I love books. I am a book person through and through and I’m not afraid to admit it, even if it does banish me from the cool kids’ gang. I love buying them, I love stroking them, smelling them and of course arranging them on their shelves. Sometimes in colour order, sometimes alphabetically, depending on my frame of mind. And it may be wrong, but I always judge a book by its cover.

I am however rather flighty, and after too much internet and not enough concentrating on Serious Things, I have noticed myself losing the ability to focus on a book for any length of time. That old friend Parental Guilt could also be to blame. As a child, I could lose myself in a book for hours, unaware of the passing of time. Now other things seem to intrude, and it is much harder to switch off, to silence that nagging voice in my head saying unhelpful things like ‘those dishes are not going to do themselves you know.’

In 2008, ashamed of the piles of barely read books by my bed, I set myself the challenge of reading 100 books in the year. All the way through. Right to the end. I managed 104. I completely lost touch with current affairs though…

Although I love buying books, I do try and limit myself. I love the look of floor to ceiling bookcases, and do cut out pictures of libraries and studies from magazines to stick on the wall, but I’ve found I have a tipping point with books. Not enough and I feel lost, too many and I start to panic – I calculate how many books I can reasonably read in the rest of my life and it doesn’t seem enough, there isn’t enough time, there is too much to be done. When I have too many piles of books they seem to taunt me every time I walk past. ‘You’ll never have time to read us you know,’ they whisper mockingly, ‘you’ll die before you can read 1% of us.’

I love to see my children reading, because I know how amazing it feels as a child to be consumed by a fantastic book. When I was younger I loved all the usual suspects – Secret Seven, Famous Five – proper escapism. As an adult, I still enjoy reading children’s books and have a particular fondness for the titian-haired girl detective Nancy Drew. Despite coming of age in the 1930s, Nancy is a role model for adventurous young girls everywhere. She is independent, fearless and never attempts to solve a mystery without a matching hat and gloves. If I find myself in a difficult or scary situation I often think to myself ‘what would Nancy do?’.

As well a Nancy Drew mysteries, I have some old favourites from my childhood that I will reread now for comfort – Winnie the Pooh and Adrian Mole in particular are guaranteed to sooth an overactive brain after a hard day – and I want to encourage my children to read not just for pleasure, but also as a useful coping strategy. When times are tough, a good book is a powerful weapon. Books can comfort us, inspire us, or simply provide us with the opportunity to escape from real life into a simpler world, a world of adventure, endless blue skies and lashing of ginger beer.

So I’m interested to know which books you enjoyed reading as a child. Are there any that have stayed with you, old favourites you turn to when you want to be whisked back, albeit temporarily, to a different time or place? And how do you find the time now to read with so many other aspects of life clamouring for your attention?

Amazing photo that I’m so jealous of: chotda

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, but I’ve yet to come up with an answer, or formulate an argument, so I am writing here as a way of exploring the issue and how I feel about. So I apologise in advance if the post gets a little fragmented – it’s me thinking out loud.

So my question really is how much emotional vulnerability is it ok to show in front of your children? As a single parent, a mother from the age of 17, I have become an expert at suppressing my emotions to always appear positive and in control. This comes I think not only from taking on responsibilities so young, but also from my relationship with my family.

I’m sure my mother will forgive me for saying that being a parent coincided with a difficult period in her life, a tearful period, in which emotional vulnerability featured highly. Because of this, I think I learnt to be sensitive about how I behaved and the things I said, not wanting to upset anyone or make anyone cry. I have taken this forward into my adult life and am still very anti-confrontation. If I can act in a way to minimise upsetting someone else then I will.

This of course comes at a price. I have always known this on a personal level – people see me as hugely positive and confident, difficult to upset, detached even. One long term boyfriend actually told me I was cold hearted. The danger with this is that people don’t worry about upsetting you. They think the positive exterior means I don’t worry about things, that I am a tough cookie. But this is not true. I am just an expert in the brave face, practised at making the best of things and seeming to shrug off criticism or rejection.

I have always known this sometimes hard exterior has an effect on my relationships with men, but recently I have begun to wonder how it affects my relationships with my children. Bee told me recently that I am annoyingly cheery, that she sees me cry so rarely that it scares her when I do. So how does this make her feel about me and, more importantly, about herself? Does she think I don’t care? Or will she think that letting down your guard, being prepared to open yourself up emotionally, and admitting to feeling sad sometimes are weaknesses?

I’m on my own as a parent. I don’t have anyone to offload negative feelings to on a day to day basis, and I am loathe to become the teary parent that my children are constantly afraid of upsetting. I am also very aware that it would be all too easy as a single mum to use an older child as an emotional crutch, and I really don’t want my children to feel in anyway responsible for me. But then maybe I should accept that family members do have a responsibility to look out for each other. This is hard for me though. My tough teenage mum shell doesn’t want to rely on anyone for anything. Dependence feels like a weakness. I need to be able to look after myself.

I am starting to wonder though if showing a bit more vulnerability sometimes and asking for help more often might actually endear me to people more. I’m sure it must be hard for friends and partners to feel useful and needed if I appear so capable. And maybe it would show Bee that actually it is quite normal to often feel lonely, bored, fed up and sad. We are all human after all, but perhaps I don’t show it as much as I could.

I’d be really interested to know what other people think about this. Do you cry in front of your children or do you believe in putting on a happy face at all times? Have the relationships in your childhood shaped the way you parent? How as a parent can you show vulnerability at the same time as being the person who provides security? Answers on a postcard please…

Photo credit: Cesar S

I’ve been having a bit of a teenage pregnancy week this week, influenced by stories in the news and events in my own life. Although it’s 14 years now since I became a mum at 17 to Bee (pictured right as a baby), having been a teenage parent is still a hugely defining part of who I am and I feel an ever present determination to prove to the world that teenage pregnancy doesn’t mean a wasted life.

Of course if you believe the media, teenage pregnancy is the root of all evil, both the cause and the symptom of a society whose morals are crumbling faster than my house, (chunks of which have recently started appearing in the garden).

Jan Moir has vented her fury against teenage mums today in a particularly ignorant and disgusting fashion. I really can’t even begin to respond to her vicious rant without wanting to stab pins in my own eyes with frustration. Suffice to say Jan:

  • I was 16 when I got pregnant, which is quite legal thank you very much.
  • I was not drunk.
  • I remained in a stable happy relationship with the father for several years.
  • I have never lived in a council house, but if I had, that would have been my absolute right.
  • My life has been full of opportunities for fulfillment and excitement.
  • And I have most definitely managed to get myself “on the career ladder, be independent, promoted AND valued.”

Despite Jan’s prophecy of me wallowing forever in misery and housing benefit, I even managed – shock horror – to get a degree! A first class degree in Economics no less. Hard to believe I know that a teenage parent would even dare to have any kind of ambition or aspirations, or go as far as to consider making a good life for herself and her family.

And I’m not the only one. My friend Camilla had her baby while she was at university and lo and behold she isn’t wasting her life “from now until the grave…in a council house papered with State handouts and increasing despair”, as Moir so eloquently puts it.

But enough of my bitter sarcasm. I know I was lucky in that I had fantastic support from my family (pictured left – My Mum, Gran, Me and my sister), but can we please just all realise that, although obviously not ideal,  having a baby as a teenager doesn’t automatically spell disaster?

Women have babies at all ages and manage to maintain interesting careers and social lives. How about, as Camilla suggests, we think instead about supporting young mums? Rather than just dumping them on the educational scrapheap, we could offer these young women incentives and practical support to continue their education, ultimately facilitating their long term financial and emotional independence.

We could even celebrate the achievements of  teenage parents – congratulate them for the fantastic job they do juggling families, schooling and work, all while having their confidence, ambitions and parenting skills constantly undermined by a predominantly ignorant media?

After school today we are going to Pizza Hut. I am anticipating mild bickering, but I am hoping the pizza and unlimited orange squash will unite them at least temporarily. There is a seven-year age gap between my two daughters, and at seven and fourteen, it has never felt so significant.

When Belle was a baby, Bee was an enthusiastic seven-year old, keen to help her mummy by doing Useful Jobs and still up for shared baths. It was a period of smugness for me. I looked at other friends, struggling with two or three kids under four and I thought I’d been pretty canny. I never had the problem of how to amuse a toddler whilst breastfeeding a baby – Bee was genuinely useful and could be relied upon to sit nicely doing some colouring and fetch me snacks as required.

Seven years later and my smugness has worn off. Now my friends have siblings who play together happily for hours at a time, leaving their parents to do the weekend crossword, drink cappuccino, and other grown up things I always imagine other people to be doing. My darling daughters however seem unable to be in the same room alone for more than 20 seconds without some kind of argument erupting. Belle is a bouncy child, always looking for someone to play with her. Bee is a sullen teenager, always keen for people to leave her well alone.

And so it is that we end up with outings to Pizza Hut being one of the only things that both of them enjoy. Holidays and days out are getting harder and harder. Bee doesn’t particularly want to hang out with Belle anyway, and hanging out in a toy shop or an indoor play centre is her idea of hell. The last time we went out for the day altogether Bee spent most of her time sat in the car.

Being a single parent makes the situation much harder to manage. When there are two of you, you can share the load and split the outings. If I had a useful father figure, he could take Belle off for wholesome outdoor activities while I took Bee to the cinema to watch cheesy rom-coms and eat overpriced sweets. Day to day parenting would be so much easier too. Ultimately, there is only one of me, and as much as I try to be all things to all people I can only spread myself so thin. Sometimes I feel I can’t have a proper conversation with one child without somehow neglecting the other.

So I am asking for help – do you have a big age gap between your kids and how do you manage it, how can I make sure both sets of needs get met? Is there anything we can do as a family that won’t be met with groans? Bracing walks in the countryside are unpopular with them both, but a venue with a cafe/gift shop combo usually goes down well.

Alternatively, if your kids are close in age, you have a useless husband and you find parenting generally hellish, let me know. At least then I can take comfort in another person’s misery…

Pizza Hut

This week I have officially had a New Experience. I went to my very first Baby Show. Yes I know, it is a bit late considering my children are now seven and fourteen, but I was working, not buying.

When my children I were babies I never really went in for Having To Have Lots Of Equipment. Pretty much everything I had for them was bought second hand or handed down from relatives who had boys. I liked to think I was challenging gender stereotypes by dressing them in a lot of blue, but basically I was just a bit poor. Or maybe mean. My two days spent at the ExCeL Baby Show though have made me realise I was right all along, and reinforced by long-held belief that babies really don’t need much more than a boob.

If you have never been to a Baby Show before, let me paint a picture for you…

Imagine yourself in a giant warehouse, an aircraft hanger, the air thick with pregnancy hormones and the cries of bored babies. The space is set out to keep you circling, wandering between stand after stand of colourful equipment you’ll never need, a never-ending maze of muslin from which there is no escape.

Ok, it isn’t really that bad, but you get the idea. Goodness knows how much the average new parent spends on ‘essentials’ for their baby, but judging from the prams piled high with goodies, it is quite a lot. And all the exhibitors are jostling for a slice, trying their damnedest to come up with the must-have product, the one thing that your baby really can’t do without. And the truth is that most babies can really do without most of it.

Of course there are a few things that really are simple, elegant solutions to real problems. The Cuddledry towel for instance, that simply fastens around your neck like an apron, leaving you two hands free to lift your wet, wriggly baby from the bath. Not that I’m at all biased – although I possibly should mention at this point that I was at the show working with Cuddledry…

Some things though are just making problems where there aren’t any, or trying to make a product out of nothing. I had a lovely demo from a woman selling what she maintained was a revolutionary cover up solution for breastfeeding women, allowing them to feed easily in public. As a breastfeeding counsellor, I was drawn in by the concept – anything that helps more women breastfeed is obviously great – and it wasn’t until I was walking away that I realised what she was actually selling. It was just a scarf, tied around your neck. A fairly thin, plain scarf at that. For sixteen quid. But even cynical old me had been temporarily ‘sold’ on the amazing, revolutionary, must-have breastfeeding scarf.

So the whole experience got me thinking, if you really break it down, what do babies and toddlers actually NEED? Are there any products at all that they simply can’t do without? Or is the whole industry built on fear and guilt, making women believe they will be bad parents if they don’t get a scary 3D scan, have their babies feet cast in coloured glass, or buy some kind of complicated pram system that they won’t even be able to get in the boot on their own?

Did you buy anything for your babies that you really loved and used? My one thing would probably be the hip seat from Hippychick – indispensable with Belle, who refused to leave my side for about two and a half years. Or maybe you were seduced into buying an ‘essential’ that turned out to be utter crap? I’d love to know what terrible products your baby-addled brain let you part with cash for…

Photo credit: maessive

After all the lovely feedback for my rather childish birth story, I have been wishing this week that I kept more diaries when I was younger. I just know they would have been incredibly entertaining (in a laugh at me rather than with me kind of way) as I was a fairly precocious yet oftentimes naive child, with a sense of humour only a close family member could love.

I probably did write things down, but having moved house nearly 30 times in my life so far I am not what you’d call a hoarder. I have been forced over the years to be ruthless with what I throw away and don’t have a loft full of childhood memories I can plunder for the sake of a blog post.

My mum and my sister are a lot more sentimental than me, and have dragged boxes of what I call rubbish and what they call treasured possessions from house to house, certain in the knowledge that one day it will be very useful or significant. I must admit (don’t tell them), that as I get older, I do see more value in hanging on to things from the past, not least because I am beginning to forget things that happened more than about a week ago. As my own children grow up it is useful, when faced with difficult questions like ‘what was I like when I was little’, to be able to present them with a box of photos, letters and mementoes to rummage through.

It was in a box of my sister’s keepsakes that I recently found my diary from 1990. I say diary, but it really only has room for a few sentences a day. 1990 is probably pushing it a bit too, as I appear to have lost interest by 13 February. Still, the six weeks I spend spilling my heart and soul onto the pages of my M&S Snoopy diary are a fair reflection of the contents of my 11-year-old mind – it is mainly an account of what I ate and the occasions I did well at school. I am still very much a person motivated by praise and by snacks, so not much has changed really in 20 years.

So, for your enjoyment, here follows some unedited excerpts. For youngsters reading this – this is what life was like before kids had TV and the internet and had to make their own fun. (Although I’m not sure all 11 year olds made antique maps of their homes and clothes for their teddies)…

Jan 2: Went to town in the rain so I bought an umbrella. Both Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe tapes are broken. I am making Teddy a knotted hankerchief. Had fish and chips for tea.

Jan 5: Mummy stayed in bed until 5.30pm. I played Sylvanian families with Annabel. I made a map of our house and to make it look old I painted it with yellow water.

Jan 8: Back to school. School was quite good, but I forgot my dinner money again! Rubbish art lesson. Vicky doesn’t do anything to help. I have to do all the work.

Jan 12: Cross country today. I was almost in a state of collapse at the end. Time was 9mins 36secs. I was second from last.

Jan 21: Went to Bristol for Grandma’s birthday. Everyone was there. Even Auntie Jill.

Jan 24: Went to textiles to find Vicky hadn’t done anything towards our hat. Took it home to finish. Went to Grandma and Grandad’s for tea. They had beef!

Feb 5: We had a French test about the weather and we had to be able to spell them! I got 18 out of 18. In textiles we did drawing. I drew some brill shells and Miss Newton said I was a very good drawer.

Feb 8: Had a big fight with Leann in physics today. I have a massive bruise on my shin where she kicked me. Me, Paul and Michael got some special homework because we were so good.

Feb 12: Drama – we had to go to court. All the boys were the judges so none of the boys got a chance to do anything. I am making Teddy some clothes.

Now don’t let anyone ever tell you I don’t know how to have fun.