Nativity

There’s nothing like a Nursery and Reception Christmas show to fill you with a warm festive glow and an unshakeable conviction that all is right with the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary on all news channels. I absolutely love this cartoon by the talented and hilarious Hurrah for Gin.

hurrah for gin cartoon

This is absolutely me to a tee. And a bare 24 hours after sobbing unashamedly through the ridiculously emotive (and prodigiously talented) performance, I was seriously considering the eBay option after Sophia had woken on the hour every hour all night with a horrible snotty cold, and I had decided to keep her off nursery (even though it was her ‘full day’, and one of my last chances of an uninterrupted 6 hours to get stuff done before Christmas), but she was then in that annoying state of being not sufficiently ill to lie quietly on the sofa all day, but not well enough to really engage in any activity or game as she got irritable and fretful within minutes. As, to be honest, did I. As always on these occasions, I need to send a heartfelt vote of thanks to the outstanding public service broadcasting provided by CBeebies!

In all seriousness, little children singing Away in a Manger does help give me some perspective, both on the state of the world, and the madness that is December when you have two young children, one of whom also has a December birthday. It is six years since I sat and watched Anna’s Nursery nativity, and my tears then were not just of seasonal sentimentality, but also grief for the two babies I had lost that year to miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. To sit there again and watch this precious, longed-for and much loved second daughter of mine singing with all the gusto her almost-four-year-old self could muster was a blessing and a privilege for which I can never be sufficiently grateful.

This December feels even crazier than usual; husband is super busy and stressed at work, both children have been unwell, in addition to all the Christmas festivities I’m also organising a very important 4th birthday party (in fact two, a birthday tea for the grandparents, and a pass-the-parcel fest for 8 of Sophia’s little pals from nursery). And it is the school Christmas fair today, which always feels to me like 18 months worth of stress crammed into 90 overcrowded and over-heated minutes, even though it is one of the highlights of Anna’s Christmas. However, I am going to read my own sage advice from last year and try to relax and focus on the things that really matter, rather than becoming hysterical when I receive a message that the rainbow unicorn tableware I carefully sourced and ordered weeks ago has a delay and will not arrive until a week after Sophia’s party. Honestly, I’m totally calm.

 

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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.

Seven Up

7 cakeMy lovely eldest girl turned seven last week. As one of my NCT friends pointed out, seven years is quite a long time. Despite frequently still feeling like rank amateurs, we can’t really pull off the ‘new parent’ thing any more – parenting is now very much business as usual and we do have to at least pretend we know what we’re doing.

I’ve never felt less like that than for two hours on Thursday evening when we hosted a treasure hunt party, in our house, for ten 6 and 7 year olds. I had spent hours writing the clues, printing them, mounting them on coloured card, buying appropriate ‘treasure’, planning the food and other games and prizes, baking and decorating the cake and so on, but, with hindsight, attending a course on crowd control run by the Met Police would have been better preparation. Individually they’re all lovely kids, it’s just en masse that I struggled. It didn’t help that the birthday girl was also completely overwhelmed by the noise, chaos and excitement, and spent half the party in tears. I did learn three valuable lessons, though:

  1. I do not have a gift with groups of children. Teaching is not, and never will be, a viable career option.
  2. Our house feels a lot smaller with ten children in it.
  3. Party entertainers really, really, really earn their money.

Time is a funny thing. In one way it seems like I’ve had Anna in my life forever, in another it seems impossible that my tiny little baby is this lively, leggy, chatty girl with her own very strong character and opinions. When exactly did that happen?

I can vaguely remember my pre-parenting life. I used to get up around 7am and leave the house within a few minutes so that I could have a swim before work. After my swim, I’d  have a luxurious shower, blow dry my hair and apply make-up before grabbing breakfast at Pret a Manger to eat at my desk. Work was busy and stressful. If I had time I’d go and grab a sandwich or salad from M&S at lunchtime, but lunchtime often didn’t come round until about 4pm. I’d keep a bowl of grapes on my desk to keep me going. I’d normally finish work at about 7pm, and then either go out for a drink with a colleague, or meet up with friends or my husband for dinner. If I was going home it would often be via M&S or Waitrose for semi-ready meals – bagged salads, pre-prepared veg, fresh pasta and sauce or fishcakes. Sometimes I’d go to a lecture at the LSE, or to the theatre or the cinema, or do a bit of shopping. At the weekend we’d lie in and then either go into town to meet friends, take a day trip our of London, or perhaps have people over for dinner. Several times a year we’d go away for the weekend. I do remember all this, but it no longer really resonates – it all feels like something I read about, or which happened to someone else.

For the last seven years I get up at about 6.30am. If I want a shower I have to grab it quickly before my husband leaves for work, because otherwise it won’t happen. I make porridge and toast for the children, and grab some for myself, normally accompanied by a hot chocolate in the hope that sugar and fat will replace the sleep I’ve missed out on. Then I start the frenetic rushing and nagging which ensures that Anna arrives at school on time, clean, fed and dressed with all the correct paraphernalia for that day. I do my shopping or errands while Sophia naps in her pram, and then either go to a toddler group or come home to play with Sophia until lunchtime, whilst simultaneously trying to get a load of laundry on and run the hoover round. Lunch, eaten with Sophia, will probably be something – beans, cheese, eggs, houmous – on toast. While Sophia has her afternoon nap I race against the clock to do the rest of the housework, start preparing dinner and complete any household admin. By the time she wakes up it’s time to go and collect Anna, then prepare snacks (healthy ones for the children, and a sneaky chocolate biscuit or three in the kitchen for me), and then manage the competing demands of both children until teatime. After clearing up the carefully prepared food which is now smeared over children, highchair, table and floor it’s bath time for Sophia. I get her settled and then come down to spend a little quality time alone with Anna before getting her to bed. Once she’s in bed I tidy up, try and remember what needs to be got ready for the morning and prepare grown-up dinner, before collapsing in an exhausted heap as my husband gets home. Looking at the opportunities for exercise (zero) against the opportunities – I would argue requirements – for sugary snacks it isn’t hard to see why I’m nearly two stone heavier than I was seven years ago.

The way I spend my time and energy is so different now it can be hard to reconcile the two Helens. On some level I still think of myself as a young urban professional who is having a career break to bring up her children. However, Anna’s seventh birthday marks seven years since I last went out to work. I had just turned 28 then, and had been working for, yes, seven years since graduation. I have now been a stay-at-home mum for half my working life. I have done other things in that seven years, most significantly publishing two novels. But that girl-about-town with her Blackberry and her disposable income availing herself of all the amenities of the big city has gone, and even while appreciating what I’ve got, I can’t help missing her a little bit.

What the last seven years have given me, though, is (in my totally unbiased opinion) the loveliest little girl in the world, and bringing her and her sister up and watching them grow is the greatest privilege I can imagine. Another seven years and I’ll have a teenager; probably moody, definitely spreading her wings and fighting for her independence. The sense I sometimes have now of being totally overwhelmed and subsumed by the strength of my children’s physical and emotional need for me will be changing and I will no doubt miss it. I will probably be wishing Anna needed me more, or at least admitted that she did!

 

Curiouser and curiouser

Well, the three weeks since I last blogged has flown by in a blur. In fact the whole of February passed in a flash. One minute it was the end of January, next thing it’s practically mid-March, the trees are covered with blossom, daffodils are in the flower beds and it feels like Spring is very definitely here.

I had a lovely relaxing half term week staying in Liverpool with my parents – including dinner with two school friends, and a whole day of catch up with another, courtesy of Nanna and Grandad’s babysitting service.

When we got home again it was time to turn my attention to Anna’s 5th birthday. Her present was the first dilemma. We’d had a previously junk-filled space at the back of our garden completely cleared, and we really wanted Anna’s present to be something she could enjoy in the garden. A trampoline seemed the obvious choice, and my guesstimate measurements suggested we could fit one in. Luckily my husband, possibly with the wisdom which comes from 14 years experience of my guesstimates on anything related to spatial awareness, insisted we measured properly, and we discovered that there wasn’t room after all. Suddenly it was only 10 days to go, and we had no present and no ideas.

Then in a flash of inspiration I decided that I would turn the shed at the bottom of the garden into a playhouse for her. It’s a fairly large shed, and has nice big windows, light, electricity and even a heater, so it had always seemed a shame we only used it for random bits of storage, but we’d never got round to doing anything else. There’s nothing like an immutable deadline to encourage productivity. First I had to remove the built in desk and shelves which were already there. I got quite proficient with a screwdriver during that process, and my hands are covered in scabs from where I go impatient and just yanked. Then a very thorough clean to get rid of all traces of the spiders and snails who had clearly been making it their home. I painted the walls a pretty primrose yellow, and the window frames white for contrast, discovering as I did so that painting wooden panels is really irritating. I got a local carpet shop to fit a cheap and hopefully hardwearing carpet for half nothing, and then indulged (myself more than Anna) in the purchase of a child-sized armchair in a Cath Kidstonesque print. I sprayed one of the panels with blackboard paint so that there’s a permanent large chalkboard, and a kind friend-with-car took me to Ikea where I picked up a rug, some cushions and various other bits. Finally I was ready for the really fun bit – setting up Anna’s toy cooker, kettle, toaster and so on to make a home corner, arranging soft toys and books on the shelves, framing some Flower Fairies postcards I’d tracked down on Ebay, ransacking the house and loft for any undiscovered bits and bobs which could be called into service and generally creating my concept of the ideal space for a little girl to play, read, draw, pretend. I really enjoyed doing it, and Anna loves it, so it was worth all the effort, but it was incredibly time consuming and demanding. 

Toadstool cakeAnd that’s not including the party plans. Somehow a temporary insanity in January, when I let Anna choose her own guest list, had led to us expecting 24 children in addition to the birthday girl for a two hour party. This insanity also caused me to let her choose her own birthday cake, so I had a fairy toadstool to construct as well. I’d booked an entertainer for an hour, then the night before we were seized by overwhelming panic and booked her for another half hour. Best decision we ever made. The entertainer was fabulous, but the second she’d finished the children decimated their carefully packed ‘party picnic boxes’, mainly inhaling the hula hoops and chocolate mini muffins and ignoring the cheese sandwiches and raisins, and then they were on the rampage. A friend arriving to collect her son described my husband and me as looking shellshocked. That’s how it felt. None of them were naughty really, it’s just that there were so many of them. And they moved so fast. And our house suddenly felt so small. My husband had queried the cost of the entertainer originally; afterwards he said he felt she deserved every penny and more besides. I’ve always felt that primary school teachers should be canonised, and Sunday afternoon has totally re-enforced that. It’s fair to say that the bottle of wine we opened later that night was very much appreciated.

All these excitements meant that nothing else got done for ten days, and I’ve spent the last few days playing catch up. Oh yes, and a few manic moments this morning constructing an Alice in Wonderland costume for World Book Day. I’d originally told Anna she could go as a fairy or a cat (costumes we already have) and she’d opted to be Socks from Julia Donaldson’s ‘Tabby McTat’. However, over the past few weeks my mother-in-law has been reading Alice in Wonderland to Anna, and she loves it. Over half term my parents took her to an exhibition on magic and fantasy at Liverpool Museum, which included some Alice-related exhibits, and that made her even keener. Over breakfast this morning she was chatting nineteen to the dozen about Alice, all excited because Granny was picking her up today and so she’d get the latest instalment. It suddenly occurred to me that, of course, she should go as Alice. 7.55am on World Book Day is perhaps not the ideal time to change costume from cat to Alice in Wonderland, but Anna and I were undaunted. First I managed to cram her into an old summer dress (age 3-4!) which happens to have a sticky out net petticoat and a sash. Then I sacrificed a large white cotton napkin and cut it into something which vaguely approximated an apron shape. Obviously there was no time for hemming (what a shame), but I cut a small hole in either side and threaded the dress sash through to hold it on. I wrapped a ribbon around her red velvet Christmas Alice band, and then wrote ‘Drink Me’ on a luggage label and tied it round the neck of a small plastic bottle. The crowning glory as far as Anna was concerned was that she was allowed to take her favourite soft toy, Rosie the white rabbit, to school with her. It was a very long way from being the best costume at school today, not even in the top half probably, but I felt it was pretty good going for a 2o minute quick fix.

And I now feel that, having spent the past fortnight doing my best impression of a perfect mummy, I’m now granted a considerable period of putting Cbeebies on and my feet up. Aren’t I?

When we were thirty-two

Today is my birthday eve. I write this whilst consuming the last brownie I will ever eat as a 32 year old. Well, unless I go and order another one, they’re very good.

Thirty-two was a pretty significant age for me, in both positive and negative ways. And while I believe that New Year’s Resolutions are for September, I think that your birthday should be the opportunity to review and reflect on the year just gone. And now that I’m a blogger well, hey, why not inflict these musings on the world at large. It’s my birthday and I’ll indulge in self-absorbed naval gazing if I want to.

So, here’s my list, in chronological order, of Significant Things that happened to me while I was thirty-two:

1) I co-hosted my first children’s birthday party. Somehow, without my really being aware of it, the decision was taken that for a 4th birthday party, two children, some cocktail sausages and a cake wouldn’t really cut the mustard, and we were looking at something on a different scale altogether. Thankfully it was also decided that Anna would share her party with her best friend, and so there were two sets of parents to share the pain.

2) I discovered, to my delight, that I was pregnant. I had a scan, saw my baby complete with heartbeat, and everything seemed to be going well until…

3)…I had a miscarriage. Except I didn’t properly. A scan showed that that miraculous little heartbeat had stopped, but the pregnancy hadn’t ended naturally so I needed an operation charmingly known as Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception (ERPC). This was undoubtedly the worst day of being thirty-two, quite possibly my worst day ever. Yet I still think back almost fondly and nostalgically to it because, despite the pain, every day which has passed since that cruellest April has taken me further away from having my baby growing inside me.

4) I learnt, or re-learnt, just how lucky I am in my friends and family. While I felt like my world was crumbling, they stepped in and picked up the pieces for me and, most importantly, continued to provide Anna with the love and stability she needed.

5) I should have gone to Copenhagen, but was otherwise engaged (see above), and ended up going to Amsterdam instead for a bank holiday weekend. It’s a beautiful city, and we had a lovely weekend, but I suspect it will be a long time before I can think of it and not feel sad.

6) We successfully negotiated the school admissions system, and my daughter was offered a place at our first choice school. I have never known relief like it.

7) I had my first book, Two for Joy published. The launch was so special and memorable, it kind of felt like getting married all over again. And once more I realised how blessed I am with my family, friends and community.

8) We went to Nantes for a wonderful holiday with Anna’s best friend and his parents, and made the discovery that 4:2 adults to children is a very pleasing ratio, and one which allowed for a far more relaxed holiday than we’ve experienced of recent years.

9) We went to Corsica, just the three of us, and had a perfect, golden time. We ate lots of seafood, spaghetti and ice cream, went for gentle walks, swam in the sea and read lots of books. It was total bliss.

10) I waved my daughter goodbye on her first day of school. I’m still finding it hard to make the adjustment to the fact that this little scrap of a person who, surely, was a baby just yesterday, now has an independent life of her own. But she does, and I’m so proud of her for how well she has adjusted to it. And that her teacher described her as one of the most imaginative children she has ever met.

11) We adopted two kittens. It’s hard to believe that they’re only seven months old tomorrow, because it feels like they’ve always been part of our family. We’ve adjusted to eye-watering vet bills, ruined furniture, muddy paw prints on kitchen floor and the changing of litter trays. They’ve adjusted to our unreasonable refusal to let them eat our dinners off our plates (fish pie is their favourite) and to my daughter’s (and mother-in-law’s!) insatiable and determined desire to cuddle them whether they want to be cuddled or not. Like all the best relationships, compromise and understanding is always the key to success. Which leads me on to…

12) I celebrated my 3rd wedding anniversary, which was also the 14th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Mathematically able readers will spot that we’ve been together since we were eighteen, and, cliche though it undoubtedly is, I love him more and more each year. Becoming parents added a new and hugely positive dimension to our relationship as loving our daughter so much made us love each other all the more. And his extraordinary tenderness and caring has enabled me to cope, just about, with the loss of three pregnancies. I try not to plan for my daughter’s future too much because I don’t want to fall into the trap of living out my ambitions through her, but I do very much hope that she ends up in a relationship as happy as mine.

13) Concerned that even my ‘fat’ clothes were feeling tight, I decided to buy the first set of scales I have ever owned (well, first set for weighing me as opposed to ingredients for cakes for me to eat) and confront the horrible truth. It was pretty horrible. I have very mixed feelings about weight and dieting, and I deeply resent the idea that women’s worth is somehow linked to their dress size. However. I don’t want to put myself at increased risk of cancer, heart disease or diabetes through insensate greed, and my BMI and waist measurement were warning me that I was in danger of doing just that. So I joined WeightWatchers and have lost 18lbs. I’m now the same size as I was before having Anna (hello lovely leather pencil skirt I could never bring myself to throw away), and, although far from skinny, my BMI is now a healthy 23 and I feel absolutely great.

14) I signed a publishing contract for my second novel, To Have and to Hold, which will be published in June, and I wrote the first few chapters of my third book.

15) I hosted Christmas, and discovered that it’s all a lot easier when you’re not ill. I baked, cooked, cleaned, shopped, cleaned, tidied and even wrapped a little, and it was all very lovely.

16) I joined with the rest of the family to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. We had a great time, ate a lot of cake and, hopefully, made my dad feel a little bit spoiled as 99.9% of the time he is the one looking after the rest of us. My dad is a long-term and passionate supporter of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and, incredibly, the weekend he celebrated his 60th birthday they won their match 6-o. That really was the icing on his cake.

So there we go. My year in a nutshell. I was going to come up with 32 things about being thirty-two, but, re-reading this list, I now feel that 16 is more than enough. The other things which have made up my year are the day to day activities, shopping, cleaning, cooking, reading, playing with my daughter, baking, curling up with my husband, a dvd and a takeaway, chatting with friends, writing, walking, gardening, tidying, days out in London and further afield, visiting my parents, eating cake…and if I have a wish for my 34th year, it is that none of those things change.