Time to myself

I have the week off. What a treat. We’ve been for a long weekend at my mum’s house, a relaxing weekend of good food, old friends and scarecrows, and came away laden with home grown plums and gooseberries, some new toys for E and a mysterious anniversary present for next month. This Friday we head to the other grandparents for the weekend – more good food, a large barbecue and treats for E are in store.

In between I have taken three days from work, in an effort to be more sensible with my leave, spread out relaxing time and generally have some time to myself. I’ve been looking forward to it and have told myself that I won’t do boring things (clearing out the bathroom cupboard or cleaning) but creative things instead.

As if sensing she might be missing out, E was clingy and cried when I left her at nursery for the first time in ages yesterday. The chances are that she was actually tired having kept herself up late the night before talking to herself and her toys, nevertheless, I did feel a pang of guilt at leaving her when I was just going home again.

I did a spot of writing work at my desk and then headed out. I had writing exercises, a notebook, a large bottle of water, and my ipod with me. I walked in the sun, felt myself bloom a little, stopped in the arboretum, exchanged pleasantries with an old geezer who said hello, wrote some more and ambled into town. In the city, I made a note of some music sessions for under 5s at the Royal Centre, browsed in a second hand bookshop (bought Paula by Isabel Allende and some birthday cards), ran some errands for S and made my way to an art gallery. The idea was to write in different places, to stimulate the creative juices and get some new ideas to work with. The art was terrible (I always feel I should go to the gallery as it’s prestigious and I hate being the kind of person who likes living in a city where lots goes on but I never go to any of it. So I go, and the art always leaves me feeling nonplussed) but it got me thinking in other ways.

And so to the cinema. One of the treats I’d promised myself was a trip to see a film – I’ve not been to a regular screening of a film since I was pregnant. I’d decided on Boyhood and sat huddled down with a packet of pistachios to nibble on for 2 1/2 hours. Once it was over (I thought it was ok but not so worthy of all the plaudits and, as it went, I was more interested in the boy’s mother than him) I headed straight for my reading group. All in all it was a nice relaxing day.

I got home to S by 8.45 who told me that E, as she headed upstairs to bed, turned to the window and waved “Goodbye Mummy, see you later!” Apparently she always looks to the gate for me at bedtime – sometimes I make it home from work for bedtime and sometimes I don’t. Isn’t that just the loveliest thing you ever heard? Obviously I felt even more guilty that I was sitting drinking a small overpriced cup of coffee and discussing Graham Greene at the time.

I’m not really bathing in guilt, you understand. But there is a small voice that tells me I’m being selfish at having a few days to myself when I could be with her. And I do enjoy being with her – especially at the moment when her development is so obvious each day. This morning she commented on how pretty the garden looked and that it was windy. It was like having a conversation with a neighbour. She must have copied it from us at some point, bless her.

Of course, I’m realising three days really aren’t enough for all the things I want to do. Today I’m making plum jam and plum cakes, working on a couple of short stories, making notes on research for my book, sorting through the knitting projects that are piled behind the sofa and taking E for a haircut. I could do things like this for months on end. But I can’t. So three days will have to be enough.

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Mums on the town

I’ve just comeback from a two-day work team meeting/ training extravaganza. My fellow colleagues are all women, mostly mums, and fabulously supportive hard working achieving types. Working mums in a demanding job, if I say so myself.

But here we were on a night out! For some it was the first time away from their children. For others of us, we don’t get out much. What a treat. I had a two-day meeting last month too and I’ve started to notice a trend, a cycle to the mindset of a mum on the town. It goes like this:

At the end of the working day there is universal agreement that we’re all tired, looking forward to a quiet night without worrying about being woken in the night/ hyperactive over tired toddlers/ housework and so on. We’re not planning on staying out late.

There is a quiet hour after hotel check in and pre-dinner. This is blissful.

Dinner. There is wine. Good food. Chatter, gossip and giggles.

Some people leave after dinner (about 10.30)

Someone else makes the suggestion of going on for another drink.

The rest of us (the tired ones) all agree. We go into the first bar we find, order more drinks, really let off steam and discuss dancing. (It’s a gay bar – either we’re liberated by the prospect of not being chatted up by idiotic men or we’re too tired to go elsewhere. My bets are on the former.)

We don’t dance but go back to the hotel wishing we’d been the ones brave enough to suggest it first.

We sleep well but not nearly long enough. A 9am start sounds like torture. Fried breakfast and coffee are necessary. Delicate emotional scenes ensue at our creative training.

So there you go! Do working mums need sleep or a chance to blow off steam? Ideally both. But best of all, we all need a lovely supportive team of other fabulous women. Thanks team.

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Eating for two

One of the benefits of actually having a child is that I now get to properly judge why other people parent their own children the way they do. I mean, I always judged, but it seems more fun doing it when you have more of a clue.

We ate out on Monday, and sat outside at a pavement cafe. At the next table a mother, her friend and her little boy (about E’s age) had their lunch. The boy was working his way through a bucket of potato wedges.

“Oh don’t eat that one darling, it looks a bit burnt!” she said. It wasn’t burnt, it was merely dusky with the effects of deep frying with its skin in. The little boy proceeded to put it down and root through the bucket, examining each wedge before deciding not to eat any of them.

I speak not from a position of superiority, you understand. At the same time E was painstakingly picking out all the bits of lettuce from her fish finger and pea sandwich before leaving them sitting at the side of the plate. But it seemed an odd hang up to pass on to someone, a fear of things that aren’t cooked to a colour you’re happy with.

E’s eating habits are very different at home than they seem at nursery. I dropped her off the other day and had to take her through for breakfast (usually they take her off me before then.) It was a revelation to watch her sit at the table, drink juice from an open beaker using two hands, not wave it around, and then help herself politely to a pancake from a big plate. It’s not like we don’t instil routine and table manners at home but this seemed a different level. And according to their reports she always eats sandwiches. She’s never eaten a sandwich I’ve bought her when we’re out yet – today she ate the filling and left all the bread.

This is problematic of course. A lot of menus have sandwiches on and the kinds of places we go for lunch are sandwich based. I either have to unwrap cheese and a banana from my bag for her to eat (which seems rude) or try and find somewhere that has a more imaginative menu.

Anyway, I’ve been trying not to judge her eating preferences with my own prejudice – so she eats baked beans (bleagh), rice pudding (yuk) and once, cauliflower cheese (*borks*). And she’s started to go off things that she previously loved – cheese, for example no longer excites her. Sad times.

But it does mean food is now more of a guessing game than it’s been so far. They seem to do a lot of things in sauce at nursery – perhaps that’s my next line. Chasseurs. I have no idea what these are. Recipes please.

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E’s development continues at a breakneck speed (not literally, thank goodness) since she started talking. Three weeks in and she’s already got a great vocabulary including numbers (to 20 (sort of)) and colours and food. She also repeats what I say very easily – today, at Hardwick Hall, I told her that Bess of Hardwick had her own coat of arms rather than her husband’s because “she didn’t give a toss.” “Toss,” came the reply. Luckily the man in the street last week didn’t hear us both comment on how awful his shiny suit was…

With this has also come her desire to express her independence in other things. A few weeks ago she started refusing to go in her high chair, wanting to sit in the grown up chairs instead. This was all very well but she can’t reach the table and no-one, but no-one, sells booster seats. I ended up buying three foam cushion pads from Dunelm (other fabric and general household tat stores are available) placing them together under some washable fabric and making her one myself.

She also flitters between her desire for a drink and her desire to drink out of a big cup. So far this has led to several spillages (just water) on me, the carpet, the sofa and down her tshirts. She hasn’t quite grasped the concept of the open top to the drink yet. I’m fine with letting her learn this, her father has fifty fits over the furniture. It’s just water.

This is a really exciting part, I think. Every day brings something new – new words, new things she’s learned but not had a chance to demonstrate before, new desires – and it’s visible to us. She seems to absorb all we tell and show her like a sponge. With this in mind we have to watch our language but are taking advantage of her receptiveness to teach her important life skills – today I demonstrated how to dance on and off a kerb like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, as well as impressing on her that the thing to do when confronted with a bare bottomed statue is to pat it.

I also find that she’s becoming more resilient physically. She and I spent ages yesterday at the playground in the park before anyone else arrived playing on the zipwire. She can hold on all the way now – whether I’m on there or whether I’m running alongside holding her on – and when we both fell off onto our backs she laughed and laughed rather than being surprised and crying like she would have a few months ago. Last week she walked all the way round town and sat on the bus seats like a big girl instead of being in her pushchair and was obviously proud of herself for doing so, looking up at me and beaming and saying “‘K!” to my asking “OK?”

Each new phase of her childhood seems better than the last.

(My apologies if this is a bit soppy – but I’m really amazed how much I enjoy this.)

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Get out of my personal space!

I dropped E off at nursery the other morning as usual. She was fine up until the moment when a little boy, who gets there every morning before her, came up to her and greeted her with a hug. At that, she crumpled her face and started to cry.

Now, I don’t know for sure that the hug was the problem – the nursery worker was surprised at E and said that they hugged each morning, and E does sometimes cry for no reason at all, like all toddlers – but the incident did get me thinking about personal space and how I should teach E to be wary of allowing people to interfere with hers. I am, after all, quite glad that the nursery encourages the children to show friendly affection in this way.

But something jarred with me about this incident. The nursery worker made me feel that she considered E’s reaction to be over the top and that the boy was only trying to be friendly. But if E was 15, slightly drunk at a party and trying to get away from unwanted advances would she have the same attitude? I realise this is a massive leap. But the parallels are there.

I’m not in all seriousness suggesting that this is the start of rape culture – don’t start commenting. But surely all parents start thinking about how to tell their children about these issues at some point? I want E to grow up confident that she knows what she is comfortable with and that she knows how to articulate that clearly.

I was reading an article the other day that suggests that the earliest opportunity we as parents have to start this is to respect their wishes when they greet their grandparents.


Well, remember back to when you were a child. Did you have a grandparent or a great aunt or a friend of the family who you saw and were told to “kiss them on the cheek, there’s a good boy/ girl.” Did you not want to? Was it an issue? Do you still remember their prickly moustache or their cabbagey smell or their evil toothy grin and shudder? The article was suggesting that if you, as a parent, tell your child they HAVE to kiss this relative when they don’t want to, you’re not respecting their wishes about who they want to have physical contact with. Perhaps this is overstating it and being too squeamish and liberal wishy washy. Or is it?

So far, E has been very happy to talk, kiss and cuddle her grandparents. Good news. And she doesn’t have any smelly relatives. More good news. But there may be a day when she decides against greeting them physically. I imagine they’ll all be devastated. I’m already dreading the day when she doesn’t want to hold my hand or cuddle me. But I need to deal with this sensibly and not force her to do something she considers unpleasant out of politeness. And I’m sorry if you think I’m being hysterical, but every time I think about this I can’t help but think about her as a teenager, struggling with issues of how far is too far.

I don’t think this is necessarily a result of having all this abuse of trust suddenly thrust into our faces (pardon the pun) by the media and the results of Operation Yewtree. It’s more about the sexualisation of girls – and there are campaigns highlighting this and speaking out against it. But speaking as someone whose teenage years were miserable partly because of the pressure on body shape, and partly by how much I was supposed to be interested in fashion and wasn’t, I’m more concerned about E’s confidence than by her chances of being felt up by pervy 1970s DJs. She’s still so very young and serious discussions about this can be a few years away yet. But as I said, that one small incident bothered me.

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The first cut is the deepest or, how I learned to love hairdressers…

It occurred to me today that I have learned to love hairdressers ever since E was born. For many years I went about with uncut hair or, worse, self cut hair. I kept it up in a chignon-style thingy so it didn’t matter what it looked like.

And then, while I was having a brief crisis of confidence before going back to work, I visited the hairdresser. I’d been toying with having my hair cut the year before but my sister got married and I was a bridesmaid and it seemed like there was a hair uniform so we could all have ‘up dos’. But last year I went to the local salon (actually we have four local salons but I chose the nearest one that didn’t have a stupid name), told her that I wanted it got rid of and she gave me a bob. Since then I’ve gone every few months and had the bob maintained.

This morning I popped round, had my hair washed by a trainee and then cut by the senior dresser. They made me tea, looked after me and didn’t make too much conversation.

As much as I hate those adverts that tell you that you should have some pampering or some ‘me time’, especially when they are so often aimed at mums, there is something utterly lovely about having someone else wash your hair for you. Especially when they do it twice and then condition. I do find it very easy indeed to start nodding off in the hairdresser’s chair. This time round I forgot my tea and let it get a bit chilly. But I don’t really know why I do this now when in the past I’ve found hairdressers (the institution rather than the people who have always been very nice) to be such a pleasure now. I don’t think I’ve changed that much.

And yet, I guess there is something to be said to be doing something just for yourself. Even things like attending my reading group or sitting and writing my book, while things that are for me, carry with them some kind of responsibility. This doesn’t so it becomes a luxury rather than a chore. The problem, as I have said, is when this tiny act of personal grooming becomes an excuse for the beauty industry to foist all kinds of crap on you “because you’re worth it.” I’m actually worth more than a haircut, thanks very much.

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Adulting part 1

I reach a major birthday this year. I dislike the odd numbered birthdays and have, since I was 29, refused to be any of them, sticking to the even number for two years. They just don’t sound like an age to yearn to be do they? It’s a nothing number, an odd number. So this year I’m going to be 38. Again. I have a problem with the year before the one everyone tells you is the big one.

With that in mind, three things have happened recently that have made me think I really should think of myself as an adult. The first will be covered in greater depth in Adulting part 2 but essentially, we’ve got a new kitchen. The second is that I took part in research for a university to establish what a structured parent-baby activity can do for your bonding and confidence.

Structured activities for us meant swimming lessons but they can be other classes too, rather than generic play sessions. I sat and gave my feedback over the phone and spoke about my growing confidence as a mother, about learning from other mums as well as the teacher, about bonding with E and so on, and it struck me that I hadn’t thought of this last two years as a whole before, but only as a series of events. Having to give a whole picture and talk about myself like I knew what I was doing offered a new perspective and I realised, to my horror and amusement, that I sounded quite grown up. You know, like someone you overhear at work or on the bus, with responsibilities and cares and a clue. Not like someone who regularly goes out with a changing bag but no nappies.

Which brings us to the third thing. I’ve had some kind of ghastly skin condition which is only just starting, I think, to clear up. The doctors seem to think it’s due to the effects of the virus I had when we were on holiday leaving my immune system open to attack and me being generally too run down to fight it off properly. A stress reaction. In short, I feel absolutely fine but please don’t look at me for a while yet. (I’ve bought some all covering clothing, not quite a burka but I’m nearly there.)

I didn’t feel stressed before this. Well apart from a personal thing that’s been on my mind. And constant reorganisation and changes at work. And cramming too much into my days, sitting for hours at a computer after 9 1/2 hours at work, trying to keep things (writing, a website, blogs, reviews) going when my brain is fagged. And parenting a toddler. And trying to stay exercised and healthy and vaguely alert in the time I spend with my husband. And thinking about my lack of social life. And trying to organise a new kitchen fitting.

No really, I didn’t feel stressed – I was just busy. Other people have family and job responsibilities and seem to manage, so I should be up to it yes? After all, I’m an adult now.

The thing is of course, for all I know, you’re all on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (I hope you aren’t. And that you’re supported by great people.) And I also know that some of my friends and family are going through proper stress at the moment, so I feel a bit feeble.

So a re-evaluation is needed. I’m stepping back from a few things. And drinking more water. And trying to eat more veg. And I’ve cut out bread. I’m trying to go to bed earlier. The kitchen is nearly done. I’m booking plenty of leave. Small changes. But even those seem to have helped. The water thing is great. I read once that most hunger pangs are actually thirst but our brains mix them up. After only a week drinking more water I feel less inclined to snack from hunger. Having the kitchen in chaos at the moment gives me the chance to try this out – since it’s too hard to find a snack at the moment, I’m not even tempted by toast.

Hopefully in a month I may be respectable looking enough to take E swimming again. In the meantime I’m trying to ensure my evening activities are a mixture of things I want to get done and things that I actually relax with. This means more evenings spent reading – and knitting – I can’t wait.

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