A Green Fingered Shift

As I worked in the Autumn sunshine alongside three enthusiastic helpers in our front garden this afternoon, it struck me that I hadn’t written a column about our gardening efforts for a little while. To be honest, after the garden being flooded with sewage earlier in the year and having to dispose of our potato plants, I was feeling fairly despondent about the whole thing.  That particular happening seemed to be the latest in a string of circumstances that seemed to hinder our attempts at green fingered-ness this year. From Elijah pulling up every seedling that grew, our turf dying in patches with all attempts at reseeding failed, the previously thriving plum tree suddenly looking rather sorry for itself and generally just being so busy that the garden sank down the list of priorities, I felt that gardening was going to be off the cards for us for a while.

But then two things happened. The first was that a friend from Church invited us to go to Broadclyst Community Farm to help out. We spent a very pleasant day there in the summer, getting to grips with where things were, weeding and planting out lettuces. We were made very welcome and hope to be back there again soon to get stuck in. The second thing that happened was that Eli got older. I know that sounds ridiculous but somehow, over the last few weeks, he has got just a tad less destructive and a tad more helpful, or at least less inclined to undo everything I’m doing.

Our front garden has been looking more and more overgrown recently and so yesterday afternoon whilst the kids were happy, I took my gloves and clippers out there to start tackling the irritating ivy that continues to prosper despite my best attempts to eradicate it. Before long, I had not one but three accomplices. Sophia took it upon herself to weed our flower bed, Isaac picked up all the garden waste we created and put it in the compost and Eli…well he just pottered. But, and this is a big but, he didn’t hinder our work. He tried to help dig a little bit, he played with the dustpan and brush, he chattered away and generally was just content to be with us as we got on with the task in hand. A repeat of the situation this afternoon and all of a sudden, I’m feeling inspired again for our garden. Sophia and I are resolved to properly rid the gardens of weeds and hopefully plant some bulbs in the coming weeks for Spring. And now that I know he won’t be quite such a pest next year, I’m looking forward to growing some veggies again. You can’t beat a few hours working in the garden to rid everyone of cabin fever and feel productive and inspired. So here’s to a 2017 with gardens overflowing with bountiful produce and many happy hours spent getting there!

It wasn’t me

Despite being a fairly sensible (mostly), grown adult, I think I am starting to believe that some kind of small magical creature is residing in our house. Probably not a fairy but more likely to be an elf, imp or pixie. For we seem to have a problem with things mysteriously disappearing and not a soul knowing of their whereabouts. We also seem to have an ongoing issue with spillages, breakages and stains…caused by an unknown perpetrator, unseen by everyone.

Most recently, a toy belonging to a friend (luckily just a small shopkin rather than something of greater monetary value), ready to be returned to it’s owner, has completely vanished. The person last seen with it swears blind she accidentally dropped it in a drawer but after said chest of drawers being emptied three times, it has not reappeared. And more costly a loss was that of the recent disappearance of Dan’s tooth. After several mishaps with basketballs and lorries in his youth, my gorgeous husband had to succumb to a fake tooth on a plate a few years previously. He had left said tooth on the windowsill one day and when he went to get it, it wasn’t there. I had seen it there just an hour previously but after a very thorough search of the bathroom (which included taking the bath apart), we concluded it well and truly lost. All three children have been examined (with no prejudice) but all absolutely deny any wrongdoing or accident. £250 and a new denture later, the tooth has still not surfaced and we are no clearer as to it’s fate. I’m guessing it’ll turn up in six months at the bottom of a toy box.

In fact, Sophia has been ahead of the game on us with regards to these mysterious happenings. Last year, this poster appeared on the wall of our living room. When asked who it was, she said it was the girl who kept losing things, breaking things and making a mess in her room. Smart kid, our girl! The pictured creature has never been caught and thus, the problems remain… It’s a funny thing actually though because upon conferring with other parents, most homes with children seem to have one (or more) of these creatures living alongside the children of the household. Really, we should stop accusing our offspring when we find a spilt mug of hot chocolate soaking into the sofa, a book with pages ripped out or a lego box emptied across the floor of three rooms. The poor things are taking the blame for the work of some pesky mythical creature, designed to antagonise parents and drive a wedge between them and their darling offspring…honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!


Peace Out

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 26th September)

I think I’m probably overdue a light hearted post here in my column but as I popped onto twitter for a client earlier I noticed that it is International Day of Peace today so I’m afraid that you lovely lot are out of luck… I will try to write a vaguely funny post for next week but given that there is a running joke in my family about my lack of sense of humour, I’m not promising anything! So…peace. Obviously I’m not about to claim that I have the answer to world peace, ending the conflict in Syria or uniting the bickering Labour Party but I have been thinking about peace on a much, much, smaller (but arguably still significant) scale.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about stereotypes and concluded that the best way to effect change is by focusing on one interaction at a time. I think the same thing applies to peace and unity. There are a million clichés about how to behave to other people. Turn the other cheek, forgive and forget, love your neighbour as yourself… And not forgetting the golden rule; treat others how you’d like to be treated. And trite as they might appear, I think they do hold a lot of truth and wisdom, even if it has been watered down by overuse.

It’s easy to hold onto grudges, to let anger and resentment fester. No one wants to be wronged, insulted or taken advantage of. But sometimes we need to check our issues at the door, be the bigger person and make that first step to resolving the problem at hand. Time and time again, small disputes escalate into situations much bigger and nastier than they have to be. One bit of advice I was given just before getting married has stuck with me over the years; never to go to sleep angry with each other. I think it’s sound advice as the longer an issue remains unresolved, the more the details can get twisted, misremembered and blown out of proportion.

My thoughts on this all are that the less friction there is in the grassroots of a population, the more harmonious society will be and hopefully this might filter up to where it matters. I’m not naïve, I do realise that global and political disputes are much more complex and deep than a work colleague spat or neighbours arguing over property rights. But even if my theory is well and truly flawed (and it probably is!), surely it can only be a good thing if you’re feeling more peaceful in the here and now of your life? So choose which cliché you will and start living it, the road to a more peaceful life starts here…


If at first you don’t succeed…

(This was published in the Express and Echo a few weeks ago)

A moment of madness overcame me last week and having toyed with the idea for a while, I signed up to run the Great West Run next month, 13 long miles around the streets of Exeter. The reality started to sink in not long after and I realised that although I work out regularly, as most of it is weight lifting or HIIT (high intensity interval training), I ought to actually get out and start running… Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I never run. It’s just that for the last six months, I have been running a 3 or 5 mile run once a week or so, hardly regular training.

So in the last fortnight I’ve done a 6 mile, 6.5 mile and 7.5 mile as I’ve started my training. I’m entering unknown territory though as I’ve perused running blogs that are talking about taking nutrition (or jelly babies!) with you for when you hit something called ‘the wall’, training plans and working out your pace. I tend to just put my shoes on and go! I’m experiencing a real learning curve but actually enjoying it. I’m having to do some research, to ask for help and to take baby steps. And there has definitely been a certain amount of eating humble pie. I optimistically planned a 9 mile run this weekend, building on from my 7.5. Unfortunately though, I left the house for it not long after a dinner and an awful night’s sleep and managed just 6 miles before admitting defeat. I was reminded of the old saying, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. So I’ll do some short runs this week to keep going and try again next weekend, this time leaving enough time to digest my roast dinner!

It’s an important lesson to learn and remember though and one I’m trying to impart on the kids at the moment. Both Isaac and Sophia have had moments of extreme frustration recently as they have attempted to do something new and not immediately succeeded. Both of them decided they wanted to give up straight away and it took a lot of reassurance from Dan and I that not many people can pick up a new skill and instantly do it. I love the confidance of youth, the thought that they want to do something so they will just do it, no questions asked. But our task now is to gently tend to their bruised egos when they can’t immediately play badminton on an adult sized court, shimmy up a pole in the park or play the new piece of music note perfect first time. And me? I’m realising that if I want to actually manage to run this half marathon I need to keep practising, to keep running. And more importantly, I’m trying to remember that it doesn’t matter how fast (or slow!) I run it on the day. It’s a cliché but true, it’s the taking part that counts!

Smashing Stereotypes

As we’ve ventured into our first ‘proper’ year of home education with Isaac this week, I’ve been thinking about stereotypes, specifically about boys and their attitudes towards learning. I had read a lot about boys being slower to learn than girls, about them struggling with sitting still and concentrating more than girls, about them needing a later start to academics. And although that might be true for a lot of boys, I think there is a danger if we assume that that is true for all boys. Just as there is a danger if we turn certain assumptions into absolute certainties for any group of people, regardless of age or gender. Isaac has surprised me this week by asking to do some work at the table when Sophia has been and by really engaging with phonics and maths. In fact, I tried to encourage him to only do a little (thinking he’d get bored) and two days in a row he protested that he wanted to continue and spent an hour engaged in what I term ‘sit down’ learning. 

Whilst, broadly speaking, there are some stereotypes that ring true I’d argue that a lot of them have little basis in reality and, at times, can be more damaging than they are helpful. Without throwing too many sentimental cliches into the ring, we really are all incredibly unique. We can talk broadly about tendencies, about learning styles, about attitudes. But to state that someone will behave in a certain manner without having spent any time with them just isn’t helpful. Sophia is at times a bit of a girly girl (although that hasn’t always been the case) and her favourite books are the Magic Rainbow Fairy series. However, simultaneously, her favourite TV show is Pokemon, she’s desperate to learn free running and has requested a wood carving knife for her birthday. Likewise, Isaac loves superheroes, dinosaurs, Darth Vader and lego but absolutely loves drawing, craft activities and baking and is incredibly sensitive to how people around him are feeling, dispensing cuddles to those he senses need a lift. Putting either of them into a box based on one aspect of their personality will only serve to limit their future possibilities and discourage certain activities which they might really excel at. 

Obviously, stereotypes extend massively beyond the girl/boy divide in children and can be much more damaging than these early throwaway comments that we make but nonetheless, it’s an issue that needs addressing. It’s hard to get out of a mindset that is constantly perpetuated by our culture. I often find myself complimenting my friends girls on their clothes yet rarely do it to their boys. I’m much more likely to dismiss Isaac’s raucous behaviour where I’d pull Sophia up on it. Neither of these are acceptable and when I realise I’m doing it, I make a conscious effort to stop and either find something more meaningful to talk to my friends children about or to have the same expectations when it comes to my children’s behaviour. Being someone that massively suffers from foot-in-mouth syndrome, I’m constantly reminding myself to think before I judge, assess and speak. Stereotypes need to be smashed and the only way to do that is to start small, one interaction at a time. Not all girls like dolls, not all boys play football, not all children are in school (!), not all British people drink tea! 

Parenting Hacks

The internet is full of what are called ‘hacks’; lifestyle hacks, beauty hacks, parenting hacks… for those not au fait with this vernacular, they simply mean tips or tricks to make things a little easier on yourself. I overheard Dan having a conversation with a new parent recently as he talked about the reality of how you end up parenting in comparison to your initial expectations. Not that I’m saying that our standards have slipped after three children…just that we’ve streamlined what we deem to be important and what we’ve realised can be negotiated or ignored. Of course, these things differ from family to family, everyone has their own line of what they deem proper or acceptable.

Rather than detail any specific tricks that I use to make my parenting journey easier, I thought I’d just mention the single biggest approach that I’ve started to employ whilst raising and nurturing (or trying to!) three small people. And that is simply to not care so much. I obviously don’t mean not caring about the children but I mean not caring about mess, about what other people think, about screen time vs structured activities vs autonomous play. This is something I’m still working on but I’ve realised that I’ve wasted far too much time over the last seven years worrying about things that ultimately will have little or no bearing on anything of lasting importance.

In the early months with Sophia I was obsessed with the idea of routine and getting her to sleep a) through the night and b) by herself. After three children I can tell you with certainty that all children are different and will achieve both milestones in their own good time. Sophia was happy by herself at night by 1 and slept through the night not long after, for Isaac it took almost three years for both and Elijah is following in his brothers footsteps. Similarly, with the first two I worried about what they ate, how much they ate, when they ate…Eli is a grazer and prone to phases of eating barely anything alternated with eating like a horse. To be honest, I don’t have the time or energy to be worried about this, I know adults who prefer to graze so I’m assuming that this might just be his preference.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt to relax about though is mess. There are a lot of memes and sayings about the value of spending time with your family and friends over having an immaculate house and although some of them are rather cheesy, I think they are nonethless very true. I’m a clean freak by nature so this is something I still have an internal struggle about but on the whole, I’d rather spend time with the kids or do something I want to do, be that going for a run, baking a cake or doing some writing rather than tidying from dawn to dusk. So my number one parenting hack, advice or tip is just to relax. Stop worrying so much about unimportant things, enjoy the journey and all the mess and variety it brings. Cheesy…but true!

Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 29th August.

Walking with kids

I think it’s fair to say that growing up, we were a walking family. Come rain or shine, we could be found (not always willingly!) striding across moors and mountains, stopping only to admire the view and refuel for the next stretch. The funny thing is that even if none of us actually wanted to go out for a walk when a parent first suggested it, 9 times out of 10, as soon as we were out, we enjoyed ourselves and were glad to be there. You can’t beat a good walk in the great outdoors for chasing away the cobwebs or lifting yourself out of a bad mood.

Now, as a parent myself, I’m trying to pass down that same habit (and joy – mostly!) of walking to my own children. One of the best bits of parenting advice my Mum gave me was to make sure that we get outside for a walk at least once every day. It sounds simple but remembering to do that can make a massive difference to our day. As soon as the kids start bickering and bouncing off the walls on one of our designated ‘home’ days I can be found barking ‘Right! Shoes on!’ and ushering everyone out the door as quickly as possible. An hour or two later we return from our wander around the goat walk or down to the rec much calmer and happier.

Recently, whilst on holiday in Dorset, I decided I wanted to follow the South West Coast Path from our campsite into Weymouth. Sophia opted for a lift in with our friends instead but Isaac was keen to join Dan and I for the relatively short 2.5 mile walk. As we trekked along the edge of a cliff, taking in the breathtakingly beautiful views across Weymouth Bay, my heart was warmed as Isaac declared to us ‘I do love it when we go walking’. This boy of ours nearly sprinted up Catbells in the Lake District and just thrives being outside, feet pounding the earth. Sophia is slightly more of a reluctant walker but will get into it, especially if she is motivated by letter boxes on Dartmoor or the promise of an ice cream at the end! And I can tell Eli is going to follow in Isaac’s footsteps (pun intended); he is the busiest toddler I know and loves to be out of the pushchair or sling, toddling along beside us.

I love that they are happy and eager to go walking with us as a family activity. I really think that it’s great for both body and soul (as well as being free – apart from the incentivising ice cream of course!) and look forward to increasing the mileage as they get older and exploring more of the off-the-beaten-track walks our country has to offer with them.

Walking (a bit of) the SW Coast Path

Published in the Exeter Express + Echo on 21st August