Running Mummy with hubby and beans

Every now and then it’s important to remind myself of what an incredibly efficient bio-machine I inhabit.

Usually its efficiency is in quarters that I’d frankly, rather it stopped being so bloody good at: efficiently growing hair in inappropriate places, efficiently converting calories into fat targeted expertly to my hip region and so on.

But every now and then, I marvel and am in awe of my body. I remember that it is not a tool for vanity, or simply a walking and sitting vehicle with a brain on top of it.

The first two times were when I carried and gave birth to my children.  These processes had very little to do with the thinking ‘I’ and everything to do with the physical ‘I’.  I had no control over what my body was doing and watched in as much wonder as my husband as the whole incredible process of growing and birthing happened inside my very own body.

The most recent time I was in awe of my body was when I ran my first ever 10 km race in Greenwich Park.

Once I started running once a week back in January, I made myself book in to run a race (against all my school-era instincts).  I knew that I would have to train now in order to not completely die during the race.  A close friend ran a 10k in May and did it in a sickeningly good time – pressure.

The weather got hotter, the running harder and the pressure mounted. Then I pulled my right achilles running too fast down a hill, my right thigh started twingeing and I discovered that my right leg is shorter than my left. Then a toenail on my left foot went black and started to come off.  I had no idea that running was such a dangerous sport!

But by this time the race was looming and there was no going back.  I decided to run it my way, which is start slowly, keep going slowly, get to the end.  A radical method.

It worked! I ran the course in an hour and 9 minutes, got the medal and felt totally shattered.

Shattered but proud of my body, because I have a new respect for it and I have discovered the satisfaction that comes from honing and toning the body – turning it from a soft, passive thing, into a slightly less soft (with bigger calves) active thing.

A post-session, happy beaver

A post-session, happy beaver

Children like things to stay the same. The familiar is comforting.  For example, when I had my hair cut recently (after leaving it for as long as possible, till I could no longer look in the mirror without going, ‘Oh god, my hair…’), the children both looked at me, and stated matter-of-factly, ‘I liked you better before Mummy.’  Luckily, I don’t rely on them for my feelings of self-worth.

Example two:  we had a highly successful holiday in Lanzarote over the Easter holiday – indeed our first hot week abroad since we had our son, 8 years ago.  We hired a simple little villa and pool, situated in a bog-standard but perfectly adequate little development and it worked well.  However, next time, I would like to try something similar, but a little different. Not so the children. ‘We want to go back to the SAME place, with the same pool and the same beach and go to the same restaurant.’

Example three:  My daughter had her first Beavers session last night. She absolutely, adamantly, did NOT want to go. She has been coming to Beavers for two years to drop off her older brother, and, in her strong little mind, it was something that boys did.  However, in my strong larger mind, it was something that would be very good for her. She’s not great at joining in group activities and I felt that this would be a ready-made way of being part of a team.

Having had a series of cross, panicky crying sessions in the week leading up to her first Beavers, it then took the full gamut of bribes/threats (fruit polos/’no telly!’/extra wii sessions/’5, 4, 3, 2, ONE!’ etc) to get her into the car, and then the same again to get her out the other end.

Once inside the hall, she immediately ran out again, into the path of oncoming traffic.  Retrieved and admonished, she clung onto my leg, wailing, and refusing to speak to the kindly Beaver pack lady, oddly named after a Jungle book character.

The first game of ‘Traffic Lights’ appealed to her competitive streak and she perked up a little, but only joined in if I was holding her hand, so I then spent the next ten minutes being dragged by the finger round a hall with 25 or so small children.

Bit by bit I managed to extract myself, till at the end, sitting in the ring next to the pack leader, she was presented with the pack mascot, Bertie the Beaver, to take home for the week.

She came over to me beaming.  ‘Mummy, I LIKE Beavers’ she said, ‘Are you proud of me?’  I resisted the impulse to smugly say, ‘See, Mummy really does know best’ and told her, that, yes, I was really, really proud of her for joining in – eventually.

But, the truth is, sometimes Mummy really does know best.

The birthday girl begins to open her massive pile.

The birthday girl begins to open her massive present pile.

In our family, bad planning on the part of the fates has ordained that my son’s birthday in mid-March begins two months of exhausting birthday celebrations.

My birthday, at the end of April, is followed by my daughter’s a week later, and my husband’s a week after that.  In fact, disastrously, three out of the four of us are Taureans, charging headlong into activities and stubbornly resisting anything but our own ideas, while my Piscean son charmingly floats through life, following the smoothest course.

This year, in my birthday week, I thought to myself, ‘Right (apparently I always say ‘Right’), right, this week I am going to stop dashing about doing things for other people and do things for me’.  Cue a very messy house, piles of washing and nil birthday pre-planning for my daughter.

Said daughter did do her best to remind me of her own impending birthday, but I ignored her.  The countdown began in earnest on May the 1st.  ‘Now it’s my ACTUAL birthday month!’ she shrieked in my ear one morning.  The consecutive mornings were merrily counted down:  ‘7 days to go, 6 days to go, 5 and a half days to go’, and so on.

Literally two days before I had done almost nothing for her birthday, apart from buy her three very small presents.  And, because I am a) a mother at home, and b) my mother’s daughter, there is an unwritten, strict and masochistic birthday rule that reads, ‘I am not allowed to cheat in any way.  All must be handmade, home-crafted and basically an immense and time-consuming faff’.

So, in those two days, I went into manic birthday overdrive.  I arranged for two little friends to come over (no one does whole-class parties any more), bought decopatch craft for party, bought lots of presents so that she could have a ‘pile’ to come down to on the table (very important), made 35 chocolate nests with eggs in for her to hand out to her class, put up bunting, blew balloons, bought and arranged flowers, bought party tea food and drew a picture of her on my handmade card.

On the day itself, having risen at dawn to ensure my princess descended to a candlelit birthday scene downstairs, I only had the cake left to make, and luckily, she had pointed out the one she wanted months ago.  A Mary Berry bunny cake.  It involved baking three sponge cakes, covering them in lemon butter icing, toasting some coconut, assembling into a bunny shape and creating a face. No probs, easy-peasy.

The baking bit went fine, although my oven is pretty ancient and being of the non-fan variety, it’s basically a fire in a box, and cakes tend to burn on the bottom and stay raw on top.

Then I had to CUT BITS OFF, to form the bunny shape.  Now, one thing that I really am averse to is waste of any sort. I still habitually eat whatever the kids leave at tea, keep all leftovers in half-a-dozen Tupperware boxes in the fridge, and never stick to use by dates.  So, when it comes to chopping bits off perfectly good cake, the obvious thing is to eat all the chopped off bits. Also, I needed a sugar rush to complete the marathon icing task that lay ahead.

Then the lemon butter icing. Really, really yummy, and far too much than needed, even after I’d gone over the whole cake twice, so a few spoonfuls of that get eaten too.  The toasted coconut ended up being ‘charcoal-effect’ coconut, and even I wasn’t going to eat that, so that was binned and bunny ended up being a white bunny.

Then I discovered that my comparative lack of preparation meant that I had to forage for bunny face decorations.  So the eyes were two chocolate buttons, with half a yoghurty raisin squidged on top with icing. Effective, but also really quite evil-looking. Then very old pink writing icing from the back of the cake-stuff shelf, and squashed mini-pink marshmallows for inner ear effect.

It didn’t look much like the one in the book, but I didn’t think she’d mind.  She didn’t. ‘Wow’ she said, ‘A bunny!’  She then proceeded to lick the icing off and discard the cake, so I ate that too.

At the end of the day she looked sad.  ‘Why are you sad, sausage?’ I asked, tenderly (I’m always tender on their birthdays, not so much on other days). ‘I’m sad because my birthday is nearly over’, she said, making it all worthwhile, even the slightly acidic cake indigestion.

It’s my husband’s birthday today.

He got a homemade card. And socks.  And a cup of tea in bed.

mother at home

This week there has been a storm of media interest in the work of a quiet campaigning group that I have been a member of for 8 years, since I had my son.  From the moment I made my decision to stay ‘at home’ to bring up my children, I found great support simply in the fact that such a group existed, because being a mother at home can be a lonely occupation.

They are called Mothers at Home Matter.  It’s not a bitesize title, but it does what it says on the tin.  It’s saying that mothers who sacrifice a career to be the one to bring up their children are not opting out of the workforce, they are not letting down those brave women who fought all those years ago to get us the vote, they are not lazy, yummy or slummy but are doing a job, out of love, that would otherwise cost a large sum of money for someone else to do.

I am still at home, despite both my children being at school.  This does not mean that I sit about, watching daytime television and wearing my slippers – as Katie Hopkins so condescendingly put it on This Morning in a debate with MAHM secretary Lynne Burnham.  I am part of that Big Society that David Cameron waffled on about, with no real idea of who was going to actually run his big idea.  As usual, it’s the mothers, those women who have the time, ability and knowledge of their local community to see what’s lacking and actually do something about it.  Recently, the proposed closure of the A&E department at Lewisham Hospital was met with a storm of protest, including a ‘buggy march’, full of politically aware, useful mothers at home.

The sense that being a mother is a value-less occupation is drummed home over and over again by successive government budgets, and this latest one, which I listened to while guillotining endless Easter cards for the school Easter fundraiser, was no different – possibly even worse.  Osborne’s opening gambit, that this budget was for “those who want to work and get on”, tacitly implies that it wasn’t for those who didn’t want work and therefore didn’t want to ‘get on’, whatever that means.  In fact, ‘getting on’ is one of the key qualities of a good mother.  Mothering entails ‘getting on’ with the endless, repetitive tasks that turn a house into a well-ordered home. It means ‘getting on’ with your children, first and foremost, treating them as individuals that deserve the love and respect of a present parent.  It means ‘getting on’ with a job that has the longest working hours of any job, without the prospect of a raise, transfer or even the odd appraisal.

For those of us who made that choice, the choice to simply be there, always, whenever they need us, there is also an accompanying sense of failure.  Because we are not adding to the family finances, because we are the drain on the family pot, because we are ‘setting a bad example’ – according to Cherie Blair last year, by not showing our daughters that we are capable of having a career.  Transferable tax allowances, which was promised to single-income families in the Conservative party’s manifesto, would be a simple way of giving mothers, or fathers, at home a way of contributing to the family financially.

But, just because we are at home, does not mean that the home contains us.  We are more than that, we are carers, organisers, planners and helpers.  When, or if, we decide to go back into the workforce, it will be in a way that puts our children first.  Because we know the truth that every old person knows: at the end of it all, no one ever wishes they worked more; they wish they had spent more time with their family, nurturing those relationships that really count.

Our boy

Our boy

What are we most afraid of? Pre-parenthood it could be spiders, heights, failure. Post-parenthood there is one thing that becomes our number one fear: losing our babies. The very thought is heart-clenchingly impossible.

Last week I took my son to a hospital appointment that could have gone one of two ways. One path was back to the normal everyday fears of crossing the road, putting on seatbelts and giving him his Vitamin pill. The other path was a dark road to hospital, operations, treatments and pain.

Three months earlier, a routine optician’s appointment had uncovered tortuous retinal vessels (wiggly veins) at the back of his eyes, which could either have been a genetic variation from normal, or could have been a symptom of pressure on the eyeball. I remained calm at the optician’s, but once home I googled it and was taken down an avenue of terror. Of course, google nearly any symptom and you get the C-word. Headaches, sore legs, itchy elbows, you name it, it’s a symptom of near-to-immediate death.

From that point on I was at the mercy of fear. Fear stalked me in the day and the night. Death seemed to rise like a spectre to haunt everything I heard and read. I told very few people because to acknowledge it was to make it a reality.

I began to ask my son leading questions: ‘Does your head hurt?’ Answer, ‘Erm, yes, a bit.’ TERROR. ‘Are you feeling sick?’ Answer, ‘Sort of, can I have something else to eat?’ PANIC. I took him to the GP, who examined him and told me he was fine. A month later I was back again due to son having severe cramp in the night for two nights in a row. The GP didn’t even look at him and gave me a counselling session.

Uncomforted, for three months I carried the weight of fear around with me.

At the hospital my son and I read side by side, in a companionable silence. The moment of truth was near, but strangely, the fear had gone and a quiet calm had taken its place. We were here at the point of no return, and in my heart of hearts I knew that wherever this moment would take us, we would be ok.

At the end of three hours my son was discharged, no follow up appointments needed. The wiggly veins were part of his beautiful uniqueness, nothing else. I felt lighter, but somehow wiser. In the clutches of fear I had lost my childish belief that everything always would be alright, but learnt, truly, that however irritating our charges may sometimes be, there is nothing like the fear of losing them to wake us up to their incalculable preciousness.

Happy and Well

I can proudly announce that my Christmas objective this year was achieved.  Not one member of our small family unit were ill on Christmas day!  It was truly a victory against the odds.  My reason for this objective was that last year we missed Christmas and instead we had Illmas.  It was a fever-drenched, puke-covered, sleep-deprived, snot-riddled washout of a holiday and as the festive season loomed again, I began to twitch nervously.  So, based purely on post-traumatic neuroticism, I began my campaign to keep the family well.

Stage one of my battle plan against the bugs most vile began on December the 1st.  The children and I began an advanced immune boosting diet of every vitamin known to man, plus Echinacea, tea tree, woundwort and essence of St John. My son particularly objected to the Junior Echinacea pills, which I then periodically found scattered in all the dark corners of the house.  My son also had the flu jab and booster for the first time, having previously viewed it as only for the weak and pessimistic.

Stage two was ‘illness avoidance’.  I viewed any social gathering purely as disease minefields.  Before having any child over for tea they were subtly symptom-checked.  Hopefully this was subtle and not just rude. Then my poor mother succumbed to an apparent ‘migraine’ two weeks before Christmas.  She insisted it wasn’t the Noro nuisance but I saw through her masquerading and promptly banned the children from going anywhere near her for the entire fortnight.  When she tricked me into going round by pretending to be at death’s door I then washed my hands like a maniac about every 30 seconds.  My father phoned and accused me of having OCD.  ‘It’s not being OCD, it’s being OCSensible’ I retorted, which actually didn’t make any sense.

Stage three was more hand-washing.

‘Don’t read the front page of The Telegraph’ a friend helpfully texted, whilst I was in the grip of my paranoia.  ‘More than half a million people struck down with norovirus’ it sedately screamed.  I texted my sister and told her to boil wash all Mum’s sheets.

Stage four was manically touching wood at the merest mention of illness, Christmas or anything health-related.

Then they started to fall like flies at school.  The numbers in the playground dwindled.  I watched the children like hawks and, it was with a sinking feeling of inevitable dread when my daughter started coughing and then developed a fever in the last week of term.  After all that, I thought, the bugs had won.  But then, against all the odds, we didn’t catch it, she rallied, made it in on the second to last day…and then I did something morally debatable.

Stage five was switching into siege mentality and, against all my goody goody instincts, I kept them both off school on the final day of term.  They looked pale, wan and vulnerable and I really felt that that last day would have been the clincher.  They would have caught the BUG, and we would have fallen like skittles.  So we bunked – we slept in – we merrily mooched – we strolled in the park – we were well!

Christmas came and went in a triumphant flurry of wrapping paper.

My husband went back to work and I took the children to the Museum of London for something free to do, and we found ourselves in a little black room watching a video on the spread of the Black Death in the 14th Century.  On the 1st of November 1348 the Bubonic Plague reached London and, out of the population of 70,000, 20,000 people died within two years.  Now that really was something worth being paranoid about.

I have been weak.  I have succumbed to pester power and bought the children a Lego Advent Calendar, EACH.  There are various ways I justify this excessive overspend to myself.

A)     They were on special offer, £24.99 reduced to £18.79, £20.99 reduced to £14.99! I have ‘saved’ lots of money!

B)      I called my husband while I was standing in the checkout and he said, ‘Yes, go on’ so it was his decision really.

C)      They, or specifically, my son, really, really, really, really wanted it. He cried when presented with another perfectly-adequate, traditional, card calendar, that, up until this year, he has been all quivery with excitement to open, every morning for 24 days.

D)     They have been given the horribly expensive calendars in exchange for all the points on their reward chart, which at 10p per point added up to roughly 100th of the value of the calendars.

The thing is, that I believe so fervently that children shouldn’t need stuff to be happy.  We regularly meet up with extended family at a big old house that is in a sorry state of disrepair, but has oodles of space, inside and out.   The children, with their little troop of cousins, rampage about collecting pine cones, making elaborate houses or base camps (depending on their gender), poking fires with sticks, finding and burying dead birds, falling in ponds and other semi-dangerous and glorious activities.

They don’t need Nerf guns, moshi monsters or Barbies then.  They don’t crave ipods, ipads or ipids.  They don’t need anything to be happy, content and free, apart from their own imaginations and a sense of adventure.

But I have to admit that the children really do love their Lego calendars.  They spring out of bed every dark, cold morning.  Get dressed, without moaning and crying for a full half an hour, and clear their bowls without being asked.  So, maybe sometimes, buying something that makes your kids happy and obedient for 24 whole days isn’t such a bad thing.

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