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

 

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Easter travels

It feels a bit odd to come home after a holiday in Spain and Portugal, much of which we spent wrapped up in warm clothes and rainwear, to good old Blighty where the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, the sun is cracking the flags and it’s shorts and sandals all round. In some ways, though, it’s a good thing. We had a fabulous holiday, despite the weather (and the sun did come out a bit), and there’s no denying that some lovely warm sunshine here has eased the transition back to normal life.

This was our first fortnight’s holiday for 3 years, since our mini inter-rail round Northern Italy and Switzerland when Sophia was a newborn baby. I think we were all ready for it, especially my husband who, in the intervening time, has started his own business and has been working incredibly hard with long hours and very few days off. Last summer he wasn’t able to come on our planned holiday to Anglesey due to last-minute work issues, and although he came to Cornwall in August he was welded to his laptop and mobile for much of each day. This fortnight was a complete switch-off, and it was brilliant for all of us.

san sebastian.JPG

Our first week was in San Sebastian, or Donostia, in Basque, which is the local language. We had heard this was a foodie paradise, and oh my goodness it didn’t disappoint. We relaxed bedtime sufficiently to allow the children to come out with us each evening for pintxos, which is the Basque equivalent of tapas. Every bar and cafe has the most amazing array of delicious-looking morsels laid out, and you just point to the ones you want, or order from a blackboard list if you want the hot specials of the day. The locals invariably eat standing up at the bar, or at bar height outside tables. I must admit that my British sensibilities can’t quite cope with this – I like my meals sat at a proper table, preferably with cutlery and a napkin thank you very much! Also, if you’re 3 or 9, a table which is chest height on an adult doesn’t really work for you. We generally found some stools to perch on, or one inspired night we sat outside on the steps of a local church, eating sublime food and watching the world go by, as well as having a sneaky few glasses of the local tipple txakoli (pronounced something like chickoli) which is an ultra-dry, light, slightly sparkling wine which might well knock prosecco off my top spot. That was one of those evenings you know will stay with you forever.

The flavour combinations were just stunning. Goats cheese with local ham, black olive tapenade, sundried tomatoes and caramelised onions. Roasted red peppers stuffed with a creamy sauce of hake and fresh herbs. Squid cooked in a light tempura batter so tender that it almost literally melted in the mouth. Anna took to all this like a duck to water and revelled in trying everything, the more adventurous the better. Sophia…not so much. She is going through an ultra-fussy phase anyway (I really hope it’s just a phase), and she was resolutely unimpressed. Luckily she loves fruit of all kinds and there was a luscious selection in the shops, so she basically survived on bread and fruit, with the odd ham sandwich thrown in . What she did love was the adventure of going out in the evening and experiencing all the fun and colour and excitement of a new city. She usually still has an afternoon nap anyway, and so was more than happy to catch up on her sleep through an extended siesta.

San Sebastian also has the most beautiful beaches, and the children got to build sandcastles to their heart’s content, and I got to stroll contemplatively along the golden sand with the turquoise (and very cold) waves lapping at my toes, which is one of my favourite things to do in the whole world.

sandcastles

Then we got the overnight ‘hotel train’ to Lisbon. As someone who has travelled across Europe fairly extensively by sleeper train, often in a couchette which has six people to a cabin, cracked faux-leather berths to sleep on, and a fairly malodorous single toilet at the far end of the carriage, these en suite twin cabins with crisp white sheets, snuggly blankets and complimentary toiletries feel the height of decadence. I adored the adventure of our couchette journeys, but that was when we were child-free twenty-somethings. I have to admit that I’ve gone soft, and that this level of comfort now feels like a necessity. It is still the most brilliant system. We boarded the train at about 7pm in San Sebastian, had a picnic tea in our cabin, and then settled down for the night. We woke up at 7am ready to get dressed as the train pulled into Lisbon station. Sadly breakfast on the train had sold out, so we had to make do with a panic snack of the slightly stale bread and leftover fruit from our tea the evening before, but that was the only hitch.

Husband and I went to Lisbon about fifteen years ago, loved it, and have always been intending to return. In the last fifteen years it has become much more of a tourist hotspot  – it sometimes felt as though English and French were as commonly heard on the streets as Portuguese, but it has so far retained all its charm. One enormous benefit of visiting in spring, this time, as opposed to autumn last time, was the heavenly scent of orange blossom which lingered everywhere.

We ate pasteis da nata (gorgeous custard tarts), took a boat across the river, rode on the charming 1930s yellow trams, visited the largest aquarium in Europe which was absolutely stunning – penguins, sea otters and puffins, as well as a massive variety of all kinds of fish and sharks-  and took a day trip out to Sintra. This was the town where, in days gone by the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy built their summer palaces so that they could escape the intense heat of Lisbon to the cooler mountains and coast. It is truly fairy-tale like, an impression heightened by husband having arranged to have us met at the station by a horse-drawn carriage! Needless to say the girls (including me, to be honest) were in heaven.

It was fun to revisit old favourite places, and discover lots of new ones this holiday. We ate delicious food, drank delicious wine, and got lots of fresh (albeit occasionally rather bracing) air. We also got the chance to really relax away from school runs and homework and emails and deadlines and all the pressures of day-to-day life which sometimes mean that I feel all I ever say to my children is ‘hurry up’. It was a total pleasure to watch how much the girls enjoyed each other’s company; Anna made up the most amazing stories to entertain Sophia during long walks or boring airport waits, they ran around ancient squares or enormous beaches together and got lost in elaborate imaginative games.

anna and sophia lisbon

Anna and Sophia in Lisbon’s grand ceremonial central square.

Anna and I are both glad to be home – we love travel and adventure, but we’re home bodies deep down. I think husband and Sophia would travel forever if they could – Sophia got really upset this morning because she thought that me applying suncream when I got her dressed meant that we were going to the beach, and she would have infinitely preferred that to preschool!

But we have had a gloriously memorable and relaxing holiday.

The anxiety bitch

crocuses

I’ve blogged a little bit about my mental health problems over the last couple of years, but always somewhat hesitantly as it feels very personal, and I always worry about seeming whingey. However, I’m not sure that either my best interests, or wider awareness of mental health problems, are best served by a writerly stiff upper lip. The attitudes to mental health are so odd. I have a chronic physical illness – ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and I understand that it is something I have to live with rather than cure. That there are strategies and behaviours to help manage it, and triggers which will make it worse. I understand that a bad flare-up may be painful and debilitating at the time, but it will eventually pass, and if I am having a hard time during that flare-up I feel perfectly free to moan about it and ask for help. I don’t think it is my ‘fault’ when I get ill, and I don’t feel guilty about recurring episodes.

Intellectually I accept that things are no different with a mental health issue like anxiety. And when talking to someone else struggling with their mental health it would never cross my mind that it was something they could control or should feel guilty about. But I still slightly struggle to make that emotional adjustment regarding my own mental health.

Late summer and autumn last year was a very difficult time for me mentally. The worst manifestations of PTSD following Sophia’s difficult birth had passed, after the therapy I had, but I had been left with horrible anxiety, particularly health anxiety. An overwhelming fear of dying and leaving my girls when I love them so much and their need of me is so great saw me over-analysing every last twinge, twitch and niggling ache. Dr Google is definitely not your friend in these circumstances. And the real bitch about anxiety is that it creates physical symptoms – nausea, erratic heart beat, tense muscles, twitches – all of which re-enforce the conviction that something is badly wrong and create a vicious circle.

Sometimes the focus of my anxiety would switch, and I would panic about a symptom one of the children was exhibiting instead. Here the responsibility felt quite literally mind-boggling. It is my job to spot if there is a problem with one of my children and act accordingly. For me, campaigns like the ones to spot the signs of sepsis or various childhood cancers, although excellently intentioned and no doubt very valuable for many families, actually send me into a tailspin of panic. So often we are told as parents to ‘trust our instincts’ but my instincts are stuck on permanent red alert.

I felt ashamed that after spending a lot of money seeing a private psychologist to have my PTSD treated I was still unwell. Again, would I have felt this if my AS flared up again after an apparently successful treatment? Of course not. Some blunt common sense from my husband and a good friend persuaded me to make a GP appointment.  I was referred to see a counsellor for a course of CBT, and I’ve been having this therapy since late autumn.

It had really started to help. From around Christmas onwards I was feeling much better. As I felt better mentally the physical symptoms receded too, and hey presto a virtuous circle was born. I started to feel happy with a happiness I could rely on, rather than as a tentative feeling I suspected might be washed away on a tide of fear at any moment. My success was in taking life one day at a time, beginning to accept that this moment right now is all any of us ever have, and it behoves us to make the most of it rather than courting or dreading the fickle Goddess of the Future. The trap I fell into was starting to think of myself as better, or cured, when in reality I suspect that, like AS, anxiety isn’t really something that can ever be totally cured, it is a case of living alongside and managing the symptoms.

The last couple of weeks have been a bit tiring and stressful. Anna had a throat infection, which mysteriously triggered a severe outbreak of eczema, which is not a problem she’s really had before. Sophia has blocked sinuses, and has needed regular steaming sessions to try and unblock them, and which have caused a hideous night-time cough, making her distressed and keeping us both awake for hours at night, leading to tired and grumpy days. Even the cat has got in on the act with dental problems leading to the need for a special diet and a request from the vet to get a urine sample from him (yes, really), so that his kidney function can be tested and the appropriate painkillers prescribed. Worry about what was actually wrong with my furry and non-furry dependents, and the additional work of looking after them, not to mention the darker imaginings of what hideous illnesses these symptoms might actually signify have taken their toll, and my anxiety levels have rocketed. This in turn sets off physical symptoms which begin to convince me that there is something horribly wrong with me.

I have felt deeply disappointed in myself for relapsing. I am struggling to teach myself to stop thinking of recovery as linear, or of there being an end-state of ‘better’, but to understand that it will be up and down, and there will always be times when I struggle more. And I am learning strategies to calm myself down – mini mindfulness exercises when I try and force my brain to focus on the here and now, not trying to suppress anxious or difficult thoughts but to acknowledge them and move on, recognising how physical symptoms are the treacherous bitch anxiety tricking my mind into tricking my body.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the last couple of difficult weeks there have been some fun times when my anxiety has receded, and I’ve been able to enjoy a dinner with friends or watching Anna playing a Munchkin in her school’s Wizard of Oz production. The lesson it seems I must learn and re-learn is to take the rough with the smooth. To make lemonade with the lemons, and to dance in the rain. I mustn’t wait to reach the Sugarcandy Mountain where my whole family is always healthy and an anxious thought never crosses my mind, before allowing myself to be happy.

Nine

A whitstable

So, as of last weekend, I am the mother of a nine year old. I wasn’t very well immediately after her birth, so the first time I saw her naked she was about 24 hours old. I cried because she looked so tiny and vulnerable, and I almost couldn’t bear that she was outside in a big scary world instead of still safe inside me. And now that tiny baby is halfway to official adulthood.

She may be a lot bigger now, but in some ways she is still just as vulnerable. The thing is, as a parent you can do a lot to control everything about your baby’s environment. In fact it is pretty much all you care about. I kept her warm and safe and fed and clean and cuddled, and there was almost no problem that couldn’t be solved by a cuddle and a breastfeed.

Of course I still do my best to keep her warm and safe and fed and clean and cuddled,  but it is no longer in my power to solve all her problems. Friendship issues, finding out about the all-important parts in the school play, struggling with a dyslexia diagnosis that makes some aspects of her school work very difficult for her – none of these things are within my gift to solve. Recently I discovered that a few weeks ago she had been upset about something at school, and her lovely friends had made a huge, and successful, effort to cheer her up. I felt pretty miserable,  though, feeling I had failed at mothering because I hadn’t been there for her. Then a very wise friend pointed out that, actually, having strong friendships where she feels comfortable and safe talking about her feelings is actually a really positive thing. At nine it is right and appropriate that my husband and I no longer meet all her emotional needs.

I know parents of even older children/teenagers (and adults!) will probably tell me that this is only the beginning of it. The list of things which will affect her wellbeing and happiness and which I can’t control is only going to get longer.

One of my favourite quotes is that we should give our children “roots and wings”. My lovely, clever, creative, thoughtful, sensitive and loving little girl is growing her wings. Our job is to maintain the roots so that she knows that whatever life throws at her she can always come home and find love and security with her family.

We celebrated last weekend with presents, chocolate fudge cake and a trip to Whitstable for some (rather chilly) beach frolics and a seafood lunch. On Saturday we have a pizza-making party with 10 of her friends to look forward to. Anna has definitely inherited my talent for making birthdays stretch.

Nine years into motherhood I am still waiting for someone to give me the rule book or instruction manual. I still feel like I’m winging it almost every day. But whether by good luck or (far less likely!) good management, we’ve got a pretty awesome nine year old daughter, and I’m very proud of her.

February half term

February half term was only last week, but actually feels like ages ago as it’s been a really busy week since we got back.

We had all sorts of plans for the first few days, most of which were cancelled as Sophia was poorly, and just wanted to sit on my lap and have cuddles and stories, which is of course what she got. Husband did take Anna out for a long walk across the Walthamstow Marshes and along the River Lea to blow their cobwebs away – the highlight of which for Anna appears to have been walking through a puddle that went up to her shins!

Then we went off to Liverpool to stay with my parents for a few days, and had a lovely time. Sophia was much better – albeit with a cough which got so bad on the first night we were there that my long-suffering dad ended up driving off to the all-night supermarket at 4am in search of cough mixture!

The next day the adults may have been a bit bleary, but the children were full of beans, and we headed off to one of my favourite parts of Liverpool, the Albert Docks. In slightly more clement weather I love a walk along the river front, but that day it was blowing winds of 45mph, so we headed straight indoors. I took Sophia to Mattel Play, which is basically 3 year old paradise – a soft play and imaginary play centre themed around Thomas the Tank and Bob the Builder. She had an amazing time, and although soft play is not my preferred way of spending time, this one is actually very civilised. Very clean, everything in great condition, friendly staff, and not over-crowded, even in the middle of half term.

bob the builder

Meanwhile my parents took Anna to one of my childhood favourites, the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The age gap between my girls means that it can be difficult to find activities they both enjoy, especially in cold/wet weather when running around at the park or on the beach is less of an option. This was great because Anna got to explore to her heart’s content with Nanna and Grandad, long after her sister’s boredom threshold would have been surpassed.

That evening I got to hang out with four of my oldest and loveliest friends – three of whom still live in Liverpool and another of whom was also up for half term visiting her parents. We basically did what we’ve been doing since we were 13, and sat around eating  pizza, crisps and chocolate and chatting about anything and everything. There was more prosecco at 37 than there was at 13, and the conversation was a bit heavier – pregnancy, breastfeeding, children, schools, careers, house renovations, sadly the serious illness of one friend’s mum – but there was plenty of random silliness too and I was reminded again of just how much I love these girls, and how lucky I am to have them in my life.

The next day we met up at the park with a selection of sproglets aged between 8 weeks and 5 years in tow, and huddled in the playground trying to keep warm while our offspring ran around.yellow shoes I also took the children to get their feet measured (they’d both grown, of course), and although the trip left me about £70 poorer, it did mean I could justify buying Sophia a pair of sunshine yellow patent shoes, which makes me very happy.

Saturday was the surprise success of the visit. My parents are very involved with helping to run their church’s food bank and community coffee shop, both of which take place on a Saturday morning. They suggested I brought the children along for a drink and some homemade cake, and then took them home when they got bored. To be honest, I expected that to happen sooner rather than later, as I didn’t think there would be much for them to do. I dramatically under-estimated the allure of a large, empty, carpeted space in the church hall! They spent the whole morning (other than a short break for bacon butties and delicious home-made chocolate eclairs) doing ‘exercises’, basically a random selection of incredibly energetic gymnastics and chasing games in the space. They got me to join in too, so I got a good workout. It is such a useful reminder that, although it is nice for children to have toys and to be taken on interesting trips, sometimes they are equally happy with some time and space to make their own fun.

As always when I go home, I feel like I have had a complete break, and come back with loads more energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately this time also with Sophia’s lurgy, but that is par for the course parenting small children in winter!

I have a hugely exciting weekend trip by myself this weekend – a bread and patisserie course at a cookery school in Devon, which was my Christmas present from my husband. Feeling a bit nervous about leaving Sophia for pretty much the first time, and being apart from both girls for three days, which I think is the longest ever, but I’m looking forward to it too, and will hopefully blog next week about how I get on.