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…)

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.

So here it is… Merry Christmas!

It’s that time of year again – and the older I get, the less I seem to enjoy it, which saddens me a little. When I was a child – and even into my early twenties as a newlywed – I loved everything about Christmas: the shopping, decorating, singing and shameless gluttony that makes it the most special time of the year. This is partly due to my childhood when Christmas was an “all or nothing” affair, with everything sparkly thrown at it in abundance, so I learnt early on that if you hadn’t reached a point of near hysteria from excitement on Christmas Eve, then you weren’t doing it properly.

Then I had children. Many say that Christmas gets better when you are a spectator to their excitement. Not me. I remember my first Christmas after having my oldest daughter. The house was decorated within an inch of its life, I had bought every conceivable plastic pink toy there was for my three-month old, we had the in-laws visiting and a turkey that was bigger than the baby. I was beside myself with joy at the thought of my daughter’s first Christmas and couldn’t wait to get stuck into the present exchange. However, half an hour later, my angelic child was playing with the wrapping paper and had shown no interest in the actual toys; the dog had eaten half of the chocolates under the tree and been sick on the carpet; my in-laws had repeatedly expressed their disapproval at the extravagance of the gifts; and the oven wouldn’t heat up. The final straw came when I noticed my measly little pile of gifts – substantially smaller than other years – and I opened them to find that the most interesting gift was a neon-coloured potato peeler from my mother in-law. I remember standing in the shower, sobbing and repeating to myself, “Christmas is all about the kids… sob sob… Christmas is all about the kids.” Yes, I am well aware that this makes me sound incredibly spoilt and selfish, but the realisation that Christmas now meant that I had to be the grown-up in charge of the food, buying presents, writing cards, writing thank-you cards, and inviting random relatives so that no-one feels left out came as a bit of a shock. That was my mother’s job, not mine!

Nine years later and I have embraced my new role with reluctance. For the last two weeks, I have helped with the Christmas Bazaar at school, and contributed various bits and bobs for nativity costumes and school decorations. I have braved the parking nightmares and teeming shops to finish 90% of the gifts (a risk considering that only one child has written a list for Santa so far – including an iPad, which has been conveniently ignored as Santa is in a recession too – and who knows what the other child will come up with). I have started writing the cards and booked my online grocery delivery for 23 December. I think I have covered all the bases. Oh, and on top of all that, it is my wedding anniversary next week, so I have arranged an evening out, complete with babysitter.

But most importantly, I have endured all of the year-end exams and gradings – three dance presentations; two karate gradings; one nativity play; one orchestra concert; and one carol concert – and made myself available (with a fair amount of blagging out of work) for nearly every single one – and trust me, my daughter piled on the guilt about the one event I did miss. Someone asked me yesterday if I am feeling festive and, thinking about it, this is when I am most in the Christmas spirit: when I am sitting in front of 240 five- and six-year-olds dressed in various costumes – from lopsided angels to dodgy donkeys – belting out “We wish you a merry christmas” with glee while I sit in between two bleary-eyed, hungover dads suffering from their Christmas parties the night before and intoxicating me with their stale alcoholic breath, and my daughter, with her front tooth missing, is waving from the stage. That’s when I realise that Christmas is about the children and how proud we are as parents.

Even the mom who’s toddler farted really loudly during yesterday’s ballet presentation.