Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sports Day

Today was my son’s first school Sports Day, for me a morning of stomach-churning emotion. I hated Sports Day when I was at school. I was one of the chubby girls; embroiled every year in an unspoken battle with my friend Sarah to see which of us would come last. I can still remember the fear of standing at the start, loathing the tension of waiting for the starting gun. I dreaded the indignity of pushing my uncoordinated limbs down the track for the shame of losing in front of the whole school and their parents.

In the build up to Sports Day I have ensured my emotions were hidden from T. I’ve been relieved to see that he has been utterly excited about the whole event, talking animatedly about their practises. My only concern (other than the fear that there would be a mother’s race) was when he told me he won the practice running race and seemed completely confident that he would win on Sports Day. I tried to tell him that this might not happen and prepare him for disappointment but he was having none of it.

It was therefore with a churning stomach that I stood with the other mums and dads on the hot school field. As T arrived with his class I could see that he was finally nervous too; he was pulling funny faces and had his arms crossed awkwardly across his chest. More than ever I worried about his response to not winning.

Rows of children in white shirts and blue shorts took their places in turn at of the top of the track. All my childhood emotions came back as I watched them racing their hardest towards the finish line, many moving awkwardly and looking rather bewildered about what they should be doing. I wanted to cry as I saw the stragglers, caught up in their sacks or skipping ropes, still struggling on while the race was won and finished. Their discomfort was palpable.

T didn’t win his running race. He started well but spent too much effort looking round to see where everyone else was. I watched him wait to be given a number to show he’d come first, second, or third, approaching a teacher with expectation. When he didn’t have one I held my breath for his reaction. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders as he returned to his place. He was still smiling. He did better in the egg and spoon race, concentrating entirely on keeping the egg on the spoon and walking steadily to a clear win. I was so excited for him and he was so proud.

Some of my demons were leaving me and I started to relax. It was a nicely organised event with groups of children doing obstacle races and different games round the field, the focus not just intensely on the track. Despite my personal dislike of Sports Day I do not believe it should be stopped or made non-competitive. Winning and losing, succeeding and failing are things we have to cope with throughout life and so today has been an important lesson for T. Sports Day at his school is all about winning points for your house and I like this collective element, that the children identify with working together and being responsible for the success of their team not just themselves.

I’m writing this in the quiet hour I get while Baby J is asleep and right now all I want is to see T and give him a big hug to say well done. Well done for winning the egg and spoon race, but also well done for coping so bravely with the disappointment of not winning the running race, which I know he was so desperate to do.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Let's Play Pirates!

We have been lent some garden toys by a friend who’s having an extension done and can’t currently use them in their garden. They arrived at the weekend, a slide and a plastic caterpillar tunnel. B, the three year old, immediately climbed on top of the tunnel and said “it’s a pirate ship” and the boys launched into huge game of being pirates at sea. It was great to see their creativity.

Watching them I wondered where they first learn about pirates. Pirates are not part of everyday life, at least not in our village, so the concept must be introduced to them. Normally make believe games reflect what children see in the world around them, they play “going to the doctor”, “mums and dads”, “shopping at the supermarket”. “Pirates”, I realised, is a game we actively introduce to our children. And I couldn’t help but wonder why.

Pirates are violent criminals. I’m not just thinking about those off the coast of Somalia, even cartoon pirates carry cutlasses, walk the plank, fly a flag with a skull on it and go through life with the intention of stealing someone else’s treasure, or at least beating someone else to the treasure. But, despite these criminal undertones, “pirates” has been identified as a theme appealing to little boys – along with dinosaurs, farmers, and builders – and incorporated into children’s culture. There are books and television programmes about pirates, people theme birthday parties around pirates, toy manufacturers produce toys and dressing up outfits and you can buy games, cards and clothes with pirates on. Pirates are deemed socially acceptable.

It occurred to me it’s an odd thing to encourage boys to play. Do children even really know what pirates do? They know what they are taught, the parody of cartoon pirates, so wear handkerchiefs on their heads and say “ah-ha me hearties”. But I wondered what my boys would answer if I asked them what pirates do. They know what farmers do, they know what builders do. “Pirates” are just good fun, oddly dressed men who sail around on ships all day.

Watching my boys today I thought how refreshingly different this was in our modern society obsessed with what’s politically correct and “nice”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disapproving of playing pirates, just sharing a thought process. I was told today about a little girl who came home from pre-school singing “baa baa rainbow sheep”. In our paranoid society where sheep are not even allowed to be black any more, pirates have slipped through the “niceness” net. I wonder how long it will be before an anxious official realises this and decides pirates should come off the list of approved games so our children can no longer play pirates without taboo.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Mommy Bloggers

This week, doing research for an interview, I found myself drawn into a network of “mommy bloggers”. I enjoyed reading their blogs. As one wrote “there is something powerful in the shared experience of motherhood, regardless of the situation or circumstances.” I find it very therapeutic to discover mothers who think about the same questions and express sentiments I am feeling, something I hope other mothers can gain from my writing. Therefore I would like to introduce some of the mommy bloggers here:

Gaijinmama – this is Suzanne Kamata, editor of Call Me Okaasan, the anthology I am featured in. She has a fascinating range of subjects on her site and writes about mothering bicultural twins in Japan.

Twinutero – Katherine Barrett is another writer who contributed to Call Me Okaasan. I am a fan as she eloquently expresses many sentiments I often feel. My favourite quote being “I love my kids; I love being a mother. But at times I feel oppressed by a job that tolerates no days off and no off days.”

Motherlogue – I was drawn in by her phrase “Motherlogue is a place to capture my words, thoughts and emotions along this journey”. I can relate to that.

black and A(broad) – I read a review of Call Me Okaasan on this blog and loved the quote “oftentimes mothers fall prey to self-sabotaging thoughts that promote isolation”.

While doing this research I've been thinking about how important it is to have a network. I am very lucky to live within a fantastic village community where I know many wonderful mothers who give me vital support through their friendship. The Internet, I've realised, has created the possibility for a parallel network of cyber-mums across the world. I'm now looking forward to reading about these global mothers and learning from their alternative perspectives.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Elderflower Cordial

This is one of my favourite times of year: the smells and associations of summer; enjoying the first hot days or the anticipation of those to come (not that they’ve materialised over the last two years); the rumble of a hay-making tractor; looking forward to Wimbledon. I love seeing the bright green of a grass tennis court on the television screen and hearing the comforting crack of balls being hit. When I lived abroad it was a sound which made me homesick for an English summer. With Wimbledon comes harvest; I usually harvest our soft fruit listening to the Women’s Final. This week I’ve made my Elderflower Cordial.

I think I enjoy making Elderflower Cordial more for the smell while making it than actually drinking it. Without trying to sound too like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I enjoy the rawness of such a fantastic ingredient from nature. There’s no boiling or cooking, you just shake the heads to get out most of the insects (you do strain it later) then plunge them into sugar syrup. This retains the delicate sweetness which I love in elderflowers, their soft yellow pollen dust which gets everywhere when you pick them. For the twenty-four hours the cordial is infusing, the smell pervades the house, a fantastic scent of flowers and lemon.

It’s a great product of the hedgerows, which are looking fantastic at the moment - sadly I’ve been studying them closely recently, out looking for our lost cat. There are buttercups, honeysuckle, red and white campion, tall pink foxgloves, sprays of cow parsley, balls of purple clover, drooping heads of oats, thick moon daisies, tall wavy soft grass heads, hay fever for my three-year old.

There is always something to remember about making the cordial. The first year I tried to make it I realised it was not as easy at seems - I couldn’t find any citric acid anywhere as all the old dears in the district had bought it all. Now I’ve turned into a country bumpkin myself I’m one of those irritating people who buys their citric acid in May so I can smugly have full supplies when the elderflowers come out.

This year my one-year old daughter came to pick the flowers with me in her buggy, grinning while I ducked into the tree for the best heads. When shaking them over the sink a little maggot like grub dropped out, that was a bit too much nature, even for me.

My cordial is successfully made for this year and T (the five-year old) has developed a taste for it. My husband has caught the elderflower enthusiasm – he’s currently brewing some elderflower champagne. I’m expecting to be woken in the night by the shed exploding.

The very simple elderflower cordial recipe I use is by Sophie Grigson and can be found at:

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Report on the School Trip

T came out of school and collapsed theatrically at my feet because he was sooooo tired. Said the best part of the day was having lunch. Wasn't sick on the coach. Success!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

First School Trip

My five year old is out on his first school trip. He is very excited. Last week he came home with a note and specific instructions: he had to have a lunchbox with a handle and no unhealthy food in it. Since then I have been duly making preparations as directed.

They are going to a farm. I think T is more excited about the logistics – the packed lunch and going on the coach. He’s been asking me to have packed lunches for ages but I have told him no – I can’t be bothered to think what to put together every morning and think that a school lunch will be much better for him. He was unmoved by my reasoning, but did listen when I said that I never had packed lunch at school. “Never?” he asked, amazed. He was triumphant when he realised he’d need a packed lunch for the trip. “You can’t say no on that day” he pointed out with irritating logic during our most recent discussion.

When your child starts school you begin a long process of letting go. The first school trip is another milestone I’ve realised. I’ve become used to dropping him off at school and knowing where he is all day. On trip day I will have no idea where he is.

He is very excited about the coach, something I don’t share. He will be leaving the sanctuary of the school premises and going out on the roads. I remember all too well news footage of those lumbering vehicles overturned on tight country bends, their passengers broken and bent inside. I appreciate that this is obsessive maternal worrying but I can’t help it sometimes - my worst fears always surface into my relaxing mind just as I’m dozing off at night.

On a practical note, T is car sick, a trait we first discovered winding into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I have taken precautions; a travel sick pill, a plastic bag in his pocket, a request to his teacher that he sits at the front. But I’ll also be hoping all day that he feels well and the excitement of his first trip is not marred by the discomfort and embarrassment of throwing up in front of his class.

I was glad to see many other mothers in the playground flapping as much as me: have you got waterproof trousers? Have you done sun cream? Do they need shoes as well as wellies? It was a new experience for all of us, used to being out with our children and deciding when they should eat, wee, change shoes or put on sun cream. The trip has introduced a new level of independence for mother and child. Next time we’ll all be much more relaxed; I watched with envy as one mother with older children casually put her son’s backpack in the line then wandered off to chat while the rest of us fussed.

T walked proudly up to school with his lunchbox, showing it off to friends we met. He was much more calm than I. In the car I’d started fretting about whether he might wet himself on the coach journey. I’d mentioned spare pants and he’d thought silently then said “I’m a big boy now”. He is. And I must learn to let go.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Saffia Farr on Saffia Corden

I cannot believe there have been ten years of Big Brother. I’m not a fan but it’s become an unwanted milestone of the year, so much so that a period of my life can be measured against it.

When the Big Brother phenomenon first dominated I was still working as a lawyer in London. I did not join the craze and watch it but it still impacted on my life – friends would agree to meet for the evening, but only if they could stop to watch the Big Brother update at 11pm.

The only year I paid any attention was when we were living in Aswan in southern Egypt. I had few friends and little social life so, I am almost ashamed to admit, I became very attached to the housemates. Every morning when my husband left for work I would go on line and vicariously live a piece of home by catching up with their news. I was also listening to Wimbledon on-line, a frustrating occupation as we often lost connection and Tim Henman kept almost losing. Big Brother was great entertainment for a lonely ex-pat. That was the year of Jade Goody.

Since then I have had no interest in Big Brother, I could not tell you who won or name any of the contestants since Jade. This year, however, I’m feeling myself inexorably drawn in because a housemate has my name! Last night my brother texted me with the news. I turned on the television and had the odd experience of seeing MY name on the screen behind Davina McCall.

It’s not always easy being Saffia. Most people pronounce it wrong and everyone spells it differently. When I was at school I hated it, wishing I was called Sarah as another new teacher stumbled when she came to me in the register. As an adult I love my name and its relative uniqueness – until now the only other Saffia I knew of was the one I was named after.

Sadly that is all to change as a Saffia enters the ubiquitous Big Brother house. Saffia will now become a household name, more children will be called Saffia and I will lose my insignificant air of mystique. I have some comfort in that her Saffia is pronounced differently, but pronunciation counts for nothing on the Internet.

It’s also slightly worrying that the other Saffia is already controversial, not the greatest role model for our name. Saffia Corden is also a mother. She has two children, one just seven months old I learnt when I googled our name last night. There was already outrage at her leaving her children for reality TV. Saffia was already a “b*tch”, “selfish”, accused of a “kind of child abuse”. “Can you imagine how the kid will despise its mum in years to come when the BB scrapbook is brought out?” people were asking in chat rooms. “A baby of 7 months old will change DRAMATICALLY (if she stayed in the house for the full three months), how could anyone miss out on their child’s life for Big Brother?!” Other contributors suggested calm, saying she should take this chance if she had it, but the general conclusion about Saffia was negative.

I agreed with some of the sentiments – I feel guilty for leaving my children to go to a pilates class - but was surprised by the speed of the vitriol. As my blog is about motherhood I’m wondering if anyone will get confused and start sending me hate-mail-e-cards, Internet Howlers. Only time will tell what the Big Brother media spotlight will do to my much loved name. But right now I’m feeling nostalgic for the old days of Saffia obscurity.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

England Football Fan Shot in Kyrgyzstan

Sweating on the cross trainer in the gym I noticed a headline about Kyrgyzstan scrolling across the bottom of the Sky News screen. Sadly it was not a positive one; an England football fan had been shot in the leg. Great, I thought, now news channels will be negative about Kyrgyzstan.

Having lived there for three years I know Kyrgyzstan to be a refreshingly remote country of vast and beautiful mountains and wonderfully hospitable people. Where else could you turn up at a remote yurt (felt tent) in the dead of night and be welcomed in to drink fermented mare's milk, eat cold sheep fat and sleep in a squashed but cosy huddle with the family?

Back home I went on line to the Sky News site to find out more - apparently this is the second most clicked story on Sky today.

Click here for story.

Reading the piece I felt relieved - in my opinion the England football fan came off with the negative publicity, not Kyrgyzstan. He and four others had been chanting in a bar in the capital, Bishkek, and had refused to stop when a local asked them to. So one was shot. Okay, this is not normal, sociable behaviour that I should condone - but then neither is obnoxiously chanting football slogans in someone else's country.

I read that the fan had the bullet removed in a local hospital - that will have been punishment enough as Kyrgyz hospitals are archaic with no modern equipment and little sanitation.

For most people, visiting Kyrgyzstan is pure pleasure. With little tourist infrastructure every day is an adventure but you are rewarded by being able to explore in isolation, your route free from tour party coaches, your view unmarred by hoards of other people.

I would recommend Kyrgyzstan to any traveller keen to see an unspoilt part of the world. If you want to stand in a bar and chant football slogans, go elsewhere. For everyone else, the only shot you'll get will be vodka.

If you'd like to read about my three year adventure in Kyrgyzstan, which included a revolution and many visits to local hospitals, you might be interested in my book Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan. You can find out more at my website

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Book Awards

I was very excited to learn that Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, in which I have a chapter, has won recognition at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It has been named winner in the Parenting and Anthology categories and is third place Grand Prize winner in the nonfiction category. This is an exciting achievement for all the authors and the editor, Suzanne Kamata.

I can recommend it as a very touching and thought-provoking book. If you are interested you can buy it on Amazon