The baby massage class…

Saturday 27 February 2021

This week, a couple of friends make wobbly returns from lock down maternity leaves. Gosh how incredibly tough the last year must have been for isolated new mums! My ‘mum friends’ and toddler groups were essentials in the ‘first-time parent’ survival kit, even if this did all begin with the baby massage class …

It is true to say that I didn’t find new mother hood the easiest of times! I was exhausted, frequently frazzled and struggled to stop my Eldest from crying for, what seemed to be, the entire day! In hindsight, it was probably a desperate appeal for help from my poor daughter. Maybe, if she made enough noise, somebody capable might appear to rescue her from the clutches of the hapless amateur who had brought her into being!

Anyway, feeling pretty useless and fearful of the judgemental public gaze, I began to avoid leaving the house at all, until my Dad arrived. Sensing my dwindling confidence, he booked himself aboard the direct train from Manchester Piccadilly on a quest to get me to re-join the world. And he wasn’t taking no for an answer! He dug out the programme of post-natal classes and told me I was going. The session that week… baby massage.

Managing to leave the house on time is a true logistical challenge for any new mum and on the morning of this fateful day, it was one that I was veering dangerously close to failing. Just about time to skim read the reassuring guidance for the class; ‘all you need is a towel and your favourite oil’.

Oil, oil, oil?‘ I muttered furiously, flinging open the kitchen cupboard to survey my options. The olive oil seemed my best bet. ‘A bit more sophisticated than sunflower’ I told myself, as I zipped the flagon into my baby bag and raced out of the door.

Fortune, oh how it smiled on me as I rattled up the hill! My daughter actually fell asleep in the buggy! I arrived at the local community centre in a rare moment of calm and was able to nod and smile at other participants. A tranquillity that was, alas, to be sadly short-lived! The class began and with reluctant dread I woke my sleeping child and transferred her to the towel. She was already beginning to squirm.

Time for the oil ladies,” beamed the session leader

The other mums, reached for their bags and brought out dainty phials of … jasmine or lavender oil and my heart actually stopped for a moment.

As the woman next to me rubbed a few drops of beautifully scented lotion in to her hands and then began to expertly massage her child’s tiny feet, I hoped no-one was looking as I fumbled a litre of cooking fat out of my bag, trying to half hide it under my coat. The cursed olive oil gushed from the bottle like a torrent, coating my hands and arms right up to my elbows. In growing panic, I slathered it onto my Eldest and she was quickly gleaming from top to toe, like a basted turkey ready for a roast in the oven! Understandably, she was not impressed. As other infants, cooed and gurgled with contentment, I saw her mouth open and heard her screams beginning to fill the room. I tried to intervene and pick her up but, by now, she was a slippery as an eel and I fumbled about powerless to prevent her building up to a full crescendo. It was a living nightmare.

My mind went utterly blank, my throat too dry to speak… until I remembered the towel. I just about held it together long enough to wipe us both free of grease, return my daughter to the buggy, stuff all my belongings underneath and head for the exit. It was then I felt the tears begin to well.

Out in the cool corridor however, my Eldest immediately drifted off to sleep again. And in the sudden peace, I had the chance to gather my thoughts. Pretty silly to go home when I had got this far… and I’d have to face my Dad! Gulping back a sorry sob, I realised that it was time to be brave. I took lots of deep breaths, dried my eyes, gave my cheeks time to calm from a mortified puce back to an acceptable pink and slipped back in. We swerved the rest of massage and just sat quietly at the back of the hall. But we stayed for coffee and cake at the end. And that was the start; the start of mum friends! A supportive circle of also-new parents, for trips to toddler groups, play dates and eventually nights out .

Did any of them even notice my massage mayhem? I am not sure that they did, because, poised or fraught as any of us may have looked to each-other, I realise that we were all just pre-occupied with our own version of new-mother hell on most of those early days! The challenge of navigating parenthood for the first time, united us and the companionship would be a life-support mechanism to see us through both joyful and tough times with laughter, empathy and … plenty of alcohol!

As for baby massage, well there I had learned my lesson. When, in later years, the class popped up on the schedule for Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy, I made sure we had other plans…

Is it time for a 5 year plan?

21 February 2021

It’s a funny old half term and it all start with this Monday morning call.

Am I speaking to the one and only Becky ….”

Yes, one very confident, chirpy cold caller! And life insurance broking is his game. Whilst I choose not to invest in any of the deals, he does make me stop and think about the insurance I do have. I root out my policy to find that it covers me for a bizarre number of years, with a seemingly random sum of money. It is clearly no longer fit for purpose and needlessly pricey. As I start to research alternatives however, I hit a brick wall of indecision…because making a wise choice depends on where I see myself and the teens in the next 5 or 10 or 15 years . And I just do not know. A lot can change in 5 years…

Here I am 5 years ago. It’s my birthday 2016. I am coupled up, dressed up and out for the evening!

Fast forward 5 short years to my recent 2021 Birthday and here I am, single, sitting in my lounge and Locked Down with a take-out curry!

Who could have known quite how different life would be? And the next quinquennial, promises to be no less dramatic in terms of change. No more teens, no more mortage, no need to work as many hours, no need to live in this corner of the North-west. It is difficult to know how to even start thinking about it all.

It has been a year when I have grown accustomed to living; day to day, tier to tier, Bojo press conference to inevitable U-turn! But if I thought I could run away and hide behind the covid curtains for a bit longer, I was mistaken. Half term also brings necessary negotiations with tree surgeons and roofers. Thinking through some fairly substantial financial decisions keeps bringing me resolutely back to the same daunting, dithering ground. Because, ‘How much to pay?‘ and ‘How much to do?‘ are all balanced by looking ahead to how much longer I expect to be here.

There is certainly a lot of advice out there for those of us facing the prospect of ’empty nesting’. Indeed the Citizens Advice reports finding “a huge demand – nearly half its enquiries” – from the 50-plus age group, for whom the main issues were pensions, mortgages, wills and life insurance. I have to be honest though, at the heart of my unease is the fact that I’d never expected to be facing these choices and ‘resetting the life plan’ as a single person. Without a partner to bounce ideas off and help me to frame a way of thinking about it all, I’ll confess to feeling absolutely terrified. So I start smaller. Next week I have an appointment with a, Independent Financial Adviser to talk… about me. Not stereo-types, not ‘typical case studies’ for my age group, just me. And I feel calmer. It was clearly time to stop avoiding the issue, I am a long way from a plan at the moment, but getting some facts hearing some options, doing my homework…none of that can hurt…

Middle Aged Mum Fashion …

Saturday 13 February 2021

It is a day that all starts innocently enough…

Buoyed by birthday money, Small Boy is updating his wardrobe. My lovely son has his own style and very definite ideas about clothes. Yes, alas, the halcyon days of kitting him out for the season with a trip to Sports Direct, and still having change from a £50 note, are very much a distant memory. Today, I reluctantly concede, as a disappointing generational stereotype, to committing that cardinal parental-sin of looking a little startled by some of his choices. I find myself rightly subjected to a volley of indignation,

“What mum?’

Why are you looking like that mum?

I can only hold up my hands in apology,

“Oh just ignore me. What do I know anyway? Look at the state of my dowdy outfit!”

And it is true. I guess you could blame lockdown but my current style is beyond frumpy and dull; it more or less says ‘given up on life.’ With my own birthday just around the corner, my shopping-mad offspring sense an opportunity,

Mum – why not let us pick some new clothes for your birthday?

I decide to agree. Yes, it could be fun to spruce up my ‘look’. In fact, I actually start to feel quite excited. Until that is I see Small Boy rapidly typing this into his search engine,

Middle aged mum fashion”

ARGHHHHHHH! There it is! Out in the open. Not ‘sassy mum‘ not ‘sophisticated mum.’ Oh no! It’s the double edged sword of style derision for me, mumsy and … middle aged! Now, of course, at a personal level, I am only too aware of my advancing years. But hearing it from someone else, now that is a very different matter. Because it means that, if I did dare to think or hope that I was fooling the rest of you about being quite this old… I was sadly mistaken!

Middle-aged. Gosh what is it about that word? Well firstly, for those of you still in your thirties or forties, I bring glad tidings! The Huffington Post, claims that Middle Age does not actually start until you turn 53. But, as I read their entertaining article ‘40 signs you are Middles Aged’ , I’ll confess that I could have ticked off several indicators from list in my mid-forties! And I think this is the issue. It isn’t a particular age that you reach, it is a gradual realisation that you are no longer young, with life stretching endlessly before you as a blank canvas of opportunity. Some of your mental speed has gone. Some of your fresh-faced bloom has gone. Time, well that has well and truly gone. And, in place of all that youthful hope and energy, comes, for many of us, the judgemental misery of ‘taking stock’. In the grimmer works of Josh Cohen in the Guardian,

The middle-aged person is liable to look in the mirror and see someone who could have done better, who has failed to fulfil their hopes and ideals.”

Cohen’s article, ‘Why is midlife such a lonely time? addresses serious concerns about the impact of a culture of consumerism and competition on our mental health, a climate which has resulted in loneliness affecting 1 in 7 of those in the 45 – 54 age group. And it is certainly true that on my lower days, I can sit in a meeting with younger colleagues, or wander around a trendy dimly-lit clothes stores, feeling a little bit invisible and isolated from the world. As I prepare to wave a second teen off to University this Autumn, I can wonder where, or even if, I fit into society any more. I can find myself asking the question ‘What exactly have you done with your life?’

But, the truth is, I am very definitely not alone in this! Lisa Stein’s article for Scientific American, ‘Midlife Misery: Is there Happiness After the 40s?‘ find that a bit of a ‘blah’ is universal and all completely normal in your 40s and 50s. Even better, it does not last forever.

…by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit, then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year old,”

Now I do find it all very comforting to learn that some moments of pondering, even gloom, are a common reaction to middle agedness. But seventy… now that is a bit too long to wait. I turn back to Small Boy’s screen. Do you know what – those middle aged mums are rocking the fashions! Time to place a few orders and embrace the mid-life, before that is over too …

Birthday blues

Sunday 7 February 2021

The balloons and banners in the lounge look cheerful enough, as the February calendar counts down to our ‘double-birthday’ week. But, for the first time since Small Boy surfaced in the birthing pool, 15 years ago, only one of the birthday duo is here to celebrate. My eldest marks the start of her final teenage year away from home at Uni.

We send packages. We write cards. We even manage a cake. My daughter face-times around noon, a picture of smiles to show off her gifts and take us on a guided tour of the decorated student kitchen. But as her lovely face fades from the screen, the mood falls a little flat and blue for the rest of us. I think it is the first day, since she headed off to Higher Education in the Autumn, that being three and not four just doesn’t feel right; just doesn’t feel as good; just feels a little sad.

Birthdays! Family landmarks indeed, with long shared and much loved traditions. Maybe that’s why they stir the emotions like no other day in the 365. I do remember, in the first year after I lost my father, it was actually not his birthday when I wobbled, but mine. The arrival of my special day with no card from my dad, no flamboyant ink-penned message, no familiar voice on the phone, it was a moment to feel his loss more deeply than at other times.

A year ago, my home was being invaded by 18 years olds, with bottles and music, shrieks and laughter. 10 years ago it was: birthday sleep-overs, soft-play centres, roller-rinks, pass the parcel and pinatas. 45 years ago, ‘murder in the dark’, cake, jelly and my elder brother bring hauled out for burying his face in the crisp bowl! Yes we did it all and thank goodness we did! Because the years do go quickly and there is no turning the clock back. I’ll pull myself together in a moment, but for the next half hour I think it’s okay to think back and miss all of it … quite a lot …

….

An extra day!

Saturday 29 February 2020

Leap-year day! I make myself a strong morning cuppa and sit down with a stack of mail to contemplate the day ahead. It’s mostly junk. I tip out the contents of an Asthma Lottery envelope, fully expecting some ‘extra raffle tickets’ to fall out. But it’s a letter. I am a winner. Blimey … I am quite a big winner. I read and re-read the letter in disbelief. I scrabble through the papers looking for the cheque. Can it be true? Prom-dress daughter reads the letter for a second opinion. She thinks it is. The two of us start to jump around the lounge, then three of us and then four. What a great start to the day!

Now I do feel the need to clarify. When I say a big win, it’s only big in relation to our usual £25 triumphs. I am not about to give up the day job… even for a day! However it is a big enough win for the Asthma Lottery to ask if they can use my name in publicity and, to my great amusement, to offer the services of a ‘model’ to represent me visually!

You’d think that would be the highlight of the day, but it is not. That comes at precisely 2:15 pm. Small Boy is off into town, to buy crickets and sand from the petshop … and then to head onto a date! But I am not ferrying him around the unique logistics of this trip. My eldest is! Yes, I have finally managed to fund car insurance for my lovely girl, who passed her test many months ago. There’s no denying that it is a hefty financial hit, but today, as the two of them set off with a bundle of car keys, and for the first time in 10 years, I don’t, it feels worth every penny!

I actually don’t know what to do with myself at first. My afternoon suddenly has a full extra hour of peace and quiet and pleasing myself. It’s unheard of. It’s unnerving. It’s magical and it’s not to be wasted. I am heading out too today. In an hour and a half I am setting off to Yorkshire, for a meal and a night at ‘The Opera’. Do you know what. I am going to get ready, properly ready. Hair washed and straightened ready. Full face of make-up ready. Lotion and perfume ready. Matching earring ready! Try out more than one outfit ready!

It’s a whole new world, and I think I could get used to it, every day, not just on this (unexpectedly lovely ) extra day…

This is Manchester …

Friday 21 February 2020

“This is Manchester, we do things differently here” (Tony Wilson)

Tony Wilson, ‘Mr Manchester’ himself, opened one of the earliest bars in the area we’ve called Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’ since the 1990s. It is even rumoured that he influenced the name! Whether or not that’s true I’ll never know but, after a glorious day exploring the chaotic and characterful streets of this corner of my hometown, I am very confident that he would love the place…

Our adventure starts in style with ‘Street Art‘ , a Skyliner walking tour of the Northern Quarter. I sport, sensible shoes, gloves, woolly hat and a raincoat. The weather is dismal. But the wind and rain cannot dampen our spirits as the tour guide opens our eyes to secret sights and delights on the pavements we’ve walked many times … but never really seen.

There is stunning art; huge and beautiful murals that touch the soul and stir the mind, creative mosaics that capture the iconic faces and places of our northern home and lamp posts decorated with tiny individual ‘rock-star’ bees. The absolute highlights for me, a proud Mancunian, however, are the details that link us back to our historical and industrial roots. The distinctive ceramic street signs are white on blue for the streets running East/West and blue on white for the streets running North/South, symbolising the ‘warp and weft’ of the weaving tradition in this area. Looking up, we see sculptures of exotic birds and other animals, celebrating Tib Street, once affectionately known as pet shop paradise. Looking under a doormat, we find clues to a previous Italian ice cream trade. High above the gates of old fish and fruit market are facades decorated with scenes depicting the hustle and bustle of Victorian life. Another market now houses the Craft and Design Centre. Our wonderful guide makes us look up, down and all around. How can I have missed it all …. for so many years?

Even with all these visual treats, two hours in the chill of a North West winter take their toll. Donuts and coffee, at a cafe housed in a former weaver’s cottage, followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, are the only ways to thaw out as we prepare to re-enter the Northern Quarter of the 21st century.

It is now an area famed for its vibrant bars and eateries. Finding somewhere to imbibe is easy, but finding a ‘hidden bar’, now that is more of a challenge! And, as the darkness of evening begins to creep across the sky, it seems like the perfect way to round off our outing. Fascinated by unearthed artistic discoveries by day, thrilled by secret drinking dens by night. We make our way to our first, through a doorway disguised as a stack of wooden beer crates, into the elegance of a cool cocktail bar. Just like our walking tour, it is another eye opener!

It is also utter fun. It is light years away from my usual routine. It is the perfect end to my half term. It is Manchester …

New arrival…

Monday 17 February 2020

It’s half term week. What better feeling for a holiday than the sensation of sand between your toes? Except in our case the gritty granules on my kitchen floor come not from a dreamy white Caribbean beach but from the new vivarium in Small Boy’s room … as, his birthday present, Boris the Gecko arrives!

It’s not our first experience of the world of pets. Small Boy, in particular, absolutely loves animals. Sadly for him, I do not and as I am the only bill paying adult in the house, his dreams of owning a dog are definitely on hold until he owns his own place! I do feel guilty about it. Single parent guilt – the fear that despite every effort and sacrifice, your kids will miss out and pay the price for the marital breakdown – and so smaller animals have been our compromise. We began with gerbils, just a few months after my Ex left. Then came the guinea pig and Prom-dress daughter’s fish. Boris, however, is our first reptile.

We battle the gecko, used to warm climates of the world, and all his equipment home in the middle of Storm Dennis! Upon arrival, Small Boy starts pacing about like a nervous new father, avidly reading books and leaflets on gecko care and watching numerous youtube clips on each and every procedure. Nonetheless we soon have the vivarium set up and just face the challenge of food. Gecko’s eat live insects! The pet shop have given us a tub of crickets and a pair of plastic tweezers. How difficult can it be? Pretty darned tricky it turns out. As we attempt to lift any out, the pesky little creatures leap sky high from the tub and onto Small’s Boys bedroom floor. We make chase with our tweezers but one or two do escape to freedom before we get any into the vivarium itself. It’s a hilarious and chaotic scene but I am sure we will improve!

By contrast the gecko looks very relaxed moving around his new home. I leave my son, dusting insects with calcium, viewing online tutorials on feeding techniques and watching over his new arrival with wonderful care and concern. Welcome to the family Boris!

All you need is …

Friday 14 February 2020

Valentine’s Day! It is the national day of love and my teen household is a flurry of cards, soft toys, red envelopes and dreamy smiles. Prom-dress daughter has a party. My eldest, groomed and glamorous, heads out for cocktails, just as a grinning Small Boy arrives back from a cinema date … and then proceeds to wrap his love-struck lips around slice upon slice of pizza. It makes me jig It makes me smile. Because there is nothing better in this life than the thrill of being ‘in love’. That giddy cloud nine feeling when your face cannot stop beaming, your mood is sky high and nothing gets you down. Or is there….?

The thing about that first magical flush of ‘in-loveness’ is that it never lasts. And it’s not the thing you miss in a break-up. You miss the deep connection and the bond that’s come from years of experiences together, happy and sad, and an understanding that doesn’t needs words anymore. You miss, not so much the person, you ‘miss us’ the unique partnership that you once made together. And one of my best partnerships at the moment …is my family.

I’m going to be truthful, my family life is teenagers. At it’s worst, it’s like World War 3 at our place. Somewhere in the middle, it’s a relentless set of logistics, many dismally dreary, to organise with me, rather alarmingly, ever at the helm. But at it’s best … at its best it’s in-jokes, communal songs, crazy card games, unstoppable laughter and shared joy. It’s also team work in a crisis and we’ve had a fair few to deal with – 21st century life is tough for teens! And at these best of moments, the happiness I feel, all consuming overtaking happiness, really is the best feeling in the world. Let’s call it by it’s name, this is love … and it actually is all you need…

Coming of age…

Friday 7 February 2020

This week is double birthday week in our house. Small boy careers further through his teenage years and my eldest turns 18…

As 18 is a landmark birthday, I agree to a small gathering. We stock up on snacks and festoon the house with balloons, banners and bunting. And, at 7:30 pm sharp, the house is invaded by about fifteen sixth-formers, brandishing bottles of booze and alive with youth, energy and party spirit. They are delightfully polite but as the music strikes up and my careful array of plastic glasses is cast aside, in favour of larger beakers and…just glugging it from the bottle, I sense that I am pretty irrelevant. I resolve to ‘leave them to it’ and retreat, to hole myself up in the dingy den inhabited by Small boy and his xbox .

By 8:30 pm, it already feels like an endless siege. The noise is incredible. There’s singing. There’s shrieking. There’s laughter. There’s …. my hoover…? Small boy, racing to take up sentry duty at the door, reports a sighting of ‘Vanish Carpet Cleaner’ disappearing into the lounge. I crave a large whiskey, but I have work in the morning and force myself to swig on a Diet Coke instead.

I make a half-hearted effort to persuade Small boy that ‘Netflix with Mum’ could be as much fun as gaming with his mates, but he is unimpressed. Accepting (inevitable) defeat, I balance my lap top in one hand, my coke in the other and head upstairs. Prom dress daughter, looking calm and unperturbed, is plugged into her phone and writing an essay. I decide to get on with a bit of work too. At least it’s productive… if not quiet. Endless troops of teens giggle and gaggle their way in and out of the bathroom and at one point a party goer, who has got drink all over her hair, pops tipsily in to ask for a hair dryer!

At 10-ish, I pack Small boy off to bed and am tuning my radio into Question Time when he bobs excitedly back into my room.

“Mum …. did you hear that? Something’s smashed!”

We venture down together to find the merry bunch sweeping (and hoovering) up the remains of one of my glass bowls.

“Mum!” slurs my eldest affectionately, “Don’t worry we are all ok!”

As no-one is actually injured, and my hoover is clearly having a night to remember, we wish them all lots of fun and head for bed.

And that’s the last I hear as weariness takes over and, in the middle of a BBC debate about Tracy Brabin’s off-the-shoulder jumper, I drift off to sleep.

In the morning … all is quiet … all is tidy… all partying is over. And, as I set off to work, I know I have learned a valuable lesson. When Prom dress daughter turns 18, I am going out for the evening!!

Some days are an up-hill …

24 February 2019
A mood of back-to-school gloom hovers over the house today and for me the weather is only making it worse! Whilst everyone else rejoices in the unseasonably warm weather, my single-mum eyes just look out of the window and think ‘Garden!

Assisted by my trusty team of decorators, I was feeling on top of the house and my grown-up homestead duties until the sun came out! The garden, which I’d hoped to cheerfully ignore until mid-April, is suddenly a verdant abundance of weeds and rapidly growing grass and it demands more immediate attention. With a sinking, and all too familiar, feeling of being impossibly overwhelmed, I add ‘weeds’ and ‘lawn’ to my to do list! Coping with the endless demands, of all the adult jobs at home, is a daily battle for any single parent and, for me, the garden has to be the worst. I think about starting a Single-Parent co-operative where we all help each other out. I don’t mind a bit of extra ironing or a few more bathrooms to clean, if someone is going to weed my garden, and deal with drains and pipes in return! However, as that’s not likely to happen soon, I consider heading out in search of weedkiller.

But the thought of gardening is not the worst thing for me today. The sunny weather has reminded me of the ‘pretty nice fella’ I broke up with a few months ago. This is just his kind of day. I picture him dusting down his shorts and heading out for a glorious hilly bike ride. I remember how he used to come clattering triumphantly back from his adventures into my kitchen, a little bit sweaty, but his face alive with energy and smiles.And I know he won’t be clattering into my kitchen anymore, because he clatters into someone else’s now, and that hurts. And what hurts even more, is that the sunny weather marks the arrival of Spring and I realise that it’s not enough that I have made it through Winter, I have to make it through Spring, Summer and all the seasons ahead. I have to make it through year upon year without my ‘pretty nice’ friend, partner and lover by my side. And that is …heartbreaking…

I am overcome by a wave of sadness and I know I need to do something to stop it, because if I let these tears start to fall I don’t think they will ever stop. I decide that weed killer can wait, pull on my trainers and head out for a run instead. One thing to love about running is that it’s a perfect analogy for life. You know that the reward for every up-hill struggle is a downhill where you can recover and repair. There’s sometimes even a fantastic finishing line. And although I know there’s no magical happy ending for me this time, I’ll settle or a bit of recovery and repair right now …