Monthly Archives: September 2014

Illness will not be tolerated!

Being ill is rubbish.  Clearly.  We all want to be able to huddle in a ball, shut out the world and wait for the illness to pass.  But pre-children there was a familiar pattern to sick days:

  1. Stay in bed and sleep off the worst of your symptoms.
  2. Emerge from your lair around lunchtime, potter in the kitchen making a restorative meal before….
  3. Curling up on the sofa with a blanket to watch ‘Diagnosis Murder’ and ‘A place in the Sun’.

A day of this and most illnesses were quickly knocked on the head.

However…….when you have small children and you are feeling under the weather, you suddenly realise that your pre-children strategies can no longer be so easily implemented and, as such, recovery is much harder to achieve.

Take stage 1 – the staying in bed element.  When your children are tiny, you can pretty much rule out any chance of this happening.  Babies need feeding or they scream.  Toddlers need watching or they cause mayhem.  In either case – ignore them at your peril.  Even in the depths of your illness, you know you need to keep one eye open and be prepared to dive (or possibly fall) out of your momentary resting place and answer their calls and demands (and there are many!).  I recall one memorable afternoon when my friend and her husband were both struck down by an evil sickness bug unable to care for themselves let alone a lively toddler.  Popping round to take their toddler out for a couple of hours to give them some respite, I discovered a pitiful sight.  My normally cool, calm and collected friend was dragging herself round the floor of her living room, unable to summon the energy to stand and yet still expected to be fully responsible for a small human being.  This…I thought to myself…this is the true reality of parenting!

So do things get easier when your children get bigger?  Well in some ways, yes…you can ignore then a lot more and they can make their own breakfast (albeit badly), but that only really works if it is the weekend.  In the week, there is school and – irritatingly – they have to go even if you are too ill to get them there.

Generally this involves dragging yourself out of bed feeling like death (without the ‘warmed up’ element to give you a fighting chance!) and battling through a blurry fog of dysfunction to get your charges ready for school.

Now, even though your now more grown up children may have the ability to empathise with your illness in a way that toddlers cannot manage, and they may even give you some sympathy in their kinder moments, when getting ready for school all bets are off and they revert to normal rules and display the usual supremely frustrating behaviours (refusing to get up; ignoring repeated requests to clean their teeth; screeching like a banshee when you try to brush their hair – that kind of thing) only NOW you are physically incapable of responding to the mayhem and find yourself in a crumpled heap by the front door 5 minutes AFTER you should have left the house crying weakly up the stairs…’Please girls…we really need to get going…can you just help me out here…I….AM….ILL!’

And that, my friends, is part of the joy of parenting…illness in any form WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!

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En garde! Change is afoot…

When you are submerged in the manic world of parenting young children, it can sometimes be hard to remember what it felt like to be a separate entity existing in your own right.  Every action, every breath and every move you make before your child is 5 comes with an accompanying audience ready to monitor your bowel movements; add a screeching vocal soundtrack to all your telephone calls; and chip in with their take on your domestic disputes (“Mummy, stop being mean to Daddy!”)

As our children grow and become more independent, the gradual realisation dawns on us that we may finally be able to shut the bathroom door when we are in there; get ourselves dressed without queries about what “those funny lines on your tummy” are; and actually be able to head off for a night out reasonably confident that all hell with not break loose when we leave.

Whilst these changes may ostensibly appear to be welcome ones and we may sigh with relief the first time we manage to pee in peace, once we get used to our newfound independence we may perversely find ourselves missing the fact that a mini human was once entirely dependent on us to fulfil their every need.

Facing the fact that our babies are not babies anymore is quite a reality shock and can leave us feeling a little adrift in the world, no longer sure what our role is, or how to rebuild our own independent selves as our off-spring begin to build theirs.

So given that we now have a little free time (who am I kidding?  Free time is a thing of the past! But – you know – it’s possible you may now have time when you only have 5 things to accomplish per minute of available waking time rather than 10.), it might be an opportune moment to take up a new hobby of your own.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I realise that my talents and skills seem a little limited. Sure I can carry out a pretty intensive spelling test when required and tell you what Pokémon Tepig evolves into (its Pignite for those of you who are interested!) but in terms of unique, interesting skills, I appear to have acquired very few in the years since my eldest child was born.  So at the beginning of September I decided to try something complete new.  I laced up my trainers; gathered my nerves and headed into the unknown to try my hand at fencing.

Now you may think it a strange choice and wonder if I arrived at this decision after carrying out thorough, detailed research, but in reality I thought I would just give it a go.  After all, it always seems pretty cool on the telly and the idea of being able to call ‘En garde!’ and not sound like a pretentious fool or a wannabe Zoro is quite appealing.

Four weeks in to my new venture and I cannot say enough about what a revelation it has been.  Not only do I love the fact that I am challenging myself both physically (all those squats and lunges really take their toll) and intellectually (trying to outwit your opponent; remember the complicated combinations of moves; and learn all the old French terminology keeps my little brain cells whirring), but I had forgotten what it’s like to be part of a disparate group of people momentarily united in one common goal….and what a truly fabulous thing that is.

Having worried that the club would be dominated by students and I would feel like a random old person tagging along, I found instead, that this sport draws people from all ages and all abilities. And, like many hobbies that focus on developing skills over time, it offers much more than a quick exercise boost or a diet-aid.  It offers a space in the week where I can free myself completely from the never ending ‘to do list’ in my mind; it offers the chance for me to feel like I am properly learning something; and it offers a surprisingly heart-warming feeling of inclusivity – of feeling like I have become part of a little pocket of society I hadn’t even been aware of before.  And you know what, those are all pretty great things.

If you need something to take your mind of the fact that you no longer have children hanging off every limb as you walk along, then taking up a challenging new hobby is a distraction I can highly recommend.

You never know, you might even learn some techniques to help you manage the unruly teens your children are shortly to become – “En garde oh children of mine!”

I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy.

I have two daughters, born two years apart and amongst all the amazing discoveries that parenting brings, the one that has surprised me the most has been the realisation that genetic coding is a strange and wonderful thing.    You and your partner throw all your genes into a pot, they tumble around a bit and are thrown back out again in random combinations in your off-spring (quick Biology lesson there – you’re welcome!).

In our case, the genetic spin dryer threw out one child as an almost exact replica of me (in character and in appearance) and the other….well – who knows where she came from!

As a result, I am frequently called upon to confirm to complete strangers (often, inexplicably, at the Sainsbury’s checkout) that yes, they are both mine; yes, they do look surprisingly different for sisters; and yes, they do have the same father (all – I kid you not -questions put to me by people I don’t actually know).

Now this miracle of creation is all well and good, but I have discovered that having a mini-clone has its drawbacks.  Being brought face to face with yourself is actually quite disconcerting, particularly when it involves being on the other side of some of my less appealing characteristics. My most frustrating moments in parenting have all involved exasperating stand-offs with my eldest child when I have despaired of the genetic trick that has gifted me a child as stroppy, stubborn, over-emotional and iron-willed as I am.  Seriously, one of us in the family is enough!

But alongside the frustration there is also something else – a kind of searing empathy.  I see my daughter’s painful anxiety when facing new situations.  I see her paralysed by fear when she is required to do something out of her comfort zone.  I see the internal struggle as her desire to be brave clashes with her worry and apprehension.  I see all these things.  And in them, I see myself.  I see the child that I was and I wish I had the power to change things for her.  I wish I could take away that anxiety and fill her with the confidence to charge fearlessly into the unknown and be sure of her ability to deal with the uncertainties of life.

Of course my empathy does not prevent me from being exasperated by Ana’s unwillingness to do things that – to the adult me – seem perfectly simple.

One such frustrating event occurred this week when, after a mad scramble on my behalf to acquire a flute in time for Ana’s very first lesson, I picked her up from school eager to find out how it has been, only to discover that she had missed the lesson.  And the reason?  The lesson times printed on the list on the music room door were in the 24 hour clock and Ana did not know (and was afraid to ask) what time 14.50 was.

The immediate swell of irritation was impossible to quell and I spent the entire journey home berating my daughter for wasting an expensive lesson and making my flute-finding efforts meaningless and all because she could not bring herself to ask her teacher what the time was!

But once the initial anger had faded and I recovered from the thought of all those hard-earned pounds being poured down the drain, I realised that my 8 year old self would probably have acted in much the same way.  I imagined myself in that classroom; I felt the pressing anxiety of knowing I should do something, but not quite knowing how to go about it.  And I knew that Ana had felt exactly that too: that she had worried and worried about wanting to get things right – to go to her lesson, but not to disturb her teacher with an unprompted question; that she had felt the weight of knowing she had not done what she was supposed to do.

And I ached with sympathy.  And I sighed with frustration.  And I wondered once more how I could guide my daughter on a surer path.  How I could provide the protective padding she needed to risk the bumps in the road.

And I realised the only weapon I had was that I knew exactly how she felt, so we sat down and I explained to her:  ‘I was once like you are now and I know that it’s not easy….’

And that, I think, is the best I can hope to do. The rest, she must do on her own and in her own time.

Until then, our house will be the venue for some intensive lessons in reading the 24 hour clock!

Where DO babies come from?

So we know when we become parents that eventually we will have to answer the big, difficult questions in life. Why do people die? Why do bad things happen? Why do England never win the World Cup?

We know these questions are coming and we brace ourselves for their arrival and wonder how we might ever be able to provide an adequate answer that is simple enough for a child to comprehend, but also manages to be truthful.

The big, one of course, is in the title. And it is one that is likely to emerge at a surprisingly early stage when those around us become pregnant and large-bellied followed by the magical appearance of shiny, new babies.

Because our children are still often babies themselves when they first start pondering the emergence of new life, we are at a loss as to how to translate this complex biological process into simple, child-friendly language and concepts.

And this is where things started to go wrong for me. Put unexpectedly on the spot and asked to explain SEX in child-friendly terms, I panicked; groped blindly in the depths of my imagination; and pulled out …….Maroon 5.

Naturally.

As a result (and much to the amusement of my friends), my children’s simplistic understanding of the baby making act is drawn from my spur of the moment loan of the lyrics to ‘Moves like Jagger’ and they are fully conversant with the ‘special moves’ required for baby creation to occur.

Now before you judge me on this and wonder why I didn’t manage to come up with something a little more technical, may I remind you that children have a uncanny ability to choose the prime time moments to engage their target in discussion about difficult topics, making it impossible to shirk out of it with promises to ‘discuss it later’. Generally this means they ask questions in the car. When you can’t escape.

So to summarise, the special moves conversation went something like this:

Faith: ‘How did I get out of your tummy?’
Me: ‘Well ……’
(brief summary of both options: c-section (how she actually got out of my tummy) and natural childbirth with the clarification that this is the traditional way for babies to make their appearance.)
Faith: ‘I don’t like either of those ways. I’m not having babies. How do you tell your tummy not to have babies?’
Me: ‘Well it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The two people need to decide they want to have babies and then do ‘special moves’ to make them.’
Faith: ‘Can you tell us what the special moves are?’
Me: ‘Well, it’s a bit complicated…’
Faith: ‘You need to tell us so we will know when we are grown-ups.’

Me: ‘OK.’
(Very simplified version of baby making.)
Faith: ‘So did you do that?’
Me: ‘Well I have 2 babies, so…yes.’

Ana
(with undisguised disgust): ‘That’s very unpleasant.’

Fast forward to this week and I once again find myself in discussions about the intricacies of reproduction when Faith launches into another car journey conversation on the big topic:

Faith: “Why is it the girls who have babies in their tummy and not the boys?”
Me: “Because girls have a special place in their tummy to grow the babies in.”
Faith: “But Daddy has got a fatter tummy than you so he would have more room.”

Naturally I chortled conspiratorially at this (mainly on the basis that my own tummy has grown fatter recently and it’s good to know that Daddy still has the edge on that one), but then attempted to explain in full the biological differences between males and females. This obviously led to yet another discussion on how babies get out of your tummy, which I did my best to explain (again).

Apparently satisfied with my response, Faith decided to try a quick interview to assess my own experiences and inquired curiously:

‘If you could choose to have baby come out of your ‘bits’ (I know, not the best word for them, but it works for our family – you clever parents can keep your cute/more appropriate names) and make them hurt, or for the doctors to cut a hole in your tummy and then knit it back together, which would you rather?’

Ummm…I would probably rather not think about it to be honest, Faith.

But I know this is part of my job: to endlessly attempt to provide satisfactory answers to a whole host of complicated and often challenging questions, so I will continue to do my best (however much my answers may fall short of the mark).

And just to confirm – my flawless, no nonsense explanations have clearly ensured that my children have a good, age-appropriate understanding of what is involved in baby making. Today, in the car, Ana (demonstrating once again that my children have the memories of goldfish and therefore it actually doesn’t matter what I tell them, it will almost immediately be forgotten) asked
“So how ARE babies made?”
To which Faith confidently replied “Ana, we know this. They are made out of body parts.”

And there you have it. All that effort and angst, and baby-making for my youngest child is likened to creating Frankenstein’s monster. What more confirmation do we need of my inferior mothering skills!

Maybe I should withdraw that application to be a Biology teacher….

Only then do you know you’re in school for the very first time.

As the new school year begins in earnest and the flood of facebook pictures of smiling children in pristine, slightly large uniforms begins to ease, those of you who are facing the prospect of your first term as parents of school children may not yet have realised the enormity of the task ahead of you.
I’d like to pass on the benefits of my experience of being a naïve, newbie in the world of primary school parenting:

1) Keeping on top of uniform requirements:

Now I am aware that many (OK, most) people are considerably more organised than I am, so this issue may not ever feature on your list of potential slip ups, but I found that keeping on top of the endless requirements for clean school uniform was surprisingly difficult. The task was particularly challenging with a 5 year old girl prone (like her mother) to spillages and clothing disasters. Many a Friday morning I found myself opening Ana’s uniform draw only to find that she had managed to get through a t-shirt a day and the cupboard was bare, prompting a desperate search through the laundry basket to find the ‘least dirty’ culprit from the preceding 4 days!

2) Learning to read:

You may mistakenly assume that, being a teacher, I have limitless patience and am well placed to assist my children on their own journey through education, but nothing prepared me for the frustration of those early months of reading with my novice reader. Take my advice: prepare your best smiling, supportive face and keep it firmly fixed in place even when your child fails to recognise the word that they mastered only a page earlier after 5 full minutes of calm, gentle coaxing. Failing that, try a tag team approach and hand over to someone else when find yourself stifling the urge to yell “He!” “It says he!” “Exactly like it did when you read it perfectly 40 seconds ago!”.

And breathe.

3) Keeping on top of the admin:

So you may have had letters home from nursery or preschool and you may think that school will be no different, but you’d be wrong. There is so much going on at school: trips, visits, charity events and the rest, that the cascade of letters tumbling out of the book bag each day starts to feel like the scene in Harry Potter where the Dursleys’ house is inundated with Harry’s invitation to Hogwarts!

Do as I say and not as I do and develop a fail-safe system for storing and replying to these letters. Take it from me: random piles around the kitchen do not work.

4) Start to ready yourself now for the Christmas madness:

I foolishly anticipated that the hectic pace of the school term would tail off towards the holidays and we would all slide gently into the Christmas break, but again, I was mistaken. In fact, nothing prepared me for the manic few weeks in December that left me a broken, gibbering wreck on the day the children broke up from school. The end of term was filled with pre-Christmas events (not only challenging to keep up with, but also potentially traumatic as a working parent trying desperately to get to at least one of their child’s important moments.) Add to that the dilemma of what your child should buy/make for their teacher, child-minder, Rainbow leader and all associated helpers that will show your sincere appreciation for their efforts, but won’t leave you bankrupt! All in all, it’s an exhausting assault course akin to the popular Iron Man trials currently so in vogue. If you want my final piece of advice, I say ditch all those plans to run a marathon or complete a triathlon and get in training now for being the parent of a school child for the next 7 years (at least) because it’s gonna be a whirlwind.

All together now: and breathe….

Is this sugar high imaginary? Ask the gingerbread man…

This evening, after a long day at work attempting to stick to my post-holiday diet, I duly collected the kids and dashed to Toys-r-us to grab a pressie for a weekend party before heading to my brother’s birthday tea. Now admittedly, it doesn’t take much to knock me off my diet (self-control and willpower are not my strong points) but this combination of factors left me stood in Toys-r-us in desperate need of a sugar burst.

Naturally, I resisted this temptation because this time I really mean business on the dieting front.

Nah, of course I didn’t! I bought a bag of Fruit Pastilles.

Given that my children were with me at the point of purchase, I stood little chance of secreting them in the side pocket of the car and stuffing them surreptitiously into my mouth at intervals (and I generally get found out doing that anyway as a voice will pipe up from the back to ask where the rustling noise is coming from!), so I decided to split them between the three of us.

Once Ana had counted out our rations into three neat piles, we each had a surprisingly large share leading me to wonder if this was such a good idea after all….because despite mixed research evidence, I am reasonably convinced of a direct link between excess sugar consumption and giggling hysterical madness in my youngest daughter.

I remember watching a programme on TV a few years ago where they did a study into the effects of sugary party foods. As I recall, they compared the behaviour of kids at a party where they ate lots of sugary food with a group who had only healthy grub and found, much to everyone’s surprise, that there appeared to be no difference and that it seemed the excitement of the party situation was responsible for the shrieking madness rather than the food.

Now, I am not generally one to disagree with the findings of scientific research, but my own anecdotal evidence tells me this cannot be a universal explanation. I have never noticed any particular change in Ana’s behaviour after eating sugary foods, but Faith is a whole other ball game.

Just a whiff of chocolate seems to send her into a mad delirium and you could set your watch by monitoring her behaviour after she has eaten a whole packet of sweets. Give her 15 minutes and she is laughing like a hyena; babbling incoherently; and bouncing off the walls…..surely I can’t be imagining that?

One memorable occasion that first made me suspicious of the sugar demons occurred one Christmas Eve when Faith was probably 2 or 3. Remarkably, I had actually managed to achieve one of my goals for creating an idyllic family Christmas and we had spent the previous day constructing a pretty impressive Gingerbread house (admittedly not from scratch – from an Ikea gingerbread flat pack – but impressive all the same) and it was sitting on the kitchen side awaiting its destruction over the Christmas period.

An hour before we were due to set off for the children’s Christmas Eve Nativity service at our local church, I discovered a scene of devastation in the kitchen: Faith, stood on a dining room chair, surrounded by the crumbling walls of the now demolished house, gingerbread smearing her mouth and betraying her guilt….Christmas had come early to the youngest member of the household.

But Christmas must continue and after a quick clean-up we set off for church with a serene angel (Ana) and an increasingly fidgety donkey (Faith). Despite our best efforts to find a discrete perch at the back we ended up in a packed church in a very visible position a few rows from the front. The perfect place for a meltdown.

And meltdown she did. As bigger, braver children read beautifully at the front and proud parents strained to listen, my errant donkey started to chatter loudly and run up and down the pew like a wild Pamplona bull. As the minutes ticked by, the battle to imbue Faith with some of the Christmas Eve tranquility surrounding us was clearly failing and eventually I had to admit defeat and escort my kicking, screaming charge to the back of the church.

Exhausted and defeated, we headed home feeling a little sorry for ourselves. But as our flagging feet hit the doorstep and we wondered how we would find the energy to wrap all those last minute presents, we suddenly remembered that we had the perfect antidote sitting on our kitchen sideboard…..the ruins of a gingerbread house: the perfect recuperative sugar burst!

Back to School….and I’m in print!

This is the link to the new issue of Families Solent East which features my back to school article actually in print in an actual hard-copy publication!! I am ridiculously excited about this and will be framing a copy to go on the wall (well possibly not quite, but I am certainly keeping a copy!).

Good luck to all of you facing any kind of back to school / starting school / back to work experiences this week. May the force be with us all!