When life gets in the way

Wow, it’s been three weeks since I last blogged, which must be one of the longest times ever between posts, unless I’ve just had a baby. And I promise, I definitely haven’t had a baby.

I’ve had a half term, with lots of lovely relaxingness (that’s a word, right?); first of all staying with my parents for a few days in Liverpool, visiting the fabulous Museum of Liverpool, and our favourite Speke Hall, and then a weekend at my MIL’s, all the way on the other side of London, when we went for a long family walk and were very proud of Anna managing 7.5 miles, and Sophia at least half of that out of her buggy.

Husband and I also managed to get out for a sneaky pizza one evening, and I escaped for a whole day’s shopping, cocktailing, lunching and, most importantly, chatting in Cambridge with one of my closest friends.

I actually went back into the school routine feeling relaxed and recharged, but then spent all my ‘free’ time in the first half of the week attending Occupational Therapy with Anna, and organising a mini Halloween party for her and a couple of friends, before the second half of the week being totally confined to the house with a poorly Sophia.

I also got to the point where I couldn’t cope with the clutter in Anna’s room any longer. It was making it impossible to clean properly, and it always looked messy even if it had just been tidied. Its such a cliche for mums to berate their children about the state of their room, and I’m sure my parents would say this is karma, because I wasn’t, ahem, the tidiest of children myself, but it really was ridiculous. On Saturday we spent a backbreaking two hours, while husband was working and Sophia was napping, being ruthless. Anna was actually very good about detaching from the various ‘interesting’ leaves and pebbles, pieces of artwork and plastic crap from party bags which she has picked up since my last blitz. We filled a black bin bag to the brim with things to throw away, and a sizeable cardboard box with things to either sell, donate or pass on to Sophia. I hoovered and dusted, she cleaned the windows, and it now looks reasonably civilised once more! If you can ignore the pen marks on the desk which are now clearly visible with the clutter removed!

 

We’re now heading into one of the busiest, albeit most enjoyable times of year. The older the children get, the more their seasonal activities seem to increase, and of course there is shopping and general preparation for the big day. Despite this, I’m making a commitment to myself to blog at least once a week for the rest of the year, because taking the time to reflect on and write about what’s happening in our lives gives me the chance to actually appreciate it, and one day be able to look back and remember it, rather than everything disappearing in a whirl of busyness and activity.

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On Marriage

hear cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*not maternal bias, just straightforward fact.

 

The joy of potty training

The week I first tried to potty train Anna is up there with my all-time worst parenting experiences. She was coming up to 2.5, and I’d already had a few months of subtle (and not so subtle) hints from her grandmothers that it was about time she was out of nappies. I decided that the best approach was to stay at home for a week, and go cold turkey – putting her straight into knickers. I prepped with bribes of stickers and Smarties, had reward charts set up, talked her through what was going to happen, and got her to help me choose her new ‘big girl’ knickers. And then launched into a week trapped in wee-smelling house, with an increasingly bored and feral toddler, the washing machine on nonstop, drying clothes draped over every surface, and a bottle of Dettol spray never out of my hand. I was prepared for accidents, but I wasn’t prepared for not one single excretion to be passed on the potty, even by luck. She could sit on the potty for half an hour while I read endless Peppa Pig stories, nothing at all, and then get off and pee on the sofa thirty seconds later.

Towards the end of that week I went out for dinner with a very close and, at the time, child-free friend. She made the mistake of asking me how I was. After a twenty minute rant on the frustration, restriction, irritation and utter mundanity of potty-training in particular and child-rearing in general, I asked her how she was. Pregnant, turned out to be the answer. I spent the rest of the evening desperately backtracking and muttering words like ‘fulfilling’ and ‘adorable’ in a fairly unconvincing and futile fashion.

At the end of the week I admitted defeat. My daughter’s will was stronger than mine. She wasn’t ready – physically or psychologically, and neither was I. The grandparents who had been so encouraging of my attempt were strangely reluctant to accept my open invitation to have Anna to stay for a week and send her back potty trained. She went back in nappies for another six months.

A couple of weeks before her third birthday, with the added pressure of a forthcoming nursery place dependent on being fully toilet trained, we made another attempt. The difference was incredible, We had a couple of accidents the first morning, and then she just got it. Sorted. Done. Three or four months later she announced she didn’t want to wear nappies at night either, and then didn’t. There was a run of nighttime accidents for a few months, but she was determined not to go back to nappies, and so we persisted. Her willpower this time was working in my favour.

After this experience I thought it would all be a doddle with Sophia. Just relax, don’t push it, wait until they’re around three, and then get it done and dusted overnight. Simples.

Except that she had other ideas. From a very early age she hated having a dirty nappy, and would rarely poo outside the house, so I knew she had some degree of control. She also had an adored elder sister who she likes to emulate in every way possible, and so she first started showing an interest in using the toilet or potty at about 18 months. It would obviously have been perverse not to encourage her, and so I did.

We inherited a gargantuan pile of unused knickers from a friend who had bought them in preparation for potty-training her 2 year old, but whose child had also had other ideas, and had outgrown them by the time she eventually got there at 3. I rooted out the potty and the booster seat for the toilet and the step-stools, and prepared to sit back smugly as Sophia potty-trained herself.  Ha ha.

She was stop-start for months – firstly demanding to wear knickers, and then regressing totally and utterly refusing anything other than a ‘lup (Sophia-speak for a pull-up nappy). Then back in the summer I made a terrible strategic error. She had been fairly confidently using the potty 80% of the time for several weeks. Then we travelled to Anglesey. Reader, I was cowardly. I simply could not face a long solo train journey, with two children, a pile of luggage, and buggy, when one of those children might either demand to use the potty or wet herself at any moment. She wore a ‘lup.

And when we arrived at our holiday home, to be greeted by pages of instructions on how we must avoid so much as a grain of sand soiling the plush purity of the light-coloured carpets, I quailed. Sophia had taken against the potty we took with us, and with a vision of spending my holiday on hands and knees scrubbing carpets, or being presented with a mammoth bill on leaving, I gave in to the lure of a week in ‘lups. Only, of course, it wasn’t a week. By the time we got home, Sophia had decided life was much easier when playtime wasn’t interrupted by mummy nagging you to use a potty and that ‘lups were definitely the thinking baby’s solution.

We were away a lot in the summer, then she was a bit unsettled by her preschool’s move to a new building, then she wasn’t very well, then I wasn’t very well…suddenly a week had become weeks had become months.

And then on Saturday she suddenly announced again that she wanted to wear knickers. I know I need to be consistent this time, but I desperately need an infusion of saintly patience. On Monday she decided she needed the potty just as we were leaving to take her sister to school. Luckily husband was still at home, so I screeched at him to take Anna while I looked after Sophia. I’ve tried to learn from this, and encouraged her to try on the potty earlier in the morning routine. Which is fine, except that this morning she sat there for 20 minutes, claiming she needed a poo. Until we reached the moment where we had to leave or be late. Husband this time was over 100 miles away in Nottingham. I had to physically remove Sophia from the potty, screaming and kicking. Anna was crying because she was worried she’d be late (and, probably, because I had totally lost it and was shouting at both of them). It was an even more than usually stressful start to the morning, and I’m still battling the guilt.

I should probably issue a dual apology for this blog post. Firstly to my readers – I do realise that this is probably 1,000 words more than you wanted to read about my children’s toilet habits. It has been very therapeutic to write though, so if you have borne with me this long, thank you. And I promise I’ll write about something else next time. Secondly, to my children. I am very sorry indeed that there is content forever immortalised somewhere in Internet Land about your bowel movements before you were old enough to know better. One day you might have children of your own, and then maybe you’ll understand.

 

Balance

Vintage Balance Scale

How I achieve a good life balance for my children, particularly Anna, is very much on my mind at the moment.

I have always been adamant that over-scheduling children’s lives is not a good idea. It’s great for them to have opportunities to try different activities, but they also need time just to hang out as well. Even, maybe, to get bored once in a while. Of course, what exactly constitutes over-scheduling is a moot point. And sometimes things get away from me, despite my best efforts.

We’re really, really lucky because Anna’s school offers a really wide variety of after-school activities. Already she has tried art, football, drama, choir, running, and French – also available are skateboarding, origami, table tennis, gymnastics, Lego, and many more. In her flush of excitement when the list comes out at the beginning of term, Anna would happily put her name down for almost each and every one. I have always been strict at limiting her to two, because I don’t want her to be over-committed and get over-tired.

Now we have moved her swimming lessons from the weekend to one night after school, so that’s three nights of the week gone.

She doesn’t get masses of homework, but every week there is either a maths worksheet, or a ‘creative’ project, as well as spellings, handwriting practice and times tables revision. And then there’s parties, playdates, family days out and so on. All to be squeezed in before she gets a moment to flake out on the sofa.

This term in particular is always exhausting. Anna was diagnosed as dyslexic this year, and so I now have a better understanding of why she is often so wiped out after school, especially at the beginning of a new term. Learning new things, new routines, new skills simply has proportionately more effort on her than on many of her peers. The psychologist who diagnosed her said that her brain will have to work around 30% harder to get to the same result.

This puts us in a triple bind as we try and decide what’s best for her. Learning her tables and her spellings is a massive effort for her. To get there she should probably be doing far more practising than an ‘average’ child, whoever they may be. But it is difficult and often discouraging work for her, so pushing her to do it, when she is already tired after a long day/week at school is very difficult, and often doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.

Nor does curtailing the creative activities she loves and does well at – this term her choice of after school clubs are choir and drama – in order for her to attempt more learning by rote. There will be times when, despite going over them again and again, she will still score 0 on her spelling tests. She understands that this is because of being dyslexic, just a factor of the way her brain is wired, but it must affect her confidence a bit, so having plenty of opportunities to do activities she loves and excels at feels particularly important.

Swimming is just a non-negotiable as far as my husband and I are concerned. We regard it as a life skill just as crucial as times tables – possibly life saving, and definitely life enhancing as it is such brilliant exercise, fun and relaxing, and the gateway to many more sports, such as surfing, which she may want to try when she is older. It’s also important to have plenty of opportunity for her to use up physical as opposed to just mental energy – important for anyone’s health, but especially a child’s. Luckily Anna is really enjoying her swimming lessons at the moment.

I also love her having the chance to spend time with friends outside school. With one friend she has discovered an interest in gardening. With perhaps more optimistic enthusiasm than wisdom we agreed that she and her friend could have a fairly neglected patch of our back garden as ‘theirs’. I thought their initial enthusiasm might wane, but its showing no signs of doing so yet – the patch has been weeded to within an inch of its life, and they are now in the process of filling it with spring bulbs. With another friend she always concocts elaborate performances and shows – scripts, sets, costume design, production, direction and acting all carried out by the two of them. When another friend comes round, they invariably end up creating a den by removing all the cushions from the sofas, and all throws/pillows/duvets from wherever they are around the house, and making an enormous pile in the living room, which they then thrown themselves around in. They have been doing that since they were three, and show no signs of stopping any time soon. I don’t want to discourage any of this, but it generally takes up another evening a week with something other than just chilling out.

I’m normally a big advocate of following your instincts when it comes to parenting. The problem is that at the moment my instincts are telling me Anna is still quite little, and just needs time to relax out of school, they’re telling me that this is the time when she has such a wealth of opportunities to try new things and to socialise and she should make the most of it, and they’re telling me that dyslexia is perhaps going to make her academic life harder in some ways, and that trying to work on some of the basics now will give her the building blocks she needs to succeed in secondary school when the workload really steps up. And so I suspect that the quest to find that elusive perfect balance will continue.

 

Living Well

live well sign

I was all set to write a post about how tough life is at the moment. How tough adulting is. I feel like we’re juggling and balancing so much right now, between family responsibilities, my husband’s business (which is going very well, but is extremely demanding), some health problems I’ve been having, and then all the usual day to day domestic stuff which persists whatever else is going on. It has all culminated in a big flare-up of the anxiety I have suffered from intermittently for the last year or two. Oh, and I have toothache.

But then I was scrolling through photos on my phone, and I came across this one, of a poster in a little beach cafe in Lligwy Bay on Anglesey where we spent a week in the summer. It resonated with me at the time, in my care-free, sun kissed (and wind-blown!) holiday mood, but it is probably back in workaday, unseasonably chilly, and unreasonably stressful London that I really need to heed its message.

Take time to live well 

Often this feels like time I simply don’t have. And clearly we’re not going to manage all of those every day – that really is what holidays are for. But how often am I frittering the time I do have messing around on Facebook, instead of doing something which might be genuinely relaxing or enriching?

Before the summer holidays my husband suggested, in order to help my mental and emotional health, that I took two ‘time-outs’ every day. The first is in the morning. Just before we sit down to breakfast – the one meal which we make every effort to all eat together as a family, chatting about the day before and the day to come, I step out into the garden. Just for a minute or two I breathe deeply, smell the morning air, look at the plants and observe the subtle changes which herald the passing seasons. I come back into the chaos of our school morning routine just a little bit calmed and refreshed.

The second is in the evening. As soon as husband gets home from work (within reason, sometimes he’s not home until gone 11pm) I go straight out, leaving him to pick up on stories/baths/bedtime while I go for a brisk 15 minute walk. It is a chance to let my thoughts run free, to walk at my own pace unencumbered by buggies, scooters, book bags or changing bags, to get some fresh air, and to place a semi-colon between the manic day and the (hopefully) calmer evening.

After school one day this week I just curled up with my girls on the sofa. A Charlie and Lola DVD went on for the smaller one, and the bigger one and I read our books companionably, me with a daughter snuggled under each arm. It was blissful. And for a while at least, I quieted the internal voices telling me I ‘ought’ to be doing something useful, or taking them to the park, or playing a game, and just enjoyed being. And let myself believe that, although we can’t spend our entire lives on the sofa (can we??), actually what they sometimes need more than hoovered stairs or an educational activity is simply to be with me and with each other. It was one of the nicest hours I’ve spent all week.

It’s great to be able to let off steam and have a good moan about the difficult things. I’m part of a WhatsApp group with two very good friends which is a lifesaver for just this kind of thing. Often a sympathetic message and the renewed realisation that I’m not alone in this is all I need to give me the energy and strength to carry on. However, I want to balance that with a focus on the positive stuff as well. Counting my blessings, as my poster-guru has it. I read somewhere this week that “where the attention goes, the energy flows”, and while being realistic about all the stresses and strains, I want my attention and energy to go on the good stuff in life.

I started this blog because the every day moments slip by so quickly and I wanted to capture them. On the way it has also become a place I have a rant when I need to, but I want to stay true to my original aim of having a record of these chaotic, frustrating, exhausting years which reminds me how magical and amazing and filled with love they really are.