Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Shared Passions

Most people have a favourite childhood memory that even with the passing of time, is held safe in your heart.

For me, that memory is horse riding. 

From the age of 5, my entire life revolved around horses. I would read about them; I would practice dressage in the garden; I collected magazines and bits of grooming kit; but the thing that made me happiest - that I lived for - was my weekly ride.

That one fleeting hour every week was when I felt utterly safe and accepted. It was time spent with an animal who gave back what they received, uncomplicated, proportionate and fair. It was a relationship without the pressures of humanity, and it was the time I felt … free.

Even in the coldest of weather, I would pray that we would be going for a hack because that meant the silence and beauty of Epping Forest. There would be no noise apart from the gentle thud of hooves on the compacted earth and I would see progress of the seasons through the blue blush carpet of spring, the green of summer and the rustling oranges of autumn. 

When we galloped over Chingford Plain and past Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, I would be lost in the roar of the wind and the drumming of the hooves, ducking my head to clods of earth flying from the hooves ahead.

When we moved away from Essex, I stopped riding. I'm not even sure why now, I was in mourning for the community I had left and I never really found another stables.

This is all ancient history of course, relegated to nostalgia, and revived every few years for a birthday treat. 

That is, until last weekend when Esme had her first taste of horse riding.

It could have gone either way, she could have turned and fled at the sight of the fluffy grey mare called Pippin.

Not my animal loving daughter. 

She listened to my instructions, picked up a body brush and started helping to groom, pausing every few strokes to clean off the brush on the curry comb I was holding.

She listened intently as I explained about picking out hooves, and what the parts of the bridle and saddle did and then, just as if she had been doing it all her life, she settled into the saddle and went on her first ride with me walking proudly by her side.

I have never set my sights on my children following in anything resembling my footsteps, but walking alongside Esme, it suddenly became the most important thing in the world to me. 

The utter ease with which she sat on Pippin, her natural empathy and enthusiasm; all I wanted from that moment forward was to jump on the nearest horse and ride along with her.

To share this passion with her, that would be a rare privilege indeed.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

4 Ways To Accidentally Rock At Children’s Parties

I don’t often get called effortless: In fact in a stand up contest with a one legged emu I reckon I would still come off looking more awkward. It’s a natural gift of mine, my hair is never tidy, my clothes are always creased and I never, ever look like I have my shit together.

This is especially true of birthday parties, which for some reason terrify me beyond all reason. It’s a completely illogical reaction which combines a fear of social awkwardness, failing as The Perfect Pinterest Mum, and oh man, I don’t even know what any more.

But the good news is that even someone as haphazard as me somehow managed to pull of what was damn near the perfect party.

And by perfect, I mean nobody got hurt, nobody went hungry and everyone left smiling.

So to remind myself in future years, when I inevitably feel like no good will ever come of pushing my luck, here are the things that made for a great party.

Choose The Right Venue

I can take no credit for this one; my initial idea was to have people over to our house for a BBQ. Fine if you live in the sort of house where the walls aren’t covered in fake panelling and there’s  a lingering smell of old person, unfortunately we have both. Luckily I am married to a genius, and he suggested we hire out an amazing local aquarium which is half filled with touch pools for children to squeal over. The volunteers there were amazing and the children had the chance to feed the fish, as well as getting their own private show from the comedy octopus.

Choose The Right Food

This is normally the point at which my brain goes into complete meltdown and I want to weep into a corner at how deprived my children to have a mother who works all day and doesn't have the time to make starfish shaped sandwiches for their parties. Or set fish into blue jelly in some weird fishbowl creation. Or even make blue jelly. Instead I bowed to the superior local knowledge of the stay at home dad and we ordered some tray pizza from the local Italian eatery.  Then (because I am Mediterranean and cursed to over cater horribly for any social occasion) I spent a day torturing myself on Pinterest and then went to three separate shops in search of colourful, fun, but still “healthy” food. I nailed it on colourful and fun, and then I did my parental duty by cutting veggies into batons just so they could be universally shunned in favour of sugar.

Get Decent Entertainment

Some parents go for clowns (evil parents who hate their children), some go for Elsa impersonators; we elected to have a comedy octopus. OK so it was a total accident but he was worth the hiring fee alone. The good people of the Baithouse Aquarium house some rescue octopus and children, being grizzly creatures, enjoy seeing them being fed live crabs. They also enjoy seeing the tiny holes that these aggressive swimming ball sacks can fit through when tempted by a live crab. In the case of the house octopus, he was all kinds of done with the fitting through holes trick, he had skipped straight through to aggressive and hungry. So when a gaggle of small children gathered round, they were treated to the sight of tentacles erupting over the side of the tank, and jets of water fountaining over them by an increasingly pissy octopus. I will let you imagine the screams of glee that erupted, pantomime like, from the assembled audience.

Invite Awesome People

Our invite list for the weekend involved nine of the children’s mutual friends, their siblings and parents, and their favourite teachers from school. It was a pretty large group of people, most of whom know each other from nearly daily encounters at the ‘school gate’, which also made it a really easy group to be around. After turning up late for social events, and missing the parent/ teacher meetings altogether I was wondering if I was going to be that one awkward and slightly too loud family member who ends up picking through left over plates of food for the last gummy bear. Then one of the other mamas made a joke about the benefits of sugar crashes, and another turned out to be the serial Last Man Standing at home time and I got fair misty eyed with the joy of kinship.

Next time, I might even relax enough to look forward to the whole hoopla. 

Did I just say next time? 

If you want to see lots of exciting photos of fish, or colourful party food, behold the joy of Google Stories!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Secret of Successful Shouting

I feel like I am about to admit something shameful here: In our home, we shout.

It feels shameful because of a conceited little meme I once came across with a quote from David O. McKay saying that there should be no shouting unless there was a fire. I’m not saying you’re conceited David, I’m sure you are a very nice man with a lot of very profound things to say, but that meme? It sucks. 

It sucks because in a houseful made of exclamation marks and lived at warp speed, shouting is something that happens on a daily basis.

And I’m fine with that … now.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to work out how other parents managed to maintain houses oozing with monastic calm while mine more closely resembled a band of gorilla at full chat.

I was caught up in the irony of a peaceful parenting movement telling me to respect my child while also damning them for not being peaceful enough.

And it took something simple for me to accept my family for the shouters we are.

It took a cushion fight.

Not just any cushion fight, this was the mother of all cushion fights, the zenith of feather filled ass whoopings. In years to come, this is the cushion fight to which all others will aspire.

I have to hoover every evening: It’s not an OCD “have to” thing, it’s a “we have a dog who sheds his own bodyweight” thing. 

Part of my ritual is throwing the cushions off the sofa for the kids to jump on while I finish the room. I figure it saves me a job because it would take me forever to flump those cushions as well as the children do after several minutes of horsing around. 

Last night was a little different. 

Last night, when I threw the cushions off the sofa, they came back.

I started by absent mindedly returning them with one hand while hovering with the other, but the children were not getting the hint. 

In fact, they started goading me.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for a challenge.

Keith and the baby looked on from the safety of the next room as cushions hurtled through the air in all directions. There were tactics, there was running and there was a LOT of noise. Like a ridiculous amount of noise, mainly coming from my children as they screamed orders at each other over the now abandoned and still running hoover.

Eventually, and inevitably, someone fell a bit hard and we had to call a temporary ceasefire.

Temporary because despite being red faced, sweaty, and nearly hoarse, neither of the children wanted to stop. They barely had breath in their bodies but what they had, they were determined to use in the pursuit of their very loud glory.

My face was aching from smiling, and I had lost the strength in my arms so of course Keith took the opportunity to get involved. 

I was hit, I was going down with a fight, but the point at which he jumped off the sofa and clattered straight into the light finished me off. 

I sank to the floor, tears streaming down my face and looked up to see all three children screaming gleefully as they finally got their woman.

It was a moment of wonderful, and very loud clarity.

So I’m sorry David, there was no fire, but we are a family of shouters, and I’m proud.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Reflections on Birth Trauma

In six short days, Alfie will turn five years old. 

Five WHOLE YEARS; sometimes that feels like I sneezed and a full grown child appeared calling me mama, and sometimes it feels like time didn't exist before we became parents.

While we focus on invitations lists and party food, the lead up to his birthday marks a far less welcome anniversary: It marks the start of the chain of events that ended in a very dis-empowering birth.

Alfie’s birth left me raw and hurting in ways I couldn't comprehend until I became pregnant with Esme.

Like many others that leave women suffering from Birth Trauma, it was a birth that medical professionals would consider to be “successful”. After all, both he and I left for home in good physical health. So what was the problem? Did I expect too much from childbirth?

I don’t think so.

You will note there is no mention of being bullied, belittled or emotionally blackmailed by The Dead Baby Card mentioned in that quote. They are NOT things that a pregnant woman expects, and they were not what I deserved.

In the early months of Alfie’s life, there were times when I would wake up terrified of completely irrational fates befalling my son, and become hysterical over who the hell knows what. I didn't admit these things to my Health Visitor because I didn't need to; I clearly wasn't suffering from PND and there were no questionnaires about whether I had found birth traumatic.

Why would there be? 

Doesn't everyone find birth traumatic? Isn't having a healthy baby the “most important think”? In a society which is increasingly focused on the outcome of birth, the journey to that goal is often treated as insignificant.

I didn't realise it until this year, but even midwife Ina May Gaskin is a veteran member of the Birth Trauma club. 

She experienced the birth of her first child in a traditional hospital setting during a period of US obstetric history when labouring mothers were given mandatory epidurals and forceps deliveries and it left her “traumatised and scared of things that I shouldn't have to be afraid of; like driving back from the hospital and being afraid that my daughter could get out of the little crack in the window”. 

Today she retells this story with a wry smile, but it is a classic example of the way in which a “medically successful” birth can leave a woman feeling broken and vulnerable and less able to care for her child.

So why I am putting a downer on my son’s birthday by talking about this now? 

Well actually I’m not, because the outcome of my experience in 2009 was to propel me into a world of birth activism. That one act of betrayal galvanised me, and defined me. 

It redefines me still. 

And secondly, I promised long ago that I would write about this story, and how it ended.

The answer is that it turned out pretty well. 

I spent time talking through my experiences and making my peace with them. I planned two amazing births which allowed me to feel respected and empowered by surrounding myself with the right kind of support. 

And I came out the other side, a little scarred, a little tougher, but no worse for those things. 

One day, with the right support, you will too. I promise.
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