Easter ‘break’

Anna breaks up for the Easter holidays today, and I am feeling slightly trepidatious! Usually I really look forward to the school holidays – lazy mornings free from the tyranny of the school run, the chance to travel or spend more time with family and friends, a more relaxing pace of life. But for some reason this Easter break is feeling a little bit ominous.

Possibly because this last half-term I’ve been well into the routine of Sophia going to pre-school three mornings a week, and I have really, really, really appreciated the difference that has made to my energy levels and sanity. This week I’ve missed out on two of those precious mornings, the first because there was an end-of-term pre-school trip to our local city farm which I helped out at, and then pre-school broke up yesterday, so there will be no Friday session this week. I really enjoyed going to the farm, and seeing Sophia’s face as she saw real live bunnies and pigs and even a genuine Baa Baa Black Sheep, but I have missed the me-time and the headspace I get when she is at pre-school, and it has made me slightly wary of the next few weeks, as the next time I have a period of child-free time is when she returns to pre-school on April 21st. Which feels a very long time indeed!

We do have some nice plans for the holidays. Tomorrow is an INSET day for Anna’s school, so husband is also taking a day off work, and we’re going to head to the Science Museum, which is normally unbearably crowded at weekends and school holidays, but we’re hoping will be less so tomorrow when many schools haven’t broken up. Then we’ll have lunch out somewhere, maybe al fresco if the weather continues to be so beautiful, and then spend the afternoon letting the children run free in Hyde Park. I imagine ice-cream will probably be involved as well.

On Sunday I am taking the girls up to Liverpool for a few days to stay with my parents. It will be lovely to see them, have a change of scene, and have another two pairs of adult hands. After that we don’t have any real plans, not even for Easter weekend itself. It looks likely that my husband will be working a lot of the time, and so I need to have a little think about what I do with the children. I’d like to make use of our National Trust membership and visit our most local property, Sutton House in Hackney, and perhaps Osterley Park in the far West of London if I’m feeling more adventurous. Heading to our local playground or park is also guaranteed to please both children.mini eggs

Then of course there will be plenty of down-time at home – making the inevitable Easter nest cakes, messing around in the garden if it’s nice weather, snuggling up to watch a film if it’s less so. And more mundane tasks like getting Anna’s passport photos taken and counter-signed and taking her glasses to an optician to be mended!

What there won’t be any time for, I don’t think, is sitting in a cafe writing, so there will probably be a quite few weeks on the blog! Happy Easter, everyone.

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?

Seven Up

7 cakeMy lovely eldest girl turned seven last week. As one of my NCT friends pointed out, seven years is quite a long time. Despite frequently still feeling like rank amateurs, we can’t really pull off the ‘new parent’ thing any more – parenting is now very much business as usual and we do have to at least pretend we know what we’re doing.

I’ve never felt less like that than for two hours on Thursday evening when we hosted a treasure hunt party, in our house, for ten 6 and 7 year olds. I had spent hours writing the clues, printing them, mounting them on coloured card, buying appropriate ‘treasure’, planning the food and other games and prizes, baking and decorating the cake and so on, but, with hindsight, attending a course on crowd control run by the Met Police would have been better preparation. Individually they’re all lovely kids, it’s just en masse that I struggled. It didn’t help that the birthday girl was also completely overwhelmed by the noise, chaos and excitement, and spent half the party in tears. I did learn three valuable lessons, though:

  1. I do not have a gift with groups of children. Teaching is not, and never will be, a viable career option.
  2. Our house feels a lot smaller with ten children in it.
  3. Party entertainers really, really, really earn their money.

Time is a funny thing. In one way it seems like I’ve had Anna in my life forever, in another it seems impossible that my tiny little baby is this lively, leggy, chatty girl with her own very strong character and opinions. When exactly did that happen?

I can vaguely remember my pre-parenting life. I used to get up around 7am and leave the house within a few minutes so that I could have a swim before work. After my swim, I’d  have a luxurious shower, blow dry my hair and apply make-up before grabbing breakfast at Pret a Manger to eat at my desk. Work was busy and stressful. If I had time I’d go and grab a sandwich or salad from M&S at lunchtime, but lunchtime often didn’t come round until about 4pm. I’d keep a bowl of grapes on my desk to keep me going. I’d normally finish work at about 7pm, and then either go out for a drink with a colleague, or meet up with friends or my husband for dinner. If I was going home it would often be via M&S or Waitrose for semi-ready meals – bagged salads, pre-prepared veg, fresh pasta and sauce or fishcakes. Sometimes I’d go to a lecture at the LSE, or to the theatre or the cinema, or do a bit of shopping. At the weekend we’d lie in and then either go into town to meet friends, take a day trip our of London, or perhaps have people over for dinner. Several times a year we’d go away for the weekend. I do remember all this, but it no longer really resonates – it all feels like something I read about, or which happened to someone else.

For the last seven years I get up at about 6.30am. If I want a shower I have to grab it quickly before my husband leaves for work, because otherwise it won’t happen. I make porridge and toast for the children, and grab some for myself, normally accompanied by a hot chocolate in the hope that sugar and fat will replace the sleep I’ve missed out on. Then I start the frenetic rushing and nagging which ensures that Anna arrives at school on time, clean, fed and dressed with all the correct paraphernalia for that day. I do my shopping or errands while Sophia naps in her pram, and then either go to a toddler group or come home to play with Sophia until lunchtime, whilst simultaneously trying to get a load of laundry on and run the hoover round. Lunch, eaten with Sophia, will probably be something – beans, cheese, eggs, houmous – on toast. While Sophia has her afternoon nap I race against the clock to do the rest of the housework, start preparing dinner and complete any household admin. By the time she wakes up it’s time to go and collect Anna, then prepare snacks (healthy ones for the children, and a sneaky chocolate biscuit or three in the kitchen for me), and then manage the competing demands of both children until teatime. After clearing up the carefully prepared food which is now smeared over children, highchair, table and floor it’s bath time for Sophia. I get her settled and then come down to spend a little quality time alone with Anna before getting her to bed. Once she’s in bed I tidy up, try and remember what needs to be got ready for the morning and prepare grown-up dinner, before collapsing in an exhausted heap as my husband gets home. Looking at the opportunities for exercise (zero) against the opportunities – I would argue requirements – for sugary snacks it isn’t hard to see why I’m nearly two stone heavier than I was seven years ago.

The way I spend my time and energy is so different now it can be hard to reconcile the two Helens. On some level I still think of myself as a young urban professional who is having a career break to bring up her children. However, Anna’s seventh birthday marks seven years since I last went out to work. I had just turned 28 then, and had been working for, yes, seven years since graduation. I have now been a stay-at-home mum for half my working life. I have done other things in that seven years, most significantly publishing two novels. But that girl-about-town with her Blackberry and her disposable income availing herself of all the amenities of the big city has gone, and even while appreciating what I’ve got, I can’t help missing her a little bit.

What the last seven years have given me, though, is (in my totally unbiased opinion) the loveliest little girl in the world, and bringing her and her sister up and watching them grow is the greatest privilege I can imagine. Another seven years and I’ll have a teenager; probably moody, definitely spreading her wings and fighting for her independence. The sense I sometimes have now of being totally overwhelmed and subsumed by the strength of my children’s physical and emotional need for me will be changing and I will no doubt miss it. I will probably be wishing Anna needed me more, or at least admitted that she did!

 

Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.

Going Out

Last night I did something extremely unfamiliar. I put Sophia to bed as usual, read Anna’s bedtime story, ate a quick supper…and then I WENT OUT. All by myself. In jeans that weren’t covered in snot or sick, a silk top and my beloved yellow shoes. I didn’t get far, just to my local pub to meet a couple of friends for a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a bowl of chips.

M and R are both ‘mummy friends’, in that I met them through us all having daughters the same age. We’ve done play-groups and play-dates and school-gates together, but now they’re both back at work full-time, and I’m right back at the starting blocks with Sophia, so in the space of nine months they’ve gone from being people I saw pretty much every day to formless beings at the other end of a text message. No-one’s fault, just that we’re all busy, and busy in different directions at the moment.

But last night we had the chance to catch up properly. We did talk about the children, of course, but we also discussed work and relationships, household pests and household pets, houses and holidays and the habits of tortoises. Oh, and a bit of gossip too. We sat outside and enjoyed the balmy summer evening, swatted the gnats, and marvelled at the rude barmaid’s repeated attempts to take our bowl of chips away from us before we had finished. There were a few tears and a lot of laughter.

I came home feeling lighter than air, because I had re-discovered what it felt like to be me. Helen. Rather than someone’s mummy, wife, daughter. I love being all those things, of course I do, and they are at the very core of my identity. But there are other bits there too, and I think I need to remember that letting them out occasionally isn’t incompatible with being a good mum, or with putting my girls first.

Of course, Sophia woke up at 1am and 4am, before starting the day at 6.15am, and so I slightly regretted my 11.30pm bedtime, and was very grateful for my decision to switch to soda-heavy spritzers, but a simple thing like meeting two friends for a drink sill feels pretty amazing.