Changing Rooms, Changing Times

I had a very bad first Monday back from October half term – Mondays are always long days, and this was the first back after the clocks change, the first school run for a week, and we have swimming after school on a Monday – all perfectly set up to be a day of maximum stress for me.

We’d had an idyllic half term in Norfolk and Suffolk – nearly all sunny, just one wet day – and the fresh air, sunlight and time away from the city all badly needed.

The autumn term is definitely the longest slog of the year for me – another mum recently argued (good-naturedly) that she thought half term was too disruptive when children were just settling in to the school routine, she thought they should have an extra week in summer or Easter and lose autumn half term.

Hah! I responded that for me, October was the last chance for us to get a good chunk of daylight and time outdoors until probably March – I couldn’t get through to December without it. And bearing in mind February half term is often disrupted by illness and Easter often a washout – October has become the one reliable short break of the year. The idea that disruption to childrens’ learning should take priority over their access to the outdoors, I just can’t get on board with.

Anyway, back to Monday. We’d come home on Saturday, I had to work on Sunday and be prepared for a big work event happening midweek that still wasn’t quite ironed out. Monday morning spent chasing up all the small tasks that hadn’t been done while I was away, and a few frantic phone calls still to do.

I could have said, let’s not do swimming. Let’s write it off for one week. But I try not to do that. Lessons get missed often enough with holidays and illness, why skip it just because you’re busy and tired? So off we went, via the school office to deliver a message which added 10 minutes, pausing on the walk so I could make a phone call which needed to be done at that moment – we ran late, and made it into the pool just as lessons began.

Now, two children swimming on the same day means two bags and two big puffy new winter coats and way too many things to carry. Plus PE kit as it was PE on a Monday too (thankfully, since been switched to another day). I did on this occasion have a pound, so rather than lug the bags all upstairs to the viewing area, I threw it into a locker, feeling smug that I had at least got one part of the day right. (You can tell this is going to all fall apart horribly, right?)

Lessons over, I retrieved two children and got them dried and dressed with the usual banshee levels of screaming at them. Left changing rooms still with huge puffy coats under my arm (of course it’s hot as an oven in there), and in manoeuvring the door open to let the little one out, smacked the big one in the face with my elbow. Argh.

Sat down in the foyer comforting her (she bravely saying ‘I knew you didn’t mean to do it, Mummy’), I then began to sort out coats and bags for the walk home. Then realised, oh crap, no school jumper.

New school jumper could easily be bought the next day, you might think – but this one had the new and very proudly worn School Councillor badge – which she’d already been told the school would not replace if lost. We went back to the changing room. We went back to lost property. No jumper.

I felt terrible. My errands and phone calls had made us late for swimming, which had led to the rush in the changing room, which had led to me missing the jumper when piling everything into a locker. One of those horrible bleak moments where you question everything you’ve achieved as a parent and conclude that frankly you don’t come up to scratch.

She had been so proud of that badge, and we so proud of her – and I hadn’t taken care of something that mattered to her, one of my golden personal rules always being to take good care of others property, as I still remember the bitterness of favourite mugs being broken at my student flat (note for future self – don’t let kids take their favourite mug to uni in the first place, dumbass)..

Anyway – we went our sorry way home, but with a glimmer of hope – the jumper hadn’t been handed in to the lost property, so perhaps another parent had seen the name tag and was going to drop it to school instead. It’s what I would do (and have done in the past), so fingers crossed.

Next day after school, we tried the lost property box – and there it was, right on top, with the badge still there. There’s you good jumper karma and your happy ending to a bad Monday.

But it would be nothing without a ‘what have we learnt?’ moment – I realised how much times had changed: before, all I had to think about was getting everyone home from swimming in one piece, dry and warm and fed and to bed. Now, I was half distracted by work, and lost my focus.

Stuff happens, stuff gets lost – I’ve always been a bad loser (in that sense); I’ve never lost a favourite toy, fortunately, but I still mourn the loss of little trinkets disappeared along the way, photo albums, momentos, the stuff which endless flat moves seem destined to relieve you of.

Even worse with kids stuff – I can’t bear lost jigsaw pieces, or families of dolls with one missing, or incomplete tea sets – I will tear the house apart to find a missing item, but I try not to get so wound up by these things. The badge, though, mattered because of what it represented to her – chosen by her classmates to be school councillor, how awesome is that? How fondly will she look back on that, years from now, and how sad would she be if she thought I was the sort of parent who didn’t care about a thing like that?

Some things are worth hanging on to, after all.

Advertisements

How Summer slipped by

I managed to lapse into a whole month with no blog, more by accident than design to start with – I had all sorts of ideas of things I was going to write about, but I seem to have spent August letting all sorts of things slip.

Fitbit targets have gone out of the window, I haven’t had my eyebrows threaded for months, or hair cut since May, summer holiday tasks and clear-outs I’d planned have not even begun, and the garden was looking, frankly, its worst ever by the time we went on holiday.

This was the dismal, withered state of the raised bed at the time we went away – thankfully now much recovered after the August rain.

What water we could spare went on the vegetables, though I felt like I was betraying my poor flowers – though the tomatoes were worth the effort, I must say.

The heatwave was, to start with, unbearable, but it’s amazing what you can put up with when there’s no choice.

You go everywhere slowly, you rest in the shade, you carry tons of water everywhere, you save every saucepan of water and ‘grey’ washing up water for the garden, you buy inappropriately thin clothes you’ll maybe never need again – and you adapt to the new conditions. It got to the point where I didn’t really care how hot it was in terms of my own personal comfort – I’d acclimatised to it – I just wanted rain for the sake of the poor brown garden.

For a really shocking contrast, here’s Greenwich Park taken in late July, the main open area (unwatered) below vs the Queens House/Maritime Museum side above, which was still being looked after. These two photos were taken literally on opposite sides of the same path. Just unbelievable.

BUT a great deal more has happened this summer, more than will fit in a single blog. Holidays and other new projects will wait for the next one, but the big double win for this summer was a girl finally out of nappies (except at night, obvs) and going buggy free.

Pictured here with the sunflower she grew herself at preschool – back in July when we were changing pants many, many times a day and I thought it would never end (and that my poor sofa would never recover).

People say ‘if they don’t get it straight away, it clicks after two weeks’ but 3 weeks in and we were still struggling. No going back, though, as she was nearly 3 and a half, and I was determined to be out of nappies for the summer holiday. By a miracle, we managed it, with just a couple of dodgy tummy incidents on holiday leading to ‘accidents’, and life without nappies has been marvellous.

The buggy-free thing came about because our first trip into town after the holiday was to see The Tiger who Came to Tea, going via Brixton where the lifts are out of order. I said ‘we’ll go without the buggy this time’ and since then she’s just got on with it.

Of course everything goes more slowly and we don’t cover the distance we used to – hence those lost Fitbit goals – but she doesn’t grumble or ask for the buggy and I am so glad to have my hands free instead of always pushing something.

I do obviously have to carry everything that used to go under the buggy, but I am learning to travel as light as possible (though still carrying tons of water bottles weighs me down a bit). Not carrying nappies now helps with the bulkiness, but spare outfits, wipes and nappy bags still needed for emergencies.

Compared to how emotional I felt at Easter saying goodbye to her old playgroup, losing the buggy and nappies has been a liberating experience; not a tear has been shed. She’s a big girl delighted at how grown up she is, and I’ve seemingly managed to let go of the physical baggage without any emotional baggage attached.

Mind you, if we actually dispose of the buggy I might feel differently, but it’s folded in the porch now awaiting its fate. I dare say on a rainy school run morning it may get used again, so we’re not quite ready to let it go yet.

Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

The Golden Age

I was sitting drinking a cup of tea at playgroup the other day when it suddenly struck me – I was coming to the end of the era of playgroups.

The toddler gets her 15 free hours at preschool after the end of the Easter holidays, so she’ll add in an extra day to the 3 she already does (we’re keeping one day free for swimming lessons), and the last remaining playgroup we go to will be a thing of the past.

It’s no big change for her, really – preschool is in the same building as playgroup, going through the same door, using the same toilets and playing in the same garden. She’s been there since September and only cried at drop-off once. Going there one extra day won’t make a big difference to her.

But for me, it has felt like the end of an era – when the big girl left preschool, I was able to think ‘there’s still one more to go, still a few years with a baby and toddler ahead of me’ – and now that time has gone. I won’t ever sit in that hall, making small talk to mums I know slightly, or get dragged up to the craft room to ‘help’ paint another picture or make a collage.

So much of my life spent in those halls, drinking tea, watching babies grow from tiny things to toddlers charging around. That time has gone, completely: it won’t ever come back again.

And it’s also made me question what I have done with all that time – so many mums have moved on, those who had to go back to work or wanted to go back, those who’ve moved away from the area, have not been in the same halls and community centres, week in, week out, like I have – and I wonder what else I could have been doing with myself?

Six years of being a non-working parent, and I haven’t written a novel (probably best all round, that one), or made my children their clothes by hand, or managed to teach the big girl to read before she started school, or taken 6 months, (or even just a month), to do some exciting life-changing travel experience with them.

Instead, their lives have been made up of the very ordinary, everyday things – the park, playgroup, the local museum, gym class, swimming, library, soft play, the park again. And yet I look back on that time, especially when I had a preschooler and a baby, before we were tied to the school routine, before Brexit, as the golden age.

Ok, so there was no sleep being had, that bit wasn’t good, but it now feels like a more innocent, carefree time, and at the time it was happening, it felt like exactly what I ought to be doing. I wanted to be with my children while they were still young, I had not wanted to go back to my old life commuting in and out of central London, and there were golden moments when it felt like it would go on forever.

I was still working alongside all this, which kept me feeling like I was keeping some other part of my brain active and interested, but it was voluntary work – work I loved, work I wanted to be doing – but the guilt of not contributing financially to the household still bothered me, and even the thought I was no longer a proper taxpayer in my own right.

I used to pay my way, do my bit for the NHS and schools and keeping this sorry country afloat; now I was an unwaged mother by choice, a ‘lifestyle choice’ according to George Osborne (huh!). Sure, we’ve saved a lot on childcare by me not working, but increasingly, this past year, the voice inside my head has been telling me I do actually feel like I want something more. I finally wanted to work because I wanted to, not because I had to – and that took a long time in coming.

And, in one of those moments which did feel like the universe presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, work appeared. Suddenly, I am doing freelance work for a couple of local organisations, and I realise what it is all my working mum friends have been juggling all these years.

The diaries that have to be scheduled, the rushing off to meetings after preschool drop-off, the time working in cafes noted by the hour, and then making a conscious effort to switch all that off when I am actually with the kids.

And no longer being the ‘parent at home’ means struggling to keep on top of household things – when can I be home for the boiler to be serviced, or get a quote for new windows, or plan a birthday party, or find time to get things done around the house? How do parents manage to do all that when both of them work? The plan is, eventually, I can justify getting a cleaner, now we have the extra income. But even sorting that out has slipped to the bottom of the to-do list.

The good bit, though, is that I still have a girl at preschool for a whole year and a bit, so we still get our lunches and afternoons together, and a whole day on Thursdays when we swim – she is still my baby (sort of) for a while – and I have a chance to build up a career (and my confidence) in the meantime, so I won’t be completely floundering when she does start school.

And – the bit where I have to try not to blub – even though the Golden Age has finished, I had that time, we had it all together, I got to be with my girls whilst they were small – and it was good. I have that golden time locked up in its golden box, and I get to keep it.

The Last of the Melting Snow

We finally had the thaw today, and seems appropriate to use the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Leisure Society. We went out for a few hours today, snow still thick on pavements and lawns, and came home to find it mostly gone. Rain just as it got dark took the last of it away.

This (above) was how it looked a day ago!

Seems bizarre that just two weekends before we’d been enjoying almost spring-like weather – we’d been to Emmett’s Garden where we’d seen amazing bluebells a few years ago.

It turned out late Feb was not nearly such a special time there, barely any snowdrops, and daffodils only just appearing, but it is a lovely setting at any time of year, and has what must be one of my favourite views, anywhere.

This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but take it from me, you can see a long way into the distance, across the Weald and towards what must be some part of the South Downs, blue in the distance.

However, the blast of cold we’ve had in early March was hardly unforeseen – it had been the talk of Facebook for several weeks beforehand (I have a weather guru friend), and pretty much exactly what was predicted, came to pass.

It feels very different from the last real snow we had – 2013, memorable to me because we had just moved house and the big grown-up girl was only 9 months old.

I was terrified of going down the steep hill to our nearest high street with a buggy, and went everywhere by bus instead, because I could walk to the nearest bus stop without having to negotiate any major slopes.

I particularly remember the Monday morning trudge to the Pilates class I’d signed up to – I could get most of the way by bus, but had to edge my way down another hill to get to the church hall where the class was, and back up the hill to the library where we’d retreat from the cold for a bit, before heading home. All through the winter of 2013, well into March, it seemed to snow every Monday – that may be a slight exaggeration, but when I picture that church hall in my mind, it’s always with snow falling outside.

These days, the thought of a day where getting to a Pilates class is the only challenge, seems like a far-off dream – though, after a gap of a few years, I am doing Pilates again, much to the relief of my back and arms, which were quite tired of carrying toddler.

Despite the snow, the school run went on, meetings had to happen, and appointments kept, all with a constant stream of nose-wiping and night-time coughing and whimpering about cold feet.

Having a five-year-old who LOVES snow is thrilling, and seeing her make snow angels for the first time a joy, but when you add in a three-year-old who only wants to experience snow from under a blanket and behind glass, it gets tricky.

I had forgotten that we even had a footmuff for the buggy – it hasn’t been used for years and I had no idea where it was – so had to improvise with blankets and even a hot-water bottle to try and forestall wailing the entire length, there and back, of the school run.

Finally, school gave in on Thursday lunchtime, asked us to pick the children up early, and cancelled school on Friday. A bonus day at home was just what was needed – most of half term had been lost in a fog of sickness, and to have a free day to do fun stuff was like a bonus prize at the end of a lot of cold dull January and February days.

The down side was not being able to go out and sledge and enjoy the outdoors – the small snow refusenik would not have tolerated that – but we did the library and had haircuts and made cakes and played dominoes and had a disco party with Alexa.

Of course it didn’t go perfectly; right at the end of the day a toy got broken in a catastrophe of glitter which is never going to be satisfactorily cleaned up, but the cakes were pretty damn good.

And, before I get my soggy muddy green garden back, I will remember that, just for a minute, it looked like this….

Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

So, children, what have we learned?


Day out at the Horniman

It is almost the end of half-term, our first term of the Big Girl being at school. The week has gone by in a flash, bringing back memories of half term holidays gone by – the big rush to get everything done which we no longer have time to do during a regular week, buying vests and winter coats, the homework hanging over you, the frantic washing of school clothes – but it has also been a brief respite from the new regime and a chance to catch my breath.

So, how has it been so far? The bits which are easier than I expected – the settling in, and the parting at the school gates, not nearly as bad as I feared. We can go right into the classroom, I can hang up her coat and bag and see her settle down on the rug to begin the first task of the day, so it’s a very gentle process. There were a few grumbles the first week, but since then it’s been pretty smooth, and she is (as I fully expected), happy to be there. 

I dreaded the morning routine itself – the slog of getting out on time every single day, the clean clothes, the tidying of hair and cleaning shoes – but once you are locked into the rhythm, it just becomes what you do. I haven’t, as far as I know, left the house with toothpaste smeared on my cheek or in slippers, but hey, there’s plenty of time for that yet.

I expected to feel the anguish of ‘letting go’ of my child at the school gates; I worried that she’d ‘belong’ to school and not to us any more, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – she rushes out of school ready to tell me about the day, (luckily she’s not the classic schoolchild who forgets everything the moment they’re outside the school gate). 

I hear all the news and gossip, what she had for lunch, what happened at break time, what she made that day (so MUCH handmade craft & stuff coming home every _single_ day). 

Most of all, I know she was ready for the big change – she does talk sometimes about ‘missing preschool’, but there is no doubt the challenge of school has been a Good Thing.

Where the strangeness of it has hit me is in the little things – the fact that I had to clear out the Big Girl’s clothes drawer, and realised she hardly needed new clothes any more, just endless school polo shirts, whilst her little sister has an ever-growing pile of hand-me-downs to squeeze into. 

The fact that, even though the school day is so much longer than preschool, the day seems to flash by, and 3 o’clock comes round faster than I ever imagined. 

And I look forward so much to that walk home, her scooting alongside me and knowing we have the prospect of a quiet hour with cup of tea and a sit down waiting. Our days are less busy now, no more day trips or afternoons in the park after preschool, but getting home earlier means a calmer, better paced evening routine, which I appreciate.

The fact that when she leaves school, she doesn’t just tell me about her day, she asks what I’ve been doing with the baby sister, where we went, what we had for lunch, is lovely. She wants to know everything about everything right now, it seems.

Her curiosity about the world is undimmed, her enthusiasm, her own individual self-possessed self remains. I worried that school would be a cookie cutter, stamping out individuality, grinding down children into learning machines, in this bright new world of academies and SATS (or not so new, thinking of Gradgrind), and I know it’s early days, but I hope she’ll get through the system without losing too much of her spark. 

Now, just 7 1/2 weeks till Christmas. Bring it on…


Half term in Wales