My February Books

Bit late posting my February books, but my excuse is that there was a very important 8th birthday this weekend, so I’ve been extremely busy baking cakes, wrapping presents and escorting a small bunch of delightfully over-excited children to Build-a-Bear workshop! It all went really well,  Anna has had a lovely time, and I can now start to focus on other things again, which means getting some blogging done.

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Happy Families by Janey Fraser

Nothing new year means no new books (with an exception for e-books), so as well as regular visits to the library and re-discovering old favourites, I’m keeping my eye out in charity shops. I picked this up during a browse one morning, but I think it will probably be getting re-donated as I didn’t particularly love it. It was a light read with some interesting characters and situations, but I felt there was a bit too much going on to be able to sink into any of the storylines properly, and some of them didn’t feel totally convincing.

Hurrah For Gin  by Katie Kirby

I follow Katie’s hilarious cartoons depicting the ups and downs of modern parenthood on Facebook and Instagram, and actually bought this book as a Christmas present for a friend I felt would appreciate it, but hadn’t actually read it myself, so was thrilled to spot it on the shelf at my local library. As bad luck would have it, Sophia came down with what turned out to be an ear infection that very night, and so I read this during the many, many hours I spent between 10pm and 6am trying desperately to soothe her to sleep instead of sleeping myself. It couldn’t really have been a more appropriate read, and as well as making me laugh, it also helped me feel I wasn’t alone in this midnight madness called motherhood.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

Regular readers of my book blogs will know that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. This book is my secret shame. Amongst Christie aficionados this is generally considered to be one of her worst novels – but I absolutely love it! It is an adventure story, rather than pure detective fiction, and I just love it for the sense of period and atmosphere. When I read it I feel I am living in the roaring 1920s, about to discover a clue to an exciting mystery and immediately head off to South Africa on a luxury passenger ship. Which isn’t an embarrassing thing to admit to on a public blog. At all.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

This was a birthday present from my mum as she knew that for ages I have been dying to read Sophie Hannah’s modern Poirot novels. I love Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, and I was very excited to think that this might be an opportunity to read some new ‘Agatha Christie’ novels, but it didn’t quite work out like that. I thought this was a great detective novel – gripping and compelling – but to me it wasn’t a Poirot novel. The character of Poirot as depicted by Sophie Hannah just didn’t resonate with me at all, and so the only way I could enjoy the novel was by reading it as a stand-alone book, and not thinking of it as a Poirot novel at all.

False Colours, The Grand Sophy, A Civil Contract and Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

February was a bit of a mixed month for me. The first part of it was lovely – I had a great birthday with lovely presents, a fantastic day out around London with my little family and a great dinner out with husband and friends. Then it was half term and I chilled out with the girls in Liverpool, which was lovely. Then somehow I lost my mojo a bit. After struggling a lot last year with mental health, I have been feeling much better in the past couple of months, but then had a bit of a relapse for some reason, and it has necessitated self-medicating with vast quantities of Georgette Heyer. These brilliantly witty period romances have to be the ultimate comfort reads, and they seem to be doing the trick to get me back on track, so I might try and expand my reading horizons again soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Georgette Heyer, just do yourself a favour and get your hands on one as soon as possible!

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This too shall pass: Advice for new mums

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Image from Science News

I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about a friend of hers who has just had her first baby and is feeling extremely overwhelmed and sleep-deprived.  I sympathised so much, because I found the adjustment to motherhood a real shock, going from being a bright, independent woman in charge of my own destiny and good at what I did, to being an exhausted wreck, totally controlled by the mini-dictator I’d gestated and with no clue what I was doing. Having now been there, twice, it made me think about what advice I wish someone had given me, and what the best things are you can do to help new parents:

Advice for new mums:

1. This too shall pass. Every phase, however draining, dispiriting or demoralising it is at the time, will pass. You will sleep again. You won’t spend all eternity breastfeeding on the sofa in posset-stained pyjamas. Just grit your teeth and repeat it as a mantra.

2. Keeping a brand new and totally dependent human being alive is a full-time, 24/7 job. Do not beat yourself up about all the other things you aren’t doing. So…

3. …Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you possibly can, get a cleaner, just for the first few months. Now is the time for takeaways, ready meals, and beans on toast for tea. When friends come round, don’t be proud, ask them to unload the dishwasher or pop some clothes in the tumble dryer.

4. Chocolate is your friend.

5. If your baby is getting fed and a few cuddles and is in a relatively clean nappy then you’re doing your job just fine, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

6. Try and get out of the house at least once a day. Even if it’s just to the corner shop. A bit of fresh air will give you a new perspective, and might help with baby sleep as well. But make it an expedition for you – a new baby doesn’t need anything except cuddles and the odd lullaby, so unless you particularly fancy baby massage or baby music classes or baby yoga, then I’d save those activities for when the baby is older and just go and have lunch or coffee with a friend.

7. Now is not the time to worry about ‘getting your body back’. You have just grown an entirely new human being and, if you’re breastfeeding, are exclusively responsible for keeping it alive. You probably aren’t getting much sleep. This is one of the most demanding things you will ever do. Wear comfy leggings and forgiving tunics and eat cake.

8. That moment at 3am when they haven’t stopped cluster feeding for six hours, or when they’re crying and crying and crying and you’ve no idea why, or when they’ve just done an explosive poo all over your last clean outfit, and you scream in rage and frustration that you’ve made a mistake, you wish you’d never had a baby – normal. Totally normal. Doesn’t mean you’re not a good mum. Doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. Doesn’t mean you really have made a mistake. It just means you’re exhausted  and overwhelmed and adjusting to the biggest change of your entire life.

9. After the first few days, if breastfeeding is still really hurting, you need to get some help. It shouldn’t be painful, and there is loads of support available. Your local children’s centre, NCT, La Leche League, National Breastfeeding Alliance – ask for help. But, if you hate breastfeeding, and it’s making you miserable, and you’re reluctant to pick your baby up in case they want feeding, and you feel sick with dread at the thought of doing it for the next six hours let alone the next six months then stop. You might have had a baby, but it’s still your body, and you don’t have to do something that you hate. Your baby will be perfectly fine with formula, and a stressed and unhappy mum won’t make for a happy baby.

10. You know all those people who tell you to “make the most of it” and “treasure each moment”? Ignore them. NO-ONE who’s actually going through it treasures bleeding nipples or surviving on a few hours broken sleep a night, or being constantly covered in bodily fluids. BUT in months and years to come, time will place a soft-focus Instagram filter over your memories, and you suddenly will treasure them. I get a warm glow as I think of sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom, breastfeeding my firstborn, gazing out of the window and watching dawn break and revelling in the feeling that me and my precious girl were the only people  awake in the world at that moment. That’s over seven years ago. Did I feel like that at the time? Hell no. At the time I was barely awake, and the two functioning brain cells I had were engaged in frantic calculations as to how much sleep I might manage in the rest of the night. “So, if she feeds 20 mins this side, and then 20 mins the other side, and then it takes me 1o minutes to wind her, then I rock her to sleep, I should be able to settle her by 4.30am,  and then she might sleep for two hours so I could…” etc. But that’s not the memory I treasure now. You don’t have to worry you’re not enjoying it as much as you should be because hindsight will paint the whole thing with a wonderful rosy glow.

How to help new parents:

1. Don’t question or criticise their decisions relating to the feeding/sleeping/comforting/play  routines of their child. So, you think breast-feeding is better, or that bottle feeding would give the new mum a break? Maybe you’re concerned that co-sleeping is dangerous or a separate room places the baby at risk? Did you read that dummies impede speech development or that cloth nappies are better for preventing nappy rash? That’s great, and if you have your own children you can put these theories into action, but when it’s someone else’s baby, keep your opinions to yourself and reassure them that they’re doing a great job. If you are specifically asked for advice then you can share your views, but still proceed with caution!

2. Don’t ask if they want help, just lean in and do something practical. The first time my friend Jenny came to see me and my firstborn she took one look at me and told me to go to bed. I came up with all the reasons I couldn’t – mainly centred round the fact that the baby would need feeding. She ignored me, and shooed me off. I slept for a blissfully restorative three hours while she employed goodness knows what witchcraft to keep my daughter happily distracted.

3. Home-made food is often a more welcome gift than cuddly toys or cute booties (although they’re lovely too!). Take a meal which can go in the freezer, or a cake which keeps well in a tin and will provide 3am sustenance for the next week.

4. Let them talk about the bad stuff if they want to Don’t assume that just because they have the most delectable baby in the world ever that there isn’t stuff they’re struggling with. Let them talk about their traumatic birth, or moan about their exhaustion or confusion or problems breastfeeding, or the fact that they’re really missing work, and don’t say things like “oh yes, but this little one makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”, because although it does, they’re probably feeling guilty enough already about not feeling totally happy the whole time, and they just need to vent.

5. Tell them they’re doing a good job! One of the things I found hardest was going from a life where I got constant feedback from managers or colleagues to one where it felt like no-one noticed anything I did. Someone noticing something nice I’d done with or for my baby and commenting on it could elevate my mood for days!

 

But if you feel that you’re not coping, that you can’t cope, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or you’re worried your friend is feeling that way, then get help. Post-Natal Depression is common, treatable and nobody’s fault. Any health professional worth the paper their qualification is written on will know that and will be able to get you the support you need.

Ups and Downs

The last week or so has been a mixed one. This time last week, Friday afternoon, I got a call from school asking me to pick Anna up because she wasn’t well. The poor baby was in such a state, with a headache so bad she couldn’t move without crying, a stratospherically high temperature, and so drowsy she was drifting in and out of sleep mid sentence. Being a mother and a worrier and a consumer of one too many public health campaigns I immediately thought ‘Meningitis!’ and rushed her off to the doctors. He agreed it could, possibly be viral meningitis, but was pretty confident it wasn’t the ultra-nasty bacterial one, and thought that most likely it was just one of those generic viruses kids come down with, and the only prescription was Calpol, fluids and rest.

We had a very bad night with poor Anna, and then, inevitably, her sister developed a high temperature the next day. That night they averaged a wake-up every two hours between them, and husband and I were like crazed jack-in-the-boxes jumping up and down to look after them. The following night Sophia got croup, which is so horrible for baby and parent. We finally got her sorted and to sleep at 2am, and of course Anna woke up in tears at 5.45am. Add the cumulative lack of sleep to days spent pretty much entirely in the house with two (understandably) grumpy and whingey children, and to be frank you get a grumpy and whingey mummy as well.

However, focussing on the positive, there have also been some lovely bits this week. Sophia is never normally still for more than a second, but being under the weather meant that she was willing to snuggle on my knee for two whole episodes of Charlie and Lola. My parents came down for a brief visit so I was able to have a proper catch up with them, and my dad drove us to our local Mothercare  and Early Learning Centre superstore, which also has a Costa, and after three days entirely in the house this trip felt pretty much as exciting as my first inter-rail round Europe!

By yesterday Anna was back at school and Sophia was well enough to leave with my MIL for a few hours, and so I had a fantastic writing session. #Book3 is about three quarters complete now, in draft form at least, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going. puddlesPlus, having that time away from the children to do something just for me recharges my batteries immeasurably, and yesterday afternoon I felt like Super Mum; booking appointments for both children at opticians and dentists, putting Sophia’s wellies on and taking her out to splash in the puddles, getting both of them to eat salmon, cauliflower and leeks for their tea (a cheesy sauce and some mashed potato can hide multitude of superfoods!), and then helping out a mum friend by picking her daughter up from after school club and looking after her for a while because she and her husband were unavoidably delayed.

I am slightly prone to getting despondent when things start going badly, and this week has been  good reminder that I should try and see the cup as half full more often, and realise that some things going pear-shaped doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else will do likewise.

muffinsHopefully this weekend will be more enjoyable than last – I’ve just kicked it off by making a batch of a friend’s favourite muffins for his birthday, and doubling the quantities so we get some too! The house smells warmly chocolatey and there is cake to be eaten, so we’re off to a good start!

My June Books

June books

I seem to be getting later and later with my monthly book posts, and my only excuse is that life seems to be busier and busier. It’s coming up to the end of term, which means a plethora of sports days, tea parties, end of year shows with the accompanying need to provide costumes and practise lines, dance routines and songs. We also spent a lot of time campaigning before the EU referendum – sadly to no avail. I must admit to finding the result, not to mention horrible fallout of increased racism and hate crime,  so demoralising and upsetting that I have really struggled to find my writing mojo over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also been a little bit unadventurous with my reading choices, with only two ‘new’ books again this month. It’s lucky that I read so much in February, as it means I’m just about on target, having reached half way through the year on 26 new books! Phew.

Toddler Taming by Christopher Green

Someone gave us this book when Anna was toddler age, but I never really looked at it. The toddler years weren’t particularly difficult with her (or maybe that’s just rose-tinted hindsight) but for whatever reason this had been sitting on my shelf for the last few years, but caught my eye recently. Because oh my goodness, would I like to know how to tame my toddler! She’s almost unfailingly good-natured, but can seem totally feral. She loves to run and jump and climb, but her risk evaluation skills are frankly extremely limited. She is constantly on the move, so much so that even getting her to sit still in her high chair for the duration of a meal is a challenge. When she has consumed just enough to sustain her for the next set of adventures, she has a tendency to throw her plate to one side to indicate she has finished, and then clamber to her feet. Safety harness? Pah. What do we think she is, a baby?

I’m not sure really if the book has left me much the wiser. As Dr Green points out, toddlers, like the adults they will become, have distinctive personalities, and it is impossible, not to mention undesirable, to try and erase those personality traits in order to create a toddler who complies with our notions of what makes life easy. One suggestion to cope with difficult mealtimes was to ensure that everything was totally prepared before you sat down to the meal – table set, drinks prepared, food all ready. What a good idea, thought I, and put the advice into practice at the next meal. Which is why, having filled Anna’s water cup and put it on the table, I came back into the dining room from collecting plates and cutlery in the kitchen, to find Sophia sitting on the table, soaked to the skin, having poured the contents of the water cup all over herself.  Epic mummy fail. I’m not at all sure my toddler is tameable.

Taken at the Flood and Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

I am passionate about Golden Age detective fiction, and Agatha Christie is arguably its greatest, certainly its most celebrated, proponent so of course I have read these books before. I realised this month however that I didn’t have copies of either of them, and hadn’t read them for several years. Baby brain means, therefore, that I may as well have not read them at all. Unfortunately this goes for anything I read before 2009, which is unfortunate given that I spent 3 years gaining a degree in English Literature, and so know I have read all the classics, even have a very fancy bit of paper to prove it, but have no actual memory of the seminal works themselves. Hey ho, maybe a project for retirement.

I had some money left on the Waterstone’s card my parents had bought me for my birthday, and so treated myself to these two very attractive editions when Sophia and I had our day out in central London recently. And all that I can say is that re-reading them was an absolute pure, indulgent pleasure. For me, Agatha Christie is the literary equivalent of warm bubble baths, cashmere cardies or hot chocolate (and can often be enjoyed in combination with one or more of these), which was just what I needed this rather unsettling month.

The Secret Diary of a New Mum Aged 43 and Three Quarters by Cari Rosen

This is an absolutely hilarious autobiographical account of one new mum’s journey through pregnancy and the first couple of years with her daughter. As the title indicates, she is an older mum, but I should think that mums of any age can relate to most of her anecdotes. Having had a fairly large age gap in between my girls, I don’t have that many local friends with children the same age as Sophia, so there is less of the constant swapping of tales of woe and development milestones than there was when Anna was a similar age. Books like this are great for creating that ‘all in this together’ feeling, and a reminder to see the funny side of parenting a young child.

After the Party by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is one of my all-time most favourite ever authors. I absolutely love her ability to get inside the head of a huge range of characters, and her imaginative ability to create original and thought-provoking scenarios. Ralph’s Party was her first novel, and I have read it more times than I care to remember. It was my go-to comfort read as a twenty-something Londoner. After the Party picks up the story of the main protagonists, Ralph and Jem, a decade later, when cool inner-London flat-shares and drunken nights out have been swapped for life in the suburbs with two young children. The demands of this have placed an enormous strain on their relationship, and the novel looks at what happy ever after might be like in reality.

I read this when it first came out a few years ago, and to be honest found it hugely depressing, and not at all the uplifting experience a Lisa Jewell novel normally is. It is as brilliantly written as always, but Anna was a baby at the time, and the message I took from it was that it was impossible to have a baby (let alone two babies) and retain a happy, loving relationship and a sense of your own identity. For some reason I picked it up again this month, and enjoyed it a lot more second time. I think the main reason is that I am now more secure in my identity as a mother, wife and writer -it certainly isn’t easy balancing all three elements of my life, but it’s not as impossible as I feared it might be. I also know that, demanding as the sleep-deprived baby and toddler years undoubtedly are, things do get a bit easier, and with an older child there are many more opportunities for reclaiming a bit of time for yourself as well as enjoying  being with them.

Ten things I hate about parenting

 

Before my first child was born, I had lots of worries about parenting. How would I cope with the lack of sleep? The over-whelming responsibility? The loss of freedom? Obviously I have had issues with all these things, but generally the things which really get me down and have me furtively stuffing chunks of Dairy Milk in my mouth in the downstairs loo so that the children don’t see and be set a bad example (I mean, steal it), are the little niggles which add up and occasionally threaten to subsume me.

1) The relentlessness of meals

Three meals a day, seven days a week. Plus snacks. All of which need to be healthy, economical, tasty, nutritionally balanced and provided on time. There is no possibility of skipping breakfast and grabbing a muffin mid-morning if you’re hungry. Or waking up too late to make a packed lunch so popping out to M&S for a sandwich. Or feeling far too knackered to cook and ordering a takeaway. My saviour had always been toast and houmous. Anna would eat that for all three meals a day given half a chance, the ingredients can be bought in our local Tesco express, it takes a couple of minutes to prepare,  and with a few cherry tomatoes or slices of cucumber on the side it’s pretty well balanced. Unfortunately, Sophia doesn’t like it. She’s not a big fan of toast at all. Or houmous. And definitely not houmous on toast. Anyone got any ideas what I’m going to feed her for the next decade, or two please?

2) Always having to get up

You know how it is. You have a streaming cold. Or you’re doubled up with period pains. Or shattered because you’ve been surviving on five hours a night broken sleep for the last fortnight. So you plot ways to sit down for twenty minutes. Get a selection of toys out and arrange them on floor. Move all breakable objects out of reach. Grant permission for some TV viewing. Provide drinks and snacks. Then sink down with a sigh of relief and put your feet up. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Drinks get spilt. Nappies get filled. Toys mysteriously bury themselves in totally inaccessible places. The remote control goes AWOL. And, inevitably, you have to bloody get up!

3) People I haven’t given birth to calling me ‘Mum’

Health visitors (the worst culprits), shop assistants, teachers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, playgroup leaders. I know it’s hard. I know you meet hundreds of parents each week. I know you can’t be expected to remember everyone’s name. I know that in the modern world it isn’t safe to assume that the parent will share a surname with their child. I do feel your pain. But it is lazy and patronising to call me “Mum”, it irritates the hell out of me, and when it happens day after day for seven years it gradually erodes my feeling of being a person in my own right.

4) Bright blue children’s toothpaste

Colgate hate me. I assume. Why else do they make their children’s toothpaste a) the stickiest substance known to humankind and b) bright blue? However many times a day I wipe the sink down, there is always bright blue residue in the basin, on the taps, on the tiles around the sink, on the toothbrush holder and IT DRIVES ME BONKERS.

5) ‘Don’t worry about the dirt, just enjoy the kids while they’re little’.

How many times have you heard that advice from a well-meaning friend or relative, or seen similar sentiments expressed on postcards or gift magnets. The only conclusion I can come to is that these people have either never lived with small children or had cleaners. I am about as far from being a neat freak as you can get. I am not spending precious time when I could be snuggled up reading, or running through wild flower meadows with my precious offspring engaged in daily scrubbing of the front doorstep, or colour-coding my store-cupboards or even hoovering under the bed. I don’t even iron. No, what I spend several hours a day doing is ensuring that we have clean dishes to eat off, clean clothes to wear, and that the floors, kitchen work surfaces and bathroom are hygienic enough to avoid attracting vermin or giving us all E coli. And the house still looks a total tip 90% of the time.

6) All the STUFF

Paintings. Colourings. Collages. Models of space-ships. Lists. Interesting pebbles or leaves collected in the playground and brought home. Letters from school. Felt-tips without tops. Stickers. Free gifts from a magazine bought three years ago. All of which are liberally scattered around the house on a permanent basis, largely ignored, but apparently far too precious to be thrown away. On the odd occasion I do get ruthless, inevitably the next day we have near hysteria because one of the discarded items isn’t to be found.

7) Party Bags

When I found the National Union of Parents the first item on my agenda will be the abolition of party bags. Surely one of the biggest causes of misery in any modern family. Seriously, who wins? The parent bestowing the bag has to spend eye-watering sums of money on plastic tat, and then precious time stuffing it into the bags, and worrying that there will somehow be extra, unaccounted for guests who don’t have a bag. This worry results in buying more bags, and more plastic tat.

Then the parent of the child receiving the bag has to accommodate yet more STUFF (see above) into their already overcrowded house. We already have more spinning tops, crayons which don’t work properly and little yellow rubber men than you can shake a stick at. Even the child doesn’t really win, because inevitably the most favoured toy is broken within the hour, which coincides with the sugar comedown after the party and leads to frustrated tears and all round grumpiness.

If you really want to bestow a parting gift, may I suggest wrapping a piece of birthday cake in a piece of kitchen roll? Or perhaps a small bag of chocolate buttons. Both of which have the advantage that if I’m quick off the mark I can scoff them myself. In the downstairs loo, of course.

8) The inverse proportion of time spent planning an activity to time it keeps child amused

When I have browsed Pinterest, chosen a craft activity, purchased the necessary supplies and planned a fun yet educational afternoon it is a near certainty that child will engage long enough to create total chaos, spreading glitter across every surface in the house and covering their new cardi which they’re not even wearing at the time in paint, before declaring that they’re bored and wondering what’s on telly now. On the other hand, Sophia was happily engaged for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon carefully peeling the sticky address label off a parcel I’d taken in for a neighbour. Every time I declare no more planned activities, but somehow I’m always drawn back in again.

9) The assumption I possess skills I blatantly don’t

I can write. I can write, if called upon, academic essays, business plans, board reports, discussion papers, blog posts and novels. Back in the day I was also pretty good at running a department and managing a team of staff. I can’t sew, or knit, or crochet. I can’t paint or draw. I can’t make fancy dress costumes or scale models of the Eiffel Tower from toilet rolls. I do my best to decorate cakes which look like Mr Men or fairy toadstools, but I’m not very good at it. Before I was a parent, no-one expected me to do these things. Lots of people can do them, and enjoy doing them, and that’s great, but no problem at all if it’s not your bag. Yet there’s an expectation that the act of giving birth, much as it enables your body to produce milk to feed your child, also mysteriously conveys the ability to spend the next decade crafting with the best of them. Except it doesn’t.

10) The constant stream of guilt

Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Is it my fault? How do I improve? Why can’t I? Why can’t they? Pressure from mainstream media, social media, friends, family and, most of all, my own insecurities mean that I am always wondering whether I am doing enough to be the mother that these perfect little scraps of humanity I somehow created clearly deserve.

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