#In Real Life

cocktails

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

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Selfish Mother

I recently discovered a fantastic blogzine called Selfish Mother. It’s a collection of blog posts from cool, clever, funny, interesting, inspirational women who happen also to have given birth. The posts frequently, but not exclusively, focus on some aspect of motherhood – often those dilemmas which are close to my own heart of how best to balance being the best possible parent whilst also retaining a sense of self and a place in the world which isn’t just “Anna and Sophia’s mummy” – even if that will always be my most important role.

maman_grey_scoop_sweat_with_red_grandeThey also have an on-line shop selling super-cool sweatshirts and t-shirts with ‘Mother’ or ‘Maman’ slogans which raise money for various women’s charities. I love ethical fashion which gives me an excuse to buy more clothes in a  good cause, and I adore my cosy yet stylish Maman sweatshirt.

For a while I was a lurker; I read, but lacked the confidence to contribute. A friend who also follows Selfish Mother encouraged me to post, and so I have dipped my toe in the water, and yesterday published this article about where my time disappears to. I hope you enjoy!

Ninth Day of Advent: Social Media

“Only connect” said E.M.Forster, and the connections which are made possible by social media are something that make me very happy. This is not a fashionable point of view. There are several prevalent attitudes to social media. One is that it actually makes people unhappy, because they are constantly comparing themselves to others, and Facebook, Instagram et al put an unrealistic gloss on the mundanities of life. Another is that the ‘traditional’ social media, like Facebook which I love, are now totally over, and the world has moved on to heaven knows what. I don’t know, and probably won’t until my daughters are teenagers and can patronisingly explain it all to me. Others worry that social media stops us connecting in real life, and that we are having relationships with our laptops and smart phones rather than our family and friends.

There is probably some truth in all of these, but I don’t let it worry me. As a stay-at-home mum and writer – both fairly solitary jobs – social media is a total godsend to me. This blog lets me get things off my chest with a good old rant, and records day-to-day moments for me to look back on. A paper diary could also do this, of course, but I love the sense of connection which I get from sending my thoughts out into the blogosphere, the lovely comments and feedback I get in response to my posts, and the ways in which my life is enhanced by other people’s blogs. Chiswick Mum has become a blogger friend, and I look forward to her beautifully written and photographed posts about her West London life and adventures with her young son just as much as I might look forward to coffee with a Real Life friend. Mostly Yummy Mummy  is a full-time mum-of-four in Yorkshire, and she’s like my online life coach for beauty tips and fashion inspiration. Local (to me) mum and blogger Katie is a fantastic source of brilliant recipes to tempt my occasionally fussy big girl, and, hopefully, to instil a love of good food in my little one. Holly Bell’s blog is also fab for this, and I love her chatty and breezy writing style. Through blog posts I’ve been privileged to gain a small insight into how it feels to parent a child with special needs, live with cancer, move your family onto a narrowboat, emigrate to Australia or cope with infertility. I feel that access to the blogosphere widens my world and horizons just as much as traditional media, and I am certainly no more likely to be distracted from my real life and long-suffering children than I would be reading the newspaper, and less likely than when I’m in the middle of a good book!

On days when, as this Monday just gone, things are feeling a bit of an uphill struggle, Facebook gives me a chance to moan and offload, and get some realtime feedback which makes me feel I’m not totally alone with my grumpy teething baby, attention-span-challenged 6 year old and the sticky bits of 500 paper chains, which are not on the paper chains or in the packet, but stuck to me, the children, the cat and every surface as far as the eye can see. I also like the little uplift I get when I see someone I was at school with has had a baby, or announced their pregnancy, or got a new job or met a new bloke. Yes, I know people put a positive spin on things, and I can see why if, for example, you had just had a miscarriage someone announcing their pregnancy would hurt you. But then it probably would in real life too. Even on bad days, I generally feel that someone else’s good news will cheer me up as I can be happy for them even while feeling sorry for myself.

Social media has practical benefits too. What do a set of Miffy books, some doll’s house furniture, a vintage sideboard, an apple slicer and a wicker Ikea children’s chair and some Joules wells have in common? They’re all things which I have got either for free, a couple of quid or a packet of biscuits on Walthamstow Sell or Swap Facebook group in the past few months. I’ve also made a couple of hundred pounds myself, selling baby gear Sophia has outgrown, or clothes I have (sob) outgrown. Brilliant bargains, less stuff going to landfill and the chance to make real, live connections with neighbours I wouldn’t have met otherwise. What’s not to love?Anna astronaut

A panicked Facebook plea when Anna announced she needed an astronaut’s costume for school led to my next-door neighbour coming round with the loan of the (amazingly creative) jet-pack he had made for his son’s space party a few months ago. Silvery grey leggings and tshirt, a pudding bowl, a roll of insulating tape, some foil and a bit of swearing and some pink moon boots I picked up on Sell or Swap, and Astronaut Anna was ready for take-off!

Changed Priorities Ahead

‘Changed Priorities Ahead’ has always been my favourite road sign. I dimly remember from my driving theory test that it has something to do with traffic lights, but since the first time I noticed it – getting a lift from my dad to my then-boyfriend’s house – it has always seemed far more significantly symbolic than that. 2430675363_f48e263e08_b

It happens to all of us. Maybe you’re chugging along quite happily through life, when suddenly, WHAM. A dramatic, life-changing event. You fall in love, get pregnant, get made redundant, get sick, receive an unexpected job offer, have an accident, someone dies. Your priorities all change radically, unfortunately without the benefit of a road sign warning you that this was coming. At other times you may be struggling with a problem, unsure which direction to take, and then, imperceptibly, you realise your priorities have changed. What you thought of as the problem has vanished, perhaps leaving a whole other set of challenges in its place, or you might be lucky enough to acquire a sense of calm certainty instead.

To an extent I have experienced the second of those scenarios recently. Since Sophia was born, in fact since before she was born, one level of my mind has been preoccupied with the issue of how I could carry on writing once I had a baby to look after. I’ve considered various options – a childcare swap with a friend with a similarly aged baby, a nanny or childminder for a couple of days a week, a pay-as-you-go creche. None of them seemed quite right. For a start, writing novels, certainly when you are still trying to get started and make a name for yourself, is far from being a lucrative profession, so whichever option I chose had to be a frugal one. For another thing I have had a guilty prickle in my conscience at using childcare for Sophia while she is still a baby when I didn’t do so for her sister, and when I don’t need to financially. With Sophia’s first birthday – the deadline I had given myself for returning to work – fast approaching I hadn’t taken any serious steps towards making any of these options happen.

Last week I realised why. I am not by nature a procrastinator. If there’s something needs doing my instinct is usually to do it and get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Except sometimes. Sometimes I find myself not doing the thing I should be doing, the thing I have decided needs to be done, and when I stop and analyse why the answer is invariably the same – I don’t actually think it is the right thing to do after all. I had this a couple of years ago when we planned to re-do our kitchen. I’d done some on-line research, allocated a budget, talked my husband into it, but I kept on failing to actually call companies to get a quote. When I made myself consider why I realised it was because I actually didn’t want to have a generic fitted kitchen. I didn’t want to spend that much money when our existing kitchen was functional, albeit shabby and dated, and the environmentalist in me was horrified at the idea of throwing out our existing units just because we didn’t like the colour of the wood. IMG_3874Once I’d realised the problem it took me only a few weeks and a couple of hundred pounds to get the cupboards sanded and painted pale duck egg blue, the walls a sunshiny yellow, a broken cupboard door replaced with a 1950s style curtain in pretty Cath Kidston fabric and a few choice accessories to transform it from shabby and gloomy to what I at least consider to be a cheerfully retro-chic space.

My eureka moment regarding writing and childcare came last week in Monkey Music class with Sophia. She was giggling away as she tried to make friends with two slightly older toddlers, and I was reflecting on how confident and sociable she is. It suddenly struck me that I have been framing my internal debate in terms of how I was as a first time mum and what Anna’s character and needs were at a similar age to Sophia. Because we didn’t feel Anna was ready for pre-school until she was three, I have been making the same assumption about Sophia, whereas actually I think nothing could be further from the truth. She is going to be desperate to get out into the world as early as she can. So I’ve put her name down to start pre-school when she turns two, and in the meantime I am going to enjoy the next precious year with her. Writing isn’t a time-limited career. My keyboard and my imagination will (hopefully) still be here this time next year, but my littlest girl will only be this little once. My priorities have changed without me really realising it.

I will carry on blogging when I can, in little windows like this when my MIL is happy to take both girls for an hour or two, or when that rarest of situations occurs – dinner is prepared, the house is clean and Sophia is still napping! I can continue to develop the characters and plot for my next novel in odd quiet moments, but I will not stress about resuming my writing career until Sophia is happily ensconced in pre-school a few mornings a week and I have the time and space to write properly, having had another year of space and time with my baby in the meantime.

I am also going to explore ways of changing, or extending, my blog slightly. Regular readers will know of my ongoing consternation with the Government’s austerity agenda, and while I would hate to lose sight of the original purpose of my blog – a record of the joys and anxieties and absurdities of everyday life – I am going to be doing some serious thinking about how I can also use it to make my small contribution to fighting a political agenda I absolutely abhor. Watch this space – changed priorities ahead!

Truth and perception

One of my favourite bloggers, Chiswick Mum, wrote a post recently about Pinterest and how real life never quite seems to live up to the shiny perfection of many of the pins on there. It got me thinking about writing and blogging and how easy it is to portray a one-sided image without even entirely meaning to.

Take last Sunday. We had an idyllic family day out around Central London. Anna loves fountains, and so we decided to set out and see how many different fountains we could spot, starting in Trafalgar Square.trafalgar sq We were disappointed that the fountains which normally fill the central courtyard of Somerset House had been replaced by an exhibition of sculptures, but actually Anna and Sophia had a wonderful time playing there anyway. Sophia was thrilled to have such an enormous space to crawl round, Anna adored playing the protective big sister and looking after her, and husband and I were pretty pleased to be able to relax in the sunshine and watch our girls having fun.somerset house

We pottered through Soho and Covent Garden, bought Anna a long-coveted policeman’s helmet at one of the tourist trap gift shops, and then ended the day in the newly refurbished Granary Square by Kings Cross station. Sophia ate her tea while we watched Anna caper through the amazing fountains there; me feeling like a very smug mummy that I’d thought to bring a change of clothes for her!
granary squareNot bad to have weather good enough to do that at 5pm in early October.

When we got home I had another smug mummy moment as, after putting Sophia to bed, we all sat down to black bean chilli which I’d remembered to lift out of the freezer that morning, with sweet potato wedges and frog dip (aka guacamole) which Anna and I made while the potatoes were cooking. Delicious and nutritious.

All this is true, and the photos are an accurate representation of a really lovely day. But, it’s only part of the story. In that portrayal I have chosen to leave out certain elements. Like the fact that we almost didn’t manage to leave the house at all because husband and I were arguing about whether we had breakfast at home and then went out afterwards, or whether we should go out for brunch. Like the fact that I was recovering from a 24 hour vomiting bug and spent the whole day watching the children like hawks for any sign that they too were about to start throwing their guts up. Like me telling Anna off and her getting upset because she started messing with the nappy bin in the fairly grubby public loo where we were trying to change Sophia’s very messy nappy. Like me dropping my iPhone and smashing the screen (for the second time in a month!). Like me deciding to make a microwave steam pudding as a treat after our chilli, and ruining it because it transpired that the milk I’d used was on the turn and curdled as I began to whisk the mixture. I could have written a blog post which played up all these incidents and created the perception of a truly disastrous day.

The truth, in social media as in life, is always more finely nuanced than any one-sided picture can accurately portray. It’s worth bearing that in mind when peeping enviously in at the window of someone’s seemingly golden life, and it’s also worth bearing in mind when you feel like all the balls you’re juggling yourself have come crashing down, and that there is no silver lining to your particular cloud, because perhaps, just perhaps, if you look at it from another angle, there is.