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”.

Easter ‘break’

Anna breaks up for the Easter holidays today, and I am feeling slightly trepidatious! Usually I really look forward to the school holidays – lazy mornings free from the tyranny of the school run, the chance to travel or spend more time with family and friends, a more relaxing pace of life. But for some reason this Easter break is feeling a little bit ominous.

Possibly because this last half-term I’ve been well into the routine of Sophia going to pre-school three mornings a week, and I have really, really, really appreciated the difference that has made to my energy levels and sanity. This week I’ve missed out on two of those precious mornings, the first because there was an end-of-term pre-school trip to our local city farm which I helped out at, and then pre-school broke up yesterday, so there will be no Friday session this week. I really enjoyed going to the farm, and seeing Sophia’s face as she saw real live bunnies and pigs and even a genuine Baa Baa Black Sheep, but I have missed the me-time and the headspace I get when she is at pre-school, and it has made me slightly wary of the next few weeks, as the next time I have a period of child-free time is when she returns to pre-school on April 21st. Which feels a very long time indeed!

We do have some nice plans for the holidays. Tomorrow is an INSET day for Anna’s school, so husband is also taking a day off work, and we’re going to head to the Science Museum, which is normally unbearably crowded at weekends and school holidays, but we’re hoping will be less so tomorrow when many schools haven’t broken up. Then we’ll have lunch out somewhere, maybe al fresco if the weather continues to be so beautiful, and then spend the afternoon letting the children run free in Hyde Park. I imagine ice-cream will probably be involved as well.

On Sunday I am taking the girls up to Liverpool for a few days to stay with my parents. It will be lovely to see them, have a change of scene, and have another two pairs of adult hands. After that we don’t have any real plans, not even for Easter weekend itself. It looks likely that my husband will be working a lot of the time, and so I need to have a little think about what I do with the children. I’d like to make use of our National Trust membership and visit our most local property, Sutton House in Hackney, and perhaps Osterley Park in the far West of London if I’m feeling more adventurous. Heading to our local playground or park is also guaranteed to please both children.mini eggs

Then of course there will be plenty of down-time at home – making the inevitable Easter nest cakes, messing around in the garden if it’s nice weather, snuggling up to watch a film if it’s less so. And more mundane tasks like getting Anna’s passport photos taken and counter-signed and taking her glasses to an optician to be mended!

What there won’t be any time for, I don’t think, is sitting in a cafe writing, so there will probably be a quite few weeks on the blog! Happy Easter, everyone.

The curse of the bunk bed (and other perils of modern parenting).

A friend posted on Facebook last week to say that if she’d known that changing the sheets on a top bunk would not only demand every atom of patience she possessed, but also risk serious physical injury, she would never have bought them in the first place. There was an instant flurry of responses from those of us who are the unfortunate owners of bunk beds or high cabin beds ourselves, with similar tales of woe from the parenting front line.

The general consensus was one of ‘if only we’d known’. It’s the kind of thing you don’t read in the ‘What to Expect’ books. About five years after having your little bundle of joy placed in your arms, the lure of the high sleeper will start to be cast out.  bunk beds of dreamsYou will think of the space saved, the practicality, the ease of siblings being able to share a room or having someone to stay over, the fun of an under-bed den or room for a bookcase or desk. Images of beautiful rooms in the GLTC catalogue will allure. Before you know what has happened, you are locked into a cycle of sheet changing which will take you to the very limits of your endurance and possibly beyond.

For those of us who have succumbed there is no way back. We have the choice of leaving our children to stew in their fetid sheets for years to come, or risking our health and sanity to ensure their hygiene. Or, as one savvy mum recommended on Facebook, bribing your children to change their own sheets.

In the interests of public service blogging I have also rounded up some of the other unexpected perils I have encountered in eight years of parenting. There were many things I expected to be difficult – sleepless nights, poonami nappies, tantrums – and they have not disappointed. But these are the hidden horrors, the things only discussed in whispers at the school gates or toddler group, but for which forewarned is forearmed.

Some time during your baby’s first weeks you will hear the phrase Tummy Time. It sounds like a children’s TV programme, and you don’t pay much attention to it at first. Then, suddenly, it is everywhere. Your health visitor asks you about it, it’s the only thing (other than shades of poo) discussed over coffee with your NCT pals, and you are bombarded with marketing emails flogging products to make tummy time easier.

For the uninitiated, ‘tummy time’ is the practice of placing your newborn baby on their tummy for a certain amount of time each day. This apparently encourages the development of all sorts of muscles which are needed for sitting, crawling and walking. If you are negligent in this respect you will end up being the mother of one of those hordes of otherwise entirely healthy children who never manage to sit up or move by themselves…

All babies seem to hate tummy time (except when you want them to go to sleep – advice to avoid cot death is to place babies on their backs to sleep, and so of course they want to be on their tummies). Anna used to scream blue murder when I placed her on her tummy, and I would be alongside her on the floor crying too, panicking because she’d only done five minutes of tummy time instead of the recommended fifteen. Then I had a lightbulb moment, and stopped trying. Just like that. If she ever let me put her down at all (rare) I put her on her back, on her play gym, where she could see me and her toys and look around. She was happy. And despite my dereliction of duty she learnt to hold her head up, roll, sit, crawl and walk just fine. If your baby doesn’t like it, just don’t bother.

A cute toy on the market for babies and toddlers is a bright yellow egg box, filled with six eggs which crack into two separate pieces to reveal a little chicken in the middle. The chickens squeak. Utterly adorable, non? Actually, seriously, NON. eggsOnce this toy enters your home, you will never know another moment’s peace. Curating all twelve pieces of egg in the box simultaneously has been scientifically proven to be as likely as Donald Trump turning down a sunbed session. You will find half eggs everywhere. And even if your attitude to tidying is as relatively laissez-faire as mine, it will niggle more than you care to admit. Every so often your toddler will have a meltdown because they can’t find all their ‘neggs’, and you will spend the next two hours on hands and knees peering under multiple items of household furniture. Eventually you will triumphantly recover the missing four half eggs, only to discover that in the meantime your toddler has lost all interest in Project Egg and has taken advantage of your distraction to draw a beautiful flower for you. On the wall. And has lost the original egg anyway.

If someone gives you a set of these as a gift then this is what you must do. Smile. Thank them. Immediately walk out of the house to the nearest charity shop and donate them. Hesitation or deviation could be fatal. If the present comes from an older family member or friend, or one without children, then they were as deceived as you, and no blame can be attached to them. If, however, the gift is from someone with children under ten, then I am sorry to be the one to break this news to you, but they hate you.

Another purchase you will be seduced into, little knowing the havoc it will wreak on your back, shins and shredded nerves is the mini scooter. How cute will your toddler look scooting along? How lovely will it be to leave the pram behind but not have to tax little legs with too much walking? How bruised and battered will you be when your pre-schooler tires of scooting and you end up awkwardly carrying them on one hip with the vicious scooter in the other arm, relentlessly banging against your knees, shins and ankles? How mortified when your previously angelic little darling suddenly scoots off at the speed of light down a crowded high street, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake? How fast do you think you can move when your child spots something of vital interest at the bottom of the steep hill you are on? The hill which leads down to a main road…

If you insist your child wears a helmet, then it is yet another item to be found and coaxed into before you leave the house, and another item to carry (along with child, scooter, change of clothes, travel potty, snacks, drinks and toys) when the inevitable disenchantment with scooting occurs during your day out. On the other hand, if you let them scoot sans helmet you will be continually plagued by horrific mental images of A&E waiting rooms, x-rays, concussion and broken bones. Your choice.

Never buy glitter. As soon as glitter enters the house, nothing in it will escape unscathed. Shiny flakes will lurk at the bottom of cups of tea, on the cat, between floor boards, in the bath. glitterYou will never be free. Of course, even if you don’t bring it on yourself, there is a very high probability that some lovingly crafted and lavishly beglittered piece of art-work will make its way home from nursery/preschool at some point. My friend is a primary school teacher. When she got married, her class made her an enormous card, liberally bedaubed with multi-coloured glitter. Two years and a house move later, she was still finding glitter in unexpected places.

 

There are more of course. I could mention World Book Day, and all the other occasions which require your child to attend school in an imaginative fancy dress costume lovingly created with just 24 hours notice. Or the Class Bear, who arrives unexpectedly one weekend and demands not just 72 hours of top-class entertainment, but also that his exploits (educational, healthy but also fun) be documented for the perusal of your child’s teacher and all the other parents in the class. Or the party bags which surge in, filling your home with more e-numbers and plastic crap than you can shake a piñata stick at. But the thing about these, painful as they are, is that they are unavoidable, inflicted on you by outside forces. Bunkbeds, tummy time, toy egg boxes, micro scooters and glitter are all brought into our homes voluntarily, even enthusiastically, as we are ignorant of the chaos and misery they will leave in their wake. It is too late for me. But if I can save just one other family from their fate then I will not have blogged in vain.