Nativity

There’s nothing like a Nursery and Reception Christmas show to fill you with a warm festive glow and an unshakeable conviction that all is right with the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary on all news channels. I absolutely love this cartoon by the talented and hilarious Hurrah for Gin.

hurrah for gin cartoon

This is absolutely me to a tee. And a bare 24 hours after sobbing unashamedly through the ridiculously emotive (and prodigiously talented) performance, I was seriously considering the eBay option after Sophia had woken on the hour every hour all night with a horrible snotty cold, and I had decided to keep her off nursery (even though it was her ‘full day’, and one of my last chances of an uninterrupted 6 hours to get stuff done before Christmas), but she was then in that annoying state of being not sufficiently ill to lie quietly on the sofa all day, but not well enough to really engage in any activity or game as she got irritable and fretful within minutes. As, to be honest, did I. As always on these occasions, I need to send a heartfelt vote of thanks to the outstanding public service broadcasting provided by CBeebies!

In all seriousness, little children singing Away in a Manger does help give me some perspective, both on the state of the world, and the madness that is December when you have two young children, one of whom also has a December birthday. It is six years since I sat and watched Anna’s Nursery nativity, and my tears then were not just of seasonal sentimentality, but also grief for the two babies I had lost that year to miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. To sit there again and watch this precious, longed-for and much loved second daughter of mine singing with all the gusto her almost-four-year-old self could muster was a blessing and a privilege for which I can never be sufficiently grateful.

This December feels even crazier than usual; husband is super busy and stressed at work, both children have been unwell, in addition to all the Christmas festivities I’m also organising a very important 4th birthday party (in fact two, a birthday tea for the grandparents, and a pass-the-parcel fest for 8 of Sophia’s little pals from nursery). And it is the school Christmas fair today, which always feels to me like 18 months worth of stress crammed into 90 overcrowded and over-heated minutes, even though it is one of the highlights of Anna’s Christmas. However, I am going to read my own sage advice from last year and try to relax and focus on the things that really matter, rather than becoming hysterical when I receive a message that the rainbow unicorn tableware I carefully sourced and ordered weeks ago has a delay and will not arrive until a week after Sophia’s party. Honestly, I’m totally calm.

 

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Back to blogging

I’m pretty sure 3 months is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I first started blogging about six years ago. Where have I been? I wish I could list all the exciting non-blog related things I’ve been up to, but sadly it’s not been anything of the kind. The summer holidays are always tricky for me to find any time to write, and this year was no exception. In fact, the opposite, as it’s the first summer I’ve had two non-napping children, so it felt like finding the time to clean my teeth or brush my hair was a challenge, let alone commit my thoughts to cyber-space. That’s not all it is, though. The children went back to school and nursery respectively in mid-September, and yet I still haven’t managed to blog.

sea

So, what’s been going on? To be honest I’m not totally sure. I could, truthfully, say that I have been busy. I’ve had discussions and meetings with Anna’s school about getting the right support for her dyslexia, and we’ve been to Open Days for secondary schools as we start considering all the options (definitely a blog post in its own right!). We’ve had a new boiler fitted with all the upheaval that entailed, and I’ve been trying to catch up with all the domestic and administrative tasks which were utterly neglected over the summer. I had my handbag stolen, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone to banks and so on cancelling cards and getting new ones and changing card details I have stored online, and replacing membership cards and so on. I’ve taken both children for eye tests (always a bit of an expedition as our excellent optician isn’t very local) and Sophia has had settling in days at nursery which I needed to be there for. Sophia has dropped her afternoon naps, so that is two hours, which I used to fill with domestic life admin, cut out of my day. She has also been quite clingy, uncharacteristically so, as she adjusts to a new nursery setting, new teachers, new friends.

But I think all these are probably excuses rather than reasons. My head just hasn’t been in the right place to write. Often I’ve found that writing helps exorcise my demons, but for some reason this autumn I haven’t felt able to start. We had some lovely times over the summer, but there were also some things I found very tough.

Sophia starting school nursery feels like such a big milestone, bringing the question of what I will do with my life when she starts proper school next September front and centre of my mind when I’m not really in a place to deal with all the emotional implications of it. One of the things that makes me saddest and angriest is that the PTSD and anxiety I have experienced since Sophia was born have robbed me of some of her baby and toddlerhood. It hasn’t been all bad, of course not, and I have lots of positive memories. But so much of my time with her has been over-shadowed by panicky what-ifs, and I want it back.

Even those feelings aren’t straightforward, though, and my mind feels like a heap of spaghetti I’m meant to be able to separate neatly into its constituent strands. Because while I am mourning my baby starting to grow up I am also well into my tenth year as a stay-at-home mum, and starting to feel I might be ready for something else. Obviously I have worked during that time – I’ve published 2 novels and a novella, as well as serving as a trustee for the NCT – but an awfully large percentage of my life has been lived in my head and in my house, and it is possible that I might be ready for a change.

I’m at a bit of a writing impasse at the moment. I have a completed manuscript of a new novel, and several chapters of another. What I don’t have is a literary agent, as she is retiring, or an editor at my publishers, as she got another job! There are options. I could throw myself into finding a new agent and discussing all my writing options with them, and sooner or later there will be a new editor at Hodder, but it all feels a bit over-whelming. I’m also conscious that writing is a brilliant job in many ways, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy my new craving for interaction with the world outside my head and home and family.

path

What this would look like opens up a whole new can of spaghetti. I don’t think going back to my old career in healthcare management is a realistic option. Should I look for a local, part-time role, paid or voluntary, and carry on writing the rest of the time? Or look for a completely fresh career, possibly complete with re-training? And how does any of that combine with my husband’s extremely demanding role running his own business, and the continual, and sometimes competing, demands of two young children? When Anna was a baby I thought that ‘starting school’ pretty much meant she would be off my hands and I could resume normal life! I now know better – 9am -3pm, 5 days a week, with time for assemblies and plays and reading mornings and maths workshops and parent-teacher meetings and coffee mornings and medical appointments and time off sick actually doesn’t equate to very much child-free time at all! Obviously many families don’t have the luxury of choice; both partners have to work outside the home and juggle all this just so that the bills get paid. But given I am fortunate enough, at the moment, to have a choice, I feel like there is a lot of pressure on me (pretty much entirely from inside my head) to make the right one for the wellbeing of the whole family.

I’m not sure if I have any followers left after a 3 month hiatus, but for anyone who is still reading thank you for bearing with me through this brain dump. I’m afraid there will quite possibly be more introspective posts over the coming weeks and months as I attempt to make all these decisions.

In the meantime, as we mark World Mental Health Day this week, not to mention Baby Loss Awareness Week, a reminder that it is ok not to be ok. I have been very not ok at times. Miscarriages and birth trauma have led me to dark places of panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, crippling health anxiety, a leaden weight in my chest crushing the happiness out of what should have been my brightest moments. For eighteen months I was too ashamed of these feelings even to admit them, and that shame in large part led to the feeling of missing out on Sophia’s babyhood which I am now experiencing. Thanks to private therapy to deal with PTSD, and NHS funded CBT to help with health anxiety, and an awful lot of love and patience from my husband and family and friends I am getting there, and the sunshine is back in my life, a lot of the time at least. If anyone reading this is struggling then, please, try to open up to someone. It’s ok not to be ok.

rainbow 2

Countdown to summer (holidays)

path to beachIt feels like this summer has lasted forever already, and school hasn’t even broken up yet! I have a feeling that, when they do, the rain won’t be far behind – but maybe that’s just me being miserable and cynical. To be honest I wouldn’t mind a bit of rain to give the garden the good drink it so desperately needs. Maybe we could carry on having warm sunny days but cool wet nights?

It’s the final countdown this week. I’ve just been to Poundland and stocked up on craft stuff so I’ve got something up my sleeve for those inevitable ‘I’m bored’ moments, and of course the freezer is stocked to the gunnels with the essential mini-magnums. Tomorrow is Sophia’s school trip – we’re off to a farm plus soft play extravaganza which she will love – and then the following day is her last ever in preschool as she starts school nursery in September. We distributed presents and cards for the staff there this morning, but I volunteered to be class rep for collecting donations for Anna’s teacher’s present, and so I still have a few people to chase, and then the vouchers to buy. Plus, of course, Anna has also announced that she wants to make brownies for her class teacher and TA, and I can hardly discourage her from showing generosity and gratitude, so we need to factor that in this week as well.

We’re heading straight from pick-up on the final day of school to Euston to get the train to Manchester to stay with my brother and SIL for a couple of days, and then going straight over to Liverpool to see my parents, so I need to pack this week as well. I’ve also realised that I may have made a strategic error in planning to go straight to the station, as on the last day of school Anna normally comes out clutching approximately 703 pieces of work, ranging from lovely poems I want to keep forever through to scraps of ripped paper with a piece of lack-lustre colouring she did one wet play back in November, not to  mention a forlorn assortment of hats, socks, cardies, hoodies, water bottles and lone mittens, most of which I gave up for lost months ago, and a dirty PE kit. I have no desire whatsoever to carry these round the country with us (although the thought of accidentally ‘losing’ most of them in my brother’s house is rather tempting!), so somehow I have to extract these momentoes of the year the day before. Wish me luck with that!

A run of two weeks in which Sophia, then Anna then I, have all had tonsillitis has totally foiled my grand plans to be on top of the housework before the start of summer. I could be catching up now, but this is also my last chance for 7 or 8 weeks to sit alone in a cafe sipping ice cold freshly squeezed orange juice and eating a salted caramel chocolate brownie I don’t have to share, so I’m afraid there’s no way I’m passing that by in favour of hoovering under the sofa, however badly that needs doing!

What I’ll be doing instead is spending a couple of separate weeks in Liverpool with my parents, a week’s family holiday in Cornwall, swimming lessons for both children, and then a mixture of lazy pyjama days doing some craft or cooking, reading or Duplo, or watching one of the dvds I’ve squirrelled away over the year, local trips to Vestry House Museum or Epping Forest or the local park for a picnic and a game or two of hide and seek, and perhaps a couple of slightly bigger trips to museums or out to the coast if I’m feeling brave. Not forgetting the third year of our annual ‘Mummy and Anna Day’ when my husband takes a day off work to spend with Sophia and Anna and I head off on an adventure together. Two years ago we got the train to Birmingham and went to Cadbury World (my mothership!), last year we went to London Zoo and then for ice-cream sundaes, and this year we’re planning on a traditional seaside trip to Broadstairs for paddling, fish and chips on the beach and probably more ice-cream sundaes.

Nine and three are very different ages, and the children require very different things of me. Anna is generally extremely patient and loving with Sophia, who in turn adores her sister, but there are moments, on mornings when they are already screaming with frustration at each other and me by 8.20am that I have dreaded the summer holidays. Weeks and weeks of no break for me, and balancing everyone’s conflicting demands can feel daunting, even though I also love spending time with them both and look forward to long days without the tyranny of the school run. However, I hope I have managed to come up with a good balance of family activities, and of both girls (thanks to help from aunty, uncle and grandparents!) getting windows of 1-1 time with an adult. And if it all goes wrong, then you’ll be able to spot my house – it’ll be the one with CBeebies blaring out 12 hours a day whilst I rock quietly in the corner, chain-eating mini-magnums.

Long days

wildflower meadow

“The days are long but the years are short” goes the internet parenting cliche. Like all cliches it has more than a little truth in it. Right now I am really feeling both sides of this.

The days are literally long at the moment – the hottest sunniest summer in recent years seems like it should be a cause for unmitigated celebration, and I feel a bit guilty and joyless saying this, but it is a bit much for me. I don’t think I’m designed for temperatures above about 22 degrees (or below 0!), and so hot weather makes me a little tired and grumpy and languid. It would be nice if all I had to do was saunter down the the beach, have a swim, and then find a shady spot to eat ice-cream, but sadly I don’t live anywhere near the sea (sob), and however hot it gets the children still need taking to school, and feeding, so the grocery shopping needs doing and meals need preparing, and the house hasn’t miraculously started self-cleaning. The heat also creates extra jobs – fighting a war on the ants who are determined to take over my kitchen, watering the garden and a bit of paddling pool maintenance!

The other problem is that the children sleep less during hot, light evenings and mornings, and so they get progressively tireder and grumpier too. The long days have felt even longer this week as poor little Sophia has had another bout of tonsillitis, and so has been off preschool and at home with me. I hate her being ill, obviously, but I do love the cuddles I get from my usually super-independent little girl when she’s poorly. Although, when its 30plus degrees, extended cuddles with a feverish little limpet are, umm, sticky.

But while I sit watching the umpteenth episode of Peppa Pig and attempting to comfort a crotchety toddler, counting the minutes until husband is due home from work to take over, I am also feeling all the feels at Anna coming to the end of Year 4. The years are so bloody short! How did we get to here? Last two years of primary school coming up, and staring down the barrel of secondary school open days and admissions process. It seems no time at all since we were going through that process for primary school, and that felt a big enough leap.

Anna is feeling it herself this year. Year 4 has been a great year for her. Her class teacher has been amazing (to be honest we’ve been very lucky with all her teachers so far, but she has got on particularly well with Mr M), and her confidence seems to have grown in leaps and bounds. I would love to press pause and have a re-run of Year 4, and what makes it worse is that I know she would too. I am not the greatest with change, and although I have tried not to let Anna see that. I can sense that she has inherited it from me. I was chatting with her and one of her friends about secondary schools (it’s already a hot topic of conversation), and her friend was bubbling with excitement that senior school is only a couple of years away. Not so Anna – she would like things to stay just as they are for the time being. It’s nice, in a way, because it is testament to how happy she is in primary school and what a great environment it’s been for her, but it does make transitions tough. Actually, though, like me as well, she finds the prospect of change much harder than the change itself. When she actually starts Year 5 I know she’ll be instantly filled with enthusiasm for a new teacher, new classroom and new things to learn.

Before I get too sentimental or moany, one thing I am absolutely unequivocally loving this summer is the World Cup! When I was younger I used to get really into the big international competitions – Euro ’96, and the 1998 and 2002 World Cups were my heyday, but I always took an interest until somehow life and young children got in the way. This year, though, Anna was really interested and we decided we’d watch the key matches with her, and I have got right back into it. It helps that England are playing so well, of course – I was at pains to make it clear to Anna that resounding 6-1 victories are very much not what England fans are accustomed to. The nail biting match against Columbia was much more familiar territory, but we did it! Having watched (alright, hidden in the hall because I couldn’t bear to watch, and made my brother tell me what was happening) Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss send us crashing out of Euro ’96, Tuesday’s victory on penalties felt like particularly sweet vindication for him. He’s definitely my hero of the moment (other, of course than golden local boy, Walthamstow born Harry Kane), and I am just wishing that Theresa May could show just a small amount of the England manager’s decisiveness, leadership and calmness under pressure!

How are you all finding the heatwave and end-of-term shenanigans and the football?

 

The anxiety bitch

crocuses

I’ve blogged a little bit about my mental health problems over the last couple of years, but always somewhat hesitantly as it feels very personal, and I always worry about seeming whingey. However, I’m not sure that either my best interests, or wider awareness of mental health problems, are best served by a writerly stiff upper lip. The attitudes to mental health are so odd. I have a chronic physical illness – ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and I understand that it is something I have to live with rather than cure. That there are strategies and behaviours to help manage it, and triggers which will make it worse. I understand that a bad flare-up may be painful and debilitating at the time, but it will eventually pass, and if I am having a hard time during that flare-up I feel perfectly free to moan about it and ask for help. I don’t think it is my ‘fault’ when I get ill, and I don’t feel guilty about recurring episodes.

Intellectually I accept that things are no different with a mental health issue like anxiety. And when talking to someone else struggling with their mental health it would never cross my mind that it was something they could control or should feel guilty about. But I still slightly struggle to make that emotional adjustment regarding my own mental health.

Late summer and autumn last year was a very difficult time for me mentally. The worst manifestations of PTSD following Sophia’s difficult birth had passed, after the therapy I had, but I had been left with horrible anxiety, particularly health anxiety. An overwhelming fear of dying and leaving my girls when I love them so much and their need of me is so great saw me over-analysing every last twinge, twitch and niggling ache. Dr Google is definitely not your friend in these circumstances. And the real bitch about anxiety is that it creates physical symptoms – nausea, erratic heart beat, tense muscles, twitches – all of which re-enforce the conviction that something is badly wrong and create a vicious circle.

Sometimes the focus of my anxiety would switch, and I would panic about a symptom one of the children was exhibiting instead. Here the responsibility felt quite literally mind-boggling. It is my job to spot if there is a problem with one of my children and act accordingly. For me, campaigns like the ones to spot the signs of sepsis or various childhood cancers, although excellently intentioned and no doubt very valuable for many families, actually send me into a tailspin of panic. So often we are told as parents to ‘trust our instincts’ but my instincts are stuck on permanent red alert.

I felt ashamed that after spending a lot of money seeing a private psychologist to have my PTSD treated I was still unwell. Again, would I have felt this if my AS flared up again after an apparently successful treatment? Of course not. Some blunt common sense from my husband and a good friend persuaded me to make a GP appointment.  I was referred to see a counsellor for a course of CBT, and I’ve been having this therapy since late autumn.

It had really started to help. From around Christmas onwards I was feeling much better. As I felt better mentally the physical symptoms receded too, and hey presto a virtuous circle was born. I started to feel happy with a happiness I could rely on, rather than as a tentative feeling I suspected might be washed away on a tide of fear at any moment. My success was in taking life one day at a time, beginning to accept that this moment right now is all any of us ever have, and it behoves us to make the most of it rather than courting or dreading the fickle Goddess of the Future. The trap I fell into was starting to think of myself as better, or cured, when in reality I suspect that, like AS, anxiety isn’t really something that can ever be totally cured, it is a case of living alongside and managing the symptoms.

The last couple of weeks have been a bit tiring and stressful. Anna had a throat infection, which mysteriously triggered a severe outbreak of eczema, which is not a problem she’s really had before. Sophia has blocked sinuses, and has needed regular steaming sessions to try and unblock them, and which have caused a hideous night-time cough, making her distressed and keeping us both awake for hours at night, leading to tired and grumpy days. Even the cat has got in on the act with dental problems leading to the need for a special diet and a request from the vet to get a urine sample from him (yes, really), so that his kidney function can be tested and the appropriate painkillers prescribed. Worry about what was actually wrong with my furry and non-furry dependents, and the additional work of looking after them, not to mention the darker imaginings of what hideous illnesses these symptoms might actually signify have taken their toll, and my anxiety levels have rocketed. This in turn sets off physical symptoms which begin to convince me that there is something horribly wrong with me.

I have felt deeply disappointed in myself for relapsing. I am struggling to teach myself to stop thinking of recovery as linear, or of there being an end-state of ‘better’, but to understand that it will be up and down, and there will always be times when I struggle more. And I am learning strategies to calm myself down – mini mindfulness exercises when I try and force my brain to focus on the here and now, not trying to suppress anxious or difficult thoughts but to acknowledge them and move on, recognising how physical symptoms are the treacherous bitch anxiety tricking my mind into tricking my body.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the last couple of difficult weeks there have been some fun times when my anxiety has receded, and I’ve been able to enjoy a dinner with friends or watching Anna playing a Munchkin in her school’s Wizard of Oz production. The lesson it seems I must learn and re-learn is to take the rough with the smooth. To make lemonade with the lemons, and to dance in the rain. I mustn’t wait to reach the Sugarcandy Mountain where my whole family is always healthy and an anxious thought never crosses my mind, before allowing myself to be happy.