Friday, 2 December 2016

The Unnecessary Pressure of Christmas

Last year I had a bit of a moan about how fancy Christmas is getting. I questioned the necessity of Christmas Eve boxes and slagged off Panettone because I was feeling nostalgic about Viennetta.

This year? Well, this year I’m feeling pretty much the same so it looks like an annual ‘What the fuck has happened to Christmas?’ blog might be on the cards.

This isn’t a Scroogey post, though – far from it, in fact, I’m a massive fan of Christmas – but earlier this week I found myself getting stressed over all the impressive things other people are doing/planning that I haven’t been doing/planning and I figured that if I’m stressing out, the chances are some of you are, too. So this is my attempt to reassure you that you are not failing at Christmassy parenting just because you haven’t hand-sewn an advent calendar out of sheep wool you’ve flown in from Nazareth.

I’m bewildered by some of the Christmas-themed conversations I've seen online lately and the final straw came when I stumbled across an entire thread dedicated to mums debating which Christmas theme to go for this year. What do you mean which theme? I read on and discovered that one mum is having a 'monochrome Christmas' because it looks classier. Another is accessorising in pastels this year because the bright colours clash with her sofa and the third isn’t sure yet what to go for but ‘crikey’ isn’t it hard work coming up with the decorative theme every year?!

I wanted to scream at my computer, “CHRISTMAS! THE FUCKING THEME IS CHRISTMAS!” but I didn’t because it was obvious I had stumbled into a zone that wasn’t safe for me, like the Helmand of mum chat, so I muttered, ‘monochrome my arse’ and shut down the browser. What the bloody hell is a monochrome Christmas? OK I know what monochrome is – everything is black, white and grey or varying tones of just one colour - but that’s not Christmas, is it? Is it? Christmas isn’t supposed to be classy, right? Christmas is bright and colourful and chaotic and brings together a hodgepodge of decorations bought from random places or handmade by kids over the years.

Christmas in the early 1990s. Great times with little fuss.
Granted, this was just one thread. But over the course of a few days I was drip fed-further images of impressive festive creations and elaborate Things To Do lists and I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. So much seems to be expected of parents in the run up to Christmas nowadays.

Firstly, you have to trample over people in the supermarket on Black Friday as you panic-buy presents you don’t really need but feel you ought to buy because of the colossal savings off the list price they definitely didn’t hike up the week before. Then you have to think about December 1st. What are you doing for advent? Some people are doing book advents, some people are doing craft advents, some people are giving away a clue as to where the chocolate is hidden each day - because if life wasn’t already busy enough you can now get up ten minutes earlier to facilitate a daily fucking treasure hunt. Then you have to get the elf down for the shelf and make him do cheeky things every day.

We’ve got shop-bought advent calendars for the boys again and they’re chuffed. We do have an elf - because the good-behaviour bribery potential is strong - but he doesn’t write messages in Weetos or cosy up to Barbie because I haven’t got the time. He basically moves around the shelf and the kids think that’s amazing.

I suppose my point is that Christmas isn’t about the showy stuff. Unless, of course, you want it to be. If you want to pay for a personalised letter from Father Christmas and arrange a visit to a top notch grotto (with a Santa so true-to-life he must have been through Santa Factor boot camp and Judges’ Houses to secure the role) then do it. You need not defend these actions if they mean something to you.

But don’t do these things because you feel like you ought to, or worse because you’re worried your yuletide Instagram feed looks a bit shit. So what if Derek from the garden centre’s black moustache is visible over his Santa beard in the picture and the gift he’s given your son is a shit plastic toy for the bath when you don’t even have a bath (true story). Kids are brilliant. Kids think Santa knew you didn’t have a bath but bought the toy for their outside water tray.

Kids don’t get to Christmas Eve and think Christmas is ruined because there isn’t a personalised ceramic plate for the mince pie and carrot or because they haven’t got new pyjamas in their ‘Christmas Eve box’. They don’t wake up in a cold sweat because you forgot to buy them glittery reindeer food to sprinkle on the front door step.

For me, the build-up to Christmas will always be about leafing through the Argos catalogue, putting the tree up without any regard for monochrome classiness, eating tins of chocolates, drinking Buck’s Fizz, watching Home Alone and dancing around the living room to Shakin’ Stevens.
Tuesday is set to the greatest moment of the year so far when I get to watch my little Henry Bear be a shepherd in his first nativity ('Get that fire going!' - I've been saying his lines in my sleep).

That’s Christmas. I bloody love it.

This isn't my way of 'mum-shaming' anybody who is borderline professional at festive stuff. I just felt I needed a moment to re-focus on what’s important and what's important is different for all of us. It's whatever stuff we believe to be important.

Don’t get swept up in doing shit you don’t really want to do.
Don’t worry about keeping up with The Clauses on social media.
Don’t put Derek out of business.

Have a proper crimbo.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Here We Are, Then (Henry Starts School)

I considered not writing this post at all, suspecting that whatever I typed would fast become a Starting School cliché (“Where has the time gone? I can’t bear it!” yadda yadda yadda). But I have been a walking mess of emotions for the past few weeks and shy of hiding in the fridge sobbing into Dairylea triangles (again) I didn’t really know where else to go with it. [Spoiler alert: this post is one hundred per cent a Starting School cliché, seasoned school parent pros need read no further].

The truth is, I have looked ahead to this moment many times over the last four years and I quite honestly never expected that I would be one of those mums. The criers. The ones who get struck down with My Baby is Starting School pangs in the middle of Tesco. The ones who make an excuse to escape to the kitchen with a lump in their throat when the uniform is tried on for the first time. The ones who scroll through toddler photos from two years ago on Timehop and say, “I just can’t believe it.”

Yet here we are. Timehop presents me with a photo of my about-to-start-school child from when he was a toddler, waddling around not quite able to master walking in his wellies, and all at once I’m floored by a hurty heart.
Just like that my Henry Bear, my biggest boy, is going to school. Joining the hordes of reception-starters, he’ll be making his way through the school gates in the oversized uniform I’ve dutifully labelled with name tags, carrying a book bag that will come home bursting with reminders about things we have to do to help him succeed at numeracy/phonics/life.

Parents of children already at school tell me this overwhelming emotion will soon become a distant memory and I have no doubt that when term begins next year I too will be skipping up the road and updating Facebook with, ‘Lovely summer and everything but thank fuck for that!’

I will know the drill by then. I’ll be used to having a school-aged child and I’ll have realised that the school day is actually quite short (and that it’s never very long before the next holiday which presents me with all manner of childcare issues). With a level-head on I already know all of these things but level-headedness rarely makes a guest appearance in Parentland, does it? In fact, Parentland has proved the biggest mind-fuck of a destination I’ve ever been to and that’s without the use of any narcotics. Parentland is maddening and hilarious and weird and makes me cry all the bloody time.

It’s not that I don’t want Henry to go to school. I do. He is more than ready to go and I’m excited for him. It’s just that seeing him trying on his uniform this evening, singing along to his favourite song (Coldplay’s Yellow, genuinely he demands it on repeat), I can’t hide from the fact that he is growing up. In any normal week one day rolls into the next and it’s easy not to see it. Sure he grows out of his clothes and shows an interest in new TV programmes and games so I know he is growing up. But I don’t stop and take stock of that. Life’s too busy.
School very obviously marks  the start of a brand new chapter, which is no bad thing it just means I have to accept that a line is being drawn under the old chapter - the one where he was baby who was sick all the time who then became a toddler who called all animals, “Cat!” and later a pre-schooler who made me howl with laughter at his naked living-room dancing.

I have moaned about him a lot over the last four years (because he’s annoying – really, he is) but this last year has seen a change in our relationship. He makes me laugh. He’s bloody good company.

I will miss him.

There have been times when I have muttered, "Roll on school!" and I could give you some bullcrap about how I didn't really mean it but in all honesty at the time I definitely meant it.

I think maybe that is why I am so sad.

Because I never enjoyed the earliest days as much as I should have. I tried but it turns out the whole baby thing just isn’t my bag (though my ovaries are positively exploding at the prospect of being one child down during school hours so I think Mr Unmumsy will be wearing three pairs of boxers to bed for the next week. “Just one more?” “NO”).

On top of the fact that I am distraught at him going to school (not an exaggeration) I am also worried about how I will fare as a School Mum. I’ve bumbled through the last four years of motherhood on a wing and a prayer and I’m fairly sure my maternal incompetence will be outed sometime in the first term.
The other mums might have read my book. What if they stand in the corner of the playground whispering, “There’s that mum who called her baby a dick. Look how creased his trousers are - I did read she doesn’t iron anything. Oh and there’s her husband. Do you know he once had to milk her?”
I hadn’t thought this through.
But it’s not about me. And my main worry is not how bad I’ll look when I put Henry in his skeleton pyjamas for World Book Day (Funnybones, yes he has worn them for the last two Halloweens), my main worry is how he will get on. Will he enjoy it? Will he make friends? Will he manage to remember that not everybody wants to abide by his rules when playing  Star Wars? Will he fit in?
He’s too young for me to give him the school advice I want to give him. I want so badly to tell him the things I learned from school. That it’s better to be nice than it is to be popular. That if you are nice you will be popular for the right reasons, because people like you. That if you strive only to be popular you will be popular because people think they have to like you, because you're popular (and that is not the same thing).
I want to tell him to work hard, to play harder and to always be kind.
I want to tell him that I am so very proud of him. So proud it makes me look around and shout, “That’s my son!”
I want to thank him for giving me something so wonderful that I will miss it. For allowing me to make a million and one parenting mistakes in the first four years of his life which will no doubt benefit his little brother (trial and error, it’s the only thing I know).
But I won’t tell him any of these things. He’s a sensitive creature and it would be selfish of me to burden him with the extra worry of his mother having the emotional restraint of Gwynnie at the Oscars. So I will bite my tongue and in my best cheery mum voice I will say, “School tomorrow then buddy! How fab, you’ll love it.” I will keep things upbeat. I won’t make it too big a deal. I will do all the stuff I hope will make school easier for him and none of the stuff that will make school easier for me.
I know it is probable that at some stage he will cling to me and tell me that he doesn’t want me to leave (we had four months of that at preschool, it broke my soul). Every ounce of my being will want to stay there in the middle of reception class holding onto him, but it would start to look a bit weird. So I will be firm, because that’s what parents do. And he will be fine.
I will not be fine. I will come home and cry and eat Dairylea triangles and say, “Where did the time go?”
That’s Parentland. The best place on earth. The worst place on earth.
I bloody love you Henry Bear. Go get ‘em.
The Unmumsy Mum

Friday, 8 July 2016

Why Parenthood Is Nothing Like I Imagined

Not so long ago somebody asked me whether life as a parent was ‘everything I imagined it would be’ and I laughed so hard that food came out of my nose.

‘Oh yes,’ I replied, after realising that this was, in fact, a genuine question. ‘It’s everything I imagined it would be and more,’ adding a slight grimace which I hoped delivered the honest subtext of ‘Absofuckinglutely not.’

Remarking on all the failed expectations of parenthood is actually one of my favourite pastimes. Not in a ‘Wow, look at all the things I hoped I would do/say/be as a parent, I’m none of them hahaha!’ way but just a chuckle over all the shit I thought I would do.

Except that’s not strictly true.

Clear as a toddler's backwashed sippy cup?

Allow me to explain.

I’m not saying I have lied about imagining a whole host of shit I’ve subsequently never come close to doing, I'm saying that imagining doing these things is not the same as genuinely believing that I would do them.

Is anybody still with me? (This feels like the bit in Titanic when Rose is calling the rescue boats back and begging Jack to stay with her but it’s too late because his bollocks have frozen after she hogged the floating door big enough for two). Stay with me Jack, I’m getting to the point.

Not quite what I imagined
My point is that deep down I knew my vision of parenthood was unrealistic even before I threw a baby into the mix. And that’s actually got nothing to do with parenthood itself, not really, because I’ve been setting myself up to fail with unrealistic imaginings all my life.

Before I started secondary school, I imagined that I would be instantly accepted by the cool kids and that I'd successfully attract a boyfriend to hold hands with between lessons. Only it turns out that when you have Deirdre Barlow glasses engulfing two-thirds of your face and you team ankle-basher trousers with ‘square’ shoes from Clarks (because your mum wouldn’t let you go to Shoezone and get the platform ones) you never do slot straight into the cool crowd. In fact, you later find yourself in Year 11 with nothing to show by way of romance except a drunken snog in the Football Club car park with a boy you suspect was sick before he kissed you.

When I started working in finance, fresh-faced from University and keen as mustard, I imagined that I would swish around in pencil skirts and deliver dynamic presentations so impressive they would leave senior management bamboozled. Credit where credit’s due I had a pretty good bash at swishing around in pencil skirts and delivering presentations but I also had spells of mediocrity. I got things wrong, I didn't always make a dynamic impression and I once managed to get myself locked in the staff toilet where I had to be rescued by a commercial banking manager who climbed over the top of my cubicle and gave me a leg up (upon re-entering the office from the toilet I discovered word of the escape had spread and I was greeted with a round of applause). Work life wasn’t always very swish, in the end, but it did provide years of laughter.

Parenthood has taken these unrealistic imaginings to a whole new level because every stage of the parenting game brings a new anticipation. When I first imagined myself having children I visualised a mum who would rustle up fresh pesto with a pestle and mortar, while listening to Jazz. Who would glide around looking positively glowy with her baby in a sling and her toddler sat nicely doing crafts (she would exude maternal confidence and have all sorts of educational crafty ideas because that’s what imaginary glowy pesto-pulsing mums do).

Only I’ve never been a glider, not ever, and there’s nothing about passing a small human out of your fandango that automatically makes you more glidey, is there? The reality is that I’m clumsy, I walk into things, I always seem to manage to get the belt loop from my dressing-gown caught on the door handle so it pulls me backwards with great force. I’m crap at cooking, I hate crafts.

It’s never been the boys’ fault that I haven’t blossomed into the beacon of delicious yummy mumminess I imagined. That was never my calling. My calling has always been slightly crummier. I just imagined a sleeker version because that’s what imagination does. It creates expectation.

So you see, it’s not exclusively parenthood that has failed to become 'everything I imagined it would be'. It’s just that by their very nature our imaginings are a bit fucking daft.

They are also inevitable. Which is why I can’t help but imagine myself absolutely bossing the role of School Mum when Henry heads into the classroom for the first time this September. I’m imagining that I will be on top of costume-making and cake-baking and the trillion emails I’m told I can expect every day. I’ll have a magnetic family organiser and I’ll have my shit together at all times.
I imagine.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

One for the Bloggers! Get Your (Blog) Name Out There

Are you a parent blogger with something to say?
Are you longing to shout your musings about weaning/episiotomies/playground politics/any-other-topic from the rooftops of the interweb?
Maybe you have just started toying with the idea of starting a blog and need a gentle nudge to take the plunge?
If you are nodding along to any of these things then listen up and listen good.
This is your nudge.

I am nudging because for some time now I have been spectacularly failing at replying to all the emails and messages I receive from parents who are asking for my advice about starting a blog, or asking if I could have a quick read of a post they have written. I always promise myself that at the very least I will reply with some words of encouragement because I know first-hand that sharing your parenting thoughts online for all to see/share/judge is actually quite a big deal (and also, if I’m honest, because I strongly suspect that jotting down my own thoughts on this here blog has saved me from myself a little bit). I’m not about to start droning on again about how blogging has changed my life yadda yadda yadda because I have told you all that before. (It totally has though, just FYI).
(And it's super glamorous, as you can see)
Instead, I have decided to get involved with something that will help dazzling blog posts get the attention they deserve while at the same time mitigating the risk of me having another meltdown about all the inbox messages I can’t respond to (in my meltdown defence, I was knackered after leaving the boys’ shoes at my Dad’s and consequently having to sprint to buy them an emergency pair – I arrived one minute before the shop closed and panic-bought the first ones I found in their sizes, total nightmare).
I’ll get on to this blogging opportunity in just a moment (I’m wondering if ‘opportunity’ makes it sound like I'm pushing some kind of dodgy bloggy pyramid scheme? I promise that’s not what’s going on here) but before explaining what the hell I’m banging on about I thought I’d make a note of the one genuine titbit of blogging advice I have sent back to parents (well, all those I managed to reply to before shoegate hit the fan). It’s the advice I would prioritise over everything else:
Be yourself.
Yes I know it’s a cliché and might make me sound a bit wanky but it’s quite possibly the most important direction I can offer. There is absolutely no point trying to write in the style of somebody else, even if that’s a proven 'successful' style because if it’s not really you it simply won’t sound right (it also won’t flow, just like my Year 10 English essay). Equally, don’t be too scared to write a post that’s similar in style or content to another you’ve read - the crucial thing is that it doesn’t feel forced. Obviously it would be immensely shady if you were to plagiarise another’s post and steal all their pictures but if you fret about covering the same ground as another blogger whenever you write then you’d never write anything! No two posts are exactly the same, anyway. The most important thing is that you are writing something you feel inspired to write.
And if you are feeling inspired to write then look no further…
Share your blog with GoodtoKnow
Starting on June 1st (and on the 1st of every month thereafter) a brand new blogging platform: Because I Said So (BISS)’ is being launched over on the GoodtoKnow website. Bloggers will be able to submit a favourite recent post to be considered by a panel of judges (me included, hello!) and between us we’ll choose five bloggers who will each get a paid guest blog spot on the website. Better still, the blogger whose guest post attracts the greatest page traffic over the course of a week will automatically land themselves a page in a future issue of Essentials magazine.
Whether you are a brand new blogger, a vintage blogging pro, a lapsed-but-returning blogger or somebody simply toying with the idea of giving the whole blogging malarkey a go then this is an amazing chance to get your writing shared online and possibly in print. (It’s also a great chance for me to be nosey and read some blogs).
Further info and details about how to link up your blog post to the GoodtoKnow website can be found here.
Go forth and blog! Good luck xx

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Extraordinary Ordinary (Life Is Not a Movie)

This evening I went out for a jog. When I say ‘out for a jog’ I mean I walked around the park at the end of my road at a pace slightly faster than my usual stride, which is hardly a challenge given that my usual stride is one step forwards and five steps into somebody else’s garden chasing a feral toddler.

How fast I was bumbling around the park tonight is kind of irrelevant to this post, I’m just setting the scene, as it was during this uninterrupted walking time that I started thinking about life. Life in general. Everyday life. And how all too often there is build up and expectation attached to daily events, moments and milestones which can leave us feeling under pressure to feel a certain way. Feelings are not like that. By their very nature you can’t create feelings or build up to ‘a moment’. Something either gets you in the feels or it doesn’t.

I need to rewind to this morning for this to make any sense. First though, I need to tell you how years of watching sentimental films and TV dramas has set me up to fail on the feelings front. Real-life is nothing like film-life. Of course we all know that movies are not real life but once you’ve internalised a whole catalogue of film ‘moments’ it’s hardly surprising if you start to expect life to play out like a script every now and again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I sit at home every night hoping the knock on the door is Andrew Lincoln instructing me to pretend it’s carol singers and declaring his undying love for me on handwritten cue cards. James has never once dressed up as a fighter pilot and serenaded me with You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling but I fell for him nonetheless.

Films have simply left me expecting emotional moments that just haven’t happened. Parenthood has brought about the absolute worst of this disappointment because parenting moments are so well-documented on the big screen. Moments like childbirth, where the parents always share a cuddle and a cry when the baby is born. My boys were delightful and I was over the moon to hold them against me but I didn’t cry. I can remember thinking, ‘Should I be crying now?’ No tears came.
More generally, there are all those scenes in films where motherhood looks amazing. Even when it’s portrayed as chaotic it looks like fun chaos – cereal spillages on floors, lots of noise and laughter, the odd slamming of a door that is later resolved by an emotional chat over fresh coffee and lots of meaningful eye contact. The chaos in my life can be fun too but milk on the floor generally results in a head injury and we tend to save all meaningful eye contact for our smartphones.

This morning, however, something special happened. A special feeling.

I had taken Henry to his first ever gymnastics class and after waiting awkwardly outside, not really knowing what was expected of me in this environment, it was time for him to go in. I have taken him to other classes before – music, drama etc. but these have always been things I have joined in with (to be honest, by the time we stopped the music classes I had found myself running around in a circle doing the animal actions while he tried to climb the chair stacks and steal other people’s shoes). This morning was different, though, because he is four and has joined a group where you just leave them to it. No big deal.

Only it became a big deal for me as I stood there and watched him through the glass. Watched him trot in with zero fear, confidently taking a seat on the mat amongst the other boys and girls and proceeding to follow them around in a gym circuit, stretching his arms out as he balanced on the beam and joining in with floor exercises (where he was understandably two steps behind everybody else but persevered with such a happy face). He was in his element, and when I saw his eyes searching for me I jumped and waved and mouthed, ‘Well done!’ with a huge thumbs up from the other side of the door. He returned my thumbs up with a long-distance fist pump and then, just as quickly as he had looked for me, he looked away and slotted straight back into the class.

It was nothing like anything you would see in a film. There was no moving soundtrack, no pep talk from me telling him I knew he could do it, no slow-motion shot of him leaping off a balance beam and landing gracefully on the mat to rapturous applause from the rest of the gymnasium. Nobody else noticed anything remarkable.

But I did.

To me, it was extraordinary. My boy was extraordinary. I fought back a lump in my throat as I stood there in a sweaty-smelling gym corridor and realised, with mild amusement, that it was the most proud I have ever felt about anything.

So this evening, as I found myself out walking and contemplating life-in-general, I realised that I have been looking for the wrong moments. Or at the very least looking in the wrong places. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been looking at all.

Feelings aren’t like that. Feeling just are.
Like pride just was for me, today.

The Unmumsy Mum