’t want to turn her into a spoilt brat by pandering to her insistence that her snack is served on the red plate not the blue plate, or letting her have said snack on the sofa (all the better for hiding bits of strawberry bits) rather than the high chair, but equally, in the overall scheme of things, does it really matter? Is it worth a full-scale bells and whistles tantrum which leaves both of us tear-stained, frazzled and exhausted?

I’m trying to restrict my restrictions to things which might harm her or someone else, or which set up really bad habits we might struggle to break later. I have broken many rules which I set for myself when Anna was a baby – such as no television in the mornings, except in case of illness. Now, when it’s a Saturday morning and 6.30am and I’ve already been up for an hour, and Sophia is begging to watch (yes, you’ve guessed it) Charlie and Lola I just can’t be bothered to argue. Choose your battles. Letting her watch some telly then means she’s happy because she got what she wanted, I’m happy because I get to potter round the kitchen making banana muffins for breakfast while she is contentedly engaged, before slumping on the sofa next to her for a quick Instagram, fix, and the whole family are happy because they then get to eat the muffins. And the idea of imposing a ‘one toy away before another comes out’ is a distant memory.

Part of me thinks this is fine, sensible even. Why deliberately make both of us stressed and unhappy over arbitrary rules when there’s no need to? Especially as, because of the need to get Anna to school and various other activities on time, I already spend a lot of time telling Sophia that she has to stop playing to come and get dressed, get ready, get into her buggy and go out, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to cut her some slack the rest of the time. On the other hand, I can also see that it might be a slippery slope to total household anarchy, and that this is how youngest children get a reputation for being spoilt!

And then, of course, there’s the times when she sits on the sofa and ‘reads’ a story to her teddies, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and it’s impossible to believe that she could ever have a tantrum at all.

S on sofa

What do you think? Is my ‘choose your battles’ mantra a sensible and pragmatic approach to coping with a  strong-willed toddler, or a lazy parent’s excuse for failing to put their foot down?

Gratitude

thank you neon

Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?