The ‘G’ word…..


Image

 

I would be surprised if this was the first place you have seen this Time cover- it was literally all over the press a couple of years back. I have come across it again, and the commentary that it provoked, whilst doing some research for my book- and it has reignited a rant!

If by chance this is your first peek, then it is a picture of a 26 year old mother feeding her three year old baby whilst he stands on a stool. It’s obviously not a conventional ‘breastfeeding’ shot,- far from it- and it was clearly designed to create the very controversy that it did. So no surprises there and top marks for the designers.

On the upside, it has meant breastfeeding made the headlines like never before, and attachment parenting got some serious press.

But on the downside, two things also happened. First, its use of shock tactics to get people talking seems to have skewed people’s idea of attachment parenting as being characterized by its most extreme interpretations (so breastfeeding till school age, sleeping in the same bed as your children till virtual adolescence and generally allowing their lives to subsume your own) which might well, understandably, lead people to throw the baby out with the bathwater- if you’ll pardon the pun.

The second negative was an avalanche of anger and vitriole from commentators, mothers and journalists. Endless blogs, countless column inches and wall-to-wall TV chat shows pitted mother against mother, or mother against the so-called guru of attachment parenting Dr Sears (a dear old thing who stood up to it all quite well I thought).

I have to confess I was at the time and still am shocked by the outcry, and dismayed by it, in equal measure. What is it about us mothers that we feel the need to judge the parenting choices of others? As I said in one of the chapters in my birth book, pregnancy tends to unite women, whereas mothering divides. And wow,  this certainly divided!

Breastfeeding until school age wasnt for me- mine got five days, nine months and eight months in that order. They are all very happy, well adjusted children. I am not in any way advocating the Times cover as what ‘should be done’, but precisely because there is no ‘should be done’. There will only ever, can only ever, be different ways to mother. There are more than 130 million babies born every year- how could it possibly be that there is a single right way to bring them up? There is nothing wrong with exchanging ideas. Debate and discussion and even disagreement is of course entirely good and healthy. But couldn’t we do it without the anger?

Interestingly much of the anger came from women proclaiming that ‘attachment parenting’ or more specifically its advocates, made them feel guilty. But the absolute truth is, no one else can make you feel guilty, the only person who can make you feel guilty is you. The women breastfeeding their three and four year olds cant. The people writing the books can’t. As the saying goes, ‘the more you love your own decisions, the less you need others to love them’. If you are happy mothering the way you are mothering, fantastic. Carry on. Do what you do and do it with conviction. The fact that someone else is doing something differently shouldn’t matter a jot. You can disagree with them by all means, but then it should just add more fuel to your own fire, more courage to your own convictions. Being angry with someone because they mother differently is as nonsensical as getting mad with someone because they have marmalade on their toast when you have vegemite. Its illogical, insane, and quite frankly a complete waste of time. Or is it?

Because, I think the fact we feel mad and get guilty could end up being quite useful. Because, I suspect – and its just an idea- that when we get mad at other people for doing something differently, we aren’t just disagreeing. I think, even without knowing it, we might actually be feeling quite defensive. Maybe, just maybe, someone doing it differently has hit a nerve. And maybe that means that the dreaded guilt thing isn’t such a dreaded thing after all because if we are clever then we wont get mad about it, we’ll get humble. We can choose to see guilt as a warning bell that something that we are doing is not sitting quite right in our own gut.

I only say this because it has happened to me constantly over the last nearly fourteen years. Whenever I have felt guilty, my first reaction is to try and find someone to blame for it, as though guilt has been cast over me like a net. And yet when I am truly honest with myself, my feeling guilty is almost always – annoyingly- a very clear sign that I am not convinced by my own actions. Like my own conscience is whispering self-righteously in my ear.

Motherhood is a roller-coaster, a bumpy journey, a plain muddle, and comparing and competing with other mothers in a quest for perfection is the fastest route to insanity there is. We can glean nuggets of wisdom from books galore, and get the advice of countless well meaning mothers and grandmothers, but the truth is, we all have to find our own way to mother, and it will necessarily be warts and all. We’ll get some things right and others will be a dismal failure. Some days all the balls will be in the air, and on other days they’ll be scattered willy-nilly around your feet. Some parts of motherhood will come naturally and others you’ll have to work at, very hard, and even then you wont really know what you are doing.

But the best thing we can do throughout, the only thing we can do really, is listen to ourselves and do what feels right for us, for our kids and our own family. And rest assured, when it doesn’t feel right, you’ll know, because for sure you will be mad at the women who is doing it differently and who maybe, just maybe, is doing it how you would like to be.

Advertisements

On Being a Bookworm…….

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library

Jorge Luis Borges

                                                                                                                                                                          

Last year, my new year’s resolution was to read more books. I confess that I stole it from a friend. It was New Years Eve, and we were- as you do- discussing resolutions and the pointlessness of them, when she told me hers was the very simple ‘read more books’. Genius. Simple, positive and entirely do-able, so I promptly stole it for my own. And I am very glad that I did.

I have always been a big reader. Even in my teens, when my other pre-occupations were trying on clothes and writing ‘I love ** 4 eva ‘on my hand, I was happy to while away hours reading. But years of parenting plus work that involves reading for research meant that novels had started to become the luxurious preserve of holidays for me. Only then would I have my fill- literally gorge on books for a two week stretch.  I would then return home with great resolve to read forevermore but would rarely make it past the first chapter of anything.

And yet the year I made my resolution, I started to read again. I am not sure what changed (because resolve is not usually a forte of mine) but for that whole year I had a novel on the go.

This year, reading wasn’t one of my resolutions (they were, in no particular order 1) Listen to more jazz 2) Learn more card games and 3) Drink more water) but it seems that this time around I havent needed the resolve. Somehow, I have read every day since January 1st and what a pleasure! It helped that my stocking contained a completely brilliant read –  I won’t be the first person telling you that Donna Tart’s Goldfinch was worth the decade long wait. But there was another thing that inspired me to keep going- and it was, I am delighted (and surprised) to say, my own children.

Over the whole Christmas holiday, whilst I was running from present wrapping to bonfire building to turkey basting (and to endlessly tidying up- talk about the boy with his finger in the dyke) I would find any one of the kids and sometimes all three of them, curled up in various locations around the house with their noses in books. And if there was ever something that beats reading a compelling page-turner of your own- and I can think of few greater pleasures- it is happening upon your children doing it. On sofas, in their beds, in the hall way wrapped in their favourite Tibetan rugs .The locations changed and the books they read differed but universal was how completely and utterly relaxed they seemed, in a way- I suspect- that few other pursuits could possibly engender.  Apart from, perhaps, lying in a hammock with your face in the sun, and where was I going to be doing that on December 28th in the Northern Hemisphere?

From where I stood, reading was looking like relaxation on a drip. I needed (always need) some of that.

                   sky read

Now I have been a parent long enough to know that the strange ‘pride’ I felt on discovering these little bookworms scattered all over the house was a misplaced emotion. The only people still arguing over the nature v nurture debate are the scientists. Any self-respecting parent of more than one child knows that we can do little more than plant a few seeds and watch them grow.

And I am also old and wrinkly enough to know that this little bookworm fest could well be short-lived. I don’t fear that they will all suddenly profess to a loathing of books, but by the same token fast forward to an unusually wet Easter holiday and my blog could well be lamenting their screen obsession.

‘This too will pass’, in good times and bad, rightly counsels my father-in-law.

I suspect I am not alone in positively relishing their love of books, and in wanting to work out not just how to get children to start reading but how– in the face of the many other more technological alternatives- to keep them doing so.

Tips on how to get children to read abound. ‘Read to them’ is probably the most touted, some say from day one if you are feeling especially over-zealous. I admit I tried to do as I was told ( I am sure in the madness that is only ever the prevail of the first time parent, I did actually attempt to read to my dribbling four month old) but I would be lying if I said that over the years there hadn’t been great bouts of lapsing, when I would tell myself the great big lie that I didn’t have time. And then I would read an article about bedtime stories going by the wayside, or only a third of children getting read to at night, or there being a quarter of a million children in Britain who didn’t actually own a single book (?!) and the bedtime story routine would begin again with renewed vigour. But it was by no means fail safe.

Having books in the house, or getting membership to a library is another one, apparently. Our own library membership was alive and well until I racked up such an enormous late bill that I didn’t dare go through the doors, lest I need to remortgage my house before taking out another picture book. But as a good way to spend a rainy afternoon with a toddler it takes some beating- you leave with a book, you feel very virtuous for having helped keep an institution -which should be non negotiable- alive, and you have whiled away several hours in getting there, choosing stories and getting back home again. Tick, tick, tick.

No doubt the array of books out there is helping create bookworms without any of our help at all. Good children’s writers used to be counted on one hand- the likes of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton and C.S.Lewis famous in part for their being so unique. But in the last ten years, certainly since I have had children, there has been a veritable explosion in the children’s book section. For a generation that seem almost bludgeoned by technology, the quite revolution being waged by children’s writers should be more lauded. There are now endless amazing books, from picture books up to teen reads, that are the heady concoction of intelligently written and page-turning and very often they are one of a whole series which makes them the close rival to box sets in terms of addictiveness.

1229975_10151573903956315_1601476895_n

Phillip Pullman, himself one of these rightly lauded children’s writers, suggests reverse psychology.

‘The best way to get your children to read a story, ‘ he says ‘is to say : ‘This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big complicated ideas and you are better off not touching it until you are all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.’

He might well be on to something. How many of us read Judy Blume’s ‘Are you there God, Its me Margaret?’ or ‘Forever’  just because we weren’t supposed to?  That she is one of the best-selling authors of all time and the most banned can’t be a complete coincidence.

And good book or not, the fact that on its first day of publication, no less than 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterly’s lover were sold owes everything to the fact that it had been banned for thirty years. If adults love what they can’t have, then you can only assume that children will- tenfold.

The list of how we might get them to read is endless, but little touted as a means to get your children reading- and keep them reading- is a (recent)theory of my own. How about just read. Ourselves. And visibly.

Because if the sight of my children, curled up and engrossed, was enough to make me stop running around and pick up a book instead, then why wouldn’t it work in reverse? Children- despite our counsel – do what we do, not what we say. So it could well be, that reading ourselves proves the most compelling (and easiest) sales pitch of them all.  I have no doubt it worked on me……

DSC00255

You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough to suit me

C.S Lewis

‘The Times They are A-Changin”

 Image

 

Autumn has been kind to us this year. After a murky start it has thrown up a litany of glorious days – the ones where the sky is a brilliant blue and the air is thin and crisp. The ones that, if autumn is your favourite season, they are the reason why. Because of all the seasons, it is autumn that most needs blue as a back drop and it is near regal when it gets it.

I woke up to one of those very days last week and found myself actually rejoicing that it was autumn. This is not, I realize, especially remarkable. A completely unscientific go-round of my friends had autumn in top spot as far as seasons went. Lots of people like it. And its hardly note-worthy to rejoice a lovely day. Except, I wasn’t only pleased it was autumn, but I wasn’t sad that it wasn’t summer anymore either. And as those of you who know me well will testify to, this is definitely new territory.

Image

Marcus in ‘apple heaven’….

 Less obvious than my perpetual fear of parting with the sun, is the fact that I have- until now it seems– actually always struggled with the changing seasons. It feels like an almighty confession, to actually say I haven’t liked seasons. It’s a bit like finally admitting that you are more of a cat person than a dog person. You need to reach a certain age and comfort in ones own skin before you admit to being the less cool lover of felines. Everyone is a dog person in their teens.

But there you go. I love cats and I don’t, I didn’t, like seasons. Three hail marys for me.

I can hear the protestations and I am with you. What about the lilac or the cherry blossom? How can you not like conkers and chestnuts and mulled wine? What about log fires and mornings when the world is outlined by frost? What about those heady high summer days, or the days that go on forever because the light almost never fades? I know, I know. Of course I am not immune to it all, far from it. One of the upsides of country living is the seasons are much more acute, more noticeable, there to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck. But if I am honest, I have spent the best part of two decades trying to acclimatize to the constant change.

I grew up in Sydney, where the seasons are so mild they would qualify here as one long summer, and then Singapore, where there are no seasons at all. The monsoon season and the dry season were as stark as it got, and in both the temperature remained in a range of about 5 degrees. From where I sit now, that doesn’t sound that enticing, but it was all I ever knew. It was safe, predictable, to be relied on. You could take it for granted, and I found a security in that. Come to England and no sooner have you got used to the idea that it is one season, and it seems to change, sometimes overnight. In fact forget, weeks and months of change, its entirely plausible to get four seasons in a single day. And what’s more, we or you (I have been here so long I am not sure which one I should use anymore) are even proud of it.  To someone who is practically Amish in the face of change, this has taken some getting used to.

Now I am acutely aware that this resistance to change is not just limiting but entirely futile. I would even go as far as to say it smacks of being anti-life. Because life is only change. On every level, in every moment nothing is stationary or static. And you don’t need to read zen teachings or yogic philosophy ( and I do both, all the time)  to be acutely aware of it.  Just become a mother. Nowhere is change more acutely felt than in the arena of parenthood.  Not only is a child is like having a ticking clock, their milestones and ages marking in stark relief the passage of time, but being a mother requires perpetual letting go. If they are going through an especially difficult phase, remembering that it is a stage and it will pass is entirely sanity inducing. But a lot of the time, letting go can be extremely hard. The chubby knuckles, the wide eyed innocence, the portable baby, the house filled with children, the unconditional loving…the list is endless. And unsurprisingly, given my confessions above, cutting the apron strings has not really been my thing.

Image

A milestone and an autumn pleasure in one….

And yet I realize that be it seasons or family life, it has everything to do with perspective. Not unlike ‘the glass half full vs the glass is half empty’ view of the world, my resistance to change has stemmed from an unintentional focus on what I am giving up, rather than what I am gaining.

I was giving up summer not gaining autumn. Giving up the spring flowers rather than gaining the extra light. Giving up the baby or the toddler, rather than gaining the curious child, the family bike rides, the unencumbered holidays, the family dinners where the theme is actual sparkly conversation. And yet make that shift, that simple little change in emphasis from loss to gain- and really it is nothing more than that- and something rather magic happens. You realize that it is all good. There is absolute truth in the adage ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. That life is balanced, that when we give up, we always get. Look hard enough at anything at all and there is- however small-  a positive lurking there. Even, dare I say it – and if there was a font for hesitancy I would be using it now- the depths of winter or the most torturous of teenage years. Though on both those counts, I confess I will have to keep you posted……..

ImageThe resident teenager…..looking good from this angle…..!

Weeping Willow….

DSC00908

Three weeks ago, our very beloved family dog, Willow, was run over and killed by a tractor, driven by a young farmer who was in a harvest induced rush.

To say it was horrific is an understatement. It was like a scene from an Ian McEwan novel;  a day all blue-skied and perfect, a family celebrating a birthday, the last minute decision to go for a late afternoon walk and drink in the last of the sun. One moment we were singing the praises of the day, near perfect we were proclaiming, and then in a moment, there was a bend in the road, a hedgerow, the glint of a dog from the corner of my eye and the clatter of a tractor coming round the corner too fast. And boom –  the irreversible happens.

We all claim to be acutely aware of the fragility of life and how things can change on a dime, yet the truth is, moment to moment tragedies remain almost unimaginable. It’s only when something awful actually happens- and god I am acutely aware that no matter how horrible it has been there is a lot worse that can befall a person- that we are shaken out of our slumber of permanence.

My first, instinctive thought was ‘It could have been one of my children’. In fact, in my semi-fury, semi-desperation I think I screamed as much at the muted farmer.

Experiences like that are littered with what ifs, both good and bad.

‘What if I hadn’t suggested the walk?’

‘What if I had been able to find her lead?’

‘What if we had left ten minutes earlier or later?’

‘What if the younger ones had come with us, and been running on ahead?’

It is futile thinking but it circles around in your head.

My second thought, in an experience now indelibly etched in slow motion across my mind, was ‘Oh my god, how will I tell the children?’ If I am honest, part of me wanted to run from the responsibility. I felt like, I knew, that I was going to be taking an axe to their innocence. Up until now, they have – blessedly- been largely protected from death. They have seen me grieve the loss of grandparents, but they are yet, or were yet, to experience that punch in the stomach sadness when you lose someone that is an integral part of your existence.

I hope I don’t need to be their bearer of bad news too often. Watching their wide eyed faces spontaneously twist with grief makes me choke when I think of it now.

‘How do I hug them all at once?’, I thought.

‘I cant possibly console one before the other’

‘Why cant I take it all away?’.

The protective instinct that is such an innate part of being a mother was rendered completely useless in this instance. I realised very quickly that nothing I said and little I did would ultimately be of help. I couldn’t take their sadness away, package it up and send it off as I wanted too, and I couldn’t coach them through it either. They had to process the experience – their loss, their sadness, their memories – in their own way.

And what was remarkable was that after the initial universal outpouring, they all did it, and have continued to do it, in vastly different ways.

The youngest- as you might expect- dried his eyes first. He found distraction in a computer game on which he had free reign- there was no room for rules at a time like that. When he came back downstairs, still red-eyed but composed, he counselled me, ‘Mum, if you try to think about something else, then you won’t feel as sad’.

Almost immediately, and it felt almost shocking at the time, he asked if we could get another dog.

‘Exactly the same’ he said. ‘And we’ll call her Willow’

I decided that it wasn’t the time to teach him that animals weren’t like toys, that you couldn’t simply go to a shop and buy a new one. I didn’t need to, because he already knew. It was just his coping mechanism. Thinking ahead. Being hopeful.

The middle one took all the hugs he could get and when he was spent, announced he was going upstairs to write Willow a letter. Which he did. A full heart-wrenching page written by a boy who has always proclaimed to hate writing.

And the oldest, newly a teenager, sought solace in her friends, as teenagers do. She cried and cried, and then called her friends to cry some more. She then walked the house like a ghost, acutely aware of the deep bellied grief that sat, like a stone, in the pit of her stomach.

‘I still feel sad’ she said, ‘but I have run out of tears.’

On the Saturday after Willow died we buried her at the foot of the garden, on a patch we now realise gets the last of the evening sun. She was wrapped in a white sheet, curled up as though she was sleeping, and we gave her some dog biscuits, her old collar and a pair of my husband’s socks ( which she permanently used to steal). The youngest, who had obviously stored up his tears all week, was then inconsolable. I suspect a little part of him hadn’t processed the reality of it all until he saw her nestled at the bottom of a four foot deep grave. We planted a willow tree on top of the grave, a weeping Willow. It felt like the most profoundly right thing to do, not least because of its being her namesake. But I had underestimated quite how right it was.

Ever since it has provided a focal point. Immediately all the children were making plans for candle lit vigils on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. One of them suggested hanging things from the tree, to make it pretty. Another suggested that perhaps Willow’s heart would grow up into the trunk of the tree.  And that if they hugged the tree it would be like hugging Willow.

Only three days ago I found the youngest sat next to the tree, playing the guitar. ( Though it was less romantic than it sounds, because it was one of the push button electric guitars that pumps out a slightly strained solo whenever you hit a button, which of course children do, ad infinitum, ad nauseum). It did though, seem to make him happy that he could play music to his dog.

Even the cat has been seen, regularly enough to make you wonder, sat under the tree, soaking up the sun’s rays.

And almost every day, as we drive out of the house, one of them calls out ‘Bye Willow, guard the house’ as we have always done, for years and years.

IMG_2648

WILLOW

March 2005 – September 2013

Very loved, and absolutely not forgotten.

Lessons from a Summer Well Spent…..

Image

I was tempted to blog more than once over the summer but the allure of being offline and not having to string a proper sentence together proved too great. But I am now back at my desk, in near perfect silence (I am not entirely sure how I feel about that) and figure it might be time to start oiling my altogether rusted brain (at my age, a list-free month is all it takes). So, apologies if the sentences are not yet quite strung together. It has only been two weeks since we got home, but 150 name tapes later and a single week of 6.15 am starts and the vivid blue skies of France and the endless long days are feeling like a lifetime away. The truth is, it doesn’t take long before the sun-tan gets washed down the plughole and the rigmarole of daily life feels once more like the only thing you have ever known. But I am determined to hang on like a limpet to the effects of bowing out of life. Because bowing out is exactly what I did – no phone calls, no emails, no organised activities, no clock-watching, no shoes. And god I loved every little second of it. And so did my children.  A whole month of unadulterated freedom which allowed us to live life stripped back to the essentials and gave us the time to see the wood from the trees. Without all the other stuff, the seconds feel more like minutes, and suddenly the very thing we lack at home – time – we had in spades. And though it is easy to live simply and well it is rid of all the add-ons and the demands and the responsibilities, there is surely room ( I thought to myself as I boarded the plane back to Heathrow with an unhealthy feeling of dread) to bring a few of summer’s lessons back, and parachute them into our existence? Almost like bringing home a souvenir, like one of those snow globes with the Eiffel tower in it.

 

LESSON 1-( less of a lesson, more of a realisation) Its not the mothering that’s hard but all the add ons.

        Image

 

My husband has always said to me (usually after he has been left solo with the children for the weekend and has, to my mild annoyance, managed absolutely fine with them all) that looking after them isn’t that hard, as long as you aren’t trying to do anything else. And he is right. Parenting is a full time job. And if we had every waking hour to dedicate it without anything else then it would not be as hard as it so often is. Take away the washing, cooking, cleaning, bill-paying, work, school runs, swimming lessons and play-dates and all you’d have to grapple with would the odd tantrum, a lost shoe and a dose of sibling rivalry. Much more do-able. In the summer I had time to play mastermind with the middle one, kick a football at the little one & watch the eldest’s synchronised swimming without my mind (or half my body) being elsewhere. And I still had time to read my own books, cook leisurely meals and siesta in a hammock. Days that during normal life don’t have enough hours in them seem to stretch like a rubber band on holiday. So, you may ask, where is the lesson? It reads more like a grim truth. But the lesson here is simply to give ourselves and our kids a break. We can’t and we don’t mother in a vacuum, we mother in amongst everything else. And so next time I am feeling frazzled and strung out and like my kids are asking too much of me, I figure it might be helpful to remember – for all our sake and before I bite their heads off- that it isn’t them getting in my way, it’s life.

 

Lesson 2- The More the Merrier

Image

This was my number one lesson of the holidays (so should have come first but didn’t) and will now apply to every blissfully unscheduled afternoon and weekend henceforth. We spent a lot of time this summer with whole gangs of children, and without any doubt, those were our happiest & crucially easiest times. Several weeks with cousins, day after day with friends to stay, and a wonderful little interlude visiting old friends north of Toulouse with three families wholly outnumbered by their children. The maths was simple- the more children there were, the happier they were, and the more time the parents had to sit, read, sunbathe and drink red wine whilst putting the world to rest. Far from becoming the bun fight that you’d expect, throw a load of children together and you get a whirlwind of creative play, and hours of it. Forget crowding around televisions or jostling for turns on computer games- which basically seems to be the default mode for two children or less. There were water polo matches with team mates that spanned from three to fifteen, full knight battles that took them to previously unexplored parts of the garden for a whole afternoon, the creation of a group music video orchestrated by our thirteen year old and a proper pyjama disco (marred only slightly by tantrums over the songs). One minute they were story telling, the next minute they were making parachutes, and the next it was full synchronised dancing routines in the pool. I managed to make my way through six novels (and far too many bottles of wine), and didn’t have to stay up absurdly late to do so pester free. For the cost of a few extra mouths to feed, you literally buy yourself hours of time.

Lesson 3- The Golden Hour

Image

‘Children don’t need a lot, but what they need, they need intensely’, or so says Penelope Leach. The longer I have children the more I see the adage that quality not quantity applies to everything we do with them. For many summers now, we have fallen into a rhythm where we have a leisurely morning and then very specifically do something together after breakfast. When they were little we would often start with a craft project, or build a cubby house in the garden, or go on a walk and make up silly stories, or bring back stones to paint. It was all pretty simple, but the key was to do something together when everyone had the energy, and when I – in particular- was undistracted by anything else. Quite apart from anything, it meant that the mornings were lovely, and felt fruitful. If I am honest, a little part of me also felt relieved that (assuming I had kept my cool when the paint pot got spilled all over the stone terrace turning it a permanent shade of blue) I could tick the good mother box on that particular day. And there was an added, unexpected bonus. The kids were then quite happy to go and make their own fun. On some days, the effect would only last until the afternoon, when I might then be accosted to rate their dive-bombs, or to play pirates on the lilo. But sometimes, the effect would last all day. Having given them an hour or two of unadulterated attention, they were quite happy to fend for themselves. And the most brilliant part of this particular little lesson, is that it is fully transportable back to normal life- afternoons, weekends, half term holidays. Give them an hour and they will give you three.

 

Lesson 4- Get up before the kids

Image

 

Waking up before your own children sounds completely counter-intuitive, especially if you are like me and feel that even a lifetime of shut-eye might not make up for the crippling sleep deprivation that comes with the early years. But actually it proved to be accidental genius. There is a small caveat that this lesson can not possibly apply to anyone with tiny children or babies, who rise – like a rooster- with the first light. So if that’s you, skip this entirely. But for anyone else, pre-empting the kids and giving yourself anything from fifteen minutes to an hour to get ahead of them is completely sanity inducing. On holiday, it meant that I could lie in bed, have a cup of tea, read my book and look out at the brilliant blue sky behind an old lime tree for at least half an hour before anyone asked me for anything. It was bliss. At home, I have kept this going – which means waking up at the very painful time of 6.15 which still only buys me fifteen minutes- and the effect is huge. I am one step ahead of everyone else, and the impact seems to last all day. It doesn’t feel pretty when the alarm goes off, and more than once I have been sorely tempted to hit the snooze button until half past, but if there was ever a way to multiply time, I think beating them out of bed is it.

 

Lesson 5- Take more holidays

Image

 

In an article that made the rounds of the internet back in February 2012, the second of the top five regrets of the dying was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Quite apart from the necessary respite from the treadmill of life, getting away- and it can be as simple as taking off to a windswept campsite or as high end as a villa in some exotic location- means that everyone in the family has a bit more time and a bit more energy to be together. My absolute best memories growing up were when it was just my dad, my mum, my sister and I, usually cramped in the cabin of a little boat or squeezed into a tent, with little more than time for each other. And it is the bank of family memories-which after a holiday seem always to be in mad technicolour- that sustains you most when you get back to the job of life.

 

Image

Mothers, enough of the the mud-slinging…

Image

If you’ll give me a moment, I need to get on my soap box. Because last weekend, something really got under my skin ( and it wasn’t just becoming the proud owner of VIP tickets to Glastonbury and then NOT BEING ABLE TO GO, though there was that too).

It was, instead, yet another article in the weekend papers that pitched itself as a rallying cry to mothers whilst effectively just belittling us all.

It’s a funny thing that while pregnancy very often unites us as women- we happily compare due dates, lament our common ailments and fret about our mutual fear of labour- motherhood itself has an extraordinary capacity to divide. Instead of muddling through the whole endeavour together, our friendships are very often drawn up or tested along battleground lines that are both coarse and wholly unrealistic.

Are you a ‘natural birth hippy’ or ‘too posh too push’?

Are you a Gina Ford advocate or an attachment parent?

Are you a pinny wearing stay at home mum or a hard nosed working mother?

Not only are the lines far too black and white to be relevant to anyone- surely we all occupy a space somewhere simply along the spectrum set by these extreme boundaries and even then it can depend on the day- but they pit one mother against another in a war that can not be won, and in which we, as women, are the ultimate losers.

In this regard we are absolutely our own worst enemies. It is noteworthy it is only women at the healm of this debate, creating the camps and then slinging the mud, fuelling the cat war in a way that no man would dare.

The article in question was by Daisy Waugh, whose mothering book is out some time this week (and I am yet to receive and read it so will reserve judgement there- she can certainly write). The jist of the article was her expousing her own particular brand of laissez-faire mothering that seems to be all the rage at the moment (a reaction, perhaps natural, to the last parenting fad that had us all in pinnies, baking flapjacks and busting domestic goddess moves in the kitchen as the key to perfect parenting) . There was no doubt that it contained a lot of salient points – that the pressure on women to conform to an ideal is suffocating and futile, that we should throw off the mask of the perfect mother and be a bit more real, and a bit less ‘simpering’ and that there are a lot of mothering tasks that are really quite boring – all true, all relevant.

But, and is a big, big but, she feel into the trap that I suspect we all sometimes do (if we are honest)- that in order to defend her own corner she had to belittle the choices of others.

She describes motherhood as ‘ a journey that leads us, tinkly teethed, through ghastly antenatal group-breathing exercises, through pointlessly agonizing natural births, through headache inducing, toddler tambourine classes, through a million hours of grindingly dull and unnecessary breastfeeding to the position we find ourselves in today: reduced to home-baking cakes at midnight, for fear that by failing to do so, we will somehow be seen to have ‘failed’ our children.

Clearly, none of the above is her bag. No problem there. Its not all mine either. But, what it if it some other people’s? And what if, contrary to her belief, other women do those things, not to conform to some sort of ideal, but because they want to. Because they get a genuine sense of satisfaction out of an empowering natural birth, or an oxytocin fuelled breastfeeding experience, or out of friendship forming toddler groups or simply helping the school by baking cakes for the fete?

I have never been much of committee person. Sure I will gladly be roped in to running a stall at the school fete, but it will never be me organising it. But there is no doubt that I am hugely grateful that other people do. My children go to an amazing little village school, a few minutes drive from our house. It is a very special place; the setting is idyllic, Tolkien used to drink in the local pub and with only 89 children in the whole place, it is a living example of small being beautiful. But what really makes it a cut above, is the incredible sense of community that springs out of it, and that community is created not by the likes of me who parachute in for some face painting on occasion, but by the really dedicated women behind the scenes who have wholeheartedly taken the task of mothering and community building to hand, and have made a life out of it.

To my mind, we belittle the ‘small ‘ stuff at our own peril. Not only does the world turn on the back of the small, incremental and unremarkable things that the vast majority of us do every single day, but like it or not, motherhood has its unfair share of it. To the untrained eye, much of what we do as mothers isn’t especially noteworthy. And like it or not, whichever camp you throw yourself into- stay at home mum, working mum or, as I perilously juggle, a slightly unsatisfactory version of both-  the small, often mundane but ultimately important little tasks will be part and parcel of our daily lives.

True ‘mummy feminism’ will never come from judgment or mudslinging, or a rallying cry for us all to become versions of one another. It will come when we recognize and respect that every mother out there is just muddling through, living a compromised version of their ideal to the best of their ability. And when we start to make peace with the tasks of motherhood and recognize that we are all very often doing extraordinary things in quite ordinary ways.

Image

Is head-space the new mini-break?

Image

Two weeks ago, my ever surprising husband took me away for the weekend for our tenth wedding anniversary. It was a milestone, he rightly said, and one that we needed to mark. Something to add to our bank of memories. And I, he thought, really needed some sun.

I couldn’t have agreed with him more. Apart from the fact that I never again have license to complain about his lack of romantic gestures, everything about this idea was brilliant. A spontaneous 48 hours on our own with no agenda, no meals to cook and no one to think of apart from ourselves. Much as I completely love my children, two days childfree is a treat whichever way you look at it.

We decided on Ibiza. Blue sky, incredible water, beach bars, long lunches in orange groves and late dinners spilling onto the street- as well as my ultimate luxury, the mandatory siesta. It ticked every box. (I am all for a city-break and a museum or two, but somehow not having the pressure to be cultured felt like an added bonus ).

So day one, and we were up before the birds to catch a proper red-eye. I was slightly dreading the 4am start but, without children in tow, it was practically a pleasure. A couple of hours and a power nap later and we were making straight for breakfast on the beach, squinting into brilliant sunshine for the first time in months. And it was as early as this that I discovered a potential spanner in my otherwise perfect works. In the excitement of packing too many dresses I had forgotten to pack a book. Maybe not a problem for some, but a borderline disaster for me. Realistically I can live without a book, but two days to myself and no page-turning novel to lose myself in was feeling like a missed opportunity. I very nearly screeched out loud. I definitely did on the inside.

For those of you who have never had children, my sincerest advice is to read as much as you possibly can now because reading, alongside going to the cinema and having a lie-in, will become something you almost never do. ( And because reading four lines and then passing out, book on head and often dribbling, of an evening doesn’t count as reading )

Holidays are my one chance to indulge in the ultimately anti-social but glorious act of immersing myself in a book, sometimes with such intensity that I forget to breathe. Two days with no one’s schedule to heed but my own and NO book felt almost sacrilege.

So much so that I very nearly insisted we give up half of our precious two days to go hunting for some literature to indulge me. But then I decided not to bother. I was hungry and the beach was too close. Maybe, I thought to myself, I will just sit in the sun for a while. And do nothing.  And I have to say, how I rate doing nothing. Because before very long, whilst I was literally doing nothing ( and by that I mean, not eating, chatting, reading, not doing anything) I found something  so unfamiliar that to begin with it almost felt uncomfortable. Head space.

As any of you with children will testify too, family life is decidedly lacking in space. Bombast, colour, chaos and love it has in spades, but space is very definitely an outmoded concept post the pitter-patter of tiny feet. And I always thought it was physical space that I was talking about when I proclaimed, sometimes loudly,  ‘I need some space’. The space to detach from a little being who was clinging to my leg or climbing on my back. Or the space to be able to go somewhere or do something without at least one but very often three extra people in tow, even if that somewhere was as decidedly unglamorous as the toilet. Or the space from their different demands that often came (come) in breathless succession.

But the truth is, it’s not just our children who take up space, but modern life and its frenetic pace and crucially, its capacity to distract us. The minute there is even the glimpse of a void, it can (and usually is)  filled with phones and facebook, texting and twitter, pinterest and instagram and the multitude of other sites and gadgetry ( or in my case written words) that clutter our mind and, ultimately, feed what can fast become a greedy addiction to distraction.

 Obviously its not all bad- I am not throwing the baby out with the bath water here and there is something to be said for it all, and most especially the written word- but there is so much at our immediate disposal, both the frivolous and the less so, that whenever we have an opportunity to do nothing, we don’t.

We fill the gaps and clog up the spaces, until we have forgotten what it is to just sit, and look, and ponder and just be. The latter especially being a well-explored philosophical concept and a much touted route to happiness which the vast majority of us so rarely practice. And it is, to my mind, highly underrated.

Admittedly I didn’t have any sacred or profane revelations, in this newfound head-space of mine. But I was able to think about things for more than a disjointed nanosecond. And instead of burying my nose in a book, I actually looked around and noticed things that I would have otherwise ignored, or quickly forgotten. And though it meant that I took an almost embarrassing number of photos of plants and unusual Mediterranean flowers that I had taken the time to marvel at – my thirteen year old daughter was bemused and might have even rolled her eyes –it also meant my actual memories are that much more vivid, that instead of always being a million miles away, I had actually been there, drinking in the whole experience ( alongside the lunch time wine), and giving my head some much needed time to unravel. And it was this, more than anything else, that made the whole experience a proper, and rather heavenly, break.

 

 Image

‘No, you can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometime, you just might find

You get what you need’

 

The Rolling Stones

My Family and other Adventures……

 

 ‘Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance’ 

Steven Pressfield – The War of Art

Image

My brother in law said something fascinating to me some months back, when we were talking about the maddening yet seemingly fundamental human resistance to doing things that make us happy. And it was that the only way around it was trickery.

It happens to me all the time, this strange resistance. Writing my book, playing board games with the kids, tending my garden, doing my yoga practice- all of which I do regularly, but always with a moment’s hesitation and a tendency to think I would rather be doing a load of laundry. (Please tell me it is not just me? I know I have at least one ally in my friend who is a supremely talented artist, but seems to find everything else to do rather than pick up a paint brush.)

My wonderful brother in law’s advice is that in the face of this insanity, you must make the plan to do something so far in advance that it feels decidedly unthreatening and then rope in as many people as you can to do it with you, so that you are then beholden to your own plan.

It clearly works for him. He is the single most productive person I know. Now a successful musician in Berlin, his back catalogue spans three and nearly four albums, endless videos, rock-umentaries and merchandise. The man is an all singing, all dancing, one man machine of creativity and productivity. If he suffers from ‘resistance’ then he hides it well.

So it got me thinking that this clever little tactic can and should be applied to family life- and in particular family adventures, which I am increasingly convinced are the key to it all. My happiest memories as a child were when I was in cramped and often calamitous conditions with my sister and parents- so in a tent up a Himalayan mountain in a storm or the cabin of our miniature sailing boat in a heat-wave so intense that sleep was impossible or stuffed into one rickety mode of Asian transport or another. We were all together, no one was distracted, we chatted, we laughed, we played games- it was good old fashioned family time -and quite frankly I think it all needs resurrected.

Image

All too often our current weekends are now spent carting one child to a sports activity whilst the other is late for a birthday party and the third is trying to work out the best bus routes for her trip into town, whilst grabbing my last remaining fiver on the way out. Meanwhile, my husband is sneaking off to get a quick computer fix and I am just longing for a nap.

For some families, adventure is already the fabric of their existence. No plans or tricks necessary. But for a lot of us, we might well yearn for it but the allure of a comfortable bed, the rhythm of an undemanding weekend and a diary that is so full it suffocates all spontaneity means that adventure extends to the local park if we’re lucky.

Now anyone who knows me will tell you I am something of a planner. I love a diary, and I especially love a full diary ( spontaneity quasher right there). Back in February I wiled away many an arctic day planning summer weekends, and merrily booked up the May bank holidays with carefully researched camping idylls. Five weeks ago this particular plan looked like complete insanity. It was still snowing. Even at the beginning of last week, when I was driving Skye to the bus in 1.5 degrees, I was thinking the only thing worse would be camping. In fact if the truth be told, camping always seems like a crazy idea. Who in their right mind would want to pack up everything including the kitchen sink, drive for miles with children fighting in the back from the first bend, to spend the weekend hunched over a single hob camping stove making saltless food, only to sleep uncomfortably all night and to wake up feeling (and looking) as though you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. Lesser trials illicit great resistance.

Friends’ plans of lazy lunches and late dinners were all sounding increasingly covetable. I lay in bed every morning, relishing the duvet and dreading the adventure. Luckily for me, I had ‘done a Jamie’ and paid for the campsite and roped in my sister to join us. There was no squirming out of my own plans.

And how glad I am that I couldn’t. Three glorious sunny days of being outside, of swing ball and boules and Frisbee, of Herefordshire cider and incredible scenery and nights by the fire roasting marshmallows and warming our toes. Sure, getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo felt like an ordeal and every morning without fail I looked like the Wreck of the Hesperus. But how often do you find yourself only two hours from home but feeling a million miles away, walking a ridge and a valley that were some of the most beautiful you’ve ever seen? And on the Monday afternoon, before we had even got home, my six year old wanted to go again.

Image

Image

So my sincerest advice is whenever possible, trick yourself into an adventure.  I am already busy plotting the next one.

‘We were born to be free-range….’  

Stornaway

 

Extra bits-

Shameless plug of wonderful brother-in-law – JIM KROFT

The highly recommended little campsite we made our temporary home http://www.thebridgeinnmichaelchurch.co.uk/camping/

Brilliant, brilliant book that will give you a proper kick up the rear if you need it

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

Image

The Upside of Being Broken….

601240_407693659272180_147857388_n

I have an ongoing (and desperately boring) problem with my back, which involves an unstable sacro-illiac joint and a lot of pain. I spend far too much time with a thankfully particularly lovely McTimoney chiropractor. Whilst I would never wish a back problem on anyone, there is – I assure you- an unexpected upside to the experience and it is that when i go and see her, I get to be looked after by someone else for a change. Its only half an hour, and obviously I am paying for the privilege, but it’s a crazy fact of mothering that it involves such relentless and unrivalled nurturing of other people on such a constant basis, that to be nurtured yourself can actually feel like a genuine luxury.  It’s not quite as tragic as the Japanese cuddle cafes (what does that say about our lonely, individualistic society?) but its not far off.

On Saturday I woke up to discover my back worse than usual. It was clear by about 8.30 that I was not going to be able to just grimace and get through the weekend with a dose of stoicism and a couple of ibuprofen. Luckily, Nicola could see me that morning, so I wrenched the boys away from cartoons and the preteen out of her onesie and our family outing became a trip to fix mum’s back. Understandably no one seemed that excited. Secretly, I was quietly lamenting that my half hour of being put back together was going to be punctuated by an irritating cacophony of ‘I’m bored’, ‘Are there any snacks?’ ‘Why did we have to come?’ and the insistent sound of the massage chair being started and stopped.

But this time, I suggested they stay in the waiting room.

‘They will be all right, wont they?’ Nicola asked me.

‘Of course they will’ I said, as I skipped (actually hobbled but mentally I was skipping) through the door before they could follow me.

Now to anyone who has not got children, this will not feel remarkable nor worthy of note. You’d be forgiven for asking why on earth I am boring you with such irrelevant detail. Except that after having three children spread out over now thirteen years, and having needed to have at least an eye on them if not be completely surgically attached to them for all or part of that time, that I can now leave them alone for a full half hour, with little more than faith that they will entertain themselves and not need me, is HUGE.

‘It gets easier, doesn’t it?’ Nicola said to me knowingly (she is the mother of four grown up boys) as we sat down without them.

‘It does’ I replied.

And here is the thing, IT REALLY DOES. it doesn’t get easy, but it gets easier.

Yes, as their physical needs diminish, their emotional ones grow and without doubt it is still hard work at times, often gruelling, in wholly different ways, but the truth is, its those early years of mothering that are the ones that drain us of our every resource and put us under so much pressure that at times we feel we just might crack.

The truth is that small children need all of your attention all of the time. Idle parent philosophies are wonderful- this blog will end up littered with them I have no doubt- but they simply can not be applied to the parents of babies, whose needs are continuous and fierce or toddlers, who in the hands of an idle parent would without doubt end up somewhere perilous before anyone’s had the time to finish their tea. (I had a friend around the other day with a toddler who, whilst we were busy chatting away, somehow managed to fall into an empty laundry basket in the back loo and was stuck there for a full half hour. It was hardly perilous, but I am not sure she found it that much fun.) None of the early child-rearing is rocket science- although you’d be forgiven for thinking that PHD was a genuine requirement for getting a baby to sleep through the night, it so elusive, but it all so constant. Being needed, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is exhausting. So them growing up a little bit, and you becoming less needed, can feel like a revelation.

But there is also another, often wholly overlooked, reason why it all gets easier, and that is much more to do with us than with them. And that is the fact that in those early days, we don’t just feel like we might crack, we do crack. We have to.

To say as a society we are unprepared for parenthood is a huge understatement. As Penelope Leach says, ‘bringing up children is probably the most difficult task people undertake, yet our society offers less preparation for it than for anything else’. We get more guidance on how to raise a dog than we do a child. There are no courses, degrees or apprenticeships in motherhood- we really have no choice but to learn on the job. In some ways this is a great leveler. No matter what you have done previously, how you fared through education, or which lofty heights you might have flown to in your career, you are literally thrown back to the start line with the birth of your first child, and expected to undertake an impossible obstacle course with no map. As Alice, founder of The Mother Movement in Australia says, its a bit like asking all men aged 30- regardless of their qualifications, previous experience or ambition -to all become accountants.

Some mothers take to the experience like the proverbial duck to water, whilst others find it a huge anti-climax and wholly unfulfilling, and most ricochet to and from each extreme like a manic depressive, never having imagined they could so long for a shade of grey ( excusing that phrases’ other connotations!)

On the good days, there is the love that is so intense it is visceral, the time gloriously wasted trying to illicit the prized gummy smile and there is often an unexpected relief that comes with days that lack of structure and the license to come off the treadmill, but on the hard days – and you will have both, no doubt- its as though the ‘you’ that you have so carefully constructed through your teens and in all likelihood throughout all of your twenties is disappearing into the fog of sleep deprivation, the mounds of washing and the monotony of basic nurture. And its this loss of ability, this sense of being unqualified and having absolutely no sense of who you are anymore apart from an adjunct to someone else, that makes the whole experience so hard for so many. Its as though to become a mother, you have to give up every inch of the person you were before motherhood, as though you need broken to be reformed.

Transition, under any circumstances is not easy. As human beings we are often ill-equipt for change. And when the change is wholly surprising and on someone else’s terms, it can feel difficult, even painful. But in the process of becoming a mother, that adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is nothing if not true.

In my job I work with mothers or women who are becoming mothers all the time. I see first hand the lack of confidence that the majority of women have in their early pregnancies and in those early weeks and months of becoming a mother for the first time. I see otherwise forthright women, who are instead tentative, unsure and questioning. I see women grappling with sleep deprivation and the necessary muddle that is those early weeks and sometimes, I see them falling apart. But I also see what can only be described as an extraordinary process of metamorphosis in each and every one of them. Because as the days, weeks, months and then siblings roll by, these same women get more vocal, more sure of themselves, more confident in their ability- not necessarily to get it right but to at least muddle through. Only today I was speaking to a woman who was telling me about the magic of being the mother to a third child. ‘I don’t have any more answers this time around’, she said, ‘the difference is I don’t mind’.

In the process of their experience, these women (and that means all of us) are not just learning the tricks of the trade and developing the confidence to leave things undone but they are also –probably unwittingly- forging a whole new identity. Very often it is out of the ruins of their old one, and sometimes it can feel as though we have lost more than we have gained, but without doubt, women as mothers become bigger, stronger and better versions of their former selves. A bit like those Japanese earthenware pots, with their cracks filled with gold. And it is that; the new, more confident, more whole identity that we forge, not just as women but as women who are also mothers, that makes us more capable of handling the immensity of what it means to be a mother. And it is this, above all else, that makes it easier. Not easy, just easier.

‘There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

Leonard Cohen

Following my own advice….

So in the spirit of my resurrected ‘less is more’ philosophy and armed with a bag of mandarins and some chocolate brioches, we bunked off swimming lessons yesterday and went to the river instead. We ate a few of the mandarins but mainly used them to practice juggling (we are all rubbish) and play broken bottles ( Cosmo won- he always does, ‘on pain of death’) and then squelched in mud and generally mooched about. Marcus decreed it ‘the perfect last day of being eight’. I think he might have been right. Whatever it was, it was a lot better than sitting in a sweaty leisure centre with a lot of other bored mothers, feigning interest…..

Image

Marcus and his mean gate vault

Image

Sunning themselves like cats

Image

The sinking mud

Image

And one very cold river

Image

One very happy, mud-splattered boy

Image

And another one, on the eve of his ninth birthday ( where is the pause button?)