Soul searching in chicken pox quarantine

Today’s blog is coming at you from quarantine. At least one child is done with the dreaded pox, and another will likely follow. It was during the sermon at church on Sunday that I received a text from a friend confessing that her one year old had come out in spots, less than 24 hours since they had been at Jesse’s 3rd birthday party. It’s fair to say that I didn’t really listen to the sermon after discovering I had inadvertently hosted a chicken pox party and was therefore likely to be spending the following week in lock down with the kiddos. But then I think I got my grieving (mostly for the loss of my days off) done with on that day, so when it actually happened I had made peace with the outbreak. At least we didn’t have any super-fun plans this week. At least it’s not Christmas.

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(If you’re an informed parent or medical practitioner thinking ‘my, that’s an incredibly short incubation period for chicken pox’, the same poxy children – including my own – were also together a week earlier when the dreaded virus was probably spread).

Obviously, I am only a day or two into the ordeal, and I may yet be clawing at the windows and trying to escape in the days to come (this would be especially irresponsible as Andy is away in Brussels). But so far we’re good. We watched a Christmas film, we had a lot of stories and cuddles. I didn’t even know what else we did, but we made it to bed time. And for a kid who is used to spending the winter feeling uncomfy and itchy, smothered in creams and dosed up with anti-histamines, chicken pox isn’t so very different from the norm. We’re ok, is what I’m getting at. Just stuck indoors a lot.

This isn’t the week or the blog I had in mind, but that’s how life goes with kiddos I guess.

What I meant to write about was that cliffhanger I left off with last time – what am I planning to do with the rest of my life? What great plans have I been hatching, nestled up here in Luton?

If I’m honest, the biggest question I’ve been wrestling with – not just these past months, but years – has really been about acting. I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life with a strong sense of vocation in that direction, and I’ve been bewildered as to what to do with that now. You know, seeing as I don’t have any actual paid acting work, nor much of a record of it. Do I cut loose, dream up a different life, get a bit more practical, call it a day, be grateful for all I have learnt and done, and how I have changed and grown along that path, but set out in a different direction? Or do I dig my heels in, divert all my energies in that direction and make something happen? (I’m a little fuzzy on the ‘how’).

I like clear decisions, I enjoy a bit of black and white. But the answer that I have reached in all my should searching is…neither. Instead I feel like I need to make sure I make some space for acting, or related creating. Just keep it alive, nurture it a little, and take away the pressure. I have a couple of ideas of things to make a start with – just tiny steps – and so I’m committing to making room each week (thanks largely to Andy) to show up and have a go. Maybe I’ll mainly blog in that time. Maybe I’ll sing, or write. Who knows?

And then I have also spent a lot of time in this past year thinking more broadly about my purpose. A year ago I went on retreat. Then I did most of an online course by Tsh Oxenreider which I found really helpful, about finding your life’s purpose. She talks in one of the sessions about how she always dreamt of being a writer, it was always her ambition and hope. And now she is one. But she doesn’t consider writing to be her life’s purpose – being a writer is a role she takes on in different seasons of her life to express her deeper purpose.  Roles are always temporary but our purpose is the underlying thread that stays the same. That was such a helpful lesson for me – recognising that being an actress is a role I sometimes take on rather than my core purpose. And when I’ve thought about what that purpose is, I land in the territory of ‘helping people feel things’ – you know, emotions. I like to find creative ways to help people connect with their own emotions.

There are a lot of ways to do that. Be a friend, a wife, a parent. Listen, sing, perform, write. (And a bazillion other ways). There’s no career plan for it. But I find myself drawn towards the world of mental and emotional health, and the many creative paths it opens up, and so I’m exploring how I might take that forward (answer: more training). And I have a part-time job, starting in the new year, working with a brilliant local charity that works with young people here in our town, but also serves heaps of other youth projects across the country.  So I’ll be getting to know some of the teenagers of Luton, and exploring how they feel about life, the universe and everything.

And we’ll see where all of that takes me.

All thoughts and comments welcome – and I’d love to know what you’ve found most helpful in the process of working out what to do with your life?

 

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On choosing change (and the end of maternity leave)

If you can picture Dick Van Dyke dressed as a chimney sweep, bring to mind his terrible cockney accent and remember the tune of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ then you can bring to life the words I’ve had floating round my head today. (If you can’t, brace yourself for some slightly random song lyrics from Mary Poppins):

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.

(Ooooh, can you feel those tingles? Mary Poppins is on her way!!)

The seasons are a’changing. It’s true of national and international politics (about which I will make no comment here), it’s true in our garden, but it’s also true in our little family. Maternity leave has come to an end and the rhythms of our life are shifting. The shape of what’s coming is still unclear, but I feel excited; hopeful. I have been doing a lot of thinking in the past year, and especially the past months (you might have noticed the lack of blogs…), about what I want to do in the future. I thought I might have a roadmap by now, but it hasn’t arrived.

I find myself without a set timetable, or a fixed job (yet), but I have intention. I have thought about what matters most. I have thought about what I don’t want to do. I have found things I want to explore further. I have some strong instincts and I am learning to trust them, rather than needing exact plans. Just a few weeks ago I felt in turmoil over it all, but some convictions are settling.

If the idea of my maternity leave ending has confused you, since I announced in my last blog that I had quit my job, then let me explain. I am not going back to Tearfund or to my old job. But I am not staying in my maternity leave rhythms of full-time childcare. It’s maybe an artificial decision since I am still at home, but for me it is an important one. We decided on 9 months of maternity leave, and so I am moving into a different headspace. Jubilee has begun to settle with the childminder some of the week (very happily), and I have (the extraordinary gift of) some child-free space in the week.

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I could tell you that I have mixed feelings about the end of maternity leave, but that’s not really true. I have loved having so much time (in fact, all the time) with our little girl. I am deeply grateful for this country’s maternity policies and the situation of our family that mean I could have nine months with some income whilst staying at home every day with our kids. But I am also really happy to be able to start to work a few days a week outside the home, and share the care of the kids more with Andy and our lovely childminder. I am more alive and fulfilled when I have something else to do in my week away from my children. And I am happier when I come back to them (which they love).

I once had a slightly eccentric colleague who thought that married women shouldn’t work outside of the home because they flood the labour market when there are men out there who need the money more (the implication being that married women can live off their husband’s earnings). I have all kinds of problems with that philosophy, but the main one is this – it assumes that the only reason people work is for money, for economic survival. I think work (both inside and outside of the home) is so, so much more than that. It is a way to find purpose, meaning and fulfilment, it is a way to contribute to the wider culture and society, to serve and to show our love for the world, to express the people that we are. I believe that the work we do raising our kids is all of that, too. Work confers dignity on people – I’ve seen it in many corners of the world. When we believe we have something to offer, and can thereby support ourselves and our families, we feel worth something (and I don’t just mean as a capitalist unit). I know it isn’t always all of that, and I  undoubtedly have an idealised and privileged view. But it’s how I feel.

I believe that raising children is an extraordinary privilege. I also think it can be a brilliant life rhythm – when we (as women, at least) are of childbearing age, we also are at a point of life when we have the energy to change the world! (Or at least, we have some energy!) We could get ahead! And get stuff done! And then these tiny people arrive who demand every ounce of our energy. We have to switch gear and focus, and invest so much in the next generation. Having children upsets career paths and slows us down. But painful as that sometimes has felt for me (not that I even have a ‘career path’), I think it can also be a healthy life rhythm, and not just for mothers – if other members of the family also get involved. Andy’s life has certainly taken on a different, slower rhythm since Jesse arrived.

I believe in the work of raising kids, and I also believe it’s ok to want to be doing other things too. I want to go out into the world again and do some work beyond my family. Raising children is definitely the hardest job I have ever had, and I’m grateful that I can share that work with others (mostly Andy), and make some space for something else. If I have the choice, and I do, then there are other ways that I want to contribute to the world at the same time. There’s always a lot of chat about needing to go back to work after maternity leave for financial reasons. Maybe as women we feel we need to apologise for not being with our children full-time. (Did you see that BBC pilot, Motherland? Remember the impossibly perfect super-mum who says to the working mum demurely – “I don’t know how you do it, I just love my children too much”). Probably financial pressures do push a lot of women back into work sooner than they might otherwise choose. But I think returning to work can also be a positive choice, for a woman and for the whole family. It certainly feels that way for me, and (I think) for the other three members of the family.

In my next blog I’ll talk about what I’m actually going to do! And what I’m exploring too…but in the meantime I would love to hear about your experiences of maternity leave ending, or how you think about balancing family and work…

 

 

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What I’m Into (September 2016)

So i’ve been meaning to link up with Leigh Kramer’s monthly ‘What I’m Into’ series for ages and I finally got organised enough to make it.

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This has been the summer of long, sunny days in Luton, of spending every day with two tiny children which has been especially intense because at the same time Andy has been battling a whole load of health challenges. And to deal with this we have watched a lot of The Mentalist.

The only big news is that after 12 years I resigned from my job at Tearfund. I won’t be returning after maternity leave. So I am unemployed, as of the end of this month, and looking for new opportunities to do meaningful work for money. I could write a book about those 12 years and how much I’ve changed through being part of Tearfund (now there’s an idea…). It was a gloriously accidental and extraordinary path to have taken. But it has ended (or will do, once I have returned to eat cake and say goodbye).  As you might expect I have been trying to make plans for my future direction in life. I’ll keep you posted.

Reading

I read a lot in July (a lot for this particular season of life…), and not so much in August. LM Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon brought me a lot of joy. And I was inspired by How to be here by Rob Bell (mostly about how to start with a small step in the right direction, and to never stop exploring what I’m meant to be doing). Despite having already watched the film (and therefore found out the ending), I read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín on the recommendation of someone in my bookclub and I totally loved it. Beautiful, compelling, moving, thoughtful. I might try another Tóibín soon. And then I read Dibs by Virginia Axline which is all about play therapy and how children journey towards self-realisation in the context of emotional pain. It maybe sounds a bit full-on but it was beautiful, thought-provoking and I cried several times. July’s last read was The Offering by Grace McCleen which was surprising and strange and interesting. Right now I’m reading Khalid Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and  trying to finish The Moonstone (still).

Podcasts

I do love a good podcast but the amount of time I can listen before small children drown them out is strictly limited. Liz Gilbert’s series, Magic Lessons is back and is awesome and inspiring, especially in a season of trying to work out what to do with my life post-Tearfund. I dip into Rob Bell’s Robcast, and The West Wing weekly, and Tsh Oxenreider’s The Simple Show. Oh, and I often listen to Modern Mrs Darcy’s What Should I Read Next and scribble down lots of book recommendations.

Watching

Like I said, The Mentalist. We’re about to hit the final series which begs the question of what we’ll do afterwards. All that we’re good for in the evenings right now is a bit of TV. And I’m not recommending The Mentalist as the greatest show ever, but someone lent us all 7 seasons and it’s easy to watch. Thankfully Bakeoff and Poldark are back on terrestrial TV. I haven’t been to the cinema in forever but I did finally catch Spotlight which I really enjoyed.

Things I love

These 9 months of maternity leave (I can’t believe that 8 months of it have passed by) have been possible (I’m talking about my sanity levels here) because of a lot of time spent with family and I am extremely excited that it will continue in the next few months. None of our family are especially near by so it’s not like we see them weekly…but we’ve managed to see my folks every month, and we Skype Northern Ireland several times a week. We’re about to go away on holiday with my parents and my brother’s family which fills my heart with great joy. Hello cousins entertaining one another. Hello grandparents available 24/7. HELLO LIE-INS (a couple at least).

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Also, if I’m giving credit where it’s due I should give a big shout out to coffee and wine. Thanks for propping me up. I gave up chocolate in August (I made it to the 30th when it became completely essential to give up before I cracked up) but it’s part of my life again now.

And people of Luton, thanks for all the playdates.

The sunshine has been awesome this month, maybe the nicest August I can remember in the UK (which makes me nervous because our holiday is in September, and maybe we’ve used up all our sunshine credits for the year now…). We discovered beautiful some local picnic spots and have been out on the decking a lot. We even have a paddling pool.

We have a big long garden which we are attempting to transform from a toddler death trap into a beautiful green oasis. (I dream of unleashing the children into it while I lie in a sun lounger reading novels). Only it’s taking forever, so it looks like we won’t be enjoying it till next summer. And obviously I will transform myself into a horticultural goddess by then too.

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Jubilee is properly on the move. In just a few weeks she has begun propelling herself across rooms, and is now totally mobile (yikes). She grunts and groans and pulls herself onto her feet by means of anything she can find that is vaguely stable. It’s a little terrifying as I actually have to think about all the stuff I should keep out of her reach, but joyous none the less. Jesse is unimpressed that she can now reach his toys, but otherwise he still seems to like her. They exhaust me but are completely wonderful.

So there we are, we made it to September and holidays are nearly here!

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That time we tried potty training

Today’s missive from the furrows of parenting is a story of failure. I have a few hundred that I could share, obviously, but I generally try not to think about them. I chalk them up to being a rookie and move on to something more fun. But sometimes it’s good to look them over (when they don’t reduce you do a sobbing heap of shame) and think about what was going on and why it all went wrong. So that’s today. The story of eight hours of potty training (without the graphic details).

It’s not a story of the toddler’s failure to do anything. Or of mine as a mother. It’s just one task I undertook that never got done, despite all my efforts.

This was not what it was like

Just a few days ago, I bit the bullet and decided to potty train the toddler (who is 2 and 3/4). I’m not entirely sure why I decided we would start. I guess I like to get on with things, and this seemed like the next thing we were meant to do, or help our toddler to do. Friends with kids the same age seemed to be cracking on. The childminder said she thought that the little man was ready. Everyone says ‘do it in summer when your kid can run around naked!’ (except not so practical when they can scratch their eczema). We were even having conversations about toilets and potties and genitalia, so it seemed like a reasonable step to take.

Then, I read a book about it: Gina Ford’s ‘How to potty train in a week’. I’ve never read anything Gina Ford has ever written, as most of my friends resist the idea of enforcing routines on their babies and she was kind of a dirty word in my hippy circles. (I should say that despite my best attempts at being a hippy, my babies and I have been happiest in a lightly-held routine).  But I couldn’t quite resist the idea that potty training could be so quick. So I read it, for research purposes. And it seemed to make sense, even if I laughed hysterically at the idea that I would be able to make Jesse sit on a potty every 15 minutes during the first few days. I decided to give some version of it a go.

I’m not going to detail the little man’s excretions here, I will spare his grown-up self something. The potty did not turn out to be an appealing place in which to do anything you might think it was there for. The day didn’t go well from a practical point of view. And what was far worse, was that I hated the parent I turned into that day. I stayed calm, like everyone says you should, when accidents happened. But man did I flip out about other things. I was on the edge. I had cabin fever. I was so bored, and frustrated. And the poor 7 month old was practically ignored all day as I watched her brother like a hawk. A hawk with a potty.

I was ratty and resentful and we all were going a bit nuts from being at home all day. All the rewards in the world meant nothing to the poor confused toddler. The only perk was that he got to watch the whole of Finding Nemo as it was the only way to get him on the potty for long enough that he essentially was forced to wee in the end.

There are battles I fight with the little man every day. Mostly they centre around treatment for his eczema and the creams and medicines and special baths he needs. And there are other battles I could fight, only I don’t want to. I would rather we negotiate on what we can. When it comes to his body, I want him to know that his feelings and opinions matter – but the necessity of moisturising his skin constantly and minimising the scratching mean that I cannot be an extremist on this. For his own good I have to put the creams on. But the battles wear us both down, they really do, physically and emotionally.

So it got to 5pm and there were tears and I just decided that we weren’t going to fight this battle right now. Maybe if we’d stuck it out for even a week, things would have turned. Or maybe it would have been months. Maybe I’m just postponing the inevitable, but I really don’t mind. I’d like to buy us some more happy days right now.

My increasingly desperate trail of text messages to Andy throughout that day revealed that I was totally cracking up, and the kind man reached out to the virtual world on my behalf and invited Facebook friends to send me messages of solidarity and love. Thank you, if you sent me a message. There was a lot of love poured in my direction and a lot of wisdom. And a lot of people saying, ‘just wait till he’s ready’.

So we tried and we failed. Or probably more accurately, I tried and I failed. I apologised to Jesse for how I’d treated him all day, and he said it was ok. And we’re all fine with my failure. Potty training will happen sometime in the future when he’s more interested. (We have some Paw Patrol pants going spare now if you’re interested?). Successful potty trainers of 2 year olds, I salute you, but I will not be joining your ranks!

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Summer in the foothills of parenting

I’ve been waiting for a moment of divine inspiration and philosophical insight to begin writing but it has finally dawned on me that it could be a long wait. So here is another missive from the beautiful foothills of parenthood.

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I’m liking the summer. I’m a lot happier when the sun shines, and while the complexions of the other members of family mean I’m unlikely to get to spend much time in some serious heat in the next decade or so, I’ll take the gentle British sunshine any day over the rain. We were in Ireland recently and it rained every day (although all the hardcore natives wore their shorts and t-shirts, regardless). It does make everything over there insanely green, but I had an extra skip in my step when we landed back in Luton in the blazing sunshine.

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Can you believe we have a seven month old now? She’s trying out food and making a big, joyous mess. It’s fair to say her meals get a lot less attention than Jesse’s did at this stage, but that’s the joy of baby-led weaning. She just tries loads of stuff that we eat and I don’t have to make any purees. My old boss used to say many wise things but the one I remember most clearly was that “we’re all as lazy as we dare to be”, and this is a case in point. Lazy weaning. Not that baby-led weaning isn’t a bona fide and respectable strategy, but it especially appeals to me because of the lower level of effort involved. One of its promised benefits is a toddler who isn’t fussy with food but is much more used to a variety of flavours and textures from the start. I am under no illusions about these kinds of grand promises, however, since our toddler is still pretty darn fussy. We do weaning this way because I’m convinced it’s a healthy, happy way to go, and it saves me a heap of effort. Although there is a lot of mess. (Any creativity which I can muster up is largely thanks to the brilliant new website some friends have set up called Baby Loves Veg – check it out!).

We have just come back from two weeks away (during which our fussy toddler ate a bare minimum for survival). I wouldn’t quite call them holiday weeks because Andy was working to some degree for both weeks, singing, speaking and hosting at a couple of Christian festivals. And the word holiday suggests some kind of rest when, as parents, you’re actually still doing all the parenting stuff, just in a different place and probably with less equipment. Looking after kids in our own home is always easier than doing it elsewhere. I know some parents who avoid going away with their small children as the hassle just isn’t worth it (and conversely, I am in awe of Mel Wiggins who just went to Florence with a 5 year old and a 4 month old). Believe me, I really got that this summer. Flying with kids and all that stuff. Sharing a room with a baby and toddler while trying to stop them waking each other up all night. Persuading Jesse to eat unfamiliar food and not destroy someone else’s house. Spending evenings camped outside the bedroom door with a book. It was, at moments, gruelling. (I may have ended up one night holed up in the bath drinking red wine out of a sippy cup. Ahem). But then at other moments it was brilliant. And worth it.

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Jesse loved both weeks. The first week he loved the tents (not that we were in one…) and caravans, the kids groups he went to, the community, the muddy puddles. And the second week he adored having his grandparents available 24/7, and staying in a castle, seeing his cousins and having access to a whole room of toys. Jubilee rolled with it all and was happy as long as I was there (she even spent a few mornings happily playing in a creche). They both slept fitfully, and struggled at different moments. But we had so much love, practical help and prayer that it still felt like a good call to be there. And I just love seeing our kids learn to feel at home in a wider community, learn to trust others and be in new places. Even if we need a break afterwards,

And now we’re home. And I get to spend at least some of each night in our bed while the kids sleep in other rooms. I get to cook our food again (the carbs in Northern Ireland were so intense that I actually started dreaming about salads, which is a new thing for me). It’s nice to be in our own space.

Life is small right now. We’ve dug in because just looking after the four of us is exhausting. No-one is sleeping through the night, and the emotional toil of watching Jesse struggle and scratch and cry out at night with his eczema is worse than the more predictable teething cries of the little one. We’re trying all kinds of things to help him get better – seaweed and aloe and oatmeal and laundry eggs and water softeners (potentially) and so much cream we could just slide from room to room without taking any actual steps. It’s trial and error, life is gloriously normal one minute and agonising the next. But every day there are beautiful moments. Mostly, I feel peaceful and contented (and tired), which is not something I really expected from this year, so I’m savouring the feeling for however long it lasts!

 

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What I have tried to read and how cricket won me over

Half way through the year seems like a good moment to stop and update you on my ambitious reading goals for 2016. It actually just happens to be the first time in about a month when I’ve had more than a nanosecond and two spare brain cells in order to sit down and write.

If you were reading the blog in January then you’ll remember I committed to Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge, and simultaneously joined a new local book group, meaning I had to read at least two specific books a month whilst keeping a brand new baby and an adventure-loving toddler alive, fed and entertained. I am nothing if not optimistic.

So it’s time for an honest update. What has been brilliant about both the book challenge and the book group is being introduced to all kinds of new authors and books I hadn’t heard of or tried before. Almost all the books I’ve read have been novels, because I just enjoy them so much and so reading novels feels more like leisure than self-improvement. Plus, entering into entirely different worlds has been a welcome distraction from the trenches of parenting.

Here is what I managed, and what I thought about them (spoiler: I got hooked on a book Andy chose about CRICKET of all things).

January I dealt with in that first blog, but February I committed to read In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie for the book challenge (‘a book published this year’), and May We be Forgiven by A M Homes for book group. I was quite excited about the first one but just really struggled to love it enough. You know when you don’t love a book enough to actually make the time to read it (unlike the books I really love which I balance precariously in one hand and read whilst feeding the baby)? Well, that was it. The second book, however, was an unexpected joy. It was really nuts, and kept shooting off in the strangest direction. It was at turns hilarious, bewildering, terrifying and just plain odd. But always imaginative. I kept expecting everything to fall apart, but it never did, and I actually relished its perverse optimism.

In March I was allowed to pick our book group’s selection so I cheated and nominated the book I was already reading for the book challenge – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I loved it and devoured it in less than a week because it was just so darn good. The two main characters are utterly compelling. This book seems to be almost universally loved – it is beautiful, thoughtful, moving, surprising and gripping, so if you haven’t read it yet, go find it in your local library. (I now want to read Four Seasons in Rome by the same author which describes the year he moved to Rome with his wife and twin babies, during which he wrote much of All the Light We Cannot See).

In April I was supposed to read a book chosen by my local librarian and she gave me a book written by someone I knew at university, coincidentally – Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. I really enjoyed its quirkiness and readability – I also like it when I can’t figure out where a book is going – but I didn’t quite finish it within the month. And book group were reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman…which I didn’t even try to read because I wasn’t organised enough and then realised I couldn’t make the meeting anyway. (Shame).

In May we read A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler for book group which I enjoyed. Like the title suggests the story kind of keeps unwinding like a spool of thread, with no great climaxes or reveals, I guess more like real life just keeps going. It’s thoughtful and warm-hearted as it winds between generations. It starts with a kind of dramatic family crisis which turns out not to be so important in the end, but the characters are interesting enough to keep you following along (for me, anyway). Not one for people who like all their mysteries to be unravelled. For the reading challenge I was supposed to read a book I should have read in school. I actually forgot which one I had decided on (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and so started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins by accident. I’m only half way (it’s pretty darn long), still, but I am enjoying it.

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And now in June I am ahead of the game. Andy chose a book for my reading challenge. He kept threatening me with a history of American football but in the end went for a book written recently by a friend of ours: Following On: a memoir of teenage obsession and terrible cricket by Emma John. This book was a complete joy and I was totally hooked. A large part of that is due to the fact that the author charts not just her cricket obsession but her teenage years more broadly, and frankly I identified very strongly with her nerdy, hard-working, naive persona. I think we’re about the same age, and our families and backgrounds are similar. Plus, we both wanted to study English at Cambridge and become the next Emma Thompson (amazingly, neither of us managed it). Her writing is funny, self-deprecating and clever and she somehow got me completely enthralled by the story of the English cricket team. Their names were familiar to me because my dad’s family has a passing interest in the sport, so it wasn’t all new to me, but I loved the journey of discovery from Emma’s memories of the matches she followed to her modern day interviews with the key players from that era. I mean, I was just desperate to get to the Michael Atherton interview (which is right at the end), which is something you might find hard to believe. What’s more, Andy has been completely delighted by my new knowledge of cricket trivia. I have defended the legacy of Alec Stewart and discussed the relative strengths of England’s 90s bowlers. It’s not that I want to watch cricket matches any more than before, but I loved being taken into the world and given an appreciation of its beauty and drama. So thank you Emma John. (I finished it inside a week).

I am also a few days away from our book group meet-up and getting close to finishing Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all by Jonas Jonasson. It’s comical and fast-paced and, I am realising, not my kind of book at all, but I reckon I’ll make it through. The problem is that I want to care deeply about characters in books but this book just doesn’t let you. If I tried I would just be paralysed by sorrow at all of their pain and disfunction which is not really the point.

In July I shall be reading some L M Montgomery for the book challenge, and engaging in some literary matchmaking with my book group!

If you’d like to continue following my reading adventures or find out what else is on my nightstand, I have recently joined GoodReads so head over and find me there!

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These are the days of…

Well, as the weeks go by it seems I have less time to write rather than more. Hello sleep regressions and early teething. I rack my brains for something interesting to write about but I can’t seem to pull it out of the daily practicalities. But then I remembered a post I wrote earlier this year, about a book called Simply Tuesday, and how it talked about the importance of marking and naming each phase of life, and so I decided to write something about the very humdrum, beautiful dimensions of my life in May 2016.

These are the days of small things. Of small people and small ambitions. These are the days of endless plates of pasta for the wee man who won’t eat much else. Except pizza. And cheese. And endless handfuls of grapes. These are the days of fighting an endless battle against his eczema with creams and medicines that he hates, of dressing him in vests and babygrows to limit his scratching. The days when we don’t take him swimming and might not get to put him in shorts for the summer.

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These are the days of new words multiplying on his tongue every day. Of hearing him call everyone ‘guys’, most amusingly when telling the bath water to listen to him and stop running away down the plughole. These are the days of cuddles and stickers and dens and putting out pretend fires every day with the help of the entire cast of Fireman Sam. Of big emotions and amazing comebacks.

And for the smaller of the two, these are the days of gurgles and early grabs, of smiles and dark hair turning blond. These are the days when we never know whether to expect long stable sleeps or waking every hour. When my little finger is the only dummy she’ll take and settle with. When white noise permeates our waking and sleeping.

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These are the days of being in the house and sitting on the deck and gazing at the broken fence and overgrown garden beyond. There are afternoons to bask in the sunshine and chase toddlers down with sunscreen and hats, and hold crying babies and try to fork platefuls of dinner into your mouth while calming and bouncing them.

These are the days of contentment one moment and drudgery the next. The days of a unique and short season with its inimitable but unpredictable rhythm which ends I don’t know where. The days that end with lying on the sofa because it’s already nearly time to feed her again.

These are the days of romcoms on netflix, even the ones I never thought I’d watch.  Of The Mentalist and The Good Wife. Of podcasts that always get drowned out by shouts and screams from small people. These are the days of spending nap time tidying up but never getting anything really tidy. Of baking just to have something to show for myself at the end of the day.  Of writing lists and menu plans to make myself feel I am achieving things. Of a weekly outing on my own to a yoga class where I am the youngest participant and I never talk to anyone.

These are the days of solidarity with other parents who share our small rhythms. Of playdates and improvised picnics. Of endless singing of nursery rhymes and doing actions, even after the kids are in bed, because it’s the only music in my head. Of blind panic in the school holidays when all the toddler groups stop too. These are the days when I walk the toddler up the hill to the childminder with his sister in the sling, and he insists that I carry him too, and so I waddle up the road with a child on each hip. The days when we plead with him to share his toys and to stay in bed at night and to eat something and to get in the car and to wear a hat and to take his medicine and to hold hands when we cross the road. And the days when sometimes we don’t bother (that’s not to say we let him run into traffic).

These are the days of longing for purpose in the world beyond my children (not that there isn’t full and deep purpose to be found in nurturing our kids) and an afternoon that doesn’t involve carrying a baby everywhere. These are the days of feeling spent and like there is so much I am failing to do. Of wondering when I’ll find the energy to talk to the neighbours or even get hold of a compost bin. Days that feel small and never-ending. And then there are days of blissful gratitude for these two most indescribably beautiful kids who are greedy for my attention.

These are the days that will be gone before I know it.

 

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Adventures in cloth nappying

National Cloth Nappy Week 2016 has just passed and so this post is coming to you a week later than might have been useful (there are a lot of associated discounts). I blame the small children in my house. Still, it reminded me that I’ve never really written a post about nappies and what we use and why, and some of you (the parents of small people) may be interested. To the rest of you, I apologise. No need to read on unless you want to improve your general baby-related knowledge.

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Also, if you’re already feeling guilty because you don’t use cloth nappies, stop right there. The logistics of parenting are completely overwhelming and we all pick our battles. I hope our experiences might encourage you to give cloth nappies a go, but they are offered without judgement! Please, be kind to yourselves.

We currently have two children in nappies. (Aaargh). And from the outset we (well, mainly me) wanted to use cloth nappies. There are lots of good reasons to do it (as I found out in a recent survey which asked me to rank my reasons 1-5) but actually most of them didn’t have any effect on me. Most of them hadn’t even occurred to me. I just hate the landfill. The stats on how many nappies lie, not decomposing, in rubbish heaps around the world…well, it upsets me.

Before we had Jesse, my brother and his wife, and another couple of close friends, had babies and cloth nappied. Which gave me a lot more confidence about the whole thing. I picked their brains at some length.

First time round, we were reckless. Friends recommended totsbots (a Scottish company) so I just went ahead and ordered a set – 12 all-in-ones for the day time, and then a set of 5 bamboozle stretches for the nights (bulkier nappies with a separate outer wrap). All-in-ones are appealing for obvious reasons, but having used a two part nappy for nights I feel a lot less intimidated by the process, and they are often more reliable for containing everything). We bought them through the website babipur because they do regular discounts. Happily, they worked and we settled into a nappy washing routine. We kept them in a bucket (with a couple of drops of tea tree oil in it) and washed them every other day, at 40 degrees, in non-bio detergent. The smell was never invasive in our flat, the nappies dried quite easily (having the option of a tumble drier for wet seasons helped), and we got into the swing of it. When we went on holiday we reverted to disposables.

From left to right - two new totsbots all-in-ones, and two bamboozle stretch nappies (which require a waterproof wrap on top)

From left to right – two new totsbots all-in-ones, and two bamboozle stretch nappies (which require a waterproof wrap on top)

We had the occasional leak, I think, partly coz Jesse had such skinny legs, but we used the nappies until he was about 18 months. When he went to nursery they insisted they were happy changing cloth nappies but the reality in nurseries is that they have times of day when they change all the nappies (aside from when dirty nappies call for more urgent intervention), and their schedule was based around disposables. It was too long to leave a toddler in a cloth nappy and so he came home a few times with nappy rash. We switched to using disposables on his two nursery days.

We stopped around 18 months, or a bit after, because of Jesse’s skin. He gets bad eczema and it was getting worse, and we had to be super cautious about anything that might aggravate it. So at that point we switched back to disposables, which was sad.

When Jubilee was born I was excited to re-use the nappies. After a month I put one of Jesse’s on her. Five minutes later she weed and soaked her baby gro. Argh. I thought maybe I needed to wait till she was a bit bigger. So I tried again a month later. Twice. Same maddening story. I may have cried in despair (it wasn’t a good day). I did some research and found out that nappies that work for one gender often don’t work so well for another, because of where they wee.

Happily the night nappies still worked a treat, nothing was getting through those bad boys.

I found a local nappy advisor who was very helpful but was messaging me from her bed where she was nursing her ten day old baby. I decided to give her a break and on her recommendation contacted the local Bedfordshire nappy library. A very nice mum came round and lent me five different cloth nappies to try as research (for a charge of £5). And I sent off for one of the new totsbots all-in-ones (released that very week!) because I heard they were less leaky. And so we did some experimenting.

Bumgenius worked really well for us, as did Close Pop-ins (if we were starting again from scratch I would be very likely to go with with Close Pop-Ins), and we had no joy with little Lambs or Bambino Mio – but, as I say, it all depends on the baby and their shape and their gender, so there’s really no predicting it.

And the new totsbots all-in-one (star) worked a dream, so we went with them as we already had the associated accessories (liners, boosters etc). Plus, they are very cute!

One of the new totsbots all-in-one stars

One of the new totsbots all-in-one stars

I waited to order in National Cloth Nappy week and ended up getting about 30% off – meaning I spent about £125 on Jubilee’s day nappies, and have reused Jesse’s night nappies. It’s a bit of an outlay upfront, but it saves a packet in the long run.

I’ll be honest that my kids have always tended to poo only once a day, and I can imagine the process being more smelly and overwhelming if you’re chucking several dirty nappies in the nappy bin each day. Which reminds me – accessories. You need a nappy bin that seals well and which your toddler can’t easily open. And a travel bag is helpful for when you have to store dirty nappies out and about. In my early days of parenting I may have had a poo related disaster in John Lewis, and nothing to store Jesse’s beautiful but smelly and dirty nappy in. Ahem. And even if you have all-in-ones you still need liners. Disposable ones you can flush away, or fleece ones you wash (but which are much better at wicking moisture away from your baby’s bottom so they don’t feel like they’re sitting in a soggy towel).

Most nappies will fit birth to potty thanks to various poppers that adjust the size of the nappy. But as your kid pees greater volumes over time you’ll need boosters. Especially if you want to use one nappy all night (we use a booster in the bamboozle stretches and they last 12 hours).

It makes a huge difference to my daily nappy experience that Andy does most of the laundry in our house, so I am not personally swamped with endless loads of washing (although I’ll often put a nappy wash on in the day time when he’s out). It only takes a couple of minutes to shove another wash on every other day.

All in all I’m really glad we have used cloth nappies and I really haven’t felt like it is a pain in the neck. But it takes commitment – and probably some early experimenting. You don’t want to shell out for nappies that won’t work or that you aren’t sure about using!

If you’re looking for advice as to where to start, The Nappy Lady has an excellent questionnaire that assesses your baby’s needs, your washing facilities and your priorities and recommends the nest nappies for your family. PLUS her Nappy Week discounts are still on!

If you have any more questions, hit me in the comments!

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The new normal

In the past four months we’ve moved house, moved city, seen our boy turn two and added a whole new person to our family (which also means I’m on maternity leave). ‘Normal’, for us, has had a facelift.

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We’ve moved from a community where our way of living was really deliberate. We knew why we wanted to be there, we made space and time for our neighbours, we wanted to be in the inner-city and make it a good place to stay. And now we’ve moved away, to a town, and we’re not sure what to be deliberate about. Except the two very demanding small people in our house. So whatever ‘normal’ looks like right now feels very time-bound, and it’s hard to see the shape of things beyond.

Today’s ‘normal’ has extreme highs and lows. These early weeks of a having a baby are full of blissful snoozy snuggles, but also the insane frustration of not being able to put the baby down to do anything useful like, say, pack away the shopping or use the toilet, without accusatory screams ensuing. The sling sometimes works as a way round this, when I’m organised enough to have tied it on, but often it just means resigning myself to being pinioned under a baby for large chunks of the day. And on my days when I’m just with the baby, that’s ok. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with her?

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And on the days with both kiddos, there are even moments when I sigh with deep contentment and satisfaction. We’re ok! We’re doing this! These kids are beautiful! Everyone’s happy! Seconds later, of course, everyone is crying and overtired and I feel entirely inadequate and how many hours is it till Andy gets back? Jubilee is strapped into her car seat and we’re about to go but Jesse has just done a poo and doesn’t want me to change him so now both of them are screaming and no-one is happy and how hard can it be just to get out of the house for one appointment?

There are no evenings in this new normal. There are only hours spent camped out on the landing, putting Jesse back in his bed, and hours spent downstairs bouncing and soothing and feeding the baby.

 

It’s hilarious to me how only months ago, looking after a toddler seemed like a really demanding job, and now it seems comparatively easy. Just one kid? And he doesn’t have to be carried everywhere and fed through the night? What a dream!

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The new normal also has a different geography. No longer are there a zillion coffee shops, main stream supermarkets and world-class (free) cultural landmarks on my doorstep. The new geography requires use of the car. If I’m going to walk into town I need to factor in the reality of pushing a double buggy back up a big hill on the way home, so I often think twice. I don’t know the lie of the land so well. We’re less spoilt for consumer opportunities, but the countryside is so close and we can go on walks!

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A huge part of our London landscape was church. We loved our church family in Camberwell. We felt so at home there, so loved and inspired, so woven into the fabric of what was happening there. It was a wrench to leave. And we’re not sure where we belong yet in Luton, church-wise. Finding a church family is a big deal for us, and there’s no perfect fit. Every family has its own mess and imperfections, but we really believe in being part of the conversation, learning to love and be loved by others, and to work out how to follow God together. So we’re looking around for a home.

And what about work? When I went back to work after my last maternity leave I was a happier person again. Getting to spend half my week doing a grown-up job and having uninterrupted grown-up conversations – PLUS a commute during which I could read books – felt like a gift. I loved the mix of days with Jesse and days at work. But right now, I’m good with the days at home. We have the little man at a childminder he loves for two days of the week, so for a couple of days it’s just me and the little lady. Andy freelances from home a couple days a week and it makes a big difference having him there for back-up. The days don’t feel monotonous, like I feared.

Now is fine. Now I am sleeping more than I anticipated. Now I have more friends than I expected and more support than I dared hope for. Now I am enjoying my kids more than I realised I would. Now I have a little space to dream. Now I am learning to not be on top of all the practicalities. Now we get through the tough days. Now won’t last very long so I’m trying to dive deep into the moments of joy.  In the blink of an eye it will change. It will be different in a month, in two, in three, in six. Jubilee won’t need to be carried around so much, she’ll be more awake and will interact with the world more. She’ll vomit on me less. She’ll be less fragile, she’ll interact with her brother more and they’ll play together. Sometime, she’ll sleep whole nights of sleep. Before I know it she’ll be eating meals and moving around on her own.

We’ll work out what else to be deliberate about as the weeks and months pass. And part of that will be working out what to blog about. I’m writing less often (you probably noticed!), and more about our small family life right now, whereas I set this up originally to explore our experiments with living simply in the inner-city – where we no longer live! I’m pretty sure I want to keep writing, but I’ll be thinking some more about the kinds of things I’m want to write about (and what I won’t write about anymore).

I’d also love to hear about the kinds of posts you like to read, and those that are less interesting to you. Write a comment or email me at jennyflannagan at gmail.com.

 

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All you need is love, and other impractical reflections on International Women’s Day

 

“Kig! Kig!” is a zealous cry you can hear many times a day in our house. Our two year old son is obsessed with pigs, and with a certain young, female, cartoon pig in particular. No one can hold a candle to Peppa. Nothing thrills his heart like more Peppa merchandise. But I’ve noticed something weird over the past year. People often apologise for buying him Peppa gear because it is pink (like pigs). Unimpressed with mother nature’s indiscriminate colour palette, there’s this strange idea abroad that it isn’t quite appropriate for a little boy to like anything pink.

Thankfully he’s not picking up on any of their hints.

This is obviously just a tiny example of how our culture decides what is appropriate for each gender – in terms of possessions and clothing, but also in terms of roles, ambitions and behaviour. It’s everywhere. And as the parents of both a girl and a boy, it’s something I know is going to smack us in the face repeatedly over the years, as we try to fight it. Because we want both our children to be able to live fulfilling lives in which their contributions and achievements are not limited or prescribed by anyone else’s concept of what is appropriate for their gender. (Can I get a fist pump?)

Which is a nice idea, but what does it mean practically? That I won’t dress my daughter in pink? (I am far too thrifty for that – I will dress her in pretty much anything she is given). This idea of equality and freedom of opportunity for people of any gender is the focus of International Women’s Day this year (they call it the “pledge for parity”), and for us it leads to lots of practical choices in daily family life. Things like how we divide up chores and decide who works when, who looks after the kids… I could write a list of stuff we do in pursuit of this aim…but I have a feeling it would be quite dull. What’s more, I’m not suggesting that our lifestyle is a model that anyone else should adopt – it’s full of compromise and privilege and mess, and shaped as much by our personalities as anything else. So how do I envisage our society moving forward towards ‘gender parity’’?

The question makes me think of the discussions Andy and I had about what surname or surnames we would adopt when we got married. I always swore blind I’d never take a man’s name, knowing full well that it was a hangover from an era when women were expected to give up their identity entirely when they got married, and become the possession of their husband. I may in fact have dropped this fact casually into conversation about three weeks after we started going out.

But in the end I did take Andy’s surname.

I still don’t like its cultural roots as a practice. I’m not in favour of its universal adoption. But when it came down to us and our relationship, our very specific story and struggles, it felt like an important way for me to express my trust in Andy, and in the fact that he wasn’t going to treat me as a possession but wanted to see me become more and more fully myself.

It looks like I just did the culturally normal thing, but I know that our story was about finding the best ways we could to love one another.

I don’t think equality of opportunity leads to a certain list of outcomes. Everyone’s personality will lead them to different choices. But I weep at the thought of a world where my son will get to choose things that my daughter won’t. Or that the world will expect her to put up with things it will never ask of her brother.

But I get stuck on the how. Because the only way I know to move in that direction is by loving one another, and putting my husband’s flourishing ahead of my own, trusting that he’s doing the same for me. You can’t legislate for it, you can’t enforce it, I don’t even know how useful a thing it is to say. Fighting my corner, fighting for my own rights, will never make my family into the kind of place where we can all become the best versions of ourselves. Love, which so often leads to sacrifice, is the only way forward I can believe in.

But of course it only works when it is mutual. Otherwise one person is just railroaded – and this is perhaps all too familiar a story in cultures the world over. So perhaps we need to triple underline in red biro the imperative for MEN especially to put the hopes, dreams, callings and growth of the women in their family ahead of their own, to encourage them towards opportunity and self-realisation. But how effective will red biro be?

 

It doesn’t leave me in a very satisfying position – passionate about gender parity but also about every couple and family working out what that means for them as a unique unit acting out of love; idealistically championing the idea of marriage partners putting their partner’s dreams and ambitions ahead of their own rather than fighting their corner, and simultaneously weeping over the cultural blindness that means that probably this advice will just perpetuate the same old bias towards men’s self-realisation at the expense of women’s. Eurgh.

I don’t have a better answer right now, but plenty of other people do. So head over to Lulastic for a round-up of great blogs celebrating International Women’s Day, and to the official website itself for great stories, brilliant initiatives and a lot of inspiration.

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