Germ Central

In my BC life (Before Children), I rarely got ill. I seemed to avoid most bugs and viruses and when I did catch them, it was a mild bone of contention with Dan that I was only ever ill for 24 hours before bouncing back to normal. I was proud of what seemed like a particularly hardy constitution and took for granted my good state of health.

Fast forward almost eight years and oh, how things have changed. The addition of children to my life has brought it with an unwelcome consequence, that of an unending steam of germs and the consequent illnesses they incur. Anyone that knows me will attest to the fact that unfortunately, I am not a particularly gracious patient. I cannot stand being poorly and am prone to letting that known to anyone in the vicinity. I think it’s just that I find it frustrating to have to cancel plans and for tasks to build up as I take a temporary leave of absence. I do realise that this is an area of my personality that could do with some improvement though and I am doing my best to rectify it. I would hope that Dan would say that I have got a little better over the last year or two.

As you have probably guessed, this weekend I was struck down with a 24 hour tummy bug, kindly given to me by my eldest daughter. Our plans to go shopping and then the local fireworks had to be cancelled and I spent all of yesterday languishing in bed and on the sofa, feeling sorry for myself. True to form I am basically fully recovered today and a plan has been hatched to watch fireworks from Woodbury Common tonight (I thought it was best to stay away from crowds for fear of infecting folk) so all is well. It has left me though thinking about people with ongoing illnesses and poor health.

I have many friends with chronic illnesses or health conditions (as well as a husband!) and I can honestly say that all of them are incredibly stoic at weathering what their bodies throw at them and just getting on with it. It makes me a bit ashamed of my moaning about a mere tummy bug to be honest. I can’t begin to fathom what life must be like when you face illness and all the challenges it brings, be that physical or mental, on a daily basis. I have so much respect for these friends and family of mine.

I’m afraid there’s no big takeaway from this column or funny anecdote to conclude things, just a bit of a rambling reflection about how we shouldn’t take our health for granted, about how we should actively make sure we look after our bodies, both mentally and physically. And finally, a reminder to be aware of friends who are not so fortunate, to go out of our way to help them and show them that we’re thinking of them. Bake them a cake, offer to go shopping or walk their dog, see if there is anything in particular they need help with.

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Preparing for Winter

During the unseasonably (but not unwelcome) warm half term, we found ourselves on a glorious Friday afternoon, constructing the latest addition to our plot at the allotment…a pond! I’d dug the hole a week previously but we gathered with our co-working family to line and fill it, a very enjoyable task embraced by even the smallest of our helpers (namely because there was a chance of getting wet!) As we worked we chatted over our plans for the allotment and since then I’ve found myself thinking about the best way to prepare it for the winter ahead.

Some people merely ‘put it to bed’, covering their patches with black plastic or mulch. This is probably the more sensible option as it requires minimal visiting and tending during the cold and wet months. We, however, have gone for the more ‘productive’ option and have planted a variety of winter crops. Brassicas, lettuces, garlic, chard, kale, brussel sprouts and some very late carrots are currently doing their thing and we are fighting the whitefly and weeds. We still have a lot of empty beds now the summer crops have finally finished so there is space for more, if we can think of something we’d like to grow and eat!

These two approaches to allotmenting in the winter made me think of the differing ways in which we can survive the winter as people. Some people choose to basically hibernate, to go out only when absolutely necessary and to stay warm and dry as much as possible. They hunker down in their warm homes, entertain themselves with board games, films and other indoor activities.

Whilst I completely see the appeal of such a winter life-style, both me and the kids start to suffer from cabin fever if stuck inside for too long. We become irritable and stir crazy if we spend too much time within four walls. So we embrace (albeit not always wholeheartedly!) the approach to winter that is best summed up in the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’! Although we definitely have plenty of time under blankets, being cosy and trying to play happy families, we also make sure that we spend time out in the elements, getting some fresh air to brush off the cobwebs and grumpy moods.

And whilst I maintain that both are equally valid ways of spending the winter months, there is something to be said for a beautiful winter’s day, with the sun shining and your breath coming out in frosty clouds as you go for a stroll in the woods or on the beach. Or if you have little people, there is no joy quite like letting them jump in muddy puddles, watching their excitement as they get good and mucky. The benefit to both these things being that there is usually always somewhere great nearby that you can head to to warm up with a hot chocolate or mulled cider! So whilst it may not be my favourite season, I’m determined to enjoy our winter with a good amount of both hibernating at home and spending time outside, whatever the weather!

Autumn Days

I feel like Autumn has most definitely arrived over the last week or two with the recent
spate of windy and wet weather heralding the change in seasons. I know it’s a cliché but I can’t believe how quickly this year has progressed. With less than 10 weeks until Christmas (sorry!), I feel that despite predictions of an Indian summer, summer is now completely finished for another year.

At this time of year, our home education seems to always focus on traditions surrounding harvest time, Halloween and Guy Fawkes night as well as the science behind the life of trees. We’ve investigated why and how leaves change colour, why the nights are longer (we looked at the Autumn Equinox just a few weeks ago) and have chosen a nearby tree to observe throughout the changing seasons.

And whilst I love the long warm days of summer, endless beach trips, swimming in the sea and spending so much time outdoors easily, I do also have a massive soft spot for
Autumn. I love getting out the hand knits to keep heads, necks and hands warm. I love the excuse for having a fire in the evening, autumnal casseroles and soups and snuggling
under big blankets whilst the elements rage outside. I love mulled wine, roast dinners,
piles of golden and orange leaves crunching underfoot, the winter sun shining in a frozen sky.

What I don’t love quite so much is the near constant stream of Christmas and Birthday related chatter that has started to ramp up and will remain at a steady buzz until the events themselves. With all three kids birthdays and Christmas within a 12 week period, this is a busy time of year for us! Last year however, inspired by Monbiot’s article ‘The Gift of Death’ (about the effects of consumerism on the environment) and trying to stem the tide of unused toys building up in our tiny terrace, I committed to more thoughtful gift buying, both in terms of the recipient and the environment.

This year I am trying to do the same and make sure that we only choose to buy things that the kids really want or need, items that will be used and hopefully items that are long lasting and durable, unlikely to break or end up in the landfill within 6 months. I’m also trying to prevent the excitement from building up quite yet, if the kids spend weeks getting increasingly more worked up about an event, on the day itself, disappointment (and tears) inevitably awaits!

So this Autumn I’m trying to put the focus on our planned Bonfire Party on Halloween to clear up our allotment plot, fireworks at the rugby club, the making of our pond at the plot and embracing the present, rather than looking towards the tinsel laden and gift wrapped few weeks that lie tantalisingly ahead. So…bring on the baked apples and the woolly hats and let’s enjoy the Autumn, whatever it may bring!

Having It All

Over the last few years I’ve gone through a variety of ‘occupations’ alongside being a full time Mum and home educator. I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter when Sophia was a toddler and for a while volunteered in a postnatal ward and then at community groups. After Isaac I trained as a doula but after my first client had to take a break due to the arrival of Elijah.

Then, not long after Eli, a good friend offered me a break and I entered the world of social media management. I did this on a low scale with just a handful of clients for a few years before starting my current role on the admin team at the wonderful Outdoors Group (the company behind the locally loved Exeter, Exmouth and now Okehampton Forest Schools).

Not long after starting the latter role, I realised my work-life balance was skewing heavily in the wrong direction so I stopped working with my social media clients to just concentrate on the Forest School admin and the kids. I felt that finally I had found a balance. I enjoy work but also have time to do everything I need to with the kids for their home education. I’ve even found time to run two marathons! I’ve been feeling smug, I’m busy but I felt like I was doing everything I wanted to.

Then a seed planted itself deep in my brain, I really really want to do the training to become a Forest School Leader. I started trying to work out how I could fit this into our already very full life. Whether there was anyway I could take on extra work and meet the needs of everyone else.

But a conversation with my Dad last week hit a chord with me, he was talking about a time when me and my siblings were young and he was doing too much with work, Church, judo and family life. He said he made the hard decision to stop practising judo even though he loved it. I realised that sometimes we need to make these hard decisions in order to preserve a good balance in life and allow ourselves some breathing time.

Life with small children is very, very full and it’s probably not the season for me to be doing more than I am at the moment. It’s taken me a long time to realise this but as soon as I did, I felt a massive sense of relief, a weight off my shoulders. Sometimes it’s not possible to have it all but that’s ok. We are sold a myth that we should say yes to everything, that we should do everything we want to do.

But in reality, life is a series of compromises and making decisions that are most sensible for a healthy balance in life. We should enjoy our lives but there’s no point filling them to the brink with activities and work otherwise we won’t have the energy to appreciate them! So I’m embracing the season I’m in at the moment with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever. There will be many more years when my children are older in which I can further my career or take on more challenges if I so wish. For now, I’m embracing what I have, for what it is.

Do as I say… (not as I do)

Although there is obviously a degree of hierarchy in families, I’ve been thinking recently about just how little control chidren have over their lives and the extent to which we can help them manage what must feel like an unfair situation where their lives are dictated by us, the parents. Every parent has a store of anecdotes about children who are fussy about food, difficult to potty train or particularly defiant at bedtime. The common factor here is children trying to be in control of at least one aspect of their life. At the end of the day, you can’t force a child to eat, to sleep or to wee when we want them to.

It’s a difficult situation in some respects. It goes without saying that children need boundaries, that parents often know better/best and that unfortunately, children cannot choose what they do and when they do. It would be a completely unsustainable, unsafe, and chaotic way of life. But how can we allow our kids to have a little bit of control over their own lives? How can we can make them feel like they are listened to and respected?

Respect goes both ways and I do think that it is worth trying to treat our children like we would treat our adult friends and families. They say your child is your mirror and if we talk to them in a more equal manner, hopefully, in time, they will return the gesture and start talking to us instead of shouting or crying when life isn’t going their way. If we saw a friend sobbing in a corner, would we snap at them to stop crying or would we ask them what was wrong and try to help? If we wanted to leave the house at a certain time would we bark at our other half to put on his shoes and wait in the garden with no warning or would we have a conversation earlier in the day about our expectations for the morning?

There are some elements of life that are non-negotiable. Roads must be crossed safely, school or other extra curricula activities start at a set time, a reasonable bedtime is necessary for adequate sleep. But, there are many ways in which we can give our children a little bit of choice and allow them to exercise some control over their own lives. Letting them choose what they wear in the morning, allowing older kids to pack their own lunches, negotiating a bedtime that allows that extra chapter to be read without being too late… They may seem like small gestures but in the grand scheme of things, they can help a child feel like they have more control over their lives and hopefully will be less grumpy, more content and happier to help and be part of the family.

Maybe some of you think I’m being a bit soft but children are just small humans and autonomous beings. And whilst I agree that they lack the maturity and benefit of age and experience to make some decisions sensibly, I don’t think that means that we should treat them any less respectfully than we’d treat our adult peers. So next time I’m hollering at them from the bottom of the stairs to get to the table for dinner, I’m going to try and remember that I chastise them for shouting at me from another room and realise the double standard. If I want a harmonious family, I’ve got to be a key part of achieving that through the way I talk to and treat the kids.

News From The Plot

As anyone who has ever dabbled in some gardening will know, growing things is nothing if not unpredictable. A crop that was prolific last year may struggle to get off the ground this year round and something that you’ve always struggled to grow might leave you with a plentiful bounty to share with friends, family and pretty much anyone you encounter on the street! We are in the middle of our first harvest at the plot here in Topsham and although we have had a mix of successes and failures, it’s been a great experience nonetheless and for once (mostly due to my co-worker’s enthusiasm!) we’re even planting winter crops.

The season started with an abundance of strawberries and asparagus, beds that my co-worker inherited with the patch. Before I knew it, the kids were actually asking to go the allotment rather than being cajoled by me as they knew they could spend the whole time hunting for juicy red fruit and more often than not, eating it all before the adults got a look in! Our potatoes have been plentiful, the raspberry canes have been producing non-stop for weeks now and our paddy pan plants (an odd mix between a courgette and squash) are providing a steady and constant supply of yellow flying saucer shaped fruits. Our carrots were hilariously misshapen and tasty and the beetroot was delicious although there definitely wasn’t enough of it! Our spaghetti squash, sweetcorn and brussel sprouts are still growing but I’m looking forward to them being ready (especially for the former, an amazing variety of squash I once received from Riverford but never encountered again).

However, we have also had our fair share of failures. Our peas were repeatedly eaten by slugs and snails, our beans have been slow and not particularly abundant and more recently, my gorgeous stripy tomato plants caught blight! Apparently it’s spread across the allotment like wildfire so I don’t think we could have prevented it but I was so sad as nothing beats how delicious a home-grown tomato is compared to the watery, bland shop bought variety. I think the somewhat sporadic weather over the last few weeks is to blame (and is also the culprit of the prolific weeds which we are constantly warring with) but I guess that’s just the way it goes.

But as the season slows down and we turn our thoughts to keeping the plot maintained during the colder months of the year, the thing I’m most excited about is the fact that we are making a pond!! Someone mentioned to us that we could have a small pond if we wanted to use up a little of the space and we jumped on the idea! The kids are absolutely psyched as am I about the whole process, from digging the hole to filling it, choosing plants and hopefully watching wildlife appear and make it home!

I’ve said it before but I really think that growing things with your kids is of amazing value, from teaching them how to garden, to having an excuse to get them outdoors when tempers are fraying to the excitement of when they get to harvest the fruits that they’ve carefully helped grow over the last few months. It also has the added benefit of having a fairly quick turnaround so they see their results within just a few months of starting the process. No need to be naturally green fingered, we can all learn as we go and you won’t regret growing your own (or at least trying to), I promise!

Not Back To School (again!)

It’s that time of year where the sun suddenly reappears in full force and the streets and parks grow eerily quiet, that’s right; it’s the start of a new school year. But for a growing number of us in Exeter (and beyond) there is no last minute mad rush to buy shoes or socks, no PE kit to unearth from some godforsaken corner of a smelly room (sorry school Mum friends!) and no ‘starting school’ photos. We’ve been home educating the kids since the word go and as the older two are already of compulsory school age, this year brings with it no special or meandering thoughts, merely a sigh of relief that all our groups are re-starting after drifting aimlessly for the last six weeks.

But I did think I might take the opportunity to chat a little about home education for those folk out there who might be intrigued but not quite sure what it’s all about! Firstly, yes it is completely legal! Under law, parents are required to ensure their child has a full time and suitable education, at school or otherwise. By home educating we’re falling into that vague ‘otherwise’ section! It is up to us as individual parents how that education looks, a scary thought at first but once you delve in, actually refreshing and remarkably accessible.

So why do we do it? After several years, I still don’t have a soundbite answer to that question and indeed, often ask myself it when the kids are being particularly trying! I suppose that the main reason for me is that I love having the freedom to follow my children’s interests and passions at their own pace. Many countries around the world do not start formal education until 7 and that really resonates with me. 4 or indeed 5 seems so little to be sat at a desk, there is so much playing to be done! And the great thing is that playing in itself, is bursting with educational value.

I also massively appreciate the freedom it gives us as a family, to take our learning to the beach if the weather demands it, to have a slow start if we’re feeling under the weather, to spend a day doing science experiments and nothing else if the kids have got the bug. At almost 8 and 6, my big two are on a par with their schooled peers so I don’t think they are lacking and for the most part, we are more than happy with the decision.

However, since increasing my freelance work, I have been craving a bit of a break from the kids so I can actually be a bit productive… Luckily, Forest School has saved the day! Sophia and Isaac are now both going to be attending one of their Home Ed groups every Friday for the full day. To say I’m a little excited is a bit of an understatement. I suspect Dan is also looking forward to less BBC Interview moments during his Friday meetings…

Perhaps you have found yourself nodding along with some of the things I’ve said and if you’re at all interested in home education or would like to find out more, why not join the Exeter Home Ed Community facebook group…a friendly group of folk who are always happy to help! Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) are also great organisations and provide a wealth of information. But regardless of whether you’ll be doing the school run later this week or not, I wish all the children of Exeter a great school year!