What is a ‘family’?

Courtesy of vintagedancer.com

Courtesy of vintagedancer.com

First published in the Portsmouth News, Tuesday 30th September 2014

People often ask me how I manage to think of something new to write about each week, and my answer is: I just do.

This is a very unsatisfactory response though, so this week I’ve been dwelling on it, and I’ve decided that the clue is in the title of my column, Family Matters.

‘Family’, if we are lucky, occurs around us all the time. Family is people, it is activity, it is a lifestyle and it is a comfort. It can be a source of frustration, and it can be a lonely affair, depending on what hand life has dealt us but, in each and every circumstance, it absolutely matters.

We are born into families and sometimes we choose families. We marry into them, and then sometimes we leave them. Depending on the way in which our relationships have panned out, we may have been a part of many families. Such is the human capacity to adapt and evolve.

We may move away from our families, or we may live in each other’s pockets. We may think of particularly close friends as being family, and have certain friends whom we think of more as siblings than as mates

And throughout each of these infinitesimal webs that we weave, we also leave our imprints. Ripple effects that sometimes merely lap against the lives of others, but sometimes engulf them in a tsunami of emotion. We become bound to one another, in a thousand tiny ways, and it is easy to take for granted the family that we have built.

So, in response to the question of how I think of something new to write each week, the real answer is that I stop and watch. It is purely because I am lucky enough to write this column that I have taken pause and realised that ‘family’ is happening and changing all the time.

This week, try to take a minute to stop and step back. Look around you at the family of which you are a part, and see the ripples that spread out from each of you.

Whether it’s as you sit in the car warbling along to the Frozen soundtrack together, or when your mother-in-law rolls her eyes at you, or the moment that your dad rings when you’ve been meaning to find the time to call him all week.

Just stop for a second and think; family matters. It matters all the time.

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When a man washes up = heroic. When a woman washes up = ?

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First published in the Portsmouth News, Tuesday 23rd September 2014

When a man completes a domestic task such as washing up, it seems he is then classified in terms that border on heroic. Congratulations are heaped upon him and a small Mexican wave may take place, performed in jubilation by the other members of the household.

When a woman does the dishes, the cleaning, the tidying, the meals, the ironing, the dog walking, the school run, the finances, the shopping, makes the beds and scrubs the loo, she gets not even a mention.

Of course, I speak in terms that are generalisations, but I don’t think I am far off the mark. I would say that my husband is very good around the house, but why do I even think in these terms? He should be ‘good’ – he and the kids contribute to the mess; why should it be assumed that I’ll clear it up? I’m not aware that ovaries trump testicles in the Best Floor Sweeping stakes.

It seems insane that I should be ‘grateful’ to him for performing a domestic task because why on earth shouldn’t he? Why should it be assumed that these are my domain alone? I’m not a stay-at-home mother (I once was, but even that does not equal ‘slave’), I go to work, and then I work from home.

Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t expect congratulations: he’s as baffled as I am. Though I note that he still basks in my praise when I senselessly heap it upon him.

Yesterday, I got up at 6.45am (an hour after him), and put the washing on. He washed up, fed the kids, put the bins out, and left for school at 7am. I proceeded to wash up from breakfast, make the lunches and clean the sink and surfaces. I then dried the dishes and cleaned the downstairs loo, before quickly wiping over the oven.

After this, I ran the hoover over downstairs and mopped the floors. I opened my laptop at 7.45am and sent two work related emails.

At 8am the girls and I went upstairs to get ready. At 8.30am we left the house and my friend, Lenka, took the girls into school for me. I cycled to the school where I teach part-time and managed to get my photocopying done before my lessons began.

I taught until lunchtime, cycled home, and walked the dog to the shop to buy milk. Once home I cracked on with paperwork and exam entries. I then planned and resourced some lessons, before noticing it was nearly school run time.

I got the girls, completed more work, filed some admin away, and fed the children whilst popping a chicken in to roast for later. I peeled veg, washed up, dried and then took the kids up for a bath and put the washing away.

I then ran a duster over downstairs, put the veg in the oven, and at 7.15pm my husband got home. I await my Mexican Wave with bated breath!

Autumn… and trying to keep a grasp on the slippery swine known as Time…

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First published in the Portsmouth News, 16th September 2014

Autumn again: my favourite time of year.

I used to run, before it caused my hips to fall apart, and running up Portsdown Hill at dawn on a blue-skied Autumn Saturday takes some beating. The silent view of the city, beautiful from a distance in the milky light, is a sight of wonder. Pavements crackle underfoot with the first thin, fragile frosts that hint at a winter yet to come, and you have the sense that you are looking down on the entire world.

September heralds a new year for me, and I credit this with being a teacher. The childhood memories of crisp new stationery and the spindle point of freshly sharpened pencils never quite leave you. It’s a creamy new page to start again, full of promise and possibility.

It also signals the speed at which the seasons pass. My daughters are another year older, the nappies and the sterilisers another year in the past. Their independence continues to grow, and I hang on to the days because each one will lead them, eventually, further away from their little pool of childhood.

I do not miss the stretches of lonely night, when you are awake with a newborn whilst the rest of the planet appears to be smugly traversing the Land of Nod, but I do ache for the days when my girls were tiny.

The sweet boredom of afternoons with nothing to do but coo at each other; the firm weight of their bodies in my arms; the smell of baby that is tucked away in the creases of their newly minted skin. I find it hard to comprehend that I will never again experience this as a mother: as a grandmother perhaps, if I am lucky, but not as a mum.

My favourite memory is of an autumn afternoon, six years ago. I sat on our sofa holding Amelie in my arms. She and I used to spend hours simply staring at each other, and as I held her I looked into the garden at my husband, who was raking the leaves from the large oak tree next door to us. An old Waitrose ad was playing in the background, with Keats being read over the strands of Golden Brown by The Stranglers. My eldest daughter was safe and happy at her nursery, and all was well with me and mine.

Time is so transient; we must try to treasure it.

(The Waitrose advert link to youtube… if you fancy feeling a little bit of autumn bliss, give it a click ….   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-pxuWgsa3g  )

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Organising Your Child’s Birthday Party. Or, Losing Your Mind

Photo courtesy of parentdish.com

First published in the Portsmouth News, Tuesday 9th September 2014

Next month it will be my youngest daughter’s birthday. Which means that I must answer the question she has been asking since approximately 2 seconds after the end of her last birthday party: “Where is my next party?”

 

When my girls were younger I made the naïve mistake of believing that their parties should follow a traditional format at home. Rounds and rounds of Pass the Parcel, a tea party spread, home-made cakes. More fool me.

 

These days, due to political correctness, it transpires that each layer of paper needs a present in it. EACH LAYER! For the cost of one game of Pass the Parcel I could buy a Macbook Air. It also requires my husband to be in charge of the CD player, and to ensure that he has stopped it so that each child unwraps a layer, and has a gift inside it. Even for the most eagle-eyed of parents, this is a minefield.

 

Since then I have recovered my senses and hold all parties as far away from my own home as possible. My girls have enjoyed parties at Artypotz in Castle Road, and also Make in Albert Road. This tends to keep them all occupied and means they take home whatever they have made. Which leads me to the dreaded PB.

 

PB could refer to the fear that lurks at the back of all parental minds as they cater for the party food; namely that the single molecule of peanut butter that exists on your kitchen work surface will find its way into the one ham sandwich that the one child who suffers a nut allergy will pick up and consume. However, as you may have guessed, I am referring instead to Party Bags.

 

It is not enough to have spent your children’s university savings on one puny party; you also have to think of and pay for something that each child can take home. Generally this will be: plastic tat, a serviette, and a flattened piece of cake that has been decorated with icing so lurid it suggests a kitchen that was built using nuclear waste in the fallout from Chernobyl.

 

You can also march your own kids into a party and be confronted with grown adults (usually women) dressed as Disney princesses. Which goes to show it’s not just party games that have changed since my day, it seems Saturday jobs have too. What happened to a paper round?