Monday 21 December 2009

The bliss of doing nothing

When I lived at home many moons ago, I always wondered what was wrong with my mother. She never sat still and just did nothing. She was always doing something - fixing things, making things, cleaning things or doing things. I thought it was just her. A dire case of ants-in-the-pantsitis.

Fast forward. Today that person with an inability to sit and do nothing is me. There is ALWAYS something else that needs doing. Usually its work. Or household chores. Or children. Or organising things. Or those billions of small jobs that never quite get done. As a result I am perpetually in motion. I think I have forgotton how to relax. To just sit and be and not do.

However, on Friday I stopped working for the year. I was even organised enough to have done the bulk of my paperwork so that I don't have to face it come 1 January. I have done all my Christmas shopping and have wrapped most of it. I am not having the world and their respective dogs coming to Christmas dinner so there is no need to make a big fuss. I'm going to wing it and pop into Sainsbury's on Wednesday morning and play pot luck to see what I can find for Christmas dinner (like Ready, Steady, Cook only with a few more ingredients to choose from).
So that means there is no making cranberry sauce or gravy in advance, or working out spreadsheets of what to cook when.

We do have a drinks party here on Tuesday evening and I will have to do a bit of work for that tomorrow, but not much. So after having bought the necessary bits needed for that on Saturday morning, I was officially done. I had nothing else that really needed doing. Sure I still haven't put the photos of the children into albums (since they were babies) and admittedly I haven't tidied my clothes cupboard. But neither of those things are mission critical.

So I thought I'd just lie in front of the fire and read a book. This felt thoroughly decadent and obviously going from do-er to be-er cannot be achieved in a single step. First I had to make the fire. Before I could do that I had to clean out the fireplace. And then once I had a bag full of ash, I realised that the bins still hadn't been put back since the bin men came and we had several new bags of rubbish that had to go out. Having done that, I realised we were out of firewood, so headed back into the garden to the log pile to collect a basketful of logs and kindling.

Having seen the state of the garden while out there, I couldn't justify lying in front of the fire reading a book when the piles of leaves I'd raked weeks ago were still sitting in forlorn frozen piles waiting to go into the green recycling bin. So I spent the next 40 minutes picking up leaf ice blocks and putting them in the bin. And raking up the left over bits.

A good hour and a half after I'd decided to do nothing, I returned to the sitting room, made a fire, lay down and read my book. I managed to do that for about 20 minutes before the children found me and said they were hungry and I got up to make dinner.

Sunday morning rolled around. A whole glorious day lay ahead with nothing to do (thank God given I'd been up all night with a poorly child). I had a lie in. Sort of. I had a leisurly breakfast. I went for a long snowy walk with the un-poorly child. I read my book in front of the fire. I played chess with the boys and my husband while listening to Christmassy music. I made some scones and we all had high tea. We ventured out to Christmas carols at the church. Enjoyed some mulled wine. Had a hearty dinner of stew with crusty bread. Put the boys to bed. And I reverted to the sofa with a book and a glass of red wine, with the fire still crackling away.

No TV, no blogging, no twitter, no talking, no doing, no thinking. Just quite simply being. It was bliss. It feels like I've been on a holiday. I think the book, wine, fire combo is going to be repeated a lot in the next two weeks.

So on the off chance I can't be bothered to remove myself from the sofa between now and Christmas, here's wishing you a very merry - and more importantly - a very relaxed Christmas and stress-free 2010!

Friday 18 December 2009

Christmas cards - the sequel

It's quite funny returning to blog posts from the previous year. It shows just how little life changes really. Last Christmas I had this small rant about Christmas cards. I was about to write a post about Christmas cards but then remembered that I'd done that already. A year ago. And my rant this year would be virtually identical.

However, there have been a few small changes this year. For a start, I sent virtually no Christmas cards to long lost friends overseas. I'm sorry friends overseas. This was down to two things. A) apathy and B) apathy. I do wonder though how many of you will notice the lack of card. Whether you'll be sitting around the Christmas table saying: "You know, we didn't get a Christmas card from Melissa this year". Or whether me not writing a card, driving to the post office, getting it weighed, buying the more expensive stamps and popping them in the box makes little impact on your lives anyway.

I've also chopped several people off my Christmas card list this year due to the fact that we truly never see them and probably never will and it's time to stop the pretence. In fact, browsing through my address book is quite a sad past time. So many people we have lost touch with as we've moved around the world and moved into different phases of our respective lives. I think it might be time for a new address book. But part of me feels sad to throw the old one away, on the off chance we might one day need to track down these old friends.

I also stuck to my guns this year and refused point blank to write any cards for my children's friends. This morning my 5 year old son asked if he could write a card for his teacher and head teacher. I gave him two cards. He wrote them himself. And that was it. Our drawing room on the other hand is littered with cards from children (or rather their parents) who I don't know and probably never will. I don't feel an ounce of guilt about it either.

And finally, cards for the neighbours. There are some neighbours I see reasonably often as they potter around in their gardens (they're all roughly 100 years old). But others I never see and who barely know us. Again - the question of: "Is it worth doing?" springs to mind. But there is something good about writing a card to the little old lady who lives on her own, walking over to her house in the snow with the card and a bag of walnuts from our garden and having a little chat about the weather. It makes Christmas feel like Christmas.

I guess technology like twitter and facebook and blogs and email all make the old fashioned things seem a bit antiquated and pointless. But I hope that the real sentiment of Christmas - peace on earth and goodwill towards men - can stay alive with small gestures that bring cheer on an otherwise frosty day.

Saturday 12 December 2009

A girl friend shaped hole in my life

I've blogged about this subject before - so apologies for repeating myself, but I just need to get this off my chest. I might just be one of those people, who will never be satisfied with what they've got, regardless of what they've got. I'll probably always be searching for that thing, that elusive thing that seems to be missing. What is that thing?

Is it more money? A house by the sea? A husband who's home more often? A warmer climate? A full and active social life? A hobby that occupies me? Good old fashioned contentment?

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that what I am missing desperately in my life is girlfriend. A real one. Like that best friend you used to have when you were in primary school.

When Saturdays roll around, we have the normal merry-go-round of football and grocery shopping and chores. But every now and then I do have a day when I don't have to do those things and I could have time to myself to head off to the shops and browse, have a coffee and chat. The problem is, I don't have a friend to do that with.

Now I know that makes me sound like norman no mates.

I do have friends. I have friends who live far away. And I have friends who live across the road. I even have bloggy friends. But on weekends everyone seems to do couple-type things or are pre-booked for months hence. Or who, quite frankly, just don't seem to have the same need for friendship.

I have friends who I know would be up for an afternoon of girly shopping and chewing the fat, but it would all need to be arranged and organised months in advance. I want spontaneity. (Picky, picky I hear you say). But I want to have the type of friend who I can call up and say: 'Fancy running off to Costa Coffee before browsing for nothing in particular?' without having to pre-plan it all. I want to feel confident enough that they won't find that weird, and that in fact, that they'd call me and ask me to do that with them.

Or take last night for example. Friday night at home on my own - again. I could have (and probably should have) worked, but it was Friday for God sake. I would have loved to call up a friend and say: Fancy coming over for a glass of wine and a chat? But besides several old friends who live too far away for a casual Friday night glass of wine, I've got no-one nearby that I yet feel comfortable enough to ask. Or rather, ask again. Because I have asked. I've arranged get togethers. I've suggested things. But no-one ever seems to return the favour. And the friendship never seems to move forward.

I've been living in the UK for almost 6 years now and in our current village for 3.5 years. During that time I've run toddler groups, got on pre-school committees, gone to village events and have made an effort to be friendly with neighbours - all in a bid to get to know people and make friends. Yet STILL there is this wall of polite distance that seems impossible to cross. Perhaps it's because I'm South African. Perhaps we just do friendship differently.

With sisters you can do this type of thing without fear of rejection. You might call. They might be busy. But in no way will it feel like you're imposing on them. Unfortunately, my sisters live in New Zealand and Ireland, making an impromptu shopping trip or a quick glass of wine a little tricky.

Am I alone in feeling like this? Does everyone else have so many friends that they can barely find the time to breathe, much less go out for yet another coffee? And how do you get to that point in a friendship where you're comfortable enough to call, be turned down but know that they genuinely appreciated you offering and are very likely to return the favour soon?

I know from comments on my previous post on this subject that I'm not alone. But how can we change it?

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Feed a mouth, not a bin

So first of all, just an update on man-pair-gate. I've found one! He is 25, from Romania, a qualified paediatric nurse, has worked at his mother's kindergarten since he was 15, is more than happy to cook (loves baking apparently) and clean, loves sports and is very excited about being a big brother to my two boys. He is mature, sensible, flexible, accommodating and seems ever so nice. He starts in Feb. How excited am I?? Very.

The ladies in the village are even more excited as they think they're going to get a young stud muffin for some eye candy. He's ok looking but not quite what I think they're imagining. And they're already queuing up for his babysitting and gardening services.

So here goes my first foray into having a complete stranger living in the house with me. Obviously my husband had to do that while I sailed across the ocean with the Mrs Doubtfire nanny, but this is different. I shall no doubt be reporting back frequently on how it's all going.

Now, onto a slightly more serious subject.

Today a letter from the World Children's Fund came in through the letterbox. I get so much of this type of mail that it usually goes straight into the bin. But the picture on the outside of the letter broke my heart. It was of a baby in Sudan that was little more than skin and bones. Part of me was angry that they would send out such provocative direct mail. But part of me thought: hang on, maybe this is the truth of what's happening outside of our cossetted little world and perhaps this is the only way to be heard.

I spent some time looking at their website and started to reach for my cheque book (which is attached to an account that is fairly lacking in funds) but then I thought, hang on, isn't there something bigger I can do. Then the phone rang, and I had to stop the thought process and keep working.

But it came back to me tonight, having fed my children juicy beef burgers in squishy buns with piles of crunchy salad. One of my children refused to eat the burger because 'he doesn't like meat' and the other refused to eat the bun because 'it had seeds on', then refused to eat the burger because it had been cut up in the wrong shape pieces.

It was at this point that the red rage descended and I might have gone a bit OTT on the lesson giving. Because quite regularly I hear myself saying: "There are starving children in Africa you know", but what is 'starving' and where is Africa to these well fed children of mine? So I got the picture out and showed it to them. I pointed out that THAT was a starving child in Africa and THAT is what it meant to have no food and THAT is why they are ungrateful little beasts who could either eat what they're given or go bloody hungry.

They opted to go hungry.

But then it occurred to me. Every day up and down the country there must be parents spending a bomb in Tescos and Sainsburys etc buying food for their children (and themselves) that ends up in the bin. And the idea came to me. Perhaps I could start a 'Feed a mouth, not a bin' campaign. It's still just a nugget of an idea and I haven't worked out the logistics at all, but here's an example:

Instead of cooking as much food as you normally would for your children - if they are big wasters - cook half. That way, you only waste half as much food (good for the environment) and spend half as much money. The money you save (at least some of it) can be donated to a charity that helps feed starving children.

So in tonight's burger example, I bought a four pack of burgers for about £2.50. I froze the whole pack, instead of freezing them individually. So I defrosted all four. And cooked all four. I ate one. My husband is away so there was one spare. The kids had one each, both of which went in the bin. I could have cooked just two. One for me, one to be split between my children on the off chance they'd actually eat some. That would leave me with two burgers for another meal. Which means that I actually would have spent only £1.25 on this meal instead of £2.50. I could donate that £1.25 or just generally cut the cost of my grocery bill. Which would mean I have a bit of extra money each month. And if I could then use some of that extra money to feed a mouth instead of a bin, I could be helping lots of very hungry children.

I know it needs work, but I really think it's an idea that has legs. I'm sure that in these economic times, people would like to hang onto any monetary savings to help them pay for other things. Fair enough. But I'm equally sure there are many mothers out there like me who can't bear the thought of starving children who have nothing, while their own children waste, who'd be willing to support it.

So who's with me? Anyone?

Thursday 3 December 2009

Another man in the house?

So this week has been ridiculously, stupidly busy. So busy that I've not had time to update my work blog or sailing blog. Twittering has happened infrequently. The laundry piles are teetering. I've still not managed to fit in my month end invoices. And the house is in a tip.

This wasn't helped by the fact that it was lovely husband's birthday on Tuesday and I promised to take the day off so that we could spend some time browsing Bath together (chateau briand and red wine for lunch anyone?)

Anyway, while we were spending some quality time in Bath, with me not trying to take sneaky peeks at my blackberry, we discussed the subject of an au pair. We've spoken about this in the past. Even tried it briefly. A live out au pair. Lasted two weeks. She looked like road kill at the end of it.

After that I've never seriously considered it as an option. But now the boys are 4 and almost 6. Son1 is at school all week. Son2 goes to pre-school 3 days a week and will be trundling off to school in September. If we got an au pair, it would mean just that little bit of extra help in the morning, when I'm trying to make eggy bread, packed lunches, unpack the dishwasher, put on the washing and check email all at the same time.

And then those days when I have to go meet a client in London, I don't have to say: Right, you've got exactly 30 minutes until I have to get back on that train to get to the school by 2.45 so speak and speak fast. I could loiter over coffee. Possibly even stop in at a fashionable store and buy an outfit.

In the afternoons, the au pair could help keep the boys occupied, giving me a few extra hours to try to do the work of 17 people in a day. And then - and this is the exciting part - every now and then, the au pair could babysit for us without us having to book a sitter eons in advance. So we could go out. Possibly see a movie. Newbury even has a cinema now you know. We might even feel like we have a life again. And I might even get the chance to go to an exercise class or something.

So lots of pros. Of course the con is having a complete stranger - who doesn't speak much english - living in our house. This would severely restrict my ability to pee with the door open, iron in the nude (well obviously I only iron what I'm about to wear) and fart with impunity. All of these are serious considerations.

But having spent the last 3 weeks with the boys coming home from school slumping in front of the TV because none of us ( feels like standing outside in the rain kicking a football, it hit me. Like a bolt from the blue. I don't need an au pair. I need a manny. A boy au pair. Someone who loves sports and building forts and will happily kick a ball for hours without complaint regardless of the weather. I don't need some lovelorn 18 year old blonde, busty x-factor wannabe. I need a bloke who can change the light bulbs when I can't be arsed and my husband isn't around. Who can rake the leaves in the garden for pocket money and who could possibly even become the pool boy. It sounds like heaven.

My husband doesn't think so. He prefers the blonde busty option. I think he thinks that having a man doing the 'boy' things with our sons will in some way make him feel irrelevant, guilty and replaced. Well, welcome to the world of most women who have to hand over their children to nannies, childminders and nurseries. If us mums want to work, then we have to relinquish care of our children to someone else, but that makes us feel crappy. Like we should be doing it ourselves. BUT, if I get a bloke to do the looking after, to me, I'm giving my sons something extra that they won't get from me - a fascination with catching frogs or building dens.

So at this very moment, I have our profile up on an au pair matching site. I've sent 'I like you' messages to a few chaps who look the part. They've not replied. I have had 5 messages from blokes saying 'I like you' who I wouldn't let anywhere near my children. It's not been massively successful, but it's only been one day.

It's very exciting. Like internet dating. Only instead of a dinner, I'll end up living with someone called Mulchak from Slovakia. Could be interesting.

So anyone out in blog world who has had an au pair - particularly any male au pairs - please come and share some wise words with me. Don't terrify me.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Christmas served

Angels & Urchins had a post the other day asking for people's Christmas tips. Mine was to be organised and I referred to my little black Christmas book, which contains my meal plans for the last few Christmases. I know that makes me sound terribly anal and perhaps something of a Christmas geek (possibly a complete saddo), but it's become my little tradition.

Every year I browse through my numerous recipe books and seasonal magazines to find recipes that tickle my fancy. Then I piece them together so that they all work in unison - after all, anyone can plan a Christmas meal, but planning a rolling feast that works from Christmas Eve through to the tail end of Boxing Day is another thing altogether. AND critically, many of the recipes need to be things you can prepare in advance so that you appear to be a culinary goddess who still has time to bake gingerbread angels with the children for the tree, while never breaking a sweat.

This year, however, it appears that it's just going to be us for Christmas and it just doesn't seem worth going to this much effort for my 'got to watch my figure' husband and my two 'but I don't like it' children. So given that I won't get to do my annual plan-athon (unless a bunch of waifs and strays would like to come have Christmas with us - you're more than welcome!), I thought I'd share my menus from the last few years in case you are looking for ideas.
I haven't posted the recipes. The majority come from Nigella's Christmas book which I cannot recommend highly enough, however, several come from magazines with the odd smattering of Gary Rhodes' Keeping it Simple. I've tried to indicate which things I made in advance to help with the timings of things. One doesn't want to be flushed or even, dare I say it, sweaty on Christmas day.

Having typed these out, I realise that we basically have pretty much the same stuff year after year for Christmas, with the odd tweak, but it's Christmas Eve that is different. Happy reading, have fun cooking and an even better time eating!


Christmas Eve:
Lamb shanks with garlic and cranberry jus, creamed potatoes and peas (made on the 23rd -potatoes for mash peeled and ready to boil)

Pannettone bread and butter pudding (made morning of 24th)

Xmas morning breakfast:
Poached eggs with parsnip hash browns, bacon and oven roasted tomatoes on the vine (top tip - make the parsnip hash browns in advance and freeze them)

Canapes (this year made by Sainsburys)

Xmas lunch:
Turkey (forgot how I did it this year but I always go for a whole turkey, never just the crown)
Gingerbread stuffing (you'll see this one a lot)
Braised red cabbage with beetroot and apples (made morning of 24th)
Sausages wrapped in bacon
Roast potatoes
Green veg mix (we don't do sprouts) - broccoli, leeks, courgette and peas
Cranberry sauce with dried figs in port (made on 23rd)

Christmas pudding and brandy cream

Xmas night:
Cheese & crackers

Boxing day:
Cranberry muffins and coffee for breakfast
Lunch - at a pub
Dinner - cold turkey, salad and general smorgasboard of leftovers

Christmas Eve (and afternoon):
'Homemade' mince pies with brandy butter (made day before). I call these home made because I actually 'compose' them - but they're made using ready to roll puff pasty and ready made minced meat. Just roll, spoon in, seal the edges, eggwash, pop in oven and eat. SO much better than bought!

Canapes (once again bought)

Hungarian goulash, braised rice, crusty bread and salad of greens with thinly sliced red onions (made day before)

Pear & cranberry crisp with vanilla ice cream

Xmas morning:
Eggs benedict with either salmon or ham, champagne & orange juice (get husband to make and use bought hollandaise sauce)

Xmas lunch:
Nigella's super juicy spiced turkey (that you soak in a bucket overnight). Prepare morning of 24th. I left ours in the garage covered with foil. It was cold enough.
Nigella's all spice gravy
Nigella's Gingerbread stuffing (it's a goodie - you'll notice it from last year and indeed the year to come)
Cranberry sauce (very dull -same as the year before with port and figs. It's good though)
Chippolatas wrapped in bacon
Roast potatoes (add semolina to them once par cooked for extra crunchiness)
Maple roasted parsnips
Buttered carrots
Green beans, peas and pine nuts

Christmas pudding with brandy sauce (not made by me)

I appear to have lost what we did for Boxing Day this year but I think it was a honey glazed ham - we had many people with us.

Xmas eve:
Ye olde homemade mince pies again in the afternoon
Vodka metropolitans
G&Ts with rosemary swizzle sticks (I can highly recommend rosemary swizzle sticks. Just get springs of fresh rosemary and use as a stirrer. They look pretty, festive and the rosemary adds a lovely fragrance)
Spiced nuts (made on 23rd)

Lamb & date tagine with red onion and pomegranate salad, cous cous and green salad with pine nuts and harissa dressing (the tagine comes from Nigella's Xmas book again and it is AWESOME) Made on 23rd - the tagine

Cranberry orange and almond pudding with custard (made on 24th)

Xmas morning
Continental breakfast of mango, blueberry and pomegranate salad with natural yogurt, granola; salmon, ham, cheese, breads and bucks fizz

Champagne and nibbles (I never seem to make the canapes - I always want to but it's the place I always save myself time)
Xmas lunch:
Turkey with lemon/sage butter (prepared on 24th)
Roast potatoes
Maple glazed parsnips
Turkey gravy (stock made on 24th)
Red cabbage with apple and pomegranate juice (made on 23rd)
Lemon and tarragon carrots
Green beans, baby leeks and asparagus medley
Gingerbread stuffing (because Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it) Made on 23rd
Boozy cranberry sauce (made on 23rd)

Apple and calvados pudding (bought)

Xmas night:
Cheese board with crackers

Boxing day breakfast
Boiled eggs and soldiers

Boxing day lunch/supper
Baked applewood smoked gammon, left over turkey cold, left over red cabbage, green salad with pomegranate seeds

So that's three Christmases condensed into one. This year we might just go to MacDonalds. Sigh.

Please share your Christmas menus with me so that I can live vicariously through you.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Fashion victims

I have many things to worry about in life. Often it's work related. More often it's something to do with the children - particuarly the kind of thoughts you have at 3am when husband is away on business for a week and I imagine 'what if I fall down the stairs and crack my head open and the kids will be trapped inside the house and what will they do' type things (which usually results in them having a lesson on how to unlock a door and call 999 first thing in the morning).

But there is one thing that I don't worry about. Well not much. And that's how I look. Sure I'm like everyone else. I grab the baby belly and wish it wasn't there. I stare at my wrinkles and do imaginary plastic surgery to see if I can ever look 20 again. I spend too much money getting my hair cut and coloured only to hate it the minute I walk out of the hairdressers. And I stare at my cupboard full of clothes and lament that I have nothing to wear.

But while I might occasionally wish that I looked a bit more fashionable, really, how fashionable do you need to be to walk up to road to the school gate (when the school gate is in the countryside in deepest, darkest West Berkshire)? And it's not like I then race into a glamorous job surrounded by people. It's just me at my desk in my office at home, with a possible visit from the postie or Ocado man. It doesn't call for high fashion does it? I can go an entire week (possibly more) when I don't even take my mascara out (I can hear people in London fainting as I type this).

Yet I have just finished skimming a copy of Harper's Bazaar magazine that came with a SHE magazine. I don't normally buy high fashion mags (see above as to why). I flicked through it, staring at the Top 20 most fashionable people of the year and the must have fashions for the year ahead (they're shite - who wants to look like a throw back to the 80s with shoulder pads so pointy you could have someone's eye out?)

And it occurred to me that there must be any number of people out there who spend a huge amount of time worrying about what they wear and what they look like. Imagine going out in something that was last season? The shame. My clothes are so out of date that they're almost back in fashion. And it's not just the clothes, it's the accessories, make up, beauty lotions and potions, hair, jewellery and then, making sure you're at the IT places so that you can show it all off.

My scruffy jeans, jumpers with bobbles on them and sailing boots (my current IT look) might not make me feel lovely (and we all like to feel lovely) but at least I don't have the angst that goes with high fashion. And given all that us mothers have to worry about, fashion just doesn't need to be on the list.

So today I am going to wear my not so glamorous attire with pride and know that it represents a calmer, more peaceful me with one less thing to worry about.

P.S. I just typed this and realised that today I DO actually have a meeting with clients and people in a fashionable place. Hmm. Maybe I will worry about fashion just for today. But from tomorrow I'm back to not giving my wardrobe a second thought.

Monday 16 November 2009

Until Now.

Having been away at sea for 6 weeks, I fully expected to have to put up with some behavioural 'issues' from my children upon my return. And there have been tantrums and testing, but no worse than before. Until Now.

I fear that my four year old son has been abducted by aliens from the planet of LittleShitville, they've fed him their potions and returned him to me. I am at a loss as to what to do with him. He cares about one thing and one thing only: Sweets.

This should be ammunition in my armoury to be used as a bribe or a threat or a trail to get him to pee in the toilet rather than in his pants. But neither threats nor bribes work. Nor indeed does kindness, praise, shouting, putting him in his room, putting him on the step, involving him in activities or tiring him out with very long walks.

He is determined to destroy the house and partake in violent fights with his brother ALL THE TIME. He screams and shouts as though he is being murdered for no reason in particular. He is rude. Disobedient. Stubborn. He talks back. Lies. And is so utterly determined to be right that he will swear the colour red is acutally blue just to be contrary.

Take this morning as a case in point. I was trying to fold about 8 loads worth of laundry, iron about 6 of them, make lunchboxes, make breakfast, get myself showered and dressed and the boys in the clothes. Running rapidly out of time, I resorted to (admittedly a bad idea) the incentive of one jelly worm if son2 could put his clothes on. All of a sudden he went from not being able to dress himself, to being fully clothed in nano-seconds.

Having had his worm, I went upstair to get dressed while saying over my shoulder that a sweet in the morning was not going to become a regular occurence (he is on very strict rations because if there's one thing he doesn't need it's more e-numbers and sugar.)

Moments laters (as I'm fully lathered up in the shower) son1 rushes upstairs to let me know that son2, has managed to push a chair up to the VERY high sweetie cupboard and has helped himself to chocolate coins. I washed off fast, scurried downstairs with my trousers around my ankles and my hair dripping down my back to find the small boy surrounded by gold coin wrappers and his mouth full of something.

"Open your mouth," I said. "mhmm," he said shaking his head, cheeks bulging. "OPEN IT!" I say. Relucantly he opens to reveal a liquid in his mouth, not the chocolate I expected to see. "What is it?" I ask. He says nothing, just stands with his mouth open with a pool of liquid lolling in front of his tongue. I take my finger, dip it into his mouth and taste it (yes, I actually did that. THAT is what it means to be a mother). Syrup. Maple syrup.

I open the fridge. The lid is off the new bottle and a good amount has been necked directly from it. One jelly worm. God knows how many chocolate coins and a good slug of syrup. Breakfast of champions.

That little incident resulted in a week long sweetie ban. And that much sugar for breakfast might have explained the rest of the day's behaviour, but sadly, today is not an isolated incident.

He then spent the day with his childminder, who has always said that he is an angel child. Until Now. Today she informed me that she had had to severely reprimand him for utterly rude behaviour. Apparently, after she had taken him on a lovely day trip on a train (despite her being terrified of trains), buying him lunch and a toy, and taking him to feed ducks, when she asked whether he'd had a nice time, he yelled, "NO!" And then continued to be rude saying how rubbish everything had been.

He then came home and instead of colouring (which older brother and I were trying to do given the rainy weather) he proceeded to colour in himself and the furniture. Whatever I suggested for dinner was pronounced disgusting. So I ignored him and made a stir fry with noodles which I know ordinarily is an acceptable meal.

Until Now. Today it was REVOLTING. And DISGUSTING. And HIDEOUS. He then shoved his bowl away, stomped off with arms folded yelling: "I'm not eating that. Make me something else!" and proceeded to turn on the TV.

At which point he was told in no uncertain terms to turn the TV off, sit at the table, be polite, eat nicely and follow house rules or he could find a new house to live in. Probably not the best thing to tell a small child, but right about now I'm ready to give him away to the people who look after Tracey Beaker and co. He could certainly give Tracey a run for her money.

He then ate his meal by picking up each individual noodle and wrapping it around his head or his hand or spreading it across the table and nibbling at it - purposefully looking for a reaction - so that after 1 hour he'd had approximately one and a half noodles. Several severe warnings later about how he will have his food taken away and how he'll go to bed hungry and won't be getting pudding, he pushed his luck one time too many and indeed lost his meal.

So now I have a child who I am putting to bed hungry and who has been threatened with household expulsion. I'm not happy. He seems utterly unfazed.

Are all four year old boys like this? Someone tell me this is a testoterone surge. Because he's been my easy child. Until Now.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Somebody hand the Maclaren PR people a coffee. They need it

So according to news reports, Maclaren, the British buggy manufacturers, are having to recall 1 million of their buggies in the US because 12 children have managed to get their fingers chopped off in the hinge mechanism. They're also distributing thousands of safety devices to parents to fit onto the buggies to avoid the problem. But they're not doing it in the UK.

Apparently, according to Maclaren and its PR agency, the buggies are safe if used properly and they see no need to issue the safety devices at this time. This has caused a parental uproar. There is no group of people more likely to get their knickers in a twist about something than parents.

The parents are split into two camps:

There's the A) 'What about us?' brigade who feel that the same recall should also happen here and that the safety devices should be sent out. The sceptics amongst them are saying that the only reason Maclaren is taking action in the US is because American parents are a more litigious bunch. They're baying for blood... just not from their children's fingers.

And then there's the B) 'Oh get a grip' camp who feel it is a parent's duty to look after their children and that they're just as likely to get their children's fingers trapped in car doors or door frames as anywhere else. And they'll also point out that the buggies meet EU safety regs and that you shouldn't open or close your buggy with your child anywhere near it.

Of the two camps, I'd prefer to be in B camp because I'm not a big fan of the sue culture and quite frankly don't have enough time to get too worked up about these things. On the other hand, I do find the sanctimonious rumblings of the 'perfect parent' brigade pretty hard to swallow too. Sometimes you do have to open your buggy with your child nearby. And surprisingly, children don't always do as they're told. And if a buggy has the potential to chop off fingers, perhaps a safety device would be nice.

But ultimately this is a PR disaster in the making. Any parent out there right now deciding which buggy to buy will at the back of their minds be thinking: Maclaren, oh yes, they're potentially not safe. Better look at something else. And then there are the hordes of genuinely confused parents who've heard the reports of a product recall and just don't know whether they're supposed to be returning their product or not. I imagine the helplines at Maclaren are a tad busy right now.

And it's hard to know what hell the Maclaren PR team are going through at the moment (I imagine it involves quite a few late nights and some extra strong coffees). What was the correct course of action? All crisis PR rule books say that you communicate, communicate, communicate. Which I guess they have been doing. But it's always been through a 'statement' or from an unnamed spokesperson. They need to get their MD out there explaining their case. Put a comforting, reassuring, sensible British perspective on this issue.

Perhaps their thinking went as follows: 'by offering the safety gadgets in the UK, we're admitting that our products are unsafe'. So perhaps they're trying to reinforce the message that their products are safe if used correctly, with no need for an extra safety bit. But then why give them out in the US? It invites the criticism that they're simply doing it to avoid being sued. Surely the product is either safe or it's not? Either offer the device everywhere, or not at all.

I suggest that they offer them in the UK under the advice of: "Our buggies are safe when used correctly. However, if you have any reason for concern, we can send you a safety gadget." Then send them the gadget with more explanations about why the buggies are safe. And then communicate, communicate, communicate with those customers. Turn the negative experience into a positive one. Let all retailers know that the buggies are safe but send them the safety doodah to give to customers as an option should a customer ask about it.

I think Maclaren is trying to be British about this. They're trying to downplay it. They're trying to tap into the the 'sensible British reserve in which one doesn't sue or create a flap'. Perhaps they think that the less the say, the sooner it will go away. But they shouldn't underestimate the power of parents.

Monday 10 August 2009

Lost for words

I need to blog about something because I can't stand having my previous sad post up any longer. However, I have so much on that I don't really have the time. I think that I might have to put Home Office Mum blog on hold until life returns to normal as the start of THE BIG RACE is scarily close (just over a month).

So for now, I ask you to visit instead. Having said that, I will now no doubt stumble upon something absolutely blog critical, which will mean I return here to share it.

But if I don't, don't assume I've vanished from the blogosphere. I'm still here, just.

And sorry that I've been rubbish in commenting on other people's blogs. I've been reading (speed reading) but haven't had time to comment. Perhaps I should just have a comment that says: HOM woz here - like a form of blog graffiti, just so you know I still love you all.

Till I return from Brazil then...

Sunday 26 July 2009

The day the world changed

It was 3am. My friend Lynell's mum was standing over me, shaking me gently saying: Wake up. For a 14 year old girl, having a sleepover at a friend's house didn't normally involve a parental wake up call in the middle of the night. Confused I asked what was going on.
"There's been an accident and you need to go to the hospital."
"What accident?" I asked.
"There's been a fire at your dad's house. We don't have the details, but you need to go to the hospital."
"Oh, it was probably just my sisters having a midnight feast and setting fire to the food or something," I laughed, not thinking through that perhaps I wouldn't be woken at 3am for burnt toast.

It was the July school holidays, and just like every holiday, my sisters (16 and 11), brother (6)and I were staying with my dad in the house we used to live in before my parents got divorced and we moved closer to Johannesburg, approximately 1000 kilometers away. On this particular night, my sisters had a second cousin of ours stay for a sleep over and I was staying in town with a friend. My gran was babysitting as my dad was out.

Arriving at the hospital, I was walked along a corridor, still utterly confused as to what all the fuss was about. Glancing into one of the rooms off the corridor, I saw a room full of people. But I only noticed two. My sisters, both sitting silently, faces pale with haunting grey circles beneath their eyes. I still couldn't register what was going on, but I knew it must be more serious than a little stove fire to have so many people there.

I was taken into a room and my uncle Dennis took hold of me and said: "There's been a fire. Your dad's house has burnt down."
"What? What do you mean? Was anyone hurt?" I stammered.
"No," he said.

But the way it said it, or perhaps the way he looked at me, gave me the crushing realisation that it was worse than someone being hurt. Someone had died. It was the only explanation. My mind whirled. I'd just seen my sisters. Who was it? Then I remembered.

"Granny?" I asked.
He nodded. Then said: "And Charles."

And just like that, with two small words, my whole world changed. The thought that it could be Charles hadn't even entered my mind. It couldn't be true.

I recall hitting Dennis' chest repeatedly with tight fists while he fought to hold me still so that I could get a tranquilising shot in the backside before being moved to the room of zombies, all of whom were fighting the unreality of the situation.

I don't recall reaching out to my sisters or anyone else. I remember nothing except at some point drinking very sweet tea which I couldn't hold still as my hands were shaking so hard. And the constant rattling of cup on saucer triggered an hysterical giggling fit.

Then nothing.

The next day I finally saw my father, wearing soaking clothes from walking in the sea with a face awash with tears. I briefly saw my mother who'd had to drive for 12 hours to get to us knowing that her son, her youngest child had died. As a mother now with a son approaching his sixth year, I can't begin to understand her state of mind. My imagination won't let me go to a place that dark.

It's been 22 years. Yet on the 26th of July every year, we stop and remember the small, lovely boy who will never be forgotten.

In remembrance of Charlie
1 October 1980 -26 July 1987

Friday 24 July 2009

Surviving the summer holidays: playdates for mums

Day 1 of Holidaywatch. And I'm already stumped as to what to do. Yesterday afternoon for about 15 minutes we had a blaze of glorious sunshine and for that brief time I had a snapshot of what summer holidays could be like if it actually felt like summer. Ball games in the garden, picnics, BBQs, long walks, swimming - the potential was awesome.

But then a vast black cloud moved in and dumped a deluge of water on the garden and we retreated indoors. Just like that, the wisp of potential drained away.

Now I know that there'll be a bunch of lovely mums out there who are tutting as they read this. The minute the rain moves in, they're probably whooping it up with arts & crafts, baking, puzzles & games, or even putting on raincoats and wellies and heading out for a splash. All good stuff. And I agree that all of these things can be fun. But for how long? And perhaps they have children who actually do the arts & crafts rather, than say, paint the walls. Or who can play a game for more than 3 minutes before the arguments start about whether to go up the snakes and down the ladders or vice versa.

So I start to look outwards, towards the countless number of places that keep children entertained at vast expense. Once you remove all those that aren't suitable for rainy days, you're left with a handful of options, none of which fill me with a huge amount of joy. I find myself doing a website roundabout tossing up between a museum or movie and eventually being debilitated by indecision, all the while the kids get bored and destroy the house.

Part of the problem is that any activity - whether it's a museum or finger painting, football or picnics - is so much better when you do them with a friend. And adult friend. Because then, in between breaking up fights, you can have a chat/commiserate and it feels less like hard work.

Don't get me wrong, I am perfectly capable of enjoying my children's company and I know the key is to not attempt to do anything else other than throw yourself into an activity with gusto. But just like the kids enjoy having a friend to play with, so do I.

But I've found it hard to find friends to do things with. We do have a good number of people that we'll be seeing during the holidays that we've pre-arranged things with, but what I'm missing is someone like a Who Wants to Be A Millionaire phone-a-friend type friend. The kind of friend who you know is sitting in the exact same position as you are, just as confused as to how to spend the day and just as open to last minute spur of the moment get togethers.

But everyone else seems to be so organised. They all seem to have every last minute of their holidays accounted for. They're all armed with playdough and museum season tickets. And friends. Lots and lots of friends.

Do they really all have every minute of the next six weeks accounted for? And how, without sounding like Desperate Dan or Norman No Mates, do you let other mums know that you're at home with two bored children and are more than happy to meet up for a spur of the moment play? There should be some kind of international sign - like a skull and crossbones flag (only the bones would be rolling pins and the skull would have bags under its eyes) - that you can fly outside your house. Any other mum who sees it can pop in and say: right, let's all go splash in the puddles together shall we? It turns an ok afternoon into a great afternoon for everybody.

I really hate being the person to call and say: are you free? Do you want to meet up? Only to be told that they have a free day at some point next Easter. I love last minute get togethers. They're the best kind. In fact Martha Lane Fox could set up a new kind of to help mums get together, not only with kids but for the odd night out at a pub.

It's that whole fear of rejection which stops us putting a call into another mum and suggesting a meet up. But maybe, they are just like me, sitting there wishing the phone would ring.

I should start a campaign called Dial-a-mum in which mothers are encouraged to call people - even people they're not 'friends' with but acquaintances who they've met at the park or school gate who they could potentially be friends with. I'm sure I could get a phone company to sponsor it....

Anyway, I think we've decided to go to a museum. I think. And the kids are now killing each other, so I must go. But please tell me I'm not alone in this thinking.

Monday 20 July 2009

Online auction for bloggers - help me sail to Brazil

So as many of you know, I also have another blog - which tracks my progress as I attempt to sail from the UK to Brazil later this year. Taking on the Atlantic ocean, as it turns out, is a pretty expensive affair so I'm trying to raise some money. I have been given some lovely things from lovely people to auction off. They include:

- a family holiday from - seriously amazing holidays.
- £100 in vouchers from, and - get yourself kitted out for autumn, get fitness gear to tone up for that post baby body (ha ha ha) alright, just get some yoga gear to zen out in, and fab kids clothes so that at least your kids look cool, even if you feel you need to be Gok Wanned.
- a cuddledry baby bath towel from, making bathtime much easier
- a Wrapture from (which you will lurve come this winter)
- a kid's electric guitar from . Yes seriously, a real electric guiter. My son fondles the box daily
- a lovely baby cardigan from
- a month's supply of Kiddylicious healthy kids snacks from so that you've got next term's lunchboxes sorted
- a Melobaby all in one nappy wallet and change mat - very stylish, lovely removable fleecy change mat and it fits all you need in your normal handbag!
- a beautiful suede photo album for all those keepsakes thanks to
- a pamper box of lovely treats from

And if you don't want to bid on any of these things, you can always just buy a box of the Fink Family Edition conversation cards. I used these this weekend during a family roast lunch. The kids were being a pain and splashing in their gravy, rather than eating. So I got the cards out and asked them some of the questions like: What makes you laugh? and If you had £1000 who would you give it to and why? Immediately they began eating and talking and not messing around. They're only £3.50 on my site so please support me and buy a pack.

It's all because of you crazy mummy bloggers that I'm doing this sailing madness . Thanks to all of you telling me to live in the now, I'm living in the now but am going broke in the process. So if you can support me by spreading the word about my auction, please do.

The auction closes this Sunday coming. You can find it here.

Thank you!

Thursday 16 July 2009


Life, as usual, has been busy. I've had reams to blog about but no time to do it. Particularly as I am reattempting the unconditional parenting techniques (as espoused by Alfie Kohn) to try and tame the beasties and this requires far less blog time and far more playing of hide and seek. Which is how it should be. However, it means I am falling very far behind on my blogging and blog reading.

But there have been three major milestones that are worth noting for posterity.

Milestone 1:
I got a genuine apology from son1 the other day. Not only that, it was a direct result of putting my newfound parenting techniques into practice. You could have blown me down with a feather. The boys had both upended their drink bottles in the car and deliberately squirted their drinks all over the seats causing quite a bit of damage to the upholstery. Husband opted for the military approached of putting them in their room for sometime to think about their behaviour including a fierce daddy lecture (why is it that mummy lectures never carry the same weight?)

I gave them time to calm down and then went in and instead of reprimanding or demanding an apology, I said I needed them to answer one question, which was: Why did you squeeze the drinks inside the car?

They were initially perplexed but ultimately we got the reason. It was long and convoluted but it did make sense from a small child's point of view. So I explained calmly why we had been cross about it. Son1 listened and then very genuinely and sincerely apologised for not thinking and messing the drink. Of course son2 just yelled his normal SORRY! But I couldn't believe how calm, rational discussion made such a difference. Much of it was just being willing to open up my mind to the reason why they did something rather than assume that they did it just because they're possessed by devils or are hell bent on annoying me. So I shall continue (as best I can) with this approach and see if it results in a calmer house.

Milestone 2:
Son 1 got his first ever report card. I can honestly say that I was nervous about opening it. Why for goodness sake? It wasn't my report card. But actually, it was. As a parent, your child's behaviour and performance at school is hugely influenced by how you parent them at home - certainly while they're young. Have I spent enough time doing arts and crafts with him? (apparently not) Do I encourage a love of reading by getting out books? (yes, gold star for me) Does he show care and concern for others and operate well in a group? (yes - amazing. He beats the daylights out of his brother). Is he punctual? (yes, and that is entirely down to me. If that was his own doing we'd still be looking for shoes at 3pm)

Isn't it strange how as a child you were concerned about the contents of your report card because you didn't want to get a bollocking from your parents. Yet your parents were probably just as concerned all along to see if what they've taught you at home is reflected in your school scores. It's only when your child gets a report card that this truth comes to light.

Milestone 3:
Son2 (aged 3 - will be 4 in a couple of months) has taught himself how to swim. Well, he can swim as long as he doesn't need to come up for a breath. Unlike most children who battle to put their face in the water, this child can't swim unless he swims underwater like a little fish. It's remarkable to watch. He just decided one day to take off his armbands and jump in. He went under the water and swam holding his breath to the side. And he's not looked back. How you teach a child to swim with their head above the water is another thing, but I'm thrilled (and a little astonished) that he's decided to skip learning to swim and go straight to free diving.

So you see - we've had some big stuff going on, hence the blog silence. And today we have pre-school sports day in which I sincerely hope son 2 will take part in. Last week I got to go to son 1's sports day and once again, got to watch other people's children running as he refused to join in until the very last race. At which point he cried that he hadn't had enough turns. Sigh

Bloggy kisses to all

Friday 26 June 2009

Boy talk

In case you are the lucky owner of little girls with no insight into the world of little boys, let me fill you in. I've just driven back from an outlet centre about 30 minutes away. This was the (pretty much one-sided) conversation my son had with me all the way home:

Son: Mum, you know the Transformers?
Me: Mhmm. (not really but sure I'll go with you on this)
Son: Well you know the bee guy? Well he is super powerful. Crossed bones is also super powerful, but not as powerful as bee guy.
Me: Oh right. Why's that?
Son: Well crossed bones is powerful. He goes THWAK BOOM BOOF. But bee guy, he goes POW BASH THUNK KAPOW
Me: Wow. That sounds pretty powerful
Son: But there's that other guy. You know. What's he called again? You know the slime guy?
Me: Not really my darling. I've never seen transformers.
Son: (as though I'm not even there) Well slime guy always attacks bee guy, but crossed bones goes THWACK BASH to both of them. And then they go KAPOW, SMASH, AAARGGHHH, DOOF, BASH, AAAARRRGGGHHH. Come here sucker! I'm going to smash your head. KAPOW, SMASH. No, you die slime man. BOOF. I'm going to steal your power. You will have no power crossed bones. No! You'll have no power bee guy. SMASH. SMACK. BASH. BLEEUGH. AARGGH

This goes on for quite some time.

Eventually the killing action from the back seat is over and he says:
Mum, when can I get a transformer toy?

Funnily, I'm not convinced I'm going to buy one anytime soon.

Monday 22 June 2009

Pool of tears

I gotta tell ya, I'm a woman on the edge. I can feel it. I'm like a pressure cooker and am about to blow. I cannot deal with anymore stuff going wrong. What is it about this year? So far in the space of the last two months we've had:

- our kettle died - new one needed
- our microwave died - new one needed
- our washingmachine died (but could at least be fixed instead of replaced)
- our dishwasher has begun leaking (this problem has so far been ignored)
- our roof started leaking requiring us to rethatch it for a cool £13 000
- the three year old decided that the rotary washing line made an excellent swing and has broken it. New one needed, not yet bought.
- the kids needed new beds as trying to squeeze a five year old into a cot bed just wasn't working. So new ones had to be bought
- the phone died and had to be replaced
- the printer cartridges for the printer I have (which isn't THAT old) are no longer being made. This means I will very soon need a new printer
- my computer is so old and slow that it gasps along at a 1995 pace. I'm ignoring this because I cannot afford a new one
- but topping the list of things that have gone wrong is the swimming pool.

If you ever buy a house, no matter how lovely the house is, DO NOT BUY IT IF IT HAS A SWIMMING POOL. Not unless you or your partner are a swimming pool engineer.

Our pool was built in the early 80s. Everything about it needed to be overhauled (including the fence around it). We have until now ignored this because pools are expensive. VERY.

But given the forecasts for a hot summer, we thought it was high time we fixed it. So we got a man what does to come and fix it. And he did. And I paid him £1200 of your British Pounds for the priviledge. For one glorious (yet rain filled) week the pool worked (we didn't go in it because of the rain and cool temperatures so the fact that it worked sort of passed us by).

This weekend I had to backwash the pool. I followed the instructions given to me. Except, one of the vital instructions (which was told to husband, not me) was that the backwash hose must be kept straight with no kinks in it. Unbeknownst to me, husband had mown the lawn and had curled the hose up. Husband hadn't passed either of these facts onto me. So I backwashed the pool and low and behold, the fitting holding the hose in burst. Costly mistake number 1.

Then I attempted to empty the leaf basket, as per the instructions. I did this but noticed as I was doing it that it meant plenty of air was getting into the system. The man wot fixes pools had managed to get all the air out. But I didn't know how else to empty the basket without opening it and letting air in.

Anyway, I then tried to manually vacuum the pool. This worked for about 1 minute before the suction went - exactly as it had done before I paid £1200 to have it fixed. I guessed it must be air in the system. Husband came and helped to bleed the system. It still wouldn't suck. So I resorted to the automatic cleaner instead.

The automatic cleaner got stuck, so while I attempted to move it to the shallow end, a pipe came undone. So I had to turn the cleaner off to get it back on. Once reattached, I went back into the shed of evil (as I've now come to call it) and turned it all back on again. But apparently I turned something on in the wrong order. I still don't know quite what.

In a split second, the filter lid cracked open and sprayed water everywhere. I hit the 'TURN EVERYTHING OFF AND PANIC SWITCH' and ran to call husband for help. (You might be wondering right now why he isn't in charge of the pool as this is obviously a boy job. Good question. One I have asked myself many, many times. Answer is still awaited). Husband took one look at the cracked lid and proceeded to have a strop. Rightly so. I had in the space of 20 minutes managed to break three things that before I got there were all working well.

He stropped. I wept. I stropped. We all ignored the pool. We didn't have a happy father's day.

This morning I called the pool man. I explained, rather embarrassed, about the littany of disasters that had taken place. I could hear him rolling his eyes down the phone.

Now here's the really, really good bit. Our type of filter no longer exists. It is obsolete. The chances of finding a spare part for the bit that has cracked is roughly equivalent to our chances of winning the lotto, which would incidentally solve all of our problems.

The man said he would call around and hunt for the proverbial needle in the haystack, but we'd probably need to buy a new filter. Filters are not cheap. They are vast pieces of machinery that probably easily cost the same as a pleasant weekend mini break to Paris, including a champagne dinner.

But without one, the pool cannot function. At all. So we can either pay for this new piece of kit or just ignore the pool altogether and laugh off the £1200 already invested in it. I'm all for filling it in or turning it into a fish pond or emptying it out and making it a skate boarding pit.

I have no money left. Nothing. Not a penny. The tax man will be expecting a small cheque from me by the end of this week and he might just have to have a tear filled telephone call from me instead.


I don't like being a grown up.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Virtual reality

This will be a brief post as I've just updated my other blog and it's 9pm and my husband will be home any minute and might expect me to be a 50s housewife and actually have produced him some dinner (I haven't) so will have to rustle up something exotic like pasta and pesto. With peas.

Anyway, I had to post because on Sunday I did something I've never done before. Well, that's not strictly true, I've done it once before but his was different. I met people from the interweb in real life.

I first became addicted to the internet when I lived in NYC and was planning a wedding. Back then, every spare moment I logged onto - a fabulous forum for wedding obsessed bridezillas. And while I did give away all of my many wedding magazines to a fellow knotter, she just picked them up and I never met her.

Then I moved to the UK and had a baby. A difficult baby. Cue Without the kind souls on that forum, I might have just curled up into a ball and wept (actually I did that anyway but at least I felt I wasn't alone in doing it). But I certainly never met any BWers.

Then I had a brief flurry on but the people there just scared the bejesus out of me and there was no way I'd ever have gone to a Mumsnet meet up.

Then we moved house to a new area and I knew no-one. So I used the meet a mum boards and did actually meet some people from the internet. But it wasn't like we had a long virtual friendship first. It was kinda: hey, anyone want to get out and chat instead of going slowly insane on your own? I stayed in touched with one or two but nothing more than a Facebook alliance now really.

Then came the world of mummy blogging. I didn't even know it was a world. I just stumbled upon it and thought how marvellous it was that you could spout off reams of twaddle and have random strangers feed you twaddle back. It is amazingly addictive how you come to know people so well, and experience all the highs and lows of their lives with them. It makes reality tv pale into significance.

And then thanks to Susanna at British Mummy Bloggers and Silver Cross, there was a mummy blogger meet up. The chance to meet virtual friends in real life. I'll admit, I had an ulterior motive for going along to meet other mummy bloggers. I wanted to understand the community better and how the meet ups might work so that (wearing my dashing PR hat) I might be able to advise clients on it all. But I was also intrigued to find out who some of these people were who have supported me in my mad plans to sail across the ocean and whose lives I have shared so initimately for so long.

We met at the Rain Forest Cafe in London, which is an amazing place and somewhere I'll be taking my kids in the future. The other mummies had their children there and they were enthralled by it. Silver Cross demoed their lovely new products, which were almost drool-worthy enough to tempt me to have a third child. But not even the Halo Buggy and Doodle High chair are that good.

The strange thing was, that chatting to the fellow mummy bloggers felt like I was meeting up with old school friends. You don't really know them, but you do. Their real life personalities are just like those on their blogs. You have an instant understanding because you've shared so much of their lives already. So it was really lovely to chat to so many of you. I know I should name and link to you (as many of you have kindly done to me) but I a) know I'll forget someone and will feel like a poop for doing it and b) I really, really do need to go get some food on the go.

But suffice to say it was a great experience and one I'll certainly repeat. And any other mummy bloggers who didn't go to this one, do try to make the next!

Right, now to tie my apron on, prepare a G&T for my husband and prepare to look cheery and gay while asking him about his day. That's what the books say right?

Friday 12 June 2009

Schizophrenia - I am a PR person and a mummy blogger

I had a fabulous meeting with the lovely Suzanne from A Modern Mother yesterday. We spent a good amount of time discussing how businesses and their PR people should be interacting with mummy bloggers. Now I don't normally talk shop on this blog. This blog is about me being a mum. But when I'm not being a mum, I run a PR business from home. So I wear both the PR and mummy blogger hats. And it's not always a comfortable fit (try wearing two hats at once and you'll see what I mean).

Anyway, Suzanne has written a great post inspired by a similar post from GeekMommy over in the US about how companies shouldn't expect mummy bloggers to run their competitions for them for free. And I fully agree. Any PR or company that thinks they can get a blogger to not only host but also run the mechanics of a give-away on their blog for nothing other than a free sachet of soap powder is 'aving a larf. But apparently this is happening a lot in the US. Give it a few more months and I'm sure it will be happening here in the UK too.

The comments section of GeekMommy's post made for fascinating reading with many bloggers jumping in saying that they're fed up with being expected to do the PR's job for free. There were lots of the usual comments too about how PR people don't even bother to read their blog and send them info about baby products when they actually have teenagers or ask them to write about a cleaning product when their blog focuses on fashion. Or whatever. I'm making some of these examples up but that was the gist of it.

This same accusation is levelled at PR people by journalists who say that PR people have never read their publication and send them completely irrelevant info and just expect a free plug for their client instead of giving them a decent story.

PR people are I believe, hated the world over. I often think you'd be better off saying that you're a prostitute, a banker or a politician than admitting to being a PR luvvie dahling.

But wearing my PR hat, squashed quite firmly over my ears, for a minute, here's the challenge we have:

Challenge 1: The scope of the media and blogosphere
Think about how many magazines, newspapers and websites there are out there. Think about how many writers - i.e. individuals with their own specific likes and dislikes - there are that PR people are expected to know inside out. Now add to that the huge number of bloggers, all with their own lives you as a PR person are expected to know even more personally - from what age their children are to whether they're an eco warrior or a fashionista. It is a nigh on impossible task.

A good PR person will have a database of contacts who they come to know over time and will give them the things they need in the way they need them. But it is still a task that takes a gargantuan amount of time, time not usually paid for by the client. Which is why things aren't always as personalised as they should be. I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that with pressure from clients to reach as many people as you can, it's pretty hard to keep things personal.

And if you're still thinking: Tough, that's your job, well yes. But imagine for a minute that you as a blogger or journalist have landed the golden egg and some publisher wants to turn your musings into a book. You want your book to be bought in the thousands, if not millions, so that you can buy an island and drink daiquiris for the rest of your life. You're not allowed to employ a PR person. You need to get the book out to as many influential people as possible. Start writing a list of every newspaper, magazine, TV show and blog you'd like your book to appear on. Now find out who covers book reviews at those titles. Now find out what type of books they like to read, how far in advance they review books, whether they like exclusives, whether they always require free books to give away in order to publish a review, where to send a book to, how they like to be contacted etc etc etc. And that's for one book. One product. One customer. Multiply that out for several customers with several products and you'll start to feel the enormity of the task facing PR people.

So to sum up, while I'm in now way excusing shoddy PR practices of spray and pray, if you receive a pitch from a PR person that isn't 100% personalised to you, try not to hate them too much for it. If it really annoys you, delete it or let them know what you do like so that they can get it right next time.

Challenge 2: How big is a blogger's scope of influence?
We know that bloggers are influential. The reason they're influential is because what they write is perceived as honest, not PR puff. The minute it smacks of PR puff, people will be turned off. But not all blogs are created equal. How many of your client's target audience is each individual blogger reaching? Probably not that many. Add up multiple bloggers and you start to get a cumulative effect. But your client wants to reach as many people as possible - whether that's through one uber-influential blogger or multiple less influential bloggers.

The challenge for PR people is knowing who the influential bloggers are. How do you work out which bloggers are the influential ones? By number of comments? Number of followers? Asking for their visitor stats? Do all bloggers even track their visitor stats? At the moment, a lot of it is guesswork. Trial and error on the part of PR companies. And measuring the results can be difficult too. Sure you can track links and click throughs but it's not all scientific. So you're spending a lot of time getting to know people and personalising info for them without really knowing whether it's going to have an impact on the client's bottomline. Tricky.

Challenge 3: Not all bloggers know who they are
Many mummy bloggers are new to the game in the UK. It's growing fast. But how many of the bloggers even know themselves what they want their blog to be? Most start out as a journal - a place for personal musings (like this one). But many quickly realise that blogging takes up a good amount of their time, time they could be spending earning a living. So they start to think about how they can get their blog to earn them a few pennies. It changes identity from a journal to a revenue generating venture. For some this is very low level, pocket money really. While others try to turn their blogs into information portals or ezines (or they might have set them up with this in mind in the first place) to actively generate revenue and make a living from it. Then there are the blogs that are set up purely as an extension of their business to help them boost their SEO and business credibility. They're often desperate for content but are they willing to promote another company's product? And if so, will they only do it if there's a quid pro quo?

So you see, the PR community is trying to understand and interact with a community that doesn't fully know yet what it's trying to be. The PR community need the blogging community to help provide some of this clarity. And I know from some of the work underway at British Mummy Blogger Network, this is starting to happen.

Challenge 4: PR is not paid for publicity
PR people are tasked with getting their client's 'free' publicity, not paid for advertising. The minute they have to pay for anything other than product, it starts to drift into the sphere of advertising. So if bloggers ask to be paid to write about something it's a) not normally something the PR people have the budget for and b) it brings into play the whole question of ethics and would seriously impact bloggers' credibility. You don't pay a journalist to write about your company in a newspaper. They're paid by their publication. This gives the journalist freedom to write whatever they like. Bloggers want the freedom to write whatever they like, yet expect to get paid for doing it. Why would a PR person do that? They might as well then pay for an ad and then at least they can be sure that they're going to get the message they want out there. It's a difficult area. I don't think bloggers should work for free, but equally, an outright payment model just isn't right either.

Taking my PR hat off for a minute (it's getting scratchy) and donning my lovely mummy blogger hat (sensible with a wide brim), let me say this to PR people:

How do you get a blogger to write about your clients/company? Sending them a press release will never cut it. You do need to know your blogger, what they like, dislike, how old their children are, what they write about, whether they're single, going through a divorce or about to set sail across the Atlantic ocean. (Gosh, who could that be?)

That requires a LOT of time. It means actively reading and commenting on bloggers blogs. It means engaging with them about things that actually mean something to them. It means being a blogger yourself. And if you're not a blogger and you're not a mum and you're trying to reach mummy bloggers, might I suggest that you employ a mummy blogger to help you out on your campaigns? There are plenty of mums out there who would love to be able to work around their children, doing something part time. Why not recruit one of them to work on your campaign to help you understand who the other mummy bloggers are? It's a win win.

Don't post spam in the comments box. Do it and you deserve a slap. With a dead fish. And yes, it is obvious that it's spam even if you say 'I love your blog, look at my great new site for kids toys.' Flattery works, but we're not that gullible.

Product reviews. Right now, UK mummy bloggers are probably still open to receiving products to review if there's something in it for them. For example, if I was asked to review a new washing powder, I just wouldn't. Because quite frankly I could give a rat's bum about soap for clothes. Sparkling whites just aren't on my list of priorities. However, if Musto or a similar sailing company sent me a pitch and asked me to review their new ocean going boots/gloves/quick-drying shirts I'd say yes please and would be more than willing to give a fair appraisal of them on my sailing blog. Because I need that stuff and getting it free in exchange for a review seems fair to me. From their point of view, they'd have to ask: how many other sailors are reading this blog? What if she slates our stuff? Are we trying to attract more women into sailing? If the answers make sense, then it's worth them doing it. If not, it's not. Simple

And if the people at Musto weren't sure about the answers to the questions above, they should take my next bit of advice and ask bloggers what they want and who they reach. I know this takes work, but once you've identified which bloggers you think are most influential for your company/client, email the blogger and ask them for more info about their audience, visitors stats and what they want from you in exchange for writing about your company. Is it free products, the chance to try something out, publicity - what? These are people, not businesses you're dealing with. Often they won't even know what the answer is, but by starting a conversation with them you're on the right track.

Product reviews are just one tool. A key thing for most bloggers is audience. They want people to visit their blogs. - whether it's to drive revenue, catch the eye of a publisher, meet more people or simply have the notoriety. They want people to comment on their blogs. Any publicity you can give them will help them boost their numbers, so think of ways you can help promote them in exchange for them promoting you.

Think creatively. Run competitions to write about a subject (not a product) where everyone who gets involved gets something and the winning entry gets a bigger prize, heaps of publicity and a ticker tape parade (just kidding on the last bit). In exchange, they agree to include a link to your site or mention your site in some way.

Remember most of all that mummy bloggers are a community. We're a virtual network of friends who rarely if ever meet but with whom we share hugely personal information with. Try to understand this dynamic. Know that the mummy blogger doesn't live to write about your stuff. They're looking after children, running businesses, going to work, doing laundry, cooking, shopping, having sex (probably not much), doing hobbies, running PTA meetings, staying in touch with family members, remembering birthdays, walking the dog and generally living. They also happen to blog about it.

I don't think anyone has the perfect answer as to how to work within this dynamic - I'm both a PR and mummy blogger and I don't have a de facto answer - but thinking like a mum is probably a good start.

Monday 8 June 2009

Seven years ago today

Seven years ago today I was doing this:

And this:

And even this:

Seven years ago I was in South Africa, in the mountains, surrounded by family and friends and several bottles of champagne.

Tonight I am alone with my pc, two sleeping children (thank god) and a husband who is on the far side of the USA on business. I should feel melancholy but I don't. We had a marvellous evening out on Saturday in which I drank almost as much champagne as I did on our wedding day. What's more, this year I got the anniversary present right. Read here for how I didn't last year.

I'm not sure I've ever blogged about me the bride (aka Bridezilla - who woulda thought it?) but now is not the time. I am too tired. But I shall revisit the subject at some future point when life is less busy. I could also have written about how things have changed in seven years (new country, two kids, new jobs, new houses, less sex, more wrinkles, less money) but I've used up my word quota for today so can't write anymore.
The purpose of this blog post was just to mark the occasion, otherwise it might pass by altogether without notice. And that would be something worth being melancholy about.

Happy anniversary to us. And just because it's such a marvellously mad picture, here's one more of the happy couple taken slightly more recently - Presenting Mr & Mrs Home Office Mum:

May we continue to laugh for the next seven.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Enid Blyton - the new supernanny?

I am currently reading my children Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree triology. I have to confess that the Faraway Tree books were my absolute favourites for years and years and years - way longer than it was acceptable for them to be really. So I am thrilled that my children are now old enough to listen to a story being read without the need for pictures (although pictures would be useful for the three year old who tends to get ants in his pants after about five minutes). When I was a child, we had a hard back full colour beautifully illustrated version of the books. I've searched the interweb far and wide but have yet to find it or something approaching it.

Anyway, that was not the point of this post. Re-reading Enid after all these years makes me realise that parents were a LOT stricter back then. And children were FAR better behaved than they are today. Jo, Bessie and Fanny seem to spend days and days toiling in the garden, darning worn clothes, ironing, doing laundry, making beds and taking care of their mother when she was poorly. They do this without a single gripe or groan. Neery a whinge nor a whine.

And then at last, when they are released for a day of freedom from toil, they're sent off on their way with a fabulous picnic of bread and butter and some fresh peaches. Not a cheese string, Innocent smoothie or packet of pom bear crisps in sight. Not even lashings of gingerbeer, because that was reserved for the Famous Five and possibly the Secret Seven. The Faraway Tree bunch never had anything quite as outrageous as fizzy pop. However, they did scoff down inordinate quantities of pop biscuits, google buns and toffee shocks, all of which I'd still like to try before I die.

So how exactly did Jo, Bessie and Fanny's mum get it so right? She was certainly fierce and when Curious Connie came to stay, told her in no uncertain terms that crying will get her nowhere and that if she didn't do as she was told she'd go to bed without any supper, a fate worse than death by all accounts. And she certainly wasn't shy of doling out the odd spanking. On the one occasion the children wanted to wear party clothes to a tea at Moonface's she insisted that they wear their old clothes, which they griped about, but she put her foot down and said it was old clothes or they weren't going. So the children dutifully donned their shabby chic attire and skipped merrily off.

That wouldn't have happened in our house. In our house it would have resulted in several screaming tantrums from all parties before they finally left the house in their old clothes but with some fuck you nod to the long arm of the law like wearing underpants on their heads.

If I could employ Mrs Jo, Bessie and Fanny (not sure of their surname) to take charge of my sons I would. Having started out my parenting journey with such good intentions about behaviour and being consistent and instilling good values and having angelic children, it all seems to have gone tits up.

Behaviour is a constant battle. My children seem to think it's ok to hit their mother and give a huge amount of cheek and fling things about in a fit of pique despite me having tried reward boards, positive parenting, time out, naughty step, buddy charts, sending to bed without supper, shouting, out and out bribery and even smacks (aplogies to the anti-smacking brigade). Obviously I didn't do this all at once. That would have confused even me. And possibly the lack of consistency has been my downfall, but I challenge any parent to keep on and on and on with the same method if it just doesn't seem to work.

I'm starting to think that the more military style of parenting of the Enid Blyton days had a place. Children were more courteous and had good manners and cleared their plates and were grateful for boiled onion skin soup and dry bread. Are today's children just too spoilt?

I'm beginning to think so. My children are not given masses of anything, but they do seem to think it's fine to break brand new toys, walk around the garden in socks with the express purpose of destroying them, take one bite of an apple and put the rest in the bin and demand whatever they see advertised on tv as though it is their god given right to have Lellie Kelly shoes and make up set (yes, the five year old wants those despite being a boy). And they are called out on all of these things, but it's as though whatever lesson was learnt yesterday is forgotten today and so the craziness continues.

I've seen very fierce parents in action and think that they are being too mean to their children, they are people after all with their own minds. I've seen parents who are horizontal about disciplining children and I want to give them a good shake and say "Children need boundaries!!" I like to think I'm somewhere in between. But inbetweenville seems to be have little effect at all.

Do I need to return to the Enid Blyton school of parenting - perhaps send them off to Dame Slap's school for a while? I'm sure by today's standards it would be viewed as tyranical parenting but I'm beginning to think that that's what is needed. How do you instil that old-fashioned respect that children used to have for adults? How do you get your children to respect you as a parent? I know it's earned, but HOW DO YOU EARN IT? I'd like to think that what I've been doing as a parent should rustle up a smidgeon of respect, but it doesn't seem to have.

For some reason if I threaten them with 'telling your father what you just did' they beg me not to, not because he's in any way fierce, but because they don't want their father to think less of them. So why don't they feel that way about their mother? Sigh.

All suggestions to be sent by a squirrel in a tatty red jumper please.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Dilemma: summer body or summer food?

This must be the longest spell of good weather I have experienced since I moved to the UK in 2003. If this is global warming, bring it on.

We have a swimming pool in in our garden. I'm not sure why but I always feel that I have to justify myself when I say this. We don't live in a mansion with acres of grounds, a tennis court, stables and pool. We just happen to have a pool in our garden. It is a pain in the arse 99 out of every 100 days. But for the last few it has been marvellous. The boys have swum everyday and have had friends over to splash around with them. We are the envy of all.

Yesterday we had a friend over and the mum coolly whipped off all (I mean all) of her clothes in the garden without batting an eyelid before slipping into a bikini. Yes, she has a child and wears a bikini. And she looks like super model in it. I wanted to weep into my iced elderflower cordial. I decided that I really did need to give myself a good talking to and stop eating so much, not to mention cutting back on the gallons and gallons of wine I've been consuming of late.

But what's the point of al fresco dining if not to dine? Admittedly, summer foods can be a lot lighter than stodgy stews and steamed puddings, but we've BBQd so much that I'm starting to resemble a sausage. And although I've eaten my body weight in salad, I've washed it down with good helpings of creamy potato bakes. Then there are the lazy smorgasboard dinners outside in the sun, cold meat platters, cheese boards, grilled asparagus - just lovely summery food - but lots and lots of it.

And today, given the magnificence of the weather, I felt it was my patriotic duty to create a summer dessert that celebrates the infamous British strawberry. After reading a recipe in the Sunday Times magazine this weekend, I made sure the Ocado man delivered all the necessary ingredients so that I could create a dessert masterpiece, something I've not done for a while (well since deciding to sail across an ocean).

So I made this:

It was dead simple, dead gorgeous and dead tasty. It would also quite possibly result in dead me had I attempted to eat all of it, such is its richness.
So you see, this is why I can't wear a bikini. Summer food is just too good to ignore. It's a tricky choice: summer food or summer body? I know which one is winning around here.
Sod it, there's always winter to slim down.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Discussion of the day

Should you or should you not write blog posts while excessively tired or very inebriated or both?


(That's as much as I can manage as am both). Hic. snore.

Friday 22 May 2009

The mummy rollercoaster

Oh. My. God.

There isn't really enough wine in the world to help me recover from the last hour.

You see it all started like this. Boy across the road had the friend from school to play but didn't invite my son. This was a problem. I knew it would be. But he wasn't invited and that was that. As we can see into their garden, staying at home this afternoon wasn't an option. We had to go out. First we had to live through the sheer heartbreak of a child who wanted to play with his friend on the last day of school, but couldn't. Compounded by the taunts of the friend going to play with the neighbour who at school had said: 'I'm going to play at Xs house and you aren't' as is the way of children. So that was nice.

I knew it would be like that so I went into supermummy mode. I had pre-planned and prepared. I had the car packed with bikes, scooters, football, board games, picnic blanket and bucketloads of crisps/sweets/cocktail sausages/miscellaneous picnic snacks. I donned my 'Yay, we're going to have the best afternoon ever' voice and tried to gee up the troups as we headed for a nature reserve well away from the friends.

It was hard, hard work. Eventually once we were safely consuming our 15th fizzy sherbert sweetie, the sobbing stopped and we all managed to have a genuinely fun afternoon exploring the woods, riding bikes, playing football, making dens etc. All was well. I even managed to convince them that what we were doing was infinitely more fun than playing on a boring old Wii (which is what had been advertised as the activity over the road).

I patted myself on the back for being a good mummy and salvaging a good afternoon from the jaws of nightmareville.

We came home. The friends across the road were still there. So my son stood at the fence yelling across the way asking if he could come and play. I kept saying that he couldn't as it was after 6pm, and besides, it smacked of desperation and norman no mates-ness and I didn't want the poor child to be begging for a play, particularly as he still hadn't really been invited.

So I ushered them indoor and served them dinner, which only moments before they'd been nagging for. My son took one look at it and tried to throw it onto the floor. I caught it. Asked him if he was sure he didn't want it. He had a name calling session and was adamant that he didn't want it (I am toning this all down a LOT). So I said I'd eat it if he didn't want it as there wasn't any left for me. He took off outside again in a strop, slamming doors en route.

I gave him five minutes then recalled him. He came in like a small thunder cloud, and as if the last five minutes had magically been erased from his mind, demanded his dinner in a tone that didn't exactly make me want to rush into the kitchen and rustle something up. So I said that I'd eaten it. Which I had. At which point he grabbed the bowl out of my hands, flung the remains on the floor, hit me, called me stupid and slammed the door.

Now I know he's had an emotionally wrought day. And I know he was probably tired. I know that the correct thing to do was to sit with him, be understanding about the fact that he wants to be outside and more importantly with his friends. I should have been calm and rational.

But this type of behaviour happens a lot and I'd had enough of it. I'd also used up every ounce of my energy in trying to get through the afternoon without more emotional meltdowns. So I instructed him that he had just lost out on bathing and bed time story priviledges, that he may wash his face, hands and clean teeth and could go to bed.

Let's just say that didn't go down well. At. All. The end of my tether was reached and surpassed by a good mile or so. I won't go into the details but it wasn't my finest moment of parenting. I had as much of a tantrum as he did. And he ended up going to bed (eventually) sobbing and asking for his father who certainly wouldn't have taken a more favourable view of his behaviour. I now have an almighty headache and feel utterly deflated.

All of my good mummy hard work of the afternoon was wiped out in an hour in the face of fairly vile behaviour from a child who was never going to be in a great frame of mind today. Now I feel guilty and rubbish.

It's the mummy rollercoaster.

If only I'd read the sign before boarding: Step right up. Tickets cost you most of your life savings. Brace yourself for a white knuckle ride with unexpected twists, turns, highs and lows. May cause whiplash. And nausea. May make you scream hysterically or laugh uncontrollably. Once you're on it, there's no getting off it. Good luck.