Recently I sat down, scrolled through my calendar and discovered something slightly shocking.
I have not been in my house alone since the 20th September.
Furthermore, thanks to Elfie and Hux’s dad working away for a few weeks (and Elfie’s various 2/4/5am antics) I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since 15th November. Factor in the long days and a manageable bit (A LOT) of work stress and I was, by the beginning of this week, about ready to go a bit bonkers.
The one shining beacon in the craziness of the bonkersness was this coming weekend. I’d (kind of) cleared the diary and decided to be as low key as possible. With nothing planned, this weekend was going to be all about ME.
It is now 4pm Saturday and so far today I have: had a lie-in (10am, BOOM), cooked a brilliant breakfast, had a shower, read the beginning chapters of two books, watched my first episode of Made in Chelsea, been invited to a party, baked banana bread, watched a film, done an hour’s work and spent 30 minutes looking at eyebrow shapes.
I can’t go to the gym because I went last night- after a gin and tonic which was a massive rookie mistake – I don’t want to go swimming because I painstakingly blow dried my hair last night and I can’t clean because that was done on Thursday. I did my supermarket shop yesterday, I don’t want to work because I promised myself I wouldn’t, I refuse to go to the shops because it’s Saturday and I’m not mental and I can’t nap because I’m not tired.
I miss the kids.
Sidenote: why does Made In Chelsea have a weird yellowy filter on it, like Instagram? It’s really annoying me, real life doesn’t look like this. Or maybe it does when your bank account has lots more money in it? Maybe you just grow yellowy lenses over your retinas and everything literally looks more rosy?
I have three hours left until I leave for Bryony’s house to watch the X Factor and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all this time… apart from eat Banana Bread and the block of Duchy Organics stilton I have in the fridge that’s been calling my name all morning. Or maybe I’ll spend those three hours trying to figure out the intricacies of the various relationships in Made in Chelsea? I could be here a while. But then what happens tomorrow?
Don’t get me wrong, I think that as a hard-working mother, or a someone who works hard, or is a mother, WHATEVER, time to yourself is so incredibly important. I sometimes feel like I spend so much of my time serving others – the children or those at work – that I forget about myself. I can go days and days and days without realising that I do exist to relax and spend time on my own and not just to be busy busy busy busy. I know I have my evenings after the kids go to bed at 7.30 but these are invariably spend working, cooking, bleaching or washing. SO BUSY.
What do you do with your alone time? I NEED INSPIRATION!
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.
Now, 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.
- 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!
- 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!
Last week I took a little holiday. Well, kind of a big holiday actually. 1,541 miles to be exact, to Paxos in Greece travelling by train, taxi, plane, bus, boat and jeep. I had looked forward to this holiday for weeks and weeks beforehand, imagining the week of sunshine, beaches, indulgence and adult company. I’d thought about being without the kids – they were having a week with their dad – I knew I’d miss them but having them spend two nights away a fortnight prepares me for the time we’re apart.
The holiday was everything I wanted it to be. Paxos was literally heaven on earth, a tiny island full of little bays with turquoise waters, villages with gorgeous Tavernas churning out Melitzanosalata (I ate it every day), moussaka and Mythos. The beaches were rocky but stunning and I swam in the sea, laid out on the beach and took naps. It was a grown-ups dreamland.
But I had no idea how much being away from the children for such a long time would hurt. It really was like I was missing something, something huge that I couldn’t quantify or replace. The stacks of sweet children on the island made it worse; I could see Elfie playing with the little girls of her age, painting rocks and collecting shells, or Hux charging into the sea with his usual ignorance of personal safety.
In reality of course it wouldn’t have been that perfect. Hux is probably a year two young for such a holiday (without him being a huge handful at least) and I would have worried about Elfie’s health in such a remote place. But still, but still. It ached.
I felt guilt for being in such a special place without them – being on the beach, by a pool, looking at fish. Guilt that I was spending my free time away from them doing something so exciting. Guilt that rather than working hard I put my laptop away for a week to concentrate on these things I think they call books. I did a lot of thinking, mental caretaking, situation pondering. I think – as cheesy as this sounds – that by being away for that week I grew into my role as a mum more than I have in a long time.
There was a moment, the day after I returned home, when I was hanging the washing up on the line. I’m trying to get Elflie out of nappies at night and Hux I guess just likes the feeling of air on his bottom so as a result we get through a load of Fairy non-bio. The children were kicking a ball, the sun was on our faces and we had nothing to do but just be together in the garden. This is when a particular thought popped into my head for the very first time in my life, and that was just how much I love being a mother.
Being a mum has never been something that I’ve disliked. It was moreso a situation that happened to me when I wasn’t really expecting it and therefore it freaked me out. It was something I kind of just got used to and in the meantime I think I missed out on the enjoyment part.
But there it was – hanging out fresh sheets, listening to bickering over a ball and thinking about what to cook that evening. Like a lightening bolt. It felt blissful to just know I was in the right place with those two little people at that time.
Thank-you, Paxos, for teaching me how to love being a mum. I’ll be back soon and with two little mini-mes. We can’t wait.
I should probably come back at a later date and tell you all about just how wonderful visiting Paxos – the actual island – was. Or the story about how I was 5 minutes away from my flight because traces of explosives were found in my handbag (my new nickname is TNT). Or maybe the one where I got on a train on the last leg of my journey home to Buckinghamshire and ended up in Wigan. Stay tuned…
My lovely friend Alison from The Motherhood wrote a piece recently that really resonated with me. She says that she spends a lot of her time amazed that she’s a grown-up, and even more that she’s a mother. I nodded my way through all this because I have a confession to make: for the last ten years I have been pretending to be an adult. I might have turned 18, I might be driving a car, boozing it up and voting in elections but the thing is, I’m actually still about seventeen.
Every time I walk into a shop to buy alcohol and don’t get asked to show ID I stop for a moment and think – really? Don’t they know I’m underage and shouldn’t be drinking this ten quid bottle of wine? How can they be sure I’m not going to go round the back and neck it with my friends on our BMXs? Never mind the fact I’m in Waitrose and am toting my membership card, my free tea, car keys sensible handbag and two children… I still feel the guilt of doing something a little bit naughty.
Similarly, I totally feel guilt when my mum texts me and doesn’t put kisses on the end. I think, uh-ho, what have I done wrong? Did I stay out too late again? Did she catch me kissing another boy (hasn’t happened since I was 16, honest). Did I get in trouble at school for skiving drama to go to Topshop? Did I accidentally go into my overdraft and she found out about it (this never happens, I promise mum!)?
Then it comes to these two mini people who apparently I am in sole charge of 80% of the time. When we’re in public and one of them yells “MUMMY!” it still takes me a couple of moments to realise they’re talking to me. I relate more to my kids than the other mums at pre-school (probably cos they’re actual grown-ups) and would totally shop at Zara Kids if I was only a couple of feet shorter. At a party recently I ended up in the TV room watching Saturday night TV with the teenagers because the adults were talking about adult things and at that same party someone asked me how I was enjoying University. I like to play with Lego, PlayDoh and am totally cool with that.
I worry that I don’t have conversations about finance or politics because frankly, it bores me. My jokes are crude, my pop culture interests revolve around Kim Kardashian and I don’t really have an off switch when it comes to wine or cocktails. I buy shampoo that I’m sure is targeted at 16 year olds (hi, Soap and Glory!). I listen to the Frozen soundtrack even when the kids aren’t with me and I wear a bright red GShock watch. My favourite outfit revolves around skinny jeans and my Liberty print Vans and I TOTALLY get where Michael Scott is coming from. THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID.
The one thing that does make me feel a bit like a grownup is my forehead wrinkles. And they can be fixed by Botox so are not even relevant.
Is this normal? Need I feel necessarily worried as I enjoy the kids’ baked beans with a glass of wine and a Beyonce singalong this evening (hey, it’s Friday!). No word of a lie, to celebrate the weekend I’m currently jamming to a playlist that would mostly have not been out of place in my favourite club 11 years ago: TLC and Missy Elliot YO! Please tell me there are some other teen mothers like me (well, mentally at least) out there. And then lets go out and get irresponsibly hungover together, yeah?
Above: daytime drinking with @Photogirluk. Definitely not sensible adult behaviour. Loads of fun though.
Every single night at about 11pm I tiptoe quietly into the bedroom next to mine. I go to Hux first, who is always lying on his tummy, with his nose snuggled into his favourite smelly old muslin cloth. He has a little boy bed head and I bend down to sniff it and kiss his lovely little ears. 50% of the time his head will make it onto the pillow but the rest of the time he’ll be awkwardly sprawled width-ways across the cot. The bedclothes have always been kicked off so I try to tuck them tightly back around his little body without waking him up. The little houdini has worked out how to escape his pyjamas (and nappy!) so I’ve been putting him to sleep in vests and tshirts and I don’t want him to get cold. Raaraa is always there, as is whichever teddy Elfie has decided to gift him with that evening from her large collection.
I turn off the string of car night lights next to his bed and move over to Elfie next. I gently remove whichever object she’s taken to bed with her (last week it was a sketch book, yesterday her purse full of coppers) and make sure she has her favourite bunny within arms reach. She tells me every night before she goes to bed, ‘mummy you MUST kiss me on the forehead FORTY FIVE TIMES’, so I do what I’m told.
I scoot her over to the side of the bed nearest the wall because she has a tendency to roll herself out of bed with a thump and a wail; I shouldn’t laugh at this but it’s kind of funny. Her fairy lights remain on, and if they don’t she is happy to wake you at 5am to demand you jolly well sort it out.
When it comes to parenting for me this 11pm ritual is the most precious time of all. The house is quiet, there’s no pressure to cook dinner, make the school run on time, practice writing (Elfie, not me), reply to emails hoover up crumbs. Our days are busy and it’s time to take a bit of time to relax, reflect on the day and enjoy the silence.
There’s a quote I heard once when I first became a mother and didn’t pay much attention to, but as I travel further down this road of motherhood I come back to it time and time again:
The days are long but the years are short.
At the moment for me there is nothing truer than this phrase. I might begin our days at 6am feeling grumpy and short-changed on sleep and finish them at midnight after ploughing through work in the only bit of free time I have but these precious moments, they won’t last forever. Looking back at just how small my babies were only a year ago it astounds me how much they’ve grown: how far we have all come.
This is why I have vowed to always take that extra ten minutes every night to stroke my babies’ chubby cheeks, enjoy their sleepy breaths and think about how much I love each little rumpled hair on their head. The days are long but the years are short.
The parenting of little girls is a job that is so special. Boys are boys and boys are awesome, but compared to our daughters they really are as different as slugs, snails and puppy dog tails.
Yesterday I did something that doesn’t happen enough in our house; I took Elfie on a little day out, just the two of us. We had an appointment with her new consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital – and as an aside, what a wonderful place this is. I thank heavens every day that we have the NHS and such open access to brilliant doctors (ours is a Professor, oooh fancy). I’d promised her a lovely meal out afterwards and as she can’t get enough of public transport I made sure we went on both a tube, a bus, and then in a black cab for good measure.
We had a brilliant time together, and for me the day brought home how precious and important this time with my little girl is. Elfie is such a deep thinker, a deep feeler and her mind is more than inquisitive, as her mother it’s up to me to shape this into the person she will one day become and spending one-on-one time with each other brings that fact home to me.
I like to think I bring my children up pretty equally. There’s not a lot of gender stereotyping that goes on in our house: Hux has pink chinos, Elfie has blue ones. They both play with cars (E’s very much into Hot Wheels right now) and they both play with handbags. Elfie asked for her nails to be painted pink this week and so did Hux (I did him one fingernail and one toenail: he is awesome). I try to buy them gender neutral toys that they are both able to enjoy together or apart.
But in their thoughts, feelings and emotions they are poles apart. Hux barrels into everything, probably picking his nose and giving himself a black eye in the process. Elfie stands back, she observes a situation before deciding what she’s going to do. With school looming on the horizon I’ve been trying to teach her how to hold her own a little more with her peers, so she’s able to tell them if she isn’t happy. But she is so precious and I guess eager to be liked and kind to her friends she’s finding it hard. We are making progress – I heard her say the magic phrase “don’t do that, I don’t like it” to Hux without being prompted last week – and she’s getting more confident at holding her own with the older boys at softplay.
As her mother I want my little girl to grow up knowing she has me always on her side, ready to protect her at any minute. But I also need her to know how important it is that she is capable and able to be strong of her own accord, that she can do anything she puts her mind to. I’m lucky that I grew up thinking this (thanks mum and dad!), only doubting myself very rarely, so I hope to pass on some of my strength and bloody mindedness to her.
These times, when I’m feeling all introspective about raising daughters, this is when I reach for the poem B, by Sarah Key. It makes me weep, makes me smile, but most importantly it makes me think: yeah… we’re doing OK here.
Point B – Sarah Key
If I should have a daughter, instead of “Mom,” she’s going to call me, “Point B.”
Because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.
And I’m going to paint the solar systems on the backs of her hands, so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, “Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”
And she’s going to learn that this life will hit you, hard, in the face, wait for you to get back up just so it can kick you in the stomach. But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.
There is hurt, here, that cannot be fixed by band-aids or poetry, so the first time she realizes that Wonder Woman isn’t coming, I’ll make sure she knows she doesn’t have to wear the cape all by herself. Because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal. Believe me, I’ve tried.
“And baby,” I’ll tell her, “Don’t keep your nose up in the air like that. I know that trick. I’ve done it a million times. You’re just smelling for smoke so you can follow the trail back to a burning house, so you can find the boy who lost everything in the fire to see if you can save him. Or else, find the boy who lit the fire in the first place, to see if you can change him.”
But I know she will anyway, so instead, I’ll always keep an extra supply of chocolate and rainboots nearby. Because there’s no heartbreak that chocolate can’t fix.
Okay, there’s a few heartbreaks that chocolate can’t fix. But that’s what the rainboots are for. Because rain will wash away everything if you let it.
I want her to look at the world through the underside of a glass bottom boat. To look through a microscope at the galaxies that exist on the pinpoint of a human mind. Because that’s the way my mom taught me. That there’ll be days like this, “There’ll be days like this,” my mama said. When you open your hands to catch and wind up with only blisters and bruises. When you step out of the phone booth and try to fly, and the very people you want to save are the ones standing on your cape. When your boots will fill with rain, and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment, and those are the very days you have all the more reason to say, “Thank you.” Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shore line, no matter how many times it’s sent away.
You will put the “wind” in “winsome… lose some.” You will put the “star” in “starting over… and over…” And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute, be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life.
And yes, on a scale from one to over-trusting, I am pretty damn naive. But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.
“Baby,” I’ll tell her, “Remember, your mama is a worrier, and your papa is a warrior, and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more. Remember that good things come in threes, and so do bad things, and always apologize when you’ve done something wrong. But don’t you EVER apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining.
Your voice is small, but don’t ever stop singing. And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.