All posts by Mini Mumma

Three kids, two hands and a shitload of plates

For Will, the master of time, with love and envy in equal measure

Yesterday was one of those days.

A friend said to me a couple of years ago “You’re spinning too many plates, you know. You need to drop a plate.” She was right, and a few months ago I did. I quit my Monday job. Being a fair old commute from home it was the obvious choice. It wasn’t easy for me, being a people-pleaser, but once it was done I had a few hours per week to myself and I thought, This was the change I needed to make. Now I’ll be able to get organised.

I am somebody who is habitually late or almost late. It is an extremely stressful way of being. I don’t choose to be that way and it has nothing whatsoever to do with disrespecting people: the amount of time I spend zooming around in my car* swearing and cursing (at myself as often as not), gripping the wheel like a vice, brow furrowed and every muscle in my body tense is, I’m fairly certain, bound to knock years off my life in the long term. If I reach ‘long term’, of course. Who would choose that!? Not to mention how unpleasant it must be for my kids, and my sinking feeling of despair and failure whenever I make them late. But never mind, because with this new free time, all would be sorted: I would be able to get ahead.

My cluttered, crazy house has been a source of tension, dismay and bewilderment to me for as long I can remember. How I envy friends with excellent, ingrained housekeeping skills who appear not to have to try; those with homes that seem to function smoothly and easily with just “a quick wipe round” and a vacuum. But no longer would this be the case: I had time now, and my home would soon be decluttered, efficiently organised and sparkling.

Needless to say, neither situation has significantly improved. This is because the problem was not merely the lack of time; the problem was also me simply being me, and that’s not going to change no matter how many plates come clattering down. On a good day, I tell myself “It’s fine – I have other skills and qualities”. On a bad day, like yesterday, it’s difficult to pick out the positives, so it’s best just to laugh (with myself, you understand, not at myself).

It started with me getting the date of my son’s GCSE options interview wrong. Usually I volunteer at Little Daughter’s school on Tuesday mornings, but had cancelled this week thinking it was the interview. Turns out that was the following week, so I flapped around for a bit feeling cross with myself and texting my husband saying please could he attend instead as I didn’t want to miss another morning volunteering.

At least that freed up a couple of unexpected hours, I thought, sitting down at the computer to catch up with a bit of admin and suddenly realising that I hadn’t timetabled any of this half term’s piano lessons at one of my schools – the one I was due at that afternoon, in fact. So I swore a bit and cracked on with the timetables, pinging them round apologetically to parents and promising to collect all the children from lessons that day.

Having a mind that flits around and won’t sit still is exhausting, but at least it reminds me to do things, albeit sporadically, randomly and at inopportune moments. Half way through the first timetable my mind shouted out “School milk!”, reminding me I’d forgotten all about Little Daughter’s request to have milk at school again now that she has turned five and it is no longer free. I signed her up, cursing myself that she’d have to wait another week, whereas if I’d got on to it at the beginning of the half term week she would have received it from today.

After that the mental memos started pinging with increasing frequency and urgency:

Where’s the number for that Hunts Post woman who hasn’t got back to me about Toby’s paper round? I need to ring her right now.

Where can I find a backing track for Havana suitable for a group of five-year-olds? I’d better get on YouTube.

How I am going to find time to make a costume for book week? Is a Disney Princess dress acceptable at a pinch?

What are we having for dinner? Have I got time to stick something in the slow cooker now? I’ll just go and put that joint of pork on …

What time is Francesca’s sixth form interview this evening? Can I bring Nancy? If not, can I leave Toby in charge?

I haven’t paid for Toby’s music school this term. Oops, oh dear, I’m over a month late. Better do that now.

The house is being valued tonight: what if there’s an ear plug on the floor or some pants on a radiator? Do I have time to check before work?

That wet washing is still in the machine. When did it go in …? Yesterday morning. Bollocks, I’d better hang it out now or it will start to smell.

Is Alex away tonight? Does he need me to collect him from the station? What if I’m at my French lesson? What if I’m driving Toby to or from boxing? Have I got money for boxing?

Ahh, I love  French. My one little bit of ‘me’ time every week.

Oh crap – French – will I have time to do my homework? No. Crap.

I still haven’t written that letter to Nan, and she might die really soon. I’m a dreadful human being and the worst granddaughter in the world.

I really want some noodles. I’m going to make some noodles.

Rather than leaving early for work, as I was sure I’d be able to do having these unexpected bonus hours, I ended up driving like a maniac again and arriving barely on time as usual.

After work things did not improve. Little Daughter was delightful when I collected her from school, transitioning instantly to devil-child as soon as the car door was closed (what is that about? Is it hunger? Tiredness? General disappointment at having me for a mother?), and I was in no temper to ‘meet her feelings’ and be a good parent, so all in all it was an unpleasant journey home.

After a piano lesson with a lovely little boy (the highlight of my day – there! Some good can always be found!), my estate agent friend came round to value the house. Once again, I blithely underestimated the time required, thinking it quite possible to have a cuppa and a catch-up, value the house, make comparisons with other houses and discuss where to go next all within the space of 40 minutes. Most embarrassingly, my friend, who had come round on his day off (and is suffering from new parent sleep deprivation), ended up being practically bustled out of the front door with his tea undrunk.

Two minutes later I shoved a protesting Nancy in Toby’s direction, yelling “We’ll be back in half an hour – call if you need me”, locked the door in case she tried to follow me out and sped off with a stressed Francesca to her sixth form interview, swearing at the traffic lights and arriving one minute late. I spoke very little during the interview, interjecting at just one point to mention that Francesca had expressed an interest in a subject which, post-interview, it turned out she no longer wished to study but hadn’t been able to say so after I’d raised it because the teacher had been so enthused … and no, it wouldn’t help for me to email the teacher because it was done now, it was ‘a thing’, and that was on me, so thanks a lot.

It was around this point that I remembered I had not booked Nancy in for breakfast club the next day, and it was now too late, so I rang a friend who willingly agreed to give her breakfast and take her to school. Another good moment. Relief. And breathe. Just for a moment, breathe.

After a dinner of overcooked slow cooker pulled pork I got Nancy ready for bed and headed off to my French lesson, leaving my phone on charge because it had suddenly run out of battery, and uneasily telling Francesca that she’d have to ring Alex if there were any problems. When I pulled into the drive just over an hour later at 9.45 pm she met me at the door.

“What’s wrong?” I gasped, panic rising.

“Dad says his train is just pulling in and can you pick him up?” she replied.

Barely registered relief, and off I set once again, swearing at the red lights and craving my bed.

All’s well that ends well; it was just a day of far too many plates. I would love to be able to say it was a one-off.

 

*I never exceed 30 in a 30 zone. I just felt the need to clarify that.

Stay Play Explore Short Breaks: Still A Hidden Gem?

My good friend Kirsty did me a huge favour when she told me about Leicestershire’s Stay Play Explore short breaks a few years ago. If you’re a family with two or three school age kids and you live within a two hour drive of the area I’d recommend SPE wholeheartedly. (Actually, they also do breaks for two adults which I’m sure are worth a look, but I can’t vouch for these personally.) http://www.stayplayexplore.co.uk

Here’s how it works: you book a night (you can book more) in one of the five four-star hotels on offer and can then select family tickets to any three of nine different attractions. These tickets are valid for a year, so there’s no rush to fit them all in – you can come back and enjoy a day out at a later date. A huge and varied buffet breakfast is thrown in, you have virtually unlimited use of the lovely swimming pools, and all SPE bookings are upgraded to executive suites. Nice.

The pool at Jury’s Inn, Hinckley Island. The lighting changes colour; it’s gorgeous!

Among the attractions currently on offer are a water park, zoo, ski centre, theme park and the National Space Centre. There’s always an historical attraction too: when we last visited it was Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, but at the moment it’s the King Richard III Visitor Centre, so you can make sure your kids get a healthy dose of education and culcha. They vary in length of visit and price, so if you’re a family of four keen to get maximum bang for your buck you might consider the following:

Twycross Zoo (£60); Twinlakes Park (variable, but usually £80 at weekends and during school holidays); National Space Centre (£50 for two adults and two children over five). Bed and breakfast for a night booked separately at Jury’s Inn, Hinckley Island (one of the hotels on offer) will set you back £104 for a ‘family room with superior package’, which is probably on a par with SPE’s ‘upgrade to executive suite’.

In total, that’s £294 if you pay for the component parts. If you go through SPE you pay £149. £149! Isn’t that great!? I love uncovering a bargain; it gives me a cosy glow right down to my skint mini bones.

One of the loveliest things about SPE, in this age of crazy where parents are penalised by local education authorities for taking kids on holiday during term time and penalised by greed (sorry, market forces – grrr) for taking them on holiday during school holidays, is that the price remains the same all year round. Actually, it rises to £159 around bank holidays, but that’s it. So for once you can go away during the school holidays without being even slightly ripped off. How refreshing.

Another fantastic thing about this little gem of a break is that families of five are catered for. If, like me, you fall into this category and your youngest has outgrown a cot, you will know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever tried to book a room in a UK hotel. It’s virtually impossible. However, if you go through SPE you will find at least two hotels that cater for you, for a very reasonable additional £20 (remember this includes breakfast and attractions too). The only slight inconvenience we have experienced is at one of the hotel pools: the strict rules about ratios of supervising parents to kids are fine if you have two, but if you have three then neither parent is able to sneak off to the sauna or steam room, which seems a tad jobsworthy if you have well-behaved teens who have been stronger swimmers than you since they were eight*.

Having ‘done’ Leicestershire several times through SPE, I was delighted to see that comparable breaks to Warwickshire are now on offer too, so we gave this a go at the beginning of this half term. The weather was freezing and often rainy, so we visited Stratford-upon-Avon’s Butterfly Farm and MAD Museum, saving our third ticket for Warwick Castle (the Big Beastie of savings, which alone would have cost us over £100 to visit), which we’ll look forward to enjoying on a warm and sunny day later this year.

If you’re considering the Warwickshire break, you should be aware of the following:

  1. It’s a little more expensive (£185 for the one night plus breakfast and attractions), possibly because Warwick Castle is so costly.
  2. You may be met with initial blank stares when handing over your vouchers at your chosen attractions, but don’t worry – it is quickly sorted, and merely signifies that it’s still early days for SPE in Warwickshire (hence no crowds! Get in there fast!)

We stayed for two nights at the Jury’s Inn, Hinckley Island, which is one of the hotels also available for the Leicestershire breaks and caters for families of five. I do like this hotel. Little Daughter was given a welcome pack on arrival (a nice touch), and Chaz the bar manager introduced himself and had a chat with us on the second evening (he says hi, by the way). Both mornings were deliberately geared towards relaxation, which we all needed, so we slept in (the beds are ridiculously comfortable), took our time over breakfast and then vegged for a while before enjoying the hotel’s newly refurbished leisure pool with its mellow, trippy lighting. Kids aged 12 or over are allowed to use the sauna, steam room and spa pool at this hotel, so alongside my 13-year-old son I got to enjoy a nice steam and space off into the vacant places of my habitually chattering mind. Bliss.

Saturday afternoon we visited the Butterfly Farm, thinking that Little Daughter, aged five, would love it as she’d been learning all about the life cycle of butterflies and reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar at school. All started well, until Big Daughter (15) realised that the large crispy leaf things a few inches in front of her were actually moth cocoons, and that something reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs was starting to wriggle inside one of them. With growing horror, it then dawned on her that enormous moths were dotted about on the trees all around her (thank goodness none of them started flapping), and she had what I shall kindly gloss over as “a moment”, which unfortunately resulted in Little Daughter feeling nervous around the vast array of beautiful butterflies in the main display area.

Little Daughter, Nancy, getting as close as she dares to a butterfly

My husband, son and I really enjoyed the Butterfly Farm. The massive colony of leaf cutter ants parading on a rope above you are fascinating in a slightly creepy, tantalisingly scary way: “What if one of them drops on my head!?” (avoid the aquarium in the corner in which some of them do meet their untimely demise if your children are sensitive), and there’s a substantial collection of big bugs, snakes, lizards and the like. If that’s not your thing you can feed the already enormous fish. The whole place is cutely themed with a shop selling reasonably priced goods, and a visit will take you between one and two hours. http://www.butterflyfarm.co.uk/attraction/index.php

Stratford’s MAD (Mechanical Art and Design) Museum was an immediate hit with all five of us: eccentric, quirky, intimate without being poky and packed with intricate detail that you can watch in mesmerising action through an eclectic display of truly marvellous and inventive works of art. Little Daughter was happy just to press buttons and watch things come to life; Big Daughter was struck by the sheer cleverness and creativity of the designers (in one exhibit strips of wood move in such a way as to depict the rise and fall of waves on the sea; it’s really quite breathtaking); and my son – and later, predictably, his dad – had a great time designing a giant marble run on a magnetic wall. The place is unbelievably cool, and we all left smiling. https://themadmuseum.co.uk

The MAD Museum

Stratford-upon-Avon is, of course, worth a visit at any time, and we’ll definitely be back (I felt a bit bad about not choosing any of the Shakespeare attractions on offer, but we were in part limited by the weather), and despite the cold we enjoyed our evening stroll to Cafe Rouge (with trusty Tesco Clubcard vouchers, of course – settled £80 of what would have been a £92 bill – and they’re being reduced to three times the value rather than four this summer, so use them up soon if you have any hanging around!) The old-fashioned streetlights shone on the wet pavements making them shimmer, as a piano atop a bicycle-like contraption – complete with pianist – was pedalled past us, brightening up the gloom.

Any break that is so thoughtfully and carefully geared towards families with diverse interests and kids of different ages gets a thumbs-up from me, especially when it is such great value. Give it a try!

*A small disclaimer: this particular hotel pool is run by another company, and its rules are not decided by the hotel manager or by SPE.

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.