End of an era – goodbye to infant school

We drop off your big brother at junior school and that’s where you usually find a friend or two. Or three. Then off you go – you are incapable of simply walking when you are all together. Instead you break into a trot as you chat, and then usually a run; weaving in and out of all the other mums, dads, grandparents and children who are on their way to school. Down the hill you go – unconcerned about how far I am behind you…… or actually whether I am still there at all.

You sprint up onto the school playground and join the other boys for a quick kick-about before the bell rings. It doesn’t matter if all that is out is a flat football, or an over-sized beach ball; or, in fact, if there is no ball at all because you will quite happily just kick a stick around instead. When it is time to go in your book-bag is slung into your drawer and you are there at your table.

You are completely comfortable, you know how this all works now. This is your home-patch, your routine, your everyday. You have found your place here – you are confident, happy and full of chatter.

And now it is time to move on. The end of infant school, and off to Juniors in September.

Three years ago you started your school journey, and it felt like the biggest milestone of them all. You were the youngest in your class and still working on how to hold a pencil properly. For months it felt like certain things would never click – you would sound out P-I-G but still read out COW, and getting you to write anything at all was an uphill battle. Assemblies were, especially for you Twin 1, more than a little traumatic. You would shuffle up to the front and mumble your line, looking like this was the most terrifying moment of your little life so far. And now, well you are still not quite in your comfort zone in a performance situation, but your end of term show had you excited about singing and dancing in a monkey costume; and looking only marginally embarrassed when the time came.

I know that I will always look back on these infant school days as the happiest of times – little hands that still want to hold mine, arms that still want a big cuddle as we say goodbye, and the unbridled joy as your little legs come sprinting out of the classroom at the end of the day. Friendships are uncomplicated; learning is, largely, a joy; and the best class reward imaginable is your teacher bringing in her puppy for the afternoon.  There have been discos, movie nights, theatre trips, dance workshops, summer fayres, country dancing, visits from Santa, and innumberable other memories and experiences; quite aside from the fact that you have also learned to read, write and do sums.

It is difficult to express how much love I have for this little school. For the teachers and TAs who have taken your hands and brought you to this point. For the school cook who listens to you recite poems and update her on the latest football news before giving you bonus meatballs. For the office staff who are used to me running back and forth with forgotten reply slips and water bottles and a hundred questions about what I might have missed that week.

These have been truly special times and have given you the very best start to school. And now new challenges await…..the first of which will be getting to grips with a school tie.

 

 

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What do you want to be?….

What do you want to be when you grow up?‘ is such a standard thing to ask children that I’m not sure we even really think about whether it’s a good question. But I’ve been pondering it a lot over the last couple of years, partly because I don’t really feel like I have ever really grown up and ‘become’ something. And I think this might actually be the case for many of us.

What do you want to be when you grow up?‘ implies that once you have grown up and become that something, if indeed you do, then that is it – you have arrived at your destination. It suggests that you are going to ‘be’ something that can be summed up in one simple, tidy response. I had never really heard anyone question the ‘what do you want to be…..’ question, until I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Right at the beginning she talks about just this thing; and I wanted to cheer. In fact, I might have cheered. What Michelle says, much better than I could, is:

“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Last weekend felt like an emotional rollercoaster. My eldest boy had two triumphs – he didn’t particularly think of them as triumphs but I have marked them down as such anyway. Firstly, he went to a birthday party at our local climbing centre which, with a slight fear of heights and, consequently, a fear of climbing, he had never wanted to try before; and secondly he went on a shelter building and sleepover adventure with the Cubs. He has done overnight things with Cubs and with school before but nevertheless, each one still feels like a milestone. I couldn’t have been prouder of him for the way he took the whole weekend in his stride. Meanwhile, his little brothers went to their last ever football training session as members of their youth development section, which also felt like a little milestone. They spent the remainder of the weekend running rings around me and on a mission to always find something better to do than actually listen to what I was saying. And just as I was starting to feel like I really absolutely couldn’t take any more, some beautiful flowers arrived from a beautiful friend. Just out of the blue.

See what I mean – emotional rollercoaster. Over the course of a few hours I lurched from proud-mummy to losing-the-plot-mummy to a grateful-friend-arranging-flowers-in-a-vase, thinking about how crazy it is that emotions can swing in so many different directions over the course of one morning. This is absolutely not what I imagined when people asked me what I wanted to ‘be’ when I was a grown up.

I am a mum and I have a job; but the job I have now is different from the job I had pre-children…..which was different from the job I had straight from university. I have no idea what I might be doing in 10 years time, and I don’t think I have ever had any of the jobs that I imagined I might have when I answered the ‘what do you want to be?‘ question as a child.

Some of us get married, some of us have a family; but these are not end-points in themselves – whatever our situation, we are all just attempting to work out how best to navigate our way through life, making various changes as we go. There might be career changes or career breaks. A childhood ambition might be fulfilled, only to find that it isn’t actually what we had hoped for after all. For parents, every new phase brings new challenges, which often require new approaches. From one day to the next I veer from being a wishing-I-was-better mum, to a feeling-on-top-of-things mum, to a happy-working-mum, to a wishing-I-wasn’t-always-rushing-around mum; and everything in between.

Life is a non stop ride of ups and downs, with highs, lows, swerves and sudden changes along the way.

My eldest boy is a pragmatic soul. I joke that he likes to crush his brothers’ dreams, but he is actually doing a pretty good job of preparing them for life. Whenever they talk about their footballing dreams he reminds them that they won’t get their pick of club, they’ll just have to go wherever will have them. He tells them that they’ll need to start out somewhere small and work up. Then when they reach their thirties they might need to seriously consider being sold to Luton, and finally Cambridge Utd. Yes, this example might be framed in a footballing context, but somehow he seems to understand that life rarely goes in a straight line and that the story doesn’t just end with becoming a footballer for whichever your dream team might be.

Implying that we will all just ‘be’ something when we grow up is misleading, and we know this. In reality, we are constantly re-evaluating, re-assessing; and working out what sort of parent/colleague/friend/person we want to be. Many things are out of our control, and even when we achieve whatever it is that we’ve been aiming for, that is just the start of a new chapter rather than an end-point in itself.

And that is what I was pondering as I arranged my flowers over my up and down rollercoaster of a weekend.

Twins with ice-creams

What happens to our confidence?

It seems to be an acknowledged thing that motherhood and a loss of confidence often go hand-in-hand. The confidence might not disappear straight away, but gradually it ebbs away until one day you realise that there are all sorts of things that, once upon a time, you wouldn’t have thought twice about which now fill you with dread. You would think that growing, producing and then raising a human being might have the opposite effect. It is, after all, one of the most demanding jobs of them all with long hours, maximum responsibility, no downtime and little acknowledgement of your efforts. If you can manage this then surely you can get through anything?

Perhaps some mums do emerge more confident, but not me; and not a lot of the mums I know either. Which is interesting but does make sense for so many reasons. From the moment we become mothers our thoughts become consumed with 1) what our children need and 2) whether we are doing things properly. We analyse our actions, doubt ourselves and question our parenting, possibly now more than ever. For many of us, it is probably the first time we’ve had a job in which we really don’t have a clue what we’re doing, have limited control over events and have to stay strong through a barrage of unconstructive, negative feedback (ie “you are the worst mum EVER!”). A lot of the time, we probably feel like we’re just not as good at this as we should be.

And when you think about it like that, the loss of confidence thing doesn’t seem so strange.

We take time off work, and then we either go back to work and feel guilty, don’t go back to work and feel guilty, or attempt to find a happy medium and still feel guilty. You might, like me, find a new job that works around your mum-life meaning that every time you talk to someone about your job you also feel the need to justify your choice by saying something like ‘well it fits in really well around the little ones.’

Whichever path you take, it isn’t difficult to find people who are ready to judge the choices you’re making – you can choose to ignore this, of course you can; but you’re still aware that those judgments are there. And you still feel the need to justify yourself, even when no-one is asking you to.

And do you remember all that time we used to have? Evenings and weekends just spent pleasing ourselves. Most of that time now is given over to our children’s needs and activities, and any time out is just that – time out, a treat, a change, not real. And the result of this is that we get used to our routines, because that is how life is now. Our routines are what we are what we are comfortable with; and finding the confidence to do something that doesn’t normally fit into that routine can suddenly be a real challenge. Added to that, of course, we are tired. Trying new things and being brave requires energy, but we’re so used to putting our energy into encouraging our children to try new things and be brave that we just don’t have much left for ourselves.

Why am I pondering all of this? Well earlier this week I was ridiculously proud of myself for something relatively minor.  I work at a school and we have a weekly run for staff and students – it’s like a workplace version of ParkRun. It’s a great idea and I have been meaning to do it since it started several months ago, but this week was the first time I actually did. It wasn’t even the run that I was most proud of; it was the fact that I took in my kit, made changing room chit-chat, and put myself into a new situation with people I either don’t know or only know professionally. I have had a complete mental block on all of these things. I work somewhere where there are amazing opportunities and all sorts of facilities available for me to use, and yet I find excuse after excuse not to use them; because putting myself into new situations in front of people I work with, as well as working out changing room etiquette, fills me with dread.

I can do it for my children….that is so much easier than doing it for myself. And that is the point isn’t it – remembering to be brave and challenge ourselves once in a while, rather than just encouraging our children to do these things. It was only a little thing, completely insignificant to so many people, but sometimes we just have to start with the little things and go from there.

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Probably the only time I’ll ever write about football

Football is one of those things I can take or leave…..but if I’m honest I would probably rather leave. It’s not so much the game I don’t enjoy but just a lot of what tends to go with it – the pre-match drinking culture, how money-orientated it has become, and how expensive it is to go to a match…..or even to buy a football shirt. I do like the fact that my boys have chosen to support our local team (Watford), but beyond that I am usually happy to let it pass me by.

And so I didn’t expect to find myself heading towards Wembley to watch Watford vs Wolves in the FA Cup semi-final; but on Sunday 7th April that’s exactly what I was doing. And what’s more, I was really quite excited.

This hadn’t been a planned outing, more a last minute stroke of luck. Watford FC Community Trust offered free tickets to pupils from local schools, with accompanying adults only £10.00. And…..well, we couldn’t really not – my boys all support them, we can walk to the stadium; and when there’s a home game we can hear the crowds from our front door. As we set off for the match, in a sea of excited fans, it all felt very different to all the things I don’t usually like about football. In fact, it represented a lot of the things that I do like. From the moment we left home we saw familiar faces every few minutes – either people we knew or faces we recognised; and our stand was full of people like us – children and families, many of whom probably would not have been there if it hadn’t been for the unbelievable ticket offer.

And it was brilliant – there was proper excitement, drama and resilience out on that pitch. The fact that Watford won was, for us, an added bonus; but aside from that, the whole afternoon represented what football should really be about. The families who live nearby and can hear the cheers from the stadium, the children from the local schools, the residents who battle through the match-day traffic. Community and friendly faces.  Not something that only the most committed fans or corporate sponsors are able to attend, but something that brings communities together, that inspires little ones, that feels safe, accessible and welcoming.

Watford is merrily adorned in yellow and black in preparation for Saturday. There is bunting up in the town centre (and in our living room) and flags flying out of houses. My six year olds are beyond thrilled to be having a football themed day at school tomorrow. We won’t be at Wembley on Saturday and that’s fine; but I would love to see our local team win. For the community, for the children; and because anything that brings people together in a positive way (and really, anything that involves bunting) is something to get behind. So I’m grateful for this year’s FA Cup and for Watford’s brilliant run, because it’s given me a good, positive reminder of what football can be. 

Don’t tell, but….

I have a little mental tick-list of things I’d like to do before I turn 40. It’s not that long and there is nothing particularly ground-breaking on there – I won’t be skydiving, scaling mountains or signing up for a marathon. It’s really just a few things that I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I’m using the about-to-turn 40 thing in an attempt to spur myself on to do them. There’s cycling to work…..but to do that I need a bike; so there’s also purchasing a bike. There’s having a go on a climbing wall…..which really shouldn’t be too difficult when there’s a climbing wall at my work and they offer staff climbing once a week. But it does feel difficult if, like me, you’re a self-conscious sort of person who has always found it excruciatingly embarrassing to do any sort of physical exercise in front of work colleagues. There’s going to see Hamilton, which just requires me to be organised, find dates and book tickets.

Someone asked me how I was getting on with my list the other day…..namely, the cycling and the climbing. ‘Not that well’, was my answer. I still don’t have a bike, and I still haven’t attempted climbing – the rate things are going I imagine I’m going to have a super busy day the day before my birthday. BUT, I said, I am enjoying all sorts of things that aren’t on my list, such as Audible (highly recommended if you don’t already use it) and jigsaw puzzles. His reaction was the sort of reaction that I’d expected to get from people when I first started to enjoy a good puzzle – he looked at me like this was the strangest thing in the world for a non-octogenarian to spend their time doing. But that is actually the first time I’ve had a remotely surprised reaction. What I often get is people announcing, sometimes in a slightly embarrassed hushed tone, that they have also recently got into jigsaws, and, like me, have invested in a puzzle board AND, also like me, they love a charity shop jigsaw bargain. It seems that, if you’re around the 40 age bracket, looking forward to an evening with a glass of wine and a 1000 piece Great British Bake Off puzzle* just isn’t that unusual after all.

I once went to a work training session about mindfulness. I’ll be honest, I wanted to poke my own eyes out as the trainer told us how to mindfully enjoy doing the washing up, or mindfully sit in a traffic jam. ‘Mindfulness is not for me‘, I decided. But I’m discovering that doing a jigsaw is a version of mindfulness that does appeal. It focuses my mind, it stops me re-running all the various things that I wish I’d done better or differently; AND it stops me mindlessly scrolling through my phone. If I’m exhausted after a difficult evening or bedtime, it gives me something quiet and constructive to focus on. I was never particularly into jigsaws as a child but now I find them strangely addictive. ‘Just one more piece‘ I tell myself, an hour after I had planned to pack it away and head to bed. Just the other day I found myself rushing to the charity shops in search of a new one, having just finished the very satisfying ‘High Jinks bookshelves’ puzzle – featuring classic books such as The Jolliest Term on Record, Queen of the Dormitory, A Ripping Girl, and The Madcap of the School (all of which are now on my ‘must-read’ list).

So project ‘buy (and ride) a bike and have a go at climbing’ hasn’t yet got underway, but Project Puzzle, which was never supposed to be a project at all, well that is going brilliantly. Who’d have thought?

Bake Off puzzle

* I found it in a charity shop – £1.99! I know…..that was a happy day.

The importance of…..choosing the right mug

A cup of tea is so much more than a hot drink. It is comfort, warmth and reassurance……it is essentially a hug in a mug. And it takes on even more significance when you become a parent. Firstly, because it means you’ve had a moment to make it – you might have had to re-boil the kettle several times, but once it is made it signifies something you’ve done for yourself. Whether or not you will be able to a) find a few minutes to sit down and enjoy it or b) drink it while it’s hot is a whole other matter, but the promise of tea is there and sometimes that is enough to give you a boost.

Today is a proper cup of tea day. My boys have gone back to school and I am back at work tomorrow. I have jobs to do, errands to run and washing to fold, but there will also be tea in a favourite mug as I ponder on all the best and worst bits of the Easter hols (because parenting is nothing if not a constant self-appraisal).

I have a few favourite mugs and one favourite cup and saucer. Which I choose for my tea on any particular day is never an accident – it reflects something about either my mood, how much time I have, or the level of chaos in the house.

On the left here we have mug number 1 – this is the mug I’m using today. I’d probably call this mugs1one my go-to mug – it’s so pretty it just lifts my mood. It tends to be a mug for days that are likely to be a struggle – back to school after a holiday, Monday mornings, early starts, gloomy skies. Those sorts of days.

The mug on the right is my favourite mug for when I have time for a huge cup of tea. Getting this one out on a school day morning is a tad optimistic. It’s more likely to make its appearance on a weekend or bank holiday; or on a freezing cold, indoors sort of day when all you want is a never-ending cup of tea. It’s that sort of a mug. The ultimate comfort mug.

The mug on the left is my busy mug, which is probably why it tends to be the mug that I put down somewhere and then can’t find 10 minutes later, or the mug which is forgotten about and ends up in the microwavemugs2. This is the mug I’m usually using when I’m supervising homework, encouraging a boy to do his violin practice, or gulping a quick tea before taking boys to Beavers and Cubs. It’s my quick cuppa mug. And it makes me think of cake, even I’m not actually eating one. 

And on the right is my beautiful cup and saucer. You might think this would be the luxury option; the preferred choice for when I’ve got a bit of time to myself but actually, that doesn’t tend to be the case. In fact, I’d say almost the opposite is true – the cup and saucer usually makes an appearance when chaos is erupting in the house. When children are screaming/squabbling/refusing to get ready for school – that is when the cup and saucer comes out. It’s like a reminder that, amidst the noise and arguments, I am a civilised person and can afford to take a few seconds to block it all out and enjoy tea from a proper cup and saucer. It’s a treat to myself when I most need it.

So there we are – the go-to mug, the comfort mug, the busy mug and the what-is-going-on-in-this-house cup and saucer. Is it just me? I hope not.

 

Will of the people

Well, in these uncertain times boys, there is one thing we can be certain of….which is that you are growing up in a defining moment of history. The biggest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War, is what they say. Backstop, constitutional crisis, snap election, no confidence vote, Article 50, deal, no deal, People’s Vote – all of these have been part of the soundtrack of everyday life for almost three years. Nothing a surprise any longer. Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker – all names that we’re now used to hearing in every single news bulletin. 

Every so often, I write something which requires me to summon up a bit of bravery before I press publish. I wrote a pre-referendum post three years ago – you boys were 5 and 3; and I stand by everything I wrote back then. You are now 8 and 6; and I couldn’t let this crazy week pass without trying to explain to you boys where I stand and why.

You know who our Prime Minister is. You’ve seen plenty of pictures of her in The Week Junior, accompanied by headlines saying something along the lines of ‘Just what is the Prime Minister going to do now?‘ The main thing to know about Theresa May is that she likes to refer to us, to everyone in the country, as ‘the people’. Or ‘the British people’. There is no room for any range of opinions or, in fact, any nuance at all. We are ‘the British people’, we have spoken, and that is the end of it. Done. Mrs May is simply trying to do what the British people have asked her to do, all of the British people; so who knows what all the noise and disquiet is about.

And this is the problem. If we’re going to go ahead with this nonsense that’s one thing, but I am a British person too, and I’m really getting quite infuriated with the Prime Minister telling me what I want. Particularly when I have taken great pains over the last three years to explain why I want the exact opposite. It’s like shouting into a vacuum, but having ‘will of the people‘ repeated back to you no matter what you say.

Will of the people, will of the people, will of the people.’

I take exception to the fact that the Prime Minister doesn’t even appear to acknowledge the fact that the country is deeply divided, that ‘the British people‘ don’t all want the same thing. I take exception to being told that those who don’t agree shouldn’t have a voice. That we are anti-democratic if we don’t agree with the route currently being taken. I take exception to the fact that everybody who matters appears to be dodging the obvious fact, which is that the 2016 referendum was ill-thought out. Not only was the question completely inadequate, but there were no thresholds or conditions attached to it. No plans to revisit it again after two years. No planning for what ‘leave’ would actually mean. I mean, what a stupid, stupid irresponsible thing to do. The only way to begin to face up to the current crisis is by acknowledging that the 2016 referendum was completely reckless and irresponsible. It told us nothing. It was impossible for anyone to know what ‘Leave’ would mean because there were so many different versions of it being bandied around. We were told that Brexit would not necessarily mean leaving the single market. We were told that the Norway model could be a feasible option. We were told that making a deal with the EU would be easy.  Now we’re hearing complaints that Theresa May’s version of Leave is not the version that the British people voted for and so on, when all anyone actually voted for was a word which could have any number of different interpretations. An idea with no substance behind it. And this isn’t a criticism of those who voted for whichever version of leave they voted for, but a criticism of those who agreed that this referendum should take place with no conditions attached to it.

And now we are told that we must go ahead because it is the will of the people…..even if there is no other good reason to do it, it is ‘what people voted for’. Apparently the British people are bored and want it to be over (true), but going ahead means it will be nowhere near over. It has been clogging up parliament for three years and this is only the beginning (remember that 2 year transition period for starters), so we can forget getting our schools and hospitals sorted out.

And so here we are, boys, in this age of global business, of travel, diversity and multi-culturalism, creating barriers that previously weren’t there. Here we are putting £2bn aside as a contingency fund in case we don’t get a deal. Here we are making emergency plans for stockpiling medicines, for ensuring there is food on our supermarket shelves. Here we are watching companies relocate and jobs disappear; watching NHS workers and others leaving this country because they’ve had enough. Here we are souring relations with our nearest neighbours. Here we are, just accepting the fact that the civil service are pouring all their resources into trying to find a way through this mess. Here we are, watching as part of the M20 is turned into a lorry park. Here we are planning for problems and issues that weren’t previously problems or issues.

And we are just ploughing on because ‘the people have spoken.’ Because of a narrow victory on one particular day, three years ago.

The people have spoken.

Except there are a lot of us still speaking. Millions in fact, speaking very loudly. Just asking, politely, if we could maybe revisit this very very important question which will affect all of our lives for years to come.

We just need someone to listen.

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Oh, and if you agree with the above, but haven’t yet signed the Revoke Article 50 petition then you can find it here. 1.5 million signatures so far and counting.