Category Archives: Stories from here

Holiday missive from Luton

Greetings from misty, wet, bewildering, welcoming Luton. And from the much reduced but still evident chaos of our beautiful new home. We’ve made it. The furniture and boxes are all here. Most things work. We have beds to sleep in (although Jesse has just worked out how to climb out of his – yikes). The boxes in the house have mainly been unpacked (the others have been moved to the man-cave).  Life here is slowly beginning to unfurl.

Jesse outside our new front door

Jesse outside our new front door

Everyone is asking how we’re settling in, and how I’m finding my feet in a new place. It’s just overwhelming, to be honest. It’s been a month now, but a week of that was spent in Ireland, and half of each week I’ve been commuting to work, which now takes two hours each way. I leave in the dark, and arrive back in the dark, and in between there is a lot of waddling. There have been days when I felt like the major achievement of the day was simply reaching the office (but apparently I was also expected to work when I got there). All of which is to say, I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of time to build much of a relationship with the town itself.

I am trying to find my way around, but I have to use sat nav to drive anywhere, including the supermarket. There are no longer Tesco Expresses and mini Waitroses on every corner. I am trying to retain a healthy, pedestrian lifestyle and resist the urge to jump into the car at every opportunity, but we live at the top of a big hill and Andy is pleading with me to give in to the constraints of my current elephantine proportions. I had a day off this week and made it to the cinema alone (joy!) but had to consult google to work out how to find my way from the car park to the screen. I had failed to notice that they were next door to one another.

The logistics are overwhelming, and we are battling with the seemingly endless list of tiny domestic dramas that need to be set right. On good days we remember that this house is a spectacular and beautiful gift and that so much has gone smoothly. On less good days our ineptitude at DIY seems like a cruel joke.

But what is already amazing is the welcome we have received. So many people have stopped by to help unpack, or assemble flat pack furniture, or bring provisions. We’ve been to a birthday party and a Christmas fair, we’ve been round for family tea and over for coffee, there have been playdates and poker parties (that last bit is all Andy). Yesterday I even thought it would be a good idea to invite another nearly-two year old over to make gingerbread men (which, frankly, was insanely optimistic). In those sociable moments it feels like the easiest and happiest of moves, and in the scheme of things, that matters more than the bewildering logistics of a new place.

Perhaps I expected too much of everyone...

Perhaps I expected too much of everyone…

We even have our first real, family Christmas tree and have rounded up enough decorations to make it look festive, although crawling underneath it to reach the light switch is more than I can manage. Also, Jesse demands that all decorations be hung at the top of the tree, so it’s a little odd looking. We are hosting Christmas this year, mainly due to my size, and are already looking forward to having grandparents around for the whole holiday season – both for the sheer delight it will bring Jesse, and the incredible help it will be to me (and us). I could almost cry with gratitude already.

Thanks for all the encouragement and love and prayers along the way. A new chapter is beginning and we feel very grateful (if also freaking terrified about next year).

(Jesse did eventually let Andy in)

(Jesse did eventually let Andy in)

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The things I will miss most about London

Well, it’s all happening here. Things are in boxes, furniture is being removed (by people who are not pregnant) on a daily basis, all is chaos. I ricochet from feeling vaguely on top of things to being stressed beyond all my limits and wanting to curl up in a ball and cry. Also, I’ve spent half of this week actually sick in bed which has made it even worse. Andy is holding everything together spectacularly (and holding me together, frequently). The final countdown is on. Life as we know it is changing.

Given that we’re down to our last few days in London I feel like I should write something nostalgic and celebratory about the past 13 years in this city, seven of them as a couple and two of them as a family. My mind is so full of practicalities that it’s difficult to find the space to reflect in that way. I feel like we’re going to get through this big move physically and then finally the emotional reality will hit me and I’ll need to sit down and grieve properly. (Not that our move is something that will be miserable! But, you know, grieving the old, celebrating the new…).

PhotoWizardCreated

(I should explain at this point that my camera is packed and I’m writing from my sick bed, so tragically there will be no beautiful illustrative photos. Sorry. Here’s a moody one).

For now, drawing on my limited resources and space for reflection, here is a list of the things I am going to miss most about this glorious, mad city we call home.

  1. The people. Oh, the people. Frankly this should be a whole series of posts itself, and I’m tearing up just thinking about all the people we are leaving. I know that special people aren’t unique to London; I know they won’t even be so far away; but I just can’t imagine life that isn’t shaped and coloured by the brilliant people who surround us. There are all the folk at our gorgeous little church, who have loved us so fully, adored and looked after Jesse (and prayed him through those first terrifying days and weeks), put up our relatives, cooked us dinners, babysat, cleaned our flat, encouraged and inspired us. If Jesse understood he was leaving his ‘god-sisters’ (their words) behind he would never let us go. Then there are the local mums, who have been a complete lifeline. I never realised how desperately I would need their camaraderie, humour and presence EVERY WEEK. What will I do without Chrici, Jules, Claire, Katie, Hannah, Anna, Kirsty, Katie, Carola, Jo, and Lucy? How will I fill a whole maternity leave without them? And then there are the friends from university who mostly gravitated towards London and are still mostly spread across the city. I worked out recently that my very closest friendships were all formed within a few short years – university and the two or three years afterwards. And they’re all here. (Well, one escaped to Devon, and one has just decamped to suburbia, but mostly they are here). It’s strange to imagine they won’t be just a bus ride away.
  2. The Ruby Dolls. I co-founded a theatre company whilst I was here! I spent more hours with the dolls than any other team of people in my life (except maybe my family) and they undoubtedly know the reality of what it is to work closely with me better than anyone else. We poured our hearts and souls into an unknown and courageous creative journey (one they are still continuing). We sang, we wrote, we did puppetry, we clowned, we learned all kinds of other weird other stuff (body percussion!),we put stories out into the world which we cared about. We sank countless weekends and evenings into it all. We did the most random, thankless gigs, we appeared on the BBC, we performed in the West End and Edinburgh and in shabby corners with bad PAs. I’m so proud that we made stuff, and got better doing it.
  3. Our big wide, tree-lined street and the view from our balcony. We’ve actually spent the last two or three months encased in scaffolding – our building, that is. And I’d almost forgotten how wonderful the views are, until they were revealed again this week. We can see the London Eye and the Shard from our balcony. On a good day, even Big Ben (which, ironically, is the smallest). And our street is just unnecessarily wide and has these big old trees that line it. Looking out of our living room window on the third floor, you can mainly just big tree canopies, and not realise that you’re in the inner city.
  4. Our eclectic neighbourhood. Our neighbours are Nigerian and Ecuadorian, Polish and Lithuanian, West Indian and Irish. They are council tenants and private renters. They are families too big to ever keep track of, they are single professionals, they are recent arrivals, they have lived here more than 50 years. We are all crammed together and bump into each other on the stairwells and balconies and car park every day. It’s hard to imagine rediscovering all of that on a regular street.
  5. Our local parks and how insanely close they are. Three minutes walk in either direction from our building brings you to parks, both with toddler-friendly playgrounds. Even before having Jesse I loved walking through and round them (we’re not talking the scale of Hyde Park here). When I was overdue and trying to bring on labour I remember setting out to walk around Kennington Park without stopping until the baby came. And then after about three laps I’d need to go home for a little rest. My commute to work takes me through the park and I see it in all seasons – at the height of summer when it’s crammed with sunbathers (even on the days it’s barely hitting 20 degrees celsius, but the keenos are out in their bikinis), and in winter when it’s locked in darkness, even before I get there to cross it on my way home. After manhandling a toddler down three flights of stairs, it’s a dream to be only a stone’s throw from the park.
  6. All the free stuff. The galleries. The museums. The food markets. The Royal Festival Hall. Hyde Park. Regents Park. Dulwich Park. Burgess Park (there are lots of big parks). And then even some of the not-free but amazing stuff like the London Transport Museum (£16 for an annual pass and Jesse would spend days climbing on all the buses and trains and trams) and the DIscover storytelling centre in Stratford (with regular, storybook-themes installations in the basement).  So much choice all the time. We’ve been spoilt.
  7. The big red buses. I was a fan of the tube for so long, but then it’s got so crazy expensive, and have you tried carrying a buggy containing a toddler up stairs, whilst pregnant? Jesse adores all the big red buses and they take us anywhere and everywhere. Now I adore them too. Except when there are already two buggies on board, dammit.
  8. The theatre. It’s strange to be putting this at the bottom of my list when it’s really the reason I moved to London. I applied to drama school here, and decided that even if I didn’t get in I’d work in a theatre box office somewhere and find a way to act. I spent two years training and then some more years intermittently performing, six as a Ruby Doll. I’ve been to insanely overpriced West End musicals and tiny fringe shows in every corner of zone 2. I’ve been transported, inspired, captivated and challenged; I’ve been bored, annoyed, disgusted and disillusioned. I thought that theatre would be my world and it hasn’t turned out that way right now. I’ve watched peers and friends get the jobs I craved; I’ve seen others be crushed and worn down by the whole dirty business. I know theatre doesn’t just happen in London, but it’s a pretty big epicentre, and stepping away feels like something.

So there you go. Look out for 8 things to love about Luton, coming soon! Well, maybe in a few weeks when we emerge from the chaos into Christmas and then a new baby. Hmm, it could take a while. Maybe someone could write me a guest post?!

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The latest from limbo-land

Well, things are pretty crazy here which is partly why there have been so few blogs. I was planning to post this a week ago and then last week happened. (Enough said on that front). It turns out that everything people say about moving house is true. Is it any easier when you’re not pregnant? I will spare you a post full of moaning and limit myself to a paragraph. I feel like we’re stuck in endless limbo with occasional stressful peaks (and did I mention how much I hate limbo?). Living on a building site for three months is not much fun either (they’re re-roofing our whole estate at the moment). The phrase ‘Chinese torture’ was used by a recent visitor to describe the experience. Jesse miraculously naps through everything, despite the fact that builders stand on the roof of his bedroom and hit huge slates with hammers every lunchtime. Meanwhile my nerves are torn to shreds.

A happy moment this past week - a trip to the Summer Pavillion in Hyde Park with some friends.

A happy moment this past week – a trip to the Summer Pavilion in Hyde Park with some friends.

There have been happier moments. We recently got back from a week of holiday up in Cambridge, which brought some welcome relief. I’m still readjusting my holiday-related expectations in light of having a toddler (it turns out all the things I used to do in Cambridge aren’t massively toddler-friendly). We had a ball though. We swam, we played, we dodged bikes. We accidentally crashed freshers’ fair and scooped up a bunch of freebies, including pizza, ice-cream, cookies, pasta sauce and a ‘big ass burrito’ (which was won by my husband’s fine darts-playing skills). In my day all I got was a pineapple which I absent-mindedly left in my wardrobe for the rest of the term until the musty smell drove me to investigate… But it was so good to see so many companies pulling together to encourage positive nutritional choices for today’s students.

We scored a babysitter one night when we were away and made it out for a mini-birthday celebration – burgers, fries and milkshakes at Five Guys (continuing our health trip) and then an outing to the movies to see Macbeth, which I thought was brilliant in loads of ways bit which didn’t have the emotional punch I was expecting. We were also staying in the house of some friends with the most extensive film collection I have ever encountered, so we caught up on a few recent releases – Mr Turner, Suite Française, Captain Phillips…and Andy probably took in a few more after I crashed out each evening. (And did I mention the life-saving joy of lie-ins every other day?!).

On our last evening I managed a solo outing to evensong at Kings College (along with a few hundred others) and had a magical time. Autumn is my favourite season and Cambridge is full of happy memories so I savoured every moment of my stroll through the city.

And otherwise we have been in the usual routines with housing related adventures on the side, and occasional moments of grace in the form of friends and outings. I’m just starting my final trimester, and while the baby still feels like a distant reality, everything is ramping up with pregnancy. I’m really feeling all those stairs. I glug indigestion relief like juice. I find, too, that I have fewer emotional resources with which to face the various domestic challenges which seem to come hurtling my way. I’m trying to be kind to myself, and Andy is trying even harder to be kind to me and look after us all. So we’re ok. I’d just really really like to move house before too much longer.

 

 

 

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We’re leaving London

Here’s a story I never really anticipated writing. After 13 years of living in London – basically my whole grown-up life – we are moving out of town, before the end of the year.

except that now it's goodbye...

except that now it’s goodbye…

If you’ve been reading for a while, or know us outside the world of the blog, you’ll know how much we love this place. This enormous, chaotic, diverse, beautiful city. And more specifically, our little corner of it in the south. We have lived in the same flat since being married, on the same estate, and have tried to put down roots here. We got to know the neighbours and helped relaunch the tenants’ association; we tried to grow veggies on our balcony (not all that successfully); we became part of a local church and threw ourselves into loving and serving this patch of earth. We worked part-time and hung out on the balcony. We lived in a small flat on the third floor and were very happy. We thought we were here to stay.

And then those stairs (and the prospect of another baby) pushed me over the edge and so we started looking for somewhere local on the ground floor. In fact, nearly a year ago I went round to all the local estate agents to ask them to call me if they ever got word of a ground floor flat for sale on our estate (we didn’t even know if three bed flats existed on the ground floor at that point). Then, earlier this year, we had an amazing offer. A wonderful neighbour across the road who we knew from the tenants’ association offered to sell us her lovely ground floor flat.  Only the financial stretch was much bigger than we’d anticipated. We agonised over it. Staying in London is expensive, we know that, and we weren’t dreaming of anything big or fancy. But it brought into focus some other priorities. We work part-time because we want to make space for a certain kind of life. We don’t want to be fenced into working longer weeks and longer hours because we have to pay the mortgage; to see less of our kids as they grow up, and have less energy left to dream and take risks on creative projects. So in the end we walked away.

We circled around the area and viewed a whole host more flats, never seeming to land on the right thing. There was one place we saw that seemed like something close to the perfect thing, and I stood outside and prayed about whether we should go for it. And I heard a clear no.

(It’s not that I had much confidence in that ‘no’, or my own ability to hear any meaningful direction from God at that point, but then it was all I had right then. So we walked away).

It was a confusing and disorienting time. We sporadically googled properties in other parts of the country where we had friends and family, but there never seemed like a strong enough reason to go any further with those searches. We didn’t want to leave.

We decided to take some time to pray. Because that’s a large part of how we make big decisions. Not that we don’t try to think practically and creatively, to talk about what we want for our family and future…but we always come back to the question of where we feel led, where we feel called, if we sense anything pushing or pulling us in a specific direction, anything we might discern as God’s Spirit leading us somewhere.

We asked some friends to pray and to share with us anything they heard, or felt, or thought. And a strange unity of responses came – pictures and stories and suggestions that started to point in one particular and unexpected direction. (A northerly one). Towards a place where Andy had lived before, where there were people we knew and loved, from which we could still reach London. As we look at it now, it makes a lot of practical sense. But in all honesty we never saw it coming.

And so to cut a winding and unexpected story a little bit shorter, we will be moving to Luton before too long.

If you know anything about Luton it’s probably the fact that it has an airport (that hilariously titled hub, ‘London Luton’). Or you might know that it rarely appears on lists of picturesque and desirable places to live in the UK. The airport at least will be good news for all our family in Northern Ireland, and also for Jesse who adores seeing aeroplanes overhead.

I feel a huge mixture of things about the move. There is definitely excitement in there because I love new horizons and adventures, But there is also grief – at leaving our home, our community, basically my entire parenting support network, and perhaps even the life I moved to London in order to create. A very different life materialised, and one that I treasure. But there are also some dreams that were buried here.

There’s more that could be said, that I will try to find ways to communicate. But for now, it’s enough to say that there’s a big change coming.

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We are moving house, so maybe you’d like to see around?

One of the biggest reasons that things have been quiet on the blog for the past couple of months is because I have been CONSUMED with the intense experience that is trying to sell a house (or rather. flat). Of course, I don’t mean that we’ve moved house in the past two months, because we all know it takes FOREVER (in the UK, when buying and selling is involved), but we have been doing the hard yards of transforming our flat into a clutter-free oasis of beauty (or something a little more in that direction, anyway), getting it on the market and then thinking about what next. There have been days when I have felt done in by the whole experience.

There are a lot of questions you are probably asking: Why are you moving? When? and where to? To be honest we’ve been feeling our way as we’ve gone and it has often felt like an epic treasure hunt, so I’m going to try to tell the story bit by bit, a little like the manner in which we have uncovered it.

As I have mentioned many times when writing about where we live, we absolutely love this flat for so many reasons – the community, the neighbours and the neighbourhood – but the stairs are killing me. Carrying a wriggly toddler up and down them (all 6 flights) repeatedly each day is pushing me to the edge of sanity. And once we add another munchkin into the mix it will just be too much, so we have to lose the stairs. (Farewell beautiful views of the London Eye, the Shard and Big Ben). And then we try to find a stair-free way to stick around in the neighbourhood.

After all my battles with clutter, who knew that the incentive of needing to sell the flat would finally drive Andy and I to go the many extra miles to get rid of it? You remember that below-stairs area I was trying to take in hand a while ago? Well, look at it now. I hardly believed we had it in us.

This is what it was like for months...

This is what it was like for months…

well, here it is now.

well, here it is now.

I’m really not one to offer up my interiors as a thing of beauty – neither my decor nor my photography are up to it – but seeing as it’s all so tidy now, and seeing as we won’t be here too much longer, I thought you might like to see some corners of our home? Because it has been such a lovely home.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

And the kitchen.

And the kitchen.

I don’t have one of those nifty lenses that estate agents use which make your flat look twenty times bigger than it actually is, but obviously those photos are somewhere on the internet now. In fact these are low-fi, badly lit iPhone photos, as you can probably tell. My nice camera is at the back of a big cupboard.

We’re not going to win any Ideal Home awards but living here has been a total delight and a privilege, and there will undoubtedly be some serious grieving to come. I have been here, in this very flat, nearly seven years, and in every way it has been a grace and a gift to belong here.

The stuff that has been shuttled off and out of our flat is sitting in other friends’ houses and garages. There’s nothing I miss (apart from my maternity wardrobe, now there was a lack of foresight), which begs the rather large question of what we’re doing with all that stuff in the first place.

Even Andy (who is usually less bothered by the clutter than me) has reflected that it’s nicer to have a tidier home, so maybe this might kickstart us into a new season of pared down living. (If it wasn’t for the toys).

So there’s our beautiful home, ours for only a couple of months more (I’m guessing…). Stay tuned for the sequel.

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A day in the life of me (and Jesse)

Following some questions about parenting in the inner-city, and inspired (as ever) by the excellent blog, enJOY it, I thought I would share with you a typical day when I’m at home with Jesse. I haven’t picked out an especially wonderful or terrible day, I just went for the first opportunity, which was Tuesday.

So, we woke at 7am. This is UNHEARD OF. And amazing. Usually I wake when he does, about 6am, and I stumble downstairs with him, get his milk, grab the spare duvet and we snuggle on the couch while he drinks the milk. Then he plays, whilst I struggle to come to terms with the day whilst remaining under the duvet. (I call this “teaching him the value of independent play”).

snoozy cuddles

snoozy cuddles

But returning to the actual day, rather than a more normal one…I actually felt quite awake at 7am. We slouched down and had our regular snoozy cuddles over milk, and then he played. We remembered that it was his cousin’s 11th birthday, and that despite buying her present a month ago, I had forgotten to post it. Jesse and I recorded a birthday message for her and whatsapped it over. Then I headed for the shower. (Our bathroom is about a foot away from the main living room, so Jesse usually follows me in, or is never far away).

By about 8am I was dressed (very unusual), Andy was just waking upstairs, and Jesse was onto breakfast. He had a banana on the move, then sat down for some cereal, which he mainly emptied out on his table before handing me back the near-empty bowl. Gggrrr.

Then Jesse discovered a bag of raisins which an unnamed male in our family may have left out overnight.

The raisins did not stay in the bag

The raisins did not stay in the bag

Andy was off to work about 8.30, and  Jesse merrily waved him off. We assembled necessary kit for the morning (snacks, nappies, wipes, change of clothes, cash, water), I wrote a shopping list and a list of jobs for the day, and started to feel stressed. Well, it was probably growing all morning. We have a big life decision on our hands and I just hate living in limbo. That morning I was feeling all the feelings.

What was more, I discovered we HAD NO COFFEE. Things were already looking bleak and it was still early.

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At 9.20 we set out. Down 3 flights of stairs to the bike locker to get the buggy. Only it wasn’t there. So, back up three flights of stairs carrying wriggly toddler to retrieve car keys, back down stairs to open car and retrieve buggy. Steam may have been coming out of my ears by this point.

We made it to the post office to send off my niece’s present. And we stopped for coffee because sometimes you just have to help yourself out. I am expert at pushing a buggy one handed whilst holding coffee.

Then we were at a local toddler group, Oval Teenies. Two of Jesse’s buddies were there, which is currently of limited interest to him. But more meaningfully for me, their mums were also there, and so, hello sanity. Nothing brings me back to a happy place like some company and solidarity.

At Oval Teenies

At Oval Teenies

We made it back for lunch around 12, and I thought we’d see if Jesse has got over his egg allergy yet. He adores eating eggs, but can’t really because he gets rashes. But the doc says to try every few months to see if he has outgrown it. So, scrambled egg and toast for lunch, followed by much scratching. Sigh.

And then he was asleep by 12.30. At which point I wolfed down some scrambled egg of my own and began the cleaning. It’s not my usual way to spend nap time, but that evening my in-laws were arriving for a week. They weren’t staying with us because we have no room, but still, they spend a lot of time in our flat. And did I mention that our cleaner quit a couple of weeks ago?

From my point of view, I did a kick-ass cleaning job. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I actually mopped the floors. Sadly, my ‘kick-ass cleaning job’ appears to be the equivalent to the bare minimum undertaken by any other member of either of our families. So I probably just brought the flat up to a vaguely livable standard.

He slept three whole hours, and would have slept more but we had to walk to the doctor (nothing serious, just the ongoing eczema). No time to go to the park first because of all that sleep.

And then the final thrilling component of our shared day was a trip to the supermarket. We needed more than i could comfortably carry while pushing a buggy so unusually, we took the car and went to a decent sized shop. Thankfully, Jesse finds sitting in the trolley to be something of an adventure, so everyone’s a winner.

We were back to have tea about 5pm (salmon on the move, and then a bowl of pasta. If you serve something with pasta he ignores whatever isn’t pasta, so we have to stage these things). Andy was back around 6pm and whisked Jesse over the road to accompany him to the Tenants and Residents’ Association meeting (always a favourite with Jesse) and I put the grown-up dinner on. Then they went in the car to pick up Granny and Granda who had just flown in from Ireland. Cue much excitement. Needless to say he had a later night than usual… (Bed time is usually just after 7pm and is no longer a struggle, once milk has been consumed and stories have been read).

Andy took his parents to where they were staying and I crashed out about 9.30 because I have a stinking cold. Ordinarily I can make it to 10pm, and who even knows what time Andy gets to bed because I am asleep by then!

So there you have it. A not untypical day of parenting – both wonderful and maddening.

 

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On children and churches: a happy story

copyright Valerie Tarico

That morning he stole the microphone

 

There were always teenage girls in the churches I grew up in, who had babies on their hips throughout the morning service. Or toddlers clinging to their legs. I was never one of those girls. I had nothing against children, but I did have an aggressive inner mantra that I would not be made to do Sunday school just because I was a girl. And the little kids, perhaps sensing my resistance, left me alone.

To this day I have never taught a Sunday school class, although I’ll probably feel some kind of responsibility to help out when I have a child old enough to go along. I am nothing if not overly dutiful.

But of course in becoming a mother I have been thrust towards the child/church interface in a very personal way. I have my own child on my hip now (for short bursts) or clinging to my legs. There is no creche at our church (or I would happily leave him – Jesse is happy being left with pretty much anyone as long as there are toys), and there are no instructions, so we’ve been making it all up as we go along. For now, he comes to church and hangs out with us for however long we’re there.

I was thinking this week about how my relationship to church has changed since having a kid, because I read another honest and beautiful blog about a mother’s struggles with church in the season of early parenthood. I’ve read many different accounts about how hard it can be to feel like church is a meaningful or helpful place in the sleep-deprived, anxious, chaotic, zombie-like days of early motherhood. There are horror stories about rambunctious toddlers being evicted and breastfeeding mothers being shunned. I hear people complain that kids are allowed to bring toys to church to entertain them, or allowed to run around willy-nilly (THEY’RE CHILDREN).

And then on top of fitting in to the regular things churches do, there’s the pressure, as an adult, to “be involved”.

I had a conversation recently with a good friend who’s a mum of a two year old; she, like me, has been “involved” (helped run things) the whole of her toddler’s life, and we were talking wistfully about those parents who felt able to resist the pressure. Imagine, people who feel free enough not to always have to turn up! (This says more about my dysfunction then anyone else’s).

I have no great pronouncements to make about how we should relate to church as parents of tiny people, no judgements, no pressure. I am sad that mothers often have such awful experiences and feel that there is no place for them. I only want to tell a good story. Because that is what ours has been.

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I loved bringing Jesse to church from very early on because he was always welcomed wholeheartedly. And other people would hold him (if he wasn’t strapped to me, asleep). It’s the same reason I loved bringing him to the church toddler group. Other wonderful people would cuddle him, and coo over him, whilst I had a coffee and a grown-up conversation, and a little respite.

There was a little room out the back we sometimes used to feed him,or change him on a Sunday morning, but mostly he was with us in all the services. I was never very interested in spending Sunday mornings in a pokey room on my own, so I never really gave Jesse that option either. No-one ever seemed to mind the noise, the intrusion, the distraction. He got to recognise people’s faces and trust them. To him, they are family (and he sees them more often).

Jesse and his "god-sisters"

Jesse and his “god-sisters”

At 18 months, he runs into church and usually straight into the arms of his two ‘god-sisters’ (this is what they have named themselves) who watch out for him, entertain him, hold him and usually prevent him from hurling himself headlong off the furniture. They adopted him as soon as he was born.

He spends the services playing on a mat at the front of the hall with the other tinies, rooting through the musical instrument drawer, scribbling on colouring sheets and occasionally joining in with the band (or attempting to dismantle the PA). He dances enthusiastically along to the music, and if his dad is playing, tries to help him on the guitar. This last week he headed straight for the large wooden cross standing in the middle of the hall, and wrapped his arms around it (enacting the old hymn, “I’ll cling to the old rugged cross”). When the congregation were invited to deposit balls of ripped paper at the foot of the cross as part of their worship (it must have been symbolising something), Jesse decided to scatter them all further afield.

There was grace, and space, for him. And, I hope, for the other small people.

It probably tells you something about the kind of church we’re part of – that nothing is very formal, and that chaos is always present to some extent. I’ve led services with Jesse on my hip (although usually someone else appears to distract and entertain him before long). We also meet out in localised ‘communities’ which involve our kids too, and Jesse has always belonged there. Our community hosted his first birthday party!

On top of that, I’ve been “involved” beyond Sundays. I joined the church’s leadership team before Jesse was born and I kept going to the meetings after he was born (after a 3 month break). Please don’t think that this was a great gesture of sacrificial service on my part; they kept me sane. One morning a week, I brought Jesse to church and he either napped or was cuddled or entertained by various members of the leadership team; and I got to talk about things entirely unrelated to having a baby.

Of course there are some downsides, some frustrations, some logistical challenges. One of us often has to leave the Sunday service early at the moment to get him home to nap (if we wait till the end and drive home, he falls asleep and then the transfer up 4 flights of stairs to bed does not generally go well). I’m distracted and don’t exactly focus intently on whatever is being talked about. Persuading him to eat lunch mid-service is often a frustrating endeavour. If Andy and I are both involved in some practical part of the service, it’s a bit of a nightmare.

But so far, so good. It’s a cliche, but for us, church is a community – a family – to which we belong, over and above an event or a building. And that’s felt even more true since there have been three of us. The people in our church (and especially, our community) have babysat for us, cleaned our flat (!), made us endless dinners, loved Jesse and always made us feel welcome. I haven’t felt pressure to do things I just can’t make time to do – instead there have been lots of reassuring conversations with more seasoned parents about taking things as they come, giving myself a break, and finding news ways to engage with God that suit the insanity of parenting tiny people. It’s early days, in parenting terms, but I’m hopeful that these are the guys who will keep us afloat in the years to come!

I know not everyone has positive experiences of church and small children. I’d love to hear how you’ve found it, and what you think churches should do to make things better. (Also, feel free to share your happy stories!).

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What to do with bank holidays in London

This weekend was a bank holiday, which was a good thing. In the first year of Jesse’s life we basically spent all public holidays tag team napping, but we have now reached new terrain which involves a higher level of night time sleep. So bank holidays are for fun.

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Jesse was having more fun than he liked to admit

(Saying that, the general election is only days away, so it wasn’t as simple as all that. Working in politics, Andy had a thing or two to do. Which is why we made the most of the moments we had him).

First, there was an early race to the other side of Oxford because my brother and his family just arrived back from three years living Stateside! It was pretty exciting to reunite the cousins and kick off the bank holiday with a blustery bbq. Having no actual furniture yet, they were staying with some good friends of theirs nearby. Their lovely hosts were curious, on discovering where we lived, about the experience of raising young kids in London.

I listed off the stuff that was great: baby groups around every corner, everything in walking distance, loads of parks and playgrounds and cafes everywhere, loads of young families on your doorstep rather than a car ride away, heaps of incredible free museums and attractions (and some you have to pay for)…it actually took me a while to remember what wasn’t so great (buggies on the tube and the fact that we all live in TINY flats unless we have access to serious amounts of money).

It made me realise that holiday weekends are actually the perfect time to make the most of living in the city. Or they could be, depending on how you feel about public holidays. Andy and I grew up in families with divergent approaches to bank holidays. Andy’s family embraced the opportunity for outings, whereas my parents were dismayed at the prospect of, well, lots of people everywhere, so we usually just stayed at home. (I should be clear that we did have fun outings on other occasions, just not bank holidays). You can see the same dichotomy at play during holidays in France, which both our families took. Andy’s family always tried to hit the 14th July (Bastille Day) to join in the parties and fireworks; my family always tried their darnedest to avoid it.

But back to our weekend. I’ll admit to a slight anxiety about hoards of school age children with the potential to crush my toddler, but mostly I’m game for some adventure. On Sunday I had Jesse out on the Southbank (one of our favourite, free spots) with some good friends, for the Malaysian food festival and associated chaos. We really love free stuff (although the free samples were limited and obviously you had to pay for actual meals). Jesse dodged in and out of the crowds fearlessly, and generally followed along behind his friend William (and more importantly, William’s football), come what may.

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And early Monday we set out with Andy to Mudchute city farm (also free), on the Isle of Dogs. We had to take the DLR to get there, which is already a winner because Jesse can sit right at the front and think he’s driving the train. And plus, the views are wicked. And then when you reach the actual farm, you feel like you’ve left the city completely (apart from all those skylines). Jesse met (and even fed) goats, ponies, sheep, pigs, llamas and donkeys. And later in the day he also met a pet hamster after he embarked on some spontaneous door knocking in our block of flats, and was warmly welcomed in by our Polish neighbours.

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We have a list of other places we want to make it to: the Science museum, the Transport Museum, the Aquarium (we have a voucher), the Zoo (if we ever have enough money), but would love your best recommendations…

 

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Tips from an expert declutterer

A few weeks ago I wrote about my (underwhelming) adventures in decluttering.  And then a brilliant thing happened.  A reader, who is also a PROFESSIONAL DECLUTTERER, got in touch and offered me a free consultation.  This is probably the only perk I have ever received from blogging.

So of course I need to tell you about our extremely helpful meeting and pass on her words of wisdom.

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Meet Sarah Bickers.  She runs Free Your Space which is an organising and decluttering service and, helpfully for me, is based in South London.

She came round earlier this week and began by asking me a series of questions to get to know me and my priorities. My main problems really are the main living space we have, because I spend a lot of time there with Jesse especially, and because we have lots of STUFF in the room and next to no (invisible) storage; and then everyone’s favourite creator of chaos: paperwork. It sits in piles on surfaces, occasionally graduating to the stairs, but seems to take an age to make the epic journey to the place it belongs.

I imagined Sarah might arrive at the flat, take one sweeping glance around our living quarters, and announce wryly that she could understand why I needed her services. But actually she was warm, encouraging, not at all judgmental, inquisitive and great at asking very helpful questions. Perfection, she repeated, was not the goal.

She got me to think about the things I had done that had worked in the past, and to reflect on my strengths. She asked me how I wanted our home to feel – to us and outsiders (friendly, warm, personal). And then my absolutely favourite insight was that in essence decluttering is about making decisions. I LOVE decisions. I just want to march around the house and make some more now!!

And then there were the practical tips. I don’t want to give away all her highly confidential trade secrets when maybe you need to just go ahead and hire her, but let me tell you some of the most useful:

1. She recommended going around the house and making a list of areas that need to be organised or decluttered, in manageable chunks (e.g. that one shelf over there, that oversized plate which is attracting junk like a man drawer, that kitchen cupboard).  And then when you have a little time, pick one thing, and get it done.  Don’t try to take on whole rooms at once, but bite-sized projects.

2. Reward yourself.  (And in the case of significant others – like husbands and children – bribe them to participate).  For me this might mean – declutter the sideboard and then you get to download the next Poldark novel. Or on a very special day, have a glass of wine.  Already I am incentivised.

3. Bring the filing boxes downstairs.  Given that the paperwork seriously struggles to make the final move up the stairs and into the files, we could just make everyone’s life more straightforward and bring them to live downstairs where the journey is less taxing.

4. Use the limits of your space as a limit on your stuff.  If books are piling up on top of shelves, or DVDs overflowing out of the allotted space, then work out which ones can go to the charity shop so theta what you have fits neatly.

Finally we had a really interesting conversation about kids and how to help them to make good decisions about their stuff.  Even now, she suggested, I can encourage Jesse to help us put toys back in the boxes at the end of the day.  And as he gets older we can decide together, before birthdays and Christmases, which toys we will pass on to others before new ones arrive. Jesse already loves lining up and organising bottles that he finds so I have great hopes for his potential as an organiser of his personal space!!

Do check our sarah’s website and Facebook page, and get in touch with her if you’d like more help.  And I would love to hear about your decluttering successes and tips!

 

 

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A thing I thought I’d never do: get a cleaner

It’s time for a confessional blog. I live in small council flat, I work part-time, and I have just started paying someone else to clean our home.

It’s a thing I thought I’d never do. I used to work as a cleaner, for goodness sake. For two long university summers I worked in a fancy hotel cleaning bedrooms, bathrooms and even mews cottages. I am confident handling a hoover. I know how to tidy up. I can shine up a sink using an old hand towel with the best of them.

And I have grown up with a beautiful example of competent, but not obsessive, house-cleaning. My mum worked part-time, and looked after us, and still managed to keep the house spick and span (and she lived in an actual house rather then a flat).  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do the same.

What’s more, it’s not like I’m on my own in this.  When we got married Andy and I divided up various chores and boring household responsibilities between us.  He took the laundry (and, incidentally, the ironing which he has somehow now palmed off to my mother) and I got most of the cleaning.  He does help, but the idea of doing anything weekly is still a fairly ambitious level of frequency for him.  And probably for me too, although I want to be that person.

I have friends who have had cleaners for ages (and are extremely grateful for them; one cites employing a cleaner as “the best thing I ever did for my marriage”), but almost without exception they live in MUCH BIGGER HOUSES.  It feels more than a little shameful to have so small a space and still not be able to keep it that clean.  I mean, I can do the superficial things – I can wipe surfaces and sweep floors and clean sinks.  But behind the sofa? The corners where dust and crumbs accumulate? Somehow, no. I can’t quite keep on top of the chaos except in short sharp bursts.  Nothing gets really really clean. (Except when my parents or my in-laws come to stay and take matters into their own hands – for which I am deeply grateful).

And it’s a privileged choice, isn’t it? To have the income to be able to pay someone else to do something you don’t want to? That’s the hardest bit for me to swallow.  Owning up to my privileged-ness.

Is it compatible with any conception of simple living? Perhaps I could argue that it frees me to focus on things that are more important to me (and that I’m better at!!).  Perhaps it bursts my bubble of self-sufficiency? It certainly shatters a collection of illusions I have about myself and the way we live, and reminds me of all the choices we have.

Our bathroom was beautiful when she (our lovely cleaner) left it a couple of weeks ago, more beautiful than it had been in years. And there was less chaos (partly because I ran around clearing chaos before her arrival so that she could actually see the surfaces). I felt calmer.

But mostly just grateful.

 

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