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!

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Nit a problem

Another parenting milestone reached yesterday. The invasion of daughter’s head by tiny, bloodsucking parasites. Her school was closed due to the teaching strike, and although I was panicking slightly at a day lost to short story writing, I had plans for a lovely Mummy and Anna day instead.

It started well. We’d been asked to take cake contributions for the eagerly anticipated Parents’ Strawberry tea this afternoon, so we spent the morning happily making and decorating butterfly cakes. Anna was also full of chat and information about ‘Going Up Day’ the day before, when they’d been into their new classroom to meet their Year One teacher. It was brilliant to be able to spend the time properly listening to her, without feeling that we had to rush to be somewhere else.

I’d then booked a hair appointment to try and deal with the Boris-Johnson-crossed-with-haystack situation which had arisen since her last haircut in the Easter holidays. That was where the problems started. The lovely hairdressers we use have a standard policy of checking children for unwanted visitors before they cut. We’ve never had a problem, but yesterday, as I was chatting away to the hairdresser saying “Oh, I do check her hair, but she’s never had them, so I’m not really sure what I’m looking for”, when he pointed and said “That’s what you’re looking for”, as a small brown sesame seed crawled across the nape of Anna’s neck. I have a serious parasite phobia, so started majorly freaking out, while trying (and probably failing) to maintain calm and dignified demeanour for the sake of Anna and the hairdresser.

Having had my own hair checked (so beyond the call of hairdresser duty, but I think they were fearing for my mental health), and been declared clear, we set off to wage war on the minibeasts. Via a stop for lunch in the cafe. I felt slightly guilty, but reasoned that a) they are only spread by direct head to head contact, b) she’d probably had them for weeks, so another 30 mins wouldn’t make that much difference, and c) It was bad enough having to give up our plans for the afternoon to trek to Boots in the pouring rain without doing it hungry as well. I ordered sausage and mash for two – comfort food seemed to be in order, and all was going well until one of Anna’s classmates turned up with her mum.

“LILY! I’ve got NITS!!!” Anna bellowed across the crowded cafe. People began looking askance, whilst edging their chairs away and simultaneously scratching their heads. Public humiliation aside, we had a very nice lunch, and were suitably fortified for the trip to buy super toxic killer lotion which I could proceed to smother my firstborn’s innocent head with. Kind of undermines buying organic milk really.

Actually applying the lotion was relatively painless, and then, arrayed in this season’s must-have look of insecticide mousse with close-fitting hat we sallied forth to an angelic friend’s house for a playdate. She plied me with sympathy and homemade lemon cake, fed the children, and provided me with ingredients for my own dinner, as in all the nit-kerfuffle I’d forgotten I needed to do some food shopping.

The lotion was to be left in overnight, and washing it out and then nit combing her hair through this morning was much less pleasant. Anna was not a fan of the proceedings, and was fairly vocal in expressing her dissatisfaction. She also repeatedly declared “I want my Daddy” – presumably, although this wasn’t specifically articulated, to protect her from the maternal torturer. We have to repeat the treatment in a week’s time, and I can’t decide whether to make my husband do it, in order to salvage something of Mummy’s reputation and prove it’s not just something I’ve callously taken it into my head to do for my own amusement, or whether to preserve her psychological health and not feel that both parents are out to get her and she’s left without a support in the world, by doing it myself.

Our morning didn’t get much better. I coaxed a semi-hysterical child to get dressed and out of the house with the enticement of the Strawberry Tea party this afternoon. Only to arrive at school and find it has been cancelled due to the bad weather. Anna really was inconsolable this time, and I left her crying, but valiantly trying to compose herself. I was overwrought and hormonal, torn between feeling so sad for Anna’s disappointment and furiously angry with the school, the weather, the gods, whatever forces had conspired to upset my precious girl. I didn’t think I’d get any decent work done until I’d calmed down, so decided to make good use of the time by going to the EE shop to try and find out why my phone isn’t working properly. Only to discover a handwritten notice saying it was closed ‘due to staff sickness’. I mean, come on! It’s a multi-national chain with thousands of employees, surely it’s not beyond expectations that they actually manage to open their shops at the published hours?  I consoled myself with a little retail therapy – possibly my least exciting purchases ever – some new tennis shorts for husband, and Vosene tea tree nit prevention shampoo for Anna. Yay.

Finally I got to the cafe to do some work, but in reality spent the morning posting my woes on Facebook to elicit some cyber-sympathy. It actually worked a treat, and, although social media gets a bad press very often, I can’t think of another source of so much instant warm sympathy, sage advice and witty replies to cheer and console. I feel loads better already, and, when I’ve put another friend’s ‘eat Dairy Milk’ advice into action, I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal self.

In praise of idleness?

I read an interesting article by Tom Hodgkinson this morning, shared by a friend on Facebook. You can read it yourself, but the main gist is that modern parents over-stimulate their children with a constant stream of entertainment and electronic activities, and that in order to let kids really enjoy themselves we should just leave them alone. He calls this ‘idle parenting’, and argues that it is a win-win situation for everyone, giving parents that elusive ‘time to themselves’ and fostering independence, creativity and self-reliance in children.

In many ways it is an attractive proposition. I definitely think that many parents of my generation over-theorise parenting, rather than relying on gut instinct. It starts antenatally – to home birth or not? Are epidurals safe? Should you enrol in hypno-birthing classes, or NCT ones, or hire a doula? The early days with a newborn are even more fraught. To breast-feed or not to breast-feed? To co-sleep or not to co-sleep? Is attachment parenting the way to go, or is it Gina Ford all the way? There are a plethora of books, websites, magazines and television programmes bombarding parents with information and advice, much of it directly conflicting, all of it implying that your parenting is somehow inadequate if you’re not following a carefully thought out plan.

We were quite lucky because by chance we were the first of all our various groups of friends of our generation – school, university, work -to become parents, and so we were going into it totally blind. The amount we knew about bringing up a baby could literally have been written on a postcard. No-one we spoke to before Anna was born had any fixed views on the rights and wrongs of different parenting styles, so we just hazily fudged something together between us. I’d picked up from somewhere that NCT classes were considered A Good Thing, so off we went to them. My birth plan indicated I’d like to consider a water-birth in the midwife led unit, but I had no immutable ideas, so when it became clear I needed an emergency c-section, my only concern was getting the baby out quickly and safely. Some months later at a mother and baby group someone asked me if I was disappointed not to have given birth ‘properly’. I didn’t know what to say, because it had never for a single second occurred to me that I hadn’t done it ‘properly’ – I grew her in my body for nine months, and she came out safe and well, what’s not proper about that? Having no expectations proved very liberating.

I’d worked in public health and so was well versed in the physiological benefits of breastfeeding, and was determined to give it a go, at least initially. Actually it turned out that I absolutely loved breastfeeding, and continued for 18 months – brilliant if you’re lazy, as there’s no faffing around with measuring formula or sterilising bottles, and you don’t have to plan things in advance. Having said all that, if I’d found breastfeeding physically or emotionally difficult for more than the first few days then I would have stopped. I didn’t have any sense that I would have failed if I didn’t carry on, and I find it really upsetting when mums who are coping with all the hormones and sleep deprivation of early parenthood also end up beating themselves up about the way they feed their baby.

And before I start sounding too smug about instinctive parenting and not seeking external validation, I will say that there were many ‘crises’ in Anna’s first few months (hiccups, wind, funny coloured nappies etc) which saw me barking instructions at my husband – “Right, you look it up in Miriam Stoppard, and I’ll look on the NHS website” – as, frankly, our instincts at that point seemed woefully inadequate. The first time Anna got a cold, at about six months, I phoned my mum in abject panic. “What do I DO?”. She was slightly bemused. “Well…nothing much. It’s a cold. You could give her some Calpol if her temperature goes up.”

However, it was only really as Anna got a bit older, and I started taking her to groups at the Children’s Centre, or to the park, and got chatting to other parents that I realised how many ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ seemed to surround parenting, and how inexorable people become on their own theories. Sleeping and sleep routines, food and feeding, television, sugar, extra-curricular activities, gender stereotyping and many more besides are all hotly contested  parenting issues. Very recently I have come across a mother who will not allow her 3 year old daughter to wear or own anything pink whatsoever, because she is worried about re-enforcing gender stereotypes, and another woman who turned down the offer of a free baby bath for her newborn “because it’s blue, and I’ve got a little girl, so it’s not really suitable”. I probably have more sympathy with the pink avoider than the pink enforcer, but both positions seem to be making life unnecessarily difficult, and being of dubious ultimate benefit to the child.

In some ways I fulfil the article’s ideal of an idle parent. I’m not keen on bright plastic children themed soft play centres, and have always resisted spending vast amounts of money on extra-curricular activities which are meant to educate and stimulate. I like having a cuppa and a gossip with another mum while our children entertain each other on a play date, rather than laying on complicated activities. I get very irritated when Anna complains that she’s bored, especially when it’s less than two minutes after I finished reading her a story/playing a game with her. On the other hand, I absolutely hate and loathe so-called minimum intervention activities like ‘making aeroplanes out of cereal packets’ – just the thought brings me out in a cold sweat, and I’d far rather get on the bus and take Anna to one of London’s many free, child-friendly and, yes, I admit it, educational museums if we have a free afternoon. I’m also, however much I might wish I was, far from being immune to sudden flashes of panic that my failure to enrol Anna in ballet school or music lessons or drama classes is going to blight her entire future. So far I’ve been able to talk myself down from them, but as she gets older I think it gets harder.

Tom Hodgkinson also has a fairly niche definition of idleness, which includes scorning the modern lifesaving miracle that is Cbeebies, in favour of reading poetry to your children. Now, I’m all for poetry, and Anna has had her fair share read to her, but at the end of a long hard day, it is far from being the idle option compared to a nice bit of Charlie and Lola.

I suppose, really, that’s my main gripe with this article. Not that I broadly disagree with the principles discussed, I think children probably are over-stimulated and parents over-worried, and it would be easier if we could step back a little. But  in creating a ‘manifesto for idle parents’, Tom Hodgkinson has, in reality, created another stick to beat the over-anxious parents he is discussing. I jokingly remarked on Facebook that the problem was I would feel the need to set ‘idleness’ targets, but actually it’s not really a joke. As soon as you lay down a set of rules pertaining to a parenting theory you are instantly creating a right and wrong. Rather than condemning parents for ‘wasting’ money on days out, or implying criticism of parents who have no choice but to work fulltime with ‘work as little as possible while your children are small’, why not just stick with my manifesto of ‘trust your instincts’. I always say to my friends who’ve had new babies and are worried about how to care for them, that all they need is love, cuddles and food. And actually,  when I consider it, I think that ‘rule’ might actually apply to toddlers and much older children as well. Heap on the love and cuddles, feed them, and then whatever else you do or don’t do might not matter so much after all.

Only connect

“Only connect” is the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. It’s also one of the very few quotes I can ever remember, so it is particularly pleasing when I can find a genuine reason for working it in, thereby contributing to my image as someone well-read and erudite. Ahem.

How we connect with others has been very much on my mind today. One of the only disadvantages of being a writer is that it can get lonely. My house suddenly feels very empty when husband has left for work, daughter is at school and the cats have gone off to do whatever cats do when they have a free morning. Today, however, I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of human interaction – some through social media, and some through far more traditional methods.

When I went for my usual walk after school drop-off I bumped into a friend taking her daughter to pre-school and we had a chat. When I got home a local handyman arrived to give me a quote for fitting a cat flap (the kitty cattens are now venturing out, but I’m constantly tensed for the sound of a plaintive miaow at the back door, and it’s driving me mad). I’d got his number from a leaflet pushed through our front door – old-school methodology here.

Then when trawling through the Facebook page for local parents, I spotted a child’s bike for sale for £10. It’s a bit shabby, but we’ve been having a huge debate as to whether it was worth buying Anna as bike yet, or if we should wait until she’s older. This means we can experiment at a reasonable cost. I messaged the seller, another local mum, and am popping round later to collect it.

I exchanged emails with a friend about arranging a meet-up when I’m in Liverpool in February.

And I’m now sitting in my local cafe, surrounded by noise and bustle and babies, exchanged greetings with several other people I know. When I’ve finished this blog post I’m going to phone a clown (as you do), to see if she’s available for a certain 5th birthday party which is fast approaching.

 

So maybe the life of a writer isn’t so isolated after all. Problem is though, the eagle-eyed amongst my readers will have spotted that there hasn’t actually been much writing going on today amidst all the connection…maybe the dilemma continues.

Procrastination

So, today, I was absolutely clear that I had loads of domestic chores and cleaning to do. I knew that I needed to do the out-and-about ones straight after school drop-off, then go home and get on with the cleaning. I sat down and made a list. A really long list. And that was without even trying my usual trick of writing down jobs I’ve already done for the satisfaction of immediately crossing them off. I didn’t matter that there was loads to do, though, because there’s six hours of the school day, and you can get an awful lot done in that length of time.

Things started off pretty well. I went off to the sorting office to collect a parcel. I’d forgotten to take a bag with me to put it in, so had to proceed with a large cardboard box wedged uncomfortably under my arm, but that’s not a major problem. I queued in the post office, and then the next job was to pop to the chemist’s, but I got distracted by a 40% off sale in the Body Shop and bought a few Christmas presents en route. Then to Boots, and then home. Half way home I caught myself thinking how nice it was not to have a heavy awkward box to carry any more. I stopped, brain whirring. I was meant to still have the parcel. That was why I had gone out in the first place. I mentally retraced my steps, and then physically retraced them, luckily tracking the parcel down in the Body Shop.

By the time I got home it was 10.45, which is still loads of time. But first of all I needed to write the list. Then check my emails. And Facebook. And Twitter. But 11.15 is plenty of time. Once I’d phoned my mum I could get going. I stuck a load of laundry on, and then remembered that my sister-in-law had been to the hospital fracture clinic about her broken elbow, and I’d like to see how she was. I’d start on the cleaning once I’d spoken to her. Three-quarters of an hour later she, in the nicest possible way, pointed out that she was extremely hungry and could I please stop talking and let her go and get some lunch.

1pm is ok though, because you always work faster with a tight deadline. I definitely had time to check my emails again. And Facebook. And Twitter. Then I picked up an armful of the flotsam and jetsam washed up at the bottom of the stairs and put it all away. The trouble is, by this time, I was starting to feel hungry myself. I decided that much the best thing to do would be to pop out to the local cafe and have a sandwich while blogging, because that would save time preparing lunch, and I’d be multi-tasking while eating it. I could get on with the jobs after that.

Somehow the upshot of all this is the utterly unpredictable result that my to-do list remains pretty much untouched. But it’s ok, I have a plan. After school drop-off tomorrow I need to pop to the supermarket, but then I’ve got the whole of the school day to get all the jobs done. Which is loads of time…