Off to School

I had a moment of euphoria yesterday when my 15-year-old daughter told me she had decided to start walking to school with her best friend.

“Finally!”, I exclaimed. Unless the weather’s rubbish my son cycles, and I dreaded the morning school run with poor Francesca. The days I didn’t have to be at work early were bad enough, sticking jeans and a jumper over my nightie and bundling four-year-old Nancy into her car seat half asleep, but the days I did start early were a nightmare. It all comes down to my wretched inability to ‘do’ mornings. I could go off on a great big tangent here about subconscious self-sabotage, but I think I’m just a night owl. (Or I used to be, before I started getting old.)

With Francesca and Toby both getting themselves to school, my children would be spared my all too predictable tirades in the car about getting to bed earlier, getting up earlier and preparing everything the night before, followed by a calmer resolve (as I dropped one or both of them off several minutes late – again – oh, the guilt! the failure!) that this would be the last ever chaotic morning; a resolve that would be forgotten that evening as we sat down to binge-watch Modern Family once Nancy was asleep.

It dawned on me three seconds later, much to Francesca’s amusement, that I would have just one school run-free day, before Nancy’s first taster session in reception. It’s practically the same journey too.

Another 10 years of school runs. 

This evening I wearily brought all the bits of uniform downstairs to scribble Nancy’s name in all the labels, having been too disorganised to order the sticky name tags in time, then went upstairs to replace them on their hangers. She was peacefully asleep, hugging her Bunkey (strange bunny/donkey hybrid soft toy). Her last day as a preschooler.

Tomorrow she will wear the little red and white gingham dress with the red cardi, the white ankle socks with red hearts and, if time permits, the red and white scrunchie in her plaited hair. There will be no hidden pyjamas for me, no dumping and running: I will be showered, dressed, even wearing make-up if you’re lucky. When we park up at the school I will hold her hand as she skips along beside me. (I hope she will be skipping, not clinging fearfully to my leg.) I will take her to her classroom, reassure her, hug her, wave goodbye, blow kisses … and leave.

I will have two hours to kill; two hours when I’m neither at work nor looking after Nancy. That will be different.

As this new term unfolds my working hours are going to increase, but there will still be times when I’m not working and Nancy is at school. I have a list of things to do: blitz the house; clear all the clutter; learn to play the clarinet that my mum bought me and I have yet to get a sound out of (Nancy can play several notes, no problem); have coffee with a friend, talking in full, uninterrupted sentences – the decadence! – write, write, write … So why am I not looking forward to it more?

I thought having two older children had hardened me to the customary ‘first day of school’ sentimentality. “She’s a September girl! She’s more than ready! I’ve done my time raising preschoolers!”

Done my time? I make it sound like a prison sentence, when I see now it was freedom: freedom to head off to the park on a whim, or to the farm, or to snuggle in the big bed and read stories, or to make play doh dresses for her magiclip dolls (hand on heart, I think I enjoyed that more than she did). I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been able to work part time. She and I will never have that time again, just the two of us. And she is ready – oh boy, is she! – and so am I, but this evening as I watched her sleep, it dawned on me how big a change lies ahead. Not bad change, just change.

And I realised it’s OK to have a bit of a wobble. But I’m having mine now; following my own advice and at least trying to get everything sorted the night before.

Love and strength to all you parents with little ones starting their school adventures this week.

Mr Hilarious

“And coming up on our left, ladies and gentlemen, we have St Eric’s College which, of course, is where the 27th Earl of Dukinfield trained his world-famous troupe of circus parrots …”

Heads turn and faces stare as this self-proclaimed “gobby Manc” continues his booming, impromptu and entirely fabricated tour of the Cambridge Backs, while the well-spoken undergrad tour guides falter in their own deliveries. Perhaps they wonder, suddenly, if there’s a horrible gap in their knowledge … the tall, shaven-headed gentleman from the north sounds so assured, after all, even if his punting technique is a little precarious. More likely, though, they are just thinking “What the hell …?” Well-heeled Brits frown suspiciously over the top of their champagne flutes, but American tourists in passing boats are already captivated.

I slide a little further down into my seat in our boat, trying to disappear whilst wiping my eyes. Will, my BBF (bloke best friend) has shown me many times over the years that it’s quite possible to be simultaneously mortified with embarrassment and doubled over with laughter. It’s one of his gifts.

Show off? Attention seeker? Actually, no: not in the least. Had someone else pulled that stunt Will would have been laughing the loudest. He never needs to be the one bringing the laughs (though he usually is). What matters to him is that the laughs are had.

Trying to create a snapshot of Will in a few hundred words is a huge challenge. I can tell you he’s funny and then enjoy detailing a few examples, but it is harder to explain how I know that the caption in the above photo is dripping with irony; to convince you that, paradoxically, Will is one of the most humble and modest people I know.

He’s also probably the most positive, despite having faced devastation in his life.

“I lost a friend at 11 who died, another friend committed suicide when I was 17, and my dad did the same when I was 20. So I went through a lot early on”, he says calmly.

He speaks fairly openly about his dad. “I can talk about what he did, but I don’t usually go into the detail of how it made me feel. I tell people quickly so they don’t put their foot in it. People don’t know what to say when they know someone killed themselves.”

How do you even begin to deal with something like that, I wonder, let alone remain so upbeat.

“I can compartmentalise. I did with my dad – that’s why it took so long to come to terms with it; probably about 15-18 years. I’d break down, shut it off again – it was a cycle.”

There is no trace of bitterness, though a rare and fleeting expression of sadness crosses his face. The only regret he has is the lack of photographs of himself and his dad together.

“I’ve only got one picture of me with my dad where I’m older than five, so now I always want to have lots of photos. It’s important to have things to look back on. Photos prompt so many more memories.”

Will and Ruth with my godchildren, Kai and Erin

Which provides a nice little segue into something else intriguing and wonderful about Will: as well as my BBF, he is also my favourite photographer. On my 40th birthday he stunned me with a book of photographs, mostly taken by him, with a few earlier ones of me with Ruth (his wife and my oldest, dearest friend) when we were at school. As I get older I generally dislike photos of myself, but there’s something about Will’s photography that seems to capture the very soul of its subject. http://www.williamlonsdale.com It’s the same when we’re talking: a look of keen, kind intensity; a generosity of absolute attentiveness a million miles away from that loud northerner on a boat.

“My dad had two dreams: one was to have a farm, and the other was to own a mobile photography studio. Back then no-one was doing that. My dad died when he was 40 and I started my photography at the same age. I wanted to say ‘Look, Dad, you could have done this’. Part of me wishes that wasn’t there because I wonder, am I doing this just for him? I don’t think I am because I love it, but I’m never completely sure it’s 100% for me.”

I often describe Will as being full of beans. A dad of five, and now the world’s coolest grandad too, he seems to have an inexhaustible supply not only of humour, but of energy and sheer drive. I wonder if he has always been so motivated.

“Being an only child I had to entertain myself, pick myself up, egg myself on – only children have to have another part of themselves that’s pushing them as a sibling would. I was always the class clown. Part of that was an insecurity thing. I wasn’t convinced people liked me, even though I made them laugh, but several have now come back to me as clients.”

Much of Will’s positivity comes from the freedom of not being beset by common negative traits, such as jealousy.

“If I see someone who has something I want, such as a particular skill, or their own business, I go for that myself. You only get one try. I thought I’d have to throw the towel in with the photography but luckily I’ve had a lot more work recently. I do look at people and think ‘I wish’, but then I follow that up with doing. At the same time I realise you can’t do everything.”

It is his formula for banishing worry and maximising happiness, however, that I find most compelling.

“I used to worry about a lot, which could be tied up with my parents splitting up when I was six. It occurred to me at a point in my mid-twenties how many things I worried about, and that 90-95% of the time those things always worked out. This is where the logic kicks in. I thought, one in 20 things I worry about may or may not happen, but the rest of my time is being spoiled by ‘what if?’ When bad things happen I’ll have to deal with them. Also, bad things are important – you need to feel crap to appreciate feeling great. Part of it is setting your bar, too. Most people think of the 50th centile as ‘meh’, but for me it’s happy – and then something really happy is amazing.”

If you can process and live by this, it’s pure gold. If, like me, you struggle with logic and mental ‘off switches’ and are beset by insecurities, it is something to aspire to but may always be a work in progress.

In all the years I’ve known him, and known him increasingly well, I have only ever seen Will demonstrate anything approaching anger once. I wonder if anything annoys him. He insists he does.

“I do get annoyed when people are moaning and grumpy without good reason. If you smile at someone it can change their whole day, but if you’re grumpy with them it can have just as big an effect. It’s very draining when someone doesn’t return positivity.” He describes a recent, low-level altercation he witnessed between two drivers, during which his obvious amusement was spotted by one of them. “We made eye contact and the anger in his face just melted away into a big grin. The situation was defused. it’s a ripple effect. If I do get cross, it’s a flash in the pan. I snapped at the kids for the first time in ages the other day: they went dead quiet, but it was over.”

Not for the first time, I am completely baffled; almost frustrated. “Why are you friends with me?” I ask in an accusing tone. “I’m completely negative and draining!”

His wide eyes open just a little wider. “I don’t see you like that”, he replies simply.

I grunt ungraciously and thank my lucky stars I’m not prone to blushing. It’s that rose-tinted mirror again; the same one he uses in his photography. Or maybe my mirror is the one that distorts?

You see me … I see you!

Through the door I can hear Ruth, a nursery owner and manager, leading an enthusiastic Dough Disco session for the entertainment of our kids (and, more to the point, herself). “And squeeze, and squeeze, and splat, and splat …”

If ever there was a match made in heaven.

“We’re peas in a pod”, Ruth agrees. “We just like to clown around, and we have the same stupid sense of humour. We enjoy the same things too: the outdoors; the natural elements; family adventures. Will likes expensive tech but generally he’s not a materialistic person. He also encourages me to take risks as I tend to let worry put me off. He was really supportive when I bought the nursery. I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it wasn’t for him. I don’t believe in myself easily, but he believes in me. I support him too: he’s very self-critical of his photography and doesn’t like pushing himself forward, but people need to see how good he is.”

“I am a perfectionist”, Will admits. “Ruth cleans the bathroom in 10-15 minutes. It’ll take me an hour to an hour and a half because I’ll do it as well as I can. I do the mirrors, polish the towel radiator so there are no fingerprints, dust off the top of the cabinet. I judge my work, not Ruth’s.”

It’s not just about perfectionism, though. It’s about job satisfaction and refusing to be rushed, both of which are stepping stones to happiness in their own right. “I always take my time, no matter what the job is, and do my best. If it’s not the best you can do, then it’s not representing the best of you. Everything you do is a reflection of yourself.”

All well and good if you’ve got loads of time, you might think, but as I’ve witnessed over the years it doesn’t seem to work like that. While I seem to spend most of my time rushing around like a blue-arsed fly, in a desperate and futile attempt to keep all the balls in the air, Will is busy achieving. On many fronts. Maybe it is a case of ‘more haste, less speed’? Last time Will and Ruth came to stay, Will fixed our wobbly dining room table. It had been wobbly for the 17 years we’d owned it, and the time I had spent shifting it around and ramming stacks of beer mats under one of the legs had probably run into hours. Will simply spent a few minutes looking at it, and noticed there were small adjusters on each of the legs.

“I’ve fixed your table”, he said, as we came through for dinner. Git.

As you might expect, Will’s approach to food and health is, in keeping with his approach to most things, not entirely mainstream. He’s a fan of fasting. “Eating in moderation isn’t me so I limit when I eat instead. Fasting can help your body fight against cancers, it’s good for keeping a healthy weight, and it’s good for you mentally. It takes a lot of resources to digest so when you’re not busy with that all the time it can sharpen up your mind.” Well, I’m convinced by the evidence, but it wouldn’t work for me, being a natural grazer.

“I don’t drink much alcohol. I didn’t drink for eight years after my dad died. I (unfairly) blamed dad’s wife who was drinking all his money away, therefore I blamed alcohol itself; I personified it. I smoked for a long time, but when I made that real decision to stop, I didn’t have any drugs, gum or vape – I just stopped and threw myself into decorating the bedroom and playing on the xbox. I don’t even miss it now. I don’t think I have an addictive personality.”

With his photography business taking off, his home transformed (largely through his own hands-on work), a beautiful family and a blissful marriage, I wonder how Will regards his achievements.

“I’m proud of my kids, first off, and of marrying Ruth. Buying a house. Setting up a business, selling it, setting it up another … but I feel as though I’m working towards achievement. You’ve got to have a little bit of hunger if you want to throw everything into something and you’re taking a big risk. I’m happy where I am, but I would happily sell the house, take the equity, buy a run down farmhouse in France and live off the land, living a simple life without technology. I’d still have my camera, but in some ways I hate tech.”

And how would he like to be remembered, I wonder? As the man who cheated time, turned tragedy on its head, created a formula for happiness …?

“I’d like to be remembered as embracing life and being joyous. Not happy, as people can appear happy but be sad on the inside, but joyous. And funny.” He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “And hung like a horse.”

Mr Bounce

 

Tom proudly displaying his coveted London marathon medal

32-year-old dispatch production operator Tom and his wife Emma live with their three children and Misty the dog in a three-bedroom mid-terrace on what would have once been a council estate, before Mrs Thatcher sold off all the council houses. Whenever I’ve seen it, it’s always spotless, despite the fact that Tom and Emma have both generally worked long shifts.

“Tom does most of it”, admits Emma, referring to the chores. “Most of the hoovering, cleaning the oven – the horrible jobs”.

“I don’t feel I do enough”, Tom cuts in. “Emma does more during the week, but at the weekend we share it. And Emma does the important jobs, like checking the settee works.”

He chuckles. He’s often laughing. I remember the time we all accompanied our kids on a school trip. It was lunchtime, my husband was being grumpy because he was on the Lighter Life diet, and a few tables away Tom was making his kids laugh.

“Look at him”, I’d said pointedly. “He looks happy to be with his family.” “Course he’s happy”, Alex had replied darkly. “He’s tucking into a sandwich.”

I wonder what, if anything, makes Tom grumpy.

“Having a lie-in”, is the unexpected answer. “Even pre-kids. If I’m still in bed at 10.30 I feel the day’s wasted. I’m not really an angry person, though: the occasional stress with work; quick telling off for the kids now and again, cos they do fight.”

“I’m the grumpy one”, adds Emma, “especially if I don’t get enough sleep. Our body clocks aren’t synched. Tom’s an early bird and gets up at 4.30 for work, so he goes to bed early too, but I don’t sleep till 1 am.”

I ask Tom about his work and any career aspirations. After all, fulfilment in work is usually cited as a major factor when it comes to quality of life and consequent happiness.

“For me it’s about how I go about the job. It’s physical work and I take pride in what I do; I like to see it done properly. I feel frustrated if it’s being rushed and corners cut. I did have a dream job, signing. I bought all the makaton books, but the funding was too expensive.”

“Is that something you still dream of doing?” I ask.

He shrugs, smiles again. “I’m comfortable where I am, so it didn’t happen.”

I briefly reflect on how many things, big or small, irritate or worry me on a daily basis, and ask Tom what, if anything, he considers worth worrying about. Does anything cause him anxiety?

“I do suffer from a bit of anxiety, which running has massively helped”, he says, perhaps surprisingly. “I want to succeed on a day to day basis. I’ve suffered from panic attacks before, but got through with Emma’s help. I’ve stopped being a people pleaser. If someone doesn’t want to talk to me or doesn’t like me, that’s fine. I used to try too hard to get people on side, but Emma’s influence has helped change that.

“I don’t worry about finances: Emma deals with all of that. My priority is providing for my family. I’ve only been out of work for two days since leaving school. I’m happy to do anything; let the kids grow up and have what they need.”

I ask about work-life balance, another long-cited happiness essential, and one that is woefully out of kilter in many households.

“My job’s great for the kids, but not so much for finding time as a couple”, admits Tom. “Being with the kids is sometimes energising for me, but sometimes drains me a bit when they argue. I run to recharge. A lot of weekend time is taken up with CJ’s football and the housework. Saturday afternoon we do nothing at all: Em has a nap, I might watch a film, the kids play.”

Running has become a huge part of Tom’s life in recent years, and he recently completed the London marathon – his first ever marathon – in just over four and a half hours. As someone who tries but struggles to jog a few kilometres, I wonder what motivated that level of training and dedication.

“I started running years ago, to lose weight for our wedding, and got serious two years ago. I’d done mud runs etc and wanted to push to the next goal. I was lucky enough to get a ballot place for London, which was so motivating. It was fantastic when I crossed the line; so emotional. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I missed out on collecting my medal from the royals, though – I filtered off the wrong way!”

Everyone encounters loss, tragedy, or other major stressors at some points in their life. I ask Tom how he deals with the very difficult times.

“I’ve always had the support from Em”, he says simply. “We were both crushed when we couldn’t get a mortgage. It put a bit of a downer on the year. We look at our friends, and they’ve all bought their houses and are now getting their caravans. Em had lost her job but she’s about to start another one.”

There is something deeply uplifting about witnessing a couple so perfectly in tune with and accepting of one another, despite being busy, self-confessed opposites with clashing schedules. I ask Emma to sum up life with Tom.

“Like being married to a big kid”, she replies immediately. “Also, I’ve supported Tom a lot with his anxiety over the years, but then when I lost my job for four months and needed support I had to tell him as he just wasn’t seeing it. When I told him, he was there for me. He lives in his own bubble sometimes. The kids can be a handful, and there’s Tom, mucking about with them like another big kid. It’s good, having them at a young age, because he can do all that. I’m always tired – maybe because of my epilepsy – and I feel bad that I can’t be as much a part of that.”

“Emma gives me some advice sometimes and I’ll just … dismiss it”, says Tom, with a snort of laughter.

“We’re definitely opposites”, says Emma. “Tom’s sporty, outgoing, full of energy. I’m relaxed, happy in my pyjamas. Tom suggests things for us to do together, to try and find a hobby in common. We’ve even tried jigsaws, just to find something we both like to do! But everything we’ve ever planned or want to do in the future, we’ve decided together. The vow renewal last year [an incredible superhero fancy dress affair!], our holidays, trying to buy the house … we always look ahead, facing forwards together. We’ve got things we want to plan with the family, and we want to retire to a caravan one day.”

I ask Tom how he’d like to be remembered, and what he considers his greatest achievement to date.

“My family’s my greatest achievement. And I’d want to be remembered for having fun. You can’t live your life in fear, so just go for it.”

Guessing the answer, I ask him to give a mark out of 10 to indicate how contented he is with his lot in life.

“10”, he says without a moment’s hesitation, looking me right in the eye. And smiles.

10 years on, Batman and Catwoman (aka Tom and Emma) renew their wedding vows

MR HAPPY

Having previously written a series of articles about female friends, I decided this time it was the men’s turn. Project Mr Happy has a good old nose into the lives of four male friends, from early thirties to late sixties, all from very different backgrounds, and all facing the same external pressures and ups and downs as the rest of us, in an attempt to determine if indeed there is a magical formula for the kind of bounce, energy and default smile I wish I possessed.

The 2017 World Happiness Report’s formula for happiness on a national scale features “caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance”.  Other factors, such as GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, are perhaps predictable, but what intrigues me is that “80% of the variance of happiness across the world occurs within countries”, suggesting that even with all the optimal socio-economic equations in place, there are going to be some miserable buggers (like me) letting the side down.

National quantifiers of happiness aside, what is it, here in grumpy, passive-aggressive, disillusioned, only-19th-happiest-nation Britain, that makes some individuals still so contented, so enthusiastic, so chock-full of seemingly inexhaustible energy, or simply so bloody cheerful?

First up will be marathon runner Tom, a 32-year-old dispatch production operator and dad of three from St Neots. He and his wife Emma offer some illuminating insights into balancing work, relationship, family and finances, the ways in which opposites not only attract but succeed long term, and the pros and cons of being married to “a big kid” …

Mind the Gap

“You’re having another one?”

“Was that planned?”

“Are you mad!?”

“Oh! That’s … um … wow! Congratulations!”

These were among the responses to the news, five years ago, that I was expecting my third child. People seemed taken aback; baffled, even. After all, I had my boy and I had my girl, so they couldn’t ask whether my husband and I were “trying for” one or the other (I always think that particular question is such an insult to parents of just boys or just girls, and their families).

More to the point, though, my children would be 10 and eight when the new baby was born. And on that level I could completely understand any reservations. I felt them myself. After all, you grow with your children; you move on as a family. Don’t you? Alex and I had done all the baby stuff: the broken nights, the nappies, the weaning, the crying; and the toddler stuff: the broken nights, the tantrums, the teething, the crying – and, still comfortably in our thirties, had arrived at a Very Civilised Place. Our children were excellent company and no longer overwhelmingly needy (and they were big enough to enjoy the same rides as us at Disney). I was starting to earn decent money again, and Alex began to contemplate a couple of big trips he’d always wanted to make just with me. “If we go when Toby’s 16, we’ll still only be in our mid-forties.”

We were indeed a neat, even little unit, and we were about to become sprawling; uneven.

My reasons for wanting a third child are my own, and from the moment she arrived I morphed effortlessly back into New Mum mode, but there were many times during that pregnancy that I reflected uneasily on how much more complicated and difficult our lives were likely to become. Not less happy – never that – but more difficult. Numerous issues needed to be considered: my job; finances; space; childcare; the multitasking; the potential impact on the older two and whether I’d be able to find anything like the same amount of time for them. That last one caused me a great deal of anxiety and guilt.

Logistics fell into place to a lesser or greater extent, as they tend to do if you help them along. My music room ceased to be, the piano was plonked unceremoniously in the dining room (where it resides to this day), and at eight months pregnant I emerged from my state of semi-denial and took up my paintbrush. The garage conversion was transformed into a lilac-and-purple palace for ten-year-old Francesca, Toby then jubilantly moved from his Buzz Lightyear box room into his big sister’s hastily decorated old room (a metallic blue and orange creation that didn’t quite work), and poor old Buzz was blotted out with yellow paint and a teddy bear border that B&Q were practically giving away at 99p a roll.

Then of course, we didn’t have any baby stuff. It had all been given away, sold or thrown out years ago. Friends and family, and Alex’s sister in particular, were incredibly kind and generous here and gave or lent us all kinds of things. Skint as ever, my biggest purchase was a second hand pram/buggy combo from an NCT Nearly New Sale, which set us back £50. We’d done it all before; I couldn’t get excited about the prospect of baby-debt.

My ex-employer had a ball with my poor blood pressure, doing everything possible to wriggle out of paying me the maternity leave to which I was entitled, but I discovered that as I had additionally been self-employed during that period I could claim maternity allowance instead. I never did go back and haul them over the coals for shafting me like that. I never had the time.

And so Nancy arrived, and we progressed from a happy family of four to a happy family of five. I think I still found time for the older two. I hope I did. Those early days quickly become hazy. The practical worries we had anticipated sorted themselves out in the form of a new, part-time job for me after my year off, and a childminder who agreed to a term-time only contract. The house was big enough to be going on with, and everybody could fit into the car.

Four and a half years later, we’re still muddling along OK. My hopes that a new baby might help Francesca and Toby resolve their differences sadly proved unfounded, but I could not have dreamed how close a bond each of them would form with their new sister. Watching my son transform from a timid, over-sensitive little boy into a confident, relaxed, responsible older brother has been a source of deep joy.

I had feared that our precious family days out would consist of one parent supervising Nancy while the other went off somewhere with the older children, but it hasn’t turned out like that at all. We adapted. It does require more thought and planning these days, but we still enjoy doing things together. National Trust membership helps. Special occasions have gained a fresh injection of extra sparkle, especially Christmas. An unexpected benefit of a big age gap is that you can (if you dare) ask your older children how they feel you handled a particular situation when they were younger. You do risk opening the flood gates, but so far my two have been pretty kind. The issue of Father Christmas is a perfect example.

“Do you wish I had told you there was no Father Christmas when you were tiny?”

“No.”

“Has it led you to trust me any less on other matters?”

“No.”

“Do you think I should be honest with Nancy about Father Christmas while she’s still tiny?”

“No! Please don’t!”

Life is sweet and motherhood is a blessing. I have, however, entitled this article Mind the Gap for good reason, so here is my personal, hand-on-heart list of the bits I wish others had told me:

  1. You’re older this time. Francesca said recently that one of the boys at her primary school used to fancy me. The boys at Nancy’s primary school may well think I’m her granny.
  2. You forget what a pain in the arse car seats are.
  3. Not so much a gap issue as a larger family issue, but trying to find a UK hotel room for a family of five is nigh on impossible once the third child has outgrown a cot.
  4. If you were previously blessed with good sleepers, it may be time for a bad one. Steel yourself.
  5. You may tell yourself that the new arrival will ‘just have to fit in’. They won’t, but that’s OK because you’ll adapt to fit around them.
  6. Your sensible teens, who of course know Little One better than most, can become excellent babysitters. Ask, pay and thank them as you would any other babysitter.
  7. Older siblings can instil over-confidence into a much younger child (as well as Family Guy quotes and a preference for YouTube videos over Doc McStuffins, but that’s OK because you don’t have to endure another seven years of relentless kids’ TV. Really, you don’t. Feel free to pour yourself a shaky glass of wine and have a giggly, relieved weep while you absorb this information.)
  8. You may feel less inclined to join the PTA or volunteer hours and hours of your time at your small child’s school this time around, and that’s fine. Don’t feel guilty about it. Then again, if you did bugger all previously, now might be the time.
  9. It is absolutely possible to be simultaneously on the same wavelength as your older kids and your younger one, which is pretty cool.
  10. If someone says “Rather you than me”, respond with a cold “Absolutely rather me than you.” Never underestimate the love that any new child brings along with them. That stuff moves mountains.

Happy Mothering Sunday.

New Year, Same Old?

To Ruth, for holding my hand from 150 miles away

Every new year I used to have the same resolutions. After some years of non-fulfilment those resolutions began to doubt themselves (who could blame them?) and decided to take more of a back seat in the form of aspirations. Later still, when age endowed me with sufficient wisdom and self-awareness to accept the sad truth that, had I been blessed with the gift of resolve, those aspirations would have become reality years ago, they pretty much gave up altogether and mutated into lazy, resentful wishes. And those wishes remain: guilt-inducing, nagging ghosts, hanging around like a fog of post-Christmas dinner farts, as if waiting for some miracle or personality transplant to motivate me to take action at the start of each new year, or berate me for my extensive procrastination during the previous 12 months.

These are my wishes:

  1. A tidy, uncluttered, well-ordered household – as opposed to cupboards crammed with all kinds of paper paraphernalia which we cannot throw away because one day soon I’m going to go through it all and make scrap books of the kids’ early years (oh yes, I am) and there might be something in there I need.
  2. An efficient cleaning routine so entrenched it barely requires a thought – as opposed to the hours upon hours of wasted time spent paralysed by dismay, guilt, defeat and overwhelm, staring at layers of dust, grubby carpets and marks on the walls, thinking “Where do I start?”, interspersed by exhausting, unsustainable and erratic sprees of manic cleaning.
  3. A chic home (ha!) where nothing is broken or botched – as opposed to a residence filled with mismatched furnishings and dated lighting, where the drive is paved with weeds and the kitchen floor (a bunch of lino tiles stuck down by me) doesn’t quite meet the knackered MDF kick boards; a place where friends don’t stare embarrassingly at the hole in the ceiling I attempted to fill with expanding foam, resulting in an ugly bulge that has turned black at the edges; or where I wake every morning faced with the hole I kicked in the plasterboard on my side of the bed one day when I was feeling cross … somewhere I can open my underwear drawer without having to stick the handle back on it first and yank the hairdryer cord out of the way; or where the sealant I so expertly replaced around the bath (back in my hazy days of aspiration) hasn’t turned black because the extractor fan died eight years ago and no bugger has replaced it; or where the living room door isn’t framed with three layers of ugly wiring because we couldn’t decide where to put the TV.
  4. A wardrobe of co-ordinated, well-cut, age-appropriate clothes that fit and flatter me – as opposed to a wardrobe partially blocked by a drum kit (which in turn serves as a makeshift clothes horse) and with one door hanging off it, that houses an assortment of random crap, none of which remotely goes with anything else, all of which was cheap as chips (apart from my Phase Eight dress), and virtually none of which makes me feel good about myself; or the stack of cheap jeans, t-shirts and vest tops in one of my bedside cabinet drawers, which for some reason look nowhere near as good on me as they do my 14-year-old daughter.
  5. Good organisational skills – as opposed to the constant stress of running late, arriving at work with a minute to spare and having to bear the guilt of my kids frequently being slightly late for school; or having to apologise to friends or relatives yet again when we rock up later than other guests who’ve had to travel the length of the country and still managed to make it on time; or the nightly Battle of the Bedtime with Little Daughter, caused by my apparent inability to get her to bed at a decent hour before she is overtired and grumpy.
  6. A published novel (I would settle now for a completed novel) – as opposed to the torturous reminder that I made it to 75,000 words in a matter of months before stopping for no reason I can fathom and now, several years later and when it has locked me out completely, I still have to respond to my friends’ loyal and enthusiastic enquiries about its progress.

If these things mattered to you enough, you’d make them happen, I tell myself, but I don’t believe it. They do matter to me immensely – I know if those wishes came true I’d feel calm, fulfilled and happy – but I also realise no-one else can make them come true and, as things stand and for reasons best known to itself, my subconscious (that sly master of self-sabotage) is not having a bar of it. Or perhaps it’s something to do with being naturally scatty, having four jobs, three kids and a husband who works long and irregular hours. Perhaps it’s partly down to a lack of funds and/or expertise when it comes to fixing things. Or maybe I’m just a lazy cow. Hmm.

Whatever the case, this year, rather than beating myself up as usual, I want to try to ignore the pressure of myriad Facebook posts telling me how short life is, how nothing is given and you need to go out there and ‘make it happen’, and how people on their death beds regret not taking every opportunity and living life to the full (whatever that actually constitutes). I want to reflect a little differently on the past 12 months.

Pushing all of the above to one side for a moment, I have experienced a great deal in 2016. I have experienced fear, delight, sadness, fury and fierce pride, and not a little gratitude. There have been tears of laughter (attempting to take selfies with my 95-year-old Nan in hospital), and tears of disbelieving elation when watching my son smash his 5k PB by several minutes in his first Race for Life, arriving 20th in a field of 2000.

The most important thing, the best thing, I did this year was playing the piano at the funeral of 20-year-old Hope Harrison. This was a privilege like no other; a responsibility so sacred that I was able to elevate myself above my usual fog of nerves and self-doubt and focus on doing what I was there to do. Inspired by Hope’s life of kindness and charity, I visited Peterborough one evening to distribute food and hot drinks to homeless people, accompanied by a lady called Sharon I had never previously met – yet who, several hours later, had become a firm friend.

A couple of weeks ago I had the unpleasant experience of a breast biopsy, and the unnerving wait that followed before receiving the happy news that all was well. I will never again complain about having a flat chest. It’s a small change, but no doubt a welcome one for my long-suffering best friends.

In the summer I fulfilled a long-term wish to holiday in Cornwall, which was every bit as wild, beautiful, spiritual and magical as I had hoped.

Creatively I may not ever finish that novel, but I have had the opportunity to rehearse and perform with a band, along with my older daughter, and this has made me absurdly happy. My work is low-key and often repetitive, yet it has its rewarding moments. Telling a parent their small boy passed his grade one piano exam with merit never gets old.

Maybe 2017 will be the year I start turning my wishes into realities. If not, maybe I can just waft them away and replace them with something a little kinder, a little more compassionate, a little less condemnatory. In the meantime, if anyone reading this fancies themselves as a life coach and could do with a challenge, then step right up!

Happy New Year.

Don’t fear the teens

I read a great deal of blog posts about the joys and, more particularly, the challenges of parenting small children these days, and it’s a good thing. When you’re sleep deprived, when your house is a tip, when you haven’t been allowed to go for a poo on your own for as long as you can remember and Grampy Rabbit’s ‘The Sea, The Sky’ song is your perpetual ear worm, it’s both comforting and validating to be reassured that freezer food isn’t going to kill anyone, that all of us shriek at our kids sometimes and that when you’ve had a particularly tough day it’s OK to yearn for the moment they’re safely tucked up in bed so that you can rip into that bottle of prosecco.

I see fewer articles about parenting teens, and those I do see tend to be academic or instructional (“How to make your teen keep a tidy bedroom”, or “How to ensure your teen never takes drugs”), rather than celebrating the raw guts and glory of parenting à la Peter and Jane or The Unmumsy Mum. And despite the fraught times experienced by all parents of littlies, I pretty much guarantee that, if pushed, they’d admit to blanching at the prospect of some day exchanging those adorable bundles of joy for the hulking, hairy, hormonal, headstrong teenagers they are destined to become. I certainly would have done.

Teenagers used to terrify me: not only when I was a child, but when I myself became a teen and even during adult life. They are the reason I made the eyebrow-raising decision, in my early thirties and whilst working and raising two small children of my own, to undertake a PGCE in secondary music. (Grief, I had some courage back then.) Teenagers frightened me, so I decided I’d face that fear and learn to teach them. The reactions of those around me didn’t always inspire confidence.

Big kids?” said one friend. “But you’re so little!”

“What, in secondary schools?” gasped another. “Ahh, no, I can’t imagine you doing that; you’re so quiet!”

I’m happy to report I survived the experience and even quite enjoyed some of it. And it did give me a useful insight into teens and pre-teens. In large groups they could still be intimidating, even brutal. At one point I was defeated by a class of year 9’s; I literally did the student-teacher thing of running from the classroom in tears. What surprised me was that they felt remorseful about it! They are human after all, I realised.

Once I’d got my bearings and was able to put together and deliver some good lessons, I experienced some truly rewarding moments: these kids were able and eloquent, but more than that they brought with them fresh perspectives that kept me re-evaluating my own – not just where my subject (music) was concerned, but on a whole raft of levels. Getting to know them was a privilege, and kept me on my toes (as did my high heels. And I was still the shortest person in the room).

As a parent of one fully-fledged teen and another months away from the big 1-3, it is their perspectives on different things that continue to surprise me and keep me thinking. When you parent young children you get used to calling the shots. On many counts you have to: it’s safety first. As they get older you have a choice: you can try to enforce your views, or you can listen to theirs and probably become a little more enlightened. Parenting, like so much of life, is a series of surrenders, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The outspoken reaction of my daughter and her friends towards the Brexit referendum made me very proud (at 14 I didn’t have a clue about politics). Their attitude towards sexuality is different and more evolved than mine: it’s all about the individual and not about pigeonholing. It simply isn’t an issue to them if somebody happens to be gay, bi or trans; doesn’t even register as a ‘thing’.

Is it easier parenting teenagers than it is small children? Everyone who has experienced both will have their own response to this, but for me it’s not a straightforward yes/no question. With small children you are always on duty, which in itself is exhausting. With teens it’s a balancing act: sometimes you need to call the shots, sometimes you need to back off and, against the inauspicious backdrop of your perpetually diminishing influence, you’re somehow supposed to know which battles to pick.

Your teen often won’t express the same kind of heart-melting affection that your little ones will. I remember discussing this with my mother-in-law once while on holiday. I attempted to ask her at what age my son was likely to stop giving me hugs, but I couldn’t even reach the end of the question without dissolving into tears (yes, alcohol was involved, but you get the point!) Well, he hasn’t stopped giving me hugs so far, and neither has Big Daughter, and long may that continue.

As for the smaller challenges of raising teens, there are plenty. You can’t tuck them into bed and then rip into a bottle of prosecco because they stay up later than you (and if they’re out, someone needs to be sober to pick them up). If you want to have sex you need to keep it silent as the grave because they’re awake (granted, they’re almost certainly plugged into their ears, but you can never be sure). They teach your three-year-old to call you “butthead” and quote Family Guy while she’s at nursery (giggety). You may feel your very soul is being eroded by the omnipresence of small screens. Fun family chats and singalongs in the car are a thing of the past because each of them is listening to his or her own music. You need a gas mask to enter their bedrooms (after knocking – do knock), but mostly put up with the knee-deep chaos because you know their brains are busy rewiring themselves right now and therefore making a fuss about the state of their rooms is a battle best left unpicked.

You laugh in your sleeve – albeit in a slightly unhinged way – at parents of younger children who pride themselves on strictly limited screen times or bright and early starts at the weekend when heading out on a lovely nature ramble while your teens are still farting away under their duvets at lunchtime. And you’ll never again know the satisfaction of having the last word and slamming the door because that’s a privilege you unwittingly pass on to them, while you assume the rather more dull role of grown-up.

There are, of course, plenty of compensations, lie-ins being one of them (or they would be, if I hadn’t gone and had another baby a few years ago, but that’s a tale for another post). Nights in while my husband is away are far more enjoyable now that the older two are up with me watching stuff we all actually want to watch. Through them I’ve discovered Lost, The Big Bang Theory (OK, I also have to credit my friend Will with those two), Modern Family and Once Upon a Time, all of which I’ve greedily binge-watched with either or both of them. I like to think I’ve returned the favour: my son is now an avid Doctor Who fan and Big Daughter can recite the script to Dirty Dancing practically verbatim. There’s been a similarly fruitful exchange where music is concerned, particularly Muse (mine) and Panic at the Disco (theirs). Going to a concert with your teen or pre-teen and knowing the songs does make you feel a bit young and cool.

Conversation is another big plus. All the ear-plugging and small screenage has in no way detracted from my kids’ ability to interact socially and debate the bigger issues. It’s particularly satisfying to hear Big Daughter arguing politics with my husband so eloquently that occasionally he is forced to concede that she ‘might just have a small point there’. As an added bonus, it’s gratifying for me and confidence-building for them that, after years of commitment to their various extra-curricular activities, they’re now getting seriously good at a couple of them.

Becoming a smaller, though still vital,  influence on your child’s life is a double-edged sword. Beginning to relinquish control is always unnerving but it can bring with it a sense of relief: “They seem to be turning out OK in spite of me” is generally how I see it. However, the only people really qualified to evaluate your parenting are, of course, your children. As long as we’re communicating and the hugs keep on coming I’ll continue walking the tightrope and try not to fret too much.

Nature rambles? We can still do those. Just don't push the early start.
Nature rambles? We can still do those. Just don’t push the early start.

Improper teacher: dishing the dirt on life as a peri

For Claire, in fellowship.x

Two years ago I left a job I hated and was forced to leave another job I loved. I vowed never to return to the classroom, pulled myself together as best I could and set about seeking out work as a peripatetic piano teacher. I was dubious that I’d find enough teaching, but gradually things picked up and now I teach over 50 pupils across three schools. Despite what you may think after reading this post I am exceedingly grateful to have this work. The pay isn’t bad, most of the children (and their parents) are lovely, and teaching an instrument can be immensely rewarding … but life as a visiting music teacher brings with it a unique set of challenges.

1) You don’t need to eat. Well you do need to eat, but you don’t need meal breaks. No really, it’s great – you can leave the house with a cup of tea in a lidded plastic mug and a bit of toast and marmite folded over in some foil or kitchen roll: that’s your breakfast, which you scoff whilst driving one-handed to your first port of call. You can also chuck a hastily assembled ham sandwich and various snacks raided from the kids’ treat cupboard into your bag, where they become squashed and warm in time for lunch, which is eaten en route to your next school. Don’t even ask about the state of my car.

2) With regard to the above – sometimes you get free food!  If a pupil is absent or for any other reason you find you have an unexpected break during normal lesson times, you can peek into the empty staff room to see what treats are on offer, and steal one. Or several. (Nope? Just me then!?) One of my schools starts the new term with a big bowl of fruit, but as the end of term approaches the tins of chocolates and the home made cakes start to appear. If you’re lucky you can grab the last piece of cake that everyone was too polite to take while the staff room was full. In addition to this, I must pay homage to the delightful chef-cum-lunchtime supervisor at the same school who often takes pity on me and saves me a piece of pizza toast at break time.

3) You don’t need money. That’s right, I do this job just for the love of it! It’s not as if my lessons are my livelihood, or that my ability to pay the bills is severely impacted by multiple delayed payments … Many parents are excellent at paying their children’s lesson fees on time, for which any peripatetic teacher is eternally grateful, but when it comes to late (or extremely late) payment of fees you quickly discover the regular culprits. I have never had a problem with a late payment in the case of financial difficulty or ‘having to wait until pay day’ (we’ve all been there); I’m talking about the kind of parent who, six weeks in, having been repeatedly phoned and emailed by me – which I hate having to do, by the way – as well as chased by the school office, sends their child in with the message “Mum says we can’t pay you until the extension’s finished”. And then sods off on holiday to the Caribbean.

4) No-one cares how your day was. Actually, this is probably unfair. They may care, but they don’t ask. Granted, when new acquaintances ask what you do and you reply “I teach piano/violin/woodwind/brass percussion*” they’ll light up and say “Oh how lovely!”, but then that’s pretty much it. People who know you are even worse, not that I can blame them. My husband manages an orchestra. He travels internationally, meets all kinds of celebrities (Kermit, Beyonce and Tiny Clanger to name but three), and once even stood backside-to-backside with Pippa Middleton in Buckingham Palace wearing a shirt from Primark (him, not her). If you’re considering asking someone about their day and would appreciate an interesting response, my husband’s a fair bet. But, with the notable exception of one or two close friends and family members, people tend to steer clear of asking me about my working day. Why wouldn’t they? I teach a bunch of kids the piano. What on earth is there to ask about!? Why dig that awkward hole? Moving on.

*delete/amend as applicable

5) You’re not a ‘proper’ teacher.  You can’t be: sometimes you arrive and half of your pupils have gone out on a jolly that no-one has bothered to tell you about. This minor irritation aside, people – OK, teachers – have made the assumption on several occasions that I’m not a fully qualified teacher. Actually I am, and I now make a point of letting my colleagues-at-one-remove know it. Yes, I have a PGCE but I ‘just’ teach the piano now. Yes, it was by choice. And yes, I’ll be clocking off at 5 pm rather than planning until gone midnight like I used to do.

6) You irritate the ‘proper’ teachers. Granted, some of them are charming about the interruptions to their lessons. And others do their best to smile graciously (even if it does come across as more of a grimace). But, with the best will in the world, you are persona non grata when it comes to classroom teachers, and you can’t help but notice the pursed lips, the barely suppressed huff, the quiet ‘tut’ before basic good manners dictate that an attempt at a smile is required. And then of course a few of them don’t have the best will in the world, or any manners whatsoever. The most stressful moment of my week consists of psyching myself up to knock confidently on the door of a certain teacher’s classroom, open it with a smile and say “Hello! Could I borrow ***** for a few minutes please?” Having to apologise for your existence is pretty demeaning. Note: when I was a proper teacher I was one of the charming ones.

7) You aren’t to be trusted. And I’m not talking about the last slice of cake in the staff room. There is always, always one parent who’s somehow got it into their head that you are out to rob them. This is the parent who texts or emails you before you’ve even made it through the front door after a particularly stressful day, demanding to know precisely when little Jeremy’s missed lesson will be made up because he was on a school trip today, and they’ve paid for 12 lessons but according to their records he’s only had 10 (regardless of the fact that there are still two weeks to go and there are only so many times you can reassure this parent that you leave catch up weeks for exactly this kind of thing, and everyone signs in so you can keep track of who has had what lessons, and if they read the terms and conditions they’d realise you’re not actually under any obligation to make up lessons that are missed due to pupil absence but you do anyway, because you are nice, so would it really hurt to be a bit more gracious?)

8) What holiday pay? Unless you’re very lucky and teach in a lovely posh school, there isn’t any. In some cases you even have to pay for room hire. And with most parents paying at the start of each term, the summer months can be mighty lean.

9) It can be exhausting.  Sounds pathetic, I know. But honestly, it can! When you teach upwards of 50 pupils each week, the vast majority of them beginners, keeping things fresh, inspiring and pacy takes it out of you. I promise enthusiasm and patience, and I do my utmost to deliver both … but it comes at a cost, and when I get home I’m aching to don my comfortable and familiar scowl for the evening and watch something with lots of swearing in it.

10) You crave adult company. Please know that I love children. I adore children. I love how a single hilarious phrase (“I’ve just done a carrot poo”, for instance) or clumsily worded compliment can brighten my day. All ages are brilliant; I even like teenagers. But oh, how I miss having colleagues. Good schools value their peripatetic staff. I am fortunate to teach in good schools. But the sad truth is you’re never really part of things; you’re on the periphery (in this sense the common abbreviation of ‘peri’ works doubly well). I don’t regret leaving the stress, the paperwork, the responsibilities and the crowd control aspects of classroom teaching, but I do miss being an integral cog in the crazy, complex, emotionally charged wheel that is school life. I miss belonging; I miss being known.

How strange. I thought I was such an introvert.

Cornwall on a Shoestring (Mostly)

Something inside me has yearned for some time to visit Cornwall: its rugged landscapes; jagged, dramatic cliffs; its sense of ancient mystery dating back to pre-christian times (I have the greatest respect for christianity, but sometimes you can’t beat a bit of home-grown paganism). We’ve ‘done’ Devon many times, and I love it. For my husband, no holiday in the South West is complete without a visit to Widdicombe-in-the-Moor for a cream tea (and you have to drive in the right way, the one that displays the lovely view of the tiny, chocolate box village spread out below you as you approach). But this year I decided Tintagel, St Michael’s Mount and – especially – the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Boscastle could wait no longer, and so we embarked on what turned out to be a 10-hour journey, the car crammed to the hilt with tent, pillows, sleeping bags, camping paraphernalia and three children, trading the sunshine and 26 degree heat of Cambridgeshire for Cornwall’s traditional mizzle.

If you’ve read my post Pint Pots and Porta-Loos you’ll know that I enjoy camping despite its drawbacks (namely the lack of an in-tent toilet for night time, though I’ve found my own ‘back to basics’ way round this, and potential noise when I’m trying to sleep). As my in-laws have very kindly given us their old caravan, I was aware that this might be our last holiday under canvas, which heightened both my frustrations with, and sense of appreciation of, all things tentish.

Lack of space was more of an issue than ever, with all of us attempting to live out of one enormous suitcase. Everything we wore was crumpled from rummaging, and somehow no-one had enough pants. Airbeds kept deflating because of Little Daughter jumping on them. Spiders were rife, and seemed to possess the ability to permeate canvas as if by osmosis. Luckily, although they weren’t small they were sufficiently spindly for me to deal with. (Those juicy-bodied, segmenty-legged garden spiders? No chance.) Noise was not a problem at all; in fact, I think most of the other holidaymakers with their caravans viewed us as ‘that noisy family with the tent’. A few days in, a very fat man pitched up next door with his family, and I must admit when I saw him airing his extensive beer gut from the comfort of his reinforced deck chair I did groan inwardly, thinking “Great. A snorer”. As it happens, though, my prejudice proved unfounded, as prejudices generally are.

The joys, apart from the cost – £142 for 6 days somewhere dizzyingly gorgeous, with electric hook-up and the most beautifully appointed ablutions building I’d ever experienced on a camping holiday – included the lack of screens, belly laughs a-plenty, wonderful places to visit* and everything we ate (even tinned value meatballs) tasting amazing. You get seriously hungry when you’re camping. We felt more completely and fully a family than we had in some time. Let’s face it, when your kids are 14, 11 and 3 and girl-boy-girl it can be hard to find common ground. That’s another thing I love about camping. It cuts through all kinds of crap: there’s no sense of entitlement, no spending ages on your appearance, no pressure to appear cool, not even any uploading pictures to Facebook (because happy times only count when you document them in photographic form to the world at large, right!?)

For me there was also a certain proud defiance. I hear many people my age claim that their camping days are over, or that they ‘like their creature comforts now’. Either they’re saying they’re too old and achey – which naturally I refuse to do – or they’re hinting that they’ve done so well for themselves they no longer need to rough it. Well, each to their own, but as far as I’m concerned camping is utterly fab. If we do end up selling or giving away our tent, I will view it as a sad surrender.

As for Cornwall itself, I was every bit as enchanted as I had hoped to be. New experiences were offered, and new, surprising dimensions teased out of us. Where else could an 11-year-old boy break (yes, break) a 900-year-old castle and hurl the evidence into crashing waves hundreds of feet below? (OK then, not all surprising.) Who could have known, crossing the bridge to the ablutions building at the campsite one morning, that Little Daughter would be overcome with such high spirits that she would playfully slap the behind of a friendly chap who had stopped to let us pass? (It was her. I swear it on all I hold dear.) And how often is a teenage girl tempted out from behind her phone by greenery? Or rather, by the lush, undulating, tropical beauty of Glendurgan gardens (how can that place by in the UK!? There are leaves the size of mattresses!) She even photographed some astonishing flowers that looked like dancing flames. On her phone, of course.

For my husband and me, things were even more dramatic: he took a startling and unprecedented pride in keeping the tent tidy, and I found myself going over to chat with the people next door. I, the ultimate introvert. Chatting with strangers. And I instigated it.

The climate was all over the place; it just added to the sense of wild abandon. Rain threatened, fell, backed off, fell again, threatened, disappeared and then the sun came out and roasted us for all of seven minutes until the clouds that had been heading away decided to return and give us a bit more rain. It was exhausting, but you’ve never seen rainbows like it. Unfortunately, my husband, who always has the daunting task of loading the car, had not packed wellies and waterproofs due to lack of space(!), but we coped.

Next year’s holiday is going to cost many times more than this year’s, and we’re all looking forward to it. But will we be as many times happier while we’re there? Doubtful. Now excuse me while I go and upload my holiday pics to Facebook …

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Where we stayed

Cosawes Park, between Truro and Falmouth. http://www.cosawes.co.uk Highlight: the immaculate facilities, particularly the large, luxurious shower rooms for disabled people or those with small children. It’s also really, really pretty.

*Where we went

St Michael’s Mount (free for National Trust members). Highlight: walking across the causeway while it is still slightly submerged – you feel like Jesus. http://www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk

Tintagel Castle (free for English Heritage members). Highlight: the views. Ahhh, those views. We were lucky – this was our only half day of sunshine. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tintagel-castle/

Glendurgan Gardens (free for National Trust members – loving that birthday present so much, dear in-laws!) Highlight: the maze – it’s a proper beastie; also, feeling as if you are in a tropical rainforest whilst enjoying our gentler climate. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/glendurgan-garden

The Lobster Hatchery in Padstow (£9 family ticket). The find of the holiday! Highlight: its uniqueness, plus the knowledge and enthusiasm of the staff. Oh, and the baby lobsters. http://www.nationallobsterhatchery.co.uk

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle. Highlight: I loved it all, but was particularly touched by the magnanimous display of Christian magic considering the historical persecution of those accused of the evils of witchcraft by the Church (not to mention burnt, drowned, tortured and what have you. Did you know ‘pagan’ simply means ‘country dweller’, by the way? And that most of those accused of ‘witchcraft’ were simply herbalists and other sweet, gentle people who happened to be a wee bit more in touch with nature and the wheel of the year than others? Sorry, am I going off at a tangent?) Beautiful, atmospheric Boscastle itself is well worth a visit even if magic isn’t your thing. http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk

The thrift factor

  • Take your time seeking out a campsite: ask around for recommendations, read reviews on TripAdvisor or similar, and compare prices and facilities. I couldn’t believe that somewhere as lovely as Cosawes charged just £142 in high season for 6 days with hook-up, when everywhere else in Cornwall I looked at charged £200-£300. There was no catch: it was fantastic.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have National Trust membership, use it. The NT places near where I live are certainly pretty, but St Michael’s Mount and Glendurgan absolutely blew me away. Another league entirely.
  • Stock up on tinned food for dinner and make picnics to take for lunch. On our second day we spent £38 at the local Asda, which sorted us for five dinners, several picnics and two days’ worth of breakfasts. We’d generally start the day with sausage or bacon sandwiches, which smell and taste divine when you’re camping. Forget healthy food. You’re on holiday. Stage a loud conversation  in front of the supermarket cashier about camping if you feel they might be judging you for feeding your kids tinned hotdogs and Smash.
  • If the weather’s good, you’re spoilt for choice. If not so good, the place you’re staying is bound to have loads of leaflets advertising local all-weather attractions, and there are generally money off coupons to use. The savings may not be great, but every little helps. Talking of which …
  • Don’t forget good old Tesco Clubcard. We didn’t visit Flambards this time, but it is fantastic and if you use your points you can get in for free, saving £10-£20 per person.
  • Take loads of bottled water with you. We always got through more than we anticipated.
  • With your savings you can splurge on ice cream, fish and chips by the sea, cream teas and, of course, Cornish pasties. Yum!

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Checkout Guy

During the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had the odd gripe (usually about myself, and occasionally about the dearth of clothes I can find which actually fit me), but I like to think that largely I’ve been promoting positive vibes. I’ve discussed serious issues – harrowing, even – but with a focus on the positive: someone or something that has inspired or moved me; a rethink of priorities; a counting of blessings.

Today, however, I’m going to have a moan.

Before I do have a moan, I’d like to make it clear that in the 12 years I’ve shopped at my local Tesco, I’ve had very little cause for complaint. Staff have always been friendly and helpful, and sometimes gone the extra mile – for example, the lovely lady who appeared at my side one day at the checkout when I was stressed and exhausted with two kids in tow, smiled a smile that said more than words ever could, and began packing my bags for me. I’m grateful to the patient customer services staff who graciously refund my endless purchases of clothes that don’t fit (“Sorry, too big again”; “No problem, my love”), and to the nice young men who obligingly fetch things down for me from the top shelves.

But yesterday I encountered something really quite horrid.

I had loaded my few items onto the conveyer belt and was waiting for the chap in front of me to finish paying, when a loud squawk erupted from a small child in a trolley at the adjacent checkout. Granted, it was a proper, wince-inducing “yowch” of a squawk, but then it was over. The checkout guy rolled his eyes at the chap in front and said “Just what you need, isn’t it?”

“Hmm, bit mean”, I thought, as chap in front took his bags and departed.

“Bet you’re glad you don’t have a kid like that”, said checkout guy as I approached.

I was flummoxed for a moment, because I’ve always liked this particular checkout guy, with his long hippie hair, easy smile and usually interesting conversation.

“Well I’m going to stick up for the kid”, I said after a pause.

He looked at me incredulously.

“We’ve all been there, haven’t we?” I said, with my best now come on, let’s be nice smile. “I was a toddler once. So were you.”

“I never did that”, he countered flatly. “You should see the things I see in here.”

“Yes, I’m sure”, I replied earnestly. “But that was just a small kid making a loud noise, like small kids do. Most toddlers have tantrums; it’s all part of development, isn’t it?”

“Nope. I never did it”, he said. “It’s the truth”, he added, as it was now my turn to look incredulous. “And neither did my kids.”

I listened, and did my best to reason with him, as checkout guy then proceeded to pass judgement on the parenting of the poor woman at the next till (who, by this time, had left with her child), along with countless other customers who had clearly had the audacity to shop with non-silent children. I dread to think how many times he must have judged me and/or my children over the years, slagging us off without compunction to whoever he was serving a couple of checkouts away.

According to checkout guy, the reason he and none of his children ever had a tantrum or misbehaved even slightly in public is that they “wouldn’t have dared”. “A slap on the back of the legs; that’d do it”, he said. “You should see them in here, kicking off, and the parents do nothing”.

“That lady took her child straight out”, I said, with an attempt at a breezy laugh. “And her kid made one sound!”

He wouldn’t have it, of course. “It all comes down to parenting”, he bulldozed on.

“Well the advice these days is to ignore undesired behaviour”, I countered, even though I was aware it was pointless. “The ‘all attention is good attention’ thing. I feel sorry for young parents these days, doing what they’ve been advised to do and being judged all over the place because of it!”

“Yeah, well the judging never used to happen because kids wouldn’t do that in public”.

I left it there, with him thinking he was right and that he’d convinced me, because the whole thing was leaving a nasty taste in my mouth. I reflected on it, on the way home and afterwards. Yes, I’m sure supermarket staff see a lot of stuff that makes them inwardly wince and roll their eyes. I have no doubt they witness examples of what some, if not most, of us would regard as ‘poor parenting’. And if you’ve been subjected to countless screaming kids all day, I can see why one more shrill shriek could be the final straw.

But, checkout guy:

You don’t slag off your customers to other customers! You just don’t. Especially when it’s a mum and her very little boy who have done no harm to anybody and who probably think, as I’ve always thought, that you’re a Jolly Nice Bloke.

There’s a huge difference between a toddler doing what toddlers do, and an unchecked eight-year-old being a downright brat-fink – and even then, it never does to pass judgement (well OK, not out loud) because you can’t possibly know what learning challenges the eight-year-old may or may not have.

You don’t sit there – at your checkout – passing judgement on an entire generation of parents and their children, especially when you choose to have a job that entails dealing with them all day long and having them believe you’re a Jolly Nice Bloke, and more especially because you have no idea how we parent! There’s no one size fits all when it comes to parenting, just as no two children are alike. We can’t all get on with online shopping (I have tried!) We can’t all leave our kids at home when we go shopping and we can’t always bring them when they’re in the best frame of mind, but deal with that!! (I’m afraid we’re not all going to stop and “give them a slap” mid-way down the frozen food aisle either).

If your children genuinely didn’t have tantrums, then please have the decency to do what other parents in that situation do – i.e. you don’t broadcast it, and you consider yourself lucky rather than priding yourself on your obviously superlative parenting. It’s a bit like toilet training. I stupidly felt pleased with myself when my daughter was dry day and night before she was two and a half … and then it was my son’s turn, and oh my goodness, what a different story that was.

I’ll be avoiding your checkout in future. In fact, I’ll be giving it a very wide berth. But I always like to finish on a positive, so I’ll end with a compliment: for someone who evidently grew up in the Victorian era, you don’t ‘arf age well. I could have sworn you were barely 10 years older than me.

CC The Manager, my local Tesco – to whom I’d like to add that shopping at your store with my three-year-old is generally a pleasant experience, she appreciates the free piece of fruit on offer and enjoys helping me fill the trolley and load items onto the conveyer belt.

Small, skint skinny facing the big pricey world