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.

Advertisements

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.

About a boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I love my husband

I fessed up to DH this week how worried I was about various aches and pains in my back, ribs, abdomen and hips. He made me say it: I’m scared the cancer has or will come back. I don’t know where, or how, but that’s my vague, nebulous, all-pervading fear. I’m probably healthier than the rest of you put together, in fact, but terror is a powerful thing and it twists every thought and sensation into ugly shapes.

And after blanching and taking a deep, ragged breath, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked down into my eyes and said: ‘Pinchy, you are exhausted. You have not stopped this summer. Get some sleep, keep off the booze for a bit, get back into a routine with school and work, and see how you feel. If you’re still concerned in 10 days, go to the doc.’

Wow. So that’s why I married him. That’s why we’re still together after 22 years and 12 rollercoastery years of marriage. That’s why he’s my best friend and my rock and why I love him very deeply despite our occasional off-the-scale rows and frequent miscommunication. He takes the piss out of me constantly; he annoys me in a million tiny ways (wet towels, dirty socks left by the sofa, loading the dishwasher wrongly, tuning me out when he is on his Blackberry, the usual);  he worries about things that to me seem inconsequential, and is infamous for sometimes being moody, anti-social and monosyllabic. But put the man in a crisis – or the threat of one – and he can be a frickin’ hero.

My boy at the summer party – a rare smiley photo!

He says the right things. He remains calm and rational. He can be astonishingly wise. He is kind. He tries to look after me, when I let him. He listens. I fell in love with him when I was 15 because he made me laugh, and was tall and strong with floppy blonde hair and outlandish sartorial taste. He still makes me laugh now the hair is almost disparu, and although he has replaced tartan trousers with the Surrey Dad uniform of Superdry, Crew, Ralph Lauren and Joules, he does still look adorably eccentric in his lycra cycling get-up. He is an extremely capable, involved and loving father to DS and DD, and knows when I have officially Had Enough and whisks them off to the park for an hour so I can ‘re-group’.

He’s the only person on the planet who sees the very worst of me, and yet he still loves me in all ways to the absolute best of his ability. He writes notes in birthday and Christmas cards that make me cry. I take him completely for granted, most of the time. But the spontaneous little leap of happiness in my heart when I see him turn into the drive in his car or bicycle at 7pm says it all. I’ll inevitably be snapping at him five minutes later, but that’s tired working parents for you. We’ve been together a very, very long time, since school, and not having him around would be like losing a limb (though as the Paralympics has shown, that’s not necessarily the end of the world these days ;-)). I can’t say that I’ve never looked at another man in all those years and I can’t say I don’t enjoy a bit of flirting. I can’t say I haven’t thought – as I’m sure he has – that our marriage has been challenging. But I wouldn’t be without him for all the Earl Grey in the Home Counties.

And, annoyingly, he is right: this summer has been exhausting. Memorable and wonderful, but really quite tiring. The last day of term was a whirl of watching the Olympic torch and a very champagne-fuelled hen do, immediately followed by a few days en famille on the Isle of Wight, glamping at Tom’s Eco Lodge during that heatwave we had at the end of July. I was relaxed and happy from the moment we got on the ferry, and the kiddies adored every second of it, from running feral in the woods with other campers’ children, to swimming in the surprisingly warm English sea. DD hadn’t believed there was such a thing as a beach in Britain (mummy fail…) so being with them for the whole collecting shells/rock pools/sand castles/ice-cream thing was even more magical than our trip to Disneyland Paris last summer. We accidentally saw the Queen on her trip to Cowes, had a boiling hot afternoon at Robin Hill Park, met up with my gorgeous sis and her best friend and their broods for some paddling, and all ate together in the evening after firing up the wood burner. There was no telly, and no internet access, and it was bliss.

‘Roughing it’ on the Isle de Blanc.

Then there were the Three August Birthdays. My beautiful DD’s 6th was a lovely, giggly day at Build-A-Bear Workshop and Pizza Express. For my 39th, DH presented me with a guitar, sketchbook and fencing lesson. He had clearly been sneaking a look at my bucket list – he always buys me the most thoughtful, generous presents. And, thrillingly, my best friends S&J treated us to Derren Brown tickets on my birthday, which also happens to be their anniversary. And what a perfect surprise it was to see them on the station platform and to have champagne and pre-theatre supper at Christopher’s  in Covent Garden together before the best evening’s entertainment ever. (Still can’t work out how he did it…) And for my cheeky DS’s 4th birthday, lunch at Jamie’s and a trip to see Brave at the cinema with his little chums.

Not to mention the Big Fat Summer Party, our combined birthday party, which I’d been planning for months. This involved: around 60 of my favourite grown-ups and children chillaxing in our garden on picnic blankets; a gorgeous hot day; a gazebo;  great tunes; groaning tables of yummy food and cold beverages; a bouncy castle; a face painter; children’s entertainers and ‘movie time’ for the kids with popcorn, so the adults had plenty of child-free time. That took some organising, and although I’m glad I was hosting because it was all exactly how I wanted it (control freakery), I would have liked to have been able to hang out with everyone too.

And between all of this was a big work project, DS finishing pre-school, a trip to London with DD and her best friend to see the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and eat ice cream on a lion in Trafalgar Square, and a week of one-to-one swimming lessons. Almost zero time to myself, to catch my breath. I thought there would be more time for just doing bugger all and more laid-back playdates with old friends this summer, but it’s amazing how quickly you can fill up six weeks of ‘free’ time.

We finished the summer with a week in the Cotswolds, staying in one of the stunning modern glass-backed houses set around lakes at Lower Mill Estate. Best friends in another house round the corner, lots of swimming in the indoor pool, spa treatments, kids scooting around in safety, days out in beautiful countryside (loved Bourton-on-the-Water, which was NOT anything like Venice, as advertised, but did have a great model village which featured itself many times over, getting smaller and smaller, like something from Borges). The week also notably featured too many heavily-salted prawn cocktail snacks, and an awful lot of wine. Us five adults basically pickled ourselves for a week in sauvignon blanc and malbec. It was our 12 year anniversary while we were there and we went out for supper a deux, though we managed to have a couple of blazing drunken rows during the week. And towards the last day of the holidays all the twinges and anxiety I had back in June and July reappeared. Too much wine, too little quality sleep, too much going on, too much emotional turmoil. It is possible to have too much fun, it transpires.

Crazy kids at Bourton-on-the-Water. Not Venice.

So I have Taken Action. Plan Pinchy is thus: Sobriety, Sleep, School. I am on day 5 with no alcohol and committing to a Dry September. (I KNOW! Totally unlike me. I hope that didn’t make you spit your tea out.) It’s the first time for months that I’ve gone for more than a day without a nice glass of something but, weirdly, am not missing it at all. So far. I’ve been taking all my supplements, including the powerful anti-cancer ones: carotenoids, Indole-3 carbinol, turmeric. I have a kinesiology appointment coming up, and a session with my health creation mentor. I am going for a walk every night, chanting affirmations like the mad crazy-haired middle-aged woman I am. I am trying to go to bed early, though I am still having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the morning. Nytol doesn’t help: I am like sodding Rasputin, nothing knocks me out.

Tomorrow DS starts school (of which more very soon), DD goes up to Year 2, and I get back to editing in silence at my desk overlooking my monkey puzzle tree. And at the end of next week, if I don’t have more energy, less discomfort, smaller bags under my eyes and a bigger smile on my face, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the GP I go. Holding DH’s big old paw very tightly.

The end of term

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

My little stars in the glasshouse at Wisley

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

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

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

Friday Night Disco

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

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

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