Living Well

live well sign

I was all set to write a post about how tough life is at the moment. How tough adulting is. I feel like we’re juggling and balancing so much right now, between family responsibilities, my husband’s business (which is going very well, but is extremely demanding), some health problems I’ve been having, and then all the usual day to day domestic stuff which persists whatever else is going on. It has all culminated in a big flare-up of the anxiety I have suffered from intermittently for the last year or two. Oh, and I have toothache.

But then I was scrolling through photos on my phone, and I came across this one, of a poster in a little beach cafe in Lligwy Bay on Anglesey where we spent a week in the summer. It resonated with me at the time, in my care-free, sun kissed (and wind-blown!) holiday mood, but it is probably back in workaday, unseasonably chilly, and unreasonably stressful London that I really need to heed its message.

Take time to live well 

Often this feels like time I simply don’t have. And clearly we’re not going to manage all of those every day – that really is what holidays are for. But how often am I frittering the time I do have messing around on Facebook, instead of doing something which might be genuinely relaxing or enriching?

Before the summer holidays my husband suggested, in order to help my mental and emotional health, that I took two ‘time-outs’ every day. The first is in the morning. Just before we sit down to breakfast – the one meal which we make every effort to all eat together as a family, chatting about the day before and the day to come, I step out into the garden. Just for a minute or two I breathe deeply, smell the morning air, look at the plants and observe the subtle changes which herald the passing seasons. I come back into the chaos of our school morning routine just a little bit calmed and refreshed.

The second is in the evening. As soon as husband gets home from work (within reason, sometimes he’s not home until gone 11pm) I go straight out, leaving him to pick up on stories/baths/bedtime while I go for a brisk 15 minute walk. It is a chance to let my thoughts run free, to walk at my own pace unencumbered by buggies, scooters, book bags or changing bags, to get some fresh air, and to place a semi-colon between the manic day and the (hopefully) calmer evening.

After school one day this week I just curled up with my girls on the sofa. A Charlie and Lola DVD went on for the smaller one, and the bigger one and I read our books companionably, me with a daughter snuggled under each arm. It was blissful. And for a while at least, I quieted the internal voices telling me I ‘ought’ to be doing something useful, or taking them to the park, or playing a game, and just enjoyed being. And let myself believe that, although we can’t spend our entire lives on the sofa (can we??), actually what they sometimes need more than hoovered stairs or an educational activity is simply to be with me and with each other. It was one of the nicest hours I’ve spent all week.

It’s great to be able to let off steam and have a good moan about the difficult things. I’m part of a WhatsApp group with two very good friends which is a lifesaver for just this kind of thing. Often a sympathetic message and the renewed realisation that I’m not alone in this is all I need to give me the energy and strength to carry on. However, I want to balance that with a focus on the positive stuff as well. Counting my blessings, as my poster-guru has it. I read somewhere this week that “where the attention goes, the energy flows”, and while being realistic about all the stresses and strains, I want my attention and energy to go on the good stuff in life.

I started this blog because the every day moments slip by so quickly and I wanted to capture them. On the way it has also become a place I have a rant when I need to, but I want to stay true to my original aim of having a record of these chaotic, frustrating, exhausting years which reminds me how magical and amazing and filled with love they really are.

 

 

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The ups and downs of summer

Well, we’re one week into the summer holidays I was ever-so-slightly dreading. Is it proving as difficult as I expected? Well, that’s a hard one to answer.

In some ways, no, definitely not. It is lovely to be more relaxed in the mornings. A couple of days ago I looked up from stacking the dishwasher after breakfast to find both girls contentedly snuggled up on the sofa, still in pyjamas, reading five year old Peppa Pig annuals. On a school morning I would immediately have had to switch into sergeant-major mode, and start organising them into a state where they could leave the house, but in the holidays I can just leave them to it.

reading peppa

We’ve already had some nice summer treats as well. On the day school broke up, the mums of a couple of Anna’s schoolfriends and I took the children to a local ice-cream parlour for some ludicrously over-sized sundaes, followed by a trip to our local playground (somewhere I feel I have spent more than enough time in the least week!). We met up with more friends there, and I truly love the ‘school’s out for the summer’ atmosphere that prevails in our local park at the end of term, with both parents and children giddy with relief and slightly high on sugar.

We’ve had one of Anna’s friends round for tea, and spent a lovely day with two of my NCT friends and their kids. We don’t live particularly near, and the demands of school and work mean that we don’t get to see each other very often, but it was really special to catch up, and to see these 8.5 year olds, who have known each other since they were a few weeks old, figure out a way of getting along now, and of involving their young siblings as well.

I also made a window of time when husband was at home to take Anna out to Pizza Express for a mummy and daughter lunch, which was very lovely and civilised. We have been to the library to register for the summer reading challenge – which my little bookworm then completed in 24 hours flat.

The reason she managed to read 6 books in 24 hours brings me onto one of the less good bits of the last week. Sophia developed some kind of virus which meant she wasn’t well enough to go anywhere except an emergency 7pm visit to the local out-of-hours doctor when her temperature spiked to nearly 40 degrees, and she refused to eat, drink or take calpol and became all limp and floppy. That was fun. Luckily husband was off work – we’d planned a family day trip, but he wasn’t very well either, and Sophia certainly wasn’t well enough, so the silver lining was that we all hung out at home together in a way which is quite rare and was very nice and relaxing. Anna read a lot of books, and we did some cooking and baking together. A fair amount of telly was watched, and there were lots of sleepy sofa cuddles, and some fun play in the garden once Sophia was feeling a bit brighter.

co-operation

The thing I find hardest is the lack of a moment to myself, and I really need those moments to keep sane and calm. Both children are chatterboxes, and don’t always (ever) respect the other’s right to finish what they were saying before launching in with their own anecdote. Sometimes they get on very well, and Anna is incredibly patient and loving with her little sister, but inevitably the moment comes when Anna’s patience is pushed too far, or one of them gets a bump, and then everyone is crying for mummy. I dispense cuddles, kisses and reprimands as necessary, and calm is restored…until next time. On a repeat cycle for 12 hours straight it gets a little bit wearing.

We’re off on holiday with my parents tomorrow, which is eagerly anticipated by both children. Sophia has been telling everyone who will listen that she is going to the seaside with Nanna and Grandad to build sandcastles. Unfortunately husband can no longer join us as planned, as he has hd unavoidable work commitments come up, and so I am having to pack extremely light as I have to manage both children, the buggy and all the luggage on a train by myself. There’s also the little matter of entertaining the ferociously energetic 2 year old all the way to North Wales. I’m armed with sticker books galore, and am about to go and pack an enormous array of snacks, which will range from the downright virtuous (cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes, raisins) to the moderately acceptable (dry cheerios, crackers, plain biscuits) and then by Chester I fully expect to be doling out chocolate buttons with gay abandon.

Packing has had its own challenges, as Sophia is determined to help. Unfortunately her definition of ‘help’ (trying on everyone’s sunglasses, putting on swim nappies over her clothes and scattering round the house the objects I had just carefully assembled) doesn’t totally correspond with mine. Anna is now round at her friend’s house for the afternoon, and Sophia is having her nap, so I should be making the most of my free time to finish the packing, get the snacks ready, make a batch of soup to give everyone a healthy tea tonight and use up all the odds and ends of vegetables languishing in the fridge, and tidy the house, which currently looks like a bomb has hit it. However, I am ignoring all those things in favour of a sanity-saving hour writing my blog, and scoffing a chocolate muffin.

choc muffins

 

Children and choices

Anna went horse riding for the first time on Saturday afternoon, as part of her friend’s birthday party. She absolutely loved it, and has talked of very little else since. Seriously. What I don’t know about the beauty of Poppet’s long-lashed eyes, the velvety texture of her nose or the all round angelic sweetness of her disposition is surely not worth knowing. Although I suspect that won’t preclude me being told more about it anyway.

anna riding

When she was a baby, horse riding was a bit of an in-joke for husband and me, because our antenatal teacher had a daughter aged 10 or so, who was obsessed with horses, and  the teacher joked that she basically had to remortgage the house to afford the lessons. She advised all of us parents to be to keep our offspring well away from the stables if we wanted to avoid a life of equine induced penury. So, on a country holiday when she was six months old we would dramatically shield Anna’s eyes if we passed a field of horses, and I haven’t introduced her to any of the series of pony books I devoured at her age. Luckily for my parents I am allergic to horses, so they were saved from that potentially expensive hobby.

It’s made me reflect more, though, on something I’ve pondered before. As parents, husband and I want our daughters to fulfil themselves and to reach their true potential in whatever gifts they have. But, how the hell do we know what these are?

The thing I was good at was reading, making sense of what I read, talking about it, and then writing things myself. It set me up nicely for a degree in English Literature, a career in healthcare management (umm) and most recently becoming a blogger and novelist. How did I know this was my talent? Well, my parents were both librarians, and our home was filled with books. I gravitated naturally towards them, and of course the school system is well set up to deal with children who like reading and writing!

But how to discover and nurture other talents in our children? There is so much choice these days, such a plethora of weekend and evening and holiday activities available, but I am firm in my belief that it’s not a good idea to spend too much time in organised activities, as children need time to just be. We’re very lucky that Anna’s school runs some fantastic and affordable after school clubs, and so she has been able to try lots of different things. I am strict about no more than two activities a week, but that has still given her scope to try out French, art, running, choir, and drama, and she’s about to start football this week. I don’t think any of them are going to be her lifelong passion. She hated French, and dropped it very quickly. She loves choir and singing, and it has been brilliant for her confidence, but I don’t see her as a professional singer.

Obviously in many areas you can discover a passion as a teenager or adult and pursue it independently. But in other areas – ice skating, ballet, horse riding, music – my understanding is that if you don’t start young enough then you will never be able to reach your full potential. Which feels like an enormous responsibility as a parent!

If we respond to Anna’s wave of enthusiasm for riding by booking her a course of lessons, then we might just be setting her on the path to a place in the Olympic 2028 British show-jumping or dressage team. Or we might be wasting time and money which should be spent on piano lessons to nurture our little Eileen Joyce.

Some parents get round this dilemma by signing their child up for every conceivable extra-curricular activity, theorising that this gives them the chance to see where their talents and interests might lie. I can see why this approach might appeal, but I can’t help thinking it is also quite likely to result in a jaded and exhausted child who wants nothing  more than to spend their teenage years lying on the sofa staring blankly at the television and eating Wotsits.

So, what do we do? Do we wait for the children to express an interest and encourage them to follow that? But what if their fancy lights on an expensive trombone, only to wane a few weeks later? Do we just encourage them in our own interests? Well, yes, to a large extent we already do this, and Anna is perhaps already more interested in history, architecture, books and politics than a typical eight year old. But that approach seems a little narrow, not to mention narcissistic. Is the manic activity drive the answer after all? But how can children develop independence and creativity if they never have any time to themselves?

We will probably continue to bumble along much as we are now; sharing our own enthusiasms with our daughters, supporting them to try new things which cross their path, taking advantage of the opportunities provided through school, allowing a healthy amount of down-time and keeping our fingers crossed!

What do you think? Is over-scheduling a problem for modern children (and parents!)? When does supportive become pressurising? Or does our duty to help our children fulfil their potential mean that we should expose them to as many different opportunities as possible?

Spring is in the air

It’s back to school for us today, but with a definite hint of spring in the air to soften the blow. Actually, I don’t mind too much, and am hoping that this term my offspring might be a bit healthier and we can actually settle into our new routine, which involves me being able to write while Sophia is at pre-school. Watch this space!

daffodils

We had a lovely half term. For the first part of it I took the children up to Liverpool to see my parents. The first morning we were there, they whisked the children off to the Storybarn in Calderstones Park, leaving me curled up in my pyjamas with a good book and a warm pain au chocolat. I then managed to stir myself to have a long, luxurious, uninterrupted shower – even more of a treat because our shower at home has been broken for three weeks and so I’ve been having baths and rinsing my hair under the taps with a tupperware tub!

The children had an amazing time at the Storybarn, and their enthusiasm definitely makes me think it’s something we’ll want to do again on a future visit to Liverpool. Anna especially absolutely loves books, reading, stories and the world of make-believe. She’s currently two and a half chapters into writing her own first novel – an adventure story which shows a strong Blytonesque influence, as well as a vivid imagination of her own, and she is rarely seen without her head in a book. Definitely like mother like daughter! Sophia loves stories too, but she also likes to be on the move, and Storybarn gave her lots of chances for active play as well. She was particularly taken with the giant bubble machine.

We had a lovely family time when my brother and sister-in-law came over for the day. The children had the time of their lives playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther. They went for a walk in the woods and climbed on log bridges (Uncle Matt soaking his feet in a ditch to rescue Anna when she got stuck!), played a long game of Scrabble, which I had been teaching Anna the day before, read endless stories, had cuddles and generally gave them lots of the patient, loving, one-on-one attention which aunties and uncles are really good at.

We also went to the World Museum in Liverpool, where Anna enjoyed the dinosaur trail and Sophia marvelled at the enormous dinosaur skeleton and the tanks of tropical fish. And of course, no trip to Liverpool would be complete for us without a visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool One – one of my favourite bookshops in the country, and with such an incredible children’s area.

flap-reading

Back in London we had some lazy time at home, and I was self-sacrificially devoted enough to let Anna do painting and crafts. I know. It had better be a good Mother’s Day present. In the meantime I have two beaded, sequinned, beribboned octopus/jellyfish type creations to find homes for. We also headed to St Albans for the day to visit the Roman museum and remains because Anna is ‘doing’ Romans at school this term.

And this weekend the slightly lighter nights and warmer weather inspired me to start spring-cleaning. Anna and I cleared out her desk (bio-hazard suits would probably have been a good idea), and her art cupboard, and threw away bags of lidless felt-tips, broken crayons, screwed up coloured tissue paper etc etc. We spring-cleaned her playhouse as well, and then when she started to get bored and her sister woke up from her nap,husband took them both off to the park for a muddy game of football and I blitzed the rest of the house – surfaces dusted, floors hoovered and mopped, bathroom cleaned, beds changed – and then pottered off the the florists to buy a bunch of tulips and one of daffodils to let the spring inside.

Staycation

We didn’t plan a ‘proper’ family holiday this year for lots of reasons, but we did decide to have a staycation. My mother-in-law very kindly lent us her flat while she was on holiday herself, so that we had the chance to have a change of scene and to escape from all those niggling little domestic tasks which can oppress you at home. She only lives on the other side of London, and we’re all obviously very familiar with her flat, but nonetheless we were amazed at just how much of a holiday it felt.

For a start, London is a big old place, so when you’re starting from North West rather than North East there are all sorts of places which suddenly seem like a viable day-trip which we wouldn’t normally tackle (especially with a super-active toddler who is allergic to sitting still!). We also decided that there would be No Cooking. That meant the children probably didn’t eat quite as healthily as usual – for breakfast for instance, instead of porridge with fresh berries we bought one of those Kellogg’s variety packs and let them choose one each day. Blissfully, we were a short walk away from a huge Waitrose, and so picnic lunches were sorted by stocking up on dips, falafel, baguettes, cherry tomatoes and so on, and dinners were things like filled pasta parcels with a handful of frozen veg  thrown in and some grated cheese over the top for the children, and delicious ready meals for us. And, of course, there was the obligatory daily ice-cream which seemed to happen whatever we were doing. But it was only for five days, so hopefully won’t do too much harm in the long-term, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed a proper break from the seemingly endless rounds of food preparation which constitute my normal days at home. And actually, I do really love cooking, so after a bit of a rest I’m now full of renewed enthusiasm for getting back into the kitchen and trying some new recipes as well as some old favourites.

London never ceases to surprise me, and it did so again on the first day of our staycation when we headed to Ruislip Lido. Just a short journey up the Metropolitan Line, but this artificial lake, beach, children’s splash park, playground, woodlands and miniature railway felt like another world. It was created by the local council in the 1940s as a sort of post-war  public morale boost. Hard to imagine public funds being spent on anything so frivolous today, and yet, actually, creating opportunities for families to have fun together and get active in the fresh air without having to spend any money is every bit as important today as it was then. Needless to say, our children absolutely adored it, and we had huge fun too. Just one of those relaxed, carefree days when everyone is in a good mood and everything goes right.

ruislip.

The next day we headed off to Kew Gardens. I’ve been before, but the last time was when Anna was a baby. It’s wonderful, but it takes nearly two hours from our house, and isn’t the cheapest day out in the world (although it is incredibly good value), so it isn’t a natural choice for an ordinary weekend day trip. We did the treetop walk first as that was what we’d all been looking forward to the most, but I didn’t actually love it as much as I thought I would. It was impressive, but I didn’t quite get the Enid Blyton Magic Faraway Tree sense I had been hoping for. What do you mean, I’m too idealistic? It wasn’t helped by Sophia’s grumpy and clingy mood, which just seemed to get worse, until we realised that she was in some sort of pain, clutching at the side of her face and head, and refusing her food. We couldn’t decide if it was teething or an ear infection, but administered good old Calpol anyway. It was like a miracle. Twenty minutes later she was transformed into the happiest little baby you could hope for, playing and running around with her sister. And that was actually the best bit about Kew for me. The wonderful sense of space and peace. Even on a sunny day in the school holidays it didn’t feel remotely over-crowded, and sitting on a tree-shaded bench watching the children play, and breathing the scent of sun-warmed roses as Sophia toddled up and down a tiny slope ‘whee-ing’ each time was wonderful.

girls in Kew

The next day it was another National Trust day as we headed to Fenton House in Hampstead, another favourite place of ours. We only ventured into the house to use the toilets (ahem) but spent hours in the glorious gardens and orchards.

anna apple

Sophia was entranced by the discovery that apples grow on trees, and spent ages painstakingly collecting windfalls and moving them from one part of the orchard to another.

apples 1

We followed it with a walk on Hampstead Heath and another playground trip, before having ‘grown-up’ afternoon tea in Burgh House, another Hampstead gem. We have often had tea and cake in the cafe there, and last time we were in, Anna’s imagination was caught by the lovely cake-stands on the tables of people having afternoon tea. It’s only available if you book in advance, and we hadn’t that day, but we promised her that at some point we would have afternoon tea there, and last Saturday was that day. It really didn’t disappoint. The staff were wonderfully friendly and helpful, and our tea of cheese scones, fruit scones with jam and clotted cream, chocolate cake, lemon and blueberry polenta cake, macaroons and home-made pink lemonade was spectacularly delicious. Even though Sophia, appetite fully restored after feeling poorly the day before, kept snaffling half the food off my plate, much to Anna’s amusement.

We finished off  our staycation with a day walking along the river from Twickenham to Richmond, via Eel Pie Island, a gorgeous riverside pub for lunch, a rowing boat ferry, Ham House (yep, National Trust again!) and Petersham Nurseries. I can never believe that this area is in the middle of London. It feels so incredibly tranquil and rural, and the Thames has far more in common with its Oxford self than its Westminster or Docklands incarnations.

twickenham

Lots of quality time with my lovely little family, lots of ice-cream, lots of peace and quiet and greenery all felt like just what I needed. Husband is back at work today, and Anna is playing at a friend’s house, and Sophia is having a long nap in her cot. It’s been nice to have a bit of time to myself, and a chance to blog, but I’m starting to miss them all now!