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.

 

 

Fourteenth Day of Advent: Henry Cat

I had wanted a pet ever since our dog died when I was about nine, but first parents and then husband weren’t keen. The mouse infestation proved the incentive husband needed to change his mind, and just over two years ago we adopted kittens, Henry and Percy. kittens1

From the start they were very different characters. Percy was an escape artist – as a tiny kitten, before he had had his vaccinations and was allowed outside, he managed to climb out of the bathroom window which I had left open a fraction, and scramble down the drain pipe. As soon as he was allowed out he would spend most of the day away from home, hunting and exploring. Then maybe two or three days at a time. Then he would only come home if it was raining. And for the last few months he hasn’t been home at all. I assume he is getting fed elsewhere, or has just adopted a totally feral lifestyle. We’ve done all the usual things to try and trace him, and he is microchipped, but to no avail. I just don’t think he was suited to a domestic cat lifestyle.

henry 1His brother Henry, by contrast, seems to think he is a dog. Certainly no-one has ever told him that cats are supposed to be independent. He is the most home-loving cat you can imagine. He isn’t supposed to go in the bedrooms as husband is slightly allergic to cats, and so I don’t want fur all over the beds. One evening when I was out, husband had gone into the bedroom and started ironing shirts. Henry miaowed outside the door for a while, cross at being left alone, but then subsided. A few minutes later he felt claws on his shoulder and a satisfied purring in his ear. Henry had gone downstairs, out of the catflap at the back, climbed over the wall and then up the drain pipe and in at the open bedroom window because he really didn’t like being left on his own.

If we go out at a time he wasn’t expecting we always come home to find him sitting in the hall waiting for us. henry 2

He is incredibly gentle and loving with Sophia, for which I am extremely grateful, and submits to all sorts of affectionately meant abuse. In fact he seems to welcome it, because he is well able to climb out of her way but rarely chooses too.

He tolerates his veterinary-approved, eye-wateringly expensive dry cat food, but his true love is Whiskas Chunks in Jelly. Opening a pouch of that brings him at a sprint from any corner of the house. He turns his little nose up at fresh chicken, salmon or sardines. He’s not even that partial t milk or cream. But Whiskas is his opium. He really should be on a TV advert for it.

He is satisfyingly cuddly, sometimes overly affectionate if I am trying to type or eat, and he is equally determined that all my attention should be firmly on him. If I have Anna on my knee for a story he will try and insinuate himself between us. He does henry 3relaxed and somnolent like you wouldn’t believe, and just watching him sleep can relax me.

The kittens came to live with us just after Anna started school, and the timing was incredibly fortuitous. At that point I’d had several miscarriages, and then had some tests which seemed to show it was unlikely I would ever be able to carry a healthy baby to term. My deep longing for a second baby seemed doomed to remain unfulfilled, and the house suddenly very empty with Anna out of it for six hours each day. The kittens, especially Henry, brought some life and warmth and cuddles when I most needed them, and they needed me which washenry4 hugely helpful.

I am a little sad that Percy has chosen not to live with us, but trying to make a fireside cat out of him always felt slightly like trying to keep a robin in a cage. But Henry is the most loved and loving of domestic cats, and I am so happy we have him.

The Third Day of Advent: My daughters

The day Anna was born, nearly seven years ago now, took happiness to a new level. A transcendent, luminous ecstasy I could never have imagined, even though I had always known I wanted children. With that joy, however, came a darker side. Lying in the hospital that night with my darling little bundle tucked up next to me in her perspex cot, I realised that there was now the also the potential to be more bitterly unhappy than I could previously have envisaged. Anna cotThe gates of Hell seemed to gape open as I glimpsed all the things from cot death to leukaemia, traffic accidents to falls, autism to asthma which now seemed to be lying in wait for this tiny fragile person in whom my happiness was ineluctably bound up. One day I will die and leave her. That is intolerable. But the only alternative is literally unthinkable.

The unbearable intensity of both these emotions is a product of a potent cocktail of hormones, sleep deprivation and strong painkillers, and thankfully they subside somewhat, because it just isn’t possible to live ordinary life like that. What remained was the deepest and most powerful love I could ever have conceived of. Pardon the pun. Before Sophia was born I fretted that I could never feel so strongly for someone else. I was wrong. My second perfect girl stole my heart just as completely as my first.

These two girls deprive me of sleep, cash and freedom. The DINKY lifestyle I alluded to a couple of days ago, of spontaneous nights out, weekends in boutique hotels, reckless consumption of alcohol hasn’t quite disappeared, but it is certainly considerably more elusive. In place of tailored pencil skirts, high heels and a large department to run I have grubby jeans, bags under my eyes and a pile of lovingly cooked food to sweep up off the floor. Again. But I also have Anna and Sophia.somerset house

Anna is more and more developing her own personality, and is such fun to be with and so interesting to talk to. Like me, she loves reading more than anything, and it makes me very happy to share with her the books I loved as a child. Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit are particular favourites at the moment, and I am very much looking forward to introducing her to the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Noel Streatfield in due course. She is thoughtful, gentle, imaginative, creative and fascinated by the world around her. This leads to a lot of ‘whys’, many of which challenge my memories of science GCSE, my limited knowledge of philosophy or my spiritual, ethical and theological convictions. I really don’t know what parents did before Google.
She also feels things very intensely – be that happiness, excitement, frustration or sadness. Her happiness and excitement at Christmas approaching is very infectious, and although it can be upsetting to see her sad, it also makes me happy that, normally, at the moment, her problems are still such that a cuddle and a chat with mummy or daddy can sort everything out.

Sophia may only be eleven months, but she also has her own distinct little personality. She is the sunniest, sweetest-natured baby it is possible to imagine. When she sees me or my husband or Anna after a short absence her whole face lights up, and she waves her arms and legs around, unable to contain the joy which overwhelms her at our presence.
sophia chair
Which is nice. She smiles at strangers in the street, and loves to try and engage with other children from babies at playgroups through to Anna’s schoolfriends. She’s just developed the loveliest habit of crawling up to me as I’m on the floor playing with her and climbing onto my lap, laying her face against my chest momentarily, and then climbing down to carry on with her important baby business. It is so touching and melts my heart every time. She is always on the move, and the cuddles and stories which her sister loved (and loves) are, for Sophia, a waste of time which could be spent crawling, climbing, exploring.

Seeing them together as sisters, developing their own relationship and love for each other also makes me particularly happy.

In her novel, Larger Than Life, Adele Parks has one of her characters, Libby, a young single mum, describe how she feels about parenthood and her daughter: “It’s an amalgamation of a zillion squabbling emotions: joy, rapture, satisfaction, fear, guilt, wonder, relief, worry. Especially worry…But mostly she’s about joy. An indescribable, unrepeatable splash of colourful, wonderful joy.”. Which describes perfectly how I feel about my girls. I look at them and can’t believe I am lucky enough to have them. But I also panic that I don’t deserve them, that no-one can possibly deserve as much happiness as they bring me, and it is all too easy to let the crippling fear of that first night in the hospital creep back in. anna and sophia

That is more of a problem when they are not with me, as now when Anna is at school and Sophia is napping upstairs. When I am with them, their gift of living absolutely in the moment draws me in too and I can be happy just being. With my precious daughters.