Monday 27 June 2011

Are you a competitive parent?

The parenting scale looks something like this:

On the one side:
Psychotically competitive with a win at all costs ethos. These parents are the ones that insist their three year olds learn Mandarin and violin and who probably go to job interviews with their 20 year olds to ensure they say the right thing.

And on the other:
Completely horizontal to the point of disinterest. Let kids be kids. It'll all balance out. They'll find their way. Doesn't matter what they achieve as long as they're happy (or I'm happy as I quaff my chablis ignoring reading homework or the fact that they're still in nappies aged 7).

Now with any scale, what you're aiming for is moderation. Somewhere in the middle that provides a good balance. But most parents will probably sit slightly on one side or the other (after all, that pointy bit in the middle is a bit uncomfy).

And I definitely sit on the competitive parenting side. I try hard not to. I really do. I tell myself it's not about winning, it's about doing your best. My head believes this. My heart can't help but feel a little gutted when my kids don't get a certificate or win a race or get picked for something or aren't moved up a reading level. I feel as though it's my failing, not their's, as though I should have done more to help them.

Which let's face it, is nuts. But I can't help myself. I want my children to do well.

I'm NOT one of those parents who insists their children learn a foreign language or a muscial instrument or spend hours training for a sport or hothouse at home doing handwriting, reading and maths from age 1.

But I do ensure that effort is put into homework (and I can't believe I'm the only parent who excitedly waits for the homework to be marked to see what we got what my child got). And my children do have a schedule that looks like this:
Monday - cricket
Tues - homework day
Wed - tag rugby (used to be Beaver's too but son1 decided it was boring)
Thur - swimming
Friday - football practice
Sat - cricket
Sun - football matches for one and rugby for the other

Fine print: they do also spend an inordinate amount of time doing nothing but stare at a tv and they get to play plenty of games too that don't involve a screen.

Which for a 5 and 7 year old seems a little mad. My rationale for this much activity is partly because I want to knacker them out and instil a love of sport and fitness in them so that they don't turn into obese teens, standing listlessly on a street corner waiting for trouble to find them. But it's also because I want to expose them to different things so that should they possibly have a hidden talent (which if they do they don't get from me) it has a chance to shine. I do not insist that they are the best at what they do. I do encourage them to be a team player, a good sport and to enjoy it.

But secretly I want them to do well. I'd like them to get picked for something. Possibly just because I have visions of them became famous sports people who'll earn a fortune and buy me a tropical island somewhere some day.

This all reared its head today when I saw a poster for football trials for an elite football team. Basically, they have scouts looking at little kids to see who has potential and if they're accepted they get trained up to a mega standard.

This posed a quandary. Yes I would like my son to try out. No it's highly unlikely that he's in the top 2% of ability in our region. Yes we will have to deal with the fall out and crushed ego if he's not accepted, particularly if his friend is. But yes, learning that you don't always win is a good life lesson. And No, I really don't want my son to be a professional footballer, regardless of how many tropical islands he could afford to buy me (not that I'm getting ahead of myself or anything).

So we're going to have a go. And I have warned him that it might come to nothing, but all that is important is that he has a go and tries his best. And if he isn't picked, he still gets to play his usual brilliant way for his normal team. But the question isn't really how he'll feel if he's not picked, it's how I'll feel.  And I think we all know how that will be.

So where do you fit on the scale?

Sunday 26 June 2011

Virtual reality

'How do you deal with your ex-husband and his girlfriend living in your house?' 

'So I asked my therapist if I could skype her.'

'I found writing a form of therapy during my cancer.'

'I'm faking it till I make it'.

'Dancing with my teenage daughter was beautiful.'

'Vaginal dryness and hot flushes. The menopause is the next big thing.'

'He asked me out for coffee!!!!'

You might hear statements like these bandied about between old friends who've shared a lifetime of experience together. They're not the kind of things you discuss at first pass of meeting someone. So when you do find yourself looking into a stranger's face but discussing deeply personal things, it's odd. Counter-intuitive.

Yet at Cybermummy, that is exactly what you do. Because the people you're talking to might look unfamiliar, but you know their deepest secrets....and they know yours. What's more, you feel as though you know more about them than you do your real life friends.

And then you bump into a face you've only ever seen on a computer screen. Suddenly they become three-dimensional. You can't help but whoop and hug and shout: "Hellooooo!" It's a virtual reality game that suddenly becomes completely real. And there is genuine joy in the experience.

At the end of Cybermummy we were asked to tweet our favourite bit. I couldn't define one single moment. What made the experience special for me wasn't the talks or the goodie bags or the prizes or the speakers. It was simply being given the chance to bring online characters to life. I wonder now, having met those characters whether it'll colour the way I read their words. Like when you read a book and then see the film and then re-read the book. Does the book seem different?

It might. It'll probably be better. But bottomline, they'll still be a must read.

Thanks to all the lovely ladies I met at Cybermummy yesterday and thanks to the organisers for a great day.

Friday 24 June 2011

Cybermummy for the less well organised

Well tomorrow is the big day. Cybermummy day. Until three days ago, I really haven't thought much about this. The rest of the blogosphere and twitter seems to be going slightly mad about what to wear and how to get there and where to stay and who to talk to. People have found sponsors for the day, are getting sponsored by companies to dress them, have sponsored car shares, hotels paid for, business cards made, parties planned including pre parties tonight. The excitement about it almost leads me to believe that most mummy bloggers don't get out much (well PTA meetings don't count).

On the other hand, I  plan on catching a train into London bright and early tomorrow morning. I'm going to wear flat shoes and a comfy dress. Fashion always losing over comfort in my book. I'll decide on the day which talks I want to listen to. I've arranged to meet three bloggers who I have been dying to meet in person for ages (MTJAM, Iota and Nicola). And there are several others who I hope to get to say hello to. I've also been invited to a party for expat mums (thank you Michelloui The American Resident). And then I'll make my way home.

I am excited about going - mainly because I'll get to meet the aforementioned bloggers and it's a day out in London without children (can't sniff at that). But I do feel as though I am going without a purpose. I'm not there in the capacity of a PR person given I've just sold my PR business. And I'm highly unlikely to become a blogger who actively seeks sponsorship or PR opps or tries to earn a living from it. Getting some more technical knowledge would be good and some writing advice is always welcome.  And the keynote by Sarah Brown is definitely worth going for.

Other than that, I'm agenda free. This makes me worry that I won't get the most out of it. And that I'll come home and wish I'd had a clearer agenda before I got there.

But I think I'm just going to treat it as a day out. Hopefully I'll learn something. Hopefully I'll get to meet some lovely people. Perhaps optimistically I'll be inspired to give my blog a makeover.

I did my Cybermummy meet and greet a while ago - here it is again. If you see me, say hello. You might find me hiding in the chill out room.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

I'm in the market for a new career - inspire me

I've been wanting to blog about this for some time but couldn't until I'd made an official business announcement. But now I have. You can read it here.

In short, I have sold my PR business. From August I will officially be unemployed. Stretching before me is a blank canvas, just waiting for me to colour it with something exciting.

My challenge is, I don't know what that something is. 

Here's my CV: I studied PR for three years. Then I studied small business management for 6 months. Then I studied marketing for another three years. I have worked in PR for about 18 years in South Africa, the USA and the UK. Frankly, I am over it. I need to do something new, I just have no idea what.

Several people have suggested I write a novel. I'd love to. But I really don't know if I have the talent and I'm battling to find a story. I don't want to be 'another writer'. Sure, I'd love to be JK Rowling or Stephanie Myer with multi-billion pound franchises. But I reckon that's what most novelists aspire to. Not many make it. I'm not trying to be a pessimist. Just a realist.

Then I look at my other interests and passions. I like to cook. I like to bake. I have always envisaged running a little tea room filled with girly pink bunting and decadent cakes. But the reality of that dream is working almost every hour in every day to make a pittance. I want to earn enough money to make the hours worthwhile. And I want to be able to see my children.

I like sailing and the outdoors, walking, treasure hunts, organising children's parties, using my imagination and being sociable. I wish I was better with my hands - making things. But I suck at that. I have lots of ideas for other people's businesses. And I've had a few ideas of my own. Nothing that sets my pants on fire enough to want to invest blood, sweat and tears into it.

And that's part of the problem. Having run my own business, I think I'd find it impossible to go work for someone else unless they were radically flexible about hours. So I think I'll have to run my own business but I also know what that means. When I set up my PR business, I had no idea that running your own business meant such long hours and a feeling that you could never turn work off. I know that if I set up another business, I will need to be really passionate about whatever it is so that I don't mind making those sacrifices.

I would also like to do something worthwhile, that makes a difference to people, rather than just trying to flog the next gadget. But I'm too much of a capitalist to work entirely selflessly for a charity. And the charity begging is almost as noisy to me as the PR and marketing 'Me Me Me' cacophony is.

Finally, I am tired of working alone. While I love working at home (hence the blog title), it does get lonely. It would be lovely to have someone to team up with, to share the highs and the lows. To take on the scary bits together. To brainstorm and be creative and think we can take on the world. But finding that person is hard.

So help me please. Inspire me. Throw suggestions at me. I welcome all ideas.

If nothing comes to me, I might just have to take some time out, put my feet up, gaze at my navel and be a kept woman. I can think of worse things....

Thursday 16 June 2011

Things a mother has to do

As a mother, the list of things you have to do that you don't necessarily want to do is fairly long.

There's the, suck it up, you don't have a choice variety, like giving birth, getting up 17 times a night to tend to a yelling baby and having to push swings in a park for hours on cold winter days.

There's the that's gross but what else are you going to do variety, like catching vomit with your bare hands to avoid staining the new sofa, wiping poo off of multiple surfaces using your new cardigan because nothing else is to hand, and eating half chewed raisins because your child wants to share.

There's the this is so tedious I could stab myself through the eyelids variety, like listening to a reception child learn to read chip and biff books, trying to teach a child to ride a bike who constantly blames you for not holding them right, and asking children a million times to eat their food/clean their teeth/get dressed/tidy their room - daily.

And then there's the Of course I'll do that because you're my child and I love you more than anything and am worried sick variety. We had one of those yesterday. As son 1 was getting into the bath, I noticed something slightly odd going on between his legs. His testicles seemed lopsided. So I asked if I could examine them. And I did. What fun! And one side was definitely a lot, lot bigger than the other. One call to NHS Direct and several panic stricken minutes of internet self diagnosis later, I'd calmed down enough to realise that he was in no pain and was fine. It could be sorted in the morning.

Today he went to the doctor. It was awkward, with two grown men trying to make a 7 year old boy less embarrassed but really only managing to embarrass themselves. To alleviate the tension I acted as the intermediary between embarrassed child and embarrassed doctors, warmly introducing my son's genitals to two complete strangers and having to say the words testicles and scrotum quite a lot. Go on, try it. They're not fun words to say on your own, much less in front of other people.

After much prodding, he apparently has a hernia which needs to be operated on. It's not a huge procedure and isn't massively urgent. But still, I don't like to think about anything being operated on 'down there' or knowing that my child needs to go under the knife.

So yes, in the list of things mothers have to do but don't necessarily want to do, closely examining my seven year old's scrotum for a 24 hour period is probably up there. But I'd do it all again tomorrow too. And would do it again for him if he was 40. I don't think there's a time limit on the things a mum won't do for their child, regardless of how much you'd rather not.

Friday 10 June 2011

If at first you don't succeed....

Grazia magazine recently ran a writing competition. You were given the opening paragraph of the first chapter of a novel and in 1000 words, you had to complete the rest of the chapter. I was keen to have a go.

I found it incredibly hard. I spent so long trying to figure out what the story could be, instead of just trying to write the first chapter. Eventually, with about 2 hours to go until the deadline (ironic, as that was the name of the book we were writing the first chapter of), I knuckled down and wrote something.

As a result, it's a bit pants. The characters are trite and shallow. And I intensely dislike all of them. Suffice to say I didn't win. I wasn't shortlisted. I was just one of the 1200 people who sent in a story and didn't make it. My first taste of writer rejection.

I read the winning entry (which is in this week's magazine) and the entries that came second and third (which you can read here). I get why they won. I'll try not to hate them for it. Incidentally, I liked the story that came second the most.

This exercise raised lots of questions in my head about whether I could really write at all. I didn't have a massively long pity party. I just don't think this story is the type of novel I will one day write.  I'm going to have a go at writing a novel - I just need to find what that story of mine is. If nothing ever comes of it, it will be a great mind-enhancing experience.

I debated whether to post my entry on here (because it's a bit crap really) but sod it, I wrote it and it seems a shame to leave it hiding on my hard drive. So here it is - the first chapter to The Deadline (note, the first paragraph is what we were given to work with.)


The Deadline

She stood looking up at the house. At the blank grey walls, the shuttered windows with empty boxes on the concrete sills, the stern front door. The house said nothing about what it was or what took place inside, it was unassuming and nondescript and uninviting. She’d come here several times before, but never got the courage to go in. Now, there was no choice. The deadline was today, no last chance of a reprieve or change of heart. If she was going to do it, it had to be now. She shivered, chill from the sudden drop in temperature now the light was fading, or from excitement or from fear, she didn’t know. Also, the sense of possibility that, by pressing this suburban doorbell, her life could – would – alter for good. But still she lingered on the unwashed step, picking at a thread of wool come loose from her glove, caught between the girl she was and the woman she might be. A deadline she never thought she would face.

Ironically, deadlines were something she’d been ignoring most of her life. She had been two weeks overdue as a baby and she’d never quite caught up. Her sister, the perfect first born, was always early for things. Assignments were never handed in late. She always made sure she had everything organised long before they were needed.

‘Anal,’ she thought to herself. ‘That’s what she is. And a complete pain in the arse. Little Miss Perfect, like the Roger Hargreaves’ character.’

Elizabeth, or Queenie as Natalie chose to call her sister, had managed to annoy her for seventeen years. Well, she couldn’t quite recall the first four years of her life, but the pictures, taken by countless au pairs, told a thousand words. Queenie sitting perfectly for the camera while she pulled silly faces. Queenie wearing clean, neat clothes while Natalie looked like a messy tumbleweed alongside. Queenie sitting studiously painting pictures while Natalie painted Queenie. People had always commented that they were polar opposites. Natalie preferred to think of Elizabeth as a frigid polar cap and herself as the fiery molten core at the centre of the earth.

Just two years her senior, they should have been friends, like most sisters are. They should have played dolls together or built dens. They could have giggled over the rude bits in The Thorn Birds, or shared clothes, or painted make up on each other or gossiped about boys. But that hadn’t happened. Instead they’d lived individual lives under the same roof, virtual strangers, rivals, fighting for the same thing. To be noticed.

And then last year Queenie had gone and gotten herself noticed. Spectacularly. Little Miss Perfect for once in her life wasn’t early for something. She was late. By several weeks.

Natalie recalled how Queenie had sat silently in the drawing room, a room the family barely ever used except for when her parents where entertaining their important work guests. On those occasions they were required to either be invisible or parade like prize ponies for podgy men and disinterested women, who’d politely smile before turning away in search of more stimulating entertainment.

Elizabeth had worn white, a hugely inappropriate virginal dress. Her dark hair was scraped back into a perfect pony tail, her blue eyes large, round and only just holding in the tears that threatened to ruin her mascara. Twisting a handkerchief she must have dug up for special effect, she asked her parents and Natalie to sit down. Their mother, Fenella, always the perfectly coiffed PR darling, managed to separate herself from her iPhone, albeit rather reluctantly, and perched on the edge of the suede sofa in an attempt not to crease her Jaeger skirt. ‘Come on Roderick darling, Elizabeth has something she wants to tell us,” Fenella said, attempting to coax her husband into the room and away from his laptop.

He marched in, bristling with irritability, and fell into an armchair with a sigh. ‘What is it Elizabeth?’ he attempted to say in a vaguely caring yet impatient tone.

Elizabeth sniffed, then straightened her back, raised her chin and said somewhat defiantly, ‘I’m pregnant. And I’m going to keep the baby.’

A momentary pause hung in the air, a fragile bubble waiting to pop. Fenella’s cosmetically plumped lips frozen into a comedic O, incapable of speech. Then the calm burst.

‘Jesus Christ Lizzie!’ her father exclaimed, jumping to his feet and running his hands through his greying hair. ‘Jesus Christ. I’m about to be appointed as foreign secretary and you decide to get knocked up! How do you suppose this will look in the papers? Who the fuck did you fuck? You don’t even have a goddamn boyfriend. Do you? Does she? What the hell has happened to you? Fucking hell.’

He strode from the room, before turning back and pointed a finger at his wife. ‘This is your fault. She’s learnt how to be a slut from the master. You have always been too busy giving blowjobs to reporters for the sake of a good headline to notice what our children are up to. I cannot be preventing war in Libya and managing diplomatic relations with the Pakistani government while making sure our daughters have their knickers on.’

As if reminding himself that he had not one but two daughters, he turned to Natalie before leaning ominously over the back of her chair and whispered menacingly, ‘And what about you? If this is what your sister has been up to, what in God’s name have you been doing?’

For a brief moment Natalie had felt a small pang of pity for her sister, but in that instant it was replaced with anger at the injustice of once again being accused of something she hadn’t done. How on earth could she be blamed this time? She hadn’t been the one sleeping around. She was still a virgin, not that she’d ever admit to that. In fact, she was somewhat incredulous that her perfect sister had done something quite so out of character. Yet at the same time, she envied her. She had done it. She had gained her parents attention. And it hadn’t even been a tactic she’d ever considered. Her sister had outplayed her.

A loud door slam broke her reverie. Reminded of the bang the door made after her father stormed from the room that day, she looked up. It was still there. The grey walls. That uninviting suburban door. The cold face of anonymity. It had taken her months to find out about it. It’s not something that’s readily advertised. And it had cost her. But now she was here. All it took was a knock and she’d step into her new life, leaving the people she most despised to deal with the consequences. It was her time. Her trump card. Deadline had a whole new meaning now and she was ready to meet it.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Slice of life. Because life is worth remembering

I woke up at 6am, a small boy asking for a cuddle. Then tea. And then another cuddle. After dispensing warm beverages and cuddles, I headed upstairs abandoning my children to our au pair called Wii so that I could tackle work admin.

Whenever I do work admin, I sort of understand what drives accountants to do their jobs. There's something so satisfying about adding things up in little spreadsheets and filing papers away that have cluttered up your desk for a month.

Three hours later, sporting a halo made of completed to do lists, I headed downstairs again to feed the children who at this point had made it to level one billion of whatever game they were playing.

I then broke the news to them that their granny was not very well and they needed to make her Get Well cards. So they set about drawing pictures for her, while I got online to order some flowers for her. And there's something about sending someone flowers that just puts a spring in your step. And it got even springier when I saw the pictures my children had drawn.

Son 1 had put a huge amount of effort into drawing his granny lying in a hospital bed (with bed legs splayed out underneath it as though she'd eaten too many pies and it couldn't quite cope with the weight. Dimensions are hard, I can't draw either). He'd also drawn a matching wall cupboard and side table with flowers and chocolates, with a cheery message inside saying: HAVE FUN IN HOSPITAL! Not quite sure that's what she'll be doing but nice sentiment.

Meanwhile Son 2 who until recently has drawn nothing but scribbles drew a bunch of flowers. And I can say in all honesty that they were beautiful and perfect, which for him is miraculous.

Then we headed into town to get jobs done. That included buying heaps of birthday, fathers day and other random cards, writing them and posting them. And posting a bunch of things like clothes that needed returning and vital business papers. All very, very satisfying.

Following a yummy meal at Pizza Express, we headed into the Corn Exchange to see the Owl & the Pussycat. I had my doubts as to how they were going to turn a short Edward Lear poem into an hour long drama production, but they did. And it was fantastic. Hilarious, heartwarming and just plain lovely. My boys loved it too, but not as much as me obviously, as the lady sitting next to me pointed out based on my guffawing throughout.

Then we took the Poopmobile to the car wash. The Poopmobile is much like the Popemobile, only with fewer people wearing pointy hats. Our car is just as bulletproof as the windows have been reinforced with bird shit. So we took it to the carwash, which the kids thought was fantastic fun with the scary rollers trying to get them through the windows.

Alas. £5.50 worth of carwash did not shift the amount of poop we had on our car. So we took it home and spent a solid hour and a half cleaning it. All three of us. The children were actually useful. I know that sounds suprising and yes they did insist on washing the car with dirty sponges right after I'd finished cleaning a bit, but they got completely stuck in. And didn't even argue about who had the bigger sponge.

After a fairly crap dinner (gnocchi with instant sauce), I left them to Wii again, while I caught up on work email. I heard wails of 'I'm hungry'. So I instructed son 1 how to make a snackwich. He did it. I watched. Marvellous. Another notch up the ladder of independence. I returned to work.

I heard noises from downstairs. I ignored them. I heard: "Mummy, can you help me cut my snackwich please, it's a bit hard". I went downstairs. Son 2 (age 5) had made himself a snackwich without having been shown how. What's more, he'd used a butter knife to cut the cheese so he wouldn't hurt himself, he put everything that he took out back where it belonged. And the only thing he did wrong, was put his snackwich in the machine and forgot it was there, so it got a little crisp (ok, very crisp).

And then we had bath and bedtime without a fuss. I got to answer questions like 'who makes planets' and 'who invented clothes' - it was Adam and Eve according to Son 1.

Now I sit in my quiet house, with a glass of wine on a summer's evening. And I'm thinking about how lovely this day has been. Nothing extraordinary. But just so satisfying in so many ways. The only thing casting a shadow is knowing that my lovely mother-in-law (83) is in hospital with a blood clot on her lung.

We take every day things like health and knowing you have family for granted, so that when those things are compromised, its a wake up call. That's what today has been, and what this blog post, is about. A reminder to myself to take note of the little things that pass by in day to day life that are simple yet wonderful. Because they may not always be there.