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There’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now – maybe not consciously, but I’m aware of it sitting outside the door, waiting for an audience.
At first, I opened the door a crack, and said, “No. I’m afraid I can’t write about you. It’s out of the question. It’s too personal, and it’s probably not appropriate.”
But that seems painfully unfair. Sometimes, the most taboo or uncomfortable subjects are the ones we really should talk about – or at least make it acceptable to mention in public.
So, here’s one such subject.
Such an awful word – a word that almost seems to apportion blame or wrong-doing, like most words with the prefix ‘mis’ – mistake, miscalculate, misdemeanour… Miscarry.
When Hubby and I decided it was time to have children, I had no doubt whatsoever that I would fall pregnant immediately, have an uneventful pregnancy – in fact, I’d feel glowingly vital throughout - and then give birth on the exact due date. I realise this sounds more than uncommonly naïve, but that’s how both of my mother’s pregnancies panned out. I just assumed I had inherited her qualities as a First Class Gestating Machine.
I’m not exactly sure, thinking about it now, what convinced me that it was a good time to have kids. I was still suffering quite badly from depression, and I was in poor condition, physically. I was several stone overweight, unfit, fatigued and emotionally fragile. Nevertheless, we started trying.
Which is the most panic-inducing, bewildering, insidiously disturbing thing you can imagine, because that scenario wasn’t even remotely on the radar.
I have so much sympathy for couples who are trying to have a baby, with no success. It throws everything up in the air. Suddenly the ground beneath you ceases to be solid – ceases to support you in the way it always did. You can’t concentrate on anything except that one subject. Everything else fades into the distance. Your whole existence narrows to one intense point, revolving around calendar days – giving weeks, days, and hours a burdensome significance they never had before.
I think the worst thing is NOT KNOWING. Not knowing how long the situation will last; not knowing if there’s something wrong with one of you; not knowing whether you should pursue your hopes, scientifically, or whether you should read the messages from the universe, and change your plans.
I got utterly tangled up in all the above feelings, and that was after only a couple of months of trying. I cannot even imagine how prolonged YEARS of trying for a baby must impact on a person’s life, psyche and well-being.
But then, not long afterwards, the stick showed a blue line. I was probably more relieved than happy at first, but soon became absorbed and fascinated by the miracle that was happening in my body.
Everything was new and exciting. Once the GP had confirmed my pregnancy, I was ‘in the system’, and I received reading materials, questionnaires, forms, and appointments. I enjoyed it all.
I felt special. I felt privileged. Above all, I was aware of hugging a huge, fluffy secret to my chest - one I found so thrilling that it was difficult to suppress my joy.
I bought pregnancy and baby magazines – not just one, but every different publication I could lay my hands on. I read the Bounty booklet over and over. I pored over the pages of my diary to see how my baby would be developing week by week. I concocted delicious meals lovingly from scratch – determined to nurture every cell in my baby’s body from day 1.
I can’t remember why now, but I had a scan at 8 weeks. Everything was fine; I saw the pulsing little light on the ultrasound screen, which was my baby’s heart.
At 13 weeks, I went for my next scan. This was the exciting one. This was the one where, on hearing everything was fine, you could finally tell the world your news.
I was completely confident. I remember that. It never occurred to me at any point that there might be a problem, or that something I wanted so badly might not go to plan.
There was a long silence as the sonographer moved the transducer device on my gel-covered belly – too long. In that long, long silence, I first came face to face with the possibility that I might not meet my baby. The sonographer excused herself and came back with a colleague who, after more agonising minutes of grave, silent exploration, told me that she could not find a heartbeat, that the baby had not grown for several weeks, and had likely died very soon after the last scan.
In a state of miserable shock, we were ushered back to the waiting room and urged to see the consultant. Suddenly, the world looked different to me. I am ashamed to admit that I looked at the other women in the waiting room, and wondered if they had healthy babies, and hated them slightly for still being pregnant.
The consultant was barely able to speak English, and what little she managed was so heavily accented as to be incomprehensible.
I was floored with grief, my life had imploded in a split second, and I couldn’t even focus on the doctor’s face, let alone understand the options she was trying to give me. The doctor kept barking the same garbled sentence at me, followed by long periods of complete silence as she myopically gazed at her notes, and turned them over and upside down. In a moment of grotesque horror, I found myself on the edge of hysterical laughter.
I finally realised that she was telling me to book an appointment to have a D and C – the physiological equivalent of emptying the bins and giving them a quick spritz and scrub. At this, my numbed brain woke up a little, and I refused to have it done. I said I would go home, have a natural miscarriage, and go through the whole sorry experience. It would be sad and painful, but I wasn’t going to let someone anaesthetise me so I could wake up, as if from a bad dream… as if the baby had never existed.
Of course, what followed was one of the lowest periods of my life, but together we got through it – minute by minute. We went for long walks. We went for a weekend to a pleasant B & B in Devon. We concentrated on the minutiae of daily life to give our minds something comfortable and boring to focus on. I will never forget those few weeks.
I tried to turn a tragedy into a positive learning opportunity, and decided that I could more confidently attempt pregnancy again with a more appropriate BMI, a better diet, and increased tone and fitness. We didn’t rush into trying for another baby. I focused on myself – on feeling healthier, more energetic. And when I became pregnant over a year later, I was properly ready.
Although the sorrow has faded to a gentle blur, and I have made my peace with those events, what I DO find difficult to accept is how isolated I felt at the time.
Apart from Hubby and closest family, no one knew what I had been through – no one knew that my life had forever been changed by grief and desperate disappointment. I couldn’t talk to anyone, and it was such a heavy burden.
When I returned to work, a parent at the school gate said, “Sorry you’ve been ill. Glad you’re feeling better now.”
I looked at her, stricken. I haven’t been ILL, I wanted to cry. I’ve been PREGNANT – I’ve been trying to nurture a baby. But I failed, it all went wrong, and now I’ll never get to meet my baby… so I’m NOT feeling better now. And I feel as if I’ll never be better. Ever again.
But I didn’t say any of it. I couldn’t. It just isn’t something that people talk about.
Why not, though? If I’d broken my leg, the news would have been broadcast far and wide; I’d have had lots of sympathy, visitors and support. Moreover, people would have been patient and gentle with me, knowing that I’d suffered a physical and psychological trauma.
But no. I suffered one of the saddest things that can happen to a woman, and I had to gag myself, pull my socks up, and go back into the fray with a false smile pasted on my face.
And that is definitely not OK.
So I’ve opened the door, and let in a memory which deserved to be heard. Whatever shame I may have felt 14 years ago has dissipated because I’m older and wiser. I can distinguish between fault and misfortune.
By telling you about it, I’m trying to normalise discussion about something traumatic – an event that cuts deep and lingers forever - because women who go through this should never feel alone.
As the weather improves slowly, I occasionally surprise myself by thinking, “Ooh. I fancy a run.”
As I may have mentioned before, running is not something that comes naturally to me – my excuse: I’m not built for running. Running, when your legs are as short as mine, is rather a waste of energy. I run at the same pace Hubby walks – at a ratio of about 4 of my steps, to 1 of his.
I would much rather lift something, push something, pull something or turn myself upside down than run, and I spent the years between about 10 and 32 absolutely refusing to do any kind of exercise at all.
After having my second child, and losing a lot of weight (my daughter basically ate me up from the inside), I started to feel different about moving my body. I’d go for walks, and be overcome by a very strong urge to jog. I found this alarming rather than encouraging. I simply couldn’t get past the fact that I was IN PUBLIC, and people might see me running. That seems ridiculous to me now, but I really was THAT self-conscious.
I remember my first run very clearly. I’d been psyching myself up for weeks – telling myself that NO ONE CARED if they saw me jogging. I’m not exactly sure what I was worried about – maybe an altruistic desire to prevent complete strangers from having nightmares about my jiggling baby belly?
Eventually the day came. I didn’t have the ‘right’ equipment – just leggings and a T-shirt, some old trainers, and a bulky water bottle – but I was ready. I walked around the neighbourhood first, then sped up, then walked so fast that it looked pretty silly… so I broke into a jog. I was completely out of my comfort zone – I felt excruciatingly exposed, as if people were hanging out of their windows shouting, “Look at that girl trying to run! Ha!”
After about 20 seconds (no joke) I thought, ‘I can’t do this. My lungs are burning, I can’t breathe, and moving my body feels like stirring treacle.’
Hot on the heels of that thought came this one: ‘But I literally only just started running. If anyone sees me stop after 20 seconds, they’re going to think I’m pathetic.’
So I kept going, hating every second, convinced that our bodies weren’t meant to suffer this kind of punishing torture. How could it possibly be healthy?
Then something weird happened. The pain in my lungs and chest eased up. I could breathe quite normally again. I wasn’t having to think about my legs and arms; they just naturally fell into an steady, constant rhythm.
No one told me about the endorphin release that came with exercise. I had no idea what was happening, but suddenly I realised I was enjoying myself.
The beat of my feet was quite hypnotic, and I found my head clearing. I’d stopped caring what other people were thinking, and just floated through a peaceful zone in complete solitude. What started off as an exploratory 15 minute jog, turned into a 45 minute run – no rest.
I felt euphoric when I reached home, and also very proud of myself – my first run, and I managed nearly an hour!
However, in my ignorance, I hadn’t warmed up before I started; I didn’t stretch after I got back; and it was my first run. You can imagine the glassy and intense pain that gradually manifested itself in my hip joints and back as the day wore on. The next day, I could barely move. I felt weak, unhinged and brittle for well over a week.
However, I didn’t let that first experience put me off. After I’d recovered I started running a little more regularly. Not long afterwards, we relocated.
The house move was traumatic (aren’t they all?) and we had to live with Hubby’s parents for a few months while our new house was rewired, central heating installed, and several rooms were replastered.
It was a huge wrench to leave our well-established friends, and a city that we’d loved dearly since our paths crossed at university; it was unsettling to live in someone else’s house, even though we were catered for handsomely; it was a period of freefall and uncertainty.
During those months, running was a lifesaver. I’d bought running gear, a gimmicky bottle, an armband for my ipod, and proper sports earphones; but there was still such freedom in being able to shut the front door behind me and just… run. For a precious half hour, I could be alone. I could find that calming rhythm and clear my head of all the worrying, nagging and dithering. I found that sensation of stillness-within-movement compellingly addictive.
My running regime has tailed off steeply in the last couple of years – for a couple of reasons. For a start, there’s too much dog mess on the surrounding paths, thanks to lazy, selfish, irresponsible dog owners. I want to run, not slalom around dog poo, mincing like someone doing ‘high knees’ through hot coals.
But mainly, I get my endorphin fix from other forms of exercise these days, and running doesn’t seem as necessary.
Mind you, after today’s Crossfit disaster*, running seems like a very attractive option.
*This morning, for the first time, I failed a box jump – spectacularly. I jumped up, didn’t quite make it, caught my toe on the edge of the box, fell headlong into an ungainly dive over the other side of the box, and landed on my outstretched hands and head, doing a half-arsed karate roll to finish.
My morning has involved lots of ice. #ouch
We’ve been having a rather artistic weekend; two concerts on Saturday – one with (still slightly poorly) Daughter playing the trombone and singing, and one at Tewkesbury Abbey with Son playing all sorts of gloriously noisy percussion instruments in his wind band; and Daughter performing in a dancing showcase extravaganza on Sunday.
This is obviously exactly how I envisioned good parenting – giving our children opportunities to participate in creative activities, endeavours that will give them memorable experiences whilst also developing their brains, social skills and sense of community…not to mention keeping them off street corners and out of teenage gangs.
I hadn’t anticipated the toll it would take on US as parents though. It sounds whiny, I know, but the constant to-ing and fro-ing between rehearsals and concert venues, and the brain-bending need to remember their requisite costumes, uniforms, packed lunches, instruments, music stands and other equipment is draining the little energy I seem to have at the moment.
On Friday, Hubby and I had to forego our usual ‘couple time’ lunch, as Daughter was off school with a sore throat and slight temperature. We tried to make up for it by watching a film (Layer Cake) and eating popcorn later that evening, but Daughter burst into the lounge at 10.30pm, crying and saying she felt sick, just as a shifty drug dealer was getting viciously beaten up by another shifty drug dealer, accompanied by a colourful plethora of exquisitely profane swear words – necessitating a panicked lunge for the remote control and a temporary inability to find the pause or stop button. Hubby paused it eventually – an artistic still, depicting a huge booted foot approaching a bloody face. *facepalm
Properly slapstick hilarious, if you were a fly on the wall. For us, the parents, not so much.
It just embodied the constant struggle we have to keep a balance between our relationships with our kids, and the relationship we have with each other.
If any prospective parent asked for my advice – and of course, most prospective parents smilingly repel advice, which just bounces off their blissfully clueless, optimistic Force Field of Confidence – I would say that nurturing your relationship with each other needs to be at the top of your priorities list. It may not feel that way, when your first baby explodes on to the scene, but in retrospect, I would say it’s vital.
We had five years of married life before we had kids, and had been together for six before our wedding, so I’d say our relationship was firmly established before our son appeared.
In that time, we travelled together, went on countless cinema dates, meals out, day trips, city breaks…and took all that time completely for granted. Although some of that time was marred by my illness and depression, we still managed to have a cosy partnership and our lives revolved around each other. Possibly too much so.
Once our son arrived, EVERYTHING changed. I was completely and utterly absorbed in being a mother. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was something I felt I understood how to do, instinctively. Above all, I was thunderstruck by the realisation that babies were totally defenceless, completely trusting and terrifyingly fragile. They had no conscious intent – they were blameless and unable to communicate. Like animals. And that meant whether they were screaming, crying, flailing or not sleeping, NONE OF IT WAS THEIR FAULT.
This realisation made me a very patient mother, because I was never angry with him, no matter what he had to throw at me (and sometimes it was puke or other unmentionable bodily fluids) but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t frustrated.
It just meant my frustration and irritation had to find another outlet – and the only other person in the house was Hubby. And no doubt, he felt much the same.
So we showered all our love and attention on our miraculous new boy, and all the rest of it – the tired dejection, the helpless panic and the building resentment – just hovered between us like a black cloud.
In the crappy diagram below, I have attempted to portray the ‘Incomplete Triangle Syndrome’ from which our family suffered. Love and attention poured freely between each parent and our baby. But not much was happening between us.
Looking back, I’d say I didn’t have a single morsel of energy to spend on tending our relationship. I suppose I assumed things would calm down, and everything would go back to normal. However, we now know there’s no such thing as normal – and life had irrevocably changed anyway.
Days just became units of time that you bumbled through until the next day dawned – and often, we were awake to see that dawn. Time flew by, each minute thoroughly filled to the brim with action. Our daughter arrived, and the Incomplete Triangle Syndrome became more entrenched; now there was DOUBLE the amount of love traversing each side, but even fewer positive moments strengthening the point between Hubby and me.
When that crazy era starts to let up; when you are no longer running for your life on the Baby Treadmill; when the children start school and you suddenly have a few hours of stillness… that’s when you realise that the plant you seeded and grew between you, hasn’t been watered or fed or pruned for a very long time – that it is, in fact, in desperate need of attention if it isn’t to die.
Marriages/partnerships obviously need constant maintenance, whether you have kids or not, but marriages/partnerships, post-children, need even more commitment and dedication.
Making time to go out on dates, time to talk – not about the children – to each other, time committed to keeping up to date with each other’s career developments, is so so important.
Remembering that you chose to be together because you were best friends is important.
Remembering that, one day, the children will have lives of their own, and we will need corresponding lives of OUR own is important.
Reinforcing and strengthening the top line of that triangle is what makes children and parents into family.
I’ve been thinking for a while that, although I have written about my earliest memories and deepest thoughts, I’ve neglected to mention one large character trait of mine (or is it a medical condition?)
It may already be apparent, but I have a mild case of OCD.
OCD is a term that gets thrown around and misused – often referring to behaviours that are perfectly normal, like preferring to be not covered in mud, or finishing one bottle of milk before opening a new one. To make sure I wasn’t invoking its name in vain, I looked it up, and here’s the NHS definition:
Yep. That’s me.
I also read about the causes of OCD, which include genetics (having OCD sufferers in your family), traumatic life events like bereavements or difficult labour and childbirth, low levels of the chemical serotonin (the ‘happy’ chemical), a tendency towards anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, unattainably high standards and an overburdened sense of responsibility.
That’s a tick in every box then.
OCD is oddly selective though, isn’t it? I don’t have a big problem with being messy, although I would prefer my piles of papers to be perpendicular to the edge of the table. I often think that my obsession with laundry ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’ is merely common sense – doesn’t EVERYONE separate their washing into 5 or 6 different coloured piles? And while wet clothes are never going to look like a work of art, wouldn’t it be preferable for everything to be hanging up symmetrically, in size order?
I really struggle when Hubby does the washing and hangs it up. There’s nothing WRONG exactly with the way the clothes have been hung up, but they don’t balance perfectly, and aren’t grouped together in categories. Usually I smile and nod and wait… and then when he leaves the room, I jump up and rearrange it all.
If, on the rare occasion I forget about a load, the washing sits in the machine for more than an hour, I feel compelled to wash it again, because I’m actually phobic about the smell of stale wet washing – it gives me a stomach ache.
When the shopping trolley needs unloading on to the supermarket conveyor, I approach it like a military operation. The items have to be grouped together in home-storage categories – refrigerated food, unrefrigerated store cupboard items, vegetables, fruit, bathroom + kitchen cleaning products etc etc. But, not only that, they have to be arranged so that the heavy items are packed FIRST, once it’s been scanned, otherwise delicate or fragile items get squashed.
That’s normal too. Right? No?
I’m self-analysing here, but I suppose that needing to feel in control is a large part of my OCD.
As a confused, linguistically and socially challenged child, organising my pencil case provided me with some order in this crazy world, and might explain the extreme anxiety I would feel if a random child asked to borrow a rubber or pencil sharpener. I knew sharing was important, but I couldn’t stand for people to touch my things. A classmate once stole a rubber of mine, and while I was upset that the rubber had disappeared, I was even MORE upset when it turned up again – soiled, blunted with use, and covered in graphite marks and holes.
I realise most of this just sounds like I am unnaturally uptight, fussy and a real downer to live with, but all that is just peripheral… The REAL problem, is my issue with germs. I can almost see them. It sometimes makes life a misery.
This bit is the hereditary trait, passed on to me by my grandmother.
I’ve never liked getting dirty, but that’s nothing special. However, when I had my first child, suddenly I became hyper-aware of the teeming, filthy, bacteria-infested world that surrounded him.
And although both he and his sister have grown up strong and healthy with great immune systems, probably thanks to the handfuls of cat hair they must inadvertently ingest every year, my antipathy towards bacteria has not waned.
Working as a teacher probably isn’t ideal for someone who ‘SEES GERMS’. The little ones do like to hold hands, and I find it really hard to be OK with this. Children just don’t seem to be bothered by dirt and smells. I’ve been given lovingly draw, but slightly damp, cards that, after accepting, I hear fell in to the toilet; I’ve had tiny hands thrust in front of my face with the statement, “I fell into some poo when I was playing on the field. It’s still on my hands…”; and I once walked into the bathroom to find my little 3 year old daughter rescuing my TOOTHBRUSH from the bin – “Oops Mummy. It just fell in,” she said helpfully.
I know life is too short to mince around shuddering at unhygienic situations, suppressing gag reflexes, and avoiding public places… but I really can’t help it. I do have coping mechanisms – like the bottles of hand sanitiser I keep in my handbag so that we can touch interactive exhibitions in museums, or read library books, go dancing, or open restaurant toilet doors; I wear waterproof flip flops at the spa, so I don’t have to touch the floor with my bare feet.
Mind you, I have stopped going to the spa – the last few times I went, I observed such disgusting behaviour, I just couldn’t go back. People were full-on sneezing in the steam room; coming out of the sauna all sweaty and walking straight into the jacuzzi; and memorably, one woman exfoliated her feet all over the steam room floor. Much more of that, and I’d have required a Michael Jackson- type oxygen tent to exist in.
I am aware of the problem, and I’m trying to deal with it.
I find that being pro-active is surprisingly effective – undertaking challenges that help me to meet the world head on, rather than sitting back passively and letting the world and its bacteria seep into me. Like weight lifting. I never look at a barbell and think, “Ew. I wonder how many people have touched that today…?” There’s something oddly sterile about an activity that requires me to come out of my cave and makes my muscles roar in primitive confrontation.
I WILL start swimming again one day, when I can get past the idea of the thousands of mouths that have been dribbling saliva and snot into the water. I WILL keep dancing with strangers, and I WILL keep holding these little children’s hands if they want me to.
I refuse to let something so tiny dictate my life. Bacteria may be alive and well, but so am I.
Very tempted to let my cat write my blog tonight – she’s certainly been trying to, and might do a better job.
Feeling a bit despondent after a tough week. We’ve all been ill – suffering from a bizarre virus that comprises bad headaches, lethargy and a sore throat – but we weren’t sufficiently efficient to be ill all at the same time, so the family malady has been dragging for weeks.
Definitely need a holiday. Remember how much I like holidays? I think the only thing I like about them is that they make me appreciate term time. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy churl who doesn’t really like anything at all.
I asked my daughter if she had any good holiday suggestions and she immediately piped up, “Camping!”
Ha ha. Talk about the wrong answer! I would really LOVE to be that kind of person – the relaxed mum who chucks a few things in a car, says, “Hey kids! Let’s go camping!” and spends a long weekend wrapped up in a colourful hand-knitted, knee-length cardigan and expensive wellies; happily flying kites, pond-dipping, quite comfortable with not washing for a whole weekend, and eating organic tinned soup from the health food shop.
However, camping is something we have NEVER done as a family. It doesn’t seem like the obvious choice when two of us hate mud, grass and wet; one of us is allergic to fresh air; and three of us hate public toilets with a passion.
When I was a child, we did go camping frequently. We used to team up with our beloved Danish family and just set off – tents and cases tied precariously to the tops of our cars – hanging out of the windows and singing Viking songs. On different occasions, we visited Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Denmark, maybe Germany, and they were (mostly) lovely memories.
The funniest tragi-comic memory I have from camping all those years ago surely has to be the one about the fish. I must have been about 14 years old, so it was definitely one of, if not THE last camping trip of my childhood.
The weather had been pretty miserable – cold, wet and a bit windy. Half way through our trip, we seemed to run out of food. We were camped out in the middle of nowhere. There were no shops nearby.
Thankfully, my real Dad and my Danish Dad had their fishing rods with them, so they planned to catch a basket full of trout which we could then barbecue and eat with boiled new potatoes and salad. We saw them off in the morning, jauntily waving to us from the river path, their fishing rods perched on their shoulders.
The rest of us busily prepared for their return, setting the tables, making a salad, scraping and simmering the potatoes.
We waited for quite a long time.
By the time they finally returned, we were starving, and we ran to mob them and take their basket full of fish.
Sadly, they’d only managed to catch two very small trout. We barbecued them, and shared them between 9 or 10 hungry people – barely a mouthful each. It was like the bible story of the loaves and fishes…except none of us was Jesus.
Even now, I’m not a huge fan of grass. I don’t know why – apart from the fact it makes me sneeze… I remember as a toddler being terrified of slugs, bugs and dog poo; and grass just seemed like a really good place to hide those things. I am, and always have been, a huge fan of creature comforts like running water, flushing toilets, Neff ovens and cold drinks; so camping is a little ‘out there’ for me.
As a child, spending time with my Danish family completely made up for sleeping right near the grass on a sleeping bag, next to my snoring Dad, in a sweaty tent that smelled of sheds and garden centres. But without that carrot, would camping ever appeal to me?
A few years ago, a group of mum-friends arranged a camping trip and asked me if I fancied it. I did, at first. They made it sound hip and chilled and full of community cooking and prosecco… but then I had a THOUGHT. And once I’d had this THOUGHT, I couldn’t dispel it, and it became a deal-breaker. The THOUGHT? Kids waking up in the night, needing the loo.
I have two kids. They never wake up, needing the loo, at the same time. Neither of them would ever consent to wee in a bush or a bottle or anything Neanderthal like that, so basically, every night camping would be filled with torch lit tramps – over wet, slug-infested grass – accompanying sleepy kids to the toilet block, and might even involve spiders on some level.
That’s a big nope from me.
I asked my daughter if she had any other ideas.
“Yeah!” she cried. “Let’s stay in a 5* hotel!”
Yeah. That’s more like it.
So far, this week has been a solid 4/10.
If it hadn’t been for a lovely Sunday spent at the Harry Potter Studio Experience and a yummy Mothers’ Day meal pulling up the average, the mark would have been a LOT lower.
This week’s highlights have included setting the grill on fire whilst cooking pork chops, dropping the same pork chops on the floor, a poorly child being off school (NOTHING to do with the pork chops), discovering that the orange warning symbol in the car that looks like a cauldron being stirred with an exclamation mark indicates a punctured tyre, and paying overdue library book fines totalling £4.20.
£4.20… I could have parked in Cheltenham for 2 whole hours for that kind of money.
These are all first world problems, I know. The thing I found hardest about this week was actually my daughter’s behaviour.
I realise that, being a girl, hormones are going to kick in early, but I’m not convinced that our recent run of shouty, tearful, stampy, glowering interludes are anything to do with the onset of adolescence.
Here’s the thing… Along with 101 other things I find to be guilty about, one of the most insistent is the furtive suspicion that I don’t treat my children equally.
Half of me – the sensible half – tells me to get a grip. Reminds me that my children ARE DIFFERENT PEOPLE, so why would I treat them the same? Assures me that constantly trying to assess, balance, and compare my level and quality of interaction with my kids is unhelpful and a massive waste of energy.
The other half pokes me – gives me little jabs. “Ooh!” it says. “You smiled when your son said that, but then FROWNED when your daughter repeated it!” It shakes its head sorrowfully every time I say goodnight to my daughter after spending only 5 minutes in her room, followed by a 15 minute chat with my son in HIS room before lights out. It sighs judgementally when my son goes to his room without prompting and does his homework, while WW3 goes on downstairs because Dear Daughter doesn’t want to learn her spellings.
But I’m paranoid about it now. Even down to the most ridiculous things…
Finding ourselves ensnared in the Harry Potter shop on Sunday, I told the kids they could each choose a memento, costing up to £10. It took a long time to find anything for that amount, but eventually Son chose a pygmy puff keyring in his house colours, and Daughter chose a time turner keyring. But the pygmy puff was £6.95, and the time turner was £8.95!
The stupid fusspot in my head started dithering and looking for a way to make it even. Should I buy a packet of peppermint toads for us to share? To make it ‘fair’? But Daughter doesn’t like chocolate, so that would be a bit mean. I’d have to buy some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans too… and that would bring HER total up too much, thereby defeating the object.
Then I gave myself a figurative slap. Seriously?? Who gives a crap if one souvenir is £2 more expensive than the other? They certainly won’t, unless I mention it. They appreciated the trip and were delighted to be allowed to choose a gift. Why have I made it into an issue?
Guilt makes me illogical and irrational. And having more than one child is just a huge, muddy, gloriously disgusting wallowfest of guilt.
It started on the very day we brought our baby daughter home, and our 2 year old son realised he was not the only one in the centre of our universe any more.
I spent the first few months of my daughter’s life feeling as if I’d done something incalculably cruel to our son, and cried all the time – every time he wanted to play but I was breast-feeding, every time he wanted to make noise but she was having a nap, every time he wanted my attention but she was crying and needed a nappy change.
And then I felt doubly guilty because my daughter was being short-changed. She didn’t get to do ANYTHING with my full attention. Her brother had spent two blissful, peaceful years with our undivided attention; she didn’t even get two minutes. She was seen as the newcomer – the one who had, through no fault of her own, turned a fragile equilibrium upside down.
I still think she doesn’t get enough attention. Her brother gets to do everything first. He’s the first one to take a music exam, the first to do his SATs, the first to go to secondary school, the first to buy a new uniform. It’s all exciting and fresh when he does it. It’s old hat by the time my daughter does it, even though it’s new for her.
Since September, since our son started a new school and entered an exhilarating, nerve-wracking new phase in his life, we have been avid to learn his routine; to hear about his new teachers and his new friends; to try to visualise his school day.
Our daughter is at the same school she always has been, with the same friends and the same routines. Maybe we don’t show enough interest in her life. Maybe she sits and watches us, and compares the expressions on our faces when we talk to her and when we talk to him. Maybe our lack of engagement is the very thing causing her insecurity and frustration.
Children rarely act up for no reason at all. And while they are this young, the true cause can almost always be traced to home – as we, her parents, are still the biggest influence in her life right now.
I think it’s time for a huge shake-up and reassessment of my performance as a parent.
Yes, it’s VERY difficult to keep my temper when she knows how to push each and every single one of my buttons – sometimes with just a well-timed pout or eye-roll. Yes, she can be abrasive, challenging and rude; slamming doors with unnecessary force, and reciting a list of imagined things we apparently hate about her with self-flagellating melodrama…
But I’m going to have to dig deep, and find a core of loving patience and kindness, because underneath the bluster, I think there is a hurt, disappointed girl who doesn’t have the vocabulary to articulate the ways we are failing her as parents.
And I for one, am fiercely glad that she still has the fire left to shout and stand up for herself, and indirectly call for the help I think she needs.
Eating out in Japan is a joy.
All Japanese people are foodies – it’s just a fact. I haven’t met a single Japanese person who isn’t interested in food, and who doesn’t demand the highest quality when it comes to meal times.
Customer service is BIG in Japan. The customer is KING. You will never feel quite so special as when you order a Big Mac in Japan!
Restaurants are clean, service is ingratiating and meals are prompt. Anything else would be an insult to the customer, and require some kind of ritual debasement on the part of the staff.
Here in the UK, it must be admitted that the food industry is hit and miss. When it’s good, it’s really, REALLY awesome; but when it’s bad…well, it stinks. The comically bad experiences that Hubby and I have had over the years we’ve been together could fill a book in themselves – a tragic litany of spilled peas, swearing waiters, ruined jackets, snot-like gravy, hairy caterpillary salads (once, HALF a caterpillar – I sure complained about that one. I’m not one to be short-changed…) and pink chicken.
We have also ordered meals, only to find they arrive bearing little resemblance to the flowery description on the menu. When you order ‘Hand-crumbed goujons of monkfish, delicately crisped sautéed anya slices, with a scented aioli, and buttered trio of heritage petit pois varieties’, you don’t want to be served with a plate of bog-standard fishfingers, chips and peas, with a blob of mayo.
But how do you know?? Short of sidling around the restaurant peering at other diners’ plates, how can you guarantee that you’ll like what you’ve ordered?
The Japanese have a novel way of combating this problem – a solution that ensures every customer knows exactly what they will be getting, how large the portion sizes are and how much it will cost.
The first time I came across this, I was about 14 years old, and we’d stopped at a restaurant window in Tokyo somewhere, looking for a good place to stop. The shelves in the window were adorned with colourful, beautiful plates of real food – every single listed item on the menu was there, together with the price.
“How come the window isn’t teeming with flies?” I asked my mum.
She laughed. “That’s not REAL food!” she replied. “It’s made out of wax.”
I looked closely, but it was almost impossible to believe it wasn’t real food. In fact, the only thing that convinced me was that it looked BETTER than real food – the lettuce looked crisp, the tempura as if it had just crackled out of a deep fryer, the beer had a smattering of bubbles and a perfect proportion of tempting froth. Real food would have looked a little withered, faded and unappetising after a few hours on display.
Seriously, the artistry that goes into these displays of food is utterly astounding, and needs to be seen first-hand.
A couple of years ago, when I was visiting Japan with my two children, I took a day trip with some friends to a street in Tokyo called Kappabashi. It is also known as ‘Catering Street’, and is lined with shops selling all manner of catering goods – kitchen utensils, pots and pans of all sizes, wholesale packs of sweets, chocolate and biscuits for kiosks, crockery, cutlery and plastic sushi trays.
It’s a delight for any kitchen gadget freak; I bought my beloved ‘handai’ there – a large, low-sided bowl made from fragrant cedar wood, which is used in the vinegaring, salting and sugaring of sushi rice. It is a thing of beauty – and a snip at 3600 yen.
Kappabashi is also famous for its wax models of food. The shops are mobbed with customers who want to buy wax pizza; Spaghetti Bolognese with a fork suspended in the act of twirling pasta; tall parfait glasses of brightly coloured ice creams and sorbets, sprinkled artfully with chocolate, chopped fruit and sugar strands; individual rectangles of sushi with various toppings, made into keyrings and fridge magnets; and even burgers and hotdogs, dripping with ketchup and mustard.
There was a workshop upstairs, where customers could experience wax food-making workshops, which were sadly sold out on the day we visited. To allay the children’s disappointment (and mine) we bought wax food modelling kits so we could take them back to the UK.
These kits sat in the ‘craft room’ for 2 years, but last weekend we finally managed to find some time to make them.
My daughter made a ‘melon soda float’. Melon soda is an acid green fizzy drink, popular with Japanese kids, and stunningly artificial. And yet, it’s oddly compulsive. I always order one on the first day back in Japan – just for the sake of it. This one is perfected with the addition of a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a maraschino cherry.
My son chose the ‘chocolate parfait’ – a concoction of chocolate syrup, cornflakes, ‘soft-cream’, chocolate sticks and a sprinkling of coloured strands.
Hope you enjoy the pictures!
Interesting video on the fake food industry...
It’s Groundhog Day again.
In other words, it’s the beginning of the week, I feel bloated through weekend overindulgence, vaguely unworthy, and trying to think of a good enough excuse to duck out of doing any exercise today.
It doesn’t seem to matter HOW earnestly I pledge to make a difference to my life, how THIS TIME everything will be different and better… I always end up here again.
Patterns scare me generally. Even creative, beautiful, visual patterns. Don’t you find there’s something relentless and pitilessly rigid about a pattern – a fractal that continues to unwind into infinity; a repeating row of images that never ends and never changes?
Sometimes I suspect that we are just tiny, whirling dust motes in a tornado of intent - that we don’t make any decisions, that nothing is random, that our perception of control is just an illusion. But this train of thought is not a good one – it slides on a barely perceptible incline towards a much darker and unhelpful place.
It’s just that any study of human history or philosophy seems to prove that we are at the mercy of inevitable patterns. Every time our generational memory is lost, we seem doomed to repeat mistakes over and over again, regardless of the technological leaps we may or may not have made.
And here I am – a little micro-example of humanity’s essential inability to change the pattern.
Here’s how the pattern tends to go, more or less…
On Monday, I feel bloated through weekend overindulgence, vaguely unworthy and wish I felt bad ENOUGH that I could cancel crossfit with a clear conscience. I can’t though, so I drag myself there, headache and all. After killing the session, and chatting to friends, getting all sweaty and squeezing out some endorphins, I go home feeling fresh resolve and energy.
Yes! I will sit down and write a list of everything that will facilitate my transformation into a goddess – the menus for the whole week, a corresponding shopping list with healthy snacks, an itinerary of exercise, a plan to fit in 36 hours of stuff into 24! It can’t fail! This time it will work!
I flap around like a headless chicken, and wonder how my precious Monday seeped into the crack between the floorboards so QUICKLY? I don’t quite manage to do all the menus and I forget to order any shopping.
Tuesday and Wednesday – I realise we have no food because I forgot to do the shopping. I make something bizarre and possibly not that healthy because it’s all I have in the fridge – usually involves lots of melted cheese in some form or other. I’m not on top of my work, and work late in to the night. When I finish, I stay up even later, because I NEED time on my own, even if it’s to do nothing – even if it means I don’t sleep well, and wake up feeling low and tired the next day.
Thursday is nearly the end of the working week, so it takes an upturn. Buoyed by a little rush of optimism I may go to crossfit again, and reward myself with something calorific in the evening.
Friday is the day Hubby and I always meet for lunch. We actually have to put this in the diary, otherwise we are forever ships that pass in the night. We eat too much, because it’s like the last supper – we might not see each other again till NEXT Friday.
Saturday/Sunday – you can guarantee that it’s either someone’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, or some such day. This means we go to Music Centre on Saturday morning, do something celebratory and go out for dinner in the evening. Sunday is either more of the same, or a sobering opportunity to gaze at my navel and consider how my week didn’t go to plan. And as I’m already dying under the wheels of the wagon, I may as well have one last good feed up, right?
The next day… Groundhog Day. Again.
I feel angry today though. Why must I trudge through this moronic farce week after week?? What is my problem?
It’s Monday evening right now, and I’m bang on schedule – having run out of time to write the menus, forgotten to do an online shop, and I’m just about to go hunting for hairpins to do my daughter’s ballet bun (where DO the wretched things go??) whilst simultaneously chucking stuff in the slow cooker, and hanging washing out to dry.
I need to find a way to break this cycle. It’s depressing and demoralising. Every time I feel myself getting sucked into the whirling inevitability of the pattern, I remember a Stephen King story about a couple who die in a plane crash, and end up in purgatory – neither heaven nor hell – a never-ending, repeating cycle of the same few hours.
I think there are probably 3 things that would really help.
1. Tell someone about it. OK. I just did.
2. Go to bed earlier. I am sleep-deprived. There’s no excuse for sleep deprivation now my kids aren’t teeny. Earlier bed time = earlier waking = more hours in the day. That’s the hypothesis.
3. Stop associating celebrations with ‘naughty’ food. Why can’t a celebration be healthy?
We went to a lovely restaurant on Mothers’ Day and I tangled myself up in knots trying to choose from the menu. The salmon fillet with broccoli puree and beetroot dauphinoise sounded delicious AND healthy, but something in my brain went nuts when I read ‘New York burger with cheese and bacon, chilli and garlic mayonnaise, and skinny fries.’ My own little personal tasmanian devil slobbered, drooled and gibbered in my head. How helpful.
When the waitress came over I ordered the burger, scarlet with shame at always making the wrong choice, KNOWING I’d regret it later, but almost deafened by the hungry, yipping growls of my inner devil. She finished jotting down our orders and walked out of the room.
Then something NEW happened. Something that might finally interrupt Groundhog Day.
I suddenly blurted out, “No! I wanted the salmon!”
Hubby leapt up and sprinted out of the room, chased down the waitress and changed the order, while my inner TD scowled and trudged crossly into a corner to sulk.
It was worth it. The salmon was done to perfection – crispy skin, and meltingly tender inside. And more importantly, I enjoyed every mouthful because I didn’t feel guilty, and I hadn’t slid down that familiar slope. For the first time, I’d found a handhold.
It might sound like a small victory, but I’ll take it.
We’ve just experienced an incredibly rare thing – a sunny weekend in England.
No, of course it wasn’t WARM. Heavens, it’s only March! It won’t get warm until July, when it will peak at 25.5 degrees C, just before the end of the school term, as BBQ and patio furniture-buying hysteria hits the shops… and then plummet swiftly into two months of solid rain, followed by winter.
But it WAS pleasant. And when the weather is pleasant, and I remember how pretty trees, hills, cobbled streets and patios look in the sunshine, I get the untrustworthy urge to book a holiday.
When I was a child, we didn’t really go on the types of holiday OTHER people went on, even though my Dad worked in the hotel industry. I could never really work out whether we were too middle-class, or not middle-class enough – but either way, with one exception, we didn’t ‘do’ the whole ‘hotels, pools, sunbathing, and table-tennis’ holiday.
Most of the time, any spare money went towards going to Japan, or going to Denmark to stay with our Danish family, or my parents would accompany me on orchestral tours. With a busy schedule and Dad’s work, that left very little time for any other kind of holiday.
Only once, when I was about 7 years old, we went to Portugal and I spent a blissful week splashing about in the hotel pool, being waited on hand and foot in the hotel restaurant, and feeling glamorous and important because I didn’t have to make my bed. I loved that holiday.
Funnily enough, a generation later, our holiday situation has evolved in exactly the same way. At first, when our kids were babies, we were too poor to go on holiday – instead, setting a humble budget and going on day trips. Then, when we had a little more money, we saved it for trips to Japan or Denmark. And now, due to Hubby’s insane concert/contest schedule, we tend to do short city breaks rather than full blown holidays.
I’m ambivalent about holidays anyway. I like the IDEA of them… I have a good enough imagination to dream about the sun; the delicious food; the hours spent stretching and basking like a cat by the poolside; the enjoyable AND educational trips into old cities, interspersed with ice-cream and coffee breaks at chilled-out, town-square cafes; not to mention the sultry evenings in the bar, sipping cocktails.
One year, my imagination got the better of me, and I persuaded Hubby that we should totally go on one those holidays.
I’d never even set foot in one of those holiday agencies (is that what they’re called?) before – you know, the ones with hundreds of cards in the window, with incredible holidays at ridiculous prices scribbled over them in red ink. It was quite a strange experience.
We sat down and explained what we wanted. We informed the nice lady that we had two kids, and that we wanted to go somewhere warm, comfortable, not too noisy, and where there was only a slim chance of a political coup during our stay.
She looked at us appraisingly for a moment, then with a quick business-like pirouette towards her computer, starting typing. She said, “I know just the place. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s quiet and there’s no riff-raff.”
And that’s how we booked a holiday to Lanzarote for a week. All inclusive.
It started off well. I especially enjoyed packing lots of bright colourful summer clothes. Hubby laughed at me when he saw me dubiously dithering, wondering whether I should pack a heavy jumper and maybe the kagoules.
“It’s going to be hot! There’s 0% chance of rain for the entire week!” he said.
- It was COLD for 6 out of the 7 days we were there. Too cold to make use of the 5 pools, apart from the single heated pool, which was busier than Kings Cross on a Monday morning.
- Our son went in the pool for about 5 minutes, then said he was done. And bored.
- Our daughter LOVED the pool. But a) shouted ‘Look at me!’ every time she jumped in, or did some other manoeuvre that she’d already done about 617 times… and b) needed accompanying to the toilet every 7 minutes.
- The all-inclusive food and drink, which included churros every morning, pancakes at elevenses and ice-cream in the afternoon was very exciting, until I remembered that I have the world’s slowest metabolism, and would probably be barred from boarding the plane home due to weight-gain exceeding my entire luggage allowance.
- The kids were too tired to attend any of the evening activities. So we took it in turns to put the kids to bed, while the other parent drifted around the resort, lonely as a cloud, before returning to a snoring family…and going to bed. (remember the sultry cocktails? What the heck happened to those??)
- We took the children to Kids’ Club one morning, hoping they’d enjoy it and maybe even want to go back the next day, so that us parents could relax for an hour at the spa or whatever. They both absolutely HATED it – said it was the worst thing they’d ever done, and they never wanted to go back. Oh good.
- We took a trip into the town centre, where every restaurant was showing football, and boasting an all-English menu – as in English food. Ugh.
- We bought ice-creams. Son promptly dropped his on the floor and began to sniffle. Hubby gave him another extortionate amount of Euros to buy another. Son picked up his fallen ice cream, and threw the mess into a nearby bin…along with the Euros. *sigh*
The only good thing – we had a secret weapon every time we wanted a little peace… as in, “I’d like to finish this chapter of my book. If you keep interrupting me, I’m going to take you to Kids’ Club tomorrow.”
That worked a treat.
All in all, we came home feeling that holidays like that definitely weren’t for the likes of us.
It would be nice though, wouldn’t it? It’s been so cold and miserable… I fancy a little sun, and cocktails by the pool… Maybe we should try again. This time it would be PERFECT.
When I was 9, my mother was informed by my school that I should take the 11+ exam, as I was of above average intelligence.
Problem was, there were only a couple of selective schools in the area, and they were both girls’ schools.
My mother asked me if I’d like to go to a girls’ school. I thought about it for roughly 2 seconds, and said no. Resoundingly. I spared not a single second thinking about my education or my future. I just knew I didn’t want to be in an institution where there were no boys to talk to or play with.
I was also completely convinced that I was going to be attending the local secondary school anyway, with the friends I’d had since age 5. End of story.
Except, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, we moved house into a completely different area, and I started at a local state secondary school without the friends I’d known all my life. I spent the entire time overcompensating for my perceived disadvantages as an ethnic minority, and my real disadvantages as a ‘new girl’, and realising that everything that defined ME also made me a bit of a misfit.
School days don’t feel like a distant memory at all. I feel as if I’ve only just left school. I can only assume that’s because I haven’t really come to terms with the way that school made me feel.
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength of character to stand up for myself. I’m frustrated that I was ashamed of my nationality, and of my musical and creative abilities. I’m exasperated with my spineless tendency to be influenced and manipulated by others, or that I cared about the opinions of people who didn’t value me.
But I’m also disappointed that I was put in that position. 11 is very young – especially for a gawky, innocent, sheltered, oversensitive Japanese girl with zero street-cred. The kind of ballsy defiance and strength my young self would have needed to hold on to my integrity without becoming bullying fodder in the eyes of my classmates… well, that’s strength I can’t always muster even as a grown up.
So what I DON’T want to hear right now, are judgemental caustic comments about my shameful snobbery for sending my son to a grammar school. I even object to the use of the word ‘sending’ – as if I folded him up and posted him there. You send mail. You send naughty children to their rooms. You send a servant to fetch you a drink. I am not sending him anywhere. He CHOSE his school, out of all the ones we went to see, and they CHOSE him. It was a match. It was a meeting of minds.
He is also not at grammar school because we are ‘middle-class’ – whatever THAT means. It is nothing to do with how much our household earns per year, or our social status.
Apparently ‘people like us’ have a HUGE advantage because we can afford to tutor our little darlings for the 11+ test to within an inch of their lives. Well, I actually listened to the head teacher’s assertion that children who were heavily tutored would struggle at grammar school; that they needed to demonstrate raw ability, not tailored exam-competence. We didn’t spend a single penny on preparing our son for the 11+ test. We went through the familiarisation materials together (downloadable for free from the county’s website), and although he didn’t need any encouragement to read, I steered him towards more established repertoire to challenge his understanding and diversify his vocabulary.
Last week, I attended a concert performed by students from his school. I was flabbergasted by the standard of the music-making but, more than their prodigious talent and ability, I was impressed by the motivation, the commitment and dedication of these young people. They obviously enjoyed making music. They created opportunities for themselves, arranged and composed their own music, and rehearsed pieces for the sheer joy of participating in something special. This ‘X’ factor was missing at the school I attended, and I felt quite sad for my young self although, in my case, the hole was more than adequately filled by my local music centre and scholarship scheme.
As I listened to my son perform, I was filled with a fierce pride, and a rock-solid conviction that he was ABSOLUTELY in the right school for him.
I was unwise enough to get into a twitter spat with some bleeding heart, leftist, grammar-school-denigrating, socialist zealot the other day, who was SOOO disparaging about the CHILDREN who attend grammar schools that I might have gone a little beast-mode. He attacked the students, calling them ‘nerdy, self-satisfied geeks’, and attacked me for allowing the class divide to widen by sending my child to a grammar school.
I realise that there are huge issues facing schools, especially those in socially deprived areas, and those suffering catastrophic funding cuts, but no one can persuade me that I should somehow use my own children to prove a political point, or to salve my conscience.
All children are different. Different children thrive in different schools. I did not send my son to this particular school BECAUSE it was a grammar school – he is there because it suits him. He was a puzzle piece that fit perfectly.
My daughter hasn’t chosen her secondary school yet, and we are approaching this with a completely clean slate. We’re doing the rounds of school visits right now. She is an individual, and our duty as parents is to find a school that suits HER – a school that suits her personality, her work ethic; a school she feels comfortable in; a school with priorities she can support and that will, in turn, support her, wholeheartedly.
And as for me… can I let go? Can I stop picking at my school days like a scab that keeps bleeding?
I suppose I can. After all, I learned to get on with people from all walks of life. I learned to be diplomatic and socially aware. I learned that working hard and motivating yourself is your own responsibility. I learned that boys are easier to get on with than girls. (Wait. I already knew that.)
I DIDN’T attend a school where the teachers are called ‘masters’ and wear billowy cloaks. I DIDN’T attend a school where you were called by your surname and teachers threw blackboard rubbers at troublemakers. But I still got my A levels, still went to a good university, and more importantly, I have balance and perspective in my life experience.
I don’t regret NOT going to the selective girls’ grammar school when I had the chance. Because I’m pretty sure, now I think about it, that I’d have been a misfit there too.