The Seventh Day of Advent: Trafalgar Square crib blessing

This time seven years ago I was pregnant with Anna, and husband (or boyfriend, as he then was) and I were mooching about in central London. I can’t really remember what we’d been doing – probably Christmas shopping, almost certainly tea and cake. We headed towards Trafalgar Square to admire the Christmas tree, and as we passed St Martin-in-the-Fields church we noticed there was a band outside playing Christmas music. We stopped to listen, and a few moments later the band turned and began to march towards the square, followed by a procession of choristers and clergy from St Martin’s. It looked so picturesque and festive that we followed them, and so ended up participating in the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square.

It was a short but perfect service – a few traditional carols, with music provided by the Chalk Farm Salvation Army band, some beautiful singing from the choir and a few perfectly pitched words and prayers from the priest. Standing there, a few feet from the famous Christmas tree, Big Ben illuminated away in one direction, the lovely National Gallery building behind us, joining in with the soaring notes of Hark the Herald was truly memorable and magical. I could feel the baby who would turn out to be Anna kicking away approvingly inside me, and I commented that this was her first carol service. We decided then that this would be our first Christmas tradition as a family, and that every year we would bring our baby to this service. And we have done so.
carols1

For the last few years we’ve also been joined by some friends with their respective small children, and that has been great, but last night for one reason and another it was just our little family. It was Sophia’s first time there in person, although last year I was so heavily pregnant and having such strong Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout that I did wonder if there would be a real life nativity scene. This year, marking the passing of time, was the first year Anna could read the words on the carol sheet herself, and joined in enthusiastically with more than just Away in a Manger.

The crib blessing is one of a number of events which raises funds for the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas appeal, money which goes to help homeless people across London. One of the things I find particularly moving about this service is the emphasis from the priest leading it on the Holy Family as homeless, persecuted refugees, on the shepherds to whom Christ was first revealed as being the outcasts in their society, on the wise men as being ‘foreign’ and ‘different’, yet still at the centre of Christmas. Standing in the heart of London, which has such sharply delineated contrasts between those who have everything and those who have nothing, just a few hundred yards away from the Palace of Westminster where the crucial decisions as to how we treat the most vulnerable at home and abroad are made, there couldn’t be a more appropriate message to take from the Christmas story.

cribI was raised a Christian, but no longer describe myself easily as one. I do not doubt, never have doubted, that Christ’s teachings as recorded in the Gospels on how we behave and how we treat others are the blueprint for a fair, just, (and incidentally socialist!), society, and the world would be a much better place if everyone who identified as Christian endeavoured to live up to them. I say endeavoured – they’re really not that easy! I struggle with other aspects of faith, though. There are many passages in the Bible I find downright offensive, but it is not always easy to come up with a logically coherent position as to why I should regard some bits and not others. It is a cliche, but, like many others, I also struggle with the concept of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who allows children to die of cancer. And I struggle with the institution of the Church of England, and other churches too. So much energy spent debating the rights and wrongs of women bishops or gay priests when the rest of the world moved on from such bigotry and discrimination a generation ago, and when there are very many real and pressing problems to address.

Nevertheless, a beautiful church service, wonderful music, taking time and space out of the busyness of life to pause and reflect, fills me with a deep inward calm and happiness like nothing else, and I come close at such times to believing in a Divine force at work, however imperfectly us mortals might interpret it. I also feel that the work done by St Martins, and countless other churches of all denominations up and down the country, looking after those who have been let down by family, friends, state, and have nowhere else to go truly follows Christ’s teachings on how we should  treat the hungry and the needy, and I am happy to be able to play a tiny part in this. The crib blessing in Trafalgar Square combines both of these, as well as being a lovely tradition to share with my family, and as such gives me a very deep sense of happiness.

I have worried a bit about this post, as I have no wish to cause offence to people of any faith or none, or to court controversial religious debate! Equally, however, an Advent series in which I didn’t talk in any way about the religious meaning of Christmas to me felt wrong and inauthentic. So here we go!

Fifth Day of Advent: Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be such an emotive subject on blogs and social media that I feel I need to caveat this post before I begin. This blog series is about things which make me personally happy. There are lots of things which are healthy or good for you or good for other people, which don’t make me happy in the least, and so will get no mention here (exercise, green juicing and taking my kids swimming spring to mind). Lots of women choose not to breastfeed or want to but aren’t able to, or do so but don’t enjoy it much. That is no-one’s business but their own, and this blog is certainly not trying to criticise or guilt-trip, I just want to talk about something which has been a significant and unexpected pleasure for me.

As a teenager and young woman I gave no thought to how I would feed any future babies I may have. Probably my underlying assumption was bottle feeding. I had been bottle fed, as had both my parents, and that certainly seemed to be the cultural norm where I grew up. When I was about twenty-three I had a job working in public health. My role was mainly in smoking cessation, but I was part of a small team of people responsible for promoting healthy eating, breast and cervical screening, breastfeeding etc, and breastfeeding became something I really considered for the first time. I learnt that there were significant health benefits to both mother and baby, and noted to myself that, when I had a child, I really must try it.

Fast forward five years or so and I am pregnant with my first baby and sitting in an appointment with my community midwife. She asks me how I intend to feed the baby. I am still somewhat ambivalent about breastfeeding, but announce that I intend to give it a go. She snorted slightly, and said “Well, it’s very hard work, you know. You probably won’t be able to.” At that moment my ambivalence hardened into a steely determination to feed my baby for at least three months if it killed me. There were moments when I thought it would kill me. Anna struggled to latch on at first, and so I had to express and syringe feed. I felt enormous, bovine and humiliated hooked up to the hospital’s industrial pump. Back at home when, aged about 6 days, she fed nonstop for nine hours I sat with bleeding nipples and tears pouring down my cheeks wondering what I’d let myself in for. We were lucky, however, to have the support of an angelically wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who got things sorted out for us pretty quickly. I always remember what she said to me: “The amazing thing about breastfeeding is that there is this little person you love more than anything in the world, and there is one thing they need more than anything else in the world, and you are the one person in the world who can give it to them.”

Picasso, Maternité

Picasso, Maternité

There were times when I found nursing frustrating. It meant I was always the one who had to get up in the night, there was no such thing as time off, and it was a long time before I could even leave the house by myself. Expressing never really worked for me, so pumping and bottle feeding wasn’t an option. However, for me, the advantages of breastmilk far, far outweighed the disadvantages. There was no faffing with bottles and sterilisers. Half asleep in the middle of the night I didn’t have to do anything more arduous than lift my pyjama top. It was always available, I couldn’t forget to take it out with me, and it provided instant comfort as well as nutrition. There was the satisfaction of knowing that it had plenty of health benefits for my daughter, but for me, it was the warm, loving intimacy of feeding that really made me happy.

I have heard some women say that their partners felt excluded by breastfeeding, or that they didn’t breastfeed because they were worried that he would. I was very fortunate because my husband was 100% supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and never seemed to feel in the least excluded by it. He would bring me snacks and drinks while I fed, take the baby to wind her and settle her afterwards, and, in the early days, would lie on the bed with us, curled protectively around me as I curled protectively round my feeding baby.

Happily breastfeeding came more easily to Sophia, so my nipples had things far easier second time around. She was a more restless feeder than Anna, though, and I was far more likely to find myself exposed to the world in the middle of a cafe/train/school playground. I am still feeding her now, although when she turns one shortly I am planning to drop daytime feeds and wean her onto cow’s milk in a beaker instead, just carrying on the early morning and bedtime feeds. I still love breastfeeding, but I am ready to have a little more freedom, and to be able to wear dresses which aren’t wrap dresses again!

I certainly never expected that breastfeeding would make me as happy as it has, but it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of nurturing and mothering my babies, and one which I feel enormously lucky and privileged to have experienced.

In search of style

To put it mildly I’ve never been a fashionista. In my teens my style was slightly schizophrenic. On one hand I was inspired by the indie-girl-band look in vogue at the time; my interpretation of it being an ankle-length black or denim skirt with a tight t-shirt and Adidas Gazelles, or jeans and a shapeless grey sweater. On the other hand, this look had to be funded from my wages as a shop assistant/waitress in a cake shop (£2.05 an hour), so if my mum offered to take me shopping I would bite her hand off, and she favoured a slightly less grungey style, so half my wardrobe was more tailored pieces which I flattered myself were a little bit Rachel-from-Friends. (Needless to say, they weren’t!)

In my twenties it was all about dressing for the office. My first proper job, aged 21, was Assistant General Manager for Day Surgery at a District General Hospital in the West Midlands. I was rather out of my depth, and compensated with the best Next had to offer in the way of power-suits, combined with 3 inch pointy stilettos and a crisp shirt. Hell, I even ironed in those days. As I moved up the career ladder and gained in professional confidence, I realised that the two-piece suit wasn’t really me, and I developed a work look which centred around pencil-skirts with a waist-cinching belt, fitted tops or little cardies, and I retained my passion for the three-inch heel. I worked this look, or the closest approximation to it I could manage at eight months pregnant, right up until going on maternity leave with Anna.

After Anna was born, both time and money were in fairly short supply. What I wore then depended on what I could buy in the small branches of Dorothy Perkins and New Look in our local shopping centre. I rarely tried things on because Anna was normally fussing in the buggy, so tended to grab the nearest pair of leggings and jersey tunic dress in something approaching my size. They were comfy and cheap and covered me up, and at that point this was pretty much all I cared about. Gradually as Anna got older and I had a bit more time and money I started to expand my fashion horizons once again. And then I got pregnant and was back to leggings and tunic dresses once more.

Now I am stuck, and desperately trying to develop my style for this phase of my life. I’m at home with two young children, so practicality is key. The heels have gone for good, replaced by boots, Birkenstocks, and brogues. So far, so mumiform, but I’m quite happy with that. The feet are sorted. Not least because they haven’t put weight on. But the rest of me isn’t quite so easy to sort out. I want to be comfortable and practical, but reasonably stylish and put together too. Perhaps as a reaction against spending the nineties and noughties in various shades of black and grey, I have fallen in love with colourful prints – stripes, spots, florals. I love the vintage trend, and have friends who look absolutely stunning in their charity shop finds, but when I experiment I end up looking like I’ve been dressed by Marks and Spencer’s circa 1985, and have come to the conclusion that I prefer my vintage as interpreted by Cath Kidston.

Another problem is that I’ve rather gone off the throwaway fashion at the lower-end of the high street.  It’s probably just my inability to pull it off, but I feel that a size 14 woman in her mid-thirties dressed entirely from Primark can risk looking a bit, well, cheap. I still love my bargains, but I need to mix and match them a bit more now. Putting on 4.5 stone during my pregnancy with Sophia, of which only 3 has left me, means that many of my old clothes don’t fit anyway. I’ve spent six months in denial, imagining that the weight was about to miraculously drop off, but have now concluded that it isn’t. I would like to return to my middle-of-the-road size 12 at some point, but at the moment breastfeeding and broken nights and the hard work of a new baby mean that I’m not ready for the self-denial this would entail. So I need something to wear.

And of course, into this void steps Mr Johnnie Boden. Aahh, Johnnie, how do I love you, let me count the ways. Quirky prints, flattering cuts, ethical manufacturing, quality materials. How much more of a middle-class mum cliche could I sound? Unfortunately, cliches become cliches for a reason. The only snag is the price. I really can’t afford to just open the Boden catalogue and order my new season’s wardrobe, much as I might like to. My Boden habit depends on identifying items I want, and then holding my breath and waiting for the sale (Boden do have extremely good sales), or the 20% off code, or even tracking down a particular item on Ebay.

clothesI do feel like I am very gradually starting to develop a wardrobe which works, financed by a lot of bargain hunting and some selling off of clothes I’ve out-grown physically and mentally. There have been some barely-worn mistakes, but my go-to hero items are the obligatory jeans, either boyfriend cut or skinny, a variety of stripy Breton tops, skirts or dresses with a vibrant print and a slightly 1950s feel;  bare-legged with my beloved Saltwaters in summer and with thick opaques and brogues come autumn, lightweight scarves and chunky jewellery to ring the changes, and, as I’m permanently cold, I do love me a nice cardi. It’s not a look which is going to be seen on the catwalks or the pages of Vogue any time soon, but it feels several steps up from either cramming myself into clothes which are a couple of sizes too small and past their best anyway, or resorting to  baggy tracksuit bottoms and a shapeless t-shirt. If I’m going to be a cliche, I’d rather aim for the yummy mummy one than the slummy mummy one.

So, is this just me? How do other people change their wardrobes to suit their changing body shapes and lifestyle? How do you balance style and practicality? What are your wardrobe heroes?

The delights of being cosy

It’s now quarter to two in the afternoon, and hasn’t yet got properly light today. There’s been a constant drizzly rain and, according to my friends on the BBC Weather page, the temperature isn’t going to get above 5 degrees. This is a day when I am very glad to be able to stay indoors the entire time, with the exception of a couple of brief school-run forays.
fireplace

In a way I’m quite pleased that the weather has taken a turn for the worse. I’m about to give birth, so I don’t want any dramatically bad weather thank you very much; snow drifts, freezing fog and black ice can all stay well away, but the unnaturally warm weather we’ve had recently seems, well, unnatural. It feels like we’ve been cheated out of autumn really. There haven’t been any crisp frosty mornings, or excuses to scurry home quickly and curl up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate (although I might have done this anyway). I haven’t even been upset that my enormous baby bump stops me fitting into my favourite jumpers, because I haven’t needed them.

The weather today, though, isn’t the kind that invites you to wrap up warm and go for a long invigorating walk. On the contrary, it positively begs you to get home, shut the door and ignore the world outside. I had a fairly long and boring list of jobs for today, luckily all home based, and I’ve been working my way through them whilst also indulging myself with some cosy, feel-good moments as well. So far these have included:

1) A long, long cuddle with one of the cats. Henry Catten is a confirmed lover of hearth and home. On a warm, summer’s day he might venture as far as a sunny spot on the patio, but he wouldn’t dream of leaving the house on a day like today. And, of course, if he’s home and I’m home, then he won’t be able to think of a single reason why I shouldn’t devote myself to him entirely.IMG_0002

2) Turning on the central heating at 11am. Normally if I’m at home all day I’m running around doing jobs, and so manage without heating until well into the afternoon. Today, though, I was feeling particularly self-indulgent, and so on it went. Luckily for both our gas bill and my environmental conscience, it was hardly on at all through October and November, so we’ve surely got some credits built up now.

3) A nap on the sofa. Well, I am very pregnant…

4) Beans on toast for lunch. Total comfort food.

To round things off, I’m contemplating turning on all the fairy lights and cranking up the Greatest Christmas Hits album while I try and get ahead of the game with some present wrapping, hot chocolate for two when Anna gets home from school, and possibly, just possibly, syrup sponge and custard for pudding this evening. Just to balance out the healthy stir-fry I have planned for a main course.on the third day of christmas cover

I hope you’re all able to indulge in a little cosiness as well. In a shameless plug, I will point out that my new novella, On the Third Day of Christmas is published today, and would arguably provide the perfect accompaniment to a cold, wet evening snuggled by the fire. You know it makes sense.

Friendship

I am very fortunate that I am still good friends with a group of girls I’ve known since school. Scarily, that means our friendship now dates back over twenty years. I’m not quite sure how the time passed so quickly, but it is an extraordinary privilege to have people in my life who’ve been around for such a long time, and since such a formative stage.

We’ve seen each other through innumerable bad haircuts, unfortunate clothing experiments and unsuitable crushes. Of course, the nature of our friendship has changed over the years. Twenty years ago I knew their wardrobes and make-up bags like my own. I could tell you every boy they’d ever kissed and exactly who they fancied right now. We would spend all day together at school and then the second we got home be on the phone to do the equivalent of a post-match analysis. This was pre-mobile phones, and (as far as we were concerned) pre-internet, so all these crucial conversations were conducted in furtive whispers on the landline in the corner of the living room. One of the happiest days of my teenage life was when my parents bought a cordless phone. They may have regretted it, of course, because it then vanished into my room and they didn’t see it again until I left for university. I suppose they and my younger brother must have resorted to carrier pigeon for any communications with their own friends.

Inevitably that level of intimacy doesn’t survive into adult life. Geography is one factor – I see less of them than they see of each other, because most of them still live in Liverpool. Our lives got busier and more complex; careers in completely different fields, relationships, houses, babies. I no longer have time (or inclination) to spend an hour analysing which Body Shop lip balm I should buy. My go-to person when I have a problem to discuss, or good or bad news to share, is now my husband. From being each other’s entire world we now have much wider and more diverse groups of friends from university, work, NCT classes etc. Sometimes months go by with little more contact than a couple of emails or an exchange or two on Facebook.

But when I do meet up with them, as I did for the day on Saturday, it is always, instantly, as though we saw each other the day before and the last fifteen years haven’t happened. Saturday was an especially lovely day as they’d all come to London to hold a joint baby shower for me and one of the other girls, who is expecting her first baby on New Year’s Eve. My husband took Anna off for a day of quality Daddy time and so, despite my enormous bump, I instantly felt carefree and ten years younger. We had a long, lazy pub lunch, a spot of vintage clothes shopping, and then retired to the Air B&B flat the girls had rented for the weekend to eat our own body weight in cake and for J and I to be totally indulged and spoilt by enormous numbers of thoughtful and generous gifts. pinata cake!We had a huge catch up, and decided that with two babies expected very shortly, and quite a lot of broodiness around, the next few years would be a blur of child-rearing, and so lazy and relaxing get-togethers would be few and far between, but we pledged that we would save up, and make sure we organise the restrictions of pregnancy and breastfeeding sufficiently so that we can have a weekend away together to celebrate our 40th birthdays in around six years time.

So thank you, ladies. I had a wonderful day on Saturday, and feel so lucky to have you all. And to have experienced pinata in cake form…