Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Pressure and Perspective at Christmas

This morning I heard a woman being interviewed on the radio, claiming that she was not sure how she’d cope if her delayed Ocado delivery did not arrive. Oh please, I thought, is this what we've come to. Could she not lift herself from her despair and go to a shop? And is it really THAT important, will it change her life? Have we gone mad as a society, have we completely lost perspective?

I felt saddened by this woman’s whining and it encouraged me to finally post something I’ve been thinking about for a while...

On Sunday I had a strop. I seemed to be in the kitchen clearing up all day and felt more like a skivvy than a mother. The next morning I chatted with a friend who said she’d had a similar day. With my hands in the sink I’d started to think about all the mums feeling the same. I don’t want to seem bitter, a martyr of my role “oh poor me with all the washing up to do”. I’m not getting into the male-female-shared housework debate here; my husband contributes (when he’s at home). I am very aware that men and women are different animals who see and do things differently and this creates pressures when living together. That’s not what I’m thinking about here. The point for this post is; what is it about Christmas that does this to us, why was I feeling stroppy and hard-done by at the supposedly happiest time of the year?

Is it just the sheer weight of celebrating – there are more meals, more parties, more people so more mess and clearing up? Is it because it’s the middle of winter when living is harder, it takes longer to do simple things in the cold and dark? Or is it because emotions are more intense – we so want everything to be perfect for our families on that one day that we put more pressure on ourselves?

I’m sure some would dismiss me as a miserable old bag but there are aspects of Christmas I find difficult. I like it to be a family time when we can enjoy being together without the pressure of deadlines. Last year M and I eventually stopped rushing around and got down on the floor and played their new board games with the children and it was great, for all of us. But this can be a difficult moment to get to.

I refuse to get stressed about Christmas – it is, after all, supposed to be simply about celebrating the birth of Jesus. One wise person told me to separate the two Christmases, to accept that there is one religious festival and one occasion of consumerism and feasting. That goes some way to helping justify the contradictions between the two. Although this week, with the Copenhagen summit in the news, I feel uncomfortable about the excesses of Christmas. As individuals I believe we all have to do our bit to help preserve the Earth’s limited resources. Obviously we do not have the power of world leaders, who have prevaricated then flown home in their private jets. But we all have to take responsibility, in whatever way we can. So much is wasted at Christmas, so much packaging sent to landfill. This is not a way of life I feel comfortable with.

“But it’s Christmas,” people say, “lighten up!” Okay, so if this is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year, why does it make so many people unhappy in different ways? I’ve seen mums distressed about Nativity plays – because they couldn’t get there or because their child didn’t perform as expected. Should we be creating this pressure on everyone? Children line up for school ghostly pale, exhausted by the hysteria – do they want to sing these songs and perform these plays for their expectant parents or would they be happier in the classroom? People ask “are you ready”, in expectant tones, creating the intensity of a crucial deadline. Is it really that important what we have for pudding on Christmas Day? And I’ve not touched on the major issues of people spending money they don’t have or domestic violence increasing. When did this become “celebrating”?

My point is, if Christmas is supposed to be a special family time, why have we created a plethora of fuss around it so that mums, with their hands in the sink, just feel stressed and unable to enjoy their families? I understand that celebrating Christmas is about traditions – everyone has their routines they like (or have) to go through, without which it doesn’t feel like “Christmas”. But surely there is a way of preserving these traditions without making it such a contradictory Event? Certainly, I often find my “Christmas moment” in the most unlikely of places. Maybe it’s since I had a baby at Christmas, but I can’t help feeling emotional about how it all began; Mary, raw in her motherhood, and her precious new baby, wondering how their life together was going to turn out.

If we could take a step back, reduce the obsessive consumerism, just give a few gifts and enjoy a few simple family meals together, would it not mean that everyone could properly enjoy the occasion rather than feeling harassed about the next job that has to be done in the seemingly endless quest to create the perfect, fabled, but elusive Christmas?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What is a Feminista?

I still puzzle over this blogging phenomenon; why we feel the need to publish our thoughts and share opinions with strangers. However, blogging has brought me some unique experiences, things I would have never tried if I wasn’t in the virtual world meeting new people.

For example, last week I reviewed a book on-line with someone I “met” through blogging. And it was great fun. My virtual book club was with Carolyn of Black and (A)broad. She had contacted me to suggest we read Feminista by Erica Kennedy. Carolyn had read my posts Happy Housewives and Slummy Mummy and the Feminists where I discuss modern feminism being about choice. She had read an interview with Erica Kennedy and been reminded of my comments, so thought we might like to review the book.

Erica Kennedy caused a furore of response on her blog when she defined Feminista using photos of celebrities to illustrate her points. In interviews she seemed eloquent “I never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist because that word has so many negative connotations. The stereotype of the hairy, man-hating woman...Feminista is...the modern woman who is making her own choices... Being a feminista is about tapping into our unique female attributes and living authentically instead of defining ourselves by male standards of success.”

With this as background, Carolyn and I were excited about reading the book, looking forward to a new perspective on feminism for the modern woman. Sadly we were disappointed. Feminista is more chick lit than thought provoking; too much name-dropping Fashionista and, despite what EK had said, too much anti-male aggression to appeal to me.

So what’s it about? Sydney Zamora, who writes for a celebrity magazine and is very dismissive of all her friends who have deserted her by getting married and becoming obsessed with their children, decides she needs to get married. The novel is her quest for a husband.

EK does raise a lot of issues of interest to women – salary inequality; the meaning of marriage - but sadly she deals with them through extended rants by Sydney, angry soliloquies which alienated me and thus lost any impact. I felt the author was pressing points that bug her in life, overtly using her heroine as a voice. That became distracting.

Sydney for us was too judgemental of everyone around her; too negative a character to be a positive role model for today’s women. She’s supposed to be “smart as hell” but spent too much time drifting through her life and moaning, not taking control. The Feminista image didn’t work for us; too abrasive - and too much high fashion. I cannot get excited about $795 “Lanvin flats” worn by Elle Macpherson like Sydney does. To me that is not empowering. But high fashion is not my thing and I’m sure there are many women who would relate to this definition.

We agreed that a new label is needed. Carolyn said “I think the time for "feminism" to be used to describe our situation has come to a close. We need to think of a new word or concept to talk about women like you and me, for example. For me it's about support. I may not agree with your CHOICE to give up your career to stay at home and care for your children but that doesn't matter. I'm not here to judge your choices. As a "feminist" I'm here to give you the support your need to help you execute your choice. I'm not into the judgement thing, and if there's one thing that turned me off of the main character, it's that she was so judgemental... Anger. That's what got the movements started so many decades ago. I'm not sure if anger is driving women today. Maybe it is. But my guess is that we're looking for support. Anger is an outdated notion, in my opinion.”

There were some things we liked; it’s an interesting insight into New York celebrity/society life. There’s a fun story in there which picks up pace – despite the twee ending. I liked the cover! Some readers do get the Feminista message. “Sydney is trying to work out her politics in a messy world which doesn't always cooperate with her...I think Kennedy does an excellent job of portraying Sydney's struggles to figure it all out.” (Amazon reviewer). Others don’t. A comment on EK’s blog was critical of the misconceived marketing pitch EK is using, which indeed drew us in with false expectations. “How you even attempt to link this book to a pseudo-intellectual debate on feminism is offensive. Honestly Sydney a new order feminist? What?!? She isn't even a good character in a bad chick lit novel. And this is a bad chick lit novel & nothing more.”

For Carolyn and I, Feminista is New York Fashionista chick lit. Read it if you enjoy hearing about clothes, shoes, bags, trendy restaurants and celebrity parties. But if you want a read to challenge your mind on what makes the modern, thinking woman, it’s not necessarily for you.

Click here to read Carolyn’s review

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Gold, Frankincense and Sudocrem

At Sunday School we are having very interesting discussions which are challenging and inspiring both adults and children. We are thinking about the nativity story behind the Christmas card scene; what it was like for Mary who was probably a young teenager, giving birth for the first time away from home and family; how it would really feel to sleep in a stable; why shepherds were chosen as the first messengers.

It’s fascinating to see what aspects of the story children take for granted, how years of listening and acting have distorted the sequence of why or how things happened.

“Why did Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem?” H asked. “To have a baby,” a child answered with a tone of “duh, don’t you know anything.” Bethlehem has become such an integral part of Jesus’ birth it’s easy to forget that Mary and Joseph hadn’t planned it that way. (That God had planned it that way is something we will probably discuss in our grown-up's evening chat about the Nativity).

The children explained to H that Mary, Joseph and Jesus had then hung around in the stable waiting for three kings, who took a couple of days to arrive because they lived a long way away. That the kings may not have arrived for up to two years later, and probably visited Jesus back home in Nazareth, is something we didn’t expand on as we didn’t want to entirely disrupt the equilibrium of that idyllic crib scene.

We discussed what gifts the kings brought. One well-informed boy knew that myrrh was cream. “Does anyone know when you would use myrrh?” H asked. “When Jesus was having his nappy changed” the next boy (my six year old) answered! It was another wonderful image in our child-interpreted nativity; three wise men presenting the Messiah with a grey tub of Sudocrem.

Sudocrem would probably have been more welcome to Mary at that time, especially considering what myrrh represented. Each of the three king’s gifts has symbolic meaning: Gold, an image of kingship; Frankincense, burnt in religious ceremonies, indicative of Jesus’ divinity and myrrh, part of the ritual of death. “For Christmas is nothing without what happens at Easter,” H said “because Jesus was born to die.” There was a pause, a contemplative silence from the row of six year olds, all frowning.

Intense talking over, we concentrated on decorating gingerbread men to look like the famous people in the Christmas story, most of whom ended up head or limbless.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Christmas Nativity

I love the one-off comments children come out with – funny but at the same time often sad and poignant, an insight into their perceptions, fears or passions. I have a book called Lots of Love, a collection of such phrases edited by Nanette Newman. “My mother ses she’s cold and then she makes me put on a coat”...”you couldn’t make everyone in the world love each other. They dont even get on in blocks of flats”...”babees need to be loved by their mother in case everybody hates them when they grow up”...”vikars dont larf much. I think its because Jesus didnt tell many jokes”.

At Sunday School we were discussing the Christmas Story. “And what did the angel do?” H, the leader asked. L, a three year old with beautiful blond hair put up her hand. “She sprinkled fairy dust everywhere” she answered seriously. It was a wonderful image, God’s messenger scattering glitter from the heavens. We then moved on to the annual Awkward Moment when we thought about why Joseph might not be pleased when his girlfriend Mary told him she was having a baby. A couple of the teenagers raised their hands. “Is your answer age appropriate?” H asked. The hands were put down again.

As the children trotted out the set answers they have learnt over the years ...Bethlehem...the inns were all a stable...I couldn’t help wondering if by turning the Christmas story into a photogenic tableau we have belittled its meaning and power. If you think about it, riding a donkey when you are very pregnant and giving birth in a cold, smelly stable is not romantic at all. And yet we all coo over it every year, without thinking beyond the images we have manipulated and sanitised.

When a letter came home from school asking for a costume for my son I was reminded how we have corrupted the story of Jesus’ birth with our western interpretation. T is a narrator and required “plain pyjamas, a dressing gown and a stripy tea towel” – none of which we have. Refusing to buy a dressing gown I asked if I could make him a tunic. I was told this would have to be clarified by another teacher. For goodness sake, I thought, who wore dressing gowns in biblical times!

I looked in a child’s bible and found no dressing gowns but lots of men wearing stripy tunics. I also found a disturbing image which reminded me, as H and I discussed at Sunday School, that the most traumatic result of Jesus’ birth is often overlooked; hundreds of baby boys were murdered on King Herod's orders. The picture I saw is of a mother (in a tunic) kneeling over her baby and pleading with a soldier holding a bloody knife. What a terrible thing to have happened. Maybe that is why we never think of it; it’s easier to dress three boys up in crowns and watch them hand over golden caskets. But life was hard and violent in biblical times. And no-one wore towelling dressing gowns.

PS, You will be pleased to hear that my tunic was sanctioned by the teachers and T looked fantastic in it. The play was really very good: Tiny four-year-old angels angelically flapping their wings; wise men telling jokes (my son’s favourite part); great facial expressions from reluctant camels; raucous singing and excellent acting from Mary and Joseph. It even had some realism to satisfy cynical me – an acknowledgement that it was hard for Mary and Joseph to toil across the desert in the heat of the day and cold of the night; genuine concern about there being “no room at the inn”; a mention of the stable being smelly. I was also heartened to see, amongst the Ben 10 nightwear, other creative adaptations of the dressing gown theme.

Pps. Don’t dismiss me as a total killjoy; it does bother me that that I can’t just take these things at face value and sit back and enjoy 90 primary school children performing for half an hour a year. I do also appreciate that there is an element of teachers asking for costumes easily accessible to most parents. I’m just concerned that our children will grow up with a distorted assumption of what was worn in Bethlehem. Some simple context would help restore authenticity. Maybe in the melee of preparing for these plays we should make sure we find time to discuss what people actually wore, and why.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Loose Tooth

My six year old has his first loose tooth. He is delighted. Losing teeth is the most popular subject in his class at school (after football cards). He said one boy spent the “whole morning” in the toilet waggling his teeth! T is completely envious of peers who have already lost a tooth but I have discovered how much I am dreading this stage.

I had forgotten those years of losing teeth, of waggling them with your tongue until they are hanging by a thin strand of flesh; of tying bits cotton then slamming doors to pull recalcitrant teeth out. I don’t remember the pain of new ones coming through. I do remember the excitement of placing a little tooth under my pillow and waking to see what was there in the morning.

My children have beautiful teeth and I am dreading them dropping out to be replaced by unsightly gummy gaps and huge crooked slabs, teeth seemingly too big for tiny mouths. Maybe part of my dread is that this is another stage of them growing up, and children growing up can be hard for parents. Much as we can enjoy the new experiences (and sometimes freedoms) that growing up brings, there is also, for me certainly, a little pang of loss at what is now passed for ever.

Mostly however, the excitement over losing teeth has made me feel quite queasy. I didn’t really want to wobble my son’s proffered tooth and I’m hoping my husband is back from Bangladesh before it needs any intervention!

And what’s the going rate for the Tooth Fairy these days? I’ve heard that in some playgrounds it’s become competitive - before long I’m sure we will be expected to put a Nintendo Wii under the pillow as payment for each tooth. Fortunately I am blessed with a level-headed group of mums, but I’m sure some are more generous than others.

Pocket money has more meaning for T now – he has things he wants to buy. He’s being sucked into the playground football card obsession and me, being Harsh Mummy, has dictated that if he wants the cards, he has to use his pocket money (which he earns by helping in the garden, one friend asked me if this was child labour!) It might sound hard but I think it helps for them to learn the “value” of money, to appreciate the having of it and that it doesn’t just appear by magic. The boys certainly are wonderfully excited when they are given coins to drop in their money boxes.

I also do not feel inclined to start the endless quest to fill the very expensive football card book which will soon be discarded for the next craze. So I’m resisting, and to give T credit he is excited enough about joining in with the couple of packs he has bought. A pack of six cards costs 50p, so maybe that’s where the Tooth Fairy should start.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Book Club – Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and reflections on war.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was my selection for Book Club. After I’d read it I felt a bit guilty for inflicting such a harrowing tale on a group of mums. I cried when I finished it. I was on a train. The man next to me was very tactful about not noticing the woman next to him dabbing her eyes. But I must have been slightly naive not to have realised that a story of a girl and a Jew in Nazi Germany narrated by Death would be harrowing.

I chose it because it came with enthusiastic endorsement from another book club. All reviews were endlessly positive. On one of my “What are you Reading” postings a mother said she felt it was her “unwavering duty to extol its virtues.” When I read this I was half way through and wondered if I had the right book. I’d loved the opening pages when Death introduces himself. They were obtusely written and made me think about what the words were trying to say. I liked that challenge. I also loved some of the descriptions: “The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there like driftwood after the flood.” I found this very powerful imagery. But then the book went flat, I, and others at Book Club, felt it fell into a rather dull narration of the girl, Liesel’s, life. But it regained momentum to close with an intense ending, the words that made me cry.

At our book club we didn’t rave about The Book Thief. But we were touched. Perhaps we were influenced by the poignancy of the week we discussed it in; our meeting was two days after Armistice Day; the media full of war and its images and emotions. Waiting in a Post Office queue my eye had been caught by The Guardian’s front page. It was a photograph of those watching the parade of coffins through Wootton Bassett. A young woman with short cropped hair is crying, her face crumpled, mouth downturned in anguish. A man in black tie and jacket has his arm around her shoulder, looking towards her with worry and concern. Behind them a man with a white goatee and red beret, medals and badges on his black waistcoat, is saluting, staring straight ahead. For me it encapsulated war – the devastation of loss but the steadfast loyalty. I felt tears pricking my eyes in that Post Office queue. I bought the paper, the image stuck in my journal to remind me of those emotions.

This was the week Mrs Janes was haranguing Gordon Brown about the loss of her son. This was the week I’d read an article describing how soldiers had been killed and maimed in an old mine field in Afghanistan, one laid by the Soviet’s 25 years ago. They’d suffered terrible loss because the wrong helicopter had tried to land on top of them, setting off the mines. I was devastated by the futility – men killed and maimed due to incompetence, and with no apparent gain in the wider war; the war with no tangible front to fight towards, with no tangible enemy to hold back from our borders. A war which therefore makes the phrase “your son died making a huge contribution to the security of our country” seem nothing but political hyperbole.

With these thoughts and images in mind we discussed The Book Thief. It seemed relevant, for The Book Thief is a book about loss.

Like many I studied Hitler and the Second World War at school. When a subject is perceived to be well known, it’s easy to become blasé. The power of The Book Thief is that the story is told from the perspective of Germans, a Jew, and Death. Whereas it’s easy to become numbed by familiarity, through this clever use of alternative angles, Zusak has revitalised events we thought we all knew, illuminating, vibrantly, the rawness of the war and all the terrible suffering. This, we felt, was its strongest point.

It’s the story of the war away from the front, how it affected normal German families; how our bombs hit them. Death is the narrator, but don’t let that put you off. We felt “he” was almost humanised; we saw his compassion for the souls of those he carried away and ironically, through Death we are able to reflect on human nature “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same things can be both”. Such astute reflections personify Death; it suddenly seems less harsh and more explicable. “I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.” The message is, don’t be afraid of Death but dying, and it is the human race which controls the rate of that “...sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns.”

The Book Thief has many themes. The theme we discussed most was the German perspective of the war and Hitler. I loved how Max, a Jewish character, described Hitler in a story he wrote: “There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. He would find himself a small strange moustache. He would one day rule the world.” These words said so much, about Max’s bitterness. His clever ridicule of Hitler belittles him despite his absolute power. Words were Hitler’s power. “Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing” Liesel says. Max boxes with Hitler in his mind, a clever scene illustrating Hitler’s powers of manipulation and persuasion. Of soldiers leading a parade of Jews, Death comments “they had the Fuhrer in their eyes”.

“Words” was my favourite theme of The Book Thief. Words are personified, they have power. Liesel loves books, she’s so desperate for them she steals them, hence the title. She learns the potency of words; she reads to her neighbours as they stand listening to bombs in a cellar, giving comfort with her words. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book she recites passages of one of Max’s stories back to him as he is lead away to Dachau – “to concentrate” (a clever play on words which in itself says so much). Max is part of a parade of broken Jews, marched through the town. Liesel steps out of the crowd to call out his words. It gave me goosebumps, an emotive scene of words empowering Max, giving him pride, a physical and mental lift from his stooping desolation.

There is so much suffering in The Book Thief, so much we can barely comprehend what it must have been like; it is difficult for us to truly empathise with the scale of World War 2, the fear, loss and deprivation that people lived under for years and years. At Book Club we agreed that we had taken much away from the book, some were still thinking about it days and weeks after finishing. I have many terrible images: mothers searching through rubble for lost children, desperately calling their names; Liesel seeing her dead brother; a wife clutching her husband’s accordion through the night, wondering if he will return from the fight; Jews scratching desperately at the doors of gas chambers before Death takes them; a mother told her son has died at Stalingrad; another mother told by Nazi officials “we’ve come for your son”. Would we be able to cope with just one aspect of such suffering? We have no idea what it feels like to, for example, leave our beds and run to a shelter to stand and listen to bombs dropping, wondering if we will survive.

We hear on Armistice Day that it’s important to remember. I agree. Only by reflecting on the horrors of what has passed can we try and avoid a repeat. But as remembered this year, the generation who experienced the horrors of the First World War has now passed on. Dr Rowan Williams said “those with first hand memories are no more, the baton of remembrance will have to be taken up by others...the generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our commonwealth through a terrible century. May we learn the lessons they learned. And God save us from learning them the way they had to.”

Although I cannot join other readers in raving that The Book Thief is the best book I have ever read, I do think it is a book of immense power. There are important messages within it, issues thrown into new clarity by its unique style and different perspective. Reading this book can help us reflect on the reality of war, human nature and the suffering of others.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Remembering to Stop and Play

For three days last week my son B (3) was ill. Nothing serious, he was bright in himself, but enough to keep him from his mornings at nursery. Apart from the school runs that top and tail the day, I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t go outside the village boundary. That might sound limiting, but it was great.

One of the benefits of being a stay at home mum is that when a child is ill it doesn’t cause huge logistical problems, you can just go with it – and actually enjoy it. I lit the fire, made the house cosy, and enjoyed being at home. It was good to be forced to stop chasing around, to drop out of the world for a while. I noticed the autumn colours in the garden and brought some inside, putting berries in a jar. B, a great independent player, created fantastic wooden train tracks across the floor. J loved having a brother at home. They rolled a ball around the floor, giggling with each other. At 18 months J is interacting wonderfully with B; their relationship is a joy as they communicate through smiles and giggles.

I’m creating a picture of domestic bliss, but there was a problem: I couldn’t stop working. B said “mummy, will you play with me” and I answered “when I’ve finished these jobs”. But the jobs never seemed to end. What was I doing? Putting washing in the machine, hanging it out, folding it, ironing. Cooking meals and clearing them up. Cleaning the fire and laying it. Tidying up and sorting out. All the usual housework. Why couldn’t I just stop and enjoy playing with them?

The problem is that normally my day is segmented, carved up by deadlines and routine. I have to slot my chores into the increments of time available between school runs, nursery runs, J’s sleep and mealtimes. It was so tempting to grab the opportunity of clear hours between the school runs to catch up with all those jobs which don’t fit into my normal units of time.

Some things can be done together – I’ve been trying to tidy the garden ready for winter and B was been great at sweeping up leaves. But some things took me away from them, leaving them clamouring for my attention. On day two, aware of my absence, I sat and did puzzles with them. J leant across my lap and smiled up at me and B chatted and chatted about what he was doing, the pieces he was searching for, delighting in my attention. It was an important reminder of what being a mother can be about.

Blogging too can be a distraction, although I try to reserve that for the evenings when they are asleep. I feel many conflicting emotions about my writing-blogging-communicating obsession, but I do believe there are advantages. Reflecting on events and developing ideas is important mental therapy for me and thinking about and writing this post has made me focus on certain facts: That T is now 6, B soon 4 and J no longer a baby at 18 months. That they will grow out of these precious first years too quickly. That if I am not careful those unique opportunities will be lost in the endless round of chores. So I need to put a note on my “to do” list to stop and enjoy my family before they are all at school and there’s no daytime chatter left in the house to distract me from all those tasks (blogging included) which seem so endlessly important. It’s not realistic to play all the time – the washing has to be done and it’s my job to do it – but I don’t want to look back and think I processed my children through the years rather than properly appreciating them.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Too Many Toys

It's typical of my over-active mind that a five minute ponder about where we could possibly fit in any new toys the children might be given at Christmas has turned into an analytical self-questioning blog!

The day after I’d stood in the boys’ room wondering how I could shuffle things around to make more space, I read Whistlejacket’s post Not Mad About the Toys and subsequently posted a reply about Operation Christmas Child. But my mind kept whirring - while hanging out the washing, mashing potatoes or trying to get to sleep - about why our children have too many toys, is this a problem and what to do about it.

Whistlejacket wrote about what to say when people ask what your children want for Christmas – “er nothing” was the answer she wants to give. But that’s not acceptable; people like to give children presents and who are we to deny them the excitement of unwrapping them.

At Christmas my problem is with the volume of gifts; extended families becoming increasingly generous. By the end of the day last year my boys were robotically ripping paper off, overwhelmed by what they had already been given but filled with the expectation that there should be more and more to open. I called a halt and they opened the rest on Boxing Day when they were fresh and could appreciate receiving new things again.

Like many children they have so many wonderful things – almost more than they have time to play with, especially now T is at school. We’re not materialistic shopaholics so how has our toy situation got so out of hand?

I think one main reason has to be that nowadays toys are very accessible and much cheaper. Yesterday at the supermarket all toys were half price. I resisted. Today my husband called to ask me what we were getting the boys for Christmas as he was standing in front of a Playmobil police station at a knock down price, did we want it? I went into a panic. I already have something for them but it was a bargain, an amazing opportunity for them to have a fantastic toy. When I calmed down I remembered that the price isn’t everything; just because it’s cheap does not mean we have to fill our house with it. And would they actually play with all these huge pieces of plastic? B loves Playmobil but he doesn’t play with sets in the way “planned” on the box; he gathers up random bits and shoves them in the back of an ambulance.

There is so much choice, too much choice. It becomes tempting to buy them things; you start to think they really should have it, that they need it. Toys R Us is unhelpful in that way. Walking in I feel bombarded. I become filled with an irrational belief that my children must have all this “stuff” for a truly fulfilling life. That’s the time to leave, to escape the clang of mind-curdling jingles and regain perspective. What a pathetic, almost shameful thing to be worrying about when children around the world are dying of dehydration and starvation.

So, what to buy the children for Christmas? Should I be sending a cow on their behalf to Africa, reminding them how lucky they are? That’s unfair. It’s not their fault. They don’t know they have too many toys or buy themselves too many toys. I don’t think they’re over-indulged; if they want something they’re told to put it on their Christmas and birthday lists. But they are children, so they experience the feelings of a friend having something they want, seeing an advertisement on television for something which looks exciting or enjoying unwrapping a gift.

The “too many toys” dilemma is more about parent’s guilt about what we have when we see pictures on the news of emaciated children in refugee camps. By restricting toys or moaning they have too many, we pass that guilt on to our children.

What do children want from a Christmas present? To see a big box under the tree which is for them; the excitement of a new toy. For a parent who thinks too much it is more complicated. What goes through my mind is – do we have space for that, will they actually play with it? Is this what they would like as their most special present, what is the one thing they would be most excited to receive? I try to listen to what they consistently ask for, and watch what they are enjoying.

What to get Baby J is the real dilemma because, as also mentioned by Whistlejacket, younger siblings are not interested in any toys aimed at their age. J only wants to play with what her brothers have left lying all over the floor – all small parts and completely unsuitable but she is endlessly happy and occupied. It would be sensible to buy her something small to unwrap and put the rest of the money in her bank account for when she’s a teenager and believes she “needs” so much. That’s not mean or unfair. Value or size do not actually equate to enjoyment; some of the things they’ve enjoyed most have cost 20p at a nearly new sale.

Because that’s the crux of this whole toy issue - what are all these toys we give them actually for? Entertainment? Enjoyment? To stimulate play? To stop them annoying us by saying they’re bored? That’s impossible. If children want to play they will play, with whatever is around. If they want to whine about being bored they will whine, however many toys are stacked up in their room.

And this is my issue with having too many toys. Dashing to Toys R Us and buying something new is not the answer to having contented children. It may actually be the problem. There is so much good stuff out there. It’s tempting to buy it but it actually becomes an encumbrance in so many ways. Are we nostalgic for the uncluttered days of “I only had a ball of string and sticks to play with and I was happy” because we don’t have room for all this plastic or because we think play was “better” then?

In A Spoonful of Sugar, Liz Fraser talks to her Granny talks about “the old days” to try and discover why we are losing the values of old fashioned parenting and if it really was better back then. It covers many issues and of course, in some aspects of childhood, things have changed in a positive way. But in terms of the burden of toys, I’m not sure.

Liz makes the point that many children don’t actually play with the expensive toys they are given. “Many of these “toys” have so little play potential it’s mind-blowing...they spend more time just playing imaginary games with odd bits and bobs they find lying around”. With my boys that’s true – they’ve had more fun over time with one of M’s old ties than anything. It’s a cliché but they do enjoy the box as much as the toy, making dens or houses, spaceships or boats, annoyed when I say the box has to go in the recycling because I’m tired of tripping over it. B and J have spent the afternoon playing ferociously together with a box something was delivered in, arguing over who gets to go in and out, sitting in it together shutting the lid on themselves. When T came home from school he insisted they “add detail”, cut bits out, drew things on and it is now a “race car”.

Watching them turn this box from a car to a rocket to an alien to a television, into which T sticks his head and says “welcome to the BBC News!” I am reminded that sometimes, as adults, we try and impose our sensibilities and understanding of order onto children. Children have an innate sense of fun, curiosity and exploration, they have not yet learnt how things are supposed to be done, they are just able to enjoy whatever is there. Thus they can gain endless pleasure from wet sand or driving cars through gravel. I’m learning that sometimes, to be better parents, we just have to let go, to give them the freedom to explore and learn and do what comes naturally. For children, life does not yet have to be lived a certain way, in fact, they are happier if they can wallow in the freedom of their instincts.

Of course this is not always possible; our job is to teach them how to function within the boundaries of modern society. But it does transposes directly into the issue of toys – they don’t need to have all the things we think they want to enjoy themselves, they will create their own props.

Liz Fraser’s Granny says “give them less and they’ll play with it more, and use their imagination to make up new games with it. That’s playing. We had so little, you know, but it didn’t worry us. We were happy and we played more than any kids I see playing today, despite all that they have. It’s the playing, not what you play with that matters.”

Inspired by what I’d read – and the rigid Ryan Air luggage restrictions – we tried an experiment and took VERY limited toys with us on holiday. Felt-tip pens, colouring books, card games, books and one car each. It was liberating, for all of us. M and I didn’t become resentful at carrying bags of toys which spent the holiday discarded across the floor by discontented children and the boys had a wonderful time making up games with bungee cords and upturned plastic furniture. This might sound nauseatingly nostalgic but I am becoming increasingly aware that the more we give our children the more we encumber them and stifle their capacity to explore.

A mum commented on Whistlejacket’s blog that she rarely bought her children toys herself - if she did it was because she wanted to get something that she would like them to have rather than something that someone else wanted them to have. I can relate to that; seeing something you think your child would enjoy or benefit from and so wanting to buy it. But I do believe that presents should be limited to Christmas and birthday, not becoming a regular event given to show love or alleviate guilt. My weakness is Nearly New Sales. I’ve stopped myself going because there is ALWAYS a bargain I can’t resist and we don’t have room for any more bargains!

How can you stop people buying your children too many toys? You can’t. And of course it is wonderful for children to be given presents, but there is a sensible limit – and for many of us it is actually just a practical question of space. Then there’s the environmental issue. Last time I was in Toys R Us there was a terrible thought in the back of mind that all the plastic we buy has go somewhere when it has broken beyond gluing. It was unsettling to imagine the contents of Toys R Us gumming up landfill sites for hundreds of years.

So, in conclusion, as well as clearing some space in the children’s rooms, I’m trying to encourage small toys that stimulate imaginative play of their own rather than being prescriptive about what you do with it; Lego, Playmobil (not the vast police station which would probably stand empty in a corner of the room getting dusty and in the way while B drove the hand cuffs around in the camper van), craft things, books (I am biased and could contradict this whole blog by saying you can never have too many books), dressing up clothes - all the old favourites. I don’t want to be a misery about Christmas but I do believe that in our modern world of easy, accessible consumerism, perspective has been lost when it comes to giving and receiving, to the detriment of everyone.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Promoting Kyrgyzstan with the Kyrgyz-British Society

Last week I travelled to London to attend the inaugural meeting of the Kyrgyz-British society. It was great. Stepping out of the train and across London I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. London is different. It smells different. It has a vibe. There’s a constant hum of traffic. There are so many people talking so many languages. Looking back my rural village seemed drab and ordinary in comparison.

I walked through affluent West London to get to the hotel where the reception was being held. It smelt of sweet Turkish coffee. Women were having their hair done in expensive salons. Three armed policemen stood at the end of a cobbled mews making me wonder who was down there. The Jimmy Choo shop looked like an elegant drawing room. I passed immaculately dressed mothers pushing designers prams and I started to understand some of the mummy lit I’d been reading. I’d scathingly dismissed the fictional London mums for their obsessive need to conform, but I was already feeling the pressure of wanting to keep up with everyone else.

The reception was in a smart hotel where there was no sign of the recession. Glossy people in gold jewellery were drinking expensive coffees and cocktails in the lounge. It was all opulence – and waste. I had this sinking feeling that the environment was doomed: in the washroom the towels were thick and disposed after each wipe. In the restaurant beautiful food was being removed from tables to be thrown away. Pulling up were endless shiny 4 by 4’s.

Eventually I stopped staring at other people and went to the reception. It was good to reacquaint with people who have been so supportive of Revolution Baby – the Kyrgyz Ambassador, his wife and other friends from the Kyrgyz Embassy; Tim Hutton of Yurtworks who makes yurts in Cornwall and offers yurt-stay holidays and Marat Akhmedjanov who publishes Discovery Central Asia and Open Central Asia.

I asked John Collis, chairman of the fledgling society, what they hope to achieve. The aim is to promote cultural and trade links through events showcasing Kyrgyz culture and art – both of which I can recommend.

Having lived there for three years I can say with experience that Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country and I would love it to have more recognition in the UK. I was therefore sad to read a recent article in the Telegraph, unappealingly titled Bored in Bishkek. (People love to alliterate with Bishkek, someone once wrote a very scathing review of my book under the title Boobs in Bishkek!)

Douglas Whitehead, cycling to India, was updating readers on his progress. He was frustrated because he was waiting in Bishkek for a Chinese visa. His frustration was taken out on Kyrgyzstan. Most depressing was his list of ten “do’s and don’ts if you ever find yourself waiting for a visa in Bishkek”; a very poor summary of three weeks in a unique place. All he could enthuse about was a full English breakfast and a book by Boris Johnson. I was most saddened by his second point – “Do not bother sightseeing around the city itself. There is absolutely nothing to see.”

I completely disagree. Bishkek is a fantastic city. While I found it very intimidating when I first arrived – it’s grey and austere and full of soviet concrete – I persevered and learnt to love the Kyrgyz capital, even becoming obsessively enthusiastic about the symmetrical geometry of Soviet architecture!

While many of my detractors would argue that I moaned too much in Revolution Baby about Bishkek, especially at first, I would defend myself by saying that I was newly pregnant and struggling to find my place, for the long-term, in a new environment. What I did do, unlike Douglas Whitehead, was try!

As a traveller, surely there’s always something to see in a new city? One of my favourite things to do in Bishkek was just walk the streets. That way I saw so many snapshots of Kyrgyz-Soviet life. It’s often the small detail which gives the greatest experience.

I suppose Douglas Whitehead is travel tired. Cycling around the world, I’m sure new places can lose their novelty after a few countries. Does that defeat the object of these long term trips, if the traveller becomes jaded and consumed by the tribulations of visa red-tape rather than what’s actually there? Can too much travel numb the joy of some new places, especially if its attributes aren’t obvious or anticipated?

Bishkek doesn’t have the lore of Samarkand or Istanbul so maybe it becomes a non-event on a long-distance traveller’s tour. Do you become lazy about exploring when you get the chance not to? Any excitement is reserved for unexpected pieces of home. Wallowing in the perceived luxury of familiar things is comparative comfort, a welcome respite from always breaking out into new territory. I know one round the world cyclist who watched a lot of Cold Feet episodes in Bishkek...and another ex-pat traveller who ate a lot of my Shreddies supply!

So, back to the inauguration of the Kyrgyz-British society. The canapés were great! (As a periodic single mother I don’t get out much and having spent the last month eating child-friendly food, because I’m too lazy to cook for myself, I probably ate more than was polite.)

There’s not much detail to report yet. It was the first event and we are all being encouraged to join up. For an application form please write to: Board of Directors, Kyrgyz-British Society, 64 Clifton Street, London, EC2A 4HB or ask for information through the Kyrgyz Embassy. I am promised that a website is being developed so I will link from here when there is. They hope to run at least four events a year. I’m hoping for a concert of haunting folk music.

Kyrgyzstan has so much to offer, I really hope the society can bring positive aspects of the country to wider attention. I’m not as widely travelled as Douglas Whitehead but I do believe that Kyrgyzstan maintains the luxury of being OFF the tourist route and therefore remains raw and untarnished. Its travel industry is wonderfully un-commercial; no coaches to mar your view, hundreds of miles of valleys and mountains to explore by yourself. In Bishkek alone you’ll find men in conical felt hats, jostling bazaars crammed into treacherously narrow streets, stalls selling sheep heads, beautiful felt carpets, massive Soviet statues, parks to promenade in, delicious lepioshka (bread) straight from a clay oven, and tiny babushkas selling cheap, tasty and colourful fruit, veg, jam, cordials and pickles on every street corner. Please, don’t be put off by the negativity of Douglas Whitehead’s article. Consider an expedition to Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan and form your own conclusions.

Ps, there must currently be lots of cyclists in Bishkek as Simon Evans and Fearghal O'Nuallain, undertaking the first Irish circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, arrived in Bishkek last week! You can find out more about them on their website.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Operation Christmas Child

This is a follow up post to one written by Whistlejacket about having too many toys. All the comments to her post were in agreement – yes we have too many toys; yes people are too generous at Christmas but what can we do, relatives like giving children presents; yes there’s no need to buy toys for children to tell them you love them; yes younger children are happy playing with older siblings' toys.

I could, and probably will, write my own post about too many toys and the attraction of de-cluttering to the nostalgic days of “I only had a ball of string and sticks to play with and I was happy”. But I don’t want to be distracted here from the more important message.

I replied to Whistlejacket that one way to help – with the guilt at least – is to get involved with Operation Christmas Child. You wrap a shoe box and pack it with gifts – toys, toiletries, underwear, felt tip pens - for a boy or girl in your chosen age category and it is delivered somewhere around the world as a treasured Christmas present.

I blogged about this last year as it was great to see my then five-year-old enthused about doing this for another child. Even at that age I believe they really can benefit from thinking about those who live very different lives.

Last Christmas, a combination of the huge pile of presents under the tree and their particularly bad and spoilt behaviour made me feel sickened. So I told them about the children whose homes are orphanages in Kyrgyzstan, a poor country where we lived for three years while my husband worked on a drinking water project. I described how many of these children spent most of their time in cots, ate very basic food and had no toys. This image really stuck with my eldest and when they are wasting food or being spoilt about what they have and what they want, a gentle reminder of the children in cots does have an effect. Sometimes he remembers independently – “would children in cots have this?” he asks. One friend admonished me for this saying children should be allowed to stay innocent, but I don’t see the harm in broadening their understanding and encouraging empathy.

My son has just brought his Operation Christmas Child leaflet home from school and we are going to pack this year’s box as a half term project. There’s load of information on their website If you are interested, don't delay as the deadline for dropping off any boxes is 18 November.

Friday, 23 October 2009

In Celebration of Lego

In his book Superpowers for Parents (click here for my review), Dr Stephen Briers writes “The pace of our modern world conditions our children to expect everything instantly...most children play computer games that deliver a rapid succession of satisfying “hits” in return for very little sustained effort. One drawback of this is that today’s children often have very little experience of the benefits of perseverance. They have never had opportunities to prove to themselves that it can be worthwhile tolerating frustration and pressing through unyielding circumstances.”

My mother, a nursery nurse, calls it “instant gratification”, that children expect everything to give them pleasure immediately.

This is a worrying trend of our increasingly technological world. I have therefore been very reassured to see my children endlessly enjoying Duplo and now Lego. T was given sets of Lego for his 6th birthday and I love watching the systematic way he goes about making the items, tipping the pieces from each bag into separate pots and methodically following the pictorial instructions, mostly by himself.

Maybe it helps having an engineer for a father. I once read an editorial about Lego in the New Civil Engineer (M gets the magazine and I like the pictures of incredible structures!) Antony Oliver wrote enthusiastically about the many virtues of Lego. Firstly, he said, it was his most successful foil at attracting his children away from the television and computer. Secondly he commented that compared to “so much of the tat which is put in front of our young, Lego is a very honest toy. You get out of it what you put in.”

His third point related to the positive impact for engineering if more children are playing with lego (his editorial was about sales of Lego being up) and this point ties in with Dr Briers. “Construction toys like Lego provide a vital part of the education process. They really do provide the bedrock for young minds to learn the basics of design, construction and problem solving and fuels their imagination as they construct something from nothing, over and over again.”

It’s not all perfect with Lego. T is currently building a house which is quite complicated so there’s more “mummy! There’s just one problem here...can you come and have a look”. Trying to ascertain why there was a green space where there should have been the end of a long white block whilst trying to lift his 18-month old sister out of the bath was not particularly easy. Neither was trying to get him away from the project and into bed.

But I am very grateful for his interest. Stephen Briers writes that “good emotional control and strong problem solving skills consistently emerge as two characteristics of children who are better at coping with life. In reality these two factors are related.” With all the challenges facing children in their lives, I am grateful that a toy my child loves is also helping him learn important emotional lessons.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

For women who like to write I can recommend a listen to today's edition of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on BBC iPlayer (available for a week).

It was focused around Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, discussing what it was like to be a woman writer then, and now. It ended with reflections on "a room of one's own". That is my dream, to have a room for all my books, photos, albums and projects where I can hide and write!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Babies Laughing

I'm not really into You Tube but I saw this on someone else's blog and it did make me smile.

There's something special about the fat chuckles of babies. But I couldn't help wondering what it was like when all four cried at once!

Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers

Following on from the last posts about books, books, books it seems apt to comment that is dangerous; one book leads to another. They are very good at linking books so that while looking at one title, another pops up and you think “that looks interesting” and click. Before you know it there are ten books in your basket. And I’m the sucker who buys them all.

A virtual “chain of books” is how I came across Dr Stephen Brier’s Superpowers for Parents: The Psychology of Great Parenting and Happy Children. It’s a very interesting parenting book and I have really enjoyed it.

I became a fan of Dr B reading his introduction. “Previous generations of parents would probably shake their head in wonder at the idea of us all striving to be better parents. In the old days, childrearing was just common sense or a traditional way of doing things, handed down largely unquestioned from one generation to the next...our parenting, like so many aspects of modern life, is now subject to constant scrutiny and evaluation from both within and without. Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt-stricken affair.”

The best summary of what the book is about is in the epilogue. SB says he wrote the book with three goals in mind. One, to try and help parents understand WHY children misbehave. Two, that skirmishes we have with our children are nothing compared to the internal battles our children have with their own feelings and impulses and three, to encourage a shift in emphasis in parenting beyond the management of children’s behaviour to embrace the broader opportunities and privileges and to acknowledge our duty to equip them with the psychological skills they need.

As I enjoy understanding the psychology of what children do I found it fascinating. Superpowers is all about how your child views the world and the emotions they are experiencing – emotions that are often more than they know how to deal with. It’s not so much about how to cope with bad behaviour but what emotions might be causing the bad behaviour and how to help control them.

I can already see it translating into my understanding of how my children are behaving, and maybe why, every day. It has already changed my approach to some situations, trying to stop and think how they are feeling and the effect that is having. (Although having written that I’ve not been terribly patient with my three year old lately, we always seem to be rushing and I always seem to be dragging him along, chivvying him to hurry – and I don’t need SB to tell me that’s not positive for anyone. We need to slow down and not always try and cram so much into every minute, but that’s not always possible, especially when you are doing everything on your own. I think we are all ready for the pause that is Half Term.)

An Amazon reviewer commented “I have found since reading this book that I am much more aware of my own responses and attitude towards children's behaviour and speech in school as well as at home.” This comment was in relation to a child who was always negative about what happened to them – “I never win because I am such a loser” etc. This is all about “core beliefs” and how important it is to “ensure our children construct healthy core beliefs about themselves”.

SB encourages us to look at problems from a different perspective – often there will be a completely unexpected cause or more involved problem. He gives an example of a boy who did a “mind map” about why he was always late for school with the result that his parents learnt he was overtired because he was keeping himself awake to avoid nightmares and anxiety attacks.

One of my favourite sections is about why children are angels at school then come home and turn into horrors. “it is precisely because he is behaving well at school...the exercise of self control in one context may be using up available resources in the other.” You may say this is obvious but appreciating the processes Dr B explains has helped me be more understanding with my children:
  • the brain’s processing power, and in particular our capacity to devote conscious attention to things, is a finite resource;
  • adults have already automated many aspects of our lives, children are still assimilating many of the skills we take for granted so their concentration is being taxed to a much greater degree just by the routine business of daily life;
  • mental tasks involving a lot of processing power may have an effect on children’s ability to keep their behaviour in check because self control is a form of mental labour;
  • self control is like a muscle and can increased with exercise but also pushed to the point of fatigue;
  • if we can help our children become more efficient at some mental tasks then we can lighten the load of the “prefrontal cortex” leaving more resources available for other functions such as self control;
  • to help children master themselves we need to adopt a holistic approach that recognises how the different systems connect up and influence each other;
  • carrot and stick approach may take certain behaviour out of context – we can ignore the fact that children’s ability to behave well is just one outcome of the mastery of several distinct but interrelated mental skills.

At times the book deals with some pretty intense and difficult situations, more than the “why have you just hit your brother again?” issues I am currently struggling with. However, the point is that those everyday problems might be derived from deeper reasons – the superpower is to spot them. SB hopes to equip you and your child with skills to best deal with the difficult situations, or hopefully avoid them in the first place. I have definitely learnt techniques I can use now and could come back to should certain problems arise. I have also been encouraged to realise how helpful things I have been doing naturally actually are.

I also found Superpowers beneficial for my own emotional development; there are different strategies we can all learn. Harnessing your own emotions and personality is so important as a parent because your children learn by copying you.

I have enjoyed reading this book – it is not heavy going – and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about why their children are reacting in such a way and long term ways to help – there aren’t your standard “quick fixes” for behaviour. There are also some great quotes used, such as one from Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Books Waiting on the Shelf

Thank you for the great response to my question What are you Reading. I've been really enjoying all the book conversations.

Following on from my comment to Katherine about the Paul Auster book and a conversation I had with a friend last night, I have a new question: Are there any books on your shelf that have been there for years? You know you will read them one day but it just never seems to be the right time. Or are you a "buy a book and read it immediately" type person?

I have lots of books on my shelves because I collect/hoard books, buying things that look interesting all the time, especially in charity shops and from fete book stalls! Therefore I have lots of books that have been there for years, waiting for the right time. I'll give some examples to get the discussion going:

Travel Books, or books set in specific places, like the Paul Auster New York Trilogy - when I go away I like to try and read something set in the place/country so have books waiting in anticipation.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - this has been staring at me for years. I know that it is traumatic and I have not yet found the right time to invest the emotional energy in it.

Likewise, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This is about a 15 year old boy who commits murders at his school and his mother who then reflects on his upbringing. Since becoming a mother I've been very interested in this book but never quite brave enough to start reading it.

So, do you have any books that have been waiting for years on your shelf?

Monday, 12 October 2009

What Are You Reading?

I’ve borrowed this idea from my friend Alastair, who in turn borrowed it from another blogger. I love books and always find it fascinating to hear what other people are reading. Therefore, the idea of this post is to get as many people as possible to share:

1. What they have just read
2. What they are reading now
3. What they are planning to read next.

What to read next is always one of my favourite decisions. I spend ages pondering it, staring at spines on my shelf wondering where to go next.

Alastair has a huge community of followers, many reading adventuring books about marathons and adventures on ice. I felt slightly conspicuous with my contribution, the only person to include a parenting book! I would love to build up a similar community of readers to respond to mine and each other’s thoughts. (I’m anxious this is a little presumptuous for a blogging nobody like me but I feel inspired to try!)

Therefore, I’m making this post in the hope of tempting you to comment and become involved. Please let me know what you enjoy – or don’t – about my blog so that I know what is most entertaining or interesting.

My book list is as follows:
  1. Love My Rifle More Than You – Kayla Williams (reviewed below)
  2. Superpowers for Parents – Dr Stephen Briers (I need all the help I can get! Have nearly finished and will review it here when I have).
  3. Am still enjoying pondering what’s next. Might be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because I’m hosting a book club on that in November. Or it might be Feminista by Erica Kennedy, mentioned to me by a fellow blogger.

I look forward to hearing what you are reading...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Perforations on Kitchen Roll

This morning I’ve been making a birthday cake. It’s a perilous occupation. I have on my shoulders the weight of expectation of a 5 turning 6 year old and it’s heavy. A few weeks ago I heard him tell someone “my daddy knows how to make a cake shaped like a six”. Sh**, I thought. His daddy is working away in Bangladesh so it falls to me to achieve the perfection that everything must be when you are six and it is your most special day of the year.

Baby J was watching in her high chair, begging for bits of cake mixture with an open mouth like a fledgling, cheeping “me-me-me-me”. We were listening to Dame Ellen MacArthur on Desert Island Discs. Something Dame Ellen said resonated with me to the extent that I went to iPlayer and have listened again and transcribed it. (I am fortunate that the relatives of the show’s founder recently agreed to make it available on iPlayer! This interesting fact I had read in The Week and disregarded as irrelevant until today!)

Why am I spending my morning transcribing this when I should be concentrating on a cake? Because it’s easy to get bogged down in the world of motherhood. As important as that role is, I believe it helps to put things in a wider context. It’s so important to me to think and reflect and other people’s perspective can be so valuable as a prompt to evaluate your own life and priorities.

Dame Ellen said: “The winter after the Round the World I went down to the southern ocean again and I went down to an island called South Georgia and I spent two months down there, part of that was camping on an island and for the first time I actually stopped. And I realised something for the first time that really jarred inside me and that was the fact that when you sail around the world on a boat you take with you the minimum of resources and you don’t waste anything. You never leave a light on, you never leave a computer screen on, everything is looked after. You only have what you have and if it doesn’t last til the end, you won’t make it, and that could be your life or it could be the fact you simply don’t break the record.

And then whilst I was in South Georgia I realised that on land we do not do the same thing. We don’t see things as precious any more, we take what we have for granted, you’d never do that on a boat. If you need some kitchen roll you tear off a corner, not a whole square because someone somewhere thought that perforated line is what everyone needs. It jarred inside me and it started to make me think and I was looking at plans for the future and it just hit home to me that we cannot keep doing that because this world I thought as a child was the biggest most adventurous place you could imagine is actually not that big and there’s an awful lot of us on it and we’re not managing the resources that we have as you would on a boat because we don’t have the impression that these resources are limited.”

I love the comment about kitchen roll, I think it’s a great analogy for our wastefulness and arrogance about what we have – why use less when a whole piece is available – and the knock-on effect that an arbitrary decision can often have.

You can listen to the whole interview (for the next week) here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Troubleshooting the Dynamics between Siblings

Having three children can be chaotic but, interestingly, I feel a third child has brought balance and almost calm to our family because of the relationships it has created. One of my favourite things about mothering is the dynamic between the children.

Although boys T (5 – but 6 this month!) and B (3) fight constantly, they are incredibly close. Sometimes I wonder if they are too close. They share a room – this is not ideal, but unavoidable. They do everything together. B follows T around and copies everything he does and I sometimes worry if this is restraining for B. He was desperate to start at nursery, because T was there. But it upset him when T went into the school room to do different activities and unsettled him when T left to start school. I feel B is really only now establishing himself at nursery. Will the same happen at school, will he just shadow T around the playground rather than being his own person?

I also worry that this adoration and dependency is having a negative effect on behaviour. B used to be such an obedient little boy, devastated if told off. Recently he has become increasingly naughty and defiant, worryingly immune to discipline – he just responds with a cheeky grin. It has taken me too long to realise that this is just his way of seeking attention from me – and T – and that what is needed is not just discipline but positive parenting. Too much of what I do is aimed at T, with B tagging along, expected to keep up because he does.

So, I resolved to treat him more as an individual with his own needs, to make sure, for example, I also read stories for his age group – and to give him some special mummy time. Today in the car I told him about this and said he would have “special mummy time” when he came home from nursery. He could choose what we did. He said he wanted to do puzzles – and added that sister J (17 months) could join in too. I felt touched by his consideration. He’d been promised special mummy time and his first thought was to share it with his little sister.

We did the puzzles. We all enjoyed it. B is adept at puzzles and I love watching him work out where everything goes. I suggested J pass him pieces, which she did, smiling, clapping and excited when we said thank you.

Walking up to school to collect T, B said “I love you mummy”. He often says this, he is wonderfully affectionate. Then he said “I’m going to be a good boy at home now”. It was as if, with a child’s pure intuition, he knew exactly what the special mummy time had been about. I stopped walking to give him a cuddle, which he was very pleased about.

It’s not all perfect. This evening there have been the usual fights, over a Spiderman colouring book and who was washing their hands first at the basin. But I feel more confident about them because I believe I’m coping in a positive way. There will always be issues between siblings but I hope that my new strategy will help, B especially, feel more confident about his place within the family.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

8 Tiny Ways in which I'm Improving My Life

This is a really interesting post from my friend Alastair Humphreys – adventurer, author, motivational speaker. I met Al when he cycled through Bishkek and stayed with us in our Soviet flat. The story of his four year cycle around the world is fascinating, as are Al’s blog posts. Like me he thinks and reflects on things, but whereas my thoughts are bogged down with children, his are more wide-reaching.

There are some good ideas for finding satisfaction in life in this 8 Ways blog post and the subsequent comments. This being a Motherhood and Anarchy blog I should probably add that not all of them are possible for parents - I can’t go for a run every morning and spend the moments when the kettle is boiling dashing around attending to chores and child demands. But, much of what is suggested I do already (I’m nauseatingly anti-television, it sucks you in with, mostly, such trivia and wastes voids of time) and I agree entirely with the sentiments; to push yourself, try harder, start small and aim big. Al is taking a photo every day; it helps him to look for something positive and interesting. There is beauty around us in the normality of every day; children help you see that. Today it was the clouds, leaves and reflected autumn light. T pointed out a tiny green caterpillar. B loved the enormous bright moon rising in the darkening sky.

Reading this post and comments I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities of what is out there to do, read, browse on the Internet, listen to, reflect on, write about then start again. Oh how I wish I had endless time. As I don’t I think one of Al’s points is key – use what time you do have to maximum effect.

Ps, Al suggests having a cold shower – that one’s not for me!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Mother's Tears

This morning I went to Town. I don’t like going to Town. I’ve adapted to living next to cows and green fields so that in Town I feel claustrophobic. It felt crowded; there were students everywhere, making me feel old in their frighteningly fashionable clothes. There were roadworks and ambulances and runners and cyclists and lots and lots of mums. Mums pushing prams with baby toes peeping out. Mums pushing buggies with grumpy toddlers who’d rather be walking. Mums with young babies scooped into car seats, smiling because the sun was coming out and they’d managed to leave the house. One mum had a white faux leather pram; I thought it was hideous, then had to remind myself that we are all different and it is those differences which made the world so exciting.

Another mother, walking down hill in a residential part of town, was crying. I wanted to stop and ask if I could help but there’s never anywhere to park quickly in Town.

All the way home I thought about her tears. Motherhood can be so isolating. You so badly want to do it right which just makes it worse when you feel you are doing it all wrong. Everyone else around you seems to be laughing and coping. You hear nauseating clichéd comments “I wouldn’t have it any other way!” What does that actually mean? Is it realistic to love every minute of motherhood? Of course I love my children and live in constant fear of them being run over on the way to school, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when I wish they’d all go away and leave me alone.

I often wonder why we have children. Why do we put ourselves through these extraordinary years of relentless work and worry? In my cynical moments I decide we only have children so that we won’t be lonely at Christmas when we are old. I read somewhere that having a family is “life-enhancing” and despite my cynicism I can relate to that. I love the dynamic between my children (when they aren’t fighting) and enjoy the things they say and do with each other that make me laugh. But I still don’t think that enjoying and loving your children has to mean “you wouldn’t have it any other way”.

Having children is a tough choice, it changes your life. My life would have been very different if I’d committed to being a lawyer and strived for partnership. Over the years I have stood at crossroads and had to make decisions about which path to take. I feel that none of those paths have been right or wrong, they just lead to very different lives. When feeling down and finding things tough it's easy to pile on the self-blame thinking, "well, you chose this life". I've realised it's important to remember that just because you make a choice doesn’t mean everything about it will always be easy.

The scientific answer to why we have children is that we are biologically programmed to reproduce. Yes, I got to a stage in my life when having children felt like the right thing to do. Whether you stay at home with them is another difficult decision for a modern mother. In Town, stay-at-home mums were in abundance, striding across pavements with “I’m doing it right for my children” confidence. Last night on the news there was a feature on some research which had concluded that children of stay-at-home mums had healthier lifestyles. Or something, I wasn’t really listening, I was watching the pictures. A group of mums were at a music and movement group in a park, smiling ecstatically while their toddlers danced to Bob the Builder. I couldn’t help wondering how many smiles were real and how many mums were really thinking “I wish I was at home reading the paper”. Is this a dreadful secret that all mums carry? That very often we’d rather be using our brains than endlessly posting blocks through round holes? To my great relief, the Yummy Mummy who was interviewed as part of the news item completely dismissed the research and said “mums can’t win can they”!

It’s this solidarity of mums which has saved me – I am lucky to live in a fantastic community. My wish, for the sake of the crying mum who I saw this morning, is that we can all avoid the clichés and admit that mothering is hard. There are good days when you do love every moment and bad days when the trick is to just get through the day without yelling too much or crying. Yes, having children can be a wonderful and unique experience, even bettering - my life would be more lonely and selfish without my children and I’ve learnt a lot about myself and my less attractive traits by looking in the mirror of my children who reflect back what they see.

But motherhood can also be claustrophobic and utterly overwhelming. Children push us to our limits and attitudes of society pressure us to strive for perfection. “Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt stricken affair.”* These are all issues I hope Emmeline, my fictional mum, will explore in the book I am planning. This morning on Radio 4 I heard someone say “human life is now too hurried. We need to take the time to find special moments; they can make such a difference.” I missed the context but have taken the phrase and a mother’s tears as a reminder that I must always find moments for my “mum” friends when they are struggling.

*Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers

Monday, 28 September 2009

Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams

Kayla Williams enlisted in the US army at the age of twenty-three and learnt Arabic in order to be Military Intelligence. She was posted to Iraq, staying for a year. This book was sold as telling how it was to be “Young and Female in the US Army.”

On some pages I was really disappointed, on others I was fascinated. The beginning is frustrating, lots of anecdotes about the injustices of sexual inequality then compromising paragraphs about “partying with the guys” and having casual sex. I’d heard Williams on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and was attracted to the book by her seeming intelligence and eloquence. This I was not getting from Love My Rifle. Just a lot of sex and swearing.

However, once in Iraq, in between the swearing and gripes about the reality of being female, there were interesting insights. All depressing.

War is degrading and dehumanising. It turns people crazy so that they do things they wouldn’t normally do. Williams describes the situations they live in; the clothes you have to wear, the heat, the deprivations, no showers or toilets - if you had dysentery, would you like to deal with it holding a plastic bag to your mouth and one to your backside with nowhere to wash? And the pressure of wondering if you are going to get killed, what that does to you and your attitude towards locals – “If you see someone heading toward you, he could be approaching to offer you information. He could have an explosive device strapped to his waist and be about to kill you. He might want to ask for food. You have to make that call – instantaneously...It did occur to me that I was seeing a part of myself I would never have seen otherwise”.

But if you spend time in this aggressive and unnatural environment, you’re going to lose the connection to what is normal and acceptable in regular society. Williams’ war wasn’t really about killing people but about living in uncomfortable conditions doing not a lot that seems productive. This book allowed me a little more understanding about how people can be warped into committing atrocities. It made me think that war, the way it’s fought and lived, can never be productive for anyone on any side.

It was the small, seemingly insignificant details which I found most distressing and did most damage to my opinion of the US army. For example, when they are in convoy they hurl their rubbish out of the trucks. I imagined thousands of American soldiers littering Iraq with plastic bottles and chocolate wrappers, an image of utter ignorance and disrespect.

Williams describes the depressing incompetence of the military; inept officers; no apparent coherent strategy; soldiers just hanging around getting nervous and as a result intimidating Iraqis; orders to secure locations with razor wire, ending healthy and uplifting interaction with local people. “You had to wonder if the subsequent souring of relations with the locals was connected to the escalation in our security. Whether when you cut people’s access off to their religious shrines and began to treat them like criminals, they then maybe started to act like criminals?”

There were sections of the book when I felt Williams belittles her intelligence and let herself down – but then she was just being honest about what she’d done and they were aspects of her character I wasn’t so keen on – she admits she learnt much from the army. I’m still not sure what work she actually DID, “running ops” was just listening I think, but that’s probably just a fault of my ignorance. But her reflections and mental wrangling were interesting – and reassuring. Speaking Arabic she is able to interact and relate to Iraqis on a positive level, they’re not all just “the enemy” a categorisation she admits many soldiers default to when they are constantly being shot at or ambushed. It’s interesting to see her culture shock when she returns home, how she views her compatriots having seen a very different life. “Everyone in America was fat. Everyone was on some stupid diet. How could a diet encourage you to eat bacon and forbid you to eat bananas?”

She’s not positive about the war; she went into the army for financial rather than ideological reasons. Was that foolish or naive? But at least she questions the deeper purpose of what exactly was trying to be achieved in Iraq. “The more we know about what brought about this war in the first place, the harder and harder it gets. It was a year of my life. And what the fuck for? What was it all about? Not having an answer for that makes it hard. Makes it feel dirty.” Soldiers are professional; war is what they’re paid to do. That may be so, but as this book so vividly shows, soldiers are also human.

As for the reflections on being Young and Female in the US Army, this is a tough issue. If you are a female in a male dominated environment, do you put up and shut up or do you feel angry about men looking at your boobs as you walk across the “chow” hall? Surrounded by hundreds of young men, full of fear and adrenaline, sexually frustrated, can you do your job properly or is the sexually-discriminating reality that you are, as a woman, by definition a distraction, a temptation, however good at your job you might be? Can there ever be true equality in such an unnatural social situation?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Role Model

There is no doubt that parents are role models for their children. One of the saddest thing I've heard recently involves pupils in a school in a deprived area of Kent. A friend of mine teaches there and he told me that if you ask children in his class what they want to be when they grow up, they tell you they want to be on benefits. They can aspire to nothing else if every adult they see makes claiming benefits their entire vocation.

Many feminists accuse stay at home mums of being bad role models for their daughters - will daughters aspire to anything other than homemaking if they don't see their mothers working? This argument may have its roots in the guilt of working mothers; a convenient excuse for their absence. The relationship between feminism and what it means to be a modern woman and mother are complex; issues I’ve written about before and will keep coming back to. I write about this today because at tea time my sons gave me a strong illustration of the power of role models and gender stereotypes.

I was bustling around in my usual way, fetching drinks and mopping up when T, the five year old, commented "it's hard being a mummy, that's why I'm glad I'm a boy". "We will go to work when we're daddies won't we" B, the three year old added. Baby J smiled at me from her chair. Although I was amused by their simplification of life - mummy mops up spilt milk, daddy goes to work, I hope, for my daughter's sake, they will learn that these roles can cross gender boundaries. A positive aspect of our complicated modern society is that women are no longer forced into roles by etiquette and expectation. As my children understand more about my life I hope they will appreciate that I have enjoyed a variety of vocations and have chosen to be a housewife. An important example I wish to teach them is that a worthy goal to work towards is the luxury of choice.