Author Archives: Jenny

About Jenny

I am a London-dwelling storyteller, actress, writer and film-maker. I work with NGO Tearfund, with the theatre company The Ruby Dolls which I co-founded, and with anyone else who will hire me. I'm a cheerleader for the good stuff in life, and am trying to live a life of simplicity and faith in a large, over-crowded city.

How veganism came knocking on my door

It all started with a flippant comment in the office (yes, I spend two days a week in an actual grown-up office now. It is so cool it has neon pink staircases). Someone was laughing about how loads of people in their church had watched the film ‘Cowspiracy’ and now they’d all gone vegan. Crazy! Hilarious!

But somewhere inside something registered, because this is what I am like – I have a compulsion to keep trying to make the world better and improve myself, whatever the cost. (The to-do list will never end; I will never do enough). I hadn’t even seen the film, but slowly the cogs started to turn and I started to think, “oh no, I might need to become a vegan.”

Which is obviously crazy, right? Why would a passing comment from a friend make me feel like I needed to make such an insane and drastic lifestyle choice? Veganism had always seemed so extreme, anti-social, and unappealing. It’s not that I don’t ever eat vegan meals, or that I think they all taste disgusting. But it seemed an austere life.

The issue that pretty much dwarfs my personal tastes, however, is the environment, and the growing tide of evidence about the negative impact of eating dairy and meat that I can see out of the corner of eye. There was of course the film ‘Cowspiracy’ itself which I watched one evening on netflix. (If you haven’t seen it, an activist goes researching what is damaging the environment and climate most and discovers that the worst culprit globally is the cattle industry, because the amount of dairy and beef we are consuming is completely unsustainable for the planet to provide). But it doesn’t take much googling to discover that lots of people dispute the statistics quoted in the film.

Around the same time, however, I started to see articles like this one, reporting on the UN and IPCC’s recommendation that we move away from a reliance on animal products in our diet, because the planet cannot cope. Even Boris Johnson, a man I cannot claim to admire, wrote this column in which he ridicules the very idea of cutting down on meat consumption before completely supporting the scientific analysis of the underlying environmental crisis. (His argument – change of diet is completely unreasonable – imagine having to do something as inconvenient as altering our diet to save civilisation – the answer is to somehow curb the global population drastically in the next 30 years, which is clearly far more practical and reasonable a suggestion).

I have never seen the UN as a particularly radical force in the world, given the number of committees and members and agendas it must somehow accommodate. So when the UN recommends a vegan diet, it strikes me as unusually bold.

And then I thought I would see what George Monbiot had to say on the matter, knowing him to be terrifyingly radical but also incredibly well-informed on all issues relating to climate change. And of course, I found out, he is pretty much a vegan nowadays. Sigh.

I had, and have, two main reasons for resisting becoming a vegan. I’m not saying they are good reasons, but I am being honest:

  1. I comfort eat. Food brings me happiness and pleasure. In this season of life characterised by frequent sleep deprivation and intense parenting in my waking hours, nice food just helps me keep going. I don’t think it’s out of control, I’m not overweight and I don’t go crazy. But food really helps me cope, and the thought of cutting out so many comfort foods because they (mostly) contain dairy, and sometimes meat, feels like a bleak prospect.
  2. I don’t want to become the nightmare dinner invitee or house guest. I want to be able to receive the hospitality I’m offered without having to turn everything down. I hate fussiness. (I actually quite enjoy the creative challenge of catering for guests with dietary restrictions, but I hate to enforce it on anyone else).

My husband pointed out that I tend to be fairly black and white about these things and maybe being immediately extreme wasn’t the best approach to lasting change. Which I considered to be wise, whilst also still wanting to make a dramatic decision. (Then again, firebrand George Monbiot only considers himself ‘almost’ a vegan).

The other contributing factor here is that I would like to eat better. I have always thought diets were a waste of time, not least because once the diet is over we just go back to our old habits. And I’d like some new and better habits, but honestly I just don’t know where to start. When confronted with a piece of cake in my hunger my train of thought goes something like this: ‘I can resist because maybe it will make me imperceptibly thinner or negligibly healthier or I can just enjoy this treat.’  You might be able to guess what I usually choose.

I don’t look at my body with disgust (although in the rare event that I weigh myself, I do loathe the numbers), I don’t feel a compulsion to be thinner (although it would maybe be nice, if I was also healthier and stronger). I have some good habits – I mostly cook from scratch, we eat fruit, we eat plenty vegetables, we try to eat vegetarian more days than we eat meat). But I also feel a bit stuck. I don’t want to be a health nut but I’d like to make a few better choices.

I feel like I have more of a chance when my motivation towards change isn’t just about my body.

And all this coincides perfectly with Lent, which starts this week. If you miss the January bandwagon, Lent is, of course, the next best opportunity to give something up.

Only Lent carries another set of underpinning beliefs, as a season of church life. I haven’t always marked Lent (some churches do, some don’t), but in recent years the season has started to mean more to me. I shudder at the thought of deprivation, but the discipline of removing things from our lives which have become distractions from the most important things, or ways of numbing ourselves from our own pain or the world’s pain, even just indulgences which have become too normal – that feels like an important exercise to undertake. We let go of something as a step of faith, in the hope that there will be something more real and more substantial on the other side. Our step of faith is towards God and the promise that he could be more to us than the things we leave behind.

So the Lent resolutions feel more weighty for me – less about new plans to undertake, and more about hard choices and things I need to leave behind. Giving up certain kinds of snack food like chocolate can seem like a shallow way to tread this path, but who am I to judge the call anyone else needs to make. Food is a huge source of pleasure for me, but also my go-to drug for numbing my emotions and pacifying my distressed heart. And so changing how I eat feels like a big and a hard thing.

We have gone vegetarian for Lent before, and this year I am going to try to eat in an increasingly vegan manner as the season goes on. I’m not enforcing veganism on the rest of my family, although as I’m chief cook they will get to eat many delicious vegan meals in the coming weeks (frankly, my kids would happily eat pesto pasta every day anyway, and vegan pesto is easy to find).  A little googling has thrown up a few snazzy vegan snack companies out there, and, more helpfully, I stumbled across this helpful list of accidentally vegan snacks.

And beyond Lent, who knows? I hope we’ll grow new habits, discover a better way to live and  make some permanent changes to our diet. I would be happy if we cooked meat very occasionally and saw it as a huge treat. I’m not going to make our families or friends cook vegan food for us when we go to stay. It’s hard to predict what course we’ll chart after Lent, or how well we’ll adapt to the changes.

(Dear God, please leave me caffeine, alcohol, gluten and sugar.)

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In search of new friends

There are certain things you plan into your life, and plenty that you don’t or can’t. There are people you never expect to meet or connect with but do, and there are people you try to find and yet still miss.

Friendship is rarely a pre-planned relationship. It’s often most easily found with those who are most like us and share our life experiences.

And yet, in the face of such odds, I am trying to find friends in my town who are different to me. I guess all we can do is keep putting ourselves into contexts that are different, hoping that friendship will spark somewhere.

In pursuit of this hope, a couple of weeks ago we arranged to visit our local mosque, on National Visit My Mosque day (Sunday 5th February). Yes, National Visit My Mosque day. Who knew that was a thing? It started in 2015, and I stumbled across its existence somewhere on social media about a week before.  I live in a town with a massive Muslim population, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably the majority of them live in one particular part of the town. It seems logical to me how ghettos like that grow – when you move to a new country you choose the neighbourhood where you know people. But then it gets so big that that in many ways it becomes self-sufficient with its own micro-economy and schools and community centres, and it gets harder and harder to meet people whose culture and ethnicity is different to your own, even though you’re in the same town. So. The chance to visit a local mosque, at their invitation, seemed like a brilliant opportunity. Maybe I would make a friend.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and all four of us went. Some friends, another family with small children, joined us. The Mosque in question, the only one in Luton which had opened up for the day, was actually a converted end-of-terrace house. It wasn’t dissimilar to a church hall, apart from the things up on the walls. There were girl guides (a Muslim branch), small children running around, an urn of tea and a plate of biscuits, and then, more unlike a church, curry. It was hard at first to get into conversations (I was perhaps overly cautious about launching into conversation with the older Muslim men, given the varying attitudes towards women’s roles in Islam, and then the women were all grouped together, chatting away amongst themselves) but then I found someone who was very chatty, a man around my own age. And I found out a lot. It turns out that studying a paper on Islam for GCSE Religious Studies doesn’t tell you everything about this ancient and complex religion.

Some of the things we talked about felt familiar, with many parallels in my own faith – the denominations, the evolving interpretation of Scripture, even the differing levels of reverence afforded to Mary in Christianity and the prophet’s mother in Islam. There were many differences too. Some things also sounded a bit batty, but to be honest that made me reflect on the battier elements of my own Christian faith. I enjoyed the conversation, and I was grateful to be invited into their faith community, even for a couple of hours.

A few days later we invited our neighbours round for drinks. We’d planned to do it in the run up to Christmas but had been thwarted by a chicken pox scare, and then the neighbours had seemed genuinely disappointed that we’d cancelled, so we picked another date. We had five households join us from the street – two of which have lived here more than fifty years. One of our neighbours speaks very little English and we were really touched she came. Another neighbour, an Irishman, baked scones for the occasion. I probably ate more than anyone else, but then that’s always been a gift of mine. It was a late night, and the beginning of new friendships which proximity will hopefully help us to feed.

So, small steps, and the challenge is to keep taking them even when they feel small and awkward. All encouragement welcomed…

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An experimental week in the sun

Last week there was no blog because we were marooned on a desert island with no wifi.

This is nearly true.

We were actually not marooned, but booked in to an apartment, on a desert island. And there was wifi but you had to pay for it and we’re a bit stingy so we didn’t.

Despairing over the state of our little boy’s skin over the Christmas break, we remembered that his eczema had almost vanished one week over the summer when it was really hot. ‘Sunshine!’ we cried. ‘Sunshine is the answer!’ And then sat down to work out how to get him some sunshine (and get us all some relief) in 2017. We had an amazing British summer last year but there was no predicting how summer 2017 would pan out, and frankly, it only lasts 3 months anyway. We needed a strategy. Operation sunshine was born.

We’ve really tried to take all our holidays in the UK for the past few years, both for environmental and logistical reasons. It’s easier to drive baby-related kit in a car around the country than try to lug it on planes and trains around the world. And we’ve had lovely holidays, often with friends and family – in Cornwall (mostly), Devon, Cambridgeshire, and even over to Northern Ireland. We’ve usually stayed with friends or rented houses, because then you can relax in the evening instead of sitting in a dark room watching your children sleep. We haven’t camped yet, mostly because I can’t imagine trying to persuade small children to go to sleep in a tent in broad daylight, but we have just bought one in anticipation of this summer…

But. The sunshine called and promised to help Jesse’s skin. And so we found a super cheap deal and flew to the Canary Islands for a week, hoping like mad for an end to the scratching.

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(I should confess here my incredible geographical ignorance in relation to the Canaries. Did you know they’re off the west coast of Africa? And that Tenerife and Lanzarote are Canary Islands? Of course you probably did, but this was news to me.)

Ordinarily I’m the only one in the family who cares for sunshine. The boys are both super-fair, need factor 50 smothered all over them, and burn in no time. Jubes has yet to reveal her feelings about hot weather. But, for me at least, it was just amazing to feel the sun on my skin in January. Just indescribably amazing. (Why oh why do I live in such a cold, wet country?)

We had a self-catering apartment, in a big hotel complex with several swimming pools. And we were a stone’s throw from the town and the beach. Which was all extremely convenient and nice. So everyday we would just circulate around various play parks, the pool and the beach. Except Jubes basically just wanted to eat all the sand, all the time, so then I stopped taking her to the beach. We had ice-cream. I drank coffee. I read an excellent novel during her midday nap (when not sleeping myself). (It was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell if you are interested). We cooked a week’s worth of food on two small hobs and a microwave, using the most basic of supplies from the mini-mart (pasta, anyone?).

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The kids were very happy. They adored swimming and being outside and getting to do fun things every day with both of us. Jesse loved being in a ‘holiday house’ on our own ‘holiday island’. His personal highlight was probably the ‘real’ pirate ship he discovered and explored with daddy on our last day.

And did the sunshine save Jesse’s skin? Yes and no. The heat out there was dry rather than the humid British heat that had sorted him out in the summer. Parts of his body did really well, but then a combination of dust mite allergies and prickly heat meant his head and neck suffered. Which meant lots of broken nights of scratching, and so he and I didn’t sleep so well. Sunshine definitely served as a balm to my spirits in the day time, but there were several trips to the pharmacy for creams and medicines that we ran out of or suddenly needed. And holidays with small children really aren’t very much like grown-up holidays.

We had a lovely week, and it was great for us as a family in lots of ways. But it wasn’t the panacea we had hoped for, and I felt more than a little defeated on our return. Which was probably intensified by sleep deprivation. Now Jesse is back in his own room (with the anti-allergy bedding and humidifier and lack of soft furnishings) his skin is settling again, and we’re back in our familiar routines, with friends around to support us. I don’t think January package holidays will make an another appearance in family life. So we’ll chalk that one up to experience, and I will be grateful that I got to see some sunshine before June.

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And we’re back…

I realise I’m a bit late to the party, but happy 2017 friends! You might have noticed that I disappeared for a while there – my whole website disappeared for nearly a month! I was alerted by loyal reader Fran just before Christmas and thought, ‘oh no!’ and also ‘ah well, I’m not going to sort that out over the holiday’, and so I ignored it until I got back. And then it was a bit more complicated than I thought to get up and running again. I’m sorry if you missed me. I even wondered if maybe the fates had ordained the end of my blogging days, but here I am back again. Turns out I still want to be here after all.

So how has the year started for you?

We welcomed 2017 from the north coast of Ireland where we were happily huddled with old friends, sipping some fizz and eating some tasty homemade food. I’m pretty sure everyone’s highlight of the evening was the moment they discovered my back catalogue of raps from the early 1990s (Betty Boo’s Doin’ the Do being my personal favourite). We made it down onto the blustery beach at Portstewart on New Year’s Day, and lasted about two minutes before scurrying off to the cafe. My favourite way to mark the new year is to hole up somewhere near the sea with great friends, and walk and eat and chat…and we haven’t really done that since the kiddos arrived, so this New Year was a real treat.

New Year's Day on the blustery strand

New Year’s Day on the blustery strand

 

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Jesse was seriously impressed by the Giant’s Causeway

And then we came back to Luton and hit the ground running with our new rhythm and schedule. With more than a little trepidation we sent Jesse out to Forest School in sub zero temperatures and he had the time of his life. I started my new job (woohoo!) and feel really excited by what’s on my plate. Andy is back at work and has quite a lot of gigs coming up in the next few months (you can check here to see if the When Faith Gets Shaken Tour is coming near you). And Jubilee, our intrepid little girl, has just turned 1. Which has given me another reason to reflect back over the last year.

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I was nervous at the outset of 2016. I was desperate to meet our little girl and yet I had found the first year of Jesse’s life so hard. And here I was (we were) embarking on another year of newborn-ness, but with a toddler in tow too. I wasn’t sure how well I would cope, and what, exactly, we would do every day. But, do you know what, it was a happy year. It was tiring, and sometimes a bit boring, but mostly it was fine. And our littlest has elbowed and giggled her way further into our hearts every day.

And here we are in a new season. 2016 was a year of bedding down and inwards. We didn’t feel isolated, because an amazing community swarmed around us this past year and kept us afloat; but it was a safe community, made up of people a lot like us. They were mostly our age or our colour or our religion (or all of the above). Which isn’t at all representative of the diversity of this beautiful town. We moved here on purpose, not just for an easy life, and I feel a hunger to be more engaged with the fabric of the town, and with people who aren’t like me. And if the political landscape of the year has taught us anything, or driven anything home to me, it’s the urgent need for us to be building relationships across racial, socio-economic and religious divides. With people who aren’t like us. So I guess that’s a kind of resolution for the year – or maybe more of an intention. My new job will bring me into relationship with some of those people, and some other ideas we are brewing might do that too. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Plus, we are finally going to have the neighbours round. Why do we take so long to do the easiest things?

I realise that I’ve kind of missed the wave of blogs about resolutions and words and health blitzes, but as you can probably tell, I’m still trying to jump on the bandwagon. I have an unquenchable passion for making plans, and what’s more, I managed to squeeze a whole hour without the kiddos into our time away in Ireland (thanks to Andy) in order to think about the new year. I wrote a list of 17 goals for 2017, but really they were the not-so-serious or life-changing things like stop writing in biro in my journal (thanks mum and dad for the fountain pen), start running again (maybe when it gets warmer) and get my nose re-pierced.

I also finally decided to give up shopping on amazon because their ethical credentials are just so terrible, and they dodge so much tax. And frankly, internet shopping is sometimes just an unhealthy mood-booster for me.

But there are also some deeper themes that I want to pursue this year, things that have emerged from my reflections on the direction of my life, or challenges I want to embrace more fully. If I were to do the whole ‘one word’ challenge (where you pick one word as kind of theme for your year) it would be intention. I read Present Over Perfect back in December and it made so much sense to me, in a very timely way. It reinforced some things I’d been thinking about choosing what I do with my time, rather than just cramming too much in. I underlined this bit:

This is actually my life, and it doesn’t matter a bit if it would be lovely for someone else to live. What does matter: does it feel congruent with how God made me and called me?

The fact is that in this season of having two small children, there are limits on what both Andy and I can do with our time. Working full-time, having lots of quality time with the kids, volunteering, studying, doing stuff at church, creating, keeping a beautiful home, they just don’t all fit. So I’m focusing down, and it has taken some time to really decide what is most important. Right now, for me, there is part-time work, and there is time with the kids, and there is some creating time. And the desire for all of them to take me outside my safe and cosy places. Then there isn’t really room for much else. And I want to be more careful than I have been in my previous 36 years about other things rushing in.

So 2017 is going to be a year of activity, but thoughtful, intentional activity which will means saying some big nos (I’ve already had to say one, which I hated) so I can say some big yeses.

Anyone else trying to say some more meaningful yeses to the important things?

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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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