Monthly Archives: August 2014

Pets at (my) home.

Hi folks,
Summer is almost over, and I hope you have all had a fabulous time in the sunshine! If you have been away and missed any posts (shame on you!), you’ll be pleased to know that my poor parenting is not restricted to term-time only and I have been updating my exploits through the summer so have a read to catch up. I have attached the link to my most recent post on the Families Magazine website so take a look at that too:

http://www.familiesonline.co.uk/LOCATIONS/Solent-East/Family-Life/Parenting-advice/Pets-at-my-home

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Cycling – with a distinct lack of proficiency.

Cycling: fun, healthy and good for the environment, so clearly an important life skill that I am obliged to impart to my young charges.

But nobody told me quite how much work would be involved. Let me just talk you through our ‘learn to cycle’ history step by step:

We started a little late on the cycling trail, having taken some time to graduate from the push-along plastic trike and then failing to jump immediately in to the world of big bikes.

Although, now I come to think about it, I must mention Ana’s first foray into cycling where she sat bawling her eyes out when we decided to try her in the seat on the back of Mike’s bike for the very first time on a New Forest camping holiday. An hour of cycling through the beautiful forest, peace and tranquility destroyed by the piercing shrieks and racking sobs of our 9 month old infant, was enough to crush our dreams of idyllic family cycle rides and the recurrent flashbacks to this moment may well have explained the ensuing delay in bicycle purchase.

Anyway, one year, just before Christmas we had a tax rebate (the kind of luck that rarely comes our way, but was very welcome) and, feeling unusually flush, we decided to buy Ana a big girl’s bike. I poured over pictures of fabulous bikes with sparkles, and tassels, and baskets, and seats for cuddly bears and imagined how lovely it would be when Ana could cycle happily along on her own.

At this point Ana was 5 but – you know – she wouldn’t be 5 forever and we didn’t want to have to upgrade immediately, so we made our first bad decision and bought a bike that was too big for her, but that she could ‘grow in to’. For ‘grow in to’ read ‘won’t be able to actually use properly for about a year’. And so, despite the addition of stabilisers and some cautionary elbow and knee pads, bike riding did not get off to a great start in our household.

Roll on another year and a now 6 year old Ana was big enough to actually make a start on bike riding. We duly bought a second-hand bike from a friend for Faith (no tax rebate that year) and decided to get the girls cycling.

It all seems so easy for other people. A friend’s son was cycling like a pro after a weekend practising up and down a quiet street with his dad, but for us, it seemed the ordeal would never end. Every so often we would steel ourselves, put the bikes in the car and head to the park to spend 30 minutes running up and down holding on to the back of a bike seat. Every hunched-over minute was increasingly torturous and quickly made it seem it likely that I would never be able to stand upright again. Naturally, my irritability increased in line with my physical discomfort so that 20 minutes in I was snapping at both children and wishing I had never suggested this as a ‘fun, family activity’. Inevitably the trip would end with a significant fall from at least one child and the sight of blood would be guaranteed to leave Faith screaming with fear of possibly medical intervention (see previous post on her fear of doctors).

So far, so disastrous…stress-free family cycling still seemed a long way off.

Given that the odd Sunday afternoon had failed to produce any significant improvements, I reasoned that the extended summer holidays would provide ample opportunity to hone my children’s cycling skills, so over the past 2 summers, I have made it one of the key items on my list of things to do in August.

Essentially, this has involved one (possibly two) days where we headed out happily into the sunshine, pushing the bikes round the corner to a quiet cul-de-sac all set to master the art of cycling.

But our cheerful optimism was generally misplaced and now, on my own, the task of running up and down a road holding on to the back of a bike seat as first one child and then the next wobbled their way down the street narrowly avoiding the cars parked on each side, quickly lost its appeal and, once again, we ended the outing grumpy, irritable, scraped and aching, no closer to the goal of cycling proficiency than when we had set out.

And so, we roll round to this summer. My children are now 6 and 8 and, by rights, should be able to competently ride a bike (or at least they would, if they had more diligent parents) so, in an effort to redress my parenting inadequacies, I made it my top priority to have them both cycling with confidence by the end of the summer. To this end, I insisted that we squish both bikes into an already over-packed car, when we headed off on our summer holiday to Cornwall.

Things started poorly when we discovered that the bikes (left unused and unloved in the garden for almost a year) were not in the best condition. On top of the extensive rust, both bikes had failing brakes and, when Mike went to pump up Ana’s back tyre, it responded to the unexpected demands by promptly exploding. This necessitated a trip to the local bike shop for a replacement inner tube and then (despite a distinct lack of brakes all round) we were ready to go.

Surprisingly, on this occasion, the cycling went remarkably well, with both children quickly making progress, reducing my efforts from back-breaking seat-holding torture, to the blissful state of leaving them to it, popping outside every now and then to check no-one had crashed and burned. ‘By Jove, we’ve cracked it!’ I thought gleefully but I was to discover that a solid week of cycling does not a cyclist make…

This morning, two weeks after our return from Cornwall during which time the bikes have, once again, lain unused in the garden, I confidently suggested a quick cycle up and down our road expecting both girls to exhibit the same level of skill they had shown only 2 weeks before. But after 15 minutes of hesitant, wobbly manoeuvring followed by the ubiquitous blood-spurting injury, I began to realise that the old adage may not apply in the case of my children. For us, it would seem, the phrase ‘it’s just like riding a bike’ implies an insurmountable level of difficulty, rather than an easily recalled skill.

Despite (or maybe because of) my infrequent efforts, we may still be a way off ‘proficiency’ where cycling is concerned!

Mid-holiday mood swings.

The kids have been off school for just over 3 weeks, making them just over half-way through the longer summer holiday (I know, once again my maths skill is startling!) and the cracks are starting to show (who am I kidding, there were cracks from day 1, but they are getting deeper now!).

At the start of the holiday the relief at being freed, albeit temporarily, from the shackles of the school-time routine, brought a relaxed lightness to the mood of the household. We got up late, mooched around the house, met up with friends to frolic in the sunshine unfettered by alarm clocks; or registers; or homework; or uniforms. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and sank into the welcoming embrace of the holidays.

Fast forward a few weeks though and relaxation (or possibly 24 hours a day in the same company) has started to take its toll.

Take the following events as exhibit a, b and c to illustrate my point:

Exhibit a: ‘I hate my mummy!’

This phrase has crept into our house in recent months and is heard with greater frequency than I would like (although I guess ‘not at all’ would be my preferred frequency), but it was largely absent in the first few weeks of the holiday. This week however, it made its return after an altercation with my eldest over the limited options available on my dinner menu.

This child, who was once a gloriously unfussy baby hoovering up any food that entered her reach, has become increasingly picky over the years and I have finally decided to confront the issue and stand my ground. To this end, I told her that I would be making curry for tea and she could either eat it, or leave it, but that I would not be making an alternative.

Needless to say, she was not happy with this prospect and cursed me for my attempts to starve her out (her perception, rather than my intention, honest!) flouncing out of the room (with a flourish reminiscent of my teenage self); storming upstairs and then delivering a note to the effect that she was leaving home because ‘no-one loves me.’

Sigh.

Exhibit b: Cry me a river

Another day, another meltdown, but this time from my youngest daughter. Having successfully negotiated a walk along the seafront, with scooters, through a torrential downpour, we rewarded ourselves with a quick go on the 2p machines at the fair and a well-deserved ice-cream (the ubiquitous summer essential!). We then continued on our merry way in relative peace, ice-creams dripping dangerously as we walked…..until disaster struck and Faith’s ice-cream took a nose-dive to the pavement. Epic fail.

Now, I may be hard-hearted at times, but I understand the utter misery caused by the loss of a much-anticipated ice-cream, let alone when it occurs before you have even had time to remove the flake, so I did empathise with the piercing cries of despair emitting from my daughter and attempted to offer comfort in the face of disaster. However, having offered said comfort plus an attractive compensation package (the promise of a replacement ice-cream when we reached our destination), I struggled to maintain sympathy when the gut-wrenching sobs went on, and on, and on….for a good 40 minutes until Faith’s face resembled a pink, puffy marshmallow and the tear-stains looked like they might become permanent. God forbid this child ever loses her favourite toy; I am not sure any of us would survive the ensuing flood!

Sigh.

Exhibit c: Sibling sabotage

The final installment in our mini-meltdown saga occurred today when the girls sat down to complete their new ‘painting by numbers’ pictures. Very quickly it became apparent that Ana’s picture was challenging and, if you have read previous posts, you will know that Ana does not cope all that well with challenge. In her world, it is important that you are able to do anything you set your mind to immediately and with ease. If this is not the case (and, surprise, surprise, it often isn’t) she reacts with tears, tantrums and wails of despair (back to despair again – whoopee!).

So five minutes in to the ‘practice picture’ and Ana’s patience was wearing thin: she couldn’t do it; she was rubbish and would ‘never be able to do anything EVER!’ So far, so typically melodramatic, but this time (this being the time of mid-holiday mood swings) she decided to go one step further and demonstrate her fury by swiping at her sister’s water causing it to tip over her carefully painted picture….cue more tears from Faith (amazed she had any left to cry!) and yet another letter declaring Ana’s intention to leave home.

Sigh, sigh and sigh once more.

According to my calculations, there are slightly too many days left in this holiday. And I should know, maths is clearly my strong point!

Camping: the Marmite of the holiday world.

So the title kind of gives it away: in my view, camping is a lot like Marmite and you either love it or you hate it.

I love it.

I love mooching around the campsite drinking gallons of tea and reading in my camp chair; I love huddling in the dry safety of my tent listening to the rain thunder on the roof; I love waking up in the morning feeling closer to nature. I am a happy camper.

But..

…always, there is a but!

With Marmite, even those who love it (and I do) sometimes find it catches them off-guard. Spread a little too thickly on toast that is insufficiently buttery and Marmite suddenly doesn’t seem quite so deliciously tasty.

To extend the analogy to camping, even those who love it can be caught off-guard when bad weather, faulty equipment and human error conspire to tip the delicate balance from peaceful contentment to abject despair.

And that, I think, sets the scene for my most recent camping adventure. The plan: a lazy weekend in the sunshine by the sea with my girls and some friends (minus husband who had to work). Sounds good, right? (Assuming you are a Marmite-lover that is!) And it was lovely, aside from a few minor hiccups that tipped that balance slightly the wrong way on occasion.

Hiccup number one came about an hour after I arrived at the site. As mentioned, I had left Mike behind on this trip (He has a normal job and had to go to work. I am a teacher and didn’t.) and, much as it galls me to admit it, that was the cause of my first incident.

Now I (as I announce not infrequently to friends, acquaintances and anyone else who might listen) am a Duke of Edinburgh Award leader and am well acquainted with tent construction, but on family holidays I am generally busy with the kids (read – lazy and eager to avoid extra work) and tend to leave Mike to take the lead on putting up our giant 6 man, 3 room tent, assisting only when necessary.

So take Mike out of the equation and replace him with me; add a couple of willing, but essentially inexperienced, assistants and I guess it is no surprise that disaster ensued!

Modern tents have bendy poles, right? Well maybe not so much. The painful crack of the first pole to bow out seemed to put paid to that idea and was closely followed by a panicked trip to the local hardware store to spend £8 (!) on a roll of gaffa tape to fix it. Back at the tent and a clever splint with a tent peg seemed to do the job and I smugly concluded that I may be able to manage this tent construction lark after all….

…until the second pole broke and my smug self-satisfaction evaporated in a rip of tent material. This time there was no easy fix (creating a reliable peg splint is a challenge too far when you decide you are now past caring and have no desire to completely dismantle the tent and start again), but we managed to cobble together a make-shift solution involving a clumsy sharp right-angle at the top of the tent resembling a painful broken bone poking awkwardly through its skin. If you discount the now unusable second bedroom, it was a perfectly acceptable quick fix and the girls and I finally had a home for the night.

So we were back on track – lazy mornings; sunshine; fabulous company; idyllic trips to the beach: who said camping wasn’t the most fun you could have in a field?

And then on the evening of day 2 the rains came….

…to be precise, the rains came as I was showering the girls after an afternoon in the sea and we emerged blinking and wet-haired into the downpour before rushing to fumble our way into the tent under a blanket of driving rain rendering the shower completely unnecessary.

Once inside the tent, we surveyed our little home from home and realised a number of things: we had a notable lack of lighting (the sole light-source being my old head torch with a decidedly fading battery); Ana’s airbed was completely deflated and of no discernible use as a means of improving overnight comfort; and our tendency to use our tent as a dumping ground meant we now had to sit, sheltering from the rain, amidst piles of wet towels, dirty clothes, discarded loom bands and a light covering of sand.

The girls proceeded to make loom bands in surprisingly companionable peace, whilst I set to work on trying to find the puncture in Ana’s bed (given that I could now fix it with the gaffa tape I had already acquired at great expense to fix the tent – every cloud and all that…). However, being ‘close to nature’ has its disadvantages and the magnified sound of the rain pounding on the roof of the tent soon forced me to abandon my attempts to listen for the escaping air. So no bed for Ana.

Instead I decided to read, but the fading torchlight and the storm-induced premature darkness made this challenging so we popped next door to be entertained. On return to our tent, we found we had to wade through a pond in our porch created by the rain leaking in from all sides (yet more evidence of my poor tent construction!). In an attempt to make it possible to leave and re-enter the tent without being up to our knees in water, I set about bailing out the porch with the nearest available implement: a beach spade. No, you’re right. It wasn’t the perfect solution and the pond-wading continued until morning.

Eventually, the day’s adventures caught up with the girls and they needed sleep, presenting us with a dilemma about who would sleep where. We had one functioning airbed; one thin sleeping mat; two small children and a mother who dislikes the prospect of sleeping on the bare earth with only a groundsheet beneath me. If you have read my previous posts, it will come as no surprise to you that I was unwilling to give up my sleeping mat for the good of my children (this is really because I am selfish and put my own needs before those of my off-spring, but if you want me to pretend that isn’t true, then I will justify it by saying that a sleep-deprived mother is no good to anyone and this decision was actually in their best interest).

So there were no choices: the girls were going to have to top and tail on a single airbed.

This did not go down well with all parties.

Ana – currently bed-less – realised it was the best offer she was going to get, so willingly acquiesced, but Faith – she of the fully-functioning bed – was not so keen. I may have mentioned before that she is not a keen sharer and the path towards sleep was consequently a rocky one, with much screeching that Ana was taking her space, followed by a brief stint sitting in her sleeping bag in the middle of the tent insisting that she would never return to the shared bed again.

Now, for once, I was unconcerned about the yells of my children disturbing the peace of others. The howling winds and driving rain left me sure in the knowledge that no-one could hear them. But surprisingly it also left me feeling more than a little isolated and prompted me to re-assess my position on the joys of camping in light of my current situation:

9.30pm on a Friday night and I was sheltering in a broken tent, with the ever-present possibility of a significant roof-leak; my children were arguing; my torch didn’t work; my exit from the tent was barred by an ever-growing pool of rainwater. The balance appeared to be tipping ever-further towards abject despair and away from peaceful contentment….

…but later, as I lay listening to the rain on the roof and the gentle snores of my children, it occurred to me that one of the joys of camping is that even when it seems a little hard to take, it always feels like it is probably doing you good….

…so it really IS a lot like Marmite then!

What’s happened to all my money? Ah yes, it’s leaching away through the summer soil…

Summer holidays – long-awaited, much anticipated and well deserved, but boy do they drain the finances. It seems that no matter how hard we try to save money through these 6 school-free weeks (taking picnics to the beach; avoiding expensive theme parks; staying in the UK for our holiday) money just slips through our fingers.

Partly this is just the sheer cost of living; our gannet-like children seem to eat their way through mounds of food in the summer, as if the sun manages to speed up their metabolism and requires them to eat 3 times their body-weight each day.

But in our family, I know that the blame often lies squarely at my door and my tendency to shrug off any holiday spending as ‘not real money’. Remember the days of going abroad as a child, or even a young adult – before the arrival of the Euro – when foreign currency looked and felt like pretend Monopoly money? When money doesn’t seem real, then spending doesn’t either and so a purchase that would seem unthinkably extravagant in the normal run of things, suddenly seems perfectly acceptable.

My problem is that I have extended the notion of ‘foreign currency spending’, to include all spending that occurs outside the ‘normal run of things’ (which actually seems to be worryingly often!). This means that whilst ‘on holiday’ buying daily ice-creams at the beach (nearly £10 for 4 people!!!) is just one of those unavoidable expenses that come with summer and I give in all too easily to my children’s pleas to buy small china animals and holiday tat on the basis that ‘we are on holiday after all’.

Three weeks in and it is therefore no surprise that I am starting to panic about my dwindling funds. I have even managed to spend money in the few days we have spent kicking round at home (finally giving in to the idea that I should invest in a decent scooter for my oldest daughter and ditch the tiny, rickety one I have been forcing her to use for the past year!).

As I watch my bank balance ticking away and attempt to suppress my mounting anxiety, I find myself contemplating the unthinkable….that maybe going back to work in a few weeks is not such a bad things after all.

What am I saying? Clearly I need a quick stroll along the seafront to get me back into the holiday spirit….and maybe we’ll just have a quick ice-cream whilst we’re there…

Well we are on holiday after all…

The eternal child or the big bad grown-up – which are you?

In my experience, there are two main behaviour modifications that parenting brings to your life: on the one hand, it provides numerous opportunities to be grumpy, irritable and undeniably ‘grown’up’ as you chastise your children for their misdemeanours and hear echos of your own parents in your words, but conversely it also gives you the freedom to behave like a child as you join in the games, adventures and imaginary worlds of your off-spring.

Two opposing states it seems, but they exist alongside each other, inextricably intertwined in the fabric of family life. Over the course of our recent family holiday, I saw them emerge in my own behaviour one after the other, tumbling over each other in an effort to keep up with the ever changing challenges that parenting brings.

Now as it happens, I find that both of these states suit me quite well. I am naturally bossy and controlling so, whilst I may complain about the irritation and embarrassment caused by my children behaving bady, I secretly enjoy the moments when I hear myself saying ‘If you can’t be nice to each other, then just don’t speak!’ and feel like I am still a child playing at being a grown-up.

I guess it makes me realise that that is all we are ever doing as parents really – playing at being grown-ups; scanning our memories for suitably grown-up phrases to use when our children’s behaviour leaves us lost and grabbing blindly for a safety rope to pull us out from situations where we feel inept and distinctly under-qualified.

It’s all just acting, isn’t it? Playing the role of parent that we have learnt from watching others; trying out different characters in a vain attempt to land the perfect part and get this role nailed.

And we know we are all muddling along in much the same way because we hear each other do it too. So often, in a public place, I come to the end of a conversation with one of my children where I have been explaining in my best ‘calm and reasonable voice’ that ‘No, we are not getting sweets and the fact that you are crying and shouting at me that it isn’t fair, is not going to make me change my mind.’ and look up to find a fellow parent smiling in sympathetic recognition: they have been there too, the look says and I am guessing the script was probably near identical.

So we are good at playing the big bad parent when we need to (with varying degrees of success it must be admitted), but what about the other side? The reliving our childhood side? Well this bit I really like. Because, in the same way, we all feel like we are playing at being a grown-up, none of us have really stopped enjoying the fun bits about being a child. Adult life makes us feel like we should behave in a more restrained way, but given the chance to be like Tom Hanks in Big and who is not going to have fun?

So what better way to be justifiably childish than to hang out with our children and join in their games? My best mother-daughter bonding moment recently was when I went to her class fun day and joined in the water fight. She loved the fact that I was racing round trying to shoot her and it was honestly the best fun I’d had in ages: I needed no encouragement to enjoy a spot of sharp-shooting (Calamity Jane was always one of my favourite musicals!).

So back to our recent holiday. There was lots of material there and I plan to mine it for future posts, but as far as this topic is concerned it is fair to say that in Day 1 alone, I found myself oscillating between the aforementioned two states. At lunchtime I snapped irritably at Ana to say she would either eat the sausage roll she had been offered for lunch or have nothing (upon which she stormed off saying she would have nothing, only to re-emerge 2 minutes later as I reached the till to say maybe she would have a sausage roll after all). Then a mere 30 minutes later the girls and I had a spontaneous race up a big hill (just because it was there), followed by an extended game of hide and seek. The grumpy grown-up and the eternal child all there in one mixed up package.

I wonder if these seemingly opposing states are not so different after all. Increasingly it seems to me that maybe childhood is where we all stagnate internally and the rest of it is just an elaborate game of pretend. So may be Tom Hanks in Big is not so far from the truth after all….

families magazine article 31st july

This is my latest families mag article ‘school’s out for summer!’ submitted early as I am currently in Cornwall. As I write we are on our way to St Ives but have yet to meet a man with 7 wives despite the line being on a loop in my head! Hope you are all enjoying the summer.

http://www.familiesonline.co.uk/LOCATIONS/Solent-East/Family-Life