Parenting: A Foreign Country

Opening the door to an empty house is a novelty I am not used to. Returning from a work trip, foggy with jet lag but jumped up on caffeine I braced myself for the usual onslaught of a bouncy three year old and the cacophony of kitchen chaos that soundtracks most of my mornings. A click of the lock and a swish of post of the floor – almost silence – and I remember my family are happily scoffing scones in Cornwall. I have 36 hours to myself before they return.

Its a rare thing, time to oneself. I’m lucky enough in that I travel with my job. I have hours up in the air with a kindle full of almost-books to read ahead of publication, and time to revise notes, presentations. None of this requires wet wipes, there are very rarely tantrums, and I get to tune out for as long as we’re cruising at 31,000 feet. But its not strictly relaxing. Low level anxiety that spikes when the turbulence kicks in, a last minute delay which has a knock on effect on the meeting schedule. All inane and completely able to ruin a tightly planned week, so the ticker tape of ‘things-that-must-be-done’ switches from tantrum wrangling, to currency conversion while we’re waiting on those magic words from the pilot – ‘Cabin Crew : 20 minutes to landing’

Away we go, passport control queues, ‘How Long Are You Planning In the United States Ma’am’ and sometimes ‘Welcome Home’ (when I’m in South Africa) but mostly ‘Please Look Directly At the Camera’ and ‘Four Fingers on Your Left Hand Here Please’ – the flurry of coats and bags and belts and restricted areas, visa requirements, taxi lines, hustling bag handlers, checking in, finding wifi and adjusting the body clock. There is an expectation, a calm order in the chaos tightly wound beneath all of the hustle and bustle. I find it very reassuring because compared to my day to day as a parent its predictable. If things go wrong there’s travel agents and insurance and teams to help. Not so at 3am back home in London when fevers top 40 degrees, the calpol is running low and no one can find the asthma pumps

Its been 3 years since we have been lucky enough to find ourselves here, parents. We have found our own ways to manage the night time crisis, tag team the pick ups and drop offs, the day to day hum drum minutiae that comes together to make a family tick, although never like clockwork – and unique in its quiet rhythm. It’s that off beat singularity that surprised me. I had assumed that we are more similar than different, and at the heart of it we probably are. In that we love our kids. We’ll do irrational, crazy stupid things for them, that sleep deprivation fucks us all up, that nothing is as we expected to be. Sometimes its better. And sometimes its not. But we share the first smiles, first steps, first milestones together. We can count on sharing birthday cakes at parties, and moan about nursery fees, and fret about schools, we do this together, at roughly the same time. Comparing notes.

Until we don’t.

We noticed Sam wasn’t picking up language at the same rate as his peers around the 20 month mark. I wrote it off as being a Super Tiger mother who was expecting far too much of her toddler son. When he refused to engage in playgroup activities, preferring to investigate the out of bounds church offices, or to just literally try to climb the walls – I told myself he was probably shy and introverted and just didn’t like new people. And when he bolted off into the sunset without even a backward glance at literally any given opportunity I scoffed and said he was incredibly confident and independent and my weren’t we doing a marvelous job at making him feel secure. He wasn’t making eye contact because he was shy, and therefore not interested in strangers. He was used to us anticipating his needs so didn’t need to speak. He was, just Sam. And all of this is just my very normal parent anxiety

And it is. Until it wasn’t.

We met the Pediatrician who diagnosed significant speech delay with attention/social & communication difficulties. And so began the building of The File (all parents of SEN kids will have one, or a drawer, or an entire wing dedicated to the paperwork). I still can’t read the first report without feeling queasy. Its blunt and medical and objective. Which as a parent you can never be about your kid.

We were referred for everything and introduced to ALL OF THE TEAMS. A few were exhausting – OT (rejected once, appealed, waited a year, jury’s out), and Audiology, (four appointments where he refused to wear headphones, ironically he loves them now). There are others who are nothing short of my personal heroes, our amazing Speech & Language Therapy team, which we would be lost without but who we can NEVER call (its like that episode in SATC… she can reach me, but I can never get her…).

Not forgetting the secret SWAT team that appeared out of nowhere -the brilliant Early Years Inclusivity Team who have coached, cajoled, answered stupid queries and fought battles for us with nurseries and waiting lists and impossible switchboards.

All of this has been happening over the past year, mainly behind the scenes, between the usual routines of work and childcare and college. I have been lucky enough to have had a very supportive & flexible work place and a self employed husband so we can just about keep up with the barrage of admin that comes with each department at each stage. But its taken me a year to get my head around the parenthood that we have found ourselves in. My head is still catching up with the reality of where we are now. A feeling not dissimilar to jet lag.

So where are we?

We’re not sure. Its not where we expected to be. But its not without its charms. Sam adores his speech therapist and is making huge progress every day. He is so damn smart. He loves his nursery and drives them crazy by refusing their lunches and demanding jam sandwiches. He gets all his pronouns wrong which is hilarious and his echolalia makes for interesting listening – it like having a spy at nursery. He’s obsessed with colours, letters, shapes, numbers and fascinated with words – like hes making up for lost time. He wants nothing more than to jump on trampolines and chase his pals while shouting. He loves cuddles and lemon yoghurt, diggers and the 182 bus to Brent Cross. His laugh is magical, and he laughs often.

The CAMHS team assessed him for ASD today and we’ll know more on May 22nd. But whatever the outcome, if this year has taught me anything its that help has come from unexpected places. That there are extraordinary people both health professional and friends who will listen to me cry about ‘labels’ and gently remind me that the more information we have, the more we can share with others to help them understand Sam. That the fear is of the unknown. That people will surprise me. Friends (online and IRL) who will educate me about policy and politics. They will text me their experiences warts and all to give me the heads up on what not to do, and what all the acronyms mean. My mini guide book on WhatsApp. You know who you are. Thank you.

Next up. Choosing a school. The fasten seatbelt signs are now on.

Phone A Friend

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2018 is nearly done!  There were a few big mile stones this year but the one that hit home was the 20th High School Reunion. I had mixed feelings about acknowledging this. Two decades have passed, I live in a different country, and the friendships that have lasted are the ones I have invested in. Why dig up all the old acquaintances? But my friend Kat drew me out with an infographic on Facebook with a Happy House soundtrack. It didn’t take much.

Kat was our head-girl, diminutive in stature (we had to get her to stand on a box so we could see her above the podium) but larger than life, characterised by her generosity and kindness – and not a jot of that effervescent energy has diminished over the years. Together with a few other alumni she set up a fundraiser to raise school fees for pupils who need the financial support. 

Kat had tagged the event ‘Our Reunion, Our Stories, Our Legacy’. A reunion with a difference, less awkward posturing and more investing in the next generation. 

I found myself in the whatsapp group sharing in the intense flurry of messages  – emojis from Hong Kong and Amsterdam and lots of updates on families, careers and lives lived – reminiscing on all the wonderful, uncomfortable, cringe-worthy high school stuff. Most of it pretty standard. Except the stuff that wasn’t said. 

Into this emotional upheaval I threw Nanette , which if you haven’t seen I recommend you stop reading this, and watch that. Coupled with end of the year reflection, it got me thinking about how we use our stories to define our legacy, and more importantly, what do we leave out? I won’t spoil Hannah Gadsby’s show for you, but there’s a very key point she makes about omission, and its been on my mind for months. 

Here we had this reunion whatsapp group sharing stories of the beautiful babies, and loving partners and glittering careers. Add Instagram filtering out the dried on weetabix or the mummy blogs that glamorise the dirt as a paid for promotion for #fairyliquidcleans. The lifestyle influencers culturally appropriating everything at a whim #soblessed. The fake news.  The truth is obfuscated. Or photoshopped. Or rewritten. Or forgotten.

I’ve looked back at my patchy diaries, my half-finished blog posts and my email updates to family over the years. Highlighting the good stuff and down playing the harder stuff. Leaving gaping holes in the narrative. By toning everything down, and airbrushing the detail what have I forgotten in the process? So many things unsaid, along with all the grime and the shame, the mundane day-to-day. The head splitting hangovers, the prescriptions, the tears in the bathrooms, the mind-numbing commuting. Not all of it warrants high-definition recall, and a lot can and should remain private. But some of this bears remembering. 

My rock-bottom was scribbled down on a piece of paper in my wallet. I tried to find it the other day, but 11 years after the fact it has since been swept off my desk or lost on a plane, or crumbled up by the toddler while posting my credit cards through the floor boards.

It served a very important purpose. A tangible and real artefact that I could access at any point. A talisman against the madness that for a very long time felt incredibly close and extremely violent. Perhaps because I had it written down I have been lazy about remembering it. Today I panicked because all I have is a crystallised segment in my memory, a shard of it, dull from lack of use. Will that be enough to ward off the furies when they come for their due?

Probably not.

My rock-bottom wasn’t gritty. Or horrific. There have been toothpaste commercials with more implied menace. Because my journey to rock-bottom wasn’t linear I had been near there before and in much, much worse places but not felt that gut wrenching sickness. That day I did. I made a phone call. And because this was not new, there were one or two people who knew what was going on behind the layers of denial. The beaten to bits, arrogant, fuck-you-I am-fine me. The part of me that was tired.  The part of me that wanted help but couldn’t ask. I called the people who would tell me the truth when I asked for it. One was a friend. The other was my psychiatrist. It was pure luck one answered the phone. I don’t know what prompted me to dial that number that day. But I did. And here we are.

The darkness feels different today. The chaotic urgency of before has been replaced with a soporific distraction. Having rebuilt myself and then a life, I am very proud of what I have achieved in those 11 years since. I set out to fulfil some of that potential I had when I finished school. And now 20 years on, I have managed to meet some of those goals and while I have failed at many more, I am still here. 

I’ve built up enough distance from the unmanageability of my past that I am less in danger of stumbling back. But I am in much more danger of harming myself through straight forward neglect. And I’m not sure which is worse. One is damning and explosive, the other slower, more insidious, and – lets face it – more likely to win.

Like any classic story, the counter to the darkness then, is the truth. And telling the truth. Not just sitting with it as a mind-experiment, letting it roll over your tongue until it dissolves and you’re left with nothing to say. The truth. Your truth. So I wrote it this as a starting point. A buffer, a stab at self-care. An acknowledgement that with that little bit of luck you need a ton of hard work to keep on keeping on, and I owe it to myself  to keep well. And maybe, this helps prompt you to tell yours, to pick up the phone. And if we do that we have a chance at shaping our legacies, and get given the chance to give back.

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The September Issue

 

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August is done, after a riot of road trips, picnics and suncream (on everything) so are we. We cannot complain about the weather. I have developed an enviable pram tan that is better than any colour that I caught in Spain. Albeit, just on my arms, face and feet, if I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt I look like I’ve been lazing around in Menorca for weeks. My pale legs and midriff would give me awat. While I will miss the bright mornings, and weaning alfresco, I am looking forward to the evenings drawing in (we can get rid of the blackout blinds!), cosy jumpers and enjoying the autumnal sunshine without fretting about sunburn, over heating and dehydration.

I have spent this summer treading the tarmac between Willesden, Queen’s Park and West Hampstead daily, in search of shade as quickly as possible. We’ve visited Kew, the Heath, chased a few deer in Richmond, braved the wilds of Shoreditch and even ventured out of London down to the actual beach in Cornwall.

But while we were outdoors, the term ‘lazy summer’ does not apply to those with small children. Things get sticky

A day outdoors involves sticky weaning spoons, and wet wipes, suncream and wet wipes, sticky bra straps from sticky fingers (and not in a fun way), half finished Ella’s pouches leaking in sticky lunch boxes and sticky pram straps. Plus, I insist of eating all the cake and glugging all the coffee, as I’m fighting sleep deprivation, so the general mood is highly strung and skittish at best.

Thankfully, I am not alone. I’ve met some truly amazing women while going through entire packs of wet wipes, bonding over nap strategies, and coping on 3 hours sleep a night. There are whatsapp groups that have saved my sanity at 2am and kept me calm when teething/ family politics/ unknown rashes appear out of nowhere.

There are gangs of us bouncing from coffee shop to park to train, wrangling an over tired baby in an unwieldy buggy, while sporting a ‘Lip Smackin’ Spag Bol!’ stain on their Mother t-shirt and smelling of Ambre Solaire factor 50. Or dangling toys in front of car seats while singing ‘Say Hello to the Sun’ in the style of Eddie Vedder, Anthony Kiedis and/or Kurt Cobain to stave off the next epic meltdown (baby) and spectacular boredom while the long suffering husband drives to the coast being very kind about the terrible singing voice (ok that may just be me).

This next season sees a few of my friends going back to work, babies starting nursery and we start planning our epic 6 week trip to South Africa. That back to school feeling hit with a vengence when I was packing Sam’s clothes that are now way to small (sob). New chapters, new beginnings, and please please please new sleeping patterns

And for me? BROGUES. And my favourite coat that I haven’t worn since pre-pregnancy. Roll on September. Thank god you don’t require suncream

 

Silly Season Shenanigans

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Christmas is here and we’re all winding down, clearing out desks, or at home cleaning the house and doing a few last minute bits and bobs in preparation for the Day Of Good Eating. I have avoided mass panic so far and am trying to keep it that way. I am Zen. It’s just a day after all. The presents are bought and there is food in the fridge. Done.

I have a complex relationship with Christmas. I like the build up to it, the catch up with friends, the small gifts bought and cards written. I love the decorations and the trees and the fact that generally we all take stock and acknowledge each other, we get a break and we get a chance to recharge.

Growing up in South Africa Christmas also meant the big summer holidays so it was a month of festivities rather than a week. And it varied greatly depending on which part of the family we were spending it with. The huge extended Mills Clan in the Cape or our smaller immediate family in Jo’burg with a host of family friends. As a small child, Christmas in the Cape meant throwing ourselves head first into the sea, followed by the lake, followed by tea, followed by more sea and then dinner with endless cousins to hide in dunes, run up mountains, throw off canoes. We had competitions to see whose feet got the toughest walking down the gravel paths to the sea. Who could leave their flip-flops behind first and run across the stones without yelping. Who could swim across the lake the fastest. Christmas was very simple then. We turned up. There were presents/ the food arrived. We ate it and then went for a swim.

As we hurtled into our teen years, the attraction of the canoes in the lake or sea-shell hunting was replaced by late night beach excursions, smuggling illicit booze, talking about music, meeting boys (that had no connection to the family) and plotting ways to get into town. The traditions and rituals of our childhood were no longer exciting, nativity plays and carol singing holding little sway for a B&H smoking, eye-liner touting city girl who just wanted to go dancing late at night, with new people. Preferably who were DJs and had their own cars. Christmas was about avoiding family at all costs.

Christmas has also always been a season of firsts and milestones. The first time I got drunk was on Christmas night when I was 12. I was trying to impress my older second cousin with my sophistication, all dressed up in early 90s mono-chrome and being allowed ‘a small glass of wine’ which I topped up. Frequently. Like a grown up and out of the eye line of my parents. It was the first time I got busted smoking too. Having managed to skive a fag off the very same older cousin, I had forgotten to lock the bathroom door when my grandmother barged in. Thankfully slightly squiffy herself, she promised not to tell if I quit right there and then. I promptly vomited as soon as she closed the door. Turns out Baileys, wine and sheer terror don’t mix.

My first kiss was at Christmas, playing pool in a hotel with friends and a few local kids. My friend refused to speak to me for the rest of the holiday, kissing boys who didn’t really know was bad form (apparently). All these rules that no-one tells you about until you’re already in hot water. I did not learn this lesson and spent most Christmas holidays from then on kissing inappropriate boys. As most teen girls should.

Moving into adulthood, my first Christmas abroad without my family coincided with a long term relationship break up. A very last minute, cold, west and grey Christmas where a friend very kindly bundled me and my visiting sister off to their family outside of London. Followed quickly by a trip up to Scotland where I sobbed at my aunts’s kitchen table for 3 days, fuelled by Malboroughs, tea and an endless supply of biscuits.

The past few years have been fairly incident free. I’ve written cards signed ‘The Conquests’ and survived the insanity of the season by dressing the dog up as a reindeer. The complex relationship continues, I love the get togethers and the family time, but I find the competitive gifting, and garish over consumption leaves me as queasy. The binge and purge cycle of Christmas followed by the almost mandatory January detox seems so self inflicted and pointless. We’re encouraged to (over) eat, (over) drink, and be (very) merry and within 6 days sent the opposite message that the ‘excess holiday weight’ is hideous and needs to be shifted immediately. We’re bombarded with solutions to help us to clear out, detox, lose weight, quit drink, set goals, and start a New Year as a New You. Because the Old You Is Just Not Good Enough. And it’s so entrenched in our psyche we seem to just blindly walk into it. Its exhausting.

That’s not to say I disagree with over indulging, or that I think goal setting is naff. I love a goal. I also love cheese, on everything pretty much all year round. I have made peace with the fact I’ll put on a few pounds between November and December. But I resent the January onslaught from every corporate company on this planet making us all feel inferior for buying into the over indulgence they sold us just a week prior. Its a trap. And I am opting out.

So this New Year I am proposing not making any major changes at all. Looking back on this year, although its been tough in parts, we’ve managed just fine. We moved house. We saved some money. We travelled. I don’t need a brand new me just yet. I think we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. It is a season of firsts after all.

And I refuse to cut out carbs or cheese.

Happy Holidays all!

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Good Intentions

Many readers of this blog will know we moved house at the beginning of the summer. Twelve long weeks ago we packed up and relocated a whole three miles up the road. Three miles is not a long way. I can run three miles in under thirty minutes on a bad day. In the rain. On a clear day from the train station I can actually see our old neighbourhood. So hardly a massive move.

But you’d think we had relocated to another country when you look at the disruption its had on our day to day. We’ve sorted out the basics, but my schedule has taken a huge knock. The exercise routine is ad-hoc at best and I found myself eating cereal for dinner on more than one occasion, because I’ve not sorted out the groceries. Its not a good look. I am a fan of structure, and clearly don’t deal with change well. What started as a whirlwind love affair with NW2 and its beautifully well behaved neighbours has turned into a magnum eating, sofa loafing, social surfing lazyfest.

Willesden, we have a problem.

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Stella feeling the chilled out NW2 vibes

Back in W10 I was highly motivated to be out of the house as much as possible. take a small flat combine with despicably noisy neighbours, a hyper-active dog and being surrounded by a LOT of cafes and parks meant I was rarely home. I was out and about giving Stella her daily dose of Portobello love (she’s minor celebrity around those parts) and saving my ears from the almost constant deluge of noise from upstairs.

Here in NW2, we have our own sun trap of a patio garden, a living-room big enough to get a wii-fit game on the go (we haven’t) and neighbours so quiet I suspect they walk around in feather lite slippers all day and are perhaps mute. I can’t lie. Its freakin’ wonderful. So I am very happy to come straight home and then stay there as long as possible. Basking in the silence. On my sofa. Eating ice-cream.

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And THAT is the problem with living in the ‘just as soon as’ frame of mind. The Good Intentions Zone. You know it. It goes something like this. Just as soon as we move, Just as soon as we sort out the xyz. Just as soon as we finish abc…THEN we’ll get on top of everything. Good Intentions.

There were a number of things I was sure I would do ‘just as soon as we moved/ unpacked/ got settled’

Here are the Top Three

* Get Into Yoga

I have no flexibility. And I have all the kit so really feel like I should put it to good use. And everyone I know does Yoga so I am just succumbing to peer pressure really. If only so I can stop nodding and smiling when they talk about Pigeon Pose (I thought it was a East London Band for weeks)

* Figure out The Garden

So far I have managed to pull out weeds. Get stung. Water plants. Pull out weeds. Get Stung (by a bee this time). Get covered in mud and burrs. Plus the gardening malarkey works well with my Yoga plan. I’ll be all zen and into nature and have the core strength to really get to grips with those effing weeds.

* Learn to Cook Like a Grown Up

For god’s sake I am 33 years old and I can barely make an omelette. Its embarrassing and a little pathetic. Given how much I like to eat.  I have been relying on the gastronomical expertise of my wonderful hubby for far too long. And seeing as he’s going through a Brussel sprout phase (eww) I need my own repertoire up my sleeve.

 

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THIS

 

Any takers who’d like to join in my yoga practising, garden tending, cooking experiment? All welcome! I will try not to poison anyone. In fact maybe just join in on the yoga and gardening. I can’t guarantee your safety with my cooking. Yet

 

 

Pouring with Rain? Perfect!

Its Week 3 on the new regime and I’m up to 2.5 mins running/ 2.5 mins walking. Still knackering, but its getting easier and I can really see a difference. Dave, my running coach even said, ‘massive improvement would be an understatement’ so I am feeling pretty pleased with myself. That and the eating plan is also paying off, 10 pounds down and back in my size 10 skinny jeans. Hopefully the combination of nutrition and training should make me faster. I’m aiming for a 5K by the end of Jan, with a view to sign up for a half marathon in the Autumn 2013. 

But Christmas is getting in the way! I hadn’t managed a run since last Sunday, and spinning classes were given up in favour of night out with work and friends. That also means the eating plan was ‘tweaked’ somewhat. So with this being day one of my Christmas holidays and with all this extra time on my hands I really had no excuses not to run, plus cabin fever was already setting in and Stella looked like she might start eating the Christmas tree. 
We set off in a light drizzle, and 5 minutes in it started chucking it down. At only 7 degrees out, that’s not all that fun when you’re still warming up. Very glad I had the sense to wear a hat, but thankfully 10 minutes in, the routine kicks up a notch, so I may have got soaked through, but I wasn’t freezing. And its worth it, I am loving being back on the road, even if its only for 20 minutes every other day. 
Stella had a ball, which meant we both got back to the flat looking like drowned rats, and pretty covered in mud. Hot showers all round, and I’m treating myself to a mince pie. Tis Christmas after all. 
Hot New Look – Bedraggled 
Stella submits to being bathed

But not for long…