Sunday, 24 February 2008

Feeling sorry for myself

I'm feeling sorry for myself today. My parents are having a large drinks party and my husband has been asked to help. That leaves me looking after the children alone on a Sunday, again, trapped by their inescapable demands and squabbles to the extent I feel claustrophobic.

We tried joining the party but a room full of adults holding glasses of wine is not really an appropriate place for two hyperactive little boys. Deciding that despite the lure of the canapes it was too stressful, we've come home and I'm feeling sorry for myself.

I've realised that one of the problems of full-time motherhood is that you feel left out of adult life. My husband tells me that going to work is not that exciting but I don't think he appreciates the luxury of being able to interact with people whose vocabulary extends beyond "tractor" and "mashed potato". That's why mother and toddler groups are so important - I would have gone mad (madder) a long time ago had I not met such a great group of mums in the village. However, even conversations there are frustrating, ended abruptly all too often by a child's urgent need for a wee or a fight over Thomas the Tank Engine.

So, what is a full-time mum to do to preserve her mental sanity? Writing Revolution Baby helped me as it provided some cerebral stimulus, even if it was at ten o'clock at night. Now that's finished and I'm succumbing to the reality of the gravity of late pregnancy there are few options left. Some remain though, however dire the circumstances: feeling VERY sorry for myself as I pulled out of my parents' drive I diverted via the local garage and bought a bar of chocolate. I'm about to eat it all, with a cup of tea. That will serve as some recompense for missing out on adult conversations and canapes. But not much.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Travelling with Children

I've just returned from a holiday in The Gambia, West Africa, with my two children (aged 4 and 2). "Are you mad?" I hear you gasp, "travelling with children!"

Actually, it's very rewarding.

I never expected that I would ever take a child abroad - I didn't fly until I was twelve and there's nothing wrong with Cornwall. But since I gave up my career to travel with my husband I've learnt that nothing is ever as expected. Therefore, I was quite calm when I found myself checking in for a ten hour flight to Kyrgyzstan with a three-month old baby. Now it seems perfectly normal for me to travel with my children and it's surprisingly easy - they love it.

Children are more adaptable and capable that we give them credit for. Take malaria pills for example. I'm sure I'm blacklisted as an irresponsible mother at my local health centre, being the only person they've ever encountered who has taken her family to a malarial area. However, the nurse consented to give me malaria pills and I wondered how I would ever get two children to take the disgusting things.

On the first morning I fussed around trying to dissolve the pills in orange juice and hide them in food. Not successful. Feeling desperate I decided the next day to just hand a pill to the four year old and tell him to swallow it. He put it on his tongue, took a drink and proudly told me "it's gone." The two year old wanted to try so I thought why not. He put the pill between his teeth and I could only see aggravation ahead. But before I had time to fuss he took a drink and looked up at me. "Gone!" he announced, flinging his arms wide with pleasure. We are still on the course - you have to take them for a week after you return - and it's their favourite part of breakfast. I'm now worrying about what entertainment I can create when the pills run out.

They are just as relaxed about the aeroplane. I've realised that when you're a child, everything about airports and planes is completely exciting, even taking your shoes off at the security check. They love being involved in the process, handing their passports over at the desk, looking out for the bags. And my four-year old is the only person who ever reads the safety card. This time he studied it carefully, asking intelligent questions about when the oxygen masks would drop down and whether he could see his lifejacket under his seat.

I no longer bother weighing us down with toys; the greatest entertainment are the gadgets. The two-year old spent many happy minutes switching the light on and off - and intermittently summoning a harassed air hostess. They both enjoyed their headphones, choosing music channels and dancing in their seats, fun for them and the amused passengers around us.

I could bore you with tips - take lollies to help ease the pressure as you land; check if blankets are provided if it's a night flight; get them to wee just before you get on board as the “fasten seatbelt” sign stays on longer than you’d think - but the greatest tip in enjoying travelling with children is for yourself. I've learnt that to succeed you have to go with the correct mindset.

For the first few days in The Gambia I felt frustrated: the sun was shining, we were by a pool or on a beach and yet I was confined to reading The Gruffalo in the shade. Then I had an epiphany - there's no point expecting such a holiday to be relaxing. Going on holiday with children is not relaxing; they don't morph into obedient, quiet angels just because you drive them down the M5 or change countries. But going on holiday with children can be rewarding. I discovered great joy in showing them new things and sharing experiences, wondering how the smells and sights of Africa appeared to a curious four year old. And I realised that if I didn't waste time hankering after holidays of old when I spent days reading on a sun bed, the week was relaxing in its own way.

If you can appreciate the change of scene, new routine, new stimulus and family time you can all come back refreshed and revitalised, if not necessarily relaxed. And it’s amazing how beneficial a small amount of time out can be – unable to spend a week on a sun lounger I felt rejuvenated after ten minutes.

And don’t dismiss the added bonus of how much you all appreciate home and its conveniences on your return.

In summary, I recommend travelling with children. Don't be scared, ignore the disapproving looks of your health visitor and give it a go.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Review of Revolution Baby

After years of hard word and fretting over writing Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan it's always very rewarding when people contact me to say how much they've enjoyed reading it. Carole very kindly sent an extremely detailed review and it was especially gratifying to see that she had enjoyed and interpreted the book in a way I hoped people would.

Review of Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan by Carole in Amsterdam

Ever wondered what life would be like as an ex-pat living in a small but feisty corner of the former Soviet Union? Well, this would be an excellent primer to help you figure that out. Saffia’s husband is a water engineer, so his work for an international aid organisation tends to lead the family to the most out-of-the way places; of course, all the “soft” postings (like my current location, the Netherlands) already have universal clean drinking water for their citizens.

The book itself is an engaging and well-written and essentially sympathetic account of Saffia’s time in Kyrgyzstan, a tiny, mountainous, central Asian province squeezed in between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan & China, a stone’s-throw away from Afghanistan.
From my point of view as a fellow “trailing spouse”, I found myself struck by the parallels of the expatriate lifestyle, despite the vast differences in our circumstances.

About the only similarity I can draw between Amsterdam and Bishkek is that they are both capital cities, yet the essential alien-ness of life away from “home” (don’t even get me started on where “home” precisely is!) is an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived abroad. Homesickness, hopelessness, culture-shock (and don’t forget the “reverse culture-shock” which is somehow much worse than any other kind) jostle with the sense of accomplishment that comes from starting to master the language, finding your way around, meeting new people and even just managing to carry out the most basic of daily tasks.

Whilst the main focus of the story is Saffia’s experience of pregnancy and raising a small child in a country with no reliable healthcare and limited resources, it also has much of interest to say about the politics of international aid, Kyrgyzstan’s struggles to come to terms with the legacy of soviet rule, international ulterior motives and western foreign policy.
I would highly recommend this book to anybody who is remotely curious about the recent history or politics of the former soviet central Asian republics, I would also recommend it to anyone who has lived or is contemplating living abroad.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


Those who have read my book and become interested in yurts might like to look at

This company is run by Tim Hutton who makes beautiful yurts and also runs a yurt camp as an alternative holiday venue in Cornwall.

Tim showed one of his yurt frames at my book launch last November, a beautiful structure which looked stunning in the gallery at the RWA. You can see a photo of this on the Yurtworks website news page.