Friday, 21 September 2018

September's Odds & Ends

I think this summer was one of the best I’ve had. I loved the long hot weeks in early summer when my biggest concern was how few suitable clothes I had to see me through a heatwave. We spent our afternoons in the garden, Ebony teaching Ember how to swing while I sat in the sun reading a book. They had green smoothie ice lollies every day and I didn’t need to worry about whether they were getting enough leafy greens. I started a garden project and quickly abandoned it so I could spend the summer enjoying the sunshine. Yes, I will probably regret this when spring comes and I see the upturned mound of earth that is the bottom of the garden, but for this summer it was perfect.

The school holidays are short here, Ebony gets just five weeks off from school. We spent two of them trekking about in my parents’ motorhome. We drove to Somerset and Cornwall and then back home again. We had the most perfect two weeks. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it was lovely to spend a big chunk of time together. We spent a couple of days with a friend I hadn’t seen for five years, and Ebony became firm friends with her son, so that made the holiday even more special. Ebony mastered cycling her big bike and spent hours cycling around the sites we stayed at. Ember decided that sleep was for the weak and spent her evenings sat in the cold with us outside the motorhome.

And now, we are firmly back into the routine that school brings. By that, I mean the morning ritual of yelling at everyone to get ready until we are late and there is no point yelling. Our days are predictable and simple and I like that. With Ebony back in school, I’ve been able to slow down a little with Ember. We’re not rushing to catch up with her big sister, so it’s ok for her to dawdle on the way home. She can stop to pick up leaves, open every gate by herself and smell every flower along the way. Our afternoons are spent cuddled up on the sofa reading Harry Potter or pretending we’re not cold in the garden. Tonight we’re going to hunt for conkers because rumour has it they have arrived.

I thought I’d share a few things that I’ve enjoyed recently, I never really have anywhere to put these recommendations, so I thought I’d try and start a little place here for them. Here goes:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara It took me a long time to read this book. It is thick, but it is so worth it. The writing is beautiful. I will warn you, however, that it is one hell of an emotional read. I felt a little traumatised by the end and managed to warn Laurie off it so empathically that he actually hasn’t read it. I was completely swept up in the story and learning all about the lives of the characters. Do read it, but have a therapist on standby.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver This book took me a while to read, too. It’s not as long as A Little Life but it’s still a pretty hefty book. I absolutely love the way Kingsolver writes and I found the story so fascinating. I really loved the book and I would definitely recommend it.

Scummy Mummies - I had heard of the Scummy Mummies but didn’t really know anything about them other than that they are partial to spandex. My friend booked tickets and so we went to see them and they were hilarious. I laughed so loud and I wasn’t even embarrassed. There is a Captain Birdseye bit that I think will now flash before my eyes before I die in the montage of joyful moments from my life. They were so funny and so quick and I will definitely see them again next time they’re in Manchester.

League of Gentlemen Live! again - I was so desperate to go and see League of Gentlemen live that I left Ember after dark. This has never happened before because I am an overprotective anxious-shaped mother and nothing has ever enticed me away at night, but I couldn’t miss seeing League of Gentlemen. It did not disappoint. It was painfully funny, horrifically disturbing and the perfect reminder of how amazing that show was. I don’t understand how they manage to get through the sketches without laughing. There were points in the show where I actually thought I might die of laughing. I am so glad I got to see it live, it was just so brilliant.

Where Should We Begin by Esther Perel - I listened to this after Eleanor from The Bristol Parent recommended it. You listen in on a one-off relationship counselling session and it is so fascinating. Esther Perel is so brilliant to listen to, also, wise. Each episode features a different couple and the dynamics vary wildly. Some of the episodes are deeply emotional to listen to and others are, perhaps, a little odd. I suppose it depends what your own relationship is like. They all make for interesting listening though.

Not Another Mummy Podcast by Alison Perry - this podcast is always a brilliant listen, but I particularly enjoyed the episode with Emma Cantrell talking about how to discuss privilege with children. Emma has had a really interesting career in the third sector so she had some really fascinating anecdotes to share. I feel very passionately that children need to understand about current affairs, social justice, politics and privilege.

Vegan Food
Dandies marshmallows - I finally got around to sampling these and they are amazing. I can’t wait to toast them over the fire on Bonfire Night. They’re marshmallow sized which is pretty rare in the vegan marshmallow world, and they taste just like the marshmallows I remember from my childhood. Buy them!

Veganaise - I discovered this just before the summer and I haven’t stopped eating it since. I am very fussy about mayo and, sadly, the vegan ones just don’t cut it… until now. Veganaise is so good. It tastes so similar to animal-based mayonnaise. I have put it to the test with coleslaw, potato salad and as a dip for chips and it hasn’t failed a single time. It’s also really good on burgers. If you haven’t had it yet, you must.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Ember Turns Two

Dear Ember,

You are two! I am a little sad about it, but mostly because I enjoyed the look of surprise on stranger's faces when I told them that the tall, chatty, confident, fearless toddler in front of them was only one. But I'm not as sad as your dad. I worry your ageing is going to send him into a mid-life crisis, he can't believe how grown up you both are now.

Two years old. It doesn't seem possible that you can have been with us that long. It still feels like only moments ago when we were waiting for you to arrive. And now, here you are, a two year old. You talk incessantly from morning to night. You narrate everything you do and repeat yourself until you think you have had proper recognition. If nobody answers, or if we dare to talk amongst ourselves, you will start shouting, "Mummy? Mummy? Mummy? MUMMY?" Your favourite phrase at the moment is "I'll be back in a minute," which you say whenever you leave the room.

You are such a delight to be around. Happy and loving and affectionate. You love nothing more than cuddling up and playing in bed or on the sofa. You always wake up in a good mood and go running off to find your sister. The other day she told me that she likes this age, that you play proper games with her and talk to her. And it's true. I hear the two of you laughing all the time. I hear you hiding from monsters and taking spaceships to the moon and taking holidays across the world. I am forever walking into rooms to find the two of you dressed in elaborate costumes, the playroom upturned around you, with huge smiles on your faces.

We spend our days just the two of us, six whole hours just for us. You mostly spend this time messing up the house, demanding snacks and playing. Just recently, you have figured out how to play alone. Now, you sneak off and tip out the jigsaws so you can do them by yourself. You creep into Ebony's room and choose books to thumb through. You leave a trail of destruction in your wake, toys scattered across the house and books all over the floor for you to slip on later. You are always falling and getting covered in bruises.

You are fiercely independent, you want to do everything yourself and we are not allowed to help unless you ask us, too. You get yourself dressed now, which means you often have back to front or inside out clothing. You also get yourself undressed which means I frequently walk into rooms only to find you are, once again, naked. You like wearing dresses and tell me that all of your clothes are pretty. If we walk through a clothes shop, you spend the whole time touching things and saying, "It's so cute, so cute. That's cute. That's cute." (pronounced coot, of course).

You love picking Ebony up from school. You are normally ready and waiting to get her long before we actually need to leave the house. You take a little bag of snacks with you so you can share them with her on the walk home. You are now at an age where you can tell your dad about your day when he gets home from work. You chat away to him, speaking in a high-pitched voice whenever you are acting out dialogue from your day. And when you find something you enjoy talking about, you chat about it for months. You still talk about Disneyland on a daily basis, telling me all about when Ebony met Minnie Mouse and you blew her a kiss.

You didn't have a big party for your birthday. It turns out a summer bank holiday birthday comes with its own problems, with all of your friends going on holiday over your birthday weekend. And you didn't get a huge expensive present, because we already have all the big things that two-year-olds like to play with. But I know you know how loved you are. I know you enjoyed a day out just the four of us more than the noise and chaos of a big party. I know you're not bothered about the present and that the real joy comes from unwrapping. I know that eating a slice of birthday cake was more than enough excitement for you.

Now, if time could slow down a little, that would be great. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Playtime at the Whitworth Art Gallery This Summer

We only get five weeks off for the summer holidays in Stockport (and two weeks at WHIT to compensate) so the summer holidays don't feel too long. With a two-week holiday planned and Ebony spending a week at a holiday club, we really only have two weeks to fill. One of those weeks was the very first week, and I decided I didn't want to waste a second of it.

I had decided we should pop in to see Laurie in Manchester, so I looked for somewhere to have a day out in the city centre. Last holidays, we went to the People's History Museum (amazing) and the Football Museum (Ebony has not stopped talking about the football training she did there... best 35 minutes of her life). We quite often go to Manchester Art Gallery because it's not far from Laurie's work and they usually have good activities on for the kids. But the kid's studio is at the top of the stairs and there is no door so I would spend the whole visit just trying to stop Ember hurling herself down the stairs. One-year-olds are no fun. So, I was looking for somewhere different to visit. 

After a bit of online research, I decided to take them to the Whitworth Art Gallery. Located on Oxford Road, it's a little further than we usually like to venture, but the summer activities sounded really good so I figured it would be worth it. We've only ever been once before when Ebony was a toddler and I remember being really impressed. 

It's a half hour walk from Manchester Piccadilly to the art gallery but I much prefer to walk than faff around with city centre buses. There are huge painted bees scattered across Manchester at the moment as part of the Bee In The City Trail, so we decided to try and find a few of these on the way. I hoped this would stop Ebony moaning about the walk. I downloaded the Bee In The Cit app which cost £1.99 and we ticked off all of the bees we found. By the end of the day, we have found 16 bees which Ebony was pleased with. And, as hoped, the search for the bees distracted her from the walk. In fact, she kept making us go the long way just so she could find more bees. 

We had a little picnic in Whitworth Park before heading into the gallery. As part of their summer holiday activities this year they are running Playtime. Essentially, it was a collection of toys, games and activities scattered around the art gallery to keep little ones entertained. With a four and a half year age gap, it's not always easy to find activities that work for both kids, but this was perfect. First up, we found a picnic basket of assorted shapes on a rug. Ebony made some patterns while Ember tried to eat the shapes, so everybody was happy. 

Through in the next time, there was a baby area set up. Ember borrowed a few of the toys from the baby area and had the time of her life hurling herself onto the cushions, banging sticks together and banging a drum. Meanwhile, Ebony was playing (I think) Minecraft on a computer with the help of a member of staff. Once Ember had terrified all of the babies in the baby area, we went down to the sandpit. The sandpit was huge and the sand was clean (hooray!) and there were lots of toys for the kids to play with. They had pipes and jugs and colanders. It was pretty busy when we were there but there was still plenty of room for all the kids to have fun. 

Once they'd had enough of the sand (which took quite a while), we headed out to the lawn games. It was a lovely sunny day and there were picnic blankets set up on the grass. They had huge wooden dominoes and Jenga and other games set up. There were families and friends sitting around playing games in the sun. My two found a huge connect four and busied themselves with that. 

I'd spotted some easels set up inside so I wanted to swing by and have a look at them before we left. They had plenty of blank paper and pencils ready so the kids could make a few sketches of their own. Ebony drew a bee (obviously) and Ember drew her entire family (represented by just a few squiggles) and then spent ten minutes running up and down a ramp while screaming (she has not yet got the hang of appropriate art gallery etiquette). 

We were probably there for an hour and a half and the kids enjoyed every minute of it. I think Ebony could happily have spent longer there but you have to rush when your toddler sister is running rampage around art. The Playtime activities were great and I would definitely recommend paying a visit to the Whitworth gallery this summer if you're in the area. 

Playtime runs 11 am - 3 pm every day until the 31 August 2018. You can find out more on the Whitworth Art Gallery's website.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Wishing Life Would Slow Down A Little

Lately, I've been plagued by the realisation that life is passing too quickly. Weekends pass by in the blink of an eye, then another week is gone, then a term and now a whole school year. It doesn't feel possible that the summer holidays are almost upon us again. 

My baby isn't a baby at all anymore. She is almost two years old, a fully fledged toddler with the attitude to prove it. She is desperate to race ahead through life, she isn't willing to slow down for even a millisecond. She watches the things her big sister can do and then demands that she be allowed to do them too. She refuses to sit on a toddler toilet seat now, instead, balancing precariously over the bowl as though she may disappear down the toilet any moment. She doesn't want to hold my hand to walk down the street, she wants to walk beside me independently as her sister does. In the mornings, when I try to do Ebony's for school, Ember barges in front of her and demands that I do hers first, as though the fact she has none is irrelevant. 

And if I worry about how quickly Ember is growing up, she has nothing on her big sister. The past couple of years have flown by. When I think back to life before Ember, I remember nursery runs and lunchtimes at the breakfast bar and days out in Manchester. I remember Ebony's chubby cheeks and her hand gripped tightly in mine. That little girl feels like a distant memory now. This year, she has grown, taller and leaner, her limbs have thinned out and her face has lost the telltale chub of a little girl. She knows more now, she remembers things, and she chats away about all the things she has learned and played at school. 

Sometimes, there are moments that feel perfect and I wish I could bottle them and keep them forever. Little snatches of time that I never want to forget. My two girls, little but growing as there are now, creating perfect memories that I know will one day escape me. I want to remember how it feels to be cuddled tightly by a toddler, or needed by a heartbroken six-year-old. I want to remember their huge excited smiles, their laughter, and the games they have played together in the garden this summer. 

I wish I had a huge shelf of bottled memories that I could replay over and over again in my old age. When my little girls have grown and gone, I want to look back and inhale these moments over and over again. I want time to slow down that I can commit these days to memory. I want the summer to pass slowly, with plenty of time for exploring and adventure and just enjoying each other, and I want to remember this feeling of what life is like right now. It is easy to get caught up in the stress and the chaos and feel like this bit of life is hard, but I know that one day I will look back and long for the love and the warmth of this time of my life. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

7 Things That Make Modern Motherhood More Difficult Than It Needs To Be

Parenting isn’t easy, at all. I don’t know whether this is something people have always felt, or whether the idea of parenting as a struggle is a new phenomenon. I don’t know whether mothers in all cultures plonk themselves down at the end of the day and let out a sigh of relief at having gotten through another day, but I kind of doubt it. It seems like this struggle is cemented in the way we live our lives in the west. It complicates the way we hold ourselves as mothers, the way we interact with other mothers and even the way we bond with our babies.

That’s not to say motherhood should be perfect and glossy and easy. Of course, it shouldn’t. Life with kids is messy and chaotic and sometimes it makes you want to sit alone in a dark room for a while. But every single day shouldn’t be hard. Life shouldn’t feel like an uphill struggle. When life feels hard, we don’t manage to enjoy the days as they pass. If we’re busy begrudging motherhood, we’re less likely to appreciate the little things that make it all worthwhile - the grubby hands around our neck, the whispered I love yous and the misspelt handwritten notes left on our pillows.

Every minute doesn’t need to be perfect, but we should be able to sit down in the evening and feel positive about the day we just had. We should be able to remember the smiles and the cuddles and the pride, not just the stress and the self-doubt. Maternal mental health problems are on the rise and many women are finding the adjustment to motherhood a difficult one to make. Perhaps it has always been this way, but I doubt it. I think society is making motherhood more difficult than it needs to be, and I think once we recognise that, we will have the power to change it. Here are a few of the reasons I think parenting feels so damn hard in 2018:

1. The loss of a village
This pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t it? Generations ago, children grew into adults who stayed close to home. Families lived in the same communities and you stayed living near the friends you’d grown up with. By the time you had kids, you had a whole army of people to help you out. People relied on their friends and family for informal childcare in a way many people are unable to nowadays. In Bali, babies generally don’t touch the ground until they are six months old. Before then, they are carried at all times. The parents rely on friends and family members to help them keep their baby in arms for the first six months. I imagine there aren’t many people in the UK who could manage such a feat these days. I only live an hour from where I grew up, but that hour means I don’t have much of a village around me at short notice. For those who live even further from home, it must be even more difficult to get help when they need it.

2. Loneliness
It’s a sad fact that motherhood can be a lonely time. Babies are great, but they aren’t skilled conversationalists and the days can pass slowly when you’re not surrounded by friends to talk to. We live in our own houses with our own gardens and driveways. You can easily pass a day without leaving the confines of your own home. You can live in a house for years without ever really knowing your neighbours. The days of neighbourhoods communally raising their kids are gone. Now we have a country of lonely new parents trapped indoors, desperate to find their tribe but not knowing how to go about it. The early days can be so overwhelming that the thought of heading out to a baby group alone is just too much for some new parents. It’s a sad but very true fact that some women find motherhood to be incredibly lonely.

3. The obsession with back to ‘normal’
When you become a mother, there is a new normal, at least temporarily. Your body won’t look or feel like your own, you’ll be exhausted and you will probably lose track of your identity a little bit. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back, but it’s hard to retain your sense of self when you are in survival mode and just trying to make it through to bedtime so you can get some sleep (ha … maybe). But the media, and society, and even your friends are obsessed with you getting ‘back to normal’. They want you wearing your pre-pregnancy jeans, they want you on nights out, and they want your baby to slot into your pre-motherhood life and not change anything. But that isn’t how it works. There will be changes, some permanent, some temporary, and you won’t be ‘back to normal’ anytime soon. And that’s ok. This obsession with being ‘back to normal’ puts women under pressure to chase an unattainable dream.  

4. Technology
Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has completely changed the modern world and, in many ways, made parenting easier. The invention of the washing machine saved women countless hours and the disposable nappy even more so. Travel is easier and more affordable than ever before. And, thanks to technology, we are better connected, better informed, and better at taking all the photos than previous generations were, and that’s all thanks to advances in technology. But, there are downsides to the technological revolution.

Smartphones and the internet are great for new parents. They allow you to search for answers to the burning questions you have during the 3 am feed. And that’s great if you’re reading trusted information from relevant sites, but it’s not great when you end up down a rabbit hole on a forum of deranged pessimists whose answer to every question is ‘that happened to my cousin and then she died’. Information is power, except when it isn’t. The sheer quantity of information available online can leave new parents not knowing where to turn. It is hard to trust your instincts when the internet is scaremongering and contradictory.

5. Society’s dislike of ‘mum culture’
Simply put, mum doesn’t equal cool in our society. Being somebody’s mum is not a feather to your cap. It doesn't buy you any extra cool points. Mums are seen as being the opposite, really. Uncool, frumpy, past it, too busy to take care of themselves. Even though there are bucketloads of mothers out there proving how untrue that is, the stereotype remains. And, as soon as you have a kid, you worry that that stereotype might be true. After all, you really do spend a lot of time worrying about teething and nappy rashes and you really don’t have as much time to spend on looking after yourself. And so you worry that your friends don’t want to hear about your life,  that they’ll think it’s boring, and so you struggle to think of things to add to conversations. It is very lonely to be surrounded by friends detailing their latest adventures while feeling you have nothing interesting to say.

6. The habit of putting on a brave face
This is just what you do, isn’t it? You don’t tell people all your inner battles in the hope they will like you, even though they’ll never really know you. You don’t tell people when you’re struggling after a traumatic birth or holed up with infected stitches, or barely surviving on such little sleep. When people ask how you are, you tell them you are fine and give them a big (albeit dead-eyed) smile to prove it. But that inability to open up and be vulnerable means many new mums are missing out on the help they need. If you don’t tell people you’re exhausted, they won’t offer to hold the baby so you can nap. If you don’t tell people you’re struggling to get on top of work, they won’t offer to take your toddler to the park for a few hours so you can get things done. It’s not always easy to be honest, but it is always worth it.

7. Judgement, or at least the idea of it
There is nothing worse than feeling like you are being judged, especially for your parenting choices. You want to be the best parent you can be, so to think others believe you are doing a bad job is just heartbreaking. We are all just doing the best we can, so can’t we just get along and be kind to each other? Why is there this obsession with tearing each other down? Sometimes, the judgement is real. Some people are incredibly judgemental and, if that affects how you feel about yourself, are better off avoided. But, I would argue, sometimes it is in your head. We worry so much about being judged that sometimes we get into the habit of feeling judged even when nobody is judging us. And media stereotypes make that worse.

The tabloids and daytime TV shows are filled with parenting stereotypes pitted against each other in ‘debates’. You know the ones, they find a mum who thinks breastfeeding is perverted child abuse and put her up against the mum who is still breastfeeding her 45-year-old son. It’s a way of getting people riled up and selling newspapers, but it also has a negative impact on new mums who are sat at home already feeling like the world is judging them. This obsession with us vs them makes parenting even more difficult to navigate.

Each of these things plays a part in making modern motherhood more difficult than it needs to be. Some people may be affected by some more than others, but I think all mothers are feeling the impact of these changes to society. The good news is you can do something to help. Ok, you can’t un-invent smartphones or force people to live closer to their mums, but you can take a positive step towards helping new mothers feel good. You can smile and be kind, and think about the words you say before they tumble out of your mouth. Be mindful of the words you say and the impact they may have. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.

If you’re a new mum navigating motherhood, you can do your bit by being honest. Let yourself be vulnerable and speak truthfully with the other mothers you meet, that way you can take steps towards building a supportive community of women surviving and excelling at motherhood together.

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