Two months of nothing new

Back at the beginning of the year I set myself the challenge of getting through a year of only buying pre-loved or vintage things for myself, the children and the house. Two months in and I thought it was time to review how it’s all been going.

Over the years I seem, somehow (ahem) to have ended up on the mailing list of quite a few of my favourite shops. First thing I’ve learnt is that the Cath Kidston, Boden, Joules, Toast and Jojo Maman Bebe catalogues have to go straight from the doormat to the recycling bin. I just don’t want to look at beautiful things I can’t have for another year!

The second thing I’ve learnt is that I can still get some lovely clothes by going pre-loved. I have recently acquired a beautiful navy and white polka dot dress, a denim tunic dress, some black skinny jeans (mummy essential!), a vintage look denim jacket and a floral maxi dress (anticipating summer  will arrive at some point) for myself, and a stunningly pretty tulip-skirted Jigsaw dress, a Cath Kidston denim skirt and some Gap shorts for Anna via my local Facebook Sell or Swap group. One of my favourite items of clothing Sophia has at the moment is a bright stripy cardi I picked up in the BHF charity shop near us, and she also has a gorgeous pink cotton dress with a bird-cage print from the same source for when the weather warms up.

My total spend has probably been about £40 – which you could easily pay for one item of new adult clothing.

The third thing I’ve learnt is that Ebay can be great, but needs to be treated with extreme caution. Not being able to try stuff on is a problem. I bought a dress for Anna, intended for immediate use, but it is actually something she will need to grow into. Probably in a  couple of years’ time, by which point the tiered tulle style of skirt she craves aged nearly eight might not be what she wants to wear at all! I’m absolutely thrilled with the vintage Cath Kidston shirt dress I picked up for a fiver, and it’s so versatile – it looks great now with thick tights, biker boots and a v-neck jumper over the top, but in a couple of months time it can be worn over leggings with some Converse, and then by itself with sandals once I’m brave enough to get my legs out. The other dress I purchased recently was less successful, however. I put it on this morning, and Sophia, who is developing quite an eye for these things, immediately declared “No. Mummy not wear dat dress. Dat dress not nishe dress. Mummy wear nishe pwitty dress.” Surveying myself in the mirror, it was clear the child had a point. How is it possible for something which is technically the right size to totally flatten your bust, whilst doubling the size of your hips and tummy, and halving the length of your legs? I pretty quickly swapped it for an old favourite jumper dress which does meet with my sternest critic’s approval. And is warm and comfortable too.

January and February is one birthday after another for us. My dad, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, several friends and several children of friends all have beginning of year birthdays. I stuck to the principle of challenging myself to consider whether there was a present they would really like which didn’t involve buying ‘things’, and only heading to the shops if there really wasn’t. So, my dad got home-made chutney and lemon curd (he is impossible to buy for anyway!), my sister-in-law got some vintage 1960s ear-rings and a second-hand book in perfect condition, one friend got a vintage brooch, another friend got a bag I had bought for myself last year and never used but which I knew she loved, another friend’s daughter got a super-cute vintage pinafore dress, and my mother-in-law got a year’s membership of the Royal Festival Hall. These all seemed pretty popular, and actually in many cases, the challenge of not just heading to a shopping mall and waving my credit card around meant that they got a better and more thoughtful present as a result.

So, what have I bought new? Keeping within my self-imposed rules I have bought some knickers and socks for Anna, some shoes for Sophia as her feet had grown, and two pairs black opaques for myself. It’s honestly not exaggerating to say that the cost of these (and they were from Next, Clarks and M&S, so not particularly high-end brands) cost more than all the other clothes I have bought put together! Boden were kind enough to send me a £10 voucher for my birthday (I suspect an unwelcome side effect of this experiment will be that I won’t be a similarly valued customer this time next year!), and I used it to buy Sophia some new vests, having tried and failed to source some second hand. The voucher expired within a fortnight and was non-transferrable, so it seemed silly to waste it. I did buy some new children’s books as other presents, too. Unfortunately secondhand children’s books don’t tend to be a condition I am happy to gift. I also slipped up and bought myself a magazine – it was popped in the trolley at the supermarket checkout without thinking, and it was only when I got home I realised what I’d done. And finally, I have replaced our milk pan, as its nonstick lining started to peel off, and I didn’t really think that was a healthy addition to the children’s morning porridge!

Writing it all down like this, it is shocking just how much money I spend, even when I’m not buying anything new! I am definitely getting a lot more bang for my buck this way, but I think I need to treat Ebay with much more caution during the rest of the year, and possibly consult Sophia before clicking the bid button. And keep my fingers crossed that my family and friends are as entranced by their pre-loved or home-made presents as I hope they are!

I had a fantastic response on social media to the idea of this challenge, with lots of people saying that they felt inspired to do something similar. Do let me know how it’s going for all of you too!

 

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!

 

Eighth day of Advent: My parents

I came across a re-write of Philip Larkin’s infamous poem, This Be the Verse on Facebook a few weeks ago. Now, I probably have a higher than average tolerance for schmaltz and sentimentality, but for me this poem (below) does manage to be sweet and moving without tipping over into saccharine. It also really spoke to me.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

I had an idyllically happy childhood, thanks mainly to my lovely parents. It was fairly traditional – mum, dad and 2.4 kids. Not sure who the .4 was, but my little brother is pretty nice too. We had family treats and traditions – I remember gazing out of the window with my mum on Hallow’een trying to spot witches on broomsticks in the night sky. Bundling up in every layer of clothes we possessed to go into the garden and wave sparklers around while my dad fought with matches and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Piling into my parents’ bed with our stockings (pillowcases in our house, actually!) on Christmas morning to see what Father Christmas had brought. Unbirthday presents were another tradition – the year my little brother was one, my parents were concerned that four year old me might be jealous at him getting lots of presents and attention on his birthday, so they bought me an ‘unbirthday’ present. When it was my birthday a few months later I wanted to know what little bro was getting for his ‘unbirthday’ present, and thus a tradition was started which lasted until I left home.

When I was very little my mum would save packets and boxes from the kitchen, and then play shop with me for hours on end. Whenever we walked anywhere with him, Dad played a game called Fast Walk, Slow Walk – perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it would always end up with me and my brother sprinting along trying to catch up with my dad before collapsing into helpless giggles. The books of my early childhood – Shirley Hughes, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Helen Nichol and Jan Pienkowski – remain vivid in my memory as they were patiently read to me so often, and I take so much pleasure in re-visiting them now with my children.

When I was ill, however hot and miserable I felt, my mum’s hands were always cool and gentle on my forehead and hot Ribena made by her or my dad undoubtedly had magic cure-all properties. Even as an adult, when I returned home after a minor op a couple of years ago, still woozy from the anaesthetic and sore from the taxi ride, my parents were here looking after Anna, and the relief of my mum tucking me up in bed and my dad making his convalescent special of scrambled eggs on toast for my tea was indescribable.

When I was a teenager, they showed their love in different ways. My dad would pick me up from wherever I’d been out to on a Friday night, but still be up to make me breakfast and take me to the station to get the train into town for my Saturday job’s 8.30am start. My mum made sure we were never out of Dairy Milk when I had exams to revise for. And that is another huge thing I am grateful to my parents for. I didn’t grow up in an area, or go to a school, where going to Oxford was the norm. My teachers felt I had the potential to try, though, and my mum and dad were endlessly encouraging. From spending hours testing me on chemistry formulae or French irregular verbs, to driving me down to Oxford for my interview, to straightforward bribery when they promised me £20 for every A* I got at GCSE, £15 for every A, £10 for every B, and so on they did everything they could to give me ambitions and then help me achieve them.

Since I have grown up and had my own children, I appreciate them even more. I also, perhaps, now appreciate them more as people in their own rights, and not just ‘mumndad’. My mum struggles sometimes with health issues, which makes the time and effort she puts into co-ordinating and volunteering frequently at her local Food Bank all the more admirable. She is also one of the wisest people I know, and my first port of call for advice on any subject from my children’s health (she had an evening phone call just last week as I was worrying about Sophia after her accident), to what colour boots I should buy, to the best approach to pursuing my writing career. My dad is the most selfless person I know and is constantly putting himself last through doing things for other people. His family are often the beneficiaries, but since retirement he has become a volunteer for the Samaritans, also works hard for the local food bank, served as a school governor at a local primary school and does pastoral work at church.

From my mum I have inherited my love of books and reading, and an interest in history. From my dad I get my sense of humour and chronic impatience with any kind of instruction manual.

They are also generous, thoughtful and incredibly loving grandparents, and it makes me very happy to watch them playing with, helping, reading to, teaching and caring for their granddaughters, and seeing the pleasure my girls get out of being with them.

My mum and dad set the benchmark for me. I want to give my children as happy a childhood as my they gave me, and I would love it if, when they reach adulthood themselves, my daughters regard me with as much love, affection, respect, pride and admiration as I feel for my parents.

They Tuck You Up

Adrian Mitchell
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

Let them eat cake

2013-03-02 19-1.53.20It was my daughter’s 4th birthday on Sunday, and in a burst of rash optimism and maternal warmth some time in January it was decided she could have a joint birthday party with her best friend, S, whose birthday happens to fall just two days after hers. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that invitees to a child’s birthday shouldn’t number more than the child’s age, and we’ve stuck to that for the previous couple of years. However, a joint guest list, a burgeoning social life from starting nursery, and a throwaway comment from Anna along the lines of “how come other children have big parties and I don’t?” led to this year working out rather differently.

After much discussion and agonising, H (S’s mum) and I got the guest list down to a theoretically manageable 21. We briefly considered, and quickly rejected, hosting in one of our houses and booked the local toy library as a venue. I’m quite old school about birthday parties. I worry that the modern trend for huge parties with catering, entertainers, specially commissioned cakes and lavish party bags will just lead to children who are jaded and spoiled by the time they hit seven. Luckily H agrees with me on that, so we were clear that we would make the food and birthday cake ourselves, that the entertainment would be traditional pass the parcel, Simon Says etc, and that the party bags would be a small toy, a balloon and a generous slice of cake but nothing more.

So far, so good. The thing is, although I’m lamentably old-fashioned on the subject of children not getting spoilt, I also totally adore my daughter, and desperately wanted her to have a special and memorable birthday, and it turns out that organising a party for that many children is a huge amount of stress and hard work. I thanked heaven many times that we’d decided to go for a joint party, because it turned out that H was a dab hand at sourcing all the necessary paraphernalia on Amazon – invitations, party bags and suitable contents, plates, napkins, balloons – all appeared as links in my inbox for approval without me having to lift a finger. She also shares my borderline obsessive-compulsive streak for organisation (in context, on my wedding day the registrar told me I was the first bride in his 20 years experience to arrive 15 minutes early), and so wasn’t too freaked out by my to-do list emails.

My main contribution was to be the cakes.  I enjoy baking, and H doesn’t, so I volunteered to make the birthday cake and fairy cakes for the party. This was in addition to Anna’s birthday cake for her family celebration which was due to take place the day before her party. What I had unfortunately forgotten was that, although I do love baking and always receive pretty positive feedback on my cakes, I am absolutely awful at decorating and presentation. And for a four year-old’s birthday cake the taste is very much of secondary importance to the aesthetic. This realisation and a dawning sense of my own inadequacies literally kept me awake at nights for weeks beforehand.

We’d considered a Peppa Pig cake, or a cat shaped cake as both children love cats, but a still, small voice of sanity stopped me in my tracks, and we opted for a simple rectangle shape, on the grounds that this would be easier to cut up for the party bags. After all, who wants to be carrying out vivisection on an anthropomorphic cat or pig during a children’s party?

A rectangle seems pretty simple, but I still managed to get stressed out, and needed several frantic conversations with my mum, a borrowed cake tin and mathematical calculations I haven’t used since school to get the right sized tin matched with the correct quantities of cake mixture.

Last Friday, two days before the party and a day before our family celebration, was D Day. Or C Day, I suppose. Luckily my parents were down for the weekend, and so I was able to delegate all responsibility for my daughter to them, while I turned my kitchen into a cake factory. It was also handy having my dad around because, as neither H nor I have a car, he was able to take us to Sainsbury’s to stock up on enormous quantities of hummus, olives, hula hoops, cocktail sausages and chocolate finger biscuits, which were the specific culinary requirements of the birthday boy and girl.

I was most nervous about the main birthday cake for the party, so I started with that, and it all went well. My biggest mixing bowl was just about big enough, and my geometrical calculations regarding mixture and tins had not let me down. So far, so good. I felt a little buoyed with what, it turned out, was false confidence and decided to get on with the fairy cakes while the birthday cake cooled. And so I did. Unfortunately, the sad, squat little patties which emerged from the oven a little while later were about as far from the Magnolia Bakery ideal as it is possible to get. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong – I must bake a batch of cupcakes at least once a week, surely I could do it in my sleep? A little detective work uncovered the source of the problem. With a classic illustration of more haste, less speed, I’d grabbed a new packet of flour and chosen plain instead of self-raising. Agonisingly, by the time I made this discovery, I’d also made the family birthday cake, and that was now in the oven. I’d used the same packet of flour, and so had an agonising 40 minute wait to see if the baking powder I’d included in that recipe would rescue the situation or not.

Luckily it did, and that cake rose like a dream. However, I still had flat failures for fairy cakes. I decided to see if they looked any better once iced. It only took a couple of rounds with a piping bag and the first few cakes to confirm that, if anything, they looked worse. I was now running short of time, patience, and, crucially, butter.

I dashed to the local shop to replenish supplies, came back, made another batch of cakes, this time checking the flour with paranoid intensity, put the failed cakes in the freezer (the next few people to come to dinner chez moi can expect trifle for pudding!), and started to extract the main birthday cake from the tin. Unfortunately, in all the cupcake-induced woe I’d left it far too long in the tin, and it broke into several pieces on removal. I really was despairing by this time, but my parents convinced me that with enough icing slathered over the top, no-one would ever know. They also came up with the brilliant idea of freezing the cake for 24 hours, and icing it frozen so that it would be less crumby and more manageable to work with.

The family birthday cake and the cupcakes gave me no further trouble, but the nice dinner I’d planned for my parents, husband and myself that night was a casualty, and we ended up with a thrown-together pasta and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.

I was semi-hysterical at the thought of icing the cake, but luckily my husband remained completely calm and kept my worst nervous excesses in check. He also made himself very useful cutting out star-shapes, balloon shapes, number 4s, and letters for the birthday boy and girl’s names from coloured icing. I ran amok with a bowl of fondant icing and then several tubes of Smarties, which, combined with the icing cut outs, managed to create a cake which looked reasonably acceptable. Phew. Now it was only the party itself to get through.

And that went fine. Hardly any tears, lots of excited laughter, mostly empty plates – you can’t really ask for more. We did a very hasty clean-up of the hall, and then came home for Anna and S to play together while their exhausted parents collapsed with a much-needed caffeine fix. Later we opened Anna’s presents with her, played with some of her new games, and read some of her new books. Happily all the excitement meant that she was in bed and asleep by 6.30pm, and so I could sprint to the fridge for one of the most eagerly anticipated glasses of wine I have ever enjoyed, and spent the rest of the evening getting increasingly tipsy and emotional with the ‘do you remember this time four years’ ago’ anecdotes.

I think that maybe her fifth birthday celebration can consist of a couple of friends coming round for tea.