On Marriage

hear cake

Yesterday was my 7th wedding anniversary, and the 18th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Eighteen years equals half our lives spent together, pretty much our entire adult lives, and it feels like a pretty big deal. Last night we celebrated with homemade pizza, heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake, and supermarket special-offer champagne. On Thursday, courtesy of my MIL babysitting, we’re going out for dinner, and may even get really daring and Go Into Town. The huge advantage of grandparental babysitting is that you don’t feel the need to get the children bathed, pyjamaed, settled and behaving before you leave, you can just scarper the second they arrive, which adds a good hour onto the length of time spent out of the house.

Anyway, in between scoffing and quaffing last night, I got all philosophical on what marriage means to me. Two glasses of fizz do that to me these days. The fact is, and I’m afraid there is no way of saying this without seeming unbearably smug, but I just love being married.

I always thought I would. For years it was a real source of contention between my then boyfriend, now husband, and me, because I desperately wanted to get married, and he absolutely didn’t. Neither of us could really articulate our positions – certainly not in a way that convinced the other! He didn’t like the formality and legality of it, saw our relationship as being about us and our love for each other, not about government sanction and tax breaks. I just wanted to stand up and shout about our relationship and our love for each other.

Unlike most of our arguments, ahem, he won this one by default, because we weren’t married. Eventually I gave up. We had bought a house together, and decided to have a baby, and they seemed like pretty big indications of permanence and commitment. But then unbeknownst to me, something shifted for my boyfriend. Without my ceaseless propaganda on the benefits of marriage, and my propensity to ruin any special occasion (birthdays, Christmas, holidays etc) by getting upset that he hadn’t proposed, he started to think that, actually, marriage might not be such a bad idea after all.

Nine years ago he booked a surprise trip to Rome for our getting-together anniversary. In a roof-top bar, with the twinkly lights of one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities spread out below us, he got down on one knee, produced a ring, and asked me to marry him.

Reader, I was astonished! And absolutely thrilled. I was four months pregnant at the time, and we decided to set a date for after the baby had arrived, and we had had a chance to get our lives back together. Little did we know, at that point, that our lives would never feel together again! We got married when Anna was 19 months old, and able to act as the cutest baby bridesmaid the world has ever seen*.

H, T and A weddingWe deliberately chose to get married on the (11th) anniversary of us getting together and (2nd) anniversary of getting engaged, as we wanted to keep one very special day to celebrate our relationship.

Our wedding was low-key, low-cost and informal – our local registry office, followed by an afternoon tea and fizz reception in the beautiful garden of a local museum. The guest list was limited by the size of the registry office, and so our guests were all people we truly care about. That evening we got grandparents to babysit Anna, and headed to our local pub with the younger generation of wedding guests. Our wedding present from my parents was a honeymoon of two nights in an almost obscenely luxurious boutique spa hotel in the Cotswolds whilst they looked after Anna. It was perfect – undoubtedly one of the happiest days of our lives.

It is clearly more conventional to get married before having a baby, but doing things the other way round worked very well for us. In those crazy days of early parenthood, when you can lose all sense of yourself, and of your relationship with your partner being anything other than ‘mummy and daddy’; a tag-team of nappy-changing, sleep-deprivation and spoon-feeding of pear puree, it was so special to have a project to plan that was all about us as a couple, and about celebrating our romantic love as well as familial love.

I still find it quite hard to explain what I value so much about being married, over and above being in a loving and committed long-term relationship. I love being able to reference my ‘husband’ and people know exactly what I mean, can make an immediate judgement about the significance of our relationship. The person I held hands with in the cinema when I was fourteen was my ‘boyfriend’; the people my husband has started a business with are his ‘partners’,  but there is no ambiguity about the terms husband and wife.

It is slightly controversial for a modern feminist to change her name on getting married, but I did, and I really love sharing a family name with my husband and daughters. I like the public statement of a shared name, of my wedding ring, that we are a team, a unit. In a world that feels increasingly uncertain, I love the stability and security I find in my marriage. I love that, although at its core our relationship is deeply private and personal to just the two of us, we have shared its significance and importance with our friends and family, publicly declaring just exactly what we mean to each other.

Marriage isn’t right for everyone. It wasn’t right for us for the first eleven years of our relationship, and I certainly don’t think that invalidates our deep love for, and commitment to, one another throughout that period. And pretty obviously marriage isn’t a magic wand that means you will be happy forever – we still need to work at our marriage every day – work at putting each other first, at thinking as a team rather than two individuals, at not taking each other for granted, and in not getting so caught up in the busyness of life that we fail to spend proper time together as a couple. But for me, for us, marriage feels like a joy and a privilege.

What do you think? Are you happily unmarried and don’t see the fuss? Or married and love it that way? If you’re single at the moment, do you see ‘getting married’ as the ultimate goal of a successful relationship, or do you see it as a total irrelevance in this day and age?

 

*not maternal bias, just straightforward fact.

 

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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.

 

 

Being Kind

Last week was not a good week. It kicked off with Sophia ill with a high temperature and a cough. The cough was worst at night, so we were getting woken up every couple of hours by  distressed little girl. Then I discovered Anna had nits (again), and so we had to add daily assaults with the nitty gritty comb into our daily routine, which was popular with everyone. The weather was cold, grey, foggy and, it turns out, poisonous. Air quality in London hit a record low, and it felt impossible to get properly warm. Then Anna fell off the climbing frame at school and hit her head, and then vomited, and then complained her vision was blurry, so we ended up at the GP and then being sent off to A&E. She only had a mild concussion, and is fine now, but it was fun at the time. Then Sophia fell downstairs, top to bottom – she was totally unharmed, but this was the morning after the night in A&E, so my nerves were pretty shattered. The week was rounded off by Sophia falling off the bouncy castle at a party on Sunday and having one of her seizures. And this is before even thinking about the terrifying and depressing political developments in America.

But yesterday, even though it was Monday, and (still) January and (still) cold things suddenly felt better. I had a text message telling me that some friends of ours had had a baby daughter at the weekend, and baby news always makes me happy. I took Anna out for a hot chocolate and some quality mother and daughter time whilst my MIL looked after Sophia, and was reminded how lucky I am to have this bright, funny, imaginative girl. I went out for dinner with my closest friend from those early, blurry, sleep-deprived first baby days and we had a proper catch-up and marvelled at the passing of time which means we are now parents to nearly-eight-year-olds. And after pre-school, Sophia asked if she could sit on my knee to have lunch instead of going in her high chair. I agreed, and she leant back into me, snuggling her head against my chest, and said contentedly “Love you” for the very first time.

Someone I know from years back posted on Facebook this morning that protests against Trump’s policies or against Brexit, are utterly pointless, and instead we should be directing our efforts to loving our friends and family, volunteering at church, supporting colleagues at work and taking the time to be nice to people who we come across in daily life. I couldn’t agree, or disagree, more.

Being kind to the people around us is what we should be doing anyway, and all the more so when there seems to be such a dearth of kindness in high places. And the only way to get though these dark political times is to take time to appreciate and value the little things – sharing a meal with someone you love, the sleepy weight of a child on your lap, a conversation with a friend. But right now I also think those of us who believe in hope not hate should try to do a little more, go a little further, and make our voices heard just as clearly as those I firmly believe are far fewer in number but shout much louder.

This morning I have followed More United‘s advice as to what we can do to fight the horrendous ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US – a ban which is going to tear families and friends apart. I donated some money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the ban. I posted a supportive message on my MP’s Facebook page, as Stella Creasy is being very vocal in encouraging the British Government to speak out, and MPs who are taking this stance need our support, just as those who are not speaking out need to know that this is something their constituents care about. And I co-signed the letter which Hope Not Hate are sending to Theresa May, asking her to unequivocally condemn Trump’s actions.

None of this took very long out of my day, and none of it stops me also continuing to try  (even though I don’t always succeed) to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbour and friend. Love and hope are stronger than hatred and fear, and we can, and must, prove that.

be-kind

Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

christmas-card

Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

christingle

There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.

 

Twenty-second Day of Advent: My extended family

My extended family is really not all that extended. My mum is the only child of two only children. My dad is the eldest of three, but his sister does not have children, and his brother just has one child. I have one younger brother who is married but yet to have children. I married someone who has one half-brother, and he and his partner do not have children. Husband’s dad was an only child. His mum has one sister, who has three children, two of whom are now married with three children between them.That is pretty much it.

Growing up in Liverpool, a lot of my friends and classmates came of Irish Catholic heritage, and they all had loads of cousins. Seriously, loads. My oldest friend’s mum is one of nine, and her dad one of three, and most of her aunties and uncles were married with two or three kids of their own. I loved tagging along to their family parties and barbecues and marvelling at how a whole room could be full to bursting with just immediate family, and feeling rather jealous at all the cousins her own age she had to hang out with.

However, luckily for me, what I miss out on in quantity I make up for in quality. Sadly my grandparents are all dead now. I never knew my mum’s dad as he died when she was a child, but I was fortunate enough to have really strong, close relationships with my three remaining grandparents. They were all very different characters, but I loved them very, very much, and learnt a huge amount from them.

My Nanna was my mum’s mum. She lived fairly near us and, as she was a widow and my mum an only child, she spent a lot of time with us when I was growing up. Weekends, Christmas, Easter, holidays – she was always there, and a fundamental part of our family structure. She taught me to knit and sew – I do both very badly, but that certainly isn’t Nanna’s fault, as she was extremely skilled. She told great stories – fairy stories when I was little, and then about her life as a little girl and a young woman in the War when I was older. I think when someone dies there are always regrets, and one of mine is that I didn’t ask enough questions. Somehow we think the people we love will always be there, and now she is not I realise how much I would like to know but never got round to asking. She was a lovely, generous, sociable woman, and absolutely showered me and my brother with love.

Granny and Grandad, my dad’s parents, lived in Sheffield, so we didn’t get to see them as often, but when we did it was always a real treat. As I got older, Granny and I used to write to one another, and those letters continued up to her death just before Anna was born. It wasn’t a particularly profound correspondence, but we just enjoyed filling each other in on the details of our lives as it helped to bridge the physical distance. Granny was a cookery teacher and a brilliant home cook, and there is no doubt that I get my passion for food and cooking for my family and friends from her. I remember vividly as a little girl kneeling on the bench at Granny’s kitchen table, helping weigh out cake ingredients in her old fashioned scales with their brass weights. Nearly thirty years later that memory still has the power to warm me, and that is because of the warmth of the love I experienced from her then. Granny and Grandad were also keen walkers, and I used to adore going out into the Derbyshire countryside with them. They knew al about birds and trees and wild flowers, and used to help me collect leaves or petals to press and put into a scrapbook. When Anna asks me a question about trees or flowers now I still mentally refer to those scrapbooks.

Grandad was a kind, gentle, funny man. He hadn’t had the chance of much formal education, but he had an incredible feel for words. He loved listening to poetry on the radio or talking books, and he constantly made up little puns, plays on words, jokes, rhymes and riddles, all of which delighted me as a child, and now with adult hindsight I can see showed his instinct for using language creatively. Grandad once told me, when I was in my early teens, that if he lived long enough to see me graduate from university he would die happy. I am very pleased that he did, and it gave me huge pleasure to see how proud all my grandparents were of me. They all managed to be encouraging without pressurising me, and that often helped me when the academic going got tough.

Of course, they were all equally proud of my little brother, as am I. I am still in awe that someone from the same gene pool as me managed not only to get an A at Maths A-level, but then went on to qualify as an accountant. I know we definitely are related though, as I remember, aged 3, lying against my mum’s bump to feel him kick, and I remember by dad telling me in the middle of the night that I now had a baby brother. We pretty much managed to escape the worst of sibling battles and rivalry, perhaps because we are so different, and it was just brilliant having someone to share my childhood with, and now someone to share the memories with. Having that with him, as well as the unquestioning knowledge that when the chips are down he would be there for me, just as I would be for him, is one of the main reasons I was so anxious that Anna had a sibling. My brother also showed incredibly good taste in women when he married my amazing sister-in-law. In the old cliche, I didn’t lose a brother, but I very much feel that I gained a sister, and feel so lucky to have her in my life. They are a fantastic uncle and aunt to their nieces, and are absolutely adored by Anna and, I am sure, will be by Sophia once she can express herself a little more clearly.

I have also been extraordinarily lucky in my family-by-marriage. I have talked before about how warm and welcoming my parents-in-law both were to me from the very beginning, and that has never changed. Far from being the disaster area popular culture reports it to be, my MIL and I manage to sustain a loving family relationship, to work well together, as she is my literary agent, and she also enables me actually to get some time to write by helping to look after her granddaughters every Monday afternoon. I have also been welcomed into her extended family, and get-togethers with my aunt by marriage and her children and grandchildren are a huge pleasure – partly because they are all lovely people, and partly because when I see Anna playing with her cousins-several-times-removed I hope she is getting a little bit of the experience I envied my friend when I was a child. Like me, Anna and Sophia are going to have a fairly small extended family, but, also like me, I know that with the grandparents and aunt and uncle they have, they will get as much love as they would with a family three times the size.