Pink Flamingos

8am Christmas morning and a song about hard sex and an iphone is blaring out of a speaker in the depths of a teenager’s bedroom.

“I’m sure the neighbours would rather hear Slade or the King’s choir” I yelled over the din. “That’s not appropriate.”

“It’s only a song,” one of the teenagers yelled back, sauntering out of her room, singing the lyrics – just in case I hadn’t quite heard them correctly the first time.

Some people start the big day off with tea in bed and a croissant. Others with smoked salmon and bucks fizz. My Christmas morning started with a sex-fuelled beat, ringing in my ears. Hello Christmas with teenagers.

They still want stockings, only now they are teenagers I am sent e mails with a whole list of links to random objects: a waterproof speaker for the shower, foundation, after shave balm – for a girl, (apparently it makes a good primer – whatever that is) and make up brushes – lots and lots of make up brushes. Unfortunately, half the things came from China and so didn’t arrive. In January we are going to be inundated with Christmas gifts. I’m going to pencil in another Christmas in the new year, just to accommodate them. They did partner and I a stocking each too – a sweet thought. However, whereas their stockings contained really useful items, ours contained: a toothpaste dispenser that causes the toothpaste to spew out everywhere in a gunky mess and ear phones for someone who has two left ears – two items from China that did, sadly, arrive. We also got chocolate and body butter. I can still remember the hedonistic days when both those would have been used in sex. Now they are added to the pile. *

We headed off to my sister’s to spend the afternoon, as it happened, having a smashing time: 6 large plates worth £120, a crystal glass and a beer bottle. My sister and husband remained calm throughout, although I suspect they may well need therapy come January.  This was the oldies causing carnage, the teenagers behaved impeccably: supping on their Blossom Hill Rosé with restraint that I doubt they will show at their New Year’s Eve parties. Whenever I opened my mouth, apparently I embarrassed them, which I think was a little harsh, as they spent the day in flamingo slippers.

I insisted on a family photo in front of the Christmas tree, as it just never happens. Every photo is more highly scruitinised than CCTV after a robbery and by the time any photo has been examined by 4 teenagers, it rarely gets approved for social media. This one got through. They didn’t even remove the tags – a small victory for me.

Teenagers still love Christmas. They still wake early – not 2.30am early but it is a bugger having to set an alarm to put out their stockings, because they are still up when you are going to bed. They continue to insist on traditions being upheld and get cross if you dare try to skimp. The worst thing about teenagers at Christmas is that they can no longer be fobbed off with: if you don’t do what I ask, Santa will bring you vegetables. No, Christmas with teenagers is far more about truth and honesty and it is quite refreshing not having to spend December perpetuating a lie.

*they did buy us some good pressies too (in case they read this)

Effing Bollocks

What a load of effing bollocks there is around at the moment (not to be confused with elfing bollocks – there’s a lot of that around too). Train strikes, postal strikes, airline strikes: Merry fucking Christmas! What a load of effing bollocks.

Effing bollocks to 2016 that stole Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Wood, Gill, Wogan, Wilder, Aherne, Ali, Corbett, Burns, Alexander, Lake and Sachs. Plus others. Effing bollocks to 2016 that brought a good friend Cancer. Plus others. Effing bollocks to 2016 claiming the lives of those that are dear to us – in our case Harry. Plus others. You will never, ever be forgotten, but still:

Effing bollocks, effing bollocks. Effing, fucking bollocks.

Effing bollocks to Brexit and Trump, because whatever you think of either, they’ve still caused a lot of consternation and a lot of effing bollocks. Aleppo gets me going every time. The threat of ISIS always in the air. Bombings, stabbings, gunning downs. Refugees who people just don’t want: get off my land! Cue the Daily Mail.

Effing bollocks, effing bollocks. Effing, fucking bollocks.

Then amidst all this serious shit, psychologists have found the time to do research into the effect that lying to our kids about Santa is going to have on them long term. Get me into therapy, NOW! I was set up for inevitable disappointment. I can no longer trust anyone. I’ve been consistently lied to for years and now I am perpetuating this lie to my kids. THIS is why I don’t trust Trump! Maybe he’s one of the good guys? Maybe Nigel Farage isn’t a twat after all? My ability to become a critical thinker was shat on at an early age, by the people I though actually loved me.

Effing bollocks, effing bollocks. Effing, fucking bollocks.

It’s enough to make you want to hit the bottle: pour a gin, down the wine, drown your 2016 sorrows…and then be saved by a visit to the hairdresser in the New Year. Hairdressers, beauticians and barbers are being trained about the dangers of drink, so that they can pass on the facts to their clients. “Where are you going on holiday this year? Spain, lovely. Don’t fucking drink though.” Anyone else sniffing at a hint of Orwell or Big Brother here? What if the hairdresser is an alcoholic? Ha, the Local Authority who introduced this scheme didn’t think of that – the blind leading the blind…not so good when you’re a hairdresser, beautician or barber.

Effing bollocks, effing bollocks. Effing, fucking bollocks.

There’s been some good stuff too. TV shows kept us entertained: Ed Balls did his bit. Andy Murray won Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics was a success.

However, you’ve got to admit that 2016 has been a load of:

Effing bollocks, effing bollocks. Effing, fucking bollocks.

(Luckily Santa Claus and unicorns do actually exist. Plus there are plenty of rainbows and chocolate in the world and cats doing stupid things on the internet. We are not completely doomed.)

bye-bye

Kindness and respect

Parents: we are responsible for bringing up our children to learn to be inclusive. It starts young – very young. It starts at the school post box at Christmas time. Do you think it’s there to weed out the most unpopular kids in the class? No – it’s there to promote friendship and sharing. It is so important that we use this opportunity to talk to our kids about kindness. We need to lead by example. Do we buy them one pack of cards and let them choose who they will send them to? No! We must grab this moment to show them a lesson in how to be kind. This is a golden opportunity to get this message across. We buy enough cards for the whole class and we make sure they write one to everybody. Inevitably, as they are writing a card they will turn to you and say: ‘but I don’t like her. I don’t want to send one to her’. If they are saying this at 4 years old then it is our job as parents to make sure they are not saying it at 5. Because we must turn to our child when they say this and we must tell them that it is very important that they send that person a card. We must tell them that the naughty kid, the loud kid, the boisterous one, the one who isn’t very nice, is probably the one who needs their card the most. Children understand the spirit of Christmas and this will make our message all the stronger and easier to understand. So that on our child’s birthday, when they turn to us and say: ‘I don’t want to invite him’, when they are inviting everyone else in the class, we are able to build on what our children already know about being kind.

My daughter was once the only child in an entire group at primary school who wasn’t invited to a party. I don’t blame the child for not inviting her – they didn’t always see eye to eye and so given a choice, she chose to exclude her – a childish punishment for not always getting on. It is the parents who must see past this childish behaviour, because we are not seeing the world through a child’s eyes. We know that this is unkind. Sometimes, even on their birthday, we must force our children to be kind. Then, as they grow up and move in to secondary school, they will have an inbuilt sense of what is right and what is wrong: what is kind and what is unkind behaviour.

As someone said on a Facebook post I read today: ‘My research showed that (arguably) the most psychologically damaging is the leaving out and ignoring of people! Humans long for human affection, in love, friendship, and simple acknowledgement’.

Parents: we are responsible. It’s simple: we must teach our children to be kind. Not just to refugees who we might send a shoe box of toys to. Not just to the homeless children, who they might give some of their well loved cuddlies to. It’s actually very easy to show kindness in these ways. We must firstly teach them to be kind to the child whose name they know, whose class they are in. Kind to the child who is different. Kind to the child who craves it, because that child doesn’t really know what it is and over time, that will really, really hurt.

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All I want for Christmas

I’ve travelled on trains all over the World. In India there was the familiar chirping of children: chai! Chai! Chai! You passed your rupee through the train window and in return got a delicious sweet tea. Trains in China provided huge thermos flasks of water to make your own. Bunk beds: 3 tiers high for a cosy night’s sleep. The contrast of the shiny trains in Singapore: sleek, efficient and clean. I ate my first hot chili by mistake in the restaurant of a train in Thailand and my mouth was hot from Ko Si Chang to Bangkok. Trains create memories. All over the World I have loved the opportunities trains provide. Enabling discovery, and conversations with people who would normally pass you by.

Which is partly why I feel so let down by our trains. The trains in our beautiful country. The trains that are currently causing disruption and destroying our faith in people’s ability to manage. Strike upon strike Southern trains are making us endure. It is hell. It creates even more chaos in our already jam packed, chaotic lives. You think I exaggerate? I don’t know from one day to the next how my children are getting home from school. I am at work – it’s a horrible feeling. Have they managed to grab another lift from yet another friend? I’ve had a daughter stranded in London this week, while my step daughter, who needed to get up to London, couldn’t. But none of us have got the energy to fight – because it is Christmas and we’re all busy being stressed and fighting bugs. It is one fight too far. Anyway, who do we fight? The unions? The train company or the government, who are showing weakness in their passivity?

We just soldier on, incredulous. In shock that this can happen. A strike this week on a day when there wasn’t even supposed to be a strike. Forget Christmas shopping on Oxford Street and seeing the Christmas lights this year. You’ve got tickets to a show in the West End? Drive 20 minutes to another town and cross all your fingers and toes. The Southern Grinch is here.

They are even welcoming 2017 with a strike. The day exams start for hundreds of school children: Happy New Year! They don’t give a shit. You are left feeling helpless, frustrated and angry…so angry, with nowhere to vent. ‘Please don’t travel’, Southern is imploring us. How the hell can we put our lives on hold? Again and again and again. The schools say it is ok not to come in if there is a strike. What message is this giving our kids? I have so many questions and no answers are forthcoming.

I want to create memories in my own country this Christmas. I want to explore and meet people who I wouldn’t normally meet. I want to take my children to see the sites that our capital has in abundance. I want trains that run. That’s all I want this Christmas, and a strike free New Year. I’d write my wish list in a letter, if I knew who the Santa Claus was, who can make my wish come true.

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Naked

This just popped up in my in box:

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I’m not going to take Blake up on her offer, but it did remind me of a blog post I had wanted to write, about the importance of being naked – in fact: skin to skin contact, to be precise. I felt that I had to share with you just how very important I think it is, on the off chance that it may save a marriage, or help someone to bond with their baby.

Now, I am not a nudist, in fact I’m quite a prude. I don’t strut my stuff in front of my kids (to be honest I couldn’t deal with the backlash) and I don’t get my tits out on the beach. I’m not knocking anyone who does either. But recently it became abundantly clear to me how much I need to feel someone else’s skin pressed up to mine. In my case, my partner’s, but you may have your own person of choice. I discovered its importance through having two injured shoulders, that for quite a while rendered staying in one position for any length of time, impossible. I would wriggle and writhe my way around the bed, so any sustained pressing together of bodies was impossible. I began to realise how much I missed it. How much I ached for it and much it recharges my endorphins. This isn’t a lazy, loose hand draped across a pillow in the vague direction of the other half – this is serious skin on to skin action and it’s the simplest thing to do. Got a headache? Skin to skin action baby! Feeling so exhausted you haven’t even got the energy to turn off the light? Skin to skin it right up!

The day I started to wear pyjamas in bed was the day, I swear, my marriage started to fall apart. Damn those pyjamas with their promises of warmth and comfort. Damn the thermals that stopped the Winter chill. Damn even the sexy silk ones with their alluring promises. Damn you all, because you put a stop to the one thing that was always there: a constant so simple and honest that it got covered up and with it a natural bond was getting covered up too and over time – smothered.

As I began to realise the importance of the most natural of connections, I thought about how much time I had spent with my babies, naked. When they are first placed on you after birth, that feeling of naked contact is designed to create an immediate bond. That connection may not always happen, but for me I was lucky that it did. Breastfeeding can continue this wonderful, naked relationship, but if you aren’t breastfeeding I can now see how vital it could be to lay your baby naked on your skin. Dads too. Everyone loves to see a photo of a baby laying on a bare torso – it’s almost become a cliché, but I now realise that it is most probably essential for the dads to create that bond.

Of course this holy unclad grail may not always be possible: you may not have a partner and many other reasons besides. But I urge you if you have to ditch the jammies, clamber out of the onesie – yes, even though it’s Winter and connect, skin to skin: pressed, passively, perfect. Equally vulnerable. Equal.

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Thoughts laid bare

Lots of people don’t like baths. I’ve often heard the excuse that it’s because they don’t like the idea of lying in their own dirt – but this seems a little extreme to me. My theory is that they feel uncomfortable spending too much time confronted by their own, naked body and I fully admit that it can be quite scary. It’s not something we tend to do, especially in Winter. The trick is lots of bubbles and candlelight and settle in for a lovely soak. 

This morning, however, I discovered a drawback: daylight. As I lay there staring my pre-Christmas: ‘I don’t give a shit’ body, swooshing the bubbles around to cover up the worst bits, the sight of the bloat made my mind wander to pregnancy and what if I were pregnant now? Impossible! I hear some of you cry, as partner has had the chop. But no – I know someone who got pregnant, despite her husband having had a vasectomy about 15 years before. He even did a paternity test – you’d want to be sure. Their youngest was just finishing university. Life had moved on. What a dilemma. 

So, as I lay in my bath moving bubbles over curves, I imagined myself being pregnant. I even envisaged the birth, to the point where I remembered that thought at 39 weeks of: I don’t want to go through with this – I found that particularly with my fourth. I thought about the age gap there would be and my age: 46 and how much harder it would be now. Would I parent differently with 18 years of experience under my belt, or would I return to not having a clue about babies? Plus a different dad, a different dynamic and different genes. 

By the time I started thinking about genes, my bath water was losing its wonderful heat and I needed to give my legs and arm pits some attention, ready for the Christmas party season to begin. But I did have time for one last thought: what would I do? Would I keep the baby? 

You see, I’m at that age that I feel I don’t want to return to the disruption and total carnage that youngsters bring to your life. I’m at that age where step children have left home and my eldest is applying for University. I’m at that age where I would be treated with kid gloves by the medical profession, as I would be considered extremely high risk. Yet, I’m still at that age where I could be pregnant. I’m not, but I could be. 

It’s a very frightening thought. It’s a thought I would only have in the bath, naked and staring at my tummy. I pulled the plug and the thought disappeared with the bath water- almost. 

life-moves-on

Home sweet home

I never used to get people when they said: ‘I loved my holiday, but oh my God it’s so good to be home.’ I’d be the one thinking to myself: you mad bitch! Get over yourself. The phrase: ‘I love sleeping in my own bed’, used to annoy the crap out of me. A bed’s a bed, I’d think to myself. Don’t be so bloody fussy. I went travelling around the World when I was 18 years old, so this probably had a lot to do with my attitude and age…age has a great deal to do with a lot of things.

So, does the fact that every time I now walk in to my house and let out an inward sigh of contentment, mean that I have aged? That sounds like a cheese or a fine wine (note I use the word, ‘fine’). Does it signify a stage in my life when I am content with what I have and I am able to fully appreciate the here and now? Does age bring with it the ability to exhibit mindfulness more readily?

I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness recently. At first, the word irritated me. I thought it sounded a bit naff – a bit of a nondescript, hippy word, that just meant what everyone does anyway, without feeling the need to give it a name. However, quite often now I find myself focusing on the present – almost forcing myself to look at the beautiful sun glistening on the frost on our dog walk, rather than tramping along in my wellies, head down, hands thrust in pockets and cold. I find myself really valuing time spent with the girls and I am really enjoying my bed: warmed up by the electric blanket every night now it’s Winter and full of possibilities.

Am I now being more mindful?

Christmas decorations have given the house a new life. Walking in to a room with bright lights flashing on the Christmas tree is good for the soul. Seeing tinsel enveloped around a warm, soft glow gives the heart a much needed lift at this time of year. Add candles and you have instantly created a moment to savour, a place to enjoy. Cost is irrelevant – our decorations are second hand, pre-loved in fact so they bring double the joy.

Home can be home whatever the state of your castle. It’s the memories you create within it that matter. I love candles and wine and so I fill my house with candles and wine. For others it’s cushions and throws and for many it’s just laughter and forgiveness. Every house has a tale to tell and I think that the key to knowing you have made your house your home, is that every time you walk into your house, you inwardly sigh.

My God, life can throw you some curve balls. Your walls could tell a story that would sell like water in the desert on Amazon. But create that space that gives you something back. A house that as much as it absorbs, it releases in endorphins, that every time you walk in to your house you inhale. Endorphins so powerful that they can see through the kids’ toys strewn everywhere and they can see through your cursory wipe. They intoxicate you, so that you feel in a happy place. A place where you feel safe. A place where you can just be.

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Guilt and expectation

elf-divorce

Expectation can suck. Christmas expectations suck you dry. I’ll be honest with you, if my kids were small right now, I wonder what I’d be making of the elf on the shelf. Because it’s easy for me to look on now as a bystander and say: what the fuck? But what if my kids were the exact age for whom the elf exists? I do wonder what would be going through my head. Would I be smugly watching my friends who participated in this seemingly all consuming Christmas expectation while I didn’t, and offering sympathy as they cried into their coffee cup at soft play that they can’t face another night of it? Would I be liking their photos on Instagram of yet another elf lying in a pool of flour angels, whilst thinking to myself: thank Christ that isn’t me every night? Or would I be doing the whole fecking elf thing, because my kids had held me ransom through guilt? I know how persuasive a 4 year old’s wails of, “but mummy, if the elf doesn’t come to our house then Christmas won’t happen!” can be, when you’re bloody knackered, it’s the nearly the end of term, you’re drowning in nits and norovirus and your gin supplies need topping up before the rellies descend.

Guilt and expectation are part of the trimmings of Christmas. When I had 4 kids under 6, I hosted Christmas Day for 17 members of my family. My ex mother in law set the expectation rate rocketing, when she declared in November that she was making 4 different types of stuffing. I mean, holy crap, where the hell do you go from there? I bought the Good Housekeeping magazine and followed their 4 week guide: ‘a countdown to Christmas’, they called it…a countdown to a breakdown more like. It didn’t start well when the first entry was: get out your Christmas pudding that you made last year and top it up with rum. Epic fail and I hadn’t even started! It went on: week 4 make the cake, week 3 decide on your table decorations – you need to decorate the table? Isn’t shed loads of food piled high on it enough? Week 2 panic that you aren’t going to live up to the stuffing, week 1 the kids get ill, Christmas Eve you get ill. Christmas Day… you honestly don’t give a shit by Christmas Day. 

On reflection, I don’t think I would have had an elf on a shelf. I think that living up to the expectation of the mother in law’s stuffing was more than enough to deal with, matched only by the guilt of forgetting to cook it.

The Women’s Institute

“We must get those ginger shortbread things,” I was heard yelling, as partner did a handbrake turn into the village hall car park, where the weekly WI market is held. Two thoughts had collided a moment previously: it’s Wednesday and I have no food for tea.

Years ago, I lived in the village and was a regular at the Wednesday morning WI. It was a bit like a trip to IKEA: you leave having spent ten times the amount that was planned. I never left that hall with change from a tenner. My ex used to think that the women mugged me of my money, by forcing me to buy their lemon curd. The truth was that in one fell swoop all my needs for that day were fulfilled: tea – including veg and a pud, a jar of marmalade, fresh bread and a bunch of flowers and as we all know, luxuries never come cheap. And by god, the WI isn’t cheap. These markets are not catering for the poor. No, this is pure middle class heaven (oh and by the way – if your only experience of the WI is the film: Calendar Girls, they honestly aren’t selling their produce whilst naked.)

Partner liked the look of a lasagne, but I fancied the fish pie. The joy of the WI is that they do portions for one. I guess this isn’t primarily for couples who can’t agree, but more likely meant for widowers and widows. I checked out who had cooked my fish pie before I allowed partner to hand over the cash. I used to know the name of every cook who sold at this venue and there was one whose shepherd’s pie was a little below par. What a brilliant idea to put the cook’s name on the packaging. The shop chain: ‘Cook’ brazenly stole this idea from the WI ladies. The lady behind the trellis table took our money and scribbled down the purchase in her notebook. A long way from Apple pay, but at least it actually works, unlike my phone or contactless credit card in a shop this morning.

We sprinted over to my favourite table: the bakery section. I’ve honestly been elbowed out the way by an octogenarian here before. We both had our eyes on the Millionaires shortbread and sadly she won. I wanted to shout: ‘bitch’ at her, but I respected the elderly and gave her some credit for her agressive techniques – probably honed during the war. Today, no-one was going to get in my way of the ginger shortbread. Except there wasn’t any…until partner spotted some on a table to one side. “They are reserved” the lady in her pinny said curtly, as she saw us gesticulating towards them. I always wondered why they needed to wear pinnys. It’s as if they still need a legacy on show of their beloved kitchen, where all these treats were produced. I looked around for other old favourites and spied the flapjack. “Ah yes, Mrs Ellis,” I nodded knowledgeably to partner as I read the name on the packaging. “Is she a good one?” he asked, getting into the swing of things here. I pointed over to a lady sitting behind a table: “she’s a legend,” I replied.

I left, ten pounds poorer and feeling quite nostalgic. I worked out that I had first started going to that market when my eldest was about 3. That’s 15 years ago. Mrs Ellis didn’t look a day older sitting behind that same table, selling the same recipe fish pie. She’s saved my bacon on many occasions when I couldn’t be arsed to cook and yesterday was no exception. To Mrs Ellis and all the members of the WI: I salute you and I wonder when you will ever change.

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Must try harder

It’s 7.30pm on a Sunday night and as you smugly tuck your 6 year old into bed, already thinking about wine and sofa, she gazes in to your eyes and utters the words: Mummy, I haven’t done my homework…and with that, your whole world momentarily collapses. In an instant, you turn from calm and happy mummy, into some kind of demented freak, who is now rummaging around in a book bag in the dark, frantically pulling out crumpled spelling sheets, party invites from three months ago and then, yes there it is: the homework. Within seconds you have dragged your bewildered child out of bed and you have her scribbling a picture of a tree on a bit of paper, while you run outside searching for a leaf to sellotape on. And you do it because this will better her chances of success. This homework is essential for her to pass the 11+. Without that picture of a fucking tree, she will not succeed in life!

So now, to add to the parents’ woe, Ofsted have praised an initiative that grades parents from A to D on the support they give their children. You know that time your kid wasn’t in the school play, so you gave it a body swerve? That will get you a D. Turn up at parent’s evenings and you’ll earn yourself an applaudable A, but fail to get to the after school football match and you could slide down to a C. If you are not deemed to be pulling your weight, perhaps you didn’t bake a cake for the last school fair, you may even be called into the head teacher’s office.

Oh yes, a round of applause for the parents who have the most time! Bravo you A stars, go to the top of the class. Meanwhile, others will just hover around a D for the entire year because they work full time and may have lots of kids. Go on – make them feel even more shit about their parenting skills, because lord knows, I’ll bet they really don’t already feel crap enough. I used to feel like an A grader when I managed to get 4 packed lunches ready and the kids out to school with their shoes on – I gave myself bonus points for coats. Now parents may be measured on a school’s criteria.

Most parents don’t have the time or the mental energy for this! Can’t they see that we are all trying our best? “You must try harder, Mrs Longhurst”. Holy crap, I’m not sure I can. I can’t possibly compete with the PTA A listers. I’ve reached capacity and if you push me any further I’m going to have to rebel. What then? Detention? Prepare to explain yourself to the head.

So what is the point? As parents we do our best. We may need some encouragement and the occasional nudge, but we are not kids. We have done our time at being marked at school and I only need one voice telling me every day that, “I must try harder” and that’s my own.

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