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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Kids, creativity, and Minecraft

 

We were listening to the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show on the school run the other morning when I heard something that really irritated me. Sheila Hancock, who as one of the grand dames of theatre is almost beyond reproach, was chatting to Chris Evans as part of the build-up to the 500 Words kids’ short story competition, when she said, in passing: “Technology kills creativity”.

I inhaled, sharply.

The context was a conversation about getting kids off screens and using their imagination and creativity to write instead.

Reading and writing are obviously very, very dear to my heart. They are my vocation, my income, my beloved companions, my education, my therapy and my escape.

But I truly don’t believe it’s an either/or. And to say “technology kills creativity” in children, from my experience as a mum, is just plain wrong. It’s lazy, ignorant thinking.

Take Minecraft. For those of you without children aged over five, this is the incredibly popular virtual block-building game. Minecraft was created in 2009 by a Swede called Markus Persson, better known by his fans as Notch. He was inspired, unsurprisingly, by Lego. He loved Lego so much, he built a digital homage to it.

Minecraft has two modes, one of which is called Creative, where you can assemble blocks of materials – from brick to ice to obsidian– to create fantastical landscapes, underground diamond mines, or villages topped by intricate castles. There are little square pigs and ocelots and other animals tootling around. And then you can blow it all up with blocks of TNT, which is oddly satisfying.

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The other mode is Survival. This is the gamified version. Resources and lives are limited and hard won. You need to build weapons. Zombies might kill in you the night. The terrain may hold unpleasant surprises, or hidden treasure.

DD, who is nine-and-a-half, prefers Creative mode, building beautiful palaces and waterfalls. DS, who is seven-and-a-half, equally likes the peril of Survival. They design and build and modify incredible creations on Minecraft, with their fingers flying across the screen. It’s totally intuitive for them.

But it doesn’t end there.

Minecraft is creative in and of itself, but it also leads to offline creativity: designs, drawings, and written stories (all DS’s ideas for his 500 Words entry involved Minecraft in some way).

It inspires real-world block building with Lego (which pleases me greatly in its neat circularity, although Lego developing sets inspired by Minecraft is possibly a Borgian step too far…)

Minecraft is a prompt for imaginative games in the house and garden with each other and their friends. It is also the subject of quite sophisticated conversations and debates about planned Minecraft creations, including stuff about cause and effect.

And it’s part of their fledgling adventures in coding: we bought the children the fab Kano kit to build a computer and learn to code, and making your own modifications to Minecraft is among the coolest things you can do with it.

It’s also a brilliant teaching tool: there’s an official education version of Minecraft for teachers to use in the classroom. One dad even wrote a piece in the Guardian about how Minecraft gave his autistic child a voice.

YouTubers didn’t exist ten years ago. You couldn’t earn money from vlogging until very recently. But if you’ve seen some of the leading YouTube videos about Minecraft – the kids’ favourites include Stampylongnose/Stampy with his memorable laugh, Dan the Diamond Minecart and iBallistic Squid – you’ll know that this is now a bono fide job.

These videos get millions upon millions of views. Stampy (otherwise known as Joseph Garrett) was even invited to deliver the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Christmas Lecture last year, attracting its biggest ever audience.

And Notch, the 35-year-old creator of Minecraft, hasn’t done too badly for “just a gamer”: he sold his company Mojang, including Minecraft, to Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5 billion.

Not everyone can be Notch or Stampy, but Minecraft is going to be a huge influence on more familiar careers for years to come. There is unlikely to be a designer, architect or engineer of any discipline graduating (or starting their own business) in a decade who has not cut their teeth on Minecraft.

We can’t even begin to imagine the lives, jobs and opportunities our children will have as adults. But this kind of “tech plus creativity” skill set is likely to be critical to whatever path they embark on.

So I’m as happy for my two to explore, create and build on screen in Minecraft as in Real Life. Because far from killing creativity, technology can enable, boost and unlock it.

Turn and face the strange

This week, we lost Ziggy Stardust and Severus Snape, both aged 69, to the ravages of cancer. It’s no age, really, is it?

I have been quite surprised at my own distress at both deaths. I was just a twinkle in my daddy’s eye when *that* Starman moment aired on Top of the Pops in 1972, after all. I can’t claim that David Bowie changed my life, as he did for so many others. I just thought he was an awesomely cool creative force (even if my favourite Bowie song is the super-cheesy Absolute Beginners). But I still cried.

As for Alan Rickman, he was in some of my very favourite movies. My first year at uni was more or less back-to-back viewings of Truly Madly Deeply. Plus he was Professor Snape, for goodness’ sake.

And you just feel that bit chillier when a star has gone out, even if it wasn’t shining directly on you.

There’s another obvious thing, of course. An awful lot of people die from some form of cancer every day. Those rogue cells are complete and utter bastards. And every time there is a high profile death from cancer, I do some kind of quasi-non-Catholic-sign-of-the-cross thing in my head.

There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.

It resonates, deeply.

During this very sad week for creativity and movies and music, though, I have been doing this mental manoeuvre without the added acrobatics of crossed fingers, because on November 5th 2015, I got my official five year sign off.

This was very much a WHOOP WHOOP! moment.

My oncology team are no longer interested in me. I don’t have breast cancer anymore.

There’s no such thing as being “cured”, of course, and disclaimers abound: there are no guarantees that there won’t be a repeat performance at some point in the future.

But my prospects are excellent: I’ve had amazing, pioneering surgery, a super-powerful chemo drugs trial, belt-and-braces radiotherapy, and I’ve got another five years of daily Tamoxifen tablets as an insurance policy. I also get annual mammograms until I’m 50, and an annual chat and check-up with the breast clinic. It’s all good.

I felt, yet again, like the luckiest girl in the whole world when the consultant stood and smiled and shook both our hands and said: “Well done. You did it”. Me and DH cried outside the hospital, with relief and happiness. It really did feel like we could exhale after holding our breath for five years.

Serendipitously, it was Fireworks Night, so obviously we had a handful of family members and close friends and excitable small people over for low-key sausages and fireworks and champagne. It was awesome to be able to say, out loud, that, as promised, I have well and truly fucked cancer. Pretty emotional, all round.

Life was good. We could all chill out and move on.

Well, for six days, anyway.

Because on the seventh day after my victorious sign off, DH got made redundant.

“FFS!!!” doesn’t really cover it.

I felt like we were bloody Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. We’d just wiped out one deadly opponent when another poisoned arrow came hurtling out of the woods towards us.

katniss

Me and the boy, recently.

My mum said, sagely, that you expect things to calm down by your 40s, but actually it often ends up being the most life-changing decade. It’s true that almost everyone I know is going through, or has gone through, some sort of Major Thing in the past couple of years: separation, divorce, serious illness, parental illness, bereavement, redundancy, financial stress.

Your 40s, in other words, are when you have to finally, properly, grow up. We are the adults now. The shit is happening to us and no-one else is going to make it all better or write a sick note excusing us from responsibility. That’s pretty scary.

DH had had a crap year at work, to be fair. After nine years doing extremely well in the same company, there’s nothing quite like being wrong-footed by your new boss at every turn, so your confidence is utterly destroyed. If he were a different man, he might have seen the eventual departmental reorganisation and redundancy as a blessing.

It was nothing personal, but my boy took it deeply personally. He has always worked hard, and cares very much about doing the best job he can. He’s all about achievement, and problem-solving, and efficient processes and spreadsheets and excellent relationships with clients and colleagues.

He’s also got the risk profile of a 70-year-old, according to our IFA: security, stability, salary, savings are his watchwords. My frivolous spending habits (“Ooh! Look! I must get that resin cockatoo for the mantelpiece!) and freelance life drive him potty.

Redundancy was literally his worst nightmare. In the days after he was given the shocking news, I could see he was imagining, somehow, that being made redundant would inevitably lead to losing the house, me, and the kids, until he was destitute and homeless.

How to support someone you love, who has got into that state? I was still out of breath from completing my own long, dark marathon of the soul. I had to put something of a shield up, to protect myself and not get dragged into the slough of despond. No use two of us crumbling under the pressure. I could definitely have given him more cuddles and sympathy, but at the time my gut instinct was that there was nothing to be gained by indulging the catastrophising.

Instead, I automatically went into Coach Mode, and encouraged him to Take Massive Action. It’s the only way of regaining some sort of control when all seems lost, really, isn’t it?

Reach out. Zsush up that CV and LinkedIn profile. Email and call everyone who might have a job, or might know someone who did. Take people for coffee. Arrange meetings. Go to every interview. Keep an open mind.

Above all, do whatever you need to do to keep your head in the right place, darling. Accept all offers of professional, moral, medical and therapeutic support.

Chin up. Smile. Shiny shoes. GO GO GO!

As with all of life’s big landmarks and crises, one finds out who one’s friends are. The lawyer and the headhunter truly stepped up, using their skills and love to support and advise, on a daily basis, sometimes for hours on end. Many others chivvied and cheered and were generally in touch and checking in. And DH was truly humbled by the number of colleagues and contacts who were as shocked as he was, and said lovely things about him.

Of course, when you take massive action, good things cannot help but happen eventually. And so it was that just five weeks later, on the very last day of term, just as he was breaking up for Christmas before being redundant on 31 December, DH was sent a contract for a very exciting new job Up That London.

He was never out of work for one second, after all. And I could not be prouder of him.

Two weeks in, and he’s loving it. Great, interesting people who have made him feel very welcome and can’t do enough to help. A boss who already knew and liked and respected him. A huge and stimulating challenge. Lovely jubbly.

So we started the New Year with me being officially healthy for the first time since 2010, with a job I love, and DH enjoying a proper silver lining in his career. Our quite extraordinary small people (DD is nearly nine-and-a-half and DS is nearly seven-and-a-half) have settled beautifully into their new school, where we moved them at half term, after all that nonsense with the last place.

There’s no way of knowing what 2016 will bring for us. But as Baz Luhrmann once wisely said: “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindsides you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.” True dat.

And, appropriately, in the words of the visionary Starman: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”.

PS – I wasn’t kidding about the cockatoo…

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The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work 🙂

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped the consultancy become the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had the five-year sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out childcare, working pretty much full time, finding other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand: do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself) to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that he and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?

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.

The rebranding of Pinchy

I did something small yesterday – tiny, really – that has a much larger significance. I removed two little words from my Twitter profile. So what? you may be asking, quite reasonably. Well, the two little words were ”F*cked Cancer’.

It just felt right to let them go. Or maybe it stopped feeling right to include them. I only have 140 characters to sum myself up for my trusty band of followers, and spending ten per cent of that on a disease I had a couple of years ago (I’ll be three years past diagnosis this October) suddenly seemed…what? Irrelevant? Awkward? Embarrassing? Like I was hanging onto something in the past and continuing to let it define me? Maybe even a little bit David Brent going back to Wernham Hogg after he’d been sacked. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.

This isn’t to say, of course, that I will ever forget about having cancer. The day I was diagnosed was, and will always be, as defining a moment in my life as getting married and giving birth to my two babies, in that it changed everything. There are moments in one’s life when it really does seem, quite tangibly, that you are one person one day, and a completely different person the next.

It's all about these little guys...

It’s all about these little guys…

Or, perhaps, that you see the world differently as one chapter closes and another opens. Like you are breathing a subtly different air; like the appearance of everything has been put through an Instagram filter. Marriage, birth, death, diagnosis, divorce, and lottery wins: they split your life into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

So pre-October 2010 was BC: Before Cancer, and everything after 13 October was AD: After Diagnosis. That sounds a little simplistic, but that’s how it was. One day, life is a certain way. The next day, your previous taken-for-granted existence has disappeared, forever.

I was accidentally reading some emails from the BC-AD period this week – you know when you press a button on Outlook and you’re suddenly looking at your oldest emails, rather than the newest ones? – and it was plain weird. In the weeks leading up to The Big Day, it’s all chat, jokes and making arrangements with friends, liaising with existing clients on projects, and setting up meetings with new clients. I marvelled at the normality of it. The innocence.

From 14 October, the emails have a different texture and tone. Cancelling meetings and dates, and explaining why. Announcing, carefully, my news. Asking for help and support and advice. I was astonished at my calmness, my clarity, my eloquence, the lack of panic or distress in my words. But it’s really obvious that nowhere, in not one single email, do I say the word ‘cancer’: it was still too raw, too powerful, too shocking.

My 40 year old boy on his birthday trip to Roma.

My 40 year old boy on his birthday trip to Roma.

I’ve said before that I don’t consider the day I was diagnosed to be the worst day of my life. It was probably up there for DH, my sister, and my parents, but not for me. And I’ve said before, also, that I wouldn’t have not gone through it: I don’t want to go through chemo again, ta, but I honestly feel it was a critical experience, a positive turning point, and full of important lessons. I’m still processing all of that – it takes time to become someone new, or rather, to slough off the crap that has accumulated over the years and allow yourself, with love and approval, to just be yourself.

Rome and Cosmopolitans: what's not to like?

Rome and Cosmopolitans: what’s not to like?

Nevertheless, I have never defined myself as a cancer patient, sufferer, victim or survivor. It’s just something that happened to me, it’s not everything I am, by a long way (although I know I do go on about it rather a lot in this blog…) And it’s time, now my scars are silvering and my hair is finally thick and growing, to move forward. I’ll still nod respectfully to  cancer, of course: it will never not be a significant part of my life and history. I honour its memory. But it’s not part of my present or, god willing, my future.

And I don’t want it to be one of my ‘things’ any more. My adorable children, their education, the marvels and bafflements of love, books, writing, cats, trees, good light, cooking and eating good food, good wine, good company, the pop music of the late 80s and early 90s, quantum physics, the mysteries of the universe, complementary therapy, Italy (we had an amazing time in Rome for DH’s 40th in April…), London, social media, art, stripey tops, pretty necklaces, spa days, heels, being a red-headed Leo – all of these will continue to be my ‘things’. Cancer doesn’t belong  in that rich, colourful tapestry any more. There will always be a bit of me that’s ‘the girl who f*cked cancer’, but it’s rapidly becoming a 1970s-orange-tinted Polaroid.

Someone I adore once told me I had ‘f*cked cancer with dignity and courage’. I look back on that brief interlude with my head held high, but only for a moment. I turn round to face today, and tomorrow, and the sun on this golden afternoon is warm on my face, and I am smiling, and the view is really quite something.