Notes from my bookshelf #7: Great British Summer reading

I’m having one of those “can I head back to bed” days, not helped by the steadily falling rain as the summer draws to a close, but I have no good reason for hiding under the duvet with a book at 10am, even if the weather is pants. Although an avid reader at the best of times, my summer holiday gives me an opportunity to get through more books than usual, generally from a deckchair with sand between my toes and a packet of Hula Hoops in hand (or huddled under an umbrella with a blanket on my knees and a flask of tea at the ready as my annual holiday is in Cornwall).

I’m not a particularly fast reader, so I tend to be picky about what I read and quite cutthroat in accepting that if a book hasn’t grabbed my attention by the end of the second chapter, then it is resigned to the “don’t bother” pile. Books that others thought were works of literary genius have not cut the mustard with me, such as “The Help”, “The Book Thief” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

This summer, I have been on a roll and managed to get through a number of great reads, helped by the great British summer weather more than anything else. I won’t bore you with the full list, but I have picked my three favourites as recommendations:

  • IMG_0973Bitter Fruits by Alice Clark-Platts. I admit that I am biased with this one, since I had the pleasure of reading it in an early draft when I attended the Curtis Brown writing course with Alice shortly before she signed with her agent. The plot of the book has essentially remained the same since then, but it is now a tighter, more engaging and gripping novel. Set in Durham University, it follows a police investigation after a girl is found murdered on campus and explores the murky world of slut-shaming, revenge porn and online trolling. The whodunit was not as I expected – and I thought I’d figured it out from the start! Now I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the DI Martin series.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For me, the summer is the perfect time to revisit a classic. Since I have great intentions to read Go Set a Watchman, I figured a reread of Harper Lee’s original book was in order. It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager with dreams of being Harper Lee and rereading it as a 41-year-old with the same dreams – as yet unrealised – I was not disappointed. It is still a favourite and I took so much more away from it this time around (not least of which was a new appreciation of Jem). But most importantly, I completely fell in love with Scout as a character all over again. Now I’m not sure if I want to ruin this by reading Go Set a Watchman in case I’m left disappointed.
  • The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish. This is one of those reads where you really dislike the main character – in this case Amber Fraser – and you are essentially hoping she comes to a bitter end at some point, which leaves me with a strange unfulfilled and slightly dirty feeling afterwards, but also means the novel stays with me. The plot follows a young couple as they move into their dream house after purchasing it at a bargain price when the previous owners, the Frasers, disappear overnight. The taut atmosphere with their new neighbours intrigues Christy, to the point where she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Amber Fraser to make them leave so abruptly. There are elements of Hitchcock to the story and of Gone Girl in the narrative. The drama and tension is elevated from start to finish and, although I did find some of Christy’s actions a little unfathomable, I was completely caught up in her investigations. If you like Gillian Flynn, you’ll enjoy this one.

Now onto my autumn reading list, when I really can hide under the duvet because the weather is pants. I’m starting with The Maze Runner, my oldest daughter’s recommendation and in honour of her starting high school next month. Put the kettle on, would you?

The joy of camping and the great outdoors

My husband and children convince me into a camping trip once a year on average and I suffer through it, not necessarily in silence, because I know how much they enjoy it.

But to me it is an absurd way to spend a weekend. Why would you leave your perfectly comfortable home, complete with soft duvet, springy mattress and flushing toilet, to load up the car with more kit than you would need for a two-week European vacation and drive to a remote part of the countryside to sleep in a field with a few hundred random strangers while foregoing all nods to hygiene for fear of either falling over in the portaloo or catching something unspeakable from the public shower block?

A few weeks ago, our annual trip rolled around and I was hoping that the weather would be so inclement that we could cancel a few days before. Alas, no. The day was glorious and spirits were high. My organisational task was catering the food for the three families that were going, so I did the required shopping trip to buy mini boxes of cereal, ready-made salads and as much steak and burgers as our mini bbq could hold. Other Half’s job was to check the camping gear hadn’t been eaten by mice or squirrels since it was stashed in the garage after last year’s trip and to pack the car.

So far, so good: the cooler box of food and beverages was in; there wasn’t a centimetre of breathing space left in the car; Geoffrey the bulldog had been dispatched to the Dog Hotel for the weekend. We were off – and on schedule! We had chosen a campsite close to West Wittering in the optimistic hope of a bit of beach fun, so all manner of activities had been planned, from cricket on the beach to body-boarding in the non-existent waves.

About half an hour from our destination, OH realised he hadn’t packed the bag containing the beach activities. Ok, not a disaster; we can still have fun building sandcastles and paddling in the water. We carried on for another ten minutes before I asked if he had packed the folding chairs. Apparently not. As if on cue, we passed a caravan shop and did a quick handbrake turn into the car park. He disappeared inside and came out ten minutes later with four new chairs, only to ask if I had packed the bag with all of the picnic stuff in – you know, plates, cups, cutlery, kettle. I reminded him that he had had One Job. He disappeared back into the caravan shop to buy the rest of the essentials that were apparently still sitting in our garage, while I cast an eye behind me and wondered what the hell was actually packed, considering there was no room left in the boot.

Twenty minutes later we were back on the road and a few hundred pounds lighter. The memory of the caravan salesman waving us goodbye while wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes stayed with me for the rest of our journey.

Thankfully, night #1 was fairly uneventful once we had erected the tent (in record time for us, probably because we were both now gasping for some sort of alcoholic beverage to numb the pain of how much this little trip had cost us) and found the loo block (walk past the “organic loos” with your sleeve covering your nose to the portaloos at the end of the road). The bbq was lit, the burgers were sizzling and the kids were laughing and having a great time.

That night, we collapsed onto our newly inflated air mattress and hoped for a good sleep. It was absolutely freezing and I had so many layers of clothes on inside my sleeping bag that turning over or moving in the slightest proved incredibly difficult. I spent the night stuck on my back like an overstuffed worm. All I could hear was whispers from other tents, cows mooing and the traffic rushing past on the road beyond the field. At 6am, with the sun streaming in, I gave up and struggled out of the bag to find OH lying on the hard floor after a puncture in his mattress overnight had caused it to deflate completely.

Day #2 and the weather was promising for our trip to the beach. Sunny, not exactly warm, but the wetsuits would come in handy. We packed up our lunchtime picnic, secured the tents and headed off. The beach was busy, but we found a spot and settled in. Then the wind picked up. Within ten minutes, everything was covered in sand and the temperature had dropped substantially. I looked over at my friend in the chair next to mine and she was wearing two hoodies and a woolly hat – that kind of cold. The kids were ok with it, snug and warm in their wetsuits; the mothers less so. The flasks of tea and coffee came out, as did the picnic lunch, and we sat with our backs to the sea, facing the car park, to shelter from the sand blasting our faces.

And we stubbornly refused to move. We were going to spend the day on the beach if it killed us. However, when three of the children in our group were crying from sand stinging their eyes and a crunchy sandwich held no more appeal, we had to admit defeat and return to the campsite.

Instead, we opted for a game of rounders in the field. It started well. We took turns, the children were gracious in accepting parental advice on how to pitch and no car windows were broken. Then other children from other tents started to join in, the group got bigger, the requests to bat and moaning about not having a go reached fever pitch, strange kids started arguing about the rules and we suddenly realised that we had become the childcare providers for all those other adults sitting in their deckchairs, raising a beer to us in thanks. The game went on for hours. Only once we couldn’t see the ball in the dark were we able to call an end to the “fun”.

While we waited for the steaks to cook, one of the dads in our group decided to check the weather as a precaution. Cue the weather alerts for a storm overnight. The discussion began, as we fought to cut through our steak with plastic knives, occasionally spitting out soggy bits of paper plate, as to whether we were going to stick it out. The general consensus was that we would stay – how much worse could it get?

A lot. The weather overnight can easily be described as torrential. The wind howled, the rain pounded into the thin fabric of our tent, lightening flashed and I found myself getting up every hour to check we hadn’t blown away. My husband, on the other hand, apparently had the best night’s sleep ing ages, now that he was on the mattress without a puncture, and woke the next morning looking fresh and alert. I thought he would come to physical harm when he emerged later than the rest of us, saying chirpily to our friends how much sleep he had had, while they were in the process of cleaning up vomit from the inside of their tent after one of their children had had an explosive dose of motion sickness through the night.

With that, we packed up our bags, took down the battered tent and tried to cover the scorch marks in the grass from our enthusiastic bbq. It was over for another year and I waved in delight and relief at the caravan shop as we passed on our way home.

Next year, I may suggest that someone sticks small pins in my eyes rather than go camping again. However, on the plus side, we have more than enough kit these days and will never run out of chairs, unless we forget to pack them again.

The Big Little Food Fib

A few years ago, I lost a lot of weight (almost 4 stone) over a period of about a year. It wasn’t easy, but I managed it through running a lot more, eating less and watching my portion sizes and I have managed to keep the weight off (give or take a few pounds) ever since. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a slave to technology, but one of the most helpful tools in my arsenal during the battle of the bulge has been the mobile app.

I started logging every tiny little thing that passed my lips on MyFitnessPal and every step I took in my trainers on the Nike+ running app. What I came to realise as the weight graph dipped was that all the excuses I used to give – gluten intolerance; thyroid issues; sluggish metabolism; genes – were a load of bollocks. Essentially I ate too much for the amount of calorie-burning going on and the fact that I could eat more pizza than my husband in a single sitting was possibly not a cool talent after all.

In the last few months, that weight has slowly started to tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear that it is trying to make a comeback and I’m nervous. I still have the apps and I still use them on a daily basis (well, almost), but little white lies now niggle at my conscience. Where I was dedicated and strict before, I’m now like a rebellious teenager trying to bend the rules and trick the system. Here are the rewritten rules according to the Dawn Diet – none are proven to work, so be careful if you try this at home. I cannot be held responsible for the size of your thighs afterwards.

  • I don’t log anything when I’m on holiday any more. There is nothing more depressing than watching your family tuck into a Mr Whippy while you nibble on a carrot stick, so I eat the Mr Whippy and chalk it up to “creating memories for the kids”.
  • Nothing liquid is counted, from the copious amounts of tea I drink every day to the G&Ts on a weekend. Alcohol in general is on a “need to know” basis. Besides, keeping track of the glasses of prosecco I have when out with girlfriends would a) require my memory to be reliable; and b) make the hangover feel even worse the next day when I realise how many I actually had.
  • Similarly, anything eaten while recovering from a hangover is for medicinal purposes only. The carb fest that generally follows a boozy night out helps to restore order and calm to the broken body and therefore fulfils a vital role in recuperation.
  • Birthdays are sacred and anything consumed on that day has zero calories. My 41st birthday last week was a case in point when I ate three Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a lemon curd muffin before 3pm, followed by a three-course dinner in the evening. The same is true of any birthday celebrations, whether they occur on your actual birthday or are spread out over some weeks (as mine tend to be).
  • Anything eaten in secret remains secret. Admit it, we’ve all hidden behind the kitchen cupboard door and eaten pilfered sweets from the kids’ jars without them noticing or sneaked a few extra chocolates out of the fridge late in the evening. This is made so easy in our house as the utility room fridge holds all of the confectionary, so it is very easy to load my mouth with treats at the same time as loading the washing machine with the whites.
  • Eating the leftovers off your children’s plates also does not count. My mother would remind me often when I was little that there are starving children in Africa who would love to have the leftovers from our plates, so I’m essentially helping to restore order to the world by consuming the half-eaten fish fingers and cold chips left stranded in the kids’ congealing tomato sauce.
  • Anything eaten immediately after any form of exercise, especially when you are still in your lycras, is muscle-building and replaces lost energy. Just as lycra has magical powers to hold all the wobbly bits in place, so the biscuits consumed upon your return to the house has the power to speed up weight loss – but there’s nothing scientific in that theory, so don’t quote me on it.
  • If the day’s good intentions go tits up by lunchtime, the entire day can be written off and anything consumed later in the afternoon is a free for all and doesn’t count. On the flip side, if you have managed to stick to your guns and have resisted all temptation by 9pm, then anything found to be snackable after this point is null and void and you have still managed to log a good day.

Now the question is whether honesty is indeed the best policy or if the little white lies will mean I have a bit more fun (and a wider bottom)? Maybe I’ll log into the app next week….

Ah, the memories… or not

Yesterday, while scrabbling around in the attic for my old school copy of “Macbeth” for my daughter, I came across a dusty box containing my old diaries. For most of my high school years, I wrote every thought, feeling and angst-ridden memory down on those pages, so you can imagine how heavy the box was when I wrestled it down the rickety stepladder.

What quickly became apparent, apart from the melodrama that goes hand in hand with being a teenager, was that a fair-size portion of it I just do not remember. Some Big Events – the school disco; the first broken heart; exam time – are still riding high in my consciousness, but the day-to-day stuff that I spent so much time agonising (and crying) over seems to have been wiped from memory. Probably for my sanity.

Paging through, I started thinking about what I have chosen to remember – and, more importantly, what I have chosen to forget. For instance, if you ask me to sing the lyrics to any number of the songs I listened to back then in the good old eighties, I can word for word (but not necessarily in tune). I can still remember my old home phone number and the phone numbers of some of my friends (in the days before mobile phone contact lists); the names of my best and worst teachers, and various acquaintances from primary school and their siblings; the bubble skirts, long jumpers and lime eyeshadow I wore to a number of discos; the taste of the chips with a curry sauce splash from Liu’s, the Chinese takeaway at the end of our road; how much a quarter of rhubarb and custard sweets cost out of my dinner money on the way home from school; even the number of the bus I used to take.

However, when it comes to my present life, I struggle to remember the names of my children on a daily basis. I often find myself telling them off for something or other and calling them by the wrong name, which always takes the sting out of my wrath when they hear their mother stumbling over who it is she is supposed to be chastising.

The other day I walked into the kitchen, went clockwise around the island, only to find myself back where I started and none the wiser as to why I was there in the first place. I then went anti-clockwise in case that would help, was still none the wiser and went back upstairs. Only then did I remember what it was I had wanted (a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive).

There are other things that I can’t remember that would be quite useful to know, like how we did long division or algebra at school. Nor can I remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, which order the kings and queens reigned in or how many terms of office Margaret Thatcher had in the end. And there is always one of the seven dwarves I can’t name.

I’m not going to dwell unduly on this though. I will embrace it for what it is: a sign that I shouldn’t have any more children if I have a hope in hell of remembering who they are and that I’m rubbish at pub quizzes unless the questions feature 80s pop lyrics or the bus timetable for the No34 through Bedlington.

Ten things it has taken me 40 years to learn

For  an intelligent woman, sometimes I can be surprisingly slow to catch on. Some of this I put down to age and some to a certain degree of denial. I’m sure that there will be many more lightbulb moments as I head further into my forties, but here are ten things that I now embrace, along with my mid-life crisis.

1. Force yourself to enjoy the first minute of the day. I used to hate mornings. Getting up for school was torture; getting up for work was a fate worse than death. The only mornings I enjoyed before I had children were the ones I missed entirely by staying in bed until noon as a student. Now I realise that the first minute of the day, when you are just opening your eyes and your mind is frantically scrabbling to hold onto a dream as it evaporates, is the quietest and most settled minute you are likely to experience for the rest of the day. For a few blissful seconds, you are unaware of what lies ahead. Once you step out of bed, the day can go one of two ways: it can take off and be the Best Day Ever; or it can plummet into the depths of hell. Best to stay where you are for a little while longer and enjoy your cuppa.

2. I will never be tall. At 5ft, you would think I would’ve realised this sooner, but in my head I am definitely taller than what the height chart says. Mentally, I look people in the eye, not in the boob region. However, as my daughters and their friends get older, I am reminded constantly of how short I actually am. I have to look up to talk to them now and I often get lost in a crowd of kids at school, only to emerge from the other side mentally traumatised. However, dynamite comes in small packages and I find that my diminutive stature means I am often underestimated, which comes with the pleasure of knowing that I have plenty of opportunities to surprise people if I feel like it. And maybe one day I will.

3. Heated rollers are never a good idea. I have had my heated rollers since the early 90s and once or twice a year I get them out, thinking that it would be a good idea to try them in preparation for a night out. However, I have yet to use them successfully without looking like a French poodle afterwards. It is time I realised that rollers will never create relaxed gentle curls in my mop of untameable hair. Best to stick to the straighteners.

4. I don’t know everything and it’s best not to pretend I do. When they were younger, my children’s questions were random, but fairly easy to answer, which led them to believe I was the fountain of all knowledge. With this came my short-lived belief that I did in fact have an answer for everything. Then they started school and the questions became more complicated. These days just going through their maths homework is a challenge. For a while, I admit I blagged it and gave what I thought sounded like a credible answer to questions like, “If people say it can be too cold to snow, why is it always snowing in the Arctic?” Thank goodness for the internet as I can now confidently admit that I do not know everything, but can satisfy them by saying, “Google it!” What did our parents do before the internet? Oh yes, they lied too…

5. Some song lyrics will always be an enigma. There are certain songs that I will never understand. “The Riddle”, for instance, “China in your Hand” and possibly the entire Depeche Mode back catalogue. In my youth, I’d sing them unashamedly and contemplate their deeper meaning while trying to draw parallels with my own teenage angst. These days, I still sing them out loud, but now realise that Nik Kershaw didn’t have a clue what he was writing, but it rhymed and suited the tune in his head, so he went with it. Good lad.

6. A beautiful pair of shoes is the best medicine. After emerging out the other side of the teens, university heartbreaks, career frustrations, marriage adjustments and childbirth, I can safely say that the only thing that makes me feel better when my day/week/month has gone to hell in a hand basket is a beautiful new pair of shoes. Forget chocolate and wine; all they do is trick you into thinking you feel better, then make you feel crappy again when you’ve had too much (as you inevitably end up doing, evidenced by the multitude of hangovers I have endured over the years). However, a pair of shoes doesn’t care how fat you are, how many spots you have or if you’ve said something stupid. Every time you look down at your beautifully clad feet, you feel your spirits rise and that’s enough for me. Until you walk in your new heels and sprain your ankle of course…

7. I will never like olives or stinky cheese. They say that your tastebuds develop over time and you will enjoy different foods when you’re older. And in fact I can now eat guacamole, even though I used to think the avocado was devil spawn, and cooked fruit is ok when covered in crumble and smothered in custard. However, I can safely say that I will never embrace the trendy but foul-tasting olive or understand the attraction of eating a cheese that smells worse than Andy Murray’s trainers.

8. I really like sleep. As previously mentioned, I am not a morning person, so why it should take me so long to realise how much I love sleep is ridiculous. It was only once I had children that I realised just how important eight hours of sleep a night are to my mental wellbeing (and those around me). Even now on the rare occasions when one of my daughters wakes me complaining of having a nightmare, I am likely to be short-tempered and brusque, and certainly not the loving, comforting parent they deserve. They learnt that quicker than me and wake my other half instead now.

9. I am morphing into my mother. Much as I always said I would follow my own parenting path, I sound more like my mother every day. Yesterday I heard myself tell my youngest that she would “put her eye out if she isn’t careful” and that “there are starving kids in Africa who wish they could eat that cauliflower”. However, I hasten to add that with this comes a certain sense of relief in knowing that I turned out ok, so my mum must’ve been on the right track and if I can emulate some of that, then my girls will be ok too.

10. Always hold on when riding the bus. How many times have I told my girls to hold onto the rail when we are on the bus? Loads. But do I follow my own advice? No. There I was sitting on the aisle seat on the top deck with my mum over Christmas when the bus took a corner a little too hastily and I fell off the seat onto my back in the aisle like an inverted turtle. In my embarrassment as all eyes turned to stare, I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t get up. My mortification reached a new level when I heard my mother loudly say in between guffaws, “I told you not to drink that gin with your breakfast.” Always hold the rail, people…

The Life and Times of a Mature Student

Last week I went back to school. Not as a harrassed mum dragging tired children into the infant school gates with cornflakes in my hair, but as an actual, bonafide student again. Bearing in mind that I graduated from university in 1995 – *shudder* – this is a big deal for me.

Of course, things have changed somewhat in the last two decades since I was a student, fresh out of high school at the age of 17, eager to take on the world, and with hair that was still blonde without the help of a hairdresser.

One of the biggest changes is that the creative writing course I am currently studying is conducted entirely online. So no more napping at the back of the lecture hall or bleary-eyed tutorials with bespectacled mentors in tiny offices in the bowels of the university campus. These days it is all done via online discussion threads and tutorials on Skype (where I may look respectable from the waist up, but the chances are I am still wearing my pyjama bottoms under the desk). Rather than endlessly searching the library’s shelves, my reading list is downloaded on my Kindle. And while my fellow course attendees are physically strangers to me, I feel that we have done more chatting and sharing in a week through emails than I ever did with the students on my uni courses.

Added to all this is the juggling of running and maintaining a household, holding down a job, parenting (often single-handedly) two small children and cleaning up after a geriatric bulldog, and this is where I really notice the difference. In 1995, I only had myself to worry about – and even then, health and safety were not at the top of the list. It was an endless round of parties; impassioned theological discussions in dingy bars; cramming through the night before a final exam; forgetting to eat, then eating Rice Crispies for a week to save up beer money; thinking I knew the answer to everything and that the world was waiting for me to make an impact; and experimenting with every fashion trend from Goth to Grunge. Don’t tell my old tutors, but some of my best papers were written while drunk or sitting on the steps of the building ten minutes before the submission deadline passed.

Nowadays, I find myself getting up an hour earlier than usual just to get in some study time in the peace and quiet of a sleeping house before the terror of the school run begins. Or elbowing the kids away from gaming time on the computer after I finish work, and having to wipe jam and sticky fingerprints off the mousepad before I can start.

But the biggest change for me has been trying to remind my brain how to think again after years of housework, monotony and motherhood have beaten it into submission. When I stared at the blank screen contemplating my first assignment last week, I had a moment of sheer panic that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say, and that I was a fool to think I could do this again after nearly 20 years, but a stern talking to myself (and an entire bar of Galaxy) and I ended up surprising myself. Once the gates had very slowly creaked open, I found that I had too much to say and actually got a bit carried away. And I loved it!

To celebrate, I spent the rest of the afternoon nostalgically lounging in tracksuit bottoms, eating Rice Crispies and rereading Thomas Hardy novels (until the school run rolled around again, of course).

(And if my daughters ever read this, university is not all fun and parties; studying is a serious business… cough… cough…)

Working Girl

I admit I have neglected my blog of late, and I would love to say it is because I have been on a whirlwind of excitement, immersed in a new project that makes me bound out of bed every day… Alas, no.

My three-day job as an editor recently became a five-day post and I suddenly find myself a full-time working mum for the first time since I had my youngest daughter in 2003 (yes, my oldest spent most of her infancy in childcare while I was still under the illusion that I could have a career and be a contented mother – but that’s a story for another blog post).

And I have to admit it, the transition has been very difficult. I was under the impression (supported by other people) that I used to do very little on my two days off a week – maybe a little laundry, some shopping, meeting friends for coffee… But now that I no longer have those days, I realise just how much I actually used to achieve.

At the moment I have five days of juggling the morning school run, starting work, household admin and grocery shopping in my very short lunch hour, more work, interspersed with various trips to school to pick up various children and deliver them to extracurricular activities, as well as a fair number of muted conference call meetings on my mobile in the school playground, cooking a number of meals depending on whether OH is home or not, cleaning bath crayon graffiti off the bathroom tiles, fitting in a run or a trip to the gym in order to maintain some semblance of sanity, logging onto the network in the dead of night to catch up on something I missed while on the school run, and holding sensible conversations with colleagues, friends, my husband….. It goes on.

I look at my friends and we are all in a similar boat in that on top of trying to remain active and viable in the workplace, we have the added pressures of having to remember that it is Victorian Dress-Up Day and child #1 needs a themed lunchbox; child #2 has a friend coming for tea who doesn’t eat cheese, meat or fish; homework needs to be supervised; child #2 spilt ice lolly down her ballet leotard and will have to have it washed before her next lesson; both have a number of birthday parties that require suitably educational yet fun presents – all of this is what my two days off were for!

Having said all that, would I have it any other way? Probably not. I took time off for maternity leave with each of my children and was a vacant, blubbering mess by the end of it, with OH begging me to return to work for his and my sanity. The good news is my current work-life balance will resume in August when the project I am working on concludes and I can return to my happy, balanced, three working days a week. As they say, everything in moderation – even work if you are lucky enough.

In the meantime, I have learnt some valuable life lessons during this hectic period: eating Haribo for breakfast because you don’t have time for anything else will lead to a stomach ache; always check you are not wearing your slippers before you leave the house; sprinkling magic calming dust over yourself, closing your eyes and counting to 10 really does help to calm you down when in a full-blown rant (courtesy of my 9 year old); and never trust the mute button on a mobile phone.

 

Notes from my Bookshelf #4: “Just What Kind of Mother Are you”

I often wonder what people think when they see me on the school run. Some friends say I look calm, unfazed and in control (give me a minute while I laugh hysterically that idea); others have commented that I don’t smile enough (whatever that means). Only I know the truth: that sometimes it feels like I am juggling so many balls in the air that it is inevitable that one will fall, bringing the rest down with it.

When faced with remembering all of the kit that extracurricular activities require, lunch bags, play dates, meetings at work, feeding the dog, cleaning the house, paying bills – the list seems endless – I sometimes think back to my carefree, independent twenty-something years with a pang of envy. All I had to worry about then was which pub I would meet my friends in that night.

I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and out of my depth sometimes. I have discussed this with my friends and we all feel relief when we hear that we are on common ground and floundering, but trying to do our best. When I am at my lowest – usually experiencing a bout of guilt over something I have not done effectively or a situation I have not handled well – I remind myself that my children are happy, always laughing and full of fun, so I can’t be doing too much wrong.

This is why Paula Daly’s debut novel, “Just What Kind of Mother Are You”, struck such a chord with me. Lisa Kallisto is just like me: a working mum juggling a job, the house and a husband, and trying to raise well-rounded and balanced children. One day the unthinkable happens and one of her juggling balls falls. When her daughter stays home from school ill, Lisa forgets to collect her daughter’s friend, Lucinda, from school and Lucinda goes missing.

Lisa’s feelings of guilt, fear and self-loathing are brilliantly conveyed through the narrative as family secrets are revealed and a friendship is put to the ultimate test. The story grips you from the start to the twist at the end, and is unputdownable.

So if you can find some time in the chaos to put your feet up and grab a cuppa, give this one a read. It will be time much better spent than on ironing, promise.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

My six-year-old daughter has been trying to make me laugh all afternoon. However, because I do not find her silly faces and ridiculous dance moves in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket the least bit funny, she declared, “Mum, you never laugh.”

This is not true. In fact, I have been known to laugh until a little bit of wee comes out on numerous occasions, usually inappropriately. However, upon reflection, it is true that I don’t laugh as much when it comes to my children, which is quite a sobering thought. This is usually because I am the “bad cop” of the house, the one who instills law and order, who lays down the rules, and dishes out the punishments, while my Other Half is Mr Fun, the Tickle Monster, the “let’s run through the lounge throwing a rugby ball to each other” guy.

My children don’t get to see my silly side very often – when I am a bottle of prosecco down and laughing with abandonment while dancing at a friend’s birthday ceilidh, or sniggering uncontrollably at the school quiz night. When we went on holiday with friends over the Jubilee, I laughed so much that I literally returned home with aching cheeks and sore stomach muscles.

I do find my children funny, but usually it is at something they have done that shouldn’t be funny. Like when my toddler, when toilet training, sat on the loo without checking her training seat was in place and fell into the toilet. Or when the same toddler ran full-speed into the glass doors in the Apple Store in Boston and knocked herself off her feet. Or when my older daughter sledged into a tree, closely followed by her father.

All of these things are very funny; listening to a nine-year-old’s attempts at telling jokes is not. That said, I really should just let my hair down and relax a bit more with the kids as I’m sure they think I am dull and boring. Recently, I suggested we have a handstand competition late one Friday night and their faces lit up (yes, I had had a couple of glasses of wine and it seemed like a good idea t the time until I fell on my head) because Mum was being silly.

Of course, if I start playing the “good cop”, Mr Fun is going to have to take over as “bad cop” and I sense it could go all “Police Academy” in our house. Chances are none of us will make it out in one piece.

 

 

A Knickers-Inside-Out Kind of Day

Some days you just know you should’ve stayed in bed. Those are the days when you look down and realise you have been wearing your knickers inside out all day, which could explain why everything has steadily gone downhill since you spilled your first cup of tea that morning.

Of course, having small children (and a dog) in the house means that your day is always verged on the point of going tits up at any time – from the dog weeing on the carpet because you didn’t let him out in time to your 9-year-old actually losing an entire school bag between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Add to this the news that your other half is planning to work from home for the day and you should run screaming to your bedroom and pull the covers back over your head.

The other day was a prime example. Burnt toast; Nutella spilled down a freshly-laundered school uniform; small child doing an enormous, time-consuming poo in the toilet when you should’ve left for school five minutes ago; dog running around the house with an unravelled roll of toilet paper dragging behind him; getting lost in the park on a morning run that you have done a thousand times before; new jumper sneaking into the tumble dryer and shrinking; boss calling for an objectives chat just as you need to be at school for pick-up; dinner spectacularly ruined by attention being diverted by an argument with 9-year-old about her homework… Yes, I am talking about some major cataclysmic events here.

I am not naturally one of those people that bounds out of bed with a thrill at the thought of what the day has in store; I am more of a slope gently into the day with a scowl and the speed of a sloth. That probably says more about what I spend my days doing than it does about my personality in general – I tend to be quite a happy person a lot of the time, I like to think.

Therefore, as the January blues are upon us and we are nearing the end of a month of forced, post-Christmas austerity while waiting for payday to roll around again,  I have decided that in order to find my inner child again and embrace the endless possibilities of every day, I need to make a change somewhere.

A good start would be to put my knickers on the right way around tomorrow.