Can’t Read, Won’t Read: how our reluctant reader became a bookworm.

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This wasn’t how I pictured it would be for my daughter to learn to read. I was sweating, she was writhing, looking anywhere but the page and refusing to sound out simple three-letter words. It was a daily battle that left me close to tears- but we should, we were told, be doing it every day.

I should have realised that, in parenting, nothing is ever as you pictured it would be. And that every transition is a challenge, and a story in itself.

Spoiler alert: the ending of this story is a happy one. Now aged seven, our girl is the bookworm I hoped and assumed (never assume, parents… never assume) she would be. In the first week of term she has gobbled up two chapter books. But to say it was easy getting here would be as fictitious as snozzcumbers and frobscottle.

I know we’re not alone in this. So with the new school year upon us, and our youngest now in Reception and about to start his own reading journey, I thought it would be worth sharing what worked for us, and for our reluctant reader.

It shocked me when, in Reception, she struggled- and actually refused- to read. She was was bright and articulate. We surrounded her with books at home, read to her every night, and all the other smug things parents do to encourage a love of books in their child, and to feel good about their parenting. And she did love books. She just hated reading them herself.  My biggest fear was that she would lose this love of books because of the difficulties and tension learning to read caused.

It was during a meeting that her class teacher had called with me that I had my tiny, rebellious (for me) lightbulb moment. ‘We need to get her moving and grooving with her reading’, said the teacher, with a kind, concerned face. And I thought, suddenly: Why? Why do we need to get her to move or to groove? She is FIVE. The only ‘need’ is the need for her to meet certain attainment targets by the end of the academic year. Obviously what I said out loud was: “yes”, because I am a baby.

But at home we just, well, stopped doing the daily reading. This may be a bad idea for some kids- but for our daughter, it was time to draw a line under that daily stress.

The next magic moment happened when a family friend with years of experience in early years education called by, and I told her of our woes. She asked what books our daughter was currently into looking at for fun- rather than the books she had to read for school- and I told her fact books, and the next day, a stack of very basic  fact books about sea creatures and weather and cakes appeared on our doorstep, and were placed strategically and without comment on our daughter’s bed.

‘Just give the books to her,’ said the wise family friend. ‘DON’T make her read them. Don’t read them with her. Just leave the books with her’.

Two days later, L walked into the room and declared ‘did you know a squid has tentacles?’. And my mouth dropped open, and her love of reading has blossomed ever since. The other week she told me that her favourite thing is when she is reading a book and she feels like she is INSIDE the world of the book- and that just about made my year, because it’s a feeling that has sustained and thrilled me all my life.

So for what it’s worth, these are the things that helped us get to where we are:

  1. Trust your gut. Although my instinct is generally DANGER EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE, so I tend to ignore it- in this case I found that listening to my instincts worked. So when I knew in my heart that our girl wasn’t ready for intensive learning to read, I backed off, even though I am a rule-follower, and it wasn’t what we were ‘supposed’ to do.
  2. Don’t believe that one size fits all. Although L can now read fluently, and daily reading would not be a problem, we still don’t do it. We let her read to us if she wants to. We read to her every day. But that formal You Must Read Out Loud To Me ritual? It just doesn’t suit her. So we don’t do it.
  3. Don’t panic. It might be tough now, but the overwhelming chances are that your kid WILL get there. Of course, some children will have more deep-seated issues, and there is help available for that. But just like potty-training, sleeping through the night and breastfeeding without feeling your nipples are going to fall off, getting from A to B is rarely easy, but this too (when ‘this’ is trying not scream as your child rolls around on the sofa instead of looking at a picture of Biff and sodding Chips) shall pass.
  4. Give them books that they love– for them to enjoy as and when they want to. The advice of our family friend was invaluable, and was the key to unlocking our daughter’s love of reading herself (rather than just being read to). I most definitely owe our friend a magnum of the finest prosecco for that.

I would like to end this blog by saying two things. First, that this is not an attack on our children’s school, or the school system itself. I genuinely feel, on the whole, nothing but glee about our kids getting to go to a place where, every day, they have fun and learn and expand their horizons (and get fed/cared for for six hours without me lifting a finger, hurrah). If anything, I’m critical of government targets that say every child must reach x milestone by x age.

Secondly, I am not an expert, in education or indeed in parenting. If you’re worried about your child’s reading, do what works for you, in consultation with teachers/experts who actually know what they are talking about. L’s teachers have been supportive, and have certainly never questioned why the ‘reading’ section in her home-school link book is often empty. They also replaced some of the tedious story books with fact books in her book bag, which made her more keen to read to us at home. So talk to your child’s teacher. It’s very likely that they will welcome you communicating with them.

No, I’m no expert. But I do have a kid who refused to sound out c-a-t when it was written under an enormous picture of what was clearly a cat . So I hope that, if you’re in that boat too, my limited experience might give you a little bit of hope that things can turn out OK.

 

 

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The Art of Letting Go

L Sea

There is a big stone slab outside the washblock at the campsite in Wales where I holidayed a child, and where I now take my family. The stone is where the big kids congregate- the 7-10s during the day, clambering and tumbling and shrieking, with a slash of silver sea beyond the fields behind them. At night, the teenagers lean there, flirting and texting and churning inside, beneath an obscenely radiant starscape.

The campsite is the perfect setting for kids to taste freedom: quiet, remote, filled with friendly families. Even I, who can find danger in everything, can see that the biggest risk to a child there is a car driven at 5mph by a watchful mum or dad. I can remember the heart-pattering thrill that came from hanging out at the rock as the sun set and it got dark when I was a pre-teen: I was out, after dark.  It was ace.

Last year, when our daughter was six and our boy was three, I looked at the big kids at the rock, and I felt a similar thrill, looking forward to the time when my children would not be hanging off my hands and crammed into the shower cubicle with me shouting about why was I shaving my legs and would they be prickly any more- but would be Big Kids, running free at the campsite.

I have never mourned the passing of babyhood or wished I could pause time. I love my children getting older and more independent. But this year on holiday, I realised that kids don’t just become independent magically- we have to facilitate it. And that realisation was bittersweet.

Our fierce and feisty daughter craves independence– she always has. Of course, at seven,  she is still years from hanging out at the rock after dark. But now she is on the cusp between being a little kid and a big kid. This year on holiday, she would beg to go the loo on her own (visible from the tent, if I craned my neck), or to take a shower on her own (with me shouting from outside the door: ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?’). One day, we let her take the breakfast things and wash them up, on her own, and the beaming pride on her face as she carefully walked the few metres back across the field with a bowl of clean plates and spoons (but not the washing up liquid, sponge or brush, which she had left in the washing up room), makes me well up to think about it.

I tried very hard to give her these jewels of freedom, this year. I know that my overbearance frustrates her already. ‘You have to trust me Mummy. I am trustworthy‘, she says with her funny, formal turn of phrase as she scrambles over seaweed-slippery rocks away from me, or scampers off to the washblock alone. ‘I do trust you,’ I tell her. I don’t say out loud that I don’t trust the world, with its people and its vehicles and its unknown dangers.

But I can hear the heat of annoyance in her voice. I could see the reproach in her eyes when she walked to the washblock , and then turned back three times to see my eyes still on her. I don’t want to stifle her- not least because she will only kick back if I do. I know my girl, and I know now that I have to start letting her go. Slowly, slowly, but I do.

I thought I was letting go before- when the kids started childcare and school. I was proud of myself for doing it without feeling too tragic about it. In reality, I now realise, I was just passing them into the extremely watchful care of somebody else. The real letting go comes from allowing them to do stuff, on their own.

And I am only just realising is that it doesn’t just suddenly happen. There isn’t a ceremony which transforms a child from a tiny nugget who curls up in your lap while you toast marshmallows on the barbeque, to a great loping thing leaning against a rock with a phone in their hand, who only comes back when you shout across the field that the burgers are ready.

It isn’t a process- like your kids growing up phsyically- that you don’t notice day by day,  and then suddenly you see that their legs are too long for their jeans and their mouth is full of gaps and giant teeth. It doesn’t happen passively.

No, it’s an active process. As parents we have to make it happen. My girl is not so much slipping through my fingers, as being let out, let through, in tiny increments. A trip to the toilet on her own; a shower where she does it all herself and comes out with shampoo still dripping down her ears. A few minutes playing on the rock at the campsite while I do the washing up. The moment when I was upstairs packing to go on holiday, and she appeared- to my half-horror, half-pride- with a perfectly brewed cup of tea that I had no idea she was making. We have to let her have these small tastes.

I’m not very good at it, so far. But I’ve plenty of time to learn. Because as sure and natural as the tide, she will pull away, and her brother next. There’s nothing I can do about it, and nor would I want to. I can’t stop the tide, and it is my job- with a smile on my face even if I don’t feel it inside, and my heart it my mouth- to let go.

 

 

 

The Unbearable Smugness of Being (on Instagram)

Grapes

When you type in ‘Instagram makes’ to Google, the first suggested result is ‘Instagram makes me sad’. Not far behind are: ‘Instagram makes me feel ugly’, ‘Instagram makes me jealous’, ‘Instagram makes me insecure’.

This is backed up by science and that. According to research, Instagram has a negative impact on young people’s mental wellbeing. You might think the same is true for parents. Which parent among us hasn’t clicked through to Instagram and been faced with image upon image of every other family doing all the stuff you feel guilty about not doing with your kids.  And of course, at summer holiday season this reaches a peak. My feed is filled with pictures of my friends and acquaintances grinning wildly as they enjoy #familytime with their tanned progeny, going on educational day trips, frolicking in the surf and somehow managing to transport under-fives around European cities in 40 degree heat without, apparently, losing their minds.

And that’s when ‘Instagram makes me sad’, as I compare these images to our own home, where I am succumbing to letting the kids watch another round of Puss In Boots on Netflix- because these summer holiday days, they are long, and there are many of them (I bathed the children at 3.30pm today, I think I need an intervention). I can’t help but feel it’s all rather smug. That’s when ‘Instagram makes me insecure’.

But is it smug, though? I was given pause for thought when I took the photo at the top of this post yesterday. We were down on the allotment, and there was high excitement about minibeasts and runner beans and- yes- actual grapes in the greenhouse! I was going to post the photo on Instagram. But my thumb hovered above the screen, and I didn’t- because I suddenly realised that, to others, it would seem idyllic. It would seem smug.

What people would see from that (filtered) Instagram post is a wholesome family trip to our wholesome allotment, teaching the kids about produce and wildlife, enjoying time together instead of squabbling over the ipad. AND she’s wearing a bike helmet, which means we totally won at parenting because we took the kids out on their bikes.

And you know, our Saturday morning was all of those things. For a good 30 mins I did feel rather smug.

What the photo wouldn’t show was our daughter an hour earlier, whining ‘I don’t WANT to go the allotment’, then thundering up the stairs yelling “I’M NOT GOING”. Our son refusing to walk and having to be transported in the wheelbarrow. The fact that we forgot about suncream and I felt guilty the whole time that the kids’ necks might get burnt. The weeds that threaten to overpower our plot, and about which we have had a narky letter from the committee. The surprising but real allotment resentment that can erupt between co-parents, where ‘essential labour’ to one means ‘hallowed me-time that I’m not getting’ to the other. The fact that we stayed too long and didn’t feed the kids lunch until 2pm, which, DISASTER STRIKES.

It made me think: when we, as parents, post these aspirational moments on Instagram, maybe we aren’t inviting other people to aspire to be like us or slapping ourselves on the backs (well, some people are, either to make themselves feel better or to attract brand sponsors, and I have no truck with that sort of carry on). We’re reminding ourselves that there is magic in the mayhem and the mundane.  We’re aspiring to be the versions of ourselves that we live for: that version that catches their breath at how happy a moment can be, instead of swearing under our breath. We’re capturing the golden moments in a sea of ‘what the fuck am I doing?’

It’s a miracle of being a parent, that a day can be essentially quite tiresome, moment-to-moment, but when the babies are sleeping and the food is scraped off the floor, you can look back and it feels like the best day ever, because your kid said something funny or laughed when they went down a slide or held up a bunch of grapes with a cocky grin in the middle of your overgrown allotment. We’re all, it seems to me, seeing life through a filter, and that’s what gets us through.

So, fellow parents, bring me your pictures of allotments and your holidays, your gambolling children and your prosecco on the patio. I want to see your kid grinning in front of a dinosaur skeleton, mastering riding their bike, looking like an angel with the sun in their hair.

I celebrate the fact that you are watching your kid slide down a slide laughing, and for 30 seconds you can be in that moment, and not worry about lunch, or whether they have wet their pants. You want to share that, and I get it. Because so do I.

I see you, I’m with you. And I know you’re not (that) smug.

 

After the early days

I haven’t been able to find the words to blog, these past couple of weeks. I still have a daft post about how much I hate glitter sitting in my drafts folder from the evening of 22nd May. I wrote it, saved it, closed my laptop and went to bed early. I heard a muffled thump in the distance as I drifted off, wondered if it was a bomb (I’ve heard one before, on 7/7- that’s another story), told myself not to be ridiculous, and went to sleep. The next morning, everything had changed.

I still haven’t posted the glitter post. It’s pretty funny, as it happens. But I don’t know about you, but 2+ weeks after the terrorist attack  in Manchester (and less than one since the London attack), it just still doesn’t feel like the right moment for silly LOLs.

I’m sad. Are you? I don’t have any wise words about any of this awfulness… But I can say that, if you’re still sad, you’re not on your own. I can’t get the faces of those who died, and their families, out of my mind.

Perhaps it’s because I know some of what they are experiencing. I am almost phobic of making this- or any tragedy- all about me, and I am dithering over whether to post this blog, in case that’s how it comes across. But now that the funerals for the beautiful children, women and men who died are beginning, it’s all so reminiscent of when Helen died, that it’s all getting tumbled up together in my heart. Thankfully Helen’s death was nothing to do with violence, or hatred, or politics- I can only imagine what that is like. But her death was completely sudden, unexpected, tragic and so young. So I have at least a window into the experience of the families of the 22.

The anniversary of Helen’s death is rolling around again- 13 years. This fact keeps bringing into focus for me that as Manchester and the world moves on, the families left behind are barely a step into their lifelong journey. They’ll still be treading this path 13 years later- and 30 years, and forever.

The thing is, those early days after a tragedy have a strange kind of magic about them. It’s like an odd upside down Christmas. Everyone is there, and there are flowers, and people bring you food without you asking, and you laugh softly by candlelight, and the focus is entirely on the one you have lost. It keeps them present. To put it bluntly, I remember feeling as though Helen wasn’t actually dead. As though we could somehow build her from flowers and lovely messages, and songs and tributes.

In 2017, in the world of social media, I can only imagine that this sense of keeping the person who has died present is even stronger. When heartwarming hashtags about your loved one are flowing, and there are endless photos to discover and share- I can imagine the comfort and magic that would conjure.

And then, in this case, there is the huge scale of it all. The fantastic concert last week, the amazing tributes in St Anne’s Square, the outpouring of unity and helping each other that flowed from the attack. The silver linings people have created have sent light pouring from the edges of this darkness. I hope that brings comfort to the families left behind.

But I know that beyond all of this, and for a long time ahead, there will be many, many times for these families that don’t carry any beauty and don’t have any silver linings (and I know that most likely, they would take all the silver linings and throw them in the bin, if they could just have their darlings back. Or maybe they are better people than me). Grief, at its ‘best’, can have a beauty and a sweetness to it. It can bring out the best in people, sometimes, especially at the start. But the rest of the time it is just ugly, and bleak, and gruelling. That’s the reality of it, when the weird magic of the early days has passed. Someone special is gone, and they’re always gone, and their gone-ness is endless.

What would I say, if I knew these families? I couldn’t provide any insight into their specific and heartbreaking circumstances, and wouldn’t try to. But I suppose I’d say: it’s going to be bad. It will feel unbearably bad at times. But it does get easier to live with. You won’t always feel, every moment, like you want to crawl out of your skin to get away from the pain. You’ll realise and accept, at some point, that your loved one isn’t going to come back. That will never be OK, but somehow, hopefully, you will incorporate that into your life. You’ll still stare at your computer screen blankly and google their name instead of working- but this will be occasionally, not for most of every day. You’ll grow as a person. You’ll start to be annoyed or delighted about everyday crap. And one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll feel light enough to post silly shit on the internet about glitter.

 

 

I love mcr.

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(Picture by @DickVincentIllustration)

There are bees- the symbol of Manchester- swarming all over my social media feeds. Beneath the horror and the shock they are sending out an insistent buzz: how dare they do this to our city?

Alongside the sadness, there is defiance and pride, and a massive up yours to those who would seek to wound this place we love.

 

There isn’t a single word I could type that would make sense of the brutality of last night’s attacks or the loss of lives. There isn’t any point in me writing about how this terrible incident makes me feel. I am safe, and my family is safe. It isn’t about me.

But it is about my city. And there is a love letter to my city burning at my fingertips tonight. So let’s talk about our city for a moment.

Manchester is iconic. We had the first intercity railway. The Co-Operative movement started here. It was the birthplace of the motherfucking industrial revolution.

So it’s no wonder that Manchester has swagger- just like the indie boys in their pop-collared parkas that it is so good at producing. It is an upstart, it makes no apologies- the Beetham tower rising like a giant middle finger from Manchester’s mishmash of a skyline, where industrial warehouses and grand Victorian civic buildings and shiny office blocks jostle against one another.

Manchester’s reputation is way bigger than its size. You can go anywhere in the world, and when people ask where you are from, their faces light up in recognition. Manchester United, people nod. Oasis, they say. Coronation Street. I’ve always felt a shiver of pride at that recognition. This city pours out talent and creativity: sport, music, theatre, art, television, film. It is famous for so much more than this awful business, or the IRA attack in 1996, or the bombs of the Blitz in World War Two.

Manchester is as diverse as it’s possible for a city to be. People come from all over the world to study and work and live here. If you sit on a bus and close your eyes, you hear a patchwork of languages and accents woven in with the distinctive, flat Manc vowels. I went to school in the middle of the city, with kids of all colours and backgrounds, and it opened my eyes.

And Manchester knows how to go out. When Manchester goes out, it goes Out out. When you’re young, like many of the victims last night, going out in Manchester shapes you.

Like the kids who were there last night, I tasted freedom for the first time as a teenager at big music gigs. I screamed along to East 17 at G-Mex (as it was called then); I bounced  to Blur, and Supergrass; I saw  Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake at the same arena that was targeted last night. I didn’t realise then how lucky I was to be able to jump on the bus to see the music I loved, when so many have to travel from far afield.

At Eid, the Muslim boys from my sixth form college would join the parade of cars cruising slowly down the Curry Mile in Rusholme, honking their horns and blasting out music as people celebrated in their best, most colourful clothes- and I watched through the window from a high stool in an ice cream parlour, with the most delicious milkshake in the world in my hand, and the pop of fireworks in the background.

The day my mum was diagnosed with cancer, I watched Manchester United win the treble in a packed city centre pub, and joined the crowds swinging around lamp-posts and singing tunelessly on the streets afterwards. I’m afraid I was a complete glory hunter (I don’t know a thing about football now and I didn’t, really, then), but the streets were filled with glory that night.

In the summer of 1999, I poured pints at a bar on Canal Street, and discovered a world where boys casually held hands with boys on cobbles polished by thousands of feet, and house beats echoed against the black water of the canal in the middle of the night.

I went clubbing at Sankey’s and Fifth Ave, and I snogged university freshers at the Flea & Firkin, and I felt like the world was at my feet.

Manchester is a big city with the feel of a village, and even though you might get mugged or your wallet pinched from your bag in a club, it felt like a great place, a safe place, to be young and to grow up. I hope that it still is.

I don’t get to go Out out much these days, now that I am old, and a mum. But I can take my kids to amazing museums where they can see a giant spider crab, and the steam engines that powered the industrial revolution. When we can get a babysitter, their dad and I can escape for an evening and walk for five minutes to streets lined with restaurants and bars. We can eat tapas, jerk chicken or teppanyaki, and feel like we’re having a mini break even if we have to be home by 10pm.

How lucky I am to live here, in this exciting and international city. Not just to live here- to have this city in my blood. A city where big stars play giant concerts that you can hear from your bed miles away in the suburbs, when your window is open on a summer night. A city which may get scrappy, but where dozens of communities live alongside each other- where, last night, they gave each other taxi rides and beds for the night, and this morning queued together to give blood until the blood banks had to turn them away, and this evening stood in solidarity. It is a city where you can get close to your heroes. A city where trains and planes and trams and cars mean that there is never silence, but where you can find green spaces and parks that let you forget the urban sprawl around you, even if you are, more often that not, being rained on throughout.

This city is far from perfect. There is crime, and grime, and poverty, and the city centre at 3am can be a portrait of the dark side of going Out out. Manchester is chippy, and flawed, but it is beautiful, and it is ours.

The real juggle of the working mum…

Man who

(Picture pinched from hilarious Facebook/Twitter @manwhohasitall– which I insist you follow immediately, if you do not already).

 

I work part time- I’m letting my colleagues down!

 I work full time- I’m letting my family down!

 I work from home- I don’t pay my kids enough attention when I’m with them!

 I work in an office- I’m never with them!

 I’ve lost my touch! I’m crap! I’m failing at both things!

 Welcome to the cacophony of inner voices that haunts the mind of the mother who works, like a malevolent chorus in a very bad musical about maternal guilt.

We’re told by certain newspapers, and the internet at large, that we’re letting both our employers and/or our children down, with such exhausting frequency that it amplifies our own self-doubt to the point where we think that we were stupid to ever think we could ‘have it all’. (And we’re not trying to have it all, are we? We’re trying to go to work, and have kids- something that dads have been allowed to do for, oh, ages).

We feel like we’re not doing well enough at our jobs, and we’re not doing well enough at mumming.

But, in the juggle of working and parenting, I don’t think it’s the actual work or parenting that suffers.

Of course not every mum who works is great at their job. Because- here’s a secret- we are actually people, as well as Working Mums. Some people are good at their jobs, some people are crap, and some are in the middle. And not every working parent is a good parent, either- because, newsflash, not all people are good at being parents.

But, among the women I know- full time, part time, work from home or frequent flyer- the evidence I see in both their successes at work, and the happy faces of their kids, is that those who devote their lives and column inches to tearing down working women who also have families can insert their bullshit opinions back where they came from, thank you kindly.

No, for me the real juggle of being a working parent- the ball that most often, in reality, gets dropped- is myself.

We keep the plates (or perhaps that should be the fidget-spinners) of family and work turning, but it’s a bloody herculean effort to keep ourselves together in the middle of it.

This blog post started to brew when I was half-running for the tram on my way to a work function the other night. It started at 7pm- fine if you can go straight from the office to the do, not fine if you have to finish work, then go home for the pick-up-teatime-bedtime shift in between. I knew that, when I arrived at the event, my colleagues would see a normal person, ready for some wholesome team building fun and only slightly late.

What my colleagues wouldn’t see is that I had kiwi juice smeared in with my touche éclat, because my daughter suddenly wanted pudding after all when I was in the middle of putting on make-up- a task for which I had allotted precisely seven minutes.

They wouldn’t have heard me, in the two minutes I had allocated to have a wee and mask the smell of mounting panic with a squirt of deodorant, trying to explain what periods are to a four year old boy, because obvs the wee and the armpit-spritz were not in private.

They wouldn’t know that my fellow parent and I had seen each other for around thirty seconds, and exchanged probably less than twenty words, most of which were ‘I’ve given them their tea, he needs a poo, have a good time bye.’

And they wouldn’t have heard the strangled yells emanating from the bathroom, because somebody had the toy lifeboat that it was definitely somebody else’s turn to have, as I rather gratefully shut the front door behind me.

All of this is the stuff of family life, and it’s fine and good. But sometimes it’s hard to come out of it all on the other side- the work side- looking like a fully functioning, washed and composed human being.

And sometimes, the cracks show.

It’s the little things- like my mascara, the last, but arguably most crucial, item of make up. More often than not, time runs out in the morning, and I have to drop my tools like a Crystal Maze contestant abandoning a challenge (Come out! Come out!), and go to work with naked lashes.

If I’m lucky, I’ll remember to put it on in the lift at work while someone (who has clearly never had to decant Weetabix into a different bowl because it was THE WRONG BOWL I WANT THE BLACK BOWL DADDY GIVES ME THE BLACK BOWL at 6.57am) gives me the side eye. If I’m lucky, I won’t go through the whole day looking like a hungover mole because I forget to put it on at all. If I’m lucky, I won’t stab myself in the eye with the wand but not have time to sort it out, and arrive in the office with a streak of black down my face, which I will forget to wipe off, because of the ten thousand things in my brain.

Then there was the time (two times, actually), when I wore mismatching shoes. The first time, it was one black high-heeled boot and one brown low-heeled boot. The second time, tragically, it was one black knee high boot and one silver trainer.

And there’s the stuff that comes out of your handbag. Nobody warns you about this before you have kids. The other day, I started a meeting by pulling a pen out of my bag- swiftly followed by a collection of acorns and dried leaves that have been there since last autumn. A work friend once delivered a cutting remark in the office, before turning on her heel, dropping her handbag and watching in horror as a pair of her daughter’s underpants fell out.

The potential for indignity never ends. I know one parent (a Working Dad!) who spent the duration of a meeting wondering what the smell of poo was… until he looked down at his sleeve.

All of this doesn’t (repeat doesn’t) make us any worse at our jobs, but it can leave us feeling pretty frazzled, pretty much all of the time.

I don’t expect or deserve any sympathy and/or congratulations for any of this. As my work friend said the other day, and made me snort my latte out of my nose: we are living in a giant pit of our own making. Or to couch it in more social media-friendly terms: this was our choice, and we wouldn’t change it. (#soblessed).

No, I’m not here for head pats. I’m hear to say this…

To the mum who realises half way through a meeting that she has a My Little Pony sticker on each boob, and has to hastily rearrange her arms to cover them…

To the woman holding an important phone call from her kitchen table while making thumbs-up gestures and mouthing ‘FIREMAN SAM!’ with a manic grin, at a toddler who has bollocked on all bloody day about watching Fireman Sam, until the moment when Mummy has to make a phone call and suddenly Fireman Sam is the worst…

To all of us:

Stop feeling like you’re letting people down- your boss, your kids- when in reality the only person you should be looking after better is yourself. Stop beating yourself up and repeat after me: we got this.

We got this. Our shoes may not match and our mascara may be smeared above our eyebrows, and breadstick crumbs might spray from our handbags when we open them. But our kids are OK. Our work is good. And we got this.

Something Terrible Is About To Happen

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You can barely scroll a screen at the moment without encountering mental health awareness- from Prince Harry, to the London Marathon, to Prince Harry at the London Marathon, to Mental Health Awareness Week (this week) and BBC documentaries.

It’s fantastic. It’s genuinely breaking down the stigma of mental illness. Many words about it have been written, by people with more experience than me, and incredibly moving personal stories.

But I do think it’s worth adding more voices to the chorus of ‘me too’ (is there any phrase in the English language more heartening?). So, here goes…

I cherish my own mental health. I prize it more dearly than any possession. I was, once upon a time, in a deep dark place, with diagnosed depression and (I now feel pretty sure) undiagnosed OCD. Not the fictional ‘likes to have a wipe around’ type of OCD, but the terrifying ‘these intrusive thoughts will destroy me’ sort. I was sucked under, not for long, but long enough to feel l was losing my breath. Back then, nobody really spoke about it. Maybe now, with all the coverage there is and all the people bravely speaking up, I’d know that I wasn’t a complete freak, as well as really sad and scared.

With professional help and personal support, I fought my way out. And I haven’t fallen back in for at least fifteen years. Even after my sister died, even after having two babies (all of which could have been big triggers) I have stayed on solid ground, and I could cry with relief just thinking about it.

Peace of mind was all I craved in those difficult times, and now, I think I have it, as a baseline at least. I’m actually happy. It’s amazing! Thank you, NHS!

But. But. I’ve been wondering whether, while we are all becoming more aware of mental health crises and mental illness, are we still lacking awareness about being properly, mentally well? Because I’m not 100% sure, despite the beautiful absence of illness I enjoy, that I am completely mentally well.

The title of this blog post will be, I only half-joke, the name of my memoirs. “Something terrible is about to happen” is a very familiar feeling for me. It’s understandable, you might think. Something terrible did happen. It happened suddenly, and shockingly, and the newspaper headlines you shudder at became my life.

But here’s the truth. I always felt that something terrible was about to happen, even before Helen died. And now that I have children, it’s ever-present.

I know that becoming a parent ushers The Fear into our lives, for all of us. The horrible lurking dread that you could lose your precious child/ren, that never really goes away and never will. That’s unavoidable- even my partner G, who is so level headed you balance a mug of tea on his bonce, feels The Fear. If they sleep in too late in the morning, we both hold our breath as go into their rooms.

But I’m not sure that the level at which I experience The Fear is normal. Say one of them is running around and around a tree; each time they disappear behind the tree, panic rises. I know they are behind the tree. There is nowhere they could disappear to. But I panic for the two seconds it takes for them to pop back into vision.

Or at the soft play centre. My eyes are fixed so firmly on the exit, just in case some imaginary baddie tries to abduct my children, that I can’t properly hold a conversation with the friends I came with.

Once, my daughter and her friends virtually pissed themselves laughing on the way home from school, imagining how I would react if they ran off round the corner. ‘Other mummies would be fine, but you’d be like AAAAARGH!’, they LOL-ed.

When people say ‘you have to let children take risks’ I want to bellow ‘OH NO YOU FUCKING DON’T!’

I tell myself that it is because I love my kids so much. But then, other parents love their children just as much. And they can take their eyes off them for two seconds.

And then there’s the generalised anxiety I often feel on a day-to-day basis. About work (did I screw up? Will somebody die because of it?), about friendships (do they hate me?), about whether I am a complete twat (does everyone, in fact, hate me?). Sometimes it’s a physical feeling, like I am constantly about to hiccup.

All of this, and yet I am actually happy. This anxiety is so much a part of me, that I wonder if it’s just my personality. Maybe some of us are just sensitive. Or maybe, just perhaps, it’s something I should be addressing.

Maybe I am still, in fact, mad. If only slightly mad.

But life is so busy, and ironically, it becomes one more thing to worry about. And I don’t have time, what with everything else,to worry about that, much less to do anything about it. But maybe that should change.

I applaud mental health awareness. Perhaps, for many of us, that should also mean a little more self-awareness, to help us become truly well.

I’m getting there. I think I’ll get there. If nothing terrible happens before I do.

Don’t Pity The Second Child

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First children are lucky, we say. They are pampered and adored, and the focus of everyone’s attention, at least until a baby sibling rocks up. Slices of cucumber and blanched courgette are laid before them in the name of baby led weaning, and if this goes down like a sack of sick, organic purees are lovingly prepared and frozen in individual tubs. Name tags are sewn with care into pristine new school uniform, three months before they start school.

“Poor second child,” I’ve heard many parents joke, guiltily, as their younger child helps themselves to chocolate digestives from the shopping bag stuffed into the buggy with them (always the bottom seat of the double buggy, where they can’t really see out) during the school run. “Poor neglected second child”.

Baby led weaning is a given for second children, because you don’t have time to puree, so their first food is a giant slab of lasagne stolen from your plate and jammed into their gob. If they’re lucky, parents remember to cross out their older sibling’s name in the name tag of their hand-me-down school uniform, before scrawling the younger one’s name in a felt tip pen nicked from the craft box on the washcare label.

Our youngest learned to settle himself for his morning nap in his pram- not through any conscious sleep-training, but because I just had to let him cry in the porch while I stuffed a three-year-old’s feet into shoes, and her arms into her coat, and wrangled her and her iron will out of the house for nursery school.

Poor second child, we joke. And yet I’ve heard as many parents marvel at how much easier their second child is, how much less demanding and difficult a baby, how much more compliant a toddler and child.

But I think it’s easier to be easier when you are a second child. I speak from experience. I was a nauseatingly well-behaved child- and that’s largely because I watched my big brother pushing boundaries and getting told off, and decided that it wasn’t for me. (I still don’t get why children misbehave- I mean why would you do that? Why would you make people shout at you? But that’s the second child in me talking…).

So maybe it’s not that first children are more difficult. Maybe it’s just that, just like we have to learn from scratch how to be parents, the eldest has to learn from scratch what oils the wheels of family life, and what makes them fall off in a flurry of sparks and screeching. The first kid and the parents learn together, and it involves trial and error. All while the second child watches placidly, taking it all in and learning how to sidestep the drama. Poor second child? Bollocks to that. Don’t feel sorry for us second children- we’ve got it sussed.

And maybe second babies aren’t really less demanding. Maybe it’s just that, for parents, being presented with these demands isn’t like being thrown from a world where you have freedom and autonomy and can take a shower, onto a different planet where a tiny dictator who can only scream and not speak, and whose needs must be deciphered through a series of secret codes and signs, is in charge; and where you can never, ever sleep. It’s just life as you already knew it.

By the time you get to your second, you’re prepared. Sure, every child is different and presents new challenges. Our big one never clung to my legs or limpet-like to my body when I dropped her off at her childminder’s house, so I learned how to deal with that for the first time with our little one.

But generally, most things he can pull out of the bag, we’ve already dealt with. So instead of flying into a panic with an internal scream of WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? at some new phase, we just think, ‘oh this again’, and possibly make a better fist of it. Or at least, chill the f out a little more. That’s why, when our youngest wouldn’t sleep as a baby, we didn’t spend knackering nights shush-patting in the dark- we just bundled him into our bed so we could all get some shut-eye, and woke up to his slobbery, smiling little dough face each morning, and generally felt more relaxed.

But the first child has to do everything, well, first- and I don’t think that’s an easy role to play. So here’s to the first children. The pushers of boundaries, the venturers, the ones who test our limits and pave the way. The ones who teach us how to be mums and dads.

And to my eldest,- my feisty, fierce, funny first. Thank you for bearing with us, and sorry for the times we’ve messed up. It’s a trip, learning how to be parents with you (still learning, seven years in), as you learn how to just be. There’s nobody I’d rather get it right and wrong with.

Is it OK to run in a cemetery?

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I rarely visit my sister’s grave. I feel self-conscious, like I’m stepping into a role. Should I stand forlornly in front of it? Talk to her, like someone would do in a movie scene (the kind of cheesy scene that Helen would rip the merciless piss out of, I might add)? It’s worse because it’s so public. Anyone passing through the cemetery could see me and (in my mind) scrutinise my grieving.

But the truth is, barely anyone does pass through the cemetery. It’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful space- the biggest in the UK, apparently. It has grand old trees, and well-tended flowerbeds, and acre upon acre of stones of all types. When you are standing in the middle of it, you can’t see the main roads that roar around its perimeter. In the winter, when frost evaporates from the wings of stone angels in curls of sunlit steam, you feel like you could be in Narnia.

Recently, when tinkering with my running route, I decided to take in a loop of the cemetery. I hadn’t intended to visit Helen, but once I got there, I found my feet drawn to her ‘patch’- where her neighbours are mostly other children and young people who died too soon (I think the cemetery team plan it that way, which is kind- it makes you feel less alone), with the tree in the middle that was the size of a large Christmas tree when we buried her, and now towers way above our heads.

I would have made a strange sight to anyone passing: leaning on her headstone dripping sweat and tears, my running rush sending sobs crashing through me, Sean flipping Paul blasting through my headphones. I didn’t think about what I should be doing or how I should be mourning, I just wept there for a few moments, then said ‘bye’, and ran on.

At that moment, Don’t Stop Me Now came on my playlist- one of Helen’s favourite songs, and definitely in my top five running songs. Something about the lyrics, and Freddie, and the profound knowledge that I still had life in me to run, sent me powering along- past the angels and the crumbling old graves, the newer shiny slabs and the piles of flowers for those recently gone, through the Manchester rain and the blossom petal rain. I ran my fastest 1k ever through the cemetery, Strava told me later.

A couple of days later, I stumbled across a thread in a high-brow cultural discussion group I’m a member of- oh alright, Mumsnet. It was about whether people should or should not go running in cemeteries. Many people felt that it just isn’t right, that it could offend those using the cemetery for ‘proper’ reasons, that it’s not appropriate to steam through a place of quiet reflection in neon lycra.

It puzzled me, that anyone would find it disrespectful or offensive.

I mean, I understand that there are limits. I wouldn’t advocate having a Parkrun in a cemetery (actually, I think it would be joyful, but I appreciate that somebody trying to have a quiet graveside moment might not appreciate 400 pairs of trainers thumping enthusiastically by). I wouldn’t do many other sorts of exercise there- nobody needs to hear me grunting through ten sets of burpees while they are trying to mourn. And of course, if I saw a burial taking place up ahead, I would make a discreet u-turn, just as I would stop my car to let a funeral procession pass.

But I do think we should bring these little-used spaces into our everyday lives more- not just because they are green spaces, and god knows that in our cities these are precious. But because we should stop pushing away death, as if isn’t part of life.

What do we do with our dead- bury them away and only engage with them when we make the sad little pilgrimage to stand awkwardly at a grave? I loved dropping in on my sister in an impromptu way- I can’t do that in ‘real life’, but I loved that she was part of my real life, as I ran that day. I’ve now incorporated the cemetery into my regular route, and sometimes I’ll stop by her grave for a minute (I’ll do anything for a breather), and sometimes I’ll wave as I jog by, or just glance over at ‘her’ tree with its wind chimes jangling.

I think we should run, and walk, and cycle in cemeteries- hell, let’s do yoga in cemeteries. And I think kids should go on school trips and nature walks in cemeteries. I think we should make them into places filled with more than memories and silence and ne’er-do-wells doing inappropriate things. More than spooky Halloween places.

And you know… there’s something about running in particular. If you run, you’ll know that it just feels human, in a way you can’t explain. On paper (and sometimes in reality) it’s crap: monotonous, knackering and torturous. But it feels elemental and instinctual. I’m sure that other people, who have done actual academic research and stuff, can back me up on this, but frankly I’m too tired to google.

As Bruce (king of my running playlist) sang, we are born to run. And we’re born to die, too. So at the risk of sounding like an absolute arse of a running bore, when I run, I’m respecting what it is to be human. And when I run in the cemetery, I’m respecting that it’s also human to die. Running in a graveyard seems to me, actually, like the most natural thing to do.

So if you’re walking by the largest cemetery in Britain and you see a woman with a beetroot face waving at a gravestone and perhaps weeping, or perhaps singing along to Dizzee Rascal- don’t worry, I’m fine. Come on in, instead. It’s actually rather lovely.

 

The Middle Years

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My little boy has the roundest, softest face. When I creep in to stare at him sleeping, it is so much like a peach that it’s tempting to have a little nibble when I lean down to kiss him.

The other night as I was standing there in the dark, I suddenly realised that one day he will- fate willing- be a giant teenager, and then a man, and his cheek won’t be round anymore. It’ll be all chiselled and bristly. Would it be weird, then, for me to creep into his room and kiss his face? (Yes. Yes it would).

I could almost hear my heart constricting, when I looked at his shoulders, smaller than the span of my hand, and imagined them big and hulking.

It wasn’t knowing that he would grow up that made my breath catch in my chest. It was the sudden realisation that when he is grown or even just a teenager, there will sometimes be hurt bruising the space beneath those shoulders- hurt that he might not be able to, or want to, tell me about; hurt that won’t be solved by me folding him into my lap and hugging it away, and telling him that everything is OK, and him believing it.

It made me realise that this time in our child-rearing journey- these middle years, when the babies aren’t babies any more, but aren’t yet grown- is a sweet spot.

I’ve never yearned to go back to the baby days- even when I inhale the gorgeousness of a newborn’s head. Even when I pick up one of my kids and grunt with the effort, and they are all gangly arms and legs all over the place instead of a curled up little bean on my shoulder. Or when I scroll back through old photos, and feel a pang for Leila’s big birthmark that sat like a cherry on her forehead and has now faded. Although I loved having babies, I don’t want to travel back in time, or even to stop time. I seem to be missing the mum-nostalgia gene.

In fact, I love my kids getting older and seeing their personalities and interests unfold. But I hear that there are rocky times ahead in the teenage years- and then of course they will be adults, and I won’t be able to kiss away their troubles.

So I’m cherishing the middle years, which are, there is no doubt about it, easier- even if it often doesn’t feel that way.

They can talk, for a start, which means that not only can they tell me what they need and how they feel, but we can have conversations, and proper chats and laughs. At mealtimes, they sit on a chair, with cutlery and a plate made of china, and I know that they won’t throw it on the floor. When we go away for the weekend, we don’t have to take a maddening fold-up cot that is impossible to put up and even more impossible to collapse. When they cry, words and hugs can soothe them, instead of having to circle round the house doing a bouncy space-walk and going SH-SH-SH into their ear for three hours.

The other weekend they built a den in the garden with an umbrella and blankets,  and played together, without us, for over an hour. It was great. (Though of course, the minute G and I dared to be smug enough to comment on how well they were playing, the deathly shrieks of sibling rivalry echoed from the garden and someone pulled the umbrella over in a strop). They are learning new things, every day at school, and it blows my mind.

I may not get mum-nostalgia, but perhaps I am guilty of the opposite- of wanting to move on to the next stage too soon, to find out what lies in store and who they’ll become, and (let’s be honest) feel the relief of having got through another phase or stage without fucking it up too much.

But then real life pulls me back to the present. The night when I watched Asher sleeping curled up on his side, and imagined him as a man, he woke long after I had got into my own bed and yelled “IT’S TOO DARK!”. We had to go in and soothe him and stroke his sweaty hair from his head and tuck him back in. The next morning, he had a tantrum because daddy has drunk all of the imaginary tea he had poured into a toy teacup, instead of waiting for it to ‘cool down.’

I was reminded that, as much as I may be diving into the middle years with relish, he is still tiny. Even Leila, who reads to herself, and horrifyingly knows the words to several Little Mix songs, none of which are suitable for a seven year old- she’s still so little, too.

I don’t want to stop time, but I mustn’t hurry it along, either. For now, while things are slightly less intense- the space between a bumpy take-off and teenage turbulence, perhaps- it’s time to lift my head, and breathe, and enjoy the view from the middle.