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.

 

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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.

The Seven Stages of Childfree Holiday Time

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Like many people, as a child I spent much of the school holidays at my grandparents’ houses. Of course, at the time I thought it was all for my own entertainment. Those were the innocent days before I discovered the two words that strike cold fear into the hearts of working parents: holiday childcare, and realised that Grandparents are truly the superheroes of the school hols.

Never mind sleepless nights, sore nips and two-hour tantrums- why does nobody warn us about this before we have kids? (I mean, it should have been obvious, but it never occurred to me). I can still remember doing the sums with a rising sick feeling when our oldest started school: 2 parents, 4-5 weeks annual leave a year each… it does not add up to 13 weeks school holidays, plus inset days.

I’m leaving my permanent job later this year to go freelance, and I’m only half joking when I say that it’s partly so that I can avoid at least some of the dreaded holiday childcare planning, by being more in control of my time. (That’s the theory anyway, though I can almost hear the howls of laughter from my freelancer readers).

But for now, the school holidays- with accompanying Spreadsheet of Doom- are a hodge podge of annual leave days, swaps with friends, the odd stint in holiday club. And, now that both kids are a little older, the first trips to grandparents.

And so last week, the children went away for three whole nights to their grandma’s house. This was the longest either of them has been away, and the only time (apart from one night) they have both been away at the same time. In a different city.

They had a fantastic time. It’s wonderful that they get to start building the kind of holiday memories that I treasure now. But for me, it was a mixed experience. God knows that, when I had a gigantic baby who wanted to cuddle all the time, and a toddler who ran rings around me mentally and physically, I dreamed of the day when me and their dad could have a night or two to ourselves. But now they’re big kids, and that time has finally come, it turns out that I am the only gigantic baby around here these days.

So if you’re looking forward to some kid free holiday time, here’s some advance warning of how it might pan out for you (or if you are not prone to melodrama, perhaps not so much):

Separation. For the days leading up to the parting you try extra hard not to shout. You take deep sniffs of their necks and heads, and push back their hair from their faces so you can drink in their features. All of this because, in the back of your heart you fear you will never see them again. You say goodbye, and then…

…Melancholy sets in. Hear that sound? It’s silence. Initially delicious, very soon  hollow. You may or may not stand in their bedrooms when darkness falls and want to cry. You may or may not bury your face in their pillows. It literally feels like parts of your body are in another town.

Hysterically making the most of it. Suddenly, you can almost hear the ticking of your freedom trickling away. You tidy like a mad thing, revelling in the fact that nobody will follow you around scattering Lego in your wake. You turn to your other half in a panic. We should go out! Go for walk- in the evening! Get lashed! Get naked! Instead you eat tea in front of Peep Show as normal.

Transient glee. You are woken the first morning with a cup of tea instead of a small child roaring MUMMY. It is not 6am. You can piss about on your phone in bed without feeling guilty or anybody demanding to watch videos of cats falling out of trees. You put on so much make-up you look like you are going to the Oscars, just because you have the time. The house is still tidy. It stays tidy. You go out for a meal, with your partner- in the evening!

Pining. Before long, you are  spending 60% of your time looking at photos of the kids. You text Grandma too frequently for updates. You still secretly half believe that you will never see them again.

Joyful Reunion. As their train pulls into the station you have butterflies in your tummy and you, embarrassingly, burst into tears. You squeeze their cheeks too hard and want to devour them whole. You will never, never get cross with them again.

Immediately stressed and knackered. Within minutes, you feel as if they have never been away. Hustling across the station repeating ‘hold my hand, hold onto my hand, watch where you’re going, STOP.’ By teatime you have heard MUMMY ten thousand times. You are tired. You could do, to be honest, with a break.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Parental love is so bloody rampaging and giant that I don’t think it can really get any ‘fonder’. Unless it’s ‘fond’ in the Shakespearian sense, sometimes used to mean ‘mad’. In which case, yes, absence did make my heart grow fonder- madder, and more irrational. But it also taught me, that, truly, if you can step into your childrens’ bedrooms and see them sleeping safely in their own beds, there is nothing more you could possibly need.

On Long Term Love and Celery Leaves

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Britain’s longest-married couple have hit the headlines recently. Phyllis and George Loftus got hitched when Phyllis was seventeen, and they’ve been married for 77 years.

My partner G and I met when we were 19 years old (almost literally children, really), and we marked seventeen years together last week.

(I say ‘marked’, but in truth, it went like this:

Me, the day before: You’ve haven’t got me a card, have you?

Him: No, I forgot!

Me: Phew, I did too.

And on our anniversary itself, I was wondering whether we should do something romantic that evening, when I heard his voice ringing through the house: ‘Sit down on the loo again, you did a bit more poo when you stood up then.’ Such is life with small children.)

We’re no Phyllis and George, not yet. But still, seventeen years. That feels pretty big. I’m starting to feel like we’re due a small column in the local newspaper, at least.

The Loftuses put the longevity of their relationship down to having a hot meal together every night. I think that makes a lot of sense. And just in case any local journos do come knocking, I’ve put together a list of the secrets to a long relationship, according to me and G:

We are never irritating. Neither of us have any annoying habits, like shoving things into cupboards so that everything falls out when the next person opens it, or offering helpful advice on the best way to load the washing machine.

We are never irritable. I would never shoot daggers at him because of the way he is eating an orange.

We never argue. Especially not about anything stupid. We’d never have a blazing row about whether you should save celery leaves or put them in the compost bin, for example.

Obviously, all of the above is bullshit. I think too much emphasis is put on there being a ‘secret’. I don’t buy into #relationshipgoals (hey, apart from the Obamas. They get a pass). You never know what a relationship is really like from the inside, no matter what instagram might tell you. Even those relationships that seem ideal- maybe even the Obamas’- are most likely a mass of complexity.

For me, it’s simply about the threads that bind you together. The threads are made of the big stuff: respect, love, intimacy, trust, shared values, family. But they are also made of the everyday. Texts reminding each other to buy loo roll and nit lotion. The time when we got rat-arsed in Tokyo and roared Born Slippy at each other in a private karaoke booth. Having a hot meal every night, like Phyllis and George.

Sometimes, even after years, you can find yourself suddenly weaving threads that bind you closer. A family camping holiday where I remembered that life is, actually, about more than loo roll and nit lotion, and that my fellow grafter at the coalface of parenthood is my friend, too. The way he picked me up off the floor when I was crippled with grief, and carried me through the days until I found my feet again. Or just a day like today, when we climbed on rocks (again) and ate lunch in the garden, and felt quietly proud of the way the kids were playing together.

Sometimes- some days, some months, some years even- it feels like you’re slicing through the threads carelessly, with the way you speak to each other, the way you disregard each others’ needs, or don’t look at your own behaviour while being quick to criticise. Sometimes the threads just get frayed and worn away, because life is tiring, and busy. As Cheryl Tweedy Cole Fernandez Versini Just-Cheryl once sang, ‘now every day ain’t gon’ be no picnic/love ain’t no walk in the park.’

Sometimes, let’s face it, you’re hanging by a single thread or two. We’ve been there. You can bind yourselves back together again, though, somehow.

Or maybe you can’t. Sometimes the threads wear away completely, or sometimes one or both people decide to slice through them for good. I’ve seen enough relationships that were strong and good in many ways end to know that there is no guarantee. Not all relationships that end are bad. Some that last forever are deeply flawed. ‘As long as we both shall live’ is a lovely sentiment, but the statistics show that it isn’t the reality of all relationships now, and that’s often not a bad thing. ‘As long as we both shall love’ seems more apt, somehow.

And as long as there are more threads binding you than threads coming loose and breaking, then it’s working. That, for me, is the secret, if there is a secret at all.

G and I aren’t married, and never intend to get married- so anyone who’s stashing their hat fund can go and blow it immediately on Easter eggs. (But please note: I do like a good wedding. Invite me to your wedding! I will cry at the ceremony, and sing very loudly in church, and get just the right sort of merrily drunk. I just don’t plan to go to my own wedding at any point).

But, married or not, I suppose long term relationships are about choosing the same person, over and over again. Consciously or unconsciously evaluating the threads that bind you, and choosing each other again. Kind of like a document autosaving on the computer.

This may be the least romantic anniversary post ever. I guess that’s how we roll, but it seems to have served us OK so far. So, happy (very belated obvs) anniversary to us. I hope we continue to autosave. And I promise never to throw celery leaves in the bin again.

How to raise perfectly behaved children*

(*Spoiler alert: I have no idea)

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I am a great parent, me. I am patient and engaged. When the children step out of line, I am firm yet kind. I give gentle warnings and follow through. I am consistent.

I am all of those things, when the conditions are right. When I’m not stretched thin, and the kids are being best of friends instead of high-pitched fight-magnets, and nobody is climbing on my back.

The problem is, sometimes, that doesn’t seem to be very much of the time.

Before I had children, I thought that you were one sort of parent, or another. A grumpy mum, or a kind mum. A stern dad, or a relaxed dad. I was sure I’d be a patient mum, because I am many things, but I am not cross or shouty.

Was not. Was not cross or shouty. Two kids later and I’ve discovered that I am a kind mum, but I am also sometimes a grumpy mum. I’m not a monster- but I’m definitely less patient than I thought I would be. And discipline is the hardest part of parenthood for me (apart from the beautiful and terrible love that leaves me in constant fear of losing them, obvs).

Or rather, not discipline per se. I am perfectly fine with discipline. I believe in boundaries, and I don’t mind having a stern word or withdrawing a privilege. I think kids need discipline, and some kids need it more than others. I often say that getting our eldest through the toddler years was like breaking in a gorgeous but feisty little horse.

What I find really hard is disciplining in the right way. Not letting my own frustration or exhaustion or anger, or sometimes even tears (this has happened more than once, oh dear) screw up the way I am teaching them right from wrong.

And then there’s comparison, that thief of joy. When you’re sure that every other parent is counting to three with some kind of idea of what will actually happen when they get to three. When you suspect that their version of losing their shit is saying in a slightly louder voice: ‘That’s unkind, Indigo.’

And then there’s the mine-strewn maze of co-parenting your way through discipline. When one minute you are whisper-hissing ‘just be patient with him’ at your partner, and the next you are snapping at your kid: ‘No, UP the stairs, not lying at the bottom of the stairs, UP them, UP, NOW.’

Back when we laid our brand new first baby on the bed, and stared at her, and at each other, and laughed- because how on earth were we supposed look after this tiny little thing?- we had no idea of how much more ‘looking after’ meant than getting the hang of nappies and swaddling and feeding (and that’s hard enough!).

See, I’ve been writing this post in my head for ages, and it was filled with LOLs. But after a challenging couple of weeks, behaviour wise (theirs and possibly mine), I’m finding it hard to find the humour. So here, you can laugh at me instead, as I recount a selection of my finest discipline fails. Because if there is one thing that makes me feel better about this whole issue, it’s knowing that other parents make a balls-up of it sometimes too:

The time with the class teddy. 

You know the score: the class soft toy comes home for the weekend, and your job is to cram in as many museum trips and healthy walks as you can, so your page of the scrapbook will look dead good and cultural. Your job is not, when your nursery-aged child refuses to open her mouth to have her teeth brushed, while simultaneously pulling two handfuls of your hair as hard as she can, to shout out in pain and frustration so that she says “Stop it mummy, you are scaring Barney!” And you turn around and there is Barney, watching you from the sink with his judgey button eyes. Let’s just say, we didn’t take a photograph of that moment for the scrapbook- and I lived in fear, for the whole of the following week, that this part of Barney’s stay would be recounted to the whole class at carpet time.

 All the stupid things I’ve said:

“If you don’t [x] now, I am going to throw the television in the bin.”

“If you haven’t [y] by the time I count to three, I am going to throw the treat tin in the bin.”

“I am a person. Mummy is a person. I have feelings!”

“MY LIFE MATTERS TOO!” (this was last week, when they were refusing to get ready, and I had a meeting to go to).

Of course, there is also all the time I spend bleating “Guys, could you just- guys- guys- why are you- guys just-” while they completely ignore me until I feel like throwing myself in the bin, just to make a point.

The time I lost it in Co-Op. 

This time it wasn’t my kids who were on the receiving end, but a member of the public. It had been a wearing morning, and I had managed, against all odds, to actually be a good, calm and consistent parent. I was sweaty with the effort of it. Something had to give. My four year old was taking a break from being an unbearable arse, to carefully manoeuvre a little pushalong basket around Co-Op. He was concentrating so hard that he didn’t notice when he very gently and briefly, bumped it against a man’s legs….

Man: ‘Don’t say sorry, then.’

Me: (Turning round slowly) I’m so sorry, did he bump your legs? I’m so sorry.

Man’s wife: It’s fine. Reg, you shouldn’t have said anything. It’s fine.

Me: It’s just (tears and rage welling)- it’s just, he’s four, and he’s concentrating, and he didn’t even realise he’d done it, so he didn’t realise he had to say sorry.

Wife: Sorry. Reg!

Reg: Sorry.

Me: But I’m so sorry. It’s just- I’m just… having a REALLY HARD DAY!

Wife: REG.

Me: *runs away to the milk aisle to have a small weep, bumps into Reg and his wife in every single aisle of the supermarket*

I’m not proud of any of the above. But I do take heart from the last example, because at least it shows me that I am trying. I am trying so much that I burst into tears at a stranger in Co-Op. We are trying, their dad and I. We have strategies, and we try. Because they’re worth it, those babies.

We don’t always succeed, and frankly sometimes it’s impossible (do you know how infuriating it is when someone climbs on your back while you are loading the washing machine?) But I think trying is really all you can strive for, in parenting and in life. And if that fails, throw the TV in the bin. That’s bound to work, right?

Happy, Crappy Mother’s Day

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How did you spend Mother’s Day? Bathed in prosecco, sunlight, love and expensive smellies given to you by your thoughtful children, or by your thoughtful partner on their behalf? Did you give your own mum a hug/card/bouquet? Do you feel #spoiledrotten and #soblessed?

Or did you spend it crying, because your child or your mum is no longer with you? Fed up, because your partner fell short of some elusive benchmark that makes his/her efforts worth hashtagging- or because you don’t have a partner and had to make your own Mother’s Day breakfast? Or painful because your own mum is not someone you feel you can celebrate. Or because you never got the chance to be a mum. I know at least one woman to whom each of the above things applies.

And maybe that’s why- as much as I enjoy the customary lie in (that we didn’t bloody GET today, thanks a LOT, bloody clocks going back) and handmade card and family outing- Mother’s Day makes me feel kind of weird.

I just can’t get fully on board with any special day that has the potential to make as many people feel crappy as it makes happy. See also: Valentine’s Day. And I definitely can’t get on board with every company from banks to bakeries urging us to “tell them what makes mum special” on Facebook so they can harvest our data and pummel us with advertisements.

But there’s something else that doesn’t quite sit right with me, too. You see, there’s a middle ground between finding the day excruciating, and skipping through a field of wildflowers with your non-whining children, while your dashing partner cooks a roast for a multi-generational celebration of motherhood. And that middle ground doesn’t fit in the idealised, Insta-version of Mother’s Day that we see all around us.

I mean, the fact that it’s Mother’s Day, instead of Mother’s Morning, or Mother’s Hour, is a bit of a big ask. We’re supposed to be happy and pampered and relaxed, and our partners are supposed to be grateful and worshipful, and our children well behaved and adoring, for a whole day?

 The truth about this day, and every day, is that while one minute, your kids are kissing your eyelids and declaring their love, the next minute they will not put their trousers on, and you will curse your partner for daring to have a shower, while YOU deal with the CHILDREN, oh my God. You may go on a lovely trip out, but someone will still put their entire leg into smelly mud and then wipe it on your trousers.

You might even (this would never happen to me, ahem), have a sort of mad, half-asleep midnight rant at your other half before Mother’s Day has even begun, because you feel that they might not have applied themselves to the project fully. Even though you really don’t care, and you really are happy with some snipped-up post-its glued to a piece of A4. Such is the power of marketing.

And if you don’t get to hiss resentfully: ‘and on Mother’s Day, too’ at your kids/partner at least once during the day, it’s just not proper.

The truth about this day, and every day, is that it is happy and crappy and messy and joyous and annoying, all at the same time. The happiest days have crappy moments, and the crappiest of times bring happiness too. That’s motherhood. Expecting it to be 100% glorious, for 24 hours of the year, is a bit of a nonsense.

If you did have a glorious day, I am genuinely really chuffed for you. But you might be reading this having had a  bit of a shit Mother’s Day- not for any deeply personal reason, but just because nobody was their best self, or everyone had diarrhoea and vomiting or nits, or you had an accidental hangover and felt guilty about it all day. If you had one of these days, I say don’t sweat it.

For me, motherhood is not about fireworks, but about collecting those sparks that glimmer through the days, all year round: seeing your kid concentrating on a jigsaw puzzle with the sunlight on the baby frizz on their hair; making them pronounce ‘cucumber’ as ‘puke-umber’ over and again; exchanging a proud smile with your partner when your child carries their used plate to the sink, even if it is after a fraught mealtime. Sometimes, it’s about the glory of grabbing your handbag, containing no breadsticks and no wipes, and heading out without your family. It isn’t, I don’t think, about a day.

“What a misery guts!” I hear you cry. But I’m not, really. I had a lovely Mother’s Day. I didn’t skip through wildflowers, but I did climb on rocks with my babies. I ate bacon and sausages and a picnic and a third of a chocolate éclair. My four year old boomed “GO BACK TO SLEEP MUMMY WE WILL MAKE YOU A CUP OF TEA” directly into my ear at 6am (or was it 4am or 7am, I don’t know, bloody clocks). It was magic, at times, and it exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.

It didn’t look like something from the centre pages of a Boden catalogue. But then again, nothing about motherhood- or the motherhood I experience, anyway- ever did. And that’s fine with me.

In Memory

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There is nothing that kills a conversation quite as effectively as the words ‘my sister died.’

When asked how many siblings I have, I always say that I was one of four. Or that I have three siblings; or that I have two sisters and one brother. It’s only when people ask where my siblings live, or how old they are, that things can get awkward.

People are always shocked. And then they want to know when, and how old she was, and how (2004; sixteen; drowning). And then they often say that they’re sorry they brought it up, that it must be hard for me to talk about. And then we move on.

The thing is, it’s not hard to talk about it. What’s hard is that it happened. Talking about her is lovely. I want to talk about her. I’m just not so sure that other people do.

I had a tattoo for Helen this week. I guess it’s my way of memorialising her. We have lots of ways of doing that, us humans- and many of them are public.

Flowers in cellophane are tied to lamp-posts, with a photo that eventually fades in the sun and turns to mush around the edges in the rain. Trees are planted, and songs written, and plaques screwed to benches, and Facebook pages created. The Taj Mahal was built by a grieving husband as a monument to his wife (the fact that she was just one of his several wives takes away some of the romance, but let’s gloss over that…).

For me, written words have been my way of creating a memorial for Helen. I have always loved writing, but losing Helen cut something open in me, and words poured from that place. Notebooks are filled with long letters to Helen and short (bad) poems and angry scribbles. There are folders of writing about Helen tucked away on the laptops I have used over the last twelve-and-some years. And there are pockets of my grief dripped like spots of ink across the internet.

So it made sense to me to use words (EE Cumming’s words) to memorialise Helen in a tattoo. But why did I write it on my skin, forever? Why not just read the poem, or have it framed? Why do so many people get tattoos in memory of someone they have lost?

Most obviously, of course, it’s about honouring the person with something permanent and indelible. My tattoo will last as long as my love and grief for Helen will last- that is, as long as I am living. It’s about making Helen present, somehow.

But there’s something else, too. For me, it’s the same as the roadside memorials, or the Taj Mahal. It’s about making private grief public.

There’s a short period of mourning after a death, when it is demanded of you to outwardly grieve, to talk, to emote. But when the world perceives that the immediate, acute wound has healed over, that’s the end of that. And never mind the scarring that remains. Normal life can cover that up like a heavy-duty concealer.

Often when I’ve written a blog about grief, I’ll get messages from people I know. ‘My sister died too.’ ‘It was like that for me, when my husband died.’ More often than not, if they are a newer friend or a work colleague, I’ll have had no idea that they went through this loss. You can’t tell, from looking at someone, what they are carrying around with them. You can’t tell from the outside if someone’s heart has been shattered, and cobbled back together.

So maybe having a tattoo, or tying bunches of flowers to a lamp-post, or drinking a little too much gin on the eve of an anniversary and misery-posting twenty photos of your loved one onto Facebook, is, in part, wanting to signal your loss, to show that you haven’t come to terms with it, or got over it, and that you never will.

I feel uncomfortable writing this, but let’s grasp the truthy nettle: I do want my grief to be recognised. More than that, I want grief, generally, to be recognised and spoken about. Not just to rear up for a few days of stricken hashtagging and tortured newspaper think-pieces when a famous person dies. Or to be packed away along with the funeral outfit that you never want to look at again.

Look, I don’t want to lie on a chaise longue and weep about my sister all day. But I do wish that we could talk about grief as easily as we talk about birth, or love, or Kimye. Let’s face it, a conversation about sex is far more likely to happen in an office environment than a conversation about grief, and something about that seems off to me.

So, in the interests of talking about loss- and if you’ve made it this far- this is what it’s like, for me, almost thirteen years down the road of grief:

I miss her every day. (See, sometimes words are so over-used that they don’t do the job unless you dig into their meaning. I miss her. Every day. If you know what that feels like- here, have an awkward hug from me. If you don’t, can you imagine? Missing someone, every day. The constant hum of something like homesickness. The longing.)

I cry for her every day. Crying doesn’t necessarily mean tears. Sometimes it’s a heavy fullness in my chest when I am washing up. Or sometimes it’s a messy, snotty sob fest into my pillow- and that kind of crying, actually, feels the best.

I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.

I can be happy- I am happy- but I’ll never not be sad.

I’ll love her until the end of time.

And, always, I carry her heart (I carry it in my heart).

I can only speak of my own experience. But if you know someone who is bereaved- even if it happened a long time ago, and even if they haven’t built a marble palace or injected ink into their skin to make their private grief public – maybe ask them about it sometime. The chances are, they miss their loved one every day too.

In Praise of the Power Pal

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Things I did not manage to do last week:

  • Remember that we were supposed to grow a cress-head thing for a competition at school, until a Facebook status reminded me.
  • Actually grow a cress-head thing (luckily the kids said they didn’t want to, because they “don’t like competitions”- so I got to dodge a parental fail and feel smug about my peace-making, surely future UN negotiator children).
  • Anything at all towards planning my rather huge upcoming career change.

Things I did manage to do last week:

  • Meet up with three different friends on three different occasions.

Some might say my priorities are off. I say they are bang on. As we whack our way laboriously through these ‘midult’ years (it’s a thing, apparently- the ages between 35-55,  according to experty types) like so much bracken and brambles, I say that our friends are just as important as they were when we were teenagers- perhaps even more so. In fact, I feel that our midult friendships have much in common with our teenage ones.

At eighteen, life feels bewildering and huge. You have no idea about anything. Who am I? What will I become? Am I in love? God, what’s happening to my body?

You’re peering over the edge of something, and it feels like the shit is about to get real. Sex. Relationships. The Terrifying Future. Your friends are there with you throughout, riding the raw realness of it all.

Then in our thirties, when we’re supposed to be grown up and settled, the truth hits us in the face like a spade: we still have no idea about anything. Life feels bewildering and huge again. Should I have children? When should I have children? Gah, I have children. Am I in love? Am I still in love? And of course: God, what’s happening to my body?

Now the shit really is real, and this seems to be the time of life when it also starts to hit the fan in ways both glorious and awful. Birth. Divorce. Bereavement. Redundancy. Parenthood. All of life’s rich tapestry is here in these midult years, and sometimes it feels like it’s unraveling in your hands.

To mix my metaphors with gay abandon, now you’re peering over the edge again- except now there’s a real possibility that you might fall off. And when you do, you know who’s going to be there to catch you: your mates. Just like they were when you were eighteen.

Just like then, they’ll be there to listen; to talk, and every other reply will be ‘YES! Me too!’; to cry; to laugh (while sometime crying at the same time) until your drinks come out of your noses. The drinks now may be different- slightly more expensive, and crucially not vodka jelly- but the laughter is the same.

There’s one big difference, though: while those heady teenage friendships were characterised by great expanses of time, midult friendships are defined by a lack of it.

Back then, nights out would stretch into mornings; you could spend weeks in each other’s company (my friend Ben and I almost literally spent every night and day of the summer of 1999 together- we shared a bed, we worked the same summer job, we ate all the cheese and crackers and we drank all the tea. It felt like it would never end).

Now, time for friends is almost unbearably truncated. Work, family, trying to stave off inevitable physical decay by charging around the local park, the all-important sleep. All of these jostle to push time with friends further down our to-do lists.

At that’s why midult women, I think, develop a crucial new life skill, which I will call power-palling. We kick social niceties to the curb and cut to the chase, so that when we do meet, it is maximum impact and minimum filler. For example…

You arrive to pick your kids up from a friend’s house. The children are en masse doing that weird writhey thing where they watch telly with one leg on the sofa and their chins on the floor. ‘Sorry it smells of poo,’ your friend says by way of greeting. You plonk your handbag down and get straight to the point: “I had a weird smear test result. I’ve just had a camera…there… and I’m a bit scared, but the doctor said it’s probably OK.’ In ten minutes flat, you’ll have to take the kids home to bed, or their heads will implode. But by the time you leave, you feel better.

Or, when the shit is realler than real and hitting the fan like nothing else, you knock on your friend’s door and, when they open it, you just start crying straight away. There is no time to waste at our time of life!

Power-palling is your friend responding to a text in twenty seconds when she thinks you are in crisis, when everyone knows that 36 hours or more is a perfectly acceptable response time for non-crisis text conversations these days.

It’s squeezing two month’s worth of catching up, laughing and mulling life over into the two hours between the kids’ bedtimes and your own- because you both understand that, as glorious as your union and the sauvignon blanc may be, your lives may depend on not having a hangover tomorrow morning.

(I have to caveat, here, that I think this all applies to people who don’t have kids, too- this isn’t a ‘parent thing’: it’s just that my only life examples involve kids, because they have a way of penetrating every single thing that you do and are).

It’s concocting an actual agenda- in your head, or even on paper- of crucial things to discuss over a cup of tea, and continuing to shout them at each other as your mate bumps her buggy down your front steps and wheels it down the street. ‘WE HAVEN’T EVEN DISCUSSED THE PATRIARCHY/BEYONCE/INSTAMUMS!’ you yell forlornly at her retreating back, and you already can’t wait until next time.

As I write this, I’m painfully aware that there are friends I haven’t caught up with for far too long, whom I love and whom I really must power-pal at the first opportunity. Friends, I am coming for you. I may be waxing my legs at the same time, and I do have to pick up the car from the garage in 45 minutes, but we both know that’s more than enough time to make everything alright in our worlds.

Thanks for everything, Jo March

L reading

I’m jealous of my seven year old daughter. Specifically, of her bookshelf. Following Christmas, and her birthday, and the digging-out of a box of musty paperbacks from storage, it is bursting with chapter books.

God, those books. Surely there is no fiction more exciting than the stories aimed at the middle years of childhood- that time between picture books and adolescence?

The Worst Witch. Little House On The Prairie. Just the titles make me swoon. I could dive into them and stay there forever. I used to suffer from panic attacks; should I ever struggle with them again, I’m going to repeat the titles of children’s novels with each breath: Anne of Green Gables. Little Women. Ramona The Pest. I’ll be calm in no time.

 

It’s not just the books themselves, but the feeling of the discovering them. I remember it sharply. It’s like falling in love- it is falling in love. That’s what I envy, I think: I can never go back to having not read those books again, and she is just at the start of it.

My girl is falling over herself to read all the books, all the time, often juggling several at once. We encourage her to finish one before starting another, but she doesn’t. She has one on the go by her bed, one on the kitchen table, sometimes one on the arm of the sofa too. I get it. I get the fever of it.

I went into her room yesterday morning, wondering why she was still asleep at 7am (freakish event) to find her with her lamp on. She looked up at me from her bottom bunk, where she was sitting with her knees up to her chest and a book resting on them. Her face was alight: ‘Mummy, it’s so EXCITING, Sophie’s just found ALL THE JEWELS’. Her first mystery book.

Because I can’t just enjoy a feeling without pulling it apart in my mind, I’ve been pondering what it is that is so magic and important about this swathe of children’s fiction (Dick King Smith. Narnia. The Borrowers. I keep thinking of more)- particularly for little girls:

These books help children to understand themselves, to become themselves. When you are a girl of seven or eight, and you’re just starting to figure out who you are, you can enter the pages of a book and recognise yourself, or the person you want to be. In a world that tells you to be Cinderella, you can leave fairytales behind, and find girls in those pages who are different. Clever, clumsy girls who don’t look like princesses, and don’t always say or do the right thing. Mildred Hubble and Anne Shirley and Ramona Quimby. Girls who get cross, and fall over, and get grass in their hair. Through these books I understood that it was OK to be a clever, clumsy girl who didn’t look perfect, and embarrassed herself occasionally (or even most days). And even though my peers, and my own self-critical inner voice, and magazines and the world at bloody large would try to convince me otherwise as I navigated the teenage years, I really believe that this understanding gave me a strong foundation.

And so these stories are feminist without even trying to be. I’ve become increasingly worried and dismayed at the way girls are bombarded with sexualised, passive role models from a very young age- in TV shows and pop songs and films and adverts. I get that when our daughter is a teenager, she’ll need to explore that side of herself, to hold herself up against those ideas (a horrifying thought, to which my current response is: la la la, I’m not listening)- and I’m hoping that at that point, more literary heroines will step in to help when I’m lost for words and strategies. But she is seven right now. So it makes me want to punch the air to rediscover these stories filled with role models galore- finding the jewels, solving the mysteries,  and kicking back against convention.

Lucy- the littlest, as well as a girl, is the first one to venture into the cupboard and find Narnia. Arrietty, narky and wayward, is determined to go borrowing just like her dad Pod. Jo March is just, well, she’s everything.

These aren’t stories about feminism, they just are feminist- which, to my mind, is the best way to let those all-important messages drip-drip-drip into little minds and dilute the swill of misogynistic bile they’ll be exposed to as they grow up.

And finally (well, not finally- I could bang on forever, but I have to stop typing somewhere), these books let children create a world that is theirs and theirs alone. We all know the benefits of parents reading to children, and it’s a time most of us treasure- albeit while, sometimes, glancing at the clock and dreaming of Netflix and looking forward to the click of turning the light off. But of all the milestones our girl has reached in her life, seeing her discover the joy of reading alone has possibly given me the most pleasure, especially as she struggled to learn to read. The days spent sweating over sounding out C-A-T are a distant memory now (have hope, parents of reluctant readers, have hope!).

I love the fact that she’ll know how Sophie’s mystery is solved before I do, and she’ll tell me about it, her words tripping over each other in her haste to get them out. I love it that when she is curled up with a book (is there any more comforting phrase in the English language?), she can be safe under our watch but escaping into her own, independent world. I love that through stories, she’ll hopefully find laughter and fun and ideas beyond what we can give her.

And I hope that she’ll learn the same lesson I did: that she need never be lonely, as long as she has good books.

 

The Magic Number?

two

I’ve never been a person who ‘just knows’ about things. Sure, I’ve been with the same man since I was 19, but there has been no ‘just knowing’ about it. There has been a lot of choosing, and working, and talking, and sometimes freaking out.

It’s the same with most things: houses, jobs, hairstyles. My approach is never to ‘just know’, and always to deliberate. Trust my gut? Nah. I prefer to trust many hours of tortured overthinking and introspection, and list-making. With tick-boxes.

But there was one thing I did just know about: I wanted a child. And then, when we’d been lucky enough to have her, I just knew I wanted another one. No overthinking required.

Two kids was a no-brainer. But THREE? Three is a possibility that I think I’ll always be on the fence about- at least until biology kicks me unceremoniously off the fence onto the side of ‘no can do’.

I have friends with three kids, and they just knew they wanted three (and they’re doing a damn good job of it). I’ve got friends with two kids, or one kid, and they just knew too. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one having a constant internal bicker with myself about this subject, with one voice bleating ‘yes, a baby, now please’, and the other admonishing bossily: ‘hell to the no, woman’.

(Here come the lists…)

In the “yes, a baby, now please” corner:

  1. Babies are lovely. Children are lovely. Being a mum is lovely, a lot of the time.
  2. I always wanted lots of children. That was before I had any, obviously. But having been one of four, and knowing how fantastic growing up in a big family can be, I think I’ll always feel a pang for a tribe.
  3. Babies really are lovely.
  4. I’m going to say this, and I’m not proud of it, but… There’s a swotty part of me, the part that got straight As at GCSES, that wants three in order to score top marks at mumming. It’s quite aspirational, having three. Not wanting another would feel a bit like an admission that I wasn’t loving having two- like proclaiming a cake delicious, but then declining another one. (Note to self: not a reason to have baby).

In the “hell to the no” corner:

  1. While I’m sure I could manage, technically, with three, I suspect I’d be frazzled. I’m not a coper like my mum-of-three friends. When we’re in the park, I panic if I can’t see both the kids, my head swivelling constantly from one child to the other like an electronic toy that has been through the washing machine, and I come across as really, really rude to whoever I am talking to. I have a tendency to break into a sweat when both are yelling MUMMY from different parts of the house. My hands feel full, literally and figuratively.
  2. The bits where being a mum is not so lovely, and even some of the bits that are lovely, are, well, really hard. There seem to be so many scenarios in parenthood where you are stretched to capacity: having a newborn; having a newborn and a toddler OMFG. Let’s be honest, even with older kids, leaving the house is sometimes like a mad dream where everything plays in reverse (why do they stand in the doorway like that, when you are trying to shut the door?). But these days, now that they are 4 and 7, I can manage. I can manage to put them both to bed without nearing breakdown, on my own when need be. Weekends are somewhat relaxing. It’s doable, having two. I like doable. Could we go back into the breach, really?
  3. As someone who has known the dark side of love and loss, having lost my sister at a young age, I know only too well that love also invites pain. And we’ve been so lucky, so bloody lucky, to get the two that we knew we wanted to have. Choosing to stick, rather than twist, feels like a way to protect my heart somehow.
  4. I don’t ‘just know’, and when it comes to whether or not to have more children, I’m starting to think that ‘just knowing’ is the best barometer.

So maybe it really is time to hang up my uterus, and appreciate that I am, actually, hashtag blessed with two, and borrow other peoples’ babies for  squishing and surreptitious head-sniffing.

And if that fails to quell the broody beast within, well, we’re still in our mid-thirties- by the skin of our teeth- and I do warn G regularly that I may simply lose my mind in a couple of years and suddenly demand another one (assuming it’s possible, obviously).

I mean, babies. They are so very lovely.