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!

A week in Provence

My husband had a migraine yesterday. He’s started getting them periodically over the last year, and we’re still trying to work out the triggers, but one of them seems to be release of stress – he’s fine while the adrenalin is still pumping, but when things calm down his body protests. Apparently this is quite common, and the phenomenon is sometimes known as ‘weekend headaches’. In this case, however, the migraine came the day after we got home from a week’s holiday. I suggested that this time it could be straightforward nerves, as he is not only back to work today, but also starting a new job. He said it wasn’t, it was actually the release of stress after successfully completing our holiday, in particular the nine hour journey back from the South of France by train. Holiday planning and booking is very much husband’s job in our household, and apparently he was so stressed out by how annoyed I would be if he had messed up the bookings and we found ourselves stranded in Lille that it triggered a migraine. Oops. Note to self: Be nicer.

I wouldn’t say the journey home will go down as one of my favourite ever days. For a start we had been inadvertently booked in the quiet coach, and ‘quiet coach’ isn’t a concept you can really convey to a fifteen month old. Not an English one anyway. French children, apparently, not only refrain from throwing food, they have all taken a vow of silence. My attempts to exchange conspiratorial eye-rolls with other parents were met with frosty glares, and I actually thought the middle-aged woman across the aisle was going to spit on us. I felt slightly guilty about disrupting her journey, until I was pacing the vestibule area with Sophia and discovered that being a stickler for the rules on quiet carriages didn’t prevent her sneaking off to the loos for a sneaky fag or eight. Puh. However, none of this was my husband’s fault. And I didn’t shout at him. I just drip-fed Sophia raisins whilst internally exercising my A-level French to the max in order to compose cuttingly sarcastic comebacks which I would obviously never have the nerve to utter.

The week preceding the journey home was lovely, though. For a start we broke the outward journey with a blissful 24 hours in Paris, managing to cram in a walk along the Seine, people-watching and listening to live jazz in a street cafe, a sneaky coupe de champagne or deux, and a very decent amount of croissants, pains aux chocolats, quiche and profiteroles. Oh, and a four-hour stint kneeling on the wooden floor awkwardly leaning over the side of a travel-cot to which Sophia had taken exception, and would only consent to lie in if I stroked her tummy. Every 20 minutes or so she would look so deeply asleep I would think it was safe to withdraw, and every time eyes and mouth immediately snapped wide open. Finally, I discovered that singing to her had the same soothing effect without crippling me, so I lay in bed next to her, singing lullabies until fell asleep, and I assume she must have done too.

We were staying  the rest of the week in Marseille. Anna is now a huge fan of Marseille, largely because the flat we were staying in had a hammock in the bedroom and a treehouse in the garden. I was slightly less sure. The people were so warm and friendly, and the views from the many hills were spectacular, but there was a bit too much graffiti, noise, dog poo and dangerous driving for my lamentably Northern European sensibilities. However. We ate some truly fantastic food. Fresh seafood in a cafe where you chose what you wanted from an enormous ice-chipped counter, and then they cooked it for you fresh. With mountains of the best chips I’ve ever tasted. And home-made alioli. Stuffed vegetables and gratin dauphinoise from our local traiteur. Mille-feuille. Local strawberries. Cheese. Pate. Fresh bread and pastries. Ratatouille. Crepes. To be honest I’ve never totally ‘got’ French food before this trip, always finding it a little bit too rich and heavy and lacking in vegetables. Maybe my tastes have changed, but I also think that Provencal cooking has much more emphasis on loads of fresh vegetables to accompany the inevitable cheese/butter/cream fest, and I prefer it for that. Anyway, I came home 1lb lighter, despite eating like a pig all week!

We also had fantastic trips to Les Calanques – the dramatic rocky cliffs and coves around Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. The weather was mixed, but good enough that my beloved Saltwater sandals got their first outing of 2016 and we could introduce Sophia to the delights of paddling.

The nicest thing about the week, though, was some proper family time uninterrupted by the demands of housework, paid work, school and all our various mobile devices. Absolute bliss. And now my husband has recovered from the migraine seemingly brought on by terror of me losing my temper, we all feel refreshed and ready for the new term. salawaters

Good housekeeping?

dustpan--brush-plastic-blue-PfO

I read an article last week claiming that women should stop nagging men to do more housework, because a study had shown that cleaning reduces men’s testosterone, and therefore their libido. So if you want a healthy sex life, don’t make your man clean the loo.

Well fine, I can well believe it. But, funnily enough, scrubbing the floors doesn’t really turn women on either. Housework, however necessary, is fundamentally unerotic. I think the problem is, for women at least, that a dirty house is equally off-putting.

I’m feeling very fed up about the amount of housework I do, but also about how that compares to the amount of housework I probably should be doing. My husband works fulltime, in a busy job, and commutes for an hour each way. I work part-time from home, and look after our daughter. Fairly obviously more of the responsibility for housekeeping devolves on me, and I’m happy with that. Some of it, such as shopping for food, and cooking, I enjoy. Well, actually, they’re the only aspects I enjoy, but still.

However, when I think about the things I do every day, just to keep the show on the road, and then the things I do every week or so to keep us vaguely civilised, it amounts to an awful lot of time. And then when I list the things I don’t do at all, or hardly, but probably ought to, then it looks like managing one 3 bedroom terrace really is a fulltime job, and it’s a job I have no appetite for whatsoever.

So here’s my daily list:

–       Unload dishwasher from previous day and put dishes away

–       Make breakfast for me and daughter (husband deals with his own)

–       Clear breakfast things away, wipe down kitchen surfaces and table

–       Make beds

–       Put on load of laundry

–       Clean filters on tumble drier

–       Plump up cushions, smooth throws etc

–       Collect up dirty cups etc from all over the house

–       Put away clean, dry laundry from previous day

–       Make lunch for me and daughter

–       Clear lunch things away, wipe down kitchen surfaces and table

–       Sweep kitchen and dining room floors

–       Attempt to tidy up (ie, at least return things to the room they’re meant to be in)

–       Make tea for daughter

–       Clear up tea things, load dishwasher, wipe down kitchen surfaces

–       Wash up anything that can’t go in dishwasher

–       Load breadmaker (not every day, but at least twice a week)

–       Make dinner for me and husband

–       Collapse exhausted and thank goodness that the after dinner clear-up and bin-emptying are husband’s jobs

And my weekly list:

–       Vacuum

–       Dust

–       Clean bathroom

–       Clean downstairs loo

–       Clean fridge

–       Give kitchen a proper clean

–       Wash kitchen floor

–       Change beds (in theory. Actually it’s once a fortnight, but in my head it’s once a week)

–       Sort through post, action bills that need paying etc, put things for filing in pile to be ignored to be dealt with at a later date.

–       Make any admin phone calls

–       Hunt down all the toys and books that have gone missing and ended up under beds, down side of sofas etc

–       Take all the shoes that have migrated into the hall back upstairs and put them away

–       Plan our meals for the week and make a shopping list

–       Do the supermarket shop and put everything away

And then things I do once in a blue moon (and, according to Aggie and Kim should probably do monthly, if not weekly):

–       Clean windows (actually, I’m lying. I never do this really. I just think about it once in a blue moon)

–       Clean under furniture

–       De-cobweb ceilings and shadowy corners and dust anything higher than head height

–       Clean under/behind kitchen appliances

–       Turn the mattresses

–       Disinfect the bins

–       File paperwork

–       Clean rugs

–       De-scale kettle

–       Clean grouting in bathroom

–       Sort through Anna’s clothes and bag up things she’s grown out of

–       Polish shoes

–       Clean out kitchen cupboards

–       Wash throws from sofas

And then there’s the things I never do at all:

–       Ironing. Husband irons his work shirts, but everything else goes resolutely unironed.

–       Do something to look after our wooden floors (I actually don’t know what I should be doing, but suspect it should be something. Waxing? Polishing?)

–       Wash down walls with sugar soap. I had no idea I was meant to be doing this, but apparently so.

–       Scrub skirting boards

–       Wash duvets and pillows

–       Wash curtains

I really hope I don’t lose half my readership for being a disgusting slattern. And I hope any friends reading this aren’t put off visiting such an unhygienic household. Especially given the mice situation. The thing is though, I spend enough time dealing with categories one and two – if I started doing category three more frequently, or category four at all, these are the things I suspect I’d miss out on:

–       Baking cakes, muffins, biscuits and lots of other delicious but unnecessary treats

–       Hours spent reading to and chatting with my daughter

–       Curling up with a good book myself

–       Chatting to my mum, or a friend, on the phone

–       Having a glass of wine with my husband while we talk about our days

–       Spending weekends exploring London with my husband and daughter – discovering hidden green spaces, quirky little cafes, interesting museums

–       Having a half hour walk every day after nursery drop off

–       Writing my blog

–       Catching up with friends via Facebook, email or text

–       Playdates with my daughter

–       Meeting up with friends

And to be honest, that last list is the list of things which make life worth living. If I stopped, or reduced those, and instead made time to clean the windows or turn the mattresses, would I be happier? Would my family be happier? I strongly suspect not, and yet I still have a vague sense of guilt, which I’m trying to expunge with this post. And maybe that’s the crux of the matter. Why do I feel guilty? Why do (some)women feel somehow that their sense of personal worth is connected to the cleanliness of their houses? I really don’t think that it’s something that worries most men. Maybe housework, rather than fat, is the real feminist issue.