My Inspiring Mum of The Year: Emma Cantrell, First Days

The internet has given me many wonderful things. ASOS Premier, Facebook messenger, the DM’s sidebar of shame.

But by far the best thing about the internet is the people I have met online. Typing that out still feels a bit weird: seeing the phrase ‘the people I have met online’ conjures up images of old men wearing dirty string vests in their bedrooms with the curtains shut, tapping away at a big old CPUs and massive monitors. Not women who are like me, women who make me laugh, make me feel inspired and make me want to thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee for the magnificent invention that is the World Wide Web.

One of these women is my friend Emma.

1412886190Now, Emma will protest until she’s blue in the face that she’s not inspiring, she’s just a normal mum and wife. BUT DON’T LET THAT FOOL YOU! Emma is one of the most magnificent women I have ever met and she’s honestly made me sit and ponder my own life on more than one occasion. She selflessly started a charity, First Days, when she realised there was a need to provide and distribute basic equipment – clothing, bedding, furniture – for struggling new parents  in her local area. Throughout 2014 the charity has gone from strength to strength, culminating in Emma’s well-deserved inclusion on the shortlist of Tesco’s Mum of The Year. Oh yes, Emma is a mum, too!

I asked Emma to answer a few questions for me on how she started First Days and the roller coaster ride that has been juggling her own charity and family life. Have a read – feel inspired – and if you ever get the chance to pick Emma’s brains over a glass of wine you absolutely must… she’s a LOT of fun.

You can donate easily to First Days by texting ‘FDCC11 £5′ to 70070 (change the ‘£5′ if you want to give a different amount) – all donations go to help families with young children in need. 

- Tell me a little bit about First Days and why you decided to start it.

The concept is really simple – we collect baby and toddler clothes, equipment, furniture and toys and redistribute them to families in need. The stuff comes from families who no longer need it or businesses who want to donate surplus stock. The families in need are referred by other services – like children’s centres, social services, churches and housing associations.

I decided to start it when friends and neighbours generously gave us bags and bags of their second hand baby things. It was all in such good condition and there was just so much – I knew there must have been people out there who needed it more than me. I wasn’t sure what to do about it – then a friend told me about some research she was doing into single mothers in the area we live – she said that there was a practical need that wasn’t being fulfilled – ends that just weren’t meeting in their tight budgets. I know it sounds cheesy but I couldn’t just sit back and watch this happening whilst my cupboards were stuffed full of baby stuff that we never got round to using. So, I talked to people in the community and applied for some start up funding. I was granted it and First Days was born (my third baby!).

- You must deal with a lot of difficult situations in your day-to-day working life. What’s been the most surprising thing about the families you help since you started the charity?

They are never how you might imagine. I have not come across a mother who isn’t trying very hard to do the best for her children. I was asked to find a play pen for a teenage mum for her 8 months old baby. I could have thought ‘oh she wants it because she can’t be bothered to look after her son’ but what I found was a young girl who was preparing home made baby food and needed somewhere safe to put him whilst she was cooking in her tiny flat. She spent a lot of money on fresh ingredients because her baby’s weaning diet was so important to her. The most surprising thing is that we are fed so many stereotypes about how people in poverty live their lives and the majority – if not all of them – are generalisations and just plain lies.

New mum Emma Cantrell

- What do you love most about what you do?

I love being able to help people. It’s a miss-world-esque cliche but it’s the truth. It is such a struggle for the families I work with to just make it to the end of the week with enough money for food. To know that I’ve showed kindness to people who are feeling desperate is fantastic – to be able to take pressure off is incredibly rewarding.

- And what are the low points?

The emotions. I have had to face my own prejudices, assumptions and judgements. I always thought I was a fair and non-judgmental person but I’ve been really challenged. Once I pulled up at a house, just off a road I’ve driven down many times, where I was delivering clothes to a family who were in desperate need. I arrived and looked at the house. It was bigger than mine and had a garage and my immediate thought was ‘oh. They can’t need much! They’ve got a garage! I don’t have a garage!!’ I went in and quickly realised that the family I was there to help lived in one of the rooms. There were 4 other families living in that house. I dropped the stuff to them and got back in my car and cried all the way home. I couldn’t believe the conditions they were living in and how quickly I had jumped to conclusions. Starting a charity from scratch is all consuming and takes an extraordinary amount of time, money and help from friends and family but – whilst there have been low points – it has been so worth it.

- What’s been the one stand-out amazing moment for you since the start of First Days?

We became a registered charity in July this year, which was a fantastic milestone. It was suddenly something bigger than an idea that grew from my kitchen table. It is suddenly a real, recognised organisation. That was a real turning point for me to look at it and think – wow, I’m a part of this! Personally, recently being shortlisted for the Tesco Mum of the Year award in recognition of the work I have done has been a real honour.

- You have two young children and your own charity; without using that awful phrase of ‘how DO you do it?!’, erm, how DO you do it? ;)

Ha! I think when you’re passionate about something you find the time to do it, I genuinely enjoy the work – which I think is really rare. I am also supported by a fantastic board of Trustees and hardworking volunteers. Don’t get me wrong though, I have a husband who does a LOT at home and I live very near to a lot of family who can step in to help with the children if we need it – things are hectic, sometimes stressful and exhausting but it’s exactly how I like it, for now!

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- Talk to me about your Christmas campaign, #ShareMyChristmas. How can we get involved?

It’s very simple: we want all families to experience the Christmas they deserve. We work with families who have to choose between Christmas Dinner or presents and we don’t want them to have to make that choice for their children. So we are providing children in poverty with Christmas presents to lighten the load for their parents. Getting involved is simple – take a picture of something festive, share it on social media with the hashtag #sharemychristmas and donate by texting ‘FDCC11 £X’ (X being the amount you want to donate!) to 70070. There are other ways to donate on our website too – www.firstdays.net. I am so excited to #sharemychristmas with other families!

- What’s in store next year for First Days?

I have big plans, as always! One thing I’m really keen on is meeting with people who are interested in setting up a similar project where they live. I want to see communities empowered in every town and city in the UK to help one another, in such a simple and practical way. Watch this space!

How To Be Inspired (And Frugal)

8219c07281c511e39a07124e3f4435e2_8The internet has brought a lot of good things my way since I bought my first computer 13 years ago. Pinterest, a career, many dates, an online shopping habit. I have a lot to thank Tim Berners-Lee (and ASOS) for.

But what I’m most thankful for – the thing that has brought me the most happiness and inspiration – are the friendships I’ve made, the people I would never have met had the internet never been invented. I know there are plenty of people who don’t quite understand what a tight community this one of bloggers and Twitter users is but it really is something quite remarkable.

In the old days, when my blogging was limited to LiveJournal, Greymatter and some clunky blog I’d coded myself, I was a little bit ashamed of these relationships. Back then it really wasn’t the done thing to make friends online, I know my mum thought that my internet pals were actually 60 year old men in string vests called Keith and Rod talking to me from Dagenham. Happily for me the early-days internet people were actually lovelies like Mia, Kris, Charlotte, Ellie, Ruth (you will forever have a tape avatar in my head) and Helen, people I still count as friends today – some in real life even.  Take that, Rod and Keith.

Fast forward to the arrival of Twitter and even more friends made in 140 characters or less. I’m sure she won’t mind me saying it but I met one of my close friends Bryony this way (she’s not a hugger but I got her to hug me. That counts as close friend, OK B?), along with so many other brilliant women (alright, and a couple of boys… HI JAMES!). If you’re looking for strong, intelligent, interesting people to follow on Twitter I’d definitely recommend these lovely people… Neva, Charlotte, Steph, another Charlotte, Lizzi, Maria, Emma. And me too, of course.

As motivating as I find it to read about Kim Kardashian’s day-to-day shopping escapades with baby Compass (sorry, baby North West) in the Daily Mail it’s these lesser-known women who inspire me every single day. Not just in work but in my parenting, my cooking, my fitness (Emma has lost twelve stone and is training for a marathon, the woman is incredible)  in the way I live my life and try to be the best person I can be. Ladies (and gents), you are all awesome. And if you’re not on Twitter I would recommend you get on there pretty quick so you don’t spend one more moment missing our conversations. We use ‘LOL’ minimally, I promise.

I feel a little bit like I’m waffling here, let’s get to the point, shall we? Yes, let’s.

One inspiring woman I met on Twitter but don’t chat to nearly enough is Hattie Garlick. Ex-Times Journalist and mum to Johnny and Frida, Hattie has spent the last 12 months parenting without spending any money and recording her experience in her blog Free Our Kids. It’s an adventure I’ve avidly followed though I have to admit I haven’t tried to replicate – I’m not sure if it’s out of laziness or business but the last year has been a whirlwind and budgeting on things I buy the children hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind.

But watching this video that Hattie made with LV following their Cost of a Child report 2014 I felt totally inspired. According to LV’s research the cost of raising a child to the age of 21 has exceeded £225,000, a huge amount of money and apparently single parents spend a massive 54% of their pay on their kids – thanks for that Elfie and Hux! Thriftiness is something I want to try much harder at in the coming months: we live fairly comfortably but some months my budget is tight and I know I spend money when I could be saving. This is money I could be putting towards bills, holidays or days out and saving as much as it as possible should be a priority. Take a look at what Hattie has to say:

I was lucky enough to share a room with Hattie a couple of years ago at a Mother’s Meeting weekend away and can confirm she’s as inspiring in real life as on film (and a total lady too, we shared a bed and she didn’t even try to spoon me). Plus she has amazingly shiny hair.

If you have any good money saving tips or resources I’d love to hear about them; I love A Thrifty Mrs, The Frugality and I’ve recently started a Pinterest board on this theme.

 

A Christmas Girly Day Out

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I realised something the other day when I was scanning through iPhoto. Since I separated from my ex-husband at the beginning of the year I have barely taken any photographs with my DSLR. It’s all been Instagram, VSCO cam-filtered pictures that are all vintage-y and trendy.

I can’t quite work out why that is. There were a couple of issues with the autofocus (which I think I’ve fixed now, wooh) but it’s gotten so bad that I think I’ve almost forgotten how to use the darned thing. I had a very frustrating time last week when I was trying to snap the kitchen for your viewing pleasure – I love my new kitchen – and I kept getting the exposure horribly wrong. But me and the DSLR, we worked out our differences right before I threw it out the window and resorted to my iPhone and the lens will live to see another day.

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(Actually, camera buffs: I’m using a 5 year old Canon EOS 400d with this lens but it’s really quite limiting. Should I get another lens or a more portable camera? I’ve always loved the look of the Olympus PENs… a gal can dream)

So one of my New Years Resolutions this year will be to cart my camera around with me. There’s no excuse not to: my handbag is always of epic proportions thanks to all the Playdoh and Peppa memorabilia I seem to need on my person at all times. Where I go, the Canon goes.

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And so it came with me one lovely lunchtime last week. My friend Bryony and I made a date to take our eldest girls out to lunch and for an afternoon’s shop. It’s very rare I will spend time with Elfie, just her and me. Hux and I have a real double act thing going on thanks to Elfie’s 5 mornings at pre-school, but not me and E. So to take her on such a special day out was a real treat, and something both of us enjoyed.

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We started our trip the way all shopping trips should begin, with Prosecco, pizza and flirting with the young handsome Pizza Express waiter. The girls (Elfie and Frankie not Bryony and me) stuck stickers onto their children’s menu while B and I gossiped about boys, friends and the internet. Bryony put me to shame by ordering a superfood salad and I ate three quarters of a pork belly and apple sauce pizza. It was as good as it sounds.

(Another sidenote: Pizza Express have this festive menu at the moment and not only does it start with Prosecco but it ends with Limoncello. If you are a busy mum looking for a relaxing lunch you could do much worse than to imbibe some Christmas spirits with your pizza ;) Please drink responsibly etc etc).

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When we were done we took off to Claire’s, who had kindly sent us a voucher so we could start teaching our kids all about consumerism ;) In all seriousness, I don’t often take Elfie shopping for things just for her, for special treat times; toys and things she needs are saved for birthdays and Christmases, and anything in between is usually bought by me over the internet. So with the exception of good old Waitrose cakes she doesn’t really experience many things being bought for her.

It was really liberating to hand our girls shopping baskets and tell them to choose some treats. I have had some pretty good  experiences through this blog but seeing how happy that made Frankie and Elfie is up there with the best of them. Both the girls were so excited that they were able to choose presents for themselves; smiles and shrieks all round.

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I think one of the reasons Frankie and Elfie get along so well is that they’re both quite girly girls. I’ve always been really careful to buy gender-neutral toys, to not dress Elfie in pink and to let her be her own person. But still she gravitates towards the glitter, the tiaras, the Hello Kitty. Frankie is fairly similar (girlfriend has an enviable handbag collection by the way) so I think Claire’s was kind of like heaven for both of them.

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A good half an hour later and we were done, with two bags brimming with girl toys. Inexplicably, both girls had selected One Direction pens alongside necklaces, bracelets and of course the toddler favourite of the matching tiara and wand. Or in Elfie’s case, non-matching. She would not hear me when I tried to tell her that pairing gold and silver was a bit of a faux pas.

On the way out to the car we took the girls to see the Christmas decorations in the main hall of the shopping centre. I love them so much, my mum used to bring me to look at the lights and see Father Christmas every year there when I was younger so it’s such a pleasure to do the same with my little girl. Bryony and I had a ride on the carousel with our little princesses and then it was off home to show off (and reluctantly share) our loot with Hux.

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The day made me realise how important it is to make time for your children, not just together but as individuals. I got so much out of the afternoon we spent together and I think she did too: she really enjoyed the one on one mummy attention, free of the errand running and domesticity that our days are usually filled with.

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Thank-you Claire’s, not just for treating us and our girls but for making me think a bit harder about the relationship I have with Elfie and for giving us that special afternoon together. And thank-you Tescos clubcard points for my meal at Pizza Express ;) Buying restaurant vouchers with my points makes me feel slightly less angry at the cost of petrol and loo roll.

The 28th Birthday

You could say my 27th year of life wasn’t the easiest. There was the going slightly mad bit, then the separation bit. The Olympics were a highlight and I don’t even like sports: that says it all.

So I was looking forward to my 28th birthday, looking forward to seeing the back of 27. But weirdly enough it was the hardest birthday I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know if it was moving from my mid twenties into my late twenties, the situation that I’m in… it just felt a bit bleak.

481862b0f4f411e2b24322000a1f99c2_7Didn’t even get to go to the loo alone on my 28th birthday. Thanks, kids.

In my married days a birthday was always a bit special. I’d wake up to a pile-on of children in bed, let them help open my presents and then see them carted downstairs so I could enjoy a cup of tea in bed followed by a birthday snooze.

This year Elfie got me up at 6, didn’t make me a cup of tea and I had to request that she wish me happy birthday. Hux greeted me with a big poo and a big smile. Presents were replaced with a morning Peppa Pig session, though I did make the kids snuggle in bed with me for 10 minutes before getting up.

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A completely unrelated photograph of Elfie on her new friend who she has named ‘Twinkle Toes’

It felt weird. Where was my birthday fanfare and piles of pressies? Most importantly, where was my lie-in?!

My mum saved the day by taking me out to lunch (Hux fell asleep in his, as per usual) and Elfie bought me a Mr Tumble card. Good to see the most annoying man in the world makes an appearance on the most important day of my year :) Unfortunately Elfie insisted on wearing the badge.

5d86a50cf52c11e2ae9922000a1f9b71_7The nice men in the John Lewis cafe gave me a free cake – not that I was shrieking about it being my birthday, you understand – and I had a brilliant time that evening at a Tapas and Sangria night in Woburn with the brilliant Bryony. Nothing like a good friend and a big jug of Spanish booze to make you forget your birthday woes.

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On Saturday my favourite local pub, The Cowper’s Oak, were hosting a beer and ale festival. I’m game for anything involving beer and bbqs so it was a given!

My gorgeous friend Jamie made my weekend by coming out to the countryside (there were haybales. It was rural) all the way from London with boyfriend and pup, and a lovely selection of local friends came out to play too.

dd5123caf6da11e2a9c822000a1d2020_7Handsome couple of the year goes to… photo pinched from @photogirluk

 

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Another photo pinched from @photogirluk

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This one thanks to @kaisalarkas

Come 6pm the heavens opened and we had to retreat inside the pub. A bit of a spoiler, but I learned pretty early on in my drinking career that it’s impossible to plan to visit a beer festival without also planning for torrential rain.

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The gorgeous Alex and her Intellicig.

I guess the one thing about being a year older is that it’s not as bad to be 28 and divorced as it is to be 27 and divorced, right? It still feels a little odd to start a new year as a single mum, though from last year the only way is up.

28, let’s be having you.

 

Still Here But A Little Bit Tired

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Marvellous mum and marvellous Kaisa

At the moment I feel like my life is revolving around PND. I usually find it easy and enjoyable to sit at my computer daily and shape some thoughts into a blog post, but I’m totally coming up blank. All I can think about is PND… PND… I’m starting to bore myself and am getting worried about boring other people.

It’s a pretty exhausting thing to be dealing with. I’m experimenting with the medication I’m on at the moment as it makes me a bit fuzzy and sleepy – if I take it before bed it makes getting up the next morning impossible. Taking it after lunch makes me nap like a MoFo so I was at a bit of a loss until yesterday: taking it in the morning and then doing some sort of activity (even going for the shops, or for a coffee with a friend) seems to keep me awake and then leaves the rest of the day free from snoozeville. We’ll see.

I’m exercising, and that’s exhausting too. I (predictably) feel good afterwards, but the act of getting my trainers on and going out in the cold is bloody hard.

 

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Post-run hair, oof. 

The whole effort of it all is just leaving me knackered. The actual mental strain of being consistently positive, always looking forward, being happy. It leaves me wanting to go to bed and put my covers over my head but I don’t want to let myself do that. I need to keep going.

Despite all this effort and exhaustion I think I’m doing pretty well. I can’t remember the last time I spent all day in my pyjamas, I’m getting the kids out the house daily, feeling happy with my housework, drinking a small amount of wine rather than the bottle, EXERCISING! Some things are still sliding – I have people I’ve owed emails to for weeks (sorry!) – but at the end of the day I’ve been collapsing on the sofa rather than logging onto my computer.

A couple of weeks ago I had a setback thanks to something that I wish didn’t matter to me as much as it does. I took to my bed for an hour with Elfie while Hux napped (Peppa on the iPad = SAVIOUR) and then picked myself up, did some jigsaws and was rescued by my mum and dad who popped over to help with bedtime and give me some hugs. Am I concerned that at the age of 27 my parents still need to pick me up and make me better? Nah! After a couple of days I was back to thinking positive but it made me realise this journey is going to be a long one, nothing will be changing immediately.

 

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Last weekend was brilliant. We went into London with some friends (and my parents, for they are FUN) for Future Cinema who have been featuring The Shawshank Redemption. It was something I wasn’t sure I’d like at all, but it was AMAZING. I had an absolute ball and the experience was totally made by our friends, my sisters (and brother) in law and those parents. Topped off by a hugely spicy curry at one of our old haunts Tayyabs and home super-late… it made me feel happy and alive and I’ve been on a high ever since. The next day’s hangover was not as life-giving but it was definitely worth it (and would completely recommend it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience!).

 

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If you want to know what this was all about you’ll have to go yourself…

So for now I’ll keep plodding along, looking forward. Accepting help and hugs from my family and friends (seriously… it takes a crisis like this to realise how wonderful those closest to you are). Getting tired and giving myself a break. I can do it, I’m not scared anymore.

Thanksgiving, The British Way

 

Americans really have the right idea at this time of year. Thanksgiving: a time for family, friends, warmth, love and CARBOHYDRATES. Lots of carbohydrates.  I love the idea of a big turkey accompanied by potatoes and pies, though I still get a little wary of the addition of macaroni cheese. Does it really work?

But most of all I love the idea of sitting down with your loved ones and giving thanks for the good things in your life. It’s so easy for me to get bogged down in the day-to-day routine of no sleep, nappies, weaning, budgeting, blah blah blah that I forget to look at the bigger picture and realise just how good I have it. Thinking about what I am thankful for gives me perspective on rubbish I really shouldn’t be wasting thought power on. So today, in homage to the carbs, I’ve sat down and given thanks to the wonderful things in my life. Here they are.

 

 

My Children – I have somehow managed to give birth to the two most adorable, happy babies who are a total joy to be around. Yes, they may do immense poos that I manage to get on my elbow (?!) and scatter jigsaws in every room of the house but I am so very lucky they belong to me.

My Husband – our next anniversary will be 10 YEARS and although we might bicker and grouch at each other when we’re overtired (so that’s every day, then) I feel so lucky I met him so early on in my life. He’s my best friend.

 

My Family – I am so lucky to have my parents and Mother-In-Law so close by. My mum and dad love the children almost as much as I do and my Mother-in-Law is so wonderful with them. She looked after Hux whilst I tool Elfie into London yesterday; I came home to find the kitchen cleaned, house hoovered, washing done and dinner cooked. It was a wonderful surprise and if I wasn’t married to her son I might have proposed there and then.

The place we live – I appreciate our quiet village more and more as Elfie gets older and we venture out of the house further. I’m really excited for her to make new friends at preschool next year!

My job – I admit to some whinging and moaning because I find it so hard to work efficiently as well as look after Elfie and Hux but I am so lucky to be able to work for myself. I still wish I didn’t put so much pressure on myself to be everything to everyone, the mother, the wife, the businesswoman, the cleaner, the cook… but it’ll fall into place I’m sure.

 

Our health – In the last six weeks we’ve suffered with 2 tummy bugs (Elfie) and food poisoning (me) but overall we’re all live and kicking. We should never take our health for granted.

Our friends – We lost a lot of friends moving out of London: to many people we may as well have moved to Scotland and I almost know how they feel, for me going to Notting Hill from Islington used to be a mission-and-a-half. The ones who have stuck with us are brilliant true friends and I feel lucky to have them.

Salted caramel - whoever invented this is a ruddy genius.

Right. Now that’s done I’m off to roast a chicken, stick some cream on some vegetables and eat some potatoes. Thanksgiving: the British way.