This too shall pass, too fast

This morning, I dropped off Rupert, aged 7, at his first school residential. Two nights in the woods. He was a bit tearful, because he is a sensitive and emotional little soul, and driving to work afterwards, so was I, because so am I. But we talked about all the exciting things he’ll be doing, stuff with compasses and camp fires and bunk beds and beetles, and he’ll be fine.

But it is a rite of passage, sending your small people away for the first time in the care of teachers, rather than family or friends. A necessary one, though, more than ever: when DH and I were Rupe’s age, or thereabouts, we were cycling off by ourselves on adventures. I’d never let my kids do that; modern childhood just seems to not be so free and easy, so school trips away, with no contact, are sort of “controlled risk” independence.

Bridget had her first ever residential, three nights at Ironbridge, in February, and she got so much out of it. Having left her sobbing on the Monday, (and feeling like my heart would break in the meantime: the house felt all wrong and I HATED the idea of the long coach trips without me; the lack of control and contact) she came back on Thursday very tired (I don’t think they sleep much on these things), rather grubby, with a huge smile on her face, and just that little bit more grown-up and swaggery. She took a tiny leap forward in her development that week. Version 2

Which I find reassuring and alarming in equal measure. Good good, I think, when they survive “firsts”, I am doing the parent job OK, this terribly important job of raising my children to be capable, kind, brave, interested, interesting, and independent members of our global society. And also: I WANT TO WRAP THEM IN COTTON WOOL AND NEVER LET THEM OUT OF MY SIGHT.

When you have really tiny kids, like 2/3/4 year olds, parenting can be really, ahem, “challenging”. People say “this too shall pass” to you, a lot, during this time. But what I wish I could tell my past self, who I can see is frequently reduced to an exhausted mess with a non-sleeping snotty 18-month old and a delightful but clingy 3-year-old, is this.

It really will pass.

In a handful of years, when you have a 7- and a 9-year-old, you’ll all go and see a movie the adults actually want to see, and chat about it with them for ages afterwards, with insane questions about ski jumping or CGI or sloths.

You’ll eat good food, in good restaurants, with your small people, after 5pm, and the adults will get to chat and drink wine and laugh without loo trips and kids menus and cutting up stuff, while the smalls are actually having conversations with each other or their friends.

Holidays will stop being merely “childcare with (potential) sunshine”, because you can read an actual novel near a pool without fear of anyone drowning, eat interesting food together, do a few cultural things, and play Scrabble with margaritas or practice the flying trapeze till late. The kids might join in, might be on their tablets or might be with new friends.

You’ll stop being quite so desperate for weekends away without them, for a “break”, because they have turned out to be rather good company and you want to show them EVERYTHING.

Don’t get me wrong, you will still lose your shit and yell and have some very challenging and scary times in your relationships and health, and you might feel on occasion like you are losing your fucking mind, and you will probably drop balls, because there are too many to keep in the air, frankly.

That, my friend, does not improve quite yet.

But then, before you know it, you will find yourself talking to your children about aspects of puberty, and suddenly all your parenting peers are talking about is applying for secondary schools, and the smartphone rules you’re going to have, and how to teach your kids to respect themselves and others online, and worrying about Snapchat and trolling and body image and encouraging them to make healthy choices and all of that.

And then… Then, I don’t know. That’s stuff that’s starting now and will take us into next year. That’s the limit of my prescience. Beyond that, I still have blinkers on.

Because I absolutely cannot bear the thought of us not all being or wanting to be together, Team Sims, above all things. I can’t bear the idea that they will stop talking to us, and think we don’t understand or remember, all too clearly, about adolescence, or friendship confusion, or heartbreak, or what it’s like to have a proper existential crisis or really care about a cause.

Let alone them leaving home. (In about eight years. Gulp.)

So I’ll wait for some reassurance from someone else about that stuff, and carry on with the Lego and fishfingers and ferrying them to clubs and play dates and juggling school holidays and work deadlines.

And I’ll continue to fervently kiss their sleeping, innocent chops every night as I tuck them in before I go to bed, and to express silent gratitude that these two extraordinary little souls are gracing my life and teaching me such enormous lessons about love, and letting go.

Because, in the end, this too shall pass. And too bloody quickly.

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In which Pinchy swims for bloody hours

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to blog about this. I’ll probably work it out while I’m writing. Last month, I did my Biggest Ever physical challenge: I swam 5K for Sport Relief. Yes, I know! Me! The doyenne of exercise-avoidance!

Five kilometres, I can tell you, is a bloody long way. It is, in fact, 200 (count ’em) lengths of the Surrey Sports Park pool. It seems even longer when you can only do a ‘majestic’ (ahem) breast stroke and have never done more than happily bob around a holiday swimming pool for 40 years prior to taking on this challenge.

I’m being slightly disingenuous, of course: I didn’t just get in the pool on the day and hope for the best. I had been training for it since September, along with my two co-swimmers, my dear friend S and her oldest buddy A. Well, when I say training, it was more like swimming up and down for a bit twice a week, and then going for a natter, a cuppa and a panini because we were ‘famished’. At first, anyway. We were all comfortably swimming a mile – 64 lengths – by November, although that was taking me an hour. And then I sort of… stalled. I didn’t really get in the pool much during December and January. Or February. I started to seriously think about pulling out of the swim. I hadn’t started fundraising and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task for a non-swimmer.

Come to think of it, I was overwhelmed by much over the winter. It’s true that you only realise when you emerge from a tunnel how dark and cold it was in there, and how long it has been since you felt the warm sun on your face. Sitting here now, feeling broadly OK, I can’t quite believe what a struggle those wet, overcast months were, in all ways. It was probably a combination of seasonal glumness, a stressful time re finances, my natural tendency towards depression, and big bad life-changing stuff going on for friends who I love fiercely. Plus I was working almost every evening to meet deadlines and very involved with our school campaign after our head teacher left suddenly. (See my previous five posts for the full story!)

This period of General Rubbishness, pre-swim, was topped off nicely by a week in Egypt. Our first family holiday abroad for three years, and the first since I finished my cancer treatment. We took the kids out of school for a week and could still only afford it by hiving off a bit of the money we’d borrowed for a basic refurb of our decrepit kitchen, combined with DH’s first bonus for a few years. In other words, we were quite desperate for a holiday. The kiddies were looking forward to it so hard I thought they would burst before we hit Sharm. We were going to have an amazing time!

There is a small but important life lesson here about ‘non-attachment to outcomes’: the more you want things to be a certain way, the less likely they are to meet your expectations.  I’m always quoting Alain de Botton on travel – something very true he once said along the lines of ‘the trouble with holidays is that you take yourself with you’. The trouble with Egypt was that I took my tearful, short-fused, exhausted self there and expected to be transformed instantly by the sunshine, sea views and all-inclusive package  into the easy-going, cheerful version of myself. What actually happened was that I sat on the lounger with cause-less tears running behind my shades while our delightful and beautiful children had an amazing week in the pool. My Kindle died, both our phones were stolen from our hotel room, necessitating far too much interaction for DH with hotel security and management, reps, and Egyptian police stations, plus there was the worst torrential rainstorm Sharm had seen for decades. My energy was in such a shit place, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if I manifested all of the above, like a frickin’ witch.

I was planning to swim loads while we were there. I didn’t. I did snorkel on a coral reef with beautiful fish, like Actual Finding Nemo, though, and that lifted my spirits a little. When we returned, it was only a fortnight to the Big Swim and I had only covered less than a third of the distance in my training sessions. So I went Forrest Gump. I got in the pool and just swam, for 80 lengths. Then a couple of days later I swam 100. Then 120. And finally, on the Monday before Sport Relief Swimathon Saturday, I ringfenced three hours and swam 180 lengths. At that point, and not at any point before, I knew I could do it. S mentioned that last year’s Swimathon times were on the website. I made the mistake of looking and realised that I really was going to be one of the slowest in the entire country – no-one in my age group had done 5k nearly as slowly as my predicted time of 3hrs 20 minutes. The only women who had done that sort of time were (I kid you not) called things like Doris and Ethel, which I pejoratively assumed meant that I was as slow as a Very Old Lady.

That week, as I wondered again why I was doing this, the Sport Relief programme about Davina McCall’s far more crazy challenge to cycle, run and swim 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, was on telly. The documentary followed Davina on her trip to Africa before taking on the challenge. As she sat with the little girl whose days consisted not of school and games and fun with friends but the monotony of breaking rocks and breathing dust with her mother, hour after hour after hour, for pennies, I cried. I realised that the money I had already raised at that point would send two little girls like her to school for a year. THAT was the point. And I cried again the next morning when I tried to explain to DD when she asked why I was swimming so far. There was my motivation. To give little girls, just like my bright and funny and precious seven year old daughter, a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless, I still had to do the damn thing. I didn’t sleep the night before the swim. I woke up in a terrible mood, really jittery and anxious. S had an upset tummy and A had her back strapped up. It was not looking good. The worst thing was waiting all day: the event wasn’t due to start until 6pm after the  start time moved from 5pm. I went slightly ballistic, and pointed out to the organiser that this would mean I would be in the pool until nearly 9.30pm, meaning my children couldn’t be there at the finish line and our plans for a takeaway and champagne with my M&D, who were up for the weekend to cheer me on, would be buggered. After she realised quite how slow I was (and that she’d probably need to give me the keys to lock up…) she asked if I’d like to start an hour early, in my own special lane. Like a special person. FFS. My sister texted, accurately: ‘We are not a family of athletes, Pinch’. I graciously accepted, of course.

So we arrived at the pool. DD and DS had secretly made me a poster saying ‘Go Mummy Go!’ I got into my cossie. Put my goggles on. Still shaking. My lovely friend B arrived en route to her date night just to see me off. Good luck countdown texts arrived from other dear friends. Team Pinchy was cheering on the sidelines. I got into the water, put my bottles of sporty drink stuff raided from DH’s cycling larder on the edge, and started. I was not entirely in a lane of my own – there was also a small child, who swam the entire 200 lengths in less than two hours, and a series of elderly gentlemen doing the 5k as a relay, who also finished well ahead of me. It took me a good 40 lengths to get into any sort of stride. If one can be shaking while ploughing up and down a pool, that was I. I stopped briefly every 20 lengths for a quick gulp of drink, and to check in with the very patient lady counting for me. Every length took one minute, for the first couple of hours. Then, as everyone else in my lane finished and I had it to myself, I actually got quicker. I was coming in under target! photo 2

My family and S’s arrived to cheer us all on for the finish. The last 20 lengths were punishing: I was breaking new ground, and by that time my right arm was very painful. It’s the one that I had all the lymph nodes removed from; my movement is slightly limited on that side and it does get very uncomfortable at the top and in the armpit if I overdo it, risking lymphodoema and cellulitis ( I’ve only had this once, and it was royally crap).

Then, suddenly, it was the two hundredth length. My darling husband and babies stood at the end of the pool shouting ‘COME ON PINCHY!’, and I was trying to swim 25 metres while doing an odd mixture of sobbing and laughing. And then it was over. My official time was 3hrs 8mins. I’ve just checked and I was the 3,680th person to finish in the country. Whoop! Because I had started an hour early, I was actually out of the pool a few minutes before my much speedier swimming buddies, and was able to cheer them on at the finish. We had done it! Between the three of us we’ve raised a couple of grand so far, I think – you can still donate on my page at https://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/majapawinskasims – I’m a few quid shy of £700 so all donations very welcome!

There was elation and achiness and lots of hugs. And we all got a medal, much to the smalls’ delight. Then champagne and a massive fat well-deserved Thai takeaway at home, followed by a bath in oil provided in my lovely school mum friend E’s ‘survival pack’ (along with bananas and jelly babies).

I woke up the next morning, terribly glad it was all over (although slightly surprised I had not turned into a size 6 sylph overnight). And at that moment, I began to feel better. Lighter and brighter. I had a health kinesiology session with my very dear friend Magic Emily, which helped shift things further and sorted out the achy lymph-free arm. And I have felt a little bit more myself every day since. I haven’t completely shaken off the Gloom, but I’m getting there. And that’s prolly why it took me so long to blog.

I’m never, ever swimming 5K again. But I quite fancy a different sort of physical fundraising challenge. I’m thinking trekking Peru for Breast Cancer Care next. Machu Picchu, anyone?

 

The perfect age

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a baby person. By which I mean, I’m not one of those mummies who absolutely adores the newborn and tiny baby phase. I never revelled in that intimate milky haze. I love my children fiercely, and I would have killed for them the moment they arrived in my arms. But their babyhood was also an extended period of low-level panic: total responsibility for a tiny, vulnerable, helpless human being, who I struggled to understand and who couldn’t tell me what they really needed. It was two years of guesswork and feeling like I was getting it wrong, both times.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

I regret, looking back, that I didn’t relax a bit, go with the flow and enjoy them more. It’s a cliche because it’s so true: they really aren’t babies for long, and it’s a very precious time. But we are are who we are, and some of us are brilliant with babies, and some of us are not. I was bloody good at giving birth, I have to say, but doing a good job of an actual miniature human being? Not so much. For me, it was a total headfuck. I wish it had not been so, but there we are. The moment DS was born, I knew we were done, our family was complete, and I have never had even a twinge of broody desire (luckily, since my ovaries were almost certainly nuked by the chemo two years ago) to have another baby.

Now, though, is a different pot of crustaceans altogether. I had an inkling, when DD started school nearly three years ago (OMG, where has that gone?!) that I was entering a phase of motherhood that I would be a darn sight better at. That would come more naturally to me. That I could really enjoy. Before having children, I always imagined myself with primary school-age kiddies. And lo: I have discovered that I really love being a school mom. Happily, I had two summer babies so this bit came round relatively quickly. DD is coming to the end of Year 2 and DS is about to finish reception, they are about to be seven and five, and I would bottle them, right now.

They are delightful, and I want this summer to go on for ever. I always want to watch them bouncing on their trampoline and inventing silly new jumps that reduce them to a heap of hiccupy hysterics. I want them to always be as funny and sweet and cuddly and delicious and adorable as they are right now. They don’t seem to have been particularly scarred by having a rubbish mummy early in their lives: they are disarmingly affectionate – it’s like they are teaching me new ways of loving and being loved and accepting love, every day. Every day, they break down my barriers and melt my cautious heart. Their kisses and cuddles are offered and demanded and given so freely. They are fearless with their love, still, and it is a total joy and privilege to be with them, most of the time. They are well-mannered, rarely horrifyingly naughty, and our minor spats are usually because they are so in the moment with what they are doing, they’ve tuned me out. Which is fair enough, really: pirates don’t need to put sensible shoes on.

I am pretty much the opposite of a ‘helicopter parent’ – I’m more of a stealth bomber, hovering out of sight in case of extreme crisis, and I encourage them to be independent and to make their own fun. And occasionally I hear a bored whine, and it is then that I know the magic is about to happen: in the space where they are a bit bored, their most exciting and imaginative new games and activities flourish, quite without my interference. They play beautifully together, and are completely in love with each other: DD is still unselfconscious enough to enjoy playing with her little brother almost more than anyone else, although he is starting to wind her up on occasion, being his father’s son. I avoid getting involved in their disagreements as far as possible (unless there is blood, obviously) not just because I can’t be arsed/am doing laundry/have a rather tricky level of Candy Crush to conquer, but because they are quite capable of resolving their differences, compromising and negotiating. In fact, I reckon they sign the peace treaty (ie agree on a movie or a game or who’s gonna wear the Cat in the Hat outfit) a lot quicker when I’m not doing a Ban Ki-moon act.

Every day, I take joy in the little acts of care for them. I take satisfaction from washing, ironing and putting out their uniform every night. I make their packed lunches with love (all those cute little Tupperware boxes!). I love making their beds in the morning, opening their curtains and letting the day into their room. I love doing the school run. They are so happy at our wonderful school, and doing so well. I love the little facts they come home with every night, and their excited bulletins about the next day. We are lucky that our homework burden is light, so after school they are free to ride their bikes and just be children. Apart from non-negotiable swimming lessons on a Monday after school, we don’t have any other scheduled activities at the moment. They are happy enough, stimulated enough, and tired enough as it is. Yesterday, we had no playdates planned, so we just hung out in the garden, the three of us, eating lollies, reading Grazia (me) and playing some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Despicable Me mash-up (the smalls), whose rules I didn’t quite understand.

And the next stage is letting them teach me not only about love, but also about play. They are old enough, now, to play a rudimentary game of cricket, football or catch in the garden. They are old enough to write the clues for a treasure hunt. They are old enough to go for long adventures in the woods. They are old enough to make quite complex structures out of Lego or clay. They are old enough to try magic tricks and card games. I’ve never really enjoyed stuff like role play (no sniggering at the back), and puzzles, but the stuff they are into now is, well, more interesting. Take Harry Potter, who features large in our lives at the moment. IMG_2418They are mesmerised by the first three movies. I’m reading the first book to them at bedtime and they are properly enthralled. I think, to be honest, that that was the moment being a parent first made complete, joyful sense to me: when I started reading them books I love and saw the wonder in their faces. (Doing Hagrid’s West Country accent is no problem, as a Salisbury girl, but my Professor McGonagall is appalling). DH took great joy in whittling them a real wooden wand so they could properly be Harry and Hermione. They both saved up for a toy owl, so they have their own Hedwigs. I spent hours following a YouTube tutorial to make them Golden Snitches. DS is mooting a trip to Harry Potter Studios for his fifth birthday.

They want me to join in their play more than I do, and are surprised and delighted when I stop the chores and muck in. DD’s face when I actually got on the trampoline the other day and showed her how to do a pike was a picture – she lit up, which was worth the alarm caused to my pelvic floor. I plan to say yes to their games a lot more, this summer. Yes to water fights! Yes to races! Yes to hide and seek! IMG_2454

Because much as baby days were over quickly, this golden bit of my darlings’ childhood is rushing past. And this time I really do mind. I am already having conversations with friends about what age our girls will be when we allow them into town alone and let them have a mobile phone (the consensus seems to be between 11 and 12. That’s potentially only four years until the Letting Go starts…) It’s not going to be long before we have teenage strops and sulks and they don’t want anything to do with each other or us (but still desperately NEED us to get them, and love them unconditionally – I anticipate another challenging period of communication equal to having a newborn!).

In the meantime, for the first time in my almost-seven years as a mother, I kind of feel like I am doing a good enough job. I don’t always get it right. For every day that I’m calm, cheerful and easy to be around, there’s another day when I’m preoccupied, knackered and impatient. I really appreciate the silence in my home office while they are at school, and I rejoice, some days, when it’s time for the bath taps to go on and mummy’s little helper is chilling in the fridge. But I also rejoice on Saturday nights in, when they are allowed to stay up to watch trashy talent show telly with us, and we get through bags of tortilla chips and houmous together and discuss which mentor or judge we’d like. When we were in Rome for DH’s 40th at Easter, after the first two days we were missing the kiddies terribly and planning our next trip to the Eternal City with them in tow, and a bigger icecream budget. They are wonderful little humans, and great company. And, pelvic floor notwithstanding, I will be doing the Bottom Jump on the trampoline with them in a matter of hours. Lucky old me.

Where have all the cowboys gone?

I’m worried about the boys. Or rather, men. Really, I am. Over the past couple of years, a hefty percentage of the chaps I know, or who are married to people I know, appear to have dived, lemming-like, into what I can only describe as a mid-life crisis of some kind.

I spent a couple of days last week with some amazing women, on a goal-setting day run by our fabulous coach Amanda Alexander. We all run our own small – mostly one-woman-band – businesses. We all have professional backgrounds, some at a very senior corporate level. We all have young children. We’re all planning significant income for the year ahead, some of us into six figures. And as we talked – in the collaborative, open, non-competitive, supportive, sharing, and sometimes emotional way that a group of like-minded women talk – it became clear that most of us had something else in common. Problems with our men.

Between us, the grown-up boys in our lives had been through, or were still going through, a whole smorgasbord of bad stuff, including: anger management issues, depression, unemployment, family illness, and bereavement. Divorce and separation – past or impending – was mentioned by around 50% of our group. Counselling, medication, suspected infidelity, obsessive fitness, expensive new hobbies, and the purchase of powerful motorbikes had all been involved. Other themes included husbands and partner’s disengagement, absence, lack of support for their women and children (whether emotional, financial or in terms of childcare), really quite shit communication skills, emotional constipation, and general flakiness.

Seriously, where's this guy when you need him?

Seriously, where’s this guy when you need him?

And it’s not just this group of women. In conversation with friends, The Trouble With Our Men comes up again and again. But please don’t get the wrong idea, boys: we’re (mostly) not sitting around bitching about how crap you are. We’re properly worried about you. We love you, and we care about you, and we’re worried as wives, as mothers of sons, and as friends of women and men. We’re worried about what these mid-life crises – because this does seem to be happening to a ridiculous amount of men in their late thirties and early forties – mean for you, for us, for our marriages, for our children, and for society.

A couple of months ago I heard that men aged 35-49 are now the highest suicide risk in the UK, according to government figures for 2008-2010. I was saddened, but not at all surprised, by the stats. Men in this age group – our husbands, our children’s fathers – are under an awful lot of pressure. I’m no psychologist or sociologist (or any other ‘ist’, unless you count piss artist), but it seems pretty obvious that men’s place in the world is not as straightforward as it used to be. For a whole load of complex reasons, men are no longer necessarily respected as the head of the family, authority figures, breadwinners (hunter gatherers…). The old testosterone-fuelled ways of running businesses and indeed countries – power, aggression, competition – don’t seem to be working quite as well. They are also expected to step up and achieve their earning potential, be active and involved parents, share the running of the household, be great in bed, and be emotionally intelligent.

I’m being simplistic here, but it seems as if we want men to be softer and more sensitive, and yet we still expect them to be strong. Meanwhile, women are busy changing the world while changing nappies. No wonder men are confused. No wonder they feel rather emasculated. No wonder they need to be in control. No wonder they feel like they ‘can’t do anything right’,  and ‘can’t go on like this’, and ‘need some time out’ and ‘we don’t show them enough affection’. Chuck a recession, job and money worries into the mix, and you’ve got a timebomb on your hands.

In some cases it seems almost like post-traumatic stress disorder: something very bad has happened, and they just haven’t had the tools to deal with it. My own DH won’t mind me saying that he found my diagnosis of breast cancer and 18 months of treatment incredibly hard. He had to be strong, for me, for our babies, for his employer, when he felt shocked, scared, anxious, and really very upset much of the time. He had additional responsibilities with the children and the home as well as working full time, his wife (who would normally have been his confidante and coach through a crisis) was throwing up after chemo, losing her hair, recovering from surgery, and then working out how to be herself again. When it was finally all over, he just hadn’t dealt with any of it, and this manifested itself in getting increasingly shouty and exploding  about nothing at all. We’ve pretty much sorted it out now, and I think we’re better at talking, and loving each other, than we ever have been in our 23 years together. But, you know, there was definitely a point at which our marriage could have swung the other way.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to bear, when our men dissolve into tears, or are distant and numb, or avoid coming home from work, or drink too much, or yell at us, or even attempt to find solace in another, less frosty, bed. There is, it has to be said, an element of frustration, impatience and resentment in our feelings about all of this. It might even seem, when they are being particularly rubbish, like selfishness or self-indulgence, because mothers have to keep buggering on, basically. The kids’ tea isn’t going to make itself, no matter how shit we feel. Even when I’ve been in the depths of depression, we’ve all had clean pants. But resentment is not a fertile ground for love.

I am worried about the boys, because I love all of the men in my life, and I want them to be happy. I’m a feminist, but not to the extent that I want an alarming number of men to feel like killing themselves because they can’t live up to expectations. I don’t want men to feel useless, and fearful, and powerless, and pointless. Because we’re a team, right? We need each other. We’re on the same side. And I don’t want to be doing all of this on my own. At some point we need to stop resenting our men who aren’t manning up for whatever reason, and feel pity, and express compassion, and show them love. To treat them with humour, patience and praise, a bit like recalcitrant children. To make it easy for them to talk to us. To be their safe place. And gently encourage them to put on a smile and some metaphorical lipstick, face their adoring public, and keep the show on the road.

 

Taking the Black Dog for a walk

Happy New Year! How was your Christmas? Ours was pretty darn textbook, actually. It kicked off with an excellent panto  – Dick Whittington in Woking – with dear friends, and DH heroically finishing decorating our elegant grey dining room just before the big day. We spent Christmas Eve singing carols in the open air in Shere village with family and friends. Christmas day, with my mummy and daddy joining us for the first time, was relaxed, and happy, and foody, and excellent-spoily-presenty and champagney. Boxing day, hosted in aforementioned dining room, was a perfect family occasion: table extended and groaning with delicious cold cuts and pies, cousins playing beautifully together, siblings, parents and in-laws chatting, drinking and laughing. Then me and the kiddies had the requisite virus for a full five days (boo hiss), until New Year’s Eve, when we all decamped to the Runnymede hotel and spa in Egham for a 24 hour minibreak with my sis and our smalls and olds. Swimming, sauna, steam room, new short dress that was probably not designed for a 39 year old, bubbles, great food, dancing with 70 year olds to Rihanna. Tears at midnight after DH mentioned that two years ago on New Year’s Eve I was having my third chemo. More spa action with horrendous I-am-possibly-not-sober-yet hangover. Classic stuff.

Pure joy!

Pure joy!

And then the holidays are over, and it’s back to earth with a bump. Reality bites. Back to work. Back to the hectic school run. For me, I have to say, this was BLISS. I love our children more than ever; now they are 6 and 4 they are delightful company: funny, sweet, clever, creative and pretty well-behaved most of the time. But I’ve always been honest about full-time motherhood not being my forte, and some days I find the utter lack of peace and quiet and space to even think in the school holidays quite* (*very)  stressful. Spending the first day of term – an inset day – having a Family Day at Ikea (I know, WTF was I thinking?) was not my best decision ever; we all basically fell out quite spectacularly. The kiddies were desperate to go back to school on Tuesday (they love it, even more this term as our wonderful head and deputy and their creative team of teachers have turned the whole place into a magical Narnia-fairytale-nursery-rhyme mash up. You even have to go through huge ‘wardrobe doors’ and a row of fur coats into a sparkly winter forest to get past the entrance hall. Sensational.) And I was very glad to be back in my office. Utter silence. Me and a huge pile of documents to edit. Earl Grey. No need to speak to anyone or worry about meeting anyone else’s needs for five and a half hours. Like I said, a little bit of heaven, if you’re me.

So why the ‘Black Dog’ of the title, if life is so good at the moment? For once, thank goodness, it’s not my black dog  (read Mr Chartwell for one of the most beautiful, funny, surreal vignettes about depression. It’s got an actual massive black dog in it). But I do know from experience that January isn’t always a ‘new start’ in a positive way, if you do have a big dark-haired canine slobbering all over you.

It’s no secret that I am, shall we say, prone to depression. I have come to the conclusion that, certainly before the diagnosis of breast cancer, I was just one of those people who was anxious, depressed, or panicky for much of my life since about the age of 14. Cognitive behavioural therapy eventually knocked the panic attacks on the head, and the rather good Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors – SSRIs, aka the Prozac type of anti-depressant – sorted out the two bouts of ‘normal’ and one bout of post-natal depression. I probably should also have been on them after DS was born and failed to digest properly or sleep for 18 months, in retrospect. And while now, post-facing-up-to-my-own-mortality-and-vowing-to-end-suffering-etc, I am honestly more contented and cheerful than ever, I still get the odd black dog day, which is probably mostly down to the mind-bending powers of the breasty-lump-preventing Tamoxifen I am 18 months into a five year prescription of.

Christmas dinner in the new dining room.

Christmas dinner in the new dining room.

So I get many aspects of the broad umbrella condition known as depression. I get not wanting to be labelled. I get not wanting to give it a name. I get not wanting to be seen as crazy. I get not wanting to been seen as not coping, or not in control, or ill. I get not wanting everyone to know you’ve been diagnosed. I get being reluctant to go on anti-depressants. I get the hell of the first few weeks of the drugs, and the trickiness and fear of coming off them again. I get being pissed off when people who love you assume that if you are just plain angry or upset or down or exhausted, then you must need medication again to moderate your feelings or behaviour. And I also get that the drugs don’t always work. That you may need a different little pill at a different dose, or to try a completely different treatment or approach, before you truly start feeling normal again and your brain chemistry gently resets itself. That you may also need some kind of therapy or counselling, for the treatment to be most effective. That even if you are ‘well’, you will have good days and very, very bad days. That alcohol and anti-depressants don’t really work. That no-one else can fix you, however much they love you.

I’m really looking forward to 2013, anticipating fun and adventures and laughter and lovely times with family and friends, including mine and DH’s 40th birthdays. But I’ve been depressed in January before, and I remember it felt like a whole burdensome, impossible year of numbness and going through the motions was ahead of me. It felt like another year that I couldn’t even imagine getting through. Making positive plans and decisions was incredibly hard, especially when I was pretending to everyone that I was fine, as I did for long periods of time. It sometimes felt, quite acutely, like maybe if I removed myself from the framework of my life – a different university, a different boyfriend or husband (or no-one at all, just precious solitude), a different home, no children, different friends, a different country, a different job – then somehow I would be released from the trap I was in. Maybe then I would be OK. Be happy, even. Feel better. Maybe my relationships were bad, and if I wasn’t in them anymore, I would be myself again. Maybe it was my employer’s fault, and if I went freelance (as I did, resigning on a whim in 2001 without consulting my new husband because I couldn’t take another day of panic attacks) then I would be absolutely fine. I very much was not. I thought I had had a moment of absolute clarity. But I really was in a crazy place from where no major decisions should be taken. In my very, very darkest days, I might even have considered that it would be better all round if I simply didn’t exist (I know! A world without Pinchy! What a terrible thought!).

But one thing I have learned over the past 25 years of coping with a whole smorgasbord of depression and anxiety is that the solution is never, ever outside me. It’s all in my head. Changing major structural and emotional elements of my life will not alleviate my symptoms, or turn me into a cheerful, happy-go-lucky person. Running away from the people who love me, and spreading the suffering further, won’t make life easier, or more fun, or less like wading through porridge. Checking out won’t turn my dampened feelings up again, or release the need, however it presents itself, for oblivion. Because, to paraphrase something extraordinarily insightful that philosopher Alain de Botton once said in a book on travel, the trouble with going away is that you take yourself with you. Even if you’ve never been depressed, you’ll understand this if you’ve ever booked a dream holiday, thought about its lush tropicalness and spa treatments and views and swimming pools for months, and then been let down when the reality was  filled with as many marital disagreements, over-tired and exhausting children, and general drudge as spending a week at home. People who move to the other side of the world and then slowly realise they haven’t actually achieved the mythical ‘new start with quality time together as a family’ know this. We are all still ourselves, whatever the location. You’ll still be you in your next job, your next relationship, your next home. And if you is depressed, to a greater or lesser extent, that ain’t gonna change. You are, in effect, merely taking the black dog for a walk.

Happiness is always, and forever, and only, available within ourselves. It’s a terribly simple thing, but tantalisingly difficult to achieve. My wise mummy often says that being happy all the time is impossible (and probably another sort of madness), but we can all find moments of joy. And the massive secret is, it’s only you blocking your capacity for joy – no-one else has that power over you. Whatever other people do or say or feel, or don’t do or say or feel, is irrelevant. After the drugs and/or therapy have done their initial job of resetting the thermostat, sooner or later you need to start looking inside to achieve any sort of inner peace, contentment, and a sense of joy.

A very onesie Christmas...

A very onesie Christmas…

The three things I’ve found most effective are basically the opposite of running away. They are about meeting myself, treating myself  gently and with love, and appreciating all the infinite good in my life:

1. I express gratitude. I count my blessings. If I’ve had a particularly bad day, in my head before I go to sleep I list all the small things I am grateful for that day, from being given a cuddle, to finding a parking space, nabbing a bargain, a friendly email, someone who made me laugh, or a good meal.

2. I try to be in the moment. I make a conscious effort to become mindful. Whatever I am doing, I do it with all my focus. I try to honour the people I am with, the work I am doing, the journey I am on, with my absolute attention. This might mean getting off Twitter and actually playing with the children or watching the movie with them, or slowing down, stopping multi-tasking, and doing one thing really well. It might mean, on a more micro level, when I am feeling particularly strung out or detached, focusing on each of my senses in turn. What can I hear? What can I see? What can I feel in my body? What can I taste? Because when it comes down to it, I am just a woman, sitting, standing, breathing. All the rest is storytelling, and some of the stories we tell ourselves about what our life is like only increase our pain and suffering.

3. I am learning to love myself. Many of us don’t even like ourselves. I say ”I love and approve of myself” to my reflection or just  mutter it under my breath, many times a day. This was surprisingly hard to start with. I felt tearful, and resistant, and silly, and started coughing, and yawning. But I kept at it. It really, really helps. I guess because if you are OK with yourself, it’s much easier to see an abundance of love, joy and other good things every day; we find in the world that which we project out into it.

And these are not just tricks to get me through bad times. They can turn an average, normal day into a pretty wonderful one too. The difference is all in my mind, you see. It’s my firm intention that 2013 will be packed to the rafters with all good things, and so it will be. I know I’ll have good days and bad days, but I also know when I look back at 2013 on New Year’s Eve, every experience and feeling I have had will be all down to me, and no-one else. And why wouldn’t I choose a Happy New Year?

About a boy

Today I’m going to introduce you to the other man in my life. The one who’s just over a metre tall. For one post only, I’ll call my four-year-old Darling Son by his name: Rupert. As in The Bear. As in The Red (he is blessed with gorgeous pale ginger hair that he calls ‘orange’). And not at all as in Rupert Penry-Jones. Honest guv.

Some (I’m looking at you, dear husband) have questioned the wisdom of calling a ginger boy Rupert. He’s either going to have to play rugby or be the funniest boy in school, right? Luckily, he is already showing potential for being sporty and extremely funny. His core strength is astonishing: he basically has a baby six pack. What I would call ‘extreme yoga’ he calls ‘hanging out upside down while watching Disney Junior’.

He’s a tall, skinny little thing – his trousers are either too short or the right length but falling down around his tiny hips and peachy bottom. He has an acute sense of the absurd, and (obviously) a penchant for toilet humour (saying ‘poo’ can literally make him cry with laughter until he can’t breathe). He has a real twinkle in his eye and a great imagination. He makes up imaginary characters with extraordinary names, two of the most popular currently being the superheroesque  ‘Acival’ and the more slapstick-sounding ‘Eldon Bun’. He describes really cool things like torches and doing a forward roll as ‘awesome’. He loves soft play, and theme parks, and playing with small Playmobil/Happyland figures he calls ‘persons’.

Rupert started school last month. He was only four at the end of August, so he is the youngest in the school. His big sister took five terms to stop crying and clinging to me every morning, bless her, so I was bracing myself for another tough start. Sure enough, on Day 1, there were a LOT of tears when me and DH dropped him off. His fantastic teacher phoned me at lunchtime to tell me he was absolutely fine and having a great time. And ever since, he’s trooped into his classroom, clutching his book bag and his packed luncheon, without a backward glance. Rupe seems to have settled in beautifully, and is genuinely loving learning. He loves his teachers, is full of excitement every day about the new letter he’s learned, and has made some little friends, boys and girls. I am astonished, and indescribably relieved, that he is so happy at school. Although totally foxed by the sheer volume of plastic boxes and drinks bottles he has managed to lose from his packed lunches in half a term.

My relationship with Rupert is easy, and natural, and very physical. He is VERY cuddly. He climbs into bed for a quick cuddle most mornings, and he smells delicious. If I’m yelling at Rupe it’s usually something utterly banal like having to ask him for the umpteenth time to put his shoes on. It’s like clouds passing the sun. He is sensitive, and kind, and loving. He has stunning blue eyes and a winning smile, and he LEAPS into my arms when he needs a hug, making my heart melt.

He does sometimes get himself in a pickle, especially when he can’t find the right words to tell a grown-up what he’s upset about. We have extended whimpering and whining and tears instead of him using his very good vocabulary, and he is quite capable, frankly, of being what DH calls ”a little shit’. But he makes us laugh, a lot, and we’re both aware that Rupe is not to be underestimated just cos he’s the youngest. Ever since he started talking has insisted on using full, Victorian-style formal sentences. Why say ‘no’ when you can say: ‘I don’t think so, mama, not at the moment, thank you.’

He was a nightmare baby: always full of wind, crying the whole time, permanent upset tummy, never slept through the night till he was 18 months old. It was a big shock after my angel of a daughter who slept through from nine weeks. Nevertheless, I had post-natal depression that was not diagnosed until she was seven months old, and I found new motherhood, even with a ‘good’ baby, a complete head-fuck. And then two years and three weeks later, I had this tricksy little bugger (conceived the month after I came off the antidepressants) and bonded with him just fine.

We finally worked out the wind and Appalling Poo thing: he’s dairy intolerant. (I know this is very Surrey, and I apologise, but there it is). So now we know that he has to avoid cheese and milk and yoghurt, and all is well. He can take a little bit of butter in a recipe, and a little bit of milk chocolate. We don’t have much dairy in the house since I got on my high horse about the potential link with hormonal cancers anyway, so it’s not at all difficult accommodating him. He eats a lot of fruit and sorbet for pudding; Alpro soya vanilla puddings are like the best custard ever, and we all have almond milk on our cereal.

Rupe’s favourite thing is watching a film. He adores our trips to the cinema, and has an astonishing attention span where telly and films are concerned. He’s been watching full-length movies all the way through since he was two. For which I have offered up a silent prayer of thanks many times when he’s been on a half day at nursery and I have had a work deadline. For his fourth birthday, he asked to see Brave at the cinema, ‘after lunch at Jamie’s’.

His other favourite thing is Star Wars. He has two lightsabers and a black plastic mask that chants all Mr D. Vadar’s best lines, and a Stormtrooper outfit. He and Bridget play Star Wars a lot. They play beautifully together, most of the time, whether they are creating space ships out of cardboard boxes or doing Lego. They love each other very much and laugh together a lot. It’s a total joy watching them grow up as a little double act. I hope they stay close forever. He brings out her more physical, noisy side, and she encourages his creativity. They descend into hysterics very, very quickly. Yesterday they both had hiccups and tears streaming down their cheeks after indulging in a bit of cross-dressing: Rupe in B’s pink pirate outfit, and she in his t-shirt and swimming trunks. This screaming laughter is a delightful sound if you are hearing them having fun several rooms away, and not so great if you’re on a moderately long car journey. They both adore Olly Murs and know every song on the album off by heart: Bridgey singing along perfectly in tune and doing all the harmonies, and Rupey doing his sweet, shy, pretty much tone-deaf barking.

Rupey is well known for his penchant for ‘a drink and a snack’. His tipple of choice is ‘hot lemon’ – warm lemon high-juice squash in a big beaker. He gets through pints of the stuff; I’ve never known a child drink so much. If you don’t know where Rupe is, he’s probably watching Jake and the Neverland Pirates with a hot lemon, a biscuit, and his precious Flat Bear tucked under his arm. His ultimate treat is to spend an entire Saturday in his PJs, over which he will consent to slip one of his many dressing up outfits if I absolutely have to pop to Sainos. (We arrrrr going through a bit of a piratey phase).

He’s a real mummy’s boy at the moment, although daddy will come into his own when he falls in love with balls of all shapes and sizes, I’m sure. He’s already got a killer sense of what to do with a ball: he can drop-kick, and kick long and on target. DH taught him to ride his grown-up bike with no stabilisers this summer, and he looks delicious wobbling along with his massive helmet on his little boncey head. He has massive hands – something tells me he’s going to be a tall boy, and once we get round to Sunday morning rugby sessions, no-one will be messing with this ginger whinger.

So that’s my adorable, cheeky, funny Rupert Bear. I love him fiercely, and he brings me enormous joy, and totally winds me up. And I can’t wait to give him a cuddle after school today.

The end of term

I can’t believe DD and her giggly friends have got to the end of Year 1 at school already. How did that happen?! It seems like only yesterday I took those photos of her on the front doorstep of our old house, dressed in too-big uniform, pigtails, barely four years old. And now she is a tall almost-six-year-old, and she can read beautifully, and add up, and tell jokes, and almost swim, and has a dark little head full of amazing facts about rabbits, and the Olympics, and Big Ben.

My little stars in the glasshouse at Wisley

She likes watching the television weather report, loves her Friday Night Disco where she gets to choose two tracks from her Shuffle to dance and sing to in her PJs (especially Olly Murs, Jessie J, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas), is very good at cuddles, is addicted to olives, likes playing Star Wars and Lego with her little brother (who she adores), still sleeps with her flat bear, and has an insatiable appetite for any creative activity – especially junk modelling her number one invention, Robot Kittens (TM).

She has a best friend at school, J, who is just as giggly and creative and lovely and bright-eyed. They run into each others’ arms and hold hands like long-separated lovers, even when they saw each other half an hour earlier. They write each other love letters that come home in book bags: one of J’s last week said ‘I love you so much, you are so funny, you make me larf’. I told DD I thought that was one of the nicest things anyone could say about you.She’s also stayed loyal to, and deeply in love with, her other two gorgeous, clever, funny, best friends outside school, whose mums are helpfully also my best local mummy friends, and not averse to a glass of prosecco on a Friday teatime with the ‘leftover’ Mummy Fishfingers.

Her school report this week made me swell with pride: it’s very gratifying when a teacher thinks that your small person is almost as special as you know they are. She’s friendly, and popular, and empathetic, and a good listener, and has great ideas. She tries hard at everything and gives it what Simon Cowell might call 110% (NB NOT POSSIBLE, COWELL). What you see is what you get with DD: as far as I can tell, she’s pretty much the same person at school and home, especially now her weekly Performdrama classes have boosted her confidence in all ways (much to my relief that the morning tears have finally stopped – worth every penny, even if I had to give up yoga to pay for it!). She tells me about her day in great detail, and always has a fascinating fact to impart. (This week, it was ‘Did You Know Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world?’)

Friday Night Disco

I have a tiny niggle for discussion with her teachers about her rated standard of writing, spelling and numbers. She’s doing absolutely fine and just needs a bit more practice, but there is now a no-homework policy in Key Stage 1, so it’s very difficult to keep track of progress, and I would have liked to have some direction about how me and DH could support her at home rather earlier, rather than finding out at the end of the year. And there’s a bit of Competitive Mummy thinking “how dare anyone call my extraordinary child ‘average’ ” in there, obviously…

So my amazing daughter continues, some time after I wrote my tribute to her on this blog, to be amazing. I can honestly, without exaggeration, say that I am in awe of her, probably more than any other human being. I can’t say our relationship is without its complications – what mother and daughter relationship isn’t? – but we learn from each other every day. I try and be honest with her about my own failings and feelings, and apart from the odd flouncing episode with bottom lip stuck out (me as well as her, ha!), I think she’s astonishingly emotionally intelligent. As you know, I’m a big fan of Byron Katie’s work, and me and DD have both found her book for children, ‘Tiger Tiger Is It True?’ extremely useful for dissipating those ‘it’s not fair/nobody listens/everybody else…’ rants.

Last week, DD issued the proclamation that when she grows up, she wants to be ‘an artist’. And then, more quietly, and with some squirming, ‘I want to be better than David Hockney’. Gosh. Work hard and aim high, my darling. As Oscar said, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. I’m lucky enough to look at two bright little stars every single day, DD and DS. I haven’t told you much about him yet. I’ll introduce you to my adorable little gingerbread man in my next post.