Starter for ten

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

My eldest girl was ten last weekend. Her birth was, hands down, the best day of my life. (I was equally thrilled at her little sister’s birth 6 years later, but the day itself was somewhat compromised by the whole epidural-stopping-working-mid-caesarean section thing). I was 28 when she made me a mother, and it felt like that was what I had been waiting my whole life for. And I was right. Having my children has made me complete. I can’t imagine my life without them, and I feel in my bones that having them, loving them, raising them is the greatest thing I will ever or could ever do.

It’s not that I think women should be mothers if they don’t want to, or that they should want to, or that being a mother is the most important thing anyone can do, it’s just that’s the way it is for me. I remember being about 15, and having one of those intense conversations about the future you have at that age, with one of my closest male friends. He said that he didn’t really want children, couldn’t see the point and felt that life as a child could be so tough he didn’t want to deliberately inflict that on someone else. But then he looked at me, and said “I’d have kids if I ended up marrying you, though. It would be cruel not to – you were just born to be a mum”. Reader, I didn’t marry him. But I remember that statement as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, even though I don’t think he even particularly meant it as a compliment.

Despite this sense of maternal vocation, I don’t want to fall into the trap of living my life solely for and through my children. It’s not healthy for them, and it certainly wouldn’t be good for me. Last week was International Women’s Day, and the theme was balance. That is something I am striving for in my life, although I’m not sure I always manage to achieve it. I am a mother. I love my girls so much it hurts, I would do anything for them, and they will always be my first priority. However, I am also a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a citizen, a woman. A woman who wants to go for walks without stopping to pick up every stick, walk on every wall and listen to a constant stream of chatter. A woman who loves a long lunch or shared bottle of wine with a friend, or a theatre trip with her husband. A woman who would like to earn some proper money of her own. A woman who wants a place in the world unprefaced by the words ‘A’s mummy’.

The jump from one to two children skewed the balance for me. I haven’t published a book since my youngest was born, and I feel that the very differing demands of a 10 year old and a 4 year old often threaten to squeeze me out entirely. Finding the balance is elusive, and the moment I feel I might have achieved it, one of them suddenly has a high fever or a medical appointment or a workshop at school, and my carefully contrived house of cards collapses around me.

Ten years out of the formal workplace feels like a bit of a wake-up call to try and assess where things are going for me for the next ten years. In another ten years time I will have a 20 year old and a 14 year old, and be heading for 50 myself. I’m no longer naive enough to imagine that parenting will be magically easy by that point. Although some aspects of mothering a child who now (generally) sleeps through the night and can wipe her own bum and fasten her own shoes are undoubtedly much easier, there are new issues all the time. My big girl is intelligent, creative, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, and all together delightful, but helping her cope with the challenges presented by being neuro-divergant  (she has dyslexia and dyspraxia) in a neuro-typical world is far from easy, and I regularly have to put myself outside my non-confrontational and people-pleasing comfort zone to play the role of Mama Bear and fight for what she needs.

I am lucky that, at the moment, I don’t have a financial imperative to work. I know that makes me immensely privileged, but the downside to it is that anything I take on has to be sufficiently worthwhile to ‘justify’ time away from family life. The balance I am seeking is between being able to always prioritise my children and their needs, and enjoying them at the ages they are, whilst also clawing back some kind of independent life. It’s a work in, very slow, progress. Ten years in I can see that being a mother is everything, but it isn’t necessarily enough.

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2019 goals

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Happy New Year! Can I still say that on 16th January? It is still a pretty new year really, and I hope that it is being good to you so far.

As I’ve said many times, I am not a fan of  traditional New Year’s Resolutions. As far as I’m concerned, January is not the month for punitive endeavours like giving up booze or half starving yourself to lose the mince-pie based insulation built up over Christmas. However, although you can take the girl out of the middle-management strategy and planning job (and it’s now been TEN YEARS since I worked in a job with regular hours, annual leave and, umm, a salary), you can’t take the strategy management out of the girl, and I do love a bit of objective setting.

These aren’t particularly specific or measurable objectives, it was more a chance of using a little window of quiet over the Christmas holidays, when my children were being entertained by my brother and SIL, to think about my life, and our family life, and what I like about it, don’t like about it, want to do more of or less of. You get my drift.

There are a whole load of domestic/DIY objectives, which read more like a long and somewhat daunting to-do list – replace kitchen sink, redecorate kitchen, paint bathroom, organise the cupboard under the stairs etc etc. and that doesn’t exactly make my heart sing. But there are also objectives which I’m actively looking forward to – more baking with small daughter, and cooking proper meals with slightly bigger daughter. Getting into the habit of having a proper Sunday lunch as a family, and film afternoons after school on a Friday. Making dates to see my friends more often.

I have some work related objectives too. At some point I will be refreshing and revamping this blog, and I’m going to get back in the game with my writing, starting with finding a new agent and carrying on with my latest idea for a new book.

Finally, I’m going to reinstate an objective from a couple of years ago which I loved, and aim to read fifty-two new-to-me books in 2019, and blog each month about what I’m reading. I haven’t been feeling great the last week or so, as I seem to be having an ankylosing spondylitis flare-up, and the fatigue has been quite overwhelming, but reading is still achievable, and so I’m off to a good start in January, and will be blogging about it at the end of the month.

Does anyone else have any New Year objectives, or is January daunting enough without all that?

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.

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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.

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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.

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All quiet on the blogging front

I realised this morning just how long it is since I blogged here. Life has very much been getting in the way. Some of that has been positive – I’ve done a bit of decorating and enjoyed a beautifully relaxed half term with my family, and some hasn’t been quite so good as I’ve had some ongoing health issues. There is also the undeniable fact that it is really easy to get out of the habit very quickly!

So, this is a bit of a round-up post.

Anna had an INSET day at the beginning of half-term, so we thought we would take advantage of a day when lots of schools were still in to head to Brighton when it would hopefully be quieter. Brighton is one of my favourite UK cities (others, if you’re interested, being Liverpool, Oxford and Edinburgh), and we always have a lovely time there. Unfortunately I was feeling incredibly tired. I have a kind of inflammatory arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), and fatigue is one of the symptoms. Thankfully it isn’t all the time, but when it hits it is that kind of stop-you-in-your-tracks exhaustion that  is normally associated with a bad attack of flu or early pregnancy.

What that meant in practice, however, was that I was forced to sit in Choccy Woccy Doo-Dah’s amazing cafe (a place so awesome I had to include a scene set there in my first book, Two for Joy), and imbibe a mountain of melted chocolate with delicious dippy bits while my husband took the children to play on the beach.

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It’s not often I am defeated by chocolate, but I couldn’t manage to finish this, much to the children’s delight when they came back to meet me and got to hoover up the remains! We had a laid-back meander through the Lanes, some Lebanese flatbreads for lunch, and then Sophia fell asleep in her buggy and napped while I sat with her on the pier and gazed at the sea, and husband took Anna on the fairground.

The next day wasn’t quite so pleasant, as I spent a large part of it in Moorfields Eye Hospital A&E. Another delightful element of AS is that it can cause serious eye problems which need immediate treatment to avoid your sight being damaged in the long-term. I had had a niggling ache in my eye for a few days, which suddenly got worse, and so off to A&E I had to go. Thankfully it was only a relatively minor infection, but it took a while, several examinations and some rather painful eye drops to reach that conclusion.

After that we were off to Liverpool to stay with my parents for a few days. For once, heading Up North meant that we got the best of the weather, escaping the horrendous thunderstorms and torrential rain in London, and getting some lovely warm sunshine. We had a really nice few days, taking the children to Southport to the miniature railway village and to the newly refurbished playground and soft play extravaganza at Otterspool, and going out for a proper afternoon tea, as well as just hanging out in the garden. I also got the chance to have dinner and a catch-up with two of my lovely school friends.

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We came home to have a fairly quiet weekend relaxing at home and doing some gardening, and then it was back to school for what is always one of the busiest half-terms of the year. The few weeks before Christmas are always chocca, but I think this half term with its school trips, sports days, summer fairs, and so on gives it a run for its money. Anna has a fortnight of daily swimming lessons with school, so I actually feel like I’ve spent most of my time in the last week washing and drying towels and swimsuits!

I’ve also seen my rheumatology consultant, and there is a possibility that I could be suitable for a clinical trial of some drugs which he believes could really help with my AS, both in controlling symptoms now and also mitigating some of the longer term effects it can have. It’s a bit nerve-racking, and I might end up spending rather more time than I’d like going back and forth to the hospital for blood tests and so on, but it is also potentially very positive.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me recently what is happening with my writing, and when my next novel is coming. There isn’t really a short answer. I have been working on a book, the first draft of which is now finished, parts of which I love, and which has characters whose story I really want to tell. However, it needs a lot of work and editing to get it where it needs to be, and at the moment I am in a kind of limbo as my literary agent is retiring soon, so I will need a new agent, and my editor at Hodder has a new job, and her replacement won’t be starting for a while. I’m definitely at the point where I need some team effort with my book, and so I am hanging on until my new agent is in place and can give me some strategic (and hopefully metaphorical) kicks up the backside. In the meantime my brain is teaming with ideas and stories, and my biggest problem is  finding the time to actually write them down. Writing, and therefore working for myself, is in many ways an ideal career for combining with looking after the children, but the downside of no fixed working hours is that it takes an awful lot of determination and focus to carve out protected time for writing and then stick to it come hell or high water. I have struggled with that a bit recently, and my mission for September, when Sophia starts nursery, is to well and truly get myself back in the writing saddle.

And in my final, and possibly most exciting, piece of news: My peony plant flowered! Aren’t they just exquisite?

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So that’s where I am as we approach the halfway point of 2018!