Thursday, 27 August 2015

Why Books Make Ideal New Baby Gifts

My university friends have a (recent) tradition that when someone has a baby shower, we each buy the new baby a book. We choose a book we loved when we were little, or, if we have children, a book we love reading to our own. I really love this tradition, and love that all of our babies have ready made mini libraries before they’re even born. Tiny baby clothes are fine and everything (so cute), but I think books made the perfect new baby gifts. I am a big book geek, and am very sentimental about books. When I was pregnant, my parents went up into their loft and retrieved all of the boxes containing childhood. Amongst this dusty pile of 1980s sentimentality, were three boxes of books. I stole most of them, and took them home to fill the bookshelf in the as yet uninhabited nursery.

That nursery got left behind when we moved (and never actually served it’s purpose as a room for sleep anyway, thanks to co-sleeping. The most action it ever saw was nappy changes, of which it saw a lot), but the books came with us. Instead of a single bookshelf, we now have, erm, a lot of bookshelves filled with brightly coloured children’s books (you can take a little tour of Ebony’s room here). I’m not exaggerating when I say we have hundreds of them. It may even be over 1000. Our local charity shop sells books very cheaply, and I seem unable to resist buying books of any description.

I can remember when Ebony was a baby, I was aware the sound of my voice was important for her brain function and the development of language skills. And yet, chattering away to somebody who doesn’t talk back is how I spend pretty much every evening when Laurie gets back from work (kidding. Sort of), and I didn’t really want to do that all day as well. Also, it was hard to think of things to say. Pointing out ducks is really very uninteresting, and the same goes for cows, trains and tractors. Just kidding, tractors are awesome, but you know what I mean.

And so, I turned to books. I spent a long time each day reading books to her, snuggled up with her on the sofa. She would pull at the pages, listen intently and look at the pictures. Sometimes she would fall asleep, which was actually quite rude. She didn’t really have a bedtime routine, and always fed to sleep so bedtime stories weren’t really a thing in our house. Instead, we would read every afternoon. As soon as she was mobile, she would bring books to me for reading. And I would often find her flicking through the pages of a book by herself. This is something she still loves to do now, I can always hear the sound of pages being turned in the morning.

Reading to infants and young children helps to get them ready for language. It also improves brain function by using different areas of the brain. Regular reading increases a child’s use of the parts of the brain responsible for visual imagery and narrative understanding, both of which are very important. Hearing voices on television doesn’t have the same effect. Regular reading also allows for that quiet time to snuggle up and bond, and has been found to foster close bonds between parent and child. I didn’t know any of that when I first opened up a book as my baby sat on my knee, I just wanted to pass some time.

I have always loved books, and was keen to pass that passion down to my daughter. Nowadays, reading is a part of our bedtime routine. She chooses three books and I read them to her in bed before we lie down to go to sleep. She chooses different books every day, though she does have a few favourites that pop up time and time again. Now that she’s three, she often has questions at the end of the story, or simply wants to comment on the story or illustrations in the book. That time, snuggled up together at the end of the day, enjoying a book, is one of my favourite times of day.

That’s why I love buying books as new baby gifts. Well, that and I can’t really handle going into Next and looking at the outrageously adorable baby clothes with my ovaries imploding. I am a big fan of anything by Dr Seuss, Julia Donaldson, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Oliver Jeffers and Jon Klassen. I’m also on the look out for more storybooks and would love to hear your suggestions for other authors and books to check out.


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Giveaway with JORD Watches



JORD Watches recently offered me the chance to review one of their beautiful wooden watches. I chose the above watch, made from ebony and rosewood, as a gift from Ebony to Laurie for his 30th birthday. As you can see, it's a really lovely watch. The fact it's made from wood means it's totally unique, and Laurie really loves it. He's had it for over a month now and has only lost it once (Ebony had hidden it in her purse), which I think is testament to how much he likes it (everything else is misplaced within minutes). 

The lovely people at JORD have very kindly offered some vouchers for their online store to three lucky readers. The first prize is a $75 voucher, second prize is a $50 voucher and there's a $25 voucher available for the runner up. There are lots of different styles to choose from, so be sure to take a look around their site

To be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is fill in the rafflecopter below. Good luck! 

a Rafflecopter giveaway ThePrizeFinder

Monday, 24 August 2015

How to Get Over a Fear of Escalators




Ebony has never been scared of escalators. She has loved them since she was old enough to toddle onto them. She always wanted to do it by herself. To not hold hands. To jump off them in a dramatic and theatrical dismount. And though it terrified me to my very core, I pretended this was ok. She would stand in front of me, perched recklessly between two steps. I waited behind her, anticipating her fall from grace as the steps parted, only for her to prove me wrong and correct her footing just moments before one step fell into the dangerous chasm beneath.

Only once before had she ever hesitated, leaving me escalating away from her at great speed as she looked on with confusion at the top of the escalator. As I saw my little girl disappearing into the horizon, I was forced to turn and attempt to run back up the descending escalator. No easy feat. And one that was made harder by the deafening laughter of my fellow shoppers. As I reached the top, sweaty and breathless, Ebony simply stepped on, and together we sank away from the belly laughs of the general public. Even after that moment of parental public humiliation and near abandonment, she continued to love escalators.

That is, until the day someone fell on her. If you’ve never seen a person fall on an escalator before, it is quite terrifying. This wasn’t an awkward stumble easily rectified by putting your hands out. This was a backwards fall on an escalator travelling out of the grotty hell that is Piccadilly tram station. I have never fallen on an escalator, but I can imagine it is quite tricky to save yourself once gravity takes hold of you. Where do you put your hands when the floor is slipping away beneath you? This fellow commuter ended up splayed on the escalator, her head landing just where Ebony was stood (when I recounted this event to my husband, he questioned my compassion at not breaking the woman’s fall which, in hindsight, does make me kind of a dick. In my defence, I saw something coming out of the corner of my eye and quickly pulled Ebony to the side. Mother first, compassionate citizen of the world second, fall stopper not so much).

Once the faller was vertical once again, we stepped off the escalator and I noticed tears rolling down Ebony’s face (‘Why did that woman hurt me, mummy?’ said very loudly, next to failed escalator stunt woman). She started to sob. Her head was hurt. She was scared. She wanted to know why I didn’t stop the woman hurting her (tired woman with delayed reaction times first, mother second, compassionate system of the world third).

And so it began, the fear of escalators. We went to Debenhams on a fruitless hunt for a black school cardigan, and Ebony would not get onto the escalator. She wanted me to pick her up. Which I did, because there is nothing more awful than people trying to force you to overcome a fear. And we had a talk about escalators, and the woman who fell on her. And then I thought no more about it.

Until we went to London. The city of escalators. Having now lived with somebody affected by escalator phobia, I can see that London is not a place that welcomes people with this condition. Underneath the city there is a seemingly endless maze of escalators, each one more terrifyingly massive than the next. These are not your average escalators, in fact they grow to about three times the size of escalators in the wild. They are long, soulless prisons transporting hordes or equally soulless, unhappy Londoners to and from their business.

There is no hope of gently encouraging a small child onto these towering metal staircases, because there are always at least 47 people clambering over your head to get on the escalator. Heaven forbid they should miss the tube and have to wait the painfully long three London minutes for the next rush of warm air to sweep into the station. And so, we tried and failed to get onto the escalator a number of times, much to the joy of all of London. She wanted me to carry her on. I could feel the sharp intake of breath around me when she suggested at, as the business people imagined The Horror of having to shove past my cumbersome child-carrying form as they race to freedom on the left hand side. I was carrying no fewer than three big bags, and was already straining under the weight, so there was no way I going to add a hefty three year old to the load.

We moved to the side of the escalator. We sat down. We talked. We visualised. We embraced the concept of escalator travel. Well, I did. Ebony just shouted “NO!” a lot. We spent fifteen minutes sat on the filthy floor of the underground, undergoing the pep talk of a lifetime. In the end, a member of staff came over to check we were ok. I explained the crippling phobia, and nodded knowingly before disappearing into the crowd of grey suits and lost dreams.

It took fifteen minutes, but I was finally able to utter the words that saved the day. The sentence that so easily turned my day of sitting on the floor of the underground to a day of going up escalators. I put my arm around Ebony, I looked deep into her eyes, and I said, “Fine. I’ll carry you.” Then I hoisted her up, splayed my overnight bags out like a proud peacock made entirely of luggage, and dragged myself onto the escalator. London was not pleased, but life is too short to worry about London.

After a 24 hour stint as a human accessory to the London underground escalator system, we went to Hamleys. No trip to London is complete without a trip to the overpriced haven that is Hamleys. The walls are stocked with amazing toys, and I am forced to say ‘Not that, it’s too expensive’ each time we pass a new display (approximately every eight seconds). There are 50,000 toys in Hamleys, spread out over the seven floors (gates of hell). About 49,999 of these toys are out of my price range. In fact, Ebon can basically just have one of the tiny plastic figurines and those are located on one of the top floors.

There are stairs in Hamleys, but they are filled with smug families skipping around with thousands of pounds worth of toys crammed into carrier bags. It gives me rage (jealous rage, obviously). I prefer to stick with people of my own kind. I don’t want to see happy shoppers on their way out of the store. I want to have my cheek pressed against the sweaty faces of other miserable parents wondering how many more floors there are in this humid hell. And so I like to stick with the other people going up. They understand me, I understand them. We’re all suicidal.

I gently took Ebony by the hand and explained that I thought the Frozen Anna figures would probably be upstairs, but that we’d have to get the escalator up. Ok, she said, walking towards and boarding the escalator by herself, before glancing back to make sure I was following (because I control the money). No tears, no pep talk, no worries.

Just greedy, self-serving capitalism. That’s how you get over your fear of escalators.

Friday, 7 August 2015

A Visit to the National Wildflower Centre








Not so long ago, we paid a visit to the National Wildflower Centre. I’d only recently stumbled across it on the internet, and it sounded like it might be worth a visit. I am a big fan of wildflowers, I love how quickly they spread and how they fill the countryside with bright colours. Knowing how good they are for bees and other wildlife helps too. When we moved into our house, the garden was like a meadow, filled with weeds and wildflowers. We cut back most of them, though have tried to keep some in the flower beds. I’ve also posted more wildflowers to encourage nature to stay in our garden.

The National Wildflower Centre is located in Knowsley, so is pretty handy for us because we often pop across to Liverpool to visit uni friends. Set in a public park, the wildflower centre has beds filled with beautiful bright flowers. It was a very pretty and tranquil place to spend a couple of hours. Ebony had fun racing around (at the moment she has two speeds; still and racing), playing chase and exploring the grounds. As you might expect, the gardens were teeming with butterflies, bees and other insects.

There is a cafe on site, we didn’t stop for food but I had a quick look at the menu and they seemed to have a lot of vegetarian options. I didn’t enquire as to vegan options but it was the sort of place that I wouldn’t be surprised if they had at least a couple of deliberately vegan dishes to choose from. There’s also a gift shop that sold all kinds of beautiful things. I bought myself a packet of wildflower seeds to plant in the garden, and Ebony decided on a pot of bubbles (of course).

We didn’t get chance to explore the whole centre as we only had a couple of hours and Ebony mostly spent this time playing. We’ll definitely be going back before it closes to have a look at the rest of the flowers.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

A Garden Party (& why you should probably avoid me when I've had a drink)



Laurie turned 30 a couple of weeks ago. His birthdays usually pass without much fuss, as he quietly mumbles that he’s not really much of a birthday person. I have always been the exact opposite, milking my birthdays for every ounce of attention I can possibly find. Well, until motherhood. Then it’s not really the same, is it? Sometimes it feels a bit like we’ve been in hibernation since the day I found out I was pregnant. Missing parties to stay home and do bedtime, constantly too tired to go out and celebrating birthdays at home with little more than a bottle of prosecco (each, but still).

So when Laurie said he’d quite like to do something for his 30th, I decided we would Do Something. Laurie decided on a party at home, though to be honest the thought of a house full of drunk people was less than appealing. And so we decided to have a garden party, and just hoped the weather would at least be dry. As it turned out, the weather was wonderful and my months spent sorting the garden were not in vain.

When we moved into our house last year, the garden was a full on bee paradise/meadow. The grass was taller than Ebony, wildflowers crept into every corner, and a whole playground’s worth of rusting equipment was hidden beneath the weeds. This year I decided to make it my mission to get it sorted. It actually turned into a much bigger project than I’d anticipated, mostly because I kept changing my mind about what I was doing.

There was a lot of concrete to dig up, plenty of slabs to move, and a ridiculous amount of mud to find a new home for. Luckily, I managed to get most of it done in spring when the weather was nice (seriously, summer, what is going in?). I spent days in the garden lugging around stones and mud, with Ebony as my assistant with her wheelbarrow and spade. She took on the official role of worm relocation officer and must have single handedly saved the lives of hundreds of worms, snails and slugs.

We made the lawn bigger, created a space for Ebony to play in and an accompanying patio area for us to sit and drink tea (wine). We made a hopscotch and swing set to keep Ebony entertained. We (my mum) planted flowers, put up fairy lights and made the garden somewhere nice to be. I really wish I had some before shots so I could see the transformation, it’s hard to remember just how bad it was before.

There were some jobs to do inside too. We painted the conservatory, updated an old dresser, bought some more storage, and generally tried to reorder the back of the house a little. We painted the woodwork, cleaned the windows, and bought plenty of flowers to decorate the garden. And, obviously, we continued to hope the weather would be good.

After a week of depressing weather forecasts and threats of thunderstorms, it amazingly didn’t rain until after we were all tucked up in bed. Or passed out on a bed, whatever. I can’t really say much about what happened at the party, mostly because I don’t remember. But I do know I drank a lot of Pimms. And that the glass of prosecco was probably where things took a turn for me. I know that I tried to get people to tell me their secrets, that I almost certainly spent most of the night harassing various party guests (er, yeah, sorry about that), and that I paraded my friend Kim around the party so I could tell people she’s never met about how exciting her job is. I also made a fire.

I can confirm that my hangover lasted a long time, and that Laurie woke up pretty fresh faced after passing out before 11pm and managing a full eight hours of kip. And, with Ebony gone for the next day until close to bedtime, I got to enjoy an old school hangover with plenty of duvets, Black Books and the odd helping of greasy food. So much better than being woken at 6am, being forced to play Ballerinas and having to make food for someone else.

And now I’m retiring back to my hermit life, because I’ve remembered just how terrible it is to not remember what I said the night before/be properly hungover/be faced with party mess the next morning.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sleepovers



Ebony and I didn't spend a night apart until she was three, and then it was really only because the umbilical cord rotted and fell of (jokes. Sort of). I’m actually weirdly proud of this commitment. When Ebony was so tiny that I wouldn’t have left her for more than 10 minutes even if you’d offered me a million pounds, I stumbled across the advice online. Apparently three year olds have the conversational skills and understanding necessary for such a separation. In reality, I’m sure Ebony would have been fine earlier because she’s good with the words, but alas, my mind was made up.

And so, the week of her third birthday, she spent the night at my parents’ house in Burnley. One whole hour away. She was fine, obviously. Didn’t even ask for me. Though this could have been to the exhaustion she experienced after staying up so long after her usual bedtime. Or maybe it was down to the vegan ice cream related sugar rush. Who knows. She turned up at dinner time the next day, slightly delirious from exhaustion, and very excited to see us, but equally as excited to tell us about all the fun things she did. She was pleased to tell me that she didn’t miss me once (ouch), and kept asking if I was sad without her (no, unless sad actually means busy sleeping for eight consecutive hours).

Since then, she has stayed over a few more times. The lure of homemade chocolate ice cream is oh too powerful. They still haven’t managed to get her to bed at a decent hour, but we don’t hold that against them while we’re busy enjoying a full night’s sleep (safe in the knowledge that they almost certainly aren’t). She sleeps in my old bedroom at their house, it almost got redecorated at one point but a last minute guilt trip secured the survival of my 6ft high rainbow painted on the wall (I can hear all the interior stylists breathing a collective sigh of relief there).

She sleeps on my old bed, some bunk beds that my dad made for me years ago. My mum decorated them, burning my favourite characters from books onto them. Going up the rungs of the ladder there is a quite poignant poem about taking care of the environment. The bedroom is filled with toys, my parents have never thrown anything out, so Ebony can spend her visits playing with bald barbies, scalped Playmobil men and a selection of half chewed plastic animals. The bed is covered in soft toys and teddies from my childhood; the hand knitted seven dwarves, the care bears and the world’s creepiest clown.

Downstairs, there is more fun to be had. Robin, our old rocking horse, resides in the hallway. He is a little worse for wear these days, and shakes a little if you go too fast, but Ebony loves him. She can climb on herself now she tells me. Behind Robin is a mountain of forgotten toys recovered from my parents’ loft archive. A huge plastic play kitchen from the mid 90s, a box of stickle bricks, a bag of hideous noisy toys.

They needn’t bother with the toys though, their house is filled with enough excitement without the need for age appropriate pastimes. The cuckoo clock in the kitchen can hold her attention every fifteen minutes, with particular excitement on the hour. We once waited ten minutes to watch it only to discover it wasn’t wound up (or whatever the right phrase might be there), then she sat for another fifteen minutes to see if it worked the next time. Ebony could happily spend an afternoon playing around with their recliner chairs, pulling the lever to make them recline, and then lying back with a satisfied grin.

My sister is back from Canada and living with my parents for the time being. This makes a trip over to Burnley ever more exciting. During her last sleepover, Ebony played with Rosie right up until bedtime (Rosie’s, Ebony doesn’t believe in bedtime when you’re having a sleepover). I know that as Ebony gets older she will learn to love my parents’ house even more. It is the perfect place for a game of Hide and Seek, and the cupboard under the stairs is the perfect spot for a quick game of Narnia. It is the perfect childhood home, and I’m glad Ebony gets to experience a little bit of that from time to time.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Fairtrade School Uniforms & Why You Should Buy One



Many years ago, when I was younger, foolish and drank a lot more wine than I do today, I worked for charities. Mostly animal rights charities because that is my passion of choice, but I also worked for a short while at People & Planet, a student campaigning organisation that tackled human rights. During my time there, they were campaigning for Fairtrade school uniforms and visiting schools to raise awareness of the difference this could make in the world.

At the time, Fairtrade school uniforms weren’t too hard to come by. Tesco sold a whole Fairtrade uniform meaning parents could opt for ethical clothes easily whilst doing their weekly shop.I think Marks and Spencers also stocked some Fairtrade school uniform items. It certainly seemed like things were very slowly moving in the right direction. Fast forward five years, and now I’m charged with buying my daughter’s first school uniform. Aside from thinking it is ridiculous that a three year old should have to wear a uniform, this is actually quite traumatising because it highlights just how fast my baby is growing up. The thought of having to sew name tags into her school shirts gives me butterflies, not least because I am not a good seamstress.

From my time at People & Planet, I remember that the Tesco Fairtrade uniforms were priced the same as the unfairly traded ones (that might sound dramatic, but they are traded so unfairly). Why bother having the unfairly traded ones, you might ask? I have no idea. Probably because that extra 6p of profit (or whatever) was worth it in the eyes of a money hungry businessman (or maybe woman. Women can be dicks too).

As many as 100 million households across the world are thought to depend upon the cotton industry. Many of these people live in hardship. Our obsession with cheap clothes, fast changing fashions and high profit margins are forcing people into economic hardship. Often, cotton pickers and textile workers are not paid living wages, they face unsafe working conditions and are unable to unionise. The Fairtrade certification guarantees that workers are paid a living wage, and that extra money is invested into the community to provide important things like schools and birth centres. I’m not saying the Fairtrade certification is perfect, or that it solves all of the problems facing people working in the cotton supply chain, it doesn’t. But it is a damn sight better than what happens when you choose to buy unfairly traded cotton.

Whilst searching for an ethical uniform for Ebony, I discovered that none of the high street retailers stock Fairtrade uniforms. It is incredibly depressing to me that they have taken such a huge step backwards in the past five years. When I worked at People & Planet, most of the students I spoke to were passionate about having Fairtrade uniforms. They understood the huge difference this purchase could make to the people involved in the supply chain, and wanted to choose products that would have a positive impact on the world. And yet, big business simply isn’t catering for these students or their parents who want to choose ethical uniforms.

All of these big business will tell you that they stock ethically produced cotton. They’ll be signed up to a self-titled ethical policy, or they’ll be a member of some bullshit industry standard thing, but it’s not enough. If it’s run by the industry, it’s unlikely to have the supply chain workers’ best interests of heart. A sad truth about business is that profit tends to come first. The Fairtrade Foundation is independent. It has strict criteria so that workers are protected and supported. It aims to empower workers at all stages of the supply chain. The certification allows farmers to secure a better price for their goods and makes them less vulnerable to poverty. Workers are able to unionise, allowing them power to negotiate for improved working conditions. It is estimated that there are currently 168 million child labourers across the world, some as young as five. The Fairtrade Foundation has strict rules against child labour.

Knowing all of this, I wanted Ebony to have a Fairtrade school uniform. We don’t always buy Fairtrade, but we do try to as often as we can. Bananas, sugars and teas are always Fairtrade. And People Tree is always my first port of call when it comes to dress shopping. I was really disappointed to discover that none of the high street stores or supermarkets were selling Fairtrade uniforms this year, but managed to find some online. I’ve already bought Ebony’s polo shirts, they were only £2.50 each and are Fairtrade. They’re by David Luke and you can (and should) buy them here. I know price is an important factor when it comes to uniform shopping, but £2.50 a shirt isn’t much more than £2.50 a pair (this seems to be standard supermarket pricing) and when you consider the difference it makes to the people who make the clothes, I think it’s worth it.

If you know of any other suppliers of Fairtrade school uniforms, let me know. I still have to buy a cardigan, skirt and trousers. If you agree that Fairtrade uniform should be more readily available, please contact the supermarkets and high street stores to ask why they’re not stocking them. I tweeted a number of them last week and was told me interest would be passed on, so the more voices the better.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Review: JORD Watches (and Laurie's 30th birthday)




For my very first Mother’s Day, back when I was still a nervous, anxious wreck, Ebony bought me a necklace. Well, I’m pretty sure Laurie bought it because Ebony doesn't have an income to this day. And I’m pretty sure he picked it out too, because Ebony wasn’t so great at pointing to things when she was two months old. The necklace has an acorn on it, and the acorn is carved out of ebony wood. It’s a really lovely necklace and it has great sentimental value to me.

With Laurie’s 30th coming up, I started thinking about what Ebony could give him for his birthday. 30 is a pretty big deal, so I felt like she needed to get something special. He’s not easy to buy for, because everything he owns gets lost. This can sometimes happen minutes after he gets it. Gone forever. I cannot tell you how many times he has lost his wedding ring. And wallet (he doesn’t currently have one, in fact, because he lost it). And car keys. Really, the only way of getting Laurie a present he will treasure forever would be to get him a tattoo. But he isn’t really a fan of tattoos, so that won’t work. 

When JORD Watches asked me if I’d like to try one of their watches, I was excited to discover that they had watches made from ebony wood. It seemed like the perfect solution to what Ebony should get Laurie for his birthday. After all, I may do the writing but she provides all of the stories for this blog so I do feel she’s earned it. 

JORD watches are made from sustainable woods, and there are plenty to choose from. I opted for the Dover series made from ebony wood for obvious reasons. The watches are sized in advance, so you measure your wrist before choosing which watch to order. You don’t have to do this, but it saves you a trip to the jewelers if you get JORD Watches to do it all for you. The watch arrived quickly and I was more than a little impressed with the packaging. It arrives in a beautiful wooden box with the JORD logo engraved in the lid. Upon sliding open the lid, I discovered the watch inside, beautifully displayed on a little cushion. That sounds weird, but trust me, it works.

The colour of the watch is just perfect. It’s made from ebony and rosewood, giving it a coloured detailing. One of the things I love about these watches is that they’re made from natural wood so each one is truly unique. You can order the Dover Series watch in ebony and rosewood for $295 here (this works out at about £190). I think it’s the perfect 30th birthday present, what do you think?



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