#In Real Life

cocktails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Eighteen Months

Sophia was eighteen months old last week. To celebrate, we went for a blood test. However, once that was out of the way, I decided we should make the most of being out and about in London on a sunny day.

We popped into M&S to buy a picnic lunch, and then hopped on the tube to Green Park. Sophia was thrilled to have the chance to run free and chase pigeons, unrestrained by pesky hand-holding or reins. That’s pretty much all she ever wants to do.Green Park

Then I heard music coming from Buckingham Palace, and headed over to investigate. I’m not sure, but I think we caught the end of the changing of the guard. It was certainly something very ceremonial with a brass band and lots of soldiers in dress uniforms and bearskins. I pointed all this out to Sophia, but she was too transfixed by the bin lorry she’d spotted to take much notice. the guards

We fought our way through the crowds of tourists on the Mall to St James’ Park, and had our lunch on a bench over-looking the lake. This was a huge success because two of Sophia’s favourite things are ducks and dogs, and there were plenty of both to spot. Okay, so sometimes the ducks were actually swans, but there’s a whole fairy story about how that’s an easy mistake to make.cygnets

After lunch we went round to the playground. It’s a really great playground in St James’ Park, and I used to take Anna a lot before she started school, but it does get very busy at the weekend, which is a shame. Last time we were there I was about three months pregnant and feeling very sick and tired, so sat pallidly on a bench whilst husband ran round with Anna. Two years later and I was running round myself with the result of the pregnancy. I can’t quite believe how the time has flown.playground

My littlest girl is so determined and so fearless and so resolutely independent. Qualities which I hope will stand her in very good stead in later life, but make keeping her safe as a toddler (and I imagine, heaven help us when the time comes, as a teenager) quite a challenge. There was a big slide, far too steep for me to let her go down by herself, especially as it was just the two of us so there would be no-one to catch her at the bottom. So I took her down on my knee. She absolutely loved it, laughing and squealing with sheer delighted excitement. Then she saw a little girl of about four going down with her mum, side by side, holding hands. That was it, nothing else would do for Sophia, and for the next approximately forty-two times we went down the slide side-by-side.

By this time she was shattered, so I popped her back in her buggy for a nap, and walked through the park, up the Mall, through Trafalgar Square, up Pall Mall East, and through Piccadilly Circus. I love seeing London through tourist eyes and feeling proud because this is my city. I had a lovely browse in Waterstone’s, and then checked out the Cath Kidston sale in their flagship store on Piccadilly but resisted buying anything. I feel I need some credit for this as both a little red leather handbag and a gorgeous flowery dress, which I spotted back in the new Spring catalogue and have been lusting over ever since, were reduced. Not by enough for my budget though. I’m going to have to play Sale Roulette and see if they come down any further or sell out first.

By a miracle Sophia was still asleep when we got back to Walthamstow, so I bought a drink and a chocolate brownie in a little local cafe which has outdoor tables, and had a peaceful fifteen minutes reading my book in the sunshine before she woke up.

brownie

An absolutely perfect day with my lovely girl. Sophia at eighteen months is feisty, determined, active, adventurous, independent, strong-willed, mischievous, joyful, enthusiastic, loving and absolutely gorgeous. Can’t wait to see how many of these personality traits continue as she grows up.

Out of Hibernation

Perhaps it is just the lighter mornings that make the difference. Forcing myself out of bed for the day when it is still dark just feels SO wrong. I’m a morning person, more or less, but the dark cold mornings of January and February really get me down. The weather is (shh, whisper it) slightly better this last couple of days as well, and there is definitely a certain softness in the air. I know, I know, it will probably be snowing before the week is out.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I am coming back to life. Participating in life rather than standing on the sidelines of other people’s.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find my horizons shrink when I have a baby. To a large extent they have to, because keeping a tiny and totally dependent human being alive is fairly demanding, and doesn’t really allow much headspace for anything else, especially when you have an older child to take care of as well. But at nearly fifteen months, the umbilical cord is no longer tying me so closely to Sophia. She is toddling, feeding herself and starting to communicate –  I think ‘talk’ would be putting it too strongly, but she is getting very good at conveying her opinions! She doesn’t need breastfeeding during the day any more (let’s not talk about nighttime), which is another thing which frees me up considerably.

Suddenly I discovered that I wanted to get some kind of life back which didn’t totally revolve around the children. After my husband sensibly talking me down from the massive wave of guilt which overcame me at that realisation (“How can I want anything other than my precious babies? Am I really selfish? What about women who can’t have children and would give anything to have their lives limited in this way?), I decided to make a few changes.

laptopThe most significant is that my MIL has agreed to babysit Sophia sometimes so that I can start my third novel. The first of these sessions was last Thursday, and it was absolute heaven. I met my MIL at her local station, handed Sophia over for a play at Granny’s house, and ensconced myself in a cafe with my laptop. I already had a plot all worked out, and so actually managed to get a chapter and a half written in the time available. It felt amazing to be writing again, and as an interesting but positive side effect, I noticed that I had so much more patience and energy with the children that afternoon after having a bit of time for me.

I am also trying to make plans to see people. I know, radical.  Friendships have been on a back burner over the past year as all my time and energy has been focussed on my nuclear family, but I am missing my friends, and I am determined start seeing them again. We kicked this new resolution off on Friday by visiting a really good friend who I met through NCT classes when we were brand new first-time mums. We (and our babies) were inseparable for that first couple of years, but then life started to move on. She had a second baby, and then went on to set up her own business. I started writing. The children started different schools and evenings and weekends started to get eaten up with their social lives with their new classmates. Suddenly, from seeing each other several times a week, we were text message buddies. It made me sad on Friday to see how uneasy the children were with each other at first. Luckily it wasn’t long before they bonded over a ‘pizza picnic’, and were soon charging round the house having one of the noisiest games of hide-and-seek I’ve ever witnessed, and my friend and I munched chips and dips and gossiped, if not to our hearts’ content, then certainly a lot more than we’d been able to for a long time.Sophia bus

I’m also going to get out and about with Sophia a bit more during the week. This week we went to the London Transport Museum where she totally ignored the attractive and colourful toddler area in favour of toddling as fast as she could from one vintage bus to another and back again. She loved it, and I had really enjoyed my walk from Liverpool Street Station to Covent Garden – and we both enjoyed having lunch with husband afterwards.

So, that’s how I am dragging myself out of hibernation and back into the world. Working on a new book, trying to see friends more, and getting out and exploring the world again. What about you? Are you starting to feel those spring-time vibes, and does it inspire you to make some changes?

Coming of Age

Picture 152

Yesterday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I have always joked that I have been naturally 35 since I was about 17, so it’s quite nice that my biological age has caught up with my psychological one. My mum described me as now being “old young as opposed to young young”, and I can live with that.

I was absolutely useless as being young young. I hate late nights and night clubs and loud music. I’m not particularly keen on film or TV, so I never quite know who the latest celebrity is – or not until they’re interviewed in the Guardian Weekend magazine, anyway.   My alcoholic drinks of choice are G&T, prosecco or half-decent wine. Even in my student days I never drank so much that I threw up or passed out, and since having children my dread of having a hangover is so pathological that I stop at half a bottle (of wine rather than gin) unless I have childcare lined up for the next day as well.

I like being at home and making a home. I like baking and cooking. I like having friends round for dinner. I like lighting a candle and setting the table properly and cooking a delicious meal to share with my husband while we talk about life, love and everything (‘everything’ could be Anna’s spelling test, whether the filter on the dishwasher needs emptying or geopolitics). I like snuggling under a blanket on the sofa with a good book, or cuddling up with a DVD and a takeaway. I like romantic dinners or family brunches at local restaurants. I like early nights and warm pyjamas and cashmere cardies. I like meeting friends for lunch or coffee or drinks in places where we can actually hear ourselves think and have proper conversations. I like notebooks and pens and Cath Kidston floral prints, and think Great British Bake-Off is practically the best television ever. I was definitely doing hygge before it became an Instagram watchword.

I realise that quite a lot of that makes me sound 75 rather than 35, but there are a few things which hopefully make me ‘old young’ rather than young old.

I also like travel and adventure. Maybe not that adventurous by some standards, but I love home swap holidays which give us a little window into another culture, and travelling across Europe by train, even (especially!) with two young children in tow. I like fish finger sandwiches and nachos eaten messily with my fingers while I read. I like being out and about in London Town, exploring as many different areas and trying as many different foods as I can. I like shopping for and wearing new clothes. I like my Mac Book Air and my blog and other people’s blogs and Instagram, and I think that Sherlock is absolutely and indisputably the best television ever.

I like this stage of my life. I like being established, in my home and in my relationship, but still having the potential to travel or explore different career options. I love having young children and generally revel in the sweet responsibility of being so needed and loved, whilst also having a tiny part of me looking forward to the greater freedom I will have again when the children grow older.

One of my personal challenges for this year is to relish the moment. That was very easy yesterday, because the moments included champagne, chocolate cake, prawn and chilli linguine, presents and cards. But today is a better test. Today I have a clingy teething baby, a head cold that has stolen my sense of smell, a mountain of dirty laundry, a 6 year old with conjunctivitis and torrential rain being lashed against the windows by the 50mph winds, but I still feel pretty content. One of the things which gets in the way of me appreciating the moment is a superstitious dread of tempting fate. I can’t shake that completely, but while I cross my fingers, touch wood, look out for black cats while avoiding ladders and single magpies I will risk saying that thirty-five feels pretty good.