Facing the storm of change

I took this first photo of my eldest son two years ago, as he was about to move from infant school to the junior school a mile down the road. A storm was coming and I thought it captured the essence of facing new challenges head on and not being afraid. Now, two years later, my second son, has reached the same place on the climbing frame and has also started junior school. At the same time, my daughter has started school and being a third child she’s already almost at the top. My BUBs no longer toddle, they climb. They don’t dribble, they make jokes. They don’t cling to me, they soar. It’s not only a sad time. It’s brilliant.

But for a primary carer it can be a real struggle. I don’t mean the tears at the school door or the sense of our babies growing up, although that can be hard. For some people, whether they’ve been working around their children’s nursery hours or spending the majority of their time at home, it can be like leaving school all over again. Suddenly the security of the beckoning school gates, the scheduled lessons, the looming exams, it’s all gone. That stage of life has been completed – hooray – but now what? Suddenly there’s a huge blank horizon in front of us and we’re not sure what to paint across it. People start asking you “So what are you going to do now?” Going back to an old job or an existing profession is one option for some. Retraining to try something new is another. Many of the Mums who are sending their last child off to school are in their late 30s or 40s, facing a simultaneous mid-life crisis. How long do I have left to achieve what I want to? Do I even have the energy left? Will anybody want me?

For those Mums who are looking for a job around school hours, who don’t have a job to go back to or don’t want to go the full 9 to 5 and make use of wraparound care, there’s a power struggle in the mind. On the one hand you’ve got the pressing issue of earning some money, and wouldn’t that be nice and often necessary? Then there’s the need to re-enter the adult world and get some of your mojo back. On the other hand there are still the millions of jobs to do at home, the wardrobe clear outs, the garage tidies, the maintenance, decorating and don’t underestimate the day to day school admin. You also might feel you need time to just sit back and recover from the last five or more years where you’ve tried to keep on top of everything. Then there’s the exhausting morning routine, and the after school chaos, the dinner to prepare, groceries to buy, pets to walk. It can feel overwhelming. The hours between 9.30am and 2.30pm pass like lightning. If you manage to find a job within those hours or one that offers some flexibility you are winning, if that’s what you want. But before the search even begins, many Mums are left feeling a mixture of sadness, self doubt, and awkwardness. Just like many of us did as we approached leaving school.

But on a positive note, it can feel like second chance at life and it can feel like a chance at trying something new, career wise. There is absolutely loads of support online for Mums (and Dads) in this position. I’ve recently joined an amazing Facebook group called Flexible Working for Mums Like Me (Dads Welcome!) Since setting up the group in February 2018, Katy has grown this group to over 12k members. It is definitely worth checking out for support, advice and jobs. I’ve got a couple of friends who have set themselves up as successful Virtual Assistants (VA). Maybe creating your own business is the way to go? If so check out this excellent source of inspiration, Carrie Green, founder of the Female Entrepreneur Association. She was recommended to me by one of my VA friends as she’s very down to earth but has some fantastic advice. Her She Means Business podcasts are also worth a listen, and she has a book out with the same name.

Whether it’s blue skies or stormy clouds, autumn is a season of changes and dusting off the old. If you’ve just waved your youngest child off at the school gates, how are you embracing this new stage of life? Or for now are you just sitting down with a cup of tea and enjoying the silence before the storm arrives again at 3pm? If so, you deserve it.

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Girls and boys

People ask me if I have noticed a difference between BUB.3, a girl, and BUBs 1 and 2, boys. Nope, I say, they’re exactly the same.

Hmmmm. Today she (purposefully) dropped an entire packet of dried spaghetti all over the kitchen floor, shattering it into small pieces. I tried to make soup, sausages and a stir fry as she proceeded to hand me pasta fragments one by one. Piece by piece, each one announced with a ‘Mu, Mu” which is “Mum”.

It’s raisins too. And baked beans. And pencils. And straws. And peas. And Lego. Each scattering of items is met with a sombre “uh oh” and then one by one, Mum by Mum, she hands me them, getting frustrated and cross if I don’t accept each one promptly and with smiles.

It’s really the only time she uses the word  ‘Mum’. So I smile each time and say thank you. And I stuff whatever she has given me in my back pocket, or on a shelf, in the bin or in the front pocket of my bag, which is at the best of times a place of deep confusion and biscuit dust.

I am used to items of all descriptions being dispersed around the house willy nilly. I am not used to this being viewed as a problem or an annoyance by anyone else but myself.

I don’t want to be sexist but I’m hoping this will extend to wet towels and toothpaste lids further down the line.

Roll with it

Listening to Oasis’s What’s the Story Morning Glory in the car on the way to the cinema, we all sang along to Wonderwall and She’s Electric but when Champagne Supernova came on we all fell silent, driving through the rain, until I asked them if they knew what a supernova was. They said no, so I told them it’s the end of a star’s life.  “How long do stars live for? asked BUB.2. “Millions and sometimes billions of years,” I said. “Longer than us then?” “Yes.” “I wish I was a star then,” he said sadly, staring out at the rain, when just seconds ago he was doing Minions impressions. “But you are,” I said, before changing the subject to popcorn and sticking “Roll with it” on. Rainy, grey days are sh*t in the holidays but sometimes there’s just a flash of magic.

16 unexpected ways parenting keeps you young

Sure, having children keeps you young and makes you feel like a child again. Here’s why:

  1. You need permission to go out  — not from your Mum, but from your babysitter, who is often your Mum.
  2. You become friends with the people you happen to be in closest proximity to in the school playground.
  3. Your social life consists almost entirely of a half hearted Hokey Cokey, something fizzy to drink and some unrelenting sobbing.
  4. You don’t have any money of your own and definitely none to spend on yourself.
  5. You rarely go out after dark and when you do, it’s exciting.
  6. You cry irrationally, and often.
  7. You don’t sleep beyond 6am.
  8. Sometimes you pee your pants a bit.
  9. You don’t get to decide what you do ever.
  10. You don’t get to choose what to watch on TV ever.
  11. You aren’t allowed to go to restaurants which have fragile wine glasses already placed on the table.
  12. Strangers think it’s OK to touch you, talk to you, ask you rude questions and remark on your behaviour.
  13. You leave the house with food on your clothes and sometimes your face.
  14. You are convinced that everyone hates you and what you are doing.
  15. On rainy days you long to make a camp under a duvet and stay there for weeks.
  16. You pick things off the floor and eat them before really knowing what they are.

I see you. Your children see you. Can you see you?

The thing with Instagram mums is you can’t see them. If Sarah down the road has her shoes on the wrong feet (hers, not her child’s, it can happen) you can see it. You can see her unwashed hair, her red-rimmed eyes, the numerous fish finger boxes in her recycling. You can see her ill fitting jeans.

Women have never been perfect mothers. They just never got so incessantly pulled up by the media and they never had to compare themselves to filtered Instagram addicts. Looking back over time, billions of women have looked out for each other, helped each other, listened, noticed, shared and laughed with each other. That circle of support still exists today, down the street and online. My preferred channel of support is the bloggers and the writers who call themselves things like Unmumsy Mum and Scummy Mummies and Hurrah For Gin. They don’t fit the image of ‘mother’ that has been written not just by mothers, but by men, by media, by doctors and experts. They’re written by women who have kids. Mothers.

Modern day internet heroes are those women who make us laugh, who show us their red-rimmed eyes, their fat arses, their boredom, their bottle of gin, their tearful commute to work, their daily guilt, their imperfections, their love for their children. The Sarah Turners, the Helen Thorns, the Ellis Gibsons and the Katie Kirbys.  When was it decided that there was a bar to reach? And who decided it? It definitely wasn’t the woman sitting on the bench in the park with food-stained jeans on, hiccuping back tears and wishing she could just lie down for a minute. She has always been there. She has always sat on that bench. She just never had a world of comparisons and expectations on her shoulders. Her kids are alive and they’re in the park. You did it lady, these bloggers say, every day. You did everything you needed to and sometimes you need to hear that every day.

Kids don’t see Instagram filters or symmetrical cup cakes or fashion-forward scarves when they look at you or your home. They see lines and imperfections and sometimes they see tears; they see you. Not your 3495 followers. Not your dirty kitchen cupboards. Not your Valencia-filtered home-made egg muffins. They see you. If you transcribed the average mother’s day it would probably be a mixture of “God, can you just leave me alone for two minutes” and “I love you so much I can barely breathe” but there is no such thing as the average mother. To your child, the only person in the world who makes you a mother, there is only you.

And if anyone judges you for looking at your text messages from friends that make you laugh out loud and stealing a few minutes of feeling like you while your children play, or for feeding your kids the quickest thing you can find, then you probably want to scream at them that you weren’t always a mother and being a mother isn’t all that you are and, ultimately, you are just you looking after your child as best you can.

The fortunate mothers in this world aren’t hiding in broom cupboards scared of falling short or drinking in secret or pretending this is all they ever wanted or needed. They are doing it all in the open. They’re getting on trains across cities to work. They’re flying to meetings. They’re working night shifts. They’re drowning in laundry. They are fighting every day to balance everything their child needs with what they need. And they’re writing it all down, speaking it out loud and with it, millions of shoulders feel a little less heavy. Their words, their version of motherhood, their stories. Hallelujah to that. And to any mother who receives criticism for how she has done something from someone who has no business to say so, just remember to look down the street, or online, and there will be other mothers, scummy mummies and unmumsy mums and gin-loving mums,  leaving the house with a bat cape on, with cheerios in their hair, chairing meetings, attending school plays, writing presentations, saving lives, teaching other children, taking a bottle of wine out to the recycling and resisting a very slight urge to be sick. They’re doing all of these things.

So what does this have to do with the mummy bloggers who are much maligned by some? What these amazing women are doing is they are saying: You can be both. Just be both. Enjoy your life. Enjoy you and be glad to be you because that’s all your children want or need you to be. Above all, forgive yourself for not being perfect, so that your kids can look up to the happy, confident, joyful, imperfect woman that you were meant to be. To them, you are perfect and when it comes to judging mothers, whose opinion really, really matters?

Camping: Never. Again (until next week).

Camping. It’s basically just wiping toilet seats, dry retching, eating crisps and arguing, isn’t it? How many times in one holiday can you say “You CAN’T want a wee again already?” or “Have you finished yet?” or “Don’t go in THAT one!” or “You’re not hungry because you’ve eaten eight bags of crisps,” or “We can’t stay together if you think this is a holiday.” Precious moments spent choosing between the shower cubicle with dead flies or the knot of thick hair. The dry retching into the sink as you clean your teeth. The omnipresent smell of cooked egg. We camped for the first time as a family a couple of weeks ago.

It started well. Before check in we’d had a really splendid lunch at The Watch House cafe in nearby West Bay, a place famous for Broadchurch. Our tent was erected in sunshine and as we watched a glorious sunset a group of fun-looking people were kicking off a huge BBQ. WW leaned in, pointed to a lovely, be-shawled, wind-swept, smiley woman wearing the EXACT SAME red sandals as me, and said “She either lives in our village or she’s on TV.” “SHE’S ON TV” I assured him, recognising her deep guffaw as Kerry Godliman, who played the truly wonderful Hannah in Ricky Gervais’s Derek. Comedy gold, a red sun, a bottle of wine and my comedian-endorsed red sandals!

I practiced casually nodding and saying “Nice shoes” for the next three days, a killer line I failed to use as our bladders/bowels/ablutions/dirty dishes failed to synchronise. But the children were making friends with Kerry’s kid in an adjacent playground, and I was planning our future dinner parties with Ricky Gervais, we had pasta on the boil and all was well. I sipped Pinot Grigio alone, in the tent. The wind was beginning to get a bit, shall we say, flappy, as WW chased the children round a freezing pitch black patch of grass with a ball.

The next day, the driving rain was fierce, and cold, and sideways and yet WW leapt out of the tent and began cooking sausages and tomatoes to absolute perfection, his face being lashed by the rain. Not one to sit back and let someone else do all the work, I reached into the bag for some sliced bread. Unfortunately the bread had been in the cool bag with the ice that had now melted. It flopped down into our plates like a wet sponge. We cleared it all away and forgot to make a cup of tea.

Later, in the playground, my glands throbbing and my throat smarting, I overheard two men talking about a dog that had run off the edge of the cliff a week prior. “Lethal up there,” they were saying, gruffly. An air of doom started to descend, followed by a clanging headache. “Let’s go swimming!” said WW, pointing to the indoor pool we were fortunate enough to have on site. Everyone loves a public swimming pool right? Especially one with a one-in-one-out policy, that lets half your family in with your whole family’s swimming stuff, leaving you standing in the changing room with nothing to change into. I had to creep fully-clothed round the edge of the pool, ignoring the “Only swimming costumes to be worn beyond this point” sign and knock on the men’s changing rooms to retrieve my costume.

And who doesn’t like swimming pools that have no lockers so you have to put all your lovely dry clothes into a damp plastic container and store it on a shelf at the edge of the swimming pool, causing you to drop your partner’s boxer shorts on the wet floor as you leave the pool only for him to shout “My pants are wet!” at you as you scurry back to the changing rooms, hiccuping back tears? The tears weren’t because of the wet pants, no, I couldn’t care less about his wet pants, but because once we were all in the pool, I started to feel really, really strange. I had burnt my wrist on the oven at home a few days before and the burn turned bright yellow in the pool. I could see people eyeing my neon wound with suspicion and I immediately diagnosed myself with septicaemia. All around me were families throwing each other in the air and teaching the correct breaststroke technique and laughing, and I was swilling around in their chlorinated bum scum which I was suddenly convinced would be the last conscious experience of my 44 years here on earth.

And there it was again, the line so often muttered when we go to a public swimming pool. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I said to WW. “I’ll ask reception where the nearest doctor is.” As some sort of karmic payback for wet pants-gate, I got to the showers to discover I hadn’t brought my bag with my clean clothes and my shampoo in it. I had to climb back into my now wet old leggings and stretchy top, now festooned with strangers’ pubic hair, and return to the tent, in the rain, to retrieve my bag, before returning to the shower block with murder in mind. I washed away some of the torment and felt calmer as we drove to the nearest pharmacist who told me to visit the Minor Injuries Unit. I told WW to drop me there and go and get the kids some lunch as I’d undoubtedly have a wait on my hands. So off they went into Bridport and I was told I had an hour’s wait. An hour to myself sitting in a warm in a chair. This was only now becoming a holiday. I saw a man walking back to his chair with a cup of tea, at the exact time as I realised I’d left my purse in the car.

Exactly a parched hour later a nurse rolled up her sleeves to reveal an arm of oven burn scars similar to mine. “Ah, I know all about these,” she chirruped, before glancing at my luminous throbbing wrist and saying “That’s normal healing. Have a nice rest of your holiday.” Back in the car WW was in a stew. “What a waste of time, we’re going home tomorrow,” he said.  “No we’re not, we’re going home the following day,” I corrected him before realising I should have kept my mouth shut. But then he pointed to the footwell and said “Your lunch is down there,” and as I reached down and peeled back some paper to reveal some cold chips and curry sauce, I knew this holiday wasn’t over yet. “Charmouth now, for fossils!” he announced. On arrival, BUB.3 had fallen asleep in the car. “Oh no, what a shame,” I said. “She must be tired from sleeping in the tent, I’ll have to stay with her.” I was already winding my seat back and putting my feet on the dashboard before I finished the sentence. I watched their distant figures holding buckets and running towards the sea and back again and I gently closed my eyes to sleep. Which I did, for forty blissful minutes.

The day ended well, with a lovely meal in Lyme Regis. Blog posts could be written about our sea edge location, the wonderful behaviour of our children, the delicious food we consumed. But that’s for another day (never). The night ended with me taking a wee in a crab bucket that leaked, someone opposite us tent being completely flattened by the wind, and overhearing the Dad in the tent next to ours shouting to his sniggering kids: “I can STILL smell it!”

The next morning we decided to have breakfast in the onsite restaurant to reduce the risk of wet bread. We went for Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine, both of which arrived on untoasted bagel, dripping wet with egg juice. Nevermind, we’re here for fossils, not dry bread, we thought and sped off to Seatown, a beautiful spot on the Dorset Coast. Parking by the incredibly well-positioned Anchor Inn I went into order myself a cup of tea, leaving them to make a head start on the fossil hunting. It was a heavenly five minutes to myself.

Fully braced, we walked along the pebbled beach and fished out ammonites and rocks that looked like animals (a teddy bear! A whale!) before heading to Lyme again to spend the children’s spending money. Up and down the high street parents were all having the EXACT same conversation. “The toys were rubbish, they were better in the WHSmiths, let’s go there.” and “Next time shall we just camp in the car park of Smyths toy store?” We finally emerged with a Nemo bracelet, a marble egg and a fossil, a rich trawl compared to some of the rubber items we had been presented with. Relief flooded us, the children were happy, so back to West Bay for an ice cream…and crabbing. What? It was wet, cold and windy but, to my delight, it seemed that yet more fun was to be had. I strode off to buy a new crabbing bucket and we stood in the rain fishing crabs out of the harbour. “This is just the BEST most awesome day,” said BUB.1. It was awesome, I had a morning cup of tea, fish and chips for dinner and just as we were all dropping off to sleep, we were treated to the audio of a fantastically brutal war film being watched at full blast from a nearby tent that had arrived earlier that day.

Before our departure from the campsite the next morning, I showered with BUB.3 and as she was getting dressed she shouted: “Mum, what’s that red thing on your pants?” Her voice echoed around the shower block for all to hear. “It’s Elmo darling,’ I responded, looking at my “novelty” Elmo knickers. I had to stop myself following up with:”Hey everybody in the shower block, I’m a  44-year old woman with a big red Elmo on my pants, I’m not having my period. In case ya’ll were wondering!”

I don’t know if there’s been a lower point in my existence but I’ll find out this week. We’ve just booked to go camping in West Wales for four nights.

 

 

 

 

 

Ants, pants, wet gussets and battered plinths: My birthday lunch

It seems so obvious now. The walk there should have been a giveaway. BUB.3, aged three, decided to wear sparkly flip flops two sizes too big for her. Those damn shoes, and they’re not even shoes are they really, flipped off behind her about eighty times on the five-minute walk.  Every time the shoe flew off, she cried. I brandished her sensible velcro-secured spare sandals from my bag (we’ve been here before) but this was met with more tears. When we eventually got to my friend’s front door, I was happy to see that the others had also just arrived, everybody in the midst of their own mini meltdown. That’s when we felt the first drops of rain.

We had expected sunshine. We expected to fling the seven children, whose ages range from one to four, out into the lawn, barely visible under the array of ride ons, balls, scooters and trampolines. We would sit enjoying the delicious lunch my friend had made for us, to celebrate my birthday, sipping a glass of birthday Prosecco, whilst the children squealed and spun and delighted us from behind the glass doors. We’d each bought a vast array of snack items for the children to eat before we sat down to our grown ups lunch. There were crackers and tuna sandwiches and party sausages and sausage rolls and cheese and veggies and grapes. They each ate 60 party sausages and left the table, now awash with spat-out tuna and vegetables. “Film anyone?” a few of us cried, hopefully, in unison. “Beauty and the Beast? Tangled? Moana?” I offered to sort out the entertainment while the host started to arrange a magnificent tuna niçoise but the words on her sodding remote control buttons had rubbed off so I was flailing around as the children started to turn. I only managed to find SpongeBob.

The host flung down the olive dressing and moved to the living room with stealth-like urgency and found Beauty and the Beast. She returned, and we spent a good ten minutes clearing the table of dribble and crumbs, and then she served up the beautiful salad. We all chatted happily for one and a half minutes while enjoying our food. And then it started.

Blood. Lots of blood. The children had tipped out the contents of the toy chest across the floor. BUB.3 had managed to get a shard of smashed something in the sole of her foot. One ran for kitchen towel, one for plasters, one for the antiseptic cream. There was LOUD, LOUD crying. The smell of olive and tuna steak was suddenly punctuated by a whiff of something less fresh. “Who needs a poo?” shouted someone. “It wasn’t him, he’s just had one!” Clunk! The scooter one of the three-year-olds had been flying around the kitchen on crunched into the kitchen cupboard doors. “Careful” said the host weakly. The heat was stifling, but the bifolds had to remain shut to keep out the rain and to keep the children in the dry. In our midst.

We returned briefly to our salads, about eleven different conversation threads hanging unfinished in the air, and the one we landed on was whether it was OK to let a potty training child poo in a potty in a pub, which definitely made the salad go down well. All six children were in the kitchen with us. There were wees, THAT poo, and another poo and then someone got run over by a ride on bee and several tears were shed over WHO BLOODY KNOWS WHAT. Then a roar from the living room and on investigation a swarm of ants was discovered amongst the toys. The host disappeared for a good ten minutes to deal with the infestation while we all crunched down on our iceberg lettuce. All of us apart from the one who spent the majority of lunch moving her baby from room to room in a car seat, trying to get her to sleep amongst the chaos.

On her return, my lovely host announced that she had been busy the night before making Mary Berry’s frozen elderflower posset. It was brought into me with a lit candle and everyone, for a moment, was united in singing Happy Birthday to 44-year old me. We then buried our poor, tired, end-of-term faces in it and tried to blot out the noise of Micro Scooters bashing into kitchen plinths. At one point there seemed to be more scooters than children.

Suddenly the window cleaner appeared at the bifolds, just at the moment I opened a bottle of something fizzy that exploded all over my lap. The host realised she only had two pairs of jeans that fit her but valiantly said she would loan one pair to me. If they would fit. But where to change into them, I wondered, as the window cleaner leered in.  “Do it in the bathroom, the window is opaque,” she said. Determined not to be undone by the pair of jeans that my host still fits into, I wrestled myself into them and moaned and groaned as I tried to bend my body to sit back down at the table.

Somebody started to clang away on the piano. “Should we put them outside anyway?” ventured one. “Why not!” So outside the children went. This changed very little about our circumstances; we now just had to shout a little louder “STOP that”, “Leave him!”, “What are you doing with THAT?” “NOT on his head!”, “Don’t put that in your mouth,” “I saw that!” “Give it back to her,” “NO,” “Put that back,” “Not in there!”, “Do you HAVE to do that?”, “Share!”, “Do you want a poo?”, “Do you need a wee?”, “Oops a daisy, up you get,” and so on. And then it was time for the school run and time to get the OLDER CHILDREN, with their homework woes and eight-year old teenage angsts. Yes it was exhausting. Yes it was loud. Yes it was stressful. And no it wasn’t THAT much fun. But look at that posset. Look at that olive dressing. We’re in this together and to have someone to go to such an effort for you on your birthday means we’ll all get through it. One poo. One laceration. One ants’ nest. One ill-fitting flip flop at a time.

But next time, we’ll do lunch without the kids.