Things Left Undone

kleenexI grew up going to church every Sunday, so the Church of England liturgy still resonates deeply with me. At the moment I am meditating on the Prayer of Confession, where forgiveness is asked for things left undone which we ought to have done – sins of omission as well as commission, and I feel like there are a lot of those in my life at the moment.

I haven’t been well for the last four weeks. I had a horrible cough and  cold which just wouldn’t shift, and finally last week my husband and mother-in-law bullied me into going to the doctors. Turned out that the cold was also a chest infection and sinusitis, which at least explained why I was feeling so unremittingly rubbish. I’m now half way through the course of antibiotics, and just starting to feel human again. Human enough to survey with dismay the chaos which results from me basically taking a month off!

Regular readers know that my husband is in the process of setting up his own business. Things are particularly intense at the moment (I suspect we might be saying that continually for the next few years!), and so time ‘off’ isn’t really an option for him, in fact he’s working very long hours and most weekends, so we’ve just had to muddle on as best we can. I have had to prioritise the absolutely critical tasks and save my energy for those. In practice that has meant feeding the children – they’ve definitely had more than their fair share of baked beans, scrambled eggs, fishfingers and jacket potatoes over the last few weeks, ensuring that we all have clean(ish) clothes to wear, bedtime stories, and spritzing the Dettol around to try and prevent my noxious germs inflicting their presence on anyone else. Oh yes, and administering cuddles and Calpol to Sophia at any hour of the day or night when the poor baby’s teeth started troubling her. As for things I haven’t done, well…

  1. Planted the snowdrop and crocus bulbs I was so excited about having bought (gardening types who read my blog – is it too late now?)
  2. Tidied. Anything. At all. You can’t actually see the dresser now under the piles of paperwork, odd socks, broken bits of crayon, stray toys and other detritus.
  3. Done any preparation for Christmas. In mid-October I was feeling fairly smug and ahead of the game as I already had quite a lot of stocking fillers for the girls and toys for friends’ children. I still have those, but things haven’t progressed any further. And I have a horrible feeling that I might have missed all the Ocado delivery slots – no worse crime exists for a middle-class, non-driving mummy come Christmas time!
  4. Kept up the homework routine I’d promised myself I’d implement now Anna is in Year 3. Instead it’s been a case of croaking at my husband as he returns home and I use the opportunity to take myself off to bed “oh, by the way, can you help Anna do her fractions worksheet/learn her spellings/write a newspaper article/design a remembrance poppy”.
  5. Provided Sophia with much in the way of fun or educational activities. We’ve staggered to a couple of baby groups, but it wasn’t hugely successful because, strangely enough, other parents seemed to note my hacking cough and copious phlegm production and give us a fairly wide berth. Luckily, having been a telly refusenik for the first 22 months of her life, Sophia has now developed a timely passion for ‘Awyee and Yo-ya’ (Charlie and Lola, obvs), and I have been slightly too willing to indulge her in it.
  6. Bathed the children. Well, not much. I couldn’t face it by myself, and husband isn’t always home at bedtime, so we’ve ended up giving Anna quick showers before school and bathing Sophia on an as and when basis.
  7. Done any of the ‘extra jobs’ I normally do on a weekly or fortnightly basis – proper cleans of bathroom and kitchen, changing the beds (I know, I know, it’s disgusting), vacuuming anything other than the area immediately round the dining table etc etc.
  8. Done any paper work. Nothing has been filed, meters haven’t been read, I have a horrible feeling the credit card bill hasn’t been paid and I have a massive backlog of unread/unanswered emails.
  9. Swept up the autumn leaf fall from the front path and garden. It now looks highly picturesque, but is lethally slippy as soon as it starts to rain. Which it now is!
  10. Cooked anything more complicated than scrambled eggs, apart from the Thai curries I’ve been frantically preparing in the hope that copious quantities of chilli, ginger, garlic, lime juice and fresh vegetables will cure me.

I could go on, but I’m starting to depress myself further. And yes, I know that theoretically instead of blogging about my failings I could start rectifying them, but I only have an hour while my MIL looks after Sophia, and I’m in a cafe not at home, so there’s not much I actually can do out of that lot. Plus, although I’m much better than I was, I still feel pretty exhausted, and have a nasty feeling that tackling the king-sized duvet cover or the paperwork mountain could trigger an immediate relapse.

I can’t quite work out how I’m ever going to catch up with myself, especially as we’re entering the busiest time of year when I struggle to fit in all the extra shopping, baking, wrapping, social engagements and so on under normal circumstances. I’m also very much hoping to finish the first draft of my third novel by the end of the year…Arrghhh!

I need to draw some deep breaths and write a list. Lists always make everything alright. Wish me luck!

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Ten things I hate about parenting

 

Before my first child was born, I had lots of worries about parenting. How would I cope with the lack of sleep? The over-whelming responsibility? The loss of freedom? Obviously I have had issues with all these things, but generally the things which really get me down and have me furtively stuffing chunks of Dairy Milk in my mouth in the downstairs loo so that the children don’t see and be set a bad example (I mean, steal it), are the little niggles which add up and occasionally threaten to subsume me.

1) The relentlessness of meals

Three meals a day, seven days a week. Plus snacks. All of which need to be healthy, economical, tasty, nutritionally balanced and provided on time. There is no possibility of skipping breakfast and grabbing a muffin mid-morning if you’re hungry. Or waking up too late to make a packed lunch so popping out to M&S for a sandwich. Or feeling far too knackered to cook and ordering a takeaway. My saviour had always been toast and houmous. Anna would eat that for all three meals a day given half a chance, the ingredients can be bought in our local Tesco express, it takes a couple of minutes to prepare,  and with a few cherry tomatoes or slices of cucumber on the side it’s pretty well balanced. Unfortunately, Sophia doesn’t like it. She’s not a big fan of toast at all. Or houmous. And definitely not houmous on toast. Anyone got any ideas what I’m going to feed her for the next decade, or two please?

2) Always having to get up

You know how it is. You have a streaming cold. Or you’re doubled up with period pains. Or shattered because you’ve been surviving on five hours a night broken sleep for the last fortnight. So you plot ways to sit down for twenty minutes. Get a selection of toys out and arrange them on floor. Move all breakable objects out of reach. Grant permission for some TV viewing. Provide drinks and snacks. Then sink down with a sigh of relief and put your feet up. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Drinks get spilt. Nappies get filled. Toys mysteriously bury themselves in totally inaccessible places. The remote control goes AWOL. And, inevitably, you have to bloody get up!

3) People I haven’t given birth to calling me ‘Mum’

Health visitors (the worst culprits), shop assistants, teachers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, playgroup leaders. I know it’s hard. I know you meet hundreds of parents each week. I know you can’t be expected to remember everyone’s name. I know that in the modern world it isn’t safe to assume that the parent will share a surname with their child. I do feel your pain. But it is lazy and patronising to call me “Mum”, it irritates the hell out of me, and when it happens day after day for seven years it gradually erodes my feeling of being a person in my own right.

4) Bright blue children’s toothpaste

Colgate hate me. I assume. Why else do they make their children’s toothpaste a) the stickiest substance known to humankind and b) bright blue? However many times a day I wipe the sink down, there is always bright blue residue in the basin, on the taps, on the tiles around the sink, on the toothbrush holder and IT DRIVES ME BONKERS.

5) ‘Don’t worry about the dirt, just enjoy the kids while they’re little’.

How many times have you heard that advice from a well-meaning friend or relative, or seen similar sentiments expressed on postcards or gift magnets. The only conclusion I can come to is that these people have either never lived with small children or had cleaners. I am about as far from being a neat freak as you can get. I am not spending precious time when I could be snuggled up reading, or running through wild flower meadows with my precious offspring engaged in daily scrubbing of the front doorstep, or colour-coding my store-cupboards or even hoovering under the bed. I don’t even iron. No, what I spend several hours a day doing is ensuring that we have clean dishes to eat off, clean clothes to wear, and that the floors, kitchen work surfaces and bathroom are hygienic enough to avoid attracting vermin or giving us all E coli. And the house still looks a total tip 90% of the time.

6) All the STUFF

Paintings. Colourings. Collages. Models of space-ships. Lists. Interesting pebbles or leaves collected in the playground and brought home. Letters from school. Felt-tips without tops. Stickers. Free gifts from a magazine bought three years ago. All of which are liberally scattered around the house on a permanent basis, largely ignored, but apparently far too precious to be thrown away. On the odd occasion I do get ruthless, inevitably the next day we have near hysteria because one of the discarded items isn’t to be found.

7) Party Bags

When I found the National Union of Parents the first item on my agenda will be the abolition of party bags. Surely one of the biggest causes of misery in any modern family. Seriously, who wins? The parent bestowing the bag has to spend eye-watering sums of money on plastic tat, and then precious time stuffing it into the bags, and worrying that there will somehow be extra, unaccounted for guests who don’t have a bag. This worry results in buying more bags, and more plastic tat.

Then the parent of the child receiving the bag has to accommodate yet more STUFF (see above) into their already overcrowded house. We already have more spinning tops, crayons which don’t work properly and little yellow rubber men than you can shake a stick at. Even the child doesn’t really win, because inevitably the most favoured toy is broken within the hour, which coincides with the sugar comedown after the party and leads to frustrated tears and all round grumpiness.

If you really want to bestow a parting gift, may I suggest wrapping a piece of birthday cake in a piece of kitchen roll? Or perhaps a small bag of chocolate buttons. Both of which have the advantage that if I’m quick off the mark I can scoff them myself. In the downstairs loo, of course.

8) The inverse proportion of time spent planning an activity to time it keeps child amused

When I have browsed Pinterest, chosen a craft activity, purchased the necessary supplies and planned a fun yet educational afternoon it is a near certainty that child will engage long enough to create total chaos, spreading glitter across every surface in the house and covering their new cardi which they’re not even wearing at the time in paint, before declaring that they’re bored and wondering what’s on telly now. On the other hand, Sophia was happily engaged for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon carefully peeling the sticky address label off a parcel I’d taken in for a neighbour. Every time I declare no more planned activities, but somehow I’m always drawn back in again.

9) The assumption I possess skills I blatantly don’t

I can write. I can write, if called upon, academic essays, business plans, board reports, discussion papers, blog posts and novels. Back in the day I was also pretty good at running a department and managing a team of staff. I can’t sew, or knit, or crochet. I can’t paint or draw. I can’t make fancy dress costumes or scale models of the Eiffel Tower from toilet rolls. I do my best to decorate cakes which look like Mr Men or fairy toadstools, but I’m not very good at it. Before I was a parent, no-one expected me to do these things. Lots of people can do them, and enjoy doing them, and that’s great, but no problem at all if it’s not your bag. Yet there’s an expectation that the act of giving birth, much as it enables your body to produce milk to feed your child, also mysteriously conveys the ability to spend the next decade crafting with the best of them. Except it doesn’t.

10) The constant stream of guilt

Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Is it my fault? How do I improve? Why can’t I? Why can’t they? Pressure from mainstream media, social media, friends, family and, most of all, my own insecurities mean that I am always wondering whether I am doing enough to be the mother that these perfect little scraps of humanity I somehow created clearly deserve.

ducklings

Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.

Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.

Eighteenth Day of Advent: Food

Okay, enough with the mushy stuff about how much my friends and family mean to me. It’s true, they do, but today I am being a little more prosaic and blogging about another great love of my life – food!

Yes, I admit it. I am a girl glutton. I love planning meals, cooking them, eating them, talking about food, reading foodie blogs or snuggling up in bed with a good recipe book. Nigella is my favourite food writer because her recipes suit my style of cooking, and because she uses language so beautifully. Nigel Slater is also brilliant, and I love Sophie Dahl, Lorraine Pascale and Ainsley Harriott too. pretty cakes

Today is a particularly good day to blog about food as I had a normal family breakfast (toasted and buttered fruit loaf, since you ask), and then an end of term lunch out with my friend (buttermilk chicken burger with slaw) and then that same friend is babysitting tonight so husband and I can have a romantic dinner a deux (assuming I can get the children to bed and to sleep on time, and I have room left after my indulgent lunch). We’ll return the favour and one of us will sit for her daughter tomorrow night so she and her husband can have a date. It’s a good system.

A lazy lunch out, followed by Anna breaking up early for the end of term, means today’s is also going to be a very brief blog indeed. Sophia is currently having a nap – probably far too late for my goal of getting her settled on time tonight – and Anna is chilling with a bit of telly, but I don’t think my window for writing is a very large one. Plus, if I do have a limited laptop the not insignificant fact that the Boden sale started today is also competing for my time!

Sometimes, normally when looking at holiday photos or being unable to fasten my jeans, I wish I loved food a little less passionately. Or at least chocolate, chips, cheese, pasta and rice a little less. But by and large I revel in it. I make an effort to eat healthily in that I try and eat lots of good stuff and pack the veg in, but I refuse to feel guilty about enjoying sugar, fat, carbs or whatever the villain de jour is as well. After all, we pretty much have to eat three times a day every day of our lives, so surely it makes sense to ensure it’s an activity that makes us happy?