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.

minecraft

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?

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.

Anger management

This is going to be a hard post for me to write, I suspect. But you know I’ve never shied away from looking myself in the eye and critically assessing my emotions and behaviour. And when there’s a Big Thing going on in the background, it’s kinda tricky to honestly and engagingly write about anything else. So I’m just gonna blog this one out. Be patient with me, gentle reader.

So. This is the thing. [Deep breath]. I lose my temper.

OK, I can hear a chorus of wry guffaws from other mums there. We all lose our rag, I know that. It ain’t pretty, but it happens. Sometimes our reaction is out of proportion to the crime committed. Often, we feel bad and guilty afterwards. But I’m not just talking about ‘normal’ exhausted mummy roaring when the smalls or their father have just tipped you over the edge. I’m talking about a truly disproportionate, terrifying fury that is extremely scary for everyone involved, including me. I’m talking about Losing It. ‘Seeing Red’, like Lucy, the little girl in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Magic Finger’, who finds sparks flying out of her fingers when she gets cross. Being out of control. Anger that bubbles up from deep inside, on a rush of adrenaline, and then explodes with little warning, leaving everyone traumatised, and weeks or months of relationship flotsam and jetsam to mop up. magic finger

Last May I wrote (Moodswings to the Max) about how hard I was finding it on the Tamoxifen I have to take for a total of five years to prevent my particularly aggressive, hormonally-linked form of breast cancer from coming back. I admitted that I was being a nightmare to live with, very up and down, and had on occasion gone off on one with people I love. I was still in that state, though, and not really ready or able to see things clearly.

What’s changed now is that after those horrendous first nine months or so on this powerful medication, I really did settle down, and the mood swings disappeared. And then something weird happened at the start of this year: I started to feel happy. Truly, peacefully, content. It started on a Thursday morning, on the way back from the school run. I was in the car, close to home, and suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as bliss. Like all the love in the world was available to me, and like I could only conceive of expressing myself in loving ways. I know this sounds extraordinary, but that’s how it was.

And it didn’t go away. I had nearly two months of feeling completely marvellous. Work was effortless, and fulfilling; my relationships with DH, my children, my family and friends were relaxed, and loving, and joyful. Nothing really wound me up; I didn’t sweat the small stuff. I stopped worrying about things I couldn’t change. My inner sea was calm, and I was cheerful. I also experienced what I can only describe as compassion for the first time. For someone who has spent much of her adult life in various states of anxiety, depression, resentment and martyrdom, it was a revelation. This was how good life could be, with not a single thing changing other than my outlook! And it was easy, and unconscious! I was happy. Seriously, how cool is that?

All of which loveliness made it even more shocking when a few Saturdays ago, out of the blue, I EXPLODED with anger at a family dinner. No-one saw it coming, least of all me. It was like I was watching myself. I went ballistic, about a small thing, that had always mildly irritated me in the past but which I had never mentioned. I stood up. I shouted. I gesticulated. Doors were slammed. The row escalated – fire was met with fire – and then very soon afterwards I started to feel a terrible sense of remorse, horror, and utter worthlessness. It felt like I had smashed something really precious. I felt utterly drained, wrung out, and like I didn’t want to exist. My thoughts were scrambled.

And then endless apologising, and the validity of the thing I had been trying to communicate negated entirely by the manner in which I delivered it. There were mutterings about me needing to see a doctor, and even mental illness. And then I felt very flat, and very low, for a few days. So sorry. So disappointed and frustrated that I had shattered my own state of calm and happiness. So conscious that the relationships involved would take a long time to get back to normal.

And then I realised that this was the third time since starting on the Tamox that I had done this. There have now been three separate occasions, all with close (safe?) family members, where I’ve been annoyed about some relatively minor bit of behaviour for a while, and then the next time it happens, BOOM. Pinchy, having never mentioned that she was irritated by this behaviour before, throws a grenade into the room. Friendly fire is always the most shocking. There have also been other occasions with acquaintances where I’ve suddenly gone from being Mrs Nice Guy (with a particularly rubbish cleaner, with a jobsworth postman, with a nosy neighbour) to being the Crazy Angry Lady.

And I can only see this now. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, but at the time, on every occasion I really did feel that the other person was to blame, that they had pushed me so far that I had snapped. This gives me hope, actually: I think my Rose Period at the start of the year meant that I was in a good enough place when this last episode happened that I could reflect on and evaluate it in a much more honest way.

Anyway, DH and I went to the doctor (which we both felt was a box-ticking exercise to appease worried family members, to be honest) who was sympathetic, and not at all surprised or concerned given my current chemical make-up. She also cautiously suggested that DH and I go for some joint post-cancer counselling. I have never had any feelings of anger about having had cancer, and feel I’ve dealt fully with my own experience, with outside support in the forms of my wonderful Health Creation Mentor, Kit, and my coach Amanda (not to mention my amazing family and friends). DH has also had his own course of counselling, but we’ve never spoken to anyone together about the hell of 2010-2011. We literally have no idea what the other has gone through. And his tendency to get angry himself when I go off the rails (thus not really helping the situation) may be rooted in his fear of losing me, which we’ve never explored together in a safe place.

I have also taken what feels to me like the most appropriate action: getting some tools under my belt to diffuse anger if and when I feel it brewing. I have just got back from my second cognitive hypnotherapy session with the quite brilliant Teresa Harvey who uses a mix of counselling, hypnotherapy, NLP and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – the ‘tapping’ that you sometimes see Paul McKenna using to help hardwire positive suggestions more effectively). We’ve looked at my memories and experience of anger, in the past and recently. We’ve done some visualisation stuff in a trance state. We’ve looked at how I might, in the future, be able to calm myself down and respond, rather than react, from a calm, assertive, loving place. It’s exhausting work, because I re-experience all the emotions I felt at the time, but it also feels very cleansing, and important, and positive.

So. I wish I could turn back time and not have put my loved ones – or myself – through these episodes. But sometimes things have to get really bad before they get better. Every experience teaches us something valuable. And if I come out of this more able to deal with conflict and my emotions, then that’s got to be a good thing for my children, my marriage, and my relationships with everyone from our parents to our siblings to my best friends to the bloody jobsworth postman. I’ve only got three and a half more years on the Tamoxifen. And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to say that I used to lose my temper. And get back to being calm and cheerful again.

Most of the time, anyway: I need to continue to teach my children that experiencing a full range of emotions, positive and negative, is normal and desirable, and it’s how you handle those feelings that counts. Also, I’m not the new Pope, or Buddha, and there’s always going to be some tosser who cuts you up on the roundabout.

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.