Countdown to summer (holidays)

path to beachIt feels like this summer has lasted forever already, and school hasn’t even broken up yet! I have a feeling that, when they do, the rain won’t be far behind – but maybe that’s just me being miserable and cynical. To be honest I wouldn’t mind a bit of rain to give the garden the good drink it so desperately needs. Maybe we could carry on having warm sunny days but cool wet nights?

It’s the final countdown this week. I’ve just been to Poundland and stocked up on craft stuff so I’ve got something up my sleeve for those inevitable ‘I’m bored’ moments, and of course the freezer is stocked to the gunnels with the essential mini-magnums. Tomorrow is Sophia’s school trip – we’re off to a farm plus soft play extravaganza which she will love – and then the following day is her last ever in preschool as she starts school nursery in September. We distributed presents and cards for the staff there this morning, but I volunteered to be class rep for collecting donations for Anna’s teacher’s present, and so I still have a few people to chase, and then the vouchers to buy. Plus, of course, Anna has also announced that she wants to make brownies for her class teacher and TA, and I can hardly discourage her from showing generosity and gratitude, so we need to factor that in this week as well.

We’re heading straight from pick-up on the final day of school to Euston to get the train to Manchester to stay with my brother and SIL for a couple of days, and then going straight over to Liverpool to see my parents, so I need to pack this week as well. I’ve also realised that I may have made a strategic error in planning to go straight to the station, as on the last day of school Anna normally comes out clutching approximately 703 pieces of work, ranging from lovely poems I want to keep forever through to scraps of ripped paper with a piece of lack-lustre colouring she did one wet play back in November, not to  mention a forlorn assortment of hats, socks, cardies, hoodies, water bottles and lone mittens, most of which I gave up for lost months ago, and a dirty PE kit. I have no desire whatsoever to carry these round the country with us (although the thought of accidentally ‘losing’ most of them in my brother’s house is rather tempting!), so somehow I have to extract these momentoes of the year the day before. Wish me luck with that!

A run of two weeks in which Sophia, then Anna then I, have all had tonsillitis has totally foiled my grand plans to be on top of the housework before the start of summer. I could be catching up now, but this is also my last chance for 7 or 8 weeks to sit alone in a cafe sipping ice cold freshly squeezed orange juice and eating a salted caramel chocolate brownie I don’t have to share, so I’m afraid there’s no way I’m passing that by in favour of hoovering under the sofa, however badly that needs doing!

What I’ll be doing instead is spending a couple of separate weeks in Liverpool with my parents, a week’s family holiday in Cornwall, swimming lessons for both children, and then a mixture of lazy pyjama days doing some craft or cooking, reading or Duplo, or watching one of the dvds I’ve squirrelled away over the year, local trips to Vestry House Museum or Epping Forest or the local park for a picnic and a game or two of hide and seek, and perhaps a couple of slightly bigger trips to museums or out to the coast if I’m feeling brave. Not forgetting the third year of our annual ‘Mummy and Anna Day’ when my husband takes a day off work to spend with Sophia and Anna and I head off on an adventure together. Two years ago we got the train to Birmingham and went to Cadbury World (my mothership!), last year we went to London Zoo and then for ice-cream sundaes, and this year we’re planning on a traditional seaside trip to Broadstairs for paddling, fish and chips on the beach and probably more ice-cream sundaes.

Nine and three are very different ages, and the children require very different things of me. Anna is generally extremely patient and loving with Sophia, who in turn adores her sister, but there are moments, on mornings when they are already screaming with frustration at each other and me by 8.20am that I have dreaded the summer holidays. Weeks and weeks of no break for me, and balancing everyone’s conflicting demands can feel daunting, even though I also love spending time with them both and look forward to long days without the tyranny of the school run. However, I hope I have managed to come up with a good balance of family activities, and of both girls (thanks to help from aunty, uncle and grandparents!) getting windows of 1-1 time with an adult. And if it all goes wrong, then you’ll be able to spot my house – it’ll be the one with CBeebies blaring out 12 hours a day whilst I rock quietly in the corner, chain-eating mini-magnums.

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Long days

wildflower meadow

“The days are long but the years are short” goes the internet parenting cliche. Like all cliches it has more than a little truth in it. Right now I am really feeling both sides of this.

The days are literally long at the moment – the hottest sunniest summer in recent years seems like it should be a cause for unmitigated celebration, and I feel a bit guilty and joyless saying this, but it is a bit much for me. I don’t think I’m designed for temperatures above about 22 degrees (or below 0!), and so hot weather makes me a little tired and grumpy and languid. It would be nice if all I had to do was saunter down the the beach, have a swim, and then find a shady spot to eat ice-cream, but sadly I don’t live anywhere near the sea (sob), and however hot it gets the children still need taking to school, and feeding, so the grocery shopping needs doing and meals need preparing, and the house hasn’t miraculously started self-cleaning. The heat also creates extra jobs – fighting a war on the ants who are determined to take over my kitchen, watering the garden and a bit of paddling pool maintenance!

The other problem is that the children sleep less during hot, light evenings and mornings, and so they get progressively tireder and grumpier too. The long days have felt even longer this week as poor little Sophia has had another bout of tonsillitis, and so has been off preschool and at home with me. I hate her being ill, obviously, but I do love the cuddles I get from my usually super-independent little girl when she’s poorly. Although, when its 30plus degrees, extended cuddles with a feverish little limpet are, umm, sticky.

But while I sit watching the umpteenth episode of Peppa Pig and attempting to comfort a crotchety toddler, counting the minutes until husband is due home from work to take over, I am also feeling all the feels at Anna coming to the end of Year 4. The years are so bloody short! How did we get to here? Last two years of primary school coming up, and staring down the barrel of secondary school open days and admissions process. It seems no time at all since we were going through that process for primary school, and that felt a big enough leap.

Anna is feeling it herself this year. Year 4 has been a great year for her. Her class teacher has been amazing (to be honest we’ve been very lucky with all her teachers so far, but she has got on particularly well with Mr M), and her confidence seems to have grown in leaps and bounds. I would love to press pause and have a re-run of Year 4, and what makes it worse is that I know she would too. I am not the greatest with change, and although I have tried not to let Anna see that. I can sense that she has inherited it from me. I was chatting with her and one of her friends about secondary schools (it’s already a hot topic of conversation), and her friend was bubbling with excitement that senior school is only a couple of years away. Not so Anna – she would like things to stay just as they are for the time being. It’s nice, in a way, because it is testament to how happy she is in primary school and what a great environment it’s been for her, but it does make transitions tough. Actually, though, like me as well, she finds the prospect of change much harder than the change itself. When she actually starts Year 5 I know she’ll be instantly filled with enthusiasm for a new teacher, new classroom and new things to learn.

Before I get too sentimental or moany, one thing I am absolutely unequivocally loving this summer is the World Cup! When I was younger I used to get really into the big international competitions – Euro ’96, and the 1998 and 2002 World Cups were my heyday, but I always took an interest until somehow life and young children got in the way. This year, though, Anna was really interested and we decided we’d watch the key matches with her, and I have got right back into it. It helps that England are playing so well, of course – I was at pains to make it clear to Anna that resounding 6-1 victories are very much not what England fans are accustomed to. The nail biting match against Columbia was much more familiar territory, but we did it! Having watched (alright, hidden in the hall because I couldn’t bear to watch, and made my brother tell me what was happening) Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss send us crashing out of Euro ’96, Tuesday’s victory on penalties felt like particularly sweet vindication for him. He’s definitely my hero of the moment (other, of course than golden local boy, Walthamstow born Harry Kane), and I am just wishing that Theresa May could show just a small amount of the England manager’s decisiveness, leadership and calmness under pressure!

How are you all finding the heatwave and end-of-term shenanigans and the football?

 

Instagram, fashion, body image and me

ice cream flake

Yesterday I ordered a bikini. Obviously I am aware that the current heatwave won’t last forever, and that the last few years of Cornish seaside holidays have been more likely to require welly boots and a fleece for beachwear so this really is a triumph of optimism, but nonetheless I have ordered it, and I can’t tell you what a big deal that is for me. You see, I am thirty-seven, and the last time I wore a bikini I was about 6 years old and in the paddling pool in our back garden. A couple of times I’ve ventured into tankini territory, but by and large I’m a one-piece girl all the way.

Why? Well, even in my early twenties, before two full-term pregnancies and two c-sections and two extra stone of weight, I was self-conscious about my tummy. It wasn’t flat, it wasn’t toned, it wasn’t tanned, I wasn’t a size 10 and therefore a bikini was out of bounds to me. It breaks my heart that I had so little self-confidence, that I had been so brainwashed by unrealistic expectations of what a woman’s body should look like, that I honestly believed that exposing a curved stomach to public gaze was offensive to others and embarrassing to me. And then this week I had a lightbulb moment. I was looking back and regretting that I didn’t appreciate that slimmer, younger, fitter self and why I didn’t enjoy wearing a bikini when I ‘could’, when I suddenly realised I was doing the same thing now. Yes, my tummy is very far from flat or toned, I am a size 14 mother-of-two with scars and stretch marks galore, but doesn’t my poor beleaguered tummy deserve a bit of sunshine? It’s carried my two amazing daughters, and the precious babies I never got to meet, it’s been sliced open to deliver them, and it’s been poked and prodded within an inch of its life through pregnancy, miscarriage, delivery and all the rest of it, and I’m going to stop being ashamed of it. Or try, at least.

Where has all this body confidence come from? In a word, Instagram? It’s funny,  because social media in general, and Instagram in particular, come under a lot of criticism for making people miserable through their unrealistic portrayal of perfect lives, but nothing could be further from my experience. It was mainstream media, particularly women’s magazines, which fed my neuroses and insecurity. Headlines of ‘get bikini body ready’ which were inevitably attached to an article which advised giving up pretty much everything I enjoy made me feel miserable and inadequate, whereas now I am exposed to quotes like “How do you get a bikini body? Choose a bikini and put it on your body” or “How do you get beach body ready? Have a body and go to the beach” and this drip feed of body positivity is slowly but surely having an effect.

It’s not just the bikini thing, either. It’s fashion in general. I’ve blogged before about how I lost my fashion mojo in the throes of being pregnant or breastfeeding or running around after small messy children and never getting a chance to go shopping. How ‘fashion’ meant seizing an hour when somehow the children were either asleep in their buggy or temporarily being cared for elsewhere, diving into the nearest shop, grabbing an armful of clothes in an approximation of my size, and going home. Sometimes they fitted and looked nice…to be honest, more often they didn’t. But the chasm between my life being splattered with carrot puree or poster paint whilst crawling round the floor pretending to be a donkey, and the images portrayed in fashion mags was so great that it didn’t seem worth even aspiring to. I was a thirty-something mum, and my time for fashionable dressing had passed.

Now, though, I get my fashion inspiration from an array of fabulous and very real women I follow on Instagram. People like Alison Perry (@iamalisonperry), Clemmie Hooper (@motherofdaughters), Molly Forbes (@mollyjforbes), Helen Thorn (@helenwearsasize18),  and Candice Brathwaite (@candicebrathwaite) post a lot about body confidence and body positivity (amongst other things!), and also just about the clothes they like and look incredible in. Many of the women who inspire me on Instagram have young children to crawl round after, a lot of them have bodies that differ from a fashion model size 8, a lot of them have a limited budget and/or time for shopping, but they look amazing. One by one I have been galvanised to drop self-imposed rules on the inadvisability of wearing things like bright colours, prints, skinny jeans, red lipstick, slogan t-shirts, or dungarees and have embraced the lot. I’ve discovered non high street brands like MonkiMonki, Joanie Clothing, and of course a passion for charity shops, following my buy nothing new year.

I’ve stopped telling myself I’ll buy things when I’ve lost weight, or that I’m too old for certain looks. I’ve stopped worrying about what the size label says – if it fits well, and feels comfortable and looks good then it doesn’t matter, and I’ve started buying bikinis. Whether I actually start wearing it, well, that depends on the vagaries of the Cornish weather.

 

 

All quiet on the blogging front

I realised this morning just how long it is since I blogged here. Life has very much been getting in the way. Some of that has been positive – I’ve done a bit of decorating and enjoyed a beautifully relaxed half term with my family, and some hasn’t been quite so good as I’ve had some ongoing health issues. There is also the undeniable fact that it is really easy to get out of the habit very quickly!

So, this is a bit of a round-up post.

Anna had an INSET day at the beginning of half-term, so we thought we would take advantage of a day when lots of schools were still in to head to Brighton when it would hopefully be quieter. Brighton is one of my favourite UK cities (others, if you’re interested, being Liverpool, Oxford and Edinburgh), and we always have a lovely time there. Unfortunately I was feeling incredibly tired. I have a kind of inflammatory arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), and fatigue is one of the symptoms. Thankfully it isn’t all the time, but when it hits it is that kind of stop-you-in-your-tracks exhaustion that  is normally associated with a bad attack of flu or early pregnancy.

What that meant in practice, however, was that I was forced to sit in Choccy Woccy Doo-Dah’s amazing cafe (a place so awesome I had to include a scene set there in my first book, Two for Joy), and imbibe a mountain of melted chocolate with delicious dippy bits while my husband took the children to play on the beach.

chocolate extravaganza

It’s not often I am defeated by chocolate, but I couldn’t manage to finish this, much to the children’s delight when they came back to meet me and got to hoover up the remains! We had a laid-back meander through the Lanes, some Lebanese flatbreads for lunch, and then Sophia fell asleep in her buggy and napped while I sat with her on the pier and gazed at the sea, and husband took Anna on the fairground.

The next day wasn’t quite so pleasant, as I spent a large part of it in Moorfields Eye Hospital A&E. Another delightful element of AS is that it can cause serious eye problems which need immediate treatment to avoid your sight being damaged in the long-term. I had had a niggling ache in my eye for a few days, which suddenly got worse, and so off to A&E I had to go. Thankfully it was only a relatively minor infection, but it took a while, several examinations and some rather painful eye drops to reach that conclusion.

After that we were off to Liverpool to stay with my parents for a few days. For once, heading Up North meant that we got the best of the weather, escaping the horrendous thunderstorms and torrential rain in London, and getting some lovely warm sunshine. We had a really nice few days, taking the children to Southport to the miniature railway village and to the newly refurbished playground and soft play extravaganza at Otterspool, and going out for a proper afternoon tea, as well as just hanging out in the garden. I also got the chance to have dinner and a catch-up with two of my lovely school friends.

S water play

We came home to have a fairly quiet weekend relaxing at home and doing some gardening, and then it was back to school for what is always one of the busiest half-terms of the year. The few weeks before Christmas are always chocca, but I think this half term with its school trips, sports days, summer fairs, and so on gives it a run for its money. Anna has a fortnight of daily swimming lessons with school, so I actually feel like I’ve spent most of my time in the last week washing and drying towels and swimsuits!

I’ve also seen my rheumatology consultant, and there is a possibility that I could be suitable for a clinical trial of some drugs which he believes could really help with my AS, both in controlling symptoms now and also mitigating some of the longer term effects it can have. It’s a bit nerve-racking, and I might end up spending rather more time than I’d like going back and forth to the hospital for blood tests and so on, but it is also potentially very positive.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me recently what is happening with my writing, and when my next novel is coming. There isn’t really a short answer. I have been working on a book, the first draft of which is now finished, parts of which I love, and which has characters whose story I really want to tell. However, it needs a lot of work and editing to get it where it needs to be, and at the moment I am in a kind of limbo as my literary agent is retiring soon, so I will need a new agent, and my editor at Hodder has a new job, and her replacement won’t be starting for a while. I’m definitely at the point where I need some team effort with my book, and so I am hanging on until my new agent is in place and can give me some strategic (and hopefully metaphorical) kicks up the backside. In the meantime my brain is teaming with ideas and stories, and my biggest problem is  finding the time to actually write them down. Writing, and therefore working for myself, is in many ways an ideal career for combining with looking after the children, but the downside of no fixed working hours is that it takes an awful lot of determination and focus to carve out protected time for writing and then stick to it come hell or high water. I have struggled with that a bit recently, and my mission for September, when Sophia starts nursery, is to well and truly get myself back in the writing saddle.

And in my final, and possibly most exciting, piece of news: My peony plant flowered! Aren’t they just exquisite?

peonies

So that’s where I am as we approach the halfway point of 2018!

Letters for my daughters

A little while ago I read a post on a parenting group by a mum who writes a letter to each of her children every year on the eve of their birthdays. She writes about what they’ve done that year, special memories and little every day things, what they’ve enjoyed and maybe what they haven’t. When they grow up she will give them the letters, and they will have that lovely intimate record of their childhood forever.

I was struck by what a beautiful idea it was, and really wished that I’d thought to do the same myself. Then this morning I decided, better late than never, and went out to buy two pretty notebooks, one for each daughter. Starting from their 4th and 10th birthdays I too will write them a letter each year. I will also write some retrospective posts, perhaps their birth stories and some other significant memories.

In some ways my children will have many, many, many more recorded memories of their childhood than I do. So many photos on my phone, not to mention a blog I’ve been writing since Anna was only 3! However, there is a particular intimacy about pen on paper, and they will have far fewer examples of that. I have a letter my mum wrote to me when I was only 3 or 4 and she had to go into hospital for a couple of days. My granny and I wrote regularly to each other, basically from when I learned to write up to her death when I was in my late twenties. My first couple of terms at university, frighteningly in an age when email was still new and innovative, were immeasurably cheered by letters from home, even my teenage brother putting pen to paper for me. And my husband and I still have the often daily love letters we wrote each other during university vacations, which will no doubt cause our children intense embarrassment when they come across them at some point.

I hope that these little journals I’m going to write for my daughters will one day be as special for them as all those letters were to me.

notebooks